Vol. 1 No. 2 2007

BEYOND BOOKS: Music/Travel

The Fearless Wayfarer
Traveling Notes: Jazz in Santa Fe, Olive Oil in Tuscany

By Margaret Johnstone

richard bona

Traveling not only expands the experiential lens of your mind, but it also tones the muscles of your heart. My own travels this past summer in the United States and this autumn in Europe have taken me to some very special places uniquely individual in culture and place, but somehow united by a universal canvas.

Beyond African Fusion

My first stop was the New Mexico Jazz Festival in Santa Fe. It had quite an impressive line-up of renowned musicians, including Sonny Rollins and Diane Reeve, and not the least of which was the Cameroonian singer and bass guitarist, Richard (pronounced, ree-shar) Bona. Many of the concerts for this festival are held at the beautiful and recently restored Lensic Performing Arts Center, Santa Fe’s premier year-round facility: It is a state-of-the art venue for theater, music, dance, film, lectures and community events set in an historic theater in the heart of the “City Different.”

If you were fortunate enough to catch Richard Bona’s performance at Joe’s Pub in New York City, this past January (as I was), you might venture to guess that this talented and sensitive artist caters to his audience.

His undulating and exotically intoxicating sound had the audience entranced in both venues. He opened with a similar subtle and enticing introduction as he did in NYC, to an almost sold-out audience at the Lensic, a mesmerizing solo vocalization that bears an otherworldly quality. It is a magical beckoning to enter his realm, to visit his native Cameroon where he found his first vocal influences.

At some distance from the microphone and dressed in a striking white African dashiki and pants, he woos you into a trance-like mood with soft-petal, floating vocal tones, calming the ravaged soul and inviting you to travel to uncharted and mysterious territories.

This graceful intro led into beautiful and free improvisations spiked with virile ardor and a crescendo of sound supplied by his six-piece band, including trumpeter Taylor Haskins, guitarist John Caban, keyboard player Etienne Stadwijk, percussionist Samuel Torres and drummer Ernesto Simpson. Here, one can clearly hear the jazz and fusion influences juxtaposing echoes of Africa.

Although many of the songs Bona sang were in his native Douala tongue, they lyrics were understandable. The haunting a cappella tracks were accompanied by a distant instrumental ambience that served as their own language. On the more bouncy and rhythmically upbeat songs, Bona invited the audience to participate both vocally and with hand clapping, ,and the show ended with a resounding standing applause encouraging one encore that stirred one to pick up one’s step exiting the concert hall, with a lilt in one’s heart and a smile in one’s soul.

Bona had an early gift for music, singing in the local church choir at the age of 5. Not able to find traditional instruments in his small village of Minta in East Cameroon, he resorted to making his own instruments, including wooden flutes, percussion instruments and a 12-string guitar constructed with bicycle-brake cables.

When he was 11, his family moved to Douala, one of West Africa’s major port cities, where he found his first work as a guitarist. It was Jaco Pastorius who was his primary influence to become a bassist. On his latest CD, Tiki, he covers the famed bassist’s, “Three Women.”

At 22, Bona found his way to Paris where he found work as a session player with such notable musicians as Paul Simon, Herbie Hancock, Salif Keita, Chick Corea, Harry Belafonte, Joe Zawinul, Branford Marsalis and Bobby McFerrin (check out their exquisite duo on YouTube).

Following his seven-year stint in Paris, Bona found his way to New York City in 1995 where he joined the Joe Zawinul Syndicate and later joined Harry Belafonte as his musical director. He currently teaches at New York University, while continuing to record (he has released four solo CD’s) and to concretize worldwide.

Bona is a true original, and his surging inroads into the pop-jazz world have been seamless enough for him to be a force to be admired, recognized and henceforth, followed.

A Culture Rich in History and Taste

The next stop was Tuscany, a land revered by many and a favorite province of Italy. I was lucky enough to have a friend, an ex-pat painter, who just happened to be looking for someone to housesit her two dogs and cat for a month while she was in the United States visiting with her family. I jumped at the chance and had the opportunity to invite some friends to share the experience.

To sing the praises of this sun-drenched paradise of Tuscany, with its much revered rolling hills, is to be amongst the sentient beings bearing exquisite witness to an ancient culture and countryside, rich with tradition, folklore, beauty, agriculture, art and architecture. Copious tomes have paid tribute to its unparalleled magnificence, not least of which are the well-known former inhabitants, the noted writers Byron, Shelley and Keats. Byron, for one, speaks of being “dazzled and drunk with the beauty” of the countryside.

I can attest to the delights that this land has to offer and the superlatives that roll off the tongue, having had the privilege of enjoying its environs for five weeks with weather that could have been ordered from the gods -- sheer perfection and delirium!

Today, Lucca thrives on a rich tourist business, with ever-growing music festivals and an increasing notoriety as an art center. One cannot mention Lucca without making reference to the great operatic composer, Giacomo Puccini, who lived and died at Torre del Lago, just outside the walls of Lucca. Responsible for giving us the masterful opera works, La Boheme, Tosca and Madame Butterfly, he is celebrated by concert series throughout the summer.

The Apuan Alps, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, are rich with marble and have long been a magnet for sculptors and painters, including Henry Moore and Joan Miro, and most recently, the Columbian painter Botero, who now resides in Pietrasanta, or “Holy Stone,” referring to its chief product, marble. It has become the Tuscan center for stone sculptors, and a rich array of their products can be found throughout the town.

Not least of Tuscany’s boastings are its wine and olive oil output, and of course, consumption. Each grove seems to have its own personality. Great pride is taken by the individuals who carefully and lovingly hand pick and manufacture their oils.

For more than a thousand years, pilgrims have ventured to Rome from all over Northern Europe, passing the olive groves of San Macario on the Ligurian coast. Because of its proximity to the sea and thus commerce, Lucca, (of which Luguria is a part), became the first region in Italy to sell its yield. Spanish explorers and missionaries carried the olive on ships venturing to the New World in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Olive cultivation dates to 6000 BC, in Syria. Olive oil has had a rich and fascinating history, and its uses are too numerous to expound upon here, but not least of which would be for food, medicine and beauty.

Coined as “liquid gold” by Homer, olive oil has been known to be used in magic and for divine rituals, as well.

One particularly delectable extra-virgin olive oil from Lucca that I tasted recently is from Tenuta San Macario, a Tuscan town that was named after the pilgrim saint. San Macario, nestled in the terraced hills of Liguria, produces an olive oil distinguished by its delicate, mild and fruity, but crisp, flavors. The climate, soil and distinguishable trees all contribute to its unique taste, and it is strictly organically grown. I can attest to the savory qualities of this distinguished oil. It will transform any insalata misto (mixed salad). Drizzled on anything, it enhances the flavor without changing the taste of the food. Try a blind tasting, and you will witness the difference as it slides onto your palette like liquid ambrosia. (Remember that Italians do not dip their bread in olive oil…They regard you very strangely if they catch you in the midst of this application).

Tenuta San Macario extra virgin olive oil is sold exclusively at Williams and Sonoma in the states.

As well as manufacturing wine and olive oit, Antonella Gemignani rents villas in Orbicciano and San Macario.

Margaret Johnstone is a female nomad/writer, currently hanging her hat in New York and plotting her next journey."

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