At the height of his popularity an interviewer once asked Duke Ellington why his orchestra sounded so silky and smooth. Duke – always silky and smooth – cryptically answered, “…Johnny Hodges, Johnny Hodges Johnny Hodges.” He was referring to his long- time alto saxophonist whose lustrous sound shimmered throughout the orchestra’s soulful swinging arrangements. Clearly Duke used the repetition of Hodges’ name to underscore (no pun there) how important he was to the band’s success. In an ensemble of jazz all-stars – as the Duke Ellington Orchestra always was – that’s very high praise indeed. When I listen to recordings by the Duke Ellington Orchestra it is impossible for me to not see the image of Johnny Hodges standing confidently among the other saxophonists serenely soloing on one of Duke’s beautiful timeless tunes such as, “Come Sunday” or “Prelude to a Kiss.” For anyone with a well-tuned pair of ears, this might be the aural equivalent of looking at a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci.
I was born and raised in North Philadelphia. Irish North Philly to be precise. But a good part of my Philly life was lived in South Philadelphia, then – in the early 1990’s – South Philly was clinging to its Italian-American roots, a carefully woven web of mythical urban ties and actions. One day a close friend of mine was visiting from New York, something he did often. Like me, my friend has a deep knowledge of jazz and a special fondness for the music of Duke Ellington. As we listened to recordings of Duke’s orchestra he commented on just how beautiful they sounded, especially Johnny Hodges’ alto saxophone. Somehow – and I do not remember the exact context of the conversation – he segued from the apparent beauty of Duke’s music to the literal beauty of Italian women or, more precisely, Italian-American women. (My friend is Italian. And Sicilian to boot!) Living in Italian-American South Philly gave me ample opportunities to observe the beauty of many Italian-American women in the expanded neighborhood. Even though my friend is a born-and-bred New Yorker, used to a stylish kind of New York girl, he too was nevertheless taken by the young ladies in South Philly. Some whose lineage was Northern Italian parlayed their beauty in elegant style: well-dressed with flowing curly hair like Botticelli images of the Madonna. The girls with Southern Italian roots flaunted their peasant-like beauty in tight-ass jeans and stiletto heels; seductive, sexy and dangerous. My friend took his eyes off of the street action and, as Duke’s music simmered in the background, asked somewhat innocently, “… so who was the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen.” “Damn,” I said, “that’s a tough one to answer.” I dug deep into my personal database and conjured the images of women who I’ve seen in my travels, from Tokyo to Caracas, from Budapest to, well Philly. The list is long but I did have a fairly quick answer: Sonia Braga. For those with a love of cinema the name Sonia Braga might be in your personal database as well, under the folder titled “My Favorite Actresses,” or “My Favorite Films,” or something similar. If not, it should be. Sonia Braga was, for those of you missing in filmic action, the Spider Woman in the film Kiss of the Spider Woman.
Directed by Hector Bebenco and based on a novel of the same name by Manuel Puig, Kiss of the Spider Woman tells the story of two men imprisoned, probably in Argentina but maybe Brazil (it is never made clear). One of the men, Molina (played by the late William Hurt who was awarded a Best Actor Oscar) is gay. The other man, Valentin (played by the also-late Raul Julia) is a political activist who is being tortured by the police. He is not gay. Molina courts Valentin and tends to his wounds by recounting his favorite movies. One in particular stars a character named Leni Lamaison (a reference to Leni Reifenstal?) and is played by Sonia Braga. The imagined film is titled “Her Real Glory.” It was made in Germany in the 1940’s and set in occupied Paris. Its thin plot revolves around the relationship of a German officer and a night club singer who is also a member of the French Resistance. It was a Nazi propaganda film. The movie within a movie is allegorical; it’s a way that Molina unburdens his guilt for having abused a young boy, hence his prison sentence. Molina reveals his secret to Valentin by telling him a story of how Spider Woman rescues a castaway who then becomes her captive while enmeshed in her web. Eventually Valentin gives in to Molina’s advances and they become lovers, however briefly. A twist to the film is that Molina has been planted by the police to spy on Valentin and report what he learns to the warden in periodic visits that are, ostensibly, meetings with his visiting mother. In the end Molina is released and shot after contacting Valentin’s revolutionary group. It isn’t clear if the secret police or the revolutionaries shot him. Wounded, he wanders the streets until the secret police take him in. He dies and they dump his body in a trash heap. Valentin remains in jail, is tortured and dies after having been beaten and administered morphine.
Throughout the flashbacks that spin surreally from the mind of the character Molina, Sonia Braga appears in the guise of three different women, all of them alluring and mysterious. Despite the emotionally valenced relationship between Molina and Valentin, the magnificent acting and claustrophobic visualization of the film’s jail scenes it is the image of Sonia Braga that is most alluring. The hair is what gets you.
In a memorable scene she is Leni Lamaison, her epical hair tucked into a spider web-like veiled hat as she sits in the back of a car. In another she appears in front of a very large spider web, her hair sculpted somewhat like a Japanese Geisha’s while clothed in a slinky black dress. But to me the sexiest image is when she appears in a delirious dream of Valentin’s to tend his wounds; her shoulder length hair curling in strands as it elegantly frames a face of exquisite beauty. After seeing the film a few times I wondered what it would be like to meet Sonia Braga. Would it be a letdown? At that point in my life I had met and worked with many talented women in the mercurial world of the performing arts. When on stage they were often brilliant performers; less so when off stage. When I learned that I was going to meet Sonia Braga I was prepared, I think, to be disappointed, fearing that she would be one of those ladies who would be “less so.” Fortunately, I wasn’t. So how was it that I met Sonia Braga, the “Spider Woman?” I met her while leading a contemporary music ensemble in Philadelphia when her boyfriend at that time stepped inside the swirling artistic orbit of new and experimental music.
It happened 25 years ago. It seems like it happened only 25 days ago. That can seem like a long time, especially if one were to move from place to place as I have. From my home town of Philadelphia to Montana, then New Orleans and finally to New Mexico, where I now live. Here in the beautiful agricultural village of Corrales located at the northwest boundary of Albuquerque I live amidst the coyotes and roadrunners with a haunting view of Sandia Mountain, named by the Spanish colonialists who first settled here. At sunset the Sandia Mountain glows magenta as the sun’s rays filter through the pristine New Mexico air as it slowly sets beneath the west mesa. Early in the morning the Mountain’s eerie silhouette dissolves as the sun crests the mountaintop to spread its incandescent warmth throughout the valley. From mid-October to early January the sky is filled with squadrons of Canadian Geese and Sandhill Cranes flying in precise formations as they journey from their nighttime nests along the Rio Grande River to one of many spent corn fields in the village where they huddle for hours pecking at the remnants of stalks that, months before, enriched the locals with succulent corn. (The land that parallels the Rio Grande River in Central New Mexico is a major migration route for geese, ducks and cranes as they fly south for the winter.) Living in the shadow of a mountain as magnificent as Sandia one feels a sense of belonging to a natural world and is compelled to romanticize its history while settling comfortably in its web-like embrace. And I do sometimes romanticize the region. I guess it comes from having grown up under the rumble of the Frankford El in Philly. As I get older I seek silence; it’s something I find in abundance in the southwest, especially throughout the Indian reservations and pueblos that abound within shouting distance of my home. And none is more silent, ethereal and, I’m sorry to say, sad than the Navajo Reservation.
Located on shared lands in northwestern New Mexico, northeastern Arizona and southeastern Utah the sprawling Navajo Nation is home to over 300,000 native people, ancestors of an Athabaskan tribe that migrated to the southwestern United States from Canada around 1400 AD. Over the centuries the Navajo have encountered, fought and assimilated with native Pueblo peoples, the Spanish colonists and, finally, the U.S. Army whose brutal campaign against the Navajo led to the infamous “The Long Walk of the Navajo” in 1864. In that brutal campaign the Army forced the Navajo people to march from their traditional homeland to Fort Sumner, in eastern New Mexico 450 miles away, essentially to plant them there for eternity, or at least until the next national election. It didn’t work. The harsh New Mexico land proved impossible to farm and, after numerous confrontations with the military and civilian authorities, the Navajo were returned to their Arizona-New Mexico-Utah homeland in 1868. The “Long Walk Home” is now celebrated less than “The Long Walk of the Navajo” but it is celebrated for the unity that the tribe achieved as they headed west to their long-time home. The land they returned to was designated a reservation until 1964 when it became officially known as the Navajo Nation, a land as mystical as any in North America. And to help give an aspect to the linear immensity of the land, Spider Woman was given free reign over its construct; in Navajo mythology – and in the parlance of the time, “she rocks.” Spider Woman might just get a kick out of this description. She occupies a world where the Coyote teases and taunts and raunchy Kokopelli roams the land in pursuit of sexual conquests. Even though both are iconic characters that play an important role in Navajo mythology, they do not occupy as exalted a position as Spider Woman who, according to native lore lives atop an 800-foot spire that rises needle-like from the floor of Canyon de Chelly.
This extraordinary expanse of ancient land beckons the curious souls of those eager to escape the ever-expanding Southwestern United States’ sprawl. Indeed, those who seek out Canyon de Chelly – located in northeastern Arizona 230 miles from Albuquerque and 330 miles from Phoenix – have made a decision to temporarily leave the cities and towns (and casinos) that are slowly transforming the region and enter into a land that is vast, timeless and, to many, spiritual. The sheer rock walls of Canyon de Chelly embrace the ghosts of battles lost to the U.S. Army long ago. Pictographs that were etched in the canyon walls by the Anasazi people ages ago depict stories of their ordeal to survive in what was then a brutal environment. On one of my many journeys into the canyon a Navajo guide interpreted an entire canyon wall filled with pictographs by urging me to “…Believe one day back there, back in the eon time…” Above the canyon walls hawks circle in prey of their dinner while ravens consider if they want to challenge these sly raptors. Sometimes they try. Usually they pay a stiff price as they’re slapped down. The birds that hold dominion over Canyon de Chelly’s air space and the four-legged creatures that roam its depths are enshrined as spirits by the Navajo people, all overseen by Spider Woman.
From her precipitous perch in the Canyon Spider Woman weaves her magic to protect the Navajo people from natural and human encounters. The Navajo creation story tells us that Spider Woman helped the twins Monster Slayer and Child of Water to find their father, the sun, after, of course, having spun the world out of her web and singing all things to life. She was a busy lady in those days. Eventually her creative powers were focused on weaving, a skill that she has passed down through generations of Navajo weavers who create magnificent wool rugs with designs that tell their clan’s stories. In my travels throughout Indian Country (as the region is commonly referred to by local residents) Spider Woman has been hot on my tail.
Years ago I became interested in Navajo rugs. I began attending rug auctions to purchase ones that were within my limited budget. I also began a quest to identify where the rugs were made and even who wove them. With my wife, Laurel I journeyed to the small outlying trading posts that stretched from one end of the Navajo Nation to the other, examining rugs unique to a particular trading post. Each of these trading posts has their own stories but all share a similar history: they were established by white settlers to the region in order to provide goods and services to the impoverished Indian communities. The owners then worked with local weavers to create patterns that would eventually provide an identity for their post. Often these patterns were based on those unique to Turkish and Middle Eastern designs infused with images from the Navajo’s mythologized past. Over the years the patterns have become based more on the Navajo designs and less on the early “Oriental Rug” designs. The trading post owners then created a “brand” for their rugs to sell to the expanding tourist market while providing much-needed support to the weavers and their families. Strong ties were created between the weavers and the traders allowing the numerous trading posts throughout the Navajo Nation to form a network that has evolved and flourished into the 21st century. As the rugs became more and more elegant in design they became more expensive to buy. It is not uncommon, for example, to find a rug that is priced at $30,000 (and higher) depending, of course, on its size and sophisticated design and the quality of its weave. Multiple styles of weaving factor into the history of Navajo Rug design and distribution but all have their roots firmly planted in the image of Spider Woman and her influence on families of weavers for over 300 years. I have heard stories of her influence on these weavers. One in particular, the “spirit line” has informed my knowledge of the rugs.
It has been said that after 1900 the “spirit line” became an essential component of Navajo weaving technique. Around this time the Anglo trading post owners insisted that the weavers place a border around their designs, giving the rugs an element of order. Prior to this they did not have a border. Parallel lines were woven into the design to better define the various shapes that were at its heart. These shapes (crosses, diamonds, zigzagging lines were meant to represent lightning bolts, petroglyphs and pictographs inspired by pottery shards left behind by the ancient Anasazi people) seemed to float freely within the undefined confines of the rug. The trading post owners felt – rightly so – that they could better market the rugs if they had a border, a frame that gave their mostly Anglo buyers a sense that they were, indeed a “work of art.” This strategy worked for the trading post owners and for the more contemporary Navajo weavers. With a border in place, it became essential to have a “spirit line.”
This seemingly aberrant thread runs from a point inside of the weave through the woven frame in an almost straight line ending at the edge of the rug. To the untrained eye it might appear as a “mistake,” a loose thread that doesn’t seem to belong to the design. But it does. A Navajo weaver assumes that her spirit enters the rug as it is woven. In many (but not all) Navajo rugs there is a spirit line, a path for the weaver’s spirit to escape. To weave a rug can take upwards of six months of tedious work in which the warp threads are concealed by passage of the weft yarn. To facilitate this delicate task a weaver (usually a woman although men are becoming quality weavers as well) sits in front of a wooden loom sometimes for as long as eight hours a day manipulating her tools of the trade to bring to life the elegant designs and shape of the rug. It’s no wonder that the weaver becomes one with her creation, that her spirit winds its way among the threads and yarns ultimately seeking its escape route. The spirit line is also left as a reminder that the pattern woven into the rug isn’t perfect. Many weavers believe that the spirit line leaves room for creativity; if she achieves perfection then there is no longer a need for creative inspiration since she has already achieved it. The spirit line is like a lever: when it’s open it lets the good spirits into the rug. This lever is controlled, of course, by Spider Woman, an elusive figure to be sure.
I once saw a painting of Spider Woman by an artist named Susan Seddon Boulet. It depicted her as young, pretty with long braided hair, her body a transparent mass of interconnected shapes and lines resembling a chart of galaxies one might see at a science fair. She is in profile, leaning forward her eyes cast downward peering at the lower left-hand corner of the painting where a small arthropod-like creature lurks. Her arms and hands appear to be holding an invisible ball the size of a beach ball. But strung between her open hands is a spider web. Behind her is what I think is a full moon – orange in color with black clouds moving across its face. In the lower right-hand corner is a cyclopean eye and beneath it is a large spider with a cross on its back indicative of a species of Araneus diadematus – a European garden spider, rather harmless but a killer weaver. The painting is kind of nice in a New-Agey way. I’m certain it has been licensed by those folks who put iconic images of deceased heroes on black velvet, like Elvis Presley or John F. Kennedy. Sedden Boulet’s rendering of Spider Woman is much too pretty, whether her image is splayed on black velvet or not. It’s not how I think Spider Woman looks.
I see her as a wizened Navajo woman wearing a traditional red or blue velvet dress (not black!) with turquoise jewelry bedazzling her image. When called on to perform one of her many magical tasks, gossamer-like threads emerge from her long fingers to pluck a young boy from an empyrean fall as he tumbles through the air after leaping from a high cliff. (In Navajo-like reality Spider Woman unfurls a silken cord down from the top of her lair on Spider Rock to help a young boy who was fleeing from an enemy to ascend the rock. The boy is befriended by Spider Woman who, the next day, extends a cord once more for him to descend down Spider Rock to join his tribe.) I have carried this mythical image of Spider Woman while roaming the rocky and barren lands of Indian Country. And then sometime in the mid-1980’s Spider Woman took on a whole new identify in my fantasy world when I saw the film “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” That was it! No more images of mythical women in velvet dresses and thick turquoise jewelry. Now the image I conjured was similar to the one depicted in Susan Seddon Boulet’s painting: a beautiful young woman, her body draped in a skin-tight dress emerging not from behind sandstone colored rocks in the desert but from a jungle! (The film’s poster picture is the source of my fantasy.) Now Spider Woman was, well, almost real. Soon she would prove very real in the form of Sonia Braga.
For 30 years I lived in the belly of the beast that was “New Music in America.” After graduating from the Philadelphia Musical Academy (now part of the University of the Arts) with a degree in music composition I deliberated for months to determine my next step. I had been selected by Dance Theater Workshop (DTW) in New York City to be part of a small group of young composers (although as a military veteran I was not that young in age but young in experience) to compose music for dancers as part of a program to create collaborations among musicians and dancers, several of whom were former members of the prestigious Judson Dance Theater, the group of intrepid artists who revolutionized American modern dance in the 1960’s. I did not have the funds to re-locate to New York so I began what would become a well- worn travel route: driving the New Jersey Turnpike or riding on AMTRAK. My tenure at DTW lasted two years and was invaluable in my building a network of artist friends in New York. Later I would collaborate with many of them. Rather than attempt to move to New York and live in small inexpensive apartments while working who-knows-what kind of jobs I decided to stay in Philadelphia to make a go of it. I returned to school enrolling at Temple University’s Graduate School of Music supporting myself by playing music, writing articles, reviews and a newspaper column. And monthly checks from the G.I. Bill certainly helped matters. During those years I advocated – often quite loudly – for more performances – beyond the confines of those presented by the area universities and music schools – of new and experimental music in Philadelphia. My vision was to help create a professional performing ensemble and presenting organization that would reach out to artists who were dramatically changing America’s musical culture. Additionally I wished to embrace new musical works by an emerging international community of like-minded composers and performers. After organizing and presenting concerts by my composer-performer friends in small venues like the original Painted Bride Art Center, I took the next step: in 1978 I co-founded an organization with these goals in mind. We named it “Relâche,” in honor of a theatrical work created by Jean Cocteau, Francis Picabia and Erik Satie. Performed in Paris in 1926, “Relâche” just about closed the door on the notorious period in art history known as “Dada.” In contrast to its namesake, the Relâche organization opened doors to give life to the music of its time. Over the course of my tenure with Relache – I served as founding executive/artistic director for 23 years – the ensemble and producing-presenting entity focused its efforts on touring throughout Pennsylvania and much of the eastern U.S. Eventually the ensemble toured Europe, Japan, Venezuela and large parts of the U.S. It also recorded for several labels and commissioned 200 works from composers worldwide. Most gratifying to me was the ensemble’s ability to collaborate with composers in the creation of new musical works. Among those who were invited to collaborate with the Relâche Ensemble was Mikel Rouse.
Known for his scintillating inter-media works that fuse theater, music and social-cultural commentary, Mikel was gaining a reputation among artists and audiences in “New York’s Downtown Avant-Garde,” a term I really hate since it tends to marginalize many brilliant and innovative artists. A master of digital sampling, he uses his voice to create layer upon layer of vocal lines whose sonic characteristics are as rhythmically inventive as is their tonal brilliance. The first piece of his that I heard was a recorded version of “Failing Kansas,” a solo performance piece based on the book “In Cold Blood,” by Truman Capote. It reminded me of Robert Ashley’s music, although without the humor and playfulness that characterizes many of Bob’s extraordinary “operas.” Ashley’s music-performance works were a revelation to me. Finally I discovered someone with a vision in the new music world that connected with me on a visceral theatrical level. Many of the artists I collaborated with during those years created brilliant, distinctive works. Some moved me to tears, others to outrage and action. But Ashley’s music fell somewhere in between those emotions. They were unique in their use of language and structure, so much so that they challenged me in ways that few other musical artists did. I found in his works a true American voice wrapped around a complex yet accessible compositional model that required one to dig deep into its labyrinthine structure. Eventually I become friends with Bob Ashley and his wife, Mimi Johnson, who is the respected founder of the Lovely Music record label, a veritable archive of America’s post-modern composers and performers. During a conversation with them following a performance by Mikel Mimi remarked “… Mikel is the next Bob Ashley…” I was pleased to hear that even as Bob looked at us with an expression that implied, “hey, I’m still here.” Indeed, then in his mid-70’s Bob was “still here” and making new “operas” that depicted stories of a unique American life. (Robert Ashley died in March, 2014)
After that initial introduction to Mikel Rouse’s music we began a relationship that eventually led to his collaborating with the Relâche Ensemble. At that time he was about to launch a new work titled “Dennis Cleveland,” an irreverent realization of a television talk show based, not too loosely on the then popular personality, Jerry Springer whose daily program was, at least to many, the most boisterous and obnoxious of the many shows then streaming across the airways of American television. Mikel and his crew were preparing for the initial run of “Dennis Cleveland” at the iconic New York performance venue, The Kitchen. He invited Laurel and me to attend the opening night performance, becoming part of the show as a camera that was focused on audience members captured the reactions of many in the audience – including mine and Laurel’s – then beamed their/our faces back to the audience via television monitors positioned overhead while the action played on stage. And, true to the legacy of Jerry Springer,”Dennis Cleveland” was loud, outrageous, raw and on-target. The ensemble cast, comprised of young New York actors and artists, was terrific. Following the performance we met several of them at a cast party. Among those was Mark Lambert.
Lambert’s performance was memorable. He had long hair (it was a wig) that spun around his head whenever he yelled “…My way or the highway…” to his girlfriend, played with great indignation by a beautiful African-American actress whose contemptuous sneer was nasty and sexy. Although he proved a convincing performer as an out-of-control, wise-ass white boy Mark’s better known skills were as a musician. He’s a guitarist and composer who split his time between New York and Sao Paulo working with the famed Brazilian singer, Astrud Gilberto, playing guitar in her band and serving as music director. (He currently plays a similar role with the hipster’s chanteuse, Uta Lemper.) Upon being introduced to Mark he and I entered into an easy conversation discussing how much fun it was to play bossa nova. We hit it off and agreed to meet again in a few weeks for lunch or dinner. When we met he made a proposal to compose a piece for the Relâche Ensemble. Not expecting a commission, he was eager to branch out from the music that he was playing. Although he loved Brazilian music, he found it predictable and wished to stretch his musical vocabulary. With an ensemble like Relâche he saw an opportunity to do so. He gave me recordings of music he had composed for the Gilberto band and not only did I like them but heard the potential to create a unique work for the Relâche Ensemble. I did, however, insist that he hear Relâche live before creating a piece for the group. He agreed. Since we were then at the end of Relâche’s Philadelphia and New York performance seasons and since we were planning to have Mikel Rouse as the first guest composer for the following Philadelphia season, I suggested that Mark accompany Mikel to Philadelphia for the premiere performance in late September. We agreed to stay in touch over the summer.
As the Relâche Ensemble prepared for its fall season and the premiere of Mikel’s new piece I became cautiously concerned that he might not have it ready in time. It was now early September, only five weeks before the opening night concert and Mikel had not yet sent any part of his new work. Finally towards the end of the month he sent drafts that I could share with the ensemble. This work was not going to have notated musical parts that the players would interpret. In place of notation they were given cues that were imbedded in the sampled material that Mikel was developing. He planned to have them ready a week or so before the concert in order to ensure that the piece had an improvisational feel to it. It was a bit vague but everyone agreed to the plan and accepted their drafts as at least a beginning of the process. I remained concerned but confident that Mikel would come through with something special. About a week or so before the concert Mikel asked if he could bring a small group of friends down to Philadelphia from New York for the weekend. Included with this group would be Mark Lambert, who I expected to come anyway. “Sure,” I said and offered to provide hotel rooms for everyone since Relâche had secured a sponsorship from the University Sheraton Hotel just off campus of the University of Pennsylvania. “Cool,” I remember Mikel saying. “And by the way, Mark is bringing his girlfriend Sonia Braga,” he continued. “Sonia Braga, the actress? Sonia Braga the Spider Woman?” I asked. “Yeah,” he answered. “She’s terrific.” “I know that, Mikel,” I said, continuing…” I had no idea…” “You’ll like her,” he said. “I’ll bet I will,” I responded as I ended our conversation. I then told Laurel and a few friends what had just transpired. When I told Laurel she said, “Sonia Braga. Damn!”
Part of the labor agreement with members of Relâche called for a minimum of 25 hours of rehearsal for a concert. When a new work was being prepared the bulk of that time was dedicated to it. One week prior to the opening night concert and the premiere of Mikel Rouse’s new piece we did not have any music to prepare. Concerned I called Mikel to find out what was up. “Everything’s cool,” he said, I have the sampled parts ready so how about if I come down a day earlier and we’ll begin putting things together.” “Okay, I responded, let’s do it.” When he arrived things didn’t exactly fall into place. Even though there were plenty of terrific music samples in his toolkit he was struggling to find a working context, a frame for them. Each of the players in the ensemble adapted easily to their “parts,” but they too did not understand how they came together. The ensemble’s violist, the late Kathleen Carroll had an idea. “You know what’s missing, Mikel? Voices,” she said without waiting for an answer. “I keep hearing vocal lines threading through the computer and instrumental music.” Mikel stood thinking for a moment before responding. “Yeah, Yeah, I like that,” he said. “Give me some time to work on that tonight and tomorrow we’ll have another go at it.” The next day was the day before the concert so he was under the gun to provide the framework for the piece so the players could feel confident. When he arrived for rehearsal he had the outline for three voices that would fit with the other instrumental parts. Which three voices? He hadn’t figured that out yet.
I and the players were fidgeting around trying to understand just how this was going to play out when Kathleen Carroll once again took the lead. “I have an idea,” she said again. “How about if me, Laurel and Helen sing the parts.” Mikel paused thinking this over before saying, “Okay, that’s cool. Are Helen and Laurel game?” “Yeah,” Kathleen said, we already discussed it. I mean, we all think it’s about time for the Relâche-etts to make an appearance on the Philly stage.” At that point Laurel came over and smiling said, “Hey, I already have our costumes ready. And we’ll work out our steps.”
The Relâche Ensemble has always been supportive of music made by women performers and composers. The third iteration of the ensemble took this sensibility to another level entirely. The three women in the ensemble, flutist Laurel Wyckoff, percussionist Helen Carnavale and violist Kathleen Carroll were attractive personalities on stage. The guys were, well not necessarily “attractive” but thorough professionals in every sense of the word. The three ladies were more outgoing than the men; they knew their roles in the ensemble and worked the crowd in ways that the guys could not. From Laurel’s striding on stage in tight leather pants to Helen’s elf-like moves from one percussion instrument to another to Kathleen’s know-it-all smile, the group glistened with a feminine mystique that played well against the more staid personalities of the guys. Accordingly it really wasn’t that much of a stretch to take the ladies away from the core ensemble and place them stage left in front of the guys and soloist Mikel Rouse, serving as “girl group” back-up singers. For a seasoned new music ensemble it was pretty daring. And it was pretty cool. The Relâche-ettes were a hit that night at the Annenberg Center as they swayed and displayed their newly minted steps while echoing a text that was spoken/sung by Mikel Rouse’s digitally processed voice. It was for many of us a night to remember. But it was only one night of two to remember. The next night was the one that I will really remember: the night of the Spider Woman.
Saturday afternoon as I prepared to go to the theater to meet the technical crew I received a call from Mikel Rouse reminding me that a group of his friends were heading down from New York. I really didn’t need a reminder but thanked him anyway informing him that the hotel rooms were reserved for them. Since there was no pre-concert rehearsal for the second night’s concert, just a review of the set-up, I told him I would meet him around 7:30 in the theater lobby so he could introduce me to his Downtown New York entourage. Of course, it was my not-so-subtle way of telling him that I wanted to meet Sonia Braga and be presented as the guy who made all this – the concert and the commission of his new piece – happen.
The time between the end of dress-technical rehearsal and a concert is usually a quiet hour or so. It allowed me to step away from the stage and put on my fundraiser’s jacket as I met and talked with supporters and foundation personnel who were invited to the concert. It also gave me a chance to chill out a bit in anticipation of the performance. That night I made my way out to the theater lobby to look for Mikel. He hadn’t arrived yet but I spotted Mark Lambert standing alone also looking around the lobby, probably for Mikel. I went over to greet him. We discussed our summer travels before my asking him, “Where are your friends?” Of course I meant were is Sonia Braga. He looked over and pointed towards a clump of people who were milling around the entrance door. “Over there,” he said, pointing them out. “Let’s go meet them,” he said moving in their direction. A bit confused I asked, “Did Sonia Braga make it down?” Yes,” he answered, that’s her right there,” pointing to a woman with her back to us, her long black curly hair clinging to a long-tailed fashionable flannel shirt that concealed much of the unfashionable pair of jeans she was wearing. Mark led me to his friends and introduced us. “Joseph, this is Sonia Braga, Jim Stewart and Karen Alisi,” he said as we shook hands. With respect to the other couple it was difficult to not focus my attention on Sonia Braga. I mean, this was the Spider Woman! But without any makeup and dressed not in a slinky dress but in Downtown New York frump. Needless to say, I was a bit surprised.
In the days leading up to my meeting Sonia Braga I envisioned her as the alluring beauty who glowed from the movie screen, or at least glistened from the promotional poster for “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” Instead I looked into the pretty face of a woman who was really rather, well, regular looking. She blended into the crowd of concert-goers quite easily. No one recognized her! She and her friends greeted me warmly. We talked about Mikel’s piece and agreed to meet for drinks following the concert. I excused myself to check in with our production coordinator to make sure everything was ready to go. That night the ensemble played beautifully. The Relâche-ettes were great. A hit with the audience, they entered into Relâche’s history book as a one-weekend wonder. Mikel’s piece came together almost as if he and the group had been performing it dozens of times. Overall it was a terrific effort. Afterwards some members of the ensemble and a group of friends met with our New York guests to have a late-night dinner and even later night drinks. After dinner and some deliberation we headed down to a little place on South Street called Bob and Barbara’s Lounge.
The North Philadelphia neighborhood I grew up in is named Kensington, known as “K & A” to the locals. The culture of Kensington was, like many other neighborhoods in the city, defined by the tap rooms that seemed to populate every other corner throughout the neighborhoods. Bob and Barbara’s Lounge was, although not a tap room in the pure sense of the word, a place akin to those venerated drinking establishments. But the similarities end when one opens the door at 1509 South Street and steps inside the big room awash with the sounds of a Hammond B-3 organ trio laying down some wickedly funky musical lines. “Since 1969,” says their website, “Bob and Barbara’s Lounge has been serving cold beer, cocktails and live entertainment featuring a Hammond B-3 organ trio playing ‘Liquor Drinking Music’ every Friday and Saturday night.” If that weren’t enough for Philly’s avaricious jazz community, it gets better. On Thursday nights their “…famous Drag Show hosted by Miss Lisa,” hits the stage. (We learned on our group visit, that Miss Lisa is nobody to mess with. One member of our tribe happened to sit next to Miss Lisa at the large circular bar that dominated the room. After a few pleasant exchanges Miss Lisa rotated 180 degrees on the bar stool and leaned over to the guy on the other side of her domain and said in a threateningly urban Philly patois, “…you fuck wit’ my purse and I fuck wit’ you head…” )
The weekend house band was – and still is – The Crowd Pleasers. But since 2006 the band has been playing without its founder and long-time leader, tenor saxophonist Nate Wiley who passed in 2006 at 82. When remembering him I’m almost tempted to say, “…Nate Wiley, Nate Wiley Nate Wiley.” But that just doesn’t work. Nate and The Crowd Pleasers were not exactly of a class that could meld their sound with the Duke Ellington Orchestra; The Crowd Pleasers’ grabbed you by the throat, not like the Ellington Orchestra’s sound that fell like a veil over one’s shoulders. I and others from my generation and musical inclination will always remember Nate Wiley for his growly tenor saxophone sound and friendly demeanor on and off stage. He was an original; a charter member of Philadelphia’s venerable jazz hall of fame. Fortunately for us Nate was still growling that night when the Relâche entourage walked through the sacred entrance to Bob and Barbara’s Lounge.
By now Sonia Braga and I were on great talking terms having had a chance to sort of get to know one another over dinner. As we crossed over the threshold to Bob and Barbara’s Lounge Sonia was just in front of me. When she took in the sight of The Crowd Pleasers at the small bandstand squeezed against a far wall, the floor vibrating from the basement tones of the Hammond B-3 Organ, she stopped, turned around looked at me and smiled, a big happy smile that radiated an exotic beauty, enhanced no doubt by the low-level lighting tinged with a reddish glow that added a devilish quality to the room. “This is fantastic,” she said loudly leaning up to be close to my ear, my right ear if I remember correctly. I felt her lips on my ear which of course was both magical and a bit disconcerting. The Relâche entourage found seats and standing room at the big bar within shouting range of one another. Sonia and I didn’t have to shout since we were seated next to one another. The Crowd Pleasers played, Miss Lisa mumbled to whoever would listen to her, we listened to the music and we talked sharing the night with our friends who were holding their conversations even as the Crowd Pleasers wailed. Sonia and I compared our lives as artists and outsiders, about friendships and relationships that gave solace to unpredictable lives lived at the outer edge of conventional society. Sonia was intrigued when I told her about writing a letter to the director Robert Altman asking if he would listen to some of my music, hoping that I might be hired to work as a composer or editor on one of his films. Although she never worked for Altman Sonia shared with me an appreciation for his films and hoped that he might someday call. She asked if Altman answered my letter. “He did,” I told her, “he gave me the name of one of his production people at Lionsgate Films encouraging me to follow up so that I could bring recordings for them to review.” “Did you?” she asked. “No,” I responded, continuing, “…I thought about it but my life was taking a new turn with the advent of the Relâche Ensemble. But the truth is I really didn’t think I had the chops. I had found something in organizing and producing concerts that felt much more natural to me. I made the right decision,” I concluded. She understood immediately. “It’s good to know what you do best,” she said. We both nodded in agreement then turned to listen to the Crowd Pleasers’ wily music from across the room.
I was, of course, eager to learn how she felt about “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” The Crowd Pleasers took a break, their rumbling sound slowly dissolving leaving a void in the room and an opening for me to ask, “So, what was it like starring in such an iconic film as ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’?” She responded easily saying, “Well it was a difficult part since I had to play several roles but working with actors like Raul Julia and Bill Hurt made it easier.” We talked some more about the film; she seemed impressed by how well I knew it. I then asked her about The “Milagro Beanfield War,” a film directed by Robert Redford and filmed in Truchas, New Mexico, a small village in the northern part of the state not too far from Taos. I got to know that part of New Mexico from the many trips I made with Laurel to visit her parents in Corrales so I had to be one of the few people she encountered who had ever heard of Truchas, New Mexico. I immediately realized it was a sensitive subject. She told me that she loved visiting New Mexico but wasn’t too happy with the film, confiding that her personal relationship with Redford caused problems on the set. I sensed she did not wish to talk too much about it so I segued back to a shared love of music and specifically the bossa nova. I wanted to know more but The Crowd Pleasers hit the bandstand once again, the Hammond B-3 player setting the tone with an introduction that was decidedly not of a bossa nova style.
By this time everyone in our entourage was feeling pretty good, others coming over to talk with Sonia. I remember easing into a conversation with Mark Lambert and Mikel Rouse, while of course, paying attention to The Crowd Pleasers’ music as they wound down their final set. It was approaching 2 AM, the hour when Philly bars and clubs shut down. We were all feeling tired so we gathered ourselves for the evening-ending good-byes. I found Sonia to tell her how much I enjoyed meeting and talking with her. She thanked me for inviting her to the concert and sharing my friends with her and Mark. Then she kissed me, a kiss of friendship that has remained with me since that night at Bob and Barbara’s Lounge.
Spider Woman continues to play an even more prominent role in my life now that I live in New Mexico. Each summer or early fall Laurel and I make a pilgrimage to Canyon de Chelly, a four hour drive from our home in Corrales. We hike down The White House trail, the only trail that one can hike without a Navajo guide. We drive around the north and south rims, stopping at overlooks that reveal archeological sites such as White House Ruin, Antelope House Ruin and, of course, Spider Rock, as magical a sight as any in the American Southwest. And we see Navajo weavings wherever we go; in our house, in friends’ houses, in shops, restaurants and museums we see Spider Woman’s handiwork. My eye always seeks the rug’s spirit line to see if the weaver has captured her spirit. And now 25 years after being kissed by the other Spider Woman I think not only of the image of the Navajo spirit who appears throughout my travels but I also think of Sonia Braga and that night with her and friends in a South Center City Philadelphia bar. I hear the music of The Crowd Pleasers amidst the lyrical tone of Sonia’s voice. Now as I continue to roam among the magisterial rock formations, meandering rivers and morose shrubs of the High Desert, I harken back to Duke Ellington’s reverential recitation of Johnny Hodges’ name as I borrow from the Duke and say to myself, “…Sonia Braga, Sonia Braga, Sonia Braga…”