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November 15, 2019
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On My Mind: The sound of music

friend once asked me, “What kind of music do you like?” I said, “Good music.” I hope my answer wasn’t snooty or conceited. It was an earnest attempt at addressing my approach to music — and the arts — of trying to leave the doors open, and not narrowing my world. 

I commonly hear people say, “I like country-western and rock,” or “I’m just into jazz.” These confining, and excluding proclamations, to me, are a way of declaring that such folks won’t listen to anything else.

I’m thankful for all the world traveling I’ve done because of the music I have been exposed to. My wife Sarah and I were in St. Petersburg, Russia, once and gambled on a classical concert that caught our eye in a local paper. It was put on by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in a royal concert hall. The music was crushing, from the first note right up to the spirited encore by Tchaikovsky. We staggered from the hall stunned in disbelief at how incredible the show was. The crowd was on fire as well. It was a wonderful surprise to add to our travels.

We’ve traveled to Mexico scores of times and, once we’re there, we usually take buses from place to place. It’s on those buses that I’ve heard some incredible music that has stuck with me for years. Though I understand very little Spanish, I don’t care. There’s something very touching about hearing popular tunes of the day while cruising across the countryside on a bus. It’s where I learned to love the music of Los Bukis. If you can strip away your barriers for a moment and give “Necesito una Compañera” a good listen, close your eyes and imagine sailing through a pine forest in Michoacán in an air-conditioned bus, you’re in for a great surprise. On a Mexican bus is where I first heard Los Temerarios. Later, I loaded my iPhone with some of their great music.

One time we were in Zacatecas, Mexico, I was enjoying a shrimp cocktail in a downtown restaurant, and on an overhead flat screen was a live video of the incredible musician Julieta Venegas. She was doing her song “El Presente” which flattened both of us. I learned that she not only plays accordion but also plays guitar, sings and writes most of her music. She’s out of Tijuana. At a music store later that day I asked the clerk and she led me to a double CD of Venegas live, which I bought. There are some incredible tunes in that package. Another song I learned to love on a bus ride was “Los Caminos de la Vida” by La Tropa Vallenata. The harmonies, the accordion, the melody — all of it makes for a smashing song that I’ve listened to hundreds of times.

Today, when I listen to these songs, they pull me right back onto the coast of Veracruz, the gravelly rail yards on the outskirts of Mexico City, or the winding hills leading into the city of Puebla. I’ve always loved that they play music on their busses in Mexico — it adds to the journey. 

Once in Sao Luis, Brazil, at a friend’s house, they put a CD on by Caetano Veloso and the song “Cucurrucucu Paloma” came on. It propelled me into another world. I believe it deals with the song of the cuckoo bird. 

If you want a tremendous treat, go to YouTube and type in: Marco Antonio Solís – “Si No Te Hubieras Ido.” Try to find the live version where he is backed up by his regular band and a full-blown symphonic orchestra. He pours enough emotion into that song to melt stainless steel.

When a friend introduced me to the Indian flute music of Sachdev I felt I had to reinvent what I considered music. The transcendent journeys he takes with his bamboo flute are simply beautiful.

My studies in music at the university level, among other things, taught me great skills in listening to music. It constantly surprises me how I notice people listening to music, but not hearing it; it’s background music for whatever else they’re doing. I’ve come to learn that when I ask someone to listen to a tune on my CD player, they’ll only listen to a tiny fragment before talking over it, by saying things like, “Oh, I know this song,” or “This is the group Malo, from the 70s,” or anything else except putting everything aside to give an honest listen. Few people know what that means. In the many classical music courses I took, we painstakingly pulled apart all kinds of music — Chopin, Debussy, Bach, Shubert — all the way down to the very threads of counterpoint, harmony, tonal structure, rhythmic patterns and on and on. One of the big takeaways from all of this was learning the skill of peering into a work of music with a microscope and trying to find out how it got from A to B and back again, and how the life of the music was gracefully passed from one instrument group to another, from woodwinds to brass and then over to the strings. The third movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony pretty much frosts the cake for me. I’ve been fortunate to hear it performed live three times.

From Indian flute music to a Romantic-era symphony to the absolute crushing concert by Simon and Garfunkel I went to in San Jose several years ago, I try to leave the window open to not only hear but to listen to what’s being played out there. 


Contact Pajaronian photographer/reporter Tarmo Hannula at [email protected]


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