11 February 2016

Post 386: ROBIN RAPUZZI

During my April 2016 visit to New Orleans, I had the great pleasure of meeting Robin Rapuzzi again. Robin is best known as the washboard player of Tuba Skinny. I had met him for the first time during the French Quarter Festival of 2015, when we had some conversations that I enjoyed and from which I learned a lot.

Before he became a celebrated washboard player, Robin was a full-kit percussionist. He played the drum set at a young age and this led to participating in punk rock bands at high school. At that time, he also learned the guitar and harmonica. He enjoyed playing sea shanties, Woodie Guthrie tunes, and compositions of his own. He considered himself a 'folk musician' up to the time when he moved to New Orleans, where he took up the washboard specialism, joined Tuba Skinny and  ...... the rest is history.

On some occasions, he told me, he has felt a bit limited in using the washboard only. For example, for such a tune as New Orleans Bump, he said that with the snare and Chinese tom-drum and china-crash cymbal he could access the depth and true texture that such a 'stompy' number deserved.

Since early 2015, he has returned to playing a full percussion set even in the streets. How has he managed to transport so much kit? The answer is that he hauls it around in a trailer attached to his bicycle. (He calls pedalling this load into the French Quarter his 'daily work-out'!)

Most of the New Orleans musicians use bicycles: it's almost impossible to park a car in the French Quarter.

Here then is Robin's transport. He kindly allowed me to photograph him and the kit when he arrived to set up in Royal Street. Neat, isn't it?


I also had the very great pleasure this year of meeting Robin's lovely wife, Magda. She is Polish and is a highly-talented artist: she has produced some amazing work, often of dwellings in New Orleans but also sometimes combining mythical animal and human images with tremendous attention to detail. Her silk-screen prints are sold at The Foundation Gallery in Royal Street and the Hall-Barnett Gallery on Chartres, as well as in other galleries.

I realised a few days after meeting her that I had long admired Magda's work (through the internet) before discovering that she was married to Robin.



And here is the amazingly intricate and creative piece of art-work that Magda produced for the cover of the first CD by The Wit's End Brass Band in which Robin plays:
Although most fans think of Robin as a member of Tuba Skinny, he actually performs in several bands. He clearly enjoys the variety of work and is proud of them all. I think he was particularly pleased that I turned up to hear him with The Rhythm Wizards; and I made a video of them playing Ice Cream, in which you can see Robin at work in close-up. View it by clicking on here. I also filmed them playing Cotton-Picker's Drag. You can watch that performance by clicking here. I'm afraid the sound isn't exactly perfect (my fault for walking round while they were playing) but I hope this video gives a genuine feel for what it is like to be a member of a street band in New Orleans.

On another day, I found Robin playing with The Hokum High Rollers. I made a video of them playing Michigander Blues. You may see that by clicking on here.

There are hundreds of videos on YouTube of Robin playing with Tuba Skinny. But if you would like to watch one I made of them playing Hilarity Rag during this April 2016 visit, click on here. This is of historic interest because Robin told me it was a tune the Band had only just learned and this was its first public performance.

Robin was in England during June 2016. (His mother is English.) He teamed up with his friend Ewan Bleach - the great English reed player (not to mention pianist and singer) who worked in New Orleans with Tuba Skinny for several months.

One of the interesting things Robin also told me is that it's not just the fans who enjoy the YouTube videos. He said many musicians - including himself - use them as learning tools. They analyse their own performances and consider what improvements could be made. He found it particularly interesting to spot how his own backing of, say, trombone solo choruses varied according to which trombonist he was playing with.

I think there's a message for us all: we should not just enjoy videos but also use them as tools for analysing and improving playing.