Just Released—THIS BURSTING SOUND WITHIN

15 December 2017

I recently finished editing the latest COMPAS Anthology of Student Writing—entitled This Bursting Sound Within. This is no less than the 38th (!) collection of the best student writing that COMPAS teaching artists discover each year across the state of Minnesota:

Subtle and evocative

Subtle and evocative visuals from COMPAS artist Shakun Maheshwari, here on the cover.

 

This past weekend was the official celebration of the book’s release, and St. Paul’s Landmark Center saw hundreds of people gather for the group reading. The setting was stunning, festivities joyous, and the young readers overwhelmingly brilliant. Folks who couldn’t be there will need to settle for this, my editor’s introduction to the book:

INTRODUCTION

For decades now, COMPAS has been sending the writers in its Creative Classroom Program out into the schools and communities of Minnesota. What began as a handful of poets in the late Sixties, working mostly in Twin Cities urban schools, has expanded into a thriving statewide network of songwriters, storymakers, playwrights, comedians, graphic novelists, spoken word artists, and beyond. The forms may change, but at the center of it all remain WORDS, and the ability—nay, the necessity—to communicate.

Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Why do people hate? fear? love? These are timeless questions—yet how often do we expect our children to voice them, let alone propose answers?

Out of all those classrooms, and all those clever exercises designed to move reluctant writers past barriers, COMPAS writers and artists selected the best for submission to this book. From that group, we have gone further, and selected the best of the best. The range of styles and topics is boggling. We get everything from the complexity and sophistication of Ekhlas Abdullahi and Nafiso Mohamed’s “Anchor,” to the pure joy of “Let’s Go Camping” by the energetic kindergartners of Mr. Crosby’s class. We get marvelous fantasy adventures (see virtually the entire section of “Diving into Adventure”), noble tirades against injustice (note especially the “Speaking Up/Speaking Out” section), and bold revelations and questions about the world.

Remember the last time you fled your homeland in fear and had to resettle in a new country where people spoke an unknown tongue? Me neither. But some of these students do, and the insights they provide are crucial. Just check “The Roots within Us” by Lay Lay and see if your perspective isn’t enlarged. Ivy Raya considers the impact of adoption in “Nameless”: “My name is who I am, but it has been changed throughout time. Does that mean that I have changed as well?” Hailey Dahl exposes feelings that many of us have in “Anxiety Poem”:

“It’s like a little creature

Sitting on your shoulder

Telling you you’re not worth anyone’s time

Or that everything you’re doing is wrong

You push people away before they get the chance to abandon you.”

Powerful stuff, that.

Interior illustrations by COMPAS artist Fiona Avocado exude boldness and playfulness.

Interior illustrations by COMPAS artist Fiona Avocado exude boldness and playfulness.

 

Equally powerful to me are those pieces that offer an almost prescient sense of time passing, never to be regained. My favorite in this vein is Eavan Bobbe’s poem “The Playground.” Replete with imagery and wistfulness, it serves as an epitaph to childhood.

Throughout these pieces, there is a sense that the young writers are often responding to an internal imperative to make their voices heard. It’s that entire concept of this is something that I can’t keep from saying that brought me the title of the book. Cristina Furness Rubio concludes her epic linguistic paeon to the Catalan language (“Tongue Waltz”) with the words:
“I am from this bursting sound within.”

That’s what fifth grader Henry Hilton had in mind, when he wrote:

“A whole page flowing out

Of my brain and onto the page.

A sea of thoughts expressed.

The weight of the world

On a piece of paper.”

Let the sea of thoughts heave and foam . . . rejoice that the bursting sound comes forth!

—Daniel Gabriel, Editor

 

 

FLASHBACK: Golden Triangle Prose Poems

7 November 2017

In separate issues, the journal 100 Words (they publish nothing longer) featured two prose poems I’d written about the border muddles in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle. The situation is no more clear today than it was back when I first encountered it—for people like the Rohingya, fleeing from further west in Myanmar, it is undeniably worse.  Perhaps these pieces will spark some thought trails:

No Man’s Land: Bridging the Lines on the Map

The bridge over the river Sop Ruak, deep in the Golden Triangle, lies between the border posts of Thailand and Myanmar. At either end, sentries patrol: flags flying, guns at the ready. The border is closed, and has been for years. But out on the bridge, Chinese, Burmen, and Bengali merchants trade in ivory, gems, opium, and silk. Nothing is illegal, for the bridge belongs to neither country.

So the border has caused the bridge—or did the existence of the bridge determine the nature of the border? Does trade exist in spite of the border or because of it?

Bridge vendor contemplates the mystery of the border—or maybe he's just really enjoying that opium pipe.

Bridge vendor contemplates the mystery of the border—or maybe he’s just really enjoying that opium pipe.

Originally published in 100 Words, Vol. 3, No. 2, 1995

Off the Map

The amorphous Golden Triangle region is known for smuggling; only at this spot is anywhere officially labelled "GT."

The amorphous Golden Triangle region is known for smuggling; only at this spot is anywhere officially labelled “Golden Triangle.”

In far northern Thailand, the Mae Sai River flows into the great sweep of the Mekong. Mapmakers call the northwest bank Myanmar, the northeast, Laos. Out in the middle, wedged between the three countries, is a small triangular island of reed banks and empty fields. It appears on no map, but in the light of the falling sun its surface turns from green to gold.

After dark we hear the screams and giggles of children on the Laotian bank getting their nightly bath. The golden triangle in the middle of the river can no longer be seen.

Bath night on the Mekong River.

Bath night on the Mekong River.

Originally published in 100 Words, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1998

 

FLASHBACK: “Parisian Macabre: Inside the Catacombes”

6 July 2017

Underneath the pavements of Paris lies a world that even most Parisians do not know. I’m not talking about the sewers, though that system holds enough fascination in its own right to merit a museum—the Musée des Egouts de Paris—and well worth a visit it is. (Or maybe I’m just biased. It was my ancestor, Jacques Gabriel, who designed the sewer system.)

The hidden world to which I refer is that of the Catacombes. These catacombes are not like those of, say, Rome, where early Christians hid to escape from governmental persecution. These were disused quarries that never housed anybody living at all—and were filled in far more recent times. In 1785, it was decided to solve the problem of overflowing cemeteries by exhuming bones and removing them to the tunnels of the old quarries. The ossuaries thus created did solve the problem, at least temporarily—and during World War II, the Resistance used them as headquarters.

Today visitors enter via a nondescript dark green door set on the southwestern edge of the intersection just outside the Denfert-Rochereau metro stop. Once we’ve purchased our tickets, we descend a series of steps and then follow long, dark tunnels further down, running laterally, until I frankly have no idea what part of Paris lies above my head.

Eventually we are led out into an open chamber with a doorway in the far wall. An inscription above the doorway reads: “Arrêtez. C’est ici l’empire de la Mort.” (“Stop. Here is the Empire of Death.”)

Despite the "stop" sign, the author's son Evan steps fearlessly into the "Empire of Death."

Despite the “stop” sign, the author’s son Evan steps fearlessly into the “Empire of Death.”

It is too late to turn back.

On the far side of the doorway the bones begin. Heaped and stacked in an implausibly precise mounting of skulls and femurs, tibias and rib bones, they stand at a height of 5-6 feet and, in some places, run back into chambers 40-50 feet deep. “Whoever had to fill this place had the worst job in the world,” says my 14-year-old, Alex.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine the poor souls engaged in the process: the gravediggers, emptying the lonely plots (“What if the person had just died?” says ten-year-old Evan. “Would there be bits of skin and hair and stuff?”); the haulers and stackers, working in the near-total darkness, lanterns flickering, and painstakingly arranging the remnants of their fellow citizens.

Perhaps to mitigate the horror, the authorities have interspersed the bone stacks with whitewashed plaster, occasionally in the shape of a cross, but more frequently as a canvas on which to write appropriate sayings about death and the finality of the grave. One example:

“Aussi tout passe sur la terre

          Esprit, beauté, grâces, talent

          Telle est une fleur éphémère

          Que renverse le moindre vent.”

Loosely translated, that reads

“Everything passes on the earth

Spirit, beauty, grace, talent

It is only an ephemeral flower

That is blown away by the slightest wind.”

The philosophical French don't miss a chance to muse on the meaning of all this grotesque preoccupation with death.

The philosophical French don’t miss a chance to muse on the meaning of all this grotesque preoccupation with death.

Many pundits weigh in as one moves from chamber to chamber, though as we go I find myself curiously uninterested in translating their words. Perhaps it is because the writers seem so distant and their sentiments insubstantial, while around us rise the yellow-white bone towers and the grinning skulls. Who needs intermediaries to interpret our own thoughts in the face of it all?

Our pathway bends and twists, at times doubling back on itself. Hundreds of bones. Thousands. Millions—hundreds of millions, in all likelihood. The area of the Catacombes open to the public (somewhat over a mile) represents only a small segment of the total.

The bizarreness of this Parisian ossuary is heightened by the careful patterning of bone and skull.

The bizarreness of this Parisian ossuary is heightened by the careful patterning of bone and skull.

It is said that there are other entrances, unmarked and unlit, that emerge into the open air on the edges of Paris. Shortly before our visit a film crew infiltrated one of these clandestine entrances, in search of the answer to the death of an unknown videographer, who died of no apparent cause—except pure fright?—while illegally exploring a closed section of the Catacombes. His video camera had been found, with final footage that was reminiscent of the fictional Blair Witch Project, but no hint as to what had spooked him so badly. The crew themselves got lost, though they were later rescued. The mystery remains.

It is on our minds as we complete our visit, stepping carefully along the dim, damp corridors. A set of winding stairs leads up and up . . . Another open chamber, then a final ground-level room where uniformed officials inspect all bags for stolen bones.

Once vetted we emerge, blinking, into the bright streets of Paris, and the damp clutching at my stomach begins at last to go away.

Originally published in Whistling Shade, Fall-Winter 2011.

FLASHBACK: “Europe’s Hidden Corners pt 2: Aran Valley”

12 April 2017

Val D’Aran, Spain

This Pyreneean mountain valley in northwest Catalonia is a fisherman's delight.

This Pyreneean mountain valley in northwest Catalonia is a fisherman’s delight.

When we finally left Andorra, we headed south into Spain, where we drove up and down mountainsides, through crowded little villages, and past Catalonia’s only national park: Aigues Tortes. No roads run through the park, though there is a network of jeep tracks. Izards, wild boar, stoats, and the extremely rare desman (something like a long-nosed mole that swims) all live in the park, though by most accounts they are very tough to spot.

We contented ourselves with walking along the long, narrow fishing lake of Panta de la Torrassa and stopped at the height of a pass—the Port de la Bonaigua—where we saw our first snowcapped peaks.

Fog tendrils swirl around a misty mountaintop in Spain's Aran Valley.

Fog tendrils swirl around a misty mountaintop in Spain’s Aran Valley.

Then it was down into the Val d’Aran, long considered the most remote part of Spain. Most of the Pyrenees are divided at the crestline and watersheds between France and Spain, but in 1312 the Aran Valley was allowed to choose their allegiance in a public referendum. Their river (the tiny Garona, which becomes the great Garonne in France and winds through Bordeaux and on into the Atlantic) flows north to France, but they chose to ally with Spain, in the hopes that it would mean less interference in their lives. Since there was no reason for either side to come up to Aran (no river for the Spaniards to follow; a frontier stopping the French) the valley went along on its own, even developing its own language, Aranese, which is closer to Occitan, or Provencal (spoken in southern France) than it is to the Catalan spoken in this region of Spain.

While the folds of the valley are now sprinkled with ski chalets, there are still plenty of vestiges of the old mountain life. We opted to stay in Salardu, probably the loveliest of the Aran villages. It’s big enough to have a few shops, cafes and lodging spots (including refuges for hikers), yet far enough from the skiing to be absent of modern buildings. We bumped along streets so tiny that I felt I could reach out and touch walls on both sides—while driving! We finally secured a suite in the Pension Aiguamog, a family-run place with windows that looked out and up at the 13th century Romanesque village churchyard, set over the huddle of stone houses.

Many Aran villages are built around Romanesque churchyards just like this one in Salardu.

Many Aran villages are built around Romanesque churchyards just like this one in Salardu.

On another day we maneuvered our car up a series of switchbacks past the renowned Beret ski area (a favorite of the Spanish royal family) and onto a seven kilometer dirt road for a visit to the abandoned village of Montgarri. I would have preferred to make this a hike—there was a five kilometer track along the river that looked appealing—but the light was going and we didn’t want to have to trudge back in the dark.

The road was appalling. Tiny switchbacks with sudden lurches and drops; few places to dodge any oncoming cars; and rolls of dust coating the car. But we made the traverse all right, rolled through a handful of tumbling cottages, and emerged at a riverbank with a tiny bridge, a solid stone mountain refuge hut and an old 16th century church that was a shrine to a forgotten saint. After the dust and heat it was lovely to soak our feet in the stream, and we even got in a further hike along the riverside track.

High in the mountains above Spain's remote Aran Valley sits this 16th century shrine with its stunning frescoed ceiling.

High in the mountains above Spain’s remote Aran Valley sits this 16th century shrine with its stunning frescoed ceiling.

There are plenty of other excursions in the Aran Valley. Many are hikes up into pristine woods and lake-strewn valley bowls. (A variety of mountain refuges cater to overnight hikers.) But the valley is also notable as home to a series of fine Romanesque churches. These are not built on a grand scale, but rather to serve a small local community—yet each offers a unique feature, whether its entrancing setting, or elaborate carved entryway, or delicately frescoed ceiling.

Later, back in the darkness of Salardu, we went out walking in the little town: quiet, sleeping sidestreets in the moonlight; the mountains embracing the town. In the little “Plaza Major” we sat on a bench and watched the village kids play hide-and-go-seek (arguing rules and winners just like our boys would). Around the old stone water trough they went, back behind barrels and across the steps underneath the one open cafe/bar, with giggles and shrieks punctuating the still mountain air . . . an idyllic moment indeed.

[“Europe’s Hidden Corners, Part 1: Andorra” appeared here as a blog on 29 March 2017.]

Originally published in Transitions Abroad, Mar/Apr 2004.

 

FLASHBACK: “Europe’s Hidden Corners pt 1: Andorra”

29 March 2017

The central Pyrenees offer not just majestic mountain views or ever-expanding ski resorts, but two pocket principalities that few Americans have ever seen, or perhaps heard of. One, Andorra, is the only Catalan-speaking nation with a seat in the UN and has a reputation in France and Spain for fine duty-free shopping. The other, the Val d’Aran, is politically a part of Spanish Catalonia—yet is separate from both Spain and Catalonia geographically and linguistically.

Andorra and Aran—separated from each other by the Noguera Pallaresa river and an impassable stretch of peaks—feature the finest skiing in the Pyrenees and a summer carpet of high mountain hikes and dark stone villages clustered around ancient churches.

Andorra

Despite modernization elsewhere, the center of Ordino still typifies the old Andorran mountain village.

Despite modernization elsewhere in the country, the center of Ordino still typifies the old Andorran mountain village.

Andorra is a tiny mountain kingdom—really just two valleys tucked into some of the highest parts of the Pyrenees—that has become a duty-free shopping haven because it’s right between France and Spain, yet is not part of the European Union. Gas costs about two-thirds what it does in France; a large bottle of Pastis goes for $3, perfumes are often half price, etc.

But my family and I hadn’t come here to shop. We’d come to experience the mountains and, for me, to relive a very memorable previous visit. I spent a month in Andorra with my parents in the early fifties, at a time when there were only about 6,000 people living inside the principality. While we were there, my mother slipped in a mountain stream and had a miscarriage. Since there were no hospitals, she stayed in the front room of the local doctor’s house while she recovered. Dad and I camped in the main square of the capital, which was still used as a cow pasture and, by the end of our stay, had driven to the end of every road in the country.

Now there are over 60,000 inhabitants and most of the little villages have been inundated with stores and ski chalets. Evan so, the country’s governance remains interesting. Since the 13th century it has been a co-principality, split between the Bishops of Seu d’Urgell in Spain and the Counts of Foix (now the President of France) in France. This dual rulership effectively kept either country from gobbling it up over the centuries. In 1993 the citizens voted for a parliamentary democracy, so the old rulers are now mere figureheads.

We headed straight out of the border shopping town of Pas de la Casa, up over the highest road pass in the Pyrenees (Port d’Envalira, at 7,500 feet), along the main Andorran valley, and then up a side road and through some stunning scenery over another pass down into Ordino in its little side valley. The old core of town (everything built of grey stone, as are the new chalets, at least in Ordino) tumbled down a hillside, the buildings locked together to catch the sun. We wandered the alleys and churchyards, and then drove further up the valley beyond Llorts, to where we found a fine hiking trail along a mountain stream. Just enough ups and downs and bends to keep our youthful walkers interested, but nothing too severe. All around us were sun-dappled peaks, and the incongruous sight of tobacco fields. Tobacco is grown here despite the climate, because American tobacco companies will buy the entire mediocre harvest as a trade-off for selling their own US-grown product in the local shops.

Andorra's high valleys have mountain hikes for all ages and abilities.

Andorra’s high valleys have mountain hikes for all ages and abilities.

There are enough mountain hikes to keep the hardy going for weeks. Even if you tire of the great outdoors, Ordino remains a good base of operations. Try a tour of the interior of an old Andorran noble house, the home of the Areny Plandolits (built in the 1700s, but with most furnishings from the mid-19th century), or the next door Postal Museum, with an extensive collection of stamps issued by France and Spain for Andorran service. (In another of Andorra’s anomalies, it uses dual postal services via both countries.)

This nobleman's house in Ordino is open for tours as well as free walks in the garden.

This nobleman’s house in Ordino is open for tours as well as free walks in the garden.

For us, Ordino offered the best combination of traditional village and mountain-access point. But it’s not the only interesting spot in Andorra. While Andorra’s main activity seems to be duty-free shopping, which certainly suits some visitors, the non-commercially minded can sample other delights.

In the capital, visit the Barri Antic (the tiny old town) and its centerpiece, the Casa de la Vall, which has served as Andorra’s parliament building since 1702. Or drop over to the amazing Caldea spa complex, which looks like a futuristic cathedral. A three hour admission lets you into an enormous heated lagoon and more saunas, baths, and hydromassage than anywhere else in Europe.

The summer house of Andorra's iron-smelting "tycoon" weaves his coat of arms into elaborate wrought-iron work.

The summer house of Andorra’s iron-smelting “tycoon” weaves his coat of arms into elaborate wrought-iron work.

In the winter, of course, there is skiing. Whether you’re a beginner or an expert, a range of slopes beckon. Pas de la Casa (on the French border) has the liveliest apres-ski nightlife, but it’s Soldeu-El Tarter that draws the biggest raves for slopes.

[Part 2: the Aran Valley (Val d’Aran) will be released next month.]

Originally published in Transitions Abroad, Mar/Apr 2004.

Portugal’s Far North: Wandering Childless Peneda-Geres Park

8 February 2017

Though still on the frontier with Spain, the castle ruins above Castro Laboreiro no longer serve as border fortress.

Though still on the frontier with Spain, the castle ruins above Castro Laboreiro no longer serve as border fortress.

Away from the coasts; away from the rattling trams and rushing trains; away from the crowds and the nouveau cuisine and the latest twist on Douro winemaking, rise the stark black mountains of the El Minho region—Portugal’s far north, up near the border with Galician Spain—and the empty solitudes of its descending valleys and cliffs. Peneda-Geres National Park is not on the way to anywhere anymore, though signs still proclaim the Portuguese route of El Camino de Santiago.

Despite the arresting presence of thin-bladed windmills set like a platoon of sentries across the bare hilltops, these mountains are where the old Portugal lies. The land of shepherds and cowbells, sleepy villages and ancient menhirs and dolmens left behind from pre-history. Wolves and wild boar still roam the hillsides, though we found ourselves instead spotting wild ponies, and long-horned cattle, and having to wait while a flock of sheep crossed the road on their way home.

Wild ponies dot the hillsides and meadows of Peneda-Geres National Park.

Wild ponies dot the hillsides and meadows of Peneda-Geres National Park.

The land is rugged, and every structure in the villages appears made of stone; hard granite, usually, pulled from these very hills. The most intriguing structures are the espigueiros, which look strikingly like grave sites we remember seeing in the interior of Sumatra. They are granite caskets on stilts, with open slots in the side for drying and storing corn.

Stone granaries dot the hillsides like funerary plots.

Stone granaries dot the hillsides like funerary plots.

Inside the national park, over 100 granite villages still remain. Small places, but solid with the weight of years. The most magnificent is clearly Peneda, its houses scattered down both sides of a ravine in the lee of a granite outcropping that reminds us both of Yosemite’s Half Dome. The village is picturesque on its own, but as we walk the descending steps of the magnificent pilgrimage church of Igreja Senhora de Peneda—where an annual fall festival brings villagers from all over the region for music, dance and prayer, culminating in a candlelight procession through the plaza—we can feel the emotional heart of the historic region still beating strongly across the ridges and plateaus.

The pilgrimage church of Nossa Senora is set between mountain ridges.

The pilgrimage church of Nossa Senora is set between mountain ridges.

Something that festival can’t bring back are children. We hardly see any at all. Young people of any sort are few and far between. Jobs are limited. The future lies in the cities. The eyes of the old ones seem content, if a bit forlorn, but who will take their place? Amidst the stark beauty of the mountains, even alongside the gurgling streams, lies an underlay of sluggish finality, as if the very lifeblood of the region is not being suitably renewed.

We think on this as we climb towards evening. Above us are castle ruins set on a stony ridge overlooking the village of Castro Laboreiro. We struggle up the rough path and through a boulder-strewn wasteland. The view from the ruins runs all the way to Spain, and the descending waves of hillsides ripple with shadows. In the distance, a single cowbell tolls. Sunset is not far away.

Dusk in Castro Laboreiro brings all the animals home.

A timeless scene: dusk in Castro Laboreiro brings all the animals home.

 

Crypto-Jews of Eastern Portugal

9 January 2017

Both Belmonte and Castelo de Vide have active Jewish museums these days.

Both Belmonte and Castelo de Vide have active Jewish museums these days.

1492 was more than just the year Columbus sailed the ocean blue. On the Iberian Peninsula in southwestern Europe, it meant the beginning of the end of the centuries’ old life of the local Sephardic Jews. The same Spanish royal duo of Ferdinand and Isabella who bankrolled Columbus also used anno 1492 to declare that Jews within their kingdom must convert to Christianity, or depart the country.

Some 150,000 chose to flee over the border into Portugal, with most settling in the mountainous regions near Spain. Jews had already been living in Portugal for at least a thousand years, contributing in many significant ways to national life. They were diplomats, cartographers, and merchants—even the previous king’s treasurer had been Jewish. But no sooner had the new arrivals begun to build fresh lives than in 1497 King Manuel I issued the same xenophobic decree to all members of the Jewish community, regardless of how long they’d been present in Portugal: convert, leave, or die.

The old Jewish quarter in Castelo de Vide looks idyllic today, but imagine the panic after the 1497 decree.

The old Jewish quarter in Castelo de Vide looks idyllic today, but imagine the panic after the 1497 decree.

There were definitely consequences. In 1506, thousands of Jews were killed by raging mobs, and in 1536 a two-century Inquisition was begun, leading to imprisonment, torture and death for virtually everybody accused. Many fled, once again. Of those who chose to stay, most became Marranos, new converts to Christianity, whose doorposts were often marked with a cross to symbolize their status. But Marranos were not trusted, and careful attention was paid to make sure the conversion was real.

In Guarda's Judiaria, several houses still bear the stone-etched cross that signified a conversion to Christianity had taken place.

In Guarda’s Judiaria, several houses still bear the stone-etched cross that signified a conversion to Christianity had taken place.

That appeared to be the final page of yet another shameful chapter of anti-Semitism in Europe. However . . . in the early decades of the 20th century, a man named Schwarz discovered that there were actually hidden communities of Jews still active in the country, mostly in the regions of Tras-os Montes and the Beiras. This led Captain Barros Basto, a symphathizer, to conduct the “Obra do Resgate,” which was aimed to help the remaining Marranos practice their Jewish traditions openly.

Eventually, some two dozen communities of crypto-Jews (in various stages of survival) were discovered. The last to be revealed, in Belmonte, didn’t emerge until the 1980s! (Belmonte’s synagogue, built in 1297, was the oldest in Portugal.) In this community, all the Jewish traditions and secrets were handed down through the female line, unlike in orthodox Jewish practice. This gender inversion may well have been used as another layer of security from prying eyes. In any case, the Belmonte community (currently about 200 strong) is still extremely secretive about exactly which practices were maintained, and how. Marriage arrangements had been particularly difficult to sustain, and the level of inbreeding required means that many community members today suffer from hereditary diseases.

The community in Belmonte stayed hidden until the late 20th century.

The community in Belmonte stayed hidden until the late 20th century.

Nowadays, towns such as Castelo de Vide and Guarda post signs outlining their old Judiarias, or Jewish quarters, and small museums can be found in both Belmonte and Castelo de Vide. The contents of these museums depict those few, fragile items that were saved down through the centuries: Shabbat lights, mezuzahs, a copy of Flavius Josephus’ history of the Jews, a tiny precious Torah . . . Remnants only, to be sure, but it is that faithful remnant that carries the witness forward.

The Jewish Museum in Belmonte is small—few tangible items could safely be hidden over the centuries—but deeply moving.

The Jewish Museum in Belmonte is small—few tangible items could safely be hidden over the centuries—but deeply moving.

Lisbon Saturday Night

5 December 2016

Saturday night in the Alfama . . . who knows which way magic lies?

Saturday night in the Alfama . . . who knows which way magic lies?

Saturday night in the Alfama, Lisbon’s old Moorish quarter, with a half moon winking behind sporadic cloud cover, and faint smell of fish floating up from the Tagus River estuary. Wind gusts shiver down the back lane corridors. Alfama’s lanes twist and climb the hillside like petrified snakes named Beco (used for alleys or cul-de-sacs), Travessa (bystreets) and Calcada (ascending/descending roads).

Getting lost in the Alfama isn't a requirement; it's just inevitable.

Getting lost in the Alfama isn’t a requirement; it’s just inevitable.

Knots of couples and celebratory parties pull together, then move apart, drifting these streets (to quote Tom Waits), “looking for the heart of Saturday night.” A bottle is raised, a challenge proposed, on they go. The souvenir shops have all shut, but tiny mercados and an occasional café still stand open, hoping for one final customer.

Alfama backstreets wind up and down the hillside. At the top, the Castelo de Sao Jorge looms over the highest of Lisbon’s seven hills. Here comes a tram, still packed to the riggings and clanging its way up, down, and around the repeated bends. Any tramstop offers a tantalizing trail to follow, but we are searching particularly for casas de fados, the storefront “fado houses” run by fadistas, singers of Portugal’s national music.

Fado has been played since the 1830s, and these 2 folks are legends even today.

Fado has been played since the 1830s (yes, 18), and these 2 folks are legends yet today.

We find one on a bend near an 18th century church. The doors are open, and patrons sit at tables on an outdoor patio, with a blazing fire warming their center. The fadista (male, in this case) is standing in the doorway, singing to the crowd both inside and out, his hand resting on the shoulder of his viola player, with the soloist (on 12-string Portuguese guitarra) tucked out of sight inside the inner room. The soul-wrung sounds drift through the night air, over to our cold marble seats on the church plaza. Time to dip into our hip flasks and let the night air swirl with sounds.

After a bit, we wander another side lane, and hear more fado—this time a female voice—coming from behind a decorated door. We lurk outside, as do a couple of locals who are trying to decide whether this should be the spot to settle. The song rises, then falls, mournful notes drifting off into the star-sparkled sky. Fado means fate, and its dominant emotion, saudade, is an untranslatable concept that speaks of longing, and nostalgia—often a longing for something lost, or never obtainable. It is said to be the essence of the Portuguese character; embedded, perhaps during all those long, painful farewells between departing sailors and their homebound wives and loved ones.

We don’t speak enough Portuguese to truly understand the words, but there is no difficulty opening up to the emotion behind the songs. After the singer completes her traditional three-song set, we move along, meandering with the night, listening for sound wisps wending their way down the tangled lanes and alleyways. A cat crosses our path, and another one hisses from curbside.

Street wanderers are looking for signs like these.

Street wanderers are looking for signs like these.

Bursts of sound follow the opening of doors, and we let the mood rustle past as we pause. Our hip flasks stay busy. Now we’ve found a particularly rich singer, and linger long outside the door where she sings. The room inside is full to the brim, and others join us outside, waiting for departures in hopes of finding a seat. A taxi lingers, and is scooped up.

A young man rides up on a bicycle with a long black case strung over his back. Another guitarist . . . He hustles inside. Across the street an East Indian shop keeps its lights burning, and random loners cluster nearby, dipping into the shop for cigarettes, snacks, a beer or two. Nobody appears to know each other, but we’re beginning to form a community here on the doorstep. Even with the door shut, we hear the fadista’s wail.

In the city of Evora, Bota Alta is the prime casa de fados, and Ines Villa-Lobos the featured singer.

In the city of Evora, Bota Alta is the prime casa de fados, and Ines Villa-Lobos the featured singer.

Then the set ends, and as a few patrons depart, the waiting souls outside begin to edge their way in. Jude spots an empty place near the back wall and we try to claim seats. There is a quiet brouhaha over whose seats these are, and whether leaving to have a cigarette means they are coming back, and eventually the whole scene gets so testy that we opt to withdraw into the streets instead.

Moments later, a rain cloud bursts and we hide beneath awnings and archways as we trudge wetly back to our tiny upper room apartment. We’ve left the skylights open, and already sections of the rooms are drenched. Heaven knows what state of affairs we would have eventually found had we chosen to stay and fight for those contested seats in the casa de fado. As it is, the memory of those slow, mournful sounds stays with us, coloring the night sky, and sending us off towards morning.

The Klezmorim: Yiddish Jazz Reborn

3 September 2016

The original concert review, never published:

The Klezmorim, first klezmer revival band in the world.

The Klezmorim, first klezmer revival band in the world.

Sunday, 17 January 1982

Half a dozen young men in twenties’ gangster suits and Russian peasant garb are onstage blowing their way through a hotblooded tune about “The Wild Women of Besserabia.” Several of them dance as they play, punctuating staccato passages with shouts of “Hey!” and upthrust arms.

At times they sound like a Polish wedding party. At others, like a New Orleans brass band. The music weaves sinuous rhythms around unorthodox tonality. The effect is at once joyous and plaintive. But what is it that we’re listening to?

The short answer is Eastern European folk jazz as played by the San Francisco-based Klezmorim. The long answer takes us back three hundred years and across two continents. Klezmorim is a Yiddish word for itinerant Jewish musicians who wandered the streets of Eastern European cities from the 16th century on, playing weddings, feasts and sleazy bars. Somewhere near the end of the last century they exchanged their traditional violins for tubas, trombones, clarinets and xylophones. The result was klezmer music.

Original European klezmer players strike up the band.

Original European klezmer players strike up the band.

It came to America with the immigrants and thrived during the early decades of this century. Vaudeville, ragtime, jazz: all influenced and were influenced by klezmer music. It was an exciting time, but it was not to last. Young Jewish musicians like Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, who’d grown up listening to klezmer, turned to jazz as a music that offered the same soulfulness and improvisational opportunities (without, perhaps, the Old World stigma attached).

It is a measure of the quality of the Klezmorim’s stage presentation that I was able to learn all of the above information while listening to a 90 minute concert of complex, dance-inducing music. The band knows its material—and its roots. Brief comments between songs and occasional dramatizations of real situations faced by the original klezmorim (e.g. a twenties’ recording studio enactment of a klezmer band recreating the music for a week-long Old World wedding in three minutes and 45 seconds) successfully updated the tradition and informed the uninitiated.

Musically, there was an intriguing mixture of classic jazz and Yiddish folk tradition. Tuba and trombone provided bass and rhythmic colorations in a strongly Old World style. The trumpet was moody and sparse. But when the clarinet and the soprano sax got going, it was New Orleans, here we come. Their lilting interweavings recalled the classic Mezzrow-Bechet recordings of the twenties and thirties.

The band’s founders—David Julian Gray and Lev Liberman (who performed the above-mentioned clarinet/sax duets)—showed the depth of their research in the breadth of material performed. The songs ranged from an 1886 football fight song to 1920s cartoon soundtracks.

Yet beneath the diversity was a unity—a kind of Jewish soul, if you will. There was an unkind irony in what a band member described as “essentially a dance music for hot-blooded youth” being performed for a middle-aged (though admittedly Jewish) audience in the subdued elegance of Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium. The band enticed us towards the atmosphere of the Yiddish feast and the low-life bar. We preferred the safety of our chairs. But we couldn’t keep our toes from tapping.

The beat goes on . . .

The beat goes on . . .

 

Jungle River Trip to Belize’s Mayan Past

11 August 2016

Further down the flat winding river we slid, the silence broken only by the low throttle of our boat’s motor. Both banks were enveloped in green jungle canopy. A lone crocodile slid off its sunning perch on a log and any temptation to drag my hand in the cooling water was suddenly gone.

Ahead of us somewhere were stone temples, and carved heads, and the crumbling remains of the only Mayan city that survived intact until the arrival of the Spaniards in the New World. They would have approached the city up this same river. What would their reception have been?

An elegant egret surveys the lonely stretches of the overgrown New River.

An elegant egret surveys the lonely stretches of the overgrown New River.

Two egrets flashed their wings above the treeline. The sun glistened off the flat river surface. And then, cutting the silence, came a full-throated banshee howl . . . and then another. “Howler monkeys,” said Mr. Novelo, our guide, but I was thinking of the dead spirits of all those Mayans who’d lived here through the centuries.

We turned in towards a small, wooden dock, and a pathway leading off into the jungle. Adventure awaited. . . .

By the time you reach the boat dock at Lamanai, the river has spread out into a lagoon and the Mayan past seems to have taken over completely.

By the time you reach the boat dock at Lamanai, the river has spread out into a lagoon and the Mayan past seems to have taken over completely.

Mention Belize and people quickly think of great snorkeling and diving sites, or the biggest barrier reef in the western hemisphere. But to focus only on the Belizean coast is to miss a great deal of what this tiny, breathtakingly diverse country is all about.

First off, Belize is as much Central American as it is Caribbean. It’s home to an astonishing ethnic mix. There are villages of pure Mayans, coastal settlements of Garinagu (a combination of Carib Indian and shipwrecked African slaves), remote Mennonite settlements, and pockets of recent refugees from surrounding Central American countries. Add in the Chinese and East Indian merchants that pop up in every town, and the flavorful Creole culture (based on the intermarriage of Scottish and English pirates with escaped African slaves) which dominates this English-speaking country, and you have an ethnic stew that is second to none.

Travelers interested in Mayan ruins have multiple options in Belize: Altun Ha, just north of Belize City, has its temple facade plastered on every Belikin beer bottle in the country. Xunantunich, out near the Guatemalan border, features the awe-inspiring 130 foot-high roof comb of El Castillo. And barely-excavated Caracol, deep in the Maya Mountains, is turning out to be possibly the largest Mayan city ever in existence.

But it is a site in little-visited northern Belize that offers the most romantic manner of approach—and the location of the longest continuously inhabited Mayan city of all time. When our family visited Belize, a journey to the ruins of Lamanai was at the top of our agenda.

While it is possible to reach Lamanai by road, the convoluted route is both long and fairly boring. Easily the most adventurous route to the ruins is via the New River and its jungly, crocodile-infested banks. We began our journey in the northern city of Orange Walk. This sugarcane town and market center holds little of appeal to travelers, aside from the sleepy, tree-lined plaza and the many cowboy-hatted Mennonites tromping through town selling produce. But the town backs on to the New River, and it is here that the best tours to Lamanai begin.

Mennonite farmers are a frequent sight in the markets of Orange Walk.

Mennonite farmers are a frequent sight in the markets of Orange Walk.

We booked with Jungle River Tours. The four Novelo brothers are capable archeologists and naturalists, and delight in sharing their stretch of the country with visitors. In a sun-shaded motorboat seating about twenty people, we headed south up the river for a 90 minute ride into the jungle past.

Aside from a few fishermen in wooden canoes, the river was still. Herons and egrets dabbled in the shallows, sleeping crocodiles dozed in the mangroves and on fallen tree branches, and far in the distance we could see a huge jabiru stork guarding its treetop nest. The jabiru stork stands up to five feet tall with a nine foot wingspan, and is the largest flying creature in the western hemisphere.

Our boat also passed the remote Mennonite settlement of Shipyard. As we glided past, a farmer in a big straw hat and coveralls was out plowing his field with a mule and three freckle-faced boys sitting on the end of their wooden dock took turns diving into the river. It might have been a Norman Rockwell painting.

At the end of the river trip we emerged in a jungle clearing at Lamanai. Not only was this site founded early (1500 BC) but somehow, due to its isolation and the excellent water source of the river, this city lived on for 500 years after all the other Mayan cities collapsed. It was still in existence when the Spanish arrived in the early 1600s! We saw sets of pottery and fragments of temple friezes which were done in the post-classical style found only at this site.

The mighty Jaguar Temple rises proudly from its jungle surroundings at Lamanai.

The mighty Jaguar Temple rises proudly from its jungle surroundings at Lamanai.

There were also a series of half-uncovered temples in the jungle. In Belize, they tend to excavate only the west sides of Mayan buildings, because the east side is the direction hurricanes come from. We examined a haunting 15 foot-high stone mask of a Mayan ruler emerging from a crocodile and disturbed a troop of howler monkeys that set up an amazing din. They sound uncannily like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Frightening even when you know what the sound is—imagine those Spaniards on their first night in the jungle.

It is also possible to explore some more modern remains. There are still ruins of two churches that the Spanish built when they first attempted to convert the last Mayans. There’s also a ruined sugar mill in the jungle, which was erected by a band of disaffected Confederate soldiers who came to Belize after the end of the Civil War with the idea of reconstructing the antebellum south.

In the end, two structures were most evocative: the Lag Temple is both the tallest building on the site (rising 125 feet above the canopy) and one of the oldest remaining on the entire Ruta Maya. Howler monkeys are particularly thick around it. The Temple of the Jaguar—part of a complex of residential buildings—shows the long line of Mayan habitation here in its many modifications. Around it, the jungle envelops, but does not obscure, its brooding might.

One of Lamanai's most notable sights is this classically Mayan profile of a king emerging from a crocodile.

One of Lamanai’s most notable sights is this classically Mayan profile of a king emerging from a crocodile.

So many ancient sites are marred by gregarious crowds of visitors, or intrusive modern elements nearby. Lamanai stands out for its nearly silent, jungle-enshrouded atmosphere, where the past seems to seep from its every stone.