Ever wonder whether we are all artists in some way or another? I mean, even if you have yet to express yourself publicly in some artistic form or fashion, it is not an exaggeration to say that within us all there is an artistic bend that has yet to be discovered, even by ourselves. Why am I saying this? It’s all because of the photograph above, or more precisely, because of the artistic expression that became the subject of the photograph above. You see, the lady in the photo was just spinning very slowly on the raised platform while every 4 to 5 seconds striking the same cords on the guitar. On and on it went, while the rest of us stood there at this famous museum simply staring and waiting for the next stroke to come on, even if it was not any different from the one that preceded it. And you know what? I thought it was great, even if right now I couldn’t tell you why. Suffice it to say that art is art, and the fact that someone may not admire a particular art form, does nothing to diminish this fact. It is creativity given expression through some mean, and just like a plate of food, someone’s dislike does not do away from the simple fact that it was actually food and someone else will like it. So it is perhaps high-time that most of us aspiring creatives just let loose out there. Paint if you feel like painting, write if you feel like writing, and sing if you want to let loose the song in your heart. And never worry about what others may be thinking. The lady with the guitar didn’t seem to mind, and still everyone stared admirably in silence eagerly waiting for her hand to move. Sounds absurd? No, it’s art.
One of the great things about living in the Washington, DC area is that you get to experience world cultures without having to leave the city. Of course, this is mainly because of the great Smithsonian Institution, which sits royally in the heart of the city and acts as beacon of culture that is second to none in the world. On this particular weekend it is Peru that has their attention, with a celebration of Peruvian culture and traditions at the Folklife Festival smack in the middle of the Washington Mall. In fact, after visiting several of these festivals in the past, it is my impression that this one is one of the best festivals I have ever seen at the Mall, and I’m not just saying that because of the copious amounts of Peruvian food I came in contact with. Really, they even have Alpacas there, which you can go check out after trying your dance skills at the sound of some rhythmic Andean tunes.
But what was most impressive for me was the sight of weavers and boat-makers who could turn simple threads and straw into incredible works of art. In a city where the first thing that comes to mind when talking about “ancient skills” is having to type on a manual typewriter, actually seeing people who can build something with their hands is a quite a big deal. And after several hours observing them at work, I never saw a single one of them using a cell phone. Amazing that people can survive without them. Gracias amigos.
Is it possible to have a favorite street corner in the whole world? I never gave this much thought until a few days ago when I happened to find myself in a very familiar spot in Washington, DC. You see, I have a kind of strange fascination with the Penn Quarters section of the city, and in previous occasions this neighborhood has been the subject of this blog. What makes this occasion different is that I just realized how much I really enjoy walking around this particular spot on earth with my camera. No matter how many times I go out to photograph everyday life, I seem to always find way to this corner of 7th Street NW & F Street NW, and with good reason.
The place is a beehive of human activity, from panhandlers selling tickets to sports events, to elegantly-attired folks headed half a block up E Street to the imposing Shakespeare Theater Company. It is like the point where various rivers converge, resulting in waters that become both turbulent and majestic at once. For photographers and admirers of the human condition, this is definitely the place to be. And no matter where other roads may take me from time to time, there’s one thing I know for sure: I will be back to this raucous corner many times in the future. Not that everyone there is happy to see you with your camera, but rather that there’s so much going on all the time, that most people don’t notice you much amongst the constant flow of people that cross that intersection every day. It is the perfect place to feel alive, and that puts it right up there on my book.
I realize that I have posted photos of street musicians many times on this blog, but this time I just couldn’t resist. What caught my attention about these two young men was the fact that they were both impeccably dressed and that their music didn’t quite fit the vaudeville style we usually associate with street musicians. In fact, after watching and listening for a while, I had this great compulsion to write their mothers a thank-you note for raising such great young men. In an European capital they would have had about a hundred people standing around them enjoying their music, but for reasons I don’t even want to get into right now, here in America only about three of us took the time to stop and listen. Sure, people were indeed contributing some money to their act, but all while zooming by at speeds that reminded me of a toll booth on an interstate highway. No time for music, I guess. Thankfully, these detached monetary acknowledgements didn’t deter our duo, who continued to play as if they were about to receive a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall. I guess that even when most people have no time to listen until the song ends, the music will still play on without them.
OK, I need you to relax, sit back, and bear with me on this one, as I know you will understand by the time I’m done. You see, I just realized that I have always been a musician, even if for a variety of reasons, I have never played a musical instrument in my life. In fact, the fact that my life has been devoid of outward manifestations of my musical talent has nothing to do with the inescapable fact that the heart of the musician has always been there, composing as life went on and in constant search for that elusive masterpiece. But why now? To what divine revelation can I attribute this sudden manifestation of my musical talents? The answer lies on a book. And to be more precise, to a particular chapter in a particular book. I’m talking about an obscure little book first written in 1940 in Budapest by a then-obscure author by the name of Sandor Marai. The book, “Casanova in Bolzano,” contains what I consider to be one of the best monologues I have ever read. Casanova, upon proclaiming himself to be a writer, is somewhat taken aback when his assistant points out to him the simple fact that he had never written anything. This throws Casanova into a duel of words, describing in great detail what a writer is and why he, who indeed had never written anything, perfectly fit the description of a writer. His words are poetry in the form of prose.
So I got to thinking. Yes, you could argue that I have never played a musical instrument. And yes, you would be technically correct in saying that I don’t know the difference between a diatonic, chromatic, or tremolo harmonica. The same with the distinction between a glissando, a staccato, or a fermata. Have I ever played a violin? No. A piano? Nope. Wouldn’t even know where to start, but it doesn’t matter. What I know is that there is song in my heart, that it is impossible to look at life around me without music playing in my ears. That in many occasions I have sat, pen in hand staring at an instrument in a futile attempt to compose a note, or play one for that matter. A life long lived for music and art, but with no success in creating its physical manifestation. I, the musician, have found it virtually impossible to write or play those notes. But why should I care? Why reduce the sublime to a mundane scribble on a piece of paper, or a strum on an old guitar? No, not me. I am too busy composing the music of my life to slow down to jot it down, or play it slow. Isn’t it good enough that I feel it and live it? Have people not enjoyed music for thousands of years without ever seen it written or listening to an orchestra? Yes, Sandor Marai was right. We are what we are. And I, my dear friends, am a musician at heart. In fact, I’m headed out to make more music. Good luck with your own music.
How do you know that spring is just around the corner? That is, besides peaking into whether Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow or not. I’m sure everyone has a personal way of presaging the arrival of spring, but for me, it is the appearance of music on city streets that unmistakably lets me know that it’s about time to start putting away those winter jackets. From violins to trashcan drums, I must admit I like it all and that I wait for those street sounds with the same level of fascination as the masses that assemble every year in Pennsylvania wait for that sage of a groundhog. To tell you the truth, I love street musicians, and I’m glad to see that traditions that were popularized in Europe have found their way into the streets of America. These performers give character to street corners and neighborhoods alike, and if you ever take the time to stop and listen (not to mention to drop a few bucks into their instrument box), you’d be surprised at how good they really are. So for now, I plan to enjoy their wonderful, musical contribution to our enjoyment of life, and some months from now, when the street music stops, I’ll know it is time to pull out that dreaded winter jacket again. Not particularly looking forward to it.