Turning the Tables:
An Oral History of the Kitchen Sisters
Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson with Charles Hardy, III
Charles Hardy: So tell me a little bit about your backgrounds.Nikki Silva: (Laughter) I love it! What an awkward situation to be in. No wonder these people look at us like we're nuts when we walk in.
Nikki: Yes, how far back?
Charles: Well, take us all the way back. Where did you grow up? Would you like to start, Nikki?
Nikki: Sure. I was born in Oakland, California. And my family all lived within a couple of blocks of each other. We were sort of a tight family unit, Portuguese, and my granny lived down the block and my uncles and aunts lived a couple of doors away. I'm going to make a huge leap and come to UCSC, University of California at Santa Cruz, and that's where I went to school for the last few years of college. And did not meet Davia there. Did not. We were both at UCSC but we did not know each other during our college years. Davie?Davia: I grew up in a suburb in Los Angeles. My dad had gotten his place from the GI bill and it was just as my parents had moved from New York, actually to move to San Francisco to be journalists in San Francisco, which never quite happened, but anyway, they got waylaid in LA. And that's where I grew up and then went to . . . but not with a big extended family around me . . . much more of that sort of people leaving their parents behind and starting out in the west from New York City. And then I went to UC Santa Cruz as well. I was the noon disc jockey in my high school, and used to write fan letters to disc jockeys from, you know, the time I was ten, eleven, twelve in LA. I was just fixated on radio since I don't know when, and a soundnot just of the music but the people intro-ing the music as well. And so I was the noon disc jockey in my high school and then went into the campus radio station in Santa Cruz, UC Santa Cruz. And then to the community radio station. And especially got interested in the lives of the old people in the town and doing stories with them. And that led me to Nikki. Charles: Now how did you get interested in the lives of the old people? Davia: I think that, Santa Cruz is this beautiful town, the University was pretty new then, and there was such a division between the University and everyone who'd been there for years and years, and I kept feeling that as I was in school. And I always have loved stories and I didn't know a lot about my own family's history and I think somewhere in meI'd always loved historyand I think a lot of it was like this curiosity about this family that I couldn't really find out about. And it just pushed me and propelled me towards everyone else's story. And the old people just seemed to . . . I mean none of this was conscious, I don't think . . . it's looking back I think all those things, and just kind of was getting drawn in those directions all the time and to who could tell a good story. Charles: And you were getting those stories on to broadcast?
Davia: Yes, sort of,
Nikki: I was working at the Santa Cruz City Museum of Natural History doing an arts program and a history program. I had just returned. I'd been in New York City for a year on a fellowship in studying museum education at the Metropolitan Museum and was this wonderful program where we were given money to do whatever our hearts desired. It was that very experimental wonderful era of big grant money and lots of people thinking suddenly in museums about "Oh, maybe we should let other people in the doors and try talking to them for a change and try to make the museum relevant to the people", and so one of the projects that I'd worked on when I was in New York was making a film. And when I look back on that film in that same way that Davie is talkingI didn't think about it at the timebut it really was in that same way that her Women Outlaws of the West documentary sort of foreshadows a lot of what the Kitchen Sisters have kind of become.
I think that film that I made in New York with another artist friend kind of foreshadows the work that we do. It was the story of a janitor at, or guard, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and he gives you the tour: his vision, his view, of the Metropolitan Museum, from the skywalks, from the basements. And he was also a weight lifter, and so he on his lunch hour would walk in the basement of the museum past these row upon row of Rodin sculptures and all these wonderful muscular poses. They were in storage and he'd walk past those to this little room where he'd put on heavy metal music and pump iron, and so we got this guy's little snapshot of him in this museum setting and then talking about the Monets and the artwork from his point of view and talking about what he'd learned from watching the visitors and how they react and respond to things. So, it's kind of a straight forward thing with a little twist, a quirk. A quirky kind of look at history, or way in to art, or way in to the museum. And I think that kind of . . . is a lot of what we still do with history and our programs about people.
So anyway, I came back from this fellowship and was working again at the museum and I got a call from Davia, who says that I snubbed her. I was in a very difficult time but she says I just sort of snubbed her. But anyway, not for long, and she showed up one day to talk to me about these old people because I was doing similar things with exhibits. We wound up sitting on the porch of the museum, which if you've been to the museum in Santa Cruz, it's right across the street from the ocean and it has this glorious view, and we wound up sitting there for 4 hours and kind of talking about our love lives and falling in love and that was it. We began working together shortly thereafter. Is that about right?Davia: Totally right. Nikki: Is that how you remember it?
Charles: So what was your first project? What did you decide to collaborate on?Nikki: You know we've been trying to reconstruct that, too. Memory is fleeting. Davia: We think that maybe we did one or two radio shows, the live weekly radio show Every Wrinkle Tells a Story. I had been doing it with somebody else at the time. And then we think that I left to do Women Outlaws of the West. For three months I traveled all over the west in a van chronicling the lives of these women, and I think that then the first thing we did together was that I left and Nikki did the radio show herself. Nikki: Which I had never done radio. Davia: But we're not sure. But that's something close to that. We kind of did a little bit together, we had the sense we wanted to do a lot together. I went off, she said "I'll try this" and then we think that she wrote a grant. I think you must have written the CCH grant. I think.
Davia: We barely did any radio because we worked so hard trying to fund-raise. But it was this really interesting point of view on a community, too, because suddenly we were at the Lions, the Kiwanis, the Rotary, any of those kind of local clubs, the banks. You suddenly see how a community supports or doesn't support projects which it does. Because a lot of the same people we were interviewing, a lot of these older people who were part of the fishing industry or . . . for some reason I end up obsessively thinking recently about Battling Nardo.
Nikki:Battling Nardo?Davia: Remember Battling Nardo? Nikki: Oh yes, I just used part of his oral history in an exhibit that I was working on. Davia: Just different people and a lot of them have turned out were in these clubs, because they were these old Santa Cruziens who part of the kind of infrastructure of it. So, it was always that kind of crossover between who we were interviewing, who would then take us down to the club, where we would do a talk, kind of like what we did todayonly we hadn't done anything really at that point we were just about to do it and had a vision of what it might be. But I think we thought we'd do far more traditional oral histories. We were doing weekly shows, so now we're back doing this weekly show, we both kind of cut loose from our other things and we were starting to just . . . It was a very luxurious kind of time where we just got to sit there everyday and say, read a newspaper, and see Nikki, I think, read a newspaper that said pool shark in town. And we would go see what the pool shark was and bring our tape recorders. Or go to the little convenience store and run into the Road Ranger and then decide to follow the Road Ranger as he rescued stranded travelers on Highway 17. It was election day and our show was always on Tuesdays so we would always try on Tuesdays to come up with something a little more interesting and offbeat. We'd call in our own show from telephone booths around town and drag people into the telephone booths to talk to us via the telephone. Each Tuesday was coming and featuring artists and writers. Nikki: Our friend had a Tupperware party and we went which just led into this big piece on Tupperware where we began tracking down all the different folks in the community and went to several parties and went to where they train the Tupperware dealers. And so, that was a real fun one.
Charles: So what year did you get the California Humanities Council grant?Nikki: Your asking really hard hitting questions. What do you think? Davia: '78 or '79. Nikki: '79 I bet. We didn't have National Public Radio in our town at that time. We'd never heard National Public Radio. Our station was a community station and didn't air any national programming. As we began experimenting on our radio program, we realized pretty quickly that we couldn't use these long form oral histories, as they were, on the air. We realized that right off. So we began editing and sort of taught ourselves to edit, as I remember. We thought that we had invented the mix. I mean we were completely convinced that we had come up with that idea. You know, you're putting a little music under there and doing a little of this and that. We started to make these short little snippets that we would then put on in the midst of our show. And we'd set it up, we'd say "Oh, we went out this weekend to San Bonito county and we saw Lola Golly, the woman who's the champion rodeo roper, and here's what she had to say." We started playing these little things. And then we ran into this costumed crusader, the Road Ranger, who was this fellow who would cruise Highway 17, the local highwaythat very rugged windy road where there are lots of people breaking down all the timeand he would rescue stranded travelers. He would fix their automobile. And he wore a jumpsuit outfit and he drove in a Ford Ranchero pick up truck that said the Road Ranger on the side of it. And he had this wonderful demeanor, was very theatrical. We did a piece on him, we got in the car with him and drove up and down the highway rescuing stranded... Davia: We went on patrol. Nikki: We went on patrol.
Davia: And we went to Western Public Radio. Was that before or after that? And Airlee. Airlee was a huge thing, producers' conferencea radio producers' conference that was held. It was a changing point, I think, for a lot of people. That's where we met Jay Allison, Terry Gross. We came together and everyone played their stuff and talked about what they were doing and brainstormed, and it was so exciting and seemed possible. And pretty quickly after that, we went to a public radio conference and people began asking us to come and teach radio production. By that point, we had begun getting training and doing more and more things in the vein that we'd begun. Sort of a little quirky, a little offbeat, stories and portraits cut together in sort of unusual ways with music or whatever sound.
And so we began, we went to Alaska and . . . before we go that far ahead, just going backwards . . . because there's Kim Aubrey who Nikki was mentioning. If there is an oral history he has to be named by name because he had such an effect on our lives and on the lives of so many people in public radio. He's now the technical director of Zoetrope. And he startedI want to say he started at BAI in New York, but I'm not even sure if that's the first station, and he was one of those genius kids who just loved radio from forever. And then went to WISO and sort of the Johnny Appleseed of a lot of public radio in this country. And he was part of the NFCB, National Federation of Community Broadcasters. And Mark Hand, who is now with the station resource group and does a lot of advising in the public video system. He was the first Kitchen Sister before we knew such a thing. That's who I did the old people show with. And Kim brought Mark and I to a National Federation of Community Broadcasters conference in Telluride, which I hadn't remembered until you started talking. I was going, "Oh, yes, right, how did we know about this stuff?" So we had already been aware that there was this thing called the NFCBwhich was all these peoplethat these college stations and community stations developing that world and that sort of network. So we were kind of aware of that, and as Nikki said, we weren't affiliated in any way with public radio, that was the only loose affiliation that there was.
But somehow through the tundra drums we started hearing about things like Airlee and we had now had on the Road Ranger on the air.
Charles: We made our way to Alaska here?
Nikki: Western Public Radio was before that?Davia: Oh yeah, Leo Lee. His name has to be included in any oral history of the Kitchen sisters because without Leo Lee we would not have done what we did. He was at Western Public Radio and he established this first training center, first national training center for community and public radio producers. And we were chosen to be in the very first training workshop. There were about 10 people from all over the country. And it was like being anointed and it was being supported. And up until then, we were just two people doing it on our own, making it up, and suddenly it was real training and it was sort of taking yourself more seriously because other people took us more seriously. We met Randy Thom, who is another key person who has to be named by name, and any saga of our work because he was one of the trainers there. He was also from NFCB and from KPFA and that group of people at WISO who are so important to radio in that moment in time. And he already started making the switch from radio to film, and he brought us into a mix of One From the Heart. And we saw . . . I've always wondered what you thought during that mix, because it's what made me decide to move from Santa Cruz because I wanted to be a film sound designer from the minute I saw that. Nikki: Oh, I know, it was really an amazing, amazing moment. I mean, it didn't make me want to move . . . Charles: What is this? What are you referring to? Nikki: It was a film, One From the Heart, Frances Coppolla's film and we'd watched the mix of the sound and music and being set with the film. And I think it was a real turning point for Dav. Charles: So you went to the very first Western Public Radio workshop, then? Davia: And they brought, as part of the workshop, we were taken in because one of the instructors was a film mixer so he brought us into a film mix. So we weren't in the course of these, it was a week long, I think, radio workshop or something like that, one of the afternoons was sitting in on a film mix. And suddenly, me, who loves radio so much, I mean I always loved movies too but I didn't imagine myself ever working in film. It wasn't part of my vision. But suddenly there was these pictures and this movie unfolding and someone sitting at a huge mixing board, beautiful all this. I remember them . . . what I even remember more and it's the thrill of my life, was there was a big cappuccino machinereally oldfrom Italy. And I remember walking in to the room and thinking, "I want to work here. I want to work in this building with this cappuccino machine and with this . . . because it was Tom Waite's music with Crystal Gail, with all the sound being put into the thing, and it was like, our work but on, with visuals and it was just like, "Ah, I want this, this completes it". So it just had that. And then ultimately I worked with Frances Coppolla, with that cappuccino machine. But Randy was so great because he really took our work seriously and really responded to us. And he offered to mix things for us, and so now it's kind of, I guess at that point, and we'd been doing it . . . Nikki: We'd been doing all of our own mixing. Up until Route 66? War and Separation. Davia: I think we'd stopped mixing way earlier than that. Nikki: No, I think . . . Davia: Because Lullabiesand that guy Rich, who engineered a couple other pieces. Remember? Nikki: The stuff we did at NPR, they didn't mix. It wasn't this bad. We did the earliest pieces at KUSP. We had two reel to reel tape recorders, a cassette machine, and a turntable, and we didn't really understand the idea of pickups, being able to start and stop in the middle of a mix. So we would, on your mark, get set, go and the two of us would be running all the machines and all the levels up and down. We'd memorize the words, and go up and down on them, and this was a real feat in terms of our Tupperware piece. I don't know if you've ever heard Tupperware but it's the ultimate candidate for a heavy duty mix job, I mean with lots of pots going up and down. And that was a real breakthrough, I think that was a very amazing, I can still see us working. Davia: It's a piece that's a result of mistakes which is that I think people . . . probably so many people's works reflects mistakes. Because at certain points in that mix just all the pots are up by mistake. And out of those mistakes, suddenly we loved the sound of the mistakes so much the caophony, all these women's voices, one cascading into the next, and it just came because we lost control of it. And then we just said, "No, that's the sound." Nikki: And the clutter of Tupperware. I mean it was perfect for the subject matter. And I think trying to find a style that fit what we were talking about. That was like a light bulb going off, in a lot of ways. Davia: But it was different, we did mix probably a half a dozen, the first half dozen pieces or so, that we did, we did ourselves. And then NPR would start bringing us back and forth, sometimes to Washington. We'd go in for 4 or 5 days or 2 weeks or something, and for specific pieces and they'd assign us an engineer and they'd work with us. And we haven't engineered our own stuff ever since and it's a real trade off because neither of us are particularly inclined toward engineering and really detail-oriented in that perfect EQ kind of wayand all that technologyor all that interested. And at the same time, that effort to communicate your ideas. And somehow we'd try it. We have a communication between us where it's two people's ideas. We know how to hash it out together. To add that third element and finding that third person who you can get your ideas across to. Those are tricky things. It sounds better, but does it sound better? That kind of question. Nikki: And also, I think a lot of it was that we were willing to, because it was just the two of us and we were both going for this thing that we could hear and communicate with one another. We were willing to work it to death until it got . . . and there was no one to pay. Davia: No hourly rate. Nikki: Right. And there was no one to say, "No, you can't. You're done now." And I think that was a real luxury. And it defined a lot of our perfectionist attitudes when something's just not quite right. We want to make it right. And it causes problems when you're paying for a studio and paying for an engineer. Poor engineers! Davia: Remember grinding them into hamburgers? Nikki: Exactly. Davia: And they're going, "Stop, shut up". Nikki: I think we were also really lucky no one, or barely anyone else, at our community station was doing production. So we had almost 24 hour access to our studio there. And so we just lived there and tried stuff and tried stuff and tried stuff. But now people have that more with Pro Tools or one of those home editing systems, which is the kind of other side of the breakthrough. Charles: So your Tupperware piece was when? Nikki: I don't know. 1979? We don't know. Davia: Yes, probably right around '80, '81. Because I moved in '83 to San Francisco, so it was before that, so, it's somewhere between '80 and '83. Charles: And it was working on the Tupperware piece that you heard something new? Nikki: I don't know. I think Ernie Morgan, I think The Road Ranger, all of them were, those first couple of 3 or 4 pieces, I mean maybe it was just because it was us doing our first stuff. And we didn't have a lot of models, you know, like you were talking about who influenced you in terms of production. We didn't really, hadn't listened to what was happening on public radio or how they did it. And so we were just trying to make it up. And how we imagined it and, I think, our pieces have always been kind of like little audio movies. And I think maybe it comes from interest in film and interest in visuals and just making, conjuring those images through sound. And I think that's the layeredness of it and that's the multiple voices of it and, you know, you can't put a picture up. So what are you going to do? How are you going to take someone there? What are your signals to that person? How do you at the beginning of a piece establish a vocabulary that then your listener can understand? Oh, I'm going to hear these kinds of things in this piece and it's going to be like this. And establish a brand new vocabulary at the top, maybe, it would be nice if you could do it all the time, but, you know, people are used to hearing things in certain ways. So it's tricky.
Copyright © 2000, 2001 by The Journal for MultiMedia History
Comments | JMMH Contents