Drumming Our Way to Freedom!

One thing I always regretted about my past is that I never joined my high-school marching band.  In the fifth grade I joined band as a percussionist.  The truth of the matter is that I really wanted to play the violin, but because I had already taken up the drums at church and owned a snare drum, the most cost effective decision was to continue in the way of the drum.  So be it.  I stayed in band up until about eighth grade when I decided to concentrate on playing sports rather than try out for the marching band.  But last week, while participating in the protest demonstrations affiliated with the Take Back the Capitol event held in Washington, D.C., I finally got to fulfill a long time wish.

I brought my snare drum along with me on the bus ride to D.C. from Florida, with the hopes of being able to contribute some spirited rhythms to the marches we had planned.  I even went to Lowe’s and purchased some rope so I could make a harness for my drum.  On Tuesday, when we marched to the house of Congress, it was raining and I could only play a few rhythms in between wiping off the moisture on my drum head.  But on Thursday the precipitation had moved out of the city and the skies were all clear.  I was a little bit late getting to where our group had lined up for the procession so, at the last minute, I found myself running full speed with my snare drum secured under my right arm and my drum sticks clasped in my left hand, darting in between protesters, heading up to the front of the march where I could hear the sounds of other drums.

When I got to the front of the march, I saw the company of djembe players providing the celebratory rhythms I had heard from the rear.  Not long ago I had purchased my own djembe and begun to study the West African rhythms that are traditionally played on the drum like Kuku, Djole, Madan and Suku.  Because I wasn’t officially invited to play with the company of drum players, I was careful to blend in with the beats they were playing, basically helping to create the foundation over which the master drummer would routinely solo.  Little by little I joined in and even found pockets within the rhythms to do my own soloing.  And because I was the only drummer using a snare drum, the rudiments I had learned way back in fifth grade band and was now executing, fit quite nicely with the over all scheme of the playing; adding an interesting contrast of high and low tones, celebratory (djembe) and cadence (snare) all blending together rhythmically.

At one point I turned and looked behind me, and to my delight I saw people in the march following us; dancing and chanting their way up to the Capitol building where our destination lied.  I asked one of the marshals to take a picture of us so that I could have a memento to last throughout the years.  It was a special moment for me, and I’m sure for everyone else who had traveled thousands of miles across the country to be an active participant in our great democracy.  With drums and signs in our hands, we took yet another step forward toward more fully realizing the freedom we are all promised in the Declaration of Independence; to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

© 2011



Mr. Congressman, I’d Like a Word With You!

On Tuesday, December 6, 2011, I paid a visit to Representative Allen West’s office in Washington, D.C., along with a group of fellow activists.   Allen West represents the 22nd district of Florida.  When we arrived at his office, we requested to speak with him, as was our right as constituents and residents of his congressional district.  There were about 15-20 of us and we were told that he was not in his office and that we could wait outside in the hallway until he returned.  Instead, we chose to enter his office and wait for him patiently.  We waited for nearly two hours and finally he made an appearance.  After he met with designated members of our group, he gave an interview with Fox News and made some statements that were not entirely reflective of what I witnessed.  So, with all due deference Mr. Congressman, I’d like a word with you!

Firstly, when the video of your interview begins to play, Fox News posts a bulletin that reads “Occupy Protests Get Violent” in the segment which features statements you gave regarding your experience with the Occupy Palm Beach group; the group I am a member of.  I would like to ask you; when did our meeting with you become “violent?”  Was it the part when we were sitting in your office peacefully and your aide slammed the door loudly for us all to hear because he was frustrated that he was unsuccessful in getting us to wait in the hallway for two hours for you to arrive?  I will concede that an unfortunate event did occur when a woman in our group lost her temper (as did your aide when he slammed his door) when she was rudely ignored by your administrative assistant when she asked her “how do you like working for Representative Allen West?” Our group member reacted to being ignored by your administrative assistant by turning to the rest of us and loudly saying, “She just ignored me…what a bitch!”  I did not appreciate her calling your assistant that derogatory name, as our intention was to reflect a tone of mutual respect.  However, your administrative assistant neglected to exhibit that same amount of respect, and I didn’t think it very proper or business-like for her to ignore one of our group members when she was asked a simple question.  And at no time did the police, present in your office, find it necessary to arrest anyone in our group.  So we must agree that no violence occurred, and that Fox News’ bulletin was misleading.

Secondly, I applaud you for taking the time to meet with some of us and for making the comment that “you never kick over someone’s tent” in an attempt to show our movement the proper respect when Fox News attacked our legitimacy.  However, you then went on to state “when we confronted them with facts and the truth they kind of went away with their tail in between their legs…”  Actually Mr. West, after our meeting with you we proceeded in an orderly fashion downstairs to Representative Vern Buchanan’s office (13th district of Florida) to also meet with him.  Unfortunately, similarly when we arrived at your office sir, he also was not available and his administrative assistant, though much more welcoming than your own, could not tell us when he would return.

Far from leaving with our tail in between our legs, we actually participated in two more major demonstrations in our nation’s capitol over the course of the next two days; one in the financial district of Washington, D.C., and the other in front of the Capitol building where police guards watched from atop the stairs with automatic weapons.  (See picture below)

So Mr. Congressman, let us be fair when we speak via media outlets about our dealings with one another.  I admire the courage it takes to work as a congressional representative for the Unites States of America.  You and our other representatives and senators put your life on the line every day when you go to work.  You work hard with the sincere intentions to make sure our nation is moving in a direction consistent with how your constituents vote.  We appreciate your service.  But please, do not refer to Occupy Wall Street as “an empty movement” as you did in your interview.  Because sir, I assure you our movement is not “empty.”  Conversely, it is full with equally hard working, courageous, sacrificing people who are spread across the nation, including the 22nd district of Florida, which you represent.

© 2011


Graffiti Art: Let’s Get Inspired!

I’ve always been envious of bloggers that can step outside their front door with their digital cameras and take a picture of some fantastic graffiti art on the side of a building, or green art constructed out of shrubs on walkways, and publish them for the world to see.  It seems like these bloggers always live in art progressive cities like New York or Los Angeles, and here I am in a city full of artists and have yet to stumble upon something visually creative that catches the eye out on the street.  Sometimes I think to myself; maybe I’m just looking in the wrong part of the city?  Maybe I’m not looking hard enough?  Or maybe I just need to take a road trip like I did last week to Washington, D.C. in order to find it?  So I was walking with my head down in the drizzling rain through Southwest D.C., maneuvering about puddles and loosely operating an umbrella in my hand when, voilà!  I saw this wonderful mural on the back of a brick building and thought; this is my chance to capture something unique.

It’s funny how inspiration can just creep up on you when you least suspect it; spontaneity being its most fundamental element.  I pushed against the wet, stinging downpour and made my way over to the vacant lot where the painting was.  I backed up into the weed infested field having to over exaggerate my steps to clear the saturated, high grass all the way to where eventually I had my back pressed against a rusty fence.  I took out my disposable camera (Yes disposable…I’ve yet to purchase a digital camera) and snapped a couple of photos.  Exactly just what the artist is trying to say in this mural is not all that clear to me.  Yet that’s the engaging nature of art; that it’s subjective and open for interpretation.  However, the themes of innocence, metamorphosis, pain and rebirth all seem to be evident.  When I see what looks like to be blood on those hands engulfing a butterfly, I think of the sacrifice it often takes to evolve, whether from childhood to adulthood (from crawling to walking to even “flying”), or to possess something of true value, which is never easily attained.

I passed an alley on my way to take pictures of the first mural I saw and noticed that there were two more painted on brick walls, so I circled back around to take shots of them too.  I love the colors this artist uses; lots of cool aqua and blues which are my favorite colors!  This scene is almost other worldly with its imaginative beings that look like they could be from outer space.

And this one evokes strength, cultural pride, resistance and intensity.  I had fun looking at the soft, damp, lifeless leaves gathered at the bottom of the artwork on the sidewalk providing a striking contrast to the more virile, hardened, sharp images on the wall.

I think it’s beautiful when someone can take a side of a building and create a visually captivating world full of vibrant, thought-provoking, and meaningful imagery.  Our neighborhoods and cities are so full of billboards and advertisements that the constant marketing ploys of corporate businesses can often overwhelm our spirits.  There’s nothing inspirational about another 1-800 number to dial or opening up a checking account in a bank.  I don’t need another huge sign with an airbrushed, half naked woman and her suggestive pouty, glossed lips to remind me where the nearest adult video store is because I’ve been to them all already.  Before we erect another massive structure with a picture of a hamburger or a cigarette on it, how about we commission a graffiti artist to paint something a little more inspiring; something that challenges us to dream to aspire to be more than what we ever thought we could be and do more than what we thought we would ever do.  Isn’t that what America is supposed to be all about?

© 2011


Stones of Hope: My Memories of Washington, D.C.

When I was a boy, my parents would take me and my brother to Washington, D.C. to visit our grandmother on our summer break.  It was always an exciting trip because the nation’s capitol was full of new sites to see and interesting people to interact with.  My father was a history teacher and for him, visiting D.C. was equally fulfilling.  Together as a family, we would all go to the Smithsonian museums and enjoy everything from dinosaur to space exhibits.  Next we would venture out onto the National Mall and view the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, The United States Capitol building and other attractions.

I remember what a great impression those structures made upon me back then; the awesome height of the Washington Monument obelisk stretching upward into the heavens, the gigantic statue of President Abraham Lincoln looking downward on swarms of tourists, the magnetic glow of the Capitol building in the quiet of the night.  We even took a boat ride across the Potomac River to Mount Vernon to visit the home where President George Washington lived.  I remember feeling an eerie, cold shutter when the tour guide explained how President George Washington was a slave owner; knowing that I was stepping on the same ground that slaves once walked, lived, toiled from sun up to sun down, and died on.

When I became a teenager, the family trips to D.C. became bitter-sweet.  I still enjoyed visiting my grandma and feeling the rush of adrenaline that came with being in a city with so much historical tradition.  Yet gone were the over optimistic days of my colorblind youth; days when I truly believed that I could be anything I wanted to be, including President of the United States, if only I worked hard and applied myself.  The truth, as it seemed to me at the time of my adolescence, was that the White House belonged to a fraternity of White men, reflected by all the monuments and memorials along the National Mall.  There were no statues dedicated to African-Americans on the National Mall, and the thought of an African-American becoming President of the United States at that time was preposterous.  My heroes at 15 years old were Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), Dr. Huey P. Newton and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  If this was truly a land where we believed that all men were created equal, where were the monuments dedicated to those men who died for the very equality they were supposedly granted in the Declaration of Independence?

So when I returned to Washington D.C. last week, this time as a 34 year old man, I regained some of the fondness I once held for the majesty that our nation’s capitol projects.  Chiefly, this is true because in addition to revisiting the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Capitol building, and the Smithsonian art museums, I was also able to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.  Besides its obvious artistic appeal, I found the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial to be overwhelmingly a powerful statement professing; Yes, we as African-Americans, sons and daughters of slaves, sons and daughters of great African civilizations before slavery, belong.  We have contributed to the success of this great nation and we continue to add value beyond measure to the further development of this country.  Knowing that I was looking at this awe-inspiring sculpture at a time when President Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American President, was serving in his first term in the White House, made the experience even more significant.  I also left with renewed hope, that one day the National Mall will be even more reflective and inclusive of the diversity which has distinguished us from other countries in the world; perhaps with memorials for Native-Americans, Latino-Americans and other groups who have made lasting contributions to the United States of America.

© 2011

Rock Bottom Burlesque: Striptease, Fire Dancing and More!

A couple of weeks ago I attended my first ever burlesque show.  To be honest, other than striptease, I have to admit that I knew nothing about burlesque.  I’ve been to my fair share of gentlemen’s clubs over the years and seen everything from exotic dancers putting on shows in the shower to the “hush-hush” of the VIP rooms.  And yet nothing I’ve ever experienced at Rachel’s compares to the level of artistry combined with sensuality that I witnessed watching the Rock Bottom Burlesque troupe perform their show called Swamp Town.

In order to fully appreciate Swamp Town, I decided to go online and research the history of burlesque.  I didn’t want to be the guy in the crowd who only showed up to see beautiful girls dancing in revealing costumes and sticking out like some sore thumb pervert.  In my crash course on this art form, I learned that burlesque involves many things including, but not limited to: music, theater, literature, dance, humor, political satire, puppets and yes, of course, striptease!  No longer could I reduce burlesque to just corset skirts, lingerie and bordello shoes (although I was pleased as punch to see them…don’t get me wrong, I am a man after all) because, as I found out, burlesque has a rich history and tradition going  all the way back to the 17th century.

Rock Bottom Burlesque’s Swamp Town is a story about a rural community facing impending dangers which include greedy real estate business men hell-bent on development and commercialization, encroaching winds and water from hurricanes, trigger happy law enforcement, and the dreaded alligators which have been banned from Swamp Town, as can be seen by the sign that welcomes visitors: No Gators Permitted!  The show begins with a trio of musicians; a banjo player, guitar player and washtub bass player who offer Bluegrass and Folk renditions of songs in between acts which include classic tunes like Cab Calloway’s Minnie the Moocher.  As the drama ensues, we meet church ladies on porches, drunkards in bars, a fire dancer, cryptic oracles predicting storms, bible toting preachers and lovelies baring it all –  well not really because pasties were used, sorry guys!

By the time of the curtain call when the show ended, I felt really appreciative of having been invited out to watch Swamp Town.  The rest of the crowd shared my sentiments, evidenced by the applause.  Suddenly all the books I had read in the past of my favorite actors and musicians who performed Vaudeville and on the Chitlin’ Circuit flooded my mind, and I realized that I had just witnessed a very unique show that came out of that same tradition.  The music of Swamp Town kept my head nodding and foot tapping to its energetic beat and the actors made me laugh out loud from beginning to end.  The creativity of the set and costumes took us back in time to the early 1900’s where the play is set, and the dialogue was engaging; often prompting people in the audience to yell out at the players which allowed the members of the troupe to display their sharp improvisational skills.  And I’m happy to report that no gators followed me home; only fond memories to last a lifetime.

From left to right: Rock Bottom Burlesque’s Bear on banjo and actor Tuesday Lee Afton

© 2011