In Your Ear: Johnnetta Cole

As part of Tell Me More's occasional series "In Your Ear," Johnnetta Cole, director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art, shares her musical inspirations. They range from the jazz virtuoso John Coltrane, to the legendary Billie Holiday, and to one of Africa's greatest singers, Miriam Makeba.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

And now to an occasional series that we call In Your Ear. That's where we ask some of our guests to share the music they're playing. Today we hear from Johnnetta Cole, director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art.

Besides letting us know about the newest exhibits at the museum, she told us about her favorite African and African-American singers and musicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFRICA IS WHERE MY HEART LIES")

JOHNNETTA COLE: I'm Johnnetta Betsch Cole. And I have the joy and, yes, the privilege of serving as the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. Often when I am walking through the museum I am enjoying listening to African music. Listening to a Miriam Makeba.

MIRIAM MAKEBA: (Singing) A picturesque sunset lights up the sky. A magical moment of light passing by. Romantic rhythms that beat through the night. Mother nature's gift for you and I. Africa is my hope.

COLE: But I will confess, I am absolutely in love with what I call black improvisational music. Some folk call it jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

COLE: I'm always trying to get away from her. Just trying to make Billie Holiday stop telling me about strange fruit. Black bodies hanging from trees.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Southern trees bear a strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

COLE: But I also can change the mood. You kind of need to after that. How about some Coltrane?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY FAVORITE THINGS")

COLE: These are a few of my favorite things. So what am I really sharing? I'm sharing that I am one very fortunate woman to have work that allows me to feast my eyes upon the works of African artists. But I also am a fortunate woman because I have let my ears lead me to hear some of the most exciting, edgy, provocative, soothing music in the world.

MARTIN: That was Johnnetta Cole, director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art telling us what's playing in her ears. To hear our full conversation with her, please go to the program page of NPR.org and select TELL ME MORE.

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