Fiddle Me This: 7 YouTube Videos That Re-imagine “Fiddler on the Roof”

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Barbara Isenberg reads from and discusses her new book, Tradition!, on Wednesday, Sep. 10.

Shalom Aleichem’s most famous character, Tevye the milkman, is probably more associated with the word “fiddler” than anyone who actually plays the instrument. The Broadway musical about the Everyman in conversation with God and his changing times predicted the turmoil of the 1960s, but it also outlived the tumultuous decade it anticipated—to this day scarcely a bar mitzvah or Jewish (or non-Jewish) wedding has occurred without the inclusion of the strains of “Tradition!” or the father of the bride dancing with his daughter to “Sunrise, Sunset.”

Truly, starting from Zero Mostel, who played Tevye in the original Broadway production fifty years ago—and whose very personality became the template for all Tevyes who followed—the musical has had an unbroken reach. You can literally spend hours on YouTube watching amateur productions, professional ones in other languages (I highly recommend looking for some of the Japanese ones), and much more general weirdness that is vaguely related to Fiddler on the Roof.

Below are some of my favorite clips, because they show the breadth of the phenomenon that is Fiddler. From a performance by Zero himself to marching bands, from foreign whistlers to contemporary casts giving us the “Anatevka Shake,” Fiddler is only halfway through its first century and is poised to remain a part of the cultural conversation for many years to come. And if you’re not convinced of Fiddler’s cultural entrenchment by a series of increasingly bizarre YouTube videos, check out Barbara Isenberg’s excellent new book about the musical’s historic rise, Tradition!, which comes out today. [The Los Angeles Times published this excerpt.] Then be sure to attend a lively talk by Isenberg at the Skirball, Wednesday, September 10. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy some choice Fiddler clips. Continue reading

My Awesome Experience at the Skirball (It Didn’t End with Prom)

Before dancing the night away, I took my prom pictures with my track and field teammates inside the Skirball’s Magnin Auditorium (you can tell it’s there by the yellow bands on the wall behind us).

The Skirball and I have a long rich history together. First of all, I attended my high school prom here. I danced the night away with my best friends in the Taper Courtyard. Then, when I was at UCLA, I would see it off the 405 as my parents drove me back to campus after weekends back home in Palmdale. When I spotted the Skirball during those car rides, I knew that I only had fifteen minutes (or forty-five with traffic!) to finish the reading I should have completed before I went home for the weekend. And now, this past summer, I have interned in the Communications and Marketing department, an awesome opportunity thanks to the Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Internship program. I have done other marketing internships during my undergraduate years, but never have I felt so much joy in coming to work as I did while walking through the doors of the Skirball each morning. It’s because each day I helped the team get the word out about exhibitions and programs, I knew I was sharing with my Los Angeles community the amazing experiences that are possible here at the Skirball.

During my internship, the exhibition The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats was on view, and to me, it illustrated a lot about the mission of the Skirball. It showed how the Skirball stands as a place where people of all different backgrounds can meet and feel respected.

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I love Keats’s use of marbled paper in his artwork. This piece, from the book entitled Dreams, is my favorite from the exhibition. Ezra Jack Keats, “It was hot. After supper Roberto came to his window to talk with Amy.” Final illustration for Dreams, 1974. Marbled paper and paint on board. Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi. Copyright Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.

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Echoing the Creole Past, Charting Zydeco’s Future

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One of the best parts of my job is that I have the privilege of working closely with the musicians we present. When preparing for our concerts, I like to listen to each band and familiarize myself with the history of the music they play as a way of getting to know them before I work with them in person. This Thursday night at Sunset Concerts, I’m thrilled to meet with and see a performance by Jeffery Broussard & The Creole Cowboys, Louisiana’s Creole zydeco innovators. But before I get into Broussard’s indelible contributions to the Creole and zydeco traditions, let’s take a peek at the history of zydeco music and dance.

 A Very Brief History of Zydeco

Zydeco music has its roots in the Creole tradition of rural Louisiana. After World War II, Creole musicians began incorporating elements of blues, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll that they heard on the radio and jukeboxes into Creole party music, which is referred to by some as “la-la.” Since that time, zydeco has continuously evolved and incorporated influences from myriad musical genres. Yet it maintains its character through instrumentation centered on the accordion and rubboard, the latter of which drives zydeco’s strong syncopated rhythms.

Zydeco’s specific rhythm lends itself to a traditional type of dance, also called zydeco. Reader, now is the time to put on those cowboy boots! Done in either a “closed position” (meaning you and your partner stay connected) or “club style” (done with an “open style” variety of lead-and-follow improvised variations), the music is counted in eights:  slow/quick/quick, slow/quick/quick, with accompanying footwork: step pause/step/step. No matter which style of zydeco you prefer, it’s all about having a good time. And what better place to practice your newly honed zydeco skills than at this week’s concert? We’re even laying down a dance floor!

Check out this informative, easy-to-follow zydeco instructional video.

Jeffery Broussard, Innovator and Preserver of the Zydeco Tradition

Jeffery Broussard & The Creole Cowboys are one of very few bands who still play traditional Creole music and also seamlessly incorporate contemporary zydeco into their repertoire. Born into a zydeco legacy, Broussard is the youngest son (and one of ten other siblings… I can only imagine what the line for the bathroom was like in the Broussard household) of the renowned zydeco vocalist and accordionist Delton Broussard.  At the tender age of eight, Jeffery began playing drums in his father’s band, the Lawtell Playboys.

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Yiddish Tango’s Close Embrace of History

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Yiddish Tango Club bandleader Gustavo Bulgach communes with his clarinet.

The Tango Club is dimly lit, nostalgic, romantic, surreal, magical, erotic, chaotic, unpredictable. A refuge for the soul, a place for the timeless, a melting pot of dreams and reality. . .

Thus begins the description of the Yiddish Tango Club on their Facebook page. Performing at Sunset Concerts this Thursday night, they are a band that seeks to ensnare listeners’ senses with a blend of Jewish soul music and the Argentinian tango of bandleader Gustavo Bulgach’s home country. From what I have listened to online in anticipation of their concert, I believe they will follow through on that promise. The Yiddish Tango Club is a beautiful musical ideal in an age of globalization—an international group of leading artists that is constantly in flux. Bulgach has performed all over the world with varying band members, essentially creating a new tango club at each performance. The approach is so ingrained in their performances that the group has included it in its mission, which promises that at “every show the audience and musicians will co-construct and manifest a unique Tango Club.” Continue reading

The Green Room, Merch Table, and More: Behind the Scenes at Sunset Concerts

It’s been a busy summer at the Skirball’s Sunset Concerts! As the Program department’s summer intern this year, it’s been a great experience to learn what it takes to put on one of these concerts each week. Now that I have four of them under my belt, I thought I’d share a little bit of what takes place in the hours before show time. Here’s a glimpse at what took place on August 7 as we prepared to present The Haden Triplets.

1:25 p.m.: I arrive at the Skirball later on concert days since we will be working late into the night. It is a sunny day with a light breeze and I chat with security staff about the perfect weather for tonight. We might even need to put sweaters on later!

1:30 p.m.: I have eight e-mails and a voicemail waiting for me. All except one are regarding last-minute updates to press parking or artist accommodations. I make all the necessary changes to our databases.

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Flaco Jiménez’s Modern Conjunto Is Right on the Button

Flaco Jiménez and Max Baca & Los Texmaniacs play the Sunset Concerts stage this Thursday evening, August 14, at 8:00 p.m. KPFK DJ Betto Arcos spins starting at 7:00 p.m.

Mexican conjunto music is that rare hybrid that perfectly embodies the spirit of the Skirball’s Sunset Concerts—enduring musical traditions and cross-cultural exchange, with one foot in the past but an eye fixed toward the future. For legendary accordionist Flaco Jiménez and bajo sexto player Max Bacawho take the Sunset Concerts stage together this Thursday night—that music is in their blood.

Born in San Antonio, Texas, Jiménez hails from a long line of conjunto musicians. His grandfather, Patricio Jiménez, played in dance halls with German and Polish immigrants who brought the polka and the button accordion to South Texas, and his father, Santiago Jiménez Sr., was instrumental in popularizing conjunto in the 1930s. While Flaco followed in his family’s footsteps, he also helped make conjunto relevant to new audiences in his own way—in addition to playing standards, he also played accordion with contemporary musicians like The Rolling Stones, Ry Cooder, and Bob Dylan.

Flaco Jiménez performing a rendition of “La Bamba” with Ry Cooder

Max Baca was only seven years old when he met Flaco Jiménez, but by then he had already taken up the accordion and was performing with his own father, who was also an accordionist. It was Jiménez who inspired Baca to switch instruments and become the renowned bajo sexto player that he is today. Continue reading

A Musical Family Tree: The Haden Triplets Branch Out

The Haden Triplets will take the Sunset Concerts stage this Thursday night, August 7, at 8:00 p.m. Come early and hear DJ Robert Mora do a set starting at 7:00 p.m.. Photo by Jo McCaughey.

I was really excited when I first heard that The Haden Triplets were going to perform at this year’s Sunset Concerts. These three talented women—Tanya Haden, Rachel Haden, and Petra Haden—have a tremendous artistic range and have done so many unique, eclectic, high-quality projects, on their own and collectively. From collaborations with Beck, Weezer, the Silversun Pickups, and Bette Midler, to touring with Todd Rundgren, to creating an a capella version of The Who’s classic album The Who Sells Out, to their latest project performing their own gorgeous interpretations of classic American country and folk songs—there is nothing these sisters can’t do!

Check out the Haden Triplets performing a recent NPR Tiny Desk concert. Careful! You may end up playing this on repeat, as I have been doing.

I particularly appreciate that they choose to make music as a family and that they are carrying on their family’s rich tradition of music. The Haden Triplets, along with their brother, Josh, of the band Spain, are following in the footsteps of their father, the late legendary jazz bassist Charlie Haden, as well as those of their grandparents who performed as The Haden Family when Charlie was a child. Together they are not only preserving an important musical history but also making this music accessible to a new generation. Continue reading

Por Fin Viene: Conjunto Chappottín y Sus Estrellas in L.A.

I visited Cuba in December 2011 to attend a major international jazz festival. It was a great chance to view the Havana beaches and cityscape, including the Hotel Nacional de Cuba (pictured above right). Photos by Jordan Peimer.

When I think of Cuban music, I think of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Its grand ballroom has hosted all the greats—from Conjunto Chappottín y Sus Estrellas, founded by renowned bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez (1911–1970), to, more recently, members of the Buena Vista Social Club. In the 1940s and 1950s, the hotel was the center of Havana’s rhythmic culture, a place of glamour where residents and vacationers alike could rub elbows with celebrities, gangsters, and politicians and dance the son. [Incidentally, a large influx of American Jews traveled to Cuba specifically to explore the Latin sounds that had provided the soundtrack to the Borscht Belt’s nightly dance parties. There, in the Catskill Mountains, Latin music had been entertaining Jewish audiences for decades.]

You’ll definitely get on your feet and dance when you hear Conjunto Chappottín y Sus Estrellas this week at Sunset Concerts. Here’s a clip of the band performing at Lincoln Center in New York this year.

This Thursday night at Sunset Concerts, Conjunto Chappottín y Sus Estrellas perform in the ensemble’s Los Angeles debut, bringing more than seven decades of history as icons of Cuban son. In recognition of how much Angelenos love Latin dancing, the Skirball will be removing many rows of seats and installing a dance floor for the show. We invite you to bring your dancing shoes and dance the night away—just like you would have in 1940s Cuba at the Hotel Nacional! Continue reading

House Party with Noura

Noura and me at the party in Timbuktu.

Noura Mint Seymali comes from Mauritanian music royalty. Her father was the first person to apply written notation to folk music in Mauritania. Her stepmother is Dimi Mint Abba, one of the few Mauritanian singers to achieve a degree of fame outside her home country. And Noura herself is a master of the ardine, a harp-like instrument containing about fifteen strings and built from a calabash base and two cylindrical wooden rods. But these impressive facts do nothing to prepare you for Noura’s voice—an instrument of such power, control, and resonance that it seems to fundamentally rearrange the DNA of the listener. Like Umm Kulthum (Egypt), Sussan Deyhim (Iran), and Fairuz (Lebanon) before her, Noura takes the root sounds of her homeland and transforms them into something new and ecstatic.

Umm Kulthum performing “Baeed Anak” in Paris, November 1967.

I first met Noura in Timbuktu, Mali, in January 2012. Like me (and thousands of others), she had come to Timbuktu for the twelfth edition of Mali’s famed Festival au Désert. Unfortunately, geopolitical events had recently forced the festival’s organizers to abandon their longstanding location in the rural commune of Essakane. As a result, the festival instead took place within walking distance of Timbuktu’s city limits. One evening, as the festival was winding down, I received word of a house concert being held by my hosts in Timbuktu in their private compound just across from my quarters. Noura was scheduled to perform with her band at the festival the following day, but that evening we were treated to an intimate command performance that ran late into the night. Continue reading

Step by Step: An Interview with Lula Washington

The 2014 Summer Amphitheater series at the Skirball is in full swing. One of the new acts this season is the internationally renowned dance company Lula Washington Dance Theatre, performing on Saturday, August 23. For the first time, the company will be performing at the Skirball for families, so I thought we should take some time to get to know Lula and hear about her thirty-year career as a dancer, choreographer, and mentor on the LA dance scene.

How did you get started in dance?
When I was in high school I enrolled in a class where the teacher played music and we danced and exercised to the music. It was a dancercise class, not a real dance class, but I got the dance bug there. I only took the class because I wanted to get out of Physical Education. Later, when I went to Harbor Community College to study nursing, I walked past a dance class. I had never seen anything like it before. I had only seen dance on television. I kept watching and I eventually went in and asked if I could take the class. The teacher told me to show her what I could do. It was obvious that I did not know how to do anything. She said, “You’ve never had a dance class, have you?” I said, “No, but if you let me in this class, I will work real hard and I will do my best to catch on.” She let me in. That’s how I got my start. I had no dance training. I did my first dance concert with my teacher at Harbor Community College. She is also the one who took me to my first dance performance. She drove me and her other students to Royce Hall at UCLA to see Alvin Ailey. Seeing the Ailey company sealed it for me. I decided to dance.

 

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performing “Wade in the Water” from Revelations.

 

What part of performing for live audiences do you enjoy the most?
I believe that the art of dance has the power to change people’s lives. Dance can inspire people and uplift people. Every time we perform for live audiences, I know that someone will be moved in a deeply personal and powerful way. That gives me joy. The direct feedback from our audiences is what I enjoy most. After our shows, people come up to me and they tell me how much they were touched by our performance. I also enjoy it when I see a dancer reach a new level of excellence. When I see the dancers step up and hit it, and when I see them grow and surpass where they had been before, I get so excited. It gives me great joy.

 

The Lula Washington Dance Theater performing Spontaneous Combustion in China.

 

Dance has remained popular on television and in films. What do you think is the difference between seeing dance on a screen versus seeing it live in a performance space?
You can feel dance when it is live. There is something intangible that does not come through on the flat screen. Dance is more powerful when it is live. You can hear the feet on the floor, the breathing of the dancers. You see them flying through space and have a truer sense of how high they are leaping, or falling, or sailing across the room. There is no comparison to seeing dance live and seeing it on screen. Live is better.

 

What is one memorable moment from your performing or choreography career that stands out?
My work with James Cameron on the movie Avatar is what stands out most in my mind. I choreographed movement, rituals, and the Na’vi greetings to each other for the film.  My dancers had to wear these motion capture suits Continue reading