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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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.

The TV Networks Fear Conservative Backlash? Maybe.

By Ernest Barteldes

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I know this might be old news to some, but something in the televised media has been bothering me for a while, and it reached a boiling point when I heard a new show I discovered on Amazon Prime called “Good Girls Revolt” had been unceremoniously cancelled a month after its premiere – and more suspiciously following the 2016 presidential election – after only one season in spite of positive response by audiences and critics alike.

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For those who are unaware of it, the series is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Lynn Povich that chronicled the 1970 sex-discrimination lawsuit brought by female researchers against Newsweek magazine because the publication’s editors policy of not allowing women get promoted to reporters or editors.

I discovered the series at random as I browsed content on my Amazon Video library (Renata and I recently installed a Fire Stick onto our TV) one day. I watched one episode and was hooked – the storyline is complex and so are the characters – the pilot episode introduces the characters in a busy newsroom at the New York headquarters of the fictional “News of The Week” (I guess they couldn’t license “Newsweek”) in late 1969. On that first episode a new researcher is hired – a young Norah Ephron (Grace Gummer) and quickly breaks the office rules by rewriting a reporter’s copy. After being scolded by one of the editors (Jim Belushi), she abruptly quits and sparks a revolt among the other ‘girls’ in the office, who decide to do something about it.

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As I watched the show I tried to learn more about it and was crushed to see that Amazon had let the show go and that no other network (streaming or otherwise) had picked it up. A piece on the Hollywood Reporter quoted co-star Genevieve Angelson’s tweet about it, which pointed at the election results as one of the causes for the show being pulled: “@Amazon dunno what to tell women, scared of their own president, who ask why you canceled a hit feminist show 30 days in.”

Her reaction got me thinking of another recent situation – in October 2016, NBC pulled an unaired Law & Order SVU episode based on the presidential election in which a Trump-inspired character is accused of sexually assaulting a woman. The episode was scheduled to run the day after the election but it following the upset on November 7th, the episode was pushed and still hasn’t been aired.

NBC might have reasons to fear backlash from the White House – after all, Trump is still credited as executive producer on “Celebrity Apprentice,” and during the campaign he made multiple appearances on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon (including a much-derided episode in which the host was a bit too friendly with the then-Republican nominee), but this is no reason not to run an episode of a show whose stories are, after all, “ripped from the headlines.”

But what would Amazon have to fear? Did they fear their conservative subscribers (who praised a piece of shit, thinly-veiled conservative documentary called “Silenced” in which

Jon Batiste & Stay Human at Celebrate Brooklyn

Article and photos by Ernest Barteldes

 

Jon Batiste & Stay Human

Celebrate Brooklyn

Prospect Park Bandshell

Friday, July 22nd 2016

 

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Jon Baptiste

After two opening acts that included a brilliant saxophone trio formed by three very young musicians aged from 12 to 16 years of age, bandleader and evening curator Jon Batiste took to the stage on the melodica backed by an 8-piece band of multi-instrumentalists, kicking off the show with a marching band-style take on  the Christmas standard “My Favorite Things”  that was blended with  “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” He then went to the piano for an instrumental version of blues standard “St. James’ Infirmary” where he showcased his dexterity on the piano.

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Jon Baptiste

Stay Human have great chemistry together, responding to the bandleader’s grooves with expertise, even when he went off with some improvised moment – I guess that tightness comes from performing on a nightly basis on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert on CBS (I compare with the last time I saw the band at The Charlie Parker Jazz Festival two or three years ago).

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Young Sax Trio

Batiste is open to many genres – at one moment, he is playing a boogie take on the “Star Spangled Banner” and the next going into a full rock mode and then drifting into a personal take on “Pour Elise,” which featured a bass solo. The set included covers of The Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” with the bassline played on the tuba, which preceded included a tuba battle and a full French Quarter-style marching band tune in which the ensemble walked into the audience.

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Stay Human

It was a great opportunity to see Batiste outside of the constraints of a TV studio setting, where he stretched the music and improvised freely – I heard some folks in the audience hoping Colbert would make an appearance (considering his recent vocal performances) but that did not happen – instead, the audience was taken to an amazing musical journey under the direction of an amazingly talented bandleader who we all hope to hear again – on stage – soon.

Krar Collective + Hakim at Celebrate Brooklyn

 

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Krar Collective

Article and photos by Ernest Barteldes

 

Krar Collective + Hakim

Celebrate Brooklyn

Prospect Park Bandshell

Brooklyn, NY

July 15, 2016

On what turned out to be a very warm night in Brooklyn, things kicked off with the England-based Ethyopian trio named after the harp-like instrument played by  bandleader Temesken Zeleke (the trio is rounded out by drummer Grum Begashaw and vocalist Genet Assefa)  playing a selection of uptempo tunes that showcased the band’s talent and also Zeleke’s skills They kept everything very uptempo except for a short period in which the bandleader switched to a more traditional acoustic version of the instrument.

Assefa has great energy and chemistry with the band and audience, dancing and singing the music with great feeling, being the ideal frontwoman for a trio with two musicians who are extremely focused on their instruments.  During the more uptempo moments, she led the crowd to clap and sing along with the chorus even if most couldn’t understand a word.

Though Krar Kollective’s music is deeply rooted into tradition, they clearly have strong pop influences – Tamesken uses a variety of pedals to create a full band effect with an intensely improvisational sound, while Begashaw’s drumming  has a strong, Ringo-like rock vibe.

There was a strong NYPD presence at the show – I spoke to one officer, who told me that they were there following the recent military coup attempt in Turkey  – He said that they didn’t expect any issues, but stated that city officials would rather be safe than sorry. I smiled when he said that, and he thanked me for understanding, considering the anti-cop attitude that has dominated the media in recent times. I shook his hand and went back to hearing the music – there was some great music to be heard.

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Hakim

After a brief intermission, Egypt’s Hakim came on backed by a 12-piece band that included two keyboardists, a  three-piece horn section, several percussionists and electric guitar and bass.

Hakim’s very tight band  kicked things off with a funky instrumental piece that preceded the singer’s entrance.  As he entered to thunderous applause wearing a t-shirt with the inscription “Visit Egypt” , the singer immediately engaged with the crowd, greeting them in Arabic and getting to the hits, which most of his fans sang along to.

I had never heard Hakim on a live setting before, and was impressed with his command of the stage. He seemed to look straight into the eyes of audience members and was friendly with the photographers on the pit, stopping to pose for them as he belted out the music.

The band was well rehearsed, but they allowed various spontaneous moments  – one of the guitarists played an extended solo, and an accordionist had many opportunities to  throw in a few improvised riffs.

 

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Hakin does his thing

I was a little disappointed that Hakim didn’t even bother to greet non-Arabic speaking fans in English, but you could see he was inside his comfort zone, with many of his compatriots waving Egyptian flags as they lost themselves into the music.

He kept the energy level up during the entire set, and mostly stayed away from ballads except for one moment when he went into a more traditional direction with a 7/8 tempo tune. Apart from that it was party time as the singer got almost entire crowd to their feet to dance.

It was a very nice evening  – the energy was great and the music was highly inspiring, and it made for a fantastic musical discovery.

Concert Review: Laura Cheadle Band at Pianos

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Laura Cheadle Family Band

Pianos

Saturday, March 5th

New York, NY

 

Backed by James “Papa” Cheadle on keyboards, a Tina Young on drums and her own electric guitar, South Jersey-born Laura Cheadle took to the stage of New York’s Pianos opening with B.B. King’s 1980 hit “The Thrill Is Gone,” played in a faster groove than the original recording, showcasing her vocal range and rhythm guitar. Given the intimate setting, she ventured into the audience, encouraging everyone to dance along with her. She followed that with a very personal take on The Beatles’ “Come Together”, taking it into a more bluesy direction, contrasting with Lennon’s more psychedelic feel. Her mother was present at the gig, so she dedicated an inspired rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Love The Little Things About You” to her.

She then featured a few originals including a funk-laden tune about the end of a love affair, and also debuted a new tune called “Blues Hangs Out,” which got great applause from the audience, and then did a nice cover of James Brown’s “I Feel Good,” sticking close to the original. This was the first time I had heard Cheadle do so many covers in a single set. She also included a take on the classic soul tune “Train, Train,” a song that she said her parents – who recently celebrated their anniversary – danced to early in their relationship.

The stripped-down format (no lead guitar or extra keyboards, usually handled by her two brothers) specially showcased “Papa” Cheadle’s talents. He not only handles the keyboards, but also adds the bass textures to the music. He is an incredibly talented artist, but I do think that he would sound even better if Laura Cheadle added a bass player to her ensemble. Quite a few years ago she did have a bassist, but apparently things didn’t work out, and since Mr. Cheadle does handle the low frequencies on his keys (as The Doors did) I guess they probably decided that it was best to keep things that way.

Laura Cheadle is a highly gifted singer and songwriter with fantastic rapport with the audience. She is one of the few artists I have seen who integrates her family into the entire picture, acknowledging not only her father and musical director but all of those who have helped make who she has become.

Concert Review: Brasil Guitar Duo at Americas Society

 

 

 

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By Ernest Barteldes

 

Brasil Guitar Duo

Americas  Society

February 19, 2016

New York, NY

 

 

Playing before a filed room in New York’s  Americas Society, The Brasil Guitar Duo formed by João Luiz and Douglas Lora kicked off their CD release event with Astor Piazzola’s “Zita,” a complex tango that the duo arranged for two guitars and set the tone for the rest of the evening. The duo played with zero amplification (there were two overhead microphones, but I believe those were for recording the set), but the acoustics of the room made it possible for them to be heard no matter where you were seated. They continued with Jean-Phillipe Rameau’s “Les Cyclops,” a tune that showcased their soloing and chord techniques.

They followed with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s “Prelude and The Fugue no. 7,” a very interesting Bach-inspired composition filled with 1/16 notes and changing tempos. They followed that with a selection of tunes by Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti, beginning with “A Fala da Paixão,” a mellow ballad in which Luiz played solos filled with octaves, and followed with “Sete Anéis,” a tune with a strong rural Brazilian feel and a quirky middle section with harmonics and extraneous sounds.

After a brief intermission, they played Leo Brouwer’s “Sonata de Los Viajeros,” a track from their CD dedicated to the works of the Cuban composer, which was released that evening. The composition is divided into four distinctive movements, beginning with “Primer Viaje a Tierras Heladas,” which started with a tranquil mood and then became agitated, as to represent the travelers’ journey from the Caribbean Sea to the North Atlantic. “La Venus de Praxiteles” had more of a contemplative feel, while “Visita a Bach en Leipzig” had more of a classical feel. The piece ended with “Por El Mar de Las Antillas,” which had a traditional Cuban feel.

The concert ended with Marco Pereira’s “Bate-Coxa,” an up-tempo “Coco,” a popular northeastern Brazilian beat. It was a nice closing to the concert, since it got out of the seriousness of Brouwer’s composition, taking the music to a more playful feel.

The concert was hosted by WQXR’s Terrance McKnight, who talked with the musicians between songs, tracing their musical influences and their beginnings and also their working relationship and their musical choices. They also talked about their beginnings in Brazil and the guitar teacher who first had them play together when they were younger.