Sunday, May 9, 2010

Home is where you make it

With the ushering of spring and a new season upon us, the March salon brought us stories of globalization, discovery, and self-realization.  Writer and journalist Mitra Kalita began with excerpts from her upcoming economic memoir, inspired by her two years as a journalist in India.  With the 2008 global financial crisis providing a backdrop, Mitra’s writings juxtaposed personal experiences of living in Delhi with its explosion of hip cafes and shopping complexes to the India her parents had left, seeking economic opportunity.  Towards the end of her stay, she visited her cousin Manju in a small village in Assam, who conceded, there was no life in villages – no jobs or other opportunities.  Mitra concluded her talk by recognizing that the poignant moment was not traveling between New York and New Delhi, where it was easy to exist in similar ways, but rather between India’s villages and its urban centers.  Her memoir will be released later this year.

Next up was photographer Preston Merchant, who took us on an exciting journey via slide show through South Africa, Fiji, Guyana, Malaysia and other locales where the Indian Diaspora have planted their roots, including Jackson Heights, Queens.  The project kicked off after Preston met Guyanese Indian cricket players in New York who invited him into their Richmond Hills home.  The photos introduced us to everyday people and pilgrimage sites, including Gandhi’s ashram in Durban, Asif Kareem, an insurance salesman, 10 sailors (mostly related by marriage) from the same village in Gujarat, Indians practicing sacred rites in Malaysia at the limestone Batu Cave complex, Madurai Veeran, a Tamil Warrior Diety, a political rally in Kuala Lumpur, Manjula Sood, the first Lord Mayor of Asian woman descent, exciting Bollywood-inspired dancing halls in the UK open to all ages, Jhandi, a flag ceremony with origins in Bihar, now performed in Guyana, and back to Dosa Diner off 37th Avenue, where family meals over the crisp crepes turn into (shhh) exotic dancing by night.  The book has been in the works for 8 years.

To close the evening, performance artist and poet Kilusan Bautista mixed hip hop beats with broken Tagalog, telling us the stories of growing up in the Mission District in San Franciso in the 1980's amid drugs, gangs, dislocation, unemployment, and family struggle.  Shedding light beyond the model minority myth, Kilusan spoke about Asian Pacific Island fathers, aunties, and grandfathers, hit hard by addiction.  Through excerpts from his theatre production  Universal Filipino, we see the young Kilusan as a 5-year old boy seeing family members pass to developing a political consciousness in college and to his current work as a teaching artist to urban youth. Kilusan rhymed: Life was slow, they sent the soul into an artificial paradise laced with a government spice.  If you live in despair and poverty stares at your face, sometimes a 20-dollar taste can be an escape.  Kilusan concludes in his final piece, Walang Hanggang ‘There is no beginning, there is no end.’ A journey through the history of the Archipelago of the Philippines…..put me in jail, hip and culture are my bail.  Now is the time, as powerful and as beautiful as the 8 rays of the sunshine - Walang Hanggang.  The 8 rays of sun represent the 8 tribes that rose up at first to overthrow the Spanish (also represented on the Flag).

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Chili Salon 8: Longing and Dislocation

February's Chili Salon, hosted by Alison Ostergaard, Director of Jackson Repertory Theater, welcomed to the stage four local artists, whose diverse repertoire took inspiration from the street noises of New York and the comfort of the place(s) they called home: Sacramento, Ecuador, Corona, Jackson Heights. The evening was also inspired by the places we leave. The places our body leaves and how our body remembers childhood.

“We are all artists, some of us are just waiting to re-emerge.”
Poet-counselor-activist and mother Tania Romero recited these words, invoking the artists within all of us. Her first piece "During the Time of Lifeless Trees" began: I call on you imagination. These visions are ancient. Recounting stories from her native Ecuador to Palestine and the Bronx, Tania's rhythmic beats wove English and Spanish, as a Call to Action and a Call to Ancestors, weaving stories of gentrification, occupation and forced displacement,

Continuing the theme of dislocation, Sunny Knable sang longingly about his move to the big apple to take advantage of the musical influences of New York.  With guitar in hand, Sunny's playful lyrics took us through us through a musical journey from Sacramento to Queens, from boyhood to man.  Starting with the original tune: "Sacramento", a blue-grassy ballad about growing up and leaving home - all those people there are still waving goodbye, a boy began his life on a plane in the sky.  This was followed up with "Killing Time" a cross between Weezer, James Taylor and Stephen Sondheim, which is based on the book "A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking, and attempts to answer life's big questions - I'm a dot on a sphere spinning round a light in a vast amount of space.  Sunny ended with "A Simple Kind of Life" - a good old fashioned pop song about unrequited love, whose narrator just wants a simple answer but only gets shades of grey - All we are is what we do and what we really say, forget your little lines in life's little play.  

Next up was Alison Roh Park, who recounted rides on the 7-Train and growing up on the sometimes mean streets of Jackson Heights, dodging comments from passers-by. Blending a traditional Korean children's song with spoken word beats, Alison cast a spell of enchantment over the audience.

Alison Ostergaard accompanied by Sunny on piano presented two beautiful renditions of Ned Rorem's work. Ned is a well known art song composer and diarist currently living on the Upper West Side. "Early In The Morning" (poem by Robert Hillyer) and "Ferry Me Across The Water" from the Nantucket Songs Cycle.

There has always been dancing. Singing. Poetry. In church basements, behind closed doors, late at night when the house comes to a quiet, in front of the mirror when we see ourselves, “outside of our heads”. So we concluded the chili salon, admitting that people are gathering as they always have, continuing the human impulse to share meals, sing songs, and articulate their dreams through the arts.

Sunny Knable is an award winning composer, pianist, songwriter and educator. He received his Bachelor of Music Degree from CSU Sacramento and is currently a student at the Aaron Copland School (CUNY), where he will receive his Masters of Arts Degree in Music Composition in 2011.

Alison Roh Park is a writer and performer from Queens, New York. She is a former artist-in-residence at the Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia, and performed a one-woman show “A Magpie Sang on the 7-Train.” Her work has appeared in: Yellow Medicine Review; Ozone Park Literary Journal; The NuyorAsian Anthology; and the Asian Pacific American Journal. Park is currently earning an MFA at New York University and works in non-profit communications.

Tania Romero is a poet, counselor, activist, and one of the Founders of Ollin

Alison Ostergaard is the Executive Director of Jackson Repertory Theatre in Jackson Heights and an actress. Her acting credits include Sally in Terrance McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart at the Westminster Arts Center in NJ. She was seen Off-Broadway in Women Beware Women with Red Bull Theatre and in Pride & Prejudice at The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Chili Salon Enters a New Decade

The first Chili Salon of 2010 kicked off with a trio of artists representing different media. But by the end of the night, a common thread emerged in each artist's layered approach to his or her work. It was as layered as the food offerings of the evening, spicy nuts to cranberry-cheese-bread (a soft piece of heaven from a Colombian bakery nearby). First came the appetizers - samosa and pakoras, chips and cheese.

Onto a series of poems by Barbara Chai. Her words took apart Chinese characters, at times playfully, at times symbolically, ending with a few stanzas about her own name that evoked images of her parents' arrival to America, their assertion of identity, and Barbara's of herself. Barbara, a journalist, then fielded questions about her creative process and the mental "switch" between forms of writing. Then a break for dinner: biriyani, daal, rice, bean and corn chili (of course), beet and chick pea salad....The crowd dined while turning their attention to the screen.
GiriMohan Coneti
and Gandharv Bhagat showed their avant garde film "Blink," a narrative constructed from short vignettes demonstrating life, death and what lies in between.

Onto dessert--and a slideshow of paintings from salon host, Nitin Mukul. Nitin discussed the imagery that inspired his work, from effigy fires to juxtaposed representations of urban and rural life, to the material and natural world - and his process, often a photograph, tea stains, and titles from famous novels or movies. By then, his co-host, 5-year-old Naya Meenakshi Kalita Mukul, was asleep, and after some more chatter, the guests headed home to join her in slumber.

Fried Chicken & Marcellus Shale Drilling

November's Chili Salon took us to Woodside, Queens, to the home of Jill Aguado and Rona Luo. Amid dal, Filipino stew, chili hot chocolate and other delicacies from the neighborhood, chili veterans and new friends gathered to hear stories and exchange debate.

First up was Gail Dottin, non-fiction writer from Jamaica, Queens. Gail's piece titled, 'Stick to your ribs, the politics of reason' satirized the immense burden of the stereotypes associated with being black in the US. “The first thing you should know is that I am black” she began. She recalled stories of childhood memories in Jamaica (Queens), trips to Tony Roma's, life at Sarah Lawrence, block parties in Brooklyn and Meet-the-Parents episodes with her white girlfriend. Through the visceral act of eating fried chicken, Gail took us through the stereotypes, the shame and the complicated politics of eating fried chicken, depending on who was in the room.

Sometimes, she said, she would just order the cheeseburger, to save being a potential spectacle. The provocative reading followed a discussion, in which Gail shared how she developed the piece, from the high streets at Columbia University to the safe spaces of Audre Lorde Project in Fort Greene.

Next up was Roy Sirengo, an environmental artist, whose work attempts to bridge the distance between the arts and science. The topic of the evening was the proposed Marcellus Shale drilling in upstate New York. Roy presented excerpts from the NYC public hearing that highlighted environmental concerns and projected economic benefits related to the drilling. Having heard a balanced presentation of both sides of the debate, the audience engaged in a lively Q & A session, where every participant was invited to express their opinions.

Rona's comment spoke to the heart of the dilemma. She spoke about her grandmother in rural China who died of cold weather during a blizzard resulting from a regional power outage. On a more recent visit, she welcomed the indoor heating in rural homes, made possible by natural gas, but wondered about the environmental costs. She said that it is important to remember that people die without access to this resource.
Lively comments followed: Why is it that demand and lifestyle are rarely questioned? Most people felt that the only way to reverse demand is through force, which cannot be easily done in a democracy. The question of subsidies for petroleum was raised, to which a tax attorney in the audience pointed out that all forms of energy are subsidized in some form and that there has never been a non-subsidized energy source. Anouska shared information about how the City of Austin's proposed smart grid. She offered insight into why resources are often not invested to support innovation.

We all agreed that this is just the beginning of learning more about this issue.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A symphony of hip-hop, spoken word and classical violin

Where can you hear hip-hop, classical violin and spoken word, by artists from Venezuela, Pakistan and Hong Kong by way of Brooklyn? The answer: Jackson Heights (Queens) at the 5th. Chili Salon.

22 people braved a surprise October monsoon to crowd into the living room of Anthony Ng and Donna Chin. Awaiting them was a pot of seasoned chili - traditional and veggie – courtesy of Donna Chin; spicy dal and roti from Roy; Selroti from Nepal (courtesy of Luna) and as always, wine and plenty of lively conversation. The clear culinary winner was the humble corn-bread – prepared from a recipe of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY).

Sarah Husain began the evening with vivid poetry about faith, resilience, and the therapeutic power of writing. 'She desires instantaneously to move onto another road. Far from here, away from such rains and lightning.....' she immersed the rapt audience with imagery of violence, bruised souls and lives lived between disconnected signals. With the gentle tugging of her daughter by her side, Sarah left us with the poem, 'Evacuating 3 million people, or in other worlds having technical difficulties' and the question, can she sew memories, her desires digitally? In response to a question, Sarah chatted with the audience about the moment she considered herself a poet. She concluded by sharing how her work is moving into more performance and interdisciplinary realms.

Next up was the talented violinist Gabriela Rengel, whose magical fingers danced across the strings as she rendered the 1st. Movement of Sergei Prokofiev's, Sonata for Solo Violin in D Major, Op. 115. Written to be played by several violins, she told us that this piece is often played as a violin solo. Moved by Gabby's technical prowess, Shajan raised the sheet music from her music stand, and inspired awe from everyone about the dense number of notes that her piece contained. She talked about her intense 8-hour rehearsals, and how yoga and breathing exercises help her prepare and build endurance for her performances. When asked if she looked down on music that was digitally composed, she admitted bashfully, that she does admire Britney Spears and appreciates that the trained and classically untrained both have something to offer to the music world.

Finally, it was the turn of the Hong Kong born, and Brooklyn raised Anthony Ng. Everyone jammed into his DJ room, replete with a priceless collection of nearly 1000 LP's. With a disarming smile, Anthony walked us through the basics of being a DJ, and performed a beat juggling set with A Tribe Called Quest's "Oh My God." Beat juggling involves playing two copies of the same record while going back and forth from each one and backspinning the records to create a new musical pattern.

He also offered a rhythmic history lesson of hip-hop and deejaying, from its origins in the South Bronx, and reminded us of how the DJ paved the way for the creation of most of today's pop and dance music. He concluded with a tribute to MJ and thoughts on digital versus analog music (We don't think he's a Britney fan :)

Artist Bios:

Sarah Husain was born in New York City and grew up in Hong Kong, Sudan and Pakistan. She is the editor of Voices of Resistance: Muslim Women on War Faith and Sexuality, Seal Press, 2006. Her written and performance poetry is concerned with memory, nation, violence, bioterrorism and the female body. As an activist and artist she has worked with communities of color on issues of immigrant rights, access to public higher education and grassroots anti violence projects in the Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities. Over the recent years both her writing and activism has made active interventions on current discourses of gender, sexuality, and violence as it relates to “Muslim” women in the US. Her poetry career began on the spoken word stages of Staten Island and Manhattan. She has read and performed her work in venues across the country. From Abrons Arts Center; Henry Street Settlement; the Bowery Poetry Club; Brooklyn Museum;Lincoln Center; the Lower East Side Tenement Museum; Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe; and Queens Museum of Art, among other spaces. She has been supported by the Joyce Foundation, Poets & Writers, the Chicago Guild and South Asian Women’s Creative Collective and was a recipient of Hedgebrook writer’s residency.

Anthony Ng (DJ Ang) was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Brooklyn. Since the early 80s at age 11, he has been a hip-hop fan. He credits hip-hop music and culture for shaping his early influences about community, progressive politics, and the power of music. Anthony first dee-jayed parties in college. He further developed his craft after graduating, when he made the biggest purchase of his life at the time – buying a pair of Technics 1200 turntables. Both his love for spinning, and its ability to bring people together has resonated with Anthony throughout his life. In 2002, he and several friends formed Restless Produxns, a group that hosted the popular Tantrum and Sweet Sessions parties that offered a space for queer folks of color and their allies to connect and get their dance on. While he doesn’t do as many parties as he used to, you can still find him getting on the 1s and 2s in his new pad in Jackson Heights.

Violinist Gabriela Rengel began her musical studies at the Federico Villena Music School in her native Venezuela. As a young violinist she became principal second violinist of the Orquesta Sinfonica de Aragua, one of the satellite orchestras of “El Sistema.” As a young solo artist, she has performed with the Queens Philharmonia, the Orquesta Sinfonica de Aragua, and the Queens College Symphony. She has also performed extensively as a chamber musician, working with such artists as Daniel Phillips and David Jolley. Rengel received her bachelor’s and master’s degree in violin performance from the Aaron Copland School of Music. She has been a member of the Albany Symphony Orchestra since 2005, and has also recently performed a series of duo recitals with pianist Ejona Gjermeni. Ms. Rengel became a member of the Madison String Quartet in 2008. She currently resides in Woodside, Queens. For more information about Gabriela and the Madison String Quartet, visit

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Distance makes the heart grow fonder

Do memories change over time? And does our pining to relive those moments, somehow alter our recollection? This was the undercurrent of Chili Salon #4. Pepper jack cheese, spicy tofu, Kerala fish curry and chili guacamole decorated the table, topped by cinnamon brownies and ghee-infused jelabis. Surprise guests from Brooklyn peppered the conversation, with Queens locals holding down the fort.

Afzal Hossein's paintings recollected hazy memories of his childhood, from the vicarious angst of a new bride to stealing mangoes from a neighbors tree. A native of Bangladesh, Afzal led us down memory lane, with a slide presentation of the land he left in 1996, the new world he now inhabits, and the immigrant experience that continues to provide inspiration. We were transported, as he spoke about the chickens that ran wild outdoors and on to the frying pan, and excursions to country fairs where distant monuments came alive for a few coins in a Bengali Viewfinder. When asked how life in America had changed his memories of Bangladesh, he responded that he considers himself to be an American, (though Jackson Heights is not really America), and that distance makes the heart grow fonder.

Next up, we were transported to 1957 Kerala, India, in an era where steamy conversations on the backwaters, reading Marx in paddy fields, and free education for girls, left a population talking, mobilizing, and readying itself for change, long before Obama and the Internet. This provides the backdrop for short story writer and essayist Meera Nair's new book Harvest. Set during the revolutionary Kerala Peoples Science Movement, where science provided an activist precedent against caste politics. Through the eyes of Saro, we are taken into the life of a young girl, witnessing the change around her, feeling guilty for always feeling hungry, and contemplating whether she should find work to relieve her burdened mother. Meera vowed that it's not a political work and she veers away from writing or story lines that are pedantic. After seven years of writing, dreaming, imagining, and putting pen to page, Meera said she came to regard the characters, as family. With editing in full swing, the novel should be out in bookstores soon.

Artist Bios
We hear from Jackson Heights local and acclaimed short story writer and essayist, Meera Nair, who writes of worlds intimate, painful and anything but masala. Meera Nair has an MFA in Creative Writing from NYU. Her debut collection Video (Pantheon 2002) won the Asian-American Literary Award. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times magazine, the National Post , The Threepenny Review, Calyx, Discover and on NPR's Selected Shorts. Meera has won fiction fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts (2004 & 2008) and the MacDowell Artists’ Colony. Her novel “Harvest” will be published by Pantheon.

A native of Bangladesh,
Afzal Hossain takes us through a visual image down memory lane, with a slide presentation of the land he left, the new world he now inhabits, and the immigrant experience that continues to provide inspiration. Hossain received his B. Arch. from Pratt Institute. He studied painting at the New York Art Students League. He worked for Robert A. M. Stern Architects as a designer and later founded BANG Architecture/Design with his wife Julie Nymann. He currently resides in Jackson Heights.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Cinema, Salutes, and Drama

Late arrivals, early premieres and impromptu acting sprinkled with jalapeno lemonade and spicy brownies cooled the sweating brow and pleased the sweet tooth on a hot Thursday evening. The third iteration of Chili, Art, and creative expression tantalized our taste for community and continued the tradition to cultivate the artist within us all.

Laura Thies, a filmmaker who studied at the New School, kicked off the evening with her discussion on love-lost and faith misplaced. Her short film 'Angle of Vision' took us through a higher power's struggle with punishment and reward ultimately culminating into a story of self-discovery. The discussion of her vision brought about by a three year exodus into the world of cinematography, torn ligaments, and New York City film-making challenges allowed her to share unique insights to cinema production.

Before Laura had completed showing her film, Shajan had been inspired to share a tale of personal friendship and brotherhood. His short poem 'A song for Michael' allowed Shajan to recount his friendship with his comrade who is currently deployed to Baghdad, Iraq. A short discussion into the efficacy of warfare and current military engagement followed, allowing a more nuanced understanding into the psyche of service members and the struggle that the American warrior may undergo.

Building off of Shajan's poem, Sahadev Poudel continued the tradition of the creative atmosphere, especially given his identification with playback theatre. Sahadev's background in theater and radio has led him to use improvisational theater as a way to give "voice to the voiceless." He facilitated a two-part play in which Prita Lal, Rushil Shakya, and Laura Thies reenacted the farewell between Shajan and Michael, as well as the still-to-come reunion between the dear friends. As mentioned in the discussion of the act, playback theater provided a way to experience another dimension of Shajan's story that goes beyond what simple words can tell, incorporating laughter, musical instruments, and a participatory energy that touched all.

Luna Ranjit, who hosted the salon along with her partner Rushil Shakya, brought the creative chili energy to the kitchen as she prepared an array of spicy Nepali fare that titillated the palate.