The Coast News Group
Daniel “Smitty” Zeke practices his battery-powered Yamaha keyboard out front of the 7-Eleven along Coast Highway 101 in Leucadia. Photo by Tony Cagala
Daniel “Smitty” Zeke practices his battery-powered Yamaha keyboard out front of the 7-Eleven along Coast Highway 101 in Leucadia. Photo by Tony Cagala
ArtsArtsCommunityEncinitasEncinitas FeaturedFeatured

‘Smitty’ Zeke: Ain’t playing by ear

ENCINITAS — He takes a moment to search his keyboard’s buttons, his hands scanning over the top of the instrument in search of the right sound. Pushing a combination of buttons, he sets the tone he’s looking for before his hands — knuckles and all — begin pounding at the keys in a performance of one of his original compositions.

His audience — only the motorists, cyclists, joggers and anyone else who happened to be passing by the 7-Eleven on Coast Highway 101 in Leucadia.

Daniel “Smitty” Zeke was just practicing though, he explained, adding that every few days he’s out there playing his electric Yamaha keyboard for a couple of hours. It’s only on Friday and Saturday nights that he takes his battery-powered keyboard to the sidewalks of downtown Encinitas, near the Saloon and Coast Hwy Traders, to “perform.”

“I’ve been in Leucadia many years, and I just decided that this 7-Eleven and the Cancun Restaurant and the community around this side of the big Encinitas and Leucadia hood — ‘cause I’ve seen a lot of performers down that way…so why not perform up this way a bit. And give the art back to the community,” he said.

Largely self-taught, Zeke said he’s been playing the piano for most of his life, taking a 26-year detour into the “mysteries of alcohol.”

Zeke’s father, a gunnery sergeant in the Marine Corps, was introduced to the piano one day when he brought home a Wurlitzer from an NCO club that was closing down.

“They drew sticks to see who would get the piano, the Wurlitzer that was in there,” Zeke said. “So my dad got it…he put it in the garage and I just started going like this (he demonstrates hitting all the keys on his piano).

And then he found a couple of chords he liked, and it all took off from there.

Craig Stewart, a customer of the convenience store and who lives nearby, has heard Zeke practice lots of times out front. He said the music is “killer.”

“You ought to come by when he’s really jammin’,” Stewart added.

The music coming from the keyboard’s speakers has an ethereal, bluesy and jazz-like sound to it, but he’s also had his music described as sounding like movie themes. Many of the compositions he performs are original pieces, some of which have been influenced by what he sees passing him by along the 101.

“People would tell me, ‘Oh, you play by ear.’ And I say, ‘No. No I don’t play by ear. I play by something (making a gesture upwards to the sky) gives me something, and that ain’t playing by ear.’”

Zeke, who grew up in the county bodysurfing near the Oceanside Pier, won’t ever say he’s homeless.

“I got a lot of friends,” he said. “You know that song by the Beatles, ‘Get by with a little help from my friends’? I’m going to switch it to ‘I get by with a lot of help from my friends,’” he added.

“He’s a great guy, full of joy,” said Paty Morales, the 7-Eleven location’s store manager. “I wish everybody was more like him.”

The customers like him, she added.

Whenever he plays, he said he’s always met with kind people walking by.

“And I don’t ask for a thing,” Zeke said.

The music is his thing in life.