Flamenco dance project unites music, art, poetry and story-telling

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By Timothy Gillis

There are so many cultural things to do around town that one is never at a loss for an evening of dance, music, poetry, storytelling, or art. But even in these artistic environs, it’s unusual to find them all combined in one show.

“El Lobo y La Paloma” (The Wolf and The Dove) is a flamenco dance performance choreographed by Lindsey Bourassa that will be held Saturday, June 3, in South Portland.

“This work was inspired by the loss of my own father but also includes the universal experience of loss — that of losing a loved one, a homeland, a freedom, a right, an identity,” Bourassa said last week from her Forest Avenue studio, which she’s owned since 2014. “It’s about the reconstruction of our relationship with our lost being through the process of grief and healing.”

In addition to the original dance stylings of Bourassa and dancer Megan Keogh, it features Arabic singer Talal Alzefiri, oud player Thomas Kovacevic, and the paintings of Khosro Berahmandi, a Canadian-Iranian artist.

Videographer Ali Mann gives the live performance a visual backdrop, with images of the recurring wolf and dove symbols, and Molly Angie designed simple but symbolically colored dresses that move from dark to light. The Iraqi poet Kifah Abdulla translated original verses, odes to the dead written by Bourassa and her father, into Arabic.

This dazzling line-up of cultures and art forms is supported in part by a project grant from the Maine Arts Commission. It’s the liveliest of creative performances, but it has its origins in a difficult grieving process.

In 2015, Bourassa’s father, David, was dying of pulmonary fibrosis. She had recently returned from a year of studying flamenco dance in Spain, and able so spend some treasured time with him before he passed. She subsequently resolved to create an artistic response, a way out of her grief.

“I’ve always made work based on life experience, so that was the starting point,” she said. “During the time he was dying, I came to believe in the possibility of building a spiritual relationship with those who have passed … the choice of Arabic music to accompany the flamenco dance reflects one branch of flamenco’s ancestry, which guides the unfolding of this story.”

The story Bourassa created involves a wolf and a dove, symbols she kept encountering in the months leading to her father’s passing.

“My father named the wolf his spirit animal,” she explained. “In studying the meaning of animal symbolism in diverse traditions, I came to discover that wolves represent pathfinders … (and) that the dove is a symbol of the maternal spirit messenger who comes to lead her children safely from struggle.”

Later, when going through her father’s things, she discovered poems he had written when he lost his mother. Bourassa decided to write poetic responses to his odes, crafting the eventual narrative.

When it came to choreography, she had several options to choose from. In flamenco, there are many styles of dance—maybe 45 styles, according to Bourassa—each with its own melody or feeling. She selected seven different flamenco and Arabic styles. Kovacevic then created oud music for the seven paired-poems (Bourassa’s father and hers), and Alzefiri “sang in a way that went with the music,” she said.

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Providing the sonic textures and backdrop needed for Bourassa’s flamenco show are oud player Tom Kovacevic and Arabic singer Talal Alzefiri.

The project was a return to the past for Alzefiri, who is from Kuwait City and moved to Westbrook in 2010. He grew up with a family of singers—his father, Ebra, and five uncles—and experienced music as part of daily life. When he left Kuwait, that all changed.

“I stopped singing when I came here,” he said. “I was focused on finishing high school and was facing a hard time with my grandmother’s death. I turned away from singing. But when I first saw this flamenco dance and the style they do it, it reminded me a lot of my culture and brought me back to my childhood. That’s when I really started to go back to singing.”

Alzefiri has even more to sing about lately. Last year, he got his United States citizenship, after a five-year process.

“It’s wonderful to finally have a piece of paper in my hand. Now I can travel,” he said. “And that’s the most beautiful thing about this project: Lindsey is a very hard worker—how she was able to bring so many cultures together.”

Cultures combine, and the performance whirls in and out of genres. Behind the unfolding works of music and dance, two poems are simultaneously narrated. These verses are layered atop video imagery of the natural world that is interspersed with digitally projected paintings.

The production represents an end and a beginning for Bourassa. She completed her Certificate of Professionalization in Flamenco Arts in Spain in 2012 at El Centro de Arte y Flamenco de Sevilla. When she returned to Maine, she wanted to start something.

“There was no flamenco in Maine, and I wanted to create something based on these rhythms,”] is because this is the reasoning behind creating Olas – to create something reminiscent of flamenco, but with local artists of diverse genres. Olas lasted from 2008 to 2016. El Lobo y La Paloma is my own work, a Bourassa Dance production, and departs from Olas. It was made in collaboration with several artists, three of which were also members of Olas (Megan Keogh, Tom Kovacevic and Molly Angie). Talal, Khosro, and Kifah are all new collaborators to my work.

The flamenco community in Maine is still small, but it’s growing. I’m trying to teach as true to the art form as I can.”

“El Lobo y La Paloma,” performance by Lindsey Bourassa | Sat 7 pm | June 3 | South Portland High School Auditorium 637 Highland Ave., South Portland

Rending Wall

Poetry inspired by Donald Trump, with apologies to Robert Frost

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Someone there is who loves a wall,
Who foments the hate that boils up to build it,
And creates fake news, equates terror with one religion,
And makes a place where predators can grab a breast.

The work of the people is another thing:
I have joined them in their marches, their peaceful protests,
Which met with tear gas, resentment, and bile,
The resistance that has irked the angry dogs.

At mending time, a time to heal all wounds,
My neighbor lets me know beyond the hill,
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And crack the wall between us once again.

We smash the wall between us as we go.
He is all pine and I am apple orchard,
but together we get nourishment beneath the shade.
He’s heard “Good walls will keep out bad hombres.”

We wish we could put a notion in Trump’s head,
How do you know they’re bad before you meet them?
But Trump believes Breitbart News and watches Fox,
And thinks a wall’s the trick, doesn’t care if he gives offense.

Nature it is that doesn’t want the wall,
That tears it down when the people gather, rise up.
I see Trump there, hiding in his fool’s gold castle,
Peeking out behind the shades, afraid of another’s difference.

He takes no self-exam and can’t see similarities
With the very people he chooses to detest.
I want to pelt him with a barrage of ripe red apples,
The age-old symbol for knowledge he so disdains.

My neighbor wants to make a drone of pinecones,
And deliver a prickly payload of stark reality.
But Donald is the duck in a raincoat.
His conscience doesn’t work like yours or mine.

He moves in darkness, a product of his party’s mindless rage.
And doesn’t read a book nor turn a page.

Let’s Get It On

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Protesters gathered on Monument Square Friday night, with sign-holders chanting to passing cars and each other that “Hey Ho! Donald Trump has got to go.” The woman on the bullhorn implored art walkers to come out each month in similar fashion. Across the street, in the atrium of the Portland Public Library, critics of the current regime took another approach, gathering musicians from several immigrant communities for the Portland Culture Exchange’s music jam and dance party. They had “Mainer” shirts especially made for the day, crafted by Pigeon, the street artist name for Orson Horchler.

This first public event comes after a year of several impromptu house parties, introducing newcomers to the city to their neighbors and future friends. Lilly Pearlman anchors the group and plays fiddle and bass guitar. She grew up in Portland, went to college in New York, and then spent time in Brazil.

“When I moved back, I wanted to know a Portland that wasn’t as homogenous as the one I grew up in. I thought ‘What stands in the way?’ I realized that we’re not homogenous, we’re segregated.” She wanted a project that called upon peoples’ various skills and yet somehow united them. She started going to English classes, where she met new Mainers and talked about their interests. Almost everybody she met loved music; most played an instrument. Cuisine and culture quickly became two additional distinguished commonalities. They started holding monthly French-English discussions, and the group plans to add Spanish and Arabic exchanges to the mix. Despite national concerns with immigration policies and the swirling confusion of their effects on locals, the Portland Culture Exchange has remained intent on sharing traditions, food, and music.

“We are bridging the gaps between American-born and new Mainers through common passions to create the opportunity for building relationships, friendships between communities that are usually segregated,” she said. “Frequently, even when there’s interest between multiple groups to get together, it’s uncomfortable. There are cultural barriers. Sometimes people think the differences are greater than they are.”

The group started having informal parties that turned into Monument Square street jams. The library’s atrium was packed at Friday night’s event, and they’re considering moving to a bigger space the next time. But for the group, it’s not all song and dance.

They’re planning a big event called “We Sing for Peace,” using some of the Jewish traditions of Eastern Europe, especially the notion of a tisch – a joyous public celebration with a meal set up on a long table, often held on a Friday, “when Orthodox Jews aren’t supposed to play musical instruments, so they sing into the night,” Pearlman said. “Niggunim, or traditional melodies, for example. Based on that, we are going to have people lead easy songs in their languages that call for peace. We’ll probably need more space, perhaps the auditorium.”

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“The notion of a tisch comes from my Jewish (Ashkenazi, Eastern European) heritage,” said Pearlman, who teaches ceilidh dances from her Scottish heritage at their jams. She says the project works to build a real multicultural view of what ‘Portland culture’ is, based on Portland’s residents and their multifaceted histories and traditions.

“We Sing for Peace” is modeled after a tisch because that, too, is part of Portland’s traditions. “While the project is grounded in the sharing, appreciating, and exchanging of traditions and cultures, we put great value on the people who bring Portland’s cultural richness,” she said. “When Eric Simido sings an Angolan song, he makes his Angolan culture essential to Portland culture. When the folks at Chez Okapi – a Congolese restaurant on St. John’s Street where we host our French-English language exchanges – cook fufu and pundu in Portland, they bring their home with them, and they build Portland’s culture. When any brilliant foreign-born Mainer uses their ingenuity to create a new business in Portland, their unique way of thinking and being makes its way into this community’s roots and foundation. So we see our exchange as part of an intertwining of long histories in the place where we all now share common space: Portland.”

The musical regulars include Pearlman and her brother Neil on the keyboard. Majoja, on the drums and guitar, and Eric Simido, vocals and guitar, are both from Angola. Ness Smith-Savedoff, who grew up in Portland and Switzerland, plays drums. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda are regularly represented. Everyone is invited to bring an instrument and come and dance. At “We Sing for Peace,” tentatively scheduled for April, they hope to have as many as ten countries joining voice.

Majoja is the nickname or artistic name for Kingebeni Kilaka Kelorde, who is originally from the north of Angola. “I had to go to DR Congo, the country where I lived for about two decades because my country was in civil war.”

He studied art in high school, and is now a painter and musician. “I have loved the music since my childhood because it has been part of my traditional culture,” he said. “I have been in Portland since October 2015. It was not easy for me to be accustomed with the weather, oh nooo! So cold, the lifestyle is so fast and busy. When I met with Jenny van West, she connected me with Pigeon and he connected me with Lilly Pearlman. She talked to me about the Portland Culture Exchange. It seemed to be an interesting project and I promised her to give all my energies because I believe that everyone has something special to share to make Portland a better place for everyone. I live in the US , and I love this multicultural country. Culture is the identity of people. I’d like to see Portland growing up like all the metropolitan cities around the world. Portland Culture Exchange is our first step.”

 

For more information, contact portlandcultureexchange@gmail.com

Scott Cairns talks poetry, politics and the possibility of peace

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Scott Cairns was born in Tacoma, Washington. He earned a BA from Western Washington University, an MA from Hollins College, an MFA from Bowling Green State University, and a PhD from the University of Utah. This interview was conducted by Tim Gillis ahead of Cairns’ reading in South Portland on Jan. 30.

 

TG: How does geography influence your poetry?

 

SC: I don’t know that I consciously am aware of how it might. I do know I’ve been in exile for 40 years, in the wilderness. I grew up here, but left for grad school in ’77 and then didn’t really get back until just now. Despite having lived and taught all around the country, this landscape has always been the landscape of my imagination. Maine is similar, the evergreen trees that creep down to the shore, the low skies on a cloudy day – I found it analogous to the kind of quiet that one pursues when settling into writing a poem or saying a prayer.

 

Besides writing poetry, Cairns has also written a spiritual memoir, Short Trip to the Edge (2007), and the libretto for the oratorios “The Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp” and “A Melancholy Beauty.”

 

TG: Talk about the element of spirituality in your work.

 

SC: When I started out, I was like most of my American contemporaries, working off of my own experiences and trying to find something useful to talk about. I guess at some point, around my second book, I started writing to find out, instead of writing what I thought I knew, pouring over the language on the page looking for something I hadn’t apprehended. Most of my career now has been comprised of composing that way. Not too far along that way, I started attending to my own personal obsessions with God – using that practice to lean into an understanding of the nearness of God, developed through the poems, meditations, through that contemplative compressing of language, and figured out how I commune with God. Not every poem, but most in the past 30-plus years have commenced that way.

 

Cairns has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was awarded the Denise Levertov Award in 2014. He has taught at numerous universities including University of North Texas, Old Dominion University, Seattle Pacific University, and the University of Missouri. He also directs a low-residency MFA program at Seattle Pacific University.

 

TG: Tell me a bit about the nitty-gritty of your writing process?

 

SC: I use a legal pad and a pencil, and am usually reading something. What I’m reading is varied – a great poem or some theological text – Patristic Greek, the fathers of the church, early saints and their writings.

 

TG: Can you contrast when process when writing poetry, memoir, and libretti?

 

SC: They require a different filter of the head. With poetry, my primary mode, I write to find things out. If I have an idea before I start, I wait for it to go away. I want the language to tell me something I don’t yet apprehend. With the memoir, a template of actual events that I allowed into the text in a way I wouldn’t have done with a poem. I wanted the events to be recorded and examined. Memoir is a way to revisit those occasions and glean from them a more useful sense of what to make of them, these visits to holy places and discussions with holy men. Libretti were pretty much defined by historical occasions – e.g. the martyrdom of St. Polycarp of Symrna. I worked with a composer who did the music. He supplied verses for moments in the score. Then the composer worked from those and educed from those musical phrases.

 

TG: You’re founding director of Writing Workshops in Greece, a program that brings writers to study and engage with literary life in modern Greece. How did that enterprise come about?

 

SC: In college, I started reading patristic texts, which led me into becoming an Orthodox Christian. Most noticeable Orthodox Christians in America are Greek Orthodox. An understanding of the faith led me to pay more attention to these early writings – usually in Greek. I started learning Greek and going to Greece. I visited a monastic enclave at Mount Athos. The Byzantine Empire covered much of the Mediterranean from Venice east, and subsequently succumbed to Islamic takeover. This place is the last vestige of the Byzantine Empire, a finger of a peninsula. It still goes on to this day, a part of Greece but self-governing, like the Vatican. I developed the writing program as an excuse to go to Greece more often. By now, I have gone to this holy mountain 24 times.

 

TG: A sharp contrast to disturbing recent new of religiously motivated attacks and threats of violence nationally. In Portland last Thursday (Jan. 19), a bomb threat was called into a Jewish pre-school. You’re reading at Congregation Bet Ha’am, a Reform Jewish congregation in South Portland, at an event hosted by the BTS Center, a United Church of Christ affiliate that’s ecumenical in nature. Talk about these intersections of politics and religion, and the possibilities for peace. And how can contemporary poetry speak to that end?

 

SC: Orthodox Christianity is probably the most Jewish of Christian expressions. In orthodoxy, that connection has been maintained, even the way the priests dress. I studied a lot of rabbinic texts, a lot of early writings that revolve around a puzzling moment in scripture. In terms of poetics and politics, one writes poems from a place of understanding words, and the power of words, and honoring what truth and attention can avail. If there is a relationship between the poet and the politician – the poet examines the language of the politician for veracity. Poets in our culture now are in a position to challenge careless or misleading uses of language in the political realm. We have to call people on it. For that reason, we have an obligation to share what we see against euphemism or obfuscation.

 

 

 

 

Details:

Poetry Reading by Scott Cairns

Hosted by The BTS Center

Congregation Bet Ha’am

81 Westbrook St, South Portland

Monday, Jan 30 7-8 p.m.

Cairns is the author of eight books of poetry, including The Theology of Doubt (1985), The Translation of Babel (1990), Philokalia (2002), Idiot Psalms (2014), and Slow Pilgrim: The Collected Poems (2015). His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Poetry, and elsewhere, and has been anthologized in Best Spiritual Writing and Best American Spiritual Writing.

 

A taste of home

By Timothy Gillis

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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.

Salman Rushdie talks about fatwa, new memoir

Story and photo by Timothy Gillis

PORTSMOUTH, NH –
Best-selling novelist Salman Rushdie spoke at the Music Hall last week, about his new memoir called “Joseph Anton” and the life he lived in fear since the 1989 “fatwa,” or death sentence, imposed on him by the Ayatollah Khomeini.

The fatwa was for his allegedly blasphemous novel “The Satanic Verses,” which Rushdie said is actually one of his least political works, much less so than “Midnight’s Children,” which took on the public life of India or “Shame,” which was based on “genuine political confrontation” in Pakistan.

Rushdie seems to have weathered the storm, though the 600-page book is a harrowing account of the effects of the fatwa decree, including the dissolution of a dying marriage, his raising of his nine-year-old son, and living with a 24-hour security detail from Scotland Yard.

He was shocked at the reaction to “Satanic Verses,” especially the accusations in the British press that he did it on purpose to attract attention.

“‘Joseph Anton’ is how my real life turned into a novel, stranger than anything I had ever made up,” Rushdie said.

A dream sequence from the work, in particular, seemed to incite Islamic tension. Rushdie read from this episode to start his talk, and emphasized that “Satanic Verses” was a novel “primarily about migration,” he said.

“In the middle of it there was this dream sequence… about a prophet, not called Muhammad, living in a city, not called Mecca, inventing a religion not called Islam. And the person having the dream was losing his mind and going insane. This is what we, in the trade, call ‘fiction.’ Unfortunately, it wasn’t read like that.”

The serious thing that this passage talked about, Rushdie said, was the nature of revelation, or “how does a new idea come into the world?” Also integral to the contentious passage was “what do you do when you are strong? When your enemies are at your mercy?”

After a short break, Rushdie returned to the stage with Virginia Prescott, host of Word of Mouth, for an interview. The Music Hall house band Dreadnaught played the Platters “Great Pretender,” and Rushdie noticed the tune and sang along.

Prescott asked how Islamic culture has changed since he was a child. Rushdie said he grew up in a house that was “happily godless,” where his father and his father’s friends would discuss whatever they wanted. Rushdie was free to think and express himself. That did not mean his opinions went uncontested. There just wasn’t a threat of violence for unapproved thoughts. Then came Valentine’s Day, 1989, when the fatwa was issued, and there began “the difference between rhetoric and reality,” said Rushdie, exasperated after all this time at the extreme reaction.

“Books are books. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. This is why they have books by more than one person in bookstores,” he said. The United States is a very divided country, he pointed out, where half the people are often saying things that the other half of the country can’t stand, “but it doesn’t occur to either half to burn the country down.”

Rushdie was often light-hearted and humorous on the night, belying the years of living in fear. Asked if he was still fearful or looking over his shoulder, Rushdie motioned to the audience and said “Look, there are hundreds of them in the dark. They don’t seem that scary.”

Audience reaction to Rushdie was overwhelmingly supportive of his plight, even if many in attendance knew more about his life’s story than his written works.

Peter Randall, a filmmaker on local farms, was invited to the talk by a friend. He said he was interested in the whole story of Rushdie and the fatwa against him.

“It’s ridiculous,” Randall said. “I don’t understand why people get so upset about something written. An act, I can see, but it’s just words.”

Henry Linscott said he was in grammar school when the fatwa was issued. “I didn’t know what the book was about, but it sounded scary.”

Twenty-four years after the fatwa, Rushdie feels it’s “get-along time” now and looks forward to discussing the literary merits of “Satanic Verses,” a work which has been analyzed through political and religious lenses, but has remained unstudied in the language of literature.

Rushdie said he is proud of the novel, but would have changed its history if he could. Related to the “Satanic Verses,” an Italian translator was stabbed, a Norwegian publisher was shot, and a Japanese publisher was killed.

Rushdie lived in hiding, in England first and then in the United States, and tried to provide a normal life for his young son.

“Joseph Anton” tells of his hidden life and was his alias with the police, based on two of his favorite writers, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. His case, called Operation Malachi, was considered the most dangerous assignment for the police, and they served by volunteering instead of being required to do so. Despite the disdain from some higher-ups who didn’t feel he had done anything to deserve their protection, hadn’t “performed a service to the state,” Rushdie grew close to many of the police officers who were protecting him. He thought they had it tougher than he did, since “sitting around, looking out the window, wondering what to do next” was the typical life for a writer.

“Joseph Anton” was originally written in the first person, a standard voice for a memoir, but Rushdie changed it to third-person.

“I had to get beyond the anger and resentment. That’s why I waited so long to write it,” he said. The objective voice also gives him some emotional distance and allows him to write more “novelistically.”

“The thing about an autobiography, in the end, is to tell the truth,” he said. “Otherwise, why write it?”