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The Sweet Sounds of Sacred Heart’s Freedom Choir

March 10, 2015 Leave a comment

I keep getting assignments to write about various aspects of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in North Omaha and the latest is this Omaha Magazine (omahamagazine.com) feature about the church’s Freedom Choir.  The super-charged choir adds to the full-throated, body-swaying gusto that makes the 10 a.m. Sunday Mass there a draw for folks from near and far.  Just like the church is famous for its welcoming spirit, so is the choir.  Oh, and they can sing just a little bit, too.

 

Sacred Heart Freedom Choir | Feel The Revival

 

The Sweet Sounds of Sacred Heart’s Freedom Choir

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine (omahamagazine.com)

 

 

Rousing. Inspired. Dynamic. Electric. Animated.

All apply to Sacred Heart Catholic Church’s Freedom Choir. Home for this contemporary gospel choir is a Late Gothic Revival-style house of worship in a poor, largely African-American northeast Omaha neighborhood. The choir, like the congregation, is mostly white, the members driving-in from outside the community.

The popular 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass features the high-energy choir’s joyful noise. The choir also performs at the parish festival, community concerts, weddings and funerals. In 1997 the group traveled to Rome, Italy to perform at St. Peter’s. The choir’s recorded CDs,

Its up-tempo, full-throated, Baptist-style flavor, complete with swaying singers and musicians, makes for vibrant praise and worship rooted in radical hospitality and stand-up-and raise-your-arms spirituality. Far from your mother’s staid Catholic service, this is Vatican II reform given full license to bust out in song, embrace, even dance.

Though seemingly free-form, it’s the careful design of former pastor Jim Scholz, who sought to shake up an aging membership. Drawing from urban, gospel music-rich liturgies and with a nod to the Blues Brothers, Scholz hired Mary Kay Mueller to birth the choir in all its from-the-gut expressiveness. That’s when the 10:30 Mass took on a lively, high-pitched fervor. As word spread, people packed the pews. They’re still flocking there decades later.

Tom Fangman and JIm Boggess replaced Scholz and Mueller, respectively, to carry on this big, brassy, yet solemn celebration.

“When people first come it’s to hear the choir,” Father Fangman says. “Then when they come they experience it’s not just the choir, it’s the whole community. We really are big on making people feel a part of it and welcome.”

“There’s a sense of inclusion in our particular faith community that keeps me coming back,” says Boggess, who’s regular gig is Omaha Community Playhouse music director. He knows top-flight talent and has plenty in the choir. Percussionist Michael Fitzsimmons is a Nebraska Arts Council touring artist. Soloist Natalie Thomas is lead vocalist with the cover band Envy. Fellow soloist Moira Mangiameli is a veteran theater actress-director. Both Mangiameli and Boggess have written hymns the choir performs.

 

Jim Boggess

 

Moira picture

 

 

 

 

 

Moira Mangiameli

 

Many members have been doing this for years. That makes for tight harmonies and personal bonds.

“Over the years those people have gotten to be some of my best friends,” Boggess says. “They’ve been there for me in good times and in horrible times. I think whatever almighty spirit there be led me here for a reason and the reason was I needed to have those people in my life and I’m so much richer spiritually and as a person and as a musician for having known them.”

“It’s a family,” says choir president Sarah Ruma, who goes back 30 years, “We have our regular family and then we have our church family and that’s basically what Sacred Heart is and our choir is. Some of us have kind of grown up together. We started in our late 20s and early 30s and now we’re into our 50s and 60s.

“Unfortunately, we’ve buried choir members. That’s been hard. We sing together, we smile and laugh together and we cry together.”

Mangiameli says, “It’s the best part of my week.” She’s recruited her sister    Eileen to the choir. Like other devotees there Mangiameli was a disaffected churchgoer who got swept up in the spirit. “People get up and they clap and they rock out. It happens every Sunday. People are really happy to be there. There’s an incredibly positive and heartfelt vibe that just happens every Sunday and it extends to the choir, too.”

Fitzsimmons calls it “energizing.”

“It’s just a warm place to be,” Ruma says.

“I have been moved ever since my first Sunday here 16 years ago,” Fangman says. “I am moved every single week. I can’t wait for the 10:30 Mass.”

It doesn’t hurt that the music’s off the chain.

Mangiameli says, “There’s so many great people in the choir that it makes you better just to be a part of it.”

Boggess doesn’t turn anyone away. “If you can carry a tune that’s fine, but you don’t have to have a great voice, though I’ve got some people with magnificent voices, there’s no doubt about it,” he says. “But really passion counts more than anything else. It’s supposed to be a gospel choir and that implies a certain freedom and that’s what I give them.”

“What really sets us apart is the musicians that play with us,” Mangiameli says. “They are just some of the best musicians anywhere around and they really inspire us as singers.”

 

Michael Fitzsimmons

Michael Fitzsimmons

 

Fitzsimmons says it’s the whole package. “The directors, choir and instrumentalists continually amaze and inspire me by their high quality presentation and soulful musicianship. “He says the experience of the Mass is very much interactive with the music.”

“The very best thing that happens is when you feel the energy coming from the congregation,” Mangiameli says. “When we’re in the middle of singing something and then all of a sudden they’re on their feet you know you touched them and made a difference.”

Sometimes, when the congregation’s really feeling it, she says, Boggess has the choir stop and listen to the collective voices. “You get goose bumps, it’s great, there’s nothing like it.”

Sacred Heart is located at 2204 Binney Street.

BLACK HISTORY MONTH CONCERT DIVA 3 A TRIBUTE TO HISTORY OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMEN IN CLASSICAL MUSIC

January 28, 2015 2 comments

I have the distinct pleasure of being friends with a remarkable group of women musical artists in Omaha who are all related to each other. Once in a while they gift the community with their individual and collective talents in concert. Their DIVA 3 concert on Sunday, February 8 at New Life Presbyterian Church will commemorate Black History Month with performances of arias and spirituals from the classical canon that celebrate the legacy of African-American women in classical music. Nola Jeanpierre, her daughter Carole Jeanpierre and Carole’s daughter Elyssia Reschelle Finch possess powerful, dramatic soprano voices that will raise the rafters and give you goosebumps. They are all classically-trained. Nola’s sister Johnice Orduna will add her fine vocals as well. As if that’s not enough this musical line, those three generations of performers will be joined by a fourth generation, in the person of Nola’s aunt, Claudette Valentine, who will accompany this family of vocalists on piano. It will be a program you won’t soon forget. Your heart and soul will never be the same. I’ve always thought that if someone with a video camera would record oen of this family’s concerts and post it to YouTube that the video would stand a good chance of going viral because people all over world will be struck by the magic of their music. Nola, Carole and Elyssia deserve the recognition.

 

 

Diva3 (NS)

 

BLACK HISTORY MONTH CONCERT DIVA 3 A TRIBUTE TO HISTORY OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMEN IN CLASSICAL MUSIC

Three generations of classically-trained Omaha singers bound by blood, faith and black musical heritage will perform a DIVA 3 concert on Sunday, February 8 at New Life Presbyterian Church, 4060 Pratt Street.

The 6 p.m. Black History Month show will feature Nola Jeanpierre, her daughter Carole N. Jeanpierre and Carole’s daughter Elyssia Reschelle Finch performing songs celebrating African-American women in classical music. In the tradition of Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle, the three local women will use their dramatic soprano voices to interpret arias and spirituals from the classical canon.

Nola is a veteran musical theater performer on Omaha stages. She portrayed Bloody Mary in South Pacific at the Omaha Community Playhouse. She sang the role of the High Priestess in the memorable Opera Omaha mounting of Aida at the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum. She’s the featured soloist at the St. Cecilia Cathedral Flower Show each year. She’s done summer stock back East. She traces her vocal abilities to her mother, Bernice Bragg.

Carole has performed with national artists on stage and in the recording studio. She is often a guest soloist with the University of California Davis Gospel Choir. She also composes music, including an original, faith-based opera she wrote, Noalia: An Opera of Love that she is workshopping She recently adapted the opera into a children’s book.

Ejyssia, a student at Concordia University in Seward, Neb., has a goal of auditioning for the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, which her grandmother Nola did as a young woman.

Nola’s sister, Johnice Orduna, will lend her own fine voice to the concert. Nola and Johnice’s aunt Claudette Valentine, a piano instructor and choir director, will accompany the vocalists, which means a fourth generation of musicianship will be represented.

This long line of musical talent is viewed by family members as a gift from On High they feel called to share.

“As a family music represents the fruits of the spirit,” says Carole. “It is our hope to enlighten hearts, to share the gift with love and with unity so that audiences are uplifted. That’s the bottom-line.”

“I’ve always been so appreciative that we were blessed with a gift that we could give back,” says Nola.

“Music is love,” Valentine says simply.

Carole created DIVA 3 as a vehicle for the family to sing together, just like they did at family reunions back in the day.

“We’d have family gatherings and someone would bring the macaroni and cheese and someone would bring the guitar, and we would all sit up under each other and sing. That was our best times,” recalls Carole.

“The piano was the center of everything we did,” Valentine says of growing up.

As each next generation came into the family’s musical fold, a new talent was nurtured and another voice added to the mix. When Nola and her two sisters showed a musical knack as toddlers, their mother had them start piano lessons. Voice lessons followed. Claudette formed the girls into a sweet harmonizing trio that performed widely. As Nola’s music career blossomed her first-born, Carole, soaked it all in.

Nola recalls their earliest musical bonding, “She would be under the piano and sometimes I would sit her on the stool next to me and we would sing. She’d touch the keys and play the piano. When I heard the talent then it was time to use it because she has the most phenomenal gift of pitch and mimicking a sound of a one I’ve ever known. She can sound like anybody.”

“I picked up everybody’s gift,” says Carole, who made her public performing debut at age 3 in church.

“I just gave her what was given to me and passed it on down,” says Nola.

Truthfully, it probably started in the womb,” Carole says of this music osmosis. She went on to train with some 17 vocal coaches but says her mom’s “the best.” Nola and Carole both teach vocal students.

The family’s closeness carries over to performing, where their intuitive understanding allows them to cover for one another.

“We feel each other,” says Nola. “We just know when one is going to drop out and the other needs to pick it up.”

Elyssia, who has a mixture of her grandmother’s and mother’s voices. appreciates the musical legacy she is part of and the warm comfort of performing with loved ones.

“I definitely recognize how special that is. Not everybody has that and it does bring your family into a closer connection because we all do share something and we all display our gifts in the same kind of way.”

For the February 8 concert the doors open at 5:30 p.m. for a private auction from the Creations 2 Bragg About Collection.

DIVA tickets are $15. Purchase advance tickets by calling 402-.281-5396. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Raw DAWGS after-school program.

For more information, call 402-281-5396.

BLACK HISTORY MONTH CONCERT DIVA 3 A TRIBUTE TO HISTORY OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMEN IN CLASSICAL MUSIC</p>
<p>Three generations of classically-trained Omaha singers bound by blood, faith and black musical heritage will perform a DIVA 3 concert on Sunday, February 8 at New Life Presbyterian Church, 4060 Pratt Street.</p>
<p>The 6 p.m. Black History Month show will feature Nola Jeanpierre, her daughter Carole N. Jeanpierre and Carole's daughter Elyssia Reschelle Finch performing songs celebrating African-American women in classical music. In the tradition of Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle, the three local women will use their dramatic soprano voices to interpret arias and spirituals from the classical canon.</p>
<p>Nola is a veteran musical theater performer on Omaha stages. She portrayed Bloody Mary in South Pacific at the Omaha Community Playhouse. She sang the role of the High Priestess in the memorable Opera Omaha mounting of Aida at the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum. She's the featured soloist at the St. Cecilia Cathedral Flower Show each year. She's done summer stock back East. She traces her vocal abilities to her mother, Bernice Bragg.</p>
<p>Carole has performed with national artists on stage and in the recording studio. She is often a guest soloist with the University of California Davis Gospel Choir. She also composes music, including an original, faith-based opera she wrote, Noalia: An Opera of Love that she is workshopping She recently adapted the opera into a children's book.</p>
<p>Ejyssia, a student at Concordia University in Seward, Neb., has a goal of auditioning for the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, which her grandmother Nola did as a young woman. </p>
<p>Nola's sister, Johnice Orduna, will lend her own fine voice to the concert. Nola and Johnice's aunt Claudette Valentine, a piano instructor and choir director, will accompany the vocalists, which means a fourth generation of musicianship will be represented.</p>
<p>This long line of musical talent is viewed by family members as a gift  from On High they feel called to share.</p>
<p>"As a family music represents the fruits of the spirit," says Carole. "It is our hope to enlighten hearts, to share the gift with love and with unity so that audiences are uplifted. That's the bottom-line."</p>
<p>"I've always been so appreciative that we were blessed with a gift that we could give back," says Nola.</p>
<p>"Music is love," Valentine says simply.</p>
<p>Carole created DIVA 3 as a vehicle for the family to sing together, just like they did at family reunions back in the day. </p>
<p>"We'd have family gatherings and someone would bring the macaroni and cheese and someone would bring the guitar, and we would all sit up under each other and sing. That was our best times," recalls Carole.</p>
<p>"The piano was the center of everything we did," Valentine says of growing up.</p>
<p>As each next generation came into the family's musical fold, a new talent was nurtured and another voice added to the mix. When Nola and her two sisters showed a musical knack as toddlers, their mother had them start piano lessons. Voice lessons followed. Claudette formed the girls into a sweet harmonizing trio that performed widely. As Nola's music career blossomed her first-born, Carole, soaked it all in.</p>
<p>Nola recalls their earliest musical bonding, "She would be under the piano and sometimes I would sit her on the stool next to me and we would sing. She'd touch the keys and play the piano. When I heard the talent then it was time to use it because she has the most phenomenal gift of pitch and mimicking a sound of a one I've ever known. She can sound like anybody."</p>
<p>"I picked up everybody's gift," says Carole, who made her public performing debut at age 3 in church.</p>
<p>"I just gave her what was given to me and passed it on down," says Nola.</p>
<p>Truthfully, it probably started in the womb," Carole says of this music osmosis. She went on to train with some 17 vocal coaches but says her mom's "the best." Nola and Carole both teach vocal students. </p>
<p>The family's closeness carries over to performing, where their intuitive understanding allows them to cover for one another.</p>
<p>"We feel each other," says Nola. "We just know when one is going to drop out and the other needs to pick it up."</p>
<p>Elyssia, who has a mixture of her grandmother's and mother's voices. appreciates the musical legacy she is part of and the warm comfort of performing with loved ones.</p>
<p>"I definitely recognize how special that is. Not everybody has that and it does bring your family into a closer connection because we all do share something and we all display our gifts in the same kind of way."</p>
<p>For the February 8 concert the doors open at 5:30 p.m. for a private auction from the Creations 2 Bragg About Collection.</p>
<p>DIVA tickets are $15. Purchase advance tickets by calling 402-.281-5396. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Raw DAWGS after-school program.</p>
<p>For more information, call 402-281-5396.

 

Faith, Friends and Facebook: The Journey of Camille Metoyer Moten

December 13, 2014 Leave a comment

Here’s my Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) piece about how beloved Omaha performing artist Camille Metoyer Moten used social media as a communnication and connection point to share her odyssey with cancer and her reliance on faith for getting through the illness. On my blog you can find other stories I’ve done on Camille, who is an inspiration through her work and her life.

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Faith, Friends and Facebook

The Journey of Camille Metoyer Moten

When cancer struck beloved Omaha performer Camille Metoyer Moten, she shared her odyssey and faith on Facebook

January 7, 2015
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Now appearing in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)
Popular singer-actress Camille Metoyer Moten is a fun-loving, free-spirited soldier of faith.

That faith got tested starting with an April 2012 breast cancer diagnosis. After treatments and surgeries over two years she gratefully proclaims, “I am healed.” Anyone unfamiliar with her spiritual side before discovered it once she began posting positive, faith-filled Facebook messages about her odyssey and ultimate healing, which she attributes to a Higher Power.

Her frequent “Fabulous Cancer-Free Babe” posts gained a loyal following. Many “Facebook Prayer Warriors” commented on her at-once intimate, inspirational, and humorous musings. One follower quipped, “Your posts are like going to church at the Funny Bone.”

Metoyer Moten decided cancer was an experience she couldn’t deny.

“When you perform, your whole thing is pulling people into this artistic moment with you,” she says. “When I got the cancer and started posting about it I thought, ‘Well, this is my song, this is the song I have right now and I want people to feel everything I’m feeling, the good parts and the bad parts.’ And at the end I want them to see the glory of God in it.”

The humor, too. She described the asymmetry of her reconstructed breasts. While losing and regaining hair she called her bald head “Nicki MiNoggin.” Once patches of growth came back it was “Chia Rivera.” She’s since dubbed her swept-back scraggle, “Frederick Douglass.”

“I wrote it as I saw it, Metoyer Moten adds. “If it struck me funny, that’s what it was. I will talk about anything, I just will. I’m just like this open book.”

That extended to shares about weight gain and radiation burns.

Mainly, she was a vehicle for loving affirmations in a communal space.

What support most touched her?

“Probably just the amount of prayer,” says Metoyer Moten, whose husband, Michael Moten, heads One Way Ministry. “Every time I said, ‘Please pray,’ there were people right there, and sometimes they would put their prayer right on the post, which was awesome. Some of the encouraging things they would say were really special. The Facebook people really did help to keep me lifted and encouraged and they said I did the same for them.

“It almost never failed that there were things I read I needed to hear. We had this beautiful circle going of building each other up.”

The sharing didn’t stop at social media exchanges.

“The thing I loved were the personal notes I got from people asking me to write to loved ones going through something, and I wrote to them just to encourage them because that was the whole purpose—to tell people who you go to in time of trouble.”

She’s now writing a book from her Facebook posts.

“My goal is to encourage people and to glorify God and to talk about how social media can be a meaningful thing.”

Camille, being Camille, went beyond virtual sharing to invite Facebook friends, all 2,000-plus of them, to “chemo parties” at Methodist Estabrook Cancer Center. “I usually had about 12 to 15 people. The nurses were very sweet because sometimes we’d get too loud. Other patients sometimes joined the party, which was kind of my point, to liven it up. We just had a ball.”

It wasn’t all frivolity.

“We would pray on the chemo machine that the chemo would affect only the cancer cells and leave the good cells alone. Once, a woman rolled her machine over for us to lay hands on hers as well. It was just a beautiful testimony.”

Cancer didn’t stop Metoyer Moten from cabaret singing or acting

“Even though I had a little harder time every now and again,” she says, “it didn’t stop me from doing anything.”

She even believes she came out of it a better performer.

“I’m not a very emotional person,” she continues, “but sometimes to connect spiritually you have to have a little more emotion involved. I think now the stuff I’m doing on stage is better because I think I’ve connected to myself better emotionally. I think I had stuffed things down a long time ago. This made me realize it’s okay to have some emotions.”

Fellow performers David Murphy and Jill Anderson walked with her on her journey. Now that they’re battling their own health crises (Murphy’s vision problems and Anderson’s MS), Metoyer Moten is there for them.

She’s glad her saga helps others but doesn’t want cancer to define her.

“A long time ago I decided there’s no one thing that’s the sum total of your entire life,” she says. “I’m happy to talk about what God did for me during this experience, but I’m not going to dwell on the cancer bit forever. I don’t want people to look at me and say, ‘Cancer.’ I want them to look at me and say, ‘Healthy…healed.’”

 

 

Charles Ahovissi brings West African culture to the Heartland: African Culture Connection uses dance, music to tell indigenous yet universal stories

December 12, 2014 Leave a comment

Here’s the story I wrote for The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/) about the African Culture Connection and its founder-artistic director Charles Ahovissi in advance of their Dec. 8 production at the Omaha Community Playhouse. Pam and I went to that show expecting we would be thoroughly entertained having seen the company perform before and if anything our expectations were surpassed. There may be more positive energy and life-affirming love in a single ACC show than there is in a season’s worth of shows by other troupes. Combine that with the fact that there just isn’t anything else like what the ACC does in these parts and you have the makings for a singular experience that as my story tries to communicate is a rich cultural immersion not to be missed. It was a packed auditorium and those of us in the audience returned the energy and love received with our own warm, good vibes. By the way, the ACC show on the 8th was part of an alternative programming series the OCP offers. The programs are free and a welcome change of pace from the usual.

 

 

 

Charles Ahovissi

 

 

Charles Ahovissi brings West African culture to the Heartland

African Culture Connection uses dance, music to tell indigenous yet universal stories

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

Art often expresses culturally-specific stories but until the Omaha-based African Culture Connection surfaced in 2006 West African tales were rarely if ever explored here.

Led by Benin, West Africa native and veteran dancer-choreographer Charles Ahovissi, ACC’s dedicated to presenting the vibrant rhythms, movements, colors and costumes of African tribal tradition and culture.

In upcoming appearances he and his troupe will enact lively interpretations of African proverbs through song, music and dance. On Friday they perform during the Ethnic Holiday Festival at the Durham Museum. On Saturday they offer dance instruction at the South Omaha Library. On Monday they present the story of the Iroko tree in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s Alternative Programming Series.

Alternative well fits ACC, whose programming nearly stands it alone among area arts groups. As a Nebraska Arts Council (NAC) touring artist, Ahovissi brings his cultural showcase to schools and youth serving organizations, where African studies are negligible.

“It is a very unique program,” he says. “You don’t see it in this state. You cannot get what we teach kids in a library. In schools kids barely get the cultural activities we provide them. That’s why it’s very unique, very special and engaging.”

Omaha Girls Inc. executive director Roberta Wilhelm says, “Charles has helped our girls learn about Africa in ways they simply never would in a classroom or from a textbook. The girls connect to the lessons in a very visceral way. He and his team help the girls ‘feel’ Africa when they drum and dance. They prepare and taste African food, create printed fabric to wear while they dance and hear African stories. They also learn lessons about creativity, collaborative work, self-expression, delayed gratification, responsibility and pride of accomplishment.”

At the free 7:30 p.m. Playhouse show the featured Iroko dance imparts a lesson through a cautionary parable about the dangers of putting self before community and not respecting nature. In West Africa the Iroko tree is held sacred for supposed mystical powers and medicinal properties. In the dance a young woman ignores a prohibition to cut the tree and goes mad as a result. After being saved by the village’s purification ceremony she vows never to violate the Iroko again.

Ahovissi says, “”There’s a reason why we do any traditional dance and drumming. Every life aspect in Africa has a specific dance, rhythm, music, so at the same time I’m teaching a dance I’m also teaching the culture, the tradition, the story behind that dance and music. For example, when it comes to farming in Africa there is preparation and celebration. How we pick the fruit, why we pick that fruit is dance movement that has a story.

“Another example is the special music and dances we do for the initiation of youth in a village. When I’m teaching kids here the initiation dance I’m also teaching this story, this culture, this way we do things.”

Between the beating drums and the whirling dancers the energy rises to a fever pitch at ACC performances. The nonprofit’s on quite a roll, too. In late 2012 it became one of only a dozen organizations in the U.S. that year and the first ever in Neb. to receive the National Arts & Humanities Youth Arts Award. It’s a major honor for any group but particularly one as new as ACC.

Ahovissi, ACC’s ebullient founder, president and artistic director, accepted the award from First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House. Additionally, ACC received a $10.000 grant to support and expand its programming. This came on top of winning the Nebraska Governor’s Arts Heritage Award.

Even Ahovissi finds it hard to believe his organization did what none of the state’s larger, more established arts programs managed doing.

“I just don’t know how we got here,” he says. “It was surprising.”

NAC director of programs Marty Skomal says, “No other arts group in Neb. has succeeded in demonstrating ACC’s masterful combination of high artistic quality with genuine and significant community engagement. Each time I see the troupe perform, I am impressed by the level of dedication, attention to detail and commitment. It becomes contagious. Kids can sense this authenticity, and respond to it instantly. ACC is able to do what its name implies – make a connection.”

Ahovissi appreciates the positive feedback he gets from teachers, administrators and program directors about the immersion experience he provides. He says the glowing evaluations “confirm that after we work with kids they learn how to respect and how to behave and some kids who were shy become engaged in the classroom,” adding, “All the teachers tell us thank you for making a big impact on kids’ lives.”

He says the rituals and lessons taught have deep, universal meaning.

“We say it takes a whole village to raise a child. From generation to generation we pass on the culture. In Africa everything kind of ties together.”

In a real sense he’s carrying on traditions handed down to him in Benin, where dance and drumming were part of his growing up..

“My mom took me from village to village to the ceremonies,. I just picked it up from that.”

In his early teens he joined a local arts group. “They taught me how to be more professional,” he says. He then won a competition that enabled him to perform with the National Ballet of Benin beginning in 1984 at age 16. “That allowed me the opportunity to travel and perform with that company. I was very honored to be selected.”

Later he joined the Super Anges dance troupe. He was touring the U.S. with that company when he met his wife. The former Karen McCormick, an Omaha native, did a Peace Corps stint in Africa, including service in Ahovissi’s native country, Benin. In Omaha she volunteered with the La Belle Afrique presenting group that brought Ahovissi’s dance company to Omaha in 1999. The two met, fell in love and married. They have two children together. Ahovissi moved to Omaha in 2000 and became an NAC touring artist in 2001.

He conducts NAC residencies around the state.

“I know all the cities and towns in Neb. I just pack my car with my costume and drum and travel one week, two weeks at a time. I cannot count how many places I’ve been to. I’m grateful for that because I do love teaching, performing and sharing my culture.”

He trains teaching and performing artists to join him at some venues.
His multicultural troupe present African music and dance and the stories behind these traditions. He feels American children need to expand their knowledge of diverse cultures in this ever shrinking world.

“It is so important for them to learn about other cultures. They have to open their minds, they have to allow themselves to appreciate other cultures, they have to accept their friends who are not like them. Since Omaha is becoming more diverse we need to be more diverse, too. We all need to be together and move forward.”

He says as Omaha’s welcomes migrant populations from around the world “there is a need for global understanding in our community. It’s not just African culture – we need to be learning about all these different cultures. You teach me about your culture, I teach you about mine, and we share it. That’s how we become open-minded and free and live in a peaceful way.”

Ahovissi’s still deeply tied to Benin, so far spared from the raging Ebola epidemic. He sends money back every month to his large family living there. “I’m they’re hope,” he says. They’re his roots and inspiration.

Visit africancultureconnection.org.

 

 

Charles Ahovissi's photo.
Charles Ahovissi's photo.
Charles Ahovissi's photo.
Charles Ahovissi's photo.
Charles Ahovissi's photo.
Glimpses from the Dec. 8 performance of the Iroka legend dance

 

Breaking the mold: Opera Omaha re-imagines the gala

December 11, 2014 Leave a comment

Depending on the crowd or circle you travel in, bring up opera in conversation and expect a glassy-eyed look on some people’s faces because they can’t or won’t get past some cliched notions they have about this form being tired, overstuffed, and irrelevant. Opera is in fact a living, breathing performing art every bit as vital and universal as any other, drawing as it does on the most urgent human emotions, inspirations, and themes for its bigger-than-life brand of music theater. Opera is not just one thing or the other either, it is alternately grand and spare, traditional and experimental, contemporary and classic. In the spirit of celebrating opera’s qualities, Opera Omaha, a company with a national reputation for its bold approach, has re-imagined its annual fundraising gala to give audiences an immersive experience inside the power and drama of ioera’s music, acting, and design. My story below for Metro Quarterly Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) describes the new take Opera Omaha took with its Agrippina gala a year ago. An upcoming story in the next issue of the mag will discuss Opera Omaha’s plans to further these push the boundaries at the 2015 A Flowering Tree gala event.

 

Breaking the mold: Opera Omaha re-imagines the gala

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of this story now appearing in Metro Quarterly Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)

 

Hidebound event transformed to mirror opera’s dramatic, theatrical world

If being adventurous counts for anything, then Opera Omaha’s doing what it can to be the pertinent music theater company that general director Roger Weitz envisions. From commissioning designs by world-renowned artist Jun Kaneko to teaming with elite opera companies to presenting a full range of works, it’s making waves here and beyond.

“At the National Opera Conference in San Francisco this summer there was a bit of a buzz about what’s happening here,” Weitz says. “I think the word on the street in Omaha is also positive.”Part of the excitement was generated by last year’s gala that teased a production of Handel’s Agrippina. Everything from the nontraditional Omar Baking Building site to the outside-the-box immersive-interactive approach marked a stark departure from the norm.”The standard format of a gala is you go to a hotel ballroom, you have cocktails and dinner, there’s some speeches and maybe a performance,” Weitz says. “That’s a gala that could fit for anybody. But we’re an opera company that produces music theater, so I thought why not have our gala be like an opera? That’s how we can have it reflect the work we do. We shouldn’t have a gala that could be replicated by a hospital. It needs to be theatrical, it needs to be special.”

An opera sampler
With Los Angeles director James Darrah and his production team already in tow to mount the little-known baroque opera Agrippina, Weitz decided to have them produce the gala as well. Thus, lighting designer Cameron Jaye Mock, set designer Emily Anne McDonald, costume designer Sarah Schuessler and projections designer Adam Larsen brought Agrippina to life both for the site specific gala performance and for the main-stage Orpheum production.”I wanted to give guests a preview of what Agrippina was going to feel and look like from the team designing the production. What James and his team bring is innovation. He has both total fidelity to the music, to the composer’s intentions, and to the librettist’s intentions. What he brings to that is storytelling that can make even an opera hundreds of years old feel modern and relevant. At the end of the day that’s what I want this company to be – relevant.

“To me, opera is not a dusty museum piece, it’s a living, breathing, growing dynamic art form that a lot of young composers and artists are excited about and interested in creating. My vision for Opera Omaha’s mission is to make sure this community receives a balanced program that represents the repertoire. That means we’re going to do the classic greatest hits of opera – we’ll always have one of those every year – but we’re also going to do early, contemporary and new opera.”

With programming open to that full spectrum, he says, “it enables the company to take artistic risks and also to do things that are exciting possibilities with the potential to grow and build audiences.” For Weitz, there’s no gain without taking risk and to his delight he’s finding audiences are right there with him.”We’re taking a bold step that is not cautious. Every year I think we go a little bit further and every year the response has been all the more positive and enthusiastic.”

Opera Omaha supporters Paul and Annette Smith, who chaired the gala, appreciate Weitz’s daring.

“He’s taking a very fresh and exciting perspective to opera. He knew we needed to break some boundaries and to try some things that hadn’t already been done,” Paul Smith says.

Up close and personal
Though an 18th century work, Agrippina has enough sex, violence and politics to resemble a modern soap or news scandal. It’s why Weitz opted to hold the gala previewing it at a restored former bakery in the inner city. Darrah’s team crafted a surreal and intimate environment inspired by the retro industrial digs and the historical opera. A banquet table served as the “set” centerpiece. Screens acted as visual markers and breaks.

“We created a combination of live performance with installation art visuals amid dinner, drinks and conversation to immerse people,” Darrah says. “We had shot video portraits of the entire cast in slow motion closeup against a black background, which Adam Larsen then edited into video projected on transparent screens throughout the space. So you had characters from the opera walking on screens that would disappear and reappear on the other side of the room.

“It was all about illusion.”

Playing off the opera’s story of the emperor Nero and his mother Agrippina fiddling away in circles of deceit while Rome burns, Darrah and Co. created a neoclassical setting in which non-costumed actor-singers suddenly broke into dramatic song during dinner. These live pop-up scenes plunged audience members into the thick of performers enacting lusty, blood-thirsty, full-throated action.

“The vision for the evening was always very exciting and unconventional,” Smith says. “But at its core, James wanted every person at the event to taste a bit of the Agrippina experience and to want to be at the opera when it opened. He worked to create an engaging, exciting space where we all felt like we were intimately close to the opera. Ultimately we were so close that the characters seemed very real to each of us.

“It was very exhilarating to have the performers from Agrippina perform a piece from the opera on the middle of our table with such amazing vigor, as if they were literally on stage, ripping flowers from the vases and angrily throwing them with no regard to the ‘audience’ seated only a foot or two away. It truly felt as if you were experiencing the anger and malice of Agrippina directly.”

Smith says the experience had the desired effect Darrah sought.

“It helped us understand how incredibly exciting opera can be and it made us want more. Others we talked with told us that after the gala they wanted to experience more opera.”

It’s all part of Opera Omaha’s aim to shake up people’s ideas about what the art form is or can be. Darrah says that effort begins with Weitz giving artists like himself the freedom to interpret a shared vision.

“He lets the creative people he hires do their job, He puts a lot of trust in the team, which is an incredibly great thing to feel as artists.”

He also likes that Weitz brings the company and the community together through accessible events.

“He brings you to the community to do work and introduces you to people in the community and supports you as part of the community.”

Once more with feeling
Fresh off the success Darrah and his team enjoyed last year Weitz has brought them back to design the January 16, 2015 gala to be held at another unexpected site, the Crossroads Mall. It will be a tantalizing sampler of an original production of the John Adams opera A Flowering Tree at the Orpheum in February. For the gala the team is transforming the mall’s atrium into the opera’s mythological, nature-filled landscape. A world-class soprano, two leading pianists and top dancers will join featured cast members in fleshing out this romantic fairy-tale.

That gala and production are sure to attract attention the same way the Agrippina gala and production did. The opera world’s taken notice for some time. San Francisco Opera admired Jun Kaneko’s Madame Butterfly so much they put together a team of five companies, including Opera Omaha, to build his The Magic Flute. That led to this season’s new co-production of Rigoletto, a collaboration between Boston Lyric Opera, the Atlanta Opera and Opera Omaha,

“Weitz says, “When you have opera companies of that magnitude wanting to collaborate creatively with Opera Omaha that’s a really good indicator we’re a presence making our mark on the opera field.”

Opera Omaha plans to keep folks wanting more.

“We have to keep surprising and delighting people and keep raising the bar,” Weitz says. “I think James and his team set a pretty high bar last year and I told them this year we must raise the bar again.'”

Supporters Cindy and Mogens Bay, who chair the 2015 gala, are taking the cue, “Opera Omaha’s gala last January was unique and truly special. It exceeded our expectations,” Cindy Bay says. “We’re delighted the same innovative artists are coming back this year to take on a new event with even more ambitious plans.”

A music and dance filled after-party for a younger crowd will follow the gala.

For tickets, visit http://www.operaomaha.org.

Rock photographer Janette Beckman keeps it real;Her hip-hop and biker images are at Carver Bank in Omaha, where she’s doing a Bemis residency

September 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Here’s my Reader (http://www.thereader.com/) cover story on famed rock photographer Janette Beckman, whose images of punk and hip-hop pioneers helped create the iconography around those music genres and the performing artists who drove those early scenes.  She’s been visiting Omaha for a residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, working on a portrait of the city.  An exhibition of her photos of hip-hop pioneers and Harlem bikers is showing at the Carver Bank here through the end of November.

 

Janette Beckman

 

 

Rock photographer Janette Beckman keeps it real;Her hip-hop and biker images are at Carver Bank in Omaha, where she’s doing a Bemis residency

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

Photographer Janette Beckman made a name for herself in the 1970s and 1980s capturing the punk scene in her native London and the hip-hop scene in her adopted New York City.

Dubbed “the queen of rock photographers,” her images appeared in culture and style magazines here and abroad and adorned album covers for bands as diverse as Salt-N-Pepa and The Police. Weaned on Motown and R & B, this “music lover” was well-suited for what became her photography niche.

She still works with musicians today. She’s developing a book with famed jazz vocalist Jose James about his ascent as an artist.

Her photos of hip-hop pioneers along with pictures of the Harlem biker club Go Hard Boyz comprise the Rebel Culture exhibition at Carver Bank, 2416 Lake Street. Beckman, documenting facets of Omaha and greater Neb. for a Bemis residency, will give a 7 p.m. gallery talk on Friday during the show’s opening. The reception runs from 6 to 8.

The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts stint is her first residency.

“This is a new experience. It’s very refreshing. It’s kind of nice to get away from your life and open up your mind a little bit,” says Beckman, who describes her aesthetic as falling “between portrait and documentary.” “I truly believe taking a portrait of somebody is a collaboration between you and the person. I really like taking pictures on the street. I don’t want hair stylists and makeup artists. I don’t tell people what to do. I want to document that time and place – that’s really important to me. I want it to be about them and their lives, not about what I think their lives should be.”

Carver features a personal favorite among her work – a 1984 photo of Run DMC shot on location in Hollis, Queens for the British mag Face.

“They were just hanging out on this tree-lined street they lived on. I said, ‘Just stand a little closer,’ and they did. I love this picture because it expresses so much. It’s a real hangout picture and such a symbol of the times, style-wise. The Adidas with no laces, the snapback hats, the gazelle glasses, the track suits. It just expresses so much about that particular moment in time. And I love the dappled light on their faces.”

Salt-n-Pepa, ©Janette Beckman

 

 

She made the first press photo of LL Cool J, complete with him and his iconic boom box. She did the first photo shoot of Salt-N-Pepa while “knocking about” Alphabet City. In L.A. she shot N.W.A. posed around cops in a cruiser just as the group’s “Fuck tha Police” protest song hit.

She says her hip-hop shots “bring up happy memories for people because music is very evocative – it’s just like a little moment in time.”

The early hip-hop movement in America paralleled the punk explosion in England. Both were youthful reactions against oppression. In England – the rigid class system and awful economy. In the U.S. – inner-city poverty, violence and police abuse.

“Punk really gave a voice to kids who never really had a say. Working-class kids and art school kids all sort of banded together and started protesting, basically by being obnoxious and writing punk songs that were kind of like poetry, expressing what their lives were like. There was the shock factor of wearing bondage apparel and trash bags, putting safety pins in their noses. Really giving the finger to Queen and country and all that history. It was like, ‘Fuck you, it’s not that time, we’re fed up and we’re not going to take it anymore.'”

Her introduction to hip-hop came in London at the genre’s inaugural Europe revue tour.

“No one knew what hip-hop was. It was just the most amazing show. It had all the hip-hop disciplines. So much was going on on that stage – the break dancers and the Double Dutch and Fab 5 Freddy, scratching DJs, rapping, graffiti. All happening all at once. It blew me away.

“I met Afrika Bambaataa, who’s pretty much the father of hip-hop.”

Weeks later she visited NYC and “there it all was – the trains covered in graffiti, kids walking around with boom boxes, people selling mix tapes on the street. I got very involved in it.”

“New York was broke. Politically it was a mess. These kids had no future. Hip-hop gave this voice to the voiceless. They were singing ‘The Message’ (by the Furious Five). Where I was living there really were junkies in the alley with a baseball bat. It was no joke. You could see it unfolding in front of you and yet there was this vibrant art scene going on. Graffiti kids stealing paint from stores, breaking into train yards at night and painting trains in the pitch dark to make beautiful art that then traveled like a moving exhibition around New York. It was just fantastic. A real exciting time.”

She got so swept up, she never left. When big money moved in via the major record labels, she says. “everything changed.” She feels hip-hop performers “lost their artistic freedom and that almost punk aesthetic of making it up as you go along because you don’t really know what you’re doing. They were just experimenting. That’s why it was so fresh.” She expected hip-hop would run its course the way punk did. She never imagined it a world-wide phenomenon decades later.

“In the ’90s with Biggie and people like that it got massive. People are rapping in Africa and Australia. Breakancing is bigger than ever now..”

While capturing its roots she didn’t consider hip-hop’s influence then. “I was just in it doing it. I was just riding the wave.”

Portraying folks as she finds them has found her work deemed “too raw, too real, too rough” for high style mags that prefer photo-shopped perfection. “I don’t really believe in stereotypes and I don’t believe in ideals of beauty.” She’s even had editors-publishers complain her work contains too many black people.

 

 

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Go Hard Boyz biker club pic, ©Janette Beckman

 

Beckman’s surprised by Omaha’s diversity and intrigued by its contradictions. She’s shot North O barbershops, the downtown Labor Day parade, her first powwow, skateboarders doing tricks at an abandoned building and a South Omaha mural. She’s looking forward to taking pics at a rodeo and ranch.

She came for a site visit in July with one vision in mind and quickly had to shift gears when she began her residency in August.

“I wanted to photograph people on the street in North Omaha and I found there’s nobody on the street, so I had to try to wiggle into the community.”

Her curiosity, chattiness and British accent have given her access to events like the Heavy Rotation black biker club’s annual picnic at Benson Park. That group reminded her of the Ride Hard Boyz she shot last summer in New York.

“I was riding in the flatbed of an F-150 truck driven by one of the guys down this expressway with bikers doing wheelies alongside, All totally illegal. It was the most exciting thing I’ve done in years. Although it’s rebel in a way, the club keeps kids off the street and out of drugs and gangs. They’re the greatest guys – like a big family.”

The end of Sept. she returns to the NewYork “bubble.” An exhibit of her photos that leading artists painted on, JB Mashup, may go to Paris. She’s photographing a saxophonist. Otherwise, she’s taking things as they come.

“I try not to make too many plans because they tend to get diverted.”

Rebel Culture runs through Nov. 29.

View her Omaha and archived work at http://janettebeckman.com/blog.

 

 

 

 

 

North Omaha Summer Arts Presents: Gospel in the Park

June 17, 2014 2 comments

My beloved, Pamela Jo Berry, has a big heart for her community.  It’s what led her to found North Omaha Summer Arts, an annual festival that infuses different art forms into the underserved North Omaha community she grew up in and still resides in.  This is the festival’s fourth year.  Saturday, June 21 NOSA presents a gospel concert at Miller Park.  Like all NOSA events, it’s free and open to the public.  Details below.  Before Pam and I became a couple, I profiled her and her passion behind the festival for The Reader.  You can find that story, Matter of the Heart: Pamela Jo Berry’s Love for Her Community Brings Art Fest to North Omaha, on this blog.  The link to it is: http://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/2013/08/08/pamela-jo-berry-brings-art-fest-to-north-omaha-artist-and-friends-engage-community-in-diverse-work/

In addition to the concert, there is a women’s writing workshop in progress.  On Friday, August 8 from 6 to 9 p.m. there will be an Arts Crawl up and down a swath of the North 30th Street Corridor featuring works by some of Omaha’s leading artists. Venues to be announced.

 

North Omaha Summer Arts's photo.
North Omaha Summer Arts presents a joyous, music-filled occasion-
Gospel Concert 4

Saturday, June 21
5:30-7:30 pm
24th and Kansas Ave. (next to the old ballfield)
Free and open to the public

Bring a picnic dinner and blanket or enjoy free grilled hot dogs and cool refeshing lemonade courtesy of Trinity Lutheran Church for this family-friendly concert featuring some of Omaha’s most gifted performers.

Featuring-
Eric and Doriette Jordan
Trinity Lutheran Choir
Sudanese Worship Band
Cadence
New Bethel Church of God Choir
and more…

“…for the Lord is great and greatly to be praised.” Psalm 96:4

For more info, call NOSA founder Pamela Jo Berry at 402-502-4669.

 

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