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A READER'S JOURNAL
The Memoir of Norbert Slama
How A French Sparrow Conquered the World and Won the Girls with his Accordion
ARJ2 Chapter: Reading for Enjoyment
Published by 48 Hour Books/US in 2014
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2014
The Memoir of Norbert Slama
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Never had I heard of Norbert Slama until one night at a Twilight Concert in City Park in New Orleans when I saw John Rankin help this blind accordion player into a chair at the front of the stage. Flowing out of his accordion came amazing mellifluous tunes, French waltzes and exotic melodies, that I had never heard before. He soloed and played along with John on his guitar, accompanied by Don Vappie on the bass fiddle, Paul Soniat on the piano, and a virtuoso washboard player named Chaz.
Rankin announced Slama as having played for Josephine Baker, Edith Piaf, Eva Gabor, Elizabeth Taylor and many other femme fatales. Interested in his background, I bought this newly published memoir during the break. I was walking towards him for an autograph of my copy when I suddenly realized, "He's blind! How could he sign it?" Hmmm, I wondered, would he be upset if I asked him to sign it. So I made it as easy as possible, pulling out my own pen as I approached. I explained what I wanted and placed the book in his hand and the pen in the other hand, and he scribbled his autograph as best he could, mumbling something like, "I'll do my best." (See his autograph over the title at right.) Having years ago met a lady who claimed she was a "pied noir" or "blackfoot", as the French called the natives of Algieria where Norbert was from, I asked Norbert if he might be a "pied noir" and he smiled and said, "Yes."
[page 1] I was born July 7, 1926, the son of Solomon and Jeanne Slama, who owned a jewelry store and sold gold and diamonds in the Arab quarter of Algiers, Algeria, in North Africa.
When he began taking music, he discovered that he didn't like reading written music, preferring to use his ears to hear music and learn it that way. For someone who was to lose his eyesight in his 40's due to progressive retinitis pigmentosa, this amounts to a time wave from the future for Norbert, the "boring feeling" he got from reading music leading him to learn an essential later life skill, "playing music by ear". While his inability to read music occasionally caused him to lose a job which required sight-reading of music, he moved easily to new gigs where the music he already knew was highly prized.
His meeting with Josephine Baker came at an early age in a small village in the desert on the road to Casablanca, Morocco.
[page 2] We saw there, parked in the dusty street, a red sports car with its hood open and its chauffeur looking at the engine. To our surprise, next to the car, and sitting on the sidewalk, was Josephine Baker — the American-born French dancer, singer, and actress — playing with some Arab children. Since the tiny village had no automobile service station, she rode on the bus with us to the next big town where she hoped to find someone to fix her car.
Well, Norbert and Josephine became friends: she did a show with them and then followed them on tour for a few more shows.
He discovered that the Americans had landed in North Africa because the radio kept repeating "Lincoln arrived" over and over one morning. He helped the US Army find the Gestapo Headquarters and, on the list of Jews to be executed, he found his name and his father's name.
In one place where Slama's band played, there was a Hindu hypnotist who did a stage show. He was apparently good at creating positive hallucinations on the spot, and had fun with a lottery salesman who passed their table in a café one day.
[page 17] The Hindu man purchased 10 tickets. As the seller handed him the tickets, our Hindu friend handed him the money, which we saw were French bills. The man turned away to continue on, but then he quickly turned back around and shouted angrily, "Hey! This is just blank paper!" The Hindu man looked at him and told him he was mistaken. Just as the ticket seller looked down at his hand again, the bills reappeared. This same thing continued for many minutes, the seller unable to leave because his money kept appearing as plain sheets of paper. We were laughing but the seller became angrier. Finally the Hindu man let him have his money, and he went on his way.
During a break at a 1981 week-long hypnosis seminar, some participants and I were having drinks at a hotel bar and talking about creating a positive hallucination. One guy said, "Watch this." He turned to his neighbor at the bar and pointed down to a cat on the floor. The guy looked down and saw the cat, but it was not there, only a positive hallucination. I learned that if you make a statement which presupposes some object which is otherwise not visible and you say it as if you believed it were true, people around you will see the object. This strong belief is also the secret to magic tricks involving sleight-of-hand; rightly understood, it is sleight-of-mind. There is, as in Slama's story, no trance induction required, if you know the technique.
In 1946 Slama was drafted into the army, but in his first few months, he spent more time in the brig than in the barracks, often for punching out someone who called him a derogatory name, like 'you dirty Jew' or whatever. He recalled his diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa at age 14 and went to the army hospital complaining of his eyesight. The doctor confirmed the eye disease and tested his eyes with a chart. He said no, he couldn't see the letters, and this led to his getting out of the brig and the army for good. Norbert, even at a young age, never took "no" for an answer and was able to wheedle concessions from even the most recalcitrant bureaucrats later in life.
At one point, he went into the clothing business with another Norbert making shirts and pajamas for sale. He soon found this boring and went back to making music for a living. He briefly tried smuggling jewelry and gold into and out of Switzerland with various degrees of success.
During his lifetime, Norbert saved the lives of at least two people. The first one was Maria, the wife of Tyrone Power. She sang with Norbert and one day he went to get her in her room and she was so drunk, she had passed out and stopped breathing. Norbert removed her top, did mouth-to-mouth breathing and chest compressions until Maria started breathing again.
For a while he teamed up with an incredible violin player, and, as they became friends, Norbert found out that George was the president of the biggest cigar company in Switzerland, but loved to play the violin, even playing first violin for the Opera of Rome. Norbert was amazed that George left the orchestra in Rome, and asked him, "Why did you leave?" It turns out that George always moved his bow in the opposite direction of the other players, and that drove conductors mad! Playing alone with other instruments, no one ever noticed.
His good friend, Wilson, played music with Norbert, but he was always depressed, likely suicidal. After taking Wilson to extensive treatments by other therapists, Norbert finally found a Dr. Levy, a Jewish psychologist, who worked with Wilson and cured his depression in a couple of sessions. We can add Wilson as another life saved by Norbert.
One of his schemes succeeded at first. Getting a job selling wine with Wilson, he bought a beautiful set of women's slippers and told the customers if they ordered wine from him, a pair of these slippers would arrive with their wine. He sold a lot of wine and had to quit the business when the wine arrived sans slippers.
When he was 22 years old, he met Suzanne and during a visit to her parents in Algiers. Norbert saved the life of a few-weeks-old baby during that visit in 1948.
[page 37] I don't know what had happened, but the baby was turning purple and seemed not to be breathing. The father began screaming; everybody was screaming. The father took the baby from his wife and said it was dead. The Spanish ladies made the sign of the cross. I thought, "God, tell me what to do." I took the baby, went to the kitchen, turned on the cold-water faucet, and put the baby under it. The baby coughed and spit and came back to life crying. They all thanked me so much for what I did.
Norbert was particularly sensitive to abusive statements about his religion, often punching out the person who said them, as happened this time in an open-air market near the Kasbah, where the vendors were Arab.
[page 40] At one stall, I was looking at the cherries and could not find the price. When I asked the merchant what it was, he replied, "Get out of here, you f**king Jew." That made me so angry I punched him in the face, smashing his head into the wall. I then head-butted him and he fell to the ground Suddenly, several Arabs appeared and one of them struck me with a heavy can across my shin, breaking my right leg. I fell to the grund and looked around for Lucien, but I could not see him. The Arabs kicked and stepped on me, breaking my teeth, and both of my legs.
Sometime later, in Paris, another series of insults ended with Slama slamming an Arab to the floor with a punch. This time the Arab pulled a knife and started a melee from which Norbert and Meyer escaped by throwing a chair Western-style through the bar's window and jumping into the street, accordion in Norbert's hand, to escape.
In 1950 he went back to Paris and ended up working in Pigalle, the red light district, where he got to meet a lot of the girls working in the Place Pigalle on Rue Frochot.
[page 43] They had many clients, tourists, and such. They would laugh at the Americans, calling them stupid and "American Express" because sex with them took such a short time.
Being a traveling musician working out of Paris in the early 50s, Norbert discovered that driving a big American car meant instant celebrity.
[page 56] When we'd go out of town, we would all pile into a big American car and go to the small villages. When we arrived in the villages all the people would come out and stare at us. Because we were in big American cars, they thought we were big shots, but we were just musicians trying to make a living. Impressed with our arrival, the mayors of the villages would often take us out to big dinners with cognac and wine and everything.
Slama got a gig on a large yacht which sailed in to Cairo and back along the coast of the Levant. He wanted to visit Israel for the first time, but the yacht was only dropping off royalty in Haifa and then leaving immediately. Two men in yellow shirts entered the ship in Haifa and saw that a fellow Jew was troubled. When Slama explained he wanted to see Israel at least once, they intervened, and delayed the yacht for two days. The Captain was livid!
[page 58] When I knocked on the captain's door, I heard him say to come in. When I entered, the captain threw the musicians' passports in my face. "Good job!" he said angrily. "Those two men were the port commissioners and they said we must stay because you are Jewish. Because of you we are stuck here for 48 hours." So it turned out I could visit at least a part of Israel. It was beautiful.
This was one of several events he relates where being Jewish was to his benefit, for example, he got his Citroen repaired on his desert journey to Paris by a Jew who helped him. Plus, so far as I know, he never punched out a fellow Jew as he did so many Arabs who insulted him for being a Jew.
This next passage relates an episode of super-human strength that came upon Slama, it was as if he were Popeye who had just slammed down a large can of spinach! Curious thing is that he had been walking near the coast of Brittany near the seashore when this happened, a place known for a tide that comes in very fast with a lot of seaweed. Given the color similarity of seaweed and spinach, it seems possible that it was seaweed, and not spinach, that is the origin of Popeye’s strength. As the story goes, Popeye got his super-strength after falling down in a spinach patch, but a sailor falling down into the seaweed of Dinar, Brittany, where Slama was playing the Copacabana, is far more likely. Read the passage and decide for yourself.
[page 61] Everything was going great until one day we were walking down a street in town. I coughed and I fell down. My friends brought me back to our room. I was not myself, and I didn't know what was wrong. I had an uncontrollable, almost super-human strength. When I grabbed my friends, they said I was hurting them, and when I grasped the metal bed frame, it bent in my hands. They took me to the hospital and the doctors did many tests on me, but they couldn't find anything.
It was only later, that we realized when I walked down that same street, I got the crazy feeling again and was very anxious. Then we learnd that in the ocean by Dinar there is a very high tide and it comes in very fast with a lot of seaweed. It was the iodine from the seaweed that made me sick.
It seems doubtful to me that it was just the iodine that created Slama's super-strength episodes, but rather it was some complex of chemicals in the seaweed that did it. His second episode only mentions anxiety, probably because in the first episode he stuck his face into some high-tide seaweed on the street when he fell down ingesting some seaweed, and in the second he only smelled it in the air and got nervous remembering that original episode.
When he returned to Paris, he played his music in a couple of movies, notably Trapeze and The Spirit of St. Louis. One time he was given time off to visit his parents in Algiers, but he had to promise to return. While in Algiers his musician friend Lucien tried to talk him into staying and playing the piano. Slama returned to Paris as he had promised. Sometime later the casino where he would have been playing piano had a bomb go off under the music stage, killing his friend Lucien and it would have killed Slama had he not kept his promise.
His first skiing trip was memorable. He had not planned to ski, but at the luxurious Le Chalet de la Loze, everyone went there to go skiing. Everyday all his friend musicians were up on the slopes skiing, so one day he decided to rent some gear and go skiing. The owner of the hotel said, "If you break a leg, who's going to play the piano?" An American doctor who was there to ski, offered to tutor Slama and accompany him to slopes. A girl on the lift going up asked Slama what class of skier he was, and he replied, "God only knows." He couldn't get off the lift without falling down. The doctor gave him quick lessons and said, "Don't worry, we'll go slow, and I'll be with you." About halfway down the steep slope, the doctor was called away by two skiers who approached with news of a skier who had broken his leg. Slama was left alone. He passed the time smoking cigarettes and watching the skiers speeding by him, but still no doctor and it was beginning to get dark. The rest, you can guess, and will probably be wrong.
[page 70] As I stood there, frozen with fear at what lay before me, a girl slid to a stop next to me and said: "Come on. Let's go baby!" I said OK, and tried to calm down. Finally, with her encouragement, I started to go down the slope. I went faster and faster, and I screamed at the people ahead of me, "Watch out! Watch Out! I don't have any brakes!"
Eventually, I finally made it to the Chalet, and I was glad to be down from the mountain and in the warm inside. I told my musician friends about my experience, and eventually everyone heard about the piano player who couldn't ski but was able to ski down the mountain of la Loze. They called me a champion, and when I went to the Jean Blanc store to pay for my rentals, the guy in the shop refused my money and said, "No, no! Champions don't pay!" During the evening, everybody was congratulating me for having descended la Loze all by myself.
I have heard of sleepy people driving, piloting a boat, etc, and waking up finding themselves arrived at their destination and never remembering most of the trip. This is the first time I've heard of a piano player playing while he was asleep.
[page 72] We were playing a tango called La Cumparsita, and the room was very dark because there was only a read light on the stage. Because I was very tired, I fell asleep, but I was still playing at the same time. Andre touched my shoulder, awakening me and said, "We arrived, Norbert!" All the people on the floor stopped dancing and laughed at me.
During one successful gig where Slama had to lead three bands, a friend tried to introduce him to Pablo Picasso, but he was too busy to meet the renown artist. After that gig, his wife told him, "Norbert, if you go to America, you'll become a millionaire."
[page 77] With those words, the first step of my American adventure began. Today, I'm in America, and I have been for a long time, but I'm far from being a millionaire.
When he got a musician job in Puerto Rico, the owner asked if he knew a waiter he could bring long, so he invited Guy and they planned to fly there together.
[page 84] At the airport, Guy purchased a life insurance policy for his wife in case of a plane crash. It cost 25 dollars, and I told him it was crazy to spend so much for insurance. [RJM: about $250 in 2014 dollars] We boarded the plane and had an uneventful flight. When we arrived in Santurce, just outside San Juan, I told Guy that he had lost $25. In response, he joked, "But my wife lost $150,000." [RJM: $1.5 million]
Although Norbert never became a millionaire, in several places he lived like one, such as when he got a job at the Millionaire's Club in Florida and lived in a luxurious suite on the yacht with a big round bed which could slept 7 people. It was during this time he met Eva Gabor, the famous actress. He was told to sit by her at the pool and play his music, but she only wanted him to sit down and talk with her. That caused him to be thrown into a pool, accordion and all, by a large man in a tuxedo. One further time, he sat next to her by the pool and played his music and she turned to him, and he told her, "Listen, Darling, let's have a date. Meet me at midnight at the front of the yacht. There won't be anybody there." She said, "Alright, Frenchie." But she never showed up. Later as the police questioned Slama, he found out that Eva and her husband had been tied and gagged and their stateroom robbed of her jewelry.
He met Hoagy Carmichael, the great songwriter and piano player. Hoagy would tell people around him, "Give me three notes, and I'll compose a song for you." When Hoagy got up, Slama said, "Give me one note and I'll compose a song for you." Hoagy heard him say that, gave him a big smile and shook Slama's hand. (Page 93) Once he met his childhood idol Johnny Weissmuller who played the first Tarzan in the movies. They became friends as Johnny came in almost every night for drinks. One night he asked Johnny if he would call his seven-year-old stepson, so Johnny went over the wall phone and said, "Hello, Christopher, this is Tarazan." But Christopher wanted proof, so Johnny gave his famous Tarzan yell over the phone and that was the convincer.
Do you know how Tarzan got his famous yell? One day he was getting ready to swing on the vine to the next tree and Jane was coming with him. He said, "Grab onto the vine, Jane." She grabbed onto something else and Tarzan created his famous yell on the spot.
This next episode could be titled, "Breakfast for Dummies". It was a practical joke in which his friend Gordon said it was okay from Slama's friend's sister from France to stay at his place. That afternoon Slama took a blowup female and put it in Gordon's bed under the covers. Not wanting to wake her, he slept in the other room, then in the morning made her a breakfast of coffee, tea, and croissants, which of course, she never got up to taste! About ten he opened the door to find the trick that Slama had played on him. (Page 107)
At one point he met Liz Taylor and they conversed in French together. She invited him to a party she was having on a train from D. C. to New York City. When an astronomer friend called Slama to listen to newly discovered sounds from a distant star called a Pulsar, Slama decided it would make a good drum track for a piece of music. He created the music using four music synthesizers playing along with songs from a star 15,000 light-years away.
From dating a star to music from a star, Slama was and is one versatile musician as well as an incredible human being. Slama nearly died three times, once in a bomb in Algiers, once falling into deep water, and once with pancreatic infection so bad, the doctor told his wife to buy a cemetery plot for him. He saved two people's lives, sold cookies and wine as a traveling salesman, owned an island in the Florida Keys, lived on a luxury yacht, and spending time in the French Quarter in New Orleans, where he and I share WWOZ as our favorite radio station. As the book ends, he's likely listening to WWOZ on the Internet and eating cherries from the trees of his Bed & Breakfast.
Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne
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