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Musician Sparks Kid's Interest

Guitarist Tim Sparks demonstrated a few instruments from the Mideast Thursday to students at Mankato East Junior High, one of several area schools he visited as part of the Music Performance Series. Musician Sparks kids' interest

Guitarist Tim Sparks visits area schools, giving students a history of music

By Joe Tougas
Free Press Staff Writer
Mankato Free Press

MANKATO - About halfway through his performance at Mankato East Junior High, visiting guitarist Tim Sparks offered students the following joke:

Q: How many Greeks does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

A: One, two, one-two-three; one, two, one-two-three....

It's a musical joke, a pretty funny one actually, having to do with the different time signatures in Mideastern music versus western beats of 4/4 or 3/4.

But don't worry - it didn't exactly have the kids rolling down the auditorium aisles, either. But if they didn't get the joke, the music helped explain.

Sparks, who before a concert Thursday night visited East and Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton High School, today visits Dakota Meadows Middle School and Lake Crystal Welcome Memorial High School.

He is a Minneapolis-based player who has spent the past ten years traveling to the Mideast and back, bringing back music and a few instruments.

Performing in East auditorium for about 125 junior high students - most of them band members - Sparks played and told stories about the history of both the songs and the instruments he used.

His visit to the schools was arranged by Dale Haefner, director of Minnesota State University's Performance Series, which brings national, working musicians to the college for concerts and occasional workshops with students. Each year for the past five, Haefner has arranged to bring one musician into community schools.

"It's always a great opportunity for these kids to hear a world-class musician," Haefner said.

At East, the appreciation showed by the quiet during Sparks' sets and the whoops that erupted when he finished.

The North Carolina native began his performance with a traditional Yemen wedding song. He asked if any of the students had any involvement with temporary tattoos. Nearly all raised their hands. Sparks, in describing the instrumental he was about to play, told students that henna tattoos are part of the pre-wedding parties in Yemen.

From there, he broke into an instrumental on a small Martin six-string guitar, by far the most recognizable instrument in the room. His finger-picking style was textured, and his playing smoothly combined high-note melodies as well as low-string bass patterns - this was no MTV.

Sparks didn't sing, but talked between songs on the history behind the music he was playing, using for instance the expulsion of all non-Catholics from Spain in the 15th Century, resulting in immigrations to Greece, Northern Africa and elsewhere.

On a lute-like instrument - a grandfather of the guitar, he said - called an oud, he performed a Judeo-Spanish song that celebrated the birth of the prophet Abraham.

The music gave him a platform for some basic tips of the hat to diversity. He stressed that a general mistrust of Mideasterners would be similar to mistrusting all American high school students because of the Columbine massacre.

"We tend to form very negative impressions of people in the Mideast because when we hear of it, it's only bad news," he said. "The Middle East is full of millions and millions of people, we can't judge them by the acts of a handful."

From the oud, it was onto the chumbus, which looked like a primitive or makeshift banjo. The instrument, he said, had some history in mathematics as well.

"I've heard the whole system of ratios was developed by a Greek who stumbled on it when he was trying to figure out where to put the frets," Sparks said. By demonstrating the typical Western intervals of major or minor, he then showed how the instrument provided an unusual third note, somewhere in between the "happy" and "sad" tones of the major and minor intervals.

With four CDs, Sparks works as a solo act in the Twin Cities area, focusing on world music. He originally began playing in rock bands, then to jazz. He discovered his interest in world music in the late 1980s and has been a practitioner and student since then.

After ending his appearance with a Brazilian cowboy tune, he took questions. One student asked how far he's traveled to study music. The answer was an 11-hour flight to Japan.

"That's four movies in an airplane," Sparks said.


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