Written by: Don Ciccone
What’s travel guru Rick Steves doing in Stereo Embers Magazine, you ask? Well, for one thing, he’s a musician himself and, since he’s an expert on all matters Europe, why not see what he has to say about music over there? His new book, For the Love of Europe, is a very personal collection of memories of his travels over the years. It focuses on people he met along the way, some of whom provide musical entertainment for locals and tourists alike. He spoke to us by phone, from his home near Seattle, Washington.
Stereo Embers Magazine: We all know you as a travel expert but this being a music magazine, perhaps we can talk about all the different kinds of music you’ve experienced in your travels.
Rick: Kind of a look at Europe through a music lover’s lens?
SEM: Exactly. Let’s begin with your musical background. Didn’t your father work with pianos?
Rick Steves — My dad was a piano technician in Seattle. He was sort of the go to guy for getting your piano tuned. And then he started importing pianos from Europe, mostly from Germany– the finest pianos in the world. He had quite an impressive retail piano shop and he sold Bosendorfers and the German Steinways and harpsichords…celebrating great European craftsmanship. His mission was giving people what he called “The Steves Sound of Music.” That was the name of his company. As a kid, I would work after school at the piano store and I would teach piano and dust and regulate the pianos. But I never learned how to tune pianos. I tried but didn’t have the patience…or the ear.
SEM: So, the Steves Sound of Music was a very well-tuned piano?
Rick: No, it was a great quality European piano. Finely crafted European pianos. That’s what my dad imported.
SEM: Did you grow up playing piano?
Rick: Yeah, it was required.
SEM: What about your musical tastes? Are you mostly into classical or jazz or pop? Or… everything?
Rick: I like to play classical. My favorite composers are Scarlatti, Debussy, Mozart, Schumann and Shastakovich– for their piano music. I like to listen to pop, mostly. Because of my work I don’t have as much time as I’d like to really enjoy music. If I were to slow down or retire there’s a lot of pent up appetite for music appreciation. One of my most treasured possessions is my three-ring notebook of all the piano pieces that I learned when I was a student. I still to this day have that on my piano music rack and I love playing pieces I once learned. That was also my quarry for teaching my students. I had fifty piano students for several years and that was my business. That’s how I paid for my first trips to Europe– teaching piano.
SEM: In your early travels to Europe did you look for traditional music or did you go to clubs and discos?
Rick: I didn’t go to clubs and discos. I looked for traditional music. And classical music. I would go to concerts–pipe organ, choral, chamber music…and kind of classical concerts. I would buy fine German editions of piano music. The Henle editions were really cool. I would enjoy music at festivals, whether it was bluegrass or folk or jazz… I would enjoy that. I didn’t go clubbing or hit the bar scene for music. I was pretty diligent. Right from the start I was more interested in cultural sightseeing, doing my writing, and then getting my beauty rest.
SEM: Do you find that traditional music in Europe has increased or decreased? Is it getting passed down from generation to generation?
Rick: I think it is. I think there’s a determined cross-section of every society that is passionate about traditional music whether they’re young, hip people or whether they’re the old school seniors. I feel like there’s a strong desire to keep the traditional music of different countries vibrant as the generations go down. I see that with the traditional music in Ireland. I see it with fado music in Portugal and flamenco in Andalucia, Spain. You run into a lot of music in Turkey that travelers really relate to. I think it’s in people’s blood.
SEM: Did you discover some traditional music you didn’t know about before on your early travels?
Rick: If it’s cultural, whether it’s wine or cooking or art or architecture or poetry or music– that’s what you are goldmining for when you’re traveling around overseas. One thing I really loved was going to a place where a musician was inspired. If you go to Troldhaugen on the west coast of Norway–it’s on the fjord– there’s a charming little cabin and you see the piano where Edvard Grieg sat and his writing table, and the view he had out his window. After you’ve been exploring Norway, whether it’s riding ferries, road tripping across the mountains, or taking a walk in the wilderness you hear his music so vividly. When you see Edvard Grieg’s little cabin in Troldhaugen looking out at the fjord, it’s great. You’ve got Erik Satie who was inspired in Normandy and you can go to his museum there and it’s wonderful. If I can just go to a place where an artist was inspired, it’s really great. Chopin was inspired by the sound of the wind through the willow trees in Poland. Even though he didn’t spend most of his life in Poland, he always remembered the wind in the willow trees– I like that. There’s a famous statue of Chopin in Warsaw that has the trees blowing over him as he’s being inspired to write his beautiful music.
SEM: Wagner’s house in Switzerland overlooks Lake Lucerne and you can see how he would have been inspired.
Rick: Oh yeah. Wagner would be inspired by mythic stories from the deep roots of the German people and it would come across in his music. One of my favorite projects is a tv show I made called The Symphonic Journey. Did you ever see that?
SEM: Not yet. Is that the one with the Berlioz music?
Rick: Yeah. You should watch that. It’s on my website. If you go to the tv section and look under “specials”, it’s a one-hour concert. I collaborated with our local symphony and we produced it and filmed it and it aired all over the country. In the last few years, I’ve been invited to host that with orchestras all around the country. I did two concerts with the Boston Pops and three concerts with the Houston Symphony, the Seattle Symphony and the Denver Symphony. I had a bunch more scheduled, but they had to be cancelled with the pandemic. That’s all about music and nationalism. Romantic music from the late 1800’s is a natural partner of the national movements of the late 1800’s. So you’ve got Verdi, that romantic opera composer, being the champion, and sort of providing the anthems for Italian unification. And you’ve got composers like Edvard Grieg being distinctly Norwegian as Norway was distancing itself from Sweden. It’s no coincidence that the cultural leaders of Norway settled in the corner of Norway farthest away from Denmark and Sweden. They didn’t want to be in Oslo which was back then named for a Danish king: Christiania. They wanted to be in Bergen– way in the far west. For me it’s really cool that all this great Romantic music was in the same generation as Italy was uniting and Germany was uniting, and the United States was fighting its Civil War. It’s all about nationalism: Are we one country or two countries? And so on.
SEM: Speaking of Denmark and Sweden, I looked all over record shops in Stockholm for an album by a Danish artist only to be told, “Why would we have that?” I said, “Well, he’s Danish guy”. The clerk said, “Exactly. He’s a Danish guy.”
Rick: Ha! Is that right? That’s funny.
SEM: First shop I hit in Copenhagen had it.
Rick: Yeah, it’s easier to find Sibelius in Finland.
SEM: You mentioned natural inspirations for composers. In Berlin, my room looked out onto a courtyard and every morning the birdsong coming through the window was like a symphony. It makes you think: No wonder Beethoven and all these guys came up this stuff.
Rick – (laughs) Yeah. Well, it’s fun to be able to get yourself in a romantic, appreciative mood whether it’s visual arts or music or dance or whatever– to be right there. I mean, to go to Vienna and hear Strauss waltzes– you know it’s a touristy thing– but the locals love it. I’ve got a particular affinity for traditional folk music. Slap dancing and yodeling is kinda kitschy and touristy but there’s a real strong, legitimate historical and cultural basis for it. It gives you a fun little insight into the Middle Ages when people wanted to socialize and flirt and get together but there were so many restrictions. You had to do your flirting on the dance floor with parents watching. The music really lends itself to boys showing off and girls enjoying the sort of show– while looking for the right mate.
SEM: Do you include musical experiences in your tour groups?
Rick: Whenever possible. I think that’s something we could do more with. One thing I really like, Don, is to listen to baroque music in a baroque palace, for instance. If there’s that consistency of the venue with the music you’re listening to, it’s particularly fun. Prague is a wonderful place for music because the venues are classic old baroque palaces and you’ve just got this wonderful heritage there and it’s less than half the cost of Vienna.
SEM: While we’re in Prague, what’s the Black Light Theatre?
Rick: Black Light Theatre sort of fits the passion that Czech people have for the absurd. It’s kinda slapstick with flourescent lights and vaudeville dancing onstage. I find it entertaining but I don’t get addicted to it. It’s kind of: “Okay, been there done that.”
SEM: But it’s not something you’re going to see somewhere else, maybe.
Rick: Yeah, it’s unique. It’s unique to Prague and it’s something that I think you want to see. I wouldn’t call it high culture. It’s sort of intriguing like optical illusions or something like that. You want to see it but that’s enough. Every culture has that fun little quirky opportunity. I like the light opera– the zarzuela — in Madrid. That’s something that tourists might not know about. If a tourist was coming to the United States and they wanted to see Gilbert and Sullivan it would be like going to Madrid looking for zarzuela.
SEM: Do you ever find yourself getting weary of the traditional music of a particular country when you’re in Europe? Like you might with food where you might want Chinese food for a change? Do you know what I mean?
Rick: I do know what you mean but I move around enough where, when I get to France, I can hardly wait to have some honest gourmet food. And then I’m not there long enough to get tired of it. I never crave Chinese or Thai food when I’m in France. I crave Thai food when I’m in Seattle. I think when you’re in England or Germany where the cuisine can be kind of monotonous there’s where you feel: I need an Italian restaurant. But in places in the Mediterranean, whether it’s Greece or Italy or France or Spain, I’d have to be there quite a long time before I’d want a meal that’s not from that culture. And it’s nice to know that in Italy there are plenty of cuisines within Italian culture that you can embrace.
SEM- After three weeks of traditional music in Ireland, night after night, I stumbled on a rockabilly band in Galway and it was kind of a relief.
Rick – Well, yeah, that would be good. That’d be fun. Rockabilly would be kind of a nice partner to trad in Ireland.
SEM: That’s true. It seems that music is used often to lure tourists in. When I bumped into you in Lucerne, there was a tourist trap nearby that draws people in with music and you knew all about it. It impressed me that you didn’t even mention the place in your guidebook. How do you suss out the tourist traps from the places where locals go, when both types of places offer traditional music?
Rick: Well, you know, to be honest, some traditions survive– they’re only viable, financially– with the tourists. Tourists keep it alive and then it’s amped up and exaggerated so that low brow tourism can enjoy it and get their brains around it. So, it’s sort of gimmicky. But I remind my tour guides, “You may be jaded, and you may think slap dancing and yodeling is silly, but it’s a legitimate part of Tyrolean culture and your job is to explain it and set it up. Give it context, so that when your tourists and travelers sit down in that big beer hall that’s all geared up for tour buses, they understand what’s going on and why it’s a legitimate part of the culture even though it’s being performed in its juiced up, simplified kind of way for rank beginners. The guide gives a context and legitimacy and then you enjoy it. I can go to a flamenco show at a touristy place in Sevilla, or I can stay up until one o’clock in the morning and see flamenco combust spontaneously in little dives all over town. But I don’t really want to stay up til one ‘clock. Well, I shouldn’t say I don’t want to– I’d love to. But the reality is for $15 and one hour I can get the whole parade of what flamenco is at a thoughtful and well-done concert designed for visitors. And there’s two or three of them every night in Sevilla. The trick is not to go to the over-the-top touristy spectacle but to go to a smaller venue that really cares about and respects the art form and has a mission to help visitors gain an appreciation for it. It’s simplified for the consumption of tourists but it’s still legit. And there’s a practicality: it costs fifteen or twenty dollars and you’re there for one hour and you’ve had a good flamenco experience. Then you walk back to your hotel.
SEM: Sometimes the B&B ladies will direct you to the right place, it seems.
Rick: Yeah, they’ll know. That’s a very good idea. Every time I’m in Inverness, in Scotland– a couple of hours north of Edinburgh–I am really excited about going out and enjoying some folk music. Scottish folk music. I count on the host at the B&B to tell me what’s happening and where’s a good spot. Your guidebook might not know because it was researched a year ago, but she knows what’s happening right now. So that’s a good tip.
SEM: Dingle’s great for trad in Ireland.
Rick: Last time I was in Dingle, I was working on my guidebook and I walked around the big block there and there’s probably 6 or 7 places with live music and if you go at 8 o’clock you’ll have one crowd and if you go at 10 o’clock, you’ll have another crowd.
SEM: In Westport, Ireland I was in a pub that was owned by one of the guys from the Cheiftans and there was a small room in back and it was full of tourists and I was getting annoyed because they weren’t really even listening to the music, so I decided to split. I went to the bathroom first and discovered this back door that led to a big enclosed back area and there was a whole different group there…
SEM: …and the music went on til like one in the morning. And it was like being in church, Rick. By the end of the night, we were all singing and holding hands.
Rick: Oh, my goodness. That reminds me of my first time in Dingle. They said, “Okay, we’re closing down. Unless you want to stay.” That’s the closing hour and the doors lock and anybody who’s still there– that’s when the real action happens. Last time I was in Dingle, there was one pub that stays open late. I don’t know how they can do that but that’s where the musicians gather after they’ve performed– to enjoy each other. That was a GREAT experience. Those are the kinds of — like you said you were going back to go to the bathroom, and you see a door and you peek in and you think, “oh my goodness, look at this”. This is how you find those very un-touristy local moments. You know, I was saying I don’t want to stay up til that late in Sevilla but, when I do, it really is an amazing thing to see honest-to-goodness flamenco “combusting spontaneously”. It’s funny, I save that term for flamenco late at night in Sevilla cause that’s what it does. Nobody’s wearing costumes or anything– it’s just real people having a good sangria-doused bout of their traditional culture without a tourist in sight.
SEM: Right. That’s where it’s at. “Without a tourist in sight.” The next morning when I told the B&B lady that story of the back room, she looked at me and said, “Oh… you found that spot did you? You went through the back door?” She knew all about it.
Rick: Yeah. Oh yeah. That’s great. When you’re in Edinburgh, that’s the challenge: to find the traditional music where the local people are as opposed to what’s on the High Street with all the tourists. There’s a place for
both. But when you can get that magic people really do have a spark in their eyes. I’ve had a few special moments with traditional music in Scotland and Ireland that I’ll never forget.
SEM: Let’s get into your book, For the Love of Europe. It’s organized country by country. The book begins in Portugal and just a few pages in you talk about fado. You call it “the blues of Lisbon”.
Rick: Fisherwoman blues. Lisbon’s blues. They’ve got these uniquely Portuguese instruments– the Portuguese guitars. Mostly it’s women singing with traditional guitars. Cuimbra has its own fado which is men singing and it’s like troubadors and that’s a beautiful thing. Generally, it’s a couple of guitars–or a mandolin and a guitar– and a female singer.
SEM: In the chapter on Spain, you write that in Andalucia, “just as Austria is eager to waltz and Ireland is always ready for a good folk song, Andalucia is just waiting for the simplest excuse to grab castanets and dance.” Suppose that’s what you mean by, “flamenco combusting spontaneuously”.
Rick: Yes. I think the title of the chapter is “Hair Trigger Flamenco in Andalucia.” Yeah, it’s just ready to go off. If somebody can snap their fingers or shake some castanets, everybody just jumps up and starts dancing. It’s amazing. It’s hair-trigger flamenco–it’s in their blood.
SEM: Is there music in the processions as well? There’s always a procession going on in Seville.
Rick: I don’t remember music in the processions. I remember that being like a dirge. It trudges and sways back and forth and it goes on forever. Hand in hand with that does go music but it’s apart from the actual procession.
SEM: What’s the music at the bullfights like?
Rick: It’s a little brass combo that celebrates the ritual of it. It’s sort of like trumpets announcing when the knights in shining armor are leaving the castle or coming back. It’s fanfare music. And then there’s music to sweep up the blood by.
SEM: Spain also has what’s called, “tuna” music. I think I heard that in Salamanca — in the Plaza.
Rick: Yeah. When you hear romantic strolling Romeos you can imagine them 800 years ago parked outside of a castle and Rapunzel letting down her hair. It’s that kind of tradition. Today these are street musicians roaming university towns. They’ll be hired for hen parties or stag parties or special family gatherings. You see them in the square busking. Traditionally, I think it’s Castillian. I really enjoy that.
SEM: In your Madrid chapter you mentioned artisan shops. The Jose Ramirez Guitar shop is still there in Madrid. George Harrison’s Spanish guitar came from there. It was my first stop in Madrid.
Rick: Oh really? Yeah, you mentioned getting one of those. That’s cool. Speaking of George Harrison, I brought a sitar home from India once.
SEM: How did you get it back?
Rick: I carried it with me like a cello. I slept with it on the floor of the Frankfurt airport and then I flew home with it. It was in a big case like a big guitar case. I checked it. I think I had to check it. I was nervous but it made it home and I had a sitar in my life for a while but I realized I had no room for it and I gave it away. On my second trip to India, I took home a porcelain squat toilet. I had it in a big wooden crate and the customs official asked what was in the crate and I said, “A toilet”. And he said… “Okay.” It seemed like that was too crazy to lie about.
SEM: After Spain, your book takes us to Morocco. Did you hear music in Tangier or anywhere else in Morocco?
Rick: There was music on the big square in Marrakesh. That was nice. You’ve got all the Bedouin and all the distant tribal cultures coming together — it’s like the big market for all those disparate groups. They have lots of entertainment for the people coming in to do their shopping. It’s certainly interesting from the tourism point of view.
SEM: Let’s go to France. How about Paris?
Rick: My two favorite music experiences there are the jazz clubs— wonderful jazz club scene — old school jazz dancing and string bass. Great piano. You can go to cabaret shows that are fun but it’s less fun if you don’t speak French. Of course, you can go to medieval music in the Sainte Chapelle, which is touristy but beautiful. A highlight for me is going to Sainte-Sulpice Cathedral and listening to the pipe organ. Until recently you could actually climb up into the organ loft and gather around the keyboard as the organist performed between Masses.
SEM: The cabaret show – that sounds like it’s not for tourists.
Rick: No, it’s for locals.
SEM: That’s in Montmartre?
SEM: And you like the jazz clubs?
Rick: I like the jazz clubs a lot, yeah. In the jazz clubs people just dance with abandon. It’s people who are real aficionados of jazz dancing and jazz music and to be there you realize: “Wow, there’s a lot to be enthusiastic about in this life”.
SEM: Okay, let’s move to Britain. There’s everything from Evensong to the Beatles.
Rick: Yeah. The low hanging fruit is the Evensong service. Everyone should experience the Evensong service. Whether you’re a churchgoer or not, it’s a thrill to see that grand, medieval building being used for what it was designed for. You get to sit in the middle of the choir. You get to hear a boys choir and it’s just very meditative and very peaceful. Then you step out after that and it’s dark and quiet in the town and you go home and feel like that was a lovely experience.
SEM: Yes, an Evensong service is everything you just said. And something I wouldn’t have looked for if not for your guidebook on Great Britain. You mentioned finding traditional Scottish music in Inverness. I ended up with country music– in Oban.
Rick: In Oban? That’s where they’ve got all the touristy jigs and bagpiping and that kind of thing. I used to always take my groups to that. Country music?
SEM: Yep. Square-dancing.
Rick: Well, Europeans certainly enjoy country. I find that in Britain, the pub music scene, whether it’s traditional or country or bluegrass or whatever — sometimes it’s just kinda fiddlers gone crazy– is so accessible. I love it cause it’s free– ya just gotta buy a beer. You know they say “Strangers are just friends you’ve yet to meet”. So, all of a sudden, you’ve got friends all around. I’m amazed at how easy it is to become part of scene in a pub. And how accessible live music is throughout Britain.
SEM: And of course, there’s Liverpool. Every Beatle fan should go to Liverpool.
Rick: You know, it’s getting better and better. I was just there a year ago and — wow. You know the movie, Yesterday?
SEM: Yes. Loved it.
Rick: I saw it in Liverpool. It was cool to see it there. I was really on a research tear but I gave myself a couple of hours. I had a lot of work to do but I wanted to see Yesterday in Liverpool. And I went to Mathew Street and there’s the new “Magical History Museum” [at 23 Mathew Street]. It’s five stories of artifacts from Pete Best’s brother and one of their roadies — who traveled with the group before they were famous. He acted like he knew they were going to be the ultimate rock band and saved everything. It was a GREAT museum. I was really impressed by it.
SEM: So that’s not The Beatles Story at the dock. This is a new one?
Rick: Yes. And, I thought, much better than “The Beatles Story”.
SEM: Did you go to John and Paul’s houses? I don’t know if they still do it but when I was there they let people in.
Rick: Did you go in?
SEM: Yeah, into both of them.
Rick: Wow. Oh, my goodness. I did the Beatles Tour on the mini-bus and I really loved it but I think that was before you could actually go into those houses.
SEM: The first time I went, in 2001, someone was living in John’s house. It was for sale. When I went back a few years later, Yoko had bought the place and donated it to the National Trust.
Rick: Is that right?
SEM: Yeah, and she had it furnished to look like it did when John was a kid, in the 1950’s.
Rick: That’s great. Good for Yoko.
SEM: I lingered too long in Paul’s house and the tour bus left without me. I started walking and it’s just this residential area. I wasn’t sure where I was and suddenly there’s the shelter in the middle of the roundabout and the barber shop and — everything. I’d stumbled on Penny Lane!
Rick: Ha! Yeah, if you’re a Beatle fan there’s nothing quite like it when you see all these things featured in their songs and you just weave them together in your brain.
SEM: And we know you’re a Beatle fan, ‘cause you’ve got that big wonderful photo hanging in your house.
Rick: Yeah, people always ask on Monday Night Travels [Rick’s weekly Zoomcast]: “Is that the Beatles in the back?” I’ve got it on my notes to say, “Yes that’s the Beatles,” next time around.
SEM: It’s a great picture.
Rick: Thanks, Don.
SEM: Before we leave Britain, let’s talk about Blackpool, the home of the George Formby Society. That’s where you really get some traditional music hall isn’t it?
Rick: Oh, the music hall stuff in Blackpool is fun. Sadly, I think it’s dying out. I don’t know what your experience is but I remember when I was first going to Blackpool there were these “old time music hall” shows. It was like a bunch of old-timers in the United States coming together for a Lawrence Welk reunion. The fact is, those old-timers have passed away and now people wouldn’t be so excited about a Lawrence Welk show. You can kind of track it by what kind of pledge drives are going on in public television. Is it doo wop and Chuck Berry, or is it the psychedelic 60s? As the decades go by, the older people that are supporting public television have their little window of concerts featured that play up to their individual tastes.
SEM: Right. That’s a very interesting point. George Formby was one of those music-hall guys from Blackpool that the old-timers in the North of England loved. George Harrison was a member of the George Formby Society.
Rick: Oh, really? Yeah, I used to enjoy those old-time music hall shows. It’s cultural history. It’s part of the whole low-brow, musical entertainment world of working-class England.
SEM: In the Blackpool Tower I saw a swing band.
Rick: Oh, the Tower, that’s iconic Blackpool… and still going strong. That’s a very enthusiastic clientele that goes there with the big organ and swing dancing.
SEM: Let’s head on to Switzerland. I found myself in Appenzell in the middle of a big weekend music festival and people had come from all over the country, it seemed.
Rick: Wow. I can imagine that. The Swiss really love their culture and Appenzell would be the place to find that. I can imagine a massing of alp horns in Appenzell. I was filming the new Swiss Alps show and I met the old alp horn player up above Gimmelwald and he was all excited to see me. He said, “For 10 years I’ve been performing for Rick Steves’ tour groups and I’ve never met Rick Steves.” He did a really beautiful bit for our tv show and it was nice to meet him. A highlight for me, musically, was when I was in Berne. They had the Busker Festival. Berne has a Europe-wide Busker Festival where the best street music from all over Europe converges. I had a blast. You buy a $20 membership, and you get a plastic band on your wrist and there are 3 or 4 bands playing at the same time all over town all weekend long. It was just great.
SEM: All different kinds of music?
Rick: Yeah. It was some rock and some pop music. A lot of it was slapstick, old fashioned cabaret. It was thoroughly entertaining. My favorite band was an English group called Tankus the Henge—they were an extremely physical explosion of musical fun. Check them out!
SEM: Will do. Speaking of those alp horns, I was treated to those in Zermatt– about five or six of them playing at once.
Rick: Yeah, that’s a beautiful thing. As a tour guide you need to set the tone, as I did in my tv show. You gotta remember that the alp horn played an important role in Alpine culture — this was before cell phones. People were communicating with each other. It could be a way to check in with your son who might be up in the high meadow with the goats. It’s a call to prayer. It’s just a beautiful part of the fabric of that community– that valley: the glorious alp horns. If, as a guide, you can bring that to life, then as your group watches the alp horn player, it’s more than just a photo op.
SEM: Wow… didn’t realize that. In the chapter on Germany, you talk about one of your favorite towns, Rothenberg. I stayed with a guy there who played some kind of horn that was a cross between a trombone and a sax. I wonder if he’s still around.
Rick: Oh, Norry. The Norryphone. When did you see him?
SEM: About five years ago.
Rick: Yeah, he runs a cute little bed and breakfast. He’s been in my Germany guidebook for a long time. I stayed with him. I played the piano and he played his “norryphone”. That was fun.
SEM: His place is like staying in Gepetto’s house.
Rick: Yeah! Exactly. Man, it’s like you and I are two identical tops spinning joyfully around Europe. You have had so many experiences, Don, that are just so cool. And fun!
SEM: Well, it’s all thanks to you, Rick.
SEM: Following in your footsteps with the guidebooks, cool things seem to happen. But the thing to do is to go a bit beyond and use the philosophy behind the books.
Rick: That’s the best way to do it.
SEM: While we’re in Germany, I want to ask you about Hamburg. Another place that’s a must for Beatle fans. It’s not as organized as Liverpool as far as Beatle tours, but I managed to find a guy who took us around.
Rick: Oh, that’s good. When I was there, they’d closed the Beatles museum. I thought, “Okay, the Beatles are fading. They can’t keep the museum open in Hamburg.” But then I went to Liverpool and there’s more Beatles stuff than ever in Liverpool, so the Beatle lore is certainly living on there. But they just couldn’t sustain the Beatles museum in Hamburg.
SEM: Let’s head south to Italy. You spend a lot of time on Italy in the book and some of it is very moving. You mention this fellow Lorenzo who passed away. There wasn’t much about music in the chapter but you’re at the hilltop where Lorenzo was buried. Sitting near Lorenzo’s tomb with his daughter and enjoying the grand Mediterranean view, you write: “I wonder what could improve the setting. And then the church bells ring.” That’s a thing it seems one can experience all over Europe. If there’s no music, there are always church bells.
Rick: Well, in Italy they have that wonderful concept of campanilismo. Campanile is the bell tower. Campanilismo is the love of the sound of their own bell tower. If you’ve got a little town — each bell tower has a unique sound — you know the sound of your bells. And that makes you feel very good when you hear that because you’re home. When the Nazis stole a lot of the church bells– I don’t know why they took ’em — maybe they just wanted to melt them down– but that was one of the things the Italians wanted to get back: their historic church bells. It’s very important to each town: Campanilismo. When they created Italy, around 1870, they said, “We’ve created Italy but now we’ve got to create Italians” because everybody is so loyal to their local town and their community… and the comforting sound of their hometown church bells.
SEM: I got dragged to Italy as a teenager and wasn’t excited about going there, having grown up with Italian-American parents. The same thing happened to you with Norway as a kid. Did you feel the same way on that trip?
Rick: Yeah, I did. But when I got there it was a joy. I felt like I just clicked back into where I came from. It was quite something. But in Scandinavia when you think about music, there’s traditional music and there’s jazz. I’m a sucker for folk dancing—pewter buckles and fiddlers. Every country has places where you can see that, mostly in the open-air folk museums. And in Scandinavia people love their jazz. It’s easy to go to jazz clubs in Stockholm and they’ve got a beautiful jazz festival in Copenhagen, one of the best enjoyable and accessible festivals I’ve been to. I would say when you’re in Scandinavia, have your feelers out for good jazz because it’s a fun way to connect with locals and enjoy the scene.
SEM: Looking at my notes on Scandinavia, I see “Stampen” but I can’t remember why I wrote that down.
Rick: Stampen is the best jazz club in Stockholm. There’s that and then also you’ve got settings where composers were inspired. The mystique and wonder of the fjords. You could go and hear a concert on the fjord with a big beautiful grand piano with a giant window and you see the view of the fjord.
SEM: Wow. What town is that?
Rick: Outside of Bergen. It’s called Troldhaugen. When I grew up, one of my favorite pieces to play on piano was “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen” by Edvard Grieg. Troldhaugen is like a pilgrimage for anybody who’s into Norwegian culture because he’s the greatest Norwegian composer. You can visit his home so you can see, culturally, how someone in the late 1800’s lived. You see the little hut where he did his composing, and you cap the visit with a concert. There’s a piano concert where you sit in this auditorium where there’s this giant grand piano and beyond that is a big window with a view of the fjord. They play Grieg’s piano concertos and you look at the fjord while you listen to the music. It ties in the whole environment with the inspiration that Grieg enjoyed, to make that beautiful music.
SEM: Let’s head to Eastern Europe. In Poland you write that, when buskers saw you, they broke into, “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Rick: I think buskers learn that if you stroke somebody’s love of country you get a bigger tip. So, if they see an American, they sing, “The Star Spangled Banner” and they’re more appreciated. Whether that works for me or not, they did their best and it was kinda fun. But it doesn’t have much to do with their traditional culture.
SEM: In the chapter on Bosnia, or somewhere in former Yugoslavia where people were fighting, someone told you that the other side drove them crazy by playing “hateful pop music”. Do you remember that?
Rick: Yeah. In Mostar, there was sectarian fighting: Catholic Croats against Muslim Bosniaks. They would annoy each other by playing angry, hard, heavy metal political rock all through the night. One side would torture the other by playing music that was as abusive and annoying as possible. That would drive me nuts.
SEM: Wow. Well, it’s better than bullets, I guess.
Rick: Maybe. Yeah.
SEM: In the chapter on Turkey, you said something interesting: The St. Gregorius church is where Gregorian chants first started.
Rick: Well, that’s what they say. I wouldn’t vouch for that. It’s a nice thought. The local people say that, but I don’t know. It’s a beautiful setting and it’s cool to think there’s that tradition there. What I like about Turkey, Don, it that when you’re in somebody’s home, a way that you celebrate is to dance. The dancing’s real easy cause you’re just snapping your fingers and shaking your shoulders.
SEM: Sometimes without music?
Rick: No, they’ve got music. Somebody will play something — a stringed instrument of some sort. Then everybody gets up and you dance and it’s like you pretend you’re doing a hula hoop. You shimmy your shoulders and snap your fingers and everybody’s up and dancing. It’s multi-generations. I found that was very common whenever I got into a home. Very joyful.
SEM: Do they seem less inhibited than Northern Europeans?
Rick: Oh yeah, much less.
SEM: More like Italians?
SEM: In Budapest you brought home a “Greatest Hits of Communism” CD. What’s that like?
Rick: You gotta remember whenever the end of communism was–1989 or something–all art was social realism. In the worst of times the Soviet Union censored culture. It was more than “You couldn’t say something bad.” The deal was, if you’re going to say anything at all, you’ve got to same something good. Normally an artist can get away, in a highly censored society, by steering away from complaining or criticizing the government. But in the case of the Soviet Union and social realism, my understanding is you couldn’t just opt out. If you were going to create anything it needed to promote the status quo. That’s a good way to demoralize creative people. Each country had a national anthem that sounded like a knock off of the Soviet Union’s national anthem. They actually had a cd that had all of the republics in the Soviet Union with their national anthems and it was all stirring. Stirring the way you have a wind machine trained on the hammer and sickle flag whenever you have an indoor event. And it’s blowing and the flag is flapping, dramatically, and you have music that fits that fake kind of patriotism.
SEM: I have to say that I found– in what was East Germany– I found the Communist stuff more depressing than the Nazi stuff . I guess because the cold war was my era.
Rick: Yeah. Right.
SEM: I found that East German museum in Berlin kind of depressing.
Rick: The DDR Museum right there over the river Spree across from the cathedral?
SEM: Yeah. Everyone in there was laughing and I thought…really?
Rick: You’re right. That’s a very good observation, Don. I was just like you. It’s kitschy for people who’ve learned to live with it — it’s sort of a self-defense mechanism to laugh about stuff, I guess. But I thought it was just heartbreaking to think about all those lives that had been… all those wings that had been clipped.
SEM: Yeah, I had breakfast with a woman in Berlin who was like 4 or 5 years old in 1945 and she never saw her cousins again even though they lived only a few blocks away.
Rick: Yeah, I know. People lived with that. That’s really something. Heart-breaking.
SEM: Just a few more questions. It amazes me that Americans go to Europe and eat at MacDonald’s or Burger King. I try to eat local, not go for food I can get at home. Do you think the same kind of approach should be taken with music? Is it important to have that same attitude with music?
Rick: Hmmm. (pause) Yes, I think that’s very good advice. But the reality is that going to Europe to see traditional music is like coming to the United States to see square dancing and drink sarsaparilla. Is that really integral to our culture today, square dancing and sarsaparilla?
SEM: Good point.
Rick: Square dancing and sarsaparilla? And rodeos? I don’t know. I don’t think so. If you’re a student of more sophisticated culture you would tap into the what’s-happening-now scene, musically. Both classically and in the pop music kind of thing. And that’s a more sophisticated approach to it. If you can do that in Europe, that’s pretty impressive. I think that’s beyond the cultural and intellectual grasp of me and most travelers. So, having said that, I’m in cultural appreciation 101. I’m a first grader when it comes to appreciating Polish and Portuguese and Scottish and Finnish and Greek culture. So, give me the slap dancing and yodeling and just tell me the cultural context and that’s just fine. I’m aware that that’s just the sugar-coated training-wheels approach to that culture from a musical point of view, but it’s legit. It’s also important to recognize that there’s stuff going on today that’s totally oblivious to the zarzuela and the fado and the flamenco and trad and the slap dancing and yodeling. That’s where the high art is and that’s something to aspire to. But it’s not something to be obligated to.
SEM: So, it’s good to really look for both?
Rick: I think so. It’s important when we travel to know what’s out there. If you want to appreciate, learn and broaden your perspectives about any dimension of culture, you have to take the initiative to do your studying. The great thing about music is you don’t have to speak the language. You already speak the international language of music whereas it would be tough to get into literature in France or theater in Greece. But you can get into music wherever you venture. And that’s something to be thankful for.
SEM: The main point I got out of your book is not to come home from your trip with a bunch of souvenirs or checklist of all the sights you’ve seen but to come home with memories of the people you met.
Rick: That’s a good point to make, yeah.
SEM: Some people are a little shy about meeting people because of the language barrier. Do you approach people in English?
Rick: Yeah. I do my “Sprechen sie Englisch?” thing, you know, but they kind of expect it if you’re American. And if you’re a nice person and you respect the culture, they’ll be glad you’re curious. They’re not going to hold it against you if you don’t speak…Portuguese.
SEM: Maybe music can bridge that gap. You mentioned that in the old days, dances were a way for people to meet each other and communicate. Maybe music can also be a way for tourists to meet locals.
Rick: Yeah Don! That’s a GREAT point.
SEM: Thanks, Rick. You’re a great teacher. Thanks for taking the time to share your knowledge and give our readers some tips on how to slip some time in for music on their travels.
Rick: You’re very welcome. Happy travels!