Blues in Paradise: Feelin’ the Beat on Oahu


OK, maybe Hawaii is not paradise. But it’s not the most likely place I would have thought to look for a thriving blues scene. The thing was, I didn’t have to look for it. Our hosts on Oahu, Paul and Lorna Gomes brought it right to me. Paul has been playing drums for blues bands on Oahu for decades, and he had two gigs the week we were there, one with Bluzilla at Kona Brewing Company’s Koko Marina Pub, and one with the Flat Five at the OnStage in Honolulu.  I love Paul’s playing; he has a big, full sound that propels the music along.

Bluzilla is a quartet (guitar-bass-drums-vocals/harmonica).  As a guitar player, I was amazed by Mark Pearlman’s improvising. He plays with complete abandon, taking chances and pushing himself to his limit. Listen to his solo on “Freddie King’s “Look Over Yonder wall”, below.  I also really enjoyed Corey Funai’s harp and vocals.  Below that are portions of Taj Mahal’s Diving Duck Blues and “Dump That Chump” by Little Charlie and the Nightcats.


The Flat Five is a larger band headlined by Kevin Coleman (harp/vocals).  He’s a great player and frontman.  On the below video, he shows his stuff on “Nobody But You”.


Below, JP Smoketrain sits in with Kevin and the boys, singing and playing lead on Billy Boy Arnold’s “I Wish You Would”,  adding some touches from the Allman Brothers’ “One Way Out”.  The dance floor was full on this one.


Botanical Oahu

Paul and Lorna obliged our curiosity about the island’s botanical gardens and reserves.  We saw several of them, the Foster Botanical Garden in central Honolulu, the Lyon Arboretum on University of Hawaii land in the upper Manoa valley, and Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden, on the windward side, in Kaneohe.

Getting out on the land to see what grows, and what someone wanted to plant so others could see it – it tells you something about a place.  You feel the land in the ground beneath your feet, in the fragrance of the breeze, in your legs as you trudge up a hill.

Because this is Hawaii, a whole lot of the plants you see are non-native, and this was definitely true at Foster Botanical Garden.  Breadfruit is one that is sort of native, at least to other islands of Polynesia.


Breadfruit at Foster Botanical Garden

I recall from botany course many years ago that buttress roots make shallow rooted tropical trees less likely to get blown over in a windstorm.  Central American Ceiba species have some of the largest.


Japanese visitors pose among the buttress roots of a Ceiba tree


Paul with a fruit of the sausage tree, an African begonia.  They can get heavy enough that you don’t really want one to fall on you.


The tropical America cannonball tree also has lethal fruit.  There is a sign at the garden warning visitors to “watch out”.


Strange trunk of the African Baobab tree, looking a little like an elephant’s foot

Below, Paul tosses a silk cotton pod into the air to show how it disperses its seeds.


More on botanical Hawaii in a future post.

Slack Key Apprentice Meets A Master: An Evening with Jeff Peterson

As we wandered back to Lyon Botanical Garden’s visitor center one afternoon, I was walking with my new prima (cousin) Napua.  We were separated from the rest of our group.  It was a humid afternoon.  Napua looked at her phone and said casually, “Paul says Jeff Peterson’s here.”  I smirked a little.  “He’s lying”,  I said.

It was a great practical joke.  We had been listening to his recordings the past few days.  I could scarcely believe Peterson’s slack key skill.   He was faithful to the slack key masters, but he also had brilliant classical technique.  He had recorded jazz standards and written original music in slack key.  He was developing a unique style no one else was doing.  I had seen him twice in Seattle, but with big ensembles.  I dreamed of seeing him play solo, up close.

A minute passed.  I idly gazed around the gift shop.  Napua said, “Lorna says we should go outside.”  We left the shop.  And suddenly, in front of us, there was the rest of our group, standing with Jeff Peterson.

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Trying to think of something to say to Jeff

Finally, I told him I had seen him twice in Seattle.  He said he had really enjoyed the tour he had done with Led’ Kapa’ana and George Kahumoku.  They played in Seattle last winter.  Then, suddenly he was inviting us to see him the following night at the Kailua Public Library.  “It’s going to be about slack key music.  I’m going to play some songs and we’ll talk story.”  I looked at Paul and Lorna, and realized my dream would come true.



The advertisement at the library entrance as we walked in



Jeff Peterson tunes up at the Kailua Public Library



Jeff with Urania, Napua, and Rosa


And with Lorna and Paul



Below, Jeff talks story about his family’s Chinese ancestors, including his grandmother, who painted with watercolors.  He describes composing his (stunning) composition “Tantalus” as a musical sketch with the abstract sensibility of a watercolor painting.  Then he plays it.



Jeff talked story about discovering, through his grandfather, Leonard Kwan’s “Slack Key Instruction Book”, one of the very first books to teach the slack key style.  It was out of print, and only Hawaii’s public libraries still had copies.  “It is a treasure of a resource” he said, “and it should always be published, because this tradition needs to be preserved.  We need more players”.  Now, thanks to Lorna, I have a bound copy on the music stand in my small basement music studio.

Jeff talked more story about how he has traveled to different places to perform, met local musicians, and learned new music styles.  He had been to Columbia and Venezuela, learning llanero music and other South American guitar styles.   Two Venezuelans, Urania and Rosa, were with me.  I asked if he could play some South American music for us.  He obliged us with a short piece,  “Misioneras”, written by Argentine composer Fernando Bustamante.

A visit to Temple Byodo-In, Valley of the Temples, Oahu

On a calm, cloudy morning, Lorna Gomes took us to visit Temple Byodo-In, nestled in a narrow, verdant valley near the foot of a steep mountain escarpment near Honolulu.


It is a shrine, not a place of active worship.  As Lorna tells us it was built in 1968 to commemorate the arrival of the Japanese in Hawaii a century earlier.  Since it was completed just 23 years after the end of World War II, I felt free to imagine it might have provided some closure at the time to lingering resentment from … but then I thought it best to follow Lorna’s sage advice, put that completely out of my mind and enjoy the peace of this beautiful place.

Japanese immigrants suffered difficulties similar to other immigrant groups in Hawaii, but had gone on to make important contributions to Hawaii and Oahu’s culture.

Below is a 9 foot high statue of the Buddha, coated with gold lacquer.


Buddha Statue inside shrine shelter

At Temple Byodo-In

Another view of the shrine with Lorna, Rosa, and Urania



Hidden Beach on the Oregon Coast

I wrote about a secret beach on Pender Island in October 2013: “The Public Market and the Secret Beach”, at a location I swore not to disclose. This beach is not like that. It’s nestled between two big headlands, Neah-Kah-Nie Mountain on the south and Cape Falcon on the north, in a hidden cove. It is Short Sand Beach, a half-mile hike from the highway, in Oswald West State Park, less than 6 miles up US 101 from the coastal town of Manzanita.

short sand beach

Short Sand Beach, sits cozily between Neah-Kah-Nie mountain (south), and Cape Falcon (north)

One afternoon we wandered down the trail to the beach.  It was early June.  The sun had finally burnt off most of the low clouds, the air was comfortably warm for the first time in at least a week, or maybe much longer.

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Short Sand Beach: looking toward Neah-Kah-Nie Mountain

As the sun sank lower, the surfers headed out.

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Surf’s Up

I noticed the stratigraphy on the bluffs above the beach and close by, a trickling waterfall.  I took a closer look and saw some brightly covered moss.


Tilted Strata


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Waterfall, with brightly colored moss at left


A closer look at the moss


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I saw a surfer coming back up the beach and approached her.  Her name was Carrie, a schoolteacher from the Neah-Kah-Nie school district.  She was originally from Oklahoma and came here because the surf called to her.  She had just completed her first year teaching, and now, an endless summer stretched out in front of her.

carrie poses

Summer Is Here

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View north from beach toward Cape Falcon

Returning to Manzanita, we stopped at the weekly market.

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Volunteers from the local R-evolution Garden Community Supported Agriculture cooperative (CSA)

All in all, just another day on this edge of the world.




Caracas’ Tower of David – the next Chapter

I have written about the Tower of David (Torre de David in Spanish) before, most recently in Invasions and Expropriations, The Squatters Win a Prize for Architecture (12-31-2012).

View of the Tower of David

View of the Tower of David

A View of the Torre from Inside Out

Another view from inside out

Additional images are at the link below:

My introduction to the Torre was through a family friend who worked on one of the top floors of the neighboring Banco Mercantil, where you have a view of the whole Torre property.  I had seen this view several times in the past, but in 2008, I heard about odd patterns of truck traffic coming and going.  There were public rumors of arms caches, drug deals, the government holding prisoners. But at street level, it seemed pretty clear that whatever else was going on, there were satellite dishes and drying laundry, telltale signs that the Torre had become a squatter settlement.  The first piece I saw in the media was this BBC video in Spanish:

The Torre was originally conceived by financier David Brillembourg as the “Torre de Confianzas”, anchor to a new financial district in Caracas.  Construction began in 1990.  But as a financial crisis deepened and then, in 1993, Brillembourg died, construction stopped and the government took over the unfinished building.  It had no water, sewer, or electricity, only a few exterior walls or windows, and no elevators.  It became known as the Torre de David. It sat idle for over a decade, steadily being stripped of anything of value thieves could take away, until the squatter invasion began in 2007.  Eventually, as many as 2,500 people lived in this hollow shell of a skyscraper.

In 2012, an exhibit of the Torre was shown at the Venice Biennial Architectural Exhibition as an example of innovative architecture.  Improbably, it won the prize as 2012’s best exhibit, “demonstrating how an unplanned piece of city can work as well as one made by architects”.

Suddenly, news of the Torre was everywhere.  Reporters from around the world were coming to try and get the story.  It had become the archetypal urban nightmare.  In early 2013, journalist Jon Lee Anderson published an article in the New Yorker called Slumlord, where the Torre was the centerpiece.  Later that year, Fox’s popular cable television series “Homeland” chose the Torre for a scene in two 3rd season episodes.  The interior scenes were filmed in an abandoned building in Puerto Rico, but the production identifies the location as Caracas.  A short report from the Telegraph entitled “Homeland – Inside the Real Tower of David in Venezuela”, explains:

A much more complete reportage is done here:

“The world’s tallest slum: Caracas’ Notorious Tower of David”

What was often overlooked is that the Torre was only the most visible of many urban invasions all over Caracas.  There is an extreme housing shortage, which the government has failed to solve, but people also feel empowered to invade because Venezuela’s laws favor renters over owners, and because when President Chavez was alive, he famously encouraged the poor to take over vacant and abandoned property.

The government never officially approved of the Torre invasion, but made no attempt to shut it down.  No reporter who was able to get inside ever noted the presence of any government officials or police, just the private, heavily armed security of former imprisoned felon El Niño Daza, who, it was said, ran the property like his personal fiefdom.  

And yet … people who got into the Torre and talked to residents found that even in such a forbidding setting, people collaborated to build essential services, make homes, and live with some order to their lives.  Photographer Alejandro Zegarra made frequent visits for six months, taking pictures and talking to residents.  This black and white image he took of a girl riding her bike – while he talked to her mother, somehow captured a little of the humanity of this place.

Inside view of several floors of homes and girl riding her bike

Inside view of several floors of homes and girl riding her bike

After the wave of international publicity, the Venezuelan government knew they had to do something, as former Vice-President Jorge Rodriguez acknowledged to reporter Jon Lee Anderson in 2013.

Finally on July 23, 2014, 2,469 days after the first squatters arrived, the government announced they would relocate all 1,207 squatter families from the Torre to a new government housing development outside Caracas.  They were careful to call this a relocation, not an eviction, and reported that it followed lengthy negotiations to convince families to go, and that the government would help move people’s possessions.  As of July 2015, Venezuelan media have reported that all the squatters have now been moved out.

And so finally, this long strange chapter has come to an end.  What will become of the building?  The government has only promised to have an open debate on the matter.  So, we won’t call it the final Chapter – yet.

Slack Key in Seattle

Last weekend, November 7-8 2015, I saw the 7th Annual Seattle Slack Key Festival at Seattle Town Hall, and participated in the slack key guitar workshop at Dusty Strings music store here in the Fremont neighborhood.

Peter Moon Palani group, courtesy of Alabastro Photography

Peter Moon Palani group, courtesy of Alabastro Photography

George Kuo, playing his double-neck guitar

George Kuo, playing his double-neck guitar

Peter Moon, son of the ukelele master, and a master himself

Peter Moon, son of the ukelele master, and a master himself

At the workshop, about a dozen of us sat at the feet of several Hawaiian slack key masters.  I watched them play music I had only heard before, and got to learn some of the tunings and techniques.

Below is a recording I made of the song Leahi.  Before the song, there is a great explanation of the lyrics by Kamuela Kimokeo.  In the video, left to right,  that’s Peter Moon, ukelele, George Kuo, Cyril Pahinui, and Kamuela Kimokeo, guitars (not Kahuela, I’ll fix that typo).

At the Festival, I especially liked Jeff Peterson’s technical skills, his unique arrangements, and the sheer beauty of his playing.  Kamuela’s group Hi’ikua played the most inspired set and brought the crowd to its feet a lot. Kamuela was an absolute madman on guitar, playing with the microphone, his elbow, and his teeth. The six-string solo bass playing of former Don Ho sideman Nathan Aweau was sensational too, but not really in the slack-key style.