Archive for the Photo-Essays Category

At the Track with El Grande Renaldo!

Posted in Cultural Matters, On Sports!, Photo-Essays with tags , , on March 3, 2015 by playthell


David Hardiman, Virtuoso Trumpeter, Professor,  San Francisco Jazz Master

 Watching the Sport of the Gods at Golden Gate

 When I agreed to meet my main man Renaldo Ricketts aka El Grande Renaldo – poet, painter and San Francisco Bon vivant – at Golden Gate Field I hadn’t been to a race track in over thirty years.  Not because of any crazy notions about the horses being treated “inhumanely,” since I believe humane treatment ought to be for humans although it is seldom achieved.  And horses well….they should be treated like horses…Duh?    I was kept away from the track by weightier considerations.  Since I am a passionate horse lover and hold a longtime fascination with the equestrian arts, I attended those marvelous horse shows at Madison Square Garden and often rode my own horses.

However I never missed the running of the Triple Crown Races on big screen televisions and thought I had the best seat in the house until yesterday, when I found myself standing tight down by the edge of the track – so close you could feel the momentum of those powerful Thoroughbred horses as they galloped by.  And since I had my camera with me I was happy as a hog in slop.  Renaldo had invited me to join him at the track on other occasions when I was visiting the Bay Area.   But I always played past it.  But this time it was on the eve of his sixtieth birthday, a landmark in the life of anybody these days, but most especially out spoken high spirited black men like Renaldo.

So I thought what tha hell; I’ll go hang out with my buddy and watch some great equine athletes do their thing, which is run faster and longer than any animal on the planet.  While I like to watch the horses Renaldo loves to play them, and is one of the few people who is successful at it.  The way he does it strikes me as some strange conjuration that’s part art, part science, and part Mumbo Jumbo, which makes it beyond the reach of most rational beings and has led to wreck and ruin for may who tried to unlock the secret to winning money playing the horses.  It is a mystery that I long ago decided was beyond the realm of my comprehension and I wouldn’t give a cripple crab a crutch to wager on a nag!

I grew up amid horses, my grandfather was an excellent horseman and my uncle was the town blacksmith in St. Augustine Florida, the nation’s oldest city, where people still rode horses through the street when I was a boy.  Hence I not only learned how to care for horses and handle them whether hitched to a carriage or under saddle, but to shoe them too.  I know a lot about horses, which is why I don’t bet on them.  Horses are living creatures that have a mind of their own and can be moody just like humans; or they just might not feel well, but you never know when they will sit down on you.

I’d rather play the lottery, where all I need is a dollar and a dream and one hit can put me on easy street.  However gambling wise guys know that playing the horses offers much better odds, but to win you have got to work at it and do some study.   In the photo essay below you will witness the intensity of the bettors, as the scan the TV monitors that adorn the walls everywhere, and the disciplined concentration with which they study the racing forms.

El Grande Renaldo is something of a legend at Golden Gate Field, the lovely race track nestled on the banks of the San Francisco Bay, especially in the Second Floor Lounge,  where the bartenders and barmaids treat him as an old friend and his seat at the end of the bar is practically reserved.  He was generous in providing my drink of choice, rum and coke with olives and cherries, while he stuck to light beer and sparkling water.  Like most of the people at the track Renaldo is all business.  He is not only placing bets on races all over the country and following them on the many TV monitors about.  It was fascinating to watch.

However there were many fascinating episodes on that adventure at the track.  It began with the ride on the shuttle bus that ferries people back and forth from the BART train station to Golden Gate Field.  The driver, a Pacific Islander who looked to be in his late thirties, was a passionate fan of vintage 1950’s Afro-American Rhythm and Blues, especially the southern artists.  So on the way to the race track I heard Bobby Blue Bland, BB King, Etta James, Sam Cooke, and James Brown.  They were all original recordings which ran about three minutes and change.  As this was the music that I grew up on it was like a trip back in time, except that back in the day in Florida I would never have been on a bus full of white people grooving to the music and seated next to a white woman with a skirt so short one wrong move and we would have seen her tonsils!

Thus I found myself strolling down memory lane and reflecting  on how dramatically race relations  have changed during my lifetime, not that I need any reminders, after all we have a black family in the White House, everything else pales beside that fact.  I say this without fear of contradiction, despite the verbose ahistorical numb skulls who insist that nothing has changed.   When I arrived at Golden Gate and walked into the vast park I began to have second thoughts as to whether I would actually be able to find Renaldo, but he had assured me in no uncertain terms that he would be where he said he would be.  And he was.

The first thing I heard when I entered the lounge was Renaldo’s voice calling out my name.  There he was in his seat at the end of the bar, impossible to miss with his radiant smile and Falstafian girth, holding forth in his lively loquacious fashion as his fellow travelers looked on.  He asked what I was drinking, introduced me around, and then turned his attention to the next races.  As Renaldo worked his strange alchemy, whereby he turns cardboard tickets into gold the way his Moorish ancestors were rumored to have turned sand into gold back in the day, I wandered down to the edge of the track and began photographing the horse and the humans, who were diverse and of interesting variety.

What was conspicuously absent from the multi-ethnic stew was Afro-American trainers and jockeys.  I’ll bet most people never even notice this, or find it unusual even if they do.  This is because most people who visit race tracks have never seen any significant black presence among the horse handlers.  Yet for many years during the late 19th and early 2th century, Black American Jockeys and trainers dominated the tracks; they owned the Kentucky Derby!  Since I have already written about this in another essay I shall not reiterate it here, for a full discussion of that topic enter “Black Jockeys” in the search engine of this blog.

The point is that they were driven out of the industry by white racist who couldn’t compete with these black masters fairly. And if they had their way Brother Hardiman would not be thrilling the crowds with his wonderful trumpet artistry.  They tried to lay him off but the public wouldn’t stand for it, Renaldo first among them in sparking a letter writing campaign to the management of golden Gate.  The lesson here is that we must be eternally vigilant and ready to battle the forces of white supremacy at all times: Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere!

I have often felt that there is a serendipitous quality about how I come to write certain essays.  This is a case in point.  Recently I saw a movie starring Will Smith as a con man who hooks up with a foxy grafter and they paint a fascinating portrait of the high fashion hotties and other characters who hang out a race tracks.  So I was looking closely to see if I recognized any of those types.  However the high point for me was watching all of the beautiful horses; I really got an eyegasm.  Some of them you will see in the photographs below.

A hail fellow well met, everybody greeted Renaldo with a warm vibe, what the French call “bon homie.” But the person that I found most fascinating was the official Bugler at the track who plays the fanfare announcing the races.  I was first struck be the fact that he would play impromptu jazz improvisations during the intermission between races, and they were so hip I wondered who it was.  Well he turned out to be David Hardiman, virtuoso trumpeter, Professor of Music and Director of the San Francisco All-Star Jazz Orchestra.

So when he came out to play his next fanfare Renaldo introduced us and I asked him to play the classic Jazz tune Bugle Call Rag, and he swung it.  I have attached a clip of Hardiman and his orchestra in performance at the bottom of this essay.  Every time I hung with Renaldo in San Francisco it has been a fascinating and culturally enriching experience.  The first time we hung out he took me to the Church of Saint John Coltrane; this time I met one of train’s musical descendants. Hence I knew something fascinating would happen hanging out at the track with El Grande Renaldo!


 After Playing the classic “Bugle Call Rag” at my Request
The Bugler and I became fast Friends
 We had been Properly Introduced by a Mutual Friend
El Gran Renaldo: San Francisco artist and Bon Vivant!
 It Was a Stylish Crowd


 Filled with Free Thinking Fashionistas!
 Folks Still Wear Hats…….
By the San Francisco Bay
 Even Barely Legal Young Foxes
Be Rockin Fly Sky Pieces
 Many Mexican Playas Rock Cowboy Hats …


 …and they play em to the Max!
 Harry Reems Jr Sported a Fedora
 Played off by a Handle Bar Mustache
 And the Star Girls
Bedecked themselves in finery
 Then Strutted their Stuff….
…..before the High Rollers
 Some Fly Girls….
 Put themselves conspicuously on Display
 While Others…..
 Are Low Key
 Most People Came to Bet on the Races


I came to watch these Marvelous Equines
 Among Racing Wise Guys…..Nothing is left to Chance


They study racing forms as if they were Talmudic Text
 Even as they dine on wine and swine


They keep their eyes on the prize
  Renaldo has a special spot in the Second Floor Lounge
From whence he monitors multiple races and watch his fortunes rise or fall
 He has felt the Thrill of Victory…..


 ……and the Agony of Defeat!
 Man’s Best Friend….The King of Beasts!
Thoroughbreds can run longer and faster than any animal on earth!
 The Jockeys are cool, calm and collected
As they wait to board their mo
The Boss Bugler Presented a Fanfare
To Announce Every Race
 And what splendid Races they Were!
The ran like they were running for their lives!
Until One Breaks Away From the Pack


And takes the Money
 The Horses build up such speed
 They need time to slow down
The Losers are quickly unsaddled
And returned to the paddock 
While the Winning Steed


Prances around like a Conquering Hero
 Heading to the Starting Gate


 Racing Horses are so Hyped they must be Restrained by another Rider
 Ready to Run!
The Escort’s job is Critical to Keeping the Racers Under control
 Getting them in the Gates require great skill


 The Calm before the Storm
 The Big Grey took this One!
A Rare Color for a Thoroughbred
 After the dramatic win…
…….this champ got all snuggly
 It was just another Day for the Big Gray


I marvel at his beautiful Conformation


In the Winner’s Circle!!!


 This is what it’s all About!
Double click to see Hardiman and the Jazz All-Stars

Playthell G. Benjamin 
March 2, 2015
 San Francisco





The Fall Of Turd Blossom

Posted in Photo-Essays, Playthell on politics with tags , , on November 13, 2012 by playthell


Karl Rove Busted!

 Bush’s Brain is Dead!

After engineering the election of George Bush, a Texas Republican dunderhead with little knowledge about the world, to the presidency of the United States over the far more capable Al Gore, political strategist Karl Rove was acclaimed a political genius and dubbed “Bush’s Brain.”  Although Bush’s pet name for his puppetmesiter is “Turd blossom.”

And when he did it again, after Bush had presided over the 9/11 attack – the worse national security failure in American history, and then attacked the wrong country – Rove took on the aura of a political oracle whose political advice was infallible, and Republicans regarded his pronouncements with the reverence with which the Catholic faithful receive the encyclicals of the Pope.  That’s why they are all shell shocked after President Obama’s crushing defeat of Mitt The Twit.

Turd Blossom’s  dramatic fall from the pedestal on which he had pompously perched began when he was commenting on the election returns on FOX News – that flagship of that incubator of Republican fantasies David Frum, a former Bush speech writer and genuine intellectual, calls “The Republican entertainment complex.” After FOX’s own numbers men called Ohio for President Obama, which gave him the election, Rove had a conniption and went into fumbling fit of denial.

Reflecting the tension between those who consider themselves “journalist” and the Republican propagandists who provide the commentary, the anchor woman, Megyn Kelly,  got up and walked back the room where the election results were being tallied and asked them to respond to Rove’s concerns.  They were steadfast in their conclusions.

This prompted her to ask Rove live on television if his calculations were real or  “just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better.”  It was the most embarrassing moment I have ever witnessed of a major commentator on television in real time.  One can see why Rove went into shock and denial because he had just blown 300 million dollars on the election through his two super PACS American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS. 

Not only did Romney lose with two million fewer votes than John McCain garnered, but all but one of the Senate candidates supported by Rove also lost!  The Democrats retained the White House, added to their majority in the Senate and increased their numbers in the House. This colossal Republican defeat has reduced Rove to a figure of ridicule and contempt in and out of the Grand Obstructionist Party.

The venerable rightwing war horse Richard Viguerie predicted that Turd blossom “would never be hired to run or consult on a national campaign again.”  And the racist Blow hard Republican Buffon Donald Trump tweeted “congrats to Karl rove on blowing 400 million this cycle.  Every race Crossroads GPS ran ads in the Republicans lost.  What a waste of money.”

The Donald Was Really Pissed!
Yet his insane Racist Antics Help Bring the GOP Down!

Joe Scarboro lamented that the reason the Republicans were so shocked by their defeat was because the Republican media commentariat “lied to us!”  Indeed, the analysis of the various pre-election polls released today by Nate Silver – the numbers crunching wizard at the New York Times who called it all right – shows that the most inaccurate predictions came from two of the most prestigious albeit Republican leaning pollsters: Rasmussen and Gallup, who were off by 4 and 5 points respectively

The attacks cited above are but a sampling of the invective his fellow Republicans are heaping on the head of Turd. And other Republican prognosticators who had predicted a Romney victory – Newt Gingrich, Dirty Dick Morris, Michael Steele, et al – are publicly confessing the error of their ways.

However the most brutal public flagellations are coming from the television comedians.  There are certainly too man to cover here, but the Saturday Night Live Skit deserves honorable mention, but  Dave Letterman bit took first prize with me.  Assuming the dramatis personae of a Koch brother speaking to Rove, he says “Hey Tubby, how much will it take to but this election” as he shells out money.

Dave cautions us not to be surprised if we hear that the Koch brothers  jumped Rove and kicked his ass! The bloodletting in the Grand Obstructionist Party has just begun.  I shall watch from my front row seat with the jaded blood lust of spectators in the Roman Coliseum where Gladiators fought to the death, and everybody will get a thumb’s down!   I pray that Turd Blossom die the death of a pole cat and stink his way to hell!!!!!


Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

November 12, 2012

Playing Mas!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Photo-Essays with tags , , , on September 30, 2012 by playthell

Struttin their stuff in the Road March

 A Bacchanal in Brooklyn

Once again Brooklyn’s beautiful Eastern Parkway was awash in colorfully costumed revelers on Labor Day. It is the biggest annual parade in the USA – although partisans of the Puerto Rican Day Parade dispute this claim.   On this day the Trinidadian tradition of road marches, playing mas and Calypso music is employed to celebrate the cultures of all the English speaking Caribbean.

Its Carnival time in Brooklyn and everybody “jumps up” for the sheer joy it brings.  No matter where I happen to be I make it my business to get back to the Big Apple for the Labor Day bacchanal, a restorative ritual that rejuvenates the Caribbean community through the joy of music and dance, breathes new life into the culture, cements a sense of community, and showers observers of all backgrounds with good vibes that makes the spirit dance!

It is a colorful and dynamic spectacle that is unique among public events in the US, except for Madi Gras in New Orleans, but is common fare south of the border.  Although Carnival serves many functions, social catharsis chief among them, the display of black bodies and the celebration of their beauty is a major raison d’ eter.  It’s one of the main things that attract revelers of both sexes to the Eastern Parkway “jump up.”

The big event of the day is the road march.  This is where those who dress up in costumes – which the Trinis call “playing Mas’ – stroll through the streets singing Calypso songs, strutting their stuff to the beat and trying to compete for the coveted road march prize.  The judge’s standards are demanding and the competition is fierce.  Groups are graded on costumes, floats and music.

This competition is taken so seriously that the different organizations work and plan all year in order to compete on this very special day.  This kind of serious effort is characteristic of organizations that participate in this public Dionysian ritual.  One need only look at the “Samba Schools” of Brazil or the Mardi Gras clubs in New Orleans in order to witness the intensity of the preparations.

Whatever else Carnival may mean it is an opportunity for narcissist of both sexes to display their assets; thus proving a visual feast for those who love human eye candy.   Here are some select images as seen through the lens of the internationally renowned art photographer, Ms. Lisa Dubois.

 The Joy of the Moment Beams from their Faces




Getting down and Dirty!


 The Art of Carnival


 The complexity of design is marvelous
The Goddess Oshun Personified!


 Elegant Erotica!

A Golden Gal


 Paint and feathers are pervasive in the costumes

At Carnival….


…..The Women Rule


Flying the Flags High….


 Celebrating their Island Homes
The Boy’s Rubbing Up!


She’s playing it off …chillin in the groove


 Salivating over the Pulchritude!


Intricate designs painstakingly executed


 A Trini Dougla Gal!


Africa and India meet in Trinidad


 Watch the Hands!


 Jewelry as Art

The Next Generation



 Passing on the Tradition


 At The End Road March

 A graceful stroll down Eastern Parkway


 The Masquerade is over!



Looking to next year


  “Da Mayor” of Harlem Leslie Wytche was There



Partying Hearty Jumpin Up in the Streets!





Photos By: Lisa Dubois

Text by: Playthell Benjamin

New York City,

September 26, 2012

The Easter Parade in New York

Posted in Cultural Matters, Photo-Essays with tags , , on April 9, 2012 by playthell


 This Cancer Surgeon is Sharp as his Scalpel!
 But he had Competition
 From Poet Don Raphel
  And Don Jaun





The Ladies Made their Fashion Statements


 With their Lovely Easter Bonnets


 They Come in all Sizes and Colors



A Different Angle 


There Was Drama 





A Different Angle






High Fashion







 Sometimes the Whole Family Wore Bonnets


 A Family Affair


 There Were All kinds of Bonnets



Fashion Eclectics



And Fashion Outlaws 


Free Thinkers 


Fashion  Subversives



And  Fantasy!

 Fashion Iconoclast


And Afrocentrists!


And the Bodacious Bonnets of Harlem Church Women

Yet for High Style and Male Elegence

Old School Ruled!  


The Easter Parade Was Bootylicious Too!



Eye Candy Was Everywhere


Everywhere you Looked one could see

The Object of the Commodores’ song: “Brick Hooouse!” 

They looked like Kinetic Ebony Sculptures

As they Promenaded About in Varied Costumes





 Stand outs in the crowd

Free Spirits!

Only in New York

The Cavaleir and his Lady

In their own world

Shongo and the Dragon Lady

Representin on the Fifth

The Long and the Short of it

Double Click on likn to hear “Easter Parade” sung by the Great Sarah Vaugh and Billy Ekstine


P.G Benjamin

Harlem New York

Easter Monday 2012
















































































































































Jazz Monday’s at the Dwyer!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews, Photo-Essays with tags , on November 20, 2011 by playthell

        Craig Harris: Trombonist/Bandleader/Composer

 The Joint be Really Jumpin!!

 Every other Monday night at the Dwyer Cultural Center in Harlem you can hear some real Jazz.  Since most of the Jazz venues are downtown and charge hefty prices to see a show, the Dwyer has broken the pattern with excellent Jazz performance at a pittance: ten bucks!  The vibe is informal, the acoustics great, the room intimate.  It other words, it’s just the right atmosphere for Jazz Performance. And if you love Jazz you more than get your money’s worth.  In fact, it is no exaggeration to say it’s the best entertainment value in the Apple!

The Dwyer is a unique cultural institution that caters to the cultural needs of the Harlem community, and in a relatively short time it has become a new Mecca for a wide range of cultural activities.  Recently Esther Armah, playwright and host of WBAI’s morning drive time show Wake-Up Call, debuted a play that candidly explored the issues of racism, sexism and economic mobility in American society, and Visual alchemist Ademola Olugbefola is exhibiting a retrospective from his half century as a working artist in their gallery.  Every kind of creative activity can be found it this temple to art.

But Mondays are devoted to the art of Jazz, the classical art music of Afro-Americans and the quintessential American art that embodies in its philosophy and practice the most cherished ideals of American civilization.  The shows are held every other week and they have the atmosphere of an open workshop where new musical concepts are being explored.

Hence there is much experimentation and free expression within the organized ensemble concept.  When master musicians come together in this kind of environment magical things can happen, and there was much sonic alchemy produced in the Dwyer on the night I attended.  While I have long believed that no one loves their job more than musicians, there is a special joy in making music that allows for the maximum creative contribution of each player.  That’s why musicians like Bennie Goodman, Ron Carter, Hubert Laws and Wynton Marsalis gave up prestigious careers in European Classical Mucis to play jazz.

For dedicated musical virtuosos the joy of performance in collaboration with other masters is a natural high that no material reward can match.  That’s why serious musicians continue to play music when other career paths may offer more lucrative rewards.  While money has its virtues, it enables us to satisfy the material needs of life, creating great art elevates the soul.  Making music is feeling more addictive than dope, and nobody personifies this joy more exuberantly than Craig Harris.

With a broad smile that never seems to abandon his face, even Ray Charles could see the pure ecstasy that appears to engulf Harris as he strikes up the band  and swings his trombone like a magic wand.  He prances, dances, and plays all over the seven positions of the slide trombone making kinetic music that appeal to the eye as well as the ear, and thrills the musically tutored and untutored alike.

The other musicians in the band seem to catch the vibe and it inspires them to explore new ideas and attempt daring things.  One need only peruse the great variety of instruments on the band stand to recognize that they have come to explore new concepts of ensemble playing and expand the horizons of the small ensemble.  Unlike a lot on Jazz musicians Harris is no purist; like such master instrumentalists as Hubert Laws, Herbie Hancock and Branford Marsalis Harris appears to get off playing music whether in the spirit of James, Brown, John Coltrane or Sun Ra.

He is Master of all genres of Afro-American music, and slips from one to the other as easily as an actor changes costumes between scenes.  Thus Harris’ expansive concept of music making is an invitation to innovation, and the boys in the band make the most of it. Blending unique combinations of instrumental voices – alto and tenor saxophones blend with baritone sax, bass clarinet, trumpets and trombone – the musical performances at the Dwyer take on the aura of a revival meeting and you can feel it in yo soul.

When one listens to Harris talk about his conception of music and its purpose, it becomes clear that the deep spirituality one hears in the music is no accident. Harris is a profoundly spiritual guy and views music as a healing force that can shield one against life’s adversities; a balm to heal the sin sick soul.  He attributes the healing properties of instrumental music to the fact that it is pure sound, unencumbered by the specific concerns imposed upon it by adding lyrics.  Hence he believes that instrumental music can transcend the concerns of politics, philosophy, ideology and religion and provide a spiritual experience that is unique to each individual that hears it.

Yet on the other hand Harris also has a clear understanding of the power of music to enhance a lyric as well as inspire dancers.  He sums up this concept in the term “Total Artistic Integration,” and one can see it come together in his musical devoted to James Weldon Johnson’s classic text “God’s Trombones,” a series of epic poems based on the sermons of “old time southern Negro preachers” in the words of Johnson.  You can actually see the performance of Harris’s masterpiece by clicking the link at the bottom of this essay.

I was fascinated by the fact that Harris had chosen this work as a vehicle for his music because so few people make reference to this canonical text in Afro-American literature. In his explanation of what attracted him to this work we get a glimpse of a deeply spiritual man who views the integration of arts as a means of elevating the human condition. I can envision no nobler mission for art.

From the enthusiastic response of the audience, which ranged from open celebration and animated participation, to deep spiritual contemplation allowing the music to take your mind astral travelling, the evening was a joyous uplifting experience.  Our spirits danced to the vibes of magnificent   complex instrumental art music.  As I testified in the beginning, if you love great Afro-American music: Jazz Monday’s at the Dwyer is the best deal in town!!!!


 Portraits of the Band


Swinging the Bone


 Keepin it Funky!
Stomping the Blues

 Baritone Sax and Trumpet sing in Harmony




Tenor Madness!


 Echoes of John the Prophet

And Fast Johnny Griffin Too!


 The Alto-Sang as the Tenor Thundered


 No Nightingale Can Sing So Pretty
These Cats are Master Musicians
Who Can Read Around Corners


 The Trumpeter Filled the Room


With Staccato Fanfare


 Dizzy’s Progeny


The Evidence is in the bell of the Horn


 Flutes Chirped…..


 Like Euphoric Birds


 As the Saxophonists Switched Axes

And Serenaded us With Their Flutes


 Where the Swing Comes From!

Pushing the Band to the Outer Limits


 The Piano Man!


An imaginative Soloist and Great Accompanist


The Funk Meister!

360 Degrees of Rhythm: From Bootsy Collins to Charlie Mingus!



The Congregants


 In a Contemplative Mood


Astral Traveling: Bewitched by the Groove


 Great Musicians came out to hear the Band


Hammit Blueitt: Grand Master of the Baritone Saxophone


  Cultural Alchemists Lifting us Higher!
 Artist / Cultural Entrepreneur Ademola Embraces Music Makers



Double click To see Graig Harris’s “God’s Trombones.”

Text and Photos by Playthell Benjamin
Harlem,  New York
November, 20, 2011

Magical Realism!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Photo-Essays with tags , , , , on October 8, 2010 by playthell

Astral traveling with the Fire Goddess In Hawaii

Makeda Takes Her Female Empowerment  Message Overseas


Conducting Her Sensual Strength Training Seminar

Calling Forth the Goddess Sprits with Sacred Rhythms


Makeda Takes a Healing Message to her Costa Rican Sisters

Witnessing the majesty of Makeda – A Shaman/Scientist/ Artist/Athlete – and her sisters drumming in Costa Rico, I am reminded of all the male chauvinist nonsense I was taught about women being forbidden by divine prohibition from touching the drums by my male Afro-centric tutors. They were convinced that they were imparting ancient ancestral wisdom.  Drumming, whether summoning the Gods or inspiring kinetic poetry in dancers, was purely a male prerogative in their minds.

Of course, I came of age in a drumming culture, but of a very different sort – the world of precision rudimental snare drumming associated with military style marching bands.  Bands that played marches like “El Capitan” and “Stars and Stripes Forever,”  Songs made famous by the great United States Marine Corps band, and composed by its founder John Phillip Sousa.  In these bands the percussion section sounded like thunder!  And while I can recall no instance when a woman was prevented from playing the drums, either by divine decree or social etiquette, I can’t recall a good drummer who was a girl either.

Girls played the clarinet – which is both a reed and a woodwind – and is one of the most difficult instruments to play. And they played piano, the master of all the instruments in the orchestra; they also played the violin – a feat I still regard as some sort of inexplicable alchemy.   But they rarely, if ever, played the drums.  There was something about the drums that emitted a macho vibe…it seemed to me a manly thing to do early on.  In retrospect I wonder if, like my initial love for football,  I was  attracted to drumming because it provided me an opportunity to show off for the girls.  Max Roach, the greatest improvisational artist on the drum kit in the twentieth century once told that this was the impetus for his virtuoso drumming style, which featured extended solos.  “Man I got tired of the horn players getting all the girls,” he recalled, “so I put the drums out front!”

However, Makeda is not one to be quietly shunted off into what some misguided male may mistakenly believe is her “proper place.”  She is an intellectual iconoclast and irreverent free thinker who is smart as a whip.  Plus she as stubborn as a Tush Hog.  In this she is every bit my daughter in mind and spirit.  She is exactly how I raised her to be!  I am explicitly making this point because lately she has informed me that some of the dudes who play drums have criticized her for wanting to play, demanding that she respect ancient taboos.  When she greeted such suggestions like the absurd insults that they are, some of these jokers caught an attitude and accused her of having problems with men.

The Greatest Drum Line in the world!


At which point Makeda pulls their coats to the fact that her daddy raised her to be just the way she is.  And I just wanna say “The girl didn’t tell a word of a lie” as my grandmother would say.  Witha twin brother who is also smart and was a two sport athlete to boot, Makeda had a worthy male competitor all of her life.  When she came to me one day and asked if she could be a cheerleader, which seemed a natural progression because she had been formally studying ballet since the age of five,  I told her in no uncertain terms: “Later for being a cheerleader, be an athlete and let somebody cheer you!”

She went on to become a multi-sport athlete and ran the 100 and 200 meter sprints in Division One.   I am delighted to report that she got everything I wanted her to get from playing sports.  Although there are myriad virtues embodied in active participation in competitive sports: learning how to view both success and failure as imposters; chameleons that are subject to change at a moments notice; thus accepting each situation with grace, maintaining your cool no matter what; this is the greatest lesson for real life.  Thus one does not become deluded by success or demoralized by failure.

This is what I learned from playing football, and I wanted my daughter to be armed with these virtues.  Especially since I knew that because she is a girl most boys would always try to play her cheap.  There would of course be some exceptions, I told her, “but the general lot of them will always underestimate you.”   However, I also told her that it was no disadvantage being thought a fool unless you are a fool; but if you are not a fool her competitors had placed themselves at her mercy.  And Makeda Voletta is nobody’s fool!

These are the attitudes that made her a division I athlete, Science Merit Scholar, and Dean List student.  It is also the reason why she has decided that she wants to possess the power and experience the ecstasy of playing the drums for dancers. I was surprised when she told me that she wanted to learn how to drum.  To tell the truth, I didn’t take her seriously because she had never shown any particular interests in playing a musical instrument.  But, of course, her interest in the drums grows out of their organic relationship to the dance traditions that most intrigue her.

Katherine Dunham and master drummer Ladji Camara

Two Legends Collaborate


Makeda Dancing Haitian Ra Ra

Like Katherine Dunham, Sevilla Forte and Pearl Primus – her God Mothers in the tradition – Makeda is a serious student of the dances of the African Diaspora throughout the Americas.  But she alone among these seminal figures in Afro-American dance has decided to learn to play the drums that so inspire them to dance.  I believe this is because Makeda never accepted the prescribed “place” set aside for women.  She has always pursued her dreams and ambitions without regard to the conventional wisdom on gender relations.

Makeda’s attitude toward life’s challenges can be summed up in Robert Kennedy’s favorite adage “Some people view things as they are and ask why? / I dream of things that never were and ask why not?”  That’s what she tells the women she counsels.  In studying traditional dances with a ritual function in society, it is also necessary to study the belief systems of that culture.  As a person raised free of religious dogma of any sort, delving into the spirit world of Shamans, Voodoo Priests and Priestess, Babaloshas and Babalaos,  Gods – Goddess are more her speed – has been a mind expanding experience.   By some inecpilcable alchemy she has managed to integrate these non-rational beliefs into her scientific view of the world and the human condition to arrive at a place I, as a cold and sober rationalist, cannot fully enter.

But for those who can go there – most especially women in search of a holistic experience of mind/ body/ spirit development – Makeda has a life enhancing message.  She is rigorously trained in the sciences of fitness and nutrition – she holds a degree in Sports science with a specialization in exercise physiology and a minor in nutrition from the University Of Delaware, plus graduate study in nutrition at Columbia University – Makeda holds certifications in Olympic style weight training and Sports Nutrition among others.  Beyond this she is a serious student of ancient spiritual beliefs that center on the Goddess figure in ancient cultures.

From this body of highly esoteric information she has devised a system for empowering women that strengthens them in mind, body and spirit.  Since she is in the process of trade marking her method, a necessary step in a field where everybody is looking for a new angle; I will say no more about it here.  What follows is a series of pictures and a couple of video clips showing her in action with the women in Costa Rica, as well as some pictures from her recent trip to Haiti, a country whose culture she has developed a profound love and understanding.

Makeda says her trip to Haiti was a spiritual sojourn in which she engaged in healing rituals centered around sacred dances and dispensing scientific information about fitness and nutrition based upon the resources available to the Haitian people in this time of national crisis.  Needless to say, as a Pan-Africanist for virtually my entire life, I am immensely proud of my daughter and her work.  However, as an Afro-Indio woman Makeda has passionately embraced her native American roots also.

In Search of her Seminole Ancestors!

Standing Outside the Castillio de San Marcos in St Augustine Fla



Standing In Front of War Chief Chief Oceola

Look At Their Faces: An Afro – Seminole Member of the Tribe?



Communing With Her Latina Sisters



Sharing Warm Vibes



Full Moon Ritual



Earth Mothers!



Conjuring the Rhythms of Life




Moon Vibes!




Good Food Was an integral Part Of the Training

Like This Scumptiuous Soup



Or These Exquisite Delicacies



Fish and Rice Costa Rican Style



At the Edge of the Rain Forest

We could hear the monkeys chattering in the Trees



Poster Art In Public Places is Still Au Courant here

A Community Bulletin Board



Costa Ricans Are Beautiful

Rainbow people:  Black, Brown and Beige


They Showed Makeda Much Love!

She got the whole front page!

Her Visit Was Well Covered In The Press



And When her Healing Work Was Done

They Bade Her A Warm Farewell!


Her mother went down to Observe and the women thanked her…

for birthing Makeda!

Praying to The Fire Goddess Pele in Hawaii
Evoking The Feminine Powers Of Earth’s Flaming Bosom

I Believe She Can Fly!

No running start; no special effects; just a straight vertical leap!
Double click to watch Makeda on Costa Rican Television
Text by Playthell Benjamin
Photos from Coasta Rica by: Makeda Voletta
Excepting the ones in which she appears.
Cover Photo by: Tim Ormand
Other Photos will be credited later.
Harlem, New York
October 8, 2010

Makeda Voletta At Club Camarada!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Photo-Essays with tags , , , on August 25, 2010 by playthell


 Dancing The Mambo In Spanish Harlem!


 A Note On Cultural Fusion

There is much talk about the phenomenon of multi culturalism in the United States today, and those who oppose it view it as an ominous threat to the national identity of the nation.  Some of this fear is based on a long standing misperception of what the USA actually is…and is not.  You can see it most clearly in the signs and slogans of the so-called “Tea Party” movement,” an incoherent social formation composed of an untutored mob fueled by rage, racism and ignorance of the political realities contrived and stoked by professional Republican lobbyists  who call themselves “Freedom Works,” and financed by reactionary corporate plutocrats. 

Their most impressive effort at “Taking our country back” thus far is the Arizona anti-immigration law and the “Birthers,” those racist imbeciles who are trying to convince the American people that Barack Obama’s presidency is illegitimate, because he was not born in the US.  For these crackpots it is a recurrent nightmare every time they see Barack carrying out his constitutional duties as the Chief Executive of our government, and Commander-In-Chief of America’s mighty armed forces.  However, they are anachronisms, because cultural fusion and diversity is a reality in America today.  Nowhere is this truer than in America’s greatest City – New York.  Makeda Voletta, a native New Yorker, is an example of this cultural trend, for she is a true Multi-cultural American.

Although her family is African and native American, she was raised in the crucible of African American culture with no acknowledgement of her native American heritage.  This she would later discover as a result of conducting  research into her family history after she began dancing with Hispanic companies and the Latino’s – who are far more connected to their indio roots – began too inquire about her native American kinships; of which she was cluless but they were sure existed.  Makeda’s intellectual foray into her murky family past has enlightened us all about our American heritage, and made her ever more curious about the diverse strains of humanity that make up the American people. 

Growing up in New York Makeda heard the Afro-Latin music of the Spanish Caribbean, especially it’s most dynamic and influential sound – The Afro-Cuban Son Montuno.  That’s because Makeda is my daughter, and I have been playing conga drums for very near half a century.  Which means that I have been playing all of her life, over twenty years before she was born in fact.   I am crazy about the Son Montuno style, and the Latin/Jazz -New York Salsa styles that it inspired; I introduced Makeda to this music at an early age.

From the outset I identified the music – which is now universally called Salsa – as “Afro-Cuban music.”  This is because when I first heard it performed it was by the black Cuban students attending Florida A&M University, which had a world famous music program, having produced the likes of “Cannonball” and Nat Adderley.  It was clear that the Son was as much an Afro-Cuban  invention as  Jazz is the creation of African Americans – this is why when Mario Bauza and Dizzy Gellespie put their heads together they created Cu-Bop – Dizzy introduced the conga drums into jazz by hiring Chano Pozo – which is the true  father of all “Latin-Jazz.”   I loved the piano and the bass rhythms and I dug the singing – although I had not a clue what the lyrics meant; it was just music, like scat singing, and it was all good – but I was indifferent to the drums. 

Dizzy and James Moody

With Pioneering Afro-Cuban congero Chano Pozo


That’s because I was a rudimental trap drummer and was also studing the drum set, so the Conga drums seemed like crude Tom Toms to me, and I did’t quite know what to make of the Timbales.  But I liked the music a lot.  I began playing a few years later when I was living in Philadelphia and fell in love with a beautiful Puerto Rican Lady who was a dancer, and she introduced me to the conga and bade me play it.  I couldn’t even get a sound out of the skin at first.  A few days later she took me to see the Great Afro-Cuban virtuoso Mongo Santamaria…and my life has never been the same.  I became good friends with Mongo, and a life long devotee of the art of the conga – as a performer and avid fan.



The Dancer Who made Me a Congero


That was in 1962.  By 1966 I was good enough to subsitute for the great Mongo Santa Maria with his magnificent Orchestra.  The gig was at Pep’s Show Bar, a famous Philadelphia  Jazz Club in the Mid twentieth century, and I got to play with the band because Mongo was having his hands treated.   Since I know that the many variations my life has taken – Political activist, History Professor, Boxing Promoter, Journalist, journalism Professor, Congero,  Band Leader – are hard for many readers to believe if they don’t know me; I have provided a picture of that performance below.   And one can see my recent performances on Conga by checking me out on You Tube. 

The band in this picture is one of the greatest Latin Jazz Orchestras ever!  If you look to my far right( the readers left) you will see great Hubert Laws – the greatest flautist of the twentieth century.  Hubert was more versitile on woodwinds and reeds than Wynton Marsalis is on the trumpets and cornet – and that’s saying a hell of a lot, considering the fact that Wynton is the greatest trumpet virtuoso on record!  Hubert also played the tenor saxophone in the band and he was as soulful as his gifted brother Ronnie Laws.  The guy standing right next to me, to Hubert’s left,  is Bobby Capers; the younger brother of the great pianist and Professor Of Music, Valarie Capers. 

Which means that, like the Laws family – Bobby also came from a musically gifted clan.  Valarie’s genuis as an instrumentalist is all the more impressive because she is blind.   Marty Scheller is on trumpet and he was also the band’s principal arranger and Music Director.  Rogers Grant, who was also Afro-American, was the pianist; the great Dominican showman and virtuoso Timbalero Carmello Garcia rocked the Timbales as he executed dramatic dance steps, and the Mexican bassist Victor Venego held down the bottom as the pulse of the band. 

Thus Makeda grew up in a household where Afro-Cuban music was played as often as Rhythm&Blues or Jazz.  As a trained dancer – she began the formal study of classical ballet at the world renowned Dance Theater Of Harlem at Five years old and studied for nearly ten years – she naturally noticed all dance oriented music.   Acutely aware of the brazen racism against black ballerina’s, I introduced Makeda to modern black dance; taking her to see “Cityscapes, ” a modern black ballet performed by the Garth Fagan Dance company with music by Wynton Marsalis and his Orchestra.  That opened up her mind to possibilities outside of classical ballet; and as she was always a big fan of Afro-American vernacular dance, it didn’t take long before she began to be infected by the bewitching rhythms of the conga, timbales and clave! 

 Makeda, like her father before her, soon fell under the spell of this magical Afro-Latin sound…and the pictures below document the result of the kind of cross-cultural fusion that can happen when we approach each other’s culture with respect, and are willing to do the necissary study that will allow an outsider to participate fully in the experience – to speak the cultural language without accent.   The Mambo,  aka Salsa, is a dynamic, elegant, romantic, passionate mating ritual that allows women to be sexy with class, and men to be macho and graceful at the same time – like a bullfighter without the danger. 

Here, the worse fate a male can encounter is to prove uninteresting to your partner, since the man controls the dance.  It is the last living dance tradition in America where men and women truly dance together as partners, and Latin clubs are surely the last dance venue where you can actually dance to a live band on the stand!  Viva La Musica!!

Note: This dance, when properly executed, is improvisational; with the steps choreographed in the moment.  The stiffs on “Dancing With The Stars,” who pass off those awkward, mechanical, esthetic atrocities, as the Mambo – often without even using authentic music – should take note.  For in their cultural arrogance they are profaning a grand dance tradition.   This is the real deal…this is how it’s done by it’s authors, and only they can set the standard of authenticity and excellence.  On this night, in club Camarada, a Puerto Rican night club in Spanish Harlem, Miguel and Makeda tore the dance floor up!  If you listen carefully to the video clip at the end of this photo-essay, you can hear the salutations of approval from the crowd.  I just happend to have my camera and started taking pictures.  The whole thing happened on the spur of the moment…and they were magic moments.  (For maximum viewing effect of this essay, expand your screen  to 150%.


Playing Mongo’s Congas

In My Master’s Chair!



On The Clave!


Twirling On A Dime!


 Creating Geometric Complexities

In And Around the Beat!


Moving In Sync

Like Swiss Clockworks 


An Afro-Latin Pas de Deux!


 Workin It!


 Matching Each Other Step For Step!


 Without Skipping A Beat!


 Miguel Is Masterful!


Directing The Dance Of Magic!


 Dancing With Dad On His 67th Birthday!


Makeda’s First Tutor In The Art Of Mambo


Below are three video links:  The first is of the Chappotin Allstars, an Afro-Cuban cojunto performing A Descarga.

The second video is of Makeda and Miguel dancing

The third is of Myself dancing with a partner on the 4th of July.


Double click to see the Chappotin Allstars

Double click to see Miguel and Makeda Dance

Double Click and Watch Poppi Dance the Mambo!

El Chocolate Dances to Zon Del Barrio

Live in Central Park July 4, 1010

 Old School Mambo Moves!




Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

August 24, 2010

* Photographs and Text by: Playthell Benjamin

*Except for the picture of Dizzy and Chano and the picture he appears in.


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