The award honors individuals for their artistic excellence and supports their continuing contribution to the nation’s traditional arts heritage. Sheehy, a specialist in mariachi and Latino music, is also the recipient of the Bess Lomax Hawes NEA National Heritage Fellowship Award.
Sheehy has been a musicologist for the past 50 years, mostly at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He describes his role at the Smithsonian as “working for the benefit of communities and traditional artists – people who carry within them something bigger than themselves that represents a culture or community.”
Sheehy’s band, Mariachis Los Amigos, has been playing all over the D.C. and Baltimore areas for the past 37 years. They put on a free concert at Mason District Park every year and mostly play for private parties and weddings.
Sheehy’s career as a musician began in the late 1960s when he played trumpet for the Thunder Brothers, a rhythm and blues band, at Jefty’s nightclub in Compton, Calif.
Although he is not Mexican, he says he “happily stumbled” into mariachi music as a student at UCLA. He played in a student group for a while, then formed a professional mariachi band that played all over Los Angeles.
|Mariachis Los Amigos|
He earned a PhD in ethnomusicology from UCLA, served as director of folk and traditional arts at the NEA, and in 2000 become director and curator of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. He’s traveled to remote areas in Latin America, Puerto Rico, and the United States to record music and add it to the record label’s collections.
Sheehy has worked on a compilation of Latino music for the Traditions series and is now working on recordings of music in Veracruz, Mexico, and accordion-driven conjunto music along the Texas/Mexico border.
He’s also compiled second-line brass band music from New Orleans, an African American series that includes “Songs My Mother Taught Me” recorded by civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer in 1963 and released this year during the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma, and a compilation from the archives featuring music recorded in the 1940s by folk-blues artist Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter.
In determining what to release on the Folkways label, “we try to be strategic and have a positive impact as much as possible,” Sheehy says. The goal is to look for “music most likely to be a source of inspiration for today.”
His next chapter will be “exciting and scary” and will be “open ended and not tied to a specific institution.” He plans do some consulting, as well as making more music and more writing. “I don’t really believe in retirement; I believe in starting a new chapter,” he says.
Mariachis Los Amigos will appear at the Manassas Latino Festival on Sept. 27, the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center Oct. 24, and at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Mass at All Saints Church in Manassas Dec. 12.
The NEA 2015 National Heritage Fellowship Awards will be presented Oct. 1 at the Library of Congress. The award-winners will appear at a free concert Oct. 2 at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium.
The other fellowship award winners include an oud player, Yiddish musician, quilter, circus aerialist, Cambodian ceramicist, blues artist, Japanese classical dancer, and Slovak straw artist and egg decorator.