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Tomas Doncker And The True Groove All-Stars Present “Endangered” at the 19th Biennial Dodge Poetry Festival, NJPac, Saturday, October 22nd, Reviewed

Tomas Doncker doesn’t appear to be a rock opera sort of guy but if he isn’t he still has a feel for standalone pieces of r&b: “The Mercy Suite”, “Power Of The Trinity”, “Big Apple Blues”, “Black Magnolia Project” and the multi media piece featuring New York former poet laureate Yusef Komunyakaa that we are at the Poetry Festival to appreciate, “Endangered”.

First presented at the Fine Arts Center at Colorado College, according to the school “… a live music, multi-sensory installation performance steeped in 21st Century Psychedelic Soul. Endangered premieres at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center on June 17 & 18, as an intimate site-specific performance in the Floyd D. Tunson: Hearts and Minds exhibition. Inspired by the Afro-Futuristic and politically charged artworks of Colorado’s own Floyd D. Tunson and powered by lyrics from Pulitzer Prize winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, Tomás Doncker and The True Groove All-Stars chart a sonic journey to freedom, a modern day revolution of the mind.”

Well yes, but if you saw either the Colorado or, as I did, have the good fortune to be invited to a late rehearsal (here), you may be surprised at the decision to intersperse eight short poems during the performance, and while on the one hand the best poetry performed was way outstanding, and not just Yusef, in a wheelchair ( he is 81 years old), but wonderful and deeply disturbing poems about male dominance and female being abused including the incredible 2021 book of sublimity as hang-glide to rape and rebirth as memoir “American Bastard” by Jan Beatty.

All of the poetry readings during “Endangered” are perfect and yet shouldn’t quite be there. It disrupts the flow and also the content, it is like if Patti Lupone singing “Edelweiss” in the middle of a performance of “Evita”. Perhaps it would sound great the way the poems do, but to what end?

“Endangered” is a three man study of how racism has become a final solution for the black male and should be left to stand as such. With all due respect to the woman forced to perform oral sex and hit on constantly as a young girl, this isn’t quite the format. Towards the end of the performance poet Jane Wong put the Asian woman’s experience through a microscope and yet again the performance had been forced to evolve into something else. It is called “psychedelic fun” even if it can sound very like funk-rock and a continuation of Sly Stone’s crossover against all odds musically, but perhaps they should be singing with, say Sleater-Kinney or Fiona Apple (or, God knows, Noname).

I’ve seen “Endangered” twice before and it stands alone as a referendum on black men’s lives and political art that speaks to the face of oppression with beautiful words and wordplay and gorgeous funkiness (that is Michael “Kidd” Hampton playing lead guitar) that comes together from the current video “This Time”… directed by William Murray, who is deeply involved with the look of the performance:

The band themselves are first rate, James Dellatacoma on bass and guitar, Hanks Hothouse performed a breathtaking horn solo, and while Artur Uronen is missed (i guess he is in Finland readying himself for the European tour) the band itself is a very tight five piece band giving into not the words, that arrives with the package, but the songs, which at their best, the astounding “Universal Bunnies”-a piece that veers on sarcasm as Tomas details that what Universal Bunnies are is every black man, and a track that belongs way up there with “The Mess We Made” and “Can’t Say No”, the best in class “Outlaw”.

Doncker wasn’t as playful as he can be, there was too much to keep under control, and as for Yusef…. God forbid I complain yet also, I wish he had been the sole poet reading aloud through the show. We only got one poem that Yusef read but it was absolute killer, the 2015 “Ghazal, After Ferguson”: the Ferguson in question is, obviously, the Missouri city where Michael Brown was murdered. Here is the entire poem

Ghazal, After Ferguson
BY YUSEF KOMUNYAKAA
Somebody go & ask Biggie to orate
what’s going down in the streets.

No, an attitude is not a suicide note
written on walls around the streets.

Twitter stays lockstep in the frontal lobe
as we hope for a bypass beyond the streets,

but only each day bears witness
in the echo chamber of the streets.

Grandmaster Flash’s thunderclap says
he’s not the grand jury in the streets,

says he doesn’t care if you’re big or small
fear can kill a man on the streets.

Take back the night. Take killjoy’s
cameras & microphones to the streets.

If you’re holding the hand lightning strikes
juice will light you up miles from the streets

where an electric chair surge dims
all the county lights beyond the streets.

Who will go out there & speak laws
of motion & relativity in the streets?

Yusef, this morning proves a crow
the only truth serum in the street.

It was thrilling to see Yusef on stage. And equally thrilling to see the True Groove Allstars performing in New York. Tomas is doing a lot of travelling (he will be performing in the UK with Sam Huber next month) but he has held off playing New York City and with the “Endangered” performance available for college campuses more than clubs, we don’t get to see Doncker even remotely close to enough. He gave a tour de force presentation of the True Groovers at peak power, Doncker’s guitar solos ring like a bell and his singing is an astonishing range from a whisper to a scream as he sits at the center of the stage in complete control of the surroundings -his eyes and ears everywhere but usually ending with the drummer Leroy “Lefty” Thompson: when Doncker wanted to get closer to the sound he got closer to Lefty. If you can envision an even better rendition of “Endangered”, so what? At least we got this… I went with my friend Justine Giordano and ran into Marla Mase (one more song and her latest album is over) and Regina Bonelli, who just made the Grammy’s first cut as blues album of the year, Truth Hurts.

And until or at least then, “Endangered” defines multimedia, it brings to life Floyd Tunson’s art work (Tunson’s brother was shot to death by police -that will change your perspective on racism jumping out of the antebellum and into your life) in a world where the oppressed whether it is the white male stuck between the policeman’s bullet and a life in jail, or a teen girl forced to be molested by her gymnastics coach, there are a lot of people who live in fear, for an hour ten Doncker and Dodge put a headlight on it, and will tour everywhere with it to give people a form of pleasure and also a form of self-awareness…

Grade: A-

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