Thursday, October 11, 2007

And Still They Dance - Voices for Silent Disasters

It just takes one person

My friend Stephanie has been talking all summer about the concert series she's putting on this Fall to benefit people in northern Uganda who have been displaced by the civil war that has been going on there for twenty one years. When I first heard about it, I thought, oh that sounds cool kind of the way you'd think someone putting on a really good party or a house concert was cool. And in fact, that's how this whole thing started out. But since then it''s grown.

Over the last month or so, it slowly began to dawn on me that maybe this was bigger than I had realized—especially when Steph got an invitation to go to Uganda for 10 days and meet some of the people she's trying to help. What started out as an idea for one house concert with one performer—Steph--has become something much bigger. You can read the story here.

So when she sent out the email broadcast a couple of weeks ago, announcing the kick off concert last night, I shot back a reply: “Do you need any volunteers?” She emailed me back from Uganda and hooked me up with her partner in crime and co-producer Gordon Heady and he invited us to help with ticket sales and will call.

Tuesday night was a gorgeous evening by Portland October standards—sixty degrees and not raining—so we rode the five miles to the McMenamins Kennedy School. McMenamins has donated the venues for all ten concerts and 35 of the best musicians in Portland have all donated their time and talent. If you're getting the idea that Steph and Gordon are People Who Know People, you're on the right track.

We wandered the halls and found the will call table at the front door and met Rebecca, another volunteer from Mercy Corps. She said Gordon was supposed to train us so we kept wandering, looking for him or Steph. We just missed sound check, but heading backstage, we saw Tony and also Aaron, who we met randomly on NW 21st a couple of months ago after he saw me sitting in with Steph this summer. He was busy setting up sound equipment. Turns out he works for the Jazz festival, where most of the stage volunteers were commandeered from. And there was Shira (Princess of Power :), the sound queen, making everything sound pretty.

We found Steph and said our hellos and soon we were back at our station getting the run down. We were in charge of will call which meant giving out a few tickets and mostly answering questions about the location of the bathroom, where to buy door tickets, who was playing and when. Rebecca, it turned out, had just finished nursing school and is applying to the same hospital where Jess works so they spent some time talking shop.

One woman walked up to me and asked excitedly, “Are you from Uganda?”

“No, I'm from Portland,” I said, managing to hold back a laugh.

Her face fell. “Where are all the Ugandans?”

Just then her wish was granted as two people walked in who had the gorgeous blue/black skin you see in true Africans. Their accents as they greeted us confirmed their origins and my new friend dropped me like a hot potato and latched onto them. I wasn't offended.

We had a fourth volunteer who's name I ended up not getting, but she was a sweet woman and a member of Lions of Batucada, who will be playing the closeout show of the series. She had also spent a few years in Uganda as a member of the Peace Corp so she was very excited to be part of the series. She kept telling us how amazing the movie was that would be playing at the end of the show. It's called War Dance and it's about the struggles and the triumphs of some of the people in northern Uganda. Because Steph and Gordon are P.W.K.P, the makers of the movie, which had only shown at film festivals thus far, gave it to them for the opening concert absolutely free and allowed them to premiere it ahead of the New York and Los Angeles showings.

Once the show had started, Rebecca offered to hang out at the table so we could go hear some music. We go to hear Gordon and Steph introduce the show and talk about the journey. Gordon was particularly skilled at encouraging people to donate to Mercy Corp above and beyond the ticket price. There were also beaded bracelets and necklaces for sale made by a group of women called luchan rebe—the poor unite. The jewelry is made from recycled calendar paper and it's gorgeous. VfSD ordered 1000 pieces to sell during the series. Portland Roasting also had coffee for sale with the proceeds going to Mercy Corp as well.

We caught most of Art Alexakis' set and then got food and went back to check on Rebecca, but the table had been shut down. So we enjoyed our meals to the tunes of China Forbes and Thomas Lauderdale of Pink Martini which were exquisite. Girls who sing in foreign languages are hot.

During intermission, I got to connect with more people I knew, including Stephanie's sisters and some people I hadn't seen since my Kinkos days. Yet another person I don't remember came up to me and told that we'd met previously in some bar. Since I spent about 0.0000001% of my time in bars, I'm always slightly suspicious of these claims, but then again, my memory isn't that great either.

After helping to encourage folks to head back in for the movie, we were excused from duty for the night and went in to watch the film.

And I thought I had problems

To say that I was unprepared for the scope and emotional impact of the movie would be the grossest of understatements. I could see right away why it has already won some awards. It sucks you in from the beginning and profiles several children—Nancy, Dominic and Rose, ages 12-14. The film centers around a national music competition that takes place in Kampala in which 20,000 schools compete. This was the first year that the school from Patong, in the war zone qualified to go to the national competition.

It was easy to get involved in the children's stories. When they begin to describe in mostly calm, matter-of-fact tones, the horrors that they have lived through, it is all the more chilling:

Being abducted and forced to kill as a soldier in the rebel army.
Watching parents be abducted and later identifying them as the rebels pull their heads out of pots.
Hiding out in a school house as rebels break in, threatening to kill children

These horror stories are interspersed with their commitment to artistic expression as a tool to survive and thrive despite their losses. It's a good emotional breather but it wasn't enough to help me handle what came next.

Nancy's mother takes her to her father's grave before she leaves for Kampala, to receive his blessing. When they arrive, she falls down on the grave, wailing out her grief. The orderly procession subtitles juxtaposed against her raw grieving-which needed no translation-made it that much worse.

It was far too close to home for me, and I had to leave the theater and go into the next room, where I proceeded to have a full scale meltdown. Nothing unusual about that of course, but usually I'm at home when it happens. It was particularly frustrating to lose it in public. A nice employee came over to check on me and brought me some water, which was about all they could do. Steph's sister was having dinner with a friend and she came over to offer a hug. I managed to croak out the reason for my utter lack of composure. Later Steph came in and they both stayed with me till I pulled myself together.

I went back in and watched the end of the movie, which thankfully, focused on the competition in Kampala and has a very positive ending. Still, I shook uncontrollably for a long while, probably from forcing myself to stop crying prematurely. But I was glad not to miss the end of the movie.

As hard as it was to watch, the film definitely does it's job—showing the spirit of people half a world away who refuse to give up, no matter what life throws at them. I am so proud of Steph for putting together such an amazing fund raiser.

There are nine shows left in the series, starting November 2nd. You can go to the Voices For Silent Disasters website for more info and to buy tickets, read the blogs from Stephanie's trip and watch related video on the KPTV channel 12 website (search for Stephanie Schneiderman).

Please spread the word!

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