All that Jazz: New Orleans and the Preservation Hall

28 06 2010
There is nothing that can describe sitting in the humid air of the dusty floor of a packed hall in an old Spanish colonial building set in the main square in the Vieux Carré and listening to feet tapping strains of the brass, woodwind, bass, piano, and percussion instruments that could only be associated with the fabulous sounds of the southern brand of jazz, all for a sum of two U.S. dollars. I suppose there is nothing that can aptly describe New Orleans as well, where the Preservation Hall Jazz Band performs every evening since 1961 to packed audiences in a setting that could only be that of the temple of southern jazz. New Orleans is a city that is unique in many ways, atypical as North American cities go, a collection of the influences of her former French and Spanish masters, before becoming coming under control of the U.S. with the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon for a sum of $15 million. In New Orleans, we see architecture that is inherited from the Spanish, a joie de vivre inherited from the French, in a setting that perhaps feels more like the Caribbean that a city on the North American mainland should.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band performing to a packed hall.

The Preservation Hall on St. Peter Street (off Jackson Square) was founded in 1961 and is the temple of southern jazz.

Wandering around the streets of the French Quarter or Vieux Carré filled with buildings that date back to the era of Spanish rule in the late 18th Century with the characteristic wrought iron balconies and inner courtyards, one can’t escape from the sound of music that constantly fills the air. In and around the Vieux Carré which is centered on Jackson Square, the former Place d’Armes, one often sees a piano or two being wheeled around. Music is very much a part of street life in a city that is synonymous with hearty celebration and cuisine: the Mardi Gras and Jambalaya. It is a city that is both magical as well as being mysterious, being associated with practices such as Voodoo, where walks around the old cemetery is a must for the visitor as much as sitting on the floor of the Preservation Hall is. It is a city that continues to fascinate me and one that I would love the opportunity to visit again.

Music is everywhere in New Orleans.

The wrought iron balconies of the Spanish influenced buildings that line the streets of New Orleans.





A Maniac November

22 11 2009

20 years has passed since the November of 1989. Then, my final year at university was underway, well underway, so much so that I was starting to feel the heat. Having spent a summer that had me wandering around the eastern seaboard of the US, some of Canada, and also Italy, settling back into a daily routine of lectures, coursework, and books was quite a tough ask. Already behind in my final year project, there was also coursework due before the mid-term, and a group project that was far behind – it being difficult to get the group members together outside the setting of the campus pub, to contend with.

Deadlines, Deadlines, November 1989

A lot happening around us as well, serving as a distraction from what we should have really been focused on. We had our eyes were fixed on the telly, not only for our Blind Dates with Cilla Black on Saturday evenings, but also due to the drama that was unfolding before our eyes in Europe, as presented by the correspondents with the BBC and ITV.

Growing up during the era in which the Cold War served as a backdrop to politics, we had been constantly reminded of the vice like grip exerted by the authorities behind the Iron Curtain on their so called Comrades. The secret police and organisations such as the KGB and the Stasi came to mind – responsible for maintaining the obedience of the masses. We had constant reminders of the brutal nature in which some of these organisations acted, as well as stories of daring escapes by dissenters from behind the Iron Curtain – more often than not ending tragically.

What we were witnessing in 1989 seemed at that time, surreal. It was the beginning of the end – the beginning of a very swift end to the wave that that engulfed much of eastern Europe that started with the Bolshevik revolution in the early part of the century, and hastened by the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. For close to half a century, Europe was divided into the communist East and the free West. The Berlin Wall, built to prevent East Germans from fleeing to West Berlin, stood for 28 years as a potent symbol of this divide, sticking out like a sore thumb over a Berlin rebuilt from the ashes of the Second World War.

With the Soviet Union in transition, distracted by Glasnost and Perestroika, the Soviets had stood by and watched, as Poland and then Hungary abandoned communism, unlike the brutal manner in which Soviet troops imposed their authority in the attempted revolutions of the 1960s. There was little then to stem the tide, as one by one, their communist allies fell around them. The opening of borders between Hungary and Austria rendered the control over the border between East and West Germany ineffective and against this backdrop, the border controls between East and West Gerrmany were relaxed on 9 November, leading to a frenzy of movement of East Germans to the West over the days that followed. Over the course of the next few days, history was about to be made, as television footage showed masses, armed with sledgehammers attempting to physically bring the much hated Berlin Wall down. With the Wall tumbling down, and inaction by the mighty Soviet army, the emboldened oppressed masses of the other eastern bloc states started to come out on the streets. We were also to witness the beginning of the end in Czechoslovakia that November, with riot police cracking down on peaceful demonstrations by students, leading to mass protests on the streets.

And the Wall came tumbling down - euphoria at the Wall, November 1989 (Source: Financial Times, 7 Nov 2009)

A trip to Ballachulish, near Glencoe, was also a welcome distraction in mid November. During the trip with several college mates from Singapore and Malaysia, some of us had somehow ended up taking a drive up what seemed to be an eerie moonlit Loch Ness and getting spooked, teeth chattering (it wasn’t that cold that November evening) in what we were certain was a haunted Urquhart Castle!

The Moonlit Loch Ness, November 1989

St. Mun's, Ballachulish, November 1989





On top of the world …

19 10 2009

Mountains bring a sense of peace to many of us. With transport links and the technology that the 20th century gave us, mountains have become a lot more accessible and we do not need to be mountaineers to enjoy the experience and exhilaration of being on top of the world.

My first encounters with mountains were somewhat confined to those that were accessible by road from Singapore. The mountain top resorts of Cameron Highlands and Fraser’s Hill, provided the colonial masters of Malaya with respite from the heat and humidity of the tropics, and since, they have become popular as a destination for many from Singapore and Malaysia. It was much later in life that I first had my experience of the wonderous feeling of being amongst the peaks and the breathtaking views on offer. The Alps in Europe are particularly spectacular. There is no better feeling I get than that that comes from staring out at the peaks of mountains, sometimes over the clouds, sometimes capped with snow, and sometimes just bare rock faces. The most spectacular views I have seen of the Alps are from a cable car, the Gondola Panoramic Mont-Blanc,  that runs across the Glacier du Géant from Aiguille de Midi to Ponte Helbronner … the views on offer are simply grogeous!

The Panoramic Mont-Blanc Gondola across the Glacier du Géant

The Panoramic Mont-Blanc Gondola across the Glacier du Géant

The Vallée Blanch (White Valley) as seen from the Gondola Panoramic Mont Blanc

The Vallée Blanch (White Valley) as seen from the Gondola Panoramic Mont Blanc

All across the Alps, the views are as spectacular… the Dolomites in Alta Badia in Italy for one have provided me with some breathtaking views as well.

Corvara and Monte Sassongher in the Alta Badia Region of Italy

Corvara and Monte Sassongher in the Alta Badia Region of Italy

Monte Lagazuoi near Corvara in Alta Badia

Monte Lagazuoi near Corvara in Alta Badia

The view down Lagazuoi ...

The view down Lagazuoi ...

Having spent time in the West of Scotlands, I am no stranger to the Western Highlands, which provide a serene getaway for many, as well as a fair bit of folklore and mystery. It is hard to imagine kilted men running around in the hostile climes of the Western Highlands, doing battle first with rival clans, and then the invaders from the south. It is of course the stuff that legends are made of.

Glen Coe in the Western Highlands of Scotland

Glen Coe in the Western Highlands of Scotland

Loch Ness in the Western Highlands of Scotland

Loch Ness in the Western Highlands of Scotland





Of Melting Timepieces and Hallucinogenic Bullfighters …

13 09 2009

Inspired by a piece of melting Camembert, which Salvador Dalí observed on a hot August evening, the images of melting clocks and watches are some of the most recognisable images produced by Dalí. A visit to the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, brought about by my fascination with Dalí since the encounter with Dalí’s “Christ of St. John on the Cross” in Glasgow, provided some enlightenment to the artist’s inspiration for the iconic melting timepieces that first appeared on what is probably his most famous painting, “The Persistence of Memory”, against the backdrop of another interpretation of this work – “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory”. The melting timepieces represent the relativity and decay of time, which conventional thought held to be rigid and deterministic. Dali, as we were told by the guide had pondered if time could melt like the piece of cheese that stood before his eyes, on an evening where suffering from a bad headache, the artist had stayed home while Gala his wife, had gone to the movies. Then and there, the artist got his inspiration to add the images of the melting pocket watches to the landscape near Port Lligat which he had been in the midst of painting, which filled not just Gala on her return from the Theatre, with fascination, but the many of us who have seen the images of the melting timepieces.

The Disintegration of Persistence of Memory (1952 - 1954), Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida. (Source: Wikipedia)

The Disintegration of Persistence of Memory (1952 - 1954), Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida. (Source: Wikipedia)

Dali's Melting Timepiece on display in Singapore in 2006. Profile of Time (1977 - 1984), Dalì Sculpture Collection.

Dali's Melting Timepiece on display in Singapore in 2006. Profile of Time (1977 - 1984), Dalì Sculpture Collection.

The museum, which houses the largest collection of Dali’s works outside of Europe, has several of Dali’s masterworks, including the “The Hallucinogenic Toreador” and “The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus”. “The Hallucinogenic Toreador” perhaps provides some insight into Dali’s state of mind and the hallucinogenic state which provided the many images we see in his work. Several of the images we see repeated over many different works, the potrait of Gala, the little boy which represents Dali in his youth, the bay of Port Lligat … the symbolistic images, many of which depict Dali’s past experiences and influences.

The Hallucinogenic Toreador (1969 - 1970), Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida. (Source: Wikipedia).

The Hallucinogenic Toreador (1969 - 1970), Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida. (Source: Wikipedia).

The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus (1959), Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida. (Source: Wikipedia).

The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus (1959), Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida. (Source: Wikipedia).

Another striking piece is the “Archeological Reminiscence of Millet’s “Angelus””, Dalí’s interpretation of Jean-François Millet’s famous painting …

Archaeological Reminiscence Millet's "Angelus" (1933 - 1935), Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida.

Archaeological Reminiscence Millet's "Angelus" (1933 - 1935), Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida.

Jean-François Millet's "The Angelus" (1857 - 1859), Musée d'Orsay, Paris. (Source: Wikipedia).

Jean-François Millet's "The Angelus" (1857 - 1859), Musée d'Orsay, Paris. (Source: Wikipedia).

Several of Salvador Dalí’s sculptures from the Dalí Sculpture Collection were on display in Singapore in September / October 2006. Among the striking pieces on display were the ones depicting his melting timepieces, as well as the “Homage to Newton”, which is now permanently displayed at the UOB Plaza.

Horse Saddled with Time (1980), Dalí Sculpture Collection.

Horse Saddled with Time (1980), Dalí Sculpture Collection.

St. George and the Dragon (1977 - 1984) in Singapore in 2006, Dalì Sculpture Collection.

St. George and the Dragon (1977 - 1984) in Singapore in 2006, Dalì Sculpture Collection.

Unicorn (1977 to 1984) in Singapore in 2006, Dalì Sculpture Collection.

Unicorn (1977 to 1984) in Singapore in 2006, Dalì Sculpture Collection.

Homage to Newton (1985), UOB Plaza.

Homage to Newton (1985), UOB Plaza.

Information Plate - Homage to Newton (1985), UOB Plaza.

Information Plate - Homage to Newton (1985), UOB Plaza.





Midsummer Madness

14 07 2009

As students, we usually found many ways to keep ourselves amused, and hang on to our sanity. The usual visits to the campus pub wasn’t always as interesting as other amusements such as the odd Ceilidh; our regular meet ups on Friday evenings when each of us, two Singaporeans, two Italians, two Malaysians, an Irishwoman, and a Cameroonian, would take turns at upsetting each other’s stomachs; joining the Labour movement’s rallies in Glasgow Green; and of course Wine Tasting sessions …. One particular one involved a few of us left behind in Glasgow during the start of the summer break…

Odd Bins Wine Tasting Card 21 June 1989

Odd Bins Wine Tasting Card 21 June 1989





Valparaíso, Chile

14 06 2009

I only spent a day in Valparaíso. We got in early in the morning to pick a cargo up of Chilean grapes and were to leave the next morning. After tropical Central America, the temperate southern South America was quite a pleasant change. Wandering around the streets of Valparaíso, I hardly broke out into sweat, passing by numerous street vendors selling items such as fruits – including some of the juiciest and sweetest nectarines I have tasted and rattanwork. The city had an almost European feel towards it with long and wide avenues, plazas and the many monuments laid out along the plazas and avenues.

Chile at that time when I was there was under military rule, controlled by the rightist regime of General Augusto Pinochet. The presence of uniformed personnel on the streets did not go unnoticed. In fact, for some reason which escapes me, I was stopped from taking photographs along the Avenida de Brasil, right after I snapped a photograph of the bust of José Manuel Balmaceda, along the avenue.

I also discovered to my very pleasant surprise, the quality of the local wine, which was very afforadble. For a few dollars, we could get our hands on a bottle of wines from the Concha y Toro vineyards.

One regret that I have is that I did not have the opportunity to visit the adjoining city of Viña del Mar, famed for its many sandy beaches. Well perhaps one day … when or if ever, I do not know.





Radio

7 06 2009

I grew up at a time when radio ruled the airwaves. My first memory of the radio was hearing Karen Carpenter’s silky smooth and warm voice singing the words “when I was young, I’d listen to the , radio, waiting for my favourite song” (maybe coincidentally) from a neighbour’s radio. Besides the local programmes we got on VHF, the broadcasts on the shortwave frequencies were popular, and they provided a vast array of foreign radio stations, such as Radio Moscow and the Voice of America (VOA), two stations to which I was a regular listener. Those were the days of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, when the world was divided into East and West. Radio served as a means to reach out to the other side of the world, particularly for the eastern bloc countries.

I listened to quite a fair bit of the broadcasts on Radio Moscow, not so much for the alternative views it provided, but, more for the insights it provided on the ethnically and culturally diverse Soviet Union. What fascinated me particularly was the many facets of life in the Soviet Central Asian republics, of which I would have otherwise known very little about. There was very little access to information on places with romantic sounding names such Tashkent, Samarkand,  Alma-Ata and Bukhara, that was associated with the ancient Silk Route and with the great Khans, which for much of the 20th century lay hidden behind the Iron Curtain.

Besides being a listener, I was also provided with the opportunity to gain 15 minutes of fame together with two of my classmates – by participating in a children’s radio programme, “Its a small world”, hosted by a popular deejay on Radio Singapore, Ms Gloria Mannasseh. The pre-recorded programme was broadcast once in the morning, and once in the afternoon, once a week, and opened with the theme song which was the disney song of the same name, and was popular with the local kids of that time, and would have three children representing a selected primary school participate each week. Two of my classmates submitted a request and when our school was selected, asked if I could join them as the school’s third representative. I remember the school Principal, Mr Ho, calling us into his office to congratulate us for being selected and also to give us some words of encouragement. What I remember most of the recording session, wasn’t the recording session itself, but the little tour of the television studios Ms Mannasseh gave us before the session. It was quite memorable to a 10 year old, seeing the studio where the news we watch every evening was televised live from.

Radio was also the means by which many sports fans could catch live broadcasts of various sports events at a time when live telecasts of events on the television via satellite were reserved for the more important events such as the football World Cup and FA Cup finals. It was the means by which I could follow the fortunes of Singapore’s football team which participated in the Malaysia Cup and the likes of Quah Kim Song, Dollah Kassim and Mohammad Noh. The BBC World Service’s programming on Saturdays also provided live broadcasts of English football, with second half commentry on a featured match during the football season, and it provided me with the opportunity to follow the ups and downs of my favourite team through the course of the season.





Nothing Gold Can Stay

6 06 2009

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

– Robert Frost

I watched the movie “The Outsiders” in my teens. It was a favourite of my sister, partly because of the cast of  Teenage heartthrobs, and also because it featured this beautiful poem by the American poet, Robert Frost. To me, the poem described the freshness and hope that is born out of the golden hues of dawn, be it the dawn of a new day, or be it the begining of all things new, and how this descends to tiredness as the day passes, as things become less fresh … life passes us by in a very similar way.





The Jersey Shore

31 05 2009

I spent a good part of the summer of 1989 along the northern Jersey Shore, under the spell of a lady with a red pick up. Well, maybe not quite under her spell … but the few or us working for her did feel that she was somewhat of a witch, keeping us on our “hands and knees” six to seven hours a day. Well, maybe we were a little ungrateful. She did pay us $7 an hour, when the minimum wage was $2.50 an hour …

The impression given by the name the “Jersey Shore” is one of summers by the seaside, boardwalks with food and amusement, the casinos and lights of Atlantic City, and of course Ashbury Park – made famous by one of its sons – Bruce Springsteen. I didn’t get a chance to see Atlantic City, deciding instead to hop on a Greyhound on a 15 day journey up and down the eastern seaboard instead, at the end of my working stint.

Jersey Shore

Ashbury Park proved to be somewhat of a disappointment. The area around the famous beach was quite rundown, and had certainly seen better days. Nearby, the borough of Deal was a little more interesting, if only because of a particular piece of architecture – a piano shaped mansion, built by Billy Joel for his Uptown Girl, Christy Brinkley.

I got most of the firsthand experience I had of the seaside and the boardwalks in Belmar, a borough south of Ashbury Park, where I lived during my time along the Jersey shore. The apartment was maybe five blocks from the beach front, and it gave me the opportunity of walking by the white sandy beach each evening, listening to the wave of the Atlantic washing up to the shore. Walking down the boardwalk along Ocean Drive, you would come to some amusement and food outlets lining the boardwalk. A mate of mine worked at one of the food outlets frying burgers each evening. At the end of his shift, he would have to sweep the part of the boardwalk directly in front of the burger stand and in doing so would pick up the many pennies discarded by the affluent crowd that frequented the boardwalk. At the end of the summer, he had accumulated some $400 in one cent coins.

The work I did on my “hands and knees” involved contract cleaning jobs the lady with the red pick up, Jane, undertook. Each day, I would find myself, with some of the members of our team, sent to different houses along the Jersey Shore. Some of the houses were huge, and among our duties, we would need to do the laundry, change bed linen, clean windows, kitchens and toilets, as well as vacuum some very plush carpets. One of the houses we cleaned was owned by the owner of some of the food and entertainment outlets on the boardwalks. I recall seeing that he had two walk-in wardrobes adjoining his bedroom, which in area, each was maybe half the size of a apartment in Singapore.  There was another house which had seven bedrooms, each with an attached bathroom, fitted with gold fittings.

Besides the cleaning job, I also spent a few weekends helping out in the kitchen of Pat’s Tavern in Belmar, washing dishes. I remember the roast beef sandwich I requested for during lunch each time – the cook always gave me a generous helping of pink thinly sliced roast beef, which I always looked forward to.

Matchbook - Pat's Tavern

Matchbook - Pat's Tavern

Beach at Belmar, NJ, 1989

Beach at Belmar, NJ, 1989

Beach at Belmar, NJ, 1989

Beach at Belmar, NJ, 1989

Beach at Belmar, NJ, 1989

Beach at Belmar, NJ, 1989

Boardwalk at Belmar, NJ, 1989

Boardwalk at Belmar, NJ, 1989

Boardwalk at Point Pleasant Beach

Boardwalk at Point Pleasant Beach