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Theatrical and Musical Adventures from Aubervilliers and Asnières to Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily

July 27, 2023
bradspurgeon

Academy of the Unfulfilled in Palermo Flash Mob

Academy of the Unfulfilled in Palermo Flash Mob

CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – I have been wrapped up in a whirlwind of theatrical and musical adventures over the past month that have been so many and varied that I have had not a single moment to write about them here, despite itching to do so every day. Now I am sitting high in the hills above Castellammare as I start these words, taking a break from setting down harmonies for the next song in a musical show that we will be performing at this Azienda Agricola Acquaviva this coming Sunday, 30 July, and I finally found a moment to get a few words down in the blog about these incredible experiences.

Brad Spurgeon as Einstein in TAC production

Brad Spurgeon as Einstein in TAC production

The first was my cameo role as Albert Einstein in TAC Teatro‘s next play, the work-in-progress tentatively titled “La Première Fois.” The show is in its early stages of creation, but TAC Teatro put on a show of the work-in-progress at its theater space in Aubervilliers at 164 rue Henri Barbusse. I loved creating this role with Ornella Bonventre directing, because I cannot imagine that many other wonderful true-life personalities to play than Einstein. And, surprise surprise, I discovered through the necessity of growing my hair and my moustache, that I am capable of growing a moustache that is a pretty damn convincing version of the mathematical genius’s moustache! (Now if only I discovered I could also emulate his mathematical genius.) In any case, the show went off very well, with the TAC Teatro actors demonstrating more than ever their diversity of talents, as the show is full of music, magic and illusion, along with some beautiful songs. My role is minor, opens the show at the moment, and will probably appear again later on.

TAC Teatro school performers take a bow at yearend show at Studio Théâtre of Asnières-sur-Seine

TAC Teatro school performers take a bow at yearend show at Studio Théâtre of Asnières-sur-Seine

The sad story there was that this was the last show that TAC Teatro performed in the space where it has been housed for the last two and a half years, since the middle of the Covid epidemic. The owners of the former warehouse decided they want to try to sell the lot on which it sits, and so they took it back from us, and the same day we handed over the keys, they had the space demolished so that no one got the idea of squatting it. In a sad, sad irony, while the rich owners wanted to demolish our space to keep squatters out, that same night during the riots that tore France apart after the police killed a 17-year-old for no reason, TAC Teatro’s new space for the coming season, in Asnières-sur-Seine was demolished, looted, burned down, by the rioters. So the coming season poses some challenges.

In the meantime, TAC Teatro also celebrated its yearend of performances of the students of the classes in Asnières, which took place in the 200-seat, magnificent Studio Théâtre. There, I was called in to do the job of MC, and I was given the opportunity to do this by playing a song between each performance of the classes. I matched the nature of each song with the play performance. The plays of the children were Peter Pan, the Addams Family and the Petits Chaperons Rouges; the adult class’s play was “The Bear,” by Chekhov. It was a fabulous festive evening of shows with a full house spectators and a great capping to a season of drama classes for TAC Teatro and its students.

Brad Spurgeon MCing the TAC Teatro yearend show

No sooner did we finish that event than we packed the car to go to our annual summer address in Castellammare del Golfo in Sicily, not far from Palermo. Here, this year, I started my first week participating in the great Chiringuito Jam session in Scopello, that I had discovered only last year, and which we learned was run by Ornella’s cousin, Michelangello Bologna. I again did a couple of songs with a complete band, and with Michelangello, who is a Michelangello of the harmonica in addition to the MC of the evening.Then, suddenly irresistibly, surprisingly, and synchronistically, after we had discovered that Castellammare del Golfo had been chosen as the location for a big crazy theater workshop by the illustrious Mario Biagini and his group called Accademia dell’Incompiuto – Academy of the Unfulfilled, we decided to take part. This workshop, or residency, lasts for the entire second two weeks of July, and in addition to consisting of working with Biagini’s troupe to create a final show – called “The Thirsty Ones” – for the 30th July, we also had two other performances of some of the work.

Teaser for the show of Accademia dell’Incompiuto – Academy of the Unfulfilled

Extraordinarily, one of those performances had been planned – without any input or prior knowledge from us – as taking place during the Wednesday night jam at Chiringuito! So for the second time in the month of July I ended up performing on the stage outside in Scopello, but now, I did first a performance of a couple of songs in the usual way with me on the guitar with other performers at the jam; then, second, I worked with the dozen or so actors and singers of the theater workshop performing the songs we had been working on, with their fabulous harmonies and many languages. I played guitar and filled in here and there with vocals.

I want to jump back a little and say why this serendipitous meeting of the Biagini group and Ornella and me was so surprising: We had met Biagini for the first time last year when we went to the Teatro Ridotto outside of Bologna, Italy in order to interview him for a project that Ornella and I are working on about some of the theater greats of the last 60 years. Biagini is known for having worked closely with the legendary intellectual figure of 20th century avant garde theater, Jerzy Grotowski. In fact, Grotowski, who died in 1999, had left Biagini and another man, Thomas Richards, in charge of the Grotowski Center in Pontedera, Italy – Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards – where Mario Biagini had worked since 1986.

Biagini and Richards ran the center until 2021, when they decided to go their own ways. Grotowski was one of the seminal figures of modern theater, and Biagini is a torchbearer of his world, along with Richards. Now this links into the next meeting, which happened a couple of months ago in Paris, when Ornella and I went to the Grotowski event at the Théâtre des Abbesses in Paris where Biagini was present to launch the latest edition that he edited of a translation of Grotowski’s theoretical – and other – writings that has just been published in French. It is a fabulous collection of the theorist’s work, including the writings that would eventually make up his famous and influential “Towards a Poor Theater” book that was first published by the Odin Teatret publisher and founder, Eugenio Barba. (Whom I have written about a few times here.

We also made a connection at one remove with Biagini at the beginning of April this year, when a group that he has directed that came out of Teatro Ridotto, also took part in the annual international residency called Finestres – see my previous post! – that Teatro Ridotto has put on for decades in Italy and that TAC hosted this year in Aubervilliers at the beginning of April. I am speaking about the fantastic Collettivo Hospites, who, incidentally, just put up a video of their memories of that week of activities.

FINESTRE sur le jeune théâtre from Collettivo Hospites

So it was quite amazing to discover that Biagini was holding this workshop in Ornella’s home town in Sicily during our stay here. And we joined in. The performance at Chiringuito was then followed by a flash mob performance a few days later in the streets of downtown Palermo. Here again we sang our songs, and I played guitar along with the musical anchor of the work, Viviana Marino on her classical guitar. There was a film production company on hand in Palermo, so you can see the work of this company, Ponte di Archimede Produzioni, in the teaser for Sunday’s show that I posted above. The teaser was also filmed partly on location at the base in the hills above Castellammare, where we are preparing and will put on the show, and where I am sitting writing these words. You only catch a tiny glimpse of me playing in Palermo, and a bit of Ornella and her daughter, Morgana, are also visible momentarily!

Segesta temple burning July 2023

Segesta temple burning July 2023

I hope to have more videos and photos to follow, but this is what I have at the moment. Until then, if you can make it to the show on Sunday, I understand the airport in Palermo is open again…. Oh, yes, that’s another bit of news to follow up with: After the burning down of TAC’s new space in Asnières and the demolition of the old space in Aubervilliers, the 2,000 year old theater in Segesta, next to Castellammare del Golfo, and the neighboring 2,000 year old temple were both engulfed in flames in recent days during the catastrophic fires that we have been experiencing during the massive heatwave that lifted temperatures to well above 40 degrees celsius. A couple of years ago, TAC had been in negotiations to put on a performance on that ancient stage. The flames are following us from town to town, country to country!

Zayen and the Open Air, Open Mic in Aubervilliers – and a Child’s Gesture of a Centime for My Efforts

December 17, 2022
bradspurgeon

Zayen

Zayen

AUBERVILLIERS, France – Now that was a fabulous breath of fresh – and cold – air: I performed five songs in an outdoor open mic on Wednesday, during a neighborhood afternoon snack in Aubervilliers. The neighborhood was the Quartier Maladrerie, and it is located in the town of Aubervilliers, which touches on Paris. I have written a lot about this town in the last couple of years, since TAC Teatro has been putting on a lot of shows and doing a lot of work there. It was actually quite cool – I mean cold – to perform across the street from the Espace Renaudie, the place that hosted a couple of TAC events recently, which I have written about in previous posts. This open mic had nothing to do with that, but with a meeting and some open mics that I did 15 years ago!

A year and more before I started writing this blog, I had already begun my musical open mic adventures. Among the places I discovered in Paris and its environs, was a regular open mic in Aubervilliers, most often at a bar called “Le Chien Qui Fume,” or, “The Dog that Smokes.” I say most often at, because the open mic was run by an association called “Les Artistes des Couleurs et de la Diversité.” It was run by a musician named Zayen, of Kabyle origin. It started in a bar in Paris, called the Aveyronnais, where I first attended, and then moved on to Aubervilliers, which is a town with a large Kabyle population.

Kabyle musician Malik Kazeoui in Aubervilliers open mic

I attended open mics there weekly for around six months – sometimes even twice per week – and had all sorts of interesting experiences, including once when the mayors of the twinned cities of Iena in Germany and Aubervilliers attended one of the open mics. Zayen had a small success with a song called Baden-Baden, about a Kabyle refusing to fight in WWII, and then returning to his country and passing on his story there.

Kabyle singer Malik Kazeoui singing in French in Aubervilliers open air open mic

In recent months I made contact with Zayen again, finding that he was now an elected politician connected to the new mayor’s party in Aubervilliers, while he remains a professional musician with growing success. In fact, his small association has also grown since it was founded in 2008, and we recently met with it and another Berber association in Aubervilliers to share ideas.

Zayen’s song Baden Baden

On Wednesday, though, it felt like old times as Zayen invited me to play at the “open mic” in the street, organized to celebrate an afternoon snack, music and poetry, at this holiday period with everyone in the neighbourhood. I took along my Gibson J200 and sang five songs, and then gave my guitar to another musician, Malik Kazeoui, and he played some kabyle songs and something in French.

French singer singing song about Aubervilliers in Aubervilliers

It was freezing cold, but I took off my coat and played hard and kept warm. It turned out to be a wonderful moment too thanks to an excellent quality of sound system and soundman support, provided by the same technicians from the Espace Renaudie, with whom I worked to show my film of Eugenio Barba a few weeks ago. That was a complete surprise for us all, as they had only known me as the journalist who interviewed Barba on film, or the man connected with TAC Teatro in its performance of Ajamola.

For me the most touching moment was when a five-year-old boy approached the stage after I had sung one or two songs and he handed me 1 centime as payment for my singing – or perhaps it was a signal to get me off the stage? In any case, I thanked him and told him that it was more money than I had earned in five years off the streaming rights to my CD, “Out of a Jam.”

Check out the videos to get a taste of this neighborhood event in Aubervilliers!

Playing with Layth Aldaene on his Oud in Abu Dhabi 10 years Ago

November 17, 2022
bradspurgeon

Laythe Aldaene

Laythe Aldaene

PARIS – Today I stumbled on a recording I did in Abu Dhabi exactly 10 years ago and I wanted to post it again to mark the occasion. It was one of my musical adventures following the Formula One season as a journalist, and that year, 2012, I had set myself the goal of recording a song with a local musician in every one of the 20 or so countries that I visited. The idea was a real challenge, and I think I succeeded in my goal, but unfortunately the sound quality of the recordings was not of CD-level quality. But what a treasure to find this one of a star oud player and musician living in Abu Dhabi named Layth Aldaene, who is an Iraqi, and who is still playing around the area and farther afield, including recently with a symphony orchestra. I decided to post this today because this weekend is also that of the season-finale 2022 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in Formula One, so it seemed a great moment to post.

This recording took place in the House of Oud, which was a community center and workshop for building ouds, teaching the oud, spreading oud culture and everything else oud that you can imagine. I suggest you check out Layth Aldaene’s web site, as it has lots of his amazing music on it, and some cool videos.

I chose as a song to play my song “Let Me Know,” which I always felt had a middle eastern sound to it. In fact, I had written it purposefully with a middle eastern sound – although the guitar chord progression had itself been given to me by Laurent Guillaume, with whom I recorded the song on my CD.

Layth Aldaene in action

In any case, this recording was done in the workshop of the House of Oud and you can hear the luthier actually working on an oud while we play the song, and read more about it on the post I did at the time. This was a real jam of my song, as we had never rehearsed it.

Also, FYI, here is a link to the song as I recorded on my CD (with Laurent Guillaume doing the lead guitar):

Big Day Soon in Paris and Aubervilliers: Conference with Julia Varley of Odin Teatret and Premiere of TAC’s Documentary with Legendary Director Eugenio Barba

October 12, 2022
bradspurgeon

Poster for the Barba film event.

Poster for the Barba film event.

PARIS – I’m already bubbling over with excitement about the premiere of my short, 30-minute, documentary/interview film with one of the giants of world theater of the last 60 years. I am talking about the work I did with Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro – of which I am a company member since 2017 – and our interview with Eugenio Barba, founding director of the Odin Teatret of Denmark. The film will be screened next month, on 7 November, in the Espace Renaudie, a municipal theater in Aubervilliers, a suburb of Paris. It is part of a double-bill of activities with members of the Odin Teatret and TAC, beginning in the morning at the iconic Théâtre du Soleil of Paris.

That’s a lot of stuff to pack into your brain in the first paragraph, so let me backtrack now a little: Eugenio Barba is an Italian-born director and writer who after working with the Polish theater master Jerzy Grotowski in the early 1960s, went on to create Odin Teatret – based in Holstebro, Denmark – and to become one of the great theater theorists of our times, as well as the founder of the International School of Theatre Anthropology. Odin has always been at the forefront of avant garde theater in the world, innovating in the area of what is often called “physical theater,” as it speaks as much, or more, through the movements of the body as it does through text. And even the spoken word itself – or the music – is considered a kind of physical action in the performance.

The company was founded in 1964, and some of the actors that still make up the company have been with it since the 1970s, others for several decades. They are coming to Paris next month to put on their latest show, “Thèbes au Temps de la Fièvre Jaune,” at the Théâtre du Soleil. (The latter is another of the world’s great avant-garde theatrical institutions, also founded in 1964 and still directed by Ariane Mnouchkine.)

The morning event with Julia Varley.

The morning event with Julia Varley.

The Odin show will run there from 8 to 19 November, and TAC Teatro, in collaboration with ARTA, Association de Recherche de Tradition de l’Acteur, and the Aubervilliers mayor’s office organized two events that will take place the day before the show opens, ie, on the Monday 7th November at 10AM in the Théâtre du Soleil, and the film premiere at the Espace Renaudie starting at 18PM, with, following the film, a roundtable discussion. The event starts by featuring especially the intervention of Julia Varley, one of the Odin Teatret actors, who will give a conference about the process of training and creation for the actor in the morning part of the program at the Théâtre du Soleil. Ornella will take part in that too, along with Raluca Mocan, a theater expert and member of the Husserl Archives of the Ecole Normale Supérieure.

There will also be a hommage to Odin Teatret in the form of live performance extracts from TAC Teatro’s latest show, AJAMOLA by the actors of the company.

I am very pleased to be able to show this documentary interview film that I did with Eugenio Barba the last time Odin Teatret visited Paris, with their previous show, called, “L’Arbre.” The interview was conducted outside at the Cartoucherie, and Ornella filmed it – and organized it – and also intervened with some of the most interesting questions – when I think I took over the camera briefly! It was a wide-ranging interview with Barba covering his life story, his theories of theater, the history of theater and of Odin, and even comments about the state of Paris’s theater landscape in general. It also contains a lot of footage and photos of Odin’s work through the decades.

Brad Spurgeon interviewing Eugenio Barba.

Brad Spurgeon interviewing Eugenio Barba.


Taking place at the Espace Renaudie in Aubervilliers starting at 18PM, the screening is free of charge, and there are about 200 seats in the theater. So if you want to come, best to reserve in advance at tac.teatro@gmail.com or by telephone at: 06 14 06 92 23

By the way, this is the same location where the full production of AJAMOLA will be performed several times this year and next – so if you like what you see in the performance extracts at the event at the Théâtre du Soleil…don’t hesitate to book for the show too!

One Thing Again Leads to Another at the Chiringuito Jam in Scopello

August 26, 2022
bradspurgeon

Babel Tower Logo

Babel Tower Logo

CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – It seems not to matter how many times I live this lesson, I always come close to forgetting it – only to relive it and learn it again. A few weeks ago I wrote of my experience at the Chiringuito jam in Scopello, Sicily. I wrote about how one good thing leads to another good thing – and vice versa. I missed the last few jams on Wednesday nights at Chiriniguito for various reasons – a cold, a more important meeting, and, yes, inertia. I was almost going to let inertia steer me away from it again this time, but didn’t, and the reward was huge, and unexpected – as usual!

We had planned to have dinner in Scopello at the Nettuno restaurant with Ornella’s family Wednesday and then head off to the jam. But the dinner started late, many more family members arrived, and conversation and good cheer began to take over and extend the time at the table, and reduce the potential time at the jam. Then, as with the last outdoor restaurant meal with the family – last week – a sudden downpour of rain began. It never rains here in the summer. It’s not supposed to. Will not, does not. Unless we have a family gathering or a jam session to attend.

The conversation, family get-together and rain all persuaded me by midnight that I was going to miss the jam session again, and I was going to miss it for valid reasons. I had my guitar ready in the trunk of the car, I had made the “effort,” but it had failed. Once again. Then at about two minutes past midnight, Ornella said to me: “You are going to miss the jam! Go and play, Brad. Don’t worry about us.” In fact, I had been told that many of the members of the family had come to see me play, but I suppose inertia had settled in there too….

I decided not to let that get me down, and in any case, I fully expected to go to the jam – a few minutes’ walk away from the Nettuno – and find that it had been packed up, closed down, over with, all thanks to the downpour, which could have short-circuited all the guitar amps and everything else. There, I thought, I would have my excuse. Part of me had the jitters about playing the jam again also because it had gone so well the first time, and I had had so much fun, that I expected it would fall flat this second time.

I got my Gibson J-200 from the car trunk and went to the jam. It was bopping big time. The stage was curiously dark and wet, but there were musicians on it, playing to a vast crowd of manic spectators jumping up and down in delight at the front of the stage. Michelangelo, the jam organiser and MC, immediately saw me with my guitar on my back at the front right corner of the stage and he approached: “Brad, we had a problem tonight with the rain cutting out a lot of things, and we had to set up all over again, and try to make it work after that…. anyway, the point is, I had to change the format a little: You only get one song. And you are up next.”

Man! I could not say no to that. I had no more excuses! And anyway, I started feeling the pulse of excitement of the idea of going up and playing just one song and if it all failed, I had my excuse there too! I just finished a massive bacon and cheese burger, a massive chocolate Sunday, got wet in the rain, came over to the jam, had one song and got up with no warming up!

I got the Gibson out, waited, when the guy finished, I climbed up on the stage where someone said: “What chords?” I realised it was one of the other musicians – turned out to be the bass player – and he wanted to know what chords I would use for my one song. I didn’t even know what my song would be. I had, in advance, been planning three: “Crazy Love,” “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” and “Wicked Game.” I thought for a moment about the simplest of them, but also I decided to go for a contrast to the crowd pleasing, foot-stomping, fast-moving, singalong song of the guy onstage before me. I chose “Wicked Game,” by Chris Isaak. It is just three chords from beginning to end, and there can be plenty of room for the jamming of the harmonica and lead guitar between verses on those three chords.

I whipped through the song with huge pleasure – and a few rough spots – and then got off the stage fast. It seemed to go fairly smoothly, and the others had lots of room to jam. I blew my voice out a little, since I had a bit of a problem hearing myself and so I forced it too much, but in all, I was really happy to have done it, and I was happy to have been able to do it fast during what was clearly a difficult night for the organiser – with that rain storm!

Now here is where the real story starts: I got off the stage and began packing my guitar away in its case when a guy approaches and starts speaking English and congratulating me. He turned out to be another musician, a drummer, and he asked if I played professionally. I said no, and asked him if he did. He said he did, and that he was also studying jazz drumming at the conservatory. But he said his band was playing in Castellammare soon, and so I should come and listen. The band, he said, was called Babel Tower. It turned out that they had played recently at Picolit, where my musical adventure began last month.

Babel Tower in Castellammare del Golfo



We talked for some time about music, his life, and the band playing around Sicily. I was still a little breathless after performing, and I had to go and find Ornella’s family. So we parted without exchanging contacts.

Then Ornella and I later in the evening went to the Picolit Pub in Castellammare, and I tried to remember the name of the band that this drummer played in, so I could speak to one of the owners of Picolit about it. Since they have a lot of bands there, she had no idea! But then I looked at the names of the bands that have played there recently, and I recognized the name “Babel Tower.” I then found the Instagram page of the band, and looked at the photos and…there I saw the photo of the guy I spoke to at the jam session.

I returned to the owner, told her it was this band, and she said: “Oh yes!!! And by the way, the singer of the band is sitting at the table beside yours!” Unsure whether I should speak to the singer of Babel Tower and tell him I had just met one of the other band members, it was again Ornella who pushed for this. I decided that, yes, I’d love to know the name of the drummer I met and maybe send him a message on Facebook.

So we approached the singer of the band, and we explained the situation. He gave me the link to the Instagram page of the drummer of the band and I followed it. Then, we got involved in more conversation with the singer, pulled our chairs over to his table, and after some minutes of talk, it began to dawn on both Ornella and the singer that they knew each other! They had not seen each other for 15 years or so, but they realized that he had been one of Ornella’s sister’s best friends! And as it turned out, he had long been trying to make contact with her, but as she no longer lives here, he had not found out how to communicate.

Another bit of Babel Tower



This happy situation then led eventually to the singer inviting me to play with Babel Tower at their next gig, in a small town not too far from here on Saturday night! Now, let us remember and realize and think about all of these happy repercussions that came form a moment’s decision as to whether I should or should not make the effort to play at the jam! Had I done the easy thing and just sat back lazily, I would never have met these musicians, never had the fun of playing the jam, never been offered to play this weekend, and Ornella and her sister would never have met this old friend! Astounding what action, and music, can do!

Babel Tower, I learned, plays nearly 300 dates per year throughout Sicily, doing all manner of rock, pop and reggae. I suggest you look them up and give a listen! And maybe you will discover something that will change your life too!

Sundance on a Bunker in Sicily with Compagnia Ordinesparso – or Physical Theater at 4:40 AM

August 15, 2022
bradspurgeon

Ornella and Brad on the Bunker in Sicily.  Photo Credit:  ©Claudio Colomba / https://claudiocolomba6.webnode.it/

Ornella and Brad on the Bunker in Sicily. Photo Credit: ©Claudio Colomba / https://claudiocolomba6.webnode.it/

CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – There are few things I dislike more in life than getting out of bed for the day at 4:40 AM. Especially after going to bed at 1:40 AM (due to the birthday party of a 1-year-old). But the offer to join up with an Italian theater company to put on a ritual performance along with the rising of the sun above the Mediterranean Sea on the top of a World War II bunker overlooking some craggy cliffs at the Fossa Dello Stinco near Castellammare del Golfo in Sicily was just too great to resist. It was the same for Ornella Bonventre, and so it was that we joined Giovanni Berretta and his Compagnia Ordinesparso at sunrise and integrated his troupe for a 40-minute or so piece of physical theater, with a live soundtrack of drums and baritone saxophone. And while I may still be “jet-lagged” from the experience a day later as I write these words, I feel blessed to have been able to take part.
Opening movements of the show from two of the stars of Compagnia Ordinesparso.  Photo Credit: ©Claudio Colomba

Opening movements of the show from two of the stars of Compagnia Ordinesparso. Photo Credit: ©Claudio Colomba


The whole thing did not happen just overnight, of course. (No pun intended.) Rather, Ornella, as the director of TAC Teatro, and a native of Castellammare del Golfo, had learned from her friend, a local filmmaker and photographer, Claudio Colomba, that Berretta was in town and doing a theater lab and a few performances. Ornella had also crossed paths with Berretta and his Compagnia Ordinesparso a few times in the past, so last week we went to watch one of their street performances, in one of the main boulevards of Castellammare. That took place during the heat of the night, with a couple of actors on a balcony above the boulevard, and the others in the street below, and it was quite impressive to see and hear.

Preparing at the Apollo theater in Castellammare del Golfo with Giovanni Berretta

We spoke to Berretta afterwards, and he invited us to take part in this performance on the morning of the day leading to the midnight celebration of Ferragosto, the Assumption of Mary religious holiday. If we accepted, we would have to go to one day of the workshop, the day before, the write a score to integrate the performance. This we did with great pleasure on Saturday evening, and it was my first time on the small, but fabulous stage of the main local theater, the Apollo, which is located in the center of Castellammare.

Ferragosto Bunker Show  Photo Credit:  ©Claudio Colomba / https://claudiocolomba6.webnode.it/

Ferragosto Bunker Show Photo Credit: ©Claudio Colomba / https://claudiocolomba6.webnode.it/

There, much to my great fear of failure due to a horrendous tendonitis in my left arm, Giovanni simply ignored my plea that I was entirely incapable of any kind of physical stuff and would be better off just playing my guitar and singing. But with the help of my hugely gifted partner, Ornella Bonventre, taking the heavier load of responsibility for the movements – despite doctor’s orders against straining her recuperating knee injury – we managed, through Giovanni’s gentle and precise direction, to come up with a score and integrate the group.

The group was made up of actors part of Compagnia Ordinesparso, as well as a few local amateurs who joined in as a theater activity, upon invitation by the event, which has some support from the local mayor’s office. Giovanni provided both the direction, as well as being the anchor of the performance, reciting texts to the sound of the musicians’ soundtrack. It was very impressive hearing the baritone sax, played by Tommaso Miranda, and drums, played by Domenico Sabella, at dawn; and the sound reminded me of a cross between the mix of Duke Ellington and John Coltrane as a duo, and some of the later work of Tom Waits!

another of Ornella and Brad atop the bunker  Photo Credit:  ©Claudio Colomba https://claudiocolomba6.webnode.it/

another of Ornella and Brad atop the bunker Photo Credit: ©Claudio Colomba https://claudiocolomba6.webnode.it/

There was a third major partner here that I have not mentioned yet, but they came in during the final stage, which was the performance itself at just after 6 AM. This was the group of about 50 hikers who were led by the local exploring association called, CAI Castellammare del Golfo. (The letters stand for: Club Alpino Italiano. They explore local mountains, caves, seashore, forests etc.) Ornella and I and TAC Teatro had put on a performance last year with and for this same hiking organization, but then it was to celebrate the setting sun! (Which is much more naturally to my taste, as a late riser.)

So it was that arising at 4:40 AM, we prepared ourselves and met the other actors and musicians at 5:15 close to the staging point, before heading on in several cars through the scrub vegetation at the seaside, and arrived at about 5:45 at the World War II bunker at the Fossa Dello Stinco. There the musicians set up the drums, took out the sax, warmed up; and so did the actors and Giovanni. We found our points of reference, spent some time figuring out how to mount the bunker – no easy thing, and in the end Giovanni himself lifted most of us up there – and we all warmed up too.

Ornella Bonventre on stage at the Apollo theater preparing for the show in Castellammare

We took our positions and waited until close to 6:15 or so – the sunrise was set for 6:20, according to my phone – the spectators began to arrive and placed themselves on the stones, rocks and vegetation around the performance area. And then began Giovanni’s recitations, the other actors’ movements, dance and contortions, and finally Ornella and I mounted the top of the bunker and did our part.

Giovanni Berretta

Giovanni Berretta


musicians and Giovanni at the sunrise show  Photo Credit:  ©Claudio Colomba / https://claudiocolomba6.webnode.it/

musicians and Giovanni at the sunrise show Photo Credit: ©Claudio Colomba / https://claudiocolomba6.webnode.it/

The patient and talented director Giovanni had instructed me that my movements were to be a kind of action that reacted to Ornella’s movements, and her movements were that of the wind. Standing atop the bunker with the real wind gently blowing all around me, with a camera equipped drone hovering above, and with Claudio moving about in his various positions filming and photographing, with the saxophone and drums beating, and the sun rising mostly over my left shoulder as I looked at the rising hills and cliffs around me, the whole thing was a little bit like a natural religious experience and I had entirely forgotten the tendonitis in my left arm and shoulder!

Only once it was finished did I realise that I knew several people in the audience both from last year’s event with TAC Teatro and from the organizers of the hike. It was a gentle and warm descent. (Although suddenly feared my shoulder pain as Giovanni had to lift me down the bunker back to hard earth!)

the sea and sun perspective of the show  Photo Credit:  ©Claudio Colomba / https://claudiocolomba6.webnode.it/

the sea and sun perspective of the show Photo Credit: ©Claudio Colomba / https://claudiocolomba6.webnode.it/

My only regret during the experience was my inability to really be seeing all the details of how Ornella’s spectacular dance, as well as that of the other actors, must have appeared to the audience. I was part of the show, but with Ornella as my solid underpinning guide, it was a shoe-in there too…. Oh, and I am hoping that I will be able to see what Claudio eventually does with the film of the event, and I hope I will be able to put up a link to that on the blog soon!

Happy Ferragosto!

Panoramic of the performance area upon arrival

Unloading the drums upon arrival to the bunker area

Winding down moments after the sunrise performance ended

The Power of Good and Evil – Playing at the Chiringuito Scopello Pub in Sicily

July 28, 2022
bradspurgeon

Brad and band at Chiringuito Scopello

Brad and band at Chiringuito Scopello

CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – Just over 20 years ago I wrote a lighthearted Op-Ed column in the International Herald Tribune newspaper using a personal experience I had to show how a single bad action by someone can have many, many bad repercussions going on for days, weeks or more. This morning when I awoke and thought about the jam session I took part in last night at the Chiringuito pub in Scopello, I suddenly realized that precisely the same ripple effect happens when someone does something good, leading to all sorts of other good things.

I am talking, of course, about the results of the effect that began in my previous blog item, where the generosity of a musician – Francesco Riotta – in giving me the microphone and his guitar during his own gig at a bar in Castellammare del Golfo led to meeting another musician after the performance, who in turn told me that there was a jam session in a nearby village every Wednesday and I should go. After coming here for five or six years, once per year, I had never found an open mic or jam session, and it seemed the only thing missing in our summer paradise. All it took was the generosity of Riotta for the good things to start happening.

Brad playing I won’t back down in Scopello

I took the first opportunity to go to check out the jam session at the Chiringuito Scopello pub, which was last night, Wednesday. This is also proof of how important it is to “get yourself out there” if you want any kind of satisfaction in life: Ornella’s uncle and aunt own a restaurant in Scopello, and we have also been going there for years without ever knowing that the Chiringuito hosted a jam session every Wednesday through the summer for the last three years!

Scopello is part of the commune of Castellammare del Golfo, where we are staying, but it is a kind of separate village suburb, about a 15 minute drive away. It is a beautiful tourist attraction area, with lots of restaurants, and beautiful views, beautiful nearby beaches, and a gathering place for some of the people in Castellammare who want a night out that is slightly different from the usual one of wandering around the streets of the main town.

Brad playing Chiringuito with budding Joe (Josephine) Cocker girl onstage

Brad playing Chiringuito with budding Joe (Josephine) Cocker girl onstage

The setting for the Chiringuito is absolutely fabulous! It is an outdoor pub and restaurant, and the stage is quite big, with a decent sound system, good lighting, and a fabulous location that means that you can be seen and heard when you perform by people in the bar area, the lounge area, the restaurant area, and the tables in front of the stage itself. But standing up there and playing and seeing also the surrounding mountains and the sea in the distance – although it is not really clearly visible in that darkness – is a heavenly sensation.

Brad and band playing Mad World in Scopello

The open jam is run according to the usual method, with a sign up list, and it starts around 10pm. But the list order is not strictly followed, especially because much of the jam involves several musicians onstage at once. IE, it is not just an open mic with a single performer or band. It’s a bit of a free-for-all, and once everyone has had a chance to perform once, then the stage is opened to even more mixing, if there is enough time.

First act in Scopello

It is wonderfully hosted by Michelangelo Bologna, who plays harmonica on the videos where I am playing (and elsewhere), and he speaks good English. And as with just about everything here, it turned out that Michelangelo was Ornella’s cousin! (It seems everyone we meet here is Ornella’s cousin, so for me that was not really a surprise.) And Ornella and I both thought he was an exceptional harmonica player. Turns out he studied harmonica at a jazz conservatory!

Michelangelo Bologna demonstrating (English subtitles) his harmonica studies.

Michelangelo told me that last week there were 30 musicians! Given that it lasts only until around 12:30 or 1am, it’s best to get there on time – although I was too early, arriving at 9pm.

There was a large cross-section of performers last night, with lots of blues, a bit of rock, and some acoustic stuff too. In general it was an everything goes kind of jam.

Brad and band at Chiringuito 3

Brad and band at Chiringuito 3

What a pleasure this was to play again in front of such a big crowd, to have some wonderful musicians play along with me, mistakes and all, and an incredibly enthusiastic audience, many of them right in front of the stage. For me, it represented the real moment of passing from my Covid hibernation to a break out back to pre-Covid days – ie, I’ve barely played in public at all since the beginning of the pandemic. And for all I know, this place was bursting with the latest, extremely contagious variant…but I couldn’t not do this! And underpinning it all was that generosity of handing over the stage two days before. Incredible how good things come from good things, and bad things from bad. In case you missed it, check out the link – which I add again here – to that story I did in the IHT Meanwhile column for that story I did way back when. And now think about how those repercussions of badness can be the opposite when the initial act is a good one…!

Brad and band Plauing What’s Up!? In Scopello two vid points of view.

PS, I thank Ornella Bonventre’s daughter, Morgana, for all the videos and photos she took of my performances. I also thank Ornella’s aunt, Daniele, for the video she took of my What’s Up!, while standing in a different position to that of Morgana – I combined both of them toward the end of the What’s Up video to have a different perspective.

Acoustic act in Scopello jam

Jamming at the Picolit Pub in Castellammare del Golfo, thanks to the Amazing Francesco Riotta

July 26, 2022
bradspurgeon

Francesco Riotta at Picolit

Francesco Riotta at Picolit

CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – I had reached such a bursting point of frustration and desire in wanting to play some music on stage somewhere, anywhere, last night, that before we went out to dinner I said to Ornella: “I want to bring my Gibson J200 with me just in case I find a place to play!” It being very hot, and the likelihood of finding a place to play being very small in this dream of a fantastic seaside town on the coast of Sicily near Palermo, in the end I chose not to take my guitar. Then the miracle happened.

We ate in a wonderful, cheap, heart-warming restaurant – the town is full of them! – and then headed off to one of our two favourite pubs in Castellammare. I am speaking of the Picolit pub, which I have written about in the past, and which features live music at least four nights per week in its outdoor terrace, with the natural amphitheatre of a public staircase. (Our other favorite joint is Cantina Aurelia, which does not feature live music.) As soon as I heard and saw that it was guy on an acoustic guitar – occasionally joined by a bass player – I thought we had to go an listen.

There was something very attractive in his sound, and demeanour: I immediately felt something a little Brazilian in it, but it was manifestly more African, Jamaican, and reggae-related. His performance is very intimate, warm, and he has a great way of communicating with the spectators both through the music and its stories, as well as directly involving them – for instance in using them to create harmony for a chorus to one of his songs. The musician’s name was Francesco Riotta, and while he comes from Palermo, where he was raised in the tangle of culturally mixed streets in the central part of the city, he has also travelled all around playing his music, and learning more sounds, and mixing his culture and language with that of the countries he visits: English, French, African, Spanish, German, etc.

Francesco Riotta at Picolit.

I was intrigued by his guitar, which was steel-stringed but sounded more like a nylon-string guitare, and I could not read the brand name. So when he took a break, I decided to go to ask him if I could look at the guitar, which he had placed in its case. We got into a conversation immediately, and we switched from English to French, as he said he had lived in Paris for a while, and had even written and performed a song in French, and done a video with an African musician, who he met in the Goutte d’Or part of Paris. (He had gone there to seek out African musicians.)

Brad singing What’s Up! at the Picolit in Sicily.

He asked about me, and when he learned that I played guitar and sang, he asked if I wanted to do a song at the end of his set. Hey presto! That need to get up and do a song on stage that I had felt overpowering me before dinner was about to be calmed! Unbelievable! I did two songs, and I was joined by his bass player, Daniele Ferrantelli. This thanks to a generous, human musician who knows what it means to create a great vibe during a gig and give something to a fellow musician. In fact, Francesco knew it very well, because I turned out not to be the only one he lent the stage to. There were a couple of guys who go up from the Picolit clients and did a kind of rap competition – in Italian – and then another singer, a woman named Kristen Palmera, took the mic and she did a couple of songs, for which Francesco played the guitar – one was Hit the Road Jack….

Francesco Riotta’s latest clip.

But in the magic way in which these things almost always happen in the life of the musical troubadour, after the “open mic” ended and the instruments were put away, several of us joined together for a drink, and one of the rappers approached me and he too spoke in French. He informed me that in a neighbouring town, called Scopello (which is actually part of Castellammare, but a 15-minute drive from here), every Wednesday night there is an open jam session in a bar, and I should attend. Wow! It was only the day before that Ornella and I were saying that Castellammare is a perfect place for us, with the exception that I cannot satiate my need to play music by dropping into an open mic in the way I can at home. Hey presto, now I can! I will report on that here once I do it….

Francesco Riotta singing in English at Picolit in Sicily.

PS, lest I give a wrong impression about this place, it is absolutely full of music, and there are several bars with live music several times per week. But they book acts long in advance, so I’ve never had a chance to play in one.

PPS, and for those who noticed the hole in my storytelling…the guitar was a Crafter!!! (The hole was there on purpose, but against my wishes, because I had gone blank while writing this on what the name of the guitar was!!!)

Another great song with Francesco Riotta.

“Ajamola” Returns to the Stage With a More Powerful Message Than Ever

March 30, 2022
bradspurgeon

Ajamola poster

Ajamola poster

AUBERVILLIERS, France – When Ornella Bonventre and the actors of her TAC Teatro company began the creation of their new show in the fall of 2019, they had no idea what disasters – both human-made and natural – were about to befall the world. And yet, as if predicting the future, themes of the coming cataclysms began immediately to define the show: A look at the lives of refugees, a question about what happens when your life changes forever in one sudden fell-swoop, and even, the arrival in February of the costumes of the “dream constructors” of the show in the form of doctors’ white blouses. And with the white blouses, surgical masks. Everyone joked about what they might be able to do with surgical masks. Within months, of course, and then within years, we have been hit hard in our world by many of the themes of the show.

After putting on several performances of the show last fall, TAC Teatro took a break from performance after one of the actors left, and the show has now returned with a new actor – Oscar Paille – and several new and changed and developed moments of pure delight. Every time I see this show – and I have now seen it at least 10 times live – I feel like I am watching a play of Shakespearian dimensions. Not the tragedies, more something like “The Tempest” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” And fabulously, while Shakespeare is all about the text, “Ajamola” is all about the actions…and yet the text that there is excels in many spots with a beauty that touches me every time, especially that soliloquy that begins: “Goutte qui tombe sur le rebord de la fenêtre, pourrait-tu faire moins de bruit; il y a ici des gens qui ont besoin de dormir. Pas nous…” (Translation: “Drop that falls on the windowsill, could you make less noise; there are people here who need to sleep. Not us….”)

Ajamola TAC Teatro Trailer

I must confess, of course, that I was involved in the beginning as both an actor and a writer of some small part of the text – not that above quoted line that comes from Ornella – but the play was ultimately a work containing contributions by all of the actors. And that is what it remains. A physical theatre show written through what the French call “écriture de plateau,” along with a very hefty and healthy job of direction by Ornella. (I dropped out of any involvement long ago, but I have attended all the performances.)

I am writing this blog item now simply to announce that the piece is back on stage, and set to run every Thursday night between now and the end of June – French school holidays excepted – at 9PM. And you should reserve in advance before going.

I am also writing this because I wanted to post some of the photos I took at the performance last week, as well as the teaser that I made for the show. Hope to see lots of readers of this blog present! It’s an experience not to be forgotten!

PS: Only now in finishing this post do I see that my last post was also about “Ajamola!” SHAME on me. I hope soon to be bringing more news, diversity in posts, and updating my open mic guides! For a full description of “Ajamola” read the bottom of the previous post!!!

Ajamola Opening ©Brad Spurgeon

Ajamola Opening ©Brad Spurgeon

Ajamola ©Brad Spurgeon

Ajamola ©Brad Spurgeon

Ajamola ©Brad Spurgeon

Ajamola ©Brad Spurgeon

In Memory of Jim Haynes: End of an Era, but not of a Philosophy of Life

January 12, 2021
bradspurgeon

Jim Haynes

Jim Haynes

PARIS – Not long into reading Jim Haynes’s autobiography, “Thanks For Coming!” in 1984, shortly after it was published, I said to myself, “I am certain I will meet this man.” I lived in Paris, as did he, I was interested in the expat literary and cultural world, and he was at the center of it, and my bookstore of choice was “The Village Voice,” on the rue Princesse, which it seemed impossible that he would not know. A meeting had to happen.

As it turned out, sitting in the back of that same bookstore, drinking a coffee and eating a brownie, and reading Jim Haynes’s book, who should walk in but Jim Haynes. With his big moustache, and slightly drawling accent, he was easy to recognize. I wasted no time in approaching him and telling him of the coincidence that there I was reading his book at that very moment and in he walks! So began a 37-year-long friendship that came to an end two days ago when Jim died at the age of 87. In fact, as anyone who knew Jim knows, it was not just Jim who left us, but a whole chunk of cultural life in Paris (and dare I add a cultural life of the 1960s and 70s in Britain too), and a living, walking, smiling philosophy of life.

Thinking about his life in the last few days since he left us on 6 January, it struck me that Jim was born in the same year that Hitler took power in Germany, and that he should die in a hospital in Paris at the same moment that the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. was being raided by violent haters, was very significant: Nothing could be further from Jim Haynes’s philosophy of life than the hatred that both Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump knew so well how to manipulate in their followers. Jim was all about love and togetherness and sharing; and if that sounds like some kind of 1960s hippie peace sort of dreamy approach to life, well, not only was it just that, but Jim successfully – and contagiously – lived by it right to the end.

I will not spend time on this blog post reiterating the events of his life. That has been well handled all over the place, including in this obituary about Jim Haynes published in The Guardian, or on Jim Haynes’s own web site. The only thing I feel I can bring that would serve any purpose beyond what everyone else – and he himself in that autobiography as well – would say, is my own experience of Jim. And I look forward to reading many more such accounts by the other legions of people from every walk of life who knew him.

Even so, in a nutshell: Born in the U.S., in Louisiana, after coming to Europe in the military, he decided to live in Scotland in the 1950s, where he created the first paperback bookstore, then helped found the now-famous Traverse theatre, before then moving to London where he founded the Arts Lab theatre space, and the International Times newspaper. He then came to Paris on a teaching assignment at the University of Paris, and stayed the rest of his life here, writing, holding Sunday dinner salons for more than 40 years, creating his publishing company, as well as many other manner of homegrown artistic thing.

Jim Haynes Autobiography

Jim Haynes Autobiography

Jim also, by the way, wanted to meet and know everyone in the world, and it was for that reason that I had no qualms about introducing myself to him in that bookshop. After that first meeting, we had many different kinds of meetings or communications over the years, never as close friends, but always as welcome friends. In the early years he would periodically call me up while I was working in the library of the International Herald Tribune – a newspaper that he read daily – in order to find some clip or other fact that he needed for whatever purpose. We would talk for a while, I’d find what he was looking for, and life went on.

I met him on occasion at the various book launches and small press nights at The Village Voice, at Shakespeare and Company or other meeting points during the period of the 1980s when it felt as if the literary expat world of Paris of the 1920s and 1930s or even the 1950s had returned. Several young expats from the English-speaking world decided to create their own literary magazines, and Jim, who had his own Handshake Editions at the time helped to encourage many of those young people with their literary magazines and actions. “Frank,” by David Applefield, was one of those, John Strand, who went on to have an excellent career as a playwright had another called “Paris Exiles,” and a woman named Carole Pratle had one called Sphinx. And, yes, Ted Joans, the famous beat poet was hanging around too. Jim had even helped advise AND occasionally work for Odile Hellier, the owner of that very same Village Voice bookstore where we met. (Applefield, by the way, who spent most of his life in Paris until he returned to the U.S. a couple of years ago, ran for Congress last summer, lost, and died suddenly the next day.)

One of the astounding things about Jim was just how many people he did indeed know. And the range of the kind of person they were. From the famous to the unknown, it didn’t matter who you were or what you did. He just liked people. But more important, even his act of knowing people was not something only for him: He loved to introduce people to each other, to make connections, to start relationships. One of his ventures was a global address book, comprising many of the people he met. And his famous Sunday dinners in Paris were always an occasion for Jim to introduce people to each other, and I mean in a really, outgoing, almost formal way: “Brad this is so and so; so and so, this is Brad.” That sense that we were all there to meet and share was one of the first signals you would receive upon entering the dinner.

On one of our early meetings at his home in the 1980s, I went because I learned he had some kind of recording studio at home and I wanted to record a couple of songs and a piece of prose writing I had done. I secretly hoped he would love it and use it in his then popular “Cassette Gazette,” a cassette tape collection of all kinds of writing and music and everything else you could put on tape. He showed no interest in the written piece, but he did sincerely and with some surprise in his voice, compliment my recording of the Raggle Taggle Gypsies song. At the time I was no longer playing music in public and had no ambitions to do so. So I was a bit pissed off he liked the song but not the writing!

That recording, by the way, was done by his longtime friend, Jack Henry Moore, who I knew nothing of at the time, but who I would eventually learn was also very much at the center of the underground of the 1960s. Jim wrote a Jack Henry Moore obituary for The Guardian when he died in 2014.

That, I believe in fact, was my first visit to Jim’s atelier at 83, rue de la Tombe Issoire, where one of his illustrious neighbours and friends was Samuel Beckett, by the way. Yes, Jim was friends with countless literary people, including Henry Miller, another one-time Paris expat, and he had a long running friendship with the book publisher, John Calder, with whom he founded the first Edinburgh international book festival. And to my delight and surprise, he had also corresponded with Colin Wilson, one of the original Angry Young Men of British literature, whom I would later meet, interview and befriend. I was delighted to be able eventually to give to Jim a copy of the interview book that I did with Colin Wilson. How strange the world is! (I recall now that I had also run into Jim at the Frankfurt Book Fair the one time I went there, which he attended regularly, and he introduced me to Calder.)

From a coffee and brownie meeting while reading his book, and him calling me up as a librarian at the IHT, soon he would be complimenting me on “writing half of the IHT newspaper,” or however he put it, while referring to all my regular Formula One writings and multiple-page special reports in that paper. He had treated me with the same respect as a support staff member of the IHT as when I became a regular journalist for the paper. Over the years we would meet in various circumstances, maybe at an organized play attendance followed by a dinner with a small group of people whom he had encouraged to see his friends’ play – or at a Sunday dinner at his atelier.

In another interesting Jim Haynes phenomenon, through the decades the number and kinds of people who I knew and who I learned also knew Jim Haynes grew and grew. They would, again, be from different countries around the world, and my relationship to them would vary completely, never being entirely to do with journalism or the arts, so vastly large was his relationship “footprint” around the world.

Jim Haynes and Varda Ducovny, with host Grace Teshima behind. Photo © Seamas McSwiney

Jim Haynes and Varda Ducovny, with host Grace Teshima behind.
Photo © Seamas McSwiney

One of our more recent meetings happened four or five years ago at a book launch of a friend of his, Varda Ducovny, in a home art space in Paris, in Montmartre. I had met Varda at one of the above mentioned dinners. At the end of the evening, he left a few minutes before I did, and as I descended the stairs of the building, I found Jim, sitting oddly on the bottom stair, with a couple of his friends either side. He had fallen and hurt himself; in fact, he had fallen before the start of the evening, and despite being in pain throughout, he stayed for the full launch and cocktail ceremony. By then in his early 80s, such a fall felt ominous. And as it turned out, it really was the beginning of a series of incidents that would remove from him his strong good health and easy mobility.

One of our last meetings I now see in a short recorded interview that I did with him for some research that Ornella was doing, was in January 2018. Three years ago. While he was 100 percent there mentally – and morally, ie, in his usual good spirits – I seriously worried about how many months he might last. That he lasted three more years is testament to his incredible inner strength, which I put down to that Jim Haynes optimistic, happy, loving and thankful philosophy of life.

Ornella found a key to that philosophy in the book he had given her that day three years ago, a copy of his book, “Everything Is!” She posted these words from the book on her Facebook page, and I agree with their profundity, so I finish this post with them too: “Some people say that when they are happy they sing and dance. But I say: when I sing and dance, I am happy!”

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