Jumpin’ Up

 

APRIL

 

   The weeks leading up to Mardi Gras are the most anticipated time of year in New Orleans, but Jazz Fest is not far behind. Indeed the festival, established 52 years ago, is enjoyed by many locals who opt to flee their city before the influx of drunken tourists reaches a critical mass on Fat Tuesday.

 

COVID-19 exploded in the USA right after the end of the 2020 Carnival season. Cases, hospitalizations, and deaths surged throughout Louisiana and across the country. The event, generally held over two weekends in the spring, was cancelled that year. In 2021, the introduction of life-saving vaccines prompted the organizers to announce a delayed festival to be held in October. However, the delta variant put the kibosh on those plans by early August.

 

Throughout the dismal interregnum, radio station WWOZ did great work raising spirits. “Festing In Place”, broadcast in the region and streamed globally, brought together favorite performances from years gone by. As entertaining and life-affirming as those recordings were, they could never match the intensity in-person sets at the Fairgrounds Race Course, where the festival has taken place since 1972. Multiple stages will once more resound from April 29th through May 1st. After a pause for the cause, things will start up again on the 5th, before concluding on Sunday afternoon.

Yet there are some jazz lovers who are decidedly not in love with jazz fest. Their curmudgeonly critiques follow two main lines of thought. The first is that the outsized influence of Preservation Hall and the Marsalis family have fostered an ossified vision of America’s greatest art form, to the detriment of lesser-known innovators and styles.

 

Allied to this viewpoint, some complain that a showcase in the city where jazz was born should not feature so many acts with only tenuous links to the genre. Admittedly, Willie Nelson, Lionel Richie, and Stevie Nicks – all of who will be playing this year – are seldom discussed alongside Ella Fitzgerald or Duke Ellington. Such an argument, however, overlooks the fact that, from the beginning, jazz has influenced, and been influenced by, other forms of popular music.

 

It is also worth noting the event is officially called The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Food, folk life, and design are also part of the mix. As in years past, the Fairgrounds will echo with sounds of Cajun acts like BeauSoleil, bounce performers (Big Freedia) and zydeco bands (Sunpie & the Louisiana Sunspots).

 

The full lineup can be found here.

 

 

MAY

 

   The very place names enchant. Rome…Parma…Milan…Akron?

 

These are all municipalities in Ohio, but they are of course also cities in Italy. That’s where, in the 16th century, commedia dell’arte came into being. Noted for bawdy humor, the style coalesced around lazzi (“routines”) enacted by stock characters like Arlecchino, Columbina, and Piero. Companies of traveling artistes staged performances during Carnival and other celebrations. A range of stylized masks allowed actors to play multiples roles within a production; many of these have become Carnival fixtures in their own right.

 

In English-speaking countries, the characters may be better known by French names: Harlequin, Columbine, or Pierrot – testimony to commedia’s pan-European appeal. Since 2006, members of the Players’ Patchwork Theatre Company have dedicated themselves to preserving the comedic idiom in The Buckeye State. “Commedia could happen at any time of the year” explains Jess Rudolph, the Artistic Director and one of the founders of the troupe. “The festivities, having fun, the folly that would be associated with commedia is often associated with Carnival as well”.

The annual bacchanal also has a direct link his company’s origin. As a student at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Jess was invited to perform at a Carnevale gala organized by Italian Club on campus. Since then, they have worked hard to honor the improvisatory roots of the style. Writers like Moliere and Shakespeare would later incorporate commedia motifs into their works, but the original companies generally followed loose scenarios rather than tightly scripted texts. This spirit informs Players’ Patchwork’s original productions: “You can have an entire 3-act play in about six pages”.

 

Mr. Rudolph concedes that literacy rates were lower 500 years ago, but is quick to emphasize that was not the primary driver behind the use of lazzi. Rather, Renaissance Italy was comprised of numerous city-states, duchies, and independent republics. Traveling through such landscapes, the troupes needed to entertain the masses while avoiding the wrath of civil or ecclesiastical authorities. “It was harder to censor if there was no written proof of things they did which might be considered ‘questionable’”.

 

Even as they celebrate this history, PPTC mixes commedia with elements of anime, steampunk, and medieval Japanese drama. This cross-cultural approach is a hallmark of two productions that revolve around the figure of Il Dottore, or The Doctor. The character developed to spoof the pompous academics one might have encountered in Padua, Bologna, or other university towns. “He’s the know-it-all” say Jess, “He will talk your ear off. He’s the character that others will go to for advice, but that advice can be really weird”.

 

The French Author Francois Rabelais, who died in 1553, wrote “Gargantua & Pantagruel”, a novel full of grotesque, slapstick humor that satirized  medieval romances and the philosophical fads of his day. Players’ Patchwork explore the conceit that The Doctor finds a manuscript of Rabelais’ mock epic, and takes it as a scientific treatise. Hilarity ensues.

 

Spanning centuries, “Dottore Who” is a parody mash-up of commedia and the BBC series about a certain beloved Time Lord. Naturally, it has proven a big hit at science fiction and fantasy conventions, where PPTC have frequently appeared. They will be performing again at this year’s MARCON, which runs from May 6th through 8th at the Crowne Plaza North in Columbus.

 

JUNE

 

   From the Vegas-meets-Pyongyang spectacle of Rio to the exuberant blocos of Salvador da Bahia, Brazil’s Carnival is arguably the most famous in the world. The Tradition is embraced throughout the Federative Republic with such fervor that one might think there would be little energy for partying later in the year. The festas Juninas make it clear this is hardly the case.

Along with Catholicism, Portuguese colonizers brought Carnival to Brazil during the 1500s. As in Europe, the timing is derived from the liturgical calendar, but the custom of Pre-Lenten debauchery has never been officially recognized by The Church. By contrast, the festas coincide with the feast days of Saint Peter, Saint Anthony, and John the Baptist, all of which occur during the month of June.

 

While they are observed nationwide, the celebrations are especially popular in the northeastern states where an arid climate makes for challenging agricultural conditions. Taking place at the start of winter in the southern hemisphere, they can be seen as harvest rituals. Even in large coastal cities, there is a rural feel. Male revelers sport straw hats, women don red checked dresses, and everybody enjoys corn-based delicacies while sipping homemade liqueurs. Some locales feature performances of Bumba Meu Boi, a folkloric drama recounting the death and resurrection of a magical ox.

 

Musically, there’s plenty of forro, accordion-fueled tunes which, to North American ears, may evoke Mexican Banda. Square dances known as quadrilhas are also popular, while fife bands parade wearing leather hats in a Napoleonic style. Kids enjoy sack races and ring toss games. Those pursuing more adult diversions eagerly await the feast of Sao Antonio on June 13th.

 

Saint Anthony is often venerated as “the patron saint of lost causes”. Legends of him reconciling couples have led to the belief that he can intercede to improve one’s romantic prospects. In Brazil, June 12th has come to be known as the Dia dos Namorados, or Lovers’ Day. The term is applied to St. Valentine’s day in other Lusophone lands.

 

The merriment peaks on June 24th, the feast of Sao Joao/Saint John. It’s a particularly lively, two-day affair in the city of Caruaru in Pernambuco. 2011 brought a record-breaking 1.5 million attendees – an impressive feat for a community with a population less than 1/3 of that figure. Whether Catholic or Evangelical, devout or atheistic, the people of Brazil take their feasts very seriously indeed.

 

 

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