Band on the Run: Re-United with Lost Guitars (The Precipice of Air Travel)

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life. Enjoy!

So I got on a flight out of Maui, Hawaii at 9:30pm island time on Friday and arrived in San Francisco at 5:30am PST. A quick transfer to my (already being held) Vancouver flight and I was back in the air and heading towards my band and the next gig…

without my guitars.

What is it with United? I have had more mishaps (re: lost baggage or stolen luggage) with this airline than any other.

[I guess in this case the transfer time was too tight because no one from that Maui flight who arrived in Vancouver got their luggage. But still, the stats are stacked against United and me. Am I alone here?]

What’s worse is that the call center is in India. The attendants speak English and are very polite, but they’re in India! While trying to track y guitars, I needed to give a geography lesson on Canada while giving my delivery address:

“No, it’s a province. Canada doesn’t have states. It’s the province of British Columbia. <pause> No, there’s no zip code. The equivalent is a postal code. <pause> Yes, postal code. There are letters and numbers. It’s…”

And still, they couldn’t locate them. They told me to call back in a few hours and hopefully their computers will have been updated.

I was reunited with my band without my guitars and there was no time to wait for them to (possibly) arrive on the next flight from San Francisco. The gig that night was in Grand Forks, BC, in the interior of the province about six hours east of Vancouver, and so we had to hop in a vehicle and drive on in order to make it there in time for sound check.

This part of British Columbia is truly stunning. It’s hard to stay grumpy in the presence of such majestic beauty. By the time we got to Grand Forks, I was long recovered from my sleepless night of air travel and the anxiety of lost instruments.

Mountains heal.

We were kindly loaned a guitar that worked out perfectly (a hollow body electric the same shape and similar weight to my Gretsch) and I just geared the whole set to suit an electric guitar sound as opposed to an acoustic. We had a great time on stage and were well received by the modest but appreciative audience at The Festival at the Forks.

They put us up that night at a hilltop spa called Ponderosa Pines. Three kilometres up a rocky dirt road and it felt like we were driving into the clouds. There was nothing around except the view and a steep decline. This single lane path (or was it a long driveway?) seemed to be etched into the side of the mountain itself.

Adam, our drummer, said “These are the times people accuse you of exaggerating when you re-tell the story. You just keep saying ‘no, it really was like that’ and no one believes you.” And he’s right. Maybe these pictures I snapped the next morning will give it some credibility.

Back in the car again pointing west again towards Vancouver and we were following a Budget cube van. When it’s brakes came on suddenly ahead and it swerved right, we slowed too, just in time for us both to miss the young black bear that had leapt out of the bushes and struck out across the highway.

Just the night before, while sitting beside a British guy returning from Maui to the U.S. with his family mid-vacation, we spoke about Canada and all the cultural stereotypes of our country. He jokingly said, “Yeah, Canada, aren’t you shaking the black bears off your legs up there?” I laughed and told him that our legs have no room for black bears for all the beavers trying to take us out at the ankles. We both laughed then and I added the truthful statement that it had actually been ages since I’d even seen a black bear.

Not so now.

And I’m happy to report that the little black bear survived the highway.

When we got back to Vancouver, the guitars still had not arrived at the address we’d given. Another call to India and I found out that one guitar was still in San Francisco and the other was in Vancouver and was supposed to have already been delivered.

Now the reports were starting to conflict and I had memories of last year’s “missing” (read: stolen) pedal board that resulted in a $2,000 insurance claimed and a long fight with the airline. Also, this summer Adam’s custom snare drum (also on United Airlines) took two weeks to be returned to him. When my anxiety level started to spiral upwards, I knew it was time to run.

Running is my release of choice.

Forty minutes later, all stress having sweated out my body, I arrived back to where I was staying to a message telling me that both “red bags” (my cases are red, but the attendants rarely referred to them as guitars, much to my concern!) would be delivered that evening between 9 and 12 at night.

Nothing to do but wait. My flight back to Ontario wasn’t until today anyway.

11:48 on the hall clock and I got a call saying that they were just a few minutes away. To my relief, at 11:56 I was greeting the delivery man and my guitars at the doorway of the house we were staying in. Now earlier today, I flew back to Ontario with my (hopefully not-to-traumatized) guitars who haven’t made it out of their cases since Hawaii. I was so hesitant to let them disappear down the conveyor belt yet again!

But I’m here to report a great big sigh of relief.

When I picked them up in Ottawa, I loudly and gregariously thanked the special handling baggage personnel for not losing them. They laughed and responded with a hearty “You’re welcome!” while I was letting out my held breath.

And now I’m home. On the ground. Guitars in hand.

All’s well.


Band on the Run: Surfing & The Superferry in Maui, Hawaii

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life. Enjoy!

My five days (four nights) in Maui went by too quickly. I filled them up with as much as I could, and even then the time seemed to slip between my fingers like sand.

On Thursday evening after the last family event that followed the wedding from the previous day, my roommate Elaine and I decided to skip out early and head to Kihei, a surfing town farther south by about an hour where she had spent a few days on her own before joining the wedding party earlier in the week.

My motivation for leaving (besides seeing another place other than “resort row”) was to connect with an old friend and fellow musician: Erin Smith. She and her husband moved out to these parts about three years ago and she is now making her living as a musician in Maui, playing almost every night and “touring without touring.” Basically, that means that she plays to new faces and new nationalities every night because Hawaii is such a tourist center, but she never needs to leave her home and pile into a van or a plane to do it.

Now there’s some foresight.

Before heading to Kihei, we stopped into the town of Lahaina where Erin was playing that night and headed to the venue called “The Cool Cat Café.” She was playing her acoustic and singing – no band – but had a two hour contract with the restaurant which included both original music and covers. The place was open air, as are most venues in Hawaii, and so the sound of her voice caught my ears as we were parking the car and I followed her voice music right up the stairs and into the café, as I’m sure other patrons do when they hear her soulful singing.

Brilliant. That’s marketing at its finest.

Erin noticed me as I walked in and flashed me a big grin while she was playing. Elaine and I sat down to some local beer and watched the last few songs before Erin was on break. At that point, she came over to our table and we chatted for about twenty minutes before she had to get back on stage.

Life on the island of Maui seems to have done Erin quite a bit of good. She is freckled and smiley and has taken up surfing. Seems funny to imagine a Canadian (non-coastal) girl on a surfboard, but I celebrate it for her. She talked about the surfing movement in Hawaii and how much of a state pastime it is. She even referred to the energetic wave (pun intended) that takes over the community when the swells are high. To me, the funniest thing she told me was that it’s not uncommon for people to “call in surf” (rather than sick) when there’s good waves to be catching. Employers generally accept it there! It’s to be expected after all.

Elaine and I slipped out of the café during her second set in order to get on the road for Kihei and to check into our accommodations that evening. We were staying in the same cottages that Elaine had rented before the wedding (Lihi Kai Cottages) and hers came with a cot for me since it was only the one night that I would be staying.

These cottages also came with full kitchens, full baths and a huge main room. Easily double the size of the resort rooms and half the price. Not to mention the fact that the kitchen came stocked with real cutlery! I had to laugh when I noticed this (and take a picture, of course!)

The next day, I had a lovely brunch with Erin and her husband Ross and then spent most of the day watching the surfers before having to catch my plane for San Francisco that evening. It’s not hard to get lost in the sea air, the rhythmic roar of the waves, the transit of the sun across the sky. I took it all in with every pore that day, eager to keep some of that ocean air in my system for as long as possible.

Just before packing up and heading for the airport, I caught a report on the news about the new “Superferry” in Hawaii and how environmentalists are trying to stop it from launching. They said that inadequate environmental assessments had been carried out and that whale calving grounds were in jeopardy. I looked up more information on the internet and found these interesting sites and articles, but had to leave before I could ask anyone who lives there anything else about it.

I did feel happy to hear that the environmental activists were at least being taken seriously enough to have the courts involved. I’ll be trying to keep up with it from here.

I waved goodbye to Hawaii from the departures lounge, a floor of the airport that has no walls. It is open air just like the cafes. You arrive on the sidewalk and you have no need to walk through any doors because there simply aren’t any. You just walk towards the desk of your airline.

I laughed out loud when I noticed that and one of the porters looked at me strangely. I just smiled back at him and checked into my flight at the very last possible moment.

There was still sand under my nails.

I’m taking some of Hawaii home with me, in more ways than one!

Band on the Run: Best Banyan Companion

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life. Enjoy!

In this case, is time.

The largest banyan tree I’ve ever seen is in Lahaina, Maui. It is remarkable. It is actually quite breathtaking with its octopus-like branches reaching in every direction and beckoning people to come into its embrace.

I suppose, you could also look at it and imagine it as a giant sea monster with its tentacles reaching in every direction to pull you into its grip.

But, either way, taking the time to take it in is essential. I imagine that’s why there are so many benches placed around its giant base and many offshoot trunks. This is the kind of tree it could take a lifetime to get to know.

And time has been its most interesting companion.

This historic banyan tree is located in the central square on Front Street in Lahaina, Maui in what is known as Banyan Tree Park. It was planted in front of the Old Lahaina Courthouse by William Owen Smith in 1873 and has since sprouted more than a dozen other trees from its offshoots.

I had no idea that banyan trees could do this. They seem to jut out branches horizontally and then drop branches directly vertically like perpendicular afterthoughts. As though the tree realized mid-growth that it would need to support its weighty extensions and so grew downwards like canes for the long arms to rest on.

I couldn’t possibly get this whole tree into my camera lens. I could have sat under a different section of the tree (and it’s all one tree despite looking like several at once!) for an hour or more, seeing different forms and shapes in the branches before moving to a new bench and experiencing new stories and images there.

I did sit for awhile in one section while a family hung out on the other side of a wide branch. The children were bright blonde-headed kids with cute squeaky voices. They were running up and down a lower branch and clearly finding their imaginations sparked by the shapes of these giant wooden arms all around them.

Then, one of the kids noticed all the carvings in a section of the banyan exposed vertical roots. Many people over the years have signed their names in the tree with pocket knives. In my opinion, this is the equivalent to taking a pocket knife to a perfect stranger’s arm and carving your initials in their bicep, so when I see this on trees it just makes me wince. I do believe that trees feel it and that this kind of abuse is intolerable.

One of the kids said, “Daddy, can we sign our names too?” The father didn’t quite know what the kid was referring to until she asked again and then grabbed him by the hand and showed him what she was talking about. He said, “No, honey, we don’t have a knife.” He then turned to his partner and continued talking with her while the kids went back to playing.

My heart sank. I just wanted to hear him say something like “No honey, that’s not kind to the tree. You don’t need to hurt the tree to know that you’ve been here and seen it. Let’s take a picture instead!”

I got up about five minutes later and went over to the same carved section and took a picture. The little girl watched me and I smiled at her. She came closer to see what I was looking at and I said to her and to the tree, “I’m going to photograph this tree and remember it without having to hurt it with a knife. I’m sad that these people scarred the tree with their names. I’ll bet the tree is sad too. I’m glad it didn’t kill it!” Her family was out of ear shot and she was just close enough to me that she heard me but didn’t appear to be talking to a stranger. The perfect distance and the perfect proximity.

I smiled at her again and she looked at me with eyes that had clearly understood what I meant but I didn’t dwell there, on the conversation or in the location. I just touched the tree with my hand and thanked it for surviving and turned and walked away.

I don’t have kids of my own, but I do enjoy those moments when other people’s kids open their ears to other people’s ideas. May a fine balance of all kinds of perspectives work their way into their future, unique philosophies. (Of course, the parents reading this probably don’t enjoy these moments. I guess it’s all about the location from which we see things!)

I spent a good part of my day with that tree. I took the time to be close because I know that I’ll soon be far. It was inspiring to see its growth – so many directions and yet never too far from the core, the heart, the source.

Life is life that, I think. We can be safe without being shut in and stifled.

We can be multi-faceted without collapse and over-extension.

We can always learn new ways to survive.


(Even scarred.)

* Check out this link for some interesting tidbits regarding how they got it to grow this way.

Band on the Run: My First and Last Gig as a Hawaiian Wedding Singer

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life. Enjoy!

The wedding was beautiful. I sang my songs. There were two white doves that expertly landed right behind the bride and groom during the ceremony. People cried. Then, they were married. My sister is now a wife and I got a brother-in-law in the deal. I’d say I fared fairly well, if you ask me.

People came up to me afterwards and asked if I would be singing at the reception. I said “No, I’m done” and then smiled happily and they looked at me sadly. Relief must have flowed out from the shape of my lips in that particular smile and I mistakenly conveyed to a number of people a series of possible misunderstandings: either I was glad it was all over because I didn’t enjoy it, or was nervous and was relieved to be over the nerves, or was unhappy with my performance or was simply bitter at having had to sing at my sister’s wedding — none of which were true!

“You have such a beautiful voice, dear, we’d love to hear you sing some more.” This was always delivered encouragingly and as though I ought not to deprive everyone of my voice and music for the rest of the day. I realized that I couldn’t possibly explain to anyone here that gigging at a family wedding was the last thing I wanted to do more of. It’s just not my thing. It’s a one-time experience and I am glad it’s done. I was happy to have made my sister happy with the gift of song, but was equally happy that the gift had been delivered.

I thanked them for their kindness but explained that there was already entertainment planned at the reception.

I also silently thanked the universe for not having pre-decided that I’d be it.

The reception was held on a boat. It was a dinner boat cruise called “The Maui Princess” and there were about one hundred and twenty diners, only forty of whom were part of the wedding party.

There, on the main deck, was a woman and a guitar and a device that played the backing tracks for dozens of famous songs. She was installed behind two metal railings and the sound system piped through both the main deck and up to the upper deck where the dinners were served. Her spot was right in front of the restrooms. She played for three hours and I felt increasing sympathy the longer her gig stretched.

And increasing gratitude that it was her and not me who was employed in this capacity.

She played a series of famous songs and chose fairly well. She had to do certain songs like the Hawaiian Love Song (ever heard of it? Me neither, until now) but generally she chose some good songs by Sting, Peter Gabriel, Stevie Nicks, even Bonnie Tyler (and you know the one!) And her guitar chops were pretty good.

Still, I felt for her. In between songs, she was obligated to make announcements about the ship’s progress, to tell people not to bang on the railings, to let people know about the “safety features on the vessel.” For me, this would be the closest thing to truly being a “flight attendant” (which I sing about in my song “Ten Pin” as a metaphor for performing a gig where no one is paying attention to you) although I guess in this case you’d have to call it “doubling as a ‘float’ attendant” (har har) because her job was so multi-faceted.

The cruise was brief but enjoyable. About two hours of beautiful scenery and free alcohol. Well, three per person but there was hardly any moving to get more at the bar as the chairs were bolted to the deck and everyone had a hard time getting around.

I brought my own food (no vegan fare was possible in the set menus) and I ate leftover veggie sushi to my table partners’ envy. Their meals were good too, they said, but mine looked especially appetizing and fresh. I wondered if that was the moment where I should have shared, but I just smiled and said “oh, how rare it is that my fellow diners are jealous of my food! Eat your heart out!” and took a big mouthful. They laughed.

(Once in awhile, it’s nice to have the upper hand when meat eaters so often drill me about how I could possibly have enough energy to survive eating as I do. My answer is generally that I haven’t eaten meat or fish for seventeen and a half years, so I guess I’m surviving. Thriving even! That usually shuts people up unless they are particularly obnoxious…)

Just before we docked, the crew started to dump the unconsumed Mai Tai (mixed Hawaiin drinks) into the ocean. I hated to see this. I mean, sure it’s not toxic waste, but does the ocean really need alcohol and corn syrup and food colouring? I don’t think so. On second thought, do we?

The whole wedding party then headed for drinks at another location where my sister wanted to have the traditional “first dance” with her new husband and then “the second dance” with our father. The restaurant manager heard her say this and was very clear that it simply wasn’t possible. Apparently, if there’s dancing on the premises, it reclassifies the venue as a bar and then changes the nature of their liquor license.

My sister looked crestfallen when she got this news and while the manager was still standing there, I piped in “Well, what if we dance on the sidewalk?” There was a pause and then the manager looked at me thoughtfully and she said, “Uh, you could do that. We don’t own the sidewalk! That’d be fine.” She smiled wistfully at the idea, I thought, and headed back behind the bar.

And so that’s what they did.

A portable music player was brought out and the gathering of wedding goers took to the sidewalk and we all watched my sister and her new husband dance (to “Amazed“) and then my sister and father dance (and simultaneously cry on each other’s shoulders to “I Loved Her First“) and then the night came to a close.

I had made it through a whole day in heels.

And my Hawaiian wedding singing days are over.


(which simultaneously means “hello,” “good-bye” and “love” as well as “mercy,” “compassion” and “peace.”)

Band on the Run: Chinese History in Lahaina, Maui

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life. Enjoy!

I had to get away from resort land today. I packed my shoulder bag and computer, sunscreen, a camera, a hat and a book to read and slung it over my shoulder before I hopped down the stairwell to the lobby of the hotel (the elevators take too long.)

No one was around from the wedding party and I hung around the front entrance for about fifteen minutes before I decided to just walk. I had no idea how far it is to Lahaina by foot, but I was willing to do the trek. Anything to find some history and culture and conversation with locals.

Twenty minutes into my walk, I could tell it was going to be about an hour’s walk before I’d hit the town. I was still walking by the grounds of other resorts and other golf courses, so I hadn’t even made it from the overall resort-world “campus” yet.

I saw a bakery truck pulling out of one of the resort driveways and I flagged him down. Turns out the driver, “Jules,” a native Hawaiian guy, is an ex-musician and visual artist who still plays guitar for himself when he’s got down time. We had a great chat as he drove me into town. The whole drive took another fifteen minutes, nearly, and so it was great to meet an interesting (and generous) person and even nicer to not have to walk.

He dropped me off on “Front Street” with a smile and wished me well. I was then in Lahaina where tourist shops are bursting from every opening, t-shirts and bathing suits and postcard racks extending their advertising onto the sidewalk like tree roots on a wooded path to trip you into the shops.

Shopping is the last thing I’m here to do so when I saw the Chinese historical museum I turned in without a second thought.

Sitting behind a desk and looking gentle and open was an amazing woman with silver hair and a brilliant smile named Busaba Partacharya (in Thai — Thailand being her native country — or Yip Gwai Gee, in Catonese). She has been in Hawaii for fourteen years researching “the ancestors here,” as she put it – or, the history of Chinese settlement in Hawaii. She’s just volunteering but has put together several documents and traced several family clans to Maui over the years.

She and I spoke some Mandarin together and she asked me all about my trip to China. We bonded over research topics and our love for China and the notion of ancestry. I stood there at the front entrance for about fifteen minutes before she invited me to look around the museum and I remembered where I was. She gestured widely with her arm in a slow and graceful sweep outward as though she were sitting in a perpetual state of tai chi calm.

I had been so taken by her that I hadn’t even looked around me until then. I put down my shoulder bag by her desk and wandered in. I already felt at home.

The museum is a large wooden house-like structure that used to the clubhouse for the early Chinese settlers. Originally, many Chinese came to Maui (and the other Hawaiian islands) to work on things like the railroad, the sugarcane plantations and irrigation drilling into the mountainside. Many Chinese returned back to China but several stayed. This clubhouse was built in 1912 by the fraternal Wo Hing Society, a chapter of the Chee Kung Tong society that has roots in 17th century China. This society formed a social gathering place and also helped the Chinese in Lahaina maintain social and political ties with China.

Around the 1940s, most of the Society members had moved away to greater opportunities and not many Chinese people chose to remain in Lahaina. This building fell pretty to termites and rot until 1983 when the Lahaina Restoration Foundation entered into a long-term agreement with the Wo Hing Society to restore the building and open it to the public.

The first floor is a collection of Chinese artifacts gathered in Lahaina, as well as old photos from the Society, and the second floor displays the old cook stove and cooking utensils from when the cookhouse was located there. There is also a temple upstairs that offers incense to various Buddha or Bodhisattva shrines around the room.

When I came back down, Busaba motioned me over to her desk again and began to talk to me in greater detail about her work. She is in the midst of a long-term translation project for documents that were printed by the Wo Hing Society that were discovered in 1999. Some date back as far as 1906 and chronicle the activities and stories of the Chinese society in Lahaina at that time and until it largely dispersed.

She is currently the only one working on the project and she is looking for help. She’s volunteering and looking for people to help her with the work. She gave me several fliers to put around Toronto when I got back there (or any place I thought it would find others, she said) to hopefully connect with the diasporas of Chinese people around the world. There’s no money in it, she said, but the translation is slow and needs other minds and energy. The stack of papers on her desk were testimony to this truth. Too much for one person, for sure.

I said I would offer what I could and she said, “The ancestors always bring the answers. Maybe you’re one of them.” And then she winked at me and wished me well. I wished her well too and told her I’d try my best.

And I will.

I felt thoughtful as I continued into Lahaina to check out the rest of the town. Thoughtful and peaceful. “Wo Hing” means harmony and prosperity (in Cantonese) and I think some of that hopefulness had come up through those museum floorboards and found its way into the breathing of this visitor.