Miles, from the Amazon

Jazz-Planet Online excerpt from Lonesome George, C’est Moi by Jorge Sotirios

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It’s not the voice that commands the story, but the ear
– Italo Calvino; Invisible Cities

Lonesome George C'est Moi! by Jorge Sotirios
Lonesome George C'est Moi! by Jorge Sotirios

It’s an image depicting a muscular figure, all sinew and bone, flexed in a backward arch. A trumpet is raised like a bugle call to arms. No prizes for guessing this is Miles Davis as iconic brand. The t-shirt imprinted with this image celebrates Kind of Blue as an incongruous title given the 1959 classic album showcased musicians in dapper suits, with hankies spilling from breast pockets. Miles’ sinewy figure is more suited to his 1970s, with his boxer-like physique recalling the soundtrack for pugilist Jack Johnson, when cool jazz and hard bop gave way to the heat and sweat of Miles’ fusion experiment.

There was nothing deliberate in my choice of this t-shirt. It could have been any I dumped into my backpack, before heading off to South America. But it became one I was fated to wear. It served as body armour and sometimes a shield to fend off the harsh equatorial glare of the tropics. I journeyed for 3 months across the Amazon basin starting in Ecuador at the Rio Napo, a thin tributary that joins the Amazon River in Peru. Miles Davis therefore flits in and out of my current book Lonesome George, C’est Moi! as seamlessly as a chord across a symphony. The t-shirt though had its own journey. Hand washed in the Amazon, with no detergent to pollute the river, it even was laid out to dry on an oil pipeline hot enough to burn the hand. Camping by the glow of moonlight along embankments, I travelled within a dugout canoe visiting sublime parts. I was kept awake by the jungle symphony that rose in crescendo as the sun dipped each day. Dolphins were bleating below the surface accompanying the squawks, trills and knocks of a shimmering forest.

Iquitos. Leticia. Manaus. These were the ports whose tributaries spun off into rivulets, streams and lagoons, meandering like a jazz solo housed in a lush green cathedral. The Trombetas river in Brazil (spell-check suggests ‘drumbeats’) was given the name ‘Trumpet’ by Portuguese traders, believing they heard Miles’ enchanted instrument deep in the forest, far beyond their sight. At midday I often ate the bass-shaped tucuñaré, and imagined Miles creasing a smile across my t-shirt. In the tiny port of Puerto Nariño, I was even mistaken for the musician. In the remote reaches of the Colombian jungle where TV and DVDs are a rarity, it was quite an honour given I was a simple scribe. I did note Shakira reaches far and wide transmitted across radio waves from Bogota.  Although Shakira is a local product, the corruption by Western media is incorporated into the Amazon culture without missing a beat. I read the Amazon warrior legends were integrated into Indian myths too, because explorers wanted to hear them. The ear and not the voice commands the narrative.

Emerging at Belem and then down the coast of Bahia, Sao Luis and across pure white sands to Jericocoara, Miles plangent tunes accompanied me on my reliable DISCMAN. Rio de Janeiro’s sultry Bossa Novas were reminiscent of Cannonball Adderley’s renditions of Brazilian classics, and who can forget that Cannonball worked with Miles in the late 50s.

If South America allows jazz to swim beside it, other continents emphasise its clash. Trekking in Laos, Miles’ Sketches of Spain playing on my DISCMAN (charged by AA batteries), was a cause of mirth to fellow trekkers outfitted with iPods and GPS navigation. I carried the extra weight of CDs in my backpack as a badge of honour. I was as slow as a snail, but a happy one at that. It’s incongruous but whenever I picture those karsts pinnacled under a swirling cloud, I hear castanets, a trombone and Miles the soloist as part of the landscape. If I was a Portuguese trader, maybe I’d call it Trombetas.

In Vientiane, 54 TV channels beaming in via satellite, I caught the Lift to the Scaffold soundtrack as background for Matthew McConaughey swooning about Paris, advertising Dolce & Gabana. He was elegantly attired as though filmed by the early Antonioni. The Laotian capital maintains its Parisian ambience with art deco buildings by the Mekong, but crossed with a Soviet aesthetic (rusty transmission towers are situated everywhere). I imagine Miles being never shy of making a buck would surely approve this fusion of fashion to jazz. The t-shirt lost its colour over time though; holes had appeared eaten into by mosquitoes. Its destiny was assured. A talisman at the beginning of travel often ends up in a museum piece if preserved, or a time capsule in landfill if not.

Well, did Miles Davis ever make it to Asia and South America? Japan of course, quite probably Brazil too. The beauty of a work of art crosses continents. From journey to book, it’s no different from a recording studio in New York to vinyl, cassette, CD or i-Tune in any other part of the world. Technology is yet another factor to incorporate just as myths were previously. A future trip to plan might entail a slow boat down the Ganges, with say Metallica as a chip implanted in my brain? Or late Miles when he crossed over to hip-hop and rap? That too may work its wonders. Sometimes it’s the ear and not necessarily the eye that sees.


Lonesome George C’est Moi! A South American Odyssey

Published by Big Sky Publishing
360 pages. 32 pages of colour photos

See more on the Big Sky Publishing website >>>>

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“Jorge Sotirios has his hand on the throttle but allows his passengers a 360 degree view of the world around him. If you go for a ride with him, pack lightly and hold on tight.” -Tom Miller, author, The Panama Hat Trail