Damn Good Biking

Damn Good Biking
Mammath Mountain

Saturday, October 6, 2007

My Mandolin History

“It was love at first site….”

The opening phrase to Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22 perfectly captures how I felt when I picked up the mandolin for the first time. When Captian Yossarian first saw the Chaplin, he understood this person would be the center for his elaborate plans to escape from the military.

When I first played the mandolin something within me said YES!!! Now this makes sense!! At first my playing ability reflected my current state at first my playing was insecure; my fingers fought the demand to reach out and learn how to speak for themselves but as the uncertain skin began to peel off, new abilities emerged and as my fingertips became more confident with the emergence of calluses something unexpected came from underneath. A new ability to speak. I don’t understand my connection to this new thing, I have no plans to move to Nashville and live off the music dream, my only plans are to continue traveling and who knows maybe make a few good stories and friends down the road.

It started because of the journey….

A little more than a year and a half ago I approached a friend of mine named “rich berry” who played the blues regularly at my bar. Since I was leaving for the peace corps and had ample time on my hands it seemed an opportune moment to learn how to play guitar. So I suggested that we should go shopping for a guitar and as they say the rest his history.

Unexpectedly when we walked into the store Rich stopped at the door and the following conversation occurred;

“You know Josh, I don’t think you want to learn how to play the guitar”

“I don’t?”

“Nah” “I was thinking about his last night, and the guitar seems all wrong for you”

“Think about it, your always camping, canoeing, hiking, biking, hell moving to Africa! You need to play something small, something you can travel with”

“What like a Ukulele?”

“NO Man!! the Mandolin.”

“What the hell is that?”

As I said….it was love at first site.

So we started shopping and found a good starter mandolin, case, tuner, and strings so we pulled on the managers heart strings and wooed him with my future trip to Africa, as a result he reduced the prices on everything and then we walked out with about $400 worth of musical equipment for less than a hundred bucks.

A few days afterwards my big “greecy” friend Akis had his annual orthodox-Easter celebration which means eating incredible greek food…ah the roasted lamb, ah the good times. And guess who showed up for her first party…Mandolin Albright, the name of my first mandolin.

Another gentleman came with his guitar so around the camp fire we played, and even though it was the worst campfire performance of all time. Making music with my drums, harmonicas, and badly tuned mandolin was a pretty darn cool thing to do. Sure it really was a buzz kill on the party but it was my first camp fire playing my own mandolin, of course the music sucked, but man I was hooked.

A big freak’n van, some guitars, and a dog that yodeled

It was weeks after purchasing my mandolin that I met and made a super talented and generous new friend by the name of Bruce Goldish. It was summertime when he came breezing through town and I was blessed to listen to some of the greatest guitar music I have ever had the pleasure to listen to. Bruce played at my restaurant for a couple of nights, he taught me so much not only about how to play music, but how to create unique music. Bruce has an incredible attachment to his music due to the fact that his songs and style are a direct result of his life and his journey’s all over this fantastic planet. When we met at my restaurant he was in the middle of a 10,000 mile magic carpet ride. His magic carpet was in the form of a 1980’s huge ass econoline grey van with plush seats, and limo lights lining the roof. The only passengers were his guitars and a loyal African dog that yodeled on command.

I didn’t understand then my attachment to the mandolin, it was just something I couldn’t put down, I never thought it was going to be part of my journey. Bruce has been around, his music reflects his own course through life in awe it is a foundation of my playing style to learn from him.

I needed to learn how to become an individual through the mandolin, damn if he wasn’t the best suited to teach me this. A portion of my decision to take my end of service trip to Europe is to play music where ever I can there, see what I can do, and try to squeak out a small allowance from the streets.

It shouldn’t be too hard, I only make seven bucks a day now.

“Home is where I am and the company that I keep”

I would say they just don’t write lyrics like that anymore, but they do.

His link is on the bottom.

The other link, Josh Cotter illustrations, is another talented friend who was with me a couple of those nights kicking it with Bruce.

In a few short months after my purchase I improved greatly due to meeting Bruce, he instilled a passion into his art and damn if it wasn’t contagious. Ever since our meeting when I start learning a new song a little voice goes off in my head saying “how would Bruce play it?”

At first I could barely tune the mando let alone play anything but it didn’t stop me from trying harder, it never occurred to me that I would be capable of playing music, but yet there I was hammering the mando, losing finger flesh day in and out. Always the same tunes, night and day, before work, after work, the park, my bed, anywhere, the case was a wasted purchase, my mandolin never saw it.

I played once all the way across Kansas while driving.

Climbed a mountain, mando was there, canoed with my dog for week, guess who else came. mandolin.

Chopsticks and Flatpicks

Most the way through college I worked at a fantastic restaurant and bar called “the Jazz”. They let me come and go as I pleased and was a great job to have. A perk of the job was that it heavily supports local music so as a result I was privy to some really great music and was befriended and tutored from a diverse assortment of unique individuals. Eventually towards the end I even started hiring out gigs to a pair of friends of mine.

Andrew and Rob.

Andrew is a unique story all on his own. Andrew is from China, and a few years ago after listening to some bluegrass he decided that he wanted to move to the United States and learn how to play this beautiful form of music, and guess what he pulled it off! He is an amazing guitarist and musicologist.

Rob is a life long musician and has been teaching music nearly as long as he’s been playing it and after years of hard work his fiddling and comprehension of music is second to none. Though his constant fixation on achieving the perfect sound could be a little challenging when trying to manage a restaurant, when he gets it right gets warmed up well its just how traditional music should be played.

Watching a tall Chinese kid wielding a guitar and a white guy in overalls pulling some soul out of his fiddle or guitar it’s a beautiful thing to watch. I have never in all the years seen my restaurant completely captivated by the musicians. Its true bluegrass/traditional music is an acquired taste and it usually seems completely foreign to the masses, but once someone sits down and starts listening to it all its familiarity comes back.

By incorporating my love of history with my playing mandolin its given me a whole other perspective of American History. It’s the songs like “John Hardy”, “you are my sunshine”, and songs woody Guthrie belted out after pointing his feet towards the road proclaiming “this land is your land”. Man this is incredibly moving music. These songs have been passed down from generation to generation and to me they speak of an America created by a combination of hard work and generosity for each other. Ahh the long forgotten beloved American spirit. Where is that now?

On Sundays Andrew and I played in an old 19th century single room school house with local musicians. Every Sunday they spend hours dedicated to playing ole’ time classics, not to mention occasionally they had square dances. The roots of traditional music were calling to me, I have loved music all my life, why did this form of music fly under my radar for so long?

Who would have thought a kid like Andrew would come from China and with all his enthusiasm re-educate our own culture to the long forgotten history of America.

How can one not be inspired to play with someone like Andrew?

From these performances of “Chopsticks and Flatpicks” as I so warmly named them we started having all kinds of people coming out of the woodwork to listen to the music. Which brings me to my next inspiration for playing mandolin.

Ole’ Blue Eyes”

No, not Senatra, Barty Crawford. Barty is a 71 year old blind since birth mandolin player with radiant blue eyes who is now living out his twilight years in a retirement home in Kansas City. I met Barty through some friends whom frequented my establishment and was introduced to him shortly after Andrew and Rob started playing at jazz. He would come play a song or two with them and then drift back to the table and raptly listen to the music. Often while watching him listen to the music we were delighted to observe his expressions, they suggested his visiting long forgotten memories experienced during his years on the road. On occasion he would tell us about playing with his family and with other famous musicians to the likes of Ralph Stanley and the late great Bill Monroe.

When time permitted I would go and visit Barty in his retirement home and we would spend a couple of hours talking music and playing some incredible old tunes on the mandolins. Some days Barty was dead on and would hammer out some amazing music, others he could be a little absent, but each time man I was given such a gift to sit and listen to his tales. Could you imagine playing with a living encyclopedia of the very music your attempting to learn? How could I find a better teacher?

In essence Barty is what I strive for to achieve in my lifetime, who knows one day possibly the friends I speak of playing with could one day be the ones we hold in such esteem today. The musicians I have met and played with in Niger are no different from this classification. Barty’s life is the best of living and playing: Live, play, and share.

“Cikin Niger” (in Niger)

When I first arrived in Niger I couldn’t say anything spectacular about my playing, about the only thing I knew how to do was play G C D over and over and then play some old fiddle tunes. But I did plan on getting better and the multitude of music books I carried represented my commitment to learning.

I often comment that I don’t have a clue what I am doing most of the time or where my things are, but the mandolin, I always know where he is. If “mishka” isn’t strapped to my back or in my lap you can be rest assured he’s not far from me or my thoughts. During training the only way I could pass the down time, or evade the gossip circles, was to play, play, and play.

During training I greatly improved and developed quite a repertoire of songs. After training we were told for the first two months at post do nothing. Not one to violate orders, especially good ones, I spent my entire two months at post doing little more than sweating profusely and playing. Eventually prior to our returning to Niamey for our “inservice training” I had my most important breakthrough musically. This auspicious occasion occurred when a group of us from training had a naming ceremony for a friends kittens. Okay a little cultural background lesson.

Naming ceremonies. These ceremonies are commonly held for nearly every child born in Niger. For a period of seven days after birth the mother and child are retired to the home to heal, bond, and rebuild their strength. After this period of time everyone invited comes to a ceremony where the household provides roasted meat and other delicious food and then the child and mother are presented and a name for the child is given.

So we did this for my friend Alisa’s little coven of kittens, we invited the village to attend we provided food and then we all sat on the mats as the names of each kitten was presented to the village.

Then it happened…

The villagers saw my mandolin and Lachlan’s guitar and asked us to play for them so obliging their wishes I sat on the mat, tuned up, and then started playing the ole time fiddle tunes I had been playing forwards and backwards for the last ½ year. And you know what ….they didn’t like the music.

So to myself I said “ah !@$# it” I stood up put my fingers on the G chord and belted out the loudest most energetic sound I had ever produced. I stopped looked at my pick and said “WHOAH!” then I looked around dazed, and saw that the villagers responded, then I tried again, this time only I started hammering out a G, C, then D. The villagers got up, kids, women, old people where dancing and singing, two hours passed the party never stopped a beat though we moved all over the village. I finally learned what it meant to make some music from the soul, not just something rehearsed and regurgitated. I was making music with some spirit, my body turned numb, my hands went from clammy to dry, the nervousness waned and something within me just came out and kept coming and coming.

If you look at the first picture of my blog with me playing mandolin with the villagers in the background looking on, this was the moment I got up and had this monumental occasion.

Once I hit the tarmac with the mandolin in tow something just felt right. Something incredible within keeps emerging. And it just keeps getting better.

My fingers now speak a new language that expresses any range of my emotional states much more accurately than any written or spoken word could suggest. What they say now is that a confident, seasoned, and more capable man now most aptly understands that truly the journey defines the experience not the destination.

No comments: