[From Greg: Full disclosure. I got to know Liza when she hired me as a consultant. But we worked only on a very modest plan to launch her project, a plan that turned out not to be needed. Maybe I encouraged her in some helpful way, but the stunning success she's been having comes from things she did entirely on her own. Go, Liza!]
In a series of guest blogs, I’ve talked about my Go-Go Symphony, a composition that combines original classical music with the go-go beat, Washington DC’s iconic dance rhythm. In my first post, I described how excited go-go fans are about mixing the two genres; judging from their reaction to a National Symphony Orchestra pops concert with go-go celebrity Chuck Brown. In my second blog, I detailed reasons for starting my own Go-Go Symphony ensemble and shared some marketing and promotional strategies. In my fourth blog (the third was not directly related to the Go-Go Symphony), I explained how just a little strategic planning accelerated the ensemble’s performance opportunities, including our first show at Washington DC’s National Mall, at a speed that surprised me.
But now it gets even better. Our most recent performance was at Washington DC’s nationally famous 9:30 Club, where we opened for legendary go-go band Trouble Funk. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine we would be on such a stage, and opening for such a band, less than seven months after our first performance last June.
Before I describe how this latest show came about, let me first explain some basic information for the uninitiated. Go-go is a sub-genre of funk that has been extremely popular in the Washington DC area since the 1970s, especially with African-Americans. Its main feature is live swinging polyrhythm — endless amounts of it — with drums, congas, cowbells, timbales, rototoms, and tambourines. It also uses improvisation and audience call and response. The beat never stops during a show; one song just morphs into the next. The locally recognized beat alone drives fans crazy, so I decided that composing music for an orchestra using go-go as raw material would make for an exciting show.
I started a dedicated ensemble to play the Go-Go Symphony because of the need to use genuine go-go percussionists and drummers. Only they know the feel of the beat, and go-go fans can tell the difference. I named the ensemble “Go-Go Symphony” as well. For classical instruments, I include just the brass and woodwind sections because they are the easiest to mic at clubs and festivals. String sections can come later, when we partner with larger symphony orchestras. I have orchestrations prepared for both scenarios.
Veterans of the go-go music industry told me things would happen quickly for us because the idea of classical music over a go-go beat would excite go-go fans instantly. They were right. The name “Go-Go Symphony” is a brand that gains instant attention; because as I described in my first blog, go-go fans respect the classical orchestra and understand what it can bring to go-go. No need for educational lectures about the wonders of classical music – they already appreciate it. They also know the power that go-go can bring to classical. It’s a two way street. This mix of genres will allow classical music to speak directly to their hearts in a musical language they already love.
As I detailed in my fourth blog, our first opportunities came about without any kind of audio or video demo. It was all publicity. Exciting photos inspired some Facebook friends of mine to give us gigs at the Columbia Country Club and the Moca Art Gallery in DC. A connection through the Church at Clarendon secured us a gig at the huge Clarendon Day Festival. Our alto sax player/co-composer Peter Van Siclen, a music teacher at a high school, got us a a chance to play at his school’s homecoming. We have yet to release an official recording or video of the group (I haven’t been able to get a good sound mix so far); and this made me wonder if we would match the hype with our performance.
Our first performances were wildly successful. At the Columbia Country Club, we wowed the Capital Speakers Club, whose demographics are similar to that of the classical music audience. We also attracted a good-sized head-bobbing crowd at Arlington, Virginia’s Clarendon Day Festival. At the Moca Art Gallery, the dancing crowd asked us for an encore.
But our first true test for the go-go community was a performance at the Thurgood Marshall Academy high school in Washington DC, whose students are hardcore go-go fans. Before the show, Peter showed his students one short YouTube clip we have, from the Clarendon Day festival, and they loved it. They wanted to watch it over and over again. Well, that was a good sign.
Backstage before the performance, the students gathered around the timpani drum that we had brought. It was hard for them to keep their hands off of it, as directed by their teacher. Timpani excite go-go fans, because percussion is key to go-go, and they realize that introducing this classical instrument into go-go will produce a thunderous roar that would rock the dance floor. I bought used timpani on Ebay, and they were well worth the money.
Students asked us lots of questions about our other instruments, an educational experience they initiated, with no help from us. They learned names of instruments like the oboe, and our oboist showed them some of her reeds. One student who recognized me from the video asked if I was the “constructor.”
“No, I’m the conductor,” I replied with a smile.
The performance was a great success. Our go-go drummer was surprised at how much the young students danced and clapped for us. They even liked the music with an older, classic go-go beat, which younger people usually think is old-fashioned. Here is a video of our MC interacting with the students between songs. We keep the beat going and improvise between songs or movements. No more silence between movements, as in formal classical music. And applause between movements is encouraged! We were not allowed to videotape the students because some are not of legal age to give consent, but you can hear their enthusiasm and see some of their appreciative hand gestures.
Local celebrity rapper Head-Roc joined us on stage to rock the crowd as a guest MC because he was excited about the mix of go-go and classical music. Since he is of legal age, we were able to obtain a flattering video interview from him about our group. He too is excited about the timpani. [From Greg: Flattering is an understatement. The man was blown away. Watch the video. We all should dream of getting an endorsement like this one from someone who understands what we're doing.]
Bigger and better
Now we have a major event coming up. We’re going to make our formal classical debut, performing with the full orchestral forces of the Capital City Symphony, at the prestigious Atlas Performing Arts Center as part of the opening night of the 2014 Atlas INTERSECTIONS festival in Washington, DC. I have to give John Devlin, the Capital City Symphony’s associate conductor, credit for having the courage and sense of adventure to make this happen.
To promote this fully orchestrated premiere, our PR officer Raycheal Proctor advised me to find a gig which could serve as a preview for the media. In a great case of serendipity, Big Tony, the leader, rapper, and bass player of Trouble Funk, accidentally called me because of a technical glitch on his cell phone. In the late 1980’s, I was lucky enough to meet and become friends with his band and even toured as a keyboard player for a faction of them when they broke up for a brief period of time. Last year, I tried to get Trouble Funk to participate in a Go-Go Symphony performance, so Big Tony had already listened to and admired some of our rehearsal recordings. After a brief chat, he invited the Go-Go Symphony to open for Trouble Funk’s 35th Anniversary video launch show at the 9:30 Club on January 17. Wow — the perfect impressive venue for getting press attention!
And it did indeed lead to some press. I was interviewed by the reputable Washington City Paper. In addition, our drummer Kevin Minor and I were interviewed by Go-Go Radio, one of the go-go community’s biggest internet radio stations. The hosts called our upcoming performance with the Capital City Symphony a “historic” event in go-go music.
Needless to say, I was most intimidated by this performance at the 9:30 Club. The press was there, as were some of the big names in the go-go music industry. This was our make or break moment. And we rocked the house as best we could. The great sound system really helped. The audience roared and asked for encores. And this performance, too, was called “historic,” this time by the MC of the show. I am editing the first complete performance video we’ve ever made, from that show.
Taylor Reed, trumpet player and core member of Trouble Funk, approached me after our performance and said that we have a good thing going. In fact, he told me they tried to do something with an orchestra in Japan, but the results were not to their liking. I contacted Taylor to ask him why, but didn’t have an answer at the time this post was published. I suspect the Japanese orchestrators did not understand the nuances of go-go like I do. I understand the importance of simplicity and space in the orchestration, which allows the beat to shine.
I do know Taylor thinks we have something different that other people will start to copy. I don’t mind imitation. It’s flattering. I hope people do copy us. Big Tony is now interested in helping us produce our first studio recording. He thinks our new style will help spread go-go to areas outside of DC. What an honor!
So far, we’ve gotten great written reviews. Here’s one from a reputable go-go blog. “They definitely cranked,” the writer says. Some of the other go-go celebrities who performed after us posted photos and videos of us on social media. Here is one from Teebone, Trouble Funk’s legendary percussionist. Here is another one from Genny Jam, guitarist of go-go band Be’la Dona. Note the great comments on these posts. DC Scorpio, a local celebrity rapper, commented on the Genny Jam’s video, “WOW BLOWN AWAY.” Someone quoted in the Washington City Paper interview said he/she was at the show and was “blown away.” Nothing like genuine organic social media buzz.
So I believe our product matches our hype. Phew.
Now into the classical scene, with the world premiere of the fully orchestrated Go-Go Symphony, with the Capital City Symphony. The Go-Go Symphony ensemble will be playing with them, and part of the program will feature our musicians alone, performing pieces by other composers in our group. Showtime is Friday, February 21, 8 pm at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington DC. You can get tickets online here. If no more are available online (they’re going very quickly), they take names for a waiting list at the box office if you call 202-399-7993. They might also sell standing room tickets.
If you’re in the DC area, I would love you to come and be part of go-go’s “historic” moment.