“I wish you could know what it means to be me and then you’d see and agree that every man should be free.” – Dr. Billy Taylor
The quest for freedom is a never ending quest. While we have freedom of expression here in the US, organizations like City of Asylum/Pittsburgh remind us that some of our brothers and sisters around the world don’t have that luxury. Tsering Woeser is a Beijing-based Tibetan freelance writer and blogger. Her actions are severely restricted by Chinese authorities. Saleban Abdi Ali is a journalist for the Waheen newspaper in Somalia. On September 10 of 2011 he was attacked by Somaliland police. He was made “an example” by the Special Protection Unit to fellow journalists. Ali is one of the 888 writers persecuted in the past year.
The City of Asylum provides safe homes for endangered, exiled writers from around the world in living spaces on Sampsonia Way, located in Central Northside. It is a blossoming community for writers, readers, and neighbors. This allows people to write and think freely so their voices are not silenced. While offering a broad range of literary programs in a community setting, City of Asylum encourages cross-cultural exchange. The organization also anchors neighborhood economic development by transforming blighted properties into homes for these programs and energizing public spaces through public art with text-based components.
Jazz is a worldwide expression of freedom. For the past six years musician/composer/visual artist/poet Oliver Lake has brought together various components of his musical experience and collaborated with writers and poets from around the globe for City of Asylum/Pittsburgh and their annual Jazz – Poetry concert. The event has attracted international attention.
What happens during the presentation is that poets perform in their native language with simulcast translations on a large overhead screen. The musicians perform a full concert of avant-garde Jazz. This year alto Saxophonist Lake presented his Steel Quartet with Lyndon Achee on steel pan, Damon DueWhite on drums and percussion in addition to nine-time Grammy nominee Meshell Ndegeocello on bass and vocals. Lake was very excited to have his Steel Quartet on hand. “This engagement provides somewhat of a reunion since we haven’t played together in a couple of years”. When talking about how the Quartet got started Lake reflects, “The idea came offhandedly to start the steel quartet several years ago at the suggestion of a German record producer. What the final result was recordings on my own label, Passin’ Thru”. Lake had also worked with Ndegeocello on several projects in the past including “The Spirit Music Jama”.
Each artist showed their musical proficiency through outstanding performances. Meshell performed Nina Simone’s classic “Four Women”, DueWhite a drumming sensation showed the audience his agility and power, Achee took us to another level on his steel pan solos and Lake soared on alto. The eight song set during the program included “First Time”, “Song for J”, “Sock it” and “Venus”.
Several other collaborations took place with the musicians as well as individual prose commencing from Oliver Lake, Khet Mar of Burma and Nyein Thit through the power of the internet. Thit, who is hidden in exile, did a poem with Khet Mar. A very moving conversation also took place with Tsering Woeser from Tibet and Meshell Ndegeocello. This conversation also took place through cyberspace.
Preceding the Jazz poetry collaboration was a showing of placards from the audience. Each person had the name of a persecuted writer. The name I had was that of Saleban Abdi Ali who I had mentioned earlier. From the very instant I opened my program and saw his name I felt spiritually connected and made it my mission to someday meet him face to face. The stirring poetry of Israel Centeno, T.J. Dema, Luis Bravo and Patricia Smith was presented in the closing part of the concert. Smith is known as a force in the fields of poetry, playwriting, fiction, performance and creative collaboration. She is called “a testament to the power of words to change lives”. Smith is a four-time national individual champion of the notorious and wildly popular Poetry Slam. She was featured in the nationally-released film “Slamnation,” and appeared on the award-winning HBO series “Def Poetry Jam.” Her powerful and totally spontaneous presentation with Lake and the band will be something that concert goers will talk about for years to come. Her work defies categorization .
The September 8 presentation is a living testimony to the struggles of those who are not free to express themselves openly.
As the lyrics of Billy Taylor go further to explain….
“I wish I could break all the chains holding me
I wish I could say all the things that I should say
say ‘em loud, say ‘em clear
for the whole round world to hear.”