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Bonsai: “Heaven and Earth in one container.”

Bonsai – “tree in a tray” – is the art of miniaturizing trees or semi-woody plants shaped as trees, grown in small containers. The art form originated 2,500 years ago in China, making its way to Japan, where Buddhist monks refined it to bring the “outdoors” into their temples and monasteries. Eventually it became a symbol of prestige and honor reserved for the Japanese aristocracy.  In modern day Japan, the art of bonsai has become “classless” and is shared by company executives and factory workers alike. Bonsai for the Japanese represents a fusion of strong ancient beliefs with the Eastern philosophy of harmony between man, soul and nature.

Bonsai is referred as “heaven and earth in one container” because it is a separate entity, complete by itself: roots in the soil of a container, independent of the earth, but still a living part of nature. In its container, a bonsai should always be positioned off-center for two reasons: asymmetry is vital for visual effect, and the center point is symbolically where heaven and earth meet, and nothing should occupy that place. Another aesthetic principle is the triangular pattern necessary for visual balance and for expressions of the relationship shared by a universal principle: (life-giving energy or deity) the artist and the tree itself. Tradition holds that three basic virtues are necessary to create a bonsai: shin-zen-bi standing for truth, goodness and beauty.

Bonsai trees are grown from natural tree seeds. Their height can range  from 2 in. to 3.33 ft. Bonsai trees are kept small and trained by pruning  branches and roots, repotting  periodically and pinching off new growth. Wires might be used on  branches to make them grow into specifically desired shape.

The essence of classical bonsai is to produce a healthy miniature representation of a tree. The art of bonsai tells a story through living illusion. A bonsai artist searches for ways to express his personal creativity by mixing form and though in a miniature world.  He needs to experiment with air, nutrients, soil, sun, temperature, and altitude. Major and crucial aspects of bonsai creations are patience and time. The growth process takes time,  there are no shortcuts. A bonsai designer will say that there is no replacement for time; it is always constant and moving forward.


Tango anyone?

DSCN2943 The exact origins of tango – both the dance and the word – are lost in myth and unrecorded history.

A likely theory places the birth in African-Argentine dance venues attended by “compadritos,” young men, mostly native born and poor, who liked to dress in slouch hats, loosely tied neckerchiefs and high-heeled boots, with knives tucked casually into their belts.

The “compadritos” took the tango back to the slaughterhouse district of Buenos Aires and introduced it in various low life establishments where dancing took place: bars, dance halls and brothels. In tango, African rhythms met Argentina “milonga” (fast-paced polka) and eventually new steps were invented and took hold. It is believed that tango originated at the turn of the XXth century.

As previously mentioned, tango originated in society’s underbelly, in the brothels of turn-of-the century Argentina. It was the “acting out” of the relationship between prostitute and pimp. The titles of the first tangos referred to characters in the world of prostitution. Songs and dances had no lyrics, were often improvised, and  generally were regarded as obscene.  The early tangos not only represented a kind of sexual choreography, but often a duel, a man-to-man combat, between challengers for the favors of a woman, that usually ended in the symbolic death of the opponent. Sexual and evil forces were equally celebrated in this ritual. If  someone danced with the same partner three times, rumor held, the two would be sharing a bed for the night. Tango became a forbidden dance and was actually banned by a Pope.  The wailing melancholy of the “bandoneon” (an accordion-like instrument imported fromGermany in 1886) became a mainstay of tango music.

Tango must be simply danced, with immense feeling, with a sense of energy flowing between the dancers. The energy grows or decreases as the music ebbs and flows. Tango is a seduction, or a private conversation, something to be quietly shared, not publicly displayed. It is a connection, an empathy between two people who need to embrace and be in the arms of one another, to escape albeit for just a brief moment in time, and in that moment, to live a lifetime…..

Carlos Gardel, the most famous tango singer that ever lived, was born inFrance and became the “Songbird of Buenos Aires.”  Gardel invented the “tango song” or another line in the tango orchestration for voice, essentially making the tango a performance for both a musical audience and a dance show. Although his life was cut short by a plane crash in Colombia, he managed to achieve immense fame throughout Latin America.  In Argentina, five decades after his death, the memory of this handsome, charismatic performer, has reached hero worship status not unlike what Elvis Presley inspired in the USA.


Fado, a Portuguese musical tradition.

  “Fado” must be heard, felt, experienced not described…. but I’ll do my best.

 The Portuguese word saudade, not translatable into English, would roughly be “nostalgia” or “homesickness,” implying a bittersweet longing.  Saudade is the basis of the lyrical content of fado music.

Sadness is the general tone of  song and music. They tell tales of   lost or unrequited love, death, longing for the homeland, or  a past that will never return.

 Fado represents the spirit of the Portuguese people and their belief in an overwhelming destiny from which there is no escape. It is the soul and the heart dominating over reason, which leads to acts of passion, despair, and reveals a black and beautiful sorrow. Some experts define fado as the oldest urban folk music in the world.

Amalia Rodrigues, the most celebrated fado singer (1940-1999) explained it in a 1994 interview: “The Portuguese invented fado because we have a lot to complain about; on one side we have Spain with their swords, on the other side there’s the sea, which was unknown and fearful. When people set sail, we were waiting and suffering, so fado is a complaint.”  She was the diva of fado, worshipped at home and celebrated abroad as the most famous representative of this Portuguese musical genre.  Such is the hold of fado over the people of Portugal, that when she died, the  prime minister declared three days of national mourning.

There are two main styles of fado: Lisbon’s traditionally performed by a female vocalist (called fadista) accompanied by two or three male guitarists and Coimbra’s (university city) performed by male soloists who sing and play the guitar. In both, the guitar is a Portuguese 12-string instrument called “guitarra” and the bass guitar is the “viola”.

Many aficionados prefer the raw emotion of the female fadista. Dressed in black, with a shawl draped over her shoulder. She stands in front of the musicians and communicates through gestures and facial expressions. The hand moves, the body is stationary. When done correctly, it’s a solemn and majestic performance.

Whatever the origins, fado themes have remained constant through the years: destiny, betrayal in love, death and despair. A typical lyric goes like this: “Why did you leave me, where did you go? I walk the streets looking at every place we were together, except you’re not there.” Because it is such sad music, a fado performance is not successful unless the audience, literally, is moved to tears. Audiences in Lisbon and Coimbra are very knowledgeable, very demanding and if they do not feel the fadista is up to form, they will stop a performance.

To show their appreciation, audiences in Lisbon will clap their hands while in Coimbra they will cough as if clearing their throats.

A Latin-American Rite of Passage: the “Quinceañera”.

“Quinceañera” or “la fiesta Quinceañera” is a rite of passage for fifteen-year-old Latina girls in South America, Central America, and the Spanish speaking Caribbean islands.  Although rituals vary by country and family traditions, everywhere the objective is the same: to celebrate the transition of a young lady from girlhood into womanhood.  

 The word “quinceañera” (pronounced kenyseanyera) comes from the Spanish “quince” (fifteen) and “años” (years).  The origins of the “Quinceañera” tradition are traceable to the Aztecs, around 500 BC.  For them, fifteen was the age at which boys became warriors and girls became marriageable. The girls were presented to the community as the vital force of the tribe and its future, since they had the power to become mothers. The fifteen-year old Aztec girl was exhorted and instructed by the King in the duties of womanhood. In Aztec society the role of a woman was so crucial and respected, that the funeral honors for any woman who died in childbirth were the same as those displayed for a warrior who fell in battle. The celebration of today’s “Quinceañera” is the result of blending traditions between the Aztecs and the Spanish Catholic missionaries who landed in Mexico. The missionaries added Catholic religious significance to the Aztec event and named it   “Quinceañera” as per a tradition of the 16th– centurySpain where the 15-year old daughters – of the nobility – were presented at a society gathering known as the “Quinceañeras” balls.

 There is no universal blueprint or template for the “Quinceañera” party. It varies by country, pocketbook and family. In most parts of South American there is no religious celebration, only the “Quinceañera” dance and/or reception. In most of Central America, on the other hand, a special mass is held in honor of the “Quinceañera” prior to the dance.

 Of the many “Quinceañera” traditions I discovered, two are worth mentioning: shoe switching and doll presentation.  

 The “Quinceañera” enters the festivities wearing flat shoes. After her entrance, the girl’s father exchanges her flat shoes for heels symbolizing that, from now on, she  is a  woman.

 As a sign of her new, grown-up status, the “Quinceañera” presents a porcelain doll to her younger sister, if she has one. Another symbolic gesture of the transition from childhood to adulthood where dolls no longer play a role in her life.      

 Unless you were brought up in or near a Hispanic community, you may not have heard of the “Quinceañera” tradition, where a young girl is symbolically escorted into womanhood by her family, in an event witnessed by her  friends and her community.

How do you like them potatoes?

Fried, baked, mashed, how do you like your potatoes?

 For a simple, brown tuber, potatoes have a very long history.

In ancient Peruvian and Chilean ruins, archeologists discovered potato remains dating back to 500 B.C. The Incas cultivated them near Lake Titicaca, at 12,500 feet above seal level in the Andes mountain range between Peru and Bolivia. Inca potatoes ranged in size from a small nut to an apple and in color from red and gold to blue and black.  There are 5,000 potato varieties still grown in the Andes.

 The Incas grew, ate and worshipped them. They placed raw potatoes on broken bones, carried them to prevent rheumatism and ate them with other foods to prevent indigestion. The Incas used them to measure time by correlating units of time with how long it took potatoes to grow.

The Spanish conquistadores failed to find significant quantities of gold or silver, but instead, in 1565 returned to Spain with an incredible treasure: the potato. Today it is the fourth largest food crop in the world.

 Freeze-dried potatoes or “chuño” was an Inca innovation. “Chuño” is still produced and consumed in Peru.  Potatoes are spread on the ground on frosty nights. During the day they are covered with straw to protect against the burning rays of the sun and in this manner they turn completely white. After exposure to several nights of frost, women and children trample the potatoes to get rid of moisture and wear away the peel. Next, the potatoes go into a stream of running water for a couple of weeks in order to wash away their bitter taste. Finally they are dried for no more than 14 days and later stored, without problems, for up to 4 years.

 From Spain the potato continued its journey to the rest of Europe; arriving in England and Italy around 1585, Belgium and Germany 1587, Austria 1588 and France 1600’s. An Irish legend has it that ships of the Spanish Armada wrecked off the Irish coast in 1588 were carrying potatoes and some washed ashore.  Potatoes arrived in the US around 1600’s.

 Wherever potato was first introduced, it was considered weird, poisonous and downright evil. In France it was accused of causing leprosy, syphilis, narcosis, early death, sterility, rampant sexuality as well as destruction of the soil where grown.

 So… do you like them potatoes?

Panama hats come from Ecuador, not Panama.

panama_hat_harry_trumanThe Panama hat is the traditional brimmed hat that is made in the Ecuadorian town of Montecristi from plaited leaves of the toquilla straw plant. The plant is hand-split into strands as thin as threads and then woven very finely. Each one is woven by a single artist and takes months to complete.  

 The Ecuadorian hats were mistakenly called “Panama hats” because in the XIX and early XX centuries many goods were first shipped from the Isthmus of Panama prior to sailing to their destinations in Asia, Europe, or the Americas. For some products, as with the Ecuadorian hats, the name of the point of international sale (Panama) was substituted for the domestic origin (Ecuador). 

President Roosevelt popularized the hat when he wore it on his visit to the construction site of the Panama Canal.

Hat quality is a heavily disputed subject. There are two main processes in the creation of the hat: weaving and blocking. The best way to determine the quality of the weave is to count the number of weaves per square inch. Fewer than 100 would be considered low quality. The rarest and most expensive ones can have as many as 1600-2500 weaves per square inch and might sell for thousands of dollars each. It is said that a “superfino” (true quality) hat can hold water, and when folded for storage, can pass through a wedding ring. 

Although hat weaving continues to provide a livelihood for many Ecuadorians, the number of weavers capable of making the finest “Montecristi Superfinos” is on the decline. It is estimated that the Ecuadorian hat making industry will disappear in 20 years due to competition of paper-based, Chinese-made imitations and the dominance and manipulation of the market by a few hat sellers. The woven art of making “Panama hats” in Ecuador is endangered to the point of disappearance.


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“TAIKO” Japanese for “Big Drums”

“Taiko” Japanese for “big drums” refers to instruments that come in many sizes, varieties and sounds. It is the modern art of traditional Japanese group ensemble drumming that uses martial art-like movements and “ki-ais” shouting to encourage high energy. Performances last between 5 – 25 minutes and typically follow a “jo-ha-kyu” (beginning, middle, end/rapid, sudden, urgent) structure, which means it will speed up significantly towards the grand finale. The drums are primarily struck with sticks called “bachi”.

Uchite (Taiko drummer) can wear loose fitting happi (short coat), with an obi (belt), hachimaki (headband), and tabi (shoes with big toe separated). The crest, symbolizing Taiko, stands for thunder and might be seen on their clothing and/or drums.

The roots of Taiko drumming date back 1400 years and illustrations of their use were found on ancient painted screens. It is believed the drums were battlefield instruments intended to intimidate and scare the enemy. A single soldier would carry the taiko lashed to a backpack-like frame, while two others – one on either side – would beat the drum.

Fast forward to Japan, 1951 and to Daihachi Oguchi, the Grand Master of modern taiko. He was the jazz drummer responsible for the now popular style where a number of players with taiko drums of different sizes and sounds created an orchestra of taiko.  Oguchi was the founder of the first taiko ensemble in Japan as well as of 200 other groups in Singapore and Canada.

Taiko’s arrival to the U.S. was in 1968 via Grand Master Seiichi Tanaka. He opened the San Francisco Taiko Dojo, the first school dedicated to taiko teaching. “Dojo” means place to learn the way. Tanaka believed the essence of Taiko is not only skillful playing of percussion instruments, but also discipline of mind and body in the spirit of complete respect and unity among drummers. Tanaka hoped the word “taiko” like “karate” and “sushi” would one day become and integral part of American vocabulary.  Today, there are 400 taiko groups thought-out the US.

Fushu Daiko, an outstanding taiko group has their dojo in our own backyard, in Dania Beach, Florida. To learn more about them, visit

The group is well known by Morikami Museum visitors because they participation in most Japanese festivals held there.

Fusho Daiko is the main attractions at the yearly Obon Festival (in which the dead  are revered) held every August at the Morkikami. Mark your calendar’s for next year’s performance, you will not be disappointed.