Having Nothing is Living Free, 2

(The second part of a series recapping my tour of Cuba which helped refine scenes in the new Sonata of Elsie Lenore, another piano novel of suspense featuring Cuban--and Kansas--pianos and musicians.)

Los Caneyes hotel was unique in my experience. Named for some of the aboriginal inhabitants of Cuba, the Caney people, the lodgings spread across several acres. Footpaths connected buildings that housed about four suites each, as well as smaller cabins that were single rooms. My room was one of these small cabins with twin beds, an air conditioner with Celcius degrees, remotely operated, a shower (no tub), and an ironing board with an umbrella hanging on it. The cabin stood beside a solar water heater set between two other cabins. I noticed my water was hot even early in the morning. Each structure in the facility was topped with palm-thatched roofs.

We dined in style with a buffet dinner. At dinner, a young man played clarinet continually, quite well, good old familiar show tunes. Later in the evening, there was a fashion show around the outdoor pool.

Tall, long-legged, black Cuban girls in 7-inch stiletto heels paraded around the pool area in swim and beach wear, as well as one young man for men’s beach fashions.

At the far end of the pool, a band struck up tunes—fully live tonight with guitar players, singer, uke, banjo, maybe a keyboard, drums. They performed long after I retired for the night.

The next morning I woke early—before 4:00, and rested until the alarm went off on my phone. Though it was still dark out, birds chirped and roosters crowed. It sounded like small bantams. I packed my bags and set off on an early morning walk. The lodgings at Los Caneyes were fascinating with all the thatched roofs. Most of the group buildings had a central courtyard around a statue of some figure significant in aboriginal stories, or perhaps Santeria saints.

There were several dead tree trunks with faces carved in them.

Ornamental plants, including a variety that I have enjoyed in my own home since I was in grade school, provided attractive landscaping. Blooming bushes, mimosa trees, song birds, plants growing out of tree stumps, palm trees, begonias, bougainvillea, and ficus trees with massive exposed roots lined the paths.

After breakfast, we loaded the bus and headed into Santa Clara. Our first stop was the Che Guevara monument. It was a lovely place, very tidy, free of charge, and our guide filled us in on Che’s story, which ended badly at the hands of a US CIA sting operation in Bolivia several years after the revolution.

Che (Ernesto) was born in Argentina and educated as a medical doctor. As a young man he traveled through much of Latin American, which changed his perspective on life. He met Fidel Castro in Mexico and joined the Cuban revolution to free the people from tyranny. A guerilla commander as well as a physician, he orchestrated the conquest of an armored train, derailing it in Santa Clara and acquiring the arms inside. That was a turning point in the revolution.

He laid siege to a hotel in downtown Santa Clara, and bullet strikes are preserved on that building where many of Batista’s officers sought refuge. Two days later they surrendered, having run out of ammunition. This was a significant victory for the rebels, the beginning of the end for Batista.

Around the square below the historic hotel, a goat pulled a cart for children’s rides. At a nearby club for Abuelos (grandparents) they danced and played games, told us the story of fan language, used by young women to signal young men at dances, under the watchful eyes of chaperones.

We drove to the airport to fetch one lady’s luggage that had been lost and on to Cienfuegos over rough pavement, swaying back and forth.

In Cienfuegos, we attended a string orchestral concert by Concerto Sur Cienfuegos that was delightful with a variety of classical, popular, and Cuban compositions. Before it was done, they had us all up and dancing with their dance leader.

We headed back along the coast to our hotel in downtown Cienfuegos where dinner was served in the rooftop restaurant with windows and balcony door open.

Another ensemble provided music from the indoor balcony in the dining room.

Having Nothing is Living Free, 1

In early March, 2019, I flew to Miami for the first time in my life where I met the rest of a tour group bound for Cuba the next day. Eight of us in the group took a tour with Mario, a Cuban-American bus driver, to see downtown Little Havana, a rough and tumble place. He bought Cuban coffee shots for those who wanted to try it from an outdoor café and we walked along the streets, finally arriving at a Cuban pub for a first experience with mojitos– and very loud salsa music. It was interesting to see the art hung around, even from the ceiling and watch young (or not so young) dancers. Though the lead vocalist, a woman from Puerto Rico, and  the percussionist were live, the main melody was a recording, so I would didn’t agree that it was live music. Toward the end of our stay, a guy joined in on the previously silent grand piano. Alas, the music volume was so cranked up, the piano was still unheard. I had not remembered earplugs, but started carrying them with me everywhere I went. However, I never needed them again. Cuban street music and performed music is genuinely live and is not limited to fortissimo volume.


A mural nearby showed some black girls in white, representing a weekly Sunday ritual in Havana, a silent protest against the communists in Havana.

The next day our group caught a flight to Santa Clara, Cuba. Our tour was a People-to-People tour sponsored by Road Scholar. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was ready for anything, to soak up the experience as research for the scenes from Sonata of Elsie Lenore that are set in Cuba. 

My first view of Cuba from the airplane was through clouds, but I identified agricultural fields, and a field of solar panels. The time was 4:45 pm EST. We landed at the Santa Clara airport* at 4:55, de-planed down a set of stairs and walked to the airport door. My first step in Cuba occurred at 5:02 pm.

It was a long day of waiting for a little bit of travel, but we had finally arrived and worked our way through Cuban customs. One lady’s checked bag was lost, but the rest of us gathered our bags, met our Cuban Guide Ilen (pronounced “Elaine”) headed to the waiting bus where we met our bus driver, Ernesto. Our first views along the road included horse-drawn wagons, rough dwellings, banana, guava, and maybe tobacco fields, and lots of palm trees. Trash was piled at intervals in the roadside ditches, or in waterways. Dogs scratched through the refuse. A dead dog lay in one ditch, with vultures gathering.

Then we arrived at our lodging, Los Caneyes, and WOW!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*In the last few months travel to Cuba has been restricted only to the Havana airport. Americans today would not be able to duplicate the itinerary we enjoyed.

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Chapter One

LENA VALDEZ CRINGED when her husband hammered the Steinway piano lid with his fist.

His rage growing, Enrique’s knuckle bones threatened to burst through his skin. “I told you,” he said, “no more of this Lecuona crap. Do the jazz. Tonight we want the best Cuban jazz.” The youngest of the three Diaz brothers punctuated every other syllable with his fist until the piano’s heavy bass strings vibrated with a rising cacophony.

She shrank from every blow.

“Understand?” he yelled.

, Enrique,” she said.

“Get to the jazz. I’m counting on you tonight. ¿Comprendes?

She looked down, her fingers rubbing the familiar ivory ridges of the piano keys.

“¿Lena?” he said.

She felt rather than saw his arm rise and spoke with haste. “Please, Enrique. Don’t hit the piano.”

“Jazz then. Hear me?”

She nodded. Yes, she heard him. How could she not? She could hardly recall a time he spoke to her without yelling. “, I will play jazz.”

“One hour. Then we dress for the show. No more Lecuona.”

She flexed her fingers, took a deep breath, and leaned into the keys. A recent island melody by Jorge Marin swelled from the piano. Swinging with the beat, Enrique danced out the door of the Caribbean Breeze, a nightclub in New Orleans.

Her hands flew over the keys as she coaxed melodious rhythms from the worn Steinway. It wasn’t that she hated jazz. After all, jazz expressed Cuba’s heart and soul. It sang of the courage and beauty of her countrymen. She loved jazz, but she loved classics more and she needed Lecuona right now. Their mother raised her and her brother on Lecuona, embracing classical Cuban tradition.

Lena completed the Marin number and stifled a sob.

“You okay Señorita?” Roberto, the bartender and manager of the nightclub, peeked in from a back room.

She nodded. “I will be fine.”

“I heard some yelling,” he said and cocked his head, inviting her to say more.

She forced a laugh. “Enrique. He’s always yelling,” she explained away the outburst. “It will be fine.”

“If you’re sure.”

She met his gaze with a grateful nod.

He turned back into the storage room. She waited a moment, gathering her nerve, her fingers silent on the piano keys. In a timid voice, she said, “Roberto?”

When he didn’t respond, she tried again, louder. “Roberto?”

He stuck his head through the swinging door again. “You say something?”

“I just wondered if you would tell me where I could mail a postal card.” She fished a postcard from her handbag.

“Sending greetings from good old New Orleans?” he said with a smile.

Sí. I want to contact my brother.”

“Stefano? How is he anyway? I heard he’d tied the knot with a beauty from up north somewhere.”

She nodded. “I just want to let him know I am here. Where could I mail the card?”

He extended his hand. “Leave it with me. I’ll make sure it goes out tomorrow.”

Gracias, Roberto.”

The bartender disappeared into the back room with her card. Lena took a deep breath before she continued her rehearsal. If only Stefano would meet her here. Would he even get the postcard in time? He didn’t know she was booked at the Caribbean Breeze, their old favorite nightclub. Maybe he wouldn’t even believe she was here, set to perform on Mama’s piano, “Elsie Lenore.” He sure didn’t know she’d married into a family of drug smugglers or that she was miserable.

He didn’t know.

She launched into another Marin number. At its close, she whispered into the keys, “Elsie—Elsie, what will I do?”

Unexpectedly, her mother’s voice whispered in her mind. “We do what we must.”

In a flash of recollection she visualized the lewd sneer of her former stepfather as he appraised her youthful body and her mother stepping between them— “Not my daughter, you bastard!” Her mother had split up with that man before the next week passed.

A year later a new gentle suitor presented her mother with the same Steinway she’d lost after the Revolution. A gift from her father when she was young, she had fondly dubbed the piano Elsie Lenore. It was offered as a wedding gift for the woman he’d loved all his life and Lena’s mother could not refuse his proposal. Lena and Stefano had grown to love that piano as much as their mother did.

Her mother’s voice whispered again. We do what we must.

“Yes, we do.” Lena’s hands teased the keys as she pondered her limited options. Elsie Lenore and her brother Stefano offered one thin thread of hope. Surely he would understand. He had to.

Her fingers caressed the keys and cajoled an Afro-Cuban piece from the belly of the piano. The melody grew, and then waned. She dropped her left hand and allowed her right hand to sketch a rhythmic melody up the keys as she diverted her left hand to the piano case.

Following the melodic sequence, she ran her fingertips to the treble end of the mahogany trim at her waist and pried upward. With a full-keyboard glissando, she moved to the bass end and inched up the trim until the keyslip was free of its mounting screws. She placed it across the music desk without the slightest click.

The music soared again when her left hand joined in. She strummed repeated staccato chords, lifted her hands at the finale, and froze, listening.

Silencio.

Roberto must have gone out for a few moments. Nobody remained inside the club.

She retrieved a set of dining utensils and a paper napkin from the nearest table and spread the napkin beneath the bass keys. Slipping the knife tip underneath a key, she scraped against the key frame, teasing a fine white dust to the edge. She repeated the process under four keys, and scraped the powder onto the napkin. Tossing the knife to the floor, she lifted the napkin’s corners, cradled the powder into its middle, and with a sigh folded it into a tiny envelope. Her brother would have been proud to know she’d learned some intricacies of piano construction. She, for her part, was grateful for his fascination with the technical side of the instrument.

Gracias, Stefano,” she whispered.

She tucked the parcel securely into her cleavage, replaced the trim, and lost herself in the music.

Will Stefano get the postcard? What did she write to her brother? What exactly did she decide she must do? What’s the white powder she collected from the piano? Find the answers: Sonata of Elsie Lenore premiering today at the 2020 Keyboard Duet Festival.

A Cycle of Leap Years

2004

Twenty-eight years ago, a new friend and piano client told me about the county-wide duet festival. She invited me to play with her in that 1992 event and I had a blast. We diligently practiced the two duets chosen for the first of two adult groups. On the weekend of the festival, we met for a group rehearsal at the county’s junior college. Twenty home-sized upright pianos stood in a scattered array on the gymnasium floor at the college. We chose one, watched the conductor give the downbeat and joined the piano ensemble in one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

I had played piano since age 7, and was involved in annual recitals, 4-H Day competitions, and accompanying school musicals, but never had I played in a piano band such as this. The feat of tuning those twenty pianos for the Sunday afternoon performance was mind-boggling to contemplate, not to mention moving all of them. Twice.

2000

The 1992 Keyboard Piano Duet Festival changed my life. I enjoyed it so much I wanted my own children, and my other students, to have this experience, so I joined the county’s music teacher association. Every year we hosted a group event, with the duet festival every four years. This just happened to coincide with Leap Year. Every Leap Year since 1992, I have helped choose duets for seven progressive skill levels, from the earliest beginner to advanced adult groups. Our association has cooperated with the college, local music stores, and other music clubs, to put on a duet festival every four years.

2000

However, not since 1992 has the festival been held in the gym. And in 1996 as well as each event since, the genuine acoustic pianos were replaced by electronic keyboards. But the students and adult pianists of Cowley County have enjoyed playing duets every Leap Year in a monster piano concert.

This year, on February 9, 2020, at 6:00 pm, we proudly hold The Last Duet Festival on the auditorium stage at Cowley College. The planning committee has dwindled from an association of a dozen active members, to three. Conflicting events from different towns presented obstacle after obstacle that made preparations increasingly difficult to the point that we aging teachers realized we could not do this again in another four years.

2008

It is fitting to conclude the long-standing tradition this year, 28 years since my first duet festival. Leap Years cycle every 28 years and this is the very first year since my debut in the duet event where the calendar days match the days of the week all year long. This is the very first year since 1992 when Leap Day is on a Saturday. The intervening Leap Years cycled randomly through the other days of the week—Thursday in 1996, Tuesday in 2000, Sunday in 2004, Friday in 2008, Wednesday in 2012, and Monday in 2016. Now we’re back to Saturday. It will be 2048 before this calendar repeats itself day-for-day.

To conclude the tradition, we have planned a few special treats. This year, for the first time ever, we will use the stage concert Steinway along with the Clavinovas. My partner from 1992 is playing again, with her daughter. My partner this year is a young man in his 28th year on Earth. Born in Havana, Cuba in 1992, David Pérez is currently working toward a graduate degree in organ performance at Wichita State University. It will be awesome to have this classically trained Cuban master musician play with the local students.

Many of the duets we selected this year were featured in previous festivals. All pianists who choose to do so will be invited to help conclude the program with Walnut River Rag, a duet we commissioned from composer Melody Bober for the 2008 festival.

There will be tables set up in the lobby for an autograph party afterward. Student performers in this memorable event will be invited to autograph programs. I hope they all trade signatures with me.

By special request, my new piano suspense novel Sonata of Elsie Lenore, will premiere to the public after the last note of Walnut River Rag has died away.

2020

Folks can meet the artist who designed the cover for the book, Onalee Nicklin, as well as the Cuban keyboard artist David Pérez.

If you have the means to get there, you won’t want to miss this fantastic event. Brown Theater, Cowley College, Arkansas City, Kansas. Sunday, February 9, 2020, 6:00 pm.

See you there!

2004

 

Launching a New Book

The year I completed my examinations process to become a registered piano technician, a New Yorker named Ben Treuhaft attended the national piano convention. Treuhaft campaigned through the nineties for donations of pianos, repair parts, and technician service to upgrade the condition of Cuba’s musical instruments. He made a plea at the convention for help with the project called “Send a Piana to Havana.” After the Soviet Union pulled out of Cuba, people and their instruments suffered due to the lack of supplies for all kinds of pursuits.

I contacted Mr. Treuhaft to offer help. Several months later, he brought a beautiful and talented Cuban pianist on tour across the country and she played an amazing concert here, at the local college. The sample CD of her recordings that arrived with promotional material for the tour has remained a favorite disc in my collection. Her appearance in my hometown planted the seed which 20 years later has blossomed into the fictional suspense novel Sonata of Elsie Lenore.

I’ve been asked to officially launch Elsie Lenore at a county-wide monster piano concert February 9. The quadrennial event serves as a fund-raiser for music scholarships at Cowley College. The invitation to make Sonata of Elsie Lenore part of the 2020 Keyboard Duet Festival surpasses anything I could have dreamed. Even better, we’ll have another professional Cuban pianist joining the county’s piano students at this event.

Last year at this time, I was scrambling to prepare for a big adventure to Cuba. I made lists of things to bring, sorted clothing and supplies, checked everything multiple times, and packed my bags. The first week of March, I joined a group of strangers from across the US in Miami and we toured Cuba together. The day before I left, I posted a short note to my Facebook page.

“Getting ready for a big adventure! Nail-biting nervous to be heading out with a group of soon-to-be friends on an educational and good-will mission trip to Cuba. Yes, Cuba. Down there south of Miami. I hear it’s a unique and fantastic experience.”

A number of people responded on the post itself with excitement and encouragement, but I also received a private message from a piano technician colleague in Wichita. “I hope you have time for two friends to meet you in Cuba,” he wrote. “One is a technician involved with our donations of pianos to Cuba project. The other is coming to WSU next fall for graduate study in organ and piano.”

This opportunity iced the cake. Cuba’s musical contributions to the world stage are legendary and I was, after all, heading to Cuba to learn more about its music, its musicians, and its pianists in particular. Within two hours David Pérez Martinez emailed me. Together we worked through language barriers (I speak very little Spanish), as well as phone and internet systems with vastly different procedures. The evening of March 11, 2019, we met in person on the grounds of Hotel Nacional in Havana for a delightful visit at a table overlooking the Malécon Boulevard and the Atlantic beyond. Employed professionally as a pianist and harpsichordist in Havana, David was in process of pursuing further training in organ performance. He had applied to a few universities in the US, including Wichita State University.

Five months later, David arrived at Eisenhower National Airport, WSU having offered him the best situation.

It has been thrilling to return hospitality to this son of a nation that offered exemplary hospitality to me last March, and to keep up with his graduate studies and performances at WSU. His unparalleled joy at the keys warms the heart and provides inspiration to students of all ages here in Cowley County.

Mark your calendars: February 9, 2020, 6:00 p.m., Brown Theatre at Cowley College, 125 South 2nd, Arkansas City, Kansas. It will be a spectacular event!

(Note: This post published in the 20th minute of the 20th hour of the 20th day of the year 2020!)

A New Chapter

Earl Nightingale said the hardest job you can tackle is thinking a thought through to its end. That’s what writing is. You get an idea and not only have to think it through but revise it many times to make it more effective.”

— Marvin Swanson

This morning I headed to the college in Arkansas City to prepare pianos for the spring semester. My mind was drawn to the day I worked at that same task one decade ago. While busy twisting tuning pins, getting the fleet of pianos tuned up after the dry winter air soured them, my phone rang. It was the hospital in Winfield. My dad had arrived and was having “a little heart attack.” To this day, I cannot fathom why the medical person called it “little.” They had decided he should go to the Heart Hospital in Wichita. Do I need to drive him there, I asked. No, she said, we will send him in an ambulance.

Thirty-six hours later, after a procedure in Wichita, after  my sister from northern Kansas arrived, after a lengthy visit or two in his hospital room, laughing and remembering, and saying “I love you,” after a last phone message recorded on my answering machine while I was en route home, (“Please bring my walking stick next time you come up. Don’t make a special trip.”), another heart attack took his life. It was January 13, 2010.

We were called back to the hospital late at night by a nurse who didn’t think he’d make it through this one. This was the Heart Hospital. She ought to know. Kay and I dressed hurriedly and rushed back, fretting through a cantankerous stop light that refused us a green, running it red, racing to the parking lot and dashing in, only to learn he had just passed.

And so, in that moment, the role of grizzled and wise family elder passed to my sisters and me. We were orphans.

That was ten years ago. I marvel at what he and my mother missed in those ten years. Though I miss them more than ever, life goes on. Things my dad missed include weddings of several of his grandchildren, and break-ups of others, births of my three grandchildren, as well as several of my sister’s, watching them grow,remodeling our house—complete with geothermal heat pump, solar panels, and wind turbine,

 

remodeling a building in downtown Winfield into an art gallery,

friendships renewed, new friends made, international travel opportunities, heartaches and joys, hopes, dreams, and disappointments.

Life goes on.

I also marvel at the way my dad’s death opened a new chapter in my avocation. He was a master at new chapters. And he taught me well. When you face inescapable changes in life, it is far better to embrace them and turn a corner to new adventures than to wring your hands in despair. Losing my dad reminded me that you can’t take life for granted. If there’s something your heart urges you to do, do it. Conversations and events in the days following his exit convinced me to return to writing, an ambition from my early years. It was time to finish a book I’d started 28 years previously. I’d put it aside to raise a family, and to get beyond the emotional upheaval of those times. For ten years now, I have risen early to put pen to paper. And I have finished three books in those ten years.

In the Shadow of the Wind went to press in 2014. Two years later I finished Sundrop Sonata, a novel of suspense started in my wild imaginings 12 years previously during the summer following my mother’s death.

And as I write this today, Sonata of Elsie Lenore, a sequel to Sundrop Sonata, is ready to upload to the printer. It should be accessible by February 9.

Book #3 has been an adventure of another kind, taking me to Cuba ten months ago, bringing new friends into my life and bolstering old friendships. (More about this in future posts.)

Three books in ten years. I think my dad would be pleased.

With his career thriving and a baby on the way, life looks good to Stefano Valdez, a Cuban classical pianist. Then a postcard from the past shatters his world. Days before the expected birth, he heads south to find the author of the card, a sister he long believed to be dead. Trailing her to Cuba, he unwittingly places his Kansas family in the sights of the crime ring that destroyed his sister. Will he discover the hidden message in her hastily-penned words in time to save his family?

Awakenings

For the last few weeks, I’ve contemplated the question raised by Marvin Swanson decades ago. What things do hamper our awareness of our immediate surroundings? Things that distract our minds, keep us focused on inner dialogue, perhaps. Though he noted several young friends who were television addicts forty years ago, I suspect Marvin would be amazed to find that today we can take our screen distractions to any place at any time and ignore what’s happening in front of us.

 

From Marvin:

I’ve been thinking of what puts blinders on awareness: feeling down, worry, being an eccentric wheel around an unproductive crush, too much alcohol or drugs.

And what increases awareness? How can one develop greater awareness? It often seems to take a change from the ordinary—a change of feelings, of routine, of environment. How can we make the familiar stand out in freshness and newness? Go outdoors. Enjoy stimulating conversation with a new acquaintance. Read a good book. Listen to music. Sometimes a good TV show or movie works. A change of season helps too.

Awareness is increased by (1) change (2) time to analyze experience. Can we add more to our list?

MS

What have I missed by being self-absorbed? How can I break out of that box?

What works for you?

Internal Photograpy

(I have given much thought lately to people from my earlier years who gave encouragement for my endeavors and advice for life. Marvin Swanson was foremost among them. From his desk, his correspondence, and his mechanized wheel chair, he sought adventure and celebrated life like nobody else. I’d like to return to my plan to share some of his gems of wisdom through quotations from his letters. Miss you, Marvin.)

“I’m going to concentrate on photographing pictures with the film between my ears. Then I will classify and store them and run them by at night when I can’t sleep–instead of sheep.”

Marvin Swanson