Pretty in Pink Martini

“I’d march up to the piano – the confident six-year-old that I was – and try to sound out the hymns that I’d heard during the service,” he recalled.

July 24, 2019 19:45
Pretty in Pink Martini

FOR A QUARTER-CENTURY, Pink Martini has featured a dozen musicians performing songs in more than 25 languages.. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Thomas M. Lauderdale’s eccentricities are a reflection of his extraordinary childhood. Originally from Oakland, California, Lauderdale is the oldest of “a rainbow tribe of adopted children” who grew up on a plant nursery in rural Indiana.
“My father was a minister. He went back and forth between plants and God,” he explains.
Young Lauderdale had a green thumb, but it was his nimble fingers and wild curiosity in church that set the budding musician on his path to performance.
“I’d march up to the piano – the confident six-year-old that I was – and try to sound out the hymns that I’d heard during the service,” he recalled. “The hymns I grew up with were really bloody but had beautiful melodies, so I never paid much attention to the lyrics.”
Lauderdale’s fascination with those melodies crossed with an affinity for old films, soundtracks and classical music to form his foundation.
Much like his father, Lauderdale is a man of many interests. And while growing up he tickled the ivories until he was tickled pink, he never imagined becoming the bandleader of a “little orchestra” with plenty of personality. For a quarter-century, his Pink Martini brainchild has featured a dozen musicians performing songs in more than 25 languages.
Before inventing Pink Martini, the prolific pianist sowed political seeds in the liberal city of Portland, Oregon, where his family moved in the ‘80s after his father came out of the closet.
“I was more interested in political and diplomatic affairs at the time. My goal was to become mayor of Portland,” Lauderdale said. “I chose not to go to music conservatory because the people that I knew who went to music conservatories weren’t happy. They were lonely and limited in terms of what they could talk about.”
His political pursuits would inevitably route him back toward music. The catalyst: a nasty attempt to amend the Oregon constitution to declare homosexuality illegal. Lauderdale was working on a campaign in opposition to the amendment when he was struck by Pee-Wee Herman’s Christmas Special.
“It was totally inspiring because there were all of these guest stars: everyone from Cher to Charo to Zsa Zsa Gabor and Oprah Winfrey, and the Del Rubio Triplets in their matching miniskirts and booties. They were super Catholic, yet mysteriously pro-gay,” he recalled.
Lauderdale invited the triplets to Portland to do a series of appearances in various retirement homes, hospitals and Rotary Club meetings where they would sweetly ask everyone to “please vote ‘no’ on Measure 13” at the end of their set.
During that week there was a big public concert in need of an opening act, so Lauderdale threw on a cocktail dress and voila! Pink Martini was born. He modeled his show after the kind of parties he wanted to attend as a kid – a nod to Breakfast at Tiffany’s and La Dolce Vita – yet staying with a political agenda.
“Political fundraising is so dreary these days. Democrats just haven’t learned how to have fun,” he remarked. Lauderdale wanted to spice things up by introducing politicians to a Latin Afro-Cuban multilingual world filled with bongos and congas.
Pink Martini played hundreds of fund-raising concerts for everything from cleaning up the river to affordable housing and in-school music programs. “Plus, a lot of weddings.” he added.

SO HOW did the political posse blossom into an international touring phenomenon?
“It all happened accidentally,” he admitted. “I never imagined we’d go on the road. In the band’s first five years of existence we basically saturated Portland, playing within the city limits.” That all changed after convincing singer China Forbes to let him play accompaniment at a Cannes Film Festival party. The festival appearance was so successful that he returned the following year to play four parties with his band, signed a record deal with a French label and took Europe by storm.
Twenty-five years since planting its roots, Pink Martini is bringing their sultry and spirited show to Israel. Although this will be their first time in Israel, this isn’t the band’s first trip to the Middle East. Two years ago, they played in Beit ed-Dine, Lebanon, which turned out to be a very special show that spotlighted Jewish singer Ari Shapiro who surprised the audience by singing in Arabic.
“The organizers were a little freaked out,” Lauderdale admitted. “But at the end of the show everybody was cheering and wanted to meet him afterward.”
Arabic is only one of many languages in which Pink Martini sings. Their 2016 album Je Dis Oui! combined Armenian, Arabic, Hebrew, English and French for a cultural sampler platter unlike any other.
Lauderdale said, “It’s more interesting for the audience, and certainly more interesting for the musicians to be playing such a diverse range of material in both style and language.” The fearless bandleader values the iconic artists of the past who cover foreign material, like Nat King Cole and Dinah Shore, whose one-hour salute to the Peace Corps on American Primetime television included eight different languages.
Several years later, when Pink Martini was asked to play a holiday tribute on The Tonight Show, the producers vetoed Lauderdale’s suggestion to have Shapiro sing a Ladino Hanukkah song, and instead forced them to perform “the humiliating ‘Santa Baby.’”
When asked if they’ll be performing some of their Hebrew songs at the Zappa Amphitheater Shuni (a show that will include a dazzling collaboration with the von Trapps), Lauderdale explained that he was still putting together the set list. Although his singer Storm Large may not be able to master the Hebrew lyrics, he’s eager to bring their idiosyncratic take on the “Exodus” theme song to the Holy Land series.
“We’ve changed Pat Boone’s lyrics from ‘This land is mine / God gave this land to me’ to the more inclusive ‘This land is ours / God gave this land to you and me.’
“The fact that we have these roomfuls of people who normally wouldn’t be sitting next to each other is a small step toward something larger. We’re playing to the next generation, those who are thinking about the world in a totally different way. It’s very encouraging.”
Pink Martini performs at the Zappa Amphitheater Shuni on July 30 and 31.
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