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Yeah I got the blues so bad, feelin' like I wanna cruise. My baby he done left me, so now it's time to drink some booze.

Oh, sorry, where was I? Oh, right, talking about cruises. But just to clear things up, my husband didn't really leave me (well, not yet anyway), and it's just too early in the morning to be thinking about booze. Honestly, I never drink before noon. Really.

But that's not the point. The point (if there is one) is music, and where it's gone in the cruise industry, which is to the bottom (of the sea). In the mid-90s, when I first started covering cruises, it seemed like every cruise line offered music-themed sailings, from Big Band shindigs to Sock Hop parties. Pretty old-timey stuff, frankly. What ever happened to those? Well, reckon those of us who don't remember the world wars, didn't really know what to make of poodle skirts and saddle shoes.

"We used to do more music and jazz themes about 10 to 15 years ago," says Eric Elvejord of Holland America Line, "but for us they just didn't drive the business the way we thought they might."

But that doesn't mean music theme-cruises have gone the way of the dodo. Instead, agents have jumped into the void, chartering ships and doing all the work of booking the acts and finding the passengers.

One of the most popular chartered music cruises over the past five years has been the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise (tel. 888-BLUESIN; www.bluescruise.com), which started life in 2002 aboard Imperial Majesty's ancient 914-passenger Regal Empress (then of Regal Cruises) and today has grown so big its January cruise aboard Holland America's 1,848-passenger Westerdam is well on its way to selling out.

What explains the draw? Duh, it's the music. For 2006, the lineup features blues-folk troubadour Taj Mahal; old-time bluesmen Little Milton, James Cotton, Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, Bob Margolin, Willie "Big-Eyes" Smith, and Bobbie "Blue" Bland; Louisiana Zydeco accordionist Buckwheat Zydeco; and younger players like Renee Austin, John Hammond, Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers, Tab Benoit, Jimmy Thackery, Joe Bonamassa, Kenny Neal, Billy Branch, Anthony Gomes, Ronnie Baker Brooks, Phillip Walker, Corey Harris, Ana Popovic, and Diunna Greenleaf.

And of course there are special "surprise guests." There always are.

At least 70 shows are scheduled over the course of the cruise, so don't think they're just having these guys play in a lounge between bingo sessions. This is a full-on music cruise, going nearly 24-7, with workshops and autograph sessions shoehorned in between performances, and jam sessions going on sometimes until 5am. Pass the Visine, please.

But of course it's not just about the music, because blues is a way of life (or something like that.) and no way of life is complete without food, and for the blues life that food is barbecue.

"We'll be bringing aboard our own BBQ chef, Amazing Grace Harris from Kansas City," says co-organizer Julia Naber, whose husband Roger Naber launched the first Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise in 2002. Harris ran her own BBQ joint in KC before taking over the cooking at Roger's old blues club, the Grand Emporium. "She'll be making her special sauce onboard," says Naber, referring to the tomato-based concoction that won top honors at KC's American Royal BBQ Contest back in the '90s, "and will oversee the Westerdam's staff in preparing pork ribs, greens, rice and beans, and other dishes."

Yummm. Don't forget to pack lots of polyester, cause your jeans ain't gonna fit for long.

The fun continues with a contest to create mixed drinks that will be featured at the ship's bars throughout the week, and dinner menus altered to include some of the musician's favorite dishes. They'll all be published in a special "Heathen's Handbook" given out to cruisers, but I got the early skinny on a few of them. And so, without further ado (but with the permission of the artists), I present Stanley "Buckwheat" Dural's Buckwheat Zydeco Shrimp Creole and (for you blues-loving vegetarians!) Corey Harris's Coconut Fried Rice.

Stanley "Buckwheat" Dural's Buckwheat Zydeco Shrimp Creole

  • 2 lbs. shrimp, shelled and de-veined
  • 1 med. onion, chopped
  • 1 med. green bell pepper, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup cooking oil
  • 1/2 small can tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes
  • 1-3 tablespoons Tabasco sauce, to taste
  • salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper, to taste
  • steamed rice
  1. Sautee onion, green pepper, celery, and garlic in the cooking oil on medium-low flame until soft.
  2. Add tomatoes and cook until somewhat reduced.
  3. Add shrimp and season with salt, pepper, and cayenne.
  4. Add 1/4 cup or so of water and Tabasco sauce, and cover.
  5. Cook 5-10 minutes until shrimp are cooked through.
  6. To thicken sauce (if desired), add thin paste made from water and flour or corn starch.
  7. Serve over steamed rice.

Corey Harris's Coconut Fried Rice

  • 2 cups jasmine rice
  • 5 crushed cloves of garlic, well minced
  • 1/2 sweet red pepper, well minced
  • 4 green onions, well minced
  • 1 small tomato, finely diced (mix the garlic, pepper, onions, and tomato together before cooking)
  • fresh thyme
  • 1 whole yellow onion, in halves
  • 1 coconut
  • olive oil
  • 1 lime
  • salt and pepper
  1. Prepare coconut milk by breaking fresh coconut (save the water!) and removing from shell. Wash off pieces and shred in blender. (You may also shred by hand using a cheese grater.) Mix in fresh water (about 1-1/2 cups) and squeeze out milk from the shreds, saving with the fresh coconut water. Repeat and strain; should make at least three cups.
  2. Heat one tablespoon olive oil; add garlic, onion, pepper, and tomato.
  3. Add rice and fry in oil until fragrant and light golden in color.
  4. Add coconut milk (three cups per two cups rice), salt and pepper, and two halves yellow onion. Bring to a boil, then turn to low heat for twenty minutes.
  5. At the last minute, sprinkle fresh thyme leaves and squeeze the juice of a whole lime onto the rice and let stand a few minutes before serving.

Best accompanied by fish or beans.

The Details

The 2006 Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise is scheduled to sail round-trip from Ft. Lauderdale January 8-15 aboard Holland America's Westerdam, visiting Montego Bay (Jamaica), Grand Cayman, Cozumel (uh-oh, party town!), and Belize City (Belize). "We're currently not sold out," says Julia Naber, "but we will be soon." Translation? The cheap seats are already gone, as are the top suites. Balcony cabins are still available, starting at $2,125 per person, plus $265 port charges and gratuities. Cram four people into a cabin and the per-person rate drops to $1,575, plus charges and tips. What, like you're going to spend much time in your cabin anyway? You won't be able to sleep with all that loud music!

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