Monthly Archives: February 2014

Move Over Buskers Of Bangor…It Is Illegal,Yet.

scan0074                     During my travels to Boston,Manhattan, Austin Texas and even the Canadian city of Montreal one of the things that always fascinated me was being stopped in whatever tracks I was in by the sounds,sights and often both at once of street performers,or buskers. Even in the city of Portland,the largest in the state of Maine,they can be found. That is where the photo of the Gypsy violinist seen here was taken nearly a decade ago in front of a movie theater complex in the downtown area of the city during that summers Pride festival-if I recall.  Of course the very essence of life itself represents a musical event. That’s something a lot of us learn as children. The tapping of our feet as we stroll the sidewalk,trains rolling down the tracks and of course the birds and insects singing and humming create a unique symphony of melodic and rhythmic cadences almost everyone one travels to. When I walk along the streets of Bangor,its difficult to me to hear the train the runs through town through its own silencers. The sound of the the cars and motorbikes in traffic,along with their horns create such a cacophony its hard to hear the birds singing. And walking from street to street on the average day? No guitars,no pianos,not even the sound of a young person playing two metal garbage cans with drumsticks. Bangor Maine is one of the many towns and cities across the United States Of America-with the first amendment of its constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech,that long ago outlawed busking/street musicians of any sort in its downtown area.

 

 

 

Of course Bangor is not a non musical city. There have always been the Bangor Civil Center where many concerts have been held. And within the past decade or so Bangor has hosted both the American (originally International) Folk Festival on the last weekend of August -as well as a special summer concert series that has already attracted rock acts such as Pat Benatar,Sting and this coming year Arcade Fire. And along with the here today,gone tomorrow bars and grills that on occasion feature live local musical performers?  The musical scene of the area I live in is very low and comparatively spotty at best. It might have something to do with local economy,culture and a mild level of denial. A local culture clash in the state of Maine has resulted in Bangor being often considered the capital of a rather desolate and wilderness oriented northern area of the state-whose farthest regions contain villages that are given numbers instead of formal names. Being something of a last outpost,Bangor shares much of this regions pride in self reliance and traditional values. In all honesty they tend to appreciate perspiration over inspiration. And as I’ve grown up,its become apparent that only a minute segment of the local population view the whole idea of street musicians with anything close to a high regard.

One thing that such an environment can provide,especially for a young person growing up,is space to develop a vast imagination. Entering into adolescence during the mid 1990’s,that time where many psychoanalyst’s say many people’s strong interest in music begins,the internet was very much an internal networking device. And only available in segments of the state of Maine. Therefore ones perceptions of music either came from what tiny degree of written musical press could be found or,if you were as lucky as my family were to be able to travel to areas such as Waterville,Portland or even close  by at the University Of Maine where,every so often the occasional jazz soul and in an extremely rare case (such as Queen Latifah’s 1991 show on the UMO campus) hip-hop concerts.  That all declined as the most 9/11 economy hit the local area with particular strength. And both the Folk Festival and the Bangor Concert Series of recent years tend to be met with the same attitude as buskers-often frowned upon for their perceived noise and crowding. So in between all this,I became inclined towards finding friends with even the smallest musical inclination-either as listeners or being musicians themselves. Yet somehow never getting up the courage to tell them my own personal dreams of a musical Bangor. Which of course all came to a head when I was 19 years old and went to see a movie with my family at the Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville.

Bjork

The film in question was Dancer In The Dark,a Danish picture starring Islandic singer/songwriter Bjork with American actor David Morse,who co-starred in a Stephen King television movie my mother and I were extras in called The Langoliers. This was the story of an immigrant factory worker ending up in the middle of a financial conspiracy resulting in her committing a murder-and by films end receiving the death penalty for her crime. It was an abstract yet deeply disturbing contemporary movie musical-using the medium to create uneasiness as opposed to the usual unrestrained joy associated with the genre. One scene in the film which seemed to reflect how I viewed my future involved a number called “Cvalda”,in which Bjork’s character in the film imagines the monotonous industrial back round of her job as some steam punk styled Broadway production number-complete with harmonious chorus lines.

This idea of music being something isolated inside a building,or even inside merely ones imagination itself strongly shaped the person that I’ve become. In some ways,some creative constructs such as photography and paintings have come from that which contain their share of beauty here and there.  On the other hand,I’ve always had a somewhat secret sadness within me that,even for someone who wears their heart on their sleeve,I have trouble verbally articulating. I’ve come to live with the notion that I’m in a community that isn’t of course lacking in music,but has little music from anywhere particularly deep within its soul. And frankly? The lack of buskers-whether it be street musicians,mimes and jugglers create a general sense of dreariness on occasion. And that’s not something one desires where the winters are so long and icy. If someone were ever to ask me to paint the streets of the town in which I’ve spent the majority of my life,in fact? One would see within the completed painting an impression of the same streets filled with street performers of all kinds-delighting people of all ages with their talents and the sounds they create. In the end what is uppermost in my mind is that even if music is played there,a city without its own music is hardly a city at all.

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Blogging, Funk, Jazz, Maine, Music, Soul, Street Musicians

Taking It To The Streets : The New Funk Generation brings the Funk to the Streets of San Francisco- By Riquespeaks

Public Enemy’s 2007 album release, “How do you sell soul to a soulless people who sold their soul”, bore a mouthful of a title that provided some insight on what many in the music loving community have felt in recent years. The facts are, artists in the various facets of soul music have a much lower profile in the music industry. Soul legends are trotted out and acclaimed for what they did in the golden era from time to time, but other than that, music seems to continously march towards pop uniformity. Do not for one instant think this means there is no soul and funk music being produced. There are independent labels all over the country, such as Stones Throw Records, that use the power of the internet and the avaliability of musical production equipment and promotional tools, to make whatever kind of music they want.  The live show and touring business is also thriving, as fans realize in this age of studio magic and the perfection it provides, the live show more than ever seperates the men from the boys and the girls from the grown women. I’ve noticed that no matter what one feels about funk, funk never has a problem coming across live. Funk is a music with an extremely low name recognition and a limited perception in the minds of many music fans. Many people understand “funky” as an adjective, but are not too familiar with Funk as a noun, that describes specific groups and a specific set of musical particulars. But all that is irrelevant when the rhythm of the one gets fired up and the bass and drums force one’s booty to do its duty. If you’re lucky, your city has funky bands big and small that hit up the clubs and medium sized music halls of your area. If you’re really lucky, you have funk bands that perform on the street, like the Bay Area’s New Funk Generation.

San Francisco has a long tradition of street performers. The legendary mime, and influence on American  funk style dance, Robert Shields, once performed on Union Square in the early ’70s. My first personal experience with a street performer, came through a jazz saxophonist who played at Pier 39 named Laurie Watkins. “Mr. Watkins”, as I remember him from phone calls to our home, had a thriving business performing jazz tunes at the Pier, that won him fans from all over the world. People would come to San Francisco years after they first came and be delighted to find Mr. Watkins still there blowing the tenor saxophone with much soul, backed up by pre recorded drum tracks. I came to know him through my father, because Watkins did so well with his music playing in the city, he was able to invest in a gold finding expedition to Liberia that my dad put together. I still remember going to see him and the Duke Ellington like introduction he’d do, “Hello ladies and gentlemen, I’m Mr. Watkins. The space directly in front of me is the floor…feel free to dance and do what you like as I play some tunes for you!”

So when I first encountered the New Funk Generation in my High School years, I knew how to respond to music being played on the streets. It was in Berkeley that I first ran into the New Funk Generation. The drummer, Larry, was playing drums on buckets, and the bass player Brian had an acoustic bass plugged into a Bootsy Collins style bass filter. They played Bootsy’s Rubber Band’s “Hollywood Squares” that day, and it was a landmark for me because I’d never heard that type of funk played live before that, especially from the vantage point of standing where I could feel the wind of the speaker. Young cats from Oakland would stop by for a minute and dance and rap over it, because “Hollywood Squares” was well known, both in its original form, and through it’s usage by legendary bay area rapper Too $hort. But New Funk Generation moved everybody, from the young cats who happened to be walking by on a school ditch from Berkeley High or Oakland Tech, to their real audience, the UC Berkeley college kids. That was my first experience with hearing funk live, right there on the street on University. Larry and Brian played with true proffessionalism, with clothes on that were raggedy/eccentric. The clothes fit the vibe, because for one, they were playing for donations, and then again, it really made them look like members of Parliament Funkadelic, who were known for wearing anything on stage.

Fast forward a few years, I ‘ve graduated from High School and started avoiding Berkeley like the plague. I’m rolling through SF now, with my keyboard playing buddy Dameion. Me and Dame would be driving through the city, dealing with snooty yuppies, talking to snooty yuppie chicks and ghetto girls, buying records, playing music off cassette tapes, laptops and samples, and humming musical ideas. One day, we heard somebody playing some serious funk, I think it might have been “Mr. Wiggles” by Parliament. And lo and behold, it was Larry and Brian, the “New Funk Generation.” It quickly became a ritual to find their band and enjoy their music. I had finally bought my first bass and was procrastinating my way through learning it, but Brian always inspired me. They played songs I’d never heard lived or always hoped I would, like “Soft and Wet”, “Sir Nose D’Void of Funk”, “Slide”, “Glide”, and other funk chestnuts. What amazed and impressed me, as I’m sure it did other observers, was the accuracy of their playing and the tightness of their groove. They played with the precision of the James Brown band, but not on an elevated platform, right there on the street, with people dropping money into the jar.

Seeing and hearing this kind of funk on the streets sparked all types of reactions in me. Sometimes folks walked by and looked personally offended that the guys were doing their thing. The police stopped it a couple of times. But still, for the most part, Bay Area people being the party people they are, folks would walk by and really have a ball, most people would stop and listen for a few minutes, dance, and contribute, and the guys also kept a sizeable audience glued to their set for however long they played. They’d actually play long sets with intermissions and structure. Young dudes would want to rap, people would want to show off their dance moves, and the spirit of funk would be strong on any corner they plugged up on.

It never ceased to amaze me, how middle aged white dudes would come up to the band and request rare funk classics. It also shocked me when saggy pants sporting, hip hop heads would let themselves go and dance in the street to the band. Dame and myself would talk about whether we had the courage to go out there and jam like the guys, on the street, the courage to make our own gig. We never made it out there like them. But we did become very friendly with the guys and we always talked to them after the show, something few people did. The band usually had people there passing the can, collecting money, and they even featured other artists from time to time. I distinctly recall them bringing back a female rapper from Japan and putting her in the act, as well as a little four year old kid who did the James Brown in zoot suits.

It’s been quite some time since I’ve seen the New Funk Generation perform in San Francisco. Maybe I’ll go look for them one weekend. Larry, the drummer, actually had a brief cameo in a montage scene in Will Smith’s “The Pursuit of Happyness.” I hear some rumblings about the city trying to crack down on their performances. If that’s true, it’s another horrible case of Bay Area gentrification running rampant. With the Google buses, high rents, and all of the other things going on in San Francisco, they shouldnt get rid of the ability of people to take their talents to the streets and get money. If they do, they’ll be diminishing their status as a world class city, because world class cities all over the world have places for people to display their talents and make money off them, as well as to sell and trade on the street. But when I go the city, I still see performers of various stripes, including a young African American lady at the BART station playing the cello! So here’s to the New Funk Generation and their brand of street funk, a treasure of the Bay Area that needs to be on tourist brochures next to the Golden Gate bridge, bread bowls and Cable Cars

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Filed under Music, Rhythm, Soul