A Little India is Good for the Soul

This might be a slightly shameful confession for someone who considers herself as possessing above-average cultural literacy, but what the heck, we all probably have a little “ignorant American” in our psyche and background and we’re all friends here, so I’ll just go for it.

The confession is, up until a couple of years ago, when I got into yoga, I didn’t give much thought to India. I realize now that that’s kind of a weird thing to say about such a gigantic and populous place on this planet, one that’s responsible for so much culture and economy on the world stage.

Devaraja Fruit & Vegetables Market, Mysore, India. Photo credit: PnP! via Flickr

As any budding yogi discovers, or any experienced one knows, India’s influence becomes unavoidable as you get deeper into the practice of yoga. Sanskrit words and chants and sounds of the country start to seep into your consciousness on a more basic and daily level.

And now, I think about India a lot. I re-read the Bhagavad Gita recently in a whole new light (yes, really, I am a book-dork). And I listen to music from artists like Karsh Kale on a whole new level since India came to mean something more to me. I first encountered Kale years ago when I was working at a DVD magazine and reviewed Palm Pictures’ Tabla Beat Science release. I’ve always been an adventurous music lover and it spoke to me with its controlled frenzy of energy and style.

Check out this video to see what I mean:

Kale’s music speaks to me even more these days. I got a sneak listen to a couple of tracks from his upcoming album, ones that he will likely play on-stage Saturday night at UCLA Live and they are lush, energetic and uplifting.

Music is a passport to the flavor and texture of a culture that is not our own, a little taste of the larger world, which yes thanks to massive amounts of media coming from all directions, is a little bit smaller every day, but that is full of cultures and peoples that can still seem mystifying and remote as we live out our own little lives.

I look forward to welcoming even more India into my life this weekend as Karsh Kale and MIDIval Punditz hit the stage. It’s probably the show I have been most looking forward to this year. My mind is wide open and ready to be blown.

How about you? Is there any music from another culture that has permeated your consciousness lately?

Hope to see you here this weekend. In the meantime, Namaste :-).

Photo: Devaraja Fruit & Vegetables Market, Mysore, India. Photo credit: PnP! via Flickr

The Wizard of Odd

John Waters is a character. Love his movies or hate them, you have to admit he’s made an indelible stamp on popular culture.

For some of us, the fact that that stamp comes with a slightly filthy, off-kilter image, well that’s OK.

I like funny people and I like smart people. I like people who are both funny and smart and make no bones about what they do and how they do it, and artists of all kinds have the most luxury to be wickedly funny and smart and absolutely unapologetic about it. Waters is all of those things.

I loved reading this quick excerpt from Robert K. Elder’s new book, “The Film That Changed My Life: 30 Directors on Their Epiphanies in the Dark.”

He included John Waters for the book and somewhat surprisingly (to me at least), the man who made what he himself dubbed the “Trash Trilogy” of films and introduced the world to the first superstar transvestite “Divine” chose the innocent and whimsical “Wizard of Oz” as his most influential film.

Here’s his brief synopsis of the classic film’s plot:

“Girl leaves drab farm, becomes a fag hag, meets gay lions and men that don’t try to molest her, and meets a witch, kills her. And unfortunately — by a surreal act of shoe fetishism — clicks her shoes together and is back to where she belongs. It has an unhappy ending.”

That? Is just made of awesome.

I have a feeling Waters will be applying that razor-sharp wit to his own work and other Hollywood fare next month in his UCLA Live appearance titled “This Filthy World Goes Hollywood,” which is timed Feb. 23 to poke fun at the entertainment industry’s most indulgent and self-aggrandizing time of the year as Oscar night looms.

Bring it on, Barak Marshall

Los Angles dance lovers get a rare treat this weekend, the chance to not only not only see some amazing dance from leading choreographers, but to interact with them and literally reward them for the amazing work they do.

It’s the A.W.A.R.D show being held at REDCAT this weekend.

From the LA Times

“ Coming to REDCAT Thursday through Sunday, “The A.W.A.R.D. Show!” (an acronym for Artists With Audiences Responding to Dance) channels the zeitgeist as defined by the Fox TV show “So You Think You Can Dance” and other competitive arenas where performing artists duke it out for fame and fortune. Specifically tailored for contemporary choreographers, the show-cum-contest grants $10,000 to a winner toward the creation of a new work and has stirred up some lively debates about the financing and subjectivity of evaluating the often underfunded medium of contemporary concert dance.”

A dozen choreographers will show 15-minute dance pieces over the course of the weekend and participate in Q&A sessions with audiencegoers who will then vote to determine who wins the $10,000 prize.

We’re rooting for Barak Marshall around here as we gear up for his April appearance on the UCLA Live dance season with Monger.

Here’s a sneak peek at the eclectic and energetic work that tells the story of a group servants trapped in the home of an abusive mistress.

I was talking to Barak after another LA troupe graced the Royce Hall stage, Helios Dance Theater. Helios’ world premerie of Beautiful Monsters the first time an LA company has performed in this theater in a decade. Barak breaks Helios’ streak a few months later with his LA company, and rightfully so.

He’s incredibly enthusiastic about his two dates in Royce. “I practically grew up here.” he said.

Barak’s mother and famed dancer Margalit Oved taught at UCLA for twenty years. Her son’s a rising star in his own right and this April’s performance will be nostalgic and celebratory.

We’re wishing him all the best as he competes this weekend.

The Onion’s Many Layers

Happy New Year! We’re back in Royce Hall and gearing up for our winter and spring programming, which includes an well-timed appearance from Joe Randazzo and other editors from The Onion on Feb. 10 for “Inside the Onion.”

The past several years, the economy, climate change, our political leaders, our increasingly ridiculous obsession with celebrities and their dating habits, reality television stars and other pop-culture fascinations, not to mention the rather sorry state of overblown media punditry in our society, have provided more fodder than ever for smart, intellectual people who use satire to get their point across.

No one does that better or has been doing it longer than The Onion. And, members of the creative brainchild that is The Onion will fill us in on what makes them tick here at Royce Hall on the heels of some major growth for the brand that started in the late 1980s as a mail-order newspaper out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

January is a banner month for the premier fake news news source in this country. For the last three years, The Onion website has hosted daily videos that poke much-earned fun at the tactics and style of modern cable news networks with its “Onion News Network” online series.

Things are getting even more fun as that genius online video bit grows right up into a weekly series on the Independent Film Channel. “Onion News Network” premieres on IFC January 21 and is even more brilliantly tongue-in-cheek given that former Fox News anchor Brooke Alvarez is at the on-camera helm.

Check out the trailer. It looks hilarious and hilariously brilliant. Should give Stewart/Colbert a run for the money.

Nothing is sacred in the hands of The Onion, not even sports. Premiering on Comedy Central next week (January 11) is “Onion SportsDome” an Onion-branded sports-news parody that even I might watch.

A Few Favorite Things From 2010

‘Tis the season for looking back, appreciating and looking forward, right?

We’re wrapping up 2010 here in the basement of Royce Hall and getting ready for a long break, but we’ll be back soon enough with two great shows in January—Wallace Shawn on the 22nd and Karsh Kale on the 29th.

We’re all pop-culture junkies around here so I asked a few fellow staffers to chime in on some of their favorite performing arts experiences over the last year, both here in Royce Hall and elsewhere.

Tinariwen at UCLA Live Feb 2010

Personally, my favorite UCLA Live performance was probably Tinariwen in February of 2010. I admit, when it comes to world music, my taste has mostly always hovered more on the commercial edge, but seeing this band, hearing their stinging, hypnotic grooves and watching those uplift and entrance the packed-house audience, was a real game changer for me.

I saw a lot of great shows outside of our programs in 2010, but my hands-down favorite has to be LCD Soundsystem with Hot Chip at the Hollywood Bowl in October.  It was a gorgeous cool night and our seats were among the worst seats I’ve ever had at the venue, but also somehow, the best, because I was there with a large crew of my music-loving friends and made some lasting friendships with the group behind us. There was much dancing in the aisles, This Is Happening was one of my favorite albums of last year and it’s a moment in time that’s not likely to be duplicated given James Murphy’s plan to lay LCD to rest. Definitely one for the mental photo album.

Here are a few other staffers pics of the year.

Billy Bragg at UCLA Live November 5, 2010

Marivi Valcourt, Marketing Manager

Favorite UCLA Live/Royce Hall Event

Billy Bragg doing “(Shirley) Greetings to a New Brunette” and his commentary around his pre-show ritual “Shit, Shave and Shower.” Classic Billy.

Favorite Other Event:

Natalie Merchant at The Getty – hearing her voice live again was amazing.

John Spokes, Director of Development

Favorite UCLA Live/Royce Hall Event

I loved Baaba Maal, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and Gamelan Cudamani but if I have to name a favorite, it has to be Dengue Fever playing their own soundtrack to the Lost World. Great music, an unusual event and a great archival print courtesy of UCLA Film Archive.

Favorite Other Event:

Watching Fully Committed, a play directed by my wife Casey, with 17 members of my family on a cold Minnesota night.

Ron Jarvis, House Manager

Favorite UCLA Live Event

My favorite moment this year was when I was standing at the back of the house for the Mavis Staples / Billy Bragg concert and I realized that  (1.)  I should have been in the audience, and (2.)  There is still an audience for political troubadours who can stir the social consciousness within.

Favorite Other Event

Watching members of PETA scream at audience members attending “The Greatest Show on Earth” at the Staple Center.   I would guess that half of the audience owned pit bulls.

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet at UCLA Live May 2010

Jessica Wodinsky, Theater Production Supervisor

Favorite UCLA Live/Royce Hall Event:

Cedar Lake Dance Company. The stunning New York-based troupe performed two nights to standing ovations, expertly executing choreography from six of modern dance’s most exciting and eclectic stars.

Favorite Other Event:

Carole King /James Taylor at the Hollywood Bowl

UCLA Live Grammy Kudos

This year’s Grammy nominees were announced Tuesday night at a live concert in Los Angeles and congratulations are in order for a few UCLA Live artists, including the indefatigable John McLaughlin who took the stage in Royce Hall last night on the heels of his nomination for Best Contemporary Jazz Album for To The One.

Check out this review of his amazing performance here at Royce Hall. We were lucky to have this jazz great on the bill during a season when he’s experiencing yet another high in a career chock-full of them.

We’re pleased to congratulate several other recent UCLA Live performers on Grammy noms this year. Whether you think this particular award is passe or not, it’s still the most prestigious ranking in the music industry and we think the artists who have graced our stage who are on the nom list this year are deserving of any and all possible recognition of their work and contribution to the arts in general.

The ever-eclectic Laurie Anderson was the second performance of our 2010-11 season, delighting our audience with the Los Angeles debut of her challenging and moving piece titled Delusion. That set featured several tracks from her critically acclaimed 2009 album Homeland, one track of which, “Flow” is up for best pop instrumental performance Grammy  this year.

The ever-evolving Richard Thompson brought his unique Cabaret of Souls oratorio to UCLA live  Nov. 19 for only the third major public performance since the Brit-rock great composed the eccentric piece last year. Thompson remains a driving force in roots music and is up for this year’s Best Contemporary Folk Grammy for his album Dream Attic.

Mavis Staples lit up the stage in Royce Hall November 5 alongside the rabble-rousing Billy Bragg, singing uplifting songs from her inspiring new album produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, You Are Not Alone. We are thrilled that this American treasure is up for a Grammy in the Best Americana Album category.

This spring, our final UCLA Live show of the season is a doozy, with the Del McCoury Band and the Preservation Hall Jazz band sharing the stage in Royce Hall. McCoury’s Family Circus is nominated for a Best Bluegrass Album Grammy this year.

We’re incredibly pleased that one of our favorite artists from last year, Los Lobos, and an often overlooked, underrated rock group in modern music history is being recognized in two Grrammy categories–with a nomination for Best Rock Instrumental Performance for “Do the Murray” from Tin Can Trust, which is also up for Best Americana Album.

Personally, of late I have become obsessed with Herbie Hancock’s Imagine project, especially this take on Bob Marley’s “Exodous” featuring Los Lobos, Tinariwen (who also thrilled UCLA Live audiences last spring in a sold-out performance) and K’naan. Talk about a world-music mashup! That song, performed by that caliber of artists from such different walks of musical life. It’s a beautiful thing.

I’m stoked that this project is up for  a couple of Grammys–Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals for his take on John Lennon’s “Imagine,” (featuring Pink, India.Arie, Seal, Konono No 1, Jeff Beck & Oumou Sangare) and his solo take on “A Change is Gonna Come.”

It occurred to me, as I wrote this, that UCLA Live is a good home for a guy like Herbie. I was surprised to discover, that according to our ongoing roster, he’s only been here twice. Once in 1970 with his sextet, and again in 2003 with his quartet.

I would personally love it if it didn’t take another 30 years to get this music great on our stage.

In the meantime, we congratulate all the Grammy nominees who have graced our programming recently and we’re proud to be part of their live-performance journey.

Giving Thanks for All the Cool Kids

Happy Thanksgiving everyone and I’d like to take a moment to give thanks to everyone who has supported our programming so far this year. You’re the cool kids.

We’ve had some amazing performances already and there’s more in store.

Our second post-show party of the year November 12 was among the best we’ve ever had, celebrating the funky Cambodian style of Dengue Fever in their first Royce Hall headlining performance, laying down an eclectic and groovy live score to the classic silent film The Lost World.

In a review of Dengue’s  2008 release Ocean’s of Venus the LA Times called the band’s style” sexy and eclectic, it’s world music for the cool kids.”

And clearly, we were surrounded by cool kids just a few short weekends ago, check out these pics of Dengue band members partying with fans after the show. After a much-deserved standing ovation, the band mingled with fans and chilled to fantastic global sounds from KCRW’s world music guru Tom Schnabel on decks in our lobby.

Dengue Fever's Zac Holtzman with UCLA Live partygoers.

Dengue Fever's Chhom Nimol with UCLA Live partygoers.

There’s more in store. If you haven’t heard of Karsh Kale, it’s time you got into him.

He’s a groundbreaker, a risk taker, a fierce luminary of electronic fusion and one of the founders of the pure force of music nature that is Tabla Beat Science.

And he’ll be here January 29 spinning mad tracks to crazy visuals backed by fellow Indian fusionists and cool kids MIDIVal Pundits.

I’m personally excited that my friend and founder of one of my favorite yoga studios in town, electric violinist Dorian Cheah will be part of the onstage mix too.

Check out his sick skills in this video. (He often performs live music for his wife’s yoga class, but not like this!)

Definitely a cool kid.

This is a not-to-be-missed night. So show up.

And for all you jazz-loving cool kids, next weekend we have the Alice Coltrane Tribute. You won’t see a lineup like this anywhere else in town this year.  Maybe ever.

Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio, Nels Cline of Wilco and Flying Lotus, Alice Coltrane’s great-nephew and rising multi-genre electronica experimentalist are some of the most exciting artists in modern alternative music. They’re paying homage to this legendary jazz icon exclusively on our stage, with help from other jazz icons McCoy Tyner on Keys, Han Bennink on percussion, Daniel Carter on sax, Michael White on jazz violin and more.

It doesn’t get much cooler than generations and genres colliding in reverence to one of the greatest, most adventurous and most spiritually inclined performers in music history—Alice Coltrane.

So enjoy your holiday weekend, eat your turkey, give thanks for all the great music, artists and fellow cool kids in your life and get yourselves to UCLA Live for some cool music this winter.

Monday on the stage with Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim joined us for an intimate spoken word event here Monday night. Well, it was “intimate” in the sense that it featured the legendary composer in a free-flowing conversation with KCRW’s literary luminary and admitted musical-theater lover Michael Silverblatt and not-so-intimate in the sense that there were about 1,600 fans watching it happen.

Sondheim was all charm, some self-deprecation and just the right amount of self-aware egoism. His piercing intellect and sieve-like memory played well against Silverblatt’s fanboy demeanor and played right into the audience’s expectations.

Good-naturedly and with the wisdom of hindsight, Sondheim plunged right into discussion of works widely thought of as flops, such as his first introduction to Broadway working on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s  Allegro and his collaboration with Arthur Laurents in Anyone Can Whistle, during which Sondheim said he discovered “the difference between being smart and a smart-ass.”

He talked about the joy and freedom that comes from working on off-Broadway productions versus the harsh audience- and producer-expectations from Broadway itself, sharing starkly honest opinions and recollections from his vast career, which are also peppered throughout the recently released book Finishing the Hat, the first of a two-volume anthology of his lyrics.

When asked about his writing process he said he tries to write “away from the piano,” especially as he gets older, because while writing at the piano is fun, “you’re limited by your own technique,” and often apt to fall into old habits, use the same chords out of sheer muscle memory.

Sondheim turned 80 this spring and during his appearance at UCLA Live, recalled how the New York Times helped commemorate his 70th birthday, with this article discussing a selection of songs Sondheim says he wishes he’d written.

Sondheim and Silverblatt had a chuckle of the inclusion of “Silverware,” on that list. It’s an incongruously themed ditty  from We Take the Town, a musical version of Viva Villa, based on the life of Pancho Villa. With lyrics from dentist-turned-songwriter Matt Dubey and music from Harold Karr, it is sung by a group of bandits.

“It’s one of the greatest songs ever written,” Sondheim replied to Silverblatt’s dubious question about why that song made the list. “It’s completely unique.”

” But, it’s a Mexican Salsa song sung by bandits on a raid” Silverblatt clarified with a chuckle.

“Yes,” Sondheim agreed gleefully. “It’s a happy song about killing.”

It’s more difficult to write a funny song than a dramatic one, Sondheim said later in the evening.

“It’s easy to write a clever song, but to get a laugh in a song, that’s hard.”

When pressed as to whether he’s been successful at that Sondheim said: “I say with no modesty at all, I can write a funny song.”

And he surely can, just like he can charmingly entrance a packed-house audience while  seated on a dark stage with just his ruminating mind and a fellow lover of musicals to bounce thoughts off of.

No accompaniment necessary.

There’s Power in a Union

Billy Bragg walked onstage Friday night in Royce Hall with a couple of guitars and a cup of tea and held us all right in his grasp.

Bragg’s penchant for rabble-rousing rhetoric is well known among his fans, as much as his thoroughly thought-provoking lyrics, hooky riffs, raw, aching and yet-subtly controlled vocals and his clear and absolute sense of his musical self and personal mission. Those of us who’ve known and loved him well for years were not disappointed. He peppered his songs with effortless soapbox interstitials on the political state of his and our country, the dangerous and polarizing effect of our sensational media outlets and their pundits–or “peddlers of hate” as he dubbed them in a new song titled “There Will Be A Reckoning”–alongside tongue-in-cheek criticism of American football and American tea.

Bragg has a political agenda, to be sure. It may not match your own, but even so, you have to respect the way he stays true to his own ideology–talking, writing and singing about it with great logic and more than a little wit, wisdom and warmth, all of which is truly inspiring to witness in person. Really, you would have to be a complete cynic to not have felt just a little inspired by ‘the bard of Barking’ Friday night.

And the man himself used much of his set to warn us all against the dangers of cynicism and exhort us not to give up hope in a time of political turmoil.

It’s human to doubt, and good to have healthy skepticism, but “our greatest enemy is cynicism,” he admonished us. “I battle my own cynicism every day, but I get to come out here in the dark and talk to you and you all cheer for me and it helps.”

Bragg admitted he’s always been a “glass-half-full guy,” and it’s easy to scoff at people like that.

But, he said…if you want to make things better in this world, “half-full is a damn good place to start.”

There’s Power in a Union, he reminded us at the end of his set. This battle-cry song has always struck a nostalgic and emotional chord with me, having grown up a Teamster’s daughter. And, it struck a chord with more than just me Friday night, judging by the immediate and immense standing ovation it was met with.

But I’ve always also felt the dual message in that song and I felt it again Friday night. There’s power in a union, but not just in the organized-labor-protective-group definition of the word. There’s also power in a union of people, in a meeting of the minds, in a union of purpose.

The night yielded one such union, when Billy joined the indefatigable Mavis Staples on stage to perform the gospel staple The Weight. Their union on that stage held a simple purpose, to generate a massive amount of joy and share it with everyone in the room.

Mavis and her band kept that pure joy flowing for the rest of the evening and by the end of her set, every seat in the hall was empty because we were all standing, hands thrust in the air, joining in the repeated phrase “I’ll take you there,” witnessing the great power of great music to join us all in a singular purpose.

Even if that purpose was simply enjoying a musical legend performing and manifesting pure hope and joy, well, that’s a damn good place to start.

Mavis and Billy definitely took us somewhere Friday night. It’s nowhere I’ve ever been before, and perhaps I’ll never get there again. But it was a heck of a visit, that’s for sure.

Were you with me? Share your favorite moment from the night.

Free (jazz) your mind…and see what follows

Ornette Coleman was here.

Such a simple sentence to write. But really my feeling while writing that sentence is more like the feeling you get when you see a name etched into a tree bark, a random piece of concrete or an ancient stone in a faraway  country…an evocative feeling, tickling at your brain, making you stop and take notice of that name, that etching, even if it’s not a name you recognize, not a person you know.

Someone was there. Someone was here. Wherever “here” or “there” or “someone” might be….

Well last night, that someone was Ornette Coleman.  And that somewhere was here. And, perhaps unsurprisingly to music lovers who know him well—to put it simply, watching and hearing his performance made me think. About a lot of things. I confess, prior to this UCLA Live season and all the promotion around last night’s event, I was not well-versed in Coleman’s style or repertoire, or really free jazz in general. How sad for all the music-loving years behind me, how fortunate for those ahead of me and how gloriously present that moment in time was last night.

For me, watching Ornette Coleman and his amazing fellow musicians, Tony Falanga on standup bass, his son Denardo on the drums, Al Macdowell on electric bass—was incredibly mentally freeing.

Perhaps that presentness is the intent of the genre itself. I found the unfettered instrumental voices so inspiring and surprisingly non-frenetic even in such a playground of improvisational experimentation, perhaps that’s due to the remarkable presence of the man leading the charge.

It made me think: “Wow this is exactly what’s happening right now.” The highlight for me was a lengthy riff on Bach’s flowing Cello Suite during which it was like each instrument on stage was speaking words from the same poem, but in entirely different languages and in an entirely different stanza order.

And, when Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea hopped onstage for the final few songs, he added not only another ridiculous bass line to try and wrap our heads around, but his own infectious energy, green hair bouncing in time to the cacophony.

Flea’s admiration for Ornette Coleman is well and widely known and after the show backstage, he let a little  endearing nervousness slip. “Were you guys out there in the audience? Did it sound OK? Man, I wish I’d gotten to practice with those guys first.” (Flea showed up well before the performance, but after sound check, clearly in a rush, but also clearly thrilled to get on stage with a man who’s a personal icon of his.)

Yeah Flea, it sounded OK.

It sounded way more than OK. It sounded like freedom of thought, of hope and of purpose.

I was already convinced after reading this interview with Ornette Coleman, that the man’s mind just doesn’t vibrate on the same level as most humans, mine included. But during and after the show, his skill set my mind reeling, thinking about music, about human nature, about art and love and hope and left me grasping for a way to describe that feeling.

“I seek to play pure emotion,” Coleman’s quote in the program notes reads. Mission accomplished.

Another quote popped in my head as I was thinking about the show just now…I think it will serve to encapsulate how this show made me feel. It’s something  that resonated with me when I first read it and has stuck in my head since, a comment made by Entertainment Weekly blogger Jeff  “Doc” Jensen in his recap of the final episode of “Lost.” (random connection, I know! What happened to my brain?!)

‎”The best we can do is live our lives with enlightened improvisation — to be so self-aware and fearless that we can live fully in the present and redeem our every moment and every human connection.”

Thanks to Ornette Coleman for reminding me of the beauty, emotion and magic in enlightened improvisation.

And thanks to any and all of you who shared in that with us last night.

Thoughts from the staff of CAP UCLA