Renn Loren, not just another ukulele-wielding, guitar-strumming freelance writer…

Salud and Tikis2Ya! Stay thirsty, my friends.

I am a writer of songs and prose. Been that way all of my life. Music took precedence for many years – decades even. But I finally got back to literary writing somewhere around 2015 or so thanks to Brad Goins at Lagniappe Magazine in Lake Charles, Louisiana. So in that way, I kind of became a Southern writer, even though I am possessed of a Hawaiian heart and an islander’s soul.

In 2017 I set that right when I hopped a plane headed away from the hostility of a temperate continent and bailed out somewhere over the north coast of the relative tropical island paradise of the Dominican Republic.

Sure, I know one person’s paradise is another person’s scrap heap, but I am a creature of warmer latitudinal origins, and I lived way too many years in the tropically-challenged climes and culture of Norway. Norway is as far from Hawaii in mentality, attitude, and climate as it is possible to get.

It was high time for this wayward soul to get back a little closer to the equator.

I thought I’d eased totally out of music but that was not to be the case. One night after a particularly wild session of angst-fueled rummery I stumbled upon the great lost mythological Baja Tiki Tribe. They handed me a ukulele anointed by the excreta of several native species of winged creatures. I strummed and plucked singing to and with the birds and several species of swaying palm trees in the wind and it was good.

It seems I’m not quite so finished with musical exploits as I’d previously thought.

I miss Hawaii but the Caribbean ain’t bad, either. Now everything I write—music as well as prose—is somehow informed, influenced, and addled by a borrowed island and a bottle of rum.

Stay tuned for my continuing adventures and missteps. I’ve had a lifetime full of each and do not see that changing anytime soon.

A much longer and thoroughly detailed version of my ongoing story can be found in The Continuing Adventures of TikiMon and the Irie Island Girl.

Salud and Tikis2Ya!

Stay tuned and stay thirsty my friends!

The Randy’s Back Tour Now Underway on the North Coast of Hispaniola

Aloha Baja Tiki Tribalistas!

Low and behold our wayward drummer returned briefly from the far-off frozen north to join us for some truly inspired gigs around Cabarete and Sosúa!

To say they were magical would be an understatement. I haven’t felt this inspired about music in years! David and Randy are not only a dream team rhythm section, but they also add some amazing harmonies to or Island-Rock-Tex-Mex-Caribbilly™ sound.

There is seriously rewarding chemistry between us that speaks of great things yet to come. https://www.reverbnation.com/bajatikitribe

Come see us this Tuesday, July 30, 2019, at Parada Tipica El Choco for the apertivo (free appetizers and dance session) from 5-7 pm.

So stay tuned and stay thirsty my friends, and

Tikis2Ya!

The Continuing Adventures of TikiMon and the Irie Island Girl

July 2019, Renn Loren

A Note to Friends and Loved Ones from the Caribbean

For any of our fellow tropicalian denizens of the trop-rock and Parrothead circuits out there who may have wondered where we’d gotten off to in a “whatever happened to…?” sort of way, here’s a detailed account.

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 increasing numbers of karaoke-playback-acts grabbed up all the bookings. This development 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 on Charlotte Harbor when I overheard some clown commenting about how acoustic guitar music: “sounds like ‘Unplugged’ from the ’90s.” As if playing the acoustic guitar would ever somehow be epochally-constrained or era-dependent.

Somehow this wannabe hipster thought that a voice accompanied by an acoustic guitar without the embellishment of karaoke-esque backing tracks was an ancient “outdated” form rather than a pure what you see is what you get minimalistic rendition. That did it for me. No self-respecting musician worth their weight in guzzled rum and lost weekends should ever have to suffer that level of techno-gadgetry-addled ignorance and lack of awareness!

A few other similar incidents sealed the deal. I was getting a lot of booking offers from out west. I decided to pursue those instead of trudging along fighting what had become an increasingly losing battle against technology and the corporate bottom line 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 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 the sudden deluge of Cajun artists, bands, and music. Friends of friends who would only book their friends slowly edged us out. I decided to focus on journalistic writing and quit trying to fight for live music bookings.

My girlfriend Melinda (Irie Island 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 Kershaw.

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. Rodney was pretty good at both.

Living there was much like one might imagine living in a gypsy caravan to be. The camp sits 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 well-used 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 in the darkness of 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 abundant greenery, flora, and patches, strips, and fields 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 left on the roads and gravel areas – small rivulets streaming away down drainage culverts about camp. Enough water remained in some of the drainage ditches that algae grew and tadpoles of various frogs developed. Water beetles helped the tadpoles keep 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 other fiery hues. Many of the evening and morning skies were otherworldly in their sun-dappled beauty.

On many evenings there were gatherings around 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 just after sunset hours of the evening. 

Tunes rise at sunset — 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 unlikely 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 multiple 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. We would sit there on the silver-white log 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. I figured he was likely right about that and agreed to at least 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.

Goins had written a review of my album for the magazine.

Lagniappe is the most-read printed publication in the region. I noticed Brad was drinking something 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 having a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of music. I asked if there was an opening for an obsessive music journalist at Lagniappe. He handed me his card and told me to give him a call or an email.

My pedal steel guitarist Johnny Briggs and I were playing the Blue Dog Cafe, Luna’s courtyard stage and in the main club itself. We also played out at an enjoyable restaurant and bar called Junction 171, a fun golf club cafe, and at Rita’s Landing on Big Lake out south of town. Additionally, we 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 along at the golf club and a couple of other clubs. We played in Galveston too. We left the Blue Dog Cafe after a run-in over volume (which the house controlled) with the manager. It was sad because we had enjoyed playing there. It paid well and the crowds were large and appreciative.

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. We also played Rikenjaks Brew Pub. Both venues were Cajun hipster joints, and soon the inevitable local heroes of Cajun music edged us out. As such, gigs rapidly dried up. 

A few weeks went by, and I suddenly found Brad’s card in a shirt pocket. I wrote an email asking if there was any 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.

The column was called Big Name Spotlight. I wrote about Willie Nelson, Jewel, 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 up 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 drop out of music entirely. Dropping out of music freed me to devote full focus to literary and journalistic writing – which I did with wildly fanatic enthusiasm.

Although I had officially quit music, I was still playing occasionally at our friend Susan’s Tia Juanita’s Fish Camp Restaurant. I also had sporadic bookings at Luna’s outdoor courtyard. One night it was around 105°F, and Johnny nearly passed out. His shirt, wringing wet with perspiration, was likely the only thing that saved him from doing so. I felt terrible for him.

Ah, those were the days.

A new mean spirited and divisive 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. I began to feel a ubiquitous Us vs. Them tension.

Even so, thanks to great friends and supporters such as Sunny Jim White, “Key West Chris” Rehm, Donny Brewer, 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 as well as 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 massively legendary producer Bill Halverson at Yellow Dog Studios in Wimberley, Texas.

For the uninitiated: Bill Halverson is the producer behind the recordings of such stellar artists as Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, America, Eric Clapton & Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Bill Withers, Stephen Stills, the Beach Boys, REO Speedwagon, Neil Young, Tom Jones, David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Emmylou Harris, Dwight Yoakam, Albert King, Flaco Jimenez, Freddy Fender, Doug Sahm, Augie Meyers, Alvin Lee & Ten Years After, and the Texas Tornadoes. https://www.allmusic.com/artist/bill-halverson-mn0000765611/credits  

Although primarily known for his work with roots-rock artists, Halverson also engineered albums by the cutting edge German avant-garde art-synth-rock pioneers Kraftwerk.

I’d first worked with Bill in Nashville back in 1991 or so when I was making the rounds of the major labels and recording studios in the “Music City” pitching songs and looking for a singer-songwriter/artist major-label contract. I’d caught the attention of the labels by way of a demo CD I’d recorded in Phoenix, Arizona—where I was then based. 

CD demos weren’t standard or common in 1991, so mine was a prestigiously high-quality professional calling card with a renowned producer no less, and Nashville answered. The producer for my demo CD was the music industry legend and mogul Thomas “Snuff” Garrett. 

Garrett helped launch Buddy Holly, founded Liberty Records, connected JJ Cale with Eric Clapton, set up Leon Russell, and produced some of the biggest hits of the ‘70s and ‘80s in pop and country music.

The musicians were also top-shelf. John Hobbs (https://www.allmusic.com/artist/john-hobbs-mn0000187101/credits) was on keyboards, Al Casey (https://www.allmusic.com/artist/al-casey-mn0001267540/credits) was on dobro, Dan Electro sitar, and guitars, and the rest were musicians Garrett was using for the CBS TV series Evening Shade starring Burt Reynolds of which Garrett was also the musical director. Paul Franklin would join on pedal steel guitar for the Halverson Nashville sessions. https://www.allmusic.com/artist/paul-franklin-mn0000030478

Another major legendary music industry mogul and virtuoso guitarist Richard Bennett (https://www.allmusic.com/artist/richard-bennett-mn0000294018/credits) had set up a recording session with Bill after having heard my demo and me performing some of my other songs on an acoustic guitar on the porch at his place.

I recorded with Bill at 16th Avenue Studios with 1991’s version of Nashville’s finest. Improbably, the studio was owned by my old high school friend Barry Sanders from my teenage years in California.

The Nashville period was an invaluable lesson about how the music business actually worked—or didn’t, and it laid the groundwork for a non-acrimonious uncontested conflict of interest contract dispute not long after. 

My manager-publisher declined an offer from Malcolm Mimms, who was Garth Brooks’ production attorney at the time to buy three of my songs. It was to be a first-time songwriter’s contract which decreased the percentage of publishing rights over 12 years from 99 to 1 percent and that after halving my songwriter’s credit with a 50-50% songwriting credit being given to Brooks upon signing. I was okay with that but understood the problem of the publishing company’s interest in the deal. Nevertheless, I still wanted to make the deal. 

The final straw to my management deal was when the same manager rejected a “hired gun” contract with the Eagles to play drums and sing lead and/or harmony vocals on a proposed “Hell Freezes Over” tour.

The story was that Henley and Frey had met skiing in Aspen and decided to get a reunion together with the band. Upon their return to the real world however Henley’s record company Geffen reminded Henley that he had a big hit album out that they were still working at radio. The reunion would have to wait.

My manager was contacted with a proposal that I sing the Henley leads up until such time as Henley was able to join the tour. I was to play drums and sing harmonies if needed when Henley was able to join.

The fact that my demo was produced by Snuff Garrett and that I was working with Bill Halverson and having my songs heard and considered by some pretty big names brought special attention. The fact that I could also play drums while singing lead or harmonies in any key and had a very Don Henley-like timbre to my vocals placed me in an even smaller field of competition.

There just were not many other prospects who were brought to Nashville via a Snuff Garrett-produced demo-CD featuring some of Nashville and LA’s finest musicians who could play drums while singing lead, sounding quite like Don Henely and hit any harmony. 

The Nashville experience also resulted in my keeping contact with Bill and Richard through the years and working with other top producers and musicians on future projects including New Zealand’s Nicholas Abbott of Crowded House notoriety.

The sessions at Yellow Dog Studios were to be one beautiful and memorable quiet last hurrah.

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

The yellow dog of Yellow Dog Studios

We recorded five of my songs and lived in the studio. There was a lot of time to hang out and hear Bill’s wondrous stories and recollections of his mythologically legendary career. We even got Augie Meyers (https://www.allmusic.com/artist/augie-meyers-mn0000051380/biography) to come in and contribute some accordion, keyboards and sing some vocals on my songs. Both of these were significant, memorable highlights of those sessions. Bill said it was a great sign that Augie was inspired enough by the songs to sing some vocals.

We recorded five of my songs and lived in the studio. There was a lot of time to hang out and hear Bill’s wondrous stories and recollections of his mind-bogglingly legendary career. One cool afternoon Bill, Melinda, and I had a particularly enjoyable story session over some damn fine coffee in a local cafe.

We even got Augie Meyers (https://www.allmusic.com/artist/augie-meyers-mn0000051380/biography) to come in and contribute some accordion, keyboards and sing some vocals on my songs. Both of these were significant, memorable highlights of those sessions. Bill said it was a great sign that Augie was inspired enough by the songs to sing some vocals.

The incomparable Augie Meyers about to lay down some of his signature Farfisa organ triplets 
Augie adding some Meyers Tex-Mex to the proceedings.

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.” I rewrote it as “Meet Me in Key West.” I couldn’t raise any interest from any wretched record labels because the entire music industry had collapsed. Every aspect had devolved into something unrecognizable. From record labels and CD/album sales to radio airplay, it was a whole new world. And not a very profitable one at that. It seemed like a good time to call it a day for music and drift casually 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 bright green grassy tree-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 situated conveniently at the edge of the wild wetlands, shipping channels, canals, and quite close to the Mexican Gulf itself. Irie Island Girl and I would often paddle our kayak around the shipping channels and other waterways. We’d ride with the dolphins, explore sandbars and islands, and chat with people on the large boats and ships from our kayak bobbing below on the swirling tide-driven waters. 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

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 Island 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 excellent jobs and even supported by radio broadcasts. The organizers had kindly offered to include us in the lineups whenever we wished to join in.

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 good 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 costs 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 to park an RV. Add vehicle insurance, health insurance, and food, and it’s unaffordable. At the very least it’s inferior value for one’s buck.

New Mexico was more affordable and near to Colorado. But Arizona was the most affordable of all as I have 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. There’s a trop-rock scene in San Carlos on the shores of the Sea of Cortez, and I have a bass and guitar playing friend living in Puerto Vallarta.

I pictured us in our RV with me writing for various periodicals or even launching an expat newspaper and playing whatever occasional gigs I might be able to pick up in the cantinas around the area. Melinda would likely continue with the online company work she was doing.

Ultimately the vision I had was one of myself disappearing anticlimactically into a cocktail-blurred and misted oblivion of tropical sunsets at tiki bars. I would be strumming an instrument or pounding out some halfway meaningful prose on a keyboard.

Melinda and I had begun packing and storing all unnecessary things away 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 as our ultimate destination. If the lack of beach life got to be too unbearable in Arizona, we could just head out for San Carlos sooner than later.

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 correspondingly elevating costs of living are a universal problem for most of the world’s hapless inhabitants.

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 the programming and supplying the music of his favorite trop-rock radio station.

He found this out the hard way.

Brian had built his bar & grill; the deal was that the radio station would be part of it. The radio station he was working with initially backed out of the proposed relocation and left him stranded.

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

The plan was for me to program, format, and manage the proposed Paradise 102 FM radio station in Sosúa. 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. Mostly, I felt that his hard-right conservative midwestern viewpoints and brash boastfulness might ultimately become too much to deal with. 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 us 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 11, 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—moving farther into the future.

I went to check the club out and ended up getting the whole story from the realtor who leased the property and the other business owner on the property. I knew then that life had found other things for Brian to do. He wasn’t coming. So I began making arrangements for more permanent long term dwellings. It became clear that the locals didn’t appreciate the brutish lout’s loudly expressed politics or drama. So it wouldn’t have been all that favorable to have been associated with him after all. Fate did us a favor.

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’s F and with humidity levels consistently above 90%. Relatively then, Sosua was fine.

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. 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 and expenses of our new Caribbean island lives 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.

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 the airport and 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 diagonally from Super Pola. 

And then there’s George’s Oasis Bar, 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.

Local ladies bring fresh fruits and avocados to our door daily via large 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.

Crushingly, I’d lost my writing gig at Lagniappe. The owners found it too much trouble to navigate all the steps in the online banking necessary to get my payments to me. 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 as well as 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. So a great thanks go out to Brad, his wife Nydia, Bob, and Greg too.

So, much to my avid dismay, I began playing live music gigs again for supplemental 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—pursuing every, any, and all publication opportunities I could uncover.

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!

These developments have been a profoundly 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 significant 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 lyrics 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 my Hawaiian relatives have all moved away from Hawaii or died.

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. With its fascinating and colorful history, there is much to see and do. I do not claim this island as home so much as I appreciate the loan. For me, it’s a borrowed island. Even so, there is a part of my ancestry, which seems to belong here somehow. 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 Island Girl back in her element in Hispaniola

By culture, mindset, heart, soul, and disposition, I am an Islander. Hawaii will always be home, my island. But Hispaniola is a gracious, enigmatic, dynamic, and beautiful host. There are many times here when the temperature, humidity, trades, lighting, skies, and colors are just right; that 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 one misses most.

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

Life is good today.

Tiki hut sunsets to all!

P.S. In the time that has passed since I began writing this story, there has been a lot of negatively-charged news and media coverage regarding the deaths of American tourists in the D.R.

Local expatriate communities living in the D.R. have not experienced these events with anywhere near the same level of threat, danger or drama as has been suggested by U.S. media.

I wrote an essay from a local’s perspective on these events in my Saturday column for the Dominican Today and Caribbean Post. https://dominicantoday.com/dr/local/2019/06/22/american-tourist-deaths-in-the-dr-a-ground-level-perspective/?fb_comment_id=1737010216401942_1740234386079525

As one may determine from the comments section, there are a few people out there who seem a little too willing to harshly criticize countries other than their own. There appears to be a perceptible personal grudge contained in the words and attitudes of many such persons. Put quite clearly: we expatriates who live in the D.R. feel no heightened or elevated sense of threat or danger concerning the spate of recent American tourist deaths. Strangely enough, the phenomenon seems to have ended. There have been no new reports of any mysterious sudden deaths of American tourists for over three weeks now.

It also needs to be said that there have been 28 Canadian tourist deaths so far in 2019. But the Canadians did not get hysterical about it nor were they provoked to do so by their press corp.

In very recent news I’ve been picked up by the Carribean Post a Montreal-based publication that serves the entire Caribbean region and the greater world via the Internet at https://thecaribbeanpost.com/?s=Renn+Loren 

Tonight I’m off to join my new Baja Tiki Tribe band for a few sets of our Island-Rock-Tex-Mex-Caribbilly™ at Gordito’s Fresh Mex in the surf town of Cabarete 15 minutes to the east. https://www.reverbnation.com/bajatikitribe 

BajaTikiTribe-bryan-prince.jpg

The Baja Tiki Tribe coming soon to a cantina, palapa hut or taco tiki hut near you!

Aloha, and stay thirsty my friends!

DR tour setup. Renn, David, and our full sound rig – instruments included – packed on David’s bike. 

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