Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Syrian refugee crisis: America has a moral responsibility

Desperate Syrian refugees / Lost, afraid, unsure, disoriented, alone.

Imagine how you might feel if you were lost, afraid, unsure, disoriented, alone. Or, a parent trying to make sure your kids didn't starve. How desperate might you be if that person was you, a Syrian refugee?

As the leader of the free world, the United States has a moral responsibility to do its fair share to come to the aid of Syrian refugees seeking compassion after having been displaced from their home country. Yet, an irrational fear and political demagoguery from right-wing zealots brought on following the recent Paris terrorist attacks has replaced human kindness in my country.

Many democratic nations of the world are doing their fair part to admit and welcome Syrian refugees. For instance, Germany has already accepted 38,500 and Canada 36,300. In the days after the Paris attack, French President François Hollande said that his country would accept 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years. Meanwhile, the United States has pledged to take in a modest 10,000 Syrian refugees, a paltry figure compared to the compassion shown by our Canadian neighbors to the north and our European allies across the pond. We could -- and should -- do so much more.

And yet, one Republican Party candidate for President, Donald Trump, is calling for a ban on a Syrian refugees, calling them "Trojan horses" for terrorism, while another, Dr. Ben Carson, likens Syrians to "rabid dogs." The scapegoating of refugees by these American politicians is not only very aggravating, it's mean-spirited. Their demagoguery -- out and out fear mongering -- about the refugees is a very mean punch in our nation's collective gut. Ever since the Paris attacks, Trump has ratcheted the populist rhetoric all the while spewing lies and half-truths, channeling the anxieties of Americans into fear and hate.

"We are not well served when in response to a terrorist attack we descend into fear and panic," President Barack Obama said last week. He reinforced his position during a joint press conference with Mr. Hollande at the White House on Tuesday afternoon.

As The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote in his Sunday column, "As anti-refugee hysteria sweeps many of our political leaders, particularly Republicans, I wonder what they would have told a desperate refugee family fleeing the Middle East. You've heard of this family: a carpenter named Joseph, his wife, Mary, and their baby son, Jesus.

"According to the Gospel of Matthew, after Jesus' birth, they fled to save Jesus from murderous King Herod (perhaps the 2,000-year -ago equivalent of Bashar al-Assad of Syria?). Fortunately, Joseph, Mary and Jesus found de-facto asylum in Egypt -- thank goodness House Republicans weren't in charge when Jesus was a refugee!" 

A Syrian father tries to comfort his two children /
 Together, they are refugees yearning for freedom.
So far, more than 200,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict. What is happening in that ravaged, Middle East war-torn country is one of the largest humanitarian crises since World War II. These desperate Syrian refugees should be admired for their courage and seen in the same yearning for freedom as refugees from any other war-torn or repressed country.

Instead, here in the United States, thanks to the Islamic State's terrorizing strategy of "creating a wedge in the West between Muslims and non-Muslims," according to Kristof, an anti-Syrian backlash has been created and many "fear mongers" such as Trump, Carson and Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz are looking upon immigrants and refugees as the enemy. They are effectively trying to de-humanize every Syrian person, branding them as "Not Like Us."

Listen, the problem is not the Syrian refugees, the ones who are fleeing persecution from the barbaric acts and twisted ideology carried out by murderous ISIS radical jihadists. As I see it, the problem in America is a political clouding caused by partisan politics that's more than just prejudiced -- it's become downright xenophobic, with a lot of finger-pointing aimed at all Muslim people. It's an insult to the more than 1.5 billion Muslims who peacefully worship Islam throughout the world.

While security within the U.S. borders is a legitimate concern -- and we can't rule out the slim possibility that a terrorist might slip in with the refugees -- let's take a moment and put things into proper perspective. Refugee admission into the United States is the most deeply vetted pathway, one which can take a couple of years for the process to be completed. So, do you really think a terrorist will wait two years to try to infiltrate our borders as a refugee? Not very likely. A terrorist who really wants to attack America would more likely be sent to this country by ISIS or any other terrorist organization as a student or as a tourist, and I don't see any of my country's political leaders calling for a ban on international students coming to study in our prestigious colleges and universities, or a ban on tourists coming to visit America's vibrant cities. As some have rightfully suggested, security must be permeated, but "with common sense and a bit of heart."

I am in agreement with Kristof and applaud how he summed up his feelings: "To seek to help desperate refugees in a secure way is not naïveté. It's not sentimentality. It's humanity."

Indeed, it's humanity, a moral responsibility.

Photos: Courtesy of Google images. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Remembering Allen Toussaint: A great and good man

Allen Toussaint / A great and good man.

Over the past week, I've been reading many of the wonderful tributes that have been shared about legendary New Orleans musician and producer Allen Toussant, 77, who passed away earlier this month following a concert he performed in Madrid, Spain. It's given me a chance to reflect upon his music legacy.

A native of New Orleans, Toussaint was known equally for his masterful work as a pianist, composer, arranger and producer. Throughout his storied career, he embodied the traditions of New Orleans R&B music and was one of his city's most prolific and influential songwriters and producers.

David Simon, who created the HBO series The Wire and Treme, called Toussaint a "gentle, giving soul and one of the finest composers who ever created American music."

Toussaint could both compose and arrange music, and his piano-playing style was both imaginative and distinctive. As it happened, many of Toussaint's songs became familiar through versions by other musicians, including: "Working in the Coal Mine", "Ride Your Pony", "Fortune Teller", "Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues)", "Southern Nights", "Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky", "I'll Take a Melody", "Get Out of My Life, Woman", and "Mother-in-Law".

As a producer, Toussaint's credits include Dr. John's hit "Right Place, Wrong Time" and Labelle's "Lady Marmalade." Additionally, Toussaint contributed horn arrangements for the rock group The Band's 1972 'Rock of Ages' concert album, which is where I remember hearing of Toussaint for the first time. I liked what I heard.

"The horn arrangements he wrote for The Band became a staple of our sound from the Academy of Music/Rock of Ages concerts to The Last Waltz,"said Robbie Robertson, guitarist for The Band, in remembering Toussaint last week on his Facebook page. "He was not only a brilliant songwriter, record producer, piano man, arranger and performer; he was also one of the finest gentlemen I have ever known. I had the honor of inducting Allen into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and I couldn't find enough kind words to express how strongly I felt about him and his music."

Personally, I had the joyful experience of seeing Toussaint perform in concert twice: first, at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California, on June 20, 2006, as part of a tour he did with Elvis Costello in support of an album they collaborated on following Hurricane Katrina called 'The River in Reverse'; second, in a solo show he gave on May 11, 2007, at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. Both were extremely joyful occasions, and I'm grateful for having had the chance to see Toussaint perform live.

On his Facebook page, Costello spoke eloquently of Toussaint: "I have been so lucky to spend even this little time with Allen Toussaint. Allen was unfailingly gracious, elegant and musically curious.

"We last shared the stage at the Civic Center in New Orleans in February of this year. As always, he was thoughtful, bringing a late Mardi Gras gift for my wife (the jazz musician Diana Krall) and asking after the well-being of my sons and my mother, who he had once visited on a trip around Merseyside.

"He signed off every note and phone call the same way; 'Looking Forward'.

"I will miss him very much."

In his recently-published memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, Costello devoted an entire chapter to his friendship with Toussaint and the recording of 'The River in Reverse' album. It is defintely worth a few minutes of your time to read:


A day after learning of Toussaint's death, I listened to 'The River in Reverse', an album which came about following the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. One of my favorite songs from this album is "Ascension Day." I came across a lovely video for "Ascension Day," which features inspired vocals by Costello and the soulful -- and at times rollicking -- but always harmonic playing by Toussaint on piano.

Allen Toussaint was a great and good man, who left this world much too soon. The world has lost a musical treasure that can never be replaced. Fortunately, his music and recordings live on. Like Elvis Costello and many others, I will miss him very dearly.

God rest your soul, Allen.

Learn more about Allen Toussaint:

Photo: Courtesy of WWNO/Google images. 
Video: Courtesy of YouTube.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Wendell Pierce: A soaring and eloquent voice speaks out about the redemptive and healing power of art

Wendell Pierce's memoir, 'The Wind in the Reeds:
A Storm, A Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken'
is about the redemptive and healing power of art and
about New Orleans, a city he loves so dearly.

From his leading roles in HBO's The Wire and Treme to his feature film appearances in Selma, Ray and Waiting to Exhale, I've admired the work of the Tony Award-winning actor and producer Wendell Pierce for many years.

When I learned a few months ago that Pierce would be coming to the Bay Area to speak at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco on October 30, I marked it on my calendar and bought tickets to this Arts & Ideas lecture. For more than an hour last Friday evening, Pierce spoke in both a soaring and eloquent tone of voice about the redemptive and healing power of art and about New Orleans, the city of his birthplace and the origin of his creativity. It is a city that he loves so dearly.

Pierce has written a new memoir, The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken, that is truly a page-turner.

'The Wind in the Reeds' is truly
a page-turner.
Both poignant and redemptive, in The Wind in the Reeds, Pierce tells the stories of his family, his city and his creative journey in the arts, and how they are all connected to one another. And, just as importantly, how they are "precious and worth saving, and how art has been critically important in revitalizing this unique American city."

On the back of the book's dust jacket, James McBride, author of The Color of Water and The Good Lord Bird, writes:

"This is more than a memoir. It's an adventure in history, encompassing the timeless elements that propelled this fourth-generation grandson of a slave into one of the most important dramatic actors of our age: family, art, truth, religion, and of course a mother's love. This is a story of sacrifice and blood struggle, of victory and selflessness, told with deep humility and grace by one of the most important American artists of our generation."

Pierce, 51, writes in his memoir: "We know who we are by the stories we tell about ourselves and our world. We know who we are through the family and community of whose stories we are a part.

"We make our stories. And our stories make us.

"I am not sure the stories of my family are art, exactly. After all, they came down to me not as objects to be admired for their beauty. Then again, they contain so much truth and goodness that they cannot help being beautiful as well. Their trials, their triumphs, the virtues that gave them the strength to overcome -- all of these things live in the stories my family shares as an inheritance that grows as we invest in it each successive generation.

"I draw creative strength from my roots buried deep in south Louisiana. Until the storm, I did not appreciate how much those roots were the veins connecting my heart to the body of historical experience that gave birth to the man I am today, and the man -- and the artist -- I am becoming every day."

Since Hurricane Katrina devastated his native New Orleans in 2005, Pierce has devoted much time and energy helping to rebuild the flood-ravaged Pontchartrain Park, a black middle-class neighborhood which became the first African-American post-war suburb, where was raised by his parents -- his father retired from the military and became a photographer and his mother was a school teacher. "In my family, we have a motto: Don't ever tell me you can't do something."

Throughout the evening, Pierce kept returning to the themes of a love of family and community in describing what brought him back to his roots and the need to do something positive to help in the city's recovery, to pick up the pieces. He so very much wanted to see his city to come back. So, he became a community rebuilder.

Wendell Pierce (right) performing in 'Waiting for Godot'.
The actor said it was a cathartic experience for him
and it reminded him of the power of art.
"It was an awakening."
"After Katrina, there were miles and miles of destruction and nothing there, nothing was right. And yet, we stagger onward rejoicing," said Pierce. One of the ways the actor helped his community rebuild -- and by extension his city -- was by performing in what became a legendary production of Waiting for Godot, which was staged in two of the neighborhoods that were most damaged by Hurricane Katrina. It became a chance for the city of New Orleans to come together and to celebrate "the human capacity for resilience."

In a recent NPR interview, Pierce said performing Waiting for Godot was a cathartic experience for him and it reminded him of the power of art. "It was an awakening. Waiting for Godot, this existential play about two men in this void with only a tree and a road, with no sense of who they are, where they've been, where they hope to do -- a real sense of desperation and loss, awaiting for something to help them something to guide them, to find who they are. They're waiting for Godot. They don't even know what or who Godot is.

"And it's in that moment that they come to the realization in this play that the power that they truly have is within themselves. And Vladimir says, 'At this place in this moment of time all mankind is us.  Let us do something while we have the chance.'"

In his book, Pierce writes of the "collaborative potential that art has to heal ourselves, our families and our communities." On Friday, Pierce reminded us of this, saying: "We reflect on who we are as a society and community. The legacy of New Orleans can be seen through the arts. Everything comes together as we deal with life."

Photo of Wendell Pierce at JCCSF Arts & Ideas: © Michael Dickens, 2015.
Photo of Wendell Pierce in 'Waiting for Godot': Courtesy of Google Images.