Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Jazz saxophonist Miguel Zenón comes to the 'hood.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to explore Chicago's diversity through the lens of my own immigrant heritage. I've come to realize that even though I am a third generation American with little overt connection to my Czech grandparents and the country that they came from, I still identify with that heritage. This is not exactly specific to that particular European background, but rather a recognition of how growing up in Chicago along with other sons and daughters of immigrants provides the lens through which I view the Chicago of today.

When I visit the southwest side neighborhood that I grew up in and see that it is now predominantly Mexican-American, it makes perfect sense. Then and now, it is a tidy neighborhood of modest houses occupied by working class people who are striving to make a better world for their children, but the signs on the storefronts are in a different language. I have a real affinity for these simple neighborhoods far from the glamour of downtown.

Hermosa is one such neighborhood, albeit one much older than the post World War II area that I lived in. In the early 20th century, Hermosa was full of manufacturing and warehouse jobs. Schwinn bicycles came from Hermosa. Walt Disney was born to a carpenter father there. It was and still remains a blue collar place.

It is also, like my childhood home, now predominantly Latino. The forces at work here are a little bit different, though, as many of these residents were displaced from neighboring Wicker Park, Humboldt Park and Logan Square by gentrification.

So was, in a sense, the place I was at last night. Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, and a little over 40 of those years were spent in Wicker Park. The current space opened in 2013. Their core focus is on Puerto Rican culture, but expands to include other Latino groups as well. Last night they hosted saxophonist and MacArthur Fellow Miguel Zenón in a free community event in conjunction with Zenón's Grammy nominated project Identities are Changeable, which is being presented live by the University of Chicago. Zenón was born in Puerto Rico, but by now he has lived over half of his life in the U.S. His heritage, though, remains the intellectual center of his work, so far spawning no less than five albums.

I wrote an appreciation of the event for Agúzate, an Afro-Latin journal that is kind enough to publish my work. You can read that HERE, but before you do, let me quote Miguel Zenón from an interview I did with him a few weeks ago.

“The Puerto Rican community in Chicago is one of the most important and historic communities outside of the island, so all of the ideas from the project would definitely apply there as well. But then again, I think that this is an idea that could apply to any immigrant community anywhere.”

Indeed. I am far from my grandparents immigrant experience, but I can imagine them negotiating life in a new country far from their place of birth. My parents grew up Americans, of course, but Czech was still spoken in their childhood homes. And now there is me, further removed, yet still connected by the same bloodline.

And I can relate.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Getting through this thing called life

I should be working right now. I have clients who are expecting stuff from me. So, apologies there. I'll get back to you soon. Promise!

The sudden death of Prince yesterday morning has turned everything upside down. I've been able to get back to work periodically by shutting off my social media feeds. This, however, is nearly impossible when social media is one of the tools that you use to earn a living. So most of the last two days have been consumed with me consuming a non-stop stream of Prince related material: tributes, personal reflections, videos, news reports. It is what social media does best, creating community out of a far flung network of friends, associates and the friends and associates of friends and associates. (Read it slowly. It does make sense.)

It also raises questions. What does it mean when you are brought to tears, like I have been repeatedly over the last two days, by someone you don't really know? The answer lies, I think, in the power of art, but it also lies in each of us and how we have reacted to that art. In the case of Prince, everything - his music, of course, but also his style, his attitude, his willingness to be confrontational, his honesty that masqueraded itself as fantasy, his spirituality, his sexuality - was his art.

I loved Prince. No, let me change that to the present tense. I love Prince. Because, for most of us, Prince is a collection of impressions forged through media. Even those of us who were lucky enough to see a live performance, well, that's what it was, a performance, those impressions brought magically to life for a brief time. And all of that still exists, even if only in our minds. Hell, in the coming days, months and years there will be even more. So, yes, I love Prince. Present tense.

I find writing somewhat difficult. I'm methodical. I relentlessly self-edit. Words might tumble out of my fingers, but they will be sliced and diced a thousand times before anyone gets to read them, and even then I'll have regrets. This is not a particularly useful trait in the internet and social media age, where being first is a prized advantage. As a consequence, you'll never see long Facebook posts from me about anything. I just don't trust myself enough to rush anything out there.

But the last 24 hours of reading other people trying to make sense out of their grief over Prince's death has been quite amazing. Reading them has provided me an insight into who they are that I previously lacked. One was from a work colleague from two decades ago. A gay African-American man in his 40's (dude, I'm sorry if I'm guessing wrong) who has since moved to New York, wrote a long and illuminating post that said, in part, "I think PRINCE was the first being who I recognized did not give a single f*uck what you thought about him. I remember in the 80's being more than a little afraid of PRINCE. He exuded a black gender bending sexuality that dared you to look. He confronted my own awakening queerness with a bravery I didn't possess. And he not only made it ok to be other, he rejoiced in it."

Another couldn't come from a more different source, but then again, maybe not. A 30-ish (again, apologies if I got that part wrong) Mexican-American woman that I just met in January wrote "Imagine being 13, pretty sheltered, Catholic-school educated and discovering songs like Cream, Horny Toad, Erotic City, Darling Nikki, Get Off and Sexy MF... at a time when the message I got constantly and from all directions that sex was wrong and dirty, Prince offered an opposing message and for that I'm forever grateful."

A third friend is a filmmaker and undoubtedly the biggest Prince fan I know. You know that language that Prince invented, the one that substitutes pictures, numerals and single letters for words? A week hasn't gone by in the last decade where I didn't see a post of his that employed that vocabulary. Of course my friend is posting about Prince regularly, but mostly upbeat stuff accompanied by statements of faith and, dare I say it, joy. Perhaps he is masking his grief, or, equally possible, perhaps he understands Prince in a different way than the rest of us. But I've also noticed something else, a community of people I don't know at all reaching out to my friend to offer him condolences, like you do with family.

Another was a re-purposed Twitter post from someone that I don't even know: "Thinking about how we mourn artists we've never met. We don't cry because we knew them, we cry because they helped us know ourselves." 

And, finally, a brief exchange that I had with a fellow culture writer whose work I enjoy. We found ourselves on different parts of the Bowie-Prince continuum. I love Prince, admire Bowie. For her, the other way around.

So, why do I love Prince? I have to look to the 80s and where I was when I first became aware of him. So, where was I? Pretty much right where I was born, the south side of Chicago, and already a veteran of what we used to call the "record business". Totally into music, mostly rock but also R&B and even some disco. And I was getting divorced and working in a dive bar, taking advantage of my huge record collection, using it to fill a tiny dance floor. 

And Prince filled that damn dance floor, this sexy music from this ambiguously but very sexy little dude writing songs with a fearless freedom that my own life lacked. I saw the world a little differently after hearing Prince. With 1999, Prince seemed to peer into the future, see the apocalypse, and respond with hedonistic joy. Good news for all of us facing our tiny, private apocalypses every day. By Purple Rain he was already working both sides of the spiritual/sexual divide in astonishing fashion. It was a great soundtrack for a pretty chaotic time of my life, and it helped me find my way.

I generally respond to music feet first. If it doesn't make me want to move, then I have to consciously set my internal machinery to appreciation mode to give it a fair listen. Prince, of course, had this covered. I was hooked from the first four bars and had plenty of time later to admire its complexity and innovation. And that, I think, is why I merely admire David Bowie. It's no surprise that I actually like his Young Americans and Let's Dance stuff better, even if it's not acknowledged as his most creative stuff, even when I know Heroes or Ziggy are superior albums. To me, Bowie always felt like a method actor inhabiting and discarding radically different roles. An amazing artistic achievement, to be sure, but not one that spoke directly to my rock & soul aesthetic the way Prince did.

But I gotta give some props to David Bowie. 

Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix and James Brown are often cited as Prince's antecedents, and even a casual listen brings all of those to the surface pretty quickly. Bowie's music would seem to be the antitheses of these, a deliberately artful construction designed for the head, not the body. But the outpourings that came in the wake of Bowie's death earlier this year have a remarkable similarity to those I've read in the last two days: Bowie made it OK for me to be me. I can't help but think that Prince saw that too.

Adios, sweet Prince. I'll see you in the after world. 


Monday, March 14, 2016

Lone Piñon: Getting to the heart of it

My work brings me in contact with a number of musicians who play traditional Mexican folk. Unlike pop music, which freely draws from anywhere it wants, I sometimes hear questions of authenticity with regards as who gets to play traditional Mexican music and under what conditions it is performed. There is a certain amount of wariness when it comes to perceived interlopers that borrow from traditional forms, but bend them to their own artistic purposes, something that creatively restless pop musicians often depend on for inspiration. Think Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon and David Byrne, to name three that I've always admired. Yet, I've even heard criticism of groups like East LA's Las Cafeteras, who mix up folk forms like son jarocho with indie pop songwriting, traces of hip-hop and a left leaning political platform. This, despite the fact that, as Chicanos, they would seem to have a legitimate claim on Mexican roots music.

And that brings me to this past Friday night and a show at Sabor a Café Steakhouse by Lone Piñon, a trio from Santa Fe, New Mexico that plays Mexican music in a stripped down, but ultimately complex manner: a trio of fiddle, guitar and guitarrón who perform totally acoustic, standing behind a single microphone through which all amplification passes, instruments and vocals alike, resulting in a startlingly organic sound that washes over you all at once without stereo separation.

Only Noah Martinez, the guitarrón player, hails from New Mexico, and his family roots go back all the way to colonial times. The other members of the trio, fiddler / lead vocalist Jordan Wax and guitarist Greg Glassman, come to Mexican folk from other fields. Wax, a Missouri native, studied Ozark mountain fiddling, has done time in a Klezmer punk band and, while living in Quito, Ecuador, played in a Latin Ska group. Guitarist Glassman, from New York City, studied with Gnawa musicians in Morocco, drummed for experimental jazz and Irish punk outfits, and even played rockabilly and gospel before traveling to Veracruz to study son jarocho.

They've been together as Lone Piñon for only a few years, but if I had to judge from what I heard Friday night absent any other information, I'd swear they've been doing this their whole lives. They concentrate on music from Mexico's Huasteca and Tierra Caliente regions, plus the area known as El Rio Grande del Norte: Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. There are occasional forays into West Texas swing, son jarocho, corrido and even ranchera. Huapangos are the attention getters, but there are waltzes and polkas sprinkled through and even the occasional tender ballad. After a while, you start to hear the sound behind the sound, as intimations of the music's European and American folk influences simmer just below the surface. At times, it even feels a bit like gypsy jazz a la Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli.

Ultimately, you sense the band's deep respect for the music and cultures from which it emerged, honoring its integrity with the purity of their all acoustic instrumental approach. There is no updating going on, but there is a subtle blending, like a good spice mix, as they bring their diverse backgrounds to this music. New Mexico itself, you might remember, was Mexico (along with Arizona, Texas Nevada and California) until what is called on this side of the border the Mexican-American War of 1846-47, which resulted in massive U.S. expansion. It has the highest percentage of both Hispanic and Indigenous populations of any contiguous U.S. state. But it's also close to the Midwest and it of course borders Texas and Oklahoma. All of this is present in New Mexico, and it is present in the music of Lone Piñon as well.

But enough of academics! Lone Piñon are, first and foremost, crack musicians and singers, but the casualness of their presentation belies this expertise, instead conjuring the feel of a gathering of good friends. Jordan Wax kills on Huapango style vocals, and when Glassman joins in on harmonies, the effect is magic, made all the more so by their unique one microphone presentation. The interplay between fiddle and guitar, anchored by Martinez's flawless bottom on the guitarrón, will make your jaw drop, then pull it back up into a wide grin.

Lone Piñon's recorded live in the studio album Trio Nuevomexicano was just released, and I'm kicking myself that I spent all my money on cerveza on Friday, leaving nothing for the CD. But you can download it from Amazon or stream it on Spotify, and it does a pretty darn good job of capturing who they are. Nothing beats a live show, though, so check their website to find out when they're coming to a city or folk festival near you.

You wont regret it.