Author Archives: Sherese Francis

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Keishera James Has Soul Flowing In Her

Keishera James

Looking at Keishera James, you can tell that there is something about her. Sitting in class, she speaks with an energy, a confident air and an enthusiasm for learning. But going to a transit-oriented college like Baruch, it is difficult to get to know the life under those first impressions. Fortunately, this time I was able to learn about the exciting life of one of Baruch’s most accomplished artists.

James, who was born in Jamaica, exudes the diva presence of singers who came before her like Tina Turner and Whitney Houston, who are two of her idols. However, her raspy alto voice is reminiscent of singers like Anita Baker and Tracy Chapman, one of the artists who helped James to overcome her past fear of her own voice.

“One of major inspirations to become a songwriter was Tracy Chapman because of the way she writes… she didn’t look like the ordinary pop star but her delivery was so powerful and her subject matters were something you could relate to, or if you could not relate, you could picture it…”

And James’ music is similar in that it is a great mixture of soulful, sensual, honest emotion with a laid-back and cool flow harkening back to Quiet Storm soul and R&B music of the late 70s to early 90s. The hint of her Jamaican accent coming through her songs also provides a distinct vocal touch.

On her own since 16, James’ voice and songs have taken her to several places, like London, Paris and of course, New York City, and she will be taking a semester off from school to go to Berlin to continue her career. However, the road to becoming a star has not always been easy. “It’s a hard road to travel because because there are a lot of talented people, especially in New York City. Every other person is a star…” James even wrote a song about it, called “Wanna Be a Rockstar,” in which she sings, “Everybody wanna be a rockstar/don’t nobody have to work for it/some wanna be an overnight superstar/but you and me we have to work for it.”

James continued that there are also a lot of fickle people who do not keep promises and it is hard to find the key people who will recognize you, but she believes in persistence, taking initiative and having encouraging friends. These three things have helped her to have a number of memorable moments, such as a hit song in Europe with Shaggy called “It Feels Right,” and opening for rapper Common in front of a crowd of 25,000 at the Fort Greene Festival in Brooklyn.

Other memorable moments from her career was dancing with David Beckham at a night club (“he was very polite, very nice”), meeting with Ahmet Ertugun before he died, and interviewing De La Soul and Anthony B. During the past two years, she has gone back to school, first at the New York City College of Technology and now at Baruch, which she attended to prove she could get in and is majoring now in Liberal Arts. However, it seems that this interview has influenced her to do an ad-hoc major in music and journalism.

Royalty Network, who signed James in 2007 to their music publishing company had these words to say about her then, “Keishera’s on her way to proving her ability to stand out as a writer and artist. Since her recent introduction to the business, she’s already appeared alongside Shaggy, and #1 Reggae act in France, Lord Kossity. ….while this star-in-the-making hopes to open minds with her unique vocals and reggae-soul fusion, ultimately, she just wants to make good music.”

In an interview with The Grio, singer and producer Teddy Riley commented on how some of the recent R&B music lacked substance, but now it’s starting to come back. Mary J. Blige made a similar comment in an MTV interview last year. James wants to bring as Blige says that “healing power” back to R&B music.

Planning on creating a style of her own, taking soul and infusing it with a little of rock and reggae, James will be releasing three singles, “Rockstar,” “Say What’s On Your Mind,” and “Think of Me,” soon. Asked how she describes her music, James responded, “Passionate! …My music is my salvation… music has transformed any situation…sometimes it’s just hard; fear sets in when you are a musician and you are creative a lot, and it helps to quiet the mind from all the chatter, doubts and fears…music is a remedy for anything.”

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The Little Band That Could…

The number one rule for a free concert by a band that you barely know anything about is to not arrive a few minutes before the concert starts. You could be in for an unexpected surprise.

As we walked up the escalators into the dimly lit, intimate BAMcafe, the place was already packed at least an hour before the show. The tables in the front were filled, those who could not get seats stood in groups at the sides or in the back around the bar and others who were just coming in tried to squeeze themselves into whatever space was available. By the time the main attraction arrived, the room was at full capacity with a long line of people waiting downstairs hoping someone would leave so they could enter.

Inside Bamcafe

Then Quimbombó hit the stage for their second appearance at BAM, and the discomfort of the crowd slowly faded away. The Afro-Cuban band, which actually has eight members, only had five Friday night: two Conga drummers, two guitarists and a trumpeter. However, the size of the band did not stop them from filling the entire cafe with excitement, laughter and joy with its smooth, lyrical melodies and lively, danceable rhythms.

As part of the ¡Si Cuba! Festival, a New York celebration of Cuban arts and culture from March to June, the legendary band, whose name is Spanish for “okra” or “gumbo,” specializes in the Afro-Cuban style of Son. The genre of Son, which Black Cubans developed in the early 20th century, mixes together the guitars from Spanish culture and the percussion, and vocal and musical rhythms (ex. call-and-response, syncopation) from African culture.


The freedom and sensuality with which the band plays and sings stems not only from that mixture, but also the history of the genre, which was illegal in Cuba before 1925 in an effort to suppress black culture. Quimbombó definitely follows in the tradition of other Son bands, like the innovators, the Sexteto Tipico Habanero band from the 1920s, and stands with the genre’s derivative, Salsa, including musicians like Tito Puente and Celia Cruz.

Audience members, some from the Brooklyn area and others who traveled from as far as Cuba to see the band, could not resist the band’s grooves, especially in songs like “Con El Trapo Rojo.” Couples found whatever space they could to dance with each other. One man loosely glided across the floor, embarrassing his friend, who eventually got up to move herself. Two old ladies joined in on the fun and shook their hips. Even the rhythmically-challenged could not help but bop their heads.

Quimbombó played an acoustic set with the guitars playing sweetly and softly against the slightly forceful pulsating drums, and although the trumpeter only had a few parts, his sound added flavor to the other instruments by giving the band a bigger and fuller sound. The singers flowed with the instruments, falling somewhere between rhythmic rapping and singing with their call-and-response technique.

Since the band’s formation in 1995, Quimbombó has released two albums, Quimbombó (2004) and Conga Electrica (2008), both of which received critical acclaim. Currently they are touring the city, playing at various venues and answering booking requests.

Which brings us to rule number two: have a party coming up, book this band!

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Posted in Music, music reviews | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Death of Autotune….Please?!

Autotune has slowly become the bane of my musical experience. The original purpose of the audio processor was to correct pitches in vocal and instrumental works. But, music, and art in general,  for me, is finding beauty in the imperfections. The musicians may not be perfectly in tune, but that gave them a human quality, knowing that those were their real voices and the amount of emotion they put into their songs.

Auto-tune Program

I will admit when I first heard auto-tuned, I found it appealing. Actually, I did not even know it was auto-tuned. Remember, Cher’s 1998 song, “Believe?” That song was one of my favorites from the ’90s. The auto-tune craze, however, did not catch on until T-Pain released his first single, I’m Sprung, in 2005.

Immediately when I heard T-pain’s nasally, electronic voice, I thought of the Zapp Band, a soul and funk band from the ’80s who were known for their use of the talk box vocal distortion device. If you are not familiar with who they are, listen to “Computer Love,”I Want To Be Your Man” or Tupac and Dr. Dre’s “California Love”.

However, what separated singers like Roger Troutman (the Zapp Band), Cher, and even T-pain, from some “singers” of today is that they did not use vocal effects as a crutch. They can sing without it; for example, listen to T-pain without the auto-tune. Auto-tune is only used as a tool, for a vocal effect that sounds interesting.

Several of today’s most popular musicians do not have great voices and use auto-tune often to disguise them, or to hide their voices in order to jump on the bandwagon. Do I need to remind you of the Rebecca Black catastrophe? In addition to that, there are rappers who use it to pretend to be singers when they should obviously stick to rapping. Yes, I am looking at you, Drake!

Seriously, I would prefer someone singing in their natural voice over singing with auto-tune, even if they did not have the most stunning voice. Using technology is not wrong, but if there is no artistry to back it up, what is the point?

Posted in Music, Music Rant/ love song | 1 Comment

Kali’s Goddess Power

Tamar-Kali, who is named after the fierce Hindu goddess, is following suit in her song “Pearl.” Her deep and dark voice matches well with the hard-hitting beat and bass-line and distortion of the guitars. The song is forceful and strong, especially when it Tamar-Kali crescendos by the end. With the addition of Jean Grae, the remix is as good as the original.

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“Lotus Flower” Should Calm Down

Ever listened to those sleeping aid tapes? The ones with the ocean or rain in the background? Radiohead’s “Lotus Flower’s” melody is that soothing sound you listen to when relaxing, especially with Thom Yorke’s high-pitched and mellow vocals on the track. However, the alternative rockers went wrong with the beat, which was as distracting as Yorke’s spastic movements in the video. It simply did not balance well with his voice.

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The Illchef: A Culinary Genius

Chef Shehu

Shehu Fitzgerald has never been an average chef. He skateboards, snowboards, paints, does ice sculpting, and has traveled to such places as Britain, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii. When he is not doing those things, he is a laid-back, funny guy, who likes to play video games and be a big kid with his 2-year old daughter, Che Elizabeth, and wife, Vee. On top of having already mastered a wide range of cuisines and dishes, it is no wonder why he was picked to appear on the sixth season of Food Network’s competition show “Chopped,” airing on May 3rd at 10pm.

“My mother, my love of food and my deep hatred of paperwork and office jobs,” were some of the reasons Fitzgerald gave as to why he pursued a culinary career. Raised in Staten Island, the 36-year-old has loved cooking since he was 5 years old with the help of his mother, Saundra, who is an esoteric cook and baker.

Graduating from Johnson & Wales University‘s Culinary Arts Program in 1994, he has worked at almost every type of restaurant, including his first job as a prep cook at R.H. Tugs, a cook at T.G.I. Fridays, a “Chef de Partie Poissonier” (chef of the fish section) at Les Célébrités Restaurant at the Essex House Hotel and his current job at 2 West Restaurant at the Ritz Carlton. He has also been fortunate enough to work under the instruction of Holly Peterson Mondavi at the Culinary Institute of America, cook for Princess Ann of England and become a Sous Chef at a beachfront restaurant in Auckland, New Zealand.

Fitzgerald, whose first name means “teacher” in the Nigerian Arabic dialect, began his first web series “Culinary Genius” in 2009 and has recorded 12 episodes since then. As his name suggests, the episodes of “Culinary Genius” are meant to teach viewers about different aspects of the culinary world, from simple things like separating an egg and vanilla-flavored sugar to the more fancy Hollandaise sauce and Gnocchi.

Che Elizabeth and Vee Fitzgerald

Recorded in their Staten Island home by his wife, Vee, the appeal of the series is that it speaks to a wide demographic of viewers, from Hip-Hop heads to laypeople on a budget to high-class chefs. Watching him cook looks like fun. Vee Fitzgerald agreed, “Shehu is so talented; his passion for food is infectious and he celebrates food every day.  Life with him is never boring!”

Watching how delicate he is in preparing them is just as fascinating as eating them. Even better, his dishes are hardly ever disappointing.

Spiced Duck Breast

His spiced duck breast with French green lentils and baby turnips in an apple cider reduction sauce is a good example. The tart-sweetness and slightly syrupy feel of the apple cider sauce provides juiciness and a nice balance to the spices used in the duck and vegetables.

According to Food Network, the channel “is committed to exploring new and different ways to approach food – through pop culture, competition, adventure, and travel…”. Fitzgerald’s experience fits well with the network’s goals. With its distribution to more than 96 million U.S. households and more than seven million Web site users a month, Fitzgerald will receive plenty of attention, especially for his web series, which has reached over 3,000 viewers.

Shehu and Vee Fitzgerald together own wineLIFE, a wine shop located on 386 Van Duzer in Staten Island that opened in 2010, in addition to a catering business incorporated in 2003. Vee Fitzgerald, who is a wine consultant and president of the New York City chapter of Women for WineSense, spoke about how she combines her expertise in wine and her husband’s expertise in food.

“We have a monthly instore event called Meet the Chef where he creates foods to offer customers in the store that are paired with featured wines.  We have also done catered food and wine pairing events for private clients and he has cooked for my Women for WineSense group on several occasions.”

Fitzgerald has also provided encouragement and support to aspiring chefs. His words of advice for them: “Stay focused, travel and keep your eyes on the prize.” Those same words seemed to have worked for him. “I’m just having some fun trying to spread the word of my love and my passion.” Asked what his goals as a chef are, he jokingly replied, “To rule the world.” With all of his accomplishments, he might very well be on his way there.

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Big Things Come in Small Sizes…

How can walking into a cozy, inexpensive restaurant for lunch feel as if I am royalty eating at the Taj Mahal? Baluchi’s, an Indian restaurant located on 25th St. and 3rd Ave., is not what you expect when first looking at its facade. Actually, you would probably pass by it on your way to somewhere else. However, the experience of Baluchi’s happens as soon as you enter the place.

Baluchi’s, whose name comes from the Baloch people who originated from Iran, benefits as a petite restaurant by having a wait staff that can be more attentive. Each time, someone was waiting to open the door to welcome us in and show us to our cushioned red seats as well as to hold the door open as we left. Natural lighting and

light from the colorful hanging lamp shades provided a relaxing atmosphere along with the Indian music softly playing in the background. Twice there was an unclean glass or plate, but the waiter or waitress was more than glad to replace them if we or they themselves noticed it.

And that is already receiving a lot when an entire meal can cost less than $30 and for lunch the meals are 50 percent off.

Another interesting practice of the restaurant is how the food is served. Unlike other restaurants that serve you on a plate, Baluchi’s uses mini-pot-like bowls for the entree and rice. At first glance the small portion sizes do not look filling, but surprisingly I was full after each meal.

Now what comes to mind when you think of Indian food — spicy– and what spice in particular– curry! I am of West Indian descent, so I have had plenty of contact with curry and in result use it as a tester in both West Indian and East Indian restaurants. The restaurant gets brownie points if they can cook curry seafood, my favorite, well.

Shrimp Curry

Baluchi’s Shrimp Curry ($15.95), which is in the seafood entree section, passed my test. It is comprised of shrimp cooked with curry spice, onions and tomato sauce and served with Basmati rice. I have had curry in the past that was too strong; it tasted salty and was too thick. But this one was the right blend of sweet and tangy, which was probably due to the tomato sauce cutting in on the flavor.

The Chicken Tikka Masala ($13.95), which is in the curries entree section, is a dish of “boneless chicken chunks simmered in

Chicken Tikka Masala

tomato and cream sauce.” The only time I have heard of Masala was from the 1991 film Mississippi Masala, starring Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury. So, it caught my attention and like the shrimp curry, it was not overwhelmingly spicy or sharp in taste. It had a hint of sweetness and  was not so creamy that it would be hard too swallow. With the $7 potato and chick pea Samosa appetizer and Nan bread, I was satisfied for the rest of the day.

Next time, I’ll try the catfish curry or the quail. As I said looking at Baluchi’s menu, so much tempting food and only one stomach.

Posted in Food, restaurant reviews | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc: The World Through Open Eyes

Who would have thought that Adrian Nicole LeBlanc with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a masters in law would go on to write about a range of people from teenage prostitutes and drug-dealers to stand-up comedians. At her reading last night, I learned that LeBlanc is a great writer because of her ability to not only be present with others, but to be also present with herself. She is also a great observer in her capacity to spotlight what seems to be the most mundane of moments or people. As LeBlanc said, her purpose as a journalist is to “stretch what you know about the world.”

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Oishii Desu Yo!

If any of you are wondering what that title of the post means, it is Japanese for “it is delicious!” and that is exactly how I feel about Japanese cuisine. Sadly though, when people think of Japanese food, the first thought that comes to mind is sushi, seaweed, rice balls (onigiri) or Ramen noodles. But Japan has a much wider range of tasty food than just those few items and I was able to learn that a few years ago.

During the summer of my junior year of high school, I stayed in Osaka, Japan for six weeks and fell in love with a variety Japanese food. One of my favorite dishes is Gyuudon, which is a beef bowl with rice and caramelized onions.


Yes, the strips of beef look like a squishy mess, but trust me when it hits your mouth, it is a sweet delight.

Another dish I liked was Hot Pot (Shabu Shabu), which is a Japanese variation of a Chinese meal. Consisting of a variety of meat, seafood, and vegetables that are dipped into a hot pot of boiling water and different sauces, Hot Pot results in a broth which is eaten with rice and noodles. Eating this with a group of people is a funny experience, especially when fighting over the last piece of anything on the table.

I also tried chicken Karaage, which is covered in wheat flour or potato starch and fried in a light oil. It is much better than any of the fried chicken that I’ve tried here. My friend Chantal, who went with me to Japan and is picky eater, practically survived on this and gyuudon.

When I returned home, I immediately began looking for convenient places where I could find the dishes in America.

I have not been to many Japanese restaurants in America, but the one that I go to regularly is Yoshinoya, a Japanese restaurant chain that fortunately opened on 42nd Street around the same time I returned home. The cooks make a gyuudon that is just as good as the one I had in Japan.

Now, I am hungry, so I will stop here. But, since this post is about Japan and in light of recent tragic events there, I encourage everyone to send any support you can to the country during this time.

Posted in Food, Food Rant / love song | Tagged , | 1 Comment