I am now on a road trip in my new RV traveling through the southwest
US. As I write this I am sitting in a campground in San Antonio, Texas.
The trip didn’t start out with the intention of being a music trip but
that has sort of changed! (not like I’m complaining, mind you) While I
was in Mexico I ran into an old friend, Chuck Umsted, who is a teacher
at a bilingual school in Sherman, Texas. When I told him I’d be passin’
through Texas, he invited me to come give a concert at his school. Since
my trip took me right through Sherman, I couldn’t say no!

Chuck’s school is a bilingual school or, more accurately, a 50% bilingual
school because only about half of the 450 kids are in the bilingual program.
I played in an outside courtyard on a beautiful day with blue skies stretching
from horizon to horizon. The concert was for the bilingual kids and a
good portion of the 250 showed up to listen. I talked about how music
is a kind of language that musicians speak amongst themselves as well
as with the audience and how speaking more languages allows you to communicate
with more people.

After the concert portion, during which we all spoke Spanish, there was
a question/answer session in English to give the older kids a chance to
practice. I was amazed at the quality of their questions. I’ve sat through
Q&A sessions after concerts by artists like Steve Reich and Pat Metheny
and the questions were, for the most part, fairly banal at best. Here
I had a group of 10 and 11 year olds asking probing questions like “do
you think a lot about your compositions before you write them, or do you
write them on the spur of the moment?” Below are some photos of the

Ok, so they didn’t pay attention every
second… but they really were a wonderful audience! Playing some blues with Chuck Umsted

After my stay in Sherman I moved on south to Fort Worth which is where
my brother and his family live. I got to spend a great week hanging out
with family. However, the coolest project of the week was a recording
that I made with my niece and nephews. I wrote a tune with parts for each
of them – my niece Stephanie (15) plays flute and my two nephews Doug
(12) and Dana (10) play drums and guitar respectively. Once I had the
skeleton of the piece written and loaded into Pro Tools, I had each of
them sneak out to the rv without their folks knowledge and record their
parts. It turned out really well I think. You can listen to it here.

I think that’s all I’m going to put in this newsletter because I don’t
want to make it too long. I’ve actually left out several recent shows and
some new recordings that I’ve done, but I’ll save those for another post.

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Right before leaving for Mexico I recorded guitar tracks for a great new piece by my composer friend Joe Hasiewicz. It’s called “Change
in the Possibilities” and I got to fire up the old electric guitar
and play some challenging stuff. The piece features the guitar and Joe
wrote some extremely difficult parts. It was hard work learning
it all, but well worth it. I wish I could take credit for all those cool
guitar lines but Joe wrote every note of it. You can listen to it by clicking

During the two weeks I was back in Chicago after returning from Mexico
I recorded a piece for my friend the bassist Steven Hashimoto’s new cd.
It’s a very cool tune called “Goya” that was inspired by the
film “Goya in Bordeaux” by Carlos Saura. The film is about the
life of the Spanish painter Francisco Goya. Hashimoto’s piece has a strong
flamenco flavor with shifting meters that make it tricky to improvise
on. It was great to play with Hash and my old friend, drummer Heath Chappell.
The cd should be out in July… stay tuned for more info.


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I spent the month of March on tour in Mexico and it was absolutely wonderful.
I started out in the beautiful colonial city of Guanajuato and was honored
to be invited to perform with the early music group “Los Tiempos
Pasados” in a concert for the governors of all the states of Mexico.
The concert took place in a beautiful setting in the garden of a luxurious
hotel. I played dulcimer and the musicians in the group coached me on
the fly through all the changes in the music. The governors loved it (they
kept sending up shots of some rather fine tequila to the stage) and the
group wound up being booked for five more concerts in various states around

Next up was my own concert at the Museo Iconografico (also in Guanajuato)
which is a museum dedicated to art works based on the theme of Don Quijote.
They host a year-round concert series in their sculpture-filled atrium.
It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable concerts I’ve ever given.
The leader of Los Tiempos Pasados, Armando Lopez Valdivia, joined me on
several numbers playing on eight of the instruments from his collection
of over one-hundred and twenty. The audience was quiet, focused and very
attentive and the combination of a beautiful setting, a great guest musician
and a supportive audience made it an experience to remember.

The Zihuatanejo International Guitar Festival turned out to be another
unforgettable event. The festival is a fund raiser for arts education
programs for under priveledged kids in the Zihuatanejo area. It brought
together twenty-four guitarists from Mexico, Canada, Great Britain and
all parts of the United States to give a series of more than thirty concerts
in venues all over the town. I was greatly inspired by hearing so many
fantastic players from so many genres of music. I gave three concerts,
the first in a ritzy restaurant with a breathtaking view overlooking Zihuatanejo
bay. The audience was mostly well-to-do americans that had to drop a hefty
donation to the cause to attend the event but, I must say, they were very
well-behaved. The second show was in a restaurant/bar that was much more
casual and attended by folks that really wanted to hear guitar music.
A dozen guitarist each played 25 minute sets, making for a long but constantly
intriguing concert. My third and final set was in the closing concert
in the “zocalo” or town center (it’s actually right on the beach).
They set up a large stage with a giant video screen like in a rock show
to give close-ups of the guitarist’s fingers. Someone estimated the attendance
at 2,000. That’s hard to judge but there sure were a lot of folks there,
almost all Mexican locals. I left Zihua tired but inspired by all the
fine players that I got to meet, listen to and jam with. You can see more
photos at the Zihuafest website photo

Playing some dulcimer during my set at El Pueblitoduring Zihuafest. Same show – Jamming with (from left) Michael Lewis, Ricardo Sweatt Rodriguez, me, Brook and Neil C. Young


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Well, the Mexico tour was absolutely wonderful. I started out in
the lovely colonial city of Guanajuato and was honored to be asked
to perform with the early music group “Los Tiempos Pasados”
in a concert for the governors of all the states of Mexico. We performed
in a beautiful setting in the garden of a five star hotel. I played
dulcimer and the musicians in the group coached me on the fly through
all the changes in the music. The governors loved it and the group
wound up being booked for five more concerts in various states around

Next up was my own concert at the
Museo Iconografico (also in Guanajuato) which is a museum dedicated
to art works based on the theme of Don Quijote. They host a year-round
concert series in their sculpture-filled atrium. It turned out to
be one of the most enjoyable concerts I’ve ever given. The leader
of Los Tiempos Pasados, Armando Lopez Valdivia, joined me on several
numbers playing on eight of the instruments from his collection
of over one hundred and thirty. The audience was quiet, focused
and very attentive and the combination of the beautiful setting,
great guest musician and supportive audience made it an experience
to remember.

The Zihuatanejo International Guitar Festival turned
out to be another unforgettable event. The festival is a fund raiser
for arts education programs for underpriviledged kids in Zihuatanejo.
It brought together twenty-four guitarists from Mexico, Canada,
Great Britain and all parts of the United States to give a series
of over thirty concerts in venues all over the town. I was greatly
inspired by hearing so many fantastic players from so many genres
of music. I played three concerts, the first in a ritzy restaurant
with a breathtaking view overlooking Zihuatanejo bay. The audience
was mostly well-to-do Americans that had to drop a hefty donation
to the cause to attend the event but they were actually very well
behaved. The second show was in a restaurant/bar that was much more
casual and attended by folks that really wanted to hear guitar music.
A dozen guitarists each played 25 minute sets, making a long but
intriguing concert. My final set was in the closing concert in the
basketball court in the “zocalo” or town square (it’s
located right on the beach). They set up a large stage with a giant
video screen like in a rock show to give close-ups of the guitarist’s
fingers. Someone estimated the attendance at 2000. That’s hard to
judge but there sure were a lot of folks there, almost all Mexican
locals. I left Zihua tired but inspired by all the fine players
that I got to meet, listen to and jam with.

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Friday, Oct. 29

I went to hear Eugenio Toussaint last night at the soulbar where I played
the previous night. He’s a very good player but his bag is pretty run
of the mill. His original tunes are a little dry for my taste but he selected
some nice covers by Jaco Pastorious, Egberto Gismonti and Ralph Towner.
The bassist and drummer were very good players as well and I rather enjoyed
the drummer’s playing – it was quite understated. I went with Juan jr.
and the club treated us very nicely. They waived the admission and gave
us the best seats in the house to boot. Claudia, the event director for
the school brought the director of Fermatta over to our table to introduce
us. He was very nice and told me that he heard that the concert went well
and invited me to return in the future to do a clinic or work with the
teachers on some project. All in all it was a nice experience. I can see
how one might get used to being treated like a VIP.

The rest of the trip was spent as a tourist and I did the same stuff
that any tourist guide tells you you ought to do. It was interesting,
but any travel book can tell you about it better than I. One thing I found
out that made me a little sad: the day of the dead celebration has all
but disappeared in the cities – or, more accurately, has turned into a
lame imitation of Halloween where kids with plastic pumpkins hit you up
for cash instead of sweets. They tell me that the traditional celebrations
still exist in the provincial areas but I had no time to make the trip
out of town. All told it was an awesome experience and I can’t wait to
go back and play again.

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Wednesday, Oct. 27

Last night I did a clinic at the music store Veerkamp, which seems to
be the Sam Ash of Mexico. The clinic was at their main store and they
have a small auditorium for concerts and clinics. There were only about
15-20 people there but they were interested in the music and asked quite
a few questions. The ”Americana” things I play seem to interest the
people here, especially the dulcimer. It’s all a little exotic for them
and I think that piques their interest. Rubén, the teacher at the school
Fermatta, has a theory about the dulcimer. He thinks it resonates with
the Mexican people because the instrument comes from Appalachia where
the people are poor and the Mexican people, who understand poverty very
well, hear something in it’s sound that strikes a chord inside them. I
like the theory.

After the clinic, the school (Fermatta) sent a van to
pick up the band and take us to a club where we played a show sponsored
by the school. The school got radio airplay for my disc on 2 different
radio stations and a few people told me that they heard the tunes. That
makes 3 radio stations that have played my tunes in 2 weeks. That’s as
good as in Chicago in 15 years. The club is beautiful – it looks like
something straight out of New York City and seats well over 100. The club
was 80% full – a large percentage were students from the school – but
on a Tuesday night that’s an excellent crowd anywhere. Someone told me
that it was the largest crowd at the club since opening night – what an

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Tuesday, Oct. 26

Well, the festival was last weekend. It was an artistic success but a
bit of an economic bust. The first night we played in an auditorium of
a private school way on the north end of Mexico City, which is a HUGE
city. On the way I got to see a sampling of the abject poverty that exists
here as well as passing through some of the finer neighborhoods. The discrepancy
between rich and poor here is terrible and I fear the US is headed toward
a similar place. The sound in the auditorium was less than perfect but
the sound guys did a decent job of getting some clarity out of the system.
At show time the auditorium was less than half full but the hall wasn’t
very big so it didn’t seem painfully empty. The opening act was a bunch
of professors of music therapy. Their leader got up and gave an incredibly
boring 30-minute speech before they played a note even though they were
only supposed to play 25 minutes in total. Some people. I didn’t stay
out front for the whole thing because there’s nothing worse than listening
to a boring speech in your second language where you have to work to follow
what is said. The second act was a soloist operating under the name ”Teyas”.
He played pure New Age stuff. It was nice, but very static music. After
his 25 minutes, Mario, Eduardo and I took the stage for our 35-minute
set. From the first note, it was one of those nights where nothing can
go wrong. Mario and Eduardo nailed the tunes and I felt like I could hear
every note 2 bars before I played it and my hands delivered without me
having to do anything. The audience, although small, was very into it
and was with us from the first number. Between tunes my rap in Spanish
was flowing like the music and I felt completely comfortable winging it
and making jokes. If only it was always like that. They audience loved
”Reuben’s Train” on the dulcimer and the blues flavor of our closer,
“Stridin”, was a big hit as well. I stayed on the stage after
we were done because I played on the first tune of Antes del Glacier’s
set. That went well also. After the show ended we bugged out fairly quickly
because the next day’s show at the Cultural Center started and 11:00 and
sound check was at 8:30.

After a short night’s sleep we got up and headed to the cultural center.
At the conclusion of our sound check, I walked down the little staircase
on the front on the stage and when I stepped off, I found the floor to
be at 2 different levels and took a nose dive. I instinctively reached
out with my right arm to break my fall and jammed the middle finger of
my right hand. At first I thought nothing really happened but after 15
minutes I realized that I had a full blown sprained finger. Showtime wasn’t
far off so I just had to deal with it. Playing with a pick wasn’t bad
but the fingerstyle stuff was a struggle to say the least. I remember
seeing Led Zeppelin in 1975 when Jimmy Page played with a broken middle
finger on his left hand. I decided that if he could do it, so would I.
Teyas asked if I would sit in on a number in his set (which immediately
preceded ours) and I said yes. I was able to play ok (with a pick) but
when I returned to the stage with Mario and Eduardo for our set the guitar
had drifted out of tune. I hate starting a set with tuning but I had no
choice. Our first number starts with me playing 2 minutes of solo flamenco.
There is nothing worse for a right hand with a sprained finger than flamenco
because all the rasgueados and golpes involve the middle finger. It was
a bit of a struggle but I got through it. That sort of set the tone for
the set and nothing really worked quite right. It wasn’t terrible or anything
but it just never quite clicked in. The dulcimer was a big hit again and
we closed strong with Stridin’ once again so we walked away not feeling
too bad. I didn’t tell anyone about my finger before the set because I
didn’t want anyone (but me) to worry. After the set it was apparent that
I had to deal on it. I went with Laura, Sofía´s friend to
find ice at a gas station.

The crowd was better at the cultural center but still only filled about
half of the seats. I sold 15 cds between the 2 shows, which basically
will pay for all my touristy activities this week since after the clinic
this afternoon and club gig tonight, I’ve finished my professional obligations.
I still might go and do a little sitting in at clubs, but that’s it. By
today the finger is a lot better and the finger style stuff isn’t much
of a problem. The flamenco however is still pretty rough. Unfortunately,
I’m only going to do one flamenco number at each event because I don’t
want to fumble through it – or worse – mess up my finger even more. On
Monday morning I went to a studio with Juan Carlos and his dad to record
the tune that I’d played with them on stage. The studio was small and
the engineer was running Cubase LE to record. He had no midi interface
on his PC (???) and that meant that Juan Carlos had to dump his sequences
as audio into the audio input of the computer. I played along and we got
a decent take on the second pass. Afterwards we sat around listening to
tunes and shooting the breeze with the owners of the studio who have a
band that plays traditional Latin folk music. They’re not incredible players
but folk music really sounds better to me when it’s not played too cleanly
and proficiently. Their sound was very nice all around. They were nice
guys too and they were freaking out on the Godin guitar as are most folks
down here. Apparently Godin has little or no distribution here and that
strikes me as crazy because their nylon string is great and the nylon
string guitar is the axe of Latin music. The guitar is a bit rich for
most budgets here but still I bet they’d sell a ton. It’s interesting
the prices here. Some things are cheap – apartments cost $400 – $600 instead
of a grand and up and a flick in the theatre costs 4 bucks instead of
8. However a coffee still costs 2-3 bucks (Starbucks is everywhere) and
a guest admission at a health club costs 10 bucks just like in the states.
Taxis are a little less but still aren’t cheap.

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Thursday, Oct. 21

On Tuesday Juan and I went to ”El Zocalo”, which is Mexico City’s giant
central plaza, to see Templo Mayor and the Cathedral. Templo Mayor is
the remains of an Aztec Temple for the worship of the sun. It’s impressive.
With my typical American ignorance, I had no idea that the Aztecs were
such warring people and had such a pessimistic view of the world. I also
didn’t know that Mexico City used to sit in the middle of a lake that
the conquistadors manually drained to build the city. The weather here
has been incredible – 80 degrees every day with 100% sun. It’d probably
be really blue if not for the smog. I went out for a run my second day
here and I completely forgot about the altitude. Mexico City is at something
like 2500 meters and I found myself suckin’ wind pretty bad after about
3 minutes from the combination of altitude and smog. I had to cut the
run short lest I kill myself and pay the price. There is a nice park near
Juan and Sofia’s house that’s ideal for running in. They live in a pretty
tranquil neighborhood and they turned me onto an outrageously good little
restaurant on the corner a block from their house. They serve every Mexican
food you’ve ever heard of plus 200 more. You can get stuffed for about

Today Eduardo the percussionist and Mario the bassist came over for our
first rehearsal. Eduardo has studied percussion in Africa and has a nice
raw feel to his playing although he lacks experience in a band
setting. The bulk of his experience has been in pure percussion ensembles
that accompany dancers. He is eager to learn and he takes well to suggestions
on what he might do to help the tunes out. Mario is a very good young
(maybe 25) bassist and can read well to boot. His solos fall easy on the
ears and don’t sound at all clichéd. He too is very eager to learn.
I don’t see any reason to use the other bassist. He can’t rehearse and
can only make the festival gigs whereas Mario can do it all and I enjoy
his playing. Decision made. One thing that I find interesting (but not
at all surprising) is that on the latin flavored tunes I don’t have to
tell the guys a thing – they just hear the groove and within a bar have
it nailed to the foor. However the shuffle feel of ‘Stridin’ is a problem
for both of them. I had to give them a fairly in-depth lesson on how to
play a shuffle. I guess if you grow up in Chicago, a shuffle is in your
blood and if you grow up in Latin America, those rhythms are burned in.They’ve
picked up the shuffle pretty well and I don’t think we’ll have any problem
with the tune.

I just found out that I will have to give an interview at the public radio
station. I’m a little nervous since the station has a potential audience
of 20 million and I have to do the interview in Spanish. Really, public
radio here has even less public support than in the US, so I don’t think
that many people will be listening. Still, I’m a little nervous. We went
and checked out the theater where the second day of the festival will
take place. It’s a very cool old building that’s been converted into a
theater/art gallery. Mexico City is divided into 7 Colonies that have
a certain amount of self-rule, especially in cultural and recreational
matters. This theater is the colony of San Angel cultural center and they
have plays, concerts and art exhibits going year round. The acoustics
are great and that always gives an added boost to one’s confidence before
a show. The first day of the festival will be at an auditorium on the
north end of the city and they tell me that the space is sort of gymnasium-like
and the sound leaves a lot to be desired. They also tell me, however,
that the sound guy is very good and has experience in the room. I hope

I had my first joyous experience with the Mexico City bus system today.
I wanted to go to the Museum of Modern Art so Juan and Sofia gave me instructions
on how to take the bus. First I got on a bus going south instead of north.
I asked a fellow standing next to me if we were coming up to Paseo de
la Reforma, the street I needed to get off at. He told me basically ”dude,
you’re going the wrong way – it’s way back the other way”. Doh. So I
got off, crossed the street and hopped a bus going the opposite way. After
quite a while I asked the same question of a fellow passenger and he said
”you already passed it, it’s back there”. He didn’t seem 100% confident
and I know that a Mexican is loath to admit he can’t help you, so I asked
another fellow. He said the same thing. So I thought ”doh times 2” and
got off the bus. I saw an upstanding looking businessman and asked him
just to make sure. He said ”it’s right ahead”. – in the direction I
had just been going! So I hopped back on another bus and sure enough –
the businessman was the one with the right answer. I got off at la Reforma
and hopped on another bus to go to the museum. This time the bus driver
was kind enough to tell me I was getting on a bus headed the wrong way.
The other drivers were assholes and didn’t tell me a thing. This guy gave
me instructions on how to catch the right bus. I did as he said and hopped
yet another bus. This bus driver told me we were definitely headed to
the museum so I felt relaxed. The next thing I know we pull into this
market area that kind of doubles as a bus station and he parks the bus
and parks and everyone gets off. Now I’m like ”what the f%$&”. A
young guy comes up to me who had apparently observed me asking the driver
if we were going by the museum. He wanted to try out his English and tried
to explain to me how to get to the museum from where we were. He was struggling
quite a bit and I decided I’d better repeat his instructions back to him
in Spanish to make sure I understood what he was telling me. He affirmed
it. I followed his instructions and came to where I was supposed to turn
left and there were 3 different streets onto which one could turn varying
degrees of left. Argh! I asked a shoeshine guy where the museum was and
he told me not to bother since it was closed! By this time my attitude
was basically ”whatever” and I just picked a street to walk down. I
figured that I was already here so I might as well walk around and see
what there was to see. I walked for about a block when a saw a sign for
the museum on the opposite street corner. I followed the arrows and sure
enough – the museum! I walked up to the ticket booth and the guy in the
booth told me that only 2 exhibits were open because they were preparing
a huge exhibit. The shoeshine guy was semi-correct after all. It was only
a buck and half admission so I said OK. Fortunately, one of the exhibits
was of the cubist work of Diego Rivera and they had an excellent representation
of his paintings from that period. It was worth it after all but WHAT
A HASSLE!! The return trip wasn’t a problem because, first, I knew route
now and, second, I asked the museum folks before I left to make sure I
was headed the right way.

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This trip lasted from October 16th to November 3rd 2004. (again, definitely
not long enough)

Monday, Oct. 18

After a rather bumpy ride, I landed in Mexico City to a gorgeous day of
80 degrees and sunshine. Juan and Sofia, my hosts for the trip, were waiting
for me at the airport, so all went very smoothly – even though I had to
wait in a ridiculously long line at customs. I suppose that’s the famous
Mexican efficiency at it’s best. Sofía showed me the latest copy
of ”El Buscador”, the magazine that Juan works for which has a monthly
circulation of 20,000 and I’m on the cover! Wow.

Soon after arriving at their apartment, I was off to my first rehearsal
with Antes del Glacier, the band of Juan’s son – also named Juan. I’m
going to play guitar on a track for their next disc, so I attended their
rehearsal so I could get an idea of the tune and play through it a few
times. The band is considered New Age here and their sound is in the neighborhood
of Vangelis or Kitaro – but with a kind of techno/trance vibe. The tune
is pretty cool and it will be fun to play on it. After practice I went
with Juan jr., his girlfriend Fanny, and Eduardo the percussionist (he’ll
also be playing in my band). We went to view some ancient ruins in the
middle of Mexico City. There was also a Cathedral from the early conquistador
epoch that was impressive. We then went in seek of food. After trying
3 restaurants that were closed we finally decided on this little hole
in the wall – literally. The houses here are right on the street – just
a sidewalk and then the house’s outer wall. They have nothing like what
we’d call a yard. Well, some people blow out part of the wall of their
house to make it open to the street so they can operate a restaurant out
of the house. Customers can walk off the street right through the hole
in the wall and eat in their house. The food was heavy with grease but
it was tasty and they told me that this is ”muy mexicano”.

The next day I slept in like a slug and basically had the day free.
That afternoon I met with Rubén, a teacher at one of the schools I’m
giving a clinic at. He used to play for a living but now teaches full-time
because it’s so hard for a musician to earn a living here (surprise, surprise).
We seemed to hit it off and got into several deep philosophical discussions
on music. It’s still a little bit of a struggle, but it’s great to be
able to have such in-depth conversions in Spanish. The following week
I found out that Rubén grew up in Washington D.C. and speaks native perfect
English, but he kindly didn’t let on at this meeting. We went to the cafe
on the corner of Juan and Sofia’s street to hang out. Later Juan showed
up and we got into more musical philosophy. Juan and I would continue
the lines of thought started in these discussions for several days. We
have to settle on a bassist for the concerts. Apparently there will be
the 2 festival gigs, 2 clinics and a club date. One bassist who is supposed
to be one of the best in the city is available for the festival dates
but not the rest. Another, named Mario, is younger and less experienced
but is available for everything. I’m leaning toward using one bassist
for everything but I’ll have to play with Mario and see how it goes.

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This trip lasted from February 18th to March 10th 2004. (definitely not
long enough)

Well, it took me three days to remember the url of my “secret”
maintenance page that I use to update this diary! Doh. Anyway, I´m
here in Jerez and it´s raining – again. In fact, it has done nothing
but rain since I got here. My travel day of planes, trains and automobiles
was beautiful, but that did me no good since I was inside the whole time.
I finally got here after a 2-hour delay at O’Hare to make some kind of
repair to the plane; they never did tell us what was wrong – hmmm. I arrived
in Madrid just in time to run to catch my flight to Seville. That was
a waste, however, because that flight was delayed an hour as well. Eventually,
I got to Seville and enjoyed a cab ride to the train station with a cabbie
who, once he discovered that I was a Chicagoan here to study Flamenco,
was eager to discuss the similarities between Michael Jordan and the great
Flamenco artists. Cool. After an uneventful train ride across the beautiful
Andalusian countryside, I was met at the station by Gerry, the manager
of the language school that I’m studying at. He took me to my homestay
house (actually an apartment) and introduced me to the two teenage girls
that live there. Their mother, a nurse, was working at the local hospital
and wouldn’t return until later. I spent some time chatting with Alexandria,
age 16 and the older of the two. When mom got home later that night, I
was given a ´thumbs up´ rating for my coolness level. This
pleased me greatly, of course. Gerry had asked me to come to the school
later that evening to take my placement test so I could begin right away
on Monday. I went in and met Sofía (who, I found out later, would
be my teacher) who gave me the exam.

Thanks to some good anti-jetlag advice from my dad, I was able to get
a decent night’s sleep that night. In the morning I went the meet the
guitar teacher “El Carbonero”. His system of teaching is very
interesting. He has an ante-room where 4-8 guitarists of a wide variety
of levels are sitting and practicing while they wait their turn for a
visit to the inner sanctum of his private studio. When he finishes a lesson,
he walks out into the ante-room and looks around to select the next student,
whom he directs into the studio. He frequently walks around the room,
listening to the students practicing and gives them direction or correction
as required.

When I entered the private studio for the first time, he asked me to
play something so he could discern my level of playing. I began playing
one of the couple of pieces I had learned to prepare myself for the trip.
After about 5 seconds he said “basta” which means “enough”
or “stop”. He apparently had figured out I could play guitar
but knew precious little of flamenco. He announced that we would start
with Tientos, a slow, stately dance form that is a mainstay of the flamenco
art form. He feeds you the music a phrase at a time – he simply plays
it himself and looks at you like “play it back!” Of course it´s
pretty rough to grasp it all in one swallow, so he proceeds to step through
it note by note without explanations or preparations. It really carries
the sentiment of “if you´re going to get it, your going to
get it by just watching and listening; if you´re not going to get
it, you´re never going to get it no matter how much I try to explain
it to you”. I like it immediately. I make a series of visits to the
inner studio and learn a decent size chunk of music. When you are done
for the day he says “grabamos” which means “let´s
record”. He plays what you´re working on plus a little extra
to give you a clue of what´s coming next.

The weather here has been wretched. It´s been 15 degrees below
normal and raining – EVERY DAY! They tell me that I brought a “gafe”
(curse) from Chicago because this is not normal for this time of year.
It´s usually 65 and sunny, not 50 and rainy. Oh well. They tell
me, “you should have been here the last 2 weeks, it was beautiful.”
Of course. I don´t really mind except that I´m tired of having
wet shoes from walking in the rain.

On Sunday I wanted to visit the nearby village of Arcos de la Frontera
but there is only one bus on Sunday and I missed it by 15 minutes. I decided
instead to go to the port city of Sanlucar because I fancied the idea
of seeing the Atlantic Ocean. There just happened to be a bus leaving
in 5 minutes, so I bought a ticket and climbed aboard. I must say that
Sundays around here are pretty sleepy and not much goes on. There is a
strip of restaurants along the beach in Sanlucar that are known for their
excellent seafood. I went into one of the restaurants and realized that
I have absolutely no knowledge of the Spanish names of ocean going fish
and lesser-known sea creatures! I guess studying Spanish in Chicago does
not give one cause to learn the names of oceanic critters. Fortunately,
there was a menu in English. I´ve had little reason to use English,
which is of course, one of the reasons I came here and for that I´m
glad. The family I´m staying with speaks perfect English – they
lived in England for several years (both girls were born in England and
the older speaks accent free). They also lived in North Carolina for 2
years. However they have been great about avoiding English except when
I ask them to translate a word for me. The do watch a ton of TV in English
because, obviously, it´s way better than watching the dubbed versions
of American shows. I´m surprised to find that watching it is actually
helping my Spanish. When overtaxed with Spanish 24×7, my brain sometimes
goes into a linguistic freeze kind of like an engine that´s run
out of oil. The little blasts of American tube give the language center
of my brain enough of a break that I´ve not yet suffered a freeze.

Saw something really great last night. Manuel, the flamenco instructor
invited me to sit in on a group accompaniment class. He brings in a professional
flamenco singer and a group of about 15 folks including everything from
10-year-old kids to 60-year-old adults sit in a big semi-circle around
the singer and Manuel. The evening starts out with some group playing
to back up the singer. We played a Bulerias and a Tientos as I recall.
Then the students take turns on the “hot seat”, accompanying
the singer while Manuel injects comments and criticisms. At the end of
each number, he gives a few more tips and it`s on to the next student.
It all serves as a kind of master class with the critiques being intended
for the benefit of all. It was great seeing all the age groups coming
together to jam and everyone, including me, seemed to be having a great
time while learning some valuable stuff. There was also a young singer
in attendance and he got some chances to sing and get some pointers as
well. Why doesn’t this exist more in the U.S.?

This internet café is really great. They play medieval music for
the surfers and sell a wide variety of offbeat books – everything except
commercial bestseller type stuff. The owners are very nice as well – like
helping me to figure out these funky Spanish keyboards. There’s actually
a special shift key for accessing a new bank of characters.

I’ve been getting heavy doses of ska at my homestay. The older daughter
is into this ska/punk/metal band from Madrid called Ska-P. Fortunately,
they’re pretty cool and I have the chords to at least 3 of their tunes
memorized. If I ever want to move to Spain, maybe I could land a gig with

I spent the day in the lovely little pueblo named Arcos de la Frontera.
As I walked up the streets away from the bus station, it appeared to me
to be a rather generic little town of white buildings – hence it’s inclusion
as one of the well known “pueblos blancos”. I continued climbing
up the streets and as I came around a bend I was confronted by the dramatic
sight of a castle on the edge of a cliff not too far in front of me. The
closer I got to the castle, the more the town turned into a beautiful
and well preserved medieval town with tiny streets that a car could only
pass if the pedestrians stepped into the doorway of a house or storefront.
I found some nice views for drawing and produced 3 before my pen died.
I began a search for another pen, but today is Andalusía Day and
everything (except tourist crap) is closed for the holiday. Oh well.

As the trip has continued, I´ve met more people and got involved
in more things. That’s giving more to write about, but less time to actually
write. I have been fortunate to get connected with a group of people that
includes American expats, Dutch, Italians, Danes, Australians and of course
Spaniards. It seems that I was blessed with the good fortune that Salud,
the momin the home I’m staying at, is a part of this group and through
attending social functions with her I’ve been more or less adopted by
the group which, due to it’s nature, adopts people quickly if the members
deem you interesting. I use the term members very loosely because it’s
not like there is some pretext of “in” versus “out”.
The majority are students or practitioners of flamenco but some, like
Salud, are there just because they fit in socially.

I experienced my first juerga the other night at 5:00 a.m. in a bar nearing
closing time. For those of you who don’t know, a juerga is a spontaneous
outbreak of flamenco in a public place. It is by nature unplanned and
has a very raw sound. That’s not to say it’s unprofessional, just that
it springs up with whatever lineup of dancers/musicians that happen to
be there. It is very interesting that something like the “chick singer”
of jazz could NEVER exist in flamenco. All participants must have intimate
knowledge of all aspects of the art form. Everyone can sing a little and
dance a Bulerias and play some guitar or clap palmas in a correctly articulated
driving manner. All the singers play some guitar and have as much knowledge
of the compás (rhythmic groupings) as the guitarists and percussionists.
The dancers also have an extensive knowledge of everything and would certainly
choke any one who tried to participate and messed up the compás.
It is common to see the guitarist jump up to dance a few compás
worth of bulerias and toss his guitar to one of the palmeros who have
done nothing but clap all night long. The palmero picks up the piece where
it is when he catches the guitar and plays effective rhythm guitar. Everybody
here plays a little guitar.

Back to the juerga. Salud and I had been out peña visiting and
bar hopping and made one final stop at a strange bar a block from her
apartment. The place was decorated like the set of the old Adams Family
tv series and we were sitting in a sort of ante room having an Oloroso
Seco which is a type of dry sherry made here in town (as is all sherry).
From the next room came the sound of one person clapping a bulerias rhythm.
Straight away the bartender started to sing – very well I might add. Soon
more people joined the palmero and began to add cross rhythms and one
began to dance. This went on for an hour or more before we left and it
was still going. The sound was haunting – in part because it was so unexpected
and in part because of the ambience of the bar and the surreal state of
my mind at 5:00 a.m. The lack of guitar also gave it a starker character.
Being a guitar player, I had sought out flamenco mostly centered around
the guitar (which the majority of it is) but I have come to realize that
the guitar is absolutely not necessary to the art form. I suspect that
this realization is critical to understanding how to play flamenco well.

The following day I was invited to go to lunch at a restaurant in the
countryside with basically the same group of folks that was at the party
I mentioned earlier. The restaurant was on a chicken ranch and you walk
past the holding pens as you enter the tarp covered dining area. I was
told that you can select a particular chicken for your dish. I declined.
I did, however, order a meal of chicken that was delicious and the dinner
conversation had that wild multi-lingual euro-mix. As we were enjoying
a flan style desert, the table next to us broke into palmas, clapping
out the rhythm of Bulerias. It appeared to be an extended family of a
dozen or so. The fellow that appeared to be the patriarch began to sing
and he had a voice that was quite nice. The rest of the patrons of the
restaurant barely seemed to notice that this was going on! Apparently,
this must be a not uncommon event in these parts. I found it very beautiful
and it gave me a little more insight into just what this music is all
about. I went to the peña show that night to get one last dose
of flamenco and to bid farewell to all my new friends. We drank a bunch
of sherry and I promised to come back again. I do believe I will keep
that promise.

A word about the peñas. A peña is a club for flamenco.
Now I use the word club not in the sense of nightclub where an American
band would play a gig, but club in the sense of gardening club or chess
club or something like that. The members pay dues, rent an establishment
and operate in a semi-private way. Normally the club is for members only
(although, if you stop in they’ll be glad to take your money for a glass
of sherry) but occasionally they pony up some cash for a professional
or semi-pro performer and they throw open the doors to the general public
– free of charge. Now the 2nd and 3rd weeks of my trip overlapped the
Jerez Flamenco Festival and during the fest at least one peña is
open every night with an “espectaculo”. The quality tends to
vary a lot. For example, the first night of the festival I saw a group
of three singers a guitarist and a dancer and, frankly, they weren’t very
good. The very next night I saw the same guitarist playing in a duo with
his father (a singer) and he sounded twice as good! It also helped drive
home the fact that flamenco was, and is a family based art form. The best
peña show I saw was in La Peña Terremoto, named after a
famous singer from the 60’s with a thunderous voice (terremoto means earthquake).
There were 4 guitarists, 2 singers and a dancer who was the most popular
dance instructor in town. She was a riot – a real ball of fire. The older
2 guitarists were excellent, one of them looked like the classic 19th
century mad scientist and he played all the wild falsetas. A falseta could
be described as a short guitar lead, and modern solo flamenco players
string several falsetas together to make something that very much resembles
a jazz solo. I was really glad that I got to see the whole gamut of levels
of flamenco from the polished performances at the official festival shows,
to the semi-pro stuff at the peñas to the kids just learning at
El Carbonero’s studio.

My last 2 days were in Seville. I thought it was going to be only 1 day,
but I spaced out big time. I left Jerez on Monday to be in Seville for
my 7:00 am flight on Tuesday. I was out until 2 a.m. and got up with the
alarm at 4:30. Ouch. As I was getting ready, I looked at my plane ticket
to make sure I had the time right. I did – it said 7:00 am on Wednesday
March 10. WEDNESDAY!? DOH! I had an entire day extra, plus I could go
back to bed and sleep! I did just that. I must say that Seville is a fine
place to spend a free day. In the morning I found a flamenco record store
and the owners turned me on to a new Camerón compilation that I
bought and love. Camerón is the great singer who, along with Paco
de Lucia, revolutionized the art form. I spent the middle day hanging
out in the alcazar, which is an old Moorish fortress right in the middle
of Seville. It’s absolutely beautiful and has to be one of the most peaceful
places on earth. After that I ate lunch with some extra wine to celebrate
my bonus day. I then went and did the siesta thing on the bank of the
river after watching the sculling crews practice a bit. That night I heard
what was absolutely the worst flamenco of the trip in a bar that charged
me 4 euros for a watered down Coke. Obviously, I don’t know where to go
in Seville! Wednesday morning finally rolled around and, after a good
3 hours of sleep, I called a cab to go to the airport. The cabbie was
playing a blues disc and I told him I was headed back home to Chicago.
He said the disc was by a young friend of his who is a well know local
blues/flamenco player. He flipped through some tunes on the disc and,
sure enough, the young man could burn on both flamenco and blues! It was
a perfect wrap-up to a wonderful trip. The rest of the return journey
was uneventful, although I spent most of the flight to Chicago talking
with a well-groomed and attractive woman of perhaps 50 or 55 years of
age. She was intelligent and well spoken but only spoke Spanish. When
I was standing in the airport waiting for my luggage a guy came up to
me and said, “do you know who you were talking to all the way home?”
Of course, I said “no, should I?” He said that she is a well-known
national TV reporter in Spain. Huh, what d’ya know. I hope she has as
much fun in the U.S. as I had in Spain!

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