lately ive been thinking of how random and fascinating life can be. and reminiscing on some on the randomness of my own life... so id like to share one of my all time favorite random stories....
back in april of 2000, i was living at home in iowa, playing fretless bass in a reggae band. one evening, we were trying to think of songs to add to our set.... at this point in my life, i was completely absorbed by paul simons "graceland." it was my bible. i carried a copy with me everywhere i went. beyond the great music, amazing writing, and the social importance of that album, i felt a bond that i can only describe as a "spiritual" attachment to that record.
as we were sitting around throwing out song ideas, i said "it would be really cool if we played 'call me al' from graceland" to which one of they guys sarcastically replied "yeah, as soon as you learn that bass solo, we can play it....." something about that comment really stuck to me, it was as if he didnt believe i could play it.... that was all the motivation i needed to decide that i was gonna learn that solo no matter what.
i ended up renting "the african concert" on vhs. (amazing that a blockbuster in des moines, iowa would carry something so hip...but then again, it was probably sitting on that shelf since 1987.....) now, "the african concert" was paul and the graceland band playing the album live. (i highly recommend looking into the history of graceland and that concert) i was excited because it showed a close up of bakithi kumalo, the bassist on graceland, playing the solo in "call me al" not once, but twice..... so i sat down, and watched that 5 second clip over and over and over and over..... (play, stop, rewind, stop, play, stop, rewind, stop....) i sat for hours with my bass, sitting in front of my television, wearing out that 5 second section of film in that poor movie.... i was able to figure out the first half of the solo, but whatever went on in the second half of those 5 seconds baffled me...i listened to the original, and then would watch the video but was only getting more and more confused. finally, i came up with a few ideas that i could use to fake my way through, and started resigning myself to the fact that it was not meant to be....
a few days later, i was looking through the datebook (des moines entertainment guide) and i saw that eileen ivers was going to play at the val air ballroom, a small venue in des moines. i knew of eileen and how she was one of the greatest irish fiddlers of all time, so i immediately decided that i had to go and see her. not only did i decide to see eileen, i decided i was gonna call allison schneider (who i had a major crush on, and wasnt sure if she even knew who i was) and see if she would go with me....i called allison out of the blue, and was shocked when she agreed to be my very first date.
so that friday night, (it was the 14th day of april....if gillian welch ever reads this.) i picked up allison, and we went to the val air. i was completely nervous.... and she was completely beautiful... we got there early, and i mentioned to allison that i wanted to go and look at the instruments that were sitting on the vacant stage (being i was a musician, i was interested to see what gear the band was using.) i immediately went in front of the bass players rig. "warwick," i thought, "thats pretty decent....hope the guys a good player...."
i went back and sat at our table with allison, and waited for the show to start.
first eileen came out by herself, and played a gorgeous irish fiddle tune that went straight to my soul.... i looked over at allison, and i knew i was in the right place. then, she said, "ok, im going to introduce the band one by one, next is my guitarist..." and her guitarist came out, and they did an amazingly nimble irish duet. next was the drummer, then the keyboardist.
after about 15 minutes she had brought out all of the musicians in her band, except the bass player....and being a bassist myself, i couldnt help but to think how bassists always get the shaft when it comes to the spotlight....
but then, she said something that still to this day knocks me out of my socks.
"and last but definitely not least, id like to introduce my bass player...."
"...you might have heard him on paul simons "graceland" album....."
i immediately yelled out "ITS BAKITHI KUMALO!!!!" and felt the entire val air ballroom crowd shift its gaze to allison and my table....
"yes! all the way from soweto, south africa, bakithi kumalo!"
13 years later, my jaw is still on the floor of the val air ballroom.
i dont even really remember the rest of the concert. i was spending the entire time trying to wrap my brain around the fact that the guy who i had been studying for the past week, who happened to be on a compilation cassette that found its way to paul simon in the '80s, then was recruited when paul decided he wanted the authentic south african folk musicians he heard on his tape to be featured on his next album, an album that was born out of pauls divorce, an album that many said was doomed from the start, an album that had to overcome boycotts, racism, terrorism and apartheid, an album that ultimately became the most culturally significant album in history, an album that featured a solo by the guy standing right in front of me, the guy who came all the way from south africa, to the middle of nowhere, iowa to play music with an irish fiddler....and how pretty allison schneider looked sitting right next to me. i dont remember much else, but i distinctly remember the end when eileen said "thank you all for coming out, we will be over at the merch table, and we would love to meet you."
i said "allison, i will be right back" as i sprinted to my truck, grabbed my cd of graceland and ran back into the ballroom.
as i was walking through the crowd, there is bakithi kumalo, walking straight towards me.
"mr. kumalo" i said, holding out my copy of graceland.
"oh! i know that! that is me! i played on that!" he said as a huge grin came across his face.
"this is my favorite album of all time" i said, "i had no idea you were going to be here, would you sign it for me?"
"of course i will!"
then i said "and actually, im a bass player too, and ive been trying to learn your solo in call me al, but i am totally confused!"
"oh, it is a piece of cake! all it is is up down up down....come with me, ill show you."
and bakithi took me and allison up on stage.
plugged in his bass.
turned it up a little.
and proceeded to play me the solo, one note at a time, in slow motion, until i heard every note he played.
"see, i told you it was easy....but on the record, they played the second half in reverse on the tape, so nobody can play it like that....."
and for one moment, everything made perfect sense.
i thanked bakithi, dropped allison off, went home and played my bass all night. the next morning i called up the guys. "hey guys, i think we can play that song now...."