Ears on the Odyssey

Interview: We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga

Ears on the Odyssey reviewer Eti Berland recently interviewed award-winning producer Arnie Cardillo, together with talented author Traci Sorell to discuss Live Oak Media’s stunning production of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga. Many thanks to Debra Skiver Cardillo and Live Oak Media for their help in bringing everyone together and allowing us to better understand their process. We are all so grateful to them for bringing us this powerful and authentic audiobook. 

Eti: This picture book is highly regarded for its depiction of contemporary Cherokee life. The book is even better with the audio component, hearing Cherokee citizens speak the language and hearing the sounds of their lives throughout the year. I know that you’re selective about which books you produce. What made you decide to take on We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga?   

Arnie: We always look for a book that lends itself well to audio and one that, in our estimation, “cries out to be heard!”  In the case of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, the book begins with a depiction on the cover of a traditional ceremonial dance around a “sacred fire” with women wearing shell shakers on their ankles (in fact, we were able to find a documentary where this sacred dance had been recorded and included it in the production).  Moreover, the book is interspersed with Cherokee words and phrases that have phonetic pronunciation keys to them at the bottom of the pages, and ends with a presentation of the Cherokee Syllabary wherein “each letter has a sound and each symbol stands for a whole syllable.” Again, it seemed to me that this book would be further enhanced by an audio component that would deepen the understanding and appreciation of it.  I also find that Traci’s text and Frané Lessac’s illustrations are incredibly successful in that they are able to teach the reader about the traditions and history of the Cherokee people and Nation, while, at the same time, giving us a good grasp and understanding of the modern-day Cherokee experience.  It was the kind of book that I couldn’t pass up as an audio producer and I’m glad that Traci and her publisher gave me the chance to work with them. 

Eti: Why was it important to have Traci Sorell involved in this production, especially in casting it and recording it in a local Cherokee owned recording studio?  

Arnie: I don’t think I would have taken on the project without Traci agreeing to work with me and to enlist the Cherokee community in Oklahoma to participate in the production, so that I could produce as authentic a recording as possible.  Having a Cherokee-owned studio where we could do the recording was a bonus.  Brad Henderson runs the studio and Pat Savage, the engineer who recorded the voiceover sessions, turned out to be a composer who splits his time between his home in Oklahoma and Nashville where he is a country music composer.  It was Pat’s and Brad’s musical background and familiarity with the Cherokee musical culture that made them the perfect choice to create the music for We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga.

Traci: I think you could certainly say that the book reflects authentic, contemporary Cherokee reality and so should the audio version. Since Live Oak Media is located in NY with no connection to Cherokee people it made sense to have me involved to reach out to recognized Cherokee citizens who are active in our culture, education and language preservation efforts. We wanted Cherokee people to be comfortable with and enjoy the audio version as much as anyone else. It was also important to utilize a local Cherokee-owned studio. Everyone on the recording knows the Hendersons and felt comfortable at their location. Brad runs the studio and his wife, Mary Kay, directs the Cherokee National Youth Choir.

Eti: How did you ensure accuracy and authenticity?  

Arnie: One sure way of ensuring authenticity was to hire people from the Cherokee community to narrate the book. Also, one of the narrators who Traci wisely chose, Ryan Mackey, teaches the Cherokee language and history to adults in the community in an effort to pass on the Cherokee tradition and language; and he proved to be invaluable in making sure that all of the narrators (five including him and Traci) pronounced the Cherokee words correctly.  He also read the Cherokee Syllabary in the back of the book.  And most importantly, Traci and I had him sign off on the finished production to make sure every word was as it should be. 

Traci: This links back to the prior question. It lends itself to mutual trust – mine that Live Oak Media wanted to produce the best quality product and theirs that I would deliver Cherokee people who could do that. For education, Tonia Hogner-Weavil is the Educator Director for the Cherokee Heritage Center. For the language, Ryan Mackey is the Curriculum Supervisor with the tribe’s Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program. Both young people on the audiobook, Agalisiga Mackey and Lauren Hummingbird, graduated from the Cherokee Nation’s language immersion school. 

Eti: The narrators, Traci Sorell, Tonia Hogner-Weavil, Lauren Hummingbird, Ryan Mackey & Agalisiga (Choogie) Mackey, each brought something unique to the production. What was the recording process like to share these performances?  

Traci: I coordinated everyone’s schedules (the narrators, the studio and mine) for each recording session. I came to each recording and brought my tablet, placing it next to the sound engineer. Arnie then Skyped into each session to hear the recording and coach each narrator through their parts. It worked out remarkably well. 

Arnie: Traci and I decided that we wanted to have four narrators, one for each season represented in the book, and we wanted them to be of different ages, young and older. Traci then cast the narrators and scheduled times for each one of them to come into the studio to record their part individually. I worked with the studio and Traci via Skype to direct the voiceover sessions, and Traci served as the “pronunciation expert” during the sessions, having also consulted with Mr. Durbin Feeling, an authority in the community, to ensure that each of the narrators were consistent in their Cherokee pronunciations.   

As far as the actual performances were concerned, we wanted the narrators to sound as genuine and true to their heritage and Cherokee experience as possible.  None of the readers were professional actors, nor had they recorded in a sound booth before, so it was Traci’s and my goal to make them feel as relaxed and comfortable as possible.   When we recorded Tonia, we found out that she studied acting in college and so I tried to have her recall her acting experiences on stage to enhance her performance. Ryan had done a lot of public speaking and teaching in the community, so it was about having him envision himself projecting and talking to an audience.  The young narrators, Choogie and Lauren, are learning the Cherokee traditions as language from Ryan and others in the community, and they were eager to be a part of this production—incidentally, they created the background voices of the kids who appeared in the illustrations, in Cherokee.  In each case, I knew that none the readers, other than Tonia, had the experience of rehearsing for a performance, so I had each one them record their lines multiple times, as a form of “rehearsal”, so that they would become familiar with the text to the point where they were no longer reading just words but instead conveying the meaning of the story, and expressing the text’s emotional content to the listener.  And last but not least, Traci read the first two pages of the story and the back matter, and did so with incredible ease and aplomb—she obviously had done this before, probably as a result of her many school visits and speaking engagements…!

Eti: As a readalong audiobook, I noticed the attention to detail to bring illustrated elements to life through sound. Can you talk about the process to create the soundscape and ambience of the production? 

Arnie: My intention in producing readalongs has always been to “illustrate” the text and book illustrations through sound.  For example, if the text and/or pictures in this book are showing an activity that person or animal is engaged in, or depicting a pastoral setting with a babbling brook and a woodpecker in a tree, or children playing flutes, a soundscape for that scene and part of the story is meant to help the child see the relationship between the words and pictures and thus have a fuller experience and understanding of the story. And, as stated above, having Choogie and Lauren ad lib verbal reactions for the kids in the illustrations in Cherokee was an added audio layer that made the recording sessions fun.

Eti: The soundtrack was just so beautiful, amplifying the mood and tone for each season with different themes. Can you share how the music was created?  

Traci: I know Arnie found some traditional and contemporary Cherokee music and then asked me as well as Brad about the music before he asked him and Pat to record it. 

Arnie: When we first approached the process of creating music for this book, my engineer, Rory Young, Traci, and I researched traditional Cherokee music, and we heard shell shakers, drums, singing/chanting, and sometime flutes.  But because the book was set in the present, Brad and Pat made us aware of the influences that American Country Music had and has on the music that Cherokee musicians are playing today, and of the use of acoustic stringed instruments like guitars, violins, and banjos—all instruments that Brad and Pat and local Cherokee musicians played.  So once we settled on instrumentation, Rory and I had a series of calls and conversations with Brad and Pat to “spot” the book.  That is, we went through the book, page by page, to determine where we might want to place musical beds (background music) under the text—in addition to the usual opening and closing musical bookends to the production.  Music in a picture book recording is, I believe, there to reinforce the emotional content of the text and story.  So, whether it’s a sad, happy, serious, or playful moment in the story, music, like sound effects, can enhance those moments.  And creating music for each season and depiction of them in the illustrations, though maybe not of the caliber of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, did turn out great thanks to Brad and Pat’s creative efforts!

Eti: What do you wish our readers knew about the process of creating this audiobook? 

Arnie: In general, I think your readers would be interested to know that even though a finished audiobook recording of a picture book can usually be anywhere from 3 to 30 minutes in total running time, the time and effort it takes to record the narrations, create the music, and edit and mix the production can take weeks, even months!  With respect to We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, everyone that Traci and I worked with (Traci especially) was totally committed to the process, and their enthusiasm and hard work made the audio production a very worthwhile and satisfying experience.

Traci: It was very collaborative and a lot of fun. All of the Cherokee narrators including me learned a lot about recording an audiobook and how the process requires a certain level of energy and expression to make the words and story come alive for the listener.

Eti Berland is a Youth and Teen Services Librarian at Lincolnwood Public Library District in Lincolnwood, IL.  She has served on the 2018 Odyssey Committee and the 2015 Newbery Committee. She has been an ardent audio listener from a childhood making radio shows to her current obsession with podcasts and audiobooks.@90SecondNewbery

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