Sunday, June 26, 2011

San Juan, Dr. Shah, and the Jewish Lesbian Mafia

San Juan Fort Promenade
       I first visited San Juan, Puerto Rico when I worked as a bandleader on the M/S Costa Classica in 1993. Over the years I had revisited it while on board other ships. The last time I made calls to this old city was when I was performing on the M/S Crown Princess in 2007. San Juan was the ship’s turn-around port, the city where passengers  on a cruise to the islands of the Western and Eastern Caribbean embarked and disembarked. San Juan is a quintessentially old, perfectly preserved Spanish colonial city, filled with forts and  grand old buildings, some of them crumbling, built of coral and wood and stone. More than any other city, with the exception of Cartagena, in Colombia, San Juan reminded me of what old Manila, in my home country of the Philippines, might have looked like  had it not been practically flattened by American bombs during the last days of World War II. The city was destroyed in order  to spare American soldiers from having to flush out and engage in hand to hand combat with pugnacious and desperate Japanese soldiers who were holed up in the warren of streets and buildings, ready to do one last stand. The following is an account of one day I spent in San Juan, P.R.
     As  I waited my turn to be checked and admitted into San Juan, I saw how immigration procedures for crew had changed since 9/11. Where before the immigration officials used to go into the ship and check everybody off at the theater, everybody now had to go outside to the ship terminal and stand in line.  Today it took more than two hours  for the whole operation to transpire.  US security concerns after 9/11 had made themselves thoroughly felt in this little procedure.
Street in San Juan
     Duly cleared, I made my way out into old San Juan. Heat bounced off the steel-blue cobblestones of the Spanish city.  Occasionally a  fresh cooling breeze would sweep down the hilly streets and bring temporary relief from the muggy weather. Nothing much seemed to have changed in the main plaza. In fact, it looked a bit shabbier than before.  A Starbucks now lurked off to one street. One of the main department stores, Gonzalez Padin,  had closed, replaced by a Marshall’s Department store. There seemed to be many more boutiques around.  The quaint little Puerto Rican shops of yore were losing out to high fashion houses like Gucci and Fendi.
     Many narrow streets criss-crossed  Old San Juan, but the one street that qualified as  main Street  was the Calle de la Fortaleza (Fortress Street). This street wound up from near the Sheraton Hotel, a short distance from the nearby cruise ship terminal, and rose up to the fortified section of the city with its administrative buildings and centuries-old ramparts.  One of the streets that crossed the Calle de la Fortaleza was the Calle Cristo. It dipped down from the part of San Juan fronting the open Caribbean sea and undulated like the back of a blue-scaled dragon to the other side, ending in a  promontory  occupied by a mottled and crumbling chapel. To the left of this chapel was the Museo del Libro (Museum of the Book), and hard towards its right was a small, narrow park, the Parque de Palomas, that overlooked the bay of San Juan. Dozens of aggressive,mangy-looking pigeons overran this park. Their jaundice-colored shit lay splattered everywhere: on the fretted ironwork, on the pavement, on the domes of the nicely-restored watchtowers. I stayed there for a while and caught sight of a hummingbird sipping nectar from the orange flowers of a santan bush. From where I sat I saw the M/S Crown Princess docked in the port below looking not so much like a ship as a gigantic art deco grill that had floated into an 18th century town, as out of place as Starbucks and McDonald’s were among the turn-of-the century balconies of old San Juan.    I sat on a bench in front of which two pairs of bronze shoes, one a woman’s and the other a child’s where bolted permanently on the pavement. I had the feeling that the  sculptor installed these simple objects to intrigue the viewer. To whom did these shoes belong to: a mother and child?  Obviously nobody ever wore these shoes, but that was the sort of question they evoked. Loss and remembrance in a tropical setting: a subtle sculpture that one could easily miss because they looked like cast-offs left behind in the park.
      I decided to do a watercolor of the chapel at the edge of the bluff..Many years ago, I had  done a quick sketch in ink of this structure but I had hurriedly done it without regard to details. This time I wanted my depiction to be more accurate.
      I found a convenient stoop to sit on. An arm’s length away was an open-air cafe that had tables set right on the street.  A shifty-looking man approached me with a wide, too-friendly smile on his face.
   “ Do you speak English?” he asked me.
   “Yes,” I answered hesitantly. What did he want to sell me?
 He opened a folder that revealed pamphlets detailing the evils of drugs.
      “Do you have $2?” he said. “ I can give you this to read”.
      I politely declined.
    “How about your hat, can I have it?”
      Again I said no.
      He accepted this in good grace then warned me: 
     " Watch out for the bad men about town. There have been 57 murders here this month alone.”
     I suppose he meant the whole of San Juan and not just this old section. It was always my impression that the old city, charming as it was, was not quite safe at night. I wondered how things were when the great cellist Pablo Casals used to live hereabouts. Was it safer then?  Or did this guy give me this (uncorroborated) information because he was one of those men who might just do me harm because I refused to give him my hat?
     “Oh?” I said. “How come so many?”
     “It’s the drugs, it’s everywhere.”
     He did not say “addicts”, just “drugs”, as if drugs were doing the killing.
     “Methamphetamines?” I ventured.
     “No, just drugs in general. Cocaine, heroin....” his voice trailed off.
     He left me, and I could still hear him importune some other tourist with his opening line:”Do you speak English?”
      As I settled down to do my watercolor, a large man with a doleful, furrowed face sat beside me. He looked like Boris Karloff in a guayabera. There was a certain familiarity in the way he took possession of his side of the stoop, a manner that said he had done this before and this stoop must be shared by friends and strangers alike..  I did not feel I was in danger, since people were seated chatting and having coffee nearby, and many tourists and Puertoriquenos were up and about having an afternoon paseo. I minded my own business while he did his. He was selling Dominican cigars, made, according to him,  from tobacco grown from Cuban seeds. Although my sketching engrossed me, I could hear him very politely say to passersby:
     Sir, would you buy some cigar. It’s the best kind. You can try some now, and if you like it, I can send you more by mail. Please visit my shop. It’s around the corner”.
     Sometimes he’d leave the stoop to press his sales elsewhere, and when he got tired he’d return to sit beside me again.
Capilla del Cristo de los Milagros
     By the time I finished my sketch, he was able to sell some cigars to a passing American tourist.
     Now, the inevitable happened: he addressed me.
     “Your drawing is nice. You can sell it, you know. You can put more colors in it.”
“You know that building you’re drawing?” he continued, without any encouragement from me

      “It’s called the Capella de Cristo de los Milagros. People here don’t take care of it, it’s full of pigeon-shit.”
     I had always wondered what that building was. It looked like a chapel..After all it was surmounted by a cross and a belfry Still, it could have just have been a simple gatekeeper’s chapel. In fact, while I was sketching, a stout, American woman accompanied by a younger version of herself, came up to me and rudely demanded:      
     “So what’s the name of that building you’re drawing?”
     “I don’t know,” I replied.
      “You don’t know?” she blurted out, as if it was a sin.” How come you’re drawing it?”
      “Does one need to know the name of a building to draw it?” I replied innocently enough.
      Slightly taken aback, the woman demanded further,” So draw me!”
      I looked at her as if she had gone out of her mind. She took the hint and tramped off with her companion trailing behind her.
      I asked the gentleman what miracle motivated the chapel’s construction.
      “Many years ago,” he said,  “during the Spanish era, a gentleman was riding a horse that got spooked by something and ran uncontrollably down this very street. Just as the horse reached the edge of the cliff there it suddenly stopped and the gentleman’s life was spared. He saw this as a miracle, and in gratitude he built this chapel . They don’t take care of this chapel now. You see that bell? It's bronze, but it shines like gold if it’s cleaned.”
      I looked at it. It looked dirty, tarnished and definitely pigeon-defiled.
      “ I paint what I see,” I told him.” If it was a shining, I’ll paint it that way.”
      He asked me where I was from.
      “The Philippines,” I said.
      “Ah, Filipinos are a good people, very artistic. There was a Filipino who came here, a karate expert who married a Puertoriquena. After a while, they went back to the Philippines. Too much crime and problems here in San Juan”.
      I had no idea who he was talking about. But then, if a Filipino who comes from a crime-ridden city like Manila should hightail it out of San Juan because of the crime here, then San Juan’s problems with law and order must be very severe indeed.
      “And you sir,” I said, “What is your name?”
      “My name is Dr. Shah. But that is not my original name. I am Iranian.  I am a US citizen. Do you know that there are one million residents here in Puerto Rico all on US welfare?”
All the while I thought he was a native Puerto Rican!
      “You’re a doctor from Iran?”
      “Yes, I came over here many years ago and fell in love with this place. I had my brother come over here. He did not like living in America. He went back to Iran.”
      “Why are you selling cigars?” I asked him.
      “I became bankrupt.  My left arm is paralyzed. Twice some people tried to kill me. They were from the Jewish Lesbian Mafia”.
      “The Jewish Lesbian Mafia?” I repeated his words slowly. Was my well-mannered Iranian-Puerto-Rican, Dominican cigar-pushing friend for the day not quite together up there?
      “Yes,” he said in all earnestness, “ the Jewish Lesbian Mafia.” 
      Taking his statement at face value,  I wrote down the name of the chapel on my completed sketch. Some of the water I had used had spilled on the stoop.
      “Oh,” said Dr. Shah,” you must clean that stoop. Others will sit on it too.”
      He handed me a piece of tissue with which I wiped away the water.
      When I was cleaning up and putting my materials in my backpack, Dr. Shah left me to attend to something. As I made my way back to the ship and turned the corner on Calle de la Fortaleza, I saw him at the entrance to a small shop.
San Juan Fortaleza Promenade
   “Hey, Philippine,” he called to me from across the street,” come to my shop!”
      “Next time,” I hollered back.

                                                                             All Artwork: mannypanta©2011     

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Mummies, Monreale & Mafia

Palermo, Sicily

    The catacombs of Palermo lie underneath the Capuchin monastery in the city. When I first entered this forbidding place together with a group of passengers from our ship, the M/S Costa Romantica,  I thought I had wandered into an old  theater's costume department.
     Ah, so many  mannequins in period dresses  hanging from hooks on the walls!
     It did not take me long to realize that those mannequins were actually dried-out cadavers in various states of disintegration. I revised my first impression and decided I had wandered into a scene from "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
     Only the bigwigs of Palermo past, namely, nobles, traders, politicians and clergy, were considered fit to be mummified. It was a privilege, and expensive,  to be dried and put out on display, either dangling from hooks, lying on open shelves or enclosed in glass caskets. The last person to be preserved by the monks, back  in 1922, was a little girl named Rosalia, who still lies there in the children’s chamber,  seemingly peacefully asleep in the company of grisly, contorted and  horridly grinning corpses.
     The place was decidedly spooky. Were it not for the company of other tourists who  were shuddering like me, I would have turned tail and fled the place faster than you can say “Marco Polo”! Effectively lessening the fear factor were the bright fluorescent lights that illuminated the dungeons.  And no, the place did not smell of anything other than dampness. I could not help wonder what the place looked like in the 18th century when feeble lamps or torches were all that the monks had to light up the place.
     The practice of mummification of course is thousands of years old and occurred in many cultures, notably Egyptian, Inca, Chinese, even  Filipino. It was rooted in the belief that the human body was sacred and would rise up whole and reconstructed at the end of times. You’ll see a mummy here and there in a museums all over the world. However, chances are you won’t see as many mummies as here in this warren of tombs under the Capuchin monastery. The good people of Palermo used to visit regularly to spruce up and replace the worn wardrobes of their loved ones. That was the best they could do, since obviously they couldn’t replace rotting flesh. It seemed to me that they lavished such care on the couture of their loved ones so that when the angel sounded the wake-up trumpet during the last judgment, they’d all rise up, ready and perfectly dressed for the occasion. Could they have foreseen that these dressed-up corpses would become a tourist attraction, fodder for the horrified gawkers from Minnesota and Malibu? I wonder what some tourist would remark if I, by chance,was in that dehydrated position.
    “ Oh look, mom, says here that guy used to be a musician on some cruise ship. He doesn’t look too musical now, does he?”
    From the catacombs, our tour group went up on to Monreale, a town barely half an hour outside Palermo. We drove up the mountain overlooking the valley the Sicilians call Conca d'Oro, or Golden Basin. A hot-looking haze smothered the countryside below.
     The cathedral of Monreale was of Norman construction (ca.1100 AD), built to rival the equally splendid cathedral in Palermo. Magnificent mosaics depicting events in the life of Christ adorned its walls. Dominating the church from the apse, was a very Byzantine and mesmerizing mosaic of Christ Pantocrator (in plain English, Christ Almighty!). Among the tableaus on the wall, my favorite was that of Christ healing the blind. He's fixing the man’s vision with rays emanating from his own eyes. To me this looked like a prescient and graphic portrayal of lasik treatment. Perhaps the artist saw more of the future than he let on? 
    Having admired the awesome and neck-contorting mosaics of the cathedral, I went into the  treasury, which required a separate ticket of admission (price: 2500 lire). This was a side-chapel built to contain precious church objects that any self-respecting thief would surely want to get his hands on.  Among the items displayed here were an intricately hewn cupboard, a pair of finely carved wooden doors depicting scenes from the bible, marble statues, and various silverware. The chapel’s altar was inlaid with multi-colored marble, a work of art, by itself worth the price of admission.
     Attached to the cathedral was the cloister of the Benedictines, about which I had read so much. This, again, required its own ticket (price of admission:2000 lire).
     The cloister didn't disappoint. Four rows of Romanesque columns, each one bearing a different, quirky design, enclosed a peaceful garden.  A fountain gurgled in one corner. A faded fresco of virgin and child peered from a corner wall. The atmosphere was tranquil, soothing, and so far removed from the hot, busy streets of Palermo.  I thought of all those Benedictine monks who used to pray and meditate within this garden. I thought of the Benedictine nuns who used to teach and drill into me and my hapless classmates the fear of the Lord, back at St. Peter’s Academy in my hometown of Ormoc City, Philippines. I remembered the Benedictine priest (who shall remain nameless) in music conservatory who used to yell at me when I played a Mozart sonata with jazz accents. Ah, pesky memories, safely buried in the past, but slightly invoked here within the peaceful precincts of the cloister.
     Monreale is a tranquil town up in the mountains above Palermo, where there is no traffic, and the blue Sicilian sky forms the perfect backdrop to the terra-cotta dome of its Norman Cathedral. If this was its only reality, then Monreale would be that postcard-perfect Italian town in which every tourist cliché is realized.
    The less-picturesque reality however is that Monreale has had its share of Mafia-related killings and assassinations.  Also, ugly high rises were steadily encroaching on the old town, so that if you didn't already know it, you wouldn’t realise how much  architectural and artistic wealth lay behind those charmless modern towers. Couple that with the sight of garbage and graffiti on the approach to the town and you would have gone past Monreale in a hurry.
    Despite all that, a visit to Monreale is more than worthwhile, indeed, required of any visitor to Palermo. It is, after St. Mark’s in Venice, quite possibly the most magnificent Norman-Byzantine church in Italy.
_____________________________________________________________________Note: I visited Monreale in pre-Euro days, a time when, as a Roman piano tuner sardonically told me,  "We Italians used to be rich. "

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Night at the Sydney Opera, 1993

 I am seated in an opera box at the Sydney opera house, waiting for the start of a company performance of Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda”. A standing-room only ticket of AU$20 got me this lordly place which is normally reserved for more moneyed subscribers. Nobody seems to want this seat because it has only a partial view of the stage.  I myself wouldn’t plunk down $100 for this seat. Tonight the SRO price is just right. 

A kindly-faced gray-haired Australian woman is my only other companion in the box. I learn that she used to work in the costume department of the Sydney Opera. I notice a tall, buxom woman with a prominent jaw who has turned round from her seat in the front row orchestra and is waving her hand in my direction. I tentatively wave back at her until I realize that she is actually waving at the woman beside me.
           “She's waving at you. Who is she?” I ask.
           “Oh,” she replies, “that’s Joan Sutherland”.
           We enthusiastically wave back at her.
The conductor of the opera that night is Dame Joan's husband, Richard Bonynge. The program notes that this particular opera was last performed by her wife many years ago. Now, retired, she's just an honored spectator. The opera is a bel canto setting of Schiller's play. I find the opera sonorous and compelling but find the acoustics of the hall less impressive.
Although the sound within the Opera House is mediocre at best, it is the architectural outer shell that astonishes and delights me. In terms of recognizability and popularity, the Sydney Opera House is right up there with the Statue of Liberty and the Parthenon. It’s hard to believe that its construction was hotly vilified by press and populace and its Danish architect so thoroughly disgusted by the politics of the whole thing that up till the day he died in 2008, he never went back to Australia to see the finished structure.
  Like the Eiffel Tower, I.M. Pei’s Louvre pyramid, even the Statue of Liberty, the Opera house had a controversial beginning but over time has been accepted and loved as THE symbol of Sydney, if not of Australia itself. To paraphrase the saying, you can’t keep a thing of beauty down. There's something about the billowing roofs of the opera house, especially at sunset, when its creamy facing tiles acquire an almost golden luster, that makes me want to sing: “The sails are alive….”

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Stella by Starlight (Video)

Another video I made set to a performance of the jazz standard "Stella by Starlight" by the Pacific Star Trio (Manny/Dave/Jim).
Again I utilized photos from my digital album, plus a beautiful sunset shot by Dave. It's often said that a photo is worth a thousand words. I say, in this digital age, photos plus music is worth ten times that amount, and then some. Enjoy!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Misty in the South Pacific - A Video

In 2006 I led a trio on the M/S Pacific Star, sailing out of Brisbane, Australia to New Caledonia and Vanuatu. We recorded some songs for posterity. This is one of them, a bossanova version of Erroll Garner's " Misty". I made a video using photos from the South Pacific dredged up from my digital album. Personnel: Manny Panta (piano), Dave Fiore (bass) and James St. Amour, Drums. Great cruise, lovely memories, great guys!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Sibelius, or The Landscape of Music

It was raining when we arrived in Helsinki, Finland. The weather was cold and the sky was grey and dreary.
I didn’t bother getting off the M/S Royal Princess. What was the point? There would be other, more sunny days, in which to explore this city on the Baltic. Today was not one of them.
This is not to say that I didn’t expect this climate in this part of the world. Gloomy weather and Finland seemed to be one and the same thing. When I looked out at the miserable weather and the general feeling of gloom that it invoked in me, I kept hearing, like an insistent drone, the music of Jean Sibelius. Somehow, imagining that music, I found the scene less dreary.
Two weeks later, our ship returned to Helsinki. The sun came out this time. In celebration, the people of the city laid out a market on the waterfront . Stalls overflowing with Finnish food, vegetables, fruit, flowers and craftwork attracted crowds of tourists. The park nearby exploded with flowering trees and hedges. Musicians played on an outdoor stage and street corners. Cosmopolitan-looking habitues sipped coffee on tables neatly set up on the sidewalks. The stores buzzed with shoppers. I even bought a pair of Nikes.
What happened to the rain? Did I still hear Sibelius’ music among the squares, churches and cafes of the city? No. For that, I had to go further.
I went to the Helsinki train station, an art deco building with statues adorning its façade that looked like those on Rockefeller center in New York City. Metro buses lined up outside the station. One said: “Sibelius Park”. I took it.
Transcendent experiences sometimes start in the most plebeian way. You buy a ticket to somewhere, say, to Nepal, and start your climb up Mount Everest. In this case, I took a bus to this particular park because it featured on its grounds a monument to Sibelius.
The bus dropped me off some distance from the monument.
I put on my iPod and started listening to Sibelius’ Second Symphony.
I walked along the shore of a placid lake. Wild ducks, their plumage shimmering in the sun, hunted for food among the reeds. Thickets of wild rose bushes crowded the banks. So, too, did stands of yellow and purple irises. A wooden shack stood at the edge of the lake. The sun shone down and danced on the rippling waters. The landscape reminded me of Alaska - same scenery and vegetation, even the feel of the weather.
And, as in pre-US Alaska, the Inuits fought the same foes as the Finns did, namely, the Russians. The Finns eventually overthrew the yoke of Russian imperial control, and paid a heavy price for it in territory and people lost. Helping them along as a kind of accompaniment, descriptor and rallying point was the music of Sibelius. Ask any Finn, and he’ll tell you that the music of Sibelius is the soul of Finland.
After a short walk, I arrived at the Sibelius monument. I could understand why this monument ignited some controversy when it was first installed here. On first glance, it doesn’t look particularly grandiose or monumental. It just looked like some artist hung silver pipes among the trees and plopped down the equally silvery head of a frowning Sibelius on a piece of rock.
Yet the more I looked at it, the more the sculpture made sense. The silver pipes, backgrounded by the native trees of Finland, looked like the pipes of an organ or an Aeolian harp, and thus signified the music of the composer. And the head of Sibelius seemed not so much stuck as growing out of the granite. Through this tableau, the sculptor simply showed us that Sibelius and his music were an organic part of Finland, no more and no less.
I stayed for an hour or so, sitting on a bench opposite the monument, listening to the music of Sibelius on my iPod. Finnish is a particularly difficult language to understand, but I did not need to know a single Finnish word to feel the soul of Finland through its landscape, this monument, and the music of its greatest composer.