Category Archives: Music

A Look Back: 10 More Albums that caught my ears in 2015

  1. Spiritman by Steve Turre. Has the best arrangement of Horace Silver’s “Peace” that I’ve heard.
  2. Intents & Purposes by Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet.
  3. Made in Brazil by Elaine Elias. Nice mellow set.
  4. What For? by Toro y Moi. Nice set of electronica.
  5. Unity: The Latin Tribute to Michael by Tony Succar. Seriously popping. Splendid reworking of MJ.
  6. Monoswezi Yanga by Monoswezi. Nice meditative type of music.
  7. The Brighter Side: A 25th Anniversary Tribute to Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression. I had no idea who Uncle Tupelo was until I heard this album. Now I want to find out.
  8. Find a Way to Care by John Mayall. As soon as I saw the new John Mayall in Rhapsody, I was happy.
  9. The Story of Sonny Boy Slim by Gary Clark. Powerful set.
  10. For One to Love by Cécile McLorin Salvant. Yes, all the accolades are deserved. Gorgeous voice, full of emotion. And clear enunciation, which is a pet peeve for me as a former singer. If I can’t understand what you’re singing, I can’t listen to you.

Honorable Mentions: This year I had a tough time keeping it down to just twenty. Here’s three that almost made the cut:

Wallflower by Diana Krall

Coup Fatal by Serge Kakudji

Nina Revisited: A Tribute to Nina Simone. Various artists. This album is the soundtrack to the film, What Happened, Miss Simone? While reviews for this album have been mixed at best, I have to admire the young artists who thought to take a look back at an artist who broke the mold.

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A Look Back: My Top 10 Albums for 2015

Before the countdown, I would like to remember three musicians who passed away 2015:

  • Allen Toussaint. Allen Toussaint was not only one of the major voices in the pantheon of musicians from New Orleans. His songs also provided the soundtrack to Rock n’ Roll, and Rhythm and Blues. I had the privilege to see him perform with Davell Crawford back in 2010 at the Celebrate Brooklyn summer fest. Think you don’t know his work? Well, check out this list of his ten essential songs, along with ten songs sampled from Hip-Hop.
  • Pierre Boulez. In high school, I began to study, compose and arrange classical music. And I seriously thought about becoming an orchestral conductor. I admired folks like Leonard Bernstein, and Pierre Boulez, who could bring a group of musicians together and get the best out of them, and out of the music. Not only did I admire Pierre Boulez as a conductor, but I loved his work as a jazz pianist.
  • Mark Murphy. This jazz singer was one of the major proponents of vocalese. My former husband, who’s not much of a singer, loved to sing Mark Murphy’s version of Stolen Moments. I couldn’t help but smile. And my favorite song was Red Clay.

May they, along with Natalie Cole, David Bowie, and Glenn Frey, play on in that great band up in the sky. And now, here’s the rundown of my favorite albums for 2015, in no particular order.

  1. Cuba: The Conversation Continues by Arturo O’Farrill. I listened to this album on the heels of watching him sit in with the Afro-Brazilian big band Letieres Leite & Orkestra Rumpilezz at Lincoln Center Out of Doors. To me, he’s become the proponent of big band music from the African diaspora. Mind blown.
  2. Sylva by Snarky Puppy. Just a mellow polyrhythmic sound.
  3. Tomorrow is My Turn by Rhiannon Giddens. Solo debut from member of Carolina Chocolate Drops. Saw her perform this live at Prospect Park. She plays with authority.
  4. Currents by Tame Impala. Loved this album from the first note. Great instrumentation, love the rhythms. Just a tight set all around.
  5. Afrodeezia by Marcus Miller. This will be one of my all-time faves!!
  6. Afro Blue by Harold Mabern. This album plays like fine wine. Exquisite.
  7. Lost and Found by Buena Vista Social Club. Yes, they might have been found, but they’ve never lost it. Crackling good set.
  8. Gaadi of Truth by Red Baraat. India meets Brooklyn meets New Orleans. A rousing, rowdy combination of musical genres.
  9. Zoy Zoy by Tal National.
  10. Love Somebody by Reba McIntire. Too long away from the recording studio. One song, “Pray for Peace,” is worth the price of the ticket.

One summer. 40 shows before Labor Day. One helluva season.

Well folks, I’m back in action after spending the summer doing my usual, chasing shows. This year it went to a whole ‘nutha level. Most summers, I’m lucky if I make it to 20, 25 shows in the parks. These year, I far surpassed that. Made it to 40 shows before Labor Day.

Some of the highlights:

Rhiannon Giddens: I love her work with Carolina Chocolate Drops. She’s the second member of the group to release a solo project. The band was stellar, and their repertoire covered a wide range, from Americana, blues, and spirituals to Beyoncé. Rhiannon sings and plays with authority.
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Systema Solar: This band is from Colombia. I met up with some young fellow Colombians who were visiting the city, and couldn’t wait for the band to take the stage. With their limited English, they asked where I was from. When I told them I was born and raised in NYC, they said I was the only American that they met who was dancing and enjoying the music. They wanted to know why. I told them that Duke Ellington once said, “There’s good music, and then there’s everything else.” This band joins Los Amigos Invisibles as my all-time fave party bands.

Big Bands Represent: Thought I’d heard it all when it comes to big bands. Then I saw Letieres Leite & Orkestra Rumpilezz at Lincoln Center Out of Doors‎. A ferocious set of Brazilian music. Arturo O’Farrill, a band leader in his own right, sat in with the group. And the final concert at Lincoln Center was Lyle Lovett’s Big Band. I sat next to a couple, and we marveled at the generosity of Lyle Lovett, as he let his musicians lead various parts of the concert.

Best weekend of music: August 1-2 at Central Park Summerstage. Mardi Gras meets Carnival, with Dr. John and the Nite Trippers on Saturday, and Brasilfest on Sunday. What a treat.

Singing and Dancing in the Rain: The weather forecast for the VP Records 35th Anniversary Celebration was spot on. They said rain starting around 3, and they were right; it rained the whole time. I had my trusty Helly Hansen. Wasn’t going to miss this. I remember when VP Records first opened on Jamaica Avenue. Back then, folks thought it was a joke, selling records from West Indian artists. Caribbean Massive packed the place to see the likes of Maxi Priest and other performers.

Roomful of Teeth: This was the only set I was interested in attending from the River to River series. This group has a unique approach to a capella singing. Great set.
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Batala NYC: If you saw the beginning of the post-parade ceremony for the U.S. Women’s Soccer team, you saw this group of women dressed in red and white, playing samba drums. The week before, I saw them at Penn Plaza, and my mouth dropped. They played straight through for 45 minutes! And they don’t just beat dem drums—they dance with ’em!
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Muscle Shoals All Stars: From the minute they took the stage, I was on my feet dancing. And this was at Lincoln Center, where the audience is rather staid, to put it nicely. Muscle Shoals was the ‘muscle’ behind some of the biggest hits in the business. Guests included the incomparable Bettye Lavette, one of my all-time faves, and the legendary Sam Moore.

Jason Isbell: Smokin’ country music from a master storyteller.

Dance, Dance, Dance: The dance performances this year were really fantastic. For the July 4th Holiday, I checked out Un Break a Mozart and the Dash Ensemble. The performance was part of the celebration of the arrival of Lafayette’s ship, L’Hermione. Later on in the month, I got to see Philadanco as part of their 45th anniversary.

Afropunk: Blew the roof off of Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center. The bands gave us a real flavor of the festival.

The Tempest by the Classical Theater of Harlem: Saw the preview of this presentation during the July 4th weekend. The setting for this production was in Haiti, which added another layer of magic to this mystical piece. And this was my first visit to Marcus Garvey Park. But not the last. I checked out the circus performance there, and one of Jazzmobile concerts which featured Jeff “Tain” Watts and Dr. Lonnie Smith.
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Best Family Event: My niece and I attended the 40th anniversary celebration of The Wiz at Rumsey Playfield. The place was jam packed; and the audience was in it from the first note. At one point, I could hear my niece singing in the background—and she knew every verse to the songs! That’s how much of a fan she is. So lucky to spend that evening with her.
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Third World: ‘Nuff said. The Jamaica Gleaner had a great review on the show. I was surprised to see a friend that I hadn’t seen in a while, so we got to hang out. I was told her that the Third World show was my 30th for the season,, and I was on track to make 40 shows. And a guy sitting next to me piped in and said, he’d already see 50 shows! My friend confessed that this was her first show for the season. Between schedule conflicts, and trying to find someone to go with her, this was the first time she got the chance to hang out. “Next year, I’m gonna take a tip from you,” she said, “and go solo.” Yep, that’s what I’m talking about.

tUnE yArDs: This was one of the best closing shows that I’ve even seen at Celebrate Brooklyn. This woman is such a consummate performer, with a deep musical reservoir that infuses her songs. Absolutely brilliant.

The Ones That Got Away:

  • Thao and the Get Down Stay Down. A mistake on my part. I placed the date in my Google calendar instead of Outlook. I never use my Google calendar. If it’s not on Outlook, it doesn’t exist. That won’t happen again.
  • And of course, the pop-up performance by Stevie Wonder in Central Park. I didn’t find out about it until I went home and watched the evening news. It was just as well; the tix sold out in 30 seconds. So I didn’t have a chance. But it made me see how people can get FOMO.

And I’m Not Done Yet!

Every day, there’s always something low-cost or free to do in New York City. This month, I’ve been hanging out at the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center. Last week, I saw a fabulous performance of The Amigos with special guest Nature Ganganbaigal. A fantastic collaboration where Americana meets China. Thursday, October 14 will be the Nicaraguan guitarist Aurelio. And one of my music heroes, Randy Weston, has taken up residence with the Jazz program at the New School. As part of his residency, he will present the traditional music of Morocco on October 13.

So as we enjoy the autumn leaves, I hope that all of you had just as much fun as I did over the summer.

Hot town, Summer in the city

Yep, I’m old enough to remember hearing that song on the radio. 1966. The Loving Spoonful. It reminds me of the reason why I live for summer in New York. The free concerts in the parks.

One of the great things I love about New York is that there is always a free or low cost event. In the summer, we are blessed with such an abundance that you’re going to end up missing something. There’s just too many things to do.

I started going to the summer concerts when my boys were toddlers. The shows are family friendly; you can pack a meal, and everyone has a great time. The kids are grown now, but I still hang out in the parks. I’ve check out old faves, and pick up new ones at these festivals. Some highlights of my adventures:

  • Randy Weston at Celebrate Brooklyn, Prospect Park. Rodney Kendrick was the opener. C. Scoby Strohman did a soft shoe to some of Randy’s pieces; it turned out to be Strohman’s last performance before he passed away. My older son was nine years old at the time; he turned to me and said, “Mom, this isn’t elevator music.”
  • David Rudder and Machel Montano. They appeared at Celebrate Brooklyn on separate dates, but they were the wildest concerts I’ve been to. Total disorder. The. Hottest. Soca. Parties. Ever.
  • My first introduction to Tinarwiren was at River to River in Lower Manhattan.
  • Best surprise guest: Maceo Parker, the year he opened up at Celebration Brooklyn, brought out The Purple One himself—PRINCE. I could’ve died happy right there.
  • Some of the baddest party bands have appeared in the parks; Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Los Amigos Invisibles, The Pinker Tones, and more salsa bands than I care to count.
  • Crossed off the Bucket List: Richie Havens at Castle Clinton, Battery Park. I was too young to go to Woodstock, and he was in fine form.
  • Two of the last concerts I attended with my older sister before she passed away were in the parks. During the time that she was treated for cancer, we saw Steel Pulse and George Clinton at Rockefeller Park.
  • Philip Glass did a live performance of his score at a screening of the movie Powaqqatsi. ‘Nuf said.

Now here’s what I’m looking forward to for this season:

  • Central Park SummerStage: May through October. SummerStage is in its 30th season. Last year was the best one ever. Most of the time, I hang at Rumsey Playfield in Central Park. But the festival extends through city parks in all five boroughs. This year, I’m looking forward to checking out Tedeschi Trucks Band, and two triple bills featuring Meshell Ndegeocello / Roy Hargrove / Gabriel Garzón-Montano, and Angelique Kidjo / Emmanuel Jal / Rich Medina.
  • Celebrate Brooklyn: June 3-August 12. This is the place where magic happens. Since 1979, BRIC has been putting it down at the Prospect Park Bandshell. Opening concert will be Chaka Khan. Also looking forward to shows by Third World (again!), Esperanza Spalding, Krosfyah and tUnE-yArDs.
  • Lincoln Center Out of Doors: July 22-August 9. I’m just now looking at their schedule, but already a few things have caught my eye: Toshi Reagon, Randy Newman, Yo La Tengo, and a Boogaloo Celebration with Joe Bataan.
  • River to River: June 18-June 28. Sorry to say, that this festival, in my opinion, is a shadow of its former self. Since it changed organizers to LMCC (Lower Manhattan Cultural Council), the focus is on new arts and new media. Now I admit to liking this genre more than most, but I really haven’t been feeling anything for River to River for the past couple of summers. This year might be different. There’s a block festival featuring the jazz singer Somi, performances by Trisha Brown, Roomful of Teeth, and the Poets House event is back on the calendar.

Honorable mentions:

  • Shakespeare in the Park: A much-anticipated summer event. This year, the Public Theater will present The Tempest (May 27-Jul 5), and Cymbeline (July 23-August 23).
  • Charlie Parker Jazz Festival: August 22-23 at Marcus Garvey Park.
  • Arts Brookfield: The former World Financial Center is now Brookfield Place. They hold free arts events year-round, but in summer they ramp it up. Must-attend is the Lowdown Hudson Music Fest, July 14-15.

Hope that all of you have a fun, happy and safe summer!

A Look Back: 10 More Albums that caught my ears in 2014

  1. Nikki Nack by tUnE-yArDs. Love the harmonic dissonances on this album.
  2. Black Star Elephant by Nico & Vinz. You might have heard their hit song, “Am I Wrong.” If you haven’t heard this Norwegian duo, then maybe you ought to.
  3. Juice by Medeski, Martin & Wood. Just a nice, tight set. They fall in the groove, and stay there.
  4. Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn. Banjo picking at its best. The first track, “Railroad,” is a re-imagining of the old folksong, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”
  5. Prospect Hill by Dom Flemons. Wonderful solo debut from the former member of Carolina Chocolate Drops. Saw him perform live last summer at Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors as part of their Roots of American Music Festival.
  6. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Various Artists). My faves on this album are “Dead Air” by Chvrches, and “The Leap” by Lorde. An album not to be trifled with.
  7. Seeds by TV on the Radio. Nice set.
  8. Sonic Halo by Greg Osby, Tineke Postma. Solid group of straight-ahead jazz. Enough of a challenge, but easy on the ears for people who are new to the music.
  9. Melody Road by Neil Diamond. A great road not only filled with melody, but great stories. A lot to like with this album. And who doesn’t like Neil Diamond?
  10. True by Avicii. I’m a closet listener of electronica. Lots of folks don’t like the genre, but I do. And this album does not disappoint.

A Look Back: My Top 10 Albums of 2014

  1. Eve by Angelique Kidjo. This vocalist is one of my all-time faves. And one of the most dynamic vocalists to come out of Africa. A top-notch album.
  2. Sonic Highways by the Foo Fighters. Eight songs written in eight cities that represent the history of American music. Love the premise. And the music. This album is FIERCE. Haven’t watched the companion TV show, but I need to.
  3. The London Sessions by Mary J. Blige. I’m not a regular listener of R&B. Too formulaic for my tastes. Mary J. is one of the rare exceptions. And this album is her absolute best.
  4. Beautiful Life by Jimmy Greene. This is a sublime album on its own, made all the more poignant because it’s a loving eulogy to his 6-year old daughter, Ana Márquez-Greene, who was killed in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
  5. Dave Koz & Friends: The 25th of December by Dave Koz. I don’t listen to a lot of smooth jazz these days. It’s a shadow of its former self from the 80s. But I saw Tavis Smiley’s interview of this wonderful gentleman where he also performed “O Holy Night” with Jonathan Butler. And he made a believer out of me. I predict that this album will become a new holiday standard. The collaborations, and remakes of old faves, like Johnny Mathis’ “Wonderful Time of the Year” — that one alone is worth the price of the ticket. And I don’t celebrate Christmas, but I LOVE this album.
  6. Emmaar by Tinariwen. This album was released at the end of December 2013, but it’s on Afropop Worldwide’s 2014 list. I’ve loved this group from Day One. Their musical heritage as Malian musicians is currently under attack by the same kind of folks who brought murder and mayhem to Paris, and kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls.
  7. Platinum by Miranda Lambert. A refreshing take on country music as storytelling.
  8. Southern Comfort by Regina Carter. Musings based on traditional folk music. This is the second album in a series that explores her family heritage through music. (First Album in the series is Reverse Thread.) Nice departure for this virtuoso violinist.
  9. Girl by Pharrell Williams. I didn’t see the movie Despicable Me 2, which put the song “Happy” on the map. (And earned him a Grammy award.) I still like the song (though one co-worker with small kids is tired of it). I like the whole album. It’s popping.
  10. Beautiful Life by Dianne Reeves. Stellar set of new, and some old, standards with a great group of musicians and collaborators.

1969: Time of Change in America

In August 2014, we celebrate the 45th anniversary of Woodstock, a seminal event in what came to be known as the “Summer of Love.” Now, I wasn’t there; even though I begged my mother to let me go. Many of the artists that I was listening to were on the bill: Buddy Miles, Sly & the Family Stone, Richie Havens, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Since I was only eleven years old, my mother thought it a joke that I would even form my lips to ask her if I could go to some place way upstate “with all those white folks,” as she said it. So I had to console myself by getting the soundtrack album when it was released. But as it turns out, that summer I had my own musical adventure of my own. Here’s the story:

It was the summer of 1969, a time when the United States was still in the midst of social upheaval. President Nixon had just taken office, and was welcomed by vocal protests against the Vietnam War on one hand, and a militant change in tone to the civil rights struggle on the other. The Civil Rights Bill and the Supreme Court decision that forced busing as a way to integrate the schools, had just made their way on to the American landscape. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had both been killed just the year before. Yet, the country took the time to marvel at the success of the Apollo 11 mission that landed astronauts on the moon.

I was eleven years old at the time, and watching these images at home on TV made it seem like the whole planet was just a “Ball of Confusion,” as the Temptations sang on their hit record. Nevertheless, I was happy that it was finally summertime, which meant not only time off from school, but also more time to spend singing with the chorus. My older sister Karen and I were members of the St. Albans Community Children’s Chorus, a professional group of black boys and girls from the St. Albans section of Southeast Queens that performed classical music. The director of the chorus was Mrs. Lucille Burney; Mrs. Ruth Perkins was our accompanist; and Mrs. Beatrice Nickens was the business manager. We performed all over New York and New Jersey, and made trips to the state capitol in Albany, Chicago, the nation’s capitol in Washington, D.C., and to Montreal, Canada for Expo ’67.

That summer the chorus was at the pinnacle of its career, as we prepared for our longest trip ever: a six-day, seven-night cruise on a Cunard ocean liner to perform Bermuda! We would also perform on the ship as well. And I could not wait to go! This was the longest trip I had ever taken and my first trip away from home by myself. My grandfather, who emigrated to New York from St. Croix, regaled us with stories about his experience traveling to the United States on a steamer ship. That heightened my excitement over the cruise.

However, my excitement was soon replaced by anxiety. The directors of the chorus thought that maybe it would be best for me to stay home. I was the youngest member of the group, and the resident space cadet. The directors thought that I might be too much trouble, since I had a hard time following directions. I was one of the leads in the two chorus lines that marched on and off the stage. Brenda, the other lead, and I were supposed to mirror each other and reach the front stage at the same time. Once, at a concert at Harlem’s famed Abyssinian Church, I veered so far off that Brenda got to the stage before I did. That landed me in a lot of hot water. I also daydreamed a lot and forgot that there were people and photographers watching us for the littlest slip, like the time we got our photo taken on the steps of the state capitol. My smiling face was turned so that it looked like I was facing the person next to me, while everyone else faced forward. The thought that I might miss the trip of a lifetime because of those embarrassing mistakes was like adding insult to injury.

Yet despite my missteps and mishaps, I turned out to be the one person who could sing my part and everyone else’s. Mrs. Burney had awarded me best musician at one of our recitals, and got me a scholarship to study music at Mannes Preparatory School in Manhattan. So in the end, I guess that musicianship won out—that and the fact that my mom pleaded with them to let me go. But Mrs. Nickens gave me a stern warning to be on my very best behavior.

Before the trip, we learned something about the country of Bermuda and the type of clothes we had to wear, like Bermuda shorts. Nothing could be worn above the knee, so mini-skirts, which were high fashion at that time, were not allowed. We also learned about ship etiquette. Each chorus member was fitted for new uniforms. One of the uniforms featured a hot pink calypso blouse made fashionable by folks like Harry Belafonte. That was my favorite uniform. We also got a uniform that included white deck sneakers, our first uniform without dress shoes.

In addition to getting us fit for new uniforms, my mom had to buy us luggage, toiletries, new clothes and accessories. The clothes included two formal gowns to wear to the captain’s dinners. Mrs. Nickens had just started her women’s clothing business and we bought our gowns from her. When mom took us over to look for gowns, she discovered that just about all of the gowns were either too wide or too long for me—or both. When I got measured for my uniforms, folks complained that I “had no waist”—that’s how skinny I was. Only one gown managed to fit—a lime-green shimmering lamé with a high neck. I liked the color, but hated the style.

“That’s an old-lady gown!” I said to my mom.

“But we’ll have to take it,” she said. She liked the style, but hated the color.

And so we were packed and ready to go. But at our last Saturday meeting, I caused an uproar when I walked into the school auditorium where we rehearsed. The night before, my mom took me to the hairdresser, who cut my hair into a short afro. At the time, only revolutionaries like Angela Davis wore their hair in an afro. My mother was not trying to make a political statement. She cut my hair simply because I liked to fall asleep with gum in my mouth, and this time when it fell out and landed in my hair, she could not get it out. So she dragged me to the hairdresser at the last minute to cut my hair.

“How can she go to Bermuda looking like that?!” they asked. “You can’t straighten that! It’s too short! How is she going to take care of it??”

Back then, straightened hair was still the standard of beauty. Wearing our hair natural was not looked upon kindly. Plus, we were black people trying to prove ourselves in the white venue of classical music. The pressure to conform to European beauty standards was strong. The directors were also concerned because sometimes they had to style our hair right before a performance, and they didn’t want the challenge of trying to get a comb through a head full of tightly coiled natural black hair. My mom promised to teach me how to braid up my afro at night so that it would be easier to style and to comb, and I was strictly advised to braid my hair up each and every night.

That was a small price for me to keep my new afro. I knew that it was a radical style, and many black people didn’t like it. One boy said to me, “You look like a Mandingo warrior!” which at the time was not a compliment. Nevertheless, I loved my afro, and hated the alternative—the hot comb. I cringed in fear whenever I got my hair hot combed straight because I would always get a little burn along the top of my ear while someone tried to get that “one little nap.” But this fuss over my new hairstyle added to my extreme shyness. And it didn’t help matters any that I had entered that odd pre-teen growing stage, being short and skinny with size 9 feet and a belly that caused my mom to buy a girdle for me to wear with my gown. When I tried to imagine myself with this modern, even militant, hairstyle wearing that old lady dress, it wasn’t a pretty picture.

All this anxiety meant that for me, the cruise really began when we got on the charter bus that took us to the pier in Manhattan where we would board the ship. Once we went across the 59th Street Bridge, I knew that the back-and-forth about whether I would go had finally ended, and there was no turning back. I joined in the excitement of the other kids as we approached the pier where the ship was docked. When we stepped off the bus and saw the large, gleaming back and white ship with red smokestacks that would be our weeklong home, we let out a collective gasp. I smiled in awe as we walked up the gangplank and boarded the Cunard Franconia.

The captain and crewmembers of the ship treated us as special guests. Before we left port, we got a tour of the ship. Everything looked so large and luxurious, from the wood floors and walls, to the pool and the dining room, with its chandeliers and the white tablecloths. We returned to the deck just in time to wave goodbye to the parents who drove to the pier so they could see us off and wish us a safe journey. I felt like a star in a movie as I saw the crowd waving on the pier while the ship’s horn bellowed in the background.

Our sleeping cabins on the ship were below the deck, and I almost ran alongside the chambermaid who escorted me to my cabin. My quarters were small but bright with white walls and cabinets. I marveled that this space could hold everything found in a luxury hotel, yet still look spacious and cheerful. The chorus members slept two to a room, and the chambermaid shows us how the beds unfolded from the wall and folded back. We were expected to keep our rooms clean and neat, and to make up the bed. Mrs. Nickens would get a report every day of any problems with kids who did not keep up their rooms.

Up until then I had no idea who would be my roommate. I automatically assumed that it would be my sister. Then Mrs. Nickens crisply stated Karen and I would be separated. I know she thought that my sister and I spent too much time together, to the exclusion of the other members of the chorus, and she looked for ways to pull us apart. I don’t think she realized that many of the older kids did not like to talk to us because they were teenagers and to them we were babies.

Nevertheless, I took it in stride when Karen was taken to her room and I was left alone to unpack my things. Soon my roommate came to join me, and I don’t know who was more surprised. Here I was going to share a room with the instrument of my torment—Andrea. We had never gotten along from Day One. I never did anything to her, but she would call me names or pinch me when no one was looking. While it’s true that the other kids got mad at me sometimes when I messed up directions, with Andrea it was strictly personal. My only consolation in dealing with Andrea was that some of the older girls that I liked and respected didn’t like Andrea either, and barely tolerated her older sister and younger brother. The word going around was that all three of them were stuck up, so they hardly had any friends. And Andrea was the worst of the three siblings. She never missed the chance to let us know that she was better than everyone else.

When Andrea saw me inside the room, a big frown came on her face. “Why do I have to stay with—her?!” she huffed.

Why can’t I sleep with someone else too, like Norie or Linda or Donna or Alison or Joyce? I thought to myself. These girls were all teenagers like Andrea, and while we weren’t best friends, they were nice to me and didn’t mind talking or having a laugh with me. I knew that if one of those girls was my roommate they would be kind enough to make the best of it. Now here I was stuck with the queen of stuck-up.

The vehemence of Andrea’s reaction was not lost on Mrs. Nickens. She looked at me sympathetically, but stuck to her guns. “There is where you’re going to sleep!” she said as she turned to leave.

As soon as the door closed, Andrea plopped down on the bottom bunk and glared at me like an animal marking her territory. I figured that Mrs. Nickens and the other chaperones would want me to sleep on the bottom in case I fell out of the bed, but I thought it best to say as little as possible to Andrea. Besides, I could do something that I had never done before—sleep on the top bunk. The directors had no idea that back at home, I was a little tomboy, so climbing up to the top bed for me was like a big adventure. I looked forward to going to bed that night.

But before bedtime, we had to have dinner. And our first dinner on board the ship was exquisite. It was the first time that I ate gourmet food with different courses and full table settings. I sat at table with Mrs. Burney. During our meals, she would ask if I was having a good time, and what I thought about the trip so far. Our waiter was a tall, slim man with short black hair, a strong British accent and a pleasant smile.

“My name is Francis,” he said as he held my chair. “Welcome aboard!”

“That’s interesting!” Mrs. Burney said, because our waiter Francis was on a ship called the Franconia.

“Yes, it is!” I agreed.

But then there was more. “I have a brother who lives in New York,” Francis said, “On Francis Lewis Boulevard in Hollis? Are you familiar with that area?”

It turned out that his brother lived in the neighboring community from St. Albans, and that I often went past his area on the school bus coming home. Mrs. Burney gushed with pride as she explained that I was bused to an all-white school in Flushing.

“Well, what a coincidence!” he laughed.

Francis took the time to explain what was on the menu and made suggestions about the kind of dishes I would like. He assumed that I, like other children, would hate the vegetable dishes, and he was really surprised when I ate all of my salad and raved about the cream of asparagus soup. After that, he made it a point to let me know when they were serving a special vegetable dish.

Having such a pleasant dinner with good food and good conversation did not prepare me for the shock that I got when I opened the door to my cabin. Andrea had thrown her clothes all over the room. Well, well…Miss Stuck-up doesn’t know how to clean her room! I thought. I maneuvered around as best I could and got ready for bed.

I pretended to be asleep when Andrea returned to the cabin, got in her bed and turned out the lights. Usually I sleep like a rock, but in the middle of the night, I woke up to a muffled tinkling sound coming from the bottom bed. Oh, oh…, I thought. That means trouble—BIG trouble. And people are going to think that I did it! It would be a natural assumption that an eleven-year-old would make a sound like that in the middle of the night. I wondered how I would get people to believe it wasn’t me. And I worried that Andrea would try and pin the blame on me, if she got caught.

I quietly tried to go about my business and enjoy myself as best I could. After the second night of that tinkling sound, I got up the next morning for breakfast, and Mrs. Nickens was waiting for me, along with the chambermaid.

“Someone in your room has wet the bed!” she glared at me.

“But I don’t wet my bed!” I said.

“Tell the truth!”

“Mrs. Nickens, I swear—I don’t wet the bed!”

The chambermaid also reported that our room was a mess, and that one of us wasn’t making up the bed. She and Mrs. Nickens marched me back to my cabin to have a look. Andrea’s clothes were still all over the room.

“Show me your things!” Mrs. Nickens commanded.

I showed her my clothes and things neatly placed in drawers and closets.

“Show me your bed!”

I pointed up to the top bunk.

“You’re not supposed to sleep on the top! What happens if you fall out?! Tonight you sleep on the bottom!” She turned to the chambermaid. “Which bed is the one not made up?”

“The one on the bottom,” the chambermaid said.

“I’ll deal with Andrea,” Mrs. Nickens snarled. “Cynthia, you sleep on the bottom from now on. You hear?”

“Yes,” I answered.

In all the commotion about me sleeping on the top, Mrs. Nickens never found out which bed was the one that got wet, so I was still on the hook. I was mad because Andrea’s behavior had caused me to lose my perch. But I got over it because I would soon get my revenge. That night I kept listening for that tinkling sound but all was quiet. I wondered if Andrea decided to control her functions out of spite. But then on the fourth night, there it was, like clockwork. I couldn’t wait to get up the next morning to see what would happen.

When I went down for breakfast, Mrs. Nickens was waiting once again with our chambermaid. As soon as Andrea came down, she pulled her off to the side. Later on, she told me that Andrea was going to another room, and I would now share the room with my sister. Mrs. Nickens did not apologize, but she did relax some of the hawk-like gaze that she had on me. For me that was apology enough. By that time, some of the other teenagers had kept her busier than I ever did. A few kids got seasick; one kid got homesick and cried for their mommy all day; and another kid was almost left behind in Bermuda.

Word quickly got around among the kids about Andrea, and they no longer let her or her siblings intimidate them. Andrea avoided me after that and never bothered me again. The other kids were friendlier to me too, so it was easier for me to relax and have fun. Even Mrs. Nickens looked at me in a different way.

All that did not mean that I went the entire trip unscathed. At one of our performances in Bermuda, we were sitting in the waiting room about to go on stage and I was daydreaming. Before I knew it, Mrs. Nickens ran over and smacked my legs closed, her ivory face red with anger. But the damage was already done. The next morning a photograph of me sitting with my legs wide open in my long white skirt appeared on the front page of the local paper.

Even with that embarrassing mistake, I had the time of my life on the cruise. And that much-hated girdle and gown turned out to be the biggest surprise of all. I dreaded the night of our first captain’s dinner, and took extra time to dress carefully and properly comb my afro. When I walked into the dining room that evening, all of the chorus members and chaperones turned and stared. They could not believe their eyes. The waiter at my table held my chair and smiled.

“Miss Cynthia,” he said, “you are the belle of the ball!”

Mrs. Burney agreed. You look absolutely gorgeous!” She tufted my afro with her hands, smiling with approval.

After that evening, I walked a little taller and spoke up more. The older kids in the chorus who shunned me would come up to me and start a conversation. They learned that I knew the words to all the hip songs, and that I knew all the dances. When we got back to New York, we were talking like old friends. And while I still made mistakes, one or two of the kids would console me.

“Don’t worry,” they would say. “It’s just a mistake. You’ll do better next time.”

1969 was indeed a time of change in America—at least in my part of it.