12-String Guitar Sitar Mimicry

I first heard a sitar played on the Beatles’ Sargeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. My next encounter was at the famous Woodstock Festival, where Ravi Shankar, the greatest of Indian sitarists, was performing (see photo). It was 1969 and I was sixteen, traveling with a friend. We were slung with sleeping bags and backpacks full of Pop Tarts.

 

Ragas, the classical sitar-driven musical forms Shankar played, are vibratory states of resonating beauty. They don’t do much with Western harmony, relying instead on wondrous melodies run above a scintilant sonic drone created by santoor and harmonium, flowed along with tabla drums.

 
As a 12-string guitar composer, I’ve spent no few years trying to evoke ragas on my instrument to accompany my stories from India. You can come hear some of that music on two 12-strings, along with some pretty cool stories from India, this coming Sunday May 28th at 7:00 pm, at the Riverwalk Cafe and Music Bar in Nashua, NH. If you know anyone who might enjoy such an experience, please let them know. Tickets $10 in advance, $12 at the door.

Get them here.

Sitar-Tuned Tales from India at The Riverwalk

What’s The Mahabharata? It’s the Hindu Bible, one of the two great epic Sanskrit poems of India that tell tales of the Vedic gods and ancient human heroes. Over three thousand years old, it’s a vast, long story with hundreds of smaller tales hung along it like pearls on a necklace. For my upcoming show at the Riverwalk Cafe and Music Bar in Nashua, NH on Sunday May 28th at 7 pm, I’ll be telling a few. Tickets are $10 here.

 
What you’ll really enjoy I hope, along with the vivid characters, is the two 12-string guitars I’ll alternate playing as I tell, each tuned to sound like classical Indian sitar music. I first heard a sitar when I was sixteen at Woodstock in 1969. Ravi Shankar was playing as my friend Tom and I arrived at the festival with the throngs. I fell in love with the sitar that night, and own one now. In honor of Indian classical music, I’ve done my best to develop ragas played on guitar. It’s a fulsome, wondrous sound.

 
I hope you’ll come and enjoy these stories. Powerful and beautiful, they are from an ancient time and you’ll be amazed how startling they are. You’ll even meet fire-born Draupadi, she with five husbands, all of whom are brothers…

The Helpless Sky

In the last line of a story I’ll be telling at the Climate Symposium in Boulder next fall, Gaia, the original Earth Mother, reflects on how uncomfortable anger makes her feel. Bad things happen when she senses injustice and she’s been implacably rough on her husband Ouranos and grandson Zeus during the story. What, she asks herself after she goes into hiding now that the Titans have fallen, could ever make her that angry again?

 
I guess the time has come. Our atmosphere is definitely angry nowadays. Basically, it’s drier dries, wetter wets, windier winds and hotter hots. Fire seasons continue to lengthen. Whether rain or snow, precipitation is heavier, hence floods in new places. When they do begin to spin, hurricanes and tornadoes are more destructive than before. Insurers are desperate for forecasts. For thousands of years, farmers and herders in Africa, South America and the Middle East counted on rainy seasons to avoid famines. Slowly drying out now, those lands are forcing migrants to flee what are essentially climate wars. We haven’t even mentioned our own great population centers, built at the sea’s edge.

 
Ever cooked spaghetti in a pot? You turn on the heat and wait for the boil. Long ago I learned that if I cover it with a lid, it boils twice as fast. Instead of letting heat escape out the top, I trap it in a closed system. Smart, right? It might be hard to imagine, but Earth’s atmospheric pot had no lid prior to the Industrial Revolution. Over the last 150 years, though, we’ve installed an invisible one made of greenhouse gasses from fossil fuels. It’s not anyone’s voluntary doing. We only figured this out a few decades ago. Up until then, all that exhaust was progress. As vast as it is, we’re slowly closing off Earth’s heat release system, high above our heads. Not completely yet, but we’re getting there, busily tossing tiny carbon footprints by the billions up into a helpless sky.

 
There has to be a way to figure this out before the thing boils, with us in it.

 
I’ll also be conducting a workshop designed to turn climate-aware people, including scientists, into The Cadre of Science Storytellers.

Hercules, Rage and Women

In the genuine myth (if that’s not an oxymoron) of Hercules, he’s a prince destined to be king and early on marries his first wife, Megara. They have children until Hera, who hates him, sends a madness and while blindly raging, he kills his young family. The guilt that devours him afterwards is intolerable, but Zeus and the Fates decree that if he can perform his famous labors, the guilt will end. This promise drives him through much of the story, during which he avoids women, afraid he’ll lose his mind and kill them, too.

 
Halfway through his Underworld recounting of his life, Persephone asks him about women. Weren’t there any? All those years? No, he says, but talks about the finest woman he ever met, Queen Alcestis, who’d taken her own life so her husband could live on. Hercules had rescued her from the Underworld, for which Hades has yet to forgive him. Then he asks about the Queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta, who he’d been tricked into killing by Hera, and how she’s doing in the Land of the Dead. After telling her story, Hades agrees to treat her ghost with a little more kindness.

 
Constantly filled with rage, Hercules spends a lifetime trying overcome it. It doesn’t really leave him until he spends three years as a slave to Queen Omphale for yet another murder. Accepting the punishment, he’s shocked when she takes his lion skin and commands him to dress like a woman, condemned to weaving with the girls. He learns to make his own dresses. Few people know about this cross-dressing episode in the myth. Yet it is only after this that he truly learns to appreciate women, and is finally free to love again.

 
Still, in the end, love is his undoing. His second wife, Deianira, loves him completely and they live together for years. Yet it is she who causes his death. To find out how, come listen to the tale, Hercules in Hell, this coming Sunday night, April 23 at 8:00 pm at Grendel’s Den in Cambridge, MA.

 
It’s a shocking, twisting tale. Told with 12-string guitar. An adult telling.

 

Tickets are here.

ADULT STORYTELLING IN CAMBRIDGE, MA: HERCULES IN HELL

“Oh, Hercules, I find your story so exciting!” effuses Persephone, Hades’ unhappy wife. Hercules has landed in the Underworld, a place he didn’t expect to be.

 
“Do you?” he asks, disgusted at the situation. He’s been telling his life story in order to get out of here and go to Olympus. Persephone, Hades’ unwilling wife, longs for news of the living, which until a moment ago Hercules was. But now he’s dead.

 
Hades doesn’t like his wife’s tone. “Oh, hold your heart back, Persephone,” he says jealously, wondering if this confession business was a good idea. He tries to make Persephone happy, but considering that he’s raped, abducted and imprisoned her here in the Land of the Dead, it’s a hard sell. She hates him. “He won’t be here long.”

 
Hercules has lived a hard, terrifying life. The last thing he wants to do is remember it for these two. “Let me go now and I’ll stop right here,” he growls sarcastically.

 
“Calm yourself,” Hades demands.

 
“Calm myself,” he retorts, getting angry. “Do you think it makes me calm to sit here and tell all this to you two dreary souls?” His voice has risen.

 
“Hades, he is rude!” she complains.

 
“Uh, yes,” Hades responds, “Hercules, shades like you typically do not speak here. If you’d like me to remove your voice…”

 
“No, no, no, I’ll calm myself,” the dead hero replies. “Oh, yes. I learned to do it. Took a long time…”


This is the fictional setting I use to tell the myth of Hercules. Only the characters speak. There is no narration from me. Just Hercules, Hades, Persephone and a host of other voices from Hercules’ sad, shattered life. That and a full, ongoing score on 12-string guitar with an introduction on Celtic harp. The tale is a long one, but it’s filled with humor, tragedy, adventure and in the end, hope. And I hope you’ll join me this coming Sunday evening, April 23rd at 8 p.m. in Cambridge, MA to hear it and imagine along with me. The venue is Grendel’s Den. Enjoy a mythic Greek meal, good drinks and some adult storytelling!
Tickets are here.

The Real Hercules Was A Rage-Filled Killer

When the Art Institute of Chicago commissioned me to tell the story of Hercules for an exhibition, I wasn’t aware that the glossy hero Hollywood had told me about was actually a sociopath and killer. His temper was volcanic and nobody near him was safe. This is the actual myth we’re talking about.

 
In order to free himself from the guilt of murdering his young family in a blind rage, Hercules is given a way out: ten labors (it ends up twelve). Worse, he must perform them for his weak, cowardly cousin, the king of Mycenae. It makes for a good story, though, how his cousin hates him and tries to send Hercules on labors that will kill him. The Nemean Lion, for instance, has a hide that blades or arrows cannot pierce. Hercules breaks its neck and ends up skinning it with its own claw, hollowing out its skull and wearing the dead lion as a helmet and robe. After that, arrows bounce off him.

 
Later, as poison blood hisses onto his lion’s skin, he kills the Hydra by knocking off its many heads, but makes a fateful mistake by dipping his arrows in the blood, which kills on contact like VX. That one act haunts his life and in the end, kills him. But being less than immortal, he can’t know that will be his end. At first he thinks nothing of people, or of slaying them, until after his labors he is forced to live as a woman and a slave for three years. Something in him changes and he is free to love again, but even so, he must still kill again to save his newlywed wife.

 
Hercules in Hell is a full-blown immersion into Greek mythology, told in a very fun way. Lots of amusing character voices and a score on 12-string guitar. The show is on the The Boston Calendar. 8 pm, Sunday April 23rd. Tickets are here.

HERCULES IN LOCK-UP

Stanislaus County Juvenile Hall is the lock-up for dangerous teens in California’s Central Valley, and until that day, the girls and boys incarcerated there had never been allowed into the same room. The warden, however, had okayed it for my show. With arms crossed and hands on opposite shoulders so nobody could hit anybody, the kids filed in, about forty miserable, thrown away children, past the guards with sidearms and pepper spray. There wasn’t a single African American kid among them, I noticed, just whites and Latinos. Some were quite young, nine or ten, but most were twelve to sixteen. Forbidden to speak to each other, they sat in chairs and listened to the 12-string guitar music I was playing through a couple of massive speakers. They were seated about six feet away from me. What these kids had done to end up in this hellhole, I had no idea. My friend, Roy Stevens, opera singer and polymath, had set up the show.

 
By then I’d told this hour-long story, Hercules in Hell, many times. Earlier in the week I’d performed it at the men’s prison, and they’d asked for autographs afterwards, so I knew the story worked. It moves people who are in trouble because the genuine Hercules of myth is nothing but trouble. Incredibly strong, he suffers from blinding rages, even as a teen. After each one he wakes up and sees the death he’s just dealt. But like a werewolf returning to human form, he can’t remember having done it.

 
It’s a good story for kids in lock-up, and for folks in general. I perform it often and will be telling an adult version of it this coming Sunday, April 23rd at 8:00 pm for my final appearance at Grendel’s Den in Cambridge, MA. The other shows have gone remarkably well, with wonderful audiences. As with all these epics, I’ll be playing the 12-string guitar to accompany myself. The Hercules score is unique among all my scores, employing a tuning I use for no other tale. It certainly mesmerized the kids in Juvenile Hall that day. They sat there for an hour in silence and then asked questions for twenty minutes. And nobody hit anybody.

 
Tickets for Hercules in Hell, if you’re interested, are here.

Mahabharata Backstory: Births of the Pandava Brothers

Once Upon a Time in Ancient India…

 
Out hunting one day, King Pandu comes upon two deer copulating and against all wisdom shoots them both in their helplessness. When he approaches to retrieve his arrows, the stag is still alive and says, “For killing us in our moment of delight, I curse you. If ever you make love again, you will die in that instant.”

 
Pandu’s two new wives, princesses Kunti and Madri, are horrified upon hearing this but stay with him anyway. The three go to live in the forest. However, before she was married, an old hermit, covered in ashes, has told Princess Kunti that if she ever wants sons by the gods, to utter a certain mantra. And so one night, alone in her bed, she calls upon the Sun, Lord Surya, and to her amazement, he appears in her room. The next day she gives birth to a son and sets him floating down the Yamuna River, which flows into the Ganges. He is found by a couple and raised, becoming the greatest warrior who has ever lived.

 
But then, two years later, Kunti wants sons to keep, so she summons Lord Dharma, the God of Justice, and the next day gives birth to Yudisthira the Wise, the first of the Pandava Brothers. Next, Vayu, the Wind, fathers a son destined to be the strongest man in the world, Bhima. Lastly, Indra, the God of a Thousand Eyes, fathers Arjuna, destined to be the greatest archer of all. When Madri, Pandu’s other wife, sees this, she asks for the mantra and summons the Aswins, Physicians of the Gods, and produces the Pandava twins, Nakula and Sahadeva. And so the five Pandava brothers come into the world, all with heavenly fathers.

 
In Yudisthira at Heaven’s Gate, a tale I’ll be telling this Sunday, King Yudisthira, now old, must journey to Mt. Kailasa to die, entering the the gates of heaven there. The battle discussed in the Bhagavad Gita is long past. But Arjuna and Bhima won’t let him go alone. Nor will Draupadi, wife to them all. What happens during their journey, and what happens at the gates, is one of the most dramatic stories I’ve ever learned to tell. With full characterizations, it’s accompanied by sitar-tuned 12-string guitar. Come here it!

 
The show is Sunday April 9th at 8 pm at Grendel’s Den in Cambridge, MA. Tickets are $20 and $10 and you can buy them here.

 
India’s Ancients: Tales from the Mahabharata and Beyond.

Twenty-Seven Wives? Good Luck with that, Lord of the Moon

Lord Duksha is immensely fat and has the head of an Ibex, with huge curving horns. As a powerful mantra-wielding sage and deity, he’s convinced that there simply aren’t enough women in the world, and so has sixty-two daughters in all. As a doting father, he jealously guards their well-being, especially once they’re married. He wants them all to be happy. And so when Soma, the Lord of the Moon, shows up and asks to marry twenty-seven of Duksha’s daughters, the sage thinks he’s crazy.

 
“That is a great many wives,” he cautions. “How will you keep up with that?”

 
“Don’t worry,” Soma replies confidently, “I will pay equal attention to every single one. I’m quite the fellow.”

 
Of course, Duksha’s doubts prove true. Soma ends up spending all his time with just one wife, Rohini. Duksha’s fury and resulting death-curse upon the Lord of the Moon is at the heart of this hilarious adult story from India I’ll be telling this coming Sunday night, April 9 at 8 pm at Grendel’s Den in Cambridge, MA. It’s called The Twenty-Seven Wives of the Moon.

 
I’ll also be telling other tales as part of India’s Ancients: Tales from the Mahabharata and Beyond.
The musical accompaniment is on a 12-string guitar, played with sitar scales. I hope you can make it!

 

Tickets are $20 and $10 and are available here.

INDIA’S ANCIENTS: TALES FROM THE MAHABHARATA AND BEYOND

I first came across the tale of King Yudisthira (pronounced “Judistra”) and his confrontation with the guardian of the Gates of Heaven in William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues. It was such a powerful, beautiful story, I obtained an English translation of The Mahabharata (Bennett found it there) and read it. I quickly found myself in a magical world of gods, storytellers, crystal forests, fantastical journeys and profound truths.

 
I am not Hindu myself, but as an American have been charmed by the religion’s iconography and spiritual complexity for a long time anyway. Not to mention its descriptions of particle weapons and cluster bombs from thousands of years ago. For English readers, I recommend William S. Buck’s Mahabharata translation. Reads like a novel. Shortly after I read it the Art Institute of Chicago commissioned me to create performance tales with music to complement an exhibition of Vedic art.

 

I told the stories there for numerous audiences and to my delight, Americans of Indian descent came up to me after the show, effusive and delighted. Recently I performed one of these tales at the Peabody Essex Museum as part of their Lunar Festival. Including How Ganesha Lost His Head, I’ll be offering these tales this coming Sunday, April 9th, at 8 pm at Grendel’s Den on Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA.

 

Although I own and play a sitar, I don’t perform with it, quite frankly because performing in the lotus position doesn’t work for me (even being in the lotus position doesn’t work for me) and sitars can’t be played seated in a standard chair. However, if you like, you can catch a clip of my sitar playing on SoundCloud here.

 

Loving the sitar ever since I heard Ravi Shankar play his at Woodstock, as a guitar player, I’ve taught myself to play, if not ragas, then raga-like accompaniments on the 12-string. It is this music that will flavor our evening of stories from India. Hope you can make it! Bring an Indian friend. Tickets are here.

A FEW TICKETS REMAIN…

A few tickets remain,
I make this claim,
For this evening’s show,
Just so you know.
Wily Odysseus, on his journey west,
Lost on the sea, doing his best
To hold things together
In all sorts of weather,
Missing his wife
And missing his boy,
Not having seen them in ten years at Troy,
Faces a beast with a glowering eye
And watches again as his best friends die.
But oh, he is wily, which gives him his fame.
Now journeys are odysseys, based on his name.

The Odyssey: Belly of the Beast, an adult storytelling event with live music on harp and 12-string guitar is tonight at Grendel’s Den in Cambridge, MA. 8 pm, April 2. A few tickets remain.

Tickets.

Opioid Addiction in The Odyssey

Meaninglessness is tough for everybody and lately, in the U.S., along with a lot of unemployment hopelessness, it’s led to the Opioid Crisis, as it’s called in the news. Folks from all social strata are now overdosing on heroin and fentanyl, ruining their own lives and lives around them to get that orgasmic rush for a little while.

 
It’s not a new human problem. In fact, in Homer’s Odyssey, set down 2,700 years ago in ancient Greece, the poppy and its effects are part of the tale. In The Odyssey the plant is called “lotus”, but that’s just a word-shift. This isn’t t the thousand-petaled pink lotus of Hindu lore, a symbol for the opening of consciousness. No, this is chewable heroin. At least it is on the Isle of the Lotus Eaters, a place full of drug addicts where Odysseus and his men land, early on in their journey.

 
Blown by a great storm into strange waters, they can smell the island’s alluring perfume from afar. Desperate for water and provisions, they land and Odysseus orders three sailors to explore the island and find provisions. They come upon a group of people, prone on their backs, eating flowers.

 
“Silly foolish man,” says one. “You don’t want provisions. You want lotus.”
“What’s lotus?” asks a sailor.
“Lotus is love. And lotus is bread. And lotus is sport. And lotus is wine,” replies the addict, “depending upon who you are when you eat it.”

 
Trying it once, the sailors are hooked and end up prone with all the others. It’s a humorous episode and they escape alive, but only after Odysseus finds them, realizes what the flowers are, and sails away, preferring to starve a little longer than be trapped there forever. He knows the power of poppies. How they rob a man of his will. Calling to the other fleet captains, he yells, “Nobody eats anything here! Do not breathe if you can help it!”

 
Their next adventure is in the cave of the cyclops, where, in order to survive, Odysseus needs all the will he can summon.

 
I’ll be telling the Lotus Eaters as part of The Odyssey: Belly of the Beast this Sunday April 2nd in Cambridge, MA at 8:00 p.m. with my 12-string guitar to add beauty. It’s a 90-minute show. Grendel’s Den on Harvard Square is the location. Fun evening. Hope you can make it.

 
Tickets are $20 here.

Odds Bodkin