Last summer, while traveling with my wife through the Canadian Rockies, I sang for my pizza at Gus’ Pizza in Hinton, Alberta.
This is how it happened.
Looking for dinner on our last night in Hinton, a tourist town servicing Jasper National Park, we settled on pizza at Gus’ Pizza, a local Greek restaurant. Hungry, we were glad it was open. And since this was late June, the restaurant curtains were drawn closed, due to the blazing sunshine outside so It seemed dark inside as we entered.
As my wife, Lynn, and I were finishing our pizza, the clock was inching towards 9 pm.. Grabbing my sunglasses and while getting ready to pay the bill and leave, I saw a large group of people, maybe 25 or so, come in and sit down at the open tables around us.
Lynn, who spent her career in high tech, turned around and asked a person seated at the next table where they were from. New Jersey was the answer, but they were from India originally. Where in India, she asked? From different parts of India – was the response. The places included Orissa, Mumbai and many other cities across the rest of the sub-continent. They belonged to one family and were visiting Canada together. In the past, Lynn and I have traveled to India twice. Lynn then mentioned casually that I am a “Carnatic singer,” and that I’ve taken some lessons.
“Wow! Really? Can he sing something?” came the immediate response.
“Uh, OK,. But I don’t feel ready. Vacationing. I haven’t sung in over a week or so and don’t have the words for any of the songs with me.” I was having an internal conversation as I scrambled to come up with something, fast.
Quelling this, I decided to open up and sing – on a full stomach, standing right there at the table with my backpack in hand I sang the pallavi lines of Thyagaraja’s Yochana in Darbar ragam. I had sung the same song at the most recent Thyagaraja Day and it was the first song that occurred to me. I turned on the shruthi on my iPhone for accompaniment and just sang.
I actually got through the pallavi, and thought to myself, “I hope they like this.”
The place erupted with applause. They wanted more and commented about how good I was.
“Really?” I was flattered.
I then started the pallavi of Sriman Narayana, one of my favorite songs, in Bowli ragam. I had one of the party look up the “rain ragam” for me (I had a senior moment and forgot the name) as I wanted to sing that krithi in this arid place in the high Albertan plains. Finding the ragam to be Amrutha Varshini, I then sang the pallavi of Anandamrutha Varshini. Studying Maharajapuram Santhanam’s version of this song seemed to pay off at that very moment; I was able to recall it in my mind as I went along. Thanks to my guru Kalpagam for pointing out that version to me!
More applause accompanied me to the cashier as I finished my mini-concert.
The owner, Gus, was waiting for me. He shook my hand saying, “Thank You” and said that he wanted to pay for my dinner! The offer felt “weird” to me; I offered to pay half of the bill amount and leave a tip instead.
“Yes, that’s fine” he said, saying that he just “loved singing in his restaurant.”
Lynn paid and left a tip, while Gus handed me a small bag of Ouzo candies. For a moment, I felt like I was in a Hindu temple receiving prasadam after a festival performance.
Stepping outside, I put on my sunglasses to meet the blinding setting sun, and we drove back to the hotel.
Goes to show, sometimes you just never know what will happen.
When he’s not traveling, Burton Winn enjoys life in San Anselmo, California with his wife, Lynn Poirier.
A semi-retired pop and blues musician, he continues his studies in Carnatic music with guru Kalpagam KowsiK and believes that music is a universal language, bridging both time and cultural barriers.
He has previously been published in India Currents.
The Ouzo Candies. (Photo in natural light)