5 Nov. 2008, 5:48am GMT – Atlantic Coast off of Morocco

First, relief. A huge sigh; for another minute I am guarded, cautious, checking 4 channels to avoid being hoodwinked by the media.

But now, incredulity. For 7 years and 8 weeks, the haze has slowly receded from the world outside my peripheral vision. After September 11, I became stuck to CNN, and I felt my nervousness in the immediate aftermath grow like a tumor into disappointment and ultimately rejection of all those silly high-flung words bandied about in civics courses– “Give me your tired, your poor…”, the “land of the free”. All I saw was ignorance, machismo, an unshakeable, deeply ingrained belief in manifest destiny. Even in my closest, most decidedly liberal friends and family members, I found an inability to see the house of mirrors all around them, to see the symmetry in American attitudes towards the world– towards extremists, a caricature that so many are painted with in American minds– and the world’s sometimes militant attitudes towards an overly muscular, hot-headed America. I was accused by my own mother of rejecting the West when I defended Muslim societies as not being fundamentally militant, and while she was wrong in her assessment of me, applying the very stereotypes she had come to adopt, she was accurate in perceiving my disgust with an American society that I had come to see as excessive and ignorant; no longer representing anything that it claimed to be. I compared the state of American politics to twisted, Orwellian regimes and corrupt theocracies, even to friends who have fought and suffered for the dream of democracy that I denied existed. And it was only natural to make these comparisons when so much of my energy was devoted to knowing the “other”– to understanding and experiencing what life is like outside a priveliged, secular, suburban, foggy dream.

My pool of friends has grown to become hugely– if not primarily– international. And I ran away from anything familiar– first, to cosmopolitan New York, and then, out of the country, any time and any way I could. Living as a stranger in a strange land has been my dream; only by forcing myself from my comfort zone at all times to do I feel like I am gaining ground in my life. The compulsion that I harnessed in my younger days of absorbing all forms of music has expanded to absorbing all ways of life outside my own realm of experience. I met people from all over the world, coming to New York and the states for some dream that I told them was dead, a figment of their imagination, a lie echoed on millions of TV screens.

But I am incredulous now because it’s as if I’ve seen a shadow of the other side, and I am afraid to believe. For all of Barack Obama’s shining rhetoric, he consistently understated the significance of his candidacy, the way in which his victory (and those of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin) reaches deep into the musty crevices of American society and sheds a little light up the passage of some American Dream. My prejudiced, single-minded, individualistic, racist, sexist, homophobic, islamophobe America chose a president of an unlikely background most likely quite different from their own. And suddenly, I’m aware of just how fortunate I am. Of how quickly I’ve forgotten the not-so-distant generations that came to this strange land with nothing and gave me the opportunity I’ve taken for granted.

All I can react with is incredulity, a wash of emotion. And once again I need to re-evaluate my paradigm that has proved incapable of accomodating the breadth of things that can occur in this world. I’ve lived in America all my life, yet there are still certain words that get bandied around so much that it seems their value is inflated, that they’ve lost any stable meaning: words like “democracy”, and “fascism”, “terrorism” and “freedom”. I can’t help but reflect, though, that Barack Obama’s campaign and success look to me an awful lot like the fairy tales of freedom I was told as a boy.

Now I’m ready to play my part in this indistinct thing called democracy. I layed my vote on the line, and I bear responsibility for giving this man the power that he has– and it is my duty to watch him like a hawk. In one week, I will return to a country that showed me something unexpected, something outside my realm of experience, something I am eager to experience for myself.

Two Kingdoms

I won’t fool myself into thinking I can come close to capturing what was a whirlwind 36 hours in Egypt. But I’ll share with you some impressions before they fade from my mind, while I’m still worn out and dazed from the experience.

Cairo is like no place I’ve been. It’s hot and bustling like New York, sans the expectation that everyone be provided a red carpet; people adjust and make the best of the present. The taxi meters don’t work? Everyone knows what a fair price should be. (Now THAT’S capitalism). Door on the train doesn’t work? You’d have to be an idiot to hang out there while the train is running anyway. The smog is visible and people often hock up half of what they breathe in. Crossing the road means sucking it up and jumping in front of a bus. Many people drive without their headlights at night for fear that their hand-me-down-from-Europe cars will burn out, but they’ll flash their brights to let you know you can cross (whilst they’re still speeding towards you). I didn’t feel my life was in my hands, however, until I tried the other side of the windshield, riding in a white mini-bus, whisking around highways that whiz past the city’s humongous mosques and cathedral.Traffic is terrifying, but I saw no anger or road rage. My taxi driver decided to make a third lane where there once were two; the other cars on the road followed and adjusted appropriately. Instead, as my friend Dan described it, the constant honking is echolocation, letting the others know, “I’m bearing down on you, don’t hit me!”

I took a tour bus with the crew down to Cairo from Alexandria. Our tour guide, a woman named Noaa had a laugh that could blow over trees. With the tourists of the crew in touristy spots, we were badgered with useless crafts, but the minute I split off from the others with a willingness to see the country on its own terms, I was bathed in the generosity of countless Egyptians eager just to communicate, to meet an American. Trading what few words we could muster in Arabic and English, the enthusiasm to reach out and meet a fellow human was unmistakable. Just about every person I met was eager to share something; this one studied Arabic literature; this one lived in Brooklyn for 10 years; this one worked as a pastry chef, on a ship and then in Italy– and then produced a handful of photographs of his life to prove it!

My companion on the train was a kind man who shared that he and his son were both pilots. He told me about the many places he had travelled, including to Israel on Sadat’s historical 1977 visit there (which resulted in the alliance of Egypt and Israel, as it stands today). “It’s beautiful there,” he reminisced, “green everywhere.” I asked him if he saw Israelis as friends of the Egyptian people. He responded affirmitavely. “As-salaam”, he said, “kwoyis li-kulam”: peace is good for everyone. I shared with him that I am Jewish and he reflected that our peoples are cousins. We exchanged numbers and kind words, warmth and a window into another life.Just about everyone showed an enthusiasm for American popular culture, and many a desire to live there. An exchange with a friend from the ship still makes me cringe. My friend uncomfortably told two Egyptians chaperoning our tour that he came from America. “U.S.A.!” they responded heartily. “Don’t do that,” said my friend. “You know you don’t like us.”

It concerns me deeply– distracts me while I’m working and walking by my way– that one particular American shown outward kindness by two strangers in their country reacts with hostility. Confronted with a living, breathing person showing him warmth, he saw only his prejudices, the images and propaganda that flash constantly on American TV. He is a good friend of mine, someone I respect for being genuine– but he left me deeply unsettled.

Along with their love of American pop culture, Egyptians expressed a distaste for George Bush (who supports their president, Hosni Mubarak). I didn’t pry into strangers’ opinions on their government, but Dan had observed a great deal of unhappiness with it. I have read analyses that posit anti-Americanism in Egypt is an expression of dissatisfaction with their own government when outward criticism would be banned.I estimate that 70% of the women I saw in Egypt wore some sort of hijab, headscarf, though it varied greatly in form, from flashy scarves matching tight clothes to fully-covered women with only their spectacles hovering outside their burka. I sensed here and in Turkey that many women choose to wear a headscarf as a way of claiming their own personal space. Stewardesses (stewardae?) dressed to attract attention received leers, but women dressed modestly commanded respect.

I’ve never before seen desert that stretches out as it does from the pyramids. The oft-repeated statistic is that 95% of Egypt’s population lives on 5% of the land, hanging onto the artery that is the Nile. On the train back to Alexandria, I watched people bent over in the sun, heaving to draw some bit of sustenance from that land. For the first time I comprehend what it takes for humans to settle down into societies; the precarious cusp on the sides of which lie a surplus of time and resources or a famine. Oxen stood idly by with skin stretched taut over jutting frames, like mummies with blackened skin, about to crumble back to dust. I wondered if in some remote corner of this wide land there remains an untouched pocket still speaking Coptic, the descendant of the ancient Egyptian language that was gradually replaced by Arabic after the conquests 1300 years ago.

Even just one night spent off the ship made me realize the energy that is missing on the ship, the static electricity of millions of people and ambitions bouncing off of each other all day. Returning to work, I feel like a puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit. I can still feel the air in my lungs, a concoction of sweat and smog and desert sand not present in the sterile environment on board. It’s a nice little tanning-bed of a time capsule here, a fantastic chance to window-shop different countries and cultures– but I’m ready to jump back into the water.

You can see some more photos from the last couple weeks here:

P.S…. For those to whom I’ve reflected on New York as a falling Rome, here’s a funny collumn from the NYT: “Num Roma sumus?

Funky Butter’s “Made of You” comes out August 4

Hey all–

For the past year I’ve been working hard on a record with my old band, Funky Butter. The record, Made of You finally comes out in 10 days on August 4, and you can currently stream the entire record at funkybutter.com (where you can also read more and order it). There’s 10 tunes from FB’s repertoire (plus 2 bonus tracks for pre-orders) and the record features some great guest appearances– all of which you can find out at funkybutter.com.

Currently, I’m playing music on board a ship in the Mediterranean– getting to see some great places and working on music for some new projects. And if you haven’t already, check out my live world-jazz record Una Passeggiata on YouTube and imeem and right here.

“Una Passeggiata” — Live Album Release

Check it:

I’m pleased to announce the release of Una Passeggiata, recorded live on May 13, 2008. Video of the entire performance is on YouTube, and tracks are available for download on myspace via snowcap: 12/27/10: Working on getting these tracks available for download once again!

Big thanks to Chris Zembower who did an excellent job recording and mixing the 6 tunes:

1. Pilgrimage (Shepik)
2. Green Dolphin St.
3. Óneira
4. Pikrós eínai o pónos mou (Tsitsanis)
5. The Flood (Shepik)
6. Pane e Dolci (“Una Passeggiata”) 

featuring: Brad Shepik (gtr), John Beaty (sax), James Clark (piano), Jordan Perlson (drums)

I am incredibly blessed and thankful to play with these musicians, as well as to everyone who came out to the performance. Also to Ari Feldman for transferring and editing the video and to Harold Goldner for filming.

Now I’m sinking myself deep into getting the Funky Butter album mixed and released for your listening/tasting pleasure.



Audio recorded and mixed in stereo by Chris Zembower (czembower[at]gmail[dot]com)
Edited by Ari Feldman (arifeldman3[at]gmail[dot]com)
Video recorded by Harold Goldner (hgoldner[at]krautharris[dot]com)


Upcoming Funky Butter Album

Lately, I’ve been putting a lot of work into finishing up Funky Butter’s upcoming album Made of You. You can check out some unfinished rough mixes at Funky Butter’s myspace, and if you want, you can preorder the album and reserve your physical copy of the CD plus some exclusive bonus tracks. I can’t tell you when the album will be done, but stay tuned for emails/bulletins from the Funky Butter page and it should be goddamned soon!



Dallin Applebaum “King’s Highway EP”, Stereo Set CDs online

Bandmate Dallin Applebaum‘s King’s Highway EP will finally be released at Funky Butter‘s March 2 gig at the Bitter End– you can hear some tracks from it (“Save Me”, “King’s Highway”) in my player.

Also, you can hear my playing on The Stereo Set‘s To The Sea, now available online at:



I co-produced and I’m on the following tracks:

1. “Buried In The Ground” – bass
2. “Even In Time” – electric gtr
3. “All Is Love” – bass
4. “Nevermind The Circle of Life” – electric gtr, various noises
5. “To The Sea” – bass, organ

Good listening

Some music that has been treating me well lately:

Ali Akbar Khan – Artistic Sound of Sarod
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – The Last Prophet
Fela Kuti – Expensive Shit, “Colo Mentality”
Derek & The Dominos – Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs (I keep coming back to this album every year or so)
Cream – Disraeli Gears
Leonin & Perotin – Music From the Notre Dame Cathedral (Tonus Peregrinus)
Jon Brion – Meaningless
Mahavishnu Orchestra – Between Nothingness & Eternity, Inner Mounting Flame

New Tracks from The Stereo Set: “To the Sea”

Check out the tracks from my just-finished EP with The Stereo Set, To the Sea @ www.myspace.com/TheStereoSet.  You can download them from the SnoCap store @ myspace.com/JusFunk.

I Wish My Name Were Jack

My friend Andy Mullen just released his second album, “I Wish My Name Were Jack” which features yours truly on banjo, mandolin and guitar on a couple tracks including “Bottle On A Shelf” (above). Check him out at www.andymullenmusic.com and www.myspace.com/andymullenmusic. He’ll be touring all summer and I’ll be joining him at Milkboy Coffee in Ardmore, PA on August 3.