The American Songster Speaks Out

Dom Flemons founded groundbreaking black string band Carolina Chocolate Drops and recently recorded a seminal music work, Black Cowboys, for Smithsonian Folkways. He plays Club Jaeb Nov. 19 and spoke with us about his music and upcoming show at The Straz in this exclusive interview.

Dom Flemons 3

Caught in the Act: We have such a huge respect for what you have dedicated your career to do.

Dom: Oh, thank you so much! It’s been a very interesting and wonderful journey into music, as well as history and culture. It’s been pretty amazing. I’ve also gotten to travel to quite a few wonderful destinations in my time of doing music. Quite a transition from busking on the streets of Phoenix.

CITA: You represented the United States at the Rainforest World Music Festival in Malaysia recently.

Dom: Yeah. There were 47 different countries representing. I was the first artist they’d ever had that was representing American historical music. That was a real honor and a real treat. That’s one of the things I’ve tried to do from the beginning, is to be able to showcase a lot of different angles of American culture.

CITA: For any of our readers who may be hearing about you for the first time, can you describe what it is you do with American historical music?

Dom: Sure. That all goes back to my first years performing music. As I started getting into listening to records, first it was CD’s, then I got into LPs and cassettes a little bit growing up. Once I got into LPs, I really started to notice some amazing music. That got me into early rock and roll like the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, stuff like that. And Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Hank Williams, and that was where I started. From there it turned into folk music, through Bob Dylan, of course. I got into the sixties’ folk revival … Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf, and Lightnin Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Boggs, Doc Watson, a whole bunch of different people. So that’s where I started out. Just listening to music and wanting to learn those styles.

After that, I went to an event called the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina. I started studying the African and African American Banjo. So that was when I started the group Carolina Chocolate Drops. I moved from Phoenix over to North Carolina, and I lived in Chapel Hill for a little while and Hillsboro for a little bit, as well. I got connected with a fellow named Tim Duffy, who did a lot of photos in the most recent project … old tintype photography. Tim runs a nonprofit called Music Maker Relief Foundation and I got to meet some amazing older blues singers that were obscure singers, even in of themselves. That was something that gave me a different perspective on music. I was able to interpret that music is listened art. Then I was able to really incorporate vernacular southern music in the style, the lifestyle into my performances.

tin type collage 2

Tim Duffy’s tintypes of southern blues musicians were on exhibit at Florida Museum of Photographic Arts in 2018.

So I’ve been able to find a good hodge-podge of different things that have interested me in music and really crafting it in the true traditional style, which is knowing a bunch of different cultural cues that music can tell you. And be able to embed cultural cues within my actual performances, so people react and respond and get to understand the cultures I’m representing. That’s a little bit heady on the subject, but when you hear me play, I’m just playing a song and trying to entertain you with it.

That’s kind of where I started with all of it. Of course, Carolina Chocolate Drops became very popular so we were able to tour all over the world and be able to be a performing arm for that type of music, which had been under represented in a lot of folklore.

CITA: Could you give me a couple examples of what you mean by “cultural cues” in music?

Dom: I put it this way, the great folklorist Alan Lomax, he went out and recorded people for the Library of Congress in the thirties with his father. In his later career, to serve as an academic for folklore music, he created a system called cantometrics, and another system called choreometrics. The idea of choreometrics was that, when you see a traditional culture do a dance, the movement represents everything about that particular culture that’s significant. So say, for example, when you’re working in the field you might be cutting grass with a gigantic blade and you have a certain movement that you do all day long, working. The folk music that you do later that night will incorporate the same movements because you’ve been doing it all day. So, you automatically have the muscle memory. Say you have a gigantic stringed instrument that requires big waving arm motions that you’ve been doing all day at work—that’s what you do at play, as well.

That’s the idea that Alan Lomax had that I’ve always applied that to my music. Thinking about the movements, the dance, the message that comes across in body language and in material. I try to think of it almost like character acting. Where you have actors that, they don’t play themselves in every movie, they play whoever the character they’re playing is. It’s authentic. It looks and feels like the character you’re actually listening to. It’s almost like magic in a way.

CITA: Right.

Dom: It’s all music and fun in the end though.

CITA: What do you, personally, you as a human being, get out of living and breathing these antiquated musical traditions?

Dom: For me, having studied history, I find that American history, good and bad, is all very interesting. Some of it is very positive. Many parts of it is very negative. But when it comes to the music [of America], the music is something that incorporates something that is universal—music—and applies it to cultural experiences or cultural nuances that reflect the times in which the music was made. At first, I didn’t feel like I had many stories to tell myself, so I told other people’s stories. Over time, I’ve collected my own stories along the way, but the idea of telling a story along with a song, that’s something that I feel is inseparable in certain ways, especially in live performance. When you’re listening to a record, you need just a great recording of the singular song without the conversation, but when it comes to understanding music, people want both. They want the story and the song.

I feel like, especially as music becomes more modern, people are actually looking for those cues, but it’s just with different types of music. A lot of the reality stars, they sell their music by showing you they’re on t.v., and then you buy the music. Folk music works the same way, except that you have John Henry, who’s an archetype for an African American man who’s a railroad worker, his job is about to be replaced by the steam engine, so he challenges the steam engine and he wins. But then he dies tragically, afterward. That’s a pretty modern story if you want to make it that. It’s about man and machine, it’s about man, and then in versions of the song, it’s about his wife, Polly Ann, coming in and stepping in after he dies as a steel driver. It’s about men and women. It’s very multi faceted. It’s as good as anything we have…Shakespeare, Homer’s Epic Ballads, or anything like that. But it comes from the people. It’s the people’s voice and the people’s language. I enjoy that for the literature in of itself, but then when you can mix together different messages…people do it in Hip Hop all the time. They yell out, “Hey, everybody from Compton!” It’s a cultural cue. They say Compton a certain way, or they might say Hotlanta instead of Atlanta, that’s a cultural cue that people from around there know and so they respond to that.

It’s the same thing with folk music. That’s how all those songs have endured so long. There’s a lot of depth within them. That’s what draws me in. I’m constantly finding new stories. That’s why I like it.

CITA: Will you talk to us a little about Black Cowboys? That’s your latest album, right? When you come to the Straz, you’ll be highlighting songs from that work?

Dom: Absolutely. With Black Cowboys, it was kind of a step back to Arizona, where I’m from. I stumbled across this gift shop in the Petrified Forest in New Mexico, and I found a book called The Negro Cowboys by Phillip Durham. It talked about how one in four cowboys who settled the west were African American cowboys.

Having not seen a lot of that in movies and stuff like that, because my dad was really deep into cowboy movies, he’s from Flagstaff, Arizona, which is a western town. My grandfather was a logger and a preacher; he had moved over from east Texas, and my grandmother had moved over from Little Rock, Arkansas. I had never necessarily talked to them about cowboys, but as I started reading the stories of these cowboys in history books, I just started seeing my grandparents and their story within this bigger story. It was double faceted for me, where I was able to learn more about myself and the culture that I grew up in, in addition to being able to have the first comprehensive overview of the idea of African Americans in the west: black cowboys singing black country music, as well as string band music put in the blues and the context of cowboy music as well and doing that within a full package.

So I wanted to do a new record, and this idea of black cowboys kept dogging me. I saw that there wasn’t a modern album that had this. Of course, I’ve always been a big fan of Marty Robbins, who wrote “El Paso.” His great album, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, is an epic classic. I was trying to figure out, how can I get the epicness of Marty Robbins, but not really try to do full on orchestra style like Marty Robbins was doing. I’ve been a big fan of cowboy music even though I never necessarily played it. I’ve always loved cowboy music. Grew up with it. Started in coffee houses where there were cowboy singers, pretty much all my life, so in a way it was a reclaiming of many things for me.

CITA: Would you differentiate between cowboy music and country music?

Dom: Cowboy music is funny in that way. The best definition I got from one of the legendary singers, Dylan Edwards, was that cowboy songs are just any song that a cowboy sings. Which is what makes it problematic, because in terms of material, it’s really all over the place. Cowboy music is the same type of way [as jazz], where it’s a style, but there are a couple different generations. Usually it’s themed around the lives of cowboys. It’s around ranching, shooting, riding horses, funny times. Other times, they reach out to the Gold Rush Era, other times they reach out to the Modern Era with people like Gene Autry, it’s kind of the next step of cowboy singing. So there’s a style of cowboy singing, the singing cowboy style, which is like Gene Autry, Tom Nicks, Tex Ritter, people like that.

So I break down all those different styles in this record and show off the African American cowboys and how they were interspersed within that. There was a guy, Herb Jeffries, he worked with Billy Epstein and Duke Ellington, and he made several black cowboy films in the style of Gene Autry so I reference him. Bill Pickett, who is the very first black cowboy on film, and he was a champion rodeo rider. He created a sport called bulldogging, which is where you reach over and headlock a bull and knock it to the ground. He invented that. Buffalo Soldiers, they were African American soldiers, and they were the first ones to go out west during the Civil War years and afterward, there’s a whole other culture around that.

Anyway, I could go on and on about the themes. It took me about six months to get the album recorded, but it took me about a year and a half to write it out because there was so much amazing history. I tried to make it universal so people could get into the idea, read about the subject, then research deeper. The album came out of Smithsonian Folkways, which is a wonderful independent label. Also, it’s a part of the African American Legacy recordings series, which is in conjunction with the National Museum of the African American History and Culture, D.C. I knew that coming into it, that this Legacy series existed, and I’m one of the first contemporary artists on there so I wanted to make sure and do it up real big, in terms of, being on this particular series because now it’s in the gift shop at the museum. So, when people go in there, when they look for Black Cowboys, my album is there. Which is really a righteous deed, you know?

433px-Buffalo_Bill_Cody_ca1875

Buffalo Bill, ca.1875

CITA: It is fascinating, thinking historically, where these cultural cross roads gave birth to new art forms. And how history gets shaped. We heard an interview on NPR with a writer who documented how Buffalo Bill is almost single-handedly responsible for creating the cowboy myth that we think about when we think about what wild west cowboys were. But at the time of Buffalo Bill, the cowboys were mostly African Americans and Mexicans.

Dom: Yeah, absolutely. That’s part of the story there. It’s a very, very deep web of history. I touch upon Buffalo Bill a little bit, as well, because his wild west show links into the early history of circus and side shows. It goes back into this world of display art for people that want to see it. In the United States, display art became circus shows, minstrel shows, all that stuff comes out this really big, big top, sort of homegrown Americana that’s people from small towns figuring out how to make it happen. Buffalo Bill, being a guy who had such credentials as a western icon and individual, he just worked the newspapers and made the show the biggest thing it could be. It’s people side stepping the big banks and the railroads. It breaks into this whole bigger social world in which the West developed.

CITA: Right. So you’re going to have to do Black Cowboys Volume One, Volume Two, Volume Three …

Dom: That’s that hope. I’d love to do a trilogy, ultimately. I just don’t know how long that would take to get that all together. In terms of material, I barely scratched the surface, as well. You can get into all sorts of interesting history with all this stuff. There was so much material to work with, I was just so glad that I was able to catch the ones I did.

CITA: You ended up writing about Bass Reeves.

Dom: Yep. I wrote about Bass Reeves. He’s the Lone Ranger. I read about him in a western book. It was Legends of the West, and he happened to be mentioned in there. I thought he just had a fascinating story, so I went and looked him up. A fellow named Archie Burton has written a book on Bass Reeves, called Black Gun Silver Star, and I just was blown away by this guy’s story. To know that the evidence around Bass Reeves’ shows that he’s the basis for The Lone Ranger, they haven’t confirmed it 100%, but it’s a really comparable story. Just to have that idea out there, it really just, again, serves the purpose of diversifying what a cowboy can be. It’s not so much that this is one narrative better than this narrative, but to diversify so people see that there’s a choice. When you choose the different parts of western culture, you find that western culture has been diverse. For better or worse, it’s been diverse for quite a long time.

bass reeves 1

Bass Reeves was the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi. He is said to have arrested more than 3,000 people and killed 14 outlaws.

Nat Love, another one of the famous cowboys, he was one of the few to write his own autobiography. He happened to write about his experiences becoming a Pullman Porter, and I found that several of the cowboys I read about had become porters at one point or another because I kept coming across the question of what happened to the black cowboys? It almost seemed like they disappeared from history very quickly, but to add in the element of them hustling work on the railroad after the fences in the west has been factioned off to different people, it becomes very logical story that leads into the modern Civil Rights Movement with the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. A. Phillip Randolph organized the first all-black employment union, The Brotherhood of Sleeping Cars, for Pullman Porters. Over several decades, you have these guys in such prestigious positions because they’re working with the upper-class clientele. History really shows a lot of the social uplift that came through their involvement in the western culture. But a lot of the porters came from being cowboys, which was why a subtitle for the Black Cowboys record was Songs from the Trails to the Rails.

CITA: When you come to see us, you will be talking about the stories and the process and performing songs from Black Cowboys? Are you traveling with the band right now or do we get you all to ourselves?

Dom: It will just be me solo. I’ll perform and then I might read maybe one or two passages from the liner notes of poignant quotes I’ve found, but then it’s going to be featuring the Black Cowboys songs right in the middle. Of course, I’ll have some great old-time music in there. I got number five on the Bluegrass charts with Black Cowboys, so I’m also playing some Bluegrass stuff in there, some country blues.

CITA: Fantastic! So you and the banjo are going to be doing it up, we hope.

Dom: Oh yeah. It’s going to be a nice time. I picked up some good stuff. I got a gourd banjo, as well, which is a banjo made from a gourd. That references early American banjos. Beautiful sound, has a nice low tone to it, so I’ll be bringing that, as well.

CITA: Is this a four-string gourd banjo?

Dom: This one is a five string, but I have my four-string gearing like I always have. I’m going to pick some of the good, fast old-time numbers, do a couple of slow ones, and it’ll be a great time. I’ve also been featuring some great harmonica solos recently and people have been really enjoying that.

 

CITA: You are also quite accomplished at the quills and the rhythm bones. Will they be making an appearance, and can you tell us a little about what these instruments are and how you play them?

Dom: Oh, sure thing! I’ll start with the quills. The quills are like a pan pipe. It’s a bunch of cane reeds that are vertical so they’re pointing up and down. They’re from longer from the left to shorter to the right. I blow over them, similar to like you would blow over a bottle top, so they’re all in a line of nine different notes in a pentatonic scale, and I play string band music with that. The rhythm bones are two cow rib bones that I’m holding between my fingers, my pointer, middle and ring fingers. Then I turn my wrist and they sound like castanets. If you’ve ever seen a flamenco dancer, they sound like castanets. So, I start whipping some rhythm on those and it’s a good time.

CITA: Well, Dom, what a delight you are. We are so excited that you’re coming to the Straz Center. We’re ready for you to be here and hear your stories and music and have a good time with you.

Dom: Wonderful. I can’t wait to be back over at The Straz. It’s been several years. I think the last time I was there was with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I can’t wait to make it back over there. It’s going to be a real wonderful time.

Dom Flemons 1

Dom Flemons performs in the Jaeb Theater Monday, Nov. 19. To hear part of this interview, tune into Act2, the Straz Center official podcast, on Soundcloud.

Tramps Like Us

Springsteen’s musical progeny teem within the alt-rock and Americana scenes, including our Club Jaeb series.

worldsgreatestboss

Let’s talk about Bruce.

Or, as millions (probably billions) of fans know him: BRUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCE.

Why we haven’t seen a generation of children named Springsteen remains a mystery given the man’s four decades of generating an extreme fanbase with his theatrical, high-energy concerts and workingman’s albums that swing from pop to rock to folk to a certain Jersey Shore spiritualism. Then he became a New York Times bestselling author with his memoir in 2016 followed by his stint last year as a Broadway superstar during his sold-out one-man show/concert. Ever since 1975 when he decided to pump a little iron and release arguably the greatest blue collar American anthem ever penned with “Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen has burned across the night sky of American pop culture like a riotous, infinite comet.

We have it on good word from a friend of a friend who happens to live in the Springsteens’ neck of the woods in Jersey and ends up at the same pub from time to time that the man always travels with half-written songs in his pockets. He never stops.

It’s no wonder, then, that in so many bios of young singer-songwriters something like “harkens to a Nebraska-era Springsteen” appears as a description of their authenticity, sound and depth. Although it seems inconceivable that anyone would be able to possess Bob Dylan’s power of musical influence on the singer-songwriter scene, Bruce does.

Unlike Dylan, however, Bruce is a ham. His live shows bear all the markings of theatrical contrivance—the impossibly long knee-slides, the roving spotlights, the mike-stand backbends, the grand gesticulations and well-timed shifts in voice. Bruce, like any great playwright, director or actor, snatches up the audience and threads them through an emotional wringer, all the while making sure they enjoy the experience.

giphy (2)

giphy

giphy (3)

Our beloved program manager Joel Lisi, who happens to be a big Springsteen fan, books our Club Jaeb singer-songwriter season. Joel’s a musician, too, and he knows the real deal when he hears it, which is why so many cool people end up on the Club Jaeb series. Inevitably, most of these cool folks cite Springsteen as a major influence.

So, we asked Joel why he thinks Bruce flexes such impressive musical power.

“The Boss obviously resides in the ‘once in a lifetime’ box,” Joel says. “What I mean specifically here is that I can’t think of another artist who has what I’ll call the Bruce duality. Or, ‘Bru-ality’ if you will. (Trademarked, don’t even.)”

Bruality?

“On one side, he’s the humble, introspective and pensive artist. As authentic and prolific as a Dylan, [Leonard] Cohen, etc. and as down-home-blue-collar-every-man-Americana as you can get,” Joel explains. “On the other side, he’s a pure entertainer. Look at some vintage E-Street Band footage. The three-to-four-hour concerts. Huge. Watch the choreography (for lack of a better word). The showmanship. He’s the likely product if Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley stepped into that machine from The Fly. But through this duality, he’s somehow been able to maintain his artistic integrity like none other. It really doesn’t make any sense.”

 

But what does that have to do with younger singer-songwriters?

“Well, The Boss is American. And, in an effort to make a point here, by that I mean ‘Merican. That mattered and still does. Why should it matter? Despite his iconic ‘Mericanism—in fact, maybe because of it—he never shied away from writing about harsh truths, inequities and painful realities this circus of a country seems destined to churn out. He embraced, struggled, pondered and screamed at them. Still does. That’s the heartbeat of the republic of American music,” Joel says. “So, if I’m a young songwriter and I get hip to the legacy of a guy like Bruce selling out stadiums, TRULY rocking the world in all its glory, feeling that power and energy… then listen to Bruce practically whisper profundities off an album like Nebraska? You know, art in many ways is about upholding the sound of truth. Like attracts like. Truth responds to truth. Bruce embodies a spirit that others catch, make their own, pass on. When younger people who want to write songs about real things hear what Bruce does, it’s almost impossible not to be profoundly affected either in musicality or the stories they tell in song.”

Our next Club Jaeb performer, Griffin House, launched into the big time because of Patti Scialfa, who happens to be married to Bruce, after she hand-picked him to be her opening act. House spent a few years in the Scialfa-Springsteen sphere of influence, eventually returning to Asbury Park to record a deeply personal album, So On and So Forth. House is one of the many magical sparks to fall from the Great Comet Streak himself, which you’d no doubt hear in his songs from So On and So Forth (and House’s other records) even if we hadn’t told you.

“He’s called The Boss,” Joel says. “What else is he gonna do but affect everybody?”

Tools of the Trade: Music

We’ve realized Straz fans love knowing what goes on outside of the spotlights, so we’re running a short series called Tools of the Trade, listing some cool and maybe-unheard-of tools for life in the performing arts. This week’s spotlight is on music.

giphy

Gouging Machine

Not just for medieval torture anymore, the gouging machine serves professional oboe players in the manual labor of their art—the making of reeds. Unlike clarinet and sax players, who can purchase pre-made reeds, oboists and bassoonists must learn to make their own. So, before practice comes the making of reeds, a time-consuming, meticulous process that involves a gouging machine which thins and contours the piece of cane that becomes the reed.

drum_tuning_pic-USE-ON-TUNING-PAGE

Drum Key

The glorious kettledrums, unlike many drums, must be tuned to specific notes – which is where this little gem comes in quite handy. The timpanist fits this key on the screws securing the drum’s head to the kettle and gives it a quick quarter-turn ratchet to adjust the tone. Originally a Middle Eastern invention, the kettledrum traveled around the world, entering Western symphonic music as the timpani around the mid-17th century.

 

Tuning-wedge

Felt Wedge

While this handy little gizmo can double as a door stopper, the felt wedge has an important role to play in the life of a piano. Tuning a piano gets tricky because there are a lot of strings in that bad boy, and what happens if you accidentally hit the string next to the one you’re trying to tune? Well, then. If you have a felt wedge, you can mute the surrounding strings and get on with your business.

 

giphy (1)

Eight Dollars and Some Change

… will buy you a decent conductor’s baton, which happens to be the least expensive tool in any orchestra according to Detroit Symphony Orchestra harpist and blogger Patricia Masri-Fletcher. Of course, some batons run much more than that, like these Mollards, which we imagine choosing the conductor, much like a wand to a wizard. (“12 inches, cocobolo knob, birch shaft, pliable … ah, yes.”) With many conductors of major metropolitan symphonies making million dollar salaries, that’s quite a return on investment.

 

The Song Goes on ‘Til the Break of Dawn

Now gallantly streaming on Spotify and Amazon Prime, America’s national anthem is a relatively new idea that found its legal place in our national identity as late as 1931.

sheet music

This 1814 copy of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was the first printed edition to combine the words and sheet music. Currently this is one of only ten copies known to exist, and is housed in the Library of Congress.

Imagine the White House burned to cinder.
The Capitol collapsing into smoke and char.
The lane between the two a soot-choked corridor of smoldering federal buildings.

If you can imagine that scene, then you know exactly what British troops left behind them as they marched from D.C. to Baltimore in the late summer of 1814, as the “War of 1812”—a trade skirmish that escalated into full-blown war—waged into its third year. The young nation, only recently liberated from Britain after the Revolutionary War, found itself on the brink of a royal thrumming by the war powers of England. Bankrupt, obliterated and with its government on the run from advancing British troops, the struggling republic toppled towards dissolution. If Baltimore fell, there would be no hope for America’s survival. With the Brits closing in from Canada, inching warships into the Patapsco River toward Baltimore’s Fort McHenry and marching 4,500 highly-trained soldiers to the city, the nation looked as though it would soon be back under British control.

With these high stakes, the citizens of Baltimore threw their might against the British, banning together to reinforce the harbor and the city. As the 4,500 redcoats advanced on the city, they were met by 15,000 American citizens manning an unexpectedly impressive defensive earthworks. For 25 hours, the formidable British navy lobbed bombs and artillery at Fort McHenry trying to force a surrender that never came. When the sun rose in the morning, American soldiers hoisted a 42-foot-by-30-foot American flag, known as the star-spangled banner, over the fort as the British beat a grudging retreat.

The raising of that enormous flag symbolized the triumph—and the hope—of a new nation that refused to bow to tyranny.

War_of_1812_Battle_of_Baltimore

Engraving of the bombardment of Fort McHenry by John Bower.

Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old Maryland barrister and gifted amateur poet, witnessed the attack from the water. He’d been held aboard a British ship negotiating the release of an American POW, Dr. William Beanes. A raging storm added to the drama of the attack during the night, and the sight of an American flag rising with the bright, new dawn so inspired Key to grab the back of a letter and pen a verse of poetry as he and the other Americans were released:

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bomb bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Later that night, Key would write the remaining three verses. The poem, first titled “The Defence of Fort M’Henry,” appeared in two Baltimore papers shortly after the victory along with a melody Key had chosen to accompany the lyrics. The song caught on, and by November 1814, only two months after the Battle of Baltimore, America had “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

F Scott Key

Francis Scott Key’s original manuscript copy of his “Star-Spangled Banner” poem, now on display at the Maryland Historical Society.

Ironically or fittingly, depending on your perspective of American history, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is set to the tune of a British drinking song made popular by a London gentlemen’s club called The Anacreontic Society. The club adopted Anacreon, a Greek lyric poet specializing in drinking songs and hymns, as their emblem, and composed their own drinking hymn called “To Anacreon in Heaven.” The melody, written by John Stafford Smith, would be almost note-for-note copied by Key for the lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Here’s “To Anacreon in Heaven,” nicknamed “The Anacreontic Song” for the club that made it popular. You can sing our national anthem in your head over the rather saucy and now hard-to-make-sense-of original words:

“The Star-Spangled Banner” landed in league with other patriotic songs of the times including “Yankee Doodle,” “Hail, Columbia” and “My Country “Tis of Thee” (whose melody is a repurposed “God Save the Queen,” the British national anthem). The song wasn’t as popular as the other three until the Civil War, when the notion of national unity took on a deeper meaning. A cursory review of history seems to indicate that—despite divisive moments—America’s true hope is to be truly united states. With this current of feeling dashing through a traumatized populace, post-Civil War sentiment embraced “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a statement of American identity.

As often happens with music, dance and other performing arts, they serve an irrevocable purpose of capturing feelings and meanings of enormous social and historical value. So it was for Key’s soaring tribute to a new nation’s fortitude and lofty aspirations for freedom for all people.

In the late 1800s, the U.S. military regularly used “The Star-Spangled Banner” for ceremonies, especially those involving the lowering or raising of the flag. In 1918, during a World Series game between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox, the military band on hand launched into the song during the seventh-inning stretch. The Chicago Federal Building had been bombed the day before, and America was amidst the turmoil of World War I. At the sound of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” players and fans joined in an impromptu saluting of the flag in silence.

1918 World Series

Photo from a 1918 World Series game at Comiskey Park. (Photo: http://www.mlb.com)

Again, the moment took hold of national feeling, and playing the song while saluting—or putting the right hand over the heart—in silence became common practice at sporting events. What’s interesting is that “The Star-Spangled Banner” wasn’t even the national anthem in 1918. The song entered the lawbooks on March 3, 1931 thanks to Maryland representative John Linthicum, who lobbied for “a national song to give expression to its patriotism,” which, naturally, was met by much resistance from citizens who did not feel that laws were needed to make people patriotic. However, the bill passed, and Herbert Hoover signed off on it despite common feelings that the song was too hard for normal people to sing. That complaint, to this day, remains valid, as we all know if we’ve ever been to an American sporting event.

Though a drinking song melody of our oppressors, the American national anthem enjoys its big day this week as July 4 marks our 242nd year of independence from British rule. It commemorates a moment when America was hanging onto itself by the skin of its teeth, and we almost lost our republic except for the valiant efforts of everyday people to fight for what we could be.

Happy Fourth of July.

From Suzuki to Itzhak

Ten-year-old music student Mateo Valdes’ violin journey at the Patel Conservatory.

Mateo Violinist by Rob-Harris-1973

Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.

Patel Conservatory violin student Mateo Valdes has a very deep and wise gaze under a flop of shaggy, dark bangs. He doesn’t make eye contact much, but when he does, he seems to possess a kind of old-soul way of knowing that belies his slight 10 years of age.

His mother, Natacha, trained in the Suzuki method as a child and continues to practice and play violin today. When her son was old enough to sit for an orchestra performance, she took Mateo to an afternoon concert. Like many people, initial exposure to the arts as a small child awakened his talent.

“I saw the violin,” he says simply. “And I knew right away I wanted to learn to play.” Natacha looked for schools with Suzuki classes, found the Patel Conservatory and enrolled her son in 2013, when he was five years old. The Suzuki method involves a triangle of teaching and learning among the teacher, student and a parent or guardian. So, Natacha and Mateo began this violin journey with Dr. Catherine Michelsen, the string specialist at the Patel Conservatory.

“It was different from what I expected,” Mateo says of his first lessons five years ago. “I had to practice putting my feet in the proper position when I was little and just starting. Catherine had a cardboard thing I had to put my feet on, and we would practice my posture. Then I got into playing. Book 5 is where I am now.”

Suzuki Violin Camp (1)

Suzuki Violin Camp at the Patel Conservatory, 2017.

But Mateo’s “where I am now” extends beyond the next book in a serial technique. Though he continues to train and learn from his enormous support system at the Patel Conservatory and at home, Mateo’s relationship to music and to his instrument denote a young artist in the dawning of his craft. “He’s been a true joy to teach,” says Dr. Michelsen. “His innate musicality was apparent early on, both in his playing and in his interest in other aspects of music such as improvisation. His sense of dynamics and phrasing is very impressive.”

Mateo’s versatility was impressive enough to land him a spot as one of the youngest violinists in the Suncoast Super Strings, an arm of the Itzhak Perlman Music Program in Sarasota. After rehearsing with an orchestra comprised of students from around Florida, the Suncoast Super Strings performed with Itzhak Perlman himself conducting in December 2017.

“I was very excited,” says Mateo. “I liked performing with so many people. Now that I played in that orchestra, I sort of have an image in my head of where I want to go, where I see myself with the violin. I see myself playing in a big concert and making recordings. And a lot of improv stuff.”

Mateo with Itzhal Perlman 1

Mateo gets a shirt autographed by Itzhak Perlman.

Mateo, who studies and practices rigorously, spends much of his free time with the violin recording himself on his computer in improvisations of what he’s learned. “I love improvising,” he says. “I work on my pieces to get better, but I do want to record and do something with that later.”

“I play with Mateo, too,” says Natacha. “I’ve seen a huge development in his technique because of Catherine’s style of teaching but also because he gets boosts with the Patel Conservatory camps. He’s more comfortable, happier with his own playing. I am most pleased about his desire to improvise, though. That’s not me or anybody else. That’s just him.”

Here’s a clip of Mateo improvising:

 

“Playing violin is very fun once you get it,” Mateo says. “After the first six months, I really started to enjoy it. It’s been great for me.”

If you want to get involved with Patel Conservatory summer camps and classes, see what’s available and register now at patelconservatory.org.

 

Mateo’s Teacher Offers Pro Tips for Starting a Child’s Violin Lessons at the Patel Conservatory

Catherine 7787 by Rob-Harris_72dpi

Dr. Catherine Michelsen

We always welcome parents and children to observe the Suzuki violin group classes and lessons! Parents can get a “pass to class” in admissions to observe our Monday afternoon group classes and private lessons throughout the week. Because the Suzuki program has a higher level of parent involvement, we want to make sure that parents and students have a thorough idea of what the program entails. There is no need for parents to have musical experience themselves. However, the triangle of student, parent and teacher is part of what makes it such a rewarding experience. We can also provide help in renting or purchasing an instrument.

Ashe! Ashe!

The Florida African Dance Festival in Tallahassee Celebrates 21 Years June 7-9

class_2017

Photo taken during a class at the 2017 Florida African Dance Festival.

“Ashe,” pronounced ah-SHAY, similar to “sashay,” and also spelled “ase,” is the Yoruba word for a West African spiritual concept of the life-force energy. Everything has ashe. Everything has the power to transmit and communicate ashe—and two very powerful forms of working with ashe are drumming and dance.

Thus, the Florida African Dance Festival, held in Tallahassee every June and hosted by African Caribbean Dance Theatre, positively rattles the walls with ashe as drummers and dancers from around the world gather to learn and teach traditional African rhythms, dances and cultural heritage. The festival runs next weekend, June 7-9, at Florida A&M University Developmental Research School.

You can find out everything you want to know about taking drum and dance classes, being a vendor, attending the Saturday night performance or contacting FADF on their website, fadf.org.

congolese drummers

Last year we attended FADF and saw this finale performance of Congolese dance-drummers. Suffice it to say they alone are worth a round trip to Tallahassee.

In 2017, we packed our bags and trekked to Tally for the three-day event, overestimating our endurance and registering for three hours of class on Friday and Saturday. We had five options for classes that Friday and chose Makaya Kayos’s morning Congolese class first. Makaya is the middle drummer in the photo above with the red band under his knee. He’s probably 5’7” and appears to be able to jump that high as well before tucking into a front somersault. After the first half hour, when all of us students were pouring sweat, thighs hammering from non-stop deep squats up and down a basketball court in a college gym, Makaya and the drummers gave us a much-needed rest and boost of hype with a mini-performance that concluded with the aforementioned jump-into-forward-roll move. The students erupted into hollers and applause, buoyed by the energy (Makaya has a LOT of ashe), and we finished the rest of the class in exuberant spirits and spurting sweat.

Following Congolese class, we took Ismael Kouyate’s Guinean class. Ismael returns this year to teach his Guinean class Friday morning and Saturday afternoon, and we can tell you first-hand that his class, like Makaya’s, is outstanding. If you go this year, make sure you take it.

Marie Basse Wiles

Marie Basse Wiles and Senegalese percussionists perform at the 2017 FADF Concert.

On Saturday morning, we lined up for Marie Basse Wiles’s Senegalese/Sabar class, and we’re not ashamed to report that we were in way over our heads. About ten minutes into class—so, right after the warm-up—we chose to make the class a “growth opportunity.” Grow we did by artful application of humility—and a few Band-aids to our “beginner’s feet.” Marie brought an intricate Senegalese wedding dance for the festival, and we happened to be in class with several professional African dancers who were simply stunning. For us, even when the dances are more advanced than our training, just being on the floor with the drummers and witnessing the elegance and athleticism of the advanced dancers makes us appreciate the legacy and technique of African dance.

We have to mention that among these dancers were a few members of Tampa’s Kuumba Dancers and Drummers including USF’s Dr. Kya Connor, who performed in the Saturday night concert, and founders Natalie and Myron Jackson. Kumbaa Dancers and Drummers usually represent the Tampa Bay area at the festival, and we are super lucky to have them in town keeping the traditional African dances and rhythms alive. They also hold an open community African dance class every Tuesday night. If you’re interested, check their website for information on the when/where/fees.

Funky Drummer

Fifteen-year-old Patel Conservatory student Meghan Lock: “learning drums is my life.”

HIGH RES Drummer Meg Portrait by Rob-Harris 9878

Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.

Meghan Lock’s formal musical life began like most, with piano lessons at the bright, young age of five years old. But, when her parents realized she was spending more minutes in time out for not practicing than minutes she was playing, they took a different route.

“I was always rhythmic,” says Meghan, “and always beating on my stomach or anything else that I could get to make a beat. So, my parents offered up drum lessons. I had my first lesson when I was 10 years old, and I never looked back.”

Two years later, Meghan met the musical form that would blow her mind: jazz. “When I had my first interaction with jazz … it was like everything made sense. I love jazz,” she says.

In 2017, Meghan threw her drumsticks in the ring for the Hits Like a Girl (HLAG) all-female drumming competition. She walked away the Week Three champion in the under 18 category for her performance of “Manteca,” the Afro-Cuban Dizzy Gillespie standard.

“Before this competition, my drumfluences were all male and the typical drummers you would hear from any jazz drummer … Art Blakey, Ari Hoenig, Max Roach, Chris “Daddy” Dave and Tony Royster, Jr. However, through the HLAG competition, I was exposed to so many talented female drummers from all over the world—it was truly inspiring,” Meghan says. “Now, I look to drummers like Helen de la Rosa, Terry Lyne Carrington and Sheila E. for drumspiration. More locally, I am insanely influenced by Mark Feinman of La Lucha. I totally stalk this band at an almost unhealthy level.”

Meghan joined Patel Conservatory music in 2016 when she landed spots in the jazz improvisation and jazz intensive programs. Studying with jazz teaching artist Matt Weihmuller, Meghan found her home at The Straz. “My first show with the Patel Jazz Combo was the Holiday Market sponsored by the Gasparilla Music Festival and the Junior League of Tampa in November 2016,” she says. “I enjoyed my time with Mr. Matt and never stopped [taking lessons and performing].” Meghan is a regular in the Jazz Combo class on Tuesday evenings at the conservatory as well as an as-needed drummer for Matt Weihmuller’s Saturday jazz improv class.

“I’ve always loved music,” Meghan says. “When I was a baby, my grandma used to carry me around singing everything from opera to country. I have no idea what I’d be focusing on if it wasn’t for drums. Learning drums is my life. Having the opportunity to work with Mr. Matt has definitely made me a better drummer. The relationships and experiences I’ve made with the Patel Jazz Combo are immeasurable … I’ve met so many great and talented people, musicians and otherwise, through the conservatory. I’m so grateful to have found this place.”

HIGH RES Drummer Meg Cover 2 by Rob-Harris 9842

Megan in action. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

Meet Meghan

Education: Homeschooled. “I love it. It gives me the flexibility to do what I do with jazz drumming.”

Animal friend: Harvey, a Lhasapoo. “He’s like my brother … we fight like brother and sister, anyway.”

Interests outside jazz: Reading, gaming and longboarding. “I’ve read the Harry Potter and The Unwanted series five times each. I could spend an entire day playing Resident Evil or Minecraft if I ever had the time. My mom and dad have longboards, and we all go to Clearwater Beach and cruise around with a pit stop for ice cream.”

Favorite Patel Conservatory gig: Godspell. “I was asked to play drums for the production—hands down on of my favorite gigs! I had such a great time, the cast was amazing and I learned so much about myself.”

IMG_8453

Megan performing for the Patel Conservatory’s production of Godspell. (Photo: Soho Images)

If you have an interest, curiosity, proclivity or any such thing for the performing arts, chances are we have a class, camp or workshop just for you. Our arts education program ranges from pre-K to adult, so anyone wishing to explore or train in music, dance or theater has a home at the Patel Conservatory. Visit patelconservatory.org for a list of upcoming arts education programs.