Last December, when most people in Central New Jersey were thinking about getting ready for the holidays, buying presents and decorations, as well as stocking up on ice-melt and snow shovels, the Trenton Downtown Association (TDA) was thinking about bringing some hot fun in the summertime to the capital city.
On the drawing board: a summer’s worth of expansive and varied concerts to be held on the Capital Green every Saturday night, kicking off July 25 and running through September 26.
This is the Levitt AMP Trenton Music Series, 10 free, family-friendly concerts, made possible through a grant awarded by Levitt Pavilions, a national nonprofit dedicated to strengthening the social fabric of America through the power of free, live music. NJM Insurance Company of West Trenton is the local presenting sponsor.
In December, 2014, Trenton was one of 10 small to mid-sized cities across America to win a $25,000 matching funds Levitt AMP [Your City] Grant Award. The TDA submitted the proposal on Trenton’s behalf and is producing the series with NJM’s support. The concert series can also thank the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, Mercer County, Capital Health, and Wells Fargo for their support.
Levitt partners with cities to transform neglected public spaces into fun destinations, through the power of live music. This summer, free Levitt concerts will take place in 16 cities in more than a dozen states, all featuring spirited music in an array of genres.
In addition to Levitt AMP, Levitt forms the only national network of nonprofit outdoor music venues, each presenting more than 50 concerts every year. One location within the tri-state region is Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks (www.levittsteelstacks.org) in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with concerts taking place May through December, 2015.
The Capital Green is three acres of lush open space located at 201 Barrack Street, behind the New Jersey State House, at the intersection of West Lafayette Street, and next to the Old Barracks Museum. All ages are welcome and concert-goers are invited to bring blankets and chairs to the open lawn and under-the-stars setting.
Music lovers can enjoy a little bit of everything this summer, from big band jazz (Saturday, August 22) to singer-songwriters (Saturday, August 29) to techno/electronica (September 12). There will even be a night of classical music, Saturday September 5, featuring the chamber ensemble of the New Jersey Capital Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Daniel Spalding.
The Levitt AMP Trenton concert series gets under way Saturday, July 25, with salsa artist Jimmy Bosch and his Sextet from Another World. Bosch, a New Jersey native, studied music at Rutgers University and is considered one of the leading trombonists in Latin music. He and the band boast an expressive style, with soulful melodies and rousing rhythms. The July 25 all-Latin concert opens with music from Bachata artist Alexander, “El Hijo del Pueblo,” bringing a kind of Caribbean blues to the stage.
There’s a special Trenton connection on Saturday, August 8, when bluesman Tomas Doncker and his band come to town. Doncker, a No-Wave/Funk pioneer, and creator of “Global Soul,” and the band are touring in support of the new release “Big Apple Blues,” described as an “inspiring, jaw-dropping trip through the American Black Experience,” and a “lyrical masterpiece.” For this long-awaited project, Doncker teamed up with 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and teacher Yusef Komunyakaa, a Trenton resident known for his personal, uncompromising subject matter.
Music with an international flair will be on the menu Saturday, August 1, when Washington, D.C.-based ensemble Elikeh brings its combination of World Music, AfroPop, funk, R&B, and rock to Trenton.
Opening for Elikeh will be the Egun Omode (“children of the ancestors”) Dance Company, Trenton’s own West African dance and drum, Yoruba folklore performing arts group. Egun Omode is part of the Garvey School/Egun Omode Shule, an African-centered independent school in Trenton with the goal to bring the excitement of West African culture and tradition to the stage.
Speaking by phone from Washington, Elikeh’s founder, lead singer, and guitarist Massama Dodo reflects that the group’s danceable, high-energy music has no borders, though critics and music writers like to classify them under “Afro/Pop.”
“We know why people are describing us like that, but we’re not trying to stay in one category, and we draw from many styles,” says Dodo, a native of the West African nation of Togo. “Elikeh is not the music of Togo, but the roots of our sound are from the West Coast of Africa. The other guitarist (Frank Martins) is from Nigeria, but he also has this whole 1970s things going, with bits of Afro/Rock, Afro/Funk, Afro/Beat — there’s such a mix. And consider my one sax and flute player, Clayton Englar, he’s not at all about African music. He’s more into funk and R&B.”
Elikeh boasts not one but two saxophone players: Megan Nortrup is the newest addition to the band, and she brings the influences of 20th-century jazz greats such as Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Sonny Rollins to the group’s varied sound.
The band is rounded out by bassist Scott Aronson, drummer Aaron Gibian, keyboardist Marty Pell, and percussionist Michael Kwesu Owusu, a native of Accra, Ghana.
“We have a little bit of everything, men and women, black and white, young and old players,” Dodo says. “It’s such a large band, people come and go, and sometimes we add people and go up to a nine-piece band. But there’s a core group that’s been together for years, which would include myself, Frank on guitar, and Michael on percussion.”
Dodo was born and raised in Togo’s capital city, Lome, where his father worked for the federal government. He says his family was not musical, but friends of the family were.
“I didn’t have a formal musical background growing up, but all throughout high school I was playing and singing, and I had a lot of friends who were in great bands,” he says. “I studied more seriously when I went to college” at the Universite du Benin, Lome.
Togolese music was probably his first influence, but Dodo was also absorbing musical styles from East Africa, as well as the Caribbean.
“We had the influence of Jamaica and reggae music,” he says. “There were also a lot of local musicians with the more regional sound, and of course, a lot of rock, with guitar playing that was really interesting. But I grew up not really wanting to be like one specific performer.”
“I have an older brother, and at one point in the 1980s, he brought home the AC/DC album ‘Back in Black,’ so that was my first introduction to heavy rock, but it wasn’t something I thought I wanted to pursue,” Dodo says. “I had always been listening to the music from my culture. That’s what I was really interested in doing.”
From 1997 to his graduation in 1999, Dodo was the musical director of the university orchestra, but he laughs a little and explains that it wasn’t a European-style classical orchestra, just basically a band, with guitars, bass, and drums.
“I think there was a mix-up in the translation,” he says.
Dodo had always had a desire to come to the United States to settle, write music, and start a band, and that dream came true in 2000 when he arrived in Washington, D.C.
“My motivation for coming here was just like everybody who has traveled or dreams of traveling to the U.S.,” he says. “There was always the idea in the back of my mind to come to the U.S. and play music. For one thing, I think it’s easier to get access to certain things such as recording studios, to get things going professionally, although it’s not so much easier over here to make a living doing this kind of music.”
In D.C. he found many kindred spirits who were playing music influenced by West African styles, and in fact discovered there was an African music scene in Washington.
“Oh yes, D.C. has a lot of bands with musicians from Africa,” Dodo says. “If they’re not from Africa, they might have lived there for a time or traveled there, and they played the music. They are comfortable with the music.”
Elikeh (which loosely translates to “roots”), has several recordings out, and the latest release is “Between 2 Worlds,” featuring the Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Toure and John Kadlecik, lead guitarist of Furthur. In recent months, Elikeh has performed with Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, the Wailers, Vieux Farka Toure, Bombino, and Kadlecik. The group recently performed as part of another Levitt AMP concert series, when it appeared in Frederick, Maryland, on July 7.
So don’t try to classify Elikeh, just sit back and enjoy the multiplicity of sounds. Or better still, get up and dance.
“We stretch across many genres, but we try to have this roots ‘swing,’” Dodo says. “We’ll add some of this and some of that, all different influences. But we like to craft a sound that is Elikeh.”
Levitt AMP Trenton Music Series, Capital Green, 201 Barrack Street, Trenton. Free. Saturdays, July 25 to September 26, 7 p.m.
July 25: Salsa artist Jimmy Bosch and his Sextet from Another World, with opening artist Alexander “El Hijo del Pueblo.”
August 1: World Music/AfroPop/Rock band Elikeh, (www.elikeh.net), with an opening performance by the Egun Omode Dance Company.
August 8: Tomas Doncker Band with opening band the Blues Method.
August 15: Low Cut Connie with opening act Honah Lee.
August 22: Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band.
August 29: Justin Trawick and the Common Good, with opener the Jessie Elliot Band.
September 5: Chamber Ensemble of the New Jersey Capital Philharmonic Orchestra, directed by Daniel Spalding.
September 12: Blondes and a Love Like Pi.
September 19: Danielia Cotton with opening artist Chalk and the Beige Americans.
September 26: Good Graeff with opening band, Trenton-based Molly Rhythm.
For information, go to concerts.levittamp.org/trenton or www.destinationtrenton.com/events/amp-trenton