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COVID-19 Trapped Big Mike in Paradise; He’s Still There 

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The unexpectedly prolonged stay has allowed Aguirre to explore the island in detail, which brought him to Big Spring Heritage Site, a freshwater source that includes petroglyphs from the island’s earliest inhabitants. - MIKE AGUIRRE
  • MIKE AGUIRRE
  • The unexpectedly prolonged stay has allowed Aguirre to explore the island in detail, which brought him to Big Spring Heritage Site, a freshwater source that includes petroglyphs from the island’s earliest inhabitants.

At present, Aguirre has no clue when he'll return to St. Louis -- though coming home is certainly never far from the front of his mind.

"Let me just say this: The last thing I want to do is seem like I'm thumbing my nose at everybody at home," he says. "Yes, this is paradise. Yes, I've gained more than I can describe in perspective since I've been here. At the same time, this has been the most challenging experience of my life."

His lease for his downtown apartment ran out in July — he had to arrange for his belongings to be packed up and put into storage. It didn't make sense for him to renew that lease, he figured, especially since he's now spending what little he brings in on a place in Anguilla.

"Without any income, having to come up with rent here for a little apartment, one bedroom, one bath, no hot water, no drinkable water — pretty awesome," he laughs. "And then the rent on the lease back home? So I'm pretty much homeless in St. Louis at this point until I can generate enough income to pay for rent somewhere. Staying with friends and family isn't the best idea when cases are blowing up all over the place."

Considering the fact Aguirre is a full-time musician and opportunities in that field have all but dried up in St. Louis as well as the United States at large, it just doesn't make sense to come home at this point, he says. He also knows that many of his colleagues are struggling just to get by.

"I don't wanna be part of that problem and be there competing with them for limited scraps," he says. "It was hard to be sustainable before, working with local industries and stuff, as a musician. So not being part of the problem — and not putting anybody at risk — sounds like a good idea, and that's guided my thinking."

Aguirre's career plans are in something of a holding pattern now as well. He'd finished recording his debut album, Mississippi Stew, before leaving for Anguilla, with tracking done over two years' time at Sawhorse, Native Sound and Red Pill studios. He says that album is twenty years in the making, encapsulating all of the time he's spent on stages in St. Louis. He's excited to get it out into the world, but he also knows it would be somewhat pointless to release now, when touring to support it is impossible. "It costs money to secure the rights to everything to duplicate, and there's just no revenue coming in," he explains.

In some ways, though, his experience in Anguilla — and especially performing with Banx — is reminiscent of his early days in St. Louis' music scene, where he spent his time learning from some of the best and brightest blues musicians ever to step foot on a St. Louis stage.

"I was born in 1980," Aguirre says. "Too young to ever get to know Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry, Albert King, all the legends. But before I turned twenty in 2000, I met Big George Brock, Boo Boo Davis, Blues Boy Bubba, Oliver Sain, Bennie Smith, and was immersed on their stages and in their communities, from Alorton to Wellston."

That time, Aguirre explains, was formative for the young musician, cementing his love of the blues and setting him on a career trajectory that he's stuck with for two decades. His time spent on the island, too, he sees as revelatory.

"Twenty years later, from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself once again fully immersed in a community, a culture, and nation unlike my own, and once again I was welcomed by family, this time by Bankie Banx," he says. "After twenty years of training as a performer, vocalist, bandleader and small business owner in St. Louis, I was unexpectedly granted the opportunity to live, eat and learn from one of the most inspiring persons I've come across in a life dedicated to music and spirit."

Bankie Banx’s tree house. - MIKE AGUIRRE
  • MIKE AGUIRRE
  • Bankie Banx’s tree house.

The Dune Preserve, too, is a place where Aguirre has found inspiration — and one that he describes in uniquely St. Louisan terms as "the union of the best aspects of the Venice Cafe, Beale on Broadway and Blues City Deli, on a beautiful beach on a beautiful island full of 15,000 beautiful people who go out of their way to be nice to each other all the time."

Even before he became something of a castaway on the island, Aguirre had hoped to create more connections between Anguilla and St. Louis. Part of the reason Babcock, general manager at BB's, had come with him in the first place was so that they could network together and try to build bridges between the music scenes in the two locales.

"As a career goal I've always wanted to bring people — musicians and also music fans and the people who make the scene and the vibe so great — out of St. Louis and hang out with them, you know?" he says. "After fifteen years spending more time onstage at the Beale on Broadway than I did in bed, it's cool to have the same people in a change of scenery. So that's kind of what I'm trying to work on." For the time being, that's something of an unrealistic goal. St. Louis is still in the throes of a pandemic, with hospitals overflowing and a virus spreading unabated. Aguirre, by contrast, might as well be on another planet — one with plenty of sea and sunshine and surprisingly little sickness. Until matters sort themselves out, it's unlikely that Aguirre's dream of a St. Louis-Anguilla connection sees fruition.

"I'm in this weird paradise bubble trying to hold the door open as long as I can for people to come see what it's about," he laughs.

But meanwhile, rather than focus on the long term, Aguirre is set on doing what he can in the here and now.

"[I'm going to] listen and learn from everyone here who knows more about Caribbean music than I do, which is everyone," he says.

"My job," he adds, "is bringing the STL vibe wherever I go."

"Big Mike" Aguirre & the Blu City All Stars have copious new material due in 2021, including their debut studio album, Mississippi Stew. Follow Aguirre's island adventures (and maybe drop some virtual bills in the virtual bucket) at bigmikestl.com or facebook.com/DunepreserveAI.

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