MAKING MUSIC AROUND THE WORLD
By R J Furth (March, 2011)
I’m not a great musician. I don’t say this to be modest, but rather to acknowledge a fact before I go on to talk about my life as an international musician. Now that I’ve gone from modest (not a great musician) to arrogant (international musician) in one sentence, I’d better quickly get to the point of this essay: I’m an extremely fortunate person. I’ve taken a small amount of talent, added years of hard work, and blended it all with the good fortune of meeting dozens of wonderful, musicians, and created nearly forty years of happy musical memories. I mention this because next month I’ll be playing in a bar in Beijing with two terrific musicians who I’ve known for a total of 45 years, and we’ll be joined by family and friends. Life doesn’t get much better.
David Zuber introduced me to the harmonica when I was 20 years old, back in 1971. A year later he had taught me guitar and I was soon playing Dylan poorly, yet with feeling. When I moved to Australia for my first teaching job in 1974, I took my harmonicas and my Yamaha guitar. My flatmate, Don from California, picked up my guitar one of the first nights and strummed one of the few songs he knew, Roger Miller’s You Can’t Have Your Kate and Your Edith Too. (A punny song about having to choose between two women, as in ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.’) This was my first experience in how quickly music helps strangers make meaningful connections. I also met Diane, who was singing solo in a Melbourne restaurant. We had a lovely relationship during my two years in Australia and she taught me many songs. I gave her my Yamaha when I left.
The year I left Melbourne, 1976, I spent traveling home overland through Asia. I fondly remember pulling out one of my harmonicas every chance I could get. I played Waltzing Matilda to kids in a remote village in northern Sumatra, Home On The Range to Guomindang refugees on the Thai-Burmese border, Oh Susannah to the family that ran a tea shop in Nepal. In southern India I met some young musicians who wanted to learn American music, so I borrowed a guitar and taught them some Neil Young tunes.
The first band I was ever in was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 1981. A bunch of teachers would get together on weekends and jam, doing mostly folk and country. Eventually we played a faculty event or two and even landed a job playing once a week at a Texan steak house that had recently been opened by a Chinese Malaysian couple who had lived in the States. Tidak Apa (the name of the band, which is Malay for ‘it doesn’t matter’, ‘don’t worry’) only played a few times at the steak house and we were paid in beer and steak instead of money, but we had a great time and would have paid them to let us play. The only true musician in the band, the person with real musical talent was Steve Takacs, who played pedal steel as well as electric guitar. I used to go to Steve’s place to practice. His wife Roz would play bass and we’d have the best time sweating in the tropical heat. Fifteen years later, when Roz and Steve had moved to Beijing to teach, our daughter Jody stayed with them for a school theater exchange. (ISTA, International Schools Theater Association.) Steve, who is still in Beijing with Roz, is putting together the April 23 jam session.
In the ensuing years I’ve played in faculty bands and student/faculty bands in Japan and again in Malaysia, where I returned with my family in 1995. That’s when I met Adam Thompson. Adam was a middle school music teacher and a great guy to hang out with. Adam taught both of my kids and I used to go to his house every Thursday night to play with him and his wife Denise, who was trying to learn bass. It was at this time that I started to play harmonica with Jairus, a local Indian who played at bars around K.L. (Jairus, one of the sweetest, nicest people I’ve ever known, passed away from cancer a few years ago.) Jairus’ brother Edwin was a fine bass player and a serious Christian. He asked me to play harmonica with his Christian band at a gathering in K.L. We practiced a couple of tunes and I showed up at the gig to find it packed with hundreds of Christian Indians, one of the biggest gatherings I’ve ever played. After we finished, the entire audience was asked to give prayers in thanks for my attendance. Imagine my amusement, a nonpracticing American Jew receiving prayers from a throng of Christian Indians in Muslim-dominated Malaysia. It remains one of my favorite gigs. By the way, Adam now teaches in Tianjin, China, and will be there for the Beijing jam next month with his lovely new wife Nancy.
My last overseas job (and last teaching job ever) was in London starting in 1999. It was my least favorite job ever and I never played in a faculty or student/faculty band. Although the lack of musical partners was not the cause of my unhappiness at the job, I don’t think it was a coincidence. Fortunately, I did find musicians to play with, one of the few saving graces of our three years in London. A man was hanging new curtains in our house when he noticed my guitars. I told him I was looking for people to play with and he mentioned the Abrook Arms, a small pub not far from my house. When I stopped by one Monday night to check out the open mic night, I was thrilled to find a pub full of musicians tuning up and preparing for an evening of music. I was standing at the bar when a harp player with shaved head walked up to get a pint.
“Excuse me, I’m new in town and I’m looking for people to play with.”
“Come over to the table, mate, and I’ll introduce you to the guys.”
I grabbed my pint and started to follow him to the table when he turned around.
“Are you by any chance a smoker?” he asked with a grin.
“Sure,” I replied, knowing he didn’t mean tobacco.
Sitting at the table were Billy (whom I would later teach bass, an instrument that led to his brief musical career) and Anthony, the finest guitar player I’ve ever had the privilege to play with. Stan and I remained friends for years, though I recently cut ties when his bizarre, paranoid behavior became too scary. Anthony and I remain close friends. We have driven around the western US on three different occasions and I see him every time I’m in London.
I have stacks of stories of places I’ve played and great musicians I’ve been fortunate enough to play with. I’ve played in a country and western bar on the seventh floor of a high rise in Tokyo (with people shouting, “pway Countwy Woads”) and jammed with a multiethnic band in Kathmandu. Thanks to Facebook I’ve followed the career of student musicians I’ve known: a Dutch bass player currently playing professionally in Spain; an Irish drummer/guitarist playing around Europe, a French keyboardist playing in Malaysia. Music has brought me happiness for decades and led to some of my dearest friendships. And when I see B B King (in his eighties) and Willie Nelson (seventies) I realize that, unlike basketball and skiing, music is something I can continue to make as long as I breathe. One final note. I’ve lived in Colorado for forty years, yet only recently started playing music with others. For a number of reasons, I just never found other musicians to play with. Three years ago I dragged my ass off the couch and went to an open mic night in Evergreen, where I met Ron K. We played together for a few months until Ron introduced me to Tom McNeil. We formed TRON, but eventually Tom and I took TRON and parted ways with Ron K. Two years and eight musicians later, Tom and I continue to play and our reputation in growing in the foothills west of Denver, though I couldn’t tell you what that reputation is. (We keep getting gigs, so it must be okay. All I know is I’m having a blast.) I wrote my first song ever recently, inspired by Tom who is a hell of a song writer. Check it out at Youtube: And Have A Nice Flight.
April 23 happens to be Sandy’s birthday. Spending it in Beijing would have been memorable enough. Spending it with old friends playing music in a bar takes the event to an entirely different level. All well as Steve and Adam, my old musician friends, we’ll be joined by Martin (he has a big birthday this Friday) and Susan Cannon (her birthday is April 21) who we taught with in K.L. in the 90s. They are now teaching in Beijing as well. Old friends, playing music, drinking beer in a bar in Beijing, China. As Martin (British, raised mostly in southeast and south Asia) would say, I’m a lucky bastard.