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(Soundbite of music)

SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

That bit of music is part of a cantata, an Italian term for a work that usually involves a chorus and an orchestra. But this cantata is not in Italian or German or even French. It's inspired by a Native American language that has not been spoken in decades. The production is based on the oral history of a California woman who was one of the last members of her tribe to speak that language. Now, an opera singer and a composer have teamed up to put her oral history to music.

From member station KQED Sasha Khokha brings us the story.

SASHA KHOKHA: Joseph Mondragon was just eight years old when a man with an olive green soldier's coat came to live in his family's basement in Monterey. The year was 1929.

Mr. JOSEPH MONDRAGON (Grandson of Ascencion Solorsano): Grandma said - told them that she knew he was coming. She felt it. She had a premonition that he was coming to open the gates for our people and let the Caucasians know the Indian way, the history of our people, which nobody knew for a long time.

KHOKHA: The man was John Peabody Harrington, a linguist from the Smithsonian who spent four decades gathering notes on native languages spoken from Alaska to South America. He'd come to record the oral history of Mondragon's dying grandmother, Ascencion Solorsano de Cervantes. She was a famous herbal healer and the last known fluent speaker of Mutsun, the language of the Amah Mutsun tribe that lived near California's central coast.

Today, her grandson Mondragon is 86 years old, and he's sharing his own memories of Ascencion with a different kind of translator.

Mr. MONDRAGON: Oh, I see.

Ms. HELENE JOSEPH-WEIL (Music professor, California State University Fresno): It'll start off with her photo, and then these are the baskets.

Mr. MONDRAGON: Yeah, I see them, yeah.

Ms. JOSEPH-WEIL: And then this is hers that's in the Smithsonian.

Mr. MONDRAGON: Yeah, this is the one she made.

KHOKHA: Mezzo-soprano Helene Joseph-Weil is a music professor at California State University Fresno. She first learned about Ascencion Solorsano 20 years ago when she saw a picture of her in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Ms. JOSEPH-WEIL: I was so moved by it and there was something about her photo that just mesmerized me that I suddenly said, I have to sing her. How can I sing her?

(Soundbite of opera singing)

Ms. JOSEPH-WEIL: (Singing)

KHOKHA: Joseph-Weil adapted Ascencion's oral history into a libretto, which award-winning composer Benjamin Boone set to music.

(Soundbite of opera singing)

Ms. JOSEPH-WEIL: (Singing)

Ms. JOSEPH-WEIL: She trusted Harrington. She said in one of her quotes - direct quotes to him - it's a curious thing that the Americans waited until all those that were dead and finished to find out about the tribes and their language, and then they just came and scribbled on any old thing. But she said, together you and I are going to make that right.

(Soundbite of opera scene)

KHOKHA: In this scene called Lamentation, composer Benjamin Boone tries to express the horror of Native American genocide through wide leaps in the choral parts, dramatic sounds that are almost discordant.

(Soundbite of opera scene)

Unidentified Group: (Singing)

Ms. JOSEPH-WEIL: (Singing) Hide, hide in the hollows of the trees.

KHOKHA: The cantata has won the praise of historians, musicians, and Native American scholars like U.C. Davis Professor Martha Macri. She's spearheading an effort to digitize the oral histories collected by Smithsonian linguist J.P. Harrington. She says setting these histories to music is an innovative idea and one she thinks Helene Joseph-Weil has handled respectfully.

Ms. MARTHA MACRI (Professor, University of California Davis): It's not someone trying to imitate Native culture and pretend. She has really taken her great respect and regard for Ascencion and translated it into an art form that is her art form. It can seem quite incongruous, but in fact, she's presenting Ascencion's words and life to an audience that might otherwise not come across it.

(Soundbite of bells of Mission San Juan Bautista)

KHOKHA: For the aria depicting Ascencion's death, Joseph-Weil and Boone made the first recording of the bells of Mission San Juan Bautista. Boone arranged the sound of the bells to accompany a century's old Gregorian chant discovered in the Mission archives. That's fitting since Ascencion was buried in the Mission cemetery, home to some 4,000 Native American graves.

(Soundbite of opera)

KHOKHA: Ascencion Solorsano's descendants say they hope the new cantata highlighting her oral history will bring attention to their tribe. Although Ascencion Solorsano was likely the last fluent speaker of the Amah Mutsan language, there are some 600 tribal members alive today, and they're still struggling for federal recognition.

For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khokha in Fresno.

(Soundbite of opera)

STAMBERG: You can see an audio slide show about Ascencion at npr.org/music.

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