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Remarkable flutes

June 1st, 2003

fluteplayerBY ALAN ALBRIGHT

“What are we going to do about this?”

Steve was an old family friend, sick of driving a cab around New York, and rarin’ to go. I’d loaned him a copy of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff’s Meetings with Remarkable Men and he was referring to its last chapter: “The Material Question.”

What to do in late 1969? In the midst of the Vietnam War, the wake of the civil rights agitation… and a sometimes chemically tinged New Age.

Down around Mott and Pell Streets, the White Eagles were arrayed against the Green Dragons, a setup improvised by tong elders to keep a handle on the huge new influx of Hong Kong youth. In the light of 1962, the Yellow Peril had faded and our leaders had admitted that the inhabitants of the Central Empire were people, too, so here they came, family after family, filling New York’s Chinatown to overflowing and spilling out into nearby neighborhoods. There were problems. Parents had to work and their children were left to fend for themselves.

Down on Catherine Street, a storefront “school” sponsored by Young Life had taken some of the uprooted kids under its wing, mostly Black Eagles, young understudies for the Whites. I was supposed to be teaching them English, although in practice it was more like an immersion course in Cantonese. What to do?

Steve and I came to the conclusion that to learn English, those kids needed work, not classes. But what did we know about work? Enter “The Material Question,” full of the spirit of creative enterprise. Inspired by the example of its “American Workshop”, we thought we might put all those Cantonese-speakers to work cutting lawns somewhere up in Westchester County, but we had no capital. Then Ben, Steve’s brother, got into the act: a pragmatist, a skeptic, the last one to dance to the tune of any Greek-Armenian mystic. In the course of a conversation, I asserted that enterprising musicians might make their own instruments.

“Name one,” Ben said.

“Bamboo flutes,” I answered, having recently witnessed the attempts of a friend to coax a sound out of a Japanese shakuhachi.

“Bamboo?” Ben laughed. “Where are you going to get that around here?”

Down on Catherine Street the next morning, I found two numbers in the Yellow Pages, both in Hoboken. “Can you sell me some bamboo?” I asked the first one. And then headed down into the Holland Tunnel with a vanful of Black Eagles.

“What’s this?” Steve asked, later that day. I was bent over my stove, heating up the end of a coat hanger in order to burn a few holes in a piece of bamboo.

“I’ve got an electric drill,” Steve said.

And that was the beginning of Remarkable Flutes, a crazy enterprise if we were to believe family and friends who were at no loss for objections.

Three weeks later, at the end of March 1970, we ventured out onto Greenwich Village’s Sixth Avenue, armed with peddler’s licenses, a little homemade display case, and a bag of merchandise. Almost immediately we were surrounded by a crowd.

“What’s this?” they asked.

We never did put any of those kids to work — and could barely support ourselves. But we sold a lot of flutes, showed countless folk how to play them, introduced these simple wind instruments to the mainstream public.

Steve is making violins these days.

I was always sorry I didn’t learn Cantonese. •

Posted by: The Editors
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