Monday, February 18, 2013

Music Review: "The Voice" of Inspiration

                                                       © SKepecs 2013

by Susan Kepecs
Vusi Mahlasela’s concert Friday night, Feb. 15, at the Wisconsin Union Theater at The Sett, Union South, was a golden ode to Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Steve Biko and legions of other warriors who fought to free South Africa from apartheid.  Mahlasela himself fought in that army –  a humble poet of stripped-down mbaqanga and township jive, he’s called “The Voice” not just because he can sing like gangbusters, but because he gives voice to the movement for peace, freedom and justice in South Africa and around the world, following in the gigantic footsteps of Mama Africa, the late Miriam Makeba, who Mahlasela cites as one of his greatest influences. The ghost of Mama Africa was in the house Friday night, along with the stalwart spirits of other ancestors, both gone and living, who fill out Mahlasela’s musical lineage.  But in a sense they’re our forerunners too, because ultimately we’re all children of Africa.  That’s an empirical fact of human evolution. 
Onstage it was just Mahlasela, a helluva guitarist, on an amped acoustic instrument (which he sometimes danced with as he played), accompanied by a backup guitar player whose name I didn’t catch and who often gazed at Mahlasela in apparent amazement, wielding an electric axe that he sometimes played like a bass, sometimes like a rhythm instrument and occasioualy like a second lead, harmonizing with Mahlasela’s double-thumbed melodies.  Similarly, this second player sometimes sang on the chorus, providing bass counterpoint to Mahlasela’s incredible vocal range that flows from deep tenor to Motown-like falsetto, with an occasional low growl. The resulting, unmistakable township sound was as round and full as the summer sun. 
Its about ubuntu, Mahlasela says of his songs.  “If you don’t know what ubuntu means, Google it!”  But before anybody could whip out an iPhone he went on, defining ubuntu as “the gift of Africa – the gift of everyday kindness, humbleness, tolerance, forgiveness, reconciliation, redistribution.” 
This hopeful message, like the joyfulness of Mahlasela’s songs, seems poignantly at odds with the reality of today’s South Africa.  It’s been fourteen years since Mandela, now 94, stepped down from his hard-won presidency. Raging inequalities persist, and violent police attacks on striking mine workers echo apartheid-era confrontations.  But the luscious songs Malhasela sings in Zulu and Xhosa (including a couple of “click” songs) – interspersed with stories told in English so we could understand the meaning, if not the content, of the lyrics – should inspire us all to righteous revolution. 
“In 1984, when Dr. Tutu won the Nobel Price,” Mahlasela says, “we were celebrating in Soweto – the United Democratic Front [a student-worker-church alliance closely tied to Mandela’s African National Congress].  I was there. Somebody in the crowd was carying a poster of a face.  It was Zindzi Mandela, one of Nelson’s daughters, who read a letter by Nelson telling us to keep up the struggle.  We found out that what she was carrying was a portrait of Mandela!  We didn’t know how our leaders looked – they’d been imprisoned on Robben Island since before we were born.  It was so exciting to see that picture!  We were shouting ‘¡Viva Nelson Mandela! ¡Viva!’ 
                                                                © SKepecs 2013
And with that, Mahlasela launched into a big, joyful, grinning song for Mandela, head tossed back, fist raised in revolutionary salute.  I was dying to stand up, raise my own fist, and dance.  I’m sure others in the audience were, too, but Mahlasela commanded so much respect that nobody did.
Among Mahlasela’s other ubuntu tunes Friday night were “Sing, Sing Africa,” the ITV theme song during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa; “Say Africa,” the title cut off his latest CD, produced by Taj Mahal (ATO Records, 2011); the lovely “Woza,” a love song, also from Say Africa – classic township jive, smooth as silk, sweet as honey, edged with a smidge of soaring falsetto.
And “Thula Mama,” a song “to all the women in South Africa, and especially to my late grandmother who protected me as a young activist from the police.”
“I was 11 in 1976,” Mahlasela continued, explaining the story behind this last tune. “On June 16 there was a student uprising – the youth changed the politics of South Africa.  I joined the movement.  The police rounded us up every year on the anniversary of the uprising.  My grandmother protected me – when the police came she turned off all the lights in the house and opened the kitchen door and she told them ‘Vusi’s here and you’re not going to take him!  I’ve got a pot of boiling water and the first one who comes in here gets it!’ 
And then, dancing with his guitar, he launched into the song.  It ends with a happy, catchy, looping refrain – “my song of life, my song of love” – which, along with thunderous applause, accompanied his exit from the stage.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Review: West Side Story, 54 Years Later

by Susan Kepecs
Four days after seeing the touring production of West Side Story's 50th anniversary revival, which premiered on Broadway in 2009 and came to Overture Hall on Tues., Feb. 12, I’m still singing the songs – proof of the old Broadway musical’s artistic potency.  Being an old Boomer, I saw the original touring production at the long-gone Erlanger Theater in Chicago with my artsy, bohemian parents in the winter of ’59-60. When the movie came out a year later I saw that, too, more than once.  I owned the LP and played the rings off it.  My friends and I imitated the play’s linguistic coolness – the Jets snapping their fingers and going “Go, Daddy-O!”
It’s been more decades than I want to count since I’ve thought about West Side Story.  Watching the revival Tuesday night I ricocheted constantly between the sheer joy of remembering all the words to all the songs and the shock of recognizing its racist / sexist content – for the first time. West Side Story is a 20th century take on Romeo and Juliet, but it’s built on an ethnic conflict Shakespeare’s lily-white Elizabethan characters could never conceive – the post WWII Puerto Rican migration from the island to New York.  The Jets – the “American” gang (though Puerto Rico, a US territory, is “America” too, without the right to vote) – reign supreme. “We’re the Jets! The greatest!”  In song, dance, and spoken lyrics the white boys shout at the unfortunate Sharks to “go back home!” Anita, the girlfriend of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, is a cartoonish stereotype of a “hot Latina.”  She gets gang-raped by the Jets, while no white girl is similarly treated.
Today it seems impossible that the quartet of gay Jewish men who created West Side Story – Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins, four of the greatest talents in 20th century theater – could have been so naïve.  Or that the hip, urban audiences of the ‘50s and ‘60s were, too. But if you can shake the antiquated implications of West Side Story and take it as a period piece, the revival (directed by Laurents, who wrote the original script, directed the 2009 production on Broadway, and died in 2011) bears the test of time. 
The touring cast was uneven.  Marijoanna Grisso, as María, has a lovely, bel canto-ish voice, though the handsome Addison Reid Coe, as Tony, couldn’t hit his high notes, which was distracting. But the Bernstein / Sondheim score is still brilliant.  The  restaging is pleasantly old-school, simple but clever.  The revival’s a teensy bit bilingual, which lends a smidge of new authenticity – and touches of humor – to the action beneath the West Side highway.  It tickled my funny bone when one of the Puerto Rican girls told the others that “María está bailando con un gringo que realmente es Polaco,” because I didn’t expect it; I laughed out loud when Gladhand, the social worker character whose job is to smooth relations between the Jets and the Sharks at the dance at the gym, spoke pidgeon Spanglish, accentuating the fact that he didn’t roll his “r’s” – “A little abstinencia, pohr favohr!”
The pinnacle of the play, though, was Joey McKneely’s dusting-off of Jerome Robbins’ spunky choreography – the amazing Robbins was, of course, along with George Balanchine, the quintessential 20th century choreographer. McKneely stuck close to the original, but the dancers in today’s musicals have much better technique than most of their predecessors, lending the dances surprising new power.
I’ll probably never see West Side Story again, but I’m really glad I caught it one last time.