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Oktoberfest is Fun and Fodder for Art
By Dr. M. Leona Godin
Alabaster Rhumb is a New York City based singer and composer. He also spent four years as a young GI in Stuttgart, which boasts the second largest Oktoberfest after Munich. Quail Bell recently interviewed Rhumb about Oktoberfest, as well as his upcoming performance at the storied Nuyorican Poets Café.
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Quail Bell: You grew up in LA, so it must have been quite a shock to find yourself suddenly in Stuttgart. Can you remember how it felt to step off that plane?
Alabaster Rhumb: Airsick and disoriented. It was late May if I remember, and the sunsets near 10pm. Coupled with severe jet lag I felt I had crossed into the twilight zone. Coupled again with my having stepped off the bus at basic training 6 months previous, discovering I had made a terrible mistake joining the military...shudder to think.
QB: In your four years in Germany , how many times would you say you went to Oktoberfest?
AR: I can't be completely sure but out of the 2 weeks of the fest, times the 4 years I was there, I'd say 40 bier guzzling arm wrestling sing songing trough peeing knockwurst belching nights (and days).
QB: Wow! So, for those of us who've never been to a real German Oktoberfest, what are they like? What kept you going back again and again.... and again!
AR: It's a carnival first and foremost unless you're in a small town. But Stuttgart, as Munich and Frankfurt, when you first approach the fest, is Ferris wheels and roller coasters and games and cotton candy...It's only after you get further in that you come to the heart of the fest--the Bierhalle. There are several to choose from, each sponsored by a different major beer producer such as Hofbrau or Dinkelacker--huge tents with long pick-nick table seating and dank beer smells with a top note of roasted chicken and a base note of shameless-full gluttony, especially in the waning days. Anyway, quintessentially it's friends and strangers arm in arm singing and drinking... It's fun.
QB: All right, now to the flash forward! How did you get from being Military Police in Stuttgart to artist in New York City?
AR: I joined the Army with the intention of using the GI Bill to go to school and become an FBI agent. Of course I soon abandoned this trajectory aiming to get out and find myself, eventually settling on being a singing songwriter--a term I no longer identify with but at the time was correct. So with the often heroic help of my now x-wife, who I actually met at my last Oktoberfest, through a very long torturous string of terrible jobs (in Memphis, Atlanta, and California) from store "detective" to waiting tables to mowing lawns back to waiting tables to cook and restaurant manager back to waiting tables to selling perfume and shoes with a brief stint in college, I managed enough material to make a go of it, leaving all I knew, driving in the dead of winter and ending up in Harlem... All to find people like me, concentrated.
QB: A few of your songs are about your time in Germany, but there is a darkness, maybe even a bitterness mixed in with the wistful nostalgic element. For instance, "Army Song" seems to articulate your indifferent feelings about the military while also alluding to the fun times. There is perhaps something similar happening in "October". What is your relationship to that youth spent in Germany? How have the intervening years colored your memories of Oktoberfest?
AR: When I arrived in Germany, I was, though somewhat street wise, completely naive on most fronts. Being an MP in another country was as eye opening an experience as a young person can handle. Brutal hours and often heart wrenching scenes of fatal accidents and abuse and brawls and suicide. On the other hand I got to know some great people from all over America and Europe and had some great experiences, from smoking hashish on the roof of a carny's trailer at Oktoberfest to riding motor cycles through the streets of Costa Brava in Spain to leaping at girls, crashing cars and tripping on acid on a sand burn facing Iraq on the eve of Desert Storm... Though all of these things occurred throughout the course of the year, October embodies and holds a place for me that is at once warm and inviting and bone chilling... Stay in school!
QB: Your upcoming show is called How To Prepare Heart. It is a premier of sorts, right? How did these compositions come into being and how will they be performed on October 10th?
AR: It's a premier in this incarnation but a long-suffering book of songs twenty years (not) in the making--I did everything I could to sabotage it over the years and on those few occasions when I attempted to launch it, it and I would come crashing down in self-aggrandizing failure. The main issue being that I was trying to perform the cycle by myself on acoustic guitar. Though not a virtuosic piece, it can be quite difficult and I often felt like I was high up on a tight wire in a snowstorm... Anyway, orchestrating it for an ensemble has given it new life and it is a very different thing. I will be on a small platform that could be thought of as doubling for a gallows while the ensemble of guitar, piano, double bass, violin, trumpet, tuba, flute, and drums will be on either side... I've sparsely arranged so that each song, save for the last, has no more than 2 or 3 instruments plus vocal, giving each song its own dynamic. Perhaps the whole is just as fragile as before.
QB: Alright, I have one very important final question: do shots taste better when drunk from the cleavage of Oktoberfest wenches?
AR: I could never bring myself to do it, no matter how many beers, as the wenches of the fest's of my time were the same as those of yesteryear and the intervening centuries not kind... Perhaps there is a new cast of wenches now, which would make the proposition far more appealing!
How To Prepare Heart, a song Cycle by Alabaster Rhumb with ensemble will be performed at The Nuyorican Poets Café on October 10th at 6pm. For tickets and more info visit:
How To Prepare Heart is an astonishing combination of music and poetry performed by Alabaster Rhumb with an international ensemble--these musicians have performed at Carnegie Hall, Palacio de Bellas Artes (Mexico), and Banlieues Bleues Festival (France) to name a few. You'll be near tears one minute and soul soaring the next, but you're sure to tremble with fear and euphoria.
Orchestra backing Rhumb's vocals: Ric Becker, tuba; Howard Fishman, guitar; Juan Pablo Horcasitas, piano; Konrad Kamm, double bass; Jessica Lipstone, flute; Cortland Mahoney, violin; Rebecca Steinberg, trumpet; Marc Wagnon, drums.
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