How three Erieites discovered and share their gifts
Think of this story as a collection of stocking stuffers — three small yet personal gifts of holiday music, good health, and a cheery cat tale.
First, meet Dave VanAmburg. He made a career as a business consultant and has been an integral part of Erie's vibrant music community for decades, championing the creation of JazzErie, producing concerts, and supporting local musicians in many other ways. Then 10 years ago, "out of the blue" he decided to play music again. His wife Rebecca encouraged him to pursue his dream of sharing his music beyond an audience of their children and grandkids. "Her support deserved my total discipline. I gave myself five years to make up for 40, learning theory, acoustic and electric guitar, keyboard, vocals and performance," he writes in Tools and Toys, his memoir (still a work in progress) about his musical journey.
Dave had stepped away from performing music several times. In fact, the first time he "retired" was after third grade, when he opted to concentrate on "sports, Boy Scouts, and public speaking," giving up piano lessons from Marion Sellers, he writes in his memoir. At age 17, he "woke up" to music again. "Mike Moryc showed me some guitar basics and I mastered finger-style guitar. I played the coffee house circuit, returned to piano and learned flute and sax. I managed a coffee house and formed two bands," he writes.
Playing with the group Calico, he also composed and arranged music. Calico drew large crowds and "could fill a hall with 750 people, but we couldn't gain enough traction to support ourselves. So I retired a second time," he writes.
For his third foray into performing, he studied under legendary Erie musicians, including Stan Bialomizy and the late Basil Ronzitti. He also found a crew of local musicians who clicked with each other. His friends and business clients, the Schwab family, invited him to play twice weekly at their Bel Aire Hotel. "Every Wednesday and Friday they had a different band in there. If they had the musical chops, they would play with us, or (we'd) turn around and we would play with them." Those bands included Matty B. and the Dirty Pickles, the Bootlegger's Bible Club, and the House of Rhythm, with father and son Jim and Jackson Froman.
Six years ago, Dave, Phil Papotnik, David Blaetz and Rickie Lynn Hopkins formed the V Band. They have a regular gig at Room 33 on the second Saturday of each month, which will move to the fourth Saturday in January. Papotnik, owner of Raven Sound, is an "amazing" musician who plays multiple instruments, including guitar, bass, tenor sax, flute and clarinet, said VanAmburg. Blaetz, on bass, has played with dozens of local bands and also tours with Sam Hyman and Steamroller, the James Taylor tribute band. Blaetz plays with intuition, VanAmburg explained. "It's like a tapestry, the flowing of the threads back and forth."
Then there's Hopkins, a percussionist as well as a drummer. "They all listen so carefully to everybody else. (Rickie) will hit a certain rhythmic device and instantly David is on that groove, that same rhythm."
Whether you are a performer or in the audience, music is about much more than nailing the right notes or sliding into the rhythm, Dave said. "Music serves such a great purpose. If you play a song that somebody knows from the past that had an influence on them, we don't play note-for-note covers. It brings back that emotional connection for the listeners, from their past," he said.
On Sunday, Dec. 10, at 2:30 p.m., the V Band will give a concert, "Getting in the Christmas Spirit," at St. Andrew's Catholic Church, 1116 W. Seventh St. There is no charge but donations will benefit Julia Hospice and Palliative Care. The concert is organized by the parish's Forward in Faith group and sponsored by the Ladies Guild and Copy King.
In September, Lisa Austin arranged for the V Band to play on the steps of St. Andrew's for the West BayFront Porchfest. That performance "was like coming home for me. I spent the first 21 years of my life living in that neighborhood," said Dave, who grew up in the 900 block of West Sixth Street. In fact, his first venture close to home occurred when his parents allowed him to ride his tricycle around the block at age three. "I would go from house to house and visit all the neighbors and they'd invite me in. The entire neighborhood means the world to me," he said, recalling the nuns, priests, scout leaders, and parishioners "who made me who I am" and "who continue to give back to the neighborhood."
For more information about Dave, visit davevanamburg.com.
Like Dave, Shawnta' Pulliam-Brown (a member of the first class of Erie's 40 Under 40) has a talent for reimagining a world where we are more in tune with ourselves. Her focus is on healthy lifestyles. An entrepreneur and author, she draws on her own life story to extol the need for self-esteem and to stress the benefits of self-discipline, especially when it comes to what we eat.
In 2006, Shawnta' started Nurturing Hearts, a self-esteem and self-development program for at-risk girls. The program is now offered in Erie elementary, middle, and high schools. In 2017, she published her memoir, Hell Bent, Heaven Bound: One Woman's Journey from the Drug House to the King's House, in which she recounts her youthful traumas, including being expelled from high school and suffering a nervous breakdown in college.
In 2021, while continuing to direct Nurturing Hearts and work part-time in safety and security for Wabtec, she opened Sacred Divine Femininity, 4906 Richmond St., where she offers guidance on natural health remedies, yoni steaming, and doula services, among other programs.
I sat in when she gave a presentation about her services at the Erie Food Co-Op's downtown location on Perry Square.
Shawnta', a pescatarian, is concerned about how the Standard American Diet (SAD) negatively impacts health, especially for African Americans. "High blood pressure, diabetes, and heart conditions are really prevalent in the African American community," she said.
Chauncey Dumbuya, a Co-Op board member, attended the presentation with her daughters, Shariah Boykin, 20, and Honey Brown, 15. "It's a generational way of life," said Chauncey, who learned the positive impact that a food co-op can have on Black members when she visited minority-run co-ops in North Carolina.
Shawnta' is board-certified as a natural health practitioner by the American Association of Natural Wellness Professionals. She isn't an M.D. and is careful to distinguish between what she can and can't do. For example, she can't advise someone to stop taking prescription medicine or to reduce the dosage. "You have to do that under a doctor's supervision," she said. But she is always pleased when a client makes lifestyle changes and tells her that chronic health conditions have eased or even disappeared. Such changes could include a "detox" from meat, taking vitamins and minerals, drinking more water, adjusting sleep habits, and taking advantage of "emotional and spiritual support."
The doula service offers educational, emotional, and physical support for women pre-labor, during labor, and post-labor. Her goal is to combat the disproportionately high childbirth mortality rate for women of color.
But how do you flip a switch to become a healthier person?
Her "aha!" moment occurred at a burger cookout with Wabtec coworkers. "I started Googling what kale was doing for me, what spinach was doing for me," she recalled. She was also motivated to change her eating habits after her mom suffered two strokes. Don't worry if family members don't want to give up meat. "My husband still eats beef and chicken," she said. Still, she advised, you can also keep it simple. Eat more fruits. Eat more vegetables.
For more information, email SacredDivineFemininity@gmail.com or call 814-299-9550.
For both Dave and Shawnta', peace and harmony come with making the right connections, whether it's an emotional link to music or insights into how mind, body and spirit work together.
So my final connection this holiday is to tell you about Angie Andrews, daughter of Mary and Howie Heintz. Howie graduated from St. Andrew's, where his sister Cathy and I became lifelong friends. Cathy asked me to plug Angie's self-published children's book Tux and Edo about a little boy who is curious about the origin of tuxedo cats. The book, illustrated by Rebecca Lambertson, is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites.
While Angie's husband was stationed in Okinawa with the U.S. Army, she wrote for Okinawa Magazine and blogged for the Army Wives Network. After they transferred back to the U.S. about a year ago, she worked on her book, inspired by her two cats, Hunter and Matthews. Talking to Dave prompted me to put the Christmas concert at St. Andrew's onto my to-do list. Meeting with Shawnta' reminded me that it really is time to join the Erie Food Co-Op. And Angie's book made me appreciate anew my daily interactions with Jack, our neighbor's roaming tuxedo cat, who likes to sun himself on our front porch. I can't pet him due to allergies but I could treat him to a Christmas stocking.
Liz Allen wishes happy holidays and a merry Christmas to all our readers. You can reach her at email@example.com.