Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Playlist

On a biweekly basis, a musical playlist that I create is given airtime on under the title Daddy Peet Expresso (DPE). Along with each "show," I also write what could be called a blurb, not a description of the music so much as a reflection on any aspect of that particular list that catches my fancy.

For DPE #12, I thought it would be of interest to give listener/readers a chance to get in the kitchen, to see what my playlist creation process might entail. Here's what I wrote for that segment:
If you were considering making a playlist for a party, or for a romantic evening, or even for an afternoon of work, where would you start? Favorite songs? Favorite songs on a particular theme? Songs that elicit a special mood?

And if you were going a create a playlist for a biweekly program, would you go about it in that same way, choosing favorites or hoping to create moods?

I can’t speak with the authority of a world famous deejay, nor can I pretend that my own approach is based on any sort of winning formula. What I can say is that for creating the Daddy Peet Expresso playlist, the process is a bit like the creative process I’ve followed in writing a short story, a poem, and even a song lyric. I get some sound or phrase in my head, process it in my imagination, then it takes flight from there. What the playlist eventually sounds like might not be anything like that initial sound byte, but within the broad songscape there certainly is a genesis, an alpha, the beginning of a storyline, just as there is also a sense of omega, le fin, “leave out all the rest.”

This particular set of songs * was probably initiated when I was lounging in my living room in a condo in Singapore, chilling to the disc Bleu Blanc World, a free CD that accompanied my monthly Songlines magazine injection, and I heard voices from what I later learned was a 6-man vocal ensemble from Marseilles named Lo Cor de La Plana doing a very fine a capella piece called “La Vièlha,” and I thought, “that’s cool,” a nice song to start a set with.

Later, on my iPod, a rhythmic African number that I didn’t recognize but that I guessed came from a CD I’d picked up on a recent visit to the States gnawed at my attention, and I took note: an Angolan singer named Mamukueno doing a piece entitled “Rei de Palhetinho” (The King of Palhetinho). Let’s add that.

Then there was the moment when I was sitting at the kitchen table of my sister’s country home in southern Ohio, surfing the Net and listening for the first time to the last Ray Charles recording, one that included, she said, a series of unlikely duets. Sure enough, the minute I heard the notes of an old familiar tune done with strings, then voices I never imagined side by side, I paused and asked, “Who is that?” The duet was both poignant and arresting, especially when the improbable meant voices as tonally disparate as Ray’s and Willie Nelson’s, on a Sinatra tune with all the orchestral hype --- schmaltzy? Absolutely. Moving? By all means.

And so forth. One by one other tunes joined the ever growing list in my Mac: by popping up in my daily listening experience on the iTunes shuffle (“La Negra Tomasa” by Compay Segunda and Moby’s “Run On” being two), at least one from my daughter’s iPod (“Secrets” by One Republic), one re-enjoyed when I was traipsing out in the world (Marley’s "Exodus”) and a dozen others popping up…..well, as to where and how, that’s very secondary to the music itself. 

* By the end of December 2011, all Daddy Peet Expresso playlists will be available for your listening pleasure on the updated and improved radio moka website. Stay tuned ...

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Three Chords and the Truth

On a lazy Sunday afternoon in May 1977, I was taking the escalator up and out of the Universitetskaya metro stop near my Moscow State University student residence, when I saw two fellow American exchange students, both like me from Ohio, coming down the adjacent escalator.  Where you guys headed? I recall asking. The girls responded with great excitement: “ Come on, Khlebchick! We’re going to see the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.  Why don’t you join us?”

They went on to rush an explanation of where the American country band was playing and how the two of them had gotten tickets. I hesitated, not knowing much about Nitty Gritty and not really “into country” at that time. And then my chance had passed; the girls were gone.

A day or so later when Laura and Deb told me about how great the concert was, and how they’d been invited back stage to meet the stars and then to the after-concert party at the US Embassy, I was deflated. (And if my memory serves me correctly, they reported that Comrade Brezhnev, apparently a fan of American roots music, was also in the audience.)

Now I realize what an opportunity I had missed. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band might have had less rock star flash than similarly-influenced units from the era, groups such as The Band and Crosby, Stills and Nash, but its members were seriously talented, and by recording with Maybelle Carter and Vassar Clements on the album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, they not only gave a nod to their “bluegrass” roots but put themselves at the forefront of a “country and western” (C&W) revival.

The C&W appellation actually included a number of early 20th century folk music styles, from reels and ballads to cowboy songs, accompanied either solo on guitar or with a combination of guitar, violin, harmonica, banjo and dulcimer. The genre in its various forms originally gained popular appeal in the 1920s with recordings by Fiddlin’ John Carson, Uncle Dave Macon and Charlie Poole. By the 1930s groups such as the Skillet Lickers and the Carter Family as well as individuals such as Jimmie Rodgers and Bill Monroe had become widely known through nascent radio broadcasts.

But soon the music had been overshadowed, first by jazz and rhythm and blues, then by pop and rock. By the late 70s, however, country had shed its “western” nomenclature and polished its rough-hewn edges, reinventing itself as it incorporated elements of pop, rock and R&B, gaining audiences far beyond its blue-collar Appalachian and prairie home. Country’s popularity in the USA today is unparalleled. In fact, according to a recent Harris survey, 60% of America’s adult population like country music, supporting 2,600 full-time country radio stations. That’s up 92% since I was in Moscow missing the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

This playlist includes a range of songs from beneath the country umbrella, including a bluegrass number by Doc Watson and Bill Monroe (its alleged father), country rock by the likes of Pure Prairie League and the Marshall Tucker Band, pop country by 60s idol Skeeter Davis and Canada’s Cowboy Junkies, and the roots Nashville sound by legends Hank Williams Sr. and Patsy Cline.  Of course, there’s also a representative song by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

If that was good enough for Comrade Brezhnev, it’s good enough for me. Enjoy!  

* This essay was written for the Daddy Peet Expresso program entitled "Three Chords and the Truth": 

Psychic Elephant & other gems

The range of approaches and results in songwriting never fails to amaze. Just look at a sampling of the titles in this set, on a continuum from the most straightforward to the most enigmatic: Miriam’s Goodbye to Africa, Last Steam Engine Train, Satin Doll, Rio Nights, Como Siento Yo, Luz Negra, The Calling, Camions Sauvages, Kinsiona, Meadows of Dan, Fake Plastic Trees, Psychic Elephant.

Though the meaning behind musical titles can elude discerning listeners, it is often the lyrics – no matter how inventive -- that baffle us to the point of no return, even while bringing us great entertainment in our attempts at deciphering. Over the years how many Beatles’ fans and critics alike have agonized about the meaning of the classic “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” without simply attributing the psychedelic imagery and that of other masterpieces from the period to John Lennon’s well-documented interest in hallucinations?

Another fine example is Thom Yorke’s 2001 classic, “Fake Plastic Trees,” from Radiohead’s The Bends:

Her green plastic watering can / For her fake Chinese rubber plant /
In the fake plastic earth / That she bought from a rubber man / In a town full of rubber plans / To get rid of itself … // It wears her out, it wears her out / It wears her out, it wears her out…

We can speculate on whether Yorke is feeling anger or amusement, whether it’s based on some reality or merely theater of the absurd. But for many listeners, the words of such numbers are irrelevant.  It’s all about the mood created, the rhythms, the arrangements. For others, realism in lyrics is a must, and so the lyrics of a song like those by Brazilian songstress Fernanda Takai – even while dramatic to the extreme -- make much needed sense:

Sempre só
(Always alone)
Eu vivo procurando alguém
(I live searching for someone)
Que sofra como eu também
(Who suffers like me)
Mas não consigo achar ninguém (But I don’t succeed in finding anyone)

Sempre só
 (Always alone)
E a vida vai seguindo assim
(And so life goes)
Não tenho quem tem dó de mim (There’s no one to pity me)
Estou chegando ao fim (Arriving at the end)

A luz negra de um destino cruel
 (The black light of a cruel destiny)
Ilumina um teatro sem cor
 (Illuminates a theater without color)
Onde estou representando o papel
 (Where I play the role)
De palhaço do amor (Of a clown of love)

Whatever your fancy, the beauty of music is that there is a song being created every day that will soothe the soul each one of us. There’s a number in this set for each of us as well. Enjoy!  

*This is the blurb for the Daddy Peet Expresso program "Psychic Elephant and other gems":

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Rastaman Vibration: A Brief Intercultural Encounter

Sunday afternoon at Goodluck Garden. From inside my second story concrete nest, I can see the pool, cool transparent blue. Usually the pool by this time of day is filled with kids and doting parents -- of Singaporean Chinese, Indian or Caucasian background -- splashing each other, floating on rafts or shooting water guns. 

But this afternoon is different. There is only one family at the pool today, a mixed family, the wife a Caucasian woman in her early to mid 30s, a pair of cute kids around three or four years old, and nearby, the husband, a very athletic black man with thick dreadlocks dangling to his waist. What makes this scene most unusual is that I have rarely seen any fellow Goodluck Gardeners of African (or African-American? Jamaican? African-European?) origin, much less anyone whose hair  seems to be classic Rastafarian.

I call my daughter from her room to see the family, simply because I know she will admire the man's hair, which she does (she also says he is "amazingly buff").  As we then spy on the group  from our apartment, discussing the wife's midriff bulge, the man's dreads and the beauty of the couple's kids, we witness an unusual occurrence. 

Another couple, seemingly in their 20s and also mixed (she appears Chinese, he Indian), approach the pool area from the area opposite our place, hand in hand with their own kids, twins of two years old or so. They are dressed in bathing suits as well. Suddenly though, when they get a view of the athletic gentleman, they do an about-face, making a hasty retreat. 

Then my daughter and I both wonder: What has just happened?

Sunday, September 04, 2011

What to do when your money is on the line?

It's Saturday afternoon, and I receive an email request from a professional acquaintance who directs an English program at an Indonesian university. I'd already heard that he was coming to Singapore for a professional visit with nearly 30 teachers from various Indonesian universities. I'd also heard that he'd made reservations for his group at a local budget hotel. What I didn't expect was what he would ask me to do.

He was in panic mode. According to his missive, he had not been able to secure his reservation because he didn't have a credit card, and the visit was just two weeks away. His request was this: Would I be willing to use my credit card to secure the reservation and pay up front for 15 hotel rooms? The tab would be in the thousands of dollars, but he assured me (and I believed him) that as soon as he received the bill from me he would have the money wired to my account.

Generally, I would not have even considered getting involved. But the fellow making the request was a person who had helped organize for me a workshop tour of various Indon universities. He had also invited me to do a presentation skills workshop at his school. In addition, he had made it possible for me to get a book chapter published, and we had also collaborated in project work. In a very real sense, I owed him.

At the same time, I was wary of putting so much cash up front. What would happen if something went awry? I really wanted to avoid a situation that tested our professional friendship.

So how to avoid a conflict in this situation?

Friday, August 26, 2011

I will never meet the Sentinelese (repost)

Have you ever imagined taking a sailing trip through the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal? I have. And though I hear the scuba diving is excellent and the sunsets are spectacular, my greatest interest is not in the water or on the horizon but for the little known island of North Sentinel. What would it be like to step ashore, I've wondered.

Welcome to a version of the Stone Age, where sure death is the answer. For on that tropical islet, among lush vegetation and behind a ring of white sandy beaches, resides a group of people for whom outsiders are unwelcome, and time has stood still --- meet the legendary Sentinelese.

In visiting North Sentinel, one has to move cautiously. In an article on the website AtlasObscura, it is reported that two fishermen who made the mistake of illegally casting their lines within the shadow of the island were killed in a barrage of arrows. Even the helicopter sent to retrieve the bodies nearly fell prey to the tribesmen's expert shots.

No, the Sentinelese don't take to strangers, and for that and other reasons, their idyllic speck of real estate has been declared off limits by the Indian government, which oversees the area --- and that has been the saving grace of their society and culture.

When we talk about culture, I like the definition set forth by Lederach (1995) in the book Preparing for peace: Conflict transformation across cultures: "Culture is the shared knowledge and schemes created by a set of people for perceiving, interpreting, expressing, and responding to the social realities around them" (p. 9). 

The social reality for the Sentinelese, we might surmise, is one in which the idea of in group and out group is very strong. If you are one of us, you look like we do, you act like we do, you speak like we do, and you live in the lean-to next door --- then you're safe. If you don't fulfill those criteria --- you are a danger for us, and if you get too close, you will die.

The Sentinelese "perception" of outsiders as dangerous aliens who merit a response of finely-crafted iron-tipped arrows has been corroborated by the experience of other islanders in the Andamans. Without the protection of the Indian government, the Jarawa, the Onde and others have been individually and collectively exploited, their social universes broken apart in much the same way as those of the native Americans from the 17th through 19th centuries: men forced into working as cheap laborers, women conscripted into the invaders' kitchens and beds, and children stripped of their sense of identity as the tsunami of outside influences rushes in.  

There are different perspectives, of course, on what action a government can and should take in this case. Some would argue that it is better for the inevitable to happen, that the assimilation/integration of "primitive" groups to the dominant, more "civilized" society is social evolution, a necessary stage in historical development, and the sooner the better. That argument gains strength when one considers, for example, the advantages of giving these people access to modern health care. 

Still, as the experience of the Penan in East Malaysia and countless other tribal groups from Borneo to West Papua shows us, forced assimilation -- with reneged upon promises of health care, housing and formal education -- can come at a high price: thwarted expectations, dire new living conditions and cultures in decay.

So India's current policy of enforced protection of the isolation of the Sentinelese stands, and my dream of visiting their island will never be realized. Good for them.

For more information on the culture of various tribes in the Andaman Islands, see this link.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Nonverbal versus Verbal Communication: A False Dichotomy?

Imagine this scenario: It's dark in Cebu City, 7:45pm. On Mango Avenue sits a well-lit bookstore. On the shop front, a sign reads 10am-8pm.

Two potential customers arrive at the front door. They are obviously not locals, and perhaps are not aware of the norms of the store. They try to enter the main door but find it locked.

Inside the shop, a store security man stands at attention as a cashier rings up a final customer. Outside, the two would-be customers stand in surprise when they note that the door has already been locked nearly 15 minutes before the end of the opening hours stated in the language of the sign.

One of these potential shoppers becomes angry. Without a word, he waves at the security guard, points at the shop sign, grimaces, then tugs at the door handle. The guard looks on but doesn't move. The would be customer throws up his hands in frustration, looks directly at the guard and points yet again at the sign, and when he receives no response other than an indifferent look from the guard, he turns and walks away.

What has just happened in this mainly nonverbal exchange? Why is there a problem?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Imaginary Jukebox

9 to 5? Work deadlines? Doctor bills? Mortgage payment? Taxes?

Those are all burdens that we adults have to endure. Just for a second, wouldn’t it be nice to be a kid again? How would that feel?

Of course, it wasn’t a painless experience, but when I remember how carefree I felt at particular times during my childhood, especially during my teenage years, circa 1972, and most especially when I was hanging out on my beach towel at the swimming pool in Thornville, Ohio, on lazy summer afternoons, a big smile comes to my face.

Part of that pleasure was retiring to the pool for a swim. Another part was ogling the young ladies.  But just as important was hearing the music blasting away from the pool jukebox, that oversized, coin-operated phonograph that kept the pool crowd swinging.

A quick Google search shows that the “juke” in jukebox derives from “juke joint,” the often rowdy drinking and dancing establishments that catered to workers on plantations in the southern states of the US in the early 20th Century. (The word “juke” is apparently from the Gullah (Georgian Sea Island) word “joog,” meaning wicked.)  By the middle of the 1940s, 75% of all the records produced in America – and that was millions of records -- found their home in a jukebox.

The jukebox at the Thornville Pool stood right at the front of the concession stand, opposite the wading pool. For a quarter (25 cents), you could choose 3 songs from the 100 or so titles that were presented on a menu within the display case top. Some of my friends would probably spend 50 cents every time they visited the pool, enough for 6 songs. If a guy had a buck and a half, he could line up 18 songs --- and if my memory of 1972 serves me correctly, they might have included anything from War’s recent release “Cisco Kid” to the oldie but goodie “Under the Boardwalk” by The Drifters. Of course, there were also hits by hugely popular groups such as The Doors and Chicago and by cool singers like Cher and Marvin Gaye.

For some of us though, it was about more than music; the jukebox at the pool was where we learned so much about hipness, about style. Listen to the words and catch the vibe from songs like the “Theme from Shaft” by Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” to see what I mean.

Tune in to Daddy Peet Expresso on on Saturday night August 20/21 midnight and Sunday morning at 11am for this program.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Help Me

“There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness.
Friedrich Nietzsche

The theme of love gets revisited by each of us over and over in our lives. We lap it up as babies, demand it as small kids, chase after it in the dark when we’re school children, and fret over it from adolescence forward. Still, it’s an emotion that can’t be easily defined, although many songwriters have tried.

Whether our love is directed at a supreme being or a fragile human, whether it is carnal or spiritual, we pace our lives within its parameters. It’s noteworthy, too, that since the advent of mass media such as radio, songs of love have become commodities that seem to reinforce our sensitivities.

Chicago has been a hotbed of stories sung about love since its studios started recording crooners and its radio stations began to compete in the “broadcast boom” at about the same time, early in the Jazz Age. In fact, one of the very first commercial broadcast stations in America, WLS (standing for World’s Largest Store), which was inaugurated in April 1924 by Sears-Roebuck Company principally as a means of advertising its commercial wares, proved to be a long-lasting outlet of music and other information.

I got my own taste of Chicago radio in the early 1970s when each night I would tune the radio beside my bed to WLS. One of the groups I would hear there was the Chi-Lites. Their soul hit from 1972, “Oh Girl,” resonated deeply for a small-town Ohio boy, searching for answers to conflicting feelings:

"Oh girl/I'd be in trouble if you left me now/'Cause I don't know where to look for love/I just don't know how”; “I could save myself a lot of useless tears/Girl I've got to get away from here"; "Better be on my way, I can't stay here….”

Sonny Boy Williamson’s classic blues, “Help Me,” recorded in Chicago in 1963, hints at a similar dilemma:

“You got to help me/
I can't do it all by myself/
You got to help me, baby/
I can't do it all by myself/
You know if you don't help me, darling/I'll have to find myself somebody else….”

Perhaps Nietzsche, whose words inspired an opera by Wagner, but – to my knowledge - have not been set within many love songs, said it best when he commented that “a pair of powerful spectacles has sometimes sufficed to cure a person in love.”  
Whatever the case, it’s the songs that most often get us through.

(abridged from a Daddy Peet Expresso program of the same name) 

Blues the Healer

Are the blues a cultural universal? We all suffer disappointment, loss and ultimately, the sort of pain from harsh reality that provides the basis of “having the blues.” And if that is true, do we solve our problems in similar ways? More aptly, does music similar to the blues bubble to the surface from geographical areas besides the Mississippi delta, and give us a sense of “get over it”?

Music writers are quick to connect the structural dots, of course, not just between African beats, work songs, field hollers, spirituals and the genesis of the blues, but also between gypsy cante and flamenco, and between sailor songs and Portuguese fado.  That sort of etymological discussion can take place across the globe when it comes to all sorts of traditional music.    

My own understanding of the blues in musical terms got a serious shot in the arm when, in the late 1980s, I was living in Petaling Jaya (PJ), a suburb of Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia, and more importantly, hanging out in various corners of the vibrant local music scene. The live music there in particular was strongly influenced by an American and British invasion, with numerous Filipino bands well established at major hotels, and small bars like All That Jazz, The Longhorn, and Traffic Lights featuring groups that eased through jazz standards, country rock and pop/hard rock respectively.

On the bar circuit at the time was one group of long-haired local talents called The Blues Gang, whose high octave repertoire included a fistful of rock-based originals sung in Malay along with numerous well rendered tunes from the American-British blues rock songbook, from the likes of Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix to Eric Clapton and Cream.  Having been a rock head in my youth back in the US, I was quick to get on the party train a la the Blues Gang in Kuala L’impur (Andre Gide’s words, not mine).

In the same era I also frequented a hole-in-the-wall stereo shop in the now defunct Asia Jaya mall. There my buddy Kim, the well-informed and UK-refined Chinese owner, sold state of the art audio equipment while possessing what must have been the best collection in the Klang Valley of recordings on the new CD format, which he would happily expound upon and then loan out for a small fee.  It was on Kim’s recommendation that I borrowed the Deutsche Grammophone recording of the San Francisco Symphony doing Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story,” and a piece I had never heard before, William Russo’s “Street Music: A Blues Concerto.”

A blues concerto, on blues harp no less? Completely plausible, I remember thinking. Not long before listening to and being blown away by Russo’s ode to the blues, I’d been in Cee Jay’s in central KL, listening to the Blues Gang cranking out a fast-paced rocker together with local harp maestro Rafique Rashid wailing away, when I suddenly realized the power of that tiny ten-holed instrument, bent to tasteful effect with a bout of the blues.  

Having the blues is undoubtedly a cultural universal. Being a fan of blues perhaps less so. But until you've given listening to the blues a chance, whether on CD or in a bar or on the back porch, don't judge. You don't know what you're missing.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Primal Rhythm

My buddy John, a well-known corporate trainer and formidable percussionist in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, has an apartment within a stone’s throw of KL’s largest Chinese temple, Tian Hou. Often times at night you can hear music emanating from the depths of the layered ornate structure, whether live accompaniment for a celebratory lion dance or prerecorded Hong Kong pop played for a wedding party. In fact, I’ve even heard bhangra blasting from the temple’s expansive basement hall, the pulse measuring a Punjabi celebration.

But the rhythms that accompany my friend John’s life start at home. You walk from ground level gardens into his family’s dining room area and, standing by his teak table, look on the two facing walls, and you see three long shelves of drums and various noisemakers, from painted djembes, bongos, dumbeks, ashiko, congas, a tabla, a surdo, a thumpu, a mrdangam, djun-djun, tambor and an ancient talking drum from Sarawak, to assorted bells and bangers. And that’s just the start.

Go to John’s back kitchen, and open a large closet and you’ll find nearly a dozen sets of nesting drums, more and more and more djembes, half a dozen plastic tubs filled with percussive toys, and other assorted things to bang on ---stacked floor to ceiling. What’s this mad scene all about?

Rhythm. Besides enjoying a good round of sounds himself, John directs drum circles and various percussive workshops, often under the banner of corporate team building but many times orchestrating for yet another of a multitude of Klang Valley community groups (I’ve happily participated in a few, including one for charity at Montfort Boys’ Town and another for the Parkinson Center.) Regularly, he packs his car with his tom toms and goes off for a rousing day of drumming, thrilling everyone who gets to bang on something and, like the Pied Piper of drums, moving anyone whose heart throbs within earshot. What’s that all about, John?


Need I say more? Not really. Get the rhythm. Just listen to music from Lester Young and Teddy Wilson’s “All of Me” to Tony Allen’s “Homecookin’,” from Salif Keita’s “Soro” to Suba’s “Tantos Desejos,” plug into the beats, and tell me, which way do you move? Up and down? From side to side? Do you move your hips back and forth, head bobbin’ one way and arms flayin’ a dozen others?

Even if the change is just in your heart beat, you got the rhythm, baby, that deep primal rhythm.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Compared to What?

In the early 1990s I was teaching at a university in Akita prefecture, northern Japan, and I produced a concert at the school that included famed jazz pianist Les McCann as the headlining act. McCann and his Magic Band were in the area to play a couple gigs at local jazz clubs, and using a mama-san connection in the jazz scene, I’d secured their participation in my own mini-music festival. Of course, I really had no idea what to expect.

The night of the gig, I was really sweating it. A couple local bands and several student groups opened the evening in the 4th floor auditorium of the uni’s main admin building. It was a major effort to set up the place since there was no elevator; all the sound equipment had to be hauled up the seemingly endless staircase. But the real nail-biter was waiting for Les and his band. By 8pm I was freaking out, while certain members of the audience who had paid a steep ticket price were also restless since there was no word of the band's arrival. Still, by landline (pre-cellphones) the mama-san assured me that the band would show. 

Sure enough, just as the act that preceded the Magic Band got onto the stage, a couple vehicles carrying Les and his boys pulled up into the parking lot of the school's main building.  When I heard they had arrived (I had sentries posted awaiting the arrival!), I rushed down the four flights of stairs. There were half a dozen players piled into a van, and Les seated in an accompanying car. I greeted them at the building door. The Man himself, by 1992 a bearded, sumo-sized pianist, seemingly twice the size he'd been when he recorded a startling set at the Montreux Jazz Festival twenty years earlier, was faintly pleasant but a bit standoffish.  And I can still remember how his eyebrows raised at my announcement that there was no elevator up to the auditorium. 

That was all understandable, too, since Les had already played an afternoon gig, and he probably weighed in the neighborhood of 120 kilos. Anyone could have guessed that exhaustion would come easy for a fellow his size. By the time we reached the third floor, the towel around his neck was soaked in sweat, and by the fourth, he was wheezing dangerously. Heart attack city?

As a sort of icebreaker, I told Les I had cold water for him in my office. He looked at me like all he wanted to do was lay down and die. What happened next though was even more than I might have imagined. 

Since my office was on the 4th floor, I had arranged it as a makeshift dressing room, with drinks and a swivel office chair installed for Les to relax in. As we got to my door, the poor headliner looked white as a sheet. Just inside, and with the door closed behind him, he went straight for the comfort of the chair, like a man on a mission --- apparently without a thought—when BAM! All 200+ pounds crashed butt-first to the floor.

Sure enough, the chair's wheels had given way, and it rolled backwards as Les rocked like a boulder off a ledge.

“Sorry, Les,” I feebly offered, then ran calling some of the guys to help drag the big man back up to his feet. He was clearly shaken, but to his credit, instead of complaining, he had a good laugh.

Shortly after that tumble, Les McCann and his Magic Band went on stage and blew the roof off the auditorium. The night, like the song that has made Les most famous, was incomparable!

Check out Les McCann's song and others on the radio program Daddy Peet Expresso, on

Journey of the Heart

A musical journey is very similar to a physical one in that it is also a journey of the heart. My first one got a boost during my teenage years in a white clapboard farmhouse back a long lane tucked amidst the hills of southern Ohio. I had a well-to-do friend, Tommy J, whose parents raced horses, and they followed their animals south when winter came to the Midwest. That meant that my buddy often found himself at home alone during the winter months. When I’d visit on weekends, we pretty much had the farm to ourselves, but we were never lonely thanks to his stereo system and eclectic record collection.  And it was from there, amongst the Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Uriah Heap and other English rock albums, that he revealed an LP (long play) record called Transa,  and a song in particular, "It's a Long Way," that gave me, his wayward friend, a new and exciting sense of direction, one that I would never forget:

Woke up this morning 
Singing an old, old Beatles song 
We’re not that strong, my lord 
You know we ain’t that strong 
I hear my voice among others 
In the break of day 
Hey, brothers, Say, brothers 
It’s a long long long long way  

We teenage boys liked our music loud, but I remember first listening to Caetano Veloso’s uptempo ballad at low volume. It got played somewhere amongst Tommy’s stories of his year abroad in Brazil. Along with those images of a life in the far off tropics, I was captivated by Caetano Veloso’s suave voice and strong sense of melody, along with the vibrant rhythms and evocative lyrics, which were a mix of English and Portuguese. It resonated of a world distant from my rural Ohio experience.

Os olhos da cobra verde
Hoje foi que arreparei
Se arreparasse a mais tempo
Nao amava quem amei

Arrenego de quem diz
Que o nosso amor se acabou
Ele agora esta  mais firme
Do que quando comecou
It's a long road

Agua com areia brinca na beira do mar
Agua passa e a areia fica no lugar
E se nao tivesse o amor
E se nao tivesse essa dor
E se nao tivesse sofrer
E se nao tivesse chorar
E se nao tivesse o amor
No Abaeto tem uma lagoa escura
Arrodeada de areia branca

With that song in my head, I have since traveled the globe. I even spent three years living in Lisbon, Portugal, and while there, learned to love the songs of a number of fine Brazilian singers, including Chico Buarque, Gal Costa, Milton Nascimento, and one of my very favorites, Caetano Veloso's sister, Maria Bethania. I also became a fan of Portuguese fado, Spanish flamenco and lots of other musical styles I'd never heard of earlier. Ironically, it was while living in Lisbon that I also started a journey of discovery of music from America, for it was there that a friend turned me on to American jazz and blues.

Ever since that experience, new horizons -- whether in the deserts of Rajastan or the mountains of the Ainu, in the tropical rain forests or the turquoise seas of Southeast Asia --  have tugged methodically at my heart strings. The soundtrack to such a journey can be rich and varied.

I invariably advise students to seek out and listen to music other than the songs played on radio or advertised on TV because generally much of what gets heavy media airplay is what is being proffered and sold by large recording companies. This is not to say that music of that sort isn't good; it's just that what the typical deejay is going to spin is what his station's (or network's) musical programmer will mandate. Often times, that's music which can easily be called mainstream. It's called such, first, because it is often made by recognizable artists, and secondly, because it usually reflects certain production values (smooth and easy, classic oldies, and the like).

Luckily, there is so much more to music than what the stations deem as popular, and there is much more being made by incredible musicians than the stuff that a station considers the sort that will make advertisers happy.

In fact, everywhere there are remarkable musicians, singers and composers with so much to say. Give that local music from anywhere a chance, and what you will discover will often be as astounding as another new vista encountered on a hike through the local hills.

Bon voyage!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Lessons where you least expect them

Invited to lead workshops on presentations skills at a university in Jember, East Java, in December 2010, I learned some important lessons, first and foremost on the value of patience when dealing within a cultural milieu different from one's own.

Here's a clear example. On the Saturday before the university workshops, I was invited by my university host, an English teacher/program director with whom I'd worked on several projects earlier, including a lecture tour at universities in the same Indonesian provinces the previous September, to go east to the neighboring province to visit his wife's kampong. On Sunday the plan was to stop by a nearby national park famous for its pristine beach.

The four-hour car journey from Jember to Banyuwangi was very enjoyable. We drove through the forested Gumitir mountain region, stopped at a cafe selling locally-grown coffee and then wound our way into the flat plain opening to the Strait of Bali. Expecting to simply ride in my friend's car for four or five hours, I wore shorts and a T-shirt, my usual style in the tropical heat. I had even asked my friend if these clothes were appropriate, and he'd given me the thumbs up. I started to doubt this though when he asked me if I would mind "dropping in" at the Islamic school where his wife teaches; I pointed out that I was dressed very informally. He said it didn't matter, that we would just be stopping in for a short while.

Around noon we arrived at the school, where I could see that the Saturday morning session had just ended. The street in front of the school was filled with the motorbikes of parents come to pick up their kids; the inner courtyard was filled with male students in uniform slacks and dress shirts and girls in long baju and head scarves gathering their bags in a scurry out of the classrooms.

Our car was met by the very well spoken head English teacher, and my host and I were led  into the principal's office. There on a low-set wooden table fresh cut fruits and colorful rice cakes had been set out, in anticipation of our visit. This should have been my first clue that something more formal in nature was planned. I didn't have to wait long for the missing information. After chatting with the school principal, vice principal and head teacher for 15 minutes, I was asked if I wanted to see the classroom where I'd be teaching the lesson.

The lesson? Teaching? I would be teaching?

This was news to me, and with a tone that must have seemed slightly incredulous, I asked what I would be teaching. The head teacher explained that it was simple: just give a lecture to motivate the students for their English study. And by the way, he added, many of the teachers had wondered if they could attend "the lesson" and observe as well. Hopefully that was acceptable, he said. I tried my best to suppress the shock.

How long should I lecture? I then asked. "An hour will be good" was the nonchalant answer.

Over the years I have traveled quite a bit, I've taught in myriad situations, and I've learned to expected the unexpected. I have to admit though, in this case even the well seasoned itinerant teacher in me was caught off-guard. Ok---an hour lesson, my mind raced. Won't this be an experience.

Arriving at the appointed classroom, I did a double take: the room was filled with 35 or 40 students, age 15 or so, and at least a dozen teachers. There were also all shapes and sizes of brown faces looking in the slatted windows beside the open door. I suddenly felt like a zoo animal on display.  A few "hellos" to students and teachers and I discovered that many members of my prospective class spoke little to no English. I had a job to do though with no time to worry about language skills.

Surveying the big wooden desk on the raised dais at the front of the class and the neat rows of chairs and desks crowding the classroom space, I made a quick decision: the environment needed to be crafted to my liking. In short, I needed to take some control. Without hesitating, I gesticulated to the group, signaling that I wanted the desks moved out of rows and into groups of four, with pairs facing each other, perpendicular to the front of the class. Then I wrote in broad strokes on the whiteboard:

0 = Zero English   1= Some English
2= Good English  3= Great English.

"If you have no English, 0, move to the front corner of the classroom, by the door," I said, asking my host to interpret. " A bit of English, move to that back corner. Good English, back in the opposite corner. And if you have great English, move up here," I said, pointing to the corner opposite the door.

My idea was simple. I would first divide the mass into groups, initially by English level, then into small foursomes, with at least one decent English speaker (including my host and the head teacher!) in every combo. That strategy worked better than expected, with everyone cheerfully self selecting a spot in one of the room's four corners. I was relieved to see that the entire group was almost evenly divided between those who saw themselves as having some English and those who felt they had none. I then assigned each person to a group of four desks, trying my best to mix in participants of different skill levels,  and at the same time, the school teachers -- most of whom felt they had no English -- with their own students. The groups squawked with excitement when they realized they were being mixed!

Next, I wrote a selection of key introductory phrases on the whiteboard. From there the lesson proceeded into a sequence of my modeling stock phrases and then asking some member of each foursome to repeat the phrase: "My name is Batu Hitam (Blackstone). What's your name?"

"My name is Asep."

"Oh, his name is Asep. Hi, Asep. Now say this: My name is Asep. What's your name?"

"My name is Asep. What's your name."

"My name is Batu Hitam. Pleased to meet you."

And off we went, into a fast hour of English conversation. Each class group willingly followed the lead of the silly old (and sweating) American teacher dancing at the front of the classroom, with each person learning all their group member's names in simple introductions as well as practicing possessive pronouns "my, your, his, her," reporting information collected, and spouting the answers to these follow up questions: "What's your hobby? What's her hobby? What's his hobby?"

"My hobby is fishing. Her hobby is reading. His hobby is football. What's your hobby?"

The students and teachers of the junior high school must have been amused by the process. By the end of the hour they were shouting with excitement, revealing English skills most of them didn't realize they had and exhibiting social interaction that undoubtedly was very rare between pupils and teachers within the confines of the typical Islamic institution in East Java.

"High five!" I offered to happy kids who did their part to make the lesson rewarding.

"High ten!" I shouted, slapping hands in tandem with the teacher in the white scarf who had spoken English for maybe the first time in her life.

And what was my take away point from all of this? I'd like to let you decide the answer to that question!