The Cubans are Here!

The American Dance Festival and the Carolina Theatre of Durham co-present Ballet Folklórico Cutumba, from Santiago de Cuba

It’s something I didn’t expect to happen in my lifetime. The invisible wall between the United States and Cuba has been cracking for years, but finally, finally, the cracks are big enough for an entire troupe of traditional Afro-Cuban dancers and musicians to come bounding through. In spite of various bureaucratic impediments, including the breakdown of the US State Department’s visa computers, and the threat of thunderstorms that might have grounded the last flight out of Miami on the 14th, Ballet Folklórico Cutumba and all their costumes and drums made it to Durham to present their spectacular show, which was introduced by the very excited Baba Chuck Davis. Davis was unusually ebullient, even for him, thrilled that another aspect of African culture would soon be more widely known. “Roots and Cuban Tradition” will repeat tonight at 8 p.m.

The dancing of the deity Yemayä was particularly powerful.  Ballet Folklórico Cutumba at ADF, 7/15/15. Photo: Grant Halverson.

The dancing of the deity Yemayä was particularly powerful. Ballet Folklórico Cutumba on the Carolina Theatre stage, at ADF  7/15/15. Photo: Grant Halverson.

Some years ago, my passion for textiles lead me from Nigerian cloth into a broader study of west African arts, which led me to the dancing of masks, which led to studying the orisha—deities–especially those of the Yoruba and nearby cultures, which led me to Santeria and voudun and the head-smacking realization that much of African Atlantic culture had been preserved and carried on for centuries on the far side of that ocean. The slave trade killed millions, but it did not kill the orisha, who continued to make their meanings even when operating under the mantle of the Roman Catholic church and other ways not immediately apparent to white people.

Yemayä is a great example. Goddess of the Oceans, Great Mother, Queen of the New Year, she slipped easily under the blue cloak of the Virgin Mary, Stella Maris, whose son is recognized by all wise men on the Feast of the Epiphany. The first dance in Ballet Folklórico Cutumba’s program is traditional to that day. In “Procesión ‘King’s Party'” seven of the great Yoruba deities dance in turn, demonstrating the powers arising from their essential characteristics. The most splendid of these in last night’s dancing was Yemayä. You may not have known her name, but her power and her association with water and life were unmistakable.

There follows a song and dance to Changó (Shangó, Xango), a powerful warrior and lover among the orisha, who is associated with drumming and dancing as well as thunder and lightning. He was hot, as he should be, in his red and white, with his symbol, the double-headed axe, as he prepared the way for the splendid ensemble of “Warriors and Handmaidens.” There are only eight dancers on this tour, but their energy, and the brilliant, bouffant costumes decorated with pattern and enriched with ruffles and floating panels, made them seem like many more. With the musicians and singers all in white on a narrow dais behind them, the stage was filled nearly to spillover.

Six pieces follow post-intermission, with more emphasis on the fine singers and drummers. I thought the peak was a sharp piece in which the four male dancers, all in white, with soft white shoes, perform a series of solos and duets that bear striking resemblance to some of the Nicholas Brothers classic tap dancing routines–but without tapping. Then all the dancers come out in flat hard sandals, and comprise another rhythm section, slapping, not tapping, the flat soles against the floor. The crisp sounds beating together with and in contrast to the rounder sounds of the drums was just amazing.

But wait, there’s more! The final piece made dance pattern visible by means of colored ribbons on a pole. Working in two teams, the dancers move over, under and through, to wrap the top of the pole in a round braid made from the pendant ribbons; they braid sections to lie flat along the pole; then they weave around it again–before undoing the whole thing. All this occurs at warp speed, under the influence of rapid drumming. They dance the weave!

There are no deep questions explored here. There’s no angst, no innovative social commentary, no provocative new choreography–but my mind was blown. This program shows an aspect of dance that is as important as any other. And it is more than OK to get happy with it. There one thing, though, probably a permanent conundrum. As the Grateful Dead used to croon, in a song about a man dying, “it all leads up to this day.” If African people had not been enslaved and taken to Cuba, we would not be seeing these dances in Durham. I don’t know know what to do with that, except praise the persistence and adaptivity of the culture those people brought with them.

The evening culminates with the eye-popping "Clasical Tahona." Ballet Folklórico Cutumba at ADF, 7/15/15. Photo: Grant Halverson.

The evening culminates with the eye-popping “Clasical Tahona.” Ballet Folklórico Cutumba on the Carolina Theatre stage, at ADF  7/15/15. Photo: Grant Halverson.

Sassy Savoyards: UTOPIA, LIMITED, This Weekend Only

Durham’s venerable Gilbert and Sullivan group, The Durham Savoyards, Ltd., presents its annual show this weekend only at the Carolina Theatre. This year’s romp is the timely UTOPIA, LIMITED, directed by Derrick Ivey. I saw it on the 27th: read my review, titled “Durham Savoyards’ Sparkling Utopia, Limited.” Or just get tickets for this happy entertainment. I enjoyed it enormously.

Jim Burnette as King Paramount, and Alana Sealy as The Lady Sophy, in the Durham Savoyards production of UTOPIA, LIMITED. Photo courtesy of The Durham Savoyards, Ltd.

Jim Burnette as King Paramount, and Alana Sealy as The Lady Sophy, in the Durham Savoyards 2015 production,  UTOPIA, LIMITED. Photo: Joe Cohn.

Faith, Fate, Fado: Queenly Ana Moura in Durham

I fell for fado when I visited Portugal nearly 14 years ago. I went after the Lisboa Olympics, and before Portugal went on the euro and was still very affordable–and before fado had become a world music sensation. This very Portuguese music is in some ways similar to the blues–melancholy and capable of accommodating many lyrics within simple musical structures–and to the smoky sounds of flamenco. This latter characteristic comes from the Moorish music that informed fado as it developed in the 19th century, in the ancient Moorish quarter of Lisboa, the Alfama. Traditional fado uses a small group of instruments and a vocalist–the Portuguese guitar, with its 12 ringing strings; a bass guitar, and perhaps a six-string guitar. The sound of its musical poetry is  very intimate. Many of Portugal’s poets have written for the form, or their poems have been adapted by singers to the format.

Ana Moura, fadista. Photo courtesy Duke Performances.

Ana Moura, fadista. Photo courtesy Duke Performances.

In this century, fado has begun to push out from its simple form. Young singers like Mariza made it into a flashy show–very fun, but not very satisfying. But another young singer found a truer path. Ana Moura, brought to Durham’s Carolina Theatre on March 29 by Duke Performances, began as a traditionalist. Her voice is low, husky, sensuous, and she cites the greatest of fado singers, Amalia Rodriguez, as her inspiration. Yet Moura has increasingly experimented with other musical forms, other languages–but she imbues them with the spirit and sound of fado. On the 29th, she performed a number of songs from her new CD, Desfado, and all were fado, even if they began as something else.

The best example is Moura’s version of Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You. I’ve never before heard anyone other than Joni sing Joni’s songs that I thought was worthy. (Judy Collins–no.) But Ana Moura got right to the soul of the song, “so bitter and so sweet.” She  can’t go to the high notes, but that is OK, it’s beautiful, it’s right, it’s in her blood “like holy wine.”

I don’t know enough Portuguese to do more than pick out a few key words, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve told people before that listening to fado is like listening to Nina Simone sing in Portuguese. In some ways the words simply provide shapes for the feelings, the deep emotions, which are revealed by the sounds and textures of the voice.  Moura’s band could hardly be separated from her singing. They form a very tight unit, especially the core players Ângelo Freire on the Portuguese guitar, Pedro Marreiros on acoustic six sstring guitar, and André Moreira on acoustic bass. Freire could blister that instrument, which looks somewhat like an overgrown mandolin. I kept imagining him showing up at Merlefest and astonishing the old-time crowd. The more contemporary songs require key boards and drums, which were played with both verve and reserve by João Gomes and Mário Costa, respectively.

Moura is a big international star now, accustomed to playing large theaters and huge stadium venues. She’s well into a worldwide tour in support of Desfado. But her show in the modestly-sized Carolina was beautifully mounted (wonderful lighting) and she was warm, gracious and unhurried, treating the adoring crowd to kind words, modest bows and a sweet encore. I think everyone there was already a fan. If by chance you are unacquainted with her music, start with her website, where there are several videos, or the interview with video clips on DP’s The Thread blogsite. Youtube is replete with videos, bootleg and not, including her singing in Lisboa’s enormous stadium with The Rolling Stones on No Expectations. Mick looks a little stunned when her voice swells out…and the crowd was in her hand, just as if she had them all in a tiny club.  A case of her is just not enough.

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