What's Aesop? Imagination Comes Alive With Music

Molly Colin on March 27, 2014
David Gonzalez
David Gonzalez

Uber storyteller and musician David Gonzalez is still floating on air after performing a matinee for school children in Brooklyn's once-gritty Greenpoint neighborhood. The path that has led him from a childhood in a troubled Bronx to a Ph.D in music therapy and finally to the theater work he does today continues to amaze him. "I make little ones laugh and delight in the powers of the imagination," said the 57-year-old in a telephone interview from Brooklyn. "I get to do that for a living, one hour at a time. That's what storytelling is about; opening up the world to a child's imagination."

He will be doing just that on Sunday, April 6, when Cal Performances at UC Berkeley presents Aesop Bops! with Gonzalez in a 3 p.m. matinee performance at Wheeler Auditorium. Joining Gonzalez onstage for the 50-minute concert is the Yak Yak Band, led by keyboardist David Pearson with two other San Francisco Bay Area musicians.

The show is Gonzalez' spin on several of Aesop's moral tales set to music. Classic fables to be performed include The Fisherman and His Wife, The Turtle's Shell, and The Lion and the Mouse. Gonzalez gives each character, such as the lion, a different quality on stage. "He's got a certain New York funk — but he's not from the Bronx," said Gonzalez, who makes his home 90 minutes from Manhattan in the Catskills.

In The Turtle's Shell the storyteller offers a mashup of cultural variations of the fable that tells how the first turtle came to be. He uses a South American interpretation of the tale, which features a vulture lifting its wings. "There are so many versions of Aesop's Fables ... the key is to be true to the spirit of the story," Gonzalez said.

"Music is a subtext of everything I do: Rhythm, rhyme, and repetition are employed that give a dynamic pulse," he continued. "My approach to storytelling is highly gestural and physical. The characters must embody this musicality."

All ages are welcome at the Berkeley concert. His secret to attracting kids and their parents? "We speak up to the children and speak through to the adults," he said. "Whether you're six or 60, the groove is there. I'm trying to make family theater that's like a multifaceted jewel that you can look at from many angles and appreciate."

Most of Gonzalez' storytelling repertoire, however, is geared toward young audiences. "It's where my heart is," he said, "It's my soul music in the world."

That world is one that began when the father of two now grown children was a child himself in the rough and tumble Bronx of the 1960s. "There was a lot going on but I wasn't old enough to do anything about it," he said, citing the civil rights and other social movements taking place in the era. After earning a doctorate at New York University in music therapy, and working with children diagnosed with Asberger syndrome and other austism disorders, be began to introduce stories to his patients. The way Gonzalez tells it, storytelling became a way for him to try and address challenges that he could not as a child.

"I call what I do curative in the sense art energizes and opens the imagination," said Gonzalez of his storytelling. "I believe in the aesthetics of art. It's not just groovy but something real in our existence. Stories always lead to encouragement of being a more conscious being. So they're curative in that sense. I think they're high art for short people."

Aesop, no doubt, would find the 21st century's technology-driven marketplace of ideas in stark contrast to the  6th-century Athens marketplace the ancient Greek raconteur knew. He might wonder how significant his fables are for tech-savvy kids in today's digital world. "They're relevant more than ever," said Gonzales. "They're the antidote to the alienation that our device-driven lives are driving us to. They're teaching essential values, like compassion. If there's ever been a time when we identify with our things, these lessons are that, when they (our things) are all stripped away, what we're left with is one another."

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