Strangers in paradise

Two traveling musicians learn the power of their craft.


Douglas A. Konecky
March 3, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

The most amazing thing about Batam was how unlike the brochure it was. When Yosi and I had been in Singapore that morning, wondering what to do and where to go on our last day before returning to the States, and we had seen gorgeous brown-haired Malay Ginny and delectable black-haired Thai-Chinese Mei, in crisp, blue uniforms under a glorious full-color poster that trumpeted "Batam Island! Come To Paradise and Be Home The Same Day!" -- it had seemed irresistible.

Ah, we'd been bushwhacked again by Singapore girls, exotic blends like gourmet San Francisco coffees: "My father from Java, his mother from Burma, my mother Irish, her father Thai." Singapore girls make Paris look like Fresno.

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Ginny and Mei giggled when we told them we wished to buy the simple round-trip ferry tickets for $15.

"Tee-hee, no," Ginny said.

"Well how about the Super Package?" I asked.

"Ha-ha, no good," said Mei.

They stopped giggling only when we agreed to move up to the Super Deluxe Package, which for $8 more got each of us $40 worth of scrip redeemable at the "World Class Duty Free Shopping Port of Batam, Indonesia!" We also got the special brochure, with pictures of impossibly beautiful white and brown people, models presumably just like us, carrying brightly wrapped boxes and bags filled with booty they had purchased at the World Class Duty Free Shopping Port.

"You have to hurry," Mei said.

"Oh, yes. Ferry leaving in only one hour," added Ginny.

So Yosi and I blew a kiss to Ginny and Mei as we left, and they blew one back, and the last we saw them they were still waving, probably whispering to themselves that there went two of the stupidest gringos in the history of tourism.

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The ride over from Singapore was fascinating, mostly because we got to cross Singapore Harbor, which is one of the busiest in the entire world. There were freighters in back of container ships behind home-made sampans to the rear of gigantic polished supertankers glistening with fresh paint, dwarfing ancient fishing boats decaying through nine different colors of rust. I, a landlubber by birthright, had never realized ships could be so huge. It made me rather bilious. So I pulled a deck chair over to the stern rail, leaned my feet over the edge and tried to do a math problem, adding and subtracting boats to keep my mind off my stomach, until I fell asleep in the hot sun. When I awoke Yos was shaking my arm.

"Look, look, we're here, Indonesia," he said, excited. I looked at my watch; an hour had passed. We were now sailing by tiny, unpopulated islands, palm-treed and wide-fronded, with a larger island looming ahead on our left. We could see villages with tin-roofed huts built onto stilts over the water.

Yosi, my friend and guitar-player partner, is Israeli. Things he sees always remind him of home -- well, almost. As the little islands passed by, Yos said: "This looks like Eilat, on the Red Sea ... except for the little huts. And the stilts. And the color of the water."

The ferry was slowing down. I could stop doing math problems. We passed a beautiful, beckoning harbor, and then another not-quite-so beckoning harbor, and then a harbor where you wouldn't dock your worst sampan, and finally, at a denuded spot where the barren red earth lay piled along the beach like slag from a strip mine, our ferry tooted its whistle and turned toward the dock.

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"Uh-oh," I said. Yosi got out the brochure, stared at it, looked up, looked back down at the brochure, looked up again. Everyone on board was doing the same thing. From a distance I could make out a few buildings and a boat landing, with a flagpole flying the red-and-white-striped Indonesian flag, and a huge billboard on top of what looked like a dilapidated warehouse. I could read the billboard clearly: "INDOOR ALPINE SKI SLOPE."

Under the large English letters were Japanese characters that spelled out the above English phrase in phonetic Japanese: "In-doe-a Aru-pine Skee-ee Su-ropu."

This sign was twice the size of the warehouse building under it. But as we pulled next to the dock and the deck crew tossed the starboard stays onto the wooden pilings, it became obvious that the Indoor Alpine Ski Slope was boarded up and deserted, which was understandable since it was at least 100 degrees on the pier. There was a second large sign that read "WORLD CLASS DUTY FREE SHOPPING" on top, "Wu-ru-du Ku-ra-su Tzu-tzi Fu-ree Shap-peen-gu" on the bottom. The second sign was pointing at the first sign.

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I studied Japanese for years. Nobody can sell salt like the Japanese. Sometimes it's salt, but sometimes it's sugar. There is nothing wrong with sugar unless you are trying to buy salt. If I had realized the slick brochure we had been shown in Singapore was advertising an Indonesian enterprise designed in Tokyo, I would have wanted to taste my tea before buying the Super Deluxe Package.

As we stepped off the boat onto the dock, we took one look and immediately had the same thought as everyone else on the ferry: Book Return Passage Now.

First we had to queue up and show our passports to Indonesian teenagers in drab olive army uniforms, then there was a crush of people running to the ticket counter. When we got there, it was chaos. Everybody on the island was trying to get off the island. The lines were 10 people thick and equally deep. Bribes were obviously called for, and we didn't know how much to offer. And anyway, we'd just gotten there.

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"This is stupid, Yos. C'mon," I said. "We've only got one day to see Indonesia. Let's go see Indonesia."

"Well ..." he said, as he took one last look at his brochure, tore it in half and walked outside into the kiln-like heat. We stopped in front of the abandoned Indoor Alpine Ski Slope.

"Can you picture the guy who came up with the idea for a ski slope on a tropical island?"

"I hope he's working for the Arabs now," said my good Israeli buddy.

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That's how we found ourselves trudging down the left side of the little macadam road leading away from the dock, when a clattering, ancient blue Toyota with bald tires rolled up on our right. Through the window I could see that the car had practically no floorboards, and the driver had a pile of towels draped over his front seat. Earlier I had looked on the map and seen there were two cities on Batam: Batam City and Nagoya.

So I said, "Nagoya," and the driver nodded, motioning us into the back seat. The second we got in, we smelled the burning rubber.

"I think your car is on fire," Yosi said.

"Nagoya," said the driver, and we were off -- bouncing toward a town that we knew nothing about, feeling like Bugs and Daffy, our little toon car trailing smoke out of both rear windows.

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I play piano, Yosi plays guitar. We had been brought
from California to Singapore by the prosperous
Ben-Eliazar family to play for their daughter's
wedding, and had picked up another gig in Thailand
a few days before the wedding. We're musicians, but
ever since we'd arrived in the Far East, we'd been
searching in vain for music, indigenous music, native
music played by natives. We could never find any. It
seemed to me that everywhere we went the local
music consisted of "New York, New York" and "I
Shot the Sheriff," with a vague world-beat rhythm,
but not sounding a lot different in Asia than it would
in Miami or Rome.

The big Singapore wedding took place in what must
have been the poshest grand ballroom in the deluxest
Ritz-Carlton Hotel in the entire hemisphere. I have to
admit that Yosi and I, who call ourselves the Tel
Aviv Band, also played "New York, New York" and
"I Shot the Sheriff," when we weren't playing the
Sephardic Middle Eastern music that has made our
reputation. We played "Never on Sunday" and
"Matilda," too, bar mitzvah-band standards the world
around.

We played these songs because the people asked for
them. They love them. Until an American musician
travels outside of his own country, he doesn't learn
the amazing truth: Western pop music is the
standard the world around. If you can sing in English
and know no more than 25 songs and half a dozen
rhythms, you can find work anyplace on five
continents. It doesn't matter if you are playing for
Russians or Argentines, Saddam Hussein's sister or a
shopkeeper in the bazaar in Marseilles, everyone
wants to hear the same songs. You can never
overestimate the power and reach of popular music.

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A musician can think about this in one of two ways:

A) The World Loves the Songs I Hate. I will adopt
an attitude about it and when somebody requests
"Feelings," I will sneer at them and gag. Or:

B) The World Loves These Songs for a Reason.
Also, I love traveling and getting paid for it. So the
next time someone requests "I Write the Songs" or
"My Way," I will not choke. I will do my best to
play every request with some heart, and make it
sound as fresh as I can.

I love our little band. We make a ton of music, for
two people, and we have as much fun playing as
audiences do listening and dancing. We played for
close to a thousand people in Singapore and the
party lasted into the wee hours. I can't even
remember how many times we played "New York,
New York." They kept requesting and we kept
playing.

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Both Yosi and I know that as long as our answer is
an honest B), we will keep working. Here is our
proof: Two California musicians blowing down a
windy tropical highway on our day off, heading for
Nagoya, Batam Island, Indonesia.

Still, I always hold out hope we will run into some
great local music.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

I leaned over the front seat and pointed to the car
radio. The driver turned it on. We heard static,
interspersed with snatches of "Na Na Na Na
Goodbye" by Steam. You couldn't escape it. We
were so far away from where this song comes from
we could travel East or West to get there and it
wouldn't matter.

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"Listen, Yos," I said, as the radio played: "Na Na Na
Na, Na Na Na Na, Hey Hey Hey ..."

The driver said, "Nagoya."

I looked at Yosi. The radio continued: "Na Na Na
Na, Na Na Na Na, Hey Hey Hey..."

Yosi sang "Nagoya."

The driver laughed. He certainly knew this song.
Then he started to sing:

"Na Na Na Na, Na Na Na Na ..."

I went: "HEY HEY HEY," and we all started
singing:

"NAGOYA."

This was now a singing taxicab.

"Na Na Na Na, Na Na Na Na, HEY HEY HEY,
NAGOYA!"

The little Toyota leapt over hills and thin mountain
passes, eighth notes and treble clefs mixed in with
the trailing smoke. Na-Na-Na-Native music indeed.

But the farther into the interior we got, the more
static came over the radio, and soon we couldn't
hear anything at all. The driver reached over and
turned the radio off. The car was silent. It was like
"the day the music died."

Suddenly the driver's mouth formed a large O, and
he braked hard, took a towel off the top of a pile
draped over his front passenger's seat and stuffed it
through the floorboards down into his smoking
transmission, as we slowed down and entered a little
village.

We were now in a one-float parade. The whole
village was lined up on the side of the road, waving
at us, trying to get our attention so we might stop
and buy the tiny yellow fruits, or fresh meat, or
candles, or Muslim religious articles that they had to
sell. The one thing that grabbed my attention was
that the people were so very thin. This was the time
of the Asian economic flu, and I knew all of
Indonesia had been hit hard. In this village we saw
skinny dogs, skinny chickens, skinny birds and
skinny people. I couldn't help thinking about all the
folks on Stairmasters in America spending fortunes
to burn off Demon Fat.

We drove another few minutes, and then saw a road
sign: "NAGOYA!" above and "Na-go-ya-ma-chi!"
below. "Machi" means town in Japanese. The poor
little taxi gathered its strength and wheezed up a
driveway to a stop in front of the Nagoya Hotel.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"This looks a little like Hebron, except for the trees,"
Yosi said. "And the smoke. And this guy." A thin
Indonesian doorman in a too-large maroon suit with
little gold slippers came running out to open our car
door, but had to jerk backward due to the smoke
and smell that assaulted his nostrils. The doorman
finally helped us out of the car and then leaned
forward and bowed.

Ushering us toward the hotel, he said in English: "All
Praise Where All Praise Is Due," which is part of the
traditional Muslim greeting.

"All praise," I answered, and Yos answered in
Arabic: "Aleikum salaam." We glanced briefly into
the hotel lobby, which was empty except for
Japanese and Indonesian hotel employees, who were
mostly sitting or standing in disconsolate bunches
staring at their watches.

"Not a lot of Super Deluxe Packages, Yos," I said.

"Only us," Yosi said. "Ginny and Mei sure were
beautiful, though."

We walked back outside. The cabbie was leaving.
"Nagoya!" he was singing, as he waved and the little
blue Toyota disappeared into a cloud of fumes.

The song was gone but the melody lingered on. The
town of Nagoya seemed to be blanketed by the same
smoke we smelled coming from the transmission. It
was easy to see why. Every few hundred yards
women, children and shirtless men crouched in
circles at the sides of the road, staring blankly at
smoke rising from burning bald truck tires, an acrid
rubbery detritus filling the air. No one moved, as if
they were required to watch over these fires to make
sure they kept burning 24 hours a day. It reminded
me of Chanukah -- the candles burning for eight
days. The entire island was the menorah. But this
didn't seem religious; it was more like hypnosis.

Any traveler to tourist spots could recognize what
had happened to Nagoya -- or not happened. The
boom everyone had counted on never really arrived,
and then hard economic times came along and
finished the job. Perhaps Nagoya at one time had its
own life, but now there was little here but smoke.
Everywhere were signs of construction started, then
stopped. Many old structures had been half-torn
down, or half-renovated, depending on your
cosmological viewpoint, but either way Nagoya
appeared to be a town of halves -- and have-nots.
There were few stores open along the main street.
Most of the visible people who were not crouched
by the side of the road were young wild-haired boys
cruising the streets with angry looks on their faces.

Then I spotted a shop with a light on inside. In the
shop window was an advertisement for Carnation
Ice Cream. I couldn't believe my eyes. It was August
in the Far East, and everywhere Yos and I had been
was a lot hotter than we were accustomed to.
Walking in Singapore was like breathing lava. I'd
been thinking about a root beer float for a week,
even though I knew ice cream is a European thing,
not an Asian thing.

The poster in the window was unmistakable.
"Yossele!" I shouted. "You won't believe this! Ice
cream!"

"You kidding? Where?"

"Look!" Yos saw the sign. "Vay is mir," he said. We
went inside and 40 years slipped away.

The surprising little sweets shop in Nagoya was a
perfect reproduction of a small ice-cream serving
counter circa 1950s America: red and white diamond
wallpaper, a minute freezer case inside of which
were three round five-gallon cardboard containers of
ice cream, scoopers and long-handled spoons in a
little glass on the counter, and a picture on the wall
of the Carnation kittens licking three flavors of ice
cream. The flavors of the ice creams were printed in
large letters under each scoop: Va-nee-ra,
Chyo-ko-rat-te, and Tsu-ra-be-ree.

Sometimes you've just got to hand it to the Japanese.
There was a second picture inset into the first, of
three scoops of ice cream covering a banana with a
pitcher of hot fudge on the side, whipped cream and
a cherry on top. I had never seen anything that
looked so good.

BA-NA-NA-SPU-REE-TSU! blared the sign

"I want a banana spureetsu, I mean split," I said.

"I want triple cone," Yosi said, both of us drooling.

"Oh!" I slapped my forehead with my palm. "How
are we going to pay for it? We don't have any
rupiahs!"

"Look in your wallet," he said. I took mine out.
Nothing but Thai bahts and Singaporean dollars --
and two $20 denominations of World Class Scrip for
use only at the World Class Shopping Opportunity,
which was now no opportunity at all.

"Maybe they'll take the scrip?" Yos suggested. A
short, pretty young girl in bright red lipstick, a black
skirt, pressed white blouse and starched apron then
approached us, smiling broadly.

"I help you please?" she said in English.

"Ah, you speak English," I said, and she blushed.

"Oh, no, very bad English," she said, in perfect
English, as Yos said: "No, you speak good. How
much a triple cone is?"

"Cone 12,000 rupiah each scup," she said hopefully,
rubbing her hands together in anticipation. She
pronounced "scoop" like "foot."

"But ... we don't have any rupiah."

"Cone also 160 yen."

"Oh, but I'm afraid we don't have any yen either."

"No rupiah? No yen? You have no-ting more?"

"Well, we do have this," I said, pulling out my World
Class Duty Free Shopping Port scrip. She stared at it
like it was infected.

"Ehhh. Please, two sirs, you wait."

She ran through a door and was gone for a few
minutes, then came back with her manager, a young
boy of perhaps 17, who was wearing a white shirt, a
black bow tie and dark pants, and carrying a small
bamboo case tied with banana cord. He was very
thin but as tall as I am.

"Sir, I sorry. World Class Shopping only Saturday,"
he said.

"But this is Monday."

"Sir, yes."

"So no shopping."

"Sir, no."

"Only Saturday."

"Sir, yes." He looked up finally, and his face
brightened. "But you want ice cream, yes, OK? We
will take ska-rip."

"Well, fantastic," I said, and Yosi asked: "So how
much scrip for a triple cone?"

"Oh," the girl said, ice cream scoop stalled in her left
hand.

No one knew. "Wait, I'll figure it out," I said.
Another math problem. "A scoop is 160 yen?"

"Yes. Scup 160 yen."

"OK. How many yen to the rupiah?"

"Cone 12,000 rupiah."

"How many rupiah to the bar mitzvah?" Yosi said.

"Shut up. OK. So that means 160 yen is worth
12,000 rupiah, that makes a yen worth ... let's see ...
around 75 rupiah or so. Now I know an American
dollar is worth around 110 yen. A Singaporean dollar
is worth around 80 cents American. So, if an
American dollar is worth 110 yen, and a Singaporean
dollar is worth 80 cents U.S., bear with me here,
then a Singaporean dollar is worth ... "

I was completely lost. I looked up and saw Yosi,
sitting in a booth already, licking a triple cone, the
counter girl hovering over him proudly.

"Where'd you get that?" I asked. He nodded to the
counter girl.

"Why don't you take it all?" I asked the manager,
holding out my two $20 scrip notes.

"OK," he said. He handed me a banana split.

"This ice cream is really good," Yos said. I sat down
in the booth. The two kids stood over us, like proud
momma chickens, watching us eat. I got the feeling
they had never actually sold any of this ice cream
before. I glanced around the shop -- we were the
only customers. "Please. Why don't you sit down
with us?" I asked.

The counter girl sat down first, next to Yosi, and
then her manager, who turned out to be her brother,
sat down in the booth next to me. He placed his little
bamboo case on the table next to the napkin
dispenser. For the next hour the four of us sat in
their homey ice cream shop talking to each other in
pidgin English about our countries, learning from
each other things we had never really thought about
before. Yes, the Japanese had invaded Batam during
World War II and people still remember. No,
nobody liked it when they came again to develop the
island. Yes, this did have something to do with why
everyone was burning those tires.

No, Yosi and I were not Muslims, had they ever
heard of Jews? No. Had they ever heard of Israel?
Oh, yes, Israel was a bad place. They had heard of
Israel? Yes. But they had never heard of Jews? No.

Yes, Batam Island was poor but not so poor. The
people had survived for a long time and would
continue to do so. The problem was all the refugees
from Sumatra and Java, where things were much,
much worse.

No, our new friends had never been away from
Batam but yes, they hoped someday they would
come to California to visit us. Yes, we realized what
a lovely country we had and we told them theirs was
beautiful too.

"You want more spureetsu banana?" said the girl.

"No, I'm afraid we have to get back to the dock," I
said, dabbing the last bit of whipped cream from the
bottom of the dish. "We have had a wonderful
afternoon."

"Then, Sir, you are satisfaction!" the manager said.

"Satisfaction, oh yes. More than satisfied. It was
awesome." I stood up and I held out my hand to
shake, but instead the young manager grabbed both
of my hands with his. He gathered his nerve, then
finally he took two steps back, untied the banana
cord, opened his case and pulled out a small bamboo
flute.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The boy with the flute turned to his sister, whose
face had suddenly turned the color of tsu-ra-be-ree.
Her eyes were closed and she was shaking her head
back and forth in that universal expression that says,
"My brother is SUCH a dork!" But then, after
making sure we understood exactly how she felt
about the situation, she pulled a harmonica from her
apron.

"Well, well," I said. "Are you two going to play for
us? We would like that very much."

"You sit down?" said the boy. Yosi and I complied.
Then, with all the seriousness of a Viennese
symphony director, he nodded his head.

They began playing a duet. It sounded familiar. The
bamboo flute and harmonica combination was not
very true to pitch, but it was impossible not to
recognize the melody: the opening riff to that
Indonesian standard, "New York, New York." DA
DA da da da, DA DA da da da, DA DA da da da
DAAAA ...

They repeated the riff as I smiled at Yosi. DA DA da
da da, DA DA da da da, DA DA da da da DAAAAA
...

They lowered their instruments and started to sing:
"Start spread-y da nooose." Their voices were very
sweet together. They knew all the -- heavily
accented -- words: "I leafy to-day. I wanna be a
pardo eet --- New Yoke New Yoke!!"

I wondered if Fred Ebb had ever heard his lyrics
performed in pidgin English accompanied by bamboo
flute and harmonica? If not, he'd missed something.

We couldn't help singing along.

"I wanna wake opp eena ceety ot ozenn zleeep ..."

When the song was almost done, brother nodded to
sister, and they sang the big finish:

"NEW ... YOKE, NEWWWWWW ...
YO-O-O-O-O-OKE!"

With their last note they each went to one knee and
threw out their arms. It was a fabulous finish, a
spectacular finish, a vaudeville finish. We clapped
and cheered as they both stood up, laughing,
blushing and bowing at the same time.

"Unbelievable!" I gushed, and I wasn't lying.
"Wonderful!"

"Yes, yes," Yosi said, and then, "Thank you for ice
cream and especially for music." Each time we
complimented them they blushed and bowed. We
shook hands all around several more times, then
turned to go.

"You remember Batam!" the counter girl said, and as
we walked out to the street her brother called:
"Wait!" He ran outside. "Please, Sir. You not forget
us?" he said, as much a plea as a request, and then
ran back inside.

We smelled it before we saw it, a wave of burning
rubbery towels. The little blue Toyota screeched up
next to us, the driver smiling gamely through the
vaporous demise of his transmission. He had
obviously been waiting all afternoon for us to come
out of the shop.

"Hello Nagoya," I said.

"OK," he said. He pointed to the rear seat. We got
in. We were used to the smoke by now. It almost
smelled nice. In the gaining twilight we wended our
way back through forest and village to the boat dock.

"We accomplished something today, didn't we,
Yos?" I said. "We learned about them and they
learned about us. That's the point of all this traveling,
isn't it?"

"Well, you got to hear your music," Yosi said.

"I did, didn't I?"

We rode on in silence, and I thought: We are certain
to play "New York, New York" again next week, in
El Paso or Seattle or wherever we are working, and
when we do, I know I'll be thinking about how much
this song that I have played a million times means to
two kids in an ice cream shop in a little backwater
town of Indonesia. Sometimes musicians forget
about the power of music, and what it means to
people. Sometimes I forget, too. But when I do
someone always pulls out a harmonica and reminds
me.

When we arrived at the dock the sun had just set in
a glorious melody of purples and yellows.

All Praise Where All Praise Is Due.


Douglas A. Konecky

Doug Konecky is a songwriter, musician and essayist living in San Francisco.

MORE FROM Douglas A. Konecky

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