Music another Window for Culture (Vámonos Vol. 9)

Eyes and ears need training.  A photographer can see a beautiful pattern in a heap of scraps; a musician can pick out a subtle difference in pitch that would be impossible for the audience to pick up on.

Travelers are untrained in the sights and sounds of the place they are visiting, especially if they are going for the first time.  The more foreign your surroundings, the harder it is to identify what you’re seeing or hearing.  This unfamiliarity is part of the fun, of course, but just like it is useful to dip your toe in and get familiar with basic vocabulary of the language in the country you’re visiting, a little familiarity with local music can go along way in a new place.

Both foreign and domestic travel offer the chance to explore music that you wouldn’t otherwise seek out.  Some cities, like New Orleans, Seattle and Memphis, are closely associated with the music that was born or grew up within their limits.  But places not necessarily thought of as homes for music scenes, or museums to a musical past, can be that much more exciting to uncover.

For example, if you’re going to St. Louis, a quick Google search might lead you to a song like W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” while a less adventurous traveler might just pick through some old CDs to find a discarded Nelly album.  Omaha was the birthplace of Elliot Smith and is the home of Saddle Creek, the label that Bright Eyes and Cursive are on.  A little music as cultural background can go a long way.

The digital music revolution has made finding the music of whatever place you’re heading to so much easier.  Once you identify a couple tracks that come from or mention the place you’re going to, you can likely hear them on YouTube, iTunes, or Spotify.  It’s easy to sample different styles and find something you like.  Then when you are there you can have a soundtrack to play over the sites.


Trip Tips

Use the Internet

If you knew exactly what you were looking for you already would have found it.  Use the internet to help you find music you wouldn’t normally come in contact with.  Start with a general search about the music of the place you’re going to and let the randomness of the internet lead you to places of interest.  Once you have found something interesting, use a music-streaming site to dig deeper.

Be Adventurous

Don’t let the fact that you generally listen to genre X keep you from trying something from genre Y.  Travel is all about trying new things.  This is your chance.

Check out Smaller Venues

Baseball fans may disagree, but to me a stadium is a stadium.  Huge venues have trouble holding as much local flavor as neighborhood haunts.  If you can find an act or a place that interests you, try and venture off the beaten path.

Do Your Homework

I may have given this tip before, but it is just as applicable now as it was then.  If you can get excited about some music or a venue before, you go you’ll be all the more likely to enjoy it once you’re there.


This article is available en Español

Previous Vámanos Being a Good Houseguest

The St. Louis City Museum — a strange and beautiful place (Vámonos Vol. 1)

The City Museum of St Louis is not a museum in the traditional sense of the word and it has almost nothing to do with cities in general or St. Louis in specific.  What it is, is a huge junkyard play-house.  When you first enter it, the building looks like the home of an eccentric millionaire overrun with children.  As you explore further, it seems like its so big it must belong to billionaire because it is much too big and he can’t simply be eccentric, they must be insane to have welded a plane onto a bus onto a metal structure outside of their roof.

Then you slide through the shark tank.

Can you get hurt?  Of course you can!  The city museum is like a huge junk playground you can hurt yourself here in the same way you might hurt yourself climbing the monkey bars.  Except instead of climbing the monkey bars, you will be scaling the outside of a tube that goes into some kind of whale den made out of beautiful mosaic tile.

While I was there I asked one of the many friendly people who worked there if they had ever been sued and she said “All the time.”  Much of the cost of admission pays for their liability insurance.  Who would insure such a strange place I don’t know, but thank goodness someone does.  Because what makes the city museum strange is also what makes it fun.

Between Chicago and St. Louis there are probably a thousand interesting pieces of junk.  Abandoned cars in dirt lots and old railroad tracks that haven’t been used for generations can create a strange wonderland for the adventurous mind.   Flea markets, junk yards and rummage sales hold thousands of things that could be helpful or useful for someone.  Many of the things we pass by could be valuable.  Not in the way things on the antiques road show are valuable, because someone will bid on them at an auction.  But in the way a hammer and nails are valuable when you need to hang a painting.

There is no place I know that has gotten so much value out of so much junk.  If you like junk or sharks or to play, there is no place I can recommend more strongly than the City Museum of St. Louis.