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Christmas, Kites and the Sound of Surprise Stephen Black I just finished the last piece of Panetone Milanese

. It's like fruitcake, but without any alcohol in it. I wished I'd had some real butter. Would've been perfect. Anyway, it was a quiet Christmas in Singapore, a day like any other day, really. There wasn't any Christmas music in the market and it rained on and off throughout the day. Obviously, there is no snow; I'm wearing running shorts and a 3how Tshirt as I write. It is definitely not a white Christmas! lol! Hey....what if the idea/marketing campaign of Christmas had originated in the tropics? Or in the desert? My Christmas breakfast was an uncommon one, however. It was served on a piece of brown waxed paper. With four other people, I ate standing up, using my fingers to eat saffron rice and vegetarian curry. We were in the back of Sri Manmatha Karuneeswarar Temple, talking about Raj while shirtless, barefoot temple priests led small parades of mourners past us. Mani, with his musical accent started speaking first, "I said 'Brother not so early!' He said he would just have one more before he'd go do some work. But I think he knew. He knew he was going to die soon. He never used to drink in the morning. Never." Nearby, a group stops in front of the statue of a four armed god. The priest begins to gently lob orchids at the feet of the god while chanting monotonously in Tamil. I start to wonder if the gods listen to the prayers of humans in "real time". If so, does that mean that the Hindu gods follow the same day and night pattern as Earth? What do they do as they listen? Does that god hear prayers a millisecond after they leave the priest's lips or do the sound waves travel and reach the "real god" some place else in the cosmos? Or is this all a mental, priest-to-god thing and the spoken words are "merely"symbols for the audience to witness? "He was so talented at composing songs," Subra says, "he could write the music for a group of musicians just by imagining it and listening to it in his head. He was so talented and so humble." I finish my rice. Subra nods toward the instant coffee. The priest becomes silent Raj's brother says something about heart muscles and how Raj would put a Bible on his chest to ease the pain so he could sleep. We think more about Raj. "Dizzy was called 'The Sound of Surprise," I blurt out. Raj had said those exact words in the Block 710 coffeeshop around four in the morning on a Sunday about six weeks ago. He was telling me about Dizzy Gillespie; trying to explain time signatures by using 'One Note Samba' as an example. He started stomping his foot and tapping a chopstick against a bottle. He hummed like Dizzy's trumpet and whistled the flute part. "And then the piano comes in..." Raj sets the chopstick down and tops up our glasses. He leans back and lights another cigarette. "Amazing... Dizzy could pack so much musical life into just a handful of notes. Just a few notes, man! And they'd be so alive! And then he'd have these other compositions, where he'd play something so complex it would blow your mind, man. Just blow your mind. " Raj runs his fingers through his hair and gives me that sincere, burning look of his. Raj's eyes are artist's eyes. "Cool, cool guy, one of the greatest guys I 've ever met. Met him at the Blue Note. Made you laugh all the time. When he was blowin' his trumpet, man, his cheeks were so big, you'd think he had a couple of baseballs stored in his mouth. Always wore a cap or something. But man! Could he blow!" "Salt Peanuts". That song's fast, man! And happy. Man, it don't matter how you're feeling, if you're a musician and you're playin'

Dizzie's 'Salt Peanuts' you're gonna be smilin'." I explain the story behind Raj's Dizzy Gillespie Sound of Surprise sentence to Subra, Mani and Raj's brother and sister-in-law. They nod and smile. We light an oil lamp and stare into the orange flames before we leave. Then it was home and a nap. Then, writing,writing, writing. A storm started; so strong I got up to check the windows. I became very hungry very quickly and hurried downstairs into the sweet violent breathing of the storm. Lightning flashed and the plants by the sidewalk became red and green lines. I stayed beneath the covering of the five foot way all the way to the duck rice place. I sat down across from Reginald Choo. Reginald grew up in Tiong Bahru, moved away and then moved back. He talked about kites. "We'd smash lightbulbs into powder so fine it looked like sugar. Then we'd get a milk can full of animal glue and mix it all together. We wrapped string around poles and painted it with the glue and glass. Let it dry, then wound it back up. Then you'd get a tree branch and tie it to a bamboo pole. There'd be about ten of us and when the string of a kite was cut, we'd all run beneath it with our sticks. We'd push and shove and swirl the bamboo to get the kite string caught in the branches. Kites cost five cents those days and whoever caught the kite kept it. We used to fight. So when you were flying kites, you had to have a strong string with lots of glue and glass on it. It was always a question of who had the sharpest, strongest string." The rain stopped and Reginald quickly headed home. I finished my meal and walked back through the SIT flats. I imagined the boys up there, up on a roof. Flying kites towards each other, trying to rub glass-covered strings against each other. I could almost see their kites jerking and soaring while the boys' busy thin arms and small fists pulled strings to attack. Reginald said that many times both strings would get cut. It was easy to imagine this: two kites on a blue and sunny day, both suddenly drifting with unwanted freedom. The delicate things float downwards, spinning and jumping in arcs as the staring boys wait to chase them with sticks.