The Continuing Adventures of TikiMon and Irie Girl

May 26, 2019   Renn Loren

A Note to Friends and Loved Ones from the Caribbean…

For any of our fellow tropicalians out there who may have wondered where we’d gone in a whatever happened to… sort of way, here’s the story.

After spending nearly two years living in the Southwestern region of Louisiana on the East Texas border as a writer and online entrepreneur, we moved to the Dominican Republic.

The trop-rock scene of Punta Gorda Florida and even Key West had dried up. It had become increasingly difficult to land gigs as more and more karaoke playback acts grabbed up bookings and rendered the traditional troubadour with an acoustic guitar and a clutch of songs obsolete and suddenly anachronistic.

The last straw was when Melinda and I were strolling the nearby beach walk and heard a very full-sounding group up at the club that looked out over Charlotte Harbor bay. On closer inspection, the “group” turned out to be four characters singing harmonies to a karaoke backup accompaniment. I’d been trying for a long time to get a booking at that club and suddenly realized why I couldn’t get in.

I was playing my usual gig at TT’s Tiki Bar when I overheard some clown’s comment about acoustic guitar music sounding like “Unplugged” from the ‘90s as if it was an antiquated outdated form. That did it for me. No self-respecting musician worth their weight in rum and lost weekends should ever have to suffer that level of ignorance and stupidity! A few other incidents sealed the deal. I was getting a lot of booking offers from out west and decided to pursue those instead of trudging along fighting what had become an increasingly losing battle in Florida.

We bought an RV and hit the road west to Lake Charles, Louisiana. Perched on the border of East Texas, Lake Charles offered a good centrally-based location with New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Lafayette out to the east and Beaumont, Kemah, Port Arthur, Port Neches, and Galveston, Texas to the Southwest.

For a while, I was able to do quite well with bookings all around the region and even managed to form a highly talented band: Renn Loren & the Honky Tonk Surf Riders. I also booked frequently as a duo with my pedal steel player Johnny Briggs. There were also many solo dates at trop-rock clubs in Beaumont and the Port Neches River. But little by little we began to be pushed out by some kind of clannish booking of Cajun artists, bands, and music over anything else. Friends of friends who were booking. I decided just to write and quit trying to fight for live bookings.

My girlfriend Melinda (Irie Girl) and I had been living in Kershaw’s Cajun Village, an RV park out on the rural edge of Lake Charles, Louisiana. Owner Rodney is a nephew of the legendary musical Kershaw family: Sammy and Doug.

Rodney with uncle Doug at Loggerheads, Lake Charles

When I moved into the camp, it gave him a great excuse to work on his accordion playing and singing, at which he was pretty good.

It was much like one might imagine what living in a gypsy caravan to be. The camp was bounded by lush green trees, brush, bushes, and grasses. A tributary of the Calcasieu River ran along the western edge of the camp. The huge dancehall auditorium sat 100 yards across a brilliantly green grass field at the southern end bordered by East Prien Lake Road. Chennault International Airport lay one and a half miles to the east. The sound of the bird chasing scattershot could be heard blasting out of the speakers at the crack of dawn. The Mexican Gulf was 30-35 miles to our south as the crow flew. The wetlands and channels began much closer to us.

Moonrise at sunset in the ever-changing skies above Kershaw’s

Although the lots and roads were a blindingly bright white gravel, there was plentiful greenery, flora, and patches, strips, and carpets of grass around it all. The often pounding driving rains would disappear quickly draining through the gravel. Even after the most torrential downpours, there would only be a few milky-white puddles in the roads and gravel areas, and small rivulets streaming away in the drainage culverts about camp. Enough water remained in some of the drainage ditches that algae grew and tadpoles of various frogs developed. The water beetles kept a check on any wrigglers.

Vintage Trailer Row at Kershaw’s Cajun Village

The terrain was flat as a billiard table but the skies were ever-changing and often ablaze with orange, coral, pink, and fiery hues. Many of the evening and morning skies were otherworldly in their sun-dappled beauty.

On many evenings there were gatherings ’round campfires with drinks and music flowing. I would strum my acoustic guitar and Rodney would join on his Cajun accordion. Everyone would sing or clap along into the early hours of the night.

Me on my trusty Ibanez acoustic accompanied by Rodney on Cajun accordion at camp. Steven looks on from the lower left.

We enjoyed our fellow campers. Many were having tough times. But they never seemed to lose their sense of humor in spite of it all, and I found that inspirational. Because of Rodney’s sense of humanity and generosity, there was an exceptional and unique feeling in the camp. One knew one was amongst friends. And Rodney himself was one of the best of them.

Rodney would frequently invite Melinda and I to the Cajun dances at the massive dancehall that was part of the camp. There was always a good band, tasty jambalaya, grilled chicken, and rice and beans, along with beer, coffee, and sodas. Sometimes there were crawfish feasts. It was an oddly improbable combination of strange and fun. The Cajuns are a very clannish lot and tend to stick together. There was often the sensation of being on the outside looking in, while still somehow being a part of it. Rodney and his friends were warm and inclusive. It was always a kick to watch Rodney dance with the various ladies and take part in the raffles.

Some of my fondest recollections of those times were when Melinda and I would meet Rodney out by a large old weathered, jeans-polished tree trunk on which we would sit and eat the cheeseburgers we would sometimes buy for us all.

We’d talk about camp, Rod’s plans for it, the constant peaceful battle with the beavers and their dams, his work crews, disputes and histories of the other campers, my latest writing assignments, and music. Sometimes I would have my ukulele or guitar and strum a bit. But very rarely would I do that. By that time, I’d eased entirely and totally out of music to focus more exclusively on my then-new writing career.

And though Rodney thoroughly respected and honored that, I also knew that he thought I was somehow out of my mind for having quit music. Therefore I agreed to back him on guitar and vocals for any gigs that he may wish to do. So whenever Rodney played I would back him up. I loved those East Texas gigs with Rodney.

Rodney keepin’ it Cajun with trusty Ibanez-wielding sidekick and backing band.

One gig-free evening I went to the Blue Dog Cafe. Melinda and I were having some drinks, reveling in the cool of an early eve the first week of March. Brad Goins, the chief editor of Lagniappe Magazine, was also there having drinks with his wife, Nydia. Brad had written a review of my album for the magazine which is the most-read printed publication in the region. I noticed he was drinking something very similar to my drink and decided to strike up a conversation. It quickly drifted to music. We got into a bracingly good discussion about all manner of pivotal rock, folk, and country artists: old and new.

Brad mentioned something about my apparent encyclopedic knowledge of music. I asked if there was an opening for a talented music journalist at Lagniappe. He handed me his card and told me to give him a call or an email – my choice.

My pedal steel guitarist Johnny Briggs and I were playing the Blue Dog Cafe, Luna’s courtyard stage and the main club, an enjoyable club called Junction 171, a fun golf club cafe, and at Rita’s Landing on Big Lake out south of town. We also had a couple of gigs at the hardcore honky-tonk that was Mary’s Lounge. They were fun gigs, and we even had the band at the golf club and a couple of other clubs. We played in Galveston too. We quit Blue Dog Cafe after a run-in over volume (which the house controlled) with the manager.

I had a lot of gigs out in East Texas: mainly in Kemah at Tom’s Smokehouse and another tiki bar, Tia Juanita’s Fish Camp and other clubs in Beaumont, and the Port Neches River Wheelhouse. Johnny and I played a few dates at Loggerheads with our band and Rikenjaks Brew Pub, but they were both Cajun hipster (oxymoron if ever there was one!) joints and soon the Cajun music local heroes took over.

The gigs soon dwindled out, and only Cajun bands seemed to get all the concerts.

A few weeks went by, and I suddenly found Brad’s card in a shirt pocket. I wrote an email asking if there was ay writing I could do for him and Lagniappe. To my surprise and great pleasure, he had an idea he wanted to run by me. A day or two later, he wrote back with an offer that I write a column about the upcoming artists who were scheduled to play at the Golden Nugget casino. Of course, I was thrilled and started right away.

I ended up writing about Willie Nelson, America and interviewing Harry Wayne Casey: KC of the Sunshine Band for my first few columns. They were a hit with the readers, so I was signed on and went on to cover many other significant artists, town events, and human interest stories. I even got to do a cover story about Stephen Staples, the owner of the legendary vintage guitar shop in New Orleans.

I loved my writing job and was able to completely drop out of music. Dropping out of music meant that I was utterly free to devote my full focus to literary and journalistic writing – which I did with wildly fanatic enthusiasm.

Although I had officially quit music, I was still playing occasional gigs for our friend Susan’s Tia Juanita’s Fish Camp restaurant and Luna’s courtyard stage.

A new political climate had seized America, and the nation just became way too weird. I couldn’t stand all the division, hate, hostility, confusion, and chaos that only seemed to be increasing with each month.

Some odd racially-tinged moments and incidents were happening a little too often around town and I felt the instinct to move on.

Even so, thanks to great friends and supporters such as Sunny Jim White, Chris Rehm, and Jerry Diaz, I went on to play some very significant and prestigious events such as the Six String Songwriters Festival in New Orleans. Booked initially at Margaritaville, it ended up being held at the Tropical Isle club because Margaritaville’s lease had lapsed. Soon after, I was invited by Jerry Diaz to play the annual massively attended, highly coveted Meeting of the Minds Parrothead gathering in Key West.

I joined Jerry Diaz for a few more sit-in dates and a couple with Donnie Brewer at Port Neches River Wheelhouse (where I frequently played) and Austin, Texas. I also made one last monumental recording with the legendary producer Bill Halverson at Yellow Dog Studios in Wimberley, Texas.

That was to be one beautiful and memorable last hurrah.

Yellow Dog is out in the wild dry sage canyon, and river washed countryside of Central Texas. There were herds of deer that would come right up to the wooden slat porch decking in the mornings and evenings.

We recorded five of my songs and lived in the studio. There was a lot of time to hang out and hear Bill’s stories and recollections of his mythologically legendary career. We even got Augie Meyers to come in and contribute some accordion, keyboards and sing some vocals on my songs. Bill said it was a great sign that Augie was inspired enough by the songs to sing some vocals.

Augie about to lay down some of his signature Farfisa organ triplets
The incomparable Augie Meyers of Sir Douglas Quintet, Bob Dylan, and the Texas Tornados adding some of his trademark Tex-Mex accordion style to my recordings at Yellow Dog

Augie had so much fun at the recording sessions that he agreed to let me rewrite lyrics for his huge Scandinavian hit song “Meet Me in Stockholm” which I rewrote as “Meet Me in Key West.” I couldn’t get any interest in it from any record labels – as the whole music business had collapsed from record labels and CD/album sales to radio airplay. It seemed a good time to call it a day with music and drifted nonchalantly off into the sunset. No fanfare, no fuss: just over and out.

I was relatively content and resigned to my gypsy caravan writer’s life living on the verdant grass-lined banks of a tributary of the ubiquitous Calcasieu River in Rodney’s village. Even though the camp was in the countryside, it was also just around the corner from everything we could need. From 7-layer burritos, electronics, and chemical portable toilet solutions, cat treats and camp chairs to running shoes, Russell Dri Power t-shirts, and inflatable kayaks: it was all within a mile of camp. There was Home Depot, Petsmart, Lowes, all kinds of clothing and electronic shops, Academy Sports + Outdoors, and Walmart. There were also all kinds of fast food places from Taco Bell to Sonic and some great Mexican restaurants right around the corner as well.

Wetlands, shipping channels, and ultimately the Mexican Gulf were nearby
Our kayaking companions

We were pleasantly situated at the edge of the wild wetlands, shipping channels, canals, and quite close to the gulf itself. Irie Girl and I would often paddle our kayak around the shipping channels and other waterways, ride with the dolphins, explore sandbars and islands and chat with people on the large boats and ships from our kayak below. We would also ride our bikes around the quiet back roads taking in the lush green of the land: the ever-changing skyscapes adding a welcome dimension to the flatness. The biggest downside was the occasional terrible tornado-packing thunderstorms that charged through the region more often than one would wish.

Pink dolphin surfing bow wave in Calcasieu Shipping channel

All things considered, Kershaw’s Cajun Village was ideally situated and located for our lifestyle.

We took a long trip out to Central California, where I connected with a local reggae-rock band and played a few gigs. Irie Girl and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves there, and there would have been a possibility to get something going both with my pedal steel-playing pal Johnny Briggs and the band. Johnny and I could play club gigs with the backing band and as a duo at the vineyard gigs which were exceptionally good jobs and even supported by radio broadcasts.

We were also considering a move to either Albuquerque or Santa Fe, New Mexico. There was a lot of opportunity for my brand of music in Central California, New Mexico, and Arizona. There were highly receptive crowds and radio support from some refreshingly tasty stations. Mexico would have been more of a retirement situation. But at least semi-retirement was beginning to appeal. And there was the added issue of the cost of living to be considered.

Central California is relatively unaffordable. Even to camp there in an RV park costs more than a thousand dollars per month. Over $1200/month just to park an RV. Add vehicle insurance, health insurance, and food to that and it’s basically unaffordable. At least it’s very poor value for one’s buck.

New Mexico was more affordable and near to Colorado. But Arizona was the most affordable of all as I had a friend who has a remote desert RV park for $200/month. That was extremely appealing and very feasible.

We had narrowed our destinations down to the desert wilds of Arizona or the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. We were leaning towards and favoring the move to Mexico. I have some trop-rock friends who live in San Carlos on the shores of the Sea of Cortez and a bass player living in Puerto Vallarta.

I pictured us in our RV with me writing for some local expat newsletters or newspapers, and playing whatever occasional gigs I might be able to chase down in the cantinas around the area with my friends.

Ultimately the vision I had was of myself disappearing anticlimactically into a cocktail blurry misted oblivion of tropical sunsets at tiki bars strumming an instrument or pounding out some halfway meaningful prose on a keyboard. And although I imagined my slow fade out happening in the most uncelebrated way, there is, against all odds, a quite improbably beautiful lady along for my ride into the tropical tiki bar sunset.

Melinda and I had begun packing and storing all unnecessary things away and readying the RV for the trip. We decided on Arizona first. From that base, I could easily play New Mexico and California. From Arizona, it was also an easy drive down to check out San Carlos. I figured we could spend some time in Arizona – a few years or so and then move on down to San Carlos for our final destination. If the lack of beach life got to be too unbearable in Arizona, we could head out for San Carlos in a flash.

The only downside to San Carlos was that with all the American expat development, prices – including rent had risen. From all my continued and combined traveling, I have found that rising prices and their corresponding costs of living are the scourge of the world.

Suddenly out of the blue, amidst our packing, an old acquaintance from the trop-rock circuit named Brian contacted me. He contacted me after discovering that I was behind programming and supplying the music of his favorite trop-rock radio station.

He found this out the hard way.

Brian had built his Tiki Island Radio Bar & Grill; the deal being the radio station would be part of it. The radio station backed out of the move because it couldn’t continue programming fresh new content. It couldn’t do this because I had provided 90% of the music library, storylines, catch-phrases, and the music formatting concept.

So Brian asked if I would help him get it all back on track at his club in the Dominican Republic.

The deal was for me to program, format, and manage Paradise 102 FM radio station in Sosúa. For this, I was to receive food, drinks, lodging, and all the income generated from sponsors.

The proposal ideally suited our plans for a move. That it was outside of the US was a significant plus. I had a bit of hesitation about Brian, however. I had the feeling that he could become a problem quickly. I didn’t feel he was dependable. And mostly I felt that his hard-right conservative midwestern viewpoints might ultimately become too much with which to deal. But I knew that our success in the DR would not be entirely dependent on the radio station job. We were independent with online jobs. I was still writing, and Melinda had an excellent job with Car Dash back then.

I saw the DR as a perfect backdrop and environment to develop and further my writing career. My philosophy was to view Brian’s offer as a catalyst rather than a reality. It was a perfect motivation and opportunity to spur on and enable us to move.

We sure didn’t expect it all to fall apart as quickly as it did though! We headed down to the town of Sosúa on the north coast of the Dominican Republic on August 11th, 2017.

Brian kept on putting off his arrival with a flurry of varying excuses. But at the same time, he kept asking us to find lodgings using his “friends’” rental agencies. So we were getting very mixed messages. It sounded as if he was definitely on his way, but the dates and plans kept changing.

I went to check the club out and ended up getting the whole story from the realtor who leased the property. I knew then that Brian wasn’t coming and began making arrangements for more permanent long term dwellings.

To keep the costs down, I had booked our first week in an unairconditioned apartment at the Mary Rose Hotel. You might think that mid-August in the Caribbean would be pretty unbearable without AC. And you might typically be right about that – especially at night. But amazingly, we had just left Southwestern Louisiana bordering East Texas where temperatures were in the 100’sF and with humidity levels consistently above 90%.

Mary Rose was cozy and friendly. There was a fantastic outdoor lounge on the second floor where we worked on all our correspondence and other laptop chores. The breezes were beautifully refreshing. At night the winds would ease up but the humidity wasn’t too high, the temps were in the lower 80sF and with the ceiling fans on and windows wide open it wasn’t all that bad.

What was bad was that we now needed to find independent lodgings and bear the full costs ourselves. Suddenly we would need to come up with at least $500-$800 extra dollars each month. Not only were we abruptly hit with the additional expenses; we were also down $1500-$2000/month of income that would have come from the radio job. Ouch!

One of the reasons I had booked the Mary Rose condos was that they offered long term rentals, which I thought might come in handy just in case. And now, four days after having arrived in a whole new Spanish-speaking world with two cats and a dog, it was just in case time.

We couldn’t have ended up in a better location. Our long-term quarters would be the Trade Winds. The aptly named Trade Winds sit on a hill at the eastern edge of town on the highway leading to the windsurfing hotspot of Cabarete to the east and coming in from Puerto Plata to the west. The wind-cooled condos are 150 yards up the hill from the Super Pola supermarket and the magnificent Nelson’s Bistro Lounge just across the street from Pola. And then there is George’s Oasis Bar at 70 feet on up the hill to the north and across the road from our front door. We also have a small colmado (local market) another 50 feet up the road from George’s where we stock up on beer, wine, rum, coconut sodas, cheese, sausages, water, and other staples and treats.

Highly animated, smiling Haitian ladies bring fresh fruits and avocados to our door daily via baskets borne on their heads.

With our prime location, we don’t need a car. We take taxis or buses if we need to go far.

I’d lost my writing gig at Lagniappe. The owners found it too bothersome to navigate all the maneuvers required for the online banking necessary to get my payments to me down in the DR. Oh well, I had a great run at Lagniappe Magazine. It was an incredible experience and an excellent opportunity to develop some interviewing and researching techniques, and writing chops.

I will forever be indebted and grateful to Brad Goins for having given me that golden opportunity which has placed me squarely on my path as a professional writer. Thanks, Brad, Bob, and Greg too.

So, much to my avid opposition, I began playing live music gigs again for income. I continued to write and submit to various publications and landed a few bits and pieces here and there. Surprisingly the music bookings rolled in. My live performances took off. Before long I was making decent money strumming my ukulele and howling in tiki huts on the beach.

Back to the islands

At the same time, I continued to write voraciously and prolifically while pursuing all publication opportunities.

Effort and persistence finally paid off when the national English-speaking newspaper Dominican Today hired me on a part-time basis to edit, fix, correct, and even rewrite articles.

After a few months, I pitched a weekly Saturday column to the owners of Dominican Today. To my great surprise and amazement, they liked the idea! So now I have a regular Saturday column in Dominican Today! These developments have been a deeply significant windfall for me – not just financially but as a writer. I am once again a published professional writer, and that is no easy feat in 2019!

A major development also happened on the musical front. A longtime producer friend in Norway launched a new record label and signed me on as a songwriter and English lyric consultant. So again, this job only requires that I write which is ideal for me.

The DR: not entirely unlike Hawaii

So here I am, living the life of a writer, songwriter, and part-time singer of songs on the north coast of Hispaniola in the Heart of the Caribbean. More or less, that’s right where I wanted to be at this time and place in my life.

A burst of local color

Ultimately I would have preferred to live in Hawaii the land of my origin. But as we all know it’s too expensive if one does not already have an in there.

And while Hispaniola may not be Hawaii (namely, it lacks Hawaiians and Hawaiian music), it’s not too bad either. It’s a big island; over twice the size of all the Hawaiian Islands combined. There is much to see and do here with a correspondingly fascinating and colorfully-storied history of the land and people. I do not claim it so much as appreciate the loan. And though it is in a way for me a borrowed island, there is a part of my ancestry which seems to belong here too. The rum is memorably tasty and the environment stimulates – and is conducive to – creativity: albeit at a relaxed pace. Dominicans observe “Island Time” which suits me just fine.

Irie Girl back in her element in Hispaniola

By culture, mindset, heart, soul, and disposition, I am an Islander. Hawaii is home and my island. But Hispaniola is a gracious, enigmatic, and beautiful host. There are many times here when the temperature, humidity, and trades are just right, I feel I could still be in Hawaii.

There are never really any things that I miss. It’s people: friends and loved ones far away that are missed most.

It’s all kind of hard to believe. I often have to repeat it to myself every time I look around completely blown away by the otherworldly splendid beauty of this tropical island world. I am living the life of a writer and acoustic troubadour in the heart of the Caribbean with a beautiful adventurous companion by my side.

Life is definitely good today.

Tiki hut sunsets to all!

George’s Oasis Bar the Heart of Sosúa

George’s Oasis Bar

Casa Manana George’s Oasis Bar First Floor

When one is visiting unknown or foreign lands one of the most universally satisfying and enjoyable experiences is the local bar, pub or cantina: the drinking establishment or cafe. And while an ice-cold local libation is most definitely a significant factor in making one feel comfortable, adjusted, and happily refreshed it’s the ultimately-human experience of sharing drinks over conversations both of the familiar and the far away that gives one a sense that one is part of an adventure.  

The Dominican Republic is notorious for having its own exceedingly charming low-key easygoing open-air bars and inspirationally understated pubs, cafes, and variously shaded oases offering refuge and retreat from the relentlessly simmering tropical island sun. Such blissful havens offer the chat-inducing environments and breezily relaxed casual atmospheres that allow for humans being rather than humans doing.

The unassuming, laidback local open-air restaurant or bar is one of the uniquely endearing features of life in the Dominican Republic treasured every bit as much by the indigenous locals as all the visitors, vacationers, and expats alike.

There are a gritty non-sterile realness and Latin developing-nation-authenticity that informs and permeates the very air between the patrons washing them clean of all pretenses, societal and cultural affectations – rendering any such possibly reluctantly lingering mannerisms ridiculous and glaringly awkward.

When we first arrived in Sosúa things were very much up in the air and completely unsorted. A promised job had failed to materialize, we had no place to stay other than the small hotel room we had booked at the Mary Rose for four days, and we were faced suddenly with an added $300-$500/month expense for lodging that was meant to be covered by the suddenly non-existent job.

Thanks to Rick and Milka of the Mary Rose, the Trade Winds condominiums, and Rocky’s Rock & Blues Bar, we were able to get our lodgings sorted and sorted well!

And thanks to George we were made to feel welcomed and at home at a time in our lives when disorientation and chaos could have ruled the day…

A short distance up a hill southeast from the Super Pola food market in the town of Sosúa located on Hispañola’s storied and postcard-picturesque northern coast one will find George’s Oasis Bar – a place where his sign so aptly declares: “local people meet.”

Catty-cornered adjacent to our newfound home in the Trade Winds apartments and on the ground floor of the Casa Mañana apartments George’s Oasis Bar is a small, unassuming open-air, sunlit, casual easy-going venue. A locale which feels much less like an impersonal bar and more like your best friend’s patio or covered porch – if that patio or porch was in the Heart of the Caribbean on an island where the air still rings with a vague, yet not so distant threat of hurricanes and is alive with ghosts of infamous pirates and shipwrecks.

As any experienced drinker worth their weight in top-shelf sauce knows; it is in just such a bar one meets the most interesting if not entertaining people. George’s Oasis Bar features a solidly sordid and enticing cross-section and collection of, as a sign behind the bar so accurately proclaims; “schemers, dreamers, losers, boozers, misfits, and all assorted fleeing felons.” All of whom not only compose its clientele but are also entirely welcome here – so long as they can handle their drink and pay their tabs.

The Sign
Photo: Melinda Mose

From former truck-driving hooligans of the far-off frozen north to guitar-strummin’ tropical golf cart suicide jockeys in the Heart of the Caribbean.

Taking full advantage of the amnesty declared by the sign, former physician and ship cook Chris Peterson seemed to have found safe harbor at George’s. To say that Peterson has a rather colorful, eventful, somewhat mythological past is a bit like saying that the universe is rather “big.” Personally, I believe him to be some type of legendary covert figure. A rare and vanishing breed from an alternate universe and another generation. To speak with Chris is to drift into another dimension where time and reality warp to accommodate his words. And I’m sure that there are a few circles of people, sailboats, bars, and towns that’ll never recover from his exploits. The man sure could cook up a deeply meaningful plate of chili con carne, eggs, pork chops, chicken or rice, and beans!

Chris charted a course for a more relaxed semi-retired lifestyle since we first encountered him at George’s. Though he no longer cooks at George’s he remains a welcome denizen of the town.

And then there is Ed the Canadian truck driver. Ed and his sweet, fun-loving, occasionally dog-stomping (completely unintentional by the way!) wife Dawn, are the textbook definitions of endearing, welcoming, warm, and gracious. I don’t know how many times Ed has driven the lot of us around town in his island cart, to the beach or an ever-revolving lineup of various restaurants in search of food, fun or adventure. And I’ll tell you with the sort of ultra-creative, thrill-seeking, adrenaline-junkie tactics the Dominicans employ when they drive one could do no better than to have a former truck driver who has driven from Saskatoon to El Paso.

Those 4 million road miles over 37 years come in more than handy in a land where traffic signs, turn signals, and driving etiquette of any kind are routinely ignored, and glowing red stop lights are a mere suggestion at intersections! Ed’s wife Dawn truly knows how to appreciate every sunset in its full tranquil sky-painting glory. One gets the sense that bathed in the aureate glow of the beach sunset she’s in the realm of spirits in silent, rapt communication with a particular angel only she hears.  

Ed also slings a mean guitar and many an impromptu musical jam complete with harmonica players has been known to break out in the pub from time to time.

Fittingly, owner George Knaskov is one of the most storied and fascinating denizens in his establishment. Born in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, his parents walked to Austria in 1944. From there they were relocated to Brazil in 1949 where George spent his formative years, fell in love with his adopted home, and pursued an education in engineering.

For the next 43 years, George worked as a consulting engineer for numerous breweries traveling the world installing breweries as part of the job. After a long stint in Florida and after retiring, he headed down to the Dominican Republic where he opened his pub to keep busy, create a social gathering spot, and to help the locals and community.

The Dominican girls and ladies — some mothers and daughters — behind the bar and working the kitchen are not only the waitstaff but also the managers and partners in the cantina and they are considered very much a part of the fellowship that is George’s crowd. A significant percent of Casa Manana is in fact owned by a Dominicana so there is a very local ambiance and feeling to the locale which adds greatly. On any given day or evening, as the strains of merengue, bachata, reggaeton, British and American oldies, and occasional blasts of country music fill the air, there is a broad multicultural mix of North Americans, Europeans, and Dominicans all casually chatting in the open-air breeze over various beverages, coffees or meals. Small local work crews also pop in for refreshment and to trade a few colorful barbs over their latest jobs.

There is no doubt that the mixing, mingling, and relaxed multicultural interracial atmosphere of  George’s is at the core of its charm — a microcosmic model of the town on whose edge it resides — to while away a few hours at George’s is to absorb the more positive essences of the community.

Damary & George

There are always people in George’s Oasis Bar community who are involved with or organizing a charity, charitable event or foundation. Charitable events happen at George’s throughout the year and it is easy to get involved, get connected or contribute.

Within a few hours, one gets the impression that nearly every expat and many locals in the area, as well as other bar owners, drop in for ice-cold beers, wines, mixed drinks of various inspirational spirits blended with conversations about our fair village, local events, other towns, and regions around the island. They talk about the faraway places they once called – or may still call home and the people who still matter to them no matter how distant they may be. There is much discussion of the travels, adventures, mishaps, and misfortunes that now define and made them into the hapless wondrous creatures they now are at this point. Not that they won’t continue evolving into even more refined and improved versions of themselves – it’s just that I am very content with the versions I have met here in the now at George’s.

We are all brimming with faults and imperfections mirrored in the alcoholically-enhanced libations we hoist to our life-baked hearts and time–parched souls. It’s our faults that most characterize us. Our faults announce us most clearly and loudly proclaim who we genuinely are. It is our faults that we can never seem to leave behind no matter how hard we may try. It is our faults that give us eternal purpose in trying to overcome them and develop our characters beyond them.

And that’s the thing; there is a continually rotating cavalcade of bars, restaurants, cafes, grills, colmados, and other similar establishments all throughout the improbably warped and debauched adult wonderland that is Sosúa. But there are precious few with the heart, soul, and character of George’s — the bar being an extension of the fascinating man himself.

If you’re just looking for a drink, go anywhere. But if you’re looking for a very local experience with people who will likely become your friends: drop in and say hi to George.

The DR is for the birds (or, well, it should be!)

No matter how one might say it: Cigua Palmera or palmchat is the national bird of the Dominican Republic

By Renn Loren

Did you know that the Cigua Palmera or palmchat (Dulus Dominicus) is the national bird of the Dominican Republic? Their nests can often be seen as quite noticeable one to two-meter bundles of twigs in the centers of the fronds high up in palm trees or on telephone poles.

That’s no bundle of twigs, that’s a palmchat nest! Photo: Melinda Mose

The ubiquitous 8-inch (20 cm) cheery palmchat is a very sociable, lively bird of many songs and enthusiastic sounds. With their gregarious spirited antics, they have provided many hours of fascinating entertainment for us as we watched them dance, scuffle, and bounce from frond to frond, navigating the swirling winds and then landing as if they were their own private shimmering green, rustling landing pads in the distant palms.

Palmchats gather in small groups and share large communal nests which house anywhere from two to eight chambers – one for each pair and their offspring.

The species is unique to the island of Hispaniola, including the adjacent Saona and Gonâve Islands, where it is common and widespread. It inhabits areas from sea-level to 1500 m (5000 ft) where palm savannas can be found, or other open areas with scattered trees. Where its food trees are present, it has adapted well to city parks and gardens.

Cigua Palmera or palmchat is the National bird of the Dominican Republic

The other day as we sat working on our balcony enjoying the cooling, refreshing trade winds in the perfect weather splendor that is the DR in early spring, we saw a gardener climbing the palm trees. He was trimming the lower fronds and coconuts presumably so they wouldn’t fall on any of the complex’s less aware or observant residents’ heads. That was fine enough, I guess. The trees look a little sparse and weird until they grow out again and a coconut tree without coconuts is just a palm tree—not that that is at all bad either.

But then he started tearing through the nests of the palmchats, scattering fledglings, babies, and any eggs there may have been to the winds and a forty-plus foot drop. We yelled out for him to stop, but our shouts fell on deaf ears. So we ran to the office and asked the manager to have it stopped. The manager was a bit surprised that anyone would care so much about bird nests and explained that someone had complained about the danger of falling coconuts and palm fronds. I don’t know, but complaining about palm trees and coconuts on a tropical island is akin to traveling to the Antarctic and complaining about ice and snow.

Due to its positioning above the coconuts and lower fronds it is totally unnecessary to move the nests to trim the tree. It just looks tidier and cleaner to clear the nests out. To the casual observer the nests just look like an odd part of the tree one just hadn’t noticed before.

Spared! Photo: Melinda Mose

We did manage to save a few nests, but the fledglings that fell out of the nests that were destroyed were doomed. We noticed with all due appropriate horror and disgust that the flightless fledglings had large fly larvae embedded in their wings and legs. I did some study and found that these larvae were from the Philornis downsi fly originally found in Trinidad and Brazil. Although the adult fly feeds on fruit – its offspring feed on baby birds.

These flies somehow made their way to the Galapagos Islands where they are now threatening to wipe out twenty species of local birds as there are no natural predators of the larvae. In the wonderful irony of nature’s ways, it turns out that the parasite has a parasite. Scientists are looking into the possibility of using a special wasp named Conura annulifera that preys on Philornis downsi fly larvae but there are many impact studies still needed before that can happen.

A bird’s best friend Conura annulifera

I don’t know what sort of threat the palmchat faces besides humans tearing down their nests, cats, dogs, and any other natural predators, but when we took the fledgling to the veterinarian they filmed the removal of the larvae and the insect itself. This could have been the first observation of Philornis downsi infestation in the DR. It’s certainly the first observation of the phenomenon on the north coast.

With any luck, the Philornis downsi larvae will have a predator here in the DR, otherwise several species of Dominican birds may also be in danger of extinction.

As with all animals, the palmchat serves an important function in its environment. And here in the ecological chain of Hispaniola the palmchat is important for the broadcasting and spreading of fruits and the control of insects and plant pests.   

So far the palmchat is not endangered. But if you see someone tearing down or about to tear down a palmchat nest, you may wish to ask them please not to: the island will thank you.

History’s footsteps provide a path to the future Shares

Loni, René, and Arturo Kirchheimer

Renn Loren

Sosúa

History needn’t be a dull, dry static dead thing locked in the past. Many times history ripples vibrantly forward right into the present, echoing out of the past with a roar that commands attention. Such is the case of René Arena (née René Kirchheimer).

René’s parents, Arthur and Ilona Kirchheimer, were among the first wave of Jewish refugees to arrive at the new immigrant colony that was set aside by Rafael Trujillo in the 26,000 acres of abandoned United Fruit banana plantations that would become Sosúa.

Arthur would soon come to be known as “Arturo el Simpático” (Arthur the friendly) by the Dominican locals. Illona or “Loni” as she was known by everyone, was Lutheran, not Jewish. Due to the Nazi regime, and anticipating the worst, Arthur went to Luxembourg (where the Nazis had not yet arrived) with a friend who had a Volkswagen. There he received training in livestock and agriculture because he had worked for two years on a farm. These skills were exactly what would be needed in Sosúa and would play an important role in the development of the colony.

Arthur and Ilona got married secretly in the city of Luxembourg, by a civil judge (in Luxembourg without knowledge of the Germans, who were already working in administration).

After the intense persecution by the Nazis, Arthur and Ilona were left with no choice but to make the perilous, incredibly difficult and unimaginably uncomfortable multi-national transatlantic journey to the Dominican Republic.

They settled into their new lives as farmers in the tropics, clearing land and planting crops with much success. Their son René was born in Sosúa in 1942. From 1942-1943 Arthur would drive a horse cart 30 kilometers from La Atravesada to Puerto Plata. Two to three hours later he would reach the warehouse he’d built in Puerto Plata, the house of Pedro Leroux, in front of where the Palace of Justice stood at the end of the ‘80s. At this warehouse, he would sell preserved and fresh vegetables, cheeses, and sausages. He called this store, “Productos Sosúa.” It is still a major dairy and meats concern today.

René and Loni

Arthur acquired a slightly damaged (as the story goes; it took three times as much to repair it as it did to buy it) Buick from the American manager of a chocolate factory in Puerto Plata and became the first person in Sosúa to have a car. He learned to drive and soon began running passengers between Sosúa and Puerto Plata as well as neighboring towns and even to the capital in addition to driving his agricultural cargo to his Productos Sosúa. One afternoon during a routine traffic control stop the police officer asked Arturo his name, to which he replied “Arturo Kirchheimer.” The policeman had a hard time pronouncing or spelling Kirchheimer so Arturo just said OK; “Arturo Sosúa” and the name stuck.   

Kirchheimer had noticed that the local Domincan pigs suffered from a genetic weakness caused by years of inbreeding and began buying a few pigs from Jamaica, Bahamas, Martinique, and other islands to improve his stock. When the war ended in 1945, he imported two pairs of Poland China and Berkshire pigs from the USA and started breeding pure pigs. He had great results and went on to produce the best pigs on the island. He also had great success with purebred cattle. Due to these successes, he was asked to do the same in Santo Domingo. At that time the city was called Ciudad Trujillo.

In 1954: Kirchheimer organized a big national fair for the entire country, and many farmers brought their best animals, cows, pigs, horses and other animals. Kirchheimer entered 72 heads of imported breeds – a thing not seen before by anyone in the Dominican Republic up to that point.

Arturo had swept nearly all the awards; even Trujillo visited and asked him how he had this fantastic result with breeding and if they were imported. Arturo explained there were two pairs imported, and all the others were born in Sosúa. Trujillo embraced Kirchheimer and confided that the immigration of Jews from 1940 to 1941 was a very positive thing and that if there were more Jews like Arturo, the country would progress ahead. Kirchheimer thanked him and sent a breeding pair of prized pigs to his farm.

As a result of the outcome of the fair, an international fair was formed in 1955. Arturo attended with 80 pigs. In 21 fairs in other cities, he received as many as 150 trophies.

In an interview from Germany Kirchheimer was asked, how a Jew who was not allowed pork was motivated to start with such a trade. He explained that he was not a very religious man, although he maintained his tradition as a Jew, he did not pay attention to those details due to the life he had to lead and told them that in his maternal home, they were observing Jewish laws, but with the advent of the First World War, when he was a child, kosher products were scarce, so out of necessity and in order to survive, they had to give up that custom. In addition, when he was in Hamburg, and could still carry out his activities in a normal way, on Saturdays he had to work and on Sundays he played soccer; therefore, the Sabbath custom could not be kept. As son René notes: “He was a realistic man who chose to live the reality of the moment and a practical man who adjusted to the circumstances.”

In addition to all of his accomplishments in agriculture, Kirchheimer also connected with the German embassy and the ambassador and became the assistant and representative of the Botschaft (German embassy). As such, he ensured that all of the German Jewish colonists of Sosúa received compensation, reparations or repayment for the loss of former assets and valuables according to the laws of Germany. They were also entitled to receive income payments as employees, which were incurred prior to the Hitler regime.

Under Arturo’s dutiful administration, all settlers from Germany received repayments or income due. He also served thirteen ambassadors for 42 years, and for his efforts, he received an honor in 1989 when German President Weizsäcker awarded Kirchheimer Order of Merit in First Class and Golden Cross. Arthur Kirchheimer was the only Jew at that time who had received this award.

Arturo even had a hand in the creation of the Sosúa tourist industry in that a 1980 documentary was made in which he appears, it was transmitted in Germany titled “A German destiny” (Ein Deutsches Schicksal), it had been viewed by the masses, received a great rating and, as a result, many Germans arrived in Sosúa giving rise to tourism from Germany to Sosúa.

René spent his earliest days on the farm in the countryside a few miles outside Sosúa town on the way toward Cabarete. When he was around ten-years-old the family moved to the Batey to be nearer school and so Loni could be more socially connected and active as many of the settlers were living there.

Hanna and René

Due to concerns that his young rebellious son might stray into trouble with the Trujillo resistance, Arturo sent the 14-year-old to go live with his half-sister Hanna, who was married and living in New York. René was very excited about going to high school in New York. It was in the vibrant musical club scene of the Village that his artistic interests were awakened. But René was a steadfast student and kept at his studies.

René working the guitar 1962

In 1964 he joined the U.S. Navy. Ever the academic, he continued to study in the university while learning aircraft maintenance in the Navy. Upon completing his military service in 1968 René returned to the Dominican Republic to work in the national flag airline, Dominicana de Aviación. He was licensed by the FAA (Federal Aviation Agency). The Dominicana de Aviación fleet received maintenance from Eastern Airlines, so he had to travel to Miami, Atlanta, and New York to receive the planes, after maintenance.

With a specialty in the administrative area, René then worked as a maintenance manager for two years for the company Air Panama with a seat in Miami. That was while the CDA closed temporarily. When it reopened, he went back to work at CDA (Dominicana de Aviación).

In 1980 René returned to Sosúa to work with the Tourism Secretariat in Puerto Plata as Public Relations Officer for that department. When the new Puerto Plata airport opened, he worked as a station manager for Air Florida. Returning to the tourism sector, René bought Restaurant la Roca, with two German partners from a Mr. José Muñiz. Restaurant la Roca featured the first proper discotheque in Sosúa.

Loni, René, and Arturo

He headed back to New York in 1989 working for Wendy’s as a co-manager. After a year René felt the pull of the island calling him home. Returning to Sosúa in 1990 he accordingly launched the Bachata-fusion Arena music group which achieved much success and for which René is still recognized today. He also worked as manager of Melissa Tours, organizing tours for Samaná, Jarabacoa and Río San Juan for the many Canadians  and German tourists who came at that time.

René Arena music group

Twenty-nine years later and you will often find René looking fit, spry, and a good twenty years younger than the 77 years that mark his time on Earth, sitting at a favored cafe in the middle of town. Strategically retreating to the best shaded areas under the awnings, sheltering from the afternoon sun talking about how things were, how they are, and how they could or perhaps should be – offering some workable solutions to the challenges. René Arena Kirchheimer is still very much a man on a mission: a mission to preserve a legacy, a heritage, and a legendary history of a town whose history he and his family are vividly a part of.

René found a kindred spirit recently when ex-pro baseball player, history and cultural preservationist, and founder of Sosúa75, Hugh Baver came to town and asked René to speak at the Royal Hotel in Evían, France at the first official commemoration of the Evían Conference of 1938, the conference which resulted in his parents’ immigration to Sosúa. With Renéwed passion and energy, René is doing his best to revive the recognition of the Jewish history and contributions to Sosúa and to continue to express thanks to the country that gave his people a home when no others would or could. He has recently begun to think about playing music again and is working to find ways to create and encourage more unity within the community – perhaps through his next musical adventure.

Sitting at the cafe watching a soft parade of various members of the community stop, chat, and shake the very personable and smiling René’s hand, one gets the feeling that the history and town of Sosúa have a very bright future.

Baseball, Jewish immigrants, and a town called Sosúa

David Américo Ortiz Arias “Big Papi” signs a base from the World Baseball Classic

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Mark Twain

Most people who visit Sosúa will never know its incredibly unique history. But there are 700-800 people and their descendants who will likely never forget.

There are many who might suggest that Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo may not have been acting from the noblest or most altruistic of motivations when he alone from a gathering of thirty-two nations agreed to accept 100,000 Jewish refugees from Germany at the Évian Conference which was convened 6–15 July 1938, at Évian-les-Bains, France. After all, only months before, Trujillo had ordered the brutal execution of tens of thousands Haitians in the Parsley Massacre.

US President Franklin D Roosevelt called for this international conference to encourage all countries to find a long-term solution to the problem. Specifically, the conference sought: “The Organization of the Emigration and Resettlement” of “Political Refugees and Those Persecuted by Reason of Race or Religion.” Despite the encouragement, the United States and other countries were unwilling to ease their immigration restrictions. As they were in the midst of the Great Depression, most countries feared that an increase in refugees would only lead to further economic hardships. The conference ended a week later. With the exception of the tiny Dominican Republic, none of the other thirty-one remaining countries were willing to accept more refugees.

Responding to Évian, the German government was able to state with great pleasure how “astounding” it was that foreign countries criticized Germany for their treatment of the Jews, but none of them wanted to open the doors to them when “the opportunity was offered.”

Only 700-800 Jewish immigrants were actually able to make it to Sosúa to take part in the resettlement program. The Dominican government welcomed the Jews on the condition that they become agricultural workers rather than “commission agents.” The Joint Distribution Committee created a special organization, the Dominican Republic Settlement Association (DORSA) and funded it to purchase 26,000 acres in the Dominican town of Sosúa, which had previously been developed as a banana plantation but then abandoned by the United Fruit Company. Upon arrival, every new Jewish settler was given 80 acres of land, 10 cows, a mule, and a horse.

The Dominicans welcomed the Jewish settlers and over the years the community became a harmonious mix of Dominicans and Jewish families who intermarried and created whole new generations of Dominicans who shared blended cultures and new traditions.

At one point, Productos Sosúa dairy company supplied dairy products for the whole island.

Between the dairy company, the various inns and the bed and breakfasts they established, the Jewish settlers laid the groundwork for Sosúa to become a major international tourist destination in the 1980s – a trend that has carried on into the present.

In the post-war years, most of the Jewish immigrants moved on to pursue business opportunities or to reunite with families in the US and Israel – returning to their pre-war non-agrarian lives. A few remained. Some former settlers and descendants returned after finding they missed the Dominican way of life.

But for a fleeting time, the very desperate and inhumane absurdities of war led to a microcosm on the north coast of a Caribbean island where a highly improbable mix of Latin, African, European, and Middle Eastern cultures came together to forge a town that would remain an example of how even the most dubious and cynical of motivations and conditions can render extremely positive and lasting outcomes that echo and ripple through the decades.

Those resonating echoes brought Hugh Baver to that town.

In 2010, Baver played in a Red Sox Fantasy Camp and his fellow players named him Cy Young winner for his performance. He had rubbed elbows with the likes of former Red Sox pitchers Luis Tiant and Bill Lee, and soon after the camp ended, he took a trip to the Dominican Republic, where he visited the Red Sox baseball academy led by former MLB player Jesus Alou.

Baver fell in love with the Dominican Republic, stayed in touch with Alou and cheered on the Dominican Team when it won the World Baseball Classic in 2013. After the Boston Marathon Bombing, he wanted to do something to make people feel better. He bought the first base bag that was on the field for the final out of the Classic and called the Red Sox. He sprinkled dirt on the base from Red Sox minor league infields in Lowell, Portland, Pawtucket, and from Fenway Park. After Big Papi signed the base, Baver flew to the Dominican Republic and presented it to Alou and the Red Sox, and it’s now encased in glass at the entrance of the academy.

During the trip, he first heard the name of the Dominican city of Sosúa. “Someone said, we know you’re Jewish. Did you know there’s a community here that has Jewish origins? Baver replied no and was captivated and it became an all-consuming thing.”

So Baver has returned to the DR to build a $25 million permanent settlement in Sosúa which would offer a summer camp, a cooperative farm, a farm-to-table restaurant, botanical gardens, a butterfly sanctuary, an outdoor theater, and… of course, a baseball diamond with stadium seating. Baseball will play a big role there. Baver elaborates: “They need to have a ballpark there where kids can play baseball, continue the great legacy of the sport and the special shared relationship between the Dominican and Jewish cultures with regard to that game, and the opportunities it provides.”

This is a history—a story which needs to be remembered. And it seems especially relevant and timely in the growing racial, cultural, and political tensions, turmoil, and divide of the day.

As hate threatens to undermine the decades of efforts to douse it: it is crucial to remember such incalculably monumental events as the one that took place in Sosúa where hope found a place to happen and human spirit was allowed to shine at its best.

Today the Sosúa dairy business supplies most of the butter and cheese consumed in the Dominican Republic. Next to the town’s synagogue is a very modest museum. The final caption on its exhibit reads: “Sosúa, a community born of pain and nurtured in love must, in the final analysis, represent the ultimate triumph of life.”

If Baver has his way, the golden opportunity for a continued convergence of cultures that once was at the heart of Sosúa will be rekindled for generations to come.

–Renn Ho’aloha Loren

Welcome to Saturday’s news

Welcome to Saturday’s News, a new feature in Dominican Today.

March 9, 2019

Along with continued reportage from all regions of the Dominican Republic, I will seek to shine a spotlight on some of the lesser-known, less visited aspects of daily life in this vibrant, dynamic, and often enigmatic island nation.

Along with the more challenging, often tragic, harsher aspects of the regularly reported news, there is also the everyday living of local family life, the daily toil and contributions of the laborers, business owners, entrepreneurs, service providers, developers, educators, visionaries and artists who create the histories, foundations, achievements, and unique characters, flavors, and vibes of each community.

Each Saturday I will feature articles which speak to some perhaps lesser-reported perspectives on the island—histories, legends, tales, cultural traditions, treasures, and treats that normally wouldn’t receive a lot of attention. There will also be the accounts of people in the communities here who are making a difference – or trying to make a difference, people with particularly interesting stories or backgrounds, people helping people, people who have found whole new leases on life here in the Dominican: nationals as well as expats.

It is my hope to bring you the sometimes extraordinary backgrounds of the lives of seemingly very ordinary people.

This column will visit and shed light on this side of life in the Dominican Republic.

See you next Saturday!

Renn Loren

Axeman by Renn Loren

AXE MAN

RENN LOREN THURSDAY, JANUARY 5, 2017 COMMENTS OFF ON AXE MAN

Axe Man

Oakdale Native Steve Staples Has Struck Quite A Chord In The Music Industry

Story By Renn Loren

Photos by Chris Brennan

Stories.

steven1

Any rocker who has been around long enough to count will tell you that one of the greatest perks of a life in music — besides the music — are the stories. And, true to the tradition of all the great time- and road-tested troubadours, Steve Staples, owner of International Vintage Guitars, and guitarist extraordinaire with the Oakdale-based bands HollyRock and The Iceman Special, has a lot of good ones.

“I’m 65; there’re a lot of stories,” Staples proclaims enthusiastically in a slightly whiskey-graveled voice that carries a trace of Southwestern Louisiana regional dialect.

And indeed there are: such as the time ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons (Staples’ first major artist customer) gave the entire staff at the expansive machine shop across the street from Staples’ store rides in his limo.

Gibbons was on his way from Houston to play in Biloxi in his limousine, and decided to drop by Staples’ shop, which was across the street from a huge machine shop that was open 24 hours a day to keep up with all the work on boat engines they had at the time. As the massive service bay doors were all open, all the guys at the shop noticed the black leather-clad guitar-slinging lead vocalist of ZZ Top strolling into the guitar store from his limousine.

As Staples recounts in a series of false starts, “Billy and I are sittin’ there talkin’, and he’s playing the guitar, and we’re hanging out. The front door opens, and this guy just sticks his head in, and he goes; ‘Did I just see Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top walk in here?’ And Billy got up, and he goes; ‘Yeah, I’m here. Come on in.’ So (Gibbons) introduced himself to the guy, he shook the guy’s hand, and the guy says; ‘Man, I work in the machine shop over across the street. We’re all big fans of yours, and it’s just really great to see you,’ and Billy said, ‘Well, take me over there, and introduce me to everybody.’ So he goes out into his limousine, and gets a whole bunch of ZZ Top 8-by-10 glossy photographs, goes over to the shop, autographs all the photos, and gives ‘em all to everybody who wants one in that shop. Then he asks them if they’d like to go for a ride in his limousine. So these guys, two or three at a time, go for a ride in the limousine with Billy. I mean, that’s the kind of guy he is.”

Photo By Chris Brennan • chrisbrennanphoto.com

Photo By Chris Brennan • chrisbrennanphoto.com

There was also the time a few months later, when Gibbons called completely out of the blue, explaining; “Well, I’m in Alaska. I’m sitting in my hotel room, and there’s nobody to talk to, so I thought I’d call you.”

So Staples asked, “Well, what do you want to talk about? And he goes; ‘I don’t know, let’s just talk about something, I’m bored to death, there’s nobody up here to talk to but Eskimos and maids.’”

Staples responded by explaining that he could probably think of a thousand questions to ask Gibbons about himself, his music and his guitars, to which Gibbons exclaimed; “Well, fire away!” For the next two hours, Staples asked Gibbons every question he could think of.

Gibbons proceeded to speak in great depth, detail and candor about his whole philosophy about the guitars he uses, the amps he uses, the sound, how grateful and loyal he is to his fan base — to the point where he doesn’t want to vary his sound too much, so he uses the same guitar and amps he used on his first record on a minimum of two songs per record, so that his fanbase can still identify with the always classic ZZ Top sound.

“My fans support me,” Gibbons explains. “Every time I release an album, they buy two hundred thousand copies the first week.”

Woodstock opening act Richie Havens once stopped by the shop, and proceeded to give Staples a two-and-a-half-hour story session, jam and guitar lesson, demonstrating his exotic tunings and unique strumming techniques.

steven3

Jimmy Buffett showed up in the store while he was in town for a Saints playoff game, and told Staples his life story, bought a lot of gear, and talked about how he got in the music business. Buffett spoke about all the guitars he’d bought, sold and regretted selling, and just about life in general. There was the genuinely candid and revealing talk Staples had with Flea. The Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist had dropped in to buy his current guitar player a guitar as a birthday present, and ended up expounding for two or three hours.

Flea told a story about the time he sat on a beach in Hawaii, and had an epiphany about the things that mattered in life, and decided that he was going to shape up and take a work-like approach to his music career, and start giving back for all that he’d been so fortunate to have received from the fates that be.

From such talks, Staples found that many of these major stars were mostly just very normal, humble people. They were all talented, and were in the right place at the right time. But they also seemed to have one universal trait that defined them: They all worked at it really, really hard, and were there when the breaks came, ready to deliver.

Staples was stricken most by the fact that these artists were still just like teenagers who are in love with guitars and playing — successful, yet still able to maintain a youthful exuberance about what they do.

In more recent years, Staples’ clients have included: Southern Culture on the Skids, Elvis Costello, the Doobie Brothers, Motley Crue, Pearl Jam (the whole band had a jam session in his shop), Marty Stuart, Coldplay and Bob Dylan.

Though perhaps mostly known for his world-renowned International Vintage Guitars shop in New Orleans, it was Staples’ interest in and love of music and guitars that made it all happen.

Photo By Chris Brennan • chrisbrennanphoto.com

Photo By Chris Brennan • chrisbrennanphoto.com

Originally from Louisiana, Staples’ parents were stationed in Oklahoma when he was born (his father was serving in the military). However, Steve and his mom moved back to her hometown of Oakdale for two years when his dad went off to the Korean War.

In Oakdale, Staples’ mother’s best friend was the Murry brothers’ (William and Charlie) grandma. Staples’ mother and the Murry’s grandmother had gone to kindergarten and grammar school together, and were roommates in college. The two families lived next to each other, and were so connected throughout the years that it was a tradition for them to spend Christmas together — even long after Steve had moved from Oakdale. It makes sense then that Staples fit right into the Murry brothers’ bands so easily years later.

Ruth Swann Cain, Staples’ grandmother, played piano both for the Methodist Church in Oakdale, and with a band that played all over the South. She also wrote music, and appeared on television.

Sitting on his grandma’s lap as she played the piano, Staples was singing melodies by age 2. Although his first introduction to the world of music had been the piano (his family had hoped he would learn to play the instrument), it would be the guitar that would thoroughly captivate, enthrall and thrill Staples, and become his lifelong obsessive passion.

Staples had fallen under the spell of the guitar from the first time he’d heard his neighbors — two brothers ages 11 and 12 — chiming away on their Fender electric guitars when he was just 4 or 5. Staples would spend every minute he could listening to those magically captivating sounds reverberating from those amp speakers. From that point on, Staples could not stop looking at guitars, listening to them, drawing them in the margins of his school assignments, and just generally being fascinated with them.

His obsession was such that he would look at every mail order catalog he could find, including Sears, Western Auto and Montgomery Ward, gazing at their guitar and instrument sections over and over.

Between 1952-56, Staples’ family frequently moved between Oakdale, Sulphur and Lake Charles.

“My fondest memories of Lake Charles are going to the Borden’s and Watson’s ice cream parlors on Ryan St. by the park near downtown,” he says. “I also remember that we went to the beach and swam in the Lake near the old bridge often. And I also remember drive-ins on Hwy. 90, where my parents would go. You could get mixed drinks delivered to your cars. There were a lot of clubs with neon signs, and there was actually a club where they had wrestling several nights a week. My Aunt Jean used to go to that place to watch the wrestling.”

Photo By Chris Brennan • chrisbrennanphoto.com

Photo By Chris Brennan • chrisbrennanphoto.com

Inspired and invigorated by the birth of Rock and Roll at the dawn of the 1950s, Staples found himself in a musically rich and encouraging environment. Waylon Jennings had a daily TV show then, and Staples was intrigued by the band, and the sounds of the guitars. Between the radio and record player, Staples’ musical knowledge and enthusiasm gained range and momentum as he absorbed every guitar record on which he could get his hands.

At age 9, Staples went into a record store and saw a record by Chet Atkins. The album had a cover photo with a recording studio, guitars and gadgets in the background. Staples was hopelessly hooked, and his appetite for all things guitar became insatiable.

At one point, when he was living in Lafayette, Staples was in the same class with Sonny Landreth. Staples would watch and listen, mesmerized, as Sonny and another guitar slinger traded riffs and chops. “Surf music was a significant influence,” Staples recalls fondly. The two would later reconnect many years later at a guitar festival in Switzerland. Their friendship is another whole story in itself.

When he was in fourth or fifth grade, living in New Orleans, Staples’ grammar school band friends tried to coax him over to brass instruments, to no avail, as the sounds of the Beatles on Staples’ transistor radio further fanned the flames of his obsession with guitars.

When he was 12, Staples’ parents got him his first acoustic guitar, with which Staples taught himself to play.

The next summer, on a trip to Alexandria with his grandmother, Staples spotted a Fender electric guitar in its case in the display window of a music store downtown. His grandmother noticed his longing gaze, and graciously bought it for him. Upon his return to New Orleans, his dad bought him an amp.

One of Staples’ classmates was a drummer for a local band called the Twilights, and asked Staples to fill in on a weekend gig. His parents gave him permission to take a day off from school to rehearse, and Staples learned 40 songs in a day to play the concert.

Staples gives lots of credit for his success to the overwhelming support of his parents, noting that his dad “never asked him to turn it down — ever! Not once in my whole life did my father ever come into my room to say, “’Turn that down!’ And I had some pretty big amplifiers in there at times, cranked all the way up. I was playing the Who and Jimi Hendrix, and all that stuff in the room, and my dad never ever once said ‘that’s too loud’ or ‘stop.’ Yeah, I don’t know how he could stand it, but he did.”

The Twilights evolved into the Gaunga Dyns, who had two regional hits in NOLA in the ‘60s, while the members were still in high school. They had two exceptionally talented singers who taught Staples to sing, harmonize and to further hone and develop his chops on the guitar.

The Gaunga Dyns also had an excellent manager, whose father was a record producer who produced the Neville Brothers.

Photo By Chris Brennan • chrisbrennanphoto.com

Photo By Chris Brennan • chrisbrennanphoto.com

The Gaunga Dyns played steadily throughout New Orleans nearly every weekend from the time Staples was 15 right through until the band broke up when he was 17. It was after studying business at LSU that Staples joined a group called Louisiana, and ended up in Memphis on a recording contract for a short while, until the band fell apart due to Rock and Roll’s most famous excesses taking their toll. Staples’ partner in the band went on to become a famous and successful songwriter in Nashville.

Staples moved back to Oakdale, where he joined, in his words, “a really good country and western band,” but then quit to regain focus before returning to NOLA, where he continued to play and record with various groups and individuals.

He decided to go back to school to study music at Loyola. That summer, he got a job working in a guitar shop, and realized that was where he wanted to be. While he was working at that guitar shop the owners took him along to a vintage guitar show in Houston to buy some guitars for the shop.

One look at that massive room filled with 10,000 vintage guitars was all it took for Staples to make his decision.

When he came upon an inheritance from his grandmother, he had to make a decision. Staples figured that school was too expensive, and decided to use his inheritance to open his own guitar shop, instead. With $35,000 worth of vintage guitars bought from a guitar show in Memphis, Staples opened up his shop. It turned out to be the right decision, the right place, and the right time: It was 1992, and every guitarist worth their strings came to buy some choice axes from Staples’ new shop, which was the only vintage guitar shop of its kind in Louisiana.

Soon, European musicians who were in New Orleans to make records began to hit International Vintage Guitars to get the instruments that would render the sounds they were after.

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The Iceman Special: Charlie Murry, Will Murry, Steve Staples, Hunter Romero and Mike Smith.

Freddy Koella, the guitarist for Willy DeVille and Zachary Richard, came into the shop two or three weeks after the shop had opened, explaining that his friend had two guitar stores in Paris, France, and would love to buy some of Staples’ guitars. He wanted to introduce Staples to that Paris friend, and asked Staples to call him right then and there. This friend’s name was James Trussart.

Staples took the phone, and was pleasantly surprised to hear that Koella’s friend spoke such clear English. Trussart asked what Staples had in his shop, and Staples started going down a list of his inventory. Trussart picked out 14 guitars on the spot, and asked if Staples could deliver them the next week in Paris. Staples found a way to get to Paris, where the two hit it off famously.

“It turned out that James and I were kindred spirits,” Staples says, “and James introduced me to a whole world of guitar players, collectors and clients. I’ve been over to his place in France 50 or 60 times since then. He lives in Los Angeles now, however. We still speak at least once a week. He’s one of my best friends.”

In addition to attending to the needs of his shop, Staples continued to play music with a variety of bands, including a nine- or 10-year run with a New Orleans blues band that won the Southern Blues Band Competition for House of Blues, and placed second or third at a competition at a House of Blues location in California.

Staples wanted to play more original music, and joined up with a band called One, which had a record contract but fell apart soon after. Then, about a year and a half ago, the Gaunga Dyns reunited to play at the Ponderosa Stomp. They fell apart again, however, due to a divorce.

By chance, Staples ran into one of the Murry brothers, and Murry suggested Staples join them for a jam. The Murrys felt that Staples fit right in, and Staples felt as if he had been with them the whole time.

They asked him to join both of their bands — the Americana-oriented HollyRock and the psychedelic-swamp-funk-blues outfit The Iceman Special — on a permanent basis. Of all the chapters in Staples’ Story, he feels that becoming a part of HollyRock and The Iceman Special with his lifelong friends the Murrys is one of the greatest and most enjoyable.

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HollyRock: Steve Staples, Will Murry and Charlie Murry.

Dreams are funny things — elusive as wind, ephemeral as youth. Most dreams never come true. But dreams can come true for those who remain persistent; maintain their vision, their drive and their sense of wonder; and do the work.

Steve Staples may never have become a rock superstar; I don’t really think that was ever his aim or dream. But what he has become is so much more rewarding and substantive.

Thanks to International Vintage Guitars and his decades-long career as a musician in numerous bands, Staples is now very much a thoroughly intrinsic and integral part of the music scene of New Orleans. He is one of the real insiders — a member woven inextricably into the tight-knit musical community of the town. His clients have become friends — some of them very close through years of loyal patronage. When major artists or bands have a concert or recording session in New Orleans, the odds are that they’ll stop in to see Steve — as friends as much as customers.

The popularity and reputation of International Vintage Guitars as a place where one can get something very special that’s not found many other places continues. “You just never know who’ll stop by or drop in,” Staples reflects; “Just the other day, Bruno Mars bought three or four guitars from me … Joe Bonamassa recently purchased a bunch of guitars from me, too.”

Prized and rare stock varies as much as the clientele. A few of the most recent treasures are a 1966 Gibson Byrdland, a 1969 Fender Precision bass, a 1985 Gibson ES-175 — signed by BB King, a 1957 and a 1958 Gretsch, and a couple of really nice old Gibson and Fender amplifiers. It all changes from day to day.

Photo By Chris Brennan • chrisbrennanphoto.com

Photo By Chris Brennan • chrisbrennanphoto.com

“Sometimes, I’ll have a whole lot, and other days I’ll just have a smattering of things,” Staples explains, “because I’ve been in business for so long most of the stuff just walks straight through the front door, so I never know what’s gonna show up. Like yesterday, a guy comes in, and he said, ‘I have a friend who died, and I have 87 guitars. I need you to look at ‘em and let’s put ‘em in here and sell ‘em.’ So I’m gonna get about 60 of those, I think. Some of ‘em look pretty interesting to me, so we’ll see.”

Staples’ guitars of choice these days are a Gibson Les Paul Special, a James Trussart Custom Steelcaster and a Fender Jaguar. You can catch him channeling influences such as Chet Atkins, Steve Cropper, Jimi Hendrix, Dick Dale, Pete Townsend, Frank Zappa, David Gilmour and many others together with HollyRock or The Iceman Special at one of their many shows around the clubs in New Orleans, and throughout Louisiana. In Lake Charles, they play rather regularly at Luna Live, and in New Orleans, they often play the BMC (Balcony Music Club).

Still enthusiastic as ever, Staples muses, “Even now, when I get the new catalog from Sweetwater Sound, I immediately go to the guitar section and just gaze through it, and feel exactly the same way I did when I was 5.”

At age 65, Staples is living the dream he never even knew he had.

For more info, like International Vintage Guitars on Facebook or follow on Instagram @international_vintage_guitars.

For updates on HollyRock and The Iceman Special, like their pages on Facebook or follow on Instagram @holly_rock_ or @theicemanspecial

Sun, Sand, Bars, and Acoustic Guitars

My (Unexpectedly Continuing) Life as a Tropical Troubadour….

I had been living in Norway for 20 years, writing, recording, and performing music. Playing live gigs in Norway is especially challenging. There are months of little sunlight, black ice-encrusted goat trails that pass for roads that wind agonizingly through steep-walled fjords, high, foreboding mountains, and incomprehensibly snow-covered backcountry.

There were many occasions when I’d drive 6-9 hours on such roads to a gig, set up, and start playing immediately after having just arrived. The glamour of the troubadour’s life exists mostly in the minds of those who don’t live it.

Like so many other guitar-wielding organically-oriented analog-based music artists suddenly marginalized by technologically-driven and laptop-rendered hip-hop and the rise of American Idol-derived music tastes, I found myself struggling to maintain a full booking schedule. Even though I had appeared on many successful recordings, had songs chart, featured in and starred in films and documentaries, played some of the biggest festivals, clubs, and most prestigious parties in the country – I was going, along with CDs, songs with melodies, and album song sequences, the way of the dinosaurs.

In 2008/9 I recorded and released an album with a band I branded The Topangas. In 2010/11 I began receiving email requests for my songs from radio stations with colorful tropical beach-evoking names like Tropical Walls Radio, and Boat Drinks Radio, and Beachfront Radio. The Program Directors of these stations had heard my songs at various Americana and alt-country radio stations and felt that my sound would be a fresh new addition to their somewhat passé and increasingly-cliché-ridden format.

As a Native Hawaiian, I had long since tired of the cold social and meteorological climates of Norway: I was longing for the tropics of my long lost Hawaiian homeland origin. So these invitations from Tropical Rock radio stations suited my vision of what I imagined my life could be—considering I couldn’t afford to move to and live in Hawaii which would have been my first choice—if I had such a choice.

Tropical Rock is a form of acoustic guitar-based music that blends country, folk, and appropriations of Caribbean, Latin, Hawaiian, and Polynesian cultures, elements, instruments, and influences. The specific form we’re talking about here was first pioneered and created by Jimmy Buffett and is best understood through listening to his quintessentially definitive hit song “Margaritaville” – upon which he built his whole empire.

As one who was suddenly feeling outdated, antiquated, anachronistic, and just plain old and past it, I had pictured myself living out my last years slowly strumming songs about life, travel, loss, mountains, deserts, and beaches in a succession of blurred watercolor oblivion of tiki bars slowly melting into a coral-hued sunset just over the horizon to meet eternity. I felt my race was run, my time had passed, and I would just live out whatever remaining years I might have dissolving slowly back into the vibrant yet laid back tropical surroundings of my origins.

The Eagles song “It’s Your World Now” perfectly captured the way I felt and thought at this point in the game:

A perfect day the sun is sinkin' low 
As evening falls the gentle breezes blow
The time we shared went by so fast
Just like a dream we knew it couldn't last
But I'd do it all again If I could, somehow
But I must be leavin' soon It's your world now
It's your world now My race is run
I'm moving on Like the setting sun
No sad goodbyes No tears allowed
You'll be alright It's your world now

I strongly felt that if I were to leave the world of music and songwriting, I would be leaving it in far more capable and skilled hands. I wondered why anyone would still be interested in my music or songs. But with what I considered the improbable support of the trop-rock radio stations and attendant Parrot Head Club community, I began booking a series of tours to Key West: the bastion refuge of all crash landed, burnt out singer-songwriters and footloose wastrels alike. Key West: where weird goes professional…

I quickly assembled a rhythm section I tagged the Tiki Town Castaways and booked as many dates as I possibly could in clubs around Key West and up the west coast of Florida. Coincidentally, my good friend Ned Daniels – whom I had met another lifetime ago back in the sweltering, mythological desert wonderland of Arizona – had moved to the strategically located Punta Gorda, and offered his place as a staging camp for us to launch our planned campaign of tropical tunes on an unsuspecting Floridian public. That worked out ideally as Punta Gorda, in addition to having many waterfront tiki bars and clubs of its own, was also very conveniently and centrally located near all kinds of trop rock and tiki bar venues and establishments out in Matlacha, Pine Island, Boca Grande, Fort Myers, and Tampa.

I had also begun corresponding with the Key West’s preeminent blogger and proselytizer; Key West Chris Rehm many months prior to planning my tour. Key West Chris had helped me organize some local Key West musicians for my debut at the Smokin’ Tuna Saloon. Among them was the legendary drummer Richard Crooks who had played on Bob Dylan’s masterpiece Blood on the Tracks album. So that was a real honor: his drumming and sense of groove were amazing.

Another notable development came in the form of producer Ian Shaw, recently relocated to Key West from London offering to record our live performance at Smokin’ Tuna. Shaw had produced many artists but most notably he produced Nick Heyward’s (of Haircut 100) albums. For me, this was intriguing because I had always related to the tropical-orientation and vibe of Heyward’s work both with Haircut 100 and his own solo efforts.  

With the help of Smokin’ Tuna’s owner Charlie Bauer and Key West Chris, I set about booking a tour of Key West clubs as well as the other venues along the west coast of mainland Florida. Charlie was gracious enough to offer us a week’s lodging in the upstairs apartments at his club for our first tour of Key West. This would turn out to be a pattern as we would play many other tours of Key West and other towns throughout Florida launching from the mythical apartments of Smokin’ Tuna Saloon.

Smokin’ Tuna provided an ideal base from which to gauge the attitude, pace, tempo, and zeitgeist of the small tropical island town. From our lofty third-floor apartment landing we enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of crowds as they watched the various artists who played the legendarily-filmed stage. We were also right on Duval Street where all the action happens.

Our first trip over was in the sweaty, slow off-season crawl and swelter of July. The crowds were sweaty, thin and minimal – composed mostly of locals – but the atmosphere was spirited and lively.

We played a majority of the fun colorful clubs and tiki bars of the Keys and mainland from Hurricane Charley’s and TT’s Tiki Bar in Punta Gorda to the Smokehouse and Whiskey Joe’s in Tampa all the way to the infamously celebrated Flora-Bama on Orange Beach and St. Jimmy’s Landshark Landing at the Margaritaville Hotel on Pensacola Beach.

As each week of gigs and performances passed, I got increasing numbers of new bookings for not only other clubs but for other events and festivals as well. Key West Chris also hosted a Songwriter’s Invitational in which I participated. He always held and hosted his invitational within the most significant gathering of Parrot Heads, the Meeting of the Minds Trop Rock festival which runs for 4-days every November.

MOTM as it is known, was a lot of fun not least because all the other trop rockers were there and we’d have great, fun impromptu jams while hanging out ‘round various pools, beaches, boats, and watering holes in the warm, tropical friendly environs of the story-rich enchanted village. There was a vivid spirit of camaraderie, connectedness, and shared experiences among the trop rockers and the audiences alike and each year the gathering took on all the more enjoyable aspects of a giant family reunion.

Sometimes I would camp at Chris’s or guitarist Bo Fodor’s place. In addition to fronting his band, Bo was a prominent DJ at the local radio station 104.9 FM which featured some of my songs quite regularly on its airwaves. Once, in a very sonic expression of the serendipity of the trop rock universe, as we rode into town, just after crossing the bridge that leads onto the island we heard my song “Guess I’ve Gone and Done It Again” blasting on our van’s stereo courtesy of the local station. It was a fun and inspirational moment which we took to be a sign of things to come.

One afternoon Chris introduced me to Cindy and Rick a local couple who lived out on Cudjoe Key about 20 miles north of Key West. One day, Cindy and Rick took us all out on their boat to a stunningly beautiful key that rose up from low tide revealing huge strands of pearly-white sandy beaches on either side of a turquoise tidal river that flowed between them. All kinds of brightly hued fish and eagle rays were clearly visible in the gin-clear water. We swam and grilled chicken, burgers, and hot dogs all afternoon. High tide came back in and we headed back for their camp at Cudjoe Key mostly in the dark. Luckily Rick knew his way and navigated the shallows with relative ease and absolute skill. Thunderheads flashed in the distance across the black horizons briefly illuminating the usually turquoise warm waters with ethereally striking shock-white flickering shimmers……..

All Music Guide Reviewer Tim Sendra Needs a Latitude Adjustment!

Vetiver’s Complete Strangers

I think that our right honorable and official AMG music critic Tim Sendra might need a bit of a latitude adjustment on this one because I feel he’s gotten this breathtakingly grooving and relaxing mellifluous classic of an album all wrong!

Perhaps it is because I experienced Complete Strangers in the hot afternoon mellow gold of my balcony overlooking the tropical island splendor of the Dominican Republic — but I love this recording! It seems a perfectly natural progression as Complete Strangers has worked past some of the slightly more neurotic moments of The Errant Charm for an altogether smoother listen.

Acoustic guitars strum whimsically breezy jazz chords evoking achingly beautiful faraway places with rhythms reminiscent of America’s most exceptional work (“Ventura Highway,” “Tin Man,” “Riverside…”). There are hints of Latin percussion, electric guitars waft, chiming arpeggios wavering like shimmering seas, and windswept steel guitars add an exotic seabird ambiance to the proceedings.

Far from being emotionless, Andy Cabic’s somewhere between Paul Simon and Gerry Beckley (America) vocals ideally suit the warm, laid-back lilt of the songs and recall the warm, hazy vocals of the great ’70s singer-songwriters and folk-rock bands.

Indeed, Cabic’s approach may be “drowsy,” but it’s the kind of drowsy that makes for a comfortable, pleasant listen: Adele it ain’t! Contrary to what many critics mistakenly believe — music doesn’t need to shout, scream, rage or offend to keep one engaged or to have worth.

Real music lovers have more depth and range than that, and Complete Strangers will reward listeners who are willing to give it half a chance.

Too much music these days is filled with empty plastic blips, bleeps, beeps, and spuriously over-emotional pseudo-soulful vocals.

Despite the artful use of electropop flourishes, this album has an intensely organic feel with intricately subtle grooves and alluring winsome melodies that draw the listener along on a dreamy wave of electro-folk tropical psychedelia.

In perfect harmony with the geography of the band’s home state, it’s the ideal accompaniment for any mountain or desert campfire cookout, BBQ or hanging out on a deck, balcony, poolside or beachside cocktail session.

Complete Strangers is a beautiful, memorable masterpiece of California magic by a quintessentially Californian band — one of very the best out there!

Exquisite.

Like a Personal Guided Tour of Key West Given by a Local Friend Who Knows His Stuff

Time Traveler Cover

Key West Chris Rehm is the epitome of the town which he so obviously loves and knows so well.

Rehm is a songwriter and singer of songs. On any given day or evening he can be seen somewhere around Key West performing with his partner singer-songwriter Dani Hoy in their band the Shanty Hounds.

He is an author and a bar owner. Moreover, his knowledge and love of his tropical island village are significant highlights of this highly entertaining, informative, and thought-provoking book.

Since I know him as a friend, I can detect a fair amount of him in this book and story. I can just hear Rehm himself spouting his gems of beer-enhanced wisdom, facts, figures, and tidbits of trivia and history vicariously through his characters.

As a friend, I am doubly surprised to feel that I am reading the work of a classic author and not someone I know so well. However, that is Chris’s talent.

The characters are alluring and well-developed — one gets to feel like Mark Straight, Glades, and Blackheart are friends that one has known for years.

The descriptions and informative narrative asides paint such vividly detailed and enlightening pictures that one becomes transported to the many street scenes, clubs, and sights of Key West past and present.

There is a strong sense of the effects of the passage of time and readers will wistfully imagine the lives of the hamlet’s previous inhabitants while being curious as to where the protagonist will end up next.

Where does it all lead? Who is this Arthur character and why does he know so much about time travel? How will Mark manage his temporally-challenged relationship with Glades? Rehm even draws legendary Key West resident Hemingway into the story in such a way that one can feel the great man’s presence.

As educational as it is entertaining Time Traveler is a compelling read for anyone who is curious about, has a love for or a history with Key West.

Pick up a copy and then just try to put it down!