In our own Backyard

Story last updated at 5:50 PM on Wednesday, September 28, 2011



Photo by Michael Armstrong

Members of Shamwari pose after doing a workshop last March with Boulder, Colo., musicians Amy Stewart and Randy McIntosh. From left to right are Stephanie Leib-Migdal, Michael Armstrong, McIntosh, Jim Levine, Julia Clymer and Stewart. Jenny Stroyeck, left, and Sue Post, right, sit on the stairs in the back row.

Seaside Farmers, Yellow Cabin, Three Legged Mule, Elders on Fire, The Holy Santos Gang, Mismatched Mukluks, Zuva, Rufaro and Tamba. The names of local bands roll off the tongue. Whether a Work in Progress or musicians like Jewel and Lincoln Brewster who become famous, there's something in the water in Homer. This town spawns music like a sweet run of silvers heading up Kachemak Bay.

As the days get shorter, the challenge becomes "How the heck do you survive another winter?" Homer's musical community knows exactly what to do.

Make music.

On probably any given night in garages, boat sheds and rental halls, groups gear up for gigs. Rock 'n' roll, country, folk, bluegrass, Cajun, jazz, classical and ethnic, you can pretty much find any genre played on the lower Kenai Peninsula.

Some bands play for tips. Some play for fundraisers. Some play for serious money, or try to. Some play for fun. Up on Diamond Ridge, every Monday night, and sometimes Wednesdays and Sundays, my marimba group, Shamwari, plays because that's what our name means. We're friends.

True confession: The last formal music class I had was in seventh grade, where we played melodicas, those little keyboard instruments you blow into. I sucked.

So one summer in 2002 when African marimba teacher Michael Breez came to town, my wife Jenny and I took a workshop at the Homer Council on the Arts. Our friends and neighbors Sue Post and Jim Levine joined us. I barely recall the song we learned, but I do remember something joyful. I could make music. Inside of a few hours, Michael had us plonking on keys more or less together.

"Anybody can play this," said our latest teacher, Tendai Muparutsa, a Zimbabwean musician in town the past two weeks for an artist's residency. "It's communal music."

After that first class, we played some more with two other people we met in the workshop, Kyra Wagner and Jane Wiebe. We persuaded Jenny Carroll, who played in juJuba, one of the first groups in town, to teach us a few more songs. Our friend Julia Clymer joined us. We became known as "the new group," and when we got tired of that, came up with a name. Tossing around words in Shona — the language of one of the Zimbabwean tribes — we eventually came up with Shamwari, for "friends." That's what we are.

Friends came and went, moving out of town, on to other things and on to other bands. We bought and built a set of marimbas. We went to more workshops and brought up teachers. Julia's husband Karl Stoltzfus finally cleared up his schedule and came on board. Our friend Stephanie Leib-Migdal rounds out the group.

Recently Shamwari finished 10 hours of workshops with Tendai. He's an immensely patient guy. When we didn't quite get one song, we moved on to another and another. I think we finally clicked with "Dzino Ruma."

In his teaching, Tendai threw out aphorisms, like, "If you play something horrible, play it with confidence."

I thought of that when I flubbed a part in the beginning when my tenor comes in with the bass, baritone and another tenor. I knew I hit the wrong notes, but I hit the wrong notes well. This music makes you listen to yourself and to each other.

"Follow your body. Your body knows what it's doing," Tendai said, but also this, which I really like: "You have to learn to trust each other."

I recorded one run through of "Dzino Ruma" so I could listen later for the arrangement. I heard those wrong notes, those parts where we didn't all quite lock. But on most of the song we stayed together, musicians supporting musicians. At the end when we flubbed the exit, I heard something else, too.

We all laughed. Happy, joyful and making good music, that's what it's all about. "Play, dance, be happy" — that's what the name of the women's group, Tamba, means.

Get together with your friends. Make a band. Play music. It's not a bad way to get through the winter.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at