Archive for the ‘Arts’ Category

The Trove: djassi daCosta johnson
May 26, 2011

Mrs. Verini: djassi daCosta johnson, 2 months pregnant.

djassi daCosta johnson adores her “ridiculously amazing family.”  It is in the haven of their embrace and the freedom of their trust that she’s been able to move fearlessly through her life. Her educator parents Awolowo and Orundun, of whom she speaks reverentially, anointed their eldest daughter with the nom de guerre of revolutionary Amílcar Cabral, (Abel) Djassi. Brought together by “the Movement,” the former SNCC worker and the former Black Panther secretary instilled in their four children a sense of activism, pride of heritage, hunger for knowledge, love of movement and spiritual grounding.

When we first met, djassi was a Bantu-knotted, hoodie-rocking Essence magazine intern rapturously in love with her tween sister, Yaya. An admitted “fool for a party,” the fly Virgo moved fluidly between the worlds of academia, professional dance, media and the clubs. More than fifteen years later she feels “blessed to have found my best friend in my little sister,” is planning graduate study and enjoying a dance career that has taken her around the globe, expanded her notions of her art and paved the way for marriage and motherhood.

I spent a recent afternoon with the new mom, her husband Corrado and their delightful daughter, Mirahl in their Brooklyn home as they prepared to summer in his native Rome. Sipping wine, we marveled over the body’s tremendous capacity for healing. Awed by the “wondrous abilities of the human body,” djassi the dancer bowed to djassi the mother. “I always thought I knew my body so well. I’m so proud of what it’s done and what it can do, but then I was also humbled by its limits,” she said recalling the arduous journey of Mirahl’s birth. Her infant warrior woman is a testament to the “strength that humans have and the will to survive.”

After a “normal” pregnancy, a love-filled karaoke baby shower and the full expectation that she, a mind-bogglingly fit woman would move through a water birth with relative ease, life-threatening complications arose. For 42 drug-free hours she labored, but sensing something was “off,” she resisted the urge to push and her midwife took heed. It was discovered that pushing risked strangulation of the baby by the twice-wrapped umbilical cord around her neck as well as uterine rupture and severe hemorrhage for djassi who inexplicably presented with Placenta Increta. Mirahl arrived via emergency Caesarean. Her name hints at the miraculous and its Turkish definition, “little gazelle” befits the daughter of a dancer/choreographer. In homage to Corrado’s grandmother Vera and djassi’s grandmother Lucille, Mirahl carries two middle names, Vera Lu.

Little Mirahl was born December 28, 2010.

Besotted with their baby girl, dja and Corrado are grateful for djassi’s protective intuition and honored by Mirahl’s having chose them. “My parents were very affectionate, I felt one hundred percent unconditionally loved,” djassi muses. “I hope I can pass that on.”

The striking DaCosta Johnson family: Orundun and Awolowo; first-born Mamadou, youngest Djani and…

Camara Yaya and djassi Camara, then and now. Their shared name Camara, means “comrade.”

The Johnson children were all educated in the Montessori tradition, at St. Michael’s where their mother taught. Djassi recalls getting “mommy practice” with Yaya and Djani (eight and ten years younger) when her mom spent summers away in Ohio pursuing Master’s studies in Montessori.  Mrs. DaCosta Johnson would eventually open Central Harlem Montessori, “the only accredited Montessori School in Harlem and the least expensive one in NYC for sure,” djassi says proudly.  Now retired, her dad was a Professor of Sociology at several New York City colleges. “My parents were very clear about being cognizant of our history and the importance of education as not just a privilege but a responsibility.” At the behest of their father, who valued his upbringing in New Haven, each of the children attended high school on the wooded campus of Northfield Mount Hermon in Western Massachusetts and went on to matriculate in the Ivies: Penn (Mamadou) Barnard (djassi) Brown (Yaya) and Cornell (Djani) Djassi is grateful for her father’s vision. “Aside from the obvious academic intensity and advantage it gave me in applying for and understanding the purpose of college, I really had such a formative experience living away from home…I don’t think I would have ever run track, swam, worked on a farm, or really seen myself as a multi-faceted individual. Boarding school let me grow into my own skin at my own pace and feel free to just be. As an adolescent that was priceless.”

Developing sound minds and bodies, the Johnson siblings excelled both academically and athletically. “We were always encouraged to be physical by nature, taught how fun it was to challenge and stretch the body’s capabilities. We grew up doing gymnastics, capoeira, all of us dance — my brothers are shamefully talented despite their lack of interest in training. I had school and ballet and modern classes all week and was able to ‘study’ the house and break-dance culture on the weekends. There are still guys who call me out when I’m uptown like, Ain’t you ‘Dou’s little sister who won that battle spinning on her head way back in da day?”

A 1970’s anti-nukes rally: “I want to GROW not GLOW.” And grow she did into an awesome command of her body.

Her parents have been on the board of DanceBrazil for most of her life. “Growing up, around and backstage with a dance company was amazing,” she says. Her first stage appearance was at age six: a samba with the company in “Orfeu Negro” at Riverside Church.

Junior high was pivotal. She chose as her Phys Ed elective, the dance class of Melvin Jones. The former Alvin Ailey dancer taught the Horton and Graham techniques. Through his instruction, she was ahead of the curve when she auditioned for and was accepted into the Ailey scholarship program years later.

“After boarding school I was hungry to get back to NYC and dance.” Yet she shunned the academic pursuit of dance. A local school would allow her to both train with Ailey and study English and Anthropology.  “A women’s college seemed empowering to me. With alumnae like Zora, Katherine and Twyla, I knew Barnard would be perfect.” Her nine-page appeal to overturn a denied housing grant was successful and though her parents lived only 23 blocks away, she was awarded housing for four years.

She initially found anthropology “daunting and too focused on the other,” but eventually realized that “there is a future in Anthro for participant-observers such as myself, that the preservation of culture can be enacted by those within rather than some extraneous observer.” This will be the crux of her graduate exploration. “I see ways to give back through my art.”

Among her impressive credits (view them and her performance reel at Dancer’s Pro) is her phenomenal performance in Moses Pendleton’s Passion.  A cornerstone of the MOMIX repertoire, Passion is a highlight of djassi’s eight-year tenure touring internationally with the company.

The mind-blowing Passion ribbon solo.

When djassi joined MOMIX, she and technical director/lighting designer, Corrado Verini, “gravitated to each other during after-show dinner to discuss the world, both yearning to talk about something besides dance,” she says.  On an Amsterdam tour they sparked an intense, see-each-other-on-tour, long-for-each-other-off-tour relationship. “We had cultural, linguistic, generational, not to mention the American/Italian, Black/White dichotomies that we both had to get over somehow.  We weren’t convinced right away that we were ready to deal with all of the work that loving each other might entail.” Nevertheless, “it was undeniable for both of us that there was something that kept bringing us back together.” In a yellow silk dress of her own design, djassi wed Corrado in August 2008 in Rome.

dja love.

“Soho Moods,” Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome.  Photo © Nina Contini Melis.

Apart from dance, she’s tapped into other aspects of her creativity through acting, writing (contributing to the book Transculturalism and TRACE magazine) and fashion.  Frequently complimented on garments she’d whip up, she during a tour break in 2001, created a 32-piece collection dubbed the eponymic dja. She sold the line at fairs in Rio and New York.  Inspired by her love of adornment, she has more recently launched the easier-to-produce earring line, Flights of Fancy by dja.

As Calpurnia in an Italian production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Photo: A.T. Ambrosini

Optical party dress and Flights of Fancy earrings by dja.

As a brisk stroll through nearby Prospect Park rocked Mirahl to sleep, djassi spoke of “spoiling” their winter baby “with Italian summer love at the sea and countryside of Rome.”  Happy for my friends and smitten with their slumbering infant I bade the Johnson-Verini family farewell and buon viaggio.

Il tesoro trovato di djassi:

1. Fame (the 1980 movie.) “My father took me to see it when I was six and I made him sit through it twice. I was like ‘I wanna do THAT!’ I look back on the movie now and realize there were some really adult themes, it wasn’t a movie about dance and fairies. But I was pretty clear that I could be an artist at six years old, so there you go.”

The “Fame” trailer.

2. Aperitivo.  “I have always loved a good glass of wine and 9 years of bartending in New York gave me the opportunity to really understand it.  One of the things I love about Italian ‘time’ as it relates to food is the concept of aperitivo, the precursor to dinner.  In the best bars in Rome and Milan one can go, relax, pay for a glass of wine and feast on the ‘buffet’ offerings.”

“No matter where I am, I rarely have a night without an aperitivo.” Wine photo by Sara Rosso.

3. Languages.  At 28 she lived in Brazil with Yaya and learned Portuguese by immersion. On a tour in Spain, “I got my Spanish better with that guy,” she says gesturing toward Corrado, “He speaks it really well.” After having traveled and toured as an American, she knows that rudimentary English is spoken most everywhere. “So you take it for granted,” she says. “But I find that you get so much more respect by speaking the language and you can really break down so many more barriers by how you speak the language… to take on the culture and the understanding of how people speak the language because of the culture. My sister and I really assimilated into Brazilian life and took on the accent.  A similar thing happened with Italian while living in Italy. I still have a long way to go to perfecting my Português and my Italiano but the ‘way’ I speak fools people and so I learn that much more from each exchange…and the languages are actually very similar. Many words are the same, it’s just ‘sung’ a little differently.”

4. New Year’s Eve in Rio. She’s spent it there a few times with Yaya. “The most meaningful, beautiful, spiritual New Year’s Eves ever!” Once they spent it on the roof of singer Elza Soares‘ Copacabana house, looking down on the glorious sight of the white-clad Carioca multitudes making water offerings to Yemanja. 

Ano Nove: “It’s pretty special. I can’t wait ’til the next one we are able to make.”

5. Dancing With My Family. “You can’t take the six of us anywhere with good music and some space because we all love to partner dance. We are all Salsa-proficient improvisers.  My dad made sure the girls could follow and the boys could lead. Holidays are three couples on the dance floor or a few of us dancing while the others play the congas, bell and berimbau…and my mom can lead a good funga anywhere.”

The Sisters Johnson get their dance on.

6. Hats.  She often tops her look with one of the many chapeaux she’s collected in her travels.

Some faves include Trilbys from Spain, select vintage and a conical spire from Chile.

7. High Heels.  “I looove a good pair of heels, and I love to get good bargains on them. One of my favorite pairs is from El Mundo on 145th and Broadway near where I grew up. They are gorgeous.”

“Don’t they just make you want to Salsa?Carlos by Carlos Santana pumps.

8. Fearlessness. “Without that concept in my life I wouldn’t have done what I’ve done. From thinking I could make a career of dance to traveling the world–something I wanted to do, but do with a purpose to meeting Corrado through work and believing in following my heart.”

Holiday Island, the Maldives.

9. Oasi Naturista di Capocotta. She loves the freedom of the nudist oasis in Rome. “I used to be a bit prudish about my breasts and then I realized I had to shed my Western issues and embrace my origins on this European beach. They have the most amazing restaurant with people eating on silver plates with huge wine glasses in different arrays of nakedness. It’s one of my favorite places to go in the summer.”

Easy atmosphere and the freshest catch.

10. gDiapers. “I just couldn’t fathom that in 2011, I should be complacent,” knowing that conventional disposables degrade in 500 years. “How is that responsibly leaving my child a planet she can thrive on?” An Earth-friendly diaper hybrid, gDiapers feature inserts (either washable cloth or flushable, biodegradable disposables) to absorb waste.  The new gMom has become an ardent brand evangelist: “no rashes, sooo much less waste and the refills break down in 50 days!” With an in-house washer during her Roman sojourn she’ll use the cloth option exclusively.

Good for the baby, good for Gaia (and they appeal to Mommy’s fashion sensibilities.)


The Trove: Craig Wallace
May 11, 2011

We’ve relocated!  View our story on Craig at  Thanks.






























































Craig Wallace before his performance in Jennifer L. Nelson’s “24,7, 365” at The Atlas Performing Arts Center.

Though I met Craig Stephen Wallace, he of the resounding voice and commanding presence, about twenty years ago, I’ve seen him more in the past year than in all the years before, owing to seeing the respected thespian in multiple productions. I’d heard of the DC-based actor’s ascent over the years through our friend, filmmaker Kelvin Phillips, so when familial responsibilities brought me back to my native Washington, I checked out the prolific performer as he robustly embodied embattled arts administrator Sterling North in “Permanent Collection,” doting father Tom Fairchild in “Sabrina Fair” and bourgie bro’ Beau crossing the tracks in “24, 7, 365.” 

Fresh from an end-of-March appearance with John Lithgow in “The Trumpet of the Swan: A Novel Symphony,” at the Kennedy Center, Craig went straight into rehearsals for a unique Folger Elizabethan Theatre adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac. We caught up for a very quick, but yummy bite at Capitol Hill lunch fave, We the Pizza to discuss his journey from an only child, “a shy kid who loved books, TV and music” to a confident, respected member of a thriving theater community.

Born and raised in Rochester, New York Craig stumbled upon his calling in high school when given a choice to take American Literature or Drama: A Practicum. He selected the latter thinking it was the easier of the two.  The instructor, actress Betsy Bourcy “saw something in me. I fought her tooth and nail but she forced me to audition (for the role of Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls.) It was a watershed moment in my life, I never looked back.”

He spent his undergraduate years at Howard University deejaying frat parties and hosting college radio under the moniker Synbad Starr. “Truth was,” he says, “I was an egghead nerd trying to find myself.” He relishes those days. “College taught me how to have an opinion. At Howard I learned how to think, graduate school taught me how to act and in that progression I found myself.”

With fly folks, though shy, the future Funkateer always had presence.

An internship at The Folger was a career-making move. “I was watching the actors tackle the language and I knew that I wanted to learn the skills to tell classical stories. I also love the music of poetry and how rhythm plays such a vital part in speaking verse text. I did my first Shakespeare play, ‘The Winter’s Tale’ in 1987 when the Shakespeare Theatre Company was at The Folger.” He has since then covered most of the Shakespearean canon: from comedies “Twelfth Night” to “Troilus and Cressida;” tragedies “Hamlet” to “Coriolanus” and histories “Henry V” to “Richard II.”

Bardic: Caius Ligarius in “Julius Caesar,” (Shakespeare Theatre Company) Othello in “Othello,” (Folger Theatre) Brother in a Caribbean-set “Much Ado About Nothing,” (Folger Theatre) Escalus in “Romeo and Juliet” (Shakespeare Theatre Company) and in “Antony and Cleopatra” (Shakespeare Theatre Company)

Upon receiving his MFA from Penn State, he might have headed north with Broadway dreams but he returned south to the Districtbecause of a job opportunity. I stayed because I kept working. There was, for me, no real reason to leave. This is a flourishing theater community. I believe there are 80 professional theaters in the DMV region. I’m not sure it’s as diverse as it could be. I’m not saying there is racism involved, but in region where there are a lot of people of color, there should be more of us onstage….and I’m not sure if that’s our problem or theirs….probably both right?

Though he works steadily as an actor, he “began teaching acting at George Mason University just to supplement my income. These days, in addition to GMU, I also teach for The Shakespeare Theatre Company, The Theatre Lab and serve as a Folger Theatre teaching artist at Cardozo Senior High School.”

His passion for theater is shared by his girlfriend, Kimberly Schraf, whom he met when they both appeared in a 1994 production of Molière’s “The Misanthrope.” They once again graced the same stage in last Fall’s production of “Sabrina Fair” with Kim in the deliciously witty role of Julia Ward McKinlock. She has also narrated over one hundred books on tape including Little Altars Everywhere, Bee Season and The Best American Short Stories of the Century.

Outstanding Supporting Actress Nominee (for “Show Boat) Kim and Craig at the 2010 Helen Hayes Awards.

When asked about his influences he says “I have always been inspired by Malcolm X. He is discipline personified. Just got the new book on him, can’t wait to crack it.” He adds, “I do have directors and professors in my life that have given me insight on myself and my acting and I found them to be very helpful in my career.In that career he’s breathed life into the words of not only Shakespeare, but such esteemed playwrights as Anton Chekov, August Wilson, George Bernard Shaw, Henrik Ibsen, Howard Sackler, Suzan-Lori Parks, Tennessee Williams and Tony Kushner (whose “Angels in America,” secured Craig a 2000 Helen Hayes Award nomination for his portrayal of the nurse, Belize.)

Clockwise from left, an illustrious career: Lopakhin in “The Cherry Orchard,” (Everyman Theater) Usumcasane in “Tamburlaine,” (Shakespeare Theatre Company) “The Underpass” (Davis Performing Arts Center at Georgetown University) Beau in “24, 7, 365,” (Theatre of the First Amendment) Flip in “Our Lady of 121st Street,” (Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company)The Mayor in “Fucking A,” (Studio Theatre) Brother in “Much Ado About Nothing” and Boy Willie in “The Piano Lesson” (The Hangar Theatre)

Clockwise: Sterling North in “Permanent Collection,” (Round House Theatre) Tom Fairchild in “Sabrina Fair,” (Ford’s Theatre Society) The Aviator in “The Little Prince” and Booster in “Jitney” (African Continuum Theatre Company)

Craig was invited in 2006 to join a coterie of esteemed speakers at a birthday tribute to Abraham Lincoln at the White House. He honored the 16th President of the United States by reading  an excerpt from the Emancipation Proclamation.

On the staging of “Cyrano” he says rehearsal has been intense, “we started blocking the first day…As all good art it’s gonna get ugly before it gets pretty.”  Of his role as the villainous DeGuiche he says, “I just want him to be full-bodied and complex. If we do it right, you will hate him at first, but come to an understanding about him by the end. Phew!”

De Guiche taunts Cyrano (Eric Hissom)  Photo: Carol Pratt

What’s next on the horizon? “I’ve got some upcoming acting and directing jobs after Cyrano closes. Looks to be a busy summer and fall! I’m just beginning to direct. I’ve already directed a couple of things (“Tommy J and Sally,” “Mio Cuore – My Heart” and “Children of Medea”) and I’m still learning.

As I finished my ginger root soda, he bounded off to rehearse the show I look forward to checking out next week.  (The Folger Elizabethan Theatre production of Cyrano runs through June 5th.)

And without further ado, Craigslist:

1. Storm. Craig and Kim fell deep in doggie love eight years ago with the arrival of a gorgeous Husky mix in their lives. “Together we are three the hard way! And I love every minute of it.”

Snow Storm: in her element, achieving canine Nirvana.

2. Funk. “The music, the way of life.” On his Facebook “About,” he says simply,  “I’m just livin’ and jivin’ and diggin’ the skin I’m in.”

Classic funk: the landing of the Mothership.

3. Watching TV. As a child, it was “cartoons, of course and all the PBS fare–Sesame Street, Electric Company, etc.  As a teen, I was big into Twilight Zone, then 60 Minutes. For years I never missed it.” Some other faves include Treme, the Law and Order franchise, Dexter, Damages, The Wire and Flight of the Conchords.

The Treme opening sequence. Music by John Boutté.

4. Newspapers. Especially the Sunday papers.

He consistently reads the The Washington Post, natch, and the Sunday New York Times.

5. Shakespeare. The work of the Bard has been integral to his double-decade career.

Once you get the hang of it, it is really a wonderful feeling to have his words roll off your tongue!

6. Getting to know a new city when I work outside of DC.

His role last year in the pivotal role of “Boy Willie” in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson took him to the Hangar Theatre in the college town and gateway to the Finger Lakes, Ithaca, New York.

7. Cooking. “I look at the food section of The [Washington] Post every Wednesday. If something looks good, I’ll make it.” 

“My specialty is roasting whole chickens on the grill.”  Photo via Healthy Delicious.

8. Collecting music. The former DJ still has vinyl and says, “When I get time to find some room in the house, I’m going to set up me stereo, pull them out and have some fun.”

Some of the albums which “changed the way I think about music.”

9. Having Cocktails. He’s not beholden to any particular watering hole. “It’s more about the company than the spot.”

Photo Morgan Sheff via Cocktails and Cologne.

10. My Home.  After intense immersion in scripted lives it’s always good for him to return to his own.

Photo, Chris in Plymouth.

The Trove: Abby Dobson
December 19, 2010


Mama’s Girl: “I am ever aware that I am standing on her shoulders and those of all the women in the house I was raised.”

I was sitting in my mama’s living room in post-Thanksgiving satiety flipping through the Washington Post when I came across a listing about Abby Dobson’s performance at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage the very next day. Since we’d met through her college chum, writer Nicole Moore, time had never permitted me to check her live (including her release party at the Blue Note in November.) Bet. Another chance.

Abby’s got some pipes;  her resounding voice a compass directing me to the venue as I arrived just after she, bathed in purple light, began her set. Including songs from her independently released Sleeping Beauty: you are the one you have been waiting on, as well as a couple of covers (her rendition of Prince’s How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore scorched) she both glided on gossamer wings and plunged deep into a place of earthy excavation.   At set’s end I went to say hello and the floodgates opened to a stream of grateful listeners, stupefied by her vocal prowess, who queued up to commend her.  Abby and I quickly agreed to meet for coffee while we were both in town and I left as she greeted her fans.

View the performance on the Kennedy Center website.

We met up the next day at her hotel, the quirky Hotel Helix (count on Kimpton Hotels for modern rooms with personality) “My mom loves it, she feels like a rock star,”  Abby laughed as she gathered her things. We strolled to nearby Mid City Caffè  for delicious coffee, tea and pastries and settled in for a chat about her gumption-finding journey from childhood timidity (hiding behind the refrigerator to sing) to securing some of the best musicians in the business to record her music and belting it out before large audiences.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica,  Abby’s first inkling of her gift was at  “5 or 6 years old, singing to the radio in the living room, when my aunt shushed the adults at the dining table to listen to me.”  When she was seven, her family emigrated to the US, landing in Brooklyn. “Migration is an interesting thing,” she says. “I think it can change your personality.  I became quiet, shy and very observant.” Growing up amid a mix of Jewish, Italian and African-American residents she learned to not to speak Patois.  Her folks “knew how to turn the accent on and off,” where necessary. She has become one not easily “placed” by how she speaks. “I feel very Jamaican, but I’ve never really spoken Patois– maybe when I’m angry or with just family.” 

She attended Plymouth Congregational and “the voices I heard in that church really influenced me. The Jamaican churches preferred classical singing,” a by-product of “Anglican colonization, which was very different from the bluesy Baptist singing” of African American churches.  Another influence was her “visionary” elder cousin Colin who introduced her to Sarah Vaughan, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman.  Though she listened to “a lot of  Bob Marley,” she became indoctrinated in the music of Black America and developed a love for Anita Baker, Tracy Chapman, Whitney Houston and Prince.

Her mother, Theda was “an incredible influence.  She has always supported my brother’s and my creative pursuits…She was a closet artist,” providing her daughter with voice and piano lessons early on.  In high school Abby received private voice lessons from her Chorus teacher who invited her to sing in the Salon Series he held in his home in Bayside, Queens. All nerves and “scared shitless,”   Abby traveled with her mom to perform, the only child amid a gathering of adults.  “It was cool, I was in the tenth grade.”

She went on to study History and Political Science at Williams College, singing all the while. “I directed a gospel choir there.” Though she knew she wanted to sing, she was “afraid of failing and being unable to sustain myself. When you come to America from an immigrant family, you are expected to succeed in a profession.”  So she entered Georgetown Law School intending to establish a career in law or public policy, whilst performing cover tunes at every “open mic” she could.  She graduated but declined to take the bar exam knowing that she really did not want to become an attorney. She would commit to building a music career while sustaining herself as a paralegal. Realizing that the best route to landing a record deal is not in performing covers, she began writing her own songs, which was a revelation, opening her to all she had to say. “I grew up in a very female centered household with my mother, grandmother, aunt, my aunt’s kids and my brother. I was an avid reader of feminist and womanist literature which really shaped my point of view.”  

Her debut as a singer/songwriter at Nuyorican Poets Café led to appearances at S.O.B’s, The Knitting Factory, The Cutting Room, Joe’s Pub and the Blue Note.  Her song, Deeply, a finalist in the John Lennon Songwriting Competition, was featured on TV shows, “The Shield,” “Jack & Jill” and “Any Day Now.” She has provided backing vocals for artists from John Legend to Talib Kweli; opened concerts for Rahsaan Patterson, Ledisi, Dwele, Chrisette Michele, Floetry, Kindred, Leela James and Robin Thicke and performs with Burnt Sugar: The Arkestra Chamber, the interdisciplinary, improvisatory ensemble led by Greg Tate. 

The genesis of her current release was in a realization that she’d been trying for a long time to get notice from a major label.  That she’d been waiting to be “spotted across the room by Clive Davis and signed as his pet project.”  This notion of a sleeping beauty awaiting awakening by an external source resonated with her. She’d fallen “asleep” in her romantic life, waiting for fulfillment. “As much as it is about not expecting someone else to make me who I’m supposed to be in my personal life,” she explains, “it’s also about not waiting on a record company or music producer to deem me worthy of making music I was ready to share.”

There was a long planning process before she actually began to record in early 2007. She continued her paralegal work.  “My 9-5 was part of my story, I needed it. I made good money,” which allowed her to self-fund her record. “If I could afford to do something, I did it. No compromises.”  Like recording and mixing in analog. “People thought I was crazy,” but she wanted her release to have the old-school authenticity of her musical influences. When she got to the mixing stage, she cashed out on a sou-sou, calling on that ‘financial touchstone’ of her Caribbean heritage.

The release is available for download on Amazon & iTunes, but if you enjoy the tactile experience of poring over liner notes, order the disc from CDBaby.  Abby put her heart into the packaging and you can peep Greg Tate’s glowing review. Photo by Piper Carter.

Drawing on her literary shero Alice Walker’s “We Are the One’s We Have Been Waiting For: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness,” she weaves the musical tale of Sleeping Beauty’s awakening, not to the kiss of a Prince but to her own inner light.  With heralding horns that call to mind the Adagio from Concierto de Aranjuez, the disc begins with Cool Rain giving way to a heritage nod, the reggae-tinged I’m Drownin (witten with her percussion-playing, ethnomusicologist brother, Robert.)  Sleeping Beauty continues her 13-track journey on the strains of Robert Glasper’s piano, Lonnie Plaxico’s bass, Marvin Sewell’s guitar and Teo Avery’s sax among others. Rounding out the mélange of genres, Abby completes the song cycle with bluegrass-inflected anthem of reclamation and affirmation, Sleeping Beauty: go make the world you dream.

And she is doing just that.  She’s now interested in a distribution deal, not signing to a label.  “People are coming back to entrepreneurship.  Motown, A&M, that’s how they started.” She shares the story of her moving visit to Detroit’s Motown Museum. “I was in tears. The beauty that was created from a small loan from family is nothing short of miraculous–that they were able to do that in those times.” She admires the forward-thinking vision to protect the brand. “No matter where they were licensed in the world– Japan, for instance– it remained ‘Motown’ not the native language translation.”  She plans to uphold her musical integrity through her company, LadyBraveBird Music. 

The songbird shares her ten favorites with The Trove

1. The Color Purple.  “Although I love Alice Walker’s book of the same, one of my favorite things is the color purple. It is regal and warm at the same time.  It lifts my spirits. It puts a smile on my face.  My luggage is purple.  My winter and spring scarves are purple.  I just adore the color purple. And, wearing purple makes me feel special.” 


The color associated with royalty, mysticism, creativity and feminism.


2. Herbal Teas.  “I love drinking it because it’s soothing.  There is nothing like hot herbal tea, the aroma, the steam on my face as I sip, the taste…it immediately relaxes me.”  

She particularly enjoys African Redbush tea from TAZO (as well as their chamomile blend, Calm.) Photo by xlungex.


3. Books and Reading.  “I love the experience of browsing a bookstore…libraries too,” she gushes. Books, newspapers (New York Times,) magazines (O and Success), love them…I just love reading!”   


Her all-time favorites, The Third Life of Grange Copeland and Beloved.



4. Spices. “I enjoy savoring food with alot of flavor.  My favorites are thyme, cinnamon and nutmeg.” 

Botanical print via the wonderful blog Honest Fare.


5. Sexy boots.  “I have a thing for boots. Whether thigh high or booties, I enjoy wearing them with everything.   What more can a girl ask for?”

Abby’s got winter covered, so she can look forward to the sizzling boots coming as the weather warms. Here, Sessilee Lopez’s great gams and open-toe booties in BG Magazine’s selects for Resort. Photo by Will Davidson.

6. Massages.   “I love giving and receiving massages. I give them to my family and friends all the time.  I enjoy making people I care about feel better. If I’m stressed and need to relax, I’ll get a 20 minute at a nail salon to relax, relate and release.”

“Touch is very powerful. It soothes and comforts,” she says.

7.  Great Music and Musicians.  Natch. Though inspired by all forms of art she loves great music and artists who create for the love of their craft and passion as opposed to money. Sarah Vaughan, Leonard Bernstein, Barbara Streisand, Rachelle Ferrell to name a few.”

Leonard Bernstein’s Overture for West Side Story (Presented by the Sederbergh School)

8. Good Wine.   “I enjoy German Rieslings and Argentinian Malbecs.”


Scharzhofberger Spätlese Riesling and Renacer’s Punto Final Classico Malbec.

9.  Family and Friend Gatherings.  “I love getting together with my family and friends for gatherings to celebrate each other and special events and holidays… the experience of breaking bread, our conversations, and our laughter.”

And laugh she does.


10.  Solitude.  Although she enjoys the communal experience, she also enjoys her “own company” and is “often inspired by moments of solitude…thinking, walking, dreaming.” 

“Solitude – La Dame des Sables.” Photo by Tiquetonne.

The Trove: Aashumi Shah
October 7, 2010

Aashumi, at home.

On a blazing early summer Saturday I, in my infinite wisdom set up temporary shop at Silver Spring, Maryland’s answer to Brooklyn Flea, the Fenton Street Market, without benefit of a tent.  In this “babies and fools” moment I had the good fortune to be placed next to Aashumi Shah. I was selling vintage goods, she her wonderful, whimsical, eco-friendly line of handmade kids toys, pillows, gifts and accessories, mirasa design. Though I initially enjoyed the caress of sunshine, when Helios’ kisses became a little too intense, Aashumi kindly allowed me to sit in the shade of her beautiful, canopied booth. In vendor camaraderie we chatted and soon discovered we share an alma mater.

Aashumi (“Tears of Joy”) was born the youngest of three daughters to Anju and Kishor Shah and raised in the bustling city of Bombay (now Mumbai.)  She attended J.B. Petit High School for Girls, where Principal Shirin Darasha “encouraged independent thinking and empowered us to dream high. Our school badge and slogan is ‘Ever Forward’ which I think is beautiful and powerful,” she says.

The Shah girls, Aashumi, Manasi and Shivali.

Upon graduation, the honors student planned to take the exams for Law School in South India. “I love analyzing,” she says.  In an ironic twist, her older sister, who’d planned to become a fashion designer, didn’t make it into art school and is now an attorney while Aashumi shifted to art–she had been, after all “very industrious,” creating handmade cards since childhood.

She settled on Sophia Polytechnic, though she was not very happy there. “I felt the grading system for art and design made no sense; not enough creative space to grow and be different.”  Nonetheless, she met the first of two important mentors with whom she remains friends and sees whenever she returns to India. Professor Snober Mistry of the textile design department, introduced her to woven design. “She understood me and encouraged me through my textile specialization.”

The second mentor was entrepreneur Neeru Nanda, for whom she began working at 19 as she neared the end of art school. “I did design, product development and managed production for lifestyle products such as placemats and pillows. It was a great learning experience and I loved working with Neeru. She understood my need to grow and spread out into the world. I wanted to be independent in every aspect of the word. I wanted to live on my own, pay my own bills, make my own decisions…I love my family and so it wasn’t about running away from home. It was just me and I had to live it, express it and prove it to myself, that I can.”

In 2002, with family living in New York City, her parents were comfortable with allowing their youngest to pursue her artistic passions in the United States.  She spent a month studying graphic design at Parsons, “just to make sure,” before majoring in textile and surface design with a concentration in woven design at F.I.T.  Admittedly her U.S. college years were “very spoiled,” as she lived with her mother’s brother Nitin, his wife Sunanda and cousin Bijal (a Master’s candidate at Columbia) in a spacious 5-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side. “I am so grateful,” she says of that time.  Though being welcomed into their warm and loving family “made my transition to a new city, culture and country very comfortable,” she immersed herself in school and spent much of her time on campus. “I totally loved it,” she says.

A year later, she would meet her dearest and most influential friend at her cousin’s birthday bash.  Bijal’s good friend Paresh drove up from Washington, DC with his buddy, attorney Carlos Vanegas in tow to attend the festivities. Carlos, spilling wine on the white carpet, could be said to have left an impression. Though he was terribly embarrassed, it was a “cordial party atmosphere,” Aashumi recalls and all was forgiven. It would be six months until  Carlos and Aashumi’s paths would cross again in Washington, DC, where he lived and worked as a Public Defender and she and Bijal were visiting Paresh.  When Aashumi mentioned that she’d like to go running, Carlos offered to take her and she was taken by the “amazing music,” he had playing in his car.  Upon her return, she shared with her cousin that she felt “a real connection,” to Carlos. On her November 18 birthday just weeks later, she received a Fed-Ex package at her NYC home filled with glorious music. Carlos had sent sixteen compact discs: Poncho Sanchez, Alpha Blondy, pre-Wailers Bob Marley, Carmen Sings Monk, Cachao’s Master Sessions 1 & 2 and an Afro-jazz mix that he’d compiled among the birthday booty.  She was elated and the two became the best of friends, speaking daily across the miles.

Los and Shumi.

Graduating Summa Cum Laude from FIT in 2004, Aashumi took an invaluable post at Britannica Home Fashions, doing design and product development. She was responsible for production artworks and followed up with the overseas factories for product eventually sold at retailers such as Target, Bed, Bath & Beyond, JCPenney and Fortunoff. She’d secured the career, so it was time to “make it on her own.” She moved from the comfy family digs to an affordable apartment in Queens.

On a March day in 2008, she asked Carlos, visiting from DC and with whom she’d had general conversations about marriage, if he wanted to marry her.  He said yes.  She cried.  Months later whilst enjoying celebrated chef José Andrés’ DC mezze hotspot, Zaytinya on July 4th, youthful-looking Aashumi hadn’t brought her identification so she was refused alcohol. “Los got up to go to the restroom. Then there was a random tall glass of lemon fizz in front of me. He suddenly appeared with a ring and proposed.”

The year 2009 brought exciting change; the two married in a traditional Jain ceremony in Mumbai; she moved to DC and she launched mirasa.  Of her supportive husband, Aashumi says, “he has no expectations of me other than to do what I feel passionate about.”

Above Aashumi’s desk, she and Carlos radiant in brilliant color at their wedding alongside a long-ago black and white portrait of her beautiful parents.

As a gift for Atia, Bijal’s one-year-old daughter, Aashumi created some “soft toys with tactile elements to stimulate Atia’s sense of imagination and play. The toys were bundled into a cloth bag that Atia could easily carry around with her.” After having toiled long and hard for Britannica, Aashumi decided to put her experience and energies into her own product line inspired by Atia’s gifts and named mirasa–Hindi for “heritage”–in homage to hers. Incorporating the colors of the Indian landscape with kantha and ari style embroidery, she honors the traditions of  the sub-continent and creates gender-neutral items uninfluenced by western notions of pink and blue.  A socially responsible venture,  mirasa design utilizes fair trade practices, employing artisans in Mumbai to hand craft Aashumi’s designs in eco-friendly, azo-free, dyed cotton.  In a gesture of “giving back what I was so lucky to receive,” a portion of the company’s proceeds are donated to Room to Read, a non-profit dedicated to creating educational opportunities and encouraging literacy among girls in the developing world.

The wonderful world of mirasa design. Photo: Stacey Vaeth Photography.  “Like” mirasa design on Facebook.

The mirasa animal kingdom, now on tiny onesies. Photo: Stacey Vaeth Photography.

“Designing for kids is fun, freeing,” she says. Though her entrepreneurial foray has its challenges, she enjoys nurturing her young business.  “It’s like a baby.”  The delightful products are available online, but she garners most of her sales while vending at markets and art fairs, which provides valuable and deeply satisfying feedback. “What brings me the most joy is when a child attaches to a particular animal.” I’ve borne witness to and been as charmed as Aashumi by the decisive selection process of the wee ones.  The choices are definitive–and enchanted.

As we had coffee in her lovely Columbia Heights home, her absolute enchantment with her Ecuadorian-American husband was evident.  “Is it okay if I put Carlos on the list? I know he is a person, not a thing, but he influences me a lot.  He is a big part of who I am.”  When I complimented her on their home she said, “it’s Carlos,” his visual sensibilities aligned with hers, “he’s aesthetically-driven.”  True to the shy aspect of their shared astrological sign of Scorpio, they aren’t horn tooters but they are each fervent in their passions.  Here are a few of hers…

1. Hand-thrown Coffee Cup. She enjoys her morning joe in a ceramic mug bought from Contemporary Arts and Crafts in Mumbai.  From age six to twenty-three she lived near the emporium of “real treasures of handmade product” and brought her beloved cup with her when she moved to the United States. “It’s a very easy, very pleasing shape to hold; a wonderful color to wake up to. I love the contrast of the matte dragonfly and the glaze and I love the imperfection of the inside.”

The perfect cup.

2. Her Bike. The first bike she’s owned, it is “really empowering. It meant a lot. I’d worked really hard and used my bonus money to buy it.”  She enjoys its smooth, comfortable ride.  “Riding is addictive.” She squeezes in a 20-mile ride through Rock Creek Park whenever she can.  “It’s the best way of escaping.” 

“The best thing in the world after Carlos,” her Giant OCR model .

3. Mauritian Coconut Handbag. On a family trip to celebrate her father’s 60th birthday on the island of Mauritius, Aashumi’s parents wanted to gift her with a memento.  A handbag in the airport there caught her eye. “I love that it is a coconut, the yellow cross stitching and that it’s leather-free.”

Aashumi eschews leather goods, so the coco-purse is an animal-friendly option.

4. Carlos’ Pesto. “It is the best thing he can make — and he’s a very good cook.” But it’s the lack of cooking that makes for an easy Sunday quick mix. “No flame required, he can mix it up, watch the game, have his Guinness and make me happy all at the same time. He always has it ready for me after the market, little sandwiches he makes with love.”

Carlos enjoys making pesto. “I think he enjoys the smells of it,” she says.

5. Swatch Skin. I love that it is so clean in its design, and it’s thin.”

From the Swatch Skin Collection, Ligne de Vie, Aashumi’s favorite watch.

6. Monsoon Vermont. Carlos’ friend Julia Genatossio founded this company which produces home and fashion accessories of non-recyclable plastics in Jakarta. Aashumi uses her Monsoon Vermont passport wallet every weekend to hold her monies at market. “I think it’s incredibly fun.”

She owns several of the colorful, eco-friendly offerings from the socially responsible Monsoon Vermont.

7. FabIndia Soap. She’s formed a real attachment to these natural soaps and the refreshing ritual of bathing with them.  They scent her home with fragrance and transport her (particularly the Jasmine bar) “to the smells of India,” where children sell garlands of jasmine blossoms strung together at nearly every traffic stop. “My skin feels really soft and smooth.”  She snaps up several bars (in various fragrances) every time she goes to India.

Her favorites among the many available FabIndia scents are tucked in ceramic bowl made by her Aunt Sunanda.

8. Yoga.  Practicing Vinyasa mostly,  “it is a recent obsession,” fostered by the “great teachers” of the studio Past Tense, just blocks from her home. She volunteers as a studio assistant three days a week and incorporates practice four times a week.

Aashumi joins fellow yoga devotees in an outdoor Past Tense class in Lamont Park.  Photo: Stacey Vaeth Photography for Past Tense Studio.  

9. Frida Kahlo. During a trip to Mexico City, Aashumi visited Museo Frida Kahlo, the house where the revered artist was born and died. She was stunned by the number of people who spoke of her resemblance to the icon. “Frida was so inspirational, so dynamic, so talented, such a woman…and of course, her work is amazing.  It is such a clear expression of what she’s feeling and who she is.  To express with such honesty takes a lot of courage.”

A gift from Carlos, Aashumi treasures the published diary of the iconic Mexican artist.

10. Music. “Carlos is so passionate about music, he opened a window to a world:  jazz, reggae, bossa nova, Fela Kuti…They all came alive for me through him.” From tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins at Lincoln Center and Mexican-American conguero Poncho Sanchez at the Blue Note in New York to Brazilian singer Gal Costa at George Washington University in DC, Carlos has gifted Aashumi with the wonder of live performance.

Gal Costa lent her voice to this charming animated commercial for Brazilian skin care line, Natura.


The Trove: Monte Croft
July 30, 2010

When I first met Monte Croft, Apartheid reigned in South Africa, and he had just written and recorded a musical homage to the still-jailed Nelson Mandela.

Mandela, Mandela, when you said ‘freedom now’ they disagreed. You have come to symbolize what it means for all men to be free…Mandela, Mandela, despite imprisoned minds ironically you have come to symbolize what it means for all men to be free.

Fort Greene, Brooklyn was buzzing with energy–an artists’ mecca, and Monte was dating my friend, a wonderful dancer/choreographer.  Our crew of young, optimistic creatives were all excited for him when A Higher Fire, his first of two recordings for Columbia Records (the second, Survival of the Spirit) dropped, his anti-Apartheid anthem the last track on the disc.

My multi-instrumentalist friend was born in Youngstown, Ohio to a steelworker and his schoolteacher wife. He has fond early memories of going to work with his mother at the start and culmination of each term — days on which he could “play” the school’s pianos whilst she got organized. Drums, however were his first instrument. “I dutifully attended my weekly lesson and gladly practiced everyday. I was ten when I started and that experience taught me a lot about discipline and investment. Invest your time well; you get a good return.” Introduced to vibes by his drum teacher, he “fell in line with that program,” and acquired his own 1975 Musser vibraphone as a child.

Playing on the Musser instrument he’s had since childhood, Monte demonstrates the 4-mallet technique on Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debby.”

As he grew older, he frequently sang with and choreographed for vocal groups performing in talent contests and joined a “quasi-jazz group called the Arrie Mae Morton Trio as the singing drummer.” Though “all I was ever concerned with was music,” he excelled academically, graduating at the top of his high school class.  With the encouragement of his band director, James McIntyre, he attended the Berklee College of Music, “an accredited college where the focus was what I loved.”  The move to Boston left the midwestern naif in a bit of culture shock. The experience proved tricky.  “Although my talent was embraced, socially, the Berklee experience was nearly disastrous.  Somehow I survived, and set my sights on The Big Apple.”

He arrived in New York City in 1983, during what he sees, “in retrospect, was a jazz resurgence. I was very friendly with a lot of the key players in that resurgence, so I was confident that it was just a matter of time for me.” Things seemed really promising when he signed to Columbia, but he learned a few hard-won lessons.

 It was then I found out that when you sign with a major label, a lot of people try to get a piece of it. Producers who never produced jazz, writers who’ve never written liner notes, basically a lot of people who may or may not know you, trying to get some “light” and a paycheck. The trouble was, people at the label were already getting a paycheck, so they didn’t care what happened to me as long as the new pop artist– and chief’s girlfriend–was cool. My old friends who were now jazz stars became conspicuously absent during this period too.

“What is Love?” A personal favorite from “A Higher Fire.”

Monte has good taste in women. Dynamic, talented women.  When I met his spirited next love, she and I hit it off right away.   Fast forward to 1997 and I was thrilled when he married my fellow Essence alum, the accomplished cartoonist/writer, Barbara Brandon; her sunny vivacity balancing his mellow reserve.  On the inherited talents of their loving son, Chase, Monte says, “he’s definitely artistically and musically inclined, two skills he intentionally avoids at all costs.”  The whip-smart preteen is carving an individual identity amid creatively flourishing environs.

Monte with his loves: wife Barbara, son Chase and his mallets.

He was, for a time, the frontman of Innervisions, a Stevie Wonder tribute band and I looked forward to their annual May gig at B.B. King’s where they’d raise the roof in honor of Stevie’s birthday, “jammin’ until the break of dawn.”  Imagine Spinna’s Wonderfull party with live performance–that energy, that spirit.

Still writing, gigging and mastering even more instruments, (he’s added bass, guitar, keyboards and a stirring chromatic harmonica) he continues to create and share music.  To find out more, friend him on Facebook, where you’ll be privy to performance uploads and his musings, philosophical, musical and otherwise.

‘Til then check what this musical heir to Bobby Hutcherson and Milt Jackson is vibing on…

1. Stevie Wonder. “Anybody that really knows me, knows I’ve been greatly influenced by Stevie, but I didn’t really get into him until I lent a friend an Al Green 8-track tape, it broke and he gave me Innervisions in exchange. It was then I started to realize what all the fuss was about. Stevie’s unique; the voice, the songs, his spirit.”

“All in Love is Fair,” side 2, track 3 from “Innervisions”

2. The Vibraphone. “It’s a beautiful instrument, and at the risk of sounding cocky, I know in my heart, I’m one of the best who ever played it… Musser is the industry standard for instruments although Deagan was a more than worthy competitor for many years. I’d like to see if I can find an old Deagan in good condition.”

A Deagan vibraphone.

3. City Crab.NYC restaurant with delicious food and an informal atmosphere. For Barbara and me, this has been ‘our place’ for well over a decade. I recommend the baked shrimp Imperial stuffed with blue crabmeat”

Photo: J. Huang.

4. Hats In The Belfry. No newbie to millinery, Monte knows he can find the porkpies and stingy brims he likes from the website. “Good inventory, cool styles, great and fast service.”


The Makins “John Henry” sisal stingy brim hat.

5. Jackson 5ive. “I loved a lot of Michael’s solo work, but for me, the Jackson Five was ‘it!’  The group was a big source of mockery in my house, much to my chagrin, so I didn’t get around to seeing them until the Get It Together era, just before Dancing Machine. The whole group was dynamic and today when I listen to the vocals Jermaine was doing when he was 17, I realize they were, as a group, really underrated. I identified with Michael and probably experienced my first feelings of inadequacy, not because of the singing and dancing so much as the fact I couldn’t look like that. It’s so ironic.

The J5 at a 1972 Save the Children benefit concert in Chicago. “This video  captures the energy and excitement I felt. I loved the ‘I Wanna Be Where You Are’ arrangement then and I still love it!”

6. The Female Form. “I love those curves! It’s what really makes the world go ‘round. Regardless of gender, it seems everyone can appreciate a woman’s body.”

“Undressing Female Nude” 7″ x 5″ Charcoal on “Canson” Pastel paper. From artist Daniel Peci’s blog, A Painting a Day.

7. Ice Cream.Handel’s of Youngstown, Ohio deserves a special mention.” How could a Larry Graham fan (“I just saw him at BB King’s.”) not love a shop with a flavor called Graham Central Station?

Though he is partial to Ben & Jerry’s, he is “always open to suggestion.”

8. Kenneth Cole. “His designs reflect my fashion sensibility perfectly, right down to the fragrances.”

Monte can immerse himself in all things Kenneth Cole at the Rockefeller Center flagship store.

9. Facebook. The social network “has really changed my life and outlook. It’s the first time I’ve been able to access positive feedback on my work on a regular basis. It also warms my heart to see old, old friends.”

Monte ‘likes’ Facebook.

10.  Soul Train in the Seventies. “I’m so glad we get a chance to see these shows again on Centric. I only wish they would show more episodes.”

Over one hundred performances culled from select 70’s episodes round out the Best of Soul Train DVD collection, available from TimeLife.

Africa in the Picture VII
May 26, 2010

Considering our ravaged earth…

Vintage travel posters make for wonderful home decor.  Salvaging discarded materials, London-based textile/jewelry designer Anita Quansah creates showstopping, earth-friendly pieces such as the “Nava” …  A fabulous trench of vintage fabric, pattern play and bold accessories from Duro Olowu for Spring. (photo from

Taking its name from the Swahili “shed light on Africa,” Angaza Afrika: African Art Now is a wonderful compendium illuminating the world of contemporary African Art on the continent and its diaspora featuring such artists as El Anatsui of Ghana, whose hammered bottle caps are woven together to create magical dripping wall sculptures.

Performance artist and textile sculptor Nick Cave is best known for his Soundsuits found materials (one of which is a recent acquisition of the Brooklyn Museum on view on the 4th floor until January 2012) Click for more on the incredible exhibition Nick Cave: Meet Me at the Center of the Earth at UCLA’s Fowler Museum through May 30th.

…the largest presentation of work by Chicago-based artist Nick Cave, featuring thirty-five of his Soundsuits—multi-layered, mixed-media sculptures named for the sounds made when the “suits” are worn. Reminiscent of African, Caribbean and other ceremonial ensembles as well as of haute couture, Cave’s work explores issues of transformation, ritual, myth and identity. His virtuosic constructions incorporate yarn, sequins, bottle caps, vintage toys, rusted iron sticks, hair, and more. Mad, humorous, visionary, glamorous and unexpected, the Soundsuits are created from scavenged ordinary materials that Cave re-contextualizes into extraordinary works of art. – The Fowler Museum

Brooklyn-based Mar y Sol (formerly known as Mad Imports) partners with artisans in Madagascar and Kenya to create handmade accessories handbags in renewable materials. The clutch shown here is a zebra-striped variation on the popular style “Opal” and designed exclusively for Brooklyn boutique, Epaulet … Somali Canadian hip-hop artist K’naan whose popular”Wavin’ Flag” is the anthem for this year’s World Cup created a charity version with Young Artists for Haiti to benefit to Haitian earthquake relief. (Photo: Akram.)

Visionary artist Xenobia Bailey is examining new ways to reduce waste by seeing the potential for beauty in refuse and putting her funky alchemist’s touch on those things we regularly discard.  See her zero-waste puppet theater, eco-chic wedding adornments and more on her blog (Photo: Jeffrey Machtig courtesy of John Michael Art Center 2009) … El Anatsui, mentioned above, showed early this year at Jack Shainman in his wonderful second solo exhibition at the gallery.  A hardbound catalogue is available.

Africa in the Picture III
May 17, 2010

In This is My Africa, the first production of Zina Saro-Wiwa’s AfricaLab, the filmmaker set out to use “the memories and perceptions of 21 Africans and Africaphiles to weave a very different view of the continent.”  The widely screened dcoumentary showed at the Brooklyn Museum last year and aired on HBO in February.

Chef/Restaurateur Pierre Thiam of Clinton Hill’s popular Le Grand Dakar has crafted a wonderful cookbook and food memoir of his home country, in the well-designed Yolele! Recipes from the Heart of Senegal. (I received it as a gift from a friend and I love it!) … Inventive chef Abdou Gueye at the intimate A Bistro in Fort Greene, where everything on the rotating menu is delicious.

The “Binta” chair at Moroso is available in various colorways …  From the venerable Vlisco, purveyors of “dutch Wax” fabrics for over a century, a striking image from their May advertsing campaign.  Their glamorous boutiques are found in Benin, the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Togo and the Netherlands.

Paul Smith’s Spring womenswear collection was inspired by the dapper gents of Congo-Brazzaville,  La SAPE, La Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes … So taken by their dandyism, he provided the preface to photographer Daniele Tamagni’s book, Gentlemen of Bacongo, with its in-your-face shot of sapeur Willy Covary on the cover …  A feminized stiletto brogue for women and a slick magenta oxford for men  (PS by Paul Smith) are available on the British designer’s website.

The Sartorialist, Scott Schumann snapped a little sape swagger on the streets of the Lower East Side … Flipping the script on colonial dressing and making it his own, the sapeur uses his clothing as a symbol of rebellion as well as hope.

In a fresh homage to stacking bangles, the men of Casely-Hayford adorn their Spring collection with multiple silk squares tied on the arms … Rebecca Lolisoli’s Umoja Uaso Women’s Village, in Kenya, provides safe haven for Samburu women fleeing violence and an opportunity to make a living creating beaded accessories.  Her story caught the eye of Designer Diane Von Furstenburg who featured Umoja Village jewelry in her Spring show … Ebony Bones! (returning to Southpaw on June 6, 2010) with her fierce, eclectic style, piles it on.

Toshi Rocks the White House in a Baracklyn Tee!
February 16, 2010

In the continuing music series, In Performance at the White House, the Obamas welcomed a stellar group of musical talent (from Joan Baez to the Blind Boys of Alabama) to “the People’s House” on February 9 for A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement. In one of the most rousing performances of the evening, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, Rutha Harris and Charles Nesblett, original members of the Freedom Singers, joined by Toshi Reagon on guitar and vocals belted out (Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody) Turn Me Round.

Earlier in the day, Toshi  participated in a music workshop to explain the significance of music on the Civil Rights Movement.  Lucky high school students from across the nation were brought to the White House to listen as Dr. Reagon, Smokey Robinson and others dropped the knowledge.

I was delighted to see that Toshi once again honored our Prez, repped for Brooklyn, and showed me some love by wearing her baracklyn T-shirt (from our line of Presidential Tees.) Last year she donned it to jam onstage with and in living tribute to her godfather, Pete Seeger, at his 90th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden.

Toshi, Warren Haynes and Pete Seeger.  Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/GettyImages

Toshi and her mom reunite tonight at eight in Boston for Roots and Reason: A Celebration of American Roots Music at the Berklee College of Music.  It’s a busy time for Toshi; keep up with her tour dates at her website,

The Gentry Lands in Brooklyn
October 23, 2009

Years ago before marriage added motherhood and the Adams to her name, I met Nichole R. Thompson Adams on an indie film project.  In recent years I’ve come to live in the same nabe as the Clinton Hill homeowner/real estate broker/performer.  Just the other day as she walked her palm-sized pup we bumped into one another and spoke about neighborhood changes.  With a characteristically beaming smile, she shared that her one-woman show, Black Girl, You’ve Been Gentrified is being staged at Cherry Lane Theatre’s Cherry Pit.  “Come out, for ten bucks you get the show and a beer…it’s fun.”  From the promo:

Race, culture, class …Jamaican born and Brooklyn raised, Nichole Thompson-Adams has just a few things on her mind.  The neighborhood around her is changing.  Is Nichole changing too? Revel in the zany and poignant experiences that told her quite clearly, she’s been gentrified.

Glad to see that the jovial John Y. Church III (with whom I’ve done commercial work) is directing Nichole in her self-penned piece, I plan to check out one of the two Monday performances on October 26 or November 23 at 8pm.


The Cherry Pit

155 Bank Street

(West Beth Complex)

989 2020

And She’s Gone
September 22, 2009

And she’s gone. And she’s gone. Summer’s gone. Taking with her Summer’s play…

Stevie Wonder, “Summer Soft”

The season somewhat incorrectly bracketed by Memorial and Labor Days, is for 2009 officially over. It seems to have gone by in a whir. No time to compile my annual list of the best of Summer freebies; my schedule too tight to partake of most. I did manage, however to get in just a few moments worth mentioning. Bear with me now, some notable highlights:

Shake Shack, Madison Square Park

While waiting in the notoriously long line (hey the park is pretty and the weather that day, divine) for a rich chocolate shake, I was approached by a clean-cut, well-groomed older gentleman who leaned in and offered me $100 to let him sniff my neck. Life in New York.


Madison Square Park, one of three Shake Shack locations.


The Governor’s Island funfest was, this year, populated with many references subtle and direct to human consumption and the recycle/repurpose movement.


Secret of 101, Chin Chih Yang‘s meditation on the environmental issues of pollution. The topographical work encourages viewer participation as the audience is invited to add cans.


Watershed from branding agency MSLK, is a man-made forest of 1,500 plastic water bottles which serves as a visual representation of one second of U.S. bottled water consumption.


80% of these bottles are currently not being recycled. Bottled water is 1,900 times more expensive than tap water, and the toxins emitted by it have been linked to serious health problems, such as reproductive issues and cancers.


Discarded Chair Dragon, Benjamin Jones and Anna Heckler’s 30-foot mythic creature, was assembled from wooden furniture collected on trash day in Brooklyn.


line, 2009 hand embroidered, appliqued, & cut re-appropriated linen, clothesline, clothespins, wind, and sunshine. Joetta Maue’s nostalgic installation was “inspired by the memories and associations of childhood and my grandmother’s back yard.

Afro-Punk Festival 2009

From BMX flips and tricks, a chocolate-dipped skate massive and revolutionary art & adornment to riffs that rattle the bones and awaken the African spirit of punk rock…


Muralist paints the defiant image of a shackled Kunta Kinte from the movie, “Roots.” Saul Williams rips U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”

Strolling The High Line

I love the repurposing of this abandoned 1930’s elevated rail structure into a decidedly urban public park.


Photo: Iwan Baan, from The High Line Blog

Identity by Design: Tradition, Change, and Celebration in Native Women’s Dresses

Though this wonderful exhibition of the National Museum of the American Indian (at the New York branch at the U.S. Customs House at Bowling Green) closed just days ago, the title above links straight to the comprehensive, well-executed online exhibit. Elk tooth embellishment, immaculate bead work and turn-of-the-century hand painting are just some of the highlights.


On the left: Crow elk tooth dress, ca. 1900, Montana. Hide, imitation elk teeth (bone), seed beads, red wool, sinew. Crow belt, ca. 1900, Montana. Harness leather, seed beads, brass tacks, commercial buckle. Crow leggings, ca. 1890, Montana. Hide, seed beads, red wool, sinew, canvas, cardboard. Crow moccasins, ca. 1890, Montana. Hide, seed beads, rawhide, sinew. On the right: back detail from “Give Away Horses” dress, 2006, Montana. Made by Joyce Growing Thunder Fogarty (Assiniboine/Sioux b.1950) Hide, seed beads, thread.


Detail from Sioux Cloth Dress, ca. 1890, South Dakota. Muslin, blue denim, red wool, red, green and black paint, thread.

Tonya Engel

Whilst window shopping BK’s Boerum Hill strip of Atlantic Avenue, I stumbled on a newish, deceptively large cafe. Clover’s Fine Art Gallery & Cafe makes use of the open, spare space and I enjoyed a frothy cappucino and took in the dreamy, oil and encaustic world of Brooklyn-by-way-of-Houston artist, Tonya Engel.


Sewing Room #3, oil on canvas.

Artomatic 2009

The top floors of this annual art event, offered a lovely vista of the DC landscape, including a direct view into Nationals Park, the stadium of the Washington Nationals baseball team. I felt like I was at the game. I went specifically, however, to see the paradoxically ethereal yet earthy installation of a friend whose work I admire, Alex Zealand. I am happy to report that as a result of the inclusion of her Flock, she’s received a commission to create another floating pith piece. I was also introduced to the painstakingly detailed line work of Corwin Levi and the well-executed animation skills of 17-year-old filmmaker Callison Slater’s String Studios.


Flock, 2009, Alexandra Zealand’s grapefruit pith cloud.


Corwin Levi’s Mandala, Pencil on paper, 30″x 22

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Still from The Woes of Marsh, Callison Slater’s 10 minute animated short.

Négritude at Exit Art

Négritude is from Mars/Negroes is from Venus, the Greg Tate-curated segment of Exit Art group show, Négritude gave us the Black Mystery Anti-Panopticon,” a place more mystic than mythic, ’cause the funk is for real.


Backed musically by Burnt Sugar, music critic Siddhartha Mitter performs (in French) the words of Martinican poet and proponent of the Négritude Movement, Aimé Césaire.

The Robert Glasper Double Booked Release Party at Le Poisson Rouge

It started woefully late, but it was definitely a treat to see/hear the prodigious Robert Glasper in a double bill of his two groups, the acoustic Robert Glasper Trio (with Vicente Archer on bass and Chris Dave on drums) and the free-form electric alter ego, The Robert Glasper Experiment (Derrick Hodge on bass, Chris Dave again on drums, and Casey Benjamin on saxophone and vocoder) Given a taste of his new dual-band release Double Booked, I’ll be headed for the iTunes download.


The virtuoso himself.


RGE’s stylish Casey Benjamin killin’ it on the sax and drummer Chris Dave workin’ it out.

Sundae Sermon

Uptown’s Sunday afternoon, family-friendly gathering in Morningside Park gets the “congregation” on its feet with “positive house music and peaceful tribal vibes,” from Minister of Music, DJ Stormin’ Norman and rotating guest DJs. theHotness founder, Nicole Moore helped us nip and nosh on her Belizean-blend punch and spicy tuna/mac salad.


DJ Beverly Bond guesting while Minister Norm snaps the crowd; “Sermonista,” Michaela Angela Davis.


Four generations: Publicist Lea surrounded by (counter-clockwise from left) her mom, grandmother and daughter.


Left, master hairstylist, Dekar Lawson and Hotgrrl, Nicole Moore. Right, Rick and N Harlem Boutique proprietor, Larry Ortiz.


Just days before the birth of their daughter, filmmaker Shola Lynch joined the fun with husband, Congressional hopeful, Vincent Morgan and their son Julian. Makeup artist extraordinaire, Shade Boyewa-Osborne smiles at darling daughter, Paloma.


“Carlos and Carmen Vidal just had a child, a lovely girl with a crooked smile…”

And finally, kitty-sitting…


While my filmmaker friend, Sonya was shooting in the Caribbean, I cared for her tiny, cute-as-a-button kitten, Violet.