Two summers ago, I was playing in a little acoustic trio out front of Everett and Charlie’s Art Gallery, and a guy with a violin rode past on a bike. He circled back and walked toward us. When I noticed him, I said, “You wanna join in?” He nodded, opened his case, and started listening...
I saw a play the other day. Or rather, I saw my son Jesse perform at The Jungle Theater three times in one week, in a play he co-wrote called, “King Gilgamesh and the Man of the Wild.” The story is from Persia and is widely regarded as the oldest narrative in the western world. It’s a story of Gilgamesh – 2/3 God, 1/3 human – and his deep friendship with Enkido, the man who is seduced from the wild by the Goddess Ishtar, and who then becomes the king’s trusted friend and warrior.
Jesse’s play is also about his current day friendship with Ahmed, who was a famous actor and activist in Iraq, who has now been banished from Iraq for portraying a gay man in an independent film.
Friendship often blossoms out of shared interests. Mine was to learn how to play guitar and sing better. And turns out that RayCurt Johnson has been sort of a gift to me. Not just a friend, but a mentor.
RayCurt reminds me of a guy I knew from New Orleans, but he’s from Washington, DC. He learned how to sing in church and in the DC Youth Chorale, and he auditioned into the inaugural class of the Duke Ellington Performing Arts High School in 1976. After that he got a full vocal scholarship to the Eastman School of Music.
Ray travelled to Leipzig, Germany to make a video of a famous violinist. While in Leipzig, he joined a chamber orchestra, and when they heard how he could sing, the chamber orchestra was transformed into a cabaret show. Ray arrived in Minnesota in September of 2020.
On that first night when we met, Ray played a few songs with us, and then he had a beer and joined my crowd of pals who hang at the Harriet Brasserie on those live summer music nights. He’s become part of our community.
No surprise, he’s made lots of other friends here, too; among them, the activists and musicians at George Floyd Square. Having arrived just months after the murder, he co-founded the George Floyd Brass Band, a kind of a marching jazz, with spoken word and message-driven lyrics. You might say Ray plays the “professor” role in that band, not singing much, but arranging and coaching. I’ve been welcomed to sit in with this group a couple times, jamming in the Marvin Gaye Room of the Modus Locus Art Gallery.
Here’s the happiest part for me: RayCurt has become my teacher. After we got playing together a few more times, he came to a couple of my band practices, and soon after that I started taking lessons from him in ear training. He is teaching me how to listen to identify intervals, how to hear a one-five interval in any key, and how to produce it with my voice.
Sometimes I play scales, and then sing them, naming the interval as I sing it. “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” Five – Three, two, one, two, one, six, five, threeeee... Or an easy one: “Here Comes the Briiide...” One – Four, four fooour...
He’s also teaching me how to “feel the tonal resonance” in my skull. He’s patient with my ridiculous lack of memory. And I am really improving. As soon as I started my singing lessons with Ray, my band was like: “Dude. Whatever he’s saying, it’s helping. Don’t stop.”
King Gilgamesh cries and hold his friend Enkido as he dies, and the king’s grief leads him to make an attempt to become immortal. He searches the world, and he does find the ancient plant-elixir at the bottom of the sea that grants man immortality, but on his way home to cook it, a snake devours it while Gilgamesh sleeps. And so, Gilgamesh becomes a mortal man with only one skin to shed, only one life to live. But in the end, he does not regret not becoming an immortal god, because he has known human life, and the love and friendship in it.
We travel this temporal landscape, sharing energy and time, and, of course, we’ve all experienced different walks through life. My life has been very different from RayCurt’s. And, as Ahmed says to Jesse in a scene taking place in the current day, “Your country was bombing my country, man. People I knew were dying, and now you’re in a movie about it, for entertainment.”
We experience each other in The Now, but each of our “Nows” is different because our histories are different. Our memories, our schooling, our battles and traumas affect our current experiences. If we are lucky, we grow from it, learn from each other, enjoy each other’s company, sometimes even heal each other. In other moments, perhaps we come to understanding.
May you have a moment this year, when you enjoy this good fortune.
• Find RayCurt “Da Fiddla” Johnson at raycurt.com
• Find King Gilgamesh and the Man of the Wild at Kickstarter-Gilgamesh
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