Sunset Concerts at the Skirball Week 3: Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars

The Skirball’s Sunset Concerts—FREE Thursday night performances of the best in American and world music—continue this week with West African band Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. Each week, SkirBlog will feature a preview of the upcoming performer written by a member of our Programs department. Read about the band, view photos and videos … then make your way here on Thursday to watch the show in our magnificent outdoor courtyard. Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, this Thursday, August 8, at 8:00 p.m. slras_14_by_jay_dickman-lan

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars are a West African band who formed out of the ashes of war and violence during Sierra Leone’s civil war. On the band’s website, co-founder Reuben M. Koroma writes, “We try to bring out sensitive issues that are affecting the world. It is all of our responsibility that the masses are suffering. We bring our positive messages into the world so we can expect a positive change in the world. And, most importantly, bring about peace.”

Upon first hearing Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, I was impressed by their adept musicianship, and moved by their story of perseverance and the positive message of their music. They have devoted themselves deeply to causes such as stopping political violence Continue reading

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Sunset Concerts at the Skirball Week 2: Shye Ben-Tzur

The Skirball’s Sunset Concerts—FREE Thursday night performances of the best in American and world music—continue this week with acclaimed composer and musician Shye Ben-Tzur. Each week, SkirBlog will feature a preview of the upcoming performer written by a member of our Programs department. Read about the band, view photos and videos … then make your way here on Thursday to watch the show in our magnificent outdoor courtyard. Shye Ben-Tzur, this Thursday, August 1, at 8:00 p.m.

Skirball_Sunset Concerts_Shye-and-band-performingAmong my music-loving, concert-going friends, we can trace our fanaticism to a handful of shared seminal moments in our youth: going to impromptu garage shows in high school, waiting in line at a venue to secure a good view of the stage, staying out late to talk to bands. Yet rarely do these moments add up to a life’s calling, much less a cultural and spiritual journey that literally takes you thousands of miles away from home—such as in the case of Shye Ben-Tzur.

Ben-Tzur’s origin story reads like a modern retelling of an ancient epic: Continue reading

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Kicking Off Sunset Concerts with The Belle Brigade!

Summertime at the Skirball means Sunset Concerts—FREE Thursday night performances of the best in American and world music! To celebrate, each week a different member of the Skirball’s Program Department will preview the upcoming performer, giving a little insight as to how and why they were perfect for this year’s series. Read about the band, view photos, watch videos … then make your way here each Thursday to see the band live and in person in our magnificent outdoor courtyard. First up: indie band The Belle Brigade, this Thursday, July 25, at 8:00 p.m.

The Belle Brigade. Photo by John Peets.

The Belle Brigade. Photo by John Peets.

I saw The Belle Brigade for the first time in April 2011, when they opened for k.d. lang at the Troubadour. I hadn’t heard of them before then, but the buzz began in the line to enter the venue. We happened to be standing next to some of their family friends who were excited to see the performance. These enthusiastic, proud friends talked up the band’s folky pop, Fleetwood Mac sound and gorgeous harmonies—reminiscent of the Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel. I admit to being somewhat skeptical, despite sibling bandleaders Barbara and Ethan Gruska’s impressive musical lineage: their father, Jay Gruska, is an accomplished songwriter and their grandfather is legendary composer John Williams.

Once inside, my husband and I rushed to the front—we made it to third row, center stage—to position ourselves for k.d.’s set, still more than hour away. When The Belle Brigade took the stage, I thought, “Okay, let’s see what these guys can do.” Continue reading

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Rhythm Is Gonna Get You

The mission of music group Rhythm Child has always been to get people of all ages up and moving. For the past six years Rhythm Child founder, Norm Jones, has been inspiring young drummers and their families to get up and move as part of the Skirball’s Family Amphitheater Performances series. If you’ve been to any of the group’s last six performances, you know that once Jones passes out his instruments and lays down a beat, the Amphitheater comes thumping to life! I’ve always loved the energy and enthusiasm of Rhythm Child, so I thought it would be interesting to find out more about this fun and feisty musical collective as they plan for their Amphitheater performance on July 21st.

How did you get started in performance?
I grew up being inspired by the performance of others (my brother’s band, choirs in church, supper club shows that my mom took me to). I watched how these singers moved the audience with style, humor, and emotion. For years I practiced at the mirror in my basement before I ever took the stage and performed for people.

What part of performing for live audiences do you enjoy the most?
I love the immediate feedback that you get from a live audience. There is an exchange of energy that is unquestionable. There is a feeling of being out there on the edge without much of a safety net and usually the audience is open and willing to go for the ride. What I hope for is that everyone walks away feeling connected and inspired.

What is the most memorable moment from your career?
I must say that performing at the White House was pretty cool. I got to have my family with me on stage for one of the greatest days of my career.

What music or artist inspires you? Continue reading

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President’s Greeting: Jul/Aug 2013

PG coverThe 2013 Sunset Concerts at the Skirball begin with a performance by folk-rock stars and Los Angeles natives The Belle Brigade. The brother-and-sister act hails from a family of great musicians, including their grandfather, the famed film composer John Williams. The duo honors the legacy of their lineage while innovating upon the sixties and seventies pop and classic Americana they grew up admiring.

As our Sunset Concerts demonstrate, music is a mighty force for preserving and shaping culture. Each summer, when my wife, Myna, and I bring our entire family together—children and grandchildren—for a reunion vacation, we sing as a family. It has become a tradition for us. Often we revisit the folk tunes that filled the airwaves when I was a young man. Although our sons came of age decades later, those timeless compositions are among their favorites to play on guitar and lead us in song. Our grandchildren are just beginning to learn the lyrics and the melodies. The music is woven into our collective, heartfelt memories.

My wife, Myna, and I dance to the irresistible rhythms of De Temps Antan at last year's Sunset Concerts. Photo by Bonnie Perkinson.

My wife, Myna, and I dance to the irresistible rhythms of De Temps Antan at last year’s Sunset Concerts. Photo by Bonnie Perkinson.

This July and August enjoy music at our Sunset Concerts, Family Amphitheater Performances, and Into the Night series. I look forward to coming together as a community and celebrating music that crosses time and place.

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Take Five with Hunter Hunted

In just a few short months since forming, Hunter Hunted has already made a big splash, including a nationally televised gig on Conan, a raucous set in front of a packed crowd at the recent Make Music Pasadena festival, and upcoming dates with Weezer and Fitz and the Tantrums. The duo, made up of Dan Chang and Michael Garner, writes songs with soaring melodies and intricate harmonies mixed with a slightly hard edge. (Their music video for “End of the World” shows them running for their lives in a post-apocalyptic landscape.)

On Friday, July 12, come watch Hunter Hunted perform in the Skirball’s outdoor courtyard during Into the Night: Secrets and Truth, a late-night celebration of the exhibition Gary Baseman: The Door Is Always Open. The night also features the band Harriet, a special art performance created by artist Gary Baseman and choreographer Sarah Elgart, and other activities.

Hunter Hunted recently took a break from recording to answer a few questions from the studio:

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Having a Chat with Nightmare and the Cat

L.A.-based rock band Nightmare and the Cat makes music that escapes easy categorization, blending jangly pop, bluesy riffs, and anthemic hooks that soar with lead singer Django Stewart’s powerful vocals. Catch them this Thursday night when they play Gary Baseman’s House Party to celebrate the opening of Gary Baseman: The Door Is Always Open. Stewart speaks below about the band and their unique collaborations with Baseman, who will paint live on stage during their set.

NTC_NYGary272What is the origin of the name “Nightmare and the Cat”?
It is a song by an amazing artist who never got signed and never made it on stage. He disappeared without a trace, and Sam and I just loved the song and his lyrics so much, we named our band after him. I’m hoping that one day we may meet him wherever he may be.

How did you meet Gary Baseman?
We met Gary at our friend Carina Round’s birthday party. She had written a song for one of his characters and Gary came out of nowhere dressed in a giant pink ChouChou costume and asked Claire in our band to dance.

Watch a video of ChouChous dancing:

How did Baseman painting on stage while you play come about?
This was a very natural occurrence. I feel Gary has always been making art while we sing and play. Painting was just a grander medium than the usual little sketchbook. Continue reading

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Dr. L. Subramaniam’s Global Fusion Knows No Borders

It was 1988, I was living in New York. Mira Nair’s award-winning movie Salaam Bombay! had just been released. I remember its strong impact on me and how I was riveted by the poignant and highly effective soundtrack which gave it another dimension. The score was by Dr. L. Subramaniam, the esteemed master of Karnatic (South Indian) violin.

Here’s the trailer for Salaam Bombay! with music by Dr. L. Subramaniam.

Exploring further, I discovered not only Subramaniam’s Indian classical recordings, but also his East/West fusion works and cross-cultural collaborations. The recipient of many awards since a young age, and equally trained in classical Indian and Western music, Dr. L. Subramaniam is a prolific recording artist who has worked with musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Larry Coryell, Stéphane Grappelli, Yehudi Menuhin, Ali Akbar Khan, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Jean-Luc Ponty, Stanley Clarke, Zubin Mehta, and the New York Philharmonic, to name a few. Continue reading

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President’s Greeting: Jan/Feb 2013

Beginning in January, we present a new music series entitled “Journeys and Encounters,” featuring an eclectic line-up of global talents. Though they hail from diverse ethnic backgrounds and artistic traditions, their music-making demonstrates the beauty that emerges from openhearted cross-cultural exchange.

My son Gideon and I in Rwamagana, Rwanda.

In 2012, I journeyed to Rwamagana, in rural Rwanda, and enjoyed firsthand the joy of connecting across cultures. I was visiting Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (the Kinyarwanda-Hebrew name, agahozo–shalom, translates roughly to “a place of peace where tears are dried”). Co-founded by my son Gideon Herscher, it is a residential community for orphans emotionally scarred by the genocide in Rwanda. One evening, Gideon brought his guitar to a gathering and sang a traditional Hebrew lullaby. The young teens listened attentively. Gideon invited them to sing a Rwandan lullaby, which they did at the top of their lungs. Continue reading

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“Persian Lioness” Meets “American Soul/Blues Master”

While working for the Skirball, I long hoped to curate a concert series entirely dedicated to cross-cultural collaborations. This idea was propelled into action when I first heard Scent of Reunion: Love Duets Across Civilizations by Mahsa Vahdat and Mighty Sam McClain. I was moved by the beauty of the songs, their soulful vocals and the unforced rapport between a Persian singer and an American blues artist, each securely anchored in their respective traditions.

The blues has influenced a number of Persian musicians, most notably Mohsen Namjoo, Kiosk, and Rana Farhan (click on the links to see video clips I especially like from each artist). But in the case of Mahsa and Mighty Sam, the encounter takes the form of a musical conversation. For me it works because melancholy, nostalgia, and longing are at the core of both traditional Persian and blues singing. Although stylistically different, it is the emotion conveyed by both singers that makes this musical marriage so fruitful. Mahsa and Mighty Sam explore the connection between their musical heritages with grace and fluidity.

Their collaboration goes beyond two people and in fact spans three continents: Norwegian producer and poet Erik Hillestad met Mahsa on a journey to Iran while working on the album Lullabies From the Axis of Evil. They ended up working on several recordings together and eventually met and befriended Persian poet Mohammad Ebrahim Jafari. The lyrics of Scent of Reunion and the newly released follow-up, A Deeper Tone of Longing, were written by the two poets, in Farsi and English, and set to music composed by Mahsa and Norwegian musicians Sigvart Dagsland and Knut Reiersrud. To give the English lyrics just the right voice, they could not have come up with a better collaborator than Mighty Sam McClain.

The songs on both albums are about love, longing, separation, reunion, and hope. In an interview, Mighty Sam explains how Mahsa’s singing touched him to the core and that he did not need to understand the words to hear and feel her. He chokes up when he reveals the project’s emotional and spiritual meaningfulness for him. In turn, Mahsa explains that both styles of music express sadness and yearning but also hope and aspiration. She discovered through this project that the human heart is one and this oneness is the conduit allowing them to sing so easily together.

Mahsa Vahdat and Mighty Sam McClain live in concert.

Such is the beauty of music, an art form so fluid and universal that it speaks to us across, time, cultures, geography, politics, and language barriers. Music is healing, and in these times, a series based on the notion of connections without boundaries gives us more reason for hope and rejoicing. It is with anticipation that I look forward to the California premiere of Mahsa Vahdat and Mighty Sam McClain’s at the Skirball on Thursday, November 8.

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