This Sunday at 3 p.m., a Black History Event with Mwanza Furaha's Cabaret Underground will honor legends of jazz and poetry at San Geronimo Valley Community Center. Mwanza Furaha knows alot about these legends, as she has performed with and met several of them over the course of her 50-plus year career. Some tidbits from her experiences are included in the interview below. Discount advance tickets are available one day ahead, or come to the door at 3pm Sunday.
Cabaret Underground includes Mwanza Furaha (as seen with Dr. Maya Angelou, Sun Ra, & more!*) & friends including Richard Howell of Mill Valley (Carlos Santana), Franklin Hall, Michael J. Ilnicki, Jef Labes of San Rafael (Bonnie Raitt), Jim Lee (NY Shakespeare Fest), Patrick Duckett of Novato, Sandy White of Woodacre, and Blake Richardson.
A gifted vocalist, actor, dancer, producer, instructor, and all-around entertainer, Nicasio-based Mwanza Furaha has shared the stage with artists including Betty Carter, Lou Rawls, Merle Saunders, Carmen McRae and many more. Her film credits include Bullitt, Love at First Bite and more. She performed with Harold Nichols in the hit show Stompin' At The Savoy at the On Broadway Theater and sang and danced in the TV show Blacks Blues Blacks created by legendary literary figure Maya Angelou. She even crossed paths with the legendary Josephine Baker, which few people alive can boast. Baum Biem of Marinscope opines, "The heavy hitting Mwanza Furaha sings with a powerful and sublime voice that lifts each song above the ordinary." More about Mwanza Furaha can be found here.
As the lucky host for her Cabaret Underground event, it has been my privilege to work with Mwanza, and each time we've met my jaw has invariably dropped in response to numerous intriguing stories about her encounters with jazz and poetry legends. This interview covers a few of them and you can learn more by coming down to meet Mwanza in person this Sunday 3pm at San Geronimo Valley Community Center.
Q: Let's talk about Maya Angelou - the bestselling author, winner of the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000 as well as 3 Grammy awards - what was it like to work with her?
A: It was very interesting because she had already done so many things by the time I worked with her, she had danced with Martha Graham, she had been in Africa, she was a published author -- she was such a wonderful person for me to work with - and I really didn't know that much about her when I met her at Oakland Ensemble Theater Company. I learned many important life lessons from her. One thing that sticks out for me - we were walking down 6th street in SF walking back to channel 9, we were filming Blacks Blues Blacks (her TV show) and we passed a homeless person on the street and I turned my nose up at him and she said to me, 'you should never look down your nose at another human being, because you never know what you are going to be able to learn from them. If nothing else, when you look at this person they are a lesson of what you don't want to be like. So you learn something from them, so you gain knowlege.' It stuck with me and when I left this country and was in the Philipines seeing people much less fortunate than me it really changed my perspective...it made me a better person.
Q: How did you come to work with Carmen McCrae?
A: I was in a play with her called Blackbirds by Danny Duncan - it was performed at Port Cullis on Brannan Street in San Francisco. The play depicted a slice of life for performers -- based on Billy Holiday, Billy Eckstine, Cab Calloway, etc. Because Carmen was really good friends with Billy Holiday she wanted to play that role. I had scenes with her - and as a result we spent a bunch of time together and developed a relationship that carried over for years. I am going to sing a tribute to her in the show Sunday because she helped me wth my diction, my articulation as a vocalist, and she helped me with my scatting. She asked me, 'Do a little scatting for me and let me see what you can do'. I tried, using mostly vowels. And she said 'Use the whole alphabet and that will improve it'. So that's what I do and I'm really conscious of it. I became a better singer as a result of that.
Q: You got up close and personal with Nina Simone?
A: I hung out with Nina Simone in Encino, California. I can't remember how I met her - whether it was Jimmy Smith's club - somehow I met her and got to know her and I would go on this gig with her at this restaurant. I remember a couple nights I went to support her and I was really surprised there wasn't anyone there. It doesn't matter if there isn't anyone in the room when you are performing, you have to still perform. She serenaded me - I can just remember listening to this living legend doing wonderful things on the piano and her range - she had to be working with 4 octaves and being classically trained she was a phenomenal pianist. I remember thinking I'm sitting here and I'm being serenaded by Nina Simone, go figure!
Q: Touring with Billy Eckstine -- what was that like?
A: It was amazing! He was known as the famous balladeer, he was a baritone and had this amazing vibrato. He sang Skylark and all of these wonderful ballads. My mother had a biggest crush on him. When it turned out I was going to be part of his opening act on tour, she went over the moon. He had a couple of numbers that made the charts in the UK - he was similar to Cab Calloway but more of a laid back crooner, tall, really handsome, there to make the ladies swoon. When I went on tour with him as the youngest I was the ingenue and because I remindeed him of his goddaughter Kim Weston, he embraced me. We played so many high end country clubs and went around in lincoln town cars and motor homes, We were carried over mud puddles and people were running around holding umbrellas for us - we were really taken care of. I remember when we toured Texas, some backwoods places, all of a sudden you would be in these really beautiful places in the middle of nowwhere - places with golden fixtures, crystal chandiliers, marble from Italy, it was mind-blowing. The people in the band told incredible stories about Billy Holiday, Lena Horne and other legends. A few years ago I was in New York and out to see James Weirman - who I met through Art Lewis (a well-known Jazz drummer based in West Marin). Then they introduced the band with drummer Charlie Persip - and I began screaming. What had happend back in the day was we thought Billy Ecktine's band would back us up but once we were on tour we found out that wasn't the case so we called the union and we couldn't get good players who could turn the music around fast enough and Charlie talked Billy's band into playing for us so he was our knight in shining armor.
Q: What do you want people to get out of this show - why is it important to you?
A: I think it is importnat and especially for this area because I think more information should be put out into the community about the contributions African Americans have made not only to the United States but to the world, in all walks of life, in enterainment, in art, etc. Especilaly in this (San Geronimo and Nicasio Valley) community we have so many profesional artists. I am seeing more children who are biracial and African American, and I thought some positive information about African Americans is needed for our community.
I've been fortunate enough to have met some of these people who have contributed to our history and I thought it was a story that need to be told. I am the only African American that works for the Lagunitas school district. Black history is celebrated in Marin City and in Oakland and little blurbs on the television, so I just felt is was important to do here in the West Marin community. At Lagunitas School I saw a little boy the other day and he just stopped and was staring at me. He was just happy to see somone who looked like him. So he was the catalyst that made me reach out to the San Geronimo Valley Community Center and get the ball rolling.
San Geronimo Valley Community Center & Mwanza Furaha Present – CABARET UNDERGROUND
A Black History Celebration
Celebrate Black History Month through Music and Poetry with accomplished Jazz, television and film talent Nicasio-based Mwanza Furaha (as seen with Dr. Maya Angelou, Sun Ra, & more!*) & friends including Richard Howell of Mill Valley (Carlos Santana), Franklin Hall, Michael J. Ilnicki, Jef Labes of San Rafael (Bonnie Raitt), Jim Lee (NY Shakespeare Fest), Patrick Duckett of Novato, Sandy White of Woodacre, Blake Richardson. The cast is loaded with senior citizens who have made an impact in the arts, and members have performed or recorded with outstanding artists such as Etta James, BB King, Van Morrison, and many more. The event will include outstanding music and poetry, stories of Jazz legends and for the early birds, tastes of African American cuisine and an exhibit of books, art and more.
Tributes - 1900's - 1940's: James Weldon Johnson, Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe McCoy, Ma Rainey, Langston Hughes, Lena Horne, Bert Williams and George Walker
1950's - 1990's: Billy Eckstine, Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, John Hendricks, Carmen McRae, Betty Carter, Nina Simone, Oscar Brown, Jr., Maya Angelou & Motown.
Event Details: Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013, 4 p.m. - 6 p.m., doors open at 3 p.m., San Geronimo Valley Community Center, 6350 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., San Geronimo, CA 94963. Cost: $20 in Advance, $25 at Door • Children Under 10: $5. Click here to buy advance tickets. Info: firstname.lastname@example.org, www.sgvcc.org or 415-488-8888 press # and 253.
Early birds will enjoy tastes of African-American cuisine (included in ticket price) and there will be a display of art, books and other materials.
The San Geronimo Valley Community Center is honored that Mwanza Furaha has chosen to present this show at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center, showing her deep commitment to supporting of our food bank and other vital community programs.