Marika Hughes is a shining example of what former mayor David Dinkins called the “gorgeous mosaic” of New York City. Raised on the Upper West Side in a mixed-race family, she played cello with the New York Youth Symphony and appeared on Sesame Street at a young age. She studied cello performance at The Juilliard School and political science at Barnard College. Booking time on both coasts, she has found her way from the orchestra pit to more wide-ranging endeavors. She brings the jazz funk groove of Bottom Heavy, her first project as a bandleader, to the David Rubenstein Atrium for a free show on December 15.
Kurt Gottschalk: Last time we saw you at the Atrium was in August, when you were a guest with the Burnt Sugar Arkestra in a tribute to Prince. Tell us about working with Greg Tate's group and interpreting the work of a lost legend.
Marika Hughes: I've been a Prince fan since junior high, and they assigned me two songs [to arrange]. I hadn't played Prince's music. I don't play Stevie Wonder either. They're really hard. I had charts and a few ideas and we just worked it out in the room. I've known Greg peripherally for years but I had never played with him before. Greg is like a sorcerer. He knows just what to say.
KG: After graduating from The Juilliard School, you moved to California and started working in orchestras. What led you to then move to working directly with songwriters and composers?
MH: My first playing was classical; it's still where my hands fall. My dream growing up was to be in a string quartet. When I moved to California I was in a string quartet and I played in some symphonies, but I stumbled into Carla Kihlstedt. She was really the one who encouraged me. People got excited about my curiosity and I started playing with a lot of people who were beyond my skill set.
"I enjoy being able to play the music I write with a dream team of a band, but I'm also really grateful to just show up and be a side person."
KG: You've worked with lots of interesting groups besides Burnt Sugar: Carla Kihlstedt's 2 Foot Yard, Charming Hostess, Imani Uzuri's band, and Charles Burnham's Hidden City, to name a few. The band you're bringing to the Atrium, Bottom Heavy, is the first group you've led. Do you prefer leading to being a side person?
MH: This is the first band I've had. I do things all the time under my name but this is a real band. I'm sure there are challenges but seeing as I've been a sidegirl, that's how I earn my living. I'm really neurotic about things. I know if people are well fed, they play better, so there's always food at the rehearsals.
I enjoy both. I enjoy being able to play the music I write with a dream team of a band but I'm also really grateful to just show up and be a side person. I need both, I think, to be satisfied.
KG: I can't let you get away without explaining the band name.
MH: I started out playing the violin. If I had kept going, I'd probably be playing bass. But in California I was in a trio with bass, cello, and drums, and I wanted to call it "Bottom Heavy" because I am. I thought it would be hilarious.
KG: Charles Burnham, your old boss, is now in your band. What is your relationship with him like? Is it tricky to switch roles like that?
MH: I love Charlie so much. I'm not alone. Everybody loves Charlie. I knew him on record since I was a child. When I was like, "I think I'm gonna start my own band," he was the first one I called. What started out as being a fan became family. His band hasn't done anything in a number of years, but we all play with each other in a million configurations. Going back and forth is really easy.
KG: You work a lot with children, particularly in South Africa through the Boston-based Triad Trust. What drives your charitable efforts?
MH: The work I do has been an extraordinary experience for me personally and has been effective in these small rural towns in both countries. Through songs and dramatic skits that we write together, we teach a group of 8 to 10 young people, 16 to 22 years old, to teach. The troupe is called ImprovED. They learn to teach the youngest school age children in their communities about self-care, specifically as it relates to HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, and myths.
I'm a movement child. I was born right after the civil rights movement to a mixed-race family in New York City. I really was raised in the spirit of integration and Black power. That was a time when those things could co-exist and fuel each other. It was part of the DNA. It was part of the music that we heard and the way people interacted with each other. But we can be so self-absorbed as musicians because the hustle is real. I wanted to do something more.
Kurt Gottschalk is a writer, journalist, and broadcaster based in New York City. He contributes to the blog I Care If You Listen.