Paul Winter Brings World Music to NYC with
The crowd at St. John the Divine on New York’s Upper West Side buzzed in anticipation. A large white screen hovering above 12 empty chairs on a low-rise stage displayed great promise, and despite the setting’s cathedral ceilings and gargantuan dimensions, it felt intimate, like you and only a few (hundred) others were about to learn a great musical secret.
As the lights dimmed, a horn blasted from somewhere. Slowly, methodically, Paul Winter appeared from behind the stage playing his soprano sax. Four other musicians followed him to their places on stage, instruments in hand, microphones ready. Suddenly—through sounds and visuals and vocals—you were in South Africa.
That’s where Winter begins the Flyways journey, a musical translation of the amazing migration so many bird species take over the Great Rift Valley, from South Africa, through the eastern African continent, up to the Middle East, and finally into Europe. This past Saturday, Winter and his group played the second of two concerts featuring Flyways, a work decades in the making, one that he hopes conveys the magnificence of the birds’ journeys and the traditions of the places over which they fly.
“It’s a double celebration of the birds and the traditional cultures, which you might say are equally endangered,” he says. “We’re really concerned about the relationship of people and birds. It’s not a documentary kind of project. It’s really meant to integrate the nature and culture.”
Integrate the two he did, with musicians and music representing a dozen countries, plus footage of birds spending time in those places. The transition from one place to the next felt seamless though clear, with the music of Kenya and Tanzania morphing into that of Uganda, then Egypt and Israel and Turkey. At an hour and 15 minutes, the concert was perfectly timed, maintaining awe and mystique throughout, yet leaving you wanting just a tinge more.
Like the rock star that he is, Winter, a seven-time Grammy winner, was mobbed by his adoring fans after the show. They bestowed (well-deserved, in this writer’s opinion) praise on the 73-year-old for Flyways. Though the birds rarely need any help from us humans, in this case, Winter made them—and their awesome story—sing.