One Night in Perugia, Italy

(one that I won't forget anytime soon)

This was originally written for my Tumblr blog in three parts . . .

Perugia at Night - Part I

Hummmmmm … maybe a little too much fun last night for an OCD*? Oh well, I’ll be ready again tonight.

The folks in this town are great. I wish I could have you all here to experience some of this!! After the concert was over, it seemed much of the thousands were not quite ready to turn down the festival lights. There was a great deal of revelry continuing in the alleys and narrow streets on this hill. I ducked into a local “elf yourself” watering hole and ordered a cold drink :-) My intention was to allow some of the crowds to diminish while I took in the required nourishment to continue my climb up the hill to the hotel. The very knowledgable bar tender recommended a light drink from the “oldest brewery in the world” … and a pint seemed like just the right size. He was dead on in his recommendation. I struck up a conversation with another “tourist” seated near me, a young man from Norway visiting for what he hoped would turn out to be a permanent stay. Along with a spirited geopolitical explanation for his relocation desires, he emphasized that he was just plain tired of fighting the winters in his Scandinavian homeland. After further narrowing down the only logical solutions to world peace and prosperity for all cultures (he has a degree in political science) we found ourselves, along with the other patrons, of having outlasted the published open hours for this particular establishment. But, the streets were still not rolled up completely. I am always drawn to street musicians, and last night was no different. We came upon a crowd seated on the steps of a large government building that was obviously as old as it gets in this part of the world. The group was all in sync with perceptible body movements tied to the sounds coming from the musicians seated at the edge of this gathering. There was a horn player, but the chair dancing was mostly influenced by the beat of a couple of time keepers hammering out something akin to what we hear in the Caribbean back home. The pulse was powerful, the sound inspiring. One player has a drum that seemed to have been designed like those you see in the South Pacific. The other was sitting on a bass instrument that I found out was homemade, but quit effective in rattling anything that would vibrate on the low end of the frequency spectrum. My friends, this was quite a step up from the five gallon buckets we’re used to seeing on the streets of New Orleans. After trying to video a bit of the performance (I had run out of battery juice) I took a seat near the “Tahiti Drum” player and quickly found myself in sync with the group. Some were more animated than others, but all of these three dozen or so bodies were bouncing to the beat of the “drums” and swaying to the horn when it chimed in. After some time had passed, the small drum was passed to a different player, a guy seated next to me. With fresh hands pounding the skin came a new beat, this fellow’s interpretation of the night’s mood and the cool atmosphere. The collective chair dancing paused only as long as it took to pass the drum to the new player, and then it was on again for an extended version of this player’s current musical heartbeat. I guess the hands could only last so long, as we could feel a crescendo building in his beat. The new player and his powerful bass accompaniment brought the movement to a rousing and musically logical conclusion. There was a smattering of polite applause and a few folks began to stand up to stretch and presumedly prepare to depart this musical improvisation event. It was time to go. The hands had reached almost 3:30am on the local clocks. But then, the Tahiti Drum was handed to me …

Perugia at Night - Part II

So … while much of the small crowd was now standing, and began what appeared to be cordial exchanges of good night wishes, I’m sitting there with the “Tahiti Drum” clasped between my knees. I smiled knowingly at the player that handed it to me, touched the skin of the instrument, and then looked to the “bass” player for some sign. For just this brief moment, I lost all awareness of the now departing group of late night music lovers. The bass player shook his head to affirm his “negative” answer … then motioned toward my hands which were now placed on the top of this tall “bongo” or “conga” drum … I’m still not sure what the proper term for it is. I understood his sign and contemplated for just a moment. I was still very much infused with the rhythms absorbed by all of us for the last hour or so. But … this pause … this “good night until next time” phase … this moment’s aura seemed to fuel a real need for changing the beat. I felt an uninvited pressure to help move the pulse of this gathering to an appropriate final course, a dessert if you will, in this musical meal we had been happily consuming. I randomly sampled the sounds of the drum head. I tapped the center, and then the edges with the side of my right thumb. I slapped the center with the four fingers of my left hand and then the same slap went to the head’s rounded edge with my right hand. The heel of my dominant hand’s palm then forcefully struck the bulls eye on the drum head creating a deep and solid sound that certainly qualified to be part of a base line in any rhythmic dual. The edges provided the higher frequencies of a potential “melody” … and the sides of the instrument added to the variation of possibly useful sounds. Now understand, I was indeed a drummer in many a rock & roll band (as well as other genres) … when I was much, much younger. And I was a percussionist in the NSU/Natchitoches Symphony Orchestra. I was part of the percussion ensemble in college during which I used a multitude of “sticks” to beat on a multitude of instruments. I marched in high school and college football game halftime shows and in many a parade in many a town. Yes, I’ve strutted my stuff in a Mardi Gras parade. I’ve played drums while a DJ spun records. I’ve jammed with more than a few pickup bands earlier in my existence. But … I don’t ever remember playing a bongo or a conga drum … I do recall, vividly, my Mother’s numerous stories of my “banging” on everything and anything throughout my childhood. I don’t really remember being guilty of her accusations of me breaking pencils, toothbrushes (mine and others), and all manner of materials converted to endure the rigors of items used as substitute drumsticks. Well, OK … I don’t remember the collective damage being as exponential as she claims it was. Of course I remember tapping out the rhythms to popular or made up tunes swirling around in my little head. Of course I remember using the armrest of my Grandmother’s favorite living room chair as a practice pad (no, it was not still covered in plastic). But the event I probably remember with more intensity and color than any other, with respect to percussionist related desires … was seeing my older cousin walk out of her house all dressed up in a band uniform with a parade snare drum strapped on in front of her. Yes … I said “her.” I had no idea before that very moment that my cousin was the absolute coolest person on planet Earth. As unconventional as it may have been at the time, here was my girl cousin looking as sharp and professional as anyone I had ever seen in any manner of dress, or in any area of expertise. And she was not carrying a flute or a clarinet. No sir!!! She had anchored to her a full sized parade marching drum that was as beautiful as anything I’d ever seen. And in her hand were no pencils or toothbrushes. Nope … she had a real pair of genuine drum sticks that were as smooth as any pieces of timber I had ever seen or felt !!! There was no turning back. I may have wanted to play music before the sight of my uniformed cousin entered my consciousness, but that day cemented my need to age more quickly and sign up for the band. The fifth grade seemed so incredibly far away at that point. There was way too much time to further damage pencils and furniture. There were not nearly enough activities in my young existence to distract me for very long from wishing and wanting a pair of my very own drum sticks. From that moment on, my trudge toward the fifth grade seemed like it had been sabotaged by the addition of the thickest cans of Steen’s syrup you’ve ever seen poured along my path. But now, here I was, about 50 years later, after a fun and rewarding musical mini-career, and an exciting and fulfilling aviation career … and I’m sitting with a kind of tribal percussion instrument in my grasp … and time suddenly stood very still for what seemed like minutes. It was only just a few seconds. But I needed to find my rhythm right then and there …

Perugia at Night - Part III

With no help coming from either the bass man or the horn player, I was perhaps thrown into a bit of overthinking what my next move needed to be. It was time to tap, bang, beat, and bounce this party to a conclusion. The late hour and the winding down atmosphere begged for a less energetic jam than what we had been a part of, but it’s a bit difficult to shift one’s rhythmic gears after chair dancing to a prolonged session of pulse inspiring beats. I continued to test the tones of the both the skin and the firm edges of the instrument, hoping some inner groove would just kick in like it so easily did in the old days. Not really being cognizant of any particular melody being emitted from my cranial area, I did begin gently tapping out a more consistent pattern of sounds from the various target areas of the Tahiti drum. I vaguely remember sensing a type of jazzed up lullaby sensation, which helped subdue the intensity from the previous jam quite a bit. That seemed like the right path because it wasn’t long before the bass man was emphasizing my downbeats with just the right touch on his homemade contraption. The horn man had put away his instrument and had walked away while I was still experimenting with sounds. I didn’t expect to see or hear from him anymore that night. I lost myself a bit in the rhythms that were sprouting and began to not even think about the bass man anymore. He was achieving a perfectly invisible integration and assimilation with the mood my hands were trying to project from the emotional center of my musical consciousness. The jazzed up lullaby seemed to evolve into an adagio march. I guess that slow metamorphosis was inevitable coming from the head and hands of someone who played an abundance of marches throughout a young marching band existence. But this march was indeed slower, not funeral procession slow, but paced perfectly to stroll to a night’s conclusion I thought. It got comfortable enough after a bit that I found myself exchanging knowing and approving nods and smiles with the rhythmically intertwined bass man. I was beginning to just enjoy it and had quit thinking about it so much … my musical autopilot was now engaged. In my peripheral line of site, I began to notice some of the locals moving back toward the old steps we had all been sharing in the square. I believe I actually acknowledged a couple of these nice Italian folks now that I was beginning to have a bit of fun, and no longer trying to force a musical direction. The movements of my hands were getting more fluid as a result of the relaxation mode kicking in. Maybe it was just my wishing it, but the sounds certainly did seem to become more crisp, and the patterns more colorful with just the right amount and placement of accents from both my hands and the hands of the bass man. We were not just merging rhythmically; we were beginning to sync musically. I was also noticing by now more people returning to the tighter assembly that we were structured in before. Many were still standing, but at least half sat back down in front of the old government building with us, and joined in on a new round of still barely perceptible chair dancing. The beat was moving a little toward a stronger feel, but still conveying a relaxed presence with perhaps a hint of jazz undertones. I wasn’t sure if the people were gathering back up ready to prolong their night out, or just had an understandable curiosity about the little old American dude, wearing a strange hat and tapping out a new sound. But at this point, that was a moot point. The bass “drummer” and I were totally on the same page now and it was getting easier to venture a bit from the different patterns, but keep it logical and flowing. I’m not sure how much time passed, but more and more people had gathered back up and a seemingly greater number were planted on the old steps now than there were before. They were all moving to the rhythms with near choreographed precision, some clearly tying their body movements to the downbeats, while others were sporting noticeably syncopated musical personalities. I was, by now, enjoying myself as much as any OCD possibly can after 3:30 in the morning in a land seven time zones away from the bayou. I was certainly being fueled by an adrenalin infused second wind by now. I detected the staccato burst of a horn. And before I could fix my eyes on the source, another burst hit me on another downbeat. I spotted the horn player with his brass back up to his lips and his head down in that classic position horn players take when contemplating an on ramp to a jam. Most of us look at the ceiling when we are searching for an answer. Horn players look at their feet, or the floor, or perhaps just a black hole in their musical consciousness that they want desperately to navigate out of. With his eyes closed and his head still down, he hit a few more short notes of different frequencies before he began to move into a more varied pattern with longer sounds emanating from his instrument. I barely noticed his head moving slowly toward the horizontal position as his contribution became weightier and, I assume, his confidence in the melodic direction rose up right along with his gaze. Again, perhaps it was just wishful thinking on my part at the time, but I really began to think we were moving toward a late night Italian jam version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” … Well it wasn’t my favorite NFL Team’s theme song, but the melody and rhythms did coalesce into a marching band mood and sound that was increasing in intensity just a bit. The reengagement of the horn player seemed to finish tightening up the once scattered night owls into the original viscosity of the crowd I had stumbled upon at the top of my climb earlier. This fortified ancient summit designed to be efficiently defended from marauders of yesteryear was now overrun with a late night crowd of very happy and still very energetic souls … and it was indeed magical. Once again, there was the emergence of that collective musical heartbeat of several dozen people. The movements of the pack were quite systemic and pronounced by now … and it was a trill to watch such communal joy and enthusiasm. I no longer felt there was any effort required in creating a very digestible sound. It just seemed to naturally morph into what it was supposed to, a final hurrah for the friends, family, tourists, and one OCD to enjoy after an extended night out following a killer concert. Parts of me began to burn a bit; I don’t really remember where it started. It could have very well been in my shoulders, or maybe my elbows. My hands began to get sore. I was clearly not physically prepared to do this for an extended amount of time. But somehow or another, I hung in there long enough to begin to feel the onset of a musical conclusion. I’m not sure if I subconsciously push toward that inevitability, or if another in the trio helped nudge us all toward an ending. There was an intensity building to a crescendo that had to be concluded soon I remember thinking, or I was just going to have to put my hands back in the parked position before I damaged something connected to me that I needed to fly home. I’m not sure how, but with a burning subset of muscles that I had forgotten even existed, I stayed with these guys while we brought near everyone to their feet in a rousing display of unity and an great finish for all in attendance. Everyone was dancing at an unexpected level of energy considering the very late hour. And there was a rousing round of cheers and applause when we finally wrapped it up. The jam was over, I was aching, and we were treated to an exuberant, gracious, and apparently very grateful crowd. I spent time shaking many hands and trying to interpret Italian and broken English greetings. I was made to understand that I’d be welcome to join them anytime and was given the word on where to meet up the next night. I remember vividly thinking, “I’m going to love Perugia!” It is unplanned events like this that make for the absolute best memories. You can only make memories like this if you engage people verbally, socially, spiritually, and yes, even musically. Some of your best memories may be of a fine dining experience with loved ones. Others of you remember a party or a particularly exciting sporting event. Some of you may remember a treasured cruise or a spa day with your BFFs. It may have been a high flying adventure or the vacation of a lifetime with the person you love most. And many of the best memories are right in our homes and back yards with the people who care enough to spend quality time with you. But whatever your best memories are, I’ll bet my very last nickel that it was not in a vacuum. You were with one or more other humans enjoying what our species enjoys the most, the interaction with others in an environment that breathes love, life, and laughter. Sharing the good times with others trumps everything else. It is indeed the icing on life’s cake. It’s a big part of what we Cajuns refer to as the “Joie de Vivre” …

 The Easy Cajun  

                                                                                                                                                  *Old Cajun Dude

One Night in Perugia

Roger Paul

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