Thursday, February 26, 2015

Twenty Years of Freedom -- Hugh Masekela and Vusi Mahlasela, onstage at the Union Theater!

by Susan Kepecs
Two towering masters of South African liberation songs, Hugh Masekela and Vusi Mahlasela, come to Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater – together! – on Friday, March 6.  It’s their “20 Years of Freedom” tour, a jubilant tribute to the date in May, 1994, on which Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa, ushering in democracy and ending 50 brutal years of apartheid.  This is high holy music of civil rights, and it couldn’t come at a better time. You know why.  The Supremes gutted the 1965 Civil Rights Act in 2013; Scotty is hell-bent on instituting the worst voter ID law in the land right here in Wisconsin; Ferguson; Selma, the story of a seminal moment in US civil rights history and the only movie that mattered this year, got totally snubbed at the Oscars (ok, it got “Best Song” for the John Legend / Common theme “Glory,” but come on, it should have swept up).  
Like Legend and Common, and the legends of gospel, soul and R&B also featured on Selma’s soundtrack, Masekela and Mahlasela make music to cherish and celebrate.  It’s part of who we are, too, since their civil rights movement and ours were – and are – a two-way street. After Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to Robben Island in 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. denounced South Africa’s savage white regime. “Free at last,” Mandela said in his 1994 inauguration address, echoing MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech three decades earlier.
The power-to-the-people joyful noise anthems of Masekela, Mahlasela and others were a uniting force in the resistance that led to the overthrow of apartheid.  Not all of these songs are overt – Miriam Makeba (Mama Afrika), the high priestess of African song, was exiled for speaking out against apartheid and became a global activist for the cause, but she often sang traditional though usually jazzy songs in Xhosa, Zulu and Swahili – lightening rods that defied white dominance simply through the power of deeply shared culture. 
Masekela and Mahlasela – the former in particular – often write potent political lyrics.  “Some if greatest musicians came from some of the most racist eras in human history,” Maseleka told me in an interview I did with him before his 2008 concert with the Chisa All Stars at the Wisconsin Union Theater.  “The great example is Louis Armstrong, who was born in New Orleans at a tragic, racist time, but brought so much joy to the world. Many artists start to find the quality of joy when they’re oppressed and inspired.  The songs people like come from some force that has universal appeal.  My songs aren’t my doing.  I get them from the forces of inspiration and my African resources.  I’m just a channel for the people I come from.” 

Masekela, the grand old man of township jazz with his wailing horn and his gravelly, patinated voice, was born in 1939 in the coal-mining town called Witbank, east of Johannesburg.  There his grandmother brewed sorghum beer and ran a shebeen (speakeasy) for the miners. When he was eight the family moved to Alexandria Township, a cosmopolitan slum that he describes (in the autobiographical liner notes on his 1993 album, Hope), as being a mecca for music and soccer, with a wildly multiethnic population. “[It was] teeming with gangs, rife with crime, the best hideout for fugitives running from the law, the bedrock of the African National Committee’s defiance campaigns.” 
As a teen in the early ‘50s Masekela got hooked on American musicians – Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Mahalia Jackson, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Bud Powell. At the movies, he saw Young Man with a Horn, in which Kirk Douglas plays a jazz-age trumpet player. That sealed Masekela’s ambition.  From the anti-apartheid Anglican bishop Trevor Huddleston, who ministered Johannesburg’s townships in the ‘40s and ‘50s, the young Masekela received a beat-up old trumpet. With that horn he joined township dance bands and, with a handful of other young musicians, put together the first bebop combo to record in South Africa, the Jazz Epistles.
On the heels of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre (in which 69 anti-apartheid protestors were shot by police) Masekela split for the States. That was also the year of the first lunch-counter sit-in, at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, N.C.
“I was brought to the US by Miriam Makeba, my childhood friend,” Masekela told me in that 2008 interview. “When I arrived there I was looking to play with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. So many jazz trumpet players worked with him – Clifford Brown, Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard – I thought I might have a chance there. But I didn’t get it. My destiny was Africa. Miriam used to tell me, ‘If you play New York jazz you’ll be just another jazz musician, but if you put the music of home in it you will stand out.’
“It was very hard for me to make that transition, but it opened a great window. I had to stretch my memory for my township dance-band days, but I was pleasantly surprised by how that music was received.”
Masekela’s first album, The Emancipation of Hugh Masekela, was recorded on his own label, Chisa, in 1966.  But it was his second release, Promise of a Future (Chisa, 1968) – the one with the chart-buster “Grazin’ in the Grass” – that made him famous. 

A year before Emancipation came out, Mahlasela was born in Mamelodi township, outside Pretoria. A humble poet of stripped-down mbaqanga and township jive, and a helluva guitarist, Mahlasela, who cites Mama Afrika as his greatest influence, possesses the most incredible vocal range that flows from deep tenor to Motown-like falsetto, with an occasional low growl.  But 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. 
Mahalesela’s activisim was triggered by police brutality unabated a generation past Sharpeville.  “I was 11 in 1976,” he said from the Wisconsin Union Theater World Stage at the Sett, Union South, during his 2013 show there.  “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!’”
Unlike Masekela, Mahlasela, though he was often arrested for writing protest songs, never left the townships.  “In 1984, when Dr. Tutu won the Nobel Prize,” he said that night at the Sett, “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!’
 Mahlasela wrote his most famous anthem, “When You Come Back,” for those heroes he’d never seen.  He sang it, a decade later, at Mandela’s presidential inauguration. 

For the upcoming concert, I was able to catch up with Masekela and Mahlasela via email.  This sort of interview lacks the flow of a phoner or live conversation, but in their writing styles there are glimpses of the differences in their historical perspectives and their offstage personalities in that lend a new dimension to their performance partnership.

CulturalOyster: This is heaven – the two of you together in one concert – and singing freedom songs, including some of your own.  It’s like going to church for us old lefties in the States.  The two of you have shared the stage before, I believe – were you both onstage when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated?

Mahlasela: Thank you. Heaven!  Quite a compliment.  I don’t believe Hugh performed at the inauguration. 

Masekela: I was on tour in the US and Europe with the late, magnificent Miriam Makeba. Our group voted [for Mandela, for president] at the United Nations in NYC.

CulturalOyster: How did the idea for this tour come about? 

Masekela: I have always admired Vusi’s wonderful voice and wished to work with him. One day my agent at Opus 3 artists called me to talk about this tour. Be careful of what you wish for because you might get it. 

Mahlasela: Hugh and I have long been musical comrades at home in South Africa, and we’ve done a few one-off shows together here and there, but never an extended tour.  We thought it would be fun to put our heads together and honor the music that was so important during the struggle and after the struggle.  Music played quite an important role for all of us and it still does – we want to share that music with our audiences. 

CulturalOyster: Mr. Mahlasela, in the 1970s when you were a boy Mr. Masekela, and Mama Afrika, too, were already very famous in the US.  Did you know Mr. Masekela’s music when you were growing up in South Africa, or did you only come to know of him later? 

Mahlasela: Oh yes, of course.  I’ve admired bra Hugh for a long time now and have been inspired by his music and by his tenacity as a leader.  And Mama Afrika as well – she was a true inspiration to me.  I feel lucky that I often perform with some of the singers from her band, and I feel lucky to be on this tour with Hugh.

CulturalOyster: Mr. Masekela, do you mind if the audience sings along with you on “Bring Back Nelson Mandela?”  Last time you were here we did, if I remember right, and we were still singing it in Madison days later.

Masekela: We love it when the audience sings along because we sound like a Joyous Army together.

CulturalOyster: South Africa still has challenges that Mandela was unable to resolve during his time in office.  How do the songs of the struggle before he was freed and elected resonate with South African youth today – does this music still have a role to play?

Masekela: We do not know yet. We are dealing with current shortcomings for which no songs have really been written yet.

Mahlasela: We have to remind our youth of these songs, and not only of these songs but of their history.  We have learned to forgive but we have not forgotten and that history is so important to what South Africa is today. But even if our anti-apartheid songs are just historical, music in general is extremely important. Our country still faces a lot of hardships (poverty, lack of education, continued racism), and music is a vehicle to send us all some much-needed joy.

CulturalOyster: Your styles are so very different in some ways – yet there’s township jive, mbquanga, all the classic South African elements, in both of you.  How do you see your collaboration?  And how will this concert work – are you performing together, separately, or both? 

Masekela: We are performing together as a duo and the audiences are loving it. We are both children of the townships and are comfortably at home together with what we are doing.

Mahlasela: We’ll cover all those styles you mention.  It’s a collaborative show with a collaborative band, so it’s not as if you’ll see my show and then Hugh’s show—it’s one big joint show. We play some of my music, some of Hugh’s, some Miriam – it’s a big mixture of it all.  It’s a really fun night of music and a great opportunity to share these songs that we find so important with the rest of the world.  Whether we’re on the stage or riding around from gig to gig, this tour is really fun for us.  We all keep each other laughing and playing great music.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Dance Review: Madison Ballet's Repertory I

Smith's "Nuoto"                           © Kat Stiennon 2015

by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s Repertory I – I attended the matinĂ©e on Sat., Feb. 7 – was a guest choreographer’s showcase, featuring three works by outside dancemakers plus a piece by Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith.  Programs of this sort are by nature experimental, and, as with most experiments, some results were better than others.  Performing four highly stylistically diverse works in one fell swoop is challenging.  Spunky Marguerite Luksik was temporarily sidelined with an injury; her absence was noticeable.  Plus this is a transition year for the company – nearly half the dancers are new to Madison Ballet this season, and some are still feeling their way in.  Given all these factors, the occasional unevensess of the performance was no surprise.
Jin-Wen Yu’s “Un Bolero Azul,” a pas de deux, was a terrific showcase for company apprentice Annika Reikersdorfer, who just turned 18 and who’s possessed of a feathery, limber  lightness and a palpable sense of artistry that comes naturally to very few ballerinas.  Reikersdorfer was perfectly matched with and smoothly partnered by Jackson Warring.  But the pas was, as are many of Yu’s works, too long; much of the excessive floorwork could have been cut.  And, with a few exceptions – a bit of slink, a few flamenco-like piques for Reikersdorfer, bent leg crossed over standing leg instead of set at the knee – the piece had none of the smoke and smolder of Spanish bolero.  The disjunction between title and dance was largely due to the music; it was hard to get a grasp on Yu’s intent, but his choice – a soft-edged, New Age / classical, deconstructed bolero by the Welsh / Finnish group Adiemus Singers – perhaps was made for conceptual reasons.   
"Jiffy Pop" © Kat Stiennon 2015
Jacqueline Stewart’s urban-contemporary “Jiffy Pop,” with its varied, urban score, is the anti-ballet – no pointework, an angular vocabulary, and abundant grotesque gesticulations that revealed the muscularity of the dancers clad in brief, dark swimsuits.  This interesting but difficult work for six was notable for its surprising use of the proscenium arch; in one section Shannon Quirk, looking uncharacteristically tough in her minimalist bathing suit, wielded an enormous golden picture frame that she swung to the left or the right; with it she channeled the viewer’s attention, in spurts, toward strikingly Cubist views of the dancers’ bodies – an extended leg; a pair of torsos; spidering arms framing a grimace.The unframed action was rendered moderately peripheral, a slightly disconcerting – in a good way – effect.  Humor graced the edges of this oddly harsh work; a couple of times Quirk turned the frame on herself, calling attention to her exaggeratedly coquettish postures and expressions; once, in a different section, Phillip Ollenburg lifted her; she wriggled vehemently, a universial “put me down!” demand. 

"Am I My Brother's Keeper"   © SKepecs 2015

General Hambrick’s “Am I My Brother’s Keeper” hit closer to home, done in a mix of neoclassical ballet (lots of sweeping penches and attitude turns) and Alvin Aileyisms (as when the six dancers in this work, grouped, stretched their arms out like eagle wings above Graham-like contractions).  Everything about this piece worked, from its angular electronic Steve Reich score to its deliciously abstract narrative.  The dance began with a striking image – the women, wearing flowy white tunics lit golden, rode the men’s shoulders, moving arms and torsos slowly, as if through ether; the men, unlit, were barely visible.  Once the ghostly figures were set down they became players in a courtship game that ran the emotional gamut from playful to furious. Couples swapped partners; sometimes men danced with men, or women with women.  But the story swirled mostly around the central pair, the very buff Cody Olsen and the elegant, long-limbed Quirk.  These two have great chemistry that dates back to their superb performance in Marlene Skog’s 2010 “Swans,” performed in Madison Ballet’s spring repertory concert in 2013.  In Hambrick’s piece their onstage relationship was loaded with emotional drama and choreographic finesse that showed them off to excellent advantage.  There was plenty of sweeping, circular movement, as when Olsen lifted Quirk, both legs bent in attitude, and swirled her around.  In spots the two became one; in a particularly striking ship prow lift done with both dancers facing front their arms, stretched out in second position, were intertwined, making a single pair of thick, winglike arms; Quirk’s head was thrown back, obscuring Olsen's, her legs wrapped behind his back.  The oddly alien creature this lift created had one pair of legs – Olsen’s – planted firmly on the ground in a wide second position stance.
The full-company finale, a very lighthearted neoclassical work, "Nuoto," Italian for swimming, was classic W. Earle Smith – pure neoclassical ballet adorned with all the jazzy little accoutrements he loves. Smiling company members were decked out in 1930s-style swimwear in bright primary colors.  The work opened and closed with sections for the full company, involving port de bras suggestive of diving or swimming over lots of unison allegro footwork.  In the middle were solos and smaller group numbers.  Sections for the women were playful, in the “dancing as music made visible” vein -- a bright, airy solo by newcomer Kristin Hammer; a pure allegro piece for all six women built on little pas de chats and quick coupe jete turns, in unison or in mirroring groups of three.  The men’s sections, in contrast, were outright funny.  Ollenburg’s dance with a little rubber duck was both bold and touching, memorable for both his bravura and the delighted-kid way he carried around the tiny yellow toy, tossing it in the air and catching it – he never missed! An Italian jig for all five men, colorful, muscular, hornpipe-ish, was unexpected, and it made me laugh out loud. Olsen and Jason Gomez cavorted behind a big beach towel held up at the waist. When their dance was over they turned their backs to the audience to prance offstage, towel still held to the fore, revealing – yes – nothing but little flesh-toned thongs!
It’s hard to sum up such a diverse program, but in spite of its slight inconsistencies Rep I was a pretty delightful show.  
"Nuoto"    © SKepecs 2015

Monday, February 2, 2015

Bill T. Jones Returns to the Wisconsin Union Theater

by Susan Kepecs
The Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Dance Company returns to Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater on Sat., Feb. 14, after a nine-year absence.  The company, named for master choreographer Bill T. Jones and his partner in life and dance, Arnie Zane, who died of AIDS in 1988, was founded in 1983; today it’s a major force in the world of modern dance. Jones, artistic director and choreographer for his own company, is a force in the broader scope of the performing arts, too – he does double duty as executive artistic director of New York Live Arts, formerly the legendary Dance Theater Workshop.  Over the course of his career he’s won slews of awards and accolades – have a look:
Like the late, great modernist of American ballet, George Balanchine, Jones has a penchant for the popular arts; several Tony awards twinkle in his crown, most recently the one he received for directing and choreographing the Afrobeat hit Fela!.  But also like Balanchine, Jones’ primary realm is art high and pure.  
Jones occupies his own niche in dance performance; his work shares little, save occasional rhythmic angularity, with the stark expressionism of the mid-twentieth century modern dancemakers, and his lovely, athletic creations are neither ballet nor postmodern, though they contain elements of both.
         Jones is no stranger to the Wisconsin Union Theater, having performed here three times in the 1990s and twice in the ‘00s.  All of those performances have revealed different sides of the artist.  In a striking turnaround from his irate, insurgent works about AIDS and race relations of the 1990s, his 2002 repertory concert, with the Orion String Quartet live onstage, was lush and formal – in an interview I did for Isthmus before that event he described the program as being “about the relationship of dance and music to my heart.”  His evening-length work from 2005, Blind Date (performed here in spring, 2006), was an activist work in a new vein, his chosen weapon against the neocons’ long war in Iraq.  "What does it mean to be a world citizen?  What's a conservative?  What's a patriot? Why is liberal a bad word?" Jones asked then.  He had his dancers run with these questions, developing characters and stories that he wove together to make the piece. 
The Feb. 14 program, overarchingly titled “Play and Play: An Evening of Movement and Music,” is a return to formalism, though subtle undercurrents of social commentary run throughout.  On the bill are three repertory works from different periods, featuring his current company with students from the UW-Madison Dance Department (who perform, I think – I’ve had slightly different reports on this – in two of the three dances) and live accompaniment by students from the UW-Madison School of Music.  

            “Spent Days Out Yonder” (2000), to the Andante from Mozart’s String Quartet No. 23, is reconstructed from the original – “an extended improvisation that’s in its fifth generation,” Jones says.  The piece, an excerpt from a longer work titled “You Walk?,” was commissioned for an Italian festival; at the time its theme was billed as culture contact between the sixteenth century Italian explorers (Columbus was from Genoa, you know) and the natives of the New World, though it’s very hard to find that thread in this dance. Today Jones has dropped that description, calling “Spent Days” one of his pure music pieces. 
“Continuous Replay” (1977) was, Jones says, “a solo that Arnie Zane made for himself that’s evolved over time.  We did it as a duet for a while when he was alive, and once he did it with nine dancers.  I revived it after he died.”  The current version dates to 1991, though Jones says he’s reworking it yet again.
This work, set to a complex score that includes bits of Beethoven and silent spaces, was composed / arranged by contemporary dance composer Jerome Begin, director of Juilliard’s dance division.  Part of “Continuous Replay” is usually done nude.  But ever since Stuart Gordon’s hippie version of Peter Pan, staged at the UW Memorial Union Play Circle in 1969 – it contained a naked dance that caused a huge uproar in then-cow town Madison – the UW Board of Regents has had a policy banning nude students on stage.  I’ve heard that Dance Department students will perform in this piece, so if that’s correct there’ll be costuming (of a minimal sort, I expect) where ordinarily there wouldn’t be.
The program ends with Jones’ ebullient signature work, “D-Man in the Waters” (1989, revised 1998).  The D stands for company dancer Demian Acquavella, who, like Zane, died of AIDS.  “I often accompany the work with a choreoraphic note by word artist Jenny Holzer – ‘in a dream you saw a way to survive, and you were full of joy,” Jones says.  “The piece is an important teaching tool for new dancers to learn about Arnie Zane. In Madison we’re doing it with students from the Dance Department.  We love to work with locals.”
Since this program is really a retrospective of Jones’ work, I asked him about his evolution as an artist by phone the other day; here’s what he had to say: 

CulturalOyster: As an artist you’re something of a chameleon – you’ve done in-your-face activist works, lush formalism, narrative works.  Where are you now?

Jones:  I’m a 62-year old man, dealing with the things we deal with at that age; I’m also an artist who has a body of work behind him.  I’m asking questions about why I make art and what I find interesting.  I also wear several hats now, being the administrator not only of my company but of an ambitious theater [New York Live Arts] that supports the work of many different artists.
In terms of my own work, I’m a thinker.  It’s always on my mind – what can my art do, how can it reflect the concerns I’ve had since I began my journey?  I was at SUNY Binghamton in 1970; it was a revelation to study modern film there.  I understood that artmaking is about perception, about putting one in touch with what one thinks and sees. 
A company is hard to sustain over 30 years.  I want the company to dance beautifully, to sing and speak beautifully.  I want the dancers to be involved in their bodies but also to exchange the ideas of their era.  Artmaking is participation in the world of ideas.  When the dancers are dancing, are they able to understand where the music is coming from?  Do they understand the history of this dance company, of Arnie Zane?  Do they understand how dance and music have the power to change peoples’ lives?  I think these are appropriate questions for a 62-year old dancer / choreographer / director to consider.

CulturalOyster: You once told me – I think this was in 2002 – that you were interested in the idea of show, don’t talk.  And yet your latest piece, “Story/Time,” which premiered in New York last fall, is a play on John Cage’s 1958 work Indeterminancy, in which he read short stories aloud while pianist David Tudor played random selections from Cage’s compositions.  You do that in “Story/Time” – you read short stories, selected at random a large number, while your dancers perform.  So that’s an artistic evolution, yes?

Jones: “Story/Time” challenges Cage’s determinism, which also wanted to free us from our preconceptions about what art is, and that freedom is what drives me to this day.  Is “Story/Time” evolution?  Always, since my first concert, I’d be telling a silent story while dancing in a different, abstract way.  The art was greater than the sum of its parts, and that still fascinates me.  Now I want to be able to speak aloud, but on another channel to show movement.  The audience is left with a delicious challenge of associations that come with gestures and words or groups of words.  Sometimes surprising connections are made that are different from what’s being said.  That’s why I remain interested in text and the potential of abstract movement – the more abstract, the better. I stay committed to abstraction in the choreoraphy – I want to know how that abstraction meets conceptions I have about thought, beauty, mortality, aging and power.
 I’ll also be doing a public lecture about what we’re talking about – you’ve asked where I’m at right now, how life builds from one moment to another, how one keeps going.  It’s important to talk about this in a university setting, where students are considering a life in the arts.   But I’ve never been 62 before.  I don’t know how I got from there to here.  That’s what biographers are for.
That lecture – sponsored by the Wisconsin Union Directorate Distinguished Lecture Series committee and the Wisconsin Union Directorate performing arts committee –happens Thurs., Feb. 12, in Shannon Hall, 7:30 – 9 PM.