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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Homeless jet-setter brings life, hope to scores

A little over a year ago, composer and songwriter Joseph (Joe) Curiale had a residence in Hollywood with a flashy car parked in front. Now he is technically homeless. A homeless jet-setter, he jokes.

Joseph Curiale
Self-professed homeless jet-setter Joseph Curiale takes on the plight of many of India's impoverished, saves lives and reinstills hope in the hearts of many. ERIC PRIDEAUX PHOTO

Early in 2006, Curiale saw a TV report by CNN international correspondent Satinder Bindra concerning the near quarter of a million farmers in India who have been driven to suicide by a vicious cycle of ongoing drought and rising debt. According to conservative government figures, one farmer is killing himself every five hours out of utter hopelessness.

"It shocked me to my core," recalls Curiale, currently based with friends in Yokohama. "I'd been blinded by information technology's smoke screen of progress. The reality is that only a small percentage of the Indian population is reaping the benefits of the IT boom."

What touched Curiale's heart especially was the plight of widows left in thrall to moneylenders.

"I was especially moved by Anjamma. Deeply in debt and unable to buy her son a handful of rice, she had such dignity. Yet I could see the pain in her eyes." It was at this moment that Curiale says he heard a voice: "Pay her debt."

"Now, I'm not the sort of person this happens to," he chuckles. "I'm in show biz, for heaven's sake." Yet the instruction was clear. Like most of the widows, Anjamma was being harassed by moneylenders, some of whom charge 450-percent interest and often demand partial repayment by raping the women.

"I contacted Satinder who put me in touch with a member of the Indian Parliament who was championing the cause. I told him I wanted to pay Anjamma's debt, and he said he'd help me do just that."

Trouble was, Curiale didn't have the money.

But having written a book, "The Spirit of Creativity," which contains a chapter on trusting intuition and going with the flow, he knew he had to walk his talk. "Within days, I received a totally unexpected music related royalty check for $1,600. More than enough."

A few days later, however, he woke to hear the voice again, asking, "Why do this alone? Ask your friends to help."

"Sending out some 200 e-mails, I immediately began to receive pledges, and within a month had $9,000. Adding this to my royalty money, I set off for India with total faith."

Faith has supported Curiale through some hard times. From Bridgeport, Conn., he first came to Japan in 1978 playing trumpet with the Glen Miller Orchestra.

He loved his time here so much he came back to spend one and half years in Kobe. "I taught English for Berlitz and was an early ALT in the public school system. Knowing I was a composer, I was always finished by noon."

Hollywood, to where he moved to develop his musical career, proved a tougher nut to crack.

"I went from a year of sleeping on friends' floors to a job with Johnny Carson's Tonight show, where I stayed some 11 years." The closing number, which he wrote, remains a classic.

Composing and songwriting, he says, is 90 percent rejections. But another miracle: He was hired by Columbia Pictures and suddenly found himself working with many of his heroes, from Gerry Goffin and Carole King to Quincy Jones to Michael Jackson. Curiale's hit record "Breakdance" sold 4 million worldwide. "In 1983, I went from zero to 100 -- a rocket year."

His connection with Japan deepened. "I worked on a racing car movie here. Arranged songs on an album by enka singer Sayuri Ishikawa. Wrote a song for the Japanese band WINK. I've always found a way to come to and fro."

Then came a near-death experience in Singapore. "It took me eight years to recover, while all the time I was opening like a channel."

Days after Lady Diana's death he was standing on a podium conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in an arrangement of "Gates of Gold," based on his life in Japan. Days after the Kobe earthquake, he was on his way from the U.S. carrying eight boxes of emergency supplies.

He knew things would change in 2006. "I was ready for something major."

When Curiale stood before Anjamma on the exact same spot he had seen her on CNN, she had not eaten for three days and had just been told someone from America was coming to help. Little wonder that when her debt was paid, she broke down in tears.

Curiale was also able to pay the debts of four other widows and help 30 others survive until he could return. "I asked them not to give up hope. Everyone lets them down so I knew I had to keep my word."

Back in L.A., he raised another $16,000: seven more widows freed from slavery. The fund-raising effort for a third trip was helped in part by a half-hour special by New Delhi Television called 'Sowing Hope." In less than one year he'd raised $50,000.

Curiale has organized free medical and eye care. On May 15, two orphaned girls will have major surgery to repair deformities in their feet and legs. Money has been set aside pay the school fees, books and uniforms of more than 30 child victims of suicide.

While his dream is to make Anjamma's village a model for other affected areas, there are problems. "She's become a target of jealousy in her village. Also, I've been held hostage twice by local men, resentful that I'm not helping them. Ironically, one group was made up of musicians!"

There are elements in government and among international conglomerates that are unhappy with the ground swell of awareness for which Curiale is responsible. "I'm told I'm in danger, but I can't let that stop me."

Curiale is eager to make Yokohama his base, because of the support he receives from international schools here.

"I'll put things into motion when I return from India on May 29."

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