Havana, Cuba

It's 5am and I wake to the sound of beating drums, whistles and cheers. I should keep sleeping but something epic is brewing outside and I can’t just lie in bed. 

I run to my balcony overlooking Avenida 23 of Vedado and see an ocean of people gearing up for the annual march through La Plaza de la Revolución. I forget that I'm still dizzy with fatigue and run upstairs to wake up my mates, ”Guys you're gonna want to see this." 

Soon we’re on the street pushing and stumbling our way through the half million people that make the march every year until we get to the bottom of the plaza. Loud speakers blast Fusil contra fusil as people sing along and cry. The sun comes up behind Che’s image on the Ministry of Interior building and the march begins.  

We go with the flow and pretty soon I'm separated from my mates by at least a hundred people. I’m drifting, just one in half a million. 

I've never been around this many people in my life. A smashing of this much flesh, on such a hot morning, can't be healthy. Our march probably resembles that of penguins more than humans. But I'm not thinking about that. I'm curious about all the people waving at us from the foot of the giant Jose Martí monument as we cross the center of the plaza. Obviously dignitaries and guests of the state. They wave flags of their respective countries and cheer for us in solidarity. I'm most excited by the Ikurriña flag of the Basque country. 

On the highest row, above all of them, stand what look like generals and commanders dressed ready for combat. And in the middle of them is a man dressed in a white guayabera. Everyone around me seems to be waving to him. "¿Quién es? (Who's that?)" I ask the short girl next to me. She looks at me like I'm crazy then simply replies, "Raúl."

Baalbek, Lebanon

In Eastern Lebanon, close to Syria, is the ancient Roman city of Baalbek. Surrealist Jean Cocteau travelled here during his eastern explorations in the early sixties. I wonder if these temples and rubble inspired him somehow. A few of his sketchings still hang in the halls of the old Palmyra Hotel, a spooky auberge close to the ruins that has never closed a day since its doors first opened in 1874. We only spent the afternoon here, but some places stay with you, even if you only experience them in passing. Baalbek is one of those places for me.

Big Bend, Texas

Sometimes you gotta get away. #muleears #bigbendnationalpark #texas #muchosfilters

A photo posted by Scott Zuniga (@scottzuniga) on

I'm a Southwestern boy. I was born in a small desert town and it's in the Southwestern desert that I feel the most affinity to earth. Emilie and I escaped to Big Bend National Park earlier this year to disconnect, decompress and let go for a bit. This is my kind of reset button.

Illustrations

I carry a notebook with me when I travel to sketch certain things that catch my eye. Sometimes I color those sketches in Photoshop to make them come alive a little more. Illustration is one of those careers I’ve been curious of off and on throughout my life but don’t think I’d have the patience to get to a pro-level or to do client work. It’s strictly a stress reliever for me. I’d love to do a graphic novel at some point in my life though.

Here are a few of my favorite personal sketches along with a brief description of the illustration process:

Eunice

This is a portrait of my friend Eunice, a Chinese ex-pat who was living in Syria at the same time as us. I drew it in secret and then showed her after the fact. It might be a little invasive but it’s better to get a natural performance from people when they don’t know you’re drawing them. This was scanned and colored in Photoshop.

Winter Sisters

I drew this quite some time ago without a subject as a visual reference, meaning, everything was from the imagination, no model. The color and the snowflakes were added after the fact in Photoshop and I think they complete the illustration.

Muhajiba

Again, this one was drawn without the aid of a visual reference. Patterns and lines are a reoccurring theme in my illustrations. In this instance I drew the illustration in my notebook then scanned the page and cleaned up any blemishes in photoshop to give it a really clean look.

Booza (Ice Cream)

Drawn without any visual reference. No coloring, no touch-up, just a raw representation of my pure love and obsession for this tasty dairy delight.

Sometimes I like to draw things. Here's my #bag, #satchel, whatever you call it. #illustration #watercolor

A photo posted by Scott Zuniga (@scottzuniga) on

Istanbul, Turkey

This guy had sandbags strapped to his legs so he wouldn't fly away. #istanbul #hagiasophia #balloons

A photo posted by Scott Zuniga (@scottzuniga) on

No city in the world has inspired me more than Istanbul. When you are there, it feels like you are visiting three cities in one. It's the only place that I know of where the worlds of East and West so effortlessly come together in a circus of food, architecture and culture.

While visiting Istanbul in December of 2009, I read Orhan Pamuk's classic novel My Name is Red. The presence of the Ottoman times that the novel describes are still felt as you walk the streets, mosques, and markets of that ancient city and smell the same thousand-year-old scents.The 19th chapter of the book is titled 'I Am a Gold Coin' and is narrated by a small gold coin who describes his part in the drama. To me, the idea of an inanimate object taking a central role in a narrative was amazingly creative and inspired my song 'I Am a Coin.'

I don’t understand all these names you gave me / Or the little games you invent to save me / While I hide out in your safe / Night and daytime you come borrow me

I plant a little seed so you get discouraged / I can make a man feel like his hurt is all he’ll feel in this world / And there’s so many men in this world

I’m the root of all this city’s evil / And the one who’s feeding all your people / While I fall down and inflate / And when you are sleeping I stay awake

And people curse my name/ For all they’ve got is not all they want / People bite my face and place their bets on my tails or head

I’m the little coin that sends you working / Sweat along your brow until you’ve fallen / And you lay down in the earth When you’ve quit talking / I’m still alive!

In everyday life, I'll often catch my mind wandering back to Istanbul and wondering when I will be able to return there for an extended stay. Here are a few pictures of our very brief but memorable time there, taken by our good friend and photographer Ketan Gajria.

Southwest, USA

Where I come from.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of my great grandparents’ arrival in the Salt Lake Valley from Mexico. In commemoration of Jose and Juana Zuniga, I decided to post this photo on my blog to pay tribute to them and show a little gratitude for the sacrifices that they made to create opportunities for future kin that they would never meet, at least not in this life.

When you look back at the US census of the time you see my great grandfather’s occupation listed as janitor. From what I know about him, he was an extremely hard worker, and so was my great grandmother. This picture shows them with their daughters and sons, one of which is my grandpa Joe (second from left). What touched me the most about this photo was seeing one of my great aunts holding a guitar as she looks straight into the camera, as if to say, “We came here, so you could have this.”

My #grandpa Joe Zuniga on a #horse doing his best #panchovilla impersonation with my #abuelita Maria at his side.

A photo posted by Scott Zuniga (@scottzuniga) on

My aunt gave me this photo of my grandma and grandpa somewhere in New Mexico or Texas. If you had to imagine their story from this photo alone, you might think my grandpa was some sort of bandito, or perhaps a ranch farmer. Who knows, maybe he was a little of both. But what I’m sure of was that he spent years working for railroad companies across the southwest performing hard labor and saving money to buy land to build a number of properties with his siblings across Texas, New Mexico and Mexico. His entrepreneurial ambitions led him to create a successful trailer park that still exists in Southern New Mexico to this day.

Because of that hard work, their children and grandchildren have all received the blessings of education and carry titles today such as teacher, manager, chemist, artist, musician, mother and father among others. But more important than the titles that we carry individually is the story that we carry collectively as a family. A story that started long before any of us were alive but that in no small way dictates who we are today and the opportunities that we now enjoy.

Damascus, Syria

Shababland – Memories of a Birthday in Damascus, Syria

Taken on my birthday- the end of #ramadan in 2009 #damascus #syria #eid #3id #travel #middleeast

A photo posted by Scott Zuniga (@scottzuniga) on

Twenty-nine, not an age you look forward to or even think about really, at least I never did. Still, my twenty-ninth birthday is one I’ll never forget.

The day started with my oldest birthday tradition… rain. It always rains on my b-day, always has, probably always will. The funny thing is, it rains no matter where I am, it must follow me around. Utah, France, Texas and now Damascus, Syria. It drizzled all morning long, but by late afternoon the sky had cleared and the clouds that remained scattered beautiful orange sunlight onto the crooked grey houses and shops of the old city.

In the morning Emilie and I took a stroll through the market. The usual aggressive hustle and bustle of the market was gone due to it being the end of Ramadan, a celebration known as Eid (عيد) . No open shops, no honking cars, no shouting merchants, just long, empty market hallways. It was like watching a bat sleep.

As we got closer to Souq El Hamidyye (the main market) and the Umayyad Mosque life suddenly appeared. An ocean of little boys filled the Umayyad square. Hundreds of rascals running everywhere shooting plastic bee bees from toy guns they received as gifts for Eid. The best way for me to describe what I saw is to relate it to the scene in Pinocchio where all the boys go to the island and turn into donkeys. It felt like we were standing in the pumping heart of a carnival in a world ruled by little boys.

I got shot several times in the face with the little plastic bee bees but I felt worse for the pigeons who were the boys’ main target. The girls brave enough to walk through the plaza didn’t seem to stay very long. There was an overdose of visual activity full of motion, color, energy and aggression wherever you looked. I’ve never felt or seen anything like it.

"I enter the courtyard of the #umayyad #mosque and greet everyone in it" #nizarqabbani #damascus #syria

A photo posted by Scott Zuniga (@scottzuniga) on


God blessed me on my b-day with the most beautiful evening we’d seen since arriving in Syria. The weather was cool, the clouds had cleared and there was no wind. There were even 30 seconds of fireworks over the Umayyad Mosque to mark Eid.

We were excited about our new house in the ancient Shaghoor quarters of Old Damascus so we invited all of our friends to celebrate chez nous. It would have been impossible to feed everyone so we went the pot-luck route. There was quite the eclectic spread of dishes. Everything from Indian food, to Arabic food, to French food and even a little pizza. The ice cream cakes were the highlight though. If you ever get the chance to have an ice cream fruit cake in Syria, don’t miss it. Slices of every type of fruit imaginable, cram-packed onto a layer of fruit cocktail sherbet. Pretty mind-blowing.

There we were, on a rooftop in Old City Damascus, eating and enjoying each other’s company, just happy to be alive. It was a perfect day, and definitely one of the most memorable birthdays of my life.

Quiet afternoon at the #umayyad #mosque #damascus #syria

A photo posted by Scott Zuniga (@scottzuniga) on

Pacific Northwest, USA - Part 1

Isla's Promise - Part 1

In preparation for next week's release of the Isla's Promise music video, this is the first installment of a two-part blog post about the recording of the song and the making of the video. This week we'll focus on the writing and recording of the song.

In case you haven't heard Isla's Promise, here it is:

The story of how I came up with Isla's Promise is explained in this short video I made for a Kickstarter campaign a little while back.

Early drafts of this song were a lot different from the final product, they were more indie and experimental. I love the final draft, but it’s always fun to go back and hear a song when it’s raw and undeveloped. You find something that feels more pure and organic that you don’t get from the studio version.

Isla's Promise - Early Demo:

We had started recording Witness Protection Program way back in 2011 with Evan Kasper at Ohm studio, but Isla’s Promise was the first song that we recorded specifically for the Language of Ghosts sessions at Public HiFi in Austin with Brad Bell. We finished it at Good Danny’s with Grant Johnson in November 2013.

I wasn’t sure what direction the recording would take but I knew that I wanted the song to live up to its full potential, whatever that meant. Because it was my first time in the studio I think I got trigger happy at times and thought, “Let’s add this instrument, and that one there. Oh, and wouldn’t it be cool to have this…” So we ended up with over a hundred tracks of instruments, vocals and harmonies.

Subconsciously, I think I just wanted to get all of my ideas out of my system. I’ve got to give a lot of credit to my production team Grant, Maurice and Matt for helping edit the song down to the most essential elements. For good or bad, every second of this song, and the emotion it should evoke, was thought through.

The recorded version was originally 5:21, but we chopped out an entire verse to bring it to four minutes even, and I think it was an editing decision that really helped the song. It helped the video as well, because it makes things move a lot faster.

I felt the song's style lent itself to bagpipes. I wanted to communicate how traveling in Scotland inspired the melody and nothing screams Scotland like bagpipes. I also think the rarity of the instrument in pop music made me excited to use it. Before the song was recorded I used to sing it and tell people, “And this is where the bagpipes will go.” It got good laughs, but I was actually serious.

I searched online and found Doug Slauson, a real Texas cowboy who also happens to be a world-class bagpiper and Pipe Master of
Silver Thistle Pipes and Drums of Austin
. The first morning of the session, Doug walked into the studio and started tuning his pipes at full force. I remember how their volume made the studio swell. I think my engineer Brad Bell realized at that point that I was serious about the bagpipes. He kind of paused for a second then looked at me and said, “Welp, let’s record some expletive bagpipes!”

Next week we'll premier the Isla's Promise music video and tell you how we made it!

-Scott

Ogden, Utah

Paperboy

I was six and sitting on the sandstone steps in front of our home on Eccles Ave, no shoes, just socks, when Richard the paperboy passed by. I asked what it took to become a paperboy and he said "nothing, come along." So I went.

Two hours later I returned home, socks filthy, proud of a hard day’s work. My mom stood on the porch with a face that looked like she had seen a ghost. She screamed at me, “Bloody hell, where have you been?! I called the police looking for you!”

She took me inside, spanked me, then sent me to bed. I lied alone and cried for a while until she came back in to console me. She explained that she was mad because she was afraid. I looked her in the eyes and said with a sweet Spanky-from-Little-Rascals voice, “I just wanted to be a paperboy!” All was forgiven. I still use this technique, it works.

A couple of years later my dream came true. My brother and I were hired as paperboys to take over for Richard who had turned sixteen and got a real job. Two days in I realized how much the job sucked. I had to get up at 5am on weekends and deliver heavy newspapers in the freezing winter cold and I only got paid at the end of the month once I had personally collected the subscription fees from customers. The internet does all that now.

I'd like to hope that I learned some good life and business lessons from my first job, but I was a pretty lousy paperboy. I would sleep in on most of those cold weekends and then beg my dad to drive me around to deliver the papers from the warm comfort of our Chrysler minivan. All in all, I only lasted about six months on the job.

Despite all of this, I somehow managed to win the Paper Carrier of the Month Award. I didn't even know the award existed until I won it. It turns out the lady who lived across the street from us was pleased that my brother and I always delivered to her first, so she wrote to the newspaper to praise us for our stellar performance. All you needed was one customer recommendation to qualify for the award.

For our prize they picked us up in a creepy white, windowless van and took us to the newspaper headquarters for a tour, and then lunch at Dominoes Pizza. We also got our picture in the paper with our last name spelled wrong.

For one day I got to rub shoulders with guys like Mark Polhman and Bret Anglesey (see photo), who probably deserved the award. I'm still jealous of Bret for going to Space Camp.

I kept this picture on my bedroom wall for years as a reminder of what you can achieve with a little hard work, persistence and determination, or in my case, just by showing up.

Palmyra, Syria

I took this picture the day before I almost lost my life at the ruins of Palmyra in Syria. This girl and her family lived in a hut inside the ruins and made these rugs by hand.

I was using a Holga camera so I needed to take my beanie off to get a good view through the lens. I thought I put the beanie in my pocket but it must have fallen on the ground. I didn't realize I had lost it until early the next morning when my friends and I decided to walk to the nearby hills to watch the sunrise over the ruins. I knew we would pass close to the girl's hut so I split up from my friends to find my lost goods.

After a while of unsuccessful searching I was ready to give up when everything around me suddenly went quiet. I had this sinking feeling that someone was watching me. I slowly lifted my head to see a snarling, man-eating canine five yards away. I recognized him from the day before when he was thrashing at me while I took pictures of his master, the girl with the rug. He was chained up then, but now he was on guard duty.

I slowly backed away, thinking maybe if I pretend not to notice him he'll leave me alone. That's when I saw it; death dog number two, waiting like a velociraptor from Jurassic Park.

But bad things come in threes. By the time I saw the final dog the first two were already sprinting at me like starving death angels.

There was no time to run or call for help, it was just me against the wild. I understood the gravity of the situation but in that moment of truth I was calm for some reason, I knew I would think of something.

That's when I remembered a piece of advice my Australian friend Ricky T. had given me ten years previous, "If you're ever being chased by a bunch of guys bigger than you, pick up as many rocks as you can and start chucking them right at their heads. Even if the rocks hit their arms, the pain will kill." Lucky for me, ancient ruins provide lots of rocks perfect for throwing.

The thousands of snowball fights I had growing up in the endless winters of Utah prepared me for this moment in a desert far, far away. I kept low to the ground in order to grab rocks fast, then fire. Grab and fire, grab and fire, like a human machine gun. I went into a rock throwing trance.

One at a time, I aimed for their heads. My first throw barely missed, but the noise of the rocks clacking against the ruins was frightening enough to stop their charge. The next rock might have hit a dog but I didn't look long enough to see, I was already reaching for more ammo. Miraculously, it worked. The dogs slowly backed off, then finally trotted away, defeated.

The cover photo of my album "Language of Ghosts" was also taken the day before this incident. You can't really tell, but in the picture I'm wearing the beanie while standing on the ruins. On the back cover is a picture of me taken just after the dog fight, running to the top of the hill to see Palmyra before sunrise, beanie-less, but a little more alive.