May 31, 2013
It was Friday night and playing in Hongdae on Rolling Hall Street. I’ve learned that this is an acceptable name of the street. Most Koreans don’t seem to call streets by their real names but by something that is located on the street or that its used for. For example, the street that I play late night music on in Hongdae is referred to as parking street because there is a place for people to park their cars there in the middle.
It is a relatively new venue for me, maybe it’s the 10th time I’ve played there. I was supposed to play with Soundbox, the street show band at 730 in the playground, but when I arrived there was a small festival there. I messaged the band and they confirmed that they had been there and seen the festival and decided to cancel. I didn’t ask why they didn’t inform me of that, but I certainly thought that. It’s funny. Korea is the most wired connected country in the world, but people often neglect to send a simple courtesy message like, band canceled tonight, or I cant meet you like I promised, or I received your message and I don’t have the time or interest to meet you. I never get used to this in Korea. Even that last message is better than being ignored I think. The culture here is to avoid any unpleasantness even if to do that you have to ignore someone’s messages and phone calls.
I notice that I approach street music differently than the rest of my life. This is a special time a precious time With street music, everything becomes an adventure. Problems become parts of a funny story. Not getting any attention or money one day is interesting, not disturbing. Getting lots of attention is fun but also its interesting. Getting attacked or approached doesn’t matter. Its all part of the flow. Every new experience, adds to my repatoire of tools. It is in effect, a meditative space.
From there I can play and watch the world. Instead of focusing on my breath, I focus on my music and then there are things that draw me away from that, my thoughts, other people, interactions. I can always come back to the music though. I need the distractions, its part of my process. If I didn’t I would just stay in my room and play (or meditate) but that would be lonely and boring I think. I see myself reflected by the distractions. In physics terms, every action creates an equal and opposite reaction (ha…Newton’s 3rd Law). Without the distractions, there is nothing to push against. Tonight there were lots of distractions.
I notice that Ego doesn’t want to give up control even for the melody because it doesn’t control it.
Many people stop and listen for a while and then go on their way to their restaurant or their bar where they will get drunk. I am waiting for someone who will say, “ah this is the perfect spot. I can sit here next to Frank and listen to music and watch the world go by and from here I can sit and see who comes up next. I am waiting for someone to buy a candle and make this stoop a café.
As things develop, I find strategies for dealing with them. For example, I want to remember and document things as they happen. But how to do that. Yes now I am recording everything and I can listen later to what was said. I can even take pictures while I am recording. But Ive learned its better not to interrupt an event to take a picture. If someone starts dancing and I take out my camera to take a picture, Ive ruined the moment. Better is to let the moment play out to its end. Then I can ask the people to reinact the event, re-stage it in effect, and in that way instead of interrupting the flow. I am actually extending it. And people are willing to re-enact a memorable moment but it has to be right after it ended at the end of the event. For example, as I was playing well and a seated couple reacted to that by both giving me the thumbs up and the same time, I thought as I was playing, that’s a nice picture, but I didn’t stop. Instead, as they were getting ready to leave, I mentioned to them, “remember when I was playing and you both gave me the thumbs up?” They did. “Could you do that again?” They did and that allowed me to become the director. “Could you move a little left, a little right.” By re-enacting that moment, we created a new experience and extended our fun time together.
We all know that cheesy saying, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonaide.” Its really appropriate with playing on the street especially if there is an audience. I seek out pedestrian ways or at worst roads with little traffic. Rolling Hall Street was some traffic. So there is the problems of car horns. It’s a sure fire reaction if a car blows the horn and then I match it (or come close) while miming beeping the horn with my hand. I can return to it anytime during the song. I can play notes that are completely out of the key and sound dissonant but with the hand gesture it is understood. In fact, it adds a new dimension to the music, the outside world blaring in. It can take many forms. It can also become a duet a trio with the horns, a part of a melody. In short, its delicious lemonaide.
Drunks too. I’ve been working on my mime impersonation of a drunk. They stagger up and stand in an exaggerated testosterone infused stand, aggressively close as if to say, what are you doing playing music on my street without my permission. Sometimes I want to ask them to step back but I don’t usually even if I feel a bit vulnerable, because they are like wild dogs. Any interaction just riles them. Best to ignore them unless they present an actual danger (which is rare, but it has been known to happen.
I’ve always said that my greatest goal as a musician is to make people laugh and cry. I’ve never actually done both at the same sitting. Both are the same really. Reaching people at the deepest level will cause them to laugh and to cry. People are reluctant to cry on the street.
“The best thing is when people laugh then you know you touched them…laugh or cry but no one ever crys…im waiting for the first person to cry, does anyone understand me?” No one answers but the woman who is laughing on the left side continues to laugh and I am happy for that.
After playing a song and connecting with someone on that level, its nice to talk to them, find out what they do, if they are in a relationship, if they live at home, how old they are etc. These are all acceptable questions in Korea.
“What do you do?” “I’m a product designer.” “I have a great idea for a product.” I say it as a joke because I imagine that people say that to him all the time. “What’s your idea?” He takes me seriously and wants to know my idea. I think to myself that this guy is a REAL serious product designer, always on the lookout for new ideas. Since I was just kidding I say, “Will sign a contract if I tell you.” But there our communications break down and I have to resort to “Nongdam!” (it’s a joke)
Another few couples come up and the guy wants to take a picture of me with his girlfriend. Its always a chance for me to play and offer my left arm to the woman who always takes it. Its nice to play with her holding my arm. Sometimes the woman will sit very close consciously pressing her leg or her breast against mine the way some woman do in an expression of secret intimacy.. It’s also a chance for me to run my well tested joke. “You go…” to the guy which this time the woman added to by laughing telling her boyfriend, “yes you go”. Its all good fun and then ….they (sadly) BOTH went.
After that there was a lull in the activity and I started collecting the drunks, bullies, and schizos of the neighborhood. “Like a wild animal he is attracted to the sounds…” I started making poetry from the moments, saying it outloud to the assembled. Since they didn’t understand me at all and I knew that, it added a surreal element to the area. …”Make poetry from the moment……is so ……” I added
I’m always working at getting more and more into the zone. Since the zone is a loss of ego control, it is debatable whether or not it is something that can be learned. After all who is doing the learning if not the ego. Perhaps its more like juggling where by giving up what you know, you suddenly discover something new you can do by not knowing. I hope I am getting to know more and more what it feels like to be in the zone
“I can see them with all their fakery and cracking masks…underneath is a treasure” Since I am meditating, sometimes I look up and see the people for a moment with sudden clarity.
A guy is driving by on a rather loud motorcycle and hears my music. He stops in front to listen , which is nice but since he doesn’t turn off the engine, (he is too busy or in a hurry or lazy) we can hardly hear the music. He stays for a long time, maybe 30 seconds and we all listen to the motor of his souped up cycle with bits of saxophone sharding through. I think about turning off the background music and trying a motorcycle and saxophone duet, but somehow I am not equal to the task. Next time I will be ready.
Perhaps the highest compliment a Korean audience can give you is to hoot like a seal. When they do it this time, I comment on it and thank them, factiously commenting and the cultural difference between Korea where people hoot like seals and Turkey where people quack like ducks. No one takes me seriously which is a good thing.
Since Koreans are so very romantic and celebrate many milestones of their relationships (100 days of dating, so many days since our first kiss, 900 days of dating etc. ) its perfectly acceptable to ask a a man and woman if they are dating. When they say yes, you can have a good game by guessing how long. Usually they know exactly how long to the day. If one member doesn’t that can be fun too, and I’ve been the reason for a number of (seemingly) good natured arguments.
A guy comes up and after the song is over asks me where I am from. I usually say San Francisco, since I spent 20 years of my life there. “Can you play Hotel California?” There are 2 songs that I hate more than any others, Hotel California and Stairway to Heaven. Maybe I’ve heard them too much, or maybe because try as I might, I can never seem to listen to the lyrics all the way through. “Can you play ‘Hotel California, “ he asks again. I clutch my chest. You asking that it’s like …like kryptonite to superman.
I love and live for the spontaneous things that pop up. 5 or 6 people are listening and a guy walks by with a little lap dog on a leash. The dog looks over at me. I instantly change my music and start playing short up and down waves jumping around doing that at different intervals. The dog turns his head and keeps looking back. He looks confused. When he is past I announce to the audience. “That was dog jazz. Its different than people jazz. Dog’s dig it” They like the concept, but the slang and the pun are lost on this Korean audience.
Sometimes parents drive me crazy. A mom and her young boy, maybe 3, and the woman’s 2 friends are strolling and they stop. The Mom really wants her son to do something cute for her friends. She wants him to dance so she starts pulling his arms in what she considers to be an appropriate dancing style. The kid isn’t going for it at all. He resists. But the mom is so intent on showing her cute kid that she doesn’t really see her kids reaction. After watching her futile efforts for too long, I yell out. “Mommy, if you listen and enjoy the music your son will too. “ it’s like a slap in the face . She starts listening, not only listening but deeply listening. In fact maybe for the first time all day she is actually relaxing and doing something for herself. She gets really serious and yes there is moisture forming in her eyes (but not tears). She sits there in the crouching position, completely mesmorized, completely forgetting her son and her friends, and she doesn’t even notice when her son starts dancing to the music in his own special way.
Have you ever noticed how different people’s laughs are. Not only that people even seem to hae different laughs at different times. A nice couple came up and was listening for a while. When I talked to them we had a nice humorous conversation. The man had a most unusual laugh. “you have a funny laugh. I think you laugh like a cat. Of course me saying that made him produce the odd specimen again. His partner, an attractive young woman had to laugh along in a non-cat laugh. She requested a song, which I often encourage my audience to do. “You know its that very famous romantic song.” I didn’t know which “that” famous song she was referring to. “Sing it” I commanded. She surprisingly obliged. After being subjected to that for about 15 seconds, I stated what I knew to be true. “Either I don’t know the song or you cant sing.” I suspect it was the later.
A young boy and his mom came back. They had listened to 2 songs before. He gave me a rose. I immediately took it to mouth and asked “Can I play this? Is it a magic rose?”
Playing completely free jazz presents in someways a dilemma. Who is playing the music? Where does the music come from? Am I producing the next note. Sometimes I hear in my minds “ear” whole phrases and sometimes I hear nothing. There seem to be a lot of processes going on at the same time. Of course I can play intellectually. For example, I will play a scale here and then some chord tones. But usually that sounds mechanical. Of course its best if I hear the melody first and try to play. Then it become a matter of picking out the notes that appear in my head. And even that has different processes. For example, I might use my sol-feg (do re mi) ability to find the note, Or I might just let my intuition or fingers find the next note. Sometimes a nice phrase will come out. How to know weather or not to repeat. In general I think rules are not good. They keep you away from feeling in the moment. But there is one rule that might be good to remember. if it feels good or if it feels like it might feel good, repeat it.
A lone lonely guy wandered up. He listened intently for a while like only a musician can. After 3 songs we talked, in broken Korean and English. He WAS a musician. Studied electronic music. A self professed loner. He had nothing better to do on Friday night than to hang out with me alone. That was ok, I guess as I had nothing better or more fun that this. He stayed till the end, in the shadows, in the background.
Later a couple of women came up. They were clearly very very close. You see a lot of women couples like that. Hanging all over each other and so intimate. I’m not sure if they are gay or not, it doesnt matter at all. Its just that I think usually they are not, they just form this intense relationship. Sometimes you see guys do this but its not as frequent. This pair were funny. The shorter one was almost grotesque looking, but clearly not self conscious of her looks. She even used it to her advantage. She was very funny. I liked them both.
About that time 2 couples came up. They looked distinctive. One of the men was very muscular and dressed up to look very slick, like someone out of Guys and Dolls. Likewise his partner was also dressed up. The other woman was really lovely and her partner was quite unattractive and plain looking. The funny thing was that the lovely women was all over the homely guy. She was very affectionate, leaning into him, hugging him, kissing him. You rarely see that kind of affection in the streets of Seoul.
After listening for awhile, I could see they must be dancers and when I asked how they all knew each other they confessed that they knew each other from an internet café which is an internet club. Their club was devoted to swing. They were just returning from the swing club. The guy who was all dandied up was the best dancer all agreed. I encouraged them all to dance and I volunteered to play a swing song. I chose “All of Me” As soon as I started in, so did they. Suddenly the street became alive. People stopped to watch the demonstration. The 2 styles were distinctly different, and I could see what they meant about the dandy. He was good and popping and flashy, like sparks were jumping off his shiny black shoes. After the song I told them that the homely and beautiful couple was more romantic and the dandy couple was more sexy. They all laughed at that because it was true. After another song I had to ask them some questions. To the dandy couple. “How do you get a girl to dance sexy like that, because she was dancing with her crotch pressed hard into his upper thigh.” They tried to explain it for a few seconds without success. Finally I said, “No, what I want is for a woman to dance with herself pressed up against me like that. Could you do that to me now?” I asked the dandy woman and luckily they took it the right way and laughed. To the homely/beautiful couple I asked, “how do you get a woman to love you like that.” He had no answer for that either. She sure loved him a lot and it wasn’t his looks, maybe his magic feet or something else. “Im better looking than him. “ I said only half in jest. They laughed. “Do you have a sister?” I asked the beautiful woman. She immediately understood where I was going with that. “No” “A brother?” “Yes but …hes married” “….does he have kids?” “Yes, a daughter…but she’s only 7. ””I’ll wait. There must be some genes there. “
We all decided it would be fun to have an event where swing dancers could come out and dance on the street and jazz and swing musicians could have a jam session. We decided to call the event Artists Jam
We determined that these swing dancers were just as much artists as I was, because in effect they lived for their dance, as I lived for my music. They all worked at boring office jobs just so they could devote all their non working time to dancing.. t
They danced for another 30 minutes. It was so fun. The best of street music times. They were in no hurry at all. Dandy let go and started dancing so sext. Always looking right at me, with his Lindy hopping swaying hips. I told them his sexy dancing while looking at me made me nervous but they understood my joke and we laughed some more. I asked them the always interesting relationship questions. The homely/ beautiful couple had been together for 2 years. “Ive been in a relationship………… with myself for 38 years…” Actually its longer, but I didn’t want to reveal my age to them. I asked
We talked about dance for a while. I told them I had danced a little salsa and that I thought that there was some similarity between swing and salsa in that they were both sort of modular. But they wouldn’t agree to that. For them swing was different than anything else. Both salsa and swing are modular…..
I got their names. Beautiful woman was Mani which I had never heard before. It means “a lot.” “Your name should be “chokum” (a little) I told the homely guy. Luckily these folks were so happy nothing offended them. The more direct I was, the more they liked.
By the time that they were ready to go, I felt like we were good friends. We took the mandatory pictures with me shaking both the homely and beautiful’s picture together. It was a three handed handshake. “See I have proof that you are my friends.” “yes we are good friends now.” “Ok what time should I come over tonight?” They laughed. “it’s been amazing. No place is better than this. I am ddicted to your laugh. Hey I have an idea. How about power swing dancing with weights.” They groaned. “But it would be good exercise. Maybe he did already. He looks really strong. “ I showed him how to Indian wrestle, and beat him badly. “Looks strong but not strong.” He started rubbing his side. Maybe he pulled a muscle or something. What a wimp. With my saxophone I passed a melody over that part of his body. He rubbed his side and looked at me surprised. “It feels better.” Whoa…..”What if I could heal with the music.” They all looked intrigued. I started playing and pointed the saxophone down at homely man’s crotch. Beauty laughed and smiled mischievously at me. “There’s nothing wrong down there.” “Damn I want to be a dancer”, I complained.
We decided on roles for our new club the Swing Jam. You be the president, you the secretary, sexy dancer, I’ll be the musician. Who are you?” I asked dandy?” “Im the dancer of course. “ He danced another solo. “You know our dancing is reflecting my music perfectly” and it was. Sometimes I was leading and he was following and sometimes he was leading me.” He was crazy, cool, and sensitive all at the same time. He was like an actor, showing his emotions and feeling to the world. When they left there wasn’t much reason to stick around much longer. It was almost midnight and nothing better than that would happen tonight.
I played one more song, and as often happens, something did. A woman came up with that familiar, “Oh don’t you remember me. We were like best friends.” It always turns out to be like 1 year ago and a 5 minute encounter. Howerer this one was cute and she said she was a pianist. They were giving me all kinds of green lights. Finally I had to ask if they had boyfriends. The pianist did and the other cuter one didn’t. I wasted not time in turning my jets on her, and got her number. I was walking home thinking, ah at lat I may have found the one. But that lasted about 2 days when she just stopped returning my messages. No wonder she doesn’t have a boyfriend. She doesn’t want one. Or at least not this one. As my friend Min says, “Just keep on going with an open heart.” Ok. 32