Archive for September, 2014

Bouncing around the Middle East, Part 1

by on Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

kuwaitI met Michele in Korea when she was teaching English in Cheju Province and I was in Seoul. Recently I asked her for an interview about the time she taught in the Mid-East, in Kuwait, Oman and the West Bank. This interview took place over Skype from me in the Philippines to Michele in Philadelphia. Thanks to Michele for all photos.

Michele’s story

Michele in the desert

Michele in the desert

My introduction to the Middle East was fraught with a lot of tension and uncertainty. In January of 2000 I accepted an offer to go to Kuwait City to teach at AMIDEAST, a nonprofit American association established in 1951 to foster greater understanding between the US and Middle Eastern and North African countries, but as far as I could see the Kuwait office was there only to offer English language instruction. The Kuwait director, Kathleen, hired me to teach on a two-year contract, but I only stayed about two and a half months. I realized later that I shouldn’t have done this, but I’d paid the airfare to Kuwait myself after having been told I’d be reimbursed at the end of my contract. I was also told I would get a work visa when I got there.

The AMIDEAST office in Kuwait was housed in a rented villa. It had about fifteen bedrooms, which were classrooms, and huge open spaces. They had classes in English for students who were going to take the TOEFL exam. When I arrived I was moved into a three-bedroom apartment which was a nice enough. I was told I would be getting a roommate, and I did after maybe a week or two. The director had asked me about certain things, and one of the things I said was that I didn’t smoke and I would rather not live with somebody who smoked. However, the roommate I got shortly thereafter smoked. She said she’d smoke only in her room, but of course since we had central air the smell went everywhere. She also met some guy who would come to our apartment at about midnight. I could hear them having sex in her room and he’d leave about ten minutes later. I spoke to the director, but nothing ever came of it. The director herself would actually scream at employees about minor stuff in front of students and everyone in the hallway. She was getting so bizarre that I eventually called the head office in Washington DC to inform them of what was going on. They sent some people who were in the region, and she was removed from her post. So, the living situation wasn’t good and the work situation wasn’t good – not a good beginning.

Kuwait

Kuwait

Kuwait was very hot, even in January. I never dressed provocatively as I wanted to be respectful of the local customs, but I also didn’t cover fully. I wore long-sleeved shirts in the cooler months and short-sleeved (never sleeve-less) when it was really hot. Even so, wherever I went men just stared. My hair was a different color, and I was a Westerner, so maybe that was the attraction. I didn’t have a car initially so I was reliant on walking or taking a taxi. But when I did get a car I found that driving in Kuwait was just bizarre. People from many different countries—Indians, Pakistanis, other Asians—just drove their own way. So it was a very unpleasant experience being on the road.

Two and a half months after my arrival the director was still unable to get a work visa for me, and I was informed I wouldn’t get my airfare money back. AMIDEAST did offer to help me get another job in Kuwait, which they were able to do in April of 2000. The new organization was based in England and called IPETQ, which provides all sorts of training to military organizations, the Kuwait National Guard, as well as Saudi Arabian Texaco and other companies. I started working at Saudi Arabian Texaco, teaching company employees. I was living in a small town called Mahboula, and every morning I had to ride about forty minutes south to Mina Al-Zour (Port of Zour), which is about a ten-minute drive from the Saudi border.

The Texaco compound was on the Arabian Gulf, right on the beach, and the water there was beautiful—turquoise and clear. From my classroom window I could see the water and date palm trees. The training facility was built specifically for teaching. There were maybe eight classrooms and some offices. Texaco provided lunch for us in the restaurant, which was a 3-minute walk from the training facility. Lunch was very nice—salads, several main courses, a variety of desserts and fresh fruit.

Kuwaiti sign

Kuwaiti sign

Classes started at 7:30 in the morning and finished at 2:30 or 3:00. Three days a week were long days, and then twice a week there were short days so it wasn’t eight hours every day. All the students were Saudi men. They were very nice, actually. Of course, many men dressed in their traditional garb, but most of these guys were just relaxed in jeans and a shirt. Some of them might have worn uniforms. At one point I had a somewhat advanced class of students who wanted to study overseas and who needed to get a Band 6 in IELTS [International English Language Testing System], meaning they had a generally effective command of the language. If they got a Band 6, Texaco would pay for them to study in England. Otherwise I had intermediate students, maybe twelve to a class. The guys all knew each other. If they were relatives or they knew each other well, they would shake hands and kiss each other two or three times on the left or right cheek. If they knew each other really well they would touch noses, which I’d never seen before. In this society men could touch each other, shake hands, kiss cheeks and all of that, but never with a woman. I’m not a huggy person anyway, especially with men I don’t know, but I was conscious of giving myself a lot of personal space around them, which they did as well. But they were very open, very nice.

If you’re teaching EFL you ask students about their experiences relating to the topic being taught. Once we were talking about family, and I asked a student how many brothers and sisters he had and he said, “I don’t know.”

I said, “Come on!” But then it occurred to me that his father could have been married more than once. In the end I said, “Okay…approximately.”

“Forty-two.”

Obviously, his father had been married four times or more. Saudis do consider half-siblings to be siblings, and they’ll introduce them as a brother or sister. Supposedly in Islam, if the man marries more than once, each wife is to be given her own place to live, but I found that some men would have a wife on one floor of the house and another wife on another floor. It’s up to the women to agree to this or not. The students said that these days, marrying more than once is sort of old-fashioned. None of the men I met who had married in the previous five, six or seven years had more than one wife.

I didn’t meet many local women because there weren’t any other women in the Texaco compound, and my activities outside of work were mostly with other expats. A lot of British people were there, not surprisingly because Kuwait was once a protectorate. I became friendly with some Brits and an Irish guy and various people from different nationalities. I did find that a lot of my colleagues were a bit—off, shall we say? And I don’t exclude myself from that. For example, alcohol was not allowed in the country, so it seemed that a lot of people became obsessed with it. They’d go to the Sultan Centre, a very nice supermarket which had everything – lots of different cheeses, all kinds of food – and they’d buy grape juice, sugar and yeast to make wine. Or they might make beer. Some of the stuff was pretty serious, like strong enough to make you go blind, and it must have caused killer hangovers. But these people were not necessarily alcoholics. They just wanted something that wasn’t available. Despite the possibility of being searched when they got off the plane in Kuwait, they’d smuggle it in from other countries. However, not everyone was searched, maybe a handful.

In Kuwait there were fast food restaurants all over the place – it was horrible. Burger King, KFC, Applebee’s, TGIFridays, McDonald’s… it was just gross. They were everywhere. But you could also find fabulous Indian food and great Middle Eastern food.

Anyway, I stayed in Kuwait for about three years, mostly at Saudi Arabian Texaco, although at various times I would go elsewhere if I was needed. I taught the Kuwait National Guard and other military personnel at another location.

Overall the experience was not great. There were a lot of foreigners in Kuwait, specifically Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, who did manual jobs like cleaning the streets. They were often treated like they weren’t even human. At gas stations the guys who were pumping gas would be out all day, even in the summer when the temperature reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit [50 Centigrade]. They’d be out there in horrendous sand storms, when the sand would get in your nose, in your hair, in your eyes. Sandstorms would come every couple of months and last for about 24 hours.

Kuwaiti camels

Kuwaiti camels

Kuwait was flat for the most part, with the highest point being Mutla Ridge, which was made infamous during the First Gulf War as the point where Iraqi soldiers were retreating and US forces bombed the shit out of them. No sand dunes to speak of in Kuwait, just trash everywhere, like plastic bags. The only part that’s nice is by the water.

Water usage is another issue. Kuwaitis often have several servants—a driver, maids, various others—and they want their houses and themselves to look good. In summer the traditional garb, the dishdasha, is worn in light colors like white, ivory or tan. They’re starched and spotless – never dirty. The men’s headgear is always perfect. Cars are washed every day. I wondered where they were getting the huge amount of water they were using. It’s a desert. It might have been taken from the Gulf and desalinated. When the issue came up on essays, like with a cause-and-effect paper, the students inevitably blamed the people who worked for them. They didn’t seem to want to take responsibility for any of their own actions. I also found that to be true in other Gulf countries.

One of the reasons I wanted to leave Kuwait was that I couldn’t stand the inhumanity shown toward the overseas workers. You’d often see stories in the newspaper of maids from countries like Malaysia “falling” from balconies and dying. You’d hear horror stories. It would seem that the male members of the families would try to have sex with the foreign maids. The wife or husband’s mother would beat them and overwork them. You’d see them all the time in the shopping centers. They had the unhappiest faces I’ve ever seen on a human being. It was horrible. I hated to look at their faces. They looked so unhappy.

Many women who survived would seek refuge in their embassies. A friend of mine would have a party every six months or so and ask people to bring clothes they didn’t want. We’d trade, and whatever was left over my friend would take to the Indian, Pakistani or Malaysian embassy for the women who were hiding out there. They had no money, no means to get back home. Also, they were probably embarrassed because their families had had to put money together to buy the visa to get to Kuwait. They’d thought it was such a great opportunity to earn all this money and send it back to their families. Then everything fell apart. If a woman was raped, the possibility of getting married when she returned home was greatly reduced. It could scar her for life.

After three years I wanted to leave. I’d been made redundant by my employers in late 2003. So I left Kuwait and did a course in Hungary. Then I needed a job. I don’t know why now, but I decided to go back to IPETQ. I did this knowing that in about Sept. of 2001, after working there for a year and a half, I found out that they’d been paying me less than other teachers even though I had more academic degrees. The others were getting 700 Kuwaiti dinars a month—$2310 at that time—while I was getting 685. Apparently the Welshman who hired me thought he could get away with pocketing the rest of it. They were all creeps at that company, the men especially. When I found out the pay discrepancy and confronted him, he just said, “Yeah, okay, I’ll pay you 700.” However, I was never compensated for the previous 18 months or so.

I should have known not to go back to them, but I did. I got a year’s contract in May 2003, and two weeks after I arrived in Kuwait I was handed a two-month notice that my job would end. They’d just needed someone short-term but didn’t want to tell me. As of July I was out of a job. I’d shipped a box by sea from the US, which can take a long time. In the end I had to have it sent on to my new job, which was in Oman.

The Only Place for Jazz in the Philippines

by on Thursday, September 4th, 2014

Left to right: Nelson Gonzales, Meg Serranicca, Bergan Nunez and Paulo Cortez

Left to right: Nelson Gonzales, Meg Serranilla, Bergan Nunez and Paulo Cortez

When my friend Ivon came to the Philippines for a visit, he searched online for jazz, found only one place, Tago Jazz Café in Cubao, and checked it out. “The players are really good,” he said, “and so young!” We dropped a few times, loved the music–which gets going some time after ten in the evening–and were impressed with the total commitment to jazz we found there. Then we interviewed the owner, Nelson Gonzales.

Nelson’s story

Nelson Gonzales

Nelson Gonzales

In Tagalog, tago means “hidden.” In 2010 when Tago Jazz Café first got started, there were five partners chipping in—three friends, my brother and me. At first, the place was half its current size. We opened in November of 2011 and lasted until July 2012, when we closed down, and I found myself left with all the debt we’d accumulated. We were closed for eight months. During that time, we had no electricity, no water, nothing. Little by little, I renovated the place as best I could. I built the stage over there with my bare hands. I reopened in April of 2013 and joined the UNESCO Jazz Day Festival, which is a worldwide celebration held every April 30. Tago was the first representative in the Philippines. I also got endorsed by the UNESCO International Jazz Day Team and got a signed letter from Herbie Hancock himself.

Paulo Cortez

Paolo Cortez

This place is not your ordinary restaurant or bar. I’m not going for a fancy or glamorous venue. It’s really an uphill battle for a guy like me because I’m poor and have no other source of income. Also, because jazz was almost nonexistent in the Philippines, the hill is steeper than usual. At Tago, I am the default drummer, the security guy, the janitor, the accountant, as well the cook. I do it because there’s something really special here, and there’s something much more for the whole country. Some old folks may argue that there has been jazz here since the 1960s or 70s, and it does exist in the expensive hotels and venues. But the music is more often than not commercial. It’s all top forty, what some people call “elevator music.”

Meg Serranicca

Meg Serranilla

Here, I try to put all these people together so they can interact while playing. This creates something new onstage. In a sense, I’m trying to educate a lot of folks. A lot of the people in the audience are new to jazz. They know very little. After coming here and hearing what we play, even on a bad night, gradually they realize music isn’t just pop and commercial. So yeah, I’m pretty happy blowing their minds by allowing them to experience live jazz in an intimate setting. At first I was just trying to stay afloat as a business, but now my purpose has evolved into educating people and bringing them together. Most of the players who come are between 18 and 35. I’m 39. After me are people in their forties and fifties.

As a drummer, I was influenced by Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa (but without the drugs and all that), Steve Gadd, Vinne Colaiuta, Dave Weckl, and new cats like Jojo Mayer, Chris Dave and Ari Hoenig. Back in the 80s there were videos on television of Chick Corea and Quincy Jones and jazz legends. Mostly I heard it on the radio. When the 90s came, it was almost all gone. The few radio stations that played jazz eventually shut down.

Bergan Nunez

Bergan Nunez

There’s a gap of maybe twenty or thirty years between the old players and the kids. From the 1980s to the 1990s, jazz almost stagnated here. Well, there were key clubs over the decades, like Birds of the Same Feather, Monks Dream, and then 10-o-2, and prominent jazz players who persevered, like the Miss Annie Brazil, Emcy Corteza, Eddie Katindig, Bob Aves, Pete Canzon, Boy, Tateng, and Henry Katindig, Elmhir Saison, Koyang Avenir, Tots Tolentino, Jeannie Tiongco, Skarlet, Richard Merk, Mar Dizon, Joey Valenciano, and Noli Aurillo, to name the few jazz cats and educators.

Glen Bondoc

Glen Bondoc

But in reality, the Philippines doesn’t have a sprawling jazz scene, since politics, mis-education, commercialism, and vicious exclusivity took over, turning people away and pushing them to pursue something else, to somewhere else, away from all the intense frustration. The politics spreads like cancer and is clannish. It gives birth to poisonous rumors and the great divides which ultimately killed Filipino jazz. It almost led to the total erasure of this art.

Most of the kids who come here are going to the University of the Philippines or the University of Santo Tomas. But even in the universities, the training is in classical music with only maybe one percent in jazz. I think kids are discouraged from taking up jazz because it’s hard to find employment in the field of music after graduation. There’s almost nothing.

Jayman Alviar

Jayman Alviar

There is a new generation of jazz cats here though. The master arranger and conductor Mel Villena and his daughter Ria Villena-Osorio and her brothers. Other excellent jazz musicians include Mel Santos, Dave Harder, Simon Tan, Rey Vinoya, Alvin Cornista, Noel Asistores, Karel Honasan, Michael Alba, Paolo Cortez, Chuck Joson, Chuck Menor, Gabe Cabonce, Bergan Nunez, Jayman Alviar, Glenn Bondoc, Jr Oca, Janno Queyquep, Paolo Dela Rama, Otep Concepcion, Reli De Vera, Michael Guevarra, Nikko Rivera, Krina Cayabyab, Mel Torre, Anna Achacoso-Graham and Jireh Calo. They go far deeper. They’re incredibly talented. They own the stage and continue to impress audiences.

Chuck Joson and Patrick Pecho

Chuck Joson and Patrick Pecho

I’m trying to build a healthy and viable Jazz scene here, and so are a lot of folks, but there’s a lot to be done. We lack technical proficiency. We’re maybe thirty years behind our counterparts in the Southeast Asian Region. Some of the foreign cats are really good, and they are well supported by the government and the private sector. Here there’s no support, so players who want to take up jazz or some other “non mediocre” art form just concede. They succumb to just getting by.

At Tago, most of the players do standards from the 1940s like John Coltrane, while others venture into modern jazz. There’s a thing in New York that’s rather heavy. Some really like to stretch it—at least try to stretch themselves. So some pretty interesting stuff is created.

Chuck Joson

Chuck Joson

When foreign acts come here, the turnout is about the same as for an all-Filipino band. We’ve had Christian Bucher, a Swiss percussionist; Todd Hunter and Jeffrey Lewis, who play for Dionne Warwick; the guitarist Chuck Stevens; Claude Dialo, the Swiss NYC-based pianist; Jess Jurkovic, a NYC-based pianist; Art Hirahara, a NYC-pianist; Wes Brown, another NYC-based  bassist; and Edsel Gomez, a New York-based Puerto Rican pianist who plays for Dee Dee Bridgewater and is a Grammy Award winner. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s a local act or big names. When the people in the audience finally do get to hear their music, they get hooked instantaneously. They’re enchanted, captivated, hooked. Once, Royal Hartigan, also a grand master and doctor of percussion, was here with his band from New York. It was raining, and the place was packed. Most of the audience didn’t know him or his music. But when they played, man, they ripped the stage, and they killed it. The way he played was so spiritual that everybody seemed to feel it. His aura was just spectacular.

Tim Rada

Tim Cada

But even if I really publicize the performance, not a lot of people come. I don’t know why. Perhaps most are afraid to open up and discover something new that they might eventually love.

When it comes to performing, the local folks tend to be shy. They tend to hide and keep the volume down, while the foreigners just get out there and play and have a good time. That’s why we’re encouraging people to come and jam, especially new guys, so they can learn how to interact with the other musicians and the audience, throwing out energy that comes back to them. This place is very intimate. There’s no hiding it when you hit wrong notes. I want the players to develop their skills and talents so that they can hone their skills and be less anxious about criticism. Some people get intimidated by the genre of jazz because they think you need a certain level of proficiency. Well, it’s true, and everyone has to pay their own dues. We tell them, “Just play your heart out. No one is judging you. You’re not going to learn what you’re doing wrong unless you fail onstage, unless you go up there and really stretch yourself.”

Julius Lopez, Paulo Cortez and Harold Cruz

Julius Lopez, Paulo Cortez and Harold Cruz

I consider jazz as a free art form. It’s not an exclusively American thing anymore. It is global. It is the sound of the heart and the keen mind played in such colorful passion. In the Middle East and Europe, people are coming up with newer and bolder stuff. So why can’t we? I want to fuel it with whatever I can, set it on fire.

Yuta Kanakata

Yuta Kanakata

I’m planning to go to the Department of Education and persuade them to include jazz history as part of a specialized subject. It would be impossible if we just talked to all the individual music teachers about jazz theory. It would take twenty years. So we’ll start with basic history—who’s local and who’s international—and to have a few materials, like a one-hour introduction to Miles, Dizzy, Bird, and all the other jazz gods. Then the kids will at least have an understanding of what jazz is. So that’s the plan. I hope they approve it. I also talked to a college about giving me scholarships to hand out. We’re working on the agreement now. Hopefully, next year I’ll be able to screen applicants and give out scholarships to fifty poor kids for the duration of their college careers. That’s fifty kids off the streets. Fifty kids learning an instrument. Fifty kids can affect the lives of others as well, in an open and positive, and progressive manner.

Harold Cruz

Harold Cruz

Don Balbieran

Don Balbieran

If Tago were in a highly-commercialized location, the rent alone would kill me. I would probably shut down after two months—unless someone gave me 50,000,000 pesos. But in that case, I’d probably end up doing the same as those high-end bars do there, like ask for ridiculous amounts of money at the gate and serve expensive beer and bland, French-sounding food. Tago would then become a glamorous club. It wouldn’t be jazz anymore, just your typical party place. So no, I’m staying here, where it’s real.

Jireh Calo

Jireh Calo

My grandparents settled in this house after World War II around 1947. They were the first to live in this neighborhood. There were no streets, just water buffaloes and grass. Nowadays, I keep checking with the neighbors about whether or not we’re making too much noise. But they’re okay with it. It’s not really loud, just like a big stereo that was left on. When the door’s shut they don’t hear it. The train, the MRT, is louder. A neighbor in front gets grumpy when somebody parks right in front of his gate, so I’m always telling people not to park there. Once, a couple of musicians got into an argument outside and began yelling. Someone complained and the local police summoned me. I went to the station and said the incident was nothing serious, just friends having fun. I try to let the barangay officials know what we’re doing. It’s not just noise. People are not coming to take drugs, set cars on fire, and make a wild ruckus. We’re doing something cultural that you probably won’t hear anywhere else.

Paulo Cortez and Karmi Santiago

Paulo Cortez and Karmi Santiago

We’ve had no security problems inside or outside. No fights. If you come in a stranger, you go out with like twenty friends. I’m trying to get rid of the wi-fi so that people don’t come to talk with each other over the internet. We’re trying to get people to listen and pay attention for once, not just blab to each other and post selfies on social media.

Rick Countryman

Rick Countryman

It’s a great feeling to play and interact with the other players as well as with the people in the audience, from those in the front tables all the way to the last inconspicuous person at the back. You can feel that unexplainable energy. For me, every time people go up onstage it’s astonishing— elating. Again, jazz here in the Philippines isn’t really popular, and being able to play in an intimate setting, it’s really something special. I say, “Intimidation doesn’t exist in my place. Come. I welcome you all.” For the people in the audience who might think they jazz is “hard to understand” I say, “What the heck, it’s music. Jazz is communication without words. You just let your emotions and thoughts flow through you and through your instrument.”

Carlo

Carlo

When you play with other people, you’re tossing in an idea, creating a melody and a tempo, something new. If there’s tension, somebody has to give some slack. The interaction is the beauty of jazz. People pitch in and the ideas are like a ball which you throw to other players and the audience. When someone catches it, it burns and so they throw it back, and it builds. It’s all about the emotions of people interacting, sharing a moment of positivity and goodwill with each other.

Listen (copy and paste in navigation bar): https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=10152275922600735&set=vb.99664970734&type=2&theater

Directions:

Ziggy Villonco

Ziggy Villonco

Coming from the South, go North on EDSA. After Camp Crame, the biggest police camp in the Philippines, and after the Boni Serrano flyover, make a U-turn at P. Tuazon. That will put you Southbound on EDSA. At the Petron station, turn right at Main Avenue. You’ll see Tago two blocks away.– Coming from the North, go to EDSA, go South and after the P. Tuazon underpass, turn right at the Petron station, then go straight for two blocks away.

Schedule: We’re open from Tuesdays through Sundays, from 8:00 in the evening until sunup. The players and the music vary every week. We have pop jazz to modern, free jazz to avant garde.

Food and drink: We have comfort food, which is a mixture of Filipino local, Italian, American and Persian cuisine. The drinks are mostly beer, rum, whiskey of course. What’s jazz without whiskey? And soda. Nothing really expensive.

tago-mapLink: Schedule, map, other details are available at;

https://www.facebook.com/pages/TAGO-Jazz-Cafe/158766277564361.

http://www.unesco.org/new/index.php?id=121529#.VAc4NdIW1sI