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2003 – Tom Schnabel: Traveling by Ear


The imagination of a human being is a powerful tool in creating mental images of the unknown. The arts, in particular, tend to take the mind to faraway places … whether dream-like or real. We may be familiar with surfing the roaring waves of Hawaii, climbing the icy glaciers of Mont Blanc or riding on the rolling plains of Argentina. Have we actually been to these places and done these things? Maybe not, but it’s been fun to make believe.

Music is another way to travel to the far corners of the earth … to sway to the beat and hum to the tune. We are there in spirit … with our eyes closed and visions of the exotic climes and cultures.

Music from other parts of the world has not always been as accessible as it is today. A pioneer in this effort is Tom Schnabel. In 1998, Tom was awarded the French government’s National Medal of Arts. “The French bestowed upon me the honor of ‘Chevalier dans Ordre des Arts et Des Lettres’ for my work in furthering the knowledge of music from other cultures for the past 20 years,” he says. “The French, probably a legacy of their colonial empire, have long held an interest in arts from other places, and, of course, nobody has to go to the government each year and argue why the arts are important to society and beg for financial support like the US does. And, unlike us, they have a Minister of Culture. Why don’t we?”

Tom’s name will sound familiar to those of you who listen to non-commercial radio. He is best known for “Morning Becomes Electra”, KCRW’s signature morning program. He was hired at the station in 1977 to sub for other DJs when it was still growing. The station was started around 1946 as a place where GIs could get training for radio jobs and it is the oldest FM station west of the Mississippi. “It always stayed small with a lousy signal and bad antenna,” Tom says. He remembers working in a junior high school classroom with no heat. “You had to bring your own heater in and your own needles for the turntable,” he says. “We had one speaker. It was pretty miserable, but I could realize my fantasy of becoming a DJ.” He credits Ruth Seymour, the General Manager since 1978, for turning the station around. “Ruth’s genius saw what the station could be,” says Tom. “I had a chance to be part of KCRW during a period of incredible growth. Now it is one of the biggest public radio stations in the country. I grew with it and so did my musical knowledge and my musical tastes along with developing a relationship with an audience. It was an invaluable experience. I’m still feeling it.”

After 12 years it was time for a change. Tom accepted a great offer from A&M Records that didn’t work out. “That was a blessing in a way because it made me go on to other things,” he says. These “other things” included writing a second book, “Rhythm Planet: The Great World Music Makers” (“Stolen Moments: Conversations with Contemporary Musicians” was published in 1988), producing world music CDs and teaching at UCLA Extension and Sci-Arc.
In 1998 the Los Angeles Philharmonic asked Tom to become Program Director for a world music series and he has been doing it ever since. There are 6 shows each summer at the Hollywood Bowl. Real treats are in store for the 2003 season. Here are some of the acts:

… The “diva” phenomenon has become part of the music industry and Tom features his own “Global Divas”. One of the three performers this year is Cesaria Evora, a native of Sao Vicente, an offshore island of Brazil. She is known as the “barefoot diva” because she appears on stage in her bare feet in support of the disadvantaged women and children of her country. Her emotional blues music sung in Creole-Portuguese often refers to the long and bitter history of an isolation and slave trade. It has been said that audiences who do not understand her language are held spellbound by the emotions evident in her performances.

… One of the “Reggae Night” acts is Toots and the Maytals from Jamaica. Lead singer Toots Hibbert began his career in 1962 with the group that featured Jamaican rhythms and gospel vocals. They found success with “ska” and “rock steady” music and only several years later cemented their position as leaders in Jamaican music with the release of “Do TheReggay”, the first published use of the word. Forty years after many number one hits songs, Toots and the Maytals continue to thrill generations of fans ? old and new.

… What band would be more fitting for an act in the “Latin Roots and Rock” show than Los Lobos? Although the members grew up in East Los Angeles, they are considered modern music’s most popular “Mexican” group. It’s been 30 years since four schoolboy friends joined forces to interpret current influences in their native tongue and they are still going strong.

Tom is also excited about the upcoming 2003-2004 fall and spring world music series to be held in the new Walt Disney Concert Hall. He sees a correlation between Frank Gehry, architect of the Disney Hall, and world music. Both have needed a little getting used to. Tom remembers when he first started working at KCRW and the station broadcasted the Santa Monica City Council meetings. “Some guy named Frank Gehry was trying to build a house in Santa Monica,” says Tom, “and all the neighbors were swarming to City Council meetings saying ‘he wants to build this hideous thing and we’re not going to let him. We’re going to stop him.’ Now look. Frank Gehry designs are coveted.” Tom understands. He didn’t “get” reggae music when he first heard it. “The beat was strange,” he says. “It was sort of off.” I remember when Philip Glass first came out with his weird compositions. “He is now more established,” says Tom. It does take time to get used to a sound or a look that may be strange and it will be forever this way with differences in the future. Some people call it progress.

Have you ever noticed that instruments in a composition can talk to each other to tell a story? The trill of a flute may respond to the blare of a trumpet. Far-reaching octaves of a piano can give a different feel or spirit. Music does have a language of its own. Music is also a means of communication between people. It emanates a strong sense of emotion. “You have kids growing up who may not be able to finish a sentence,” says Tom. “You give them a saxophone or a guitar and it’s a different language. They speak very, very well. People speak different languages. Some people will speak in a musical language better than the spoken word or written word. It’s an international language. It’s something whereby people of many different persuasions, educational backgrounds or whatever can relate to each other. It’s the human sensibility of expression. If you listen to an interview with Charlie Parker, who was a genius, he didn’t say a lot and he didn’t really sound like an intellectual. Music gives young people a reason and something to put themselves into so they don’t join gangs”

For those of you who haven’t followed Tom’s musical career, he may have been a familiar face on Venice Beach as a lifeguard. He grew up in Pacific Palisades within a binocular’s view of the waves. “Surfing occupied my waking life from 14 to 18,” he says. I always wanted to have a connection with the beach.” He worked in Venice from 1971 and “hung up” his trunks in 2000. He remembers when the beach was “clothing optional”. “It became just a zoo,” he says. “It was a nightmare for me because there were stalkers and lots of problems … all sorts of crazy things.”

Tom rented different apartments in Venice and Santa Monica over the years. He even took time off to live a Paris where he attended The Sorbonne and taught ESL. On his return, one of the places he rented was a house on Rialto Ave., owned by Ken Newfield, former skating partner of Peggy Fleming. He really liked the neighborhood. It was at this time that he made enough money while working at A&M Records to purchase a lot on nearby Altair Pl.

Tom couldn’t just buy any house. He needed a place that he could call home for his 10,000 records and CDs. So, he had a Moroccan-inspired home built to his specifications. A number of years later he was able to purchase the adjacent lot where he now has a home office with French doors opening to a swimming pool and garden that was featured on the Venice Garden Tour two years ago.

Of course, Tom thinks Venice is an incredible place to live. He likes the eclectic mix of new and old architecture. He also appreciates that his neighborhood is not on any particular grid. He notices people getting lost all the time. In addition, he appreciates people being considerate of each other and believes it’s important to help keep his surroundings clean. He picks up stuff from the sidewalk and, in particular, nails in the alley. “I’ve had 10 flats in the nine years I’ve lived here,” he says. He was also instrumental in forming a neighborhood alley clean up several years ago. The proximity to the ocean and bike baths plus the restaurants and shopping on Abbot Kinney are big plusses. “It is a vibrant community,” he says. “It has a local feeling.”

Life has been good to Tom. “I’ve had a great experience playing a lot of pretty exotic music and have found that people really like it,” he says. About the home front he offers, “one of the nicest things about taking a trip is that it’s really great to come home. I always feel like this is a special place in the world to be privileged to live in.”