Writing about music…

This week I explain why I write about music, musicians and musical instruments. It’s a strange fascination, because I’m not a musician. But I did discover that I was musical. As a young teenager, I took piano lessons which, to the casual listener was an irrefutable disaster. Whether it was Moon River or a Liszt piece I lost interest in learning to play what was on the score. Of course I did not have the benefit of access to Internet lessons…

…but I was interested music. I used the score as a reference–and “made up” the rest. This habit earned me whacks on the knuckles from my piano teacher, Ms. S, who kept a twelve-inch ruler with her for bad pupils. I didn’t hate Ms. S because she whacked me, I hated her because she never acknowledged that I actually put a lot of thought into how I would change the score. How dare I? For her it wasn’t about nurturing the love of music, it was about having students that could play scores to please their parents. I wasn’t arrogant, I didn’t think that I improved the original, but my version actually held together and followed the conventions of the piece. Who cared, I reasoned, if the melody line changed? To make these modifications I had to understand the structure of the piece, and began to get a feel for cord harmonization. I became much more interested in music theory than if I was dutifully reproducing what was on the score. I was analyzing the score and composing, but I did not know it. Later, I went to a jazz piano teacher whose idea of a lesson was to let me hear how well he played. Thing is, I hated his flowery technique, so that didn’t last. Which left me with a piano to play. And I did, for hours on end, without constraint. My parents loved it. Why I didn’t pursue this penchant and chose to be a rock and roll drummer is a subject for another day, another blog post. Maybe another book. Not surprisingly I loved Whiplash. It triggered an avalanche of feelings burying me in guilt, longing, fury and joy. The filmmaker, Damien Chazelle should be proud.  Which gets me thinking about Dave Brubeck, who, I suppose, I idolize. I pay him homage in THE FACES IN THE RAIN:

Allison suppressed the thrill of sitting at the piano where so many great artists played. Feeling like an interloper, she warmed-up with a few arpeggios, paused, took a deep breath and attacked Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo a la Turk. She applied every lesson learned, every nuance of what she had learned from the master composer. Using the one-two beat that sets up the attacking theme and ends with a one-two-three beat, she took out her frustration on the piece, challenging Sipho’s world view. Playing on ivory keys is not wrong, she thought, viscerally controlling her fingers that nailed the precise timing that the theme demands. When the composition transitioned to a straight, swinging duple meter with an even beat—which she interpreted as flowing like the waterfall he had described—she regretted her unfair assessment of him. 

In A FADO FOR THE RIVER, I chose the theme of the fado, the Portuguese songs of fate and regret. Here’s an excerpt:

Tender, softly the twelve strings weave a fabric of quick tempo and sweet tonality upon which the pattern of the melody emerges. The music rests and the room is quiet.

Softly shaking, the fadista begins to sing. Her voice sashays through the tune. Although I do not understand the lyric, at the end of the stanza there is a refrain which soars to a high minor key with such surprising intensity that it sounds like an anguished plea for help – purity balancing on a tremolo note like a tightrope artist. The effect is so sincere and breathtaking I swallow a pain in my throat I haven’t felt in years. The contralto of her voice has transfixed her audience and I too am transported as the guitarista plays a short vibrato melody that forms a transition to the next stanza. She looks up at the ceiling, her ponytail hanging straight down her back, the tip of each finger on each hand pressing into the other. 


Just as David Lean used the balalaika in Dr. Zhivago, I use the Kalimba in THE FACES IN THE RAIN as an emotional prop between Allison and Sipho. Although Allison and Sipho have mixed feelings for the fifty-five year old Frank Sinatra song, THE SUMMER WIND, it becomes the key–an encrypted analog code–that unlocks their communication when it is played on a kalimba.

Here is an excerpt:

Later, the low sun having turned the walls of the room yellow and red, Allison heard the kalimba—her sipho, or was this Sipho himself, luring her from her unconscious mind? Four notes: three words and four consonants to go with them—the sum-mer wind. Impossible, yet it could only be him. She listened. Outside on the quiet street, again the four notes played, repeating, waltzing. She woke again. This time painfully, step by step, she detached from the IV and the oxygen tube clamped to her nose. She was able to sit up, to touch the cool ceramic tiled floor with her toes. Gingerly she hobbled to the open window, taking deep breaths of that healing summer wind. Closer—the four notes again. From her second-story window, she peered down into the narrow street, suffused with hues of blue and purple evening light, bare light bulbs here and there, spilling yellow across the cobbled road, turning the Muslim pedestrians into silhouetted abstractions that silently shuffled toward the minaret, thin and resolute at the intersection.

 This scene is set in Zanzibar, at an apartment similar to this Airbnb:

Stone Town, Zanzibar










Containers and smuggling:

Ivory is smuggled in every way imaginable, and smuggling in containers is common:


Here’s an excerpt from FACES:

Garrett and Rex produced their business cards.
“He’s with me,” said Garrett, pointing at Rex with his thumb.
Rex watched the official reading the cards, nodding slowly as he assessed the significance of a CIA visit and an executive from Biogenem.
“I head up the container control program here,” he said to Garrett, handing him his own business card. “The contents are clean, but we found traces of elephant blood on the container floor. We’re investigating where the container has been—the Biogenem imports are sourced here in Kenya. We look a little harder at containers going to Vietnam—a high risk country for trafficking. Of course, if you have information you could share, I could perhaps release it sooner.”
“So, tell me if I have this right,” said Garrett. “You’re interested in the container, not the contents?”
“Correct. We checked the freight—it looks legitimate—powered talc, carnuba wax, corn starch”—he read out of the file in front of him—“let’s see…gelatin, castor oil and mineral oil.”
“That sounds right,” said Rex. “We use these products as excipients—inactive ingredients used in tablets and capsules.”

 And finally…

Enjoy the Super Bowl, but remember, the app is NOT SAFE, according to Security Week Magazine:

Researchers noticed that while the initial login to an NFL account is secure, the customer’s username and password are leaked by the mobile application in a secondary unencrypted API call. Another issue identified by experts is that the application leaks usernames and email addresses in an unencrypted cookie immediately after the user logs in, and subsequently when the app makes calls to nfl.com domains.


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