BATTLING BUBBLEMAN

 

It was October and with winter fast approaching, there were few good days left for street music. Each day, I figured could be the last, and was precious. People asked me what it was about street music that was such a big deal and this was something I had a hard time explaining. It was theater, it was freedom, it was possibility, it was meditation, it was life. I guess it was like my bodi tree. Sitting there playing music, I could watch life go by and interact with whatever reaction there was to what I was doing. The first few moments were tense. Was the music going to be accepted? Would I be arrested? Chased away? Or more probably, ignored?

I got off the subway, exit 12 and walked to my favorite spot. I was always a little nervous as I rounded the corner. Would there be something else going on that day? Would there be other musicians playing in my spot. For years I had been the only one who knew about it, but you can’t keep a good thing a secret forever, the word gets around.  Hongdae, the first place I started playing street music was now pretty much spoiled for me. It was filled with mostly young men who played the same loud cheesy music and were surrounded by young adoring girls. That’s why they were there, for the girls and the glory. For me, it was more than that. I was there for the experience, the novel experience, and the music of course.   That next note, that creative moment that was there and then was gone.  The bubbling up of a new idea that came from…..where?

As I rounded the corner, my heart sank. There WAS a festival going on. It was the Fair Trade Festival, whatever that was.  As I got closer, I could see that it pretty much was a coffee festival. There were booths lining the narrow street and against the wall and they all seemed to be selling coffee. Coffee was rampant in Korea. There were coffee shops everywhere. I went to my favorite spot, where there were some large stone seats made of polished black alabaster.  There were 2 booths on either side. I wondered if it was possible to play still. There was an attractive and alert woman at the booth making coffee.  She smiled at me and pointed to my instrument.  “You play?” she asked in Korean.  I sadly nodded yes. “Good. Play here please.”  I felt some hope spring up yet. Maybe the day wasn’t ruined. I checked again with here and she was sure she wanted music.  YES!   I went over to the other side and asked the woman that  was at that booth.  She seemed concerned. There was a problem. Shit.  I couldn’t understand, but there seemed to be a problem.  Someone came by who spoke Korean and English. It was a minor problem. She just wanted to make sure that there was space on both sides and that was easy to do. I just moved over one seat.

So my day was salvaged. I was now part of the Fair Trade Festival. I guess I was fair trade. I wasn’t cheating anyone. I was giving the music away for free. People didn’t have to give me anything unless they wanted to. Then they could give me money, or food, or coffee. Coffee was the best. I play for lattes. I put my things down by the seat and walked over to check out the coffee woman’s operation. She was grinding the coffee with a portable bean grinder. She was selling coffee and other things too. She was selling coffee grinders, the little setups you use to make drip coffee, little silver coffee beans and bracelets. She even had pictures made from ground coffee . They were pretty good too. There was a portrait of Stephen Jobs. Did he love coffee too? What was the connection? As I admired the artwork, I heard “You want coffee?” She was beaming at  me.  YES. I was hoping for that. Not only was she letting me play there, she was downright friendly.  Then she was making it by pouring the hot water over the ground beans one cup at a time.  I watched her closely. Her left arm was flat on the table. She was leaning on it. Each finger had a sliver coffee ring on it.  As she poured the water through the filter, her concentration was intense. I looked at the coffee filter as she poured the hot water from a special silver pot with a long exotically curved spout. The coffee in the center where she poured the coffee foamed up a little. She poured the coffee in a little circle of about 4 centimeters that took up the center of the coffee in the filter. She poured only in that area. Her concentration was intense, like a Buddha. This was more than just coffee to her. This was meditation , this was a passion, this was her life.  This went on for about a minute. Finally she was finished. She looked up at me flushed. Perhaps she had just had an orgasmic experience.

I had an old Styrofoam cup in my bag and I took it out. Why waste a cup I figured. I held it out to her. She examined it for about 2 seconds. “No”  I was surprised then it all seemed to make sense.  She took one of her own cups and poured my coffee into it.  She gave me the cup. I took it and as she watched me closely.  I was careful to give it my full respect. I had lived in California for years. I knew about wine. I twirled the coffee in the cup. I noticed the color.  I stuck my nose into the cup. I sniffed. I raised my head and nodded at her appreciatively.  She smiled. I took a little sip. It was good. Nice flavor. Then, wait….wait….ah a second taste coming…and then a third. Very nice. She watched me intently. I raised my eyes to hers and smiled. Very very good. She smiled broadly, satisfied. She was a real artist. Really passionate; about coffee.  I like passionate people. It doesn’t matter what they are passionate about, as long as the strong passion is there.

I went over to my spot and took out my things. In about 3 minutes I was ready to play.  Those first few moments of playing were always important.  I was very sensititve to that initial reaction.  I turned the volume down and eased into it. The sounds of my saxophone seemed to mix in with the other sounds of the crowd and the city. I looked around. No one seemed alarmed. It was going to be ok. I relaxed and settled in. It was going to be a great day. People walked over to see where the music was coming from and listened awhile then went over for coffee and then came back and drank their coffee and then walked on. I was a part of the festival and all was well. I played for about 30 minutes happily. I looked up and there was the coffee lady. “More coffee?” Sure why not. And I walked over and got another cup. As I did though, I noticed that about 20 meters away on the corner there was a large crowd gathering.

It was a crowd of about 150 people. I wondered what was going on?  Was it another musician? Somebody famous?  I didn’t hear anything, but I feared the worst. Oh no! My day was ruined afterall. Shit. What could it be. I asked coffee lady to watch my things and I walked over.  I had to find out who it was.

I couldn’t see through the crowd. I walked behind the crowd though the bushes. Oh no. This was much worse than I could have imagined.  It was unbelievable. It was ……Pusan Bubbleman.  There were actually a number of Bubblemen in Korea that I had seen. They were all pretty much the same. Large buckets filled with bubble solution. Usually older men,  strutting around aggressively like a rock star. Inflated egos like the big bubbles they blew. Of course their egos were inflated because they drew huge crowds. What was it about Koreans that made them so attracted to bubbles. Don’t get me wrong, I like bubbles too. They are pretty. But my wild enthusiasm for them waned when I turned 8.  Koreans remain wildly fanatical about bubbles. Bubblemen always drew huge crowds.

By far the best though was not living in Seoul, but in Pusan.  This guy had taken it to a whole new level. All bubblemen used huge sticks with ropes attached to make gigantic bubbles. Pusan Bubbleman however had actually made his rope sticks into rope sculptures. One was a gigantic face. One was a huge bat. One was different fruits. If you watched carefully and used your imagination a lot, you could watch the giant face turn into a 3d balloon face for a few seconds. Or you could just enjoy the bubbles The highlight of the act was the amazing bubble within a bubble demonstration. In this one he put a bubble pistol in his leather holster.(all the bubblemen have holsters!) Then he picked up one of the rope sticks and created a huge bubble. With one hand he held 2 sticks like a marimba player and with the other he drew the bubble pistol deftly and blew bubbles inside the big bubble. It was beautiful. It was technically amazing. It was perhaps even metaphorical. This was always a crowd pleaser Here is where his real artistry comes out. As the big bubble starts to form, he blows the little bubbles inside.  It IS quite amazing, even for a normal person like myself,  I must say, but for Koreans, it’s an ecstatic experience. Now, how could I compete with that?  My day was ruined, and perhaps my entire playing at this site was over. Over in the time it could take a bubble to burst. Dejected, I walked back to my spot.

I continued playing next to the fanatical coffee woman.  A few people stopped now and then and then there would be an eruption 50 meters away at the Bubble site and the people would look up and hurry over to see what they were missing. It was depressing. Then I had a thought. It was that old saying, “If you can’t beat’em, join’em”.  The only problem was how would I ask permission from him? I was sure that he didn’t speak English. It would be so awkward.  Just them a young woman came over. She had stars in her eyes. She was adoring me.  Sometimes these people came along. Real fans. They loved my music; they loved what I symbolized to them. What to do with these people? I played a few more songs. The girl stayed, awestruck. A real fan will do anything for their star. Now was the time to test her devotion.

“Can you do something for me?”

“Sure anything. I would be honored.”

“Do you see that Bubbleman over there?”

“Yes.”

“Go ask him if I can play with him.”

“What?”

“You heard me. Go ask him.”

“ok”

She slunk away not too happy with her task. She looked shy, but hey, if you are a fan then prove it.  This was a test.

Now there was no one to listen to me. But that was ok. A few people looked over, a few threw some money into my hat. I looked over that way again. It seemed like the crowd was growing bigger even. I thought she would come right back but the song ended. I started another one. I heard a roar from over there. More notes, more people walking by, more change.  I finished the third song.  I couldn’t believe it. That fan actually conned me and just walked away. What kind of fan is that?  I looked over and that’s when I thought I saw her walking towards me. She looked dishelved, flushed, not well at all. I had asked too much of her. I over-challenged my fan. Maybe I had used her up. She didn’t look happy either.

As she got close however, her face broke into a big grin.

“He said ok”

“Really?”  wow. That was great.  The only problem was that I had all my stuff with me.

“It took a long time before he took a break so I had to wait.”

Ah. Silly fan. Doesn’t she know that I am important enough to warrant an interruption? Anyway, she did it. I wondered how far I could push this fan. Would she watch my stuff? I played one more song, waiting for Pusan Bubbleman to get back to work.

There is the famous rule of 3 in Korea.  Koreans are basically shy people especially around foreigners. If no one is watching me, no one else will stop. If at least 3 people stop then other people will stop. As I played a couple stopped to listen. That, with my fan made 3.  Also Pusan Bubbleman (Pubbleman) was taking a break. I suddenly attracted a small crowd of about 30 people. It was great, but I knew it was to be short-lived because I couldn’t possibly compete with Pubbleman.  I finished the song and as luck would have it I spotted another glazy-eyed fan.  Just at that time I heard a roar from Bubbleland. I told people I was going to play with Pubbleman.  Everyone was leaving anyway. I talked  to the other fan and asked her to watch my stuff for 5 minutes.  She eagerly agreed. I left everything there, even the money in the hat.  Fan’s are  the most trustworthy people on the planet.

I started over to Bubbleland with my first fan. We were both so excited. As I was about half way there, I was intercepted by a TV camera crew. This was a real TV team though, working together with a producer and a reporter. Through my fan they told me that they were here to film Pubbleman for a documentary film, but that they had heard about me too and wondered if they could film me and Pubbleman.  I was honored to be included in the same thought as the great Pubbleman.

“Could you go back to where you were before? We want to get a shot of you walking up towards Pubbleman.” They asked through my fan.  I had no problem with that.  I went back and walked like an important artist.  I circled behind Pubbleman. He was just warming up with some small bubbles; teasers really. I stationed myself in the bushes behind him.  As he dipped in the suds I played a descending scale to go along with his motion. As he brought it up, I went up. Pubbleman didn’t even turn around. He didn’t look surprised or angry. He knew I was there and kept on just like we had rehearsed it a thousand times.  What a pro! What style! What cool!. He blew a medium bubble and as it came out of the ropes like a baby pushing through the birth canal, I squeezed out some notes of my own in kind. . It was almost out of the ropes and a  good sized bubble it was, perhaps 3 meters in length warbling around , out of control lose in the world.  I tried to play like that. Then just as he twisted his wrists to set it free, it caught on the stick and burst in a shower of bubblewater.  The crowd groaned. Pubbleman shrugged his shoulders, and I played a Wah, Wah, Wah, that sounded like a sound on a computer game.  It was perfect. Just like we rehearsed it.

Not to worry, he quickly made another, even grander bubble and as it was set loose in the world, I tried to play that bubble. I cleared my mind so that only the bubble existed and I played its shape, its movement was my rhythm, its ups and downs were the movements of my melody.  I looked up. The cameraman was right on it. The reporter gave me the thumbs up. It stayed in the air like that, suspended for an eternity. When the bubble finally broke, I tapered off quickly.  The crowd applauded wildly. They sensed the connection. They thought Pubbleman and Frankhongdaesax were an act together. It seemed normal to them.

Now the big climax was coming; bubble in a bubble. I had seen it before but I was excited for the audience.  As Pubbleman picked up the trumpet, paused for a moment and looked to the side (my cue) he held it up to the sky and pushed on the keys. I was ready. I played some fast notes. It seemed like he was playing small bubbles with me. The crowd went wild.  Then he got to work. The big bubble came out. I played it. And then the little ones and I added trills to my original melody. It was …….burfect (bubble perfect). Pubbleman in his classy style bowed and then turned partially and motioned to me. What a class act. I bowed too. It was time for another break. I guess Pubbleman believed in leaving them wanting more. The crowd chanted for more, but he couldn’t hear them, he was busy mixing more solution.

Without him there was no reason to stay there. I was about to go back, afterall my slave, I mean fan, was guarding my things. Just as I started to walk back however, the Tradional Korean Place guards walked by. They stand in front of the palace and reenact the traditiional changing of the guards, that was normally done in the 1800’s when there was still a king in Korea; before the Japanese took over. . They are dressed in full regalia of the times, and even have fake beards and of course the most comical hats.  They play traditional instruments as they march to and from the front gate of the palace. They make this march 4 or 5 times a day, every hour or so.

I always try to respect them.  After all, I am the intruder here, playing jazz music in this rather sacred place for Koreans. I feel bad about this and apologize for it,  but I need a place to play.  However, when they march by, I always pause or sometimes play along with them. As they get near me, away from the tourists and up the hill to the place where they rest,  they stop playing all the instruments and just hit the drums.  At that point I often play the most important traditional Korean song, Arirang. I usually play it from a distance, but this time I am right there by Bubbleman. The corp is right in front of me now. I wonder what their reaction is.  I’ve always wondered about that. Do they like it when I play with them or do they think I am mocking them and being disrespectful?  Some of the men are dressed as guards and they have swords and lances. I wonder if they are sharp. Probably not, but for a moment I think perhaps they might run one of those swords right through me.  As they pass I bow repeatedly to show my respect.  The guards don’t even look my way. Not a smile, not a nod, not a wink.  Still the Bubbleman’s crowd seems to like it and they clap.

I go back to my spot and release my slave. The excitement is all over but I am still charged up. Bubbleman is packing up and I have the whole street to myself now.  Some of Bubbleman’s fans even followed me over.  As I start to play a crowd of about 30 gathers. As I look over the crowd I notice one man with an amazing energy. He is a monk. He looks at me with amused detachment. As I look at him, it is like I am looking in a mirror. I see myself clearly, without illusion. I am taken down to my basics, nothing like my illusions, my dreams, yet there is love there. There is acceptance. As I play I look right in the man’s eyes. They don’t waver.  My mind grows calm, looking at his gaze. I turn away to look at the rest of the crowd. When I look back to the spot, he is gone. I search the crowd to see him walking away, but I can’t spot him. He has disappeared.

I play a few more songs. Coffee lady brings me over a coffee. Its hot and strong and it has a complex flavor. She is completely absorbed in her art and I think how I admire her passion. The videographers walked over and they tell  me  when they will air the footage.  As they are about to leave, the coffee lady comes over and asks if I want more coffee. I say no thanks but encourage the videographers to have a cup. She smiles at me again.  Ask me if I want another coffee. Sure why not. She goes to make it and the producer notices it.  Soon the cameraman and the producer are over there and filming her making coffee in that special way. She doesn’t look up; she is all business. She smiles her beautiful smile at them.   They spend a few more minutes filming her and her amazing coffee.

Finally the camera team is packing up. I walk over to them and ask through my fan; Whats the topic of your piece today. They smile at me and say, “people of passion’  I can clearly see that coffee lady and Pubbleman are passionate, even fanatical about what they do. But I wonder, “do I fit into that category, of fanatical driven people. I ask the producer, “Am I a fanatic like Bubbleman and the coffeelady, He looks at me confused, likes it’s the dumbest question ever.  Of course you are. You are the best, the most  fanatic here today. Then I realized that they were right, I was a crazy passionate fanatic  like Coffeelady and Pubbleman.  Just then I saw the monk walk by on the other side. As he walked by me on the other side, he gave me a sly wink and continued  walking purposefully down the street.

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