Tag Archives: featured artists

Featured Artist-in-Residence: Denyce Graves

This week we have had the privilege of a brief residency with internationally renowned vocalist Denyce Graves. Let me begin by saying that her performance yesterday was among the finest live vocal performances I have ever experienced. Ms. Graves is the real deal. To repeat a phrase she used today, she is a “singing actress” of the finest quality. During the masterclass she offered for Claflin students this morning,  she demonstrated that she is an equally good pedagogue.

As a matter of priority, Graves shows how deeply she cares for young artists. Her approach to positive reinforcement is textbook: she puts praise first and emphasizes the positive so that musicians can build from strength to strength. All the same, she does not spare the rod. Graves hears through singers like most people see through glass, and then she polishes them. She refuses to stop until the particular aspect she is working on with the student reaches sufficient levels of both sound and understanding. That also means that every session ends as strongly as it begins. Any good musician will tell you that this pattern resembles a successful practice session. In the form of what she does–as much as in its content–she shows students this consistent approach to excellence.

She speaks to students in beautifully illustrative metaphors. To get the sound she wants, she speaks of the “core sound” of a singer’s voice. She compares it to perfume, noting that audiences don’t want eau de parfum or eau de toilette when they can have the real parfum. The comparison works perfectly for getting students to think about space and overtones or vocal formants. She instructs students to “stitch vowels together” by allowing [i] to “inform” [ε], [a], [o] and [u]. If that makes little sense to readers with different musical or linguistic backgrounds, think of it this way: she’s telling a singer to keep the long horizontal space in her vocal cavity equally long even as she opens up the vertical space for other vowel sounds. She compares this “spatial crescendo” to the feeling of taking a quick breath right after a peppermint.

Part of what works so well about all of this is that the students come prepared. Dr. Lori Hicks has worked overtime with many of these students for the love of singing and teaching. The students, for their part, know the technical language and the repertoire well. That eases Ms. Graves’ task, allowing her to use these pithy metaphors as illustrations that students can use to remember the sensation of good singing when they get back to the practice room. As she puts it, that sensation is so much important than sound; for as singers know, sound changes with the room, the time of day, what foods we eat, the season of the year, and even our seasons of life.

This is a promising time in the life of the music department at Claflin University. It was a tremendous pleasure to hear our students sing today, and it was an even greater pleasure to watch this master at work. I hope all of our students, whatever their instrument, can find something useful to take from the experience.



[A note to long-time readers (all dozen of you): the time has come for this forum to adopt a fresh angle. In the past, I have done many artist features. Now those features will serve–along with other aspects of this blog–as means of tying what has been primarily a research and reviews blog to my teaching at Claflin University. I hope this new breadth will continue to engage current readers and begin to connect them with a new readership among this university community.]


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Featured Artist: Denyce Graves

I don’t normally offer concert announcements or teasers here, but this one is just too good to resist.

This Sunday afternoon at 3 PM in W.V. Middleton Auditorium on the campus of Claflin University, Orangeburg audiences will be treated to one of the music world’s finest voices. Drawing on over twenty years of experience as a professional musician, vocalist Denyce Graves promises a performance that the Washington Post has called “almost too good to be true,” from a “vital artist, a beautiful woman, a regal presence.” Don’t miss this rare opportunity to hear a voice that continues to receive international acclaim!

The performance is free and open to the public. For more information, contact the Claflin University Office of Communications and Marketing at 803.535.5077.

Want a preview? Check out the media section of her site!


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Featured Artist: Nora Chipaumire

Photo taken by Al Hall at the Maggie Allesee National Center for ChoreographyAbove: Nora Chipaumire mid-sketch at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (Photo taken by Al Hall)

It’s taken me an unprecedented MONTH to react to this artist, primarily because her residency at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (MANCC) had such a profound impact on me. My interactions with Nora Chipaumire started because of a history professor who invited me to one of MANCC’s “entry points.” I had been to one other such “informal showing” before, and I had never been more intrigued by a dance event.* MANCC doesn’t present performances; instead, they invite choreographic fellows to come for residencies and the public only ever sees their work in its most embryonic and mutable phases. This takes pressure off of the dancer/choreographers so that they can concentrate on movement and experimentation, but it also creates a qualitatively different atmosphere for reception. It’s an environment that I have come to prefer as a more accessible way of wrapping my head around dance compositions.

During the few weeks between that initial invitation and the last showing of her collaborative piece, I have been humbled to do research for, work with, learn from, and laugh with Nora Chipaumire. She’s a person who enters the room with an irresistible magnetism about her. She says more with every detail of her body and movement than any other artist I have ever seen, and not only with her movement onstage. For example, Chipaumire cuts her hair like the male warriors in her clan:

Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography

Above: Chipaumire sports her “lion” hair during a rehearsal

Despite the centrality of natural hair to an aesthetic of Afro-centrism in African American style and culture, it’s probably difficult for most Americans to understand the full symbolic effect of this look for Chipaumire. Beyond being an international traveler, a renowned artist, financially independent woman, and generally boisterous personality, grooming this look smashes up Zimbabwean gender roles and norms even further. When she dances, she draws her vocabulary from an equally in-your-face repertory of movement.

One of the most poignant and fascinating images from her recent work involves an image of a Zimbabwean man who was burned alive in South Africa. Rather than embody a passive (if panicked) human torch, Chipaumire’s version of this person focuses on his humanity, his agency as an individual to experience suffering. The informal showing featured the music of Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited (in the flesh!), but I watched Nora rehearse this sketch to the sounds of the Muslim call to prayer, which lent both an window of intimacy into that person’s relationship with his Creator and a globalizing effect to this image of violence (particularly since Islam is widespread in Africa). The result embodied in performance the suffering of many people around the world, but most obviously and painfully the Zimbabweans who have recently experienced xenophobia and violence in South Africa.

Photo taken by Al Hall at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography

Above: Chipaumire “on fire” at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (Photo taken by Al Hall)

Chipaumire’s choreography juxtaposes of horrifically painful images behind masks of utter bliss: “everything’s fine, I’m fine, I’m wonderful, life is good” . . . complete with toothy minstrel grins. The whole atmosphere reeks of Dunbar’s masquerade, now thrown into stark contemporary relief through a more global light. Bondage, capture, torture, beating, and burning move past this mask, however, all with a sense of personhood and dignity that gives voice to the many thousands of voiceless suffering in Zimbabwe. Chipaumire’s process, moreover, comments on violence in a manner that extends a borderless statement of personhood both toward and on behalf of all who suffer needlessly.

*Sincerest thanks to MANCC, Nora, and all of the others involved with this project (you know who you are) for a wonderful two weeks, permission to use photos, and the opportunity to hang out with Nora, Thomas, and the Blacks Unlimited.

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Featured Artist: Vampire Weekend

Rostam Batmanglij, Chris Baio, Christopher Tomson, and Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend

The combination of my fantastic, Upper West Side Soweto-powered beach weekend and the last two posts over on Stuff White People Like have compelled me to feature Vampire Weekend at long last.  Did Clander’s inclusion of the “Oxford comma” in his latest (hilarious) post have anything to do with the VW song of the same name?  Or was that and the previous rip on Ivy Leaguers and those jealous of them some subliminal attempt to ride VW’s wave of success (I doubt it since Clander doesn’t really need such cheap tricks).  Regardless of Clander’s purpose, these Ralph Lauren sweater and boaters-wearing Columbia grads embody everything white people like.

Vampire Weekend came to their popularity in part because of one of my favorite blogs.  They’ve come full circle more than once already with numerous blogren and critics since then, garnering some pretty significant haters as well as some attention from those who are reading too much and listening too little.  But even the haters can’t deny that these gentlemen can play their instruments.

More important than that, they offer a refreshing melange of trends from the past 60 years of global pop music all the way from David Byrne (check out Ezra’s vocal quality on Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa) to Buddy Holly and Franco Luambo.  They’re clever lyricists, which is more than I can say for the many of the other jacked up wanna-be hipsters trying to make a splash on the New York Indie scene.  If these lyrics reflect privilege, as in “take your passport it’s no trick,” at least these silver spoon monkeys have the sense to poke fun at themselves for it.  Besides, the rich-boy snot dripping from their sweaters is clouding people’s judgment so much that the Village Voice’s rejoinder leveled a devastating critique on VWs more reactionary reviewers: according to the Voice’s Mike Powell, ” A lot can be gleaned about Vampire Weekend from the fact that their most evenhanded assessment to date has come from Teen Vogue.”  Ouch, Mike.  The truth hurts sometimes.

The bottom line is that Vampire Weekend has put out a polished record full of all the irony of scalar cello passages echoing from New England homes juxtaposed with the sweat and fun of 50’s Zairean pop.  My best advice if you haven’t heard this record is to go out and buy it.  If you’re reading this, that means you’ve probably already read too many other reviews from the mixed bag, so don’t listen to it right away.  Let the craze die down, buy some Franco, some Loketo, some Papa Wemba, and some Koffi Olomide, and then come back to Vampire Weekend.  You’ll have a whole new appreciation for them.


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Featured artist: Banksy

Too often art in public places has been shaped by the forces that put together funding to get it there or by the ambitions of an artist to go so far over the top that nobody can understand what they’re saying.  Not the case with Banksy.  I must be way behind the hipness curve on this one, because apparently this person has been around in the U.K. and has even done some work in Palestine.  Check out this clip from a British television program:

Now the weird part about Banksy is that he doesn’t want to be seen or known by anyone.  At first glance this seems to me like an effort to annihilate the ego, but with a name like Banksy, I’ve got to wonder…he’s obviously adept at publicity and he makes a living at this though nobody knows who he his.  Sure, nobody gets into art for the money, and yet he seems to be doing just fine.  Say what you will (no really, comment–I’m curious); this is still very honest art and it’s getting noticed all over the world, so he must be doing something right.


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