Dana Somayaji was brimming with nearly two decades of anticipation as she stepped aboard Holland America Line’s Koningsdam in San Diego last October for the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise.
The unabashed blues music fan from Nashville, Tenn., had sky-high expectations. As it turns out she had underestimated her adventure.
Somayaji’s goals were to enjoy the music, dance up a storm, and meet some kindred spirits along the way.
“From the first moment I was aboard, I knew it was special,” she says. “I got on elevator and asked a stranger if they were having a good time, and their eyes sparkled and they just lit up and started talking about the bands they wanted to see. They were just so happy, and that made me happy.”
It’s exactly what the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise set out to do when it started in 2002. The goal of managing partner Roger Naber was to build a community of blues fans who enjoy the opportunity to see their favorite blues artists in intimate settings.
The seven-day Blues Cruise is held twice a year, leaving San Diego in October and Ft. Lauderdale in January.
Naber, a long-time club owner in Kansas City, Mo., knows the loyalty of the strongest blues fans, and he wants to push it a step further. He figures that seven-days aboard the ship would find artists and their fans mingling like never before.
He has realized his goal, regularly selling out the 2,200-passenger ships, including several hundred people who seem to show up for nearly every cruise.
The music propels these cruises. The October cruise to the Sea of Cortez featured 33 musical acts, each playing three or four times during the week, and another dozen of so professionals who made guest appearances. There were six indoor venues, and two outdoor stages, giving ship passengers multiple shows to choose from. The venues ranged from the showcase World Stage, which seats nearly a thoussand,as well as cozy bars with seating for 40.
Bands begin at 11 a.m. and play until 4 or 5 a.m. when the cruisers have finally get their fill for the day.
Mary Hart of Salinas, Calif., has been on 39 of the music cruises, and has no problem traveling alone.
“You have music in common with everyone, so there is no need for icebreakers,” she says. “You already have something in common with everybody from the start.”
On the first day of the cruise, passengers are encouraged to wear shirts or hats representing their hometown festivals, clubs or bands. It sparks immediate conversations among people who might never have spoken to each other.
The common denominator of a shared love of the music is in stark contrast to other cruises, says Rodney Mish of San Diego. Mish and his wife, Kaley, had been on other cruises when they discovered Naber’s cruise. Now they’ve been on 21 of the music cruises and no longer want to go on other cruises.
“People go on a regular cruise to relax,” says Mish. “You might leave your towel draped over a poolside chair and come and go, and then get dressed for dinner and afterwards search out some entertainment.
“Not here. Every day you have more performances everywhere. There is more to do than you could possibly do, and you want to do it all.”
Shipboard life is often so hectic that many passengers simply use the eight-hour port calls at Cabo San Lucas, Loreto and La Paz as excuses to decompress on the ship before music resumes in the late afternoon.
This cruise is casual from the get-go. Plop on a t-shirt and shorts, some sandals and some sunglasses and you’re ready for a full night ahead. You might put on an aloha shirt if your having dinner in the dining room or one of the specialty restaurants, but it isn’t necessary.
It’s all about the music and having a good time. Naber knows the informality breeds unexpected dividends.
Blues Hall of Famers like Taj Mahal, Bobby Rush and Elvin Bishop are approachable to passengers as they comb the ship to see old friends play, or listen to someone new.
You might also strike up a lunchtime conversation with upstarts such Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and Jackie Venson, two of the brightest new lights in the blues genre. Or you might share a simple elevator conversation with the affable Tommy Castro, who has become a staple of these cruises over the past 15 years or so. Take on the ship’s day excursions and you might find yourself snorkeling along with Castro.
Somayaji, for instance, found herself sitting at a table with her new friend Tony Braunagel, a veteran drummer who has been part of the bands of Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt and Eric Burdon through the years. On this cruise, Tony’s band, the Phantom Blues Band, was playing nearly every day.
‘We were sitting there just talking, and then one member of his band showed up, then another, and another,” she recalls. “And, they were just talking about music so I just sat there and listened. Here I was, soaking in these great stories I might not have ever heard otherwise.”
But the relationship between bands and their fans is anything but one-way. Singer and harmonica player of Rick Estrin has come to embrace the interaction.
“When I first started going on the cruise, I kind of hid in my room,” he says. “I wasn’t very social. But I realized that being with these fans is really important.
“Today I understand the true dynamics of my relationship with the people who come to see me. They don’t need me at all. They can go see anyone they want. But I need them desperately, and it only makes sense that I make time to meet them or to listen to one of their stories.”
Estrin also enjoys his opportunity to mix with other musicians. He will sit in with other bands for a couple of songs, but he also enjoys catching up with friends he rarely has time for face-to-face exchanges.
“You find yourself swapping stories with guys you’ve known for decades,’ says Estrin, who is known for sitting at the Lido buffet late into the night drinking coffee and catching up with friends. “We see each other at festivals, but usually we can only talk for a few minutes here or there. Here, you can really relax and enjoy the company.”
On the Sea of Cortez cruise, Estrin said he was happy to get the chance to hang out with Marquis Knox, a young St. Louis guitar player. “It was the first time I really had a chance to talk to him,” he says.
The last night of her cruise, Somayaji marveled at how inspired the ship’s crew seemed to be. They were dancing in the aisles as they served drinks and seemed to be enjoying the music as much as anyone.
Anyone other than her, of course.
Weeks after the cruise she continued to count the ways her experience superseded her expecations. And, she was already making plans for her next blues cruise.

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