Gail Austin and Mensah Wali: The Art of Music in the Northside
In advance of City of Asylum/Pittsburgh’s Jazz Poetry Concert, Sampsonia Way is speaking with the five Northside community leaders who will be emceeing the event. This is the third installment in the Jazz Poetry Emcee interview series.
Mensah Wali and Gail Austin have a history of organizing and enjoying live musical performances and poetry readings. They met in 1988 through a conference for festival organizers, and today their love of art and each other manifests itself in the Kente Arts Alliance, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that seeks to present great African American art in community settings. Austin, the Managing Director, was born and raised in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, and Wali, the Artistic Director, is a Brooklyn transplant.
The two met with Sampsonia Way at our offices on the Mexican War Streets to speak about the ambitions of the Kente Arts Alliance, the public perception of Pittsburgh’s Northside, and their favorite jazz and poetry.
How would you describe the goals of the Kente Arts Alliance?
Gail: Our one overriding goal is to present high-quality art of the African Diaspora in neighborhoods outside of the downtown cultural district.
What is the organization working on now?
Gail: Primarily it has been jazz concerts, but we’re not limited to them. We showed an animated film in the Manchester community [Kirikou and the Sorceress], outside for free. We’ve done some workshops where the artists who come in work with children in the community. I think in the future you’re going to see fewer jazz concerts and more from other kinds of music.
Mensah: We also did a poetry show in 2008 for The Last Poets‘ 40th anniversary tour. Having been at the original show, I thought I could pull them in for the celebration. The Last Poets are considered to be the fathers of modern-day spoken word. All of the Talib Kwelis and Mos Defs of today relate to the Last Poets as being their shining star, so to speak.
Do you have any upcoming events?
Mensah: Presently we’re in the Jazz Royalty Series. It’s a spin on the fact that all the artists’ first names are Roy. Back in April we had Roy Ayers and on September 22nd we’re having Mr. Roy Haynes. Haynes is the elder statesman in terms of age, biographical history, and playing. He’s 87 years old and he plays like he’s 47. His band is called the Fountain of Youth, and he’s got that.
How long has Kente Arts Alliance been located on the Northside?
Gail: We’ve never been located anywhere else. Our first year was in 2006 and in 2007 we became incorporated as a nonprofit. We’ve always been in Manchester, where the office is located, but we’ve set things up all over the city. Our presentations have been located as far east as Homewood, and recently we’ve been presenting on the Northside at the New Hazlett Theater.
What was it that made you move to the Northside?
Gail: I had a job where I traveled all the time, so I got to see a lot in my twenties and thirties, and I was always attracted to Society Hill in Philadelphia, Georgetown in DC, and Fort Green in New York—neighborhoods of historic row houses. Initially, I didn’t even come to the Northside to buy a house; I was meeting up with a girlfriend for lunch and she was a real estate agent. But the only way she could have lunch with me was to tell her boss that she was showing me a house. So she showed me these houses and I thought it was so reflective of the types of houses that I liked in DC, Philly, and New York, and all of a sudden I thought, “I’m in.”
Mensah: I got drafted (both laugh). We met in 1988, and both of us were running festivals in our respective cities. I was doing the International African Arts Festival in Brooklyn and Gail was working with Harambee II Black Arts Festival in Homewood. There was a conference in Philadelphia of festival organizers across the East Coast. So that’s how we met.
In addition to the Arts Alliance, how else are you involved in the community?
Gail: Lots between us; I don’t know when we sleep. We’re both members of Black Voices for Peace, which is an anti-war group. We’ve protested on the corner of Penn and Highland every Saturday from 1pm to 2pm since 2003. I didn’t think we’d be there that long.
We’re also both involved in Manchester Beautification Committee projects. Last year we were really involved in developing and building a biodiversity space called Shelby’s Corner, which is in Manchester on the corner of Adams Street and Manhattan Street.
Mensah: I’m on the boards of the Sembène Film Festival and the Ujamaa Collective, which is a group of women artists who do everything from growing and preparing food to making clothes, jewelry & cosmetics. The Sembène Film Festival is about exposing our community to the works of Ousmane Sembène, Africa’s grandfather of film and other films of worth.
What do you like most about this area of the city?
Gail: I love living in Manchester and the fact that it has sidewalks. I’m always teased about that. I’m never going to live in a community that doesn’t have a sidewalk, which means the suburbs are out. Here, you can walk to a coffee shop or you can walk to town. It’s a walking community and that’s what I like about it first and foremost.
Mensah: I was raised in Brooklyn and I moved to Pittsburgh in 2005, but I’ve been coming here since 1988. I’ve always enjoyed the Pittsburgh community as a whole. This morning I was out taking a walk on the river. It has all kinds of subtle amenities that are good for one’s health, and I appreciate that this is such a green city. Everywhere I turn I see green.
What performers are you most looking forward to?
Gail: Oliver Lake!
Mensah: I’ve known Oliver since the mid 70s, and he’s the kind of musician that I can check out eight days a week. He’s going to bring something different every day. He plays the same horn, but the musical concepts are all different. I’m always looking forward to what’s next with him.
Gail: When you have somebody that you admire because you feel they epitomize the art form in which they work, you tend to put them on a pedestal. A lot of times when you actually meet them, they fall off that pedestal and you wish you had just known them from afar. When I met Oliver Lake, the thing that struck me the most was how very nice he is. Nice is such a drab word, but he really is a nice guy. He’s also an excellent poet. I wish more people would get a chance to hear his poetry.
I was going to ask about poetry, and who some of your favorite poets are.
Mensah: Well, coming out of this world, I would say Huang Xiang, the man who painted this house at 408 Sampsonia Way. For me the experience of watching him perform was the best I’ve had at Jazz Poetry. That guy just blew me away; I always hear his projection in my head.
What would you like people to know about the Northside?
Mensah: I would like people in Pittsburgh to open up and not have any phobias about crossing rivers. You don’t need a visa or passport to cross one of these bridges! That mentality has always been puzzling to me, even though it does exist in other places. The Northside is just another part of the city. It’s nice, it’s got variety just like any place else, in terms of ethnicity and cultures. It’s got all kinds of things. But if you’re in this mindset about neighborhoods, that’s just blocking off the world.
Gail: People have a lot of misconceptions about the Northside. I can’t think of any other area where so many well-known art institutions are located. I’m finding out I probably like the Northside even more than the Hill, so maybe one of these days I’ll tell people that I’m from the Northside instead.