Sunday 26 February 2012

The Starry Messenger

I recently returned from five days of performing for over 4,000 K-6 students for the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival's Music in Our Schools program. I finished up last Saturday with a performance for an Artists' Circle Donors Event.

Firstly, I want to express my gratitude to the students and teachers at El Dorado, Pinon, Santa Clara, Wood Gormley, E.J. Martinez, Agua Fria, Ramirez Thomas, Kearney and Salazar Elementary Schools, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival director Marc Neikrug, David Tolen, Jim Goulden, and Dolly Naranjo.

A heartfelt thanks to musician Angela Gabriel. Angela was my contact and partner for all of the performances. She helped set up and facilitate all of the concerts, and played percussion on a lot of the music I performed, including washboard on the zydeco numbers! As if that wasn't enough work, Angela also introduced me to a lot of music and people around Santa Fe. The Shona marimba and mbira music community was of particular excitement and interest to me. I am now doing a lot of listening thanks to the music she passed along.

I decided early on that I was going to drive to Santa Fe, as it would be an opportunity to hook up with a lot of the great people I met on GIG 365 in 2011. While I am no longer doing a gig a day, I am continuing the spirit of GIG 365 in many ways. The entire journey to Santa Fe, and the Music In Our Schools experience was the first extended trip back into this territory.

I set aside about five days on either side of my time in Santa Fe for travel. The outbound trip took me mostly through Louisiana and Texas. In Louisiana I managed to stop in to do a house concert at Jeff's Haven for Lost Musicians, which relocated from Breaux Bridge to Baton Rouge in 2012. Next up was a visit to cajun/zydeco country where I was fortunate to reconnect with Sonja and Estelle of St. Martinville. These two sassy southern cajun ladies were my camping neighbors back at Lake Fausse Pointe State Park in March 2011. Sonja took me on a tour of their town, educating me about Longfellow's Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie and introducing me to the history of the indigenous Ishak (Atakapa) peoples. When we visited Estelle's home she fired up her 1907 Edison wax cylinder phonograph player and did a dance. (Phonograph cylinders were the earliest commercial medium for recording and reproducing sound) By this time Sonja had called her old friend Florita Williams and set up a get together at her place. Florita is the mother of eight boys and a girl, most of whom are zydeco musicians. She was lovely and welcoming, a humble, wise woman with a lot of stories. Unfortunately for me her son Nathan and his group, "the Zydeco Cha-Chas" had just left for a gig in Washington D.C.

My first meeting with Estelle and Sonja during GIG 365:

The longest part of the drive to Santa Fe was through Texas. I only hit the panhandle during GIG 365, so this was all new territory. I stopped in Abilene and wound up doing a gig at a Mexican restaurant with Abraham, a mariachi guitar player. After the gig I continued driving through what I later found out to be the largest wind farm in the world, then through Lubbock (Buddy Holly's birthplace) before landing in Clovis, NM. I stopped by to see Billy the Kid's grave and tombstone, and learned about the Long Walk of the Navajo at the Bosque Redondo Memorial. (from the website: The Bosque Redondo Memorial at Fort Sumner State Monument solemnly remembers the dark days of suffering from 1863 to 1868 when the U.S. Military persecuted and imprisoned (and MURDERED quite a few) 9,500 Navajo (the Diné) and 500 Mescalero Apache (the N’de) on a reservation (CONCENTRATION CAMP) known as Bosque Redondo at Fort Sumner, New Mexico— an area that encompassed 1,600 square miles (over one million acres)

I arrived in Santa Fe on Sunday afternoon during a pleasant snowfall, which seemed to have blown in only one direction, coating the thousands of green pine bushes that dot the hills white on one side. Driving along the winding roads of rural New Mexico would slowly slide my perspective between the greens and whites. All this as I listened to the stunning Singing Wire Native American music radio program on KUNM public radio. I heard the vocal and drum music of the northern Cree and other tribes for the first time. It is the most expressive vocal music I have ever heard in my life.

The five days with the students was a lot of work, between three to five concerts a day, for at least two hundred students per concert. And I thought GIG 365 was difficult!!!

It was a pleasant circumstance to not have internet where I was staying, and it afforded me the opportunity to dive into two fascinating books Marc and his wife gave to me: The Brain that Changes Itself and 1491. The lack of internet also led to a delay in reading a couple of emails I received from NPR classical music critic Tom Manoff and another journalist. Tom had been to a concert by the Eugene Symphony on Thursday (the day before my last school concert) evening with my friend Brian McWhorter. What has happened since the story broke is an unsurprising, disturbing, amusing, and somewhat apoplectic response by just about everyone in the new music press and blogosphere. I can't help but selfishly reflect on all the work I did last year bringing music to prisons, hospitals, schools, nursing homes, farms, concert halls, etc every single day of 2011 and contrast that with the coverage received by the Barbeich/Sidereus affair. back to the journey of music making, shall we?

I hit the road on Sunday morning after the private donor's concert the night before. The road back to Gainesville would be along I-40, a route I traveled more than a couple of times last year. I would go through the Texas panhandle and then straight through Oklahoma and Arkansas before landing in Memphis. I would hit some new ground from Memphis traveling down Highway 61 into Mississippi. Much of this route was closed when I was last there in May 2011 due to the Mississippi River flooding.

Once I hit Texas, I realized that I was within 50 miles of Prayer Town - home of the Franciscan order of Charismatic Sisters that I performed with in Old Town Albuquerque last year. I decided to drop in, which was a pleasant surprise for all of us. We had a great time sharing music, and I broke bread with all of these very special ladies before laying my head down in one of their retreat houses. The morning greeted with an amazing sunrise which I rubbed all over my face before hitting the open road once again.

GIG #149, my first jam with the Sisters from Prayer Town, Texas.

Next stop was my close childhood friend Joe Wilson and his family in Oklahoma. We reminisced about old friends and dirt bombs, the square deep hole and rusty flagpole, my grandmother's incredibly huge burgundy Ford Galaxy, and Cindy, my first crush. She lived behind me and I only saw her through the diamond shaped holes of the fence that separated us.

I arrived in Memphis on Tuesday evening and connected with my friend accordionist Linda Ann Warren. Linda is quite a celebrity in accordion circles, having performed around Memphis her entire life. We had done a bunch of concerts during GIG 365, one of the highlights being at St. Jude's Children's Hospital. On Wednesday we headed to our favorite place, the Four Way Soul Food Restaurant, which we also discovered last year while looking for Aretha Franklin's birthplace. Of course we took a wrong turn, winding up at Stax Records, which to my complete astonishment is next door to Memphis Slim's old house. The house is even more dilapidated than Aretha's old place, except that it has a huge sign that says "The Historic Home of Memphis Slim. Renovations Coming Soon." What was remarkable is that I had been playing a zydeco version of Memphis Slim's Sassy Mae for the students in Santa Fe for just about every concert. One of my favorite lines ever is in the song "When she walks down the street, the trees all take a bow"

When we walked into the Four Way, the quiet middle aged woman who owned the place recognized me, as I had played her a few songs when we ate there back in May 2011. "I am very proud of you," she said, with a look on her face and sparkle in her eye that made me feel like she was my mother. After a nice meal and the pleasant company and conversation of my friend Linda, I was off for Highway 61, which did not disappoint.

The evening sun was an orange orb glowing above the flat open fields that go for miles on either side of the highway. Balls of birds shape shifted in the sky's marvelous hues of dusk. Then the sun seemed to suddenly set behind the far off craggily, bare trees. I rolled into Clarksdale in the darkness, pulling up at Red's juke joint, a place I had read about. I was happy to find the door wide open on a weeknight, but there was no music. Conversation with Red led to me getting the accordion out, which led to a rocking plugged in set for him and a bunch of regulars. Red says: "I am backed by the River and fronted by the grave" (His place is right by the Mississippi River, and in front is a cemetery.)

The following morning I continued to Leland, birthplace of Kermit the Frog and home to bluesman and artist Pat Thomas, who was another person I met in 2011. He recognized me right away and after saying hello asked if I wanted to go to the grave. I said "yes" without really knowing what he meant. We hopped back in my van and he directed me to the church and graveyard where a lot of his family are buried, and we played a few tunes while sitting on the grave of his father, James Son Thomas. I learned more about Pat - he used to be a gravedigger at this cemetery. One time his boss told him to dig a new grave and where to dig it, and he wound up hitting a previously buried casket and cracking it open. When he got home his father said he could smell it on him and made him change all of his clothes out on the back porch. Pat made $75 a grave.

GIG #143, my first jam with Pat Thomas.

My body and spirit couldn't handle any more experiences after Pat, so I jumped in the van after dropping him off at the Highway 61 Blues Museum and made the ten hour drive back to Gainesville in one go, stopping for gas a couple of times. I drove across Mississippi and Alabama on route 82, before hooking up with I-10 in Tallahassee. It's good to be home with Yulene after almost three weeks on the road.

Monday 13 February 2012

Strange Loops February 2012

Strange Looping evolved out of my GIG 365 project in 2011. I stole the name from Douglas Hofstadter's book "I Am a Strange Loop." In the book, Hofstadter states, "In the end, we are self-perceiving, self-inventing, locked-in mirages that are little miracles of self-reference."

Strange Loop music is created with a loop pedal. I use a Digitech Jamman Stereo. The music is composed, performed, recorded, and mixed live, in the moment. The loop is opened with a click of the pedal and a musical phrase is performed into it. The loop is then closed with another click of the pedal and the loop's length is set. An infinite number of successive musical phrases can be laid on top of the initial loop.

Strange Loops created during GIG 365 were done in front of an audience. I managed to save a few of them, and selected the best for the previous set "Strange Loops 2011"

This first set of 2012 is a bit different. I used the stereo looper, a mixing board, and a single microphone to record everything. I placed each phrase by selecting a stereo position before I laid down the phrase. (During GIG 365 I used two Sure SM58 microphones to capture everything. This is ideal, as the location of the phrase is captured in whatever position it is played in front of the microphones)

The instrumentation for this set:
Vocals, throat singing, snaps, hand claps, breathing
7 note kalimba
Lao khaen (or khene)
Bird calls from Fábrica de Pios Maurílio Coelho
Dizi chinese transverse flute
Large cane flute
Pandeirão de Mestre Lua Rasta
Cooperman frame drum
Remo Kanjira
Goat hooves shaker
12" Chau Gong
MJWB Shell shaker
MJWB Sea glass shaker
Small Indian Bells on string
MJWB Bell tree
MJWB Shell Stick
Antelope Shofar
Indian hand cymbals