Michele Rosewoman’s 30-year odyssey

Pianist, composer and occasional vocalist Michele Rosewoman, a native of Oakland, CA, has crafted a unique musical perspective that strives to engage both the jazz and Afro-Cuban folkloric traditions. Her immersion in ancient and contemporary Afro-Cuban musical culture has been very impressive; no novice either in her immersion or her execution of these traditions, Michele this year celebrates 30 years of intense study and musical translation through the prism of jazz with the release of a stellar 2-CD set (supported by a successful Kickstarter campaign) titled A Musical Celebration Of Cuba In America (Advance Dance Disques).

In celebration of this release Michele will lead her 30th anniversary New Yor-Uba ensemble at the Lake George Jazz Festival on September 14 and for two nights at Dizzy’s at Jazz at Lincoln Center September 30 & October 1. So how exactly did this successful immersion transpire, what encouraged a young woman endeavoring to make her way through the jazz piano ranks to bring that perspective to an exploration of Afro-Cuban folkloric landscapes? Clearly some questions were in order…
Michele Rosewoman

This year marks the 30th anniversary of your New Yor-Uba project. What was your original philosophy in developing New Yor-Uba and how did it come together for you?

As a pianist in Oakland, I came up learning the jazz tradition and eventually found myself extremely interested in extended forms and language which brought me from Bud Powell and Earl Fatha Hines to John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Miles, Monk and later to Dewey Redman, Cecil Taylor, Julius Hemphill… When I started playing congas in my teens I went straight into Cuban folkloric traditions. I listened to Los Papines, Guaguanco Matancero and Conjunto Folklorico Nacional and everything I could get my hands on. At that time, recorded music from Cuba was scarce and shared like gems.

Although I didn’t know it then, this was when my personal musical path was truly born. As I felt the transformative nature of this powerful and profoundly sophisticated music, my own musical quest took on 2 distinctive paths – and I didn’t know anyone else who was into both these idioms at that time. One was the improvisational creative traditions of jazz and the other was the folkloric musical traditions of Cuba, including rumba (a uniquely Cuban musical form) and the sacred bata drums and cantos (chants).

Seemingly opposite in nature in that one constantly expands tradition and the other strives to maintain an ancient tradition, I was completely and helplessly immersed in both musical traditions from that point on. I saw parallels between the subtle and sophisticated rhythmic and harmonic aspects of jazz and the highly evolved rhythmic and vocal language of both rumba and bata traditions — the obscuring of the obvious, the ability to play time on a sophisticated level where the ‘one’ is not stated but implied by everything around it.

When i came to NY in 1978, these two worlds of music were still very separate, but for me they were becoming one. I met Orlando ‘Puntilla’ Rios soon after he arrived here from Cuba. A master batalero, congero and vocalist, he brought and shared musical knowledge that had never been available in the U.S. before, including songs in the Arara dialect from Dahomey that are equally a part of the spiritual musical traditions in Cuba. Folks here were more hip to the Yoruba songs. Me and my percussionist friends surrounded Puntilla (Nuyoricans and Afro Americans were prominent among those who had been drawn into Cuban folkloric music at a time when information and recordings were hard to come by) absorbing everything like sponges. For the first time, there was someone with musical and spiritual knowledge of sacred and private practices who wanted to share his knowledge. Puntilla was full of ideas as well and needed American-based musicians/ drummers/vocalists to understand his traditions in order to present them at the highest level.

Puntilla came to know me for what I was musically about. In my dreams, literally, I had begun to hear this sacred music in a contemporary jazz setting and I started writing instrumental environments for them. For the most part, this music had only been performed with drums and vocals at ceremonies (except for the group “Irakere”, which used some of the sacred music in a latin jazz setting). Puntilla was aware of my direction and that the more knowledge I had of both traditions, the better able I would be to bring them together in a righteous way. I studied the bata without playing them -a very hard way to learn (women were not encouraged/allowed to play at that time) – but I was absorbing a rhythmic perspective that would shape my playing and writing in the years to come. I became aware of and attuned to the intricacies of what I consider to be the most profound rhythmic language on earth.

The way I was playing and the music I was writing was already permeated with Cuban rhythmic traditions and it was natural and organic to embellish my original material with folkloric elements. I also started writing arrangements and conceiving music for a large ensemble that were built around repertoire brought here by Puntilla. There were certain Arara songs (from Dahomey and an important part of Cuban folkoric music) that I learned from Puntilla that haunted me until I did something with them. After a while I had a complete repertoire of music to present and in 1983, I applied for and received a National Endowment for the Arts grant for the formation and presentation of “New Yor-Uba, A Musical Celebration of Cuba in America.” The premiere took place in December of 1983 at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in New York City as a 14-piece ensemble featuring Orlando “Puntilla” Rios. It also featured many of my closest musical associates- a really incredible group of master musicians from both the world of contemporary jazz and Cuban folkloric music including Rufus Reid, Pheeroan akLaff, Kelvyn Bell, Oliver Lake, Baikida Carroll, John Stubblefield, Howard Johnson, Bob Stewart, Rasul Siddik, Butch Morris (conducting), Eddie Rodriguez, Gene Golden, Olu Femi Mitchell and Oscar Hernandez.

Univision Music was the name of my publishing company for many years, (it is now Contrast High Music) which is a word I came up with that best says what my philosophy was behind the formation of New Yor-Uba. I wanted to bring together and unify all the music that had profoundly influenced and touched me, because for me, it aways all felt like it went together. That included funk, by the way, and I came to discover/feel that the traditional bata are unmistakably at the roots of funk. I coined the word ‘Univized’ soon after, which for me, tranlsated to ‘mission accomplished.’

What’s been the evolution of New Yor-Uba down through the years?

The more I learn and the deeper my knowledge, the better equipped I am to do this. I strive for a complete and total integration of forms. My own initial studies of Cuban folklore brought me into this world at a young age and doors continue to open and the family of musicians gets broader all the time, just as this has been true for me in my evolution as a ‘jazz’ musician. One thing leads to the next. No story I tell really has a beginning, everything is so connected. I met Puntilla as a result of this flow and he brought sacred folklore here from Cuba that had not arrived yet–especially from the Arara tradition. While he was in the group, my approach was built around him in many ways. As a result of his commitment and 25 year involvement with the ensemble, tamboleros in Cuba knew about New Yor-Uba. Some have came here with the hope of playing with the ensemble – which is a great honor for me – and this has led to a continuum of the organic involvement of master folklorists, a vital element in this ensemble.

Since Puntilla passed on – and passed the torch – the younger tradition, steeped but flexible percussionists/vocalists that have become a part of the ensemble offer me an opportunity to even further integrate the forms. There are now more bassists and drummers with their feet in both worlds. This was a missing factor in past configurations. In the first stages, I had great conceptual and swinging jazz players that could not really lock with the folklore. At a later stage, I swung the other way and had rhythm section players who could lock with the folklore but who did not have the nuances of jazz and were not geared towards playing conceptually. Now I find musicians who can do both – a real key to the puzzle. As for horn players, I am happiest when I have a horn section full of unique voices – players that avoid cliches and have their own language. Getting the written music played right is important too, but having soloists with originality is for me, as important as the other factors. One of the challenges for this ensemble is that in jazz, we pull the beat so that it feels like we are playing behind and with the rumba and bata traditions, the beat is pulled so that it feels like folks are playing ahead of the beat. In a minute, the horns and the drums can be in different places. I continue to strive for the perfect combination of players and I feel that with this CD, I have gotten as close to it as I have ever been. The personnel will always change and evolve and our evolution as an ensemble is inevitable for this reason, as new voices bring new energy and ideas. And again, my own studies and deepening of knowledge throw open doors of possibility. Lately, my ideas for this ensemble have taken on new dimensions. Although I am just enjoying the moment given that in the weeks to come, the public will finally have full access to hearing the best of what this is and what this has become, I am also looking forward to our next formation and stage of evolution.

Do you see this project as much as a cultural expression as it is musical?

I see it as a cultural and spiritual expression manifested through the music. It brings worlds together on many levels – the tangible and the intangible, the modern and the ancient, tradition and expansion/improvisation. Africa in the Americas – geographical, cultural and spiritual. All these worlds are connected at their very roots. This ensemble connects ME to all of MY roots. It takes us all ‘home’. I will never forget the debut concert – it was sold out with folks standing outside in the rain. Sitting across from each other on the stage, I can still see the awe on the faces of the jazz musicians when the drummers and folkloric tradition were featured, and equally I will always remember the deep respect and curiosity on the faces of the drummers as they listened to the soloists. None of them had ever heard each other’s music at this level. And the break between sets was like half time at a ball game. We fell into a group hug. The worlds were joining. And to know that I had brought them together through my own passion for both worlds, was a special feeling – one that I feel every time we come together in various configurations, through the years..

The continuum – the diaspora – is there to be heard, to be seen. Jazz musicians are taken home to their roots and folkorists see the extension of the African-born traditions of which they are the guardians. It just keeps going. The culture does not die, it expands and seeps into the cracks and permeates. A cultural expression for SURE.

Talk about your 30th anniversary record.
New Yor-Uba

Well first of all, this turns out to be a two CD set. Just too much good music to cut out anymore, after all it is 30 years and our debut CD. It is, for me, the realization of a vision thirty years in the making. Thanks to the musicians who gave their all and wanted this to fully succeed, thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign and the generous support of the backers, thanks to my partner in production, Liberty Ellman, who served as project manager and also mixed and mastered the recording, and thanks to the contributions of co-producers Habana/Harlem (Neyda Martinez and Onel Mulet) my dream has reached fruition. Everyone involved has wanted all the best for this project and everyone gave their best -including the staff and studio engineers at Systems Two, the videographer Eddie Pagan who created the Kickstarter video, the CD cover designer, Chris Drukker – on and on! The result is a high level of presentation, musically, visually, and in terms of sound quality. And the content of the recording is so diverse and so constantly shifting from one interesting arena to the next. The vocal and drum folkloric traditions are featured, each masterful musician is featured, my compositions and concepts are featured, I am featured as a pianist and vocalist. I am just truly proud and excited.

When, how and where do you plan on celebrating this 30th anniversary of New-Yor-Uba in performance?

We have CD release events at Lake George Jazz Festival on September 14th and at Dizzy’s on September 30th and October 1st. Not all personnel from the recording are on these dates but the personnel [for the two CD release gigs this month] IS as follows and, speaking of evolution–it just doesn’t stop!

Lake George NY Jazz Festival CD release event for September 14th:

Alex Norris (trumpet)
Antonio Hart (soprano/alto saxophones)
Billy Harper (tenor saxophone)
Stafford Hunter (trombone)
Howard Johnson (baritone saxophone, tuba)
Michele Rosewoman (piano, vacals)
Yunior Terry (bass)
Adam Cruz (drums)
Abraham Rodriguez, Abi Holliday, Nicky Laboy (bata/congas/vocals)

Dizzy’s! CD release event for Monday Sept 30/Live WBGO broadcast, and Tuesday Oct 1st. Personnel as follows:

Freddie Hendrix (trumpet)
Antonio Hart (soprano/alto saxophones)
Billy Harper (tenor saxophone)
Vincent Gardner (trombone)
Howard Johnson (baritone saxophone, tuba)
Michele Rosewoman (piano, vacals)
Gregg August (bass)
Adam Cruz (drums)
Roman Diaz /Abraham Rodriguez/Abi Holliday (bata/congas/vocals)

Learn more about this uniquely driven artist at www.michelerosewoman.com.

At the recent Open Dialogue Conference of The Association of American Cultures (TAAC) in Providence, RI I had the pleasure of meeting Neyda Martinez of the Habana/Harlem organization which co-produced Michele’s 30th anniversary New Yor-Uba recording for the Advanced Dance Disques label. I asked Ms. Martinez about Habana/Harlem and its partnership with Michele Rosewoman and New Yor-Uba.
Neyda Martinez of the Habana/Harlem organization

I was introduced to Michele’s work by my colleague and producer, Onel Mulet. After listening to her work and getting to know Michele, I was literally blown away by the integrity, depth, and power of her work. This led us to co-present Michele’s New Yor-Uba ensemble at the Painted Bride in Philadelphia, October 23, 2010, and to our co-producing her historical recording.
Michele’s upcoming performances on Monday, September 30 and Tuesday, October 1, 2013, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, Jazz at Lincoln Center couldn’t be a more fitting way for her to celebrate this creative milestone.

I am indebted to Onel for introducing me and our project, HABANA/HARLEM® to the work of Michele Rosewoman. As a team, Onel and I aim to collaborate with artists who are committed to building community, advancing and challenging their artistic boundaries. We’re honored to be associated with Michele; she is truly a creative force. Her work is of the utmost caliber. While honoring tradition she moves us forward, all with a funky, groovy, and at times, semi-abstract vibe. Her music couldn’t be more culturally specific and perhaps this is what makes her oeuvre so incredibly universal.

HABANA/HARLEM®, an independent cultural production company, nurtures the arts and humanities by advancing contemporary artistic innovation, and supports evolving trends in music through strategic exposition, artist development, performance, distribution, and promotion. The initiative was conceived by myself as executive producer, with producer and creative director Onel Mulet. HABANA/HARLEM celebrates the legacy of this creative nexus, as well as expressions by artists whose work fosters dialogue, cultural appreciation, and greater understanding among diverse communities.

Fueled by the friendship and rich exchange of concepts and ideas between artists such as Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie, among many others, HABANA/HARLEM commemorates the unconditional acceptance of collaborative fluid creativity, which changed the course of music history. Learn more at www.habanaharlem.com

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