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.”

The eventual life of a good story

DSC_0619Frank O Smith

By Timothy Gillis

Frank O Smith has come full circle. The Maine writer and ghostwriter has been crafting stories (his own and other people’s) for nearly 30 years, and one of the stories that started it all is finally out in book form. “Dream Singer,” Smith’s first novel, tells the story of Elijah McCloud, a Modoc Indian with the one-time gift of “dream singing,” or seeing the future through dreams, and Jackie Logan, a young runaway from Seattle. When the book was in manuscript form in 2000, it was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, an award inspired and financed by Barbara Kingsolver that goes to socially responsible literature.

“I didn’t win, but it’s been this constant sustaining wind behind me, saying you do know how to write, something I had been unable to embrace,” Smith said. He appears at Longfellow Book on Thursday, Nov. 6, at 7 p.m. to read from the book and discuss its long creation.

It began back in 1982, when Smith was writing a magazine story about riding freight trains, called “In Search of the American Hobo.” Smith hopped the freight cars along with the tramps, hobos, and bums (not synonymous). While on his train travels, he met Lonesome Walt, a Modoc Indian, and the inspiration for Elijah McCloud.

“I’ve been everywhere in this book, multiple times,” Smith said of his real-life travels, including a solo retreat to Glacier National Park in Montana where he camped for five days before Red Crow Mountain. During this trip, he confronted one of his fears by making him a character in the story.

“I was terrified of grizzlies, so he became this natural character,” Smith said of Ol’ Icy Eye, a portentous bear that McCloud encounters early on in the novel.

Smith moved to Maine in 1986, just after he started focusing on his fiction. “I had a couple of other books with agents, then I went back to ‘Dream Singer.’ I did a total rewrite for Thomas Dunne books (an imprint of Macmillan). The editor was disappointed with the rewrites. He wanted me to steer more towards the romance.” Unwilling to make the changes, Smith took his book and looked elsewhere.

“I wasn’t getting any response from publishers when I was trying to pitch the book two years ago,” he said. “Some friends came to me, saying ‘you need a break: what book do you want to publish?’ I said I wanted to start a small press for other writers who also needed a break.”

With their help, Smith founded Artisan Island Press, and “Dream Singer” is its first imprint. Smith’s son, Gaelen, who has had art gallery shows in San Francisco, New York, and Berlin, Germany, designed the cover of the book.

The author decided Frank Smith, as a writer’s name, was too plain. So he added the middle initial O, which stands for Orrin, although he doesn’t use a period. “People don’t know if I’m Irish or Hispanic,” he said, “if it’s Frank O’Smith or Franco Smith.”

Either way, the book speaks its own powers with a quest narrative similar in mood and imagery to Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Ceremony.” One follows the chase as McCloud and Logan try to find a killer before he finds them. It’s a novel that reads like a fine wine, the fuller the flavor for having been written, edited, and rewritten over so many years. He credits his wife, Dale Stephenson, for her unending support through all that time.

“She has blossomed into this absolute life companion that has backed me,” he said. “I couldn’t have done this without her. My writing craft grew out of this book, my love of language. I’m very pleased.”

Tragedies on two different levels

Charles Graeber_tsunami_credit Giulio DiSturcoGraeber in post-tsunami Japan

By Timothy Gillis

New York Times bestselling author Charles Graeber will be at The Portland Club on Wednesday evening, Nov. 12, to talk about “death and destruction on two different levels,” he said. He was in Japan after the 2011 tsunami and earthquakes and wrote about the experience for Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Graeber also spent ten years investigating the crimes of Charles Cullen, a nurse responsible for the deaths of perhaps as many as 400 patients while in his care.

“After the Tsunami: Nothing to Do But Start Again” (published in April 2011) and “The Good Nurse” (a non-fiction work from 2013) are two completely different tragedies, occurring in different parts of the world with different antagonists (nature and a homicidal nurse, respectively), but each work finds in Graeber a storyteller who immerses himself in his subjects.

In spring of 2011, Graeber spent time in the ruined city of Kamaishi, chronicling life and death in the tsunami zone of northern Japan. His reportage of one family’s survival became a cover story. At his Portland Club talk, he will present photos and short digital films of life in the tsunami zone. Graeber earned the Overseas Press Club of America Ed Cunningham Award for Best International Press Coverage of 2012 for his tsunami writings.

“I was asked by my Bloomberg editor to go to Japan after the tsunami, and I thought, ‘Hell, no!’ It still seemed like a dangerous place, still with earthquakes, but I bought camping supplies and a Geiger counter,” he said. “I couldn’t help it, but it reminded me of Godzilla.”

In “The Good Nurse,” Graeber encountered a different kind of monster. Cullen was a ICU nurse who kept losing jobs for erratic behavior and mistakes filling prescriptions, but somehow he kept finding new work in a medical system in need of those willing to cover nights and weekends and blind to a pattern of bad behavior.

In his research, Graeber discovered that the institutional blindness was self-inflicted. The book is a thrilling account of a madman’s perverse methods, coupled with the heroic work of a couple of cops who set out to catch him and soon found themselves fighting against a medical community intent on protecting itself from liability.

In a book about an uber-villain, the reader’s rage is assuaged to find heroes in the form of Tim Braun and Danny Baldwin, the cops who caught Cullen, and Amy Loughren, his friend and co-worker who realized his ghastly crimes and helped catch him.

Graeber said his investigation into the story started when he saw a small item in the paper about “The Angel of Death” who was attempting to donate a kidney from jail.

“It seemed like a simple story, a weird story of a rogue nurse, a misguided mercy killer,” Graeber said. “I’d finished a story for New York magazine and didn’t think I wanted to do another. I knew Cullen wasn’t talking to anybody, families of the victims or the press. I wrote him a letter, worked on it for a long time. I was interested in this seemingly paradoxical situation where this killer was going to donate a kidney that was going to save a life. He wrote back. I was really surprised. We started a correspondence, and then I began meeting with him in secret (from other press). I quickly discovered that the simple story was more complicated, about a system that moved him along.”

Mary Lund, the risk manager at Somerset Medical Center, lied to police about their records on patient history, according to the book. She still works in the field and has been promoted, Graeber said.

Two key breaks in the police case against Cullen came when it was discovered that the Poison Control Center had concerns about Cullen and had recorded their conversations with Somerset Medical Center, in which the center said they’d investigated internally but refused to report the suspicious deaths of at least four patients to police. And another big turn took place when Loughren agreed to work with police to catch Cullen.

“Amy was my big break, too,” Graeber said. “Nobody knew she existed. Her perspective as a civilian, on the ground, was closer to my point of view and to the readers’. The detectives were used to death, as day-to-day stuff. Even though she was a nurse, she was not used to homicide.”

Graeber is looking forward to his talk at The Portland Club, where he is a now a member. He spends a lot of time in Maine, visiting friends. His girlfriend lives in Harpswell. He had hoped that, for his next writing project, he could avoid the night shift in New Jersey and write about a hero, “but I have to admit I’m going back into the dark side.”

Graeber, a former Nantucket Beacon journalist, is a five-time Best American Writing-anthologized and National Magazine Award nominated National Geographic Adventure and Wired Contributing Editor and contributor to publications such as Outside, The New Yorker, GQ, and The New York Times. For more information and tickets, visit http://www.theportlandclub.com.