Arts and Entertainment

The roots of the matter

Music historian and EMP CEO Robert Santelli reads from his book
Music historian and EMP CEO Robert Santelli reads from his book 'American Roots Music' Mar. 10.
— image credit: RYAN SCHIERLING/Staff Photo

The book Bainbridge music historian Robert Santelli reads March 10, “American Roots Music,” is a map of the tributaries – the blues, bluegrass, folk, country and more – that conjoin to form this country’s popular music.

It’s a map Santelli helped chart.

“I loved the idea of music as a form of history. I’m an ‘Americanist,’” Santelli said. “I’ve always enjoyed investigating and documenting the culture through its music.”

Santelli grew up in Jersey City in the 1950s, but his horizon was the Manhattan skyline. The young Santelli found his way to the Greenwich VIllage music scene and influences like Bruce Springsteen and Richie Havens.

After graduating with a degree in American Studies from University of Southern California, Santelli fused his love for popular music and history to create a job for himself teaching rock and blues history at Rutgers and Monmouth.

Focused and ambitious, Santelli was on the cutting edge of pioneering scholars who decoded the emblems of popular culture to read the larger historical text.

An academic with street smarts, Santelli also wrote for publications like “Rolling Stone,” where Jim Heinke was his editor.

For several years in the 1980s, Santelli lived in Jamaica, where he explored reggae.

In 1994, Santelli left the East Coast to take a job as consultant at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.

Within a year, Santelli was vice-president of education and public programs, a position he held from 1995 to 2000.

“I loved Cleveland,” Santelli said. “I was able to teach, write and work in a museum setting.”

But when Paul Allen offered Santelli a slot as deputy director of public programs at Allen’s Experience Music Project – the compendium of workshops and interactive rock and roll exhibits housed in the Frank Gehry building Allen commissioned in Seattle – Santelli seized the chance to help shape the dynamic venture.

Recently, Santelli was named EMP’s chief executive officer.

While he says he and his family like Bainbridge well enough to consider living here long-term, Santelli has no plans to stand still intellectually.

“In the forms I’ve explored deeply, I am focused,” Santelli said, “but I am always bringing in new forms of music.”

His new anthology is a product of this urge to explore. “American Roots Music,” – a beautifully realized production by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., a publishing house long-renowned for book design – was written as a companion piece to the eponymous PBS series which examines the different forms of the popular music that grew from American roots music.

The restlessness that informs so much of this musical tradition is a part of Santelli, as well.

It doesn’t matter whether the stimulus is taking EMP members to Cuba to find Afro-Caribbean roots music or introducing second-graders to rock-a-billy.

“I have to be on the move, moving forward,” he said. “I’m a perpetual student of music.

“There’s so much to explore; I’m just getting started.”

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Roots music scholar and historian Robert Santelli will read from his new anthology, “American Roots Music” (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001) 7:30 p.m. March 7 at Eagle Harbor Book Company. Information: 842-5332.

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