Friday, August 21, 2009

Context Matters

Have you ever had this experience? You're grocery shopping and spot a familiar looking face. For the life of you, you can't figure out why he looks familiar, but you return eye contact and smile. Then, thankfully, he starts talking about a project the two of you worked on together. Now if I'd run into him at the project site, I would have recognized him right away. It's a matter of context. In 1972 I took the first of many trips to the Caribbean. While there, I fell in love with steel drum music. As soon as I got home, I bought several LPs and looked forward to reminiscing about fun nights drinking rum punches and dancing to steel drum music. Listening to the same music, sitting on a Persian rug in my city living room just didn't cut it! Reggae and steel drum music sounds better on the beach, in a tiny bar or a hotel pool terrace at night. The humid, salty, tropical night air makes it sound so much better. Of course, the rum punch might have had something to do with that, too. . . This Sunday, August 23rd, would have been my Dad's 85th birthday. I still miss him but the feeling is becoming more nostalgic than painful now. As I type, I'm listening to a CD version of a record he bought years ago in Paraguay. Throughout the 60s Dad travelled alot. He was an architect and the director of design and construction for the American Hospital Association, in Chicago. His expertise in hospital design put him demand for consults in Central and South America and as far away as Malaysia. For a small-town boy from rural Iowa, he influenced hospital design around the world. But that's another story. During a long trip to Paraguay and Uruguay, he discovered Paraguayan harp music. This instrument is smaller than an orchestral harp. It's sound is less mellow and spicier. Accompanied by guitars, piano the occasional flute or harmonica it has a distinctive, joyful sound. Truthfully, it was not that pleasing a sound to those of us who were hearing it for the first time and out of context. This evening I closed my eyes and imagined Dad on a river ferry, throwing orange peelings to voracious piranhas. I pictured him eating in a cantina, listening to a local band. Hearing this music through a different mind filter, I could understand how the syncopation and intricate rhythms of the Paraguayan music appealed to him. Dad had been a champion drummer in high school, winning a state competition. When I still lived at home, on very special occasions we could talk him into pulling out his drum sticks to play an impromptu concert for us. Rather than drums, he would play the piano bench, a brass incense burner, a wooden bowl, a stack of magazines, a glass lamp -- whatever was within reach. Those were good times. R.I.P. R.C.M.


Mark said...

It's funny how music can conjure up such vivid memories, and what great memories of your dad.
I too am a drummer from the past, and lucky for me my youngest daughter took drum lessons for a short while, but I have the drum set now.
I smiled when you said regae isnt the same in the city, definately the rum helps.
I may have mentioned in the past, for years I listened to latin music in Puerto rico and it all just sounded like noise....until a few years ago my wife took me to a Latin dance class (the things I do for my wife)but we became hooked. we go dancing at least once every time I am home.
Anyway, enjoyed reading about your dad, sounds like he was a really interesting character. You and i were both lucky in that respect.

dcpeg said...

How sweet of you to take dancing lessons so you could take your wife dancing! Spouse wouldn't be caught dead on a dance floor --DANG!

Music has always been a powerful force in my life. My Mom is a gifted singer and would sometimes take me to an opera or afternoon symphony in Chicago. I started "composing" piano pieces at the age of 4. My Poppy called one of my creations "A Rooster Running Over a Fence Backwards." LOL!!