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Don’t Let Her Be Misunderstood

Nuance. “That’s been my word of the year,” says Sharon Udoh from a table at Kafe Kerouac, her favorite hovel to dwell—and think. “Social media is not working and it’s causing a huge disconnect. I’m not saying it’s not cathartic or that it shouldn’t be happening, but Facebook and Twitter have removed nuance, and story, [...]
Kevin J. Elliott

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Nuance.

“That’s been my word of the year,” says Sharon Udoh from a table at Kafe Kerouac, her favorite hovel to dwell—and think.

“Social media is not working and it’s causing a huge disconnect. I’m not saying it’s not cathartic or that it shouldn’t be happening, but Facebook and Twitter have removed nuance, and story, and background.”

It’s that perspective, and no doubt a concentrated understanding of nuance, which have placed Udoh and her music as Counterfeit Madison as the gold standard in the Columbus scene and beyond. During her tenure in the city she has given herself plenty of identities; the “angry fucking black person,” the mercurial friend who is “empathetic to everyone, everything, and every side,” a “diversity educator” to students at the Arts and College Preparatory Academy. Not to mention an unashamed prodigy with perfect pitch and synesthesia.

But of all her self-proclamations, be it with love or deprecation, the one that stuck out on this day was the phrase “way base.” Indeed Udoh could charge her songs with the preoccupation du jour or rant religiously, but instead she focuses on the simple things that bond us as humans—the emotional ingredients in all of our DNA.

Opposable Thumbs, the title of Counterfeit Madison’s third release (at the Wexner Center, NBD), is as basic a sentiment as Udoh can conjure and the most ambitious and pure recording of her career. Full of big beautiful ballads that could appear on an Adele blockbuster or during the credits of a Disney animated fairy tale, Udoh possesses a voice that is unparalleled and can hardly be contained by tape. The other half provides levity with the floor-shaking electricity indicative of Udoh’s live performance, a polyglot of styles that highlight her range, from blues and funk to adorable indie and folksy piano playing.

It’s a duality that wildly veers between a side that wants to do nothing but express and get her music to the world, but also a side that is introverted and has a “desire to retreat” because of an incongruence between “appearance and personality.” It’s universal because it’s genuine.

“It’s talking about the human experience, it’s our thumbs that make us all humans,” says Udoh in complete earnest. “It’s how we hold and how we function—it’s a very human thing. I’m very simplistic. I wouldn’t call myself intelligent, but I think I’m emotionally intelligent. I know about sadness, longing, snarkiness, sassiness, jealousy … it’s all over the place.”

In a conscious move to evolve her sound, Udoh formed a full band and took to camping in Musicol Studios with engineer Keith Hanlon for the last two years. As a “composing maniac,” she challenged everything she’s made in the past and wrote parts for horns, other guitarists, other piano players, filling the record with complex melodic layers. With a core of Adam Hardy on bass and Seth Daily on drums, there are guest spots from a cavalcade of Columbus musicians including Way Yes’s Glenn Davis, Van Dale’s Joe Camerlengo, Dane Terry, and Val Glenn, making for a momentous, almost epochal, album.

After a few listens, it’s hard to imagine that Opposable Thumbs almost never happened, but after receiving over 80 rejections from labels, local Anyway Records swooped in and plans to release the record this month.

2017, though, wasn’t just about the journey to produce a definitive statement like Opposable Thumbs for Udoh, it was also the year that she performed as Nina Simone to a sold-out crowd. Comparisons to Simone have always followed Udoh, but she never thought of it as something that needed to be done until recently.

“The reason I first did it was because of the biopic, and how they cast fucking Zoe Saldana who looks nothing like her,” says Udoh, half-joking and half-serious. “You could go to any corner in Brooklyn and find a girl who can actually sing. I’m just sitting here like, ‘I can do this.’ Her music has pulled me through a lot of hard times. It felt like a coming of age for my black self.”

The show was a resounding enough success that she was asked to play another sold-out performance, this time at the Hattiloo Theater in Memphis, a city where the issues Simone rallied against are still very palpable and many in the audience were witness to both the MLK assassination and Simone singing those songs for the first time. It made Udoh think even deeper about the parallels the oppressed and the oppressors are going through in the now.

“I hate to sing about empathy because I don’t want to sound like I’m so much more advanced than everyone else, but I’m nothing but empathetic,” says Udoh. “I sing about the lowest-common denominator, so I think what is going on in Washington is very similar to things that are going on in our real life. I just think those boys in Charlottesville are just scared, they don’t have a lot going for them, they have really low self-esteem. But I write songs about low self-esteem. I’d rather talk about the roots of problems. I don’t want to talk about specific political things because in my mind political problems are just as much emotional problems.”

Whichever side you’re on, and whether or not you think Udoh should be a mouthpiece for social justice or simply a musician and poet singing about the balance of our basic human needs, overcoming the thick fog of fear that has divided America is the one metric for success that Udoh strives for with Counterfeit Madison.

“I just see fear. I myself have a lot of fear right now,” concludes Udoh. “So I would like to give people a chance to experience some fearlessness through my music—fearless enough to tell someone you love them, or that you hate them, or be fearless enough to know when to be loud and know when to be quiet.”

And in that fearlessness, in order to lead a full life according to Sharon, you no doubt need the nuance, whether it’s cooking a curry, dancing interpretatively, or just in having a conversation with the other side.

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Arts Fest Preview: See BalletMet live outdoors!

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BalletMet’s Friday night’s headline performance at 8:30 p.m. at the Arts Festival is sure to be a highlight of weekend. One of the nation’s top 20 largest professional companies, BalletMet consists of dancers hailing from across the nation and the world and boasts a premiere academy for aspiring professional dancers, one that’s been recognized as an institution of local and national stature.

Since 1978, BalletMet has brought incredible dance to theaters in Central Ohio and beyond and their commitment to bringing dance to the Columbus community, especially in underserved areas, is unparalleled.

Art of War Photo by Jen Zmuda

From in-school programs to theater field trips, scholarships and free performances, the company is dedicated to making dance accessible to all. More than 10,000 children attend the company’s Morning at the Ballet field trip performances each year. And thanks to a grant from PNC Arts Alive, BalletMet’s second company, BalletMet 2, has performed at free events at the King Arts Complex, Franklin Park Conservatory and more, throughout the 2018-19 season.

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In addition to the free performance at the Arts Festival BalletMet will perform at Dance on Dakota on Friday, May 10, from 5 to 8 p.m. in Franklinton. This performance is also free.

Dance on Dakota, co-hosted by Franklinton Arts District, is part of a weekend-long block party in Franklinton and features free food and drink and a collaborative performance with TRANSIT ARTS. The event will take place at Dakota Ave. and Town St.

Dancers Grace Anne Powers and William Newton Photo by Jen Zmuda

BalletMet’s Columbus Arts Festival performance will include a mixed repertoire of shorter pieces from its past productions and will be preceded by music from DJ Donnie M. of Damn Girl.

And if these performances capture your interest, the company recently announced its 2019-20 season, which includes ALICE, based on the later stories of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll, Twisted 3, a collaboration with the Columbus Symphony and Opera Columbus, and, of course, The Nutcracker.

More info at www.balletmet.org. For all your Arts Festival details visit www.colubmusartsfestival.org

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Arts Fest Preview: You wood hate to miss local crafter

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Woodworker and Art Makes Columbus featured artist Devon Palmer has been working with his hands since his upbringing in northeast Indiana. His mother a wood carver and his father a carpenter and cabinet maker, Palmer took a more mechanical route by obtaining his pilot’s license and attending Purdue University to pursue a career as an airplane mechanic.

But as his career transitioned from maintenance to the tech field, he yearned to work with his hands again. Originally he considered pottery, before a class he planned to attend got canceled. But a trip home the weekend before Thanksgiving led to his father introducing him to woodturning.

That was more than 15 years ago. And though he is largely self-taught, Palmer also credits local woodturners from the Central Ohio Woodturners (a chapter of the American Association of Woodturners) for taking him under their wing. In 2005, he opened his first studio just north of Downtown, and in 2007 he began teaching woodturning at Woodcraft Columbus.

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Today, Palmer does a bit of mentoring of his own. He teaches classes in blade and bowl turning, resin cast pen turning and more advanced projects like hollow vessel turning in his studio at the Idea Foundry. He is also adding a series of LGBTQ date night pen turning classes to his growing schedule of classes, shows and demonstrations.

Palmer says his work represents “family and connectedness” with work ranging from salad bowls and laser engraved pens to funerary urns and ornaments. The details in his hand-crafted tableware and home goods manage to invoke a warm sense of community, fellowship, and hospitality.

Devon Palmer works in internet technology and is also a pianist and ordained minister.

Make your own wood turned pen with Devon Palmer at the Columbus Arts Festival, June 7-9, at the Big Local Art Village located at the Festival’s Franklinton entrance. Learn more about Devon at www.columbusmakesart.com/stories/devon-palmer and get all your Arts Festival details at www.columbusartsfestival.org

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Arts Festival Preview: Dr. E uses voice to overcome adversity

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Dr. E, singer-songwriter and author Cleveland-born singer-songwriter Dr. Elaine Richardson — known by her stage name Dr. E — has used her voice to detail the incredible circumstances she encountered while overcoming great adversity. Born to a musician father and Jamaican immigrant mother, Dr. E begun tapping into her talent while singing in church, her school’s choir, and in girl groups.

Dr. E continued to sing despite the difficult path she faced. As a teen, she became a sex trafficking victim and fell into addiction. In her recovery, she pursued higher education at Cleveland State University and Michigan State University. During this time Dr. E also began performing as the frontwoman for a number of cover bands and placing her original music on various TV shows. She recorded her first album, “Elevated,” in 2010.

Dr. E’s introspective song lyrics reflect the often difficult process of healing while defending those who share her experiences or face exploitation and discrimination in other ways.

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On her sophomore album, 2017’s “Songs for the Struggle,” she gives a soulful retelling of her journey from sex trafficking survivor to university professor, Ph.D., author and advocate. Blending elements of soul, rock, funk, rhythm and blues, and jazz, Dr. E sings with an astonishing amount of hope and positivity; Though the album details the trauma and exploitation experienced by Dr. E during her teen years, her power message ultimately expresses affirmations of self-love and acceptance employed with an equally powerful and joyous voice.

Dr. E is currently a professor of literacy studies in the College of Education at The Ohio State University. She has written a number of books on African American literature as well as a memoir, “PHD to Ph.D.: How Education Saved My Life.”

See Dr. E. perform at the Columbus Arts Festival, Saturday, June 8 from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. on the Big Local Stage on Rich St.

For hours, artist listing and all Festival information go to www.columbusartsfestival.org

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