Sunday, October 10, 2010

Big Night Out on Campus

Saturday night on campus ... and David and Susan were there! At the Courtyard Cafe in the Illini Union, two great bands were playing: Desafinado for Brazilian samba and Sandunga for guajira and Cuban son. Here's the fascinating backstory:

Despite the fact that David and I both spent an embarrassingly major portion of our adult lives on the campus of the University of Illinois (as graduate students and academic staff in various jobs over the years), we were no longer in the habit of going up to campus very often. Frankly, things on campus had changed a bit since I came to Champaign-Urbana in 1963 (what a surprise!).

Time was, for example, when I had taken or taught a class in almost every building around. French was actually a popular language in U.S. universities once and before the Foreign Language Building was erected (during my two-year absence teaching at Drake in Iowa), the classrooms were spread all over. Since then the demand for la belle langue has, regretfully, diminished considerably, and the campus has expanded and spread out very far in all directions with tons of brand-new science and technology labs that I have never had occasion to set foot in!

Campus town, the area of stores, restaurants, bars, and apartments near the student union, has changed as well. It used to be a couple of blocks of one- and two-storey places serving some typical campus needs -- a malt shop, bookstore, barber, florist, and a few bars. In the sixties, there were coffeehouses, import boutiques, and head shops. Now it looks like just another chunk of suburban Chicago: towering high rise apartments, ethnic fast-food chains of all sorts, fitness centers, hair salons, tatoo and piercing parlors, smoothie stands, and tons of bars.

The automobile traffic has quadrupled in the past twenty years alone (ah! the perspective of age ... maybe the only good thing about it?). Believe it or not, students didn't used to be allowed (imagine a word like that even!) to have cars on campus; freshman couldn't live in apartments rather than dorms (which had curfews and rules and weren't coed!). Now every apartment with four students includes four cars, as well as numerous and sundry other vehicles: bikes of all types, skateboards, rollerblades, scooters, etc. It requires grim concentration on the part of conscientious drivers to survive in campus town these days. Meanwhile, the pedestrians are usually concentrating too -- on their phones, texting, iPods, etc. as they cross the street totally clueless of traffic.

If the traffic sounds bad, consider the parking options. Okay, getting back to our own story a bit too, we were running late (a regular occurrence for us). I was afraid we wouldn't be able to still get tickets, figuring they might be sold out in advance. We tried to find a handicapped spot near the Illini Union Building but couldn't find any. There was a metered place, however, that cost a quarter for every 20 minutes. But it was enforced 24/7 with a two-hour limit (it wasn't yet eight o'clock and the concert went until eleven), so that didn't work either. Finally, we found a free handicapped parking place several blocks away in a municipal lot. I got my four-wheeled rollator/walker out of the van and we headed through the crowds of scantily clad girls and boisterous boys with backward baseball caps.

We were nearly all the way to the student union when we decided to sit for a minute on a bench at the intersection to catch our breath. A young man came up to me and made an unusual request: it was his birthday, he said, and he had to have a birthday spanking and wanted me to provide it. I ascertained that nothing more was involved than giving him a quick slap on each buttock while his girlfriend took a digital photo. Then she asked to stand in a slow-dance pose with my white-haired and bearded 69-year-old husband while her boyfriend took another photo. They seemed immensely pleased that we had cooperated. I suppose somebody's Facebook wall will display the results of this odd encounter!

Next was a quick stop with the bored ticket taker on her laptop doing homework; she had to charge us eight bucks instead of four because we were no longer students or staff and were retired from the university, but the sponsoring student organization hadn't given her any change. Fortunately, I found eight ones in my wallet.

We were the first to buy tickets that night. And, except for a table of friends of the bands, we were amazingly the only audience! It's a nice venue with a raised stage, good lighting, plenty of tables and chairs, and a coffee place nearby. I think there were a lot of events going on that night and maybe the student group sponsoring the show didn't get the word out as well as they might have. That must have been the explanation for the poor turnout. We've been following the first band, Desafinado, for about 10 years now, and they are truly terrific -- all extremely good musicians who play wonderful, interesting, and upbeat music from Brazil. They really play together, compose original pieces, and seem to enjoy what they are doing.

But, from our point of view, it was pretty great to be sitting right up front and feeling as though the concert was being performed especially for us. The group was terrific. Elis Artz, the singer from Brazil, is phenomenal. She is lovely and lively and radiant, with a tremendous voice filled with emotion that comes across big time, despite my inability to understand the literal meaning of  the Portuguese lyrics.

Greg Jahiel on guitar also sings in Portuguese in beautifully harmonized duets with Elis and provides fantastic guitar accompaniement to all the numbers. He's a talented composer as well; one of his originals was performed that night -- a song so poignant it brings tears to the eyes.

Giraldo Rosales keeps that wonderful conga beat going that is so important to the Latin jazz, samba, bossa nova, and MPB sound. It makes me play my hands on the table in time to his drumming. Joel Caracci is new on percussion, replacing Matt Plaskota, who replaced Chad Dunn. (According to the old spoof movie, Spinal Tap, drummers change about often because they are victims of spontaneous combustion!)

Tom Paynter is well-known in a number of local bands as a musician extraordinaire. I'm not sure if there are any instruments in a band or orchestra that he can't play. And he plays several "things" that are certainly musical but maybe not officially instruments. He is an extremely talented composer and pianist and wild maniac with a synthesizer, but in this group he plays an amazing flute (maybe a separate blog post about that in the future -- there's quite a story there) as well as a melodica, sort of a "wind-powered piano/accordion in a package" kind of instrument. He is able to create the most beautiful and surprising sounds from these instruments that lend so much atmosphere to the music.

We all miss Connie Johnson, one of the founders of the band, and her delightful vibraphone work and compositions. She recently moved to the West Coast, but her hit number "Sea Breeze" was performed at the concert. Sitting in tonight was Karim Yengsep, a musician from Almaty, Kazakhstan, on electric bass.

After a great performance by Desafinado, there was a short break during which I discovered that a huge tango dancing contest of some sort was going on the large ballroom down the hall. There were interestingly costumed dancers standing in the hall catching their breath as I rolled by in my walker on the way to the restrooms.

The next group was Sandunga, a band that has been around these parts a long time but which we heard for the first time only a few weeks ago at an Urbana jazz club.  They play Cuban son and guajira music, and it's a lot of fun. The two lead vocalists and players of guitar and other interesting Cuban string instruments are William Hope and Julian Norato. They sing in Spanish (of course) and harmonize beautifully with each other. Their virtuosity with the guitar and laud and tres (Cuban string instruments) is something to see and hear!
Tina Hope sings as well and keeps a terrific beat with an intriguing instrument involving a wooden rod hit against another piece of wood. I've also heard her play a cool drawing and scratching kind of instrument that's hard to describe but provides just the right sound.
Adam Walton kept the beat as well with three great congas. Later in the set, he was joined by a terrific bongo player whose name (I think) is Andrew Miller. He also plays a bell-type instrument and shakers.
When they played in Urbana, there was also an electric bass player named Eduardo Herrera, but he wasn't with the group on Saturday. The music is lively and infectious. Like Desafinado, they are all very clearly accomplished musicians and friends and they play with a sense of genuine joy that the audience can't resist. Even though there were still very few other people in the room, one of the young women was dancing, which was fun to see. Again, a superior performance by an excellent band.
On our way out of the student union, we passed through the South Lounge area of this massive Georgian Colonial building and I stopped to wait for David to use the restroom. There was a grand piano at the end of the vast room near a gas fire in a lovely marble fireplace. A sofa was next to the fire and a young man who looked very intent on what he was doing was working through some incredible pieces of Beethoven. He was probably a graduate student in the famous school of music here and he was clearly practicing. It was thrilling. We sat and listened for another half hour or more.

Unfortunately, David had forgotten his padded flannel shirt jacket on the back of the chair in the concert room. We hope it will show up at the lost and found tomorrow, but maybe not ... On the way to the car, Zorbas the gyros place was still open and we stopped for a quick bite. We made it through the throngs of students still milling about after midnight, some clearly intoxicated by now, and reached quiet southeast Urbana safely after our big night out on campus. What fun!


  1. Susan!
    What a nice post! Thank you very much! I "stole" few pictures, ok?

  2. Susan, I'm so glad you had a wonderful time! I know from being with others who need handicapped spaces close to key buildings...the U of I needs to work on this. They are sadly lacking on this, especially when there are events that bring in a greater need.
    All those new buildings have amazing resources in them. The students and alum of the U of I are so blessed.

  3. Hey, Susan--well I remember the 60's in Campustown when we were French teaching assistants and you danced on a drum at the Tomahawk (was that its name?). "Those were the days, my friend, we thought they'd never end....."

    With love,

  4. Ah yes, Suzanne. It was the Thunderbird, which later moved to Urbana and then became Timpone's, which is now an upscale restaurant rather than a rowdy student bar ...