Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Sunday, December 12, 2010
Wednesday, December 1, 2010
When I was a child, my parents would take me to their friends' house for kid-friendly dinner parties. Invariably, in attendance were doctors, pharmacists, and radiologists, all immigrants from Vietnam, and all with children my age and older. Almost as invariably, after the meal was eaten my parents would spirit us away just as the hosts were breaking out the karaoke machine; But not before my sisters and I could get in a good laugh and point with the other children at their parents making utter fools of themselves, hitting high notes that weren't high enough. It boggled my mind; these people worked so hard to come to this country, and struggled to become health care professionals in a language they barely knew when they escaped their own war-torn homeland...and yet, they could not carry a note to save their lives.
My parents, having the good sense to understand their limitations, spared us children from such humiliation and never participated in such activities. For that I was grateful. Always my mother surrounded my sisters and me with music, buying opera and classical music cd's, taking us to see the symphony and the ballet, and paying for piano lessons. But never did she or my father mistake us to be the Von Trapps.
And that sums up the early roots of singing in my life. As I grew up, time and time again, I observed the strange fixation the Vietnamese-American community--in fact, many Asian communities--have with karaoke. And this proved true again when I lived in Vietnam for a year while in my early twenties. It was my Vietnamese language teacher, also fluent in Japanese language and culture, who said it best: "Westerners love to express themselves through dancing; Asians love to sing."
Eventually, I too succumbed to my genetic predisposition and after a few shots of hard alcohol, I frequently found myself in random Asian-themed karaoke haunts while living in New York City. I knew I was bad, but with some liquid courage, on these occasions I was shameless, and had the security of knowing that everyone listening (and not listening) to my warbling were just as if not more intoxicated than myself.
Not long after leaving New York City, I moved to Alaska where I took up my second instrument; the fiddle. Eventually I had become able enough to start my own band and play a few bar and dance gigs, and I sang as little as possible in Alaska, except of course, when I encountered that old friend of mine--the karaoke bar. But other than those lapses of judgment, I rarely allowed my weakness for song interfere with my fiddling, though I envied those who could mingle the two. It was during my days as a public fiddler when I promised myself that if I ever got to choose who I could be reincarnated as, it would be a jazz vocalist like Billie Holiday, hands down. And, since that day had not yet come, I seldom opened my mouth to sing.
My aversion to singing in public while sober was noticeable. I recall on one occasion I had the opportunity to play music with some of my favorite living old-time musicians, the Foghorn Stringband. After a few hours of jamming, one of the players observed aloud that I would not sing, despite the crooning nature of oldtime music...But he was white; how could he possibly understand the ghosts of my Asian-American past? The karaoke indignities that my people and I have imposed on ourselves throughout my life?
Don't get me wrong; I'm not ashamed of being Asian-American. In fact I believe that, generally speaking, we are capable of contributing to the world in many ways like many other immigrant communities. I also believe that singing (and driving) are just not one of those ways. Though my position on this subject has softened somewhat upon my discovery of talented Asian opera singers, I still am convinced that I am genetically predisposed to NOT sing.
But then I went to the Spotted Cat Music Club on Frenchman Street in New Orleans. The Spotted Cat is known for its almost exclusively traditional style jazz, from swing to Dixieland, and other brass-related genres from a era far past. One night in particular, I caught Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns, a swing band with a comely female vocalist, clad in 1940's apparel, hair swept in an orderly chignon, with tattooed vines arching above her eyebrows. The musicians were proficient and her vocals were pretty, but more strikingly, she looked like she was having fun, smiling as her eyes fell on the dancers in the crowd.
She reminded me of the promise I once made to myself, of becoming Billie Holiday upon reincarnation. And that's when it struck me; I don't HAVE to die and be reborn as a woman who became a prostitute at the age of 12 and live a life of pain and suffering in order to sing (though it probably helps).
I mean, I guess I could just take singing lessons. Not for the purposes of ever singing in public, mind you. Just to be able to carry a note in the shower.
In a town like New Orleans, throw a brick and you'll hit a singing teacher. During an impulsive and somewhat feverish craigslist research session, I listened to a multitude of mp3's from various local voice instructors. I eventually came upon my future teacher, Maria, singing The Very Thought of You, and I liked it. Two days later, I am parking my bike in front of her quaint shotgun apartment in the Lower Garden District.
I like her almost immediately. Maria had been a jazz vocalist for twenty-some years, raised children, and at some point after moved to New Orleans by herself. In her late forties, there was a charming element of rebirth about her...lots of art on the walls, her own florals on canvas, and some Asian-inspired pieces from a different era. When I arrived she had just come out of the shower; petite in stature, her hair was wet and messy, but her white men's shirt was neatly fitted, and she wore heels, giving her a slightly disheveled but ladylike appearance. She tells me that she has only recently moved to New Orleans (4 years ago) which inspired her to sing again after years of dormancy. She sat at the piano and we began some voice exercises. Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah. Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah.
In those 45 minutes, to my surprise we learn that I have a range of almost three octaves, and that my pitch is good. We also learn that I have no power or tone and that I tremor out of fear--to put it bluntly I have a wimpy singing voice. She also tells me that my speaking voice is notably below my natural range. I am not surprised; as a result of hearing enough ear-piercing Americans blabber on the other side of some cafe or hostel while traveling overseas in my early twenties, I actively began lowering both the pitch and the volume of my voice. Though I eventually would learn to speak more loudly in public settings, this effort at bringing my voice down a note (or three to be exact) only intensified when I began to practice law and spoke in courtrooms for hours at a time on a daily basis, side-by-side with mostly male colleagues, in front of mostly male judges, representing mostly male indigent clients.
With this revelation thanks to Maria, combined with the scars of my karaoke past, I realize that I am carrying life-long voice baggage. Maria tells me I need to quit it. Partly for shock value, she shares the story of Walter Cronkite, who like myself, also spoke artificially lower than his natural range, and eventually developed nodes in his throat.
A few days later, after some amount of peer pressure, I accompany my good friend Suzy to Buddha Belly, one of the many local karaoke-laundromat-bars in town. Suzy is smart, professional, and dedicated to her work, and at the same time, the picture of an attractive and charming white Southern girl. But she suffers from an addiction to karaoke I've seen primarily in Asians. I watch her wobble on stage as she shouts out a damn hearty version of Megadeth's Master of Puppets, stomping her high heel boots under the colored lights, as someone walks past her with a basket of clean laundry.
And, in her wake, after a few shots of something strong and liquid purchased for me, I sing two of my favorites; Lola by the Kinks and Heart of Glass by Blondie. I laugh hilariously during and after each song, partly because of the alcohol and the good company, and partly because it is apparent that my voice training has not yet come to fruition. My voice teacher Maria has her work cut out for her.
On my bike ride home, I realize what a travail it is for me to try to sing, even if just for my own enjoyment. Despite having played instruments for over the span of about twenty-five years, never did have I truly and wholly attempted to hear my own voice, until now, when I have relocated to New Orleans.
In the past I have learned to do the things I am surrounded by; having lived under the roof of two book-reading professionals for eighteen years, becoming a professional was second nature. Later I surrounded myself with Alaska and all of its rugged beauty, and I learned to split wood, ski, and ice climb. And now, I have chosen to surround myself with music--live music, of the kind I used to only catch on cd's and special public radio programs. While I have no delusions that this immersion will make a professional singer out of me, I do dream that one day I will be able to belt out Stormy Weather, The Way You Look Tonight, and other classics, hitting all the right notes with power...in the presence of only my dog and cats, with shampoo in my hair and water running down my back.
And until that magical moment happens, I suppose I can always catch a good jazz singer at the Spotted Cat.
Sunday, November 7, 2010
"The South is a place. East, west, and north are nothing but directions."
--Letter to the editor, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 1995
It's a warm, dry(ish) Friday afternoon in Louisiana, and I'm high-tailing it out of beautiful New Orleans for the small, not-so-scenic college town of Lafayette, Louisiana for a four day weekend on Halloween. To those who like Cajun music and Cajun culture, this makes perfect sense. This dubious demographic headed towards Lafayette includes a bunch of Louisianans, myself, and about thirty Alaskans, most of whom I've known for years.
I first stepped foot in Lafayette about two years ago, for Festival Acadien. I was living in Alaska at the time, and with the visit to Lafayette I was obeying the call of Eric Graves, Ray Garrity, and other "elders" as they are referred to in the Arctic. They are a group of talented musicians in their fifties living Alaska, who, through the decades of cabin living in various parts of the state, have formed a tight friendship based on music, Alaska, and, well, whiskey. They play American roots music, including but not limited to oldtime, bluegrass, and Cajun. And I, forever an aspiring oldtime musician, like the other initiates under the age of 50, admire their musicianship and adore their company. So when they said they were going to Lafayette for Festival Acadian, I and about 30 others from Alaska followed, as if we were caravaning the pied piper.
Festival Acadian did not disappoint. The music and musicians were amazingly talented and shockingly friendly. So friendly, in fact, one of my close oldtime girlfriends found herself a Cajun fiance at that very event. Fiances aside, the hospitality combined with a purview into the culture of Southern Louisiana was a true treat for us Alaskans, stranded by ourselves statewide through most of a 9 month winter, appreciative of kindness and fun.
Lafayette was my first realization that there is a part of this country where the roots of this truly American subculture thrives. A mix of hillbilly French, a touch of Creole, a lot of the South, Cajun culture is truly reflective of the American melting pot (a quality of the United States that I will always value as the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants).
So, when the elders changed course from Festival Acadien and put the Blackpot Festival on the calendar, over 30 Alaskans responded to the call, and so did I. But this time, now living in New Orleans, my commute was a little shorter. It was because of this I left New Orleans during one of its most cherished holidays, Halloween, and found myself driving through what seemed like a giant corridor of strip malls and box stores on the main thoroughfare of Lafayette.
Eventually I reached Acadian Village, a Cajun folk life museum comprised of a series of historic cabins and outbuildings, a blacksmith shop, a church, and a dancehall, all interspersed between open fields and bayou-like bodies of water. On this weekend it served as the site of Blackpot Festival.
The festival itself is the brainchild of the Red Stick Ramblers, a band of young, local musicians playing a combination of Cajun, gypsy and country swing. I first saw them perform about six years ago in snowy, mountainous Anchorage, when they were in their early twenties, energetic, and alive, and on tour. Since then their musicianship has only grown, with a huge repertoire and writing their own songs in this virtually self-created genre of American roots music. Their dedication to not only the technical aspect music but also the culture is well-illustrated in their hard work in organizing Blackpot Festival.
The Festival itself occurs on two stages; one in the main hall with a spacious dance floor, and the other in the church, where one can watch an assortment of smaller, more mellow acts. From zydeco to Cajun, blues, to singer songwriters (but good ones), both local and visiting, there is no shortage of exceptionally good live music on either stage over a span of approximately 15 hours. Nights inevitably end with main acts like Feufollet, the Pine Leaf Boys, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, and the Red Stick Ramblers (the second of whom were thrice nominated for a Grammy).
Food was also a regular and persistent element at Blackpot. On Friday night, after watching hours and hours of all-star Cajun and oldtime jams at various campsites, I wandered over to a tented area at about 4:30am only find a magnificent gumbo being prepared by Toby, a Cajun family man in his thirties. Amid a din of revelers at this waking hour, Toby attended to his art with the focus of a chemist. By that point, Toby had been preparing the contents of his magic pot for a few hours. When I arrive, he tops his concoction with fresh green onions, and with that, a bowl of piping hot gumbo is placed in my hands. I lap it up like a starving dog. The next morning, against all odds, I had not even the slightest hangover, and I am wholly convinced that I owe this phenomenon to Toby and his gumbo.
Food also was honored in a more formal manner at Blackpot. As the name implies, black, cast-iron pots played a central role. On Saturday I woke up to about fifteen groups of people, setting up shop with black pots, gas burners, and coolers. Inside the coolers were random animals and animal parts: frogs, rabbit, pork, you name it and apparently the Cajuns will eat it. Competitors were local, and included Red Stick Rambler Blake Miller and his father. By afternoon, with Cajuns stirring and hovering over their black pots, adding a pinch of this and a handful of that, the scene looked like a witchcraft convention, but instead of ghoulish potions, the cauldrons emitted fragrances of onions and spices, and tasty dead things. Free samples of everyone's wares were handed out and a contest ensued. I chose the award-winning rabbit stew and black-eyed peas, enough calories in one plate to sustain a herd of elephants.
On Sunday, the Krewe de Alaska headed out to the Blackpot
after-party at the Lakeview Campground. Owned by Toby's family (of the 4:30am gumbo fame), the Lakeview is a campground about an hour out of Lafayette, nestled amongst tall trees surrounding a small lake. The site was dotted with (amongst other outbuildings) a few flush facilities, a large log house, and a barn. In the 1950's the 3000sq. ft. log house served as a dance hall to the surrounding parishes but now desperately requires renovation. To compensate, however, Toby converted the pole barn he built three years ago to store machinery into a veritable dance hall. The floors were bedecked with OSB laid on top of gravel. The structure itself was a combination of corrugated metal and trusses. The ceilings were high, and bedecked with windows, fans and speakers. The stage was a makeshift space on the floor with decent sound equipment. That night, we danced and waltzed our hearts out to a number of bands, including a concoction of all-stars (including Steve Riley) dubbed the Racines, and an impromptu jam of members from the Pine Leaf Boys, Feufollet, and the Red Stick Ramblers. We were fed a gumbo for the road before heading back into town. Not a bad way to end a night.
Since my move to New Orleans four months ago, my out-of-state friends and acquaintances have frequently asked me if I like it here. The answer is an affirmative one, but I've had a hard time placing my finger on exactly why. Everyone expects me to talk about the French Quarter, or the festivals, or the beignets, all of which rank high on my list of pro's, but don't quite capture what keeps me from moving to Panama like I had planned shortly before changing tack and moving to New Orleans.
What I like about living in New Orleans, about living in Louisiana, is what I like about the South. There is tradition--to a fault, in some instances, but there is a common respect for where people came from and how they became part of the local culture. There is food--that rich, flavorful, spicy kind of food that can give you either a coronary, a vivid trip to the toilet, or both, or just some good memories. And there is music--a music that is rooted in a tradition almost as old as this country, if not older. In the South, people have maintained and even revived these traditions; doing otherwise would be unthinkable.
There are strong elements of these factors all over the South, and especially in New Orleans. And, while I love my new life in New Orleans, the town of Lafayette is enigmatically dripping with Cajun in a way that drives me to return. Blackpot Festival in Lafayette is like an adrenaline rush of tradition, music, and food encapsulated in a few days. In one weekend, it's what I like about the South.
Monday, October 25, 2010
I know what you're thinking: casinos, golf courses, and senior citizen conventions, right? Think again. Well sorta. OK, sure, the free city map has a large, conspicuous marker for the local social security office, hearing aid shops are readily abound, and just about all of the passengers on my plane were age 65 and above. But the Palm Springs of today has a new look. It’s been struck by hipsters and gay-boys, and in all the right ways.
I am slated to do a quick overnighter here because of the wedding of my longtime friend Kara. And I’ll be honest, knowing full well that she reads my blog--When she first announced Palm Springs many months ago as her matrimonial destination, my initial thoughts were something along the lines of, “You have got to be kidding me. I know we’re getting older, but isn’t this a little premature?” But, with Kara being my friend of 21 years now, Palm Springs-bound I was.
Stepping off the plane, I was pleasantly surprised: the airport architecture was comprised of modern concrete and angles, but elegant with its desert landscaping, set against a dry mountain backdrop sprinkled with palm trees jutting into a clear blue sky. Truly a sight for sore eyes. From there to the Ace Hotel, I saw a lot of mid-century motels, relics of a time far past, but in good condition.
After a short cab ride I arrive at my destination, the the Ace Hotel and Swim Club. Formerly a Howard Johnson’s motel, it had since undergone major renovations and, as much as I usually detest modern-style architecture, and all its “sleek lines” (ask yourself, isn’t there a reason villains in movies always live in modern villas?), it worked here. In the rooms, the floors were polished concrete with exotic rugs on top, the linens a crisp clean off-white, and the walls and curtains were comprised of off-white canvas tarps, completing the desert theme. The furniture was sparse, mostly polished wood, with effective shelving. The larger suites had patios bedecked with cozy but tidy gas fireplaces. The entire expanse of the motel was landscaped with concrete and combed sand. And, unlike your standard Americana motel, instead of a huge parking lot in the middle, the Ace had a large pool and bar, a number of patios, and some smaller pools. A little hipster oasis in the desert.
Palm Springs has come a long way. Originally the stomping grounds of Native Americans, this former reservation was torn up by the U.S. federal government and distributed in checkerboard pieces to a railroad company in the 1870's. Later, with much irrigating and pumping in of water, and importing of date palm trees from Algiers, it was then developed as an agricultural center. By 1940's, all attempts at farming were almost completely replaced by the luxury resort strategy, with strong success. Desert casinos and high-end hotels popped up. Celebs like Frank Sinatra built second homes. Such predictably warm, arid weather served its patrons well, particularly the elderly ones, who bought homes and condominiums en masse. And that is how I identified Palm Springs growing up: I knew it as the home of my father's professional mentors and my mother's sponsors when she first immigrated. Those people were all senior citizens.
But in the last ten years, Palm Springs has broadened its demographic. Now a weekend stop for Los Angelinos, it is replete with restaurants and pool clubs for the boho yuppie set. Gay- friendly nightclubs and restaurants have also officially arrived, making it one of the top stops for members of the gay community. During my stay I was able to have lunch with an old grade-school buddy of mine, former high school football star turned multi-starred chef, who is opening up a new restaurant next to the Ace. His theme revolves around fresh, seasonal fare, targeting the new Palm Springs breeds--the younger, hipper, and gayer sets, with tastes for healthy and gourmet, and who have money to spare.
After a long evening of libations and post-banquet snacks by the various pools and fireplaces in honor of my my gal pal Kara and her new husband Gerry, I woke up the day after my arrival to go for a run. As I'm jogging under the stinging rays of the desert sun, I look around at the scorched mountains, covered by only the burliest of vegetation barely hovering over the ground. From the top of the mountains against a crystal blue sky, my eyes don't have to wander far before they fall on the many stuccoed spa clubs and hotels.
I am running in the middle of the desert for fun. In another era, such an activity would have been fairly stupid and life-threatening. But on this day, there is no sand in my teeth, and under my feet, there are smooth, almost polished, sidewalks. If I want to I can veer to the left and climb up true desert-mountain terrain. But, at any moment I can buy a bottle of mineral water long before I even begin to feel dehydrated. The irony of it all is a refreshing message to me, a resident of New Orleans, a city that critics all over the country and the world have suggested should have been left to fallow after its near destruction because of its seemingly impossible relationship with nature. But looking at the desert all around me on this jog, if nothing else, Palm Springs is proof that man has already and can work with, and maybe even defy nature, to create an oasis of human delights on scorched earth. Don't get me wrong here--unspoiled nature, like that of Alaska and other rare spots, is truly an amazing experience, and one that we as humans should preserve for as long as we can. But I'm not going to cry if someone has a cocktail ready for me when I get back to the hotel after this jog through a beautiful desert landscape.
By the time I return to my room, I feel a dry, intense heat emanating from my head. I grab a bottle of mineral water from my hotel fridge and thank god for the beautiful pool I'm about to plunge into. And I ask myself, has Kara whipped up those Bloody Mary's yet?
Monday, October 18, 2010
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
After months of sweltering heat, I have taken up the horrid act of running. It's an activity that I dread, especially after having tasted the pleasures of hiking in the mountains of Alaska after a long day's work. But I'm left to my own devices in a land which lies mostly below sea level, and I have no intention of ending my war on aging and staying active. So, in addition to biking to and from work, I've resolved to run a couple miles after work a few times a week.
Sunday, October 3, 2010
"Every Saint Has a Past, Ever Sinner Has a Future"
In true New Orleans style, the Saints have persevered. And in true New Orleans style, the locals eagerly celebrate their people.