I taught sixth grade chorus for a year at Los Angeles Academy for Arts & Enterprise, a charter school in Echo Park. The school shared a building with a Korean Church and Hillary’s 2008 presidential campaign headquarters.
The mostly-latino kids were about a 50/50 mix of enthusiastic and well-mannered children and unrepentant wildlings. English wasn’t their second language, it was more like their third, as many of them had Mexican and Central American parents of native descent who spoke their indigenous languages at home.
The school’s culture required misbehaving kids to write letters describing the incident they were being punished for. The teacher could add a rebuttal or followup questions, the ‘Enterprise’ portion of the school’s philosophy.
These letters were cogent, evocative and dead honest. I came upon a pile of them while cleaning out some file cabinets and have transcribed them here. If you’re acquainted with this age group, you will hear some familiar refrains.
Dear Ms. Bow,
Ms. F sent me to the back to write a paragraph explaining why I was disrespectful.
That happened because a fly kept bothering me. It kept going to tables and then leaving. I tried to hit it but I kept missing. I tried to hit it with a book but still missed. When Ms. F asked me what I was doing I said “nothing” because if I talked about the fly everyone would burst out laughing.
Then a few kids noticed and softly giggled. I just looked at them and giggled. The fly was really annoying. Then Ms. F sent Hector to the back. A while later she sent Graciela to the back. Then when I and a few others laughed, she said to me “You’ll be next if you don’t pay attention.”
I tried to ignore the fly. But it kept landing. Then when Ms. F was talking it landed on my hand. I tried to hit it but it flew away. I turned around to see where it went. I saw Julio laughing at my failure and laughed a little. When I turned back around she thought I was talking.
I mean I had been talking before and she had heard me. I guess I should have explained it was Elmer. Later for example, when Ms. F authorized it. I admit it. Now I’m in trouble so I will take responsibility for my actions.
My apologies to Ms. F and you, Ms. Bow, for making me waste your time with my childish behavior. I am sincere. Manuel
Dear Ms. Bow,
I was behaving badly because I was reading a book. Because I wanted to know what happened. I was reading it when Ms. F was talking and that’s why I got in trouble.
Response: Ms. F would like to know why the book was out when she asked at the beginning of class to put everything away.
I just wanted to know what the book was about and when you said to put it away I was going to and you came to my desk and told me to write a letter. And Ms. F said that we were supposed to put everything away at the beginning of class. I did and Manuel let me borrow the book and then I was reading it. She caught me with the book and I did not respect her to put everything away. Hector
I wish I had music with a different class. Because the boys are really rude. The boys shout instead of sing. I don’t like that. I wish boys would just follow directions and stay quiet. But they don’t. But I ♥♪♪. Maria [Written on pink Hello Kitty paper]
The thing that happens is that all boys don’t listen to the teacher and they always talk back. In every class. Almost all the boys except Jose, Darren and Alexander. The girls, we listen. Jessica
CIRCUMSTANCES BEYOND MY CONTROL
The only reason I laughed is because my friend sneezed like a girl. I started laughing and then Miss F told me to write this letter. Then she sent me to the back of the class.
Response – Miss F does not ask people to write something until they have been asked several times to not talk or fool around. Agree?
NO! I do not agree because sometimes you think I’m playing around but I’m not. Ramon
Dear Ms. Bow,
Ms. F is maid at me. I was just looking at the girl that was laughing and she put me in the back and told me to write this letter. Edgar
I was good but people made jokes and I laughed. And people did funny things when we were singing. Lesley
I wasn’t doing anything bad. I love music. My friends were behaving bad and goofing off. I don’t like to stop a lot. Ms. F doesn’t like to get mad. Jose
I was trying to tell Ms. F that I didn’t have my songs. I was sharing with Josselin but I stopped because I wanted to tell Miss F the script didn’t have some of the songs.
I did get in trouble because I was being disrespectful because I was laughing and talking and making Johnny laugh and other people. I should think before I say something. Next time I’ll think before something comes out of my mouth. David
I was actually sick from the stomach and my head hurt but Brian was staring at me and he made a funny face and I laughed and then he laughed. But I am sorry to doing that. I wasn’t lying about being sick. I hope you accept my apology, Ms. F. I mean it! Sergio
How I really feel about music is happy. Singing kinda expresses my feelings. But some people try to ruin it. People shout out, don’t participate and fool around.
Some people hate you because you are mean. I think you’re a pretty good teacher. I like this class. I think you should make the bad people go to detention and the good people don’t get punished. That way the bad people get jealous and do good. Darien
I think I haven’t been bad cause I like music. When I grow up I want to be a singer but mostly a dancer. Also I like it cause Ms. F is a cool person. Jacky
Why I don’t want to participate is because I get distracted. And also I was trying to talk to Brian R. I had my feet on Brian R’s chair and was moving him.
Also I don’t like the music that much. It’s boring. That’s why my behavior is bad. And I am bad each time it’s choral music. Then I wanted to talk to Brian R and Ms. F asked me what I was doing. She made me go to the back. That’s why I’m writing this essay!!!!
Ms. F is mean a lot. I don’t really like music class. I try to behave good so my Life Folder will be good and my mom can sign it. This is the only class I don’t like. Reader Theater is better than Music. Miguel
I like music because I want to be a singer. I like my teacher called Ms F. I didn’t behave good with my teacher. The class was bad to get the teacher mad. But I like music and the teacher. I am sorry Ms. F that I got you mad. I will behave better on Thursday. Johnny
I like music class because Ms. F is really the nicest teacher in the whole school and cares about us. Julia
Dear Miss F,
I, Manuel Esperroza, got in trouble for talking and interrupting you. You said to stop and I was very close to going to Mr. Louis’s office. Well, I’ll resume to the end. Before you sent me to the back I was about to ask Mendez what the lyrics were.
I did not want to write the lyrics down so I was going to ask him if he knew the words I did not know. That way, if you asked me I would know them. Before that I must admit I had been talking about other stuff.
But I was trying to stay away from the office. I do not want to be there. I’ve been there a lot lately. And since you’re reading this I should add something else that you might want to know.
I refused to translate for Elmer because he has been giving me a lot of trouble. First, students come to me and ask me to control Elmer because he’s giving them trouble. Then Elmer hits me in the head with a lock. Outraged I was.
Then he hits me in the ribs with the lock. Mr Cooligan sent us to the office. Elmer gets in-school suspension and I get a call home. And my mom has to come to school to talk about it. Since then we were told to stay away from each other.
That’s my reason for not translating. Well, that’s it. I just have to apologize and take responsibility for my actions. Sincerely, Manuel
Dear Ms. Bow,
I was talking with a boy and Ms. F warned me to stop talking but I didn’t stop talking, that’s why I got in trouble. Sincerely, Siomara
I think it’s disrespectful we kept talking and making jokes. Also, we weren’t singing we were yelling. It’s not good. Sorry, Ms. F. I will not do it again. Bryan R is the worst. Sorry Ms. F. Anna
Dear Ms. Bow,
Ms.F sent me to the back because I said People’s Court. Then she told me to write this letter.
Response: Ms. F does not send people to the back the first time they misbehave. Agree?
Yes, because when I’m bad the first time she doesn’t send me to the back. Anthony
I was speaking when I wasn’t supposed to. I’m so sorry Ms. F. I’ll do better next time. I’ll sing and won’t be disrespectful. Sorry. Lesley
I feel like it is not fair that the kids that listen get in trouble. I feel like the kids that don’t listen more than twice should get sent to another class. I feel like Ms. F should not get disrespected. That’s how I feel. Patty
I could not sign because I am sad and sick. I’m sleepy in music and I do not like signing. I went to a party and came back at 4AM. I like music but not a lot. Brian
Well, Miss, I was singing but if you think I wasn’t that’s your choice. But if you don’t think this is good enough, because I was singing, I really don’t have anything to talk about. I was picking up stuff that fell from my backpack. I really wanted to sing but I guess you think I was talking. You’re the teacher and it’s your decision. Mimi (and Roxy says hi!)
I think the class was bad because we were not in school yesterday and maybe we got used to having fun. Mark
Most of the kids in the class were not participating. I like music, besides all the arguments. I think the class was too loud and hyper. Maybe some kids ate too much sugar today. Maria
Some people were disruptive to the class. Some people lied because they didn’t want to sing. Some people were probably bored. Alexander
Today the class was calling out a lot and I was part of that. I guess the class was tired with music because they wanted to go home. Bryan
Some people don’t want to participate because they might be tired or maybe because they don’t like it. Marta
Dear Ms. F,
I think that some people think it might be uncool to sing. But I really like music because we get to sing. I think people want to argue because they want to be silly but they are not funny. I think that the song You Got A Friend is great. Anita
Tony was ebullient and full of life, despite a few strokes and a careful adherence to sobriety. I’ll never forget him bursting into the rather sedate bar at a high end hotel in Bermuda where I was doing a solo show, shouting, ‘I heard Anne Farnsworth was playing here!’
Here’s our interview, minus the music selections. Those are posted on my YouTube channel, Anne Farnsworth Music.
Boston.com columnist Roy Greene, among many others, also published a remembrance at the time. They include many of Tony’s often hilarious, decidedly un-pc opinions; fightin’ words from the big hearted man who lived and breathed jazz:
“Brooklyn accent riffing through the Boston night, Tony Cennamo used his expansive understanding of jazz as a counterpoint to the records he played past midnight on WBUR FM, entertaining and educating sleepless lovers of everything from bebop to avant-garde.
Listeners can hear his voice speaking the words he wrote for the Christian Science Monitor when he took a moment “to vent in print what is on the tip of my candid tongue” in January 1985. Musicians’ names cascaded like a soaring saxophone solo.
“Jazz is Monk, Ornette, Duke, Bird, Dizzy, Miles, Trane, Toshiko, Pee Wee Russell,and Gil Evans, Mingus the imaginative, the juices flowing, not the bland, watered down, the whitewash of a thousand Xeroxed copies,” he wrote. “Jazz is not safe and doesn’t hide in Symphony Hall.”
He didn’t play it safe, either, and his precisely rendered opinions helped shape jazz tastes for a generation of fans during the quarter century he spent on WBUR. Mr. Cennamo, who also taught at Emerson College for many years, died Tuesday in Glen Ridge Nursing Care Center in Malden. He was 76 and had suffered a seizure in April.
“Tony’s the rare thing that most disc jockeys are not,” vibraphonist Gary Burton told the Globe in 1987 as he and others prepared a tribute concert to honor Mr. Cennamo’s then-15 years of spinning jazz records on WBUR. “He’s also a musician, a trombonist, which makes him a better DJ. It comes out a lot in his interviews. He doesn’t sound like a fan interviewing a star. He’s a real champion of the new musician in town and his interest extends beyond the currently popular to the future of music.”
When Mr. Cennamo left WBUR in 1997, Globe jazz critic Bob Blumenthal called him “Boston’s most constant jazz voice,” someone whose “deep knowledge of the music and broad taste made his programs invaluable resources for listeners.”
Mr. Cennamo, who was master of ceremonies for the Boston Globe Jazz Festival in years past, kept an eye on the past and present, too. Steeped in the genre’s history, he would tell anyone who asked, and many who didn’t, that jazz was an African-American art form.
“Most new forms of jazz music are initiated by black musicians,” he wrote in the 1985 Monitor article. “White players (with few exceptions) copy, black musicians invent!”
He also looked askance at soothing new age music and the artists featured on the Windham Hill recording label, rejecting the suggestion that jazz could be found in, say, the piano playing of George Winston.
“Cheers for those club owners and bookers who stick out their financial necks weekly to bring us some of the most talented players in jazz,” he wrote. “Meanwhile, George Winston fills Symphony Hall with his nonjazz, nonrhythm, lukewarm, Jacuzzi-inspired piano offerings.”
James Isaacs, a former Boston Phoenix writer who became a colleague on the air at WBUR, said that even when discussing musicians he admired, Mr. Cennamo employed a ready sense of humor to humanize performers that many place on a pedestal.
“People who broadcast jazz on the radio treat it with such reverence,” Isaacs said. “Cennamo always had a sense of reality, and there was a certain sense of outrageousness about him that I always found attractive. It wasn’t, ‘Now, ladies and gentlemen, the great Zoots Sims, the great John Coltrane.’ No, they were just musicians.”
The oldest of three children, Mr. Cennamo grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. He told the Boston Herald Sunday Magazine in 1987 that the first record he bought was a collection of Duke Ellington tunes, chosen because of the trombonist, Lawrence Brown.
“I listened to jazz in my room at night,” he told the Herald. “I loved it so much, my parents thought I was crazy.”
He joined the Air Force and was stationed in Omaha, where he formed an integrated jazz ensemble and railed against any club owner who tried to exclude the band because it included black musicians.
While in Nebraska, he met and married Doris Steffen, and used the GI Bill to attend Creighton University in Omaha. He got his first experience on radio across the Missouri River in Council Bluffs, Iowa, then moved his wife and children back to Brooklyn, landing a job in the WCBS radio library.
Among his first producing opportunities was a folk show for WCBS, through which he met the likes of Carly Simon, Phil Ochs, and Mary Travers of Peter, Paul, and Mary. He also was a producer of Pat Summerall’s sports show.
“He enjoyed listening to all kinds of music, as long as it was done well,” said his son, James of Arlington. “But he must have heard something that touched his soul in jazz music.”
In 1967, Mr. Cennamo took a job with WCAS AM in Cambridge, where he ran a community talk show that dealt with polarizing topics such as opposition to the Vietnam War.
WBUR offered him a weekly jazz show in 1972, and he moved to weekday mornings in 1974. The disc jockey made cameos in Robert B. Parker’s Spenser mysteries, with the Boston detective listening to his radio show while on the job.
The station revamped its programming in 1981, shifting Mr. Cennamo from mornings to a 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift, and edged him ever later over the years until he was signing off at 4 a.m. at the end of his tenure in 1997.
Mr. Cennamo, whose first marriage ended in divorce, augmented his radio work by teaching jazz history and radio programming at Emerson and in other venues.
New to Boston, Carine Kolb met him in 1986 when she took one of his classes. They married three years later.
Mr. Cennamo suffered his first stroke in 1986 and returned a few months later to teaching and the radio show. While the stroke hobbled him physically, it had the unanticipated effect of reinvigorating his approach to work.
“For a while, I was getting tired of radio,” he told the Herald in 1987. “But after the stroke, I’m glad I can do anything. I’m rejuvenated by the time off. I’m ready to explore new programming ideas.”
“He would go to WBUR in the middle of winter, with snow on the ground, with a very strong limp and a cane, still carrying a very big bag of records, because he wouldn’t go anywhere without a stack of records,” his wife said.
Isaacs called Mr. Cennamo “one of the most unforgettable people I’ve ever met. You just don’t come across many guys like that in this life, guys who are unafraid to speak their mind and who do things for other people not expecting anything in return. They just do it, and they’re amusing while doing it.”
Artists often struggle with confidence. We create from the deepest region of our souls, laying bare thoughts and emotions that most people are never forced to expose. Not only do we expose our inner selves, but we then present that exposure as a commodity on the open market where others are free to pan, pick apart or simply ignore. Is it any wonder that our confidence, our belief in ourselves waxes and wanes? Where do we get confidence in the first place? Is it formed or destroyed in childhood by our parents? Our peers? And how does the psychic pain that drives many artists to create in the first place affect our confidence? Does it strengthen it or tear it down?
Over the course of my teaching career, I’ve seen students whose confidence levels bear little relationship to their artistry and achievement. Most of them err on the side of too little, needing support and coaxing to bring out their innate talent. Stop whispering, I urge. You’re hiding your voice; let it out. Don’t be afraid.
Then there are the others. People who have an inflated, yet rock-solid sense of themselves and their gifts, despite all evidence to the contrary. Where did they get that unwavering self-assurance? Is it born or made?
I envy these people.
Years ago, one such person walked into my teaching studio. In her late 20’s and completely untrained, she was convinced that a career on the stage was her birthright. Instead of asking for my feedback, she told me what her future held. Frumpy and unattractive, with a high-pitched nasally speaking voice and a strong Brooklyn accent, I found her confidence breathtaking. Perhaps she did indeed have a unique talent, a once in a lifetime gift. A diamond in the rough who just needed some training and direction to realize her dreams.
And then she sang. And it was bad. It was stupendously, awe-inspiringly bad. So bad that, for a moment, I wondered if it was performance art or I was being punked. She sang with no inflection, no resonance, no vibrato and rarely in tune. But she was loud and proud. Confident. And boy, did I envy her.
I record my lessons to give my vocal students something to practice with and the chance to hear themselves as others do. I never keep the recordings but this one I did. Not to mock her at parties but as a reminder – confidence is mutable and self-directed. No one can give us confidence but ourselves.
So, here she is, in all her self-assured, imperturbable glory. And if you think she sounds a little bit like Miss Piggy (another example of self-possessed aplomb), well, she kind of looked like her too.
Spectacle trumped talent at the 2006 Billboard Music Awards when, during several of the early musical numbers, supersized confetti spewed from modified snowmaking machines. Giant candy canes planted around the stage led one to wonder which competitor would nail the slalom event.
Along the sides and upstage, a CGI fever dream pulsates from huge screens. Upstage, indeed. A psychedelic Candyland designed to delight, amuse and distract. Was the bamboozle supposed to blind us from the sadness? Over-produced flimflam by over-caffeinated set dressers to keep us awake and watching?
Here’s my theory – the lesser divas and divos of the pop music pantheon need a little help, a little cover from the pain of a live rendition of their Auto-tuned recordings.
Take Janet Jackson’s opening number. She begins her medley with a shout-out to one of her early hits, “The Pleasure Principal”, to school the youngsters in the audience that she, indeed, was at one time relevant. Jackson then proceeds to whisper her way through her new single as she clomps arthritically through an approximation of her tired twenty-year-old dance moves. And the confetti is flying with a vengeance.
In case a flurry of postcard-sized confetti wasn’t enough to distract us, her backup dancers leap and spin around the stage like meth-fueled Cirque Du Soleil acrobats.
Young legs execute supernatural street athletics, undeterred by the drifts of colored paper that are beginning to accumulate in drifts around the stage. Instead of distracting us from Jackson’s performance, the teenagers only highlighted her lame, geriatric performance. Seriously, she looks lame – like she’s pulled a hamstring.
Then there’s Fergie, rapping in that dated singsong manner like a female Will Smith as she minces around the stage almost in time to the music. Tired rap, forgettable lyrics, confetti explosion!
A pattern is emerging. The worse the performance, the harder the confetti falls. The lights pulse more insistently, hypnotizing us. Ignore the girl and bow to your sparkly, trance-inducing master!
Just as it seems the stage walls will come tumbling down in a frenzied representation of the end of western civilization, a giant Quincy Jones appears on the back screen like a pop music oracle. Down, ye walls of power! All is not lost!
Jones introduces a quartet of rappers who actually have talent. The walls calm to bathe each rapper in his own signature color. Hmm…no confetti. Or have supplies simply run out in the face of all that earlier suckitude?
Eager yodeler Gwen Stefani bounces around the stage, manically selling her harajuku rapping goatherd mash-up. No confetti, she must be talented. Well, she is actually singing and sort of dancing. No comment on the bewildered goat.
The guys who won digital album of the year – no confetti and no background movies. They must be really talented. Well, the lead singer is playing a piano, an actual musical instrument.
Mary J. Blige performs with only a subtle screen of vertical white stripes behind her – a subliminal reference to a now defunct minimalist rock duo or an homage to postwar Italian cinema? But she is indeed confetti-free. She’d better be, she won nine times!
Now comes Stevie Wonder to introduce Century award-winner Tony Bennett. Visually, the quietest screen of the evening, a cascade of calming electric blue. Two legends. No confetti.
As for the less gifted performers who appeared tonight, the message seemed clear. They’ve already got your bread, how about a little circus?
I’ve been teaching piano and voice this semester in Riga, Latvia, in fulfillment of a Fulbright Scholar award. I joined the Jazz Studies faculty at the Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music, the country’s top conservatory.
I did some teaching and clinics at the Dome Choir School, a prestigious magnet middle/high school for aspiring musicians. I also performed and did master classes around the country. More on that later…
Rigas Doma Kora Scola
Latvia has a long and impressive choral tradition and are pretty serious about their singing.
Here’s a Youtube of a Latvian boy’s choir performance:
The singers are fabulous and the Choirmaster is mesmerizing.
My jazz singers were pretty awesome, too. Well-trained in technique, reading and theory, they were also enthusiastic, sweet-natured and absolutely rabid about jazz. A real pleasure to work with.
In July, Riga hosts the Latvian Song And Dance Festival, which takes place every four years. 100K people will be walking around Riga in traditional Latvian dress. As Riga’s normal population is only 700K, they will definitely stand out.
The performances are going to be amazing, I’m sorry I’ll miss it.
If you wonder why Lativians have such great complexions, they drink a lot of carrot juice.
The music sounds vaguely eastern, it may be because there’s an interesting connection between this region and India. Indian historians think that Latvia was originally settled by Indo-Aryans. Of course the Latvian scholars think it’s the other way around.
Either way, there are about 250 words Latvian shares with Sanskrit and they share many of their pre-christian gods’ names and identities as well.
Here are their symbols representing the different gods:
Latvian symbols for their gods
The designs make for some beautiful jewelry and embroidered clothing.
On my first day in Riga, my landlady took me for a walk around the city where I learned my first word in Latvian – Atlaides!
I arrived to some harsh weather compared to what I’d left in Los Angeles.
Note – It’s only 4:30 PM
Well, it’s 5 o’clock and pitch dark… cocktail, anyone?
Riga is farther north than Copenhagen and Moscow so it gets nippy. Days usually had below freezing temps, with a cold, wet wind blowing in from the river. Nights were face-numbing.
Walking ranged from treacherous to annoying – snow-covered sidewalks force that ‘one step forward, half-step slide backward’ motion. Just like at the beach, except for the freezing-your-ass-off part.
It was pretty, though, when the sun came out. Sometimes the sidewalks even melted a bit.
Shadows are long by early afternoon
I strolled through Vermanis Park every day on my walk to the conservatory. A much prettier and calmer commute than the 10 to the 405.
I didn’t have a car so the weather forced me to tackle the tram system learning curve.
I felt like an idiot the first time – How do you pay? You can pay the driver but they don’t look too welcoming behind their plexi-glass wall. There was a way to pay with an E-card, but where do you buy them? And where do you punch them in?
On my maiden voyage, I spent the whole trip squeezing a one Lat coin ($1.90) in my sweaty mittened palm, waiting to be accosted by the ticket control ladies. I’d heard they were tough and might stop the tram and kick you off after some biting public ridicule, which I wouldn’t understand since I only knew one word in Latvian – Atlaides. Sale? Sale?
Isn’t your first ride free?
After the initial excitement of this new environment wore off, reality set it and I began to feel isolated and out of sorts.
I grew up in this climate, as I repeatedly assured everyone who asked, so going from palm trees to near-arctic conditions wasn’t as extreme as people assumed it to be. But the light deprivation was affecting my mood and walking on dangerously icy streets kept me from exploring, going to jazz clubs and restaurants, as much as I would have. Broken bones from falls were not unusual and the bitter cold made one think twice about venturing out in the evening.
But the biggest factor in my growing sense of isolation was the language barrier. I’d spent extended stays in Europe on tour and thought I wouldn’t have much of a problem. What I forgot to consider was during those previous stays I had lived in hotels where people spoke English and I ate in the dining room.
It didn’t take long to suss out the language map – people under 30 speak English, very well; between 30 and 40 it’s a crapshoot and over 40, forget it. If I got lost, which I frequently did, I would look in a store window and if a 20-something was behind the counter, I knew I could go in and ask for directions.
Latvia has only been liberated from the former Soviet Union since 1991 and kids growing up in that era (“Soviet times” as the locals call it) studied Russian. As a result, they speak it like champs but rarely do you find someone in that age group who speaks English. Also, about 50% of Riga’s population is ethnic Russian, and they survive very well speaking only Russian. Similar to Los Angeles, where people can live comfortably speaking only Spanish.
Latvians don’t express warm and fuzzies to strangers, at least by American standards. Store clerks can look alarmed if you smile at them. They don’t reach out if you appear to be struggling and seem to have a strong distrust of strangers.
There was a book on the State Dept’s suggested reading list that I found invaluable to my understanding of this new culture. “The Art Of Crossing Cultures”, by Craig Storti, taught me to see a foreign culture through the eyes of the locals instead of my own.
What behavior we Americans might perceive as unfriendly may just be respect for someone’s privacy. And in a society that was not so long ago overrun by government informers, it could also be a healthy sense of self-preservation.
I learned that the constant little stressors I was feeling were a sort of psychic death by a thousand paper cuts. Pulling a door handle when I should have pushed, getting lost several times a day, not being able to communicate basic needs – becoming overwhelmed and depressed was a natural and normal response. As Storti says (paraphrasing), “You have to get used to feeling like a mentally-challenged six-year-old. What will make for funny dinner party stories when you get back home aren’t funny at all when you’re living through them.”
So I turned to Google translate, learning a few words every day. It’s a small thing but learning the difference between “grûst” and “vilkt” (push and pull) on doors was huge and saved me about 8-10 arggghhs a day.
Grocery shopping took three times as long as it should have. Chicken was recognizable but pork vs. beef? Fish?
Huh? Carp, I got that one
I would stand slack-jawed in front of the dairy cooler holding a package of something in my hand. Butter or margarine? Milk or buttermilk?
Ordering from the deli counter? Something I could only dream of doing in the beginning.
Latvians make great salads and I did a lot of pointing and grunting to get some.
One thing that made shopping easier was the currency exchange. The Lat is a little under $2.00 and since things were sold by the kilogram, a rough estimate was $1/lb.
Back to Google translate for more words.
Latvians would ask me, Are you learning the language? Yes, I’d reply, All the important words – chicken, salmon, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes….
One day at the dairy cooler I saw a woman holding a package of sviests and wearing the same dazed, slack-jawed expression I had worn a month earlier. “Excuse me,” she said, “do you speak English?”
“Yes,” I replied, “I don’t speak Latvian though, but I can tell you that’s butter!”
Daylight hours are lengthening, the weather is improving and so is my state of mind. I’m getting a handle on the language and have learned my way around.
In an effort to recreate some of the habits and patterns of life back home, I joined a health club. As a life-long gym rat, I feel comfortable in that milieu and the atmosphere and protocols are the same no matter where you are in the world.
I’m amazed at the ease with which the instructors slip between Latvian and Russian, counting out a set of crunches in one language and then the other. I’ve learned to count to eight in both languages!
Training, Aerobics, Gym, Sauna
I played a concert at a very cool place called Kalnciema Quarter, a set of historic wooden buildings that have been rehabbed into cutting edge designer stores, artisan workshops, offices and restaurants. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site, as its style of 18th-19th cent. wooden architecture hasn’t survived in most of Europe. Bombs are not healthy for wooden buildings.
I won’t say the piano was old but it had built-in candlestick holders…
Teaching is going well and I’m loving my students’ energy. There are a few macho types who aren’t used to taking advice from women (I’m looking at you, Vadims!), but for the most part, they’re a dream to work with.
Have I mentioned Latvians are tall?
Inga Berzina, my vocal jazz counterpart at the Academy who has become a good friend, thought it was hysterical when I was trying to reserve teaching space for piano students with the non-English speaking room manager and just kept repeating the one Latvian word I knew at the time – labs (good). I need a labs piano! Labs, please!!
I was invited to join the judging jury for the Riga Jazz Stage vocal competition, in association with the annual Rigas Ritmi Jazz Festival. It began with 75 aspirants from all over Europe, whittled down to a top 12 who performed for 2 nights along with some professional appearances. One of my students, Evilena Proteckor, made the finals and, I don’t know why, but I thought she was the best.
Latvians LOVE flowers
It was a gas meeting and working with the international judges, who are all involved in the European jazz scene as players, educators, composers and promoters.
Steponas Januška – Lithuanian Vocalist, Composer & Educator
Swiss Peter Basler, manager & promoter
Good stories, cameraderie and the best part? English was the common language. Sweet relief after two months of wandering through a linguistic desert.
“Riga becomes magical in the summer,” says Kerri from the US Embassy, and she is right on.
Summer is finally here.
Neighborhood flower shop
The park I walk through on the way to school? Greeny green green now.
Daylight hours linger well into the evening, pushing toward 10PM. At night, there are fairy lights in the trees and the undersides of the curved stone bridges over the canal glow an ethereal blue. People are strolling, sitting on benches soaking up the sun, and smiling!
Tourists have appeared and I’m hearing more English on the streets than I’ve heard in the previous four months combined.
Nearly all of the cafes and restaurants are building outdoor seating areas – a lot of sawing, hammering and painting going on. Do they tear these structures down when the weather gets cold and rebuild every spring?
I performed a concert at the Academy, playing with two very accomplished students, bassist Edvins Ozols and drummer Rudolfs Dankfelds.
They played great and we had a lot of fun. I would hire them anytime.
There are more videos on my YouTube channel – AnneFarnsworthMusic
The shopping thing is finally under control. I’m fortunate that one of Riga’s larger open air markets, Vidzemes Tirgus, is a block from my house. Each door to the huge stone building has the name of the food group sold in that section.
Not a ballroom entrance – the meat door
I’ve learned which vendors aren’t annoyed by my language deficiencies and which ones were taking advantage of my initial poor understanding of the currency. An expensive lesson.
Not getting these kinds of looks anymore
Waiting for me to get my act together
I’ve settled on a bread lady, egg lady, fruit lady, you get the idea. At this point I know enough Latvian to select amounts and understand what they’re asking me to pay.
The problem now is some of the vendors think I speak more Latvian than I do and start chatting with me. I have absolutely no idea what they’re saying so I just mirror their facial expressions. If they look happy, I nod my head and smile. If they seem unhappy, I frown and look concerned.
The older ladies have been the nicest, taking a motherly interest in my welfare. Which sauerkraut should I get? ‘Oh, try this one – it has caraway seeds! Or do you prefer garlic?’
Very excited to see raw milk products sold here without any OMG-we’re-so-cool fanfare and the accompanying nose bleed prices. Cheese, butter, yogurt, sour cream, for about the same prices as pasteurized.
Suck it Whole Foods and your $8 quart of raw milk!
For liquid dairy, you bring your own containers which they fill from pitchers. Piano wire is used to cut slices of butter from long rectangles. It’s all very farmstead and homey, although I’m careful not to annoy the piano wire ladies.
Riga’s main market is the Centraltirgus. Housed in 5 WWI-era zeppelin hangars, it’s the largest and oldest open air market in Europe.
It’s a bit far from my apartment for daily shopping but I’ve been a couple of times for fish.
There are a mind-boggling 3000 vendors in the warmer months.
Inga Berzina and my students will be disappointed if I didn’t mention my discovery of, and immediate addiction to, berzu sula, or birch sap, which they found hilarious.
The spring tonic appears without warning in late March and, a few weeks later, disappears just a quickly.
Packaged in ratty-looking plastic bottles with no safety caps and a dodgy-looking waxy scum floating on the top, birch juice is a traditional kidney/liver cleanse, blood purifier and all around healthifier. I loved it and was drinking a couple of liters a day for the few weeks it was around, to the amusement of all.
Inga and I drove up to Cēsis, a town of 18K people northeast of Riga, so I could do a teacher training seminar at the Alfred Kalnins School of Music.
Took a while to find the school
It was a three hour drive up to the former market town, which dates to medieval times. They’ve got a castle!
It’s a beautiful place and, as I was informed by several proud locals, older than that Johnny-come-lately down the road, Riga.
Inga was a trooper. After driving us there, she had to translate the entire two-hour master class. English is not her forte, it was an exhausting day for her.
After the seminar, we had lunch, walked around the town and stepped inside St John’s Church, built in the 13th cent., where an ancient docent told us we could climb up to the bell tower.
As we worked our way up the several floors to the top, the ascent became more and more treacherous. Winding stone stairs were replaced by wooden your-grandmother’s-attic-y sorts of stairs which led to rickety ladders that looked like original equipment. There were no lighting or safety features. Apparently Latvia is not a very litigious society; there’s no way something this hazardous would be open to the public in the States.
But the view was worth the potential bodily harm.
The semester is winding down and so is my time here in Riga. Finals period is in full swing, which means juries, the final exams for performance classes. The students play before a jury of faculty and are graded on their performance.
A jazz jury
Are these kids adorable or what?
We’re doing juries at both the Academy and Dome Choir School and I’m loving the way drummer Tālis Gžibovskis, the jazz chair at Dome, is running the deliberations that take place after their jury performances.
Fellow students, family and friends
Academics have a tendency to be long-winded *cough* and in love with the sound of their own voice. That can make for excruciatingly long faculty meetings.
Tālis, on the other hand, runs the discussion like John McLaughlin of the old news analysis show, The McLaughlin Group – throwing out a student’s name and pointing to a guest, er professor, for a quick yea or nay and some hastily mumbled commentary before moving down the table. If you’ve seen the show or the SNL skits spoofing it, you know exactly what I mean. Never in the halls of academe has so much been accomplished in so little time.
Since the discussion was taking place in Latvian, I was only getting about 40% of the conversation. So when it abruptly ended I thought we were taking a break. How my heart soared when Inga said, “Nope, we’re done!”
I want to say a few words about Inga Berzina who, as I mentioned earlier, has become a good friend and was so helpful and generous getting my teaching situation organized.
But first, you should know that Inga is a very popular name in Latvia. Since I know three Ingas, I’ve given them nicknames to save confusion when talking to the folks back home. Inga Berzina is Inga Voice; my big-hearted, chain-smoking landlady is Inga Landlord and the fantastically accommodating and endlessly patient Inga Bodniece at the US Embassy is, of course, Inga Embassy.
Inga Voice is a wonderful teacher and an amazing vocalist. She’s in high demand in the Baltics and Russia as an educator, recording artist, jazz camp superstar, competition adjudicator and all-around good egg.
Her Academy voice students took double lessons this semester, their regular weekly classes with her and an extra one with me; unlike some of her peers who handed me their classes and ran off to join the circus.
At the Dome School, I sat in on her lessons, adding my observations and suggestions.
Inga with a Dome School student
Inga’s just released a new CD, Neizteiktie Vardi (Unspoken Words). It’s a collection of Latvian pop tunes with jazz arrangements. Hmm, where have I heard that concept before? Speaking of which, Sealed With A Kiss is now out in Mp3 and Hi Res! Hee hee, back to Inga…
Jazz singing in Latvian is not easy but Inga makes it flow. I particularly like the opening track, “Atceries Mani Vel” (I Still Remember).
Here’s a YouTube of one of the songs on her CD, “Reiz Nāksi Tu” (Once You Come In).
She’s awesome, ’nuff said.
My brother Dave has come to visit me. Yay! Company!
He’s a ham radio nut and apparently it’s a thing to broadcast from different countries. He said there’s 350 countries in the world and he’s only hit 35, so imagine his excitement having all these tiny countries to knock off the list.
Picked him up at the airport and our first stop was a wine bar that was hosting a free wine tasting event.
Wine, brother and food
Dave’s doing Tex Avery-style boggling at the assortment of blondes wandering about, I’m just interested in the vintages. Welcome to Latvia!
Took him to one of my favorite restaurants, Kalku Varti, in Old Town. The food is locally sourced, creatively presented and delicious. I’m not a picture-taking type of foodie but had to snap our desserts, they were so whimsical.
We drove up to Estonia just over the border so he could transmit and then he took off alone for Lithuania and Poland.
When he returned we took a 15 hour train trip to Saint Petersburg.
Our sleeper cabin
There was no food on the train but they did attach a bar car after four hours. Priorities!
No food but complimentary water and flowers.
I ordered a martini and the barmaid slammed a pint of vodka and two shot glasses on the counter like some old-timey saloonkeeper. It had been hours since we last ate so the crew scrounged up some cheese cubes and a tin of Pringles. Oh, and there was beer.
Hundreds of miles from nowhere, in the middle of the forest, we were awakened at 2 AM for a border crossing – young, strutting country bumpkins with AKs slung over their shoulders, accompanied by menacing guard dogs. Okay, overnight train to Russia with intimidating passport control inspection is officially off my bucket list.
Dave asks, Is this the part where they take us out in the woods and shoot us?
My question is, Do they know those hats look way too big for their heads?
Saint Petersburg was brilliant but I couldn’t wait to get back to Riga. Ironic, considering my long Latvian learning curve, but seriously – Cyrillic street signs? Really?
Latvia does a lot of smart things that we don’t do. For instance, their streetlights turn yellow before turning green, not just before red. Saves a lot of “wake up, dammit!” honking.
Retail packaging is much greener than in the west. Cereal comes in bags instead of boxes. Actually, a lot of things come in bags – milk, yogurt and other items you’d never think of as bag-able.
Attirance, my new favorite skin care products store (sorry Body Shop), sells soap by cutting off slices, like butter, and then weighing the bars and wrapping them beautifully.
I went to listen to a student, the aforementioned Evilena Protector, sing at a local club. Her voice is amazing and I predict a bright future for her. It was fun hanging out and sitting in with the band.
What an interesting surname she has and she was definitely one of my protecters during my time in Riga.
Inga Landlady took me to Jurmala, the seaside, to visit her weekend cottage. There are actually two building on her ‘compound’, which she is in the midst of renovating.
I had been there during the winter but now it was full summer and pretty sweet.
Inga Grauze, aka Inga Landlady
We spent many wine-soaked nights discussing politics. I don’t think I’ve ever discussed Lenin, Stalin, Gorbachev and JFK in a single conversation before in my life.
Inga Voice has invited me to her weekend place, her childhood home, in Smiltene. The backyard slopes down to a beautiful lake and is the perfect spot to decompress.
They have a traditional sauna house that is heated with wood. Her husband got the stove going and we ladies took a late-night sauna.
There were birch branches for slapping ourselves with but Inga said that’s more of a guy thing…
After a few minutes in the heat we would stumble down to the freezing lake and jump in. It was so cold my screams were echoing off the trees on the other side of the water. Mind-numbing, heart-stoppingly cold. It got easier about the third time around. Plus, there was beer.
Edited for decency
The next day, the neighbors hosted a luncheon that lasted four hours. There was food, drink, music and a host of guests wandering in and out.
Wife plays guitar while husband opens wine. Good marriage.
Most of the conversation was in Latvian so I just ate, drank and nodded a lot.
Great Idea! Let’s get drunk and go kayaking!
Since Inga is over 40, she may need some help reading this blog. Ask one of your daughters to translate for you, Inga!
My six months in Latvia have come to an end. No big thoughts or final summation to close with; I’ve pretty much expressed it all. Just a big thank you to all my students, colleagues, Embassy staff and everyone else who guided me through this amazing experience.
The night before I left, Inga and I had a last meal and I gave her my hat to remember me by.
Ciao, Riga! Es garām jums!*
*I’ve been informed that Google Translate is ridiculously archaic so instead of saying, ‘I will miss you’, I’ve probably said ‘I shalt miss ye’, or something biblical like that.
MONDEGREENS mon•de•green(n) : a word or phrase that results from a mishearing of something said or sung
When I was a kid, I was seriously puzzled by the lyrics in certain pop hits. They didn’t make sense or it was a kind of sense that only teenagers and adults could understand.
Of course, I never actually asked a teenager or an adult what the lyrics meant. As with many things in my childhood, like gravity or how Ajax got stains out of sinks, I chalked it up to one of the mysteries of life.
“My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean”
I heard the Scottish folk song as ‘my body lies’… and found it mystifying. Are you floating above the ocean or in it? Face-up or the dead man float? Are you covering the whole ocean? How big is this body, anyway?
Below are a few more auditory befuddlements. Got any of your own?
BEATLES: “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”
To me, it sounded like the Beatles were singing, ‘Hey boy, you’ve got your heiny in the way…’
I was shocked they were allowed to say heiny on the radio.
THE BUCKINGHAMS: “Kind Of A Drag”
I thought this song was an extended Canada Dry ginger ale commercial and they were singing “Canada Dry – when your baby don’t love you. Canada Dry – when you know she’s been untrue.”
Because just like your Mom gives you a ginger ale when your stomach’s upset, drinking one when you’re emotionally upset would make you feel better, too.
MONKEES: “Cheer Up Sleepy Jean”
Sounded like they were singing, “My shaving razor’s cold and it stinks.”
Men’s toiletries were a mystery to me but ‘stings’ makes more sense.
MANFRED MANN: “Do I Diddy”
In the bridge, the singer says, “Well, I’m hers, she’s mine. I’m hers, she’s mine, wedding bells are gonna chime.”
I thought he was saying, “Well, I’m hurt, she’s mad…” and I wondered, If he’s hurt and she’s mad, why are wedding bells gonna chime?
I figured since grownups fight after they’re married, they probably didn’t see fighting as a reason not to get married in the first place.
Speaking of Manfred Mann, in their song, “Blinded By The Light”, the lyrics are:
‘Revved up like a deuce,
Another runner in the night’
I thought they were saying:
‘Wrapped up like a douche,
Another mother in the night’
Makes absolutely no sense, I know.
ELTON JOHN: “Rocket Man”
Molly Bloom from the Bay Area writes:
“I used to think Elton John was singing, ‘Rocket Man, burning like a piece of hairy bone.’” Burning hairy bone – god, what an awful smell.
PRINCE: “Little Red Corvette”
I heard the title line as ‘Feel that, Colette?’ I have three brothers and I could imagine someone’s annoying brother pinching his sister over and over while saying, “Feel that? How about that?”, along the lines of the dreaded ‘Hurtz Donut.’ When I grew older I heard the mondegreen in a more, um, adult situation.
Gaily The Cross I Bear
Christian E. from Toronto reports that when he heard this song in church as “Gaily The Cross-Eyed Bear”, he asked his mother why they would call a cross-eyed bear Gaily.
JIMI HENDRIX: “Purple Haze”
This is a common misheard lyric. When Jimi says, “Excuse me, while I kiss the sky”, I thought he was saying ‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy.’
Not knowing much about sex, and never having heard of homosexuality, I found this puzzling indeed.
ROLLING STONES: “Beast Of Burden”
My brother Dave, in upstate New York, thought that Mick Jagger was promising he would never be your ‘pizza burning’.