Most of us regard the blues as an American invention, a musical tradition that arose as African Americans transformed their cries into song during decades of slavery and racial discrimination. But nobody has a monopoly on bitter fruit. Artists of many nations have tapped the world's seemingly endless well of pain to produce achingly beautiful forms of musical expression.
That's the message of this year's Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival, the series of free concerts that New Yorkers look forward to each year as a refreshing way to spend the dog days of summer. While the festival, held August 4 through 28, will offer major artists like band leader Eddie Palmieri and the Martha Graham Dance Company on a typically eclectic slate of musical and dance events (not to mention giant puppets, poetry readings, and a Chinese tea-tasting), a focus of this year's calendar will be the blues, understood as an international phenomenon.
"I think we have to broaden what we think of as the blues," says Jenneth Webster, the festival's programming director, who has planned two imaginative and diverse blues concerts to anchor the series. One is "The International Spirit of the Blues," in Damrosch Park on August 12. The other, curated by Coleman Barkin, is "American Blues Raises the Roof," at Damrosch on August 18.
"Many cultures have this intense, deeply felt music‹that soulful, gut-wrenching kind of music that tells a story," Webster says. As examples, she cites the cante hondo of Spanish flamenco and the torch songs of Portuguese fado singers, both of which will be represented on the "International Spirit of the Blues" program. This exceptional event will go far beyond familiar territory, however, to explore the rich, African fusions of musicians Markus James and Hassan Hakmoun.
James is an American blues artist who adopted Mali as his home, producing a hybrid style of jazz that incorporates African traditions. Hakmoun came to the U.S. from his native Morocco, where he got his start accompanying a snake charmer. Hakmoun represents the traditions of Morocco's Gnawa people, who also are descended from West African slaves. But his music blends together strands from various African and Arabic forms. "When we listened to him it was amazing, because you could hear the blues so clearly in his music and you could also hear Qawwali singing. This guy is hot," Webster says.
In addition, "The International Spirit of the Blues" will include Rebetica, which is sometimes called the tango music of Greece. "It's a lot like ouzo," explains Webster. "It catches in your throat. It's kind of raw."
She adds that the message of the "International Spirit" concert will spill over into other festival events, as well, including a rare U.S. appearance by the famous Indian violinist Dr. L. Subramaniam, who will perform his own compositions with guest artist Eugene Fodor, August 11, in Damrosch Park. "There are tremendously soulful aspects of the Indian raga, which is really like the biggest heart music ever written," Webster says.
Representing another kind of fusion, Lincoln Center Out of Doors will pay tribute to Randy Weston, a pioneer of jazz fusion and world music, on the master's 80th birthday, August 23. And on August 5, Latin American folk music and dance ensemble Perú Negro is slated to appear. "There were many Africans brought to Peru to work in the mines," Webster observes. "And this music and dance is from that tradition."
For its part, the "American Blues Raises the Roof" concert will bring to Lincoln Center the songs of West Virginia coal miners and the hollers and field songs of the Deep South. The artists on this program include New Yorker Guy Davis, a popular blues revivalist. Two illustrious veterans, percussionist Chico Hamilton and bass player Buster Williams, will team up in a duet; Murray Porter, a member of the Mohawk Nation, will introduce a form of Native American blues tinged with humor; and Bettye LaVette will sing the blues with the fervor of gospel. "What they all have in common is their spirituality," Webster says.
Once again, the theme of this concert will find an echo in other events. The unusual "Triple Play" concert, August 6, in Damrosch Park Band Shell, will feature three dynamic jazz pianists with their ensembles: Cyrus Chestnut, Junior Mance, and Hilton Ruiz. The festival lineup also includes an appearance by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band from New Orleans, August 8, on Josie Robertson Plaza, and an evening dedicated to jazz legend Sonny Rollins, August 27, in Damrosch Park.
In dance, the American blues will be represented by "Double Trouble," a concert shared by the Lula Washington Dance Theatre of Los Angeles and Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group from New York, August 10. "Reggie's work really is embedded in the field hollers and African American traditions," Webster says. "The gestures, the sounds, the rhythms, and the foot patterns have been part of whatever he does. So we're calling that concert 'dancing the blues.'" Washington, a feisty dance-maker who draws on African American folklore and the urban experience, will present works set to the music of Muddy Waters and McCoy Tyner.
Another featured troupe will be Garth Fagan Dance, which performs on August 25. The Jamaican-born Fagan's choreography reflects the trans-Atlantic challenges and experiences of African Americans. "There's a tremendous amount of daring and speed" in Fagan's work, says Webster. "It doesn't look like anything else."
In addition, on August 16 the Martha Graham Dance Company, now celebrating its 80th anniversary, will perform Maple Leaf Rag to the blues-inflected syncopations of Scott Joplin.
Even puppets will be getting into the act. This year's fanciful collaboration between the Puppeteers Cooperative from Boston and the kids from the Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center will result in a colorful pageant of giant characters titled Big City Blues: A City and Country Mouse Adventure, on Josie Robertson Plaza, August 5.
Other events, Webster notes, are just for fun. As an outdoor venue with a populist slant, Lincoln Center Out of Doors often showcases what Webster calls "the crazy, cutting-edge, whimsical side of dance." Among this year's dance offerings will be Wire Monkey Dance, a troupe from Massachusetts that performs on and around large, rolling scaffolds. The Wire Monkeys appear August 12 in the North Plaza.
Carpetbag Brigade Physical Theater Company will present Mud Fire, a piece danced on stilts, August 15, in Josie Robertson Plaza. And Terry Dean Bartlett and Katie Workum, two of the zaniest performers on the New York scene, will present several of their downtown colleagues in an acrobatic Dance Off! program, August 17, in the same location.
In a more tranquil experience, Lincoln Center Out of Doors will re-create the contemplative atmosphere of a Chinese Scholar's Garden during "Tea at Twilight," August 24, in the North Plaza. The Trance Ensemble, from Taiwan, will supply a soothing musical accompaniment as viewers get to sample "winter" and "summer" teas. And on August 25, the Chinese American Arts Council will present traditional Chinese music and opera in "From Chinatown with Love" in the North Plaza and Josie Robertson Plaza.
Typically, the Festival will represent the various groups of immigrants who have made New York a multihued and wonderfully diverse pattern of interlocking communities. In addition to hosting salsa and Cuban timba concerts in the Bronx, the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival will present Heritage Sunday, August 6, in North Plaza and Josie Robertson Plaza, featuring fiddlers and string players of many lands. Russian-American piano virtuoso Vassily Primakov appears as part of a series titled "Chamber Music of the World," August 9, in North Plaza. And in a special Lincoln Center Out of Doors commission, Czech puppeteer Vìt Horejs will dramatize the history of the Lower East Side in Once There Was a Village, August 22, in the North Plaza. "It's about New York‹about immigration and the people who come to New York and how they become part of the community, how everybody goes up the immigration ladder," Webster says.
There will also be a hip-hop dance challenge, August 10, on Josie Robertson Plaza, featuring the all-female crew of We B Girlz; additional festival offerings will range from calypso music to slack-key guitar.
As for the blues, they will remain confined to the stage. No matter which of these delicious events viewers choose to sample, chances are, when they leave Lincoln Center after a stimulating evening of free music and dance, they won't feel blue at all.
Robert Johnson is dance critic for the Star-Ledger in Newark and an arts writer.