It was another good night for City of Asylum/Pittsburgh's annual Jazz Poetry Concert — even if threatening weather kept this free show indoors for the third straight year.
Musical highlights at Saturday's show at the New Hazlett Theater included sets by the Oliver Lake Steel Quartet with Meshell Ndegeocello. Lake's band features Lyndon Achee, who plays steel pan like no one you've ever seen, the expected mellow melodicism bolstered with lightning runs and a jazzman's rhythmic invention. Bassist Ndeogeocello also enthralled when she lent her deep, rich vocals to her of version Nina Simone's "Four Women."
In-person readers new to the event inlcuded T.J. Dema, of Botswana, and Luis Bravo, of Uruguay. And the Quartet's vibrant backing worked especially well with a performance by American poet Patricia Smith, who raised the roof with saucy, sensual works including "Queen of the Hot Territory."
The program also included video interviews of persecuted writers: Nyein Thit, who lives in hiding from the government in Myanmar, and Tsering Woeser, who is living under house arrest by the Chinese government. Woeser recited a short poem, including the line "a sheet of paper can becomes a knife."
A new touch was an awareness-raising tribute to persecuted writers globally, part of COAP's mission to not only shelter one writer at a time, but to draw more attention to the hundreds of others in the same boat.
In 2011, the group PEN International reports, 888 writers around the world had come under attack, including 43 who were killed and 241 who were imprisoned.
On entering, each of the nearly 600 attendees received a program with the name of a different persecuted writer in big block letters on the back. My program bore witness to Bedri Adanir, of Turkey, whom explanatory text said is imprisoned and facing up to 50 years of jail time for publishing a collection of speeches by the leader of the banned Kurdish Workers' Party.
Mid-event, the Hazlett's house lights were turned down and we were all instructed to hold up the names of the writers, which glowed in black light.