Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Loss For Words

Lately I’ve been feeling like maybe I’ve lost a step or two. The good news is that I'm now eligible to play in the Over 30 soccer leagues. The bad news is that lately, it's been feeling like the perfect league for me. I’m not quite ready for a mid-life crisis, but since returning to the states I’ve had a few moments that have made me want to start checking for gray hairs. Maybe the morbidity stems from the material on my bookshelf. The last two books I have read were both written by friends, while they were battling cancer. Last week I shared an excerpt from He Died All Day Long, a novel set during the Vietnam War. The author, Jon Wells, was the step father (“faux pa”) to one of my oldest and bestest friends. Sadly, Jon passed away last month, but he hung on long enough to hold a copy of his completed novel in his hand. I shared that piece of his novel because I thought it was an interesting angle on the feeling of “shipping out”—that feeling that I had a few years ago.

Yesterday morning I turned the last page of Lopsided: How Having Breast Cancer Can Be Really Distracting, written by my family friend and courageous surviving babysitter, Meredith Norton. Whenever I think of Meredith, I will think of a fun, slightly-crazy young adult, willing to go toe-to-toe with my oldest brother in any and all arguments. As far as I can recall, she was the only babysitter to lean over and unlock the car door in an offer of assistance when my brother threatened to hop out and ditch our family outing.

Meredith published her novel about five years back—and while I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to read it, I’m glad to say I finally did. Despite the subject matter, the book is never sad—in fact, it is pretty much hilarious. Like last week, I want to share a passage that reflects part of how I feel as my life transitions from one project/continent/chapter to the next. This time, the excerpt relates to my struggle to reintegrate into a totally different society and culture. 

"After months of communication deprivation in France I desperately wanted to join this dinner party conversation. I wanted to get the jokes and allusions, and make puns. So I let myself in, greeted everyone, and tried to say something worth hearing. But my brain, after twenty-four sleepless, exhausting hours traveling with a one-year-old, was incapable of anything better than 'It is being near twenty-one hour, is it not?' To which my father responded, 'Go to sleep. You're speaking English like a second language.'"
(p. 21)

Everyone’s knows about the different living standards and accommodations in the developing world. Those are the things that we expect to cause problems as we adjust from one life to another. However, the difference in shower temperatures or coffee-cup sizes has not been my biggest hurdle. From my observations, the biggest difference between people in the USA and people in Colombia or Cape Verde is not what we eat, wear, buy, or do. The single biggest difference is what we talk about when we’re talking about nothing. Small talk is a an art form that demands a tremendous cultural capacity and sensitivity, with the nuances of language ranging from stiffly formal to downright vulgar. The cultural context is also hard to grasp when you've been watching different channels and caring about completely different nonsense for the last few years. 

I’ve been pleased to find that I can still speak English with reasonable fluency, and I have yet to ask anyone to "guard" my coffee while I fish my keys out of my pocket.* Also, I’m doing my best to not start my sentences with, “Well, in Colombia...blahblahblahblah” That being said, I have to admit that my gift of gab has fallen off a bit. Reading that passage from Lopsided put my mind at ease a bit, secure in the knowledge that I am not the first re-integrator that has struggled to catch up with the conversation. Fortunately, you don't need to master the local language to have a good time or to be successful—just ask a Peace Corps Volunteer. For example, check out the signage at the Chinese food spot near UC Berkeley that's always doing good business.

Or better yet, ask young Tyler Hallinan. Hanging out with Bumbalo & Sarah's almost two-year old son last night made me recall a few lines from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Annie DIllard, 1974).

"There is a certain age at which a child looks at you in all earnestness and delivers a long, pleased speech in all the true inflections of spoken English, but with not one recognizable syllable. There is no way you can tell the child that if language had been a melody, he had mastered it and done well, but that since it was in fact a sense, he had botched it utterly."

Don't worry, lil buddy... I hear you loud and clear.

Pura Vida

*In spanish the verb "guardar" can translate to hold," "hold/hang onto." Consequently, many gringos can be heard using the slightly inappropriate reverse translation when trying to speak English. So, the next time a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer asks you to "guard" something for them, just smile and nod—I promise you, they are not completely paranoid about someone stealing or attacking their half-eaten poppyseed muffin.

NOTE: Meredith Norton passed away on August 2, 2013, less than two weeks after this post. Click here to read her obituary.

Monday, July 15, 2013

All Day Long

What to do all day long? If my life were a book, right now we’d be at one of those little excerpts at the beginning of a new chapter. A stanza from a Langston Hughes poem, or an esoteric quote. I’ve thought a lot—and have had to answer a lot of questions about—how I’m spending my time in Oakland before I relocate to Boston. Maybe I should take the advice of a character from the book I just started reading this morning:

"If I were you, I'd wake up every day at dawn to see the sun come up. Then I'd go back to bed. I'd screw a different woman every night and mean it when I told her I loved her. I'd read a mystery and stop halfway through so I'd have something to wonder about. I'd see how many grapes I could fit in my mouth. I'd drive a hundred miles an hour. I'd stay sober in the morning, drunk in the afternoon, high at night. I'd have Chinese food and tacos for dinner, spaghetti for breakfast and blueberry pie for lunch. Then I'd have anything I wanted in between, 'cause son"—here he took another hit, then looked at the ground, shaking his head—"pretty much all your choices are about to go away."

(p.  15)
He Died All Day Long
By Jon Wells

Unlike the other character who was actually on the receiving end of this advice, I am not headed to fight in the Vietnam War in nine days. It's not that serious. But I do feel like, for the next month, my "free time" is about as free as it's gonna be for a cool bit. I've gotten most of the admin tasks knocked out—apartment locked down, health insurance extended for a month, first tuition payment made today, etc. Every day's a little different, but they've been good. Full of books and full of family.

Pura Vida

Monday, July 8, 2013

Notes to Self

Let’s be honest. I’ve been putting off writing this post. I don’t completely want the closure that it brings. The last year that I spent living and working in Colombia was amazing for me, and I miss it like Everything but the Girl. In fact, there are one or two girls that I regret not stuffing in my suitcase and bringing home with me.

 In my last post I promised a two-part feature on the Senses and Memory. This week I offer part two, a retrospective in song paying tribute to the 10 tracks that will always carry me back to my second home.

The songs are not listed in any particular order, but the first group is made up of artists from Colombia, some new and some old. The second group are other songs that I listened to a ton and will always remind of my time spent in Colombia. Also, I decided to limit it to one song per artist/group, otherwise I would just have a long list of songs by Joe Arroyo and Silvestre Dangond.


The first time I heard this I was at a club called La Puerta in Santa Marta. It was a special night, and the sound of this song will always take me back.

I first saw Colectro play at Noche del Rio, during Carnaval in Barranquilla. I was pleasantly surprised to catch them again less than a week later playing at Berbetronik. It’s a great example of all the crazy and fun places that electro-cumbia music is going these days.

The funny thing is that I don’t really like J. Balvín much. I’ve seen him perform live twice,  and both times I couldn’t quite grasp why all the women around me were losing their minds. Granted, I may not be his target audience, but the simple truth is that most of his catalogue is just not as good as this reggaeton gem.

El Columpio - El Afinaito
Unfortunately, this Champeta singer died at the young age of 36 less than a year before I arrived in Colombia. By the time I was leaving Barranquilla, this song had completely taken over as the unofficial summertime anthem of the country. This is a great sample of Champeta Urbana, one of the reigning types of dance music on the Caribbean coast.

Vallenato music gave me a new respect for the accordion—this up-tempo hit is modern Vallenato at its best.

Buxxi helps put the small island of San Andrés on the musical map with his Soca-type club hit.

El Dilema - Silvestre Dangond & Juancho Espriella
This is the first Vallenato song that I can remember admitting to myself that I really liked.  Some of my first Aguila Lights and aguardiente tragos were downed while this was blasting in the background.

Another feel-good champeta track, with some of the most positive lyrics that you’ll ever hear in a popular dance song.

A slower, more old-school vallenato song, representing the genre in its most romantic/corny/heart-wrenching form. 

Nuff said. It’s amazing how little love Joe Arroyo gets outside of Colombia—he is salsa’s best kept secret!

Representing the Cali scene of Colombian salsa, this group is super-smooth. This is one of my favorites, a great song that walks the line between Salsa Romántica and Salsa Brava or Dura.

Another gem that I heard for the first time while out dancing in Santa Marta. It’s always great to hear fresh “new” groups putting out top-notch salsa, this act hailing from Bogotá. You’ll definitely recognize the theme, and you’ll probably love the song before you finish hearing it for the first time.


I’ve liked this song for a while, but I had never had the chance to actually play it until this past year. While it wasn’t one of our staples, it was one of the funnest songs to play with Mango Jazz, and in my humble opinion, one of the ones that sounded the best. I’ll especially remember getting to play it one evening with Francisco joining us on clarinet, giving it a great New Orleans edge.

This is one of the first Afro Latin songs that I learned to play on piano, probably back in seventh grade. My favorite version is an arrangement on a John Santos album that I scored at Jazz Camp about ten years back. Still, hearing this song will now remind me of Colombia, not elementary school or camping in the woods. I especially loved watching the melody get permanently stuck in our drummer, Camilo's, head after hearing it just once or twice.

La Llave - Cortijo y su Combo
I can’t really explain how this song became the unofficial anthem of Carnaval in Barranquilla. The song is 50 years old already, recorded by a Puerto Rican group. Regardless, it is one of the songs that you’ll probably hear there five times per day, no joda.

This is another older Puerto Rican classic, and another one that I’ll associate with hanging out at Mazzino Pizzeria. On some nights when we weren’t playing there, we would just show up, plug a laptop into the speakers and enjoy some music on the patio. One particularly fine evening, I found myself crooning the opening lines to this tune along with Jaime as we both lost ourselves in the beauty of the sad melody.

Again, clearly not a song about Colombia. BUT, many a rug were cut over the past year with this one providing the motivation.

Before I got to Colombia, my favorite salsa song ever was “Pedro Nevaja” by Willie Colón and Rubén Blades. At my first house party in Barranquilla I heard El Sonido Bestial, and I had to change my mind pretty much on the spot. Partly because the song reworks the theme from Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor, one of my all-time favorite pieces of music. The real reason is because the song is just fierce... so if you can’t stand the heat then please stay off the dance floor!

What!? I know, random right? Actually, it’s not all that surprising to find out how popular this song is after you listen to Champeta. The African musical traditions that Paul Simon mined to produce the Graceland album are the very same roots that provide the rhythmic foundation for the Champeta sound system movement.

Double-entrendre, maybe? If you listen closely, Antonio Rosas is not literally telling you to take your clothes off. Still, the song is hot if you’re up for a little Salsa Romántica.

Another slightly curious staple of today’s radio rotation in Coastal Colombia. The song was recorded almost 20 years ago, but for some reason, it had it’s resurgence just in time for my arrival.

Cositas Que Haciamos - Farruko
Reggaeton is far from my favorite genre of music, but my time in Colombia helped me gain a new appreciation for it. This song sticks out because at one point I'm sure that no less than 75% of the population had this programmed in as the ringtone for their phone.

Another late-night salsa party hit... “El amor se hizo para dos!”

This is the kind of goodie that would bang out of our speakers as we cleaned the house from top to bottom on a lazy hot sunday.

I can’t explain exactly what I love so much about this simple salsa classic. But I don’t have to explain myself—just give it a listen. It goes well with 1:30 AM and a willing dance partner.

So now I face the challenge of re-entry. Reintegration. Reorientation. Re-imagination. The good thing is, there are a few things that I can hold onto to keep my feet on the ground and my head on my shoulders. Music has always been one of those things, which I why I spent my very first week back in the States at Jazz Camp West. In fact, my week at camp was one of the last things I did in America before shipping out for Cape Verde in 2011. So, after reuniting with my keyboard after two years, I headed to the mountains for a week in my happy place.  The adjustment is a still a work in progress, but I'm doing OK :)

Pura Vida,