Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Rock N Roll for little black girls...

I wish there had been a Girls Rock camp when I was a kid. I was at a conference recently where a female artist on a panel asked why more women and girls weren't involved in technology. Artist/writer/scholar Mendi Obadike, also a panelist along with her husband and artistic collaborator Keith, responded that girls need not just access to technology, but also the opportunity to play with it.

The question of play is really central to all sorts of learning. I often find that women and girl's opportunities to learn something within a so-called "non-traditional field" come with prior restrictions, such as prohibitions against failing or asking "silly questions" because both are deemed a poor reflection on the rest of the gender. Be a non-white girl and deal with another collection of weights concerning projected expectations and representations.

Another restriction is time. Even if there are opportunities to learn in more supportive environments, or all-female ones, sometimes those come so far and few in-between that the learning is a quite serious undertaking. No fun and games for those involved, 'we're here to work, baby.' Because this chance may never come again.

Of course there's also the question of socialization. What girl hasn't tried to get through a circle of boys crowded around some gadget or toy, or a demo of the same. It makes me think of the documentary Scratch (2001) where you see numerous images and hear reminiscences of boys (now men) in bedrooms and basements working out their turntable technique among a group of their peers both challenging and cheering them on. It is rare that there are any women present or remembered in these groups, not even girlfriends. Looking at the cast listing under the documentary credits evidences a list solely comprised of males (e.g. "Afrika Bambaataa [as]... Himself"). Girls often need permission to play with these tools of technology, to just go in and mess around and fuck up, flail, fail, learn from the mistakes, destroy a speaker cone and then learn how to replace/rebuild it.

So I posted these clips below from the upcoming documentary (forthcoming in 2008) about the popular Rock 'N' Roll Camp for Girls started in Portland, Oregon in 2000. There are now girls rock camps in New York, Tennessee's Southern Girls Rock & Roll Camp, now in its fourth year, as well as Peterborough, Ontario's one year old Rock Camp for Girls in Canada. The Portland and NYC camps also offer a Ladies Rock Camp, for grown women (18/19 years old and up). New York's Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, founded in 2004, is named after Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thorton who re-wrote music history with "Hound Dog," though the Elvis version is better known. In 2005 the New York camp had a number of African American girls in attendance. 2006 had fewer documenting images and what's there looks rather more monochromatic (read: white). The above photo (Eboni.jpg) from the New York website was so beautiful I had to put it up here. The below YouTube clips are rather monochromatic as well, except for the prominently featured Asian American participant.

I hope someone is also teaching these girls and women about auditory health. I remember setting levels for a 20-something woman guitarist who kept wanting a more distorted and high, screechy frequency because she couldn't hear how bad it sounded; the upper range of her hearing was already shot.

Nevertheless, I still love the beginning of the first clip (Girls Rock! Trailer) when one little girl half-intones "are you ready to rock?" Her equally young bandmate calmly looks at her and says, "OK." This decorous seeming bandmate, rhubarb-pie innocent, and pencil and paper in hand, smoothly steps to the mic, brings it around to face her, and then screams into it at the top of her lungs, "ARE YOU READY TO ROCK???!!!" so intensely that the startled original singer suddenly moves out of the camera's frame. Really, what's not to love about that?

So of course I want that experience for every little black, latina, pacific islander, native american, middle eastern, asian american girl who needs to rock. Or who needs permission to play, and break something, and learn it's not the end of the world; it's just the beginning.

Girls Rock! www.girlsrockmovie.com

Girls Rock! Trailer

Friday, May 18, 2007

Happy B-Day Erik Satie + The Betty Mabry Davis Reissues

Happy Birthday (May 17) to "The Velvet Gentleman"

How could I forget the birthday of one of my favorite composers, the playfully iconoclastic Erik Satie? His 1917 ballet Parade, a collaboration with Picasso, used ambient sounds such as pistol shots, and typewriters. His Gymnopédies No. 1, 2, & 3 (circa 1887), have been used in contemporary times to sell all matter of consumer goods, nevertheless he was a anti-romantic radical during the Romantic period (approx. 1815-1910) of the Common Practice Period of classical music, and was an important influence on John Cage, Malcolm McLauren, Claude Debussy, and DJ Spooky, as well as a few contemporary punk and noise groups.

From [::ErnestHardy | Blood Beats Vol. 1::] comes the news that Seattle-based indie label Light in The Attic Records and Productions will be reissuing Betty (Mabry) Davis' first two albums, the eponymous Betty Davis (1973) and They Say I'm Different (1974). Yes, I'm a freak for dirty(as in fat bass & "dirty rice" guitars)-rock-funk and I'll be snatching these two titles up tout de suite, no lie. Davis (who went from Mabry to Davis with a short-lived marriage to Miles Davis) was notoriously independent and wrote and arranged most of her own music as well as writing for other groups such as the Commodores. According to Jeff Chang's interview with Davis for a recent SFGate article, she also walked away from a Motown contract when they wouldn't allow her to keep her publishing rights. Davis' image, music, and vocal stylings were self-possessed, and self-consciously sexual which could alternately seduce and frighten, or as one fan said of her music, "It terrified me and turned me on at the same time." After a finding a better home with Chris Blackwell's Island Records and releasing Nasty Gal (1975; the first album of hers I ever heard), but still not finding an audience--Davis was seriously ahead of her time--she dropped out of the music business and pretty much disappeared. Check out the Davis cuts "Anti-Love Song" and "He Was A Big Freak."

Previously I likened Davis to a "sexual tigress," but felt the need to edit that after thinking about Vivien Goldman's chapter on Betty Davis, "Blues for Betty Davis: The Betty Davis Lacuna," in rock writer Kandia Crazy Horse's edited volume, Rip It Up: The Black Experience in Rock N Roll. Goldman notes the way in which Davis was independent but also positioned in a similar animalistic guise as Ike Turner tapped into when he remade Anna Mae Bullock into Tina Turner based on a jungle woman character. As I recall Goldman makes parallels to photographer Jean-Paul Goude's assemblage of Grace Jones and an episode where Jones fled down a flight of stairs tearily protesting that Goude just wanted to make her into an animal. With the sub-human, sexualized rendering of African American women such a prominent representation in the U.S., which thanks to globalization has gone international, it's hard not to be ambivalent about Davis' performance persona. At the same time I have great appreciation for her unapologetic expression and her artistic integrity--she was ahead of her time and unwilling to compromise her either her sound or her ownership rights. Since disappearing from the recording industry Davis has become something of a recluse; she's been difficult to trace and gives few interviews. She seems to have become a different more soft-spoken person. I do wonder what she feels about her former self, does she still think of herself as an artist, what is her relationship to music, does she still hum parts in her head as she did when a child?

Language of the private and public

Recently I was thinking about how language can operate as a private act, and limit what and when we share with others. This occurred to me when I was working on a bilingual project about family. It reminded me of when I read Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory:The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1981) and realized that Spanish was the language of his family and culture-based closeted homosexuality, and English was the language of his mainstream public (read:white) engagement. This book was controversial due to Rodriguez's stance against bilingual education and the adoption of this memoir by conservatives in their battle for English-only education. However, in subsequent years Rodriguez's articulated relationship to bilingual education became more complex.

Then I read "A Twice Named Family" by Traci Dant, which was reprinted on Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac on American Public Media. It made me imagine African Americans of prior generations winding their history through English articulations, the legacy of that first generation of English-as-a-Second-Language abductees reformulating this forcibly adopted language, enabling it to carry love, history, dignity, and intimacy. No surprise that Dant is a Cave Canem fellow, now is it? Oh yes, and it's quite something to hear Keillor read this with his Minnesotan accent, occasionally he does attempt a little southern twang. Because he has obvious respect for the poem it feels a little like something out of Camille Billops and James Hatch's The KKK Boutique Ain't Just Rednecks--you might have to see this experimental documentary to fully get my point, and if you haven't you ought to, it's a humorous, incisive, and unsettling work.

"A Twice Named Family" by Traci Dant.

A Twice Named Family

I come
from a family
that twice names

its own.
One name
for the world.

One name
for home.
Lydi, Joely, Door,

Bud, Bobby, Bea,
Puddin, Cluster, Lindy,
Money, Duddy, Vess.

we are
a two-named family

cause somebody
way back knew
you needed a name

to cook chitlins in.
A name
to put your feet up in.

A name
that couldn't be

A name
that couldn't be
denied a loan.

A name
that couldn't be

to go
through anyone's
back door.

Somebody way back
knew we needed names
to be loved in.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Underground Love Train/Finding your "goodness"

It's mid-May, and Spring has gone by so fast. As I was working hard on a final project I took a break and gained some inspiration from Toshi Reagon. Artist/musician Hanifah Walidah was inspired by Reagon, and assembled this video, "The Underground Love Train," and posted it on YouTube. Reagon was playing at Joe's Pub in NYC with Big Lovely and interrupted a song to address the crowd. I'd seen her do this before at a benefit show for music advocate/writer Tom Terrell when the crowd was not reflecting back the energy the performers were putting out.

So here again Reagon gives an artistic sermon on the mount to the crowd of 200, 100 of whom were apparently listless or detached. She put down her guitar, stood up, and basically said, "hey y'all, you've gotten dressed up and paid your money, so why aren't you showing up for the experience?" Some of us were raised on the mythology of the artist who wakes an apathetic crowd from the dead by the sheer power of their presence, spirit, and ability. OK, but James Brown comes along how many times in a generation? And even J.B. needed an electrolyte transfusion after every show.

Check out Reagon talking about finding your "goodness":

"The thing that's so extraordinary about Harriet Tubman, why she's one of my favorite people, This is why I get my fun from her, is that She was free and she could have stayed where she was. She could have said, 'that was enough. I took a few and I'm finished. ' But it wasn't enough; she went back people! Once you find the goodness, you are not supposed to have it one time. You are supposed to go back to it again, and again, and again, and again, and again."