On Stage: Sharon Katz is much more than just a musician

By Denny Dyroff, Entertainment Editor, The Times

Sharon Katz

On September 10, the City Winery (990 Filbert Street, Philadelphia, citywinery.com/philadelphia) will host one of the most important artists of our time – musician, philanthropist, musicologist, and humanitarian activist Sharon Katz. She will be performing with her musical group The Peace Train.

The Peace Train band features Katz on guitar and vocals, Suzette Ortiz on keys and vocals, Wendy Quick on vocals; Richard Hill on bass; Mark Beecher on drums and Jan Jeffries on percussion.

The last time Katz and her band played City Winery in 2021, the group featured Monnette Sudler on bass. Unfortunately, Sudler, a jazz guitarist from Philadelphia, passed away in August 2022.

“Monnette was a guitarist usually, but she is playing bass with us,” said Katz, during a phone interview Wednesday afternoon. “We were friends for almost 20 years and now she is gone.”

Katz is native of Durban, South Africa who lived in Philly in the 1980s – a time during which she earned a degree from Temple University. In recent years, she was living in Tijuana, Mexico and now lives across the border in San Diego.

“I view Philadelphia as my U.S.A. hometown,” said Katz. “I had many good years here and still have a lot of friends in the area.”

This weekend, Katz will be celebrating the release of her new album, “For You,” at City Winery.
“I started recording ‘For You’ in South Africa in November 2022 with a rhythm section from Durban,” said Katz. “I also recorded with two choirs.

“I also recorded some tracks in Philadelphia at the studios at Drexel University in May and some in Tijuana.

“I mixed the album with Glenn Barratt at Morningstar Studios in suburban Philadelphia (East Norriton). He’s a wonderful engineer. We worked 12 hours a day for five days.”

Katz had been living in Tijuana during the pandemic.

“I lived on a hilltop near Tijuana,” said Katz. “It’s a few miles from the U.S. border. I could look down at Tijuana and see the soccer stadium where the Xolos (Tijuana’s Liga MX football team Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente) play their games.”

Katz has lived an interesting and influential life.

She was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. As a young teenager during the terrible apartheid era, she used to sneak out to the “Blacks Only” townships by hiding under blankets in the back seat of her friend’s car. There, she met with the now-famous actors in Athol Fugard’s group, including John Kani of “Black Panther” fame, and began her lifelong mission of using music to help break down the country’s artificially imposed racial barriers.

“I’m very happy to be back in Philadelphia because I have a relationship with the city that goes back to 1981,” said Katz. “I studied music therapy at Temple University.”

There is much more to Katz’ CV than just music ventures.

After getting professional training and a master’s degree in music therapy in the states, Katz returned home to South Africa and used her skills as a guitarist, singer, band leader, composer, producer, and music therapist. As soon as Nelson Mandela was released from his 27 years of imprisonment by the Apartheid government, she went to work trying to help her country heal from the wounds of Apartheid.

Together with her Zulu singing partner, Nonhlanhla Wanda, they formed South Africa’s first, 500-voice multiracial and multicultural youth choir in 1992, traveling out to all the still-separated communities to rehearse and start building trust across the Apartheid-imposed barriers.

Unfortunately for Katz, in addition to Sudler, another of her long-time friends and musical partners crossed over recently.

On a web post, Katz wrote, “It is with the deepest sadness that we mourn the passing of our beloved friend, singing partner, musical collaborator and sister activist Nonhlanhla Wanda following an all-too-brief battle with cancer.

“We met Nhla when we returned home to South Africa in 1992. Our vision for the country and our voices singing in harmony were the perfect match for what our divided country needed. Together, we conceived of the 500-voice multiracial and multicultural children’s choir which debuted in South Africa at the Durban City Hall in May 1993.

“Then we took the choir and Mandela’s message on a performance tour across the country aboard The Peace Train. It helped people in all corners of South Africa to see that it was possible, joyful, and only right to have a peaceful transition to a fully participatory democracy.

“For 30 years we worked, sang, composed and carried those positive messages throughout South Africa, the USA, Mexico and Cuba. Rise in Power and Rest in Peace, Nonhlanhla!”

“Nhla and I were together for 31 years until she passed away,” said Katz. “The fifth song on my new album – ‘Sister of the Soil (Siswami)’ – is dedicated to her.”

The efforts by Wanda and Katz in 1992 had a profound effect.

As the election date came closer and the ethnic battles intensified, they hired a train, The Peace Train, and toured the country with their band and choir. Living together in mixed-race compartments and performing together at each stop along their route, they became a moving billboard for Mandela’s message of peaceful coexistence and the transition to a nonracial democracy.

“It was about bringing communities – black, white, brown – together,” said Katz. “It was a real train with 14 cars, a 12-pice band and 100 singers. There were 150 players, and we went all over South Africa.”

After Mandela’s election, Sharon Katz & The Peace Train performed at all his special events and became the country’s first musical ambassadors of the new democracy.  During their initial five-week tour in the USA, they showcased South African music and unity across the country including at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Harlem, Duke Ellington Center for the Performing Arts, Disney World, and many universities.

Since the original ride of The Peace Train, Katz has continued to spread a message of peace, social justice, and reconciliation around the world through performances, seminars, workshops, residencies, and cultural collaborations.

In 2015, “When Voices Meet,” a documentary film about Katz’s music and humanitarian work with The Peace Train project, was released.

Katz continues to perform worldwide as Sharon Katz & The Peace Train and has formed bands in South Africa, Ghana, USA, Cuba and Mexico. After a 2019 cultural collaboration with Promotora de las Bellas Artes and its Cuban artistic director, Katz established a base in Tijuana where she worked on an international collaboration that toured Mexico, Cuba, and South Africa.

Sharon Katz & The Peace Train use proceeds from their appearances and music sales for their humanitarian work in under-developed areas of South Africa, the border region,  and around the world including music therapy with orphans and communities affected by HIV/AIDS, poverty and violence; food security programs in impoverished areas; conflict resolution in violence-torn regions; schools and community arts programs; and in programs for asylum seekers, migrants, survivors of torture, and youth rescued from trafficking rings.

As South Africa’s “Cultural Ambassadors,” Sharon Katz & The Peace Train took flight in 1995 to spread their music and message to the US. With sponsorship from the government and private sector in both South Africa and America, Katz responded to the U.S. invitations by taking her 45-member performing group on a five-week, eight-city US tour.

After that, Katz and her crew began touring the world, treating presidents, kings and millions of fans on three continents to the unstoppable beat of their music. Back home in South Africa, Katz was using her music therapy techniques to help heal the nation from the wounds of apartheid. She’s also been working in other trouble spots around the world, earning her a reputation for converting “gang members into band members.”

Several of Katz’s albums have featured on the Grammy ballot for Best World Music including “Imbizo,” “Side-By-Side,” and “We Can Be the Change.”

“We Can Be the Change” was recorded in Santiago, Cuba and produced and mixed by Malcolm Nhleko, who is the sound engineer for Ladysmith Black Mambazo. It’s a beautiful album –a fusion of South African music with Cuban rhythms.

Her fusion work continues with “For You.” It’s an inspirational group of original songs showcasing Katz’s signature blend of South African mbaqanga and Afro jazz with influences of soul, folk, rock and more.

“I first was exposed to mbaqanga when I was very young,” said Katz. “I used to listen to it on transistor radio. Back then, I never thought I’d actually be playing this music. I really love mbaqanga. It’s probably my favorite.”

The years pass by, and the Peace Train keeps rolling along with Katz’ veteran crew of talented musicians.

Ortiz, a passionate pianist, composer, choral conductor and educator, has been serving her communities with the gift of music from her humble beginnings in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, to her many recent successes as a Pennsauken, New Jersey native.

Beecher has more than 30 years’ experience at playing and teaching worldwide. He studied with Latin percussion masters Frankie Malabe and Jose Luis “Changuito” Quintana, African drumming master Oscar Sulley, Eastern Indian drumming master T.N. Bala, and Frank Zappa drummers, Chad Wackerman and Chester Thompson.

Beecher has recorded more than 30 albums with a variety of artists, is a voting member of the GRAMMYs (Recording Academy) and has authored a number of published works.

Jeffries calls herself a “woman of rhythm.” She is the lead player of the Music Over Matter percussion group.

Richard Hill Jr. us a bassist from Philadelphi who has his own ensemble, Peace On Earth. The ensemble features a cross-section of players ranging from elder jazz veterans who actually witnessed John Coltrane in performance, to young highly skilled young players raised in the era of Hip-hop. The group includes bandleaders, educators, composers and informal historians.

“This is a great band,” said Katz. “Everyone is a virtuoso.”

Video link for Sharon Katz — https://youtu.be/sszgkPxsDZw.

The show at City Winery on September 10 will start at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are $18.

Other upcoming shows at the City Winery are Theo Crocker on September 7, Daphnique Springs on September 8, Sonja Morgan on September 9, Gaye Su Akyol on September 12, Joe Mande on September 12, Kommuna Lux on September 13 and Lauren Calve on September 13.

The Ninth Annual Haverford Music Festival (Eagle and Darby roads, Havertown, https://haverfordmusicfestival.org) was held in September 2019. Chronologically, this year’s festival should have been the 13th annual staging of the event.

Instead, the 2023 festival, which is scheduled for September 9, is the 11th Annual Haverford Music Festival. The COVID pandemic was the cause of the interruption.

Rachel Ana Dobken

The pandemic also caused an interruption of the career of Rachel Ana Dobken, one of the featured acts at this weekend’s festival. Her previous album came out in 2018 and her next is due early 2024.

Dobken (bandleader, drums, guitar, vox, piano, producer) grew up in the Asbury Park/Red Bank/Rumson area of North Jersey.

“I have always been a huge music nerd,” said Dobken, during a phone interview Tuesday afternoon from her home in Fairhaven, New Jersey.

“When I was a child, my parents had a ‘Best of Ed Sullivan’ tape. I watched it and said – yep, that’s what I want to do. My dad was a doctor but also a great musician. So, I’ve always had this passion for music.

“It was the Beatles when I was five. I grew up with Steely Dan, Paul Simon and The Band. From there, it was Weezer, Jack Johnson, Joe Satriani and Thin Lizzy.”

Dobken studied jazz at Bard College and describes herself as “My Morning Jacket-meets-Lake Street Dive.”

“At Bard, I majored in photography and had a minor in jazz,” said Dobken. “I was listening to Thelonious Monk and Jeff Buckley. They have such an intention to their music and that’s what I want to have in my music.”

Dobken described “intention” as, “Serving the art in the most poignant way—having artistic vision. I think of The Band. Whatever they did artistically was them telling the truth – in playing, arrangement and production.”

Dobken’s debut album, “When It Happens to You,” dropped in October 2018.

“I had an EP, ‘Detach,’ in 2016,” said Dobken. “My first time recording was doing a demo in 2013 called ‘The Church Street Demo.’ The EP was a little more structured.

“In 2018, I released three singles from ‘When It Happens to You’ – ‘Understand,’ ‘Everybody Wants,’ and ‘Always.’ The album was recorded at Cedar Sounds in Oceanport, New Jersey. It took five months. It’s not been the same with the new album.”

Dobken has a new album ready to go – “Acceptance.” The first single from the LP, “Cruel, Cruel, Cruel,” is scheduled to be released on September 13.

“We kinda cut it all over the place,” said Dobken. “We used a lot of studios and a lot of producers. I was working with Eric Romero (The Front Bottoms) and Paul Ritchie (The Parlor Mob) in New Jersey and Christopher Thorn (Blind Melon) in Joshua Tree (California). I also did some guitars and vocals at my house.

“The album is done. It’s mixed and mastered. We used a mixing engineer from Brooklyn – Kyle Joseph. It wasn’t hard making the varied tracks work together. It was unified.

“It makes sense. A huge proponent was that we were doing it during COVID. In a way, it was just a continued comedy of errors.

“The new album is much heavier than what I’ve done before. I’m very proud of it. I’ll release two or three singles by the end of the year and then put the album in early spring 2024.”

Video link for Rachel Ana Dobken — https://youtu.be/21sNtcyTHfw.

The 11th Annual Haverford Music Festival will run from noon-9 p.m. on September 9 with Dana Fuchs as the headliner. Rachel Ana Dobken will perform at 3:30 p.m. on the Oakmont Field Stage.

Admission is FREE, a $5 donation per person is encouraged.

The 2023 Philadelphia Fringe Festival (https://phillyfringe.org) opens tonight and runs through September 24 at a variety of locations in Philadelphia.

One of the highlights will be the world premiere of “Just Like Hollywood,” the latest movement theater work by Melanie Stewart. The show will be presented by Blind Faith Theatre in partnership with Cannonball Festival, an independent production hub of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.

Written by John Clancy and directed by Stewart, the show features Kylie Westerbeck and Dane Eissler.

Performances at the Maas Studio in the Maas Building (1320 North 5th Street, Philadelphia) are on September 10 and 17 at 2 and 5 p.m. each day.

“I began working on it a few years ago with Kylie Westerbeck,” said Stewart, during a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. “We knew we wanted to make a show – a one-woman show prompted by Roe v. Wade. It would be one woman in a room.

“At some point, we realized we needed a writer. I asked John Clancy, and he came along for the ride.”

Clancy is a contemporary American playwright, novelist and director. He was a co-founder and first Artistic Director of the New York International Fringe Festival and its producing organization The Present Company. His written work centers mainly on the American experience and is characterized by dark humor and farce. His best-known play is “Fatboy: An American Grotesque,” a modern re-working of Alfred Jarry’s “Ubu Roi.”

His monologue “The Event” premiered in Edinburgh in 2009 and has gone on to tour Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and the United States and has been translated into Greek and German. Clancy’s directing has earned six Fringe First Awards at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and two Best of Fringe Awards at the Adelaide Fringe Festival. He was awarded a 2005 Obie Award for Sustained Excellence of Direction and a 1997 New York Magazine Award.

“Melanie and I – we’ve collaborated for decades,” said Clancy. “There was no text. They just showed me wat they were working on. It was great for me because I always love a challenge.”

Stewart said, “John was out in Illinois. We’d send videos to Illinois and back. We decided it would be a two-person show. Ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s about power.

“We did a daytime presentation in Kansas City and we weren’t entirely satisfied. We thought – this isn’t working. We need another person. Initially, it was one-person but the door was open. We worked Dane Eissler into the piece and the whole piece took on its own life.”

The result of a decade-long collaboration with Obie award-winning playwright Clancy, “Just Like Hollywood” explores the degradation of a young woman in contemporary America.

On a bare stage, using only props supplied by a demanding and impatient master of ceremonies (Eisler), the woman (Westerbeck) must discover the key to unlock the cage in which he keeps her.

Forced to perform and dance to please her captor she forces the audience to question at what point will she rebel.  A rigorous and playful study of status and the eternal male/female dance and duel, this dark comedy examines the trap ensnaring so many women today, an invisible but all-encompassing prison she is raised in and taught to accept, if not embrace.

According to Stewart, “‘Just Like Hollywood’ was written in the wake of and in response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. I see this play as a way to encourage audience to protest the fallout of this decision which has led to the most destructive and cruel treatment of women in our recent history.”

Stewart creates darkly absurd movement-driven theatre focusing on the nuanced, weird, and vulnerable side of American culture. She was the Artistic Director of Melanie Stewart Dance Theatre from 1984-2014, producing more than 50 original works of dance and movement driven theater for the concert stage, in dance/film/video, and in education, both nationally and abroad.

As a critically acclaimed choreographer and director, she has received numerous fellowships and grants from such funders as the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, The National Endowment for the Arts, Philadelphia Cultural Fund, and both the NJ and PA Council for the Arts. She is the winner of the 2008 Leigh Gerdine Award for Excellence in the Performing Arts.

It was at Rowan where Stewart and Westerbeck first encountered each other.

“I’m very excited to be working with Kylie Westerbeck,” said Stewart, who is the Associate Dean of the College of Performing Arts and as a Professor of Theatre and Dance at Rowan University. “She was my student at Rowan. We decided we wanted to do something together.

“I generally start with a character. I wanted to create something more universal – something that would hit the audience in its gut.

“There is a part about Hollywood – and how we as a society – groom women to be subservient, prettier, obedient, thinner. People realize that they turn their daughters into beauty queens.”

“Just Like Hollywood” is billed as “a rigorous and playful study of status and the eternal male/female dance and duel created in response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. It examines the trap ensnaring so many women today, an invisible but all-encompassing prison she is raised in and taught to accept, if not embrace.”

“My work has a dark undertones,” said Stewart. “It’s comedic with a dark side. This show is very real for us – the religious right – powerful white religions trying to dictated what women can do with their bodies. This country is changing and it’s going backwards.

“The show is 45 minutes long and is very physical. And the piece has audience interaction. Dane Eissler’s character is a one-trick pony – white, religious right, powerful male.”

Clancy said, “The audience members probably won’t be on the man’s side but they will be complicit in what he’s doing through inactivity.”

Westerbeck is a musician, actor, and photographer based in the Tri-State area. She is a graduate of Rowan University where she obtained a B.A. in Theatre Arts with a concentration in Acting and received the Ann B Ward Medallion for the Performing Arts for her work across several artistic mediums. In addition to Rowan University, Kylie also studied clown/Le Jeu with Philippe Gaulier at his private school in Étampes, France.

Westerbeck has appeared locally in “Our Town” at People’s Light & Theatre Company. He has also appeared at other arae theaters in “Nocturne,” “The Lydie Breeze Triology,” “Curse of the Starving Class and Company,” and “Witness for the Prosecution.” She has released original two albums – “Bello” (2018) and “Summertime” (2019).

Eissler is a theater director, designer, performer, and educator, as well as a visual artist. In Philly, he has worked with Azuka Theatre, B.R.A.T. Productions, and EgoPo Classic Theater, where he served as Artistic Producer. In Chicago, Eissler was the founding artistic director of the multidisciplinary pop-up theater collective, A Dead Whale Productions, and also worked with Rough House Theater, Whiskey Rebellion Theatre, Women of the Now, MTV- and SAG-nominated comedian Megan Stalter’s Freakfest, and The Annoyance Theatre.

Melanie Stewart/Blind Faith Theatre brings artistic collaborators together to devise original theatre that is socially relevant focused on creating intimate relationships with audiences. The projects of the company integrate movement, text, and image to explore the ability of the body to carry meaning in original narratives that are often ironic and intensely human. “Just Like Hollywood” is the first production of Blind Faith Theatre.

Performances at the Maas Studio in the Maas Building (1320 North 5th Street, Philadelphia) are on September 10 and 17 at 2 and 5 p.m. each day. Tickets at $25 and $50 are available at https://phillyfringe.org/events/just-like-hollywood/.  Pay what you can admission on a sliding scale ($5-$20) is also accepted.

Jamey’s House of Music (32 South Lansdowne Avenue, Lansdowne, 215-477-9985, www.jameyshouseofmusic.com) continues its tradition of presenting top quality blues music this weekend.

Area music fans know that Jamey’s House of Music is a primo spot to hear folk, jazz and blues music every Thursday through Sunday.

The “Thursday Night Jazz Jam” and the “Sunday Blues Brunch & Jam” are regular features on Jamey’s calendar while Friday and Saturday night shows feature national and regional acts.

Headline acts are featured on Fridays and Saturdays.

On September 8, Jamey’s will present the Pi Jacobs Band and Daryl Shaw.

Los Angeles musician Pi Jacobs is amplifying the concert experience on “Live From Memphis,” an inventive new album that places eight original songs alongside the personal stories that shaped them. Recorded with a full band, the project offers a sincere and sometimes funny look at her formative years, her family relationships, and even a few lessons she’s learned along the way.

Daryl Shawn blends the guitar chops of flamenco and classical with a modern songwriter’s sensibility and the energy of rock.

Originally hailing from Amish farm country in rural Pennsylvania, Shawn has logged many miles in search of musical inspiration and communal experience. With a background in classical guitar, flamenco, jazz and edgy rock, as well as an abiding interest in music from around the globe, Shawn incorporates an unusually broad range of influences into his playing.

On September 9, Jamey’s will host The Paul Waltz Band along with the Herring Brothers.

The Paul Waltz Band has been around the Chester County area for more than 25 years. Noted for their intricate detail to song writing, they have received merit as the top unsigned band in the Philadelphia by Music Magazine in 1990.

The “Thursday Night Jazz Jam” will feature Greg Farnese.

Disney Theatrical Productions, along with the Kimmel Cultural Campus and The Shubert Organization, celebrates the eagerly awaited return engagement of Disney’s “The Lion King” for a four-week summer engagement at the Academy of Music on the Kimmel Cultural Campus.

The musical, which features music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice, opened on August 16 and is running now through September 10 at the Academy of Music (Broad and Locust streets, Philadelphia, 215-731-3333, www.kimmelculturalcampus.org), as part of the Kimmel Center’s “Broadway Series.”

“The Lion King” is a stage musical with a book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, with additional music and lyrics by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, and Hans Zimmer. It is based on the 1994 Walt Disney Animation Studios’ film of the same name. Directed by Taymor, the musical features actors in animal costumes as well as giant, hollow puppets. The show is produced by Disney Theatrical Productions.

After 25 landmark years on Broadway, “The Lion King” continues its ascent as one of the most popular stage musicals in the world. Since its premiere on November 13, 1997, 27 global productions have been seen by more than 112 million people. Produced by Disney Theatrical Productions (under the direction of Thomas Schumacher), “The Lion King” has made theatrical history with six productions worldwide running 15 or more years, with four of those running 20 or more years.

The show, which is set in the jungle somewhere in Africa, tells the story of the lion Simba from his days as a newborn cub through his adult years and is filled with sub-plots and unexpected twists. The hyenas – Shenzi, Banzai and Ed – provide a bit of comic relief.

With “The Lion King”, the animated feature came first and then the Broadway show. The stage production is very similar to the movie. The story and the characters are exactly the same and so is a lot of the dialogue.  The stage version “The Lion King” is known for its elaborate costumes — outfits that transform human actors into jungle animals. It also wins over audiences with its lively, exotic music.

“The Lion King” won six 1998 Tony Awards — Best Musical, Best Scenic Design, Best Costume Design, Best Lighting Design, Best Choreography and Best Direction of a Musical.  It has also earned more than 70 major arts awards including the 1998 NY Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical and the 1999 Grammy for Best Musical Show Album.

One of the key players in the touring show is Gugwana Dlamini, who performs the role of Rafiki, a Sangoma.

Philadelphians can look forward to seeing two local cast members appearing on Pride Rock — Nick LaMedica, who plays the role of Zazu, is a native of Newark, Delaware. Ensemble member Eric Bean, Jr. is a graduate of Philadelphia’s University of the Arts.

The production features Peter Hargrave as “Scar,” Gerald Ramsey as “Mufasa,” Nick Cordileone as “Timon,” Nick LaMedica as “Zazu,” John E. Brady as “Pumbaa,” Darian Sanders as “Simba,” Forest VanDyke as “Banzai,” Martina Sykes as “Shenzi” and Robbie Swift as “Ed.”

Khalifa White will play “Nala” from August 16 – 20 and Syndee Winters will play the role from August 22 – September 10.

The role of “Young Simba” is alternated between Jackson Hayes and Mason Lawson and the role of “Young Nala” is alternated between Jaxyn Damasco and Aniya Simone.

Video link for “The Lion King” — https://youtu.be/awqwdi1xakU.

Tickets for “The Lion King” range in price from $29-$189.

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