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Big Bad Buddy Miles

June 21, 2011 22 comments

This is one in a batch of posts I am making in the lead-up to the 2011 Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame on July 29 at the Slowdown. The late Buddy Miles is one in a long list of musicians from Omaha to find stardom or at least solid success in the upper reaches of the music industry.  Miles is one of those who became a legend in his own time and since his untimely death in 2008 his legend is only growing. I did this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on the occasion of his induction in the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame, which after a hiatus is back this year in conjunction with Native Omaha Days. My blog is thick with stories I’ve done about famous African American figures from Omaha who’ve enjoyed breakout success in the arts, athletics, and many other fields.  You’ll also find stories about many other aspects of African American culture and life in these parts.  Hope you enjoy the pieces as much as I enjoyed writing them.

 

MUSICIAN BUDDY MILES BORN September 5, 1947 (66) Musician Buddy Miles born George Miles in North Omaha, Nebraska. He is most well known as the drummer of the Band of Gypsys which also featured the late guitar legend Jimi Hendrix:

 

Big Bad Buddy Miles

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader

Famed blues-rock drummer and singer Buddy Miles is coming home to accept the Omaha Star Award at the August 3 Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame ceremony, where he’ll also perform. The 2005 inductee is using the occasion to deliver a message about the needless waste of young people to violence.

Having grown up in the ‘50-’60s heyday of the hep North 24th Street music scene, he rues the loss of what used to be.

“Back in the day 24th Street is where all the clubs were. It certainly is nothing like it was then. It’s like a ghost town down there now…there’s nothing for kids to do,” he said. “That’s why there’s so much havoc and trouble in Omaha and…in every major city…People don’t know how to go and party anymore. There’s too many senseless shooting.s The time has come that we must band together as one….”

The lifetime train enthusiast hopes to convince Union Pacific Railroad to sponsor a nationwide tour, tracing the railroad’s lines, for him to educate young people “about how important their lives are.” His new CD, The Centennial, is named after the famous U.P. diesel engine at Kenefick Park.

He dreamed of being a train engineer. Instead he “followed in the footsteps” of his father, George A. Miles, Sr., who played upright bass with Ellington, Basie, Parker, Gordon. Buddy began playing drums at age 8. “I’ve been a musician all my life,” he said. “I’ve done nothing else.”

As a teen he gigged with his father’s band, the Bebops, and with Preston Love, Sr. and Lester Abrams. He first made it in New York, hooking up with Wilson Pickett. He jammed in the Village with Eric Clapton. His big break came when Michael Bloomfield plucked him for the Electric Flag, a blues-rock band Miles still considers the best he ever played in. He toured-recorded widely, opening for Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and playing on albums by Hendrix and Muddy Waters. More Hendrix collaborations followed. Jimi produced an album by the Buddy Miles Express. Miles played on Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. Miles formed with Hendrix and Billy Cox the trio, Band of Gypsys, which released one album before Jimi’s death.

 

 

 

  • Them Changes (1970)

 

Jimi and Buddy

Buddy with Jimi Hendrix

JimimHendrix  Eric Burdon Buddy Miles at NEWPORT 1969
 Buddy with Jimi and Eric Burton

 

 

Miles recorded hits and played with such artists as Carlos Santana, Stevie Wonder and David Bowie. His greatest commercial success came with his version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” for a California Raisins commercial. The gig made the classic song big again and spawned three Miles albums.

A 2005 stroke has not slowed Miles, who lives in Austin, Texas. He’s even throwing down a challenge to Motley Crew bad boy drummer Tommy Lee and the rocker’s MTV Husker bit. “I’ll have a duel with that dude anytime he wants…We can do it at a Nebraska football game, too,” Miles said, “because I’ll drum him a new ass.”

Enchantress “LadyMac” Gets Down

June 21, 2011 29 comments

With the 2011 Omaha Black Music and Community Hall of Fame Awards coming up July 29 at the Slowdown, as part of Native Omaha Days, I am posting articles of mine from the last decade that celebrate various African-American figures from the area. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is about Lois “LadyMac” McMorris, one of many black musical artists who have come out of Omaha to forge successful careers in the music biz.  I did a phone interview with her on the eve of her induction in the Hall of Fame, which returns this year after a few years absence.  My blog is full of stories about high black achievers from Omaha.

 

 

Enchantress “LadyMac” Gets Down 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Casual music fans may not know Lois “LadyMac” McMorris, but this blues-jazz-rock guitarist from Omaha is paid homages by legends like B.B. King — “The girl is super bad.” After a hot solo Prince saw her play in Kansas City, where she lives, LadyMac said, “He came up to me and asked, ‘May I touch your guitar?’ I felt so honored. For my peers to recognize me is an amazing thing. That’s like a validation.”

More validation comes at the August 3 Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame ceremony. The 2005 inductee is the Jewel Award recipient for her lifetime achievements.

She grew up on the north side making art and music. Today she’s a gallery showing sculptor, painter and drawer and a still active headliner-sidewoman.

Inspired by guitar riffs on radio-television she taught herself to play as a young girl. “It touched me so deeply,” she said. She loved working on her chords and “learned lick for lick” famous solos. She first played publicly at 17, when she joined Joe Leslie and the Impacts. She had to prove to the cats she had the chops to play with them. Her baptism of fire came at Paul Allen’s Showcase on North 24th Street.

“Allen’s Showcase had been the premiere club since my parents’ time,” she said. “There were so many stellar African-American entertainers that would come through from Chicago, Des Moines, Kansas City…there was a kernel core of musicians…and the famous jam sessions and the things that ensued are just something to be written about.

“If you didn’t make it in that jam session either you were going to go home and woodshed and come back or you were going to stop, because it was intense.”

It was even hotter for her as the guys scrutinized her every move with skeptical eyes and sexist remarks. It was the same everywhere she went.

“The gender bigotry was just amazing,” she said. “Denigrated. Put down. Unappreciated. I ran into and still have to fight so much discrimination. It’s gotten a bit better, just as racism has eased a bit. It would go from things that are subtle to overt. Like I’d be told, ‘You can’t do that.’ I mean, over and over again. Please, let’s get real. It just made me more determined to express myself and to play and not be held back by that sort of thing. I cannot abide injustice.”

She made the mark at the Showcase, blowing the house away with her virtuosity and energy.

“For myself, when I finally performed there, it was the pinnacle…” said McMorris. She took those cats by surprise, having honed her gift off by herself, at home, where she’d incessantly listen and practice. “I did not develop my music around them. It was on my own. I just immersed myself in chords. What I hear I can play and I can play it fairly quickly, and then I can write it down as well. I can read, I can write charts. I do arrangements. It’s just in me. ”

What sets her apart, besides her sizzling solos, sultry fly looks and spiritual- inspirational vibe is her ability to both “dig in and just play” and to “express a showtime sensibility” in the way she moves, dresses and strokes.

Besides the Impacts, she played locally with the Persuaders, Seventh House and Poverty Movement and artists Andre Lewis and Preston Love, Sr.. Hanging with top musicians convinced her “larger vistas” awaited. Love advised her to seek new ops. “He told me, ‘You won’t grow your playing here. If you’re going to do something with it, leave.’” She lit out for L.A., where she soon landed a recording session gig with Love’s friend, blues guitarist Johnny Otis

LadyMac was on her way, her dynamic musicianship-showmanship: sharing the stage with Tower of Power, Earl Klugh, Linda Hopkins; Cooilio, opening for Al Jarreau and Howard Hewitt and headlining the Playboy Jazz Festival. From L.A., she traveled the nation and the world to perform, only recently moving to K.C. to be near family. She’s fronted her own band, LadyMac Attack, and recorded. Her new CD is 500.

Her career mirrors that of many black musicians from Omaha — high caliber players with great creds, but few props outside the industry. She agrees with OBMHOF founder/director Vaughn Chatman that Omaha’s black music legacy is a great untold story, one, she said, people “should know about.”

“A lot of genius players came from Omaha’s near northside,” she said. “It’s a group of multi-talented musicians who can play many instruments, and that’s what’s so rare. Another thing — we’re cross-genre. We’re not just in one pocket. The straight-ahead cats can get busy and play the funk. They can play all those things. Also this sensibility of playing and coming with a show. It’s almost as if everyone incarnated around a certain time” to create “an Omaha sound…this flavor…”

Acknowledgement of groundbreaking black Omaha musicians has been slow to come, making the peer-based Hall award all the sweeter.

“Very often the people that are the vanguard are not always recognized while they’re doing it and that’s a hurtful thing,” she said. “But it’s not too late.”

“Walking Behind to Freedom” – A musical theater examination of race

June 21, 2011 39 comments

I don’t see a huge amount of live theater, but I attend more than enough shows to give me a good feel for what’s out there.  My hometown of Omaha has a strong theater scene and one of the more dynamic works I’ve seen here in recent years came and went without the attention I felt it deserved. It was called Walking Behind to Freedom, and it deal head-on with many persistent aspects of racism that tend to be trivialized or distorted. The fact that a fairly serious piece of theater dared to tackle the issue of race in a city that has long been divided along racial lines took courage and vision. Playwright Max Sparber, a former colleague and editor of mine at The Reader (www.thereader.com) based the play, which unfolds in a series of vignettes, on interviews he did with folks from all races around the community. He asked people to share experiences they’ve had with racism and how these encounters affected them. A local musical group called Nu Beginning wrote songs and music that expressed yet more layers of insight and emotion behind the dramatized experiences. A diverse group of cast and crew collaborated on a rousing, moving, thought-provoking night of musical theater.  I had a personal investment in the show, too, in that my partner in life played a couple different speaking parts.  She was quite good.  My story about the show appeared in The Reader.

 

“Walking Behind to Freedom” – A musical theater examination of race

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The subject of race is like the elephant in the room. Everybody notices it, yet nobody breathes a word. The longer the silence, the more damage is done. Seen in another light, race is the label comprising the assumptions and perceptions others project on us, soley based on the shade of our skin or sound of our name. Seeing beyond labels sparks dialogue. Stopping there erects barriers to communication.

Race is as uncomfortable to discuss as sex. Yet, attitudes about race, like sex, permeate life. It’s right there, in your face, every day. You’re reminded of it whenever someone different from you enters your space or you’re the odd one out in a crowd or issues of profiling, preferences and quotas hit close to home.

It often seems Omaha’s predominantly white population wishes the topic would go away in a weary — Oh, didn’t-we-solve-racism-already? tone — or else makes limp liberal gestures toward more inclusion. Then there’s the majority reaction that pretends it’s not a problem. Take the Keystone neighborhood residents now opposing the Omaha Housing Authority’s planned Crown Creek public housing development. Opponents never mention race per se, but it’s implicit in their expressed concerns over property values being adversely affected by public housing whose occupants will include blacks. Nothing like rolling out the old welcome wagon for people trying to get ahead.

On the other side of the fence, militant minority views claim that race impacts everything, as well it might, but such sweeping indictments alienate people and chill discussion. How much an issue race is depends on who you are. If you have power, it’s not on your radar, unless it’s expedient to be. If you’re poor, it’s a factor you must account for because someone’s sure to make you aware of it.

If you doubt Omaha is beset by wide rifts along racial lines, you only need look at: its pronounced geographic segregation; its mainly white police presence in largely Latino south Omaha and African-American north Omaha; its rarely more than symbolic multicultural diversity at public-private gatherings; its few minority corporate heads and even fewer minority elected public officials. Then there’s the insidious every day racism that, intentionally or not, insults, demeans, excludes.

It’s in this climate that, last fall, Omaha Together One Community (OTOC) said: We need to talk. A faith-based community organizing group focusing on social justice issues, OTOC commissioned an original musical play, Walking Behind to Freedom, as a benefit forum for addressing the often ignored racial divide in Omaha and the need for more unity. It’s the second year in a row OTOC’s staged a play to frame issues and raise funds. In 2003, it presented a production of Working, the Broadway play based on the book of the same name by Studs Terkel.

With a book by Omaha playwright Max Sparber and music by the local quartet Nu Beginning, Walking Behind to Freedom premieres May 7 and 8 at First United Methodist Church. Performances run 7:30 p.m. each night at the church, 69th and Cass Street. Free-will donations of $10-plus are suggested. Proceeds go to underwrite OTOC operational expenses.

The play’s title is lifted from a famous quote by the late entertainer and Civil Rights activist, Hazel Scott, who posited, “Who ever walked behind anyone to freedom? If we can’t go hand in hand, I don’t want to go.” The show coincides with the 40th anniversary of Congress passing landmark Civil Rights legislation in 1964.

Max Sparber

 

 

As a foundation for the play, OTOC did what it does best: organize “house meetings” where citizens shared their anecdotes and perspectives on racial division. Sparber and Nu Beginning attended the meetings, held at OTOC-member churches city-wide, and the ensuing conversations informed the non-narrative play, which is structured as a series of thematic monologues, dialogues and songs.

“I built my script based on some of these interviews, along with some broader themes,” said Sparber, whose Minstrel Show dealt with an actual lynching in early Omaha. “We got some great stories out of it. The people who came to the meetings were very interested in the subject and I certainly got some stories that were invaluable. More than anything, we wanted this play to be specific to Omaha, and therefore we wanted its origins to be within Omahans’ own experiences.”

Surfacing prominently in those sessions was the theme of division and how by going unspoken it only deepens the divide. “This is a town that’s very separated geographically. The majority of blacks live in north Omaha. The majority of Latinos live in south Omaha. The majority of whites live in west Omaha. And, as a result, there’s not a lot of crossover,” Sparber said. “It’s really sad how closed up Omaha is,” said the play’s director, Don Nguyen, lately of the Shelterbelt Theater.

“Along with that, race is quickly becoming an undiscussed element in Omaha,” added Sparber. “I think a lot of whites believe we live in a post-racism world and, therefore, it’s not a subject that needs to be addressed. Whereas, black people experience this as not being a post-racism world at all and are kind of startled by this other viewpoint. So, there’s this disconnection based on understanding.”

 

Hazel Scott

 

 

Two lines in the play comment on this dichotomy: “I think a lot of white people feel that racism ended in the Sixties, with Martin Luther King. The only thing about racism that ended in the Sixties WAS Martin Luther King.

Any impression all the work is done alarms Betty Tipler, an OTOC leader. “A lot of us are in our comfortable spaces. We go inside our houses with our two garages and we think things are okay. Things are not okay. The issue of race has not been cured and, if we’re not careful, things will go backward,” she said. Despite the illusion all’s well, she added, the play reminds us people of color still contend with bias/discrimination in jobs, housing, policing. “We may as well face it.”

According to OTOC leader Margaret Gilmore, the process the play sprang from is at the core of how the organization works. “We’re about bringing different people in conversation with each other to talk about what’s in their hearts and minds,” she said. “It’s a process of learning to talk to each other and listen to each other and then seeing what we have in common to work together for change.” She said the meetings that laid the play’s groundwork crystallized the racial gulf that exists and the need to discuss it. “We don’t talk about this stuff enough. We don’t talk about it on a personal level and how it affects us, which is what I think this play gets to. When we ask the right questions and we’re willing to listen, then the experiences that people tell in their own words are dramatic and provocative.”

“It’s very important we listen to real people’s stories. The only way you can come up with the truth is to go to the people. We haven’t watered down or changed their stories, but literally portrayed them,” said OTOC’s Tipler, administrator at Mount Nebo Missionary Baptist Church, which hosted some of the house meetings.

Indeed, the vignettes carry the ring of reportorial truth to them. Most compelling are the monologues, which unfold in a rap-like stream-of-consciousness that is one part slam-poet-soliloquy and one part from-the-street-rant. Some stories resemble the bared soul testimony of people bearing witness, yet without ever droning on into didactic, pedantic sermons, lectures or diatribes. The language sounds like the real conversations you have inside your head or that spontaneously spring up among friends over a few drinks. Often, there’s a sense you’re listening in on the privileged, private exchanges of people from another culture as they describe what’s it like to be them, which is to say, apart from you.

 

Playwright Don Nguyen

Don Nguyen

 

 

For director Nguyen, the “real life testimonies” add a layer of truth that elevates the material to a “more powerful” plane. “I think it will definitely work for us that people know this is real. It’s not an overall work of fiction. This is real stuff.”

The misconceptions people have of each other are voiced throughout the work, often with satire. You’ve heard them before and perhaps been guilty yourself assigning these to people. You know, you see an Asian-American, like Nguyen, and you reflexively think he’s fluent in Vietmanese or expert in martial arts, some assumptions he’s endured himself. “Oh, yeah, my personal experiences definitely help me to relate,” he said. “Growing up in Lincoln I got in fights all the time. People making fun of me. Thinking I knew kung-fu or I only spoke Vietmanese, which is not true. But it’s not just the blatant racism. It’s the underlying stuff, too. Sometimes it’s not even intentional, but it’s just there. And it’s that gray stuff I think these pieces capture pretty well and that people need to hear more of.”

In the vignette Tricky, some women lay out the subtle nature of racism in Omaha. “…it’s like a fox. It’s tricky. It’s sly. You’ll be standing in line at a store, and the cashiers will be helping everybody except you…and you’re the only black person in line…and because it’s so sly, I think white people don’t notice it at all.

The play also looks at racism from different angles. One has a guilt-ridden realtor rationalizing the unethical practice of steering, which is another form of red lining. The other has a new generation bigot defending his right to espouse white pride in response to black heritage celebrations. The concept of reverse racism is explored in the real life case of students protesting their school’s special recognition of black achievers at the expense of other minorities. And the wider fallout of racism is examined in the confession offered by an insurance agent, who reveals rates for car-house coverage are higher for residents of largely black north Omaha, including whites, because of the district’s perceived high crime rate.

The vignettes touch on ways race factors into every day life, whether its the unwanted attention a black couple attracts while out shopping or the hassle African-American men face when driving while black, or DWB, which is all it takes to be stopped by the cops. The shopping piece uses humor to highlight the absurd fears that prompt people to act out racist views. Music is used as heightened counterpoint to the boiling frustration of the DWB victim, whose cries of injustice are accompanied by the soulful strains of doo-wop singers.

Bridging the play’s series of one-acts are songs by Nu Beginning, whose music is a melange of hip-hop, R & B, soul, pop and gospel. A little edgy and a lot inspirational, the music drives home the unity message with its uplifting melodies, which are sung by choruses comprised of diverse singers.

Some pieces are heavier or angrier than others. Some are downright funny. And some, like Mirrors, speak eloquently and wittily to the concept of how, despite our apparent differences, we are all reflections of each other. Here, Nguyen employs a diverse roster of performers to represent the mirror symbol. Perhaps the most telling piece is Function. This beautifully-rendered and thought-provoking discourse is delivered by an architect, who suggests racism has survived as both an ornament of the past, akin to a Roman column on a modern house, and as a still-functional device for those in power, as when a politician plays the race card.

Whatever the context, there’s no dancing around the race card, which is just how Nguyen likes it, although when he first read the script he was surprised by how brazenly it took on taboo material, such as its use of the N-word.

“Typically, a script or show sugarcoats the issue of race. It’s a very cautious topic. You don’t want to offend or patronize people by saying the wrong stuff. But this piece is much different. All of its pretty much in your face,” Nguyen said. “What I mean is, it’s very direct. Max (Sparber) makes no bones what he’s writing about, which is great. It’s a big risk to take as a writer, but essentially it’s the most interesting path to take, too. And I’m all for stirring up trouble. I’m fine with that.”

OTOC’s Betty Tipler feels racial division is too important an issue to be coy about. “We’ve got to come out of the closet, so to speak, and talk about racism and differences” she said. “We tend to shy away from talking about it, but it won’t go away. We have got to come together, put it on the table, take a look at it and deal with it — no matter how much it hurts me or how much it hurts you. But before we can do that, we’ve gotta put it out there. We won’t get anywhere until we do. And I believe this play is a step toward doing that.”

Christy Woods, a singer/songwriter with Nu Beginning, said the play is about hope. “I believe if people are open to change, we can go hand-in-hand to freedom. Just because I’m this and you’re that, doesn’t mean I have to be one step behind you. Why can’t we go together? We want people to feel inspired to go out and make a change. We want to touch, but also to teach, and I believe this musical does that.”

Nguyen hopes the play attracts a mixed audience receptive to seeing race through the prism of different experiences. “That’s where I’m trying to aim the show. As we go through these vignettes, I want some people to identify with them and some people to be like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’ That’s what I want to create.”

El Museo Latino opened as Midwest’s first Latino art and history museum-cultural center

June 14, 2011 10 comments

Magdalena Garcia is one of those one-woman bands whose all consuming devotion to her passion, art, is so complete that one finds it hard to imagine how the museum she founded and directs, El Museo Latino in Omaha, would ever survive without her. She is hands-on involved in virtually every aspect of the place, which for its relatively small size presents a tremendous number of exhibitions and programs. The museum is a real jewel in the city and was one of the redevelopment anchors that signaled to others the promise of the South Omaha community it resides in. When she opened the museum 18 years ago South Omaha was in decline but she stuck it out, found a great new site in the heart of the South O business district and she’s seen the area around it transition from nearly a ghost town look and feel to a vibrant, bustling hub of largely Latino owned and operated businesses. I did the following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) a few years ago. Maggie, as she’s known, had already grown the museum into a first-rate arts venue of high quality exhibits and programs by that time, and she’s taken it to even greater heights since then.

El Museo Latino opened as Midwest’s first Latino art and history museum-cultural center

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

As preparations for Cinco De Mayo festivities continued earlier this month at El Museo Latino, founder and executive director Magdalena Garcia seemed to be everywhere at once in the sprawling brick building housing the museum at 4701 1/2 South 25th Street. Now in its eighth year, the museum is very much a one-woman show.

With a small staff and a meager budget its survival depends on Garcia, whose formidable drive brought it from concept to reality in five short weeks in early 1993. She does everything from unpacking crates to framing works to leading tours to presenting lectures to schmoozing at fundraisers to writing grants to giving dance lessons. She even locks up at night. It’s her baby. And, despite protests to the contrary, she would not have it any other way. Her work is her life’s mission.

“It’s definitely a passion. I’m totally immersed in it. It’s never, never boring. There’s always something new to do and learn, and that’s exciting,” said Garcia, a Mexico City native who has kept close to her heritage since emigrating with her family to Omaha in the early 1960s. Such devotion is typical for Garcia.

She had an epiphany serving as a Joslyn Art Museum Docent during a 1984 exhibition of art and artifacts from the Maximilian-Bodmer collection on permanent loan to Joslyn from her then employer, Northern Natural Gas, where she was human resources manager. Her  experience then inspired a desire to dig deeper into that world and eventually led her to reorder her life around art, something she’d only dabbled in before.

“I remember thinking how wonderful it would be to be that close to real art every day. That was an exciting prospect to me. After the exhibit ended I stayed on as a volunteer in the Joslyn’s art library. Then I found myself taking vacations to see exhibits in Boston, Los Angeles, Europe. As I saw more art I found traveling to exhibitions a few days a year wasn’t enough anymore. I wanted to make art my profession. To work in a museum. I just didn’t know how I was going to get there.”

Changing Paths
Her first step on that journey was to switch her major from business to art history while a part-time University of Nebraska at Omaha student. The next step came when her company downsized in 1988 and she accepted a severance package. She used the money to enter graduate school at Syracuse University, where she embarked on a dual master’s program in art history and museum studies. After a fateful decision to change her focus from Renaissance to Latin American art, her research on Mexican muralists took her to New York, Los Angeles (where she completed an internship at the L.A. County Museum of Art) and Mexico City. “It really brought me full circle,” she said.

Magdalena-Garcia[1]
Magdalena Garcia

 

When New York’s illustrious Guggenheim Museum courted her to head-up its Latin American Art Department it confirmed her marketability as a bilingual woman with art and business expertise. “That was an eye-opener,” she said. “It showed me I could be a tremendous resource to an institution wanting to reach the growing Hispanic population.” She turned the Guggenheim down, however, because she could not justify stopping short of completing the academic path she had worked so long and hard to follow.

Then, in the fall of 1992, something happened to derail her conventional museum track. While in Omaha for a one-day Hispanic Heritage program and exhibit she was struck by the “overwhelming” requests she received to speak to school and community groups and by the “need for a space where we could show art year-round.” That’s when she got the idea of starting an Omaha Hispanic museum.

Bringing a Vision to Life
Her plan from the outset was for a museum to be based in its cultural center — South Omaha. When her search for a space turned-up a former print shop in the basement of the Livestock Exchange Building, she negotiated a one-year lease with eight months free rent in lieu of her cleaning up the ink, grease and smoke-stained site.

Armed with pledges of donated supplies from individuals and businesses, work proceeded at a fever pitch, especially once Garcia and her board decided to open in a mere 34 days to kick-off that year’s Cinco De Mayo celebration. Volunteers worked day and night to convert the space, putting-on the finishing touches minutes before the doors opened at 4 p.m. on May 5, 1993. Only a few years later, with the museum having quickly outgrown its space and the future of the Livestock Exchange Building and surrounding stockyards in doubt, Garcia looked for a larger, more permanent site and found it in the former Polish Home at the corner of 25th & L, a fitting symbol for the changing makeup of South Omaha’s ethnic community. In Garcia’s mind it was providence that led her to the building, which, with its brick walls, red tile roof and U-shape design framing a courtyard, resembles a Spanish colonial structure. “It probably was meant to be,” she said.

She believes that when El Museo Latino opened in its new digs it became the first Latino art and history museum and cultural center in the Midwest.

The eclectic museum is a reflection of her wide interests in and deep feelings for Hispanic art. What it lacks in polish or panache it makes up for in serious presentations of textiles, pottery, carvings, paintings, drawings and photographs revealing the breadth and depth of a rich culture. “Hopefully, anyone who comes to the museum will get a little glimpse or flavor of how varied Latin American art is. It’s not one thing. It’s not just cactus and mariachi. It’s not just a Mexican thing. It’s a variety of periods, countries and styles,” she said. “The thing I’ve been most pleased with is sharing this diversity not just with our community, but with the rest of the community and sharing how WE see our culture rather than someone else translating it and telling us what our culture is.”

Finding a Niche
Garcia feels the museum is taking hold in the mostly Hispanic district. “I’ve noticed people taking more ownership. That this is ‘our museum’ versus, the first years, this is ‘Maggie’s museum,’ and that’s great. There’s more of a community embrace and it’s grown out of a collaborative effort. Our people look to see what’s happening here and the wider community looks to us to see what the Hispanic community is doing.”

 

 

 

With a broad mission of collecting and exhibiting Hispanic art from the Americas and developing education and outreach programs around all its displays, El Museo Latino has set ambitious goals. To date, it has acquired a small collection of textiles and objects and averaged eight exhibits per year. Garcia hopes to increase acquisitions and add more exhibits, but for now funds are earmarked for renovations to the turn-of-the-century building, including an overhaul of its outmoded electrical and plumbing systems, a major roof repair and the addition of an elevator and dock. Then attention will turn to fully conditioning the former social hall into museum quality classroom and gallery spaces.

To meet those needs and allow for the building’s purchase, the museum is three-quarters of the way to reaching a $1 million fund drive goal. Meanwhile, Garcia said museum-sponsored classes and workshops overflow with students learning paper cutting, weaving and mola-making. Traditional Mexican folk dancing classes are also popular. Garcia, a dancer herself, leads a youth performance dance troupe. Lectures and concerts draw well too. Combined attendance (for exhibits, classes, concerts, etc.) is also up — to 52,000 visitors last year from 17,000 three years ago.

While there is always a chance she will take one of those high-profile museum jobs she still gets offered, she’s not going anywhere soon. “I’ve made a commitment to see this museum take off and really get on solid ground. We’re still pretty new. There’s a lot of work yet to be done,” she said. Besides, she finds renewal in the endlessly rich veins of art she explores. “One of the things I find exciting is that there’s so much out there. It’s like, What do we want to exhibit this time? Every time we have something new it’s a learning process. That part keeps me fresh.”

El Museo Latino is currently presenting a traveling exhibition of Alebrijes, brightly colored wood carvings of fantastic animals from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. The show continues through August. For more information, visit http://www.elmuseolatino.org or call 731-1137.

 

Adventurer-collector Kam-Ching Leung’s Indonesian art reveals spirits of the islands


An intriguing fellow I’d like to write more about is the subject of this story. His name is Kam-Ching Leung. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln educator is an astronomer by training. He’s also a serious collector of Indonesian tribal art and has embarked on many adventures in remote places to photograph and collect these treasures. The story I did about him for The Reader (www.thereader.com) was in conjunction with an exhibition of his Indonesia collection at the Loves Jazz & Arts Center, whose board Leung serves on. The unprepossessing Leung describes his passionate  interests and remarkable travels in an almost off-handed manner that belies his deep feelings for them.

 

 

 

 

Adventurer-collector Kam-Ching Leung’s Indonesian art reveals spirits of the islands 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Astronomer Kam-Ching Leung’s interest in the stars has an earthly counterpart in his fascination with indigenous peoples and tribal cultures. Just as this University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor and Hong Kong native’s observations of celestial bodies surpass idle curiosity, his travels to remote civilizations go beyond tourist outings.

Leung, 72, is a serious collector of art and artifacts from Indonesia, China, Thailand and other distant spots. He also documents his cultural excursions via photographs that record the daily lives of natives. His extensive collections of tribal objects and of Asian ceramics and paintings, largely come from treks he made from the 1970s through the 1990s. His adventures, whether to headhunter-manned Amazon jungles or inaccessible Sumatran islands or Tibet, long ago led a graduate assistant to dub him “Indiana Kam,” a sobriquet Leung likes.

Not that he’s stopped going to the far corners in search of new finds. He recently returned from a trip to China, where exhibitions of his photos were held.

The largest exhibit to date of his tribal art can be seen March 23 through June 23 at the Loves Jazz & Arts Center. Islands of Spirits — Tribal Art of Indonesia displays some 200 objects and photos. The artifacts include wood, stone, shell and bone carvings and textiles. The LJAC may seem an unlikely venue for Indonesian materials, but its director Neville Murray is a longtime friend of Leung’s and the two share a desire to educate the public about vanishing tribal cultures. Leung said the general public should know, for instance, how “modern art stole from tribal art,” whose influences are wide-ranging.


Kam-Ching Leung

 

 

Leung’s chronicled his travels through images taken either with a Polaroid or his pricey Hasselblat Swedish camera outfit. Besides capturing a record of his visits, picture-making gains him acceptance, overcoming suspicions and language barriers.

In exhibit text Leung writes that “indigenous folks usually do not want to have their photographs taken. Often there is a fear or superstition involved, but just as often there is curiosity and interest. I have made it a practice to move slowly, never intrude, respect local customs and generally take the time to get acquainted with people before taking photographs. Sometimes just the ‘magic’ of a Polaroid camera and the instant picture has breached the barrier…”

He’s aware his outsider’s presence may distort any true picture of a culture, as certain practices or ceremonies may be altered for his consumption.

For years, he’s felt in a race with time to document tribal societies before they are compromised by encroaching development. “I do feel time is a key factor,” he said in a recent interview. “Some of the areas I go, five years is almost a lifetime. Some things may not be there anymore. As far as commercial development is concerned, once it goes in the whole area is changed. Lots of cultures get destroyed or buried. The melting pot phenomenon is a good thing, but quite often kills minority cultures. Major cultures tend to assimilate and assimilation means you destroy.”

Leung elaborates in exhibit text: “Through the passage of time, natural disasters, diseases, wars and religious conflicts have prevented the preservation of many tribes’ way of life. There is no way to prevent the development and even exploitation of places once isolated from outside influences…At present, many indigenous cultures…are fast disappearing,” having “vanished in front of our eyes.”

Besides photos, he’s tried documenting his adventures via audio and diary entries, but, he noted, “after hours of trekking through jungles, by the time evening comes you’re in no mood to even dictate, let alone write down something.”

 

 

 

 

Leung said what separates him from many collectors is that “I violate the principle collecting should be concentrated in either this or that, and that’s all,” whereas “I have such a broad interest in art.” Befitting his penchant for roads less traveled, he eschews African tribal art in favor of less popular, harder to find tribal forms.

The pieces on view in Omaha are ornately carved yet utilitarian items and sacred objects natives believe to be imbued with spirits of ancestors or from nature. “The most culturally advanced of these civilizations,” Leung said, “would turn the every day utensil into art. Art and utility, it’s all integrated.” He admires the respect tribal peoples have for their ancestors. In a neat parallel to his own astronomical interests, he said natives retrieved the nickel deposits used to create metal objects from asteroid remnants. He said, “Anything that fell on Earth is from the heavens, so it’s sacred stuff” to them.

Making these mostly wood artifacts rare is the fact climate and insects “take a toll” on them. “They don’t last long. There’s not much left,” he said. Many animistic objects were lost in the process of missionaries converting natives to Christianity.

Getting to the most isolated Indonesina islands or coursing down an Amazonian tributary from the Ecuadorian side entails hardships for even a seasoned adventurer as himself. “Going to those places is very, very difficult,” he said. “I don’t run into many people.” Wherever he goes, he wants “to go in” — to the farthest reaches. Maps are useless. Transportation unreliable. Provisions scarce. Illness rampant. Guides extort exorbinate rates. No matter “how much you prepare,” surprises await. He once made camp on a beach that proved to be a crocodile den. Armed natives once demanded safe passage fees in the form of his team’s precious petrol.

“In some places I do feel uneasy,” he said. “I never know what will happen.”

 

 

 

Collecting through auction houses is one thing, but can’t compare to, as he puts it, “seeing and knowing things first hand.” The journey and the experience are what grab him. He enjoys the “challenge” of not only getting to these far flung spots, using a relay of plane, bus, auto, dugout canoe and feet, but having the discerning eye to recognize real treasures from “junk.”

“You have to know how to look at the patina,” he said. “There’s no label or date. You only rely on your eye and your experience. It’s a test.”

His critical eye is so refined he “can tell just by looking at pieces which island they come from,” he said. “Each island is very distinct.” Not all tribal art is created equal. Only a few islands are renown for their artistry/craftsmanship. Mistakes come with the territory. “The mistakes you make you pay for,” he said. “There’s a term among collectors — ‘the tuition we pay.’”

Not all trips yield museum quality treasures like blow guns or a magic staff. “You don’t really plan on acquiring things, If you’re able to get a blow gun back, you win the sweepstakes,” he said. “It’s all accidental. It’s all luck.” Perhaps, but his many adventures are not. “That’s why people say I should write a book,” he said.

Kevyn Morrow’s homecoming


Up for best male actor in a musical at the 2011 Tony Awards was Omaha native Andrew Rannells in The Book of Mormon, the smash show from the creators of South Park that dominated the awards show. A few years before that another Omaha native, John Lloyd Young, was up for and won a Tony for his role in Jersey Boys. All of this reminded me of yet another stage thespian son of Omaha, Kevyn Morrow, who’s enjoyed his own share of theater success, albeit not starring on Broadway, though he’s appeared in several notable Broadway shows. He hasn’t landed a starring or featured role there yet, but that isn’t to say it still can’t happen. He has however made waves on The West End in London and in other theater strongholds. I wrote about Morrow when he was back in town to head the cast of the musical Ragtime for an Omaha Community Playhouse production. The show set records and Morrow and his fellow players received rave reviews. My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) charts his journey as a workingman actor in musical theater just outside the heights of Broadway stardom.

More recently, Omaha native Q Smith (Quiana Smith) came back with the Broadway touring production of Mary Poppins to wow her hometown fans.  You can find my story on her on this blog. These contemporary actors are following in the tradition of many others from here who’s found success on and off Broadway (Fred Astaire, Henry Fonda, Dorothy McGuire, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Sandy Dennis, Swoosie Kurtz). More will surface with time.

 

Kevyn Morrow’s homecoming

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Passion got actor Kevyn Morrow out of Omaha, onto Broadway and to London’s West End, and now it’s taken him home. His triumphant return this spring, by special engagement only, as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in the smash Omaha Community Playhouse production of Ragtime has brought back a conquering hero from the world of theater. Nightly during the six-week run, ending this Sunday, he brings down the house to ovations. Every night is a coronation. In the greeting line afterwards, a reunion unfolds with handshakes and hugs from his childhood teachers, coaches, neighbors and friends as well as from total strangers. It’s a communal embrace that says, Bravo — for making it and sharing it with us.

The warm homecoming pricks his heart. “I treasure the response. I’ve had that kind of response before in my career, but it hasn’t affected me the same way that it does here. It’s kind of overwhelming. I really can’t explain it.”

Long before local wonder boy John Lloyd Young’s Tony Award-winning portrayal of Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys, Morrow paid his dues on Broadway. He was in the original companies of The Scarlett Pimpernel and Smokey Joe’s Cafe, a revival of Dreamgirls and the closing company of A Chorus Line. His big break came years earlier in the national touring company of Chorus Line. He’s fresh off London stage gigs in 125th Street and Ragtime, for which his Walker performance earned him an Olivier Award nod. He’s made films and recurring guest appearances on television. He’s performed with legends Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald, Ann-Margret and Cher. But he’s still hungry, still filled with dreams. He wants it all and now that he’s felt the love from his homies, he wants more of that, too.

“I’ve done so much in theater. I love it. It’s my first passion,” said the Northwest High grad. “I’m not where want to get to yet. I’m still on my way. I would like a little more notoriety in terms of my New York work, which seems like it’s coming. It’s just a longer process as a black actor. It’s been a long road — Lord. Anything I may achieve nobody will be able to take it away from me because I will have worked a long time to get there. I got there honestly and with a lot of work. I own it.”

As yet unrealized dreams are to star in his own TV series or land a fixed role in one. He’d like to do more films. Directing for theater — he’s helmed shows here (Chorus Line at the Center Stage) in L.A. and New York — is another ambition. “I would love to come back here and direct something. That’s another segment of my career I’d like to do more of, but I’m still working on performing.”

His Ragtime turn in Omaha, where he was born, raised and married, has whet his appetite for more homecomings. “I really need this more in my life,” he said. “The slower pace. The easier existence. I don’t know how I’m going to achieve that…”

Recognized as a precocious talent here in early adolescence by Claudette Valentine, his piano teacher and church’s music director, Morrow performed in Omaha Public Schools and community theater shows and Omaha Ballet productions. Retired OPS drama teacher Jim Eisenhardt cast him in white roles when that sort of thing raised the ire of bigots. His work with local dancing instructor Valerie Roche led to a Joffrey Ballet scholarship for a summer training program in New York. “I wanted to be the next Arthur Mitchell or the black Mikhail Baryshnikov.”

 

 

Learning from a Broadway actor

 

 

Seeing his first Broadway shows convinced him the theater was his destiny. His commitment to an actor’s life came when he called his folks to say he was quitting college to tour with Chorus Line. “They realized I wasn’t calling for their permission, I was calling for their blessing. It was my first adult decision. Were they amused? No. Were they supportive? Eventually. They were parents.” They’ve since embraced his career — seeing him perform in New York, Paris, London, etc.

That he’s made the role of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. his own speaks to the deep conviction he feels for what he felt fated to play. “When I first saw the movie Ragtime I remember going, ‘God, I would love to play a role like that — an articulate black man in a period piece who’s not chucking and jiving and carrying on. I can’t think of another leading black male musical role where he is your hero- protagonist. It’s a rarity. I knew I was going to play that role someday. I just knew. When it happened to come about for me it seemed serendipitous.”

His experience with it here reminds him good things follow good thoughts.

“I expected it to be really, really good because this is one of those shows people are dying to do. I figured the cream of what Omaha has to offer would be assembled and that’s the case. I didn’t expect it to be as really wonderful as it is. The thing that’s really getting me is these actors really wants to be here. The energy of them coming together…and seeming to enjoy me being with them  — it’s like this give and take, back and forth. We’re having a blast. I know I am.”

It’s also confirmation dreams come true for those driven enough to see them through. “You have to believe. You have to have the passion and you have to see it, is what I’ve found,” he said. “And when I don’t see it is when it doesn’t transpire.” He thinks it “would be the bomb” if his appearance here inspires others to follow their star. Dream on Ragtime man, dream on.

Change is gonna come: GBT Academy in Omaha undergoes revival in wake of fire

June 14, 2011 15 comments

Mary Goodwin-Clinkscale

 

One of my favorite personalities from the last few years is Dr. Mary Goodwin-Clinkscale, who applies her passion for the Lord, for youth, and for the arts in a dynamic educational program she runs called the GBT Academy. She is its heart and soul, but she has a lot of help by a lot of people who believe in her and her mission, which is really a ministry. I spent some time with her and her staff and some of the young people they work with as the academy prepped for a fund raiser performance to help restore the auditorium that a vandal-set fire partially destroyed. I first became aware of the academy at a program that featured their recreation of a famous incident in late 1960s Omaha. The sheer energy and conviction the performers brought to the performance made me take notice. Then, a year or two later when I read in the paper about the fire and the academy’s intention to go on, I decided it was time I wrote about the program. I still hadn’t met Dr. Clinkscale or Dr. C as she’s called, but no sooner than I did then I realized she needed to be the focus of my story.  Her commitment to the program is unwavering. I still want to tell an expanded story about her one day. But for now my piece below for The Reader (www.thereader.com) will have to do.

 

A change is gonna come

 GBT Academy in Omaha undergoes revival in wake of fire

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Mary J. Goodwin-Clinkscale considers herself “a survivor.” That’s why when a June 29, 2008 arson fire destroyed the auditorium of the Greater Beth-El Temple, the black Apostolic church that sponsors her nonprofit GBT (Growing and Building Together) Academy of the Arts at 1502 No. 52nd St., she and fellow church officials resolved to rebuild. Proceeds from GBT’s July 2 7 p.m. Through the Fire program at the UNO Strauss Performing Arts Center will help refurbish the auditorium, now just a shell awaiting a new floor, ceiling and stage, plus seating.

The fire deferred the dream of turning the former Beth Israel Synagogue into the church’s new sanctuary and GBT’s new home. Services unfold at the church’s old 25th and Erskine site in the interim. Greater Beth-El purchased the abandoned 52nd St. property in 2004 in the largely white Country Club neighborhood. The church runs the academy along with after-school and day-care programs from the mid-town campus. The church’s extensive landscaping has transformed what was an eyesore into a showplace. Interior work to the pale brick building converted offices into classrooms and updated HVAC systems. Volunteers donate all the work.

Academy executive director Goodwin-Clinkscale — Dr. C — has built a dynamic, multi-media, Christian-based curriculum serving at-risk, school-age youths. Her staff conducts music, dance, drama, speech, creative writing, art classes. GBT members are known for their poise and enthusiasm. They really know how to project. Life skills are integrated into lessons. She coined the Academy’s mantra, “Through the performing stage to the stage of life,” and its mission “to equip youth with the character values of respect, discipline, teamwork, perseverance and leadership through diverse forms of artistic expression.” She said, “We’re trying to instill things that will take these children where they want to go.”

The neighborhood teens who set the fire aided the clean-up as part of their community service work. Dr. C said, “I really believe the kids are sorry for what they did.” GBT will dramatize the story of the fire and its consequences at UNO. “We’re trying to show that if there were more places like this, then youths would have a place to go after school,” she said. “Our plea is, Help us to help them. That’s what this is all about. We’re trying to offer a place of safety, of refuge.”

Assistant Ella “Pat” Tisdel said GBT provides avenues for kids to express themselves “in constructive rather than destructive ways. We’re seeing that if we can pull that creativity out of children it helps them to feel better about themselves and they actually do better in school.”

Mary Goodwin Clinkscale in the center

 

 

The Academy was incorporated in 2000 but Dr. C’s used the arts as empowering tools since ‘78. She produces/directs its energetic performances. Adults and kids collaborate on script, choreography, music, set design, costumes. African-American themed programs, some secular, others  predominate. Performers as young as 6 share the stage with 20-somethings. Her five sons are GBT grads, including veteran television actor Randy Goodwin (Girlfriends). He’ll be back for the show along with special guest, stage/film/TV actor Obba Babatunde (Dreamgirls original cast).

Dr. C’s showcased GBT’s diverse talents at such high-profile gigs as the Holiday Lights Festival, Omaha Entertainment Awards and Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame. In 2006 her troupe performed a Tuskegee Airmen tribute in Milwaukee, Wis.

For this proud matriarch, the UNO show’s title refers not only to GBT rising-from-the-ashes and the arsonists finding redemption but to her own crucible. She was a high school drop-out and married teenage mother before turning her life around. A daughter of Arkansas sharecroppers, she worked the fields in the Jim Crow South, picking 300 pounds of cotton per day at age 10. “It takes a lot of cotton to weigh 300 pounds,” she said. She endured the back-breaking labor. Anything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, she believes.

She survived segregation and poverty. “I’ve always wanted more in life because we had nothing,” she said. She survived a fire to her family’s home. She was living with her grandmother then — her mother and uncles having gone to Omaha to work packinghouse jobs. After the fire Dr. C’s late mother brought her here, where she grew up in the Spencer Projects. She learned tough lessons from her Big Mama, a cook at the old Paxton Hotel downtown. “I got my work ethic from her.”

Dr. C earned her GED at Metropolitan Community College, where she won a scholarship for continuing education. “I went from there and started doing things.” Doctorates in theology and organizational administration from the International Apostolic University of Grace and Truth in Columbus, Ohio followed.

Her academic and youth ministry achievements only came after a born-again experience at Greater Beth-El in 1974. She was adrift then, without a church. “I just didn’t know what direction to go and the Lord led me to these people here,” she said. “I’d been looking for a church that offered something more than fashion or just a place to go hang out. I wanted truth.” She found it. “Before, my life didn’t have any meaning. There was no purpose until I came to the church. That’s when my life really began.” After being baptized she assumed lay leadership roles.

She was inspired “to implement” the teachings of her pastor in skits that engaged youth. “When I see a need, I go after it,” she said. Despite no formal arts background she said she felt prepared because “I’ve always been attracted to beauty. Raising my kids, decorating my home, making a garden, all that to me is an artistic expression. In everything you do there’s an art form to it. You just don’t throw things together. All my life I’ve been able to take a little something and make a lot out of it. I always strive for the best.” Two-hundred plus performances worth.

A perfectionist and task-master who describes herself as “hard but fair,” she views next week’s benefit as GBT’s coming-out party. “We started in January putting this together and we have worked our fingers to the bones on this production. It’s showcasing all the different facets of our talents. We want people to see there is something going on in this big historic building we can all be proud of.”

Her work with GBT has been recognized by the YWCA, UNO, Woodmen of the World, et cetera. GBT just received its first Nebraska Arts Council grant. She believes big things are ahead. She keeps meaning to step aside but, she said, “I never leave a job undone. I have to complete it.” As the soul song goes, “A Change is Gonna Come,” and she wants to be there to see her vision through the fire.

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