Monday, November 29, 2010

"From Latvia for Christmas" from Edcon Publishing

Aunt Sophie's old-fashioned customs traveled with her. A place you will read about: Latvia, a land in northern Europe.

Christmas in Latvia
All year, the chaos of a hurricane fills our house. Mom, Dad, Ricky, and I are always dashing to work, or to school, or to meetings. But Christmas Eve and Christmas Day the chaos lessens because the four of us are alone together. That is why I was upset when it seemed that our Christmas holidays might be changed by the visit of Aunt Sophie, Dad's sister from Latvia. A week before Christmas she stood in our living room, gray-haired, meek, and silent. Dad was working late at the post office. All through dinner, Mom smiled and tried to make conversation while Aunt Sophie nodded or mumbled and stared at her plate. She didn't eat a bite, not even of Mom's extra-special chocolate cake for extra-special occasions.

As I finished my last crumb, I felt Ricky nudge me under the table. Together we escaped into the kitchen to do the dishes, in no hurry to get back to Aunt Sophie. After a while, Mom came after us. "Aunt Sophie has traveled a long way. You must be especially nice to her," she said. "She's not especially nice to us," Ricky said. "She hasn't smiled once since she arrived," I added. "She's frightened, Andrea," Mom said. "This is her first trip outside Latvia. Coming here wasn't easy for her. A couple of good-night kisses might help."

Christmas Tree
Riga, Latvia
Her nudge sent Ricky and me shuffling out of the kitchen and over to Aunt Sophie. "Good night," we muttered, each brushing a quick kiss across her wrinkled forehead. "Yes, yes, good night," she whispered, patting our arms as if making sure we were real. Ricky and I raced upstairs. Soon Dad came home. "Sophie! Oh, Sophie!" he cried. Ricky and I dashed to the stairs and peered down to find Dad and Aunt Sophie clinging to each other and crying.

"Edmund, my Edmund, it has. been twenty years!" It was one gloomy meeting. Suddenly, Dad smiled. "All day I've been remembering Christmas in Latvia: the snow, the special bread, and Christmas Man. How I would hide when he burst into our house! And then, how we would sing and dance for him!" "Dad and Aunt Sophie dancing?" Ricky yelped, giving us away. "Come down, you two," Dad called. "Now that Aunt Sophie is here, let's have an old-fashioned Latvian Christmas."

But I wanted my kind of Christmas, with just my own family. Dad went on excitedly. "You kids better prepare something for Christmas Man and rehearse it until it's good. If you don't entertain him properly on Christmas Eve, you'll get brushwood switches instead of toys." "I'll play my guitar," Ricky offered. "Could you teach me Latvian songs, Aunt Sophie?" "Of course," Aunt Sophie beamed, meek no longer. From then on, she and Ricky were always together, humming and plucking out Latvian melodies.

Riga, Latvia: Snow scene
That left me hours to wander around the house alone, feeling disappointed and sorry for myself. Then one morning, Mom asked what I would perform for Christmas Man. "Oh, that's for little kids like Ricky," I muttered. "No," answered Mom, "it's for big kids like Daddy. A Latvian Christmas would be the best present we could give him."

I wasn't happy about it, but I knew she was right. So I asked Ricky and Aunt Sophie if I could rehearse with them. In her funny Latvian-style pronunciation, Aunt Sophie welcomed me. Then the hours flew by in a busy blur as she kept us singing, dancing, and making Latvian tree decorations. Finally, we baked sweet-sour bread, and it was Christmas Eve.

Dad worked late, but we decorated the tree and loaded the table with homemade treats. Snow started to fall, and our house looked, smelled, and felt like an old-fashioned Latvian home. Dad's car pulled up and we stopped talking while he opened the front door. His face glowed and kept on glowing as we ate, read the Christmas story aloud, and sang carols. "What a beautiful Christmas," Aunt Sophie sighed. "Let's do it every year," Ricky said. "Stay with us, Aunt Sophie." Aunt Sophie shook her head and answered, "Latvia is my home. All my family and friends are there, except for you."

For a moment, Aunt Sophie looked so sad I knew she was missing being in Latvia. Suddenly, I realized how much she had given up to visit us. And I'd been thinking only of what I'd given up! I jumped up to hug her, and the room became a blur before my tear-filled eyes. "I wish they all could have come here, Aunt Sophie," I said. And I meant it.

Riga, Latvia
Christmas Market
Just then, Christmas Man, wearing boots, a long coat, and a high fur hat, threw open the door. With his face mysteriously hidden behind a dark beard he was terrifying. "Are there any lazy children here for me to spank?" he roared, imitating Aunt Sophie's Latvian pronunciation. "No!" laughed Aunt Sophie. "Prove it!" insisted Christmas Man. Ricky grabbed his guitar and we sang and danced as Aunt Sophie had taught us. Dad clapped his hands joyfully. Then everyone danced along, even Christmas Man (who turned out to be Mom's brother, Uncle Henry). We twirled and sang until we were exhausted. Finally, we opened our gifts. I've forgotten exactly what I got that year, except for the best present of all: Aunt Sophie and our old-fashioned Latvian Christmas.


1. Most of the year, Andrea's house was ___________
a. quiet and dull.
b. filled with chaos.
c. empty.
d. a gloomy place.

2. On Christmas day, Andrea's family liked _____________
a. to take time to be with each other.
b. to go shopping.
c. to go to work.
d. to spend time away from each other

3. When Aunt Sophie first arrived, she was ____________
a. cold and hungry.
b. excited and happy.
c. meek and quiet.
d. very friendly.

4. Aunt Sophie taught Ricky and Andrea _____________
a. Latvian songs and dances.
b. how to read.
c. Christmas carols from England.
d. card games.

5. On Christmas Eve, the children had to entertain ____________
a. their neighbors.
b. each other.
c. a group of strangers.
d. Christmas Man.

6. When he burst into the house, Christmas Man was _____________
a. quiet.
b. friendly.
c. terrifying.
d. nervous.

7. Andrea's favorite present that Christmas was ______________
a. the snow and the homemade treats.
b. Aunt Sophie and, the old-fashioned Latvian Christmas.
c. Mom's extra-special chocolate cake. d. the one Christmas Man gave her.

8. Latvian Christmas customs _________
a. are exactly like American customs.
b. are completely different from American customs.
c. are like ours, but do not include Christmas trees.
d. are like ours, but include visits from Christmas Man.

9. Another name for this story could be _____________
a. "Andrea Visits Latvia."
b. "Ricky's Guitar."
c. "Christmas Strangers, Christmas Friends."
d. "Latvian Songs and Dances."

10. This story is mainly about __________________
a. a girl who learns to love her aunt from Latvia.
b. Christmas customs all over the world.
c. a brother and a sister who don't get along.
d. a girl who doesn't like her Christmas presents.

Christmas in Riga, Latvia from Youtube:

Sunday, November 7, 2010

John Coltrane: Great Jazz Musician

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: PEOPLE IN AMERICA, a program in Special English by the Voice of America.


He was one of the greatest saxophone players of all time. He wrote jazz music. He recorded new versions of popular songs. And, he helped make modern jazz popular. I'm Shirley Griffith.

STEVE EMBER: And I'm Steve Ember. Today, we tell about musician John Coltrane.


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: John Coltrane was born in the state of North Carolina in nineteen twenty-six. He was raised in the small farm town of High Point. Both of his grandfathers were clergymen. As a young boy, he spent a great deal of time listening to the music of the black Southern church.

Coltrane's father sewed clothes. He played several musical instruments for his own enjoyment. The young Coltrane grew up in a musical environment. He discovered jazz by listening to the recordings of such jazz greats as Count Basie and Lester Young.

STEVE EMBER: When John was thirteen, he asked his mother to buy him a saxophone. People realized almost immediately that the young man could play the instrument very well. John learned by listening to recordings of the great jazz saxophone players, Johnny Hodges and Charlie Parker.

John and his family moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in nineteen forty-three. He studied music for a short time at the Granoff Studios and at the Ornstein School of Music.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: John Coltrane served for a year in a Navy band in Hawaii. When he returned, he began playing saxophone in several small bands.

In nineteen forty-eight, Coltrane joined trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie's band. Seven years later, Coltrane joined the jazz group of another trumpet player, Miles Davis. The group included piano player Red Garland, double bass player Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones.

STEVE EMBER: Coltrane began experimenting with new ways to write and perform jazz music. He explored many new ways of playing the saxophone.

Some people did not like this new sound. They did not understand it. Others said it was an expression of modern soul. They said it represented an important change. Jazz performers, composers and other musicians welcomed this change.

During the nineteen fifties, Coltrane used drugs and alcohol. He became dependent on drugs. Band leaders dismissed him because of his drug use. In nineteen fifty-seven, Coltrane stopped using drugs.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: In nineteen fifty-nine, John Coltrane recorded the first album of his own music. The album is called "Giant Steps." Here is the title song from that album.


STEVE EMBER: Coltrane also recorded another famous song with a larger jazz band. The band included Milt Jackson on vibes, Hank Jones on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Connie Kay on drums. Here is their recording of "Stairway to the Stars."


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: In nineteen sixty, Coltrane left Miles Davis and organized his own jazz group. He was joined by McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. This group became famous around the world.

John Coltrane's most famous music was recorded during this period. One song is called "My Favorite Things." Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein had written the song for the Broadway musical "The Sound of Music." Jazz critics say Coltrane's version is one of the best jazz recordings ever made. The record became very popular. It led many more people to become interested in jazz.

(MUSIC: "My Favorite Things")

STEVE EMBER: Critics say Coltrane's versions of other popular songs influenced all jazz music writing. One of these was a song called "Summertime." It was written by Du Bose Heyward and George Gershwin for the opera "Porgy and Bess."


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: In nineteen sixty-four, Coltrane married pianist Alice McCloud who later became a member of his band. He stopped using alcohol, and became religious. He wrote a song to celebrate his religious experience. The song is more than thirty minutes long. It is called "A Love Supreme." Here is part of the song.


STEVE EMBER: By nineteen sixty-five, Coltrane was one of the most famous jazz musicians in the world. He was famous in Europe and Japan, as well as in the United States. He was always trying to produce a sound that no one had produced before. Some of the sounds he made were beautiful. Others were like loud screams. Miles Davis said that Coltrane was the loudest, fastest saxophone player that ever lived.

Many people could not understand his music. But they listened anyway. Coltrane never made his music simpler to become more popular.

Coltrane continued to perform and record even as he suffered from liver cancer. He died in nineteen sixty-seven at the age of forty in Long Island, New York.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Experts say John Coltrane continues to influence modern jazz. Some critics say one of Coltrane's most important influences on jazz was his use of musical ideas from other cultures, including India, Africa and Latin America.

Whitney Balliett of The New Yorker Magazine wrote about Coltrane the year after his death: "People said they heard the dark night ... in Coltrane's wildest music. But what they really heard was a heroic ... voice at the mercy of its own power."


STEVE EMBER: This Special English program was written by Shelley Gollust. It was produced by Lawan Davis. I'm Steve Ember.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: And I'm Shirley Griffith. Join us again next week at this time for another PEOPLE IN AMERICA program on the Voice of America.