An American Abroad

27 Curaçao

Many people and institutions sustained me during my five weeks in Curaçao. Bed & Bike gave me a place to live and work. La Cantina del Patron nourished me with tapas and cold beer. But it was 27 Curaçao that fortified my rock n roll heart.

27 takes its name from the age at which so many great musicians cashed their check. Robert Johnson. Janis Joplin. Brian Jones. Alan Wilson. Jimi Hendrix. Jim Morrison. Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. Kurt Cobain. Amy Winehouse. These musicians are immortalized on the walls.

But 27 is not a monument to the dead – it’s a space for the living. Live bands perform there several times a week. Rock predominates, but Latin music and hip hop also get their due. Here are some of the best moments from my hours there.

One of my favorite groups was The Charming Bastards, a band committed to carrying the rock n roll torch in Curaçao. Most of their selections were well-chosen covers, both of well-known tunes and deeper tracks – everything a great party band should do.

The biggest show I attended was on October 7, which was when Barry Hay’s Flying V Formation took the 27 stage. I bought the third ticket that was sold for this event, which attracted a couple hundred people (a big crowd for Curaçao).

Barry Hay was the frontman for Golden Earring, a Dutch band that had a big radio hit in the US with “Radar Love.” He has an interesting history, being a Jewish kid born in India to a Dutch mother and a Scottish father. He lives part-time on Curaçao, where he reportedly DJs a radio program.

I’m always wary of going to see older rockers. There are things that many of them did with their voices and their instruments when they were younger that they just can’t do anymore. But Barry Hay seemed to have lost very little of his vocal timbre. He certainly knew how to put on a fine show. And he looked damn good for 69 too. His new band, Flying V Formation, was a multinational ensemble of younger musicians who rocked hard and tight.

The opening act that night was a singer/songwriter from The Netherlands who calls herself PollyAnna. She was one of those opening acts that I’d be happy to see as a headliner sometime. With a voice and style reminiscent of Joni Mitchell, she did a set of of self-penned songs with beautiful melody lines and lyrics that ran from whimsical to introspective.

Andres Mercedes y Los Presidentes are a Latin ensemble from Curaçao. They play salsa, merengue, bachata, and other styles and attract a crowd of locals. The women get dressed up to dance for this band. I don’t know enough about Latin American musical styles to comment intelligently on their shows (yes, I saw them twice), but I loved them. I’ve never been able to dance, but if there’s one genre of music I wish I could move to, it’s this stuff. You can’t be alive and sit still while this group is playing.

In moments of idle musing, I’ve sometimes thought how cool it would be to open my own club. I doubt I’ll ever actually do it. But if I did, I’d model it very closely on 27. It’s worth a trip to Curaçao to visit.

At the Chess Records Studio

These are the back stairs to the musical history of Chicago and the world.

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In the 1950s, numerous blues and R&B legends walked up those stairs to this room, which back in the day was a recording studio.

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Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, Little Walter, The Moonglows, Howlin Wolf, James Cotton, Archie Bell & the Dells, Lonnie Brooks, Solomon Burke, The Four Tops, Percy Mayfield, Otis Rush, Jimmy Rogers, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, Etta James, and Aretha Franklin climbed those stairs. And in that studio, they recorded the music of the Great Migration, the electrified blues that came out of Chicago in the 1950s. Then Chuck Berry came along, combined the electric blues with a country beat and and twang. In the Chess studio, he recorded “Maybellene,” one of the first and most popular rock n roll records:

Encouraged by Muddy Waters, Berry in 1955 brought to Chess Records a recording of his version of Willis’s tune[1] which he had renamed “Ida May” and a blues song he wrote “Wee Wee Hours”, which he stated was inspired by Joe Turner’s “Wee Baby Blue”. To Berry’s surprise, Leonard Chess showed little interest in the blues material but was enthusiastic about the commercial possibilities in a “hillbilly song sung by a black man”. Chess wanted a bigger beat for the song and added a bass and maracas player to the trio at the recording session. He also felt the titles “Ida Red” and “Ida May” were “too rural”. Spotting a mascara box on the floor of the studio, according to Berry’s partner Johnnie Johnson, Chess said, “Well, hell, let’s name the damn thing Maybellene” altering the spelling to avoid a suit by the cosmetic company. The lyrics were rewritten at the direction of Chess as well. “The kids wanted the big beat, cars, and young love,” Chess recalled. “It was the trend and we jumped on it.”

Ten years later, the rock musicians of the British Invasion came to Chicago to record at Chess, in an attempt to get the sound they had heard on American blues records. The Yardbirds, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones, among others, recorded there. The title of the Rolling Stones’ jam, “2120 South Michigan Avenue,” was a reference to the Chess Records address.

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Though the building is now primarily a museum, the Stones still show up, as recently as 2014, to get the Chess sound. Some of the components of that sound, apart from the configuration of the studio room itself, were these two pipes, which rise a few inches from the floor by the back wall of the control room.

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Originally, the music being performed in the studio was picked up by a mic hanging high on the wall at the far end of the studio. It was tweaked in the control room and played through studio monitors. The sound then travelled down those pipes to the mics connected to the tape recorders, which were housed in a room under the control room. This gives Chess records their echo-y, live sound, the sonic texture you’d experience at a blues club.

Today, 2120 South Michigan Avenue is home to Willie Dixon‘s Blues Heaven Foundation and serves as a museum, concert venue, and school for young musicians. Some of the old recording equipment is still on site and provides an object lesson in how far recording technology has come in a half century.

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I was privileged to get a private tour of the facility from Willie Dixon’s grandson, Keith Dixon Nelson.

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Keith graciously allowed me to play his grandfather’s bass — quite a thrill for me.

The land adjacent to the studio is now a small park, with a stage for outdoor concerts.

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The site has also been acknowledged by the Chicago Landmark Commission.

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I went through a major blues phase in my twenties. I lived briefly in Little Rock, Arkansas and listened to a radio station there that played gospel by day and blues by night. I would sit up late listening, electrified by what I heard. Later that summer, I took a bus to Greenville, Mississippi to the Delta Blues Festival. The smell of the Mississippi mud baked hard by the sun mingled with the sounds of electric guitars and wailing harmonicas coming from the stage. I had an experience of synesthesia, where the music and the unique smell intertwined inside me. It was one of the most memorable concerts I’ve ever been to. Many of the musicians who performed there had come to Chicago and Chess Records decades before. Now they were returning to their roots. Now years later, after seeing the Chess studio, I felt like I had seen where those roots produced the blossoms that became the electric blues and rock n roll.

Dar Kmar: The Audience

Although I came to hear the band, I came to see the audience.

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Perhaps because half the band is a percussion section, it was almost impossible to sit still during the music. The drumming, the smoke, the accelerating tempo, and increasing volume combined to put people into an ecstatic dance trance.

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There were a few brief moments of repose between numbers. I noticed that women in the audience outnumbered the men by about three to one. People generally danced in single-sex groups, and not as couples.

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After I’d taken a bunch of pictures, I sat down to sip some tea. But one of the concert organizers came over and grabbed my arm and motioned toward the center of the room where people were dancing. “Je suis un phototographer, pas un danseur!” I protested to no avail. But really, I didn’t need my arm twisted.

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Dar Kmar: The Band

First, you have to heat the drums. Camel skin gets more supple as it warms, producing a deeper, more resonant tone.

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I was deep in the Sousse medina on a Saturday night at Dar Kmar, yet another venue that has no signage, no advertising, and no definable address. I’ve lived in Sousse for almost six months now and I hadn’t even heard of it until recently. It’s an extraordinary place, a house of music, art, food, and Tunisian culture. Finding it was difficult, but well worth the effort.

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I was told they have music there every Saturday. The band on Saturday evening was a ten-piece traditional Tunisian ensemble.

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The evening was my first extended exposure to traditional Arab music played live. The band was heavy on the percussion and vocals, accompanied only a keyboard and a shawm. Each song lasted perhaps fifteen minutes. Generally they began slowly and quietly and grew louder, faster, more percussive, and more passionate as they went on. The effect was hypnotic and got the crowd up on its feet to dance (see the following post). I plan to go back for more.

American Music at the Movies

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I’ve put together a film series for the American Corner here, a library and cultural center jointly funded by Amideast and the US State Department. The idea is to present different genres of American music through the presentation of movies that feature the music in its cultural context. The first film, Lady Sings the Blues, will be shown at 5:30 this Wednesday and all are invited.

Here’s the program for the whole series:

1. Lady Sings the Blues. 1972. Jazz. Starring Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor. The story of the life and career of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday.

2. Crossroads. 1986. Blues. Starring Ralph Macchio, Joe Seneca, and Steve Vai. A young and gifted classical guitar player dreams of playing the blues.

3. Easy Rider. 1969. Rock ‘n’ roll. Starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson. Two hippie bikers ride from Los Angeles to New Orleans in search of America.

4. The Commitments. 1991. R&B. Starring Robert Arkins, Michael Aherne, and Angeline Ball. A working-class Irish band is determined to bring soul music to Dublin.

5. Walk the Line. 2005. Country. Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. A chronicle of country music legend Johnny Cash’s life and songs.

6. O Brother, Where Art Thou? 2000. Folk. Starring George Clooney, John Turturro, John Goodman, and Holly Hunter. Escaped convicts travel across Mississippi in the 1930s trying to find a buried treasure.

7. 8 Mile. 2002. Hip hop. Starring Eminem and Kim Basinger. A young white Detroit rapper tries for his chance at fame.

Sidi Bou Saïd: Ennejma Ezzahra

The last stop for me in Sidi Bou Saïd was a tour of Ennejma Ezzahra (The Star of Venus), the grand villa built in 1912 by Baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger. Photography isn’t allowed inside the villa, but here are the views of the approach and a shot from inside the villa looking out.

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The baron was a painter, an enthusiastic proponent of Arab culture, and a musicologist. As The Rough Guide to Tunisia notes, he “was one of the moving spirits behind the important inaugural Congress on Arab Music, held in Cairo in 1932, the first time Arab music had been treated as a whole and as a culture heritage worthy of both study and preservation.” He collected many traditional musical instruments, published a journal devoted to Arab music, and painted many portraits of Arab musicians. He wrote a six-volume treatise on the history of Arab music and maintained his own private orchestra. Fittingly, his villa today is now known as The Center of Arab and Mediterranean Music. It houses the Baron’s collection of instruments and is used regularly as a performance venue.

One of the most interesting feature of the villa is a water channel that runs through the entrance hall to the formerly open-air (now covered) plaza where performances take place. Apparently the Baron believed that the sound of gently flowing water enhanced the aural experience.

The villa itself would be a must-see on anyone’s Sidi Bou Saïd itinerary as a showcase for various Arab design styles. There is a cedar-ceilinged room built from wood imported from Lebanon. There are alabaster lamps built right into marble walls. Every room has a pleasing symmetry to it; it you see a bed built into one side of a room, you can bet that there will be an identical bed built into the opposite side. The villa was used as a location for a film adaptation of Lawrence Durrell’s Justine.

There is also an fascinating story about the Baron’s son, Leo d’Erlanger and his American wife that is recounted in a wonderful 1987 New York Times article:

As the stuff of romance, Edwina Prue’s story was hard to beat. There she was, a poor girl from America in a railroad station in London in the 1920’s when a nobleman saw her and fell in love with her. He did not introduce himself, but later traced her to her home in the United States, sent her orchids and a letter, and eventually married her.

And so Miss Edwina Prue, born in New York and brought up on a ranch in New Mexico, became Baroness Edwina d’Erlanger, wife of Baron Leo d’Erlanger. She is a widow now, after 47 years of marriage, in her 80’s and spending her time, variously, in Geneva, in London and in a palace here [in Sidi Bou Saïd] that many rate as one of North Africa’s treasures.

I hope to return sometime for a concert in this incredible space.

School Dinner & KTV

Shane English Yuxi held a dinner last night to welcome me to the faculty.

We gathered at a large restaurant complex of several stories and many rooms. Remember the Shanghai nightclub scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where Indy is seated at a revolving table? Our room had something like that, only much larger. All thirty of us were seated at a round table, the perimeter of which was fixed and the interior of which revolved. The waitstaff brought out all kinds of dishes and places them on the revolving portion so that different foods were always passing in front of me.
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After the banquet, about half of us went next door to a large karaoke club, known as a KTV. The chief difference between KTV and American karaoke is that KTV is more private. A KTV club has many rooms that are rented out groups of various sizes; you go to a room with your group and you stay there. Perhaps the idea is that this way, you only embarrass yourself in front of your friends, and not in front of strangers.

The entrance resembled a garish hotel lobby. Our group paid to secure a room and went up a flight of stairs into another lobby. There was a bouncer there who was dressed for riot control: steel helmet, olive drab uniform, flak jacket, combat boots. Corridors branched off this lobby, each of which had dozens of doors leading to the private rooms.

Our room had a large U-shaped sofa, two large video monitors surrounded by an ornate gold-colored frame, two small monitors built into the wall behind the sofa, a boomin’ sound system, a touchscreen music selection computer, several wireless mics, a mic on a metal stand, and a private bathroom. A waiter brought in snacks and an alarming number of beer bottles and we were off to the races.
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The female Chinese staff chose syrupy Asian love songs and a depressing number of tunes by Westlife and sung them seriously. The male western faculty chose easily-parodied classic pop oldies and mocked them painfully. I’m not sure which was worse. I’m listening to a rock and blues playlist this morning to wash the aural dirt out of my ears.

I took a taxi home and was proud of myself for being able to give my cab driver directions to my apartment in Chinese. Of course, after the excesses of the evening, it’s quite possible that I only thought I was speaking Chinese.

The Musicians in Nie Er Park

Yuxi has generally stayed out of the way of history since its founding in 960 AD. No famous battles were fought here. Yuxi has never been a vital commercial or political city. One of its claims to fame, though, is that it is the home of the ancestors (though not the actual birthplace) of Nie Er, the composer of the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China, “March of the Volunteers.” There are a number of parks, streets, and memorials to him here. One of then, Nie Er Park, is right around the corner from my apartment. As befits a greenspace named after a musician, the park attracts many traditional Chinese musicians every day of the week, but especially on Saturday mornings. I spent a few hours there this morning.
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The most interesting performers here were a 25-piece string orchestra with a vocalist. Considering that all these musicians are amateurs just out to play for the joy of it, I was impressed that they could actually get that many people together at one time. Unfortunately, the orchestra played in the round, which made getting a shot of the whole group frustrating, so I tended to focus on the individual musicians.
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All the musicians in the park today were at least middle-aged, and most were older. This doesn’t seem so different to me than the situation in other cultures, where traditional musical forms are preserved by the older generation but ignored by the young.