A City’s Stories, Unplugged
An off-the-cuff New Year’s resolution by one man to be ‘more creative’ has since morphed into an international contest seeking ‘something beautiful’ from its musically inclined participants.
Published: July 9, 2013
“Nicole contacted me and asked if I was interested,” Ehnström emails. “I love writing music and I love challenges, so it sounded great to me. I’m pretty young so my songwriting routine is sloppy, and at first I was a little scared I wouldn’t get anything done. But I ended up writing three songs that week, one in Finnish, one in Swedish and one in English, and I felt like a king!”
Ultimately, 20 musicians took their turn at the Helsinki guitar, and 15 of them arrived at a tiny club called Mussa Kista (Finnish for “Black Cat”) last January to perform their compositions live for the Project’s culminating concert. “It was the coldest day of the year in Helsinki, minus-10 degrees,” Adams remembers. “And the place was completely packed. It was amazing because I had seen pictures of these [musicians], but many of them had never seen me. I didn’t even know how to pronounce their names!
“I got up and introduced the show, and as I began talking about it I just started crying,” he says. “It was a really emotional moment for me because I was tired, for one, and I had been working so hard to get it all together. In Finland they don’t show a lot of public displays of emotion, and I think people were very surprised to see that. I surprised myself! It added something to the room, and for the entire show every single person was completely, intently focused on the person performing. No one was on [his or her] phone, no one was talking. People had their eyes closed, nodding their heads and listening. It was unbelievable. I’m getting choked up just talking about it. It was incredibly moving and rewarding because it felt like all the work I had done was really, really worth it. It was one of the best nights of my life.”
Detroit’s Guitar: ‘This Symphony, This City’
Adams’ experience as a world traveler gave him the confidence — or delusion — to journey to Haiti with very unstructured plans, certain he could make something happen. “Let me tell you, it’s a lot of work to shoot in Haiti,” he sighs. But his work netted such aural and visual treasures as a blind musician who poured out his soul musically from his tumbledown home in the Tent City.
Karma, Adams says, has played a major role in his city selection and the ongoing role of TAGP. For example, when deciding where a guitar should be started in Latin America, he heard Michael Zsoldos, an accomplished jazz musician and instructor at the University of Vermont, tell the story of how complete strangers Joel Waldman and his family aided him in the hospital after he was stabbed by bandits while on tour in Colombia. Adams sensed immediately that Waldman was the man and Bogotá was the place.
“This reaffirms to me that nothing is by chance and we are all connected,” says Waldman, a Colombian-born Jew whose grandparents escaped Poland before the Nazi invasion. “I got so excited with this project that I have been [Adam’s] link here, buying the guitar, hiring the photographer and booking the venue among other things. It is important to give to others when you believe something comes from the heart.”
And the story of how Victor Long, a software engineer from Maryland, became the man not only to hand-make the guitar being used for the Detroit rotation of TAGP, but to name the instrument as well, is a story almost worthy of being a separate story.
Long happened upon the project’s TV pilot-aspirations while perusing the Kickstarter website. “I frequent the site because I see these passionate people doing these amazing things, large and small,” he says. The proposal struck a chord with Long on multiple levels: he holds a bachelor’s degree in TV-film production, he’s a former amateur musician and he builds custom guitars in his spare time through his website, minorbird.com. He made a contribution to the Project, and when Adams, who contacted all his donors personally, called Long to say thanks, the conversation blossomed.
Long took two weeks off from work to craft the instrument and gave it to Adams for free. Then came the process of naming it, a tradition all the project’s previous guitars share. Adams ceded the honor to the builder, but “I’m not from Detroit,” Long says. “I didn’t feel like I could just make up a name. The name had to somehow derive from the Detroit experience.”
The engineer did his research. He read books, listened to everything from Motown to techno, and devoured Detroit-born poetry. Finally he happened upon the poem “Detroit Bre[a]d” by Will Langford, a winner of the 2010 Detroit Jazz Fest Poetry Slam. “There was a phrase in it, ‘this symphony, this city,’ that really jumped out at me,” says Long. (A video version of the poem can be seen on YouTube.)
Not wishing to use Langford’s words without his permission, Long tracked him down — in Kenya — where Langford, a graduate student at Penn State, is performing a summer educational mission. Long explained, Langford approved, and Detroit’s guitar had a name.
Someday soon, it also will have its first player. “All I do is think about how to make this better, all the time,” Adams says. “For me it’s truly about, how can we make more magic? Where’s the magic at? A lot of times, it’s just getting people excited and creating something beautiful for them.”
Jim McFarlin is a freelance writer based in Indiana who regularly contributes to the Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.
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