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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Free Event: Melvin van Peebles at BAMcafé Live

By Robert Wood

Photo: Melvin Van Peebles by Brayden Olsen

"I do what I want to do," Melvin Van Peebles recently told The New York Times. If the image you get from that is of Van Peebles buffing his nails in a hammock while listening to Otis Redding's "I've Got Dreams to Remember" on repeat, you're way off. It's not that Melvin doesn't like to lie in hammocks; it's that, with all the other things he likes to do (and therefore does), he doesn't have much time to do so.

In rough chronological order: lit major, postal worker, air force bombardier, portrait painter, cable car operator, short film director, children's book author, Ph.D candidate in astronomy, actor, street performer, dancer, producer, singer, novelist.

And that was all before releasing the film that made him famous: 1971's subversive Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (about which Melvin said “I’m the Rosa Parks of modern black cinema,” referring to someone else who did what she wanted to do).

Broadway producer and stock broker quickly followed.

Photo by Bill Bryant
There's also composer. Van Peebles didn't know how to write or read music, but he did, as he says, know how to count. So he numbered the keys on the piano, plunked out melodies, wrote down the corresponding numbers, and there you have it: Melvin the composer.

It's the latter who’s coming to BAMcafé Live this Saturday night to kick off the All-Stars series, part of BAM’s ongoing 150th-anniversary celebrations. We couldn’t be more excited. In the 70s, along with several of his own albums, Van Peebles wrote the music Earth, Wind, and Fire played on the soundtrack to the original Sweet Sweetback film. And he wrote more music for post-funk improv group Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber to play when he took a stage version of Sweetback to Paris. Supplement Burnt Sugar with a few more personnel, add a layer of Melvin’s own inimitably grizzled, political, say-what-I-want-to-say spoken word, and you have his group, Laxative.Why Laxative? Because, according to Melvin, “they make shit happen.”

Here’s Laxative and Van Peebles at a release party for the Black Rock Coalition:

Melvin van Peebles with Laxative

Also, don't miss these extensive interviews with Melvin as part of the NVLP Oral History Archive.

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