BALLROOM STUDIOS, SEPT. 27 -- The eclectic musicians of the Deluxe Vaudeville Orchestra took their places on the stage and the Ballroom Studios came alive with their blending of accordion, euphonium, trumpet, banjo, upright bass and drums. Bambola Bartoli, clad in a shimmering sequined blouse, smiled and crooned, slipping in and out of Portguese, Italian and English along with "boo-boos" and "coo-coos" -- chansons of love and longing, or just plain fun.
After she finished her last tune, Normando Ismay sat up from where he was thumping on his bongos. Clad in a bright tropical shirt, Ismay pushed his mop of gray curls out of his face, grinned lasciviously and began talking in a thick Latino accent.
"Buenos Noches!" he smiled, taking on his role as Papa Bizzoso, our host for the evening. The Bizzoso ROOTS Showcase was under way.
Papa Bizzoso launched into a convoluted tale about the history of the Bizzoso people. He spoke of their culture, their music, their customs and their run-ins with the law. The space became a Bizzoso night club, a playground for an adult's inner child. Oblong carved heads with wacky expressions and oddly shaped noses faced us. Perhaps these were crude portraits of the Bizzoso themselves.
The showcase, organized by Alternate ROOTS, was held in conjunction with the Performing Arts Exchange conference. It was a chance for artists from around the Southeast to show off and perhaps snag a gig.
The second floor "ballroom" of the downtown loft featured a haphazard collection of folding chairs, futons and old couches -- a rec-room with a sixth grader's exhibit of orange men in hats.
Next in queue to perform were the Beacon Dance Company, a collective of Atlanta dancers who presented a portion of modern dance.
Following the act, Papa asked for volunteers to start setting up more chairs. Scooching around in the dark, dozens more people streamed in. And someone "baaaaah"-ed across the room.
"Oh yes, let me explain the 'baaaah,'" he said. Seems these Bizzoso make a certain sound, in addition to clapping, when they like a performance. They "baaaah!" -- loudly and unselfconsciously. Forget the beatniks with their snaps, we were back in elementary school now and imitating sheep.
Latonja took the stage, bleeting her own approval as she found her place behind the mic. A singer from Jackson, Miss., she performed an uncharacteristically serious song about rape -- a sole live trumpet softly mourning behind her. Her voice soared and softly turned out a touching, if simplistic, piece about lost innocence, pain and hope.
Then Papa returned and roused the audience. "It's time for the mate!" he cheered.
Cups of a warm tea were passed about on trays. As audience members naively gulped the beverage down, wincing at its bitterness, some half-hoped they hadn't just partaken in some collective suicide ritual.
Balladeer Andy Offutt Irwin, known for his mouth noises and off-the-wall lyrics, started with a song about "my favorite protozoa." To raise the geek level even higher, Irwin then requested two volunteers and began whistling "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." His range was amazing, his dead-on skill almost enough to make us forget we were watching a man whistle while bonking women on the head with a plastic toy hammer that squeaked to evoke parts of the song.
It felt about time to hold hands and sing "Kumbaya" when folk singer Elise Witt, with her acoustic guitar and aging hippie look, took the stage. She performed feel-good songs in several different languages (she purportedly knows over a dozen), including "When You Wish Upon a Star." No one seemed to think it strange to be listening to someone sing the Disney fave at midnight on a Friday. When Witt asked the audience to clap, they handily replied. When she led a feel-good version of "Open the Window and Let the Dove Fly In," performed as a round, the crowd joined in as instructed. Just what was in that mate?
I felt like a parent at a children's recital until, after the intermission, some edgier material began to present itself.
The Women on Fire dance collective got things off to a more compelling start with an attitude-heavy hip-hop dance performance. Baahs were heard over the clapping.
Mississippi-based duo MUGABEE followed. Trumpeter Maurice Turner joined his brother Carlton for a hybrid of hip-hop, jazz, spoken word, R&B and soul. Unlike Offutt Irwin or Witt, MUGABEE sang about things like war, drugs and racism. Still, despite the potential for inflammatory lyrics, the duo kept the vibe clean.
Three hours later, the seemingly endless stream of performances was still going strong. By then, we'd had our fill of the PG fare. It was refreshing to feel like a kid for a few hours -- the need to act sophisticated can be over-rated. But now we just needed to get a drink.