Mystery Dissolved

THIS WEEK, like many of my “completest” friends, I’m making my way leisurely through the remastered, de-mythologized, but still nice-and-swampy Exile on Main Street. My inaugural listen is on the soon-to-be-departed lala.com, which in a ways mimics the first way I listened to Exile — it was someone else’s LP, my now-musician brother who blasted the Stones pretty much daily for a period of five or so years. Yes, everyday. For about a decade after, I couldn’t quite appreciate the band since I felt it shared a bunk bed with me (and not in a good way.) But this was the album that changed things for me … namely it was “Sweet Virginia” — I had no idea where on map of anything that it came from — stumbling, heart-open, sloppy, alive.
Ben Ratliff , in the New York Times this week, says of the newly released version of “Loving Cup”, “it’s country gospel gone lurid, and it seems to rise up out of a nap.” Yes, yes, something quite like that.

As press rolls on this one, there is a lot of demystifying going on, for one that the whole opus was recorded in the basement of a French mansion. Not quite. In fact, some of th cuts were laid down here in a studio in Los Angeles — they brought the mood with them, it thrums with a anixious melancholy. But plucking away that old, gilded myth doesn’t lessen the impact. What’s there is already in the grooves; at it’s heart, it’s music at it’s most visceral without thinking and posing and projecting. Blues, gospel, rock, pop a oily smear of it all.

It’s 80 degrees in L.A. today good weather to open the windows press play, turn it up and let it loose.

Beautiful Water

THE FIRST time I heard the name Francisco Aguabella it wasn’t over an old nightclub sound system it was being relayed over a poor phone connection from Northern California.

“Who?” I kept asking.

“You don’t know him?” was the not-quite answer.

In lieu of a direct response, I kept translating the name into English in my head: Beautiful Water…”

Before I’d quite said yes, my friend Lenny was on a plane from Berkeley in a heartbeat. (“You are coming, right?”) And so, I traveled across town from Echo Park to Venice — a commute that probably took longer than his Oakland to LAX flight. And there we were at the dive-y unfortunately named Miami Spice — an old Googie-style diner made into a “club”; him still dressed in a tweed teaching blazer and soft Italian loafers, me with my reporting bag heavy with all of my “to dos” yet to be done. But I was giving up my evening on more than a hunch.I was banking simply on Lenny’s elated. “He’s fantastic.”

When Lenny spoke about Francisco Aguabella, he always spoke about his hands, the speed and the feeling. The great Afro-Cuban legend who lived in my midst and “You’ve never seen him live?” More questions to be answered.

Later, I would learn that, of course, I had heard Francisco Aguabella, most likely on what, I would later dub “Latin Jazz Sundays.” That’s when my mother would raise the roof listening to KBCA FM or her old LP sides of Dizzy Gillespie and Mongo Santamaria deep into the golden afternoon. He was the great conguera, all those flowing sheets of rhythm, set forth with those hands. Born in Matanzas, Cuba in 1925, Aguabella moved to California in the early 50s in time to sit in on L.A.’s busy Hollywood club scene. He was the master of the holy trinity: the rumba, the mambo and the cha cha cha:

The rumba, as Aguabella said, “is part of the daily life for many Afro-Cubans. It doesn’t have to be a special day to play the rumba. We could start a rumba right here with no drum. You could play it here or over there on the wall…. In Cuba, rumba is 24 hours a day. We meet on a corner and have a drink … and someone says, ‘Why don’t we play a little rumba?’ Somebody plays the wall, and somebody else plays a bottle and perhaps takes a bottle cap and ‘ca ca ca ca ca’ and starts the rumba

Quieter kept was Aguabella’s role in L.A. as olu batá (batá drummer). Batá is a ceremonial musical style which is integral to the African-derived religion of Santeria practiced in Cuba, Puerto Rico and also in Brazil (known there as cadomble)
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We had front-row seats for Aguabella outside of his secular setting, ensconced in the sacred ritual of Santeria. This evening he was celebrating the birthday of his diety, his patron saint — Santa Barbara (Changó), at the annual birthday party he held in her honor.

What I remember of that odd, magical night only comes in shards: Cigars were smoked, a chicken was sacrificed, rum was drunk, rhythms wound and wound around us — a beautiful filigree. Lenny danced in his chair. David Byrne sat behind us, tipped toward the very edge of his seat and worked his head in that herky-jerk, David Byrne way. And too, I remember Aguabella’s intent stare into “a void,” and those intricate patterns he created around us.

In years following, though I’d begun to “see” Aguabella at other events — both secular and sacred — in old churches and re-purposed storefronts made into nightspots around the Southland, it was this evening pushed to the forefront of my brain when I heard word of his passing on May 7th: this unlikely nightspot, the unlikely collection of the converted and the initiate and the beautiful water that washed over us.

My favorite from Agua de Cuba:

“who digs Los Angeles IS Los Angeles”

Who Digs Los Angeles IS Los Angeles
IT’S THE subtle things that get to us — we Angelenos.

Like right now, my spellcheck is telling me that “Angelenos” is spelled incorrectly. Like they, whomever they are, would know.

I won’t belabor it, but we’ve earned our sensitivity.

Part of my online “absence” has been due to the fact that I just finished teaching a class about Los Angeles. To be more precise, the class was an effort to get students to think a bit more deeply about the region and about the stereotypes that they not just wade in, but trade in, daily about the place. Ultimately they were to report and construct four “lyric” essays about Los Angeles that wrote the city “into view.” Some of the work was heartfelt and stunning; paragraphs explored tiny arteries of littered downtown or the thinnest of hairline markings on an old Thomas Guide — places like Lennox or Glassell Park or Vernon or . . . — that most Angelenos don’t even drive over as they sail across an overpass.

But I digress only to tune-in on a in-real-time ruckus playing out in the journo-world about an op-ed that ran in the New York Times a couple of Sunday’s ago. The piece, Haunting Los Angeles written by Verlyn Klinkenborg, is sort of the typical “there is no there there” usual suspect that outsiders,transplants and self-esteem struggling Angelenos have been saddling L.A. with for generations. In short, Klinkenborg has been searching for L.A.’s essence in, well, I’d have to say odd bordering on absurd places — a strip mall Chinese restaurant with plastic Santa in a fountain “looking as if he’d been waiting to be rescued” or some of the surreptitious on-ramps leading to the 10. He closes by confiding this: “If I had an extra lifetime to live, I’d live it here. . . . . Perhaps then I could grasp what always escapes me here. Then I’d know whether it was worth looking for in the first place.”

It’s the “worth looking for” that gets us every time. No need to go on too much about the back-and-forths, the Facebook posts, the Tweets, even Hector Tobar’s column in the L.A. Times. Tobar’s column’s centerpiece is a description of a east to west drive, his friend/acquaintance, the writer Tomas Benitez, takes across the belly of L.A.’s sprawl. His is Santa Monica Boulevard. Mine is Wilshire. We all, most of us dug-in-deep Angelenos, have one long, snaking road we like to take that forces us, like the very best poetry does, to slow down and pay attention to the details, to the metaphors, to the transitions, the light, the scents, the rhythm, the language, as it changes again and again and again.

After fifteen weeks of having students think deeply about the here that is here, it was surprising to see something so — well — thin sitting in a place so serious, so well-regarded: Nicely turned sentences, but a quick pass-through, another blur of L.A. at 50mph with the widows up.
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I’ve always loved the fact that L.A. can not be fully explained in one sentence. I’ve long understood that “digging” Los Angeles, as Allen Ginsberg suggests, comes with its complications. (And we all know that Ginsberg didn’t mean this line as a compliment.) But over time, I’ve learned to read it and hear it as such. And too, I’ve long understood embracing Los Angeles is like learning a language. You only get better by forcing yourself out into it, swimming into the center, being brave enough to make a fool out of yourself and try again. And again. And somewhere in there, when you least expect it, you’ve not just made yourself understood but you understand yourself within the context of it all. Somehow.