Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Life and Times of “No Funny Stuff!”

Diario di Roma II (Rome Diary 2)
Tuesday November 17, 2015
Partly Cloudy 63°F/17°C in Roma, Lazio, Italia
Mostly Sunny  70°F/21°C in Rancho Santa Margarita, CA USA
Michael Botula of NFS
   My expatriate son Michael - musician/performer/teacher/tour guide and entrepreneur extraordinaire has been blessed with a lifelong love of music and a craving to play his music in public, a trait that is traceable to his mother’s gene pool. Donna’s early family life seemed to be one continuous jam session. In fact, she continued to sing and dance into her fifties. One of my memories of Michael’s early musical career centers around a picture of the little guy with his toy guitar accompanying his grandmother Mitzi at our old upright piano. My own musical career centered on playing a hand-me-down trumpet for a couple of years in my high school band, and spinning polka records as a teen age disk jockey at my hometown radio station. Not, that I always admired the music that Michael made as he grew up! I mean, having a resident garage band made up of eager teenage rock star
Grandma and Star-to-be!
wannabe’s can be excruciating at times. So, no! His mom and I were not always big fans of Junior’s musical talents. Some of the southern California bands he played in were Blue Dye Fire and Deep Shag! (which had nothing to do with carpets). After high school he went to London to help his buddy Jason set up a recording studio and to polish his own musical craft. Along the way he became a skilled studio and concert audio technician to boot. And, it should be noted here, that Junior, from a very early age displayed his greatest talent – promotion and public relations. His buddy Jason, eventually put on a top hat, painted his face a bright green, took on the stage name The Late J. Roni Moe and started a pop band called The Urban VooDoo Machine!
   In a classic Boy Meets Girl story, Michael met Laura, fell completely under her spell and followed her to Rome, where they are living 
Laura and Michael

happily ever after. Who says that fairy tales can’t come true! Rome! The Eternal City! About 700 years ago, Giotto di Bondone, the Italian painter and architect, said "Roma è la città di echi, la città delle illusioni e la città di desiderio". (“Rome is the city of echoes, the city of illusions, and the city of desire).” And out of the mists of time, illusion and a desire for fame and glory there sprang Michael’s new band: Inbred Knucklehead, known far and wide to the politically correct as I. K. H! Inbred played a mix of Hardcore Rock, Country, Funk and Ska (I dunno from “Ska!” You tell me.) Michael, Kristian, Dario and Marco rocked Roma and other European cities for several years and rose to a fair level of fame at music festivals from
Inbred Knucklehead
Scandinavia to the Balkans.
  Over time, Michael demonstrated another skill quite necessary to be a success in the music biz: promotion. His groups have pages on Facebook and an enviable presence on all the social media. He tirelessly promotes his projects to venue operators, agents, record companies and shamelessly markets his projects to radio stations, where he is comfortable doing TV and radio interviews in English and Italian. A big plus in Italy. And the band produces its key songs on music videos, which are uploaded and given wide circulation on You Tube and other media outlets. In
Promoting No Funny Stuff!
addition to working with his own groups, he stays wired into the overall music scene through his work as a music producer and concert sound engineer for other bands. So he is not limited to being a guy who plays guitar and sings in a band.

  In the time leading up to the moment my Alitalia flight lifted off  from LAX bound for Roma on my most recent trip to Italy, Michael fell in with Giuseppe ”Beppe” Cassa, Gabbo Hintermann and Giuseppe “Seppe” Petti, to form a new band – No Funny Stuff.  The ex-pat and the Italians! They gathered up a motley collection of novel instruments: ukelele, kazoos, a washboard, a bass fiddle, mandolin, electric guitar, keyboard and drum set, a musical saw played with a violin bow and some other makeshift musical instruments. Beppe contributed his guitar, Mandoline, Dobro, carpenter’s saw, Watering Can-o-Fone - a reed-type contraption made from a plastic garden watering can with a clarinet body and mouthpiece, a Glock and a small electrified guitar made from an an empty gallon olive oil can. Gabbo plays double bass and cello and is the designated hat-passer/CD vendor at concerts. Seppe handles the wash board, bells and whistles!  Voila! No Funny
No Funny Stuff Busking!
was born. An oxymoron through and through, because, these guys are hilarious!
  No Funny Stuff’s early gigs were literally on the streets of Rome among the throng of Buskers, the street musicians who literally sing for their supper, performing in the piazzas and on the streets of Rome.
   My first opportunity to hear them came the night after I arrived in Rome when Laura drove me up to a medieval castle village north of Rome  to the Tolfa Busker’s Festa, a big summer outdoor art show and musical festival featuring street musicians from all over Italy. It was my first time at one of these community events and it was quite an evening….dinner with the band in the piazza at a fun local outdoor restaurant followed by a walk up
Al Fresco With NFS
the steep, fortified streets to one of the piazzas where an outdoor stage was set up for the bands who would be playing until just before daybreak the next morning.  For this performance, Rachel Mascetta was filling in on washboard, cymbals and slide whistle for the absent “Seppe” Petti, who had gotten waylaid by a flash flood in northern Italy. The Festa was running way behind schedule, and it was after midnight before the fearless foursome took the stage. But, in spite of the late hour, No Funny Stuff played to a packed piazza….and the crowd was still there for the act that followed them….and the act after that. And so on and so on! These buskers are a hearty breed, and I could not remember when I had been out listening to a jam like that until that late hour.
  So, in the weeks that followed the Tolfa Busker Festa, my travels were interspersed with bursts of music and fun with No Funny Stuff. In
No Funny Stuff at Tolfa Festa!
between Michael’s tours of Rome and visits to places like Pompeii, Amsterdam, Venice and the Sabina countryside, there were the band rehearsals at Mike and Laura’s house and visits to the Rome night spots where NFS plays regularly. Hanging out with the band introduced me to a side of Rome that I had missed on my previous visits to the Eternal City. No Funny Stuff is a fairly new band on the very active Italian music scene. NFS has progressed from  their occasional gigs on the streets of Rome up to playing at some of the venues once visiting by Michael's old Band IKH (which still plays occasional reunion concerts). These days the number of pubs and bistros hosting No Funny Stuff is growing in number. It's to the point where NFS is playing every weekend this month at one club or another. And who knows how far their "rocket to stardom" will take them.  They've already been on the Italy's Got Talent! TV variety show and gotten through the first round of the talent competition. So who knows what the future will bring? Here's a sample from You Tube!
Paraphrasing Confucius, as Mike frequently does to his many tour customers, Find a job that you love, and, you’ll never work another day in your life. With his workload as a teacher, tour guide and musician, I get the distinct impression that my son is living his dream.
© By Mike Botula 2015

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Day of the Dead: My Family's Story!

“LOST MUSKET DIARY” Sunday November 1, 2015
Sunny 84°F/29°C in Rancho Santa Margarita, CA
[This story first appeared on the day following Halloween in 2014. This is an updated version]
 Buenas Dias,
   Today is the first day of November…the day after Halloween….All Saints Day. It is also El Día de los
Botula Family Gravestone
Muertos, or
The Day of the Dead. It’s a national holiday throughout Mexico, and it’s widely observed in California as well, particularly among our Hispanic population. It’s a time to honor and pray for family members who have died. The celebration takes place on the first day of November, in connection with the Catholic holidays of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. Traditions include putting up private altars honoring the deceased and decorating them with sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed. Families of the departed also visit their relatives’ graves with these as gifts. They also leave possessions of the deceased.

September 27, 2013 - Roanoke Avenue Cemetery, Riverhead, New York
I had been gone from my home town most of my adult life. While I had been born in New York City, I had grown up in Riverhead and went all the way through high school here. I had come here one sunny day in April of 1961 with my brother Packy, and our father Charles to bury our mother, Mary. On another sad day in November of 1965 my brother and I returned to bury our father, Charles.
Charles and Mary Botula
Following their funerals, my brother Packy and I set to the task of closing up the home where we had grown up and get it ready to be sold. An unseen gate slammed shut on our idyllic childhood, and we both moved on with our lives. Now, on this sunny day in September forty eight years later, “Skip” and Charlie Botula are still resting in their quiet place marked by two granite headstones, their repose shaded by an old oak tree. It’s not quite November 1st, but this is now my own personal
Día de los Muertos. After visiting my parents’ graves, I walk along the path through the cemetery.  My stroll takes me on a tour of my childhood. Across the way from mom and dad is “Papa Nick” Meras, the smiling Greek man whose family still runs the confectionary where we used to gather after school. Down the way is my third grade teacher, Ramsey Walters. Around the bend is my old scoutmaster, Alton Medsger. Across the way, in a plot marked by a tall granite monument are my parents’ best friends, Fred and Beverly Alexander. Glancing down at the headstones as I walk along, I see so many family friends.

Saturday April 29, 1995-Calvary Cemetery Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
   I had come to this gravesite for the first time in 1947 with my father when I was six years old. It was the first time that death had touched our family, and I was overwhelmed by my grief. My dad’s brother, Adolf had died suddenly at the family homestead on Ward Street. Forty eight years later I
Johana and Karel Botula
had returned to say farewell to my dad’s other brother, my beloved Uncle Ted. My own dad was not here – he and my mother had passed away thirty years before, and were buried back in my home town. For me, the two gravesite visits were like placing bookends on either side of important volumes of my family’s history. I viewed the moment as a flashback with the scene beginning in a chaotic drama in black and white and quickly flashing forward in time to a similar but continuing as a contemporary drama in full color. As is the custom in many Roman Catholic cemeteries, we said goodbye to Uncle Ted at a short service in the cemetery chapel and then we left to let the graves crew do its job. There were no graveside goodbyes. After the chapel farewells, my cousins, my brother and I among them, decided on our own to visit the family gravesite. There are three generations of Botula’s buried at this plot, starting with my grandparents, Karel and Johana, and there are other family members resting nearby. It wasn’t a Dia de los Muertos visit, that’s not part of my Czech heritage, but the sentiment was the same. For the cousins, Packy, Anna Marie, Richard and Frank
The Cousins
and me, this became our own brief reunion. We were a close-knit group of cousins, and, we hadn’t been together in many years. Uncle Ted’s passing was a signal moment in the story of our family.

   Maybe it’s because of my own love of history, but I love to visit old cemeteries. There are so many stories there. The catacombs, church crypts and necropoli of Rome, colonial era cemeteries along the eastern seaboard of the United States, Gold Rush and Frontier cemeteries in California, Nevada and Arizona. Our own Arlington National Cemetery. There is the small family gravesite behind an old Victorian home in Mariposa, California. The people that own the house acquired the small family burial ground when they acquired the property and now care for it with the same loving care as if it sheltered members of their own family. I think as I walk along that the history of any society lives in its cemeteries. After all my adventures in life, I now understand that this is where I must return some day, even as a symbolic gram or two of ash. Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem comes to my mind.
''This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.''

October 31, 1992 Halloween
   Now, let’s go back to a sunny Saturday afternoon on Halloween weekend 21 years before. My wife, Donna and I are on a guided walk through the old, historic cemetery in Santa Ana, California. Our walk takes us past the graves of many notable local historical figures. There are mayors, prominent members of the clergy; a famous Sheriff, Theo Lacy, is buried here, too. The headstones read like a “Who’s Who” of our county. As we walk along, we notice something else. Here and there, people have gathered for what appears to be a picnic. They’ve spread blankets at the gravesites and set down their picnic baskets. Most of them have placed bouquets of flowers at the headstones with lighted candles. I see them praying, saying grace and then lifting glasses in their toasts. Curious, I approach a family gathered around one of the graves. “Good afternoon,” I greet them. Nice day for a picnic, isn’t it? They smile and nod. But, why have a picnic in a cemetery? I ask.
El Dia de los Muertos,” the woman said in a soft, accented voice. It is El Día de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead.  Today, we come to the cemetery to honor members of our families who have passed on and to pray for them. She continued. We want to let them know that even though they have left this life, they are still part of our family. I had never heard of such a custom. The woman went on to explain to me that it is a holiday in Mexico and more important to Mexican culture than Halloween itself. I was quite moved.
   In our society, visits to loved one’s graves can be infrequent and generally very brief. Flowers can be placed at the headstone and a prayer said. But, long spans of time can pass before a return visit is made, if ever. Gone forever and easily forgotten. At that moment, I realized that I had not visited my parents resting place in more than 30 years. Our cemetery walk this day took place on Halloween. The next day would be the first day of November, All Saints Day and El Dia de los Muertos. I could feel the connection here. I could almost hear the grandmother talking to her family as they picnicked six feet above her. I could feel the love and respect these family members were showing their loved ones. Later, as we continued along our walk, I thought of my own parents who were buried far away from where I lived now and made a promise to myself to honor them one day in the tradition of El Dia de los Muertos.
   Eleven years later I kept that promise during a reunion of my high school graduating class. I had
taken my new fiancée and my son back to my home town to join me in reconnecting with old friends and classmates that I hadn’t seen in 45 years. For my son, the trip gave him a chance to connect with a family that he had only heard about, or seen snapshots of, or read about. My wife-to-be said it gave her a chance to know me a little better. It took about forty five minutes to find the gravesite and then, we placed a bouquet of roses between the headstones. I put my arm around my son’s shoulder as my lady hung back a few paces and together we bowed our heads. “Mom. Dad.” I said, “I’d like you to meet your grandson. I’d also like to introduce your new daughter.” We stood in silence for a few moments and then I said, “We’ll be back.”
   In that moment, I truly understood what the Mexican woman had told me in the Santa Ana Cemetery years earlier. Five years later when I returned for our next reunion, I went to the cemetery with a blanket, a bottle of wine, three glasses and two rose  bouquets. I brought some family pictures and spent an hour trying to tell them everything important in my life since they had left me. I poured each of us a glass of California Zinfandel, set a glass at each of their headstones next to the rose bouquets and splashed a bit of my wine on each of their graves, toasting them as I did. This has now become part of my own family’s tradition, although my trips back to my home town usually don’t coincide with El Dia de los Muertos on the first of November. But, it has more meaning for me than the Halloween celebration.
Hasta la vista,