Noe Valley Voice July-August 2000

Yosemite Groove

By Sven Eberlein

Home! I thought to myself, stepping out of the band van into a moonlit silhouette of Mother Nature's finest.

Standing on a sloped meadow sprinkled with wildflowers and pine cones, the bottoms of my bare feet were sending tactile waves of sensuous moss to the feelgood nerve endings in my brain. Below, only a stone's throw away, the Merced River was engaged in a show of force unparalleled by anything I had seen or heard before. Winter's grip had given in to the sun's rebirth, causing staunch snowcaps to turn into millions of cubic feet of melting water ferociously draining into a system of thirsty streams and tributaries.

Five weeks earlier, after a 45-minute opening set for a death metal band in a smoky San Francisco dive, our mandolin player, Baba Ndjhoni, had tempted us with the offer to play on his friend's back porch in El Portal, a small community of park employees on the periphery of Yosemite National Park.

"Paul and I talked on the phone today," Baba had burst out with soulful enthusiasm, "and all I could hear were the torrents of the river!"

At that moment, the guitarist of the death metal band stepped on his distortion overdrive pedal, inciting all eight of us to chant in unison: "When are we leaving?!"

Now the roar of the river was oozing into every pore of my body, shedding layers of smog, schedules, and protection mechanisms that urban musicians acquire to keep their sanity in the concrete jungle. Rock formations towering around me appeared to be whispering tales of origin that preceded time, reducing pyramids and skyscrapers to nugatory specks on granite's clock. Thinking that the absence of time would inevitably lead to a world of patience, I lowered myself into Paul's 50-foot rope swing and gradually ascended to a weightless plateau overlooking Yosemite Valley.

Our band's name is Chemystry Set. It's a musical experiment that combines creativity, family, and the longing for connection with a higher source. I knew that taking our groovy mix of jazz, rock, and African rumba high up into the most pure and untouched corners of the Sierra Nevada was going to be like traveling to the roots of our music. What I didn't know was how enriching this encounter would turn out to be.

"You guys wanna go for a swim in a water hole?" I heard Paul's voice echoing through the log cabin as we were unloading our arsenal of amplifiers, tambouras, and chimes onto the porch.

Moments later, we found ourselves hiking among blossoming shrubs of wild raspberry, up a trail that eventually led us down a steep ravine into an oasis of pools and waterfalls. Baba was the first one to strip down to his bare essentials, and to the sounds of Tarzan-like howls, we watched him dive off a protruding cliff and splash in the ice-cold water like a young otter. The rest of us followed without much hesitation, and before long the idyllic valley had turned into a cartoonish scene of eight gurgling and frolicking city slickers in the nude.

Back at the makeshift amphitheater, an ensemble of mountain people had gathered, sipping beers and trading park stories while patiently waiting to put faces to the pile of cords and speakers that lay sprawled out on their friend's porch. After a few spontaneous welcome hugs, hoots, and post glacier water ­ induced yodels, we climbed up the creaky staircase to the porch and began to play.

"Sound has filled the air -- look around, you are everywhere -- what you found is still out there," I heard myself singing to the infectious grooves of the rhythm section, and it felt as if these words had been written with the sole purpose of finding meaning 12 months later, on a Yosemite back porch.

The meadow had transformed into a sea of motion, grownups shaking their bones in all directions, hula hoops gyrating down the hips of smiling children, and Frisbees zooming through the afternoon heat like flying saucers abandoned by air traffic control. The river's undulated flow had fused with our sound waves, both echoing through the canyon in unison. Playing our instruments felt effortless, almost ethereal. Time had lost its significance.

More than four hours later, we awakened to the fact that we had run out of songs to play. The sun had disappeared behind a dense forest, casting gigantic shadows of pine trees onto the scene. Exhausted but gleeful, we stepped onto the grass to mingle with our newfound friends and fans.

"This was the most amazing experience I've ever had up here!" a sparkly-eyed woman with braids that looked like redwood bark revealed to me after an affectionate hug.

As I was cruising around the meadow, many more people approached, spilling out stories about their lives and the magic of the park. Everyone knew we had just shared an epiphany -- we are not alone in this world.

As the rope swing elevated my tired body into the boundless mountain sky for the last time that night, I thought of how closely dreams could dance with reality, of how the two could be joined through the silent wisdom of nature and the spirit of music. For just the blink of an eye -- the human pendulum suspended in midair -- dreams and reality became one, but before I could elaborate on perfection, the force of gravity pulled me back to earth, where a flock of musicians was anxiously waiting to rise to their own answers.

Writer/musician Sven Eberlein lives on Valencia Street. His band Chemystry Set is currently recording a second CD at Mobius Studio on Sanchez. You can find out more at