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Newport Jazz Festival - Day 1 

 Friday, August 3 

Storyteller friend Valerie Tutson met us for breakfast in our hotel. We did some delightful catching up, reflecting on our artistic practice, and brainstorming an exciting retreat idea. Then we embarked on our Newport Jazz Festival adventure. 

Surprised by a brief rain shower, Zahra and I made the drive from Warwick, RI to Newport anyway, a gorgeous one hour trip. The GPS confused me at the fork for Newport, necessitating some rerouting and backtracking. But we arrived at Fort Adams State Park, parked the car, and took the school bus shuttle to the festival entrance, where our backpacks were searched and we were wanded by security. 

We made it to the Fort Adams stage in time to see the DIVA Jazz Orchestra, a multi-generational all women’s big band based in New York. It’s DIVA’s 25th year, but first appearance at Newport. Bandleader/drummer Sherrie Maricle graciously acknowledged Christian McBride’s invitation. This reassured me that my continued musical efforts can still bear more fruit. I loved that each composition the band performed had been composed by a band member and usually featured a solo by the composer and one or two other instrumentalists. 

At the conclusion of DIVA’s performance we had planned to move to another stage, but saw that an organ (Zahra’s favorite) was being set up for the next act, Cory Henry and the Funk Apostles. This group performed a mix of covers and original tunes. Every band member was masterful and the funk was in full effect. 

Although organist/lead singer Cory Henry’s messages were about love and hope, there was also an urgency that spoke to these troubled times. Reworked lyrics like “we all got to be staying alive” and “life goin’ nowhere, somebody help me please” nearly brought me to tears. By the end of the Funk Apostles set, I was so full that I didn’t even want to hear any more music for a while. 

Nonetheless, we rolled up our blanket and walked to the Harbor Stage, where Alicia Olatuja’s performance had already begun. There were no seats available, no shade, and no place to spread a blanket, so we stood in the sun and listened to this gifted vocalist. After hearing a couple of songs, I left to seek relief on several levels. 

Zahra joined me later and we shopped a bit and pondered our next move, finally opting to leave the festival for the day. The sun had taken its toll. More endurance needed for the rest of the weekend. 

When parking earlier, we hadn’t noticed our parking lot number. So we got off the shuttle bus at the wrong lot. After much searching we were aided by a young man in a golf cart who reunited us with our rental car. 

Our car antics resumed after we purchased groceries and sandwiches at a strip mall on the way to our hotel. I punched the wrong option on my phone and then couldn’t access the GPS for directions to the hotel. So Zahra activated hers which said “turn right, turn left.” Then “get in the left lane, turn right, make a U-turn.” WTF!! Then both our phones started talking at the same time – one was pointing us to the highway; the other gave directions back to the grocery store. We had some good laughs and eventually reached our destination.

Heading to Newport 

August 1, 2018 

Today I took my electric guitar and electric bass to the Montessori school. The four and five year olds had some prior experience (“Daddy has one of those”) and made thoughtful observations about electricity and about the instruments. The two and three year olds enjoyed dancing to my rocked out versions of some of our favorite songs, especially “La Bamba.” 

My afternoon private lessons were interesting. It was only my second lesson with my new adult student. He brought in one of his church songs and we decoded it.   His challenges were in feeling the one and fulfilling his job as timekeeper.  Bringing in a written bass part for “Oye Como Va” helped him understand the tune a bit better. 

My revelation for the day was the teen who’s been with me for several months. Just when I thought I’d given him all I could for the sitar, I discovered that he can’t read music. “Don’t make any assumptions” continues to be my life lesson. This teen is so sharp, talented, intuitive and musically experienced that I never assessed his skill set. Duh. 

The work day done, we turned to tying up loose ends and packing for the trip. We slept for a maximum of three hours, then left for the airport at 4 a.m. 

August 2 

My wheelchair attendant was very chatty and revealed a lot about herself in this statement: “Today’s a good day to get out of Chicago. There’s gonna be trouble – protesters and Lollapalooza.” 

What made her think that two black women wouldn’t be in favor of a march to remind our white neighbors and visitors that gun violence in our neighborhoods should be their problem too. And what’s wrong with young people gathering to experience music? 

Both flights (O’Hare to Washington, then a smaller jet to Providence) were uncomfortable – cramped seating. On the second plane I was assigned the very last seat, next to the bathroom. It was an hourlong sensory nightmare. As I stood up to exit, my left kneecap popped out of socket and I was momentarily stuck in a very painful position. 

While waiting for me to emerge, Zahra was met with rudeness as she inquired about my wheelchair. This woman was so brash that she didn’t even linger for a tip.  Guess she doesn’t get many.

A Full July 

July 26, 2018 

July has been a perfect month. Within it, I have been able to express and experience every aspect of my current self: 

Mother/Grandmother – conversations with Keewa and time with her children. A moment that has sustained me: Faraz hears my voice at the bottom of the stairs and yells “Mommy! Mommy! Grandma’s here!! Grandma’s here!!” Then he waits for me at the door. Warm fuzzies. 

Wife/Collaborator – every moment with Z is a gift. Traveling to DC together was joyful, even when it was hard. We care and take care of each other. We performed this summer in every grouping we’ve created: ShaZah doing Wiggleworms at Navy Pier; Classic Black at Night Out in the Parks; Freedom Song Leaders at Square Roots; Sitarsys at Evanston World Arts & Music Festival. Additionally, we’ve experienced music together at Sisterfire and The Color Purple. 

Storyteller/Musician – shows in Genoa, Western Springs, Millennium Park, and Willye White Park. 

Teaching Artist – Wiggleworms at Old Town School and Montessori Gifted Prep; private lessons with K (sitar) and W (bass). 

Writer/Researcher – Continuing daily Instagram and facebook posts on musical women; documenting Sisterfire experiences; conducting interviews in DC. 

Daughter – taking Mother shopping and to renew her driver’s license (at 92!!); including her in gigs and outings (Chase Park, Evanston, Color Purple). 

I love my life!!

Sisterfire Day 2 

July 8, 2018 

Sunday 

Today is the big Sisterfire Festival day. We get a slow start, though, opting to skip the picnic. Instead we get carryout sandwiches and head for the 2 pm Narrative stage. Our Uber driver doesn’t know her way around DC. She finally drops us at the opposite end of The Mall from where we need to be (I really think she thought we were going to a shopping mall). We’re relieved to be out of her car and make the trek to the Folklife Festival site. Along the way we see Catalonians building a human tower and spot the location of our evening concert. 

We’re late, but we do hear poetry – Black Radical Lesbian Poetry. I especially like the butch who spoke of her feminism not pleasing anyone: too masculine for some (not feminine enough), not masculine enough for others (too feminine). I want a copy of that poem, for I identify completely. 

In another piece, this same poet refers to Gil Scott Heron: “The revolution will not be televised…the revolution will be LIVE.” This reveals myself to me as no longer believing that a revolution is coming – though it’s needed now more than ever. Total systemic change, Really? In my lifetime? 

Leaving the Narrative stage, I freeze when I have a chance to approach Toshi Reagon. This is a very different me than the one who was boldly confident enough to get interviews from Alice Coltrane and Mary Lou Williams. How do I expect to get this project done; to reach goals I’ve set for myself and for which I’ve been funded? 

In looking for a spot in which to eat our sandwiches, we stumble upon the festival picnic area and are urged to join those who are still there. We meet Kali Morgan, a dreadlocked leather merchant/sexuality expert who tells us about Sister Space, an upcoming festival. Her festival partner, Jo-Ann McIntyre, gives me an interview right then and there, pulling in a longtime producer of women’s events, Polly Laurelchild-Hertig. All three express an interest in our music and my project, which Z keeps urging me to talk about. My different endeavors, though related, seem compartmentalized in my brain, making it hard for me to promote everything at once. 

We arrive late to the next event but hear most of the introductions and the performance by In Process, giving me a glimpse of what I might look like on stage five or ten years from now: old, lively, not elderly. The discussion and Q&A center around creating spaces for WOC performers (a Roadwork mission) and passing the torch to young women interested in “the work.” The daughter of one of the In Process singers speaks to the importance of Roadwork when, as a teen, she got a chance to learn many aspects of concert production through that organization, paving the way for her work as an adult. 

After this session, we choose our place on the grass in front of the Ralph Rinzler Stage and await the main event, which opens with a welcome by the director of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Sabrina Lynn Motley. It’s inspiring to see a black woman in that position. As she describes the Smithsonian’s plans for the coming year, I can see us applying all of our performing entities, there and at the Kennedy’s Millennium Stage. 

Toshi Reagon and Big Lovely come on as pure fire, black lesbian rock and roll. Toshi’s energy and command of her band and the stage defy her difficulty walking on the festival grounds. Big Lovely is a tight band, made even more impressive as it serves as house band throughout the evening, including performances by Martha Redbone, a singer-songwriter whose message reflects her identity as Black and Native (Cherokee, Choctaw) and Sudanese-American performer Alsarah. 

In addition to Big Lovely and Martha Redbone, my favorite performances of the evening are: 

  • Urban Bush Women, represented at first by a lone dancer – tall, thin, dark, wild haired, powerful warrior kind of woman. She enthralls the audience with her strength and grace, as she creates lines and shapes across the stage. She is then joined by three other women who match her in beauty and power. Their feet become percussion instruments, in choreography reminiscent of the South African gumboot dance. 
  • Holly Near, veteran of the Women’s Music movement and crowd favorite. Her lyrics and banter speak to the current political climate, the need for activism, and the personal experiences of love, loss, and aging. There is an earnestness to her singing that touches and opens the heart and a familiarity with her songs that inspires the attendees to sing, dance, and rejoice. Surely the roar of “We’re still here!!” can be heard for miles. 
  • Ariel Horowitz, classical violinist (who also played in the house band). Daughter of Roadwork co-founder, Amy Horowitz, her virtuoso performance is stunning.
  •  The Bernice Johnson Reagon Songbook, featuring the retired master of song herself under Toshi’s leadership. Although this closing set is rather long, it includes enough soul-stirring renditions of Sweet Honey in the Rock favorites and freedom songs to send us off full and satisfied. 

I am left, however, with a question about why this festival, a celebration of diverse women's voices, is not attended by more people of color. What is the disconnect between women's music and black music lovers, especially in "Chocolate City?" Is it the lyrical content? homophobia? distrust? a lack of outreach/partnerships?

I long for the day when walls fall down.

Sisterfire Day 1 

July 7, 2018 

  

We stay in, relaxing and luxuriating with Law & Order and bits of movies on HBO – a big screen contrast to our tiny screen options at home (yes, we love TV). we arrange meetups and emerge to join the line at the Kennedy Center – a beautiful artistic place.  The venue is smaller than we expected, but it’s free and we’re excited. 

We are dressed for the occasion: me in yellow with purple; Z in blues and oranges. An aged belle behind us compliments our clothing and we converse about age and place. Her husband joins us. The line moves. We find good seats, saving two for the others in our party. The venue fills. We spot Holly Near and Toshi Reagon. 

We hold the seats for as long as we can. I’m sitting next to our companions in line and note that she is referring to us and others as “gal” and “girl”. They’ve already let us know that they don’t know what they’re in for.  They manage to make it through the first set of Be Steadwell’s “queer pop”; of beats and layers and beat box; of “I love her” and “they wish they could fuck like us.” But when the MC asks us to clap and stomp if we think something’s wrong with our country, then the white house, then trump, the old couple bolts. We have dishonored the one they blindly follow. 

Carolyn Malachi then uses her techno gear for drumbeats and the voice of MLK. Kandra Rutledge rocks the bass while Carolyn sings and raps and sings some more, closing with a fresh take on “Four Women,” an anthem for this new day. 

Toshi takes the stage to introduce Ysaye, our star/teacher/root woman. Overalls, bald pate, bracelets. Actually, one arm braceleted; the other showing frailty. But she is strong and sings a prayer; providing context and correction in Kumbayah. “Don’t give them a pass when they trivialize the pain and longing in that song.” 

Ysaye then calls up the spirit of Odetta – “Take this hammer and sing when the power of the women comes down.” Me and Z and a few others take the bass. It is low. We are few. She makes us stand. Z’s voice is strong and beautiful. I do what I can to hold it under harmony and counterpoint. We all rejoice in the community of song. 

Tristen and Angela, then Taylor, join us as we file out. We make Chicago and Howard connections, then Uber to the afterset, stopping first to explore the Tibet and African shops.  There are so many stairs everywhere we go. My knees cry out on the descents, but I am determined. 

We are carded at the gay bar, then greeted warmly at the top of the stairs. There are gatherings of women and gatherings of men. Tristen and Taylor play foosball and video games, while we meet and mingle with the women, who know us now as “the bass singers.” There’s a sister from Oakland and a neighbor from Chicago. We inherit a table and are joined by T & T, then a new friend for Burkina Faso via Paris. There is laughter and sarcasm. Then hunger kicks in. As we leave I am stopped by the woman who got one of our saved seats. She thanks me for making her night with my joyful singing. 

We go for falafels. I can’t bear another set of stairs. I people watch and fall in love with Angela, who has given so freely of her time and presence – Zahra’s friend for the ages. 

All but one of our Uber drivers has been male African. We try to connect with each one. None has been to Chicago. But here we are. Together for a moment. Sharing our Blackness.

Washington, D.C. 

July 6, 2018 

Friday 

We enjoy 

the spaciousness 

Of our King suite 

A wall sized window 

The lack of deadlines and alarms 

And each other 

Eventually 

We extricate ourselves 

From our hotel paradise 

To explore The Mall 

That holds the hopes 

And dreams of protesters 

And inaugural attendees 

We find a panel of disparate musicians, 

Roma and Baul 

Whose purity of spirit and song 

Entrance us 

I step out of my zone of comfort 

Moving forward to pose a question 

About the women in their cultures 

And delight in the Sufi’s answer 

About each of us containing 

Both male and female 

And about music being 

An attempt to reach 

The Divine 

In ourselves 

The Catalonian betrays a similarity 

That we, in our world, struggle against: 

Women only as singers and dancers. 

We spot our New Museum 

But can’t get in 

So we sit by its fountain 

Resting and longing for entry 

Even the gift shop causes 

Pangs of the heart 

We shall try again tomorrow 

(We do, and it is for naught) 

There is, however, more value 

In the day 

For our pilgrimage requires that 

We pay homage to our King 

Cab driver, accented black man, 

Says he knows the way 

But does not 

Dropping us, instead, 

To the memorial for FDR 

At which, despite our disappointment, 

We are inspired by his words 

His four terms 

And, of course, 

His Eleanor. 

A father and his daughter, 

Who we’ve met before 

(and will again) 

Point us in the right direction. 

We delight in the massiveness and 

Beauty of the statue of 

Martin 

He emerges from a mountain 

And gazes across the water 

To Lincoln? 

To the world he envisions 

For us? 

Will the children brought here 

Remember to pursue his 

Dream?

Airport Vignettes 

July 5, 2018  

 

Wheeling through back corridors 

Midway yields some surprises 

4th floor theme: The Art Institute 

Nat King Cole sings “Mona Lisa” 

3rd floor: Buckingham Fountain 

Dinah Washington’s lyrics 

Include a fountain 

 

My Baltimorean wheelchair attendant 

(yes, I ride in style) 

Sports a facial tattoo 

And others, the edges visible on her neck 

A nubby golden grill 

Baby locs 

And a winning personality 

As we share our hopes 

Of seeing OUR new museum 

She vaguely acknowledges 

Hearing about it 

But wonders how she’d ever 

Figure out how to get 

From Baltimore to DC 

We bond over the dangers 

Of living in our respective cities 

She works hard 

At staying busy 

And out of whatever 

Unspoken hell she’s been through

ShaZah: Wiggleworms at Navy Pier 

July 1, 2018 

Summer Morning 

EXCESSIVE HEAT WARNING 

We complain, but maintain 

Entertaining those 

Who value what we do so much 

That they endure the heat 

For as long as they can 

While we play on 

Finding joy 

In the musical moments 

That sustain us 

And our loyal people

Mother's Day 

 

May 13, 2018  

Today I’m not internally demanding that I hear from my children today. K got hers in yesterday. It was such a gift to experience the expanded version of Baby Soul Jam. Hundreds of families partying in community.    The activism of Kido and Mama Fresh – creating family activities on the southside. I sat with Mother and we watched over Noni. When Faraz got there, he used Mother as home base while he explored the scene under his father’s watchful eye. After the event we had family brunch downstairs at Promontory’s restaurant. 

Mother still expected to go out to eat on the actual day of Mother’s Day, but asked that I wait until after her gift for me was delivered.  By mid-afternoon we headed out and ate at a Chinatown restaurant before going to the Goodman to see “Having Our Say.” I was underwhelmed by the show, then a bit miffed when, during intermission, Mother nonchalantly mentioned that she had seen it before. 

As we began our journey home, I turned on WDCB and heard my sitar on the car radio. It was Dee Alexander playing “Naikwa” on her jazz show. I teared up as I listened to the song that Vandy Harris wrote when my daughter Naikwa was born, then played at her funeral twenty years later. Mother turned to me and said, “Happy Mother’s Day.” Indeed.

BEE at 20 

April 28, 2018 

Black Earth Ensemble's 20th Celebration 

Received a invitation to come to the twentieth year celebration of Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble at Constellation Chicago. When I accepted the invitation to play, Niki seemed genuinely pleased. I eagerly awaited the opportunity to share in the music of my friend of great accomplishments. I tried my best not to be worried about how I’d do. 

Upon arriving, Black Earth Ensemble was finishing up the soundcheck. When Niki saw that I was there, she urged me to set up quickly, and launched into “South Shore” before I’d gotten fully tuned. The melody came back to me and I found my way into the song and a little solo exploration. Resumed tuning, then settled into my seat as part of the arriving audience. 

Uncharacteristically, Nicole opened the concert by talking instead of playing. It was a joyful, welcoming introduction to the program, during which she explained that BEE was always about change, so the personnel was always changing, including around forty musicians over the twenty years of music making. 

As a retrospective slideshow filled the back curtain, the first tune, “Africa Rising,” opened with the violin work of Samuel Willams/Savoir Faire who, along with Darius Savage, was in the first iteration of BEE. Ugochi Nwaogwugwu was called up, giving rich, spirited voice to Nicole’s lyrics and chants. When she asked the audience if they recognized the song, Niki remarked that the concert could unfold like a game of “Name That Tune.” 

I wish I’d had the foresight to document the set list as the concert progressed. But I was caught up in the power of the music and of my impending guest appearance. At one point, though, I turned my worry into an affiirmation that this moment was not about me and that I could just be open to what could come through me. 

When Niki introduced me, she also called up Ugochi and Zahra to vocalize. They did a compelling introduction to “Three Blue Stones”, while I added embellishments. I kept adjusting my tuning and never really felt that I’d gotten it right. After a while Niki signaled for my solo and I let it flow.  I also soloed on South Shore, as well as playing on the melody. 

Enough about me. Nicole Mitchell’s music was amazing, as was the creativity and musicianship of the band: cellist Tomeka Reid and bassist Joshua Abrams, (who may well be Nicole’s most frequent collaborators); drummer Marcus Evans and percussionist JoVia Armstrong; guitarist Alex Wing and pianist Jim Baker. There were songs with multiple time signatures; passages of dizzying speed and dexterity; and lyrics reflecting these times and imagined futures. At one point, during the second half, Nicole turned to the band and asked, “Wanna get harder?” They agreed, expertly performing compositions that had the front row of musicians in the audience physically trying to comprehend rhythms and structures. 

During the intermission, friends and fans mingled, sharing stories of and praise for Nicole’s amazing career and creative output, including awards, fellowships, international appearances, and a number of performing ensembles. Many of those present remembered the soft spoken woman who has become a powerful bandleader and a veritable force of nature. 

Several musical friends arrived during the second half, probably following gigs of their own. When she realized it, Nicole invited bassist Junius Paul and drummer Isaiah Spencer to sit in, after checking in with Josh and Marcus about relinquishing their spots and instruments. I shouted to Niki that Ben Lamar Gay was also present, so he joined the group on cornet. What followed was a spirited piece, which turned into an exchange between JoVia and Isaiah, which Zahra described as Africa drums mixing with Double Dutch; a moment so intense that Nicole just took a seat in the audience to enjoy it along with us. Master drummers carried us home. 

BEE’s parting song had the sound and feel of South Africa, with a chant that became a communal sing of “Peace and love til I see you again” Zahra and I got to add our energy and harmonies, once Niki heard what we were doing on the sidelines. It was a beautiful ending to a perfect celebration.