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AYO on left // Photo: Jim Saah

AYO Gets Help And Opportunity At Strathmore With AIR

AYO needed help. That’s the first thing she mentions when discussing her recent inclusion as one of Strathmore’s Artist in Residence (AIR). The program is intended to help them gain opportunities to perform, create and teach workshops at the Bethesda-based arts center.

Being an independent artist while juggling an upcoming EP, singles and performances is a full time job, and if you couple that with limited resources, the life can seem daunting. For a majority of her early life, AYO never even considered the path of a full-time musician, citing that she enrolled at Howard University to study Biology. Despite this, her undeniable talent behind a microphone coupled with her messages of empowerment have made her an artist to watch in the DC area.

At 7:30 p.m. on January 15 and January 29, AYO will take the Strathmore stage with two unique concerts. Before she performs at The Mansion, we got to talk to the artist about the life of a musician, AIR and writing music that resonates.

OT: What made you want to get involved with the Strathmore Artist in Residence program?
AYO: I needed help, that’s what. I needed help.  This program keeps stretching me, and it’s crazy how much help I didn’t know I needed. Creating a strong email list is something that seems common sense, but it wasn’t to me. Being your own music director or pitching yourself to venues. It’s been a lot of things, and it’s forced me to do those things. It’s classes: It’s all six of us in the room with [AIR director Betty Scott]  and one of her assistants and aids, and a presenter. We ask as many questions as we want. For example, we had a grant writing class, and I didn’t know all this money was available for people like me.

OT: What was your reaction when you found out?
AYO:
I screamed when I found out, just YAY, you know. I was really really excited and I couldn’t believe it. It was amazing. I was just really honored, and I didn’t know what to expect.

OT: Obviously the AIR participants are all from different backgrounds, what’s it like getting to know your contemporaries from different genres? 
AYO: Yeah, it’s definitely been very encouraging to see, to feel this much support in this music thing. To know that it’s possible to know that other people are on this journey with me. It can feel very alone. Like you’re out here alone trying to make this ting work, to know that other people are working toward the same thing in other genres is really inspiring.

OT: How did your musical journey start? How did you start singing?
AYO: I lived in Nigeria, from five to 11, and my babysitter used to sing songs with me. She heard me sing, and realized oh you have a nice voice. She was also the director of our Youth choir at our church, and she would give me little solos and stuff like that. 

OT: From there, what kind of involvement did you have with music and singing?
AYO: I remember singing a lot of church music, a lot of leading worship. Didn’t really sing anything outside of church. I did a couple of talent shows. My dad listened to a lot of Sunny Adaye, Nigerian artists and afro beats and stuff like that. 

OT: You’re sound is often listed under the umbrella category of pop, so what’s your relationship like with that term?
AYO: For me, pop music happened when I was in high school. I used to go on Limewire and Frost something, all of those ripped music sites, I would go on there and type in artists. At the time I loved Maroon 5, and then I listened to Coldplay, then Plain White Ts. I loved the way those songs made me feel and how they would build. I loved Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. I was obsessed with Pink and Katy Perry. I loved big pop songs, those go to another place type pop songs. Coldplay was really good at that. I loved Journey, a lot of these songs I would hear on the show Glee, and I would go look at it from there. 

OT: Were you writing your own “big” pop songs at the time?
AYO: There’s stuff I wrote my senior year at high school, [and] I’m not saying I was a bad writer, but I definitely wrote different. My freshman year of high school, I would write melodies and I would play the piano by ear. I would just play the harmonies I heard in my head. That made songwriting slow for me, versus now, I can hear a melody in my head and build songs fairly quickly.

OT: What changed about your song writing? Was it the inclusion of the piano as a tool?
AYO: Oh absolutely, for me, it was very much hand in hand. I started playing piano when I was five, but I didn’t really do anything. The guy would try to teach me, and I would run around. In high school, my mom would make us sing worship at night, and I would play different chords on the piano. I tested into the remedial music course in college, and I took classical and jazz piano, and I practiced my butt off and I started to see a difference in my writing. It was really playing piano and theory that fueled me as a writer.

OT: Your music is extremely emotional, which makes sense because of your church backgrounds. Where you always writing songs like this?
AYO: I was a sad child. I wrote about my parents’ divorce, I wrote about being alone a lot. I wrote about liking people, crushes. So yeah. It definitely was there, I wrote about everything I experienced. I basically loved seeing people’s stories and having the chance to tell them. It was very unrefined, when I was raped in college, it took me six years to write about it, but I did. The struggle with depression and anxieties, seeing what children in Baltimore went through when I was teaching them. Despite that, I don’t want the music to sound depressed, or have that vibe. 

OT: How do you strike that balance during the construction process?
AYO: Most of the time I have a theme. If I’m feeling a certain type of way. With my single “Direction,” I remember really liking this guy and I didn’t want to be the one to approach him, I wanted him to approach me. [So], what kind of chord would make it seem like I was moving in a direction? I also thought about what artist I wanted to influence the song, so I used Earth, Wind and Fire and early Michael Jackson. [When] I wanted to write a Christmas song [“Direction”], I love Jazz music, and I wanted to use Nat King Cole, he used a lot of two-five-ones and key changes, and I figured out what sounded Christmas-y, and wrote the lyrics according to that. That’s kind of my process.

OT: You have several concerts coming up, an acoustic performance on January 15 and a larger pop show on January 29, what should people know about those showcases?
AYO: So, the first one couple of concerts is very intimate, very singer songwriter type of vibes. The second one is a very pop show, with huge pop songs, such as “Don’t Stop Believing.” My music is very uplifting and very fun, but it’ll make you think. It’ll make you think about those experiences that you have in life. That what my music will do. 

AYO’s performances on January 15 and January 29, tickets $25. For more information, click here. For links to her music, click here.

The Music Center At Strathmore: 5301 Tuckerman Ln. Bethesda, MD; 301-581-5100; www.strathmore.org

Photo: courtesy of Step Afrika!

A Step Above the Rest: Step Afrika! Returns To Strathmore

Step Afrika! was created in 1994 by C. Brian Williams, who wanted to honor the African American ritual of stepping – a polyrhythmic, percussive dance form that uses the body as an instrument – and preserve, expand and promote the art form. 

“We were the first professional company in the world dedicated to the tradition of stepping,” says Williams, the group’s founder and executive director. “It’s a custom dance form first created by African American fraternities and sororities as a way of expressing pride in their organizations.”

Today, the Step Afrika! troupe is comprised of 14 full-time artists. For the past 25 years, the DC-based organization has regularly engaged 30,000 college students across the nation, taught teamwork and discipline to 200 kids as part of the Summer Steps with Step Afrika! summer camp and expanded culture-based arts education for more than 20,000 DC, Maryland and Virginia school students.

The group has also appeared on Broadway and will be returning to the Great White Way in 2020, offering the latest in lightning-fast footwork, percussive chants and incredible synchronicity.

“We take the art form to the next level and put it right up there with ballet, modern and tap,” Williams says. “Our showcase is one of the best ways to get introduced to stepping for those who have never seen it.”

On January 12, Step Afrika! will return to the Strathmore to preview its latest production, Drumfolk. The performance, which was commissioned by Strathmore, traces the roots of step back to the African American percussive traditions of patting juba, hambone, ring shout and tap. 

Drumfolk reflects on the harsh realities of the American South and celebrates the fortitude of enslaved Africans who practiced these transcendent musical forms,” Williams says. “We’re going to be taking this show on a 10-city tour throughout 2020. To have Strathmore get behind us and help us with this work has been super important for us.”

He explains that Drumfolk is based on very little known events in American history that Step Afrika! feels have had a tremendous impact on the country.

“There was a revolt in 1739 called the Stono Rebellion, which was led by Africans against the system of slavery,” Williams says. “These were some of the first activists before the country even formed. Even though it was not successful in overthrowing slavery, it led to the Negro Act of 1740 where Africans lost the right to use their drums. We started to see African Americans using their bodies as the drums, and so many of our art forms can find their origins in his historical moment.”

The Strathmore program will also include Step Xplosion, a showcase of the region’s finest step squads. 

“We’re going to hit the stage at the Strathmore for one of our biggest performances of the year,” Williams says. “This show is where we invite step teams from across the country to share the stage with us and demonstrate the different styles of stepping that can be found across the U.S. This is a uniquely American art form and this show gives audiences a bigger look at the form.”

Among the featured step teams will be Eleanor Roosevelt High School’s Dem Raider Boyz Step Squad; Howard University’s Cook Hall Step Team; Paint Branch High School’s The Eclectic Steppers; the Hype Queens from North Carolina; and Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc.

A DJ will play music in between the performances and Williams describes the atmosphere as going to be like “a college step show on steroids!” 

“These teams aren’t competing for money, they are just having fun and exhibiting their abilities, style and forms,” Williams says. “The shows are fun. They are interactive and there really is no fourth wall between the audience and the artists. We encourage audiences of all ages to come out, make noise and connect with our performers.”

Prior to the show, Williams will hold a conversation in the Music Center Education Room 402 to discuss the creative process behind Step Afrika!’s Drumfolk program. The talk is free, but registration is required as space is limited.

“I think more people should see and learn about this art form because it is a uniquely American art form and one of the few indigenous dance forms created in the last 100 years,” Williams says. “If you’ve never seen Step Afrika!, it’s a DMV experience that everyone should see at least once. We are DC’s most celebrated dance company and no one else in the word has a company like us.”

Step Afrika! performs at the Strathmore at 5 p.m. on Sunday, January 12. Tickets $35-$75. For more information, visit www.strathmore.org.

The Music Center at Strathmore: 5301 Tuckerman Ln. Bethesda, MD; 301-581-5100; www.strathmore.org

Ayo // Photo: courtesy of Strathmore

Fresh AIR: Up-and-Coming Artists Bring Cross-Genre Sounds to Strathmore

November 20 marks the debut of six budding DC area musicians in their new roles as Strathmore Artists in Residence (AIR), taking the AMP by Strathmore stage with their mentors for a cross-genre performance. From percussionist-composer hybrids to jazz violinists, the diverse 2020 AIR were hand-selected by the North Bethesda-based arts center to provide an opportunity for them to perform, create and teach workshops, and jumpstart their professional careers.

As far as AIR director Betty Scott is concerned, there is no other program like it.

“A lot of organizations have artists in residence,” Scott says. “[They are] usually established artists who come in for a couple of weeks and work with a class or community. But in this case, [artists] are with us for an academic year and we give them education, nurturing and networking. It’s very different in that regard.”

After working as an elementary music teacher for 40 years, Scott decided retirement wasn’t for her. Her second career began with volunteering weekly at Strathmore, and ultimately led to the development of the center’s AIR program. After 15 years and 88 participants, the program has become a revered feature of the reputable space.

AIR’s 2020 class will bring a range of genres to AMP – Strathmore’s music and dining offshoot – this month, spanning pop, jazz and folk among others. Their Fresh AIR show will provide concertgoers with a hint of what’s to come at their future performances and workshops over the next 10 months.

“We do a full-band cover song to start and end the concert,” Scott says of the show’s format. “Each mentor and each AIR have to choose a piece they think is indicative of what people should expect to hear from them in future concerts.”

Pop vocalist Ayo, who will perform Fugees classic “Killing Me Softly” at the concert, credits several pop icons as her major influences.

“I love Stevie Wonder’s songwriting style and how he tells stories,” she says. “Sarah Vaughan and Whitney Houston, as vocalists, know how to really paint a picture with their voices.”

In addition to her impressive vocal range, Ayo uses her music to process difficult moments from life while empowering others to do the same. After releasing a song detailing her experience with sexual assault, men and women began reaching out to her, inspired to share their own stories.

“These are people that I have known for years,” she continues. “But I wouldn’t have known that they had gone through that until they reached out to me and said, ‘I didn’t know that someone like you went through this. Thank you for sharing. Because you shared this, I want to share my story.’”

During her Strathmore residency, Ayo will teach the workshop “Songs from the Heart: Storytelling through Songwriting.” She plans to continue encouraging people to share their stories.

“[I know I] have a story to tell and people need to hear it, so they know they’re not alone in what they’re going through.”

Her AIR classmate, early folk instrumentalist Niccolo Seligmann, has been fascinated with unique instruments since age five. After seeing a viola da gamba played in concert, he knew it was the instrument for him. Eight years of cello lessons later and Seligmann finally got the viola de gamba he’d been waiting for. Now, the Johns Hopkins’ Peabody Institute graduate plays 20 instruments – including the medieval fiddle.

In keeping with the theme of his upcoming album, Kinship, his performances at Strathmore will be inspired by climate change and the ways humans interact with the environment, nature and animals. At the Fresh AIR concert, Seligmann will perform a 15th-century Italian ballo, or dance, called “Verçeppe.”

“I always think of [this dance] as the sounds of a big jungle cat prowling and pouncing,” he says.

His performance will feature triangles created by his father-in-law, who is a blacksmith. Seligmann likes to create his own instruments – but not in a traditional way that might be associated with early music. During his residency, he’s looking to blend his love for medieval music with the music he creates on his computer.

“Anything a computer can grab data from can be an instrument,” he notes.

Seligmann will be teaching a workshop called “Strings of Gut, Lines of Code: Early Music in Today’s World” that he hopes will “create a music environment that shows the best of both worlds.”

“The last song in the Fresh AIR concert is [Bob Dylan’s] ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’ [by Bob Dylan], and I think that’s really the theme of all of our music-making,” he adds. “All of us in the AIR program are doing some kind of new thing, whether it’s new to us personally in our practice or new to the world. We as artists are changing with the times.”

Don’t miss Seligmann, Ayo and their four classmates at the Fresh AIR concert on November 20 at AMP by Strathmore. Tickets are $19. Doors at 6:30 p.m. and show at 8 p.m. For more on the AIR class of 2020 and their upcoming performance schedule, go to www.strathmore.org. Learn more about Ayo at www.ayoofficial.com and Seligmann at www.niccoloseligmann.com.

AMP by Strathmore: 11810 Grand Park Ave. North Bethesda, MD; 301-581-5100; www.ampbystrathmore.com

Photo: Greg Gorman

Rufus Wainwright Celebrates 20 Years at Strathmore

On the day of his breakthrough album’s release in 1998, Rufus Wainwright walked into a café expecting to be noticed. But when he took off his sunglasses, he remained unrecognized.

“I was believing everything people were saying to me: that I was going to be a massive star and make lots of money and become this legendary figure,” he says. “That’s not the way it went. But I have nothing to complain about. I’ve worked a long time and very hard, and matured. I learned the reality of being an artist and have done quite well.”

His self-titled debut album did quickly establish him as a singer-songwriter to watch thanks to songs like “Foolish Love,” “Millbrook” and “Sally Ann.” Not only did Rolling Stone name the record one of the best of the year, the publication also honored him with its Best New Artist designation. His follow-up album Poses came out three years later, another critical darling.

“Not long after the first two records, I realized that like my parents [who were folk singers], you’re only going to be as good as your live show is,” he says. “So I started doing a lot of solo shows to supplement my income and made it about what I could do as a troubadour. That has really gotten me through a lot of tidal waves of economics that have occurred since.”

Wainwright will perform songs from both albums at The Music Center at Strathmore on December 8 as part of his All These Poses tour to commemorate his debut album’s 20th anniversary.

“For the first half of the show, I come out and do most of the first album and intersperse with a couple of other tracks,” he says. “I am promoting a new record too, which is only available at the concert, so I’ll sing some of those songs.”

He’ll also be telling some stories about his family and what inspired some of his songs, and the early days of his music career. Then, for the second half of the show, Wainwright will play Poses top to bottom, complete with lighting effects and costume changes.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” he says. “We have the wonderful Rachel Eckroth opening up the show, and she’s also in the band. People are going to really enjoy hearing her.”

Over the years, Wainwright has released seven studio and three live albums and won countless awards. One of his most beloved recordings is the Grammy-nominated Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall paying homage to icon Judy Garland.

Besides being a celebrated pop singer, Wainwright has also found a calling in writing operas. In 2009, his much-admired Prima Donna premiered at the Manchester International Festival and has traveled the world since. His second opera Hadrian opened to critical acclaim this past October in Toronto.

“I discovered opera when I was 13 and was completely transfixed and transformed into this rabid 70-year-old opera queen all of a sudden. I couldn’t get enough of those old recordings, and it’s almost like the art form chose me and devoured me.”

Each of his operas took about four years of intense work, but nearly 10 years of thinking about them and getting them to where he wanted them to be. They are labors of love for Wainwright, and a big part of who he is.

“I also realized early on that I could use some of opera’s musical ideas and concepts and transfer them to my songwriting.”

The singer is finishing up his new album and aiming for a 2019 tour. Last month, he released a video starring Emmy winner and Glee star Darren Criss for his new song “Sword of Damocles,” which includes a powerful message addressed to President Trump.

“Damocles is a story where there’s a sword hanging over a tyrant’s head to show that when there are rulers who are belligerent, there’s a chance for danger for everybody involved,” he explains. “It’s directed toward Trump, but I feel it’s really directed toward everybody because no matter what happens, that sword is eventually going to come down.”

Don’t miss Wainwright at Strathmore on Saturday, December 8 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $39-$89 and can be purchased at www.strathmore.org. Learn more about the artist at www.rufuswainwright.com.

The Music Center at Strathmore: 5301 Tuckerman Ln. North Bethesda, MD; 301-581-5200; www.strathmore.org

Photo: Derek Wood

Comedy Wonder Woman Wanda Sykes

You’ve heard of Wanda Sykes because she’s probably one of your favorite comedian’s favorite comedian. Sykes isn’t limited to the stage though, gracing TV and the silver screen opposite stars like Don Cheadle, Larry David, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and countless others. Her voice can even be heard in the kids’ movie series Ice Age and in recent episodes of the Netflix hit BoJack Horseman.

Sykes is a veteran of the show business universe, getting her comedy start in the late 90s before joining the writing team of the celebrated, Emmy-winning Chris Rock Show. Since then, the prolific comic has acted in, produced and written everything from pilots and skits to feature films.

With a creative hand in diverse projects, Sykes has always had a soft spot for the art and freedom of standup. On her current Oh Well Tour, she’s tackling the nation’s political atmosphere and social issues, and the ins and outs of her own family life. We got to catch up with this tremendously funny wonder woman before she takes the Strathmore stage on November 3.

On Tap: Comedy specials and standup performances seem like a time for comedians to share their thoughts and feelings about the world with audiences. Is that how you look at it?
Wanda Sykes: I like to give you a snapshot of the lay of the land and what I think is going on with social issues and other things that are important to me. I spend a lot of time with my family, so I talk about that too. I’m trying to do it in a way that we can actually talk about things but have fun with them. I want to do it where we’re having fun and it’s not angry and saying everybody else is f–ked up. You want to point out hypocrisy on both sides.

OT: Your next comedy special will be on Netflix, but you’ve reportedly been critical of their offers in the past. What changed?
WS: I was speaking out more so in support of what Mo’Nique was saying. You have to get an offer you can live with, which is why I went with Epix for my last special. This time around, I was able to make a deal with [Netflix]. It’s great to be on that platform, because they reach so many people worldwide and that’s a great place to further your audience.

OT: You’re one of the most prolific comedians in entertainment, from writing and producing to doing standup. How do you choose what projects you want to do? What’s that process like?
WS: It’s about quality, [whether] it’s saying something or flat-out funny. It has to speak to me, and it has to be something I can make better. You have to tailor your approach to the project. If it’s writing, you have to discuss stories and what you want it to say. You go from there, [and] find out the best ways to service the project.

OT: Do you approach performing onstage differently than in a scripted setting?
WS:
Onstage when you’re doing a live show, it’s total freedom.
Every show I’ve done, there will be [at least] one thing that comes to me onstage. It’s exactly that [freedom], and that’s the beauty of standup.

OT: It feels like more often than not, comedians take flak from anyone and everyone. Has that become more prevalent in your industry? How has comedy changed over the course of your career?
WS:
It’s more eyeballs, but it’s also the access. The thing that drives me nuts the most is the cell phones at the shows – people recording the comics when they’re working stuff out. A lot of bits can get taken out of context when that happens. You’ll [see] someone and think they’re funny, and then you’ll see a clip that’s not and it’s because they’re still working on it. That hurts comedy and now when we’re onstage, we’re thinking about those repercussions.

OT: When President Trump was elected, some people thought that comedians would have a field day since politicians can be easy targets for jokes. Do you think that’s true with him, and will you work him into your standup at Strathmore?
WS: Oh, I’m totally going to talk about him. The thing is, there’s no comedian out there funnier than Trump. It’s hard to do a parody of a parody. You can’t make up the things that he says. For all presidents, there’s always been a nice debate because everyone isn’t for the same things. But you have to be able to go back and forth and talk about it. With this, things go straight to rage on both sides.

Catch Sykes at Strathmore on November 3 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $35-$115 and can be purchased at www.strathmore.org.

Learn more about the comedian at www.wandasykes.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @iamwandasykes.

The Music Center at Strathmore: 5301 Tuckerman Ln. North Bethesda, MD; 301-581-5100; www.strathmore.org

Photo: Courtesy of Strathmore

John Cleese Live at Strathmore

Monty Python fans are in for a treat. Comedy legend John Cleese handpicked Monty Python and the Holy Grail to be screened at the Music Center at Strathmore this Friday, followed by a conversation and Q&A with NPR’s Glen Weldon. We caught up with Strathmore Vice President of Programming Joi Brown about Friday’s event. Read on for the inside scoop.

On Tap: Why did the Strathmore team decide on Monty Python and the Holy Grail for the screening? To me, it’s the obvious choice (an all-time favorite of mine and in my opinion, the best Monty Python film!) but I’m curious what led to your decision to screen Holy Grail rather than say, Life of Brian.
Joi Brown:
Thankfully, the film selection was made by Mr. Cleese himself. With so many great film options, it was a relief to have that important decision made by the person most qualified. We couldn’t be more pleased!

OT: Who will Cleese be speaking with onstage before he takes questions from the audience? Will the focus of the conversation be on Monty Python or extend to other parts of his career? (My fingers are crossed for some gems about A Fish Called Wanda!)
JB:
The evening will be moderated by NPR’s Glen Weldon, who’s interest in pop culture and comedy make him an ideal host and guide for our conversations. I’m sure he’s neck deep in preparations and refreshing his memory watching films and clips. Glen will have questions prepared for Mr. Cleese, and will also take submissions from the audience.

OT: How much time is planned for the conversation? What about the Q&A?
JB:
The conversation and Q&A will last about 75 minutes following the 90-minute film screening.

OT: What kind of crowd do you hope Strathmore will attract for this performance?
JB:
I’m really curious to see what the Monty Python demographic will look like. I’m assuming it will include people who lived in my dorm, some of my relatives, [and] people who hang out in coffee shops and still visit record stores. It’ll no doubt be an eclectic mix, since Monty Python and John Cleese’s career in film have touched so many different viewers over the years.

OT: Will silly questions really be encouraged? How do you feel about hosting a room of diehard Monty Python fans in the Music Center?
JB:
John Cleese likes having a wide range of questions – anything is fair game from his entire career. I’m sure people will not be surprised to find he’s agile on the impromptu responses, and he’s willing to go from extremes of silly to more serious reflective conversations about his work. We’re ready for the gamut when he comes to Strathmore!

OT: What would you say sets Cleese apart from other comedians who’ve performed at Strathmore? Why are you personally excited to welcome him to the Music Center?
JB:
Not sure we’ve had many British living comedy legends at Strathmore. And this event is much more conversational than standup, so we are not getting a prepared routine that is the same in every city. The evening is completely off the cuff, authentic and unique.

OT: And last but not least, what is your favorite Monty Python skit and/or Cleese performance?
JB:
Love the movies, but Fawlty Towers is my pick!

Don’t miss seeing John Cleese in the flesh, plus a screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, at the Music Center at Strathmore this Friday. Tickets start at $55, and the event will run approximately 165 minutes.

The Music Center at Strathmore: 5301 Tuckerman Ln. North Bethesda, MD; 301-581-5100; www.strathmore.org