May Pang in the Andes (Courtesy of May Pang)
She's best known, of course, as John Lennon's girlfriend during his so-called "Lost Weekend" 18-month hiatus away from Yoko Ono. But many also know May Pang for her numerous activities including speaking engagements, her photography, jewelry and radio program--in addition to authoring books about her relationship with Lennon.
Lesser known is Pang's involvement in the non-profit Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), founded in 1996 by ethnobotanist Dr. Mark Plotkin and conservationist Liliana Madrigal—Plotkin's wife--to implement "biocultural conservation," i.e., protecting the indigenous people of the Amazon and their traditional cultures as well as the South American rainforest itself.
An advisory board member along with the likes of Jane Goodall, Jeff Bridges, Bill Kurtis, Susan Sarandon and Ed Begley, Jr., Pang just returned from a trip to the Andes Mountains with Madrigal and a small group of fellow ACT members to visit healers and shamans.
"It was almost like a life 'bucket list' thing in getting to experience something you don't ordinarily get the chance to," says Pang, who arrived in Bogota, Columbia, on Nov. 9 for the 20th annual ACT meeting. Also in Bogota, she spent some quality time with old friend Andrew Loog Oldham, the Rolling Stones first manager and producer, and a longtime Bogota resident.
On Nov. 12, Pang's group flew to Puerto Asis in the Putumanyo region (Plotkin, incidentally, took another small group to Santa Marta, Columbia, to visit the indigenous Kogi people). They were picked up there by shaman Tatia Luciano and two drivers, who took them on a four-hour drive on unpaved roads through the Amazon to a meeting place for an organization of the region's women healers called ASOMI (Asociacion de Mujeres Indigenas), which ACT helped establish.
"It's like, wow!" says Pang. "We built this little place there and no one lives there, but it's used as a meeting place--and you're in the clouds. There's a little shack on the mountain, and that's the grocery store. Different tribes came to greet us and fed us with chicken soup!"
The next day they were off to Alto Sibundoy to meet with the governor of the association and more shamans in celebrating recently legalized land in indigenous reserves.
"It's a magical land—the shamans' land—and we learned of the indigenous peoples' plight, and how they couldn't believe that in their lifetime they actually got this land back. It's where [renowned ethnobotanist and Amazon rainforest conservationist] Richard Evans Schultes worked—and was a mentor to Mark."
Plotkin did research under Schultes at Harvard and has authored books including Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice.
"I've known him and Liliana nearly 20 years," continues Pang. "They asked me to help with a benefit fundraiser for the World Wildlife Fund, and my ex-husband [David Bowie producer] Tony Visconti got [Moody Blues vocalist-guitarist] Justin Hawyard. Mark was with World Wildlife then, and we became friends from then on."
She recalls a fundraiser for ACT in 2002 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, with both Hayward and the late Phoebe Snow participating.
"The shamans came through and blessed the hall—and I'd never seen Phoebe so calm!" says Pang. "And I first met Tatia there, so it was great to see him again."
Besides her own involvement in ACT, Pang, who brought Julian Lennon onto the advisory board, has "tried to pull people in and make them aware of the need to save indigenous people in addition to the rainforest, because without them we don't know what's in the rainforest. And it's not just about the rainforest, but the plight of its indigenous people. You don't realize what they go through—and it happens all over the world. It really takes a village to get things done, but we've saved millions of acres over the years for so many indigenous tribes."
ACT, adds Pang, is a small charity-based organization, with most of its staff doubling as field agents. But it continues to attract high-profile support, with journalist Lisa Ling recently named as an ambassador.
Now back home in New York, Pang is off again this week to attend, with her friend Beatles secretary Freda Kelly, next weekend's Gran Festival de Los Beatles in Mexico City, where the Beatles have a huge following.
Meanwhile, her weekly Blog Talk Radio program Dinner Specials, which she co-hosts with former film casting director/stunt woman Cynthia Neilson, is on holiday break. In April she returns to Syracuse University to guest in Bob Halligan, Jr.'s Music and Entertainment Industries course. The founder-frontman for pop-rock Celtic-Irish group Ceili Rain, Halligan has written songs for the likes of Cher and Kiss, and was represented by Pang when she worked at United Artists Music publishing and successfully pitched "(Take These) Chains" to Judas Priest for their 1982 breakthrough album Screaming for Vengeance.
"I spoke there last year, too," says Pang, who this year was keynote speaker at the PA Hub conference for personal assistants in Leeds, England, having originally served John Lennon—and Yoko Ono—as personal assistant.