His latest project: a dance opera score blending Black and Indian genres
By Dwight Hobbes
JD Steele is, of course, even if you have been hiding under a rock, a household name in Twin Cities’ music and, by extension, theatre. For that matter, he’s internationally renowned along with his siblings as a vocalist-songsmith, arranger and producer for The Steeles.
Still not ringing a bell? In case that rock you’ve been under is out in West Abu Dhabi somewhere, can you say, to name just a few titles, The Gospel at Colonus (yes, the film, TV and stage production featuring Morgan Freeman), Two Queens One Castle starring Jevetta Steele (Mixed Blood Theatre) and The Young and the Restless (CBS)?
So yes, Steele has established his artistry with a rock-solid, far-reaching reputation. What hasn’t quite become common knowledge is that he isn’t satisfied with just sustaining conventional success. For instance, a few years ago he joined
Kenyan actress Anne Wanjugu in a trailer for the documentary Shangilia Mtoto Wa Africa (Rejoice, Child of Africa).
Steele has basically shuttled back and forth between the U.S. and countries like Kenya and Tanzania to work with youth choirs abroad and bring them here. He noted in a 2009 interview,
“It gives the kids here an international connection; makes them more global in their thinking, in their artistic thinking, academic thinking, intellectual thinking. Just thinking globally, ‘cause the world is shrinking. These kids [in America] need to learn to speak more languages [and] respect other cultures.”
It’s pretty clear from his latest project that he himself certainly respects other cultures, working with Katha Dance Theatre for the premiere of Karna — The Abandoned Hero by late Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. It’s a dance opera based on a poem from the ancient Indian epic Mahabrharat — one that offers a fascinating, hybrid aesthetic.
Says Steele, “[This is] a blending of styles, combining Indian culture with African American genres — gospel, jazz and R&B — at the same time being fairly true to the Indian culture itself. The styles combine for a musical knowledge I hope will be free and new.”
There’s a personal connect for him in that he was introduced to Indian music years ago by a friend from Pakistan and was immediately taken by it. “He also turned me on to the works of Ravi Shankar. So, the use of the sitar…we layer that with keyboards [and] strings, and the use of drums made it very intriguing for me to get involved, because I love that style of music.”
With JD Steele composing the score, the African American side of the cultural equation is also expressed via the sterling artistry of vocalists Billy Steele, a three-time Grammy Award-winner for his work with Sounds of Blackness, and renowned gospel maestro Robert Robinson, along with noted percussionist Marc Anderson, who has worked with Taj Mahal, Lorie Line and the Minnesota Orchestra.
Rita Mustaphi, versed in Kathak, the classic Indian dance discipline, choreographs and directs the production for Katha Dance Theatre, where she is founding artistic director. Among her numerous awards are three McKnight fellowships for choreography, administered by Minnesota Dance Alliance, and an award by the National Endowment for the Arts and Arts International to sustain her studies in dance in 1993. Mustaphi performs with the Katha Dance Theatre Company.
There is no telling just what JD Steele will get up to next in pushing the proverbial envelope. Naturally, he’ll continue with The Steeles and as a solo artist. Wager that he will as well come up with creative means of making music. Meanwhile, this project nicely fills the bill.
Performances of Karna — The Abandoned Hero will take place Friday and Saturday, November 1-2, 7:30 pm at O’Shaughnessy Auditorium at St. Catherine University, 2004 Randolph Ave., St. Paul. Tickets are $15 – $25. For more information, go to www.theoshaughnessy.com or call 651-690-6700.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.
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