What to do when not tuning in

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

A taste of home

By Timothy Gillis


Somalis in the greater Portland area can get a taste of home at Mini Mogadishu, the new Forest Avenue restaurant that opened Saturday. It’s owned and operated by Nimo and Halimo Mohamud, spiritual sisters and pioneers in an ethnic fare usually served up by men.

Al Huda, Fez Mediterranean, and Asmara offer Somali and the somewhat similar Eritrean food, as do several other markets dotted in between, but the tendency is that some can turn into hang out spots for males, making it awkward for young African women to share the same space. Mini Mogadishu is not designed just for women of course, but the idea is to have it run by women making authentic homemade Somali food, with an enclosed space in the restaurant for women only where one can comfortably remove hijab.

Halimo Mohamud came to Portland in 1999. Nimo arrived a couple of years later. They met in 2002 through a mutual friend and discovered they were from the same Abgaal tribe. They talked about their new lives as immigrants, raising kids in a foreign community, and agreed that mealtime was a solidifying experience.

“Growing up in Somalia made you tough but empathetic. Surrounded by such uncertainty and hardship meant that sometimes the only good part of life was the time spent with family around the dinner table,” Nimo said. “I’ve watched a large group of kids grow. Some of them my own and some of them within my neighborhood and community. I remember them coming to my house with my children to have supper with us. It is a nice feeling knowing that however small, I did have a little impact on their maturity through a home cooked meal.”

Halimo and her cousin had operated a transportation company. Nimo drove for them, and plans began for the restaurant.

Operating all day, Mini Mogadishu will serve classic Somali breakfast fare including aanjeero crepes (a fermented pancake-like bread) with hilib (goat or beef) or chicken sugar. Lunchtime offerings include dalac bilash (a tomato soup), boor (fried dough), mushaari bowl (porridge), and fresh pita or jaapaati. Sip fruit smoothies, mango or guava juice.

“And many Italian foods,” says Abdul Yousef, Nimo’s son who painted the left side wall blue with å large white star to reflect the Somali flag. “Italians were settlers in Somalia and part of their culture was left behind. Lasagna, ziti, spaghetti – there are a lot of pasta dishes in our culture.” His sister Hanan and brother Abdi helped renovate the restaurant from its former days as Nur’s, Abdi Rahman’s Halaal Market. In addition to painting the walls, the family tackled the kitchen and bathroom, and tore up layers of tile floors. But they kept the brick oven to consider serving pizza.

“There’s a big difference for what you need in a kitchen between a restaurant and a market,” Yousef said. The changes were both necessary and an aim to put their mark on the building, but the look will keep evolving. Conformity is not so important in Somali culture, he says, so they’ll have a mix of rearrangeable booth and single seating, a café, and a more private section for women only. And with family style seating available, Mini Mogadishu can accommodate eight to ten people.

“We want to reflect how people do things in their own homes, and try to do our best to recreate that,” he said.

Harmonic Convergence

By Tim Gillis

What started off as a dreaded delay on a flight to New Orleans turned into a savvy career move for Port City Sound, a local barbershop quartet en route to the Barbershop Harmony Society’s annual national midwinter meeting.

“There was an equipment problem on the plane. They were having problems with the radio,” recalled Jim Simpson, who sings bass. “We were sitting there on the tarmac. The flight attendant came over and said ‘I understand you guys are a barbershop quartet; how about some entertainment?’ And we’re never shy about singing.”

Simpson, Walt Dowling (lead), Fred Moore (tenor), and Jim Curtis (baritone) burst into “Any Time at All,” a love song that features a Dowling solo, and “Under the Boardwalk,” while the flight attendant recorded a video of them. The resulting YouTube post has gone viral, with more than 3.5 million hits and mentions in the Huffington Post and New York Daily News.

The guys from Port City Sound are members of the Downeasters Chorus, a group of 65 local singers. The chorus is affiliated with the BHS, an international group with more than 23,000 members. The Downeasters have several established quartets, including Exchange Street, Senior Discount, Back Bay 4, Porch Time, and Curtain Call.

This Valentine’s weekend, several of these guerrilla groups of lovesong singers will be delivering music and roses around town.

The quartets will play Cyrano de Bergerac and serenade loved ones. They’ll perform at local businesses whose bosses want to brighten the workers’ day and at senior centers where the golden oldies they croon are in high demand. On Saturday, Valentine’s Day, they’ll deliver to residence doorstops and at restaurants towards the evening. Port City Sound will perform at the Salt Water Grille in South Portland on Saturday night.

“It’s a surprise singing Valentine,” said Tim Wyant, another barbershopper. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s a nice surprise.”

Wyant sings tenor with Porch Time. For the Valentine festivities, he’s assembled two other members from the quartet called Fore River Four – Jim Johnston (baritone) and Dave Marstaller (bass). “And we have a ringer at lead, David Cole,” he said.

They plan to perform “Heart of my heart” and “Let me call you sweetheart” for the Singing Valentine offer – two tunes and a rose. At a regular barbershop performance, each quartet will sing its own repertoire of up to 40 songs. They take requests, although most people in the audience ask for love songs.

In 1984, Wyant answered an ad about singing in a barbershop quartet, “and I’ve been singing for ‘em ever since,” he said. “It’s a real mix, the people who do this. Some have singing professionally for years; others join as complete newbies and start singing from scratch.”

Barbershopping started in 1930s and became huge in the 1950s. “Like the bridge clubs, though, the demographic is aging. Kids today are more interested in gadgets,” he said. But there is a renewed interest on college campuses in a cappella groups, and men’s choruses are starting to get a lot more college age members. The Downeasters boast a few youngsters, although one dropped out this past year to play football.

“We have two high school kids in the chorus,” Wyant said. “Tom Peterlein (of New Gloucester) and Sam Holmquist (of Gray). We’ve got them singing in the center in the front row. They’ve got great face, involvement, delivery – all the non-vocal parts of a singing performance, and they’re both good singers.”

Claudine Weatherford, Wyant’s wife of 33 years, tolerates his singing, he said. “But I wouldn’t be so bold as to say she likes it.”

(l to r) George Feinberg, Mike Soper, Miles Hunt, and Ryan Norfleet of Exchange Street

(l to r) George Feinberg, Mike Soper, Miles Hunt, and Ryan Norfleet of Exchange Street

Exchange Street, another of the quartets making the Valentine’s Day rounds, practiced this past week at a member’s home in Scarborough. Ryan Norfleet, the tenor, welcomed me in to meet the group. Miles Hunt (lead), Mike Soper (bass), and George Feinberg (baritone) were warming up in the living room. Norfleet’s kids were reading quietly on the couch in the den.

Their coach, Chris Howard, has been working with Exchange Street for about a year now. “I sit in and offer advice where I can – individual fixes as well as being able to make suggestions from my perspective as someone from the audience,” said Howard, who at age 29 is younger than the members of the quartet and one of the youngest in the Downeasters. “One of the things I really enjoy about working with them is they show up to rehearsal every week with a main goal of getting better,” he said.

Hunt, an attorney, has been in the Downeasters for six years. “Singing is one of my outlets. It’s a wonderful hobby to have,” he said. “You meet a lot of people. It’s like a big brotherhood.”

The Downeasters are all male. Harmony Incorporated and Sweet Adelines are all-female chorus groups. “They do a lot of shows together, all in the barbershop style,” Hunt said.

After the Valentine’s Day gig, the chorus turns its focus on prepping for the Barbershop Harmony Society International Chorus Competition, held this July in Pittsburgh, Pa., rehearsing once a week in Cumberland under the direction of Jack Baggs. (For more information, visit http://www.downeasters.org.)

This will be just the second time a team from Maine has been in the competition.

“Eight to ten thousand people converge on the city for a week. People come from as far away as Sweden, New Zealand, Spain,” said Hunt, who also competed with the 2010 team. “They’ll be barbershoppers singing all over the place – street corners, restaurants, everywhere you turn.”