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Key West Via Marimba: Composer Reflects On Residency In Music

Nancy Klingener
Composer and percussionist Ben Wahlund has spent a residency in Key West composing music about the island.

For the last several weeks, Chicago-based composer and percussionist Ben Wahlund has been a resident artist at The Studios of Key West, absorbing the island and its people, both the tourists and the service workers who provide the only-in-Key West experiences for them.

Wahlund's observations and encounters have been transformed into a dozen musical compositions that he's calling "Mile Marker Zero."

WLRN's Nancy Klingener talked to Wahlund about his work and got a preview of some of the pieces he'll be performing on Saturday, July 13, at The Studios of Key West.

WAHLUND: I'm a music teacher from Chicago and I play percussion. Specifically the instrument that I'll be playing down here in Key West is the marimba. It's like a xylophone, just a little bigger and it sounds a little more warm and cozy. It's set up with a number of rosewood bars that look in a configuration not much unlike a piano. We have the white keys that we call the naturals and the black keys that we call the accidentals. But on a marimba, they're just all a beautiful rosewood color because of course these bars are made of Honduran rosewood.

I was practicing a piece when you came in called "Salty Women." And that's based [about] two women I met who are park rangers who are just delightful characters. And just that personality and that sense of who they were [was] compelling enough for me to want to write a piece about them.

And one of them, she is of Cuban heritage, she had this terrific story about her family coming from Cuba, literally coming in on driftwood, things like that, and both of these women, I wouldn't want to meet them in a dark alley, they're great, I love them. And the best word I had for them was salty.

I've been enjoying watching people hosting tourists. And I just see people who are working so hard to help other people get this little modicum of happiness for a couple of days. And for everyone in the group it's a one-off but for this person it might be the 400th time they've done it. Something about that felt kind of delightful, just to watch and take in. For every person's experience here as a tourist it might be their only time experiencing any number of these lovely highlights that an island has but for a person that's waking up and doing this seven, eight hours a day, they're not selling things, they're selling an experience. That's a powerful place to be. And I think it's pretty easy to miss that.

WLRN: Obviously Key West's reputation, musically - Jimmy Buffett looms large - did you think of island music, trop rock, steel drum - was that in your head approaching this project?

It's part of our language. As a percussionist it's my job to study all sorts of music disciplines, different styles. And a couple pieces are kind of paying homage to that. 

I gave it the name Electric Cars and Tiki Bars basically as a spacefiller but I can't shake it.

But there are guys on the street that are just slaying it, that are doing a really good job at that music that most people think is quite easy. When in fact it's quite hard. It takes a lot to be able to own a club for three or four hours when it's just you and a guitar. And I'm kind of in awe of a lot of these musicians, even though I think a lot of people take them for granted.

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.