Sunday, May 31, 2015

Herman and The Volcano Climbing Stick


They greeted us as soon as we stepped out of our van. Eager little boys brandishing impish grins and hand-carved walking sticks pushed them into our faces.  "Amiga,only 25 quetzales!" They all yelled but Herman was fast. He opened the door and grabbed my hand. I knew that I would need a walking stick to help with the craggy terrain of Guatemala's Pacaya Volcano. This active volcano attracts so many tourists that locals make good livings selling walking sticks and offering horseback rides for hikers that can't handle the twisty hour and a half  journey. I knew I'd need a stick and I knew I'd buy it from Herman the minute he opened the door.  If eyes are the windows to the soul, children are the window to a culture. Consistently happy little faces reflect a place that values children and those are places I love to be. Herman told me his name and never stopped smiling as I considered his sticks. I decided on a mid-sized one. I didn't realize then what a huge difference the stick would make during my trek but meeting Herman had already enriched my experience.

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.