"Every Child is Born a Poet: The Life & Work of Piri Thomas (CD & Movie)"
Kip Hanrahan; Milton Cordona; Jerry Gonzales; Rabby Ameen; Chocolate Armenteros; Alfredo Triff; Billy Bang; Steffon Harris; Fernando Saunders; James Zollar a. o.
Kip Hanrahan composed, arranged and produced the main score for Every Child is Born a Poet.
Producer-Director-Writer of the movie: Jonathan Robinson. USA. 2003. 58 Min.
An incendiary mix of documentary, poetry, and storytelling, Every Child is Born a Poet explores the life and work of Piri Thomas (b. 1928), the Afro-Cuban-Puerto Rican author of the classic autobiographical novel Down These Mean Streets (1967). The film traces Thomas’ path from childhood to manhood in New York City’s Spanish Harlem, El Barrio, from the 1930's through the 1960’s - his parents’ Immigrant experience, home life during the Great Depression, his membership in barrio youth gangs, his struggle to come to terms with his mixed-racial identity, his travels as a teen-age merchant marine, his heroin addiction, his notorious armed robbery of a Greenwich Village nightclub, his six years spent in prison, and his emergence as a writer. Thomas’ coming-of-age story is counter-pointed with dramatizations, spoken word poetry performance sequences, and verité scenes of his on-going work of fortyfive years as an educator and activist empowering marginalized and incarcerated youths. A stylized, genre-spanning production, Every Child is Born a Poet includes a spellbinding collage of rare archival film footage, still photographs and provocative mixed-media artwork, as it examines Thomas’ use of creative expression as a means of confronting poverty, racism, violence and isolation. Pulsating with an original Latin Jazz score, Every Child is Born a Poet is a riveting portrait of a life lived through struggle, self-discovery, and transformation.
Background Information Piri Thomas
The film’s subject, poet, novelist, activist and educator Piri Thomas, is considered to be one of the preeminent figures of Nuyorican (i.e., New York Puerto Rican) literary culture. His first book, Down These Mean Streets, published in 1967, is a landmark in modern American literature for its concern with issues of poverty, youth violence, imprisonment, and racial identity, as well as for its groundbreaking bilingual style.
Down These Mean Streets has, along with Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land and The Autobiography of Malcom X, proven to be one of the most important books on ethnic identity formation and urban issues in post-war America. Such contemporary cultural luminaries as Spike Lee and John Leguizamo have publicly cited the books influence in their personal and creative lives. The New York Times listed Down These Mean Streets in 1995 as one of the all-time "10 Best Books About New York City."
In addition to Down These Mean Streets, Thomas' writings include Seven Long Times, about the time he spent in state prison for armed robbery and attempted murder, Savior, Savior Hold My Hand, about his life in the seven years after his release from prison, and Stories from El Barrio, a collection of short stories. Thomas' writings have been included in many anthologies, including Prison Writings in Twentieth Century America, Growing Up Hispanic, The Latino Reader, and Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poet's Café. At the age of 75, Thomas continues an active schedule of poetry readings and workshops in schools, universities, prisons, nightclubs and festivals throughout the country and internationally.
Liner Notes Soundtrack by Movie Director Jonathan Robinson*
"In 1983, I was living in San Francisco and read about an album Calleed ‚Desire Develops an Edge‚. I don’t remember why, but I went out and bought it, a two LP vinyl set. I had never listened much to Latin music, but when I heard Kip’s music for the first time I immediately stopped in my tracks, hypnotized by the way he arranged and brought the Latin rhythms to the center of his in-comparable compositions.There was nothing ingratiating. This was music full of thought, passion, anger, and caresses. American Clavé, for sure. I didn’t hear another of Kip’s albums until 1990, when, living in L.A., I stumbled upon a cassette tape of ‚Verticle’s Currency‚. It was my late night driving companion for months. With this one, I remember being most intrigued and mesmerized by the lush production and the dour, melancholy, brooding romanticism of the melodies. Sexy and heartbreaking by turns with, of course, the signature use of Latin percussion.
In 1991, I was back living in San Francisco, and met Piri Thomas, by chance, at a reading he was giving in the Tenderloin. Piri was reading poetry accompanied by a conga player and a flautist. Man, they burned up the stage in that little space, Piri’s spitfire delivery driving the sweaty rhythms. I moved to the front after the set and introduced myself, a humble fan. I had real ‚Down These Mean Streets‘ as a twelve year old in seventh grade. It was 1972. The teacher, idealistic, fresh out of the Ivy League, wanted to blow our sheltered little prep school minds away. When I re-read the book shortly after meeting Piri, I was struck by how vividly I had remembered certain scenes – copping girls drawers on tenement rooftops, smoking pot and getting a blow job from a transvestite, dry fucking a blonde broad in a crowded New York subway car, and sex in the can. Sex. Yeah, that was it for a horny twelve year old. Well, mostly. Sure, I was inspired to rub up against Puerto Rican girls in the subways, but there was something else, another way the book worked on me. I was the sole Jewish kid in a nearly all WASP class, taunted with the nickname Hook (as in nose). Piri’s description of being alone, lost, unwanted, afraid also stuck with me. He was in prison long before he got to Sing-Sing and prison was a state of mind I felt I knew as well. The prison of early adolescence, of being different, not understood, but most of all, the prison one puts oneself in. Piri made me realize that I was connected to people I didn’t even know, let alone didn’t even know existed, and that, though there are differences, all deserve the same rights and the same respect. This was the beginning of a new consciousness for me.
When I met Piri, he was a wise elder, a shaman, a spoken word poet at the peak of his all-natural powers. Once I decided to make a film with Piri, I knew immediately that my dream would be to have Kip score it. Piri’s stories, his poetry, and his style of delivery are at once intense and lyrical, full of twists and turns, but built upon classical dramatic structures. I knew that Kip could create a score that would support the music already inherent in Piri’s writings and the way he delivered it when he read. But what excited me most, was the cinematic quality to Kip’s compositions and arrangements and the way he used the studio to create an epic sense of space and drama. With mood and ambience to spare, I knew Kip’s music would play off the film’s images and words without crushing or clashing. And sure enough, Kip’s music perfectly captures the sound of the tautly wound soul bursting out of its straitjacket and soaring to find escape and peace.
In the film, Piri’s voice and the images are married together through the music and the rhythm. But this soundtrack is something else. It moves beyond the constraints of working with images and the limitations of story-telling conventions. So, it stands on its own (apart from the film) as a unique exploration of Piri’s poetry and energies, the themes his work embodies, and the rhythms of his life and times. Working with period musical themes and ambiances brought out another side of Kip, as well. As Chocolate said in the studio: ‚It’s about time you gave me some real music to play, Kip.‘ Real or not, this music moves from the Great Depression to the New Millenium with Kip’s uncanny sense of cohesion and beauty.
In addition to Kip and Piri, there has been one other creative pillar, who has anchored this project from the start. Juan Sanchez, multi-dimensional artist, painter, and photographer. A happy accident, while searching for archival photographs, led me to a portfolio of Juan’s artworks. At first sight, I knew his layered, gritty, vibrant, soul stirring paintings needed to be in the film, as they visually answered the call of Piri’s urban dream-nightmare word-imagery. For this CD booklet, Juan has created all new original works, as he always does, by hand. Nothing digital. Analog all the way, baby. Just like Kip. Just like Piri. For the film, I insisted on shooting mostly 16mm. This slowed things down, but some things are non-negotiable, which all goes to say that there is a density to both the film and the soundtrack that reflects all this, the ripped and dripped, the magnetic echo, the shadow in the emulsion, and the naked voice. Thank you Kip, thank you Juan. Thank you to all the amazing musicians and to everyone else who contributed to the film and to this soundtrack. And, finally, thank you, Piri, for allowing us to take your work and fashion a new poem to inspire us all over again."
*Jonathan Robinson was born in New York City in 1960. He received a B.A. in Modern History at the University of California, Berkeley, and received an MFA in Live-Action Film Production from the California Institute of the Arts, Valencia. His video, sight unseen: a travelog, on India, cultural difference, and tue contemporary colonial imagination, was featured at 1993 Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, was honored with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's SECA Video Art Award, and named Best Experimental Video at the Image Atlanta Film & Video Festival. Robinson has worked as a
freelance editor and script consultant and extensively in the non-profit world of criminal & juvenile justice. Currently, he lives in New Haven, Connecticut, wich his wife and two daughters.