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.”

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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.

What to Hear in August: BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn, Bryant Park, Brasil Summerfest, SummerStage and Charlie Parker Jazz Festival

By Ernest Barteldes

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I kind of hate the month of August, because that is when most of the outdoor events begin winding down – Celebrate Brooklyn wraps halfway through the month, while SummerStage continues hosting free shows until pretty much the end of the month, capping the program with the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in Harlem and the East Village, the locales of reference for the annual event in honor of one of the heroes of the bebop era.

For those who missed it in theaters (and still haven’t watched it at home), Creed tells the story of Donnie Johnson – the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed – who goes after his own dream of becoming a champion boxer. To help him on his quest, he seeks the help of an aging Rocky Balboa to become his coach –  possibly closing the Rocky saga. The movie will be screened with a live score performed by The Wordless Music Orchestra conducted by its composer Ludwig Gorannson. Opening the evening is a selection of Gospel music by Frank Haye & The Interdenominational Choir – should be a good one and I will certainly be in attendance (Celebrate Brooklyn, Aug. 4)

Things take a Brazilian flavor at Summerstage with the kickoff of Brazil Summerfest, a weeklong event that showcases various  talents from my other country: legendary singer Elza Soares – still unstoppable at 80 – headlines an afternoon at Central Park that also features Youtube-discovered Linkner e os Caramelows and a DJ set by Teleseen. During the following week there will be concerts in various venues featuring Forro in the Dark (Brooklyn Public Library, August 9).  Aline Muniz (Joe’s Pub, August 10), Zabele ( The Django, August 13) and many others, ending with a massive Brazilian-inspired street fair  (Hester Street Fair, August 14) .

Bryant Park continues its summer program with a concert by the Asian Cultural Symphony to the US – an ensemble of more than 60 musicians, followed by Shoko Nagal’s TOKALA, which explores sonic influences from classic and contemporary Asian sounds (August 11, Bryant Park)

Most people know about Senegalese singer-songwriter Youssou N’ Dour from his iconic tune “7 Seconds,” but  he is beloved among World Music lovers – he has a long career that includes many records and countless collaborations with artists from across the globe – a fitting closing to what has been a stellar run at Celebrate Brooklyn (August 12, Celebrate Brooklyn)

Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ are blues legends in their own right, and I cannot wait to hear how they sound as they join forces – it is sure going to be a meeting of generations and it is a show I am sure not to miss under any circumstance – just imagine how much great music will come from those two together on stage. (Central Park, August 13)

I have heard Anat Cohen in various formats both as a side player with Duduka Da Fonseca with her two brothers in their Three Cohens ensemble  and also leading her own chorinho-inspired group. She is a phenomenal clarinetist and at The Charlie Parker Jazz Festival she will be leading her Tenet in a program that will include her many influences, going from Brazilian to Middle Eastern and some New Orleans material in between (Marcus Garvey Park, August 25)

We wrap up the list with quite a stellar line-up of saxophonists: Joshua Redman, Lou Donaldson and Tia Fuller will close the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival – one can’t help but wonder if they will get together at the end of the day for an improvisational threesome. It might be unlikely, but one can only hope — and then we go over to Labor Day with a nice taste of great music (August 27, Tompkins Square Park)

SummerStage in Central Park: Chicano Batman & Los Pericos at LAMC

by Ernest Barteldes

Chicano Batman + Los Pericos

LAMC at Summerstage in Central Park

July 15, 2017

 

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Chicano Batman

Los Angeles-based Chicano Batman came on stage with their Psychedelic-inspired sound, complete with Mellotron-based tunes and a look more suited to Ed Sullivan circa 1968 then Central Park in 2017, but I guess that is the message they want to convey. Though mostly a quartet, they were often enhanced by a pair of backing vocalists – one whom took over the keyboards when lead singer Eduardo Arenas either stepped away from the mic to sing lead or played guitar.

I half expected this edition of the LAMC to be a bit political given the current divisions in the United States, but was surprised that no one spoke of walls or anything related to the current president in this country: it was all about the music and little else. The band instead took the opportunity to showcase as many of their influences as possible, including a Cumbia-inflected tune and a ranchera in which the bassist took over the guitar while Arenas took over the bass guitar.

Chicano Batman has great chemistry together, but it seems they are not yet ready to play large stages like Rumsey Playfield.  There is no doubt about their talent – their instrumental moments were quite great – but they seemed a bit overwhelmed about being before a numerous audience like the ones often seen there – I guess we are looking at diamonds in the rough, and would be happy to learn they’ve evolved in coming years.

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Los Pericos

After a short break, Argentina’s Los Pericos brought a mix of funk and reggae with a Latin take – I felt they were very influenced by Brazil’s Paralamas do Sucesso – that got the audience moving from the moment they played their first chord.  They had great energy and effectively communicated with the crowd by calling on the different nationalities represented there.

Los Pericos has been around for three decades, and their set reflected that experience: the music went from disco-inflected moments to salsa and various other rhythms while never losing touch with their original influences. Since there were many in the audience who had probably never heard of them, the band jam-packed their set with their best material so people could know what they were about.  A handful of their tunes were in English – with lyrics that either talked about heartbreak or romantic defiance – but most were in their native Spanish.

It was a wonderful afternoon – I just wish the weather on Friday had been a bit better so I could have caught the showcase at Celebrate Brooklyn the previous night – it would have made for a much better musical experience.

Album reviews: Putumayo’s “Cuba Cuba,” Hendrik Meurkens & Roger Davidson’s “Oração Para Amanhã,” MUH Trio’s “Prague After Dark” and Anna Maria Jopek’s “Haiku”

by Ernest Barteldes

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On this Putumayo release, contemporary and more traditional Cuban music come together to form this comprehensive collection of the music of the country whose music has been a global reference in spite of the controversial political issues that have kept  both countries at odds for so long.

The collection opens with Soneros de Verdad’s “A Buena Vista,” a lively tribute to the success of the collective that has had reached global success, and sets the tone for the rest of the album. We delve in the past a bit with Al Valdes’ “Guajira,” an uptempo instrumental recorded in Peru in the mid-sixties that has since become legendary, showing strains of American jazz and other sounds that would later be explored by  groups like Irakere, which at one time featured Arturo Sandoval, Chucho Valdes and Paquito D’ Rivera (which sadly are not featured on this compilation, in band form or solo). Other highlights include a new rendition of “Chan Chan” – arguably Buena Vista Social Club’s best-known tune, and Jose Conde’s “Puente a Mi Gente,” a 2004 tune that reached out to his people on the island (he was born in Miami), hoping for a better connection between the US and his ancestral land.

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Pianist  Roger Davidson and German-born harmonica player/vibist Hendrik Meurkens both have a close relationship with the music of Brazil, and it’s a thrill to hear them coming together for “Oração Para Amanhã (Soundbrush), a live recording made at New York’s Zinc Bar featuring all-original music by Davidson. Backed by Eduardo Belo (bass) and Adriano Santos (drums), the disc kicks off with “September Samba,” an uptempo tune featuring Muerkens on vibes. Muerkens then goes to his harmonica to lead on “Sonho da Tarde,” a complex tune with a low-key feel .  “Oração Para Amanhã” is definitely a love letter to Brazil, and both musicians treat the music with the respect it deserves, using American jazz tendencies to enhance the sound, but never to take it away from where it belongs.

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“Prague After Dark” (JMood Records) came to me all the way from Italy via Facebook friend and pianist Roberto Magris. Recorded in The Czech Republic with his MUH Trio (Magris, Frantisek Uhlir: bass; Jaromir Helesic: drums), it is a highly enjoyable straight-ahead album featuring mostly original music penned by all three members of the trio. I particularly enjoyed “Nenazvana,” an uptempo tune by Uhlir with a samba feel that features an extended solo from its writer. Also notable are “Iraqi Blues,” which takes a more serious tone in what is mostly an upbeat album, and the inspired cover of “Love in Vain.” Make sure to check it out, it’s rare when music like this reaches the other side of the pond.

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Also hailing from Central Europe is Polish singer Anna Maria Jopek, whose Japanese-inspired “Haiku” (independently released) finally got to my hands. Originally released in 2013 alongside her Luso-inspired “Sobremesa” and her Polish folk song dedicated “Polanna” (it could be purchased as a box set as well, but I have never seen it in stores – and I looked hard during my last visit to Poland), it is a collaboration with pianist Makoto Ozone that delves both in more traditional music and pretty hard jazz.  It closes the trilogy well – it is a well-thought record that explores a lot of nuances between Polish and Japanese music – including the kind of jazz played in both countries these days. On an interview I conducted with her a few years back, she stated that “We recorded the “Haiku” album with a Polish-Japanese band lineup in just four hours, as if we were spirited.” Quite impressive results, I should say.

What to hear in June – Summerstage and Celebrate Brooklyn 2017

by Ernest Barteldes

 

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I don’t think I need to tell you how much I love attending outdoor concerts. As much as I appreciate our various indoor venues and how some of them go above and beyond to bring diverse voices to their stages, my one musical love is to stand under the hot sun – or the stars  – and enjoy some music without drink minimums or any other restriction regularly imposed by club managers.

For this reason, it is with great expectation that I look forward to the summer months when music comes outdoors, because these musicians have a chance to reach audiences they might never reach out to otherwise –  things would be segregated among the ‘jazz,’ ‘world’ or whatever pocket genre your next tastemaker might come up with.

Among the various events I love to attend are Summertage (once limited to Central Park but now a citywide event) and Celebrate Brooklyn – they are both works of love for all those involved, including this writer –   there is no price to pay for the many memories created by each of the shows I have attended over the years.

Which brings me to my selections for the month of June for both venues – but let me note that I am only commenting on the non-benefit shows – the others get plenty of coverage on their own without my help.

Summerstage gets things running on June 3rd with an opening event featuring the great Mavis Staples (remember “I’ll Take You There?” ), who I wrote about when she played at the same stage in 2008, generating one of the best quotes I have ever heard on stage in my life: “Mississippi is a great place to come from, but it is even a better place to get away from” following a rendition of “Down in Mississippi,” a tune that reminded us of the pain so many went through during the Jim Crow era, which she helped – at least legally – get rid of.

 

Over at Celebrate Brooklyn things begin to get interesting with some soul that brings together Alice Smith, Bilal and Kris Bowers (June 10th) ,all fantastic artists in their own right. Bilal is one of my personal favorites of the three due to his ability to bridge between genres, often contributing with jazz, Latin and rock artists and sounding comfortable among all of them.

Another legend – one of the engineers of funk – is George Clinton, who will be playing with his longtime band Parliament Funkadelic on June 11th  as part of the Only in Queens Festival (associated with Summerstage). It should be a magical night at Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, and will certainly be worth the ride on the 7 train.

Fête de La Musique (June 26th)  brings some new French music to the foreground – my personal highlight is German-born Ayo, whose 2006 debut single “Down on My Knees” has stayed with me and has also become attached to memories of a 2014 trip to Europe, when the song played at a restaurant in Krakow  – whenever I hear the tune it takes me back to that unlikely place in my life. It is a song in which the narrator pleads for her lover not to go away and reminds him (her?) of the things they have shared.

My great appreciation for Robert Glasper (June 25, Central Park)  is not a secret – I have reviewed his albums and live performances over the years. His approach to jazz is quite unique as he blends elements of jazz and contemporary music (hip-hop, soul) with a political edge – he collaborates with folks you don’t usually associate with jazz, such as Erikah Badu and Bilal, to name a few – and is humble enough to go on the road as a supporting musician for Maxwell – one of the pioneers of the contemporary sould movement.

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Lila Downs

June closes with Lila Downs (Celebrate Brooklyn, June 29) , who is one of my top 10 favorite female singers. She is one of the few musicians I know who can tackle pretty much any genre while staying true to her Mexican roots. I have been following her music since I saw her at a downtown concert in which she shared the bill with Brazil’s Luciana Souza – I was immediately hooked by her expressive voice and stage presence. I must have seen her live at least ten times since and am surely looking forward for this one.

George Michael : An Appreciation

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By Ernest Barteldes

I never paid much attention to George Michael during his early Wham! days – of course “Careless Whisper” was impossible to avoid during the mid-80s, but his stuff was not what I was into in the first place – but I had newfound respect for him when I saw him literally steal the show when he fronted Queen during the Freddie Mercury Tribute concert in April 1992 – the way he owned “Somebody to Love” was amazing to see and hear – and his duet with Lisa Stansfield on “These Are The Days of Our Lives” was also heartfelt and sincere.

For the next few years didn’t follow George Michael’s career much except for the songs everyone heard on the radio, but in 1996 I got into a relationship with a woman who was a die-hard fan of his music and thanks to her I got to know the music behind the hits – the ones that were part of an album but that were not necessarily well-known – tunes like “Waiting For The Day” from Listen Without Prejudice or “You Have Been Loved” from Older, which show a different side of Michael’s work – honest tunes written from the heart that he might have known might not have any radio play at all.

I was also amused when he collaborated with bossa nova icon Astrud Gilberto for “Desafinado” – an Antonio Carlos Jobim song released in late 1996 for the charity album Red, Hot & Rio (which also featured contributions from David Byrne, Marisa Monte, Caetano Veloso and others) – it was interesting to hear him softly crooning in Portuguese – a complete shift from his more electronic/dance floor stuff.

I also enjoyed listening to Songs From The Last Century, his Phil Ramone album of jazz covers from – my favorites being his playful take on “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and the depression-era tune “Brother, Won’t You Spare a Dime.”

After I relocated to the US I kind of lost touch with his music. I barely noticed “Patience,” but did listen to “Concert,” his live album recorded with the backing of the London Symphony Orchestra. Though his popularity waned in the US following his arrest for “lewd behavior” in the US, he remained popular in Europe – I recall being in Poland in 2010 and catching a TV special of a performance in support of “Patience” – which included “Shoot The Dog,” an anti-George Bush song I which he performed with a blow-up doll of the former U.S. president – quite controversial at the time.

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/125719770″>GEORGE MICHAEL – Shoot the Dog</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user14102033″>MUSIC BOX CHANNEL</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

I was saddened to hear of his passing via my CNN iPhone app notifications. At first I thought it was some kind of false alarm – but as the hours passed I realized it had been true. George Michael’s death adds to what has arguably been one of the worst years for the music business – after so many other legends left us.