In 1986 the City Parks Foundation created Summerstage in the spirt of Central Park’s original purpose — to serve as a free, public resource to help culturally enrich the lives of New Yorkers. That first season of the program had some relatively humble beginnings, as it’s first shows were at the Naumberg Bandshell in Central Park, but with the artists such as the Sun Ra Arkestra and legendary South African act Ladysmith Black Mambazo, among others performing in the first couple of seasons of Summerstage, Summerstage started and has continued a reputation for presenting a diverse array of artists across different cultures and genres. And the great thing about it, is that most, if not all of the shows are free (and/or extremely cheap) to the public. Last year, Summerstage paid homage to hip-hop’s 40th anniversary, as they hosted the likes of Big Daddy Kane; Das EFX; the godfather of hip hop himself, DJ Kool Herc; influential soul and rock musician, Shuggie Otis, whose known as a musician’s musician; the incredible Joshua Nelson, known for what he’s coined Kosher Gospel; Femi Kuti, the son of Afrobeat’s legendary godfather, Fela Kuti; and countless others.
Over 25 years since it’s initial founding, Summerstage has expanded to parks, bandshells and makeshift stages all across the city’s five boroughs and from experience I can tell you that it’s a great way to spend an afternoon or summer evening — especially if you want to catch music you may be familiar with, as well as artists performing in genres that you’d likely not even know (and should know). I’ve personally discovered several acts that have quickly become some of my favorites and I’ve also caught several acts that I adored as a child and was just too young to see when they were at the height of their popularity.
Within the first couple of weeks of the New Year, Summerstage along with Santa Pier Monica Curators hosts a preview showcase featuring some of the diverse artists that will be performing across the city throughout the upcoming summer at the Highline Ballroom. This year’s showcase featured, Malaysian singer/songwriter Yuna, the 11 member act Rebel Tumbao, and the New Orleans-based alt country/alt bluegrass act Hurray for the Riff Raff. Opening the night’s activities was Rebel Tumbao. Led by Matt Jenson (keys) and Jose Clausell (multi-percussionist), Rebel Tumbao’s sound adeptly mixes Cuban son, a genre popularized in the 1930s that employed elements of Spanish cancion, Spanish guitar and African percussion; contemporary Roots Reggae; soul music, gospel and African folk music. In some way, their sound reminds me a little bit of Henry Cole and the Afrobeat Collective‘s Roots Before Branches, and of Mandrill but with more of an emphasis on reggae. Now live, the band’s sound was a quite a bit looser than expected, allowing them to have a moment where they thanked several important people while discussing the band’s philosophy – a philosophy that most people can agree with in principle: freedom from corporate greed, anti-sexism, anti-poverty, and coming from a place of love.
Interestingly, their covers of Bob Marley’s love songs manage to remind even the most casual listener that at the end of the day Marley was as incredibly romantic as he was a revolutionary, always able to mix incredible joy with poignant political messages. However, where Marley could be much more overt, Rebel Tumabo’s political messages were for the most part subtle.
As an opener they were fun but if there was one flaw their lead diner at times struck me as being a bit awkward and goofy at points but he had a great voice though.
Following them was Hurray for the Riff Raff who’s sound was essentially the sort of toe-tapping honky tonk, twangy sound reminiscent of a band like the legendary Creedence Clearwater Revival. Their lead singer had a lovely, husky voice that easily expressed mournful regret and loss, hope and joy within a turn of a phrase.
They had one song which covered a typical country music theme – loving the wrong one at the right time, and that it somehow feels right when it shouldn’t. They had another song inspired by old murder ballads in which the heroine or in this case, the villain of the song didn’t die. And they even had a love song dedicated to New Orleans, which was actually a surfer rock-inspired country song (which was a first for me). Overall, it was an impressive set.
Yuna’s sound is incredibly airy and manages to adeptly mesh contemporary pop, acoustic folk and R&B in a way that sounds reminiscent to the likes of TECLA, Phia, and even Vampire Weekend, Yuna is one of the first Malaysian artists to achieve Stateside success after the release of her self-titled debut and “Live Your LIfe,“ produced by Pharrell Williams — thanks to critical praise from the likes of the New York Times, Rolling Stone and others after the release.
Simply put Yuna may be one of the loveliest women I’ve ever seen in person or taken photos of but more important, her success also seems to rely on several things – she strikes even the most casual observer as being preternaturally charming; she has a beautiful unfussy voice which fits songs that are equally unfussy and yet catchy.
For these photos and more check out the Flickr set here: