By Hank Hoffman
Smart can be fun. That’s a point Mary Lou Aleskie, executive director of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, keeps returning to as she describes this year’s music schedule in an interview in her office. Intellectual challenge? Check. Cross-cultural uplift? Of course. But inaccessible? Not on your life.
In promoting the Sunday, June 17 performance of the Asphalt Orchestra, an avant-garde marching band, Aleskie recalls her grandfather, “an Italian immigrant who loved John Philip Sousa, because for him it was populist and about being American.”
“This is really meant to be populist in that way,” says Aleskie, referring to not just the Asphalt Orchestra but the festival in general. “But it doesn’t have to not be great. That’s what this whole festival is about — serious fun. Fun doesn’t have to be stupid and Disney.”
The festival opens with “Sing the Truth!” a free concert on the New Haven Green featuring vocalists Angélique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves, and Lizz Wright.
Aleskie says, “Last year with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble we set the bar pretty high, and I think we live up to it this year.”The “Sing the Truth” project originated with a 2004 tribute concert to the late Nina Simone. Kidjo, Reeves, and Wright bonded as friends and collaborators on a 2009 “Sing the Truth” tour in Europe. More recently, the three singers broadened the “Sing the Truth” repertoire to include songs identified with recently departed legends Miriam Makeba, Abbey Lincoln, and Odetta, as well as material by other renowned female singers including Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, and Lauryn Hill. According to Aleskie, each singer gets a solo turn in the show with the trio coming together for the finale. Aleskie describes the large backing ensemble — led by drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and featuring pianist Geri Allen — as “a force.”
“It is a tribute to the great women vocalists that we think of as people who have pursued their lives with authenticity,” says Aleskie.
I ask whether she means “authenticity” in terms of being socially engaged.
“Both — musically and socially,” she says. “Certainly, somebody like Abbey Lincoln had a very distinctive smoky timbre to her voice. The music she chose was very much draped in her voice. Yet she was very socially conscious and motivated in her choices, as well.”
What distinguishes the song selections, according to Aleskie, is that they are thoroughly identified with these specific performers. Makeba, Lincoln, and Odetta embodied this material.
“They lived them, and not only on stage but in their lives,” explains Aleskie. “These are songs we all know, but not in the way we think of Top 40.”
The closing concert, which features country singer Rosanne Cash — daughter of the late Johnny Cash — and her band, is a complementary bookend to “Sing the Truth.”“This is Rosanne Cash and her band doing an album of songs from a list her father gave her,” says Aleskie.
The List, Rosanne Cash’s most recent album, was released in 2009 and features a dozen songs from a compendium of 100 American tunes considered “essential” by her father.
“He told her that if she was going to be a serious song person, this is a list she had to know and this is her interpretation of those.”
The set list includes songs by Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Dylan — “Girl From the North Country,” which Dylan performed in a duet with Johnny Cash on the Nashville Skyline album — as well as folk classics like “500 Miles.”
These bookend performances not only showcase performers, but song canons, as well. In the case of “Sing the Truth,” that canon is a treasure chest of jazz, gospel, and rhythm and blues songs associated both with specific singers and with African American and — particularly in the case of Makeba — pan-African culture. Cash’s performance highlights the populist Americana tradition as exemplified by her father.
Americana and the African American tradition cross paths in the repertoire of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Saturday night headlining act on the Green the middle weekend of the festival. The conservatory-trained and Grammy-nominated group revisits the sounds of black string bands with an emphasis on music that originated in the Piedmont region of the Carolinas.
“They are very focused on a 1920s and ’30s kind of Grapes of Wrath period. They even kind of dress like that,” says Aleskie.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops play their own compositions, as well as traditional songs.This being the “International” Festival of Arts & Ideas, the music programming includes adventurous world music offerings, as well. The day after the Carolina Chocolate Drops rouse audiences on the Green with their down-home revivalism, the festival presents a double bill of very contemporary South Asian pop. One of the bands, noori — with a lower case “n” — from Pakistan, comes to the festival via a partnering arrangement with the U.S. State Department’s Center Stage Program, according to Aleskie.
“(The State Department has) identified certain places and artists that they think will help Americans understand those regions better and identified presenters they believe do a good job of presenting international work of broad base and broad variety. That’s where we come in,” says Aleskie.
She describes noori as “an indie rock, fun, kind of revolutionary pop band from Lahore, Pakistan.”
noori is paired with Red Baraat, a Brooklyn-based nine-piece bhangra-funk band originally from India. Red Baraat weds North Indian bhangra rhythms — leader Sunny Jain plays dhol, a double-sided, barrel-shaped drum slung over the shoulder — with the brassy sounds of funk, Latin, and jazz idioms.
Brass is also in the forefront for the Asphalt Orchestra, which headlines on the Green on Sunday, June 17. An outgrowth of the new music organization Bang On a Can — the Bang On a Can All-Stars performed at last year’s festival — the Asphalt Orchestra is “a wonderful ensemble that just happens to be a choreographed marching band in costume,” according to Aleskie. Their repertoire runs the gamut from A-Z: composer John Adams to the late rock visionary Frank Zappa. The orchestra also commissions a lot of new work, says Aleskie.“It’s definitely new music, definitely fun, and definitely choreographable, but it’s not John Philip Sousa,” says Aleskie.
“They’ll be everywhere. They’re going to be marching in the streets, on the Green. Ultimately they’ll perform on the stage Sunday night. Throughout the day on Saturday you may find them up on Broadway, on Chapel, or out by the Yale Art Gallery,” says Aleskie. “Before the performance on Sunday, it’s not unlikely that you will find one or two of them scattered about in various places on the Green and can follow them as they coalesce into the concert.
“It’s meant to be a new way to listen to new music,” declares Aleskie. “One of the great things I love about Bang On a Can is that it’s always been about great music and great new music doesn’t have to be inaccessible. We have these built-in stereotypes of the ‘avant-garde’ and that’s not what this is about.”
Of course, the festival’s music-oriented offerings are hardly limited to the high-profile weekend concerts on the Green. As Aleskie notes, there are diverse and wide-ranging musical events, some ticketed and many free, slated for the festival’s two weeks. Jazz bassist Ben Allison — New Haven-born and a former student of the ACES Educational Center for the Arts magnet program — was introduced to poet Robert Pinsky at a festival event a couple of years ago. This year they return to perform together in a poetry and jazz set with something of a Beat flavor.
“(Pinsky’s) collaborated with a number of jazz musicians throughout his life and written a number of poems inspired by jazz,” Aleskie says.
The two have been touring together, according to Aleskie, and Pinsky “now thinks of himself as Ben’s saxophone.”Another noteworthy musical act, the Yuval Ron Ensemble, appears thanks to a collaboration with the Global Conference of Chaplains in Higher Education, meeting concurrently at Yale University. The ensemble, led by composer and world-music record producer Yuval Ron, plumbs the commonality of the sacred musical traditions of Judaism, Sufism, and the Christian Armenian church with musicians steeped in those traditions. A ticketed evening performance at Sprague Hall on June 28, which includes a traditional dance element, will be followed by a free noontime concert on the Green the next day.
The Yuval Ron Ensemble is just one of many groups and individual performers who will be entertaining for free on the Green Tuesdays through Fridays as part of the two-week “Noon to Night” series; the full listing is available on the Festival’s website. Additionally, a half-dozen choral performances are scheduled for the first week as part of the Yale International Choral Festival. And, as Aleskie points out to me, music is also an intrinsic element of a number of dance and theater events on the festival schedule.
When I ask Aleskie to name a highlight, she demurs.
“Mama’s little children are all loved equally. It’s hard to single one out,” she replies. “Each is there on merit.”