Favorite moments from 2015

Six members of Madison’s arts and culture community share their essential memories from this year.

Clockwise from top left: Karma Chávez, Laduma Nguyuza, and Tony Barba.

Clockwise from top left: Karma Chávez, Laduma Nguyuza, and Tony Barba.

I asked a bunch of people who contribute to music and culture in Madison in various forms to share what mattered most to them in 2015. Here's what they had to say, from their favorite works by other people to the highlights and challenges of making their own work.

Karma Chávez, Associate Professor of Communication Arts at UW-Madison

Racial disparities in education, arrest rates, poverty, and incarceration have been front and center in newspapers, in meetings, and in Madison’s streets for the past several years. But We The 350: Stories Of Poverty, Racism And Incarceration In Wisconsin brought the issue to the stage. Not just because one of the co-directors is my partner, We The 350, directed by Young Gifted and Black’s T. Banks and UW-Madison Assistant Professor Sara McKinnon was the most exciting art event of 2015.

Featuring the life stories of local black activists and the acting skills of local black performers, We The 350 dramatized what its really like to be black in the place with the worst racial disparities in the United States of America. For non-black audiences, the stories complicated easy narratives about crime that blame individuals. For black audiences, the stories affirmed their or their loved ones’ experiences with poverty, a racist system, and violence. The free show ran for two nights at the Overture Center in November to overflowing audiences sitting on the floor inches from performers, and even then nearly 100 people were turned away. I know firsthand that this show was an incredible amount of work, but it was totally worth it. The powerful performance proved once again that art is central to social change.

Laduma Nguyuza, MC and producer, Fringe Character and Dumate

“Wrong place, right time. Last spoken words: ‘can’t breathe’ white lies choke me to death…” Dumate’s song “Brutality" was released in February of 2015. But I’m not here to discuss the track, specifically.

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve cried during a vocal take. Over five albums, dozens of features, and countless unreleased tracks, each take is like a first date. You never really know how it’s going to play out.

The first? I kill myself after losing myself in my own self. Exit Mr. Parker, enter Dudu Stinks. You might listen to “The Death Of Mr. Parker” from STINK TANK’s Books On Tape for context.

Second? Adam Lanza kills 20 children mid-December, 2012. Look up “Fragile” by Fringe Character.

The third? In my basement, with fresh offerings for my ancestors at the foot of the microphone, I work through the toughest part of “Brutality”:

“Line them up blind fold, naked barbed wire

Tease out confessions admit you all liars

Fingernails first, then skin, then strap them

To the bottom

fill the pool with blood of black men”

It's okay to cry, especially for art. Shed a tear, let it flow.

Tony Barba, saxophone and bass clarinet player, bandleader, Youngblood Brass Band member

For me, my trip to Camaguey, Cuba was the highlight of the year. I got the opportunity to visit thanks to Ricardo Gonzalez, Nick Moran, and the Madison Sister-Camaguey City Association for their November cultural exchange program. I was brought along as the special guest saxophonist for the musical group Golpe Tierra, which also includes bassist Nick Moran, guitarist Richard Hildner, and vocalist/percussionist Juan Martinez. As I expected, getting to experience the rich culture of music, dance, and art was incredible, but what completely took me by surprise was the warmth, kindness and generosity of the Cuban people that we got to know. Never in my life have I made such special connections and friendships with people in such a short amount of time. We also had the opportunity to work with children and teenagers in a state funded music conservatory, which was equally memorable. These kids, who have extremely limited resources, displayed a hunger and respect for learning and practicing music that I do not often come across in the US. I look forward to getting to return as soon as possible because it is clear that Cuba will now always have a special place in my heart.

Taralie Peterson, Spires That In The Sunset Rise and Tar Pet

Locally, my favorite concert was the Hanah Jon Taylor trio at Thorps, which was part of the Strollin' Schenk's Corners jazz fest in May. It was a free, all-ages early show, which meant I could bring my 12 year old. Anyways, I always enjoy Hanah's performances, but this one had an added exhuberance and almost performance-art aspect to it. As I remember it, and I could be wrong, there were these technical difficulties taking place and Mr. Taylor was very coolly and calmly putzing around trying to solve them like he was in his living room, and his band was seriously rocking out, working hard, and building this amazing tension. It was brilliant, because when he did finally come in, the suspense had built so marvelously it was even more rewarding than usual. Bassist Alex Wing and drummer Dushun Mosley, both from Chicago, were really quite awesome and they deserve a lot of credit. It reminded me of stories I've heard about Chuck Berry coming to his shows late after his band had already started and just jumping on stage. I wish I could be more like this. True rock star.

Phil Money, DJ

After sharing the bill with Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra at S.O.B.’s 2003 in New York City, I was excited to see them throw down again at the Union Theater here in Madison on February 15. On a Sunday evening, Zap Mama shared the stage with them and they crafted an amazing night of Afrobeat music. When Antibalas started, the solo muted guitars set the tone for the massive brass section to come in. Once the horns start blowing together, I immediately recognized it was their heavy tune "Sare Kon Kon." It was good to see the lead singer, Amayo, still as vibrant as ever. The crowd was dancing and full of energy during their set. When Zap Mama started playing, they pretty much put on a vocal clinic going in and out of African melodies. Seeing both of these great Afrobeat groups, was the spark I needed to bring to Madison an all out Afrobeat-inspired set or as I call it simply, "The Soup," which I’ll be showcasing at Olbrich Gardens Conservatory on March 25, 2016.

After the show I had the privilege of kicking with some of the members of Antibalas. It was good to see some familiar faces like Chico Mann, and Kevin who is also Valerie June’s drummer, as well as new ones.

Spencer Bible, guitarist and vocalist, Christian Dior

Break All The Lights by We Should Have Been DJ's was the most interesting local release this year. Phenomenal new wave emo band. Incredible energy. Highly recommend. Wood Chickens and The Vipers have 10/10 songwriting and rock solid performances. See them both as often as possible. Mr. Jackson's lyrics are perfect, Tar Pet is the most talented musician I know, and if you haven't seen Amoebageddon yet, you're missing out. Currently can’t stop listening to Scallops Hotel // Randall Bravery from Milwaukee. Wish Ru by Quartz Prawl is my favorite independent release of the year.

Courtney Barnett is overrated. Angel Olssn deserves a Grammy. "Trap Queen" ruled but my #1 summer jam was "She Knows" by Neyo, feat. Juicy J's laziest verse yet. Madison needs more house spaces. Joel Shannahan, Daiquiri Rene Jones, and Ben Cameron all leaving back to back to back was a huge loss, but Madison's scene has a lot of depth and talent and I'm grateful to be a part of it.