Sunday, November 11, 2007

Chicago Mayor Harold Lee Washington Remembered...

From musician/composer Matana Roberts' blog Shadows of a People, Chicago memories and a link to Chicago Public Radio's This American Life's remembrance of Harold Lee Washington in honor of the upcoming 20th anniversary of his death on November 25. Washington died a few months into his second term. He was noted for having been the first black mayor of Chicago, and having enacted a number of reforms in the notoriously racially polarized and old-boy political machine of Chicago politics.

There are some amazing moments in this audio documentary, including various recollections of associates and adversaries. Also included are excerpts from Chicago comedian Aaron Freeman's regular chronicles of the "Council Wars" based on the Star Wars trilogy. Washington was figured as "Luke Skytalker," because of his rich vocabulary of numerous four-syllable words that often dumbfounded opponents and reporters alike, much to the glee of his African American supporters.

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Performa '07 Report I: Part I: Isaac Julien & Russell Maliphant's Cast No Shadow BAMTalk

Is Mercury in retrograde or what? Today on my way to Brooklyn I overheard mid-way moments in various conversations about personal relationships or communication dynamics, e.g. "well, that's because you're not open, you're afraid," and "No, that's what you heard, that's not what I said" and these were folks of African descent caught in moments the popular press usually reserves for a Woody Allen film, or maybe Edward Burns on a good day. One was a young, tall, suited gentleman on a cell phone in Penn Station, and the other the female half of a straight, seemingly middle-class, couple gesturing towards their late model mid-sized sedan near Lafayette Avenue (they may have been talking about the car, but the intonation implied something a bit deeper).


I'm tempted to link those moments in some way to the Performa '07 events, but that would be too simplistic. Of course, these were mini-cinemas, but neither filmmakers Isaac Julien (right) or Shirin Neshat (below left), both of whom participated in the pre-screening BAMTalk employ those kinds of explicit characterizations in their current work--Neshat never has. People move through their spaces, but often don't speak. If they do vocalize, in Neshat's work it's to sing or chant, in Julien's work it's often non-diagetic, e.g. a monologue from off-screen even if the voice is meant to be that of the character currently on-screen.

OK, but a little background, the New York-based Performa is "a non-profit interdisciplinary arts organization committed to the research, development, and presentation of performance by visual artists from around the world." Two years ago Performa launched a "new biennial for New York City" focused on visual art performance. This year they ten new Performa Commissions as a facet of the biennial, and co-hosted the Performance Studies International Conference No.13 with New York University in conjunction with the biennial (smart move that). Performa's founding director and curator is RoseLee Goldberg who moderated the BAMTalk with Julien, choreographer/dancer Russell Maliphant, and Neshat (choreographer/director Ralph Lemon was also slated to appear but was absent). According to the online description the dialogue was meant to explore questions of "geographic exploration and individual identity within a globalized world culture--this panel will discuss art's ability to convey complex narratives as well as social and political shifts within an entirely seductive aesthetic milieu." This was all brought to us courtesy of Altria, aka Philip Morris, a major sponsor of Performa '07 (Morris changed their name a few years back because research revealed a negative public association with the name "Philip Morris," gee, really? Evidently Altria means everything--altruistic, alternative, trio, command-alt for those PC users--and nothing at the same time.). I have huge mixed feelings about tobacco sponsorship, and talked with another African American artist today who got a major career advance through a Philip Morris artist fellowship. It's a complicated issue, especially for African Americans who constitute a disproportionate number of the annual tobacco related mortalities. But that's another conversation...

I got to BAM after the discussion had started and curator LeeAnne Goldberg was in the middle of simultaneously asking Neshat a question, and setting up the screening of her film Passage (2001) which was commissioned by composer Philip Glass (right, still from Passage). The film explores grief through images of a funeral procession and the preparation of a grave. Kneeling women clothed entirely in black chant in a huddled circle on a desert landscape as a plume of ochre rises from their repeatedly inclining forms. Neshat has a crane shot enter that circle and the screen is swallowed in black as the scene moves to a procession of men, also clothed in black, but with their heads exposed, carrying a body on a pallet above their heads. A girl child in the distance builds a fortress out of small stones. A fire starts behind her, forming a partial circle around the men who have halted in front of the chanting women whom the camera has finally revealed to be digging a grave with their bare hands. Words really aren't necessary.


•Nation, Geography, Identity•
Neshat's video work is always marked by her use of space through the ways her characters move through it, the beautiful cinematography that accompanies those camera movements, that camera tracking which employs technology such as cranes to further emphasize the expansiveness of the landscape.

An Iranian-born artist who, depending on the current state of Iranian national and geopolitics, lives in a revolving state of exile/displacement and markedly less-encumbered homeland return, Neshat has never been able to film in Iran although she has been able to visit since moving to the US 24 years ago. Goldberg's question addressed Neshat's having shot her films in numerous locations--is she interested in different cultures and identities? Neshat's motivation, far from a citizen of the world construct, is her nostalgia-driven search for a landscape with a lone tree that reminds her of one the places she lived as a child, and she looked all over Mexíco for that site, and used it for her installation Tooba (left, still from Tooba) which dealt with the story of a woman who goes to the tree for refuge and then becomes the tree which becomes a refuge for both men and women who gather around its trunk. Desert is the primary setting for her work and towards that end she has also shot film in Morocco and Arizona in the United States. She's always searching for a reflection of her own country's geography in that of other nations. For Neshat the political, the artistic, and the personal cannot be separated, particularly after the events of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath.

Julien, on the other hand, spoke of how he came through a more circuitous route to examine questions of his familial geography and personal politics. He mined questions of black British identity and queer male blackness in his work with the explicitly political and aesthetically-focused Sankofa film collective, and in his own first feature, Young Soul Rebels (1991) as well as the classic, Looking for Langston (1989). However, his relationship to questions of diaspora, exile, and migration in relation to London and his parent's homeland of St. Lucia was a more ambivalent exploration marked by an earnest desire to avoid "falling back into" what he called "the exile cliché." His way through this was a collaboration with St. Lucian-born poet Derek Walcott that resulted in the film installation, Paradise Omeros (2002) "loosely based on some of Derek Walcott's poems from Omeros." (left, still from the installation) Not surprisingly, Walcott's work also shows up as part of a call-and-response epigraph in Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao which ends, as Edwidge Danticat pointed out in a discussion/interview the two writers shared in the pages of the Fall 2007 BOMB Magazine, "...either I'm a nobody, or I'm a nation." Julien's realization of a non-nostalgic return is in part made up a Rorschach test of departures and arrivals with waves combing backwards into the sea in an inverted "V" formation. Two screen halves anchored on the diagonal in such a way that the seam between the two was not apparent and then views of lush bisected leaves, a jump cut to the retreating form of a fleeing man, and then back to the leaves where the now apparent seam draws the viewers eye into the absent/missing spaces. Having witnessed his mother's return to St. Lucia as well as having visited the island with his partner Julien had different images and perspectives from which to draw.

Russell Maliphant, speaking as a choreographer and dancer, located his geography as "space," specifically the stage. Further he identified the collaboration with Julien as a process whereby they were discovering another space, another geography, another way to consider space. Goldberg pointed out that that discovery was still having its realization played out on the "stage." Maliphant agreed, but also pointed to the way those discoveries--which emerged over the course of numerous rehearsals and performances--were altering how that stage operated.


More about Shirin Neshat's installation Tooba(2006)
More about Shirin Neshat's installation Turbulent (1998)
Sussan Deyhim and Neshat's CD for Turbulent and other work (1998)
Video of Russell Maliphant dancing solo(year unknown)

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Finished. Gracías, Professoro Díaz.

¿Ahora, tenemos que esperar otros diez años?

¡Qué dolor....!

Me disculpo, I don't mean to be sin gratitud, pero...that was a hard wait. Still, everything has its own rhythm, and this ritmo came to fruition.

Truly, having heard Junot Díaz read there is so much of the rhythms of his own voice in this work. But notably, in what I read as a very clear and conscious choice, he's also included the voices of the women who have previously operated as rich plot markers and instigators of plot flow. The pathos of these characters as experienced by the various protagonists in Drown was almost so fleshily profound as to make one forget that those women's voices were never fully embodied, and as a result part of the story was missing. In The Brief and Wondrous Life... Díaz took on the challenge of not just creating these voices, but putting both the lead character, Oscar and the book's narrator in a world primarily populated by women. The choice illuminates some of the confounding aspects of culturally mediated gender relations, masculinity and femininity, and mother-daughter, father-daughter, relations within a context that Díaz specifically identifies as heterosexual (while allowing for some commentary on questions of homophobia in the New York/New Jersey area Dominican community). These female voices fill out the missing aspects of those prior tales of Dominican life, diaspora and politics. The rebellious daughter Lola (and her doppelgänger mother Belí) likely to become something of an archetype for brilliant, spirited, self-aware, diasporic daughters for a new generation of women living on the cusp/border of the cultural spheres to which their families have immigrated and those they left behind. Unfortunately, I don't have time to write my full thoughts about the work now, and plus I'm considering re-reading it, if I can find the time (ha!). But, yes, yes, a wonderful work, sharp, ruthless and sensitive and compassionate, and it earns its mileage, its scars and its balms.

Lastly (for now anyway), the use of footnotes are a geek's dream. How to simultaneously tell all the stories needed to tell the central story one is weaving? But not a technique for the faint of heart. All the rules of storytelling still apply, and the importance of editing for coherence, flow, and an even tighter rhythm than the main story, cannot, cannot, be underestimated. If I could figure out how to do this as densely in a multimedia context (you'd think more layers of mediums would make this easier, unh-uh), I'd be one ecstatic artist!

Interview with Díaz by John Zuarino at Bookslut
Interview with Díaz by Edward Guthman at SFGate
Interview with Díaz by Boris Kachka at New York
(This interview features the Díaz quote: “When I talk to people I’m such a dumbass. When I enter that higher-order space that’s required to write, I’m a better human. For whatever my writing is, wherever it’s ranked, it definitely is the one place that I get to be beautiful.”)
Audio Interview with Díaz from Writers At Cornell
From Laila Lalami's blog: "Reading Recap: Junot Díaz in Los Angeles"
Interview with Díaz by Johnny Díaz at
Interview with Díaz by Dave Weich at

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Sunday, November 04, 2007

Concha Buika @ BAM 10/26/2007

A long and rambling post, so many ideas competing for space...oh well, it happens sometimes.

I missed Harriet Tubman at NuBlu and the Charles Burnham Group at The Stone last weekend, but this weekend made it up from my slab of black mold to go see Spanish flamenco/jazz singer Concha Buika at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gilman Opera House.

I have no idea if it was a sold out house, but it was packed from where I was up in the mezzanine, and below on the floor where a large Spanish speaking contingent was cheering, and to whom she addressed most of her comments once she realized a considerable amount of the crowd was bilingual. My Spanish is better understood on the page than propelled through the breath, so I was struggling which might have been just as well. If I could have understood everything I might have just been sitting there with tears rolling down my face. That's not awful, but sometimes you miss a key moment wiping away tears. And really the last time I cried at a concert was at a full performance of composer Osvaldo Golijov's La Pasión Segun San Marcos which was commissioned for the Bach year 2000(with Orchestra, vocal soloists including the amazing Luciana Souza, capoiera dancers, the Schola Cantorum de Caracás, etc, etc.)

But Concha Buika singing a cappella practically knocked me flat. She did so as the final offering of a two song encore. Afterwards people were still applauding for her return, she did so with a huge smile, but gave us a bashful wave, and was gone again. It felt as though she had only been performing for 30 minutes but in reality 90 minutes had gone by. I was so besotted, that when I went upstairs to the BAMcafé to find her album, it had already sold out--they had only been able to get 20 from and those were probably sold out before the concert began--I bought a bunch of other music like someone who wants their favorite dish, but finding it sold out at the restaurant greedily devours a substitute hoping it will quell the hunger. We all know how that goes, well thank goodness for buyers at used record stores. Although her label is listed as a subsidiary of Time/Warner, her three records don't yet have distribution in the U.S. outside of I put on a vocalist who shall remain nameless from my flailing purchases who was a sad substitute; probably all those discs except for Bob Moses' Visit with the Great Spirit featuring vocals from the late Jeanne Lee (pictured right with her son in Germany in the early 1970s, just because I wanted to)(except that I actually wanted When Elephants Dream of Music) among others, are going away-away.

I ordered her latest, La Niña Loca (2007, Dro Atlantic), after that realization. I could have further lost my mind and ordered her prior two albums, but writer/poet kalamu ya salaam in writing about Buika on breath of life persuasively argued for this latest album as the best realization of her artistry of the three.

Listening to Concha Buika live confirms that you cannot wait for folks to recognize your gifts, and you have to walk your own path. Buika started out as a house diva, penning a few major hits, and then after an invite from Pat Metheny to a jazz concert and time in London studying drama and in Las Vegas performing, including work as a Tina Turner impersonator. Seeing Buika being herself up there grateful to be there surrounded by great musicians "black" and "white" whatever those designations mean in Spain. Doing her incarnation of flamenco and unapologetically being who she is.

Buika is also unapologetically and completely committed to the music so her voice, her body, are in complete service to that work. As I mentioned above, she is a vocalist whose voice is more profound, more devastating, the less accompaniment she has.

While working with other instruments she can willfully go off-key, and I have to say that put me in mind of a recent article by scholar & music writer Mark Anthony Neal on his New Black Man blog and CriticalNoir@Vibe, "For Your Consideration: Keyshia Cole."In the piece Neal takes on the subject of the current crop of hip-hop/soul divas who seem find staying on key a serious challenge as a result of their lack of vocal training, no Barry Gordy finishing schools for these vocalists, or Tommy Boy conceptual art tours post-label signing, and apparently not a lot disciplined church choir training either. Instead Cole and others, Neal argues, seem to suffer from "a case of the runs" or melisma--popularlized by singers such as Aretha Franklin and Luther Vandross gone very bad, the employ of semitones and microtones inherent in melisma often exacerbates the off-key singing of many contemporary singers. Neal initiated this conversation in a 20 June 2007 article on singer Linda Jones, "Bodies in Pain," in which he also engages the work of Cole as he draws parallels to the way each singer, the late and unfortunately under-considered Jones, and Oaktown relative newcomer Cole give voice to pain through their vocal delivery. But to Neal's credit he's been talking about a subject close to my heart throughout the past few months in 15 August 2007's "What's an R&B Girl to Do?" in which he considers the lack of commercial viability in the present market for grown women singers such as Deborah Cox (left) and Amel Larrieux (below right), who both recently released albums featuring covers of jazz standards (Cox an homage to Dinah Washington)--which has typically been the refuge of pop singers who have aged out of the pop (aka youth demographic-driven) market (cf. Rod Stewart, who got two albums out of this career move); his 9 August 2007 reconsideration of Nina Simone, "Finding Forever, Finding Nina;" and his checking MeShell Ndegeocello's remake of Eugene McDaniels' "Compared to What?"(previously most famously covered by Roberta Flack and Les McCann) for the Talk to Me soundtrack. Neal also reprinted anthropologist Maureen Mahon's article on funk pioneer Betty Davis' album reissues on, and finally, his contemplation of the already grown-woman sound present in songwriter/vocalist Chrisette Michele's instrument and on her recent debut I Am.

Buika's voice and prowess have been likened to Sarah Vaughn, but hearing her at BAM put me in mind of some vocalists of African descent throughout the diaspora who are better known as "chest" singers, if you will, than Vaughn. Those known for such located singing, for example, Roberta Flack, Nina Simone, and Miriam Makeba, as well as those know to ably mine/transgress the space between the head and chest voice such as Carmen McCrae and the British singer Cleo Laine (now Dame Cleo Lane DBE, apparently the female equivalent of knighthood for her services to music).

Interestingly, there is very little press on Buika thusfar in the United States and what there is does not compare her to existing singers. Instead journalists have compared her voice to rich foods (chocolate) and colors (ochre). Meanwhile Buika has mentioned Mexican-Costa Rican singer Chavela Vargas (known for singing ranchera and other traditional forms) whose cigar-ravaged alto Buika's cigarette burnished instrument can resemble, and blues/r&b/jazz singer Dinah Washington in her discussion of genres,

'''I don't know what is flamenco or what is blues or jazz or rock. I only know what is singing and playing,' says the 35-year-old-singer. `For me the flamenco of [Mexican singer] Chavela Vargas is the same as Dinah Washington. It's music that comes from the depths, from the place where everything pure comes from. For me [musical] styles seem like little dictators.'''

Washington had blues, gospel, jazz, pop, and a lot of sass (although it was Vaughn who acquired the nickname of "Sassy Sarah") in her delivery and was another artist whose vocal talents weren't well served by arbitrary musical boundaries.

But let me take a step back because I wanted to consider Mark Anthony Neal's argument that the vocal aspect of soul music sung by today's singers seems "out of tune--musically, morally, and politically" with their forebears from the 1960s and 1970s. Neal's writing is so on point here, it's just better to quote him, from "Waiting for Keyshia"

The lack of experience by producers and vocalists often adds to the dissonance that resonates in the vocal quality of figures like Mary J. Blige or Faith Evans, who have become easy targets for a generation that is regularly thought to be out of tune—musically, morally, and politically—with the Soul singers of the 1960s and 1970s. But I’d like to suggest that such dissonance is not simply the product of a generation of singers who are out of pitch—and lacking the training to know so—but a response to the ways that post-Civil Rights generations hear the world. The nostalgic harmonies of the Civil Rights Generation (and their parents, many of whom are in the 80s) strikes discord in the lives of post-Civil Rights generations, notably Generation Hip-Hop, which have never had a tangible relationship to concepts such as “freedom” and “liberation” that some in the old guard presumed was transferable. Issues like the crack cocaine epidemic, the prison industrial complex, police brutality, voter disenfranchisement (largely based on race and class), depressed wages, lack of access to quality and affordable healthcare, misogyny, the failing infrastructure of public schooling, homophobia, as well as a populism of common sense (which by definition is stridently conservative and anti-intellectual), have often left post-Civil Rights generations grasping for straws, much the way Keyshia Cole—who I offer for your consideration—seems to frantically grasp for notes in virtually every song that she sings. [Cole pictured above right]

Now, let's just pause a moment to appreciate the eloquence and spiritual resonance of
Neal's analysis.

OK, I want to explore one aspect of Neal's argument by suggesting that singers such as Simone, Flack, and even Makeba to an extent played with or skirted the edges of staying on-key, for the sake of pointing to the uncertainty of "freedom" and "liberation" in their own times. The seeming greater engagement with the possibility or potentiality of "freedom" and "liberation" by artists in the 1960s and 1970s spoke both to a tangible experience of struggle within methods that were being canonized as they were being created--boycotts, large assemblies and marches, sit-ins--as what was becoming termed the Civil Rights Movement. There is no centralized organizing party these days, neither the NAACP or specifically politicized aspects of the hip hop community can claim the pull that either SNCC and the past NAACP leadership could expect in the heyday of either organization. At the same time, performers such as Flack, Simone and Makeba were arguably operating outside of those organizations' more traditionally recognized circles of performers. Despite Simone's many musical contributions to the Civil Rights Movement her personality and aesthetic eclipsed the notion of protest singer or protest song respectively. Simone, while maintaining a relatively successful recording career from the 1958 release of "I Loves You Porgy" (from the musical Porgy and Bess) into the mid-1970s, became disgusted with the US's racial politics and radio airplay system, among other things, and left the country in 1970 eventually settling in France. After developing a successful recording and performing career in the US comprised of traditional South African songs, pop melodies, and some jazz, Makeba's US record contract and tours were canceled when she married Stokely Carmichael in 1968. Subsequently, she and Carmichael moved to Guinea, and she continued performing in Europe, on the African continent, and in Latin America (right, still my favorite Makeba album,Pata Pata). On her first two albums, her 1969 debut First Take and 1970's Chapter Two Flack included songs such as "Angelitos Negro" which she sings in Spanish, asking why painters never create black angels, and additional political works from Eugene McDaniels and Donny Hathaway such as "Tryin' Times" and "Ballad of the Sad Young Men." For her second album she recorded McDaniels' "Reverend Lee," which at the time was rumored to about the conflicted soul of the extracurricularly active Reverend Jessie Jackson and gave an understated cover of the Weillian-song "Business Goes On As Usual." Because Flack writes almost none of own material during her career she has been entirely at the mercy of songwriters, and it shows. While she had a solid collaboration with McDaniels, he never produced a whole album worth of work for her, nor did any other songwriter, although he wrote for her at least through 1974's Feel Like Makin' Love (where he penned the title track). Flack was considered to have a soulful voice, and a decidedly non-sexual soul sister image in relation to male artists such as Les McCann and Hathaway, and presumably McDaniels. Additionally, her large afro, and full features were a prominent aspect of her image, and her cover art, until 1974's Feel Like Makin' Love (which featured a detailed pen and ink illustration of an abstracted nature setting with a centrally placed tell-tale plush bed); that plus her southern church background and rearing(Virgina), and Howard University education all firmly located her black authenticity, even while she was singing Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Buffy St. Marie covers. So she had soul, even if she wasn't technically singing it with the genre-crossing big hits "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" (a delayed hit due to actor/director Clint Eastwood using it in a key scene in Play Misty for Me), and "Killing Me Softly" which Lauryn Hill and the Fugees definitively reclaimed as a soul song with their remake. The richness of Hill's vocal became even more apparent to me when I heard John Legend and Corinne Bailey Rae doing a remake of Flack and Hathaway's "Where Is the Love." Legend did a solid enough job, although he also can suffer from a tendency towards vocal ornamentation for no specific end. However, Bailey Rae's thinner voice immediately suffered by comparison to Flack's rich unaffected alto.

In something of a parallel Simone was given the designation, "High Priestess of Soul," notwithstanding her genre-crossing--with inclusions of gospel, r&b, pop, jazz, covers and originals, cabaret styled compositions, and classical music infused arrangements, and skillful use of counterpoint. Her viewpoint was simultaneously unmistakably that of a defiant and proud African American women, and at the time her rich textured voice was likely unimaginable as originating from any being other than an African American woman--a formidable one at that.

What did "soul" mean as a designation for Simone? Was it a musical recognition, or did it address the particulars of her physical bearing, both her striking features and mode of dress, her wearing a natural, braids, and head wraps when those were still considered marks of a radical or cultural nationalist. Is "To Be Young Gifted and Black" a soul song? What about "Mississippi Goddam," "Four Women," or "Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)"? Why or why not? The question I imagine would center on the song structure: do these songs fit a "soul" or "r&b" melodic structure, or are they more folk songs, or cabaret, or ballad form? If these songs can't easily be categorized as "soul" then it would seem the attribution would address the stature that her politics and personal aesthetics.

In thinking about the issue of dissonance that Neal raises, linking it to a cultural and economic dissonance, literally out of tune, I began to think about how both Flack and Simone could sit hard on a note, almost flatting it. However, these musical gestures are conscious choices whereas the out of control melisma is, as Neal points out, the desperate and often failed chase of the "correct" note, so arguably less of a consciously articulated personal and/or meta-politic than an unmediated (although accompanied and studio-produced)/unintentional disclosure of loss and absent foundations of various kinds--musical, communal, social, familial, etc.

Similar to Flack and Simone, Buika's forays into almost off-key notes, those that skirt the micro-tonal edge are clearly conscious. One only had to witness the flamenco style melisma that Buika employed with startling skill on an a cappella offering to realize that while she has considerable emotional presence and willingness to imbue her performances with vulnerability and naked emotion she communicates that through great precision. However, this precision doesn't emphasize serve to emphasize her technique (though I did shake my head in wonder at it). Her technique is in service to her expressiveness, allowing her a richer and broader palate from which to communicate. Listening to her album Mi Niña Lola, I was aware that she and her producers haven't yet determined how to capture that immediacy in the studio. Still, it's a pretty great album in most places, and while I'm waiting to see her again or for that amazing live album, it will do.


More on Concha Buika from New York Daily News
More on Concha Buika from The Miami Herald
More on Concha Buika from breath of life
More on experimental jazz vocalist Jeanne Lee
Brief review of Mi Niña Loca from The New York Times
More on Dinah Washington from

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