Anoushka Shankar + My Brightest Diamond at BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn

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Anoushka Shankar

Anoushka Shankar + 

My Brightest Diamond 

BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn 

July 20, 2018 

By Ernest Barteldes 

 

On what turned out to be a seasonably mild night in Brooklyn, musical experimentalist Shara Nova, who goes by the “band” name of My Brightest Diamond came on backed by her own programmed keyboard and a drummer showed exactly what is wrong with the whole DYI movement: artists get zero feedback from other people and the room and become far too self-indulgent.  

Nova opened her set with the participation of the Brooklyn Youth Choir, doing two numbers that sounded brilliant and hopeful, but soon after that it was a collection of tunes with strong influence from 70s music, especially the B-52s, David Bowie and Yoko Ono (if that makes any sense). She did go into a quieter mode when she played – on guitar – a lullaby about her young son, but it was mostly electronic music with shrieked vocals and little else.  

After a brief break, sitarist Anoushka Shankar came on backed by bass, percussion and hand pans. The music, as she stated, was inspired by the refugee situation in Europe and also the political situation Stateside – she didn’t dwell on it as she described it, but one could feel the feeling in the melodies.  The jazz influences were tangible, but there was something intensely personal with the music.  

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My Brightest Diamond

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Mariza at Summerstage/Central Park

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The Stage at Central Park

Summerstage at Central Park

June 23, 2018

New York, NY

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Mariza

On her debut Summerstage appearance,  Angolan-born and Portugal-based Mariza took to the stage backed by a five-piece band (accordion, percussion, Portuguese guitar, acoustic guitar and bass) to promote mostly material from her self-titled album (Warner Portugal, 2018), which of this writing was not yet available in the US market even though she mentioned it several times during the show.

The set opened with “Sou do Fado,” a traditional tune that has become a staple on her performances – it is a longing number in which she stretches her vocals, utilizing the melisma that are so common to the genre.  She then followed by a ballad  with few fado characteristics – something that has become more and more common on her records starting from 2008’s Terra, which included tunes by  Brazil’s Ivan Lins and also a cover of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” which she performed during the tour in support of that album that year.

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Mariza

Among the highlights was an original tune named “Ja Passou,” a ballad dedicated to her young son. The expression is common in Portugal, and it means that the “pain is over” (the term was actually used on the Luso-Portuguese version of “Let It Go” from the soundtrack of the movie “Frozen”), and it is usually told to young children when they get hurt in some way.

Hearing Mariza in an outdoor setting was quite refreshing, because in previous U.S. stops she mostly performed in theaters, and was interesting to hear her outdoors, and wondered how the outside temperature would affect her singing.  The truth is, it didn’t, and she sang with the same potency and passion that she has delivered in previous shows.

 

Music Review: Alexis Cole’s You’d Be So Nice to come Home To

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By Ernest Barteldes

 

Backed by the celebrated New York-based One For All Sextet (Eric Alexander: tenor saxophone; Jim Rotondi: trumpet; Steve Davis: trombone; David Hazeltine: piano; John Webber: bass; Joe Farnsworth: drums), vocalist Alexis Cole brings a collection of jazz standards taking full advantage of the chemistry among the musicians. The group swings hard on the opening track “Golden Earrings,” with plenty of improvisation from Rotondi, Davis and Alexander.  “Delilah” opens a bit downtempo then evolves into walking bass-dominated blues, which seems to put Cole right in her comfort zone.  The ensemble takes Mancini/Mercer’s “Moon River” to a surprising direction – instead of the slow ballad we have all gotten accustomed to hear over the decades, here it is played quite up-tempo – bringing a new meaning to the “two drifters” mentioned in the lyrics – their quest is a happy one this time around.

Maybe the best known recording of “You’ve Changed” was done by Billie Holiday on 1958’s “Lady in Satin,” which turned out to be her last album released in her lifetime. Alexis Cole does not seem to have sought inspiration on that beautifully sad track, but instead she seems to draw from Ella Fitzgerald’s 1966 version, making it her own with her honestly heartfelt rendition. “A Beautiful Friendship” seems at first to lament the end of a friendship but later it is revealed that the couple is no longer in “the friend zone” and are now lovers. Originally recorded by Ella Fitzgerald as a ballad, here it has more of a bluesy feel in which Cole stretches her vocal range, and it also features a nice call-and-response between Rotondi and Cole throughout.

The title track (by Cole Porter) closes the disc the same way it began: a high-energy, swinging number highlighting all performers.  The disc seems to look back at past eras of jazz vocalists but not as something retro – this is probably indicating where vocal-band jazz should be going into the next decades.

 

You’d Be So Nice to come Home To

Alexis Cole with One For All

Venus Records, Inc.

Confronting Bigotry and Xenophobia With Dance

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photo by Dominik Werner

Theater review: “INTRO” by Dada von Bzdülöw

Bohemian National Hall

October 1, 2017

New York, NY

 

by Ernest Barteldes

 

During a recent visit to Poland last September, my wife Renata and I made plans to meet with a couple who I’ll call Lukasz and Dorota. It was well after 10 PM by then, and since we were visiting a smaller town,  it meant that kitchens in most places were closed. I suggested going to one of the local kebab restaurants in the area since there were two of those within walking distance from where we were and they stayed open late.

“We don’t do kebabs,” said Lukasz, “because we don’t want Muslims in Poland.” I kind of stared at him in disbelief but reluctantly kept my New York attitude in check. Instead, I just retorted that not all Turkish people are Muslims, but he seemed uninterested in continuing the conversation.

I was aware that Dorota had supported the right-wing PiS party in the last election, and I am guessing that she pulled him into her conservative politics. After an awkward moment of silence in which I took a big sip from my glass of vodka, Renata abruptly changed the subject.  We then reverted to small talk and later we drove to another restaurant that we had visited in previous trips. Since my wife and I had already had dinner, we just enjoyed couple of drinks while they ate.

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photo by Dominik Werner

I didn’t talk about it any further during our trip, but a few days after we returned to New York I had a brief conversation with my Dorota about the issue. When I asked her about how awkward I felt that day, she replied, “My opinion is the same. I don’t like Muslims in Europe, they should be in their country with their own culture.” When I asked what she meant about that, she said, “I like Muslims and my husband does too but when they are in their own countries.”

I countered that Muslims have been in Europe for centuries, and pointed out that Turkey is a secular country with Muslim majority that happens to be part of Europe (and part of the European council since 1949), she replied that “Turkey is not really part of Europe.”

The conversation ended there, and got me thinking about the conservative nationalist wave that has pretty much taken over the conversation in both sides of the Atlantic, especially after the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency.

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photo by Dominik Werner

As I was reflecting about this whole conversation, I learned about a one night only presentation of “Intro,” a theatre/dance production by Gdansk-based Dada von Bzdülöw Theater that took place at New York’s Bohemian National Hall on October 1 as part of a larger program entitled “Rehearsal for Truth,” a festival showcasing (as stated in the press release) “topical and thought-provoking Central European productions” that also showcased plays from the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.

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photo by Dominik Werner

The show focuses on four central characters that represents different ethnicities living in present-day Poland: one Polish-born Jew that returns to the homeland after a long period of exile, a Croatian-born immigrant who “received a transfusion of Polish blood, “a Chechen seemingly uncomfortable in his own skin and finally a Middle-Eastern woman who expresses her undying love to her adopted home. All of the characters have great conflict and this is expressed in their dance, which is backed by pre-recorded live Polish punk rock band Nagrobki.

The dance moves, which sometimes happen in total silence or with old Polish folk songs (played from cellphones placed onto microphones) depict the anguish that all these different groups live with: at one point, the Chechen (Piotr Stanek) and the Jew (group co-founder Leszek Bzdyl) mimic working out together and flexing their muscles in a duo dance in which they seem to be searching for something unattainable.

All the dance routines are inspired by different forms of dance: at one point there is a lot of modern jumping jazz-influenced movements, but during another movement the two women in the group (Katarzyna Chimielewska and Katarzyna Ustowska) do a classical ballet-inspired dance.

In between numbers, each character reveals him or herself in short speeches: The Croatian immigrant sings the beauties of Poland and spouts nationalist rhetoric; the Jew, long away from his birthplace, shows conflict about coming back home following the end of Communism. The Chechen vows to blow himself up for Poland, there is a surprise twist when one of the female dancers (Ustowska), who spent most of the play scantily dressed in a barely there top and skirt, reveals herself to be Middle Eastern while being forcibly dressed and put into a hijab. Towards the end of the piece, she reappears in a burka – in Polish flag colors.

“INTRO was created in response to the growing acceptance of extreme national, nationalist and xenophobic declarations in the Polish public debate,” said Bzdyl in an interview released by the Polish Cultural Institute in New York, which co-sponsored the event. “in 2015, somehow in a futuristic way, we presented a monoculture psychosis that will have to be confronted by potential immigrants trying to settle in Poland.”

“When we were creating INTRO, the refugee problem wasn’t yet so blown up by the politicians of the extreme right,” continued Bzdyl in the interview. “By introducing the characters of a Jew, a Croatian nationalist, and Arab woman and a Chechen to the show, we thought of mocking the character of the Pole. The Pole is the one who happens to feel like the messiah of Europe, a Pole gazing at his or her national navel, and reaming of the purity of the Polish blood, and of shedding that blood on the altar of national church.”

The piece – which lasted about 90 minutes – was quite moving and even comic at certain times as it exposed the tragedy of these four different characters and their struggles to assimilate and be accepted in Poland.

During a brief Q&A with the group after the show, Bzdyl mentioned the story of naturalized Cuban-born volleyball player Wilfredo Leon – one of the world’s best  – who expressed desire to play for the Polish national team in spite of resistance from nationalists who cannot accept the idea of a black man on the team.

“He had to try so hard to show that he was more in love with Poland than Poles themselves,” he commented. “It’s like if you are an immigrant you have to become even more Polish than those born in the country.”

I was briefly given the floor and told the group about the kebab story, and  Bzdyl responded that the situation is very conflicted. “Many of these nationalist protesters go on rallies and then go to kebab restaurants because they’re not only everywhere but also the food is cheap and tasty,” he said. “Later on, they go out and complain about how Polish culture is being hurt by them –it just makes no sense.”

Monika Brodka: My 2017 Polish Music Discovery

By Ernest Barteldes

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Brodka (publicity)

Shortly before my last trip to Poland last September (where I attended a wedding and spent a few days exploring Chelm, I had a chat with one of my students and told her how much I admired the work of singers like Anna Maria Jopek and Ania Dąbrowska, and she recommended I check out Monika Brodka, who she described as “really innovative.”

I looked her up and learned that like Dąbrowska, she was an alumna of the popular “Idol” franchise, having won the competition during the 2004 season. She was quickly signed by Sony/BMG and made two very pop-friendly  discs (Album and Moje Piosenki, released in 2004 and 2006) under the production of Bogdan Kondracki (who also produced Dąbrowska’s first three albums).

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“Album” and “Moje Piosenki”

I found both albums at Chelm’s Empik in a two-in-one package labeled “Made in Poland,” apparently part of a series meant to promote the country’s pop-rock artists. Among my favorite tracks from those are a mellow cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Let Me Make It through the Night” (from “Album) and “Glock” (from “Moje Piosenki”), which showcase her vocal potential and also her ability to make a song her own.

Although very enjoyable, neither album stands out – possibly because of Kondracki’s very mainstream sounding production that made them sound almost undistinguishable from Dąbrowska’s first two discs or anything else he touched during that era. Brodka’s albums were nevertheless well received and are still on regular rotation on Polish radio stations like RMF and Eska.

Brodka took a considerable break from making studio recordings and re-emerged in 2010 with Granda, (“Brawl”), an 11-song masterpiece which is incredibly different from anything she’d done before, with nods to electronica and jazz without losing touch with a more pop-rock feel. It is quite adventurous and goes into various directions. The title track is a punk-ish rocker with a pounding bass and some extraneous background sounds, while “Saute” seems to revisit the psychedelic era without sounding dated.

In between albums she released the EP LAX” (which is simply a reference to Los Angeles, where the tracks were recorded), which contained “Varsovie,” a haunting English-language ode to her adopted hometown.

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Clashes

2016’s “Clashes” took things to an even more experimental direction – since she is now signed to an independent label, she has more freedom to do what she wants without having to compromise to whatever the suits might want her to do.  I believe that she is aware of the shock value of the music and of course her looks – like performing with a shaved head.

“Clashes” is not easy listening – there are clear influences from Bjὄrk, the post-punk sounds of Patti Smith and others I have not been able to identify – it’s a disc that has to grow on you after repeated hearings.

Check out “Clashes” here

 

My Polish Music Loot: Anna Maria Jopek, Monika Brodka and… The Beatles

By Ernest Barteldes

 

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Cover art for Brodka’s “Clashes”

Whenever we travel abroad, I always try to bring home some of the country’s local music, and I make a point of visiting local music stores and pick out some interesting albums not easily found in the US market or on download – so on our fourth trip to Poland (for a wedding – more on the travel blog) I made a stop at Chelm’s Empik  and picked out a few albums.

The quantity was not as high as in previous trips since we were in the country for just a few days and there were only a few titles I was thinking about – but there were a few discoveries that I am glad to have found just by browsing through the store.

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Cover art for Niebo by Anna Maria Jopek

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a big fan of Polish World Music singer Anna Maria Jopek, and that I have been slowly purchasing her full collection – in the last a few months I found many of her albums on Walmart.com (don’t ask me why they carry imported albums, but they do) but one that eluded me was Niebo (Universal, 2006), her tenth release in which she continued to branch out into different musical styles, moving away from her previous pop and jazz-inflected albums and into a more diverse sound.

On that online order I also included a DVD copy of the 1981 film “Blind Chance” (Pzypadek), whose plot shows the consequences of the main character making a train or not. According to critics, the film inspired both Sliding Doors (1998) and Run, Lola, Run (1998) in which separate scenarios influences the outcomes of one’s reality.

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Brodka’s Moje Piosenki cover art

A few days before the trip, one of my students at ASA told me about a young singer called Monika Brodka, a contestant – like Ania Dąbrowska before her – of her country’s version of Pop Idol.  I heard some of her clips on Youtube and decided to check out her albums once I got to Poland. On my first visit I picked up a 2-CD set of her two first albums, “Album,” and “Moj Piosenki” (both on Sony Music) – they’re both well-crafted pop albums, but since they were produced following her Idol win, they sound very similar to Dąbrowska’s first discs – after all,  they had the same producer (Bogdan Kondracki) and likely some of the same musicians.

 

What really got my attention was Clashes (2017), her fourth release – no longer constrained by big corporate labels but now with the independent PIAS Recordings, the album is incredibly personal and experimental with no songs in Polish – the music has a unique texture, and she explores the music in a fearless manner that embraces World, jazz and pop tendencies.

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My last music purchase there had zero to do with Polish music – it was actually the 2-disc 50th Anniversary edition of The Beatles‘ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I just decided to buy it there because the price was considerably lower than what I could find in the US. It was definitely worth it since I saved about $10 and this album has been on my list for a while – and upon hearing the new mix I was immediately blown away by the new mix, which enhances Ringo’s drumming and also has a more centered sound more similar to its original mono mix.

While I have ripped all the music to my iPhone, I haven’t had the chance to fully appreciate them in the little time I have had since purchasing them – but that time will eventually come – not soon enough.

 

Weekend Music in Review: Frank Haye & Brooklyn Interdenominational Choir at BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn, Brazil Summerfest featuring Elza Soares and Liniker & Os Caramelows at SummerStage in Central Park

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Brooklyn Interdenominational Choir

By Ernest Barteldes 

 

Frank Haye & The Brooklyn Interdenominational  

Gospel Choir 

BRIC at Celebrate Brooklyn 

August 4, 2017 

 

The Brooklyn Interdenominational Gospel Choir  – backed by keyboards, bass, guitar and horns – opened their short set by blending secular and Christian music, including snippets from Nina Simone’s “Ooh Child,” Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” and the Temptations’ “My Girl” and then drifting into a bluesy slow-tempo religious tune that set the tone for the remaining of their set – the music went in various directions, and included a song that challenged the singer as the key was modulated several times.  

One of my favorite moments was a country-inspired number whose lyrics spoke about self-doubt and finding your faith in spite of everything – which then went into the grand finale with the classic “Oh Happy Day” featuring a contralto that blew everyone away with her great energy and vocal prowess.  

The concert was followed by a screening of Creed with a live score performed by the Wordless Music Orchestra, which will be returning to the Prospect Park Bandshell on August 10 for a performance backing Selma fronted by Jason Moran 

 

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Liniker & Os Caramelows

Linikner & Os Caramelows + 

Elza Soares 

Brazil Summerfest at SummerStage 

In Central Park 

August 5, 2017 

 

The annual Brasil Summerfest – a weeklong festival showcasing Brazilian talent –  kicked off at SummerStage with Liniker & Os Caramelows, a large ensemble led by dress-clad Liniker Barros, a powerful singer who prefers to be considered genderless – on an early interview with a Brazilian newspaper, Liniker identified as “gay, black and poor” but hell the band can swing! Their music navigates from blues to funk but their roots are deeply rooted in Tropicalismo – Brazil’s response to Psychedelics that made musicians like Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa and Baby Consuelo household names in their native country. 

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Elza Soares

Elza Soares came on with a selection of music from “Mulher Do Fim Do Mundo,” her first release in over a decade. As Sao Paulo’s Folha de Sao Paulo noted, fans who were hoping to hear familiar sambas might have been a bit disappointed as she focused on new material – she sang seated on a a throne because of current back problems – but it was a stellar performance nevertheless. Due to current political problems in Brazil, the event was politically charged – some fans were screaming “Fora Temer” throughout the set (because many on the left want to get rid of embattled conservative president Michel Temer) – something she encouraged between songs.  

Soares acknowledged the “young Sao Paulo musicians” who made her album possible and kept on going with more alternative material – fans in the audience seemed well-schooled in the material and sang along with every song. Soares did veer into some more traditional material towards the end, but this was definitely her statement – she was not interested in rehashing the past but to look to the future instead – this was definitely not your grandma’s Elza Soares.