Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Glory of B.B. King

If you've ever heard his music, you'll never forget it. If you ever met B.B. King in person, you'll never forget it. B.B. King was truly unforgettable not just because he was the King of the Blues but because he remained a loving and humble spirit throughout his stunning 67-year career.

B.B. is universally acknowledged as the most important electric guitarist of the last half of the 20th century and I think his humility sometimes obscured that fact. He wasn't flashy, he wasn't boastful. But if you heard the first few notes of a B.B. King song, you recognized it immediately The resonance of his guitar riffs and his commanding vocals ripped right through you. Buddy Guy, a far flashier blues guitarist, famously described B.B's skill this way: "We've got all kinds of special effects on guitars now. You can push a button. B.B's special effect was his left hand."

Like most of the great blues masters, he was born in the Mississippi Delta as Riley King, struggling through the vicious systems of share cropping and segregation as an orphan during his teen years. Moving to Memphis in the mid '40s represented the turning point in his life and career. He learned the foundation of blues guitar from his cousin, celebrated country blues musician Bukka White and became a popular Memphis DJ, dubbed Beale Street Blues Boy. It was later shortened to B.B. From the start, B.B. knew how to make his guitar Lucille sing and talk like no other guitarist. Named for the woman who inspired a fight that ended in a fire in the Arkansas juke joint he was playing, Lucille symbolized the emotional connection B.B. maintained with his music and with his audience. You could listen to the notes that he coaxed from Lucille and swear it was a message to you personally. You could hear his heart-filled voice, formed with gospel music, and feel salvation. B.B. was the King of the Blues not because he had earned 15 Grammys and 74 Billboard entries, but because he was the genre's most convincing ambassador, reaching stages and hearts that had never been touched by blues before.

I'll always remember when I met B.B.decades ago, backstage after a Chicago concert. He was mobbed by fans and autograph seekers but he insisted on speaking to everyone. Being a music nerd, I couldn't stop myself from asking him to sing the jingle that had first made him famous in Memphis as the Pepticon Boy. Instead of being annoyed, he threw his head back and laughed, saying that I was too young to know anything about that. But he grinned and sang the jingle for me, his eyes twinkling as he was transported back to his early days.

B.B. King has lots of hits,with the searing, "A Thrill is Gone" being his signature tune. I love all of his music, especially the seminal album, "Live at The Regal," recorded at the legendary  Chicago club but also" Sweet Little Angel," "Three O'Clock Blues" and "You Upset Me Baby." These songs speak to me with the simple eloquence and emotional power that are blues hallmarks. But my favorite B.B. King tune is "Never Make A Move Too Soon". The 1978 classic combined the incomparable jazzy rhythms of The Crusaders with B.B.'s blues shouts for hip-shaking, party blues.
He explains his career in my favorite lines: "I've been from Spain/to Tokyo/From Africa/To Ohio/I never tried to make the news/I'm just a man who plays the blues." Noted for playing  an average of 300 shows a year and never claiming his well deserved title of King of the Blues but simply thanking people who crowned him, B.B. was an inspiring man. His kindness and humility serves as an example of what a leader and an icon really means. His music lives on and he'll always be King of the Blues.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Strolling Through Guatemala's Easter Carpets

Guatemala is famous for the colorful carpets or alfombras, that cover the cobblestone streets of most towns during Semana Santa or Easter Week. But I was thrilled to arrive in Guatemala City a week after the Easter festivities to find that there were still some carpets left. Some churches were still hosting processions and the carpets are an important feature. The one above is for Saint Francisco. Although the Easter week procession rituals date back to 14th century Spain, the carpets are actually a Mayan tradition. They were created from local materials for kings to walk upon. Today, colored sawdust is typically used to create the more elaborate carpets but flowers, grass, berries, leaves and fruit are also featured.

I was excited to see these school girls finishing up a carpet and standing by to join the procession. They were clearly proud of their work and it was wonderful to actually witness the process of creating the carpets.

These boys were squirting water on the carpets outside the church where the procession would end. The water keeps the carpets fresh and the materials from flying away in a breeze.

I spotted this carpet outside a church in Santiago Atitlan, located a few hours outside of Guatemala City. These towns didn't display the long, complex carpets that Antigua is noted for but it was still a fascinating experience to see the care supplied to creations that would be destroyed by hundreds of feet only a few hours later.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Garifuna in Guatemala

Within hours of arriving in Guatemala City, I was excited to witness a  street performance by Garifuna musicians and dancers. The Garifuna are an African and Indigenous people sometimes called Black Caribs.They are a distinct cultural group that are rarely seen beyond the coastal areas of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Belize. So I watched this performance of music and dancing as long as possible, absorbing the rhythms and intricate moves. The Garifuna dancer had pulled the girl into the circle to dance with him and she shyly obliged.

The percussion was purely West African and the crowd loved the energy of the performers. Most African decedents tend to be marginalized in Latin America and the Garifuna have battled to maintain their heritage. Historically,the Garifuna are traced to the Caribbean island of St. Vincent where a boat of enslaved Nigerians were shipwrecked in 1675. They formed families and communities with the local Kalinago or Carib population and developed a formidable maroon community that fought against European colonizers. The Garifuna were subsequently deported to Roatan in Honduras and in the 1800's, dispersed further to Nicaragua and Belize. The Garifuna of Belize or Garinagu as they are collectively called, are at the forefront of  establishing Garifuna identity and culture globally. In my exploration around three different regions of Guatemala, this was the only time I glimpsed the vibrant Garifuna culture and I realize how fortunate this was. I made a short video below so that you can hear Garifuna music and a bit of the dancing. Have you ever heard of the Garifuna before?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Next Stop: Guatemala

My exploration into the layers of Latin America's rich culture continues as I dive into Guatemala and its Mayan traditions. I'm honored to be hosted by the Guatemala Tourism Board and I'll be visiting the historic towns of Antigua, Lake Atitla'n and Chichicastenango.  I'll delve into the women's textile community of San Juan La Lagua, participate in Mayan rituals in Iximche  and explore cultural monuments, including Cerra de La Cruz, Plaza Central and Iglesia and Museo de San Francisco. I'm especially excited about scaling my third volcano, Volcano Pacaya, pictured above. So please look out for my Guatemala posts and photos in the coming weeks!

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Finding Paradise With MLK and Adam Clayton Powell

There's something about Bahamian out islands. I don't know if it's the isolation that allows for a more peaceful vibe or the honor for tradition and culture that permeates most of these tiny slips of paradise.  All I know is that it feels different whenever I land on an out island and Bimini is no exception. Serenity seems to fill the air. Clearly, I'm not the only one to feel this way since two historic African American activists, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Adam Clayton Powell Jr, both found inspiration on Bimini.

New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. paved the way for equality and justice in the U.S. Flashy and bold, his favorite phrase was "keep the faith baby." And he demonstrated plenty of faith, first as the pastor of the country's leading  African American church, Abyssinian Baptist Church and then as the first African American to represent New York in the House of Representatives. He battled and pushed against segregation at every chance he could, demanding desegregation of the White House press gallery, eating in the whites only House restaurant and introducing so much anti-discrimination legislation that the rider that prohibits federal funding to any organization that practices discrimination is called the Powell Amendment. It was added to the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and he became known as "Mr. Civil Rights."  But non-stop battles take a toll and Powell found refuge in the beauty of Bimini. During his last, controversial term in congress in the late '60s, he spent more time on Bimini than he did in DC. His house still stands, like a nonchalant beacon among the palm trees The house is pictured below, it's a rental cottage, the plaque that recognized its important history has vanished. Adam Clayton Powell spent his last years in Bimini. He died in 1972 and his ashes are scattered over the water that touches the island which supplied him with so much peace.

It was Adam Clayton Powell who invited Dr. Martin Luther King down to enjoy the serenity of Bimini. I think that Adam probably recognized the spiritual benefits of being surrounded by natural beauty, especially as you are waging a spiritual war against the country that refuses to recognize your humanity.  Dr. King was escorted on fishing trips by local fisherman, Captain Ansil Saunders. They sailed along the mangrove-lined Bonefish Creek and Dr. King was reportedly so soothed by the beauty that he declared that the island was as close to heaven as he could imagine on Earth. Dr. King wrote his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Bimini and four years later, he returned to write his very last speech for striking sanitation workers in Memphis. That final speech of "seeing the promised land," was written while Dr. King was floating in the creek and communing with the natural landscape of Bimini. He was assassinated the day after he delivered that speech. Two memorials honor Dr. King's presence in Bimini, one sculpture is erected in the middle of the mangroves that he loved and the other sits in the middle of Bimini's capital of Alice Town, shown below.

There are plenty of islands that offer relaxation so what makes Bimini so special? I believe that it's about much more than just finding solitude. Two ministers and civil rights activists connected to Bimini at pivotal times in their lives. I think that the warm simplicity of the people combined with the allure of the pristine landscape captured them. Bimini does not provide a lot of hotels, shopping or attractions, then or now. It's a small island that forces you to appreciate the joys of people and nature because that's all there is. And sometimes, that's enough.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Parading Police in Bimini

Observing the interactions and perceptions of the local police around the world is always interesting to me. I watched this parade for the Annual Police Church Service in Bimini. Citizens started lining up early and waved and smiled as the officers marched by in their crisp white uniforms.

The band played reverently and the pageantry and excitement that surrounded the whole event was fascinating. I learned that a church service is held annually at a different church each year, to pray for the officers safety.  It was sobering witnessing this proud spectacle and comparing it to the volatile police situation in the U.S. My country carries a complex and violent police history that is being challenged to change and I hope that one day that it can grow where respect is given on both sides, like I  saw in Bimini.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Searching For The Fountain of Youth

The legend of the Fountain of Youth and Ponce De Leon's search for it covers many lands and eras. It was actually the Arawak Indians who first described a mythical land with curative waters, enticing Ponce De Leon, who was the ousted governor of Puerto Rico, to search for it in 1513. Spain's King Ferdinand actually offered the verdant land of "Beniny" to Ponce, sending him off on an expedition to find it.  But like the European explorers before him, Ponce got it wrong. He landed in St. Augustine, Florida and never made it to Bimini, as we now call it.

Although Florida boasts a Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, where visitors can actually buy bottles from the supposed Fountain of Youth, Florida was simply where the conquistador landed. There was no mention of him locating the fountain. But deep in the forest of South Bimini, the fountain that the Arawaks were referencing still supplies healing water.

Actually, it's a well and the water is buried way, way, down in it. I peeked in and saw a glimpse of the water but the bucket couldn't reach it. I was surprised to see the well or even an association to the Fountain of Youth because I always considered it a myth.

Still, the legend lives on and locals insist that the water from the well is healing and rejuvenating. I can't attest to that but I did attempt to dip into the pool, just to try it. If this water was sending people all over the world to find it, there must be something to it...