TINA MODOTTI: ‘BEST UNKNOWN PHOTOGRAPHER’

0607 modotti picTina Modotti has been called the best unknown photographer of the 20th Century.  She photographed for only seven years — from 1923 until 1930, mostly in Mexico.  Many know her more for her often glamorized life, which intersected with many of the leading artists and political revolutionaries of the day. However, her work as a photographer produced striking images that combine social content and a modernist aesthetic.

Given the current recognition for the artistic achievements of Modotti’s short career, there can be no doubt that her contribution was noteworthy, her talent beyond dismissal. Yet both have been diminished in comparison to her role as friend, lover, and student of and artist’s model for photographer Edward Weston, whose nude studies of her are among his best known works. She was also one of Diego Rivera’s numerous lovers and models. So although many have heard of the legendary Tina Modotti, few are familiar with her photography.

Modotti’s striking images represent the unforgettable artist who created them an independent, liberated woman of incredible talent, intelligence, social commitment, determination, and passion for life and its pleasures who, despite her many accomplishments, was relegated to the sidelines.

For Modotti, who was born in 1896 in Udine, Italy, politics and photography were part of life from the beginning. Her uncle was a photographer and her father was likely a Socialist. These influences, and the economic hardships overshadowing her early years, probably predisposed her to adopt later radical sensibilities.

She quit school at 13 to go to work and at 16 she left her mother and siblings in Italy and came to San Francisco, where her father lived. Modotti worked as a seamstress and model for I. Magnin before beginning to act in local Italian theatrical productions. By 1919 six years after her arrival in the United States she was starring in silent films in Hollywood (though she was typecast as a Mexican servant or a fiery Latin lover).

The turning point in her notoriety, if not in her artistic sensibility, came in 1920, when Modotti met Weston. A few years later she persuaded him to move with her to Mexico City, agreeing to manage his studio in exchange for photography lessons.

Her facility with languages (she spoke Italian, Spanish, English, and German) eased their introduction to Mexico’s vibrant artists’ community, which included Rivera, Rufino Tamayo, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. A fast learner, Modotti was soon publishing her work, and when Weston returned to the United States in 1926 she stayed in Mexico, deepening her political activism.

She also increasingly focused her attention and her camera lens on Mexico’s workers and peasants, and on the country’s poverty, its growing unrest, and its gradual advances toward modernization. Modotti joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1927 and in 1930 she was arrested as an enemy of the state, briefly imprisoned, and then deported.

She went first to Berlin, where she snapped her last photographs, and then to Moscow, where she is suspected of having joined Stalin’s secret police. With her lover, Communist leader Vitorio Vidali, she acted on behalf of political prisoners in France, and during the Spanish Civil War, under the “nom de guerre” Maria, she worked in hospitals and shepherded orphans to safe houses.

When Madrid fell to Franco in 1939 she escaped over the Pyrenees. Modotti eventually made it to New York, but she was refused entry and put on a boat to Mexico, where she won asylum as a Spanish Civil War refugee. She died there three years later. Her occupation at the time of her death was listed as “housewife.”

Originally posted December 2010, this piece is adapted from an article by Victoria Alba in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

 

FROM GOSPEL TO BLUES

In addition to publishing this website, I play blues with Sheft-Hãt Khnemu Ra and the rest of the band Blúz Explozión whenever the opportunity comes up.

January 2012 rozinlapaz

He was two years old when his parents nudged him out onto the community centre stage to sing a duet with four-year-old sister Linda. The two children launched into “Christmastime,” a song written by their mom.FEAblues2 And so the toddler became a performing member of The Singing Cole Family of Freeport, Illinois.

Life has taken many twists since that day: from the community centre in a village outside Chicago to the bars and restaurants of Baja California Sur, from singing Gospel in his mother’s church to joining the priesthood of the Fahamme Temples, from being little James Cole in a family of seven singing brothers and sisters to being Sheft-Hãt Khnemu Ra, soul of Blúz Explozión and Riddim Forz. Through it all, he has dedicated his life to making music.

His father, James Alfred Cole, was one of 12 children. “My dad was a piano player and a singer, Sheft-Hãt says. “His style was rock-and-roll — Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Brook Benton type of stuff — calypso, too, so I got that music from him.”

His mother, Erma Davis Cole, is a singer who still writes songs and poetry. “She gave us the other side of it. She took us to church, so the first thing we learned was Gospel music. We were prohibited from singing anythingFEAblues1 else for awhile.” Erma Cole would write songs for her children to perform on Christmas and other special occasions — “so she pretty much organized us, the Singing Cole Family.”

Sheft-Hãt laughs when asked what it was like for the two-year-old, stepping out onto that stage. “I was probably terrified.” He laughs some more. “But then, I think I took to it like a duck to water.”

Sheft-Hãt grew up listening to his uncles play guitar, so that was his first instrument. “I used to walk through the snow in Freeport to take lessons, carrying a guitar that was bigger than I was.”  Then, when he was 11, for Christmas he got an old Kay semi-hollow body bass that had belonged to one of his dad’s friends, blues guitarist ¨Rockin¨ Robert Earl Pearson.

“It became my favourite instrument. I think I liked the role that the bass plays — it ties the melodic and harmonic part of the music to the rhythmic part. I used to feel it was the bass that made people dance, so I kind of liked feeling I had something to do with that,”  he says.

“Eventually, I ended up playing bass for Rockin’ Robert Earl, in his band with ‘Downtown’ Ernie Brown on harmonica. Those two guys essentially became my mentors of the Blues, God bless them both. Unsung heroes. Robert passed away quite some time ago, but we just lost Ernie Brown a couple weeks ago. They used to call him ‘Sugarlips’ because he played the harp so sweet. He was an amazing talent and an outrageous showman. But beyond that, he was one of the most polite, kindest human beings I have ever met!  I´m gonna miss him.”

At 15, Sheft-Hãt wanted to join the school orchestra. But he needed an instrument to participate. Under a bed at Grandmother Davis´ home, he found an old violin that had belonged to his uncle, McKinley “Deacon” Davis, a basketball player who had no time to devote to music after he joined the Harlem Globetrotters. Sheft-Hãt studied violin through university. It gave him a formal training in musical theory that he used in jazz and blues improvisation.

As adults, the singing Cole children continued the family tradition of making music. Sheft-Hãt’s big sister Linda — “she’s still my mentor” — is a jazz singer in Orlando, Florida, where she’s called the First Lady of Song. Her son Anthony Cole, an internationally known drummer who has worked with Count Basie Band and saxophonist Sam Rivers, is currently on tour with J.J. Grey and MoFro. He credits “Uncle Ra” with giving him his first set of drums as a toddler.  Sheft-Hãt’s youngest brother Carl is a Gospel singer and piano player, a minister of music in Chicago.

So it is no surprise that Sheft-Hãt chose music as a career. But in other ways, he broke new trail. While the rest of his siblings settled down in the U.S.,  Sheft-Hãt adopted a new country, and a new spiritual faith.

He was about 30 years old when he became a priest of Fahamme, Ethiopian Temples of Science and Culture, which he describes as the origin of modern belief systems such as Rastafarianism. “There’s a tolerance for other beliefs because we think that everything came from the same source. Everybody’s equal, everybody’s from God, regardless of race, colour, creed and nationality.”

With his new religion came a new name: Sheft-Hãt Khnemu Ra, Builder of the Creative Force. It’s not a name he chose, but one derived from a study of several factors related to his spiritual beliefs. He chuckles when I point out that it’s an appropriate name for a musician. “Each person comes into life with a reason,” he says. “It’s who I am and who I always have been.”

Sheft-Hãt was 44, working for festivals and bands around the U.S., when he was invited to play bass with Bobby Banana’s calypso group at a club in Mexico City. He jumped at the opportunity. For years, he had been fascinated by links between African cultures and the ancient Mayan and the Olmec cultures. “So when I had a chance to play music, it was like a dream come true for me to come to Mexico.”

The plan was to work for three months, then return to the United States. That was 17 years ago. Sheft-Hãt stayed because of the warm welcome Mexico gives its musicians. And because of a woman.

He was on stage when Charo — Rosario Luz de la Fuente — walked through the door to the club. “I couldn’t see anything but a light through that door — and her name is Charo Luz (luz means “light” in Spanish).” Charo, on the other hand, didn’t see Sheft-Hãt when she walked in and sat down with friends. “The stage was at my back, and when I turned around and faced the stage, I just saw blackness, because all the musicians were black.”

“I saw light, and she saw darkness,” Sheft-Hãt says. They laugh some more.

In fact, the two have much in common. Charo, born in Veracrúz and raised in Mexico City, is also one of seven children. Her father, an opera aficionado, had an abiding love of music and black culture, which she inherited. Both fathers worked in engineering and construction. And both died at about the same age.

Charo and Sheft-Hãt have been married 15 years. With her background in public relations, Charo became band manager. They moved from Mexico City to San José del Cabo, where for eight years they were part of the Sheft-Hãt brushed up against fame and fortune from time to time, but he chose to go his own way. “After Hendrix died, they were looking for the next black rock guys, and we got a pretty good offer at that point in time, but I blew it off.”

As a musician in Oakland, he was part of the band of Jerome Arnold, “a master and a great gentleman” who was bassist for Howlin’ Wolf and the original Butterfield Blues Band. “Jerome taught me a lot, especially about singing and playing blues bass.”

Sheft-Hat turned down a chance to travel to Paris with Jerome. He explains, “I’ve always been into the music. I have never really been into the business. I see a lot of people who have been damaged by the industry to the extent to where they lose their love for the music. That’s what I’ve always been afraid of. I’ve tried to keep my focus on the music and not so much on the business. That resulted in being flat broke all the time.” And then he chuckles again — for a good, long while.

Rozinlapaz plays harmonica with Sheft-Hãt at Tailhunter's

Playing harmonica with Sheft-Hãt at Tailhunter’s (that’s me, Rozinlapaz)

For now, Sheft-Hãt is focusing less on regular gigs in restaurants and bars and more on other projects. His rejection of the music industry propels him toward one of his dreams for the future. He wants to establish a cultural centre in La Paz where he can teach young people to play musical instruments and to work together in groups — to give them the tools they need to become artists on a national and international level. His vision includes a recording studio where young musicians will record demos and produce their own original material — “so young people can come into the music world with a concept of independence, and avoid exploitation by the industry.”

As for how to make that happen — “I’m still working on that. We´re seeking sponsors and investors, as well as for my recording projects.” Meanwhile, he’s bringing more young musicians into his reggae and blues bands, helping them develop their potential on stage.

Among Sheft-Hãt’s resolutions for 2012 is a plan to get back into the recording studio to make CDs of his original blues and reggae tunes. There’s already a recording of one CD of original music with Riddim Forz entitled “Funky Reggae Rock.” He also wants to return to singing jazz, including songs that his big sister Linda taught him long ago. He wants to participate in national-level music festivals — bringing them to La Paz and taking his bands to festivals elsewhere.

Sheft-Hãt has two more projects close to his heart, both involving family.

One pet project has to do with a distant cousin with a well-known name — jazz pianist and singer Nat King Cole. Sheft-Hãt never met his father’s cousin, although Linda Cole has performed with Nat King Cole’s little brother, Freddy. But there is a Latin connection that Sheft-Hãt wants to develop.

He says Nat King Cole didn’t speak Spanish, but with phenomenal skill sang phonetically to record volumes of of Latino ballads. “Since I speak the language and love this music also, I want to record some of my favourite ballads in Spanish, in the tradition of Nat King Cole.”

The remaining item on Sheft-Hãt’s wish list brings him full circle: to reconnect with The Singing Cole Family. After all, there are new generations, including Sheft-Hãt’s three children and eight grandchildren. His son James is a rapper and a producer, and James’ latest CD includes singing by Sheft-Hãt’s two daughters, Aleisha and Jacinda.

“I feel blessed to have been born into a family of traditional musicians,” he says. “It’s been a long time since we’ve gotten together. Anytime we do see each other, we make a lot of noise. I would like Mexico to see some of my family do music with me here.”

(originally posted January 2012)

LIFE FUELED BY BAGELS

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAugust 2011 rozinlapaz

“In the end,” says Fabrizio Rozas, “after all this craziness and hard work — in the end, it’s just a bread with a hole in the middle.”

Maybe a bagel is just a bagel. But for Fabrizio and his wife and partner Patty Del Valle, this little bread with a hole in the middle has led them through twists and turns to a new life in La Paz. Their Bagel Shop y La Galería in the historic centre of the city is the end of a journey that spans two continents and several years — an adventure fuelled by bagels.

A Chilean dreams of bagels

Fabrizio was born in Viña del Mar, near the city of Valparaiso, Chile. He became a set designer and, at the age of 28, travelled to Las Vegas. “I came for three months and stayed 12 years.” In the U.S., he designed sets for film, theatre and television and dreamed of moving to New York to work on the set of Sesame Street.

Meanwhile, Fabrizio’s appetite for the breads from his homeland led him to the bagel bakeries of Las Vegas. “In Chile, we love bread. The bagel is the closest thing to Chilean bread.”

He was determined to learn how to bake bagels, a tricky-to-make bread that’s boiled before it’s baked. “I tried to teach myself from books and the Internet. I started making them, and they were horrible.” So he took classes with a chef and became intrigued by the mathematics of baking — especially the formula, developed over hundreds of years, for producing the perfect bagel.

“In class I learned how to make croissants and cakes. In my house, I would do the bagels. Truly, it took me two years to work it out. I would bake three times a week and bring the results to work.”

In Vegas he saved his money and bought a $6,000 machine that divides the dough and forms the bagels. “I bought it and then ate tortillas and beans for six months.”

Fabrizio’s passion for bagels had reached the point of no return.

Patty defies the odds to get to Vegas

Patty del Valle’s journey to Las Vegas started with a chance meeting and an upside-down statue of a saint. She was 18 and had just graduated from high school in La Paz. She ran into a friend who was heading to Las Vegas for a wedding, and the friend invited her along.

“Are you kidding?” Patty replied. “My mom doesn’t even let me go to the beach by myself.” Patty had no passport and no money for a plane ticket. She figured it would take a miracle to get her to Las Vegas.

The friend insisted they ask Patty’s mom, anyway. As for the miracle, she persuaded Patty it wouldn’t hurt to seek a little divine intervention. The two girls made an appeal to the statue of a sympathetic saint. They turned the statue upside-down, a folk ritual added for good luck.

To Patty’s surprise, her mom said she could go. Patty applied for a passport that same day, and her uncle, who worked for an airlines, came up with a free ticket.

Patty’s stay in Las Vegas lasted 22 years. She learned English and earned a university degree in journalism. She worked at MGM Mirage in public relations, representing 200 restaurants and executive chefs.

Along the way, Patty met Fabrizio and got swept up in his passion for bagels.

Leaving Las Vegas

Fast-forward almost a decade. Three years ago in Las Vegas, Patty and Fabrizio reached a turning point. They now had two daughters and were sick of the casinos, the gambling, the city’s preoccupation with expensive cars and a lifestyle that drove people into debt.

They asked themselves, “Do we want to stay in Vegas, or do we want to change our lives?”

They decided to move to Chile. The plan was to stop en route in La Paz for just six months. While there, they would try to make some money selling bagels.

Right from the start, Fabrizio ran into a glitch. He couldn’t find the right flour for bagels. He sought help from the Bread Guy in La Paz, Les Carmona, whose successful Pan D’Les bakery, on Madero on the corner of Ocampo, specializes in fine European breads. “Les was super nice,” Fabrizio says. The Bread Guy helped Fabrizio find what he needed and was generous with his expertise.

So Patty and Fabrizio produced a dozen bagels in their kitchen. They brought them to a friend’s coffee shop and displayed them in an old Sony stereo cabinet that Fabrizio bought at a segunda. Their first customer broadcast his satisfaction the next morning over the ship-to-shore radio program known as “the cruisers’ net.” And Americans started coming. Patty sold bagels in the marinas and on the street. Soon she became known as “the Bagel Lady.”

The kitchen oven could handle only six bagels at a time. Production doubled, then tripled, until they reached their maximum of 40 bagels a day. As demand increased, they couldn’t keep up.

Enthusiastic customers offered loans for expansion. Businessmen suggested partnerships. In the end, though, Patty and Fabrizio turned down all offers, cancelled the move to Chile and invested their life savings in what had once been an office for the newspaper, Las Ultimas Noticias. It was a shell of a building with no electricity, no plumbing, no gas. Along with renovating, they purchased an immense rotating oven in which bagels get a sort of ferris-wheel ride so that they bake evenly.

After months of preparation, the Bagel Shop y La Galeria opened in July 2011. Downstairs is a cafe and “bagel bar” with its assortment of bagels, cream cheeses (everything from classic to chipotle), fresh-squeezed juices, coffee and breakfast dishes. Upstairs is an art gallery and meeting space, available without charge for community use.

Fabrizio has no time to rest on his laurels, but he does spend a moment to reflect on his identity. “I have a Mexican wife, U.S.-born daughters. I’m a Chilean guy making Jewish food.”

And, oh yeah, he’s also a man obsessed with bagels. They actually talk to him during his early morning baking. “You’re working with yeast, which is alive,” he says. “You’re always communicating — a bagel tells you, for example, ‘I need more time in the boiling water.’ You never stop learning. And every day, the bagels get better.”

And to come full circle (so to speak), here’s a final thought about a little product that’s “just a bread with a hole in the middle.” Fabrizio says the process for him has been more important than the product: “It’s been an opportunity to meet people, to learn from the community and to share something that we love.”

Bagel Shop y La Galería: Belisario Dominguez between 5 de Mayo and Constitución. Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to  2 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; closed Mondays. Phone: 12 55878.

(originally posted August 2011)