Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Shallot Sambar

I woke in the middle of the night Friday craving shallot sambar. The almost-too-hot to eat feeling, the sweet onion flavor of the shallots melting in the dal, the curry leaves, the coriander... so I set out to make a batch Sunday morning,with my copy of Mangoes and Curry Leaves open nearby. (Yes, I love the Alford/Duguid cookbooks.)

This means peeling a bunch of shallots, like almost a pound. So as I settled in with my brown bag of shallots from the root cellar, my first thought was, I should put on some music for this rather boring task. Which started me thinking about the whole "music as wallpaper" topic we've all been kicking around lately. I pondered as I peeled, and came to the conclusion that I would only want to listen to something familiar, really tried and true, no rude surprises on Sunday mornings. Feeling like I have rather a backlog of new stuff I "should" be checking out, I opted for "silence is golden" and kept the knife going to the sound of "Hey mama! Look at the features I built on this spaceship!".

Don't know if that makes me lazy or indecisive or just too darn old to rock first thing on Sunday morning, but hey. My Sunday morning faves are stuff like Ralph Vaughan Williams' Norfolk Rhapsody #1 or Gilles Apap's Music for Solo Violin." I know. Extremely chill.

But that's what I grew up on. My parents had records when we were little kids; they were just too darn busy or tired to play them. My mom has a great pile of show tunes, and my dad had the requisite Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary stuff. Hardly ever remember hearing any of it. The only thing I have a clear memory of was Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass' "The Magic Trumpet," to which we would march around the living room on the green shag carpet.

But of course, everybody was in band, all five of us kids. We had a tuba, an oboe, a flute, a trumpet and a French horn in the family. Everybody stayed in band all the way through high school; that was just expected in our family. None of us were stellar players, by any means, but there is something to be said for longevity. Just don't ask about the embarrassing photo of the five of us holding our instruments at the all city band festival circa 1981.

When we moved, Mom went back to finish her degree in music, then went on for a masters in music history. It was Schubert and Chopin on the piano, Mozart and Bach on the stereo, and KHKE (the classical public radio station down there in Iowa) from that time forward.

Cedar Falls had a really good high school orchestra in those years which would tour all over the state and win large ensemble competitions left and right. It was great fun to get to play stuff like "March to the Scaffold" from Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique or Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in high school. It was acoustic music that rocked. Uh oh, the antecedents are becoming clear.

Something somehow must've soaked in somewhere along the line; my big brother played bass in several rock bands over the years, my little brother sang lead and played rhythm in a glam metal band that toured around the upper midwest for years (lotsa bad hair!) and I played bass in several punk noise bands that shall remain nameless. It was the mid '80's. College radio was fresh, lots of great dark and heavy stuff was out there and nobody used the word "Goth" yet for all of us who wore black raincoats from Goodwill.

Then I graduated, moved to the big city and had a job cooking breakfast in Uptown. The dishwasher was a sweet Kenyan guy named Kennedy, with a great smile and an endearing fresh-off-the-boat geekiness. He liked me. He used to give me records. I had to explain to him one day standing by the time clock why I didn't like him "that way." We became pals who called each other "my brother" and "my sister" and he still gave me music. One of those tapes was one of the Indestructable Beat of Soweto compilations. The first listen was a watershed moment, a what the...., a where have you been all my life, you know. Much mbaquanga and Afrobeat and high life quickly followed. You could buy the stuff on vinyl at Northern Lights and OarFolk in those days.

A few years later, I was working at a food co-op, pulling lots of early morning shifts with former longtime Cedar artistic director, Bill Kubescko. His constant stream of tapes picked up at European festivals turned me on to rockin' Celtic, eastern Euro, Nordic, Middle Eastern and everything in between.

Thus, the die was cast. I was enough of a classical head to really notice and be offended by mis-tunings or hack playing , not to mention becoming quickly bored by straight major keys and common time. (Call it snobby, but I so avoid the cabaret scene.) But I craved the energy and the fire from the punk years.

World music that rocks. Hard trad. It's not just Omnium records' slogan, it's a way of life.

I ran into Kennedy at an Afro-reggae show at First Avenue a few years after we worked together. He had his hair in stylin' nubbies and a pretty girl smiling on his arm. I gave him a big hug and a big thank you.

I lift a glass to you, my brother, and one to Bill K. and one to my high school orchestra teacher as well as one to the late night alternative radio dj in my college years.

And one to my mom, although hers might be a cup of half- caf.

1 comment:

Veronica Fever said...

What a great read. Just right.

-- V