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Onward and upward is theme of Yarina Garcia’s life and her work with young people

December 24, 2018 Leave a comment

Onward and upward is theme of Yarina Garcia’s life and her work with young people

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico (el-perico.com)

 

Yanira Garcia

 

As the first in her immigrant family to graduate high school and college, Yarina Garcia, 29, felt her parents’ pride as she advanced in her studies. 

“My dad always emphasized, ‘Your job is to go to school and do the best you can.’ I remember him repeating to me every day, ‘You gotta learn English. That’s the only way you’re going to be able to do things for yourself in this country.’ I took that message to heart,” said Garcia, who with her two younger sisters was born in Mexico..

“Once we all learned English, my dad said. ‘You guys have to graduate from high school.’ He never really mentioned college, but I just took it as I have to go as I high as i can. As a senior I heard all my friends talking about going to college, so I took it upon myself to pursue that.”

The Omaha South High and University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate has become the family’s trailblazer. She’s currently working on her master’s degree. After a foray in media and communications, she’s found her niche as Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions at UNO. The bilingual Garcia helps many first-generation students and their parents navigate the higher ed maze.

“I love helping students who are still learning English and struggling, who are lost in the system because they just got here or they don’t understand what’s next or how to move forward in their academic goals.”

Information is power, so she gives prospective students and families what they need to make informed decisions about options and opportunities.

“I find myself playing the role of an educator more than anything else. Even for our U.S.-born students or students who’ve been here many tears, the college application process can be tricky and tedious.”

It becomes even more daunting when applying to multiple colleges or universities.

“It’s complicated. A lot of our Latino parents don’t understand how it works. My job is to help parents and students understand what UNO offers and to hold their hand and walk them through the process. It’s important they see me as a person they can trust and open up to. The conversations definitely get very personal. If I know exactly what their situation is, it makes it easier for me to find resources.

“Some parents are undocumented and they need to know if their son or daughter can still qualify for financial aid or scholarships. My goal is to make sure there are no barriers for students looking into applying at UNO. I want to help be that bridge between them and the school so that they can fulfill their dreams.”

Even though not in her job description, she said she feels duty-bound “helping students not just get here but to actually finish and walk away with a diploma.”

“It’s very important for me personally to know that what I do matters to somebody, somehow. Seeing those results brings a lot of fulfillment.”

She works closely with her alma mater, Omaha South, as well as Bryan High School.

“A big part of my heart is students from Omaha South.”

She’s pleased her two younger brothers are following her lead. The oldest is a UNO sophomore. The youngest is thinking college, too.

Leaving a legacy is important to Garcia, who’s worked hard to realize the family’s aspirational goals in America.

“Just last year I was able to become a legal permanent resident through marrying my husband (Roger Garcia).

The middle sister is in the same process. The little sister is still a DACA recipient.”

Her brothers were born in Nebraska and are U.S. citizens. Ironically. they’re able to travel freely to Mexico and back while Garcia, her sisters and parents have been unable to return to their homeland.

Now that Garcia’s new permanent legal status means  she can travel without restrictions, she said, “I’m dying to go back to Mexico. I was really excited to make it this year because it’s 20 years since I left.” But since she’s expecting her second child in January she must wait.

Her own immigrant journey has made her an advocate for Dreamers and DACA recipients. She said she’s spoken to elected officials to help them “understand our story and to hear our voices.”

“Once a Dreamer, always a Dreamer,” she said. “More than anything, it’s an experience

A 2014 internship with NBCUniversal Telemundo in Washington D.C. meant working on immigration issues.

“It was journalism on steroids every day.”

She returned to be part of the inaugural radio news team at Omaha Noticias (Lobo 97.7 FM). She enjoyed it, but burned-out working long days for little pay.

She tried freelancing but found it too unstable. Then she found her professional home at UNO, whose communications department she started in. Her work brought her in contact with the undergraduate admissions team and when a position opened there she was encouraged to apply. She got hired and was recently promoted.

“I love communications and a lot of my job is creating bilingual outreach pieces. I’m definitely passionate about it. I’m doing an integrated media master’s from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.”

She and husband Roger Garcia, executive director of Centro Latino in Council Bluffs, have their own side business, Garcia Consulting Group. The couple apply  her communication and his administrative expertise, along with a shared passion for community advocacy, to Latino-based nonprofits and entrepreneurs.

“We saw a need for a bilingual or Spanish communications group with a specific niche reaching out to Latinos. We both want to use our talents and knowledge to benefit the community.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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Community activist Dulce Sherman follows servant-leader path set by her minister father

December 24, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Community activist Dulce Sherman follows servant-leader path set by her minister father

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico (el-perico.com)

Dulce (Mejia) Sherman has spent years campaigning for Nebraska Democratic Party candidates, but one office seeker’s bid consumes most of her time now: her own. The novice candidate is vying for an at-large representative spot on the Millard School Board in the November general election.

This self-described community activist’s desire to serve comes from the example set by her late father, Rev. Mario Mejia, who was a Spanish Assemblies of God minister.

“He was a very compassionate, patient person,” Sherman said. “He was not judgmental. He would take a step back and observe and not be reactive – even if people were not very kind to him. He was very committed to helping people in his ministry.”

Her parents were from Mexico, where her father was a muralist. Sherman and her five siblings were born and raised in the U. S. Their first language was Spanish, not English. The family lived in Grand Island and Minden, Neb. as Majia established churches around the region.

“My mom didn’t speak English or drive, so there was limited adult interaction for her. Her life and my dad’s life was really about the church.”

It wasn’t unusual for the family to leave home Saturday for services, then attend a weekend-long church conference, and get back Monday morning.

“I always admired my dad because after he would finish ministering during the day, he went to work at a factory job. It was a huge commitment. He had a really strong work ethic that’s very much embedded in me.”

Sherman remembers helping her late mother pick potatoes in a field. But her real focus was on getting an education – something her parents always stressed.

“Four of us completed college. Two of us have a master’s level degree.”

Sherman earned her bachelor and master’s degrees at Bellevue University. She may pursue a law degree. Her attainments are part of how she honors her father.

“I was really close to my dad and I learned a lot from him. He was my role model. I wanted to be like him. I really wanted to help people.”

That calling led her to Human Resources as her career.

“I love meeting new people. It feeds my soul to have conversations about their dreams and help them be the best that they can be.”

After years in HR positions at Omaha for-profits, she joined One World Community Health Centers in 2017.

“I didn’t really feel I was making a difference in where I was at before. I decided I needed to go work for a nonprofit and give back to my community. Now I feel I’m able to help the Latino community in that servant leadership role just like my dad did.”

She likes that One World walks the talk.

“Other organizations have a mission on the wall. Here it’s a mission people live by. They really care about what they do. It’s very rewarding working for a place that’s really making a difference.”

Culturally, it’s a good fit, too.

“For the first time in a workplace, I’m called by my Latino name. It’s a really diverse organization I can call home. We currently employ about 86 percent Latinos and 85 percent women.”

Politically active since the 1990s, she said, “I’m very passionate about ensuring our Latino vote is represented. Women, children, healthcare, immigration and DACA – all things I’m passionate about – I feel are at risk and need representation.”

She feels obligated to help because of what she’s done.

“I’m a first-generation American who’s been able to go to college, learn two languages and go somewhere and do something with that. Not everybody has that opportunity.”

She was indecisive about seeking office when fellow politico Christian Espinosa Torres encouraged her to run. The school board made sense since her four sons graduated from Millard Public Schools.

Besides, she said, “some board members have been there a long time and I want to shake it up and bring some change.” Her platform emphasizes “making sure we have enough funding for special education and  suicide prevention.”

Two of her sons are gifted and two have special needs. Her experience with the district’s processes for students with learning and attention issues motivates her to be “an advocate” for parents navigating the system.

“I can be the voice for them.”

“Suicide prevention has impacted my home as well,” she said. “Anytime there’s a child with a disability, there’s going to be some emotional aspects tied to that. I am passionate about equipping these kids so they can be successful in life and handle that.”

She wants to make the district more “inclusive of everyone regardless of race, gender, abilities.”

She participated in a July 25 Women Who Run event, where, she said, “It was empowering to see how many women are running for office. I am especially proud there are several women of color running.”

Canvassing has convinced her that most “people don’t know much about the school board and its purpose and how the education system and budget process works.”

Family members working on her campaign include her sister Esther Mejia, owner of E Creative, her husband Allen Sherman and her four sons.

Balancing a campaign around work, family and volunteering is a challenge. She’s an at-large delegate for the state Democratic Party, a member of the professional networking-educational group, Latinas Unidas, and she’s active in the Women’s Fund Circle advocacy group. She also serves on the Latino Center of the Midlands board.

In June. the Women’s Center for Advancement honored her for her community service at its “Tribute to Women” event. That same month at the state Dem convention she was elected Latinx Caucus Chair – succeeding her political mentor, Marta Nieves.

With so much on her plate, she said, “I’ve learned that no matter what you stay grounded to your values and you don’t waver in times of conflict.”

In this divisive era, she said, “I think it’s really important we aren’t viewing things as a bi-partisan situation. We should be thinking about how we want our children and grandchildren to be taught and treated and what we’re willing to do to make sure the course were taking as a society respects humanity.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Improbable music journey leads Maldonado to Nebraska as an Omaha Omaha Fellow

December 24, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Jose Maldonado pictured with another Opera Omaha Fellow Kate Pomrenke

 

 

Improbable music journey leads Maldonado to Nebraska as an Opera Omaha Fellow

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico (el-perico,com)

Jose Luis Maldonado concedes the improbability of how he became an opera singer. But that just makes him more eager to share his tale because if it could happen to him, than who knows how many other potential vocalists are out there without even realizing it?

Part of his role as a first-year Opera Omaha Fellow in the Holland Community Opera Fellowship is exposing young people to an art form that may be foreign to them.

The California native grew up around the East L.A. area, where the strains of opera are rarely heard. He comes from a musical family. His father played piano in L.A. salsa bands. His grandfather, Jesus Francisco Maldonado, played saxophone in Mexico, where he’s known in Cuahutemoc Chihuahua as El Botas.

Jazz and Sinatra were some of Maldonado’s other musical influences. From an early age he set his sights on following his grandfather as a saxophonist. He studied hard and became proficient.

In high school his varied activities in band, sports, student government, public speaking and tutoring led his football coach to call him “a renaissance man.”

By his junior year he’d formulated a plan for college. He would study music and business (his father’s in real estate) with an ultimate goal of attending USC and playing in the Trojan marching band.

But then fate threw him a curve. With no suitable artist to sing the national anthem for an all-school assembly, he volunteered, even though it meant singing in public for the first time before thousands. Until then, all he’d done was imitate Rat Pack crooners for friends. He nailed the anthem by mimicking Robert Merrill but it was Jose’s rich baritone that won over the crowd

Then, at his senior graduation, a teacher made him promise to take a voice class in college before she handed over his diploma. He vowed he would. He kept his vow at Rio Hondo Community College but only as a courtesy. Then an unexpected thing happened.

“I ended up really enjoying it. The vibrant teacher. Ann Gresham, made it more than singing. She lured me back to the class every semester by saying, ‘If you want to know your real voice, you should come back next semester,’ because I was still mimicking.”

He credits touring music shows she created that he performed in at schools with honing his stage presence and sparking his interest in community outreach, which is the focus of his Opera Omaha Fellow work.

As much as he liked singing, he considered it a hobby, not a career path. He was still stuck on his USC dream . But his best-laid plans got disrupted after he sang a German song for his final.

“That song really changed my perception of what a singer is,” he said. “The way she had me learn this song was so deep and specific. It was not just learning and translating the words but relating it to the culture and why it was written and honoring the composer and the librettist for that poetry.

“At the end of the song I closed my eyes and repeated this phrase (lyric). I felt this energy. I opened my eyes and everybody was in tears. There was silence, then applause. It was just this beautiful experience.”

When the teacher asked to see him privately after class, he thought he’d somehow messed up.

“She asked, ‘You felt that in there, right?’ I said, ‘Yes.’  She said, ‘I know you’ve achieved what you wanted to at the school and you’re going to be moving on. I’m very proud of you. But I would not be doing my job if I didn’t ask you this,’ and she looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Do you want to be an opera singer? Because I can get you there. But it’s going to take a lot of work.’

“I was speechless because I never thought to be a singer. i remember, frozen, looking at her and saying. yes, but I didn’t consciously make a decision. She said great and told me about another college where the state would pay for my lessons. I just kind of nodded and walked away in shock.”

What he’d done didn’t sink in until he got home.

“Back in my room I yelled out, ‘What did I just do?’ Because the opportunity to realize my dream was right there in front of me. I worked really hard to get straight As. Counselors from USC and Rio Hondo made sure I met all the requisites. There it was and I just threw it away to become a singer.”

“But as soon as I yelled out, I felt this epiphany. In my mind I saw this blender with everything I was mixed in it and what poured out was opera singer. I just remember saying, ‘Okay, this is what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.’ Like magic, the calling was there for me. I haven’t looked back since.”

He continued music studies at Cal-State Fullerton. The woman responsible for putting him on the path to opera, Ann Gresham, became his private instructor.

An unforgettable experience occurred at Cal-State in a production of The Merry Widow. For the first time. his whole family saw him perform, even grandpa Jesus, who disapproved of his choice to make a life in music.

“My grandfather was not on board with me being a singer because of his experience with the musician’s life. He worried I wouldn’t be able to support myself. I’ll never forget his face when I walked out after the performance. He was just crying. It completely changed his perception. That was impactful for me. Now my Papi Chuy is my biggest fan.

“To be able to convince him that way spoke volumes for how much conviction I have for what I do. He saw I was going to be successful.”

Jose, 29, paid homage to him when, in a gibberish rant his character The Baron makes, he inserted Spanish words in the middle of the German operetta.

From Cal-State, Maldonado went to Manhattan School of Music in New York, where he graduated with his master’s in May. He gave the school’s commencement address. At the ceremony he got to meet two music icons who received honorary degrees: Opera tenor Placido Domingo and Latin jazzman Paquito D’Rivera.

In July he played the lead in a production of Falstaff for the Martina Arroyo Foundation’s Prelude to Performance Opera Festival. Arroyo, a famous soprano, created the foundation to help emerging artists like Jose get professional opera experience.

Since starting his Omaha fellowship in August, he and his peer fellow  have engaged the community. They performed an outdoor concert at Turner Park. They’ve worked with the Learning Community Center of South Omaha and Nelson Mandela School. They performed at Buffett Cancer Center and Gallery 1516. They facilitated classes at the Omaha Conservatory of Music.

Jose is scheduled to perform with the Omaha Youth Symphony at an Omaha Area Youth Orchestras concert  on November 11 at the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum.

Wherever he goes, he wants his story of defying expectations to inspire others.

“I didn’t come from a traditional classical background. I’m very proud to say I was made in America with Mexican parts. I’m very proud of my culture. But I’m also an individual, I’m an artist, and I don’t have to be bound by walls or comfort zones or perceptions or interpretations. If i can help shine that upon people and let them choose for themselves what’s possible for them, then I’m doing my job.

“I encourage anybody that feels restricted or limited to break those barriers. Part of it is taking responsibility to take the actions that you can create to step forward and to find those opportunities and angels in your life.”

He wants to continue giving back by creating a cruise line that operates as a business nine months out of the year and that holds an intense summer training program for performing and visual arts students.

“To be able to offer this summer training program completely free is a dream of mine,” he said.

He also aspires to sing with his hometown Los Angeles Opera and at Palacio de Bellas Artes, Teatro Degollado and Teatro Aguas Calientesin Mexico.

Meanwhile, he loves being an Opera Omaha Fellow because it allows him to give back.

“It’s exactly how I began in music. We don’t just come and sing. We build relationships with community partners, We meet their needs. We plant the seeds of opera and we also get to nurture those seeds.”

He appreciates, too, that the two-year fellowship provides professional development opportunities.

“We have coaching every week with Opera Omaha Head of Music Sean Kelly. On top of our salary we get a professional development stipend to use to have voice lessons. It’s inclusive of flights and accommodations. We budget that as we need to continue our growth as vocalists – honing technique and advancing skills

 

That’s something I really cherish. I feel valued not only as an ambassador but as an opera singer.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Holiday book sale: “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

December 18, 2018 Leave a comment

Holiday book sale:

“Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

by Leo Adam Biga

For you and/or the film lover in your life

Retails at $26

Now on sale for $20 directly from me

(while supplies last)

Acclaimed filmmaker Alexander Payne uses satire to take the measure of his times. Award-winning writer Leo Adam Biga draws on 20 years covering the writer-director to take the measure of this singular cinema artist and his work.

 

 

Film scholar-author Thomas Schatz (“The Genius of the System”) said:

“This is without question the single best study of Alexander Payne’s films, as well as the filmmaker himself and his filmmaking process. In charting the first two decades of Payne’s remarkable career, Leo Adam Biga pieces together an indelible portrait of an independent American artist.This is an invaluable contribution to film history and criticism – and a sheer pleasure to read as well.”

National film critic Leonard Maltin said: “Alexander Payne is one of American cinema’s leading lights. How fortunate we are that Leo Biga has chronicled his rise to success so thoroughly.”

Available at this special sale price only by contacting me here or at:

402-445-4666 or leo32158@co.net

 

If you want a copy mailed to you, send a check for $25 (includes shipping and handling) made out to Leo A. Biga, along with your return address, to: 

Leo A. Biga

10629 Cuming St.

Omaha, NE 68114

Please indicate if you wish a signed copy.

 

As screen veteran Yolonda Ross from Omaha enjoys today’s black renaissance, she gears for next big career move

December 12, 2018 Leave a comment

Yolanda Ross

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As screen veteran Yolonda Ross from Omaha enjoys today’s black renaissance, she gears for next big career move

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the December 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

In her two decades as a working screen actress Omaha native Yolonda Ross has seen Black Cinema explode and women filmmakers assert themselves. She’s “making it happen” herself as a recurring character in Showtime’s The Chi after recurring parts in How to Murder Your Wife, The Get Down and Treme. She’s in HBO’s latest hit Random Acts of Flyness. She plays opposite Patricia Clarkson, James Caan and Toby Jones in the new indie feature Out of Blue.

Next spring, she breakouts behind the camera for her feature writing-directing debut, Scenes from Our Marriage. It shoots in her adopted hometown New York City with the same production team from the 2012 short Breaking Night she wrote-directed. She’s also executive producing and starring in Scenes. She and Clarke Peters are husband and wife theater artists dealing with professional challenges, jealousy, infidelity and race.

Omaha native Tim Christian’s Nightfox Entertainment is co-producing.

Ross left Omaha for NYC to pursue a fashion career. The multitalented artist (she also sings and paints) is glad for more opportunities today than ever.

“Yeah, this is a great time to be a black creative in our industry,” Ross said.

The emergence of Shonda Lynn Rhimes, Lena Waithe, Ryan Coogler, Jordan Peele, Terence Nance and other black TV-film players marks a wave if not sea change.

“Things have improved some,” Ross said. “I think it’s great there’s more people of color telling their own stories and not having pretty much the white race telling everybody else’s story. It makes for more specific voices for people to really see themselves on screen. It’s from a more authentic place because it’s coming from the people that live it.

“There’s still a lot of change that can happen though. There needs to be more people of color on the other side as far as green-lighting and distributing because you can produce things, but that still doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to get picked up.”

Ross has also seen her industry change in terms of how talent and content get discovered.

“Now having the Internet very much planted in the middle of everything, because you can stream everything, definitely has broadened the industry and made it smaller at the same time. There’s a whole crop of people that are stars now for not really doing anything but talking to a camera telling you about something, which is not actually acting.

“They’re just very different things.”

She sees a content glut.

“I feel it’s all very saturated right now. There’s an overload of material out there. You have to really look for the quality stuff. As far as acting, I feel if you are at the top of what you do in your work, the cream of the crop still rises no matter the clutter. You just have a lot more to get around than before because everybody’s jumbled up into one big industry.”

Concurrent with these trends are new funding, production, distribution mechanisms to help women get their work seen and supported.

“It’s wonderful,” said Ross, who’s worked with many women directors (Cheryl Dunye, Reed Morano, Carol Morley).

Her upcoming feature is getting love from Level Forward, a female-run production company supporting women’s stories and women of color.

Her project is also nurtured by Film Independent and its Fiscal Sponsorship Program, which opens the door to nonprofit funding for independent filmmakers and media artists. The Friends of Mary Riepma Ross (no relation) Media Arts Center in Lincoln, Nebraska made a grant to her project through the program.

“My film is also going to be in Film Independent Fast Track,” Ross said. The film financing market held during the LA Film Festival helps producers-directors “fast track” their projects via intensive meetings with executives, financiers, agents, managers, distributors, granting organizations and production companies.

Meanwhile, Ross, who’s worked with Denzel Washington, John Sayles, David Mamet and Baz Luhrmann, continues keeping good company. Being part of Terence Nance’s Flyness is the latest example.

“I think Terence is one of those voices we need to see. We need his Afropunk voice. We need voices like his. We need Lena Waithe’s voice. We need my voice. We need these different kinds of voices with black skin to show that we are not all the same. We don’t all think the same, we don’t all process things the same.”

Ross has prepared to make her own feature for years.

“I’m really psyched about it. We have a lot of things to say. I’m so ready. All the directors I’ve worked with, all the Sundance labs I’ve done, all the different mediums I’ve worked in – it all helps with making my own first feature film. Also, I feel I understand how to deal with other actors to get emotion without over-talking, overdoing things – but just letting people do their work.

“My experience working with so many people allows me to get the best actors, and they’re willing to do favors, which is great. In terms of production, I understand how to get things in an efficient way because I’ve dealt with so many different types of situations. I’m able to look at things from the outside in and from the inside out, where sometimes directors kind of get stuck in the writing or the set. I also have a strong team around me to keep me on track so that I can lock down and streamline what I want to get in a moment, in a scene.”

Doing Breaking Night was “extremely important,” she said. “I needed to learn every step in making a film – from writing it to getting it out to festivals. Not only did I learn everybody’s job, I dealt with everything from insurance to licensing music. I needed to understand the business side. It’s helped me preparing to make this feature. I can talk to my producers about different elements and guide the project in a way that will be bes as far as time, money, creatively, everything.

“I like the producing aspects of filmmaking.”

Her screen journey began in earnest with her breakthrough in the 2001 HBO movie Stranger Inside.

“When you’re in it, sometimes you don’t look back on it because everything is about the next job. You’re always striving for more. Whatever you did in the past is great, but it’s also the past. But I’m very thankful to be here and to be able to have touched people in various ways. I’m thankful to continue to work on great projects and to be able to support myself by doing my passion, my art.”

She’s never forgotten her roots.

“I’m always down to do things in Omaha. I was just there (May) at the Dundee Theater for a panel on women in television. Supporting artists there is totally my thing. I feel seeing people who grew up in the same setting as you living their dream is a really powerful thing.”

Visit yolondaross.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

 

Keiko Matsui: Music of the heart

December 9, 2018 Leave a comment

Keiko Matsui: Music of the heart

©by Leo Adam Biga,

Appearing in the December 2018 issue of The Reader (www/thereader.com)

Keiko Matsui

 

When the Dave Koz and Friends Christmas tour wends its way to Omaha’s Orpheum Theatre on Monday, December 10, Keiko Matsui will be among the guest artists.

 

A native of Japan, Matsui is a composer and pianist whose music defies easy categorization. The industry labels her ethereal, emotive, rhapsodic sounds as smooth jazz, new age or adult contemporary. She burst on the scene by earning Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Artist of the Year nod i 1996.

After 30-plus years of global recording and touring, she identifies as a world citizen. She won’t be the only international artist at the 7:30 p.m. Omaha show though, as South African guitarist-singer Jonathan Butler will join American saxophonists Koz and Mindi Abair and American vocalist Shelea.

Each artist on the bill has followed an independent path.

Matsui’s journey has seen her break down barriers. Born in Tokyo, the classically trained Matsui draws on jazz, rock, pop and other forms in a blend of Western and Eastern influences that transcends boxes, For Matsui. making music is a direct expression of her innermost being that intimately connects to people.

“Maybe the music business people need to categorize – but not me,” she said by phone from her Southern California home. “It is just my music and I express myself through it. Of course, you might find some influences in it from different genres, but I really hope my melodies touch the human heart.”

This mantra informed the title of her last album, “Journey to the Heart.” Now she’s doing the final mix on a new album set to release in February. As usual, this new work will feature all original compositions.

“Each album is like a mirror whose music is reflecting me – my thoughts, my experiences and my emotions at that time. For me, it’s not just an album. It is a statement expressing myself – how I am,, how I want to be.”

Always open to discovery, on “Journey to the Heart” she collaborated with noted Cuban musicians who toured with her. For her new album and forthcoming tour she’s exploring a hybrid of acoustic and electric sounds with musicians she goes back with a long time.

“It’s like a reunion,” she said.

Matsui sincerely believes in the ability of music to heal and to unite. She feels its salve is more important than ever in a world of great hurt and division.

“There are so many problems on this Earth. Everyone has a reason and a theory. Whatever it is, music will affect it some way,” she said. “I feel music has magical power to change something on this Earth. I really feel this is my mission. I receive the melodies and I create the albums and I deliver my music by traveling to different places. I travel across the U.S., Europe, Africa and Asia, so I see many different audiences.

“At every concert in every country I really feel the experience that my music unites – no matter people’s nationality or ethnic  background. Music goes beyond those things. Music has no borders.”

She often hears from fans who use her music as a soothing, meditative aid. Some physicians report using it in operating and birthing rooms. Artists tell her they create to it. Matsui appreciates its many applications.

“I’ve learned through these experiences that my music really touches people and connects to their lives very deeply. I feel honored and grateful my music is living with someone else.”

But the composer-instrumentalist doesn’t consciously try to conjure a tune. It just happens.

“I never intentionally set out to write a single song. They just come to me. I hear the melody and I catch the melody and I go where the melody goes. I have pure freedom to create anything. I can draw on a blank canvas. I feel there is infinite possibility.

“It is not like me trying to compose melodies. It is like a very mystical thing I receive. Sometimes I hear it in my dreams. When I wake up and the melody’s still there, then that’s it – this has a special bond. Sometimes a song is really speaking to me in my head. It’s ringing all the time. Then I’m like, I’ve got it, I will record you.”

Her creative method is about quiet, stillness and receptivity.

“When I am composing I am not thinking anything and I am not forming any words because I just want to have the freedom. By listening, my music can go anywhere I sit down at the piano waiting to hear something from   somewhere. I feel I am touching notes from the silence in this magical ceremony and time. It’s very spiritual.

“Once I start hearing it then I catch the melodies of the piece and I write it down on music sheets or I record it on my iphone. I collect about 100 or so motifs before I start really narrowing down to the 10 best songs. I go through the same process for every album. There are all these things happening when I am  in the creative mode and this upcoming album was mostly like that. That for me is a good sign.”

Music is her livelihood, but so much more.

“Of course. I am making a living with my music,” Matsui said, “but for me music is not a business, it’s not just a job. For me this is a special opportunity to connect to other souls. Some of my really loyal fans who have been living with my music for over 30 years are really spiritual and they really dig into the elements. I really feel we have a special bond.”

Devoted Matsui fans will no doubt be out in force for her rare Omaha appearance, where she’ll likely win new fans, too. The communion she feels she and her music makes with audiences extends on-stage.

“During the show I am pouring my heart and soul into it. I’m using lots of energy and expressing lots of emotion and I am receiving the same from my fans. It is like exchanging energy together. We share an emotional experience together.”

Visit TicketOmaha.com or call 402.345.0606 for tickets and details.

Follow the artist at http://www.keikomatsui.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

 

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Putting it on the Line: Omaha’s Amber Ruffin making a name for herself in late-night TV

December 8, 2018 Leave a comment

Omaha’s Amber Ruffin has so much to say and so much going on that I couldn’t fit it all into one story. That’s why in addition to the recent Omaha Star cover story I did on her, I wrote a Reader feature on this writer-actress best known for “Late Night With Seth Meyers.” While she came to national attention with her work on that show, she’s no overnight sensation. She put many years into an improvisational comedy career before network TV gave her a mass media platform for her talents. Her performing start goes clear back to Omaha Benson High School and local theaters.

But first, here are some thoughts about Amber and her being part of a long legacy of African-Americans with Nebraska ties making their marks in the entertainment industry.

Amber Ruffin: A consideration

For the second year in a row Ruffin came home to headline the Inclusive Communities FriendsGiving event.

There’s little doubt we will be hearing and seeing a lot more from this smart, engaging writer-performer who often skewers wrongdoers and haters with her subversive, silly, serious takes. Her humor, especially when it deals with race and other social justice issues, resonates strongly because it’s grounded in reality and truth, I wouldn’t be surprised if she proves herself a fine dramatic actress as well.

She’s part of an impressive contingent of black creatives from here to make their mark variously in music, theater, film, television, literature and media.

These talents include:
Noble and George Johnson
Lloyd Hunter
Preston Love Sr.
Wynonie Harris
Anna Mae Winburn
Mildred Brown
Helen Jones Woods
Ruth Norman
Buddy Miles
Arno Lucas
Calvin Keys
Victor Lewis
Cathy Hughes
Carol Rogers
Nole Jeanpierre
Lois “Lady Mac” McMorris
John Beasley
Monty Ross
Kevyn Morrow
Randy Goodwin
Camille Steed
Sandra Organ
Alfred Liggins Jr.
Jade Jenise Dixon
Gabrielle Union
Yolonda Ross
Q Smith
Carleen Brice
Kim Louise
Victoria Benning
Omowale Akintunde
Michael Beasley
Lafayette Reed Jr.
Tim Christian
Beaufield Berry
Symone Sanders
Chanelle Elaine

 

Putting it on the Line

Omaha’s Amber Ruffin making a name for herself in late-night TV

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the December 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Since joining NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers” in 2014 as a writer-performer, Omaha native Amber Ruffin has made a name for herself. The gig made her the first black female writer in U.S. late-night network television.

Her strong Afro-centric takes on social issues are part of a disarming package. She can be sweet, silly, manic comedian or edgy commentator and provocateur.

In the recurring “Late Night” segments “Amber Says What” and “Amber’s One-Minute of Fury,” she skewers newsmakers and outs injustice. Her subversive bits play like funny truth sessions by a righteous sister reporting from the trenches of Being Black in America.

“That’s my goal,” Ruffin said. “You’ll never be wrong when you say police should stop murdering children in the street. That (racism) being a lot of my subject matter just gives me tremendous confidence because it’s never been more right and it’s never been more important.”

This fresh TV face and voice is steeped in a long, deep improv background that started here and took her to comedy capitals. Last month she came home to display her authentic, unvarnished self during an Inclusive Communities event at Slowdown. The audience got a taste of her formidable improv skills.

Replicating improv on TV is elusive.

“Oh, how I wish the feeling of improv translated to television. A lot of people have tried to get that feeling in a show, but it’s pretty difficult.”

Playing off a live audience is crucial.

“You’re constantly adjusting your tone, cadence because you have instant feedback and that allows you to give the best performance.”

Working in a corporate culture is still an adjustment.

“It is crazy for comedy to exist in an office. I’d never seen it before I was a part of it. I still find it shocking that it works.”

She’s learned to work within network TV boundaries.

“You can’t be crazy politically incorrect. When you’re on stage doing improv it only exists in that moment, so you can say whatever comes to mind, but on this show whatever you say exists forever. So you have to get it right so that 20 years from now when someone plays it you’ll still stand by it.”

Going out on a limb is a Ruffin trait.

“We are a little adventurous,” Ruffin said of her family. “My mom graduated high school at 16. Every summer she went to New York to find out what the world was about. My oldest sister lived in Panama. Another sister lived in Namibia. It’s just in our bones to see what’s out there.”

Her retired military parents are from the South. They met at Offutt Air Force Base. They later ran their own daycare business. Amber’s the youngest of their five children. Her sisters are also published writers.

Growing up, Ruffin used humor as escape.

“Humor WAS my way to survive. When kids make fun of you, it’s nice to give them something else to laugh at.”

That experience still informs her.

“My day-to-day humor stems from a need to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable and happy, which stems from getting made fun of so badly. It’s assumed people use comedy to put up walls, but I think in many cases the opposite is true. I can say exactly how I feel no matter how uncomfortable it makes you – if there’s a joke attached.”

Musically and dramatically inclined (she plays piano and sings), she developed an early passion for theater.

“I just love musicals.”

The movie The Wiz made a big impression for more than the music.

“It was rare to see a show with an all-black cast that has nothing to do with being black,” she said. “Often times, black people have to talk about their experience being black to be valued. But these people didn’t. It was just a story of joy. The movie, the live musical, every performance of it leaves so much room for you to express yourself. It reminds us the world wants us at our weirdest. When you pretend to fit in, you fade away.”

She contributed to the book of a new stage version of The Wiz that premiered in June at The Muny amphitheater in St. Louis. She hopes a national tour comes here on what could be a Broadway-bound path.

“What distinguishes our version is its timelessness. I wanted it to never have to be rewritten again.”

The stage bug bit while playing Princess Winnifred in an Omaha Benson High production of Once Upon a Mattress. The Benson grad honed her craft via Stages of Omaha at the Millennium Theatre. She did improv at the Shelterbelt and Blue Barn.

Encouraged to try it in Chi-Town, she caught on with Boom Chicago – working with Jordan Peele, Matt Jones and Jessica Lowe – and then Second City. In between, she did a stint with Boom’s company in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Within days of an unsuccessful “SNL” audition, she got hired by “SNL” and Boom alum Seth Meyers.

“I think it’s been a natural progression because I have always been writing my own black point of view. I haven’t found it (TV) to be too crazy because at Boom Chicago we would do short form, where the audience suggests the set-up and then you have to deliver punch lines. You have three or four seconds to come up with something. But on “Late Night” I have all day to come up with a punch line. It’s much more relaxed.”

She usually has a week to hone her “Late Night” routines.

“You write it up and you rewrite it a bunch and you show it to the audience and you get one last rewrite and then it has to go in the show.”

She believes she provides a good change-up.

“Because Seth is so grounded in his comedy there is room for an insane person like me.”

She doesn’t make a big deal about having been the first black female writer in the late-night lane.

“I am not sure if any of that matters. What matters is knowing that we exist and being able to see us. What matters is that everyone knows there’s room for them – because there is.”

She says she was long ready for the opportunity. “I could have done this job years ago, for sure.” But happening when it did kept her real. “Now that I’m in this environment, I’m still me. If I had got this job years ago, I would have bent to what the culture was, and it’s my not having done that has made my career what it is.”

Her go-to topic, racism. is informed by her travels.

“The racism in Omaha is different than anywhere else. We don’t have a huge history of lynchings, scary slavery and Confederate monuments, and so we feel we are above racism, which is what puts us so far beneath it. No one’s really angry because you’re a black woman. People don’t think of you as much as a threat. They just think you are kind of gross.

“Omaha’s pretty bad. It’s way less in Chicago. In Amsterdam, way less, but still there – just a different kind. In L.A., there’s less palpable racism. It’s all institutionalized instead of in your face. In New York, people say something the tiniest bit racist and everyone knows it and sees it. It has gone from me being gross to racism itself being the gross thing, which is a relief.

“Now racism is fixed and over, so we win. Just kidding.”

Coming of age here, she craved diversity.

“I remember being in Omaha and just wanting there to be more me and to have a place where you felt like you could belong, and there wasn’t. I still don’t have a lot of me. I just see how critically important it is, especially for young kids.”

Her diversity advocacy made her an apt choice as special guest for the Inclusive Communities FriendsGiving fundraiser.

Meanwhile, she has an NBC development deal for a show, “Village Gazette,” on which she has co-writing and executive producer credits. It’s set in fictional Benson, Nebraska. The name is inspired by her real-life alma mater, Benson High, and the neighborhood that school is in.

She’s also writing feature film scripts. And she can be seen on Comedy Central’s “The Detroiters” and “Drunk History.”

“I shouldn’t be doing this many things, but I figure you only have so much time. I want to give it a shot.”

Follow Amber on Facebook and Twitter.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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