Rock's Backpages Writers' Blogs » Carol Cooper Rock reviews, rock articles & rock interviews from the Ultimate Rock'n'Roll Library Sun, 19 May 2013 03:11:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Thoughts On Madonna’s MDNA Tour in America Sun, 09 Sep 2012 05:51:25 +0000 Carol Cooper 9/6/12:  Some Thoughts as Madonna’s “ MDNA”  Tour  hits North America

By Carol Cooper
As  I write this Thursday night  I can hear Madonna  singing from Yankee Stadium through the window of  my  Harlem apartment.  In fact, the sound mix on “Girls Gone Wild”  and “Papa Don’t Preach” gets so good  that her vocals cut  like a Samurai sword across a perfectly balanced backing track and the audible appreciation of the crowd.   The concert seemed to start just as Vice President Biden ended his televised speech at the Democratic National Convention.   I,  of course, saw the smaller, arena-sized production  of this spectacle in Philly last week, which kicked off  the North American leg of her MDNA tour.  But we early birds were warned that unless we saw the stadium show we weren’t  seeing  Madonna’s definitive version of this show.

Be that as it may, Philly inspired me to contemplate the live performance  Madonna put together for her fans this year,and nothing could be more inspiring as I share these thoughts than hearing her rock Yankee Stadium from  a few blocks away.

MDNA…but for one letter, alludes to Ecstasy.  But  like the dance party drug,   Madonna promises no unalloyed pleasures.  Even as early as her *Blonde Ambition* tour Madonna was performing more to prove thematic  points than to entertain.  Unlike lesser pop stars who also think their songwriting is strong enough to support artistic, “attitudinal” staging,  only Madonna sustains the palpable strength of character to pair the blood-splatter visuals of *Dexter* to a homicidal songabout her ex-husband and somehow make it a gleeful collective catharsis.

Shifting from girl backup dancers to male dancers from song to song also creates interesting juxtapositions you wouldn’t see from, say, Katy Perry, Gaga, or Taylor Swift.  To begin with, it’s her manly queens that get to strut and ki-ki  through  “Girls Gone Wild”, while her guerilla girls butch it up and flash rifles through “Revolver”.      A raw, defiant Nikki Minaj appears via video like Madge’s adolescent alter-ego to bring ghetto realness  to the coda of “I Don’t Give a***.”    And it was Nikki’s chirpy yelps which  gave generational  balance to the magnificent gospel singer who contributes a solo near the end of the show during *Like A Prayer.*    Madonna actually *genuflects* onstage  to this diva’s wail, much as she visibly salutes the talents of the many side-performers she borrows from diverse traditions—Basque/Indian/Hip-Hop/drag balls—who help Madonna push the envelope of the acceptable sound of contemporary  dance pop.

There are periodic momentum problems within the live show because Madonna refuses to program all  the uptempo tracks into a seamless attempt to peak the crowd then keep them in a kinetic frenzy like a deejay would.   Instead she will slow things down for elegiac meditations on relationships:  like “Best Friend”  or the Golden Globe-winning“Masterpiece”.     That she leads into the latter with a languid “Open Your Heart” transformed by  the Bollywood sway of  Kalakan’s “Sagara Jo”  lets the mod-era  lilt of “Masterpiece”  allude both to the inspirational diversity of the Beatles and to the imperialistic history of the land which gave her a British ex- husband.

Speaking to the risky sacrament of marriage, the church backdrops  featured  throughout  this show repeatedly shatter or dissolve via projected images which telegraph all five “stages” of the MDNA experience (ranging from”Transgression” to “Celebration”)  and underscore  the jittery momentum of the pacing.   Opening in a shadowy gothic cathedral  with buff monks ringing a bell, the set shifts to reveal a open chapel showing stained-glass windows streaming with sunlight and grace.

This is the Church of Love, in which Lady Madonna has worshipped long enough to sacrifice two marriages on its altar.  Accordingly, twice we see projected images of the church shatter or dissolve on screens above the stage.  Sometimes the bricks explode   into literal visions of heaven  and  hell; another time into Christ’s heart wreathed  in thorns.   Madonna didn’t enter either of her marriages lightly.  She held as an article of  faith that she could (and should) be able to make a marriage of creative equals work.  She was betrayed in that belief, and a large part of MDNA’s drama  reflects wryly on the ramifications of that betrayal.

That’s why her live mash-up of “Express Yourself” with “Born this Way” resonates as much more  than  snarky  commentary on Lady Gaga.  First, let’s give Gaga a break here shall we?   Until  Gaga puts out four or five more hit solo albums, there’s no way her slender output  as a singer/songwriter can be measured against Madonna’s track record.  So if it’s not all about Gaga what is it about?  It’s about what the *lyrics* are saying.    “Express Yourself”  talks about a talented  woman  respecting herself enough to want  a creative/intellectual  equal  for a spouse then  doing everything possible not to settle for less.  “(I Was) Born This Way” is about that same woman refusing to apologize for her aggressive drive and dominant personality.   The repeated ad-lib  “She’s not me!”  in this context  reads like disappointment, not outrage.   It’s the mordant battle cry of every career girl who has survived watching men leave them for less “difficult”, less ambitious women.    To pull her head out of these sobering epiphanies  with the sassy marching band swagger of “Give Me All Your Luvin’ ”  proves that our Madge knows how to bounce back.   Gladly trading the faithless love of a husband  for the admiration of millions, Madonna, now in her fifties, returns  to the arms of her muse and gently maturing fandom.

Far more important than musical asides about men or momentary rivals are the sly in-jokes  Madonna will sometimes deploy  to amuse herself.  (Remember that equestrian montage she did around the time a male bestiality ring went public?)   “Justify My Love”, a provocative  tone-poem  which dates from the time of her *Sex* book,  introduces a suite of libidinal material which functions here as a  John Waters-esque retort to any critic who ever wanted to reduce Madonna’s girlie show allusions to mere prurience.  The rapid segue into the stylistic diversity  of “Vogue,” “CandyShop,”  and “Human Nature”  lets Madonna and her dancers work the proscenium  in a parade of all the edgy  fashions she  introduced to MTV.   The costumes culminate  in her stripping to her underwear to give us Dietrich at the Blue Angel crooning a waltz-time piano remix   of “Like A Virgin.”   Then she goes Miles Davis one better by  turning not only her back to her audience, but also a nearly bare ass.

This dramatic stroll down memory lane could be seen as a beautiful mess by  those who are too linear and literal in their thinking. To be sure there is a certain amount of chaos throughout  the MDNA carnival .  But it is controlled chaos with a creative purpose.  There is a quote from the arts criticism of C.G. Jung that illustrates this point. It reveals Jung’s reaction to the “diabolical”  literary style James Joyce applied to his experimental novel *Ulysses*.   By replacing every  reference to Joyce with a reference to Madonna and replacing  the word *Ulysses* with *MDNA,*   a marvelously Jungian view of this tour emerges below:

“Under the cynicism of  Madonna there is hidden a great compassion.  Madonna  knows the suffering of a world that is neither beautiful  nor good, and worse still, rolls on without hope through the eternally repeated everyday…dragging with it man’s consciousness in an idiot dance through the hours,months, years.   With  MDNA  she has dared to take the step that leads to the detachment of consciousness from the object.  She has freed herself from attachment, entanglement and delusion, and can therefore turn homeward.   MDNA gives us more than a subjective expression of personal opinion, for the creative genius is never one but many, and MDNA speaks in stillness to the souls of the multitude, whose meaning and destiny  it embodies no less than the artist’s own.”

– ’Ullysses’: A Monologue (1932/1934)  from *The Spirit in Man, Art, andLiterature*

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Cesaria Evora, (1941 – 2011) Tue, 03 Jan 2012 16:23:54 +0000 Carol Cooper     Cesária    Évora   (1941 – 2011)

By Carol Cooper

     Buried on her home island of São Vicente the Tuesday before Christmas amid nationwide mourning in her native Cape Verde,  singer Cesária Évora enjoyed more artistic recognition and acheivement during her last 20 years than fate allowed during her first 50.   Although popular as a signature purveyor of plaintive “mournas” and festive “coladeiras” in Cape Verde since the 1960s, Évora  was initially overlooked during  the World Music gold rush of the 1980s.  Despite  being one of a number of Cape Verdian performers showcased on an experimental compilation in Lisbon, she was not initially seen as the next big thing in Afro Pop.  It wasn’t until a savvy Paris-based compatriot named José da Silva invited her to make “La Diva Aux Pieds Nus”  (The Barefoot Diva)  for his indie Lusafrica imprint in 1988 that the 47 year old contralto was up and running until her failing heart and lungs couldn’t shuttle her between stage and studio any longer.  Throughout  the last decade it was not unusual for her to do upwards of 80 shows a year across five continents. Even a stroke in 2007 and open-heart surgery last year didn’t keep her off the road.  Only her doctor-mandated retirement this September cancelled the Eastern European dates already scheduled to coincide with the fall release of  a duet anthology titled: *Cesária Évora &…*

        From their very first collaboration as producer and performer, Da Silva and Évora shared a vision of how to make Cape Verde’s distinctive song forms globally accessible–a goal  which kept them productively partnered until her death.  Of  her musical countrymen, only jazz legend Horace Silver might claim to be more internationally known.  But while Silver’s Cape Verdean heritage was always part  of his public identity he never made his national origin central to his career, or his main reason to sustain a  career.  On the contrary, Cesária’s patriotism became her career.  Her dedication to using Cape Verdean songwriters and folklore in her work was all-consuming   By the time French president Jacques Chirac recognized Évora’s strategic cultural ambassadorship with the French Legion of Honor  medal in 2007, it only underscored her long standing determination to revalidate Lusophone Africa–and the diasporic communities of  Cape Verde in particular–as a source of  genius and  creative leadership.  Three months ago when asked by *Le Monde* how it felt to be ending her career, Cesaria responded with characteristic simplicity:  “Life goes on.  I’ve come before you, I have done my best.   I have had a career that many would have loved to have.”

     Deliberately promoting the mystique of a barefoot torch singer whose difficult past fueled a vaguely feminist agenda,  Lusafrica was able to make the French public ignore Evora’s age long enough to be seduced by her subtle contralto phrasing and  lambent charisma.  Although her first two albums were a club-friendly jumble of  downtempo laments and festive electronic dance tracks calculated to please the African expat community, by 1991 her label targeted the arty crossover market by having Évora cut an all-acoustic álbum of syncopated ballads titled Mar Azul.  That summer she fronted the Mindel Band at the prestigious Angouleme Festival, as well as booking her ususal small Parisian venue.   Predictably, the festival gig was what attracted her first mainstream review and French radio support for *Mar Azul* upon it’s release.  When Évora returned to play Paris’s  New Morning Theater in December, the room was suddenly packed with curious Europeans.  Synergistic momentum between airplay, live appearances and press  increased all through 1992 as her reputation spread. 1993′s *Miss Perfumado*  became the last álbum Lusafrica handled on its own before licensing Évora to BMG in 1994 to help manage the touring schedule and popularity she sustained until 2010. 

     The U.S. came to appreciate Évora later than France, but once we woke up in 1995 it was in time to grant  a Grammy nod to the álbum *Cesária,*  followed  by regular nominations for Best World Music Álbum for each subsequent long-player until she  finally won in 2004 for her ninth studio effort,  *Voz d’ Amor.*   In a better world she would also have won for 2001′s boundary-breaking *São Vicente di Longe,* on which inspired encounters with over 60 different musicians including Bonnie Raitt, Caetano Veloso, Chucho Valdés, and Orquesta Aragon,  justify the grueling migrations from Paris to Havana to Rio for elaborate recording sessions which proved  the versatility of her root style. 

       Those who want to say that Cesária Évora sang “the blues” are not wrong.  Like the Brazilian samba canção, the Argentine tango, and flamenco’s cante-jondo,   the syncopated morna of Cape Verde shares the mood and situational motivation of every blues ever written.  The ten islands off the coast of Senegal which comprise Cape Verde were uninhabited before Portuguese sailors turned them into a major refueling and trading port  during the late 1400s.  Everything experienced there since: slavery, creolization, imperialism, forced migrations, underdevelopment, Pan-African negritude, are reflected in the music and literature of  the former Portuguese colony.  

     Born in the modest port city of Mindelo, São Vicente in 1941, Évora  was orphaned by age 7  and  began singing in public with local guitarists by age 16.  Her seaside town was full of cabaret bars where local performers could provide entertainment. Cape Verde hás long enjoyed one of the world’s highest literacy rates, a fact which enriches  its cultural production in both Portuguese and  the Kriolu dialect. While Évora was in her teens, the morna was in it’s 3rd stage of creative development, guided by ambitious poet/composers like Francisco Xavier da Cruz (B. Leza).  He  liberated mourna from  rigid harmonic progressions by adding “Brazilian half-tones” to its basic structure.  This innovation gave singers and musicians a richer melodic palette with which to express themselves.  The concurrent Claridade literary movement further diversified both the morna and other emerging styles by bringing themes other than romance to songcraft.   Although  an early Évora hit like “Bia Lulucha” (Lulucha’s Daughter) is a classic lament about a man leaving his sweetheart to find work, other songs she popularized in the last two decades  range widely in subject matter.   Whether assessing the ancient wrongs of the slave trade or the daily lives of African immigrants abroad…the mourna uses  contemplative emotions like hope, regret, and nostalgia to explore any topic.

     Proof of the morna’s multi-faceted appeal when sung by Cesária Évora is the 2003 remix álbum *Club Sodade* on which underground deejay/producers like Kerri Chandler and François K. get a chance to cast Évora as a house music diva.  Previous singles like “Sodade”(Longing),  “Miss Perfumado”, “Angola” and even a cover of “Besame Mucho” she’d recorded for the movie “Great Expectations” get fearlessly reworked for 21st Century discos.  The best thing about this project is its residual effect on less adventurous deejays, producers, and fans who will be startled by how much you can change musical context without changing a singer’s meaning or impact.  

    Five years later in 2008,  22  tracks Évora recorded while still in her 20s for broadcast on  a São Vicente radio station were found and released as *Radio Mindelo.*  This artifact allows us to juxtapose the raw sound of Évora as a 20-something proto-diva against the proto-dubstep tracks presented on *Club Sodade .*  I like to think that Cesaria’s legacy-beyond her grandchildren and two children who as yet do not sing-is the lesson contained in the stylistic and temporal gap between these two albums.  Although they fall as far outside the linear progression  of  her formal catalog as her various “best of” compilations do,  her personal triumph, and  the triumph of the mourna tradition over global indifference are most vividly illustrated by these two ancillary projects .

      Intimations of mortality after strokes and heart trouble may have been responsible for the dominance of upbeat lyrics and coladeira dance rhythms on 2009′s*Nhá Sentimento*  her last original CD.   It’s sounds as if she is hosting her own wake, where she wants us there to celebrate both her life and our own.   On “Ligereza”  (Light Heartedness)  she sings:  “Perhaps one day/ someone will make a carnival of this world/ and people will take it seriously/since life isn’t dull.”   And again on “Fatalidade” (Fate),  she confides the antidote for bitterness:  “Don’t lose your taste for life/ Your fate in this world is to be happy /don’t let any chance slip /that’s your innermost right.”     Sometimes she seems to be saying goodbye and writing her own epitaph in the same breath as on “Verde Cabo di Nhá Odjos”  (Green Cape of my Eyes): “I want to die in your green/ and live in your songs.”    Álbum closer “Parceria e Irmandade”  (Partnership and Brotherhood)  works as a fond tribute to her loyal bandmates and producer.  

      However it’s  her  collaboration with Fathy Salama, leader of the Grand Orchestra of Cairo that brings her life’s work and the Afro/Iberian connection full circle.. The Egyptian orchestrations on  “Mam’Bia e So Mi” (Mam’Bia is Only Me)   serves to remind everyone that the roots of all Iberian pop from fados to boleros are profoundly Moorish.   Then, the lyrics quasi-deify Cesária  by turning her  into a fetish capable of supernatural intervention:  “It’s true that the world is hard/ but here’s Mam’Bia and her paradise/ Offering you her happiness…”  and again:  “Mam’ Bia’s one of a kind/ She is with you/ Always remember her/ She’s prosperity and contentment/She’s the sky that makes you happy.”

      Clearly Cesária Évora,  like Bob Marley, accepted the challenge of opening foreign doors and hearts to her under-exposed island music and it’s struggling creators.  Clearly the physical strain of fulfilling that mission shortened both performer’s lives.  Clearly what she might like best by way of  posthumous compensation would be if she,  like Marley, could become a sort of talismanic icon, invoked in memory and on record to inspire future generations.  

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APAP Plans Tomorrow’s Entertainment Today Thu, 28 Jan 2010 15:12:55 +0000 Carol Cooper Continue reading ]]> By Carol Cooper

“….[W]e believe the $50 million allocated for the arts in the stimulus package was a fiscally responsible decision. Every community the performing arts’ presenting industry represents across the country equates to jobs, jobs and more jobs.”
–Sandra Gibson, CEO and President of APAP

“I think the most important thing this organization can do for its members is to help key leaders in the legislative body become more knowledgable and articulate about the arts issues we’ve been discussing….
I really do believe there is an unleashing of co-creative potential afoot.”

–Mike Ross, Chairman of the Board, APAP/ Director of Krannert Ceter for the Perorming Arts at University of Illinois

Two weeks ago live music and theater fans sampled the offerings of two of New York’s most adventurous yearly arts festivals. But few of the general public who flocked to Webster Hall for GlobalFest or to the various indie theaters hosting 8 days of “Under the Radar” shows were aware of the simultaneous gathering of entertainment power brokers at the Hilton that has been making such events possible for over five decades. Despite this comparatively low public profile, the Association of Performing Arts Presenters is the foremost advocate for the entire presenting and touring field on Capitol Hill. APAP, in coalition partnerships with the Performing Arts Alliance (PAA) and other arts advocacy groups–as well as business and cultural affairs organizations across the country–makes sure the voices of America’s arts professionals are heard by state and federal policy-makers.

I wanted to attend this year’s Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference for insight into how govenment subsidies, private philanthropy, university sponsorship, and community art programs quietly sustain public arts programming throughout the U.S. Whether we are talking about the upcoming Jacob’s Pillow Dance Fest or CMJ or Austin’s South by Southwest; APAP’s synergistic infrastructure is the mother of them all.

As a pop-culture critic I often pay more attention to commercial entertainment that is framed or driven by Hollywood, television, and the recording industry, I and my readers can forget how much the non-profit and public education sectors inform and invigorate the commercial sector. In fact, when it comes to diversity and quality the latter is often more dependant upon the vitality of the former than we might expect. It’s also significant that APAP promotes live dance and theater as well as music. The APAP vision of human creativity is broad, but its emphasis on the need for audience and performer to gather in the same physical space to communicate says something profound about the value of the “meat body” in an ever more disembodied cybernetic age.

Although officially only five days long, the APAP-affiliated panels, symposia, and live shows ran from January 8th to January 16th. This peek behind the veil of non-profit arts programming was fascinating. It was something of a shock at a trade show to hear booking agents, managers, arts administrators, theater directors, and performers talk more about actual *art* than commerce. Yes, APAP does lobby for grant funding and to streamline tax laws which favor corporate donations to the performing arts. But since most of its core membership started out as musicians, dancers or theater people they still see things from a performers point of view. For them, the performing arts function as an Underground Railroad for the human spirit. APAP–whether networking at its governmental, institutional, or community levels–sees itslf laying those railroad tracks.

You might think that music dominated the event, with the international diversity of GlobalFest supplemented by a dedicated jazz track plus multiple bands prioritizing folk retentions from Ireland, Quebec, and Latin America. But stunning theatrical highlights like the Korean reinterpretation of *Medea* at La MaMa, an Irish gay-liberation musical at Joe’s Pub; and the interactive collision of drama, dance, and circus arts which comprises “STREB: Lab for Action Mechanics” proves that music is only one of the pillars on which APAP rests its reputation.

This time last year APAP members feared the simultaneous loss of governmental, corporate, and private financial support as a result of the banking crisis. Then President Obama signed H.R. 1105 into law, which included an $10.3 million dollar increase in national arts funding for 2009. Riding the momentum of this reprieve, APAP prexy Sandra Gibson and her 19-member staff continued to watch and advise and publicize how these grant monies were deployed as they prepared for the next annual round of funding advocacy. Meanwhile the recession continued. Regional arts coverage in print media shrank while competition from digital and home entertainment systems was grew. Venue-owners fought to keep operational costs and ticket prices low at the same time as the frequency and length of bankable tours decreased. Increasingly the intimate, exclusive experience promised by theaters and concerts halls was undermined by multiple flickering “smart phones” posting free realtime video and commentary to the internet! And “sustainability” at the facilities level meant finding ways to cut the cost (and carbon footprint) of lights, sound, sets, and paper programs. Hence the theme of this year’s APAP confab: “Risk. Opportunity. Now.” Bold and succinct, the phrase rang like a clarion call to arts professionals and programs that survived 2009 to arrive in New York seeking collective solutions to issues with potential to diminish or destroy their industry.

Mornings were spent in panels structured to teach or share strategies useful to both business people and creative artists. The nightly members-only hotel showcases allowed talent buyers and purveyors of talent to connect. Acts were aimed at every conceivable demographic. Offerings ranged from Rat-Pack style caberet acts to Indian Hoop dancers, to Chinese opera. Rigid distinctions between high and low culture simply didn’t apply. Dividing lines between entertainment and education were aggressively blurred. Cultural delegations from Quebec, Sweden, and Brazil came shopping for university tours or club bookings. Info booths and special events overflowed with undergraduate volunteers sniffing out future career opps. The tiny APAP staff is able to keep most of its 2000 members in communication all year long with webinars, weekend workshops, research partnerships, interactive databases, consulting services, grant administration and their trendzine “Inside Arts.” Clearly, what I witnessed at the Hilton was simply the most compressed physical manifestation of infrastructural guild activity that really never ends.

Pet APAP initiatives on the cusp of this new decade include streamlining visa approvals for foreign performers; strengthening touring and teaching programs for live jazz; greening the performance industry, and helping the white house to view its support of public school arts programs and community arts centers (together with all their interdependant service industries) as necessary components of a national job stimulus package. Each of these projects is already well-underway, with SxSW heading into it’s second carbon-neutral campaign, and already converting local theaters to sustainable light and sound systems.

APAP itself remains a 53 year old distributed network with lefty/intellectual roots in the Madison Wisconson-based Association of College and University Concert Managers. By 1957 America’s growing number of progressive, college-affiliated arts presenters prompted a group of them to leave the pre-existing National Association of Concert Managers to form a similar network which emphasized the educational role of the arts and “those issues unique to hosting professional performing arts on campus.” Directed by Wisconson Union Theater manager Fan Taylor from 1957 to 1971, and changing its name as it grew to embrace first community theaters then artists and managers, APAP steadily expands its size and mission to better serve the public and its membership. Fan, who risked booking innovative acts like Miriam Makeba and Martha Graham long before her peers, set the standard by which APAP still measures its members.

I ask how Sandra Gibson, only the fourth Executive Director in APAP’shistory, sees its role in the coming decade and she replies: “Presenters are kind of the invisible profession. Nobody goes to the Kennedy Center to see the National Symphony Orchestra and thinks: “We’re in the presenter’s house.”….But that’s changing a bit now. We discovered after the culture wars that civicly-engaged presenters had become the lead communications channel between artist and audience, becoming the ‘partners of choice’ in commissioning and residency work.”

After America’s pre-millenial culture wars, foundations began funding trusted presenters rather than individual artists. This made APAP even more determined to vindicate this trust by helping presenters maintain quality, diversity, and community engagement in the productions their yearly budgets subsidized. The first GlobalFest, with it’s unique international focus and “parallel stage” model, came together under APAP guidance.

“Presenters were the original bookers and distributors,” Gibson continued, “and now they’re involved in actually producing work. Projects come to them, then they find collaborators. And because we have as part of our membership artists, agents, and managers too, the issues around all of the performing arts come to the table. We facilitate and provide the forum for those deliberations. Presenting is a collaborative art. What’s so beautiful about what’s happening today is that it’s no longer a “booker” who [simply]bought the talent and an “agent” dropping off a contract with a rider. It’s a shared enterprise. “

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Michael Jackson’s Tribute Tue, 07 Jul 2009 18:54:02 +0000 Carol Cooper Continue reading ]]>       Writing this now even as it runs live on TV, I can already say that the Shrine memorial event for Michael Jackson defended his legacy in ways MJ himself could not.
Stevie Wonder, himself an ex-child star rising through the Motown system, sang the best and truest response to those who would still ridicule and belittle Michael’s achievements.
“They Won’t Go When I Go” was written back when Stevie was feeling himself attacked and undermined by those he trusted, and remains an eloquent cry-from-the-heart from someone who’s learned the hard way that fame and worldly power (with all it’s material benefits) won’t ever protect its owner from worldly tragedy, failure or heartbreak.

      Even Rev. Al Sharpton, frequently a controversial public crusader,  hit the right notes when speaking of Michael. “You’re daddy wasn’t strange,” he affirmed to M.J.’s kids in the front row, “what he had to *deal with* was strange!” Sharpton intoned to spontaneous applause. Growing up in public, a black boy when America still segregated and limited black aspirations, working class and under pressure from within and without to excell and succeed in a game rigged against him from the beginning, Michael coped with adversity as best he could–and better than most.
“Thank you, Michael,” Sharpton added at the end of his testimony, “Thank you because broke barriers for all the rest of us,  and thank you because you never gave up. “

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Playing “Tag” With Adriana Kaegi and Her Coconuts Wed, 17 Jun 2009 19:27:31 +0000 Carol Cooper Continue reading ]]> By Carol Cooper

     Last night at Joe’s Pub in lower Manhattan I witnessed a quintessential “downtown”  event:  the simultaneous launch of a sultry caberet-rock album and a feature-length video memoir. It was D.I.Y. multimedia at its finest!

     First,  Adriana Kaegi, co-founder (with August Darnell and “Sugar Coated” Andy Hernandez) of Kid Creole and the Coconuts draped her curvy blonde frame in a spectacular white and chocolate gown to perform excerpts from *Tag*,  her brand new I-Tunes release. Then she premiered the film *Kid Creole and My Coconuts* in which she describes with archival footage the volatile interpersonal chemistry which both shaped and tormented America’s quirkiest multi-culti pop band.     

      Humor is the pivot around which both projects turn, a quality that renders even the heaviest moments in her movie, music, and life oddly inspirational. People expecting unclassy stuff like onscreen ranting, anger and sour grapes won’t find it:  Kaegi and her production crew know that bitterness is boring, and the real story here is how despite every internal or external impediment this pioneering ensemble consistantly produced unique art and music… of a quality which will never be surpassed.

     A wise person once said that no man–no matter how famous–is a hero to his wife.  Literary testimony from spouses of guys as diverse as Pablo Picasso and Tibetan meditation guru Chogyam Trungpa proves that even the most inspired and influential cultural heroes can be full of internal contradictions and annoying flaws. And no one knows such flaws better than a loyal spouse.  So when a wife is also her husband’s creative and business partner, her insight and tolerance must expand to cover the multiple roles her marriage demands of her. Especially when the working partnership outlasts the marriage!

     Few ex-wives are better equipped with enough dry wit to describe the highs and lows of marriage to a Great Man than the Swiss-born singer, actress, and high-concept choreographer Adriana Kaegi.  As proven by her documentary,  it’s the comedic actress in Kaegi that gave the Coconuts and all her subsequent creative projects their iconic energy.

     Informed as much by mime and silent cinema as by ethnic and modern dance, Kaegi’s choreography works to illustrate and enhance any song,  from Darnell’s gigolo anthem “I’m A Wondeful Thing” to her own Bardot-esque “C’est Ma Vie”.  Her personal thoughts/commentary on any topic in her own or Darnell’s catalog are always telegraphed by her dance moves–something critics too often overlook. Kaegi’s acute sense of irony is so infused with compassion and love of life that she responds to all adversity with the light, almost surgical intervention of a diplomat.
     On *Tag,*  information-age club rhythms steeped in Latin, funk, and pop-jazz  flavors slide underneath Kaegi’s silky contralto as she makes wry observations about  financial anxiety, sex, rebellious trust-fund kids, sex, downsized expectations in career or romance, and well,  sex. If David Bowie had been born Swiss and female he might have made an album like this in 2009. In many ways *Tag* is the perfect cool segue from overheated Kid Creole flashbacks…which is probably just what Adriana and co-producer Patrick Grant had in mind.

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Songs of Youth and Freedom Mon, 27 Apr 2009 17:23:58 +0000 Carol Cooper Continue reading ]]>      Actor Danny Glover is one of the producers of a new documentary celebrating the role of song and courageous student activism in the American Civil Rights struggle.   Interspersing archival television footage of the protest marches on Selma, Birmingham, and Washington, with  journalistic snapshots of Mississippi Freedom Rides and lunch counter sit-ins, *Soundtrack For a Revolution* at this year’s Tribeca Film Fest was a bright (if sometimes narrowly constructed) window on the pre-desegregation groundwork which made the Obama presidency possible.
       Exuberant new arrangements of famous “movement” anthems were recreated on screen by young stars like John Legend, Joss Stone, Mary Mary, The Roots, Wyclef Jean,  TV on the Radio, and movement veteran Richie Havens.   These choice  performance clips loom large alongside footage of regional gospel choirs and the spoken testimony of surviving march participants about how they sang to overcome fear in the face of police brutality and real physical danger throughout.
         This documentary  is not perfect crafted, but its moral strength makes up for any flaws in narrative flow and nuance. The filmmakers say the soundtrack may become separately available….I’m hoping with a DVD trailer which can include the most salient bits of musical and verbal testimony for easy home viewing.

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Of Blues Women…Especially Saffire! Sat, 25 Apr 2009 16:05:52 +0000 Carol Cooper Continue reading ]]>        Just got a copy in the mail of the new independant film *Hot Flash*, a short documentary about the female blues band Saffire! Uppity Blues Women. If you don’t already know them, the Saffire ensemble currently records for Alligator Records in the U.S., and is a racially mixed group of roots musicians all over 50 who write and play the kinds of blues Sippie Wallace, Memphis Minnie, Bessie Smith, and Ma Rainey used to sing.
     In the 1950s when marketeers and revisionist historians decided that the image of the blues, especially the electric blues, was going to be dominated by men, the ongoing contributions of female vocalists and instrumentalists to the form were significantly downplayed and often forgotten. Part of why Saffire! exists is to disabuse younger music fans of this cultural chauvinism.
          Directed by Sarah Knight,  and  produced by Knight and Barbara Ghammashi, the documentary  has been touring  the international film festival circuit for the past year, waiting for a new album and tour to help widen the movie’s target audience.   I am one of many talking heads interviewed for the project, being one of the few pop critics for mainstream publications willing and able to review Saffire! concerts and recordings in recent years.   Sadly, my American peers seem inclined to view Saffire! as an ephemeral novelty act  despite their skill as instrumentalists and singers.   Many critics  refuse  to appreciate the necessary work of inclusion Saffire!’s original material and their vintage covers do for the living legacy of women in country blues and  thereby the creation of  rock ’n’ roll.
     With a lineup that over the years has shifted between three and four core members, featuring a black (and gay) lead vocalist fronting a predominantly white band, Saffire! is a fascinating experiment in both race relations and feminist sisterhood. The filmmakers probe the origins of the band, their struggles on the road  their innovations  in the commercial arena, and the sensitive area of sexual orientation, a topic many American bands with both  gay and straight members still prefer to avoid.
     People wanting to contact the filmmakers about screening the film can reach Sarah Knight at Jo Films in New York via email:

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On Losing Ralph Mercado and Manny Oquendo Sat, 04 Apr 2009 16:40:59 +0000 Carol Cooper Continue reading ]]>  

     Last month two pivotal figures in New York-based Latin music passed away. One was the key concert promoter and artist manager Ralph Mercado, and the other was bandleader Manny Oquendo.

     I knew Ralphy and most of his family personally, even briefly working for him in the 1990s as the A&R head of a youth-oriented English language dance music division  for his Sony-distributed label RMM Records. But before that we’d met at various Fania All-Star concerts at Madison Square Garden, and also Village Gate and Palladium concerts while  I was either a working newspaper critic or doing corporate  A&R for A&M or Columbia.

     Manny I used to admire onstage as the leader of the band “Libre”, which as it’s name implies blended hooky salsa rhythms with free-jazz improvisation. He wasn’t the first or the only bandleader to do this, but for my money he was the “best”; meaning the most consistantly interesting and entertaining.

     I admired both men, appreciating their individual grace, intelligence, and elegance as gentlemen, as well as their creative influence on the entire arena of commercial salsa.   The tradition of mentoring in Latin music was greatly supported by these two businessmen.  Lots of musicians polished their chops and audience appeal as members of Libre.  Lots of younger promoters and aspiring managers got help and advice from Ralphy; even if only in the form of his inspiring  example, filling Madison Square Garden several times a year  and helping keep New York’s neighborhood Latin dance club scene alive.

     When people we admire die, it is tempting to say/believe their like will never come again.  As unique as I think Ralph and Manny were, I hope their spiritual and intellectual succesors are many, because the world would be much the poorer if it doesn’t manage to produce some equally gifted heirs to such magnificent legacies.

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NEW YORK CITY, RELOADED Fri, 03 Apr 2009 18:02:23 +0000 Carol Cooper Continue reading ]]>  

     Feels like 1977   (almost)  again.  Nightlife and pop culture in this city during a depression/recession/downturn/ whatever we’re calling  it this week,  is feeling a lot like the last time New York had to suffer through massive job layoffs, gas price volatility, and multilateral rising costs of living.  Businesses are already getting more creative about attracting consumers.  And museums, restaurants, bars, nightclubs and entertainment vendors of all types are visibly rethinking how they do what they do.

     In New York we are fortunate in that there have usually been ample free and low-cost concerts and festivals during the warmer months, and imminent offerings from the PEN America World Voices literary festival, the Tribeca film fest, the African Diaspora Film Festival,  MoMA monday nights, SoHo gallery weekends,  Summerstage and Prospect Park bandshell , and River to River concerts promise memorable delights to soothe the stress of  urban life during fiscal wartime.  Over the next few weeks I hope to report on much of this as it makes a difference in the quality and direction of cultural trends in my city.

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Roll Over, Rockefeller! Fri, 03 Apr 2009 17:26:10 +0000 Carol Cooper Continue reading ]]>  

     It may be coincidence that the late-sixties “tribal rock” musical *Hair* reopens on Broadway the same week that Albany repeals New York State’s draconian “Rockefeller drug laws,”  but there is poetic justice in the syncronicity.   Glorifying  the sex- and drug-positive  lifestyles of New York’s  hippie kids at the cusp of the 1970s, the still brilliant music and lyrics of “Hair” expose all the brave hopes and naive hypocrisies of that transitional period–from anti-war activism and gender privilege, to interracial dating and gay rights.

     Few actual hippies were as self-aware as the characters of *Hair,*  but in retrospect I’d say that McDermot, Ragni and Rado were gently satirizing as well as celebrating their subject matter.  They understood, as too few of today’s  holier-than-thou activists do, that wanting  and working towards  peace and love is still miles away from actually having it.  The struggle continues.   And it must necessarily continue with compassion for human fallibilities. 

      The triumph of over 30 years of grass-roots political lobbying and organizing, the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug law offenders (especially first timers), will allow some 1500 current inmates to apply for re-sentencing or early release, and give judges more power to send offenders to rehab programs rather than prison. So-called “soft” drugs, like marijuana, sent many young,  non-white people to jail in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, decades in which controversial street drugs like angel dust, black-market pills, crack, and crystal meth flooded urban America.

     When vocal celebrities like Russell Simmons put their time, money, and influence behind the reform campaign in the ’90s, public attention was focused on how three decades of harsh drug laws had impacted children whose mothers and fathers had been jailed and missing for most of their formative years.  Many rap stars grew up personally scarred by the social conditions created not only by a criminalized drug culture, but also by indiscriminately punitive and practically ineffective state drug laws.  One hopes the landmark shift in Albany this spring will give recording artists something new to sing about.

     I went to see the new production of *Hair* last night.  The cast of attractive, multi-racial kids were somehow able to resurrect the original magic despite not having been even a gleam in anyone’s eye when the original version hit Broadway. I saw that version the week the show closed.  It truly seemed the end of an era.  Then as now there was no longer any relatively harmless urban counter culture to run away to if you were 16 with a non-capitalistic dream.  I remember leaving the theater determined tomake a living doing what I loved, since I couldn’t change the world.  I wonder if the teens and twenty-somethings who came out of *Hair* last night into a world where Obama is  president and the worst of the Rockefeller drug laws are newly dismantled went  home with better ideas?

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