Florida Keys

He may wander Key West looking like a tourist. But he’s writing songs about the place

Ben Wahlund isn’t your typical tourist in Key West.

For the past month, as an artist-in-residence, Wahlund has absorbed the eccentricities and the working-class sensibilities of Key West.

Instead of strolling around the Southernmost Point Buoy or Mallory Square, he’s people-watched in neighborhoods, made friends with locals, and has focused on hotel workers who toil daily behind the scenes.

“I see people all over the island working very hard to bring joy to people,” Wahlund said from inside the studio apartment provided by his host, The Studios of Key West, a nonprofit cultural arts center at 533 Eaton St.

Ben Wahlund performs one of his pieces at a Key West apartment where he is staying as a guest of The Studios of Key West for an artist residency. Gwen Filosa FLKeysNews.com

“I originally thought I’d be inspired by the traditional locations but I quickly felt more inspired by the people,” he said.

The result: 12 pieces of music written for the marimba, a percussion instrument, that the Chicago-area music instructor wrote as memories of Key West.

With titles like “Service Industry,” “Electric Cars and Tiki Bars,” “Salty Women,” “Gypsy Chicken,” and “Between Zero and One” — a reference to the Keys’ mile markers — Wahlund’s music explores those who live full-time in Key West and maybe don’t always garner the attention they deserve, he said.

Wahlund loved walking Duval Street at about 6:45 a.m., before it becomes filled with tourists and workers.

He also was motivated to write music reflecting the acceptance available in Key West and laid-back attitudes despite what it takes to earn a living at the front end of the tourist industry.

Ben Wahlund plays the marimba, a percussion instrument with roots in Central America and African traditions. Gwen Filosa FLKeysNews.com

“That’s part of the delight of the island — so many communities living together and sharing real estate,” Wahlund said. “While walking Duval, the people who work there seem so much happier than the tourists.”

Wahlund, 42, has been playing the marimba for about 30 years and composing since the mid-1990s.

Wahlund will perform at The Studios at 7 p.m. Saturday, July 13, when he will unveil the recital-length solo work, “Mile Marker Zero,” all on his marimba, a Yamaha brand instrument with rosewood bars lined up like large piano keys that comes alive when the bars are struck with mallets.

As a middle school band member, he started with a snare drum and moved over to the modern-day marimba, which resembles a xylophone and has specific roots in Central America. The instrument, which sounds like a piano, also has roots in African musical traditions.

He’s been coming to Key West with his wife for years, but he’s never had this type of living experience.

Key West is place bubbling over with artists and musicians. Jimmy Buffett may have made his fortune extolling the virtues of lying on the beach in a margarita-inspired haze and sailing the world, but there are the local musicians, like pianist Lofton “Coffee” Butler and singers Robert Albury and Cliff Sawyer, who express the soul of the island.

Wahlund’s Key West mentor for the past month has been drummer Skipper Kripitz, a lifelong musician himself.

“Such a rare musical bird he is,” Kripitz said of Wahlund, in an email urging people to go see Wahlund’s July 13 show. “He gets the wonder of it all and joyfully swims in it. “

On “Dolphin Watch,” Wahlund imagines the crew of charter ships working hard to give guests memories from their trip to Key West before having the boat to themselves.

“And when they do set sail, maybe they have fun,” Wahlund said