THE SPIDER WOMAN’S KISS
At the height of his popularity an interviewer asked Duke Ellington why his orchestra sounded so silky and smooth. Duke – always silky and smooth himself – cryptically answered, “…Johnny Hodges, Johnny Hodges Johnny Hodges.” He was referring of course to his long- time alto saxophonist whose lustrous sound shimmered above the orchestra’s soulful swinging arrangements. Clearly Duke used the repetition of Hodges’ name to underscore (no pun there) how important he was to the band’s success. In an ensemble of jazz all-stars – as the Duke Ellington Orchestra always was – that’s very high praise indeed. When I listen to recordings by the Duke Ellington Orchestra it is impossible for me to not see the image of Johnny Hodges standing confidently among the other saxophonists serenely soloing on one of Duke’s beautiful timeless tunes such as, “Come Sunday” or “Prelude to a Kiss.” For anyone with a well-tuned pair of ears, this might be the aural equivalent of looking at a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci.
One day in the early 1990’s while I was living in South Philadelphia a close friend of mine was visiting from New York, something he did often. Like me, my friend has a deep knowledge of jazz and a special fondness for the music of Duke Ellington. (Each New Year’s Eve he and his wife welcome in the New Year by preparing a dinner of broiled lobster and sake while listening to their favorite recordings by the Duke Ellington Orchestra.) As we listened to some new CD releases by Duke’s orchestra, he commented on just how beautiful they sounded, especially Johnny Hodges. Somehow – and I do not remember the exact context of the conversation – he segued from the apparent beauty of Duke’s music to the literal beauty of Italian women or, more precisely, Italian-American women. (Yes, my friend is Italian…and Sicilian to boot!) Living in Italian-American South Philly gave me ample opportunities to observe many beautiful Italian-American women on an almost daily basis. Even though my friend is a born-and-bred New Yorker, used to a stylish kind of New York girl, he too was nevertheless taken by the young ladies from my South Philadelphia neighborhood. Some whose lineage was Northern Italian parlayed their beauty in elegant style: well-dressed ladies in silk with flowing curly hair like Botticelli images of the Madonna. The girls with Southern Italian roots flaunted their peasant-like beauty in tight-ass jeans and stiletto heels; seductive, sexy and dangerous. My friend took his eyes off of the street action and, as Duke’s music took a back seat to his other interests, asked somewhat innocently, “… so who was the most beautiful woman you have ever seen.” “Damn,” I said, “that’s a tough one to answer.” I dug deep into my personal database and conjured the images of women who knocked me senseless in Tokyo, Caracas, Budapest and Philly. The list is long but I did have a fairly quick answer: Sonia Braga. For those with a love of cinema the name Sonia Braga might be in your personal database as well, under the folder titled “My Favorite Actresses,” or “My Favorite Films,” or something similar. If not, it should be. Sonia Braga was, for those of you missing in filmic action, the Spider Woman in the film Kiss of the Spider Woman.
Directed by Hector Bebenco and based on a novel of the same name by Manuel Puig, Kiss of the Spider Woman tells the story of two men imprisoned, probably in Argentina but maybe Brazil (it is never made clear). One of the men, Molina (played by William Hurt who was awarded a Best Actor Oscar) is gay. The other man, Valentin (played by the late Raul Julia) is a political activist who is being tortured by the police. He is not gay. Molina courts Valentin and tends to his wounds by recounting his favorite movies. One in particular stars a character named Leni Lamaison (a reference to Leni Reifenstal?) and is played by Sonia Braga. The imagined film is titled Her Real Glory and was made in Germany in the 1940’s and set in occupied Paris. Its thin plot revolves around the relationship of a German officer and a night club singer who is also a member of the French Resistance. It was a Nazi propaganda film. The movie within a movie is allegorical; it’s a way that Molina unburdens his guilt for having abused a young boy, hence his prison sentence. Molina reveals his secret to Valentin by telling him a story of how Spider Woman rescues a castaway who then becomes her captive while enmeshed in her web. Eventually Valentin gives in to Molina’s advances and they become lovers, however briefly. A twist to the film is that Molina has been planted by the police to spy on Valentin and report what he learns to the warden in periodic visits that are, ostensibly, meetings with his visiting mother. In the end Molina is released and shot after contacting Valentin’s revolutionary group. It isn’t clear if the secret police or the revolutionaries shot him. Wounded, he wanders the streets until the secret police take him in. He dies and they dump his body in a trash heap. Valentin remains in jail, is tortured and dies after having been beaten and administered morphine.
Throughout the flashbacks that spin maniacally from the mind of the character Molina, Sonia Braga appears in the guise of three different women, all of them alluring and mysterious. Despite the emotionally valenced relationship between Molina and Valentin, the magnificent acting and claustrophobic visualization of the film’s jail scenes it is the image of Sonia Braga that is most alluring. The hair is what gets you.
In a memorable scene she is Leni Lamaison, her epical hair tucked into a spider web-like veiled hat as she sits in the back of a car. In another she appears in front of a very large spider web, her hair sculpted like a Japanese Geisha’s while clothed in a slinky black dress. But to me the sexiest image is when she appears in a delirious dream of Valentin’s to tend his wounds; her shoulder length hair curling in strands as it elegantly frames a face of exquisite beauty. After seeing the film a few times, I wondered what it would be like to meet Sonia Braga. Would it be a letdown? At that point in my career in the musical arts I had met a number of “stars” within the firmament of the performing arts. And socially I had met actresses whose physical beauty far outdistanced their prowess as performers. So, when I learned that I was going to meet Sonia Braga I was prepared, I think, to be disappointed. Thankfully, I wasn’t. So how did I come to meet the “Spider Woman?” I met her while leading a contemporary music ensemble in Philadelphia when her boyfriend at that time stepped inside the swirling artistic orbit that was Relâche.
It happened 15 years ago. It seems like it happened only 15 days ago. Fifteen years can seem like a long time, especially if one were to move from place to place as I have. From my hometown of Philadelphia to Helena, Montana, from there to New Orleans then to Albuquerque and Corrales, New Mexico, where I now live. It has been a trying journey, but I landed in the place I was destined for: New Mexico.
Here in this beautiful agricultural village located just outside of Albuquerque on its northwest border I live amidst the coyotes and roadrunners with a haunting view of Sandia Mountain, named by the Spanish colonialists who first settled here. At sunset the Sandia Mountain is especially impressive: it glows with a brilliant magenta color as the sun’s rays filters through the pristine New Mexico air while slowly setting beneath the west mesa. Early in the morning on clear days Sandia Mountain’s eerie silhouette dissolves as the sun crests the mountaintop to spread its incandescent warmth throughout the valley. From mid-September to early December the sky is filled with squadrons of Canadian Geese and Sandhill Cranes flying in precise formations as they journey from their nighttime nests along the Rio Grande River to one of many spent corn fields in the village where they huddle for hours pecking at the remnants of stalks that, months before, enriched the locals with succulent corn. (The land that parallels the Rio Grande River in Central New Mexico is a major migration route for geese, ducks and cranes as they fly south for the winter.) Living in the shadow of a mountain as magnificent as Sandia one feels a sense of belonging to a natural world and is compelled to romanticize its history while settling comfortably in its web-like embrace. And I do sometimes romanticize the region. I guess it comes from having grown up under the rumble of the Frankford El in Philly. As I get older, I seek silence; it’s something I find in abundance in the southwest, especially throughout the Indian reservations and pueblos that abound within shouting distance of my home. And none is more silent, ethereal and, I’m sorry to say, sad than the Navajo Reservation.
Located on shared lands in northwestern New Mexico, northeastern Arizona and southeastern Utah the sprawling Navajo Nation is home to over 300,000 native people, ancestors of an Athabaskan tribe that migrated to the southwestern United States from Canada around 1400 AD. Over the centuries the Navajo have encountered, fought and assimilated with native Pueblo peoples, the Spanish colonists and, finally, the U.S. Army whose brutal campaign against the Navajo led to the infamous “The Long Walk of the Navajo” in 1864. In that brutal campaign the Army forced the Navajo people to march from their traditional homeland to Fort Sumner, in eastern New Mexico 450 miles away to essentially get them out of the way, plant them there for eternity, or at least until the next national election. It didn’t work. The harsh New Mexico land proved impossible to farm and, after numerous confrontations with the military and civilian authorities, the Navajo were returned to their Arizona-New Mexico-Utah homeland in 1868. The “Long Walk Home” is now celebrated less than “The Long Walk of the Navajo” but it is celebrated for the unity that the tribe achieved as they headed west to their home. The land they returned to was designated a reservation until 1964 when it became officially known as the Navajo Nation, a land as mystical as any in North America. And to help give an aspect to the linear immensity of the land, Spider Woman was given free reign over its construct; in Navajo mythology – and in the parlance of the time, “she rocks.” Spider Woman might just get a kick out of this description. She occupies a world where the Coyote teases and taunts and raunchy Kokopelli roams the land in pursuit of sexual conquests. Even though both are iconic characters that play an important role in Navajo mythology, they do not occupy as exalted a position as Spider Woman who, according to native lore lives atop an 800-foot spire that rises needle-like from the floor of Canyon de Chelly.
This extraordinary expanse of ancient land beckons the curious souls of those eager to escape the ever-expanding Southwestern United States’ sprawl. Indeed, those who seek out Canyon de Chelly – located in northeastern Arizona 230 miles from Albuquerque and 330 miles from Phoenix – have made a decision to temporarily leave the cities and towns (and casinos) that are slowly transforming the region and enter into a land that is vast, timeless and, to many, spiritual. The sheer rock walls of Canyon de Chelly embrace the ghosts of battles lost to the U.S. Army long ago. Pictographs that were etched in the canyon walls by the Anasazi people ages ago depict stories of their ordeal to survive in what was then a brutal environment. On one of my many journeys into the canyon a Navajo guide interpreted an entire canyon wall filled with pictographs by urging me to “…Believe one day back there, back in the eon time…” Above the canyon walls hawks circle in prey of their dinner while ravens consider if they want to challenge these sly raptors. Sometimes they try. Usually, they pay a stiff price as they’re slapped down. The birds that hold dominion over Canyon de Chelly’s air space and the four-legged creatures that roam its depths are enshrined as spirits by the Navajo people, all overseen by Spider Woman.
From her precipitous perch in the Canyon Spider Woman weaves her magic to protect the Navajo people from natural and human encounters. The Navajo creation story tells us that Spider Woman helped the twins Monster Slayer and Child of Water to find their father, the sun, after, of course, having spun the world out of her web and singing all things to life. She was a busy lady in those days. Eventually her creative powers were focused on weaving, a skill that she has passed down through generations of Navajo weavers who create magnificent wool rugs with designs that tell their clan’s stories. In my travels throughout Indian Country (as the region is commonly referred to by local residents) Spider Woman has been hot on my trail.
Years ago, I became interested to learn about Navajo rugs. I began attending rug auctions to purchase ones that were within my limited budget. I also began a quest to identify where the rugs were made and even who wove them. With my wife, Laurel I journeyed to the small outlying trading posts that stretched from one end of the Navajo Nation to the other, examining rugs unique to a particular trading post. Each of these trading posts has their own stories but all share a similar history: they were established by white settlers to the region in order to provide goods and services to the impoverished Indian communities. The owners then worked with local weavers to create patterns that would eventually provide an identity for their post. Often these patterns were based on those unique to Turkish and Middle Eastern designs infused with images from the Navajo’s mythologized past. Over the years the patterns have become based more on the Navajo designs and less on the early “Oriental Rug” designs. The trading post owners then created a “brand” for their rugs to sell to the expanding tourist market while providing much-needed support to the weavers and their families. Strong ties were created between the weavers and the traders allowing the numerous trading posts throughout the Navajo Nation to form a network that has evolved and flourished into the 21st century. As the rugs became more and more elegant in design, they became more expensive to buy. It is not uncommon, for example, to find a rug that is priced at $30,000 (and higher) depending, of course, on its size and sophisticated design and the quality of its weave. Multiple styles of weaving factor into the history of Navajo Rug design and distribution but all have their roots firmly planted in the image of Spider Woman and her influence on families of weavers for over 300 years. I have heard stories of her influence on these weavers. One in particular, the “spirit line” has informed my knowledge of the rugs.
It has been said that after 1900 the “spirit line” became an essential component of Navajo weaving technique. Around this time the Anglo trading post owners insisted that the weavers place a border around their designs. Prior to this the weavings did not have a border; the parallel lines that defined them were uneven, their main purpose was to provide a background for the various shapes that were woven into the rugs. These shapes – crosses, diamonds, zigzagging lines meant to represent lightning bolts, petroglyphs and pictographs inspired by the pottery shards left behind by the ancient Anasazi people – seemed to float freely within the undefined confines of the rug. The trading post owners felt – rightly so – that they could better market the rugs if they had a border, a frame that gave their mostly Anglo buyers a sense that they were, indeed a “work of art.” This strategy worked for the trading post owners and for the more contemporary Navajo weavers. With a border in place, it became essential to have a “spirit line.”
This seemingly aberrant thread runs from a point inside of the weave through the woven frame in an almost straight line ending at the edge of the rug. To the untrained eye it might appear as a “mistake,” a loose thread that doesn’t seem to belong to the design. But it does. A Navajo weaver assumes that her spirit enters the rug as it is woven. In many (but not all) Navajo rugs there is a spirit line, a path for the weaver’s spirit to escape. To weave a rug can take upwards of six months of tedious work in which the warp threads are concealed by passage of the weft yarn. To facilitate this delicate task a weaver (usually a woman although men are becoming quality weavers as well) sits in front of a wooden loom sometimes for as long as eight hours a day manipulating her tools of the trade to bring to life the elegant designs and shape of the rug. It’s no wonder that the weaver becomes one with her creation, that her spirit winds its way among the threads and yarns ultimately seeking its escape route. The spirit line is also left as a reminder that the pattern woven into the rug isn’t perfect. Many weavers believe that the spirit line leaves room for creativity; if she achieves perfection then there is no longer a need for creative inspiration since she has already achieved it. The spirit line is like a lever: when it’s open it lets the good spirits into the rug. This lever is controlled, of course, by Spider Woman.
I once saw a painting of Spider Woman by an artist named Susan Seddon Boulet. It depicted her as young, pretty with long braided hair, her body a transparent mass of interconnected shapes and lines resembling a chart of galaxies one might see at a science fair. She is in profile, leaning forward her eyes cast downward peering at the lower left-hand corner of the painting where a small arthropod-like creature lurks. Her arms and hands appear to be holding an invisible ball the size of a beach ball. But strung between her open hands is a spider web. Behind her is what I think is a full moon – orange in color with black clouds moving across its face. In the lower right-hand corner is a cyclopean eye and beneath it is a large spider with a cross on its back indicative of a species of Araneus diadematus – a European garden spider, rather harmless but a killer weaver. The painting is kind of nice in a New-Agey way. I’m certain it has been licensed by those folks who put iconic images of deceased heroes on black velvet, like Elvis Presley or John F. Kennedy. Sedden Boulet’s rendering of Spider Woman is much too pretty, whether her image is splayed on black velvet or not. But it’s not how I think Spider Woman looks.
I see her as a wizened Navajo woman wearing a traditional red or blue velvet dress (not black!) with turquoise jewelry bedazzling her image. When called on to perform one of her many magical tasks like plucking a young boy from an empyrean fall as he tumbles through the air after leaping from a high cliff, gossamer-like threads emerge from her long fingers to pluck the kid as he tumbles through the air. (In Navajo-like reality Spider Woman unfurls a silken cord down from the top of her lair on Spider Rock to help a young boy who was fleeing from an enemy to ascend the rock. The boy is befriended by Spider Woman who, the next day, extends a cord once more for him to descend down Spider Rock to join his tribe.) I have carried this mythical image of Spider Woman while roaming the rocky and barren lands of Indian Country. And then sometime in the mid-1980’s Spider Woman took on a whole new identify in my fantasy world when I saw the film Kiss of the Spider Woman. That was it! No more images of mythical women in velvet dresses and thick turquoise jewelry. Now the image I conjured was similar to the one depicted in Susan Seddon Boulet’s painting: a beautiful young woman, her body draped in a skin-tight dress emerging not from behind sandstone-colored rocks in the desert but from a jungle! (The film’s poster picture is the source of my fantasy.) Now Spider Woman was, well, almost real. Soon she would prove very real in the form of Sonia Braga.
For 30 years I lived in the belly of the beast that was “New Music in America.” After graduating from the Philadelphia Musical Academy (now part of the University of the Arts) with a degree in music composition I deliberated for months to determine my next step. I had been selected by Dance Theater Workshop (DTW) in New York City to be part of a small group of young composers (although as a military veteran I was not that young in age but young in experience) to compose music for dancers as part of a program to create collaborations among musicians and dancers, several of whom were former members of the prestigious Judson Dance Theater, the group of intrepid artists that revolutionized American modern dance in the 1960’s. I did not have the funds to re-locate to New York so I began what would become a well- worn travel route: driving the New Jersey Turnpike or riding the AMTRAK train. My tenure at DTW lasted two years and was invaluable in my building a network of artist friends in New York. Later I would collaborate with many of them. Rather than attempt to move to New York and live in small inexpensive apartments while working who-knows-what kind of jobs I decided to stay in Philadelphia to make a go of it. I returned to school enrolling at Temple University’s Graduate School of Music supporting myself by playing music, writing articles, reviews and a newspaper column. And monthly checks from the G.I. Bill certainly helped matters. During those years I advocated – often quite loudly – for more performances – beyond the confines of those presented by the area universities and music schools – of new and experimental music in Philadelphia. My vision was to help create a professional performing ensemble and presenting organization that would reach out to artists who were dramatically changing America’s musical culture. Additionally, I wished to embrace new musical works by an emerging international community of like-minded composers and performers. After organizing and presenting concerts by my composer-performer friends in small venues like the original Painted Bride Art Center, I took the next step: in 1978 I co-founded an organization with these goals in mind. We named it “Relâche,” in honor of a theatrical work created by Jean Cocteau, Francis Picabia and Erik Satie. Performed in Paris in 1926, “Relâche” just about closed the door on the notorious period in art history known as “Dada.”
In contrast to its namesake, the Relâche organization opened doors to give life to the music of its time. Over the course of my tenure with Relache – I served as founding executive/artistic director for 23 years – the ensemble and producing-presenting entity focused its efforts on touring throughout Pennsylvania and much of the eastern U.S. Eventually the ensemble toured Europe, Japan, Venezuela and large parts of the U.S. It also recorded for several labels and commissioned 150 works from composers worldwide. Most gratifying to me was the ensemble’s ability to collaborate with composers in the creation of new musical works. Among those who were invited to collaborate with the Relâche Ensemble was Mikel Rouse.
Known for his scintillating inter-media works that fuse theater, music and social-cultural commentary, Mikel was gaining a reputation among artists and audiences in “New York’s Downtown Avant-Garde,” a term I really hate since it tends to marginalize many brilliant and innovative artists. A Master of Digital sampling, he uses his voice to create layer upon layer of vocal lines whose sonic characteristics are as rhythmically inventive as is their tonal brilliance. The first piece of his that I heard was a recorded version of Failing Kansas, a solo performance piece based on the book “In Cold Blood,” by Truman Capote. It reminded me of Robert Ashley’s music, although without the humor and playfulness that characterizes many of his extraordinary “operas.” Ashley’s music-performance works were a revelation to me. Finally, I discovered someone with a vision in the new music world that connected with me on a visceral level. Many of the artists I collaborated with during those years created brilliant, distinctive works. Some moved me to tears, others to outrage and action. But Ashley’s music fell somewhere in between those emotions, they were unique in their use of language and structure, so much so that they challenged me in ways that few other musical artists did. I found in his works a true American voice wrapped around a complex yet accessible compositional model that required one to dig deep into its labyrinthine structure. Eventually I become friends with Bob Ashley and his wife, Mimi Johnson, who is the respected founder of the Lovely Music record label, a veritable archive of America’s post-modern composers and performers. During a conversation with them following a performance by Mikel Mimi remarked “… Mikel is the next Bob Ashley…” I was pleased to hear that even as Bob looked at us with an expression that implied, “hey, I’m still here.” Indeed, at 83 Bob was and is “still here” and making new “operas” that continue to tell stories of a unique American life.
After that initial introduction to Mikel Rouse’s music, we began a relationship that eventually led to his collaborating with the Relâche Ensemble.
At that time, he was about to launch a new work titled Dennis Cleveland, a really irreverent realization of a television talk show based, not too loosely on the then popular personality, Jerry Springer whose daily program was, at least to many, the most boisterous and obnoxious of the many shows then streaming across the airways of American television. Mikel and his crew were preparing for the initial run of Dennis Cleveland at the iconic New York performance venue, The Kitchen. He invited Laurel and me to attend the opening night performance, becoming part of the show as a camera that was focused on audience members captured the reactions of many in the audience – including mine and Laurel’s – then beamed their/our faces back to the audience via television monitors positioned overhead while the action played on stage. And, true to the legacy of Jerry Springer, Dennis Cleveland was loud, outrageous, raw and on-target. The ensemble cast, comprised of young New York actors and artists, was terrific. Following the performance, we met several of them at a cast party. Among those was Mark Lambert.
Lambert’s performance was memorable. He had long hair (it was a wig) that spun around his head whenever he yelled “…My way or the highway…” to his girlfriend, played with great indignation by a beautiful African-American actress whose contemptuous sneer was part nasty and part sexy. Although he proved a convincing performer as an out-of-control, wise-ass white boy Mark’s better-known skills were as a musician. He’s a guitarist and composer who split his time between New York and Sao Paulo working with the famed Brazilian singer, Astrud Gilberto, playing guitar in her band and serving as music director. (He currently plays a similar role with the hipster’s chanteuse, Uta Lemper.) Upon being introduced to Mark he and I entered into an easy conversation discussing how much fun it was to play bossa nova. We hit it off and agreed to meet again in a few weeks for lunch or dinner. When we met, he made a proposal to compose a piece for the Relâche Ensemble. Not expecting a commission, he was eager to branch out from the music that he was playing. Although he loved Brazilian music, he found it predictable and wished to stretch his musical vocabulary. With an ensemble like Relâche he saw an opportunity to do so. He gave me recordings of music he had composed for the Gilberto band and not only did I like them but heard the potential to create a unique work for the Relâche Ensemble. I did, however, insist that he hear Relâche live before creating a piece for the group. He agreed. Since we were then at the end of Relâche’s Philadelphia and New York performance seasons and since we were planning to have Mikel Rouse as the first guest composer for the following Philadelphia season, I suggested that Mark accompany Mikel to Philadelphia for the premiere performance in late September. We agreed to stay in touch over the summer.
As the Relâche Ensemble prepared for its fall season and the premiere of Mikel’s new piece I became cautiously concerned that he might not have it ready in time. It was now early September, only five weeks before the opening night concert and Mikel had not yet sent any part of his new work. Finally, towards the end of the month he sent drafts that I could share with the ensemble. This work was not going to have notated musical parts that the players would interpret. In place of notation, they were given cues that were imbedded in the sampled material that Mikel was developing. He planned to have them ready a week or so before the concert in order to ensure that the piece had an improvisational feel to it. It was a bit vague, but everyone agreed to the plan and accepted their drafts as at least a beginning of the process. I remained concerned but I also remained confident that Mikel would come through with something special. About a week or so before the concert Mikel asked if he could bring a small group of friends down to Philadelphia from New York for the weekend. Included with this group would be Mark Lambert, who I expected to come anyway. “Sure,” I said and offered to provide hotel rooms for everyone since Relâche had secured a sponsorship from the University Sheraton Hotel just off campus of the University of Pennsylvania. “Cool,” I remember Mikel saying. “And by the way, Mark is bringing his girlfriend Sonia Braga,” he continued. “Sonia Braga, the actress? Sonia Braga the Spider Woman?” I asked. “Yeah,” he answered. “She’s terrific.” “I know that Mikel,” I said, continuing…” I had no idea.” “You’ll like her,” he said. “I’ll bet I will,” I responded as I ended our conversation. I then told Laurel and a few friends what had just transpired. When I told Laurel she said, “Sonia Braga. Damn!”
Part of the labor agreement with members of Relâche called for a minimum of 25 hours of rehearsal for a concert. When a new work was being prepared the bulk of that time was dedicated to it. One week prior to the opening night concert and the premiere of Mikel Rouse’s new piece we did not have any music to prepare. Concerned I called Mikel to find out what was up. “Everything’s cool,” he said, I have the sampled parts ready so how about if I come down a day earlier and we’ll begin putting things together.” “Okay, I responded, let’s do it.” When he arrived, things didn’t exactly fall into place. Even though there were plenty of terrific music samples in his toolkit he was struggling to find a working context, a frame for them. Each of the players in the ensemble adapted easily to their “parts,” but they too did not understand how they came together. The ensemble’s violist, the late Kathleen Carroll had an idea. “You know what’s missing, Mikel? Voices,” she said without waiting for an answer. “I keep hearing vocal lines threading through the computer and instrumental music.” Mikel stood thinking for a moment before responding. “Yeah, Yeah, I like that,” he said. “Give me some time to work on that tonight and tomorrow we’ll have another go at it.” The next day was the day before the concert so he was under the gun to provide the framework for the piece so the players could feel confident. When he arrived for rehearsal, he had the outline for three voices that would fit with the other instrumental parts. Which three voices? He hadn’t figured that out yet.
I and the players were fidgeting around trying to understand just how this was going to play out when Kathleen Carroll once again took the lead. “I have an idea,” she said again. “How about if me, Laurel and Helen sing the parts.” Mikel paused thinking this over before saying, “Okay, that’s cool. Are Helen and Laurel game?” “Yeah,” Kathleen said, we already discussed it. I mean, we all think it’s about time for the Relâche-etts to make an appearance on the Philly stage.” At that point Laurel came over and smiling said, “Hey, I already have our costumes ready. And we’ll work out our steps.”
The Relâche Ensemble has always been supportive of music made by women performers and composers. The third iteration of the ensemble took this sensibility to another level entirely. The three women in the ensemble, flutist Laurel Wyckoff, percussionist Helen Carnavale and violist Kathleen Carroll were attractive personalities on stage. The guys were not necessarily “attractive” but thorough professionals in every sense of the word. The three ladies were more outgoing than the men; they knew their roles in the ensemble and worked the crowd in ways that the guys could not. From Laurel’s striding on stage in tight leather pants to Helen’s elf-like moves from one percussion instrument to another to Kathleen’s know-it-all smile, the group glistened with a feminine mystique that played well against the staider personalities of the guys. Accordingly, it really wasn’t that much of a stretch to take the ladies away from the core ensemble and place them stage left behind the guys and soloist Mikel Rouse, serving as “girl group” back-up singers. For a seasoned new music ensemble, it was pretty daring. And it was pretty cool. The Relâche-ettes were a hit that night at the Annenberg Center as they swayed and displayed their newly minted steps while echoing a text that was spoken/sung by Mikel Rouse’s digitally processed voice. It was for many of us a night to remember. But it was only one night of two to remember. The next night was the one that I will really remember: the night of the Spider Woman.
Saturday afternoon as I prepared to go to the theater to meet the technical crew, I received a call from Mikel Rouse reminding me that a group of his friends were heading down from New York. I really didn’t need a reminder but thanked him anyway informing him that the hotel rooms were reserved for them. Since there was no pre-concert rehearsal for the second night’s concert, just a review of the set-up, I told him I would meet him around 7:30 in the theater lobby so he could introduce me to his Downtown New York entourage. Of course, it was my not-so-subtle way of telling him that I wanted to meet Sonia Braga and be presented as the guy who made all this – the concert and the commission of his new piece – happen.
The time between the end of dress-technical rehearsal and a concert is usually a quiet hour or so. It allowed me to step away from the stage and put on my fundraiser’s jacket as I met and talked with supporters and foundation personnel who were invited to the concert. It also gave me a chance to chill out a bit in anticipation of the performance.
That night I made my way out to the theater lobby to look for Mikel. He hadn’t arrived yet, but I spotted Mark Lambert standing alone also looking around the lobby, probably for Mikel. I went over to greet him. We discussed our summer travels before my asking him, “Where are your friends?” Of course, I meant where is Sonia Braga. He looked over and pointed towards a clump of people who were milling around the entrance door. “Over there,” he said, pointing them out. “Let’s go meet them,” he said moving in their direction. A bit confused I asked, “Did Sonia Braga make it down?” Yes,” he answered, that’s her right there,” pointing to a woman with her back to us, her long black curly hair clinging to a long-tailed fashionable flannel shirt that concealed much of the unfashionable pair of jeans she was wearing. Mark led me to his friends and introduced us. “Joseph, this is Sonia Braga, Jim Stewart and Karen Alisi,” he said as we shook hands. With respect to the other couple, it was difficult to not focus my attention on Sonia Braga. I mean, this was the Spider Woman! But without any makeup and dressed not in a slinky dress but in Downtown New York frump. Needless to say, I was a bit surprised.
In the days leading up to meeting Sonia Braga, I envisioned her as the alluring beauty who glowed from the movie screen, or at least glistened from the promotional poster for Kiss of the Spider Woman. Instead, I looked into the pretty face of a woman who was really rather, well, regular looking. She blended into the crowd of concertgoers quite easily. No one recognized her! She and her friends greeted me warmly. We talked about Mikel’s piece and agreed to meet for drinks following the concert. I excused myself to check in with our production coordinator to make sure everything was ready to go. That night the ensemble played beautifully. The Relâche-ettes were great. A hit with the audience, they entered into Relâche’s history book as a one-weekend wonder. Mikel’s piece came together almost as if he and the group had been performing it dozens of times. Overall, it was a terrific effort. Afterwards some members of the ensemble and a group of friends met with our New York guests to have a late-night dinner and even later night drinks. After dinner and some deliberation, we headed down to a little place on South Street called Bob and Barbara’s Lounge.
I grew up in Philadelphia, a product of the working-class neighborhood of Kensington, K & A to the locals. The culture of Kensington was, like many other neighborhoods in the city, defined by the tap rooms that seemed to populate every other corner throughout the neighborhoods. Bob and Barbara’s Lounge was, although not a tap room in the pure sense of the word, a place akin to those venerated drinking establishments. But the similarities end when one opens the door at 1509 South Street and steps inside the big room awash with the sounds of a Hammond B-3 organ trio laying down some wickedly funky musical lines. “Since 1969,” says their website, “Bob and Barbara’s Lounge has been serving cold beer, cocktails and live entertainment featuring a Hammond B-3 organ trio playing ‘Liquor Drinking Music’ every Friday and Saturday night.” If that weren’t enough for Philly’s avaricious jazz community, it gets better. On Thursday nights their “…famous Drag Show hosted by Miss Lisa,” hits the stage. (We learned on our group visit, that Miss Lisa is nobody to mess with. One member of our tribe happened to sit next to Miss Lisa at the large circular bar that dominated the room. After a few pleasant exchanges Miss Lisa rotated 180 degrees on the bar stool and leaned over to the guy on the other side of her domain and said in a threateningly urban Philly patois, “…you fuck wit’ my purse and I fuck wit’ you head…”)
The weekend house band was – and still is – The Crowd Pleasers. But since 2006 the band has been playing without its founder and long-time leader, tenor saxophonist Nate Wiley who passed in 2006 at 82. When remembering him I’m almost tempted to say, “…Nate Wiley, Nate Wiley Nate Wiley.” But that just doesn’t work. Nate and The Crowd Pleasers were not exactly of a class that could meld their sound with the Duke Ellington Orchestra; The Crowd Pleasers grabbed you by the throat, not like the Ellington Orchestra’s sound that fell like a veil over one’s shoulders. I and others from my generation and musical inclination will always remember Nate Wiley for his growly tenor saxophone sound and friendly demeanor on and off stage. He was an original, a charter member of Philadelphia’s venerable jazz hall of fame. Fortunately for us Nate was still growling that night when the Relâche entourage walked through the sacred entrance to Bob and Barbara’s Lounge.
By now Sonia Braga and I were on great talking terms having had a chance to sort of get to know one another over dinner. As we crossed over the threshold to Bob and Barbara’s Lounge Sonia was just in front of me. When she took in the sight of The Crowd Pleasers at the small bandstand squeezed against a far wall, the floor vibrating from the basement tones of the Hammond B-3 Organ, she stopped, turned around looked at me and smiled, a big happy smile that radiated an exotic beauty, enhanced no doubt by the low-level lighting tinged with a reddish glow that added a devilish quality to the room. “This is fantastic,” she said loudly leaning up to be close to my ear, my right ear if I remember correctly. I felt her lips on my ear which of course was both magical and a bit disconcerting. Fortunately, Laurel was talking with Mark Lambert, so we sort of paired off. The Relâche entourage found seats and standing room at the big bar within shouting range of one another. Sonia and I didn’t have to shout since we were seated next to one another. The Crowd Pleasers played, Miss Lisa mumbled to whoever would listen to her, we listened to the music, and we talked sharing the night with our friends who were holding their conversations even as the Crowd Pleasers wailed. Sonia and I compared our lives as artists and outsiders, about friendships and relationships that gave solace to unpredictable lives lived at the outer edge of conventional society. Sonia was intrigued when I told her about writing a letter to the director Robert Altman asking if he would listen to some of my music, hoping that I might be hired to work as a composer or editor on one of his films. Although she never worked for Altman Sonia shared with me an appreciation for his films and hoped that he might someday call. She asked if Altman answered my letter. “He did,” I told her, “He gave me the name of one of his production people at Lionsgate Films encouraging me to follow up so that I could bring recordings for them to review.” “Did you?” she asked. “No,” I responded, continuing, “…I thought about it, but my life was taking a new turn with the advent of the Relâche Ensemble. But the truth is I really didn’t think I had the chops. I had found something in organizing and producing concerts that felt much more natural to me. I made the right decision,” I concluded. She understood immediately. “It’s good to know what you do best,’ she said. We both nodded in agreement then turned to listen to the Crowd Pleasers’ wily music from across the room.
I was, of course, eager to learn how she felt about Kiss of the Spider Woman. The Crowd Pleasers took a break, their rumbling sound slowly dissolving leaving a void in the room and an opening for me to ask, “So, what was it like starring in such an iconic film as Kiss of the Spider Woman?” She responded easily saying, “Well it was a difficult part since I had to play several roles but working with actors like Raul Julia and Bill Hurt made it easier.” We talked some more about the film; she seemed impressed by how well I knew it. I then asked her about The Milagro Beanfield War, a film directed by Robert Redford and filmed in Truchas, New Mexico, a small village in the northern part of the state not too far from Taos. I got to know that part of New Mexico from the many trips I made with Laurel to visit her parents in Corrales, so I had to be one of the few people she encountered who had ever heard of Truchas, New Mexico. I immediately realized it was a sensitive subject. She told me that she loved visiting New Mexico but wasn’t too happy with the film, confiding that her personal relationship with Redford caused problems on the set. I sensed she did not wish to talk too much about it, so I segued back to a shared love of music and specifically the bossa nova. I wanted to know more but The Crowd Pleasers hit the bandstand once again, the Hammond B-3 player setting the tone with an introduction that was decidedly not of a bossa nova style.
By this time everyone in our entourage was feeling pretty good, others coming over to talk with Sonia. I remember easing into a conversation with Mark Lambert and Mikel Rouse, while of course, paying attention to The Crowd Pleasers’ music as they wound down their final set. It was approaching 2 AM, the hour when Philly bars and clubs shut down. We were all feeling tired, so we gathered ourselves for the evening-ending good-byes. I found Sonia to tell her how much I enjoyed meeting and talking with her. She thanked me for inviting her to the concert and sharing my friends with her and Mark. Then she kissed me, a kiss of friendship that has remained with me since that night at Bob and Barbara’s Lounge.
Spider Woman continues to play an even more prominent role in my life now that I live in New Mexico. Each summer or early fall Laurel and I make a pilgrimage to Canyon de Chelly, a four-hour drive from our home in Corrales. We hike down The White House trail, the only trail that one can hike without a Navajo guide. We drive around the north and south rims, stopping at overlooks that reveal archeological sites such as White House Ruin, Antelope House Ruin and, of course, Spider Rock, as magical a sight as any in the American Southwest. And we see Navajo weavings wherever we go; in our house, in friends’ houses, in shops, restaurants and museums we see Spider Woman’s handiwork. My eye always seeks the rug’s spirit line to see if the weaver has captured her spirit. And now 15 years after being kissed by the other Spider Woman I think not only of the image of the Navajo spirit who appears throughout my travels, but I also think of Sonia Braga and that night with her and friends in a South Center City Philadelphia bar. I hear the music of The Crowd Pleasers amidst the lyrical tone of Sonia’s voice. Now as I continue to roam among the magisterial rock formations, meandering rivers and morose shrubs of the High Desert, I harken back to Duke Ellington’s reverential recitation of Johnny Hodges’ name as I borrow from the Duke and say to myself, “…Sonia Braga, Sonia Braga, Sonia Braga…”
RAHIM IN THE PROMISED LAND
As someone who has survived the mean streets of Baghdad, Rahim Alhaj figures he’s seen just about every kind of careless driving that’s imaginable. Driving in his adopted hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico is a challenge due, in large part to the uneven driving practices of New Mexico drivers. Accordingly, Rahim is always cautious behind the wheel, especially when he’s in uncharted territory. As a young man driving in Baghdad, he often calmed his nerves by listening to the music of his teacher, Munir Bashir on wavering cassette tapes. Bashir was a prominent composer-performer and teacher of the oud, acknowledged throughout the world for his brilliant performances and scholarly research into the ancient music of Iraq. Always, Rahim found solace in his mentor’s music. As a teenager he sometimes borrowed the family’s car to run errands, but like most teenagers in Iraq he relied on busses to travel from his home in the El Alarfi neighborhood to school and university. On this day Rahim is driving a neon green Toyota Camry, a rental car that he picked up at BWI Airport. In the passenger’s seat is Souhail Kaspar, a Lebanese-born Syrian-trained percussionist who is in-demand as an accompanist to traditional Arabic musicians worldwide. Both are citizens of the United States. Both spend much of their time on the road. Each is a respected soloist and composer of contemporary Arabic music and brilliant interpreters of the ages old Maqams, the structural building blocks of Arabic music. They arrived at BWI within an hour of one another to begin a journey that will take them to Smithsonian Folkways Recordings Studio in suburban Maryland. Rahim and Souhail have played together often and recorded one CD together. With new material itching to be recorded they were primed for the upcoming session at Smithsonian Folkways.
Neither has ever been to Washington before so they’re looking forward to the visit. From his command position behind the wheel Rahim feels confident. Souhail too feels confident as navigator, a confidence derived from his role as the anchor to any ensemble or soloist he accompanies; his sure sleek hands temper the many instruments he plays whether it’s the Doumbek or the Riqq (known in Western cultures as the Egyptian Tablah and Tambourine, respectively), his fingers move in complex rhythmic counterpoint across the stretched tan skins of the instruments. He could, if needed, take command of the car as befits a man from Damascus, where he learned to drive. On those wicked streets in that ancient city he mastered the art of aggressive driving so useful on the intertwining freeways of Los Angeles, his American home. Souhail, with a map and directions to the recording studio in his lap and Rahim gripping the steering wheel ready to follow Souhail’s commands, they headed north on I-195 eventually connecting with the Baltimore Washington Parkway southbound to Washington, DC.
Their directions had them following the Baltimore Washington Parkway then a short dip south to Patuxet Freeway and the exit to the recording studio. Rahim excitedly pointed to the exit that he believed to be the one that Pete Reiniger, the Smithsonian Folkways recording engineer gave him. Souhail wasn’t so certain that the exit Rahim gestured to was, indeed the correct one. “Rahim,” he said in his heavily accented English, “according to the map I think we want the next exit.” “No Habibi,” responded Rahim in equally heavily accented English, “this is the one, I’m sure,” the ‘sure’ intoning upwards; a pattern of speech that linguists call a ‘high rise terminal,’ or ending a declarative statement as if it were a question. (Where Rahim picked up this style of talking is a mystery since it is usually assigned to the vernacular talking styles of California’s ‘Valley Girls’ or young women in Australia.) He eased into the left-hand lane slowed down and exited following the ramp as it turned to the left. At the end of the ramp, they saw the sign: NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY.
So, to twist a well-known American phrase, “Two Arab guys pull up to a gate…” But this gate is not an ordinary gate. This gate marks a sacred parcel of government land. Within this territorial enclave houses thousands of employees who have the “need to know.” Those who don’t have “the need to know” usually keep a good distance from the gate, fearing that if they were to find themselves entering, they might not return to their “normal’ lives. “A need to know…” Know what? The term “need to know” refers to the super-secret data that’s contained in millions of files stored behind the walls of the buildings at the National Security Agency (NSA). Located just outside Washington, DC, the NSA is home to thousands of super-nerdy analysts and fellow snoops who oversee the complex data files collected by those who really do have the “need to know.” What they need to know, of course, is how the enemies of the state intend to – or hope to – disrupt the disorderly flow of information among federal agencies to bring the U.S government to a halt. Or bring it to its knees. Like all respectable government institutions, and especially like all those aligned with national security, the NSA stands firm; a citadel on the outskirts of the Nation’s Capital to deflect the intentions of those who might harm the country. And in front of this gate sit two lost Arab guys staring at the sign in front of them.
Rahim slowed to a crawl as a uniformed guard stepped forward with one hand outstretched in the universal “stop, do not move…” position while his other hand gripped a 9mm semi-automatic pistol, still holstered at his waist. This clearly meant for them to stop. They stopped, looked at one another, then at the guard and again at the sign on the gate. Rahim shrugged. Souhail let out with “…whew, what now?” This time, he spoke in Arabic. The guard came over, peered into the car looking first at Rahim then at Souhail, then stepped back and said, “Do you guys have an appointment?”
It didn’t take long for the guard to figure out that no, these two dark-skinned skinny guys did not have an appointment with anyone at the NSA. “So,” the guard said with some trepidation, “where are you from?” “Albuquerque,” responded Rahim. “And he,” pointing to Souhail, “is from Los Angeles.” Annoyed, the guard said, “No. No, where are you FROM?” “Oh, Iraq, I’m from Baghdad, Iraq, Rahim said smiling proudly. (Rahim’s smile is wickedly attractive: a combination of a conniving coyote and sly carnival barker.) “And I’m from Lebanon,” Souhail said with a forced nervous smile. “So, what are you doing here?” asked the guard. Rahim now feeling a bit more relaxed and, as always, playful, responded, “We’re here to make a recording, a new CD for Smithsonian Folkways Records. I play oud and Souhail here, he plays Doumbek.” The guard, now becoming a bit suspicious (or was it confused?) looked first at Rahim then at Souhail and said, “So, you’re musicians? And you play what? “The oud,” said Rahim, “It’s like a guitar.” “The Doumbek, a Middle Eastern drum,” echoed Souhail. “Here I’ll show you,” Rahim said as he started to open the car door, only to have the guard determinedly push back on the door. Rahim got the message and took his hands off the door letting them drop on to his lap. The guard now took on an air of supreme authority and instructed both to step out of the car.
The guard backed up to his little guard house, picked up his cell phone and pushed the number 1 button. Within minutes a big black Humvee hurtled to a stop in front of the Camry. Three big men jumped out wearing khaki uniforms with helmets labeled “MP.” Rahim had been lounging against the side of the Camry, smoking a cigarette. Now he jumped away from it, startled. Souhail stood on the other side of the car staring at these hulking square figures moving towards them. It was at this time that they heard the dogs barking. Rahim instinctively bolted and squatted next to Souhail on his side of the car. The three uniforms stopped dead in their tracks, one of them shouting, “Don’t move!” Another went back to the Humvee and quieted the dogs until he had their leashes firmly wrapped around his meaty hand. He led them to Rahim and Souhail, their teeth bared while a low growling sound seeped from deep within their expanding chests.
Living in New Mexico Rahim often hears howling of coyotes as they celebrate a score; possibly a small dog perhaps that’s strayed too far from its back yard, or a rabbit. Since arriving in New Mexico Rahim Alhaj has heard the coyote’s songs. He does not like hearing them. In fact, he hates hearing them. They remind him of the snarling German Shepherd dogs that were used to intimidate and control his movements and that of his fellow prisoners during two periods of incarceration in Iraq. Rahim had been accused of actively working against the regime of Saddam Hussein while a teenager in Baghdad. Souhail, like Rahim is Muslim; both detest dogs, a consequence of their shared backgrounds. Muslims are taught to avoid the impure beast for fear of contaminating the home, not to mention their unclean odor.
The dogs inched closer to Rahim and Souhail, straining against their leather leashes; Rahim now terrified, Souhail more frightened at Rahim’s predicament than of the dogs. The dogs sensed Rahim’s fear and shortened the distance between them as the MPs ’pulled back on their leashes. “Keep them away,” pleaded Rahim, “we’re musicians trying to find the Smithsonian Recording Studio; we’re not terrorists,” he continued. The MP’s realized that something just wasn’t right, that these two guys were not dangerous; the dog handler pulled hard on the dogs’ leashes and commanded them to stop. Still snarling, the dogs obeyed the commands and sat staring directly at Rahim who was now scrunched even lower behind the car, the dogs’ piercing eyes bore a hole through Rahim. The third – and biggest! – MP strode ahead of the dogs and asked, in a less threatening voice, “Who are you and what the fuck are you doing here?” Rahim, now feeling a bit relieved answered, “Take the dogs away so we can explain everything.” The biggest MP nodded and instructed the handler to move the dogs back away from Rahim and Souhail. Rahim stood up and thanked the big MP. Souhail, clearly relieved, relaxed as Rahim moved towards him.
Rahim and Souhail recounted their story of following directions to the Smithsonian Folkways recording studio using a Maryland-Washington DC map that led them to here, the National Security Agency. The MP – the big guy, well the bigger of the three guys – appeared to understand but following routine orders and staring at two guys who clearly were not from Kansas (or for that matter, Montana, his home state) he decided to grill them a bit more. Once again, after assuring him that they were, indeed, U.S. citizens and residents of New Mexico and California respectively, Rahim and Souhail offered to play their instruments for him. Curious, the big MP asked where their instruments were. “In the trunk,” said Rahim. “Okay, let’s see them,” the big MP responded. Rahim moved to the trunk of the car fumbling for the car keys in his pocket. One of the dogs snarled, a garbled snarl since it was being held tightly by its handler, but a snarl nevertheless causing Rahim to look back over his shoulder with a look of reserved fear and hatred. “Go ahead, dude, he’s not gonna bust lose,” the big MP assured him. Rahim opened the trunk. The big MP looked at the oud and Doumbek in their resplendent cases, surrounded by luggage and a half-opened bag of Doritos Corn Chips and, easing back while placing his hand on the black holster that housed a 45-Calibre pistol, he said, “Okay, now step back and move to the other side of the car and place your hands on the hood.” Rahim, shaking again, obeyed as Souhail followed him. The big MP reached for his cell phone and called the officer-in-charge to brief him on the situation. The two other MP’s felt for their weapons as well, the handler slowly letting the dogs have a bit more reign as they lurched towards Rahim and Souhail, their paws scratching at the gravel outside of the NSA gates. “Sir, we have a situation over here at the northwest gate,” the big MP said into his cell phone. After explaining that there are two middle eastern guys with a car full of expensive cases claiming that they’re musicians and that they got lost, he nodded saying, “yes sir, I’ll wait for your call back.”
The big MP had done a tour in Iraq shortly after the 2002 U.S. invasion while the Iraqi insurgents were gaining strength and confidence. The sight of those cases in the trunk of a car made him suspicious; he had seen too many of his fellow soldiers injured or killed by bombs placed inside cars. While in training he had read many accounts of booby-trapped vehicles that tore apart the soul of the U.S. Army in Vietnam a generation ago. He was being cautious and following orders. Rahim did not understand. He too had done a “tour” in Iraq. In fact, he had done two; he was imprisoned, the first time when he was all of 17 years old, the second time when he was almost a man of 20. Memories of those incarcerations spun back at him as he tried to hold his temper. Rahim has an active imagination. He is always seeing images from his past looping around in his mind something like having a private screening room running continuously inside his head. As Rahim stood behind the car, his hands sweating and slipping off the roof, those psychic films revealed a picture of a fellow prisoner in the crowded Baghdad prison as he was being hoisted up to meet the rope that would end his young life. Rahim heard the screams as the rope tightened around his throat. He remembered wanting desperately to look away as the executioner yanked the guy’s trousers and tore his underwear off. But Rahim and the other prisoners could not look away, their tormentors demanded that they watch, or they would be the next victim. The rope began to do its’ job as his exposed penis stiffened and ejaculated useless semen. The rope burned into this throat cutting off his screams and his body went limp. He was one of thousands of young professionals – a physician – that Saddam Hussein eliminated for reasons that died with him years later at his own grisly hanging. Rahim saw and heard these memories as he leaned against the green Toyota Camry, his feet spread and his hands on the hood and, mentally shielding himself from the growls and snarls of the dogs, he was gaining strength, tired of being treated like a criminal or, Allah forbid, a “terrorist.” “What’s the matter? All we want to do is show you the oud and Doumbek… we’ll play them for you, so you will know we are who we say we are,” he said in desperation. The big MP’s cell phone rang. It was the officer-in-charge. After a few minutes of listening to the officer-in-charge the big MP nodded saying, “yes sir, I’ll get the information and call back.”
“So,” Rahim asked, “what is happening?” Souhail hadn’t moved at all during this sequence of events. He remained standing next to Rahim with his head down looking at his feet but feeling the heat of Rahim’s growing anger. “What’s the name and phone number of the person you were supposed to meet? Do you have it?” “Yes, of course, Rahim replied, the anger subsiding, “I tried to give it to the guard when we first came to the gate.” “Okay, write it on this tablet,” the big MP instructed Rahim. “It’s in the car, in my book, my address book,” said Rahim. “I’ll open the door for you. Reach in and get it then write it down for me. And give me both of your passports and driver’s licenses.” “Okay,” Rahim responded in his characteristically clipped way of saying ‘okay,’ the ‘k’ sort of dissolving in this throat. After writing down the name and phone number of Pete Reiniger at Smithsonian Folkways Records and giving it to the big MP along with their passports and drivers licenses, Rahim and Souhail were ordered to relax and sit down by the side of the car. The big MP called in the information and walked back to the other soldiers who were retreating to the guard’s shack with the dogs. During all this activity the civilian guard could only observe, his authority having been totally usurped by the U.S. Army. “I guess,” Rahim whispered to Souhail in English, “they will call Pete, and everything will be okay, (this time his ‘okay’ was said softer with assurance and without a high-rise terminal intonation). At this point, Souhail really needed to be assured. Yep, Rahim figured, Pete will explain everything to the Army guys. If only it was that easy.
Pete Reiniger’s work as a recording engineer and record producer is exemplary. He’s one of several technician/artists to walk proudly in the immense shadow cast by the late Moses Asch who founded Folkways Records in 1948 to record the indigenous music of the Americas, or as Mr. Ash so accurately called it, “people’s music.” After his death in 1986 the Smithsonian Institution acquired Folkways Records promising to honor Asch’s vision. As one of several stewards of Asch’s legacy Pete Reiniger brings a hard focus to the music he produces and records.
Great recording engineers are a breed apart. Unlike many experienced musicians who often focus mainly on their individual parts at the expense of the ensemble – a great engineer listens more broadly, focusing on the sound of the ensemble and the sound of the room – whether it’s a recording studio or performance space – so that the overall sonic experience is brought fully to life. The best engineers never overproduce by employing artificial enhancement to a voice or instrument; they strive to capture the essence of each instrument and/or voice at the moment of articulation, blending and mixing in situ rather than relying on post-production adjustments. Of course, digital technologies have greatly improved the tools used in the recording process, replacing the long-forgotten analog techniques. In the two previous recording sessions Pete Reiniger was extremely happy that Rahim seldom required more than a few takes for each track recorded. In most instances he knew that Rahim would lay down the best lines possible so that he could concentrate on capturing the exquisite resonances that Rahim coaxed from his Iraqi oud, so he could blend them with the resonant frequency of the recording studio to achieve the distinctive sound of Smithsonian Folkways recordings. Like most respected recording engineers Pete Reiniger is meticulous, known for wrapping the many microphone cables that are used in the trade in perfectly round coils so that the interior wires that magically capture the recorded sounds are not twisted and damaged. Visitors to his studio stare in awe of these coils that lay so elegantly on the floor, like ropes on board a naval ship waiting for their call to hoist a flag. Musicians upon entering Pete’s recording studio and seeing these perfectly coiled cables on the floor or hanging on hooks know that they are in good hands. They became a metaphor of sorts: if those cables can be cared for with such precision and respect then the guy who wrapped them will bring the same precision and respect to the recording process.
Upon first hearing Rahim’s music, Reiniger was convinced that Rahim would become an important link between the musical cultures of the Americas and the Middle East. The scheduled recording session was Rahim’s third with Smithsonian Folkways. The previous two were solo recordings. Rahim was excited to be finally recording with Souhail Kaspar, a friend and artist who he greatly respects. Rahim felt that this one was going to be the best recording yet. Reiniger agreed. At the very moment that the officer in charge of the security detail overseeing the northwest gate of the National Security Agency was calling Reiniger, he was trying to locate Rahim and Souhail and was therefore not aware that the officer was calling him. Pete and the officer in charge did not make contact for two hours. Rahim and Souhail had already been standing (and crouching) at the gate for 1 ¼ hours. It was late in the afternoon. Time seemed to stop for Rahim and Souhail.
Rahim looked at the watch given to him a few months earlier by a friend in Albuquerque to celebrate his 40th birthday. “It’s 3:15,” he whispered to Souhail, “where is Pete?” he asked in a desperate tone. Souhail shrugged, more in solidarity with Rahim than with any real knowledge of where Pete might be (he had never met Pete Reiniger, this was to be his first recording with Smithsonian Folkways). The big MP strolled over to Rahim and Souhail and, in a friendly and assuring manner said, “Why don’t you guys relax while we try to locate the person you’re supposed to meet.” It shouldn’t take that much longer.” “And if you want to, you can sit in the car with the doors open,” he suggested to them. Rahim and Souhail thanked him but said they would rather wait outside the car, and both leaned against the driver’s side front bumper. Rahim asked the big MP if he could smoke. Rahim smokes all the time, a habit that his friends in Albuquerque implore him to give up. But he won’t. Even when he lurches into coughing spells that sound like he’s about to turn himself inside-out trying to bring up the bile that rattles around inside his lungs. One time he coughed up blood. Thankfully, it was a minor infection. The tests that were ordered for him did not reveal anything abnormal. In Rahim’s world, there are few abnormalities. He’s experienced so much in his lifetime that abnormal behavior or situations appear normal to him. On the other hand, standing in front of a big MP with black and brown dogs licking their chops in the background while Souhail nervously taps out a complex rhythm on the bumper of their rented car in front of a sign that reads “National Security Agency,” well that might be viewed even by Rahim Alhaj as “abnormal.”
“How long have you guys been here?” the big MP asked. Rahim glanced at his watch and was about to answer when the big MP, realizing that he didn’t frame the question just right said, “I mean how long have you been in the U.S?” Rahim and Souhail answered almost in unison, “…eight years, about eight years echoed Rahim.” I came here in 2000 from Syria… Souhail came a little bit later, I think. “…Right Souhail?” Souhail nodded as he wrapped up his brief solo drum session by letting his arms drop to his sides and clenching his hands somewhat nervously said, “…Yes, about eight years now.” “Your English is pretty good,” the big MP said. “Did you study before you got here?” Clearly, the big MP was trying to make easy conversation sensing that: a) these two are okay and b) it’s getting late, and we should wrap this whole thing up soon and all of us can get on with our lives. Rahim laughed appreciatively answering his question with a question, “My English is good? You should have heard me a few years ago. It was pretty bad. No, I learned English after I moved to Albuquerque. When I got there, I didn’t speak a word of English other than ‘hi’ or ‘I am Rahim Alhaj, from Iraq. I play oud.” Souhail, as always waiting for Rahim to finish said, “I learned some English in Syria but because I have been around many Arabic-English speaking people in Los Angeles, I have the opportunity to speak in both languages. I took lessons at UCLA. Rahim and me we do okay, I think.” “You do, absolutely. I’m impressed,” the big MP said, while his cell phone roared out the opening bars of John Philip Sousa’s little-known march, ‘The Gladiator.’ “I’ll be right back,” he said to Rahim and Souhail as he hustled back to the guard shack. Rahim began to feel tired. He sat down at the side of the Toyota Camry, closed his eyes and wondered just how he had arrived at this situation; how he had arrived in the United States. Sitting in a relaxing position with the dogs at bay, a slight chill beginning to tinge the early fall afternoon, Rahim slowly drifted off into a private world that even his beloved wife, Nada, cannot enter. Souhail sat down too, resisting the temptation to tap out an Arabic-inspired all rhythmic version of the John Philip Sousa tune that now haunted him, even though he heard only the first two bars!
“When I first held the oud, I knew it was the instrument for me,” Rahim heard himself saying while sitting outside the gate of the National Security Agency, reliving his early years in Iraq. He was 9 years old in his memories. The other boys in his neighborhood would play soccer most of the day, often imploring Rahim to join them. He did, sometimes, handling the ball well, his thin whippet-like legs carried him smoothly across the dirt field. He was an adept playmaker, sometimes stopping on a dime and reversing his motion, or adroitly slipping the ball to a teammate as he moved at full speed toward the goal. But most of the time he declined his friends’ requests to play…he had to practice, and practice…and practice some more so that the snake-like melodies that are hidden inside of the elusive Maqams could be coaxed out. “I practiced…I practiced so hard,” Rahim said to himself, “…trying to bring the feel of the oud into my body…it fit so well,” like Nada’s body fits into mine.” Lost, alone in a city he didn’t know, dealing with people he couldn’t understand and missing Nada’s soulful look and practical advice, he was sad and confused. Souhail too was confused. As confused as Rahim, and as lonely and frightened. “Rahim, wake up!” It was Souhail speaking in Arabic, nudging Rahim out of his reverie. “Those guys are coming back.” Souhail was anxious.
The big MP followed by the two others marched towards Rahim and Souhail. The dogs, thankfully, were inside the Hummer. “It looks like we finally have clearance for you guys,” the big MP said, “the administrative officer here finally reached your friend at the Smithsonian. He’s on his way to meet you. He should be here in a few minutes.” He handed Rahim and Souhail their passports and driver’s licenses. Rahim looked at Souhail and smiled, then at the MP’s. “Thank you, we are so relieved,” he said.
“Look,” the big MP commanded, “you guys have to be careful when you travel around the country, especially when you’re in places with a lot of military presence,” he continued. “And damn, of all places to get lost and wind up… the entrance to the National Security Agency,” he said while shaking his head and adjusting the black helmet that swiveled slightly on his bare skull. “Do you guys have any idea what the National Security Agency does?” he asked. This time Souhail looked at Rahim who sheepishly shook his head from side-to-side. “No, not really, unless they’re like the secret police in Iraq,” Rahim responded. The three MPs all laughed, although not exactly at Rahim and Souhail but more at the situation that has brought them together. “No,” the big MP said, “they’re not that bad. The NSA collects information on the country’s enemies, information that is highly secretive and hopefully helps the military prepare for possible attacks, like on September 11th. “So, they’re not police?” Rahim asked softly. “No, they’re not police,” the big MP assured him. They’re what we call super snoops.” This really confused Rahim and Souhail, this word ‘snoop.’ Souhail has heard of Snoop Dogg, although he does not like Rap music at all. Rahim has never heard of Snoop Dogg. “Snoop? What does that mean, Snoop?” Rahim asked. “Spies,” the big MP said. “Ah, that word I know,” said Rahim. “We had many spies in Iraq during Saddam’s rule,” he said sadly. “They informed on people…they told the Mukhabarat what people were doing behind Saddam’s back. They were not good people,” he continued. “The guys at the NSA, they’re good people, just very secretive, that’s all,” the big MP concluded. The three MPs then looked at one another and laughed, sharing a joke that circulated around the unit about some of the super snoops at the NSA…one of those light bulb jokes. Rahim nodded and looked at Souhail who looked back at Rahim then looked down at the ground wondering if that little screening room in Rahim’s head would begin to play back images of Rahim’s incarceration, something that often happened when he thought of Saddam’s Mukhabarat – the secret police. Just then a car pulled up to the guard’s little shack. It was a Subaru Outback and behind the wheel sat Pete Reiniger.
The big MP gestured for Pete to get out of the car and come over to where Rahim and Souhail were waiting. Pete carefully walked the fifteen yards or so from the guard’s shack to The Toyota Camry. Rahim dashed over and hugged him, a big smile on his face and a tear of joy formed in his eye. Pete greeted Souhail with a handshake then greeted the MP’s. “Wow, Rahim,” he said, “how the hell did you wind up here, at the NSA?” “It’s a long story Habbibi,” answered Rahim. Actually, it’s Souhail’s fault. He cannot read a map,” Rahim continued with an even bigger smile. “No, Rahim, that is not true, you…,” his words trailing off as everyone began laughing.
“Okay, I think we’re done here,” the big MP said and gestured for everyone to go to the guard shack. “There are some papers for the three of you to sign and then you can go about your business.” The civilian guard who had been watching the goings-on all day, feeling completely useless greeted the ensemble. “Quite a day, huh?” he said to no one in particular.” The big MP asked him to serve as a witness to the signing of papers that would end the situation. He agreed and watched as Rahim and Souhail signed their names to the official report that would be entered into the NSA Security Department records declaring that there was no breach of security at the northwest gate of the National Security Agency. Clearly relieved, Rahim turned to Pete and Souhail and said, “Let’s make some music.” The big MP came over to Rahim and Souhail and shook their hands. “One thing more,” he said. Send me a CD when it’s finished.” “Okay,” Rahim said smiling. “When it’s finished.”