The imagination of a human being is a powerful tool in creating mental images of the unknown.
The arts, in particular, tend to take the mind to far away places whether dream-like or real.
We may be familiar with surfing the roaring waves of Hawaii, climbing the icy glaciers of Mont Blanc or riding on the rolling plains of Argentina.
Have we actually been to these places and done these things? Maybe not, but it’s fun to make believe.
Music is another way to travel to the far corners of the earth, to sway to the beat and hum to the tune.
We are there in spirit with our eyes closed and visions of the exotic climes and cultures.
Music from other parts of the world has not always been as accessible as it is today.
A pioneer in this effort is Tom Schnabel.
In 1998, Tom was awarded the French government’s National Medal of Arts.
“The French bestowed upon me the honor of Chevalier dans Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for my work in furthering the knowledge of music from other cultures for the past 20 years,” he says.
“The French, probably a legacy of their colonial empire, have long held an interest in arts from other places, and, of course, nobody has to go to the government each year and argue why the arts are important to society and beg for financial support like the U.S. does. And, unlike us, they have a Minister of Culture. Why don’t we?”
Tom’s name will sound familiar to those of you who listen to non-commercial radio.
He is best known for “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” KCRW’s signature morning program.
He was hired at the station in 1977 to sub for other DJs when the station was still growing.
The station was started around 1946 as a place where GIs could get training for radio jobs and it is the oldest FM station west of the Mississippi.
“It always stayed small with a lousy signal and bad antenna,” Tom says of the station.
He remembers working in a junior high school classroom with no heat.
“You had to bring your own heater in and your own needles for the turntable,” he says. “We had one speaker. It was pretty miserable but I could realize my fantasy of becoming a DJ.”
He credits Ruth Seymour, station general manager since 1978, for turning the station around.
“Ruth’s genius saw what the station could be,” says Tom.
“I had a chance to be part of KCRW during a period of incredible growth. Now it is one of the biggest public radio stations in the country.
“I grew with it and so did my musical knowledge and my musical tastes along with developing a relationship with an audience. It was an invaluable experience. I’m still feeling it.”
After 12 years it was time for a change.
Tom accepted a great offer from A&M Records that didn’t work out.
“That was a blessing in a way because it made me go on to other things,” he says.
These “other things” included writing a second book, “Rhythm Planet: The Great World Music Makers” (“Stolen Moments: Conversations with Contemporary Musicians” was published in 1988), producing world music CDs and teaching at UCLA Extension and Sci-Arc.
In 1998 the Los Angeles Philharmonic asked Tom to becomeprogram director for a world music series and he has been doing it since. There are six shows each summer at the Hollywood Bowl.
He says real treats are in store for the 2005 season, including:
n Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. A journey with Yo-Yo Ma and the Ensemble on the ancient Silk Road that touches on music both old and new from East and West.
n Reggae Night IV, featuring Jamaican stars. It is an annual night of roots reggae.
n Femi Kuti. Nigerian afro-beat superstar Femi Kuti with his funk force and Senegal’s Daara J and hip hop, reggae, jazz, Cuban and Caribbean sounds.
n Destination Hawaii. A night designed for “pure relaxation with two of Hawaii’s biggest music stars, together on the stage for the first time,” the promotion material claims. There will also be hula dancing ensembles.
Tom is also excited about his 2005-2006 fall and spring world music series to be held in the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
The series features sitar legend Ravi Shankar, who brings the second installment of his Festival of India; the drum-driven dance of Les Ballets Africains, also part of the Minimalism Jukebox; the powerful Bulgarian women’s chorus; and Osvaldo Golijov’s reinterpretation of folk materials featuring American soprano Dawn Upshaw.
Tom sees a correlation between Frank Gehry, architect of the Disney Hall, and world music.
Both needed a little getting used to.
Tom remembers that when he first started working at KCRW and the station broadcasted the Santa Monica City Council meetings.
“Some guy named Frank Gehry was trying to build a house in Santa Monica,” says Tom.
“And all the neighbors were swarming to City Council meetings saying ‘he wants to build this hideous thing and we’re not going to let him. We’re going to stop him.’
“Now look. Frank Gehry designs are coveted.”
He didn’t “get” reggae music when he first heard it.
“The beat was strange,” he admits. “It was sort of off.”
I remember when Philip Glass first came out with his weird compositions.
“He is now more established,” says Tom.
It does take time to get used to a sound or a look that we’re not used to and it will be forever this way with differences in the future.
Some people call it progress.
Have you ever noticed that instruments in a composition can talk to each other to tell a story?
The trill of a flute may respond to the blare of a trumpet.
Far-reaching octaves of a piano can give a different feel or spirit.
Music does have a language of its own.
Music is also a means of communication between people.
It emanates a strong sense of emotion.
“You have kids growing up who may not be able to finish a sentence,” says Tom.
“You give them a saxophone or a guitar and it’s a different language. They speak very, very well.
“People speak different languages. Some people will speak in a musical language better than the spoken word or written word. It’s an international language.
“It’s something whereby people of many different persuasions, educational backgrounds or whatever can relate to each other.
“It’s the human sensibility of expression. If you listen to an interview with Charlie Parker, who was a genius, he didn’t say much and he didn’t really sound like an intellectual.
“Music gives young people a reason and something to put themselves into so they don’t join gangs”
For those of you who haven’t followed Tom’s musical career, he may be remembered instead as a familiar face on Venice Beach as a lifeguard. He grew up in Pacific Palisades within a binoculars view of the waves.
“Surfing occupied my waking life from 14 to 18,” he says.
“I always wanted to have a connection with the beach.”
He worked in Venice from 1971 and “hung up” his trunks in 2000. He remembers when the beach was “clothing optional.”
“It became just a zoo,” he says. “It was a nightmare for me because there were stalkers and lots of problems, all sorts of crazy things.”
Tom rented different apartments in Venice and Santa Monica over the years. He even took time off to live in Paris where he attended The Sorbonne and taught ESL (English as a second language.)
On his return, one of the places he rented was a house on Rialto Avenue owned by Ken Newfield, former skating partner of Peggy Fleming.
He really liked the neighborhood. It was at this time that he made enough money while working at A&M Records to purchase a lot nearby.
Tom couldn’t just buy any house. He needed a place that he could call home for his 10,000 records and CDs.
So he had a Moroccan-inspired house built to his specifications.
A number of years later he was able to purchase the adjacent lot, where he now has an office with French doors opening to a swimming pool and garden that has been featured on the Venice Garden Tour.
Of course, Tom thinks Venice is an incredible place to live.
He likes the eclectic mix of new and old architecture.
He also appreciates that his neighborhood is not on any particular grid. He notices people getting lost all the time.
In addition, he appreciates people being considerate of each other and believes it’s important to help keep his surroundings clean.
He picks up stuff from the sidewalk and, in particular, nails in the alley.
“I’ve had 10 flats in the nine years I’ve lived here,” he says.
He was also instrumental in forming a neighborhood alley clean up several years ago.
The proximity to the ocean and bike baths plus the restaurants and shopping on Abbot Kinney are big plusses.
“It is a vibrant community,” he says. “It has a local feeling.”
Life has been good to Tom.
“I’ve had a great experience playing a lot of pretty exotic music and have found that people really like it,” he says.
About the home front he offers, “one of the nicest things about taking a trip is that it’s really great to come home. I always feel like this is a special place in the world to be privileged to live in.”