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.