memories of washington

MEMORIES OF WASHINGTON, memories of love, of clinging love, of wet-eyed girls kissing me before the fall break, as if I was going off to war or something, big District sun, big orange brick buildings, big melodrama, and all the floors of Thurston Hall with the vomit in the water fountains on weekends, and the chair that people kept in the elevator door on the fourth floor, so that our fourth floor people would get the lift first in the mornings. The rush down and up the staircases, the sweaty foreheads, the nasty coeds, those nicknames codenames like “Bastard Dan” and “Soup Boy,” idle conversations like, “Did you hear the new Ben Folds?” Ironic t-shirts, t-shirts mocking ironic t-shirts, normal t-shirts, and, “Did you get the new Lauryn Hill?,” sharpened pencils, baggy shorts, the bounce of the braided hair, and the black SUVs pulling up on Sunday mornings with young underage-ish women rather staggering toward those big wood doors after some wild night in an Alexandria or Georgetown penthouse, undergarments barely refastened. Hot, pungent Washington, DC, rats in the bushes, Congress on the Hill, Chinatown, U Street-Cardozo, sprawled homeless in the parks at night, groaning like Civil War wounded in a field hospital, and that one particular homeless man with the dreads and strange big eye who domineered Farragut North with his pronouncements of dread and the second coming. One morning, I awoke to see him standing outside our house, babbling his Biblical fury, as if he had followed me home. He looked back at me and smiled heinous and cockeyed. They said a girl in Mitchell Hall woke up once to encounter a stranger sitting in her room, another one of the unwashed mentally ill without homes. The classes were huge, whole auditoriums full, and all I did is sketch psychedelic cartoons while so-and-so gave us the intro to overview. One class, intro to sociology, was so full that there were never any seats. I would just walk by the open door, see if there was room for me, and if there wasn’t, I would keep on walking. It was just beginning to dawn on me then that I was full of “stuff” — passion? emotion? — or just maybe a psychopath trying to function in a hamster cage paper pushing world. Run the wheels, run the wheels, run those damn wheels, now, drink it off. Order some fries. Stand in line for a Manouch Dog at 2 AM. Take it home, devour it, leave the foil in curls by the bed, sleep off the hangover, dream. Tomorrow would be another day. Tomorrow.

written 20 march 2019/revised 9 september 2021

maa by black bread gone mad: a review

Black Bread Gone Mad - MAA (2021) Hi-Res
MAA by Black Bread Gone Mad, 2021

I WAS ONE OF THE PEOPLE WHO contributed €35 to Black Bread Gone Mad’s Hooandja campaign to fund the production of their second long-playing recording, MAA. Fortunately, the campaign was successful and, apparently, I am still owed a vinyl version of the record, though I have not yet invested in a new set of turntables. I was gifted the CD though, which I finally got a chance to listen to this week.

Black Bread Gone Mad is a newish Estonian ensemble that plays what I would call world music. Their first album, Ayibobo, was released in 2018. The title track is an anthem if there ever was one, and the live performances were thrilling. Black Bread Gone Mad is one of the few bands in Estonia that is capable of putting on an exciting performance.

Many Estonian groups rather flaunt their introversion, and attending concerts can feel like watching two or three people pick lint out of each others’ bellybuttons, who then hold it up on display to concertgoers, only to dissect it with subdued, whispered analysis. Some audiences go for this approach, but, honestly, two hours of it can lull me to sleep.

Another one of the qualities or pitfalls of the Estonian music scene is that many groups are byproducts of the higher education system. They form in college, usually in music programs, and can come off more as the school projects of highly motivated students than what we now think of as a band: a group of musicians with a unique artistic vision that they aim to fulfill.

Black Bread Gone Mad is comprised of musicians that came out of the Viljandi Cultural Academy in Estonia, but who, according to its members, badly wanted to break free from the barriers of academic projects and make music freely. While most acts that come out of Viljandi get lumped together as “ethno” or “folk” music, in at least the American sense of folk, there is nothing folk about this group, except maybe some of the rather elegant duets between Merike Paberits (flute, vocals) and Lee Taul (violin, vocals) the phrases of which recall Estonian traditional music.

There is a lot of rock in Black Bread Gone Mad though — I have been told their drummer, Martin Aulis — is among the better drummers in Estonia. Their bassist, Mati Tubli, is also excellent, and has an amazing feel for his instrument, and the guitar player borrows heavily from the hard rock canon, and if you squint at him, it’s not hard to imagine Jimmy Page standing up there. In a word or ühesõnaga, as the Estonian say, they are different, unique, and worth checking out.

MAA (“land”) is their second release. I picked mine up at the café but waited for a trip to Obinitsa in Setomaa to enjoy the record, listening to it as I rolled down out-of-the-way roads lined by dense pine forests. The first four tracks are interesting musical exercises, and show the group experimenting with different vocal harmonies, rhythms, and sounds, with a heavy influence from African music as well as jazz fusion. Some of these compositions wouldn’t be out of place on some of Miles Davis’s 1970s records.

The group does not sing particularly in Estonian. I was told by Paberits and Taul that they are singing in different creoles and dialects from Haiti or Burkina-Faso, for example. At first, I thought they had invented their own language, like Sigur Ros’s “Hopelandic,” but they have not ventured that far just yet.

Two tracks that I found outstanding were “Yemen” and “Kosmos,” which to me showed great promise and evolution. Both are beautiful, emotive, interesting songs that stretch the bounds of song structure and musical ideas. Based on the sonic territory contained in these songs alone, I think this ensemble could put out two LPs more. Call one “Yemen, Part II,” and the other “Kosmos, Parts II and III.”

The band performing at the Harvest Party at the Folk Music Center in Viljandi, Estonia, October 2020. From left to right, Peeter Priks (guitar), Martin Aulis (percussion), Merike Paberits (flute), Lee Taul (violin), Mati Tubli (bass).

The final track on MAA is a collaboration with Gilly Jones, a Ghanaian singer now resident in Estonia, who leads his own ensemble, GJ and the Evocations, to which Taul also contributes vocals. Here, Mr. Jones crashes the party like a West African Pitbull with a funky growl that brings to mind reggaeton and hip hop, bringing something wholly new to the Estonian music scene. It’s a strong ending to something, but also a beginning.

I expect a lot more from this cadre of musicians.

May be an image of 1 person and standing
Mr. Gilly Jones on stage with the Evocations, summer 2021

blues en mineur

WHAT KIND OF DAY is today? Today is the day when I find myself sitting back in the Nepalese restaurant waiting on an order while Sigrid recounts how one of the chefs of a rival restaurant recently died of a heart attack at a premature age because he overworked himself, and how one of their own chefs had to be taken to the hospital for working too hard. Sigrid is older, a grandmother, but energetic and an advocate of self love. “After all, what are you going to do with all that money if you die before you can spend it?” Point taken. The airplanes, hotels, trams, late-night caffeine infusions: type, type, type. This frenetic pace that eats you into your grave, because where else could it lead? Did you really think that after working your body and mind to the bone, you would magically awake at 50 or 60 with a satchel full of lucky charms beside you, a one-way ticket to paradise, and enough energy to warm the Antarctic Research Station in cold winter? It’s never going to happen, and that’s why it was good to get a bit of a reality check from Sigrid with her platinum Viking braid. What else is new? I read an interview with Wes Anderson, the film maker, who discussed reverse emigration of Americans to Europe, of which I suppose I am an example, and also all of his favorite films, which he found time to watch, even while directing great films, while I was writing something, whatever it was, it’s already published, done, gone, over and out, and waiting on my order of Nepalese food, this time the mixed vegetables. I was working on a short story directly inspired by the real-life death of the priest I used to work with as a teenager, who, it is now alleged, was also sexually harassing young men on the side, though I never experienced such harassment. But what to call the priest? I keep thinking of Boston’s Faneuil Hall for some reason, or is that too New England for a Long Islander? He needs a solid, Yankee name, I tell you, and a personal island, a family island, gifted to his line from King Charles II himself, in a moment of post-Cromwellian giddy glee. These are the ideas I am sketching into my notebook while Sigrid talks about masks, viruses, and health inspections. “But viruses have always been around and will always be around,” she says. “There is little we can do about this.” I am getting a bit tired of this “whose side are you on?” stuff that’s been going on. Want to retire, read some books, listen to “Blues en Mineur,” disappear. Maybe watch some of those Truffaut films Anderson keeps talking about. That’s the spirit. This year has been the year that has shattered all and everything to the nth degree. All I am left with is some hazy memories, glass fragments. I am fresh, I am new, and I really have no idea what will happen next. We’ll see, I suppose. We will see.

katarina kyrkobacke

ON KATARINA KYRKOBACKE, at 8:30 am or thereabouts. A small street winding with the cool air through the bluffs of Södermalm, damp and refreshing, creamy houses with mustardy finishes and black stovetop pipes protruding, cobblestones and fine hemmed in trees. These give way to red wooden dwellings with toys and yellow flowers in the windows and everywhere that faint chirping of Stockholm birds. In the distance the roar of construction by the locks of Slussen winds up. Outside a school, a father is gently combing through his daughter’s white-platinum hair and a black car breaks the silence, its wheels finessing the stones of the road. A man in a flat cap jaunts by, clears his throat loudly, spits on the street. Despite this, there is the feel of polished cleanliness everywhere, that well-to-do feeling, as if the Swedes have always known wealth and wealth is all they’ve ever known. Back at the hotel, we have a good breakfast of scrambled eggs with chives and onions, big bowls of yogurt, dried banana, crisp dried coconuts, and three cups of the finest coffee there is. “Of course, you drink more coffee here,” says Erland, a steaming mug in his hands. “You’re in Sweden.” He says it as if we have all died and gone to heaven. This Swedish angel is proud of his homeland. He even approves of its bike paths and pedestrian walks. “It’s not like in Estonia where BMWs and Lexuses blow by you, splashing you with water,” he says bitterly. I am surprised he chooses to recall the makes of the cars, but Sweden is old money and the Estonians are nouveau riche. It’s that old old money, new money thing, along with some shared hand-me-down of clumsy woodsman’s poverty. I feel blessed to be here. I remember my first trip to Stockholm in ’01, staring up at the wreck of the Vasa in the Vasa Museet, a museum I had read about in a children’s book my grandparents once gave me but never expected to see with my own two eyes. After breakfast, we head to the Nordiska Museet, where my children make for the playroom first and never really leave, hoisting toy wooden buckets into an old make-pretend farm. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to stay in Sweden, I consider, elope with that redhead from the Pressbyrån in Slussen, to lie beside her at night, listening to ship’s horns in the harbor, and hear of the inner workings of this marvelous convenience store. “We were out of Maribou chocolate.” “It was time to refill the cups.” To lie sprawled in bed sheets with a woman who reeks of cinnamon buns, kanelbulle. In the mornings, she is off to the shop, to prepare the coffee, stor cappuccino, lite cappuccino, the whir of the machine, and there she is again behind the counter, processing people’s payments in her blue shirt and saying, varsågod. The blue of her shirt brings out the blue of her eyes, just like the water licks at the docks of Östermalm where we step off a boat later and are surprised by the golden glitz of the gilded Royal Drama Theatre. I keep processing this idea for a children’s book, about a Stockholm teenage girl with a ne’er-do-well father who turns to petty theft to make ends meet. Then one day she is caught and sent away to Långholmen, the old prison island down the harbor. I play with this idea all the way to the ship that takes us back to Estonia, the front bar of which has been permanently converted into a playroom. The five year old’s balloon is still with us, believe it or not, this artifact from Gröna Lund. It may be the best balloon we have known collectively in all of our lives. It cannot be lost, deflated, or stolen. In the playroom, they play Estonian children’s disco music, oi-oi-oi, ai-ai-ai, a strobe projects dancing rainbow lights across the floor, and I take a seat beside a Swedish mother whose hair is a mess and is probably as full of ice cream as mine is. She looks to be about as tired as I am, sapped, haggard, and so hungover by life. This is how we sail on a gray day to face our decisions and memories.

from my journal, July 2017

stora blecktornsparken

STORA BLECKTORNSPARKEN is an urban park a bit farther south on Södermalm with the same kinds of Bullerby buildings as Bryggartäppan. There is more graffiti here, though, and shreds of rubbish, broken glass shards, fruit peels, chipped paint and rust, the illusion of safety. “Dad? Dad? Dad!” “What?” “Look what I can do!” The nine year old swings away as the five year old arrives, panting. “Daddy, my knee hurts, look what happened. I slipped on the rocks.” I survey the wound only to be interrupted by, “Dad? Dad? Dad! Watch me swing!” And she swings higher and higher. Mothers sit around us tinkering with their phones. More wonderful park birds flit about. It feels good to breathe and write in Stockholm. To write without any project or desire for money. Just writing with feeling, without that evil thought looking over your shoulder, the one that says that every word has to count toward something. But maybe that thought came from the office or from some editor. Maybe it was never my thought to begin with. “When you are with someone, you become someone else,” says Erland. “You change yourself. When I was with Henrietta I was someone else. And when I was with Agnetha I was someone different from that person. And when I was with Gunnhildur, that Icelandic football player, I was also someone else.” Erland has been a lot of people. “Dad? Dad? Dad! Come here, help me off this swing. Come, Dad. Come!” These children. They so crave my attention. If I only had some time off I could be such a better father to them. I could never have any more children. Not now. I would go crazy. That would just be the end of the story. Not with these thin Swedish women. Not a chance. Although the lady who made me coffee was rather nice and might get me to reconsider, especially if she turns out to be some Zelda Fitzgerald type who can ruin me and provide me with loads of material about her schizophrenia. This playground is a madhouse. All the sobbing, crying children. All the childhood drama and trauma. The pale thin mothers calling after their offspring, their barn. One of the children steals the five year old’s balloon and I have to run after him and take it back, causing a puzzled look from the toddler, who thought the balloon was his. In the meantime, a mouse ran over the nine year old’s shoes at the bottom of the slide. The parents here all look at each other. I suppose this is one way to pass the time at a playground on a hot day. A Muslim family arrives, the mother’s head covered, the daughters bare to the sun. They look truly happy, content, and I sense no disturbance or cultural conflict. The Swedes don’t dress so differently from Americans. They seem maybe more capitalistic though. A Swede is the sum of all he or she consumes. The patterned dresses, the well-groomed facial hair. A barber shop stands on every other corner, catering to the perfectionism of the Swedish man. The women shop for dresses at the boutiques in between. One must exude one’s wealth and value. A haircut, a shave, a flowing cut of textile, this is worth nothing alone. It’s the effort that goes into being Swedish. This is what pays the real dividends. At night, we find ourselves at another playground nearby on Nytorget. Teenagers stand among the benches singing songs and playing ukuleles. “Södermalm is like the best place ever,” my nine year old says. “There is no traffic, the houses are pretty, and everyone has time to do whatever they want.” This is the fun of a playground in the dusky twilight of midnight in Stockholm. As the children play on, and the ukuleles strum, and I admire the lights from the cafes around the park, I read a sign about local history. This was once the site of a large garbage heap, it reads. And in the 18th century it also was the location of the gallows and a major site of public executions. I wish I could have seen Stockholm then when it was rough and tumble and full of pickpockets and convicts, truants and robbers, counterfeiters, highwaymen, gentlemen of the day and ladies of the night. Before the boutiques and barbers, there were wards of the state sentenced to hard time. Looking around nighttime Nytorget, this seems impossible. It’s as if it never happened.

from my journal, July 2017


IN STOCKHOLM on a peaceful July day– at last. Bryggartäppan is a children’s playground, the size of one city block approximately, with clusters of leaning red buildings set up to look like an old Swedish village. There’s even a wooden putka here where two fine-looking ladies make coffee for the parents, mostly mothers, even on a Sunday. Tiny birds flit around and one of the sellers is most fetching, a sturdy woman with those hoop earrings that always seem to mesmerize me. Her eyes are as blue as the sky and her hair is pulled back. Yes, I have appraised her thoroughly, but maybe it’s not just her that toys with my senses but that smell of baking waffles, coupled with all of those cream-colored buildings around us. There was even a little yellow fly that landed on my hand before. Have I ever seen an insect that color? Is everything in Stockholm made of gold? “I don’t want water, there’s juice there, there’s some juice over there!” This is what my youngest daughter, age 5, is shrieking in Bryggartäppan. Then she cries aloud in Estonian, “Ma saan nii kurjaks,” “I’m getting so angry!”, and punches her older sister, age 9. Then she begins to sulk and cry. The youngest is wearing a light blue headband from Copenhagen Tiger, and totes around a blue fairy balloon from Gröna Lund, the amusement park. This troubles her older sister. “I told you at the park that I also wanted you to get me a balloon but you didn’t get me one!” At last the seller returns from making waffles and hands over a box of äppel juice. Quickly, the straw is in the little one’s mouth, and she is quiet for a moment. The other children here are Swedish. They are pale, thin, and have straw-colored hair. They are physically active, and on occasion expressive, but I have not witnessed the kind of volcanic outbursts of which our children are so ready and capable. I search our family trees for some culprit — is it their mother’s Komi great grandfather? A plosive mix of Siberian and Greco-Roman blood? — but there is no answer. The parents here at Bryggartäppan are, as a rule, older. Perhaps a few of them are actually grandparents. Swedes are a peculiar breed though. They are married to modernity. They are infatuated with their perfect civilized society, yet so haunted and repressed by this civilizational impulse that they have the emotional temperament of office wallpaper. They hide away their thoughts, dreams, dark sides behind apartment doors, sunglasses, and politely phrased, thoughtful senses that implore only moderation. Rows and rows of perfectly symmetrical apartment windows, cascades of identical balconies, rising up and up and up, peaking in crescendos of tiled roofs and towers. The pursuit of wealth, the proper means to express it, these are the chief concerns of the Stockholm Swedes. Everything here must be perfect. A little girl with her face painted and her hair done up in corn rows goes skipping by, and another waits patiently for the five year old to dismount a small rocking horse. When she does get off the horse she sulks again and then announces to the lot, “I am so bored!” To which a little boy nearby, who understands English, chides her. “Be quiet,” he says. “You’re acting like a baby.” “I am not,” she says, and smacks at the air with her balloon. “I am not a baby,” the five year old sobs and then takes her apple juice and squeezes the liquid all over her older sister’s drawing on a table beside the playground café. “You are bad!” the nine year old scolds her, to which she only shouts, “I’m not bad!” “You poured juice on my picture — that’s bad.” “I did not.” “You did too.” “Tegid küll.” “Ei teinud. SA VALETAD!” “YOU LIE!” These are perhaps the loudest sentences that have been uttered on Swedish soil since Estonian pirates sacked the old Swedish capital Sigtuna in 1187. There are lots of pregnant Scandinavians in the park here today, paging through magazines and pretending not to hear this terrible squall. Their days will yet come. “Here’s an idea for a good life,” my Swedish pal Erland said yesterday, skulking around the Pressbyrån at Slussen with his hands in his pockets and harbor wind in his hair. “Meet a girl, have a bunch of kids with her,” he said. “Then you can all be wonderfully miserable together for a few years. Doesn’t that just sound like the greatest idea?”

from my journal, July 2017

those simple honest pleasures

YESTERDAY WAS ONE of those days when I actually emerged from my cave or shell. Most days I am locked up tight within, but on some days, those precious few days, I stick my head out and explore the terrain around me. It was cool and it rained a few times during the day. The sun also came out. August in Estonia is like November in Italy. Wouldn’t you know, there were a few Italian tourists in town who came to escape the heat of the mezzogiorno, and from Puglia, the province of my mother’s people. I showed them the water and the Old Town. They were content. At the café, where I was supposed to be working, I was a real chatterbox. I found myself beside my friend, who is a rather correct or korralik type from Järvamaa, and with whom it is safe to flirt. She looked very cute with her ruddy cheeks and slanted eyes and I told her so, but with the usual legal disclaimers. “I’m so sorry for flirting with you again,” I said. “I know I flirt with all the girls.” “You’re not sorry though,” she said, over her dish. “You don’t need to lie to me and say you are.” “Very good,” I said. “Because I am not really sorry, but I do feel like giving you a big hug today.” What a warm and satisfying hug. Is there anything as satisfying as a hug from a real Estonian country woman? We have this kind of agreement between us. I like to imagine romantic stories with different women. My fantasy for her is that we are forced to go on some tasteless cruise, to Hawaii or some place, and at first are at each other’s throats but later learn to love one another. It seems like a good setup for a love story, but she knows I am only joking. I also know that I am not the kind of man who could make her happy. In her heart, she longs for some credible, sturdy, reliable Viking type, with even a beard perhaps, with some good muscle she can cry into. He brings in the firewood and she makes him some soup. Those simple, honest pleasures. In principle, she agrees with this diagnosis. “I am sure there are actually men like this out there for you,” I told her. It seems plausible to me. I have met many of these guys walking around with hammers. Some of them are renovating a house just down the street and listening to the radio. While I can figure out what could make her happy, I am at a loss when trying to dream up a different reality for myself. I’m just some café rascal, blowing kisses to all the girls and giving Italian tourists impromptu tours. Maybe I do need a strong woman who can put me in my place. The only question is for how long would I stay there? Recently, I swapped notes with some other men about our ideal women. It was nighttime and we were gathered around a fire, roasting things from the ends of sticks. One chose the wife of a famous writer, who was pretty, loyal, supportive, and kind. She was the kind who could make him happy, he said. The other chose some sarcastic and slim Hollywood actress, whom he claimed he had dibs on, meaning that none of us were allowed to approach her in any setting for she already belonged to him and him alone. We both agreed to this arrangement. My choice was an Inuit throat singer I once saw perform at the Pärimusmuusika Ait in Viljandi. Her songs were about blood, snowstorms, hypothermia, animal spirits, fire, and foxes. At least in her performances, she is quite robust and even frightening. I imagined her as a wave, a great wave that would take me down and through some crushing and aquatic struggle, I would be reborn. “What I want is a woman who will destroy me,” I told my friends. “I want to be shown no mercy.” My friends did not respond, but I could hear the sounds of concerned owls cooing in the dark. Of course, there is far more to it than just that. Her music is just an output, and in real life she is probably quite kind, and also desires a reliable man who stacks the ice for the igloo and brings in the seal meat. And from my side, of course after some kind emotional or sexual catharsis, one craves peace, warmth, and comfort. The comfort to live through your rebirth and start over. That is also wonderful and necessary. These are complicated thoughts to share over coffee with a Järvamaa woman, or some tourists from Italy, but they are true enough. So it’s inspiration that I seek, a rebirth, a renewal, a revival. Something to shift the shapes, cleanse the senses, an experience transformative to the soul. To wake up feeling both demolished and new. That would make me very happy.