Tim Gillis

Tim Gillis

Music Matters: Marcia Butler's Memoir The Skin Above My Knee at Print

One would think all childhood discoveries are the joyous sort, filling the young ones with wide-eyed wonder and doting parents with pride and love. But the rite of passage Marcia Butler describes in her new memoir, about being a professional oboist while living a complicated double life in New York, sounds a definitive down note.

As professional musician for 25 years, Butler performed as a principal oboist and soloist on some of the most renowned of New York and international stages, with many high-profile musicians and orchestra players — including pianist Andre Watts, composer and pianist Keith Jarrett and soprano Dawn Upshaw. But her early home life in the 1950s was full of physical and sexual abuse, perpetuated by her father and tacitly condoned by her mother.

“Music saved my life,” Butler said last week, ahead of her visit to Print bookstore for a reading from her new work, The Skin Above My Knee, on Thursday, March 16. But it was a life that would always be beset by depression, substance abuse, and dangerous decisions.

When Butler was young, the memoir tells, her father regularly abused her older sister, Jinx, while her mother ignored her pleas to step in. The household was always on edge, the family members awaiting his next violent outburst while attempting countermeasures to assuage his rage.

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In order to get her father to drive her to music lesson, Butler has to sit on his lap, a recurring act she perceived to be perverse. Even at four years old she senses something was wrong about it, but she trades on those intuitions so she can get to class.

Her life under the lights, she tells The Phoenix in a phone interview, always distracted others from her secrets and herself from their resulting pain. “My mother was profoundly distancing. My father acted on Jinx in an overt, physical way and on me in a covert way,” she said. “I always thought she had the harder time because my father’s abuse toward me was secret. We had this unspoken childhood agreement: he was brought to arousal while I was on his lap, and he would bring me to oboe lessons.”

Her memoir, published last month by Little, Brown and Company, details this harrowing journey as Butler, inspired by an early love for classical German opera, finds the drive to become a professional musician no matter the cost.

Along the way, she provides wonderfully rich and detailed interludes on classical music and the instruments and personalities that populate it, along with vignettes describing what musicians experience on stage before the lights go up, and what the stomach, head, and fingers feel during a performance. These passages blend with first-person accounts of her fractured home life, damaging relationships, tales of resorting to theft for survival, drug abuse, suicide attempts, cancer diagnoses.

“I was living parallel lives, of a professional oboist as well as living on a seedy level, and I wanted to delineate those two narratives,” Butler says. “This way of psychologically separating my personal life with my professional life was actually the way I lived my life.”

While the sections may seem thematically discordant, they both come back to the music. When she was a child, her mother would vacuum to the strains of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. Norwegian opera singer Kirsten Flagstad sang Isolde’s final aria, the Liebestod, while Butler lay on the carpet, feeling and hearing the buzzes.

“I didn’t know what it was about, but I sensed that this was a profound universal expression of love,” she said. Liebestod means love-death, and it was not too long before the young music student learned that the two go hand-in-hand.

“It was quite the experience for a four-year-old to have,” she said. “As instruments dropped in my lap as I grew older, I instinctively knew to hang onto this thing.”

“It’s a great book for musicians to read,” says Kate Beever, a local musician and founder of Maine Music & Health, a music therapy organization in southern Maine. “It tells her story, but also gives that extra thing to think about. If you go back and listen to the music and think about how she related to it, you start to think of it in a new way. If I learn about the composer’s life, I learn there’s a different aspect to the music.”

Beever employs music therapy with disabled clients, using instruments to help them find tactile and audible treatment. Her professional clients struggle mainly with developmental and intellectual disabilities, and she works with them in medical settings. She’s also taken them on the road, one time visiting the State Theatre to have them perform on stage, to feel the thrill even if in an empty venue.

While she says parts of the memoir made for tough reading, she loved the way Butler references actual pieces of music as we’re carried through the plot.

In Butler’s story, when not steeped in her music (or obsessively hand-making reeds), she lives a meager existence, surviving on a head of lettuce and saltines for meals. She steals from her roommate and uses phony subway tokens until she’s able to land a restaurant job. That work introduced her to a lifestyle of late nights, drinking and using drugs, and eventually the promiscuity she says she was initiated into at a young age.

“There was so much shame,” she says. “It felt devious, secretive, like everything was hidden. Growing up, not much was said about sex. Nothing was explained by my mother, of course, but I was experiencing sex (albeit in an abstracted form, which was really about power) with my father. It was a destructive, devastating exchange. When I got to New York City, I didn’t have a healthy understanding of what sex or love meant and I was unable to say no to anyone. I thought if a man wanted to be with me, I had to say yes. You think it’s freedom to say yes, but it’s a cage.”

Her relationships came to include such toxic exchanges that suicide seemed a viable escape. But for the intervention of a passerby, her suicide attempt walking into New York City traffic would have succeeded.

“I darted out and within seconds she pushed me to the side,” Butler said of the time she walked into traffic, amazed that someone had been watching her. “I was saved. It’s amazing what people see in New York City. Sometimes you see nothing, sometimes you see everything.”

Through that story and the many other tales within The Skin Above My Knee, Butler keeps the lens focused squarely on what she can be accountable for.

“I’m careful in the memoir not to take prisoners,” Butler says. “I report what happened to me. I wanted my book to be very clean and just about my own interactions with these people. Who knows what made these men behave the way they did? But you need a wide bandwidth of compassion.”

The art of using music as medicine, and practice and performance as therapy, has long been an industry truism. Portland has renown as a musical town, and musicians and their fans alike often seek the stage lights for solace from hard times. But not everything works toward the cure.

“Music therapy, in terms of self-medication, can be an escape, especially for children when they’re dealing with stuff they don’t understand,” Beever says. “It seems like there could be nothing wrong with music, but for some it can be detrimental. In same way you can drown yourself with anything — working out, for example. It’s the same with music. A person could be playing all the time and blocking out the world.

“I sometimes worry about people who say ‘music is my therapy.’ It’s good to have other activities — writing poetry, getting together with friends, getting out in nature.”

Beever says the Portland music scene doesn’t always provide the greatest of settings. “In bars, at parties — it’s like a cycle of unhealthiness. The music, the art itself, can be really healing, but the setting where a lot of us are forced to present our music can be detrimental, especially the rock scene. You go play, everyone’s drinking, you’re up late.”

But for Butler, music was the only way out, and well worth the risk.

Marcia Butler discusses her memoir The Skin Above My Knee | March 16, 7 p.m. | Print: A Bookstore, 273 Congress St., Portland | printbookstore.com

  • Published in Books

Have Fingers, Will Travel

While much of Maine was hunkering down and getting ready for another big snowfall, a few lucky ones made the trek to Mayo Street Arts on March 12 to get schooled in a guitar lesson that blends East and West.

Hiroya Tsukamoto, a New York-based guitarist and singer from Kyoto, Japan, led a workshop on “Cinematic Guitar Poetry,” a program which includes music, storytelling, and poetry.

In this intimate workshop, Michael Libby of Lewiston, Jon Sweeney of Eliot and Steve Bizub of Cape Elizabeth learned various techniques of fingerstyle guitar, wherein one plays guitar with the fingers or fingernails in place of a pick. Tsukamoto demonstrated various chords as well as basic musical theory.

In the workshop, he shared techniques that blend contemporary stylings with traditional aspects of the music from his home country. His musical influences growing up were decidedly Western — a lot of American rock and folk music, and of course some Axl Rose. He often enjoys mixing traditional Japanese music with an experimental side, using a loop pedal to record his voice and guitar in real time, and then creating layers on top of that.

“Though I play by myself, it sounds like an orchestra atmosphere,” Tsukamoto tells us. “I also improvise and some songs I keep very simple. I tell a lot of stories during a show, giving the Japanese background and history so people can connect with the music.”

Tsukamoto has been leading concerts internationally for several years now, including several appearances at Blue Note in New York City with his group and on Japanese national television. He performs more than one hundred shows a year across the U.S. and internationally.

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My first instrument was a five-string banjo,” he said from the Big Apple ahead of the Portland workshop. It’s an instrument he picked up when he was five. “I’d been playing different kinds of music, but listened to a lot of Simon and Garfunkel, the Carpenters, as well as bands like Guns ’N’ Roses. After Berklee, I became more focused on jazz, which made me think of moving to Boston permanently to study deeper.”

He stuck around Beantown for a year and then moved to New York City.

“I thought it would be good, but there are too many musicians there. It’s so competitive. In the beginning, I was more focused on jazz, after seeing all these talented guitar players, I started thinking about doing something different,” he said. “I became more of a solo guitar player and did whole concerts by myself. It was a big change. Also, after I moved to New York, I tried to follow the ‘train’ of the city, the contemporary vibe, but six years ago, I decided to go back to my past, all the way from where I came from. Now I try to compose songs with that base.”

In 2000, Tsukamoto received a scholarship to Berklee College of Music and came to the United States. In Boston, he formed his own group called Interoceanico, or Inter-oceanic, which consists of unique musicians from different continents (including Latin Grammy nominee Colombian singer Marta Gomez). The group has released three acclaimed records, “The Other Side of the World,” “Confluencia,” and “Where the River Shines.” Tsukamoto has released two solo albums, “Heartland” and “Places,” on the Japanese record label 333 discs.

Tsukamoto appeared as part of Mayo Street’s International Heritage Music Series, which is based on the idea that music is inherent to strengthening community in cultures around the world. The series celebrates regional music and dance traditions.

  • Published in Music

WHAT IS A CRIMINAL? The intersection of racial justice and policing in Portland

Jean Valjean is hungry so he steals a loaf of bread. He cannot work and his family is starving, so he commits this necessary act.


But Javert, the local police official, considers it a threat to society and pursues the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables for hundreds of pages, convinced he is a criminal who will always return to committing crimes. The reader, on the other hand, roots for Valjean.


Rodion Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky's protagonist in Crime and Punishment, does not consider himself a criminal. He's an ubermensch, a superman who does not have to abide by the laws of men. When he kills a worthless pawnbroker, he thinks his premeditated murder no crime; in fact, he considers it a benefit to rid society of this usurious wretch. Only when he kills her younger sister, when she happens upon the scene, does he begin to feel the remorse that will be his undoing. The reader delights in the just suffering he endures.


What we think of these fictional criminals might be straightforward enough: a misdemeanor and a felony, respectively. But the settings of these novels — Revolution-era France and St. Petersburg in the 1860s — were relatively homogenous and told stories of class, not race. Today’s Portland, Maine, has an increasingly mixed population and a predominantly white police force. Issues of racial profiling are prevalent.


These issues were on tap for the season’s first Think & Drink, presented at SPACE Gallery on Feb. 28. Titled “What Is a Criminal?”, the event was the first in a four-part series of panel discussions called “Policing, Protection, Community, and Trust in the 21st Century,” sponsored by the Maine Humanities Council and moderated by Samaa Abdurraqib of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

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Portland shows up to talk about policing in Portland at the SPACE Gallery's first "Think and Drink" event. 


Anne Schlitt, assistant director of the MHC, knew the first subject area needed representatives from all perspectives to weigh in.


“We collaborated deeply with the moderator to develop the content, and since it’s such a hot-button topic, we called together an advisory board,” Schlitt said. That group included Westbrook Police Chief Janine Roberts, Phippsburg Police Chief John Skroski, who brought a smaller rural policing perspective, Dr. Leroy M. Rowe, assistant professor of African American History and Politics at USM, Rachel Healy from the ACLU, Jim Burke from UMaine Law School, Danielle Conway, who in July of 2015 became the seventh dean and the first African American to lead Maine’s public law school since its founding in 1962, and Dr. Darren Ranco, chair of Native American Programs at the University of Maine.


“When we started, our interest in the topic of policing wasn’t immediately polarizing," Schlitt said. "We needed to dig in and understand the broader topics of policing and racial injustice. That’s the way we created the four sections [of the series], and tried to represent that with our panelists.” She adds that the theme was decided before the elections. Since that time hate crimes across the country — including bomb threats to Jewish schools, mosque burnings, heightened KKK presence, and destruction of cemeteries — have risen dramatically.


Schlitt has a personal interest in the subject, she says. Her husband, Erick Halpin, is a patrol office in Damariscotta. “It’s not one of the larger immigration populations. It’s largely white. His experience with race has been more theoretical.”


Abdurraqib doesn’t deal with incidents of police profiling in her work at the MCEDV, but works indirectly with both sides of policing. “I support advocates across the state who do direct support work, but they work more closely with police,” she said. “In my job, I’m providing training for law enforcement for risk assessment tools, so when they go to a domestic violence call, they can go through risk assessment to see whether a person who committed a domestic violence offense before is more likely to commit another one.”


For the discussion, the decision to do prep work with several members of law enforcement turned out to be crucial foresight. The panelists for the evening were Alicia Wilcox, from the School of Legal Studies, Husson University; Michael Rocque, a sociology professor from Bates College; and Carl Williams of the National Lawyers Guild. (The Portland Police Department was not represented, neither on the panel nor in attendance.)
Williams later voiced concern of the representational imbalance in an email.


“I don’t have experience with the police in Portland. As far as I know, no one from the police came to the community discussion. That seems unfortunate,” he wrote, stating that he was not commenting as a representative of the ACLU or the National Lawyers Guild. “I have heard of multiple incidences of Portland police killing community members. That is chilling. I am aware of the police and district attorney pursuing cases against Black Lives Matter protesters. That is upsetting. I have read and seen videos of Maine's governor saying things that appear to be openly racist. That is unacceptable.”

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The panelists: Michael Rocque, Alicia Wilcox, and Karl Williams. Photos courtesy of the Maine Humanities Council. 


These issues provided added impetus for the series’ content this year. “We’re deeply aware of the questions around race, and the way policing has been fraught over time, and how the issues have been bubbling to the surface,” Schlitt adds. "There’s no right or wrong answer. We’re interested in creating the conversation so people will be better informed as they go about the work of policy or policing. We hope members of law enforcement come to the sessions. Certainly, the panelists will provide a variety of perspectives to help the audience examine their own beliefs with fresh eyes.”
The consensus of the discussion, of panelists and audience alike at the packed SPACE Gallery, is that we are all criminals, whether of street or white-collar crime, misdemeanor or felony, and especially whether or not we get caught. Some of us are perceived as criminals beforehand and are policed accordingly. These perceptions are often based on race, gender, age, but also such factors as what neighborhood we’re in, what time of day or night it is, and what we’re wearing.  Language barriers can also present all kinds of problems. Drug use or mental illness can alter dramatically the nature of a police call.


Over the past 25 years, Maine averaged 2.5 police-involved shootings a year. But there were six shootings last year, and three already this year. At a point during the event, the most recent shooting, of a man with a BB rifle, was referenced.  “Say his name!” someone in the audience called. “Chance Baker,” another responded.


Of the panelists, Abdurraqib asked, “What is a crime?” and “What is the process you have to go through to be labeled a criminal, to be charged with a crime?”


The group provided a range of answers. “If I got a ticket for driving over the speed limit, maybe get a verbal warning or get a ticket, but I don’t consider myself a criminal,” Wilcox said. “When you’re a kid and experiment with drugs and don’t get caught, and your neighbor doesn’t know, you don’t feel like a criminal. Did you sleep with someone before their age of consent? Probably everyone here has committed a crime. If we got caught, we maybe get a warning. We think of it as an ‘us’ and ‘them,’ but is it really? Or is that just what we have been taught?”


The less personal and more theoretical classroom perspective was added. “When I ask students to list the top 10 crimes, they all include the ones we expect —murder, rape, theft,” Rocque said. “I ask them why pointing a gun at someone is a greater crime. There any many more millions of dollars lost to white-collar crime than street theft.”


The ACLU lawyer took a more direct approach. “Look at who uses drugs and who sells drugs. Even though whites and blacks both sell and use drugs, each within their own communities, black folks and brown folks get arrested,” Williams said. “Then the cycle starts — small crimes, prison, parole violation. Then they go back in. When they get out, they can’t get a job and they go back in again. They are more likely to get picked up for violating parole and they go back in. Cops profile a car, pull it over. A driver has four packets of heroin. There are four people in the car. Police charge all four of them with collective trafficking. A crime is whatever the dominant society deems is the most threatening. But dominant society uses violence, the threat of force, to make us appear in court, for example.”


Williams feels that perception of a “criminal” is too-often formed from a tilted system, rigged towards the rich or powerful.


“The profession that commits the most cases of domestic violence? Cops. But you don’t see too many cops get arrested for that. What is the cause of that? Privilege? Fear of retribution from the dominant society?” he asked, in contrast to “the kid stopped three different times by police who are profiling. The kid in the hoodie eventually loses his cool, gets arrested for disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, trespassing — all because the last bus has left so the bus stop is closed.”

After the event, I asked Abdurraqib, “Beyond panel discussions and demonstrations, how can police and community get in the same room to address racial or religious profiling?”


“It’s not the function of the panel discussions to propose legislation," she said. "Sometimes people at an event meet like-minded people and go out and encourage legislators to make changes.” Abdurraqib notes that two legislators and a city councilor were present at the Feb. 28 event.

“The goal is to have community conversations, but not come out of a conversation with a bullet-point platform on how to change social climate or policing.” The MHC is trying to find more of the blue perspective, “but it’s kind of difficult to have police officers sit on stage and have that conversation,” Schlitt said.


Upcoming Think & Drinks: in the series, “Policing, Protection, Community, and Trust in the 21st Century.” Social discussions on policing in Maine, its intersection with race, and how local experience connects with what we are seeing across the U.S.


April 5: “What Makes a Police Officer?: Training and Expectations of Law Enforcement”.
May 3: “Who’s Watching Whom?: Physical Surveillance By and Of the Police.
June 7: “What’s the Harm?: Emotional Challenges of Policing and Being Policed.
All events are free and run from 6:30–8 p.m. at SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland | https://mainehumanities.org/blog/think-drink-blog/think-drink-portland-2017/ 

"Protecting the environment is not a partisan issue" Why Mainers resist Trump's EPA pick

Scott Pruitt was confirmed twice last week. First as the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency. The second confirmation was of his suspected ties to oil, gas, and coal companies after thousands of his emails to fossil fuel execs were leaked.

 

Environmental groups fear the worst, but there are specific steps you can take on an individual, local level to fight back.

 

Several area non-profits have teamed up to create “protester primers,” workshops on environmental crises and actionable ways to combat them.

 

“Resist: Skills to Fight Back for Maine's Environment: Portland” will be held on March 8 at the University of Southern Maine. While many attendees may be of a similar political persuasion, the intent is to avoid politics.

 

“We really want to highlight that this is not a partisan event,” said Sophie Halpin, communications and development coordinator at Maine Conservation Voters, the lead organizer. “We’re not talking about resisting Trump because he’s a Republican. It’s because of his statements and cabinet picks. We want everyone to come together to say that the environment is not a partisan issue; it’s a basic human right.”

 

The idea is to draw attention to President Trump’s policy proposals and cabinet picks.

 

“It’s not normal that Scott Pruitt is heading the EPA, which he has sued several times,” said Melissa Mann, advocacy coordinator. “We were thankful that (Senators Angus) King and (Susan) Collins voted against him, but he’s still in charge so we’re looking at what that means for the Clean Air and Water Acts.”

 

“There has been an outpouring of support,” Halpin said. “There’s a waitlist to get into training, so we’re looking to do more for staff members of organizations that want to expand what they do into advocacy work as well.”

 

For more than two years, the Maine Conservation Voters group has worked to increase the number of Mainers talking about climate change and taking on civic engagement around environmental issues around the state. As part of that foundational effort, she worked with community members and students from Unity College and the University of Maine to identify major areas of concern. Interest in organizing informational and action sessions peaked at the end of last year.

 

“After the election, there was fever pitch of people who wanted to do this work on a higher level,” Mann says. “We knew we needed to do more, to build on that activist energy. And to do that within our mission, we needed to give Mainers the means and method to respond. We also wanted to make sure it wasn’t a one-man show.”

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Maine students advocating for renewable solar energy. 

Maine Conservation Voters worked with the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Maine Public Health Association, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and the Wilderness Society to create the events. In addition, speakers and workshop leaders representing several other groups, including Revision Energy and Knack Factory, a multimedia production company based in Portland, will provide information about the current threats to national parks, how to grow solar power in Maine, and effective measures to defend the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

 

Once well armed with this environmental information, work-shoppers will get a quick lesson in Organizing 101.

 

Next, attendees will get busy with workshops on how to put all this info into action.

 

They’ll learn how to lobby legislators on issues that matter the most to them, how to make an impact with unique stories, and how to get messages out using social media and letters to the editor.

 

Maine Speaker of the House Sara Gideon (D-Freeport) will address Portlanders and lead the session on how to lobby legislators. Majority Leader Erin Herbig (D-Belfast) will speak at the Belfast workshop.

 

One of the most important issues to Mainers is arsenic in well water. According to Mann, York and Kennebec counties have some of the highest reported incidents of toxicity. In some counties, more than 20 percent of their wells are contaminated with arsenic above federal safety levels.

 

“We’re working to get increased testing,” she said. “There is arsenic in well-water across the state. Education is key. In Kennebec County, children with arsenic in their well water had lower average IQ scores than their peers. Arsenic is also linked to kidney failure, as well as skin, bladder, and lung cancer. Arsenic in water is a social justice issue.”

 

These specific examples from our state offer credible evidence of national concerns.

 

“On a bigger scale, it relates to why protecting water and air are so important,” Halpin said. “So we can make these environmental issues protect all families in Maine.”

  • Published in News

Bridging gaps through music with the Portland Culture Exchange

Protesters gathered on Monument Square Friday night, with sign-holders chanting to passing cars and each other that “Hey Ho! Donald Trump has got to go.” The woman on the bullhorn implored art walkers to come out each month in similar fashion.

 

Across the street, in the atrium of the Portland Public Library, critics of the current regime took another approach, gathering musicians from several immigrant communities for the Portland Culture Exchange’s music jam and dance party. They had “Mainer” shirts especially made for the day, crafted by Pigeon, the street name for artist Orson Horchler.

 

This first public event comes after a year of several impromptu house parties, introducing newcomers to the city to their neighbors and future friends. Lilly Pearlman anchors the group and plays fiddle and bass guitar. She grew up in Portland, went to college in New York, and then spent time in Brazil.  

 

“When I moved back, I wanted to know a Portland that wasn’t as homogenous as the one I grew up in. I thought ‘What stands in the way?’ I realized that we’re not homogenous, we’re segregated.”

 

She wanted a project that called upon peoples’ various skills and yet somehow united them. She started going to English classes, where she met new Mainers and talked about their interests. Almost everybody she met loved music; most played an instrument. Cuisine and culture quickly became two additional distinguished commonalities. They started holding monthly French-English discussions, and the group plans to add Spanish and Arabic exchanges to the mix. Despite national concerns with immigration policies and the swirling confusion of their effects on locals, the Portland Culture Exchange has remained intent on sharing traditions, food, and music.

 

“We are bridging the gaps between American-born and new Mainers through common passions to create the opportunity for building relationships, friendships between communities that are usually segregated,” she said. “Frequently, even when there’s interest between multiple groups to get together, it’s uncomfortable. There are cultural barriers. Sometimes people think the differences are greater than they are.”

 

The group started having informal parties that turned into Monument Square street jams. The library’s atrium was packed at Friday night’s event, and they’re considering moving to a bigger space the next time. But for the group, it’s not all song and dance.

 

They’re planning a big event called “We Sing for Peace,” using some of the Jewish traditions of Eastern Europe, especially the notion of a tisch – a joyous public celebration with a meal set up on a long table, often held on a Friday, “when Orthodox Jews aren’t supposed to play musical instruments, so they sing into the night,” Pearlman said. “Niggunim, or traditional melodies, for example. Based on that, we are going to have people lead easy songs in their languages that call for peace. We’ll probably need more space, perhaps the auditorium.”

 

“The notion of a tisch comes from my Jewish (Ashkenazi, Eastern European) heritage,” said Pearlman, who teaches ceilidh dances from her Scottish heritage at their jams. She says the project works to build a real multicultural view of what ‘Portland culture' is, based on Portland's residents and their multifaceted histories and traditions.

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“We Sing for Peace” is modeled after a tisch because that, too, is part of Portland's traditions. “While the project is grounded in the sharing, appreciating, and exchanging of traditions and cultures, we put great value on the people who bring Portland's cultural richness,” she said.

 

“When Eric Simido sings an Angolan song, he makes his Angolan culture essential to Portland culture. When the folks at Chez Okapi — a Congolese restaurant on St. John Street where we host our French-English language exchanges — cook fufu and pundu in Portland, they bring their home with them, and they build Portland's culture. When any brilliant foreign-born Mainer uses their ingenuity to create a new business in Portland, their unique way of thinking and being makes its way into this community’s roots and foundation. So we see our exchange as part of an intertwining of long histories in the place where we all now share common space: Portland.”

 

The musical regulars include Pearlman and her brother Neil on the keyboard. Majoja, on the drums and guitar, and Eric Simido, vocals and guitar, are both from Angola. Ness Smith-Savedoff, who grew up in Portland and Switzerland, plays drums. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda are regularly represented. Everyone is invited to bring an instrument and come and dance. At “We Sing for Peace,” tentatively scheduled for April, they hope to have as many as ten countries joining voice.

 

Majoja is the nickname or artistic name for Kingebeni Kilaka Kelorde, who is originally from the north of Angola. “I had to go to DR Congo, the country where I lived for about two decades because my country was in civil war.”

 

He studied art in high school, and is now a painter and musician. “I have loved the music since my childhood because it has been part of my traditional culture,” he said.

 

“I have been in Portland since October 2015. It was not easy for me to be accustomed with the weather, oh nooo! So cold, the lifestyle is so fast and busy. When I met with Jenny van West, she connected me with Pigeon and he connected me with Lilly Pearlman. She talked to me about the Portland Culture Exchange. It seemed to be an interesting project and I promised her to give all my energies because I believe that everyone has something special to share to make Portland a better place for everyone. I live in the US , and I love this multicultural country. Culture is the identity of people. I'd like to see Portland growing up like all the metropolitan cities around the world. Portland Culture Exchange is our first step.”

 

For more information, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

  • Published in Music

The Ghosts of Johnson City revisits America's dark history with The Devil's Gold

Portland's Ghosts of Johnson City romp through town to kick off their new album, The Devil’s Gold, an epic collection of 15 songs that celebrates the near-forgotten lives of classic American archetypes.

 

The February 11 concert at the Portland House of Music and Events will showcase the band's rich, evocative music, with its stories populated with gold miners, settlers, sailors, and lumberjacks. Present in the album is tragedy and poignancy and a depth of personal insights into the rugged past.

 

Amos Libby — founder, lead vocalist, and guitar and banjo player — teaches Middle Eastern and Indian music at Bates, Bowdoin, and Colby colleges. He also plays in the Okbari Middle Eastern Ensemble, but is now steeped in headlining the Ghosts’ with Douglas Porter on guitar, banjo, and vocals; Erik Neilson on baritone ukulele and vocals; Erik Winter on pump organ; and Ian Riley on upright bass.

 

Recently, they added Sarah Mueller on violin and Bethany Winter on vocals, who “bring a different texture to everything we do,” Libby says. “They have really changed us a lot.”

 

The band’s second album is a follow-up to the critically acclaimed Am I Born to Die?, a collection of rare covers which were reconstructed and interpreted in a current vein. Libby rewrote the melodies for that album, but all the lyrics (and most of the music) were traditional. They formed the seed for the new record, for which he wrote all the music and lyrics, and the resulting effort is a full bloom of Appalachian music and the stories of oft-overlooked ancestors.

 

The material for the new work was mined from various archives, letters back and forth from men in search of gold and their hopeful wives and families back home. The album crosses the country, collecting musical gems along the way. One song dips into Winter’s family history and relates a tragic drowning.

 

“You can find historical letters that range ones written during the Gold Rush and the Civil War,” Libby said. “Some of the songs are based on actual events that occurred. Others are how I imagined these people as they struggled to survive early America.”

 

All 15 songs were recorded and mixed in two days at Acadia Recording Company in Portland. They intended the concentrated music marathon to give the new release an album concept and capture the essence of these myriad characters, and the result is an overwhelming success.

 

The album begins with the mournful and plaintive “Jordan’s Golden Shore,” which features a tinge of Irish harmonies. Next, comes the title track, based on letters written by doomed gold miners sending word to their loved ones about their prospects for fortune. It’s about greed and people losing their moral compass in the space of looking for profit.

 

“To Rest in California” is an answer to “Devil’s Gold,” inspired by letters written to the miners, imagined from the point-of-views of the wives, much more pragmatic and cautionary.

 

“I remember reading the miners’ letters (of which, many more are accessible) and wondering what the letters going to these miners were like,” Libby said.

 

All of the songs read like classic short stories of Americana, and listeners would do well to take their time with the album, reading along with the lyrics for a virtual history lesson.

 

“When we started this, I didn’t know what it would look like,” Libby said, “But telling stories in music is one of the oldest things people have done.”

 

One song is a powerful addition to Maine folklore, drawing on a band member’s personal family history. “A Drowning at the Stillwater” is about Nora “Mabel” Henderson Cole, drowned in the Stillwater River in Old Town in 1911, leaving behind her husband and young daughters, Flo and Frances. Cole was Winter’s great-grandmother. This song tells the story of that sad day and the mystery surrounding Cole’s death. “The portrait that graces the inside cover of this album is that of Mrs. Cole, and we hope that she rests in eternal peace wherever she may be,” the album’s liner notes read.

 

“He grew up in Old Town,” Libby said of Winter. “The photos in the center of the (album’s) booklet are at the spot at the Stillwater where she disappeared. Erik had a copy of his great-grandmother’s obituary and knew the family lore around that tragedy. It inspired me to write a song about it.”

 

“These Last Fond Words of Mine” is a sort of sea shanty in reverse, this time offering a landed man’s lament over his lost love in her watery grave. “The Northern Timber” is a wonderful anthem, conjuring The Mallett Brothers Band and their recent album of 20th-century Maine working songs, The Falling of the Pine. And “The Murder of the Pioneer Preacher of Deadwood” has all the visual elements of a great music video, something the band plans in the near future, depending on the album’s reception.

 

Getting the album down to 15 songs may have been Libby’s biggest challenge.

 

“In the last year, I’ve written about 50 of these songs,” he said. “It was difficult for us to decide how to populate this world, where all of these people are struggling through their own circumstances. The end for all of us is the same journey, and we all take that journey alone. It was tough to pare it down. I know it’s asking a lot of the listener to take such a long trip, but it made sense. It felt like the right world.”

 

The band’s name comes from Libby’s biological father, “a musician who was out of my life from a pretty young age,” he says. “In the summertime, after he left Maine, we would spend summers in Johnson City, Tennessee. He would play gigs there. A lot of my childhood memories are of him playing folk music. He died when I was 25. I flew down for the funeral. Since then it was in my mind, someday I would pick up the musical thread that he left.”

 

The Ghosts of Johnson City have done just that, and the resulting creation is an all-covering canvas of American lives, letters, and songs. To spend time in the album’s company is like getting the history lesson too many of us forgot.

 

Details:

The Ghosts of Johnson City

Sat. Feb 11 at 9 p.m.

Portland House of Music & Events

25 Temple St., Portland

with Dark Hollow Bottling Company

  • Published in Music

Scott Cairns on poetry, politics, and the possibility of peace

Scott Cairns was born in Tacoma, Washington. He earned a BA from Western Washington University, an MA from Hollins College, an MFA from Bowling Green State University, and a PhD from the University of Utah. This interview was conducted by Tim Gillis ahead of Cairns' reading in South Portland on Jan. 30.

 

TG: How does geography influence your poetry?

 

SC: I don’t know that I consciously am aware of how it might. I do know I’ve been in exile for 40 years, wandering in the wilderness, as it were. I grew up here in the Pacific Northwest, but left for grad school in ’77 and then didn’t really get back until just now. Despite having lived and taught all around the country, this landscape has always been the landscape of my imagination. Maine is similar, the evergreen trees that creep down to the shore, the low skies on a cloudy day — I found it analogous to the kind of quiet that one pursues when settling into writing a poem or saying a prayer.

 

Besides writing poetry, Cairns has also written a spiritual memoir, Short Trip to the Edge (2007), and the libretto for the oratorios “The Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp” and “A Melancholy Beauty.”

 

TG: Talk about the element of spirituality in your work.

 

SC: When I started out, I was like most of my American contemporaries, working off of my own experiences and trying to find something useful to talk about. I guess at some point, around my second book, I started writing to find out, instead of writing what I thought I knew, poring over the language on the page, and looking for a glimpse of something I hadn’t previously apprehended. Most of my career now has been comprised of composing that way. Not too far along that way, I started attending to my own personal obsessions with God — using that practice to lean into an understanding of the nearness of God, developing through the poems, meditations, through that contemplative compressing of language, to appreciate how I might thereby commune with God. Not every poem, but most in the past 30-plus years have commenced that way.

 

Cairns has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was awarded the Denise Levertov Award in 2014. He has taught at numerous universities including University of North Texas, Old Dominion University, Seattle Pacific University, and the University of Missouri. He also directs a low-residency MFA program at Seattle Pacific University.

 

TG: Tell me a bit about the nitty-gritty of your writing process?

 

SC: I use a legal pad and a pencil, and am usually reading something. What I’m reading is varied — a great poem or some theological text — Patristic Greek texts, the fathers of the church, early saints, and their writings.

 

TG: Can you contrast the processes of writing poetry, memoir, and libretti?

 

SC: They require a different filter of the head. With poetry, my primary mode, I write to find things out. If I have an idea before I start, I wait for that idea to go away. I want the language to tell me something I don’t yet apprehend. With the memoir, one begins with a template of actual events that I allow into the text in a way I wouldn’t have done with a poem. I want the events to be recorded and re-examined. Memoir is a way to revisit those occasions and glean from them a more useful sense of what to make of them, these visits to holy places and discussions with holy men. The contents of the libretti were pretty much determined by historical occasions — e.g. the martyrdom of St. Polycarp of Symrna. I worked with a composer who did the music. I supplied verses for moments in the score, then the composer worked from those and deduced from that matter the musical phrases he then composed and arranged.

 

TG: You’re founding director of Writing Workshops in Greece, a program that brings writers to study and engage with literary life in modern Greece. How did that enterprise come about?

 

SC: In college, I started reading patristic texts in translation, which eventually led me to becoming an Orthodox Christian. I suppose that the most noticeable Orthodox Christians in America are Greek Orthodox. My developing understanding of the faith led me to pay more attention to these early writings — many of which were written in Greek. I started learning Greek and also going to Greece to visit the monastic enclave of Mount Athos. As you probably know, the Byzantine Empire covered much of the Mediterranean from Venice east, and subsequently succumbed to Islamic takeover. The peninsula of Mount Athos is the last vestige of the Byzantine Empire. That world continues to this day, a part of Greece but not exactly, sort of like the Vatican in terms of self-governance. I initially developed the writing program as an excuse to go to Greece more frequently. As of this past December, I have gone to the holy mountain 24 times.

 

TG: A sharp contrast to disturbing recent news of religiously motivated attacks and threats of violence nationally. In Portland last Thursday (Jan. 19), a bomb threat was called into a Jewish pre-school. You’re reading at Congregation Bet Ha’am, a Reform Jewish congregation in South Portland, at an event hosted by the BTS Center, a United Church of Christ affiliate that’s ecumenical in nature. Talk about these intersections of politics and religion, and the possibilities for peace. And how can contemporary poetry speak to that end?

 

SC: Orthodox Christianity is probably the most Jewish of Christian expressions. In Orthodoxy, that connection with the Jewish faith has been maintained, even in the way the priests dress. Our original liturgies were composed by men who were Jews, adapting preexisting Jewish practices. As for myself, I’ve studied a good many rabbinic texts — Talmud, midrashim — early writings that result from one’s poring over perplexing moments in scripture. One writes poems from a place of understanding words, understanding the power of words, and honoring the discoveries that this uncommon degree of attention can avail. If there is a relationship between the poet and the politician, I’d say the poet examines the language of the politician for veracity. Poets in our culture now are in a position to challenge careless or misleading uses of language in the political realm. We are obliged to call attention to such abuses. We have an obligation to share what we see, speaking and writing against euphemism or obfuscation.

 

Poetry Reading by Scott Cairns, hosted by the BTS Center | Congregation Bet Ha'am, 81 Westbrook St., South Portland | Monday, Jan. 30 7-8 pm

Cairns is the author of eight books of poetry, including The Theology of Doubt (1985), The Translation of Babel (1990), Philokalia (2002), Idiot Psalms (2014), and Slow Pilgrim: The Collected Poems (2015). His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Poetry, and elsewhere, and has been anthologized in Best Spiritual Writing and Best American Spiritual Writing.

  • Published in Arts

Forget about politics at the Wicked Good, Halfway Decent Un'naugural Ball

What better way to celebrate the inauguration than to skip it altogether and spend the evening laughing, dancing and raising money for a great cause?

The Mayo Street Arts Center is hosting the Wicked Good, Halfway Decent Un’naugural Ball on Friday, Jan. 20, to benefit Mayo Street Arts and the Maine Immigrant Musical Instrument Project, which helps new arrivals reconnect with their musical roots by finding them instruments and introducing them to local like-minded communities.

The Wicked Good Band will team up with the Half Moon Jug Band for the event. Troy R. Bennett, on guitar and banjo, says he is known as the Van Gogh of the banjo since “I only give the impression that I’m playing it.” He’s joined by “Frost” Steve Brewer on bass, kazoo, and sax and Jeff Hamm who plays a suitcase drum set made from old American Tourister luggage.

Bennett says the idea for the show came to him after the presidential election but stresses that it’s all about positive vibes, not protesting ones. 

“Everyone’s getting worked up over it,” he says of the election results. “They feel like they’ve lost control. We wanted to have a fun concert in town, where you aren’t spinning your wheels, to think about our own neighbors right here.”

That desire to help Portland’s new neighbors led him to Jenny Van West, the founder and director of the Maine Immigrant Musical Instrument Project. Bennett had written about her efforts for a local newspaper and quickly realized her story went on from where he’d left off.

“She had run into a new Mainer from Africa, who commented on the guitar she was carrying,” he says. “She found out that he’d fled Africa but was not able to bring his guitar. You know, while immigrants are waiting for a ruling on a work permit, they are barred from working, but it’s free to make music.”

After that initial chance encounter, Van West started work on the project, which is part of a larger effort called “Welcoming the New American Family,” orchestrated by Pastor Maurice Namwira. It brings together recent arrivals with folks who've been here longer, “making sure they are oriented, have household items, know what they need to do next for their asylum cases, and getting together to eat and play music and relax,” she said.

An early gathering at her house brought in “a mélange of people from 10 different African countries. We had all kinds of music - country, folk, traditional African music. Out of that, a grassroots network started to grow. There are a lot of them in Portland and they are starting to connect, moving into a more formal direction to tackle issues like housing and education since a lot of people are afraid to speak up. For now, we quietly see what can we do for someone to help them feel a little more integrated.”

She notes the various and deep psychological pressures on immigrants, based on what they've been through and how well they acclimate to their new surroundings.

“Music is a common thread. They could be from several different countries, but they all know all these songs,” she said. “Recently I delivered guitars to two people on the same night, men who are living in the same apartment. Typically, roommate situations for recent arrivals seeking asylum are not by choice - more like they are thrown in together because they all need a room and one is available in a particular apartment. One knew that I was coming; the other one did not. The one who knew I was coming is from DR Congo. There, when you receive a gift, the polite thing to do is to put it behind a closed door and open it later. To open it right then is considered rude. So that's what he did and quietly returned to talking with me. While my American self was disappointed that I would not see his reaction, I knew he was receiving this gift in absolutely the most respectful way possible, which made me feel great. The one who did not know I was coming is quite extroverted, and when he got the word I was there, came running out of his room so completely excited. He opened the thin case right up and pulled out the guitar. He sat right down, started playing and singing in a big gorgeous voice.”

Moving experiences like this one are not only felt when she delivers instruments to immigrants, but also when she receives a donation that has been played for generations.

“One of my African friends told me that giving instruments is an act of family,” she said. “If you’re here with no biological family, you feel like you’re at home.”

That sense of family pervades these organizations and is the driving force for the Un’naugural Ball.

“We’re totally into having a good time,” Bennett says. “Whatever happens with the new administration, people are going to need good times. We’re not against anybody. We’re just for stuff – for good times and making sure musicians get instruments in their hands.”

Wicked Good, Halfway Decent Un’naugural Ball | Friday, Jan. 20 at 7:30 p.m. | Mayo Street Arts, 10 Mayo Street, Portland | mayostreetarts.org |

Builder of the House release a gender-bending music video ahead of their first full length album

Local folk-pop duo Builder of the House is moving to the big time. Robert Cimitile (acoustic guitar, vocals) and Elliot Heeschen (drums and electric guitar) are set to release Ornaments, their first full-length work, with eight new tunes and a couple of reworked songs — “There Is No Hourglass, Only Sand” and “My New Eyes.”

An early peek at one of the new songs, “Look at the Man,” has been making rounds via YouTube, garnering widespread praise as a poignant look at former Maine celebrity Conor Leigh Tubbs (who recently moved to New York City). It’s a sublime video narrative, similar in tone to images by local photographer Smith Galtney, who captured Tubbs's vivid transformation to the drag artist Cherry Lemonade for a documentary film project for the Salt Institute.

The band’s music videos have always been their hallmark. “This Is No Hourglass,” directed by Cimitile and co-directed by Derek R. Brigham, won best video at the Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema and CutOut Fest. “A Plot in Falmouth” won best music video at the MOVE Music Festival and is based on the story of Cimitile's great-great grandparents, “on a ship that sailed from Liverpool to Maine” in 1895. He researched the history of it at the Portland Room of the Portland Public Library. The video plays like a silent film and is set in southern Maine.

“It’s super personal, and seemed like an excellent story to be a song,” he said. “Writing lyrics is a lot more challenging for me than the music. On that album, a lot of the songs were introspective. I was listening to a lot of Bright Eyes, mirroring that style. When we started writing tunes for the new album, we were trying to break away from that.”

So they moved from public research for private songs to domestic inspiration for more accessible hits. “When writing lyrics, I pace around my house thinking about a song. Then a phrase will come to me. I write it down, then keep pacing, over and over,” he said. “A lot of songs on the new album are based on sayings, for example ‘you are who you are when no one is looking’. Writing this way, I’m able to pull myself away from singing about myself; it’s not so personal.”

 music BuilderoftheHouse

For Ornaments, the duo worked with Todd Hutchisen at Acadia Recording Company. The Lucid’s Dominic Lavoie provides whistling for the new work. Colleen Clark, Clara Junken and Ashley Storrow add vocals. Bass duties were split between Andy Scherzer of Jaw Gems, and Drew Wyman, who also plays with Pete Witham.

Dan Capaldi helped them arrange the record. “On some songs he was super-involved,” Heeschen said. “Others not so much, but he listened to every track and throughout the album was able to come up with something we had not thought of that made the songs complete.

Forward to Go Back

Builder of the House may have expanded their repertoire, but their music has always retained that creative element. They both played in the Maine Marimba Ensemble — “a fun enterprise where there’s not as much pressure as playing your own stuff,” Heeschen says. When the two began playing with the MME, “Rob was already working on the first EP and he was looking for someone to drum live. He was playing with a lot of local musicians, and I seemed to be the common denominator. Then it became more like we were the band.”

Their name comes from a meditation retreat Cimitile once attended. A recorded recitation of Buddhist scripture was playing, and he was particularly moved by the story of Siddhartha sitting under the tree, awaiting divine revelation.

“He refuses to get up until he achieves enlightenment,” Cimitile recalls. “When he finally does, he opens his eyes and says ‘Ah, builder of the house, I have seen you and you can no longer build a house for me because I’ve taken all your mortar and smashed all your bricks.’ I was in a rough spot at the time, and whenever I thought of this phrase later, it reminded me of trying to be better.”

And the band is. A little bit Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, a simmering blend of story and song. And a new album for the new year.

 

Watch "Look At The Man" here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkdPkizADUk

  • Published in Music

Dave Gutter shares his year's high moments

Rustic Overtones open for Matisyahu at the State Theatre on New Year’s Eve in an all-ages show. For Dave Gutter, the band’s frontman, it has been a year of collaboration and fruition for projects that highlight his wordsmithing for others and influence on their musical careers.

“A lot of stuff I’d been writing the last three years culminated this year,” Gutter said in a recent interview with The Phoenix.

Aaron Neville released “Apache,” with lyrics Gutter co-wrote with Eric Krasno based on Neville’s poems.

“Working on the Neville record has been a dream gig,” Krasno said of the release. On it, he worked with Gutter, imagining Neville’s life through at least 50 poems he had sent them.

“The cool thing for me was laying down music and melodies, like painting a picture. We created the sketch and Aaron would add the color. He was very involved in the process, something he had not done on his records in a very long time,” Krasno said. “The excitement level between all of us was high.”

Gutter pushed Krasno, the songwriter, to move to the front of the stage and sing his own songs, which resulted in Krasno’s debut album, Blood from a Stone. Krasno credits Gutter and other Maine musicians with helping him make the jump, giving him the necessary confidence in his own voice.

Another high note, literally, for Gutter was his work on a single from GRiZ’s new album. In addition to the novel song, Grant Kwiecinski, who at 25 is already an electronic funk icon, also introduced GRiZ Kush, the artist’s own strain of weed that is sold legally in Denver, Co.

“With the writing thing, it’s been a busy year,” Gutter said, but added that the creative, collaborative process dates back even longer. “We started that four years ago. So sometimes after you write the songs, the bands tour and play them, record them. Now we’re at a place where it’s looping around and seems current.”

Over time, Gutter’s vocal range has moved from sandpaper scratchy rock anthems like Paranoid Social Club’s “We All Got Wasted” to hauntingly mellow love ballads, like those off his new album Armies, a duo endeavor with Anna Lombard.

His songwriting may have been overlooked comparatively, but industry insiders know he can crank out catchy bumper sticker lyrics and social commentary with music’s best. In a year that saw Bob Dylan win a Nobel Prize for Literature, the establishment types are starting to appreciate songwriting as a serious art form.

For Gutter, a low note this year was the death of David Bowie. The Maine minstrel joined up with other local legends in a tribute to Ziggy Stardust held at the State Theatre days after news came down. He played “Sector Z” with Jeff Beam, Dominic Lavoie, and Mat Zaro.

Another high point for Gutter — again, literally — was when he and fiancée Kaitlyn Gradie had their engagement photographs taken on the side of a cliff in the White Mountains.

“We went to the top in the early morning dark,” he said. “They dropped us down with harnesses, and as the sun came up, they took the pictures.” Philbrick Photography provided the aerial hijinks on Cathedral Ledge. The couple plans to get married, perhaps in the new year, but they are waiting to announce a date, “waiting to throw a crazy party."

More big news for the coming year: Rustic Overtones have begun work on a new album, one that will be a decidedly different product than in years past.

“It’s a collection of instrumentals I’m currently writing over,” Gutter said. “A world music vibe, heavily South American and Brazilian. I discovered some cool music from the late ’60s and ’70s, from Brazilian psychedelic rock bands. We love to make music like that, always trying to push forward.”

From the studio to the stage, the band continues to break barriers. “We resurrect all of our music when we play live,” he said of the upcoming State show, “and we’ll have fresh new versions with a different feel.”

Gutter has not played with Matisyahu before, but knows several of the guys from his band, having met them through Krasno. “I’ve never even seen Matis live, so I’m looking forward to do my set and then just chill, hang out with the drunk guys who know every word to your songs.”

 

Details:

Matisyahu w/ Rustic Overtones & Alec Benjamin

Doors: 8 pm / Show: 9 pm

$20 Early Bird / $30 Advance / $35 Day of Show

This event is ALL AGES

  • Published in Music
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