Monday, September 22, 2008

Kristin Hersh - (Ain't Nothin' But A) House Party

Kristin Hersh and her husband/manager/number one fan Billy O’Connell are always pioneering new ways of getting her music out to her fan base outside the realm of the record companies who have let them down in the past. Their latest venture is the Shady Circle, a series of house concerts in which Kristin performs a repertoire consisting of the Appalachian folk songs she was raised on, as well as some of her original compositions. Tine (Kristin’s webmaster) and Steve were kind enough to invite us to a Shady Circle gig at their house in Franklin last night.

Not knowing quite how long it would take to drive there, we left home early and were the first guests to show up. Tine and Steve’s adorable daughters answered the door, and Billy immediately greeted us and gave us a warm welcome. The girls asked people to fill out name tags. Billy wrote “Mr. Hersh” on his, and Kristin wrote “Mrs. Billy O’Connell” on hers. Kristin dubbed Tine the “Web Ho”, which Tine wrote on her own name tag. Other guests arrived, and the first hour or so was spent mingling, and enjoying snacks and drinks.

Then at around 7:15 Billy called out, “So are we going to do a show or what?” and everyone filed into Tine and Steve’s big, comfortable great room. Kristin sat on a chair in front of a shoji screen with her electric guitar and a small amp. The lighting was subdued and augmented by flickering candles. Guests sat on the floor as well as on couches and chairs. Kristin introduced the set as Appalachian folk songs “about murdering your girlfriend” she had learned during her childhood. Some of these were familiar to us from previous concerts and her “Murder, Misery, and then Goodnight” album, while others were new to us. Billy heckled her good-naturedly, scolding her for not announcing song titles.

Tine and Steve’s 17 pound cat kept wandering up to Kristin as she played, and she commented on the "devil cat" a few times. She did some of her original songs as well, such as “City of the Dead” (!!), “Sno Cat”, and “Teeth”. When Billy mentioned that the amp was buzzing a tiny bit, she talked about a recent show she did where the rain made it sound like an old record album. She thought it was cool: “I’m an old blues guy!”

After slightly over an hour, she closed the set with “When the Levee Breaks” and a request from Billy which he called “Tuesday”. It was a tremendous set – very intimate and the small crowd was absolutely enthralled. You could have heard a pin drop. Everyone was transfixed. After the set was over, everyone hung out in the dining room, eating and drinking and chatting. We got a chance to talk to Tine, whom we have seen at shows for years but have never really spoken to. As the crowd thinned out and Billy was breaking down the equipment, we got a chance to chat with him. He remembered that we had been traveling when Kristin had played with Tanya in Boston last October, so we had been unable to attend. He asked how our trip was, so we chatted about Bhutan. He told us about their recent gig in Mexico, which they totally enjoyed, and upcoming opportunities to play in Beirut and Tel Aviv. We talked about Guatemala, and took the opportunity to show him a picture of Aracely on our cell phone.

We talked about Kristin’s music, and the recent projects she has been working on. It is apparent that he is just as awed by her talent as the rest of us. I was reminded of a line from her song “Juno”: “Her husband of 19 years danced madly at her feet”. That’s Billy. We talked about all of the memorable times surrounding Kristin’s music – the Gut Pageant at the Paradise, Bellows Falls Vermont with the quaint train ride, the show at Hi-n-Dry Studios which was recorded for a DVD release… Billy brought up the show at Club 608 when Kristin tried out a bunch of new songs, some of which (my favorite “Somewhere in America” and Billy’s favorite “Blessed”) never took off because Kristin didn’t think they were real enough. Craig raved about how much we love the new “10-4” recordings Kristin has done, and campaigned to have her record the rest of her catalog in that manner as well.

We wanted to get a nice photo of Billy and Kristin together, so he called her over. We chatted with her for a few minutes, and then Craig helped them to bring the equipment out to the car. We thanked Kristin, Billy, Tine, and Steve for such a wonderful night, and then headed home.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Working with Somali Bantu Refugees for IRC

Craig and I recently watched the documentary film "God Grew Tired of Us", which chronicles the journey of several Sudanese "Lost Boy" refugees from the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya to the United states, where they were resettled. It was a very interesting movie. Although the young men were very excited to leave the refugee camp and come to America, their learning curve was huge. They had never before "used electricity" and wondered if it would be difficult. The escalator at the airport as totally foreign to them, and each almost fell as he stepped onto it. When they got to their apartment in the United States, someone had to show them how to turn on the lights, and how to use the bathroom fixtures. When they first saw a single twin bed, they thought that three of them would be sharing it, and they were happy with that. When they learned that they would each have their own bed, they were amazed. Everything was just so far outside their realm of experience.

Craig and I had always thought that maybe one day we would volunteer overseas, but we hadn't realized just how much support refugees need when they move to the U.S. I decided to look into opportunities to volunteer here, and discovered the International Rescue Committee website. This is a non-profit agency who actually participated in the resettlement of the Lost Boys in the film, and they have a resettlement office in Boston.

Browsing their web site I saw that they were in need of a volunteer child development assistant. I went to the Boston office for an interview, and learned that there was a population of Somali Bantu refugees who had been resettled in Lynn. They had been here for approximately three years, but were having a harder time integrating into society here than other refugees because the Bantu are a pre-literate society. They have no written language of their own, so learning English has been especially challenging.

While the fathers have gotten entry-level jobs and the school-aged children have started school, the mothers have been isolated at home with their young children.
The North Star Program in Lynn has been set up to provide support to the women and children. Mothers take literacy classes while children are introduced to an American pre-school environment.

My bosses were quite supportive and allowed me to shift my schedule so that I can help with the children one morning a week. This past Thursday was my first day. As the mothers and children showed up, it was apparent that the mothers hadn't yet adjusted to this climate. Although it was a sunny day in the 60's, the children were bundled up, as if for winter. One arrived in a full-on snowsuit!

The children ranged in age from around 6 months old to around 3 years. The older children were a bit standoffish, as I was a new face. In general, the children were much more low-key than American toddlers. They were very quiet, never really speaking much in English or their native tongue. This was probably the only place that they ever played with actual toys, and we demonstrated how to use certain things and got them engaged in play. I spent most of my time playing with a baby named Ameena. She was very sweet and content, eventually falling asleep on my shoulder.

By the end of the two hour session, some of the older kids were warming up to me. After an hour and a half of free play, the kids ate snack and then we did circle time with a story and some songs. A couple older kids really got into the songs and Ring-Around-The-Rosey.

Carla, the director of the program, told me some interesting facts, such as the fact that birth dates and even birth years are not culturally significant to the Bantu, so none of the refugees knew how old they were. When they were screened for their entry into the U.S., they went through an age analysis, where their ages were estimated based on knowledge of events during their lives (wars, seasons, governments in place, etc). They are all assigned a Jan 1 birthday, and each year on New Year's Day, IRC holds a birthday party for all of the refugees in the area.

I am very proud to be involved with this organization, and I look forward to seeing the kids again next week!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

November Guatemala Trip with Videos

We have finally gotten our November trip to Guatemala posted on the web site. It was a very special trip because we became padrinos (godparents) of our ahijada (godchild) Aracely.

We have also posted two cute videos.

One is a slide show of the five girls (Vanesa, Paola, Yasmin, Yoselin, and Aracely) set to the Tom Waits song "Take Care of All of My Children".

The other is a frenetic video montage set to "Wiggles" by Rick Wakeman.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Bhutan and India Travelogues are Finally Posted

It's been about 11 months since we visited Bhutan and India, and we finally finished writing/editing/posting journal entries and photos from each day on our web site:

Now it's time to work on Guatemala, Galapagos, and Ohio...