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    Entries in music (8)



    People who know me well know that I less than enthusiastic about the holidays, including Christmas. The Grinch and I have quite a bit in common. My take on the season is more Humbug than Merry Christmas.

    The thing I dislike the most about this time of year is the orgy of commercialism that the holidays have become. In the news this week there was a report of how there is no one “it” gift this year. Retailers were disappointed that there was not one product that created such irrational demand that customers would line up before stores opened for a shot at the toy or gadget. I suppose that the iPad is the closest thing to a “must have” this year, but it’s too expensive to be a gift for the masses. That’s not good for retailers, but most of the stuff people buy for the season ends up cluttering up a drawer or a closet somewhere anyway. 

    Even without the “one thing that everyone must have,” the retailers are still trying. I saw Christmas stuff in the stores before Halloween this year.  That’s crazy. Pretty soon they’re going to start having Christmas sales in July (oh, wait, they already do). It’s nearly as bad as the continual election cycle our politicians have fallen into.

    I’m not completely hopeless when it comes to the holidays. There are a few things I enjoy about the holidays, like seeing friends and family.

    Sara McLachlan’s Wintersong is another thing I like about the season. The album is my favorite Christmas album of all time. It came out in 2006 when I was working at Starbucks in Boston. We had to listen to nothing but Christmas music for a month. Most of the music the company played nearly drove me nuts, but McLachlan’s music was refreshing. With her breathy, mournful voice, McLachlan gives the music a haunting, dreamlike quality. You can almost feel the snow and the cold coming through the speakers.


    Naturally tasty

    On a different note, I have had a couple of  natural-processed coffees recently that were quite interesting, at least as espressos. Case Study is currently offering a natural Bourbon (variety) from Finca El Manzano in El Salvador. Actually, they have a suite of the same coffee processed in three different ways—washed, pulp natural, natural—that you can compare side-by-side if you choose. I took the “flight” and tried all three, which set my heart racing. The natural was the most interesting, with flavors of fermented peaches and plums.

    The second natural I had was from Extracto, from the Ethiopia Yirgacheffe region. The crema was sweet and smelled like strawberry jam. There was a lot of wine notes in the coffee, as well as some aggressive, tongue-smacking tannins.

    In addition to the two single-origin naturals, Public Domain currently has some natural-processed Ethiopia Harrar coffee in its Prometheus espresso blend. The natural adds a lot of sweetness to the blend. Jackson, one of the baristas there, told me that the blend changes pretty regularly and that they are only offering the current blend for  a few more days. If you are interested in trying a natural that is not too wild, getting a taste of it in the Prometheus blend is a good way to go.

    It is hard for me to resist ordering naturals when I find them on a café’s menu. The flavors are bold, complex and somewhat unpredictable. While they might not be something that most people could drink every day, naturals are just the thing if you are in the mood for experimenting. If you’ve had any great naturals out there somewhere, let us know!

    If not, well…Humbug. Or…Happy Holidays, if you prefer.


    Making it big in Beijing

    It is always a pleasure to read a book that resonates with me in some way, and last night, I read a book that did just that. The book was Big in China: My unlikely adventures raising a family, playing the blues, and becoming a star in Beijing, by Alan Paul. In 2005, Paul’s wife, an editor for the Wall Street Journal, gets a job as the paper’s bureau chief in China. Looking for an adventure and hoping to give their kids some international exposure, the couple decides to move their family of five to Beijing for a while. Paul, a freelance writer for Guitar World and Slam! (a magazine about basketball), is excited about the prospect of starting a new life in a new country, even if it is just for a few years.

    When they get to Beijing, the family is put up in a gated expat community, but Paul and his wife Rebecca want to experience the “real” China, so they spend as much time outside the community walls as they do inside it. Aggressively traveling around China, the family visits many places that most foreigners never dare to venture. Paul records most of their adventures and shares them with the world on his blog for the Wall Street Journal. Both spouses eventually manage to get their drivers licenses and they buy a car, giving them an extra degree of freedom to explore.

    The family has many of the normal challenges of adjusting to life in a new country. Paul writes about culture shock, about struggles learning the Chinese language, and about watching the transformation of his kids from reluctant participants to adventurers themselves. They all grow to love their new home, and Paul is surprised when the family travels back to the US and finds himself longing to go back “home” to China.

    Life is not always wonderful inside the expat community, and Paul’s family must deal with some real heartbreak while they are in Beijing. The wife of one of the couple’s new expat friends becomes ill, and after some inconclusive medical exams returns to the US, where she is diagnosed with late-stage cancer. The speed at which the cancer takes the woman’s life is shocking. Meanwhile, Paul’s own father discovers he has cancer (not life-threatening), and Paul is struck by the realization that life continues to move forward in the states, even when he is not there.

    Despite some difficult times, the family’s time in China is a positive experience. One of Paul’s observations is that it feels natural to reinvent oneself in a place that is changing as rapidly as China. In fact, it is necessary to change in order to feel like you fit in. In Paul’s case, he reinvents himself through music.

    An amateur musician who is reluctant to play music in front of people, Paul is determined to overcome his fears while he is in China. He has an urge to get up on stage and play, to see what he can really do. The opportunity arises when an expat who owns a bar asks him to host an open mic night. Paul agrees to do it as soon as he can find a partner to play with.

    Paul eventually finds someone to play with, though not in a conventional way. On one trip back to the United States, he purchases a new guitar to take to China with him. He carefully packs it in its case and checks it as baggage, but when he arrives at his house in Beijing, Paul opens the guitar case to find that the head is no longer attached to the rest of the guitar. This misfortune would profoundly change the rest of Paul’s time in China.

    Paul ends up contacting Woodie Wu, a Chinese guitarist who also has an instrument repair business. When Paul brings him the broken guitar, the two discover they share a deep appreciation for American blues/roots music. Wu probes Paul for stories from all of the guitar players he has interviewed over the years, and the two become fast friends. They get together for a jam session and soon the pair starts playing gigs at local bars. Their band grows to include an American sax player (who also works for the US treasury department) and two Chinese musicians—a bassist and a drummer.

    At first, the group is just out to have fun, but Wu challenges Paul to practice harder because he sees that they have potential. Paul agrees. He is nervous about going for it, but at the same time he feels like he could do great things if he would just let his inhibitions go. The effort to improve pays off. The band develops a camaraderie and rhythm, becoming a cohesive unit that plays great music.

    Chinese audiences respond well to the Chinese-American blues band. Woodie Alan, as the band is called, is voted Beijing’s best band, and even does some touring in China. They are successful beyond what Paul thought possible when he began. When his wife receives a promotion that will require them to move back to New Jersey, he is deeply torn about leaving. Paul realizes that the only logical decision is to move back to the States, but it is still difficult.

    Big in China describes the transition of an upper middle class family from New Jersey into a global family with an international perspective. It also tells the story of how one self-conscious American guy broke through his own resistance and grew into the musician he always hoped he was. At times, the book is funny (reporting the follies of trying to adapt to a new culture), serious (discussing the real anxieties of being far away from sick family members) and inspiring (describing Paul’s transformation).  It is an easy and accessible introduction to China, and when you get done reading it, you feel like you need to take your own journey abroad. At least I did.


    #Trust30 Day 28 - Feeling alive 

    Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. If we follow the truth, it will bring us out safe at last. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

    When did you feel most alive recently? Where were you? What did you smell? What sights and sounds did you experience? Capture that moment on paper and recall that feeling. Then, when it’s time to create something, read your own words to reclaim a sense of being to motivate you to complete a task at hand.—Sam Davidson

    Speaking of the task at hand, I think this #Trust30 exercise is getting out of hand. It’s beginning to interfere with my work (which is why the last couple posts have been so short). I am ready for it to be over, not because it has not been valuable, but because there are other things I want to focus on.

    Have we not talked about feeling alive before? In case you missed it, read this post. Or this one.

    *sigh*….With that off my chest, I’ll move on to writing.


    The guitar sits in the corner, its case in plain sight, waiting for me to get done with my other work. It seems like other priorities always work their way in ahead of the music. But then, one evening, I find myself done early, with no responsibilities or obligations that can’t wait until the next day. It is a delicious opportunity. It is time to let the songs that have been reverberating inside my head all day finally go free.

    I walk over to the heavy black case. The buckles pop as I flip their silver tabs upward. Folding back the top half of the case, I grasp the smooth, rosewood neck and lift the guitar gently out of its soft green bed. Raising the guitar upward, I press my face to the opening in the guitar’s flat top and inhale deeply. The sweet smell of spruce and rosewood fills my mind with visions of the shop where the guitar was carefully fashioned from freshly-milled lumber.

    I start playing, slowly, some low, mellow songs to get in the mood. At first, both my fingers and my voice resist my mind’s direction, but they warm up quickly as the harmonious vibrations resonate through the hollow body of the guitar and into the room around me.

    Gradually, the pace and the intensity of the songs picks up to where I am playing and singing more freely. The music starts to resonate from within me, from somewhere deep. The force of the songs continues to grow until I abandon myself to the music. Time slows down, and I forget where I am. I sing without inhibition, without fear of being heard or being judged. It is my voice, my song, my release, and nothing else.

    The moments of this kind of freedom are rare, but when they come, they are renewing. They make me feel alive.


    #Trust30 - Day 9 - Too scary?

    [To find out why I am writing all these #Trust30 posts, click here]

    Today's Quote:

    The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

    And the Prompt:

    Emerson says: “Always do what you are afraid to do.” What is ‘too scary’ to write about? Try doing it now. – Mary Jaksch

    Hmm. It’s one thing to answer a question like this in private, with your best friend or confidant, but when you start expecting me to write about something like that in this space, I begin to question my wisdom in accepting this writing challenge.

    Some of the things that are “too scary” to write about are things best kept in confidence. At least they are things that I am not ready to share in a public forum. However, I will try to give you something, because you have been kind enough to come here to read this.


    It took a while, but after staring at this screen until the white page permanently stained my retinae, I found my topic: love.

    Click to read more ...


    Turkish coffee at Marino Adriatic Café

    If you are hanging out in Portland and you get tired of drinking great espresso and brewed coffee, you have some other options available too. I was wandering up Southeast Division the other day when I came across Marino Adriatic Café, a quirky spot just a couple blocks down the street from the original Stumptown. The café is definitely an original, and it might be the only café in the city where you can get Vispak, a coffee roasted in Bosnia. When I went, I was looking for something different, so I ordered a Turkish coffee.

    Kristi, the barista, showed me how they make Turkish coffee at Caffè Marino. She started with super-finely ground coffee, and put one or two tablespoons in the bottom of a cezve (also known as an ibrik), a small copper pot that is the traditional vessel for making Turkish coffee. She set the cezve on the counter while she heated some water in a kettle.

    When the water began to boil, Kristi took it off the burner and placed the cezve containing the dry grounds directly on the burner for 5-10 seconds, toasting them a little bit.

    At this point, she added the water to the cezve and put it back on the burner. In less than a minute, the mixture began to boil, creating a frothy brown layer that threatened to spill over the sides of the cezve. Each time it was about to spill, Kristi pulled the pot off the heat and gently tapped it on the counter. She repeated this process three times.

    Having prepared the coffee, she served it on a small round copper tray, along with a delicate ceramic cup about the size of a demitasse. Kristi suggested I wait a couple minutes before pouring my coffee so that the grounds could brew a little longer and so they could settle to the bottom of the cezve. There is no filter involved with Turkish coffee, so you have to be careful when you pour it, or you will get a cup full of grit.

    My Turkish coffee, served in the cezve

    Click to read more ...


    Artists Hit the Right Notes

    It was a beautiful crisp fall day here in Portland yesterday. After rushing to get a week’s worth of laundry done, I needed to get out of the house and go look for stories (and of course, some good coffee). When I walked outside, I noticed two things: First, it was much cooler outside than the day before—fall is here—and I was glad I had elected to wear my fleece. Second, I could hear an outdoor concert taking place at the PSU campus. That piqued my interest, and I decided to go listen for a while.

    It’s pretty common to have lunchtime concerts at PSU. They usually take place once a week, weather permitting. I’m not sure who decides what group gets to play on stage in the commons, but the concert series is a great opportunity to perform and be heard by anywhere from several hundred to a couple thousand people. Up and coming bands who are looking for exposure can put their music out into the public eye (ear, rather) and see what kind of reaction they get. As you can imagine, the talent level and quality of the music varies greatly from week to week.

    I have listened to many of these concerts over the past two years, and I like to watch how the crowd reacts to each band. Most of the time, people sit down for a couple minutes and then move on (if they even stop in the first place). Once in a while the band is good enough that the crowd grows over the hour, but most of the time the people don’t stay around for long. They’ve got too much to do, and the music is not compelling enough to keep them around (Hmm. . . sounds kind of like blogging). Sometimes you can tell that a band has brought a core group of followers—they stand up close to the stage and dance or applaud wildly after each piece.

    Click to read more ...


    Killer Music

    What does an artist have to do to capture a listener’s attention? To give you an example of what captures my attention, I have embedded the video of The Killers singing “Spaceman” on Saturday Night Live in 2008 (it might take the video a while to load—sorry, it was about the only site I could find that had this performance).

    I happened to be watching SNL that night, and it was the first time I paid attention to the Killers. Watching Brandon Flowers, the lead singer, I could not to take my eyes off of him. He was wrapped up in the moment. Watch his eyes as he sings. They are intense. You can tell that he’s giving himself to the music and the audience. He starts out a little slow and builds up to the chorus. Around the 1:00 mark, he is hitting his stride and the music has taken over his body. Flowers has great range, and he sweeps through the high tones with flair. I don’t know if the band would say this was one of their best performances, but it was enough to make me a fan.

    Click to read more ...