Every January in New York City, it seems like every possible kind of performing arts venue —clubs, auditoriums, galleries, cultural centers — moves into a feverish pitch of activity for the 1000-plus performances that take place during the annual edition of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference (APAP).
This year’s fifty-ninth edition of what is arguably the world’s premier global performing arts conference and marketplace was an amazing convening of more than 3,600 presenters, artists, managers, agents and emerging arts leaders from over 30 countries, who all come to New York for five days of professional development, business-doing and above all, performances.
To participate in the annual APAP conference is to sacrifice sleep for about a week in the pursuit of taking the pulse of the artistic scene at a global level. For me, one of the highlights is to begin with a conversation with Mario García Durham, President and Executive Director of APAP. As a Latino and a Houstonian, Garcia Durham has a fascinating perspective on the work of APAP in terms of making sure the arts communities represent a broad array of voices, perspectives and histories. One of the new initiatives he shared, for example, is called “Building Bridges”, and supports the work of Muslim artists with organizations and universities all across the country.
And then, I take a deep breath and plunge into a vortex of five days and nights of global music. One of my favorite series of concerts is that of Winter Jazzfest, this year in its 12th edition. It has become the most important jazz festival in the city, presenting hundreds of concerts in venues from tiny subterranean hangouts like Zinc Bar to the impeccably elegant auditoriums of The New School.
As a part of Winter Jazzfest, it was a treat to experience a delicate and soulful set by jazz singer and guitarist Camila Meza from Santiago de Chile at the Roxy Hotel’s retro jazz club. The charismatic Meza creates beautiful jazz ballads that incorporate Latin American, Brazilian and pop elements, and she was magnificently supported by the other musicians in the quartet, in particular, James Francies on the piano, whose textures, colors and whirls on the keys enabled Meza’s music to transport the audience somewhere at a musical crossroads in the Americas.
Somewhere distant from Meza on the other extreme of jazz, Winter Jazzfest presented artists such as David Virelles, a 30-year-old pianist, born and raised in Santiago de Cuba. Virelles performed from his work Mbókò, an album subtitled “Sacred Music for Piano, Two Basses, Drum Set and Biankoméko Abakuá”. The musical protagonist of the pieces was indeed the biankoméko, a four-drum ensemble which includes sticks, cowbell, and shakers in the masterful hands of Cuban Román Díaz, who also chanted in the pieces. It was an abstract and heady whirlwind of music, a sonic landscape that at nearly two in the morning created a most powerful trance.
Another special evening is always that of Globalfest, that presents twelve artists performing on three stages over the course of six hours. I was totally enchanted by Fendika from Ethiopia. Fendika’s music highlighted voices, percussion, several unusual string instruments and most especially the head shaking, hair twirling and shoulder-shimmying dancing of Ethiopia.
A special Globalfest highlight was the performance by Mexico’s Astrid Hadad, a veteran cabaret singer whose social and political commentary in song and costume referenced Frida Kahlo, the Day of the Dead, and many of Mexico’s treasured cultural values. Unfortunately, much of her pointed political commentary and satire may have been lost in translation. The audience cheered some of her iconic Mexican ranchera songs, almost in denial of the vision that she was articulating of a wounded yet barely gasping-for-breath Mexico, most vividly portrayed by her final piece, where she spun in a costume with flag motifs and confetti-throwing on one side and the skulls of the Dead on the other half. It is a poignant reminder of the battlegrounds, socially and politically, where Mexico seems to be taking a last stand, proud and glorious yet unsure of survival as it faces the apocalypse.
Secret Planets, presented by Barbès Records and Electric Cowbell Records, was another incredibly satisfying evening to dawn of music, as each artist in the lineup was outstanding in their own right. For their sixth APAP showcase, these well-renowned taste-making record labels presented a Manhattan showcase which highlighted artists from Morocco, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Yemen, East Africa, Los Angeles, Tucson, Cuba and Brooklyn.
Of these, it was delightful to experience Moroccan Samir Langus’ take on Gnawa, the traditional, ritual trance music of Morocco’s black communities (the descendants of slaves and soldiers brought from Northern Mali and Mauritania), and the jazzy spin his band added to the intense and clattering rhythms of gnawa.
From Tucson, XIXA’s performance at Secret Planet shared the band’s psychedelic cumbia sound, deeply rooted in both a South American tradition and the border rock of the Southwest. XIXA took the Peruvian Amazonian cumbia which became extremely popular in Lima’s poorer barrios during the 60’s and 70’s and found a common ground with the music of Arizona’s desert in clanging, edgy rock guitars and Latin grooves.
At the end of APAP, and in the wake of the enormous vacuum in the arts world created by David Bowie’s surprising death, I came back to reflecting on my conversation with APAP President Mario Garcia-Durham and a topic that had emerged as to how arts community professionals can help ensure the next David Bowie is encouraged to make his or her mark on our world. As Garcia-Durham noted, it is important to recognize and develop the abilities of presenters, agents and managers who help artists like Bowie share their artistry with the world and thereby make the creative genius of so many talented individuals available to all of us.
Certainly, the importance of this “behind-the-scenes” art is evident every year at APAP. See you in New York City for APAP 2017!