Fela! – a musical that’s actually good

By Jennifer DeMeritt

By Jennifer DeMeritt

Depending on your opinion of the genre, you might think a musical is a lousy tribute for an artist as charismatic, influential, and flat-out funky as Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the Nigerian political activist and father of Afrobeat. Me? I’ve always hated musicals, which typically seem like boring songs in service of a boring story for a leg-gnawer of a show (a leg-gnawer being a performance so painful that, like an animal in a fur trap, I would chew my own limbs off to escape).

But the musical “Fela!,” in spite of that cheesy exclamation point, is an intelligent and electrifying theatrical experience, as befits the man who inspired it. For starters, the music of “Fela!” is the music of Fela: His original ass-shaking compositions make this the best score you’ll hear on Broadway this year, or any year. Since much of his music was politically motivated, it’s the perfect vehicle for the story of his struggles against the government of Nigeria. And it embodies the story of his experimentation with jazz, funk, and African drumming to create Afrobeat, the hybrid that made Fela an international star in the 1970s.

All the music in “Fela!” is played by Antibalas, a first-rate Afrobeat band that’s been burning up the scene in Brooklyn for years. Their performance alone—with driving rhythms and blistering horn solos—is an event worth celebrating. Add in the dancing by Bill T. Jones’s dance company, with their powerful legs and epic posteriors (one wonders if there’s really that much booty shaking in Nigeria), and “Fela!” gratifies the eyes as fully as the ears. And then there is the character of Fela himself, played by the dynamic Sahr Ngaujah. Where did they find this guy? He sings, he dances, he speechifies, and he looks fantastic in tight pants. I’ve heard some whispering about whether Ngaujah actually plays his saxophone during solos or mimes it, but seriously, who cares? That man is doing plenty already. He’s on stage for almost the entire show, and he commands our attention for all of that time.

Still, the music and dancing in “Fela!”—no matter how captivating—can’t do all the heavy lifting of narrative, and the writers did some cherry picking when they chose which facts to include and which to leave out. Fela was a complicated man, and the version on stage is defanged. When I saw the beta version of the show Off Broadway last year, Fela’s egomania and self-indulgence were on display, especially in a long, hazy sequence in the second act that showed the man reclining with his beloved reefer and soliloquizing like only a pothead can. In the new Broadway version, which has been tightened up (hurrah!) and slightly sanitized (boo), we still see a little wacky tobacky, but not enough to tarnish the character’s heroic luster.

He also gets a free pass on polygamy. This isn’t surprising considering the challenges of reaching a mainstream audience with anything remotely controversial. But imagine if the controversy were celebrated instead of minimized. For some of Fela’s diehard fans his, ahem, alternative lifestyle is a selling point—to wit, the legions of pussy-whipped pseudo-intellectual fanboys who say “And he had 27 wives!” while panting with awe in spite of, or because of, their own kowtowing to feminist pieties. But hey, Fela loved his mother, and that’s all we need to know, right? Well, maybe.

Fela’s mother, Funmilayo, a feminist activist in a time and place where that was immensely challenging, is portrayed as his polestar, and her tragic death at the hands of government heavies gives the show much of its dramatic ballast. The dream sequence (yes, a dream sequence; shut up, you’ll love it) where Fela visits her in the spirit world makes for a stunning convergence of dance, music, and stagecraft—an all-encompassing spectacle that melts your mind and pierces your heart.

Since it opened a few weeks ago, “Fela!” has received uniformly great reviews, with the notable exception of the Village Voice, which ripped the show for its factual omissions. The Voice’s rigor is commendable, as is their reluctance to mindlessly genuflect before the New Hot Thing; but it’s a sad sign of what sourpusses they’ve become that they so grudgingly acknowledge the show’s beauty and power.

Less a biography of this icon than a joyous riff on his life and music, “Fela!” delivers a caliber of pure entertainment rarely presented on Broadway, or anywhere else. Go see it.

Posted on 16 Dec 2009 at 8:14pm
Does Al Stewart think we're too stupid for historical folk rock?  (catch him at the Rubin's Naked Soul Series, 8/21)

Does Al Stewart think we’re too stupid for historical folk rock? (catch him at the Rubin’s Naked Soul Series, 8/21)

By Gwen Orel

Al Stewart—yes, the “Year of the Cat” dude, as someone asked me (watch him perform it here)—speaks fast and uses his own lyrics for illustration. Now a resident of California, he began his career in swinging London—his press bio explains how he knew Yoko Ono until she found someone “with a bigger tape recorder”—as well as Andy Summers, Paul Simon, Ian Anderson. He has been writing storytelling, evocative lyrics for more than forty years. Sparks of Ancient Light came out in 2008, and this September, he’ll be releasing a new live CD.

And that’s the tip of the iceberg—as he explained to me, despite his emphasis on lyrics, he writes the music first, and most of the songs have several sets of lyrics to them. If we’re lucky, he might find the alternate lyrics to “Year of the Cat” and sing them—one version of it was about British comedian Tony Hancock.

He’s touring right now and plays New York city tonight, 8/21, at the Rubin museum’s Naked Soul series at 7 p.m.—completely acoustic.   Details of his tour are below.

His intelligent, often yearning and moody lyrics conjured in my mind an image of a sweet troubador—but his cleverness has barbs. His assumptions about the South (he used the phrase “the great unwashed” at one point), the differences between American and English tastes, and his own unqiueness—would be hilariously irritating if he himself weren’t so funny. And when he says “Sleepwalking,” a song from Sparks of Ancient Light that references a swindler from the “east 60s” and Florida, was not about Bernie Madoff but just prescient—it’s hard to disagree.

This summer is the 40-year anniversary of Woodstock, and there is (as there always is, let’s face it) a lot of nostalgia for the 60s floating about.  What does it mean for you?

I didn’t think Woodstock was as important as everyone else seems to think. Woodstock was a lot of noise in the field. In retrospect it was not very revolutionary nor in line with what interested me. Joni Mitchell watched it on television. Leonard Cohen was doing whatever he did; he wasn’t there. It was people playing guitars mouthing inanities and rolling around in the mud. It had very little to do with what I’m interested in.

I was part of the London folk scene.  America got all our rock bands, but none of our folk singers…it’s a strange thing… Bert Jansch didn’t translate at all.  He should have been a major figure on the American folk scene.  Richard Thompson… would probably not go on Jay Leno.  Americans did very well in England, but English folk singers didn’t do as well correspondingly.  It’s probably true that there’s a bigger folk reception in England in general.

Do you still see yourself as a folk musician?

I never did really. I came out of rock and roll. There’s a subtle word play there. I didn’t say I was a folk singer… I said I came out of the English folk scene. What was nice about that scene was that it was a very big tent. It included people who were unaccompanied singing, Norfolk farm hands, the Incredible String Band, psychedelic music… the English folk scene encompassed all of that and more. I’m a lyricist really. I puddle about and play guitar and sing; I’m basically a lyric writer.

Do you write poetry too?

I do but don’t bother to read it. I’m obsessed with the nonsense poets… more in the style of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll. I’m not sure that goes over well here.

You seem to have some issues with Americans and their tastes.

I live in L.A. and like it. In terms of what’s accepted, some things just don’t translate. In America you have this huge monolithic thing called Country and Western, which is completely unintelligible to me. It has no meaning whatsoever in England. Country and Western it’s so big it’s blotted out what singer-songwriters do… it’s similar and yet the subjects are different. Country singers do story songs, which is what I do. Mine might be on the Russian front and World War II, theirs might be set in the local bar. It’s hard for singer-songwriters to prevail. American singer-songwriters do better in the Northeast.

I did a Southern tour; everyone told me not to. I thought there must be some people who read books in the South. I went all these places—Greenville… the Carolinas…deep in the South, Civil War turf. I sang a series of songs about American presidential history. I got absolutely nobody, and played to rows of empty seats. Although if I’d worn a hat and played a country song….

When I knew I was going to interview you, I got two kinds of responses: enthusiasm and excitement from people in their late 40s and older (my brother’s been emailing me with thoughts, questions fotr the interview and links, for days) and “the Year of the Cat dude!”  Do you have different fan sets?

Yes. I call them the fans and the tourists. The tourists are the ones who heard “Year of the Cat” and made out in the back of a show to it. They know it as well as they know “Ring My Bell” or “Kung Fu Fighting” or “Disco Duck.” None of these people come to my shows; they’re just dimly aware of “Year of the Cat.”

People who come to the shows are people who know all of the songs. They don’t even want to hear “Year of the Cat.” “Roads to Moscow” is what they ask for—that’s a different thing.

So does that mean you won’t play “Year of the Cat?”

I probably will, but it’s candy fluff. It wasn’t even my favorite album.

What is your favorite album?

Past Present and Future is a much better album, it’s better written. What I do and what I’ve always done are these historical songs. I thought forty years ago, I looked around, if you look at the history of all the artistic endeavors of the human race, most of them, history is a dominant feature. Literature, movies— like The Titanic—all the greatest paintings are historical, sculpture, art—in ever form of art that I could find, the dominent content was historical. I thought if I applied to popular music, I would be Elvis Presley.

Now I have to admit defeat.

I chose the only medium that I could where history was not the dominant factor, and in fact something people didn’t want to hear about. There’s a crazed hardcore who like me think that historical songs are the bees knees. It’s a tiny minority—I expected it to be a huge majority. It would have changed my life if I’d been right. I thought it was a slam dunk.

I thought after “Roads to Moscow” all these historical songs would be in the top ten, but I can’t even get them played on the radio. You talk to a disc jockey and say “I’ve written a song about the fall of Constantinople” and their eyes glaze over.

If I made a movie about the fall of Constantinople and put stupid Brad Pitt in it, it would be a hit. It’s only in popular music that it’s not taken off. This means one of two things, either I am right except I’m ahead of my time, and somebody will do this in fifty years time and they will be the next Elvis, or I’m completely wrong, or, there’s a third possibility, I’m right but just not doing it well enough. At this point I’ll accept any of those possibilities. The premise made so much sense to me, but something in the execution didn’t follow through. I don’t even think it has to do with the population base.

You hit bottlenecks where you have to funnel through the media. I think there is an audience outside of the basic, everyday human concerns that will look at a larger picture of how we got here and why. It’s a hard sell, an impossible sell in Alabama.

For me, the songs that become my favorite songs have a lot of emotion in them that I can relate to.  They don’t have to be personal songs, but they have to have an emotion in them that I can latch onto.  That’s what I require.

That’s what everybody requires. That I think is the problem. I tend to… not erase emotion in songs, but it’s an entirely overdone thing. The saber-toothed tiger was a very emotional creature; it was also stupid and died out. I would prefer something to be cleverer, less aggressive… I like my music like that. I understand that Metallica are terrific at what they do but it’s not what I want to listen to.

Is there no middle ground between you and Metallica?

Oh, sure there is. I’m fairly broad-minded in my tastes.

For example, on your latest CD I like the song “Football Hero,”  but I don’t care about the person in the song or about football, but I can relate to the emotion and the frustration.

I don’t care about football either, in fact I’m astonished I wrote that song because I care zero about football.

That is my response to most story songs in general.  The story can be really fascinating but if I can’t find a way to apply it to some emotion that I have or will have, I probably won’t listen to it very often.

I think that you’re in the majority. I don’t think it affects me in that way. I’m always looking at cross-connections that are under the surface. There is an emotion, I’m not denying the emotion, but there has to be an intellectuality at work as well as the emotion. If I read a book about Rupert Brooke for example, he’s a poet, it’s emotional because he dies in 1915 on his way to the Dardanelles campaign, OK, we know he’s going to die, we know he’s having an unrequited with Violet Asquith at the time, so you’re set up for an emotional payoff on that. But when I put them into my song “Somewhere in England 1915″ the song is not about them, they’re merely transient characters wandering through one verse, they’re used as the set up for the mood of the song, and not for the emotional payoff.

If I was writing the song for you, I wouldn’t go anywhere else in the song, I’d just concentrate on Rupert Brooke and Violet Asquith and make it as emotional as all get go. But to me that’s not terribly interesting. Does that make any sense to you?

I’m not sure I see the distinction between emotion and mood.  There are—not many, I agree with you—but there are some songs that are story based or historically based that have been successful.

“American Pie,” for example, lots of people love that who weren’t alive when Buddy Holly died, but you get the feeling of yearning in it, the mood of it comes across.

I don’t think it should be completely unemotional, I just don’t think it should be tawdry. Some emotions are terribly cheap, and what you’re doing is manipulating an audience in a way. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen any Charles Bronson movies—you know the baddie is going to get shot in the end, you sit there for 90 minutes—you’re just being manipulated. What I’m trying to do is write non-manipulative songs. If there’s an emotional pull, it should come from the gravitas of the situation, rather than some false juggling going on on the part of the writer.

Would you say that your earlier songs were more personal?

My first four albums were just love songs, they’re neither here nor there, I was just trying to learn the trade.

What accounted for the evolution?

Well, I wrote love songs. Once you’ve done it, you’ve done it. Everyone else has done it. One was 18 minutes long! I did it, enough! My personal credo is play like Eddie Cochran, write like Barbara Tuchman

I always want to write about something no one else has written about. It’s the first requirement of a song to me. If someone has written about the ceiling in my hotel room, I won’t do it. Secondly, I want to use some language in every song that’s not in every other song. There are 87,000 words in the English language, use them.

No one uses antidisestablishmentarianism in a song, and they should.

Have you?

No, I may do, I’ve used pterodactyls and cormorants and amenuenses and all kinds of things.

Imagine you’re a pop singer and you open your front door and all the words ever in the English language are gathered on the lawn outside your door. Big vocal ones right at the front called “love” and “baby” and “ooh” and “you” and “I” and these are the big loud ones standing right in front of your face saying “pick me, pick me, pick me.” And antidisestablishmentarianism is this tiny little furry creature about 300 yards away, right at the back of the crowd, and in a squeaky little voice is saying “please pick me…”

You know what I mean?

You’re very silly.

Most pop singers just look at the ones at the front, and they’re very smartly dressed, and they’re hip, and they’ve got all the right hairstyles, and they say “sure you can join my group,” and they say to this little brown mouse at the back, “no we’re not having any part of you,” and they slam the door.


That is how it works in the English language. These words need people to love them too, and I’m their person.

So with your attention to words, is it safe to say you write the lyrics first?

No, I don’t! I should do, shouldn’t I… but for very good reason, too…When a blues artist makes a record, say, they lay down the backing track… then the guitar player comes in, and plays 6-8-10 different solos and they take the best one. This is the art of improv.

What I do, I make the backing piece, then start improvising the lyrics. On “Year of the Cat” I recorded all the music before I even wrote a word of it. I took home all these backing tracks and sat around with them. I’d already spent all the money from the record companies and had not one damn word written. Then it’s what do all these things suggest to me. I wrote many different sets of lyrics.

This is me being a blues guitar player. “Elvis at the Wheel”   ended up being about Elvis Presley. It’s based on a true event in his life. Prior to that it was about the cinema on Hampstead Heath. Prior to that it was a nonsense poem experimenting with being about someone going to a foreign country.

All of the songs on Sparks of Ancient Light had different lyrics apart from “Shah of Shahs.” All the others underwent radical rewrites.

I could go out in an alternate universe go out and play the tunes that everyone knows with completely different lyrics.

Oh I hope you will.

But normally I pick the best ones… the reason I don’t pick the others is that they’re not very good.

So you don’t go in saying I know I want to write a song about Elvis seeing the face of Stalin, you don’t know that ahead of time?

I don’t know what I’m going to write. Some of them read better than they sing. I learned that you can write lyrics that look awfully good on paper but when you sing don’t scan very well, don’t fit the music. I’ve discarded some sets of lyrics that I liked a lot but were hard to sing. I’m a wordslinger, it’s what you do— this is my improv. Right now I could take “Year of the Cat” and turn it into a song about turnips if I wanted to.

I hope you will.

I could do. I also write parodies of my own songs and those of others. “Roads to Moscow,” a song I get asked for the most, it’s set in World War II, and very loosely based on a book by Solzhenitsyn , I wrote a parody called “Roads to Adelaide.” I sing it in a major key; it becomes totally ridiculous. It went”

They crossed over the border, the hour before dawn,

moving in lines through the day

most of our sheep are destroyed on the ground where they lay…

It completely cracked me up. You mentioned “American Pie,” I rewrote that into a nineteenth century history song called it “Ukranian Pie.” Amazingly, the Russian word for old peasant that is “musikh” and I couldn’t resist “the day the musikh died.” So I began with

Bye Bye Miss Ukranian Pie

Took my kettle to the shtetl but the shtetl was dry

Those bad old Cossacks drinking vodka and rye

Singing this will be the day that you die

Have you read the book of Lvov, and do you have faith in Romanov…

Do you get asked “what does this or that lyric mean,” and when you do, how do you respond?

People do ask, but in the same way, I don’t know what  Dylan’s “Desolation Row” means…I know all the words…

Selling postcards at the hanging

Painting the passports brown

The beauty parlor’s full of sailors, the circus is in town

I don’t know what Dylan means by this but I get the general picture of what he’s saying.

What are you listening to?  What’s on your ipod?

I don’t have an ipod. But Joanna Newsom, she’s the best, by a long way, I don’t think there’s anyone close. There are always up and coming people. Laura Marling is interesting. Elbow just won album of the year in England. But you know what, I listen to pop too, I like the Veronicas, what can I tell you.

So “Sleepwalking” references “talk among the moneymen in Miami Beach.”  Is it a coincidence?

It wasn’t a coincidence. I think I’m prescient. It’s a song about a Madoff character that I wrote before Madoff. Every now and then these things happen. They fall into place. If you look at my song “On the Border,” largely set in Zimbabwe, it prophesies the decline and fall. Except it was written 36 years ago but it all came true. I did it hypothetically. Madoff came along and obliged me by turning it all into reality.

But you wouldn’t have written it after the fact?

That would be too obvious. I’m trying to write about things that are off the beaten track.

It’s like when I was doing American presidents, I wouldn’t write about Lincoln or Washington, the obvious people, it would be like writing about Napoleon. I would never do that. I would write about Chester Arthur. I like lifting rocks and looking at the dark places of history.

I’m always writing about human beings, using historical backgrounds. Actually what I’m doing is theater. When you look at my historical songs, it’s like the backdrop, the real action is taking place in front of the background. “Constantinople” is about the last seven thousand people who are left defending the Byzantine Empire long after it’s past its sell-by date. What are they doing there? It was a hundred years have gone by since the Byzantine Empire should have been erased from planet.

And there is a relevance to modern day history because As soon as any empire goes from offense to defense, their days are numbered. It’s happened in every single case from the Ancient Greeks to the Romans to I suppose the present day, which I suppose means we should be in Afghanistan, because if we were here building walls it would all be over.

How does it look for America?

America’s still on the offense, very much so…Read the news! I don’t see any particular decline and fall in am military power. There is an enormous exchange of international wealth going on under the surface. America may not… ever have 20% of all the money in the world again. Major changes are economic, but what that will mean in the next 20 or 30 years, I don’t know. One of the most fascinating things that could save America is that… there’s incalculable wealth to be had in arctic circle. Only 5 countries have any claim to the Arctic Circle, two of which are tiny powers, Denmark, Norway… one a medium power, Canada, and then Russia and the USA.


If that happens, it would probably be too obvious for Stewart to write about.  But if historical songs include the history of the future, we might see a song about America in the Arctic circle sometime soon.


Gwen Orel writes about theater and music for many publications.  Celtic music owns her, but they timeshare with folk, roots and world.


Al Stewart’s tour details:

FRI            8/21/09            New York, NY       Rubin Museum of Art / Naked Soul Music Series

SAT            8/22/09            Norfolk, CT           Infinity Hall

SUN            8/23/09            Saratoga Springs, NY   Caffe Lena

FRI            10/30/09 & SAT 10/31/09            Steelville, MO           Wildwood Springs Lodge

SUN            11/1/09            Kansas City, MO                  ?Knuckleheads Saloon

THU            11/5/09            Decatur, GA?Eddie’s Attic

FRI            11/6/09            York, SC?Sylvia Theatre

SAT            11/7/09            Holly Springs, NC                 Holly Springs Cultural Center

FRI            12/18/09            Denver, CO                          L2 Arts & Culture Center

SAT            12/19/09            Berkeley, CA                        Freight & Salvage??? 2010

THU            2/4/2010            Hillsboro, OR            ?Walter’s Art Center

SAT            2/6/2010            Bremerton, WA?          Admiral Theatre

THU            3/4/2010            Newberry, SC             Newberry Opera House

SAT            3/6/2010            Chatham, NJ             Sanctuary Concerts

Posted on 21 Aug 2009 at 6:09am
Q&A with Fiddling Groundbreaker Mark O'Connor

Q&A with Fiddling Groundbreaker Mark O’Connor

By Gwen Orel

Mark O’Connor is a force in the fiddle world.  He knows it.  Not too many musicians will look you in the face and describe the “timeless pieces” they’ve written–but his works, including “Appalachian Journey” (with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer) and “Folk Mass” really are timeless.  It’s not hubris when you’ve got the chops to back it up.  When I mentioned casually to people I knew that I was interviewing Mark O’Connor, I heard, “oh, I love his country records” and “I’ve seen him on PBS” and just “oooooh.”  These responses were from a picture framer, my accountant, and a guitar player.  Of course, my fiddle-playing friends were enthusiastic–and had their own questions to relate.

He’s a two-time Grammy award winner; he has his own label–OMAC records (a combination of his and his mother’s name, MacDonald)–and in the nineties, was named Musician of the Year by the Country Music Association six times (1991-1996).  He bridges musical worlds–that’s his mission in life–studying as a boy first with the great Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson, and then with the ground-breaking French jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli.  He plays a kind of Texas Swing-gypsy jazz-classical-bluegrass-old timey style that he calls “American Classical music,” and this fall will release his new Method book of instruction that solidifies an approach to learning that uses the many sounds that pervade American strings.  Some of the people he’s performed with are Rosanne Cash, Ida Kavafian, Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg… for starters.

O’Connor is also a leader in the world of fiddle camps.  Fiddle camp? Yes–every summer adult and youth players can find various “weeks” to attend to increase their skills in their chosen genre.  The Swannanoa Gathering has Celtic Week, Fiddle Week, and Old-Timey Week (and other weeks not for fiddlers),the  Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, West Virginia, at Davis and Elkins College also has Irish Week, Bluegrass Week and Swing Week, and then, at the Catskills Irish Arts Week, there are fiddle classes galore.

What makes O’Connor’s String Camp unique is that it is multi-disciplinary, by design.  He’s been running these String Camps in Tennessee and in California for years, but 2009 marked the first time he brought the camp to his current residence, New York City.  From July 27-31, 270 string players–mostly, but not all, fiddlers–descended on the Society for Ethical Culture, taking three classes a day, attending evening concerts by students and teachers (who included such greats as bluegrass fiddler Darol Anger and old-timey banjo/guitar/fiddler Bruce Molsky), and an interview series run by O’Connor with guests including Roberta Guaspari, founder of the Opus 118 Harlem School of Music (and subject of the film Music of the Heart), and Alex Miller, General Manager and Senior Vice President of Sony Masterworks. Interviews and concerts were free and open to the public.

I caught up with O’Connor on the second day of the camp.  I was a little early, so sat on a bench for a few minutes, chatting with two middle-aged women who were attending the camp (I could tell by the “Mark O’Connor String Camp” tags they wore).

“There were only about seven people at the Indian class this morning,” one said, explaining how the classes work (a class taught by Mysore Manjunath called “Unique Playing Techniques in Indian Music”), “but Tracy Silverman’s “Blue Strings” was packed.”

Students self-select as either “intermediate” or “advanced” and every day decide which classes in their level to attend.  Each slot has about five selections.  It’s an incredible smorgasbord of offerings and incredibly appealing.  I had just returned from Catskills Irish Arts Week myself, and was thinking longingly about investigating bluegrass and/or swing someday.  At O’Connor’s weeks, you don’t have to choose.  The logistics sound complicated, but it has a spirit of freedom that seems in keeping with someone who champions a quintessentially American sound.


So what took you so long to bring the camp here?

I’ve been running these camps for sixteen years.  It’s taken me five years to bring this here.  My first journey away from the hills of Tennessee was to bring it to my then-home of San Diego and try to interface what I experienced with my camp there into a more urban environment, namely a campus.  There were a lot of people saying oh you can’t do that, or now that you’ve done that, you can’t do that on a campus–when we were able to do it on a campus and people loved that, then I’d get the same runaround trying to bring it to the Big Apple–it probably won’t work here, it sounds like something that’s very specialized in Tennessee… then I finally moved here four years ago.  I had an artistic agenda in my move here.  I wanted to meet string players to play in my groups, to compose my string quartets, my first symphony, and to bring my string camp to Manhattan.  Four years, almost to the month, the camp is here.

There are a lot of camps with isolated weeks.

I wanted my camp to put forward a different model.  I wanted to create a cross-pollinating environment.

It was very different when I was growing up–there wasn’t this respect for the old-time string culture. I wanted to create a Utopian String Universe, something that would be like a real democracy, artistically. I took my cues from my heroes–Benny Thomasson and Stéphane Grappelli were great cross-pollinators.  They set the tone for me to take the paths I did.

It sounds great, but how do you keep it all together when everyone chooses what they’d like to do?

Say you set a rule and make people sign up in advance, well, a lot of people don’t know that they would like to sign up for that class until you create the environment and create the culture.  Once they are created then people might change their minds. The whole idea about the camp is to change minds.  It’s not just to learn further your expertise.  It’s actually to break down barriers and overcome hurdles.  If people signed up for one track or teacher in advance, the entire week my staff and I would be bombarded with people saying “I made a mistake.”  It would be a week full of negativity and no.

What kinds of people come to the camp?

This year the youngest is 8.  We have students, literally, from 8 to 80.

When did you start playing music?

I was 11 when I started the fiddle.  I started playing the guitar at 5.

Do you still play the guitar?

No.  I studied with Benny for three years, and with Stéphane from 17-18.  In between, I studied music theory, voice.  I had a period where I didn’t play as much.  I wanted to play the violin because I saw it as the window to my soul.  I could communicate through it.  It had such directness.  I wanted to make people feel the music, whether it was happy or sad.

When did you start writing music?

I was 13.  A little girl asked me that today!  One my very first pieces, called “Mark’s waltz,” was recorded for a thirty-year retrospective.

When  I knew I was going to interview you, I asked some fiddler friends what they would want to ask you!  So here are some of the questions.  What’s your practice regime like?

I practice about 45 minutes to an hour a day.  There are two or three things I play routinely–a ragtime étude that I wrote–then caprices for technique, finger strength.  I spend most of the day creating music and writing.  When I have a concert coming, I spend a couple of days in prep.  Most of my own pieces I know so well.

Here’s another from a fiddler.  Did you ever get discouraged when you were learning?

When I was young, yes, a few times.  I was considered a child prodigy.  To make that transition from “freak show” to adult is hard for any child musician, and it was for me too.  There were some years in my early 20s when I wondered if I wanted music as a career.

I was scrambling, and wondered if emotionally I could handle my talent. I thought it might be better to get a normal job.  In music you lay it all out–you have very little privacy.

As a composer it’s natural for me to be private.  I have to spend time in a cocoon.  If your deadline is in two weeks, you can’t go out and party with friends.  As a performer, you’re so public.

What kept you going?

I think the answer is you have to look for a break, and you have to be ready to receive it.

You have to put yourself in a position to succeed if the opportunity comes along. When I look back at my career, there were a series of those opportunities that came and I was able to snag them.  I know friends who had opportunities that they missed–through overconfidence, thinking it will come again, some of them.

I got a letter from Chet Atkins when I was 18–he wanted me to come to Nashville and play guitar.  I didn’t even know if I liked country music.  I liked jazz.  He asked me what I’d like to do–I said “be on television.”  He arranged that!  That was my first break in Nashville.  (You can read more about this in an interview O’Connor did with Tom Redmond of Misterguitar.com here.) The ability to see outside your immediate circle is so important.  You have to seize the moment, give yourself a chance, be ready.

What do you love most about being a musician?

Fiddle culture has really changed.  There’s probably no danger in traditional music dying out, but when I was a kid that was not the case. Fiddle contests were held to perpetuate old-time fiddling.  There were almost no kids playing–I had a huge burden laid on me by older players.

I felt I was responsible for perpetuating fiddling, and getting more young people involved.  They pressured my mother too, “he could do so much for our community.”Now look what I’m doing forty years later–the string camp perpetuates the idea of old-time music.  I love that I can contribute to that.

What do you like the least?

It’s a fickle community in terms of keeping your career afloat.  If you don’t do a recording in three or four years, it’s as if you’ve fallen off the face of the earth.  If I did not perform, people would ask “where are you?”  The constant feeling of letting people down if I don’t do enough. There are not enough hours in the day to keep up with the people I perform with and play with.  I put on three camps this year, but I feel like it’s not enough.

Are you from a musical family?

No.  I’m the one that developed the interest.  It took me three years to beg mother and dad to play the fiddle, I begged from age 8 on.  I heard Itzhak Perlman on PBS.

What are you listening to now?

In New York, I go to see music live.  There was a show of Vivaldi at Carnegie Hall that I really enjoyed.  You can go see music live every night here, people that don’t live here don’t have that opportunity. Even in San Diego, a town with three million people, there were times that I might not have a musical act to see for weeks at a time.  I have a stack of CDs from colleagues that reach to the ceiling that I haven’t listened to yet.  For me, music is research, study, something I’m critiquing for a friend.

What do you do to unwind?

I watch Comedy Central–I like Jon Stewart and the Colbert Report.

That’s only one hour.

I work all day and night. I couldn’t have done this in my 20s, I didn’t have the brain or emotional capacity.  I’ve matured.  I feel like there’s a lot behind me.  I feel a sense of urgency that I didn’t have when I was 25, except, how was I going to pay for dinner.

What are you excited about right now?

My new method book–I’ve introduced a new method to 40 teachers this week (Teacher training was one of the tracks at the String Camp).  I’ve had the idea for the last fifteen years, to create a sequence of American traditional tunes.

It’s how to learn to play the violin in an American style. I felt compelled.  I see all the things not being done–like, why isn’t there a fiddle concerto–20 years ago I wrote one.  I asked, why isn’t there cross-disciplinary training?  So I created this method.  There’s a Russian school, a German school, a French school–this is for the American school.

Gwen Orel writes about music, theatre and culture for many outlets.  She is a slave to Celtic music.

Posted on 04 Aug 2009 at 11:00pm
Old Age and Treachery

Old Age and Treachery

By Jennifer DeMeritt

“Old age and treachery will triumph over youth and talent.” That’s what my uncle John used to sayand what I say too sometimes, when I want to sound grimly realpolitik about the workings of the world. In the world of jazz, age almost always triumphs over youth, but treachery has nothing to do with it.

Case in point: a recent double bill by One Ring Zero and the Microscopic Septet at Le Poisson Rouge. I’d been wanting to check out One Ring Zero for months. They’ve got a theremin (I’m a girl who can’t resist a theremin), an accordion, a smarty-pants sensibility, and frequent gigs at my favorite smarty-pants venues like Barbes and Joe’s Pub. They collaborate with storytellers and, hey, I do a little storytelling, so how could I possibly fail to love this band?

Yet that’s exactly what I did. I liked them, immensely. I loved them a little during the theremin solos, which truly ripped, and my heart beat faster when they shifted into 7/4catnip for a time-signature sucker and Rush-fan-in-recovery like me. As is fitting for a smarty-pants band, I was at every turn impressed by their intelligence and skill. I nodded appreciatively through competent solos and well-crafted songs, but I never once snapped to attention and thought “Holy shit, they just did what?” It’s those moments of breathless surprise that make live music worthwhile for me, and they were largely absent from One Ring Zero’s show.

This is disappointing in a band that has the goods to be straight-up fantastic. Maybe they’re too seduced by their own novelty to play with real passion. Maybe they’re more accustomed to performing in smaller, more intimate rooms like Barbes. Or maybe they spend too much time in the cleverer neighborhoods of Brooklyn to know any better. One of my Manhattan friends complains that the BK is insufferably twee, to which I say, “You don’t understand the County of Kings.” But listing to One Ring Zero made me think my friend has a point. These kids play with what passes for feeling in Park Slope.

I’d never heard of the Microscopic Septet, but one of my hardened jazz-freak friends told me they were an iconic act, the Millennial Territory Orchestra of the 1980sa reference that probably means very little to most socially adjusted humans, but a lot a budding jazz freak like me. I expected an act both swinging and crustya bunch of shaggy middle-aged men in dubious duds doing innovative things in the classic construct of a big band. Without a friend’s recommendation, I wouldn’t pick the Microscopic Septet out of the music listings as a band to go see. Sure, the four-saxophone section (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone) is a little unusual, but it doesn’t pack the novelty value of a theremin. They could easily be mistaken for a museum piece, an act to miss.

In spite of all that, or perhaps because of it, they wiped the floor with ORZ. In 1990 the Septet was featured on VH1 (grazie to my favorite Italian jazz blogger Luigi Santosuosso for the links, drinks and history lesson), and since then these cats have had 20 years to build their chops and grow their beards. Note the goatee on the baritone sax player; he probably hasn’t trimmed it since then, and it now spreads across his chest in ZZ Top resplendence. The piano player does the same heavy-set shimmy now that he did back then, but his moustache is epic, walrus-like, and the lines on his face say he’s old enough to know better but still too young to stop. I point out these quirks of their appearance because they say so much to me about the essence of great jazz: It’s a medium for personality, in all its magnificent lumpiness, to shine through the music. Every single note they played was worth listening to. As a sort-of big band, they were not reinventing the genre, but the particulars of each composition and each solo were arrestingly original and played with total conviction.

It might be unfair to compare a seasoned jazz act like the Microscopic Septet to a less improv-based and more composition-oriented band like One Ring Zero. After all, the moment-to-moment flow is what old jazz artists do. And as a late-30ish lady, I may have a personal motive for preferring the old cats to the young gents (this is where the treachery comes in … maybe). Yet the smart boys in One Ring Zero played harder and better when they shared the stage with the Microscopic Septet at the end of the show. There’s nothing like a little competition to squeeze the juice out, eh? It gave me hope they could cross over from clever to brilliant. Until then, old age shall remain triumphant.

Jennifer DeMeritt is a shamelessly ill-informed and gleefully opinionated lover of jazz. She spends what little money she has on live shows and cheap beer, and almost always puts cash in the tip jar. When she’s not talking smack about music, she’s writing a book, called “No Touching,” about a very special housecleaning service.

Posted on 28 Mar 2009 at 3:46pm