Klezmer in Paradise

The Blums at their 40th anniversary party. They met in college, honeymooned in the Peace Corps, and are living happily ever after.

When I met Gloria and Barry Blum in the 70’s, they already were performing with a klezmer (Jewish party music) band they had founded called the Golden Gate Gypsy Orchestra of America and California, Otherwise Known as the Traveling Jewish Wedding. When I heard them play at Caffe Trieste in San Francisco, they blew off the roof.

A year before the Blum’s daughter, Katie, left the nest, eventually to get her degree in social work, the Blums moved to Kailua-Kona, on the island of Hawaii, leaving their beloved band behind. Kona Community Hospital was thrilled to have Barry as their only orthopedic surgeon, and the Blums were thrilled to trade their Mill Valley digs for a spacious, airy home on a hillside with a huge view of the ocean. Soon they began looking for band members.

The Kona Traveling Jewish Wedding Band onstage.

This time their band didn’t just play lots of wedding gigs. Gloria and Barry assumed leadership of Congregation Kona Beth Shalom, and they began performing Jewish wedding ceremonies in addition to the music. The band recorded a wonderful CD called Shaloha Oy, the title track being a minor key, up-tempo send-up of Queen Liliuokalani’s timeless Aloha ‘Oe. On the cover is a blurb from me: “Gloria Blum is the Janis Joplin of klezmer.”

Gloria singing with the band.

Kona Beth Shalom became a kick ass congregation, producing Karen Breier’s Shaloha cookbook that garnered an article in the New York Times, and adopting a torah (Old Testament scroll in Hebrew) that had belonged to a Czech congregation massacred during the Holocaust. The governor of Hawaii attended Kona Beth Shalom’s recent celebration of the old torah’s expert restoration.

My illustration for the backs of Gloria’s Feeling Good Cards. This image is copyrighted by Gloria Blum.

Gloria’s gift to humankind, a method of teaching appropriate behavior, self-esteem and social skills to mentally disabled teenagers, inspired her to create a resource curriculum guide, Feeling Good About Yourself, and also a communicaton card game, Feeling Good Cards, enjoyable by any group of people. Last year I drew a card back picture exactly to Gloria’s specifications, and re-designed the graphics for the box. That’s Barry playing his bass balalaika, and Gloria beside him, singing with her arms upraised in joy.

In the Heart of Waimea

Cattle ranching history in a mural by Marcia Ray in the food court of the Parker Ranch Center, Waimea, Hawaii

When people think of Hawaii, they don’t often think of cowboys, but, in some parts of Hawaii, cattle ranching is still a way of life. Mind you, these are cowboys who proudly hula and make feather bands for their hats. These are the people who created slack key guitar.

Pasture and ocean seen from the Old Mamalahoa Highway, from Ahualoa to Waimea

The cattle pastures of Hawaii overlook the ocean and enjoy a perpetually balmy climate. I figure this is where you reincarnate if you were a very good cow last time.

Clouds creep over the crest of Kohala Mountain toward the pastures.

Hawaiian cowboys are called “paniolos,” a Hawaiian-ized word originally meaning Espanolo, or people who speak Spanish. The first cattle were given to Hawaiian chiefs by visiting tall ships, and they roamed the islands destroying everything in their path, until the Hawaiians imported people with cattle controlling skills to put an end to that. The first cowboys came from Argentina, speaking Spanish, and bringing guitars, Spanish open tunings, roping and riding, and the Brazilian tipo, a tiny four-stringed instrument the Hawaiians adopted as the ukulele (jumping flea).

Braddah Smitty, whose beautiful heart resonates in his voice.

Last night I spent three happy hours in Tante’s Bar and Grill in Waimea, Hawaii, the heart of the vast Parker Ranch, listening to the great Braddah Smitty and his band. Braddah Smitty’s very Hawaiian family includes his uncle Gabby Pahinui, the father of modern slack key guitar, and Gabby’s famous guitarist sons Cyril and Bla Pahinui. Braddah Smitty resembles his uncle, and sounds just like him when he sings Gabby’s hits Hi’ilawe and Moonlight Lady, but his talent is unique. His rich baritone soars like an opera star’s, but without the pomp. Braddah Smitty is all about having fun. The whole room has no choice but to join him.

An member of the audience performs a masculine hula to Smitty’s music. Several others, including my friend Lynn, got up and danced when they heard songs to which they knew the choreography. In hula, there is only one correct choreography to each song, so that dancers from disparate locations should all be able to move in unison.

He is also all about heart. He graciously invites in whoever wants to play along. Among those sitting in on this occasion was the ancient and legendary Uncle Martin Purdy, son of the famous cowboy Ikua Purdy, depicted in an enormous bronze riding horseback and roping a cow, that stands in the parking lot outside Tante’s Bar and Grill. His wife, Auntie Doris Purdy, played ukulele and performed a stately hula from her chair. Her daughter played guitar, and a couple of young local guys sat in on guitar and ukulele and sang.

The whole line-up of Smitty’s band and friends picking and singing at Tante’s by the great stone fireplace.

I’d kanikapila’d (jammed) with Braddah Smitty a few years ago at the birthday party of Edie Bikle, best-selling children’s book author and the owner of Taro Patch, a scrumptuous gift store in nearby Honoka’a, and he remembered that I played slack key, so he invited me to play some songs during the break between the sets.

I perform some slack key tunes for the folks at Tante’s.

Edie and her boyfriend Tony, both present and clearly having a wonderful time, egged me on, and so did Lynn Nakkim, novelist, comedienne, former Green Party candidate, Waimea resident with her own horse ranch and my friend for over thirty years, whose idea it was to come to Tante’s in the first place. So, I played two slack key pieces over one hundred years old, and sang and played two original slack key songs, Auntie Clara and Living in Hawaii Style, all of which I recorded in 2001 on a CD of the same name. Edie carries it in her store.

Afterward, I joined the line-up of friends playing along with the band.

At the end of the show, the audience rose as one and joined hands in a circle, something I’ve never seen happen in a bar. We all sang Hawaii Aloha, the unofficial national anthem, swaying and harmonizing together. Then that trickster Braddah Smitty sang the Hokey Pokey, and we all got really silly dancing that. After that, people were hugging and kissing each other Good Night and Aloha, and heading out into the mist.

Shamisen and Sushi

Noriko Britton sings with her shamisen trio.

I met Noriko at Hoshi HanaÂ’s art opening last Sunday. She told me she played shamisen, and I asked when and where I could come hear her play. When I found out it would be the following Friday at Zeque (pronounced zeck-you) Sushi and Grill in the South Lake Mall in Pasadena, I called my friends and happily reserved a table for twelve. We all had a wonderful time.

Michiko, Takako, Hideko and Noriko.

The ensemble was, as follows:

In the lavender kimono, Michiko Yoshino (professional name, Bando Hiro Michiya), a traditional Japanese dancer, who sang some songs with the shamisen trio at the beginning of the set.

In the peach kimono, Takako Osumi (Kineya Yasuyo), shamisen player.

In the yellow kimono, Hideko Kamei (Kineya Kichi Kazu), shamisen player.

In the blue kimono, Noriko Britton (Kineya Roku Kensho), shamisen player.

An instrumental piece with fierce and complex rhythms.

Sometimes the songs were instrumental only and sometimes the women sang while they played. These were not songs for dance performance, but rather just for listening, Noriko explained to us later. Hoshi Hana told me that Noriko lived across the street from her parents since before her birth, and she had encouraged Hoshi Hana to learn music. “I was lousy at the koto,” she grinned. Hoshi Hana’s destiny clearly lay in the visual arts and in a world more bohemian than traditional, although she is beautifully bi-lingual.

ZequeÂ’s appetizer specialty is a sort of giant sushi called a Mount Fuji, with three layers of rice and your choice of any three sushi toppings, two as fillings and one on top. One of these arrived with slices of avocado ornamenting the sides.

Just as we were all leaving, I saw the trio heading for the parking lot with their instruments and ran after them to photograph them one more time. So sweetly did they turn and smile.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Drummer Joe Lastie

July 8, 2006. The legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band from New Orleans played a set at Amoeba Music on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, and I was in the front row, laughing, dancing, clapping my hands and taking pictures.

Trombonist Frank Demond, clarinetist Ralph Johnson, with trumpeter John Brunious singing, and alto saxophonist Darrel Adams

Hundreds of Hollywood hipsters jammed the aisles of the record store, loving the music.

Each player solo’d beautifully, the shout choruses at the end of each song thrilled us, and three of the players sang as only old jazz musicians can sing.

Bass player Walter Payton sings

During the last song of the set, (“Saints,” of course) the store staff distributed Mardi Gras beads, horns and bells, and the four horn players lead us in a second line, dancing around the store.

Clarinetist Ralph Johnson

After the set, the store held a charity auction to raise money for the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund, which was originally founded by the Preservation Hall Jazz Society.

Carl Le Blanc plays banjo

I bought one of the band’s CDs. I asked trumpet player/vocalist John Brunious, which was their most recent recording. He said, “This is what you want (pointing to Shake That Thing), but THIS is what you need.” THIS turned out to be Sweet Emma and her Preservation Hall Jazz Band, a two-CD set of a remastered 1964 recording with an earlier line-up of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, featuring a 66 year old woman pianist/vocalist named Sweet Emma Barrett. Sweet, indeed!

Alicia having fun at Amoeba Music

I gave John a copy of What Living’s All About, and hoped he’d enjoy Floozy Tune, my trad jazz original that opens the CD. He was kind enough to write down the names of the players so I could share them with you on this post.

Front entrance. The store occupies an entire city block.

Amoeba Music’s wild success as an independent record store stems from the party atmosphere, the great concerts, the vast, yet well organized, array of new CDs and DVDs as well as cheap used CDs and videos, their purchasing department, which buys lots of used items, as well as new, but relatively unknown, indie CDs like mine, the amazing decor, and the knowledgable staff. They have only three stores (Berkeley, Haight Ashbury, and Hollywood), all in locations with very large creative communities. They are not shy about their politics, either. On the outside of the Hollywood store hangs a huge yellow banner reading, “Give Peace a Chance.”

Amoeba Music’s mural on Ivar Street.

My First Two CDs are on iTunes!

Woo hoo! My first two CDs are now fully up on iTunes, meaning that now you can buy just one song if you like, for 99 cents—or the whole CD, minus the packaging, for $9.99. Apple iTunes lets you listen to a minute of each song before you buy.

Music From Living on the Earth page on iTunes

Living in Hawaii Style page on iTunes

However at CD Baby you get TWO minutes of each song—at least on the Music from Living on the Earth page. They have promised they’d get around to posting samples of every song on Living in Hawaii Style eventually. When I first posted the two CDs in 2001, CD Baby was only offering samples of four songs per CD. Now they offer samples of ALL the songs, as you will see on their page for What Living’s All About.  On CD Baby, what you buy is the physical CD, with all its glorious artwork and liner notes.

Reviews of What Living's All About


TOP 12 DIY PICKS by Mare Wakefield, Indie Music Editor

What Living’s All About—a title that’s appropriate for a woman who has lived her life with such gusto. A Bohemian artist, Alicia Bay Laurel lived on a houseboat off Sausalito and a commune in Sonoma before spending 25 years on Maui. In addition to her music, she’s worked as a cook, collage artist, yoga instructor, wedding planner, underwater photographer and she’s the author of a New York Times bestseller, the whimsical Living on the Earth, first published in 1971.

The rich tapestry of her life translates to her music. In the Billie Holiday-esque “Floozy Tune,” Laurel plays the role of the Sunday School teacher turned barfly. In “America the Blues” she dishes out scathing political commentary to the tune of “America the Beautiful” (“America, America, greed sheds disgrace on thee / You don’t need nukes, you don’t need slaves, you don’t need gasoline”). She has fun with the smart “Aquarian Age Liberated Woman Blues” (“Seaweed for breakfast is good for you”) and the gospel-imbued “Doctor Sun and Nurse Water.” Laurel’s jazzy Earth-mother sound will seduce and inspire.

Review by John Stevenson of Ejazz News in London, June 2006

Dear Alicia,

Just a quick note from London. I have reviewed your last CD at ejazznews.com. It is excellent. As I wrote in the review, by far one of the best for 2006.

I get close to 200 CDs a week sent to me, but yours stood out because of its transparently high level of musicianship and sincerity – qualities which are very rarely found combined these days.

Kind Regards,

John Stevenson

Alicia Bay Laurel: What Living’s All About, Jazz Blues & Other Moist Situations (IWS)

With a provocative title like this one, Ms. Laurel will certainly catch the attention of any reviewer! This is most certainly one of the most audacious, heartfelt and honest discs I’ve put in my CD player for the year. Alicia (who sounds like the artistic love child of Joan Baez and Tom Waits) brings a folk-singer’s sensibility to bear on jazz and pulls no punches: On America The Blues, she declaims: America, the beautiful/you’re thorny as a rose:/Radiation, global warming/Poisoned food from GMOs./ She also sings a delightful version of Eden Ahbez’s Nature Boy. The accompaniment from guitarist Nels Cline, bass player John B. Williams and pianist Rick Olson is divine.

*                    *                        *                      * 

Tom Hyslop
Blues Bites: Reviews in Brief

Alicia Bay Laurel conveys life’s sudden shifts and jarring juxtapositions on What Living’s All About (Indigo With Stars 003). Sandwiched between the opener, “Floozy Tune,” and “Aquarian Age Liberated Woman Blues,” two formally classic blues that could have come from Ma Rainey if not for the namechecks (belly dancing, astral projection, The I. Ching, bee pollen candy and natty dread), comes “America the Blues,” with strident references to economic inequality, environmental rapine, corporate greed, and political corruption. Laurel moves from girlish singing on the Twenties-style songs to this doomy incantation, the arrangement taking full advantage of the jaw-dropping talent of avant-guitarist Nels Cline (best known as Wilco’s secret weapon). With cuts such as “Doctor Sun and Nurse Water” (a gospel-drenched number with oddly matched lyrics), and the Fever tribute of the title track, Living will strike some as too California in its outlook. But lovely touches abound, such as the stately, quietly anthemic “Love, Understanding and Peace,” and Doug Webb’s beautiful alto work on “Zero Gravity.”


FEMINIST REVIEW, Friday, June 1, 2007
Alicia Bay Laurel – What Living’s All About

All would-be writers who have studied how to write know the rule: "show me don’t tell me." Visual artists find this advice easy to do and musicians are, perhaps, the same way. When the creative instrument does not rely solely on words, showing is not too difficult.

Alicia Bay Laurel wrote Living on the Earth, a cult classic and the first paperback on the New York Times Bestseller List (spring 1971), which has sold over 350,000 copies. She has also written five other books. Laurel is a talented, trained musician. She grew up playing classical piano, switched to guitar in her teens and learned open tunings from legendary guitarist John Fahey, a family member. On this latest album, What Living’s All About, she works with some of the best musicians in the field, including avant garde guitar hero Nels Cline.

Alicia Bay Laurel tries to show and tell by weaving feelings, melody and an occasional diatribe word. She celebrates the Earth (nature) and embraces her sensuality. She also loudly laments the destruction of the environment, as in her song “America the Blues,” where the listing of our environmental sins drags a bit. At the same time, the song is strangely effective. The entwining hypnotic music ended with a smashing guitar rift, followed by a spine tingling sound of whale songs and a Native American Chant. This is an excellent protest song. Alicia Bay Laurel and Al Gore should be friends.

“Zero Gravity” is a haunting song about a city at night, reminiscent of Ground Zero in New York City where the Twin Towers used to be. Laurel talks about sex in this CD and does it with class, sometimes with gentle humor, like “Floozy Tune.” However, you won’t know what she’s talking about unless you listen closely. This blend of jazz, blues and gospel is a powerful feminist statement. It’s fantastic!

Review by Patricia Ethelwyn Lang


"Floozy Tune" Wins Song Contest
7/9/2007 4:38:10 PM
“Floozy Tune”
Status: Selected
Congratulations, you have been selected as a Top 20 Finalist in the Jazz Category of the 11th Annual Unisong International Song contest. Results are at http://www.unisong.com/Winners11.aspx.

This year featured the highest overall quality of songs, lyrics, and writers ever submitted by far, with the most diverse and varied entries from a multitude of countries representing every continent on Earth except Antarctica (and songwriting penguins out there).

The judging therefore was extremely competitive and to be singled out anywhere in the top 15% of all songs submitted was no easy feat.


Review of What Living’s All About by psychedelic folk radio DJ, Gerald Van Waes. His show, Psyche Van Het Folk, is on Radio Centraal, Antwerp, Belgium.

Like one of my favourite heartfelt singer-songwriter singers (Heather McLeod with ‘Funny Thing’, 1997), also Alicia went to more towards (slightly standard) jazz territories, but as a former hippie, it is clear this is not done as a compromise to please/tease a public. Her interpretations (-most songs are self penned-) are with great feelings, and a certain light happiness beyond each other idea or emotion. She describes the style mix well on the cover as "jazz, blues and other moist situations". With additionally a a bit of New Orleans influence on "Floozy Tune", and a bit of gospel on "Doctor Sun and Nurse Water" (about what the environment of Hawaii did to her), she wrote inspired something between jazz and jazz-blues and something else soulful. I like the idea on "America the blues" saying "America, don’t wave that flag to con us with your jive…".."we’re all family on this planet".. (Just imagine how America is built upon so many nationalities and bought talents from everywhere, unfortunately mostly still chosen from what are seen as the trustworthy countries and areas (so practically still excluding preferably the French, Spanish, and several Arab-speaking countries and native Indians for economic concurrence, racist, nowadays partly religious, and a few other reasons).. Potentionally I realize America still has all opportunities and a certain openness to experiment for those who succeed to start to participate in the system. This track, like a few tunes elsewhere has some, for me, rather amusing freaky electric avant-garde guitar by Nels Cline (Wilco,..). Alicia, for having experienced a certain earthbound process, matured, she still has the happiest aspects of the hippie; this sum must having benefited the soul and music of the singer, who on her recent photograph on the back cover still looks 25 or so, so I guess the message of this lies somewhere as a benefit hidden in the music. Rather brilliant as an interpretation I think is "Nature Boy" (originally by Nat King Cole, but also covered by Grace Slick), in an emotionally calm contrapoint-driven moody jazz style, with the help of John B. Williams on upright bass and Enzo Tedesco on other instruments. A really fine and enjoyable album.

Review by legendary guitarist Nels Cline on his website:

Alicia is a self-proclaimed “hippie chick” who I met through (drummer) Joe Gallivan. She had a hit book back in the 60s called [stay tuned for title – forgot it], which she says “was in practically every hippie commune outhouse in the west” (no doubt right next to “Be Here Now”!). This is, I believe, self-released, and is quite an odd but strangely entertaining, original, and disarming recording. It has a some amazing L.A.-based session/jazz players like (saxophonist) Doug Webb, who reaches beyond his Coltrane-esque tenor to turn in some beautiful post-Desmond alto, brilliant drummer Kendall Kay, and bassist John B. Williams, whom many may remember as the Fender player on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson for many years. There is a choir on here! The songs are sort of 1920s-30s era swing, acoustic swing blues, and… Well anyway, when someone like Alicia asks me to do tons of Hendrix-inspired shrieking and psych looping (“America The Blues”) or fuzzed out adversarial commentary (“It’s Not Fair”), I figure that when the disc comes out that the stuff will, as it usually is, be buried or cut out altogether. I was amazed when I heard this that Alicia REALLY WANTED these sounds and that THEY ARE REALLY LOUD! I don’t know what people who know my music will think of this, but there is something so wry and self-deprecatingly amusing about Alicia’s hippie anthems, protest songs, and tales of failed romance that I find myself grinning. Hmmmm….Oh yes, I also play slide, lap steel, and acoustic guitar on this. I’m on 4 or 5 tracks.


Review by Platinum-selling singer/songwriter Joe Dolce

I think this is a very creative record with a lot of wonderful ideas and performances and some pretty extraordinary playing, and endearing vocals all over the place. I like it a lot!! I liked all the songs much better on the second listen. A keeper. Good work.

The album is eclectic, diverse musical styles. Therefore, I can relate to it! What holds it altogether is Alicia’s musical ‘personae’ – the complex character she is creating, through her voice and ideas. As you get to know this character more and more, as the songs and ideas progress, you trust her more and it allows you to enter more easily into whatever type of musical style is coming next. (Also this trust is a reason to want to go back and listen again.) Also the IDEAS are clear. The lead vocals are strong with a lot of presence. The musicians are all brilliant and the soloing is tasteful and creative – no cliches or stumbling around musically anywhere to be found.

Re: "Nature Boy." I believe that if you can take the listener to a unique Hilltop, and give them a view that they will never forget, even ONCE in a recording or performance, that is enough. One brilliant moment builds a bridge of trust between you and them that will allow them to be more open to whatever you do from then on, even if they don’t relate or understand it. (You may never be able to take them to that High Point again but it doesn’t matter – it’s like great sex or great playing- you may not be able to LIVE with that person, but you will NEVER forget that encounter.) This track took me to that Hill. I feel different now about the whole recording.

Re: "I Could Write a Book." This track is the track where I first gasped: genius! What an amazing idea. A track like this makes me have to listen to the whole CD over again to see if I missed anything the first time around on those opening tracks. A totally inspir
ed idea that works. No one else has ever done something like this with a standard. Perfect. I played this one for Lin. She liked it a lot, too. (She didn’t think her publisher would like it though! ha ha!)
Joe Dolce
Melbourne, Australia


Green Music Festival!

As Thom Yorke, front man of Radiohead exulted, “Now THIS is what we call a music festival!”

Sarah van Schagen of Grist, the online environmental newsletter, reported on Bonnaroo, a 4 day, 24-hour-on music festival enjoyed by 80,000 celebrants at a farm in Tennessee, complete with bio-diesel generators and a solar powered stage, performers arriving in bio-diesel-powered vehicles, two professional recycling groups handling the trash and recycling, environmentally correct campgrounds, locally grown organic food for sale in resusable dishes, lots of sustainability education opportunities, and, by all accounts, lots of peace and love.
It’s the realization of the Vision born at the first Woodstock.

Bonnie Raitt, long an environmental activist, headlined as well. “I’m a musician,” Raitt said, “but I live [on this planet] and breathe this air, and I eat this food, and I don’t wanna contribute in my lifestyle to not making things better.” She named sustainability “the issue of our time,” and offered hope to the large crowd of listeners. “The seeds of change are really already creating a groundswell of movement for protecting the environment and switching to a different way of looking at our place in the world and on our planet,” she said.

Read more about it here.