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One Thing Again Leads to Another at the Chiringuito Jam in Scopello

August 26, 2022
bradspurgeon

Babel Tower Logo

Babel Tower Logo

CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – It seems not to matter how many times I live this lesson, I always come close to forgetting it – only to relive it and learn it again. A few weeks ago I wrote of my experience at the Chiringuito jam in Scopello, Sicily. I wrote about how one good thing leads to another good thing – and vice versa. I missed the last few jams on Wednesday nights at Chiriniguito for various reasons – a cold, a more important meeting, and, yes, inertia. I was almost going to let inertia steer me away from it again this time, but didn’t, and the reward was huge, and unexpected – as usual!

We had planned to have dinner in Scopello at the Nettuno restaurant with Ornella’s family Wednesday and then head off to the jam. But the dinner started late, many more family members arrived, and conversation and good cheer began to take over and extend the time at the table, and reduce the potential time at the jam. Then, as with the last outdoor restaurant meal with the family – last week – a sudden downpour of rain began. It never rains here in the summer. It’s not supposed to. Will not, does not. Unless we have a family gathering or a jam session to attend.

The conversation, family get-together and rain all persuaded me by midnight that I was going to miss the jam session again, and I was going to miss it for valid reasons. I had my guitar ready in the trunk of the car, I had made the “effort,” but it had failed. Once again. Then at about two minutes past midnight, Ornella said to me: “You are going to miss the jam! Go and play, Brad. Don’t worry about us.” In fact, I had been told that many of the members of the family had come to see me play, but I suppose inertia had settled in there too….

I decided not to let that get me down, and in any case, I fully expected to go to the jam – a few minutes’ walk away from the Nettuno – and find that it had been packed up, closed down, over with, all thanks to the downpour, which could have short-circuited all the guitar amps and everything else. There, I thought, I would have my excuse. Part of me had the jitters about playing the jam again also because it had gone so well the first time, and I had had so much fun, that I expected it would fall flat this second time.

I got my Gibson J-200 from the car trunk and went to the jam. It was bopping big time. The stage was curiously dark and wet, but there were musicians on it, playing to a vast crowd of manic spectators jumping up and down in delight at the front of the stage. Michelangelo, the jam organiser and MC, immediately saw me with my guitar on my back at the front right corner of the stage and he approached: “Brad, we had a problem tonight with the rain cutting out a lot of things, and we had to set up all over again, and try to make it work after that…. anyway, the point is, I had to change the format a little: You only get one song. And you are up next.”

Man! I could not say no to that. I had no more excuses! And anyway, I started feeling the pulse of excitement of the idea of going up and playing just one song and if it all failed, I had my excuse there too! I just finished a massive bacon and cheese burger, a massive chocolate Sunday, got wet in the rain, came over to the jam, had one song and got up with no warming up!

I got the Gibson out, waited, when the guy finished, I climbed up on the stage where someone said: “What chords?” I realised it was one of the other musicians – turned out to be the bass player – and he wanted to know what chords I would use for my one song. I didn’t even know what my song would be. I had, in advance, been planning three: “Crazy Love,” “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” and “Wicked Game.” I thought for a moment about the simplest of them, but also I decided to go for a contrast to the crowd pleasing, foot-stomping, fast-moving, singalong song of the guy onstage before me. I chose “Wicked Game,” by Chris Isaak. It is just three chords from beginning to end, and there can be plenty of room for the jamming of the harmonica and lead guitar between verses on those three chords.

I whipped through the song with huge pleasure – and a few rough spots – and then got off the stage fast. It seemed to go fairly smoothly, and the others had lots of room to jam. I blew my voice out a little, since I had a bit of a problem hearing myself and so I forced it too much, but in all, I was really happy to have done it, and I was happy to have been able to do it fast during what was clearly a difficult night for the organiser – with that rain storm!

Now here is where the real story starts: I got off the stage and began packing my guitar away in its case when a guy approaches and starts speaking English and congratulating me. He turned out to be another musician, a drummer, and he asked if I played professionally. I said no, and asked him if he did. He said he did, and that he was also studying jazz drumming at the conservatory. But he said his band was playing in Castellammare soon, and so I should come and listen. The band, he said, was called Babel Tower. It turned out that they had played recently at Picolit, where my musical adventure began last month.

Babel Tower in Castellammare del Golfo



We talked for some time about music, his life, and the band playing around Sicily. I was still a little breathless after performing, and I had to go and find Ornella’s family. So we parted without exchanging contacts.

Then Ornella and I later in the evening went to the Picolit Pub in Castellammare, and I tried to remember the name of the band that this drummer played in, so I could speak to one of the owners of Picolit about it. Since they have a lot of bands there, she had no idea! But then I looked at the names of the bands that have played there recently, and I recognized the name “Babel Tower.” I then found the Instagram page of the band, and looked at the photos and…there I saw the photo of the guy I spoke to at the jam session.

I returned to the owner, told her it was this band, and she said: “Oh yes!!! And by the way, the singer of the band is sitting at the table beside yours!” Unsure whether I should speak to the singer of Babel Tower and tell him I had just met one of the other band members, it was again Ornella who pushed for this. I decided that, yes, I’d love to know the name of the drummer I met and maybe send him a message on Facebook.

So we approached the singer of the band, and we explained the situation. He gave me the link to the Instagram page of the drummer of the band and I followed it. Then, we got involved in more conversation with the singer, pulled our chairs over to his table, and after some minutes of talk, it began to dawn on both Ornella and the singer that they knew each other! They had not seen each other for 15 years or so, but they realized that he had been one of Ornella’s sister’s best friends! And as it turned out, he had long been trying to make contact with her, but as she no longer lives here, he had not found out how to communicate.

Another bit of Babel Tower



This happy situation then led eventually to the singer inviting me to play with Babel Tower at their next gig, in a small town not too far from here on Saturday night! Now, let us remember and realize and think about all of these happy repercussions that came form a moment’s decision as to whether I should or should not make the effort to play at the jam! Had I done the easy thing and just sat back lazily, I would never have met these musicians, never had the fun of playing the jam, never been offered to play this weekend, and Ornella and her sister would never have met this old friend! Astounding what action, and music, can do!

Babel Tower, I learned, plays nearly 300 dates per year throughout Sicily, doing all manner of rock, pop and reggae. I suggest you look them up and give a listen! And maybe you will discover something that will change your life too!

Sundance on a Bunker in Sicily with Compagnia Ordinesparso – or Physical Theater at 4:40 AM

August 15, 2022
bradspurgeon

Ornella and Brad on the Bunker in Sicily.  Photo Credit:  ©Claudio Colomba / https://claudiocolomba6.webnode.it/

Ornella and Brad on the Bunker in Sicily. Photo Credit: ©Claudio Colomba / https://claudiocolomba6.webnode.it/

CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – There are few things I dislike more in life than getting out of bed for the day at 4:40 AM. Especially after going to bed at 1:40 AM (due to the birthday party of a 1-year-old). But the offer to join up with an Italian theater company to put on a ritual performance along with the rising of the sun above the Mediterranean Sea on the top of a World War II bunker overlooking some craggy cliffs at the Fossa Dello Stinco near Castellammare del Golfo in Sicily was just too great to resist. It was the same for Ornella Bonventre, and so it was that we joined Giovanni Berretta and his Compagnia Ordinesparso at sunrise and integrated his troupe for a 40-minute or so piece of physical theater, with a live soundtrack of drums and baritone saxophone. And while I may still be “jet-lagged” from the experience a day later as I write these words, I feel blessed to have been able to take part.
Opening movements of the show from two of the stars of Compagnia Ordinesparso.  Photo Credit: ©Claudio Colomba

Opening movements of the show from two of the stars of Compagnia Ordinesparso. Photo Credit: ©Claudio Colomba


The whole thing did not happen just overnight, of course. (No pun intended.) Rather, Ornella, as the director of TAC Teatro, and a native of Castellammare del Golfo, had learned from her friend, a local filmmaker and photographer, Claudio Colomba, that Berretta was in town and doing a theater lab and a few performances. Ornella had also crossed paths with Berretta and his Compagnia Ordinesparso a few times in the past, so last week we went to watch one of their street performances, in one of the main boulevards of Castellammare. That took place during the heat of the night, with a couple of actors on a balcony above the boulevard, and the others in the street below, and it was quite impressive to see and hear.

Preparing at the Apollo theater in Castellammare del Golfo with Giovanni Berretta

We spoke to Berretta afterwards, and he invited us to take part in this performance on the morning of the day leading to the midnight celebration of Ferragosto, the Assumption of Mary religious holiday. If we accepted, we would have to go to one day of the workshop, the day before, the write a score to integrate the performance. This we did with great pleasure on Saturday evening, and it was my first time on the small, but fabulous stage of the main local theater, the Apollo, which is located in the center of Castellammare.

Ferragosto Bunker Show  Photo Credit:  ©Claudio Colomba / https://claudiocolomba6.webnode.it/

Ferragosto Bunker Show Photo Credit: ©Claudio Colomba / https://claudiocolomba6.webnode.it/

There, much to my great fear of failure due to a horrendous tendonitis in my left arm, Giovanni simply ignored my plea that I was entirely incapable of any kind of physical stuff and would be better off just playing my guitar and singing. But with the help of my hugely gifted partner, Ornella Bonventre, taking the heavier load of responsibility for the movements – despite doctor’s orders against straining her recuperating knee injury – we managed, through Giovanni’s gentle and precise direction, to come up with a score and integrate the group.

The group was made up of actors part of Compagnia Ordinesparso, as well as a few local amateurs who joined in as a theater activity, upon invitation by the event, which has some support from the local mayor’s office. Giovanni provided both the direction, as well as being the anchor of the performance, reciting texts to the sound of the musicians’ soundtrack. It was very impressive hearing the baritone sax, played by Tommaso Miranda, and drums, played by Domenico Sabella, at dawn; and the sound reminded me of a cross between the mix of Duke Ellington and John Coltrane as a duo, and some of the later work of Tom Waits!

another of Ornella and Brad atop the bunker  Photo Credit:  ©Claudio Colomba https://claudiocolomba6.webnode.it/

another of Ornella and Brad atop the bunker Photo Credit: ©Claudio Colomba https://claudiocolomba6.webnode.it/

There was a third major partner here that I have not mentioned yet, but they came in during the final stage, which was the performance itself at just after 6 AM. This was the group of about 50 hikers who were led by the local exploring association called, CAI Castellammare del Golfo. (The letters stand for: Club Alpino Italiano. They explore local mountains, caves, seashore, forests etc.) Ornella and I and TAC Teatro had put on a performance last year with and for this same hiking organization, but then it was to celebrate the setting sun! (Which is much more naturally to my taste, as a late riser.)

So it was that arising at 4:40 AM, we prepared ourselves and met the other actors and musicians at 5:15 close to the staging point, before heading on in several cars through the scrub vegetation at the seaside, and arrived at about 5:45 at the World War II bunker at the Fossa Dello Stinco. There the musicians set up the drums, took out the sax, warmed up; and so did the actors and Giovanni. We found our points of reference, spent some time figuring out how to mount the bunker – no easy thing, and in the end Giovanni himself lifted most of us up there – and we all warmed up too.

Ornella Bonventre on stage at the Apollo theater preparing for the show in Castellammare

We took our positions and waited until close to 6:15 or so – the sunrise was set for 6:20, according to my phone – the spectators began to arrive and placed themselves on the stones, rocks and vegetation around the performance area. And then began Giovanni’s recitations, the other actors’ movements, dance and contortions, and finally Ornella and I mounted the top of the bunker and did our part.

Giovanni Berretta

Giovanni Berretta


musicians and Giovanni at the sunrise show  Photo Credit:  ©Claudio Colomba / https://claudiocolomba6.webnode.it/

musicians and Giovanni at the sunrise show Photo Credit: ©Claudio Colomba / https://claudiocolomba6.webnode.it/

The patient and talented director Giovanni had instructed me that my movements were to be a kind of action that reacted to Ornella’s movements, and her movements were that of the wind. Standing atop the bunker with the real wind gently blowing all around me, with a camera equipped drone hovering above, and with Claudio moving about in his various positions filming and photographing, with the saxophone and drums beating, and the sun rising mostly over my left shoulder as I looked at the rising hills and cliffs around me, the whole thing was a little bit like a natural religious experience and I had entirely forgotten the tendonitis in my left arm and shoulder!

Only once it was finished did I realise that I knew several people in the audience both from last year’s event with TAC Teatro and from the organizers of the hike. It was a gentle and warm descent. (Although suddenly feared my shoulder pain as Giovanni had to lift me down the bunker back to hard earth!)

the sea and sun perspective of the show  Photo Credit:  ©Claudio Colomba / https://claudiocolomba6.webnode.it/

the sea and sun perspective of the show Photo Credit: ©Claudio Colomba / https://claudiocolomba6.webnode.it/

My only regret during the experience was my inability to really be seeing all the details of how Ornella’s spectacular dance, as well as that of the other actors, must have appeared to the audience. I was part of the show, but with Ornella as my solid underpinning guide, it was a shoe-in there too…. Oh, and I am hoping that I will be able to see what Claudio eventually does with the film of the event, and I hope I will be able to put up a link to that on the blog soon!

Happy Ferragosto!

Panoramic of the performance area upon arrival

Unloading the drums upon arrival to the bunker area

Winding down moments after the sunrise performance ended

The Power of Good and Evil – Playing at the Chiringuito Scopello Pub in Sicily

July 28, 2022
bradspurgeon

Brad and band at Chiringuito Scopello

Brad and band at Chiringuito Scopello

CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – Just over 20 years ago I wrote a lighthearted Op-Ed column in the International Herald Tribune newspaper using a personal experience I had to show how a single bad action by someone can have many, many bad repercussions going on for days, weeks or more. This morning when I awoke and thought about the jam session I took part in last night at the Chiringuito pub in Scopello, I suddenly realized that precisely the same ripple effect happens when someone does something good, leading to all sorts of other good things.

I am talking, of course, about the results of the effect that began in my previous blog item, where the generosity of a musician – Francesco Riotta – in giving me the microphone and his guitar during his own gig at a bar in Castellammare del Golfo led to meeting another musician after the performance, who in turn told me that there was a jam session in a nearby village every Wednesday and I should go. After coming here for five or six years, once per year, I had never found an open mic or jam session, and it seemed the only thing missing in our summer paradise. All it took was the generosity of Riotta for the good things to start happening.

Brad playing I won’t back down in Scopello

I took the first opportunity to go to check out the jam session at the Chiringuito Scopello pub, which was last night, Wednesday. This is also proof of how important it is to “get yourself out there” if you want any kind of satisfaction in life: Ornella’s uncle and aunt own a restaurant in Scopello, and we have also been going there for years without ever knowing that the Chiringuito hosted a jam session every Wednesday through the summer for the last three years!

Scopello is part of the commune of Castellammare del Golfo, where we are staying, but it is a kind of separate village suburb, about a 15 minute drive away. It is a beautiful tourist attraction area, with lots of restaurants, and beautiful views, beautiful nearby beaches, and a gathering place for some of the people in Castellammare who want a night out that is slightly different from the usual one of wandering around the streets of the main town.

Brad playing Chiringuito with budding Joe (Josephine) Cocker girl onstage

Brad playing Chiringuito with budding Joe (Josephine) Cocker girl onstage

The setting for the Chiringuito is absolutely fabulous! It is an outdoor pub and restaurant, and the stage is quite big, with a decent sound system, good lighting, and a fabulous location that means that you can be seen and heard when you perform by people in the bar area, the lounge area, the restaurant area, and the tables in front of the stage itself. But standing up there and playing and seeing also the surrounding mountains and the sea in the distance – although it is not really clearly visible in that darkness – is a heavenly sensation.

Brad and band playing Mad World in Scopello

The open jam is run according to the usual method, with a sign up list, and it starts around 10pm. But the list order is not strictly followed, especially because much of the jam involves several musicians onstage at once. IE, it is not just an open mic with a single performer or band. It’s a bit of a free-for-all, and once everyone has had a chance to perform once, then the stage is opened to even more mixing, if there is enough time.

First act in Scopello

It is wonderfully hosted by Michelangelo Bologna, who plays harmonica on the videos where I am playing (and elsewhere), and he speaks good English. And as with just about everything here, it turned out that Michelangelo was Ornella’s cousin! (It seems everyone we meet here is Ornella’s cousin, so for me that was not really a surprise.) And Ornella and I both thought he was an exceptional harmonica player. Turns out he studied harmonica at a jazz conservatory!

Michelangelo Bologna demonstrating (English subtitles) his harmonica studies.

Michelangelo told me that last week there were 30 musicians! Given that it lasts only until around 12:30 or 1am, it’s best to get there on time – although I was too early, arriving at 9pm.

There was a large cross-section of performers last night, with lots of blues, a bit of rock, and some acoustic stuff too. In general it was an everything goes kind of jam.

Brad and band at Chiringuito 3

Brad and band at Chiringuito 3

What a pleasure this was to play again in front of such a big crowd, to have some wonderful musicians play along with me, mistakes and all, and an incredibly enthusiastic audience, many of them right in front of the stage. For me, it represented the real moment of passing from my Covid hibernation to a break out back to pre-Covid days – ie, I’ve barely played in public at all since the beginning of the pandemic. And for all I know, this place was bursting with the latest, extremely contagious variant…but I couldn’t not do this! And underpinning it all was that generosity of handing over the stage two days before. Incredible how good things come from good things, and bad things from bad. In case you missed it, check out the link – which I add again here – to that story I did in the IHT Meanwhile column for that story I did way back when. And now think about how those repercussions of badness can be the opposite when the initial act is a good one…!

Brad and band Plauing What’s Up!? In Scopello two vid points of view.

PS, I thank Ornella Bonventre’s daughter, Morgana, for all the videos and photos she took of my performances. I also thank Ornella’s aunt, Daniele, for the video she took of my What’s Up!, while standing in a different position to that of Morgana – I combined both of them toward the end of the What’s Up video to have a different perspective.

Acoustic act in Scopello jam

Jamming at the Picolit Pub in Castellammare del Golfo, thanks to the Amazing Francesco Riotta

July 26, 2022
bradspurgeon

Francesco Riotta at Picolit

Francesco Riotta at Picolit

CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – I had reached such a bursting point of frustration and desire in wanting to play some music on stage somewhere, anywhere, last night, that before we went out to dinner I said to Ornella: “I want to bring my Gibson J200 with me just in case I find a place to play!” It being very hot, and the likelihood of finding a place to play being very small in this dream of a fantastic seaside town on the coast of Sicily near Palermo, in the end I chose not to take my guitar. Then the miracle happened.

We ate in a wonderful, cheap, heart-warming restaurant – the town is full of them! – and then headed off to one of our two favourite pubs in Castellammare. I am speaking of the Picolit pub, which I have written about in the past, and which features live music at least four nights per week in its outdoor terrace, with the natural amphitheatre of a public staircase. (Our other favorite joint is Cantina Aurelia, which does not feature live music.) As soon as I heard and saw that it was guy on an acoustic guitar – occasionally joined by a bass player – I thought we had to go an listen.

There was something very attractive in his sound, and demeanour: I immediately felt something a little Brazilian in it, but it was manifestly more African, Jamaican, and reggae-related. His performance is very intimate, warm, and he has a great way of communicating with the spectators both through the music and its stories, as well as directly involving them – for instance in using them to create harmony for a chorus to one of his songs. The musician’s name was Francesco Riotta, and while he comes from Palermo, where he was raised in the tangle of culturally mixed streets in the central part of the city, he has also travelled all around playing his music, and learning more sounds, and mixing his culture and language with that of the countries he visits: English, French, African, Spanish, German, etc.

Francesco Riotta at Picolit.

I was intrigued by his guitar, which was steel-stringed but sounded more like a nylon-string guitare, and I could not read the brand name. So when he took a break, I decided to go to ask him if I could look at the guitar, which he had placed in its case. We got into a conversation immediately, and we switched from English to French, as he said he had lived in Paris for a while, and had even written and performed a song in French, and done a video with an African musician, who he met in the Goutte d’Or part of Paris. (He had gone there to seek out African musicians.)

Brad singing What’s Up! at the Picolit in Sicily.

He asked about me, and when he learned that I played guitar and sang, he asked if I wanted to do a song at the end of his set. Hey presto! That need to get up and do a song on stage that I had felt overpowering me before dinner was about to be calmed! Unbelievable! I did two songs, and I was joined by his bass player, Daniele Ferrantelli. This thanks to a generous, human musician who knows what it means to create a great vibe during a gig and give something to a fellow musician. In fact, Francesco knew it very well, because I turned out not to be the only one he lent the stage to. There were a couple of guys who go up from the Picolit clients and did a kind of rap competition – in Italian – and then another singer, a woman named Kristen Palmera, took the mic and she did a couple of songs, for which Francesco played the guitar – one was Hit the Road Jack….

Francesco Riotta’s latest clip.

But in the magic way in which these things almost always happen in the life of the musical troubadour, after the “open mic” ended and the instruments were put away, several of us joined together for a drink, and one of the rappers approached me and he too spoke in French. He informed me that in a neighbouring town, called Scopello (which is actually part of Castellammare, but a 15-minute drive from here), every Wednesday night there is an open jam session in a bar, and I should attend. Wow! It was only the day before that Ornella and I were saying that Castellammare is a perfect place for us, with the exception that I cannot satiate my need to play music by dropping into an open mic in the way I can at home. Hey presto, now I can! I will report on that here once I do it….

Francesco Riotta singing in English at Picolit in Sicily.

PS, lest I give a wrong impression about this place, it is absolutely full of music, and there are several bars with live music several times per week. But they book acts long in advance, so I’ve never had a chance to play in one.

PPS, and for those who noticed the hole in my storytelling…the guitar was a Crafter!!! (The hole was there on purpose, but against my wishes, because I had gone blank while writing this on what the name of the guitar was!!!)

Another great song with Francesco Riotta.

“Ajamola” Returns to the Stage With a More Powerful Message Than Ever

March 30, 2022
bradspurgeon

Ajamola poster

Ajamola poster

AUBERVILLIERS, France – When Ornella Bonventre and the actors of her TAC Teatro company began the creation of their new show in the fall of 2019, they had no idea what disasters – both human-made and natural – were about to befall the world. And yet, as if predicting the future, themes of the coming cataclysms began immediately to define the show: A look at the lives of refugees, a question about what happens when your life changes forever in one sudden fell-swoop, and even, the arrival in February of the costumes of the “dream constructors” of the show in the form of doctors’ white blouses. And with the white blouses, surgical masks. Everyone joked about what they might be able to do with surgical masks. Within months, of course, and then within years, we have been hit hard in our world by many of the themes of the show.

After putting on several performances of the show last fall, TAC Teatro took a break from performance after one of the actors left, and the show has now returned with a new actor – Oscar Paille – and several new and changed and developed moments of pure delight. Every time I see this show – and I have now seen it at least 10 times live – I feel like I am watching a play of Shakespearian dimensions. Not the tragedies, more something like “The Tempest” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” And fabulously, while Shakespeare is all about the text, “Ajamola” is all about the actions…and yet the text that there is excels in many spots with a beauty that touches me every time, especially that soliloquy that begins: “Goutte qui tombe sur le rebord de la fenêtre, pourrait-tu faire moins de bruit; il y a ici des gens qui ont besoin de dormir. Pas nous…” (Translation: “Drop that falls on the windowsill, could you make less noise; there are people here who need to sleep. Not us….”)

Ajamola TAC Teatro Trailer

I must confess, of course, that I was involved in the beginning as both an actor and a writer of some small part of the text – not that above quoted line that comes from Ornella – but the play was ultimately a work containing contributions by all of the actors. And that is what it remains. A physical theatre show written through what the French call “écriture de plateau,” along with a very hefty and healthy job of direction by Ornella. (I dropped out of any involvement long ago, but I have attended all the performances.)

I am writing this blog item now simply to announce that the piece is back on stage, and set to run every Thursday night between now and the end of June – French school holidays excepted – at 9PM. And you should reserve in advance before going.

I am also writing this because I wanted to post some of the photos I took at the performance last week, as well as the teaser that I made for the show. Hope to see lots of readers of this blog present! It’s an experience not to be forgotten!

PS: Only now in finishing this post do I see that my last post was also about “Ajamola!” SHAME on me. I hope soon to be bringing more news, diversity in posts, and updating my open mic guides! For a full description of “Ajamola” read the bottom of the previous post!!!

Ajamola Opening ©Brad Spurgeon

Ajamola Opening ©Brad Spurgeon

Ajamola ©Brad Spurgeon

Ajamola ©Brad Spurgeon

Ajamola ©Brad Spurgeon

Ajamola ©Brad Spurgeon

In Memory of Jim Haynes: End of an Era, but not of a Philosophy of Life

January 12, 2021
bradspurgeon

Jim Haynes

Jim Haynes

PARIS – Not long into reading Jim Haynes’s autobiography, “Thanks For Coming!” in 1984, shortly after it was published, I said to myself, “I am certain I will meet this man.” I lived in Paris, as did he, I was interested in the expat literary and cultural world, and he was at the center of it, and my bookstore of choice was “The Village Voice,” on the rue Princesse, which it seemed impossible that he would not know. A meeting had to happen.

As it turned out, sitting in the back of that same bookstore, drinking a coffee and eating a brownie, and reading Jim Haynes’s book, who should walk in but Jim Haynes. With his big moustache, and slightly drawling accident, he was easy to recognize. I wasted no time in approaching him and telling him of the coincidence that there I was reading his book at that very moment and in he walks! So began a 37-year-long friendship that came to an end two days ago when Jim died at the age of 87. In fact, as anyone who knew Jim knows, it was not just Jim who left us, but a whole chunk of cultural life in Paris (and dare I add a cultural life of the 1960s and 70s in Britain too), and a living, walking, smiling philosophy of life.

Thinking about his life in the last few days since he left us on 6 January, it struck me that Jim was born in the same year that Hitler took power in Germany, and that he should die in a hospital in Paris at the same moment that the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. was being raided by violent haters, was very significant: Nothing could be further from Jim Haynes’s philosophy of life than the hatred that both Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump knew so well how to manipulate in their followers. Jim was all about love and togetherness and sharing; and if that sounds like some kind of 1960s hippie peace sort of dreamy approach to life, well, not only was it just that, but Jim successfully – and contagiously – lived by it right to the end.

I will not spend time on this blog post reiterating the events of his life. That has been well handled all over the place, including in this obituary about Jim Haynes published in The Guardian, or on Jim Haynes’s own web site. The only thing I feel I can bring that would serve any purpose beyond what everyone else – and he himself in that autobiography as well – would say, is my own experience of Jim. And I look forward to reading many more such accounts by the other legions of people from every walk of life who knew him.

Even so, in a nutshell: Born in the U.S., in Louisiana, after coming to Europe in the military, he decided to live in Scotland in the 1950s, where he created the first paperback bookstore, then helped found the now-famous Traverse theatre, before then moving to London where he founded the Arts Lab theatre space, and the International Times newspaper. He then came to Paris on a teaching assignment at the University of Paris, and stayed the rest of his life here, writing, holding Sunday dinner salons for more than 40 years, creating his publishing company, as well as many other manner of homegrown artistic thing.

Jim Haynes Autobiography

Jim Haynes Autobiography

Jim also, by the way, wanted to meet and know everyone in the world, and it was for that reason that I had no qualms about introducing myself to him in that bookshop. After that first meeting, we had many different kinds of meetings or communications over the years, never as close friends, but always as welcome friends. In the early years he would periodically call me up while I was working in the library of the International Herald Tribune – a newspaper that he read daily – in order to find some clip or other fact that he needed for whatever purpose. We would talk for a while, I’d find what he was looking for, and life went on.

I met him on occasion at the various book launches and small press nights at The Village Voice, at Shakespeare and Company or other meeting points during the period of the 1980s when it felt as if the literary expat world of Paris of the 1920s and 1930s or even the 1950s had returned. Several young expats from the English-speaking world decided to create their own literary magazines, and Jim, who had his own Handshake Editions at the time helped to encourage many of those young people with their literary magazines and actions. “Frank,” by David Applefield, was one of those, John Strand, who went on to have an excellent career as a playwright had another called “Paris Exiles,” and a woman named Carole Pratle had one called Sphinx. And, yes, Ted Joans, the famous beat poet was hanging around too. Jim had even helped advise AND occasionally work for Odile Hellier, the owner of that very same Village Voice bookstore where we met. (Applefield, by the way, who spent most of his life in Paris until he returned to the U.S. a couple of years ago, ran for Congress last summer, lost, and died suddenly the next day.)

One of the astounding things about Jim was just how many people he did indeed know. And the range of the kind of person they were. From the famous to the unknown, it didn’t matter who you were or what you did. He just liked people. But more important, even his act of knowing people was not something only for him: He loved to introduce people to each other, to make connections, to start relationships. One of his ventures was a global address book, comprising many of the people he met. And his famous Sunday dinners in Paris were always an occasion for Jim to introduce people to each other, and I mean in a really, outgoing, almost formal way: “Brad this is so and so; so and so, this is Brad.” That sense that we were all there to meet and share was one of the first signals you would receive upon entering the dinner.

On one of our early meetings at his home in the 1980s, I went because I learned he had some kind of recording studio at home and I wanted to record a couple of songs and a piece of prose writing I had done. I secretly hoped he would love it and use it in his then popular “Cassette Gazette,” a cassette tape collection of all kinds of writing and music and everything else you could put on tape. He showed no interest in the written piece, but he did sincerely and with some surprise in his voice, compliment my recording of the Raggle Taggle Gypsies song. At the time I was no longer playing music in public and had no ambitions to do so. So I was a bit pissed off he liked the song but not the writing!

That recording, by the way, was done by his longtime friend, Jack Henry Moore, who I knew nothing of at the time, but who I would eventually learn was also very much at the center of the underground of the 1960s. Jim wrote a Jack Henry Moore obituary for The Guardian when he died in 2014.

That, I believe in fact, was my first visit to Jim’s atelier at 83, rue de la Tombe Issoire, where one of his illustrious neighbours and friends was Samuel Beckett, by the way. Yes, Jim was friends with countless literary people, including Henry Miller, another one-time Paris expat, and he had a long running friendship with the book publisher, John Calder, with whom he founded the first Edinburgh international book festival. And to my delight and surprise, he had also corresponded with Colin Wilson, one of the original Angry Young Men of British literature, whom I would later meet, interview and befriend. I was delighted to be able eventually to give to Jim a copy of the interview book that I did with Colin Wilson. How strange the world is! (I recall now that I had also run into Jim at the Frankfurt Book Fair the one time I went there, which he attended regularly, and he introduced me to Calder.)

From a coffee and brownie meeting while reading his book, and him calling me up as a librarian at the IHT, soon he would be complimenting me on “writing half of the IHT newspaper,” or however he put it, while referring to all my regular Formula One writings and multiple-page special reports in that paper. He had treated me with the same respect as a support staff member of the IHT as when I became a regular journalist for the paper. Over the years we would meet in various circumstances, maybe at an organized play attendance followed by a dinner with a small group of people whom he had encouraged to see his friends’ play – or at a Sunday dinner at his atelier.

In another interesting Jim Haynes phenomenon, through the decades the number and kinds of people who I knew and who I learned also knew Jim Haynes grew and grew. They would, again, be from different countries around the world, and my relationship to them would vary completely, never being entirely to do with journalism or the arts, so vastly large was his relationship “footprint” around the world.

Jim Haynes and Varda Ducovny, with host Grace Teshima behind. Photo © Seamas McSwiney

Jim Haynes and Varda Ducovny, with host Grace Teshima behind.
Photo © Seamas McSwiney

One of our more recent meetings happened four or five years ago at a book launch of a friend of his, Varda Ducovny, in a home art space in Paris, in Montmartre. I had met Varda at one of the above mentioned dinners. At the end of the evening, he left a few minutes before I did, and as I descended the stairs of the building, I found Jim, sitting oddly on the bottom stair, with a couple of his friends either side. He had fallen and hurt himself; in fact, he had fallen before the start of the evening, and despite being in pain throughout, he stayed for the full launch and cocktail ceremony. By then in his early 80s, such a fall felt ominous. And as it turned out, it really was the beginning of a series of incidents that would remove from him his strong good health and easy mobility.

One of our last meetings I now see in a short recorded interview that I did with him for some research that Ornella was doing, was in January 2018. Three years ago. While he was 100 percent there mentally – and morally, ie, in his usual good spirits – I seriously worried about how many months he might last. That he lasted three more years is testament to his incredible inner strength, which I put down to that Jim Haynes optimistic, happy, loving and thankful philosophy of life.

Ornella found a key to that philosophy in the book he had given her that day three years ago, a copy of his book, “Everything Is!” She posted these words from the book on her Facebook page, and I agree with their profundity, so I finish this post with them too: “Some people say that when they are happy they sing and dance. But I say: when I sing and dance, I am happy!”

A Metaphor for Our Times at the Valdemone Festival in Pollina? The Clown Dog that Cannot Feed Himself

August 23, 2020
bradspurgeon

Paolo Locci Hobo

Paolo Locci Hobo

FINALE DI POLLINA, Sicily – The Hobo clown character goes back generations in the circus arts, with the most famous one being that of Emmett Kelly, whose hobo “Weary Willie” was a reflection of the tramps of the 1930s depression. We are now on the edge of an economic period that is being classified as potentially worse than that depression, but for circus performers and most other live entertainment artists, the period of Coronavirus has been even beyond the imaginings of the depression period. So it was that the show we saw last night in this extraordinary resort town on the north coast of Sicily was, as Ornella pointed out to the artist himself after the show, an extraordinary metaphor for our time.

The clown act was that of an Italian from Turin named Paolo Locci, which he calls “Hobo.” And while that name and Locci’s makeup and costume fall right in the Emmett Kelly tradition, this was an act with a twist: The clown was both the hobo and his dog; most importantly, throughout most of the act, the dog is trying to feed itself, but the food falls just short of his grasp. There’s the metaphor of the clown that today cannot feed himself – like most actors, circus performer, musicians and other live entertainers!

Asked after the show where he got the idea, Locci said he got it from his own dog. In fact, it was a beautifully executed and imaginative pole act from beginning to end in which Locci interweaves classic pole performance with the characters of the hobo and dog. Locci has trained at circus school in both Italy and France, and he performs around Europe.
Paolo Locci Hobo on the pole

I managed to get a little bit of it on video, but I as too far from the stage to get a good quality video. This can just give a small idea of what it as about. Making the video was also a bit difficult as we were seated on the ground level in front of the stage, not in the arena seats behind, so there were plenty of spectators’ heads in front of us.

But that is part of the theme too: The show took place during an annual festival for street theater, contemporary circus and music called Valdemone Festival that was founded in 2010, but which, this year due to Coronavirus was not supposed to take place at all. The organizers fought to keep it going and managed to set things going in record time.

Our seats were spread out according to social distancing laws, and there were not so many spectators as to make it dangerous proximity anywhere in the theater. Locci’s act was preceded by a music concert by a three-man band called Trio CasaMia – a small acoustic bass or viola, guitar and saxophone – that mostly entertained by telling long stories about the music they would then play, most of which had come from popular films and television series of the past.

Pollina and its built-in theater

Pollina and its built-in theater


Our only regret was that we did not get to see a show in the other theater of the festival, which is located up in the town above where the hobo show took place in a theater the likes of which I have never seen before as it is a kind of amphitheater built right into the city-scape of the town (if such a phrase is possible!). Pollina is an ancient town built on a hill (a little like Mont Saint Michel in France) that is a major tourist attraction in Sicily; but it was too dark for us to see it from the beach area where we saw the show.

It felt a little like we had driven 150 kilometers to get fed, but it was just outside our grasp…

Time Past and Time Present are Both Perhaps Present in Castellammarre del Golfo – from an Old Time Parade to Dolce & Gabbana

August 12, 2020
bradspurgeon

CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – “That’s not Italy!” Such was the idea behind a message a Facebook friend wrote when six days ago I posted a brief dream moment that I captured in a video when Ornella and I found ourselves in the back streets of this Sicilian town, hearing loud Italian music coming from a window while church bells rang simultaneously. Not Italy, perhaps. But not Sicily? A few days later, we encountered a traditional parade through the marina area of the town, and Ornella told me that it was the kind of thing she had so many fond memories of in her childhood here. So, was that not Sicily?

I know what my Facebook friend meant: It’s a little like those American novels set in Paris in which the French are all about wearing beret hats and eating baguettes and they are “oh so quaint, oh so silly.” But sometimes the clichés and real life come together.
Castellammare del Golfo, Yesterday & Today

I took a lot of video footage of the parade in Castellammare del Golfo with my telephone camera and then we decided to make an edited video of the footage along with the reading of a poem of a local poet, now dead, named Castrenze Navarra. That was Ornella’s idea – to read the poem – after we had found a wine bar in the town that was not only named after the poet’s first published collection, Timpesti e Carmarii, but it was located in the groundfloor building area where the poet also had his photographic studio, as he was also a photographer.

There was an exhibit of his handwritten manuscripts and letters on the walls, and his old camera is still there, and the owner of the bar decided during the lockdown this year to publish a new edition of his collected poems called, Timpesti e Carmarii, which first appeared in print in 1938, when the poet was 46 years old.

The parade that I show in the video, by the way, was part of a huge celebration of an evening in the presence of the famous Italian fashion designers, Dolce & Gabbana, who were in the town to show the film about them called, “Devotion.” (Dolce was born outside nearby Palermo.) The film was made by Giuseppe Tornatore, who is a famous Italian director, who filmed, notably, “Nuoco Cinema Paradiso,” and as he also has had a long association with Ennio Morricone – who died recently – Morricone composed the music for the film.

Tornatore’s was a fabulous film, by the way, although it was also clearly designed as an advertisement for the fashion house. For me, best of all, it was a great excuse to bring the past back to the presence in the form of the parade. There was a fabulous moment during the parade – which I put in the video – in which the performers sing a popular song from here, called, “Si maritau Rosa.” This will strike home very strongly with the actors of TAC Teatro (of whom I am one) as it is a song that we are singing in the new show, and which none of us knew anything about. It was, of course, Ornella’s idea.

But in any case, there it was, the past in the present. The folklore moment of ritual, bright colours, dance and music that may not be Sicily in many peoples’ minds, but it certainly was Sicily last weekend! I’ve edited part of the video in old looking black and white to show that the images we see of the town and the parade look like something we imagine having seen in the past, no more relevant to today…but then the color comes and it looks very much like today…as the past would have no doubt to our eyes had we been there…!

Saving Claretta’s Eggs through Song and Art on the Beach in Sicily

July 30, 2020
bradspurgeon

TrinArt Turtle Event Poster

TrinArt Turtle Event Poster

ALCAMO MARINA, Sicily – The last thing I imagined finding myself doing yesterday evening as the sun set on the Mediterranean was to be standing on the vast sandy beach of the Alcamo Marina playing songs to save the lives of unborn Loggerhead sea turtles. But that is precisely what happened, thanks to an invitation from TrinArt, an association based in Castellammare del Golfo, that in turn had been invited by the association – called Thalia – that was interested in protecting the turtles after a recent attack by vandals of the beach site where the turtle eggs are buried.

I will likely be speaking more in the coming days about TrinArt and its artist founder, Simona Nasta, but for the moment back to the event on the beach to save Claretta’s eggs! Claretta is the name of the turtle – no doubt for its scientific name of Caretta caretta – that laid the eggs on the beach. The site was cordoned off with the help of various associations, including the World Wildlife Fund, but when some idiot man went and allowed his dog to go in and tear apart the nest, destroying some of the eggs, it was time to draw attention to the fact that the eggs needed protection.

Singing Mad World on the Beach in Sicily

So TrinArt set up an event to invite artists to the nest yesterday to perform and attract attention to the turtles. These sea turtles are in a precarious situation in the area – in fact, it is an endangered species – so it has been celebrated whenever they have been laying eggs anywhere. The beach that Claretta chose, however, is a very popular one for vacationers, and is, in fact, lined with vacation homes. But only a very small fraction of the turtles that will be hatched from the eggs is ever expected to make it to adulthood, once it leaves the nest and goes into the sea. So any disruption to the already perilous process is highly to be discouraged.

Turtle Egg nest in Alcamo Marina, Sicily

Nasta had invited Ornella and me, and so it became a TAC Teatro experience, and I brought along my guitar to play music with the other artists. Strangely, the first musician who played stole two of the songs I had planned to play, which I considered on theme: “Stand By Me,” and “What’s Up!” with its strong and appropriate line: “What’s goin’ on?!?!?”

More performing at turtle event in Sicily

So I decided when it was my turn, at the prodding of Ornella, to do “Mad World,” and “You Ain’t Going’ Nowhere,” finishing off with my own song, “Borderline.”
Nasta led a blindfolded ritual painting with the public, and I have decided to show the result of that work here – done by her, and several members of the public, who led her blindfolded to the canvas in front of the turtle egg nest.

wwf turtles

For TAC Teatro, it was a nice moment tying together with the company’s past, as Ornella has led theater research projects along with the World Wildlife Fund in the past, and this reminded her of those great moments. For me personally, as we drove back to Castellammare del Golfo, I suddenly remembered the last time that I had taken part in an artistic event to save a species. Unfortunately it dates back to what is now more than 40 years! I was living in Nairobi, Kenya, and I was invited to perform an act with my ventriloquist’s dummy, Peter McCabe at a “Save the Rhino” event. I guess that worked out pretty well for the Rhino, even though they still have big problems. I only hope this event yesterday will save the sea turtle – or at least Claretta’s eggs….

Save the Rhino interview with Peter and me from 1970s

Save the Rhino interview with Peter and me from 1970s



Another performer at the turtle event

Borderline on the Beach in Sicily

In Castellammare del Golfo, the Calm After the Storm … with a Bit of Mafia on the Side

July 25, 2020
bradspurgeon

Castellammare del Golfo

Castellammare del Golfo

CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – How many times during lockdown in Paris from March to May this year did Ornella and I say to each other that if we managed somehow to get to our favorite summer retreat again this year we would feel blessed? No doubt too often to count. In any case, we have now been here for three weeks, and we still feel blessed every day. After the confinement of lockdown we find ourselves in an average of 30 degree temperatures, cloudless skies and warm, smooth Mediterranean waters. Still, it might be the calm after the storm, but I am reading the Italian press daily to keep an eye on the possibility of rough waters to come, and a storm after the calm. Needless to say, it is a holiday like none before….
But this small former fishing village of Castellammare del Golfo – the castle on the sea – on the north coast of Sicily, less than an hour’s drive from Palermo, is about as good – and for the moment safe – as holiday locations can come. Sicily was not as badly hit as the rest of Italy with the virus, suffering still to date fewer than 300 deaths, and around 3000 infected (that’s a pretty high percentage of deaths per infections, though, isn’t it?) Since we came here, though, the town of 15,000 people is filling up rapidly with tourists from the rest of Europe, and we hold our breaths and wear our masks in an effort to believe that things will not this summer get out of hand here as they have in some other vacation spots in Europe, such as southern Spain.

We chose to give ourselves a quick escape method should things go wrong, by having driven here from Paris in my old Ford Focus, taking the ferry boat from Genova to Palermo, with the car aboard. It was a peaceful, fun, in fact magnificent journey, topped off on the boat by a fabulous seafood pasta in a restaurant that only we and an English couple, and perhaps another one or two people, decided to use. So there was little worry about the virus spreading there! The point was that if the pandemic grew back into the danger zone, as it has in Spain, we could just jump in the car and drive back to Paris or some other country. (Plus the flights were getting really expensive.)
A Free Music Performance in Castellammare del Golfo

We feel so blessed to have had this summer in Sicily, in fact, that this year we decided that we would live it a little differently than in past years: This year is devoted to staying as much at home and at the beach as possible, while avoiding the center of the town as much as possible on the weekends. The reason for that is that if you are currently aware that there is a virus out there, you would be entirely unaware were you to venture out into the nightlife of Castellammare del Golfo this summer: It is difficult to find any bars or restaurants not bursting with clients wearing no masks as if there were no cases of the virus at all on this island. (And, yes, that is actually almost true: the known daily cases are rising in single digits at the moment…but….)

In years past we had decided that every year we would discover a new part of this historical jewell of ancient Mediterranean civilisation. But this year, as I said, we are staying put and feeling blessed. Personally, I decided that I would use my experiences of learning about the island in the past years as a base for a new project: Reading the daily Giornale di Sicilia not only for the coronavirus statistics, but also in order to practice my Italian, and make a real, strong effort to finally learn the language as well as another way of exploring the local culture and getting to know the place of Ornella’s birth and childhood upbringing much better.

And what an education it is turning out to be. In addition to reading stories all about the places I have visited in the last few years with Ornella each summer – Marsala, Palermo, Trapani, among other cities, and such ancient archaelogical sites as Segesta or the Valley of the Temples outside Agrigento (which is also the home of Pirandello, Camilleri and Sciascia), as well as Scopello and Erice, the medieval town on the hill – I have found the second most comprehensible stories for my limited Italian to be those about all the local crime. Yes, like any such local newspapers, the Giornale di Sicilia – preferably my local Trapani edition – brings me daily news of mafia arrests and crimes.

Joseph Bonanno

Joseph Bonanno


This is particularly interesting to follow as it turns out that this beautiful small town of Castellammare was itself the birthplace of many of the figures of the legendary New York City mafia in the 1920s and 1930s, including Joseph “Joe Bananas” Bonanno, Salvatore Maranzano, Vito Bonventre, and was the base in Sicily of Don Vito Ferro who decided to try to take over control of the New York mafia from Giuseppe “Joe The Boss” Masseria – who had the famous future boss “Lucky Luciano” on his side – and they all got into a battle that became known as the Castellammarese War – named after this town, yes – that lasted from February 1930 to Apr. 15, 1931. The faction from this town won that war, by the way, but then the whole crime syndicate would change form, leading to the so-called sharing arrangement set up by Luciano and called “The Commission.”
Ornella Bonventre at the Greek Theater in Segesta, Sicily

Ornella Bonventre at the Greek Theater in Segesta, Sicily

Falcone and Borsellino

Falcone and Borsellino


I see this beautiful little seaside town more like a future Monaco, however, and I hope it takes as long as possible before any such transformation happens. But the nightlife grows every year, the real estate value grows, and the boats keep getting bigger. For Ornella and I, as I say, we are enjoying the calm, the sun and the sea. And it turns out that there are numerous free concerts and other events – notably, and partly on the theme of this blog item, we saw a theatrical production the other day about a fictional interview with famous Palermo anti-mafia judge Paolo Borsellino, who was assassinated by the mafia in 1992 (weeks after his fellow Palermo anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone was also assassinated)….

So, after the storm, a break. Let’s hope it continues. I’ll check back in as soon as possible with more news about virus life from here or elsewhere….

Borsellino Theatre Piece in Castellammare del Golfo

Borsellino Theatre Piece in Castellammare del Golfo

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