June 3, 2010
Au revoir, Orgone; Desert Rocks Festival; How to score a late-night quesadilla; Cowbell supergroup debut.
I could feel the wheels of the RV scrabbling for purchase on the dirt track through the hills of Southern Utah, the headlights lurching across rocks, trees and tents. The Desert Rocks Music Festival had been the last show of the tour, and now I was lying in the bunk in the dark, remembering the strange day, and looking forward to going home.
Two days ago at a show on the Sunset Strip we said goodbye to Orgone, the best traveling companions and colleagues we could have wanted: musically inspirational and right good chaps backstage. After they killed it at the Roxy, we went up with Alex Budman and Jason Robinson on saxes. Then Jason’s friend Nick joined on for a three way tenor battle on Time Come. Whoah. That got me and Kelsey fired up and we had to have a battle on So Blind. We should have had the sax winner face off against the brass division champ for the solo on Freedom taking over. Horns were having a big night, but we have to remember to leave something for the rest of the band.
The next day we flew off to Salt Lake City again, then drove south into the red canyons around Moab, arriving dusty and parched at the Apache Motel (“John Wayne Really Stayed Here”), I was not too thrilled to hear we had a photo shoot lined up in 30 minutes. Ryan was bitching, he hates photo shoots. There was one in France where the guy with the camera told us to jump. Everyone jumped but Ryan. He loves that photo because it shows just how much he hates photo shoots. He hates them even more than me, which I never thought possible.
We pulled off the road along a ridge of jutting boulders by a huge natural arch, brick-red in the setting sun. The shoot was a snap, TM helped mama-bear Kim climb two hundred vertical feet of trackless incline. After we’d had a breather, the beauty of the place and the camaraderie eased everyone’s exhaustion.
The Desert Rocks Festival turned out to be really sweet. The location was phenomenal, with the sunlight fading gently on the side of Mount Peale. Pulling in, we were both amused and annoyed by the people who put together the festival program. I think I was the first to notice that their photo of Groundation was actually a picture of Harrison posing with half a dozen fans in Sao Paolo. “Nobody knows you guys out here,” said TM. “No kidding,” I said. I thought we were going to have to play “Lion in the Jungle”* to prove who we were. Luckily, we were admitted by festival security and had a killer show, with lots of people coming up to us afterward with encouraging words. By the time I got there the catering tent was completely closed, I mussed up my hair, threw on my best impression of Oliver Twist, and shuffled up to the cook, a tall guy with glasses, who looked exhausted and was slinging industrial-sized ice-chests of salad and condiments.
“Please sir, would it be possible to have a bit of food?” He glanced over and started to say something. I don’t know if it was these sad eyes, or the way my hands trembled as they clutched my hat. “I got a quesadilla for you,” he said. “Hold on a couple minutes.” I wanted to cry with joy, shoveling hot food into my mouth.
At one point, the siren-call of high-quality rock ‘n’ roll drew me from the hospitality tent and across the sand to the side stage of The Pour, the awesome power trio from Park City. One song near the end of their set featured a cowbell supertrio jam-session, with none other than Mingo Lewis Junior on first cowbell. Christopher Walken would have been in heaven. If they wanted to challenge the horn solo champ from the Roxy, the best cowbellist would first have to pair off against the incredibly shredding guitarists in The Pour and Wisebird, who also had a battle. The winner would get a dinette set, or similar.
The moon rose during our encore, (thanks!) and by the time the RV pulled out I could hear people howling in the tepees and camps. And look at that, I’m right back to my lead. Tidy, just how I like it. See you next in Barcelona. Ciao, Diesel.
*“Lion in the Jungle” is a video originally on Youtube and mislabeled as a Groundation song. We often get requests for it. There’s a lot of misinformation on the internet, if you didn’t know.
May 27, 2010
“It has been six weeks since I touched a pen. In explanation and excuse I offer the fact that I spent that time…on the island of Maui. I only got back yesterday. I never spent so pleasant a month before, or bade any place good-bye so regretfully. I doubt if there is a mean person there, from the homeliest man on the island down to the oldest. I went to Maui to stay a week and remained five. I had a jolly time. I would not have fooled away any of it writing letters under any consideration whatever. It will be five or six weeks before I write again. I sail for the island of Hawaii tomorrow, and my Maui notes will not be written up until I come back.”
With Trombone-man Kelsey riding shotgun, we wound down the well-trodden Hana Road, reaching the Seventh of the Sacred Pools right at dusk. We were accompanied by the lovely Lani and her six-month old daughter Carmenita. A Maui native, Lani looked like Sacagawea out there, diving into pools and hopping over rocks while Kelsey and I slapped on bug-repellent and fumbled along in pursuit. I feel sorry for folks that come here and don’t have local friends to show them around.
We’ve worked for it. Groundation has been coming to Hawaii for years, earning friendships. The way I see it, if you want to be welcome in a place like this you need to have two things: First, you need to show respect. This is important in any culture, but especially in Hawaii. Second, you need to have something to trade, something to offer. At the very least, that means money. Most tourists come here with little more than that, so they only see the surface of things. If you’ve got a joyful heart or a good reggae band, that might get you in the door, and once you really feel welcome here, you know what the fuss is about. And it doesn’t hurt to like macaroni salad.
May 14, 2010
Orgone and the orgone; Ray of Sunshine hits West Coast; atheism rears its somewhat annoying head; one-ninth the purpose of Groundation (my 11%).
This tour really took off. I’d love to wax rhapsodic, but this is the lead so I’ll spare you. Groundation is about to start the second leg of the Fuzion Tour at the Belly Up in Solana Beach with special guests and co-headliner Orgone. Hailing from the wide streets and narrow arroyos of Los Angeles, our funky southern cousins make a great contrast with Groundation, the lighters to go with our Molotov cocktail and vice versa. You will dance your ass off if you come to this show.
The word orgone was created by psychoanalist Wilhelm Reich, and it refers to a kind of invisible life energy. I learned something about him when I was dating a girl who thought he was cool. He was a student of Sigmund Freud, and he had some interesting ideas about sexual freedom and the psychological damage caused by war and authoritarianism. He ran into trouble with both the Nazis and the American Feds, so I know he couldn’t be all bad. Some of his science was pretty sketchy though, including his theories of spontaneous healing through the accumulation of cosmic energy: orgone. Orgone (the band)’s PR suggests that their music helps charge these unseen fields of sex power. When you the see their show, you’ll see what they mean. It seems that these days everyone has a different way of explaining things.
Superfan Rachael hails from Boone, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. She’s a vegan chef and photographer. A couple of weeks back a patron was admiring Rachael’s work in a cafe. The woman asked Rachael (who sometimes goes by the name Ray of Sunshine) how she would spend the money if she sold her prints.
“I guess I’d go see Groundation in California. And Steel Pulse, too”
A little later, the woman cut a check, which bought a plane ticket, and Rachael met us backstage at the Mystic Theater in Sonoma County, California. She attributed her good fortune to positive thinking, which I agree with.
I don’t usually like to wear my beliefs on my sleeve, so I apologize for the dogma I’m about to commit. I’m not Rasta, which you could probably guess by looking at me, (being in a reggae band does obscure the issue). In fact, I’m an atheist, which means that I believe there is no god. Also I have eyebrows that can be raised independently of one another, which annoys everyone I know, with just one exception.
The exception is my wife. Gillian, who is an atheist like me. A year ago when she found herself in a dark place, she turned to church, hoping that the music would ease her despair. She began going weekly to Glide Methodist Church in San Francisco and joined the chorus. My wife is still an atheist, but trust me, Sunday mornings at Glide are considerably funner than the SF Atheists’ meetings. The Atheists don’t even have a band. Yet.
If you’re reading this, you probably recognize the power of music to ease the burdens of the heart, unleash your body and your imagination, or at the very least to have fun. You also realize that great music is made all around the world, by all kinds of people, many of them religious. I hope people don’t let their spiritual beliefs lead them to exclude people who don’t have spiritual beliefs. Why? Because even though I’m an atheist, I love the feelings I get from Glide and from Groundation.
Celebration is fundamental, a universal act of sharing, and though I’ve never been in the crowd for a Groundation show, still I hope people leave our shows feeling a little closer to one another. I’m only one ninth of Groundation (that’s 11%), but I think the real purpose of this band is to use music and poetry to inspire people to do good things and increase the amount of love in the world. It’s not so different from a good church service.
March 6, 2010
Oi, Rio!; More inclement weather; Sizzla now featuring all-you-can-eat shrimp.
I’m backstage at the massive Fundicao Progresso theater in Lapa, Rio’s equivallent of Bourbon Street, New Orleans. Most nights, Rio makes New Orleans look pretty tame, though a string of beads will only get you a kiss here in Brazil. The Carnaval floats are in storage now, but this town never loses its taste for a party. Ponto de Equilibrio is onstage right now, their hundreds of fans singing along with every lyric. Ponto is probably Brazil’s most popular reggae group, and I can vouch for their talent. It’s a packed house, even though the ticket price is too high for most people in this city.
What kind of consciousness is required to celebrate a thief and dictator? Well, there is always the consciousness of pride and avarice, and the allure of star treatment, which many successful musicians succumb to. Whatever the case, I was happy to see Bob Marley’s “Zimbabwe” on Groundation’s setlist for tonight, which just sold out. It should be mentioned that Bob was fooled by Mugabe as well, though this was way back in the eighties, when his true colors had not yet shown, and this fact gives me hope that Sizzla and the world will see the foolishness of supporting this traitor to his own people.
March 3, 2010
The penultimate show of the Bob Marley tribute tour was at the Aggie Theater in Fort Collins, Colorado. The snow had fallen throughout the previous day on that flat, frontier town, but at night, the temperature dropped to seventeen degrees and the drifts iced over. Kim and Kerry Ann hated the cold even more than I did. A few nights before we’d joked about it when Kim sang “Summertime” at our sound check.
“Kim! Kim! You can’t sing “Summertime” right now, it’s February and it’s freezing cold.”
“It’s summer in Jamaica.”
“It’s always summer in Jamaica, isn’t it?”
That night, after we packed up our gear, Kim emerged from the backstage shivering. We’d seen snow almost every day since we’d left Asheville over a week before. Even on the RV Kim was shaking with cold, so, though she squirmed a little, we made a point of sitting almost on top of her ’til she warmed up. Our hotel was ten minutes away, and we would be leaving for the airport in less than three hours.
When I finally saw my wife at the door of our building in the sunny Mission District I was one happy guy, even though I was still suffering from the head cold I often get on winter tours. I was cheered, however, when I found out that our show the next night in my hometown was already sold out. I slept most of the day and blew my nose a lot. I wished I had my horn, but I’d stowed it with the rest of our instruments on the trailer, which then on its way, so I drank tea all day slept.
I awoke groggy and sick on the morning of February 23rd. It had begun raining in the night, and it had continued on into the afternoon. More unusual weather. Our sound check at the Independent was scheduled for six o’clock, and as night fell it was raining harder than ever, and despite my pathetic, sneezy state of dripping nose and watery eyes, I walked out to catch the bus uptown. Half an hour later I was the first band member to arrive at the Independent, where a hundred precious feet of San Francisco parking were blocked off by orange traffic cones awaiting the arrival of tour manager Rich, driver Scotty, and my fellow in the horn section, trombonist Kelsey Howard. He’d ridden with the crew in order to see off his girlfriend Christa at her home in Salt Lake City. I sat in the cold backstage with more tea and waited.
I’d had a call from Harrison earlier that day. There was bad news, the RV had been delayed. Kelsey, Rich, and Scotty were OK, but we didn’t know for sure when they would arrive with our equipment.
Harrison was the next person to walk backstage at the Independent.
“They lost the trailer,” he said.
“The wheel fell off coming across Donner Pass.”
Donner Pass. The little notch in the Sierra Nevada where Interstate 80 climbs to 7,085 feet. It got its name from the disastrous journey of one hundred and fifty settlers who found themselves helplessly snowed in near the lake east of the pass; nearly all of them starved, and those that survived did so by eating the frozen flesh of their companions. When I talked to him later, Scotty was typically matter of fact. He’d piloted that giant vehicle and its trailer from California to Florida, Boston, Chicago and back without a mishap, and snow on the ground everywhere north of the Carolinas.
“Jeez, I looked in the rearview and saw that the fender was gone,” he said. “Then I saw the wheel rolling down the freeway, bouncing off the guardrail.” Everyone aboard was fine, and they found someone to tow the trailer, but they were still in the mountains, and they were going to be very, very late.
At the club, Shannon arrived next carrying a huge pot of corn soup. I gratefully ate my fill, and we had a meaningless conversation about the difference between soup and chowder, all of us worried privately about the show, wondering if anything else could go wrong.
Gradually, the cold, damp rooms of The Independent warmed up as one old friend after another arrived. Conrad brought a phenomenal apple pie, which Shannon lit into. Hossein was there, spreading cheer as always. He told a story about how some marketing people had mistaken him for Michael Franti and did a photoshoot with models and gave him a catalog worth of free gear before he told them who he really was. In the front of the house Marcus’ parents were staking out their customary table, as close as possible to stage left. They were aggressively saving a seat in the packed house for my beautiful wife, Gillian, who rarely gets to come to our shows. As the hours slipped by I let the DJ know he was going to have to try to keep the unruly crowd happy a lot longer than he’d planned. More and more records got cued up, and more heads filed in.
The show was scheduled for nine. A little after 10:30 the gear arrived, minus the trailer. I blew my nose a few more times before going to help with the load-in, but there was little to do with honorary roadies like LoLo, Frank, John, Zach and Umku around. Before the evening was over, and with the band finally on stage, Zach, who has hosted many Jamaican guests of Groundation in his home, would see his girlfriend through a seizure and a related head injury.
There was no soundcheck, though our sensitive musical gear had been thrown across the trailer at seventy miles an hour after having driven seven hundred miles through the snowy mountains and vast salt lakes of the West. If anything went wrong, there would be no time to fix it. My horn felt frozen when I took it back to the rear hallway and tried to warm it up and coax some music out of it.
The band opened with Marley’s “Soul Rebel”. I took the solo, stumbling a little. I was sick, exhausted and worried as hell about my friend Kim dancing on stage across from me. At that moment, her troubles made mine look completely insubstantial, and I marveled again at how Bob Marley’s songs can sometimes cushion the blows, great and small, that strike us throughout our lives. This is just what I felt when I first played on stage with Groundation at a Tribute show ten years ago. Bob can’t heal our wounds or cure us or rebuild us, but the hope and the humanity in his poetry and music can ease the pain for a while, and remind us that we can expect the dawn.
On that note, I have the sad duty to express the deepest condolences, on the part of all of Groundation, at the passing of Robert Pommell of Kingston, Jamaica. He was the father of Kim Pommell, Groundation singer. I’m sure I speak on behalf of many thousands of Groundation fans who would wish to express their deepest sympathy for Kim and her family, and their sincere hope for their future peace and well-being. This news is doubly regrettable coming so soon after the death of Linda Haereiti, mother of Groundation drummer Rufus Haereiti.
“Love would never leave us alone
And in the darkness there must come out a light
Could you be loved and be loved?”
February 17, 2010
We had a great show at the Grey Eagle in Asheville, North Carolina and I stayed up way to late. I slept for three or four hours, but awoke to the first of two deafening hotel-wide fire alarms at four-thirty. Then, after three unnecessary wake-up calls, we were on the RV and headed north into the aftermath of the blizzard of a lifetime. The Central Eastern seaboard was buried nearly four feet of snow this year. Scotty, our driver, who hails from northern Minnesota, just laughed while the Californians and Jamaicans started getting nervous. “I love snow. I can’t wait!” he said. He looked a little crazy.
Scotty got his wish. When we rolled into Towson, Maryland, only a few major thoroughfares were clear. Most streets were completely buried, while a few roads had only a single open lane. Every truck bed was filled with snow. No car left unattended during the blizzard could be cleared without the help of a shovel, and street parking was impossible. Stage assistants set up a ramp to get our heavy gear through the pool of freezing slush at the the back of the club. The few people picking their way through the three and four foot drifts on the street looked shellshocked.
Despite the disaster, more than three hundred people turned out for the show. Groundation’s senior studio engineer Jim Fox drove nearly two hours from Washington D.C. just to say what’s up and bring us a box of t-shirts from his studio. He hadn’t left his house in nearly a week due to the storm. Ex-TM Dave Alima came out with his wife, and brought comic books for the bus.
The snowstorm marked the end of our southern run which started in Texas, and passed through New Orleans, Florida, the Carolinas and Virginia. Though we were two weeks early for Mardi Gras, we received a dose of authentic Southern hospitality from Jacob and Antoinette Johnston, who grabbed us after sound check and fed us red beans and rice, jambalaya, green salad and King Cake (I didn’t get the baby)*. If there’s one thing I hate about touring in the States, it’s that almost every meal comes to us cold in a styrofoam container. The American attitude towards cooking and eating is pathological, except, that is, in the deep south, where the relaxed pace, the love of good food and drink, the easy generosity, and social graces signify the most culturally distinct region of the country. The south has its faults, but they’re far outweighed by this richness.
My brief stint as an LSU football fan last year left me cold, but all of us were rooting for the New Orleans Saints as we watched the Super Bowl on the TV over the bar during our sound check in Jacksonville, Florida. Maybe we wanted some kind of karmic payback for the insult Hurricane Katrina paid to the Crescent City. I was rooting on behalf of all my aunts, uncles and cousins who’ve put up with the ‘Aints’ tragicomic saga for forty years. A cheer went up from the crowd when I played a quote from “When The Saints go Marching In” in the middle of Bob’ Marley’s Simmer Down that night, and I could tell that many of us were Saints fans that night.
* King Cake is a traditional New Orleans desert eaten during Mardi Gras. It’s like a giant psychedelic doughnut with a PLASTIC BABY BAKED INSIDE! If you get served the slice with the baby, it’s supposed to bring good luck, but it really means you have to buy the cake next year. People are rumoured to have choked to death on these toys, which isn’t what I’d call good luck. It’s clearly a hazardous food, but that’s the price you pay for culinary authenticity.
Finally, the entire band would like to express its deepest sorrow at the unexpected passing of Linda Haereiti, originally of Brigham City, Utah. We received this sad news at our hotel in Austin, Texas on the first day of this tour. Linda was the mother of Tekanawa Haereiti, the drummer for Groundation, who some of you know by the name Rufus. Our thoughts go out to Rufus and Linda’s surviving family and loved ones. She will be deeply missed.
January 31, 2010
Happy Birthday, Bob; Band Books, and the obligatory top ten list; How I spent my vacation;
Groundation is gathering for its first Tribute to Bob Marley tour away from the West Coast. We will miss our fans at places like The Belly Up, The Catalyst and The Mystic Theater this February. Maybe we’ll see some of you in the new places we’re visiting like Howlin’ Wolf in New Orleans, Sullivan Hall in New York, or the opening show at the Flamingo Cantina in Austin, Texas. We’ll also miss Horsemouth and Stephanie Wallace, but we’re consoled by the prospect of seeing vocalist Kerry Ann Morgan and guitarist Will Bernard again. New singer, new drummer, new guitarist, new driver, and new tour manager. The man formerly known as TM, that is the great Nick Harris, is passing the torch to Rich ‘the B3 doctor’ for this run around the contiguous forty-eight.
Like any nine people crammed into a small space together for a long time, the band spent its break escaping to places as far away as Israel and Cambodia. My vacation in Oregon and Arizona wasn’t quite as exotic as Kelsey and Harrison’s, but I had a great time. Everyone seems quite proud to have a working musician in the family, and they’re pleased that with hard work I beat the odds and made it in a successful band.
I had to go to four different cities to see my parents and my wife’s parents, but it was no burden. Family is the root of everything, and I have my family to thank for much of my good fortune. I learned to play the trumpet sitting at the piano with my mother and father. My mother could sight read on the piano, and my father, in addition to playing a decent clarinet, worked to bring jazz legends like Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus to perform in the San Francisco Bay Area. When I was a baby in my mother’s arms Duke visited our house, pinched my cheeks and flirted with my mom’s best friend. I won’t say that that sealed the deal on me becoming a musician, but like I said, family is the root. My mother-in-law and father-in-law are touring veterans, meeting and performing alongside legends like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Josh White, and Jose Feliciano on the folk music circuit in the 1960s and 70s. My wife and I recorded a CD with her father last year.
Sadly, this winter saw the passing of Patrick Colleony, one of our first supporters in Europe, a great friend to the band, and a great lover of music and life to whom we are indebted. Also, in the wake of the Haitian earthquake, I encourage you to treat yourself to some uplifting music. Our good friend Joshua Alo is hosting two benefit concerts this month in Holland. You can find the details here.
This wouldn’t be an interlude if it didn’t contain some random information so I decided to include a short list of the most talked about books on our tour bus in the last few years.
Guns, Germs and Steel, and Collapse by Jared Diamond
The work of this multi-disciplinary scientist has emerged as the one of the most persuasive explanations for the vast differences and disparities between global cultures, their levels of technology, and their role in history. Kelsey and his girlfriend are big on nonfiction; in addition to Diamond, I’ve seen them reading Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, and Hot, Flat and Crowded by Thomas L. Friedman
The Match by Mark Frost
Frost, who also wrote for cult TV show Twin Peaks, wrote this book about a famous golf match which developed around a boast and a bet. Ryan, Nick, and Mingo are avid golfers, and Rufus is a certified pro, so this one went around the bus like wildfire. Why all the fuss? You’d have to ask them.
Shardik by Richard Adams
The Magus by John Fowles
The Plague by Albert Camus
Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, The Glass Bead Game, and Journey to the East by Herman Hesse
Nothing makes a long drive pass quickly as well as a really intense conversation, and these books have fueled some of our longest and most heated discussions. Harrison and I both love novels that grapple with philosophical issues, and Kelsey and Ryan read fiction as well. Sharing a good book can provide the reservoir of ideas that can make nine people on a bus feel like they’re standing on common ground. Other authors we like include Kurt Vonnegut, Cormac McCarthy, George Saunders, Tom Robbins and Jack Kerouac,
The Art of Seduction by Robert Greene
This highly controversial book uses history and literature to identify the tools used by John F Kennedy, Cleopatra, Marilyn Monroe and many others to make themselves irresistible. By chance, Kerry Ann and I were both firm believers of Mr. Greene’s theories, even though his picture of a world of manipulation and deceit should not be confused with the art of love, which is a very different thing.
Here is my personal list of my ten favorite fiction books published in the first decade of the 21st Century:
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
2666 by Roberto Bolano
Europe Central by William T. Vollmann
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link
Pastoralia by George Saunders
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Atonement by Ian McEwan
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
And here’s a photo essay of what I did on my vacation:
November 19, 2009
The edges of the empire; Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry: on fish and outer space ; Wrocklawbsters; a haunted backstage; The Congos; Dellé; saved by Big Blue.
Switzerland is one of the first places I played outside California. That was with the Bay Area Wind Symphony, which was comprised of about one hundred and twenty teenagers, including nineteen trumpets (!), plus their braces and hair products, way back in 1984, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, before the Internet. Our unwieldy, hormone-saturated ensemble played seven classical concerts or so in Germany and Switzerland. It was my first taste of touring, and I had no idea I’d be coming back more than twenty years later, and that so much change would have occurred. I had hoped we’d have flying cars by now, but still…
Lausanne, Switzerland is scrunched between Lake Geneva and the unreal bulk of the Alps, in the beating heart of Western Europe. These vast glaciers spawn the two greatest rivers of the European continent: The Rhine, flowing north through Germany, and the Danube flowing east through Austria and Hungary and finally into the Black Sea. These rivers were once the boundaries of the Roman Empire, the boundaries between civilization and barbarity.
In the fourth century, Germany and Silesia (though they weren’t called by those names back then) were the barbarians, until one winter the impossible happened: the Rhine froze solid, and the barbarians walked right in the front door, goodbye Rome, hello Dark Ages. Everyone was barbarians for a long time.
Colonialism and war brought huge changes to European demographics in their wake, and Europe has had to learn to cope with both the troubles and the benefits that come with diversity. Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, who shared the bill with Groundation and the Congos at this year’s Metropop Festival is an example of someone from far Jamaica who’s made his home in this mountain paradise in smack in the middle of Europe. You’d have to ask his neighbors, but I’ll bet he brings a bit of trouble with his gifts…
In the late sixties and seventies America produced a number of unusual performers like Mr. Perry: outlandish costumes; quirky songs, sometimes with a childlike quality; eccentricities galore. Parliment/Funkadelic/P-Funk frontman George Clinton comes to mind. His claims to have come to this planet in a funky mothership is probably one of the least unusual things about him. At a typical performance, jazz pianist and composer Sun Ra, who claimed to hail from the planet Saturn, draped his considerable bulk in a muumuu and led his eighteen-piece ‘Arkestra’ through three hours worth of music from Disney movies. To cook up a rich culture we need not only people from the different races and religions, we need people from different planets as well. Back in America’s troubled 70′s, a jazz pianist from Saturn may have been just what the world needed. He sure gave the jazz critics something to talk about. And why not different species’ as well? ‘Scratch’ Perry, doesn’t claim to be from the planet Saturn, but he said at the concert that he was a fish before he became a man, so again, let diversity be the rule…
Straight after the show, we drove all night to the One Love Festival in Wrocklaw, Poland in the old kingdom of Silesia, once the very heart of the barbarian threat which gave the Romans nightmares. It’s the doorstep of The East, once a land of warriors and a land of war. It’s also fiercely independent, stubborn even. It was fatally wedged between aggressive powers during the twentieth century and nearly eradicated, but despite being carved up and stomped on, the Polish people rose up and made Poland one of the first nations of the former Eastern Bloc to stand up against Soviet imperialism and for social justice in their own country.
I like to blab about how this place or that has ‘history’. I suppose the place we played in Wrocklaw had almost too much of it. When it was built in 1913, Centennial Hall was a word-famous miracle of design and construction: the largest steel and reinforced concrete dome in the world. It’s awe-inspiring even today, perhaps more impressive than beautiful, with interior buttresses flying fifty meters overhead. A place built for drama and spectacle, in the 1930′s the Hall hosted not only Marlene Dietrich, but also a certain ruthless and powerful nutcase from the neighborhood. You see, Silesia was then under the influence of neighboring Nazi Germany.
Learning that fact gave me a genuine chill. Though the time had come to play music and call on those generous spirits, I could hear the spectre of Adolph Hitler’s raging voice echoing through the curving, labyrinthine corridors. There were ghosts in those hallways threatening to drag me down. There I was, just before showtime, wandering through the cold, empty rooms we’d been given for a backstage, imagining Der Fuhrer sitting there, going over his notes for his latest speech, intent on inciting hatred and murder. Perhaps these rooms had been occupied by some troop of naïve young fascists in their matching uniforms, brainwashed and betrayed by the emotional momentum of patriotic hatred, getting ready to stand on stage behind their leader, hold the big red, white and black flags and look as Aryan as they could for the cameras.
Those things were long ago, but they may still haunt us, until new days dawn and they are forgotten. I’m a rational positivist, but I felt some spiritual cleansing were needed, and in fact there was an exorcism on the way, and it came from a very unexpected source: a suitcase called Big Blue.
Big Blue is the giant diamond-encrusted suitcase Kim Pommel has wheeled along (or had someone wheel along for her) on tour almost since I first met her years ago. In the minutes before our show in Wrocklaw I was listening to my footsteps echoing down the concrete hallways, thinking about how Hitler wasn’t really dead. But then I saw that glorious suitcase, literally overflowing with colorful clothes, curlers and make up, scarves, beads and electronics. In a few words it was a big, beautiful bloom of life and color: everything that makes a mess of Hitler’s dreams of sterility and order.
I could see Mr. Hitler sitting there, trying to enjoy his lemon tea before his speech, and here comes Ms. Pommel and Big Blue: ‘Oh, pardon. Do you mind if I put this here? You wouldn’t believe how heavy it is. Whew! It’s hot in here, mind if I open a window? Now, where’s my scarf? What’s your name? I’m Kim. I’m from Jamaica.’ Gott im Himmel!
And fleeing that dressing room poor Adolph might have stumbled upon The Congos, meditating or drinking tea themselves perhaps, a proud band of foreigners invited by the Polish people, the descendants of Prussians and Bohemians, to spread their musical messages of peace and spiritual wisdom. Hitler would have hated them and everything they stand for, I’m happy to say. Poor fellow. But it gets worse, because the thing that would have really pissed off the indisputed all-powerful ruler of Wolkencuckcucksheim was the band Delle, because Delle is a German band, an interracial band, and one dedicated to a musical style not only foreign, but African in origin, music that doesn’t exalt war or nationhood, but that weaves a spell of pleasure and love extending between nations who once warred and working to put the past in the past where it belongs. That’s a mighty tough act to follower, Mr. Hitler, it looks like the barbarians are here to stay.
“Diesel” Dave Chachere
PS. Centennial Hall in Wrocklaw is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The United Nations provides funds to preserve cultural treasures around the world, and its roster includes The Statue of Liberty, and Ruwenzori National Park in Rwanda where the mountain gorillas live. So then let the building stand, to be explored by architects, athletes, lovers of music, and seekers of ghosts.
November 13, 2009
Inclement weather predicted; the language barrier, and why we love it; a legal disclaimer.
The band is bundling up for the next leg of our tour, heading into Switzerland, Poland and Germany. I don’t know if it’s officially winter yet, but it’s pretty freakin’ cold here in Southern France. Put the soup on the stove, people of the East, we’ll see you in a few days. As for now, this post can be considered filler material for fans hungry for news about the band; an interlude, if you will. This week’s theme: linguistics.
The language barrier probably shouldn’t be looked at as something to be overcome while on tour, because its an unending source of humor and enlightenment. Inept linguists such as myself can’t be expected to appreciate all the subtleties of French, Portugese and German, so we learn to enjoy the failures of language as much as the successes. Plus, we can blab away carelessly in our crude American tongue and not offend the folks standing next to us on the subway. These are a couple of random stories about people in Groundation being misunderstood on our travels. Also, before you read any further, I need to remind you to read and agree to the terms and conditions which are to be found at the end of the post. Thanks, folks!
Monica is the driver of the Nightliner, our huge black tour bus that sleeps seventeen people or so, also known affectionately by the name of a certain evil space station currently under trademark to George Lucas. Monica is a super pro, about as laid back and wise to the ways of the road as you can be. She’s handy with her tools and she’s multilingual, which you gotta be on tour in Europe. She’s from Germany, and yesterday at breakfast we were talking about some of the interesting and highly-precise words that exist in German, and also my unrealistic dreams for future Groundation tours.
“I hope to eventually have my own tour bus,” I said. “I’ll go everywhere with my family and my own chef, and a masseuse. Everyone else will have their own bus. What’s that German word, again? Woogiecluckcluck-”
“Wolkenkuckucksheim,” said Monica. “It literally means ‘cloud cuckoo land’, and you’re living in it.” She laughed. “You see? Germans can be funny, too!”
“I know,” I said. “I read some Goëthe. He’s hilarious, though maybe that’s not the right word for it…”
“Did you know he was a Scientologist?”
“Goëthe? Are you sure about that, Monica?”
“Yeah, that’s the word, right?”
“I think you mean he was a scientist.”
“Yeah, yeah, a scientist. What did I say?”
“You said Goëthe was a Scientologist.”
“Ach! You better not tell anyone!”
“Oh, don’t worry, I won’t.”
“The German people would kill me!”
Aurore is the former press manager for Music Action, the company that runs our tours in France. She did a phenomenal job helping us launch the successful series of runs that began here five years ago. Since then, she’s moved on to cooking school, and we had the privilege to enjoy her craft while in Bordeaux. She reminded me of something which occurred on our first European tour when she tried to help our road manager Hossein when he asked her to help get him a new bed sheet.
“The bed sheet?” asked Aurore, looking rather concerned.
“Yeah,” said Hossein. “Could you tell them at the desk?”
“Uh, Okay.” Aurore went down to the hotel desk, but she came back empty-handed after five minutes. “Alright,” she said. “They said they were very sorry. Do you want to change rooms?”
“A new room? I just need a bed sheet!”
“Oh. Okay. What’s a bed sheet?”
“What did you tell them, Aurore?”
“I told them you had a lit de merde*”
“What does that mean?” asked Hossein.
“Never mind,” said Aurore.
*In French, literally a ‘bed of shit’, or ‘a shitty bed’.
Due to space concerns, I’ll have to save the one about how someone mistook the word ‘synagogue’ for the word ‘snuggle’ for another time. Hoping to hear from y’all soon. “Diesel” Dave Chachere.
Important: Please read and accept the following terms and conditions before proceeding.
I understand that the above aimless vignettes, shaggy dog stories, balmy anecdotes, screeds, nonsequiturs, unflattering characterizations, questionable fact checking and grammatical accuracy, lapses of dignity, failures in self-patrolling of the author’s ego, half-intentioned or even quarter-intentioned innuendos and other missteps and immoderations are to be duly ignored as such. Rather, the author is to be recognized for his overall worth as a human being, the profound and nuanced character of his intellect and whatnot, and is not to be dismissed as some kind of shady Rick Steeves.
By this I solemnly swear: ___, I the undersigned.
Just had to do that for the lawyers! Thanks again, Ciao!
November 5, 2009
Merci, Paris; Miles Davis in the house; Pablo Moses likewise…
It’s a cold morning in Paris, and the city is enshrouded in white gauze, the sun a pale white onion that offers little warmth and keeps its distance from the frosty streets below. Today, the members of Groundation woke to a feeling of gratitude towards the people of Paris, once again. Since our first tour in France we’ve played Glaz’art, Bataclan, The Olympia, and finally last year, the Zenith. I joked with our promoter that according to this progression I expected to be playing the Stade de France this year. He laughed uncomfortably.
Just across from the Zenith is the Cité de la Musique which is now hosting an exhibition on Miles Davis. Miles spent a lot of time in Europe, Paris in particular. He composed the score to the French film L’ascenseur Pour L’Echafault (Stairway to the Scaffold), had an with French actress Juliette Greco, met the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and other national celebrities.
On a personal level, Miles is the reason I started playing the trumpet. The sound of Mr. Davis inspired me to pull a cold, smelly coil of metal tubing out of a box every single day and blow into it until it either started sounding good or my lips started bleeding. From childhood I emulated Miles’ ability to convey the most fragile and private feelings through his horn: love, pain, hope. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that not everything in Miles’ life was worth emulating, and I eventually came to understand that while music may be very personal, it doesn’t tell us much about the person who’s making it.
The fact that amazes me is that Miles’ egocentric, angry personality can’t be heard in songs like his version of “Someday My Prince Will Come” or “Surrey with a Fringe on Top”. His sound was vulnerable and sensitive (more like Gregory Isaacs than Burning Spear), but Miles didn’t treat the people in his life with much tenderness, nor did he show his vulnerability to them, and by most accounts, he treated his wives and girlfriends as poorly as everyone else, probably worse. On the other hand, I know that legendary jazz musician Duke Ellington was a really, really nice guy, while his one-time bassist Charles Mingus would just as soon punch you in the face as perform his heartbreaking ballad “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”*. There’s something strangely disquieting about this fact.
I’ve never read Pablo Moses’ biography. I don’t even know if one exists, but I’ve known him long enough to see that he doesn’t resent the world the way Miles Davis and Charles Mingus did. Generous, philosophical, funny and humble are the words that come to my mind in describing the composer of “A Song” and “Dubbing is a Must”, adjectives which also apply to Duke Ellington. But Pablo’s vocal performance is aggressive, dark and masculine, a little bit raw. Pablo sang with Groundation last night in Paris, and we’d been touring with him, German singer Sebastian Sturm and the Jin Jin Band who backed them both for shows in Strassbourg and Lyon. The people of Paris treated all of us (Americans, Jamaicans and Germans) with respect and great warmth, and I couldn’t help thinking of the amazing encouragement this country has offered to jazzmen (as the French call them).
Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker, Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster, Cannonball Adderley, and many, many others tapped into the ravenous and diverse cultural appetite of Europe, allowing them to develop their music even when American audiences offered a cold shoulder, or in many cases, a racist hand pushing them down despite their talent. Today, not only jazz musicians, but Reggae artists from Lee Perry to Burning Spear rely on European audiences. After playing in Paris last night, I’m sure I share with them a deep gratitude towards these fans and their hospitality. As a reader, I also appreciate that a great many foreign writers owe much of their best work to Paris: Hemmingway, James Joyce, Henry Miller and James Baldwin to name a few. At the very least, Americans probably still owe the French a nod for their ancestors helping our ancestors with a little spot of bother known as The American Revolutionary War.
The Miles Davis exhibition in Paris included a world-class concert series, forums, classes and lectures, including one on Miles as a fashion icon. With a music school right next door, the whole neighborhood was filled with the comings and goings of different styles and instruments. While Kelsey and I were enjoying a great meal across the street at a French restaurant on Avenue Jean Jaurès a bunch of old musicians tromped in with their cases and their wives (may they be rewarded in the afterlife for having put up with us in this one). I couldn’t help grinning: artists and people who love beauty feel drawn helplessly to the beacon of Paris the way a bee is drawn to a bright, fragrant flower. But in addition to being the city of light and taste, Paris is also the greatest example of what is possible when a people refuse to allow their culture to be dictated to them by some distant authority like the church or the mass media. As long as cities like this exist, artists with vision will always have a home.
“Diesel” Dave Chachere
*The very large, very short-tempered Mr. Mingus is famous for having taken a fire axe from the stage where Duke’s band was performing and chasing composer Juan Tizol around the grand piano with it.