Archive for the ‘Music’ Category


We saw many pelicans


Merida has many interesting street signs


If you don’t fancy the crowds along the Maya Riviera, on the Caribbean coast south of Cancun, Mexico, a great alternative is to use Merida as a base. This pretty Colonial city on the northwest of the Yucatan Peninsula is within easy distance of many famous Mayan sites (Chichen Itza and the Puuc Route, with Uxmal), the northern biosphere, and good sand beaches.

On this daytrip, we went to Progresso for the beach, the sea, and the sun; to Uaymintun


Progresso beach

for the lagoon and flamingo viewing; to Xtambo for a Mayan ruin and more flamingoes. We returned to Merida on side roads, passing through typical small Yucatecan villages.

We decided on this as an alternative to flamingo viewing at the Celestun Park to the west. On a previous visit to Celestun we felt concerned at how the tourist boats on the estuary are disturbing the birds, especially the flamingoes. Another plus—this way is free.

We drove north out of Merida on Paseo Montejo, noting the richer colonial side of the city, with wide streets, mansions and shopping complexes, and even a Sams Club!


Part of the lagoon—if you look closely there are a few flamingoes there

Progresso, Merida’s port, is about a 30-minute drive, past a huge abandonned henequin factory (which produced ropes, mats etc), evidence of the previous wealth from this crop; and Dzibilchaltun, another ruined Mayan city with an excellent museum of Mayan history. It’s a worthwhile stop if you’re interested in the Maya. The site also has the famous House of the Seven Dolls, and an interesting cenote (steep-sided natural well.)

Progresso has progressed, compared to our visit four years before. Parking is plentiful along the esplanade, rebuilt after the hurricane a few years ago. All the usual tourist facilities line the esplanade, in a scaled-down version compared to the Caribbean coast, and we found it much more pleasant. A wide sand beach, with beach chairs, palapa huts, and beach restaurants, looks out over the calm blue water, tiny waves lapping.

After a swim, and lunch at one of the beach restaurants, we headed out east along the


Beautiful birds

coastal road, palm trees on one side, stubby salt-flats bush on the other. There’s a string of development in the narrow strip between the sea and the biosphere, mostly brightly-painted houses, some holiday flats and hotels.

We followed the coastal road to Uaymintun, a small village with a tall wooden lookout tower over the lagoon; a great way to see part of the lagoon and biosphere preserve and do bird-watching, especially with binoculars. (The lookout tower is free, but you can rent binoculars there). The biosphere extends for hundreds of kilometers: lagoons, shallow lakes and waterways with small islands and mud flats. Scores of flamingoes were walking in the shallow water, many still bright pink even though this wasn’t nesting season. We saw many other birds too, including pelicans.

A few miles further on, the sign for Xtambo ruins is on the right. The drive is along a miles-long causeway over the lagoon with views of an amazing number of birds, especially flamingoes. The road is not busy, so stopping is easy. What a marvelous place for viewing and photographing birds in their natural environment: pelicans, oyster catchers, sandpipers, cormorants, white herons, blue herons, turkey buzzards.



Xtambo ruins are just off to the right after the lagoon, along a narrow dirt road between tall grasses and stubby trees, swampy areas just to the side. The name means “place of the crocodile”, and we could easily imagine there might be a crocodile in there somewhere!

These Maya ruins are bigger than we expected, and much still remains to be excavated. It was a salt distribution center, reaching its peak around 600AD. The bases of two large structures are in a clearing before the main ruins: the low Pyramid of the Cross, and other buildings around a courtyard. All are grey stone, with little visible ornamentation now other than some stone masks. Xtambo was important as the port for Izamal, a bigger town inland, which was far away for people in those days. We’d known that the Maya traded, but did they travel by sea?

There were no other visitors, so we rambled happily around at will. The structures are not


A mix of Mayan and Catholic beliefs

remarkable, compared to Chichen Itza, for example, but it’s an interesting little site. Of note is the small Catholic Chapel of the Virgin at the base of the temple, built 50-plus years ago after the Virgin of X’Cambo appeared here, showing us that old and new beliefs can co-exist. The view out is to scrubby palm trees and swamp, rather than jungle, but it’s completely isolated, giving us a real feel for what it must have been like thirteen centuries ago.

On smaller roads south back to Merida, prolific vines are creeping over almost everything, and the jungle encroaches on both sides of the road. It’s not hard to see how they could ‘eat up’ the area again. We passed through a number of villages, all arranged around a central square. This can be hazardous driving. Topes (speed bumps) slowed us down, but people walk along the road, or ride bikes, or pull carts loaded with firewood. Children play in the unpaved streets lined with banana trees, and animals wander at will. Huts with thatched roofs, or low houses with tin roofs and faded, chipped paint, are in dusty yards, with washing draped on fences, pigs tethered to small papaya trees, mangy dogs prowling under acacia trees, and a group of kids playing in the dirt, their noses running.


Scrubby jungle around Xtambo

This is local life, as it really is, not a sanitized version for tourist viewing. We felt privileged to see this natural version of life in rural Yucatan.


Merida’s cathedral—one of the oldest in the Americas


Given the sometimes-poor state of the roads, this is more than enough in one day. Start early, especially if you want lots of swimming time. There are gas stations in Progresso, but not on the smaller roads.

Picking up a rental car at Merida airport is very easy. The airport has a Tourist Information desk and an ATM for cash. The best Tourist Information Office is on Calle 60 in town, on the edge of Parque de la Maternidad, two blocks north of the main square (see below). General information at www.travelyucatan.com/merida_mexico.php


Balloon sellers are popular on the main square


Traditional Yucatecan dancing

DSCF0045.JPGPlaza de la Independencia, the center of downtown Merida, is a green oasis. On Sundays, the streets around it are closed, so everyone can enjoy the bustling Sunday market, and free music concerts and traditional Yucatecan dancing. Don’t miss the huge cathedral, and the Governor’s Palace, with a series of enormous, strikingly colorful, abstract murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco of Merida, depicting the history of the Yucatan.



Part of the colorful Merida market


Many tasty tropical fruits

The Anthropological and Historical Museum on Paseo Montejo has an excellent, although small, collection of ancient Mayan artifacts.

Around the main plaza, and Park Hidalgo—another square one block north—are many restaurants, food stalls, bars, and coffee shops (most with internet connections).

Merida has many hotels in all price ranges. Two of our favorites (with swimming pools, and parking facilities offered) are Hotel Dolores Alba, with rooms arranged around the courtyard of a restored colonial house


Imagine a hotel in a lovely old Colonial building

(www.doloresalba.com); and Gran Hotel, a grand 100-year-old Italianate building on Park Hidalgo. Tel: +52 999-924-7730, fax +52 999-924-7622, www.granhoteldemerida.com.mx

Friends stayed at Hotel Colonial and were very satisfied, www.hotelcolonial.com.mx (in Spanish)


Variety of chile peppers



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The reception area after the tour groups leave

The reception area after the tour groups leave

Sun Studios: The Birthplace of Rock ‘N Roll

No visit to Memphis, TN, is complete without a visit to the legendary Sun Studio. It was here that Elvis Presley recorded “That’s All Right Mamma” in July 1954, opening up a new genre of music called Rock ‘n Roll. It was an instant hit and Sun Studio became one of the most famous recording studios in the world. This year (2014) is the 60th anniversary of that momentous recording, and the city of Memphis is celebrating.

Elvis developed an innovative and different sound, combining Blues, Gospel and Country music. That quality made him a worldwide celebrity within two years and he went on to become one of the most famous and beloved entertainers in history. This studio didn’t only launch the career of Elvis, but also of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, B.B. King, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich and many others. Generations of musicians have been affected by all those who recorded here and, in fact, musicians still continue to record here at night.

Some of the vinyl records and old record covers on display

Some of the vinyl records and old record covers on display

Upstairs, our guide explains something about the story of Sam Phillips

Upstairs, our guide explains something about the story of Sam Phillips

The studio building is not large, which makes its impact on the music world even more significant. We entered the studio building into a small café/bar/shop, with a great selection of music CDs and various shirts and T-shirts. It’s a small space and can get very crowded, especially if there are large tour groups waiting for the next tour. Buy a ticket here for the guided tour, which lasts about half an hour.

Taking the guided tour is fun, but tends to be rather crowded, especially on the top floor, where the large tour group blocks out seeing much of anything in the glass cases lining the walls. That’s a shame, as the information that our guide tells us is fascinating. She tells about early Blues musicians, and how Sam Phillips got into the recording business, and something about early radio DJs and how they picked up on this new music. We also learned about the studio secretary, Marion Keisker, who really believed in young Elvis Presley even when Sam Phillips at first thought he wasn’t that great. We wished that the tour group size could be a lot smaller.

The group then goes downstairs to the recording studio, where you can hold the actual microphone used by Elvis and many of

Vera G tests out the mic used by Elvis and those other famous musicians

Vera G tests out the mic used by Elvis and those other famous musicians

the other great musicians, and where you can imagine those famous singers and players jamming and making music history.

A fun, but crowded tour. Our thanks to our guide that day, Nina, who did a lovely job and who is very enthusiastic about her subject.

It’s easy to get to Sun Studio: catch the free shuttle bus that runs between the Rock ‘n Soul Museum on 3rd Street (next to the Fedex Forum arena), Sun Studio and Heartbreak Hotel. The shuttle runs every hour from 10:30am.

This famous photo of The Million Dollar Quartet is displayed in Many places (Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis)

This famous photo of The Million Dollar Quartet is displayed in many places (Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis)



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STL250: Cakeway to the West

What a clever name for this celebration—a play on Gateway to the West, the nickname for St Louis, as it was the gateway city to the westward expansion of the USA.

This year, 2014, St Louis is 250 years old and the city and surrounds are commemorating this in many ways. STL250 is a city group that’s celebrating the founding of the city—officially on February 14, 1784—and the events, people, places, and cultures that have shaped the city.

Chuck Berry---one of the movers and shakers of St Louis history

Chuck Berry—one of the movers and shakers of St Louis history

(See a good historical summary of the city here

https://stlouis-mo.gov/visit-play/stlouis-history.cfm )

One of the year-long activities is the Cakeway to the West. 250 cakes are dotted around the city—cakes to mark a birthday and 250 for the number of years.

These 250 cakes are part public art exhibit, part scavenger hunt, and part history lesson. The STL250 committee chose 200 of the locations and the other 50 were chosen by public vote.

Each two-tier ornamental birthday cake stands 4-feet tall, and is decorated by local artists, reflecting the notable location. Each is unique.

I’m sure that we will not have the opportunity to find all 250 cakes, as we only visit St Louis about 6 times a year, but we will do our best!!

Here are the first two cakes:

Blueberry Hill cake

Blueberry Hill cake

Blueberry Hill, a famous restaurant on Delmar

Blueberry Hill, a famous restaurant on Delmar

1) at Blueberry Hill, 6505 Delmar, University City. Blueberry Hill is a landmark restaurant and music club that started the revitalization of The Loop area in University City. The artist is Indy Bowers.

Most people probably know the famous song called Blueberry Hill, first written in 1940 but made famous by the 1950s rock n’ roll version by Fats Domino.

Listen to a YouTube audio file here:




Cake to celebrate the St Louis Walk of Fame

Cake to celebrate the St Louis Walk of Fame

Chuck Berry statue

Chuck Berry statue

2) one outside by the Chuck Berry statue at 6605 Delmar to celebrate the St Louis Walk of Fame (with sidewalk stars). This is also the 25th anniversary of the Walk of Fame—one of the first inductees was Chuck Berry, a pioneer of rock ‘n roll music. He performed his 205th show at Blueberry Hill on June 18th, 2014, at age 88 (born in St Louis October 18, 1926). Wish we had been there!

The artist is Gina Harmon. Many names are inscribed on this cake—note especially Maya Angelou, who died recently, a world-famous author, poet, singer and civil-rights activist who was born in St  Louis in 1928.

Maya Angelou star: each star also has a plaque for a brief summary of the person

Maya Angelou star: each star also has a plaque for a brief summary of the person





Hopefully I’ll have more cakes to share in the coming months.




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Urbana-Champaign, Illinois: Blues, Brews and BBQ Festival



redbbqIt’s summer in the northern hemisphere, so it’s festival time. Festivals pop up in cities and small towns all over celebrating the season, but especially celebrating music and food.

Our university town in central Illinois has joined in the fun and last weekend (June 27-28, 2014) we had the 3rd annual Blues, Brews and BBQ Festival, with a cute alligator as the logo and mascot. Blues is a very popular genre of American music, and almost everyone enjoys beer and BBQ (at least in the summer).

The festival’s catchy name reflects the great atmosphere, with a laid-back but lively buzz, at the

One of the Vendor Alleys

One of the Vendor Alleys

venue—a large parking lot in downtown Champaign, closed off and decked out. People wander at will, in groups or alone, with kids in tow or in strollers, and many folks bring their own portable garden chairs so they can sit and eat /drink while listening to the music.

Along two sides are the Vendors Alleys, where you can choose any kind of BBG your heart may desire, plus Greek or Mexican food, and things like corn dogs, funnel cakes, and curly fries. My husband couldn’t resist trying something called a bacon-wrapped pig wing! (a small pig shank wrapped in bacon and doused with a BBQ sauce).


Hmmm…what can that be?

Hmmm…what can that be?

I'm in front of the Main Stage, holding a pig wing!

I’m in front of the Main Stage, holding a pig wing!

A Vendor Alley offers all kinds of BBQ delicacies

A Vendor Alley offers all kinds of BBQ delicacies

An enormous inflatable icecream cone-stand offers cool icecream in the hot weather, and a stand shaped like a huge yellow lemon entices with cold lemonade. Choose from a variety of beers from beer tents dotted around, if you are so inclined, or even local wines. Many people bought a large luminous green beer mug, which they could then refill.

At the Merchants tent you can buy festival T-shirts, mugs, and CDs of the various performers. I was lucky enough to be there when Eddie Shaw (Blues performer) was selling and signing his CD, so I got an autographed copy.

Two stages dominated the venue and various artists

An upcoming star---Kenna Mae  Reiss

An upcoming star—Kenna Mae Reiss

performed on these. But not at the same time—each stage took the stage for an hour or two, then it switched to the other one. At the end of the venue was a smaller stage, especially for upcoming new artists. It was next to Louie’s Playland, a special section for kids’ activities, with a jumpy castle, face painting etc.

bikesIn another corner was the Dinosores Motorcycle Show, which seemed very popular. I don’t know much about motorcycles, but even I could tell that these were special machines, much loved by their owners.


Eddie Shaw & The Wolf Gang

Eddie Shaw & The Wolf Gang

Eddie Shaw plays and sings---very talented

Eddie Shaw plays and sings—very talented

Maurice John Vaughn and his group

Maurice John Vaughn and his group

The musical line-up was impressive, but unfortunately we were only there for part of one afternoon and couldn’t take in the billed main acts: Buckwheat Zydeco, and Nikki Hill. But, no matter as they were all great and we really enjoyed the two we could listen to: Eddie Shaw and the Wolf Gang (fantastic Chicago Blues), and Maurice John Vaughn (also out of Chicago).

Maurice John Vaughn and his group

Maurice John Vaughn and his group





Next year, if you are in Illinois (or even somewhere in the US Midwest) in June 2015, it’s well worth making a detour to visit Champaign-Urbana and enjoy this lovely event. The festival is free (you pay for food and drinks obviously), but a donation would be welcome.


If this food truck is to be believed, you’ll be treated like royalty!


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One of Amsterdam's many canals and bridges

One of Amsterdam’s many canals and bridges

Rijks Museum from end of Museumplein. Note signs about Concertgebouw's 125 years

Rijks Museum from end of Museumplein. Note signs about Concertgebouw’s 125 years

A typical canal scene with gabled buildings and houseboats

A typical canal scene with gabled buildings and houseboats

Amsterdam’s Canals Turn 400!

Amsterdam is a great city to visit any time, but this year, 2013, brings greater inducements to put the city on your itinerary.

*2013 is the four-hundredth anniversary of the famous Amsterdam canals—in 1613, three main parallel canals were constructed outside the walls of the inner medieval city. Powerful and wealthy merchants built their beautiful homes along these canals, and we can still admire those buildings today as we glide along the water in a canal boat or as we stroll the narrow canal-side streets.

*The world-famous Concertgebouw Symphony Orchestra celebrates its 125th anniversary with many special performances.

*The Rijksmuseum re-opened in mid-April after an almost decade-long renovation. It’s the country’s biggest museum and houses masterpieces by Dutch artists Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals, such as “The Night Watch” and “The Kitchen Maid”. *The Van Gogh Museum re-opened in May. In fact, this year is the first time in many years that all the museums on Museumplein (Museum Square) are open at the same time.

* The Amsterdam Zoo turns 175.

The lovely Concertgebouw at one end of Museumplein

The lovely Concertgebouw at one end of Museumplein

We were lucky enough to be there in June and I’ll cover some of the city’s attractions in the next few weeks.

175 years at the zoo

175 years at the zoo

If you love flowers, visit the Zoo

If you love flowers, visit the Zoo

The newly-reopened Rijks Museum

The newly-reopened Rijks Museum

Come and celebrate 125 years of great music

Come and celebrate 125 years of great music

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The exterior of the Opera is always surrounded by crowds of eager visitors

The exterior of the Opera is always surrounded by crowds of eager visitors

A Fanciful Afternoon at the Opera Garnier

The actual name is Opera National de Paris Palais Garnier, a 1,979-seat opera house, on Boulevard des Cappucines in the 9th arrondissement. It’s one of the icons of Paris, made doubly famous as Gaston Leroux used it as the setting for his 1911 novel The Phantom of the Opera (and its adaptations into films and a popular musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber).

A tour of the Opera House, a monument in its own right, is also something that we’ve somehow managed to miss in all these years, but now we’ve done it! There’s open touring throughout the day, but it’s well worth taking the guided tour (in English at 11:30am and 2:30pm, 13.50 euros/adult) as you learn so much more and realize the significance and details of what you’re looking at—and the whole building is covered in details and symbols from top to bottom. All the ornamentation was symbolic and carefully chosen, at great cost for those days.

A few mannequins give an idea of some of the lovely costumes

A few mannequins give an idea of some of the lovely costumes

If you’re lucky you’ll have Emmanuel as your guide, an expressive young man who’s a walking encyclopedia of information about the Opera that he conveys with passion. It’s one and a half hours of concentrated history and facts.

We enter through the side of the building into the lovely Subscription Foyer, an entrance place where the special subscribers could enter, and designed to make them feel special. Emmanuel points out the writing on the ceiling, done in intricate script so you wouldn’t know if he didn’t tell you, with the dates of the beginning and end of the construction (1861-1875) and the name of the main architect-designer, Charles Garnier.

Our guide. Emmanuel, explains about the mechanisms of the stage operation

Our guide. Emmanuel, explains about the mechanisms of the stage operation

The whole tour is chock-full of details like this—-what the materials are (lots of onyx); what the statues represent and why; the same for the paintings and frescoes. Many are allegorical and related to Greek gods and myths, especially Apollo and lots of lyres. Emmanuel peppers the tour with stats—cost, how many workers, how many performances a year, size of stage etc. It’s all too much to take in actually, but we do get a good sense of the size and grandeur of this opera building. It was built to impress and dazzle and I’m sure it would be hard to find anyone who isn’t totally dazzled and impressed by it. Almost everything is huge, grandiose and gorgeous, shining and colorful, with gold or goldleaf in abundance.

We sit in the sumptuous orchestra for a while and marvel at the Chagall ceiling, which is not in context with anything else there, so it’s different. But then, so was the whole theater at the time it was built. The curtain rises to show the first set for the final production of Hippolyte and Aricie (by Jean-Philippe Rameau). Magic. We hear stories about Napoleon 111’s box (which he never used) and the phantom’s box (Number 5, next to the royal one), and stories of the phantom—-based on some true events (like a chandelier falling down), and the existence of an actual lake way below. Hence, the “Phantom of the Opera”. Sitting here, in this fanciful place where magic happens in each performance, one can almost believe there might be a phantom, where the unreal becomes real briefly, where stories come alive.

Part of the Chagall ceiling in the actual theatre

Part of the Chagall ceiling in the actual theatre

Emmanuel explains how the subscription system has changed and now the French government puts in a lot of money. Subscribers and patrons were allowed to interact with the dancers, but that was stopped in the 1930s.

This opera focuses on dance now, while the Bastille Opera (which opened in 1989) does the operas, plus the really big ballets. They try to balance the old and the new, traditional and contemporary.

Emmanuel talks knowledgeably about the writers and the composers and who did what for the inauguration of the Opera. We wander up the magnificent Grand Staircase, through multiple galleries—one of which is like a miniature Versailles without the mirrors—onto the outside gallery with its view down to the Louvre; that avenue was newly created at that time just for that view and for people to be able to walk or ride up to the Opera. And everywhere we marvel, our eyes out on stalks. Some people may say it’s all over the top rather but sometimes fairy tales and fantasy do have a place in our lives, sometimes beauty just for beauty’s sake is okay.

Emmanuel points out details in this gorgeous gallery

Emmanuel points out details in this gorgeous gallery

All the people in our group, except for just one negative guy, were very excited to see and hear all this, and thought it was great.

This is a perfect activity for any afternoon, but especially a rainy one (as we had).

It’s well worth buying the small Opera booklet for 7 euros for extra information.

Or go to Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palais_Garnier



Viv on balcony of main hall

Viv on balcony of main hall

Details on just one wall

Details on just one wall

Vaulted ceiling in the Subscription Hall

Vaulted ceiling in the Subscription Hall

Amazing details on a pillar----they are all ornately decorated

Amazing details on a pillar—-they are all ornately decorated

The main hall

The main hall

Details of the sumptuous gallery

Details of the sumptuous gallery

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The Jazz Cycle plays in front of “Diamonds are Forever” by Pat McDonald

Mark Smart and Mark Ginsberg entertain folk in front of “Position #1” by Ron Gard

Music, Art and Nature Combined in a Musical Evening Stroll

Our local Park District organized a great event on a recent Friday evening, September 7, 2012: The annual Meadowbrook Jazz Walk in the Wandell Sculpture Garden. Strolling along the paths in Meadowbrook Park is always a pleasure at any time of the year—a long and a short loop meander past 30 acres of re-created Illinois prairie, over a brook, and alongside an immaculate herb garden, plus community organic garden plots. Dotted along the paths are large outdoor sculptures that fit beautifully into their outdoor setting. The Celia and Willet Wandell Sculpture Garden opened in 1998, made possible by the Wandell family and donations from area businesses and local supporters.

But, on this evening, this walk is even more special because the Park District arranges with various local musical performers to come and play for the throngs of walkers for around 2 hours, just as the sun is setting, highlighting the golden hues of the autumn wild flowers. This year there were 10 groups, all excellent although all with a slightly different style of jazz music. Most of the groups were positioned in front of one of the sculptures on the shorter loop, so we had the benefit of both art and music.

D R Dixie Band plays at the gazebo in the Masterpiece Garden

Local people came out in full support—I’ve never seen so many people in the park before—and we passed old folk, families with kids running around, young couples pushing strollers, teenagers on skateboards, people with dogs on leashes. We stopped and listened to one group, then wandered on to the next, stopping to chat to other folks and to the musicians. As we rounded a bend in the path, the sound of one music faded and another chimed in. What fun!

Johnathan Beckett and Young Kim with musician friend

Almost “A” Quintet in front of “Is It Too Late?” by Terry Karpowicz



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