Harumi, on a winter’s night, is walking through the narrow streets of Amsterdam. It is about 7 o’clock, the city is already dark. She is worried about being late so she quickens her step a bit, across Spui Plein, down into the narrow Voetboogstraat, past the little but famous Vleminckx fried potato place and she arrives at a cafe called De Schutter. She has been living here a while but never really noticed this old cafe before. And it is old. A two storey building, more wood than brick it seems. Harumi fumbles in her pocket for her ticket. The ticket is actually one of those Mexican fortune telling cards, on hers is a picture of an open hand and written across it in marker pen it says ‘Hear No Evil’. A friend has given her the ticket and told her that there are very few available at all. She is curious, it will be a musical concert of some kind but she doesn’t really know much about it.
She walks in the entrance. It’s quite busy for 7 o’clock and seems to be a normal Dutch bar, coffee giving way to beer. There is no sign of any music though. A group of four or five people are sitting at a table next to a wooden door. They are also holding their Mexican tickets. She joins them and says hi. After a minute the wooden door opens and a man comes out. He is dressed all in white. He has a shaved head, little rimless glasses and a turban. He is friendly in his manner while he looks to see if they have their tickets, and he also checks their names against a list. He says the concert is ready to begin and will they follow him through the door and up the rather steep rickety staircase. Harumi is a bit surprised that there are only six of them for this concert.
At the top of the stairs they pass through another door. They are met by a woman, also dressed in white, but wearing a bird mask. She has a stick of dried sage tied with string. She burns it and it gives off that special smell. She allows the smoke from the sage to waft over everybody in turn as they enter through the door into the main room.
The main room itself is not very big, the size of a Dutch living room maybe. Paint is peeling off the walls. Harumi walks into the space and the bird woman invites her to sit down on a cushion. The six guests sit down together and take in the environment around them. There is a lot to take in. Soft lights, but so many soft lights that the whole room is glowing. Scores of candles, old lamps, fairy lights. The walls are filled with what Harumi thinks are maybe altars of some kind, there are pictures of Maria with baby, but also pictures of skulls, skeletons, old photos from the turn of the last century, portraits of what might be opera singers from days gone by, there are many many jars, some filled with coloured liquid which seem to contain hard to make out objects. There are some huge bottles filled with old batteries, resistors and bits of electronica. Flowers, hundreds of flowers everywhere, real flowers mixed with plastic flowers, in vases, strewn on the floor, hanging from the ceiling. More candles, more incense, small plastic toys, sea horses, tarot cards. And then there are the babies. Plastic baby dolls everywhere. All identical, all with the same expressionless face, maybe fifty of them, hanging on the altars, sitting among the flowers, upside down, lying on the floor, perched among an assortment of musical instruments. Harumi looks at the instruments, some look familiar, a contrabass, an accordion, some mandolins, a clarinet, a big drum from a marching band, a harmonium. There is a contraption at one side which she cannot really fathom. It seems to be two big black tubs full of water. The water is full of flowers, and next to them some strange apparatus made of plastic jerry cans and tubes. A lot to think about, then the musicians come in and take up their instruments.
The musicians are also all wearing white clothes and with whitened faces, either powder or paint. They are all dressed differently from each other, but with a general aesthetic which is difficult to describe. Harumi thinks ‘ancient Mexican surgeons’. They begin to play. It is a kind of monotonous haunting drone at first, but it develops into a gentle and melodic piece of music, it could be from the far east. Harumi is Japanese, she thinks this music sounds like it’s from China. She looks more closely at the players. The man playing the contrabass is physically imposing, kind of big, like his instrument. He has a long white robe, a white cloth hat, a white face and a lone ranger mask. He is concentrating hard, serious. Next to him a tall skinny man in white pyjamas and beads around his neck is softly playing a mandolin. On one side sits another man playing a pump organ, like one of those Indian street harmoniums. It sounds by now very relaxing and seductive. At the centre at the back sits an older man. He has long black hair, although it might be a wig, a black top hat, and very dark glasses. A white peasant’s shirt and a white apron. He seems to have an array of instruments. On this occasion he is playing what Harumi correctly identifies as a Chinese pipa. Off to the right are two rather strange looking characters, (as if it didn’t look strange enough already). One looks like an old lady with big glasses and a leopard skin hat, but maybe it is in fact a man. He or she is playing a cavaquinho, a tiny guitar-like instrument, it blends very well with the pipa and the mandolin. And on one side a woman plays a violin. She has her face hidden by white cloth except for her eyes. She wears a long white apron. It is covered in blood. But if it seems scary, the music is very gentle, pleasant to the ear.
There is one further musician who Harumi hasn’t really noticed until now. He wears white pyjamas and a tall conical hat, dervish-like maybe. From the start he has been standing off in a corner, actually standing, or walking, on a walking machine, an exercise device. He walks and walks . He goes slowly up and down and goes nowhere. At a certain point during this first piece of music he steps to the front, right up close to the six audience members who are cross legged on their cushions just half a meter away from him. He has a tray full of little bottles and what appear to be test tubes and an old lamp with a candle inside. It’s hard to really see what he is doing. Is he mixing liquids with powders inside those tubes? The music is building, it is still gentle but now somehow more insistent. As it reaches a soft crescendo, the player at the front pours his concoction from the tubes into the lamp and there is an explosion of light, it lasts a second, gone before you realise it has happened. What was that? And the first tune is over. It was only five minutes but so much to absorb that it feels like longer. Harumi has heard that this musical group perform concerts that only last fifteen minutes. She is beginning to see why.
As she sits for a moment to think about that first piece of music and what she felt about it all, she is approached by the bird lady again. The bird lady has a tray, green tea in little china cups, and some baklava. The six guests all enjoy the treat. It gives them a moment to just acclimatise themselves in this unusual universe.
A minute later the concert continues. The man in the cone shaped hat together with the old lady with big glasses approach the piece of apparatus which sits to one side of the room. The two big plastic tubs full of water, which seem to have been acquired from a construction site or a factory. They drop rose petals into the water delicately and light incense. The woman with the bloody apron sneezes. It seems that this convoluted construction of large tubs of water and plastic tubes is in fact a musical instrument. As the two players plunge large plastic cans into the water they emit a droning sound. The cans seem to make a different sound depending on whether they are pushed downwards or pulled upwards, and they are all tuned differently from each other. So you have a cacophony of tones all droning in and out of sync, creating a kind of pulsating sea bed of shifting chords. Harumi can not really work out how this instrument is actually making this quite hypnotising music. Her attention now turns to the man in the black top hat. He gently brings in a cello, at first soft overtones but quite quickly it is scratchy and plaintively calling out to the big droney water instrument. The violin player is there too, high pitched, intense. Meanwhile on the other side of the room strange things are going on. The man who had previously been playing the harmonium is now pouring powder and dust into a little cloth container. He shakes it around and blows some of the contents into the air. He fans the air around him with a big fan made of chicken feathers. The remaining two players step forward to place themselves just in front of their six captive guests. (To be fair, I think the guests are enjoying it.) These two characters produce two more unusual probably never seen before musical instruments. These are constructed from thin pieces of metal, maybe tin or lead, bent into a specific shape and holding highly taut elastic bands. They whirl them in the air around their heads, or simply in front of them. The sound is sharp, a loud buzzing, the pitch changes according to in which direction the instrument is rotated, how slow or fast. Is it some old shamanistic tool to scare away wolves from the sheep? Maybe. But here it is harmonious. The music dovetails all together. It enters, sweeps, rises and falls to a tiny whisper of sound.
The second tune is over. None of the musicians have said a word so far. Quickly and without fuss they take up a more orthodox set of instruments and play a beautiful slow tune. It sounds like a funeral, maybe a wedding. Is it Mexican, Spanish, Italian? The bass player plays a slow line at a leisurely walking pace. There are mandolins, bouzouki, all singing in and out of each other in harmony. The player with the feather fan is now leading the melody on a clarinet. A melody which is gorgeous in its simplicity. The man with the cone hat is playing a rich accordion. The emotion is high now and he begins howling like a dog. Two choruses and the tune is done. Nothing is overplayed, and the show is in fact over. Twenty minutes have passed in the blink of an eye. The bird lady indicates to Harumi and the other five guests that they should leave now. As they leave to go down the rickety staircase, the musicians sit still and silent. Impassive.
As Harumi steps back into the downstairs room, the busy cafe, she has to take a moment to ‘adjust’. She sees the next group of six, as they clutch their Mexican tickets and prepare to go up the stairs for the next show. After a minute she walks outside and takes a breath. As she sets off back down the Voetboogstraat she can just make out the faint sound of the band as they begin their next show and the music leaks quietly from under the roof. It is not one of the tunes they played a few minutes ago. She recognises it. It is an old Japanese tune she remembers from her childhood. But they are playing it with all the wrong instruments and she thinks there is something amiss about the melody too. But she likes the idea that they would play that old tune. She thinks about this as she walks home.
Did this really happen, or was it a figment of Harumi’s creative imagination?
You can decide for yourself…