#16 Why reggae – episode #1

Back then, HMV in Hong Kong would do a crazy sale every summer. A lot of CDs were around HKD 30 to 40 (USD 4 – 5) a piece (maybe cheaper?) – perfect for a student who didn’t have much spare money.

As unexciting as it could be, the Legend by Bob Marley was the first reggae CD I picked up, from a crazy sale, and the guitar solo in No Woman No Cry was one of the solos I learned by repeating the track endlessly. Forward a few years, I was a sophomore at Indiana University Bloomington, and I made a friend in the intermediate guitar class because he heard me playing that solo before class started. Turned out we were both business majors. I don’t even remember his name now, but I recall him being a handsome guy and had a beautiful girlfriend. We didn’t see each again till senior year, and he already had a great job lined up. He is probably very rich now, owns a nice house, kids and everything.

But anyhow, I learned much about Bob Marley. His songs always got nice hooks, and his lyrics are not as difficult to listen to compared to a lot of other English songs. It took me many years to really understand what does “no woman no cry” mean though.

A few summers later, in the TST HMV, I bought the Toots and the Maytals greatest hits CD. A completely different kind of reggae, and so much energy! And who knew I would would have two chances to see him many years later, and even opened for him? (More about seeing Toots in a later post.) The funny thing about the Toots CD is that, the text in the little booklet were printed backwards? Maybe there’s a secret message hidden in there, like the writings of Leonardo Da Vinci?

The Adelante / Forward / Transglobal Soul Movement was the last reggae CD I got in Hong Kong before attending school in the US. To be honest, I remember not enjoying it as much. Maybe my reggae soundscape at that point was Marley and Toots, and the Adelante CD was a bit too modern to my taste? But the title track is interesting – a reggae version of Erik Satie’s Gnossienne #1!

These CDs laid the foundation to my never-ending reggae quest.

(Continue on Why reggae – Episode 2)

#15 Valses Poéticos by Enrique Granados

I took piano lessons through my teenage years, but I was a bad student. With much shame to say, I didn’t practice much. Maybe I spent too much time playing basketball? Time seemed to have passed by so quickly, and the next lesson always came before I could find time to practice. My parents would use video game time in exchange for practice time, but apparently that didn’t work.

I did take a few Royal School piano exams. I remember taking the grade 3 exam with my younger brother, back to back on the same day. The passing grade was 100, and my brother passed – he got 100, but I got 99. I must have really annoyed the examiners to fail me by just one point. Or maybe they want to be “encouraging” and let me know I was “so close”. My family always thought my brother and I must have both done poorly, but they have decided to spare the younger one.

Of course, my laziness bites back hard. I became a music major, and eventually a theory teacher, but I am one of the few theory teachers who cannot play the piano. Give me a chord progression, and maybe I can make something up and fuzz my way through. But put a score in front of me, and I would just embarrass myself.

Not having taken piano lessons seriously was one of the biggest regrets of my life. Especially I have learned later that the “father of classical guitar” Francisco Tarrega was also a pianist. Maybe my tremolo would be better had I trained my fingers on the piano more? I tried to compensate and devoted more time in my undergraduate years on the piano, but it just never got better. I have passed the critical period.

I remember only two pieces from my teenager piano lessons, one of them was waltz #6 from Valses Poeticos by Enrique Granados, and the other was Golliwogg’s Cakewalk by Claude Debussy. I think they were both pieces from the grade 6 piano exam. The whole Valses Poeticos set was a popular piece for classical guitar students at IU, and I remember being surprised to hear waltz #6 played on the guitar. I quickly rekindled my love for waltz #6, and also fell in love with the whole piece. And it was dedicated to Joaquín Malats! I tried to learn the other movements on the piano (you can imagine how it went), and eventually I played the guitar duo version – fulfilling a dream with a little help from my friend Tom Torrisi.

#14 Guitar de Mexico – Dona-Dio Quartet

I love this record. The arrangements are amazing. And a quartet versoin of Recuerdos is just epic… But I couldn’t find much info about the quartet. There’s a short writeup of the album from the 1960’s Billboard:

“Low price Latin American”?!

Apparently, records were categorized by genres, and their potential to sell: “very strong sales potential”, “good sales potential”, “moderate sales potential”, “low price classical”, low price popular”, “low price international”. I have never read an issue of Billboard till this one. Do they still do that?

1960. The Sound of Music was #1. I was skimming through the issue, couldn’t see any classical guitar album… a few flamenco albums are mentioned, such as Flamenco Variations on Three Guitars by Sabicas.

I was surprised to fine the following ad – I have a 4-CD compilation of the Persuasive Percussion. Never realized it came out as early as 1960. I remember playing the CD before a music theory final exam as students were settling in.

There are many cool advertisements:

#13 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings – a mandolin orchestra from Rochester?

Amongst the instructional vinyls/booklets from the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the Mandolin Instruction: Old Time, Country & Fiddle Tunes by Michael Holmes is worth a separate post, because it contains a picture of a mandolin group from Rochester in 1927!

I was told by Mr. John Bernunzio – owner of Bernunzio Uptown Music, that the mandolin was popular in Rochester back in the day, but a google search of “Rochester Mandolin Orchestra” does not yield much. On his blog, John showed a picture of a mandolin orchestra from Rochester ca. 1920 . I tried comparing personnel in John’s picture with the one above… I am not at all good at recognizing faces, and I don’t think they are the same group. What do you think?

The group name “Arabella F. Krug and Orchestra” is also interesting. Why were they not the “Rochester Mandolin Orchestra”? It’s easy to name a group after the town/city one resides in, and I understand it usually comes with good intention: to build something for the community. But, I have heard stories of people resenting groups named after a city/town – do the groups really represent everyone in town?

Anyhow, the Folkways vinyl booklet also contain a lot of pictures of other musical/mandolin groups and advertisements between 1890 to 1927. Pictures of musical groups include:

  • South’s greatest “Old-time string band” from “Old Virginny”
  • Bellson Plectral Orchestra, St. Paul, Minnesota
  • Killgore’s Orchestra, Grand Rapids, Michgan
  • M.E. Sunday School String Orchestra, Galena, Kansas
  • The Lavery Gibson Club, Detriot, Michigan
  • Terrace Garden Quartet, Chicago, Illinois
  • Rybka’s Orchestra, Portland, Oregon
  • Silk City Plectral Sextet, Paterson, New Jersey
  • Gibson Mandolin Club, Hagerstown, Maryland
  • Floreine Mandolin Club, St. Louis, Missouri
  • The Cadenza Mandolin Orchestra, Spokane, Washington
  • The Monroe Brothers and Byron Parker (The Old Hired Hand)
  • Hoyt Ming & the Pepsteppers

John mentioned about taking mandolin lessons from Veda Santos, and kindly lent me a few mandolin method books from Don Santos (Veda’s husband). Naturally, I had to look them up. Not much could be found about Veda other than a few blog posts from John, but a few interesting things came along by looking up Don Santos: a) he published method books for many instruments – plectrum guitar, tenor banjo, mandolin, Hawaiian guitar, and accordion (by William Turnboo) (could there be more?); b) a front cover picture on the Crescendo magazine from 1925 that praised him as a sought after teacher and performer; c) reports from the Music Trade Review on the annual Santos contest for banjos, guitars and mandolin bands in Rochester, with banjo bands, mandolin orchestras, Hawaiian guitar bands, and Spanish guitar bands(!?); and d) banjo virtuoso Frederick J. Bacon published music through Santos’s publishing company (various footnotes in Fred Bacon’s Wikipedia page).

#12 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings – teach yourself guitar?

Like many, I began playing guitar by teaching myself – thanks to my training in violin, at least the left hand (thought it) knew what to do. That was before the age of the internet, and I spent much time, rewinding videos of my favorite guitarists, trying to learn solos note for note. As Youtube became part of life, much of my non-classical guitar knowledge was acquired through “Youtube University”. But how did people learn guitar on their own back then?

My friend and idol Kinloch Nelson once told me, in the past, if words got out about someone who knows how to play a chord you don’t, you would just go knock on that guy’s door. You get to learn something new, and you make a new friend. The community was small and everyone helped one another.

My relatively new hobby of collecting vinyl revealed yet another way of music instructions. As I was digging through folk records, I came across the album, How to Play the 5-string Banjo by Pete Seeger. Turns out the record came with a small booklet (8 pages), with instructions and sheet music in the tiniest typeset. It discussed fingerings, strumming patterns, meters, musical styles etc., with accompanying tracks.

The record was released by Folkways Records, which has been part of the Smithsonian since 1987. What’s better yet is that today you can find this instructional booklet (and many others) online as a PDF, as the whole Folkways catalog is online.

But I digress. I have not made up my mind yet to learn the banjo. So I spent some time to look for records of guitar instructions, and there are quite a few. I have since then used Ed Badeaux’s American Guitar in my folk guitar class – it has great summary of different styles of guitar playing. Pete Seeger’s 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly seems really intriguing… great excuse to get a 12-string guitar?

#11 Sheet Music by the Pound

Came across the old magazine for banjo, mandolin, and guitar, the Cadenza, Volume 4, #1, 1897, p.12.

“That’s a jolly idea they have in Berlin of selling sheet music by the pound. You go to one of the shops where music is sold in this way and give them a lot of the pieces you want and they select them and lay them in a pile and weigh them out – so many pounds, so many marks and pfennings. Or, if you can afford, say, three pounds of musicm you can take one pound of sentimental, one pound of dramatic, twelve ounces of comic, and four ounces of devotional, or any other arrangement that suits your fancy. It is a great boom to the musician who is poor-not to speak of the poor musician-because under this system Wagner and Brahms and Dvorak will cost him no more than the insignificant and forgotten Smithkowski and the deluded and soft-hearted Screwleeski. And Wagner for the piano, of course being bought by the pound, can be played by the pound with good grace. The Listener recommends to our local dealers this system of selling music. – Boston Transcript.”

#9 Tito Livio De Madrazo

Checking out some guitar music, and I was captured by the above image – the portriat of Manuel Sarrablo y Clavero, by T.L. de Madrazo. The style was so cool!

Couldn’t find much on the internet. Tito Livio de Madrazo (1899-1979s) was a Spanish artist, whose works worth a lot. Here is a site with a few of his works. I have included four below (guitar related, of course).

Can anyone please shed some light on the life of T.L. de Madrazo?