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They were tiny ships, so small, so fragile, ones that shuddered with each wave. Three in all, they fought the elements to make a journey to a new land.

On board were 90 men and one leader.

At night, the sailors slept with the stars. The boats were too cramped to sleep below deck. During the day, they labored under the sun, stung by salt air.

They sang almost constantly, "just to hear their own voices" in a world without boundaries.

The Voyage of Columbus.

Listen to the song the sailors chanted each morning:

"Bendita sea la luz . . . "

(Blessed be the light of day.)

Professor James Lewis wasn't on that trip in 1492, never experienced three months in a storm-tossed sea, but in his music he is there.

They are only notes on a page, lyrics in a song book, but in his new composition, C.C. Seascape (si), Lewis hopes others also will make a voyage that survives only in the history books.

A composer and professor of music at the University of South Florida, Lewis has written an ode to both Columbus and to the men who made the historic voyage. The 20-minute piece _ which will be performed by a choir and the USF Wind Ensemble _ will debut tonight at 7:30 at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

Lewis said he was inspired not by Columbus' discovery, but by the daily lives of the men at sea. The work is based on Columbus' daily log and a letter about life at sea.

As a sailor _ one who has made many solo trips _ Lewis said he wanted a tribute to men who lived aboard the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria from Aug. 3, 1492, when the ships left Spain, to October when the ship landed in the Bahamas.

"It was a real ordeal," Lewis said last week in his tiny office at USF, where he has taught for 21 years. "Sailing is tough in modern times, but then!"

He pauses to consider life on the small ships, which were made of wood and driven by sails made of hemp. The largest, the Santa Maria, was 80 feet long. The smallest was 65 feet long. Not very big for almost 100 men and a trip across the mid-Atlantic.

"I was just fascinated by daily life," Lewis says.

Lewis' composition is one of many works written in the last five years to commemorate Columbus' famous voyage, said Jim Kuhn, executive director of the U.S. Christopher Columbus Jubilee Commission in Washington, D.C. At least 50 such works have been performed since 1988. But few have concentrated on the lives of the men who sailed under Columbus.

"It sounds very unique," Kuhn said last week, noting that the Jubilee's official musical, 1492, is a one-man show about Columbus. He said Lewis' work should give an audience a taste of the men who worked alongside the explorer.

Lewis' composition will integrate both songs and lengthy musical passages. The Boys Choir at St. John's Episcopal Church in Tampa and the USF Men's Glee Club will perform the choral sections in both English and Spanish. Lewis says the vocal portions of his composition are reminiscent of "16th century church music," while the woodwind ensemble is more modern, providing a balance of old and new sounds.

A recorded reading of Columbus' log will begin the piece, complete with sounds of the ocean, ship and sea birds.

The lyrics were inspired by the prologue to Columbus' daily log and a long letter by Eugenio de Salazar who wrote about life aboard sailing ships about 75 years after Columbus' voyage.

"Columbus didn't tell us a lot about daily life in his log," said Lewis, who spent 18 months researching and writing the composi-tion. "But Salazar was not a seaman. He was fascinated by sailing ships in the age of exploration."

Salazar, a Spanish magistrate who made a seven-week journey to what is now the Dominican Republic in 1573, recorded nearly every minute aboard ship. He especially loved the songs the sailors sung each morning and night.

Lewis incorporated these songs almost word for word.

The songs were an important part of ship life, Lewis said. Especially during the isolated months at sea.

"When a sailor leaves sight of land, he sings," Lewis said. "If for no other reason than to hear his voice."

The composition's first movement is the morning song, when the sailors are blessing the new day. A melancholy work, it is a requiem to land, punctuated by the clear voices of the Boy's Choir.

At night, the sailors ended their day with Salve Regina, a Benedictine hymn praying for protection.

By concentrating on life at sea, Lewis skirts the continuing controversy about the 500th anniversary of the Columbus voyage to the Bahamas and Hispanola. In an age of multicultural concerns, Columbus' "discovery" of America has come under fire by Native Americans, who charge he ravaged the land and brought diseases to the native people.

It's so controversial, in fact, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. _ a leader in anniversary celebrations _ is not allowing any tributes solely to Columbus. Instead, the center is offering musical works by and for "the people of the Americas," said Mary Johnson, the Kennedy Center's manager of special events.

"Nobody I know of is writing works honoring Columbus," shesaid. "We're emphasizing the people who live here, not Columbus."

Lewis said he did not neglect Columbus' role in the new world because of controversy, but admits he is glad his work is not embroiled in protests that have greeted other artistic works.

"This piece is non-political," Lewis said. "I wanted to narrow it to life at sea _ and let other people handle what happened next."

He wanted the audience to remember the 90 "unsung heroes" who spent months living on small boats and an unfriendly sea.

A life where _ as Salazar said _ "the music you hear is of the winds, roaring, and the sea and its waves which hit the ship bellowing."


James Lewis' C.C. Columbus (si) will be performed at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center at 7:30 tonight. Tickets are $4 and can be bought at the box office.