Monday, April 27, 2015

Selfie with a Supermodel!

Yep, that's Alek Wek, the South Sudanese model that started a revolution in the fashion industry at 18 (!!!) and compelled a young Lupita Nyong'o to stop begging God to make her skin lighter.  Our paths crossed in Times Square yesterday and, not surprisingly, she was sweet enough to let me take a snapshot.  She's a skinny little switch of a thing.  Her skin is so flawless, she's luminous.  And she was wearing a beautiful, bright, flowery dress that looked so spring-like, it knocked the chill right off of the rest of my day.

Now there's so many South Sudanese models (amongst others!) working in the fashion industry, it's not a thing to see such blue-black elegance drifting through any campaign, whether it's commercial or high end.  It's important to recognize that Ms. Wek was the one that blew that door off its hinges. She's an  ambassador, for all of us.

Hats off to the modeling scout that spotted her in London at a flea market with her mother when she was 18 years old.

What's interesting is that Ms. Wek never doubted her own beauty -- probably because as a child in the South Sudan, she wasn't surrounded by an avalanche of white-centric media.  Her confidence must have been infectious.

It still is.

Friday, April 24, 2015

How African Am I?

I always knew I was 100% African.  Always.  Every African I ever met knew it -- from the Nigerians I used to babysit for when I was a kid, to the Senegalese, Kenyan, Moroccan and Egyptian co-eds  I hung out with in college, to the South Africans I befriended when I came to the city, to the tailors from Ghana that made my wedding dress.  I have yet to meet any African that doesn't look at me in genuine astonishment as they recognize themselves or their mothers or sisters in me, and embrace me and all my African ways that never cease to amaze them and freak them all the way out. The food that I cook. The way that I dance. The gap in my teeth. My cheekbones. All of it.

Oh, some of them may want to exclude me because I'm American -- but my African face won't be denied.  And apparently, neither will the blood of my ancestors.  The blood, as Andre Crouch sang, will never lose its power. DNA doesn't lie.  And so it goes. 

As it turns out, according to AncestryDNA, I"m not 100% African. I'm 96% African. (Ha.)  And to think -- all those Five Percenters yelling at me in the street, calling me Nubia. They were right!  (Thanks, Brother-Men.)

Here's the breakdown:

Main Regions: "In order to be considered for this category, a region must have enough evidence that you actually have the region as part of your genetic ethnicity."

Cameroon/Congo =  29%
Senegal =  22%
Benin/Togo = 15%
Ivory Coast/Ghana = `14%
Nigeria =  5%

Trace Regions: "There is only a small amount of evidence supporting these regions as part of your genetic ethnicity. Because both the estimated amount and the range of the estimate are small, it is possible that these regions appear by chance and are not actually part of your genetic ethnicity."

Africa/Southeastern Bantu =  6%
Mali =  3%
Africa/South-Central Hunter-Gatherers = 1%
Africa North = 1%

Are you curious about that other 4%?  I'm not -- because it's so scant, they're probably showing up at random. (See Trace Regions.) 

I love all Africans everywhere -- from the Nigerians who squabble over which tribe I belong to ("Look at her! She's Igbo!") to the Haitians that assume at least one of my parents are from the West Indies (they are not); from the Parisians from the Ivory Coast and Senegal and Morocco and Egypt and the Sudan who call me "Soeur!" like that's my name to the stunning Cameroonian sisters who wave me down on 125th Street, friendly and out of breath and blurting French, asking for help, for directions probably, and genuinely flummoxed when I explain that I'm from America.  We hug each other and somehow I help them anyway.  And they leave me in the street, waving back at me, like we are family. Because we are.

I don't know what happened to us, as a people.  Well. We all know what happened, don't we.  Somewhere in the 80s, we became enthralled with a particular segment within a popular genre of music that was intrinsically divisive, glorified violence, denigrated black women with abandon and pandered to society's lowest common denominator to make a buck.  Eventually, that niche caught on with the white folks, became a garish caricature of itself in order to continue selling itself to the highest bidder and made a lot of white label executives a lot of money.

There. I said it.

When I was a kid, it was an ordinary every day thing that we called each other brother and sister -- and meant it.  Interestingly enough, it's a part of Chinese culture (many Asian and African cultures, actually) to address everyone this way. An older woman is aunt or mother, an older man is uncle or brother, someone your age is sister or brother or cousin. In this way, everyone is family and there is a unity inherent in the way you are spoken to that binds you to each other.   When we lost this simple unifying element, we lost each other.  And when we lost each other, we lost everything.

Well. At least now I know why my face has drawn all of the African diaspora to my heart. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Billie Holiday Post Script 3: The Billie Holiday Project + The Rare Sides

Charles Wallace and I at Minton's, before the first set.

On Tuesday night at Minton's Harlem --  a sold out house! -- my quintet and I were joined by Charles Wallace to present Monkey Junk, a dramatic retelling of a newly discovered Zora Neale Hurston story from the 1930s, augmented by Billie Holiday's material from the same decade. We rounded out the evening with a set of Lady Day's rare sides -- songs that even her die-hard enthusiasts had never heard. 

Our last performance on April 28th in this month-long tribute to Lady Day will be a pastiche of each week's programming.  For more information and reservations, click here.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Your African Public Service Announcement of the Day

Please stop referring to Africa as a country.

Africa is a continent that has 54 countries.  Actually, it's the second largest continent and the second-most populated continent on earth, and with a population of 1.1 billion as of 2013.  Not surprisingly, thousands of languages are spoken there.

For more fun facts about Africa, click here.

You're welcome.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Spring Cleaning, Part One: Swaps!

Time to watch an episode or two of Hoarders for motivation, roll up my sleeves and clean house.

This month, I'm starting with my closets. I'd like to refresh my wardrobe but I don't have the money to fling at every cute outfit I see when I window shop -- and frankly, I've got way too many items that I never wear.

My solution? Swaps! Who knew that you could swap your clean, gently used/not broken stuff -- including housewares and whatnot -- all over Gotham for free? (I didn't!) 

Here's a short list to get you started.
  • Stop 'N Swap! Sponsored by, you can show up with that blender you never use -- or come empty-handed and take whatever you need.  (Sounds like hippies to me...!)
  • Fashion Swap and Meet is wunderbar -- their last swap featured fashion bloggers.
  • Although features over a dozen swaps in the New York area (including one for single parents with small kids), Five Boroughs Clothing Swap looks promising. It's members only -- hopefully with others who are as thrifty and fashion-conscious as you are -- it happens six times a year and it's free.
  • There's lots of shops that swap, like Thrift Disco and The Frock Shop...
  • ...and yep, you can do this online via Swapdom, Swap! and Thread Up.
My solution? A few times a year, there's an extremely private swap amongst maybe a dozen friends that involves a lavish meal, lots of wine and clothes galore.  Whatever gets picked over is donated to a great cause, like a women's shelter.  (My favorite donation spot: The Bottomless Closet.)  And because I know which girlfriend has that pencil skirt I used to love, I can always get it back if I miss it too much.  That's the beauty of swapping with a closed circle of friends: we're all up in some small part of each other's closets.

There's also another seasonal swap amongst friends -- a tea party! with cocktails! and delicious tea cakes and whatnot! wheeeee! -- that's strictly vintage.  All this with regular donations to the Salvation Army means that my closets are actually in pretty good shape these days. And here's a happy bonus: losing this pesky winter weight means that I get to wear all the clothes in my closet, not just the stuff that fits me this week. 

Next month: Zen and The Art of Clearing My Junk Room...!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Billie Holiday Post Script 2: Carnegie Hall, 1956 -- The Refracted Set

On Tuesday night at Minton's Harlem, with a wonderfully enthusiastic audience (another full house!) and my coterie of musicians, I deconstructed Billie Holiday's last Carnegie Hall concert from November 10, 1956, which was created to promote her autobiography Lady Sings The Blues. Instead of reading from the book, I read from bits and pieces of ephemera I found at the New York Public Library.  It was a stellar night.

The next time you think of Billie Holiday as a victim and a heroin addict first instead of a genius musician, there are a few explosively noteworthy trainwrecks that you should reconsider, too. Frank Sinatra -- who openly admitted that everything he knew as a jazz vocalist he got from Lady Day -- was a violent alcoholic, addicted to painkillers and, some say, bipolar. Thelonious Monk drank, smoked pot and did drugs to excess. And yes, he had bipolar disorder.  Charlie Parker's propensity towards drug excess was legendary.  Miles Davis. Need I say more?

Nevermind infamous jazz musicians -- everybody knows about them. What about common drug usage?  During the Victorian era, laudanum -- a mix of 10% opium and 90% alcohol and flavored with cinnamon or saffran -- was especially popular.  And why not? It had been popular with the Greeks in antiquity. The Victorians used it to cure menstrual cramps, headaches, as a tranquilizer, even fed it to cranky babies. Everybody drank this stuff.  Keats. Shelley.  Dickens. Louis Carroll.  It was as common and as socially acceptable as scotch -- and much cheaper.  Not surprisingly, it was the beginning of the 20th century before they realized it was lethal.

And the rest? Chopin did opium drops on sugar cubes every day.  Leonard Bernstein was heavily addicted to alcohol, drugs and painkillers, quite possibly because of his latent homosexuality -- or heterosexuality, depending on who you ask. Stravinsky was horribly addicted to all kinds of medications.  Contrary to popular belief, Miss Holiday was hardly the only one on a landscape of creative individuals that drank, smoked pot, did drugs and led what many consider to be a tragic life.  (Charles Mingus? Louis Armstrong? Bessie Smith? What black jazz musician led a life that wasn't tragic in some way?) Everyone had their fair share of misery but for some strange reason, no one else's addictions are listed before their achievements.  Probably because of the media hype that sensationalizes every foul aspect of What Happened To Her -- along with that ridiculous, cockamamie biopic starring Diana Ross -- we are left to view her as a hapless victim. No one seems particularly interested in focusing on her accomplishments, which are nothing short of incredible.

 Well. I'm interested.

Join me next week at Minton's, where my April residency in tribute to Lady Day continues. For more information, click here.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Berlin: Poor -- But Sexy!

MPB said Berlin felt like New York City in the 90s -- and he was right.  With that in mind, I'm not so sure if I miss that city or what this place used to be.   Maybe its a bit of both.

As Gotham puts the squeeze on me and I defiantly make my art by any means necessary, I keep practicing German and I keep my options open.  Lots of things are pulling me across the pond. Like gigs.  And graduate school.  And fun. Let's see what develops.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

TONIGHT: Georgette (Queen Esther + Lee Ann Westover) at Uncharted! 8pm

 Uncharted!  Thursday, April 9th at 8pm  -- $20
Greenwich House Music
46 Barrow Street
New York, NY
Ph: (212) 242-4770

 *Please note: Your ticket gets you free beer and wine all night long.

As a part of the Uncharted Music Series at Greenwich House Music School, singer/songwriter/musician Lee Ann Westover and I will be blazing away as Georgette,  our newly formed alt-country/Black Americana outfit.  

With George Jones as our namesake (because I love him -- and why not?) we've decided to delve into a few 70s feminist classics along with some of our own original material.  The result is a twang-drenched, soulful and *surprise!* irreverent take on modern sounds in country music. 

The Band:

Hilliard Greene, bass
Pete Matthiessen, guitar + vocals
Dalton Ridenhour, piano + vocals
Shirazette Tinnin, drums
John Widgren, pedal steel guitar

 See you there!

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Billie Holiday Post Script 1: Holiday on Broadway

On Tuesday night at Minton's Harlem, I stood in a room that Billie Holiday herself performed in many times and I recreated her 1948 Broadway revue to a packed and attentive house with some of the best musicians I know. And I did it on her 100th birthday.

It doesn't get any better than that.

Thank you, Julia Collins for saying yes to my ideas, thank you Talvin Wilks for grounding and shaping the work, thank you Jeremy Bacon for those flawless charts and thank you Charles Goold, Noah Jackson, Wayne Tucker and Patience Higgins for playing the living daylights out of this music. (And thank you Jett Drolette for photographing us all night!) If you were a part of the audience, thank you for celebrating Miss Holiday's 100th birthday with us. I hope you had as much fun as we did.

Next week on Tuesday April 14th --using sound bites, personal letters, rare news clippings and reviews, and yes, her music -- we will reimagine Lady Day's last Carnegie Hall performance in November of 1956.

See you there.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Happy birthday, Billie Holiday...!

      (Photo by Mito Habe-Evans.)

Today is Billie Holiday's 100th birthday. Imagine that.

To celebrate her centennial, I will be in residence every Tuesday in April at Minton's performing rare sides with a stellar coterie of musicians: Noah Jackson (bass), Charles Goold (drums), Warren Smith (drums), Patience Higgins (tenor sax), Wayne Tucker (trumpet) and J. Walter Hawkes (trombone), with Jeremy Bacon (piano and MD).  Thankfully, Talvin Wilks has joined us to shape what we've assembled. I've been working on several projects about Billie Holiday for some time now, so my research is extensive.  This residency feels like a natural extension of all that work, a highly creative way to get all those ideas out of my head and into the world.

Of course, rare sides means rare songs, so the audience will definitely experience material they've probably never heard in performance. I took this idea one step further and reconfigured different aspects of Lady Day's body of work, to see her in a new light. For tonight's special moment, I will recreate her Broadway debut Holiday on Broadway -- a revue that included Billy Taylor, the founder of Jazzmobile --  which opened on April 27, 1948 in the wake of her first Carnegie Hall performance.

I know that there are many who dismiss Miss Holiday as a drug addict who led a tragic life but the truth is, that could be the byline for just about any successful, brilliant musician in the past 100 years. Nevermind all the jazz musicians that are infamous for their drug fueled debauchery and their tragic lives -- Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk. Stravinsky, as it turns out, was quite the drug addict.  Chopin was addicted to opium and dosed it every day with sugar cubes.  Leonard Bernstein? Painkillers. 

It's very difficult (read: virtually impossible) for the world to openly acknowledge black female genius, to say that black women are brilliant.  Focusing on Lady Day's drug use and the things that went wrong in her life is a convenient way to ignore her musicianship and how it literally changed the world.  Consider this: She got her first paid singing job at 14. John Hammond discovered her at 18.  By the time she was 25, she had recorded well over 120 songs with the best jazz musicians of our time -- most of which are classics now.  She toured with Artie Shaw, Count Basie and Teddy Wilson's big bands.  Impossible but true: She recorded Strange Fruit in 1939 at the age of 22. (!!!) 

This is the Billie Holiday I have come to know and respect -- and yes, love: an exceptionally beautiful, disturbingly brilliant, highly creative genius musician and songwriter who was as tough as any situation demanded, because that's just how vulnerable she really was.

If you want to celebrate Billie Holiday on the day of her birth, we'll see you tonight at Minton's. For reservations and information, please click here.

Monday, April 06, 2015

The last shot of the day

This is guitarist Pete Matthiessen, comfortably rehearsing vocal arrangements at my place last night for my (Black) Americana gig as Georgette at Greenwich House Music School's Uncharted Series on Thursday, April 9th.

For more snapshots of my world, follow me on Instagram at @thisisqueenesther.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

NaBloPoMo for April: GROW!

April 2015

For April Fools Day, I was going to announce all over social media that I'm pregnant (!!!) but then I figured that would be a really tacky thing to do and it would probably do way more harm than good, and probably in the most hurtful way imaginable. Instead, I'm jumping on the blog everyday bandwagon -- because I've got a lot of stuff going on and this would be a great way to keep track of it, and because the discipline of writing everyday does me a lot of good.  Morning pages work wonders creatively. This will be an addendum to that process. Maybe I'll shake even more ideas loose.

I'm hoping the discipline of running every morning will have the same effect -- especially now that the weather is nice enough to roll out of bed and hit the track in the park.