Volume 4 Number 3
Table of Contents
Interview by Ariel
Alli's poetry is a reflection of his simplicity, but his talent stretches beyond his use of language, merging the complexity of issues with a stride.
Yacov Sharir has the kind of passion and creativity you only wish could be bottled and sold.
What are human rights violations? Are they abuses inflicted in foreign countries by menacing governments? Are the victims political prisoners who are tortured into submission in dark cells?
Johnson recalled that one of the first records which really affected him was a John Coltrane compilation belonging to his father.
Graffiti isn't synonymous with gang activity. It has evolved far beyond that into an artistic juxtaposition, because the walls are where writers battle it out.
Being a gypsy by nature, I moved around the country, yet I would always gravitate back to Austin. However, every time I moved back here that sacred vibe seemed to be getting choked by an array of different influences: the high-tech industry (which helped push rents up, thus forcing many players to move to lower-rent towns), city noise ordinances, and, most inappropriately, overzealous police hassling and arresting musicians.
This is a piece about the high price of living and working in Central City Austin. In short, this is a ramble.
Harold and I are having a baby next month.
Alli Aweusi and the Renaissance of the Drum Forward by Sandra Beckmeier
Interview by Ariel
Poet/activist/musician/self-taught artist Alli Aweusi and his gordian knots. Some are like singing to the choir, but waiting for the choir to return goodwill. Aweusi is a proponent of what is right and what isn't, and if anyone should grab a symbol, it's this poet, and catapult himself into his own. The new "Austin legacy" would leave a lot of people blind and stupid. Aweusi's got the power behind the punch, and his observance of the importance of underground drumming and its emergence and ties to the spiritual revolution sweeping through our karma-ridden United States would override the atheist's wind chime and bring everyone culturally into these elements of realism and truth; then maybe we could all toss up the proverbial finger at the "man."
Because of the weight of this piece, I tend to think it's star-crossed that shaman artist Ariel was intuitive enough to interview Aweusi several years ago, and random luck for Austin Downtown Arts, since she recently returned after a spiritual hiatus at Mt. Shasta, California. As always, Ariel is giving, and willing to let us reprint the interview, previously published in her alternative arts publication Samarai Poets.
Intuitive to this point, Aweusi is known for his shenanigans as well as his many graces, including his writings and the formation of the poetry group, Catfish Poets, which surfaced in 1994, and subsequently caused a rift through the community of spoken word artists. Catfish Poets, named for the music venue on Sixth Street, became one of the few platforms built for African American poets. Catfish Poets opened up a vein for internal perspective and criticism to widen and fold and began a trend of sorts, including the formation of Nailah Foscette's group, the Talking Drum Poets.
Dr. Marvin Kimbrough, whose work is about as funny as blues can be when they're real, and Floyd Freeman, whose presence is always felt far beyond his spoken word, are two of the groups cruisers. When the forum began a small circle of underground artists, as with anything, it strengthened cultural diversity by way of the heavy foot, and created a platform for artists from all kinds of lineages to respond to, while rediscovering relevant issues that always get lost in the mainstream shuffle.
Trying to find Aweusi for this story was fruitless -- he reminds me of the elusive J.D. Salinger, known for great works like Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories as well as stirring things up in the brown-nosing publishing world by reissuing stories through the advent and encouragement of small presses. If anything I'd be willing to bet Aweusi is hiding out, carving a new course of action and, of course, writing.
Alli's poetry is a reflection of his simplicity, but his talent stretches beyond his use of language, merging the complexity of issues with a stride. It literally takes you on a walk. Works like The Drum is Silent and Walk of Death are indicative of his talent of lifting a veil on "violence of the mind" issues including the censorship of rap music, the spiritual slaughter resulting from the African Diaspora, and the fight against the judicial system baseboard -- you know, tossing people in jail, exposing that course of thought as neglectful and ignorant as the people tossing out the penalties.
The Big Time
Aweusi was mentored by Alex Haley, and credits him for the introduction and fascination he formed and the strides he's made with writing.
Aweusi: Alex Haley was my teacher. When he died I had to do something. He helped me in a lot of ways. He got me on the track of writing, and showed me how to do it. I had the illusion as a child that writers lived in big houses at the beach, looking out to the sea. Everything they wrote was just written out all the time and then it was published. He showed me that you don't even have to know how to read very well or spell, you don't have to have the grammar thing. You just have to have the idea. All the other stuff can be fixed. When I looked at his manuscript for Roots, I saw all these red marks and cross-outs and erasures. That just did something to me. So I felt I could be a writer too. Langston Hughes was also a great influence for me. I was reading Walt Whitman and other white poets. I didn't know black people wrote poetry. Someone slipped me a book by Langston Hughes. I read his book until it fell apart.
Aweusi: I think people need to hear the Rap Poets because they have a musical style and a very political message. All these rappers who want to call themselves rappers need to hear the original rappers that started in the '60s before everyone else started doing it (except the Delta blues men in the early 1920s). The Last Poets are poets but they use a style that rappers use today. The other style they use is with drums and poetry. So they have some rhythm and a chorus, and whomever the poet is will recite the poem while the other poets -- there are four of them -- will repeat some words over and over as they play the drums.
Ariel: Does rap have a connection with African rhythms?
Aweusi: Yes, definitely. There is documentation on that. You know how rappers walk? There is a tribe in Africa that does the same steps. When the rappers are performing, the African dance is like the same performance style and if both are shown together, there is an overlay.
Ariel: The rappers don't know where it comes from, it just comes out of them unconsciously?
Aweusi: Deep, deep down inside we know and feel our Africanism. We may not know it but we feel it and act it out, through songs and the way we do church, the way we communicate with each other. Some of it was beaten out of us but not completely, like when they took the drum away. They said, "well we can't let slaves have drums, right?" But the drum is still here and we're still playing it. They can't take it away from us anymore. Although we have been 400 years in this country, we are just beginning to see these things. If allowed to be free it could develop and thrive. The only problem I have with rap now is that it has been out so much that the system that oppresses all of us has been able to manipulate it, to make it negative. Our children have always been radical, we were radical. It's okay for them to be that way. But they've got to make their own expression. But their expression is being guided and pushed in a direction where it defeats folks. The master says he wants the slave not to think, so let's put this junk out there that's degrading to women, let's call each other negative names, and put out a negative message, so they come out acting like this negative message. We can't let them be positive because we don't want what happened in the '60s to happen again.
Ariel: So how are these companies manipulating, do they just buy and promote the guys that do that, and don't promote the guys that don't?
Aweusi: Right. They allow them to write that junk and put it out. A few years ago there was Two Live Crew. Their stuff is pure junk, it's X-rated sexist junk. The government wanted to ban them. They had it all the way to Congress (thanks to Tipper Gore). Now we understand that from the '60s as a TACTIC. You put junk out there, then say we got to censor it but what they really do is censor the political thinkers.
Ariel: They're doing that right now with the Internet and child porn. There's no law controlling the Net because technology is moving 15 years ahead of the law process.
Aweusi: They use this tactic to get at the critical minds. That's why I say we have to support Two Live Crew, because if we defend them we will still have our voice even though we don't like what he is saying. It's a slick way to do things, you know. Gangster rap is horrible, kill the police and all that kind of stuff. If you listen to the music like Ice T's you'll hear that he said he wanted to kill the bad police. But see, nobody put that out there. They just flatly said it was all against the police.
Ariel: I was listening to a woman called Soldier?
Aweusi: Sister Soldier. She's a good rapper, a lot of women are good because they are sensitive to the sexist issue, therefore they understand the whole picture. There was a movement but they changed it in the '60s, they said "we're gonna have real black music." It's gonna be conscious and uplifting, and somehow they changed it to rhythm and blues. Too bad because it took the power out of it. So you really have to be careful. It's important for us to be out there. It's important for us to get to young people, to confront this negative junk. I confront things to the Rappers because I think they haven't accomplished anything in this world which is positive to me and they make a lot of money and spend it on junk, so they won't last. You can go to the store and buy it. Used to be you couldn't even say that stuff. I think it should stay there. I don't want my kid to hear that.
Ariel: Artists can take that form and really use it. You got a huge audience of kids.
Aweusi: That's how it all got started. It was useful in the beginning. It was how people expressed themselves. So they had a development. We got to jump on this thing quick. If we don't they will control it and it will get out of hand. They used to call rock n' roll devil music, cause the kids were jumping up and down and having a good time and the white community was fearful of rock n' roll so they started killing off many rock n' roll leaders like Buddy Holly, who had an accident, then they put out easy-going smooth types like Frankie Avalon. They had to change it cause it was taking over the kids.
Ariel: That could bring all those kids together as kids.
Aweusi: Yeah and they didn't want kids listening to black music and enjoying it. So they created people and said OK we're going to promote this and that.
Ariel: So they called it rhythm and blues. I remember KDIA from Oakland, you remember KDIA? I was listening to that when I was 13.
Aweusi: I was always thinking it was rhythm and blues but I got to researching it and found some stories from old timers who expressed the fact that REAL BLACK was the name of the music. You'll run into that if you talk to the old timers. They'll tell you how they changed it and put them out of business. They took them out of business because they were going to be the promoters and stuff.
Ariel: They took all the money away from black business.
Aweusi: Who we gonna let in, and who are we not gonna let in. That's how they control it. First they had the white singers sing the black songs, like Elvis.
Ariel: Like jazz. We got white jazz.
Aweusi: But now we've got the other part of it. We've got young people who don't listen to jazz or blues anymore. The only people who play jazz are white.
Ariel: Yeah, and it's not real jazz.
The Apparatus of Abstract Art by Stephanie Leslie
Yacov Sharir has the kind of passion and creativity you only wish could be bottled and sold. As the founder and artistic co-director of Sharir Dance Company, the company-in-residence at the University of Texas at Austin, Yacov has found a way to merge the art of dance with virtual reality. The results of this merger are what Sharir calls "cyber humans," computer-generated creatures who dance through virtual reality. These cyber humans, in addition to the physical dancers on stage, are the stars of his latest project, the Cyber Human Dances Series, due out this spring.
The Cyber Humans, in conjunction with several other abstract art pieces, will be making its way to a theater near you. From May 1 through May 3, Sharir Dance Company (SDC) is finishing off their season with a 15th anniversary celebration, a retrospective tribute to Yacov Sharir titled Yacov Sharir -- Selected Works, Past & Present. The program will showcase Yakov's major accomplishments as a choreographer and artist since the SDC's founding in 1982. For SDC, this anniversary celebration also commemorates the company's 15th anniversary of educating the public on new dance, art, and music through production, presentation, and promotion.
Yacov, along with the dedicated dancers and staff of SDC, grabs the audience's attention through innovation and iconoclasm. However, Yacov asserts, the intention behind his work is not necessarily to grab the audience's attention. More importantly, he says, art is about self-expression and, "when it is successful, it is also entertaining." The nature of art, he continues, is "to tell us about who we are -- it's about memory and culture." The connection between the audience and the SDC's dance productions, he says, is made on a "visceral level -- the audience really cares for the physical aspect of it, the movement, the ambiance, the atmosphere."
Though it may not be his intention, he has caught the attention of the public on a local, national, and global level. In addition to collaborations with many internationally renowned companies, the SDC has participated in international festivals in France, Israel, Spain, Canada, Holland and Portugal. However, SDC is far from forgetting the community where they have their roots. In 1988, SDC collaborated with Merce Cunningham and the Cunningham Dance Foundation of New York. The mission of this partnership was to localize the art of dance, music and choreography through education in diverse areas of the population.
The importance of community support and interaction within the new art sector is not something Sharir has lost touch with. An area of utmost importance to SDC is the maintenance of "a unique sensitivity to the climate and energy of our community." One way SDC is successful in maintaining a close relationship to the Austin community is by seeking to incorporate Texas dancers, especially graduates of the University of Texas, who also place value within the community. Whether you're in Austin, Europe or cyberspace, the abstract performance art of Yacov and SDC are certain to lure you in on a physical, spiritual or technological level.
The Human Rights Watch Global Showcase by Jenna Colley
What are human rights violations? Are they abuses inflicted in foreign countries by menacing governments? Are the victims political prisoners who are tortured into submission in dark cells? Sometimes, but more often than not they are people who suffer day to day hardships in the United States and other "respected" countries. Not all of our society is afforded the luxury of middle class indifference. Many have to suffer in silence. The Human Rights Watch Global Showcase, presented by the University Film Society and Amnesty International from April 2 to 6, wants to expand Austinites' understanding of what it means to be a victim.
The festival will screen 12 films that address issues of genocide, disappearances, women's and immigrants' rights, and racial discrimination. The atrocities are not as distant as many of us would like to believe, and festival organizers hope to make that clear by providing a visual testament to what we perceive to be injustice, and what it actually is. Each screening will be followed by an open debate and discussion conducted by a specialist of that field capable of addressing questions that arise from audience members. Students, professors and community organizers among others will serve as both panelists and moderators. All opinions are welcomed and the screenings are free.
The festival, which first opened in New York and Los Angeles seven years ago and has played internationally since 1996, will mark the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations. Susana Kaiser of the Institute of Latin American Studies at UT first lobbied to bring the festival to Austin in June of 1997.
"In general, we live in a society that associates human rights violations with political repression. What we need to understand is that if your mother is beaten by your father or you suffer racial discrimination, your rights have also been violated. Oppression comes in every color and shape, and it's something that affects all of us," says Kaiser. Difficulty in locating a venue for the screening lead Kaiser to the University Film Society, an organization that had recently formed when a group of UT students protested the closing of the Texas Union Theater. Tammy Arnstein, a graduate student in the UT Film Department and member of the Society, welcomed Kaiser with open arms. Together with a small core of volunteers (mainly full-time students) they succeed in landing the Union Theater and raising funds for the festival. "After staging protests over the possible closing of the Union Theater, we decided that the best way to gain access to university resources was to become a formal organization," says Arnstein. "We were concerned that there were films that just weren't being shown. We wanted these issues to be brought to the forefront of conscience, and the festival was already a complete package." Each film in the festival is worth seeing. The screenings are divided into five themes: Big Brother in America and Abroad; Home as Found and Lost; A Woman's Tale; Reading, Writing, and Politics; and Blood Simple: Brothers at Peace and War.
We often forget that beyond our sense of reality lies the truth, and beyond that truth lies human nature. We are capable of ugly things, and without accountability, there is no progress.
Thursday, April 2
6pm: Waco: The Rules of Engagement (135 min.) Dan Gifford, Executive Producer of the Academy Award-nominated film, will speak at the screening.
9pm: Devils Don't Dream! (90 min.)
Friday, April 3 5pm: Stories of Honor and Shame (56 min.) Special guest Professor B. J. Fernea will speak at the screening.
7pm: Fear and Learning at Hoover Elementary (53 min.)
9pm: It Ain't Love (58 min.)
Saturday, April 4
3pm: Waco, The Rules of Engagement (135 min.) Dick J. Reavis, author of The Ashes of Waco, will speak after this screening.
7pm: Ricardo, Miriam, and Fidel (90 min.)
9pm: Barizogan (114 min.)
Sunday, April 5
3pm: Fear and Learning at Hoover Elementary (53 min.) Maria Emilia Martin, Executive Producer of Latin USA, will speak after the screening.
5pm: Blacks and Jews (85 min.)
7pm: Bye-Bye Babushka (75 min.)
9pm: Jerusalem: An Occupation Set in Stone? (55 min.)
Monday, April 6
6pm: The Betrayed (78 min.) and 15 Children (18 min.)
8pm: Chronicle of A Genocide Foretold (140 min.)
All films will be shown at the Texas Union Theatre, 24th Street and Guadalupe in the UT Union.
On the Record...J.J. Johnson by Paul Klemperer
Drummer J.J. Johnson has been making his presence felt in the Austin scene since the early 1990s. A native of San Antonio, he played a variety of gigs in Austin with Chris Duarte and Billy White before the charms of our fair city finally won him over and he relocated in 1994. Since then he has been a major player here, most notably with Elias Haslanger, Hot Buttered Rhythm, and Charlie and Will Sexton's Sextet. In every situation he shows marked creative energy and versatility.
Johnson was born in San Antonio, but his family is from Louisiana, and he spent a fair amount of time there growing up. It was a musical family (trumpeter Terrence Blanchard is his cousin), and he was surrounded by music growing up. He remembers his father ("a huge James Brown fan") taking him to a James Brown concert when he was only two years old. His father played trumpet, though not professionally, and had a big record collection, particularly jazz and Motown.
Though his father bought him a toy drum set on which he worked out, Johnson's early musical yearning was for guitar. However, in high school he was encouraged to play drums (a teacher must have heard those nascent drum chops) and developed his skills in high school band, as well as various rock n' roll garage bands. By age 16 he was playing out around town.
Later schooling included theory and piano courses at San Antonio College, but the schedule conflict between school and gigging eventually forced him to choose. He spent a year in New Orleans, playing the local clubs and absorbing the distinct musical nuances of that city. He wants to return to school "eventually" but his playing schedule seems busier than ever. Meanwhile, he is continuing his musical education, trying to "grow as a complete musician" and develop a "complete awareness." His musical goals include learning guitar, writing songs and, in general, "to learn as many instruments as possible."
When I asked him about musical influences, Johnson recalled that one of the first records which really affected him was a John Coltrane compilation belonging to his father. He named a wide range of general influences besides Coltrane, including Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, and singer/songwriter Nick Drake. When I asked more specifically about drummers, he acknowledged that there were so many, but "off the top of my head Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, Jon Bonham, Max Roach, Ed Blackwell, and tabla player Zakir Hussain."
Johnson's plans for the near future include recording an album with the Sexton Brothers' Sextet. Also, a tour with Hot Buttered Rhythm is tentatively scheduled for later in the summer.
I had to ask if there was any connection to trombonist J.J. Johnson. Surprisingly, there is none, though he gets asked that a lot. Growing up he was just called "JJ" by his family and it stuck. If you want to know what the initials stand for, you have to ask him yourself; it's strictly off the record.
The Moment by Jeff Darling
It came without notice unaware, It was pale and lovely like a small child
When it knocked gentle smile emerged from the face, like a cool endless dream
Peaceful the messenger
Always blissful and funny times it chooses, there were brooding signs, but neglected like fate itself
Forewarned, but enjoyed its presence, not fearful but welcoming
How was your world, were you at peace/content, were the stars shining on your face?
The perilous journey makes Saints of all us ordinary Sinners
Enables us to fly with wings of an Angel, in the freedom domain we are all the same
No more pain or regret, no more portraying games, like the Hyacinth when it rains
When it arrived the sky arose distant blue, the earth sighed, but the sun seemed to smile
He's our friend, sanity he brings, nearing the fortress gate
Like a distant memory, we cherish the internal slumber, we are now greater in number
My final rest will bring joy to the masses, release their downtrodden burden
To go on the walk alone would be unworthy, maybe with my painted tribe
The trees and animals sensed the day would have no dawn
Close your eyes and reminisce of the years longevity
Here the white light and red fire reign in a fetus womb
Like the undiluted fragile mind of a newborn untouched and before corruption
The omniscient observer, the electric navigator, savage pilot, knows and sees all, determines fate
Here we all go, here we all stay as one, we're all the same now
Have no fear and shed no tears, but enjoy the sacred ancient moment in the crooning sun
This is their time
I will walk away, go the other way, I won't go yet...?
Decorate mine with flowers, friends, and love from her.
The Painted Word by Sandra Beckmeier
Living street art, strange how it's constantly exaggerated. Never mind and spray paint flows without stopping, and an insider's tip -- Krylon® aerosol has the best collection of colors. It's easy to see how the entertainment industry and media have time and again shackled the form by glamorizing graffiti's one-time "marriage" to gangster violence.
Luckily the form is much more intelligent than popular opinion, traced back to Cave writing, the walls of Rome and to the natives of North America. Though names like Keith Haring, Fab Five Freddie (Freddie Brathwaite), and Lady Pink are some of the art world's wonder children, graffiti's voice hasn't become a solvent part of American culture even though it is widely perceived as folk artistry. Like rap and anything that shouts loudly in despair that it has been lost under the trappings of law because of the corroded interpretation it becomes vandalism filled with violence.
So, we know there is graffiti on the moon. There was graffiti on the New York subway a year after it was constructed. Stereotypes show another image to betray ourselves with, of a juvenile delinquent spray-painting walls in the wee hours of the morning. Never mind the kid is probably bleeding from scraping coarse, brick surfaces with his knuckles for one reason: just to say "I exist." Graffiti isn't synonymous with gang activity. It has evolved far beyond that into an artistic juxtaposition, because the walls are where writers battle it out.
Society places kids in the "hopeless" mind-set, pre-determining their futures while teachers and parents are forced to pull them away from it, and this makes one realize how important the contributions of folks like Austin artist/activist Jane Madrigal can be. Madrigal acts as housemother for a group of young artists known as SKAM Productions.
She believes these kids have been seduced by films like Colors, in that they have been locked into an identity where a fictional environment plays closely upon the environment that is familiar to them. And in the world where there is not identity, a role is a role. Madrigal believes the project works in two ways to benefit a positive model because it is a collective: it helps improve the self-esteem of at-risk teens while embracing itself as a tool for crime prevention. She believes that graffiti should be recognized as a way out of an at-risk existence instead of the other way around. But no one listens.
Righteously hailed as a "mentor" and "civic leader," Madrigal stumbled into the graffiti movement in 1995, when she and a friend went to the Rio Grande Valley to teach art at an alternative learning center. She worked as a teacher's aide, and became acquainted with what school administrators termed "at-risk youth."
After returning to Austin she sent bus tickets to several kids so they could participate in Mexic-Arte's Young Latino Arts Exhibition, which she curated. Through the grapevine, word spread quickly and Madrigal was surrounded with a large group of young artists inquiring as to how they could get involved. Bang. SKAM Productions was born.
ADA: You mentioned Al "Skam" Martinez?
Madrigal: Yeah. He is responsible for bringing the graffiti movement to Austin. He's really well-respected and remembered by all of us. In 1982 he came down from Newark, New Jersey. I think he was about 12 years old.
ADA: How did he help legitimize graffiti?
Madrigal: He did a lot for graffiti through his work with the Dougherty Arts Center and for the Austin League of Minority Artists, because he had been exposed to so much on the East Coast. He did his thing illegally for years. But then in 1988 he started to work legally.
ADA: Who did he approach for commissions?
Madrigal: "They" approached him, supposedly.
ADA: The city?
Madrigal: Yeah. He had done a piece called "Tough City" on some bank and when the piece came out on the news, the reporters were publicly asking for the artist to come forward. They had seen his work around town, blah, blah, blah. But he didn't come forward. It wasn't until much later. It was their way of trying to lure him out of the "dark streets" I guess.
ADA: Was he killed in 1994?
Madrigal: Yeah, he died on January 28 from a gunshot wound to the head. He was in Houston, sitting at a Taco Bell drive-through. We're still finding pieces he created around town. A few weeks ago one of the guys was on top of some random building and found a piece Al did in 1988 that no one ever knew about. You can't see it from the street, unfortunately. You have to be up on the building to see it.
ADA: Where is it?
Madrigal: Not sure yet. We're going to take photographs.
ADA: What was your motivation behind forming this group?
Madrigal: The criminalization of the youth, and the violence issue. Also the fact that there is hardly any hope for these kids, they're pre-destined for jail. I was trying to make a point to them about the qualities of the art form, and that they should be proud of what they do. My motivation for the most part was finding a way to simply give them some worth.
ADA: Curating the show was a great idea.
Madrigal: A lot of what happens when graffiti artists do their work illegally has to do with the ego. A lot of them are figuring out that they are going to have to think about how they can make a living as an artist -- provided they don't get killed or go to jail.
ADA: How old are these kids?
Madrigal: The youngest one just turned 16.
ADA: You mentioned that you're putting together a documentary about the group and the movement locally.
Madrigal: We're shooting video as we speak which will hopefully churn some interest. Right now I'm feeling a little jaded and negative since I'm involved with the art/political scene in this town. But, if everything works out we'll have space at the M.A.C.C.[Mexican American Cultural Center] by the end of the month.
ADA: Just getting off the ground. Fight the power.
Madrigal explains that SKAM Productions artists work within a classical definition of hip-hop graffiti, broken into three different types. A "tag" is someone's name written somewhere, generally in one color. "Throw-ups" are simple pieces created in two to three colors (many times in black and white or silver and black). "Pieces" are multi-colored and considered to be the highest evolution of hip-hop graffiti. Graffiti, like hip-hop, is a ghetto concept. And the form, like hip-hop, is an evolution of ghetto culture. The elements are as vocal as the voices, combining confrontation with life and disgust for the socio-political-economic climate. Smart kids.
The term vandalism, in its inappropriate context, refer to those elaborate, colorful, spectacular paintings seen all over cities. Neat-o. In a real sense, the art form, like rap music, has been censored by society and government. Hopefully it drives home a point about the vandalism aesthetic which sometimes seems to give graffiti its validity (in younger circles). What is unfortunate is that the message behind the rebellion all too often gets confused as some kind of twisted chaos.
One thing is for certain about the future of Madrigal's efforts with SKAM Productions, and most likely graffiti in general. It's a challenge against a slightly offset community clearly oblivious to street culture. Their work adds color to the mind-dulling blandness, and the designs upgrade the environment. Turning an established ideology upside down is no easy task, but hopefully Austin will support artists by providing legal environments for these voices to continue to grow up healthy within a "healthy" art community.
Two Down, Four to Go by Rashah Amen
Austin, Texas -- "Live Music Capital of the World." I moved to Austin in 1983. I was truly amazed at the vibrant music permeating throughout the city. Music was happening in the clubs, in people's houses and on the streets. There were jams and music parties (good music) all over the place. Being a gypsy by nature, I moved around the country to Philadelphia, New Orleans (by the way of planet Saturn with Sun Ra), a short California stint, Seattle, Atlanta, and several stops back home to Greenville, SC. Yet I would always gravitate back to Austin. There is truly something special about the energy in the ground we all stand on. A creative-sacred-blessed area of some sort. However, every time I moved back here that sacred vibe seemed to be getting choked (strangled, if you will) by an array of different influences: the high-tech industry (which helped push rents up, thus forcing many players to move to lower-rent towns), city noise ordinances, and, most inappropriately, overzealous police hassling and arresting musicians.
The police problem in Austin (in America, for that matter) needs to be addressed. In 1992 I moved away from this city after being stopped by police 15 times in a year-and-a-half on foot. On 10 occasions, the police demanded that I show an ID or get in the car. The last incident of '92 happened in November while I was waiting for the #5 Woodrow bus at 8th and Congress. A policewoman on a bike came up and yelled, "Which direction did you come from?" I asked her, "Probable cause, please?" She called for back-up on her walkie-talkie and the second cop arrived in seconds. I told them that I was waiting for a bus and asked her why I was being questioned. I was told that two guys had robbed a bank downtown and that I fit the description. I told her that no way was that me, and I handed her a flier for an upcoming International Music Extravaganza happening at McCullough Theater later that month. I told her that I was the producer of this event not a bank robber. She then yelled back, "Yeah, sure you are!" The #5 arrived and, taking a chance on being grabbed by the cops or, worst case scenario, shot, I walked away from them and got on the bus. However, that was my fifteenth stop (many happened in Hyde Park, where I lived at the time), and I split the Austin scene right after the McCullough Theater event.
Since returning to Austin in 1995 (why? many ask -- well, it goes back to that creative magic this sacred ground seems to have, where I have created more songs than anywhere else), I've only been stopped by cops three times in almost three years. In the most recent incident, a couple of months ago, an officer threw me against the trunk of my car as I went to get my wallet to show my license to his partner, who had just asked me for it. Thanks to both the Creator and the crowds that formed in several of my run-ins with the law, I have avoided being arrested.
Some of my fellow creators of sound have not been as fortunate. It's quite ironic that people who give so much of their heart and soul to this city through music are having incident after incident with the APD. It really piqued my anger last year when I read that J.J. Johnson (drummer for Hot Buttered Rhythm, Billy White Trio, Abra Moore, etc.) was almost arrested while unloading his drums on 6th Street. Many people (most notably his fellow drum partner in HBR, Brannen Temple) wrote letters and complaints to the city and the police department about the incident. But that situation was not the straw that...!
What has truly tilted my tolerance came this year. Talking with Brannen Temple on March 19, I found out that he and HBR bassist Edwin Livingston (one of the greatest, nicest guys anyone could ever meet) had been arrested the night before. How much irony can we stand here? These guys had just come from receiving an outstanding achievement award at the Austin Music Awards, where they also backed up rapper MC Overlord.
Flying high, they were then on the way to their own Hot Buttered Rhythm SXSW showcase a few blocks away at the Mercury. As many of you know, neither Edwin nor Brannen made it to that performance because an overzealous policeman tossed them both into his car and took them to jail. (They did rock the house the following evening). That's two of Austin's finest players arrested. That's two HBR members -- two down, four to go. Well, several concerned artists, including myself, aren't planning to wait for more arrests. We feel it's time to address this issue.
Music brings millions of dollars into this city annually, and the players contribute greatly to this influx o' dough. Therefore, this city (whose envelopes carry the "Live Music Capital of the World" slogan) has to help in the matter of getting APD to have respect for the players who attract so many people and their dollars to this city.
After speaking with bassist Dylan Jones of Big Game Hunta and poetess Tammy Gomez and hearing their stories of all the musicians they know who have been hassled downtown and on 6th Street specifically (Dylan's been hassled many times unloading his bass gear), myself and several musicians plan to develop a strategy to solve this out-of-control problem. For starters, we are collecting information from players who have been arrested and/or hassled by the police. Please call Cosmic Intuition Productions at (512) 604-4405. Give a little background on your incident and leave a return phone number. It's just like any other situation; if you sit back and do nothing, the BS will grow and prevail. APD and the city needs to hear from the music community, concerned citizens, and music lovers alike on this matter. We all must demand a different treatment than what has been for performing artists and not let this city become (as KAZI reggae DJ Aldia Bluewillow so precisely labeled it) "Live Musician Hassler Capital of the World."
Untitled by Circe
take me back
scent of salt air
4 o'clock breeze
certain as tides
Come...Sail the Bay
sudden wrenching over
of sleek varnished hull
sails fill...billow,.. pull...
slicing thru rippling waves
winds carried me
I've never forgotten
I loved it.
Up All Night by Harold McMillan
This is a piece about the high price of living and working in Central City Austin. This is a piece about being a working artist in Downtown Austin, Texas. It was inspired by real life and a recent article in the New York Times. It is not direct and to the point. Life, and this piece, in my view, are not that clear-cut. My life, at least, is multi-layered and complex and is not easily read from one angle. History matters. The future, ways to approach the next phase, are important and must be informed with some thought of how we got to the present. In short, this is a ramble. Go with me on this, please.
I am not the kinda guy who spends a lot of time talking about the good old days of Austin past. I've been here for about 18 years now. I like this town, I am invested here. Austin has a lot that appeals to me, on a number of different levels. I now consider Austin my home. But to sit and bitch about the passing of the old days, about how good life used to be here, to pine away about how old time Austin was soooooo cooooool -- nope, that ain't me.
I do, however, have big concerns about where we are now and what the future holds.
I don't spend a lot of time trying to bring back the good old days because, let's face it, 18 years ago I was a kid (many of you were kids with me, too). I'm not ever going to be, nor do I want to be, 20 again. I had a good time then. And yes, Austin was really a cool place to live. To tell you the truth, it probably was a cooler place to live back then. But reality still says (I do too), that we will never pass that way again. Nekkid swimmin' at the lake, dope smoking on Auditorium Shores, and other 1980s-style normal-ness left Austin when Texas Republicans came out of the closet -- and, for some of us, as soon as we turned 30.
So, I still say, I am not the one to call on to go public and tell my stories about just how cool Austin was in the free love 1970s and '80s. Lets just say we all had a good time, raised a lot of hell, didn't make much money, and didn't pay high rents for the privilege of living in the Central East Austin, Clarksville, Hyde Park, Travis Heights, or Cherrywood neighborhoods.
You see, back then, these neighborhoods were student ghettos, poor "minority neighborhoods," communities of artists and musicians and working-class neighbors with kids. The climbers, the up-and-comers, the high-tech middle managers, the YUPPIES and BUPPIES were all heading out to the 'burbs, driving fast in their Volvo station wagons, 2.1 kids in the back, running away from "inner-city poverty and neglect" and the public school's grimy masses of "at-risk" kids.
It was boom-time in Central Texas. New business starts all over the place, 10-story-tall construction cranes littered the downtown skyline, and the newly moneyed wanted nothing more than a nice little house in West Wells Lake Steiner Branch Lago Ranch. You know, the close - to - six - figure - but - not - quite income-restricted security gate - and - walled - down - home family kinda neighborhood that we all grew up in, just north of Dallas/West of Houston. The message, and it was clear, was that the inner-city neighborhoods should be left for the poor and the boo - hoo - student - artist - musician types.
And we were quite happy in those neighborhoods. The landlords would not fix the bad plumbing, but what do you expect for $250 a month. Life was good.
And downtown? Well, just let the prostitutes and street people have it. After all, Downtown Austin after 5 p.m. (in, say, 1979) was no place for proper folks who believe in God, vote Republican, wear a suit and work nine-to-five. Downtown Austin in 1979 was where you worked, did your banking, and paid your taxes. Downtown was where the clean sidewalks rolled up at 5 p.m. to make room for the seedy underbellies of the city's night crawlers to leave their slime.
By the mid-1980s Downtown Austin was touted as the next -- for sure, by god -- jewel in the Texas crown of beautiful and lively city centers. Boom-time had arrived and the building frenzy was upon us. It seemed that every corner had a new high-rise going up, way up: New office space for the coming commercial surge that would bring Downtown Austin to the forefront of the time's petroleum-fueled economic bonanza. Life was good.
With all of this big money working -- and working hard -- in Central City Austin, the city fathers and a handful of entrepreneurs decided that maybe it was time, for starters, to clean up Sixth Street. After all, the crown jewel of Texas' little cities needed a downtown entertainment district.
Now to some folks' thinking, Sixth and Seventh Streets and Congress Avenue were already pretty entertaining. Believe it or not, in those days, the prostitutes and transvestitutes worked Sixth and Seventh Streets, Congress Avenue. You could hear black blues and Mexican squeeze box music on Sixth Street. You could also hear W.C. Clark with Bill Campbell and Major Burkes at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel, indulge in an Oriental Massage at the Cowboy, buy a $1 pint of beer at Brooks, get a good greasy BBQ sam'itch for two bucks at Scotty's, and pawn your guitar right next door to the Twin's liquor store. It wasn't pretty, but there was life downtown. It was just not what the boom-time visionaries had in mind. Still, life was good.
What Sixth Street, what downtown needed was some polish. What nighttime downtown needed was some more businesses that somehow could match the sensibilities of the new urban frontier visionary (read: greedy guy with some money, who wanted some more, fast. Or young guy/girl with daddy's money who had a dream of financial success in the music business). What downtown needed, apparently, were more establishments that moved further and further away from the cultural reality of the district in which they proposed to do business: a business district, created in rarefied whitebread air, that would reflect the aspirations of the creators of this imaginary golden and sparkling new downtown, rather than the cultural heritage of the city that we all find so attractive (and they wonder why it ain't working. Don't they get it?).
So what did downtown really get from the 1980s, what is the legacy of these urban visionaries?
The boom economy went bust. All of those high-rises sat vacant for 10 years. There was a period of really cheap downtown commercial and residential space. The prostitutes who worked downtown are still there, they are just higher-priced call girls. The street-walking prostitutes and transvestitutes now work East 11th Street and South Congress. Increased rents killed the black blues and Mexican squeeze box joints, the original Antone's, and other spots that actually gave the district an identity that was particular to Austin.
We've mostly got a strip of Sixth Street joints that don't even bother to attempt a connection to Austin's indigenous (ain't that really where the tourist dollar is?) culture. Except for a few, the average Sixth Street music venue has had about six different names/owners during the course of the last 10 years. And there are still some who confuse smooth with the real jazz stuff, lounge with anything close to the tradition, and many who equate cigars and martinis with a scene that has staying power to last through the current YUPPIE fad.
Now, am I the only one who finds this whole situation a little disturbing? Not just for my personal reasons, but for the future, the health of downtown, the scene here in River City? Does this stuff really run in cycles? Are they just setting themselves up for the next crash, the next change of the fickle consumer's taste? Or is this just where we are headed next? Maybe the cigar set has moved in for good. Maybe the soul of downtown has already been sold to the highest bidders.
Am I just ignoring my own take on all of this? If the goal is to take advantage of the latest fad, put the money in the bank and then get out of the market, maybe this all makes sense. Probably just a symptom of my view that some downtown development, the music venues, and even the cafes would do better if they acted as if they were cultural/commercial institutions.
It's not always pretty, but San Antonio sells its cultural heritage to hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. So does Chicago and New Orleans (and Lafayette and Atlanta and San Francisco). Austin ain't no remake of Athens or Seattle or North Dallas. Why not make a big deal of what Austin really is? Why not sell the cultural heritage with which we are blessed? Why not tell the truth?
Downtown Austin, and the central city neighborhoods that surround it, are cool because of the influence of salt - of - the - earth, laid-back and tolerant, civic-minded, progressive thinking folks who have lived and worked here for years. Central city neighborhoods are desirable places to live because of the legacy of the aforementioned folks who color the cultural personae of those communities. They are the ones who stuck around and nurtured those neighborhoods while the YUPPIES and BUPPIES headed for the hills during the 1980s. They are the ones who have always thought downtown should be the cultural center, the soul of the city.
The New York Times article I mention earlier made me think about present-day Downtown Austin. It may seem strange for me to compare Manhattan to Central Austin, but the parallel is there. The housing market in Central Austin is just a smaller model of what is going on in the Big Apple.
If rents continue to rise, if home ownership continues to be just a dream for regular folks, if non-high-tech wages continue to be thousands of dollars less than comparable wages in other markets, living in Central Austin, as in New York, will soon be a thing that only students, the wealthy or the poor can afford or tolerate.
Middle-class working folks with a kid or two will soon be the next group who are forced to live further and further away from downtown. It won't matter how much they love the city, rents have doubled in the last 10 years. Their pay checks haven't.
Verities by Grace McEvoy
Due to hormonal changes, pregnancy is among other things a very inarticulate time in a woman's life. It is common for women to become forgetful and scatter-brained, finding it difficult to form sentences and express ideas clearly. I am having this experience and it seems like my neurons are being forced to fire through some kind of viscous prenatal goo. Sometimes I just avoid conversation altogether and yet I have agreed to write about what it is like to be pregnant.
Harold and I are having a baby next month. The first indication that I was with child was at dinner last August when Harold pointed out that I was eating more than usual, and how good it was because in his estimation I don't normally eat enough. I thought nothing of it. He mentioned that and other increases several times over the next couple of weeks and I continued to think nothing of it. Even after I told him I was feeling sick to my stomach and he told me I was pregnant for the fourth or fifth time, I still didn't think so. So much for women's intuition. It finally clicked that Sunday afternoon of my first nauseous episode when I realized that I felt sick and I really wanted some spaghetti at the same time. I had a bowl of cereal. I suddenly felt fine. I decided to take a home pregnancy test. The test takes a few agonizing minutes, which I spent watching a news program and paying little attention to what they were saying. I waited an extra few minutes to make sure it was good and done. Then with a great deal of trepidation, anticipation, and bravery, I walked back to the bathroom. I hesitated at the door. What if it is. What if it isn't. I managed to look at the test and, gasping, I put my hand over my mouth. Two pink lines, oh my God. What does that mean? I forgot. I had to read the directions again. Two pink lines, one vertical and one horizontal, means the test is positive. I paced around the living room for a while. I'm a photographer so I went and got my camera. I put the stick test on the bathroom floor and took a couple of pictures of it. I put the camera on self-time and took a couple of pictures of myself. They are very fuzzy photographs.
I have been through many of the typical things pregnant women go through. Backaches, morning sickness, wayward emotions, and joyful anticipation. I am taking prenatal yoga and aerobics classes, which are a great help with back pain and edema. We are taking childbirth classes where we see videos of women giving birth every week. They used to make me cry but I am getting tough. We are learning labor positions and breast feeding techniques. The apartment is filling up with baby things and there are books and magazines about childbirth and parenthood taking up surfaces. We are investigating childcare and pediatricians and thinking of new ways to have a social life when we become parents. I am ready for this to happen.
With four weeks to go until my due date the most challenging part of pregnancy is upon me. Here are some facts. I have gained 35 pounds, my belly is 39 inches around, I have gone from a size B to a size D bra and I do not recognize my butt as my own. The baby grows the most during the last trimester. A belly I thought could not possibly get any bigger is expanding every day. The burden is getting to be too much. My feet and hands are swelling. I have changed some responsibilities at work to cut down on standing up. Sleep has become a challenge because of the extra weight. It feels as though I am being pushed down into the bed and I keep flipping from side to side and putting pillows here and there and waking Harold to ask him to move over and give me a little more room. Getting out of bed requires scooting belly first to the edge of the bed and then bringing my legs around to the floor. I hold on to the night stand until I can stand up straight and walk like a duck to the bathroom.
The baby's limbs are much more defined now and the movement is more dramatic. I can watch a foot or an elbow or knee pass across my belly and I can see that this child is much bigger now. As its quarters close in, the baby is becoming squirmy and I sense it is ready to come out and join the rest of us. Because Harold seems to inspire so much movement and activity, I think the baby really likes its daddy. It might be all the kissing, rubbing, and pushing on my belly but even Harold's hand just resting there sets off a great deal of response. They play a little game when a body part is poking out on my tummy, Harold pushes it and the baby moves it and Harold pushes it again and it moves again and so on. They already have a good relationship.
At this point I am not at all anxious, just very curious and excited and very ready for this to happen.
Well, my first thought was that I'd let Grace write this one and then I'd reply in the May issue, after our little one has arrived. More thought moved me to just put a little tag on Grace's piece.
Truth is, I have a hard time meeting my own deadline when things are normal for me. Assuming that I will have the time (or interest) to meet a writing deadline two weeks after I've become a dad for the first time seemed like folly. Even now, just trying to do a couple hundred words on the biggest even in my young life -- father-to-be-hood -- just inspires scrambled sentences and long-winded monologues.
The thing is, the scrambled sentences and over-verbose explanations are fueled by the deepest connection to my heart as I have ever felt. I am excited and scared and happy and scared and serious and scared and ready to embark on the most significant phase of adulthood as I've yet experienced.
As soon as we found out that Grace was pregnant, I started telling everyone that WE are pregnant.
What have I learned so far?
Men, make no mistake, WE don't get pregnant. Our women do. There is no way on earth that the average guy could handle the enormous changes -- emotional, physical, spiritual -- that women are hardwired to handle. We couldn't cut it, no way, nope, not at all.
If you believe in a God, know that your God had some inside information on that one.
And if you do have a God, give lots of thanks for mothers. We would not be here without them.
[Hayes McMillan was born at 12:50am on 19 April 1998: 20 and a half inches, 7 pounds, 14 ounces of all blues!]