Pepper Chew's Balloons (1990)

First I'll tell you about Janelle Pepper Chew (long), then I'll explain how I wrote these little pieces (short).

I worked with Pepper in 1990-91 at Central Wyoming College.  She was Director of the TRIO Student Support Services grant, while I coordinated the Perkins grant, grants that served poor, first generation college students.  I had just come to CWC, and realized immediately that Pepper was a forceful, rather wild, fire-driven person who did not suffer fools.  She took me to the Reservation to meet the leaders, and I was impressed by how the tribal community members thoroughly appreciated Pepper's personality.  There was something about her that we all recognized as fearlessly scrappy and a loyal fighter.  I think she was one of the few non-Indian people I ever saw so respected and loved by the Native American community.  

She had a strong low voice with a slight Texas drawl, and carried herself like a strong rancher's wife.  She had a huge black Labrador dog and a witty, tough husband.  She was profoundly honest and straight-forward. 

Although she was not from this area nor Native American, she gracefully wore the Shoshone and Arapaho beadwork, and learned to bead beautifully--an intricate, complex craft.  She was a classy dresser, and quite appalled by my own--what should I say?--"comfortable" approach to clothes.  I recall being in her powerful office, with her lecturing me about my appearance.  "You could be advisor to the president if you dressed appropriately," she started.  "Look at me."  (She was dressed that day in a gorgeous, deep purple blouse and flowing skirt, with purple stockings and striking  purple heels.)  "I'm dressed in this color from the skin out," and she began to describe every item--from the skin out.  Even though she was extremely critical of my personal appearance, I left feeling so proud that she thought I had strong abilities.  I also felt totally accepted regardless of her sharp words.  Of course we both knew I'd never change my way of wearing clothes.  

I adored our supervisor, Mohammed, but I could see from the very first group meeting that Pepper and Mohammed clashed easily.  She didn't hesitate to confront him, and wanted much more advocacy from him than he was able to provide.  It was in one of those early department meetings that we'd had some sort of party with cake and balloons, and at one point Pepper quietly began to flick balloons into the air, effectively demonstrating her impatience.

She later resigned that year, and I missed her terribly.  I took on her position, and from that inside perspective, gained even more respect for the powerful work she had done in our community. 

I never saw her again.  I would wonder about her when I drove through her home town of Dubois, but thought of her as just one of those people who's brief appearance in my life meant so much.  It wasn't until I decided to revisit these pieces some 32 years later that I looked up to find a photo of her on the internet, and saw her obituary.  

Strangely, she had just died--2021, almost 9l.  I was overcome realizing how close I'd unknowingly been to reconnecting with her.  I remember taking these pieces in to Pepper to hear, wanting her to acknowledge how I realized what she was doing with the balloons.  She had just smiled wryly, and I think was a bit confused by the music.  

I can hear her voice still.

Back in 1990 all I had to compose with was a used Ensoniq keyboard with a built-in sequencer--no computer, no wonderful effect unit or plugins, no fantastic sound card, no great amp or monitors.  Learning to use a tiny 1.5 x 6 cm screen for composing was a bit of a trick.  These four pieces were the result of my delight when I finally figured out how to layer tracks on top of each other.  Coming from the background of having to overdub on a 1/4 inch reel-to-reel tape deck, however, this was huge.  On each piece I wrote the bass first, then the accompaniment, and finished with improvising a melody on top.  Although the keyboard had a sampler, I used the onboard "Island" preset (a tinny steel drum sound), which really bothers me to this day.  Having that one mass of sound for all the different lines weaving in and out led to some challenges (not all overcome) for this remastering--notably a profound lack of balance between all the voices with small dynamic and color range.   The original pieces were downloaded from the keyboard to a 2 track stereo cassette recorder.  In 2019 I transferred all my old cassette recordings to CD, and then now in 2022 I'm reloading those miserable recordings onto my Cubase system and doing what I can to remaster that cassette sound.

Like most of my things, I wrote the pieces first and then searched around for titles.  Since I wrote them the same evening that our meeting had taken place, I thought immediately that a nod to the balloons was a good idea.  I don't think of tinny steel drums when I think of Pepper, but I do think the energy, drive and fun is an appropriate reflection.