The weird and inspiring story of Hot Tamale Louie will come to musical life for Iowa City Jazz Fest

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Iowa City Jazz Festival: Hot Tamale Louie

Main Stage, Downtown Iowa City — Friday, June 29 at 9 p.m.

The story Zarif Khan, a.k.a. Hot Tamale Louie, inspired a musical suite by John Rapson. — image courtesy of the Obermann Center

“Over and over we forget what being American means,” Kathryn Schulz writes in a 2016 New Yorker essay about Zarif Khan, an immigrant to the U.S. in 1907 from the mountains of Afghanistan who built a tamale empire in Wyoming — yes, a tamale empire. Freely based on Schulz’s essay, UI jazz professor John Rapson’s new multimedia suite Hot Tamale Louie will be performed at the Iowa City Jazz Festival on June 29 at 9 p.m. on the main stage. It’s a stunning reminder of what being an American means in all its weirdness, stupidity and glory.

Hot Tamale Louie, much like American identity itself, is hard to classify. It’s not exactly jazz. It’s also totally jazz. Performed by a mid-sized orchestra, the suite is a series of tunes — some composed by Rapson, some by Daniel Gaglione, who plays the mandole, a kind of North African mandolin — that blends influences from the Middle East, Mesoamerica and Asia, as well as several American traditions: ragtime, country, rock, swing, Klezmer. At its center, Dave Moore, Iowa’s great troubadour, belts out “The Ballad of Hot Tamale Louie,” a loving folk-song pastiche. Assisting the music in evoking Khan’s story are projected images and silent-movie-type titles.

At two points along the way, UI theater professor Paul Kalina performs hammy-but-informative monologues. The first is about the history of the tamale, the original fast food, which was peddled in this country at the turn of the century primarily by black, Irish and Afghani people. Ain’t that America!

The second monologue narrates a capsule history of our country’s immigration laws, which have mostly been racist. For instance, in 1917, the Supreme Court ruled that citizenship should be restricted to Caucasians and, grudgingly, to the ancestors of slaves. A man from the Caucasus argued that he literally was Caucasian, to which the Court responded, “Well, not that kind of Caucasian.” Ain’t that also America.

Khan’s story, like all the best stories, takes on universal proportions in large part because it’s so bizarre. Born in a place in India that’s now part of Pakistan, he self-identified as Afghani and was called the “Turkish vendor” when he started selling an ancient Mayan staple now considered quintessentially Mexican. Even when we stay put, we end up migrating to other countries.

The performers behind “Hot Tamale Louie” — photo by Beth Rapson, courtesy of the Obermann Center

After wandering around America, Khan settled in Sheridan, Wyoming, which reminded him of the rocky landscape of his birthplace. During the tamale craze, he adopted a little place on Main Street belonging to Louis Menge and became Hot Tamale Louie. Though businesses at the time commonly sported signs saying “No dogs or Indians allowed,” Hot Tamale Louie welcomed everyone: Native Americans, society folk, school kids, whores. He was the Walt Whitman of the tamale trade.

Illiterate in English, Khan mastered the stock market by having his busboy read the financial page to him. He made a fortune, acquired American citizenship, lost his fortune in the Great Depression, had his non-Caucasian citizenship stripped, gained his fortune back again by buying up cut-rate stocks and finally got his citizenship for good in the 1950s. By that time, he’d married a young bride and had six kids. A great benefactor to his family in Pakistan, he returned there in triumph and was ignominiously murdered by an aggrieved cousin.

If your U.S. history is rusty, Hot Tamale Louie is a great reminder that our country doesn’t move steadily in any one direction. We’re always zigzagging between “Yes We Can” to “Make American Great Again.” Unfortunately, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Khan’s grandchildren recently tried to open a mosque in Wyoming, where their family has been for over a century, and were slandered as “anti-American” by a group called “Stop Islam in Gillette.” As we once again empower those who seek to narrow our identity, Hot Tamale Louie shows us just how mixed and blurred we all are and just how much we flourish when we embrace the freedom of a Sunni-Muslim Afghan to run a Mayan-Mexican restaurant that serves prostitutes and politicians.

Hot Tamale Louie is a tremendous compositional crystallization, the kind that artists are lucky to get once in a lifetime. Not only will music aficionados have lots to savor, non-jazz-lovers will love it, too. It’s a whole lot of fun — as well as fascinating and transporting. The band sizzles throughout the record. If this genre-bending jazz has a flaw, it’s the touch of moralism at the very end—though even that’s a mark of Rapson’s big-heartedness in honoring Khan’s family.

Beyond its mosaic of styles and melting pot of storytelling, my favorite bits of Hot Tamale Louie are the moments when Rapson’s piano is featured — first when he conjures the windswept emptiness of Wyoming; then in an elegy to Khan that can be compared to Lennie Tristano’s sublime “Requiem”; and finally in “The Sun Will Never Set on the Prairie,” a Chinese folk song that Rapson turns into something spacious and compassionate.

Hot Tamale Louie lets us journey beyond the comforts of storytelling into something that can best be described as holiness: an awareness of the preciousness of a particular life and an openness to the grandeur of all life, which Khan once felt as a homecoming in mountains he’d never seen before.

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Scott Samuelson’s new book is Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering: What Philosophy Can Tell Us about the Hardest Mystery of All. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 245.

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