America Is Here

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Through a friend who works there, I was introduced to the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture (PSOT), which is based out of Bellevue hospital here in Manhattan. Besides the obvious medical issues, the organization deals with a host of other needs from their clients—immigration, legal and human rights issues, psychological trauma, employment, housing—all of which are interconnected.

Dr. Hawthorne “Hawk” Smith, who is a Psychologist and the Clinical Director of that organization, mentioned to me that he’s in a band that plays at Shrine, a club in Harlem that I’ve been to previously. The band plays a mixture of Nigerian highlife and Congolese soukous, funk, Latin and blues—“our tag line is 'Blues-infused global grooves!'. The band is called Casa Mantequilla (butter house), and I went to see them about a week ago.

From their website:

“Back in the early 90's, when everything that was positive was 'butta baby,' there was a spot in Upper-Manhattan that came to be known as the 'Casa Mantequilla'. It was a gathering place for friends from all over the world, many of whom were artists, teachers, craftsmen, and healers. The vibrant conversations and jam sessions adhered to the philosophy that 'Mantequilla mescla todo' (butter blends everything)."

Shrine was packed, the band sounded great, there was dancing and swaying. This is the ceiling (find the Talking Heads album!):

  Photo courtesy of the author

Photo courtesy of the author

The audience, the music and the band were all diverse—more so than in most shows I go to (Afropunk Festival a recent, massive exception). The shared pleasure in being there to enjoy the music and simply be together gave me hope. America does not have to be the divided, antagonistic place we see in the news every day. There is indeed another way, another possibility, and here is proof.

Hawk is not the only band member with an interesting and sometimes surprising background or day job.

Brendan Malone runs an education program at Urban Assembly New York Harbor School... He recently won a $100,000 prize for his school, being recognized as one of the top 10 tech teachers in the country.

Mark Righter designs furniture, and before that, he  trained as a Biologist/Environmental Scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He worked for the Department of Forestry researching trees and plants and later for the Smithsonian Institute studying red-howler monkeys and endangered crocodiles in Venezuela.

Oskar Debe’s family has a store in Harlem. The shop, African Paradise is one of the finest places in Harlem for authentic African arts, clothing and cultural artifacts.

“Thierry Royo (bass) ran his own translation and interpretation services in NYC for many years. He is now Project Manager for another international translation firm.

Mohamed Cherif Kouyate was a human rights advocate and well-known photographer in Guinea; he became a PSOT client after his persecution there. Since relocating to the U.S., he has worked tirelessly to put his five children through college by working multiple jobs.

I’m told that some of the others are former clients of Survivors of Torture. Immigrants—some of whom may have been tortured and were granted asylum; all of which goes along with Hawk’s mantra, "responding to adversity with beauty".

Here is a link to donate to Survivors of Torture.