All posts by Ben

Juanes

The US pop charts have been full of Spanish-speaking singers for most of my life: Enrique Iglesias, Carlos Santana, Ricky Martin, Shakira, even Jennifer Lopez. These musicians all speak Spanish as their first language, but they all produce records in English, or largely English, for the US market, which is why I’ve heard of them. Juanes, then, might be the most famous Spanish-language pop singer who doesn’t sing in English. As such, I’d never heard of him until last week.

As it turns out, a friend of mine is a lifelong fan, and so I went to his concert at Madison Square Garden last Wednesday. The audience was diverse in age, but mostly seemed to speak Spanish como lengua materna. To prepare, I listened to as many of his songs as I could, so I would know what I was hearing (and so I had a chance to look up any words I didn’t know).

The concert was almost nonstop singing, with very little in the way of banter. He sang 22 songs in total, which seemed like a lot, and included all his hits that I’d heard of.

I think my favorites are Mil Pedazos, Volverte a Ver, Juntos, La Camisa Negra, Mala Gente, and A Dios le Pido … which is a lot of favorites, really.

On the periphery of the Jazz Age

Twice each summer, a group of anachronistically inclined New Yorkers puts on the Jazz Age Lawn Party, an all-day outdoor event on Governor’s Island. It’s essentially a ticketed picnic with Jazz and Swing bands, except that everyone is dressed like they are going to the poshest possible event in 1925. (Most take this quite literally, but some modern warm-weather adaptations were also on display.)

The tickets sold out long ago, but there’s nothing to stop a curious tourist, dressed like a 2015 schlub, from paying the $2 ferry fare, lying down on the grass under the trees, right next to the fenced-off area, and listening to the nightclub jazz echoing off of the disused and decaying navy barracks at 4 in the afternoon.

Also, on the other side of the barracks, hidden down one of many twisty paths, are a trio of hammocks, which are very nice.

Coincidentally, as the lawn party was winding down, the next event was setting up nearby: an Electronic Dance Music “party” (hard to call it a performance if it’s all electronic). In Manhattan, the ferry emptied its load of flapper dresses, floral headbands, seersucker suits, and straw boaters, and replaced them with a young screaming crowd in spandex, sunglasses, and glitter.

Maybe their music, and fashion, will be faithfully replicated by a sedate and studious crowd 90 years hence, in the early afternoon.

Addendum, on Neighborhoods

A few doors down from me (the other way) is Jehovah-Jireh Baptist Church of Christ, in a brownstone/rowhouse that looks pretty much like all the other ones on the block. Tonight, walking by, I took a closer look than usual, and spied a Star of David over the door … surrounded by Hebrew letters. In the streetlight, they seemed to read “Talmud Torah, Chevra Knesset Yisrael”. The year 1926 is also engraved there.

With a bit of searching, I was able to find that the building originally housed Congregation Agudas Achim (also spelled Agudath Achim, in its ad for services in this German-language Jewish newspaper from 1945). I also found its certificate of occupancy, for use as a synagogue in 1926.

It’s less clear when exactly the building was built, and when the ownership changed. Nice of the new owners to keep the old signage though.

The Amsterdam Social

When I moved into this apartment the nearby storefronts were churches, laundromats, convenience stores, used stuff resellers, Chinese takeout, fried chicken, and The Amsterdam Social. It was the only table-service restaurant for 5 blocks north or south, maybe farther. Its menu was inventive and international, its decor ambitiously architectural and geometric. The clientele, needless to say, appeared distinctly more affluent than the neighborhood average.

The word is “gentrification”.

I don’t actually know what this word means. It sounds like it’s meant to describe a universal phenomenon, maybe something to do with landowners (the gentry), but I’ve only ever heard it used to describe White people moving in and Black people moving out, for very particular definitions of White and Black that don’t seem to have much to do with The Landed Gentry.

In New York, conventional wisdom says that gentrification proceeds by anchor points. Someone sets up a bar or a coffee shop with prices high enough to keep out the long-time residents, leaving only the new arrivals. New people move into the neighborhood, comforted by the presence of a familiar bar and coffee shop. One block West of me are The Harlem Public (pub) and The Chipped Cup (coffee), serving exactly this function.

The Amsterdam Social was a favorite of mine, which is to say that in 11 months I went there twice, and ordered takeout once. I was therefore disappointed when, after returning from Seattle, I saw they were closed. A sign on the window bid us a fond farewell.

It might have been a speed problem; service and preparation were too slow for a restaurant without tablecloths. Or, it might have been because they lost their liquor license and converted to BYOB.

My personal favorite explanation is that “gentrifiers” are by definition people who are trying to find more space for less money than their first-choice neighborhood, so they’re more likely to have room to cook at home, and less likely to spend money on dinner out.

Maybe gentrification is not monotonic curve … or maybe bar and cafe really are the two magic categories. The Monkey Cup, a coffee shop with its own Instagram feed, just opened two blocks South, on a row otherwise populated by three hair salons, a hardware store, convenience store, and fruit stand, all primarily Spanish-speaking.

She Stoops to Conquer

In the summer in New York City, there are often half a dozen different theater companies performing Shakespeare in various city parks. This week, the Hudson Warehouse company decided to shake things up a bit by putting on She Stoops to Conquer by Not Shakespeare Oliver Goldsmith. Like all of their productions, it was held on the north side of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, with the wide stone staircase serving as seating and the north patio (which appears suspended over an unseen chasm) as the stage. It’s a dramatic setting … almost too dramatic for this play, which is a light, bawdy comedy verging on slapstick.

I can see why a Shakespeare company would choose this play. Like so much of Shakespeare, it traffics in aristocratic romances, mistaken identities, deceptions that work a little too easily and a little too well, and sexual humor carefully euphemised. Unlike Shakespeare, it’s written in mostly-comprehensible modern English, having been first published in 1773.

Euphemisms seem to have a shorter half-life than the language average, with the result that the most salacious parts of old literature are the first to become obscure. That effect works to the advantage of this play today; the jokes about prostitution and virginity that might shock a modern audience in plain language, instead sound like this.

The cast was phenomenal, confirming my theory that New York City is uniquely chock full of extraordinary stage actors. They put on an incredibly energetic vocal and physical performance, nonstop for two hours, including occasional a cappella minuet interludes. It felt like a whirlwind in tricorner hats and petticoats.

Next up for the Hudson Warehouse company is Titus Andronicus. I can’t imagine it could possibly be so entertaining.

Cartel Land

Saturday evening, after tubing, I went back to my hotel, and found myself with nothing to do and no reason to go to bed early, one block from the Seattle Film Festival theater in Queen Anne. I decided to take a leap and go see a movie … by myself. Maybe for the first time.

I watched Cartel Land, a documentary that follows two groups of vigilantes, one in Southern Texas, the other in Mexico. The parallel is entirely false (the Mexican group is larger by at least two orders of magnitude), but both stories are made compelling by the two groups’ flawed, charismatic leaders.

The plot carries tremendous suspense, and runs inside a frame device with a twist ending … ingenious, much like the trick cinematography (probably quadcopter-based) that adds high-tech flair throughout. In fact, the plotting and filming are so ingenious, and the access so stupendous, that one wonders how much of the premise to believe. Could the Texas vigilantes really have intercepted a half-dozen immigrants crossing through the desert, on camera? Would the Mexican self-defense force really have allowed a cameraman to film their abusive interrogation of a father while his daughter screams for mercy?

Maybe!