June - July 2000
Volume 6 Number 1
Table of Contents
Capoeria is part folk-dance, part game, and part martial art. But the essence of what Capoeira really is remains elusive.
Copwatch is a grassroots organization which seeks to curb police brutality by confronting it as it occurs in the streets.
Only the universe knows who I really am or who you really are. But, through "Earth Lessons," we can discover our divine selves together.
Still two years away from its long-overdue $10.9 million makeover into Austin's world-class Center for Mexican-American Cultural Arts, 600 River Street is even now a hub of activity.
I wondered to what degree the modern art of a country whose apartheid policies kept it in constant turmoil and isolated from cultural centers would be provincial in nature, and I was curious as to what subjects post-apartheid artists would address.
Free Radio Austin is an ever-changing collective of individuals, dedicated to reclaiming the "people's property": our public airwaves.
As opposed to creating musical spaces in which to work in performance (as is typically the task of the composer in improvised music), classical music is almost invariably thoroughly composed from beginning to end. In any case, this seems like a rather challenging undertaking.
That's right, no more cheering just for the boys playing sports. These girls (and some boys) are cheerleaders for the revolution.
Rob Halverson breathes soul. He oozes the stuff. There were points at his Cactus Cafe record release shindig where he and his rockified Americana big band,
Financed in part by the French behemoth CIBY 2000 and Serbian television (closely tied to Milosevic's regime), Underground reared its impish little head right smack in the middle of the Bosnian war: a ten-hour-plus miniseries trimmed down to three hours for Cannes and awarded the Palme d'Or, well before the Dayton accords.
Pretty much everyone there agrees that jazz is or should be more of a cultural/artistic/commercial big deal in communities across America and around the world.
This new section, "Word on the Street" is dedicated to uncensored dialogue by people who do care, who don't care about admitting they care, who think that "It All" might not be all that we're capable of.
The Call of the Berimbau by Damon Stith
What is Capoeira? This is a common question asked by both participants and spectators of this exotic import from Brazil. Capoeria is part folk-dance, part game, and part martial art. But the essence of what Capoeira really is remains elusive.
What seems to get lost in all the debate about defining Capoeira is that it makes very strong political statements about the oppressive Brazilian society in which it was developed. Since its beginning, Capoeria has faced oppression. It has endured both the persecution of its practitioners and general disregard for its cultural importance.
It is not surprising that the philosophy behind Capoeira is rooted in deception. There is a saying that goes, "Never trust a Capoeirista." In fact, a Capoeirista is taught to expect a double-cross at any moment during a jogo (a game or match). This kind of teaching reflects the harsh injustices that the oppressed faced daily. Traditionally, the Capoeirista was a street-smart rogue whose passion for fighting was balanced by his poetic heart and troubadour qualities. Capoeiristas' only companions were their fellow Capoeiristas, because they had also answered the call of the berimbau and of life.
Capoeira Da Rua (the school), focuses on the fighting aspect of the art and its African roots. We walk the delicate balance between an effective martial art and a rich Afro-Diasporic cultural expression. For us, Capoeira can be used to offer children a sense of pride and self-worth.
Why do we believe Capoeira can do this for children? First of all, Capoeria is in a format that children can easily understand: music and dance. Secondly, Capoeria emphasizes community and cooperation. For example, although most people recognize Capoeria by its breathtaking acrobatics or its spectacular exhibitions of strength, Capoeira is not complete without a roda (a ring of people where Capoeria is played) and the sounds of the berimbau (a musical bow), the drums, and singing.
Through Capoeria, American youth are offered a dance-driven vehicle for relating to the struggles of the black people who invented the form. Apart from its physical benefits, Capoeira is rich in history and traditions rooted in Africa. As an art, Capoeira can bring people of diverse backgrounds together because it speaks to us in the ancient language of community and shared suffering.
Copwatching by Billy O'Leary
Copwatch is a grassroots organization which seeks to curb police brutality by confronting it as it occurs in the streets. Its goals include educating the public on their rights when dealing with the police, documenting police behavior with video cameras as a means of discouraging misconduct, encouraging people to settle their differences without the help of the police, and encouraging accountability through community control of the police.
Copwatch bases its outreach program on the Arts & Revolution concept that artistic expression plays an important role in all aspects of our lives, including political education. By incorporating art into demonstrations, groups can make political themes more accessible to people who are unfamiliar with activism. Street theater, giant puppets, banners, juggling, fire-eating, dance, and music are all ways that groups incorporate artistic expression into their work.
In addition to weekly patrols of heavily policed areas, Austin Copwatch programs a bi-monthly radio show on KOOP Radio, coordinates and participates in demonstrations, and organizes educational presentations for Austin citizens.
Video is by far the most important media available to Copwatch. The presence of a camera during weekly patrols discourages violation of a person's rights while documenting police conduct, good or bad. Street skits and puppet shows also present alternative methods of empowerment, as members act out various models for interaction with police. Performative instruction brings the immediacy of issues to the audience and encourages them to become involved.
Through humor, comedy skits relieve the tensions arising from the ambiguities of police authority. At a recent courthouse demonstration, for example, Copwatch began an impromptu performance critiquing the criminal justice system. A judge stood on a retaining wall with a giant gavel, while two rogue police officers who committed mock felonies against onlookers were brought to court and acquitted or handed down misdemeanors.
While signs are the most obvious form of expression at demonstrations, giant puppets -- operated by multiple people -- are also effective in getting a point across. For the organization's first anniversary, Austin Copwatch members constructed papier-mâché marionettes to put on an awareness-raising puppet show based on the fairy tale Peter and the Wolf. Officer Harry Wolfe meets Pato, a young Chicano, and Peter, a young African-American male. When Peter sees his friend Pato gunned down, he draws on his legal savvy and wit to bring the Wolfe to justice. Peter succeeds and the officer is taken to jail in a procession of outraged demonstrators.
If you would like Copwatch to present at your school or community center, or if you would like more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Earth Lessons by Piper Anderson
I am a black woman / poet / singer / journalist / actress / mc / dancer / entrepreneur / hip-hop activist. By digging within the caves of my own earthly existence, I find new definitions to describe me. Every day I learn a new title for myself. But really, none of my chosen titles can ever describe the essence of what I was created to be. Only the universe knows who I really am or who you really are. But, through "Earth Lessons," we can discover our divine selves together.
Just the other day I discovered that I was a columnist. I was flipping through the pages of one of my least favorite hip-hop publications, scheming on how to get a piece published within its male-ego-saturated pages, when I noticed that they had a new column written by "Ms. Chickenhead." Yes, they finally give a sista a chance to represent and speak her words, and it comes straight out the beak of Ms. Chickenhead. Angry -- but not at all surprised -- I threw the publication back on the shelf thinking to myself that they'd never give me or any other sista a column because that might be a threat to their monopoly of testosterone.
Fast forward: a week later I'm meeting with Harold McMillan, the publisher of Austin Downtown Arts Magazine, about the possibility of writing for him. He mentioned in passing that I could write a monthly column. Instantly "Ms. Chickenhead" and a million other images and reflections of women that don't look or sound anything like me flashed across my mind. I can see writing Ms. Chickenhead into oblivion -- challenging her air-head mentality to a dual with my cosmic insight and sharp intellect bred through years of combining book-learning with life-teachings. No offense to Ms. Chickenhead, but I do not have the luxury of allowing caricatures of femininity to be drawn without my lifting a pen in protest. Not when there are little girls watching me perform, reading what I write, and probing my every move, hoping to find clues for defining themselves in a world that provides few positive examples of womanhood.
"Earth Lessons" is dedicated to all the boppers, bitches, and b-girls worldwide who are searching for new definitions of self. It's written for anyone interested in a unique perspective -- the antithesis of Ms. Chickenhead. Yeah, that's me.
But I guess you're wondering what the science behind the title is. Well, a few years ago while kickin' it with some male friends, I heard one of them use the term "Earth Lessons." Earth, in the context of their conversation, was a woman. It's just like any other slang title given to women: queen, bitch, chick, pigeon, chickenhead. This guy was saying that he was teaching his girlfriend how to be an Earth.
Being a black woman who has never experienced these lessons, I was very curious as to how this man thought he could teach this female how to be a real woman. I asked him what made him think he was qualified to teach her these "Earth Lessons." Immediately, he jumped on the defensive and challenged my intentions in questioning him. The conversation was dismantled, but I have a feeling that in spite of his embarrassment he understood my point: the audacity of anyone thinking that they have the power to teach someone who or what they should be. Carter G. Woodson said that we receive two educations in our lives: the one we are given and the one we give ourselves. The latter of the two is the best.
By sharing my Earth Lessons, I hope to create friction on your mental landscape that will incite change, whether that change be rage, disapproval, confusion, or even evolution or revolution. I once heard a writer say, "if it don't agitate, motivate, frustrate, elevate or aggravate, what is the point of saying it?"
Let's get it crunk up in here, set the roof on fyah, cause we ain't got time for passive insistence on the page. Maybe that's why the hip-hop mag gave Ms. Chickenhead a column instead of me -- I'm too much of a trouble maker. Here I am, look out Austin readers, you're in for an earthly adventure.
From one Earth to another.
You know that feeling -- everyone's had it -- when you start doing something again that you haven't done in a while? Maybe you pick up your guitar after a long absence and find out you remember a lot more chords than you thought you would. Maybe you start up an old exercise regime; you renew your YMCA membership and take to working out on what used to be your Stairmaster. Maybe you start dating someone again after a long period of separation, and you remember what makes her laugh, that he always orders Pad Thai even at the best restaurants, the way she picks stray hairs off your shirt when she's preoccupied. The time that lapsed melts away and it feels like coming home again, but with a fresh start, a chance to make it better this time.
This is how it feels at the DiverseArts office where we've been working on this issue of Austin Downtown Arts Magazine. The time since our last issue doesn't really matter, because we're back with a fresh start and a desire to make things better than they've ever been. There are the same familiar columns: "Verities," "Notes From the Woodshed," and "Up All Night." We have the same look, the same ideals, the same distribution locations. We still introduce you to the arts and culture scene in Austin that you always suspected lived beneath the surface of the clinical arts listings you'll find in other print media.
Essentially, we're the same monthly arts and culture magazine you know and love. But we've also initiated a few changes. We've got Piper Anderson, a true neo-Renaissance woman, writing "Earth Lessons," a column about everything-under-the-sun. We're introducing articles on topics so deep in the subculture that you'd be hard-pressed to explain them to your great-aunt Ethel. We also have another new section called "Diversions," which will keep you informed about all the cool arts happenings going on. And we've got some new folks working with us -- including me, Megan McMillan, and no, I'm not related to Harold. The name thing is just a fluke.
We also want to include you, our readers, in our new beginning. In our next issue, we're hoping that you will help us create another new section: "Letters to the Editor." We want to know what you think about this magazine and about the arts scene here in Austin.
We also want to include you, our readers, in our new beginning. In our next issue, we're hoping that you will help us create another new section: "Letters to the Editor." We want to know what you think about this magazine and about the arts scene here in Austin.
Do you think that the art gallery owners in Austin should coordinate show openings like galleries in other major cities do? Do you think that UT has a strangle-hold on culture here in town? Do you think that the arts scene in Austin is too conventional? Too experimental? Too full of praise for Stevie Ray Vaughn and Charles Umlauf?
Let us know what's on your mind by emailing email@example.com with "Letters to the Editor" in the subject line, or you can mail us at: Letters to the Editor, DiverseArts Production Group, 1705 Guadalupe, Suite 234, Austin, Texas, 78701. We'll print the best of the bunch in next month's issue.
We're back. Welcome home. Again.
Fried Potatoes Sent by God by Mike Henry
I was reading a chart on the wall
detailing the nutritional contents
of a Whopper sandwich with cheese
at a Burger King somewhere in the
middle of New Mexico when you
came out of the bathroom and told
me that you had finally got your period.
Your mother was there and she said
congratulations and bought an order
of tater tots to celebrate and I didn't
even mind the unintentional yet
unfortunate pun because it had been
three months since you got your last period and even though there was a pretty
good explanation which was that the
wild yam pills given to you by your
herbologist had contained enough
estrogen to trick your body into thinking it was pregnant for the last twelve weeks,
I had still been a little nervous.
We hugged each other as if for the first time and I somehow wanted to pat you
on the butt and say "good job" like some sort of surreal baseball teammate.
There was an instrumental version of
a Beatles song playing in the lobby but it sounded more like a church hymn to me
and I sang along in my head;
holy, holy, holy, Burger King almighty
and felt pretty high and did a little
dance and thought about all the conversations
we wouldn't have to have just yet and
it was snowing a little when you
held my hand in the parking lot and
we got back in the car to drive to
the airport to fly back to Texas together and I knew that we would have free peanuts
and a coke on the plane and I felt like
the luckiest man alive.
[Mike Henry is Slammaster of the Austin Poetry Slam and currently serves as President of Poetry Slam, Inc., the national Poetry Slam organization. He also plays drums for the Asylum Street Spankers.]
Latino Arts Community Finds a Home by Carlos Garza
Two streets south of Cesar Chavez and just west of Interstate 35, a half-empty lot with a warehouse and a pair of ramshackle, mostly abandoned office buildings has found its way onto Austin's cultural map. Still two years away from its long-overdue $10.9 million makeover into Austin's world-class Center for Mexican-American Cultural Arts, 600 River Street is even now a hub of activity, despite the constant lack of funds endemic to most non-profit arts organization. That it has already begun to provide a space for Latinos in the performing and visual arts testifies to the dedication of the handful of people who finally got the center off the ground.
Of course, considerably more than a handful have contributed their time and effort over the 20 years that the project has been in the works; but busy with their careers, none in the past have been able to devote themselves full-time or stick with it for the requisite year-after-year of paperwork, phone calls, and board meetings.
In 1995, Tomás Salas moved back to Austin after four years in California with El Teatro Campesino (ETC), the nation's most established and historically significant Latino theater group. ETC was established by Luis Valdez as an organizing tool for Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers. Not surprisingly, Salas considers his time with ETC as a seminal experience responsible for heightening his indignation at the comparative state of Latino theater in Austin. In trying to form his own company with his brother, Salas' major setback was not only finding affordable venues in which to rehears and perform, but dealing with what he perseived as indifference and lack of consideration for members of the Austin Latino arts community.
Using a theater which houses its own resident company is replete with inherent limitations for a production, but in one case, when Salas paid $1,200 for a Monday night performance, he arrived at noon to find technicians building a set for another production. Apparently not informed that the stage was rented for the day, they asked Salas if the actors could just work around them until the show. Trying another approach, the company hooked up with a fledgling theater in the midst of converting a warehouse space. In exchange for labor (plumbing, electricity, bathrooms, seating platforms), the theater agreed to provide Salas' group free rehearsal and performance time, only to cancel their show in the middle of its run. They receiving a tempting (read: better paying) rental offer from another company.
Salas and his colleagues eventually realized that they simply would not be a viable company until they could claim their own space.
"After hearing similar stories from other Latino groups I knew there was just no way around it. As long as we continued to perform in places that weren't Latino-owned, we would continue to be treated like the unwelcome stepchild."
Salas inquired about the status of the Mexican-American Cultural Center project and decided to get himself appointed to the task force created by city council, joining other members Cathy Vazquez, Roén Salinas, Delia Perez Mayor, Savino Renteria, Rodney Garza, and Sylvia Orozco. At the time, the main priority was extending the city's soon-to-expire five-year ordinance designating River Street as a future site for the cultural center.
Serving as the Street and Bridge Maintenance and Erosion/Stormwater Control Yard, the site had been chosen by a consulting firm and officially designated for the CMACA in the early 1990s. With the ordinance renewed indefinitely, Salas discovered an additional $50,000 formerly earmarked for the Center and succeeded in having it allocated to the task force. With these funds he filed for non-profit status, budgeted a salary for himself, and went about finding other funding sources.
Since then, Salas has served as the Center's only full-time staff member. He quickly convinced the welder on the lot (who he knew from high school) to allow his warehouse to double as a theater space.
For CMACA's first production, Salas directed his version of "La Pastorella," which follows in the Native-American tradition of revamping the Biblical shepherd's story with dance, comedy, and plenty of flamboyant, indigenous costumes and masks. To stay true to the spirit of quiet resistance and constant adaptation to sensibilities and realties of the group and time, "La Pastorella" often incorporates current Latino issues in a light-hearted manner; in last year's production devils sent to lure Mary and Joseph from Bethlehem and the path of virtue are real estate developers and angels represent displaced communities. Salas put on a decidedly Southern version the first year by using gospel and folk music. In its various incarnations,"La Pastorella" will most likely remain the Center's main staple.
On June 15th, the city signed the final contract with head architect Teodoro Gonzalez de León. An internationally respected architech, de León is responsible for half a century's worth of landmark buildings, amoung them the Rufino Tamayo Museum and the Criminal Justice Center in Mexico City.
In addition to performance spaces, CMACA plans on developing an education curriculum that includes visual art, theater, dance, literature, music, multi-media, stage and lighting design, and even culinary arts. Since it has committed to financial independence, the Center also aims to create revenue generators such as a restaurant and book shop.
Since the City relocated all of the lot's former occupants, Salas now is concentrating on improving existing facilitiest. In the warehouse, the floor has been painted a bright red-orange, the walls lined with black felt, and sound and lighting equipment installed. Since the last "La Pastorella," the Center put on an average of three shows a month, including Dance Umbrella's production of "Buto," the Cine Las Americas Film Festival, and People's Power Celebration (a coalition of UT activist groups).
Oddly enough, for someone who devoted five grueling years to the CMACA, Salas wants no part in running the Center once it is fully established. He would rather be among the many community artists to put on shows there in the future.
"From the beginning, I've made it clear that I don't want to be the permanent director of the Center. My dream has always been to make sure our Latino community has access to state-of-the-art facilities for any kind of cultural activity...because the fact is, we've always had to settle for run-down or outdated spaces and equipment. My main concern for now, and the next two years, is keeping the Center as busy as possible, letting everyone know we're already up and running, and making sure that even though we're available for shows like Japanese "Buto" once in a while, our main priority remains to provide a venue for the Latino arts community."
Letter to Jack Kerouac by Mike Henry
I bet you'd be surprised.
How you are a hero now,
when all you wanted to do
was play football and
love women and
burn trenches down highways
with mad sainted brothers and
reveal your own fevered
observations and creations
into the sinews
of the muscles
of long, serpentine sentences
that seemed like they
would never end,
just like this poem.
Just like your life.
It's thirty years now, Jack.
And we know it.
Are you surprised?
You started in boots that
tramped happy with hobos and
ended in sandals
shuffling a beat
to your buddhist prayers
as you got fat and
drank yourself to death
like a good american,
the stain of your life
still on your hands,
like your fathers palms
showed the shadows of ink,
india black, from printing presses.
I want my hands to be
stained like that, Jack.
Marked with the work
of my life, so I can hold
them before my face
when I am dying and see it.
I want to say thank you, Jack.
are you surprised?
I want to do as well as you,
and stay as humble.
Do you know there is a
Gap commercial about
how you wore tan pants?
I'm sorry about that.
[Mike Henry is Slammaster of the Austin Poetry Slam and currently serves as President of Poetry Slam, Inc., the national Poetry Slam organization. He also plays drums for the Asylum Street Spankers.]
"Liberated Voices" at the Austin Museum of Art by Sean Denmark
First assembled at New York's Museum for African Art, "Liberated Voices: Contemporary Art from South Africa," is currently visiting the downtown gallery of the Austin Museum of Art. The exhibit's curator, Frank Herreman, aimed for a representation of the breadth of South African art since the end of apartheid in 1994. I wondered to what degree the modern art of a country whose apartheid policies kept it in constant turmoil and isolated from cultural centers would be provincial in nature, and I was curious as to what subjects post-apartheid artists would address.
I found that some artists, like Claudette Schreuders, have turned South Africa's situation -- and the clash between white or European culture and native African culture -- to their advantage, while the introversion of the installations of Bridget Baker and Brett Murray and the video assemblage by Penny Siopis came across as evasive. Feelings of guilt and the subject of race are threaded through these personal reminiscences.
Sue Williamson's subject is openly political to great success in her "Truth Games Series." These works combine words and images related to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the organization charged by the South African government in 1996 to address human rights violations during apartheid. In each work, there are three images: a grieving survivor, a possible aggressor, and a dead victim in the middle. Fragments of images and words of those who grieve and those who defend themselves are on plastic pieces that can be slid to cover any of the three images; this is the "game" referred to in the title. Accusational words can be sent from one side to the other. To see one person's image, the images of the others must be covered. This is a portrayal of a process that was long, painful, and confusing for all of South Africa and which, to many, offered insufficient closure. Americans will find the subject familiar. Most affecting about the series is that when all the words that overlay the people are cleared away, all that is underneath is a poor grainy photo which reveals nothing of the person's true character or culpability.
Zwelethu Mthethwa's series of photographs of residents in their small makeshift houses in Cape Town is determined to establish the dignity of its subjects. Mthethwa's method is to explain his intentions to those he photographs and allow them to prepare for the camera, making them collaborators in presenting their image. The subjects brace themselves against the camera and face it, not posing but simply showing themselves. The approach and effect are strikingly similar to Walker Evans' photographs of Southern sharecroppers in James Agee's 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
The combinations of wood, cloth, pigment, found objects, and other materials in the works of Sandile Zulu, Samson Mnisi, and Thabiso Phokompe are the pieces most obviously influenced by traditional African art and crafts -- but the effects are sadly tawdry. The range of education, not only between artists but throughout many of their individual careers, is remarkable, and the perseverance the black artists maintained to receive a fine arts education during apartheid is admirable. This variety of experiences seems to have opened Phokombe to a personal style of abstraction where objects are boldly presented on open fields of cloth, creating an interplay of background and foreground.
Claudette Schreuders combines African and Western carving techniques to narrative and figurative effect in her two-foot-high wooden statues. Among these eerie painted dolls is "Lokke," a dramatically lit school girl standing on her desk with -- like all of Schreuders' faces -- an unreadable and haunting expression. The artist makes a simple message insultingly obvious in "Speel Speel," where four white "Children of the Damned" play with a black caricature of a cloth doll.
"The Hero" deals with race and many other concerns more subtly, becoming more symbolic and more personal. It depicts Schreuders' father as a stocky and self-contained young man, sitting astride a leopard, who has left home to make his fortune in Africa. It's a Horatio Alger success story, but the story satisfies only if the colonial system on which it is founded, where whites benefit at the expense of Africa, is ignored. The leopard, unseen by the boy, bares his teeth in anger. The Hero's seat of power is actually unstable, even dangerous. One way of justifying colonialism is to incorporate the natives into nature, such as Conrad making the attacking Africans and the banks of the Congo into one integrated experience in "Heart of Darkness." The leopard may represent the blacks exploited by colonialism in South Africa or any of the other unmentionable aspects of the hero's success, like African natural resources or his own attitudes or social position. It is unsettling that the identity of the leopard does not seem to matter to the story.
Another means of justifying colonialism is to smooth over complexities and wrongs and pretend that master and servant live harmoniously. Schreuders sets the viewer up for that easy pretense, because these dolls are cute, but the leopard's expression disrupts the effect. Her concerns and deep feelings for her father shine through in the work, and the viewer feels her personal connection to the Hero while sharing her distrust toward his actions and his neat story.
Many of the effects of "The Hero" are achieved by its uniform painted surface, but the sadness of both Schruders' "Ma-Trix" and "Marky-Boy" is emphasized by incorporation of wood grains or various imperfections in the wood into the work. Each of the faces and expressions in her "Three Sisters" is similar, yet all are completely individual. Her medium, stocky, wood dolls may at first seem unsuited to complex expression, but her technical command is a delight.
Mbongeni Richman Bethelezi may not have mastered his distinctive medium, but it is even more fun than Schreuders': he arranges and melts thousands of shreds of plastic-wrapper litter into what almost resemble paintings. The resulting surface is surprisingly flat but varied, and the images are enjoyable riots of color that range freely between figurative and abstract art. Bethelezi buys nothing to create these works, and it is a relief -- given the morose introspection of many of the white artists on racism in their personal histories -- to see an artist examine some other current political and social concern. His medium addresses not only pollution, but poverty and social conditions. It also seems to address how post-apartheid lives are assembled from the huge variety of clashing cultures of South Africa.
So, while much of the work in "Liberated Voices" does seem provincial, Schrueders and Phokompe revert to older forms to express very different but very modern messages. Bethelezi and Mthethwa employ poverty-stricken surroundings that celebrate and give dignity. There is no unifying theme to the exhibit, but the clash of cultures in South Africa does inspire new personal expression, and several different currents and commonalties that exist between the artists represented. The range of technical and thematic expression, only slightly different from that which we find in our own country, will strike chords in American audiences.
"Liberated Voices" runs through August 13 at the Austin Museum of Art located at 823 Congress. General admission is $3, seniors and students $2, and Thursdays admission is $1. Call 495-9224 or visit their website for more information.
A Message about the Free Radio Movement by Reckless
Free Radio Austin is an ever-changing collective of individuals, dedicated to reclaiming the "people's property": our public airwaves.
The Free Radio Movement came about as a reaction to large media comgolmerates accelerated push to acquire formerly independent newspapers, radio, and television outlets. The stranglehold of these media giants has made broad access to radio airwaves all but impossible for voices other than those supported by the dollar votes of huge corporate chains and other holders of fat advertinsing budgets. Some would argue that commercial radio broadcasting has become nothing more than a vehicle to deliver us to advertisers. And, given the hands that feed these guardians of the public interest, it is unthinkable that your local CBS affiliate, for instance, will ever really challenge established notions of mainstream thought, politics, nor threaten their shareholders' interests. These are the threats to free speech/open air waves that spawned the Free Radio.
The anarchist Mmbana Kantako of Black Liberation Radio is considered the Grandfather of Free Radio. Since the Federal Communications Commission has not offered any license for FM stations under a hundred watts of power since the early 1970's, the right to operate small, locally-run community stations has been denied. But Kantako, despite harassment by local and federal authorities, has for years broadcast interesting, eclectic, political and positive programming for his disenfranchised community in Springfield, Illinois.
Citizen access to the air waves is supposedly gurananteed by law, yet lobbying interests (such as the National Association of Broadcasters) work hard to keep access away from the general public and in the hands of media giants such as Viacom, CBS, Time-Warner, and Disney, who now own over 40% of the market.
What about regulation? Before the passing of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, it was illegal for an individual or company to own more than 11% of the broadcast market. This act, that affects public access so drastically, was passed behind closed doors.
What is the threat of such huge chunks of ownership by just a few players? By controlling the airwaves, these untouchable media giants will continue to make even deeper inroads into the public mind, spreading the gospell of consumerism over all else, shutting out other positive messages that might be offered up by those who value free speeach and diversity of thought. It is safe to say that media conglomerates' control of most of America's air waves reduces the chance of and makes it harder for unpopular, noncomercial, non-mainstream thought, speech, music, cultural discourse will find a spot on your local dial. The Federal Communications Commission is mandated to insure that broadcast media operate "in the public interest, convenience, and necessity." Given that control of the Commission is political by nature, it doesn't take long to catch on: defining public, interest, convenience, and necessity are all part of a much larger political reality that simply does not include those who can't come up with the dollar votes necessary to offer input.
With the recent passing of the laughably titled Radio Preservation Act, Congress has sent the message that there will be no low power FM regulation. This leaves the activists and artists who have been struggling to reclaim the airwaves with few other choices but to continue the civil disobedience thatbrought this issue to the brink of legalization. The tactics of the FCC, NAB and Congress suggest that they have no interest in facilitating the public's quest for empowermen,t truth, and diversity that micro-community stations offer.
Free Radio does give the people a forum where they can express and debate political ideas and share music or poetry. At Free Radio Austin 97.1 FM, there are over 100 programmers who do one or two-hour shows every week. This diverse mix is something you will not find on any other station in Austin. Free Radio Austin is run collectively by the programmers themselves, not a paid board of directors. The programmers are the station and are responsible to, and comprised of folks from, the community to which it broadcasts.
Ben Franklin once said, "Necessity knows no laws." As Free Radio stations all across the country continue to flourish, offering vehichels for communities to be involved, active participants in deciding what comes out over the air waves, the importantance of the simple issue of access become very clear. There has to options that allow direct grassroots community control of local media outlets. Free Radio is one way to get there.
Long Live Free Radio! We will not be silenced!
Notes from the Woodshed by Tom Benton
As a musician who is bold enough to refer to himself as an "improviser," I've always maintained a curious relationship with classical music -- one based on admiration, intimidation, and a heavy dose of ignorance. Hopefully, admiration of beauty for its own sake requires the least explanation, while intimidation is fueled by consideration of the actual act of composition. As opposed to creating musical spaces in which to work in performance (as is typically the task of the composer in improvised music), classical music is almost invariably thoroughly composed from beginning to end. In any case, this seems like a rather challenging undertaking. The idea of cobbling together something on the scale of a symphony, for instance, is mind-boggling. And last comes ignorance: I can tell you some things that I like and, upon hearing something, can offer an opinion that doesn't involve the phrase "just because." But at the same time, I remain woefully in the dark about a cohesive historical picture of this music. For an admitted music geek to not be able to tell you in what century an artist he enjoys lived is not a pretty thing.
This is all complicated, of course, by the assorted cultural trappings being hoisted upon classical music as pop culture moves progressively towards entertainment that demands the absolute least mental engagement possible from its audience. Living composers labor away in the halls of academia (gangs of composers all sitting around composing for each other), while the works of the great masters are presented as overblown spectacles where the well-groomed crowd might not even know (or particularly care) what they're listening to. And since your intrepid pinch-hitting columnist really can't keep up with what's going on at the UT Recital Studio and scoffs at the notion of actually tucking in his shirt, whatever is he to do? Why, go down to a funky East Austin warehouse/artspace, 22 ounce Heineken in hand, and listen to some chamber music, dammit.
Such was the scene at the Off-center for the third installment of what I'll tentatively dub "The Golden Hornet Classical Series." The collaboration began, as best I can understand it, with Graham "Golden Arm" Reynolds and Peter "Brown Whornet" Stopschinski both trying to impress women by going on and on about the string quartets they were working on and at some point calling each other's bluff, as neither of them were doing any such thing. Coming clean and getting down to business, each of them composed a handful of pieces which were capably rendered at a successful show at the Hyde Park Theater by the Tosca String Quartet last fall. At this point, the pair opted to simply leap-frog over the chamber and ensemble concerts they had hypothesized and go straight for symphonies. And earlier this spring, Symphony invaded the Scottish Rite Temple and several hundred Austinites were fortunate enough to witness the world premieres of two powerful new works.
At the Off-center, a disparate gang of new faces were in on the fun: the evening featured premieres by both Reynolds and Stop as well as Carolyn Crimona of Brown Whornet, Paul Ahern of Viperhorse, Sean Crapo of the Blacklight Bassoon Ensemble, and Erik Hokkanen of the Snow Wolves. With the audience on tiered risers surrounding the center of the room, the space was dominated by the musicians, who sprawled across the floor like the most curiously instrumented pit orchestra in the world: the Tosca String Quartet, the Blacklight Bassoon Ensemble, vibraphonist Laura Phelan, bassist Erik the Butcher, and clarinetist Emily Zizza.
The evening began with the aptly-titled "Rockin'," the first of Reynolds' two pieces for bassoon quartet, which was followed by Stopschinski's plaintive soundtrack to "American Stalag," for string quartet, bass, and vibraphone. Though the remainder of the evening would be dominated by the works of the two ringleaders, impressive showings were made by all of the composers, made even more impressive by the fact that none of them seemed to have sacrificed any amount of sincerity for the sake of compositional complexity. Whatever the gradient in the levels of compositional skill on display, none of the music seemed anywhere near a tedious compositional exercise. Ahern's "Desperation" felt like exactly that, as Tosca simmered ominously, leaving the audience out in space as they finished the piece just shy of reaching a breaking point.
Naturally, there was a bit of wink-wink-nudge-nudge all over the place; for "Funky VLA," Stopschinski sat down with Tosca, violin in hand, and went to work on it with a guitar pick, while Crimona's "One Night Stand??" for Blacklight including approximately half a bar for mixing bowl and spatula (lovingly played by Graham Reynolds). Meanwhile, Tosca's reading of Erik Hokkanen's "Blues for Jethro" was nothing but total soul. Crapo's two pieces for his own group showcased a serious ear for compositional intricacy as well as his intimate knowledge of the instrument. The evening closed with "Grand Graphic Soundscape #1," composed by Peter and Graham for all eleven musicians; surely a first for this particular instrumentation.
I'm sure I wasn't the only member of the audience wondering what I had just witnessed as I wandered out into the night -- as best I can explain it, the appeal lies in composers and musicians presenting honest music on their own terms, with the finest punk-rock do-it-yourself ethic you've ever seen. Admittedly, sitting in a renovated warehouse with temperamental air-conditioning may not sound like the ideal situation for hearing this music, but when you forget that's where you are and realize that you are in fact really listening to it, then none of your surroundings seem to matter.
At this rate it looks like putting pen to staff paper could turn into some kind of rite of passage for the 21st Century's hip Austin musician. When Paul Klemperer gets back from vacation, he and I are getting to work.
Anyone know 76 trombonists?
Wish us luck.
Radical Cheerleading by Brackin Firecracker
Who doesn't love cheerleaders in the great-sports-state of Texas? Well, how about cheerleaders who have taken the pep and the ra-ra-rah fun of traditional cheerleading to another level -- bringing attention to political and personal issues and causes? That's right, no more cheering just for the boys playing sports. These girls (and some boys) are cheerleaders for the revolution. They call themselves "Radical Cheerleaders," also known in some parts of the country as "jeerleaders" or "queerleaders."
Here in Austin, just over a year and a half ago, a group of interested wimmin came together and started making up their own cheers and performing them in coffee shops, art galleries, demonstrations, and wherever the need presented itself. One of their most crowd-pleasing cheers ends with "beep, beep, beep, take your voice to the streets, ya'll!"
Radical cheerleading is at its very essence guerrilla theater and cultural jamming. Guerrilla theater is agitative and spontaneous social and political commentary that is outside the confines of traditional theater. Cultural jamming is taking a very recognizable cultural emblem and assigning it a new message. The Radical Cheerleaders, who are all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and colors, are reclaiming cheerleading from the standards of fashion-magazine beauty.
Radical Cheerleaders here in Austin have worked closely with the Wimmin's Action Coalition of Austin (WACA) in getting the word out about an "alleged" rapist police officer. At every one of his pre-trials, the Radical Cheerleaders have been represented. Also recently, the Radical Cheerleaders, in conjunction with WACA, took part in Girl's Day, holding a workshop to teach cheers, and co-sponsoring a "cuntceptual" art show where wimmin were invited to present art work representing and depicting their vulvas. The idea was that, by recognizing and sharing our art, we would lose the shame and objectivity that so many associate with this most sacred part of our bodies.
Radical cheerleading is also integral in Art & Revolution,which aligns itself with many groups working toward radical social and political change. Where Art & Revolution creates puppets and flag banners, the Radical Cheerleaders make up cheers, chants, and keep the demonstration fun and exciting. In that respect, radical cheerleading is not so different from traditional cheerleading!
For more information about Radical Cheerleaders, contact Art & Revolution (1-877-340-0311) or the Wimmin's Action Coalition of Austin.
Revolution Poem # 4Million 5Hundred & 62 by Genevieve Van Cleve
The Revolution will be orderly, quiet and systemic. The Revolution will not be birthed by yelling a bunch of tired, old metaphors to people who've heard them before and already buy into the notion that the world needs fixin'. Yelling is often annoying, less often empowering. Yelling takes up space, whereas Revolution moves us to act, lights us to give away pieces of ourselves so that others may suffer less.
The Revolution recognizes that suffering, like healing, has always existed.
Revolutionaries don't have uniforms or time for speech making. After a hard day of necessary labor, revolutionaries go to Unitarian Church basements to teach adult illiterates to read.
Revolutionaries are allowed to smile, laugh, and fall in love. Moreover, they may make mistakes, change their minds, and forgive while still serving The Cause that changes as the needs of others change.
Revolutionaries recognize that families, friends, children, and lovers need attention. That The Cause, however just, does not preclude good night stories, electric bills, and trips to the dentist.
Blind faith alone never healed a sick Christian Scientist. Rabid Devotion never protected the innocent from the lapping flames at Salem or from the IRS. Ego did not build the pyramids or discover how to safely transfuse blood to the injured.
Revolutions require inclusion. A successful revolution has never occurred without both genders, a variety of ethnicities, and a slew of personal faith systems. Revolutions understand the need to proclaim one's own uniqueness and realize once that voice is discovered that it may not be used judiciously.
The Revolution may, indeed, be televised if revolutionaries demanded better programming. Boycotting South Park or Dawson's Creek saved no one and changed nothing.
-- Grandmas who take the time to write letters to advertisers and the Congress
-- Parents who attend to the needs of chil dren
-- Children while playing
-- Lovers while kissing
-- Poets while pontificating
All could be considered revolutionary.
We all are woven well enough to be, at moments, if not revolutionary, extraordinary.
The recognition of possibility, steeped in an understanding of past events and portrayed as hope wrapped in a veneer of respect and honor...well, now that...that is revolutionary.
Revolution is the calming of the mind and soul until they co-exist in quiet repose. Only then may they draw collectively from the energy within and commit acts of compassion, self-healing, and love powerful enough to kiss life into the chapped and bruised lips of an ailing culture.
©1999 Genevieve Van Cleve.
[Genevieve was a member of the Austin Slam Team in 1996 and 1997. She got rave media on her recent tour to Denmark.]
Robinson Ear's Little Whirled of Sound by Tom Benton
Rob Halverson breathes soul. He oozes the stuff. There were points at his Cactus Cafe record release shindig where he and his rockified Americana big band, The Robinson Ear Machine, seemed ready to lift off; the notion that their pure exuberance for the music might be enough to cast aside the laws of physics binding them to earth was not at all implausible.
In contrast to the remarkable production assembled at the Cactus Cafe, the CD itself is a much more home-grown, do-it-yourself affair; given that Halverson handles lead vocals as well as guitars, basses, violin, and most of the keyboards, the only consistent collaborator on the album is percussionist Michael "Thor" Harris. But all the same, Halverson's got a whole gang of talented friends, and he makes ample room for them. Capable instrumentalists from both Austin and New Orleans show up to drop some tasty sounds on select tracks and, of course, the album is not without the Ear Machine's powerhouse chorus (referred to in the album credits as "girly sangers" and "sexy girls," among other titles).
Though all of these passing references to "American music" might hint at some kind of Spankers-style retro affair, Halverson is certainly no old-school purist when it comes to cutting an album. Recorded on 8-track, then dumped to a "big ol' computer," the CD features not only electric guitars and keyboards, but also curious back-masked effects ("She Cares") and a drum machine-propelled ditty "Elephant Butt" that hints at what Ween might sound like if they spent a couple of months woodshedding on bebop records.
Despite Halverson's clever arrangements and inspired production, this album is still very much about the songs: a collection of original tunes where lyric and melody work in tandem to communicate common themes of the human spirit. From the euphoric "Post Depression Rag" to the soulful longing of "Can You See That Angel," Robinson Ear's Little Whirled of Sound is a spiritual musical journey eager to bring you along for the ride.
Why You Must Go to Your Local Video Store Immediately and Wallow in the Slavic Excess of Underground by Carlos Garza
What is it about Balkan wedding music?
Ears not attuned to its haunting arabesque of sound will find the unrelenting layers of wind instruments as airy as filo-dough or as cloying as a hefty piece of baklava. The subtlety of gypsy song lies in that inimitable merging of joy and despair, rendering celebration and lament as different tremolos on the same fluttery chord. In Emir Kusturica's astonishing Serbian-produced film Underground (1995), composer Goran Bregovic fuses the cockiness of Yugoslav brass bands with whimsical, decidedly Hungarian undertones, adding some bass and tightening up the arrangements along the way to produce an intoxicating, gorgeous hybrid. Unlike most attempts at westernizing eastern music, Bregovic in no way compromises the power of the originals.
That same approach applies to the film as a whole, catering to all manner of human impulses and follies -- except Western notions of what this war film should be. Financed in part by the French behemoth CIBY 2000 and Serbian television (closely tied to Milosevic's regime), Underground reared its impish little head right smack in the middle of the Bosnian war: a ten-hour-plus miniseries trimmed down to three hours for Cannes and awarded the Palme d'Or, well before the Dayton accords. At its helm is an internationally renowned Bosnian Moslem director accused of vocally backing Serb nationalists (Kusturica, incidentally, refuses to take a clear political position in his film). One could hardly expect a warm reception.
At a moment when only the standard dead baby/grieving mother fodder could have appropriately startled its viewers into their two-hours' worth of social conscience, Kusturica's gorgeous assault on the senses plunged them into a considerably longer fever dream. The film is all the more disturbing for daring to be extravagantly vaudevillian and more than a little sexy. As is often the case, timing considerably hindered objective appraisal of a complex, visionary work of art that demands multiple viewings. In any case, it arouses anything but objectivity, regardless of its political content.
During the German occupation of Serbia, best friends Marko and Blacky team up to go whoring, engage in all sorts of criminal activity, and kick some Nazi butt. Blacky loves the actress Natalja. Marko has taken an interest in her himself. Natalja loves men, including the incorrigible Franz, for whom she is all too willing to stab her former lover in the back. Unfazed, Blacky ties her up and whips up a lively impromptu wedding ceremony, during which Marko makes his first attempts to vie for her affections. So that he may have her all to himself, Marko convinces a newly incapacitated Blacky (due to a bomb explosion), together with his band of resistance fighters and family members hiding out in his grandfather's basement, that World War II is still raging up until the 1970s. He concocts all sorts of nifty contraptions, parlor tricks, and acrobatic play-acting so that he can keep the community working 'round-the-clock, fabricating arms to be sold on the black market while he and Natalja rise to power under Tito's regime. Yes, all for love.
Of course, in Underground, love is just another natural disaster. Marko refers to it as the reason he embarks on his grand deception and, in his own twisted way, he may actually not be far from the truth. I know I'm indulging in the most typical form of condescension on the part of an imperialist nation with regard to its subject countries, but damn it, after this film, how can I not see the Balkan peoples as vessels of primal instincts and raw emotions?
We can at least wonder about the three principal actors; punctuated by the insolent, luscious brass, their every gesture seems to convey a barely restrained, erotically charged yet often rapacious life force, channeled into Blacky's superhuman feats and endurance, Marco's hypnotic, elegantly burlesque movement, and Natalija's hysterical grace and flighty precision masking a whirlwind of seething rage and resentment. And she looks so good straddling the barrel of a tank. I can't imagine a single American actor in such an intensely physical yet variegated performance. Perhaps the trio can even be said to embody a myth the West has never quite come to terms with: the creative and destructive impulse drawn from a common source.
Not that I want to sound too condescendingly anthropological; the myth cannot but ring true considering our exceedingly hygienic bombing campaign on the heels of certainly the most ridiculous, superfluous, costly, and -- what is truly unforgivable -- thoroughly unsexy political sex scandal in history. While American housewives curled up in bed with Monica's Story, thousands of Serbs undoubtedly made passionate love before being blown to smithereens in the exhilarating doomsday atmosphere.
My reveries are some of the more benign forms of mystification in comparison with the field-day the Western press has enjoyed regarding the former Yugoslavia for the past decade or so. Few cared to delve into the hair-brained rumor that there may have been actual economic factors involved in the Bosnian war, not the least of which includes the consequences of the privatization bonanza after the fall of the Iron Curtain. "Young reformers" and Swiss bank accounts? Starting to sound familiar?
Let us not forget our penchant for furthering the political careers of known criminals in foreign countries. After all, Milosevic wouldn't have gotten where he is in the first place without U.S. support. No need to elaborate on how his crimes seem rather tame for Balkan standards (or how every spineless Western journalist covered up those lulls in inspiration with a fresh bout of officially-condoned Hitler-mongering, thereby cheapening the unique legacy of WWII). The recent NATO campaign shows, if it wasn't already abundantly clear, that the region continues to be a mere playing field for imperialist powers exploiting deep-seated ethnic tensions in the wake of new political alliances so as to intervene and carve up the territories to their advantage.
But then this is hardly news. The interesting thing is that during both Bosnia and Kosovo, as the violence began to spin out of control, we were expected to believe either that Serbia was the new evil empire or that pent-up ethnic tensions could just all of a sudden explode organically. For many, the history of strife in the Balkans made the massacres a periodic, inevitable, utterly baffling event -- a natural disaster which could only be partially elucidated by thorough familiarity with centuries of battles, voluntary and involuntary movements of people, and overlapping of territorial boundaries and ethnic populations.
Here's where Kusturica pulls his most wicked sleight of hand by actually embracing the deterministic view of war, even comparing it to an earthquake in the now-infamous press release, a verbal counterpart to the last scene in Underground. Yet while the West used the idea to exonerate itself from responsibility, Kusturica milks the cyclical view of history for all its lyrical juice, emerging with a sad, hilarious, intensely personal, truly moving portrait of what was lost. He conveys the compassion of any great artist for even his most despicable creations -- for characters painted with such bold strokes that they would have engendered mere caricatures in any other film. And he respects his viewers enough not to expound on the comfortable premise of the inherent impossibility of uniting such ethnically diverse countries. It's no big secret that Tito's regime did remarkably little to really unite the different ethnic groups in Yugoslavia. Like any dictator, he seemed to give no thought to what would happen after his death. But the fact remains that on some level it all worked, and for a long time. In comparison with what was to come, it's hardly surprising that Kusturica makes no attempt to hide his nostalgia for the period even as he savagely lambastes it.
Yet while the point is not to provide any answers, or any real culprits, the film doesn't let Western Europe and the U.S. off the hook easily. In the closing Bosnian segment, three things are made abundantly clear: 1) as in all wars, someone clearly stands to profit; 2) fascism on a grand scale can come back fiendishly disguised; and 3) Europe remains deeply connected in ways no one can fully understand.
Peeved that there was no place in the film to reconfirm their image of themselves as enlightened saviors striving to contain the plague of ethnic strife that civilized Europe had long since eradicated, a legion of whiny Euro-fags inevitably reduced Underground to mere Serb propaganda and, in a bizarre transference of values, attacked the director for his hyper-baroque style. Such subtleties were lost on French audiences, who ignored the film anyway and made it one of the biggest bombs of the year. In Bosnia, however, resentment was so great among Kusturica's countrymen (many of whom had not even seen the film) that he has not returned since for fear of his life.
Interestingly enough it is the very mechanics of propaganda, rather than any assignment of blame, that interests him the most. The film's central metaphor -- of a nation locked in a comfortable cellar of eternal mobilization -- relies on a scathing, yet nuanced, satire. For every nod to the inherent cheesiness of the methods, Kusturica acknowledges the essential seductiveness of propaganda and the power of the charade (and this is where Underground attains its most perversely brilliant moments) even when you're in on the joke.
What symbol of beauty and purity could be more conventional than a bride? Yet in Kusturica's hands, the wedding emerges not only as the most visually stunning and poetically moving episode, but the very centerpiece of Underground: a concise, eloquent, visual statement on the relation between art and politics. Kusturica establishes an aesthetic continuity that reaches out beyond the borders of the screen, inviting us to question our role as spectators by placing us as the mirror image of the wedding guests. Like them, we are mystified by an orchestrated spectacle and lose sight of its underlying mechanisms.
As Marko points out, "Art is only an enormous lie." But the analogy doesn't stop there. To complete the mirror image, we must also recognize ourselves as victims of a much greater deception; the art of politics has always consisted of keeping us underground. And Kusturica doesn't fail to point out that perhaps we are better off to stay there.
Up All Night by Harold McMillan
Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
It's good to be missed.
It's better to be back at home, doing what you set out to do.
At the front of this issue of Austin Downtown Arts there is a new column, written by our newest editor, reintroducing you to our little magazine. Reintroducing because she, Meg McMillan (no relation), is not just letting you know that she is the new kid on the block. She's yelling, as best she can in printed text, that Austin Downtown Arts is back to stay and DiverseArts ain't dead yet!
As many of you have noticed and noted -- thank you, very much -- we've not been on the streets of Austin this spring at all. Our most recent number was the end of the year/new year literature issue (December 1999/January 2000). Our extended vacation was not exactly part of our original strategic plan. Good things, however, happened while we took our spring break. But I tell you honestly, I've missed this monthly opportunity to share our words and thoughts with you.
Deep, very deep inside, I hope you actually did notice that your monthly dose of our take on the Austin arts' scene was missing. We indeed have missed being in the rack waiting for your stroll through the Austin Museum of Arts, your second cup of coffee at Little City, your intermission at the Paramount.
I won't take this opportunity to tell you all about the challenges we face in keeping this free publication in production. The major challenges are apparent. We are back because we believe there is a need here for us. If we can get better at what we do -- and we are committed to do that -- the potential for long term survival is promising for our opinionated, focused-yet-schizoid-kinda-literary little arts and culture publication. We provide opportunities for writers young and old, our view of the scene is more about artistic substance than advertising budgets. What we do here is something that no other Austin commercial or arts organization publication does.
Each month, each issue of Austin Downtown Arts is devoted exclusively to spotlighting the Austin arts community and promoting the idea that our diverse arts and culture scene is among the most important aspects of all that makes Austin a great place to live, work and play.
In short, we are committed (especially in this time of blitzkrieg downtown SmartGrowth boosterism) to the notion that artists, audiences, and supporters need a vehicle for communication, a media outlet that does nothing else but work for our mutual success. That said, please know that those of you who have supported our efforts here are true heroes and heroines.
Those of you who support our mission, have resources to help us stay afloat, and want to support our efforts to get better at what we do? We need and welcome your support in all that we do to bring artists together, inform the public, and encourage that tenuous (but very workable!) marriage between culture and commerce.
By the way, have you asked about our advertising rates lately?
The State of the Jazz Nation
Earlier this year I was in New Orleans for several days of meetings, networking, listening to and lots of talking about jazz: jazz music, jazz business, jazz education, jazz politics, jazz media. The biggest jazz conference in the world these days is the International Association of Jazz Educators Conference (IAJE). It's held annually each January. For five days, multiple performances at multiple "official" venues from 10:00 a.m. 'til midnight: then the local club scene stays awake until dawn. Everybody (of course not literally, but it seems so) in the jazz world is either there or wants to be or is tired of going. Five days of more jazz stuff than is healthy to be exposed to. Generally three huge downtown hotels full of folks like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Marsalis Family Members, Horace Silver, Cassandra Wilson, Sonny Rollins, the North Texas Lab Band, Jeff Helmer and James Polk, the publishers/editors/writers of Downbeat, Jazz Times, Billboard, Jazziz, Austin Chronicle (?) and lots of other festival producers, record label folks, teachers, clinicians, gigging pros and students alike.
It's the most concentrated gathering of jazzological activity that happens at any point during the year, any place in the world.
If you're there and you pay attention, you don't have too be a doctor to feel the pulse of the international jazz community. I am not saying this is the perfect conference. After all, you got a bunch of polyester leisure suit-wearing music-teaching jazz musicians running things. The good thing is, there is this huge effort to come to grips with what place the jazz tradition does/should play in the cultural life, educational system, and commercial reality of this and other societies. Pretty much everyone there agrees that jazz is or should be more of a cultural/artistic/commercial big deal in communities across America and around the world. And for the most part, the folks who come to this conference are doing something back home to work for the overall health of jazz -- as music, education, business, quality of life attribute.
Oh, and the booking agents are there too.
Now, to go to IAJE for no other reason but to listen to the music and hang out is worth the trip. The conference/festival only costs about $150 for the week. It was in New Orleans this year, back to the New "Live JAZZ Capital of the World" York in 2001. Know what I mean?. For instance, at the New Orleans conference in January, you could listen to Russel Malone and/or Ellis Marsalis play in the hotel at the conference, then rush over to House of Blues and hang out with Herbie Hancock in the audience while you listened to the Roy Hargrove Quintet on stage, and caught the last set as Jashua Redmon jammed with the band. Later or the next night you could have skipped the official shows and caught a Michael Ray and the Cosmic Crew club gig and then gone after-hours to the FunkyButt for Steve Torre, Jason Marsalis and Henry Butler hosting a jam session 'til the sun comes up.
And there were five days/nights like this. Imagine what it's like when the conference is in New York. Truly a jazzhead's wet dream.
In addition to the listening and seeing frenzy, there too is a lot of business that goes on. Since so many of the folks there are associated with schools and colleges, instrument makers, sheet music publishers, and the like, job interviews take place, endorsement deals are sealed, and a lot of products are sold. But behind almost every conversation and transaction, there is the underlying question of "what can we do to help jazz survive into the next century and beyond?"
In recent years the IAJE has begun an effort to bring the issue into the official flow of the conference. There is now a mix of workshops, panels and discussion groups that deal with jazz the business, the profession. The two issues at the most recent conference that caused the most argument, buzz,and conversation both dealt with the industry side of things: 1) the need for a national/international jazz trade organization; and 2) the need for a high profile national/international awards program to recognize and promote excellence in all aspects of jazz arts, culture, education, and business. Hot topics, to be sure. Lots of room for argument and agreement.
As I sat in on the panels, attended marketing workshops, and shared ideas over a whiskey, the big message that rang true was that jazz in America is in need of various levels of safety nets all around. Yeah, the problems we have here in Austin with audience development, sponsorship and media support are big problems. But they are not different problems than those faced in other cities around the US. They are common problems. But out here in the Hills, the effect is felt sooner, deeper, for longer than many other music cities.
For the last few years I have been one of the folks in town throwing around the idea of organizing the jazz community. It's not a new idea, or set of ideas for Austin. There is a functioning Traditional Jazz Society here already. There have been other jazz societies here in the past. I guess the thing that hit home with me at the IAJE is that this kind of organizing, these kinds of plans to bring various elements of the jazz community together are now being vigorously pursued at national and international levels.
It is now clear to all levels of folks in the jazz community, nation-wide, that we must start/continue to make headway in organizing our forces, voices, dollar votes in ways that will help sustain the jazz tradition (and the business of jazz) over time. This is a need all across America. This is essential in Austin.
I had conversations with folks from really small and more medium-sized markets, like Sante Fe and jacksonville, and they are way ahead of the curve on this stuff. Of course the major markets -- New York, chicago, Atlanta, New Orleans -- provide unduplicatable models because, well, that's just the way if is: no cities will be able to compare with the jazz scenes, jazz audiences, sponsorship and media support found in places like New York or New Orleans.
The scary thing for me, and lots of other folks in the jazz business, is that scenes such as Omaha, Seattle, and Vancouver seem to be on the right track. Much more so than here in the live music capital of the world. Compared to many, very many communities around the country, Austin is beginning to look like there really is no cohesive jazz scene/community here. And that is really a drag.
I have been producing jazz programs here in Austin for the past 12-15 years, and this I've learned: for many folks here in Central Texas the value of the jazz tradition is not really something they think about. Jazz gets mistaken by some as just "light pop" music, by others as "elevator" music, to others it's not serious enough, to some it's too serious. Regardless of what jazz is, it is not a real cultural force that has a strong power base here.
Jazz doesn't sell enough whiskey for the commercial music venue folks, it's not high brow enough for the blue bloods, it usually ain't got enough steel guitar in it for the KGSR folks. There is a strong core of support here, but most of the folks in Austin fit the above descriptions.
So, what are we folks, who want to work for the local survival of jazz to do?
From the vibe I get a IAJE, the next step is to do the same kinds of things that folks who live in those supportive, organized markets do. And we need to try to encourage the same kind of discourse going on on the national level as well.
The jazz community in Austin should give some thought to -- just as the Music Commission recently did -- having a town meeting and putting our issues on the table; with each other and with those in positions to be helpful. On the national level, IAJE has endorsed efforts to move forward with the formation of a professional trade organization for all levels of folks in the jazz arts business. Those of us who do jazz as a business, for profit or not, should consider similar local action. IAJE encourages the formation of jazz societies. Regionally, there is a move to work with folks in other markets to cooperate rather than compete for touring acts and favorable routing.
But of course the problem with Austin is that there are so few folks actually willing to do this stuff, those who do are already over-worked and under-paid to the extent that they are waiting for someone else to take on some community responsibility.
Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.
Word on the Street by Micah Magee
"A mental illness has swept the planet," wrote Situationist Gilles Ivain, 30 years ago. "Banalization: no more laughter, no more dreams. Just the endless traffic, the blank eyes that pass you by, the nightmarish junk we're all dying for. Everyone hypnotized by work and comfort: by the garbage disposal unit, by the bathroom, the washing machine."
We have, through the incessant barrage of the one-way information highway, the prime-time family hour, and the infotainment network, been adjusting ourselves to the studied complacency of passively critical consumerism for a very long time. The concept of caring has become incredibly uncool: a relic of the hippie era; a naive self-indulgence to be afforded only by those unenlightened to the futility of "It All."
This new section, "Word on the Street," in the newly resurrected Austin Downtown Arts Magazine is dedicated to providing a space for uncensored dialogue by people who do care, who don't care about admitting they care, who think that "It All" might not be all that we're capable of. These people express life through art. They are living politically by virtue of the fact that they are seeking a greater awareness than what is offered to them by billboards and University, Inc. They do not define themselves in terms of the Big Bad Other, but by a personal moral aesthetic.
Through guerrilla theater, culture jamming, alternative media, illicit art, and simple conversation, they attempt to open a forum for a more active interpretation of reality. In ambiguous times like the present, active interpretation of policies and events remains one of the few forms of empowerment left to the people. While this is arguably one of the most prosperous eras of our nation, we live in perpetual cultural depression. As public space is redefined by a vertically integrated cultural oligarchy, the metaphors available to understand living have been produced by a very elite few.
People have been moaning about the loss of community and cultural autonomy for the past 200 years. But today we have the resources to fill that void -- not with more channels, clothes, or V-Stream intimacy -- but with a reintegration of subjective, self-produced art, metaphor, and storytelling into our daily lives. It's time to take responsibility for our local environment and to make ourselves happy. The most promising path to fulfillment is creativity. Become a cultural producer. Redefine pop. Make your own metaphor. Share it. Please.