By Ernest Barteldes
by Ernest Barteldes
I am not a big fan of political autobiographies – I have never read Bill Clinton’s “My Life” or any of his wife’s books. The one time I did read one was when I happened to find late New York mayor Ed Koch’s “Citizen Koch” at a discount store and enjoyed reading it as an introduction to life in the city I’ve called home for the last 18 years (oh my, has it been that long?), but I have steered clear of them ever since because they are basically self-aggrandizing books about how well they did while they were in office or what they hope to achieve during the next election cycle. I have read a few but avoided them until I happened to come across former vice president Joe Biden’s “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose,” which is not a political book per se but a glimpse into a period of Biden’s life as he dealt with the burdens of his job while also having to face his son’s ultimately fatal disease.
Those who expect Biden to bring forth a backstage view of his time in the White House under Barack Obama will be disappointed. This is not at all a political memoir – sure, there are some comments about long career as a senator and his role as vice president, but we only see glimpses of those as we go along. Instead, it is an intimate look at a painful period of his family’s life as they fought a losing battle to brain cancer.
Of course this being a lifelong politician, the issues that he faced as he did his job are not completely absent: he talks about the situation in Ukraine and Putin’s blatant disregard to international law, the rise of ISIS and the spiritual and political journey that led him to decide not to run for president in 2016 even when everyone around him – except Obama and most of the DNC – encouraged him to do so, mostly because they saw that the middle class was looking for a “plain-speaking American” that could talk to their needs and not some regular “elitist” who would talk down to them.
Reading the part on the 2016 election with the hindsight of what we know today, one must realize it must have taken a lot of guts for Biden not to have jumped into the race back in 2016 – and what a thrill it might have been with him going on debates against Clinton and Bernie Sanders – and had he won the nomination, it would have been incredible so see him scream “malarkey” as he did when he faced off Paul Ryan during the 2012 VP debate.
Back to the story – Beau, who was an Iraq war veteran and a former attorney general, took the fight head on, and is described as someone extremely brave under pressure. At one point, doctors suggest an experimental treatment that could simply fail and shorten his life, and his reply is loud and clear: “It’s all good,” he says as every obstacle comes against him and every alternative fail. The family’s pain is palpable, and as you turn the pages you root for Beau even if, as someone who follows the news, knows that the outcome was not what anyone wanted. But Biden, ever the sensible populist, has a way with words, and as that final moment comes, the reader feels as if they’re in a cliffhanger moment in fiction – not something that actually happened.
“Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose” is a great read no matter where you stand in the political spectrum. There is not a single moment in which Biden attacks the other side, there isn’t even a personal analysis of the election’s eventual outcome. It’s just a great family story intertwined with moments of a man’s job – which in this case just happened to be the vice-presidency of the United States.
By Ernest Barteldes
Although the weather might be less than inviting in New York in January with record cold temperatures, snow and sleet, it is also the month when various important cultural events take place – one of them being the World Music smorgasbord known as GlobalFest, which this year takes place at B.B. King’s Blues Club and its adjacent bar Lucille’s Grill and Liberty Theater across the street.
For those who have never been to the event, GlobalFest is a six-hour long event that brings together several artists from around the globe who showcase their music to an audience made up of music journalists, label scouts and curious fans willing to know “what’s next” in the scene.
Few of the artists on the list are necessarily household names Stateside – in fact, I had only heard about one of them, New York-based Mariachi Flor de Toloache, who I heard at Celebrate Brooklyn as co-headliners with LAMC in 2013 and as special guests with Mexican-American singer Lila Downs in 2016.
That, however, is the entire point of the festival – to introduce these musicians to U.S. audiences and specially bookers in search of acts to perform in their own festivals and venues. Over the years, I recall hearing then lesser known artists such as Lenine (then already a star in his native Brazil), Cambodian retro pop outfit Dengue Fever, Cape Verdean singer Sara Tavares and yes, a then up-and-coming Lila Downs, who graced the stage (then at Webster Hall) back in 2007.
Sure, there were many others who came and went without making much noise in spite of good performances, but this is a golden opportunity not only for artists to be discovered but also for many of us music fans to get to know artists that we would not otherwise be exposed to, especially when many of us fail to diversify our listening habits more and more as we stream music that we are comfortable with.
Theater review: “INTRO” by Dada von Bzdülöw
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.
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.
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.
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.”
By Ernest Barteldes
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).
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.
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.
By Ernest Barteldes
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.
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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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.
By Ernest Barteldes
Youssou N’ Dour/ Yacouba Sissoko
BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn Festival
August 12, 2017
West African music was the focus of the final night for the 2017 season of BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn, and audiences were toasted with two great performances, starting with New York-based Malian kora master Yacouba Sissoko, who came accompanied by a simple trio with the N’goni (a guitar-like instrument) and the djembe.
The trio played a selection of songs that were very mournful and peaceful with lyrics (sung in his native language) that carried messages of empowerment while also touching on political issues – including the civil war taking place in Sissoko’s native Mali at the time of this writing. All the musicians on the trio were very proficient, often taking long improvised solos on each tune.
At one point, the bandleader upped the tempo for one of the songs and encouraged the audience to get up and dance, claiming that New Yorkers were ‘the best dancers in this nation.” The number featured the percussionist, who played with great energy, motivating the audience to move.
The set closed with “All Things Must Come to an End,” a slower tempo melody that featured improvised moments from all three musicians.
Following a short break, Senegal’s Youssou N’ Dour took to the stage with a 20-piece backing band (guitars, keys, percussion, 2 backing vocalists, bass and saxophone). Taking the lead from the late James Brown, he had one of the percussionists MC the concert, constantly calling out the bandleader’s name.
I have rarely seen the degree of enthusiasm that I witnessed at this concert – as I walked from the press seats towards the photo pit, I encountered a mass of fans, all with big smiles on their faces moving enthusiastically and singing along to every song. The music was highly energetic, and the 57-year-old N’Dour moved like a teenager, dancing and jumping to the rhythm of the music.
He had a band filled with master players who had great chemistry together – the quality of the sound was perfect, and we could hear every instrument and vocal with great clarity. During some numbers, a male dancer joined the band and did traditional moves inspired by the percussion and the direction of the music.
Towards the end of the set, most of the band left the stage and N’Dour performed a tune dedicated to his native continent – it was a sweet melody accompanied solely by keyboards and drums. He then briefly left the stage for a false finale, and then the full band returned for an extended encore that included an up-tempo multilingual song (French, English and other languages) and a handful of dance-oriented numbers. As the show came to an end, each musician left the stage one by one until N’Dour found himself alone on stage thanked the audience and then the lights came on.
It was a great closing for what turned out to be one of the best seasons at Celebrate Brooklyn – it’s just a shame they have to end so soon – but we still have quite a few shows at Summerstage in the next couple of weeks.