The Art of the Plan in Interesting Times
Public Spaces: The World is a Stage

Public Spaces: The World of Free Stages

The David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center features a free performance every week, with musical performances varying from hip-hop to soul to spoken word to jazz. Jordana Phokompe, Meera Dugal, and Viviana Benitez are the people behind the curtain who take the empty stage and fill it with international flavor and diverse talent. They shared what they look for in a performer and how musicians can up their game as they pitch venues like the Atrium.

Atrium Team
L to R: Meera Dugal, Jordana Phokompe and Viviana Benitez

RPS: When you get a solicitation email/phone call from an artist or artist representative, what elements make you want to become more involved?

Jordana, director of the Atrium: It is not one thing that makes me want to be involved. It is important for artists and their representatives to do research on who they are pitching. Email solicitations stand out when they tailored to our venue and series.  Often I’ll receive solicitations for shows that are way too large to present or completely off genre.  I can’t stress it enough to do research on the venue/series first before making the pitch.  Also, we get tons of emails on a daily basis, so I encourage people to follow up and check-in. If it's a cold call, I think it is about getting to the point directly about who the artist is. It is important for representatives or artist to research who they are pitching. If they have done their research, they can write to me succinctly.

Viviana, associate producer: We have gotten so many solicitations where there isn't a link to the music, which is so crucial. It doesn't make sense to solicit without making it easy to listen to or find their music. Any live video is great, upcoming dates in our area is also awesome.

Meera Dugal, Programming Coordinator: It always helps if the artist is pitching a specific project or fresh release. If our show can be part of a larger movement going on in their career, it’s definitely a plus. We want our artists to feel comfortable using our stage as playground and are thrilled to support new works or collaborations.

RPS: When you are watching an artist live, what elements do you look for that could make you consider booking them?

Meera: I pay attention a lot to the chemistry between the band members. There’s something to be said for a band that is a real band and not a group of people that just come together for shows. The level of tightness, familiarity and joy of playing together – I really appreciate it and I have more fun when I can tell the band is too.

Jordana: When I see a live performance, I am touched by the overall experience. I am touched by the artist’s stage presences, audience engagement, seeing who is in the audience. But first and foremost, how do they sound? Is it a good-quality performance? Is it high-standard artistry? Once I establish that they know what they are doing, I would be proud to present then at Lincoln Center. Being proud of what I do is always my litmus test.

The Mambo Legends Orchestra
The Mambo Legends Orchestra. Photo by Kevin Yatarola

RPS: What are three artists that are new discoveries to you that you are particularly excited about from any genre?

Jordana:  Pierre Kwenders. I saw him at WOMEX and then presented him at the Atrium in January. He's based in Montreal and is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His work is described as electropop and he is definitely a strong contemporary voice representing Africa and the Diaspora.  He is an amazing artist and gives a powerhouse performance.  There are many layers to his music both in style and the context he is working within. 

Another artist is Alsarah. She is Sudanese and currently based in Brooklyn. Simply put she has an amazing voice. Her work is described at Nubian/Sudanese inspired East-African Retro-Pop.  Her music combines both songs and styles of traditional Nubian works, music of the 1970’s, and her own contemporary voice. 

Blick Bassy – He is originally from Cameroon now based in France and is a champion of his culture singing mostly in his Bassa language.  I’ve been listening to his current album Akö (a lot) his voice haunts me- it has both a delicate beauty and longing that touches me.   

Viviana: We presented a female trumpet player named Maite Hontelé. Prior to her show at the Atrium, she was in NYC visiting from Colombia and we were able to meet up for a coffee and she shared her music and story with us.  I feel like she has already been discovered, her trajectory is just up, up, up. She has been nominated for Latin Grammys and she has played with so many big names already in the salsa world. It is a rarity to have a female in a salsa band, let alone a horn player and not a singer. She was really lovely to work with, which always makes me love someone more. 

Lakecia Benjamin. Her instrument is the saxophone and she leads her band. She is an incredible performer. So sassy and so funny and her live show just has such an incredible vibe.

Vox Sambou. I got to see him live during APAP week and he is definitely an artist that is doing something new with old Haitian rhythms and bringing a contemporary sound and a strong sense of community to his lyrics and that resonates with me and our overall mission at the Atrium.

Meera: First up, Sara McDonald and The NYChillharmonic. Sarah is 24 years old and she leads a 22-person progressive rock orchestra. She has composed and arranged all original music for the group and just released her debut album this year. We had her here at the Atrium in December and she put on an incredible show featuring live abstract animation on our huge media wall. She is a fearless bandleader and a composer to really keep an eye on.

Arooj Aftab is also an emerging composer and singer to check out. Hailing from Pakistan and now based in Brooklyn, Arooj is at the forefront of a genre she calls “neo-Sufi” that mixes ancient Indian and Pakistan forms with jazz and electronic instrumentation for a very ambient and fluid sound. She also has a completely stunning voice. She’ll be performing at the Atrium this August 11th on a bill with Alsarah & The Nubatones.    

Lastly, I am ecstatic about the NYC-based band Innov Gnawa. Only a few years old, this ensemble is made up of 6 Moroccan expats led by Maalem (Master) Hassan Ben Jaafer and they’re bringing the ancient African trance music to new audiences all across the city in a mix of clubs and sacred spaces. We had them here at the Atrium last July in what was hands down one of my favorite shows here.

RPS: What are 2 to 3 major shifts in the live music world that you think are important for artists to consider?

Meera:  One thing that Innov Gnawa is doing that I think is really effective is “going live” on Facebook during their shows. One live video from a recent show reached over 75,000 people without any boosting. Many viewers tuned in from Morocco which was really special and helps international artists connect to their communities back home. Don’t underestimate how well expat communities are organized on Facebook.

RPS: What's changed in the last 5 years in the world music scene in your experience?

Meera:  There are so many artists taking traditional music in new directions that give them access to more venues that don’t necessarily have anything to do with “world music”. “New music” clubs, jazz clubs, hipster Indie clubs – that’s where I’m seeing music with global influences.

Viviana: Something I have been seeing a lot are groups and niche groups and collectives forming their own festivals. There has been an explosion of scenes growing and I feel like people who feel marginalized have learned to become collectives and create spaces for their voices and unique sound and culture and that is happening more and more - not just in world music.

RPS: What is one piece of advice would you give to all artists or artist representatives?

Viviana: I have a better insight now into the presenter world, and as an artist manager in the past, it is a sales job to a degree and you get a lot of rejection. I can now understand the myriad of reasons why a presenter doesn't reply or says no. For the most part, they are really reasonable reasons why you don't get a response or rejection. There is something to be said about follow up or persistence in a tactful way, but for nonprofit presenters, it is an overwhelming amount of work and giving attention to the email solicitations, especially unsolicited ones, is not always easy.  I would say to artists and artist reps that you have to stay positive and keep trying and not to take things personally.

Jordana: Maintain your integrity.  So often in this business we are asked to make concessions and sacrifices and through that we sometimes lose our voice.  I think what’s important at the end of the day is to not compromise your artistry. Make sure your representatives and presenters are treating you and your work with respect.  We are all part of this community and all have the responsibility to achieve the highest level of performance possible.

Meera: A lot of venues are always working on increasing their community engagement and often struggle with bringing in audiences for more obscure performances. Artists, especially those coming from lesser known musical backgrounds or countries, are consistently asked to add an educational or engagement activity to their tours and preparing a “menu” of talks/workshops/activities the ensemble is comfortable doing is a good idea. This helps a presenter see more access points for an audience to connect with the performance and can make her more confident inviting the artist to perform.