Sunday, May 06, 2007

Small World Stories

It may be a cliché, but it really is a small world (after all). Startlingly so, surprisingly so, or so it seemed, at times, since I started traveling extensively, about twenty years ago. Here are a couple of small world stories.

* * *

I was in Bali in June of 1994, around the time of the World Cup and the O.J. slo-mo car chase. One day I took a day tour of some of the most scenic spots of the island. It was, I must say, one of the most visually sensual days of my life. Bali is certainly a top contender for Paradise on Earth.

On the tour I met a fascinating guy named Rudi Corens. Rudi is a Belgian theatrical director who has been living and teaching in Asia for a number of years, first Sri Lanka, then Yogyakarta, on Java. Rudi was ebullient and exuberant, a pure delight to be around. Before his Asian period he had worked around Europe, including running an experimental theater troupe in Venice in the 'sixties. "But I was drawn to Asia," he said. "There's something about it. It's in my blood."

In addition to his place in Yogyakarta, Rudi had a home in Ubud, the artistic heart of Bali. When he heard I was from New York, Rudi said to me, "I have a friend in New York, he owns a place here in Ubud, I wonder if you know him." How many times have people asked you that ridiculous question? Ah, New York! Do you know so and so? "His name is Valery Oisteanu," Rudi continued.

I did know Valery. Not well, but we had met, originally at the mail art banquet that Carlo Pittore had arranged, in 1982, at Lanza's, an Italian restaurant in the East Village that was usually deserted, for good reason. I saw Valery a couple of years ago at an event celebrating Carlo and his work, at the Bowery Poetry Club. I mentioned having met Rudi in '94 and that I wondered what he was up to. "I've lost touch with him," Valery told me. "After the terrorist attacks in Bali I sold my place."

I felt sad when I heard that. The terrorists had chased Valery out of a true Paradise.

* * *

I met Claudio Chianura on a bus in South India, in 1991. Claudio and his traveling companions were the only other westerners on that bus, and we struck up a conversation during a rest stop. It turned out that Claudio was the publisher of a journal devoted to improvised music, and that he knew, or had covered, a number of the downtown New York musicians I knew. We ended up traveling a bit together and formed a lasting friendship. A couple of years later I was visiting Milan. Claudio and his wife Elena didn't have the space to put me up, but a friend and associate had a spare room. What did I see when I settled into my room? On the wall was a poster for a performance in Milan by my erstwhile collaborator Elliott Sharp. But that's not the small world story.

Ten years after meeting Claudio I was in Memphis for the Beale Street Music Festival. While I was there I booked a blues-oriented day tour of the Mississippi Delta with Tad Pierson's American Dream Safari. It was expensive, but it was worth every cent. Tad runs his tours in a '55 Cadillac. He's extremely knowledgeable about blues history, and he's an excellent storyteller. Tad has always been an itinerant spirit, and before starting his tour business he taught English in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. He got the idea for American Dream Safari from a European couple he met while teaching overseas. They told him that their dream vacation would be to tour the American west in a 'fifties Cadillac. Tad was about ready to return to the states, and that idea captured his imagination. He bought his first 'fifties Caddy (he's since collected several more) and settled in the Southwest, I believe New Mexico, where he initially set up his tour business. After a while he decided to find a new home that would be congenial to his business. Being an aficionado of black American music, Memphis seemed like the perfect spot.

Our tour included a stop at Stovall's Plantation, where Muddy Waters was a sharecropper. "Muddy's shack's no longer here," he told me. "It was sold to House of Blues." We parked by the former site of Muddy's shack and listened to part of the interview that Alan Lomax conducted there with Muddy in the early 'forties, for the Library of Congress. A little later we visited the Delta Blues Museum, which occupies a former railroad depot in Clarksdale, Mississippi. When we returned to the car we saw a couple of guys admiring it. We struck up a conversation. They were Italian, a journalist, whose name I didn't get, and photographer Pino Ninfa, whose jazz photography, it turned out, I was familiar with. They were driving from New Orleans to New York, working on an article and exhibition, sponsored by Porsche, "Come un Racconto Chiamato Jazz" (Like a Tale Called Jazz). Pino told me that he lived in Milan, so I asked him if he knew Claudio Chianura. Indeed he did. When I got home to New York I shot Claudio an email. "It's a small world," I said. "I met an acquaintance of yours from Milan in Clarksdale, Mississippi."

"Yes," Claudio replied. "It's a very small world."

* * *

But is it really such a small world? Actually, it's a very big world, but within it there's a relatively small number of places likely to attract travelers, a small world, if you will, within the larger one. In perspective, encounters like these, though fascinating, are somewhat less mind-boggling, especially when common interests are a common denominator.

Andrew Wengraf, an old boss of mine, had a saying: "The deserts are vast, the oases few."

Thanks to Mr. & Mrs. Fairfield for the photo scans.


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