On Sunday I went on my first hike.
I’ve walked through a forest before, even along a trail when we visited Muir Woods in California last year, but this was the first time I needed to prepare in advance of our journey. What would I wear? How would I stay hydrated? How would I know where I was going?
The internet could have told me, but I have friends who hold that knowledge and were able to share with me directly. My well-travelled friend Jessica coached me on what to wear. My sister-in-law Jenny helped me find the right CamelBack for my battered L.L. Bean bookbag. My dear friend Jack took charge of our little group of hikers to make sure we took the right trail.
The hike went well. We spoke, sweated, laughed, and sang until we reached the top of the mountain and it’s Pinnacle Rock.
We were there to say one final goodbye to our mutual friend, Dante Bucci, who had passed away the week prior due to a tragic and random accident in his home. That mountaintop was one of his favorite places – and where he recorded a video that thrust him into the spotlight as one of the world’s foremost players of the Hang drum.
Dante was in the first play I acted in on the main stage at Drexel. The Man Who Came to Dinner has 29 listed cast members, of whom Gina and I were two. Neither of us had any idea of how much impact some of them would go on to have on our lives, while others would quickly recede. Two were members of my wedding party – three, if you count Gina. One would become my co-worker and good friend. Another, my first kiss.
It took some time to understand what Dante would become to me. I still don’t know if I can articulate it. I remember so clearly how he had to emerge repeatedly from a pair of pocket doors to deliver these brief, exasperated lines, and how the doors would get stuck and eventually Dante’s exasperation and the character’s exasperation were indistinguishable, which made it even funnier.
That lack of distinction between Dante and the part he played was his hallmark. He was not merely an actor, a singer, a musician, or a human being. Dante embodied his art from the first note to the last. He was a work of art himself.
Dante acted. He joined Drexel’s male acappella group 8 To The Bar midway through a season, lending his astounding vocal percussion to their songs. He sang in choir and in a select Madrigal group, whose intricate, interwoven melodies first escaped my comprehension and later delighted me to no end. He was the first drummer I ever recorded, playing the talking drum on the demo of “Amphibious” with Gina for Blogathon. When he was E’s roommate he focused on guitar, playing and replaying songs until he got them right – down to the last little riff. Shortly after, he was on congas when he invited me to join my first band, a rough-at-the-edges covers act with our friends Justin and Geoff. That fall he cut the first drums on any of my original songs for a hi-fi recording of “Icy Cold” for my old podcast Trio.
Dante was always growing and refining. He could play any instrument he picked up in a mere moment. (One of my proudest memories is producing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on a cello slightly faster than Dante could manage when we were both introduced to the instrument.) As we moved up and on from college his tastes in instruments became more electric. Didgeridoo (of which he constructed his own). Nose flute. Theremin. Hang drum.
The Hang drum had something none of the other instruments had. It was more restrictive – it could not play a full chromatic scale, and Dante could not bend or slide notes as he could on so many other instruments. Yet, the Hang is otherworldly. It’s a drum that sings. It’s meditative but insistent.
It was a perfect match for a musician who was as much music as he was man, so it made perfect sense that it was the instrument of his sudden explosion of popularity on YouTube and in the Philadelphia music scene. I watched many times as Dante and his Hang brought a chattering room to awed silence, the air filled only with his melody.
Despite preparing me for my hike, in the preceding week no one could explain to me how to grieve for a friend who was so dear, so talented, and so essential to to the world and to my own life’s story. When E and I first learned the news I couldn’t breathe, my mouth frozen in a silent scream, hands clutched to my heart as if to make sure it would keep beating. I didn’t know how I would walk into his viewing and speak to his family, let alone go on living and listening to his beautiful music without breaking down. I gamely asked our friend Tony the next day, a doctor of Psychology, just in case there was an easy solution that experienced grievers would know about.
He said, “There’s no right thing to say or do. Just be there, and hold people close.”
I have held many people very closely over the past ten days. Some of them repeatedly.
I felt happy and alive at the top of the mountain despite the mournful purpose of our journey. I hiked to the top with friends who I used to see every day at rehearsal and impromptu parties, who now I see every few months or years. We clambered from rock to rock, laughing and watching hawks and vultures circle in the distance. When the rest of our company joined us, including Dante’s family, the mood grew more somber. We gathered around a high rock jutting out into the sky with nothing surrounding it. Lindsay sang “Blackbird” with Dante’s friend John to begin our ceremony with her daughter seated on her lap, smiling. After others spoke and read, Anthony (yet another face from The Man Who) held up his iPhone above his head.
From the speakers wafted Dante’s voice, now gone from this world, singing Paul McCartney’s “Junk.”
I attended the record release show where Dante debuted the song to an audience. I cried there, silently smiling. I used to stand next to Dante in choir to steal his notes, and later in our acappella group Progeny. I knew the perfection of his voice, how it was just one more instrument to bend to his will. (No, not “bend” – Dante never bent, just coaxed.) I never thought of him as a bass or a baritone, but instead a complex machine like that cello – one who could resonate low and deeply only to then sigh so high and delicately.
“Junk” has all of those parts of Dante’s voice. When E and I left his show with his album Kinesthesia in-hand, I turned to her and said, “That is the song I’ve always wanted to hear Dante sing.” I couldn’t stop playing it. I played it for anyone who came to our house – mostly my mother, who kindly said after the second time, “Yes, you’ve played that before – it’s beautiful.”All this past week I couldn’t play the song. On the morning we learned the news, I was crying desperately on the floor with E and EV6 squeezed between us and said, “I want to hear him sing so badly, but I’m afraid to hear him, because then I’ll know I can never really hear him again.” E held me close and said, “We already can’t hear him again, but you can listen to him whenever you want.”
Dante gave us songs, and he gave me so many memories – many of which are documented here. He was the best possible friend no matter how close you were or how often you saw him, always supporting, laughing, and dispensing hugs. He and Lindsay brought me to New Hope for the first time. We held music festivals at his family’s house from 2004 through 2008, and in 2005 he agreed to join me for a solo set. I practiced for it so much that I completely wore through all of my calluses, but I would just keep playing – how could I not take advantage of time to play with Dante? Later he would play drums with Arcati Crisis for a Winter Mixer show, and again at a little coffee shop where my father saw me play for the first time.
When his Hang music grew in popularity, his was the first press kit I ever put together, revising repeatedly to try to express the truth of his music in inadequate words. In 2010, he got me booked for my first solo set at the Tin Angel on a bill he was headlining. I don’t think he ever missed an Arcati Crisis show in Philadelphia proper, always hugging and congratulating me as I stepped off the stage.
I did the same for him twice this year, at two record releases – one for his solo album, and another for a thrilling project he undertook with Angela Sheik, who made it a point to have Dante play as many instruments as he was able on stage at each show. Those two shows were a delightful greatest hits of Dante, all those things E used to hear through the wall or that he would excitedly introduce me to in his parents’ basement. This was the true Dante I loved, the human work of art on display for all the world to see.
When Anthony played “Junk” at the top of the mountain, for a moment I was transported back to my first moment of grief, breathless and terrified, clutching my chest. Then the song reached the point between the verses where Dante simply moans the melody in delicate harmony with the strings.
I could breathe, then. I looked up into the beautiful sky from atop the mountain – Dante’s mountain – with nothing between the clouds and I except the air and the waves of sound carrying Dante’s voice away into the distance.
I cried there, silently smiling up into the sunlight.
Dante gave me that moment, too.