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Bits & Bytes: Senate ‘Conversation’ tour; Ladysmith Black Mambazo; Jon Ahlen at Shire City Sanctuary; paintings by Amy Cohen Banker

"We are teachers. We travel the world spreading our message of peace, love, and harmony. What could be better or more important than that.” -- Ladysmith Black Mambazo founder and leader Joseph Shabalala

Downing leads ‘Commonwealth Conversation Tour’

Great Barrington – State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing (D- Pittsfield) will be at Berkshire South Regional Community Center, 15 Crissey Road on Wednesday, Feb. 4 from 10 a.m. – Noon for the first stop of the Massachusetts Senate’s Commonwealth Conversation Tour.

It is an effort to bring the State House to local communities, engage and better understand the needs of every region in the Commonwealth, and to highlight and showcase senator’s districts. The idea was the brainchild of Senate President Stan Rosenberg (D- Amherst) and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr (R- Gloucester).

These public days are called the Commonwealth Conversation Tour, and the western Massachusetts session is the first of this series of statewide events. Senator Downing and his western Massachusetts colleagues, Senators Donald Humason, James Welch and Eric Lesser, have arranged for a full day of events on Wednesday, starting with this Celebrate the Berkshires Town Hall Forum before they travel east into the other western counties.

The forum at Berkshire South will feature six 15-minute presentations by invited speakers, followed by public comment. Members of the public who wish to speak will be asked to sign in and limit their comments to two minutes.

A draft agenda of Wednesday’s forum is as follows:

10 – 10:05 a.m.   Welcome and introductions by Senator Ben Downing

10:05 – 10:20      Presentation #1:  North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright and Pittsfield Mayor Daniel Bianchi, highlighting the priorities, needs and successes of Berkshire County’s two cities.

10:20 – 10:35      Presentation #2:  1Berkshire – an independent not-for-profit corporation charged with strengthening and growing the Berkshire economy using an innovative collaborative approach among the region’s business, tourism, economic, and creative development efforts. Panel:  Jon Butler, President of the Berkshire Chamber; David Curtis, Economic Development Specialist; Lauri Klefos, President/CEO of Berkshire Visitors Bureau.

10:35 – 10:50      Presentation #3:  Berkshire County’s Creative Economy. Panel:  Beryl Jolly, Executive Director of the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center (Great Barrington) and Joseph C. Thompson, Director of Mass MoCA (North Adams).

10:50 – 11:05      Presentation #4:  Energy Issues for Local Businesses. Presentation by: Patricia C. Begrowicz, Owner and President, Onyx Specialty Papers, Inc.


11:05 – 11:20      Presentation #5:  Public Higher Education in Berkshire County. Panel:  Dr. Ellen Kennedy, President, Berkshire Community College; Dr. Cynthia Brown, Interim President, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

11:20 – 11:35      Presentation #6:  Issues/Priorities/Needs of Rural Communities. Presentation by:  David Christopolis, Executive Director of the Hilltown CDC

11:35 – 11:55      Public Testimony – emceed by Sen. Ben Downing

11:55 – Noon     Thank you and closing remarks by Sen. Ben Downing

— H.B.

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Ladysmith Black Mambazo will be performing at the Mahaiwe February 6.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo will be performing at the Mahaiwe February 6.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo at Mahaiwe

Great Barrington — Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center will present Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Friday, February 6 at 8 p.m., at 14 Castle Street.

“We are thrilled to welcome Ladysmith Black Mambazo back to the Mahaiwe for a second time,” said Mahaiwe Executive Director Beryl Jolly. “Their uplifting energy was truly exuberant five years ago and we are especially looking forward to seeing the group perform selections from their album, Live: Singing for Peace Around the World, which won last year’s Grammy Award for Best World Music Album.”

In conjunction with the performance, the Mahaiwe will host a pre-show 7 p.m. panel discussion at the theater with members of the Berkshire community from Africa, including Pauline Dongala and Eileen and Roy Tau. The speakers will talk about some distinctive aspects of South African culture and the impact of Ladysmith Black Mambazo on their countries. Admission to the panel is free to concert ticketholders. In addition, Castle Street Café Chef Michael Ballon will honor Ladysmith Black Mambazo by creating a South African cuisine menu option that evening.

In 2015, Ladysmith Black Mambazo – led by founder and leader Joseph Shabalala – celebrates over fifty years of joyous and uplifting music. Within this music are the intricate rhythms and harmonies of their native South African musical traditions. In those years, the a cappella vocal group has created a musical and spiritual spirit that has touched a worldwide audience. Their musical efforts over the past five decades have garnered praise and accolades worldwide.

Assembled in the early 1960s in South Africa by Shabalala, then a young farm boy turned factory worker, the group took the name Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Ladysmith is the name of Shabalala’s hometown, about three hours west of Durban and three hours east of Johannesburg; Black being a reference to the oxen, the strongest of all farm animals; and Mambazo being the Zulu word for chopping axe, a symbol of the group’s ability to “chop down “ any singing rival who might challenge them. Their collective voices were so tight and their harmonies so polished that by the end of the 1960s, they were banned from competitions, although they were welcome to participate as entertainers.

A radio broadcast in 1970 opened the door to their first record contract – the beginning of an ambitious discography that currently includes more than 50 recordings. Their philosophy in the studio was – and continues to be – just as much about preservation of musical heritage as it is about entertainment. The group borrows heavily from a traditional music called isicathamiya (is-cot-a-ME-Ya), which developed in the mines of South Africa, where black workers were taken by rail to work far away from their homes and their families. Poorly housed and paid worse, the mine workers would entertain themselves after a six-day week by singing songs into the wee hours on Sunday morning.

When the miners returned to the homelands, this musical tradition returned with them.
During the 1970s and early 1980s Ladysmith Black Mambazo established themselves as the most successful singing group in South Africa. In the mid-1980s, Paul Simon visited South Africa and incorporated the group’s rich tenor/alto/bass harmonies into his famous “Graceland” album – a landmark recording that was considered seminal in introducing world music to mainstream audiences. A year later, Paul Simon produced Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s first worldwide release, “Shaka Zulu,” which won a Grammy Award in 1988 for Best Folk Recording. Since then, the group has been awarded three more Grammy Awards and has been nominated a total of sixteen times.

In addition to their work with Paul Simon, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has recorded with numerous artists from around the world, including Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Sarah McLachlan, Josh Groban, Emmylou Harris, Melissa Etheridge and many others.
The group remains active as ever today. As Joseph Shabalala says, “We are teachers. We travel the world spreading our message of peace, love, and harmony. What could be better or more important than that.”

Tickets are $35 to $45. A limited number of $15 tickets are available for audience members ages 30 and younger through the Mahaiwe ArtSmart Tix program, sponsored by Greylock Federal Credit Union. Box office hours are Wednesday through Saturday from noon to 6 p.m. and three hours before show times. For tickets and information, consult the Berkshire Edge calendar, see, or call 413.528.0100.

— H.B.

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'Berkshire Hills,' a silk screen by Jon Ahlen on exhibit at Shire City Sanctuary.
‘Berkshire Hills,’ a screen print by Jon Ahlen on exhibit at Shire City Sanctuary.

Jon Ahlen, master screen printer at Shire City Sanctuary

Pittsfield — On Friday, February 6, in collaboration with Pittsfield’s First Fridays Artswalk, Shire City Sanctuary will host a gallery opening and Meet the Artist featuring more than 100 silkscreen prints of Jon Ahlen, a Pittsfield native. The opening takes place from 5 to 8 p.m.,

Ahlen began his legendary printing career as a young man at Editions Limited, a Pittsfield-based high-end silk screen studio, where reproductions of artists like Picasso, Calder and Matisse were produced for numerous museums and galleries around the world. He continued printing reproductions for many internationally recognized artists until his retirement in 2013. Ahlen worked closely with John Stritch.

Shire City Sanctuary is located in the heart of Pittsfield, is the first Makerspace in the Berkshires offering screen-printing and commercial sewing equipment, studio, event, meeting, teaching and presentation space. Workspace, collaboration, tutorials and classes are available to members. Shire City Sanctuary also houses a production kitchen available for food-based businesses.

Crispina ffrench and her husband Chris Swindlehurst, own Shire City Sanctuary. She is an environmental textile artist working with used clothing to create home furnishings, clothing, and accessories. Her work has been featured in high-end retail establishments from Fiorucci, Anthropologie, and Sundance to ABC Carpet and Home. Since 2009, Chris and Crispina have focused their energy on repurposing the former Notre Dame church now known as Shire City Sanctuary.

Contact Information: Cate Crowley at 413-236-9600, or

— D.S.

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Oils by Amy Cohen Banker at JWS

A painting by Amy Cohen Banker, on display at JWS Art Supply.
A painting by Amy Cohen Banker, on display at JWS Art Supply.

Great Barrington — If you’ve passed by or been inside JWS Art Supply on Railroad Street in the past month, you’ve no doubt seen Amy Cohen Banker’s work. If you haven’t, you’ve got a few more days.

New York-based Banker has shown her work in the Berkshires, as well as worldwide. She works in a “variety of mediums: acrylic, oil, pastels, aquarelle, oil sticks, varnishes, glazes, finishing and surface techniques. I explore the basic issues of opacity, color, form, depth, obfuscation and revelation in life, language and in art. I cannot help but be influenced by philosophy, poetry, literature, psychological symbolism, fairy tales, music, myths, conceits, and metaphors, especially of strong feminist models: women’s conflicting roles in a changing time throughout the centuries.

“I am using background in design, two and three dimensional techniques and aesthetics. My background is integrated with my writing, psychology, my early childhood and life experiences evolving as a woman and mother combining international study to explore these issues in an organized but abstract way. I tend to reinvent the same themes, work from a structure and then proceed by distressing, demolishing, recreating and conserving. My major themes are inner restoration and survival, challenging always reality versus myth.”

Her series of nine oil paintings will remain at JWS Art Supply, 38 Railroad St., until February 7.

— H.B.


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