Tim Gillis

Tim Gillis

BobbyWasabi Goes Pro: A Teenage Portland Gamer's Quest for Glory and Riches

Soccer moms load their kids in minivans, encouraging their dreams of going pro. Dads pace or squirm nervously on sidelines or in the stands. High school coaches steer young athletes toward playing sports in college or beyond.

But while competitive sports can be their own reward, those seeking big money for their efforts often do so in vain. Statistics show that very few traditional athletes that play in high school continue onto college or pro (the NCAA estimates between .9 and 9.1 percent).

Robert Wilson, a senior at Waynflete High School in Portland, is already a pro player, with a sponsor and an upcoming paid trip to Las Vegas to compete in an international competition of skill and endurance. Basketball? Nope. Football? No, he’s never played.

Instead, Wilson’s an eSports player.

Wilson’s among the growing number of millennials who take video games to a serious, professional level. He’s among those sharp enough to monetize what’s often considered a mindless hobby by competing for cash before graduating.

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Robert Wilson, AKA BobbyWasabi.

Wilson — or BobbyWasabi as he’s known in gaming circles — recently won a tourney at the HUD Gaming Lounge in Portland, pocketing $125 in three hours. He estimates he spent 500 hours playing Super Smash Bros. to get to that level, from its Nintendo inception in 1999 on N64 to the radically improved newest version on the Nintendo WiiU. Apart from the money, the win gained him notoriety with a sponsor, Super Nova, a company that mainly offers apparel, energy pills, and some gaming news.

“They help get my name out, I help get their name out,’ Wilson said. “I wear their jerseys, help advertise their merch and other teams under the Super Nova umbrella.”

Ben Baker has been gaming around town since 2012, and now runs tournaments in Waterville similar to HUD’s that bring gamers together to compete for moderate prizes. Baker was Super Nova’s first Smash player and helped get Wilson on board. They are doubles partners now, although Baker’s work schedule prevents him from the Vegas trip. He’s going to Florida in June for Community Effort Orlando, another national tournament.

“Back then, I would've never thought gaming could be a career," Baker said. "It wasn't until I got more involved in fighting games that it really clicked with me that it’s possible." Baker says a turning point was when he found the Maine Fighting Gamers Alliance page on Facebook. "I started getting really into Street Fighter IV , and then traveled to Calgary in 2011 for Canada Cup, a major tournament. It really started to sink in with me that it could be a career.”

Super Nova is flying Wilson to Las Vegas in July for EVO 2017, a tourney which bills itself as the "world's largest fighting game event," where he will pit his Super Smash Bros. skills against the world’s best gamers. For a $75 ticket (and another $48-97 ticket to participate in or watch the finals), competitors there will play on a WiiU or Nintendo GameCube decked out in game gear, sugared drinks, and junk food. Big winners will pocket thousands.

“The scene for Smash in the state has grown insanely since I joined, and even at a state level it really can be a worthwhile and profitable hobby,” Baker said. “The better players with the right mindset and passion can easily take it to the next step with all these national events and such popping up.”

Wilson plays as Pikachu (Pokémon) and Villager (Animal Crossing) and is considered the best in the state with these characters. Tournaments usually last anywhere between three to eight hours. Bigger tournaments like Shine and EVO span three days and attract hundreds of gamers from across the globe.

“The most unenjoyable aspect would have to be stress that comes with playing. If I'm ever in an intense match, I sometimes start to shake or get nervous that I could get knocked out of the tournament,” he said. “It's a blessing and a curse though, since I find that I often play better when stakes are high.”

While juggling final exams, he still gets in 30 minutes of practice daily, playing in training mode or online against gamers who challenge him on his Twitch livestream account. He does video game reviews on YouTube, and stays fresh with other games like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Persona 5. Even when he's not competing, gaming is a major part of Wilson's life.

“I’m working on 100 percent completion of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and looking forward to the release of Splatoon 2 , ARMS, and Super Mario Odyssey,” he says. Wilson is just a high schooler, but already making his first — albeit modest — paycheck doing what he loves.

 

INSTITUTIONAL GAMING

High school sports are an essential part of the teen years, but parents and coaches who feed their children the line that their time invested in a year of sports will pay them back with college scholarships or professional jobs are often misleading.

According to Forbes magazine, the gaming industry continues to grow. As it does, those within the industry assert that more and more jobs will be available. “The economic impact of the gaming industry to the US GDP was over $11 billion in 2016, and that number is certain to grow for the foreseeable future,” according to the magazine. (This figure includes those in programming and writing code — not simply professional gamers.)

BOYS PUSHING BUTTONS

One trait about eSports Wilson acknowledges is its tendency to foster an environment that is unwelcoming to women.

“It’s a very male-dominated profession. This is in part due to a lot of community’s sexism and discrimination towards female players and enthusiasts,” Wilson says. “A lot of this plays into both the anonymity aspect of players online, as well as a long running stereotype that girls aren't that into ‘real video games.’

That the gaming industry has its problems welcoming women is hardly news. The #Gamergate controversy of 2014, when a female developer was repeatedly threatened, doxed, and harassed online, exposed the deep sexism and misogyny embedded in the gaming world.

And while there's more to that story (and the political alliances behind it), Wilson and others hope the world of eSports can grow into its diversity. "The field is completely open, especially when you consider how sports are separated by men’s leagues and women’s leagues due to biological physicality," he says. "With eSports, that factor doesn't play a part when competing at a high level. Endurance, strong mentality, and overall skill at the game are all that matter.”

As an example, Wilson says his girlfriend doesn't often play video games, yet "has a blast while playing as ‘Kirby,’" an adorable ball of pink puff who was designed to be very accessible to more novice players. "The brilliance is that accessibility in Smash Bros. does not equate to hand-holding or a crutch to stand on, and that's where the true social aspect of Super Smash Bros. shines.”

But securing financial dividends within the young industry is something of a gamble. While 27 million people play League of Legends each day, just 40 professionals earn salaried positions in the North American League. Players can also earn ad dollars when fans livestream their games on websites like Twitch and Azubu TV. But gamers say only a handful of players can earn enough to make a living.

Wilson wants to be one of those handfuls.

“My dad (Grant) told me ever since I could move my hands, I had a Gameboy in them,” Wilson said. “At age two, I was playing Super Mario Land and Alleyway , and since then I’ve been so drawn to video games. At three, I got a GameCube for Christmas and was in line at age seven to get a Nintendo Wii with dad when it came out.”

Super Smash Bros. Brawl was released two years later, and marked the first time he entered a tournament — at 13 years old, the PortCon 2012 tourney for SSB Brawl .

“I got knocked out immediately, but it was one of the first times I was exposed to a community of people who also play this game, other than my brothers (Ike and Trip) or friends from school.”

Next year, Wilson is headed to Emerson College, where he can add a scholastic approach to his gaming habits. Emerson has recently started a program for eSports gamers in the Communications Department. “It’s what partially attracted me there. I was also looking for journalism and communications,” he said. “After seeing what they are doing with the program there solidified my decision to go.”

He considered other schools — Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, is known for its gaming design program and offers a competitive gaming community.

The takeaway of all this? There’s big money out there for dedicated gamers, or big fans of the industry and its creative mechanisms. But on top of that, there are job opportunities for those looking to host gaming events like these. Production, organization, planning, coverage, commentary are also possible vocations.

“A lot of people go into game development. The gaming industry is worth more than $70 billion a year, and there aren’t huge CEOs to pay that are taking most of it as a lot of those sales are in indie games and small studios,” said Gabe Letourneau, founder of HUD gaming lounge, which opened in Biddeford and made the move north to Portland last year. VR and AR (augmented reality) are also growing fields and will require new creative minds to learn to program and code games and experiences for them and is sure to become a lucrative skillset in the coming years.”

More eSport events would open the door to a new ripple to economies both local and national. eSports has found its home on Twitch.tv, a website dedicated to livestreams of players playing dgames either by themselves or online with viewers. eSport events are often broadcast on this site, though some major events like League of Legends , Dota 2, and Hearthstone tournaments can sometimes be found on legacy media like ESPN.

While these names may not all be familiar to the general public, Wilson's proficiency in these games is hardly esoteric. The biggest games in eSports now are League of Legends, Dota 2 , CS:GO, and Hearthstone. The biggest fighting games in eSports are the Smash Bros. suite (Super Smash Bros. [1999], Super Smash Bros. Melee [2001], Super Smash Bros. Brawl [2008], Super Smash Bros. [2014]), as well as Street Fighter, Guilty Gear , and Mortal Kombat.

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The HUD Gaming Lounge, a competitive (and casual) gaming space on Congress St. in Portland.
 
In Maine, gamers can play publicly, and competitively. A group of 20 to 50 people come together at one venue to compete in tourney or just play against each other. Most venues charge between $5 to $10, while some tourneys are free. For the prize level, pay an extra $5 and the top three winners grab some cash.

 

EGAMES IN MAINE HISTORY

Maine's eWorld was created, virtually, by Maine Competitive Gaming founders Marc Patenaude, Jordan Lovell, and Jordan Sage, whom Wilson calls “trailblazers for the gaming community in Maine.”

Late last year, the guys host tournaments at Howard Johnson’s in South Portland and the Maine Mall, both in collaboration with PortCon. They host doubles tournaments every other week at Arcadia National Bar, which offers Portland-area patrons arcade, console, pinball, and board games. MCG currently runs Rocket League and CSGO tournaments at HUD Gaming Lounge, and will be running a Super Smash Bros. event called “MCG Arena” in June.

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Gamers going head to head in the first person shooter CS-GO. 

Some of the best players in Maine can win money. The average prize pool for a monthly event can yield first placers $200. The tourneys SMCC holds every Thursday do not charge and players cannot win. Monthlies are posted Saturday night events with slightly higher stakes, turnout, and prizes.

Wilson is starting Timber Weeklies at Amigo's on Mondays, and future Timber Monthlies will be held at HoJo's in SoPo, with one planned for this Saturday, May 13. (“’Timber’” comes from a name of a move that the character “Villager” does,” Wilson explained. “She or he plants a tree, grows it and then cuts it down with an axe.”)

On a national scale, Wilson has an opportunity to cash in on his passion this summer. “I don't know what the prize is for EVO 2017,” Wilson said. “It all depends on the turnout of the event, but the numbers have been growing every year.” The prize pool last year was between $26,000 and $100,000, depending on the games. (Prizes at EVO are split between the top eight winners at a 60/20/10/4/2/2/1/1 distribution scale.)

Local eGaming merchants, too, have seen business tick up, often staying open all hours to meet client needs.

“We have seen a few players in our tournaments who could go pro — very talented gamers who blow us away whenever we see them compete,” says Letourneau. “Based on our live streams, comments, and likes on our Facebook page, there are clear favorites who have tons of people rooting for them to win, by commenting and interacting with our tournaments even if they aren’t playing.”

And business can be good for the gamers, too.

“Just as players of football, or baseball, or basketball, etc. who are really good become professional players, people who are really good at games follow a similar path,” he says. “Just as the pro traditional sports teams make money from sponsors and spectators, eSports are exactly the same, except the sponsors aren’t for cars or life insurance. It's for gaming gear, computer equipment, and Doritos.” 

Creating a World: The Secret Life of Portland's Most Shadowy Artists

By the time the opening night audience is seated, the curtain raised, and the lights brought up on any local stage around town, another cast of characters has already played their parts — vital, but behind the scenes. Well before the first line is uttered, designers, managers, and technicians have already created this dramatic world. Those in the theater business are well aware of their value, but to many a theatergoer, they are a lot like an official in a sports contest, only noticed if there is a mistake.

 

Arts of all stripes are in financial danger these days, with federal threats of funding cuts, and increased local competition for an audience. Many theater companies aim to appeal to the younger set, offering pay-what-you-can rates and price reductions. And theater techs get paid, but the money is not the source of their affinity for the genre and the labor involved to make a play come off without a hitch.  

 

“These people are who make it happen, but they don’t get the credit they deserve,” says Craig Robinson, technical director at Good Theater, the theater-in-residence at the St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland, where he’s worked for all of its 15 years. The playwright has an idea, a vision, as does the director, but these theater technicians make this vision become a workable play. “When a theater company decides to do a play, two equally important teams are assembled, he said. “There are general scenic descriptions, and then we come in. From that first meeting, the play takes on parallel lives both onstage and off.

 

Scenic and lighting designers consider the physical stage space, in conjunction with the stage manager and technical director, he says, outlining the myriad decisions made before opening night. And there’s a ton of decisions that need to be made before that arrives.

 

“The scenic design is created and offered to the director, technical director, lighting designer, costume designer, and scenic painter. The director discusses staging and blocking. The technical director evaluates the physical details and safety of the design within their theater space. The lighting designer gathers the needs of all the others in the team to begin the lighting design and cues. The costumer begins design. The technical director does a take-off from the design plans to order lumber, paint, and supplies from local vendors. All these things have to happen before the build team is even called in.”

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A set Robinson built for a production at Good Theater.

 

Robinson has been involved in building 90 or so sets, he reckons, for Portland theater companies. He also takes performance pictures, B-roll, and pre-shoot publicity shots for area newspapers.

 

“Performance photos show the play from start to finish and keep a photographic history of these productions,” he says. The Portland area had only a handful of theater companies when he started out. “Now there are up to 15 or 20, of different sizes, with some stages designed solely for kids. It’s developing. More people are involved. It’s increased its exposure to more people, with more new productions written by local playwrights. And there’s a sharing of resources, especially by tech people. More than it used to be.” When necessary, tools, lighting structures, and costumes are resources that might move between companies. Human resources are the commodity that they also share.

 

Stacey Koloski is a director, set and props designer, and scenic painter. She’s a company member at Mad Horse Theatre Company and the Theater at Monmouth, and has worked as a freelancer for the American Irish Repertory Ensemble (AIRE), Dramatic Repertory Company, Lorem Ipsum, Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble, and the South Portland community theaters: Lyric Music Theater and Portland Players. She's also on the organizational committee for PortFringe, Maine's annual fringe theater festival which takes place in late June.

 

Between these several companies, she’s seen this type of sharing of resources throughout the theater world, increasingly imperiled by funding problems. She believes that the network has come about primarily because of the people involved and the number of theaters in the area that do not have their own physical spaces and storage.

 

“Many places accumulate stock, like costumes, props, and furniture — the number one request I get — that can be used by others. And in all cases, it doesn’t come with a price tag. People are willing to lend things out, knowing that when they need something, they will get it.”

 

Currently, Koloski is working on designing a set for the family show at Theater at Monmouth this summer, My Father’s Dragon, which opens in July. She started working on it last December. “We assembled the team for the show (the director, designers, tech directors) and held design meetings by phone in January,” she said. “The first draft of set designs passed back and forth between me and the director and were due in March to the theater, where the staff there reviews it in the context of all five of their summer shows, look at them together for what’s in stock and the costs if approved. They send the designs back. I then refine the color choices and furniture. In June, the guys in the shop build it.”

 

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L to R: Zoe Sporer, Meg Anderson, Anna Halloran, Craig Robinson, Dana Hopkins, Ted Gallant [Photo by Craig Robinson] 

Once considered disloyal by their theater bosses, freelancing techs are also a shared resource. They are better able to support themselves by working several gigs, and the theaters always seem to need their help. In addition to technical directors, a successful set needs master carpenters, electricians, prop masters, scenic painters, and production assistants. The physical construction begins, and walls, doors, windows, platforms, scenic elements, and masking are built. The props are gathered or made. The scenic painting is done as set construction allows. The stage manager gets the backstage space set up with tables for props, hooks for costumes, and carpeting for muffling backstage passage.

 

In addition to creating an environment, a great device for bringing a bygone age to life is an effective costume. But creativity has to compensate for cost. Anna Halloran, a costumer who has worked with Mad Horse Theatre Company, Lyric Music Theater, and children’s theaters, tries to track an idea down before resorting to cutting new cloth.

 

“A lot of it is locating costumes, going through stocks, finding something that matches your vision, “ she said. “If I can’t find it, I’ll make it. The theaters I work with tend to have limited budgets — $300 or less — which means I can’t custom-make pieces for each actor. Often times I’ll ‘shop in actor’s closets’ by borrowing staple pieces they might have. If the show is set in recent eras (from the 1980’s to now), I’ll source a lot from Goodwill or Wal-Mart. For pieces set in much earlier times, I will go to Lyric or Mad Horse costume stocks and search there. Both Mad Horse and Lyric have fabulous antique garments, some dating back to the 1920’s, so there are options out there. The great thing about fashion is it cycles every 30 years or so, meaning I can take outfits from different eras and add or subtract to make them more appropriate.”

She enjoys the challenges from plays such as Lysistrata, the interpretation of which by Mad Horse Theatre Company (in 2015) reflected many different time periods, instead of simply the traditional Ancient Greek.

 

“In Kimberly Akimbo (also from Mad Horse two seasons ago), the lead character is a young girl with an aging disease, played by an older woman. The best part was finding a childlike outfit for someone who wouldn’t necessarily wear it. It was cool creating the illusion. I did a lot of shopping for that one.”

 

Halloran started out as an actress, her first performance at seven years old on a children’s show called Tumbleweeds. “It was my birthday, me and my sister and a couple other kids my age,” she said of her early foray in theater and then its shift in point-of-view. “I started costuming in middle school — for comic book conventions, then I started doing it for the stage. My senior year of high school I costumed the senior musical, Pippin,and from there just kept going.”

 

The theater community is strong, and it seems that there is little friction between the acting troupes and the techs that support them.

“I have never worked with a cast that wasn't grateful for their tech crew. It's harder to feel the same gratitude from audiences. Often times if people aren't talking about the costumes I take it as a success because it means the design fit the show enough that it didn't distract,” she said. “When I costume, I put a lot of thought into depicting the character's story arch through color choice and style, so, selfishly, I would love to hear what people think, and if audiences pick up on such choices.”

Ted Gallant, the technical director for Portland Stage, has been with them since 1987, but he never would have predicted it. He was a foreign language major visiting a friend who worked there when he was offered a job as a carpenter. “I had no interest in working in theater at all,” he said. “I thought it would be a nice part-time job until I found a teaching position.”

 

After 15 years as assistant technical director there, he said he grew “tired of working for people who knew less than I did,” and approached Anita Stewart, executive and artistic director at Portland Stage, and asked for the tech director job.

 

In terms of changes in the business over the years, Gallant said he can only speak for Portland Stage, and that “since Anita took over, it’s a nice place to work. She fosters an environment where we can use our strengths. She adapts the job to our strengths.”

 

Theater sets are quality made constructions, but they are often quickly crafted. “We have between two to three weeks to build the set. Then we start loading the set into the space on a Monday morning and by Wednesday it is pretty much done,” he said.. “We focus lights on it Wednesday night so that’s why it must be ready by that time. Actors are on stage Thursday around noon.”

 

Some of the greatest challenges to theater techs are being able to reproduce Mother Nature indoors. “Water on stage is always a challenge,” Gallant said. “Making it rain. Water could either come from some pool of water you’re drawing from with a pump so the system recirculates or you could draw from an outside source, like the scene shop (located directly behind theater).” Between scenes, stagehands literally mop up after the actors.

 

When the last performance of the play run has ended, the “strike,” or deconstruction, of the set begins. All the technical people then work into the wee hours to clear the entire stage of their creation. Then the stage is empty and set for the next creation.

 

Theater companies strive for individuality of design, but the resulting stages are often different by other factors.

 

“Anita Stewart designs most of the shows at Portland Stage,” Gallant said. “I am not sure how it looks to someone outside of theater, but I notice a certain style that she has. Outside designers offer different styles, but often the play dictates the design. And that design often reflects the budget.”

 

In fact, a theater’s size and fiscal strength often determine the very plays they chose to produce. “Shows are often chosen, in part, by the cast size. The design has little to do with which shows are chosen,” he said. “Obviously, a large musical is out of the question for most small theaters. But it has less to do with design and more to do with the expense incurred with the cast, costumes, and musicians.”

 

“The proposed cuts to the NEA will affect all of us,” Robinson said. “When everyone is striving to survive, year to year. This is not a moneymaking proposition by any means. We do it for the love of it, not the income. If we spent as much for the arts as on warfare, that would be nice.”

 

Guidance through sports: After a Jewish Congregation turns to a squash facility, Portland's youth find community

When Greg Born’s son, David, was in high school, he was a dominant tennis player, mowing through many opponents and, as a sophomore, playing third singles on a team that made it to the state finals.

But when he went off to Bates College, he switched sports to join the nationally ranked men’s squash team there. Though he'd begun playing the sport only two years prior, David was able to transfer some of his tennis skills, something that would be a stretch for most athletes. Perhaps factoring most importantly in his switch was his dedication to academics and a similar commitment to practicing and mastering the new sport. (I know this because David played on a high school tennis team that I coached.)

The Portland Community Squash hopes that this type of academic structure and athletic discipline will give Portland's youngsters a model for success.

Greg Born, Barrett Takesian, and Sandy Spaulding are founding members of the new squash facility on Noyes Street. Within the year, they hope to start a national program called “Urban Squash,” which will teach a specific group of promising but underprivileged local kids. They plan to incorporate the US Squash’s National Urban Squash Education Association, which introduces squash to new players while providing academic support, mentoring and help with college placement.

“I reacquainted with Barrett and Sandy four years ago, having known them through collegiate squash,” said Born, now an assistant coach at Bates College.

The elder Born picked the sport up just over a decade ago, but really made his mark as a table tennis player. He was state champion twice, in 1994 and 1997, and half of a doubles team that won the states six times.

When asked about the move to squash, he says it was a necessity, not a choice as it was with his son.

“They took away our ping-pong tables at the YMCA,” he said. “There was nothing else to play there (besides squash). I got hooked.”

A similar magnetic attraction has already filled the PCS courts in just a few months of operation. The planning of expanding the spread of places to play squash really began in 2008, with efforts to organize the group of players that were already playing the sport. 

“When I realized how much it costs to build and open a squash facility, I knew it wouldn’t be something I could do,” Born said. “But we tried to make it so others could come along and see the market opportunity. We focused on growing the sport in hopes that, with greater numbers, someone would recognize the demand.”

There are approximately 20 squash facilities in Maine, but half of these are in private residences, including eight on Mount Desert Island alone.

To create a place that was accessible to kids who wanted to learn the sport, PCS repurposed the former Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh.

PCS is funded with private donations — $1.5 million to buy and renovate — and is a 501(3)c non-profit. The building was purchased in October of last year. PCS was able to open this past January, 98 days of renovations from start to finish. They worked with Wright-Ryan, a local contractor who renovated the main hall and added locker rooms, showers, and a fitness center.

“For a non-profit like us, they were unbelievable to work with,” Born said.

Volunteers worked on the other half of the building. One father/son team knocked down a wall to help create classrooms that are now used for yoga, community meetings, and potluck suppers. A local string quartet practices there.

“We really are an entity that makes our city better. That’s the goal,” Born said. “The focus is primarily on kids, with the mission heavily supported by adult members.”

Memberships are $73 a month for individuals and $113 a month for families. The fee gets you unlimited squash (based on reservations for available courts), use of the gym, including plenty of opportunities to give as well as get.

“Part of the idea of being a member is you’re not just buying the services of an athletic facility. You’re joining a community,” Born said. “Members are encouraged to volunteer their time, helping kids learn squash, wellness, yoga. We want you to be part of academic support sessions and help mentor. We encourage kids to seek a balance between athletics and studies, and to learn things beyond just squash, to be more mindful of their bodies and surroundings.”

PCS has a three-pronged approach. In addition to adult memberships and a junior program, they plan to add “Rally Portland” for students in grades 6-12, modeled after NUSEA (National Urban Squash + Education Association). It’s designed for children whose families are not able to provide much help for them as they approach the college application process. Some of these kids will be the first in their families to even consider college.

“We want to provide academic support and guidance, and a structure,” Born said, “We end up being a liaison between kids, families, and schools to help make sure their homework is done, and assist in areas where they need it.” The long-term hope is that these capable youngsters go to college and return to their communities to become leaders there.

There are also some obvious health benefits to the sport. One has to be fit, strategic, and mindful of his or her surroundings.

“It’s a thinking person’s game,” Born said. “Unlike table tennis, which is ‘twitch reflex,’ squash rallies tend to be longer, especially with higher level players. Some rallies are more than 100 strokes long.”

And it’s a lifetime sport, as Born knows too well. He's faced off against Charlie Butt (for whom a court was dedicated this past weekend) when he was 82 years old. Butt was a member of the Chinese Olympic team in two sports — basketball and swimming. He won 22 national squash titles.

“He’s a legend,” Born said. “I loved playing him. He was twice as old as me at the time, and it was humbling to be on a court with him.”

The PCS center hopes local kids who pick up the sport will find a similar lifetime of fun, health, and the discipline that propels them to realize their own potential.

 

  • Published in Sports

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.

 music fingerstylingsofHiroyaTsukamoto

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.”

news environment kids at solar hearing

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.

music KingbenMajojaNeilPearlmanandLillyPearlman

 

“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
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