Sunday, August 21, 2011

My Musical Adventures - Part II - From Central Asia to The Navajo Nation

(This is part ii. You can find part i below or over on the right, if you would like to start from the beginning.)

Music had taken grip of me once again in Central Asia.

I had amassed quite a large collection or Russian records. I had inadvertently compiled quite a musicological gold mine in the time I lived in the Soviet Union. This came about as my way of trying to learn the Russian language:

During my lunch breaks for the first year or so I was in Moscow, I would ride the bus to the bookstores and record stores. Since things cost, literally, pennies, I felt there was no harm in buying as many as I wanted. The Russian store system at that time was complicated. It involved, first, going to the counter where the particular item you wanted would be. You, then, told them what you wanted to buy, and they would write you a receipt. You would then take the receipt to the cashier and pay for it, and get another receipt. You would then present the two receipts to the original counter, where they would wrap up what had been purchased in paper and give it to you. It was great practice for me to read the names of the records or books, talk to the people about them, and go through the buying process.

After a year, I had several hundred records of, mostly, obscure, Soviet folk music from many of the hundreds of ethnic groups that lived there: They did not seem to show much respect for these ethnic minorities in any way except to record their music.

After the adventure and the music lesson in the Samarkand train station, Music was having her way with me once again.

I became enchanted by the music, as well as the food, at a local Armenian restaurant in Moscow. It was a small room with red walls, decorated in guns and pictures of Armenian freedom fighters. There was a keyboard player and a singer, and they played a combination of Armenian folk music, and Armenian revolutionary music, their fists clutched and held in the air. People danced to the irregular, Armenian rhythms, and on really good nights, they would take the guns off the walls and dance with them.

It now became an important aspect of our travels to exotic locales to purchase a musical instrument, find out as much about it as I could, and to collect the music.

My friends Gus and Jamee sent us a book, "Tuva or Bust," with a note written inside the cover that challenged us to go to Tuva and see the "Throat singers." While this was nothing but a bunch of jibberish to me at the time, I read the book, and learned about a group of former nomads who lived on the steppe north of Mongolia who could sing two, three or four notes at a time. A record came with the book with some samples of this overtone, or throat singing, and I was hooked. I had recalled hearing this odd sound on Radio Moscow at some point. My wife asked me what the high pitched whistling sound was. I barked at her that it was some sort of primitive flute. Now I realized it was the overtones from the notes they sang in their throats. "We have to go there!!"

Here is a clip of my friend Kangor-Ool Ondar throat singing

My wife set about the task of arranging a trip to Kyzyl, Republic of Tuva, and we procured tickets that would take us there for a week about 6 weeks before we were to leave Russia.

We went to the airport, and boarded the now familiar AeroFlot jet. There were 5 of us who were planning to go, but one of us had to drop out at the last minute. And so my wife and I went with our friends Robb and Bill. Things seemed to be going pretty well, until we got to Krasnoyarsk, where we were to change planes.

We took our tickets to the ticketing desk. "We're going to Kyzyl."

"No, you're not. There are no flights to!"

We seemed to be stranded in the middle of Siberia. I don't know why so many of my musical adventures involve me being stranded in some strange place, but they do.

"Go the the deputy's hall" muttered a man walking by. He disappeared into the crowd.

We wandered the airport. Stranded travelers slept on their luggage and urinated against the walls. Would we be among them?

"Go to the deputy's hall..." the mysterious stranger told us again.

We kept wandering. Finally the mysterious stranger appeared again and pointed to a tiny closet door.

We knocked on the door.

"Hello!" we were greeted. "Welcome! Come in!"

The four of us filed in. The lady who opened the door looked out for our fifth member. After a while, she closed the door.

We were in a comfortable lounge with a TV and a bar and a large couch. After a few minutes, the mysterious stranger came in and smiled at us, and sat, alone at the bar.

We tried to figure out what we could do. Could we rent a car? Boat up the river?

"When  life gives you lemons," said the TV "make tasty lemonade!!"

Yes! We would make tasty lemonade out of this surreal situation.

"Oh!" cried the lady. "We just heard there will be a surprise flight to Kyzyl leaving in a couple hours. May I stamp your tickets, please...."

And so we gleefully awaited the surprise flight to Kyzyl.

We arrived in Tuva to find out that not only would it be possible to see Tuvan throat singers, but that we already has places reserved for us at a symposium on throat singing that would be taking place throughout the week, attracting a few musicologists from around the world. Could this be any stranger and more synchronistic?

After we checked into our hotel, we were told about the wrestling tournament that was taking place at the stadium. And as we walked through the wooded area toward the stadium, we heard our first strains of throat singing music.

At the wrestling tournament, the throat singers sang constantly through the loud speakers. Two of them, Kangor-Ool Ondar and Kaigal-Ool would later be my friends, and I would even have the pleasure of hosting Kangor-Ool at my house on two occasions.

And so we spent the week touring Tuva, and each night was filled with enchanting throat singing at the large, international throat-singing symposium.

It would take decades for me to figure out the process of throat singing, or overtone singing. Kongar-Ool was not forthcoming in his assistance when I asked him to teach me. "You have to be born with the ability," was my lesson number one. I insisted on a second lesson later, and he told me "You can only sing like this if you are completely happy." So I had to figure it out myself. Now that I have figured it out, after decades of work, there are many instructional books and videos available.

The trip was immensely wonderful, and wholly unreal. To continue it's surreal nature, when  we got back to Moscow, we did not relish the battle that had to be waged with the taxi drivers to get back into the city, or the $50 or so we would be charged for a dangerous, smoky ride into town. As we stepped out of the terminal, a large, black, official limousine pulled up next to us.

"Hey," said the driver, "I just dropped off my passenger. Can I give you all a ride back to town?"

We eagerly piled into the car and started giving him our addresses "Oh, I know where you all live," said the driver, and he took us home.

I had compiled a massive collection of folk instruments from Russia, including a huge, contra-bass balalaika, a master-made regular balalaika, and numerous Asian stringed instruments and flutes.

We returned to our hometown, the small hamlet of Evergreen, Colorado, and began to settle into our regular routine. I went back to playing the saxophone and flutes in musicals and jazz bands, and started writing music again. But as I wrote, I always heard the sounds of Armenian, Tuvan and other music in the back of my head. The next 20 years, and beyond, would be about integrating Western Jazz and these exotic sounds into a whole. I keep getting closer, but the equation becomes more complex as I continue to learn about new music and instruments, and music keeps pushing me in directions I would not expect.

There is a little Native American souvenir store in Evergreen, and I happened onto a Native American flute there one time. It was $80, which I could not afford on my tight, beginner-teacher budget. But I kept putting some money aside, and I finally went down and bought it. My rationale was that I had a lot of instruments from around the world, but no American instruments.

I really struggled with this flute. I don't know why, now, as the Native American flute is a lot easier to play than just about anything else I have played. It was the combination of being a poorly crafted instrument with the lack of availability of fingering charts, or other resources, and the fact that Music was just not yet ready for me to play it.

In the waining days of that marriage, around 1994, we took a trip to Arizona, as sort of a last-ditch effort to save the relationship. I saw the Grand Canyon for the first time in my life, but more profoundly, we drove across the desolate stretches of the Navajo Reservation.

While they intentionally put the highway through the least appealing parts of the Res, sparing the beautiful landscapes, I was still drawn in. I even kept having visions of walking along the highway having philosophical discussions with my grandfather - the one who was an 'honorary Navajo' and had introduced me to Native culture. He kept telling me that that was my spiritual homeland, and that I would be back.

In fact, I would go back, later that summer, just weeks after separating, and again every summer until this year. Many years I would spend a majority of the summer down there, out in the deep Navajo back-country with my backpack strapped to my back and my cheap Native American flute riding on top. I would sit, alone, in the desert, in some of the most remote regions of the United States, where Music herself taught me her melodies and I played them on my flute.

I would later take some group lessons with R. Carlos Nakai and others, but that was the first instrument Music would teach me to play.

I first recorded the Native Flute on 'Before the Rain' s album "Hitchin' to Santa Fe" in 1999. Later, a series of events drew me to record a solo CD of Native American flute music in a few days in March 2006. This was followed by many years of musical activity, starting with being invited to play at the Gallery Walk nights in the Native American shop in Evergreen, and a few months later meeting Paul Mimlitsch, who has been my musical partner ever since in the free-improv group 'Concept.'

But. believe me, Music had more adventures in store for me....

To be continued.

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