Turning Up the Volume: Ciyadh Wells (guitarist, activist)

Turning Up the Volume is a collection of interviews that focuses on the individual stories of up and coming musicians in American classical music. These interviews explore topics of race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and disability as they apply to historically underrepresented artists. But most importantly, Turning Up the Volume is a platform for these musicians to share their experiences in their own words.

In this latest installment of Turning Up the Volume we talk with Ciyadh Wells. Wells is a guitarist, researcher, music administrator, and the founder of Duo Charango and Margins Guitar Collective. In this interview, we talk about her observations about diversity and inclusion in the guitar community and some thoughts for moving forward. 

You have an incredibly varied career, from performance to administration. What sparked your interest in this broad range of skills?

The phrase ‘”jack of all trades, master of none” has always applied to me. I’ve always had my hands in lots of different projects. I’m someone who, once I find something interesting, wants to know everything about it. I also think that learning and acquiring more skills is important to a sustainable career in music, so being able to perform well and work in administration is only a plus in my mind. 

As a guitarist, can you discuss some of your observations about the guitar community?

I think the guitar community is about 50 years behind the broader classical music world when it comes to thinking about creativity and programming, and diversity and programming. It’s also behind the way we serve our constituents and our communities. I think that people think it is enough that a lot of the guitar composers that we play are Spanish or have lived in Latin America. Or are Latin American. That’s not really it. That’s not really diversity. Diversity is all of us. It’s Black people. It’s white people. It’s Latinx people. It’s Asian people. And all of the other people I’ve missed. 

I’ve been researching how other guitar organizations view diversity, and one of the responses I got back was, “We’re trying, but when we open our proposals/call, we get a large response from primarily white men.” And I think that is totally true. However, my response to that answer is, “Why don’t you look for other people?” And I understand there are lots of issues there–mainly bandwidth. Small teams don’t really have the infrastructure or the time or the money to spend finding people. But I think you have to now. You want these organizations and our community to exist–we have to be thinking about who else is in the world, and are they making music and can we make music with them? 

I think we have, too, and I’ve seen so many–just the other day, I saw a new guitar initiative, and I think they have the right idea in creating something that is meaningful that engages people. But if we’re still out here playing Sor and Bach, that’s not reaching that many people. It’s reaching some. If that’s 99% of your programming and then have your new music, that’s not cool, that’s not engaging people. Because people are making music now, and we are living in the now. We need to acknowledge that fact.

I was talking to someone yesterday, and they made the comment, “When someone says they did research, did they actually do research, or did they ‘me-search‘?” So when someone says, “We did research and we found out the people that come to our concerts don’t like new music,” I’m like, did you research that? Or did you ‘me-search‘ that? And it’s fine you don’t like contemporary music, but don’t pass that onto someone else…or maybe it’s time for you to broaden your listening.

We have also failed to acknowledge how trends are set. For the worst, many trends come out of academia–that’s because a lot of us are trained in a similar fashion. There’s an argument to be made about how we are training technique especially. You study with a person, who studies with a person, etc., so they continue the trend. So when you ask questions or challenge the norm, you are often denied or you’re often looked upon negatively. Then things never change. 

Ciyadh Wells--Photo by Daniyal Tahir

Ciyadh Wells–Photo by Daniyal Tahir

What are some action steps the guitar community could take to move forward?

In the beginning, an organization or a group has to acknowledge there is a problem. To acknowledge they’ve only had one woman guitar player on their series of 10 concerts this year, or that they’ve had zero Black guitarists ever perform for any of their concerts, or that only older white men sit on their Board. If we can acknowledge there is a problem, then we can move into a space of transformation. However, it’s difficult because you want to shake the table, but you also want to have a career. So I think for a lot of people, they’ve had to unfortunately stop speaking up because we have to make money and they have to do what they think people want. 

One qualm I have is when people say, “Well, you know, we want to have musicians and people on our Board that are right for the job. We don’t want to be filling quotas.” I’ve never asked them to be choosing people that are unqualified. But you’d think by the way they talk that there are no qualified Black people to be on the Board, or there are no qualified women to be on your series. They need to cast a broader net for their pool and realize those people may offer something a little bit different than what you thought you needed. I’m not saying they are not qualified. I’m saying they’re offering something a little bit different. 

Guitar seems very siloed. Do you feel as an individual that you are siloed, and does it make it harder for you to enact change?

I definitely feel siloed. For example, I was looking on a website of a new music festival, and there was no mention of guitar at all. So we have to start there. We have to get the community to remember that guitarists play new music, too. That we exist. And that’s in the new music community–these people are supposed to be the most accepting of us! However, I think it’s twofold. Guitarists need to ask to be there, and we need to be invited.