Saturday, January 31, 2009

Musical Richness

Richard Bona was the first person I heard play the kalimba really well; he creates an ethereal sound by combining his falsetto voice with kalimba notes.

This video is On Her Way from Speaking of Now Live. Laura Barrett has been gaining popularity for her kalimba playing; however, to me, she presents a much less convincing sound than Bona due to her flat voice, which recalls a hollow Lili Haydn or a tamed Kimya Dawson. It may also be that she lacks the varied history that textured Bona’s voice.

Although a number of different takes, such as Jake Shimabukuro’s ukelele playing, have grown in popularity, living legends continue to be ignored in North America; perhaps, this is unsurprising due to the herd behaviour recently outlined by Thaler and Sunstein. One such legend is Ernest Ranglin who, like the blues players of the South that influenced so many but rarely gained widespread acknowledgment, helped birth ska music. He has been performing blazing, innovative, licks for years, which are imbued with the rhythms of his native Carribbean. One of my favourite albums is The Search for the Lost Riddim, for which he returned to Senegal 20 years after his stint with the Jimmy Cliff Band.

Inside North America few capture the essence of humanity like Lili Haydn; rich verse, such as the following from The Saddest Sunset, adorns her somber violin playing:

It's hard when no one hears you calling.
Who will catch you if you fall?
And though the waters are rising
We all leave and come in alone.
The love that you're longing for is your own.

It was great to see her performance on Californication. (View my brief review here.) In order to explore more of the world’s musical richness check out Mondomix (previously Calabash), Nat Geo Music, and Smithsonian Global Sound.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


Bacon ExplosionThis Sunday, thousands are expected to wake up early, take a couple of pounds of bacon and sausage from the fridge, and prepare a Bacon Explosion, the latest in excessive-fare (even replacing the turducken, which has been relegated to seasonal fare). Although many may amend their definitions for “rich” and “fatty” amidst the flash and glam of the Super Bowl, and perhaps justify their consumption by the large array of performances, a number of relatively mundane discoveries have been made recently.

Mark Aretz, an architect and renovator in eastern Germany, opened the door to an apartment that appeared to have remained untouched since 1988. He found a calendar on the wall turned to August 1988 and a variety of East German products; only one “western” product was found, a bottle of deodorant [all puns purposely omitted]. Apparently the occupant had to flee from the East German authorities and had abandoned everything, including a bottle of vodka.

In Istanbul archaeologists have discovered a grave that pushes back the date of first habitation 6,000 years (700 BC to 6,400 BC). The grave is located in a swamp and nearby they found evidence of houses constructed of tree branches.

At the AIA, Dr. James presented a paper which suggests that the Persians were the first to use “chemical warfare” against their enemies. The paper shows that Persians, in the 3rd century AD, tunneled under the Roman city of Dura in modern Syria and ignited a mixture of bitumen and sulphur crystals to poison the Romans working in a counter- mine.

The Wrestler

When I first read about The Wrestler in Who’s been nice …, I knew that it would be a demanding movie to watch; hence, I avoided watching it until I had the required reserve. The movie has a discordant tone much more in keeping with Murderball than Rocky Balboa: no pat answers or easy choices lay here. As a result the three story lines (wrestler and himself, wrestler and stripper, and wrestler and daughter) neither really mesh, nor really get resolved. The camera-work is as jerky and raw as Rourke’s movements. Rourke’s performance has been referred to as “a story of personal redemption” and “masterful,” yet it remains difficult to grasp how masterful his performance is unless one reflects upon it. This is because the hand-held cameras, gritty scenery, and close miking is unfamiliar, even disorientating — I can’t recall the last time I heard an actor’s exhale or saw an actor’s pores. Rourke, in his one long struggle, demands excellent performances from the supporting cast; I particularly enjoyed the contrast between Evan Rachel Wood’s vivid expressions and Rourke’s sepia starkness.

Furthermore, although the story-lines are clear the means are not, e.g., the viewer knows he will cut his hand on the deli-slicer, but assumes (and is led to believe) that it would be by accident. The same goes for other implements of self-mutilation, the razor blade and stapler. Nevertheless, the means lead only to partial redemption. This remains the real tragedy; thus, one wonders how things could have been different, e.g., will his daughter struggle with the finality she had hoped for? The soundtrack, full of one-hit-wonder hair-bands, adds to the surreal nature of the film. Springsteen alone encapsulates the wrestler himself. Springsteen with his return to the husky ballad captures the wrestler’s soul whereas the hair-bands merely represent the wrestler-as-performer’s culture. Although the number of loose-ends seems disturbing, the film is really worth watching on so many levels, the most important being the katharsis it provides.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Final Notice

Few people would have had low expectations for Obama’s inauguration speech, and he did deliver; however, as far as Obama-speeches go it seemed to fall a little flat, lacking a measure of his patented passion, inspiration, and lustre. Perhaps this was due to a sober mood or the nervousness exhibited when he swore the oath; nevertheless, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. Final notice was served to Bush and a good inauguration speech was delivered, especially in contrast to the sermon (oops, I mean prayer) Rick Warren delivered. Here are some highlights he could have stressed more vigorously on a less solemn occasion with fewer security and time constraints.

The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms.

… and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.
He placed the blame squarely where it belongs:

Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.

Furthermore, he implicated his opponents, his doubters, and the Bush administration:
On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them.
Although I felt he spent too little time addressing the World, what he did say was encouraging:
To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. … To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Countdown

Although Bush may grant pardons until noon, it appears his last act before handing over power to Barack Obama (just typing that feels good) will be the pardoning of two border guards. Meanwhile the momentum that has been building since November reaches a fever pitch and fortunate participants get to thrive on the energy of the moment. For Obama the final leg of the journey began on Saturday when he travelled with his family from Philadelphia to Washington. Sunday was We Are One where spectators “got to hear the A-list stars that have gathered around the president-elect to share in the pixie dust of the day.” Monday, Martin Luther King Day, Obama honoured Luther King, helped paint a teenage homeless center and officially launched, and hosted bipartisan dinners with McCain, Powell, and Biden.

For some last minute fun, check out Bush’s Last Day and see true American enterprise at work. For the first time the National Mall will be open so the public can view the swearing-in ceremony at 10:00am. Then in the inaugural address, deemed to be 17 minutes long, he will meet our expectations and take his place in history. It will be interesting to see how Obama acknowledges Bush’s service, a traditional part of the speech; he may have to employ his best tact yet.

For some background information check out the Guardian for a good breakdown of his administration and an excellent interactive guide to America (America by race, wealth, and other indicators).

Monday, January 19, 2009

Unchecked Hegemony

Despite his best intentions Bush has gone out with a whimper — the only legacy the “misunderestimated” president has established during his ‘farewell tour’ is the Bushism: he “articulates what [he] believes … and believes what [he] believes is right.” Bush, in his public displays, exudes a curious blend of arrogance and ignorance that demands much from the observer: Should he be taken seriously? Does he take himself seriously? Does he really believe that redemption lies within his grasp? Doesn’t he realize that the shoe throwing commemorates his last days in office much more than any saber-rattling over the Arctic? Nevertheless, Bush’s smugness, in many ways, is warranted: he has succeeded in doing things his way and getting away with it. At least, he wasn’t able to pardon himself from future prosecution.

North of the border, Harper exhibits the same smugness, though none of the same verbal lapses. He also prefers sweaters and kittens to aircraft carriers and flight jackets. Although he faithfully touts the Bush line, in domestic matters he roams unchecked. I am truly surprised to hear the opinion that Harper had no choice but to appoint senators — he’s too sly to be in that position. Now, as if to test the faith of his supporters, he’s actually stacking the Senate with Conservatives. He contradicts his own proclamations and legislation to hold power while supporters state that a coalition is undemocratic; in reality it is anything but “undemocratic.”

Ironically, in the case of Obama, I actually hope this free reign continues and that he does not get bogged down in the Senate, so wrongs such as Gitmo can be made right.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Hidden Affairs

Since my last post (Sorry about the long delay) I have been trying to get a leg up on an unassailable wall: overwhelmed and paralyzed, I have been wallowing in apathy, well, nearly. I attempted to write numerous posts, but these now line the trash, since none were adequate in expressing my misgivings. At first I attributed my malaise to the fluctuating emotions and experiences that reign during the holidays, joy/sadness, giving/receiving, and people you miss/can happily miss. I only did this, however, to avoid facing the real reason: against the backdrop of teenagers being forced into sex and the migration of suicide production from the CB radio to the Internet, I was haunted by Gaza. For many months I have been reading about the denial of aid, the Free Gaza Ship’s repeated attempts to get in, volleys fired by the navy, and even accusations by the UN. The clarity of Chomsky and Mearsheimer only made the harsh (and unsettling) reality harder to swallow.

In the reports of civilian casualties and violence I have searched for widespread condemnation, in vain. The U.S., predictably, was silent and Brown’s condemnation was a singular affair and weak compared to Miliband’s repeated blustering over Georgia. Only Barenboim provided any hope; in fact, every time I have heard about the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, in which all musicians regardless of race or social position are equal, I have been heartened. The only side benefit of the attacks is the publicity that Waltz with Bashir has received; perhaps, more people will watch films like The Band’s Visit. These results are hardly concessions for the violence and the steady repression of Gaza, but they may foster some mutual respect and understanding.

In my struggle to live with such information, I realized a few things: North Americans have little context for such issues — we are so far from Rwanda, Darfur, Burma, and The Congo and our news thinks so as well. We are much more conversant with the Cold War; thus the wide publicity for the rampant saber rattling and postulating over Russia’s attack on Georgia. In terms of Israel, we are not only plagued by the Holocaust, but also corrupted by a rationale that wends its way through quiet conversations: God wills that Israel be a geographical reincarnation of Solomon’s kingdom. Few counter that there’s very little substantive evidence, archaeological or otherwise, for attributing such lands to Solomon, or David for that matter. In effect, the argument goes, the sovereignty of Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and the West Bank should be compromised — at the very least, Israel should be granted its Auschwitz Borders.

Worse, however, was the feeling that the injustice somehow represented the human condition. While this notion continues to simmer below the surface of my consciousness the flipside, the arts, resuscitate me: the Fall issue of The Paris Review helped more than a little. Poems by the likes of Paul Guest started the thawing my soul, Marilynne Robinson provided a reality check, and Jean Hatzfeld helped me process the past horrors in Rwanda. In the end Barenboim’s vision may be the best, long the vision of dreamers like Lennon and Geldof. Whether it’s Beethoven or techno, which have no lyrics, or an song like Hallelujah, which transcends cultures and stands the test of time (it currently holds 3 top spots in the U.K. charts), doesn’t matter. Most important is the vision, the possibility of peace, the galvanizing effect of thousands joined hand in hand singing or humming one song until the fighting stops.


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