FROM GOSPEL TO BLUES

In addition to publishing this website, I play blues with Sheft-Hãt Khnemu Ra and the rest of the band Blúz Explozión whenever the opportunity comes up.

January 2012 rozinlapaz

He was two years old when his parents nudged him out onto the community centre stage to sing a duet with four-year-old sister Linda. The two children launched into “Christmastime,” a song written by their mom.FEAblues2 And so the toddler became a performing member of The Singing Cole Family of Freeport, Illinois.

Life has taken many twists since that day: from the community centre in a village outside Chicago to the bars and restaurants of Baja California Sur, from singing Gospel in his mother’s church to joining the priesthood of the Fahamme Temples, from being little James Cole in a family of seven singing brothers and sisters to being Sheft-Hãt Khnemu Ra, soul of Blúz Explozión and Riddim Forz. Through it all, he has dedicated his life to making music.

His father, James Alfred Cole, was one of 12 children. “My dad was a piano player and a singer, Sheft-Hãt says. “His style was rock-and-roll — Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Brook Benton type of stuff — calypso, too, so I got that music from him.”

His mother, Erma Davis Cole, is a singer who still writes songs and poetry. “She gave us the other side of it. She took us to church, so the first thing we learned was Gospel music. We were prohibited from singing anythingFEAblues1 else for awhile.” Erma Cole would write songs for her children to perform on Christmas and other special occasions — “so she pretty much organized us, the Singing Cole Family.”

Sheft-Hãt laughs when asked what it was like for the two-year-old, stepping out onto that stage. “I was probably terrified.” He laughs some more. “But then, I think I took to it like a duck to water.”

Sheft-Hãt grew up listening to his uncles play guitar, so that was his first instrument. “I used to walk through the snow in Freeport to take lessons, carrying a guitar that was bigger than I was.”  Then, when he was 11, for Christmas he got an old Kay semi-hollow body bass that had belonged to one of his dad’s friends, blues guitarist ¨Rockin¨ Robert Earl Pearson.

“It became my favourite instrument. I think I liked the role that the bass plays — it ties the melodic and harmonic part of the music to the rhythmic part. I used to feel it was the bass that made people dance, so I kind of liked feeling I had something to do with that,”  he says.

“Eventually, I ended up playing bass for Rockin’ Robert Earl, in his band with ‘Downtown’ Ernie Brown on harmonica. Those two guys essentially became my mentors of the Blues, God bless them both. Unsung heroes. Robert passed away quite some time ago, but we just lost Ernie Brown a couple weeks ago. They used to call him ‘Sugarlips’ because he played the harp so sweet. He was an amazing talent and an outrageous showman. But beyond that, he was one of the most polite, kindest human beings I have ever met!  I´m gonna miss him.”

At 15, Sheft-Hãt wanted to join the school orchestra. But he needed an instrument to participate. Under a bed at Grandmother Davis´ home, he found an old violin that had belonged to his uncle, McKinley “Deacon” Davis, a basketball player who had no time to devote to music after he joined the Harlem Globetrotters. Sheft-Hãt studied violin through university. It gave him a formal training in musical theory that he used in jazz and blues improvisation.

As adults, the singing Cole children continued the family tradition of making music. Sheft-Hãt’s big sister Linda — “she’s still my mentor” — is a jazz singer in Orlando, Florida, where she’s called the First Lady of Song. Her son Anthony Cole, an internationally known drummer who has worked with Count Basie Band and saxophonist Sam Rivers, is currently on tour with J.J. Grey and MoFro. He credits “Uncle Ra” with giving him his first set of drums as a toddler.  Sheft-Hãt’s youngest brother Carl is a Gospel singer and piano player, a minister of music in Chicago.

So it is no surprise that Sheft-Hãt chose music as a career. But in other ways, he broke new trail. While the rest of his siblings settled down in the U.S.,  Sheft-Hãt adopted a new country, and a new spiritual faith.

He was about 30 years old when he became a priest of Fahamme, Ethiopian Temples of Science and Culture, which he describes as the origin of modern belief systems such as Rastafarianism. “There’s a tolerance for other beliefs because we think that everything came from the same source. Everybody’s equal, everybody’s from God, regardless of race, colour, creed and nationality.”

With his new religion came a new name: Sheft-Hãt Khnemu Ra, Builder of the Creative Force. It’s not a name he chose, but one derived from a study of several factors related to his spiritual beliefs. He chuckles when I point out that it’s an appropriate name for a musician. “Each person comes into life with a reason,” he says. “It’s who I am and who I always have been.”

Sheft-Hãt was 44, working for festivals and bands around the U.S., when he was invited to play bass with Bobby Banana’s calypso group at a club in Mexico City. He jumped at the opportunity. For years, he had been fascinated by links between African cultures and the ancient Mayan and the Olmec cultures. “So when I had a chance to play music, it was like a dream come true for me to come to Mexico.”

The plan was to work for three months, then return to the United States. That was 17 years ago. Sheft-Hãt stayed because of the warm welcome Mexico gives its musicians. And because of a woman.

He was on stage when Charo — Rosario Luz de la Fuente — walked through the door to the club. “I couldn’t see anything but a light through that door — and her name is Charo Luz (luz means “light” in Spanish).” Charo, on the other hand, didn’t see Sheft-Hãt when she walked in and sat down with friends. “The stage was at my back, and when I turned around and faced the stage, I just saw blackness, because all the musicians were black.”

“I saw light, and she saw darkness,” Sheft-Hãt says. They laugh some more.

In fact, the two have much in common. Charo, born in Veracrúz and raised in Mexico City, is also one of seven children. Her father, an opera aficionado, had an abiding love of music and black culture, which she inherited. Both fathers worked in engineering and construction. And both died at about the same age.

Charo and Sheft-Hãt have been married 15 years. With her background in public relations, Charo became band manager. They moved from Mexico City to San José del Cabo, where for eight years they were part of the Sheft-Hãt brushed up against fame and fortune from time to time, but he chose to go his own way. “After Hendrix died, they were looking for the next black rock guys, and we got a pretty good offer at that point in time, but I blew it off.”

As a musician in Oakland, he was part of the band of Jerome Arnold, “a master and a great gentleman” who was bassist for Howlin’ Wolf and the original Butterfield Blues Band. “Jerome taught me a lot, especially about singing and playing blues bass.”

Sheft-Hat turned down a chance to travel to Paris with Jerome. He explains, “I’ve always been into the music. I have never really been into the business. I see a lot of people who have been damaged by the industry to the extent to where they lose their love for the music. That’s what I’ve always been afraid of. I’ve tried to keep my focus on the music and not so much on the business. That resulted in being flat broke all the time.” And then he chuckles again — for a good, long while.

Rozinlapaz plays harmonica with Sheft-Hãt at Tailhunter's

Playing harmonica with Sheft-Hãt at Tailhunter’s (that’s me, Rozinlapaz)

For now, Sheft-Hãt is focusing less on regular gigs in restaurants and bars and more on other projects. His rejection of the music industry propels him toward one of his dreams for the future. He wants to establish a cultural centre in La Paz where he can teach young people to play musical instruments and to work together in groups — to give them the tools they need to become artists on a national and international level. His vision includes a recording studio where young musicians will record demos and produce their own original material — “so young people can come into the music world with a concept of independence, and avoid exploitation by the industry.”

As for how to make that happen — “I’m still working on that. We´re seeking sponsors and investors, as well as for my recording projects.” Meanwhile, he’s bringing more young musicians into his reggae and blues bands, helping them develop their potential on stage.

Among Sheft-Hãt’s resolutions for 2012 is a plan to get back into the recording studio to make CDs of his original blues and reggae tunes. There’s already a recording of one CD of original music with Riddim Forz entitled “Funky Reggae Rock.” He also wants to return to singing jazz, including songs that his big sister Linda taught him long ago. He wants to participate in national-level music festivals — bringing them to La Paz and taking his bands to festivals elsewhere.

Sheft-Hãt has two more projects close to his heart, both involving family.

One pet project has to do with a distant cousin with a well-known name — jazz pianist and singer Nat King Cole. Sheft-Hãt never met his father’s cousin, although Linda Cole has performed with Nat King Cole’s little brother, Freddy. But there is a Latin connection that Sheft-Hãt wants to develop.

He says Nat King Cole didn’t speak Spanish, but with phenomenal skill sang phonetically to record volumes of of Latino ballads. “Since I speak the language and love this music also, I want to record some of my favourite ballads in Spanish, in the tradition of Nat King Cole.”

The remaining item on Sheft-Hãt’s wish list brings him full circle: to reconnect with The Singing Cole Family. After all, there are new generations, including Sheft-Hãt’s three children and eight grandchildren. His son James is a rapper and a producer, and James’ latest CD includes singing by Sheft-Hãt’s two daughters, Aleisha and Jacinda.

“I feel blessed to have been born into a family of traditional musicians,” he says. “It’s been a long time since we’ve gotten together. Anytime we do see each other, we make a lot of noise. I would like Mexico to see some of my family do music with me here.”

(originally posted January 2012)

LIFE FUELED BY BAGELS

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAugust 2011 rozinlapaz

“In the end,” says Fabrizio Rozas, “after all this craziness and hard work — in the end, it’s just a bread with a hole in the middle.”

Maybe a bagel is just a bagel. But for Fabrizio and his wife and partner Patty Del Valle, this little bread with a hole in the middle has led them through twists and turns to a new life in La Paz. Their Bagel Shop y La Galería in the historic centre of the city is the end of a journey that spans two continents and several years — an adventure fuelled by bagels.

A Chilean dreams of bagels

Fabrizio was born in Viña del Mar, near the city of Valparaiso, Chile. He became a set designer and, at the age of 28, travelled to Las Vegas. “I came for three months and stayed 12 years.” In the U.S., he designed sets for film, theatre and television and dreamed of moving to New York to work on the set of Sesame Street.

Meanwhile, Fabrizio’s appetite for the breads from his homeland led him to the bagel bakeries of Las Vegas. “In Chile, we love bread. The bagel is the closest thing to Chilean bread.”

He was determined to learn how to bake bagels, a tricky-to-make bread that’s boiled before it’s baked. “I tried to teach myself from books and the Internet. I started making them, and they were horrible.” So he took classes with a chef and became intrigued by the mathematics of baking — especially the formula, developed over hundreds of years, for producing the perfect bagel.

“In class I learned how to make croissants and cakes. In my house, I would do the bagels. Truly, it took me two years to work it out. I would bake three times a week and bring the results to work.”

In Vegas he saved his money and bought a $6,000 machine that divides the dough and forms the bagels. “I bought it and then ate tortillas and beans for six months.”

Fabrizio’s passion for bagels had reached the point of no return.

Patty defies the odds to get to Vegas

Patty del Valle’s journey to Las Vegas started with a chance meeting and an upside-down statue of a saint. She was 18 and had just graduated from high school in La Paz. She ran into a friend who was heading to Las Vegas for a wedding, and the friend invited her along.

“Are you kidding?” Patty replied. “My mom doesn’t even let me go to the beach by myself.” Patty had no passport and no money for a plane ticket. She figured it would take a miracle to get her to Las Vegas.

The friend insisted they ask Patty’s mom, anyway. As for the miracle, she persuaded Patty it wouldn’t hurt to seek a little divine intervention. The two girls made an appeal to the statue of a sympathetic saint. They turned the statue upside-down, a folk ritual added for good luck.

To Patty’s surprise, her mom said she could go. Patty applied for a passport that same day, and her uncle, who worked for an airlines, came up with a free ticket.

Patty’s stay in Las Vegas lasted 22 years. She learned English and earned a university degree in journalism. She worked at MGM Mirage in public relations, representing 200 restaurants and executive chefs.

Along the way, Patty met Fabrizio and got swept up in his passion for bagels.

Leaving Las Vegas

Fast-forward almost a decade. Three years ago in Las Vegas, Patty and Fabrizio reached a turning point. They now had two daughters and were sick of the casinos, the gambling, the city’s preoccupation with expensive cars and a lifestyle that drove people into debt.

They asked themselves, “Do we want to stay in Vegas, or do we want to change our lives?”

They decided to move to Chile. The plan was to stop en route in La Paz for just six months. While there, they would try to make some money selling bagels.

Right from the start, Fabrizio ran into a glitch. He couldn’t find the right flour for bagels. He sought help from the Bread Guy in La Paz, Les Carmona, whose successful Pan D’Les bakery, on Madero on the corner of Ocampo, specializes in fine European breads. “Les was super nice,” Fabrizio says. The Bread Guy helped Fabrizio find what he needed and was generous with his expertise.

So Patty and Fabrizio produced a dozen bagels in their kitchen. They brought them to a friend’s coffee shop and displayed them in an old Sony stereo cabinet that Fabrizio bought at a segunda. Their first customer broadcast his satisfaction the next morning over the ship-to-shore radio program known as “the cruisers’ net.” And Americans started coming. Patty sold bagels in the marinas and on the street. Soon she became known as “the Bagel Lady.”

The kitchen oven could handle only six bagels at a time. Production doubled, then tripled, until they reached their maximum of 40 bagels a day. As demand increased, they couldn’t keep up.

Enthusiastic customers offered loans for expansion. Businessmen suggested partnerships. In the end, though, Patty and Fabrizio turned down all offers, cancelled the move to Chile and invested their life savings in what had once been an office for the newspaper, Las Ultimas Noticias. It was a shell of a building with no electricity, no plumbing, no gas. Along with renovating, they purchased an immense rotating oven in which bagels get a sort of ferris-wheel ride so that they bake evenly.

After months of preparation, the Bagel Shop y La Galeria opened in July 2011. Downstairs is a cafe and “bagel bar” with its assortment of bagels, cream cheeses (everything from classic to chipotle), fresh-squeezed juices, coffee and breakfast dishes. Upstairs is an art gallery and meeting space, available without charge for community use.

Fabrizio has no time to rest on his laurels, but he does spend a moment to reflect on his identity. “I have a Mexican wife, U.S.-born daughters. I’m a Chilean guy making Jewish food.”

And, oh yeah, he’s also a man obsessed with bagels. They actually talk to him during his early morning baking. “You’re working with yeast, which is alive,” he says. “You’re always communicating — a bagel tells you, for example, ‘I need more time in the boiling water.’ You never stop learning. And every day, the bagels get better.”

And to come full circle (so to speak), here’s a final thought about a little product that’s “just a bread with a hole in the middle.” Fabrizio says the process for him has been more important than the product: “It’s been an opportunity to meet people, to learn from the community and to share something that we love.”

Bagel Shop y La Galería: Belisario Dominguez between 5 de Mayo and Constitución. Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to  2 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; closed Mondays. Phone: 12 55878.

(originally posted August 2011)

HEAVEN FOR BOOKWORMS

January 2010 rozinlapaz

Remember, the tree is older than you are,
and you might find stories in its branches.
Recuerda, el árbol es mayor que tú
y tal vez encuentres cuentos entre sus ramas.

These are the closing lines of the poem Árbol de Limón, by Mexican-born writer Jennifer Clement. The poem embodies the theme of this anthology, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwhich the editor describes as “a bilingual gathering” of poems, stories and pictures from Mexico. The Tree is Older Than You Are is one of a treasure trove of books available in La Paz.

Further down the page is a list of resources for book lovers in La Paz. But first, more about this Spanish-English book. It’s written for children aged 8 and older, but it also will appeal to adults — those who want to learn more about Mexico’s writers and artists, those who want to practise their Spanish, and those who want to explore a sumptuous collection of poetry, folk tales and pictures.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe editor of The Tree is Older Than You Are, published in 1995, is Naomi Shihab Nye, an author from San Antonio, Texas. Nye has been traveling back and forth to Mexico all her life. Among the 61 contributors she has chosen are some emerging writers whose names you may not know; others are powerhouses of Latin American literature, including the seminal writer and Nobel-prizewinner, Octavio Paz. Stories and poems in this collection range in tone from pensive to whimsical:

Nieve/ Snow Cone
Mi madre/ My mother
Me compró/ Bought me
Una luna/ A moon.
La pedí/ I asked
de limón./ For lemon.
Alberto Forcada translated by Judith Infante

This anthology cracks open a doorway to the world of Mexican literature. That’s because a thumbnail biography of each contributor will help enable readers to track down other published work.

de Refranes/ from Proverbs
No hay pájaro que viva triste
(no bird alive can be sad)
Si tiene corazón, canción y alpiste
(If it has a heart, a song, and seed).
Margarita Robleda Moguel translated by Mary Guerrero Milligan

Here are more suggestions of where to find books (and fellow bookworms) in La Paz:

Allende Books

The city’s English-language bookstore is close to Jardin Velasco and the Cathedral, at Independencia #518, between Serdan and G. Prieto (next-door to Ángel Azul B&B). This shop has a little something for everyone. You will find a good selection of books on the Baja and mainland Mexico, as well as current fiction and non-fiction imported from the United States. The store features the Moon and Lonely Planet travel guides, maps, materials for boaters and fishermen (Sea of Cortez Cruiser’s Guide, most recent fishing maps of the waters in the Sea of Cortez and Pacific Coast), Spanish language study materials and dictionaries. There’s an assortment of children’s books, many bi-lingual (that’s where I bought my copy of The Tree is Older Than You Are). There are books featuring Mexico style interior decoration, desert gardening and cookbooks. You will also find many hand-selected gift items from the peninsula, mainland Mexico and Central America. Most books are in English, but there are also some in Spanish. Open Monday through Saturdays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Phone number: (612)125 9114. Allende Books has a website: Allendebooks.com

Book club: Palabra por Palabra

Allende Books is also a good place to find out more about the La Paz book club, “Palabra por Palabra” – to learn where, when and what book will be discussed at the monthly gathering. The location of club meetings shifts among members’ homes.There’s a discussion each month, usually the first Tuesday of the month at 2 p.m. Go to my Links page for more information.

Club Cruceros’ free book-exchange

This book exchange in the Club Cruceros’ clubhouse is a great place to find beach reads, but you will also encounter the occasional Pulitzer-prize winner and classic. The clubhouse has magazines of a certain vintage and a DVD rental library. While you’re there, consider taking out a membership for $10 (or 100 pesos) per year. Club Cruceros de La Paz is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping less fortunate children of La Paz and to exchanging cruising information. In addition, club members organize a large variety of social activities. Members are mainly ocean cruisers, but landlubbers are welcome, too. Check out their website at . http://www.clubcruceros.org/ or visit the clubhouse at Marina de La Paz.

Librería Educal Libros y Arte

Most reading material is in Spanish. This government-supported bookstore is a Mexican cultural gem when it comes to gift-buying and browsing. The store is at the Centro Cultural La Paz, the Antigua Presidencia Municipal de la Ciudad de la Paz (Avenida 16 de Septiembre at the corner of Belisario Domínguez, (612) 128 94 21). That’s next door to the tourism office. You will find CDs, children’s toys, beautiful T-shirts and art objects, as well as books here. For more information (in Spanish), go to the website at lapaz@educal.com.mx

Ramirez

This large variety store bordering Jardin Velasco (Calle 5 de Mayo 204 (612)1227692) carries everything from chocolates to furniture. The books section is mainly in Spanish, but you will also find some Baja books in English and a shelf or two of English magazines and mass market paperbacks. Their well-stocked shelves of Spanish-language books include dictionaries in Spanish/German, Spanish/French, Spanish/Italian, Spanish/Portuguese.

(originally posted January 2010)