Saturday, December 19, 2009

Jose Feliciano: Setting the Night on Fire

By Deardra Shuler

Multi-Award winning Latin singer, composer, and guitarist, Jose Feliciano, was in California but on his way to the airport to continue on with his tour, when we spoke. Thrilled by his 2008 first time win of a Latin Grammy, (Jose won in the Best Contemporary Tropical Album category for his album Señor Bachata), Mr. Feliciano talked about returning to his childhood home state of New York as part of his tour.

“I am on the road. ‘Mr. Road Dog’ they call me,” said Feliciano with humor, as he headed to his next venue in Austin, Texas, as part of his extensive tour. “I did a Mariachi tour this time. I played with one of the best Mariachi bands around called Con El Mariachi Sol De Mexico,” remarked the talented singer/composer. “The tour has been going well. We played a casino that was packed to the rafters and I must admit it’s always great to go out and meet my fans. I am so grateful to the fans. They have kept me going for the last 53 years of my career. I started playing accordion at age 9 until the guitar stole my heart away. Then it was good-bye accordion, hello guitar!” chuckled Jose.

Born in Puerto Rico to a family of 11 boys, initially Feliciano’s family was concerned how Jose’s blindness would affect his future. However, God had plans for Jose who fell in love with music and worked hard to become a good guitarist. “I knew I was going to be a good musician. I didn’t know I would become famous but I worked hard at becoming good. I tried to combine my Latin roots with my soul roots. Aside from Spanish music, my influences were African American musicians and singers. People like Sam Cooke who to me was really my vocal teacher because I listened to his records constantly in order to learn phrasing. I also listened to Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder who I enjoyed during his early Motown days. I really appreciated Stevie later when in the 1970s, he began to write his own compositions,” stated Jose, who claims to be a late bloomer when it came to writing his own compositions.

“I listened to Muddy Waters and the Blues. I understood the blues and how people struggle. As a youth, my family was living a meager existence, so I knew about being poor,” said Jose who has never forgotten his scant beginnings, thus gives back via working with food banks. “There are a lot of people around the world who are needy. But there are also many people right here in America who are also in need of help. So, I do my best to give back. I think that is one of the most important things I can do,” claimed Jose.

In 1996, Feliciano received Billboard's Lifetime Achievement Award, and NYC honored him by renaming Public School 155 in East Harlem the José Feliciano Performing Arts School.

A consummate musician, Mr. Feliciano has performed his classical compositions, as well as his guitar transcriptions of the works of other composers. He has also performed with many of the top symphony orchestras.

Jose’s compositions, which include his well known Christmas song Feliz Navidad and Light My Fire, have been featured on television, in films, and on the stage. PolyGram released “Senor Bolero,” Feliciano's most recent and important recording in many years. Señor Bolero marked a return to Jose’s musical roots and earned him a sixteenth Grammy nomination for Best Latin Pop Performance. Jose also documented and produced a beautiful album in 2007, “The Soundtrax of my Life,” which consists of a collection of original songs that depict various chapters of his life set to music. “I am very proud of that album because I did everything on it: wrote it, produced it and even talked about my relationship with my children on it,” commented Jose with pride. Jose’s sons often perform during his concert appearances.

The winner of 7 Grammys, and 45 Gold and Platinum records, Jose appreciates his good fortune. “I count my blessings. America has been good to me. My fans and most importantly God has been good to me because without God nothing can happen. I am very grateful. I don’t take stardom for granted. A lot of artists get involved in their grandeur but I try to remain humble and really am always pleasantly surprised and pleased when people attend my concerts. I have won several Grammys but each time is like the first time. Each time, I get excited and often don’t even expect to win. When I won the Latin Grammy I was so surprised, I didn’t know what to say when I got up to accept it. Winning it was very special for me,” remarked the eclectic performer who is comfortable in all genres of music whether it be soul, pop, Latin or classical.

One of the greats in the Latin Music world, Jose has been able to endure and connect musically with each passing generation. “If you change with the times, people remember you because you are appealing to each generation that goes by,” claimed the talented performer. “That is what made Ray Charles great; Bob Dillion, great; Louie Armstrong, great; and the Beatles great. They all remained current because they had the ability to connect with each generation.”

Jose Feliciano is a consummate gentleman who continues to shine in the world not only because he is a great musician but because he is a wonderful human being.

Jose Feliciano will be appearing at the Iridium Jazz Club located at 1650 Broadway (Corner of 51st St.) in Manhattan on December 21st and 28th, 2009.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Race, What’s Said and Left Unsaid

By Deardra Shuler

David Mamet should be applauded for addressing the provocative subject of race in his latest Broadway offering, entitled “Race.” Race is presently running at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, starring James Spader, David Alan Grier, Richard Thomas and Kerry Washington.

The play is penned in an edgy urban, cynical style that has become characteristic of Mamet’s writing. A style dubbed “Mamet speak” wherein oftentimes Mamet’s characters use manipulative, crude and deceitful language, interrupting each other in mid-sentence thus invariably leaving dialouge unsaid. There is much unsaid in Mamet’s play “Race” and in fact, at times assumed. Stereotypes run amuck. With Black women characterized as being more promiscuous than white women, it opens up to inspection why so many successful and famous black men marry white women? And, when asked why this is, these black men respond because white women are easier, less trouble, more submissive and do what they are told wherein black women say no and appear angry. I am sure both white and black women would have much to say about being so broadly scripted and stereotyped.

However, Mamet’s play gives one pause to think because oftentimes in life things are left unsaid and presumed. Mamet addresses the legal system in this play, comparing it to a form of show business. He portrays the law as dealing not so much with guilt or innocence but with sleight of hand, manipulation, hook, spin, and rhetoric. In other words, making certain the defense's form of gamesmanship entertains the jury sufficiently enough to get better jury ratings than that of their opponents. Making it appear that the client’s guilt or innocence is irrelevant in the scheme of things.

Spader, Grier and Thomas are masters at their craft and seem comfortable on stage and are quite believable in their roles. Fresh from his hit show, Boston Legal, Spader appears to have fun with his character Jack Lawson who is partnered with Henry Brown (David Alan Grier). These spicy salt and pepper legal beavers take on a case that neither want but are trapped into by their devious young associate, played by Kerry Washington. Washington appeared new to the stage and miscast in her role, oftentimes delivering her lines mechanically. Indeed, even at the plays end she took her bows with a scowl, appearing angry. On screen, I have found Ms. Washington to be a competent actress, so I can only hope time will improve her presentation.

“Race” cooks up a boiling pot of assumptions, innuendos, stereotypes, truths and half truths. It addresses White guilt, almost to the point of disbelief. The fact that Richard Thomas’s character (Charles Strickland) would suddenly have an epiphany as a rich white man about his guilt is unrealistic. Especially since his guilt seemed to be borne more out of a realization that a longtime friendship he thought he had with a black male friend, was fragile and complex, if non existent. Strickland feels more guilty about being unaware his insensitive jokes offended his black friend than of being accused of raping a black woman, a crime his entire defense team believes him guilty of, yet are forced to defend against. Also, it seemed implausible that a mere law associate would risk her law career and/or have the clout and wherewithal to trick and manipulate two experienced criminal lawyers as this play suggests. This seems more a deep seeded angst the playwright may have concerning women since it’s not the first time this thread has been sown in a Mamet play.

One does not go to a Mamet play expecting sugarcoating. Mamet writes from a more gritty street smart perspective. If one expects Mamet to solve the issue of race, they will be sorely disappointed. Mamet merely brushes the surface and opens up the subject matter for discussion. While “Race” is thought provoking, it hardly gets to the depth of the issue. It touches only subtly upon the mistrust between black folks with one another and the perception black folks may or may not have that whites will eventually stab black folks in the back; a perception that even Lawson brings up and doesn’t disavow. In terms of black-on-black mistrust, Grier’s character looked harshly on the hire of the young black law associate (Washington) and was against her admittance to the firm, seeking to stymie her hire from the start. If anything, via his play, Mamet gives it the ole college try, but proves he is just as befuddled, vulnerable, and bias when it comes to race as the rest of us.

Perhaps therein lay the root of race in “Race.” This transparent undercurrent of a presumption of superiority vs. inferiority that produces a rage so engulfing in those made the underclass, it cannot be extinguished so readily. If indeed, as Mamet purports via his character Strickland that white men have nothing to say about race, then the ambers of race will continue to flame. And, by its very definition burn hot - smoldering in the underbrush, waiting to ignite into a raging fire that devours not only its victims but the very propagators of racial attitudes and all it engenders.

I recommend seeing “Race.” If nothing else, its a good place to start.