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Florida professor’s ‘Through the Mangrove Tunnels’ is music inspired by Weedon Island

Composer Scott Lee’s eerie album wades into the nature preserve’s history and memory.
The mangrove tunnels at Weedon Island in St. Petersburg are accessible by kayak.
The mangrove tunnels at Weedon Island in St. Petersburg are accessible by kayak. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times (2019) ]
Published Nov. 23, 2020
Updated Dec. 1, 2020

There is an illicit, late-night DJ set in an abandoned speakeasy surrounded by 3,000 acres of spindly mangrove roots and mosquito ditches swamped with brackish water.

Picture the music floating out to the 1,000-year-old shell mounds left by indigenous Floridians and over the overgrown remnants of the airstrip runway left by those who came much later.

You can’t go to this dance party, but maybe composer Scott Lee can take you there via Narvaez Dance Club from his new album, Through the Mangrove Tunnels, released Nov. 13 on New Focus Recordings.

Lee, a professor at the University of Florida who teaches composition and electronic music, grew up in St. Petersburg on a canal leading to Riviera Bay and the Weedon Island Preserve just beyond that.

Composer and UF professor Scott Lee.
Composer and UF professor Scott Lee. [ Courtesy of Scott Lee ]

He began volunteering at the preserve as a boy and continued through high school, leading canoe trips for summer camps and weekend visitors, and hacking down overgrown branches at the behest of the park’s naturalist. He remembers dipping a net into the muck to dredge up sand so that campers could inspect what kind of creatures it held.

He’d jog and hike the trails, and get stranded on the water in the surrounding bayous when the secondhand boat his father would allow him to take out with friends would putter out.

“We’d be out fishing and the engine wouldn’t start, so we’d always have to find creative ways to pull the boat back to shallow water,” said Lee, now 32.

That memory inspired Through the Mangrove Tunnels’ sixth movement, Engine Trouble, with scratching strings that evoke a running motor that, as Lee put it, “falls apart in different ways and tries to rebuild itself again.”

Performed by the JACK Quartet string quartet, Steven Beck on piano and Russell Lacy on drums, the entire album is inspired by Lee’s childhood memories of Weedon Island, from gleeful mullet to a mysterious man in the bayou, and his later meditations on the preserve’s historical significance, something he did not fully grasp until he began reading about it as an adult.

It’s Lee’s first full-length album, and at 45 minutes, his longest composition to date.

“Most novelists write their first novel about their home, using their own lives as inspiration,” Lee said. “I think that applies here as well. It’s the thing I know best, but it has a wider significance that others can glean from it, with stories about memory, place and the natural world.”

Lee is a modern classical composer, but the album features elements of jazz, hip-hop and other pop styles, such as on the track Narvaez Dance Club. In that movement, Lee imagines the Narvaez Dance Club — a real-life speakeasy that developer Eugene M. Elliott used to ply prospective Weedon Island property buyers with bootleg booze in the 1920s — as the site of an eerie, modern-day DJ set in the wilderness, through stylistic allusions to reggaeton, trap music and finally EDM.

In reality, the speakeasy named for conquistador Panfilo Narvaez, whose expedition may have landed around Tampa Bay in 1528, burned down nearly a century ago.

The album’s ethereal title track, Through the Mangrove Tunnels, evokes a sense of gliding over the water beneath the arching mangrove canopy. Weedon Island is natural Florida, but there are always traces of human activity, such as long-ago plane crashes and shootouts, and the dashed hopes of capitalism. Even the miles of famed kayaking trails are actually a man-made grid of mosquito ditches dug by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s. The idea was to flush out stagnant water with the daily tide to combat the insects and make the island more desirable.

“There’s a groove that pulls you along,” Lee said of the opening track. “But you’re hearing these interruptions, flashbacks of history wafting through the air in this mysterious landscape, and then the groove kind of pulls you back and you’re moving again.” It can sound peaceful, but those otherworldly flourishes evoke something ominous. Lee said that in this case those feelings are complementary.

When he visits Weedon Island, he feels the weight of everything that has gone on there. “You can look at a picture of the mangroves, but it doesn’t quite communicate what it feels like,” he said. “That’s what I try to do.”

Playthings of Desire takes its name from the title of one of three movies filmed at Sun Haven Studios on Weedon Island in the 1930s. The short-lived movie studio had hoped to create a new Hollywood in Florida, but fizzled out.

Playthings of Desire, which Lee laughingly calls “just a really, dramatically bad movie,” is about a playboy who goes on a honeymoon to Florida. His wife ends up with someone else, and he ends up dead in an alligator pit.

There’s a scene with a swanky outdoor party, where a string ensemble plays very kitschy, melodramatic music that caught Lee’s attention.

“I actually transcribed that music and used it,” he said. “So you have this swampy music and then music from the film wafts in at a point and fades back out. I was imagining being in the mangrove tunnels when all the sudden you find yourself in the filming of this swanky party scene, with these old-timey 1930s people dressed like they would be, but then it fades away like a mirage.”

The most epic story Lee takes on, though, is the 11-minute Ballad of Willie Cole, inspired by the story of a Black worker living on Weedon Island in the late 1920s who awoke one morning to see smoke rising from a shed where a guest was staying. Cole found the man dead.

The police discovered it wasn’t by fire, but wounds suffered from an ax attack in a likely robbery. There were fingers in the water, and remnants of exploded blasting caps. Cole was blamed, despite no evidence he’d been involved, and sentenced to life. A lawyer took on his case and, years later, won Cole’s freedom in a retrial.

“That case was a very famous regional case in all the newspapers, if you go back and read some of the articles,” Lee said. He still has the clips saved on his computer. “They’re incredibly racist, and contradictory in that they describe Cole as sort of a criminal mastermind, but then say there’s no way a Black man could have done this alone.”

The movement has a wide, narrative scope with moments of chaos, intense unease and sorrow. “You can’t tell it without having some dissonant music that illustrates that feeling.”

Lee began Through the Mangrove Tunnels several years ago as his doctoral dissertation at Duke University, but finished the album in Gainesville with support from the University of Florida.

He wasn’t expecting to get to come home to the Sunshine State. “In academia you kind of just have to apply to everything and go where you can,” he said. But there was something “poetic” about returning to release an album about natural Florida.

You can purchase a download of Through the Mangrove Tunnels at scottleemusic.bandcamp.com/album/through-the-mangrove-tunnels, stream it via Spotify or Apple Music or purchase a physical CD through Amazon.