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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Ernest’s Annual Christmas Music Roundup: Putumayo’s “Latin Christmas” and Bibi Ferreira’s “Natal em Familia”

By Ernest Barteldes

This is of course the time of year when you cannot walk into a store anywhere in the nation without hearing the familiar chimes of sleigh bells and the cheerful melodies of tunes like “The Christmas Song,” “O Holy Night,” “Winter Wonderland” (which I think does not qualify as a Christmas song in the first place)” to questionable hits like “Please Daddy Don’t Get Drunk” or “Last Christmas.”

It is also the time when everyone from Celine Dion to Ann-Margret attempt to give their own take on the music of the season – and it’s not only about artists desperate for the spotlight but many who don’t actually need it: for instance, all four Beatles released Christmas music during their solo careers (the worst being Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” and the best John’s “Merry Xmas – War Is Over”), and Queen did a Christmas single at the height of their fame (the dreadful “Thank God It’s Christmas”).

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As someone who writes about music, I am usually inundated with new Holiday-themed albums starting from as early as July (one year I got one before Memorial Day) but things were slower this time around – I guess the gods of music realized that my time has been a bit limited for this stuff, and from the ones I did get, here are two that I do highly recommend.

The first one is Putumayo Presents Latin Christmas, a highly enjoyable album because it doesn’t really sound like a Christmas album in the first place: it opens with a bossa version of “Joy to The World” performed by Arizona-based cover band Nossa Bossa Nova, a group that has adapted everything from the Rolling Stones to Bob Marley into bossas – some with pretty good results. My favorites, however, were the tunes that went completely outside the box. Poncho Sanchez offers a swinging n Afro-Cuban take on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” that gets you immediately moving, while UK-based Dave Stephens offers a bolero-inflected instrumental take on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”

Also notable are “El Año Viejo,” a cumbia celebrating the birth of the new year and also Susie Antoli’s s “La Peregrinacion,” a gentle Argentinean ballad that narrates the biblical story in which Mary and Joseph tried to find a place to sleep at the end of their journey to Bethlehem.

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Bibi Ferreira is one of Brazil’s greatest living legends – at 94 years of age as of this writing, she is actively performing throughout the Americas and Europe while still finding time to go into the studio to record new music.

Natal em Familia” (originally released in Brazil in 2012) brings together many traditional mostly performed as duets. The album kicks off with “Sinos de Belém” (Jingle Bells) done in an American Gospel/jazz style featuring samba singer Alcione and plenty of improvised instrumental solos from her touring band. Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Estrada do Sol” is a bit unexpected for this album but it ultimately makes sense since the lyrics speak of hope for better days to come. “Um Novo Tempo” is a Marcos Valle/Paulo Sergio Valle/Nelson Motta composition that was for many years used as Globo TV’s Holiday theme, but here it receives a more serious treatment as a more devotional feel featuring the voices of Ferreira, Joyce Candido, Ana Cristina and Mayra Freitas.

There are a few throwaways – it’s hard to understand why anyone thought having Ferreira and former kiddie show host Xuxa Meneghel duet on “Vem Que Vai Chegando o Natal” (Santa Claus is Coming to Town) would be a good idea, and it’s pretty cringe-worthy even if it has a nice swinging jazz backbeat. Also the late Emilio Santiago;s vocal chops are under-used in the beautiful ballad “Feliz Natal” – he had such a great range but here is reduced to singing in unison with Ferreira.

Other notable tracks are Schubert’s “Oh Noite Santa” (Oh Holy Night) performed by opera singer Max Wilson and of course the beautiful duet that Ferreira and pop singer Ronnie Von do on Schubert’s Ave Maria – gives you goose bumps even after repeated hearings.

Music Preview: Bibi Ferreira at Symphony Space, New York City

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By Ernest Barteldes

Bibi Ferreira

Tuesday, Sept. 20 & 23

Symphony Space

8 PM

I have known about the legendary Brazilian diva Bibi Ferreira for a very long time – she has a long history as a singer, producer, actress and director going from the 1940s to present. She is still active in spite of being 94 years young – and gives no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

I did two interviews with her for The Brasilians over the past few years and was surprised not only by how articulate she was on the phone and also by her fantastic memory – she can remember details of shows she did generations ago as if she had walked out of stage five minutes ago. I was even more amazed to hear her live at Alice Tully Hall – hard to believe is was her New York debut – and heard her sing an array of hard tunes ranging from Verdi to Chico Buarque and Piaf – as if they were nothing.

And then there was Liza Minelli’s hilarious surprise appearance, when they shared the mike for a snippet of “Theme from New York, New York” – a tune made famous by Frank Sinatra but actually introduced by Minelli (go ahead, Google it) in 1972.

On her current show Four Times Bibi, she pays tribute to fado queen Amalia Rodrigues, Piaf, tango legend Carlos Gardel and none other than our own Frank Sinatra – an evening that will bring together various genres together in what promises to be nothing short of amazing – a show that is not to be missed.

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.

Music Preview: What to Hear in June: SummerStage & Celebrate Brooklyn

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McCoy Tyner

By Ernest Barteldes

 

I love listening to music in clubs or arenas, but nothing really compares to heading outside during the summer to enjoy concerts in the outdoors.  Sure, it’s sometimes sticky and horribly crowded, but on the bright side many of the concerts happen to be free or at a very low cost (Celebrate Brooklyn has a long-standing policy of a $3 donation), so it is a great opportunity to get to know artists that you might not have the opportunity to know about otherwise.

Over the years, I have discovered many new artists from all kinds of backgrounds – the first time I heard Colombia’s Aterciopelados, Mali’s Amadou & Mariam and Puerto Rico’s Calle 13 was either at Central Park SummerStage or at Celebrate Brooklyn. I really cannot tell you how many times I have attended shows at both venues, but many were amazing experiences (sure, there were a few duds too, but let’s forget about those for now) that I will not forget anytime soon.

I was going to write a single preview for the entire calendar for this season. However, I found that to be a daunting task, so I decided instead to pick some favorites for the month of June and give readers of this blog a better preview for every month until the concerts come to an end in August-September. The picks below are based on my own preferences and not by what someone might have told me, and I also avoided paid benefit concerts, so you will not find any listings for those shows even though they might be quite interesting.

Things kick off in an extremely interesting way with a salute to legendary jazz pianist McCoy Tyner – who I heard live for the first time at Central Park SummerStage, the same venue that is paying tribute to him this year on June 4th.  And what a band does he have behind him, all gods of music in their own right –  Ron Carter (bass), Wallace Roney (trumpet) and Roy Haynes (drums).  You could not ask for anything better, really – it is like dying and going to jazz heaven for one evening.

Celebrate Brooklyn is not too shabby either – their season opens with none other than Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings (June 8), who is known for her energetic performance style and overall great voice.  Like many African-American singers of her generation, she started out singing in church in Brooklyn and then gravitated to funk and soul in the 1970s, doing lots of backing session work. She was a late bloomer, and not until the late 1990s did she get her real break – and the rest, as they say, is history.

I have always thought that Yiddish music has not gotten enough attention – especially its more modern incarnations that have incorporated jazz tendencies and garnered more mainstream attention. A chance to catch this new wave of Yiddish music (the first time I heard these new direction was in a documentary about young Jews in Poland a few years back) will happen on June 15, when several stars come together for a mini-festival called Yiddish Soul: A Concert of Cantorial and Chassidic Superstars.

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Baaba Maal

Among the most influential Senegalese musicians around is Baaba Maal, a singer and guitarist who blends various musical influences (Celebrate Brooklyn, June 16). He sings in the unique Pulaar language, blending styles that go from more traditional rhythms to more popular sounds – including salsa. He will be sharing the spotlight with Lakou Mizik, a band formed following the devastating 2010 earthquake in their native Haiti.

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Angie Stone

Angie Stone (SummerStage at Betsy Head Park, June 22) got her first big break as part of the all-female outfit Sequence, when her voice led the hit 1979 “Funk You Up” (not to be confused with the recent hit “Uptown Funk,” which actually seems to borrow a lot from that old track), but it was not until the 90s when she established herself as a bona-fide solo act as one of the leading voices of the so-called “neo-soul” movement (a term many musicians have recently been avoiding). She recently released a new album entitled Dream (Shanachie Entertainment/Conjunction Entertainment/TopNotch Music), which takes her music into a whole new direction.

For fans of Afro-Latin beats, be sure to catch Ricardo Lemvo & Makina Loka (Celebrate Brooklyn, June 24), a Congolese musician of Angolan roots. I recall hearing one of their earlier albums and was impressed by their sound – they include songs inspired by the Caribbean and also Brazil – once I had to check if I was still listening to the same disc, because they go into so many different directions that it can be a bit overwhelming – but thoroughly satisfying to the ear.

Come back to these pages for reviews of some of these concerts and also previews of what’s to come in the coming months – it should be a very, very interesting season indeed.

 

 

 

 

Single Review: Karar by Duke Guillaume

By Ernest Barteldes

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    “Karar” by Duke Guillaume

For those familiar with saxophonist and bandleader Duke Guillaume’s devotional work both as a solo artist and with The Metropolitan Big Band, this single is quite a departure. “Karar” seems to draw inspiration from the sonic mix more closely identified with South Florida, blending electronics with classic jazz and Latin-esque sensibilities (which probably explains the cover, which pictures the musician embracing the sun and the beach), tending to follow more a dance vibe than trying to sound too improvisational

While the main melody keeps on a straight dance beat, things get quite interesting in the chorus, where a Latin samba-reggae mood kicks in, taking you away from Florida and more into the streets of Bahia, where the Afro-inspired drums play as the crowds follow them through the narrow streets of the Historical District every Tuesday night. I also felt a bit of Puerto Rico’s reggaeton into the mix – a beat that has yet to be explored by jazz musicians.

You can check out the track below:

 

Concert Review: Trio da Paz Featuring Joyce Moreno and Dori Caymmi at Birdland

 

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By Ernest Barteldes

Trio da Paz

Featuring Joyce Moreno and Dory Caymmi

Birdland

February 25, 2016

New York, NY

 

 

Trio da Paz – the legendary Brazilian jazz trio formed by Duduka Da Fonseca, Nilson Matta and Romero Lubambo – celebrated the release of their 30th Anniversary CD with a residence at New York’s Birdland Jazz Club with special guests Joyce Moreno and Dory Caymmi – the first time all five artists collaborated on a live setting.

The trio started out with “Saudade da Bahia,” a tune by the late Dorival Caymmi with an arrangement built around Lubambo’s lead guitar and improvisations. It was a clear demonstration of their great chemistry, as they responded to the guitarist’s accents with barely a look at each other.  Moreno joined them and paid homage to what she called “their predecessors” with a very personal rendition of “Chega de Saudade”, beginning accompanied by her own guitar and joined by the band after a few measures. She included a few snippets of “Aquarela do Brasil” to the tune as Lubambo riffed around the melody.  She followed by her own “Essa Mulher,” a tune Lubambo mentioned he’d personally selected for the set, including an accomplished bass solo by Matta.   Dori Caymmi joined the group and sang his “Joazinho Boa Pinta” a humorous tune about a good-looking rascal of sorts. The trio left the stage as Caymmi and Moreno played a beautiful duet on Jobim’s “Dindi” with Caymmi on guitar. They followed that with Caetano Veloso’s “Sampa,” a song written as a tribute of Brazil’s largest city.

I like to say that Trio da Paz are “the Rolling Stones” of Brazilian jazz because they have great individual moments as bandleaders in their own right, but there is clearly some magic when they perform and record together.  This perception is renewed every time I hear them live – in spite of all these years, they are symbiotic and work together in a manner  rarely seen with ensembles where the focus is on individuality. This was clear at Birdland, when they took on originals tunes and classics like “Voce Foe a Bahia,” a playful melody on the uniqueness of Caymmi’s native state.

It was a great experience to hear Trio da Paz with their guests – I just wish the set I heard had included Da Fonseca’s “Flying Over Rio” – but I am sure there will be other chances for that soon enough.