Sunday, August 19, 2007

Dulcimer, electric bass guitar, cahone and bells: Mecca Bodega

Mecca Bodega playing

Mecca Bodega playing

Mecca Bodega playing

Interview with Mecca Bodega

Artists: Juba (dulcimer), Marc (tenor cahone), Chikara Kitagawa (bass cahone), Yuichi Fujisawa (electric bass guitar)
Medium: Dulcimer, tenor cahone, bass cahone, bells, shaker, electric bass guitar
Location: 34th Street station

It’s summer these days and it’s hot outside. But no matter how it is, the subways are hotter (this isn’t a pun or an attempt at wit, this is God’s own truth). So, without air conditioning, the straphangers of New York (that’s subway riders for the tourists) sure are lucky to have cool music to fill the platforms (there’s the wit).

This day, the chill sounds of Mecca Bodega provided a respite in the weary commute of the City’s inhabitants. Mecca Bodega is a world folk sort of band started by Juba and Marc. Juba explains that, as long-time percussionists, both he and Marc had gotten tired of taking a back seat to singer/songwriters in other bands and playing the same boring rhythm. Instead, the duo began experimenting with instruments and sounds from places where drums/percussion are in the forefront of the music. That as 12-15 years ago.

These days, Marc and Juba often play with a large band including stand up drums, a drum kit and horns. This day in particular they are playing with two musicians I had met before in Times Square – Chikara and Yuichi. Chikara met Juba through another artist and, upon deciding to jam with Mecca Bodega, brought in Yuichi. The group has been playing together for about a month already and has developed a great spirit of camaraderie. Chikara and Yuichi share their knowledge of Japanese with Marc and Juba while Marc and Juba teach them English. Yuichi explains, “I am a sophisticated, troubled genius” to which Juba adds, “Gan Bai!”

Juba, a Long Islander turned Brooklynite, says he picked up dulcimer when his brother brought it back with him from the South where the instrument is popular as an element of mountain music. Already a drummer, Juba quickly transferred his skills to the new instrument. But Juba’s not just a musician, a lover of all sound, Juba is also a sound engineer and, unrelated-ly, a quilter. Juba explains that he plays in the subway to sell CDs and to “spread the music to people who wouldn’t normally see it.”

Marc explains that he is from earth, the center to be exact, and thus the sweltering heat of the subway is as nothing to him. However, now he lives in Brooklyn. He says he plays “anything I can hit or shake,” including the tenor Cahone, which is in keeping with his musical roots. You see, he got into playing percussion because his mother had pots and pans around. Like Juba, Marc loves sound. I asked him if he was a sound engineer to which he responded “no.” So, I supposed he just plays music, to which he replied “I don’t even know about that.” Marc says he likes to play in the subway because he gets to meet interesting people. Or, as he put it, “I love meeting people like you, that’s why we do it.” He told me this was right before he started grilling me on what exactly I do.

Chikara and Yuicha are two friends who came to the U.S. with one thing in mind – “to play music, music, music.” Chikara and Yuichi are two of street artists I run into the most often, they are always playing. I’ve seen them playing with Mecca Bodega, Floyd Lee and even with random people who they just met. Both are enjoying their time in New York but Chikara admits that playing in the subway is “hard.”

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