Scholarship Story: Abigale Pfingsten, from Grade School to Graduate

You don’t have to have a lot of money to study the performing arts. If you have a child or child in your life who has dreams, talent or just plain curiosity, we have scholarship opportunities to help them get the classes they need. The next Patel Conservatory scholarship deadline is Dec. 3, 2016.

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Abigale performing in concert with the Patel Conservatory Vocal Arts program.

This year, one of our Patel Conservatory scholarship students headed to Carnegie-Mellon University on a tuition scholarship to study international politics—and the performing arts, thanks to her years of growing up with support and training from The Straz.

At nine years old, Abigale Pfingsten won a scholarship to study piano with John Hernandez at the Patel Conservatory. Little did she know that initial taste of her own innate talent would lead to almost a decade of immersion in all aspects of the performing arts, developing a passion that would set the course of her life. “John Hernandez is an amazing, fantastic teacher who took me to new levels of what I can do with piano. I loved learning from him so much,” she says. “Then, that first summer I tried out for Seussical, got a part, and loved it, too. From that point forward, I expanded my horizons, studying ballet, musical theater, continuing my piano training. I found my passion in the performing arts, and I never would have been able to make these discoveries without the scholarships graciously provided by people who are lovers of the arts.”

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Abigale performing in the Patel Conservatory production of Seussical the Musical, 2011.

In her college essay, Abigale stated:

… Sooner or later in my artistic career, I am going to establish a non-profit conservatory for the performing arts. I would like it to be a place where people with the eagerness to experience the arts can go to regardless of their financial situation. I want my conservatory to be a home for children and adults just as the Patel Conservatory/Straz Center has been for me all these years.

So, the cycle of giving and learning pays it forward in tangible ways for uncountable lives. “My life would have turned out very differently without performing arts classes,” Abigale says. “Without the generosity of donors to provide scholarships, I wouldn’t know my passion.”

 

 

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Abigale (in blue) performing in the Patel Conservatory production of The Little Shop of Horrors, 2013.

We want to make sure that all young people in the Tampa Bay area have the opportunity to study and grow in Patel Conservatory classes, just like Abigale. You never know how an experience in the arts may affect your life. If you want to take performing arts classes, we have scholarship opportunities available.

The next scholarship deadline is December 3, 2016. Details and applications are available on our website. We recommend that everyone submit the need-based application so we know there is a need; from there, the scholarship committee reviews applications and offers awards. If you have questions or would like more information, please contact patelconservatory@strazcenter.org.

Don’t Bore Us / Get to the Chorus: Songwriting 101

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Carole King, one of the greatest American songwriters of the 20th century, started with a piano melody. As the song took shape, she added layers, eventually adding lyrics — first with her then-husband Gerry Goffin and eventually on her own. Tapestry, her seminal 1971 solo album, remained on the Billboard charts for six years, top in record sales until a little album titled Thriller toppled her reign.

Although many great songwriters came before King and many will follow, there seems to be no set way to write a song. Some writers start with a beat, others a melody, still others hear a hook or obsess over a lyric that arrives unceremoniously while the songwriter takes a shower. The songwriting process seems to be a bit of a zen undertaking: all roads are one road. Writing a hit song, however, is a road much less traveled. Even seasoned songwriters are never sure if their work will produce a hit or miss. Guy Chambers, the current British hit-maker for acts like Bryan Adams and Robbie Williams, averages one hit song for every 47 he pens.

The good news for workaday folks interested in writing their own songs is that a decent song, or even a fantastic song, doesn’t need to be a hit. Inversely, scoring a hit doesn’t mean the song is that great. Perhaps some of the best songwriting happens in bedrooms, in train stations and on the job, performed on porches, neighborhood corners and tiny spaces with makeshift instruments.

In general, humans need to make music, and there are a few basic songwriting tools: knowing the parts of a song, structure, chord progressions, lyrics and melody. If remembering all the basics proves too much, stick with the songwriting standby: “don’t bore us, get to the chorus.”

Generally, songs consist of intro, verses, chorus, bridge and outro. The intro grabs the listener’s attention for the song’s story, which unfolds in the verses. Verses often rhyme (although they don’t have to) and create a rhythmic pattern for the listener. The chorus is — as evidenced by the songwriting standby — arguably the most important part of the song. A chorus should be sing-a-long-able, catchy, memorable and convey the main message of the song. Often, the great karaoke fails occur because we think we know a song, but we actually only remember the chorus — that’s how powerful it is. The bridge provides the song’s contrast and the outro leads the listener to a sense of closure, perhaps with subtle melodic changes or repetition.

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With intro and outro as bookends, a writer can toy with the structure of the verses, chorus and bridge — or if there is even a need for a chorus or bridge (“Amazing Grace” has neither, and it has done all right as a song even though no one knows much past the first verse.) The chord progressions inspire a “feel” for the song that contributes to the melody, which carries the lyrics. Understanding simple structures helps new or blocked songwriters get their ideas moving. But remember: much like the Pirate’s Code, these aren’t rules, really, more like guidelines. Many songs include a pre-chorus, a short lead-in to the chorus like in “My Girl” when they sing “I guess you’d say … ” or in Katy Perry’s hit “Firework,” when she sings “You just gotta ignite/the light/and let/it shine … ” Songs may also contain refrains, variations on verses, choruses and melodies, providing, somewhere, a “hook,” or the catchiest part of the song (often the chorus or somewhere in the chorus — Adele’s “hello from the other side” in her crazy big hit “Hello.”)

Happy writing. For inspiration, check out the handy Songwriting 101 chart above or get to know some of the latest greatest singer-songwriters showcased in our Club Jaeb series.

Open To Interpretation

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Interpreters Anthony Verdeja and Carrie Moore welcome deaf and hard-of-hearing guests to the Straz Center. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions Inc)

The Thursday night show during each Broadway run has a special performer, one whose acting and choreography chops never make a sound. As part of its Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) initiative, the Straz Center secures a sign language interpreter for the Thursday night show in the Broadway series, with The Illusionists being the first of this season.

While any Straz Center performance falls under the ADA guidelines and can have sign-language interpretation on an as-needed basis, this initiative guarantees a regularly scheduled interpreted performance that guests can expect.

Far from being a literal English translation of the script, a signed performance requires that the interpreter don all artistic hats at once: the interpreter must emote, understand motivation in gestures and artistically translate a musical script from English into a visual language unto itself. The common misconception that American Sign Language (ASL) merely invented gestures that correspond to English words greatly underestimates the complexity of ASL as its own novel language, complete with its own grammar, nuance and expressive capability. In other words, an interpreter creates an adaptation to visual language in real time, giving deaf or hard-of-hearing patrons the thrilling emotional experience shared by patrons who can hear the performance.

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An interpreter becomes a one-person show, transforming a musical into ASL with the same need for fluency that someone would need to translate Chinese poetry into English verse. There is an ‘essence’ that must be captured in the language, and apprehending this elusive quality requires a strong set of skills and no amount of stage fright.

This tall order cannot be filled by just anyone who happens to know ASL. “We’ve engaged an exceptional company to provide sign language services,” says Straz Center director of production services Mike Chamoun. “This group is just tremendous. They add the emotional interpretation like actors, conveying that much more. Most interpreters like to locate the deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons before the show, meeting them and asking about what they want from the performance and having that dialogue inform their interpretation. It’s quite something. They are excellent at serving the patron.”

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The minority-woman owned company, Absolute Quality Interpreting (AQI), hires only nationally-certified sign language interpreters. Lisa Schaefermeyer, AQI’s founder and CEO, ensures that her interpreters deliver a great performance of the show. “There’s a difference,” she says, “between someone who knows sign language and someone who can perform. There’s a skill level needed to stand on the platform and do what they do. We are fortunate to have interpreters who specialize in the performing arts.”

Chamoun requests a copy of the script from the show, then forwards the script to AQI so the interpreters have time to prepare their own performance. “But they don’t get months of rehearsal,” Chamoun says. “They’re lucky if they get two weeks.”

“The additional prep time allows the interpreter to give a better performance for the audience. She or he has time to think about the right sign to reflect what is happening on stage. Imagine a monotone reading of an audio book, read by someone with no training,” says Schaefermeyer. “Then imagine a great actor performing the text of the same book, and you’ll get an idea of what is possible with great sign language interpretation.”

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Typically, a Broadway show requires two interpreters to cover the many parts. In Morsani Hall, they stand in a small, specifically-designed alcove complete with its own lighting so that the interpreters fade out or blackout in sync with the main show. “It’s under the house right mezzanine,” says Chamoun. “So, it’s not on stage but on the orchestra level so patrons have a good view. We encourage our deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons to call the Ticket Sales Office and have a representative make sure they get seats with a good view of the interpreter. We want to make sure they get the same Straz experience, and we are happy to do what we can.”

“We are so excited to be able to do this,” says Schaefermeyer, who has a few decades of experience in the field. “Our interpreters love their jobs, love to spend time with patrons and getting to know cast members. And that comes through in the interpretation.”

The Straz Center Salutes National Endowment for the Arts

“The Arts Endowment’s mission was clear – to spread this artistic prosperity throughout the land, from the dense neighborhoods of our largest cities to the vast rural spaces, so that every citizen might enjoy America’s great cultural legacy.”
–from National Endowment for the Arts: A History 1965-2008

During the desultory years of the Great Depression, 10,000 of the 15 million out of work Americans were artists. Through New Deal programs such as the Federal Arts Project and the Federal Writers’ Project, these artists recorded, documented and produced the bulk of American cultural achievement and historical record of the time. While this social program provided a historical precedent for federal support of artists, the nation’s leaders began to see America’s need to make a commitment to the bountiful creative expression of such a diverse and talented society without a socio-economic agenda. The time had come for America to put its might behind its artists, the very citizens who created the nation’s cultural heritage.

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On Sept. 29, 1965 President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities, the legislation creating NEH and NEA, into law. (Photo: http://www.neh.gov)

The National Endowment for the Arts, then, emerged as this commitment to the exaltation of the spirit produced by American artists. In his remarks at the signing of the arts and humanities bill in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson noted:

Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves, and to others, the inner vision which guides us as a Nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish. … It is in the neighborhoods of each community that a nation’s art is born. In countless American towns there live thousands of obscure and unknown talents. … What this bill really does is to bring active support to this great national asset, to make fresher the winds of art in this great land of ours.

On Sept. 29, 2015, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) celebrated its 50th anniversary, and while the NEA more or less weathered the culture wars headed by North Carolina senator Jesse Helms in the ‘80s and house speaker Newt Gingrich in the ‘90s, the NEA’s unfortunate position as an easy target in political morality rhetoric continues to be source of consternation for the administrators charged with upholding the mission set forth by LBJ.

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The first NEA grant was made in December 1965 to the American Ballet Theatre, shown here performing Swan Lake. (Photo: Martha Swope)

Despite these public challenges which often nab media attention, the NEA continues to secure financial resources for the arts mostly in unacknowledged efforts. The NEA represents five decades of public commitment to the importance of investing in American artistic contributions creating the cultural capital of our nation.

Now heading into its 51st year, the National Endowment for the Arts serves as both repository and springboard for American arts, with some of the nation’s most renowned and gifted artistic geniuses and organizations participating in its development, implementation and execution. The first year of grants included Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, American Ballet Theatre, Actors Theater of Louisville, American Choral Society and to the New York City Opera to expand a training program for young singers and aspiring conductors. Over the years, the NEA supported American giants like the Joffrey Ballet and Dizzy Gillespie as well as hometown folk artists like cowboy poet Wallace McRae and programs like the Rural Arts Initiative and Arts Education Partnership. In 2016, the organization announced its new focus on contemporary authors for the NEA Big Read program and was nominated for an Emmy for its digital story series United States of Arts.

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When Black Violin performed at the Straz Center in 2015, they also did master classes and other outreach in the Tampa community. Pictured here is their stop at St. Peter Claver School.

We are pleased to acknowledge the NEA’s support in helping the Straz Center launch our Cultural Intersections program, a multi-disciplinary series of artists who use traditional, authentic artistic disciplines to transcend cultural boundaries. The NEA makes our work in this endeavor possible, opening our stages last season to such phenomenal artists as Black Violin, Parsons Dance Company, Celtic Nights, tabla master Zakir Hussein and others. This program includes an outreach arm which also sends our Cultural Intersections artists to the community in master classes, lectures and school visits with subsidized tickets for underserved K-12 students.

As the NEA says, a great nation deserves great art, and we salute the NEA for its hard work funding all manner of artistic contributions, including some of ours.

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Leotard, Check. Make-Up Kit, Check. Valve Oil? Check.

The Patel Conservatory Gears Up for Another School Year

There’s no such thing as summer break for the faculty and staff of the Straz Center’s Patel Conservatory. We spend the summer months steeped in a camps, classes, workshops, performances and pre-professional productions like this year’s impressive mounting of an almost full-scale Les Miserables. So, we have just enough time to clean the mirrors and sweep the floors before we welcome our next season’s spate of students when the official school year starts Monday, Aug. 29.

While other school years start with a backpack full of composition notebooks, the Conservatory school year starts with small duffel bags stuffed with leotards, hairpins, dance shoes, make-up kits, music, reeds, valve oil and water bottles. No matter what class you’re taking, everybody needs a reusable water bottle. Our students also need plenty of traditional school supplies: paper for notes, pencils and three-ring binders.

In case any of our incoming students forgot what they’ll need for dance, theater or music class, we asked the tireless faculty to let us publish the must-haves for your first day of school.

So, scan these handy checklists to make sure you’re prepared for another exciting year of friends, rehearsals, creative challenges and unforgettable moments.

 

DANCE

  • Dance bag
  • Appropriate dance attire*
  • Appropriate dance footwear*
  • Personal hairbrush and hair spray (boys and girls)
  • Personal bobby pins, hair net (to match your hair color), hair ties (girls)
  • Performance make-up (refer to handbook for make-up suggestions)
  • Water bottle

*See your specific class information sheet

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Did you sign up for ballet? Or tap? How about jazz? Maybe Flamenco? There’s a shoe for that.

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You can never have too many bobby pins. Ever.

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Our handbook has lots of helpful hair and make-up suggestions to get you show-ready.

 

THEATER AND MUSICAL THEATER

  • Performer bag (small duffel or backpack)
  • Pencil w/eraser
  • Folder or binder for sheet music & script storage
  • Highlighter
  • Scrap paper for notes
  • School appropriate movement/gym clothes
  • Jazz shoes or sneakers
  • Water bottle (healthy snack for classes/rehearsals longer than 2 hrs.)
  • Recording device (phone or tablet)
  • Personal hairbrush/comb & hair ties
  • Make-up kit for productions
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A highlighter will make marking your script much easier.

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Make sure you are dressed ready to move.

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Bring your make-up kit for dress rehearsals and performances.

 

MUSIC

  • Black, 3 ring binder (preferably with a matte finish that does not reflect light on stage)
  • Pencils (many!)
  • Water bottle, especially for singers
  • Extra paper for notes
  • Extra reeds for woodwind players
  • Valve oil for brass players
  • Rosin for string players
  • New set of strings
  • Scale and arpeggio sheets
  • Method books
  • Make sure your concert attire is clean and ready to go
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A black, 3-ring binder keeps all of your sheet music neat and tear-free.

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Extra strings, rosin and a pencil are very important to have in your string instrument case.

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The one day you don’t have your book is the one day your teacher will ask you to take it out and use it in class.

For life-long learners in the adult classes, you can find similar information on the Straz Center website.

If the notion of arpeggio sheets, jazz shoes or two hour rehearsals get you as excited as it does us, know that it’s never too late to sign up for Patel Conservatory classes for yourself or your family and friends. View classes and register here.

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Talking With Yu Ho-Jin, The Manipulator

This week, we are pulling a little sleight-of-hand by sharing this “Behind the Persona” feature from the Straz Center’s INSIDE magazine featuring Yu Ho-Jin, The Manipulator, from The Illusionists, which returns to Tampa Sept. 23.

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How did you get started in the business?
I got into magic at the age of nine after witnessing a magician doing a stage card manipulation act. Eventually my parents, who were opposed to me performing magic, became my greatest supporters when they realized the passion I had for it. Soon I began to receive awards at various magic competitions. When I was 19, I won the Grand Prix award in the stage magic division at the International Federation of Magic Societies’ 2012 World Championship of Magic in Blackpool, England. This gave me the opportunity to perform around the world.

What’s always in your refrigerator?
There is always Korean food in my refrigerator. I love ice cream; I am huge big fan of it. Also eggs and ham. And not in the refrigerator, but in the kitchen, there are bananas.

What is your worst quality?
Hmm … hard to say (laughs). Well, I love to cook but am not very good at it. So I eat bananas.

What music is on your playlist?
Classical music played on the piano is a passion of mine. It inspires me. While I’m a fan of most music, hip-hop gets me moving.

What’s your favorite place to vacation?
Natural wonders make me very happy. Of course, the best place for vacation is anywhere my family and friends can join me. Someday I hope to show my family Florida.

What are your thoughts about our great state of Florida?
Miami is one of the places where I want to stay for a long vacation with my family. Florida has unique natural landscapes and a beautiful coastline. I can’t wait to enjoy Florida!

Read any good books lately?
I used to devour self-help books about self-management, leadership and communication skills but these days, I look for a good novel for an escape.

Ginger or Mary Ann?
Well, I like both, but if I have to choose only one, Mary Ann.

What’s the greatest thing since sliced bread?
There are too many choices! To me, the Internet and computer, hands down. Without the ability to search, download music, play games and send emails, I cannot imagine what we would do with our lives.

What’s your “guilty pleasure” television show?
I usually don’t watch television. When I travel and I am feeling lonely, I will watch a Korean mini-series.

Who or what inspires you?
I respect my friends, like the other performers who work with me in The Illusionist shows. Theyinspire me in every moment. Also, I respect David Copperfield and the way he has made his own magical world.

What do you consider your greatest successes – personally and professionally?
Personally, of course, I love my mother, father, sisters. Without my family, what does my life mean? Professionally, I want to create more mystery and wonder using my magical inspiration and share my magical creations with people around the world.

If you hadn’t chosen a career as an illusionist, what other career path do you think you’d have followed?
Well right now, this is my dream and it works. I just concentrate on my present.

 

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Witness the Strength of Street Knowledge – A Day Talking Race, Culture and Percussion with Conga Legend Gumbi Ortiz

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Gumbi Ortiz playing the conga drums in his studio in Gulfport, FL.

I. The Lesson, Part 1

“Don’t be scared! You’re tip-toeing like you’re nervous.”

We were nervous.

There we were, in Gumbi Ortiz’s private recording studio in Gulfport, FL, getting an impromptu conga lesson—and Gumbi Ortiz is, after all, one of the greatest percussionists alive.

We don’t play drums.

“Put the tips of your hands here . . . palm, tip, tip palm tip. Like that. Now we’re gonna add the boom boom part, and it’ll make all the sense in the world. Don’t rush it.”

But we wanted to rush it. We wanted to break off and triple-double-quadruple speed through the sickest of the African fusion rhythms we’d been hearing from him for the greater part of the last three hours. But we couldn’t. Because we were not good. Our skill level matched toy-monkey-with-snare-drum.

Palm tip, TIP PALM -TIP.

Palmtip TIP PALM-TIP!

Gumbi laughed. “You’re getting ahead of yourselves. Everybody wants to run before they can walk. Good. Don’t f[..]k it up!”

“Look, we’re waiting for the boom boom!” we said. “Where’s the boom boom?”

“There’s no boom boom yet. Wait for the boom boom! Go—palm tip, slap tip, palm tip. Good. Keep doing that.”

We got into time: palm tip, slap tip, palm tip. Then we got there: BOOM BOOM.

Palm tip, slap tip, palm tip, BOOM BOOM.  Palm tip, slap tip, palm tip BOOM BOOM.

“Keep going,” Gumbi said, getting up from his conga and moving to the piano. “Keep going with the boom boom. Don’t mess it up,” he warned, a grin on his face, like he knew we were going to mess it up. But—he didn’t care because we were playing together, and that’s all that matters. We were palm tipping and boom booming, smiling like fools, when he pounded a handful of Cuban piano riffs and suddenly, in some parallel universe of supreme awesomeness, we were jamming with Gumbi Ortiz.

Listen to a clip from our jam session here:

 

II. One Question, One Hour

Most people know Gumbi as the superstar percussionist in jazz-rock guitar hero Al Di Meola’s band, where he’s been on the roster for 30-plus years. Born in the South Bronx in the 1950’s to Caribbean parents, Gumbi relocated to this part of Florida in 1979 with his family. He settled in St. Petersburg, where he’s been ever since, though he travels 250,000 miles a year touring and working on the kinds of cool projects that rich and famous musicians get to work on. (Stay tuned for his upcoming travel-food show with former student DJ Ravidrums.)

Now in his 60’s, Ortiz remains a kid from the Bronx—rough-hewn, street smart, scarred and with a terrific sense of humor—but able to swing in and out of different accents, dialects and histories with the ease of a completely politically incorrect person enculturated to the world. He’s a consummate storyteller, a sublimely entertaining mix of profane Bronx prophet, stand-up comic, armchair historian and African griot.

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This beaded gourd sitting next to Gumbi’s computer is called a “shekere” (African, pronounced shake-a-ray) or a “guiro” (Cuban).

Gumbi is, in a strictly Cuban sense, a rumbero, Cuban-Spanish for a percussionist or dancer although the connotation is much deeper, much more indicative of someone carrying the spiritual and historical mantle of the complicated, contradictory nature of black and brown people in the Caribbean. To be a rumbero is to be a master of rhythm yet also its vehicle, to embody the identity of the violent, incendiary, other-worldly, beautiful amalgam of the colonial collision that created Afro-Caribbean culture—and to speak the language of God.

He learned to drum as a child for Lucumi sacred ceremonies in the South Bronx, so we started with what we thought was a simple question: why don’t we see Afro-Cuban sacred culture in Tampa as visible as it is in L.A. or New York?

Except, if you know anything about Afro-Cuban sacred culture, Santeria or Lucumi, both drum-and-dance African ancient spiritual systems grossly misrepresented by Hollywood, you know it is never a simple question.

“I eat rice and beans, and I play my drums,” Gumbi said, settling onto a stool by his iPad Pro and miniature electric grand piano. Dim lamps lit his studio, a cramped room stuffed full of drums, guitars, music stands, headphones, chairs and endless snakes of cables and cords.

gumbi at ipad

“I stick to myself and that’s all I do. I’m my own little sphere of information: my parents, Africa, Cuba, Europe, Spain, all that lives in me. I am self-contained culture. I’ve been all over the world a million times. I love it all. Look, I never wanted to be an ambassador of something. I’m not that. I’m representing survival, you know what I mean? I’m the guy who survived.” He pulled up his jeans to reveal the gunshot scar on his kneecap.

“Who shot you?” we asked.

“Who cares? Look, I got cut in the throat, here.” He showed the pale line across his neck. “So, everything I do needs to be real. You don’t think and play the way I do if you don’t go through that. Falling on the floor and getting up again is what makes you strong.”

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A peek around Gumbi’s studio.

Above all, Gumbi is Gumbi: rollicking, high energy, high volume, crackling with an intoxicating life force unique to people who trade in vibrations. Interviewing him feels like popping amphetamines before jumping on a runaway train. He gesticulates, circumnavigates, re-enacts stories while voicing different characters, exclaims, whispers, stands up, sits down, and you don’t get a word in edge-wise. Just when you think I don’t even know what we’re talking about anymore, he brings it back to the point.

Then, you realize you were never lost in the conversation, you were just taking the long way ‘round:

“Look,” he said. “Us, this new experiment, America, we are trying to get it right but it’s not right. We think we got it right, but we don’t. It started off on the wrong foot, that’s why we’re here. I’m a product of the wrong foot. Spanish conquistadors, slavery, Columbus, the lost remnants of the Roman empire, Queen Isabella . . . you have to know this history. The Europeans, why did they have to look for a new way to get to India? So what happens, Mehmed the Conqueror has this country called Turkey. Everybody goes through the Bosphorus. Marco Polo, everybody. So, Constantine blah blah blah, Constantinople, says “This is a Christian city!,” and Mehmed is like “No! We’re a Muslim city.” Years ago! He takes it, closed that shit off. Now nobody can get from Europe to Asia. . . .  Queen Isabella said “hey, I need somebody to find the new route,” so the story goes. She finds Cristobal Colon, that’s what we call him, who says we can get there, but we have to go this way, whatever. He gets there, he thinks he’s in India, he doesn’t even know where the hell he’s at. But, the people were pretty, the food was lush, hence the holocaust that ensued.  In no time, by the beginning of 1500’s, there were already millions of Africans in the Caribbean. Forget about America. That wasn’t thought of, it was still nothing. We [Afro-Caribbeans] were the experiment! We were the mulatto culture, the mixed culture, we invented that Africa and Europe mix! So, you know, out of that mix comes this music and this culture, because the mix didn’t work [in the USA]. It hasn’t worked here, and it’s never going to work here in America. You know why? When you get the mix of English Europeans and Africans, it don’t work good. It’s like you put a bulldog with another kind of dog, it comes out like this.”

Gumbi distorted his face and contorted his arms.

“It works to make human beings, but it doesn’t work culturally. Cold [climate] people don’t understand hot [climate] people. It’s a different mentality. The Saxons are like “make something of yourself!” But it’s like “what if I want to be a stump? Who cares?” This is the problem we have now. The English at the time had Manifest Destiny, said that the Bible and Jesus said that the new world was made for England and the English way. Everything else was wrong. Slavery was a part of that Manifest Destiny. They were like [to black people], “hey hey hey hey hey, if it wasn’t for us, you’d still be eating zebra! So, come on, give me a hug!” That’s what they say: We taught you how to read, how to write, what more do you want from us?”

Gumbi inched his stool closer. “We’re too scared to say it doesn’t work because to say Manifest Destiny didn’t work is to say Manifest Destiny was a lie, that the whole thing we believe [as Americans] isn’t true. To admit that is to admit human frailty. That’s rough. So what we have in Cuban culture, we learn to live with our contradictions. When we play our drums in the santero ceremony, the deity will come down, and you channel that energy. It could be male or female, so in the 40’s and 50’s, people said it was a gay religion. People said that! Chango [deity of justice, drums and thunder] comes down sometimes as a man, sometimes as a woman. Half tribal, half Muslim. Used to be a man, now singing as a woman. Hello, contradictions! We live it. Here you have to be uniform, these American absolutes. Right/wrong. That’s what gets people clamoring for real freedom: I get they’re screaming for cultural freedom, not money. That’s why [Afro-Cuban sacred culture] is not seen. It doesn’t want to be, right? Americans are hung up on good, bad, evil . . . but there’s a vague line about that. It’s deep! This isn’t a jam session on Treasure Island. It’s Africa. What we’re doing is trying to understand nature and show respect to nature at the same time. Life gives life,” he said. “Life gives life. Ancient people, primitive people do things differently. When you’re making your inya or baba [becoming a priestess or high priest], you have to go to Nigeria. Tell Americans about going to Nigeria! They have this weird concept of Africa or anything African. Forget about black—Pakistanis are black. This is AFRICA. So, it’s complicated. You have to trust people to understand it [the religion] and not go crazy, you understand?”

Yes. We got there, the long way ‘round. “So, how does that come out when you play?” we asked.

“It doesn’t. It’s just who I am.” Gumbi jumped up and sat at one of the four congas in his set. “So what happens is, when I sit down,” he pattered out a set of beats, “I feel every African that died come right through my hand. You have to live this [culture] or you’re never gonna get it. Learn to live with the contradiction of it all. We had to survive. It’s a culture of survival, we had to make friends with the culture of our captivity from 400 years ago, and something beautiful happened from something ugly.”

 

III.  Gumbisms

Gumbi represents survival, the mix of cultures that created the extraordinary rhythms of music and dance that melted together on the Caribbean islands into a new, distinct, spiritual and powerful culture. This colonial alchemy, in Gumbi’s philosophy, provides a rather large lens into the social history of race relations and humanity. The profit of learning to live with contradictions, he told us time and again, is important now, in this terrible year for racial violence in America.

“I tell my Black American friends, you were born tribal, they made you believe in Jesus, kicked your ass, not one hundred years later, you’re in church like ‘Oh, Jesus! Lord!’ This is what I love about Santeria. We give it the face, the stories, that come from the jungle. But that’s so we can understand something we don’t understand. That’s all it is,” he said. “I think the Bible is the same way, but here they take it literally. That’s a problem. In America, [immigrants] can pretend to forget who they are. But Black people can’t do that. You know why? Because they’re black. Their skin color don’t let them. ‘Hi, I’m American!.’ ‘No, you’re black FIRST. That means you were a slave.’ They put you down three notches so you can’t stay equal-equal. People say to me ‘why are you always talking about that skin color, you could pass for kinda white.’ I say, ‘No, I can’t.’ It’s a funny thing. A sad thing. But we live with that contradiction. Black people came with all the advantages spiritually. But they lose the advantages with money and education. They start not feeling useful. I’m saddened by what I see in the world, but I get it. People have to get mad. These things [interpersonal violence] don’t happen in a vacuum.”

drum set

Drum set in Gumbi’s studio.

Gumbi’s name, bestowed on him by Harvey, a classmate at Nokomis Elementary, happened after the family moved from the South Bronx to Long Island, when Gumbi’s dad was relocated for his job building O-rings for the Apollo space crafts. (“We didn’t come here to be stupid. In 1969, we watched the lunar landing and were so happy because we knew my dad’s O-rings were somewhere on that rocket.”) Gumbi’s birth name, Gamaliel, proved too difficult to pronounce for his new neighborhood, and Harvey christened him “Gumby! Like the cartoon character!”

“But, when I came home, and my friends would call me up, my mom would be like ‘Goombi? Who the hell is Goombi?’ She couldn’t make the face you have to make to say Gumby. So, I became Gumbi [pronounced GOOM-bee]. Gumbi is a cultural translation.”

Much like the man himself.  He became one of the first Cuban musicians to incorporate Black gospel riffs into Cuban music (“This collision of African cultures! Even though I didn’t believe in the dogma, I loved the energy of the church. I couldn’t go to a black church without crying!”) which he demonstrated on his electric baby grand piano, marching out an exquisite blend of Sunday-revival chord progressions and salsa beats.

“There’s this one thing, this driving thing,” he told us, musing about common spiritual threads across the church, Moroccan gnawa music, Indian mystical chants and James Brown. “It’s all . . . this thing like your heart. This one note everybody is looking for. Once you find it you’ll live forever because you’ve found the vibration that works. Even if you die tomorrow. You heart does this thing with melody, plays this rhythm, and when you focus on it, you either love it or you get scared of it! This is a reminder that you’re alive. This consciousness is a beautiful thing. We have a sense of who we are with that note.”

conga drums_close up

Conga drums in Gumbi’s studio.

 

IV: The Lesson, Part 2

In three hours with Gumbi, we’d learned the secret of Cuban culture (“it’s about erect penises”), the location of santero ceremonies in Tampa (“all over, but it’s really Afro-Cuban, and it’s going to stay that way, you know what I mean”), his own personal secret (“I’m speaking as a fortunate man, so I may be a little full of shit”), the secret to making it in America (“I created my own life, but I’m never gonna tell you that bootstrap shit. I got here by standing on the shoulders of the people before me. So, you gotta find your own shoulders to stand on—and don’t forget you’re standing on them. And don’t hurt them when you’re standing on them!”), and the real reason why people don’t like Donald Trump (“he hasn’t lived through shit”) and his nickname for Al Di Meola (“The Queen of England”).

Oh, and we also learned the secret of the universe:

Life gives life. BOOM BOOM.