Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Previews: FULL FRAME Documentary Film Festival, April 6-9, 2017

Has it been 20 years already? Full Frame Documentary Film Festival rounds out its second decade in the heart of Durham, opening this Thursday (4/6) at the Carolina Theatre and other downtown venues, and running through Sunday (4/9).

They say cada cabeza es un mundo, and in the documentary universe, every film grants us access to a world we don't normally see: from Holocaust survivors, to Aleppo's White Helmets; viral Internet celebrities, to escaped victims of Boko Haram; LGBT folks, to people with disabilities; tribal leaders, to solitary caretakers; poets, dancers, and musicians, to outsider artists and nomads. Documentaries have a way of mining even ordinary lives for their not-so-ordinary revelations--and blind spots.

Check out the vast subject matter, complete lineup and schedule at Full Frame's website:

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

Selected reviews:

Thursday Screenings

Still Tomorrow, dir. Jian Fan, China, 88 min.

   Viral Internet poet Yu Xiuhua rejects labels--whether it's being hailed as the "Chinese Emily Dickinson," discriminated against as a person with cerebral palsy, or tagged as "bad in a former life" by the local shaman. She has said in interviews: “I am first and foremost a woman, then a peasant, then a poet; but if you forget to ask about all my labels when you read my poems, then I respect you.”
   Rising from rural obscurity in 2015, the 40-year-old poet trapped in an unhappy marriage earns new fans, and sets all of China talking--about talent and disability, sexuality and empowerment. Will freedom and independence (sexual, personal, financial) lead Yu to a new kind of despair? Or can she learn to walk through the waves without falling?
   I liked this film more than I was expecting to. Although I don't speak Chinese, I fell in love with Yu Xiuhua, her honesty, and the way she uses poetry to exist. There are too few films about 40-year-old women, their struggles, their love lives, and their art. Especially given that the Internet--the medium of Yu Xiuhua's fame--is a young person's game.

Timberline, dir. Elaine McMillion Sheldon, US, 13 min.

   What happens when a US Naval base goes up for sale? The tiny town of Sugar Land, in remote Pendleton County, West Virginia, is about to find out. Meanwhile, a mountaintop NSA listening station, known as Timberline, continues to operate nearby, in near-total secrecy--since Wikileaks revealed some of its operations.
    This film is a nifty vignette, leaving some dangling question marks about what our government is up to, but maybe, like the residents of Sugar Land, we don't have to worry about it so much. I loved the coincidental documentary aspects of the film, capturing residents' homey interior decor, and the way they talked--whether it was to the camera, to each other, or to undercover federal agents.

Friday Screenings

All Skate, Everybody Skate, dir. Nicole Triche, US, 20 min.

   The Topsail Beach Skating Rink is open every night from 7 to 10, care of Doris Jenkins, who is also the local Postal clerk. In an airbrushed t-shirt emblazoned with her name, the almost-octogenarian spins scratchy 45s and rents out skates to kids of all ages, in this sweet slice of americana (which is always local) on one of the more humble of North Carolina's Outer Banks islands.
   The disco ball may have a few cracked mirrors, but just like Doris, it still takes its nightly spins around the rink, seemingly unstoppable.

Anatomy of a Male Ballet Dancer, dir. David Barba, James Pellerito, US, 83 min.

   Professional ballet is a rarified world of exaggerated theatricality, physical discipline and perfection. At 37-years-old, American Ballet Theater star Marcelo Gomes is pushing the envelope on what a great partner dancer can do. We learn about the family history and career of this Brazilian, and openly gay man, known for his special ability to connect with female ballerinas. The "anatomy" of the title becomes all too real through the course of the film, as we watch him struggle against the inevitable limitations of his aging, though still magnificent body.
    I feel like the film lacks something in terms of cinematography and narrative arc:  there are too many talking heads, telling us what a great dancer Marcelo is, testimonials that would seem to fit better on an artist's web resume. We travel from city to city with the globetrotting artist, ho hum, predictably earning rave reviews in each. For awhile, I wondered if this guy was going to have any problems; and then the ruptured relationship with his father was introduced. However, this just remained a source of unresolved tension; it does speak to a powerful source of stress in LGBT lives, i.e. the rejection by family members. All in all, Marcelo is a complex character, whom I felt I was only just beginning to get to know by the end of the film.
   The best scenes by far were the closing ones, shot in Central Park, taking us outside the theater for a moment and into nature, where Gomes' sheer physicality and emotional sensitivity finally came together into a memorable image. It made me wish the whole movie had been framed differently, to show more, rather than to tell quite so much.

The Kodachrome Elegies, dir. Jay Rosenblatt, US, 11 min.

   Looking at Kodachrome home movies feels insanely personal. I almost quivered with existential grief, watching the director's own family home movies in Part 1. It felt like I was watching my own parents, my own sheltered childhood--because our home movies looked exactly like this:  same colors, same clothes, same vacations, same interior design, and those same, self-conscious and funny ways we staged ourselves for the clickety-clack handheld camera. Part 2 taps the wider world of educational and commercial films, the safe, sanitized zone of public life. Then comes Part 3:  raw Zapruder Film footage, images we have seen so many times, that we can no longer "see" them, anymore than we can "unsee" them.
    The narrative arc thus created--exploding "safety" and nostalgia--may be simplistic, but delivers the intended primal shock.

The Original Richard McMahan, dir. Olympia Stone, US, 21 min.

   Miniaturization is something we associate with doll houses and model makers--but does it belong in a museum? Can a "Mini Museum" constitute a grand narrative about humanity's drive to create? Flea market employee Richard McMahan thinks so, so he huddles over the kitchen counter of his childhood home in Florida, building tiny versions of furniture, sculptures, paintings, and technological artifacts from all times and places in human history. Each item and brushstroke tells a story, not only of the object, but of Richard's depth of study into the artist's motives and methods, and his utter commitment to handiwork in the age of digital reproduction.
   There are several short films about Richard McMahan already on YouTube, so this subject begs for a feature-length treatment--this is a delightful point of entry, following Richard along his daily rounds, and to a serious exhibition of his work at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston.

Saturday Screenings

The Botanist, dir. Maude Plante-Husaruk, Maxime Lacoste-Lebuis, Canada, 20 min.  

    Like a Tajik Michelangelo--or post-Soviet Luke Skywalker--Raïmberdi combines traditional wisdom of Kyrgyz elders with his university science training to create a small renaissance:  a hydroelectric generator, built literally out of junk. His ingenuity makes life more comfortable for his family, but what he really wants is to work as a botanist again. Tales from the forgotten fringes of empire, with bleakly beautiful views of the mountainous Shaymak region of Tajikistan. 
    Gorgeous visuals; I wanted to watch this film again so my eyes didn't have to search for subtitles.

Dysphoria: Inside the Mind of a Holocaust Survivor, dir. Joseph Edward, UK, 16 min.

   A small upright figure walks along Brighton beach, surrounded by a beautiful, but harsh environment: crumbling chalk cliffs, an impervious sky, and waves that have pounded striated rock for centuries. Ladislaus Löb, a Transylvanian Jew in British exile, looks back over his life, as slow dolly shots take us back down the streets and train tracks of his memories--from his hometown, where anti-semitism was routine, to the Hungarian ghetto, and eventually Bergen Belsen. Ladislaus escaped the notorious death camp, through a twist of fate, and lives with a kind of survivor's guilt, or dysphoria.
    A brief film that covers a lot of ground, connecting us effectively to distant times and places through intimate testimony and self-examination.

The Great Theater, dir. Slawomir Batyra, Poland, 30 min.

   Peek behind the scenes at the Teatr Wielki--the Grand Theatre of Warsaw--and discover the inner workings of a small city unto itself, or perhaps a giant spaceship: a hive of machinery, otherworldly in scope, with a well-coordinated army of technicians, mechanics, engineers, costumers, carpenters, shoemakers, maids, musicians, and actors. Directing it all, like the voice of consciousness itself, is an omniscient stage manager who ensures seamless operations.
    Witty, fascinating, and purely visual, like an industrial sci fi movie made before cgi.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Shredding in the Desert: Tinariwen @ Cats Cradle 3.20.14

"Welcome to the desert," said Tinariwen's Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, the singer in palest blue robes who orchestrated our clapping with his elegant gestures and spacious dance moves. The Carrboro, North Carolina audience swarmed in unison as if to say, "Yes please. Take me to your campfire."

Frontman and founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, he of the trademark loose mane, was missing, as on other recent U.S. tours. I heard it said it's due to visa problems. Fear not, though, filling his lead guitar and vocalist shoes is Sadam Iyar Imarhan, who sounds and even looks eerily like a younger version of Ibrahim. Sadam doesn't speak much English, but a Mauritanian friend helped me to understand he's been with the group for just one month, and is a cousin of bandmember Hassan (not currently on the tour). All the rest of Tinariwen are long-time members.

There was exciting chemistry between Sadam and bassist Eyadou Ag Leche. Roostering about with their axes, they played off each other and even broke into occasional smiles, causing slight ruptures in Tinariwen's usual onstage demeanor--a powderkeg of reserve, ecstatic awareness rippling beneath a calm surface.

"Desert Blues" is at once perfectly evocative, and yet somehow a woefully inadequate label to describe the the Tuareg sound. The analogy makes historic and visceral sense but only gets you part way there. There's call and response singing, and what seems (to this unstudied observer) to be quite elaborate polyrhythmic and formal structures. Above all, the poetic trancey vibe is unlike anything else, and highly addictive. But as trancey as it gets, it always feels like the songs follow ancient forms. Nonetheless, there's plenty of room in there for ecstatic transport, and a quality of being fully in the moment.

This kind of jibes with something Eyadou told me after the set. Still looking incredibly youthful after 15 years with the band, he told me Tuaregs think differently about age and time.

"In the desert, we don't [celebrate] birthdays. I am living today. Every day is my happy birthday." 
--Tinariwen bassist Eyadou Ag Leche

For the encore set, Abdallah took up guitars and lead vocal for some acoustic and electric stuff. Here's a few moments featuring bass and guitar solos from Eyadou and Abdallah:

The new album is called Emmaar; the vinyl edition with free CD inside sold for $25 at the merch table.


Tinariwen band webpage

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Great Peace: KAIRABA releases 2nd CD at Cats Cradle, 3/14

Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba had the audience it deserved Friday night:  a Cradle full of people who know the band, and passionately share in its music. This CD release party for its eponymous second CD, which translates “Kaira Ba” as The Great Peace, turned out more of a euphoric frenzy. Fully in command, the 6-piece plus special guests enjoyed the richly deserved moment, three years since their inaugural show at the Nightlight in February 2011.

The throbbing pulse of Orquesta GarDel had only recently faded, and salsa dancers ebbed from the floor, as we waited for Kaira Ba to set up and go on. GarDel played a strong opening set, with its out-of-town members Brevan Hampden (timbales) and Andy Kleindienst (trombone), both on sabbatical to attend grad school, in the house and representing. Some of these faces—conguero Atiba Rorie, saxophonist Tim Smith—would stick around to lend an assist later.

Two koras with their gourd shells ornamented, one with a beautiful painting of Africa, the other studded with the name KAIRABA, leaned in repose at a place of honor center stage. Corralled around them:  a panoply of hand drums of different sizes and origins—sabar, thiol, djembes, congas, dundun, calabash. Amps, guitars, drumset and upright bass set the stage to ready mode. Grabbing prime spots near the edge of the stage, Kaira Ba’s international fanbase came ready to party in looks that ranged from jeans and beards, to palazzo pants and sequined halter tops, tweed hats and hand dyed finery.

The members of the band came onstage drumming, also sporting diverse attire from skinny ties, pearl-button shirts and Converse to bare feet and vibrant patchwork garments. The same Senegalese patchwork fabric provided the cover art for the album, and probably speaks to the band’s grown together, hybrid Carolina-African roots.

Running tunes from the new album took us to Senegal right away, starting with the upbeat “Fallou” and “Bamba Wotena.” Some Americans pogo’ed, while a few Wolof speakers in the crowd got Cissokho’s references to people and places back home and sang along. For the third tune, Cissokho’s wife Hilary emerged to sing soprano backup and maintained that role. Cissokho’s kora and John Westmoreland’s guitar conversed back and forth, and the percussion powerhouse of Austin McCall, Will Ridenour, and at times even bassist Jonathan Henderson, was shored up by the group’s newest member, Mame Cheikh Njigal Dieng. Dieng, a professional musician from Senegal, recently moved to Durham and recorded on The Great Peace.

“We had the music written by the time Cheikh came in, but there were a few songs where we had hit some walls,” said Ridenour, post-show, about the Fidelitorium sessions. “He said, ‘why don’t you try this?’ Suddenly there were no walls anymore.”

Gabriele Pelli recreated his role as a guest on the session at the CD release party, adding haunting fiddle motifs to the spiritual tour de force “Alanole” (“No One Can Know God.”) Cissokho paused then to say his thank yous, while Ridenour retuned his kora for another intense slowburner, “Mere Khadi.” A horn set followed, with trumpeter Zack Rider, trombonist Quran Karriem, and saxophonist Tim Smith elevating the soul revue aspect of tunes like “Al Hadji” and “Mbolo.” If anything, this move was even more successful live than on the album, and one can hope to hear more brass in Kaira Ba’s future.

An encore set began with “Sida” (“AIDS”), an understated reverie featuring kora, guitar and Pelli’s violin, before taking a turn for the rambunctious. The band pumped a carnaval-like backbeat as a shirtless Cissokho bathed his face and body in a pile of broken glass, jumping and rolling around in a fearsome display. The celebratory night closed with “Jabu,” a rouser from the first CD Resonance, which ties Cissokho’s love for his family in Senegal to the love he feels for, and from, U.S. audiences.

The post-show love fest included not only friends, but total strangers offering the band members their thanks, pressing the flesh and getting CDs signed. A lot of bands say they are going to take their sophomore album to the next level; Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba worked hard to actually do that, and it shows.


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Brand New Life Plays Durty Durham

The Brand New Life headlined Friday (5/3) at Durty Durham's Pinhook fundraiser. (For supporting band The Black Experience, see yesterday's blog post.)

The Brand New Life @ Pinhook 5.3.13
The Brand New Life at The Pinhook

Greensboro is some kind of strange rhythm nexus, attracting more than your average share of griots, drum classes, and African and Brazilian percussion specialists. In fact, all across the state, from Asheville's Toubab Krewe, to Greensboro's Africa Unplugged, and Carrboro's Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba, Africa/North Carolina hybrids are springing up like a cottage industry.

The Brand New Life @ Pinhook 5.3.13

The Brand New Life belongs to Greensboro's gems. "Impossible to pigeonhole" has become a popular moniker for out-of-the-way bands, but:  "Does several things very well that don't traditionally go together," better describes The Brand New Life. As the set started out Friday, they showed their  free jazz, skronk funk side. "Just wait," I told some friends at the bar. Sure enough, they pulled out their heavy West African grooves next. In its history, the group has worked closely with musicians from Senegal, and musicians on the autism spectrum, both of whom released special synergies in the collective.

The Brand New Life @ Pinhook 5.3.13
Sean Smith and Evan Frierson

The Brand New Life @ Pinhook 5.3.13
Walter Fancourt and Seth Barden

Getting up to date with BNL's personnel changes during the past year:   Tama drummer Mamadou Mbengue just left the area in March for Chicago, but percussionist and co-founder Evan Frierson has taken on the instrument, also called a talking drum. Scott Johnson plays congas since September, 2012, and electric guitarist Will Darity is a full-time member since June 2012, around the time of saxophonist and co-founder Casey Cranbrook's departure. Trumpeter Sean Smith (2006-2010 member of Asheville's Afromotive) holds up the horn harmonies now with tenor saxophonist and co-founder Walter Fancourt. Two more original members remain intact: Seth Barden (electric and upright bass), and Daniel Yount (trapset drums).

The Brand New Life @ Pinhook 5.3.13
Will Darity

The Brand New Life @ Pinhook 5.3.13
Daniel Yount

My video clip from Friday night shows Frierson ascending the stage for a talking drum cameo, followed by smoking horn solos from Fancourt and Smith, on an Afrobeat tune entitled "Everybody Like You, Boy."
It's an original tune, based on a traditional Senegalese tama/sabar rhythm. Made more Afrobeat by The Brand New Life.   (--BNL trapset drummer Daniel Yount)

The Brand New Life 5.3.13
Evan Frierson

The Brand New Life @ Pinhook 5.3.13
Seth Barden and Will Darity


The Brand New Life, artist website

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Black Experience @ Durty Durham 5.3.13

The Black Experience, one of North Carolina's most forward-thinking jazz combos, took the stage at The Pinhook Friday night at the Durty Durham art collective's "Hyperspring" fundraiser.

The Black Experience likes to jam long in an open-ended way, pushing canonical jazz through a prism of contemporary and popular references, from Ray Charles to Black Sabbath. What we heard Friday might be the zenith of what they've accomplished so far. Leading one to ask:  Can The Black Experience get any better? I think it's safe to say that The Black Experience will go on and on, getting better and better, with something important to communicate.

The Black Experience @ Pinhook, 5.3.13
Larry "Q" Draughan and Will Darity 

The Black Experience @ Pinhook, 5.3.13
Ernest A. Turner II

Collectively, it's a band with deep North Carolina roots, impeccable musical pedigrees, and a huge reservoir of experience as educators, sidemen and bandleaders at the area's top jazz institutions and venues. The co-founders of the project are William Darity, electric guitar, Larry Q. Draughan Jr., drums, and Ernest A. Turner II, piano/organ. We also heard Brian Horton on sax and flute, and a special drop-in guest, Lynn Grissett on trumpet. (Educated at NC Central, Grissett travels out of town a lot with Prince. Yes, that Prince.)

The Black Experience @ Pinhook, 5.3.13
Prince sideman Lynn Grissett sitting in with The Black Experience.

Here's some video of Grissett called on stage to solo with The Black Experience. Also features solos by Brian Horton on flute, and Larry "Q" Draughan on drums:

The Black Experience @ Pinhook, 5.3.13

The Black Experience @ Pinhook, 5.3.13
Among the local artists and musicians who turned out for The Black Experience: vocalist Kim Arrington, keyboardist Victor Moore and visual activist Luis Franco.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Aranjuez in Raleigh: Ed Stephenson with Raleigh Symphony

The "Concierto de Aranjuez," by the blind, 20th-century composer Joaquín Rodrigo, is one of the most well-known works for classical guitar. However, it is less often that one gets to hear it backed by a full orchestra. Ed Stephenson performed the Spanish bonbon last night on the Meredith College campus, accompanied by the Raleigh Symphony, which also performed works by Beethoven and Dvorak.

Ed Stephenson, Concierto de Aranjuez, 5.5.13
Meredith College campus at night.

Born in Canada, Stephenson is half-Ukrainian (original family name: Stefanyshyn). Besides teaching at Meredith, he performs regularly in the area as a soloist and with his nuevo-flamenco combo Paco Band.

The Adagio second movement is instantly familiar; so familiar, in fact, that contractually, orchestras can only obtain the rights to perform this concerto in its entirety. But for simplicity's sake, I'm bringing you just the video of this melancholic second movement from last night's performance:

Ed Stephenson, Concierto de Aranjuez, 5.5.13
Ed passes a bouquet to Raleigh Symphony conductor Jim Waddelow.

Ed Stephenson, Concierto de Aranjuez, 5.5.13


Ed Stephenson, Artist Webpage
Raleigh Symphony webpage

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Of Mud & Music: Shakori Spring Fest, Friday Reviews

Dancing in mud boots, drinking from mason jars, running into old friends...these are classic memories of the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival in April, when threats of tornados are par for the course. Trudging around in a rain poncho through the persistent damp, I forgot all about the manhunt transfixing the nation Friday night. Instead, I was hanging out at the Farm, catching a bit of John Howie, Greg Humphreys, Lizzy Ross, Joan Soriano, Preston Frank and The Beast + Big Band.

HEADS UP:  Two more days of the festival remain, with music on 4 stages through Sunday (4/21), including headliner Oliver Mtukudzi; FULL SHAKORI HILLS FESTIVAL SCHEDULE HERE.

Lizzy Ross Band 4/19/13
Lizzy Ross fans

FRIDAY NIGHT HIGHLIGHTS: Lizzy Ross Band at Carson Grove Stage

Lizzy Ross Band 4/19/13

Rocking singer-songwriter Lizzy Ross, that golden-haired dynamo, has one of the most expressive voices I've ever heard. She seems to favor badass electric guitarists as sidemen to her high-flying vocals and acoustic guitar, and I can't agree more.

Lizzy Ross Band 4/19/13
Luis Rodriguez

I always enjoyed the work of Jock Pyle with her in the past, and nowadays, I am really digging the sound and fury of Graham guitarist Luis Rodriguez. Some worthy onlookers and myself think he deserves the stage handle "Rockriguez." But that's for cooler heads to decide. We were understandably caught up in the moment.

Lizzy Ross Band 4/19/13

Here's what I'm talking about--Lizzy's version of Bill Withers' sexy tune "Use Me," with Tim Smith sitting in on saxophone and Rockriguez [sic] tearing up the guitar solo:

Lizzy Ross Band 4/19/13
Waiting in the wings: Tim Smith

SABOR DOMINICANO: Joan Soriano in the Dance Tent

Joan Soriano 4/19/13
Joan Soriano

It got crazy in the Dance Tent with bachata guitarist and singer-songwriter Joan Soriano. There were brief power outtages (I counted at least three) which deterred no one. Caribbean percussion is transportable street music anyway, commanding attention without electricity. Welcome to my island.

Joan Soriano 4/19/13

Two new guys on tour with Joan since the Motorco appearance in Durham awhile back: one is bass player Junior "Zaa," I met the second guitarist as well but don't remember his name. I studied the güiro player again this time, but had a better view of his floor tom technique. Bum bum bum, accenting those hits in the solar plexus.

Joan Soriano 4/19/13
New bassist: Junior "Zaa"

Joan Soriano 4/19/13

Joan Soriano 4/19/13
Griselda's bling

Joan was whimsical in his lead guitar solos, still one cool dude with his playful, rustic charm. His brother didn't accompany this tour, but his dancing-and-singing sister Griselda poured gasolina all over it.

With an acquaintance in Joan's crew, I had the pleasure of dancing to my favorite of the tunes Griselda sings on the CD La Familia Soriano: "Hazme Tuya," a 90s pop hit for Mexican teenager Maricela. The undeniability of pop, in a punchy bachata wrapper: why resist?

Joan Soriano 4/19/13

Joan Soriano 4/19/13

WE DON'T WANT NO TROUBLE NOW: The Beast headlines Meadow Stage

The Beast + Big Band is an enjoyable, XL expansion of the jazz/hiphop quartet normally comprised of Stephen CoffmanPierce FreelonEric Hirsh and Peter Kimosh.

Pierce & The Beast 4/19/13

With a string section borrowed from Lost in the Trees and a horn and added rhythm section borrowed largely from Orquesta GarDel, it felt like Earth Wind & Fire meets the Fania All Stars.

Pierce & The Beast 4/19/13
Al Strong, Andy Kleindienst (hidden), Tim Smith and Aaron Hill 

Pierce & The Beast 4/19/13

Among the special guests were trombonist Andy Kleindienst who drove in from New Jersey (where he's in music school at Rutgers), and Yomira John, a Panama City vocalist who flew in for this salsa-flavored collaboration:

The Beast "Plus" started even later than scheduled, but were still dominating the Meadow Stage when I left at 2 am.

Pierce & The Beast 4/19/13

Pierce & The Beast 4/19/13

This video capture was my favorite, a) because I am a sucker for Eric Hirsh's vocoder, and b) because it's one of those satirical songs about some crazy shit that happens on the way to a gig:


Pierce & The Beast 4/19/13