The Making of "Hot Tamale Louie": Fantastical immigrant’s tale inspires multi-genre production

Authored on:

Mar 28, 2017

Sometime between chemo and radiation, John Rapson was struck by inspiration. It came in the form of a New Yorker article. The long piece, “Citizen Khan” by Kathryn Schulz, is as meandering and rich as its subject: Zarif Khan. After reading the article last June, Rapson, a jazz professor in the School of Music, immediately knew that he’d found the subject for a new piece. Not only would it include jazz compositions, but it would be a vehicle for connecting the music of two of Rapson’s friends, one a troubadour of western ballads, and the other a player of the mandole, a North African instrument.

It was May, six months after Rapson’s diagnosis with breast cancer. Although his energy was depleted from the chemo treatments, he welcomed an invitation by David Gier, director of the School of Music, to perform at a Faculty Showcase event to celebrate the new Voxman Music Building. But Gier didn’t want Rapson to repeat an earlier work or to give a lecture. “You just figure out something creative,” he said, seemingly certain that Rapson would not disappoint.

From the Khyber Pass to Wyoming

Reading about the life of Zarif Khan, Rapson knew he’d found that "something." Khan was born in the late 1880s near the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan. By the age of twelve, he’d left home and was roaming India. He boarded a ship in Bombay in 1907 and, eight weeks later, landed in Seattle. Eventually he set down roots in the northeast Wyoming town of Sheridan.

According to Schulz, the town of 8,000 had blacksmiths aplenty, a bicycle shop, two local newspapers, a clairvoyant, coal miners, and an opera house. With the arrival of Khan, it also had a tamale purveyor. Within years of his arrival, Khan was running a small restaurant, Hot Tamale Louie’s, which sold legendary hamburgers in addition to tamales. It was open seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, and served everyone, including women (Wyoming, dubbed “The Equality State,” was the first to give women the vote), Native Americans, the indigent, and the great-grandson of a U.S. president.

Echoes of current climate

As Rapson followed “Louie” through his immigrant’s journey of earning citizenship only to have it stripped for his “being a member of the yellow race,” he recognized a story of immigration that echoes today's political conversation about what it means to be an American and who can stay in the country.

Khan, unbeknownst to his family, was a millionaire who had made his money not only in tamales but in selling and trading stocks. He gave much of his earnings away, both in Wyoming and back home, in what was now Pakistan. He had six children with a young bride he’d brought back to Wyoming on one trip, and after his violent death in a quarrel over money during one of his trips home, she learned English, got a driver’s license, joined the PTA, and endeavored to take the reins of her unexpected windfall.

Now, more than fifty years after Zarif Khan's death, a group of Muslims, including several of Khan’s offspring, have purchased a house in Gillette, WY, where they hold weekly religious services. Most residents hardly noticed when the makeshift mosque opened in 2015, but an anti-Islamic group, Keep Islam Out of Gillette, started making threats that grew sufficiently menacing as to attract the FBI. The mosque's members, many of whom can trace their roots in Wyoming back to the late 1800s, suddenly feel unwelcome. This tension is part of musical odyssey Rapson wants to listeners to explore.

"I wasn't really into jazz."

“I had two non-jazz musician friends I wanted to work with,” says Rapson, “and Hot Tamale Louie became the perfect project for encouraging them to collaborate with me.”

One of them, Iowa City singer-songwriter Dave Moore, has been a friend since Rapson first arrived in Iowa City in 1993 and heard Moore performing the accordion music of Narciso Martínez and Flaco Jiménez on the Ped Mall downtown.

The other musician Rapson hoped to entice to the project was new to Iowa City. Daniel Gaglione moved to the area from France a year and a half ago to be closer to his wife’s family. He met John while listening to jazz at a local bar. A professional musician with several albums to his name, Gaglione plays the mandole, a fretted, steel-string instrument resembling an elongated mandolin that is popular in North African Kabyle and Chaabi music. The two struck up a conversation that extended into playing music together and mutual curiosity about each other’s musical interests.

“I wasn’t really into jazz,” admits Gaglione, “but I’m living in a city now where jazz is very present, and I’m curious about all kinds of music.” He adds that being around good musicians, no matter their genre, is like “eating really good food.”

After Rapson shared the New Yorker article with him, Gaglione immediately composed five pieces for Rapson's production. “I’d just finished an album in France about immigrants,” he says, referring to the mass migration that Europe has witnessed in recent years. “I was very inspired by the story; it felt like a continuation of my previous work.”

Thirteen sections 

Eventually, Rapson organized a group of seven musicians whose own interests and specialties range from classical to folk music; other than Gaglione and Moore, all of them are UI School of Music alumni. Tara McGovern, who plays Celtic fiddle music, says that Rapson was her favorite professor during her undergraduate career. “He’s very engaging because he so clearly loves jazz,” she says, noting that after years of being steeped in orchestral music, she found his courses a breath of fresh air. When he reached out to her regarding his new project, she couldn’t imagine what the final product might be, but she didn’t doubt that it would be awesome.

Rapson imagined thirteen sections evoking different aspects of Khan’s life. Not wanting the audience to be reading Khan’s story during the performance, Rapson created slides reminiscent of titles in a silent movie to provide minimal details. He also enlisted UI Theatre professor Paul Kalina to perform two monologues: one, a history of the tamale (the nineteenth-century version of global fast food), and the other, a select history of American immigration law. Kalina and Rapson had worked together in 2013 via an Obermann Interdisciplinary Research Grant to create Crescendo, a theatrical production with a jazz score that tackles the current state of education.

"It was larger than us."

When the group finally performed the piece at Gier's Faculty Showcase on November 1, 2016, it was a wild success. Rapson describes the feeling in the performance hall as magical.

“It was larger than us, larger than the music,” he recalls. “We tapped into the hearts of people.” Not only that, but the unexpected confluence of genres captured people, including one friend of Rapson’s who famously dislikes jazz but couldn’t get the songs out of his head.

Bringing so many pieces together—the biographical narrative, three decidedly different musical genres, spoken word, and imagery—is a complex undertaking. Tara McGovern marvels at how Rapson's brain is able to take these disparate pieces and successfully combine them: “John is uniquely capable of seeing different threads and weaving them together in unexpected and beautiful ways. He pays deep respect to individual traditions without being precious about any of them. He understands the differences between traditions, but he also sees the value of all of our contributions. That’s very unique to be able to do that in a single piece of art.”

Second performance and collaborative conversation

Moved by the 2016 performance, as well as by the shifting meaning of Khan’s story in this post-election era, Rapson decided to perform the piece again. One purpose of the second performance, which will take place on April 20 at 7:30 p.m. in Voxman’s main hall, is to preserve it. “This particular group will never tour,” says Rapson of the ensemble, which is too large and has too many individual obligations to allow the musicians to travel together. “The only way to get the work out is to film it.”

Since last November, Rapson has continued to read about Islam and has even reached out to Muslim student groups. His respect and fascination for Islamic culture continues to grow, as has a sense of duty to the memory of Zarif Khan. Of the power of the performance, he says humbly, “We brought the story to life, but perhaps more importantly, we let the story speak—we got out of its way.”

In addition to the April 20 performance, Rapson, Gaglione, and Moore will also be talking about the collaborative process that gave birth to Hot Tamale Louie during an Obermann Conversation on Monday, April 10, from 4:00 to 5:00 pm at the Iowa City Public Library.