Olu Dara and all the world's music Music director for 'Ma Rainey' stirs everything into one big pot

October 16, 1990|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Evening Sun Staff

WHEN OLUDARA was a young boy in Natchez, Miss., a drifter walked in to his life. His name was Lavender Kinds, and he arrived with a couple of trunks full of books and no clothes. Dara's godparents put Kinds up in a vacant church on a lot they owned. "It turns out he was a published poet, and the man could speak seven or eight languages and he played all instruments," Dara recalls.

Supported by the community, Kinds became a mentor to Dara and other neighborhood children, teaching them tap dancing, painting, typing and music. "He taught enough people so that next year they had a high school band," Dara says. For a time, Kinds also published a local newspaper.

After he left Natchez, Dara lost touch with Kinds. But his Renaissance approach to the arts has remained with Dara, who grew up to become a versatile musician and composer, as easy with African music as he is with down home blues, as easy with avant garde jazz as he is with his own compositions, which embrace all of the above and more.

Of Kinds' influence, Dara says, "It was like experiencing a new world within the world I was living. He played everything. That's why I'm eclectic like that right now."

As music director of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," at Center Stage, Dara coached the four actors who form Rainey's backup band on how to look like they are actually playing their instruments. Morover, he gave each one "an attitude." On tape, Dara actually supplies the rehearsal music that knits the play together. On opening night, the band's simulated performance was stunningly convincing.

Dara also supplemented the play's original music by Dwight Andrews. He underscored various narrative passages, including a deft blues tune that accompanies August Wilson's text, a ballad Rainey sings to her tired, hurting feet.

In the spirit of Kinds, Dara, 49, has traveled around the world, absorbing musical forms into his own hybrid style, which he likens to a big pot of gumbo: "You put everything you can find into one pot and mix it up like that."

Dara's international adventures began in the 1960s when he served as a Navy medic and brass musician. Discharged, Dara (( found himself in New York City, where he worked odd jobs and beheld his musical heroes from afar. At that point, Dara was too intimidated to let on that he could play.

Later, he landed a spot in the orchestra for the 1970 road show of "Hair," and his music career was back on track. "I was back into music for good," Dara says.

Not long after that, Dara met Dianne McIntyre, a dancer and choreographer, who felt an instant attraction to his music. Their first collaboration went "straight to Lincoln Center," and Dara left his itinerant night club milieu.

While branching out as a composer for theater and dance, Dara continued to play his trumpet and twice won the Downbeat International poll in the trumpet category. Stanley Crouch, of the Village Voice, called Dara "the most masterful brass stylist of his generation." For lack of a singular style, and a fear of leaving tracks, Dara says he is the "only one of my generation who hasn't recorded."

Dara's work with McIntyre led him to a kinswoman he had never known: Zora Neale Hurston, the brilliant folklorist and anthropologist who captured the lives of rural Southern black folk in works such as "Mules and Men" and "Their Eyes Were Watching God." Like Hurston, who died in obscurity in 1960, Dara came from an educated, middle-class black family. And, like her, he shunned that comfort for the juke joints, the porch steps and the country ways of the folk. There, they both found, in his words, "a great wealth of life." Hurston was a "very brave person," Dara says. "I feel she was like me, very curious."

After collaborating with McIntyre on a dance drawn from "Their Eyes Were Watching God," Dara went on to compose the music for several other Hurston-based works, including "To Gleam it Around, To Show My Shine," a dramatic piece produced at the Crossroads Theatre Company in New Jersey, and "Zora Is My Name!" the American Playhouse production conceived by Ruby Dee.

Dara's involvement with the Hurston legacy led to other plum assignments, such as his work at Center Stage.

Observing actors and interpreting the text, Dara composes, organically, often on the spot. His cultural ancestors, in Africa and Mississippi, looked to nature for their inspiration, he says. But within the nature-starved society Dara inhabits, the human touch of language, voice, smiles serves as his muse. Still, he keeps to his blues-saturated, rural roots and always seems to find something fresh and new in the down home music that was always his bread and butter.

"It never goes wrong. There are no technical problems with it. You don't have to reach out and try to find something new no one has ever done before. Usually what's progress is just more notes," says Dara, echoing the musical debate that courses through "Ma Rainey" as well.

On this gray Thursday, Dara is ready to take the train back to New York, in anticipation of new projects, including a movie in France, and to resume work with his two bands, the Okra Orkestra and the Natchezzippi Dance Band. And Dara will prepare for a storytelling performance at City College in Manhattan, where, like his mentor Kinds, he will regale children, his favorite audience, with old, old tales.

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