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Summerstage! Afropop Producer Sean Barlow Talks with Erika Elliott, Artistic Director of Summerstage about their 2013 season

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Sean Barlow: Erika, welcome back to our annual Afropop Worldwide preview of cool stuff happening at SummerStage throughout the five boroughs…I don’t know how you guys pull it off!

Erika Elliott: Oh, thank you.

S.B.:  Both the breadth of it and the sheer talents, it looks like a great season!

E.E.:  Thanks, that means a lot.

S.B.:  So, the festivities are going to be beginning soon. Tell us about any themes you’re developing this year, any big-picture ideas you’re excited about?

E.E.:  Sure, actually the only real over-arching theme we have–of course in general we’re always trying to be as wide in our scope as possible, including as much music from as many places as we can–but one over-arching theme that we do have this year that I am really proud of is called ‘This is Hip Hop.’ We’re celebrating the 40 year legacy of hip hop in New York city with both pioneers and some of the folks that we think are important now. [40th Anniversary of Hip-Hop with DJ Kool Herc, Central Park SummerStage, August 10th, 7 pm] We are citing the August 10th 1973 date as the birthplace of hip hop. According to Kool Herc, who is considered the father of hip hop by many, and who we are doing a big concert with in Central Park and presenting in the Bronx. And we are using that as a moment to think about hip  hop as an art form that is distinctly New York in its origins but that is now obviously a global phenomenon. And so we have a lot of programming both in Central Park but also city-wide around that theme. We’re doing some interesting hip-hop acts from France and from Brazil, as well as doing a commissioned theater piece and some dance commissions and film and family programming. So we’re trying to be as multidisciplinary a celebration as possible, as well as celebrating this hometown genre.

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DJ Kool Herc 

S.B.:  Cool! Which has now conquered the world of course.

E.E.:  Of course it depends who you ask, but yes, I believe it is one of the most important musical styles that has developed in our lifetimes.

S.B.: Just kind of imagine, if you will, pointing at that origin story, imagine you are being Kool Herc’s story teller. What was that moment August 10th, 1973  like?

E.E.: What’s interesting is I wouldn’t have necessarily known that date, but I’ve been lucky enough to form a relationship with Kool Herc over the last few years. He came to me with the idea, and he really wanted to do something. We haven’t talking in detail about what it was like at that moment, because, like all things in culture, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and it’s not like he was the singular and  only person involved in the early creation of that cultural moment. But what I am always really impacted by and is really my passion is to be able to present artists who live in New York City, and who are still around and interested in telling their stories but who don’t get the exposure they deserve or the platform that they deserve, in my mind, to talk about their experiences, or just to be celebrated as cultural icons. You know, there are a lot of people who have impacted hip-hop culture, and he’s not alone in that, but I just think he’s really special. And this is a person who’s here in New York and who wants to be acknowledged for his role.

We are so lucky being in the city, because there are so many amazing artists who have impacted so many genres but hip-hop in particular. And you know, more than any interesting story I could tell you, I just think it is really important in a culture that has a lot of aspects of disposability, that we do look back and honor the people who have really impacted it.

S.B.:  That’s great. I really like the idea of honoring our elders from our city.

E.E.:  Yeah, me too! I’m just so honored and excited to be able to have the opportunity to do that. I’m a huge fan of hip-hop culture, and I’ve worked in that genre for most of my career. So to be able to give Kool Herc a platform to perform is for me an honor. And I hope that the people who come and pay attention will take a moment to realize just how special this is. And it’s in our life-time! This is a genre that didn’t exist 40 years ago, by and large. Of course there were precursors, there was Gil-Scott Heron and many other things that impacted it. But it’s a distinctly New York thing, and now to know how globally massive it is. We are presenting an artist called Planet Hemp that is huge in Brazil and in fact is playing Lollapalooza after us. So just how far and wide the range of impact this music has been across language, across nationality- it’s really, really an important story.

S.B.:  Yeah, by the way, many years ago, I saw Planet Hemp in Brazil.

E.E.:  Wow!

S.B.: Yeah, it just so happens that that show on Saturday, July 20th,  (Planet Hemp / Gaby Amarantos / Emicida / DJ sets by Greg Caz in association with Brasil Summerfest, 3:00pm) is side by side with your fantastic double Afropop bill of Oliver Mtukudzi and Fatoumata Diawara, on July 21st (Oliver Mtukudzi and The Black Spirits / Fatoumata Diawara / Krar Collective / DJ sets by DJ Sirak, 3:00pm)

Why don’t you pick up the story on some of the African acts that you’re excited about presenting this season.

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Femi Kuti 

E.E.:  We always have a good number of African artists, I think. And this year, we are excited about bringing Femi Kuti and Positive Force back to the venue. (Femi Kuti & The Positive Force / Sinkane / DJ sets by King Britt, June 23rd, 3:00pm) We have, traditionally, every 4 or 5 years, presented him. We just think he’s really important; his show is like nothing else, and his direct lineage, I mean, there are so many reasons why people love to see him, and people want to see him, and people should see him. And what I think is interesting about that date too, is that we’re pairing him with Sinkane, who is sort of an indie-rock act. Which might not expect who you would expect to be on a bill with Femi, but I see a lot of musical synergy with him.

S.B.: Tell us more about Sinkane.

E.E.:  Amhed Gallab, the singer/band-leader of Sinkane, is of Sudanese descent. His parents were refugees, and he grew between Europe and Africa, although now he has made his home in Brooklyn. There is an Afropop sensibility to Sinkane’s music; it’s not the core of what Amhed’s music is, but it is informed by it. So it’s almost like the third generation African influenced indie-rock, something that’s really interesting.

Sinkane live- Image from Guardian UK

 

Sinkane

S.B.:  It is, and it’s great to be able to see him in the park, for free, too.

E.E.:  Yes it is, and it’s relatively early in the season, in June 23rd. We have a lot of other stuff, but the biggest line-up is the Oliver Mtukudzi and Fatoumata Diawara with Krar Collective, and that’s just a really interesting mix of national origin and styles of African music. July 21st (Oliver Mtukudzi and The Black Spirits / Fatoumata Diawara / Krar Collective / DJ sets by DJ Sirak, 3:00pm)

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Fatoumata Diawara 

S.B.:  What’s special about Oliver and Fatoumata to you?

E.E.:  Well, Oliver is a legend of Zimbabwean music and an African icon and just important. What draws me to him is that he’s beloved by people that listen to African music, but he’s larger than that as well, just a larger world-music community appreciates him. When I’m booking, I’m trying to get the biggest and most important artists of any given genre. Some people were lucky enough to see him at globalFEST last January and got a little taste. And actually Fatoumata, who I didn’t get to see at Globalfest and have never seen live, from all accounts is just a rock star, and has a very punk-rock attitude and is this amazing woman who is just really dynamic on stage. I’m always trying to give a platform or voice to women in particular. I think she’s making a great start for herself. I haven’t seen her, I can’t wait to see her, but all the reports I got back from colleagues is that, literally, she’s a rock star!

S.B.:  Interesting you said she gives a platform for women. Do you feel that women are basically at a disadvantage in the music business?

E.E.:  Not necessarily, but as much as I want to be diverse in musical genres and nationalities, I want to make sure that we’re equally representing male voices and female voices. It’s not a challenge, I mean I think there’s plenty of really interesting female artists out there and I don’t think they’re under-represented in any way. I just think, when I’m booking, if I’m going to have four African acts, you know, Femi, Oliver and Krar Collective, at least one of them should be female.

S.B.:  I agree. And what  about the Krar Collective?

E.E.:  We are always doing a lot of west African music in general, so this is just the beginning of a step towards getting more Eastern African music represented. I hope we’re going to be doing a huge Ethiopian show next year, so this is kind of a preview.

S.B.: Why don’t you tell us about Gabby Amarantos ?

E.E.:  Ah, this is a really fun story! I still have not seen her live, but she really is the kind of ‘it’ girl of this musical genre called ‘tecno brega,’ the literal translation is ‘cheesy techno.’ That doesn’t sound very appealing, but the real thing is, she is really driving this new genre of music. And it is a dance-driven, fast-paced new style, mainly in northeastern Brazil. And she is really the woman who is at the front of it. They call her the Brazilian Beyoncé, but again, I don’t think that’s very accurate. But for me, the Brazil Summerfest has been a great partnership, and really trying to re-define  people’s notions of what Brazilian music is. Because there are a lot of new and emerging styles coming out Brazil that most people may or may not know about. Tecno Brega is one of them, and Gabby Amarantos is, I can say, a huge star in Brazil.  The festival is really trying to bring young, new voices and contemporary styles and expose them in the U.S., and in New York specifically. It’s really exciting, and it’s her New York debut. So that’s a big deal for us.

S.B.: How fantastic. We’ve had her on our show and we love her. And her videos are very creative, a lot of fun to watch. You mentioned the Brazil Summerfest- can you tell us more about that?

E.E.: Yeah, so Brazil Summerfest is our partner on that date, and this is our third year partnering with them. That date is the launch of the beginning of a week-long, Brazilian, multi-venue festival. So the big launch date in central park. Last year we did Bebel Gilberto, and the year before we did Marcelo D2. So that date with Gabby and Planet Hemp on July 20th is the first, and there are events through the city that whole week, including film and other stuff.

S.B.: So, we’ve been talking almost exclusively about Summerstage at Central Park, but I’ve noticed several artists that caught my fancy at Summerstage events in other boroughs.

E.E.:  Oh, like what?

S.B.:  Well, I always love Hector Lavoe and Ismael Rivera, so the idea of having a concentrated tribute to them sounds really good. (Tribute to Ismael Rivera With Moncho Rivera, June 25, 7:00pm, Tribute to Hector Lavoe, June 26, 7pm) And that’s St. Mary’s park. Why don’t you tell us about that?

E.E.:  Well, St. Mary’s Park is great, it’s South Bronx, and it’s a park where we always do almost exclusively salsa music. And it’s a great scene for anybody who loves to dance; the whole park becomes a giant dance floor. We traditionally do salsa music, and we’ve done a full range of that. But these tribute shows are a great success and we the catalog of music by both of those artists who are so beloved by that community. It’s really a great way to celebrate songs that they know and to give a great background for dancing.

S.B.:  Why don’t you talk about one or two more parks and tell us about something that’s happening there?

E.E.:  I would encourage folks who like Latin music to go see Larry Harlow at East River Park, it’s almost the end of our season, August 29th (Larry Harlow and The Latin Legends Band / DJ set by DJ Lucho, 7:00 pm) He’s a Fania legend, and the musical director of some of the most important salsa records, and a New Yorker! And it’s a great park, and a lot of people will be there, and I can say that that’s going to be a great destination.

S.B.:  Cool.

E.E.:  Second to that, if you’re into bachata, merengue, the Highbridge run of dates in Washington Heights (Toby Love, August 13th, Andy Andy, August 14th, Bachata Heightz, August 15th ) that’s a great way to kind of get a sense of what that music is about. I would encourage people to come to Highbridge Park, because it’s a lively show, it’s a lot of fun, and it’s a chance to see some great music in that community. There are  families, it’s multigenerational, and it’s free! Outside of Central Park, we really try to book artists that resonate with the communities in the neighborhoods where we book…

You can get a really interesting tour of New York City. There are a lot of parks and neighborhoods that prior to working here, I had never been there. But this is a reason to go to places in the city that you may not have been to, and hear great music while you’re at it.

S.B.:  So, let’s talk about the June 10th show (Rayvon /Morgan Heritage/ Wayne Wonder/ Red Fox / Golden Child / RSNY / Hosted by Shaggy, 7:00pm). You’re got Shaggy on the case, yes?

E.E.: So we’re working with him to kind of host and curate that day. Those are artists that are affiliated with his label from what I understand. So he’s helping to position and present them. So, of course, fingers crossed, we hope that he will do a couple songs. No promise of that yet, but he will be there hosting. One, they’re artists he believes in, so that sort of speaks for itself on some level, and that’s a great park to see a show, because it’s always a party.

S.B.: Give us a picture of Brooklyn’s Herbert Von King Park in full SummerStage vibe where the Shaggy extravaganza will be.

E.E.:  Well, there’s probably about 3,000 people; it’s one of few, from my experience, actual amphitheaters, so there’s a real stage, a tiered amphitheater that’s built into the park, so you’ve got great seating, and everyone standing up, and of course the park is full itself, standing and watching. And that tends to be a crowd that loves dancing, and loves music, and always looks forward to the series, whether it’s hip hop or gospel, or we’ve done a lot of reggae in that park. Like I said, it’s always a party, people are there to have a good time.

S.B.:  Excellent. You’ve sold me! Okay, I think we’ve covered a lot of ground. I want to wind up with one amazing artist that really stood out to me, and that’s Bobby McFerrin on August 20th. (Bobby McFerrin, Central Park 7:00pm) You know he’s been doing this “Bobby Meets the World” series where he travels around the globe to do ‘Bobby Meets Ireland,” “Bobby Meets Israel,” “Bobby Meets India” and beyond to meet and perform with those countries’ finest artists. It’s a lot of fun.

E.E.:  I’m really thrilled to have gotten him, he is so important, so large that he has a choice of venues to perform at, and we’re really thrilled to have him play at Summer Stage. I grew up knowing about him, and knowing his music. In terms of what you’re talking about, I’m not aware of his larger projects, but I know he is a teacher, and his range is so diverse, there are very few artists who are as adaptable as he is. He has a real deep love of music and just the diversity of his work is what really speaks to me. He’s doing everything from really physical things on stage, like this spectacular thing where he brought people up on stage and had them making sound and created a song with everybody making different sounds, just with people who he literally pulled from the audience. There is so much that is just physical performance, and then obviously the range of vocal stuff, and he’s a pop star too, he’s worked with everybody. I’m really looking forward to what it’s going to be, because I think the thing with him, is you never really know [what he’s going to do].  He has such a wide range of material, and songs and performances that, that you almost don’t know what you’re going to get.

S.B.: Well that makes it more exciting doesn’t it?

E.E.:  Yes it does!

S.B.:  Well thank you Erika, we’ll see you in the parks!

E.E.:  We’ll see you soon!

NOTE: Afropop is doing a contest in collaboration with SummerStage to win a free pair of air tickets from anywhere in the continental U.S.A. to come to New York for four days and three nights, July 19-21. Hotel accommodations provided by the Grace Hotel. We’ll be celebrating Afropop’s 25th anniversary at SummerStage—Central Park on Sunday July 21st, featuring a fantastic line up—Oliver Mutukudzi, Fatoumata Diawara and Krar Collective. And Afropop’s broadcast personality Georges Collinet will be there to host.

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