Category Archives: Spotlights

In Tune: Corbett vs. Dempsey Gallery

 

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by Damon Locks, John Corbett & Jim Dempsey

Introduction:

Open in the Wicker Park neighborhood for five years, Corbett vs. Dempsey is the brainchild of owners Jim Dempsey and John Corbett, both active in various curatorial endeavors in Chicago and elsewhere. The gallery, which is an outgrowth of their joint interest in the secret history of Chicago’s visual arts, has as its mission the exhibition of paintings, drawings, collages, assemblages, and sculpture by Midwestern artists of various styles from the 1930s to the 1970s. They represent various estates and living artists, as well as a select group of contemporary artists with roots in Chicago art. Given a longstanding involvement in music, the gallery presents sporadic solo performances and has presented artwork by musicians including Peter Brötzmann and Han Bennink. Their efforts at piecing together the history of art in the Windy City have thus far resulted in more than 30 published catalogs and an extensive show in 2007/8 at the Chicago History Museum titled, Big Picture: A New View of Painting in Chicago. Although the focus at Corbett vs. Dempsey is Chicago vicinity, they are not averse to programming exhibitions of artists from elsewhere, when it speaks to them, as evidenced by an upcoming show of new works on paper by the German artist Albert Oehlen. Dempsey’s other activities have included programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center, where he is House Manager. Among Corbett’s musical productions are the Unheard Music Series, an ongoing program of archival releases of unavailable creative music primarily from the’60s and ’70s, as well as a long list of live musical events including a decade-long stretch booking the Empty Bottle Jazz Series and Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music. In 2002, he was Artistic Director of JazzFest Berlin, and he contributes to Down Beat magazine each month.

We both stood round the computer and dreamed up the answers (to this interview) together. It would be impossible to extricate who said what. It’s a philosophical composite, it sort of represents the way we work at the gallery. We love it, we hope you can work with it. – J & J


cvsdInterview:

You each had well developed and articulated roles for yourselves before you opened a gallery. Meaning, both of you had been working jobs for a long time seemingly suited to your interests in the fields of music & film, respectively. How did you guys initially decide to start an art gallery? Did the decision feel like a departure or simply an extension of what you were doing before? Did you feel like you were taking a chance creating a new space for yourselves personally as gallery owners?

We were both deeply involved in different kinds of curatorial activities before we set off on running a gallery.  In programming music films at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Jim was always interfacing with the local community, dealing with various collaborations; he liked to reach out to work with other institutions, like the Empty Bottle’s Adventures in Modern Music Festival, the Hideout’s live music programming, the World Music Festival with Michael Orlove. For Jim, it was important to pull together disparate parts of the curatorial community in Chicago, finding interesting continuity between music, film, and the visual arts. Likewise, John’s work as a music organizer brought together the local and international scenes in a context of mutual respect and collaboration, often featuring different media, like Peter Brötzmann’s exhibition The Inexplicable Fly-Swatter, which presented the German saxophonist’s artwork to an American audience for the first time. In our very first collaboration together, which took place at the Siskel in 2003, we not only presented films focused on Sun Ra in a month-long series called SUN RA SUNDAYS, but we featured live music and an exhibition of never-seen visual material. Since 1999, John has produced the Unheard Music Series, which issues obscure or out-of-print music from the archives.

In a certain respect, the work we set out to do with Corbett vs. Dempsey is a logical continuation of all these activities, not a radical break from them. For us, starting the gallery was a big risk because from the moment of conception to the first exhibition was a very short time, so we really hit the ground running. And there is a lot about having a gallery that isn’t simply common-sense…there are protocols and normal practices that you have to discover, so we had quite a steep learning-curve. It was a challenge that we devoured. An excellent example of how it continued activities in which we’d already been engaged is 2005’s EYE & EAR exhibition, featuring work by musicians who are artists and vice-versa. We produced a CD for that show and tied it into some programming at the Film Center. The other thing is that, each working independently, we had already built up audiences who were interested in what we were doing, so when we started the gallery some of those like-minded people came with us. That kept it from being like starting from absolute scratch…which was a plus.

When you step back and look at eras of certain genres of music made in Chicago (like jazz, r&b, soul, blues or gospel), it is possible to note attributes that, even with its diversity, make a case for a regional sound. Are there characteristics to the Chicago visual art scene that you can only appreciate over the span of time? Does Chicago art have a “regional sound?” 

It’s a very tricky business trying to articulate what makes a specific regional art form distinct from another, but there are definitely some things that are unique to Chicago, both in music and in the visual arts. We have long noted the working-class base here, which seems pretty unforgiving towards pretentiousness, snark and irony. By the same token, both in sound and image, there’s a very strong interest in vernacular sources and in humor. Chicago is a town that makes terrible requirements of its artists; many, both musicians and visual artists, have to spend their lives with day-jobs to support themselves. But this also is reflected in the work, which never gets too big for its britches. And it (Chicago) creates an atmosphere of experimentation in which the fiscal stakes are never so high that an artist can’t feel free to break his or her own rules.

With the inclusion of musical performances at the gallery, the location above a great record store and Sun Ra related projects how does your joint interest in the music world(and/or film world)play into your curatorial process?  

We love both music and art.  The decision to bring some musical events into the gallery space was specifically designed to attempt to introduce some of the music fans we know to the broader visual art world. And vice-versa, to bring art fans into a space where they can become intrigued by some sort of new music. We’ve noticed the mutual exclusivity of these worlds, which is sometimes disappointing, and we always try to break down those barriers. Live music is also just a way of making a gallery seem a little less intimidating and fussy, which is something we always strive to do.

Is there an art to creating monetary and hierarchical parameters around possibly previously unseen art?

To be clear, not all the artists we work with are, by any means, unknown.  But any time a curator attempts to assert that an obscure or relatively unknown artist is worthwhile, there’s a whole value structure at stake. One one hand, there’s a science to how things are valued, both monetarily and in terms of their historical value, but there’s also a more mysterious side to it. We try to be sensitive to both of those. It’s great fun and it’s lots of work, just attempting to decode the worth of things. For us, it starts with the basic notion that received wisdom is often incomplete. You need to question whether something has intrinsic interest, regardless of whether you’ve been told that it does or not. Answer that for yourself and then look at the bigger picture.

Why do you think it is important to focus on Chicago artists?

Through Chicago, one can easily observe how power and influence have shaped the history of American culture, obscuring or promoting certain music and art. Look at jazz musicians like Fred Anderson and Von Freeman. They’re our great beacons, the ones who stayed in Chicago and continued to make their own kind of music on their own terms. We adore that quality of independence, and we see it writ large in the visual arts as well.

 

http://www.corbettvsdempsey.com/

 


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Costuming the Super Anti-hero: Sun Ra & Moondog

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by Jamie Hayes (article originally appeared in Stop Smiling magazine). 

“Reality is too harsh. Imagination makes everything nice. Use your imagination and get out of the most drab places by simply holding on to the imagination and making it real.” – Sun Ra

Implicit in the act of making art is the attempt to create a microcosm that transports the viewer to an alternate world and serves as an escape, antidote, or comment on Reality: the worldview of the artist. Clearly Sun Ra and Moondog created beautiful, innovative musical microcosms. But to fully appreciate their work also requires an appreciation of the manner in which they lived their lives, as macrocosmic art. With a persistence rivaling Don Quixote, both Sun Ra and Moondog lived their lives as in a storybook (or better yet, comic book, in Sun Ra’s case). A key element to this living verisimilitude was costume.

Moondog devoted himself to Norse mythology and a wholesale rejection of the Judeo-Christian society he believed hijacked the old and noble Norse ways, going so far as to wear a helmet of horns, chain mail, a bearskin cape (based on the warrior uniform of the Beserkers, who believed that wearing the cape empowered them with the spirit and strength of the animal), and shoes which he fashioned himself out of scraps of leather. Though he was blind, he made most of his clothing himself. This is a minor accomplishment compared to the other activities he carried out without the benefit of sight: hunting with a bow and arrow, building a log cabin by himself, living on the streets of New York for over twenty years.

Sun Ra also looked to the past, to ancient Egypt, in order to find his identity. He rejected Eurocentric philosophies-the best of which he believed were stolen from Egyptian and African sources, then repackaged as Roman ideals. He even went so far as to reject the entire planet, doing away with the concepts of Time and Space as we know them while he was at it. He expressed this visually with his Egyptian and Outerspace inspired costumes, incorporating metallic capes, tunics embroidered with esoteric symbols, elaborate headdresses decorated with coins and metal chains, and always color, abundant color. Ra explains: “Costumes are music. Colors throw out musical sounds”.

As with Don Quixote, if you stop suspending your disbelief, the monstrous giants are simply windmills and the man playing the music is not an ancient Egyptian Sun God or noble Viking warrior, but instead a grown man covered in blue face paint, wearing a smock decorated with a patchwork spaceship, or a blind man in a homemade Thor get-up. But as with Quixote, much of what makes Ra’s and Moondog’s work so effective is exactly this ability to take low budget spectacle and turn it into a lavish alternate universe.

In Ra’s case, this low budget aesthetic is quite intentional and also quite often misunderstood, not just on the level of costume and spectacle, but also musically. His bizarre costumes and sideshow performance (complete with fire eaters, dancers, singers, elaborate light show, and the like) displeased traditional jazz fans, especially in the Fifties and early Sixties when a suit and tie and a straight demeanor was de rigueur. But his more outlandish behavior also found criticism with the avant garde set, as evidenced by this Karlheinz Stockhausen quote from Melody Maker in 1971 regarding a Sun Ra performance he had attended: “I tell you, this first 20 minutes was first-class avant-garde experimental music that you can’t put in any box. It was incredibly asymmetric! … But after this piece came some saloon wishy-washy music. I didn’t like it at all. Sort of cheap, movie music.”

I would argue, however, that as out-there as Sun Ra’s music can be, he also saw his music as an extension of a continuous jazz tradition, regularly including ragtime and big band tunes in the Arkestra’s set. Nor was he one to take himself too seriously – in the Seventies he became enamored of Disney movies and worked numbers from the scores into his set. He was as likely to incorporate influences from his serious studies of religion, ancient Egypt, and the struggle for black empowerment into his aesthetic as those from comic books, sci-fi films, and new-age esoterica. Likewise, his clothing reflects that aesthetic. Sun Ra would not be Sun Ra in asymmetric avant-garde clothing. His brand of out-there required a more inventive, humorous visual expression to underscore his unique viewpoint: it required making something out of nothing, taking cheap, populist, festive fabrics and symbols, and using the power of imagination to infuse them with meaning. At the same time, these foolish costumes also cut the other way as a criticism of those who would take themselves seriously: the suits, the guardians of Reality. The costumes of the Arkestra, then, signify solidarity with the mad – they are the trappings of the wise fool, serving as a comment on and rejection of a reality in which the black man is a second-class citizen.  As scripted by Ra in the film Space is the Place as an answer to a young black woman at a youth center who asks “How do we know you not some old hippie or something?”, Ra says:

“How do you know I’m real? I’m not real. I’m just like you. You don’t exist in this society. If you did, your people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights. You’re not real. If you were, you’d have some status among the nations of the world. I come to you as a myth, because that’s what black people are. I came from a dream that the black man dreamed long ago.”

While Ra rejected the authority of the canon, Moondog strove for acceptance into the classical tradition. While he did have his supporters, among them Stravinsky and Artur Rodzinski, conductor of the New York Philharmonic in the Forties, his costume was too outlandish, his itinerant lifestyle too unorthodox. On one hand his music was too traditional tonally, and on the other hand too complex rhythmically for him to be accepted by his contemporaries. Additionally many saw his costume as a cry for attention: it pigeonholed him as novelty act, leading him to share the stage with the likes of Tiny Tim in the Sixties. Or, as Moondog biographer Robert Scotto notes, he was misunderstood and mythologized by the press and different counter-culture movements due to his costume, hailed variously as a Christ-like figure, a Blind Tiresias, or as Father Time. None of these imposed and already defined myths were really true to his highly individualistic and deeply committed beliefs in arcane, Nordic tradition. He described his dress as “my way of saying no. I am an observer of life, a non-participant who takes no sides.”

At times the world seems so insane, it’s enough to drive anyone crazy. In those moments it seems downright logical to embrace the life and work of artists like Ra and Moondog, who chose to break completely with all normalcy, making an special point to reject war, and its champions, organized religion and the state. As David Toop asserts in his book Ocean of Sound : “Periodic rediscovery of Sun Ra’s [and I would argue, Moondog’s] music seems to coincide with each new phase of environmental awareness or spiritual hunger”. Beyond the microcosm of the music, the macrocosmic myth “has an appeal to anybody who yearns for a life more dignified and magical than the one they are living.”

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La Lupe: Life in the Margins

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by Jamie Hayes (originally appeared online for Stop Smiling magazine)

The price of celebrity is always dear, as the price is often the sacrifice of one’s true, complex and ever-changing identity. In place of that, the celebrity often becomes the embodiment of certain ideals and desires that are either unattainable or forbidden the average citizen — or often both. What is so compelling about Lupe Yoli (aka La Lupe, aka La Yiyiyi) is the way in which she used her body, consciously or not, to call attention to the art and artifice of the construction of Identity, the foundation (consciously or not) of all performative art.

We can all relate to the stress of being thrust into a role based on our age, nationality, gender, race or sexuality. Even when the role being played is given top billing — young, American, white, male, straight — the boundaries of the role are still too narrow to define anyone who has truly explored their interior self. How much more constricting were the roles La Lupe played throughout her life: Cuban; mulatta; female; controversial and vulgar performer; political exile; “Queen of Latin Soul”; practitioner of Santería; battered wife; drug addict; single mother; homeless woman; wheel-chair bound born-again Christian.

Born in Cuba in 1936 to a strict, conservative father and raised by a stepmother who despised her because of her darker skin, La Lupe was forced by her father to pursue a career as a school teacher rather than pursue her dream of becoming a singer because he believed that women from good families did not belong in night clubs. In her teens, La Lupe defied her father’s wishes. She skipped school and walked all the way from Santiago to Havana to enter a radio contest. She won the contest and a few years later relocated to Havana to begin her career.

From the start, La Lupe was extremely controversial. Here is a description of a typical La Lupe show in Havana, from writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante: “The woman would hit and scratch herself, and later bite herself, her hands, and her arms. Unhappy with this musical exorcism, she would throw herself against the background wall, hitting it with her fists and with one or two movements of her head, she would let loose, literally and metaphorically, her black hair. After hitting the props, she would attack the piano and the pianist with a new fury. All of this, miraculously, without stopping her singing and without losing the rhythms of that warm calypso that she transformed into a torrid, musical zone.”

Her act was extremely risqué, sexual and like nothing the Cuban public had ever seen. (Neither had the audiences in New York, where she performed after her exile by Castro in 1962.) Even now videos of her best performances still shock in their rawness, their excessive aggressive and transgressive sexuality. And while her performances are extremely sexual, full of orgasmic moans and groans while lifting her skirts and kneading her breasts, they are not exactly sexy — at least to my taste — perhaps because they are too raw, too violent and too honest to fully seduce. It’s painful and at times uncomfortable to watch her use and abuse her body — to prostitute herself, so to speak. And yet there is something extremely compelling and powerful in her raw, violent actions, her uncontrolled rage and sensuality. Her magic, then, is her ability to work both ends of the axis of attraction and repulsion. Perhaps that is why the word “magnetic” was so often used to describe her performances.la-lupe-a-mi-me-llaman-la-lupe

She achieved this magnetism exactly by calling attention to the semiotics of sexuality and gender construction. A key element to her show was a type of strip act: She began by taking off her shoes, then her copious amounts of jewelry — Santeria amulets and necklaces, earrings, belts, brooches — then her headscarf. If she had continued in this vein, she would have just been referencing a conventional strip act. But there was nothing conventional about La Lupe. Instead, she would next take off her wig and her false eyelashes, hike up her pants, and enter a state of trance, or better yet, possession. She gave her body up to sensation, yelling, screaming, completely losing it. She would rub herself, hit herself, wipe her mouth convulsively, rub her hands together. It was indeed a strip act, but what she is stripping away is not her clothing really but rather the trappings of identity itself — the wigs, the makeup, the jewelry — the signifiers that we use in order to signify our status, our place in the world. She strips down not to reveal a coy, feminine sensuality but rather a raw, unbridled life force that is as disturbing as it is compelling.

In the early Sixties, she had ample audience for work. Upon her arrival to New York, she joined Mongo Santamaría’s band, then after two albums, defected to Tito Puente’s band. She is credited with updating his sound from démodé Big Band and traditional Cuban rhythms to the brasher street sound popular with of the barrio Latino, eventually known as Salsa. Again, La Lupe’s magic was her ability to embody a paradox, this time the paradox of the exiled and disenfranchised immigrant. She was able to stay true to the traditional rhythms of Cuba while adding a new, distinctive, irreverent and transgressive element of the barrio, creating a distinct Nuyorican identity — an identity that could really only exist in the margins, and was, in fact, an active reappropriation of the marginal.

She was both loved and hated for this brash, vulgar and streetwise persona. Those who loved her found her to be the embodiment the desire to bust out, let loose, scream, curse and shout. She gave voice in a distinctive Nuyorican way to the trials of being Latino in New York in the Sixties, making her part of the larger movement of bad boy salseros, notably Willie Colon and Hector LaVoe, who also played with and reappropriated their marginalized identities with album titles like El Malo (“the Bad Guy”) and Cosa Nuestra (“Our Thing”, literally, but with the noun and adjective switched in order to reference “Cosa Nostra,” a term for the Italian Mafia.)

The difference with La Lupe, however, is gender. Being a bad girl carries a much higher price than being a bad boy, and was a much more radical act. However, La Lupe did nothing to shy away from that label. In fact, she embraced it fully, creating a highly sexualized identity by employing heavy makeup, dramatic wigs and headdresses, orgasmic screams and moans, hot dance moves emphasizing her hips, sequined outfits, furs, jewelry, etc. While many of her performances were highly subversive and aggressive, she had a sense of humor, too. Check out her performance in the late Seventies on the Dick Cavett show. Past her prime, well into her forties, she shows up in gold dress, turban, cape and a basket of cookies she baked covered in matching gold fabric. At the end of her over-the-top performance, she strips down to a skin-tight white stretch jumpsuit, turns around to reveal a healthy dose of ass cleavage, bows and joins Dick Cavett back on the couch to munch on some homemade cookies. It’s this kind of behavior that led to her inclusion in Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay Notes on “Camp” as well as her immortalization in various drag performances throughout the years, most notably in the 1996 film version of The Birdcage and, most interestingly, in 1969 when she was replaced by one Hiram Velazquez (aka El Lupo, aka El Yiyiyo) in Tito Puente’s band, memorialized in the album Lupo El Fantástico on the Cotique label.

Not everyone was in on the joke, though. She was feared, hated and often censored, and was called a puta for her lack of respect for tradition, her sexual abandon and her outrageous costumes and comportment. Not only was she rejected in more traditional elements of society, but eventually she was blackballed by the world of Salsa as well.

After her champion and protector, Morris Levy, sold Tico records to Fania, La Lupe’s career was effectively over. Some say it was because her aggressive and unconventional behavior off stage became untenable to Fania’s owner, Jerry Masucci. Around this time she became more and more involved with the cult of Santería, canceling shows and recording dates if the caracoles (a method of divining the future in the religious tradition of Santería) deemed the commitments unwise. Many in the industry, among them her chief collaborator of the Sixties, Tito Puente, worried that her quite public embrace and expression of her Santería beliefs would jeopardize her career as well as anyone associated with her. Additionally her marriage fell apart as her husband became more and more addicted to drugs, became abusive towards her, and was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. Between paying her husband’s hospital bills and her excessive contributions to the Santeros, La Lupe went broke. Finally, the audience for Latin music stopped going to cabarets to see solo performers singing the types of boleros in which she excelled and instead frequented Salsa clubs in order to dance. And apparently there was room for only one female voice at Fania, and that spot was given to the venerable and equally talented, Celia Cruz.

After this, the story gets more and more tragic and bizarre, something out of a telenovela: La Lupe has a nervous breakdown, ends up on the street with her young daughter, relocates to the projects, falls and breaks her back, becoming wheelchair bound, renounces Santería, finds God in the evangelical Christian church, miraculously regains the ability to walk after having hands laid on her, and spends the last few years of her life traveling the world preaching the gospel and recording spirituals.

While it’s true that La Lupe was clearly less reliable and more difficult to work with than the incredibly professional Celia Cruz, it’s hard not to wonder if La Lupe was shown less tolerance for these typical diva traits because they were coupled with a revolutionary and intimidating eroticized sexuality in what was entirely man’s world, Fania. Certainly songs like 1968’s Oriente, in which La Lupe screams, “Ay, ay, ay, Tito Puente me botó!” (“Tito Puente fired me!”), Como Acostumbro, a Spanglish reworking of Frank Sinatra’s My Way and La Dueña de La Salsa (“Owner of Salsa”) express her frustration against her treatment in both the music business as well as her opinion of repressive societal norms.

The songs are certainly read that way in the gay and feminist Latino/a communities, where the work of La Lupe has been revived in recent years, most notably in the Almodóvar film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which ends with one of her best boleros, Puro Teatro. The song perfectly encapsulates the story of the film, which is the story of a woman who finally understands that her lover was just playing a role throughout their affair, and that in fact he doesn’t love her at all — he only loves himself and the role he plays. The final line is a brilliant coup de grace: “Y acuédate/ que ségun tu punto de vista/ yo soy la mala!” (“And remember / according to your point of view/ I’m the wicked one!”)

In the end, the true magic of La Lupe is that in a world that offered women one of two roles — Madonna or Whore — La Lupe gave her body and soul up to the role that gave her the most freedom, then dissected that role part by part, false eyelash by false eyelash, to reveal it for what it truly was: Puro Teatro.

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The Death of Watchers (an Obituary)

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photo by Libor Vitu

On November 30th of 2007, Chicago band Watchers played their last show. The show ended in hugs and handshakes. The night had an air of sadness but mostly all in attendance felt appreciation that they were able to witness the creative process and growth of a group of artists that wholeheartedly dedicated themselves to the art that they created.

Watchers was born at a time when “dance punk” bands were the rage and their focus on groove and their record label helped lump them into this category. The resurgence of “dance punk” in the form of NY bands like The Rapture and Radio 4 and the appearance of Watchers was not coincidence. Many of the musical elements that brewed the hybridization of the early 80’s (when genre tag “dance punk” was first conceived) were making a reappearance in record stores across the nation. Cds were still selling pretty well and labels were offering up older records for the first time on cd and reissuing them on lp. Bands like Liquid Liquid, A Certain Ratio, Konk and ESG found new fans in the 20’s somethings that were too young to experience them the first time around. Reggae re-issues galore were available to those with an ear for those rebellious rhythms. 60’s and 70’s music from places like Nigeria and Ethiopia played their part in shaping musical minds of the time as well. A trend towards “Northern Soul” was evident in the indie rock scene, bringing deejayed “soul nights” to bars and clubs all over. While unearthed musical gems brought fresh ideas from the past, the members of Watchers were some of many musicians taking it all in.

The genre misunderstanding worked in the Watchers’ favor for a short time. Their live show was (and remained throughout line up switches in the rhythm section) frantic, chaotic, exciting, danceable and sometimes bizarrely sexual. A cohesive and evocative visual aesthetic was created for their album artwork and posters that helped delineate a distinct mythical urban world that Watcher hailed from. The crowds were attending the shows and the material was just as, if not more infective, than NY’s finest. Armed with the standard 4 piece plus a percussionist and two female backing vocalists Watchers stepped forward with their first release “To The Rooftops.” Comparisons to Talking Heads and Gang Of Four peppered reviews. Admittedly fantastic tunes like their “When The Night Comes” echoed some of the same explorations into soulful new wave as the Talking Heads circa the 80’s live recordings on The Name Of The Band Is The Talking Heads. Surely these earlier bands were influences but Watchers seemed to be finding their path armed with similar tools as the bands often referred to in reviews. So in their musical search they uncovered sometimes chanted sometimes crooned vocals, extended grooves, and arty deconstructed guitar parts. The connection to the NY “dance punk” trend was ultimately limiting because it lead critics to assume a lot about the band’s intentions. When “dance punk” ended Watchers suffered the backlash from critics on upcoming releases and trend following crowds moved onto whatever was next.

As drummers and percussionists switched positions and then came and went, Watchers re-invented and rewrote and reconfigured as they grew. As the promise of large record sales and widespread popularity diminished, the adventurous musical spirit thrived. They lost their backing vocalists but gained a freedom to experiment with the recording process. The Dunes Phase ep produced a more unclassifiable sound from Watchers. The earlier comparisons made less sense than they once seemed to. The band was definitely on the road to an uncharted destination. The tunes were uniquely Watchers. The ep is brilliant in subtly, bounce and the songs reveal themselves in new and interesting ways. The structures and themes for the songs were in the voice of Watchers. They included two excellent remixes by Wayne Montana (bassist/keyboardist of The Eternals) on this ep. The remixes helped take their sound into unexpected places and sparked ideas for future mixing & recording.

It is around this time when they crossed paths with early 80’s NY musician James Chance and became the backing band for 3 U.S.  tours. Watchers would open. Touring with one of their musical heroes was inspiring  and challenging. Drummer changes and the downslide of the music industry took its toll on the band that put creative energy before timeliness or accessibility. The weight of being a band dragged on the spirits of the members as they discovered that the listening public doesn’t extend its listening ear willingly to bands that are not riding a wave of critical hype. The possibility of breaking up seemed to travel in the van with them, silent but taking up a lot of space.

Armed with the confidence, stamina and weariness of a long distance runner Watchers booked a month of time at Volume Studio to record what would become the Rabble ep and their final record, Vampire Driver (James Chance collaborations can be found on both). The Rabble ep was a Euro-only ep that supported their European tour. The record is great and is a wonderful set up for Vampire Driver, their finest work. Vampier Driver is experimental yet deliciously palatable. The record is adventurous and challenging, spontaneous and well constructed. The line-up for the final recordings brought forth their best material. Every facet of the Watchers’ nature is revealed and articulated. The studio time offered them the opportunity to stretch out and use the studio as an instrument as well. This benefited them untold amounts. Vampire Driver shows us a timeless band from a world of dark corners, paranoia, strained relationships, disturbing glimpses through bedroom curtains, corruption and disappointment. But even with all of this there is a positivity that exudes itself. With every song on this record offering another revelation of flavor it is difficult to point to stand out tracks but “(We’ve Got) A Witness”, “Rabble”, “Fire Ants”, and “Chess Champion” would make for a decent cross-section of stylistic offerings. These records are all we have left of the Watchers’ time here on earth and if you were not lucky enough to have experienced them live, take the time to check out these records. If you did see them live then you know what I say it true and you probably have several of these records in your collection already.

Watchers are survived by a vocalist, guitarist and percussionist whom will go on to make music together under another moniker.

Watchers R.I.P.

– Damon Locks

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artwork Ethan D’Ercole, color treatment by Damon Locks

 

http://www.myspace.com/watchers

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Three Ladies Of Brazil

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The musical history of Brazil is a treasure trove of beauty, mystery, spontaneity, politics, dexterity, simplicity, instinct and magic. The hardest part upon entering this sound cornucopia is figuring out which of the many facets of the Brazilian musical landscape speaks to you. On my first trip to Brazil, confronted with such a task, all signs pointed to music of the Tropicallia movement. The stars and records from this era have been enjoying a resurgence in the last decade. I picked up records by Jorge Ben, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil to get me started. The music from this era is elastic, surprising, revolutionary and inspired. I appreciated the peek into the new world but my interest felt more intellectual, not as emotional and physical as I wanted. The politics, the rule breaking and compositional risk taking were all up my alley but there was an unknown element that didn’t reach me fully. There was a building block, a touchstone, some key to unlock the secret that I had yet to discover.

Just before I left Brazil I happened upon a cd by a woman named Elis Regina whom is (previously unbeknownst to me) one of Brazil’s biggest stars. I instantly fell in love with her voice! The record was “Samba – Eu Canto Sim.” There was something I was hearing in these 60’s recordings that was so expressive emotionally and culturally that I yearned for more. The passion, joy and vulnerability that she expressed captured my heart. On my most recent trip to Brazil, I felt confident I could find that same quality that I was so enamored with in Elis in other voices. The results of my explorations are included here. The three magnificent voices described here are certainly not the exclusive bearers of vocal beauty in Brazilian music (far from it!). But these women made music that soars through the misty regions that merge sadness, hope, tenderness, love, loss and romance and are a great starting points for those, like myself, who enjoy traveling those aural terrains.

Elis Regina

 Out of all the women profiled here Elis Regina made the greatest impact on Brazilian music. She is heralded as one of Brazil’s finest. She is reportedly the catalyst for the genre/musical tag of MPB, “Musica Popular Brasileira” (Brazilian Popular Music). In the inception of MPB the genre denoted music with a connection to the intellectual and student population often lyrically political. MPB is a music born of Brazil. It is the growth of the homegrown aesthetic merged with contemporary influences.

Born in 1945, Elis Regina Carvalho Costa began singing professionally at age 11 for the O Clube Do Guri radio show. At the age of 16 she recorded her first record (Viva a Brotolandia). 1965 she recorded the song “Arrastao” (she had won a nationally televised song contest with this tune). When released as a single “Arrastao” was so popular that she became the biggest selling recordings artist outselling Carmen Miranda. This single brought about the birth of the music catagory MPB. Her next record (a collaboration with Jair Rodrigues) “Dois na Bossa” was the first record to sell over one million copies. In the 60’s and 70’s she embraced songs of the Tropicalia movement. Politics and music became intertwined in this time. Elis found herself speaking out against the Brazilian dictatorship. Her career, her political views and her personal life all came under public scrutiny as time worn on. She stuck to her opinions and only compromised when her own freedom was threatened (she was once threatened with jail time if she did not perform the national anthem at a military ceremony). Her contribution to Brazil’s musical development cannot be overstated. She performed songs written by all of the finest of Brazil’s songwriters. She died at the young age of 36 in 1982 of an accidental drug overdose. 100,000 fans (including some of Brazil’s top singers) went to her memorial held in a soccer stadium.

Listening to Elis Regina now strikes me as fresh and innovative as it was most likely perceived at the time. Her voice is amazing and her energy and spirit radiates through the speakers as if no time has past since the day the tunes were recorded. Seeing footage of her performing only emphasizes this impression. She is a natural and her delivery seems and sounds effortless. From what I have read she was fraught with insecurities, mood swings and plagued by relationship difficulties that more than likely lead to her secret drug usage but her work ethic kept the quality of her performances to the exacting standards she had always held for herself. My favorite of her recordings were done in the 60’s and early 70’s (“Samba – Eu Canto Assim”, “Elis”, “Elis Especial” and “Elis And Tom”) where her rising stardom and the aesthetic of the time blend to provide the best material of her career (in my opinion). When speaking about the voices of Brazilian music the inclusion of Elis Regina is incontrovertible.

Alaide Costa

Alaide Costa Silveira Mondin Gomide began her singing career at the the age of 13. After winning a contest as “Best Young Singer” she participated in a popular radio show on Radio Nacional. In 1957 she recorded her first 78 rpm “Tarde Demais” and was awarded “Revelation Of The Year.” Later that year she was recruited by Joao Gilberto to record several bossa nova tunes with him and then she recorded her first full length “Alaide Canta Suavemente” for RCA. Over the next 9 years continued to perform and record, then fell in love, married and had two children. In 1966 her career slowed and she took a break from recording. In 1972 she participated in the huge success of Milton Nascimento’s “Clube da Esquina” by singing on “Me Deixa em Paz” and recorded her own record “Alaide Costa & Oscar Castro-Neves.” In the years that followed she continued to record and perform and continues to this day (releasing “Voz & Piano” in 2006).

I discovered Alaide Costa with her recently re-issued “Afinal”(her 4th album, originally release in 1963). It had been a while since she had released anything before this record so it was decided to go with the name “Afinal” (“Finally”). It was recorded where she lived in Sao Paulo when she was pregnant with her first child. For the album she chose many previously unknown composers (whom she had been associated and working with already) instead of going with well known ones. This close connection with the writers makes the record that much more personal and engaging. “Afinal” afforded her the first opportunity to record a song that she wrote herself. Her voice is warm and rich. I have several of her lps but not all carry the same weigh. I would recommend “Afinal” and her self-titled record, “Alaide Costa” for you are looking for records to buy. The liner notes say that it was the general consensus in Brazil that black performers were only capable of successfully singing sambas but Alaide proved that incorrect by delivering romantic tunes with a style and confidence that defines classic.

Claudia (a.k.a. Claudya)

I don’t know much about Claudia. I don’t even know her last name. This lack of information will not keep me from praising her magical voice. I found out that she started singing at eight years old and as a teenager she participated in several music festivals in Brazil and Mexico. She has released around 20 records the most recent appears to be “Entre Amigos” from 1994, with the Zimbo Trio.

On my recent trip to Brazil I purchased her amazing self-titled first record and her recently re-issued “Jesus Cristo” (Sao Paulo friends were all a buzz about this record). Her self titled first record is lively and colorful. The year is 1967 and Claudia visually appears to be barely a teenager but her voice begets a talent won by years of dedication to the craft. The complex melody of the tune “Ninguem Da O Que Nao Tem” is delivered with the assuredness of a veteran. “Com Mais De 30” from “Jesus Cristo” is a surprisingly funky rock song that made the dance floor at Chakas Hotnights (Sao Paulo deejay dance party) come alive! Upon returning to the states I picked up her records “Voce’ Claudia Voce'” and “Deixa eu Dizer.” The title track “Deixa eu Dizer” is amazing! It captures in one song what I think is most spectacular about Claudia. Like the song, her approach is brassy, energetic, youthful and has a full bodied confidence that jumps out of the speakers. Like Elis Regina, there is a joyful exuberance in Claudia’s delivery that can be felt even in the most melon-colic of tunes. Unlike Elis, Claudia embraces rock elements and incorporates them with aplomb and fluidity.

I am not sure why I cannot find much written on her in english because she seems to have been very prolific and has a talent that rivals the greats.

– Damon Locks

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