A Letter Home

Last July, on a sunny summer Sunday at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, composer and trumpeter Darren Johnston premiered his Songs of Seven Miles, a song cycle for three vocalists plus ensemble, based on interviews Johnston conducted with various Bay Area-based immigrants. As an immigrant himself (originally from Canada), living in a city where it’s rare to meet natives, the immigrant experience—people’s reasons for leaving, the stories of their journeys here, and the new lives they create for themselves in our wonderful city—is a topic he wanted to explore.

Following that project, Yerba Buena invited Johnston to do a second piece along the same lines, which will premiere this June, again as part of the Gardens Festival. For this project, Letters to Home, Johnston commissioned letters from eight local immigrants, and wrote the libretto using excerpts culled from these letters. I was absolutely thrilled to be included in this distinguished group of letter-writers. As you can see (if you click on the “Darren Johnston” tag associated with this post), I’ve been a huge fan of Darren’s music for some time, so it truly is an honor to participate in this new project of his.

Johnston asked his letter-writers to write “either to a beloved of their choosing back in their country of origin, or to themselves at the time they first arrived in the US, sharing advice they wish they’d received at that time.” Although it did not quite fit the description, I decided to adapt a piece I wrote here, last time I was in Dublin. It was written one month after my father passed, and a few days before my mother passed. I was preparing to leave my parents’ house for the last time, and contemplating leaving Dublin forever.

Dublin is not a city I feel especially connected to. It has never felt like home to me in the way San Francisco does, for example. But at the time I wrote what is essentially a goodbye letter to Dublin itself, very literally a letter to home, an old and thoroughly sentimental song called “The Dublin Saunter” kept going through my head. Just thinking about that song now brings tears to my eyes.

Though I have yet to hear Darren’s composition, I keep hearing about “my song” all over the ‘hood from friends who’ve heard it performed by Broken Shadows Family Band, Johnston’s group dedicated to his newfound interest in writing music with lyrics, and from various friends involved in the Letters to Home project, some of whom didn’t realize right away that this particular song they were working on—”Laura from Dublin”—was inspired by the letter I wrote.

Letters to Home is a more ambitious piece than Johnston’s previous Songs of Seven Miles. For the premiere this summer, Johnston is assembling a massive, multi-generational group he’s calling the Trans-Global People’s Chorus, featuring vocalists of a variety of backgrounds and training, and also some dancers and theatrical performers. There’s going to be all sorts of clapping, stomping, and body percussion happening. I can’t wait to see it!

Broken Shadows recently began a new residency at my favorite Mission hangout, the Revolution Cafe, every 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month. I missed the first night of the residency, and thus the first opportunity to hear “my” song, as I ended up staying home that night to watch the opening concert of the new SFJAZZ Center. Two weeks later, when they played again, I was sick, so I missed another opportunity. But I will be there this coming Wednesday, February 27, come hell or high water.

I was excited to learn that violinist Matthew Szemela, possibly the most in-demand musician on the local music scene, has joined Broken Shadows. Having spent many years in New York, Szemela came to the Bay Area fairly recently when he got hired in the Berkeley Symphony, led by the adventurous Joana Carneiro. Pretty quickly, he was playing everywhere with everyone—Musical Art Quintet and Classical Revolution, Todd Sickafoose, Family Folk Explosion, Quartet San Francisco, Rupa and the April Fishes, and now Broken Shadows, to name a few. That list, which cuts across many genres, surely indicates what a versatile musician he is. I’m hoping Szemela will also be performing with the Trans-Global People’s Chorus at the Yerba Buena premiere.

Darren Johnston’s Broken Shadows are at The Revolution Cafe, 3248 22nd Street, SF, every second and fourth Wednesday of the month. Letters to Home premieres Saturday, June 22, 2013, at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival.

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Dublin Can Be Heaven

As I’m contemplating what might be my last days ever in Dublin, a particular old song keeps coming to mind, the chorus of which goes:

Dublin can be heaven / with coffee at eleven / and a stroll / in Stephen’s Green.
No need to hurry / no need to worry / you’re a king / and the lady’s a queen.
Grafton Street’s a wonderland / there’s magic in the air / there are diamonds in the lady’s eyes / and gold dust in her hair.
And if you don’t believe me / come and meet me there / in Dublin / on a sunny summer morning.

Although commonly known as “Dublin Can Be Heaven,” the song’s title, as I just learned, is actually “The Dublin Saunter.” It’s about a Dublin native, a self-professed “rolling stone” who has traveled far and wide only to discover that “there’s one place on this earth I’ve always liked the best, just a little town I call my own.”

Written sometime in the 40s or 50s by Dublin songwriter and radio broadcaster Leo Maguire (no relation), and made famous by singer Noel Purcell, it’s a nostalgic song evoking a golden era that happened long before I was born. The romantic sentiment it expresses, like Dublin itself, feels distant to me. While I too have “been north and I’ve been south, and I’ve been east and west,” if there’s one place that I’ve always liked the best, that would be San Francisco. That’s the little town that I call my own.

Whenever I return to Dublin, to my so-called “hometown,” I feel like a stranger in a strange land. The rows and rows of cramped-looking terraced houses, some with tiny front doors that reveal how short people were just a few generations ago, feel oppressive to me in their uniformity, each one mirroring perfectly the one beside it. They are the same houses I walked past everyday on my way back and forth to school.

I walk past them again now, on narrow streets not built with all these cars in mind. Often only one car can pass at a time. Irish drivers, unlike the typical American one, are happy to pull in and wait for the other to pass. Motorists here are refreshingly polite.

Despite the huge increase in the number of cars, large swaths of the city center are still cut off from traffic, including the pedestrianized “wonderland” that is Grafton Street. There you’ll find the famous Bewleys Cafe, established in 1927, and a slew of street performers dotted the length of the street. Many a Saturday afternoon in my youth was spent sauntering along from one busker to the next.

I wonder if I will ever return to Ireland after this visit. All that has kept me coming here will soon be gone forever and I can think of no reason why I might want to come back again. It is a thought that elicits no trace of nostalgia.

Tonight, I will decide what few things from my parents’ house I want to take back with me to San Francisco. On Sunday morning, I will leave this house for the last time. I will probably never see any of the neighbours here again, families who, like ours, have lived for many decades on this quiet cul-de-sac street, lined with the usual terraced houses, each one perfectly mirroring the next, except for the style of window and particular shade of grey or cream the facade is painted.

Neighbours here are very good and can always be relied upon in times of need. They cut the grass for us, bake apple pies, and offer rides wherever we need to go. Some of these families have known my family across three or four generations. It is strange knowing that those ties will simply wither away now, that another family will eventually take up residence in this house.

Again, it is a thought that elicits no trace of nostalgia.

And yet, and yet . . . that song keeps going round in my head. “Dublin can be heaven, with coffee at eleven, and a stroll . . .”

Dublin, I guess this is my goodbye.