Kerry Shawn Keys minibio

“I don’t know who I am, but I have many names and live in Vilnius,” says Kerry Shawn Keys, an American living in Lithuania of nineteen years now. He is a human orchestra: translator, poet, prose writer, author of children’s books, dramatist. Kerry has already become part of the Vilnius landscape and culture. The poet Sigitas Geda said about him, “by his presence and participation in the everyday life of Lithuanian poetry, he has made us stronger as well.” Kerry, though, calls himself an “outsider”, and outsiders are generally better at seeing certain things than locals or those ensconced in everyday life, in the “system”. A view from the side is always interesting, and with that in mind, the Vilnius Review has decided to begin publishing Kerry’s short, witty essays about Lithuania and Lithuanians. So, here, each month you will find "A Palmer's Chronicle".

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reflections on belonging

Graphic Novels

Photo by Dainius Dirgėla

By Kerry Shawn Keys

Jazz is the incredible scene in Lithuania, especially in Vilnius, and in the past you  needed to sleuth it out by word of mouth. No more – on-line  feeds do the trick, and Facebook.  Vilnius must have more fine drummers and saxophonists per capita than any country in the far north. Also, in perpetual residence is jazzy-rock star Frank Zappa, who has been heard to play at night near the medical clinic on Pylimo, a good location for the loss of hearing that may follow. He inhabits a sculpture, but after all he was a rocker anyway, and nowadays as in antiquity, statues and the inorganic frequently give off curious soundwaves. Vilnius even hosts Talking Statues. It is said that the Statue of Liberty is wired with sonic beams to shoot terrorists as they approach Ellis Island. Maybe these statues are wired to stun-gun non-vetted immigrants.  Despite Zappa or Zippo or Zipper, or Zopi or whatever his name, it is jazz that surfaces everywhere (except in summer), from hotel and restaurant lounges to lots of special events in churches, Jazz Cellar 11 the new hot spot, the Old Town Hall of Vilnius, Rūdninkų Book Store, sacred-text vinyl’s in Thelonious’ cellar,  even the sacred, classical grounds of the Philharmonic. And in my palepe (loft study), when  Egberto Gismonti, Sonny, or Ornette do not disturb the family which they usually do. And often, classical and jazz musicians team up in a peculiarly beautiful kind of fusion. And then there is the wonderfully strange combo, Sheep Got Waxed. And Domantas Razauskas. And Vilnius is home of perhaps the premier jazz percussionist in Europe, Vladimir Tarasov, whose deft beat can be heard from the bells of the churches to the cafés and theatres, or in the John Cage-like semi-silence of his musical installations and constellations. Not to mention, the inestimable Lion King sax man, Liudas Mockūnas, heir to Vladimiras Čekasinas and rival to Bird.

As far as rock-and-roll, better take a bus to Riga, Bollywood, or even to the confines of Belarus than to try to find anything memorable in Lithuania. No denying there is some interesting funk, lots of guitars, Eurovision schmaltz, X-Factor neophytes, and so forth, but the real popular scene is folk music, torch songs, and the rattle of the street cars. By folk, I mean what the folk used to do in the Golden Age gone by, and not current folk, which by definition would be what the folk do now. If you are interested in your rural roots, then there’s many a pretty maiden and handsome lad to folk dance with – the tortoise-like rhythmic pace of much of this music resembles more a polar bear funeral than a wedding. Yes, I know, funerals are weddings and weddings are funerals, but I didn’t want to say so. The barbershop quartets of Panevežys  do a wonderful mix of When The Saints Come Marching In and The Hawaiian Wedding Song.

Downtown Kaunas at night is like a cemetery for mutes and the unborn, but the center of Vilnius Old Town is chock full of pubs and dancehalls that swell with a Boom-Boom, Eurotrash, disco beat. Luckily the beat doesn’t echo much up onto the streets, so that you really have to follow Orpheus into Hades to experience the true reverberation of the marketplace and see Persephone, Eurydice, and Cerberus the bouncer all dolled up and shaking their tails and muscle. Not bad really – the dancing that is – if only one could put beeswax in one’s ears and just eat up the visual honey. When I first came to Vilnius, it was the music from the late 60s and 70s that really got your pelvis pumping, and there was nothing better than the Third Brother Café inside the premises of the Lithuanian Writers Union. But one needed Perkunas’ lightning to cut through the smoke and BS. Go-go drunks of all ages dancing in the WC, on the windowsills, chairs, and fireplace mantel on really cold nights (or hot), and the shards of broken beer glasses on the floor could make walking on hot coals an exercise for amateurs. Wise to bring your own toilet paper and prayer beads. That lasted until about a decade ago, but the Writers’ Union board got boorish and afraid of lawsuits and the notorious reputation of the place in the eyes of the EU and the world, and so changed the format to sleepy-time with whiskey. However, a few years ago the poets and musicians took over the courtyard space and made it into a venue for some fine readings and quiet inebriation, conceptual and “cool”, but often very dull. A great way to spend an evening or afternoon, however, is to catch some of the wonderful classical music at the Philharmonic or M. K. Čiurlionis House. You might run into Rostropovich’s ghost or Mindaugas Urbaitis. Lithuania has more than its share of outstanding composers and orchestras and chamber music. Afterwards, drift down the street to a groovy café for some post-techno, trance, or house, and then find a club with a Latino swing – there are a few. In fact, Lithuania may be the heart or rump of the rebirth of a mix of Uruguayan tango, Colombian cumbia, the ranchero, and Martha Graham’s studio two-step. And, if you are interested in the unexpected in music, walk the streets of the old Kaunas ghetto around midnight, and you can hear the wailing of Elijah and King David conducting a klezmer ensemble to an unusual version of the Lithuanian National Anthem mixed with lyrics by Sutzkever, Al Jolson, and Bob Dylan.

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