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Setting Times stories to music: From LL Cool J to Louis Prima

April 27, 2013|By Kari Howard
  • Lela Lee, creator of the comic strip, Angry Little Asian Girl, is photographed at her production office based out of her home in Los Angeles. The Angry Little Asian Girl TV cartoon will debut on MNET in early 2013.
Lela Lee, creator of the comic strip, Angry Little Asian Girl, is photographed… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

Even though I’m partial to a good hook in music, lyrics are my biggest love (perhaps not surprising for someone smitten with good storytelling). 

I think the best songwriters -- Bruce Springsteen, Paul Westerberg and Paul Weller spring to mind -- can summon a person’s entire life in a three-minute song.

Sometimes even a stanza can do that. Like a lot of you, I spent a long time listening to George Jones on Friday. How about this stanza, from “A Good Year for the Roses”:

And a lip print on a half-filled cup of coffee

That you poured and didn't drink

But at least you thought you wanted it

That's so much more than I can say for me.

In these roundups of the week gone by, I’d like to offer the first paragraphs of each Column One -- maybe they’ll buy your eye and you can settle in for a good weekend read. And you’ll also get the songs that inspired me while editing the stories, or reading them later. A story-song combo!

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Monday’s Column One:


6,297 Chinese restaurants and hungry for more

The television cameras roll as Los Angeles attorney David Chan places the first forkful of cashew chicken in his mouth.

The crowd at Leong's Asian Diner in Springfield, Mo., falls silent as he chews and squints in the glare of the lights.

Springfield Cashew Chicken — a deep-fried, gravy-drenched version of the popular buffet item — is a local specialty and David Leong, the dish's 92-year-old inventor, was watching expectantly from across the table.

Chan kept chewing. The silence grew uncomfortable.

“How does it taste?” a reporter asked at last.

Chan didn't answer. The chicken was overcooked.

Finally, he spoke: “It's good,” Chan mumbled diplomatically, and quickly grabbed seconds.

Archive: David Chan chats with readers

Chan, 64, has eaten at 6,297 Chinese restaurants (at press time) and he has documented the experiences on an Excel spreadsheet, a data-centric diary of a gastronomic journey that spans the United States and beyond.

#storysongs combo: “Chop Suey Chow Mein,” by Louis Prima and Keely Smith. A great combo themselves, they’re more famous for their association with Italian food—the totally feel-good “Big Night” soundtrack. This one is retro-edging-toward-stereotypical, but David Chan himself admits to a fondness for Chinese American food.

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Tuesday’s Column One:

Timbuktu calligrapher keeps ancient learning alive

Homemade twig pens stand like off-duty soldiers in a jar on Boubacar Sadeck's worktable. The morning sun steals into a room stuffed with a jumble of papers, ink bottles and stretched animal hides. He sits thoughtfully before a blank sheet of paper, with several old manuscripts — the color of dark tea and covered with Arabic script — open at his side.

Occasionally a breeze wafts in and playfully flicks one of the old brown pages to the floor.

Copying the words of ancient scholars in elegant Arabic calligraphy makes Sadeck feel close to heaven.

“My weakness, my love, is calligraphy,” said the scribe, who fled Timbuktu, famed for its collection of centuries-old manuscripts, when Islamist militias invaded last year. “If I go a day without writing, I feel as if something is missing or strange. When I sit down with my paper and my pen, I feel wonderful. I feel at ease.”

Copying and recopying old manuscripts is an ancient Timbuktu calling. In the 15th century, there were hundreds of scribes; the job was one of the most highly paid and prestigious occupations in the city, then an intellectual center and trade hub.

#storysongs combo: “Imuhar,” by Bombino. Our pop critic, Randall Roberts, tweeted his rave of the new album by this ethnic Tuareg guitarist just as I was starting to edit this story about Mali, where Tuaregs have risen up against the government. Talk about timing. This is my favorite song on “Nomad,” but the whole album is pretty great. 

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Wednesday’s Column One:

A student with promise, a teacher who had to help

Itzel Ortega should have been bursting with the good news. Instead, her eyes filled with tears as she confided in her former English teacher.

She had just been accepted to the architecture program at Cal Poly Pomona. But she wasn't eligible for financial aid. She was six-months-  old when she crossed the border illegally, carried in her mother's arms.

There seemed to be just one way to come up with the money: Her father would get a second job. This was why he came to America — to provide a better future for his children. As a busboy, he was on his feet all day, chopping vegetables, wiping tables and washing dishes. Now, he would work even harder.

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