When I began Ethnomusicology classes at the University of Minnesota, I realized that I was a living specimen of our studies. Playing with Turkish, Mariachi, Polish and Salsa bands, to name a few, became for me, a bridge to other worlds and cultures, just what we were studying.
The first group I played in was a garage/basement band, born on Atwater Avenue just east of Rice St. We instantly become a neighborhood favorite, performing regularly at Rice and Lawson Rec Center as well as numerous weddings and parties along the North End. We were 16, energetic and above all, affordable.
Albert, our drummer and lead singer, sounded just like James Brown with a Tex-Mex kick. I played a red Farfisa organ which had a cheezy sharp sound popular in bands of the sixties ( hear Woolly Bully ) and Rob, the guitarist brought up the harmony section with his favorite Rolling Stones chops.
My favorite gig the band played was a Romanian-Slovenian wedding. Someone heard us at the Rec center and arranged to hire us. The ceremony took place at Saint Mary’s Romanian Orthodox church behind what is now the Xcel Energy Credit Union at Rice and Atwater, and flowed across Rice into an old storefront that had been cleared out and converted into a party hall.
No one in the wedding spoke much english and I knew less Romanian, or Slovenian. As we setup our equipment, a man, dressed in a black suit, who seemed to have some idea of what was going on, approached us. He wore a greyish moustache with a short brimmed Fedora, that floated atop his grey wispy hair. After directing our setup, he pointed to a large cooler of beer on stage left, grinned and made a drinking motion with his hands. We got the idea.
As the bride and groom took the floor we waded into a raucous version of Johnny B Goode. We enjoyed it, but reading the faces in the crowd, I could tell the audience wasn’t quite digging the beat. The guy in the Fedora approached us and waved his index finger saying no, no, no. He proceeded to hum a melody, clapping to keep the rhythm, I assumed to be Romanian. We took a few notes at a time and when we had a close approximation he clapped and nodded yes. We played that song for about twenty minutes as the wooden floors buckled and creaked beneath the dancers’ feet. That tune did the trick and it wasn’t long before we wore out the old timers, who were quickly replaced by younger sets of legs.The whole place was swinging to the beat. We played a little rock n roll interspersed with the Romanian melody every few tunes. When the beer was gone, and Albert’s bass drum leg withered, the event was declared complete.
The man in the suit presented us with four five dollar bills, smiled and nodded thank you. Everyone went home happy.
Since then I have performed in many parts of the world and the things I learned that night have stayed dear to me. I discovered that music is a universal messenger, and, if you are going to be a career musician you’d better know some good percussionists, cultivate a good memory, and be able to fake your way through a gig. That melody still pops into my head once in a while.