Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Last Year

Hello everyone who's still checking out this blog or subscribing. Having just updated a post at the request of an artist, I thought some people might be coming back to see if I've started up again due a google reader alert or something. If you are, then at least you'll have this post, with my explanation of the last year, waiting for you.

So what happened? 

Concretebeat was going well and I sure did love making all these videos and meeting all these artists. What happened was, first, I started to have to focus on making a little money (and I'm sure all the artists I've interviewed know exactly the feeling). So I did. I got a job as the New Media Director on the Obama campaign in NY State (now you know my political leanings) and, while that didn't pay the, it worked some 20 hours a day. And of course I loved it.

Day in and day out I managed the team that brought you the New York blog entries, online maps for phonebanks and rallies, online calling and those millions of bloody phone numbers. "But ENDED a year ago, what were you doing since then?"

"Sweet dreams and flying machines, in pieces on the ground"

Less than a month after Barack Obama won the presidential election my mother died in a plane crash. When I found out that Monday morning, I left unable to translate thoughts into writing, unable to edit video for hours at a time and unable to go out into the city and put in a smile while I enjoyed it's hidden artists. More generally, the thought of doing those things that I had done while she was alive seemed unbearable. I didn't even want to log into blogger. Besides, with my main supporter and benefactor gone, it was time for me to find a permanent job.

In between last year and now, I've gotten a new job, doing more new media. I've moved, gotten to know my dad a lot better, taken up yoga and tai chi and had a one year anniversary with my girlfriend. I've also thought very often about going back out and doing more documenting.

Having said that, it's still hard to take it back up. It's like revisiting a time when my life was completely different. I'm doing the same thing but I don't live where I used to, I don't know the same people and my number one fan, promoter and friend isn't there to help me figure out what to do.

I think I'd like to anyway. In due time.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Trumpet, guitar, bass, washboard, accordion, vocals: A Jazz Band

A jazz band playing a slow song

A jazz band playing a fast song

Interview with trumpeter Jesse and bassist Debbie about their lives and the NYC jazz community

Interview with percussionist David and guitarist Luke about their lives and music

Some great traditional jazz from a band which is a split off from the Loose Marbles (also on Concretebeat). The band, known has Baby Soda, has been through some changes in the last year. Since the current lineup no longer represents who you see in these videos, I was asked to change the name of entry. But who cares, right? A rose by any other name would still sound as sweet.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Vocals: Singing Dragon

Singing Dragon Singing (Sittin' on the Dock)

Singing Dragon Singing

Interview with Singing Dragon

Artist: Mitchell “Singing Dragon” Hughes
Medium: Vocals
Location: Times Square on the downtown Q platform

Singing Dragon has been singing for nearly 60 years, and he’s still at it. Now, you might think that Singing Dragon is an odd nick-name for a South Carolinian rice planter. And you might think that he got the name from the fact that he’s still singing even though he’s become ancient, but you’d be wrong on both counts. Rather, Mitchell Hughes’ name is entirely sensible and he got it from the Chinese zodiac. Born in the Year of the Dragon, Mr. Hughes explained to me that he, the Singing Dragon, happened to be born in the same year as Bruce Lee, the Little Dragon (Bruce Lee’s Chinese name is Lee Xiao Long, literally Little Dragon Lee. So yeah, asking for “Bruce Lee” in China only results in quizzical stares from all parties involved).

As suggested by his zodiac, Singing Dragon is quite strong and vibrant personality. Despite his age, Singing Dragon was constantly joking and smiling as he spoke with me and had enough energy to belt out song after song over the din of the subway. But is not to say that Singing Dragon is still young. In New York with his sister, when I asked him how long he’d been here Singing Dragon looked off across the subway platform to the tracks, as if remembering another train station far away and told me “too long.”

Originally from South Carolina, Mitchell Hughes is, as he told me, a Geechee, or rice person. Growing up on a farm Mitchell and his family planted rice when he was young. When Mitchell’s mother made him and his siblings participate in the church choir, however, Mitchell’s skills eventually took him to join a gospel group in New York. After the group broke up Mitchell joined a band – the first tune he learned was “I’m a Soul Man.” Singing such popular music left it’s mark on Mitchell who has gone on to write his own music and cites influences from Ottis Redding, to Johnny Taylor to Tyrone Davis.

Although he occasionally seems weary of the city, Singing Dragon made it clear that he does enjoy signing in public. “Why I sing in the subway? It’s a big audience” he also added “the money is fun.” However, Singing Dragon’s preferred venue is the club work he does as it affords him the chance to get dressed up in a nice suit and be a real showman.

Singing Dragon is quite proud of his ancestry and pointed out that, as his adopted name implies, he does have some Chinese blood in him dating back to the Ming dynasty in Southern China. As mentioned, he is also of Geechee ancestry and that comprises virtually ever Latin American place from which the Spanish took people to work in their South Carolinian plantations including Puerto Rico, Dominican, Cuba, Brazil, Mexico and Guyana.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Blues Guitar: Kappa

Kappa playing and original tune

Kappa playing jazzed up covers

Interview with Kappa

Artist: Kappa
Medium: Guitar
Location: Union Square on the downtown Q platform

My friend is always telling me that the Japanese are taught English rather rigorously in school and that they all speak more than I think and Kappa has proven him right. The first Japanese musician I’ve interview who isn’t in a group with some fluent English speaker, Kappa has been in New York for only one month but had very little trouble understanding my questions and only a little more difficulty finding his answers.

Kappa is from Hiroshima and came all the way to the Big Apple to play guitar. He’s been playing for 10 years and, while he has a band back in Japan and enjoys busking there, he’s decided to try his luck overseas. Kappa has been enjoying himself in NY and enjoys sharing his music with its people. As in Hiroshima he continues to enjoy busking but is also looking to play gigs in the city.

Kappa’s style is heavily influenced by African-American music. “I love black music. For example, jazz and blues and R&B, soul…”

Kappa doesn’t know how long he’ll stay in NY but let’s hope it’s a while, his smooth R&B guitar and jazzed up covers are a great thing to run into on a boring Sunday in the subway.

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Thursday, March 6, 2008

Guitar and vocals: Christiana Lynn

Christiana playing

Christiana playing an original

Interview with Christiana

Artist: Christiana Lynn
Medium: Guitar, vocals
Location: Union Square downtown Q platform

When Christiana told me she was going to sing a Joni Mitchell song for me I found it particularly apt. I remember, a long time ago, listening to my mother play Jodi Mitchell in the car and her melodic but continuously high voice was almost identical. Of course, Jodi is a folk rock legend and Christiana is a sign language interpreter playing in the subway after work, at least for now.

Christiana, born in Massachusetts, has lived in Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina and, most recently, Brooklyn, NY. Christiana came to the city because she's always been drawn to the musical theater world. However, she's also passionate about social work and thinks the city is a great place to use music as a social and communicative device. Hence the playing in the subway. For the skeptics out there, Christiana has been in the city for five years now and is as cynical as she's ever going to get.

Although she had guitar lessons when she was eleven, Christiana says she never practiced. But even so, she got into the guitar deeply because even though she's "not very good at practicing, [it's] easier to carry than a piano" (which she also plays). Christiana noted that she's still not great at practicing and picks easy songs to play, although I would never have guessed. Aside from instrumenting, Christiana also sings. How she got into that, though, is a very simple story. "My mother said I screamed until I was three and then I started singing." It's that simple.

If you're wondering what gave Christiana the initial idea to sing in the subway it's actually quite interesting. For all of you who have seen the accordion player in Union Square who sits at the back of the Q train platform and, generally, wears a large russian hat with the ear flaps, that's who convinced Christiana to play in public. She saw him playing the Godfather song one day, started singing with him and decided to strike out on a solo act thereafter. And now she takes the time to play whenever she's not occupied with her day job - communicating with the deaf as a sign language interpreter.

Christiana surely does enjoy playing in the subway. She says it teaches a person not to be afraid of how other people will react and, when people react positively, which they often do, gives a warm sense of accomplishment.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Breaking: Happy Valentine's Day

What yo man cannot do

Highlights from the show including the grande finale

Some really awesome breaking

Interview with the dancers

Artists: B-Boy C Nice (Leopard suit), B-Boy Architect (dreds) and B-Boy Most (helmet)
Medium: Break dance
Location: Union Square station L platform

Sometimes a major subway construction project is a good thing, at least for me and my artist pals. If the Brooklyn bound side is running every 15 minutes, and the 8th avenue bound side ain’t running at all then you’ve got plenty of time and a captive audience for any performance you might want to do. In this case I think things worked out particularly well. B-Boy Architect, B-Boy C Nice and B-Boy Most had a fun, interactive show which was almost perfectly timed to the train schedule.

Although I filmed twice and he was only there once, B-Boy Architect didn’t need a second run to make his skills apparent. A master of motion, Architect has refined his skills over years of practice. Growing up in the Bronxdale projects in the 70s, Architect got into dancing and art just as hip-hip was exploding around 1974-1977 and Architect embraced the movement with open arms. A dancer, skater and graffiti artist, Architect asserts: “I practice hip-hop culture.”

Architect has as strong connection to the roots of hip-hop and “in ’78-’79…when a lot of B-Boys came to the streets and started performing – which we called hittin’,” Architect came too. Breaking and performing was, for many, “a poor man’s meal ticket” and “[f]or a lot of brothers that didn’t have no money and couldn’t a lot of doors open for them, this is how they made their presence known.” Architect continues to make his presence known through his art. He says he continues to love dancing and performing because he can express himself without anyone setting boundaries and enjoys seeing peoples’ reactions. Architect actually prefers working in the street to gigs, explaining that because breakers are, by and large, poor, people who set up gigs always try to short change them. On the other hand, in the street you can work until you’ve got what you want.

C Nice
The showman of the group, Queens resident B-Boy C Nice is one part comedian, one part announcer and one part outrageous dancer. Decked out in his leopard print spandex C Nice is a dancer to be reckoned with, combining breaking techniques with acrobatics, tumbling and a fair amount of contortion. Seriously, if you’re just reading this and you haven’t watched the videos yet, go watch the videos. C Nice gets his amazing abilities from yoga, which he teaches when he’s not dancing.

C Nice has been breaking for about 4 years and says that if you want to be as good as him it takes “hard work and dedication.” But he also says that “the world evolves around energy, if you don’t have energy and positive people around you, the show cannot do.” As a result C Nice is always trying to pump up the crowd and get them laughing. Also as a result, he prefers to work outdoors in the sunshine and fresh air. His main reason for coming down into the subway is because “it’s cold outside.”

Most has known Architect and C Nice for years but only in the past few months have all of them been breaking together regularly. You may remember that Most was in a previous dance group on Concretebeat with Float Master John. Unfortunately, John was locked up but Most refuses to allow that to keep him from dancing. “I was dancing before I’m going to keep dancing.” Most describes the break dancing community as a big family. When John got locked up, he was able to hook up with Architect and C Nice and get back to work. “I’m cool, they’re cool, we just get together, it’s nothing big…it’s just like a big family.”

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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Tuba, trumpet, drums vocals - Jazz/Punk: The Stumblebums

The Stumblebums playing (double header)

The Stumblebums Playing (explicit language)

Interview with The Stumblebums
Artists: Jesse Wildcards (Tuba), Smidge Malone (Trumpet and vocals), Jonny Carwheels (drums and vocals)
Medium: Tuba, drums, vocals
Location: 2nd avenue station on the F line.

Let’s talk musical innovation and cutting edge. While we’re at it, let’s talk about the NY subway system because the two go hand in hand. As the Stumblebums Brass Band fusion of Jazz and Punk demonstrates, the openness of New York provides space for unique and new music to develop and be refined. Composed of three urbanites, I was fortunate enough to experience distinctive sound of this group.

There are two aspects of this music which really impress upon listeners. First is the use of traditional jazz and big band instruments such as the tuba and trumpet. The Stumblebums use the unmistakable and sonorous power of these instruments in an unconventional way to compliment the second defining feature if their music, the ferocity of their punk inspiration.

At the heart of the ferocity of their music is lead singer Smidge Malone. With a gravely voice you might expect from jazz singers like Louis Armstrong Smidge screams out intense lyrics over the competing tuba and drums, both of which offer no quarter. Furthermore, the visual contrast of his pin-stripe suit and tattooed face makes the contention between the power and timbre of his voice even more pronounced.

Smidge hails from Queens, NY and says he got into singing and trumpet by accident. When he was going to school in Brooklyn, he sat down in the trumpet section and he became a trumpeter. He then took up singing because “I needed compliment, I needed a backup and I didn’t have anyone to back me up so I had to back up myself…until I met these schmucks.” In any event, regardless of having backup or not, Smidge has been playing music since Jr. High School and has decided to make a career out of it. Which is what he likes most about the subways “it gets us work, you know?” Of course, he says, he’d rather play gigs since they pay more.

Jesse Wildcards also adds to the distinct sound of the Stumblebums with oft neglected sounds of the tuba. Jesse is also a native New Yorker, born in Manhattan and now living in the Bronx. Jesse picked up the tuba in Jr. High School and has stuck with it until now. Jesse is the one who helped define the band as a mixture of jazz and punk and added that one of his favorite things about developing this music is making people dance. Jesse also really enjoys playing in public for several reasons. First, of course “playin in the subway makes it possible for me to play music full time.” But on top of that, Jesse adds that the subway is a great place to rehearse because of the interaction with people. In fact, playing in the subway is where he met Smidge 7 years ago. “I prefer working on my music in the subway than working in my own apartment.”

Jonny Carwheels is the band’s drummer and brings his intense drumming and singing skills to the group’s unique dynamic. Jonny, who lays down the essential beat and tempo for the Stumblebums actually met Jesse at a gig where he was playing the accordion. After playing together in the street for a time, Jonny revealed that his main instrument was actually the drums and Jesse tried him out for the Stumblebums. Johnny has been playing drums for 12-13 years and says that the Stumblebumns are the “best music I’ve played for a while…I have a great time.”

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