ArtsInFocus | WKCTC

Arts In Focus Series

performance at the clemens fine arts center

Since the inaugural Arts In FOCUS Series in 1967, many world renowned artists, individuals, musicians, and shows have graced the stage of the Clemens Fine Arts Center.  Award-winning performances range from innovative dance from Lulu Washington Dance to gospel icon Mavis Staples, and Broadway musicals such as Porgy & Bess and ‘Swonderful.  Each season brings a distinct theatre experience to West Kentucky Community & Technical College and the surrounding Paducah community.

Tito Puente, Jr. Photo

The comparison is inevitable. How could it be otherwise? Tito Puente Jr. carries his father with him – imprinted on his physical being and locked in his soul. It’s in his looks, his joy, and his music. Tito Jr. is on a passionate mission. The younger Puente is determined to nurture the musical legacy left by his father. He refuses to let his father become a distant memory. “He was just too vibrant, too exciting. There was magic in the music my father made. It made people happy all over the world.”

He has found captive audiences who echo his passion. Crowds lured to a venue by the father are returning to see the son — and to once again participate in the high voltage celebration that takes place on stage.

Tito Puente Jr. has become an audience favorite in casinos, performing arts centers, symphony halls and jazz festivals worldwide, performing more than 300 shows over the past 5 years.

His 2004 album, “In My Father’s Shoes” featured the classic Puente titles and was spun into a BET Jazz television special of the same name.

He was seen in a tribute to his father’s music on NBC’s two hour special – “The Apollo at 70: A Hot Night in Harlem.” He has also appeared on the ABC soap opera hit “One Life to Live” in performance with his big band.

Symphony appearances include Dallas, San Antonio, Colorado, South Bend, and upcoming performances with the Palm Desert Symphony and the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marvin Hamlisch.

Tito, Jr.’s new CD release, “Got Mambo?” is a mixture of the old and the new as he takes a musical departure into some powerful new music, he can truly call his own. Guest artists Bobby Cruz and Hansel & Raul help make this a coming of age project for Puente, Jr. and the album is receiving heavy praise from Tropical and Latin Jazz critics alike.

Tito Jr. reveres the magnificent, lasting impact his father had on our musical lives. “People who don’t know anything about Latin music know my father and people always, always smile when they say my father’s name,” he confides. “That is a very special gift I have been given.”

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Hub New Music Photo
 

Called “contemporary chamber trailblazers” by the Boston Globe, Hub New Music – composed of flute, clarinet, violin, and cello – is forging new pathways in 21st-century repertoire. The ensemble’s ambitious commissioning projects and “appealing programs” (New Yorker) celebrate the rich diversity of today’s classical music landscape. Its performances have been described as “gobsmacking” (Cleveland Classical), “innovative” (WBUR), and “the cutting edge of new classical music” (Taos News).

Hub’s 2021-22 highlights inlcude concerts presented by the Morgan Library and Museum, Celebrity Series of Boston, Seattle Symphony, Soka Performing Arts Center, and Williams Center for the Performing Arts. Season residencies include visits to Baylor, Portland State, Illinois State, and Georgetown universities. The coming season brings premieres of new works by Nathalie Joachim, Laura Kaminsky, and Nina C. Young. In fall 2021, the Library of Congress presents the “virtual premiere” of Hub’s collaboration with composer Carlos Simon, Requiem for the Enslaved, which will tour in 2022-23. Simon’s large-scale work honors the lives of 272 slaves sold by Georgetown University (where Simon serves on the faculty) in 1838, and features spoken-word artist Marco Pavé, trumpeter Jared Bailey, and Simon on piano.

Hub’s debut album, Soul House, released on New Amsterdam Records in 2020 was called “ingenious and unequivocally gorgeous” by the Boston Globe. The ensemble’s upcoming recording with Silkroad’s Kojiro Umezaki (shakuhachi) and Asia-America New Music Institute (AANMI) will be released on Tōrō Records in 2022. Other upcoming recording projects include Carlos Simon’s Requiem for the Enslaved, and Michael Ippolito’s abstract-expressionist inspired work, Capriccio. The group will also be featured on Eric Nathan’s portrait album, Missing Words, to be released on New Focus Recordings.

Hub New Music is a group of passionate educators whose approach to teaching melds the
artistic and entrepreneurial facets of modern musicianship. The ensemble was recently in residence with the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Nancy and Barry Sanders Composer Fellowship program, working with 10 outstanding high school aged composers. Other residency activities include those at New England Conservatory, Princeton, Harvard,
www.hubnewmusic.org 
University of Michigan, University of Texas-Austin, UC Irvine, and University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In 2021-22, the ensemble continues its K-12 program, HubLab, that uses graphic scores and improvisation to create group compositions with students of all levels.

www.hubnewmusic.org

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Leyla McCalla Photo

There are more questions than answers on Leyla McCalla’s remarkable new album, Breaking The Thermometer. What does democracy look like? Who does it work for? How long can it last? On its surface, the record explores the legacy of Radio Haiti—Haiti’s first radio station to report the news in Haitian Kreyòl, the voice of the people—as well as the journalists who risked and lost their lives to broadcast it for nearly 50 years. But on a more fundamental level, the collection is a deeply personal reckoning with memory and identity, with the roles of artists and activists and immigrants in modern society, with the very notion of storytelling itself. In delving into the project, McCalla found herself forced to grapple with her own experiences as a Haitian-American woman, unraveling layers of marginalization and generations of repression and resolve as she searched for a clearer vision of herself and her purpose. The result is at once a work of radical performance art, historical scholarship, and personal memoir, a wide-ranging and powerful meditation on family and democracy and free expression that couldn’t have arrived at a more timely moment.

“The more I researched this project, the more I found myself examining my own sense of Haitian-ness,” McCalla reflects. “I spent a lot of time recalling my experiences visiting Haiti as a child, thinking deeply about the moments in my life when I felt very Haitian and the moments when I didn’t. In the end, the music and the stories here all brought me to a more nuanced understanding of both the country and myself.”

Born out of a multi-disciplinary theater project commissioned by Duke University, which acquired the complete Radio Haiti archives in 2016, Breaking The Thermometer combines original compositions and traditional Haitian tunes with historical broadcasts and contemporary interviews to forge an immersive sonic journey through a half century of racial, social, and political unrest. The music is captivating, fueled by rich, sophisticated melodic work and intoxicating Afro-Caribbean rhythms, and the juxtaposition of voices—English and Kreyòl, personal and political, anecdotal and journalistic—is similarly entrancing, raising the dead as it shines a light on the enduring spirit of the Haitian people. McCalla isn’t just some detached observer here, though; she writes with great insight and introspection, examining her own journey of growth and self-discovery as she uncovers the Radio Haiti story and the inextricable ties that bind us all to it.

“Haiti’s always seen as this far away place,” she says, “but we’re far more connected as Americans than we realize. Haiti was the first independent Black nation in the western hemisphere. Its very existence was and remains a threat to colonial power. At the same time, though, it symbolizes a lot about injustice and oppression around the world. When we talk about ‘Black Lives Matter,’ Haiti is a huge part of that.”

Born in New York City to a pair of Haitian emigrants and activists, McCalla developed an early fascination with the country and its culture thanks in part to the time she spent visiting her grandmother there as a child. After moving to Ghana for two years and later graduating from NYU, McCalla eventually drifted south to New Orleans, where she planned to make a living playing cello on the streets of the French Quarter.

“At the time, I didn’t realize how deep the Haitian roots of New Orleans ran,” she explains, “but I very quickly found myself diving into all the cultural and historical connections. And then once I picked up the tenor banjo, I started researching Haitian folks songs, as well, and I was amazed to discover this incredibly rich banjo tradition, which led me to travel back to Haiti again in 2013.”

By that point, McCalla had already risen to fame as a member of the GRAMMY Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, a group she’d spent two years touring and recording with before leaving to pursue her own career, and her dedication to illuminating the Black roots of American culture was only growing stronger. In 2014, she generated considerable buzz with her critically acclaimed solo debut, Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes, which prompted the New York Times to rave that “her voice is disarmingly natural, and her settings are elegantly succinct.” Two more similarly celebrated releases followed, 2016’s A Day For The Hunter, A Day For The Prey and 2019’s Capitalist Blues, which yielded even more glowing reviews and profiles, as did her 2019 debut with Our Native Daughters, a collaborative project featuring Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, and Allison Russell. It was in between this slew of releases and international tour dates that McCalla was first approached by Duke University about exploring the Radio Haiti archives.

“At the time, I honestly didn’t know all that much about Radio Haiti,” she recalls. “I knew that the owner, Jean Dominique, had been assassinated, and that his widow, Michèle Montas, had kept the station going after his death, but beyond that, I really wasn’t aware of the full history there.” 

So McCalla began making research trips to Duke, poring through countless hours of broadcasts with the help of archivists and experts. What she discovered was the remarkable story of a radio station that had stood up to oppressive government regimes and political censorship in order to broadcast news, commentary, and investigative journalism at a time when doing so came with deadly consequences. There were interviews with political prisoners and massacre survivors, op-eds from activists and journalists, and full albums of traditional Haitian folk tunes she’d never heard in their entirety before. On top of all her historical research, McCalla began conducting additional contemporary interviews, as well, speaking directly with Montas and even calling her own mother as she tried to come to some greater understanding of her role as an artist in sharing a fuller picture of Haiti with an outside world that so often only engages with it through the lens of whatever natural or humanitarian disaster happens to make international news.

“I remember confessing to Michèle that I wasn’t really sure I should be the one to tell this story,” says MCalla. “I was born in America, after all, and I’m an artist not an academic. But Michèle said, “Why wouldn’t you be the one to tell this story? There are so many Haitian-Americans just like you who are still attached to the country in some way, who are still looking for their roots. This is exactly what you need to be doing.’”

With Montas’ blessing, McCalla began work on the theater piece, which incorporated live musical performances alongside dance, video, and archival recordings. Onstage, McCalla alternated between cello and banjo with just a percussionist for accompaniment, and while the stripped down nature suited the production, she longed to hear fuller arrangements with her band and soon set about recording what would become the album with producer/engineer Kevin Ratterman (Preservation Hall Jazz Band, My Morning Jacket) in Los Angeles. 

“The album functions almost like a fleshed out soundtrack for the theater work,” explains McCalla. “The sound design and some of the archival pieces are different, but a lot of what you hear is drawn straight from it and my experiences creating it.”

Album opener “Nan Fon Bwa” sets the stage, so to speak, with the sound of waves lapping the shoreline as songbirds chirp and roosters crow. The track presents a lush, bucolic vision of Haiti’s natural beauty as McCalla (plucking her cello and backed by Haitian percussionist Jeff Pierre) begins performing a driving, muscular adaptation of a folk tune she first heard performed by the guitarist Amos Coulange on a Radio Haiti broadcast. Soon, a new layer is introduced as we hear a recording of McCalla exploring her childhood memories of Haiti with her mother, who reminds her, “When you went to Haiti for that summer…you came back saying you were Haitian. And before that, maybe you didn’t see yourself as any nationality. But certainly when you came back from that trip you started identifying more as being Haitian.”

“I had a lot of reservations about including my own voice on this project, to say nothing of starting off the first track with my mother,” says McCalla. “But I needed to talk to her in order to understand if the memories I had were accurate, which became a kind of funny exercise because I was talking to someone whose own memories may also have been incomplete or altered by time. Ultimately, I decided to start there, though, because this album isn’t just about Radio Haiti. It’s my story, too.”

The mix of musical performance and spoken word recordings also establishes a template for much of what’s to come on the album. The mesmerizing “Fort Dimanche,” for instance, uses both original songwriting and archival audio to tell of the infamous Fort Dimanche political prison used by the Duvalier regime to interrogate, torture, and execute suspected dissidents; the meditative “Ekzile” underpins Montas’ recollections of being forced to flee her home country with brooding layers of cello and percussion; and the urgent “Dodinin,” which arrives after a poem of refugee desperation written and read by another assassinated journalist, Richard Brisson, gives voice to the pain and frustration of the working poor.

“I actually learned that song years ago from an old Smithsonian Folkways record,” says McCalla, “and my understanding is that the band who performed it, the Artistes Independant, were all Haitian musicians who were living in exile in New York. It’s a song of revolution, of the poor rising up against the ruling class, and it just felt so emblematic of Haitian social dynamics from colonial times straight through to today.”

Though the album is certainly full of righteous anger, there’s plenty of bittersweet beauty to be found, too. The languid “Vini We” mixes the sounds of daily life on the island with a tender recounting of the love affair between Dominique and Montas, while the intoxicating “You Don’t Know Me” reimagines a Tropicália tune written by the exiled Brazilian musician/activist Caetano Veloso as a meditation on McCalla’s Haitian roots, and the dreamy “Memory Song” reaches back through generations of ancestral trauma for a better understanding of how the past shapes our present.

“How much does a memory weigh?” McCalla asks over a circular, droning guitar line. “What’s the price our bodies will pay?”

There’s no real answer, of course, here or anywhere on the album, and that’s by design. The legacy of Radio Haiti is still being written, both by the survivors and the dead, and the tenuous state of democracy in America suggests that the future isn’t as certain as we’d like to think, either. In the end, McCalla didn’t write Breaking The Thermometer to answer our questions; she wrote it to question our answers. 

Haitian-American singer, songwriter, arranger, cellist, and multi-instrumentalist Leyla McCalla combines folk, blues, jazz, and classical elements with the Louisiana musical traditions of her adopted New Orleans home.

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Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana Photo

FRONTERAS 

Flamenco is a deep form of expression that is adaptable as it translates feelings of pain, sorrow, euphoria and hope into song, movement and dance; it is the embodiment of what is possible when we don’t speak of boundaries. It is a physical expression in which emotions are valued over words, gender is not limiting, religion is inclusive, and social hierarchies do not exist. The most liberating aspects of cultures from around the world come together to invigorate flamenco, an art form with the innate potential for self-expression. With this work, choreographers José Maldonado and Karen Lugo ask us to examine what happens to the individual forced to live within the confines of an inescapable shared space. Using flamenco, they transpose these experiences into movement, asking the dancers to embody the complex human spirit through the nuances of flamenco. Set to the musical landscape of José Luis de la Paz, FRONTERAS challenges the imposition of boundaries on a single person, a group, and society as a whole. 

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Hitting New Heights

Javier Muñoz’s passion for the stage has spanned many years and cities. His love of theatre began in high school during a production of The King and I in Brooklyn, New York. His passion for acting only grew when he was signed by an agent before his high school graduation, leading him to enroll in
NYU's Tisch School for the Arts.

Not a stranger to hard work, Muñoz participated in the AmeriCorps work study program, which allowed him to pay his way through college. Through AmeriCorps, Muñoz taught theater in community programs and schools throughout New York City. Muñoz became the first person in his family to graduate from college, and was also one of two honorees to receive the Community Service Award upon his graduation from Tisch. Also during this time, Muñoz worked closely with the nonprofit
organization, Children & The Classics, which taught literacy in schools throughout New York
City.

Muñoz performed in various regional theater projects, including The Porch (Ziad) at Altered Stages; Venice (Venice) at Center Theatre Group; Two Gentlemen of Verona (a rock opera) (Proteus) at Shakespeare Theatre of DC; Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Richard III (Dorset) and Into The Woods
(The Baker).

In 2005, Muñoz auditioned for Lin-Manuel Miranda, writer, composer and star of the Tony-winning hit In The Heights. Miranda chose Muñoz as his understudy in the role of Usnavi, which Muñoz later assumed full time upon Miranda's departure.

When Miranda began writing the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning smash Hamilton, Muñoz was an
active part of the musical's early development and creation. They developed the role of Alexander
Hamilton together, and Muñoz served as Miranda's alternate at the Public Theater off-Broadway
debut in 2015, as well as throughout the Broadway engagement. On July 11th, 2016, Muñoz assumed the title role of Alexander Hamilton full time on Broadway. Ben Brantley of The New York Times has said that Muñoz’s performance maintains “the balance of a revolutionary show about a revolutionary
era that seems better every time I see it," adding, "His Hamilton is sexy with his penetrating stare and Don Juan smile. When he's courting the ladies and other characters describe him as a tomcat, you know exactly what they mean."

Muñoz is currently appearing on the third and final season of the Freeform/Netflix hit series,
Shadowhunters; which was recently awarded the 2018 People’s Choice Award for “Favorite TV Show”. Next up, Muñoz will star in Jack Newell’s dark comedy, Monuments, opposite David Sullivan &
Marguerite Moreau. The independent features centers on two men’s journeys to spread the ashes of a shared lover, on a quirky and heartfelt road trip.

Muñoz was honored with the prestigious OUT100 "Breakout of the Year" award in 2016, as well as the Howard Ashman Award by the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC).

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ClemensFAC@kctcs.edu | (270) 534-3212