As the music grew dissonant, with the violins sounding like nails on a chalkboard, the young poet swaggered up to the front of the stage, cackling with laughter, like a demented carnival barker.
“Welcome,” Kataalyst Alcindor said in a grand voice before he began a polished, huckster-like spiel about the city where he was born 28 years ago.
His performance was part of this year’s Birdfoot Festival, a New Orleans-based chamber-music festival that annually presents rising young stars of classical music from Great Britain and the United States.
This year, Birdfoot also featured Alcindor, 28, a New Orleans-born poet who grew up as Ehren Alcindor in New Orleans East and Marrero with his twin brother, Errol, and their parents, Elmo and Agatha Alcindor.
Their father drove a Lincoln Town Car and carried himself with an air that came off as “I know who I am and I know where I’m going,” his son said. Their mother was the consummate caregiver, working as a personal secretary and a telephone operator and devoting her time to schoolchildren.
Kataalyst Alcindor remembers being “a quiet little guy, raised in the ’hood, always reading books.” While going through an “angsty” phase in junior high, he said, he was sitting one day in after-school detention, reading a dictionary when he came across the word “catalyst.”
“I liked what it meant. I enjoyed the word,” he said.
As a young teen, he drove with a friend to his first spoken-word performance in the French Quarter. Asked how he wanted to sign in to perform onstage, he thought up the name Kataalyst, with a K for added cachet and two A’s in the middle for his mother’s initials.
That night, he saw New Orleans spoken-word legends who have since made national names for themselves: Sunni Patterson, Chuck Perkins and Asia Rainey. “They were giants; they were champions,” he recalled. “I was hooked.”
Today, the masters admire the student, who’s now known almost entirely as Kataalyst, or Kat for short.
Rainey said she has seen Alcindor evolve. “Somewhere along the way, something clicked; something dormant in him clicked on. I saw that shift happen. He became an artist with his words,” she said.
Perkins said spoken word can suffer from the same follow-the-herd mentality that plagues pop music. “But it seems like Kataalyst had been willing to take chances and be different from the others,” he said. “His use of images and metaphors is fantastic. He’s also not afraid to deal with softer images, which I particularly like.”
“Kataalyst, he’s kinda like a quiet storm,” said Patterson, reached by phone in California after giving a TED talk there. Like Perkins, Patterson likes that Alcindor doesn’t need to be loud to get his point across. She compared his quiet precision to poison darts shot by a blowpipe. “In a martial-arts movie, he would be like those little pinpoints that are deadly,” she said. “I like that about him, that he’s not a yeller.”
The city’s tight-knit family of poets is keeping Alcindor close these days. Both of his parents passed away recently: his dad about a year ago and his mother only about a month ago, as she was chaperoning a class trip for Helen Cox High School.
Like his lone tattoo, an Adinkra symbol that adorns his forearm, Alcindor seems to symbolize determination and persistence, yet he is clearly mourning. He said he is reminded more acutely of his mother whenever he sees someone caring for children, but he feels her legacy constantly. “I feel like she’s in the things I do,” he said. “She carried a spirit of grace.”
Last week, as the strings screeched behind him onstage, Alcindor the carnival barker beckoned the annual Carnival throngs and their misbehavior.
“Join the cavalcade of drunken souls, pissing freely in the wind, retching aimlessly in the gutter,” he recited, his voice dripping with disdain. The crowds along the parade routes, too, became fodder for his poetry: “They plunge their arms into the night sky, as if the objects falling had become currency and their hands are hungry wallets, howling, ‘Throw me something, mister.’ ”
Then Alcindor tromped to the back of the stage as a string quartet played more of the composition “Arcadiana,” written by British composer Thomas Adès in the mid-1990s about vanishing and vanished lands, with four of the seven movements devoted to water and one, called “O Albion,” meant to evoke home and warmth.
“Arcadiana” seemed a perfect tribute to New Orleans, said Birdfoot artistic director and violinist Jenna Sherry, a New Orleanian who said she felt compelled to push the string quartet further after hearing Alcindor perform.
“I heard the rhythms of his voice,” Sherry said. “I was inspired as a musician by what he does.” She invited him to be part of a nearly weeklong residency with more than a dozen musicians, most of them string players.
Alcindor accepted. “I’ve always dreamed of doing something like this,” he said, noting that when he hears the string quartet, he hears delicacy and deep emotion. “I hear the pain. I hear the beauty. It’s a spirit unto itself,” he said.
During later movements, Alcindor focused on the wrath of hurricanes descending upon New Orleans: “At the sight of your world crumbling around you, your eyes will wish themselves blind. At the sight of blue tarps, gray bodies and black bags, you will make stoic a face.”
As the music became almost mournful, he then moved into a tender elegy to his city. “It’s going to take a lot more than wind to rain on our parade. You see, we are greater than hurricanes,” he said. “This is a poem for the stayers, for the survivors,” he said. “This is a poem for New Orleans.”
Nathan Schram, who played viola for the Alcindor set, said Adès’ music is notoriously difficult. “It’s so complex, so thorny,” he said. “But to hear Kat pair complex emotion to this music brings home why it’s worth working at.”
After Alcindor performed a preview at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, drummer Luther Gray stood up and bowed his head in reverence toward the young poet on the stage. “Man, this really touched my heart,” Gray said. “The mood of it is so sad, so moving, so inspiring.”