Afropop’s Sean Barlow caught up with SummerStage’s artistic director, Erika Elliott. Besides the flagship venue in Central Park, Erika is responsible for programming over 100 free SummerStage events of music, dance, film, spoken word and more in all five boroughs of New York.
Sean Barlow: Tell us why you’re doing a retrospective on Fania Records for its 50th anniversary? What does it mean to the city? What does it mean to you?
Erika Elliott: I’m really excited about celebrating the 50th anniversary of Fania Records and partnering with the label in a big way to contextualize how important they are to New York City and pop culture and Latin culture. And, especially as a New York festival, we’ve really, in the program department, honed in on the fact that what’s special about presenting in New York is that there are all these really amazing distinctly New York musical movements that have origins in New York and went on to have a global impact. Like hip-hop, which we celebrated last year, the bebop movement of jazz, and salsa, and in particular, Fania, the label that was founded in New York City. This year, we’re looking at Fania, as one of those seminal labels that created a platform for Latin music to have a big global stage and also really identifying the melting pot that was New York in the '70s.
Were you a Latin music aficionado?
No. Not at all. And I’ve learned a lot in the job, but also a lot in knowing people personally in New York. It’s got such brand loyalty and such a strong following, and it’s so significant. I wasn’t in New York at that time, but the people that I work with or that I know, who were in New York or grew up in that time--it’s just like you couldn’t go anywhere and escape the power of that music. So, that’s exciting. We’re doing several concerts around that theme, both in Central Park and all around the city. We’ve got a big show with Roberto Roena in Central Park.
So, it’s fun to be able to celebrate with them and what’s been exciting for me is connecting the legendary Fania performing artists with some of the new generation of young bands that are doing salsa music, or just were really impacted by the landscape and the soundtrack that Fania provided to their lives. There are young bands like La Mecanica Popular, who are doing a really interesting blend of salsa, but also psychedelic and modern and interesting.
Is that a New York band?
They are. And they’re young guys.
Yeah. They’ve been making a lot of buzz in the scene in New York, so they’re on the same bill. And it’s nice to have someone like Roberto Roena--legend from Fania All Stars-- and then pair him with a young band. We’ve done that--in most of the locations that we’re doing a Fania act, we’re pairing them with a young band. We’re doing Ismael Miranda in Queensbridge Park, and then we have Rebel Tumbao, who we saw at our APAP Showcase; Tipica 73 and we have Williamsburg Salsa Orchestra opening for them in East River Park. They’re a great young band. You’ll see that throughout the season. In addition to that, we’re presenting people like Joe Bataan. We’re doing a family day that’s got a Latin component. We’re doing a collaborative day with Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe, who are celebrating their 40th anniversary, as an opportunity to talk about poetry and spoken word and put another twist on the Latin experience in New York and Fania’s history here. We’ve got John Leguizamo, who, even though he’s obviously not a salsa artist, but so much of his work is informed by the label and by the movement that he grew up listening to, and uses Fania’s music as a soundbed for a lot of his work.
We’re actually presenting him and his Ghetto Clown one-man show in Central Park. That’s a highlight for me. And it’s part of the Fania series. And then we’ve got hip-hop and a bunch of other things that touch on that. Ballet Hispanico that’s doing a piece that includes Celia Cruz’s music. There’s a lot around that. We’re doing film screenings and dance lessons and some discussion panels. Then, we’re doing a big big deal where we have the Fania All Stars, who will be performing as a ticketed event at the end of the summer on August 24th, which is really important because they haven’t performed on U.S. soil in I don’t even know how many years. That’s really exciting.
But I’m also proud, much with the hip-hop celebration last year, to honor and represent these artists while they’re still here because a lot of times you don’t celebrate artists while they’re still living, and this is a movement where the players are still around. They are still performing. They still can perform. And we’re losing them. We just lost Cheo Feliciano. And there’s others, who obviously are not around, like Hector Lavoe. So it’s important that we celebrate them while they’re still here.
Let’s switch gears to the Ethiopian mega star, Teddy Afro, whom I’ve seen sell out the D.C. Armory, capacity of some 3,000, but with very few non-Ethiopians there.
We really haven’t done any programs from Ethiopia ever in the 10 years that I’ve been here, and we’re interested in trying to expand the circle and not just always have artists from Mali or Senegal, even though it’s so hard not to because there are so many amazing ones. But, along those lines, I tried to reach out and see who was out there. And I looked at other ones, but for me, it’s about presenting the artists that are the contemporary voices--who the communities are listening to--and when I asked Ethiopians, “Who’s the biggest artists that I could get?” And Teddy Afro is who they came back with. Obviously, he’s hugely popular, but there is sometimes a disconnect, so I’m hoping that a world music audience or an African music audience or sort of a broader audience that looks to SummerStage to discover some international artists will say, “Who is this guy? Why is he headlining SummerStage?” and that way they come out, because he’s great and they should know about him.
So, tell us your impression of Noura Mint Seymali who will be opening for Teddy Afro.
We always try to put in women if I can, especially from Africa. It’s important and they represent a voice that isn’t often heard or we don’t get enough here. And I thought she was really interesting at APAP. I thought she did a great show, and she’s doing something that’s very unique. I think. I haven’t seen a lot of artists like her. So again, the opportunity to provide a female voice to add context to a continent--it’s a whole continent!
And who is this Hahu Dance Crew also on the bill?
They are an Ethiopian dance crew that won the Ethiopian version of "American Idol." They’re a dance collective--young guys doing incredible contemporary dance. Not contemporary in the modern sense, but almost like street dance. It’s a chance to give them an opportunity and mix up the bill with some other art form.
What else do you want to talk about?
Well, what I’m really excited about is the South African day that we’re doing with Black Coffee, who is, by all accounts that I have, the biggest house music DJ coming out of South Africa right now--tours extensively in Europe. He’s done a little bit here, but not a lot, and, for me, it’s about what’s contemporary, what’s coming out of a particular country that the young people are listening to, and house music out of South Africa is making big waves.
And, like I say, Black Coffee is the biggest one, and the other DJ that we have is another kind of developing artist named DJ Spoko--similar, more developing, but a producer/DJ, and I’m hoping the day will be really exciting and fun. It’s the 20th anniversary of South African democracy and I think a lot of presenters will be touching on that in some way, but, for me, it was doing something maybe not traditional, maybe more forward-thinking. Although those are great--Hugh Masekela is great and there are great artists from South Africa--but, for me, it was like, if you’re talking about 20 years from then, what’s going on now? This is what’s happening there now. So, I’m excited about that.
Now, is this going to be DJs alone performing?
Yeah, just a DJ dance party. No live instruments. There might be some special guest vocalists and some live instrumentation, but it’s a DJ house party.
Sure. Tell us about SummerStage and the LAMC (Latin Alternative Music Conference) this year?
I’m super proud and excited to have Juana Molina back. I’m a big fan and she hasn’t been in here at the festival for about five years, so it’ll be nice to have her back. And Babasónicos--I’ve never seen them, but big name out of Argentina--more on the rock side. And then, La Santa Cecilia is an amazing Mexican-American band from L.A., who are Grammy winners--certainly making a buzz, doing a mix of singer-songwriter, but hugely informed by their immigrant experience and young and funky. I think they’re doing really great work. So that bill is great. And we’ve been doing a Wednesday night with LAMC for the last few years, and much like in years past, the Wednesday focuses on the urban side of Latin music. So, this year, we’ve got the Beatnuts--New York hip-hop--paired with Ana Tijoux, and also another New York artist, Bodega Bamz, who’s a Dominican-Puerto Rican hip-hop artist, and Tony Touch. It’s a really stellar lineup of Latin artists, who are doing hip-hop--all influenced by their particular lenses and their experiences.
Let’s talk about Buika.
It is her SummerStage debut, which is really exciting for us, and I, personally, have been following her career, but have never gotten to see her live, so, just as a patron of the venue, even more so than the curator, she’s someone that I’m hugely interested to see live. She is such a star on the stage. She has a voice like no one else and NPR calls her one of the 50 best voices in the world. I’m impressed by her virtuosity and her ability to command the stage with often a very pared-down arrangement. She doesn’t often have a huge band or anything like that, but her vocals are so strong and emotional that what she brings out of the audience is said to be like nothing else. So, I have yet to be in the audience. I’m looking forward to it, but I’m excited to have her on a free show. She doesn’t normally play free events here. She plays Carnegie Hall or big, prestigious rooms. So, it’s really exciting for us to have her in the festival this year.
Yeah, she’s great. I did an interview with her and then I saw her with Chucho Valdés at Carnegie. And she just, basically, took over the show.
Well, that’s what I hear--that she’s just a star and she’s so commanding on stage that she draws you in emotionally on a level that’s unparalleled.
So, let’s jump now to the Brazilian side. We’re going to be hearing a lot from Brazil this summer--the World Cup and then comes Lenine and DJ Tutu to SummerStage. Tell us about your idea of putting that whole showcase together.
I’ve been really lucky to partner with the curatorial team behind Brazil Summer Fest, who’s done a lot to promote Brazilian culture in New York City and does an amazing job with this whole festival. I will have to give credit to Paula Abreu in my office, who is from Brazil, who is my go-to when questioning, “Is this an artist we should be doing? Are they a big deal in Brazil?” Of course, Lenine has such a rabid and strong following, but I wasn’t hugely familiar with him. What’s exciting is that it’s this interesting collaborative project with these Dutch musicians, and it has not been done in the U.S. at all. We’re having a debut, and I don’t know what to expect because I haven’t seen it live, but I think it’s really interesting that he continues to mix up the way that he’s approaching music. So, I’m as interested to see it as anyone else.
Are these Dutch musicians doing art music, symphonic music, pop music, or who the hell are they? [Laughter]
That is actually a good question. I wouldn’t feel comfortable categorizing them. I don’t know what movement they’re coming out of.
All right. Let’s just call them Dutch.
Well, they are Dutch. That I know. [Laughter]
By the way, I saw Lenine sing and play solo acoustic guitar at globalFest many years ago. He just killed it.
Yeah, when you talk to people, who’ve seen him over the years, they just love him. For Brazilians, he is a big deal, and for people who appreciate world music, he is one of the big names that people really have seen over the years and really respond to. So, I’m excited to see this new project because I think people who’ve seen him perform before maybe haven’t seen him this way, and that’s particularly interesting.
He’s great. You’ll enjoy him. O.K., last but not least, Chronixx and Junior Reid.
This one I’m excited about. We don’t always get a reggae show. We’re really excited because we’re partnering with the Okayplayer platform to celebrate their 15th anniversary, and one of the platforms underneath Okayplayer is Large Up, which is focused on Caribbean and reggae music. And, in talking to them, and also asking around, Chronixx is a really young artist coming up directly out of Jamaica, who is making big waves. Everyone that I ask about these things, who really listens to reggae music and follows what’s happening in Jamaica, says that this is the guy to watch and that we should be excited to present him. And, in listening to him, what I think really stands out is that, lyrically, he’s really talking about things that matter, and that doesn’t always happen in a lot of pop music or contemporary music. He really has deep thoughts of social commentary and is really saying some thoughtful stuff. He’s got a great voice and his profile is really blowing up. In most of the bills, you’ll notice, I’m pairing artists that are contemporary or young and kind of new voices coming out of any given country or cultural movement with legends, and of course, Junior Reid is a legend, and someone that we’ve been lucky enough to present before. So, it’s truly a co-bill--a way to present reggae music and contemporary Jamaican culture with a young player, whose profile is rising, and also to have the legendary Junior Reid, who’s got such a massive catalog and a long career.
Well, thanks, Erika. As always, congrats on putting together such a great, varied season! We’ll see you out there this summer.
Thanks, Sean. See you out there soon!