Wicked Good, Halfway Decent Un’naugural Ball
Jenny Van West, Troy R. Bennett, and award-winning gospel singer Fiston Bujambi Seba
By Timothy Gillis
What better way to celebrate the inauguration than to skip it altogether and spend the evening laughing and dancing and raising money for a great cause? Mayo Street Arts Center is hosting the Wicked Good, Halfway Decent Un’naugural Ball on Friday, Jan. 20, to benefit Mayo Street Arts and the Maine Immigrant Musical Instrument Project, which helps new arrivals reconnect with their musical roots by finding them instruments and introducing them to local like-minded communities.
The Wicked Good Band will team up with the Half Moon Jug Band for the event. Troy R. Bennett, on guitar and banjo, says he is known as the Van Gogh of the banjo since “I only give the impression that I’m playing it.” He’s joined by “Frost” Steve Brewer on bass, kazoo, and sax and Jeff Hamm who plays a suitcase drum set made from old American Tourister luggage.
Bennett says the idea for the show came to him after the presidential election, but stresses that it’s all positive vibes, not a protest.
“Everyone’s getting worked up over it,” he says of the election results. “They feel like they’ve lost control. We wanted to have a fun concert in town, where you aren’t spinning your wheels, to think about our own neighbors right here.”
That desire to help Portland’s new neighbors led him to Jenny Van West, the founder and director of the Maine Immigrant Musical Instrument Project. Bennett had written about her efforts for a local newspaper and quickly realized her story went on from where he’d left off.
“She had run into a new Mainer from Africa, who commented on the guitar she was carrying,” he says. “She found out that he’d fled Africa but was not able to bring his guitar. You know, while immigrants are waiting for a ruling on a green card, they are barred from working, but it’s free to make music.”
After that initial chance encounter, Van West started work on the project, which is part of a larger effort called “Welcoming the New American Family,” orchestrated by Pastor Maurice Namwira. It brings together recent arrivals with folks who’ve been here longer, “making sure they are oriented, have household items, know what they need to do next for their asylum cases, and getting together to eat and play music and relax,” she said.
An early gathering at her house brought in “a mélange of people from 10 different African countries. We had all kinds of music – country, folk, traditional African music. Out of that, a grassroots network started to grow. There are a lot of them in Portland and they are starting to connect, moving into a more formal direction to tackle issues like housing and education since a lot of people are afraid to speak up. For now, we quietly see what can we do for someone to help them feel a little more integrated.”
She notes the various and deep psychological pressures on immigrants, based on what they’re been through and how well they acclimate to their new surroundings. “Music is a common thread. They could be from several different countries, but they all know all these songs,” she said. “Recently I delivered guitars to two people on the same night, men who are living in the same apartment. Typically, roommate situations for recent arrivals seeking asylum are not by choice – more like they are thrown in together because they all need a room and one is available in a particular apartment. One knew that I was coming; the other one did not. The one who knew I was coming is from DR Congo. There, when you receive a gift, the polite thing to do is to put it behind a closed door and open it later. To open it right then is considered rude. So that’s what he did and quietly returned to talking with me. While my American self was disappointed that I would not see his reaction, I knew he was receiving this gift in absolutely the most respectful way possible, which made me feel great. The one who did not know I was coming is quite extroverted, and when he got the word I was there, came running out of his room so completely excited. He opened the thin case right up, and pulled out the guitar. He sat right down, started playing and singing in a big gorgeous voice.”
Moving experiences like this one are not only felt when she delivers instruments to immigrants, but also when she receives a donation that has been played for generations.
“One of my African friends told me that giving instruments is an act of family,” she said. “If you’re here with no biological family, you feel like you’re at home.”
That sense of family pervades these organizations, and is the driving force for the Un’naugural Ball. “We’re totally into having a good time,” Bennett says. “Whatever happens with the new administration, people are going to need good times. We’re not against anybody. We’re just for stuff – for good times and making sure musicians get instruments in their hands.”
Wicked Good, Halfway Decent Un’naugural Ball
Friday, Jan. 20 at 7:30 p.m.
Mayo Street Arts, 10 Mayo Street, Portland
Contact mayostreetarts.org for more info