Saturday, May 24, 2014

2nd Time in Culebra, PR – What Was Different?

Culebra is a small Caribbean island off the east coast of Puerto Rico near the US Virgin Islands.  It’s part of Puerto Rico (and therefore the USA) and still has an undiscovered feel that is hard to come by in the West Indies.  I first visited Culebra for a few nights in April 2013, which was documented in some previous posts linked below:

We returned to Culebra in May 2014 for a longer stay.  Thankfully not much had changed in the last 13 months.
This guy (Clooie) was waiting there to greet us
when we arrived at the cottage
The Same
Casa Yaboa and Jacinto - we stayed at the same cottage which had not changed a bit and the owner Jacinto once again picked us up from the small airport with same friendly local dog there wagging her tail, and once again took us to the Milka grocery store to get supplies before driving us to the cottage a few miles away.  Jacinto also came back by the next morning to take us to pick up our Avis rental jeep and remained with us until we had it, which ended up being a two hour ordeal.  (Tip: rent from Carlos or Jerry’s jeep rentals, even if more expensive than the corporate name brand).  Jacinto is a great host and I’m glad we chose to stay at Casa Yaboa again.  We also met Jacinto's wife Susie during a relaxing break from her restaurant and she is very fun to talk to.
Common area at Casa Yaboa
One of the views from Casa Yaboa
Zoni Beach – Still our favorite nearby beach.  A short drive from the cottage (too far to walk), never crowded, great for swimming, and almost as beautiful as the more famous Flamenco beach on the other side of the island.  Zoni actually has better views than Flamenco, and due to the lack of people we always managed to grab the same shady spot under a mangrove tree.
The view from our spot at Zoni Beach

Flamenco Beach – Consistently named as one of the world’s best beaches, Playa Flamenco is Culebra's most famous asset and hence it is where the majority of the tourists and ferry riding day trippers congregate.  (Secret – Tortuga beach on Culebrita is even nicer).  We only went to Flamenco once this time and made a point of seeing the old rusty tank at the end of the beach which we had missed last time.
Here I am posing for a pic at the tank on Flamenco Beach!
Dinghy Dock – still the best place in town to get a drink and hang out.  Food’s not bad either.  Dinghy Dock has lots of frozen rum drinks, cold beer, a friendly staff and colorful characters.  We found out that May is sort of a mini-off season in Culebra.  Americans tend to come in December through April and Puerto Ricans visit during June, July and August, but May is an in-between time.  Three of the main restaurants – Susie’s (owned by Jacinto and Susie), Zaco’s Tacos and Mamacita’s – had chosen to be temporarily closed while we were there, making Dinghy Dock even more of the place to be.
Brava Beach trail sign - looks official!
New To Us This Time
Hike to Brava Beach – Take the paved road that runs behind the museum until it ends at a gate.  Walk through the gate in the same direction you were just driving.  It’s a 22 minute walk down a well maintained trail (you actually feel like you are hiking).  The trail leads to this awesome, huge, crescent beach with rough waves crashing on the shore.  Do not attempt to swim here.  Just enjoy being the only people on this beach as we did for the 2 hours we sat there under a makeshift lean to.  Bring your own water and snacks.  It was a 22 minute hike back up as well.  I timed it!
The trail to Brava Beach - very nice!
Brava Beach - turtles nest here
Culebrita – We arranged for Captain Dave with Blue Water Charters to take us on a 5 hour trip to tiny uninhabited Culebrita island nature preserve toward the end of our stay, and I’m so glad we did this!  It was about a 20 minute motorboat ride and we were the only ones on Capt. Dave’s boat that day.  He anchors on a side of Culebrita with calm waters and coral reef and provides snorkeling gear if you want it.  After snorkeling it's a short hike up to the abandoned lighthouse built in the 1800’s.  Very cool and worth doing. 
View of light house from afar
Culebrita's abandoned light house up close!
View of St. Thomas USVI from top of Culebrita lighthouse
Even better was the 10 minute walk to the other side of the island where the unbelievably beautiful Tortuga beach is waiting to take you in.  Picture the quintessential beach in paradise and this is it!  That afternoon spent relaxing and playing on Tortuga beach may have been the highlight of our trip.  Yes it’s difficult and somewhat expensive to get to Culebrita, but so worth it!  Be one of the few who gets to witness this spot!  Look out for the feral goats and millions of lizards that live on the island.
Walking trail on Culebrita to Tortuga Beach
Standing on Tortuga Beach looking left
Standing on Tortuga Beach looking right
Culture and History – We were able to catch the Culebra Museo (museum) open this time so we learned a bit more about the island’s history as a US military gunnery and bomb testing site.  We were informed about Culebra’s rare, endangered turtles and saw some Taino Indian artifacts.  Local artist and musician Jorge Acevedo, whose shop Arte Fango is now located above the Dinghy Dock, filled us in on the island’s calypso heritage and the ongoing efforts to preserve this ecologically fragile habitat.

The "aero perro" once again there to wish us a safe trip home
That's about it.  We still didn't check out the snorkeling beaches of Tamarindo or Carlos Rosario and were told that the hike to Resaca beach wasn't worth it - too difficult and the beach is a carbon copy of Brava anyway.  We did some kayaking at the cottages out in Mosquito Bay.  It rained a lot more this time - but never enough to ruin a whole day.


As I mentioned above, 3 of the restaurants were (temporarily) closed the week we were there in May, but in addition to Dinghy Dock we ate at Heather's Pizza couple times - surprisingly good pizza and pasta.  We also cooked some meals at the cottage.  Had it been an option we would definitely have eaten at Susie's, and Mamacita's would have provided another waterside bar alternative.  Barbara Rosa's didn't look open on the night we planned to eat there, although we did find a couple food carts such as Munchies and Tiki's Grill open for some inexpensive alternatives.  That's part of Culebra's charm - you never quite know when or if a place will be open so you just have to go with the flow.  

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones - As Applied to Music

During my recent vacation I read Natalie Goldberg's well known book of Zen practice/writing practice entitled Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within.  I mostly interpreted it slightly out of context, inserting the words "playing music" instead of "writing" wherever possible.  For example, consider the following quotes with music-related words substituted for writing-oriented words:

"When I teach a beginning class, it is good. I have to come back to beginner's mind, the first way I thought and felt about (music).  In a sense, that beginner's mind is what we must come back to every time we sit down and (play)."

"You should feel that you have permission to (play) the worst junk in the world and it would be OK."

"Take a (tune) book. Open to any page, grab a (musical phrase, play it) and continue from there.  A friend calls this writing off the page.  If you begin with a great (melody), it helps because you start right off from a lofty place.  Every time you get stuck just rewrite your first (phrase) and keep going."

"If you are not afraid of the voices inside you, you will not fear the critics outside you."

"If you want to know (music), listen to it.  Little by little you will come closer to what you need to say and express it through your voice."

"If you are (playing) from first thoughts - the way your mind first flashes on something before second and third thoughts take over and comment, criticize and evaluate - you don't have to worry.  We can't always stay with first thoughts but it is good to know about them."

"When we know the name of something...it takes the blur out of our mind".

"We always worry that we are copying someone else, that we don't have our own style. Don't worry. (Music making) is a communal act....we are carried on the backs of all the (musicians) who came before us.  We live in the present with all the history, ideas and soda pop of this time.  It all gets mixed up in our (playing)."

"Right from the beginning, know (playing an instrument) is good and pleasant. Don't battle with it.  Make it your friend."

"Don't even worry about (playing) well; just (playing) is heaven."

"Not the why but the what...it's enough to know you want to (play). (Play)."

"If you want to (play) in a certain form, (listen to) a lot of (music) in that form.  When you (listen) a lot in that form, it becomes imprinted inside you, so when you sit down to (compose), you (compose) in that structure.  If you want to write short (tunes), you must digest that form and then exercise in that form."

"When you want to learn something, go to experts who have put in thirty years and learn from them.  Study their belief systems, their mental syntax - the order in which they think - and their physiology, how they stand, breathe, hold their mouth when they do the task they are expert in."

"In order to improve your (music), you have to practice just like any other sport. But don't be dutiful and make it into a blind routine.  Don't just put in your time. That is not enough.  You have to make effort.  Be willing to put your whole life on the line when you sit down for (music) practice. Otherwise you are just mechanically (strumming the pick across the strings) and intermittently looking up at the clock to see if your time is up."

"Learning to (play music) is not a linear process.  There is no logical A-to-B-to-C way to become a (musician).  One neat truth about (music) cannot answer it all.  There are many truths."
Natalie Goldberg
As you can see, some of these quotes didn't require any editing at all, and the ones that did still make perfect sense in a musical context even though they were intended for poets, novelists and other writers.  This process is a bit farther removed than say, reading Philip Toshio Sudo's Zen Guitar and changing the word "guitar" to "mandolin" every time it is used, but it can be done.  In doing so the subtitle of this book becomes Freeing the Musician Within instead of Freeing the Writer Within.  The same would have been true with any subject you chose to steer it toward.

A funny thing happened as I was reading this book.  The more I read it out of context, the more I started to read it in context.  An earlier creative endeavor of mine, before I took up playing tunes on the banjo and mandolin, was filling a page a day in a notebook with a form of stream of consciousness prose poetry.  An abstract journal, if you will.  I only kept this practice up for a couple years and had stopped before I got my first tenor banjo, but reading Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones may have inspired me to take up this medium again.

This time I want to be a better creative writer by figuring out and gathering together who my writing influences in this style are going to be, studying their technique and learning how to be influenced by them, whether they write in English or not.  Only recently have I started to grasp how to be influenced by other musicians, musical genres and styles, and I'm sure that with enough practice the same can be done with writing.

Chris Smith - author of Celtic Back-Up for all Instrumentalists - was the one who recommended Writing Down the Bones to me.  A few years back I had emailed him to vent some frustration over my inability to learn to play Irish traditional music.  When I inquired about his Zen view of music, he responded: "As an artist and teacher, I have found profoundly helpful Zen's emphasis upon concentration, attention to the present moment, suspension of ego, growth of self-awareness, and appreciation for doing things as well as possible. I also love that Zen people refer to meditation as 'practice' - that is, something you do every day out of a belief that steady effort and consistent attention will enhance performance. Likewise, Zen's insistence upon letting go of attachment to specific results is very, very helpful for a performer or other improviser."

Field Recordings from the Seychelles Islands

My discovery last year of the Etcetera String Band's Bonne Humeur album of early Creole/Caribbean dance tunes from Louisiana, Haiti, Trinidad, Martinique and the Virgin Islands whetted my appetite for this kind of music.  These are basically fiddle tunes of the sort I am already familiar with via my playing of Irish and oldtime, but with a tropical and exotic, "islandy" Afro-Caribbean twist to them.  I've been in search of more music like this and may have just found some by virtue of an album of late 1970's field recordings from the Seychelles; tiny islands in the Indian ocean.

The LP is called Seychelles 1: Danses et Romances de l'Ancienne France by a group called the Anse Boileau Kamtole Band.  I'm not quite sure what it'll sound like as I have only been able to sample one track online.  It is described by Keith Chandler from Musical Traditions as "archaic dance music, originally performed in England and thence throughout the European continent during the eighteenth century, filtered through the vernacular tradition and transformed beyond all recognition into something truly spectacular".  The instruments are listed as being fiddle, guitar, accordion (or melodeon), banjo-mandolin, bass drum with cymbal and triangle.

In his book Primacy of the Ear, Ran Blake talks of the benefits of learning an artist's overall work.  This might be a jazz player learning all of Monk's tunes, an Irish musician memorizing O'Carolan's pieces, or a guitarist in a Dead cover band ingesting all of Jerry's repertoire.  Myself, I've been going through Bonne Humeur tune by tune and hopefully the music on this Seychelles recording will have the same appeal.  One roadblock is it's being mailed to me as a vinyl album, which I have no means of playing, so I'll have to find someone with a record player and digitize the audio.  Then, hopefully, the music will be worth learning.

This is getting into some obscure territory - instrumental dance tunes with a Creole, Caribbean or island flair - so each new discovery is treasured.  If you know of more music like this - even modern artists who are creating original works in this style - please let me know because I would be interested in hearing it.  Sonny Rollins wrote a tune called St. Thomas which has this same kind of feel, so learning about more jazz tunes with a Caribbean melody would be something I'd be very open to as well.  Thanks!

Monday, May 5, 2014

My Interview with Marla Fibish: The Pulse, The Flow, The Sound of Irish Music on Mandolin

Marla Fibish has been part of the San Francisco Irish Music scene for three decades now.  Over that time, she has become one of the most prominent players of Irish mandolin, contributing to the instrument’s growing acceptance within the trad community.  Marla teaches privately and at music camps such as Lark Camp, Swannanoa, and Portal Irish Music Week. 

So far, I’ve taken three Irish mandolin lessons from Marla Fibish on Skype.  After the last lesson I had the opportunity to do an interview/conversation, which allowed me to pick Marla's brain on some Irish mandolin related topics.  It was very enlightening.  A transcription of Marla’s comments is below.
Marla Fibish
Most common thing Irish mandolin students are in need of learning:
(MF) It's almost always the right hand (picking hand).  It has to do with a focus on picking out a melody and thinking that the right hand is only used as a mechanism to execute those melody notes.  Whereas, I take a very different approach.  What I want the right hand to be doing is creating a bed of rhythm and to be steady in that rhythm, and then the left hand can overlay the tune on top of that bed of rhythm.  

The mandolin is a picked fiddle, in a way, so our role in Irish music is to play the melody but we have to do it in a rhythmic way.  We have to focus on the right hand so that we can get those notes to come out in the pulse of Irish music.  It's that hand that creates the pulse, just like a fiddler who will say it's 90 percent in the bow.  For us it's the same way, but most newer players are not focused there.  They're focused on the left hand.

Scales and theory analysis vs. just playing the tunes:  
(MF) I used to believe that the tunes will teach you everything, and I still believe that for the most part.  But, over the thirty-something years I've been playing this music the tunes have shown me this structure that's lying beneath them.  Once that gets revealed, it's a valuable part of what you're learning.  

The more tunes you know, the deeper your understanding of the underlying structure of both the music and the instrument.  You can super-impose that knowledge or you can get it from the tunes themselves, or both.  People learn in different ways. I learned it from the tunes, but I've learned to recognize things that can maybe help others learn it a little faster by giving some surrounding information. 

The mandolin's strengths and limitations:
(MF) You can play to your instrument's strengths and you can turn your instrument's limitations into stylistic strengths.  Limitations of the mandolin include attack and decay.  We can't produce a single, sustained tone that doesn't decay over time.  So, we turn that into stylistic punchiness.  At the same time we want to minimize that limitation as much as possible.  I'm always harping on getting that sustained legato tone as your default.  To the degree that you can get that, the limitation disappears.

Playing Irish music on the mandolin:
(MF) With the mandolin we want to sound like we're a part of what this music is supposed to sound like.  We don't want to sound different.  We are playing Irish music on this thing that people haven't been playing Irish music on for very long and that the music wasn't built around, and there isn't this whole tradition of technique that goes with how to play the tunes on this instrument.  

We want to get the pulse, the flow and the sound of the music.  It's never going to be exactly with the same bits and pieces and ornaments and turns that a piper could play, or a fiddler could play, or somebody on one of the core instruments, if you will.  So we're doing a little bit of interpreting as we go to get the feel of the music.  That's our first job and then we can start to bring new things in.  
Bruce Victor and Marla Fibish
Playing in first position:
(MF) Staying focused around the offerings and the harmonic possibilities of what the first position gives you stays truer to the feel of the music as played on instruments that it's been played on for much longer.  You pick up cues from hearing the open strings on a fiddle.  Those are landmarks.  They are important inflections.   They are part of the style.  

The goal is not to be able to play that tune anywhere on the instrument and strip it of those cues to its fundamentalness.  It's not about just stringing those notes together anywhere one can. When you take a tune and you play it in a closed position somewhere else on the neck you're taking away those resonances that are rooting the tune in a certain harmonic structure of a key. 

I am all for moving tunes into keys that bring out something wonderful in the tune on the instrument on which it is being played.  But part of the beauty of a tune in a particular key comes from how its melody is organized relative to the 4 open notes of the instrument - how ringing open strings create drone notes - where string crossings fall in a melody, creating fluid lines against resonating notes.  The goal, then, for me, is not to be able to execute technically perfect uniformity across keys, but rather to embrace the differences that arise from a change in key -- the relationships between the open strings, the notes of the tune, and the resonances and overtones of the instrument that unfold when that tune is played in that key. 

First tunes learned:
(MF) I remember learning Tripping Up the Stairs before I even knew it was a jig.  I didn't know what a jig was but I remember playing it and thinking it was the prettiest thing I had ever heard.  I probably learned a lot of the same first tunes that people learn now, like The Blarney Pilgrim.  

I learned Loftus Jones very early on.  That's an O'Carolan tune that I learned off a Mick Moloney recording.  He was playing it on the mandolin so his interpretation of it made it very accessible to a new player.  I still play it.  I still love that tune.

Playing in a certain style:
(MF) Typically styles have been considered to be regionally based.  I had a conversation with Martin Hayes once where he was saying that regional styles came out of personal styles.  There would be an iconic player and people would start to gravitate toward that person's style and imitate it and play like him or her.  And of course those people that played like him lived near him, so over time you have a regional style.  

Those things happen not only within regions of Ireland but also within regions of America, where players who play in a certain style have come to this country and a generation or two goes by and you have a Chicago style or a New York style or a Boston style or a San Francisco style, based on the players that settled in those areas.

San Francisco, where I learned to play, was influenced by players who came from the west coast of Ireland, Clare and Galway, so we have a west coast style here on the west coast, which is rather poetic I think.  I've been told that I play in somewhat of a Clare style.  It wasn't intentional on my part.  I'm playing music with the flow from the session community that I learned to play in.  

Joe Cooley and Kevin Keegan were the figures that sort of started the revival of Irish music in the San Francisco area.  I kind of learned from the people that had learned from Kevin Keegan and Joe Cooley.  Not a particular person, but from the sound of the session at the time.   
On "hacking around" at accordion:
(MF) I've never spent the time or attention that I would need to ever get good at accordion.  It's a whole different ballgame than the mandolin.  It's physically fun to play.  To have sustain.  To be able to make a note and have it get louder over time.  It's like wow, I never had that!  But I have not spent the disciplined time with the instrument that I would need to really call myself a box player.  I hack around at it and it's fun.

About Noctambule (NAHK-tam-byool) - the duo Marla has with her husband Bruce Victor:
(MF) Bruce is a guitar player.  He plays in open, tunings, different tunings, and likes to swap strings around to get nice, lovely textures on the instrument.  The thing that we love to do is set poetry to music.  It's something that I've done intermittently for 25 years or more and now we're writing together and having a blast at it.  

Travel in the Shadows is a theme album.  We noticed that we had a whole cluster of songs that were based on poems that were about the night, so it's built around that theme. We perform together as a duo and that's my primary thing other than playing and teaching mandolin. 


Friday, May 2, 2014

Mandolin Tab for Ten Early Caribbean Dance Tunes - Paseos, Meringues and more

In honor of an upcoming trip to the Spanish Virgin Island of Culebra in Puerto Rico, I've assembled ten Afro-Caribbean string band tunes from the recordings of the now defunct Etcetera String Band (Bonne Humeur) and Kansas City based The Rhythmia to work on while there.  Both bands have a knack for uncovering obscure tunes from Haiti, Trinidad, Louisiana, the Virgin Islands, Martinique and Venezuela.

Many of these tunes date back to the 1800's and share similarities to common fiddle tunes and rags, while still retaining a distinctly "island" feel that helps tag them as being from the Caribbean.  Guitarist Kevin Sanders - a member of both the Etcetera String Band and The Rhythmia - helped me obtain a copy of the out of print Bonne Humeur CD last year which is definitely worth seeking out if you're interested in this type of music.  All transcriptions shown below were done by Nick DiSebastian.  Here's a YouTube playlist where some of these tunes can be heard.

Aurore Bradaire is a Creole song named after a woman.  You can play it with a polka rhythm.  It comes from Slave Songs of the United States, the first authentic collection of slave songs ever published, where its transcription comes from a woman who heard it being sung in a time before the Civil War on the Good Hope Plantation, St. Charles Parish, Louisiana.
Aurore Bradaire – Coonjaille (Louisiana)
Bad Woman was written by Lionel Belasco, the pianist, composer and bandleader from Trinidad known as the Scott Joplin of calypso.  Belasco composed West Indian music from folk sources, which he found on his many travels throughout the islands, and was the first person to popularize calypso outside of Trinidad.
Bad Woman – Paseo
Blanche Toucatou/Can-Can (Creole Song) is medley of two Creole pieces from Louisiana originally recorded by the jazz trombonist Kid Ory. 
Blanche Toucatou/Can-Can (Creole Song)
Calinda is also known as Michie Preval.  A Calinda is a dance.  This tune is from Slave Songs of the United States.
Calinda – Louisiana
Carnaval En Margarita is a paseo by Lionel Belasco.  Margarita is an island off the Venezuelan coast which Belasco visited.  Belasco was classically trained, but preferred playing indigenous music.
Carnaval En Margarita – Paseo
Chai Bai comes from Cape Verde, an island group off the northwestern coast of Africa, with an African-Portuguese culture.  This tune was included in John Philip Sousa’s book National Patriotic and Typical Airs of All Lands (1890), published by H. Coleman in Philadelphia.
Chai Bai – Cape Verde
Dodo Li Pitite is a fun little Haitian folk tune, good for playing at a country ball.  It was found in Jean Price-Mars' book So Spoke the Uncle, a work on Haitian culture published in 1928.
Dodo Li Petite – Haiti
La Douceur is a hypnotic Meringue Hatienne written by Arthur L. Duroseau.  The music is featured in Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston.  More recently, it was recorded by BeauSoleil on the album From Bamako to Carencro.
La Douceur – Meringue (Haiti)
Lisette was composed by Ludovic Lamothe, the "Black Chopin" of Haiti.  He composed several meringues and other dance and concert tunes based on local folklore.  He recorded 10 of his pieces on an album called Fleurs d'Haiti.
Lisette – Meringue (Haiti)
Souvenir d'Haiti was written by Othello Bayard and is considered to be his masterpiece.  It is one of the best known and loved meringues in Haiti.  Selden Rodman wrote about this tune in his book Haiti: The Black Republic.
Souvenir d’Haiti – Meringue Popular (Haiti)