Forest Chants & Mountain Walks With New & Old Friends in Kyoto

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Meeting Maki Takafuji for the first time at Seiryu-den in Kyoto.

The city of Kyoto can be a paradox. The functional train station, workaday streets and boulevards, the normal comings and goings of its citizens, the overall grey quality of most of the recent architecture, all can elicit a potentially ambivalent response. Kyoto is a UNESCO World Heritage City with an extraordinary endowment of timeless shrines, temples, mind boggling handicrafts, legendary ceramics, world class tea and sake production, the legendary home of Noh and Kabuki, and maintains all the splendor of the once ancient capital of Japan. At first appearance, however, these wonders seem very hidden, as if the greatness of Kyoto is itself wrapped in a confusing furoshiki of the modern world.

But whereas the Vatican in Rome is housed in the magisterial architecture of the Renaissance, the sibling city for Buddhism in Kyoto is an ongoing interaction with nature. You will experience more open doors framing a view of nature in a Zen Temple in Kyoto than any Catholic Church in Rome.

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Finding Tambuco in Japan: “Are Those Bamboo Gamelans I Hear, Mr. Bond?”

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With Maki Takafuji at Sanzen-in Temple in Ohara.

”Jeff, it’s interesting, after all our projects together, that we are now talking here about music and culture in Onjuku, Japan,” said my friend Ricardo Gallardo of the Tambuco Percussion Ensemble during an early morning coffee looking out on the Pacific Ocean.

“You and Jan must meet my friend Maki Takafuji when you go to Kyoto. She lives there, teaches in Nagoya and is a great advocate for new music, and she commissioned Steve Reich for the famous Nagoya Marimbas.

But before we get to Kyoto, I should to tell you about why Ricardo and I were talking on the Pacific coast of Japan in Onjuku.

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The New Music Gathering Asia with the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble

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We’re always happy to be in Hong Kong!

My extended family nostalgia appears spontaneously as soon as I set foot in Hong Kong. When I was a little boy, a man named Harry Woo often watched me for my parents at our family restaurant at 2601 West Sixth Street in Los Angeles. Harry was their loyal dishwasher and short order cook. On what has, over time, become for me a fateful Saturday afternoon in the 1960s, he showed me a letter he was writing to his family in Hong Kong with his Cantonese calligraphy.

I’ve never recovered from that moment. Harry’s letter to his parents in Hong Kong written in Cantonese taught me the world was a bigger place than I’d ever imagined.

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A Third Season Opening Triumph for the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble

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Opening night curtain calls in Hà Nội.

”We are friends! Chúng ta là bạn!” said Thanh Hoài in a stage whisper as we reached out to hold each other’s hand, joining together the entire cast of Kim by Vũ Nhật Tân. Receiving the amazing response from a capacity audience for the collaboration of two of the new outstanding arts organizations in Việt Nam, the Đông Kinh Cở Nhạc/Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin and the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble, was a night to remember for us all.

How successful, you ask? Let me put it this way. My return flight is now booked. After recharging at home in California for the Christmas holiday season, I will return to Hà Nội for more hard work and important next steps in January 2018.

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The Bamboo House Rehearsal

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A happy Bamboo House moment with Thanh Hoài and Đàm Quang Minh.

“Mr. Jeff, you must come to rehearse with us in the Bamboo House!” said my friend Đàm Quang Minh in his charming mix of French and broken English. “There you will learn about the real Vietnamese ancient music avec moi et Monsieur Tân.”

I’d been hearing about the Bamboo House with its seemingly legendary status since I arrived in Hà Nội in September. Perhaps it was an inner sanctum for rehearsal and discovery? An urban oasis? On the outskirts of the city?

“Mr. Jeff, you and Jan must first go only to Chùa Láng, et d’accord, nous marchons avec Monsieur Tân à Bamboo House,” continued my friend Minh.

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The Eternal City of Huế

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Eternal Việt Nam and the Sông Hương, the River of Perfume, in Huế. Photo by Lan Hương.

It has been eleven years since I visited the city of Huế, considered the Vatican of Vietnamese Buddhism. Despite the horrific battles fought here in 1968 during the Tết Offensive, a calm spirituality infuses the area. You glimpse this on the long highway road from Đà Nẵng. Sandwiched between busy shops and food stands are more Buddhist temples that I could count.

The language is different. The cuisine is different. The atmosphere is different.

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Autumn Moon Lanterns in Hội An

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Colorful lanterns in Hội An.

I adore the Autumn Moon Festival in Việt Nam. Primarily for youngsters, kids, babies and strollers, smiling grandparents and tired moms and dads, the ramp up weeks to the actual celebration contains charm, even innocence, qualities often missing or hard to locate in the Western world these days. Here in Hà Nội, it’s often a nighttime lullaby to be serenaded by loud citywide dragon drumming this time of year.

Clearing away evil spirits is a good thing, don’t you agree?

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Old Hollywood Tales with My Mom, Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall

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Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not.

I purposefully launched my blog four years ago on September 17th. Choosing my mom’s birthday seemed the best way to bring my writing long term good luck. Month in and month out my global readership continues to increase, so I know she’s helping from heaven. To celebrate the anniversary of these posts, I’d like to remember her 99th birthday today. Her first name was Louise, and I want to share her best stories from working as a waitress in Golden Era Hollywood. I hope you enjoy the first story involving her two favorites, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

Because my mom was present the day fashioned changed. Forever.

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The Eroica Moment for Việt Nam and the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble

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Composer Nguyễn Minh Nhật in Paris with his mentor, Tốn Thất Tiết.

While Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and PBS turn American attention to the Vietnam War with an important new documentary on September 17th, Jan Karlin and I will be in Việt Nam turning our attention to the third season of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble. For the first time, Vietnamese composers are writing new works for their own Vietnamese ensemble for a supportive Vietnamese public, guided by their first ever American arts advisors, with trusted friends sending best wishes from Paris on October 21st.

Burns, Novick and PBS are justifiably concerned with the Vietnam War. But Jan and I want us all to truly to move forward, and to do that you must be prepared to see Việt Nam as a country. We firmly believe new music is writing the inspiring next chapter of our story together.

Why not join us in Hà Nội on October 21st and hear for yourself?

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Welcome to Sound Travels!

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A big thank you to all my blog readers around the world!

Thanks to everyone who reads my blog, all 22,347 of you, from every continent on Planet Earth!

Let me start my post with gratitude to my Top Ten Countries, grouping them in a geographical if not statistical order. Those readers start, naturally close to home since I live in California, with the United States and Canada. Southeast Asian friends and travelers to Việt Nam, Singapore and Malaysia are big readers and then, perhaps, journey to the inspiring Old World of England, Germany and France (which is becoming new again in the 21st century), looking for tips and ideas from my posts. People interested in the vibrant life colors of Latin America join in from Brazil and México. All in all, our readership is in over 150 countries from every continent around the globe.

After almost four years and 115 posts, it’s time for a little upkeep. Let’s welcome my new blog name of Sound Travels!

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