Monday, December 23, 2013

Puerto Rico en Chicago

photo by Don Macica
Within hours of arriving home from a recent visit to New Orleans, a place I've described as having a Caribbean soul, I found more of the same as I entered the welcoming confines of the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center on Chicago's northwest side. A friend of mine who, remarkably, makes his living as a musician was debuting a new free jazz/Latin group dubbed Proyecto Libre, or Free Project. I reviewed the performance for Agúzate, an Afro-Latin cultural organization, and you can read that here.  The music was wonderful, and I'm truly impressed (and often amazed) by the adventurous spirit that guides my friend's artistic endeavors.

But that's not what this post is about.

photo by Silvia Gonzales
The concert was occasioned by the grand re-opening of Segundo Ruiz Belvis, which has been dedicated to preserving Puerto Rican culture outside of the island for over 42 years. Hermosa, the neighborhood in which the center is currently located, is, especially on a cold winter night, rather grim. It's poor, and there are problems with gangs and crime. The center, once located in Wicker Park (a neighborhood that I passingly referred to in a recent post about gentrification), occupies a large space in a former movie theater that it bought. It is quite beautiful in a loft apartment sort of way, with exposed brick walls, colorful artwork, and stylish seating areas. They can afford the large building because the smaller space that they previously owned in Wicker Park sold for millions in a newly desirable neighborhood that was no longer so desiring of having poor ethnic folks live there. The current building lies somewhere that nobody would live in if they could afford to live elsewhere.

photo by Silvia Gonzales
Except that is not necessarily true. Communities may be poor, but that is not to say they are without culture or resources, and Segundo Ruiz Belvis is a manifestation of this. Culture, family, community: These are indeed desirable things, and especially so when you are separated by many thousands of miles (and perhaps even generations) from your home. In this context, art and culture are not pastimes or luxuries, but necessities for keeping the spirit alive. Real lives are no doubt saved as well, when young people feel cultural pride and turn away from gangs and crime.

photo by Don Macica
I couldn't help thinking of Central City in New Orleans, a poor community by any economic measure, but one in which I had the good fortune of participating in a second line parade just a few days earlier. A second line, as I described in my last post, is a joyously exuberant cultural expression of traditions that go back generations and, here and now, a way for the community to take to the streets and take a stand against crime, violence and, as the event flyer put it, "foolishness".

Segundo Ruiz Belvis takes a stand against foolishness as well.

May it long continue to do so.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

NOLA diary: It's complicated

I've been back in cold and snowy Chicago for nearly a week, but my thoughts still return to New Orleans several times a day. I guess the spirits that haunt that city followed me onto the plane and have decided that they'll hang around for a while.

New Orleans is a city populated by storytellers. Don't ask anyone a question unless you've got plenty of time for their answer. While there, I talked to people from different rungs on the economic ladder, and naturally, their stories are different. Some had families that went back several generations. Some were relative newcomers, moving there 10, 20, or 30 years ago. There's a category called the "never lefts". They came to New Orleans for school, or to attend a convention, or for a vacation, and never went back to the grey places they used to call home. Then, finally, there's the post-Katrina boom fueled by real estate and the migration of thousands of young, largely white professionals and creatives lured by the city's many charms.

The total population, according to one of the never lefts (25 years) that I talked to, is nearly back to pre-Katrina levels. In my last post, I mentioned the restaurant boom that is currently in high gear. This growth, of course, is largely powered by these new arrivals, and most of the restaurants and cocktail shrines opening up are mid- to upscale. It's natural, of course, that chefs and mixologists are drawn to this place, with its almost holy reverence for food and drink. I went to a few myself, and let me tell you, they are wonderful.

There's a flip side to this narrative, though. A cab driver that I spoke with, who lived over on the West Bank in suburban Marrero, made it clear to me that almost all of the post-Katrina investment is happening in areas frequented by tourists. There's a logic to this, of course. Tourism was a major segment of the economy before the flood, and its influx of dollars is crucial. As evidenced by the restaurant boom, there are neighborhoods that are wealthier than ever, and business is booming. There are, however, large parts of the city that are a long way from recovery. This is where organizations like Habitat for Humanity and other volunteers work with community groups on the slow, painstaking rebuilding of neighborhoods that were home to generations of working class families. Even in Pontchartrain Park, a middle class community founded in the 1950s by African-Americans in a still officially segregated south, the rebuilding is slow. I read an interview with actor Wendell Pierce, who portrays Antoine Batiste on HBO's Treme and was born in Pontchartrain Park. He's extremely active on the local Neighborhood Association, and in the interview he pointed to the "nearly 30" new homes that have been built. In the 2000 census, the community was home to 2,600 residents, almost all of them homeowners in the suburban-like enclave that included a public golf course. Seven years after Katrina, the population is only half that. In the context of Black New Orleans, this counts as a success. 

And then there's the projects. New Orleans had four large ones that never re-opened after Katrina. On the Sunday of my visit, I joined a second line parade through Central City. As you can likely tell from its name, the area is quite close to downtown and just a few blocks north of the stately homes of the Garden District. Despite this seeming prime location, the area is plagued by poverty. Central City was the location of the Magnolia Projects, an infamous, crime filled place that was nonetheless home to hundreds of poor working class families. (Quick detour: Second line parades are organized by Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. They are raucous, fun-filled events led by brass bands [I was especially lucky; the great Rebirth Brass Band was one of two bands in this one] that parade for several hours through the neighborhood. They are also strong cultural expressions of community, a way for neighbors to take to the streets and show solidarity, celebrating traditions that go back hundreds of years. As the event flyer stated, "Please leave your pets, problems and weapons at home. We want to continue our culture without violence or foolishness.")  The Magnolia Projects are gone, replaced by a mixed-income development called Harmony Oaks. It's hard not to see this as a positive thing, yet once again a place that once housed thousands now has room for half that.

On another day, I took the streetcar up Canal past the Iberville Projects, which lie immediately north of the French Quarter. They are in the process of being demolished, and its not clear what will be built in their place. Look, I'm from Chicago, I'm no stranger to how this works. As the Gold Coast expanded westward, the Cabrini-Green projects here became mighty inconvenient, and they were demolished. I understand that the Lathrop Homes at Diversey and Damen are facing the same fate. There is way too much money to be made in the building of mixed-income developments while making nearby upper income areas "safe", therefore paving the way for even more development. New Orleans isn't that different. In that context, Katrina was practically an economic growth engine.

That might have been what a woman I spoke with meant when she said that, in some ways, Katrina was "a blessing".  Her home was on the high ground of Gentilly Ridge, and it didn't flood, though she was forced to evacuate the city for over a month. I couldn't help feeling that she was quite happy that the projects were gone and that thousands of poor people were being replaced by wealthier ones.

Ah, Katrina. One thing that nearly everyone in New Orleans agrees on is that it wasn't the hurricane that almost destroyed the city, but the "failure of the Federal Army Corps of Engineers levees". That assertion is even made in official language, like the sign that greets visitors at the entrance of beautiful City Park. Everyone, even the aforementioned "blessing" woman, just under their Laissez les bons temps rouler exterior, carries a sense of anger and betrayal. From that anger, however, seems to come a new sense of determination and community.

Here's a paradox. The thing that nearly killed New Orleans also revealed it to the world and even, perhaps, to itself. Wendell Pierce again, from that same interview: "We also knew we could possibly lose the culture altogether, which made people keenly aware that you can’t take that culture for granted. So you find people who are New Orleanians, lived here their whole life, coming to their first second lines. I’ve seen people who’ve lived their whole lives in New Orleans decide to come and see for the first time what an Indian practice is all about. People who lived near Treme who had never gone to Treme whatsoever who would say, ‘I would go to the French Quarter and was told never to cross Rampart Street and I never have.’ So the evolution of waking up the cultural fire in people who had never paid attention to this culture is the other side of that two-sided coin."

Perhaps that is the true, hard won blessing of Katrina. I love New Orleans. I had planned to blog about the highlights of my trip, the delicious food, the potent cocktails, the fabulous music. I experienced all of that, and I had a really good time, some of it transcendentally good. (Quick and highly personal rundown for this visit: Herbsaint has the best food, Cane & Table the best cocktails, d.b.a. the best music.) But there was so much more. It's complicated.

I'm beginning to suspect that one day, the "never lefts" will claim me as one of their own.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

NOLA diary: You're different here. Or at least I am.

I'm getting used to New Orleans.

What I mean by that is, pretty much from the moment I step off the plane, the city starts working on me, transforming me, altering my nature. Maybe it's that brass band that greets me at baggage claim. Maybe it's the friendly cab driver that takes me to my hotel. Maybe it's knowing that I'll be spending the next several days eating some of the most delicious food of my life. Maybe it's just the humidity. But I see things differently here. More specifically, I see people differently. I'm less, um, judgmental. I'm friendlier. I start conversations with strangers. I smile a lot.

I can see the Mississippi from my hotel window and the huge American flag at the ferry dock across the way in Algiers. It doesn't exactly look special from here, a thin horizontal gray bar across the middle of the picture on this cloudy day. And then, suddenly, a huge cargo ship cruises into the frame, then quickly exits it, reminding me that the river was a superhighway before there were superhighways. I could do this all day.

Except I can't. I have a lunch reservation at Antoine's, serving old school Louisiana Creole cuisine continually since 1840. Well, except for few months after Hurricane Katrina damaged the building and, because of the lack of electricity, caused the loss of 25,000 bottles of wine from the climate-controlled cellar. Antoine's is huge: 14 dining rooms, several hundred employees, and one very cool bar (more on that later). After Katrina, Antoine's had to track down those employees and, even though business took years to rebound, put them back to work. Did I mention that it's still owned by the same family, and that, by tradition, they are never open on Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Mardi Gras? Take that, Walmart!

Everybody in New Orleans seems to work in a restaurant or a bar. Walking through the French Quarter, you pass them by constantly, identifiable by the chef's aprons or the customary white shirt and bow tie worn by wait staff, while they take smoke breaks or make phone calls. According to a New York Times article that I read the other day, the city still has fewer people than pre-Katrina, but an incredible 70% more restaurants.

So, last night, we're at Hermes Bar. It's part of Antoine's, so you can order food. They have absolute classic New Orleans cocktails like the sazarac, Ramos gin fizz, and French 75. And on Friday and Saturday they have live jazz. Last night it was drummer Shannon Powell, a master of funky New Orleans rhythms and a bit of a staunch traditionalist.  The bar was fairly full, but not uncomfortably so. There was a table adjacent to ours where a group of 10 people or so were celebrating Christmas. In this group was a woman who was getting more and more tipsy as the evening progressed. Of course, so was I and so was everyone else, but she was one of those enthusiastic drunks. In another context, say, Chicago, I might have called her obnoxious, but here, deep in the heart of New Orleans, she was an inspiration. She was joie de vivre personified. We may have been in Hermes Bar, but she was Aphrodite.

And that's what I mean about me being transformed by New Orleans. There is no dance floor at Hermes, but that didn't stop her. Very soon afterward, it didn't stop us, either. Our new friend kept upping her game, though. At one point she appointed herself the solicitor of Shannon Powell's tip jar, working the crowd to make sure the drummer got paid.  Suddenly, our plan for one set, a bite to eat, a cocktail or two and then off to bed after a long travel day turned into a party, complete with a cheerleader.

Shannon Powell is amazing. Besides jazz, he easily dips into Meters and James Brown style funk, Cuban-tinged rhythms and works the cowbell like crazy on songs like Big Chief. He sings, too, sort of, at least enough to exhort the crowd to merriment. We were easily persuaded, to say the least.

The Saints play tomorrow. I'm pretty sure my NOLA transformation will be kicking into a higher gear. But first: Lunch, more music tonight, and a side of red beans and rice.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Do you know what it means...

Some day, when I'm feeling more confessional, I'll (maybe) share the story of how Hurricane Katrina changed my life. On the face of it, that's an enormously stupid and self-serving statement, considering that in August of 2005 I was enjoying a typical Chicago summer in a comfortable, well constructed home many miles from any natural and/or man made disaster. For now, though, I'll simply state around that time I began to find my voice as a writer, and the horrible blow that New Orleans suffered and the events that followed played a significant role in unearthing it.

New Orleans. The Big Easy. Nawlins. The Crescent City. NOLA.

I'm heading back there in a couple of weeks for my third post-Katrina visit. It is, far and away, my favorite city in North America. It is, without question, the most unique. It doesn't quite feel like the United States. A Dominican friend of mine told me, over a delicious Creole lunch in the French Quarter, that New Orleans reminded him of Santo Domingo. My own point of reference would be to San Juan, Puerto Rico, a place I go to as often as I can. New Orleans has a Caribbean soul.

Some, like jazz musician and favorite son Irvin Mayfield, say that NOLA is the northernmost tip of the Caribbean. Geographically debatable, perhaps, but culturally true. With its mix of French, Spanish and, most importantly, African influences, New Orleans was thoroughly shaped by the slave trade, just like its Caribbean cousins. Cuban rumba, Dominican merengue, Trinidadian calypso, Jamaican reggae, Puerto Rican bomba, Colombian cumbia, New Orleans jazz. They're all a cultural expression of the African diaspora when it arrived in the Americas and mingled with both European practices and indigenous customs. "Same ship, different ports," is how Mayfield describes it. People from New Orleans like to use the culinary term 'gumbo' when describing this mix of cultures. Every distinct ingredient, flavor and texture is crucial to the whole.

I was fortunate to be able to talk with Irvin Mayfield earlier this week because he was bringing the magnificent New Orleans Jazz Orchestra to the Chicago Theatre and a couple of online publications were kind enough to let me write a preview article.

You can read the whole thing here.

The concert was a sprawling, 3 hour tribute to jazz and the two cities that are crucial to its development; New Orleans, where it was born, and Chicago, where it grew up. The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO) is no period piece. It doesn't, as a rule, do traditional stuff. Rather, it's a muscular ensemble that navigates the whole history of jazz. The inclusion of not one, but two selections from Duke Ellington underscored the fact that this music had to journey from New Orleans to Chicago before it reached Duke, inspiring one of America's greatest composers. Original compositions dotted the program, including a blistering Cuban-inspired number from Mayfield's days co-leading Los Hombres Calientes, a NOLA band that explicitly traced African music through the Caribbean and Brazil. Trad was not ignored altogether. In fact, it was prominently featured with the help of guests the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, keeping the tradition alive since the early 60s. The R&B side was ably represented as well by the one and only Allen Toussaint, who's been working even longer.

photo by Lynn Orman
There were plenty of props to Chicago, too, with guest appearances by vocalist Kurt Elling, trumpeter Orbert Davis (who leads the ambitious Chicago Jazz Philharmonic) and a host of journeymen who labor farther from the spotlight: bassist Larry Gray, drummer Robert Shy and the amazing 82-years-young pianist Willie Pickens. "I think it's all a scam so we'll treat him with reverence," joked Mayfield from the stage. "I think he's really 42."

Of course, the whole thing ended in a New Orleans second line parade, the band and its guests streaming up and down the Chicago Theatre aisles while hundreds danced joyfully, waving their handkerchiefs in the air.

My flight leaves in two weeks. NOJO holds court in Mayfield's own Jazz Playhouse in the Quarter every Wednesday evening. That's one stop I have to make. Stay tuned.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Is limited gentrification possible? And maybe even a good thing?

Several things have me thinking about gentrification lately. I don't know about you, but when I hear that word I immediately go to the negative connotations, the profit driven force that fills historic neighborhoods with haves and displaces the have-nots, obliterating their character in the process. That's odd, because I am, in some ways, a gentrifier. That is to say, I'm a white dude that likes to live in diverse and funky neighborhoods where, more often than not, the median income is below average.

I've written of my love for my neighborhood, Rogers Park, but in the same piece that extols its historic character and scrappy nature, I express my gratitude for relatively recent additions like farmers markets, lively nightspots and hip cafes. If fact, as I write this, I'm sitting in a new cafe on Howard Street near Ashland, which anyone not living in Rogers Park (and, I suspect, some who do) will tell you is a sketchy block that is best avoided. The area across the street is home to some of Rogers Park's poorest citizens. Nonetheless, Sol Cafe does its best to engage the immediate community, hosting discussion groups, local artist exhibits and other ways to combat this fear. It has a airy, welcoming feeling enhanced by a huge floor to ceiling window that lets in plenty of light. Howard Street itself recently upgraded its streetscape, and a vacant lot on the other side of Ashland will soon be a sizable community garden. There are less empty storefronts, and the Caribbean-American Bakery up the block, rebuilt after a fire, is still going strong.

And yet, Rogers Park remains an extremely affordable place to live. Neighborhood grocery stores sell their produce for less than you'd pay at a supermarket, and you can still get a stunningly delicious taco al pastor at any number of taquerias for two bucks. Rogers Park may be on the lake shore and blessed with lovely beaches and parks, but it's still pretty far from downtown. Heck, the nearest Divvy bikeshare station is still three miles south of here.

By contrast, Wicker Park is in another part of Chicago, one much closer to downtown, that went from a historically Polish neighborhood to one that was on the skids, but then became an edgy artist enclave in the 80s. Within 15 years, the transformation to the upscale was total, and the signs and t-shirts that pleaded "Keep Wicker Park Weird" were all gone.

Anyway, I'm thinking of this because I recently spent most of an entire weekend in Pilsen during their annual Open Studios art walk. The neighborhood is historically Czech, but transitioned to primarily Mexican in the 70s and 80s. It, too, became an artist enclave, but this time the artists were grounded in Latino traditions, their work a cultural expression of Latinidad. Even a casual walk around the neighborhood makes this apparent. Murals that range from historic Chicano depictions to graffiti-inspired abstractions are everywhere, and more often than not galleries are gloriously chaotic spaces, often doubling as studios and workshops, the very opposite of sleek showrooms.

Pilsen lies even closer to downtown than Wicker Park, and it also lies just south of the University of Illinois campus and Medical District. You can bet that real estate developers have been coveting it for years. And, indeed, the area is dotted with new condos and, yes, several Divvy stations.

Without question, Pilsen is changing. Funky designer boutiques are popping up, and there's a whole lot more to choose from than tacos and carnitas when dining out. Hipster entrepreneurs from north side neighborhoods are taking notice and opening restaurants and bars. But there are signs that, even with these trendy new accoutrements, an effort is under way to respect and retain the character of the neighborhood.

New businesses like Simone's Bar and Pl-zen (named after the Czech city that gave the neighborhood its name) have taken care to honor the street art muralist tradition. The charming and very busy La Catrina Cafe is named after one of the most beloved figures in Mexican folk art, and a substantial amount of its square footage is devoted to a gallery and event space for local artists. Needless to say, they serve a delicious Mexican hot chocolate alongside their lattes. Día de los Tamales takes that most humble of Mexican foods and puts a modernist twist on ingredients.

Perhaps most hopeful of all, though, was a simple grocery store that I stumbled into almost accidentally when I noticed the facade was newly painted in vibrant colors. A neighborhood grocer has occupied this corner for as long as I can remember, but something was different. Curious, I noticed that it was now called MeztiSoy. "Soy" is, of course, a vegetarian staple, but it's also Spanish for a declaration of self, meaning "I am." Soy Mexicano. Mestizo, on the other hand, describes the complex identity of someone who is of both European and Amerindian descent. Something thoughtful was clearly going on here.

So I went in. And there, all in one place, side by side, was an organic produce market that also carried a large selection of the packaged goods that you will find in any Mexican supermercado throughout the city. These are beloved items from back home, comforting in their ordinariness. To top it all off, there was a taqueria in the back, albeit one that serves vegan soy chorizo fajitas alongside caldos, tacos and other traditional favorites. Locally owned, the whole place defiantly asserted that organic farm-to-table ingredients and mindful eating are most definitely NOT for hipsters only.

Finally, you can't discount the resiliency of long time residents who rightly view all of these changes with some concern, but also considerable strength. An artist that I spoke with, when asked about the threat of gentrification, remarked, "Latinos don't rent. We buy. We're hard to get rid of."

I think Pilsen is going to be just fine.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Chicago Sinfonietta honors Día de los Muertos

If you've ever glanced at the little bio sketch over there on the right, you noticed that I am both a marketing consultant to the performing arts community and a freelance writer. I recently had the opportunity to combine both skill sets for the Chicago Sinfonietta, which is one pretty cool orchestra. (Full disclosure: I toiled as the Sinfonietta's Marketing Director for several years.) On November 9 in Naperville and November 11 in Chicago, they will present their fourth annual concert honoring the Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos.  

They asked me to research and write program notes for both their website and the book that they hand out at the concert. I initially found the project a bit challenging because, though honoring a Mexican holiday, there were no works by Mexican composers being performed. That forced me to look a little deeper into the commonalities between Dia and the Catholic All Souls' Day, which are both, not at all coincidentally, on November 2. As I (virtually) traveled back and forth between Argentina, Austria and Spain, the commonalities that bridge cultures became apparent, as well as the changes that occur when customs, rituals and practices migrate from one place to another.  As that sort of cultural exchange is the underlying theme of this blog, I thought I'd share the results of my work with you here.

First, there's the "Digital Guide" that appears on the Sinfonietta website. Besides brief essays on the composers, performers and works being performed, there are embedded videos that illustrate the selections and uniqueness of the artists. Because of the dictates of marketing, the essays are short and (hopefully) snappy, designed to intrigue you enough to watch a video and then (ca-ching!) buy a ticket.

The program notes were a chance to stretch out and explore the themes of the concert with a bit more depth and thoughtfulness. Please read on, and let me know if I succeeded.

Maybe I'll see you at the concert!

The Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead) has origins in pre-Columbian Mexico. Rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors have been observed there for as long as 2,500–3,000 years.  On the Aztec calendar, it was a month-long celebration occurring in August. The conquering of the “New World” by Spain changed all that. As a matter of cultural survival, indigenous customs and beliefs were often disguised by their practitioners as Catholic rituals to hide them in plain sight from their conquerors; the holiday now corresponds to the Catholic observance of All Souls’ Day. In this way, Aztec rituals were combined with those of Spanish Catholic origin to create the holiday as we know it. Further, because of this Spanish connection, some version of the holiday is also observed throughout much of the Americas. 

The holiday honors the remembrance of departed loved ones, mourning their absence while simultaneously celebrating their lives and the continuing spirit that they leave with us. Graves are cleaned and decorated. Shrines, or ofendras, are built in their honor. Favorite foods and beverages are brought and offered. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls, so the souls will hear the prayers and the comments directed to them. Here, death is not thought of as an ending, but rather a continuation of life in a different form. Celebrations often take a humorous tone, as celebrants remember funny events and anecdotes about the departed.

With our concert, the Sinfonietta captures both sorrow and joy with an aural and visual spectacle worthy of those who have passed before. We’ll travel from stark tragedy to celebratory revels, passing back and forth between the Americas and Europe, illustrating a universal yearning that all of humanity shares.

Our journey begins in early 20th century Spain, by way of Argentina, but anchored in religious and cultural traditions that pre-date both. Composer Osvaldo Golijov was born to a Jewish family in La Plata, Argentina in 1960. His mother was a piano teacher, his father, a physician. He was raised surrounded by classical, Jewish liturgical and klezmer music, and the nuevo tango of Astor Piazzolla. He studied piano and composition at the local conservatory before moving first to Israel, and then the United States to continue his studies. His music is a reflection of these multiple influences, rendered as a cohesive whole. 

Ainadamer, his first opera, premiered in 2003. The title is Arabic for “Fountain of Tears”, and the story, by noted playwright David Henry Hwang, is based on Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca and his partner and muse, the Catalan actress Margarita Xirgu. The story is told in a series of flashbacks, as Xirgu remembers García Lorca’s life and the circumstances leading to his death. Ainadamar has features of both an opera and a passion play, as it examines the powerful symbolic role García Lorca has embodied, especially among other artists, following his murder during the Spanish civil war. In this symbolism, the poet becomes a martyr in the name of freedom of artistic expression, and his soul and spirit stay alive.  

Based as it is on events in Spain, Ainadamer is filled with Iberian musical influences, notably flamenco, but the score also illuminates the Arabic and Jewish predecessors of that familiar sound.  The short Preludio is filled with ominous percussive effects, some of which are the electronically generated sounds of gurgling water and galloping hoof beats, and it segues directly into the Balada. This introduction, for orchestra, chorus and soprano, will be performed at Día de los Muertos.

If Ainadamer has elements of a religious passion play woven into its structure, the evening’s second selection is an authentic liturgical ritual, albeit one written by a master of classical music that is augmented in this performance by elements of theatrical presentation.

As noted earlier, Día de los Muertos occupies the same spot on the calendar as the Catholic All Souls’ Day. One of the rituals of the Church is the requiem mass for the dead. As such, it is also meant to honor their life. Its history and practice date back to the early Roman church. Beginning in the late 15th century, the requiem mass began to inspire a large number of composers who were drawn to the dramatic character of the ritual’s text. By the 18th century, requiems became a genre of classical music unto itself as composers began to write them as concert works separate from liturgical use.

Classical music has its share of intrigue, betrayal and people behaving badly. In other words, it’s a lot like the rest of human existence. But even by these standards, the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem stands apart. It was the composers’ final work. In fact, he died before its completion. The severely ailing Mozart was approached in 1791 by the emissary of an anonymous count who wanted a mass to commemorate the recent of the death of his wife. The composer was given half of a commission, with the balance to be paid on its completion.  The story, though, is that the count, who had artistic pretensions, planned to pass off the composition as his own. Mozart, feverish and near the end of his life, reportedly came to believe he was writing his own requiem. As it turns out, that is pretty much what happened.

After Mozart died, his widow Constanze, not wanting to lose the remaining commission, secretly had it completed by another composer, Franz Xaver Süssmayr. The finished manuscript was delivered bearing Mozart’s forged signature. However, the count’s alleged scheme to claim authorship was derailed when a public performance of the requiem, organized by Constanze, was given before the count presented his. If all of this sounds familiar, it is because a somewhat fictionalized account of the episode appeared in Peter Shaffer’s play (and later movie) Amadeus.

The Sinfonietta’s performance of selections from the Requiem will be dramatized by inventive costumes created by Redmoon Theater that will be worn by members of the choir. The skeleton designs that Redmoon created are strikingly reminiscent of images used in much Mexican folk art. These iconic figures appeared in the work of 19th century artist and cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada. Considered the most renowned Mexican popular artist, it is Posada’s images that come to mind almost automatically when we think of Día de los Muertos.

The passing of the seasons have long been used as a metaphor for the cycle of life. Who hasn’t heard the phrase “autumn years” (or its gentler counterpart “golden years”) used to describe people deep into their lives? There’s no indication that the Argentine composer and originator of nuevo tango Astor Piazzolla had this in mind when writing Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires) but there is that passionate and edge-of-tragedy feel that permeates so much of tango, so who knows? Piazzolla has certainly written pieces that directly address death and remembrance; in fact, both Adios Nonino (commemorating his father) and Oblivion have been performed at previous Sinfonietta Día de los Muertos concerts.

Piazzolla was born in Mar del Plata, not far from where Osvaldo Golijov would be born 39 years later. For many years Piazzolla lived something of a double life, playing in tango bands by night, studying classical composition by day.  While studying in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, he was made aware that the ‘classical’ forms he was copying did not reflect his true soul. Returning to Buenos Aires, he began creating what would become nuevo tango. 

Estaciones Porteñas (a porteño is a person born in the Argentine capital) was originally four separate pieces written for his tango quintet. In 1998, Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov wrote a new arrangement with a more obvious link to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by converting each of the pieces into three-section movements and re-arranging them for solo violin and string orchestra. To strengthen the link he included several quotations from Vivaldi's original work. Of course, in the southern hemisphere, warm and cold months are reversed, so some quotations are not where you’d think they would be. 

El Sombrero de tres picos (The Three Cornered Hat), the final performance of the concert, has its beginnings in a modest two act ballet by Manuel de Falla. The libretto, derived from a novella by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón, is the story of a magistrate infatuated with a miller's faithful wife and his attempts to seduce her. A 1916 performance in Madrid was witnessed by Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who was so taken by the music that he commissioned Falla to score a full orchestral ballet from its themes. The resulting work had its premiere in London in 1919, with costumes and scenery by no less a figure than Pablo Picasso.

You may have noticed that Falla’s ballet was written during roughly the same time and setting portrayed in Osvaldo Golijov’s opera. There is, though, a further connection between the two works. García Lorca, the subject of Ainadamer, was an accomplished pianist, part-time composer and something of a musicologist, especially when it came to flamenco. He and Falla were friends, and together they staged a festival of the authentic form of cante jondo, or “deep song,” as the most substantial branch of flamenco is known. Some of the singing in the complete El sombrero de tres picos is modeled after cante jondo, and flamenco rhythms power the dances. The Suite No. 2, heard tonight, consists of three orchestral dances.

In keeping with the themes of his opera, Golijov brought out flamenco’s ominous, darker underpinnings in his score, as when the sharp percussion echoes the gunshots that killed García Lorca. Falla’s tale, however, is a gentler and often humorous one with an ultimately happy ending, and the music is brighter and more celebratory because of it.

Thus, with this lively conclusion to the concert, we celebrate. But we also remember.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Las Fronteras: The Continuing Journeys of Jorge Drexler and Carla Morrison

Through some alignment of the moon and stars, Chicago was graced with two talented Latin American singer-songwriters in the same week, one three decades into a successful career, the other a rising star of indie pop. I attended both shows, and I can safely say that there was zero crossover of audience between them, separated as they are by nearly a generation.  

Jorge Drexler plants his artistry squarely in the tradition of the wandering troubadour (the album cover pictured here reproduces his passport). His songs are literate observations of multiple identities, and given his background, it seems as though they could be about little else. His father, a German Jew, moved to Montevideo, Uruguay as a child to escape the Nazis. His mother is of Spanish, French and Portuguese descent. He studied medicine and became a doctor (like his parents) but decided to be a musician instead. 

After releasing a pair of albums in Uruguay, he moved to Madrid in the early 90s, where he still lives. He began to garner international attention with his 1999 album Frontera, produced by fellow Uruguayan Juan Campodónico. If that name sounds familiar, it should. Campodónico and Argentine musician Gustavo Santaolalla are the brains and muscle behind Bajofondo’s globally encompassing brew of Río de la Plata music (the waterway separates [or connects, depending on your point of view] the two countries).  Drexler has a Beatlesque melodic touch, and Campodónico’s production illuminates this while simultaneously re-connecting Drexler to the Uruguayan musical traditions of milonga and candombe. Frontera’s electronica-enhanced sound was followed by three more collaborations; Sea, Eco, and 12 Segundos de Oscuridad. I love the sound of all of them, because my senses crave the flavors that these layered musical elements provide. I’m not sure, frankly, that I would appreciate Drexler as much if the arrangements stuck to a more conventional sound.

I brought a slight apprehension with me to the concert hall, as I really didn’t know what to expect. Would there be a band? Or just a guy, a voice and a guitar? The answer, it turns out, was somewhere in between. For the most part, a relaxed and youthful-looking Drexler performed solo on a fairly stark stage, decorated only with a glowing, color-shifting orb positioned at the back. His guitar playing is perfect for his songs, often interrupting simple strumming for odd, jazzy time changes and note choices. He’s a terrific Brazilian guitarist as well. His “band” was a set of foot pedals that sent his voice and guitar through a sequencer, subtly layering the sound of each to create multiple rhythmic and melodic patterns that echoed around the room.  Drexler is clearly enamored of his electro sounds: He brought on a colleague for a few songs to play “percussion” on what looked like a souped-up iPad and even made room for a theremin solo. In the end, Drexler achieved the best of both worlds. The intelligentsia in the audience could experience his contemplative, probing lyrics intimately while the more musically attuned could smile at the ethereal sound, tap their foot and sing along to catchy choruses.

Three nights later, I again found myself entering a concert hall with questions. Carla Morrison is the latest darling of the Latin indie music set. There are multiple identities and influences at work in her music as well. She was born in Tecate, Baja California. Both of her parents are Mexican, but the name Morrison comes from her father’s adopted name, as he was raised on the San Diego side of the border by an Anglo. Carla moved to Arizona for both high school and college and was immersed in the alternative rock scene there. She studied voice, piano, guitar and ethnomusicology before returning to Tecate, where she was in several bands before starting a solo career in 2007. By 2010, she was independently releasing music, starting with a pair of EPs and then the album length Déjenme Llorar in 2012. She has since moved to Mexico City.

I’ve recently been reading an anthology called The Late Great Mexican Border, which argues that “border culture” is a thing unto itself, distinct from Latin America but also different from Latino identity in the United States. People may live on one side of the border or the other, but their ideas and identities are shaped by both. I think Morrison’s music is representative of this. Her songs are simple, but very well written. She writes and sings almost entirely in Spanish, but the music is indie pop at its most pristine, full of twee touches like ukuleles, toy pianos and glockenspiels. Her voice is charmingly delicate; her lyrics survey matters of the heart, especially heartbreak. Now, heartbreak is a longstanding, perhaps even obsessive subject of Latin pop, but Morrison’s take leans more toward sweet melancholy than to tragedy. I like it enough, but it’s not in my daily diet.

Onstage, Morrison is confident, charming, sincere and playful in equal measure. Her band has surprising heft, powering her songs from quiet ruminations to fairly muscular, almost orchestral pop-rock. The drummer and bassist are rock solid yet capable of much finesse, while each side of the stage is flanked by multi-instrumentalists who supply strongly voiced colors ranging from trumpet to electric guitar (and those ukuleles) and synthesizers. Morrison pretty much owns the rest of the stage, whether pounding out a batucada rhythm on a drum, strumming an acoustic guitar or playing her own gorgeous, white hollow body electric. Seriously, it was the most beautiful guitar I’d ever seen, and Morrison made great use of its rich sound. When she wasn’t playing an instrument, she prowled the stage with a hand held microphone. She switched instruments pretty much between every song, and the result kept the music varied as the set moved back and forth easily from quiet ballads to upbeat power pop, even dropping a quick banda into the mix to acknowledge her Baja birthplace. And, in classic pop tradition, Morrison has a penchant for inserting wordless “ooos” into her songs. On the title track from Déjenme Llorar, piano, glockenspiel and tambourine combine on a spare ballad for a little touch of Springsteen’s E-Street Band. (The Boss has been covering, en español, songs by beloved Latin American poet/songwriters on his South American tour. I’d love to hear what he’d do with this one.)

Morrison has hinted that she would like to one day write and sing in English, but for now she is content to develop her artistic identity in her first language. She seems in no hurry to conquer the Anglo market. Jorge Drexler never has, but he really has no need to. He gained a bit of U.S. fame a few years back for his Academy Award winning theme song to The Motorcycle Diaries, Al Otro Lado del Rio. Other than a cover of Mose Allison’s I Don’t Worry About a Thing (sung with his friend, jazz pianist and vocalist Ben Sidran), he’s continued to record exclusively in Spanish. Well, there was also that Radiohead cover. Anyway, I think the difference is that Drexler is a Latin artist who interacts with the Anglo world by choice, while Morrison, the border artist, has a foot on each side and full artistic claim to both.   

We shall see.