TWO CONCERTS THIS MONTH bring a unique pair of performers bearing a profusion of global music styles to an intimate garden space in Uptown.
* Sat. May 20, 8:30 p.m. — Mai Khôi presents “Bad Activist“
* Sun. May 28, 7:30 p.m. — A World Music Adventure with Ralph White
The location is James Simon Sculpture Studio, 305 Gist Street, Pittsburgh, the site of live performance events since 2010, including a nationally acclaimed poetry/fiction reading series and a steady stream of experimental and roots musicians fusing international idioms including Carolina Loyola-Garcia, Osei Korankye, Tangueros de Ley, Erik Lawrence, Gusti Sudarta-Nicotiana, Badi Assad, Mama’s Broke, Mirabelle Skipworth, Afro Yaqui, Ben Opie, Patrick Briener, Colter Harper, Jeff Berman and more.
Mai Khôi, 41, was born in Cam Ranh, Vietnam, and began singing professionally at age 12. With the 2004 release of her self-titled debut album, she skyrocketed to national fame as Vietnam’s top pop music star, with laudatory comparisons to Lady Gaga, Björk and Laurie Anderson.
Gradually, her original music became more politically outspoken, and she used her concerts to inform and inspire young people to question Vietnam’s government leaders. By 2016, she was leading national protests and attempted to run for a seat in the National Assembly of Vietnam.
Her activism was met with immediate censure by the Vietnamese government; she was prevented from performing in Vietnam and eventually forced into exile and welcomed to Pittsburgh in 2019 by the International Free Expression Project and City of Asylum, where she has been an artist-in-residence at since 2020. She is also a scholar-in-residence at the University of Pittsburgh Scholars at Risk program.
Since becoming a prolific participant in Pittsburgh’s diverse music milieu, Khôi’s human rights advocacy has not been silenced. In 2020 she created a powerful autobiographical performance piece titled Bad Activist that portrays her painful yet exhilarating journey of transformation, incorporating music, storytelling, video and original animation in a bold evocation of her past, present and future hopes.
While her fervent singing and guitar-playing form the emotional heart of the show, Mai Khôi is almost always joined by an engaging cast of local musicians such as pianist Mark Micchelli, baritone saxophonist Ben Barson, bassist Eli Namay, percussionist Hugo Cruz, erhuist Mimi Jong and other special guests.
AUSTIN, TEXAS native Ralph White recalls that his first musical Wow Moment came as a teenager hearing legendary Houston bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins in a coffeehouse.
That set White traveling the world in search of deep-rooted musical traditions in Australia, Africa, Mexico, Europe, Central America and hidden corners of the U.S. as he blossomed into a relentlessly innovative virtuoso performer on fiddle, banjo, accordion, guitar, kalimba and mbira.
A Ralph White solo concert is likely to blend Appalachian, Mexican, Cajun, French, Blues, Irish, Breton, African, Andean and General American Folk styles into a deeply immersive musical cosmos that is free-flowing, hard-driving, hypnotic and passionate. His vocals may enrapture and haunt you till the end of your days.
Pittsburgh audiences have previously heard White when he toured with Michelle Shocked and Bad Livers in the 1990s. He’s also made astonishing music with Santiago Jimenez, Powell St. John, Michael Hurley, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Bourrée Texane, Jandek, Jack Rose, Eugene Chadbourne, Sun City Girls’ Sir Richard Bishop, Gulf Coast Playboys, Amy Annelle.
The Mai Khôi and Ralph White concerts couldn’t have found a more kindred venue than the backyard bamboo garden of James Simon’s sculpture studio at 305 Gist Street.
A Peabody High School grad, Simon’s own artistic muse was inspired by years of traveling through North America, South America, Europe, Middle East and Australia.
His journeys honed expertise in carpentry, carving, stained glass, sculpture, violin performance and violin making with Master Luthier Andrew Dipper of Oxford, England — which would bloom when he returned to Pittsburgh in 2000 and became a master crafter of ceramics, mosaics, violins and large-scale public sculpturess in concrete, bronze, glass and marble.
His current public exhibit, James Simon: A Life Of Making, is on display at Contemporary Craft’s BNY Mellon Satellite Gallery, 500 Grant Street in Downtown Pittsburgh, in the entrance to PRT’s light rail Steel Plaza Station. The show runs through Aug. 6 and is open daily to midnight.
Musical and dance motifs appear often in Simon’s public artwork installed as gateway and park pieces worldwide and throughout the U.S. “As my Hungarian violinist friend, Kato Havas, who lived to be 98, often said, ‘It’s the music that creates the technique, not the technique that creates the music.’
“I have always found that to be true with all the arts. If we are true to our own originality and work hard, the magic will come.”
* * *
• Sat. May 20, 8:30 p.m. — Mai Khôi presents “Bad Activist“ / Tickets $20, BYOB.
• Sun. May 28, 7:30 p.m. — A World Music Adventure with Ralph White / Tickets $15, BYOB.
VENUE: 305 Gist Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15219 at James Simon Sculpture Studio