“Harlem’s Backyard Gems is my entry into TBEX Blog Carnival Contest sponsored by Choice Hotels International Services Corp.”
When I decided to move to New York in the late 90s, the only place I wanted to live in was Harlem. I imagined myself in a brownstones like the one of a family friend I visited in the 1970s that became symbolic of this historic neighborhood. With sweeping steps that led to beautifully hand-crafted double doors it seemed to welcome everyone in.
But brownstones are just one of many things Harlem is known for. Formerly a Dutch village, Harlem got its name from the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands. It was also once the second largest Jewish community in the U.S. and home to a large population of Italians.
I had been in Jamaica for a week and when I returned to New York all I wanted to do was curl up in front of the television and find a Bond marathon or watch reruns of Bonanza. I had done nothing to get ready for my trip to Montreal. I hadn’t even bought my ticket.
As Wednesday turned to Thursday, I struggled with the temptation to stay put – and disappoint my aunt – or spend what I was sure would be an astronomical amount on airfare and get the introductions she was to facilitate. I searched for last minute weekend packages.
Before I left, my aunt asked if I wanted to go to an event with her that Saturday night. Why not? I thought.
I had no clue what I was in for.
Lorraine Klaasen comes from South African musical royalty. The daughter of legendary performer and Nelson Mandela’s favorite jazz singer, Thandie Klaasen, Lorraine has been described as one of few South African artists who preserve Township music.
From the first chord sounded at the Cabaret Mile End, people were on their feet but the real dancing started when Lorraine came on stage. She is an electrifying and energetic performer.
But beyond her performance, it was something else she did that touched me. It was surprising and I couldn’t remember seeing it done before – Lorraine invited several up and coming performers to the stage and gave them space so that each in turn could entertain her audience. I was impressed.
It was because of that openness (and the fact that she was sitting at a table next to mine) that I decided to approach her at an awards dinner the following evening. When I told her about my planned trip to South Africa, she promptly gave me her business card and told me to email her.
By the time I landed in New York, she had responded.
We met again when she performed at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Summer Concert series. My traveling partners and I invited her to dinner. She gave us a list, not just of friends but also family members, including her mother and brother, and contacted them on our behalf.
Because of Lorraine, we had a welcome party waiting for us when we arrived in Johannesburg. She single-handedly opened up that city and Soweto for us.
Lorraine will be back in my city this weekend. She, along with Malika Zarra, will be performing the music of the Grammy Award-winning civil rights activist and South African musical great, Miriam Makeba, at Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater on April 1 and 2.
I can’t wait to see her perform again. Watch her here in the meantime.