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Anja Wood

Hamilton Cellist Anja Wood Follows Her Heart to Aid Families in Ethiopia

Anja Wood

Anja Wood, cellist for the Broadway show Hamilton and a member of Local 802 (New York City), founded her own charity to help Ethiopian families overcome poverty.

When Anja Wood of Local 802 (New York City) graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Music in the early 1990s, she headed east to carve out a life as a freelance musician. A classical cellist armed with a master’s degree, she easily settled into a tidy routine of playing in regional orchestras and touring Japan during the summer with conductor Mamoru Takahara (also of Local 802) and the New York Symphonic Ensemble.    

“I lived like a pauper with little gigs here and there, and eventually worked my way up,” she says. Wood joined the union in 1997 when she first started subbing on Broadway.

In 2014, Wood received a call from musical director Alex Lacamoire of Local 802, who asked her to join the orchestra of the Broadway hit, Hamilton. It was the same creative team that produced In the Heights. Wood says, “It was exactly what I’d been wanting to do for years,” adding, “It was long before we knew what Hamilton would be. We knew people would react well. We just didn’t know it would be this juggernaut success.”

They play eight shows a week, but the union contract allows the orchestra musicians to take off four days a week and still maintain their contract. Wood says, “The brilliance of that is we can go and play another gig, and a friend and colleague whom we trust and love can come and play the show for us, and is happy to have the work. It’s a great system for musicians in New York.”

In a different role, a world away from New York City and Broadway, Wood serves as president of the Lelt Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps severely impoverished Ethiopian orphans and families. It began in 2009, when she and her husband began the adoption process for their second daughter from Ethiopia. Amid agency-wide and embassy delays, Wood says that their daughter, who should have already been in the States, was still in Ethiopia five months after she was legally theirs.

Taking a leave from work, she traveled to Addis Ababa to take custody. In Ethiopia, they stayed with her friend, the late Carrie Neel-Parker, who also adopted a daughter from Ethiopia. While visiting state-run orphanages, many in grave disrepair, they realized that some basic, inexpensive upgrades could vastly improve living conditions for the children. With the help of friends back in the US, who chipped in about $30 each, they were able to provide 250 girls in Kechene Orphanage with mattresses and linens, plus repair the crumbling outer compound security wall.

Wood initiated a music program at the Kolfe Boys Orphanage, where an instructor comes in twice a week to teach students electric piano, bass, and electric guitar. She felt confident that the efforts made in just a couple of months would give way to more initiatives. “Our daughters gave us this gift of having Ethiopian families and we wanted to continue to give back to those we now consider our family,” she says.

Back home she filed for nonprofit status, formed a board of directors together with Neel-Parker, and the Lelt Foundation was born. Its focus: nutrition, education, and job creation programs for very impoverished neighborhoods. “Our whole mission is to help people so they won’t need us in a few years,” Wood says. “People graduate from the program with assistance we give them—it’s a hand-up, not a handout.”

A partnership with the Ethiopian government helps the organization identify the most impoverished families in the region. Lelt pays the fee for their children’s public school education, about $2.50 a year, and gives them a daily nutritious lunch and after-school tutoring. Families are provided counseling and job creation services, monthly food rations, and household necessities.   

In just six years, Lelt has built a community center, and homes for girls and boys, which are refuges for children who are abandoned or severely abused. A dedicated staff in Ethiopia, managed by a husband and wife team (called Mommy and Poppy by the children) live on site, in the compound. “This team is deeply committed to the community. This is their mission. It’s what they want to die doing,” Wood says.

Lelt conducts seminars on money and business management skills, providing micro loans to families to launch their businesses—a “jumpstart to financial independence,” says Wood. “The kids are in school, moms have just started a small business, like vegetable wholesale at the local market or bread baking. Once they get started, we usually see graduation from the program about three years later.”

Investing in music education is a natural component of Lelt’s mission. In addition to Western instruments—keyboards and guitars—students learn to play the traditional instruments of Ethiopia, including the masinko (an ancient violin), the krar (a lyre-shaped guitar), and traditional drums. Traditional folk music is important to Ethiopians, Wood explains. It is what folk music might be to people who grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. “Everybody has a grandparent, an aunt, or uncle who plays an instrument, and the children want to learn, too.”

In the music community Wood has found many on-and-off Broadway friends and donors who support her work. “In fact, 20% of the people who sponsor children in the organization are musician colleagues,” she says. “They are by no means wealthy, but loyal and compassionate humans who want to contribute in some way.”

Now, a busy mother, managing daily operations and directing the foundation’s fundraising efforts, Wood says, “Playing a show is the easiest part of my day. I get to go off and be my adult self and who I’m trained to be. I have a few hours of easy peace and artistic expression.”

Working with fellow pit musicians in Hamilton, Wood says, “I love knowing this group really well. I love coming in and knowing exactly where I’m going to put my F# in ‘Right Hand Man’ because my quartet is sitting right next to me. I know exactly where the first violinist is going to use less vibrato for emphasis and I’m going to match him. I know where we’ll sit behind the beat on ‘Room Where It Happens’ because I’ve learned this band so well—and that to me is exciting. We’re making this music as perfect as possible.”

For more information on the Lelt Foundation and to make a donation, visit www.leltfoundation.org.

Robert Earl Keen: A Unique Perspective on Songwriting and Success

Robert Earl Keen

Robert Earl Keen of Local 433 (Austin, TX) offers a “real” perspective on the music industry and making sure musicians can support themselves.

Texas troubadour whose witty words and infectious melodies have proved a winning combination, says he stumbled onto the musical side of word-smithing by accident. As a child he had the habit of making up songs in his head. “When I was about eight years old, I wrote a song for Larry’s Mexican Food restaurant in Rosenberg, Texas,” he says. “I sang it for Larry and he gave me a taco plate; the die was cast.”

When Keen, who grew up in Houston, moved to College Station to study English at Texas A&M he picked up his sister’s old guitar simply out of boredom. “I didn’t know what else to do; I didn’t have any friends up there and I wasn’t interested in studying. I got this book called The 10 Greatest Country Songs Ever Written and I learned all of them, except one—‘The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA’—I didn’t think it fit my repertoire.”

“I was always interested in words and read a lot. I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 18, but when I started playing, it made all the sense in the world,” says the Local 433 (Austin, TX) member. “I went to school and got a degree, and the whole time, I never thought of anything I wanted to do more than write songs and perform.”

Keen eventually did have friends at A&M and even played and sang in a little four-piece bluegrass band. One of his Aggie friends was Local 257 (Nashville, TN) member Lyle Lovett. Together they wrote “The Front Porch Song,” while jamming on the front porch of a rented house. “Lyle was a bit more advanced. He started playing when he was about 12, I think. It’s amazing the things he can do with words, especially the whole jazzy dialogue thing.” Both Lovett and Keen ended up recording the song on their debut albums.

Throughout his career, words have continued to come first for Keen. “This is still the way it is with my songwriting process,” he says, explaining that, to him, the words are the most important component. That process starts with a picture, he says, “Sometimes it’s something I don’t really understand. And what I see in my head doesn’t necessarily translate into the song itself.”

Keen’s best known for his witty tunes about American culture, like “Gringo Honeymoon,” “The Road Goes on Forever,” “Feelin’ Good Again,” and “Merry Christmas from the Family,” which make listeners both think and laugh. However, his latest album, Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions, deviates from the Americana music Keen is so famous for.

Keen says bluegrass has always influenced his songwriting. “‘Shades of Gray’ is a total bluegrass beat,” he explains, of the song he wrote years ago about the Oklahoma City bombing. “If you strip it down and take off some of the electronics, it’s a bluegrass song. There are so many [of my] songs that kind of work in that way.”

“I had thought about doing a bluegrass record for many years, and for whatever reason, I just never could get myself to do it,” he explains. “One day I bolted out of bed and said, ‘I gotta do this bluegrass record and I’ve gotta do it now!’ It really fell together in a great way. Everybody that I wanted to play on it, is playing on it. The way we set it up, the songs that we played, all came together. It was amazing.”

“I wrote down 100 songs that were primarily bluegrass that I thought would work. We recorded 28 songs, and from those 28 we picked out 15, then added another five for value-added bonus stuff,” he says.

Keen has been touring for the album since it was released about a year ago and the reception has been enthusiastic. “We started out playing just the bluegrass stuff, but I have found that playing the brand new record is always a little more difficult because you are putting stuff out there that people don’t know. So after we played Happy Prisoner on a few shows, I started adding songs that I knew people wanted to hear. But instead of retooling the band, we are doing it in a totally bluegrass fashion, with upright bass, dobro, acoustic guitar, fiddle, banjo, mandolin,” he explains.

Keen is proud that he’s had the same road and studio band for the past 20 years—Local 433 members Rich Brotherton (guitar), Bill Whitbeck (bass), Marty Muse (steel guitar/dobro), and Tom Van Schaik (percussion). He says the secret to keeping a band for that long is listening to what the musicians want and need.

“They all say almost the same thing: they get gypped when it comes to making a record, and they don’t have enough security. I thought I could fix all the problems,” says Keen whose band has been on every one of his records since 1998. The members are salary, get paid for every show, plus receive overages. They also get bonuses at the end of the year, plus Keen contributes to SEP retirement programs for them, and provides insurance.

In 2015, Keen took his philosophy to Washington, DC, to lobby for the Fair Play Fair Pay Act and performance rights at Grammys on the Hill. “I think that the industry is somewhat top heavy and that most of the money goes to people that are good with money, and in general, musicians and artists are crappy with money,” he says. “I’m pretty good with it, but I’m big on sharing it.”

“I believe I’ve done it differently and successfully. I’ve never had a major hit. I’ve had some major label deals, but never where I’ve gotten tons of money. I’ve just done the work, one step at a time—playing the gigs to writing the songs. I have a completely practical and real perspective on how you can work the music business,” he continues. “A lot of musicians are on the bottom of the barrel. I think musicians should be taken care of. Why don’t we have a better system?”

Keen advises young singer-songwriters just starting out to join performance rights organizations and make connections with other seasoned members. Also he says, “Be careful about signing things, and stand your ground as far as your songs and your voice go. Do your own thing really well. I believe if you hold out and keep believing in yourself, you really can’t go wrong.”

Another cause Keen has been active in is music education. Currently a resident of Kerrville, Texas, for about the past 10 years Keen has supported Hill Country Youth Orchestras by organizing annual benefit concerts to the tune of $50,000-plus per year.

“From about age six to 18 they learn how to play the instrument in a symphony or quartet situation. To me that’s what music is all about. My greatest joy has been to play with other people,” he says.