You are currently browsing the monthly archive for February 2011.

The harp, the artist & the company that made it happen.

PARIS, FRANCE – Nov. 4, 2010 – From CAMAC Harp’s harp log:

The “DHC Blue Light” is Camac Harp’s  latest collaboration with strap-on-harp-legend Deborah Henson-Conant. Made of super-light, mega-strong carbon fibre, it weighs just 11lbs, boasts a new lever design, and comes in 34- or 36-string models. Even Deborah herself can’t get a back-up model right now because of the length of the waiting list.

Ingeniously, Camac collaborated with bicycle manufacturers to make it happen,

Deborah began working with Joel Garnier in the early 1990’s , while she was on the hunt for a lever harp she could harness to her body and move about on stage with.

DEBORAH’S STORY:

“I had wanted a harness harp for years. Some harp makers built quick prototypes (such as John Hoare of Pilgrim), but finally, I got a small Rubarth lap harp, covered it with red-and-silver contact paper, put a pickup in it, made a rudimentary harness for it, took it on tour and played it for Joel.  He said, “Ah, Deborah, now I see what you mean,” and the next time I saw him (it seemed like 4-6 months later, but was maybe more), he handed me the prototype of the Baby Blue. I still have that very first prototype!

I built a new harness (the prototype for what we’re all using now), a friend modified the harp (which was wood, so fairly easy to modify) it so it could attach to a bogen camera-tripod as a stand, and I started touring with it, wrote orchestral pieces for it, and learned about amplification.   For awhile I always shipped the harp in a bicycle box, as It fit perfectly and I could often get it on a plane free that way.

The culmination of the Baby Blue was “Invention & Alchemy,” when I got to really show what the instrument could do both as a solo instrument as a feature with orchestra.  The end of the era came soon after at the Arles harp festival about 3-4 years ago, when I came without my Baby Blue and played a modern model.

Technical improvements had made the model so heavy that it was too much to wear, even for me, someone pretty big and used to it. It was painfully (literally) clear that that model had no future commercially as a harness harp.  It was that ‘failure’ that forced Jakez and me to sit down and talk about the future of the instrument.  It seemed like the idea was either going to die and I’d be one of a few people left in the world playing the original model, or the next model needed to be revolutionarily different.

Jakez decided to go ahead with the expense and time investment of a completely new model, and asked me for input on what changes we needed.  That investment was huge on many levels:  there was no way to know that this investment would pay off financially; I don’t think there was a huge interest in harnessable harps at that point — something which seems to have changed — but he would know more about than I.  In retrospect, I’m awed at the leap he took, both financially and creatively.

Jakez tells me that I had been going on at him for so long to work with bicycle manufacturers to develop a harp with a truly light carbon-fibre frame, that finally he did. It wasn’t as simple as copying their manufacturing processes, however. The main problem in designing a lighter harness harp was the cost of producing a mould for the body of the harp. This was prohibitive, because it is a technology which is designed either for companies who don’t care about costs (competition bicycles), or who count on big quantities (mass production). As a harp maker, Camac was neither of these. Another technical problem we faced was that the harp needed wooden parts (for the tuning pins and levers, for example) inserted inside the carbon fibre skin of the body, which does not happen with bicycles because they only have foam.

In the end, the idea of a mold was dropped entirely, and Camac chose to produce the harps the same way cycle manufacturers produce their prototypes – by hand, one by one. The inside parts are produced in the Camac workshops, the foam parts and wooden inserts are cut out, the bodies are assembled and then the harps are sent to the bike company, who has the knowledge to cover them with the carbon fiber skin with a special “bag” and a vacuum system.

My First Concert wtih First Version "DHC Blue-Light"

The new carbon fibre harp was a huge success for me from the moment I put it on. I remember that moment – all of us:  Jakez, Jonathan (my husband/producer) and I – noticed that it was as if my body and my hands had just been waiting for this instrument.  The low C string (just 2 more strings than I’d had before) was revolutionary in terms of my playing — it suddenly gave me a range and heft I hadn’t realized was missing — suddenly this was a hugely viable solo instrument.

That was a magical moment. Not because something “unusual” happened, but because, after years of working with Joel and Jakez on the harp, and with Jonathan on how to project that sound best in both concert and recording situations — suddenly everything clicked into place.  We’d reached – not the end – but the true beginning of this instrument.

About a year after that, at Jonathan’s suggestion, I  started experimenting with a looper pedal — and with the convergence of those two technological changes: the expanded, improved instrument and the addition of the looper, suddenly my shows and my way of composing expanded.  I’m still right at the beginning of that development, so I feel like a hungry gourmand whose just sat down to a splendid table.

The DHC Blue-Light trumps the Baby Blue in pretty much every way. The sound is more even, it’s nearly half the weight, with more strings, better levers*, visually it seems to really capture the imagination of the harp-playing audience.  Everything just seems to have ‘clicked’ with this model, from what I can tell.  And now it’s a matter of improving little things (like an anchor pin for the harness; a better, lighter stand that allows for removing the harp more easily; a simple holding stand for touring, etc.), which are often the responsibility of the user to develop, but the fundamental instrument is IT — the instrument I dreamed of, what I see as the crossover instrument of the 21st century.”

Off to explore the world, harp on my back!

And Jakez Francois, CEO of CAMAC Harps adds: “I think there is an additional reason why more people want a DHC Blue-Light: it is more than 10 years that harpists see what Deborah does with that harp, most of the younger generation don’t even know that there was a time when portable harps did not exist, and they find just normal to have one if they want to play non conventional music. Step by step, the harp made a big step.”

Now that I’m sitting firmly in my 58th year, I sense a kind of undercurrent that it’s a fact I should to hide.

And when people say things like, “Oh, but you don’t look 57″ they miss the point that, by saying that, they’re implying that 57 is something I shouldn’t want to be or to look.  So I might encourage those who like to comment on people’s ages (as I do) to consider something like, “Wow! No wonder you look so intriguing!”  But you have to mean it.

The issue of openly aging reminds me of an episode in Germany 15 or 20 years ago:

I was on tour with my band, and we’d gone to a record store to do an in-store signing of a new album.  We passed by a large cutout of Tina Turner and I got so excited I yelled, “I LOVE YOU, Tina Turner!” and hugged and kissed the cardboard cutout.  I guess it caused some commotion.

Fast forward a few months.  The buyer for that chain was in New York and had invited me to dinner, as preface to encouraging me to share his hotel room.

I was not encouraged, but he kept trying — and  I don’t know how much that had to do with what happened next. I do know he knew about the cutout episode.  So he turned to me and said, “Tina Turner – big deal. I see her walking around Koln all the time, looking like an old grandmother.”

I’m not sure how that statement was supposed to function in his strategy,  but it stopped me cold.  Probably not for the reasons he thought.

The image flew into my head:” Tina Turner, Public Grandmother-type.”

I just let it sit there, dazzling me.  That Tina Turner had the cahones to walk around publicly “looking like an old grandmother” raised her in my estimation so suddenly and so high that I was flattened against the banquette.

For a split second I could imagine having such a strong sense of self-worth to be able to embody both being Tina Turner and being an openly aging woman just walking down the street, and it completely rocked my world.

At the same time, I could hear he meant the description to be degrading.  It put me on notice: Whatever this guy saw in me as a woman, he wouldn’t see it 25 or 30 years down the road, no matter how rich a life I lived or how great my accomplishments.

The fact that I didn’t want anything to do with him personally was beside-the-point — he was in a position to have a some control over my career.  So what he thought of me did mean something to me.

So what’s the takeaway here?  I’m asking myself.

Fear of being who we truly are is nothing new.  But living in fear of being outed is dehumanizing, the anxiety that some one thing about who we are will shut a door on the chance for all we truly are to shine.

I feel like I should have one last, summing-up sentence, but I don’t. So maybe someone else will sum this up for me.

Wired for Love

This is part of my “Wired for Love” project, to blog each day from now until Valentine’s Day 2011 with songs and stories about love & romance – including a special LIVE “Wired for Love” show on Sat. Feb. 12 at the Blue Ocean Music Hall in Salisbury, MA.

(Please join my mailing list for monthly updates & live show info)

NOTE: This blog includes an audio file related to the story – if you want to listen while you’re reading, you can find the file at the end of the post.



When I was 13, my friend Melinda Johnson in Pfafftown, NC would save a seat for me on the bus.  She was the shortest kid in the class.  Smart like crazy.  She taught me to hunt crawdads.  Her family had an entire pipe organ dismantled in their basement. And she would tell me stories about boys.  Long drawn out stories about closets and shadows and whispering hands and eyes, and every story would end with  “And then …” followed by a long pause, “and then … he kissed me.”

It was the same punchline every time and it surprised and scandalized me every time she said it.

When I was in my 30’s I signed with the GRP jazz label, and recorded three albums with some of the greatest contemporary jazz players of the time.  I always felt awkward and out of place, because that group of players was like a boy’s club of amazing musicians – and here I was, the girl with the harp.So even though I was the ‘artist’ and they were theoretically supporting my album, I always felt like I was the kid sister trying to hang around with the big guys.

Sometimes I never even got to meet the incredible players who ‘backed me up’ on my own albums, but by the third album, I was allowed into the clubhouse a little more.  And on that album, was a great percussionist, among others,  whose name I think was “Cafe” – and forgive me if I have the wrong guy, but I was like a deer in the headlights during these recording sessions – it’s amazing I remember anything.

So, we were recording a kind of Bluesy tune of mine called “And then he kissed me…” in memory of Melinda Johnson, and while we were listening back to the take, this percussionist and I started joking around in the sound booth, talking as if we’d just been on a date, only he was speaking French, which I didn’t understand – and I was responding in English and clearly misunderstanding everything he said.  And he had the most gorgeous voice and the most beautiful …

But now … here, you have to understand that I’m a huge – I mean HUGE – fan of Ken Nordine, who is the original “Word Jazz” creator, mixing jazz and spoken word.  So I’m listening to this French-English thing mixing with this Bluesy music and I suddenly think, “This is GREAT!!! This is so… so Nordine! We have to record this!” And in my one moment of courage I said, “Please can we get this on tape?  We can always erase it later if the company doesn’t like it.”

So we did.  He and I walked into the studio and got onto two mics – which was when I noticed how absolutely gorgeous he was — and as I realized we were really going to do what I wanted … I froze. I couldn’t think of a thing to say, even though I’d been being so brilliant in the sound booth.   I was so dazzled by this guy that after awhile I just sort of sighed and giggled.  Forgive me, oh strong in-control woman I wish I were…

And the upshot is that the company agreed to release the album with this wacked-out conversation on it.

And that was great.  It was fun.  And the tune had a little notariety, which was cool.

So fast forward 5 or 10 years and I’m in France. I’m in an interview with a French journalist, and he starts rattling off the speech from this cut and nearly falling on the floor laughing.  And I look at him, and I realize that it had never occurred to me that people in France would be listening to this cut and how funny people who actually understood what the guy was saying might think it was.

And the moral of the story is … well … there is no moral.  It’s just a story.  So here’s to Melinda Johnson and the romance of the French language … which is just as beautiful whether you understand it or not.

Wired for LoveThis is part of my “Wired for Love” project, to blog each day from now until Valentine’s Day 2011 with songs and stories about love & romance – including a special LIVE “Wired for Love” show on Sat. Feb. 12 at the Blue Ocean Music Hall in Salisbury, MA.


“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” But it might not sound as catchy…

In the publishing class I’m taking, I read recently that hit songs sound like hits from the minute you hear their titles.  I see what they mean, though not sure I have that knack yet myself.

Rose ImageYesterday, under the hood of my laptop with my new computer guy, I was struck when he asked my computer’s name – kind of like a doctor walking in and being introduced to the patient. Or last week, I was photographing some old ink cartridges to put on Freecycle, I noticed each was labeled with its printer’s name, “Buffy’s Ink,” “Ripley’s Tri-Color.”

And one of my favorite scenes from Mark Twain is in the Diary of Adam and Eve, when Eve’s job is to name the animals and explains each name to Adam by saying it just “looks” like what it’s called.

The process of coming up with a name for an album or a show is usually a collaborative one for me. And I often realize after the fact, that a name that’s deeply meaningful to me isn’t so for other people – or that it needs a lot of explanation.  I’m no Eve in that regard.

Take my project “Invention & Alchemy– by a long process that title emerged because my own experience, composing for and then performing with orchestras, is that there’s a long period of isolated invention, a time when I’m completely in my own head and studio, inventing and writing out the blueprints we’ll play from.

Then come the rehearsals and performance – the moment when all this invention comes to life.  For some composers, performance provides a pale version of the work they hear in their head.  For me, it’s the opposite.  There’s a bubbling, unexpected magic when I experience the actual physicalization of the notes on paper, when the idea turns from idea to reality, a reality that’s so much more than what I originally invented, That experience I call “alchemy.”

So, seeing the process as two phases, I named the CD/DVD project as close as I could to my experience: “Invention & Alchemy,” not really thinking what viewer’s or listener’s experience was.

Fast forward to when the piece aired on PBS. I told all my friends to watch for it when it came to their area, and I started hearing complaints:  “I didn’t see you in the program! I don’t know when it’s airing!”  And when I told them the name, they said, “Oh, but that sounds like a SCIENCE program.”  Gulp.  Probably wrong name, at least for the television version.

So about 6 weeks ago when I found out I was playing a pre-Valentine’s show at the Blue Ocean Music Hall in Salisbury, I took a poll on Facebook asking for suggestions.  I immediately got a huge response, suggestions that were funny, inventive, sometimes wacky and esoteric – and it was huge fun just reading them.  Here are just some of the huge selection:

• Composer Alexander Miller: “Lyre! Lyre!”
• Harper Tasche: “Cupid in a Blindfold”
• Jessica Betz: “Love and Other Disasters?”
• Beatriz Harley: “Love: The Good, the Bad and the Watermelons”
• Glen Gurner: “Love’s Lyre?”
• Sean Williams: “Fondness makes the Harp Grow Stronger”
• Betty Widerski: “if this love is wrong I don’t want to be right” (a tribute, I think to the 1972 R&B hit)
• Julie Methot: ‎”Don’t Break My Harp”
• Charles Legg Jr:  “Harping on Love”?
• Kate Engelke Baxter: “Love, You Harp-breaker You!”
• Sandra Knudsvig: “Electric Love”
•  Laura Williams: “Love: with Strings Attached.” (Then Laura added:  “Great choice of date by the way…. of course, I am a bit biased, since it is my wedding anniversary”)
• Ginger Webb suggested combining Lincoln’s Birthday (Feb. 12) together with a Valentine’s theme and came up with: “War Between the States of Love” and “Abe-Babe’s Honest Love Songs”
• Alexander Miller closed the field to a collective groan with “Achey Breaky Harp” – but someone had to suggest it! (Thanks Alexander, you brave soul!)
My own suggestions included “Valentunes,” “Love Bites,” “The Romancerator,” “Harp-Break Hotel” and “Love, And Other Pitches too High to Hear (But Dogs Can)”

And, as usual, my former UPS Guy turned comic, Brian Kelly, who can always be counted on for something sparklingly tasteless, suggested  “Pre-Minstrel Slings and Arrows.”

I read them all to my husband.  He laughed and went back to his computer.  I puttered around for awhile, then walked in and he looked up and calmly said, “Wired for Love.”  And I knew that was it.  I could see how all the other suggestions, even ones that seemed out of left field, led to his suggestion.  I could see how “Electric Love” with “Love’s Lyre” and “Slings and Arrows” could become distilled into “Wired for Love” – but I don’t think we would have gotten there without all the other crazy, not-quite-right, silly and even tasteless ideas.

It’s amazing and wonderful to me how all the input distills into something simple, that feels right. I loved how fearless everyone seemed,  to just throw suggestions into the ring, to take part, to be involved — and all of them in some way contributed to the final title, which seemed to happen effortlessly … but only because of all the effort that came before.

So, right now, I just want to say, “Thank you,” for these and the many others names people suggested via Facebook, my thanks – not only for chiming in with great and silly ideas (often the same, by the way), and for some really great laughs (much needed) — but for the sense of camaraderie.  May your enthusiasm reap the rewards of love.

Shakespeare probably didn’t go polling his friends for titles … but I’m really glad that I can.

Wired for LoveThis is part of my “Wired for Love” project, to blog each day from now until Valentine’s Day 2011 with songs and stories about love & romance – including a special LIVE “Wired for Love” show on Sat. Feb. 12 at the Blue Ocean Music Hall in Salisbury, MA.

(Please join my mailing list for monthly updates & live show info)


The menu lives on in our kitchen

There were two especially romantic dinners I had with Jonathan.  And both in places that subsequently disappeared.

The first was in the gutted-out space that would eventually be his studio. At the time, there was no electricity, no walls, no floor.  Just a large empty space, supporting beams and a gorgeous contraption built of pipes and valves that may have been part of the heating system.

We brought in a card table, a linen tablecloth, wine glasses, plates and silverware, folding chairs, candles and take-out of our favorite Indian foods.  We placed the candles on the concrete floor, set the table with china and chrystal goblets (OK, I think it might have been plastic plates from Chinatown and a couple wineglasses from China Fair). We got into our favorite fancy clothes, and dined slowly in that cool darkness.

It was a fine, fine dining experience, and very romantic – but once the space was built out, with windows and carpet and lighting fixtures … our secret place was gone.

The second was my treat, a 40th birthday present for him.   I said, “I’m taking you out to dinner.”

“Great!” he said. “Where?”

“My favorite restaurant.” I said.

“GREAT!!!” he said.  “Where?”

“It’s in France,” I said.

He was silent for a moment. “Oh… I guess we won’t be driving.”

“Actually,” I said. “We will.”

We could only get away for three days, but I found some cheap tickets to Paris, where we rented a car and drove the 6 hours to the tiny Breton village of Dinan, where I’d made reservations in an exquisite family-run restaurant I’d discovered once on tour.  It was called “Chez Ma Mere Pourcel” and it was a single large room that looked almost like a gracious,  rustic livingroom.  Instead of choosing from the menu, we simple asked that the chef create us the dinner of his choice — and we sat back and experienced it.

I’m not normally a lover of fine dining.  Going out to eat just doesn’t compute as entertainment for me — but this was different.  This was pure experience.  Before each course, a young girl or sometimes a boy – who I felt sure was her brother –  nicely-but-casually dressed in a white shirt and black trousers, and with impeccable but understated bearing, would bring the silverware for that course:  Spoons larger than any I’d ever eaten with, knives in strange shapes, forks that looked mysterious … and there’d be a moment of suspense, looking at these instruments of epicurism and thinking, “What in the world could I possibly be about to eat with this?”

And this suspense, the presentation and the atmosphere were what made it completely delicious, the experience of a lifetime.

That night we spent in a beautiful little Bed & Breakfast just down the hill, ran along the river the next day, and then came back to Chez-Ma-Mere for dinner the next night.  Equally wonderful.  Then at 5am the next morning we drove back to Paris, got on a plane and came back home, bringing with us a copy of the menu.

This was the most expensive dining experience of my life, although the meals themselves were less than a moderately priced restaurant in Cambridge.  And it was worth every penny.

A few years later, finding ourselves again in Brittany,  we went to Chez-Ma-Mere-Pourcel again and loved it just as much. And a few years after that, we planned another trip.

As usual, I called the restaurant to make a reservation, but it sounded different from the beginning. It had been sold, the man on the phone told me, the family had retired — but was the same restaurant, just as wonderful.

Signed by the chef ... a true souvenir

To tell the rest of the story is to describe the pain of seeing an honored hero defaced and degraded.  It was not the same at all.  This exquisite place of romance and taste had been turned into a high-priced clam-shack.  End of story. No going back.

But … I still dream … I dream that somehow the family tired of retirement and began making – oh, maybe one night a month – the same exquisite performance in their own home.  I dream that I discover them, and Jonathan and I go back again.  That we bring treasured friends, and experience it as if it were all new, because we’ve brought someone new with us.

It was painful to see the empty shell, but meaningful to realize it wasn’t the building that made itself a place of romance.  That romance still exists somewhere.  And in our kitchen hangs a framed copy of the menu, as if it might magically bring Chez Ma Mere Pourcel to life around it.  And here’s what I think:

Romance is something we bring to the table. A human sense of the marvelous, the artistry, the passion and the whimsy that transforms what we’re doing and where we are.  And that doesn’t disappear.

This is part of my “Wired for Love” project, to blog each day from now until Valentine’s Day 2011 with songs and stories about love & romance – including a special LIVE “Wired for Love” show on Sat. Feb. 12 at the Blue Ocean Music Hall in Salisbury, MA.

My parents were divorced when I was very young and my mother and I went to live with my Aunt.

Aftrer a year or so the three of us went to live with THEIR mother, my grandmother.  And there we were: three generations of  swinging bachelorettes under one roof, except my Grandmother wasn’t exactly a batchelorette,  according to my Grandfather.

A few years later my mother started dating again. Occasionally I got to go on the dates, sit on barstools and drink Shirley Temples, but mostly I stayed home.  It wasn’t so bad, she would always bring me presents after the dates:  little straw umbrellas, little plastic swords.  Fun stuff like that.

Then one day, she went on a date to Tijuana, Mexico. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep, thinking about what she’d bring back for me.  So, around midnight I heard the front door open and I ran down to meet her.  And there she was.  My mother, my own very mother, standing in the doorway, her arms around the world’s most incredibly handsome Mexican Hat.  This was a sombrero-and-a-half, red velvet weaving into golden straw, tassels and bells — it was the most daring, beautiful hat I had ever seen.  I ran to her and threw my arms around her knee and said  “Oh Thank you!  Thank you!  Thank you! I LOVE it!”

And my mother said.  “But Darling, this hat isn’t for you.  This hat is mine:”

“Yours?” I said.

“MINE!” she said.

“Nooooooo!” I wailed, and I bugged her and I begged her until finally she said OK-OK-OK,  if I was very, very, VERY  good, then I could sleep with the hat  in my room.  But I was NEVER to touch it.

Fine. No touching. I understood that.  And I had the hat!  I was in heaven.  The hat was on a peg on my wall.  My wall. For weeks my life  was wonderful.  I dreamt about Chihuahuas and Enchiladas.  I took Siestas every day, right after milk and cookitos.

–o0o–

And then one night, I couldn’t sleep. It was a few days before the full moon and the moonlight was streaming through the window.  I lay there awake just listening to the clock strike ten … eleven… twelve…  and on the first stroke of midnight, I began to hear something — faintly at first, but unmistakable. Music was coming from the Mexican hat.  Mariachi music.  Very soft and slow at first and then a bit louder.  And the hat … the hat began to glow and vibrate on the wall.  The music swelled and the hat wriggled off the nail and slid down the wall and began to dance on the floor.  Wilder and wilder the hat was dancing, louder and louder the music.  Wilder and louder and louder and wilder!  And then – bang! – suddenly the door burst open, the light flashed on and the hat froze and dropped to the floor.

It was my mother.

“Young lady!”  she said, “what is that hat doing on the floor?!”

–o0o–

Well, the next night, you can imagine, I lay awake waiting as the clock struck ten … eleven … twelve.  And once again, on the first stroke of midnight, the music began.  Slowly at first and then louder and louder.  The hat began to glow and vibrate – then wiggled off the nail and  onto the floor. And then …it looked straight at me. “Nu-unh, I said.”  But the hat grinned, slid across the room and pulled me off of the bed.  The music was intoxicating!  I lifted off the floor, and together we danced, me and my mother’s Mexican Hat!  Wilder and wilder we danced!  Louder and louder the music.  Wilder and louder and louder and wilder! And then suddenly – bang! – the door burst open, the light flashed on and the hat froze … and acted as if nothing had happened!

“Deborah Joyce… what are you doing on the floor … with the hat?”

–o0o–

Well, the next night was the night of the full moon. I was lying in bed, my eyes as big as saucers.  I was waiting as the clock struck ten… eleven … twelve.

My mother was hiding outside the door.

And once again on the first stroke of midnight the faintest music began.

Slowly my mother opened the door. Slowly she slid into the room. Slowly, ever so slowly the music began to swell, and the hat began to glow and vibrate.  It wiggled and shimmied on the nail, spun a spiral on the wall.  And then, my mother gasped and the hat turned abruptly and looked up, straight into her face!

And when that hat saw my mother, my beautiful young mother standing there in the moonlight, it shook itself in disbelief and then sailed off the wall, flew into her arms and kissed her right on the lips.  And as the music soared and twirled, that gorgeous sombrero drew her onto the floor and together they danced.  They danced the fandango, the quadrango, the heptasidroangle.  They danced a waltz, a foxtrot, a minuet, a paso dobles, right there in my room in the moonlight.  Wilder and wilder they danced.  Louder and louder the music.  Wilder and louder and louder and wilder!  And then suddenly – bang! – door burst open, the light flashed on and the hat froze!

It was my grandmother!

But the hat didn’t care. The hat was in love with my mother.  It took her hands and kissed them tenderly.  “Mi Amor”, it said. “mi corazon,  mi vida!  Te amo, te quiro, te deseo!”  And with one last shimmer of  bells and ribbons and one thrilling maraca crescendo, that hat flew out the window and off into the moonlight.

And that was the last we ever heard of my mother’s Mexican Hat.

–o0o–

But sometimes … when the moon is full, and the night leans towards midnight I can hear faint music from the walls and see just the shadow of dancing spin across the floor.

© 1991 Deborah Henson-Conant

This recording of “My Mother’s Mexican Hat” is from my 1991 GRP album “Talking Hands” with Chieli Minucci (guitar), George Jinda (percussion) and Dave Samuels (marimba)


This is part of my “Wired for Love” project, to blog each day from now until Valentine’s Day 2011 with songs and stories about romance – including a special LIVE “Wired for Love” show on Sat. Feb. 12 at the Blue Ocean Music Hall in Salisbury, MA.

Here’s the music for this story:


Siana & Juanito

The Music Box: Siana & Juanito

In Escalon, California, where I went to stay with my grandmother every summer, there was a Mexican girl a little older than me by the name of Siana. She lived with her grandmother, too, and she had two things that fascinated me:  One was a picture on her kitchen wall. Not a normal painting, but a picture torn from a calendar.  In the picture a man sat in the street, his feet bare in the dust, wearing an immense sombrero and a dusty sarape.  He had a black mustache and a long delicate nose, and his fingers rested on the strings of a large brown harp, with a fat soundboard like the throat of a bullfrog, and a strand of ribbons tied to the the soundpost.

“Siana,” I said.  “That picture’s wrong.”

“Oh?” she said.

“That’s a harp.”

“Sí?”

“But only girls can play the harp.”

“Really!?”

“And they have to be blonde.”

“Ha! You are so wrong!” she scolded me. “In my country, El Arpa is a macho instrument! ONLY the men play.” And then she whispered, “The women play secretly!  But I will show you something even better,” and she took me to her room, where she opened her drawer and pulled out a beautiful wooden box.

“This is a musicbox,” she said, and when she opened it, two dancers popped up – a boy and a girl – and they spun around as the music played.   “You see these dancers?” Siana said. “I know them!  This beautiful girl with this big wide skirt? You know her too … because she is  ME! And you see the boy? This boy, so handsome? That … is Juanito, the boy I love.”

“But not really,” I said.

“Yes! Really!  And this box?  It … is … magical!  Truly magical.   Because every night when I wind it up and the music begins, I discover I am flying, truly flying through the night!

“Everything around me is  totally dark, like midnight, and then suddenly – Boom! — sunlight, colors, smells!  I am in my own market plaza in Mexico, with all my friends.  I am serious!  OK, it’s like a dream, but totally real!  And we are laughing and dancing and singing!  You cannot imagine how wonderful it is to be home like that.  Suddenly!

“But – wait! You know how dreams are like? When you are in one place and suddenly it becomes a totally different place?  This, too, this happens to me.  One moment with all my friends, the next I am completely alone in another plaza. Big. Empty. The wind pushing scaps of paper around on the ground.  And I am watching from above,  on a big wooden platform.  So alone,  you cannot imagine how empty I feel.

“And then I see — way on the other side – a hundred miles away, but maybe just from here to there — I see a man coming into the plaza with a big box,  as big as a grown-up person.  He carries it on his shoulder, like it weighs nothing.

“And suddenly I know him!  I know why he has the box!  He is a musician for this night’s fiesta, the box is his bass and this – where I am standing – it is the stage!  And now I see the rest of the band, coming a cross the plaza!  First the man who plays Jarana,  which is the Mexican guitar.  And then his brother – who plays the Jaranita, the little Jarana.   And then his other brother, who plays the itsy-bitsy, tiny Jarana — which they call “the mosquito.”

“And finally, I see the man coming with the greatest instrument of all — an instrument as big as a beautiful fat woman with a wide skirt — this is the man who plays the queen of all instruments, the  heart and soul of the Mexican triple-waltz. He comes barefooted and singing — the man who plays el arpa!

“And, oh, Deborita, like water pouring in, the plaza fills with people, and music. Faint at first, then louder and louder, people dancing, laughing, singing.  It is Fiesta – and every person there, I know I know them, but I can’t remember even one name!

“But, Deborita, listen to me!  The most important thing happens next!  One more person comes into the plaza.  I see him a hundred miles away.  Look!  You see, there?  It is Jaunito, the boy I love.

“You see him?  See?! He is looking at me!  Through all these dancing people, he is looking straight at me.  And I am looking at him.

“We … are … looking … at … each … OTHER!

“And he begins to cross the plaza, so slowly like he has forever, his eyes never move from my eyes. Shhh — I can hear each step as his boot hits the ground, because my ears run to him. Nothing else exists . Nothing but Juanito.

“And suddenly he stands before me, in the dust and dirt.  And he takes my hand.

“And we are dancing.

“Even now, here with you,  I see us dancing.  I see it!  Realer than real.  And first I see us like we are now:  fifteen years old.  And then we spin … and suddenly we are twenty-five.  And we spin again … and we are forty.  Then we spin and we are fifty-five, then seventy, ninety, one hundred! One-hundred-and=eight! And we are still dancing!  Deborita – we are still spinning, Juanito and me.  We are spinning and dancing forever. And ever.  And ever…”

She stopped, and looked down at the music box.

“… and ever.”

Then she closed it.

“In my dream.”


Once, years ago, after I told this story in a show, a little girl in the audience raised her hand and asked, “Is that story true?” I was stumped. She was a child.  Sitting with her mother. They both glared at me.

Well…” I gulped … There’s truth and there’s truth. … there are many Mexican girls in California, though I was never allowed to play with them. But I watched them, and marvelled. There was a music box … but it belonged to my cousin Claire, and it only had one dancer, a girl in a pink tutu.  My grandmother had a torn out calendar framed on her wall.  And I saw the picture of the Mexican harp-player in a old clip book once. The tiny Jarana is called “The Mosquito,”  and there is a Siana, but I met her when I was 40, and her name is Mercedes.  She did marry the boy she loved, but she didn’t meet him ‘til she was a grown woman with four daughters … and he was from Sweden.  I married Juanito.  But he’s Jewish and he plays the Tuba.

Everything else is completely true.

© 1999 Deborah Henson-Conant

I wrote my first love song when I was 13 or 14. It wasn’t my first song – which was from my musical “When Nights were Bold,” when I was 12.  But this song was different.  It was personal.

I was in love with Freddie Stewart.  I followed him everywhere I could.  I even joined the local church choir and sat through soporific, fly-buzzing Sunday morning sermons just to be near him. I’d gone to church in the first place because we’d just moved from British Columbia to the Bible Belt, and everyone went to church. Not going would have been as isolating as simply accepting there was no way to cure my acne.

Church hadn’t been a part of my life before then. My family was mixed-religion: Jewish,  Protestant and Sun-Worshipper.

I’m not trying to be cute.  When I asked my stepfather what religion he was so that I could fill out a school form, he said, “I don’t have a religion.”

“But I have to fill it out Dad, I can’t leave it blank.”

“Sure you can.”

“No, I can’t! It’s for school.”

“OK, fine.,” he said. ” Say I’m a sun-worshipper.”

I left it blank.

So I went to the local Baptist Church with my best friend Faye.  That’s where I met Freddie.  And after I met him, I went to church because he was there (I still cringe admitting it, but since the only person who ever called me on it – a man named Robert E. Lee,  father of a friend of mine by the same name — recently died of old age, I guess I might as well admit it).  I would have gone anywhere Freddie went.

Around that time, my grandmother came to visit, my mother’s mother, a little old Jewish lady as out-of-place in Pfafftown, N.C. as a nudist at an Alaskan fashion show.   She didn’t like me going to church, and she wasn’t too hot on Freddie, who was a tall, slender, blond-haired Goy. Well, everyone there was a Goy … but genetically so was I, at least 50%.  The meaningless 50%, according to my grandmother.

Not as if Freddie was interested in me. He was kind – especially kind considering how far above me he was on the social scale – but distant. Me, I was completely smitten.  And my grandmother, who was already suffering my Sunday morning expeditions – but couldn’t say anything, because – well, that subject was off-limits —  got sick of hearing about him and finally lambasted me: “Enough about this… this … this BOY! He’s not the only fish in the sea!”

But he was.

And to prove it I wrote this song.

A year or two later, my stepfather died suddenly,  my mother stuck around for another year, and then piled my brother and me in the car and drove back to California to be near her mother.   (Why? Why?? Whyyyy did she do that?) And so that period of my life, that time and place, closed like a fairytale book for me.

Fast-forward 15, 20 years. I’m living in Boston, shopping at the old Lechmere, riffling through CDs when I hear a southern accented, “Debby?”  I looked up, and a vaguely familiar man says, “Fred.  Fred Stewart.”

And that’s all I remember. He was working in Boston, I was living here. Chance encounter.

And then the connection plunged back underground, until … and he may remember how this happened better than I do … we began emailing, and talking about life the way it was back then.  What it was like to be teenagers there and then.  And through these emails, we started talking about everything.

And we began to realize how similar our  private experience was of that time, how isolated we each were and what it might have meant to be able to share that, to have been friends then the way we are now.   To have been able to share the pain or bewilderment, or pride in doing the work we love, the way we can now.

Sometimes it hurts to think we might have each gotten through that time more easily and with less pain if we’d known how to connect as friends, if we’d been able to see through our own … well, mishigas, my grandmother would have said.  But more often I think how grateful I am that however skewed our vision of ourselves and each other was back then — we must have seen something in each other that we recognized all these years later.

And that something has now become one of the most beloved friendships of my life.

Now, that’s a love story.

Fred Stewart’s work today.

Fred & Deborah

Fred & Deborah now-ish ... them as was once "Freddie & Debby"

I’m performing a “Barn Concert” at the barn Fred and Jimmy built in N.C. on Sun. Oct. 9th, 2011.  You can read about it here.

This post was originally  part of my “Wired for Love” project, to blog each day from Feb. 2, 2011 until Valentine’s Day 2011 with love stories and love songs  – including a special LIVE “Wired for Love” show on Sat. Feb. 12 at the Blue Ocean Music Hall in Salisbury, MA.

Blog Categories