The Roots of Creativity
Maaza Mengiste: Writing Home - The award-winning author Maaza Mengiste writes of an Ethiopian home she left behind; Dick Boak’s Eclectic Adventures - Boak followed his instincts and created a role in the evolution of the Martin Guitar company; Nicola Benedetti: A Great Scot - Internationally renowned Scottish violinist was cast into the spotlight at age 16.
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- Welcome to Articulate, insights into the human condition
from great creative thinkers.
I'm Jim Cotter, and on this episode,
The Roots of Creativity.
The internationally renowned Scottish violinist,
Nicola Benedetti, was cast into the spotlight
at a very young age, and struggled growing up
in the public eye.
Now in her thirties, she reflects on those years
as necessary growing pains.
- I believed my violent playing and my musicianship
is so much better than what everybody is hearing
and that it's in there somewhere.
- [Jim] The award-winning author, Maaza Mengiste,
writes of an Ethiopian home she left behind.
- Fiction tells a truth that history cannot.
And I grabbed onto that, and I had that on a sticky note
on my computer for those moments when I wavered.
- [Jim] And the artist Dick Boak became instrumental
in the evolution of the Martin Guitar Company,
by following his creative instincts wherever they led.
- Instead of clinging to what I was doing
at any given time, I was quite willing to let it go
and move onto the next thing.
- [Jim] That's all ahead, on Articulate.
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Scotland has, for its size, had a disproportionate impact
on the world.
It was a Scot who invented television,
penicillin, and capitalism.
But the Scots also take humility, nay, self-deprecation
to new heights, or maybe new lows.
- I mean, it's like with my mum,
I'll tell her something about
I don't know, a class of kids that I taught
that was in Scotland, or anything like that,
and honestly, she goes through this thing
which is like, you see?
We are, you know, we should be proud of ourselves,
and I don't understand why we're not,
and I'm just like, but you're just doing exactly what
it's not necessary for us to do, which is this shock
horror that we're actually good at something,
and it's that kind of almost disbelief at the level
of achievement that is there in plain sight.
- [Jim] The internationally-acclaimed violinist
Nicola Benedetti is one of the more recent examples
of Scottish excellence.
She first came to public attention in 2004
when at age 16 she won the BBC Young Musician
of the Year competition.
Now in her early thirties, Benedetti is in demand
and thriving, but she says you'd be wrong to assume
that her journey followed a straight course.
- Felt like this.
- [Jim] Really?
- Like this.
I mean, just without any exaggeration,
that's what it felt like.
I mean, just constantly, constantly being put in a position
that I didn't quite feel ready for, and thinking
can I make it, should I try it, failing.
I mean, the reviews I got within those first three,
four years of performing were amazingly awful.
- Did you ever agree with them?
- Oh, many times I agreed with them, yeah.
- [Jim] The low point came in 2008 when a 20-year-old
Benedetti saw a review eviscerating her performance
of the notoriously difficult Sibelius violin concerto,
on night one of a six-date concert tour.
It didn't help her play it any better.
- I just couldn't.
- It's a beast, anyway.
- It is a beast, but now I now can see
that there were really clear reasons
for why I couldn't, and thought I couldn't play it.
Like, for example, I was continuing to do
bowings and fingerings that I would practice for hours
on end that just didn't suit me, and were not right for me.
That six months was a real breaking point for me,
and it was never that I can't do this,
it's I can't continue doing this like this.
I knew and believed my violent playing and my musicianship
is so much better than what everybody is hearing,
and that it's in there somewhere.
I'm not making the right decisions to unlock it right now,
but that it's there.
(lively violin music)
- [Jim] The violin has been Nicola Benedetti's near constant
companion throughout her life.
At age four, she followed her older sister into lessons.
Their mother, Francesca, had no musical education of her own
and was never aiming to cultivate a prodigy or a pro,
let alone two.
Older sister Stephanie is a member of the acclaimed
electronic group Clean Bandit.
Now the ever pragmatic Mrs. Benedetti just wanted
to teach her daughters about discipline.
(frantic violin music)
- Her whole motto in how she brought us up,
me and my sister, was like you can't do 50 things.
You're not allowed to do every after-school club.
That's not an option available to you.
You have to pick one, maybe two things,
and you're gonna make it through the difficult hurdles
and if you don't like it, you're sure you don't like it,
then you do something else.
One time I don't want to, I really was fighting with my mom
to practice, as in she was telling me to,
and I was saying I didn't want to,
and she said, well you don't have to play the violin
at all, like that's fine.
My life was over in that moment.
I mean, the fact that somebody could threaten that to me.
- But was it a threat?
Was it like, be great at it or stop?
- No, it wasn't.
- Just achieve your potential?
- All she meant was you really don't have to do this,
but if you're going to do it, practice is a part
of playing the violin.
I mean, I was maybe eight.
And I was so offended by the fact that she could consider
that I might not want to play the violin.
And I've never had a real crisis moment
of do I want to play or not.
Never, since then.
- [Jim] At age 10, Benedetti moved to England
to attend the prestigious Yehudi Menuhin School
for young musicians in Surrey.
At 15, she found an impressive champion and mentor
in Maciej Rakowski, former leader
of the English chamber orchestra.
(slow melancholy violin music)
Throughout her classical violin studies,
Benedetti says there was a constant echo, a warning,
not to go messing around with anything folksy,
but Benedetti did eventually start fiddling around
with traditional music anyway in her 2014 collection
"Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy."
(lively violin music)
In 2019, Nicola Benedetti teamed up with the celebrated
American jazz composer and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis
who wrote a concerto and a five piece dance suite
for her at the Trace the Fiddles Migration
across the Atlantic.
- Learning about America through Wynton
is in equal measures deeply uplifting and hopeful
and deeply painful.
And it's filled to the brim with emotion
over the story of America,
and I don't come across that type
of consciousness in many other places.
I think he has a very unique perspective
on the story of this country.
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- [Jim] Today, Nicola Benedetti is at once
at the top of her game and just getting started.
She says that with each day, she gets a little closer
to figuring out who she is and what she needs.
- Without it being a motion against something,
I'm becoming more assured in clarifying what I'm for,
and I think I'm not under the pressure and in the rush
that I used to be, because I've seen the development
I've managed to make as a violinist alone,
purely technically, in the last six months.
I just played Sibelius' violin concerto a month ago
for the first time in about 10 years.
And I can play that piece now.
Just like, I can't wait to tour it next year,
and I can't wait to record it, and I can't wait,
you know, I'm so excited about playing it.
Nobody would have told me that I was gonna be
making some of my biggest strides when I was 32.
I'm more excited and calm and positive
about my potential to develop than I've ever been.
(rousing violin music)
(audience cheering) (fireworks boom)
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- [Jim] The novelist Maaza Mengiste lands memory,
discovery, and imagination, to reconnect with a homeland
she'd feared she'd lost.
Mengiste's family left Ethiopia when she was a child,
spending a few years in Nigeria, then Kenya,
before moving to the US when she was seven,
but her native land kept calling her back.
- My earliest memories of Ethiopia,
they were memories of family and love.
But once the revolution came in in 1974,
I was three years old, and I had very vivid memories
of those years as well.
My family didn't want to talk about it at all,
so the memory's that I had were almost in a lockbox.
- That lockbox was shut at age four
when her family realized it was time to free
after emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown
in a Marxist military coup.
Anyone linked to his regime, especially the educated
middle-class, were considered persons of interest.
What was the breaking point for the family to leave?
- There was one moment I remember in particular
when I was outside playing,
it was New Years, and we had these little sparklers,
firecrackers, and what we were doing was throwing them
up into the tree.
It was at night.
Of course I wanted to do this, I'm holding one up,
it's great fun, it's a beautiful sight in the dark
to do that, and as we're singing and getting ready
to throw these up, the gunshots started
right outside our gate.
And I remember it was such a jarring sound for me,
and so startling that I shook,
and I dropped the firecracker, and it dropped on my foot
and burned through the skin, and I looked down,
and I ran right into the house and I told my mother
we can't stay here.
You have to get me out.
- [Jim] Mengiste's father, an executive
with Ethiopian Airlines, was able to get his family
out of the country with relative ease,
and once they became US citizens, they could come and go
as they wished, but the earliest visits in the 1980s
weren't always easy.
Beyond the boundaries of her grandparents' home,
it would take Mengiste years to feel accepted.
- At this point, Ethiopians in Ethiopia have become
used to members of the diaspora coming back
and visiting, even in these more remote areas.
They see us as Ethiopian, but also foreign.
Before there was that level of comfort, Ethiopians
could be quite cruel.
And it was almost saying, you're not really Ethiopian
was like an insult.
And it did used to be painful when I was a teenager.
And then once I started writing, I started understanding
that my distance from Ethiopia was specifically the thing
that enabled me to write.
And I needed that space in order to be able to look
at history and look at the culture from a vantage point.
- [Jim] Whatever your vantage point,
Ethiopia is complicated.
Landlocked, drought-ridden, largely Christian,
twice the size of Texas.
It now has a parliamentary government,
but in her novels, Mengiste looks back to darker times
of authoritarian rule, famine, civil war.
As a graduate student, she wasn't sure if she should
or could turn such cataclysmic events into fiction,
so she asked her professor, the renowned South African poet,
Breyten Breytenbach, some big questions.
- Do I have a right to turn it into fiction?
You know, this is a national tragedy,
and what is fiction?
Like, is a fictional book, is this the best form
for this history that was devastating to so many
people I know, and to my own family, and he said this thing
to me, fiction tells a truth that history cannot.
And I grabbed onto that,
and I had that on a sticky note on my computer
for those moments when I wavered.
But I understood what he meant by that
is history gives us data.
It gives us location.
It gives us dates.
But fiction gives us the human being,
and that's what I felt that I could do.
- [Jim] Mengiste's debut novel, "Beneath the Lion's Gaze,"
is set in 1974 in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
By then, Haile Selassie has become the messiah
of the Rastafarian movement.
Ras means chief, and his family name was Tafari.
With revolution brewing, his six decade long rule,
marked by both triumph and tyranny,
was nearing its end.
Mengiste shows us an 82-year-old man, broken,
under house arrest, with only a pet lion for company.
- "Soldiers were posted outside his door, which was locked
"in triplicate, and then chained.
"Their fear of him was heartbreaking,
"compounding his loneliness and the largeness
"of this empty space he was trapped inside.
"They walked backwards into the room
"whenever they escorted his old servant
"inside with his food, doubly armed and wearing sunglasses.
"They scurried out as quickly as they could,
"too afraid to glance his way.
"The mournful whimpers of his old lion, Tojo,
"lulled him to sleep, and he tried to make himself forget
"about the garden just outside his window,
"which he was no longer allowed to walk in.
"Under the weight of this solitude, all of the emperors'
"hours, minutes, and seconds, blurred and ran together
"like a slow, dying river."
- [Jim] After "Beneath the Lion's Gaze" came out in 2010,
Mengiste and her parents began talking more candidly
about what had happened to them in the 1970s.
Until then, her mother had always dodged questions
about the revolution and its aftermath.
- My parents were in Washington, DC, for my book launch
for the first book, and the book was done.
I was using my own memory and research,
and other people's stories.
- And it's fiction, lest we forget.
- And it's fiction, right.
So she read the book, and just before we were on our way
to the reading, she said, "I'm ready to answer
"your questions now."
- Thanks, mom.
- But the interesting thing--
- Did she fact-check it for you, then?
Was she like, "That never happened!"
- What she said, actually, was some of the things
that I thought I had made up,
she said "How did you get that?"
How did you know that person's name?
- [Jim] Though some of Mengiste's writing has been intuitive
or invented, much of it comes from intensive research.
Her second novel, 2019's "The Shadow King,"
set during Mussolini's 1935 invasion of Ethiopia,
was informed by countless hours spent reading
at Italy's state archives in Rome.
But Mengiste's first draft, all 800 painstakingly
researched pages of it, went into the trash.
The narrative was historically accurate,
but she said it lacked feeling and focus.
- There was a moment of sheer panic where I said
this isn't the book, I don't even want to read this book.
I don't want to read it, but I've just written it,
and I knew at some point, halfway in, that that moment
when I'm writing, going "I hate this, I hate this,
"but I have to finish."
And I finished, and I sent a panicked message
to my editor, and she said, "Why don't you come in?
"Send me this draft."
And bless her for reading it.
The first question she asked me was whose story is this?
And I started again from page one, and I realized
that Hirut, this young servant girl, who would eventually
become a soldier, she wants to tell the story,
at least to begin it.
And if I can do anything, what could I do?
And I looked back at books I loved.
The Greek tragedies, Il Dottore, Toni Morrison,
a Croatian writer Dasa Drndic,
and I said okay, let me just,
they broke rules.
Let me break some rules and see what happens.
- [Jim] Mengiste takes us beyond grainy, vintage newsreels
of famine and war, showing us her country's kings
and peasants, its heroes and scoundrels,
through contemporary eyes.
Now she's bringing other Ethiopian writers together
to look at their country through an unusual lens.
"Addis Ababa Noir," out August 2020, is an anthology
of crime stories set in Ethiopia's capital city.
- The darkness in here I think is very different
from what many Ethiopians are used to reading.
I've heard from Ethiopians, well we want only things
that entertain, and I think that's been a sense
about writing, writing should be entertainment,
or it should be religious, or it should be educational.
But these are inhabiting a space that's wholly their own.
Still incorporating Ethiopian metaphors.
- [Jim] Having helped put her birthplace on the contemporary
literary map, Mengiste says she's ready with her next novel
to change direction.
The setting is still a secret, but it's certain
that whatever the destination, Maaza Mengiste will lead us
on another absorbing journey.
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Dick Boak's life has been defined by creativity,
curiosity, and a commitment to craft.
There was never really a plan, but when opportunity knocked
he was always ready to answer.
It was as a free-spirited 20 something
that he first stumbled into a job at the world-renowned
Martin Guitar Company, which for going on two centuries
has been the instrument maker to the stars.
An accomplished instrument maker himself, Boak spent
42 years with the company, defining his own legacy
by helping shape theirs.
He brought to life Martin's iconic customer signature line,
collaborating on designs with the likes of Willie Nelson,
Eric Clapton, and Paul Simon, among others.
- At some point, I stopped making guitars
and I started causing guitars to be made.
- [Jim] Boak grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
in the 1960s, but he never quite fit in
with three athletically gifted brothers.
By his late teens, Dick Boak had turned to illustration
and poetry to express himself,
even self-publishing two books of his work
while still in high school.
At age 20, he dropped out of college to follow
his creative instincts across the country,
which would eventually lead him to a Utopian commune
in northern California, the Morning Star Ranch.
- I was a back-to-the-earth, bean sprouts,
geodesic dome building, brown rice kind of hippie.
- [Jim] After a few years in California,
Boak grew restless and headed back east.
Upon returning home, he began spending his evenings
obsessing over woodworking, making instruments
or Boak-struments, with any material he could get
his hands on.
Then, one day he passed a billboard advertising tours
of the Martin Guitar Factory a few miles away,
and decided to take a detour, hoping to discover
what made their instruments so special.
- I was just flabbergasted with what was going on there.
I had no idea.
So I asked the receptionist, I said do you have
any scrap woods?
And she sent me around to the side of the building
and I hit the jackpot with the dumpster, and the dumpster
was filled with chunks of rosewood and mahogany
and ebony and spruce.
I'd never even seen some of these woods.
So I brought my mustang around, and I filled my mustang
up with wood, and I came back an hour later,
and I filled it up again.
I bet I came back to the dumpster maybe 500 times,
and started to get better, especially having materials
that were appropriate for instrument making,
and one day I was in the dumpster,
the foreman at the back door, he knew me.
He called me the kid.
He said, "What do you do with this stuff anyhow?"
So I had some instruments in the car,
and I handed them up to him, and he said "Well, do you
"mind if I parade them around the shop once?"
And off he went with my two instruments,
and he ran into Mr. Martin, who was maybe 85 years old
at the time, so Mr. Martin looked at my instruments,
and they were crude, but he said, "Tell that kid to apply
"for a job."
So the foreman came back to the door and he says
"The old man says you should apply for a job."
And, you know, I brushed off, and went around
to the front of the building, and the receptionist,
she was doing her nails, and I said, "I'd like to apply
"for a job," and she looked at me, and she said
"I don't think we have anything for you."
(chuckles) And I said, "Well any job openings?"
She said, "One opening, for design drafting.
"And it's very specific."
I said, "Well, I've been doing design drafting for 10 years,
"and I've been teaching design drafting for four years,
"and I have examples of my draftings in the car."
And she said, "Well, we're really looking for somebody
"that has woodworking experience," and I said,
"Well, here's some lathe turnings and jewelry boxes
"that I've made from your scrap materials.
"There's more in the car, shall I bring them in?"
She said, "We're really looking for somebody
"that has experience with musical instruments."
And I said, "Well, here's two instruments I made
"from your scraps, and the old man said I should apply
"for a job."
So, very reluctantly she called human resources up.
They interviewed me, and they said, "Well, I guess we'd like
"to hire you.
"Can you start tomorrow?"
I said, "No, I have to go to the Bob Dylan concert,
"but I could start on Wednesday."
- [Jim] So, starting out as a draftsman in 1976,
Boak steadily rose through the ranks
until in 1992, he saw a new opportunity for the company,
when Eric Clapton appeared on MTV's Unplugged
playing a 1939 Martin OOO-42.
Lots of people wanted one,
so Boak spent three years working with Clapton,
and in 1995, Martin released their first
custom signature guitar, Martin 000-42 EC.
Days later, it sold out.
- The success of the Clapton project was so great
that it became my job to do more of that.
And so my collaborations with artists were really
an opportunity to listen to what they had to say,
what their needs or ideas were about a guitar,
furnish my suggestions, blend the two together,
create the specifications,
make it a fun collaboration for them.
- [Jim] In 2017 after four decades at Martin Guitar,
Boak felt it was time to move on.
Once again, he found himself ready for a new challenge,
a fresh embrace of the unknown.
Today, he's focused on illustration and a new role
as archivist for Mario Andretti, one of the most
successful racing drivers of all time.
- Instead of clinging to what I was doing at any given time,
I was quite willing to let it go and move on
to the next thing, and the thing that ties everything
together, for me, is the approach to tasks.
It's the conception of the idea
and then the gradual execution and completion of an idea.
That approach, that process, is what I have come
to recognize as the real art.
- [Jim] In the years ahead, as in his past 70,
one thing is certain, Dick Boak will remain driven
by his desire to make things that last.
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- [Announcer] Articulate with Jim Cotter is made possible
with generous funding from the Neubaur Family Foundation.