Sunday, February 13, 2011

R&B and Resilence

I first met Angela Bofill in seventh grade, when we both sang soprano in Hunter College High School’s Junior Chorus. “Both” is actually a funny word to use, because there was never really any comparing us. Angela was a wunderkind of a singer. When the chorus performed a few songs from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Mikado,” Angela belted out Yum-Yum’s signature solo, “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze,” in a pure, rich voice it was almost impossible to believe originated in a twelve-year-old body.

I continued to dabble in music throughout high school – singing and playing the flute, doing well in my music classes and at the Third Street Music School – but in fits and starts, never mustering the self-discipline to make of myself anything other than a talented amateur. During those same years, Angela was moving full steam ahead into what was clear to everyone would be a successful singing career. In school, she started and starred in a group she called the “Puerto Rican Supremes;” outside school she became increasingly involved first in semiprofessional, then professional performance.

In twelfth grade, I had a let’s-get-serious-about music period and began bringing my flute to school every day. Angela noticed, and invited me into an instrumental improvisation group she was forming, together with Elaine Yoneoka (guitar) and Jane Levy (recorder). She was the group’s soul, providing both the ideas (I remember best playing a piece by the French impressionist composer Erik Satie that morphed, as we improvised, into jazz) and a solid body for our music as she played her heart out on the piano.

I lost track of Angela right after high school, but the advent of Google enabled me to check out her career trajectory. As we’d all expected, she became a professional singer, and amassed a fiercely loyal following. She recorded several albums, and was one of the first Latina singers to succeed in the Rhythm-and-Blues world; one of her songs made it to the top ten on the R&B charts. Her career peaked in the 1980s, but she continued to perform, record, and tour the United States as well as Europe in multi-artist jazz concerts. She even branched out into theater, appearing in several plays – including the intriguingly titled God Don’t Like Ugly.

Disaster struck in 2006, when Angela suffered a stroke that paralyzed her left side. To make matters worse, she didn’t have health insurance at the time. Her fans, friends, family, and fellow musicians stepped up and contributed, though, and celebrities held benefit concerts to pay her medical bills. She began physical and speech therapy and seemed on her way to recovering when, a year and a half later, a second massive stroke cut her down once again, and she lost whatever ability she’d regained to speak – and, of course, to sing.

When I read this news, I tried to imagine what it would be like to be Angela. To have spent most of my life singing, performing, doing the only thing I’d ever wanted to do, only to have my voice taken from me – and twice, at that. Many times, as I sang in my talented-but-amateur way for my own or others’ pleasure, I thought how hard it would be for me to lose that relatively small source of joy, and suspected that in Angela’s place I’d have sunk into depression and despondency, perhaps even lost my will to live.

I was wrong. Not necessarily about myself – thank God, there’s been no occasion for me to find out how I’d react to that kind of disaster (though Timora’s death has shown me that I can ultimately stand up to devastating loss). But about Angela, who's proved to be almost unbelievably resilient.

As it turns out, she did become seriously depressed after the first stroke hit, and after the second seemed to have given up on music. But with the encouragement of her manager and colleagues, she’s pulled herself out of the depths and begun performing again – without her voice.

She’s now appearing in a series of sold-out shows called the Angela Bofill Experience. The band – including the legendary flutist Dave Valentin – accompanies the young singer Maysa as she performs Angela’s hits. Angela sits on stage and tells stories in the broken speech that she’s once again, with hard work and determination, recovered. Most amazingly, she laughs. Two weeks ago, she told the Washington Post’s DeNeen Brown that in early 2006 her career was faltering. “I asked God: ‘Give me break.’ … That’s when stroke hit. Next time, God, maybe another break.” She joked about her hobbled syntax: “Me, Tarzan. You Jane.” And even about the stroke itself: “Only good thing I lose weight. A stroke diet. It works!” She calls herself a “sitting-down comic.”

I’m in awe of Angela. Not just for her talent, as I was forty years ago when she was already a serious musician and I was just playing at music, but for her courage and fortitude. She's another example of the kind of person I wrote about in my earlier post, Humor and Resilience, and gives me additional reason to believe that these two priceless qualities are inextricably entwined. Add to her playful humor a real passion for her art, and the love and support of those she cares for and who care for her, and you've got a good start on a recipe for resilience. I wish her health, strength, and the continued love of those around her. May she always be able to laugh in the face of potentially devastating loss.


Robin said...

Thank you for the memories. I am proud to be in the great company of fellow HCHS alumnae.

Susan (Sara) Avitzour said...

As am I, Robin, as am I.

Susan (Sara) Avitzour said...

And, Robin, I'd love for you to share this post, so that other classmates will see it as well.

Ruthie Levi said...

Wow, thanks for the update on angela bofill. i remember her vividly from HCHS. knew she went on to be famous, but never heard about all the rest. sad.

Susan (Sara) Avitzour said...

Sad but inspiring.

Elaine said...

Thanks for your thoughtful reflections; they are inspiring for those knocked around by life!