A Trumpet, a Guitar, and Elvis, Kung Fu Maestro

Seattle to Leno.

Rachel and I have been playing together for about fourteen months now. Like many of the best things about our partnership, it started spontaneously—after our second “date”, i.e. all-day gab fest and bicycling extravaganza, we sat in the back yard of Rachel’s house and she taught me eight or nine fiddle tunes over the course of an hour. Two days later, duly educated and armed with another five or six tunes I learned from a recording, we made our debut at the Pike Place Market.

We’re a world away from all that now, a world away from Seattle, staying in the house of our friends Gwen and Giaccomo in Leno, a little town in Northern Italy that features one stop light, a thousand-year-old church, and happens to bear a striking resemblance to Iowa. “This region is the Iowa of Italy” Gwen assured me on our ride from the airport six days ago.

How did we end up here?

Pike Place Market, fall of 2011

The past year has been a blur of activity—you wouldn’t it all if I told you– but the musical portion is a little easier to explain. Rachel and I learned dozens of fiddle tunes from various sources, began to sing together and refine our joint sensibilities and interests. In the winter we incorporated the singing into our sets, and segments of fiddle tunes into these songs, in a desperate attempt to make our sets have some kind of coherence, even if it was a coherence that only we were privy to. We learned more songs, and then more, always testing what was working, what wasn’t working, which songs or tunes were right for which kind of situations or crowds. Since we primarily played at Pike Place up until this summer, our sets were geared to that noisy, competitive environment. As we gradually began busking other venues a little less fast-paced, we added ballads and instrumental waltzes, learned to stretch out or shorten the tunes on the fly if need be. We recorded two albums. We wrote songs together for the first time, saw the first outlines of our collaboration. And, this summer, we played. We played and we played and we played, sometimes as much as four and a half hours in a single day.

As the summer ended, all of this playing gave way to moving, to preparation for our trip, to the release of our album, to the release of my first book, to a flurry of last-minute gigs and goodbyes. But this week, at long last, we arrived in Italy, worn, jet-lagged, but hungry to play after so many weeks of relative inactivity.

Though we arrived in Leno on Sunday night, Wednesday was the first day it was even remotely reasonable for us to attempt to play. We took the train from nearby Breschia to Verona and played tourist for the day, taking in the sights and trying out our meager Italian. In the center of the tourist activity we saw plenty of buskers of varying quality, but no musicians, which, combined with the large police presence, we found a little alarming.

Clearly the best buskers in Verona, these two men had an amazing levitation act that was inexplicable, and went on for hours.

Though we had our instruments with us, we had decided ahead of time to not play unless a clear opportunity presented itself. Rachel especially was concerned with having our first experience be a pleasant one, and any way you cut it, this didn’t look pleasant. Lots of tourists on one hand, but lots of annoying buskers packed in too-small little courts at the intersection of the main thoroughfares. We had a fractured Italian conversation with a “fake baby” busker (if you’ve never seen one, consider yourself fortunate) where he seemed to indicate that the police would definitely stop us if we played in the interior streets, but they might let us play a little bit outside. One more conversation with an English-speaking busker and we were convinced—musical performance in Verona wasn’t going to happen, unless we wanted to be stopped by police immediately. It was probably for the best–we dragged ourselves back to the bus station and fought jet lag for the rest of the day.

On previous days wandering Brescia we had seen at least one busker, and heard another from farther away, both in the city center during the hours before dinner. Although we never saw a crowd there that seemed large enough to justify playing, we knew it was at least legally above-board, so it seemed like a good place to start. So yesterday we rode to Brescia with Gwen in the morning, instruments in tow, and decided to play tourist for the first part of the day, and find a good spot to play for the second.

We hiked through the city in the general direction of one of Brescia’s only tourist destinations, a castle set on a hill on the edge of the city. After a lot of walking and some semi-Italian street interactions, we found the entrance to the (locked) rear of the castle.

Rachel “scales the castle wall”. Or something.

Sean does, er, what exactly? Atop the castle wall.

While hiking up this side of the hill we had been listening to a trumpeter in the distance—on the way back down we found him. He was an Italian man in his late sixties or early seventies, with short gray hair and intense, interested eyes. We talked with him in our fractured Italian for ten or fifteen minutes, something we would only be capable of when talking to someone so patient and careful a listener. My two years of high school Latin supplied a few bonus Italian words to Rachel’s vocabulary, but the semi-related languages caused some confusion too, such as when we told the man we would be staying in Florence for “fourteen Gods.”

We played a little bit with him, told him about ourselves and our trip, learned that he lives with his family in Brescia and goes back to the house in the afternoon to take naps. At least, this is what Rachel got out of the last part of the conversation, and I tend to trust her, since she’s actually studying Italian, and isn’t just relying upon facial expression and a mental soup of approximately 200 words of Spanish and Latin.

Anyway, we followed his instructions and headed down the side of the hill and across the street in the hopes of actually getting to see the castle. As we were heading up a new set of stairs on the other side of the street, my mental musings on walking in a rich world of history and the relative shallowness of the American historical experience were interrupted by the strains of “Barbara Ann” in the distance.

And there below us appeared as if by magic a tremendous crowd of happy, fist-pumping, banner-waving teenagers, led by police with batons, rifles and riot shields. “Barbara Ann” blasted from tremendous speakers from the back of a truck at the front of the proceedings, and huge portions of the crowd sang along, yelled with joy, and waved to the spectating Summer Januaries, high above them on the ancient set of stairs. As they passed below us into the tunnel, a tremendous roar of joy and celebration came from the crowd, and “Barbara Ann” was replaced by the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird.” (You might think you don’t know this song, but you will be wrong. It has been in the brain of every American since its creation in 1965, and threatens to hatch at any moment, without warning, like an insidious and unreliable musical cicada.)

After this spectacle had passed, we made our way around the hill to the castle. In the yard of the castle we were approached by yet another musician, of approximately same age of the first, but this time German/Italian, and a guitarist. He gestured at us wildly, wishing to communicate something to me that sounded like “Jahrelon.” He repeated this over and over again, gestured at my hair, and mimed air guitar. It wasn’t until he started singing the melody to “Imagine” that I realized he was saying “John Lennon.”

The language barrier broken, he proceeded to share with us at great length his enthusiasm for the aforementioned singer, the singer’s former band, and “Elveese.” This man loved Elvis. Loved Elvis. He had taught himself guitar by ear, he informed us before launching into a dozen-odd songs in rapid succession, each time priming our expectations by repeating the name of the song (“Whiter Shade of Pale”, for example) and then playing the melody alone on his out of tune guitar, occasionally following this up with the chords to the song, occasionally in the same key as the melody. When we made polite gestures of retreat, he would attempt to keep our attention by more songs, or by pulling out his perfectly-preserved Elvis fan magazines circa 1969 or 1970 (!). “Elveese Kung Fu Maestro,” he explained, holding out a two-page photo article featuring Elvis in dark sunglasses and a karate gi, sparring with several other men. This was rapidly followed up by his instrumental rendition of “Love Me Tender,” to which he did not appreciate my addition of some singing.

Not a punchline.

Needless to say, the castle itself, while an intimidating and moving aesthetic experience, couldn’t compare to this man’s improvisational pop performance art. When we left the castle, we saw him at the bottom, having cornered another tourist. We said a hurried “ciao!” and sped by him, on our way to play.

NEXT: Busking Brescia. We (finally) play!

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3 comments
  1. Mara Lewis said:

    So happy you are blogging about this amazing experience and allowing others to live a little vicariously! Can’t wait for the next installment!

  2. James Brendlinger said:

    I am interested in hearing about the food everywhere you go!!!

    • Hey James! So far we’ve had only one or two really stellar meals, which hopefully we’ll detail in the next entry…more money for food equals more playing, unfortunately…

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