Every culture needs at least one Lyndee Mah—an indomitably positive source of energy, compassion and commitment to art, a connector and facilitator, an advisor and advocate, someone to console us when that is necessary. Fortunately for Portland, we had Lyndee Mah herself. A gifted artist, Mah was possibly even more gifted at the creation of community, in her case, a community that included many artists.
Mah died in her sleep on April 1 from a heart attack. She was in Spokane, Washington, caring for her brother Marshall Mah. She was born in Idaho Falls on August 29, 1958. She studied music at Mt. Hood Community College and finished her general education studies at PSU.
Mah was a vocalist in Portland for more than 20 years. She was a founding member of the band Pink Martini and collaborated with a host of Portland musicians and dancers over the years, including 3 Leg Torso, the late pianist Janice Scroggins, and choreographer Gregg Bielemeier. She created “E`-Bon E`-Bon,” an original mixed-media, musical-memoir performance piece, based on her Chinese-European-American heritage, and she performed with Imago and Liminal theater companies. She touched, literally, hundreds more at her home hair salon.
Mah is survived by her partner Elahi Bradley-Muhammad and her son, Halston Mah-Minniweather.
A celebration of Lyndee K. Mah’s life will be held 7-10 pm August 4 at the Lan Su Chinese Garden, 239 NW Everett Street. Friends, admirers and collaborators of Lyndee’s will honor her incredible artistic and cultural legacy in this community.
Editor’s Note: Choreographer Linda K. Johnson gathered remembrances of Mah from six of the people whose lives she touched. We appreciate her efforts.
Courtney Von Drehle, musician and composer
I first got to know Lyndee when 3 Leg Torso worked with choreographer/dancer Gregg Bielemeier, and we were enlisted for the music, with Lyndee as our vocalist. Working with Lyndee, who had been Pink Martini’s first vocalist, was our first collaboration with a singer. We went over to Lyndee’s big old house, and coming into her space, with its deep purple curtains, various adornments on the walls—both stately and casual at the same time—right away I felt at home. Downstairs, in the basement, was Lyndee’s salon, where I, and many I know, would visit for Lyndee’s transformative magic. She knew how to make us look good, and chatting away while her scissors orbited our heads, with her easy going and real nature, she’d make it easy to transcend surface connection, and make us feel good in a far deeper way than just one of her glorious hair cuts alone could provide. It was natural for Lyndee to share her deep empathy and caring with all of those around her, and her home reflected the warmth that she embodied.
Arriving at Lyndee’s for rehearsal would often start with some hanging out on the porch, a fresh cup of coffee in hand, chatting with her partner, Brad, who like Lyndee has an easy ability to connect with others in a deep way. Moving inside and working on music was always relaxed and playful, qualities Lyndee would bring to her performances. I remember a particular Conduit benefit I performed where Lyndee was the MC. At one point, out of the blue, she started beating the microphone against her chest and doing a little rap, a spontaneous departure from the script that brought the room together. I’d seen her and Janice Scroggins perform as a duo at Conduit a while before that, and I was deeply moved by their music. One tune in particular, with the lyrics full of reminiscent observations from a later point of view in life, just floored me. With Janice’s always exquisite playing and Lyndee’s rich and present vocals, they were a powerful duo, two masterful musicians at play.
Lyndee was resourceful and self-reliant. From her independent hair salon, her voice lessons, teaching Body Mapping to musicians, to putting on her one-woman show, Lyndee found her own way forward.
Kristy Edmunds, Executive and Artistic Director, Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA
Reflecting on the life and contributions of Lyndee Mah loops me through memories of her in recurring places and circumstances during the 1990’s and early 2000’s in Portland. I think they offer something about who this extraordinary woman was to so many.
Lyndee’s house was a fascinating encounter with her accumulated belongings as a portrait of life in the midst of being lived. Things were arranged around the living room and kitchen with informal intentionality, along with ample evidence of the creative abandon used by those with limited time for ordered perfection. Her basement was her DIY Hair Salon which was a place where a number of us went to have our hair cut or styled or whatever felt most necessary from her direct assessment of our appearance (or at least mine). For over a decade I went there every couple of months to have her cut my hair, and in those years I witnessed her dexterous management of the strain of being a single mother, a small business owner, and in maintaining her drive to keep going with her music. Without question, her son Halston’s wellbeing was her essential priority. While sitting in her chair we listened to music, talked about our lives and the lives of common friends in the arts community as Portland ebbed and flowed across short chapters of its evolving ambitions. A kind of bohemian-Chinese-intellectual-feminist-alternative-barbershop where all were welcome (via word of mouth).
Going to Lyndee’s, was like pulling into a fueling station to stock up on care and perseverance. I never left there without feeling affirmed in some essential way and I am certainly not alone in that experience. It was also a reality check because no one that I knew in my generational context at the time was dealing with as much intense pressure with daily survival than Lyndee was, nor with the panache and generosity that she exuded regardless. In the 1990’s practically everyone I knew in Portland had a wolf at the door, but Lyndee had more than most of us combined. She was undaunted by odds or predictions and her outlook was steadfast.
Our common friends were mainly artists of some type or another. Artists tend to vanish into their studios for extensive periods of time in the lead up to a show and her salon was how she kept tabs on everyone. Had we seen so and so, did we know who was showing where, and when the opening was, etc. Mostly, Lyndee wanted to know if they needed anything. Memories of her appearing at our gallery openings or performances are plentiful. I could sense her arrival from wherever I was because the roar of the room would quieten a notch and people would shift. Lyndee was usually decked out in something relatively exotic, which was not to call attention to herself per se but rather to call attention to her respect of the occasion. Heads would turn and there she would be – sauntering straight over to you, beaming that you’d finished the work and there it all was. She would smile with her whole face and open her arms wide. Whatever effort she had made to get there was never visible yet always known, and our appreciation was fulsome.
Lyndee was a lot of things to a lot of people, but for me she was an artist in her own right and a singer in particular. The sort of singer that renovated every song through the filter of her uniqueness, and she was a luminous presence on stage. There are songs that she would stylize by fashioning her acute clarity for their impact through an uncanny recognition of the power of timing. She knew how to pull the past forward in service to the immediate moment, and could deploy a vocal range that left her audience with their mouths agape. Every whisper or nuance, every unanticipated punctuation she inserted in the lyric became her own delivery of meaning. How she approached each song—in their order and range—was with a contour that was akin to the shape of a gathering storm. Hearing her at full velocity would shift every cell in your body. The occasions to see her perform were too few, because opportunity didn’t knock regularly enough for her to be buoyed into local stardom. But she was definitely a star. Her performances—in style and substance were stunning.
Lyndee Mah was beloved, cherished and deeply respected by a community of artists and cultural adventurers who were made better because of the rare and extraordinary everything that she was.
I loved her. We loved her.
Kelly Williams, artist and friend
Lyndee was a complex and incredible human being. She wove in and out of my life from many directions. We shared and supported each other through marriage and divorce, parenting and all the heartaches that come with fiercely loving our children. We walked through depression and illnesses, the death of our fathers and siblings, the unexpected loss of deeply loved friends, the successes and disappointments of being female artists and the ever frustrating changes in technology moving faster than we cared to learn.
Lyndee was the first person I met in Portland when I wandered into a salon to get my hair done before I started school. I had just turned 18 and was about to start a new life on my own terms. She had a style and no nonsense expectation that required I leave behind my ghetto background and claim the new woman I was to become, one that she helped shape in both subtle and profound ways. Little did I know she would make me beautiful, confident and strong that day and continue to do so for 32 years. On my wedding day she made me feel like the most gracious and elegant woman in the world. When I was too depressed to leave the house, I would still come see her to do my hair. She would soothe me and remind me to breathe as I cried in her chair, her hands doing their magic, and I would leave stronger.
Some of our first conversations were about personal worth: the value of feeling good in my own skin and owning the woman that I was, something foreign and frightening for me. There was no arguing with her; if she said I was worthy, beautiful, intelligent and capable, I had to believe her, even when I couldn’t believe myself. Some of our last conversations were promises that we would take care of each other as old women and take no bullshit from the world as we aged into powerful wise crones with an attitude. We vowed to help each other die gracefully and in comfort if the time came for such things, after watching too many others pass in these last years. She also made sure I got out of the house when my kids were young, as I was a stay-at-home mom. She took me to art galleries, modern dance performances, popular blues bands and tiny jazz piano bars, places I had never been before. She introduced me to her fellow performers as if I was important enough to have a seat at the table. I didn’t know who anyone was at the time, but came to understand much later I was in the presence of the Portland art, dance and music royalty of the time.
One night after she performed at the 1201, one of Pink Martini’s first performances, we all went to celebrate. I was surrounded by her band members, other musicians, dance performers and artists from all areas of the Portland culture. Someone leaned over to me, while I quietly observed the beautiful night and gregarious mood, and asked; ‘And what do you do?”. This question landed heavily with self-judgement and anxiety. However, Lyndee, queen of the evening, piped up and loudly announced, “Kelly is an artist!” And then leaned over and quietly whispered in my ear, ‘You just don’t know what kind yet’ .. She saw me before I knew that to be a fact. When I finally realized that indeed I was an artist, Lyndee was always a huge support.
Tim Ennis, musician, A String Ensemble band member, Tai Chi mate
One of the things I loved about Lyndee Mah was how she integrated her various interests and aspects of her life.
I first met Lyndee as a fellow participant in the Oregon branch of the Taoist Tai Chi Society, a connection that eventually grew into a friendship, collaboration in music, recording, and performance. One day, as Lyndee and I were walking out from the old Taoist Tai Chi practice space on Southeast Division, I mentioned that I was a musician. “That’s my world,” she told me. “Those are my people.”
Whenever she was at the tai chi center, Lyndee joined in to keep the local branch going, as all participants are encouraged to do, volunteering for special events and putting the concept of “eyes see, hands do” into practice. We all remember the beauty and fun she brought to special events at the tai chi center, singing songs with specialty lyrics such as “I Love Tai Chi” to the tune of “All of Me,” “50 Ways To Do Your Don-Yu” to the tune of “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and a special song for Master Moy, the founder of the Taoist Tai Chi Society. She even brought along her friend, the renowned pianist Janice Scroggins, to play for us—an honor.
Once I learned that she was a singing instructor, I began taking lessons with her. It was inspiring to see how she incorporated her study of tai chi and body mechanics, knowledge of skeletal structure, and spine flexibility into her singing and voice lessons. She freely shared the depth and breadth of her knowledge about singing techniques, and I will always be grateful for those lessons.
In time, Lyndee invited me to play in her back group, the A String Ensemble, at shows and house concerts. Not only did we have Tom Vredevoogd, a third “tai-chier” in the group, but many tai chi participants came to Lyndee’s shows and house concerts. The audiences at her house concerts were a perfect example of her integrating the disparate aspects of her life—family members, tai-chiers, hair salon clients, vocal students, musicians, social activists, even young students of Bradley Muhammad, her partner.
I will never forget her fearless creativity.
Eric Skinner, dancer and choreographer
I have been friends with Lyndee for over 20 years. She had a presence that was strong and confident, honest and trusting. When seeing her perform I remember being captivated by her artistry as a vocalist and musician. Burned in my memory is hearing her singing ‘Down Town China Town’ in the original formation of the band Pink Martini, which she co-founded with Thomas Lauderdale. I fell in love with her in that moment and couldn’t wait to see more and hear more! After that electrifying moment, I went to see her every chance I got because it was like a one-woman opera performance. She was drama, humor, nuance and power all rolled into one.
Her voice was visceral. When I later had the chance to perform on stage with Lyndee as part of the Gregg Bielemeier Dance Project, I felt it deep in my soul, and it would become a part of me when I was on stage. It helped pull movement out of me that I didn’t know was there. She would watch and I would listen and together we would become one in that moment. Dancing and performing with Lyndee were very some of the most special moments in my career that I will cherish forever. A favorite moment was during the White Bird Uncaged ‘skinner|kirk and Bielemeier’ show. It was a duet I danced with Habiba Addo, choreographed by Gregg and accompanied by Lyndee walking the perimeter of the stage. The combination of David Ornette Cherry’s music and Lyndee’s voice were magical. Barry Johnson said it was ‘the sweetest duet imaginable.’
As a friend and collaborator, I will always remember dancing with Lyndee as the ‘sweetest moments imaginable’! I will dearly miss her and I am still in shock that she is gone. And, she was the best hairdresser I have ever had!
Arietta Scroggins, Janice’s daughter
Lyndee and Janice were friends and collaborators for over 30 years. Throughout those years, they performed at Remo’s, Hobo’s, The Brassiere, and a host of festivals. A month prior to Janice’s death, Lyndee asked her to collaborate and bring to life “E-bon E-bon””, an original one-woman show based on Lyndee’s life experiences. Though their schedules took them to different places, their friendship in an industry full of rivalries kept them connected in whatever incarnations they were in artistically. When they performed—because of their mutual trust and respect for one another—the stories, the songs, the messages that needed to be shared that day were told with the best intention that could be given.
As an artist myself, Lyndee’s fearless confidence and fashion always inspired me to continue to push the envelope and to never allow anyone’s opinion to stop me from being me. Her smile and infectious laugh always made my day. Janice and Lyndee both were simply amazing, and they made each other better by having a genuine sisterhood in music.