A Talk With Rachel Chanoff, Artistic Director for Celebrate Brooklyn!

As a part of our annual summer concert preview, Afropop’s founder Sean Barlow spoke with Rachel Chanoff, the artistic director of the Celebrate Brooklyn! summer concert series. 

Sean Barlow: How long have you been working with Celebrate Brooklyn? 

Rachel Chanoff: I have been doing the programming there for 22 years.

Oh my God, congratulations! But you also do a whole lot of other things…

Yeah. I have a company called The Office and I have four colleagues–genius colleagues–and actually when I say I’ve been doing the programming at Celebrate Brooklyn, it’s the “royal I.” There are four of us that do the programming and we also do the programming at MASS MoCA, which is a museum in Massachusetts and at Williams College and NYU Abu Dhabi and at various other film festivals and music festivals around the world.

Well, let’s focus on Brooklyn. Why don’t you give a a big-picture introduction to your new season of Celebrate Brooklyn at the Prospect Park Bandshell.

This season at the Bandshell, we feel very excited. It’s come together in a beautiful kind of puzzle of artists that most people know, that have great renown and some artists like Netsayi from Zimbabwe, who maybe no one has ever heard of, but who are going to be absolute gems to be discovered at Celebrate, which is what we love. You know, I think we bring a lot of focus to the season with artists like St. Vincent and Janelle Monae and once people are drawn in, they are intrigued by the names they don’t know and they go away having happily discovered artists that they will follow for the rest of their careers.

Great. I was blown away by  Janelle Monae’s show on your opening night Wednesday. First time I’ve seen her live. Wow! 

We really feel like Celebrate Brooklyn should be a place where people can come to discover things and people can take the risk without feeling like they have to make a financial commitment that keeps them from wanting to do it and for it to be really part of the fabric of the community, where you can bring your kids and either they can run wild in the back playing or they can be introduced to some dance or some music or some film or something that they might not have been introduced to if it were not such a free and welcoming setting. We really like to envision it as everybody’s backyard party. Like your wild, global backyard.

I like that. And there are some parts that we at Afropop are particularly drawn to.  Sticking along Afropop lines, who are some artists you would especially like to talk about?

I’d like to talk about Netsayi. Netsayi is this artist from Zimbabwe, as I mentioned, that we saw last year. She came to the States a couple of times to do various galas for organizations. And seeing her and her band Black Pressure was one of those times where you see somebody totally original and really moving and you think, “That’s an artist I really want to see again and again,” and I want very much for that to be a part of my curatorial practice. So, while she’s not someone who we think would bring a huge crowd, she’s someone we definitely want to introduce to our audience.

That’s on July 18th?

That’s on July 18th on what is mostly a Brazilian bill with Bebel Gilberto and Vinicius Cantuaria, but we felt that Netsayi is so intriguing that she would be an addition to any concert.

Is she New York based?

She’s Harare based and she’s a fantastic songwriter, and she has a very contemporary sound, but has a real traditional, African subtext that’s beautifully woven through her music. And her band plays on these huge traditional instruments. But she is also utterly of the moment and contemporary.

Oh cool. So while we’re on the July 18th concert, why don’t you introduce Bebel and Vinicius in this whole otherwise Brazilian lineup?

 Well, Bebel Gilberto, certainly, she’s a New Yorker now.  Obviously, she is an artist that many of us have seen and we’ve never had the opportunity to present her before. And  Vinicius, hilariously, he lived in Brooklyn  for many many years and we never had the opportunity to present him and he’s recently moved back to Brazil, so now we’re dragging him back to the Bandshell! They’re both so representative of the whole bossa nova tradition and it’s really going to be beautiful: outdoors, Brazilian classics with a little twist of Zimbabwe at the beginning


Now, Vinicius, does he perform solo or does he have a group? 

A group.

 I will definitely be there for that! Let’s jump to July 10th. I have seen Choc Quib Town from Colombia, who I love. But why don’t you introduce us to that evening.

That’s our collaboration with the Latin Alternative Music Conference (LAMC). Illya Kuryaki and the Valderramas are an Argentine duo who have been together and were very very popular all over South America and then had split. They just reunited now, so we’re expecting a big crowd–a lot of pent-up desire to see them. People who have not seen them for years. And Choc Quib Town, you know, is a Colombian band that is on the rise. They’re super fun hip-hop.

Can you describe them a bit more for people who have not seen them yet? 

They’re a Latin Grammy winning Afro-Colombian group and they’re very dynamic and positive and one of those “you have to get up and listen and dance simultaneously” groups.

Cool! And what are RVSB?

RVSB, they’re DJs: turntable-istas. They’ll be opening the evening.

All right, well, I’m skipping right along and seeing Luciano on the program.

Luciano plays classic roots reggae, which always bring the most hometown, Flatbush crowd and that will be a huge show for us in a long tradition of having artists like Jimmy Cliff– who we’ve been honored to have–and, you know, Morgan Family Heritage. We’re in the middle of such a vibrant Jamaican community in Brooklyn that it’s our honor and pleasure to bring the best Jamaican music to the Bandshell. We’re opening with Sandra St. Victor, who you might remember from a great band called the Family Stand and she was part of the Black Rock Coalition back, back, back in the day. She’s been living in Amsterdam for years, but when she was growing up in Brooklyn, one of her most beloved mentors was Fabiana Miranda. Fabiana was a reggae singer, a very political woman who got kind of blacklisted from the reggae music mainstream and came to Brooklyn and started a community center called Ifetayo Cultural Arts Academy, which is on Flatbush and has offered classes and has been a community center to generations of Brooklynites. She’s a beloved figure who passed last year and Sandra will be performing in honor of her and that will be the opening part of the show. Get there early!

Luciano 2 (c)

Word to the wise….

And one show I would definitely like to highlight is–obviously, this year is the 20th anniversary of South African democracy and, not only that, but the passing of Nelson Mandela, so we’re screening a film, Amandla: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, which is all about the music and its driving the peaceful revolution there. It’s made by Lee Hirsch, who will be at the Bandshell to introduce it and this truly gorgeous exploration of the integration of music and politics and how important music is to politics. It was an award winning film at Sundance in, I think, 2000.


I heard Lee say something about how it took him 10 years to make that film. Talk about devotion!

That footage is amazing. People will come to see this film and discover Neo Muyanga who is a composer and multi-instrumentalist and such an interesting thinker as a musician–one of the most exciting artists to come out of South Africa. We worked with him last year in Cape Town. The artist we had last year at Celebrate Brooklyn was in concert with Neo. Neo had written a score with William Kentridge, a contemporary artist who also directs opera at the Met and has had major retrospectives at  MoMA. At the Met he has animations, as well as painting and print and opera sets. Neo is going to play just a nine-minute segment of his set. Aurelio Martinez, who we had last year at Celebrate Brooklyn, worked in South Africa with Neo. If Aurelio is in Brooklyn–now he’s living part time in Brooklyn–maybe he will wander back onto the stage.

That would be great. We love Aurelio. That leads me to Jimmy Bosch…

The Jimmy Bosch and Pedrito Martinez concert is just going to be an all-out, super fun dance party. Jimmy is on trombone of course, and he’s is a fantastic player in his own right, but was also Reuben Blade’s music director for years and is  super connected and super musical. He has an all-star band and is ready for a huge Celebrate Brooklyn dance party.

Jimmy Bosch 3 (c)

 And what about Pedrito Martinez?

He’s been someone we’ve been chasing for years to get him to come to the Bandshell. We had him in Brooklyn Bridge Park a couple of years ago and he is just getting more and more and more popular and I love it when we have two groups that are so dynamic because one sees the other and they try to get them to kind of a situation of “Can you top this?” So we’re expecting that to be one of the most can’t-stay-seated shows this summer.

 I’m looking forward to that one, too. Why don’t you introduce your opening-night artist, Janelle Monae? 

Janelle Monae is–at this point, I think she may need no need introduction at all. She is a total soul, funk–today’s sensation–and she’s so thoughtful and smart and sly and musical and, of course, speaks to all of her mentors–Prince, Big Boi, etc., while creating her own path forward. We’re just following her. We’re on her tail, as she shoots into outer space.

Anything else? Any other group that we haven’t talked about that you want to mention?

Yes there is. On this Saturday June 7th, we have the Louisiana day and the opening band Lost Bayou Ramblers are just beautiful, authentic… The band is in the score of the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild, which we showed last year.

Oh wow!

And Louis actually played the fiddle last year in that band and so, after we heard him, we had to have him back with his whole band. It’s a very, very special, very authentic, very dynamic group and they’re on June 7th.

OK. I know Jon Cleary. He used to play keyboards with Bonnie Raitt. Fantastic. 


But you were talking about the Lost Bayou Ramblers.

That day is Lost Bayou Ramblers, Jon Cleary and then the Soul Rebels.

 That’s just a bike ride away. I’ll be there this summer. Thanks, Rachel. Have a great season!

 Thanks, Sean.

For more information on Celebrate Brooklyn’s schedule at Prospect Park Bandshell, go to: 


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