Following the music.....
Eikosan greeted us with a comforting smile at the door. It was just the breath of fresh air I needed to keep my feet moving up the stairs and into the living room. She escorted us towards the end of the table where two teenage boys stood up and politely offered us their chair. My legs sang a little "Hallelujah" when they saw I wouldn't be sitting on my knees all evening. The people to our right and left gave a warm smile and a light bow in our direction. With one gesture by our neighbors I felt my anxiety melt away and my confidence restore. They reached out their hands and gave us a proper western greeting, followed by their names.
I glanced down the table and marveled at the variety of food. The middle of the table was lined with countless dishes filled with everything from rice, baked breads, different kinds of meat, noodle salads and sandwhiches filled with fruit and whipped cream. I felt my blood temperature drop a few degrees when I realized I wouldn't be receiving any bamboo blows to the head. Before digging into a delicious buffet style dinner, I took it all in.
I watched the kids at our end of the table laugh with one another while they made silly faces, some people leaned towards one another to hear the whole story, while others leaned back in disbelief at the story they had just heard. Looks of surprise morphed into smiles while looks of sympathy were met by looks of appreciation. I closed my eyes for just a minute, drew a deep breath, and verified all the sounds at the table were real. In that moment I could have been at my own family new years party. Kids were on one side of the table with adults on the other. The buzz of excitement and holiday spirit was electrifying everyone as we sat together and shared the simple things in life: family, friends and food.
Within a few moments of sitting down, Ana and I had made friends with the couple sitting across from us. Ruslan and his wife were from Tajikistan, the country just north of Afganistan, and their English was nothing short of impressive. Like a true American I had no idea where that was, so I felt a little sheepish saying "Terjerkishtan, ahhhhh. Where is that again?". The smirk on Ruslan's face told me this wasn't his first time answering that question. He pulled out his smart phone and showed us a map of the region around Tajikistan followed by a brief history of his country while we piled mounds of comfort food onto our plates.
Half way into dinner, I heard the opening guitar lines from the Emerson, Lake and Palmer song, "From the Beginning". Some where deep inside of me, I felt the ring of a tuning fork. Immediately tuning out any dinner conversation, I focused on the guitar sounds until I was sure it wasn't playing over a fading radio station. This was a live acoustic performance. I turned my head and saw a group of guys sitting at a smaller table off to the side, with several cups of sake in the center. All the eyes around the table were focused on the individual with the guitar. His legs were crossed and the guitar resting over his knee, his eyes closed. I politely excused myself from the table and followed the music.
As the song came to and end, he opened his eyes and the crowd of 4-5 older gentleman gave a light round of applause. The man looked at me and said, "You pray (play)?". Although my nerves weren't completely settled, I nodded affirming I had a little experience. Within moments they had cleared a space and passed me the strings. After shaking my hands loose and wiping the sweat from my brow I played the first few notes to the only song I could recall both the lyrics and the chords, Land Down Under by Men at Work. Not only did they recognize it, but we had a nice little sing/humm along. I passed the guitar to the man on my right and he jumped into the next song, Stand by Me. After the last few notes were strummed one of the men offered me a small glass filled with sake. I indulged his offer and we raised our glasses in unison "KAN PAI!".
The man to my left introduced himself. Kobayashi was the 58 year old brother of Eikosan and had been working as a psychiatrist in Tokyo for 32 years. "I'm from Beatles era", he said with a smile. His neighbor passed Kobayashi the guitar and he began finger picking the first few notes to Blackbird. As my first sip of sake was settling in...so was the realization I had completely misjudged the setting of the party and the people. This was a loose, relaxing setting and people were extremely polite and eager to practice their English. Not knowing Japanese wasn't necessarily an excuse to keep quiet, but a reason to communicate through other means. Afterall, who needs Japanese or English when you have music.
When he finished with Blackbird, he whipped through a tight version of Helter Skelter. Just when I thought the music selection or the moment couldn't get any more surreal, Kobayashi started playing the Immigrant Song by Led Zepplin. Suffice to say it's not the acoustic song one would expect to hear at a round table during a family gathering. This is the kind of song for a big stage, loud amps and lots of screaming fans. While Kobayashi whaled on the 6 string one of the other guys played the drums on his lap.
Just as I was starting to loosen up I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up from my chair and saw Ojiisan standing behind me. All the sounds in the room began to fade away as he stood there looking me dead in the eye, with that same face void of emotion.