Era una noche especial…
A special night it was going to be indeed, that sweltering, overcast evening in August 1999. It was the day of the annual feast, and the usually bustling streets were still. Not a sound issued from the rows of factories along the river; the ever-present drone of the city itself had ceased. Instead, out in the wooded grounds of the shrine just beyond the edge of town, everyone, men and women, young and old, were gathered in wild celebration.
And speaking of wildness, me and the members of the Saxophonettes were sitting around as usual in a backstage dressing room of the Club New World, rapt in a game of Monopoly.
“Seeing as you’ve got time to waste on this faux-intellectuel humbuggery, naturellement I take it you’ve finished that Second Movement of yours, eh? “
Charlie the pianist spat the words in my direction. A self-proclaimed composer-graduate of the Paris Académie de Musique, other sources had it he’d once been a promising young concert pianist, known for his poignantly sensitive performance and naive charm, when right at the peak of his fame, he’d run off with the entire pay for a rather well-known orchestra and gone into hiding from the Musicians’ Union, just another questionable “Charlie” who’d found his way to the New World.
“Eh, you listening to me?”
Naturellement, well acquainted as I was with the twisted moods of this man with his twisted past, I ignored him and kept on at my game without a word. Which only made Charlie dig at me all the more. Causing Chepito, who’d been rapt in the game with me, to suddenly fly into a rage and hurl the Monopoly board at Charlie.
He sometimes has these fits, though ordinarily he’ll spend hours just staring at the stains on the concrete dressing room walls. Once he’d worked himself up into a fuming red fury, though, there was only one way to get Chepito to calm down.
I walked over to Chepito, who had Charlie by the collar and was busily forcing him into submission. I held out a banana.
Whereupon, Charlie, whose life I’d just saved, did the unexpected. No longer at ease in the dressing room, he straightened his rumpled clothes, kicked over a dust bin, and exited behind that joke of a partition screen toward the hostesses’ dressing rooms.
No one knows the exact number of hostesses working at the Club New World, but the figure seemed to hover around seven-hundred-fifty-six. Whatever, there were countless dressing rooms in the place, in spite of which the Saxophonettes had to all cram into one tiny cubicle.
The New World stood atop a small rise in the middle of an industrial area, a phallic concrete cylinder covered with a sad outer layer of bluegreen moss, referred to endearingly by the populace as the “Phallus of Babel.” The enormous entrance and twelve steps leading up from the driveway were of stately marble; to either side were sculpted stone nudes, half-human with menacing lion-like faces baring their teeth. A plush led from the entrance, up the steps and down the hall to the lobby, where beside the door rose a huge pile of the stone to which each new visitor was obliged to add a token pebble. Passing through the lobby, one came to the unreal opulence of the brilliant red-and-gold central hall. Particularly splendiferous among all the decoration, religious painter Niccolò III’s 10-metre-tall Banquet Frieze hung directly above the main doors, inviting one into a seductive world of unknown sensual magic. The central hall was again cylindrical, rising three storeys past two tiers of seating balconies like some mock-Shakespearean Globe Theatre. The circular orchestra area was lined with rows of box seats facing onto a stage where we and our rival band, “The Natures,” put on shows—and still there was room for five-hundred people to boogaloo on the dance floor out in front. All this over-the-top dazzle reflected nothing so much as the singular taste of the New World’s proprietor Hoichi Ohtorii.
Ohtorii was the town’s only Shinto priest and a man of considerable sway. Heir to Generations of New World proprietors, he made full use of his authority, yet always acted with beneficence toward others. So out of the ordinary was his largesse, in fact, that the effect was rather unsettling, even creepy. Many were the mysteries that surrounded him. To be sure, there was no lack of rumours about his relations with women and family background. And doubtless everyone knows about his luxurious mansion. Yet aside from our own Papa Shimizu, the fact was not a soul had ever set foot across its threshold.
Meanwhile, more than a little upset at Charlie for having put a damper on our game, we wound back the hands to the clock in order to start that round of Monopoly from the beginning again. When just then came two knocks on the dressing room’s triple-bullet-holed door. Presently, the door creaked open and there stood Ohtorii’s Vestal Virgin Attendant, who pronounced her tidings in a stage-whisper.
“Master Ohtorii desires to see you all. At once.”
“Oh-to-ri? Why-he-want-see-all-us? “
Amar Yakhoubi, our bassist from Tunisia, grumbled disconcertedly. Strange that the ever-reclusive Ohtorii should want to meet directly with members of the Saxophonettes, when save for Papa Shimizu, certainly not I, nor the gospel chorus who’d graced the New World stage for over thirty years now, nor even Jane Brown had ever exchanged word one with the man. We all looked at each other, filled with a mixture of disbelief, bewilderment and curiosity. In spite of which, we also noticed that Papa Shimizu was missing and that Aki the DJ was briskly tapping away at his Linn Drum rhythm box, punching in patterns, same as ever. To refuse Ohtorii’s invitation was secretly burning to know what weird scene was behind it all, so I took it upon myself to get Charlie to come back and make Aki quit his drum-programming before setting off to follow the Vestal Virgin’s lead. Chepito, mouth still full of banana, sauntered along afterwards, while Jane shoved a few venomous vipers into a lunch basket “for the road,” then strutted her massive limbs to bring up the rear of our entourage.
Exiting our ground-floor dressing room, a maze like web of passages threaded their way around inside the circumference of the New World. Not infrequently in the past had some of our number thought to see where this or that side path led, only to end up totally lost, or even to wind up right back where they started. The various floors connected via spiralling staircases up to heaven who knows where, though within the walls of the New World there were all manner of amenities—dining hall, hair styling salon, dentist, hospital, bookstore, post office, funeral parlor—indeed every service or facility one would ever need, it was said, to spend one’s whole life in here. The Vestal Virgin kept climbing from one floor I never even knew existed to the next, not once losing her way.
Thinking that if any one of us got left behind, I turned around to take a head-count and was in time to see Charlie slip on Chepito’s tossed banana peel and fall down a flight of stairs. Aki oblivious to everything.
Who knows how long we walked, or even which floor we were now on? All I remember is that slightest whiff of ether emanating from the corridor walls. The further we proceeded into the etherous gloom, progressively lower dropped the ceiling of the narrow passageway, until we found ourselves hobbling along at a crouch. By the time we finally spied a faint wavering light ahead in the darkness, we were literally crawling on all fours.
Poking head-first through the less-than-meter-wide opening, it proved to be a traditional Japanese tea-ceremony room. Somewhat taken aback, I gazed around the tiny chambre to find a large candle stand placed in the tokonoma alcove, above which hung a scroll bearing the solemn calligraph Ikuuu…”I’m Coming.” The brushstrokes seemed to dance in the flickering candlelight; it was hard to tell if the kana characters were coming or going.
“Ikuuu… done already come… but deep.”
Aki had no sooner muttered to himself, when a man who was kneeling next to me spoke up.
“Greetings, everyone, and welcome!”
To my surprise, the dim figure I’d taken for Charlie proved to be none other than Ohtorii himself. I immediately recognised the delicate-featured, classical Heian Kyoto-faced Ohtorii, wearing his trademark spotless white cotton tabi on his feet, from photos I had seen in the papers. Then, as if not to alarm, having already been startled us by his sudden appearance, Ohtorii betrayed a convincing smile and said,
“I have a request I wish to make of all. A very important request.”
Jane pressed to her voluptuous bosom the basket of vipers she’d brought along “just in case;” Aki took another look at the hanging scroll.
“Tonight, might I have you play ‘Besame Mucho’?”
Dead silence. Ohtorii stared each member of the band in the face, but no one dared meet his eyes. All were stumped for how to answer; each hoped some other band member would reply. Ohtorii fingered his earlobe and turned his attention to the candlestand.
It was up me. I summoned my driest, most uninflected voice, and proceeded to explain a matter of band policy.
“We Saxophonettes have come this far without ever once bowing to anyone’s say-so. We play what we feel like playing, and nothing but. That’s why the popular enka-balladeer Papa Shimizu—practically a national institution—deems to perform together with us.”
”I have obtained Papa Shimizu’s prior agreement on this. I repeat: mine is a very important request, so I may presume that you will accept.”
It was a request we could not refuse. Especially since Papa Shimizu had already given in to the whims of this low-dealing authoritarian. All the same, it just didn’t shake: why would our Papa Shimizu have granted his okay to a request such as this?
Feeling tricked and betrayed, we left the tea room behind us. Squeezing back out though that crawl space, a mouse might well have traded places with me. Not that I’m one to commune with animals, generally speaking, but somehow I simply identified. It would have been only too easy to commiserate on our mutual straits, yet oddly enough, I found I couldn’t even remember what a mouse looked like. Just as I feared, in the course of pursuing these maze-like passages we became utterly and hopelessly lost, when from up ahead a hearty laugh chanced to reached my ears.
“Papa-voice! Think-Papa-near! “
It first dawned on Amar. Of course, we then all realized at once, we had merely to steer in the direction of the voice to find our way back to the dressing room! Even so, it took real effort to track down Papa Shimizu by his voice, not least of all for Charlie who was still limping from his fall down the stairs.
”Tough trip, eh?”
Chepito extended Charlie his sarcastic sympathies; Charlie glared back, but didn’t do anything. After a while, back among familiar corridors, Papa’s robust laugh came through loud and clear.
“Whoah-ho-ho-ho! Hey! “
Papa had sneaked into one of the hostess dressing rooms, strictly off-limits to the likes of us, and was enjoying a hands-on whoopee session with one of the lovelies, while the two cow-eyed youths who accompanied him everywhere looked on blankly. Only after he’d duly finished his spree did he come around to the Saxophonettes dressing room, his youthful duo in tow. Standing a good two meters tall, his face full of life, arms thicker than a woman’s waist and solid muscle through the torso, he was a character. Of indeterminate age, rumor implicated him in the Manchurian Incident, which would put him upwards of eighty, but to me, Papa hardly looked a day over fifty. Taking a seat in his own personal rattan throne, he called the boys to their stations at either side of him
“Got treats for you too! Open wide now!”
Producing ice cream cones in both hands, he crammed the frozen custards up into the youths’ waiting mouths. Just the sort of thing I’d learned to expect from Papa. Satisfied that “his boys” were contented with their “treats,” he let out another resounding laugh.
I, however, was not amused, and I let him know it.
”What’s the big idea, telling Ohtorii that we’d do ‘Besame Mucho’?”
No sooner had I challenged him than Charlie went livid and laid into the old man.
”Yeah, right! Weren’t we supposed to be doing my nouvelle composition tonight? I even invited VIPs. No way I’m playing Besame anything!”
A tense moment fell over dressing room. The worst that could happen would and did: a bright red-faced Chepito took a flying leap at Charlie, and in the mad scramble for a banana—or some banana-like placebo—Amar grabbed Jane’s basket and tossed it at the two, sending vipers every which way. The dressing room was a sheer madhouse.
Meanwhile Papa, totally unperturbed by the commotion, calmly led his boys out into the corridor. I hurriedly followed suit. When at last I caught up with him at the stage entrance, I repeated my inquiry.
“So you’re not going to tell me why?”
He glanced me in the eye, but with a look that went right past me, then gave a know-it-all kind of nod, his eyes squinted in deep folds.
Laughing away whatever question I might have posed, he disappeared.
There I was, left alone in the wings, staring off into the space of the theatre hall. On stage, “The Natures” were wrapping up a cover of Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.”
The hall seemed transformed today. This being a feast day, Ohtorii in his munificence had opened the orchestra dance floor free-of-charge to the locals, and the place was jumping. There was scarcely room to move. Forks were dancing, folks were belting out tunes at the top of their lungs, folks were doing all sorts of different things. A kimono-clad video director whose long face rivalled that of French comedian Fernandel was intently taking close-ups of the cypress wood columns to either side of the stage with an instant panorama camera. A girl, apparently inspired by the band’s performance, was drawing pictures in her sketchbook to the music. Here, one clique was busily holding what-to-do-after-this discussions. There, a macho rapper was showing off his curvaceous lady friend model. A number of customers had passed out plastered on the floor, though little did that bother the waiters who deftly wove their way through this obstacle course miraculously balancing trays of drinks. Occasionally some drunk would raise his head and shout to everyone’s amusement.
“But you’re human too, dammit! “
It was all too much. The second and third floor balconies were chock with “regulars”—politicos and financial-types, yakuza and glitterati, Ohtorii’ stringers and Papa Shimizu’s backers, even famous film director Akira Kurosaba and actor Henry Honda put in rare appearances to round out the festivities. Every hair in place, the sunglassed Henry was practising those patented cool looks of his in a hand mirror. Seated next him, Kurosaba, who couldn’t have been less impressed with Henry’s posturing, was wilting with his gay companion.
Yes, the New World was a microcosm of humanity tonight, burning with a fearsome heat. “The Natures” kept running through their repetitive renditions of innocuous numbers, until finally the worst stripper ever in the history of entertainment came out, only to get rolled up in a crimson stage carpet by an irate audience and thrown into the footlight fountain. Thanks to which, we had to go on a full thirty minutes ahead of schedule.
“Luck’s not with us tonight.”
Stage center, butoh dancers were doing their part-time schtick, pantomiming a samurai swordfight. Steel clashed and sparks flew each time their blades crossed. Standing in the wings, I had just lit up a cigarette when I heard noises from dark offstage. It was Charlie.
”See those fancy suits up in the third balcony? They’re big wigs from the Ministère de Culture. They’ve come to hear my nouvelle composition, not “Besame Mucho” nonsense. I mean, give me a break! We aren’t even a real Latin Band. We’re fake Latin, not your…”
At that, the usually quiet Amar gave Charlie a good swift boot in the derrière, unilaterally cutting short the conversation. I guess he’d heard his gripes just once too often. Propelled by the kick, Charlie tumbled onto stage and struck up against a piano leg. By then, all the various members of the Saxophonettes had assembled. We walked out upstage from where Charlie had made his unorthodox entrance. The theatre hall was steaming. The house lights went down and a huge mirror ball slowly began to turn. Then Papa Shimizu came swaggering out larger than life and the place boiled over. Papa let go with one of his belly laughs and the crowd went wild. Still the stagelights did not come up. The mirror ball kept turning, one of its countless stray beams reflecting onto the wad of bills in Papa’s pocket. As the audience voltage continued to build, so did the tension on stage. The air pressure had just about reached critical mass when Papa mumbled his opening line.
“Tonight, we’d like to do…”
To do what? The last crucial phrase was drowned out by Aki’s Linn Drum countdown.
Krnk, krnk, krnk-krnk-krrrnk!
That very instant the lights sparked on full blast, and the whole populace of Club New World swept into an orgiastic frenzy of intoxication and desire. Cries and screams rose from the dance floor. No one knew at the time just what had transpired, but none could ignore the dramatic change of scene from only seconds before. From somewhere there now came a low, steady rumbling. Had the town factories suddenly started up their dynamos? The sound slowly intensified, louder and louder; the New World’s 10 metre mammoth chandeliers, Ohtorii’s pride and joy, started swaying. A monstrous groaning began to circle the theatre, as if the hall itself were breathing, faster and faster. The tightly packed audience was thrown into a panic. Some fell to the floor, some tried to make a dash for the doors, some sought to hide in the shadows. All feared for their lives. The noise escalated, the walls trembled, the ground cracked. The massive cypress columns twisted and wrenched out of shape, the ceiling heaved. the fissures split wider, as if to swallow the New World down whole. The red-and-gold splendour receded beneath layers of grit spewed up from the fractured foundation.
Amidst a tremendous quaking, the New World was sinking. Everyone was going down together with the Banquet Frieze, yet impossible as it might seem, all fright now vanished from people’s faces. With enraptured eyes, they followed the dust clouds that swirled up from below. Consumed by whirling dust and temblor, it was “Besame Mucho” to the very last—a living mass of soul and song snaking skyward, turning to subatomic particles, and sailing off into the eternal void.
Translated by Alfred Birnbaum
Originally published as a supplement to the album Latin