“so long, frank lloyd wright” – simon & garfunkel (1970)

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For me, living in Chicago, October is an awesome time.  The trees are adorned in autumnal hues as the season change and the excitement of Halloween hangs in the air.  I don’t have to start worrying about Thanksgiving travel or Christmas presents yet.  It is a month of subdued electricity running through my veins as I celebrate the season before winter arrives. Also, it is the month of the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago!

Since 2011, the second weekend of October is the most magical time of the year for Chicagoans.  Put on by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, Open House Chicago is an opportunity to see over 200 sites across the cities from as far south as Englewood all the way to Evanston.  The appeal of these sites ranges from their architectural elements, historical significance, normal public exclusion, or for other unique treasures that you weren’t aware existed in this fair city.

It truly is my favorite time of the year and I’ve gone every year since its inception.  Some years, I scramble to see as many sites as possible over the two days.  Other years, I take my time and check out a few places.  And with the variety of amazing places to check out, there are a lot of ways to have fun.

This year, I made an effort to venture out to Bridgeport and Back of the Yards which are neighborhoods I never go to.  Like ever.  Considering this was my eighth year in a row, it was time to break some new ground so to speak.

Due to the time it took to get to that area, I only saw a few locations.  However, they were amazing.  Zap Props was well worth the trip.  Zap Props is a large prop rental warehouse that rents out props to film and television productions.  They had thousands of knick-knacks and other items that are rented out regularly for productions, parties, and even restaurants.  It was a flea market junkie’s dream.  From there, I checked out other place such as the Chicago Maritime Museum, the ComEd training facility, a restored Roman Catholic church, and a Buddhist Temple.

On Sunday, I went north to Evanston to see the American Toby Jug museum.  A Toby Jug is a large pouring vessel modeled after this British guy’s famed love for drinking.  Since the late 1700s, the tradition of the Toby Jug has expanded from jugs modeled after the guy to jugs modeled after animals, world leaders, entertainers, and so on.  It was such a strange collection to see and it was curious that it would be in Evanston of all places. Still, these are the kooky and fun things you may come across on your journey through Open House Chicago.

Open House Chicago appeals to all tastes.  For me, I like weird and unique places.  For others, you may be seriously interested in architecture.  And if that is that case, you may have a deep appreciation for famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Living in Chicago, you’ll occasionally walk by homes designed by Wright.  For Open House Chicago, some of his sites are even opened up for tours.  The experience may not be as comical or bizarre as the Toby Jug Museum, but it is truly a great experience.

In honor of Open House Chicago, architecture, and Frank Lloyd Wright, the song to celebrate all of those things this week is Simon & Garfunkel’s “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright.”  Released in 1970 and closing out the A-side of Bridge Over Troubled Water, “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” is a folk ballad tribute to the architect.  Lamenting that architect may come and go, there are fond memories of laughing so long and harmonizing until dawn.  In the duo’s signature style, Simon & Garfunkel bring a shade of curiosity, romanticism, and humor to the song.

Architecture, though admirable ad awe-inspiring in its craftmanship, is also something that can fun and alter your point of view.  Open House Chicago does that for me in a city where I’m sometimes dulled by the familiar during my normal routine.

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“love your neighbor” – ladysmith black mambazo (1990)

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I have been volunteering at the Old Town School of Folk Music for nearly three years.  Volunteering there was a great outlet for a few different reasons.  For one, it was a way to give back to my community.  Secondly, the added experience looks great on a resume.  Finally, and perhaps best of all, I get points that I can apply towards discounted music classes or free concert tickets.  Being an active volunteer has helped with my guitar playing hobby and seeing some great acts.

On Saturday, I took a friend to see Ladysmith Black Mambazo.  I had originally seen the famous South African a capella group back in 2012 also at the Old Town School of Folk Music.  I was really excited for that show.  I had recently watched a screening of a documentary at the Music Box Theatre called Under African Skies.  That documentary was about Paul Simon revisiting South Africa to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his album Graceland which prominently featured members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and would subsequently launch them on the world stage.  That show in 2012 was remarkable and a real treat.

The funny thing is that when I posted about seeing the group in 2012, I got a lot of comments from people saying they didn’t know they were a real group.  The group is a memorable punchline in the 2004 film Mean Girls.  That seemed so strange to me.  Ladysmith Black Mambazo was founded in 1960 by Joseph Shabalala and has seen numerous iterations over the years. The current iteration features four of the founders’ sons. Granted they weren’t world-renowned figures until Paul Simon came along, but they always seemed ubiquitous to me.  One of those entities you had heard of even if you may not know a single thing about them or their work.  However, for millennials, that cultural reference point is a film comedy which led them to believe it was just a made-up name.  It is funny how things work out like that.

Anyway, back to 2018.  My friend was also one of those people who only knew the name through the association in Mean Girls and that they were involved with Paul Simon.  She didn’t know what the show and experience of watching the group would consist of.

Seeing Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a real treat.  First and foremost, they are an a capella group.  That is the heart of their talent and they excel at that.  Shabalala started the group after hearing certain isicathamiya (traditional music of the Zulu people) harmonies in his dreams.  This vocal presentation is highly rhythmic which each member devoted to a specific part often with a lead driving the group with their own chant.

The singing is amazing, but only scope of the group’s appeal with a live setting.  Their performance is also very visual and physically active.  Members of the group will make hand gestures or perform chorus line type kicks that add to the spectacle.  Towards the end of the performance, various members will perform highly rhythmic dances that incorporate their own traditional ethnic influences as well as some humor in the form of physical comedy.  It is completely unexpected and keeps you engaged.

Seeing Ladysmith Black Mambazo is great because of their vocal talents coupled with the lively dancing.  I knew that when I saw them in 2012 and I knew I would love it again in 2018.  However, there was one aspect of this particular performance that stood out.

Part of the audience was really vocal during the performance.  They chanted and sang along and communicated with the performers.  At first, I really couldn’t make out what exactly was going on.  Midway through the show, when one of the performers was talking about being homesick, the people in the audience who were making noises earlier yelled out “you’re making all of us homesick.”  Then it struck me and everything started to make sense. They were Afrikaners.

This past week, I have been reading David Byrne’s How Music Works.  In the book, he breaks down how music fits in our world, specifically the physical aspect, and affects our culture.  His book covers industry-specific issues such as how to market music that is made, but he primarily talks about the process of making music and how the music that is made is indicative of our surroundings.  There’s a lot he covers in the book, but one aspect he touches upon is relevant here.  He talks about the role of the audience in Western society.  In the early 1900s, in large concert halls where classical music was performed, audiences weren’t quiet and focused on the performances with rapt attention.  They mingled and chatted and the music served as part of the background.  Over the last century, that has completely changed.  Especially when it comes to specific types of music and venues.  We are now expected to be quiet and not be distracting.

That’s with regards to Western audiences.  Byrne also provides examples where the exact opposite happens now.  Byrne talks about his experiences seeing local music in places like Africa and Bali where music and the performance of music is a more communal thing.  In places like that, music is more of something one does as opposed to being someone one sees.  It is also interactive and inclusive and people participate as they see fit.

Given that context, I understood the need for these Afrikaners to interact with the performers.  Even without reading Byrne’s analysis, I wouldn’t have minded their excitement.  The music was moving them that much and it is ridiculous that the non-Afrikaners were expecting them to be quiet and not enjoy their native land’s music as they saw fit.  Seeing that during the week I’m reading a book on the topic is just serendipitous and reinforces that there is a vast array of ways to enjoy music.

One thing I love about Ladysmith Black Mambazo is their positivity and humanism.  Most of the songs introduced at the concert were prefaced with short stories or proclamations about loving everyone regardless of their race.  One song that stuck out for me from the concert was “Love Your Neighbor.”  The track was originally released and recorded on their 1990 studio album Two Worlds, One Heart.  It was later re-recorded for their 2017 compilation Songs of Peace & Love for Kids & Parents Around the World.

In the re-recorded version, there is an introduction.  The speaker says “We all have friends and neighbors. People who live close to us. We call this our community. It is important to love everyone in our community and to show love and respect to your neighbors. If you can do this, then they will show love and respect to you.  This is how we all can help to make the world a better place.”  This sentiment was also shared with audience at Saturday’s performance.

The news in recent weeks has been terrible.  The school shooting in Florida has been devastating and has driven the same dialogue and inaction we have seen time and time again over the years.  It is numbing and I feel certain that nothing will change, but then I see the children from that school speak to crowds and march in the streets and it gives me hope.

One of the performance form Ladysmith Black Mambazo, when introducing another song, said that there will always be tough times.  However, tough times don’t last but strong people do.  Keeping that in mind along with taking the time to understand, respect, and love our neighbors is what is going strengthen our world.  And it is amazing to have those feelings reaffirmed and made prescient through music.  Music that can inspire us whether we watch it with all the attention we can muster or whether we participate in whatever way that moves us.

“kodachrome” – paul simon (1973)

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I started taking guitar classes last fall.  In the beginner classes, you start learning the basic open chords and commit those to memory.  For the most part, I have all of them remembered with the exception of one or two I very rarely use.  As I progressed to the next class, different strumming patterns are introduced as well as riffs.  At the school where I take classes, they have 7 classes that make up their core guitar program.  You start in guitar 1 and then enhance your skills in the next class with guitar 1 repertoire.  This repeats itself for guitar 2 and guitar 3.  The seventh and final class of the program is guitar forever (or four).

A few weeks ago, I started taking guitar 3, which would be the fifth class in the program.  I had heard a lot about this class.  During the last class of each session, there is a student showcase where the classes perform a song that showcases the lessons they have learned.  I have written about these already from my own experience performing in the student showcase.  However, whenever the instructor for guitar 3 introduces the class, they always make note of the “dreaded barre chord.”  I now understand what they meant.

We started to learn the shape for barre chords immediately upon starting the first class of the guitar 3 session.  The first song in our packet of songs to learn throughout the course was the Ringo Starr penned Beatles classis “With a Little Help from My Friends.”  This song contained a Bm barre chord.

What makes barre chords difficult to learn are two things.  First, because of how the index finger is used, I have to remember that I need to use different fingers when making my chord.  I have spent 4 sessions already learning open chords and have some muscle memory regarding what fingers to use.  For example, to make an Am open chord, I typically used my index, middle, and ring fingers.  Since the Bm barre chord contains an Am chord, I now have to tell my brain to instead use my middle, ring, and pinky fingers.  As a beginner, switching up the fingers can be a little tricky.

However, the reason why barre chords are so difficult is because you have to clamp you index finger across all six strings tightly and use your thumb to apply pressure underneath the fret board.  This hand shape uses muscles that are never used for anything else other than this purpose.  As a result, it kind of hurts.  My instructor showed us some hand exercises we can use to help build the hand strength, but the key is to just practice.  While I have been practicing, I’m still not great at quickly switching to a barre chord or even putting enough pressure on the string so as not to get the thud sound.  I try not to get discouraged because I am told it can take a long time to get used to it, but is worth it in the end.

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While I am really struggling with barre chords now, one thing I have never really had a problem with is learning riffs.  I still remember all the riffs learned from songs taught in the preceding four classes.  While I may not be able to remember the rest of the song in terms of what key or chord sequence for strumming, I don’t ever forget the riff.  In fact, I learn the riffs rather quickly.

Last night, we moved onto the next song in our packet which was Paul Simon’s catchy hit “Kodachrome.”  I absolutely adore this song, but I looked at the sheet with mild annoyance of the multiple barre chords that the song calls for.  We went through the song a few times and I struggled where I knew I would, but we also did take time to learn the opening riff.  Within minutes, I had it down perfectly.  The riff is a neat little boogie number that ascends form the lower E string to the D string, and then descends again before repeating.  For me, this riff is what makes this Simon class truly great.

The song sounds jovial and fun, but there is some dark humor with the lyrics.  When Simon reflects on his time in high school or all of the girls who ignored him, there is a tinge of animosity in there.  However, he has his Nikon camera and that is his whole world.  With every picture he takes, he can make the whole world a sunny day.  He seems to suggest that we interpret our photographs with rose-colored glasses and project more positive memories that may not actually reflect the time when the picture was taken.  The song is cleverly written with a tongue-in-cheek commentary on nostalgia and it’s manipulative hold on our memories.

Despite the cynical message behind the lyrics, “Kodachrome” is a very fun song that makes me happy listening to it.  And there is some irony there.  I am distracted by the boogie riff and up-tempo styling and not focusing on what Simon is saying.  But, that’s ok.  I’m more than happy to add it’s signature riff to my repertoire.  Now if only I can finally get these barre chords down.