AHA! A House for Arts

S7 E17 | FULL EPISODE

AHA! | 717

The Berkshire Theatre Group is rehearsing its upcoming production of White Christmas at the Colonial Theatre. Brian Melick discusses his 40-year career as an eclectic local percussionist and performs on the Udu.

AIRED: November 24, 2021 | 0:26:46
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TRANSCRIPT

(upbeat music)

- [Lara] It's a "White Christmas"

at the Berkshire Theater Group.

Brian Melick discusses his 40 year career

as an eclectic local percussionist.

Watch him perform on the udu drum.

It's all ahead on this episode of "AHA: A House for Arts."

- [Narrator] Funding for AHA

has been provided by your contribution

and by contributions to the WMHT venture fund.

Contributors include

the Leo Cox Beach Philanthropic Foundation,

Chet and Karen Opalka.

Robert and Doris Fischer Malseradi.

The Alexander and Marjorie Hover Foundation

and the Robison Family Foundation.

- At M&T Bank we understand

that the vitality of our communities

is crucial to our continued success.

That's why we take an active role in our community.

M&T bank is pleased to support WMHT programming

that highlights the arts, and we invite you to do the same.

(upbeat music)

- Hi.

I'm Lara Ayad and this is "AHA, A House for Arts."

A place for all things creative.

Matt's visiting another area theater venue today.

Let's see what's on show.

(upbeat music)

- I'm here in Pittsfield, Massachusetts

at the beautiful Colonial Theater to get a look

at Berkshire Theater Group's upcoming performance

of "White Christmas."

(upbeat classical music)

- The Berkshire Theater Group

is a parent organization of two storied theater companies

actually in America.

The Berkshire Theater Festival,

which was founded in 1928 down in Stockbridge

and the Colonial Theater,

which dates back to 1903 here in Pittsfield.

About a decade or so ago,

both organizations merged

and we are now the Berkshire Theater Group.

This theater has a marvelous history

that tells the story of the American theater

pretty much in the 20th century.

It was designed by a guy named McElfatrick

who was one of the preeminent theater designers of his age.

Designed hundreds of theaters in north and south America,

Canada, and of all of his theaters,

there's only a handful left less than five, and this is one.

Well, the theater is a gorgeous, gorgeous space

to perform in acoustically, magnificent.

It's reminiscent of a lot of the theaters

that you see in London's West End.

Sometimes when you come into theaters,

they're sprawling and there's a long distance

between the stage

and the back of the orchestra, the mezzanine.

The Colonial is more of a vertical theater.

And so it has a sense of intimacy

that's pretty unusual for theater

when you get 700 people in there,

you still feel like you're right on top of the play.

And we do opera in there.

We do local bands.

We do theater during the Berkshire Theater Festival season.

We have a very, very robust community education programs.

So we've got hundreds of kids

involved in productions every summer.

It started off just one.

Now we do one in the spring.

We do one in the summer.

We do one in the fall

and of course we have a Christmas

or holiday production every year,

which involves so many people in the community.

And it's so gratifying to see the connection

between the families in and around Pittsfield

and this theater.

Today, we're in rehearsal for "White Christmas,"

Irving Berlin's "White Christmas."

This is a bit of a milestone for us

because for the last 15 years,

the Berkshire Theater Group

has been presenting a Christmas Carol,

and it has become kind of a holiday tradition.

And we didn't do it last year for obvious reasons.

And I think the pause caused our artistic director,

Kate McGuire, to start thinking about the future.

And we love a Christmas Carol,

and we love the message of a Christmas Carol,

but it's a pretty dark story.

And I think Kate was looking to come out of COVID

with something a little lighter, a little more celebratory,

a way of welcoming the community back indoors

so that they could experience

and share some sense of pre COVID normalcy.

- I started out as an actor.

I've done Broadway and TV and film.

About 10 years ago, I turned to directing

and I've always wanted to.

And Kate McGuire here at Berkshire Theater Group

gave me an opportunity to direct a play.

And that sort of started me on this whole new chapter

of my career.

This show is just a joyous celebration

of course the holiday, but it's also about love.

It also is a piece, the piece itself,

"White Christmas" is sort of part of,

you know, Americana and celebration of Christmas,

like along with like it's a wonderful life.

This is one of those movies that everyone watches.

And so it's just such a great celebration of the musical.

On top of that though, it's just a great, great spirit.

It has a great spirit

and coming out of our entire sort of COVID period,

it's just great to be in the theater

and to see a show with great joy, love, music,

and a lot of comedy too.

It's one of those shows

that you don't remember being so funny.

We preview December 2nd and we opened December 4th

and we run until December 23rd,

right before the Christmas time.

And we hope that everyone comes sees us

because I think it's a great way to celebrate the holiday.

And it'd just be great to be all in the theater again.

- The Colonial Theater and Pittsfield in general,

I have to say is on a bit of a roll.

For the Berkshire Theater Festival,

it's always been Stockbridge central,

south county central and beginning in 2019 before COVID,

I think lots of folks who are used to going

to the main stage in Stockbridge

and to our Unicorn Theater in Stockbridge were introduced

or in some cases reintroduced,

but mostly introduced to the glorious environs

of this beautiful theater.

And so now the prospect of driving up the road

for 10 or 15 minutes

to come here to see a play in the summer is something

that people are doing eagerly.

I mean, I was a commercial producer before this,

so I produced on Broadway.

I produced at the Palladium in London,

and I will tell you, you know, there isn't a prettier,

nicer, theatrical experience

that you're gonna have in London or on Broadway

or anywhere else in America

than right here at the Colonial Theater.

- Percussionists, Brian Melick

is a fixture in the local music scene.

Having performed with various groups

throughout his 40 year career

from the McKrells to the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra

and everything in between.

How have drumming and the world music scene evolved

over the past 20 years?

I sat with Brian to find out.

Brian, welcome back to "A house for Arts."

It's such a pleasure to have you again,

but this time sitting here as a guest

and I'm very excited to hear about your story

and just, you know, as a little bit for our audiences

and our listeners,

you know, you've had over 400 recordings

and collaborations with artists on major record labels,

independent record labels,

and throughout your 40 year career, Brian,

you've been local to upstate New York

which is really fantastic.

- Yeah, I love it here.

- I wanna come back to your origin story in just a minute,

but you call yourself or refer to yourself as an Uduboy.

(Brian laughs)

So I'd love to know what is an udu

and what makes an udu so special.

- We have an amazing,

really quite a remarkable artists

that lives in Freehold, New York.

- And what's his name?

- His name is Frank Giorgini.

Thank you. - Frank Giorgini.

- Yeah, Frank Giorgini.

And he is a master tile designer sculptor,

and he came to learn about the traditional art form

of Nigerian pottery in the early seventies,

I think around 73.

He went to Haystack, Maine,

took a workshop with a visiting artisan from Nigeria.

His Hausa, his name is Abbas Ahuwan

and he's a cager master potter.

And these techniques that he was offering the U.S.

through his cultural exchange, the udu,

the drum for his tribe of people

became part of his offering

and teaching the pottery methods.

So Frank created these drums in the tradition,

but percussionists from all over the world,

especially in New York area.

- They heard the udu.

- Heard the udu

and saw it in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

because Frank's instruments

are in the Metropolitan Museum of Arts.

And so one thing led to another and poor Frank,

who was really working on putting his instruments

in galleries around the world

was sort of dragged into the music industry.

- And I know we're gonna have a segment

where you perform the udu later in this episode,

which is really, really cool.

I also understand, too,

what's really neat about the udu

is not only that Hausa people in Nigeria use it,

but I understand Igbo women from Southern Nigeria

used it as well. - Absolutely.

- So it's traditionally like a women's instrument,

but it sounds like,

your work with Frank Giorgini

really kind of brought this instrument

into the hands of like people of other genders,

people of other nationalities,

and it became kind of part of this marketplace

which is really neat.

- Right, and so Uduboy came about

because Frank is the udu man.

I had to be the boy,

and this is prior to the internet

or around when email came around.

And I was meeting some amazing people

from all over the world.

- You get to come up with a catchy name.

- A friend of mine in marketing said,

if you could come up with something like a quote

or a catchy name, and people kind of laugh,

then they'll never forget you.

So I figured, Uduboy at whatever.

So now I'm uduboymusic@gmail.com.

- Amazing, and we'll share that information

to audiences so they can look you up.

And I saw your website.

It's awesome. - Thank you.

- And on there, you know,

I was also learning too

about this incredible portfolio you have,

where you've collaborated with artists

who were working on the Food Network,

and you collaborated even with like artists

who are local and really,

and even at Caffe Lena, which is, you know,

a hallmark, you know, institution here.

- Magic place. - With Sarah Craig.

Wonderful, wonderful place.

Tell us a bit about the development

of the market for percussion music.

Well, you could even call maybe world music

over the past 10 to 15 years.

- Yeah, thank you.

That's a wonderful question

because probably about 25 or even 30 years ago,

you would often hear folks

coming from different nationalities

gather as a community and play their drums.

In the park.

You know African folks or people from the Caribbean islands.

But what was so beautiful is that we did have an explosion,

I would say probably about 30 years ago or so,

where percussion really started to become something

that people enjoyed coming together as a community.

Yes, it was already happening from the nationality,

but I'm talking about now cross cultural.

And a lot of that had to do

with people like Baba Olatunji,

who was a man that inspired me, Baba...

Nigerian, Yoruba.

Arthur Hall, a gentleman out in the west coast.

Prolific with what he was doing

with healing and using drumming.

And so lots and lots of us congregated to do that.

Another element is that now

they're using a lot of percussion rhythm music,

if you will, for soundtracks.

I have some sound libraries out there

because people are in search of that kind of thing.

- How did this all start for you, Brian?

Did this start very recent?

- I mean, of course you have a 40 year career,

but how did this all begin for you?

- I was your cliche story, Lara.

I hit pots and pans and rollerskate cases

and whatever my folks would allow me to hit.

My great uncle, a professional drummer at the time

in this area, he worked full-time for this state,

but he loved drumming.

He played with a lot of the big band guys

that were coming, touring through, if you will.

He was big member of the Union.

He made an announcement to my family

when I was about eight

that they needed to buy a set of drums

or he was going to.

- So he really saw in you this potential

that you were banking around on different types of things

and improvising different types of objects.

And he was like, you know what?

Brian's got a...

He's gotta keep doing.

- And my sister went to a garage sale my neighbor had,

saw a drum, took her allowance money and bought me a drum,

which I still have in my studio.

But that was the beginning.

And then listening to folks like Baba,

you know, when I was about 17, it changed.

But one thing I would really like to touch on

is that when I was 13 years old and I was in middle school,

we had a very prolific band teacher, Thomas Hyde.

He went on to own Van Curler Music.

For my friends out there that may remember Van Curler.

Tom saw an opportunity for about four or five of us

that were really geared to play music together.

And he brought us into something

that had nothing to do with the school.

It was a private talent show.

We didn't win,

but unbeknownst to me and him and my folks,

the gentlemen, his name was James Stotts, Jim Stotts,

bandleader, wonderful composer.

He was creating that.

He produced that. - I see.

- He was impressed with the fact

that I could play with brushes and sticks

and play waltzes and Latin music.

And he had a band

and his drummer was going in for an operation

and he needed a drummer to substitute

because of Jim, because of Tom.

- Because of this people who really felt like,

you know what,

just keep going through the process,

keep developing your craft, right.

That this is what brought it about.

And I actually wanted to ask you,

you know, by collaborating with bands like Golfstrom

who do a mix of like European pop from the thirties.

To like Celtic and jazz groups.

What is something that you've learned

about the craft and the art of music

that kind of surprised you over the years?

- Well, the biggest thing is that as a drummer,

I was lost in the instrumental side of things

for a long time, but a good portion of my discography,

a good portion of my career

is based on working with lyricists.

And so the most important thing is to listen to the song

and what I feel I do.

And it's not just me,

every drummer, every musician does this to some level.

We're coloring.

You know, if I can bring a texture or a sound,

a palette of colors, if you will,

to support the artists and support the song,

it's never obviously about undermining that.

It's always about servicing the music.

It's always about servicing the song or the melody.

I worked with a lot of instrumentalists.

It's probably 50, 50 all the way down.

So for me, the wonderful thing that's happened

and organically it has happened is that, you know,

it may be a fun sound.

It could be women's jewelry.

I mean, I'm not a proud guy,

resourceful, you know, I mean, dancers belts

and bell anklets and things.

You know, truly though the greatest thing

that I think I get to do every day is I get to color

and I get to support the story.

- It really is like a pallet

and you're just contributing

to something really collaborative.

So speaking of that,

do you have any upcoming projects

or recordings that you're really excited about?

- Well, during COVID, as we all had to step way back,

one of the industries for me personally,

that came back, I mean, obviously it never went away,

but there was a bit of a low for me in recording.

And it seems that since COVID

and since people have the time,

because everybody's being really careful,

a lot of new projects came about,

Warden & Co, a contemporary folk, pop,

original folk pop group out of Saratoga.

We have a new recording coming out

and I'm embarking on a new recording

with my friend, Kevin McKrell

who was a guest of AHAs

and several others.

Michael Benedict, it was a beautiful opportunity

to work with Michael Benedict.

We just did an in studio performance for Planet Arts,

the label that's putting his recording out.

So those are all either on the verge of coming out,

in the verge of starting

or in the middle of the whole process,

but I'm going to be collaborating

with Ellen Sinopoli soon as well.

Again, you know, the opportunity

to work with dancers has existed since I was 13.

And James hired me to start my career.

- And like some audiences

you've had the joy of watching Ellen Sinopoli

and her dance troupe perform.

And I'm sure it is-

- Oh, I work with them all the time.

As well as with Dennis mentioned the Spec team,

we do a lot of different types of dance

and music programs in schools and libraries, museums.

It's really a pleasure to be able to bring that to folks.

- It sounds like you really are bringing a wonderful gift

to folks along with other musicians.

So, Brian, thank you so much

for being on "A House for Arts."

- It was really my pleasure. - It was such an honor

to have you. - Really my pleasure.

Thank you so much, Lara.

- Once again, please welcome Brian Melick.

- This piece is going to feature the udu drum.

The udu drum is an indigenous instrument from Nigeria,

the Hausa and Igbo people from Zaria, Nigeria

played this instrument.

And this instrument is tied to the capital district

because there's a renowned artist

by the name of Frank Giorgini,

who was a participant and a cultural exchange

when a gentleman from Nigeria,

his name Abbas Ahuwan,

he's a cager master potter.

And he was here in the early seventies

doing a cultural exchange.

And Frank happened to be a participant

along with a lot of other individuals,

but Frank took this instrument.

And as an industrial artist,

he looked at the form and he just wanted

to kind of come up with his own technique

to sort of refine the art of it.

And for my friends

that may be potters or sculptors that use clay as a medium,

I wanted to point out this instrument

is specifically created by slab and coil.

So from the mid section of the bottom of the pot down,

it's a slab and they create it by taking clay

and putting it on an old rock

or an old drum and beating it down with a flat rock,

beating it down with a flat rock, excuse me.

And that stretches the clay.

And then once the clay is stretched over that rock

or that old pot, they flip it over and it becomes a bowl.

And then, so from about this mid point here, all the way up,

no matter what the profile the instrument is,

or the pot

that is created by coils.

And the reason why I say either, or is because

they have one instrument in their culture

that is regarded as a drum, it's called the kimkim.

Looks like a dumbbell.

And traditionally these have a tiered shape

or a spherical shape with a stubby neck.

This instrument here is unique.

This is one of Frank's designs.

It takes and borrows from both of those concepts.

The bottom would be more of that tiered shape.

And the top is a little bit more like the kimkim.

And what that does for us musicians

is it gives us a whole lot of characteristics.

So in this piece that I affectionately call Udu clay play,

you'll be able to hear all of these beautiful textures

on this instrument.

And the one thing I wanna point out is that this drum

is actually an idiophone.

There's no skin on this drum.

So I'm gonna be controlling the air flow

through the chamber.

And all of this is interconnected.

These are not completely separate,

but this neck right here is actually open.

So the air will flow between the two.

And if you want to look at your palm

and just trace the center part of your palm,

and that's how I'm going to control either sealing the hole

or releasing the sound by pulling the air out of the drum.

So Udu clay play.

(upbeat music)

- Thanks for joining us.

For more arts visit wmht.org/aha,

and be sure to connect with WMHT on social.

I'm Lara Ayad.

Thanks for watching.

- [Narrator] Funding for AHA has been provided

by your contribution and by contributions

to the WMHT venture fund.

Contributors include the Leo Cox Beach

Philanthropic Foundation.

Chet and Karen Opalka.

Robert and Doris Fisher Malesardi.

The Alexander and Marjorie Hover Foundation

and the Robison Family Foundation.

- At M&T Bank we understand

that the vitality of our communities is crucial

to our continued success.

That's why we take an active role in our community.

M&T Bank is pleased to support WMHT programming

that highlights the arts, and we invite you to do the same.

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