Andy’s Random Reviews from New Opera to Afrobeat

Wow. I apologize – I’ve been so busy  that I’m completely behind on writing up reviews. So here are a few of the things I saw over the past two weeks.

On Saturday, November 19th I had a really fun and interesting night. First stop was The Kitchen for Robert Ashley’s “opera” That Morning Thing. I had no idea what to expect but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was really enjoyable. I had assumed that, given that it was originally created in 1967 and rarely performed, it would be some kind of dissonant, atonal, cacophonous assault on the senses. What it turned out to be was a very interesting, slightly surreal, music-performance-movement-lecture hybrid unfolding in three acts and an epilogue. I’ll be honest – I sat down to watch the show and dropped my pen, thus prohibiting my note-taking process. If I had written this up that night, like I intended to, this would be an in-depth thoughtful review. But time has passed and its all a bit fuzzy. As I recall, the first act, “Frogs”, was a lecture given by “The Speaker”, basically dealing with the difficulty of communication and somehow tying this together with frogs. The men – a chorus of men – sang a repeated refrain of “one, two” in a limited range of tones, the women – a chorus of women – moved in deliberate patterns across the stage. They were dressed almost identically and wore glasses that lit up with LEDs. It was a beautiful and kind of funny stage picture.

Act II, “a Cool, Well-Lighted Room” was comprised of a synthesizer player who riffed throughout the scene, The Singer and The Dancer.  The Singer was performed by the ever-captivating Imani Uzuri who brought a soulful playfulness to the proceedings, even while intoning “one, two, three” across a limited range of pitches.

Act III was called “Four Ways” and a character named “The Director” – who was in fact performed by the actual director, a gentleman named “Fast Forward” – gave people directions. Literally. The Women would ask him for directions – “How do you get to Times Square?” and he would answer them, with commentary. But as it went on it got increasing absurd, out of control and funny.

Finally the piece concluded with an “Epilogue” in wich the chorus of women entered the audience and encouraged us to participate  in the performance by repeating a number of phonemes from the sentence “She was a visitor” broken down into bits. At first it felt a bit dated, but soon I grew to like it – there was something innocent and magical about it, the naive faith in the participatory, the breaking down of boundaries, the implication of the audience in the performative event. I imagine that it must have really freaked people out in the 60’s.

Overall it was a really great piece – a bit of a history lesson, but all the more satisfying because it held up over time and seemed to renew itself in the moment of being performed. It didn’t feel musty, just familiar, but in a good way.

After That Morning Thing I headed up to Harlem Stage to check out the 10th anniversary of Jump n Funk Live, acclaimed DJ Rich Medina’s groundbreaking international Afrobeat dance party, featuring live music by the band Zozo Afro Beat with visuals by The Marksmen. I hadn’t been to the Gatehouse in ages and I was happy to realize how easy it is to get there. Usually I don’t get up to 135th St., but it is pretty easy to find and it is a great venue. We got to the Gatehouse and checked our coats, headed up to the main room where the party was in full swing. DJ Rich Medina was spinning great tunes – funk, soul, afrobeat – and soon the house – only about half-full but people were starting to arrive – was dancing and getting happy.

Brad Learmonth (prog. dir. for Harlem Stage) & Friend with DJ Rich Medina (background)

After about an hour Zozo Afro Beat came on. I counted at least 12 people onstage, not including dancers. They were amazing!!! The room kept filling up and soon everyone was jumping and jiving to the beat. I’m not that familiar with Afrobeat music in general, I had a friend in college who was really into Fela, and I used to really like this guy Foday Musa Suso, but generally it is not the first thing I turn to. I think that might have to change!! The hypnotic riffs, the syncopated beats, the punchy/funky horns – I couldn’t stop dancing even if I wanted to. I danced to the bar and back to the floor, I just had to get my groove on. And let me tell you, those of you who know me, I’m not exactly a dancing fool. But this was definitely a fun time and the real deal. I had a great time – the room is warm & welcoming, easily accommodating both dance and music performance, the drinks were inexpensive, the staff was super-friendly, the crowd was diverse in age, ethnicity, gender and everything else. It reminded me of the good old days of Body & Soul when it was at Vinyl – good music, good energy and good people.

Here’s the band, Zozo Afro Beat:

Zozo Afro Beat

And here’s one of the dancers:

After the show I was danced out and exhausted and I dragged myself home, still floating on the good times. I don’t know if Harlem Stage has any more of these events planned, but you should definitely sign up for their email list and check out what they’ve got coming up! In a weird, small-world kind of situation, I checked out a Harlem Stage flyer only to discover that Imani Uzuri, who I had just seen featured in the Robert Ashley opera at The Kitchen, will be performing at Harlem Stage on December 10th! It is called Imani Uzuri’s MOSAIC and it is a “sacred music extravaganza” featuring a line-up of kick-ass woman vocalists from  many world traditions. It looks like it is going to be really great – so mark  your calendars for that!!!

On Tuesday November 22nd I made it to the Elebash Theater at the Graduate Center at CUNY for the most recent installment of Live At 365, the world music series curated by my pal Isabel Soffer. The evening featured Persian vocalist and musician Azam Ali and her band. It was a really magical evening. Ali and her band wove together a concert of lullabies and folk songs from across the middle east, adding in some original compositions with digital effects, backbeat, electric guitar, etc. It as kind of trance-y and mystical, like the kind of music you might expect from an artist on 4AD back in the day when they were all Dead Can Dance spooky and stuff. (I  AM SO OLD!!!!) But anyway – it was a super great night. If you haven’t been you should definitely check it out. The Elebash is a really nice, intimate hall with a great sound system. And like I have said before, Isabel is one of the best programmers in this town. She’s been doing world music for over 20 years, she knows her stuff and she is always bringing it to NYC. Go to Livesounds.org and sign up for her email list so you know what is going on.

Then we had Thanksgiving (I saw the movie Margin Call! So awesome. Check it out) and I even had 2nd Thanksgiving (Thanks Derek and Mary!) and then it was the weekend and I saw another movie (Into The Abyss, also really good) and finished writing that essay that everyone has been reading (thank god!) until we got to Sunday when I went to the Storefront for Art and Architecture to see Harrison Atelier‘s Pharmacore: Architectural Placebo. Fascinating intersection of architecture, design, concept and and choreography (BTW  – who coined the phrase, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”?).  Anyway – the show was choreographed by Silas Riener and performed by Reiner along with other Merce Cunningham Dance Company members Rashaun Mitchell, Jamie Scott and Melissa Toogood. Cunningham dancers are just so darned good! Beautiful to watch, precise, focused, lithe and surprising. I’m not sure what the whole thing was about – something about placebos and the creation of a kind of test/lab environment, with the idea that perhaps the performance we’re watching was referencing an actual performance, but was just a placebo/simulation. Not sure. But it was very cool and the Storefront has all these door/sculpture things that spin around and open onto the street, so people kept stop and staring in. At one point two little girls wandered in, onto the stage, and started looking around trying to figure out what the heck was going on and why these strange people were dancing around! It was funny and added a wonderful layer of accidental intervention to the whole thing. OH! I remember – I wanted to give a special shout-out to Loren Dempster, who did the sound design/music, which was really, really good. He played cell and ran it through his laptop to process the sound and it turned into this lush, rhythmic, tuneful but also distance and sometime dissonant soundscape. Doubleplusgood.

Okay so then it was Monday and now it’s today and I’ve got a lot more work to do. And I’m going to try another big-ass essay on some big-ass idea. Maybe more reviews will come. This week is kind of light, but we’ll try and keep up.

Thanks for reading! Keep the comments coming!!

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