"You're telling a story. Remember that. Forget you're a performer. Tell the story."
This advice given to me years ago by the Master of Ceremonies still applies. Frequently I feel nervous. Each April is Poetry Month, and a pack of poets like myself walk onstage to perform poetry, usually our own poems. I recall that advice by the MC, and, I also recall two story telling individuals who went onstage and were completely themselves: Hector Lavoe and Gwendolyn Brooks. Their confidence and ease warmed up audiences everywhere.
Hector Lavoe -- from the website:
Hector Lavoe, a Puerto Rican singer, was one of those lyrical story tellers who ruled the stage, let his songs unfold and flow outwards. It was either 1979 or 1980 I attended his concert at the International Amphitheatre in Chicago on the southwest side of Chicago. This building had previously been used for stockyard exhibitions, political conventions, and even an early Elvis Presley concert. Now I was standing outdoors in summer, shoulder to shoulder, sweating, and waiting to hear this Puerto Rican singer that everyone loved. Mr. Lavoe's career had been resurrected, and the amphitheater was slated to be sold or torn down so the timing was perfect for the singer and the location. Prior to the day of the concert I had never heard of Hector Lavoe, and my friends were appalled I didn't know this "singer of singers."
From his song "El Cantante:"
And I sing to life
(I sing) of laughters and sorrows
of bad moments
and of good things8
You've come to enjoy yourselves
and you paid an entrance fee
there's no time for sadness
let’s go singer, begin.
That's how his singing was, too. He introduced himself, gave a story, welcomed the crowd, and tossed a song to us. "Let's go singer, begin." Ruben Blades wrote the song, and I had a chance several years later to hear him perform as well. While Ruben is a great song writer there's something about Hector's delivery: strong and with ease. I didn't understand many of the lyrics as they were in Spanish. I was impressed with the musical lines, the phrasing impressed me. It seemed as if he were in conversation with each of us.
Gwendolyn Brooks, the former Illinois poet laureate, is a writer and performer I admire. I heard her perform live, and she also had the ease of Hector, had the natural pauses and dramatic pace. One of those times was in the Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Her introductions to her poems were short. Her recitations were done with inflection and expression, expressive but not overly dramatic. Each time I heard her I was impressed with the flow of language and how she reached each of us.
These two performers were in my mind when I performed in April. If you're performing a song or a story focus less on that you are performer and more on the telling of the story.
"Let's go singer, begin."
copyright 2022 Georgiann Foley Gwendolyn Brooks, Poet
Library of Congress