Center Stage's Legacy in New Mexico

May 23, 2024

Center Stage's Legacy in New Mexico

Neal Copperman

Executive Director
Two women stand on a stage before they perform
Zeb and Haniya at Globalquerque

From the moment we first heard about Center Stage, we knew it was a program destined to come to New Mexico with AMP Concerts. As an isolated, beautiful and often overlooked state with an engaged and culturally diverse community, we were practically a poster child for what the program was about. We reached out and were surprisingly welcomed into the fold at a very high level. I was shocked at our first conversation, when I was invited to join the inaugural scouting trip to Pakistan! That was a remarkable visit that culminated in our first Center Stage collaboration, bringing Zeb & Haniya to perform at the ¡Globalquerque! Festival in 2012.


A band faces a crowd while performing
Zeb and Haniya performing at Globalquerque

Fast forward ten years later to 2022. We were already established Center Stage partners and we agreed to double down on the relationship as we all struggled to bring concerts and international exchanges back after the pandemic. In 2022, we hosted our largest number of Center Stage residencies in one year, with visits from Diana Burco and Chontadelia (Colombia) and Hit La Rosa (Peru). We followed up with another trio of visitors in 2023, with fantastic residencies from MVF Band and the Naghash Ensemble (Armenia) and BCUC – Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness (South Africa).

Each visit is special and unique, tailored to fit the nature of the group and the options in our communities at the time. They always involve concerts in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, but the outreach and local activities can vary wildly.

A women with an accordion and a man with a guitar on a stage
Diana Burco at the University of NM

Diana Burco’s visit started with a cultural exchange with the University of New Mexico’s songwriting class and a welcome party and jam session with local musicians. The welcome party worked well enough that jazz trumpeter Ryan Montano joined the band for their show in Santa Fe, and percussionist Andru Tlapitske remained in contact with the band, developed international touring connections, and even got to join them on stage for a show in Mexico.

The highlight of Chontadelia’s visit was a fantastic marimba program. We discovered a surprisingly rich landscape of marimba classes in Santa Fe. Twenty-five high school students from three different schools gathered in a school gym to learn Columbian marimba tunes and jam with the band – a sight none of us expected to see when we started on this project!

Students standing around a marimba
Chontadelia playing marimba with students

Hit La Rosa’s visit was the only one that got derailed by COVID. The band performed one exciting free concert on the Santa Fe Plaza before the rest of our activities got cancelled. Despite that, everyone enjoyed exploring the Albuquerque foothills and taking fun pictures in the golden evening glow in the desert.

2023’s residencies were just as amazing and rewarding! We started the year with visits from the Armenian groups, MVF Band and the Naghash Ensemble, in February and March and ended it with South Africa’s BCUC in October. These visits actually did build on each other, with relationships forged for MVF Band expanded upon for Naghash and BCUC.

MVF Band led a folk singing workshop for local musicians in Santa Fe (something we first did with Center Stage’s Ukrainian ensemble Kurbasy in 2018) and were the first artists that we brought to the Native American Community Academy (NACA). NACA is an indigenous school featuring students from over 60 tribes from around New Mexico, the Southwest and beyond. MVF Band visited the Kindergartens to 9th grade campus and performed and jammed with a beautiful group of Native students.

In preparing for the back-to-back Armenian group visits, we noticed that the Naghash Ensemble was going to be here during the feast day at Laguna Pueblo. We knew one of the prominent members of the Laguna community and it turned out that their son had married an Armenian woman! It made them particularly interested in the visiting Armenian groups, and their family warmly welcomed us all out for the feast day. They came to see the Naghash Ensemble perform a few days before the Feast Day and mentioned to their priest how beautiful the music was. The priest suggested that they perform a song at the morning mass! This was an amazing opportunity – a cultural exchange unlike any we had ever experienced. Seeing the Naghash Ensemble play a song in the 400+ year-old church on the Laguna Pueblo for the Native community was magical and otherworldly. 

People perform at the alter of a chapel in New Mexico
The Naghash Ensemble performing in a 400 year old church

After mass, we enjoyed an afternoon of traditional dances before our host family invited us to their home for a nice home-cooked meal.  As is pretty much guaranteed in Native communities, there were a number of artists in the extended family. Family members proudly showed off their weaving and beautiful masks, and members of the Naghash Ensemble treated everyone to an impromptu jam in the living room. It was a magnificent visit!

We ended the year spending a week with BCUC. This was particularly fun as it was our first dual residency. BCUC’s visit overlapped with a 5-day residency with Cuban/French trio La Dame Blanche. The band had met at festivals in the past and were eager for the opportunity to share the stage for concerts in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos. We’d hosted La Dame Blanche several times, including a residency earlier that year, and they have a good local following, allowing us to have BCUC play for more people than they would have on their own. They also wrote a song specifically for BCUC to collaborate on. We spent a day in the recording studio, with the two bands laying down deep grooves and the vocalists going to town. Jovi from BCUC wrote new lyrics that day that he passionately knocked out in the studio. Their split bills and recording session were unique projects that only happened in New Mexico. The groups came together for their visits and then continued on their separate ways.

BCUC brought the roof down on a couple of school visits too. Apparently working with schoolkids was a new thing for them but their deep grooves and powerful message got the kids dancing, clapping and thinking, and their directives to the teachers were just as compelling. There are many parallels between the tribal experiences in South Africa and the United States. BCUC was moved being in a school full of students from different tribes from this country and shared an inspiring message of solidarity and encouragement.  It was a beautiful ending to their time in New Mexico, and another rewarding Center Stage experience for all of us.

A band plays for a group of young students
BCUC performing for young students

We have now hosted 13 Center Stage groups in New Mexico -- Ribab Fusion in 2014, Jagwa Music and Rajab Suleiman & Kithara in 2016, and Teatr-Pralnia and Youssra El Hawary in 2018 in addition to those mentioned previously -- making us the most visited destination after Washington DC. The program has turned out to be even more fruitful than we imagined. It helped our organization grow and build our outreach efforts, and allowed us to see the value in residencies, something we could not have invested in and explored without Center Stage support. We are now able to build extended artists visits into what we offer the community, but the extra support from Center Stage makes those the most elaborate and rewarding residencies we create. We look forward to more rich collaborations and fantastic artist visits to New Mexico in 2025.