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The Player


But Seriously, Folk. Paul Rangell is Santa Cruz’s master of old-time folk music

Flinty and seductive, the sound of a mandolin always evokes the moodiness of another time, another century. In Santa Cruz, if you hear a mandolin, chances are you’re listening to Paul Rangell. In a world where people text more than they create, Rangell is something of an anomaly: a passionate expatriate from techno-culture. On mandolin, fiddle, or litho press, his rigorous craftsmanship is the stuff of local legend. A self-taught master of old-time swing, dance and folk music, he sets toes tapping for pop-up audiences all over town.

In pursuit of vintage vernacular music, Rangell seeks out the stuff that isn’t written down, but instead handed down from one guitar to another, by watching someone else fingering the melodies and chords, then repeating them over and over until it’s in the hands, the body, the blood. Uncompromising in his quest for authenticity of technique and performance, Rangell—along with his family and musical colleagues—is a living archive of musical history brought to life at weekly gigs. An unquenchable performer, Rangell’s drive is nothing short of inspiring.

Key Change

Last May, Rangell resigned from his university job of 30 years. After three decades as an instructor with cult status, a driving force in UCSC’s printmaking program, Rangell returned full-time to music.

“So I got all the necessary papers, and took them with me to L.A., where we were scheduled to perform at the Los Angeles Old Time Social,” he says. “There was a major party for the performers. We were on such a high, it was a day with genuine people, friendly people.”

During a break from playing, Rangell and his music partner/wife, Emily Abbink, explored the neighborhood, found a mailbox and ceremoniously “licked the envelope and mailed in the resignation.” Rangell’s dark eyes dance as he recalls this moment.

“It was closing a circle—so symbolic for us. The timing couldn’t have been better,” he says. “Here was this great music event we were part of, seven of my printmaking students had come to be there. We were so excited.”

It was the closest he ever got, he says, to playing at Dodger Stadium.

See that’s the thing. As much as Rangell’s life looks like a dream gig to some of us—making music at parties, theaters, outdoor market venues, as well as teaching three generations of young printmakers—there’s always some road not taken. And for Rangell, it was the one that led to The Show.

“Yeah, I wanted to be a baseball player,” he admits. “But I was too short.”

He played catcher, passionately, and kept the spark lit as a little league coach at Harvey West Park. When not making music, he listens to the ballgame on the radio.

“And Western swing records,” he says.

Usually traveling by bicycle, he sometimes drives a Prius. Slowly.

“I don’t mind irritating other drivers,” he growls good-naturedly. “I hate to see Santa Cruz change.”

Marriage of Minds

cov 1Emily Abbink, often seen playing a Martin guitar at her husband’s side, has been with Rangell through 32 years, two sons and thousands of performances. They met in New Mexico in the 1980s, when Abbink was a professional field archaeologist working in Navaho territory.

“It was pretty interesting work, and pretty grueling,” she admits. She was doing folk dancing when she met Rangell, who was in Albuquerque getting his Master Printer rating at the Tamarind Institute.

“I had a band called the Adobe Brothers,” Rangell recalls. “I played fiddle, guitar,  mandolin, and I started getting to know the music of New Mexico.” 

It was a pivotal time for them both, playing Cajun and New Mexican music for contra and square dance with a new group Bayou Seco, and learning from masters like Cleofes Ortiz. Insisting that he’s no ethnomusicologist, Paul Rangell prefers to make music, not study it.

These days, Rangell plays with a variety of regular partners in the community, virtuosi who include mandolinist Irene Herrmann, fiddler Laurie Rivin and concertina player Janet Dows, as well as visiting players who care to sit in. But Abbink is his closest musical companion, and can be heard strumming alongside him at the regular gigs they play around town, including the Saturday Farmers Market on the Westside, where Rangell is now music coordinator. He candidly admits “I couldn’t do it without her.” The husband and wife were often joined in the late ’90s and early 2000s by their two sons, Rafael and Benny, who both played fiddle with the Rhythm Rangellers.

The two musicians make a distinctive visual impression. In colorful skirts and long braided hair, Emily’s focus is on both music and husband, who performs wearing vintage plaids and tweeds, a tie (always), and his signature shock of wild dark hair. Consulting their hand-lettered “tune lists” of songs and chord progressions, the duo perform a smooth segue of selections in varying keys and time signatures, customizing the repertoire as the venue requires.

“Emily is a very strong person, and a tremendous influence in my life. We are a team—her chords on guitar form the basis of our music,” Rangell explains. “The melody I play is the punctuation, the text.”

Abbink stands on his left, their instruments and eyes synched. “We’re co-conspirators,” he adds with a wicked grin.

For many years, Abbink was up on the hill, too, teaching first in American Studies “off and on” and then for the Stevenson Core course, until she retired this year. “If American Studies were still there, I might still be up there too,” she admits.

First Licks

cov 2Growing up in Los Angeles, Rangell came up to go to UCSC in 1972. He started playing guitar when he was nine years old, at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica. Inspired by his teacher David Zeitlin, Rangell devoured old folk songs.

“I especially loved the Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and Carter Family songs,” Rangell says. “I even had a rock ‘n’ roll band for junior high school dances. It was 1967, a big time for folk music. Blonde on Blonde had just come out,” he recalls, eyebrows cocked for emphasis. “Dylan was one of my heroes.”

His older brother was already on the hippie path. “He lived in the Haight. I went out to visit, and suddenly had the sense of belonging to a bigger purpose. That’s the lure of playing vintage music. Togetherness. When you play this music, you can always connect with people—you belong to a club that’s expressing emotions, qualities that move people.”

Rangell had hit on something powerful.

“The mandolin entered my life in 1974. I was living up in a place called Canyon, near Berkeley, on a hiatus from UCSC. The living was on the edge,” he says with a laugh. “There was a Monday night sing in people’s houses. My brother had a bowl mandolin.” And that was it. Rangell taught himself first mandolin, then violin, and began collecting songs wherever he went. After graduating from UCSC, he studied at the prestigious Tamarind facility for two years and returned to Santa Cruz to take a one-year appointment in printmaking “that turned into a 30-year gig.”

On the Road

A few weeks ago Rangell, his wife and frequent mandolin partner Herrmann played at the Festival of Mandolins in San Francisco, a gathering of greats in the ethnic music kingdom, where Rangell was the featured performer. The quest for folkloric fellowship has taken them from Quebec to Mexico, to France’s Le Grand Bal de l’Europe, Pinewoods Festival in Massachusetts, the Santa Fe Banjo and Fiddle Festival, and beyond. Every year for the past 20 years, Rangell has performed and given workshops at the Festival of American Fiddle Masters in Port Townsend, Washington. For seven years, Rangell, Abbink and family also took part in El Teatro Campesino’s Christmas plays, driving to San Juan Bautista several times a week in fall and winter for rehearsals. The Rangell sons literally grew up playing music.

“They didn’t know that everybody didn’t play music together,” Abbink grins.

Rangell reckons their duo repertoire includes at least 250 numbers by now.  The people’s music of Cuba, Italy, Puerto Rico, New Mexico, Sicily, as well as the old Celtic string band music, by way of Appalachia. Rumbas, mambos, waltzes, arias, tangos, boleros, mazurkas, polkas, tarantellas. The romantic folkloric music of Euro-Hispanico-Anglo cultures. It’s all in their fingertips. Rangell refreshes the repertoire by “pouring through old archives. We have a big record library. And we go to the source, studying masters like New Mexico fiddler Cleofes Ortiz and Riccardo Tunzi.”

A Vintage Social Network

Workshops, performances, three regular local gigs a week—it doesn’t stop. What drives this relentless schedule?

“I’m a working musician. This is my trade,” Rangell says. “Maintaining a presence in the community—lifting spirits, passing along and preserving traditions. My interest in lithography is for the same reason. Not art, but craft. I don’t make art music, I make social music.”

Rangell maintains that he needs to perform in order to keep the music fresh in his mind. Besides, he doesn’t read music. 

“I like to go to the source and work with masters. Each year, we go up to Washington for a week, I teach there, and I enjoy playing with old friends and masters.” He sighs. “Now I’m becoming a master geezer myself.”

The music on his new Noche Azul CD displays the range of Rangell’s expertise. One piece, “Mazurka in D,” is particularly haunting.

“It connects me to the old country,” Rangell admits. “It’s both melancholy and joyful.  Starts out minor, but then has a major key resolution.” The striking piece contains “lots of dramatic, evocative, melodic associations.” Its effect lies somewhere between grappa and black velvet, a momentary showcase for the emotional power of music.

High Priest of Polka

No longer happy with the atmosphere on the hill, the musician is content to have stepped out of his longtime role as teacher of intaglio.

“I haven’t given up printmaking,” Rangell reminds me with a steely look. “I’m just really concentrating on music right now. We’ve produced two major CDs in two years. I produced them, organized them, it was a lot of work. These are our creative impulses now. It’s great.”

The Craftsman home Paul and Emily restored together is a museum-quality shrine to their shared passion for authentic folk music. Historic photos of performers line the walls, interspersed with Rangell’s bold lithographic prints. Bookcases bulge with antique music texts, and the living room is lined with the couple’s collection of antique stringed instruments from all over the world. “We’ve done detective work together to find this repertoire—it’s a great powwow of Mexican, European, Latin American music,” he says. “Making music is my religious practice. Communion is a good word for it.”

For years, no university party, celebration, BBQ, or retirement occurred without the Rangells filling the hall with toe-tapping music. “We just love to play, and make a little scratch on the side,” he says.

Considered one of the living masters of old time folk music, Rangell will be in residence once again this summer in Port Townsend, and then next year at the Harvey Foundation in Venice, Italy, where he will contact and perform with traditional musicians of the region.

Having arrived at the center of his life, Rangell continues to exert his rough charm making music each day with people he loves. Sounds a whole lot like happiness.

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