V3N6: August 1997
Volume 3 Number 6
Table of Contents
As Ballet Austin's Artistic Director, one of Lambros Lambrou's goals is to keep his company accessible to the audience.
Butoh doesn't shirk from exploring unpleasant human feelings, which probably explains why it can be so disturbing to watch.
His style is clean and experimental, and free of the cluttering flourishes often found in less skilled and less talented and less passionate performers. Fredrick Sanders knows what he wants and knows how to play.
The Groove Line is earning a reputation, and it stretches as far away as New York City.
The passing of our eldest African American griots, for the current generation and all subsequent ones, signals an end of an era, leaving us without the kind of cultural documentation afforded those groups whose roots tie them culturally and politically more directly to middle America.
The perfect American goes something like this: white, Protestant, good-looking, professional, successful, family-oriented, nonsmoking, witty, 30-year-old male with 1.8 children.
Ballet Austin Prepares for the 1997-98 Season by Lucy Shaw
As Ballet Austin's Artistic Director, one of Lambros Lambrou's goals is to keep his company accessible to the audience. The new 1997-98 season reflects this desire by offering performances that both familiar and innovative. This season includes two classic favorites, Romeo and Juliet and The Nutcracker, as well as two premieres, Ulysses and Cinderella. In addition to the full-length productions is an evening of mixed repertoire, featuring George Balanchine's Serenade and Peter Pucci's Size Nine Spirit. "This is one of the best seasons ever. It has something for everyone," says Lambrou.
Ballet Austin, founded in 1956, has been training students at the Academy and performing in Austin for over 40 years. Its numbers have grown rapidly over the years to now include 24 professional dancers in the Company and over 400 students enrolled at the Academy every semester. The Company has recruited international dancers from Cuba, Iceland, Mexico, Ukraine, and all over the United States. Lambrou himself is a native Cypriote with a rich and diverse background. "I consider myself a citizen of the world, and I try to bring a little bit of all that to Austin," says Lambrou. At the same time, the Company also takes pride in its eclecticism and local flavor. Overall, the Company has developed into a strong team with loyal subscribers who have been witness to their growth. While keeping a firm grasp on classical style and technique, the company still continues to evolve, grow, and expand. "We have endeavored to prove that ballet today is varied and so much more powerful than it was at the turn of the century," says Lambrou. Because of the Company's growing success, audiences are eagerly awaiting Ballet Austin's new season and especially Mr. Lambrou's world premiere of Ulysses, a mythological journey based on Homer's Odyssey.
The season starts off with the Ballet Austin premiere of Cinderella. Stephen Mills, who has worked with Ballet Austin in the past, will be the guest choreographer for this opening event. Though the volume of his work has been in the contemporary vein, this time his choreography will be very classical. He has chosen the music of Alexander Glazounov to be played by the Austin Symphony Orchestra with Sung Kwak conducting. Ballet Austin enjoys working with Mills. "It's fun to have him back," says Cookie Ruiz, Ballet Austin's new general manager.
The next production will be a series of medleys, the first being George Balanchine's Serenade. "In my opinion it is his greatest work ever -- hauntingly romantic, an incredible ensemble piece," says Lambrou. It has been showcased all over the world and will be a Ballet Austin premiere this season. The second of the evening will be Peter Pucci's Size Nine Spirit. Featuring the music of the Benny Goodman Orchestra, this piece takes a nostalgic look at the big band era. "It's a hit!" says Lambrou.
Then, as the holidays roll around, the 35th annual Nutcracker will makes its regular appearance. Every year Ballet Austin performs this holiday favorite for theater-goers as well as Austin-area schoolchildren (in shortened form) who may not normally have a chance to see such a production. Last year Ballet Austin got all new sets and costumes for the event. This year promises to have additional surprises. "There will be a lot of humor," says Lambrou.
Up next will be Ulysses, Lambrou's highly anticipated world premiere telling the tale of a man's long journey home. To heighten the experience of the performance, Lambrou wants to use high-tech lighting, music by a collage of Greek composers, and ancient Greek narration. "I'm hoping to have a lot of fun with it," says Lambrou. It is a story that allows for a lot of individual interpretation, and Lambrou says so far he's been inspired for the special effects in this production by F/X landmarks like Star Wars and Star Trek.
The season's finale will be a revival of the perennially loved Romeo and Juliet. "It has become one of our signature pieces," says Lambrou. This will be its second production by Ballet Austin since its premiere in 1992. It proves to be a box office success that audiences are consistently thrilled with. "I feel it brings the audience and dancers back together again," says Lambrou.
So, not only is Ballet Austin confident and excited about the new season, they are also very happy to welcome Cookie Gregory Ruiz as their new general manager. Ruiz, voted unanimously to take the position, was previously the Ballet's executive development director. She has over 15 years experience in the areas of strategic planning, program development, and non-profit fund-raising. She is taking the place of Paul Kaine, who will be moving to the Sarasota Ballet of Florida to take the position of executive director. Ballet Austin is proud that their own general manager was selected from a nationwide search because of his skill and efforts. "We wish him well and look forward to the new challenges we face," says the president of the Board of Directors, Emily Moreland. "The talent in Austin is absolutely phenomenal and we are blessed to have the Company as a resource," says Ruiz. She is looking forward to the new season attracting an even broader audience and encouraging the use of ballet as an art of communication. "Cookie Ruiz has the skills, the energy, and an incredible nurturing aspect that is going to carry us into the millennium," says Lambrou. With an energetic new general manager, a strong company of dancers, a growing Academy at the heart, and an artistic director not afraid to add a bit of humor and the absurd, Ballet Austin ushers in the new season.
Oh, for the O-Jazz-O!
Fathers and brothers sing steamy
Lounge acts for the underaged
Melodies for masses of symbiotic
Symbol-hungry sweaty tear-stained
Digging the philosophy
Reciting passages through
An inherent discipline
With no plan
No lack of fear
But to hear of reality!
Fading sunlight jaded by clouds
They exclaim loudly,
Let it Be!
And then, Get Real!
Real compared to me?
What exactly donchya mean?
Real, compared to what?
Seeming reality, teeming
With sound judgment
Sacred covenants, and oaths
Allegiance to the time
An ornamental allegory
For the real story?
What would you like me to see?
Butoh -- Dance of Darkness? by Christopher Keimling
The performers exhibit a variety of symptoms. Ghostly white make-up covers their faces. Their heads are bald, or wild with untamed hair. Their limbs move in slow motion, sometimes seeming as if they are pulled by invisible strings. Their faces are blank, or contorted with expressions that seem to indicate of sadness, anguish, or insanity. Their eyes are unfocused -- or focused inward -- on regions most of us are reluctant to explore.
This is Butoh, an underground dance form that emerged in Japan in the 1960s.
It is not for the weak.
"It mirrors the situation the modern human is in," said Margita Pencevova-Paskvleva. Pencevova-Paskvleva lives in Artplex, a building at 17th and Guadalupe, within the uptown cultural district, where artists work and live. She is a costume designer, an artist and a Butoh enthusiast. When describing Butoh (pronounced BOO-toe) she grows animated and makes references to Carl Jung.
"The only way you can grow as an individual is through pain. Only by facing it, acknowledging it, and embracing it can we move on with our lives," she said. "Instead of accepting pain as a part of life, however, most people in Western society seek merely to block it out. They fear pain. They hope it will just go away with the help of Prozac or some other drug."
Butoh doesn't shirk from exploring unpleasant human feelings, which probably explains why it can be so disturbing to watch. "People react in different ways," Pencevova-Paskvleva said. "They get angry, or they're so moved they weep. Some walk out, calling [the dancers] freaks." Interestingly enough, she's seen children react differently: they wave at the dancers, or imitate them, she says.
However audiences react to Butoh, one thing is certain -- they will react. Pencevova-Paskvleva witnessed some powerful reactions first-hand when she invited her Butoh mentor Doranne Crable to perform at Artplex. A professor of Performance Studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, Crable has studied and performed Butoh for 20 years. She has studied with Kazuo Ohno, who, along with the late Tatsumi Hijikata, is a founding father of this unique modern dance form.
Crable performed in the ACA gallery located on the ground floor of Artplex. Her July 24th appearance was part of the opening reception for an exhibition of works by the tenants of Artplex entitled Open Doors. Coming out in a black slip and a kimono, she danced through the gallery and through the standing crowd to the sound of four boomboxes simultaneously playing different music. Not separated from her surroundings, she improvised, reacting to the paintings around her and at one point mounting a pedestal, where she danced an image called "old dog," in which her legs began trembling. A woman in the audience was so moved by this that she reached out a hand to help Crable down, and Crable reacted by drawing an invisible string in the air between their two hearts. For Crable and others, it was one of the more memorable moments of the evening's performance.
When I spoke with Doranne Crable, I found her to be a very spiritual person who feels very much in harmony with nature. She sees Butoh as a healing force.
"Flamenco is fiery and sensual, ballet is ethereal and ephemeral, and modern dance displays the beauty and power of the human body. But Butoh creates and addresses a kind of beauty that can't be defined," she says.
To Crable, Butoh involves "stripping away the protective masks that humans wear as performers" in order to come into the "vulnerable and gentle part of the human heart."
That said, what exactly is Butoh? I find that it's easier to define what Butoh isn't. Butoh isn't mime. (Don't let the white face paint fool you.) Although many dancers are often involved, performances don't have linear story lines like plays or operas. Butoh also isn't about being pretty or showing off tricky dance manuevers. Rather than trying to impress an audience, Butoh attempts to express the human condition.
"Butoh is grounded in the earth. Rather than leaping off of it, I dance into it," Crable says. She explained the sensation she feels when she dances: "Sometimes it's as if my feet are magnetized and I'm walking on a metal surface, and other times it feels as if I can walk on lily pads."
Her eyes, like those of all Butoh dancers, seem distant and unfocused when she performs. "It's an inner focus. It's like looking through curtains of rain. I look at space instead of objects in space." She tries to keep her facial features devoid of emotion so as to not impose emotions on the audience. "Instead of making them feel, I let them feel," she says.
To refer to different motions, and as an aid to her dancing, Crable borrows images from nature (such as a heron or a rose) and translates them into movement. Expressed in dance form, these images provoke emotional responses based on the viewer's own experiences. When she dances an "old dog" for example, her goal is not literal imitation. Rather, her motions symbolize something larger, such as frailty or infirmity in general. On a personal level, her body movements might trigger an emotional memory. Watching her dance an "old dog" might make you think of your grandfather who passed away, for example.
Before speaking with Doranne Crable, my own experience with Butoh had been limited to a lurid video entitled Butoh -- Dance of Darkness. This documentary featured some ghastly images that made me feel as if I had been granted a special glimpse of damned souls in a Japanese vision of hell.
Many scenes featured partial nudity. In others, the dancers donned pieces of industrial junk, as with two men whose torsos were wrapped in vacuum cleaner hoses. Fire was also incorporated into some performances, but these props didn't draw attention away from what was truly disturbing -- the dancers themselves.
Some stuck out their tongues and drooled, while others rolled their eyes back into their heads. Their expressions were those of demons, zombies or village idiots. I had a hard time reconciling some of these images with Doranne Crable's kinder and gentler brand of Butoh, until I learned more about the movement.
Butoh was born in a turbulent time, when Japan was struggling with its cultural identity. In the aftermath of World War II, Japan became an increasingly modernized, urbanized, and thus westernized society. This didn't sit well with many people, and this sense of unease had a profound influence on Butoh.
In its beginnings, Butoh was in large part an act of rebellion. It was a rejection of "progress" and a rejection of Western ideals of beauty. Tired of seeing ballet dancers skipping around in tutus, Botuh performers offered something new, shocking, and without rules -- an avant-garde dance form that nevertheless was distinctly Japanese.
Butoh also explored the dark side of human nature. There is a definite river of darkness that runs through Botuh, and if you swim upstream, you will find Hijikata at the source. Themes of death and the grotesque were introduced by Hijikata, as well as by the horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
For Crable and other Botuh artists, however, Botuh's ultimate purpose is not to shock, but rather to heal. Crable enjoys teaching Butoh, despite the risk that some of her students might run off and form inferior Butoh troupes without fully understanding and respecting the dance. Since its beginnings, Botuh has gained a more international presence. There is a danger that popularity could cheapen and endanger the art of Butoh. As a commentor in the Dance of Darkness film puts it: "A large part of Butoh is exotic spectacle, but if it translates no further than exotic spectacle, then it will be dead." As for myself, I think it's only a matter of time before an MTV artist like Marilyn Manson incorporates Butoh dancers in a music video. While I admit this would be interesting, it wouldn't do justice to the form. It should be experienced in its proper setting, and with a proper appreciation of its power.
"I try to create a moment suspended in time," Doranne Crable said. My interview with Crable gave me a renewed appreciation of the momentary nature of life. One of her favorite quotes is as follows:
"We are born in a flash of light, then evening comes and it is dark forever."
Fredrick Sanders' Smile by Manuel Gonzales
Fredrick Sanders is a friendly, soft-spoken jazz pianist who has been a notable in Austin's growing jazz scene for the past three years. You can find him playing with the Haslanger Septet at the Elephant Room (that dimly-lit, smoke-filled basement of jazz) and in the warehouse district's cigar and martini breezeway, Cedar Street. And, tickling on the raised stage of the newly renovated Mercury, he is an essential member of Hot Buttered Rhythm, a recently formed band of back-line artists adding funk and crunch to originals and standards. Fred Sanders has performed with (and learned from) jazz clarinet legend Alvin Baptiste, and Austin's own legend, James Polk, tickler of ivories great and small. June really was Jazz month in Austin, and during the week of the Clarksville Jazz Festival (June 8 - June 15), Sanders recorded a CD (with the help of Roy Hargrove, Mark Whitfield, Donald Edwards, Roland Guerin, and Marchel Ivery), jammed with those same cats the next night at Cedar Street, and then flew to Canada with Hot Buttered Rhythm (who have just released a self-titled CD of their own) to represent Austin in SXSW's sister festival NXNE.
Fred Sanders is 27-years-old, and he plays the piano with a smooth and assured eloquence. His fingers, at times light across the keys, are relaxed, and, as he plays, his face is creased with a large smile, reflected in his eyes and in his groove and in his tunes. His style is clean and experimental, and free of the cluttering flourishes often found in less skilled and less talented and less passionate performers. Fredrick Sanders knows what he wants and knows how to play, and his presence is a cool and refreshing blessing to Austin jazz.
Originally from Dallas, he has lived in San Marcos for three years and has been attending Southwest Texas State University each of those years. Before coming to the Austin area, Sanders studied in Weatherford, just outside of Ft. Worth, and then moved to Baton Rouge to study under clarinet great Alvin Baptiste. "I moved to Weatherford because the guys in the band moved, and I left Weatherford and went to Louisiana because of [Baptiste, Whitfield, Edwards, Guerin, and Ivery]. I had the chance to play one concert with them. I had already met Alvin Baptiste at a wedding, and I thought to myself, 'Oh my, I've got to study with this cat!' because I could hear his difference when he played. So I went down there for two, two and a half, three years. Before I moved to Louisiana, I spent the summer in Weatherford gigging and fixing my car, and I had sixty dollars in my pockets and drove to Baton Rouge and just moved in. Those cats didn't know I was there, they didn't know I was coming, or what. Baptiste didn't have a scholarship or nothin' for me, but within a week, I figured out a way to enroll in school. But I won't get into that because I think I might still owe somebody money down there...Alvin Baptiste is everything wrapped up in one -- great musician, musicologist, philosopher, stylist -- he has the whole package. It was an amazing experience for me, coming from the Weatherford program where everybody was serious about the music, and moving into their environment, a whole 'nother level, where not only were the people serious about the music, they were dedicated to improving themselves. Even just the amount of information I was able to receive changed. There are only one or two places in this world where you can go and become enlightened. And then I ran out of money. I didn't want to leave the tutelage of Baptiste, but I had to make sure I found an area where I could make some money and finish school. So I started searching for a place to come back to in Texas because it was cheaper for me to finish school in Texas, and I thought about going to North Texas, in Denton, but I already knew all those cats because when I was studying in Weatherford, we would drive up to Denton every weekend and play in a jam session. Back then, we played for pizza. So I knew what the scene was like in Denton. I thought about San Antonio, but, well, I don't know a lot of Mariachi music, so I told myself, Let me go check out what it's like in Austin. I took a trip and checked out the Elephant Room. I'd heard that was the jazz spot in town, and this cat, James Polk, he's playing piano, and like with Baptiste, I said, 'There's somebody special! I would like to study with that cat.' So I moved to Austin. I was broke again, like when I moved to Louisiana. I was married by then, and my wife had a semester left in school. But things worked out. Things always, eventually, work out."
Fredrick Sanders is now in his last leg of the SWT music program. After graduation, he plans to go to Disneyland (no joke) with his wife and their baby, whose arrival is expected in October. He wants to move from San Marcos into Austin proper. He wants a house and a yard and a dog. He is a musician, and he wants to play. For himself, for his family, for other musicians, and for us. When I spoke with him about the Cedar Street jam during the jazz fest, he asked me to thank you, every one of you. Everyone who was there, listening to him and Roy create an amazing and fitting night of jazz. He sends his compliments to all those at the Cedar Street jam. The energy was high and it was fed by the groove. That groove between audience and performer. That groove which takes a note or a solo or a phrase and makes it real. Makes it life. That groove is the ideal. Utopia. What we all search for, as those who play great and beautiful music and those who appreciate the sounds of great and beautiful music. Tuesday night, June 10th, Cedar Street struck that groove and made it hum. But just you watch. You can find that groove, El Dorado, any night of the week in Fredrick Sanders' smile.
Get Into the Groove Line by Courtenay Nearburg
The Groove Line Horns are Carlos Sosa on sax, Fernando Castillo on trumpet, and Raoul Vallejo on trombone. Yes, that is a familiar last name, but Raoul swears there is no relation to the oh-so-popular Vallejo music dynasty of Steamboat fame. The only connection is the shared gigs with percussionist Alex Vallejo in the Scabs -- that and the fast-track rise to notoriety. In fact, that's probably where most fans saw the Groove Line Horns first. The Monday night Steamboat monopoly on crowds began essentially with the Ugly Americans' spin-off project, the Scabs, about a year and a half ago, and since then the Groove Line Horns have not left the building. Now firmly established with the Atlantics (formerly known as the Atlantic Soul Revue) in that Monday night slot at the Steamboat, the Groove Line continues to draw the audience, feeding that hunger for some phat grooves and soulful moods. And then they move over to Antone's on Tuesdays for the Scabs gig where, recently, even the stars are out on a good night (Sandra Bullock was spotted once).
The Groove Line is earning a reputation, and it stretches as far away as New York City. In June, Sosa got a call from the mostly-gone but not forgotten '80s punk outfit, Suicidal Tendencies. They're back on the road, doing it their way (meaning without label assistance, or interference, depending on how you look at it), and they'd heard that the Groove Line Horns are the hottest horn section in Austin. Are they interested in jamming for the Tendencies' Stubb's appearance June 27? Oh yeah. Sosa is a long-time fan of the Tendencies' own spin-off, the Infectious Grooves. "It's like the heaviest kind of funk Prince would play, but with the Suicidal edge," (no pun intended) Sosa explains.
Sosa cites Infectious Grooves as one of his main influences as a teenager just starting to play in funk bands, along with Earth, Wind, and Fire and, of course, Parliament. Even though he saw himself as a guitar-playing rock star as early as fifth grade, for some reason his grandma bought him a saxophone instead of a guitar. He started playing the sax with bands as a sophomore and was quickly introduced to a busy college funk band known as Whitey. It was his first meeting with Houston's Fernando Castillo and Raoul Vallejo of Harlingen, who were both studying music at the University of North Texas at Denton. Sosa's high school band opened for Whitey's funk festival, and the three have not been separated by much distance since. Sosa left San Antonio to study music at Southwest Texas, and soon, Castillo and Vallejo had left North Texas to pursue music careers in Austin. Vallejo hooked up with local funk afficionados the Ging'breadman, and Castillo and Sosa joined an R&B project known as Groove Line, including local luminaries Yogi, Mike Champion, D.C. Cole, and Phil Redmond. "They were the first band that really gave us a chance," Castillo says. And the moniker stuck.
However, a trumpet and a sax do not a real horn section make, according to Sosa, and so they began courting Castillo's old Whitey counterpart, Vallejo. Vallejo was busy with the Ging'breadman, but was interested in joining the Groove Line, but money problems got in the way. There weren't enough gigs yet to support three players.
"We shot him (Vallejo) the offer a couple of times. We weren't making too much money at the time. But there came a time, and we were like, we want him so bad, we'll take the cut," Sosa says. The evolution of the Ging'breadmen into Concerto Grosso, featuring Ephriam Owens on trumpet, contributed to Vallejo's easy move from that entity to the Groove Line. As soon as the trio was complete, the offers began to roll in, and in just a short eight months, the Groove Line Horns have the opportunity to gig seven nights a week regularly.
"I really dig playing with these guys," Vallejo says of his new position. "I do that (Concerto Grosso) whenever I can, but that's not a whole lot." One exception was the chance to open for the Dirty Dozen at Antone's recently with the new line-up for Concerto Grosso. On that evening, the band was called the Ging'breadman, even though only Vallejo and two other original members participated.
Sosa cites that show as particularly inspirational in terms of what the Groove Line would like to see happen as an "ultimate" project. "Having the horn section out front, that's it. But the Tower of Power thing, just to get to play with a lot of different people, is cool," Sosa muses.
For now, earning a reputation as the best and playing with the finest musicians Austin has to offer are the priorities. "The first thing is to make sure we get our name out there. That's the big thing" Castillo explains. "And then, once you get your name out there, and people respect you, then you can get all the players you want. Right now, we're making connections."
Playing with the Ugly Americans and the Scabs has led to their first recording project (on Capricorn/Mercury), for the next Ugly Americans album. They've been in the studio for two weeks now, and as a result of the June 27 gig with Suicidal Tendencies, they have been invited to record with the Tendencies in Los Angeles, tentatively scheduled for early fall. "They get back from touring in August, then they're going to send us some Suicidal stuff that they think is pretty funky and would like to hear some horns on," Sosa says.
Musically, playing with the Tendencies is a departure from the Groove Line Horns' repertoire. But no complaints from these guys. Sosa was thrilled to have the opportunity to jam with some of the Infectious Grooves members, and although Vallejo was reserved when he first heard the Tendencies, he now has nothing but raves for the reborn crew. "I never expected to sit in with Suicidal Tendencies. But I didn't know how bad-ass they were," he laughs.
As for their current projects in Austin, nobody is bored yet. The Atlantics keep them busy on Mondays and with private parties, and they certainly respect their fellow players. Despite essentially being a cover band, the talent represented in the Atlantics' ranks keeps the music fresh and the grooves raw. Mike Barnes, the guitarist, has been seen around Austin in Extreme Heat for the last 20-25 years, according to Sosa, and has recently joined John Mills (perhaps Austin's finest jazz saxman) and Mike Hines in a new R&B project called Millennium Swing. Drummer Steve Ramos double-times with the recently recognized MC Overlord, and of course, Yogi, the man about town on the bass, of Hot Buttered Rhythm. "The Atlantics is our money. That's how we live," Sosa says.
The Groove Line is in no hurry to leave Austin for a piece of that Big Apple pie, thank goodness. Once, in College Station, they sat in with a group called Super T, a kind of Otis Day and the Knights thing that Castillo calls "the George Clinton of the frat scene." They wanted to hire the horn section, but that would require them to relocate to Nashville. "They freaked out. They were like, 'What will it take to get you guys to move to Nashville?' They were going to guarantee us four nights a week, and we're like, whew, really? I mean, that's all?" Castillo jokes.
"I personally don't think you have to move anywhere to get anywhere. We can go to LA and record and get to know people and still live here," Sosa adds. "Our main goal right now is to get picked up by a really great touring band."
Sosa is eight hours away from his undergraduate degree from Southwest Texas, and although he is grateful to have worked with Keith Winking and some of the other young musicians at SWT, he doesn't necessarily feel that the academic approach to music is the only way to go.
"You can't graduate from college with a jazz studies degree and then say you're a jazz musician. You're going to go out there and get stomped," he says, adding that most of the high profile musicians now enrolled in the SWT program came to the school after having established themselves as professionals already. "If I had one path to choose, I'd rather be a street musician than be in school."
Vallejo concurs, citing his success in Austin after leaving North Texas without a degree. "Yeah, I think it's the matter of hours you put into it. You can be in school or out of school. You're going to have to work either way."
These guys really enjoy the music scene in Austin, mentioning several other people they would like to work with here, and talking about their goals musically. Brannen Temple of Hot Buttered Rhythm and Les Fisher of Taboo head the list of drummers they would like to join up with, and they definitely want to continue to work with old friends Yogi and Mike Hines. As for other horn players, they recommend the King Soul Revue, of Sunday night La Zona Rosa fame.
"There's not a lot of horn players in Austin. All the ones I know, like Elias [Haslanger], they're doing the jazz thing," laments Vallejo. Although the Groove Line is interested in playing jazz, funk is where they are making their mark. "Funk is like, it's everything now. It has jazz, swing, be-bop. That's why we like it so much. We like to play all kinds of styles," Castillo says. As for their rapid rise to popularity, well, it's all part of the plan. "We thought it would take a lot longer," says Castillo.
"We did. Fernie and I had a plan, like a five-year plan. We just wanted to be playing in the best bands in Austin and have a name for ourselves, a reputation as the best horn section in town," Sosa adds. "Our goals are set a lot higher now."
Late night drive alone,
wind whispering into my ride;
Pickett's voice inspires a delayed
right when I needed one.
I could spend a hundred nights like
on the open road.
I entertain fantasies of driving
'til I just can't drive no more,
landing upon an undiscovered
covered in dust and memories,
where people are a "funny"
kind of friendly
and can turn me on to
It's a rush to ride and wonder
to look at a consuming sky
where stars gaze, pondering
how far away I seem.
I can see on the horizon
the orange twinklin'' lights of home
a longing hesitation for something
in the body of a sigh...
Another time for flight, for
drivin' 'til I can't go no more'
right now gotta handle the everyday;
maybe soon a whim will set me free.
The mirth is fading
as I pass tired truckers
dreamin' of sleep
I guess I should be satisfied
in driving with the rush,
if only at the moment
a shotgun-sittin' lady of freedom,
that comes along
when riding under the night.
As hard as I might try, just by myself, I can't untwist these memories, can't retell those stories, can't clone those feelings, can't revisit times-gone-by without the guidance of the griots. And each hour of every day, another living, love-filled human history book slips on 'cross Jordan, taking with them a vision of the past that can't be found in Hollywood movies, reported by K-EYE News, read in UT history books, spoken in standard English, nor understood -- at soul level -- by most of you reading my words right now.
Every hour of every day, another tired, happy soul crosses Jordan (JURD-en), leaving us with yet another hole in our understanding of "from whence we come." As they cross over -- these elders whose souls merely thirsted for freedom, often only finding their own tears to quench their thirst -- will take with them a language untaught, a history unwritten, relics of a hard-fought battle to keep alive a soul-rich tragically-beautiful-yet-blue culture. The fight, those blues, that particular historical/cultural moment in America will never ever happen again (in some ways, let us thank God for this). However, the passing of our eldest African American griots, for the current generation and all subsequent ones, signals an end of an era, leaving us without the kind of cultural documentation afforded those groups whose roots tie them culturally and politically more directly to Middle America. The story won't be on the 10 o'clock news, won't be in the American-Statesman (they don't do Ebonics), won't get translated with sensitivity into the next history text book, won't have wide enough appeal for the Hollywood producers (even if Spike does it. You know he's too political and only goes for a VERY narrow audience).
Let's face it -- really, we must (please) -- Aunt Virgie's story will die with her. The scholars are too far away from where she lives -- downhome -- to understand its significance. Her relatives ain't exactly into doing cultural history documentation, and at 80-something she don't really feel up to writing her memoirs while high on the morphine, dulling the pain left by the surgery to wipe out the cancer. Aunt Virgie's thoughts on living her adult life, 60 years in Greenville, Texas -- God-fearing, proud, happy, productive, black -- across the tracks, six blocks from the sign hung over the tracks that read, "Welcome to Greenville, Texas: The Blackest land, the WHITEST people," will go to the grave with her.
To be sure, those 60 years (1930s 'til recently) do hold some truths about this country many would rather forget. What those 60 years do hold, however, through the life stories of folks like my Aunt Virgie, are cultural experiences, a distinct language, a decidedly non-Middle American nuance to living that often escapes the cultural historian's sensibility, as well as the oral memories of friends and family. The loss is tragic, and often final. It's too bad folks like my Aunt Virgie (and yours) don't often write books or make movies. What a loss for all of us!
Virgie's cancer, her age, her impending death are not news items. Old ladies get old, get sick, and die everyday. That is not the issue here. My aunt is not the greater issue here. The thing is, we've all seen lots of old ladies live and die on-screen. We've read many romantic novels about the courage of pioneering Middle American women. We've seen plays about, laughed and cried and appreciated the lives of a litany of strong-American-woman types. We've come to know numerous variations of Little House on the Prairie, Gunsmoke, Donna Reed, Leave it to Beaver, Beverly Hillbillies, Charlie's Angels, and Golden Girls. To begin to understand what's wrong here, just compare the former list with this one: Sanford and Son, Good Times, The Jeffersons, The Cosby Show, Julia. African America, although only 12 percent or so of the this country's population, is the culture of origin for the blues, jazz, (some would include rock and roll here, also) and rap musics, various pop culture influences in sports, fashion, language, and numerous hipness factor trends. Middle America seems to know all about how we sing and dance -- and JIVE; in fact, Middle America has been singing our songs, all the way to the bank, for years. Why doesn't Middle America know too about the lives, the courage, the shame, the beauty, the traditions and richness of the culture that has entertained it for so long? Shouldn't the life stories of America's blues people, of young America's rappers, of Northeast Texas' last (and dying) generation of grandchildren of slaves be part of the American cultural knowledge base? If we love the blues, shouldn't we also have a clue (a conscious respect and regard) about and for the folks and conditions that gave us the blues? Ain't that America?
No one person, group, financial institution, government agency, academy, media outlet, nor cultural intstitution is responsible for this cultural atrocity. Most of them are partners, however, in maintaining a continuing pattern of cultural ignorance and hegemony that is totally "un-American" in nature. It's not that the issues I raise here do not find debate, it's that the debate is skewed to (nay, founded on) issues of shame, guilt, pride, anger, retribution, ownership, denial, ignorance, insecurity, and oppression. Do not be confused about what I am getting at here. This is not the "white folks bad/black folks good" dichotomy. This is not a conspiracy theory on race and culture. This is just another set of results and examples of what (I think) local performance artist/playright Daniel Alexander Jones calls the OPPRESSIVE DISCOURSE that has American culture and society all at odds with itself. It's the discourse (the conversation) that needs to be exploded, turned over on itself, have new rules applied, be held up to the light, stripped of its jingoistic biases, and then -- only then -- re-initiated.
There are lots of stories to tell and be listened to, some more interesting than others. Those folks who lived the stories are the experts and have a perspective that no one else could possibly have (they should have the privilege to tell their own stories). But even in the most unique of circumstances, there is the commonality, at some level, of the human condition. Stories, real or imagined, teach us things about others and ourselves. This America of ours -- good, bad, indifferent -- is what it is because of the confluence of various human truths and how those truths find reality in the lives of real folks. If blues (or hip hop, or jazz, or Michael Jordan) is significant enough to be a cultural treasure claimed as American, so too should the fears, hopes, and happiness -- the lives -- of blues people. Ain't that America?
The mention here of my Aunt Virgie as an example seemed to force its way onto the page. I spent the weekend with her, watched her speechless shadow hover around the frail frame that once spoke of her hard good life in no uncertain terms. I watched her and realized that her ultimate passing will also mean the loss of another of those good stories that should be told (not so much for her individual amazing life, but for all of the ways that she represents important lives that don't find wide expression or documentation in the academy, cultural institutions, the media or our memory).
Last Thursday I sat at Hyde Park Theater and witnessed Daniel and Todd Jones' autobiographical performance piece, Clay Angels. These brothers spoke to me, directly, about their lives together and apart, their parents and family, the old neighborhood, about values and also about the two old widow women who lived next door. Their charaters, Lillian and Vivian, spoke to me, too. Lillian and Vivian, I'm sure, spoke to all who sat in the audience that night, but Lillian and Vivian spoke in language, with nuance, cadence, attitude, and style that rang true for black folks in a way that said: "I remember, child, when they wouldn't even let us in dis theater. But we always had a good ole time, none-the-less. I pray you jess don't forget where you come from. You know white folks ain't gonna forget." You see, it's so rare for us (black folks) to see ourselves -- in the paper, in theater, in the movies -- just simply being our unremarkable - member - of - the - family next door selves that we really feel spoken to when it happens. And it happens much too rarely in Austin.
After the play I just had to talk to Daniel about what touched me in the work. That line about being, at the same time, victims and participants in America's oppressive cultural discourse really rang true with issues that have been heavily on my mind lately. Then there was another line that came from Todd when he made a plea/prayer for America to come home and live up to its image of itself -- praying for our rebirth. Then, there was Lillian and Vivian. Lillian and Vivian took over this weekend while I sat with my aunt. She is Lillian and Vivian.
So, this piece will have to be continued. Daniel Alexander and Todd Jones' Clay Angels is the piece that inspired me to want to explore more about Austin's internal discourse on the value of diverse, unapologetic cultural work. There are essays in my head and much more I want to say about Daniel, but I tell you, Lillian, Vivian, and Aunt Virgie stole my attention this time out.
There is an image every American carries inside his or her head of the perfect person, and we all deviate to some degree from that. For some people, the perfect American goes something like this: white, Protestant, good-looking, professional, successful, family-oriented, nonsmoking, witty, 30-year-old male with 1.8 children. There are many more traits involved, but you get the idea. And because we believe in this (or in whatever other picture we have in our heads), we're all trying to be that person as much as we possibly can. Some of us who can't be the right way, i.e. male, work toward making our traits as desirable by promoting equality -- equality for women, equality for blacks, equality for non-Christians. What we mean is we want to be as valued. When this particular sociological truth dawned on me, I nodded my head in a silent laugh. I self-indulgently thought of all the people I knew or imagined who seem to be nothing more than an effort to be "perfect." There are the young women who join the right sorority and go speed-walking every day in pairs, their hair and makeup flawless. There are the young men who work in downtown offices, wear power ties, and go home every evening to their above-average wives. There are others of us, too.
I didn't think at first to look inside myself for a little comedic catharsis. The theorem that we are all our own best sources of entertainment soon became more valid. I began to notice certain patterns in my life that suddenly felt familiar. All that time I was laughing, it never occurred to me that one of the central aspects of my personality is my tendency to examine myself for "flaws" and work toward overcoming them one by one. There's no doubt I've done a lot of evolving, growing, changing -- but what was the motivation behind it? Perhaps I thought that if I were perfect, then everyone would have no choice but to like me, including myself. There would be no flaws left -- nothing left to criticize. The more introspective I got with this thing, the more it all sounded so passive and apologetic. Now I had a major identity crisis on my hands: as unique and cool as I always thought I was, I suddenly felt like nothing but a series of adjustments. My identity was just a series of adjustments like you would make to a cloth you bought to make into the perfect party dress.
No problem. I always have the answer. At first, I thought I might not recognize my instincts if I decided to listen to them. What if any "self" lay underneath? For a second I was afraid I didn't know what the original cloth was anymore. I closed my eyes and looked real hard, and slowly I began to see. With a breath of relief, I remembered there was someone else inside. I have seen flashes of a woman who offered no option but admiration -- because she demanded it, not because she asked. This is a woman who follows her instincts, commands attention, and loves her life not for everything she does that is admirable but for everything that is extraordinary. She radiates confidence, always punctuated with a smile. She is interested, curious, and animated. She is a learner, for the love of knowledge. The latest thing she's learned is why diversity is a thing to be celebrated: close your eyes for a moment and imagine a world in which everyone is a white, Protestant, good-looking, professional, successful, family-oriented, nonsmoking, witty, 30-year-old male with 1.8 children. Not a very exciting picture, is it? The next thing I hope to learn is that the more I get back to what's underneath the party dress, the more I'll begin to see others that way.