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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Another ZOUKFEST Heads Down The Road...

Hey folks...

Well, Zoukfest 2008 has come and gone, and it always leaves me feeling delightfully exhausted with a bit of post-partum depression (the simultaneous inspiration to "practice mandolin every day for the rest of my life" combined with the overall level of musicianship making you think "why bother? I'll never play mandolin again" can really take its toll!). I just never seem to be convinced that I'm really worthy, I guess....

But I always seem to say "this was the best year yet!" every single year, and I think that's because it really does get better and better. Zoukfest's highlights are a matter of very personal preference, but this year I think most everybody would agree that the great Andy Irvine's attendance and astonishing Thursday night performance was mind-bending, to say the least. Many of the audience were repeatedly moved to tears, and they should've been. To have one of our heroes come to the camp, to teach, to perform, and to prove himself such a sterling human being on above it all... well, words fail me.

But the incomparable Mr. Irvine wasn't the only facet of Zoukfest that's earned 'em bragging rights this year. The entire staff was so brilliant, so professional, so giving, and such an overwhelmingly wonderful group of gentle people - all this on top of their staggering musicianship - that I can hardly conceive how fate led such a concentration of talent to be in one spot for such a great week. And don't forget the luthiers that build our instruments, and in the instance of Herb Taylor and G.D. Armstrong, sit in the lobby all week keeping our bouzoukis running in Santa Fe's climate with its ten-percent humidity! Also my fine friend John Farr, who designed ZF's beautiful website and keeps it running - all while taking classes himself!

The staff and facilities of the College of Santa Fe (the cafeteria food is anything but institutional, folks) couldn't be more accomodating. Add to that an open, easy, patient, happy bunch of students (who often were fellow teachers attending one another's classes - that in itself an amazing thing to behold) and the stew that is ZF starts getting really crazy. Hell, even the weather was so fine it was unreal.

I both taught and took various classes, and as usual they rocked my world. For me, each ZF takes on some kind of theme, and this year it was about depth. Even before camp started, I was putting a lot more effort into working up my "lesson plans" for what I'd teach, and trying to force myself to self-examine to a greater depth than I usually might. But everything I encountered during the week seemed to reinforce that awareness of depth. God, man... music - even the most apparently simple Appalachian hymn or blues riff or Irish fiddle tune - could just go on forever and ever, I think. You might never get to the bottom of what they offer. Again, perhaps a touch of that post-partum depression comes from a sense of being so overwhelmed by the staggering talent of everyone present, that I feel like I'll have to practice eight hours a day six days a week just to be worthy of attending again next year... but more inportantly, I'll have to practice like that if I want to have even a ghost of a chance of fully understanding and appreciating this music I already love so much.

No doubt, I could go on and on about all this, and I'd probably just wave my arms like a lunatic and repeat words like "overwhelming" and "astonishing" and "incredible" ad infinitum, so I'll refrain. However, I do want to use this space to personally thank Roger Landes for thinking of this whole crazy thing; Lisa Wright for making it happen, smoother and smoother, year after great year; the board of directors of ZF for giving us all such a remarkable gift; and mostly the students who care in the first place, show up in the second place, and humble us with your dedication and love in the third place. Please, all of you: don't ever stop. Thank you.


Thank you.

So I'll close with the entire staff. Please check them out, support them and their music - and all independant, struggling local and regional music... even if that region is in our internet-connected heads. Check them out, I beg of you:

Randal Bays, true master of both Irish fiddle and guitar, and a great friend and man, and most hilarious and wonderful when on a political rant.

Mason Brown, my old friend and zen priest, fingerstyle guitar, frailing banjo, and viola de gamba virtuoso... with a brilliant new CD, When Humans Walked The Earth!

Dave Cory, new to ZF, of the amazing Irish tenor banjo chops that sound like chords and melody and harmony all at once... when he was performing, somebody leaned over to me and whispered "Jesus! This sounds like Bach!"

Eliot Grasso, also new to Zoukfest, the finest Irish piper I've ever heard live, and a notably humble man given his talent...

Polly Tapia Ferber, ZF's go-to girl for staggering Balkan percussion, with a wonderful smile!

Kaila Flexer, "earth mother" of the violin and so gracious...

Doug Goodhart... where to begin? Doug eats musics from all over the world and ends up playing them better than the natives! Appalachian fiddle, Cajun accordian, Renaissance lute, Mexican Son Jarocho, Afro-Cuban percussion! Not to mention that he is the best music teacher I've ever encountered. Hell, he's the best I've ever even heard of, I think! And he's so humble that he doesn't appear to have a website! A special shout-out to you, my friend! I'm proud to have been your student, and whatever good I do as a teacher, I owe at least half of it to you. (and a special thanks to Lucy Goodhart, ZF's most precocious 8-year old student, sitting in my lap through Andy's performance, for looking up at me and whispering: "You're comfy.")

Stanley Greenthal, a true gentleman and musician, and so, so giving in music and humanity. Bless you, friend.

Roger Landes, the Ur-zoukman, the commander, the guiding light, the Grand Poobah. Words can't express what we all owe you, O Captain, our Captain.

Angela Mariani, I've never had a sister, but you it. Love ya, medieval soul mama. (Ya caaaaaaaaaaaan't HAVE IT!)

Steve Paxton, director of the Contemporary Music Program at the College Of Santa Fe. Where would we be (literally!) without you? You da man.

Luke Plumb, the deepest and most knowledgible mandolin and 'zouk player that'll ever cover a Planxty tune! You are THE emperor, sir.

Moira Smiley, another newbie, and already feels like a little sister. Blew everybody's mind with her singing and banjo-and-accordian playing, then stomped on what was left by hamboning! I'm listening to your CD at this very moment, dear. Glad to have you in the family.

Steve Smith... damn. When this man plays a mandolin, it stays played! You the one who gave rise to my "never gonna play again" feelings, buddy... but this man is so kind and gentle, you can't hold it against him that he's probably the finest mandolin player that's ever lived.

Don Richmond, my mentor, my brother in arms, my deep, deep friend, and literally my best man. You are our Zen guide, bro. Long may you run.

Chris Smith... this man is like our Aragorn. If ZF was a Disney movie, he'd be a lion. (Mason and I would be bears, we reckon...) A tenor banjo master, a session leader, a scholar without being stuffy, an expert without being a snob, a genius we can all relate to and sympathize with. I owe you the other half of whatever good I've done as a teacher, as your beautiful writing has taught me so much about the job (and I stole most of the best lines in this blog from you). We couldn't do it without you... please, never stop soldiering on, my brother.

And it goes without saying: the great inspiration of us all, Andy Irvine. We go to the well to drink, and you are the well, my new friend. Thank you for the beauty you've given the world.

See you all next year.

Monday, June 02, 2008

WAL-MART: The Long Hard Siege Is Over... I Have Succumbed

Well, there it is, folks... since December 9, 2002, after more than five years (in fact, 2,002 days, by my reckoning!) of tooth-and-nail fighting, battered castle walls, and trumpet-blasts of resistance, I have succumbed to the overwhelming military superiority of Wal-Mart. I've written of this in a previous post ("Five Years Without Wal-Mart," Friday, December 14, 2007) so I won't re-hash all that again, but I'd admitted in that essay that I'd probably cave in sooner or later, and here's the sad tale of my defeat:

Our telephone has been dying a slow, painful death for about the last month, and now that it's on it's last legs we had to have another one. Which meant a long, 140-mile round trip to Santa Fe, or a trip to Wal-Mart. Kim was busy. It was up to me.

Kim and I have just returned from our honeymoon in Ireland, and for a couple of days now I've been on the verge of posting an essay about how non-foreign it felt... when I was there, it felt like I was home... now that I'm home, it still feels like I'm there. I think I've finally hit a point in my life where I truly feel the oneness of all humans, and I just can't buy that we're really all that different. Maybe being on the land of my ancestors had something to do with it, like genetic memory or something. Also, maybe the fact that I've been there three times now, and that they speak my language, literally and metaphorically. Maybe I'd feel differently if we'd honeymooned in say, Senegal, or Mongolia, or Iceland.... but I've been feeling at one with the world and quite mellow and comfortable with myself since our return....

Until today.

Jeezus Frickin' Christ in a Chickenbasket!

You know, almost anything is new and strange after a five-year hiatus, but damn! A Wal-Mart store is about the weirdest place I've ever been. And mind you, this isn't even one the BIG buggers, a supercenter... this is just our own local, "normal" Wal-Mart. I parked as far away from the front door as possible, took a few deep breaths of outside air before I plunged in, closed my eyes, and jumped.

The first thing I noticed was that the very air seemed filled with some sort of globules of plastic. The whole place smelled like plastic, looked like plastic, and I swear walking down the aisles was like plowing through some sort of plastic vapor... I could almost feel it clinging to my skin, and by the time I left, my throat hurt. Psychosomatic? Maybe....

From the greeter at the door to every other "associate" I encountered, I have to say I was a little surprised... I'd expected them to act like Stepford-automatons, but they were apparently human. They seemed human, anyway, and no one treated me badly or was rude. But maybe that's their plan... maybe they want me to think they're human... and.... aaaarrrggghhhh!

Just kidding.

I'm certainly not going to personally rag on the customers, after all, they've been thoroughly trained by the propagandists that there "isn't anywhere else to shop" and they probably think they've got no choice - not to mention how many local businesses Wal-Mart has killed (and the prices, which I'll get to in a minute). But they were a remarkably odd bunch, marked by a tendency to obesity and a sort of glazed blandness, broken only by the occasional quasi-psychotic expression of unquenchable shopper-lust. Hell, I can't hold anything against them... after five minutes in there I probably looked just like them.

But... are we really all one? I gotta say, when I was in the belly of the beast, it didn't feel like it. I really felt like these people - both the "associates" and the customers - were of some alien race that I was merely visiting. It was the most uncanny, dehumanizing, and utterly uncomfortable feeling I've had in a long time.

Anyway, I headed for the shoe section to see if they sold Converse tenner shoes. They didn't. I threw a pair of plastic sandals in my buggy. Nine bucks. I found a phone I thought we could live with, one that didn't automatically come with fifteen "free offers" and "connections" and so forth. Thirty-two bucks. I strolled a while in the media-electronics section a while, and the crazed shopper lust look kicked in. Wow! A DVD special-edition copy of "The Terminator" with a 3-D slipcover for just eight bucks! Whoo-hoo! WAIT A MINUTE! I'M STARTING TO NOT FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE ANYMORE! OH SHIT! I grabbed my guts and steadied my trembling hands... sanity returned and I left "Ah-nold" behind. After all, it's Wal-Mart... he'll be there when I need him.

Finally, I scored a pack of Sharpie pens (can't you buy just one pen? apparently not...) and I've already figured out the tips aren't what I wanted. But they're already opened. Oh! But it's Wal-Mart! I can return them! Screw that. I've breathed enough petrolium by-products for one day, thank you.

I'd been in-country for about thirty minutes by then, and figured I'd better get out while the gettin' was good. No telling when the Stepford Associates might come for me. I paid with my credit card, just to complete the all-plastic vibe of the expedition, and ran for the truck.

Holy shit... so that's what virtually every American endures almost every day. Thank God we don't have a supercenter here in Taos... but there is one down in Espanola... I wonder what they have... STOP IT! STOP IT! GET OUT OF MY HEAD, YOU BASTARDS!

Damn, everything is so cheap! At least compared to "the competition." Did the prices go down even further since I was last in there? Hell, I may never buy office supplies anywhere else again. But... CDs and DVDs for pennies... iPods for seventy bucks... shoes for nine bucks... and I didn't even go into the dog food section! There's no wonder all my friends thought I was crazy for not shopping there, and no wonder that I'm broke. But you know, why the hell is everything that cheap? Well, it's because some poor leperous bastard somewhere in a hot, humid, squalorous factory in China is getting paid two cents a day to make all this shit.

Out of plastic.

To make matters even weirder and more grimly hilarious, I got home from Wally World to find my mail waiting, and a fine old friend of mine had sent Kim and I a belated wedding gift: a gift card to Wal-Mart! My lord....

Shit. I've opened up a big damn can of worms and I don't know what I'm gonna do now. I'd like to try to still shop at my locally-owned stores, and I certainly don't look forward to the "experience" of being in another Wal-Mart anytime soon. But I am virtually broke, and the plastic crap really is dirt cheap, and occasionally... just occasionally, it might be necessary to give it up and head into the pit once again. I'll probably survive it, and my local organic grocer probably won't go out of business just because of me. I hope and pray.

ButI feel damn strange about it, damn guilty about it, and deeply sad that I've lost, at least for the moment, that feeling of oneness with the world.

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