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The Graham Legacy

    I met him at the Whitman Walker Clinic sometime in the spring of 1997. In typical fashion he had contacted our Spanish language newspaper to ask if we were interested in writing a story about the work of Whitman Walker. They had already opened the Elizabeth Taylor annex across 14th St. three years earlier. Jim had been in the news and was becoming something of a celebrity in the city. The profile of WWC had been heightened and financially they were in the best shape of their 15 year history.

The Mastery of Flamenco/Jazz Pianist Chano Dominguez

Spain Arts and Culture closed out its performance season in Washington DC on Saturday, June 15, 2017 with a lively concert of flamenco tinged, Latin Jazz music with the consummate Spanish jazz pianist Chano Dominguez and his trio. This is the fourth jazz concert of the season at the charming, intimate, 'Former Residence of the Ambassadors of Spain', a long title for a  boutique performance venue that seats barely 100 people at a beautiful ballroom in the rehabilitated mansion along 16th St.
    Produced in collaboration with the DC Jazz Festival and followed by a question and answer session with the artist that was moderated by the inimitable Jim Byers, he of WPFW fame with his Latin Flavor Classic Edition program and his passion for vintage cars. Byers is perhaps the single most influential 'salsa' expert in town, a virtual cultural anthropologist of Caribbean music.
    Nominated for a Grammy for his album, 'Flamenco Sketches' and having performed with such artists as Paco de Lucia, Wynton Marsalis and Paquito DeRivera, Mr. Dominguez demonstrated his versatility and the influences that have shaped his music with an hour long session that left his audience eager for more. His selections ranged from an adaptation of Miles Davis's 'Freddy Freeloader' to the brash 'Rumba for Jerry' an homage to the great trumpet & conga player who resides in Madrid and has revitalized the Latin Jazz idiom in Europe.
    Chano, born in Cadiz, started with the rock and roll group CAI and went on to perfect a sound that is unique and rare. Among his influences is the legendary blind pianist Tete Montoliu who was performing in jazz venues across Spain in the 50s and 60s. He's able to incorporate the percussive piano playing of Latin stars such as Eddie Palmieri with the strains of flamenco fusion learned from De Lucia, one of his mentors. He adds to that his knowledge of the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane to provide a sound that blends all of these extraordinary influences into a potpourri of post bop, flamenco infused, Latin jazz fusion.     
    Spain Arts & Culture has showcased new and promising jazz artists from Spain this entire season. They began with the prolific horn player Jorge Pardo, continued with the young 'cantaor', Antonio Lezama, topped that with the composer Josemi Carmona of Ketama fame (together with bass player Javier Colina) and have now ended the extraordinary season with Mr. Domiguez. It's hard to imagine a more versatile and challenging season of jazz/flamenco anywhere, as if we have witnessed a slow moving festival of aspiring Spanish flamenco/jazz talents. Bravo Spain Arts & Culture for a grandiose, daring and risky sampling of the finest artists in the idiom. Visit www.spainculture.us for a complete listing of the myriad of events across the U.S.

Getting Down In The Heights Latin Style

In The Heights En Español, directed by Luis Salgado, is a bilingual adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mid-2000’s original musical. Colorful, humorous, and at times somber, the play centers around the struggles and romances of a primarily Latino community in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. Usnavi (played by Juan Luis Espinal) shoulders the legacy of his parents: a convenience store in “the barrio,” while looking after his younger cousin and his dear “abuela.” Meanwhile Nina (played by Laura Lebron) returns from Stanford to tell her parents that she lost her university scholarship. Once considered a star student, Nina deals with the guilt of having disappointed her parents and her community. Nina and Usnavi grapple with these issues while simultaneously pursuing their respective romantic passions. Usnavi musters up the courage to talk to “popular girl” Vanessa (played by Veronica Alvarez) who works at a beauty salon. Nina develops affection for Benny (Vaughn Ryan Midder), an African-American employee at Nina’s father’s Taxi/Limousine service.

quoteThe play incorporates many of the traditional Latino character types: Nina’s mother Camila (played by Shadia Fairuz) is the wise and strong Latina mother, Abuela Claudia (played by Michelle Rios) plays the spiritual, affable, and loving elder who provides guidance to Usnavi and Nina, and Nina’s father Kevin (played by Jose F. Capellan), is the proud machista father. These character types are positive depictions of Latinos which serves to break the common and unflattering depictions portrayed in mainstream media. At times, it’s positive intent felt more like a Disney production, clichéd and oversimplified, than nuanced social commentary. It does however touch upon anxieties that are very real to the Latino community today.

Perhaps the most poignant moment in the play came when Nina’s father, after hearing the news that Nina lost her scholarship in part because of how much she had to work to pay her tuition, expresses his disappointment… in himself. Kevin chides Nina with his disappointment before turning on himself. “Soy inutil, useless” Kevin says. He questions his ability to take care of his family, to be the best father he can be, and to honor what it means to be a man. These few minutes where Kevin explains his frustration, with himself, with no one, with everyone, nearly brought me to tears.

Kevin’s insecurity is not unique. Throughout the play, the collective feeling of insecurity is seldom explicitly articulated, but is present throughout just beneath the surface. Poor Latino families, Latino immigrants and the subsequent generations, face difficult questions about assimilation into American society. How do we make a living without knowing the language or culture of this country? How do we navigate a system that wasn’t designed by or for Latinos? What kind of life must we lead in order to preserve our heritage yet integrate into an alien society?

The depth of Kevin’s failure is not produced by his inability to help Nina, it is formed in the subtle feelings of inferiority to the “gringo” American and the challenges inherent in obtaining the “American dream.” We see what is desired for that lifestyle; the suburban home, the family values, kids who go to college, and we face a reality in which obtaining that life is not as easy for the Dominican business owner in Washington Heights as it is for the fourth-generation American professional living in suburban Washington DC. The insecurity felt by the Latino collective stems from a false equivalence in which the Latino wants to be like the gringo American but is living an entirely different experience than the gringo ever lived. Kevin’s feeling of uselessness is shared by the undocumented immigrant who works 60 hour weeks at $8 an hour but struggles to make ends meet, it’s shared by young Latinos who watch as their gringo classmates are showered with gifts and support from their parents while they save up money for a textbook by working at the grocery store after school, it’s felt by the Latina tamale vendor who sells her food to the newly arrived young professional couple who moved into the luxury apartment down the street, and it’s felt by the neighborhood drunk, who long ago lost faith and succumbed to despair.

“It’s about humanity,” Mr. Salgado explained in a Q&A after the play ended. At its core, In The Heights and Mr. Salgado are seeking to answer the questions of what it means to be Latino in the United States. But whereas in the mid-2000’s we could see this play as a celebration of our cultural roots and the innate “humanness” embedded within our core American principles, today we look at Mr. Miranda’s creation a bit differently; as a reminder of our fear of never truly becoming part of this country and the uselessness of our efforts to do so.

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