December 11, 2017

Book Review: Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold by Stephen Fry

Cover Mythos.jpeg In Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold, from Penguin/Random House, Stephen Fry has elected to take on the nearly impossible task of retelling Greek Mythology for a modern audience. The fact he's been able to stay true to them without making them dry as dust, without playing to the lowest common denominator by dumbing the stories down, speaks volumes to his ability as a raconteur.

Of course, there has been plenty of retellings of these stories over the years, so what separates this version from the rest? Well, to put it succinctly, it's Fry himself who makes the difference. How many authors do you know who can reference Monty Python, Percy Jackson and classical Greek Scholars without sounding affected?

Then there's the fact you can almost hear Fry's voice as you're reading. It has become part of our universe. Through his various television and film appearances and work on audio books, specifically the "Harry Potter" series, its rather dry and acerbic tone has permeated our awareness. As you move through the pages you can't help but feeling like an old friend is telling you all these stories while the two of you're sitting around chatting.

However, while Fry does imbue the pages with his wit and intelligence, he doesn't allow the force of his personality to interfere with the stories themselves. He is too skilled to allow this book to be more about him than his material. What he does do wonderfully is use his presence to make the stories accessible to a new generation of readers.

Even more remarkably, these versions of the stories should also appeal to those who have read other interpretations previously. Aside from everything else, Fry has a wide breadth of knowledge to draw upon which allows him to make reference to how the stories have influenced writers throughout history. While Shakespeare and Keats are obvious examples of those who have been inspired by or who have referenced the stories in their work, Fry also makes sure we're aware of how deeply ingrained the stories are in all of European culture, not just English.

Of course it's not just literature that's replete with classical allusions, the visual arts are also full of references to the classical myths as well. Fry not only includes nods to these works in the text, he's also included photos of examples dating from pottery dating back to 400 BC to sculpture from the 20th century.

What's most impressive is you never feel like you're being lectured or given a history lesson. Somehow Fry manages to drop these little nuggets of information into his retellings without it being obvious. In fact you might just be enjoying yourself so much while reading the book you won't even notice you've learned something in the process.

Naturally none of this would be possible if Fry hadn't done such a remarkable job of telling the stories and bringing all the characters to life. He not only manages to capture all the qualities of the gods, goddesses, demi-gods and assorted beings in vivid colour, he depicts them in very human terms.

While some might find his almost casual way of describing them, or the fact the gods of Olympus occasionally act like a gang of teenage street toughs, a little disconcerting, they've never been shown as being very mature. We also don't live in Classical times anymore, and these are stories which are meant to be told in the current vernacular to be most effective.

The antics of the gods, and the warts and all way of bringing them to life, helped people to understand their own flaws and foibles and learn life lessons. What's the use of giving a modern audience a book written in stilted academia or the language of a bygone era? By stuffing these stories into glass cases and making them museum pieces we suck the life out of them. Fry has made them loud, rude, sometimes crude, and most definitely alive.

Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold is a delight to read. It somehow manages to be irreverent and reverent at the same time in both its treatment of the stories and the manner in which it tells them. Instead of treating them like dusty artifacts Fry has taken them off the shelf and made them relevant to a new generation.

(Article originally published at as Book Review: Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold by Stephen Fry)

October 6, 2017

Book Review: Queercore: Queer Punk Media Subculture by Curran Nault

cover Queercore.jpg The idea of writing about something as anarchistic as punk, either the music or the attitude, has always seemed to be self-defeating. How can an author encapsulate on the page something which had/has the tendency to explode like a beer bottle tossed off a fire escape? Yet this is exactly what Curran Nault has not only attempted, but succeeded in doing with his book Queercore: Queer Punk Media Subculture, published by Routledge Press.

Initially some might find the fact the book is an academic study of the subject somewhat off putting. However, after becoming accustomed its formality you come to appreciate how the distance it creates from the subject matter not only lends the book a great deal of credibility it also allows to read the material in a dispassionate manner. This in turn ensures someone like me (who lived through the periods described in the book) doesn't allow sentimentality or memories to interfere with an appreciation of the author's work or the fresh perspective he brings to the subject matter.

As the title implies the book traces the history of the intersection of Queer expression and punk. For those who wonder, Queer has as much to do with straight (and yes I've used that word deliberately) LGBTQ+ as punk has to do with anything mainstream. As Nault shows Queercore has its roots in the infamous Stonewall riots of the late 1960s. Here, drag queens, gays of colour, and others marginalized among the marginalized, said enough is enough and took to the streets after cops raided their club at the Stonewall hotel in New York City.

Queercore is a reaction and a goad. It is no surprise the term was coined in the mid 1980s when the conservative Christians were calling AIDS a judgement on homosexuality and the American government was attacking artists like Robert Mapplethorpe for daring to be true to himself. What might be surprising to some is the term was originated by a trio of Canadians from Toronto. However, after New York and London, Toronto's punk scene was one of the most vibrant in the 1970s and would have been fertile ground for artists frustrated with the mainstream.

However, as Nault makes perfectly clear Queercore isn't just a reaction against the those normally considered the enemies of "different", its also a means of protesting those who society would normally assume were their allies. For not only does it attack homophobia in punk, and lets be real, with few exceptions, punk has always primarily been the domain of straight white men, it continues to this day to challenge mainstream gay and lesbian politics. The ones who want to blend in, not make any waves and hope by keeping their heads down they won't get bashed the next time they walk down the street.

Queercore is laid out in a nice logical progression from the introduction which not only supplies us with working definitions of both "Queer" and "Punk" (as an aside, and as someone who will always consider himself punk, he's provided one of the best definitions of punk I've ever read: "In the best of circumstances punk aims to be a wakeup call to a public otherwise anesthetized by the suffocating conformity of daily existence.") to the chapters on its forebearers, sex, confrontation, and its depiction of bodies. The latter being not only in reference to whether someone has a penis or not, but the inclusion of people of size and the disabled in media representations.

With each chapter carefully footnoted, whether the source is anecdotal or textual, Queercore has a credibility often lacking in books dealing with contemporary culture. Having lived through the times described in the book it's easy to find omissions and disagree on minutiae. However, as someone who spent the 1980s reading obituaries seeing colleagues death's described as complications from pneumonia, Nault does a fine job capturing the times and feelings that gave rise to Queercore.

He also does a superlative job of describing the intricacies of the subculture and why each are so important. We might not 'approve', 'like' or even understand some of what's described, but that is irrelevant. The in your face attitude of Queercore is meant to shock, and Nault makes sure readers know why that's important.

Even better, as far as I'm concerned, in his concluding chapter, "A Queer Elegy For The Future", he steps out from behind the shelter of academic language and tells us personally why Queercore is just as important today as it was in the mid 1980s. Marginalization still exists within the LGBTQ+ community - he cites examples of Pride committees telling participants this is a family event so dress appropriately - and for that matter everywhere. There is still a need for those brave souls willing to celebrate their differences in public to shake up the status quo.

In Queercore: Queer Punk Media Subculture Nault offers readers the chance to enter into a world few will understand or tolerate. However, he makes it abundantly clear to any thinking, caring, person, why exactly this subculture is so important. Change happens because of those pushing from the bottom and the outside. Without the people mentioned in this book, change would never happen.

As we enter a new era of repression, books which welcome and embrace what the mainstream ignores and reviles are more and more important. Queercore might be written about a specific subculture, but the philosophy it espouses is one which applies to all of us.

(Article originally published at as Book Review: Queercore: Queer Punk Meida Subculture by Curran Nault)

September 27, 2016

Music Review: Moor Mother -Fetish Bones

Cover Fetish Bones Moor Mother copy sm.jpgWith the release of Fetish Bones, her first recording for Don Giovanni Records, Moor Mother, the music stage name for multidisciplinary artist Camae Ayewa, has announced herself as a musical force to be reckoned with. Not only do her songs push the envelope musically, lyrically she takes no prisoners. If Beyonce upset you with her tribute to Malcolm X at the Super Bowl, this album will give you nightmares.

Harsh, at times atonal and discordant, musically her songs reflects the anger and pain expressed by the lyrics; lyrics which deal with the African American experience in North America in the past and the present. The disc's opening song, "Creation Myth", let's you know what you're in for as it traces African American history from the so called emancipation of 1866 to the recent events in Ferguson Missouri. "The first time you heard the whisper of death/ the death that has always been lingering here with you since the day you were born/Heard it telling you, you must be both dead and alive/One has to be dead when a man wants to beat us/When they want to rape us/Dead when the police kill me/Alive when the police kill you".

This is harsh and brutal stuff. Stuff most of us don't want to know about or want to hear. The things we so blithely ignore when we skirt the inner city neighbourhoods with their cracked sidewalks and run down housing. The poverty and desperation we, who don't live it, can pretend doesn't exist. It's all here - 13 songs filled with things no media is ever going to report and no mainstream, so-called urban music video, is ever going to show.
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Moor Mother creates sound collages of spoken word, found recordings, electronics, and instruments which crash against the ear and echo throughout your chest cavity. You'll flinch at some of the sounds, you'll be scared and repulsed by some of what she says, but above all she will make you think and feel in ways most modern music can only dream of doing.

While comparing one musician with another in an attempt to define them is somewhat unfair, for those wishing to have some frame of reference for Moor Mother think of the late great Gil Scott Heron, Laurie Anderson, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago mixed together in one package. However, she is far more than just the sum of those parts. She has her own ineffable artistry which allows her to combine those seemingly disparate elements to create soundscapes which bring her ideas to life emotionally and intellectually.

Moor Mother continues the legacy of the great African American female music artists who have chosen to express the agony of their people through music. Her's is the same anger, sorrow, and disgust expressed by Billie Holiday in "Strange Fruit" and Nina Simone in "Mississippi Goddamn". Fetish Bones is a tough, difficult recording by an incredibly gifted and honest artist. Some people aren't going to like what she has to say and some are going to be offended by the album, but like other great works of art it will force you to have an opinion.

(Article originally published at at Music Review: Moor Mother - Fetish Bones)

February 5, 2016

Book Review: Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001 - 2015 by Richard Hell

As its title suggest Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001 - 2014 from Soft Skull Press is a collection of essays, critiques, and assorted other articles and remarks by Richard Hell. While Hell was initially known as the front man for such seminal New York City bands as Television, The Voidoids, and The Heartbreakers, he's also a poet, novelist, and a essayist.
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Aside from his personal artistic achievements, Hell is also a keen and intelligent observer of the arts and has written and spoken about everything from pop culture to the avant-garde in film, poetry, and the visual arts. He's also been closely associated with some of the foremost contributors to pop culture and art in and around New York City since the early 1970s. All of which gives him the awareness to put his observations in an historical and social context.

Reading Hell's work is an object lesson in being a critic. He makes no secrets of his personal biases or opinions, but still strives to be as fair as possible to the work he's talking about. His writings on film are a perfect example. He makes no bones of his preference for the work of people like Jean Luc Goddard to more mainstream work, but he's still able to critique a Hollywood movie fairly based on its own merits. He judges all art in this manner - by seeing how well it stands up to the standards set by works of a similar style and form.

What makes these articles even more interesting in Hell's personal knowledge of many of the creators. His writings on authors like Jim Carroll (The Basketball Diaries and The Petting Zoo) are made that much more interesting by his personal recollections of the person behind the work. We gain not only a deeper understanding of the artist in question, but we also begin to see their work in a different, more personal, light.

Of course, not all of the articles are going to be of interest to everyone, in fact some might even find some the work discussed in the book disturbing. However, art is not always a comfortable blanket we wrap around ourselves - it should make us ask questions and provoke a response. The aesthetic appreciation of a piece art extends far beyond whether we "like" it.

While Hell never comes out and says this directly, the diversity and range of expression he writes about in Massive Pissed Love gradually bring this point home to us. Art is not created to please us, but meant to challenge us to look at the world from multiple perspectives. Remember, works we now consider acceptable, the paintings of Picasso for example, were once scorned and ridiculed.
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While some of the articles in this book might be inaccessible to some, his writings on popular music are sure to appeal to most. One of my favourites is the piece comparing The Rolling Stones with the Velvet Underground - "The Velvet Underground vs. The Rolling Stones". He examines the albums each group released during the same time frame - the time the Velvets existed - 1966 -1970. (The Velvets' first public appearance was in '65 and their first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, wasn't released until '67 but was recorded in '66 at the same time the Stones recorded Aftermath)

Not only is the article a in depth and careful analysis of both bands' output giving you a deeper understanding of their musical significance and appreciation for their work, its also highly entertaining. Lacking the pretentious bullshit language these types of articles usually end up being couched in, it becomes an honest and candid examination of two bands who seem to be at completely opposite ends of the pop music spectrum.

Massive Pissed Love is not arranged chronologically, rather arranged as to how the articles fit into the three categories of the title. Some are long - "Massive" - some angry in tone - "Pissed" - and others full of adoration for their subject - "Love". As Hell says in his introductory note "It was to dull just to divide it by subject matter". One thing you can be sure of, this book is never dull. Contrary, intelligent, opinionated and perhaps to some people's minds controversial, but always lively and stimulating. If you care at all about modern art and culture this is a must read.

(Article first published at as Book Review: 'Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001 - 2014' by Richard Hell)

June 18, 2014

Book Review: Spirit Quest by Bob Mackenzie and Sharlena Wood

Over the years humanity's relationship with nature has become sort of twisted. On the one hand we admire the beauty of a spectacular sunset or soaring mountains yet we also think nothing of destroying the atmosphere with poison gases or the water table with toxic waste. Further distorting our view of the world around is how we've come to believe nature is okay as long as it knows its place. Let it interfere with our lives though and all of a sudden it becomes an act of God or some sort of natural disaster. When did we become so self-centred as to believe tornadoes, earthquakes and tidal waves are something to be taken personally? These storms would have happened regardless of our presence.

To be able to see nature as something which exists independent of humanity is not something many of us are able to accomplish. One of the ways we have of bringing ourselves closer to nature is through the work of writers and artists. There's something about seeing things through the lens provided by somebody else's work that gives us a clearer perspective on the world we live in.
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The new book Spirit Quest, published by Dark Matter Press, from poet Bob Mackenzie and visual artist Sharlena Wood is a fine example of how the arts can give us a new appreciation of the natural world. The two artists have created a series of complimentary works; Mackenzie's poems recount visits to Canada's Rocky Mountains in Western Canada he took as a child while Wood's paintings bring the passion and wildness of the region to life.

Wood has not attempted to illustrate Mackenzie's poems. Instead what she has done is provide us with images which capture nature's untamed essence. In some ways they serve as contrasts to Mackenzie's poems of the human experience of nature as seen from car windows, camp sites and family vacations. It's almost as if the two have combined to show us how the world looks from both perspectives. Mackenzie's highly personal childhood remembrances, which say as much about the warmth of his family life growing up as they do about nature, are the ring side seat to the natural world while Wood pulls us right into the wild unchecked beauty which cares nothing for our opinions.

In his poems Mackenzie recreates the impressions of the Rocky Mountains he formed as a child through the filter of his adult memory and opinions. Remarkably he manages, after the passage of time and experiences, to still convey the sense of wonder and mystery they must have instilled in the younger version of himself. In "no visible means", a poem describing mountain sheep's apparent ability to defy gravity in clinging to mountain sides, we see a perfect example of a child's awe filtered through the mind of an adult. "this space overtakes me/as no book ever can/here the gods can be felt/and I feel very small".
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While the sentiments expressed are the amazement a child would feel at seeing the mountains and their sheer size, the vocabulary is decidedly adult. However, the combination of the two is highly effective as it allows us to remember the awe we felt as children when confronted with something beyond our comprehension. By showing us this world through the eyes of his younger self Mackenzie is able to depict nature as the raw force is can be. There's never the impression that it was put there for his family's enjoyment; it exists, is seen and described without editorializing or judgement.

The same can't be said for the occasional outside interlopers into Mackenzie's private world of family and nature. The occasional glimpse we receive of other humans isn't exactly flattering. In the poem "Bears" he describes the interaction between the bears in Banff National Park in Alberta Canada. "tourists come here to meet bears/brown bears so cute in daylight/at night fear bears in the dark/approaching their lamp lit tents/bears are in the camp at dusk/stalk between tent and washrooms/watch campers creep out in fear/make shadow art with their paws". The message we receive is that the majority of people seem to hold fast to the tried and true human opinion that nature is alright in its place, but it needs to know its place.

As Mackenzie uses words to describe the world of the Rocky Mountains in an attempt to capture their magical and wild spirit, Wood's visual creations for the book take us even further into the wild abandon of the region. From stark black and white images which express the power that can be found in the austerity of naked woods in winter to wild uncontrolled swirls of colour which wash across the eye, her work constantly reiterates the theme that nature exists for itself, not for our pleasure. There is a raw power to her work which sends shivers down one's spine as it captures the naked energy of both the mountains and the land around them.
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Anyone who has seen the Rocky Mountains anywhere in North America can't help but be reminded of the fact we are only a small part of the world around us. Most of us go through our lives in a sort of un easy co-existence with the natural world. We live in controlled environments where the rains and winds are at most inconveniences to be avoided and wild life is limited to the birds and small animals in our backyards. Spirit Quest is a reminder that the natural world exists in of itself without care for our concerns or worries. We are all that small person Mackenzie describes in "no visible means" whether we know it or not.

The poems and art work in this book do a masterful job of bringing both the natural world and human interaction with it to life. By showing the world through the eyes of himself as a child poet Mackenzie helps us rediscover the awe it can inspire while Wood's paintings remind us of its sheer unbridled power. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but on this occasion pictures and words have combined to create something which speaks volumes to any willing to listen.

(Article originally published at as Book Review: Spirit Quest by Bob Mackenzie and Sharlena Wood)

February 19, 2014

Music Review: Viggo And Friends - Aca

Some people say, "Politics make strange bedfellows" (Don't say it to Putin - he might take it the wrong way and have you thrown in jail) but the first time I heard Viggo Mortensen had collaborated on an album with the notorious, infamous, riotous, speed metal, punk, over the top guitar player Buckethead, I thought politics has nothing on music. The idea the actor, poet and painter could find anything in common with the man who had spent the majority of his career hiding his identity behind a mask and wearing an empty KFC bucket on his head strained even my ability to suspend disbelief. However, after listening to a couple of their collaborations I had to admit they had found their own version of common ground.

While Mortensen and Buckethead have collaborated on entire CDs in the past, the latest recording of the former's music, Acá (Here), from Perceval Press is billed as being performed by Viggo and Friends. As with the majority of his previous releases this one was recorded at Travis Dickerson Recording Studios, which also means Dickerson supplies some of the accompanying instruments on three tracks (one, "Den Gang Jeg Drog Afsted", four, "Summer's Here" and nine, "Acá"). Two of the tracks (four and nine) feature drummer DJ Bonebrake, of the band X (which is fronted by Mortensen's ex wife Exene Cervenka). Track nine also features Mortensen's son Henry sitting in on bass while Buckethead joins the ensemble on tracks one and nine.

However, in spite of all the interesting people taking part, this is still essentially Mortensen's CD. Aside from composing all nine tracks, six of them feature him performing solo on keyboards. Trying to define the music is a somewhat harder proposition than talking about who appears on the recording. For these are not so much "songs" as atmospheric creations. The title of the CD is a clue to its content. In their own ways each composition defines a "Here" for the listener. However, unlike the ambient music of earlier days (Brian Eno and Robert Fripp come to mind) which were more aural wallpaper than anything else, these pieces evoke the specific places and ideas their titles suggest through their musical content.
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From specific locations, track two's "Walking Up River", describing a specific experience, "Wind In The Birches" (track three) to the more generalized expressions of emotions in "Den Gang Jeg Drog Afsted" ("The Time I Went Away"), each piece manages to find a way to bring the audience into the moment suggested by its title. That this is done without lyrics, and primarily through Mortensen's solo piano work, makes the work even more impressive.

While track one's Danish language title (thank you Google translator) makes obscures its meaning slightly, when taken in context of the rest of material it has the feel of an overture or preface. While a traditional overture usually introduces the various musical themes and motifs that will be heard over the course of a piece of music, "Den Gang Jeg Drog Afsted" introduces us to the fact we'll be going on a journey into nature and the world around us. It begins with the sounds of a thunderstorm which gradually fade into the background while keyboards, guitar, percussion and bass gradually fill in the soundscape. The instruments move to the forefront, creating sounds suggestive of the faintly heard rain storm in the background. With Buckethead's guitar recreating the sound of rain falling leading, the others fill in the space around his gentle fingering to suggest the feeling and sensations of listening to a storm.

As the English translation of the title suggests, the song not only recreates the sounds of rain, but the sensation of being transported outside oneself that can occur when you become caught up in listening to a thunderstorm. You can almost picture yourself sitting somewhere listening to the swell of thunder and the sound of rain as it patters against glass windows, on the roof and hits the leaves on the trees outside your house. The piece triggers the sense memory of allowing yourself to drift away on the sounds; travelling beyond time and place without having to leave the darkened room you're sitting in.

"Walking Up River" is the first of Mortensen's unaccompanied piano pieces on the disc. Instead of doing the obvious and trying to recreate the sounds of a river with his playing, he has taken us to the path by the river so we can appreciate the sensations of walking besides it. He doesn't try to impose his own vision of the experience on us. Instead the music he has created allows us to travel inside ourselves and relive our own times spent by flowing water. Somehow his music manages to offer sufficient suggestion we can re-experience our own moments in time walking beside a river watching the current flowing opposite to the direction we are travelling.
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Each of the pieces between the opening and the CD's concluding title track take us to a specific time or place beyond ourselves through Mortensen's ability to suggest emotional connections to them with his music. They aren't always gentle and easy to listen to, but than again, the natural world isn't always the idyllic fantasy world some would have us think. "Summer's Here" reminds us of the power of the burning sun and how it can suck the life out of us while "The Yew" evokes thoughts of stately trees which are often associated with death because of the ancient tradition which sees them planted around grave sites.

As if he's reminding us of this, the disc's concluding and title track, "Acá", begins with the jarring sound of a piano's wires being forcefully and discordantly strummed. As the song takes shape we gradually begin to notice how elements from previous songs make appearances. However, the piece also serves to bring us back to ourselves by jarring us out of whatever reverie we might have experienced while listening to what preceded it. We are now back "Here". Yet, at the same time, the reminders of what we had experienced listening to the rest of the music tell us no matter how noisy and unsettling the world becomes we always have recourse to our memories of other places and times to help us combat any disturbance.

A number of years ago I reviewed a collection of Mortensen's photographs and poems and commented on how with either media he seemed to have the innate ability to capture specific moments in time with both his words and his camera. Maybe it's through his work as an actor where you have to be in the moment at all times when you're portraying a character in order for it to be believable to your audience that he has gained this ability. However he does it, this recording shows he's equally capable of bringing an audience into a specific moment in time with his music. Acá is a beautiful and evocative collection of music which will allow you to travel into your own memories of time and place like few others I've heard.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Music Review: Viggo And Friends - Acá)

January 30, 2014

Book Review: Dreams Before Extinction by Naeemeh Naeemaei

It's hard for us in the West not to have misconceptions of what life is like in countries where our perceptions are shaped entirely by what we read in the media. This is especially true of those countries which have attempted to isolate themselves and their populace from what they consider our corrupting influence. I have to admit I have my own prejudices when it comes to Iran. Having seen and read first hand accounts from those who have managed to either escape or smuggle out footage of things which have happened in the country over the last few years hasn't helped. (If you've not seen the documentary The Green Wave about how the unrest in Iran during the Arab Spring was shut down so brutally you should) Then there's the fact I'm also against any kind of theocracy, no matter what form it comes in.

All of which probably makes me as guilty as the next person at being surprised to find out individuals within Iranian society share many of the same concerns we do about the state of the world. With all that we read about the country's political and religious systems it's hard to believe we can have anything in common with those who live and work in such a society. At least that's what we tell ourselves. But why should we be surprised to read that Iran has set aside over 10% of its land for wilderness preservation and species conservation? Did you even know there was an non government organization known as the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation? I didn't.

Like any modern industrial state with a growing population, the major environmental concerns facing Iran are those caused by humans - habitat loss due to human encroachment and pollution and over hunting leading to extinction. It's these concerns which compelled Iranian artist Naeemeh Naeemaei to create the works gathered in the new book, Dreams Before Extinction, just published by Perceval Press. The works were first displayed at the Henna Art Gallery in Tehran, Iran in 2011.
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In his forward to the book, "A Call To Conscience" Kavous Seyed-Emami, Executive Director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, writes about the important role artists have in raising the public's awareness regarding the issues facing wildlife. "Artists have the ability to connect to a general audience on an emotional level and thereby promote awareness of the need for nature conservation". In her comments on her work and what she hopes to accomplish with it Naeemaei is even more specific, "I want to make some changes at least in my own people about their behaviour with regard to nature and the environment. Even for just a bit."

Even a cursory glance at the images in Dreams Before Extinction bear out Seyed-Emami's statement and impress upon the viewer the sincerity of Naeemaei's intent. For while each of the images features either an endangered or extinct species from the region, it's how they are presented which makes the work so powerful. Instead of merely showing them isolated from humans, Naeemaei has created work which forces the viewers to consider the animals as part and parcel of their own world.

She has also made sure the works have social and cultural links to the people they are intended to reach. Many of the pictures have features in them which would be instantly recognizable to an Iranian, and maybe even an Islamic, viewer. While this might be a little bit of a barrier for those of us who aren't familiar with Islamic iconography or Iranian/Persian folk tales, not only has the artist included explanatory notes with for each painting, the publishers have provided us with a comprehensive introduction to the work, "Silence of the Leopards" by co-editor Paul Semonin.

In his introduction Semonin not only provides us with information about the significance of certain details Naeemaei has included in her works, he places her work in a familiar context by comparing it to that of the late Mexican artist, Frida Khalo. Those who are aware of Khalo's work will know the majority of them were highly personal statements about the painter's life and her relationship to the world. By pointing this out to us, and comparing Naeemaei's inclusion of herself in these works to Khalo's self portraits, Semonin reinforces the personal nature of the art in this collection. Khalo would occasionally turn herself inside out on canvass, showing us her internal physical damage. Naeemaei, by including herself or a family member in all these pieces creates the same sort of intimate connection, but with the body of the world instead of her own.
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By making no distinction between herself and the creatures she represents, by giving them the cultural and social characteristics most of her audience would recognize as those belonging to humans, she says these are my family. One of the most powerful pieces in the work in my opinion exemplifies this perfectly. "Caspian Tiger" is an image of this extinct species (last one died in 1959) surrounded by what are obviously women in mourning. The tiger bears bleeding wounds just under his ear and on his visible rear haunch. Two women are huddled together in the foreground, prostrate and holding each other, one leans on the tiger's back hiding her face in the palm of one hand and the last kneels in front of the tiger, head bowed as if in supplication and holding his face in her hands.

While the artist's note about the painting is heartfelt and beautiful ("The last one was killed in 1959, but there was no funeral and no one cried. I don't know where his tomb is to put flowers on it. I can only wail and mourn his passing in my own way") it's only by reading Semonin's introduction we'll understand the real significance of what we're looking at. For Naeemaei has drawn upon a famous painting depicting the martyrdom of the Third Imam of the Shi'a faith for her work. The original painting shows a group of mourning women gathered around the Imam's white horse who bears wounds identical to those seen on the tiger. In Iran there is a national day of mourning for this figure from their religious history. By depicting the Caspian Tiger in this manor Naeemaei, equating his loss with that of such a revered figure, she is telling her audience there should be no difference between the grief they feel for the Imam and the tiger.

Each of the paintings in this book are of equal potency. They make bold statements about how there should be no separation of the species and stress the artist's personal connections with the world around her. One of my favourites, "Silence of the Leopards", shows her in a stand off with a shepherd and his flock while she acts as a shepherd for a flock of leopards. In her comments she says how on the surface it would appear the sheep would be the ones who are in trouble, but the reality is the leopards are in the most danger. Over grazing by ranchers is destroying leopard's habitat, and the more sheep encroach into the wilderness the more their chances of survival are eroded. It's a beautiful juxtaposition which plays on people's perceptions of what is harmless and what is dangerous.

In the West we see Iran as a country of oppressed people whose lives are defined by the very narrow interpretation of a religious code. While there is some truth to this, it does not prevent people from having the same concerns about the world as we do, nor from finding ways to express what they are feeling. In the paintings collected in Dreams Before Extinction Naeemen Naeemaei expresses some of the most strongly "worded" and passionate pleas for the preservation of animal life you'll ever see. These aren't just depictions of endangered creatures, these are images which confirm the intrinsic bond between humans and the species we share the world with. When an animal species dies out it should be as great a calamity as the death of a human, that its not shows how far we have fallen.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Book Review: Dreams Before Extinction by Naeemeh Naeemaei)

January 22, 2014

Book Review: How Music Works by David Byrne

We all listen to music. Maybe we only have it playing in the background, use it to help us sleep or meditate, or perhaps you sit and listen to it carefully. However, no matter how or why you listen, it can't help but have an effect on you. The majority of us just take it for granted that we enjoy the music we listen to and never really stop to think why. While we can talk about the song's lyrics or how the combination of melody and rhythm make us feel good, we usually don't take it much further.

While this passive approach to music may be sufficient for the majority, philosophers and scholars have been fascinated with the why's and wherefores of music since the time of the ancient Greeks. While most study through the centuries has focused on either the physics, the psychological or emotional nature of music, hardly anybody has combined those fields with the more practical aspects involved with the creation and appreciation of music. That is until David Byrne wrote How Music Works. Originally published as a hardcover, a revised paperback edition has just been published by McSweeny's (distributed in Canada by Publisher's Group Canada) allowing Byrne to include new material reflecting the ever increasing nature of the way music works.

Byrne, who is probably best known as the former frontman for arguably one of the most interesting bands to come out of New York's 1970s so-called punk scene, Talking Heads, comes at his subject from all angles. As might be expected he talks about how "music works" in terms of its creation, but he doesn't stop there. He covers everything, from the variety of business models available to musicians today, the effect of technology not only on how we listen to music but how its produced to the correlation between the basic music scale and planetary orbits. Now, in case any of you are feeling a little overwhelmed by the latter, let me reassure you, as somebody who washed out of a basic physics course dealing with light and sound, that Byrne has the amazing ability to render every subject he discusses into language both accessible and intelligent.
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Naturally, as a performer and songwriter, he spends a large chunk of the book talking about the whys and hows of music creation. Right off the top he shows he's not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom about artistic creation by stating there's more than just moments of inspiration or whispers from some transcendental figure like a muse that goes into the writing of any piece of music. He posits the theory that context is as much a factor as anything else, and lays out a pretty convincing argument to support this hypothesis. He examines the history of Western music and the way it has evolved as the acoustics of the space it was played in changed from the massive concrete edifices of cathedrals, whose echoes made it impossible to play music with multiple parts and complicated phrasings, to the concert halls of today where the complicated melodies of orchestral music can be discerned.

Of course when the technology which allowed music to be recorded and listened to at any time entered the picture that provided a whole new context, a context which is continually evolving as the technology improves and grows easier to use and becomes financially more accessible. Byrne talks us through recording technology from the earliest days of Edison's wax tubes to today's digital equipment. He carefully details how each development not only changed the way music is listened to, but how it affected those who created and performed it. He talks of musicians, most famously Glenn Gould the Canadian piano genius, who stopped performing live completely. Instead they turned their energies into trying to produce perfection in the studio instead of having to live with the imperfections of live concerts. Thus the context changed from seeking to entertain people in a public setting to how to create note perfect reproductions of a piece using both personal abilities and technology in the pursuit of this goal.

However, it's not just the creation of music Byrne talks about, he also talks about the practicalities of making a living in the music business. How the odds are almost impossibly stacked against the musician who doesn't sell millions of copies of his or her record to ever really come out ahead if they sign a traditional deal with a record label. Again he takes us through the history of popular music in the recording age as musicians began to be signed by record companies in the early part of the 20th century to the situation in the present day. While much has been made of how people like Amanda Palmer have been able to fund recordings and tours through crowd source funding, Byrne points out they are still the exceptions to the rule.

While it's true advances in technology have made it easier for bands to record their own music, manufacture, distribution and touring still require outlays of money most of them don't have access to. He outlines the various types of deals available to musicians today, including the pros and cons of each, showing just how difficult it is for them to make a living wage. While digital download sites are now able to sell an artist's work without having to recoup costs such as shipping and manufacturing of product, none of these savings are being passed along to the musician in the form of increased royalties. i-Tunes, and others, still take the same percentage the big record companies used to take off the top before a band see's a cent.
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No matter what aspect of music Byrne talks about, his approach is wonderfully conversational. It's like being given the opportunity to sit down and talk with him about everything there is to do with the subject. On top of this he is able to illustrate each of his points with examples from his own career and experiences with the creation, science and business of music. Even when he starts talking about the physics, (and metaphysics) psychology and the various philosophies behind what music means to us as human beings and how it impacts us on emotional and spiritual levels, he manages to maintain this same tone.

The fact that he can make chapters about subjects with the potential to be as dry as the desert sands as enjoyable as his discussions about the early days at CBGBS with Talking Heads is one of the truly remarkable and wonderful parts of this book. True it's not a book you're going to sit down and read in one go, there's just too much information to be assimilated. However, at the same time, How Music Works makes some incredibly difficult and complex topics accessible without ever once talking down to its audience or assuming we share any of its author's experiences or inside information.

If you've ever had any interest in music, especially popular music, beyond listening to it, but haven't really had any idea of how to find out more about it, How Music Works is like owning your very own personal encyclopedia. Not only can you sit down and read it from cover to cover, you can also look up information on specific topics without having to wade through a great deal of extraneous detail. This book should probably be on the curriculums of all post secondary music programs, but can also be read with ease by anybody with even just a casual interest in the subject.

David Byrne has created some of the most interesting and intelligent popular music of his era, and this book he proves he's equally adept as a writer. Witty, insightful, thought provoking and always interesting, How Music Works isn't just for musicians, its for everyone who loves music.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Book Review: How Music Works by David Byrne)

November 25, 2013

Music Review: Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer - An Evening With Neil Gaiman And Amanda Palmer

There have been many great artistic couples down through the ages. Now a days there seems to be more celebrity couplings than any real co-joining of artistic talents. So when I first began to hear rumours writer Neil Gaiman and musician Amanda "Fucking" Palmer (also known as AFP) were romantically involved I was intrigued. It felt a little odd to be interested in the love life of two people I've never met, but as they were both individuals whose work I admired and respected I have to admit to a somewhat puerile curiosity. While I tried to tell myself it was different from the way "others" obsessed over the latest celebrity gossip, if I am being perfectly honest with myself, the only difference was I wasn't reading about them in the tabloids, I was reading about their relationship via their twitter feeds and blogs.

When the couple married in 2011 they decided to take what amounts to a busman's holiday, and did a short tour of the North American West coast from Vancouver Canada down to Los Angeles in the States. The performances, billed as "Evenings With Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman" were mixtures of song and story telling. After the tour the couple decided to crowd fund a three CD set of the tour culled from the shows. Initially only available to those who participated in the crowd funding venture, An Evening With Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman is now available to the general public.

For those somehow unfamiliar with the two principles perhaps a little background is in order. Gaiman is the creator of some of the most inventive fiction written in the past two decades. From his beautifully frightening children's stories, Coralaine and The Graveyard Boy, his pure fantasy, Stardust and Nowhere, to the brilliant study of humanity's relationships with their deities, American Gods, he took genre fiction into the realm of literature. A combination of whimsical humour, a deep understanding of human psychology and a refusal to believe the sky's the limit when it comes to imagination means he has the capacity to both terrify you and leave you breathless with laughter within the pages of the same book.
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Palmer, after a career that included everything from busking as a living statue and being one half of the punk/cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls, has established herself as one of today's premier independent musicians. Not only is her music a unique blend of styles, she brings a theatricality to her performances as original as her material. However, what has distinguished her from her contemporaries is her commitment to making and maintaining a connection with the people she creates her music for. From couch surfing from one fan's living room to the next as she made her way around the world playing venues as diverse as the Sydney Opera House to bathrooms for groups of thirty people, to today where she use's social media to take requests on stage during live internet broadcasts of her shows, she continues to build a rapport with her audience few other artists enjoy. More than anything else it was this personal connection with her fans that allowed her to raise over a million dollars when she crowd source funded her most recent album, Theatre Of Evil.

Needless to say the show put on by these two, and the variety of special guests who showed up at the different venues, was not your typical rock and roll concert. How often on a concert CD does the in between song chatter constitute some of the highlights of the recording? The interplay between Gaiman and Palmer is not only intelligent, it's insightful, hilarious and sometimes very personal. However, no matter how much fun they are talking to each other, they are that much more interesting performing their eclectic mix of material.

Palmer has a wealth of her own material to draw upon. You'll hear versions of "Map Of Tasmania", (both a celebration of a woman's body and a critique of censors who have no problem allowing images of human dismemberment but are horrified by depictions of the naked form) "Ukulele Anthem" , "Dear Old House" and the intriguingly titled "Gaga, Palmer, Madonna: A Polemic". The latter being her take on Lady Gaga, pop music and artistic creation in general crammed within the 2 minutes and 53 seconds of the standardized pop song format. However, in typical Palmer fashion, it is the most untypical pop song you'll ever hear. Satiric, sincere and introspective, she not only makes a case for pop music to be considered art, she expresses her own insecurities around performing and critiques the media's reactions to women pop stars. No wonder you'll never hear her songs on the radio.

Ironically enough, while I'd never heard Gaiman read any of his work before listening to this recording, I had heard him sing something he'd written before. Palmer and he, as well as friends Ben Folds and Damian Kulash had produced the album Nighty Night as part of a project called "8 in 8". The object was to go into the recording studio and write, produce and record eight songs in eight hours during a live web cast. While they fell short of their eight song goal they were able to produce six tracks including one sung by Gaiman that's included in this collection, "The Problem With Saints". While Gaiman isn't the singer his wife is, his delivery of this piece is perfect.
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Musically it sounds like it stepped out of a Noel Coward play from the mid 1920s, dixie land jazz meets British music hall, while the lyrics are a biting attack on the single mindedness of fanatics everywhere. Gaiman's half spoken, half sung delivery works perfectly for this type of piece as he can allow the music to provide emphasize for the lyrics and concentrate on communicating the meaning of the words. Listening to this and comparing it with his readings of things like his poem "The Day The Saucers Came" or the story "The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury", you'll notice he takes a similar approach in all three forms of presentation. His primary concern is to allow the words to communicate their meanings to the audience. Unlike many who I've heard read he understands it's just as much a performance as if he were singing, and is able to hold his audience as easily reading solo as when he's being backed by music.

One of the more enjoyable aspects of this three CD set is the wonderful informality of the concerts. The title is very apt as it feels more like you've been invited over to Gaiman's and Palmer's house to spend some time with them than as if you're sitting in the audience. While the invisible fourth wall separating audience from performer is present during some of the actual performing, its definitely not a permanent fixture. Not only do they both talk directly to the audience in their introductions to songs, they put aside about ten minutes for a segment entitled "Ask Neil and Amanda" where they field questions posed to them via Twitter.

The questions range from the silly, "What would you do in the event of a Zombie Apocalypse?" or "Any advice for a shy person". Gaiman's answer to the latter was marrying Amanda Palmer, or somebody equally as outgoing, because that way everybody will be concentrating on the other person and you can on going be shy and nobody will notice. However, what's important about the sequence isn't really the content of their answers, it's the atmosphere created by their casualness in answering them. It not only makes the listener feel more like a participant in a conversation, it also helps you realize how little difference there is between who they are as performers and who they are as people.

Usually when you go see a concert the people on stage hide behind a persona of some kind. Whether it be simply they are the performer and you're the audience or they have a character they assume while on stage, it can't help but erect a barrier between you and them. In the case of Gaiman and Palmer, you soon realize they aren't wearing any masks. As a result, even on the CD, there is an intimacy to this performance like none you've probably ever experienced before in a popular culture setting.

An Evening With Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer is unlike any other triple CD live concert experience you'll ever have. Not only because of the content, but because of the two remarkable people at the centre of events. There aren't many three CD sets of anything which leave you wanting more, but as the final track on the final CD of comes to an end, you'll find your self wishing it wasn't over. While this is definitely not your conventional concert CD, and perhaps that's why its so compelling, it is one of the best I've ever experienced.

(Article originally published at The Empty Mirror as Music Review: An Evening With Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer)

August 19, 2013

Book Review: Music, Culture & Conflict In Mali by Andy Morgan

Can you imagine what life would be like without music? If somehow it became illegal to listen to CDs, i-Pods and even cell phone ringtones in public. Or, if you were a musician, to live in constant fear of having all your equipment taken away from you and destroyed in front of your eyes and the threat of torture, prison or death hanging over you all the time? Maybe you could still play music in the privacy of your home, but only if you made sure all the windows and doors were shut and there's no way the sound would leak out into the street where somebody passing could hear.

Sounds pretty far fetched doesn't it? There's no way it could happen. Well that's exactly what happened in Northern Mali from around March 2012 until very recently. For Malians what made this even worse was how large a role music plays in their culture. Not only does music provide them with the same pleasure it does everybody else in the rest of the world, it is also a significant part of their cultural identity. From those who rely on traditional bard type figures known as griots, oral historians to their people whose songs can recount everything from the history of a family to a listing of the significant moments in a nation's history, to people like the nomadic Tuareg who rely on music to pass on cultural traditions, music is the backbone of their cultures. If music were eliminated for any length of time it would result in cultural genocide.

So how did this atrocity come about? How did music, and Mali has become famous for producing musicians of international calibre, end up being made a criminal offence and being a performer meant risking your life? The story is both simple - Northern Mali was taken over by Islamic Jihadist who imposed their version of Muslim religious law - and incredibly complicated - there are real problems in Mali which paved the way to make the take over possible. However, a new book written by Andy Morgan, Music, Culture & Conflict In Mali published by Freemuse ( a kind of Amnesty International for musicians) does a wonderful job of not only detailing what happened during that awful period, but explaining why it did, and how it could easily happen again if things don't change.
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Morgan is able to provide information from first hand sources you're not liable to read elsewhere because of his personal connection to the area. He was the manager of the first Tuareg (or Kel Tamashek as they refer to themselves) band, Tinariwen to become well known outside of Mali, for seven years. Through them he not only became known and trusted by the Kel Tamashek, he established relationships within the musical community throughout Mali. So, unlike reports you'll have read in the newspapers which have only told the bare minimum, Morgan is able to not only give us first hand accounts of people's experiences during these events, he supplies us with information about the various factions involved with the uprising, the details of what happened and the historical, political and social context which made it possible to begin with.

Mali, while its population is predominately Muslim, is a secular country, meaning the church has no influence over its governance. The majority of the people follow an Islamic tradition heavily influenced by their own tribal beliefs. They don't adhere to any of the restrictions on men and women associating, the prohibitions against alcohol or any of the more repressive tenets of the conservative fundamentalists. So it doesn't sound like a country ripe for an Islamic government of the kind normally associated with groups like the Taliban. However, over the past fifteen years there has been a gradual increase in the presence of foreign financed and taught pressure groups trying to influence public opinion in favour of this kind of society.

Mali has been victim, like many of the poorer African nations, of corrupt governments and military coups during its short lifetime since independence in the early 1960s. This has led to the type of unstable social and economic atmosphere history has show us is how groups promising stability and order are able to gain power. Of course its only once they gain power anybody finds out their version of order is to take away everybody's freedom. In Mali, they have been working just this kind of campaign - advocating a return to traditional Islamic values as the cure for everybody's ills, without actually saying what that means. Thus they've been softening up the ground for a potential takeover.
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The other important thing needed to know about Mali is the longstanding dispute between the central government and the Kel Tamashek people. Nomads whose territory once stretched from Algeria in the north to Niger in the South, their way of life has been seriously impacted by the encroachment of cities and industry into their lands. A series of rebellions over the years finally resulted in a treaty being signed between the Malian government and the Kel Tamashek in 2006 which guaranteed them certain rights and economic assistance. Unfortunately the Malian government has reneged on the majority of the treaty. As a result early 2012 saw another Kel Tamashek uprising in the North. By March they had succeeded in capturing the three major cities in the region and send the Malian army packing which precipitated the military overthrown of the Malian government.

Unfortunately for the forces fighting for the Kel Tamashek, one of their more powerful factions was led by a convert to radical Islam and had established ties with Jihad groups in Algeria. As soon as the battles were won, he and his allies ousted the Kel Tamashek nationalists and set up their own fiefdom. While the Kel Tamashek's goal was to create a homeland for themselves in Northern Mali, their usurpers saw it as a springboard for taking over the whole country.

Morgan does an excellent job of outlining all the players and the details of what happened in Northern Mali in 2012. However, more importantly he shows us how susceptible developing nations are to this type of take over, with or without the general populations support. As one of the people interviewed said Malians have become so used to being pushed around by the military and corruption they have reached a point where they're just grateful to be alive and have forgotten they deserve more than just survival.

Morgan's connections to people in Mali, both in the music business and otherwise, gives him a perspective on the situation few others can offer to the outsider. Not only do we learn the details of how the music ban has affected culture in the country, but how the uprising has brought disruption into the entire region. While the combined forces of France, Chad and Mali have been able to retake the major cities in the north, the future remains uncertain as the terror groups have simply retreated to their bases outside the country or into the desert.

While there are reports of a new treaty brokered by the French between Mali and the Kel Tamashek it remains to be seen whether the Malian government will be any better in honouring this accord than the ones previously signed. As Morgan so astutely points out, as long as conditions throughout Mali, and by extension the Sahara region as a whole, do not improve, there's no saying we won't see a resurgence of terror activity.

(Article originally published at as Book Review: Music, Culture & Conflict in Mali by Andy Morgan)

August 9, 2013

Book Review: I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp by Richard Hell

Where do ideas come from? How does an individual up with an idea that starts a whole movement? Does he or she think it up in a momentary flash of brilliance which causes them to have some sort of magical insight? Or is their insight born of a natural progression of events they have experienced up to that point in their lives combined with the environment they find themselves living at the time? Artistic movements don't just spring out of the ground without any antecedents, so the people, or person, who are the motivating force behind them must have come from somewhere as well. What is it about a person, what type of personality does it take, to be the individual who shapes an entire genre of artistic expression?

As it turns out, not very different from the rest of us in the beginning. According to his autobiography, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp, recently published by Harper Collins Canada, Richard Hell had a pretty much normal first few years growing up in America of the 1950s. So how did this guy who was weaned on Howdy Doody and other staples of middle class America stolidity become the person most now credit with founding the look and sound of punk rock in 1974? How did this person turn into the guy behind the short spiky hair, ripped clothes held together with safety-pins and the unbridled anger and irony which was copied so faithfully by punk rock bands and its fans from the early 1970s until today?

According to Hell his life started out conventionally enough. Born Richard Myers in 1949 in Lexington Kentucky, the son of two academics. His father parlayed a PHD into a professorship at University of Kentucky and his mother put off a career to raise her family. Who knows how he would have turned out if his father hadn't died of a heart attack when he was eight years old. For he describes an incident which occurred just a few weeks before his father died. Hell and a couple of buddies were planning on running away to sleep in a cave near by. The plan was they would meet up at midnight. When his father stumbled across his preparations for running away - a stash of cookies and other foodstuffs under his pillow - instead of punishing Hell he made him a deal. He would drive his son to the cave for midnight and if his friends showed up he could stay with them. However if the friends didn't show up he would have to come home with his dad.
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According to what Hell writes his academic career peaked in grade six and it was all downhill from there. Even though standardized testing in grade seven showed him to be one of the smartest kids in school throughout junior high school he was consistently close to failing. Although he would stay up all night in fits of anxiety over not being prepared he still couldn't bring himself to do the work properly. He describes the feelings this evoked in him in words akin to those one would normally use to describe the symptoms of withdrawal from drugs. Even then he resented the authority teachers had over him, and he says he elicited a promise from his future adult self to never forget how arbitrary and unfair adult rules were. He promises himself a life of adventure as an adult. The most important thing to remember as he grow older is to never let anyone tell him what to do.

However tempting it is to dismiss this as the self-fulfilling prophesying of somebody trying to impress readers with how deep his anti-authority roots were planted, he wouldn't have shown us how they were rooted in his resentment of those who were accepted by authority or the anxiety his refusal to bow to authority caused him initially if this the case. The behaviour is in keeping with a lot of kids - resentful of having to do work just because someone has told them to, but being too concerned about the consequences of not doing it to do anything about it. He shared the concerns, but still refused to do what was needed to assuage his anxiety shaping a pattern which was to continue for a good chunk of his life up until he quit music.

When he went onto high school the pattern of behaviour only intensified especially when he found another out cast to partner up with, Tom Miller. This was the beginning of a relationship that would see the creation of the seminal band Television in the early 1970s. Myers and Miller would eventually become Hell and Verlaine and be the founding fathers of New York's punk scene. What I've described is a compressed version of Hell's his early days and meeting with Verlaine. On the surface his story reads rather simplistically. Two young guys, far too smart for their own good, bored out of their minds by what the world has to offer, go looking for something, anything to stimulate their minds and imaginations.

While Verlaine was able to get some satisfaction out of forming Television and trying to perfect it, Hell was a different kettle of fish. Once the initial thrill of creating something was complete, he needed to move on to the next challenge and the next one after that. Of course the other problem with Television was the fact neither of its founders were willing to submit to anybody's authority which resulted in inevitable conflict, If either of them had even a semblance of emotional maturity they might have been able to resolve their problems, but the truth of the matter is both Hell and Verlaine come across as emotionally crippled and completely lacking in the ability to communicate any emotion aside from contempt.

Hell is brutally honest about himself. For while his younger self is busy sneering at those around him, the Hell who's writing the book tells us he was every bit as arrogant and self-serving as those he's busy deriding. We watch as the downward spiral which began in junior high continues to plunge him deeper and deeper into a pit as he descends into the abyss of heroin addiction. What's terrifying is how easy it was for him to go from lost teenager to adult searching for the next great adventure he promised himself as a youngster. It's hard reading about how he would degrade himself and others in his search for adventure. However, there are occasional flashes of brilliance which illuminate the pages and make you understand just what a gifted artist Hell has become.
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It seems like it's almost in spite of himself Hell was able to make an impression on both his peers and others in the music industry. Music critics from local rags to the New York Times raved about his final solo album, Destiny Street, with Robert Palmer of the Times going so far as to name it the best album of 1982. In 1976 Chris Stein, lead guitar player in the band Blondie, showed him a picture of four British musicians saying, "hey these guys all look just like you".

It was the Sex Pistols. Their manager had been in New York in 1974 and had been taken with Hell's look. He'd even offered to manage his career, but Hell didn't want anybody telling him what to do. So Malcolm McLaren went home to London and created his own band based on the template provided by Hell. Maybe punk would have happened without Hell, but he was definitely a major catalyst. No matter how inert he might have thought himself, he was the ingredient the music industry needed to shake itself out of the lethargy it had fallen into after the fall of the hippies.

Hell cuts the story of his life short at 1984, the year he quit music and began the serious quest to stop heroin. As he says there's nothing much more to tell - he's still alive and a writer, and there's nothing really exciting about the life of a writer. You do much the same thing day in day out. Aside for a little trouble at the end of the 80s and in the early 90s he was drug free from that day in 1984. His life of running from adventure to adventure was over. If one didn't know better you could say he had grown up.

While its by no means an easy read, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp is worth every moment spent in its pages. There are moments of sheer poetry among the dirt and grime which shine out like beacons guiding us ever onward in the hopes we will find something redeeming in this story of self-destructive genius. However Hell isn't interested in redeeming himself in our eyes. He concludes by saying if he had died at the point where this book ends, 1984, "there would have been left such scant evidence of me that my life would be mostly just a sad cautionary tale... My life is not different for having written this book - my life only comes into being by having been written here."

This isn't one of those life affirming autobiographies designed to inspire any of us in our own work. Instead its a glimpse into the creative mind pushed to its extreme in its search for stimulation. Anyone who still might have stupid romantic notions about artists and drug use will soon be cured of them after reading Hell's book. It's impossible if you're a creative person of any sort not to identify with at least parts of Hell's story and at some point I guarantee you'll think - there but for the grace of who the fuck ever, go I.

(Article originally published at as Book Review: I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp by Richard Hell)

August 7, 2013

Book Review: Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream by Neil Young

Most celebrity autobiographies I've had the misfortune to read have been self-serving exercises in ego flexing and self congratulations. The worst are the ones where the subject confesses to all sorts of sins in an effort to portray themselves as some of sort humble person seeking redemption for their evil pasts. Not only do these confessionals smack of self-aggrandizing hypocrisy, I usually end up feeling like the person in question is trying to sell me on how brave and heroic they are for having managed to stop behaving like a spoiled rich brat. Who really cares how many and what drugs they took or how many people they slept with?

Thankfully there are some famous people out there who understand they aren't the centre the universe; not their's or anybody else's. The especially aware ones manage to tell the story of their lives as part and parcel of the events going on around them at the time. They may play a major part in the proceedings, but they're not the only player and they can talk about more than just themselves. Even when they do talk about themselves it's only because they want to tell you about somebody else or to try and share some of the wonder they have experienced during the course of their lives.

When I picked up Neil Young's autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream, just released by Penguin Canada in trade paperback after a successful run in hard cover, I was pretty certain it wasn't going to be a typical celebrity autobiography. However, what I wasn't prepared for was how much he would be willing to reveal of himself. Considering what an intensely private person Young is, I was extremely surprised at how casual he was about letting readers in past his defences. I'm not sure if he's even aware of how much he's let readers into his life and how much of his soul he's left on the pages of this book.
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I say this because of the wonderfully casual way the book is written. Reading it is like having a rambling conversation with a close friend. When you pick the book up after putting it down, it feels as if he's been waiting for you to come back into the room so he can pick up where you left off. No matter what he's been talking about it doesn't matter, what matters is the book makes you feel he's talking directly to you. Although he talks about the people, his friends and his family, throughout the book, you still end up feeling like your one of his closest confidants.

Like the best conversations this book covers a lot of ground. It wanders through time and geography from Northern Ontario in the 1950s to Hawaii and California in 2011. One of the first things he tells us is he's stopped drinking and smoking pot. After the surgery to repair the aneurysm in his brain his doctor recommended he stop smoking and he decided to follow his advice. We then learn this is making him a little nervous as he hasn't written music straight in over 40 years and he's concerned with what will happen. So to distract himself from worrying he talks about the various projects he's undertaken over the years which have served to give him a break from music whenever he's felt like he's needed it.

While he's no longer a majority owner of Lionel Trains he still loves the trains the company produces. Occasionally he and you will retire to his train room where he will regale you with details of his set up, the advances in train technology and his dreams for their future. While model trains have been a passion of his since childhood and is something he's quite willing to share with anyone who is interested, it's still something very personal. On the other hand the other two projects, outside of creating music and his family, which take up most of his time have the potential to be much more far reaching.

Lincvolt is the name he's given the project to create a luxury, full sized series hybrid electric car powered by biomass. Using a vintage Ford Lincoln Continental as the prototype he's set out to prove a car doesn't have to be small in order to be safe for the environment. He's perfectly aware North Americans are in love with their big cars and nothing anybody does will convince the majority to give them up. So he's made it his mission in life to sell people on the idea you can have your big car and save the environment too.

Naturally music is very important to him even when he's not making it. His biggest concern these days is the loss of sound quality caused the use of compression technology. The old analog sound we used to listen too when we bought records was much fuller than anything produced digitally. However, instead of just whinging about the good old days, Young is actually trying to do something about it by creating a new type of digital technology called PONO which will offer listeners as close to analog sound as possible with all the convenience they've grown used to from the digital age.
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Of course Young talks about his other plans for the future. Every so often he mentions how he's going to prepare for his next recording with Crazy Horse. He talks about how he and the band are going to set up their gear and spend a year with the music and seeing what they're able to create. However, every time he starts to talk about this he shies away from the subject and diverts off to something else. Eventually it comes out he's worried about over thinking the music. He doesn't like to think about creating, preferring to let it flow naturally.

However, the situation as he's writing the book, having given up pot and alcohol, is making him think more about it than it seems he likes. So every time he starts to become excited by the idea of making a new album, he always manages to change the subject. He lets on he's worried about what will happen but tries to tell us he's happy with what he has. However you can tell he will be devastated if the music is gone. No matter how much he tries to convince himself and us that writing this book is a substitute for creating music, and maybe he'll write more books, or how he needs the other things in his life to keep music fresh, without music his life will be irrevocably changed.

Having been around music as long as he has Young the majority of his friends are in the business. However, this isn't either a name dropping kind of book nor a book about other people. He talks about the people he's loved as friends who've passed on, his lasting friendship with Steven Stills, and occasionally mentions his friends Paul, Bruce and Bob with the same sort of casualness you or I would talk about the people we know. It's not name dropping, these are just happen to be the circles he moves in. These are the people who send him gifts in the hospital when he's recovering from brain surgery, who help him and his wife out when they want to raise money for a school for developmentally handicapped children like their son Ben they have created, and who can understand and appreciate the type of life he leads. There aren't many people who life in the same strata as Young, who have survived this long in popular music, and it's only natural for them to know and respect each other.

Unlike a number of memoirs, Young's book is firmly planted in the present and looking towards the future. Sure he talks about how he got to where he is now, and over the course of his book he retraces his career, but he continually comes back to the here and now. This isn't a conclusion to a life, rather a pause to refocus and evaluate before he starts out on what's next. Young has never lived his life attempting to please others by giving them what they want, one record company actually tried to sue him because his music wasn't enough like what he had done before, and he's still as mercurial as ever.

Waging Heavy Peace is a wonderful trip inside the mind of one of popular musics most enduring figures. He doesn't have any axes to grind - when someone asked him whether his trying to find a way of creating better quality digital music was a declaration of war on Apple his reply was he was waging heavy peace - he just wants to share with us his gratitude for having been able to know some incredible people and being able to do what he wanted to do. If you haven't had the opportunity to read this book yet take the time to spend some time with one of the more intriguing and interesting minds in popular music. You won't regret it.

(Article first published at as Book Review: Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream by Neil Young)

August 3, 2013

Music Review: Jocelyn Pook - Unknown Things

It was early in the 1980s I first heard compositions incorporating found recordings of the human voice. My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts by David Byrne and Brian Eno used everything from outtakes of a radio call in show to a recording of an exorcism played back at different speeds and put through a variety of effects to create a collection of odd and highly affecting music. They weren't the only musicians working in this field at the time and while I've come across a few other examples of this type of work since, not many have impressed me as much as that first recording.

Until I heard the re-release of Jocelyn Pook's Untold Things on Real World Gold, an imprint of Real World Records, I had pretty much given up on hearing anything in this style that would be as moving and inspiring as My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. In fact the pieces on this recording are far more than just manipulated vocal samples set to music. Each of the 13 tracks here are complete compositions where the vocals, whether found or recorded live, are only one of the instruments Pook employs to create her multi textured and intricate pieces of music instead of being the focal point.

In most forms of music where vocals are employed they are usually what the song or piece is built around. From your standard pop song to opera to choral pieces the music serves to accent the story or themes the vocals are expressing. Whether an electric guitar solo or a full orchestra the music provides an emotional context for the lyrics. The challenge for a composer looking to employ the voice in a different capacity is to find ways to overcome his or her audiences' expectations when it comes to the role of vocals in a piece of music. The majority of us are conditioned by experience to separate the voice from accompaniment to discern the lyrics being sung.
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When a composer inserts found vocal tracks from cultures and languages other than their own they redefine the role of the voice in the composition. Once they realize the lyrics are being sung in a language they don't understand the listener will lose the impetus to distinguish between voice and instruments. While this is one method Pook employs in this collection of pieces it's not the only technique she uses to make voice part of her sound pallet. On some tracks lyrics are reversed while on others she has made up languages for her vocalists to employ.

Pook is a classically trained musician and composer with experience in creating music for ballet, theatre and film; most famously the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. So these pieces aren't the slapdash creation of somebody just fooling around with a mixing board and tape loops. Each one is carefully constructed and arranged and works on both an emotional and intellectual level. For, while the various sounds might stir certain feelings within her audience their careful juxtaposition will also ensure they pause to consider what is causing the emotional reaction.

The opening track of the disc, "Dionysus", is named for the Greek god most often associated with unbridled emotions and generally letting loose. However as well as being the god of wine, he was also honoured with annual theatre festivals in ancient Athens. While some of these plays would have been ribald comedies the more serious tragedies with their moral lessons would have been staged as well. Still, the majority of listeners would associate Dionysus with his wilder aspect and be surprised by the subdued nature of the piece. With its close to ethereal vocals (Melanie Pappenheim) sung over muted strings (Jackie Norrie, Sally Herbert, Kelly McCusker violin, Pook viola and keyboards, Caroline Lavelle cello and Jub bass) and keyboards it makes one think perhaps there is more to this god than we first thought.

Emotionally the piece evokes a kind of wistfulness in the listener created by the note of yearning we hear in the combination of voice and instruments. However, if we stop and think about what we know about the god in question, instead of being carried away by the emotion suggested by the music we pause and wonder what it has to do with the song's subject. Why does a song about the most earthy of gods resound with echoes of loneliness? Pook is urging us to consider there might be more to Dionysus than we've been led to believe by popular interpretations.
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Previously when I've heard compositions which employ found vocal tracks it's been relatively easy to distinguish between them and the original music. That's not always the case with Pook's work. When you listen to track ten, "Calls, Cries And Clamours", you'll have a hard time telling the vocal sample from "Boat Song" sung by Hoang Oanh from the original material Pook created with vocalist Pappenheim. While in this instance the vocals are prominent in the mix, like all the other tracks on the disc they are simply one more instrument. Even better is the fact we don't even have the distraction of hearing something obviously "foreign" in the mix, and we can simply sit back and let the music wash over us and think about the implications of the title.

The three words of the title all refer to three types of sound. While the first two specifically refer to vocal sounds the third implies noise of a generally loud and confused nature. While the song isn't what you'd call loud by any means, it does create the impression of a number of different sounds being listened to at once. It's as if you were eavesdropping on a variety of conversations being carried on in different languages. What you're listening to may not be loud, but it's certainly confusing because you can't understand anything of what's being said. Even if you could speak one of the languages, the confusion of hearing more than one at a time would make comprehension next to impossible.

Yet in spite of this there is also a certain harmony and beauty to the way the different sounds being made by the voices and musical instruments come together. It's a very simple lesson in how diversity does not necessarily mean disharmony. Language is used to communicate ideas no matter if its French, English or Arabic. On the surface they sound different, but if we stop trying to discern meaning in what's being said we begin to hear how they harmonize.

The music on Unknown Things is both beautiful to listen to and fascinating to think about. Composer Jocelyn Pook has taken elements of Western composition and mixed it with both found vocal tracks and her own linguistic inventions to make intriguing and inventive pieces of music. While the songs all have an obvious emotional appeal they are intriguing and interesting enough to trigger an intellectual response as well. There are very few composers capable of doing both at once, and on its own this would make checking her work out worth your while, but the music is also a pleasure to listen to, which makes it twice as valuable.

(Article originally published at as Music Review: Jocelyn Pook - Unknown Things)

July 8, 2013

Book Review: Let's Start a Pussy Riot Curator Emely New, Edited by Jade French in collaboration with Pussy Riot

On February 21 2012 members of the Russian feminist performance art group/collective Pussy Riot put on an agit-prop performance in a priests only section of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Accused of religious hatred, two of the members of the group, Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnnikova are now serving two year sentences for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred in separate penal colonies - forced labour camps by any other name. A third member of the group, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was also arrested and sentenced to two years imprisonment, but her sentence was commuted to probation.

The defendants were held without bail from the time of their arrests in March 2012 until their trial on July 30 2012, an indication of how the course of justice is being perverted in this case. The trio claim their performance was not an act of hatred agains any organized religion, rather a protest against the increasing ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and Russia's President Putin. Considering how immediately after their performance in February the Church called on the government to make blasphemy a criminal offence, and it was only after this a criminal case was opened against the band, they have a point.

In Russia, the charge of "hooliganism" is used as a catch all for prosecuting unapproved behaviour. The final indictment of the three women for what was only a one minute performance ran to 2,800 pages. Its rife with statements condemning their blasphemy and corruption of Russian moral values through the importing of feminism and the idea of gender equality. One group, The Union of Russian Orthodox Women, went so far as to warn the population these ideas would inevitably lead to gay overpopulation and Russia vanishing from the world map. The only stumbling block for conservative commentators in their condemnations is the Russian language lacks the equivalent of the slang word "pussy". Which meant television viewers were treated to the site of priests mouthing the word vagina and "mad vagina" as a substitute for Pussy Riot.
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As the Russian government of Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church attempt to turn back the clock to the dark ages, groups and individuals within and outside of Russia have begun the process of trying to secure both Alekhina and Tolokonnikova's release through actions and fundraising activities. One of these fundraising projects is a new book being published by Rough Trade Books called Let's Start a Pussy Riot. As the title implies this is more than just a project to raise funds for the two women still incarcerated, its also a celebration of what the Pussy Riot collective stand for.

Artists from a variety of media and gender have all contributed samples of their work which either reflect support for the cause of feminism or are expressions of their own liberation as individuals not willing to be defined by anyone else's idea's of who and what they are. At issue of course is the continued assault on women all over the world in a variety of situations and circumstances. Whether women being raped as acts of war, subjugated for reasons of religion or just treated as second class citizens in general through the roles their society's designate for them.

In Russia, the United States and other countries feminism is being denigrated as being against the values of respective societies. Who's values? What are they based on? Why are one group of people allowed to stipulate values specifically designed to control the behaviour of another group of people? What gives anyone the right to designate one gender identity more acceptable than another? When we are dealing with something as benign as gender and personal identification what do values have to do with the issue anyway? It's not as if whether a person is gay, straight, bi, female, male, heterosexual, transgendered or whatever is going to affect anyone else's life. The state should take issue with what people do, how they treat others, not who or what they are.

These basic inalienable rights, the right to be yourself, are what each of the artists in this book are defending in their own way. Call it feminism if you wish, but the reality is the fight isn't about equality for women, the fight is for equality period. The fight isn't about women wanting to act like men or becoming men. It's not about gays and lesbians wanting to take over the world and corrupt our youth. No it's about accepting each of them for who they are and letting them be themselves no matter what role they want to play in society as individuals.
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The work in this book has been donated by artists, male, female and transgendered, who are concerned with the issues raised by Pussy Riot. They are concerned at the way simple human dignity is being denied people because of their gender identification. From an essay and interview with Antony Hegarty, lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons, the opening and closing court statements of the three members of Pussy Riot, to contributions from Peggy Seeger, Yoko Ono, Peaches and an amazing variety of artists from across all media and styles, each in their own way are starting a Pussy Riot. Their work will make you think about the issues the collective raises in terms of gender equality and feminism in particular and why the notion that feminism is something whose time has come and gone is a dangerous lie.

Some might be offended by some of the images in the book and not understand what they have to do with the topic at hand. However, you have to remember feminism is about reclaiming control of one's own identity and the freedom of expression that goes with it. The point of this book is to show support for the women arrested and to defend creativity as a means of both protest and an expression of ideas. On page eight appear the words "Call For Action" and they are followed on page nine by a brief explanatory poem/manifesto explaining what the book is about.

"Let's Start a Pussy Riot is a celebration:/A celebration of freedom of speech,/of visibility, of not taking our own situations for granted/Let's Start a Pussy Riot is a creative response:/culture and creativity to form our activism and inform our minds./Writing, painting, singing our opinions in order to get our message heard/Let's Start a Pussy Riot is a call for action:/To use what we have at our fingertips to fight/To show support for those brave enough to speak out/To challenge injustice through dialogue and conversation/To create a response that can say something larger than ourselves."

Supposedly freedom of expression and speech are one of the keystones of democracy. Art in all its myriad forms is humanity's purest form of expression as it allows us to express ideas and emotions realistically, metaphorically and symbolically in ways that stimulate thought and conversation. Once anyone starts to try and limit the means of expression through control of content they are putting limits onto what we're allowed to think and talk about.

Let's Start a Pussy Riot, in supporting the right of a group of women to express dissent, is more than just a book about the rights of women and gender equality. Its an expression of support for everyone who has the courage to stand up and be heard in the face of those who would keep them silent. While the money earned from sales of the book will go towards helping pay the costs of trying to secure the release of the members of Pussy Riot still in labour camps, in spirit it supports every artist around the world.

(Article first published at as Let's Start a Pussy Riot - Curator Emely New, Edited by Jade French in collaboration with Pussy Riot)

June 20, 2013

Book Review: How The Light Is Spent by Gail Sidonie Sobat

The compulsion to tell stories is probably as old as humanity itself. Originally histories were recounted through the simple act of passing information from one generation to another orally. When we first started to record information it was in the form of long poems, similar to the way the stories had been told when sitting around the fire or hearth. Eventually as we grew more sophisticated prose replaced poetry and the stories became more impersonal. Instead of telling the history of a family or a village histories have turned into a listing of events. However, while it is no longer our main means of written communication, poetry is still used on occasion for the recounting of personal and family histories.

In her newest collection of poems, How the Light Is Spent published by Wintergreen Studios Press, Gail Sidonie Sobat gives us poetry relating to her family's history in Western Canada, her personal adventures travelling in Turkey and finally meditations on various people and moments in her life. Each of the book's three sections, "Badlands", "Sailing To Byzantium" and "How The Light Is Spent", provides the reader with a collection of poems who's cumulative effect is to describe events in such vividness we are left with an emotional and intellectual understanding of the histories prose could never match.

In the early part of the twentieth century Canada desperately required people willing to settle its three prairie provinces, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Opening the country's doors to immigrants willing to settle on the prairies resulted in a large influx of Eastern Europeans, especially Ukrainians, into the region. Lured by the promise of free land they came to Canada and attempted to build new lives for themselves. Not only did they face the challenge of clearing the land, building housing and dealing with a harsh climate, they were treated as second class citizens and given the derisive name of Bohunk. Although originally a degradation of the word Bohemian - an area in what is now the Czech Republic - the word quickly became slang for any person of Eastern European extraction.
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In "Badlands" we find ourselves among poor immigrant farmers and coal miners. Like their counterparts in the United States the badlands in Alberta Canada are an unforgiving and fierce environment. While Sobat doesn't spend much time describing the surroundings the people in her poems live in, she still manages to convey the role it played in their lives. In "Bohunks From The Hills" she describes them thus, "those badlands are lonely lands/despite childhood joys/misplaced memories/these hills hold neither charm nor hope/remind instead that loss/is so sadly permanent."

The poems in this section follow the maternal line of her family from when they first arrived in Canada down through the generations. Occasionally a poem will be from the perspective of one of her ancestors, describing how she fell in love with the man she married, while other poems fill us in on the attitudes of other people towards the "Bohunks". As many of the immigrants ended up working in the coal mines, references to coal and the toll it took on those who dug it run through a number of the poems like a vein of the ore they suffered to bring to the surface. "coal seeps into pores, the mind/sullies a man's outlook/steals the sunlight and substitutes/a black vitriolic madness." ("Coal Mad"- How The Light Is Spent, Sobat, Gail Sidonie p8)

As we follow the lives of the women the poet describes we see how they we're shaped by the way the mines affected husbands. In one poem, "From Rosedale To Cambria Suite" we learn the details of one woman's childhood. Her father working in the mines and coming home embedded with coal. Her mother growing old before her time in the constant struggle to feed and shelter her family until finally "your mother's heart burst at last/worn out from trying to live". Her father remarried a woman with five children of her own and at ten years old she wasn't wanted, at fifteen she was sent out in the world to earn a living.

Each of the poems in this section describe another piece of the journey along the road this woman travelled in her life. From falling in love at seventeen, her boyfriend's refusal to tie himself to the mines and decision to join the army as a way of avoiding digging coal, to her being left widowed with a young daughter in 1943. As well as the poems, Sobat has included photos of the people she talks about, the photos from her family albums which inspired the work. They stand posed and smiling for the camera creating a veneer of happiness to be pasted over the truth of their history. However as the final lines in "P/O M. E. VanDeKinder" say "there are no happy endings/just the brief joys of living/and if lucky, loving/a boy from the hills even once".
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The section of the book titled "Sailing To Byzantium" deals with a description of a voyage to Turkey. While some of the poems deal with the culture shock experienced by a Westerner travelling in a culture almost completely alien to them, others deal with the feelings of wonder at being in a place so completely different from what a person is used to. In "bottle blond on the golden horn" the poet reflects on the former, "I see the bridge and the minaret/against a filthy dawn sky/cough up yesterday's dirt and grime/wonder if there's anything/clean and pure to be found/in this Janus-faced city". However in "Istanbul #2" she is much more appreciative of the city's differences. "to touch the woven fibres/made by women sold by men/in centuries-old bazaar/sip hospitable teas/with barterers smiling benignly through tooth rot", is only part of her description of the wonders of the famous street markets of Istanbul.

However, what I found most interesting about this series of poems was her using the ancient Christian name of Byzantium for the region. I wondered why she referred to what was once the heart of the Ottoman Empire by this extremely archaic name? Is it to remind us of the impermanence of all empires? Or by referring to it by the name the region has often been called in Romantic poetry does she hope to heighten the contrast between the gritty reality she finds there and any romantic notions she might have had about the area prior to her arrival. If the latter, than she is remarkably successful. The descriptions we read in her poems about Turkey, Istanbul specifically, are of a big dirty city like any other, with only hints of its former glory.

After travelling in time and across the world with Sobat, the poems in the final section of the book show her turning her eye slightly inward. Here she reflects on various people and incidences which describe the simple acts of living and how her energy, "The Light", is spent on them. Whether it a celebration of a slightly hedonistic meal in "pilgrimage to Hardware Grill", and its honouring of the earthy delights of a gourmet meal and good wine; "smiling Russell suavely/sets before us verdant greens/succulence swims in sauce/garrulous garlic wafts willfully/tastes scents textures/exotic exacting/our glasses/our hearts/are full/and we give thanks"; or the more profane "Fecal Incident on the Sunshine Coast"; "the dog took a dump in the Pacific Ocean/as we horrified, mortified watched/even the seagull flapped off in disgust"; each poem in this section is a slice of an everyday life lived,

Here she shows us history is not only made up of momentous occasions from the past, nor do we have to travel half way around the world to have new and varied experiences. In fact each moment we live, each action we take, are part of the creation of history no matter where we are or who we are with. The stories we tell each other everyday are as redolent with significance as those we've learned about the struggles of our ancestors to survive or the adventures we've experienced among other people and cultures.

History is definitely far more than just the actions of famous people written down in text books for us and others to study in school. While history texts might tell us about the famous battles and the heroes and villains who fought on every side, it's the poet who looks between the cracks and tells us about the people who ate, worked, loved and died in these wars and the families they left behind. In How The Light Is Spent Sobat has created a personal history which not only tells the story of her family and her self in this world, but helps us see the world is far more complex, beautiful and awe inspiring place than any text book could hope to tell us. This is history as it should be, told through the pen of a poet with an eye for the important details of life.

(Article first published at as Book Review:" How The Light Is Spent" by Gail Sidonie Sobat)

April 23, 2013

Richie Havens - In Memorium

I was saddened today to hear the wonderful Richie Havens had died of a heart attack yesterday (April 22 2013). Havens had been flying under most people's radars for the last little while, popping up in occasional cameos in movies, but still producing some incredible music. Five years ago he releasedNobody Left To Crown and proved he was still as vital and active as he was when he first began performing back in the 1960s.

Like most people my introduction to Havens was via the Woodstock Music festival of 1969. First through my brother's copy of the record album and them watching a flickering print of the movie in a second run movie house nearly a decade after the festival had taken place. Watching this man pouring his heart out on screen amazed me. To later learn he had actually played for three hours and maintained that level of energy the whole time astounded me. It turns out none of the other scheduled performers had been able to make it on site in time because of traffic conditions and organizers asked him to fill in.

Havens was probably best known for his amazing ability as an interpreter of other people's songs. As he showed on Nobody Left To Crown it didn't matter whether it was the power rock of The Who, "Won't Get Fooled Again", or the softer sounds of Jackson Browne, "Live's In The Balance", he could bring any song to life and make it soar in new ways. Unfortunately, his own ability as a song writer was often overlooked. On the same album he proved how he was every bit as capable of writing music as powerful as anybody else out there. One only needs listen to the release's title track where he bemoans the lack of real leadership in the world to realize how skilled he was. Not only could he pinpoint issues with unerring accuracy his artistry lay in making songs simultaneously poetic and accessible.

However, it's not just Haven's talent I'm going to miss, I'm going to miss him personally. Around the time Nobody Left To Crown was released I was fortunate enough to interview him. Most interviews with public personalities are limited to what are known as 20 minute "phoners". The person you're interviewing is doing about twenty of them in a row and you're supposed to ask pat questions about their new release and they give you their pat answers. That wasn't the case with Havens. He and I talked for only slightly more then a half-hour, but by the time we ended our conversation I felt like I had known him for years. He ended up by making sure to invite me to drop by a folk club in upstate New York where he still played on a regular basis, and I felt like he would be genuinely glad to see me if somehow I ended up sitting in the audience one night.
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If you read the interview you'll see I warn you in the introduction we both had a hard time staying on topic. We were supposed to be talking about the new album, but we'd become fascinated by some other subject and head wildly off in a new direction. However, what I most remember about our conversation was what a gentle, humorous and unassuming man he was. I remember him laughing about how he developed his very distinct style of playing guitar. He basically said it was because I wasn't very good and had to find the easiest way possible to play the thing. There used to be a page on his web site where he explained how this worked, but the link seems to be dead now. Here's how he described to me how he overcame the biggest obstacle facing him when he became a solo artist: "The problem was I didn't know how to play guitar, let alone tune one. But Dave Van Ronk and Freddy (Fred Neil) helped out and it was from them I learned how to tune my guitar down to D and learned the bar chords that I still play today. With those simple chords and that tuning you can play thousands of songs - it's great (laughter)"

It's impossible to capture in words on paper, or whatever this is, the truth of a person. However, based on the few precious minutes I spent with Richie Havens one afternoon I came to realize what a truly gentle spirit he was. It amazed me how a man could be so passionate about life and his art while still being filled with such kindness and awe for the work of others and the world around him. As a conclusion to my interview I offered up the words, the world would be a lot better off if there were more people like him in it. On the day after his death, I would change that to - the world is worse off for not having Richie Havens in it anymore.

(Article first published as In Memory Of Richie Havens on Blogcritics.)

March 30, 2013

Book Review: River Of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

When I was making my first tentative steps into the world of the arts it was the writers who used words to create works of wonder and beauty who inspired me the most. I remember being filled with awe at their abilities to make even the grotesque seem wondrous and amazing. But somewhere around the middle of the 20th century elegance and beauty began to be supplanted by harsh terse prose posing as realism. It was if we had become convinced the only way to convey the human experience was by sucking the beauty out of it and reducing it to its base elements. While it's true the excesses of romanticism needed to be checked, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.

There was a time when writers like Dickens and Poe were considered popular fiction. Now, those who would strive to be their equals are relegated to the seemingly elitist genre of literary fiction thus deterring the average reader from experiencing their writings. As a result the publishing industry groans under the weight of the equivalent of fast food it produces each year and wonders why they are losing money. When someone rises from the dining table feeling stuffed but unsatisfied, not only is their health put at risk, but they gradually lose interest in what's set before them. With nothing to hold their attention they will only pick at their plates or be easily diverted.

The sad part is that most of the time we don't know what we're missing. When there's almost nothing to hold up as a standard against which to judge everything else, it's easy to think there aren't any options. However, there are still the occasional authors out there writing popular fiction able to create approachable work while aspiring to make reading an inspiring and special experience. As soon as you open the pages of Guy Gavriel Kay's latest book, River of Stars published by Penguin Canada, you know you'll have such an author.
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This is Kay's second book set in Kitai, a fictional version of Imperial China. Its predecessor, Under Heaven, was set in the period when the empire's borders were protected by the Great Wall and the world flowed down the Silk Road to fill its cities with splendour and wealth, a few hundred years have passed since then and much has changed. The Wall has long since fallen and the barbarian hordes it once kept at bay control much of what was the empire. Instead of deciding which of the tribal leaders they should prop up in order to best serve the empire, the Emperor's advisors must now ensure they placate the powerful among them with annual tribute payments.

In some ways Kitai has become a mockery of its former glory. In reaction to what were deemed the excesses at the heart of the civil war which tore he empire apart (see Under Heaven for details radical policy changes were instituted by the court. As it was a military governor responsible for the civil war martial competence is seen as dangerous and discouraged among high ranking officials in the court. The contraction of the empire's borders is the price they have paid for instilling the belief a person of breeding is above such earthy concerns. After all if the barbarian hordes are so adroit at warfare, than it ill behooves those at the centre of the universe serving the Emperor, the son of heaven, to sully their minds with with such lowly thoughts. So what if the empire send armies off to die when their commander in chief forgets to bring siege engines when ordered to conquer the capital city of another country.

The conservatism, or fear, which dictates policy in Kitai has also seen changes to the way women of higher rank are treated. More and more daughters and wives are pushed into the background. The idea that a respectable family would educate their daughter, teaching her to read and write, to have opinions and think for herself is unheard of. What use would that be to her when she is destined for a life of service to whomever she is lucky enough to marry..

This is the Kitai both Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan are born into. The former is the son of a clerk to a provincial magistrate and the latter the only daughter of a scholar. Both are ill suited to the new realities of the empire. Ever since he was a boy Daiyan has dreamed of leading the armies of Kitai in reclaiming the territories they've lost to the barbarian hoards. Shan is equally ill advised in her ambitions as she writes poetry and even sets it to music. While she would not be considered a threat like Daiyan, her abilities have made her a figure of oddity in her social circle.
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Aside from their having unconventional behaviour in common, Daiyan and Shan are also fated to come to the attention of people of influence. While this helps Daiyan in achieving his dreams of becoming a military leader and allows Shan to be recognized for her abilities as a poet - even by as an exalted a figure as the Emperor - attention, intelligence and success aren't necessarily a winning combination in this world. When those in power notice you, they make use of you for their own ends and you may end up wishing you kept a lower profile.

While Daiyan and Shan are important to the story they are still only two figures on a crowded canvas in the elaborate painting of events Kay has brought to life. With great care and skill he draws our focus to events and characters at its furthest reaches. What happens on the periphery might at first seem inconsequential and have no bearing on the lives of those at the centre. However, as every brush stroke relates to the one next to it when the artist lays ink to paper, everything is interconnected. Over the course of the book Kay carefully brings together the disparate elements of plot and character to form a cohesive, multi-textured and vibrant image.

Through the careful attention to detail he uses to bring even the most minor characters and their environments to life, Kay is able to bring home to us the reality of what it must have been like when the empire was in its death throes. From the arrogance of the high court officials, the peasant who suffers the consequence of their leader's actions to the vengeful barbarian hoards intent on pillage and conquering we see the world through a multitude of eyes. Each of these perspectives is another layer of reality and serves to make Kay's work all the more vivid and arresting.

While he doesn't stint from depicting the brutal realities of the world, men think nothing of ordering someone beaten to death with bamboo cane or enjoy watching their enemies heads being eaten alive by fire ants, neither does he glory in them or sensationalize them. They are facts of life, nothing more, nothing less. However, and in some ways more importantly, he doesn't glorify the opulence of the Empire either. While we are given lovingly detailed descriptions of beautifully decorated chambers and the resplendent garden the Emperor has built, we are also given carefully detailed descriptions of their costs in lives and money. These are not the symbols of an Empire's glory, they are signs of its dissolute nature and arrogance.

Kay has the uncanny ability to depict the grand sweep of historical events through the eyes of those living through them. In doing so he lets us see how history is never the cut and dried thing it appears in history books. He shows us how seemingly unrelated events, both large and small. build upon each other until they finally reach a tipping point from which there is no return. While on the surface it may appear there was one pivotal moment upon which everything depended, no moment stands completely alone or is unaffected by what came before it.

What's even more amazing is how through his careful rendering of character and environments we are drawn into this history. The people and the culture they live in become more than just descriptions on the page as he manages to capture those elements of each which make them vital and alive. Yet there is more than just simple realism at work in his depictions. There is an emotional depth to Kay's work which takes it out of the realm of the he did this and then followed it up with that action we find in most fiction. Nor is there the hyperbole, melodrama or emotional manipulation which too often passes for "depth". His work is a delicate balancing act between 19th century naturalism/romanticism and the realism of the modern era that satisfies all of our emotional and logical needs.

River Of Stars is an exceptional piece of work. Right from the start we are drawn into a rich and exotic but very real world. The people populating this world are multi-dimensional individuals with an emotional depth one hardly ever sees in popular fiction anymore. While the book describes the grand sweep of major historical events, because we experience them through the eyes of his characters we never lose sight of the those who are caught up by their turmoil. History has never felt or been more real and reading about it such a pleasure.

Book Review: River Of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay on Blogcritics.)

Author photo John W MacDonald

March 28, 2013

Book Review: Tripping With Allah by Michael Muhammad Knight

The idea of using drugs in order to achieve some sort of spiritual enlightenment has been around for probably as long as humanity. Whether looking for answers to great mystical questions or just on a personal quest for enlightenment the use of external stimulants cut across all lines of race, creed and colour. However, there's also a lot of bullshit associated with the whole take drugs and see god line of thought. First there's the whole one man's sacrament is another man's criminal offence or sacrilege. Then there are those who will look for any excuse to take drugs and pass it off as looking for god in an attempt to justify their actions.

Complicating matters is the fact there seem to be just as many ways to achieve hallucinations without drugs as with. Is a vision more valid because you starved yourself until you were out of your mind instead of ingesting a peyote button? The intent is the same after all. You're trying to enter an altered state of conscience through artificial means. Of course, you also have to ask why does a person feel they need to have some sort of vision about their god. Are they looking to make themselves important because they've received some great communique to spread among the masses? If not that, what is it people are looking for when they try for these visions? They must feel like something is lacking if they are so desperate to talk to god they're going to put themselves through any of these ordeals.

It was with all this in mind I read Michael Muhammad Knight's book about drugs, Islam and his continued attempts to define his place in the world Tripping With Allah, published by Soft Skull Press and distributed by Publishers Group Canada. Knight writes about himself with an honesty that borders on public flagellation. However, unlike most of those who write about themselves it's never his intent to either garner followers or his reader's sympathy. If he ever ended up on Oprah instead of her her audience of repressed middle class housewives' feeling all warm and cuddly from hearing about someone else's suffering, their world view would be so shattered they'd probably wind up trashing the studio before heading home to castrate their husbands.
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Okay, maybe that's a little over the top, but you get the idea. Not only do his books expose things about himself most people wouldn't admit even to their shrinks for fear of being strapped in a jacket whose sleeves face the wrong way, he also has a nasty habit of reminding white Europeans that most of what's happening in the world is as a direct result of actions carried out in their names. Whether it be our colonial history coming back to haunt us or our current form of colonial oppression in the form of global markets and the exploitation of developing nation's natural resources. What's even scarier about Knight is now he has a Harvard education, he can map out the patterns clearly enough, with examples, anybody can understand them, and then cite sources confirming what he's talking about. Examples in this book range from how the desire for sugar cane in Europe led to decimating the population of West Africa via the slave trade to how the colonial powers in Rawanda sowed the seeds of discontent between peoples which resulted in genocide.

So what the hell does any of this have to with drugs and Allah? Well, Knight looks at the world in terms similar to that of chaos theory. What are the ripple effects of him, and others like him, ingesting a drug. What's the history behind a drug's availability in the West and what's had to happen in order for this drug to end up in his hand? Then there's also the whole question of the cultural implications of a white guy taking a drug whose origins lie somewhere in the depths of the Amazon rain forrest and the indigenous people of the region. Doesn't this just make him another one of those New Agers with more money than sense? Taking some indigenous people's tribal rite and by turning into a commercial commodity (pay X amount of money for a weekend retreat with Shaman and drug and see god) make it impossible for them to afford it any more.

Of course there's also the whole question of whether or not there's a role for drugs to play in Islam. In spite of the myths about assassins and hash eating and tales told by the Beat generation of ingesting drugs in Muslim countries, much of mainstream Islam takes the lines in the Quran prohibiting prayer while intoxicated as the final word on the matter. The good scholar he is Knight collects and compares all the arguments for and against using drugs to aid in receiving messages from Allah. While there appears to be some wriggle room depending on interpretations and traditions followed, its really only the mystical Sufis who talk openly about utilizing drugs to achieve enlightenment.

Of course all these arguments and discussions are presented in Knight's own unique style. He flips between scholarly dissertation and free association/stream of conscience without skipping a beat or losing his thread. He circles around his primary subject matter of drugs like a bird of prey hovering over its target until he finally drops out of the sky and brings us smack dab into a moment. However, just as we settle into what are expectations have caused us to anticipate, as he brings us through his experience and their impact on his life, he slams on the brakes and begins to deconstruct the book your holding in your hands.

He had set out to write a book about drugs and Islam in the style of his early novels but Harvard University and academia wouldn't allow it. He worries aloud how and what his university education and studies have done to him. What happened to the wild and crazy voice which spoke to a generation of disenfranchised young Muslims? Has schooling doomed him to the world of footnotes and cited sources? Yet when he looks back on the days when he was the anarchist/punk author, describing the physical, mental and emotional abuse he put himself through, you wonder what he's missing.
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Yet in the midst of this furious retracing of his path he also has what I think is the most important revelation of the book. His drug of choice, his addiction if you like, is writing. He talks of those he's met who say they are writers yet have somehow never managed to put pen to paper. While he, on the other hand, can't stop writing. He's stayed up late into the night abusing his body writing, he has a variety of incomplete manuscripts stored in his desktop computer and he has his clearest visions through the spilling out of words on paper or into his keyboard. Other drugs have proven to be hit and miss in their effectiveness, but writing is the one he always comes back to and the one which always seems to deliver.

Knight is at his self analytical best in this book. For all his apparent flailing in different thematic directions he is carefully guiding us through his personal process. He has travelled the byways and highways of North America, Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia visiting shrines, holy sites, mosques, mosh pits, Seven-Elevens, punk clubs,gyms and wrestling rings looking for his truth. He has read the work of Islamic scholars dating back to the early days of the religion, the writings of Elijah Muhammad and listened to the wisdom of Clarence 13X who would become Allah, the founder of the Five Percenters, via the words of those in the movement today.

The voice he is so worried about losing is strong and clear - it is the culmination of all his experiences. He is a reflection of everything he has seen, been, experienced and prayed for and this book is both a summarization and conclusion to the journey he set out on when at the age of seventeen after reading the autobiography of Malcolm X he converted to Islam. Out of the chaos that has been his life, highlights of which are included in this book, he has come to the calm of acceptance. He's dealt with his personal demons and is now ready to move on to whatever awaits him as an artist, an academic and a Muslim.

Tripping With Allah may not be the great Islamic drug book he set out to write. Instead, Knight has treated us to a kind of post modern Portrait Of An Artist As A Young Man. It now seems he's ready, as James Joyce put it, "to go forth to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his people". Don't come looking to this book for the answers to your own questions. What you will find is one of the more vivid descriptions of the artistic soul taking the next steps on its long road of creativity and one man coming to terms with himself and his beliefs written with passion and truth. It might not always be a pretty picture, but its always thought provoking and intelligent.

(Article first published as Book Review: Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writing by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

March 5, 2013

Music Review: Balkan Arts 701: Bulgarian Folk Dances

Field recordings are usually made with portable recording equipment in less than what anybody would consider ideal conditions with the result being less than perfect recordings as far as sound quality is concerned. However, since the earliest days of recording music they have been invaluable tools for preserving the music of cultures all over the world. Music anthropologists in the 19th century used wax cylinders to record everything from Native American singers to Appalachian folk music.

Field recordings of African American blues and gospel music were often most white people's introductions to both genres. Even today field recordings are playing an invaluable role in ensuring older artists' music is recorded and not forgotten. The Music Maker Relief Foundation has used field recordings to help bring the music of Southern blues artists who otherwise might have been forgotten into homes and concert halls around the world. However field recordings aren't limited to North American music. The Centre for Traditional Music and Dance's archive of recordings is a treasure chest of music from around the world. One of their most interesting collections of recordings were those done in the Balkans during the 1960s and 1970s by Martin Koenig.

His Balkan Arts Centre (the forerunner of the Centre for Traditional Music and Dance) was formed to help keep the music and culture of that region alive. Koenig's original recordings were made into LPs and 45s which he used to teach the folk dances of the region. However, they were never made available to the public. Now that's all changing. A box of the original vinyl records was found in the Centre and have now been restored. They are being released as a 13 part series of special edition vinyl EPs by Evergreene Music with the first release being Balkan Arts 701: Bulgarian Folk Dances.
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Now don't worry if you don't have a turn table as every EP comes with a code which not only allows you to download the four tracks from the recording but also gives you access to liner notes, photos and additional audio files including a recording of an interview with Koeing. In the interview he talks about his experiences recording the music in communist Eastern Europe and why it was important then, and remains important today, these recordings exist.

Like most field recordings made prior to the digital age the sound quality of the four tracks aren't the greatest. However there are other compensations. This is music we would have no record of if these recordings hadn't been made. Folk music which encouraged nationalistic feelings, or celebrated ethnic differences, were strongly discouraged under communist rule in Eastern Europe. An entire generation grew up without knowing the traditional music of their culture. Recordings like these are the only way they have of learning anything about the music and the dances of their people.

Listening to the four cuts, "Zborinka", "Ruka", "Chukanoto" and "Dobrolushko Horo", the first thing you might notice is the similarities between this music and what we call "Gypsy" music. They both have a kind of wild abandonment to them and a heavy reliance on what sound to be stringed instruments. This only makes sense as Bulgarian folk music would have many of the same influences as other musics from the region. Like their neighbours in Romania, Bosnia and Greece, Bulgaria was at one point part of the Turkish ruled Ottoman Empire. You can hear this influence in rather high pitched skirling noise produced by the combination of a type of bagpipe and the violin.

The next thing you'll probably notice is the lack of anything like a bass line providing an underpinning for the song. Unlike the majority of the music we listen to which is built around a very distinctive beat there doesn't appear to be any one instrument responsible for maintaining the song's rhythm. However by listening closely you do hear the sound of a drum buried very deep in the mix. Whether that's intentional or a result of deficiencies in the recording process is unclear.
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However, even without the drum, you'll notice each of the songs has a pattern. Out of what appears to be a sort of free for all, with all the instruments playing leads at the same time, gradually evolves something we can discern as a carefully constructed song with a noticeable rhythm. The secret is to listen to the song as a whole, not the individual instruments, and then you'll be able to hear the song's pulse. This is the engine which propels the dancers who would move to the music.

It might be hard for us to remember this is dance music as it no way matches our idea of how it should sound. Even those of us familiar with other Eastern European music will feel somewhat lost as it doesn't have the definite beat of Polish Polkas or the Cossack music of Russia. No this is far wilder. Evoking the wind swept hills and crags where the shepherds who created it tend their flocks.

In fact it's hard to imagine this music ever being recorded in a proper studio setting. It sounds like it needs to be played out in the open air with its skirling notes being allowed to escape into the sky and the mountains. It's made to be played in the village square or on a hillside around an open fire not in the sterile environment of the recording studio. Thus we discover the real value of field recordings. They not only capture music, they capture the music and its environment like no other recordings can.

The four recordings on Bulgarian Folk Dances aren't, by any stretch of the imagination, high quality. However, they are exciting, exhilarating and a timely reminder that music used to be played for the sheer joy of making it and the chance it gave us to celebrate living. Listening to the music it's fun to try and imagine the kind of dancing it encouraged and the people who danced to it. How often have you been able to say that about anything you've heard recorded recently.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Balkan Arts 701: Bulgarian Folk Dances on Blogcritics.)

February 22, 2013

Festival au Desert 2013 Cancelled Due To Uprising In Northern Mali

Almost since I began reviewing music seven years ago I've been receiving press releases inviting me to attend the annual Festival au Desert. This year instead of my annual invitation I received a release announcing the festival's cancellation due to the ongoing war in Northern Mali. However, the press release did announce they would be holding events in exile. Since the world can't come to North Africa this year they will attempt to bring North Africa to the world.

The situation in Northern Mali is confused right now, to say the least. In an effort to understand the situation better and find out more about what's happening with the Festival I contacted Chris Nolan who is the Festival's North American associate. For those who might not be familiar with the Festival perhaps a little background information is in order. The first Festival au Desert was held in 2001. However its origins lie in an annual Tuareg festival, known as Takoubelt in Kidal and Temakannit in Timbuktu, held at this time of the year. The Tuareg are a widely scattered nomadic people united by a common language, Tamashek whose traditional territory stretches from the Algerian Sahara in the north to Niger in the south. These were times when people could gather in one place to exchange information and resolve any difference that had arisen between tribes during the previous year. While in the past the meeting place had changed locations from year to year, it was decided to create a permanent location for the modern version of the festival. The current location is in Essakane, two hours north of Timbuktu, making it accessible to both locals and international attendees.

Initially the festival was limited to musicians from the region, dancing, camel races and other traditional activities. It has since been opened up to musicians from all over the world. For three days 30 or so groups representing a variety of musical traditions perform for audiences who come from all over the world. It is now not only a celebration of Tuareg culture, but all the cultures of the region and a cultural exchange between the area and the rest of the world. The current dates of the festival were chosen specifically to commemorate "La Flamee de la Paix" (The Flame of Peace). This was a ceremony which took place in 1996 to mark the end of the last Tuareg uprising and involved the burning of over 3000 firearms which were then transformed into a permanent monument. At the time it was hoped the treaty signed between the Malian government and the Tuareg would mean peace for the region and see real improvement in the living conditions among the Tuareg.

Ironically, and sadly, this year's festival has been cancelled because once again violence has returned to the region. The echo of the last notes from 2012's festival had barely died away when a new rebellion sprang up. The Malian government had failed to live up to its obligations under the treaty and there had been sporadic outbreaks of revolt since 2009. This time though it was a full scale and well organized uprising. However, unlike previous Tuareg revolts it soon became apparent this one was radically different. Previously they had been about preserving their land and culture, this time there was a new and rather nasty undertone.
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For more specific information about what has been going on since last January I turned to a series of articles written by Andy Morgan which have been published in various newspapers and gathered together at his web site Andy Morgan Writes. Morgan had been manager of the Tuareg band Tinariwen and helped them make the transition from a regional band to the international presence they are today. Morgan has lived and worked among the Tuareg enough to be able to offer a perspective few others can. One of the most important things he says we have to keep in mind is there is no one voice speaking for the Tuareg. Geography and the nomadic way of life ensure they are scattered over the entire Western Sahara. In each region tribal groups have their own leadership and govern themselves as autonomous units. Therefore those in Mali speak for the people of Mali and no one else. Complicating the current situation even more is the sharp division among those claiming to speak for the Tuareg of Northern Mali.

First there is the traditional chief of the Ifoghas tribe who are the hereditary leaders of the Tuareg in the North. While the chief himself is a traditional Tuareg, his son and heir, Alghabass Ag Intalla, is a recent convert to a fundamentalist form of Islam. He is head of a group calling itself Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA) whose goal is the establishment of an Islamic Republic in the Tuareg territory of North of Mali - known as Azawad. Until recently he and his group were allied with the even more radical Islamic group Ansar ud Dine, headed by Iyad Ag Ghali, another Tuareg convert to radical Islam. It was his group who were responsible for the implementation of Shira law in the region. They also have direct links to and are funded by Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

Al Qaida's funds for their operations in North Mali came from smuggling operations (drugs, arms, cigarettes and people) and money laundering. All activities which would appear to be in contravention of Shira law, but as we've seen elsewhere, when it comes to raising money politicians tend to turn a blind eye to its origins. Iyad Ag Ghali's ambitions weren't just limited to the creation of an Islamic state in North Mali, he wanted all of Mali brought under Shira law. However, he had no claim to the leadership of the Tuareg. When he demanded to be made leader of what was meant to be a Tuareg uprising, he was refused and broke away from the body who most represent the Tuareg's interests, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

Ag Ghali and Ansar ud Dine were able to take over the rebellion as they were the only group with funding. He was able to offer young unemployed Tuareg men money and equipment. As in other poverty stricken areas of the world there's nothing like financial security to bring people flocking to your cause. Philosophy and political ideals fall by the wayside when in competition with cash in hand. The depth of Ghali's followers beliefs can be measured in how quickly they abandoned him when the French troops arrived. It was one of the reasons armed resistance to the combined French, Chadian and Malian armies collapsed so quickly.

However, since hostilities began last year they were able to cause enough damage in the territories they controlled (they had captured Timbuktu and had begun to move South towards the Malian capital) to ensure a massive exodus of refugees from the area. At the same time the imposition of Shira law saw the banning of all music and to forced all musicians, Tuareg and others, into hiding and exile.

While Ansar ud Dine and their Al Qaida backers have disappeared into the mountains and the desert the question of who is leading or speaking for the Tuareg in North Mali still remains unclear. For while Alghabass Ag Intalla and his MIA can lay claim to being heir apparent to the hereditary chief, his father, who is still chief, is said to be opposed to his vision of an Islamic state. Intalla and the MIA have retreated to the Northern Mali city of Kidal where they have been joined by the ruling council of the MNLA. As of early February they were preparing to open negotiations with the French in an attempt to find a resolution to the conflict.

Unfortunately, just because the Al Qaida backed forces have fled the battlefield, it doesn't mean they aren't around. Much like the Taliban in Afghanistan and elsewhere they have merely faded into the background awaiting another opportunity. As long as the French troops remain on the ground they will continue to be dormant, but who knows what will happen after they leave. The only way of combating them is to ensure the conditions that led to their being able to recruit among the disaffected of the region are resolved. This means there has to be some resolution come to concerning the demands of the Tuareg people of the area.
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In an interview Andy Morgan conducted with Ag Intalla by phone near the beginning of February it was clear the MIA are still pushing for the establishment of an Islamic Republic in North Mali. However, as the majority of Tuareg would not be happy living under even his "kinder gentler" version of Shira law, he says some music will be tolerated as long as its not obscene, it's doubtful his vision will become a reality. He's currently doing his best to distance himself from his earlier position of supporting Ansar ud Dine and backing away from advocating violence. However he also says in the interview if you don't want to live in an Islamic Republic, live somewhere else. That's not going to play very well with either the Malian government, the French or the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced by the conflict and want to come home.

When all this is combined with a military coup which overthrew the democratically elected Malian government in March of 2012 and how the conflict has revived old tribal conflicts between the various people's living in the region, the fate of this year's Festival au Desert was in doubt from early on. According to Nolan organizers had hoped they might be able to move the location of the festival into the neighbouring country of Burkina Faso where a number of musicians had gone into exile. The idea was to caravan performers from Mali and the surrounding area to a place which was still accessible to international visitors but safe from the conflict. With the strictures against music and musicians in place that would have meant some difficulties in logistics, but it would have been possible. However when the French and Chadian armies showed up and hostilities intensified the idea had to be shelved. There was just no way they could have guaranteed anyone's safety under the new circumstances.

Aside from concerns of having to shepherd people through a war zone there was the risk of terrorist attacks. With both Al Qaida and Ansar ud Dine followers taking to the hills and desert there was no way to track their movements. Considering the recent hostage taking crises in Algeria and Al Qaida's penchant for fundraising through kidnappings, the risk involved with gathering musicians and foreign tourists in one spot was just too great. Even turning the festival grounds into an armed camp, which would have put a damper on proceedings, wouldn't be a guarantee against a rocket attack.

So, this year the festival will be held in exile at locations scattered around the world. As of now there are events scheduled to take place in Chicago in September and then in Scandinavia in November. Festival organizers are also in the process of arranging for three other performances in North America during July and August, two in the US and one in Canada. Those plans still need to be finalized but as the season advances keep an ear out for announcements about dates, locations and performers.

Of primary concern to anyone who has been following events in Mali has been the fate of musicians under the Shira law imposed by Ansar ud Dine. When I asked Chris Nolan about this he said the majority of musicians are probably better off than other refugees as they do have some financial resources at their disposal. While it's true they had to leave their homes, and any equipment left behind was confiscated or destroyed, they would not be suffering the same level of deprivation as most displaced people. He also reminded me some of the people living in the refugee camps had been there since the uprisings of the 1990s, too afraid to go home for fear of reprisals from the Malian army.

However, he also added we shouldn't underestimate the impact the imposition of Shira law had on the region. Aside from the role music plays socially - he posed the question imagine what your life would be like if all of a sudden all music was banned - this an area where history and cultural identity is kept alive orally through music. Griots, who Nolan likened to European bards, are the keepers of a tribe's history and stories. Through song and music they teach new generations about their history and culture. In recent years Tuareg bands, like Tinariwen, have been employing the same techniques to help ensure the continuation of their culture's traditions and to instil in their listeners a sense of pride in themselves.

According to Nolan the banning of music was an act of cultural genocide with the aim of suppressing the traditions of the indigenous peoples of the region. Once you begin to understand the implications of such a ban, it really makes you wonder how the leaders of any of the groups working towards an Islamic homeland would think they would have the support of either the Tuareg or any of the people native to the region.
Festival Stage Alice Mutasa
However, as Nolan said, and Andy Morgan confirms in his writings, it's what happens after the fighting stops which is really important. If the status-quo is maintained and nothing is done to address the rights of Tuareg people in the area and their justified fears of retaliation from the Malian army, unrest in one form or another will continue. It seems obvious to me what needs to happen. International pressure has to be brought to bear on Mali - and the other countries in Tuareg territory - forcing them to honour the treaties they signed with the Tuareg. These agreements have done everything from guaranteeing them land, rights and economic opportunities in exchange for surrendering parts of their territory. In what will sound like a familiar story to Native North Americans these treaties seem to exist only to be ignored or broken.

Some sort of international monitoring by neutral observers must be put in place to ensure all parties live up to the conditions of any new treaties negotiated, or the terms of the old ones are being implemented, If these types of guarantees are in place it might be enough to convince people it's safe to return to the region and generate hope for a better future. If people can be given evidence their lives will improve then just maybe the next criminal who comes around flashing guns and money won't be able to turn their heads with his blandishments. There might still be terror attacks in the future, but they won't have the sympathy or support of local people.

The cancellation of Festival au Desert this year is more than just another music festival not taking place.This festival was a symbol of how co-operation between cultures and the meeting of traditional ways of life and the modern world are possible and a benefit to all involved. It was also a symbol of pride and hope for the Tuareg. It was a chance for them and their African neighbours to celebrate their cultures with the rest of the world. For Western pop stars it was a reminder of the power of music and what it was that drew them to it in the first place. "It's one of the few honest things I have been part of in a long, long time...It reminded me of why I sang in the first place." said Robert Plant in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine in March 2003. However, as Chris Nolan and Andy Morgan remind us, the cancellation is also emblematic of the problems which have plagued the entire region for the last half century.

Since 1960 the Tuareg have seen the gradual erosion of their way of life. While their land remains some of the most inhospitable on the earth, its also rich in natural resources. In Niger Uranium mining has not only displaced people but poisoned precious watering holes and upset the balance of nature in one of the most delicate ecosystems on the planet. Even the supposed economic benefits promised have failed to materialize as any profits from the operation leave the country without any spinoff for the local community. The same story is repeated across the Sahara as the Tuareg have been tossed aside in the hopes they will be fade away until the world forgets about them.

The first Arab armies, nearly a thousand years ago, named them Tuareg, rebels - rebels against Islam - in honour of how fiercely they defended themselves and their territory. Their pride in self and as a people which fed that initial resistance remains and continues to propel their efforts to survive. While musicians of other backgrounds were affected by the implementation of Shira law and it has been more than just Tuareg people displaced by the war, they are still the region's flashpoint. This most recent uprising might have been co-opted by those with ulterior agendas, but its origins have the same root cause of all the uprisings for the last 50 years. The Tuareg won't be cast aside or forgotten, and the sooner Mali and other countries face up to that reality the sooner there will be real peace in the region.

Festival au Desert 2013 has been forced into exile. Like the people and music it celebrates its been forced from its home by the very violence whose end it was meant to be commemorating. Hopefully 2014 will see Mali heading in a new direction, one which guarantees all its peoples their rights and freedoms. Most of all I hope next year to receive an email press release inviting me to cover the Festival au Desert at its home near Timbuktu and music will once again ring out across the desert.

(Article first published as Festival au Désert 2013 Cancelled Due to Uprising in Northern Mali on Blogcritics.)

(Festival photos by Alice Mutasa

January 5, 2013

Book Review: (Poetry) The Texture of Days in Ash and Leaf by Bruce Kauffman

The great American poet e. e. cummings said "Poetry happens to be an art". If you look up happens in the dictionary you'll find when used as a verb, as in this case, it means something that ensues as an effect or result of an action or an event. However, when used in the phrase "as it happens" it can also mean "as a matter of fact". cummings wasn't one to use words idly, he could have said "poetry is an art", but he chose not to in order to say something about the nature of poetry. As the latter definition says much the same thing as the simple "is an art" statement, I think he was leaning towards the first definition. Poetry occurs, and it is an art.

However poetry doesn't just happen to be art by default. There has been plenty of verse, blank or otherwise, put down on paper no one would consider art. Heck, there's plenty of stuff fitting that description I wouldn't dignify with the name poetry, or its authors as poets, let alone art. Poetry as art only occurs as a result of the actions of a poet of singular abilities. Kingston Ontario, Canada resident Bruce Kauffman's new book of poetry, published by Hidden Brook Press, The Texture of Days in Ash and Leaf, happens to be the work of such a poet.

The creation of poetry is akin to walking a tightrope. Words are shaped with the intent of stimulating the reader's intellect in such a way they create an emotional resonance within them. If the perfect balance between brain and heart aren't maintained readers either end up feeling manipulated or nothing at all. One of the first things you'll notice upon reading any of Kauffman's poetry is how he never slips to either side. Not once do you feel like you're being pushed, or even nudged, to feel anything. Instead, as you read you find yourself walking in step with him down whatever path he's exploring, but being given the freedom to experience it for yourself. He might point out the landmarks he thinks are important, but he leaves you free to react to them as you wish.
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One of the reasons Kauffman is such a good guide is his ability to bring the world of each poem to life. Instead of simply reading the words on the page visuals are evoked in your mind. However, unlike a work of fiction where the visuals you're inspired to create establish the physical environment a work takes place in, in this case they establish an emotional landscape. Using imagery taken from the natural world he is able create pictures in our heads which accentuate the emotional content of the poem. In the poem "Reading", describing listening to an author read, Kauffman gives us the following image, "her words/with the wings/of raven/flew into the twilight/and back through/the night/hung in the air/like a snowflake/in autumn/then turned into angels/as her voice/cleared the sky"

If you've ever been to a reading you'll know how at times you can enter an almost trance like state listening to an author recite his or her work. Words really do seem to fly across the room towards you and you attempt to catch them, and their meanings with your mind. Like an early snowfall the words are beautiful as they float down to earth but it won't be long before they vanish. Kauffman was also very deliberate in his choice of a raven in this piece. In some Native American traditions Raven is the creator of life. In Kauffman's preface to the book he talks about how a certain reading series he attended served to inspire his poetry and provided the impetus for him to start writing again. Describing the words as taking flight with the wings of a raven suggests both something of the creative energy residing in them and the urge to create they inspired.

In their attempts at creating atmosphere I've noticed poets will use words in one of two very distinct methods. There are those who wash words over reader in waves. In some ways the sound of the language employed is as almost as important as the word's actual meaning in conveying the emotional intent of the poem. Like the tide there is an ebb and flow to this type of work and the words eventually peak and in theory carry the reader along on their crest. While there is a certain appeal to this kind of work I find those poets who are able to communicate emotion through the careful selection of just the right word far more effective.

Whereas the former seems to be hoping if they say enough they will eventually have an impact on their audience, the latter shows a thoughtfulness that suggests an appreciation for the power of language and the artistry required to employ it effectively. Poetry is an example of a case where less is definitely more. If you had any doubts about this reading Kauffman's collection will quickly assuage them as you see how he is able to say so much with so little.
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Look at the lines quoted from "Reading" again and how much he has managed to convey. He has managed to describe what it's like sitting in an audience at a reading, the effect the words had on him personally, and comment on the power of the poet's writing. Each word has been carefully selected for what it communicates to the reader either directly or through suggestion. At the same time there is an effortlessness to their flow making it seem like the lines occurred to the poet spontaneously while sitting in the audience. Kauffman may very well have spent hours agonizing over his word choice, but you can't tell by reading them.

Poetry, like abstract art, jazz and classical music relies on the artist's ability to communicate emotions and ideas without spelling them out. The visual artist uses colour and shape, a composer uses sound and tempo and the poet words and how they appear on the page in order to convey their individual messages. Maybe I'm prejudiced but I think the poet's task is by far the hardest. For while colour and sound can make a direct appeal to emotions words must be processed rationally in order for us to feel anything.

Therefore the poet must not only find the words to express what he wants to say, but ones which will have the greatest chance of passing her message along to as many people as possible. If what you have to say is important enough for you to endure the struggle of putting it down on paper, you are going to want as many as possible to understand what you're saying. While Kauffman's poetry is by no means easy read, it's also not obscure or incomprehensible. In each poem, readers will find their own portal leading into the heart of the subject which, in turn, will open a door to their own hearts.

Kauffmans's The Texture of Days in Ash and Leaf will be available as of January 11 2013. (If you're in Kingston Ontario on that day go to the Grad Club, 162 Barrie St for the book launch starting at 8:00pm). You can obtain a copy of the book by ordering from your local book store or through various Amazon sites world wide in either hard copy or e-book. Poetry of this quality doesn't just happen, its the work of a gifted writer and artist. Even if you wouldn't normally be drawn to buying a book of poems, do yourself a favour, take a chance and read this collection and discover how words can be used to move us just as readily as music and painting.

(Article first published as Book Review: (Poetry): The Texture of Days in Ash and Leaf by Bruce Kauffman on Blogcritics.)

December 23, 2012

Book Review: With Robert Lowell and His Circle by Kathleen Spivack

I've written the occasional poem, but under no circumstances would I ever consider myself a poet. There's a world of difference between writing a poem and being a poet. However, trying to articulate exactly what separates poets from the rest of us, from other writers even, is not the easiest thing in the world either. In her latest book, With Robert Lowell and His Circle, published by the University Press of New England (UPNE), poet and author Kathleen Spivack, has managed to pull the veil back on this mystery through her look back on her years with the great 20th century American poet Robert Lowell.

In 1959 Spivack received a bursary to study with Lowell in Boston in lieu of her senior year at university. Through the process of recounting her days as first his student and then friend and confidant she not only paints a picture of this great, and greatly disturbed artist, but introduces us to the other brilliant minds she came in contact with as a result of her relationship with Lowell. From her fellow classmates in that first year's seminar, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, to other lessor known but equally gifted artists, each of them are lovingly remembered as both individuals and as poets.

Initially we see these great figures through the eyes of the nervous and insecure student who finds herself alone in a strange and cold city. Boston, Harvard University, Boston University and New England are characters of equal, if not greater, significance than many of the individuals she meets. Intimidating, cold, rigidly bound by its conservative class structure and rabidly misogynist attitudes (as late as the 1980s Harvard University would boast it would rather face law suits than give equal opportunities to women) the atmosphere wasn't one guaranteed to set a young woman at ease. When combined with showing up in Boston only to find her teacher "unavailable" due to having suffered a nervous breakdown, it didn't make for a very auspicious start to her dreams of being a poet.
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Even when classes finally start she finds herself at sea. Lowell isn't what any of us would call a typical teacher. Our initial impression is of someone who is as far removed from reality as we can imagine. He obsesses about the meaning of a single line in a poem asking "What does it mean" over and over again. However it appears he's holding a conversation with himself as almost none of his students dare to interject. He also appears to be incredibly judgemental, asking whether some poet is "major or minor" with the answer being based on criteria nobody else is quite able to fathom. Imagine being a young and almost painfully shy student even daring to bring her own work to this class and having it put through this type of analyses in front of you.

However, Lowell, for all his eccentricities, does take her in hand and introduces her to those he thinks will be of help to her. In this manner Spivack is brought into the circle of poets who are both his students and associates. Through her meetings with Sexton, Plath and other female poets we are introduced to the horrors societal pressure can wrack upon a creative woman. The picture Spivack draws makes it clear how much the New England disdain, and especially Harvard University's, for women led to their downfall.Trying to conform to the dutiful housewife image expected of them by the society they found themselves in must have been bad enough. Compounding this was the indignity of seeing men of no greater talent receiving the recognition denied them through publication and acceptance. This must have been an incredibly bitter pill for them to swallow. Maybe both Plath and Sexton would have taken their own lives in the end anyway - Sexton seems to have had a fascination with suicide - but the circumstances they found themselves in couldn't have helped.

Of course it wasn't just the women who suffered. As we watch Spivack get to know Lowell over the course of the years, from 1959 until his death in 1977 from a sudden heart attack, we learn the breakdown he was suffering from when she first arrived wasn't an isolated incident. A manic-depressive, Lowell was in and out of institutions for most of the time Spivack knew him. Learning to recognize the symptoms of an approaching breakdown she would deliberately start to distance herself from him when they started to manifest. His behaviour, erratic at the best of times, during these build ups made him unbearable for her to be around. Ironically once he was committed, her house was one of the few places considered safe enough for him to visit on day release.

If Lowell was obsessive in his analysis of others work, it was nothing compared to the rigours he subjected his own writing. Spivack tells of knowing of upwards of 200 drafts existing in the case of certain poems. Even after a poem's publication Lowell would continue with his revisions, searching for the absolutely perfect word and line. Yet it wasn't necessarily the search for perfection that was so harmful. Like his contemporaries among the women poets the need to conform to society's expectations of gender played havoc on Lowell and other male poets of Spivack's acquaintance. Men were supposed to be hard drinking, stoical and above all unemotional beings who followed manly pursuits like hunting and definitely didn't do anything so effete as become poets.

While the men might have had the support of the academic establishment and those behind the scene in the literary world, they were still expected to be "men". Is it any wonder Alan Ginsberg wrote "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness" in his great poem Howl? Men and women poets, people with minds beautifully tuned to the rhythms of the universe like nobody else, were slowly driven mad by having live almost dual lives. Those among them who were homosexual suffered even more, but it was just as bad for the straights as well. Poets were all in the closet as they were forced to hide sensitive natures or steal seconds in which to write the poetry that allowed them feel alive.
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Spivack was blessed, and is wonderfully honest about admitting this, with being in the right place at the right time. Initially I was rather disconcerted by the fact the book seemed more autobiographical than about those whom the title suggests its about. However, as the book progresses and we see how the lives of these amazing poets come to interweave with her own I began to appreciate her decision to take this approach. Many of the figures in this book are known to us only through poems in anthologies or through dry academic biographies. Meeting them through Spivack's memories not only lifts them out of the books and off the page, it turns them into people of flesh and blood.

It also has the wonderful effect of breathing life into their poetry. After reading about the sweat and blood they would pour into each of their creations I want to go back and read their work again. For when I do, they won't just be words on a page anymore written by some anonymous person whom I'm supposed to admire because history tells me to, they'll be poems by a real person. Somebody whose kitchen I've sat in, who I listened to as they agonized over whether a line or even a word was right and who laughed and cried like any of us, but then had the bravery to attempt to put those feelings down on paper.

Spivack does the extraordinary of making the poets in her book both ordinary and special at the same time. Ordinary, in the fact they are her friends whom she sees on a regular basis during the 1960s and 1970s, and special for the legacy of brilliance they have left for us. Lowell, who mentored Spivack and other writers, suffered and struggled to overcome the antipathy the world around them had towards his passion not only managed to produce works of genius but take others in hand and help them fulfill their potential.

Spviack's portrayal of Lowell in particular, but the others as well, is both heartfelt and honest. Unlike an "official biographer" who is boringly objective in their depictions, she has no qualms about letting her affection for her subjects shine through or letting us know how much she admired somebody. However, she's not blind to their faults either and is unstinting in her honesty when listing them. At the same time she doesn't try to hide the fact these are her impressions of these people. She does give us indications of other people's impressions of them, Lowell especially, by including quotes from her contemporaries at the end of almost every chapter which address an aspect of their character.

While this book is by no means a definitive study of the work and lives of the poets you'll meet within its pages, it provides an even far more valuable service. It allows us the chance to look behind their reputations and the myths that have grown up around them to see them as the complex and interesting people they were. This book is probably the best introduction to the world of American poetry in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s you're liable to read.

Article first published as Book Review: With Robert Lowell and His Circle by Kathleen Spivack on Blogcritics.)

November 29, 2012

Music DVD Review: Patti Smith - Live At Montreux 2005

It was 1982. Six of us were crammed into a Honda Civic driving through the night time streets of Toronto Ontario with Patti Smith's "Rock and Roll Nigger" blasting. We had the windows open in spite of the fact it was the middle of a January deep freeze, letting the music spill out into the darkness and cold. It was a classic rock and roll moment if there ever was one. Where music, time and place come together so all that exists in that moment is the song, its power and the way its relentless beat reverberates through body and soul.

That wasn't my first introduction to Smith, but it was the first time I'd fully experienced the power and intensity of her and her music. At that moment the song epitomized what rock and roll should be. It was a proclamation of independence and declaration of self delivered as an upraised middle finger to society. Yet perhaps its real appeal was how it perpetuated the romantic myth of the artist living on the edge. An outlaw who could see what others were blind to and had the nerve to speak those truths in public.

Over the years of listening to Smith's music I came to realize this was her reality. She wrote and sang about things others either couldn't see or weren't able to put into words. Maybe her fascination with photography, freezing moments in time with her Polaroid Land camera, inspired her to work towards the same effect with verse that she accomplished with film. However, unlike a photograph which is forever frozen, her songs take on new life each time she performs them. This feeling was reinforced watching the recently released DVD, Live At Montreux 2005, from Eagle Rock Entertainment, as she performed songs from the breadth of her career.
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While any performer worth his or her salt won't play a song the exact same way over and over again for thirty years, only someone as gifted as Smith will allow her material to evolve to meet the challenges of changing times and circumstances. Always pushing the envelope lyrically, on this night she and her band allowed the spirit of the jazz greats who had previously graced the festival's stage to imbue their music. As her long time stalwart and guitar player Lenny Kaye, commenting on the night's performance in his liner notes for the DVD, puts it: "Patti once again defines our credo: there are no definitions but those we choose to create for ourselves." This artist and her band will never be limited by labels or concern themselves with conforming to other's expectations of what they should sound like.

While the evening starts off gently enough with the reggae beat of "Redondo Beach", and its happy, welcoming sounds, Smith and company take the audience into far more unsettled waters with the second song, "Beneath The Southern Cross". Like the North Star is used to identify due north the Southern Cross was used by navigators in the South Pacific to fix due South. With its references to travel and exploration its placement in the set list couldn't have been accidental. Smith is preparing everyone to join her on a voyage of musical exploration and discovery.

From her earliest days as a performer reciting her poetry accompanied only by Kaye's guitar improvisation has played a big part in Smith's live performances. While she's best known for her singing and song writing abilities, she's also no mean slouch when it comes to her instrumental work. For although she's not technically skillful by any stretch of the imagination she has the unique ability to utilize both the electric guitar and her clarinet to create sounds which accent and elaborate on the mood of a piece. On the rendition of "25h Floor" included on this disc her electric guitar is a chaotic barrage of sound and noise creating a roar of defiance, anger and confusion.

The very rawness of her playing is what makes it so powerful. While the song's words might tell us what she's thinking, it's this lead which gives us a glimpse of the depth of her emotional commitment to her material. It's like we're being given a glimpse into her innermost reaches and seeing what's boiling beneath the surface. While her clarinet playing is more polished than her work with the electric guitar it too take us into a place of emotional rawness most pop musicians wouldn't dare venture into. "Seven Ways Of Going" is given an even deeper layer of mystery than normal with the inclusion of her clarinet solos. Its like an instinctual reaction to the music with Smith using the instrument to express those things mere language is incapable of articulating.
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One thing that becomes abundantly clear over the course of the concert is the level of anger and defiance Smith was feeling at the time. Even such apparently innocuous numbers like her cover of Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" are delivered with a sneer and a level of distaste for the type of person the song describes you almost pity those she's pissed at. When "Because The Night", the only song she's ever written that could pass for a pop standard, becomes an expression of defiance, as if she's daring anyone to deny lovers the right to their nights, you know she's not happy with the direction the world is moving in. For she knows there are far too many people in the world who would deny people the chance to be lovers no matter what the time of day.

On this night Smith and her band, Kaye, Tony Shanahan (bass & keyboards) and Jay Dee Daugherty (drums) are joined by their fellow veteran of the New York City music scene Tom Verlaine on lead guitar. Seated off to one side it's almost as if he's in his own little world, but his guitar work is the perfect complement to the band's perfect storm of music. Like the eye of a hurricane he is calmness personified as he lays down his almost delicate leads. Yet each note he plays, whether with his slide or his fingers, stands out. He doesn't attempt to overpower, instead his guitar seems to appear when its needed in a particular song as if by magic to fill out the sound and add another layer of texture.

While there are no special features included in this DVD, as is usual for Eagle Rock concert DVDs, its technically superb. Aside from the normal surround sound options (DTS, and Dolby 5.1) the quality of the camera work and post production editing is some of the best you'll ever see when it comes to live concerts. From the beautifully focused close ups of Verlaine's fret board during his solos to the way in which they capture Smith's facial expressions while singing you're brought right up on stage. Cross fades from one shot to another have become overused to the point of cliche in concert recordings. So it was a pleasure to see them used sparingly and to great effect here. In fact the director even resisted the urge far too many succumb too of incessantly cutting back and forth between band members. Instead cameras linger lovingly on individuals allowing us to fully absorb and appreciate their performances. Watching and listening to Smith either while she's singing or hunched over her guitar squeezing sound and fury out of it we are gifted with an intimacy you'd never experience attending a concert.

For close to 40 years now Smith has been one of the most unique voices in popular music. Yet for all that her studio recordings are works of artistry, as this DVD proves, her concerts take her music to an even higher level. While catching lighting in a bottle might not be possible, Live At Montreux 2005 captures Smith's mercurial nature and indefatigable spirit and brings them to life in our living rooms.

(Article first published as Music DVD Review: Patti Smith - Live At Montreux 2005 on Blogcritics.)

November 6, 2012

Book Review: The John Lennon Letters Edited by Hunter Davies

Ever since Paul's Epistles to the Corinthians we've been fascinated with the idea of reading famous people's mail. Perhaps it's our innate voyeurism coming to the fore or the usual obsession with celebrity, but over the years countless books of letters have appeared on the market and found many a willing reader. All kidding aside, some of these have provided fascinating insights into both the character and creative process of many brilliant minds. Reading the collected letters of someone like Virginia Wolfe or the correspondence conducted by Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller is every bit as enthralling as most works of fiction.

A good collection of letters should not only satisfy our idle curiosity about the person who penned them, hopefully it will give us some hitherto unknown insights into their character and what made them tick. However when you're dealing with a figure who was in the public eye as much as John Lennon was and continues to be, you have to wonder what, if anything, new there is to bring to light. Even before he was gunned down in 1980 he had lived most of his adult life in the glare of the spotlight with almost every breath he took recorded and dissected. So, what, I wondered, could The John Lennon Letters, published by Little, Brown and Company, and edited by long time family friend and author of the only authorized biography of The Beatles, Hunter Davies, offer to complement our picture of him?
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Even more pertinent, perhaps, is the question as to whether Lennon even merits this type of treatment? Sure he was a prolific songwriter, sometime poet and never afraid to voice his opinion. However, there's no record of him ever engaging in an exchange of letters a la Miller and Durrell with anyone to think there would be sufficient material out there for a book. In his introduction Davies cedes this point by admitting a great deal of the book's content are not in fact letters from Lennon to anyone. He also admits that many of the letters are in fact a few words scrawled on the back of a postcard or short messages posted in reply to requests for autographs by fans.

Now after having read this introduction I have to admit to being a bit wary of what was to follow. However as the book was okayed by the guardian of all things Lennon, Yoko Ono, I knew it couldn't just be an attempt by the editor to cash in on a famous name. You can say what you like about Ono, but her love for her late husband can't be denied and she would never give her blessing to something without some worth. I was also impressed by the effort Davies had gone to in gathering the material collected here.

For over the years Lennon memorabilia has gone from being collectible to being spectacularly valuable. Many of the seemingly innocuous pieces of paper that ended up on the pages of this book have passed through numerous hands since they were written, and I'm sure there are countless others secreted away in vaults and safety deposit boxes around the world slowly accumulating dust and value. The twists and turns involved with tracking down some of the material reads like an agent following a paper trail in a John Le Carre novel.

Wisely Davies elected to lay out the book in chronological order and divide it up into short digestible segments. From childhood all the way through to his final days in The Dakota apartment complex in New York City the book's 23 parts follow the turbulent path of Lennon's life. Even more important is the fact Davies has to gone to a great deal of effort to place everything in its proper context. So instead of simply reprinting what looks like a child's standard thank you letter to an aunt for Christmas presents, we find out who this aunt was, what she meant to Lennon and what the letter signified about his relationship with Mimi, the aunt who raised him.
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While there has been lots made of the fact that Lennon was raised by his aunt, the various letters to cousins and other relatives he wrote over the years reveal the unhealthy influence this woman had on him. While Lennon almost never says a word against her things he lets slip give a picture of a woman who belittled him and attacked his sense of self worth his whole life. One of her constant refrains was he "got lucky" implying as Lennon says in a letter written in 1975 to his cousin Liela "i.e. I have no talent". We also learn Mimi went out of her way to run down both Julia (Lennon's mother) and his father Freddie. When John did manage to reconnect with his father he hid the fact from Mimi for as long as possible.

Not all of his relationships with his family were so negative, but there seems to have been a great deal of underlying tension. As he says in another letter to Liela "Stranger still that my (our) family should always (nowadays) seee mee in terms of $ and c....tho before I guess they saw me in terms of "problem child"... or an orphan of sorts. TO ME....I'LL ALWAYS BE.....ME" (misspellings and punctuation copied from original letter). From his letters and other references his fondest family memories were of an aunt and uncle in Scotland. He makes numerous references to missing Scotland and will sometimes even attempt to write in a Scotts "accent".

Of course anyone reading this is going to want to know what the book reveals about his relationship with his fellow Beatles (If you don't know their names I doubt you're reading this review, but for posterity's sake they were Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Richard "Ringo Starr" Starkey) While nothing new is really revealed, it's obvious he remained very friendly with both Harrison and Starr while relations with McCartney never really recovered from the termination of The Beatles. Some of this seems to have stemmed from disagreements about who should be handling the business affairs of Apple. Paul wanted to use his first wife's (Linda Eastman) family and the other three became dissatisfied with their handling of matters.
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When McCartney wanted to release his first solo album the other three had the record company push back its release date so it wouldn't conflict with of Let It Be. As a letter they sent him shows, they didn't ask him, they just told him they had done so after the fact and they hoped he would understand. While there's no indication as to who instigated the request to the company, it's not hard to imagine McCartney thinking Lennon was behind it. Business aside the two men hadn't been getting along personally as letter from Lennon to and about McCartney show. Part of it seems to stem from McCarney and his wife's attitude towards Lennon's new wife Ono and how much their apparent rejection of her hurt him.

Anyone the least bit familiar with Lennon's writing will know he was fond of both sarcasm and nonsense writing. This tendency was established early on in his life as can be seen in the reproduction of the parody newspaper he produced in grade school called The Daily Howl. As you read through the book and the years pass by you gradually realize how little he changed as he aged. The grammar and spelling might have improved somewhat (although as Davies points out it's sometimes hard to tell whether mistakes are deliberate or not) but the same sort of childish humour continued to prevail throughout his life. In some ways this is funny, but in other ways it shows a disturbing tendency to not mature.

While The John Lennon Letters might not offer any startling revelations into the life or character of Lennon, what it does do is provide as comprehensive a biography, or autobiography, of the man as we're likely to ever see. Davies is not only able to place each note, no matter how insignificant it might appear, into context, his comments on them are both informed and insightful. Unlike others who have to rely on second or third hand sources for their information, Davies was a friend of Lennon and is able to base his opinions on first hand knowledge of events described. However, this doesn't prevent him from including dissenting opinions from those who disagree with Lennon's accounts of circumstances.

While individually most of these notes and cards are fairly meaningless, collectively they work together to confirm the image we've always had of Lennon as the complicated Beatle. Always outspoken, always witty, sometimes almost cruel, but always interesting, 30 years after his death he continues to fascinate us. This collection of letters can only add to our fascination of this rare and witty man.

(Article first published as Book Review: The John Lennon Letters, Edited by Hunter Davies on Blogcritics.)

October 24, 2012

Music Review: Martha Redbone Roots Project - The Garden Of Love - Songs Of William Blake

We hear a lot about Roots music and Americana now a days, but do we ever stop to ask ourselves whose roots people are talking about? Whenever I hear people talking about Americana music I can't help thinking of the movie Songcatcher. A music anthropology professor travels to the Tennessee hill country to record so called mountain music and discovers the people are singing the songs their Scottish and Irish ancestors brought over from the old country. This so called American folk music is transplanted songs of another culture sung with new accents. Of course there are other roots aside from the Anglo/Irish/Scotch in the music of the Appalachians. There were the Native Americans who were the area's original inhabitants and the African Americans who were brought in as slaves to work the land. While the former might not have contributed much directly to the music it was their land it took root in. The latter contributed the banjo, the instrument no self respecting roots music group can live without.

Therefore, it makes perfect sense to me that a woman of Native and African descent would put out a disc of music with lyrics taken from the poems of the 18th -19th century British poet William Blake set to the sounds of all three of the region's inhabitants. The Garden Of Love: Songs Of William Blake by the Martha Redbone Roots Project is one of those wonderful meetings of minds and culture that come along once in a while that literally take your breath away. On the surface it might sound like the most outlandish thing you've ever heard, setting the words of William Blake to the music of North America. However, there's a long tradition of adapting his words to music - the British hymn "Jerusalem", taken from the short poem "And did those feet in ancient time" from the preface to his epic Milton A Poem is the best known example. Of course history has shown us there's an equal precedent for adapting the work of the British Isles as American folk music.
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There was always a very strong spiritual streak to Blake's work and while it was firmly rooted in Christianity he expressed it in terms transcending the confines of doctrine. Instead of poetry worshipping his God directly, he wrote pieces of gratitude for what he saw as the gifts given humanity by its creator. The poems Redbone has elected to adapt praise the natural world around us, love and the gift of freedom. These themes are not only universal, but are ideally suited to the unique combination of musical traditions Redbone draws upon for this disc. There's a rawness and honesty of emotion in Blake's poetry that requires it be set to music capable of expressing their ideas in an as unaffected and straightforward a manner as possible. However, it also requires the music to be emotionally and spiritually honest and powerful.

I don't know about anyone else, but as far as I'm concerned I can't think of anything more emotionally and spiritually honest than either African American gospel music or traditional Native American music. Nor can I think of anything more unaffected and direct than old time mountain music. When you listen to what Redbone and co-composers Aaron Whitby and John McEuen have come up with to accompany Blake's poems on this disc I think you'll hear just how well these work together. There's a body and a depth to the music you don't normally feel with just straight ahead country as elements of both Native and African music are interwoven with it. The arrangements are such that in those songs where all three elements come together they sound like three part cultural harmony. While the European derived music might be in the forefront most of the time, without the other two strains you just know the tune wouldn't be the same.

To pull something like this off you need incredibly skilled musicians. Thankfully that's the case here as the people playing on this disc have the ability to play at level equal to the sublime nature of the lyrics. As well as composing, co-producing and arranging, McEuen also plays banjo, guitar, dobro, fiddle, mandolin, autoharp and lap dulcimer. Well that might seem like an album's worth of instruments he's not a one man band. There's also David Hoffner on keyboards, pump-organ, accordion, hammered dulcimer and tack piano, Mark Casstevens on guitar and harmonica; Byron House on upright bass, Debra Dobkin percussion and Keith Fluitt, Michael Inge, Ann Klein and Mary Wormworth on backing vocals. Rounding out the bill are special guests David Amarm flute, Lonnie Harrington Seminole chant and rattle on "A Dream" and Jonathan Spotttiswoode recites "Why Should I Care for the Men of Thames".

Save for "Men of Thames" Redbone handles the lead vocals on all the songs and also adds traditional chants and rattles as required. While the band is important, without somebody with as gifted a voice as Redbone the whole project would collapse. In the past she has shown herself capable of singing traditional native music, R&B and soul with grace and style. However, this sounds like the music she was born to sing. She seems to only need to open her mouth and start singing the words to this music to open a direct channel to her heart and soul. Every word and every note she sings not only rings true, she also imbues them with every ounce of passion she apparently possesses. Yet there's nothing melodramatic or overblown about her performance. She makes herself the perfect conduit for the words and music so we hear Blake through the filter of the music's soul without any unnecessary garnish.
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What that means is while the lyrics retain the original meanings given them by Blake, they also take on new meanings because of the music and the arrangements. When Redbone sings the final verse in "The Garden Of Love"; (the introduction from Blake's notebook for Songs and Ballads) "And I saw it was filled with graves/And tomb-stones where flowers should be:/And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds/And binding with briars, my joys & desires"; we hear Blake's condemnation of the clergy for taking the joy out of his religion and we hear how Christianity was used as a weapon against Native people.

Redbone is able to perform this type of delicate balancing act throughout the course of the whole recording. In some cases they are rendered as African American spirituals, "I Rose Up At The Dawn Of Day", while others, "Sleep Sleep Beauty Bright" are played in a way that captures what must have been Blake's original intent with the poem. It might seem an unusual combination this mixture of Native, African and European American cultures and the words of William Blake. However, together they create music that not only crosses cultural and racial barriers but can more honestly be referred to as Americana than most. The work of Blake as interpreted by Martha Redbone and the Martha Redbone Roots Project give proof to the words of another great British poet, "John Keats""A thing of beauty is a joy forever".

(Article first published as Music Review: Martha Redbone Roots Project - The Garden Of Love - Songs Of William Blake on Blogcritics.)

October 16, 2012

Music Review: John Cale - Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood

I've never been much of a fan of the use of electronics in popular music. Far too often they seem to be used to either cover up somebody's shortcomings as a musician or to replace live musicians with a machine. The thing is, I've yet to hear a machine which can duplicate the emotional nuance a human can bring to the playing of any instrument. Sure a drum machine can keep the beat, but that's all it can do. I don't know about anybody else, but I can hear a good drummer's heart in his or her playing even when they're just marking time. However, what's even worse, is the employing of electronics as short cuts in this manner shows a singular lack of imagination in the failure to realize its potential as an instrument and a tool for creativity. Most pop music barely scratches the surface when it comes to the possibilities technology represents.

This becomes glaringly obvious when you have the opportunity to hear how someone like John Cale puts them to use. His newest release, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, now available on Double Six Records as either a single CD or double vinyl LP, should be required listening for anybody considering using electronics of any sort in a recording. For not only does Cale not use them for short cuts, his use of tape loops, synthesizers and a variety of other electronica is imaginative and exciting. Maybe its the fact he was trained as a classical musician which gave him a grounding in composition which makes him more inventive. Of course, it could also be the same spirit of experimentation that caused his teachers at London's Goldsmith's College to honour him with the "Most Hateful Student" award in the early 1960s that makes what he does so interesting. For as this album makes obvious, he's not one for shying away from taking risks.
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However I think it's probably a combination of the two. Just as really good abstract painters have to learn the basics of figure drawing and perspective before they can experiment with form and colour, modern composers need to understand traditional composition and musical notation in order to reject them. Cale has a wealth of experience working both in popular and experimental music either as a solo artist or as the member of a group starting from his days in The Velvet Underground and his associations with Andy Warhol's Factory. While he has never strived for recognition, the world is finally beginning to appreciate his talents as he was chosen to represent Wales at the 2009 Venice Biennale art competition and festival and was awarded an OBE (Officer of the British Empire - step down from a knighthood) in 2010.

Based on that history you'd expect some sort of very serious experimental piece which most would find inaccessible and breathtakingly boring. Well, Cale has been trashing people's expectations for decades and this disc is no exception. According to the press release issued with this disc the 12 tracks began life as rhythms and grooves and he built songs out of what they suggested to him. For example the bass line for the song "Vampire Cafe" reminded him of vintage vampire movies. The combination of viola, still Cale's instrument of choice after all these years, accordion and drums is not a mix of instruments you're going to find on many albums, be they pop or classical. However as they are employed here they manage to capture both the darkness we associate with vampires and something of the emptiness at the core of the undead creatures' souls. There's also something about the accordion and viola mixture which gives the song a decidedly Eastern European feel, the part of the world we most associate with vampires.

The fact that Cale has distorted his voice heavily with fuzz, making the lyrics hard to discern, only adds to the eerie atmosphere created by the instruments. In some ways the vocals are more important for adding another layer of texture to the piece rather than for what they might be saying. The desolate and isolated feelings created by the music are enhanced as his vocals feel like they have travelled a great distance to reach us. It's as if we're hearing a message transmitted by short-wave radio from somebody, or a group of people, travelling through mountains, or a snow storm, who may or may not survive the journey.
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With "Vampire Cafe" Cale creates mood and atmosphere with effects and the sounds of the instruments used in the piece. While that might not be what most of us are used to when it comes to popular music, it is still a fairly accessible and traditionally arranged song. However, earlier on in the disc, he shows us something completely different with "Hemmingway". Created with the famous author in mind the song seems to deal with the anguish of a creative mind which has run out of new ideas. There has always been speculation around the reasons for Hemmingway's suicide. Cale's song, both lyrically and musically, suggest it was the fact he had run out of things to write about that pushed him over the edge. "I always held on to the thought/ that if they loved you long enough/they'd find out what was missing/when they finally called your bluff."

Reading those lyrics I can only think my own fears of being a fraud. We all have doubts as to our abilities at times, and when we're going through a dry patch they grow even stronger. Not only does Cale capture those feeling with the opening lines to this song, but musically it also captures how these insecurities can eat away at a person until they push them over the edge. The song starts out with a regular beat and melody line and gradually descends into the chaos of madness. Discordance seeps into the piano playing and the vocals until Cale is pounding the keyboard and turning the occasional word into a primal scream. It's a stunning depiction of how the gift of creativity can be a two sided blade. When the well of inspiration dries up the creative mind turns upon itself. Imagination turns insecurities and doubts into pits of despair from which there is no escape.

Cale's real gift as an musician is he can not only recreate something this type of emotional journey, he does so in a way so the listener understands what's happening to the person in question. This isn't just some exercise in voyeurism where we are treated to the sight of a person's descent into madness. We hear and feel their pain and travel with them as they come to the realization suicide is their only means of escaping the anguish they feel. It's not pleasant, but it's a brilliant piece of music.

Not all the songs on this disc are quite so intense or moody as the two I've mentioned, but they are all equally well conceived and executed. He utilizes technology as if it were another instrument to be played. In much the same way that guitarist Dustin Boyer and drummer Michael Jerome make their contributions to each song, drum machines, tape loops and other electronically generated sounds become part of the overall sound. The video for the album's title song, "Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood", that I've embedded here is a sample of the amazing work Cale has created. It might not be what most are used to, but its what we should hope more and more are inspired to emulate. This a great album of music by one of the most inventive composers of our time.

Photo Credit: Picture of John Cale by Shawn Brackbill
(Article first published as Music Review: John Cale - Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood on Blogcritics.)

September 28, 2012

Book Review: The Art Book: New Edition Various Editors

When I was attending university there used to be these things called survey courses. They provided an introduction to a subject without going into a great deal of depth giving students enough information to let them decide whether they wanted to investigate the subject further. They were commonly used in Art History departments as a means of introducing students to a particular period. So you could take survey courses in everything from Gothic to Modern art.

While I understood the purposes these courses served academically I also found them boring. I mean who wants to spend week after week looking at paintings which all look the same? I like Impressionism as much as the next person, but there are only so many I want to see at once. If I'm going to look at paintings I would prefer to see as wide a variety of work as possible. Juxtaposing art by different painters from different eras may not make great sense academically, but I think it would be a far more interesting way to introduce somebody to the world of art. The contrasts alone would at least keep them intrigued as to what they might see next.
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All of which explains why I'm a big fan of Phaidon Press' The Art Book: New Edition scheduled for release October 1 2012. Containing over 600 full colour reproductions the book offers readers an opportunity to experience art from the Medieval period to the work of contemporary artists. However instead of organizing them by era, genre, style or any of the other ways this type of book is usually laid out the work is listed alphabetically by the artist's last name. Which means you have the opportunity to see paintings side by side with ones that probably wouldn't normally be hung in the same building let alone on the same wall. Some might find that unsettling but I think it ensures each new work is a surprise and keeps you interested and on the edge of your seat. Tell me when's the last time you heard anyone say that about going to an art gallery or opening up an art history text book?

Now of course these aren't just random samples of various artists plunked down into a book. There's been careful consideration given as to which artists are represented and the paintings chosen to represent each artist. No one editor or curator is listed as compiling this book. Instead it seems like the entire editorial staff of Phaidon Press was involved in the process. In the video clip below Amanda Renshaw, editorial director of Phaidon talks about how The Art Book came together.

Of course the paintings aren't just baldly placed in the book with no word of explanation. Each one comes with a brief biography of the artist, a description of the work, what the artist was attempting to accomplish and, as applicable, something about the period or movement the work represents. As some of the terms used in art history aren't ones most of us are used to hearing in our day to day conversations, the editors have also included a complete glossary of terminology at the end of the book.
They've also included a complete index of all the painters in the book and a listing of the galleries where the original works are hung, installed, displayed, or the means by which they now can be viewed. The last in that list is important as some of them were transitory in nature or too large to be contained in a building. Examples of this include; Francis Alys Paradox Of Praxis(pg. 14) which involved the artist pushing a block of ice through the streets of Mexico City until it gradually melted, Marina Abramovic's The House with the Ocean View (pg. 4) an installation piece where the artist lived in the gallery for twelve days in three specially designed rooms elevated on platforms and Weiwei Ai's monumental sculpture Template(pg. 8) found outdoors at a German art festival.

However the majority of the works are at least traditionally housed, if not traditionally displayed, in galleries. But that's the beauty and diversity of the visual arts. They can be so many different things to so many different people. Just by looking through this book at the way tastes in style, form, and subject matter have changed down through the years is an indication of the way artistic expression has evolved. From the religious paintings of the Byzantine and Medieval periods which were completely flat and lacking in perspective to the introduction of the horizon line and depth of field in the Renaissance. Of course events don't follow a sequential pattern in this book, but in some ways that makes the way the art of painting evolved even more obvious.

Just seeing Salvador Dali's Lobster Telephone (pg. 136) side by side with Charles-Francois Daubigny's pastoral landscape, The Lock at Optevoz (pg. 137) tells you just how much the world of art can change in less then the hundred years that separate the creation of the two works. The same could be said of any two pages in the book, although not all of them are so extreme in their differences. Although the differences between Frans Hals Young Man With A Skull (pg. 240) painted in c1626/8 and Richard Hamilton's Pop Art collage Just What is it That Makes Today's Homes so Different, So Appealing? (pg. 241) from 1956 come close. On the one hand is a fairly standard 'Old Master' type portrait of a young man holding a skull while on the opposing page the artist has arranged a variety of imagery cut from contemporary popular magazines to form the interior of a living space. Of course with nearly 400 years separating these works perhaps it's not so surprising to find such radical differences. However, I wonder if Hals could have ever imagined a time when someone would have created art without using paint or brushes?

That's what I find so wonderful about The Art Book: New Edition. Aside from containing a wonderful collection of art work from almost every tradition imaginable and covering nearly a thousand years of human history, it encourages the reader/observer to use their own imaginations. You can't help looking at the pieces and comparing them to whatever is on the adjacent page no matter what it might be. While this sort of process might be off putting to some purists, for the rest of the world it will delight and astound you to compare Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat(pg.140) of the neo-Classical school of the late 18th and early 19th centuries with the cubist influenced Stuart Davis' Egg Beater No. 4 (pg. 141) from 1928.

Maybe it's something of a stretch to think people will be able to find common ground between two such wildly divergent examples of the visual arts. However, by simply placing the works in alphabetical order by artists' last names, the editors of The Art Book: New Edition give readers the opportunity to form their own opinions on the merits of each based on the work, the explanatory text accompanying it and free of the constraints of classification. While it's true no work exists in a vacuum, the pieces selected make enough of a statement on their own to ensure they can stand on their own two feet. At the very least, like the best survey course, readers might find themselves discovering something new that they wish to explore in further depth. That in itself makes this book an invaluable resource for any household.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Art Book: New AdditionEdited by Various on Blogcritics.)

September 13, 2012

Music Review: Various Artists -Songs For Desert Refugees

Life in the sub-Saharan desert is hard at the best of times. The Kel-Tamasheq nomads have been traversing the area between Mali and Niger, moving their herds from water hole to water hole, since before the coming of Islam to Northern Africa. It is said among them their ancestors chose such a harsh land to live in because nobody else would want it and they'd be left alone. However, history has shown no land is too inhospitable for those greedy for territory. First it was the Arab nations spreading the word of Islam taking their land and giving them a new name, Touareg, (literally those who rebel against Islam). Even when they eventually accepted the new religion, they adapted it to suit their own traditions and made it their own.

It wasn't until the coming of the Europeans who divided the territory with artificial and arbitrary lines in the sand their lives started to be changed for the worse. The legacy of colonialism was the Kel Tamasheq found themselves cut off from their former migratory paths through the desert and the grazing lands needed for their herds. Those living in Niger were expected to stay in Niger and not wander over the shifting sands into Mali, Algeria and Burkina Faso as they once did. At various times since 1960 they have attempted to reassert their claims to the territories taken from them. A variety of treaties have been negotiated either through rebellion or diplomacy that were supposed to guarantee them territory and rights, but successive governments in Niger and other countries have gone back on their words. The discovery of uranium under the Sahara has only made matters worse as not only did it result in their further displacement, but the process of mining has steadily destroyed the environment.

While the rebellions have not always been successful, and have resulted in reprisals against the people at times, they have always been attempts to improve their lot. So the uprisings in Northern Mali in the early part of 2012 which have forced over 200,000 people to leave their homes doesn't fit the same pattern as previous Tamasheq revolts. The fact that Islamic fundamentalist troops are also involved with the fighting is even more suspicious, as the Tamasheq would not be interested in simply exchanging one group of people telling them how to live their lives for another. However, perhaps most telling, is the release of a new compilation disc, Songs For Desert Refugees on Glitterhouse Records as an effort to raise funds for those displaced by the fighting.
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In the past Tamasheq musicians have been key figures in advocating and fighting for the rights of their people. Some of them took part in the armed rebellions of the 1980s before putting down their guns and picking up guitars. Governments in the area have gone out of their way to target them for harassment and even assassination in the past, and most have spent time exiled from their home countries. Yet, during this most recent uprising instead of using their music to spread the word or to remind people to take pride in who they are, they are lending their talents to an effort to assist those being harmed by the fighting. Artists of the stature of Tinariwen,Terkaft, Etran Finatawa and Bombino, all who have been advocates for their people, have donated either previously unreleased material or new versions of older songs to this disc.

Even better is the fact that those who have compiled this recording have included some lesser known artists, ones whom I haven't heard before. Not only is it great to hear other artists from the region their inclusion gives listeners an indication of just how much diversity there is among the Kel Tamsheq groups of the region. For although they are commonly referred to as the guitar players, that does not mean the Kel Tamasheq sound is limited to the electric blues/rock guitar that has become the trademark of those well known in the West. While the offerings from Tinariwen, "Amous Idraout Assouf d'Alwa" (a previously unreleased track) and Bombino, an extended live version of his "Tigrawahi Tikma" give pride of place to the electric guitar, there are others who are more traditional in their approach.

Amanar de Kidal (Amanar of Kidal in Mali) took their name from the Tamasheq word for the constellation Orion in memory of those times the band would rehearse through the night until the stars were high in the sky above them. While the guitar is still the lead instrument in their contribution to the disc, "Tenere", it doesn't dominate in the same way it does in other groups. Instead we are treated to massed voices, flutes and a steady rhythm carrying us forward. The rhythm is not one we're used to as it induces an almost swaying motion, as if you were being gently rocked in the high saddle of a camel. Like many other Tamasheq groups Amanar also features female vocalists in the band. Here they supply a spine tingling vocal undulation as part of the harmonies for the song as well as more conventional backing vocals.

The final cut on the disc is from the band Tartit made up of five women and four men. The women provide the lead vocals and rhythmic patterns for this song while the men accompany them. At first the vocals sound rather simplistic, but listen closely and you realize there are something like five different vocal patterns happening at once. Occasionally one of the women break free from the hypnotic trance like sound to issue an undulation that rises up like a sudden wind. "Tihou Beyatne" is unlike any other song on the disc and is probably the one closest to the traditional music of the people. Here again you also see indications of why their Arabic name of Tuareg stuck as not only do the women lead the band, they go unveiled while the men keep their faces covered.
While Tartit may be the closest to the traditional sound of the Kel Tamasheq all of the bands, no matter how electric or how much they've been influenced by Western popular music, retain solid connections to their desert roots. The majority sing in the Tamasheq language and thematically their songs are designed to remind their listeners to be proud of their culture. More importantly they use their music to teach the younger generation displaced from their desert life who they are and why the desert is important to the Tamasheq people. Musically, even artists like Bombino, whose band uses a full drum kit and is probably most like a Western pop group, retain the traditional rhythmic elements that distinguish all the bands' music. No matter how much their guitars wail, the drum still carries the echoes of thousands of years in the desert.

Like indigenous people the world over the Kel Tamasheq have seen their traditional territories taken away from them due to the encroachment of outside influences. The safety provided by living in one of the harshest environments in the world has disappeared. No where is safe any longer from civilization's greed for resources. The discovery of uranium in their traditional territories in Niger was a death knell for a way of life that had been carried out by those living there for a thousand years. The insurrections in Mali by Islamic fundamentalists earlier this year made an awful situation even worse with the displacement of over 200,000 Tamasheq and others living there.

All profits made from the sale of Songs For Desert Refugees are being split between two Non Government Organizations (NGOS) who are dedicated to assisting the Tamasheq people. Tamoudre works directly with those nomads still trying to work the land in the war torn areas by assisting them in any way possible to make their livelihoods more secure. Etar, has the more long term goal of helping to preserve, protect and disseminate the Tamasheq culture, both for the people themselves and to educate the rest of the world about them. They are currently raising money to build a culture centre in one of the regions in Mali hardest hit by the recent uprisings.

The Kel Tamasheq are a proud people who have fought long and hard for their right to be left alone and live their lives in the same way their ancestors did for generations. Music has played a key role in this fight for survival by keeping traditions alive and helping the people to retain a sense of pride in who they are. This disc represents a slightly more tangible way of helping their people as the bands involved have donated their songs and time in the hopes they will be able to raise some money to bring relief to those of their people who have once again find themselves caught up in a situation not of their making but which is causing them to suffer. Won't you help?

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Songs For Desert Refugees on Blogcritics.)

September 9, 2012

Music Review: Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra - Theatre Is Evil

No matter how many different genres anyone wants to claim there are, when it comes to pop music everything's starting to sound pretty much the same to me. They should come up a new genre called "safe music for radio" and just get it over with. Sounds sort of like country, sort of like pop, sort of like dance, and nothing like anything really. However once in a while you get somebody like Amanda Palmer, better known as Amanda "Fucking" Palmer or AFP for short, who genuinely has no respect for conventions, genres or anything else that would make it easy to pigeon hole her into some sort of category. If you were to try and describe her music up until now you could say she's that ukulele strumming, keyboard playing cabaret style singer from The Dresdon Dolls.

Which of course doesn't really tell you anything at all about her. Just some facts. She was also in a production of the musical Cabaret put on by the American Repertory Theatre playing the role of Master of Ceremonies. Whether that makes her a cabaret style singer I don't know, but she does have an amazing voice. It can float between a caress and a battle cry in a second. She can charm the pants off you one moment and burn paint off a battleship in the next. She soars up the scale like a mezzo soprano at The Met and growls out lyrics like she learned how to sing at the knee of Johnny Rotten. On the couple of solo recordings I've heard up until now the music hasn't been very elaborate as she's been primarily on her own and there's only so much you can do with keyboards and ukulele. However that's all changed with the release of her new disc, Theatre Is Evil, on her own 8 ft. Records label (funded entirely by one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns ever) September 11 2012, as she's now Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra. (A note on the release's title: she chose to go with the British spelling of the word theatre so it's not my Canadian chauvinism changing the spelling)
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I think I'm being quite honest when I say I've not heard anything like this disc before. I've only heard an online stream so far, so these are only my first impressions. It felt like listening to the sound track from some wonderfully anarchic musical. Something set in a basement nightclub in Paris during the decadent desperate period just before a war, any war. When everybody is living their lives to the utmost because they don't know what the world has in store for them. There's something slightly dark and sensual about the music while at the same time the feeling is of an unqualified celebration of being alive. A life being led on a knife's edge might be a little more dangerous but it also lets you know you're alive. Listening to Theatre Is Evil is far more dangerous than the music you normally hear, but it lets you know you're alive.

The album itself is laid out like a performance complete with an opening introduction to the Grand Theft Orchestra and a piece of intermission music at the half way point. Whether you want to get up and stretch your legs, take a pee break or go to the bar and have a cigarette the choice is yours. However it does give you a chance to pause the disc and digest what you've heard before proceeding onto the second half of the show. Believe me you'll be grateful for the break. Musically, emotionally and intellectually this is one of the most intense recordings you'll be listening to this year, or in any number of years to come. For these are multi layered and intricate songs with much more to them than meets the eye or ear.

Track 4, "Do It with a Rockstar", is at first blush an ode to the glam rock gods and goddesses of the early 1970s. You can almost smell the pancake make-up and hair spray. It's easy to visualize everybody wearing thigh high platform boots and metallic suits studded with rhinestones. Its brash, bold and brassy, yet there is an underlying note of something disquieting which comes through in lyrics like this; "And do you wanna go back home?/Check your messages and charge your phone/Oh are you, really sure you wanna go?/When you could do it with a rock star, do it with a rock star?"

From the title you might think the song is about the glamour of "doing it with a rock star". Yet the more you listen the more you hear its about the rock star looking for a little company. "Do you wanna dance?/Do you wanna fight?/Do you wanna get drunk and stay the night?/Do you want to see all my cavities?/Talk about the criss in the Middle East?" She sounds desperate for company. The contrast between the lyrics and the flamboyant music makes for an extremely powerful commentary on the nature of fame and stardom. With so much of our media obsessed with fame and celebrity these days it's a relief to see someone saying anything that might make people pause and think about the reality behind the glitter.
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I could probably write a couple of paragraphs about each one of the 15 songs on this disc but it would end up reading like a PHD dissertation and bore the shit out of everybody including me. However I can't write about this disc and not talk about "Grown Man Cry" and "The Bed Song". Both songs deal with the dynamics of a relationship between a woman and a man in ways that you'll have never heard in a pop song before.

"Grown Man Cry" stands the whole sensitive guy thing on its head. "For a while it was touching/For a while it was challenging/Before it became typical/Now it really isn't interesting to see a grown man cry." Every time the woman in the song wants to have a serious conversation about anything, the man uses emotions to avoid the issue. My favourite lyric in the song though, and the one I think sums up the way guys use "sensitive" to their advantage, is her thoughts while listening to the radio; "I'm scanning through the stations/as the boys declare their feelings/but it doesn't feel like feelings/it feels like they're pretending/it's like they just want blow jobs/and they know these songs will get them". Guys have long used every angle possible to get into a woman's pants or to avoid talking. What better way to do either than by hiding behind "being sensitive".

"The Bed Song" is a different animal again. It traces a couple's relationship from their first bed, a mattress on the floor in what sounds like a squat, to their final resting place lying side by side under a tree. When the youthful romance of the early years has dissipated, their futon on the floor is replaced by an expensive bed and their squat with a luxury condominium, disquiet seeps into their relationship alongside the affluence and comfort. The woman wonders what the problem is. Lines like "And you said all the money in the world/ wouldn't buy a bed so big and wide/ to guarantee that you won't accidentally touch me in the night", are heart rending in their simplicity and implications. Yet for all the years of their life spent together she never once asks him what's wrong. It's not until they're both lying under their tombstone she finally asks him what was the matter; "You stretch your arms out and finally face me/ I would have told you if only you'd asked me." On that unhappy note the song ends, trailing off into the sound of alonely and desolate piano. I think we've all at least known of a relationship which seems to just drift along without either person saying anything of consequence to the other. What Palmer has done is manage to lift the mask and show the awful desperation that lurks beneath the silence. What makes this truly heartbreaking is she shows how easy it is for people to fall into this trap and the awful consequences.

Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra (described as genius musicians/arrangers/programmers Michael McQuilken, Chad Raines and Jherek Bischoff) have created a disc of music unlike anything you're liable to hear anywhere else. While being unique is not necessarily an indication of quality, Theatre Is Evil is one of the most exciting albums of popular music I've heard since the first time I heard The Clash. It challenges conventions without being inaccessible and actually assumes those listening to it have a working brain. This is not passive entertainment that you put on and forget about or put into random shuffle with hundreds of other tunes. This disc will reach out and grab your attention from its opening notes and not let you go until the final chord drifts off into the ether. From start to finish this is a work of art with every note and nuance carefully crafted and presented. Be prepared to be amazed.

Article first published as Music Review: Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra - Theatre Is Evil on Blogcritics.)

Photo Credit: Picture Of Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra by Shervin Lanez

September 4, 2012

Television Review: Wallander lll

For some reason every time I hear Sweden mentioned I can't help but recall a series of ads that ran in the 1970s. I think they must have been put out by the Canadian government, but they claimed the average sixty year old Swede was in as good as if not better shape than a thirty year old Canadian. I guess the Health Ministry was going through one of their fitness crazes and wanted Canadians to exercise more. How much truth there was in the statement about the sixty year old Swede I still don't know to this day, but for the longest time he, ABBA and hockey players was all Sweden meant to me. Now I can add something else to my wealth of knowledge about this northern Scandinavian country, they've produced at least one brilliant writer of mystery stories.

Starting Sunday September 9 2012 at 9:00 PM and continuing through September 16 and 23 you can see proof of this on your local Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) (check local listings for dates and times of course). For those three weeks will see the airing of the latest adaptation of Henning Mankell's novels as part of the Mystery segment of Masterpiece. Wallander lll sees the return of the troubled Swedish police inspector Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) as he deal with three murder cases, "An Event in Autumn", "The Dogs of Riga" and "Before the Frost", which are not only brutal but wreck further turmoil on his already fragile emotions.
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If you've read any of Mankell's books or seen either of the previous two series, you'll be familiar with Wallander and what he's witnessed in the past. However, even if you've never seen or read anything that's come before, it won't take you long to see the emotional damage he's suffered in the past. Even the hope generated by his starting a new relationship and moving into a house with his partner and her son isn't enough to prevent him from shutting himself down emotionally when partially decomposed body of a young woman is found on his new property. With one wreck of a marriage behind him, and his relationship with his adult daughter tenuous at best, Wallander had hoped for a new start. However, he feels it can't bode well for anything when it turns out the body was the victim of murder.

Things go from bad to worse when a colleague is brutally injured during the course of the investigation. Not only does he feel responsible for what happened to her, when another young women turns up dead, a friend of the first victim, he feels guilty because she wouldn't be dead if he had been able to catch the killer. Even successfully solving the case does nothing to salvage his new relationship. His partner can't understand why he takes everything so personally nor why he can't leave his work at work. He may hate what he sees and the job might cause irreparable damage to his psyche, but his emotional commitment to the job is what makes him such a good cop.

However we have to wonder in watching the ensuing episodes how he'll ever survive without having a breakdown. The episode airing on September 16 2012, "The Dogs of Riga", sees him travelling to the capital of Latvia, Riga, investigating a drug smuggling operation. The bodies of two men bearing tattoos associated with the Russian criminal world are found in an inflatable dinghy adrift in the Baltic Sea separating Latvia and Sweden. Not only did the two men bear the signs of having been tortured to death the raft was stuffed with drugs.

Travelling to Riga Wallander finds himself being pulled into the murky world of corruption which seems to have sprung up all over the former Soviet Union. In Latvia he discovers a country split along ethnic lines between native Latvians and Russian nationals who settled there during the communist era. Not able to speak the language and unsure who to trust, his hotel room is bugged (but whether by the criminals or the cops he's not sure) and one cops doesn't hide the fact he used to be in the KGB.
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While that case is bad enough with its corrupt officials and the brutal indifference to life he is witness to, "Before the Frost", the final episode airing on September 23 2012, is the one which has the most potential to break him. An old childhood friend of Wallander's daughter disappears after showing up at his house one night distraught and emotional. Unfortunately it's no coincidence that a series of fires started by an escaped psychiatric patient are happening at the same time. The fires are the tip of the iceberg as both the escapee and the friend of Wallander's daughter are members of a fanatical Christian cult. I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying it's enough to make an atheist of you, or at least turn you off organized religion forever.

While the scripts are uniformly excellent and the support cast is formidable in its talent, if you've seen the previous two series you'll notice quite a few new faces among the detectives working with Wallander, the show is ultimately a showcase for the talents of Branagh in the lead role. I've been fortunate enough to have watched him since one of his first television appearances back in the 1980s. While I've never had any doubts about him being one of the finest actors of his generation, his performance as Wallander still leaves me slack jawed in wonder. He seems hopelessly overmatched by the world around him; rumpled, unshaven and constantly under slept and you wonder how he can make it through a day let alone deal with the cases that come his way. Yet every so often we see hints of the iron will and resolve beneath the surface keeping him going. Unlike others though, he doesn't try and pretend or hide the price he pays for being a cop who cares.

He makes an effort to leave the job behind when he's with those who aren't in the police force, but it's obviously an effort. He's awkward in social situations, doesn't know how to make small talk or be inconsequential. When his phone rings to summon him back to the world of murder it almost seems as though its a relief, as if he back on familiar territory again. Yet such is the mastery of Branagh's performance we can see he knows how wrong this is, but he doesn't know how to change. However, he does give us occasional glimpses of how things could be different. There are two moments, one in "Dogs of Riga" and one in "Before the Frost" when we see the potential for uncomplicated happiness which somehow has managed to survive. The smile that literally lights up Wallander's face on both occasions makes you realize he's not given up hope of there being something better, he just doesn't have many opportunities to experience reasons for believing in them.

Wallender lll is tough and gritty and in some ways as desolate as the Irish landscape that stands in for Sweden. While it probably only feels like it, but it seems as if almost the entire show takes place in overcast weather and the prominent colours in the camera's palate are shades of grey and dank blue. These are difficult shows to watch, not only because of the nature of the crimes being investigated, but because of the emotional toll we seen them exact on the lead character. As the title character Branagh gives the type of performance that is the stuff of legend. Other generations had Lawrence Oliver and Alec Guinness, but we have Kenneth Branagh, and this is some of his best work. Don't miss this opportunity to watch genius at work for three brief Sundays in September; September 9, 16 and 23 at 9:00 PM on your local PBS station.

(Article first published as Television Review: Wallander lll on Blogcritics.)

September 1, 2012

DVD Review: Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass: A Film By Alan Lomax

In the early 1960s New York City, specifically the Greenwich Village neighbourhood, was host to what came to be known as the great folk music revival. The coffee houses and clubs in the area featured a variety of acoustic music and poetry readings for audiences made up of young, mainly university students. people looking for something more from popular culture than just a good time. It was an odd mixture of people playing traditional bluegrass, old time country, blues and topical protest music. While a great many of these new young performers looked to people like Woody Guthrie and other former musical activists as their inspiration, there were some who looked further afield.

The Friends Of Old Time Music (F.O.T.M.) was founded by three young musicians who took it upon themselves to search out and bring to New York City an older generation of blues, folk and bluegrass musicians and arrange to have them perform. It was after two of these concerts in 1961 that ethnomusicologist and field recorder Alan Lomax invited the performers and a collection of the current crop of younger folk musicians back to his apartment in the Village for an impromptu sing a long and get together. He also arranged to record and film the proceedings. Now, more then fifty years after the footage was shot the Association for Cultural Equity/Alan Lomax Archive and Media Generation have edited and cleaned it up as much as possible for release as the DVD Ballads, Blues and Bluegrass. Currently available for sale via the Media Generation web site (the link above) it will start showing up in retail outlets on September 11 2012.
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The disc is divided into two parts, thirty-five minutes of footage from those two evenings they were able to salvage and interviews with one of the founders of F.O.T.M., John Cohen and the man who shot the footage, the late George Pickow. Needless to say the latter, shot in 2010, is a lot more polished than the original footage, but both are equally fascinating. For instance we find out from Pickow that the event wasn't as spontaneous as some might have been believed as the BBC had asked Lomax if he would be able to provide them with footage of American folk singers. He also mentions the fact Bob Dylan was in attendance one of the two evenings, but was under firm instructions from his management not to let himself be photographed, so he just sat in a corner listening and smoking pot.

The actual footage doesn't have a very promising start as the opening shots of Alan Lomax welcoming us to his apartment are overexposed and the audio is broken up with static. Thankfully once it moves into the actual performances it improves and the majority of it is in far better shape than you'd expect. Aside from a couple of places where you can tell those who re-mastered the sound had to do some doctoring, it's remarkable how clean it is. Cohen's bluegrass trio from the time, the New Lost City Ramblers, are the first group to appear, and its funny to see the trio crammed together in a corner of the apartment with audience members sitting on couches tapping their feet and nodding their heads in time to the music.

During his portion of the interview Cohen starts pointing out members of the audience, including a very young Maria Muldaur and others who have since gone on to make names for themselves in either music or one of the other arts. It gives us an indication as to how amazing a time it must have been for these young artists living in New York City. Judging by those gathered in Lomax's living room, not only were they surrounded by others their age of like mind and interest, they had ready access to older more experienced artists for inspiration and guidance. It's no wonder so many talented people had their start during this time.

Among those captured on tape were old time Appalachian folk singer Roscoe Holcomb who was the inspiration for the term high lonesome sound for his ability to sing in a near falsetto; Clarence Ashley, accompanied by his band which included a young Doc Watson in singing the classic "Coo-coo Bird" and Memphis Slim with Willie Dixon on pump organ and acoustic bass respectively. Aside from playing a couple of tunes each, all were also interviewed by Lomax and talked about the type of music they played. What's really interesting is how these three groups of musicians from such distinct backgrounds and playing different types of music, all talked about what they did in the same way. It was music which came from life experience and the heart no matter if it was country, bluegrass or blues.
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Of the younger generation immortalized on camera from those two nights, only one of them would be at all familiar to audiences today. Ramblin' Jack Elliot was still relatively young when he was filmed here singing Woody Guthrie's song about serving in the merchant marines. According to Pickow Elliot had taken it upon himself to learn as many of Guthrie's tunes as possible in order to ensure they would continue to be performed. At the time this recording was made, Guthrie was confined to the hospital bed where he would spend the rest of his life slowly dying. There's something rather poignant about seeing people already establishing his legacy before he's dead in anticipation of a day when he's gone.

Someone who is nowhere near as well known today as he was in the early 1960s is Peter LaFarge. Long before there was any really organized push for recognition of Native American rights, LaFarge was writing songs about their situation. A member of the Nargaset nation which was almost pushed to extinction by the end of 19th century he had been raised by members of the Tewa nation on the Hopi reservation in New Mexico. He worked as both a rodeo rider and singer until he broke his leg badly and had to give up riding. Here we see him singing his song "Ira Hayes", made famous by Johnny Cash. If his performance appears unusually theatrical that's not surprising, he studied acting and came to New York City as a cast member in a play.

His death in 1965 is still considered mysterious as it was officially put down to a pre-existing heart condition. but friends thought he may have committed suicide. Unlike others in the folk scene he never made any concessions to popular trends by toning down his politics or making his music more commercially accessible. However his influence can't be underestimated as it was because of him Cash recorded the album Bitter Tears, devoted to the status of Native Americans, and which included six songs by La Farge. The clip of him performing shows him at his uncompromising best. In his comments Cohen says at the time he thought La Farge was a little over the top, but he now realizes he was just ahead of his time.

While obviously neither the sound nor video quality of the performance part of Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass are what we're used to, all things considered, they are better than we have any right to expect. However, far more significant is the opportunity this film represents. Not only is it a record of a time of unprecedented artistic growth and experimentation it also shows how, while this new generation may have been looking to the future, they built on the solid foundation of the music of previous generations. When that's coupled with the opportunity see and hear those who showed up at Alan Lomax's apartment it makes this an invaluable document. Of course, the music is great and it's a lot of fun to be a part of such an intimate gathering. No modern unplugged concert you've seen can match watching these great musicians hanging out in the casual atmosphere of Lomax's living room.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass: A Film By Alan Lomax on Blogcritics)

August 31, 2012

Book Review: Rolling Stones 50 X 20 Edited by Chris Murray

There have perhaps been other groups who were better, other groups who were more controversial and others more inventive, but year in and year out, for fifty years now, there has been no group who have epitomized the culture of rock and roll like the Rolling Stones. From the beginning they were always considered the rebellious ones. Their blues influenced sound was rougher and rawer than the polished pop sounds of The Beatles. Parents might not have been sure about John Lennon, but they damned well wouldn't want their daughters coming home with Mick Jagger. Not only wasn't he as cute as any of the Beatles, even in the earliest years he was too blatantly sexual to make you feel safe handing your daughter over to him.

The hint of danger that surrounded them was only exasperated by the mysterious death of original guitarist Brian Jones in the late 1960s and members of the band's drug habits. Even when they became firmly entrenched as members of the pop culture establishment selling out football stadiums the world over on their concert tours, they've never lost that edge. While they might have aged physically over the years, like Peter Pan's Lost Boys they've somehow never become adults either. While others their age might be calmly settling into retirement, they continue to thumb their noses at what's respectable and play rock and roll with an exuberance and sexual energy few bands can match. With age might have come a certain elegance and style, but underneath the fancier clothes and jewellery lurks the jeans and switchblades of the tough kids who made parents nervous in 1964.
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A new book from Insight Editions, Rolling Stones 50X20, edited by Christopher Murray, founder of the Govinda Gallery of photography, offers a pictorial history of the band's first fifty years as seen through the lenses of twenty photographers. Even a casual perusal of this book's pages reinforces everything you've been told or thought about the Rolling Stones. From the staged photographs for album covers, concert footage, candid photos to sittings for studio portraits, the pictures in this book offer not only a pictorial history of the band but show how even through death and line up changes their essence has remained unchanged.

Each of the twenty photographers has written a blurb about their experiences working with the Rolling Stones. While some of them were members of the rock fraternity in their own right, they worked for Rolling Stone Magazine, some of them are simply portrait photographers hired for studio shoots. However, no matter who they were, or where they were taking the pictures, the only remotely negative comment anybody has about the experience was to relate how Keith Richards said "Oh I don't really want to do this, do you? I've been photographed with them for thirty fucking years and it's really fucking boring". But as it was said without malice, more self-deprecating than anything else, you don't really see it as a negative.

Mark Seliger, he was shooting publicity stills for Rolling Stone before the band went on tour to promote the album Voodoo Lounge when Keith made that comment. His portraits of Richards and Mick Jagger included in the book from that shoot are absolutely amazing. Simple black and white head shots can be some of the hardest pictures to take for both the subject and the photographer. However Seliger's shots are works of art comparable to those Karsh took of people like Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein. You feel like you're being given a unique opportunity to really see these two men in a way you've never seen them before. There's a repose in both of their faces that lets you see something of the inner strength that has allowed them to endure being in the spotlight for so long and yet still manage to love what they do.

Richard's fight with addictions has been well documented and this pictorial history lets you see how harrowing the journey must have been at times. Looking at his shy almost innocent face in shots taken by Bob Bonis, their first American tour manager, back in 1964, slowly have the life ebb out of it in the 1970s could be heartbreaking if it weren't for the fact he comes alive again in the 1990s. The pictures of him and Ron Wood playing together from the 1990s until the present make you understand why they call it "playing". A shot of the two of them together taken by Fernando Aceves in 2002 captures the simple pleasure the two are taking in doing what they obviously love.

Of course Mick Jagger has to be one of the most photogenic people in the world. The irony being is he's not either classically handsome or good looking. However, even in repose he exudes personality and energy on level nobody else approaches. The only person who might have even come close was the late James Brown. A photograph taken of the two by Bonis in 1964 shows them leaning into each other in idle conversation. While your eye is first caught by Brown, actually his pompadour is what really grabs you, even casually dressed in jacket and slacks, Jagger more than holds his own in the picture. Of course it's also fun speculating what the two are talking about.
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While the book includes iconic shots like Baron Wolman's shot of Jagger on the set of the film Performance holding a Polaroid camera, a good deal of the book is made up of shots not as well known. Some of the ones I appreciated most were those from the middle sixties by Gered Mankowitz, Jan Olofsson and Eddie Krammer. An out take of Mankowitz's from the photo shoot for the album Between The Buttons from 1966 has the band huddled in overcoats against the fog that leaves them blurry and ghostlike against the haunted background of Primrose Hill. Olofsson's shots are all taken on the set of the British pop music show Ready Steady Go. There's one he's taken shooting up at the band from below the stage which catches Jagger in mid vocals and the top half of a seated Brian Jones playing sitar. Not only didn't I know the Stones had ever used sitar in their music I had no idea Jones had been such a virtuoso musician. For one of Mankowitz's pictures of the band shows him playing cello.

Krammer of course is better known as Jimi Hendrix's recording engineer than a photographer. However he got into the habit of keeping a camera by the sound board and would take pictures of whomever he was recording when he had a chance. So when he was hired to engineer Beggar's Banquet in 1967 he took a couple of candid shots of the band. One of them is a beautiful shot of Jones leaning back with a light behind his head giving him a near halo. Of course being Hendrix's sound man there's a picture of Jagger and Hendrix together backstage at Madison Square Garden in 1969. Both men are smiling and laughing and looking completely at ease with each other - it's just a nice simple shot of two friends hanging out and taking the time to enjoy each other's company.

While both Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman appear in any number of the photos in this book, they are the quintessential rhythm section. You only notice them when they make a mistake. Always the glue holding together their more mercurial front men, the two are constant stolid presences in every group photo of the band. It's interesting to note how very few of the pictures of the band taken after Wyman left them in the early 1990s include a bass player and one of the few that do, taken in 1995, doesn't identify the band members. It's almost as if after he left the decision was made to reduce the band to four permanent members, although they have employed the same bass player, Darryl Jones, for recording and touring ever since.

When Kris Kristofferson wrote "Blame It On The Stones", he was poking fun at people's reactions to the band's dark reputation. Blaming all of society's ills on the Rolling Stones is of course more than a bit of a stretch. However, compared to the wholesome, clean cut image The Beatles were projecting in the early 1960s the Stones came across as scruffier and a little bit dangerous. The fact of the matter was they played, and continue to play, blues based rock and roll that reflects the rebellious nature inherent to the music. The photos included in Rolling Stones 50 X 20 not only capture what it was about the band that established that reputation, it is a wonderful pictorial history of both the band and popular culture. While the text included by the various photographers, editor Chris Murray, Richard Harrington's forward and Chris Salewicz's afterword don't contribute much new to the story of the band, the collection of photos are superlative and tell you more about the band than any text could hope.

(Article first published as Book Review: Rolling Stones 50 X 20 Edited by Chris Murray on Blogcritics.)

August 28, 2012

Movie Review: Far Out Isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story

Over the years I've had the opportunity to see a variety of documentary movies on widely divergent subjects. However, the one thing all of them have had in common, are their desire to convince the audience of the importance of their topic. Unfortunately the very nature of the genre sometimes seems to work against their makers and far too often ends up rendering even the most interesting subject matter dull. For in their search for accuracy and authenticity many of them end up either being boring recitations of facts or endless interviews with experts. Film is a visual medium and unless there is something incredibly compelling about either the experts or the story they are relating, it can quickly become boring to watch footage of people simply talking.

In watching their most recent documentary movie its obvious to me that the people at Corner Of The Cave Media, especially director/producer/writer Brad Bernstein both understand this and take great pains to avoid falling into that trap. It's no wonder Far Out Isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story has not only been made an official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), but been scheduled for three public screenings: Thursday September 6 2012 at TIFF Bell Lightbox 3 9:45 PM, Saturday September 8 Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 9 at 9:30 AM and Saturday September 15 Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 10 at 4:30 PM, with the premier coming on opening night of festival.
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On the surface a documentary about an illustrator of children's books, poster artist and creator of various works of art, doesn't sound like the most stimulating of subjects. Perhaps if it were about somebody aside from Tomi Ungerer it might not have been very interesting. But, not only is the story of Ungerer's life and career fascinating, Ungerer himself is a wonder. On top of that Bernstein understands that even a documentary about a single person needs to have motion, as our focus wanders if we stare at the same thing for too long. So while we spend a great deal of time over the course of the movie with Ungerer, the interviews with him are broken up by animation sequences created from his art work, and by transporting the audience backwards and forwards in time using archival film footage, still photographs and samples of Ungerer's work from various periods in his life.

While over the course of the movie's ninety minute running time we are given Ungerer's life story from the time of his birth in Strasbourg France to the present in his homes in County Cork Ireland and Strasbourg, the narrative somehow defies the constraints of linear time. As Ungerer is describing what his life was like during the Nazi occupation of France during the 1940s we are looking at some of the drawings he made during that period. Not only do the illustrations make the memories extremely real, but as you listen to him speak you realize this period of his life is still very much alive for him. This is driven home when he talks about how his personal paranoia leads to him constantly dreaming about being arrested. Not only that but we see how the trauma of this period is reflected in his artwork down though the years, especially his political posters from the 1960s. For Ungerer the past lives on and the film makers have managed to somehow convey this in the way they have narrated his life and career.

What will be a surprise for a lot of people is that they've never heard of Tomi Ungerer. Especially when they find out about his career as a commercial artist and illustrator and writer of children's books in the 1950s and 1960s. He immigrated to America in 1956 and landed in New York City just as the need and interest in illustrations for magazines crested. With television in its infancy advertisers still relied on print media as their primary means of reaching consumers. So illustrators like Ungerer were in huge demand. It wasn't long before he branched out into the writing and illustrating of children's books.

According to his contemporaries interviewed for this movie; people like illustrator, playwright and novelist Jule Feiffer and, in one of the last interviews before his death, fellow children's book writer and illustrator, Maurice Sendak, Ungerer was one of the most remarkable artists they knew. Sendak went so far as to say, that without Ungerer's influence he doubts whether his most famous book, Where The Wild Things Are, would have ever existed. We hear about how Ungerer quickly became a favourite of the influential publisher of children's books at Harper Collins and his books were hugely successful. So what happened?
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What happened was Ungerer was interested in more than illustrating children's books and as the 1960s progressed he branched out to reflect the growing social and political changes that were happening in America. First there were his posters with their blunt political statements about such hot topics as segregation and the war in Viet Nam. However it was interest in erotica that caused the most problems. While the pieces wouldn't even qualify as pornography today, the Puritan streak runs deep in America - one only needs to look at today's Republican Party for proof of that - and when it was discovered somebody who wrote and illustrated children's books was also drawing pictures of naked adults all hell broke loose. His books were removed from the shelves of every library in the country and he was comprehensively black listed. As of 1971he might as well have ceased to exist.

While neither the film makers nor Ungerer make the obvious comparison of likening what happened to him to what happened to work the Nazis deemed unacceptable in the 1940s, the parallels are unavoidable. For the second time in his life he must have felt like he was living in a totalitarian regime which wouldn't tolerate freedom of expression and somebody's work could be arbitrarily deemed "wrong". Is it any wonder the poor man is still plagued by paranoia and dreams of persecution and arrest? What's astounding is how in spite of what he has been through, he not only continues to produce art today, he is still as vital and interested in the world around him as he was when he started.

What's amazing about Far Out Isn't Far Enough is the people responsible for the film have made it every bit as interesting and exciting as if it were a feature film. You become so caught up in the story of this man's life, his art and his way of looking at the world he becomes larger than life. While you can't escape the fact Ungerer is talking into a camera and answering somebody's questions about this, that or the other, the wall that usually seems to exist between the subject of these films and you watching crumbles at some point in the proceedings. Director Bernstein is smart enough to know when you're filming a force of nature like Ungerer, you try to be as unobtrusive as possible and do your best to be nothing more than a conduit between your subject and the audience. Not only has he succeeding in creating an incredibly intimate portrait of this complex and intelligent man, he has done the world a great service by reintroducing us to the work of an artistic genius whose work has been ignored for far too long.

Thankfully Phaidon Press, has taken it upon itself to reissue Ungerer's titles previously black listed in America and not seen in book stores for more then forty years. Ungerer himself recently wrote his first new children's book since the early 1970s. It is to be hopped the combination of this film and his books being made available to the public again in North America will ensure he starts to gain some of the recognition he deserves for his contributions to the world of art. Tomi Ungerer is a brilliant light whose illumination we've been denied for far too long. This film gives us an indication of what we've been missing and hopefully whats still to come from one of the great creative minds of ours or any time.

(Article first published as Movie Review: Far Out Isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story on Blogcritics.)

August 26, 2012

Music Review: Erdem Helvacioglu - Eleven Short Stories

Since most of us don't have access to grand pianos and the opportunity to see the instrument's inner workings they provide, it's easy to forget a piano is actually a stringed instrument. It wasn't a coincidence early keyboards, harpsichords, included the word harp in their name. For what were they if not the means to play chords on a harp? Like any stringed instrument when you depress or adjust the strings on a piano you change the tonal quality it will produce. While the idea of the prepared piano, a piano whose sound has been deliberately modified by attaching or placing objects on its strings, has been around since the time of Mozart, it was contemporary composer John Cage who, in the second half of the twentieth century, used the technique for more than just effect and created entire compositions for prepared piano.

Turkish composer of new music Erdem Helvacioglu has created music for a variety of modern and traditional stringed instruments that have been unique in their balancing of electronic recording techniques and acoustic sounds. Whether using computers to generate loops that allow him to build layers of sound through improvisation or manipulating the sound of a concert harp through processors he has always managed to both preserve the integral sound of the original instrument while managing to fully explore its potential for experimentation. So it seems only logical his latest release, Eleven Short Stories on the Innova Recordings label, would see him utilizing the largest stringed instrument around - a prepared grand piano.
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Each of the eleven pieces on this recording have been inspired by one of eleven film directors. Ranging from the relatively well known, David Lynch and Steven Soderbergh, to those who North American audiences won't be familiar with at all, Alejandro Goales Inarritu and Kimm Ki-Duk, the directors in question represent a broad cross section of styles and cultures. Each of them will have their own unique vision of the world they articulate in film. Yet film itself is an amalgamation of more than one art form as visual arts, music and literature are all utilized by the directors in the process of telling a story. So Helvacioglu is not simply creating soundtracks for each of the directors, but rather endeavouring to capture the essence of their overall creation.

Now, the only trouble is, what happens, if like me, you're not overly familiar with the works of the directors in question? Will you still be able to appreciate the pieces on the disc? While you may not be able to tell which was inspired by each director, and there is no mention in the liner notes as to who inspired what, these are still works of music and should be able to stand or fall on their own merits regardless of who or what inspired them. However, since we know they were inspired by films, we can use that as an avenue of approach when listening to them.

The average film soundtrack usually serves to accent what the viewer is seeing on the screen. Unfortunately this invariably leads to such cliches as swelling strings during moments of heightened emotion or other tricks designed to underline the obvious. Don't be looking for anything as trite as that from Helvacioglu, he's not scoring a movie for one thing, he's trying to capture moments that help sum up what a particular director's work means to him. If you look at the titles of each piece you'll see they all refer to either a rather striking visual image: "The Billowing Curtain", "Shattered Snow Glove" and "Blood Drops By The Pool"; a specific location "Shrine In Ruin" and "Bench At The Park" or an evocative phrase of dialogue; "Will I Ever See You Again" and "Not Been Here In Forty Years". The titles themselves are evocative and in some cases are enough to have us creating mental pictures in their own right. The music continues that process and fleshes out the initial image with an emotional context and spurs our imaginations to develop scenes built around the location, phrase or description.

"The Billowing Curtain", which opens the recording, is a good example of this and how Helvacioglu uses music to create layers of meaning and imagery. For not only did the music cause me to visualize a curtain blowing in a breeze as the title suggests, it went even further. Like a camera panning and pulling out into a wide angle shot simultaneously the music carries us from seeing a curtain in a window into the room behind it. The opening chords are the sound of a gentle breeze as he's altered the piano's sound to give it the slight buzz associated with a harpsichord. However this gradually segues from gentle to discordant so we begin to wonder what's in the room. The peaceful atmosphere suggested by the opening notes, say of a spring breeze causing the billowing of the title, is all of a sudden lost and the sound takes on a desolate tone as if the room is empty, devoid of life. The curtain all of a sudden becomes a dividing line between the pleasant feelings initially evoked by the music and the hidden world of the room.
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As one would suspect from its title "Blood Drops By The Pool" is an unsettling piece of music. While Helvacioglu picks out careful notes on the keyboard that create an eerie quiet he intersperses them with a series of sounds that can only be described as scrapes and scratches. Perhaps made by taking a bow to the strings of the piano prepared with objects that caused the strange vibrations, some of them sound for all the world like the noise of a saw while others the metal legs of a piece of furniture being dragged over the concrete beside the pool. It's a disturbing collection of sounds which jar and disturb while creating the feeling of unease you would have coming across drops of blood anywhere.

Prepared piano pieces are not music as most people are accustomed to hearing it played. In some ways they are more collages of different sounds designed to create an emotional reaction in the listener than a collection of notes within the framework of a song. However, the composer of any piece of music, no mater what genre, hopes to elicit an emotional reaction from his or her listener. The difference with these pieces lies only in the fact the sounds aren't ones we're used to hearing from a musical instrument. What I found most intriguing was how while the music on this disc created a sense of detachment because of its unusual nature, somehow this separation increased its ability to communicate.

Most of the time when we listen to a piece of music there are arrangements of notes which will automatically generate certain emotional reactions. That's not the case with these pieces. Not being able to rely on the usual comfortable clues you've come to expect from musical compositions you find yourself paying close attention to each note and its relationship to the ones around it. As a result, without realizing it, you become much more invested in the piece and your reactions are based on what you're actually hearing not what you've been conditioned to hear.

Helvacioglu's use of the various treatments and styles of playing prepared piano create moments through out the recording that have more emotional depth than most conventional compositions of the same length. On top of this, each one also manages to evoke images associated with its title. Instead of the music giving emphasis to images flickering on a screen, here each song creates a short movie in our head made up of a series of images and accompanying emotions. While it may not be what your used to hearing, this is some of the most stimulating and provocative music you'll hear. Its well worth making what ever extra effort might be required.

(Article first published as Music Review: Erdem Helvacioglu - Eleven Short Stories on Blogcritics.)

August 2, 2012

Television Review: The Barnes Collection

There are those who collect art for the status it brings them, those who collect it as an investment and those who collect it for their love of paintings. No matter what their reason most people's collections probably don't exceed a few treasures they've managed to pick up at small galleries or at auction. The idea that one person could amass enough works of art to fill a gallery is almost beyond belief, but that's exactly what American collector Albert Barnes managed to do. Now a fascinating documentary, The Barnes Collection, airing on PBS Friday August 3 2012 from 9:00 - 10:00pm (check you local listings) introduces us to this enigmatic man and his legacy to the people of his native Philadelphia.

The roughly hour long film loosely splits along three lines. The story of Albert Barnes and how he amassed his collection, the history of the collection in America and Barnes' and his collection's legacy. In order to tell the parts of the story that take place in the 19th and early parts of the 20th century the film makers have had to rely on interviewing art historians and those involved with the collection, still photographs and readings from Barnes's correspondence and other writings. While that may not sound like much to go on for creating a picture of what this man was like, such was the force of his personality we learn more about him than you'd expect. It also helps that he was opinionated and outspoken in his letter writing and didn't hesitate to speak his mind on any subject, even on the subject of himself. It's not often you hear someone come as close as he does to referring to themselves as an asshole - although he couches it in terms just a little bit politer.

The historians associated with the The Barnes Foundation - the non-profit organization responsible for the up keep of the collection and programming associated with it - and the other art historians interviewed for the film confirm both Barnes' assessment of himself and fill in the details of his biography. His was the classic rags to riches story of the 19th century. Born in a rough working class neighbourhood in Philadelphia, he still managed to go to university and graduate with a medical degree, although he never seems to have practiced medicine. It was through this education that he fulfilled the American Dream by making a fortune from Argyrol, an antiseptic silver compound used in the prevention of infant blindness that he developed with Herman Hille. He could have pretty much afforded to retire once he was in his twenties.
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We also find out that it was during his time as a student in Europe, he studied physiological chemistry and pharmaceutics in Germany, he first was exposed to the world of modern art. While there's no real explanation for why he became such an avid collector, the documentary does make a point of mentioning his early friendship with American Impressionist painter William James Glackens. It was through Glackens he obtained introductions to some of the biggest dealers in Paris in the early years of the 20th century when he began buying up modern art by the bushel load. The original bill of sales for his collection read like a who's who of modern art at the time. Picasso, Gauguin, Cezanne, van Gogh, Braque, Degas, Manet, Matisse, Miro, Modigliani, Monet, Jean Renoir, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Seurat and Tolouse-Lautrec are just some of the names which show up on receipts and invoices.

After a while he began making trips to Paris himself and buying works directly from the painters. He had no formal training in art, but judging by some of the things he said, that was a plus not a negative. He talked about paintings in terms of them being conversations he could have with the artist and how they were constantly telling him new things. He didn't bring any preconceived notions of what art should be to his evaluation of a work and was able to appreciate them in a way that few people of his time were capable of doing. This was driven home to him when he arranged for an exhibit of his modern works back home in Philadelphia and the paintings were roundly condemned by everyone from academics to politicians as crude, vulgar and obscene.

After detailing how he amassed his collection, which aside from the modern art included Old Masters, Americana, wrought iron, furniture, African sculpture and many other miscellaneous items, the documentary covers what he did with it all. In 1922 he had purchased a large property in Merion, an outskirt of Philadelphia, which he used as a residence and gallery. It was here the collection was put on permanent display and where he began to try and implement the ideas on the role of art in education that he developed. To that end he founded The Barnes Foundation with the purpose of "promoting the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts".
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He began developing educational programming inspired by the idea expressed by American philosopher John Dewey that it was only through education a society could achieve true democracy. It was to that end that some of the first "students" the foundation worked with were the workers in his factory. He discovered they only needed six of their eight hour work day to properly do their jobs, so for two hours a day he'd bring them out to the Marion gallery and began teaching them about art. The foundation continues to do this type of work to this day as we see when the film crew follows some of its members into a Philadelphia school as they teach students about art and how to see what an artist might be trying to say with a work.

The final stage in the history the documentary recounts is what's become of the collection today. When the residents of Marion began to object to having a museum in a private residential area a new home was constructed to house it in downtown Philadelphia. Interviews with the architects of the new gallery show us how much care and planning went into the creation of the new space - with an emphasis on ensuring an ample supply of natural light for viewing the work in the day time. However, what's really fascinating is seeing the care taken by the foundation's employees to ensure the collection would be displayed exactly as Barnes had hung it originally. Prior to packing each room in the Marion gallery they mapped out how everything was positioned. This involved measuring the distance between each work so when they were rehung in the new space each room would look exactly the same as it did before and would have the same visual impact on visitors Barnes had intended.

While The Barnes Collection only scratches the surface of both the man who created the collection and the collection itself, it is a great introduction to both. While its unclear on why Barnes felt the need to amass such a huge collection of art work in the first place, it's what he did with it, and what the foundation bearing his name still does, that's his true legacy. Making this massive collection of great art from around the world, a collection which includes works by some of the most renowned modern artists, available and accessible to the public is in itself a gift whose worth is next to impossible to judge.

However, even more important as far as I'm concerned, was his understanding of the role an appreciation of the fine arts played in education, and how important it was for everyone to have the opportunity to obtain that education. To know this collection exists for that purpose and the foundation continues to carry out Barnes' original mandate is a ray of light in today's otherwise bleak educational landscape. In an era when governments consider arts education in schools a luxury and a waste of money, it's a relief to know there are those in the world who know its true value. So on Friday August 3 2012 from 9:00 - 10:00pm take the time to see how one man's vision of art and education is still a goal worthy of trying to fulfil.

(Article first published as Television Review: The Barnes Collection on Blogcritics.)

May 30, 2012

Music Review: Public Image Limited - The Is Pil

In the mid 1970s the bloated and moribund music industry was given a much needed enema by The Sex Pistols. Anarchic and swearing they spit upon Britain's cultural icons and reminded people that rock and roll wasn't only the province of self-indulgent millionaires. In the 1950s Elvis scared middle class parents with his blatant sexuality while his blending of country and blues music threatened the South's segregationist attitudes. In the 1960s music came to epitomize all that was wrong with society according to the protectors of moral decency as it promoted sex, drug use, and worst of all questioning authority.

Yet when rock stars became celebrities and started earning a few bucks it's amazing how quickly they became part of the establishment. English rock and rollers complaining about have to pay taxes when they had grown up in Council Flats or raised on the National Health system funded by tax dollars was a fine example of how they became those they claimed to despise, but in reality had probably only envied. While John Lennon may have given his OBE (Order of the British Empire) back, it's hard to imagine John Lydon even making it onto the New Year's honour list.

The Sex Pistols only ever put out one studio album, Never Mind The Bollocks, and self imploded after a couple of years. Shedding the punk surname Rotten he'd worn as lead singer of the Pistols, Lydon, founded Public Image Limited (PiL) in 1978. For the next fourteen years, with a line up best described as fluid, the band released a series of albums that challenged and defied listener's and critic's expectations. Anyone who had been expecting Sex Pistols revisited was in for a shock. Lydon and PiL refused to be button holed or defined by an industry that liked everything in neat categories and just to rub salt in the wounds, managed to succeed playing it by their own rules. By the time they shut it down in 1992 they had scored five top twenty singles and five top twenty albums on the UK charts.

Twenty years latter PiL is still playing it by their own rules. They reformed in 2009 and began touring with much the same line as in 92: Lydon, and PiL bandmates since 1986 Lu Edmonds (guitar) and Bruce Smith (drums/percussion) were joined by newcomer to the band Scott Firth (bass). Any thoughts the more cynical might have had about this being an old farts looking to regain lost glory tour will be dispelled once you listen to their new release, This Is PiL. As befitting the guy who wrote the scathing "EMI", Lydon and company raised the cash for the disc themselves and have released it on their own Official PiL label (distributed in the US by Redeye Distribution).
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The twelve tracks on this CD live up to anybody's expectations of what PiL had come to represent in their first incarnation. I've seen other critics refer to it as "art rock" and other such bullshit, but the reality is Lydon and company long ago went beyond pop music and into the realm of new music composition. Sure they field the same sort of line up as pop bands but what they do with the instruments at their disposal goes beyond what anybody else has ever attempted. Perhaps the closest analogy would be some of the music being produced by the avant-garde jazz movement in Chicago. However, unlike those bands whose forte is improvisation and experimentation with aural soundscapes, PiL's pieces are written in advance and more a music of ideas than intuitive responses.

Thematically Lydon is still attacking the status quo. "One Drop" is a celebration of his adolescence and he defies the notion of it's everyone's responsibility to grow up and become a useful member of society. "The laws of nature/ be lawless and free/ we come from chaos/ you can not change us/you can not explain us/and that's what makes us/we are the ageless/we are teenagers/we are the focus of the hopeless/we are the last chance/we are the last dance". Yet he's not waxing nostalgic for his lost youth, he's talking about himself in the present tense. After all what is being an artist if not the ultimate rejection of adulthood?

Be honest, doesn't some part of you wonder at a group of fifty year old men making music most people would associate with teenage rebellion and youthful excess? They're not even playing nice safe corporate rock for baby boomers for God's sake. Instead of mellowing with age and becoming respectable members of the aging rock musicians community, Lydon sounds just as ready to sneer at icons as he ever did. However, at the same time, he's not just leading some blind attack or reckless anarchy. He looks around at present day society and sees that nothing much has changed in nearly forty years so what is there to be fucking optimistic about? Anger is a healthy response and to pretend otherwise is to hide your head in the sand.
Public Image Ltd 2012 C  Paul Heartfield (left to right Bruce Smith  Scott Firth  John Lydon  Lu Edmonds).jpg
"The Room I'm In" is a surreal piece mixing spoken word and singing accompanied by an eerily floating electronic sound collage overtop an arrhythmic percussion track suggesting the sounds of the world heard off in the distance. We call them "projects" in North America, in Great Britain they're know as Council Flats, but they serve the same purpose. It's where the poor and the hopeless are stuffed into boxes in towers of concrete surrounded by expanses of asphalt and wasteland. With no chance of physically escaping these soul destroying and dream crushing prisons lives are wasted on drugs and meaningless violence. In just under four minutes PiL has managed to create a piece of music which brings to life the reality of those sentenced to serve life sentences in these hells for the crime of being poor. Suddenly a needle seems like a reasonable alternative.

When asked to describe the songs on this release Lydon's response was, "Well 12 songs, where do I begin? Everything and anything that attracts my attention." Each song is a reflection of what he has seen while glare through his microscope; of something that moves him strongly enough to comment on. But these aren't the obvious political songs of other people; stirring anthems with catchy choruses to rouse arena crowds aren't what PiL's about. I really doubt you'll find people singing along to their favourite tunes at the next PiL gig you go to. Instead what you're hit with are a series of images which viewed as a whole create a type of cubist picture of the current state of the world.

Picasso tried to capture all sides of an image within the confines of a two dimensional canvas. PiL's canvas stretches over the length of their CD and they use every means at their disposal to create their portrait. While all the familiar sounds of popular rock music are employed in their songs; searing guitars, synthesized sound waves, and almost everything else you can think of, contextually they never fit into the neat patterns we expect from pop music.There's nothing comfortable or safe about PiL. They won't make you feel better about yourself nor is this a disc you're going to want to play to fall asleep to. Yet, for some reason, just the thought that PiL are out there pushing boundaries, kicking conventions and doing their best to make sure people are awake gives me more hope than I've had in a fuck of a long time. Genius is never easy, art is not always pleasant, but that somebody still cares enough to be using popular music to create both is reason for celebration. Hopefully we won't have to wait another twenty years for their next creation.

(Article first published as Music Review: Public Image Ltd - This Is PiL on Blogcritics.)

May 23, 2012

Television Review: The Goat Rodeo Sessions Live

String quartets come in many shapes and sizes but you can normally predict what they're going to perform. Beethoven, Mozart perhaps even some Bach or other composer from the recognized classical canon. While there have been exceptions to this rule in the past, the most obvious being the Kronos Quartet doing their rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze", even they have worked from carefully scored and arranged material. The idea of a string quartet coming together to create their own works is almost unheard of; for those creations to be the result of improvisation unthinkable. The idea is so improbable that it would require those involved to be uniquely talented and blessed with the immense good fortune of having hundreds of seemingly disparate ideas come together in the face of almost impossible odds.

Those of you who have listened to the CD The Goat Rodeo Sessions featuring Yo-Yo Ma on cello, Stuart Duncan on violin/banjo/mandolin, Edgar Meyer on bass and piano and Chris Thile on mandolin, guitar and violin will have already experienced the stars lining up in just the right manner to allow the improbable to occur. However it's one thing to do this in the safety of the recording studio where mistakes can be corrected though over dubs and the opportunity to do second and third takes, but it's another altogether performing the same music live. So pushing the envelope a little further they are taking their show live and thanks to the great folk at Public Broadcasting System (PBS) you'll be able to see them on Friday May 25 at 9:00pm (check local listings) in an hour long special The Goat Rodeo Sessions Live.

I don't think it will be spoiling anything for anyone by telling you watching them perform the music they created in the studio live makes you even more aware of their incredible accomplishment. Listening to the CD was awesome enough, but it's only seeing them perform most of these same pieces on stage that the enormity of their achievement is brought home. For now you see first hand not only the complexity of each person's part, but how incredibly difficult it must have been both creating and bringing them together to a make single entity. With Thile serving as de facto band leader/concert master/host the four opened the show with the piece I think epitomizes their efforts "Attaboy".
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This piece reflects the musical background of each performer and simultaneously shows the listeners both the difficulties they faced creating the music on the disc and the means they used to overcome those difficulties. Listening to it on CD one could hear how their diverse approaches to music blended to form something which was literally greater than the sum of its parts. However, watching them perform you are able to witness how they managed to accomplish this. The first thing you notice is the high level of communication going on silently in front of you. From the moment Thile counts them in to start the piece and sets the tempo on his mandolin there's never a moment when they aren't either listening or looking at each other for cues and, perhaps, encouragement. A nod here, eye contact there, and the tempo changes or somebody starts a solo or a solo ends and the rest join in. It's as fascinating an example of watching co-operative music in the making as you'll ever see.

As on the recording the four musicians are joined on stage occasionally by vocalist Aoife O'Donovan. She and Thile serve up beautiful vocal harmonies with lyrics specifically created for the recording sessions. On stage, as on CD, their voices add another layer of texture to the sound being created by the four instruments. In some ways they are like a calm in the middle of a storm as they seem to allow everyone from the audience to the performers a pause in which to breath between the thunder and lighting of the instrumental pieces. For there is an intensity to what the quartet are creating and performing on stage that listening uninterrupted might have been too overwhelming. Those couple of moments of calming influence allow us to appreciate the instrumental sections all the more.

Aside from the excitement of being able to see these four men in action, there are two other great reasons for watching them on television this week. First is seeing them react to playing in front of an audience. There's always an exchange of energy between performer and audience in a live situation that changes the dynamic of the music is some manner or other. When the audience began to clap the tempo - and when was the last time you saw that happen during a concert by a string quartet? - you could see the band react in delighted surprise. I don't think they had expected or anticipated audience participation and it appeared to push them to even greater levels of exertion, if possible. Each piece from then on seemed to soar a little higher and strive to reach a little further.
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The second, and just as important reason for watching, is to see the expressions on their faces while they are performing. Normally watching a string quartet in action is an exercise is studied formality. Everyone seems to be playing as if there lives depended on them looking intensely serious. Brows are furrowed and faces locked in intense stares of concentration. Well I don't think I saw one furrowed brow, let alone a serious face, on stage during the entire hour of this quartet's performance. From Thile's almost impish grin as he bends over his mandolin (Is it just me or does he reming anyone else of a young Jude Law?), the sly smiles on Duncan and Meyer's faces to Ma's spontaneous grins of delight as he listens and plays, there's not a straight face among them. These guys are so absolutely delighted to be where they are at that specific moment in time you can't help but feel privileged to be part of this performance even as an audience member.

Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile created something special when they recorded the Goat Rodeo Sessions. Now they are bringing that something special to life on PBS stations around America on Friday May 25 2012 at 9:00 pm. If you aren't able to see it that night, or your local PBS station ends up not carrying it, don't despair, its being released on DVD as of May 29 2012. Whichever way you end up watching, believe me, this is an experience no music lover will want to miss.

(Article first published as TV Review: The Goat Rodeo Sessions Live on Blogcritics)

May 17, 2012

Book Review: Tough Shit: Life Lessons From A Fat Slob Who Did Good By Kevin Smith

You know a book by Kevin Smith, a guy famous for making movies about "dick and fart jokes", is bound to be crude, lewd and rude. However what might surprise most people, especially those who believe he makes movies about dick and fart jokes and never look further than that, is beneath the bluster and foul mouth of a twelve year old boy from Jersey are a brain and a heart. As he himself says in his latest book, Tough Shit: Life Advice From A Fat Lazy Slob Who Did Good published by Penguin Canada, as an overweight kid from Jersey he had to find a way to prevent himself from being made everybody's favourite punching bag. If people are pissing themselves laughing it's much harder for them to beat the crap out of you. So in many ways he's never stopped being that twelve year old kid trying to make us laugh.

Now most people who pick up a book by Smith already know what he's about and aren't about to be offended by anything he's got to say. The thing is that a lot of people who pick up this book in the hopes that's it just like the movies he used to make are going to be somewhat disappointed. Oh sure there's more use of the word pussy not in reference to the family cat than in most works of non-fiction and not many people dedicate their books to their wife's sphincter, yet even excesses along those lines aren't gratuitous. The book is exactly what the title claims it is, except just like his movies there's far more to it than you'd expect. As with the majority of Smith's work it's up to you what you take away from it. With his movies it was laugh at the puerile jokes, enjoy the gross out moments and appreciate the overall anarchy as epitomized by Jay and Silent Bob, or you can go a little deeper and dig his love for the misfits up on screen and the statement that makes.

Of course Smith would have you believe he's the biggest misfit of them all; an overweight, lazy dude from the armpit of the nation who managed to make it as an outsider in the ultimate insider industry. The thing is he's right. For all intents and purposes this is not somebody who should have been able to make a career in movies. His first movie was shot on a shoestring budget with a cast made up of friends and local community theatre actors. Clerks should have disappeared without a trace and Smith with it. However through sheer balls and faith in his own work he managed to secure a screening for it at Sundance which led to a distribution deal with the then kings of indie cinema Miramax. Maybe it was a case of being in the right place at the right time, but if he hadn't had the chutzpah to make the movie in the first place, to risk it all on a dream, none of it would ever have happened.
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As you read through Tough Shit and listen to him recount the various stages of his career and what he considers the important turning points in his life, you're struck by the size of the risk he took in each of the incidences he describes. The other thing you realize is no matter how many self-depreciating remarks he might cast his own way, this is a guy who has great faith in his own abilities and the huge amount of courage required to bring his dream of doing what he loves to make a living come true. Of course he also has his own unique context which helps him keep things in perspective.

The opening chapter of the book is about his dad and three lessons that were to influence Smith junior's life. The first being the freaking miracle that out of all the sperm from his dad that ended up inside his mother, it was the one with his name on it that survived. The way Smith figures it winning that race with the odds so strongly stacked against you means you've already won half the battle. The second was his dad hated his job with a passion. Now most people would have accepted that as their lot in life and followed their old man's example of taking a job they hated to put bread on the table. Not Smith, he looked at how unhappy his dad was and thought there has to be something better, why can't you do what you love for a living? The final lesson he learned from his father was from how he died. His father died screaming in pain having a massive heart attack. The lesson Smith took from that was if that was his dad's reward for years of self-sacrifice and hating his job, than he might as well make as much a paradise for himself in this world as he can.

While that might sound like a sure fire recipe for self-indulgence, and maybe some can't see the difference between that and a life dedicated to self-expression, for Smith it provided the motivation for keeping as true to himself as possible. During the course of the book he describes what happened when he let his life drift off that path. The worst of those experiences was directing Bruce Willis in Cop Out. While it earned him the respect of executives of the studio he did the film for, and led to more offers of directing work, he realized that even if he never had to work with a prima donna like Willis again, simply directing somebody else's material wasn't for him. It would eventually turn into a job he would hate, or at least resent, and that's not what he had set out to do when he embarked upon finding a way of making a living doing what he loved.
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Smith is nothing if not honest. Throughout the entire book he's upfront with readers telling them there's nothing easy about the course he's chosen and if they want to emulate what he's doing they're in for a hard slog. This is the tough shit of the title, "Security, normalcy, convenience, protection, and identity are opiates you've gotta wean yourself off before you can be an individual. You can't stand out if you're blending in." Now that might sound easy but it has to be the hardest thing in the world to actually follow through on. He's talking about giving up everything from normal relationships to anything else you can think of that all of your friends will be doing.

Maybe that's why he's dedicated the book to such a specific part of his wife's anatomy. He goes into details for you in the chapter talking about her, but that's just his way of making the real point. Which is that he's been incredibly blessed not just because as he puts it "she's way out of my league" but because she willingly gave up her career as a journalist to join forces with him. That she allows him to be who he is warts and all and accepts that he won't change for anyone is a miracle and he knows it. Being an artist is an incredibly selfish endeavour and to find somebody willing to go along for the ride with you is fucking amazing cause they know they're never going to be first in your heart, they might tie for top spot but will never come out on top. If they asked you to chose between them and your art you'll either chose your art or hate them for the rest of your days.

The great thing about reading a Kevin Smith book is its like having a conversation. True it might be a bit one sided as you're hard pressed to get a work in edgewise when dealing with a book. Anyone who has ever listened to any of the commentary Smith includes with the DVDs of his movies, watched a DVD of his speaking tours, listened to any of his podcasts at will understand what I'm talking about. He doesn't belabour a point or come across all heavy and intellectual, but still manages to make more sense and talk more intelligently about art, movies and life than ninety percent of the called self-help gurus out there. His recipe for happiness might not be right for everyone, but for those who are willing to give it all for their dream, it's a damn good one to follow.

(Article first published as Book Review: Tough Shit: Life Advice From A Fat Lazy Slob Who Did Good by Kevin Smith on Blogcritics.)

May 11, 2012

Music Review: The Georgia Sea Island Singers -Join The Band

When the Europeans started importing African slaves to the new world in North America they took plenty of measures to ensure they remained passive. They made sure to split up families as much as possible, separate tribal members so slaves wouldn't have a common language and did their best to deny them the use of anything that could be used as a drum. With the latter they hoped to cut them off from any vestiges of culture, including religion, they might have retained from their previous existences in Africa. By taking away all traces of identity, familial, tribal and cultural, they hoped to weaken any resolve they might have had for rebellion. As a final step they proceeded to convert them to Christianity in the hopes its promise of good behaviour being rewarded in the afterlife would keep them docile and compliant.

The one thing their new masters couldn't take away from them though was their voices. Over the years the slaves developed their own culture centred around vocal music. The majority of music that evolved in this period fell into one of two categories - work songs that were sung in the fields and gospel music. The former usually consisted of words and music whose rhythms would mark out a pace to accompany their work or served as instruction on how to carry out the job at hand. As the slaves were kept illiterate by their masters they had to develop oral traditions in order to communicate. So both the hymns and the field songs served the dual purpose of educating and entertaining.

While this pattern was repeated pretty much throughout the slave owning areas of North America and the Caribbean, in some of the more isolated communities unique cultures arose. While all the vocal music retained elements of the slave's African heritage, in some areas, mainly where there was less contact with European society, more of the original culture was retained. The Georgia Sea Islands are a string of costal islands off the Atlantic coast of the United States which stretch from South Carolina down to Florida. While the islands are today home to high end resorts, plantations used to dot these islands. The slaves who toiled there were isolated from both whites and Africans and developed their own distinct culture built around the Gullah language, a kind of mixture of Spanish, English and African dialects.

The Georgia Sea Island Singers was formed in the early 1900s by freed slaves and their descendants in an effort to preserve and educate people about their culture. However they might not have received the attention and renown they have obtained if folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax hadn't taken an interest in them in the 1930s. They have since gone on to perform for presidents of the United States, other world leaders and some of the best known concert stages in the world. Even though Lomax "discovered" the group in the 1930s he didn't make his first field recording of them until 1959-60. Its these recordings that are the basis for a new release from Global Jukebox and Mississippi Records, Join The Band.
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One of the first things you'll notice is how the songs are almost completely a cappella save for the occasional accompaniment provided by fife, guitar and banjo. While most of the songs on this recording are sung in English musically you'll notice quite a difference between them and what most of us associate with African American gospel. Like their ancestors were forced to do, they use vocal harmonies in lieu of drums on a number of tunes to mark the beat. It's wonderful to hear how these voices are incorporated into the songs to suggest drums. You can tell they're voices and they don't do anything as obvious as sounding out a beat, but still manage to sound like a rhythm track.

The fife provides a high whistling counterpoint to the earthy quality of the lead vocals on the songs its utilized. On the first tune I heard it, the third track of the disc "Oh Day", it caught me completely by surprise as the song opened with just the fife. After two bars the fife is joined first by handclaps, then the vocals and finally a guitar keeping the beat. Throughout the song the fife continues to repeat the same sequence of notes over and over again until it to becomes a part of the tune's overall complex rhythm. The more you listen to the tune, the more you realize the complexity of its arrangement. There are three vocal lines not only singing different lyrics but doing so with their own unique beats while the hand claps, the guitar and the fife are providing three different layers of accompaniment.
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This seems to be a hallmark of The Georgia Sea Island Singers. On the surface their material appears to be simple choral arrangements but upon closer listening you hear more than was initially perceived. Listen to a song like track six, "Adam In The Garden", and at first you're paying attention to the male voice doing the lead vocals. But pretty soon you find yourself almost literally sinking into the tune. It's as if you become more aware of what's going on the more listen. From the foot stomps marking out the basic beat, the complex hand claps and the various vocal lines each one takes on a life of its own that pulls you in. In some of ways these songs are the sum of their parts and more than the sum of their parts at the same time. It sounds a weird thing to say, but once you hear how each part is a distinct entity on its own and then how it fits in with the other components in the tune you'll understand.

While occasionally voices are out of balance, as if one group of singers was standing too close to the microphone, on the whole the sound is surprisingly clear. Considering this was a field recording made originally in 1959-60 it's remarkable how so many elements can be heard in each song no matter how softly something is being played. Combined with the remarkable music created by the members of the choir, this recording becomes more than just another historical record. Its a wonderful collection of music from one of the more distinct cultures in North America and a great introduction to a group who is still going strong today. The Georgia Sea Island Singers are not just a link to history, they are a living breathing example of a distinct culture.

(Article first published as Music Review: The Georgia Sea Island Singers - Join The Band on Blogcritics.)

May 2, 2012

Music Review: A Tribe Called Red - A Tribe Called Red

I've been going to Pow Wow's on and off since 1995 when I was a volunteer with the local First Nation's Friendship Centre where I live. For me the best thing about a Pow Wow is how no matter where you are on the grounds you can always hear the big drum. From the moment Grand Entry begins (the ceremonial entrance of the dancers into the arena) to the closing ceremonies the drum is almost always playing. Even when its so faint that you can barely hear it, the sound throbs up through the ground and into the soles of your feet. That's when you really understood why its referred to as the heartbeat drum. Perhaps even more distinctive than the drum, and even more alien to those not used to it, is the sound of the singers gathered around the drum. In contrast to the deep pounding of the drum they, men and women, sing in a high falsetto. Guaranteed to cut through any surrounding din the singers can be heard just as clearly as the drum. Those who have never heard experienced the combination will probably have a hard time believing how spine chilling it can be.

What might come as an even bigger surprise to some, especially me, is how well the form lends itself to modernization. Now I've got to be honest, I'm not the biggest fan of most hop hop, rap or dance music. It's fallen so far from what it once was in the hands of community and political activists like Grandmaster Flash and Gil Scott Herron. So I've been leery about the First Nations hip-hop groups who have been springing up across Canada. That's until I heard A Tribe Called Red's new release A Tribe Called Red, which they've made available as a free download. A Tribe Called Red are three Ottawa area First Nations DJs: DJ NDN, DJ Bear Witness and DJ Shub. They have been putting on what they call Electric Pow Wows on a monthly basis dedicated to showcasing Aboriginal DJ talent and contemporary urban Native culture.
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So what is contemporary urban Native culture? Well judging by the twelve tracks on the collective's first CD it owes as much a debt to inner city youth culture, Jamaican dance halls and modern electronics as it does to their various nation's traditions. What distinguishes A Tribe Called Red from other DJ collectives, what makes them uniquely First Nations, is what they incorporate into their creations. While its true some DJs, especially those who specialize in Trance, have begun turning to sources other than popular music for the samples they build their tunes around, the majority of A Tribe Called Red's track's are built around various Drums. (Drum, in this case, refers to both the physical drum and the people who make up the group of drummers and singers associated with the instrument. For example, The Whitefish Bay Singers of Ontario Canada are also called The Whitefish Bay Drum)

The opening track, "Electric Pow Wow Drum", starts off with familiar "heartbeat" of the big drum. After a few bars its joined by both an electronic pulse playing counter point and the sound of the jingles on dancer's costumes keeping time with the big drum as they move around the arena. (Traditionally a jingle bell dancer's regalia was covered with deer toes, but today the jingles are just as likely to be anything from the rolled up lids of tins of chewing tobacco to manufactured tin cones) Then the singing starts. Normally the sound of the massed falsetto voices over top the drum is enough to send shivers up your spine. In this case the voices are fed through a synthesizer or processor of some kind that gives the voices an overlay of heavy fuzz which heightens the effect even more. Cutting back and forth between the electronic pulse and the distorted singers, the song builds in intensity until the first break. (There are two very distinct rhythms played on a drum during a song, the heartbeat sound which propels the dancers around the arena and the break which, depending on the dance, requires the dancers to either dance in place or freeze) After the first break in this case the singing intensifies and an electronic melody based on the rhythms of the song laid over top serves as both a counter point and to add another layer of texture to the material

Any doubts I may have had about A Tribe Called Red were erased after I listened to this first track. Instead of merely being content with sampling the original music and ignoring the traditions behind it, they've managed to merge it with the technology they use as DJs and respect its original intent. Its exactly what the title suggests it is, an "Electric Pow Wow Drum". Not only does the song capture the power of the Drum, but it enhances it. There's no attempting to make the music more accessible by watering it down or giving it a catchy dance tune. Instead it feels like they've grafted the realities of urban living onto their traditions to make them relevant to the world they live in.

Eight of the remaining eleven tracks on the disc combine traditional Pow Wow music and modern DJ technology. In each case the guys have managed to find the same delicate balance that made the first track so effective. There's nothing haphazard or sloppy about any of their choices, including the fact that they have found a wide variety of Pow Wow music to use in their material. Because A Tribe Called Red allows the original material to come through in the mix you not only get to hear the music updated, you also hear how different one Drum can sound from another.
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The last song on the disc, "General Generations", is slightly different as its taken from an old wax cylinder recording of a singer who might have been DJ Shub's great grand father. The sound of the scratchy solo voice taken from early primitive recording equipment singing a song that might be hundreds if not thousands of years old remixed with modern electronics sums up the entire disc for me. Its about keeping cultural traditions alive without allowing them to stagnate and making them relative to changing circumstances.

Also deserving of special mention is the song "Woodcarver". Written in commemoration of the Native American woodcarver John T Williams who was "unjustifiably shot" by a Seattle Police officer in 2010. Using samples of news recordings, and statements made by witnesses, family and members of the Seattle Native American community the song both honours the memory of the man and presents the facts of the case with a minimum of editorializing. Unlike the other pieces on the disc "Woodcarver" isn't something you'd expect to hear on the dance floor. What it is though is a good example a found sound installation and the way modern sound technology can be used as a means of expression.

A Tribe Called Red is not only a collection of great music, its an example of how the modern and the traditional can come together to the benefit of both. Intelligent and inspired the songs on this disc represent both a cross section of traditional Pow Wow music and the variety of sounds and techniques available to the modern DJ. In the past I've been dismissive of DJ created songs because most of what I'd heard up to now has pretty much sounded the same. The three DJs who make up A Tribe Called Red prove that doesn't have to be the case. You can download a free copy of A Tribe Called Red by following this link

Article first published as Music Review: A Tribe Called Red - A Tribe Called Red on Blogcritics)

April 13, 2012

Music Review: Zdob Si Zdub - Basta Mafia

Why is it everybody is always so surprised when other cultures aside from our own evolve and change to suit the times. It's like we want them to stay stuck in the past playing their interesting "folk music" and dressing up in their "traditional" costumes for our entertainment. Unfortunately that music and those costumes, if they ever really existed outside of some romantic vision offered up by people outside of the culture, have very little to do with the realities of life in the 21st century. There's nothing wrong with honouring the traditions of the past, but any culture that can't continue to evolve runs the risk of stagnating and losing its power to speak to its own people.

For many years the image of the Eastern European musician playing a fiddle or a balalaika and wearing colourfully embroidered clothing has lingered. Who knows where this image came from initially and whether or not it had any validity. Even if it did to assume a people whose population is spread over thousands of square miles would play the same types of music let alone dress the same is not just unrealistic but insulting. Cultural stereotypes are dangerous because they allow people to think of those in question as somehow less then or different from normal. It then becomes easy to discriminate against them, because they aren't like us.

The fall of the iron curtain was supposed to usher a new era of freedom and hope for all of Europe and parts of Asia. What nobody seemed to count on was the fact that millions of people were going to have to be absorbed into an economic system that was already feeling the strain of supporting its own people. It's quite frankly a miracle the economic meltdown we're witnessing in Europe took this long to happen. During times like these there are always those who, usually at the point of a gun and by knowing which wheels to grease, manage to accumulate a great deal of wealth and power at the expense of others. This has been the situation all across Eastern Europe and Asia where power vacuums were formed with the fall of governments.

So expecting a new generation of Eastern European musicians to be content with putting on cute cultural displays after what they've lived through is ridiculous. I don't know about you, but I'd expect to hear something that reflected what's going on in their lives. Which is exactly what you get from the new release from Moldavian basedZdob Si Zdub's. new release, Basta Mafia on the great German Asphalt Tango label as an import in North America February 14 2012. Its a brilliant piece of work combining biting political commentary and messages of hope for a better world played over a wonderful melange of styles as the band employs everything from folk to punk, and almost everything in between, to get their message across. Yet for all the variety, and the lack of cohesion that it might imply, each song is connected to the rest by the elements they all have in common.

It's hard to put your finger on what those might be initially, but it gradually becomes clear that although one song contains elements of hip hop and another grunge, they all have the same point of origin. The brass section which emphasizes the beat and the fiddle scrawling out the melody beneath the guitar on some tunes are indications of the group's background; not because they're the only people who use those instruments but because of the way they are employed and the sounds they make. Listening to the band you hear elements representing the myriad of musical influences their region has experienced over the generations. There's the fiddle music that speaks the defiance and freedom characteristic of Romany music, traces of the Flamenco guitars of Spain, belly dance rhythms of Northern India and the brass bands of Istanbul.
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Of course no one's going to confuse Zdob Si Zdub with the "ethnic bands" of Hollywood movies. Not with songs like the title track "Basta Mafia" with its lament of the freedoms promised by the fall of the Iron Curtain being hijacked by Free Market gangsters. "And the west wind feels so cold/ because they've put freedom on hold" or "Many people gave their life/ for the values aimed so high/but some still love guns, it's easier to win/it's easier to move in the gangster's skin" aren't exactly the kind of lyrics one expects to hear sung from the steps of your typical peasant's cottage.
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It's important to remember the members of Zdob Si Zdub probably grew up not only with the turmoil of the end of communism, but being from Moldavia, once a province in the Soviet Union, some sort of civil unrest if not civil war in the period directly after the collapse of governments throughout Eastern Europe. So their lyrics are tinged by the violence they've seen and contain some of the bitterness you'd expect from seeing dreams of freedom soured. However, the real surprise is to find they haven't given up hope and still sing about what could be possible. It's really kind of humbling to hear people who have been through what they have singing lyrics like, "and I'll say it again and again/it's more than a dream/we are free/you can never put it away".

As you might have gathered a good many of the songs on this disc's lyrics are in English. In an attempt to make this disc more accessible to Western audiences they have worked with an English language composer, Andy Schuman, to make sure their lyrics were translated properly. There are still a couple of songs in Russian, but with the majority in English Western audiences will have no problem enjoying and appreciating this amazing band. Musically they're as exciting and as intense as as any band you'll hear in the so called alternative scene in North America and lyrically far more insightful and intelligent than any of the so called "politically active" bands you'll hear anywhere.

If you've missed real alternate music or are just looking for something different from what you hear all the time on the radio and other sources of music, Zdob Si Zdub will be a pleasent surprise and a welcome relief. A great band for their times and great music for all time, they have a truly unique sound and a perspective on the world that's a lesson for all of us.
(Article first published as Music Review: Zdob Si Zdub - Basta Mafia on Blogcritics.)

April 11, 2012

Book Review: Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore

The hardest thing for an author is to live up the expectations created by writing an original and inventive first novel. Readers can't help comparing each subsequent effort to first one. An author faces the choice of trying to either please their audience by repeating what they did or trusting in their abilities as a writer and going off in whatever direction their muse takes them. Sometimes those who follow the former path are able to repeat their success for a while, but eventually their writing becomes formulaic and stale. The author who risks the latter course may not have the same initial repeat success, but their work ends up standing the test of time far better as its constantly evolving.

Christopher Moore has followed both courses of action. On those occasions where he seems to fall back on the tried and true methods that made him popular, his books, while still better than most of what comes on the market, start to sound the same. Like hearing an old joke with the characters and situation changed, it might be funny but you have the strongest feeling you've heard it before and the punchline is never a surprise. However, he's also capable of creating works of near comic genius which tackle subjects others shy away from. Sacré Bleu, published by HarperCollins Canada April 3 2012 is Christopher Moore at his best and will remind you why he is considered one of the funniest and insightful authors of our time.

Set in Paris France in the mid to late1800s and featuring a cast of characters who read like a who's who of the Impressionist art movement, Sacré Bleu is part mystery, part fantasy, part historical fiction and entirely riveting. Underneath the obvious humour and Moore's familiar breezy narrative style is hidden one of the more interesting examinations of the relationship between an artist and his art - or as some would have it - their muse. What wouldn't an artist give to paint that picture he's always dreamed of painting? The painting that he can see in his mind's eye but somehow has never been able to make its way onto the canvas. What would he be willing to sacrifice for his art?
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The late 1800s were a time of enormous upheaval in the artistic community. Renoir, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Monet, Manet, Pissarro and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec along with many others were pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable art in both form and subject matter. Those who doubt the veracity of their work only need to spend some time in Paris in the summer and compare what they see with the paintings from that period. It's still amazing to see how with just light and colour they were able to capture the effects of August's heat on the city.

Although they are now considered establishment, at the time they were outsiders with most of them barely able to eke out an existence. Living in penury their only satisfaction came from their creations. A key element in the success of any painter's work is of course the quality of his paints. The purer the pigment used in making the colour, the more vivid and real the colour. In those days the purest colours were still being made by grinding up various minerals and mixing the resulting powder with oil. The rarest of these was "Sacré Bleu", the blue of the cloak of the Virgin Mary, made of ground up Lapis Lazuli. Lapis Lazuli only being available in Afghanistan meant the stone and paint were usually too expensive for painters struggling to get by. So if they offered a blue, "ultramarine" pigment guaranteed to be better than Sacré Bleu, to try, they would do so no questions asked.

Pure pigments to a painter are like heroin to a junkie. Once they get a taste they can't get enough. So it is with everyone of the painters who come in contact with the mysterious Colourman and his "ultramarine" blue. The main difference between their supplier and most pushers is the price that he exacts from his clients. Instead of cash he demands paintings made with his fantastic blue in exchange for his product. However he never exacts his price in person as each artist who uses his blue also manages to acquire a new model of extraordinary beauty who inspires their best work as well as becoming their supplier of their drug of choice.

As the model takes on a different form for each painter nobody even thinks to make the connection between the paint, the Colourman and the model until the mysterious death of Vincent van Gogh in rural Arles rouses suspicions among his painter friends back home in Paris. Just prior to his death he wrote Touluse-Lautrec that he dared not use his blue paint except at night and that everyone should beware a small wizened man accompanied by a donkey selling paints.

Led by Toulouse-Lautrec the painters of Paris start to put the pieces of the mystery surrounding The Colourman, his amazing blue paint and the mysterious model together. When the young baker with dreams of painting named Lucien Lessard's mysterious lover Juliette returns after a unexplained two year absence the picture really starts to come into focus. Lessard obsession with his lover and the portrait he is painting of her causes him to neglect his responsibilities at the family bakery and stops eating and sleeping. It's only when his mother knocks out Juliette with a crepe pan that his friends and family are able to drag him away from her. For nine days he lies in what appears to be a coma. When he finally awakes all he can think of are the painting he has created and finding his Juliette again.
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Lautrec had undergone a similar experience with a model a number of years ago and had only survived because his friends, including Lessard, had kidnapped him and sent him away from Paris. It turns out that each of their Impressionist friends has at one point in time had one model in particular whom they have obsessed over and who has featured in their most famous works.In each of these works, no matter what the subject matter, the now infamous ultramarine blue has been used. Even more mysterious is the fact while their friends have distinct memories of them having painted a whole series of canvasses involving the mysterious model, none of the painters can either remember painting them or has any idea of where they can have gone to. However, each of them can remember when the model left them, as her disappearance always coincided with a personal misfortune. One painter's beloved daughter died and another lost his wife. Whatever the case, there was always a price to be paid for producing their great works of art.

Moore's depictions of real historical figures are based on accounts of the people in question written while they were alive. So while some the characteristics he ascribes to them in the story might not be accurate a good deal of their activities described in the book actually happened. (In an afterward to the book Moore supplies the reader with details of his sources) Moore always tends towards affectionate irreverence with his characters, depicting them warts and all, but loving them because of their flaws. So while he may overemphasize things like Lautrec's drinking, his affection for prostitutes and some of his other affectations, it's never with malice and does nothing to diminish or demean the painter. In fact, by removing famous figures from the pedestals history has put them on and humanizing them their accomplishments as artists become even more amazing.

Against this backdrop of artistic genius two mysteries gradually unfold. The more traditional involves the Colourman and the strange hold his ultramarine blue paint has over artists and his relationship with the mysterious model. How can one woman have been so different for each artist who has painted her? How could she have been exactly what each painter needed to inspire his greatest work? These questions lead the reader directly into the second mystery at play - the mystery of inspiration. There is nothing more frustrating than asking an artist where their inspiration for a work came from, because nine times out of ten they aren't able to answer. The best you're likely to receive is, "it just came to me". On top of that, why do artists become so obsessed with their work to the point they will forget about everything else including eating and sleeping?

In classical mythology the answer was the muses, the most famous of whom was the goddess Eros. They supposedly provided artists with the desire and passion to create. Is the mysterious Juliette really the muse of legend as she claims? Has she really been so many different women to so many different painters and inspired them to so much great work? If she has, why does she do it? What's in it for her and why do all the painters she inspires have to suffer? Moore gives us the answer to the mystery of The Colourman and ultramarine, but as to the question of inspiration and muses, well that still remains a mystery. Oh, Juliette supplies something akin to an answer, but it doesn't really answer any of the questions.

Any of us who have ever had any artistic aspirations of any kind have at one time or another probably had romantic dreams of living in Paris. These dreams are based upon a Paris that existed from around 1860 until the start of WW ll. What would it have been like to drink absinth with Lautrec, smoke opium with Cocteau or share a coffee in a cafe with Joyce? In Sacré Bleu Christopher Moore captures both the spirit of artistic creation that captivates us and the price paid by those who actually lived it. Beneath the surface of what is primarily a lighthearted mystery story he gives us very real glimpses of what's exacted from those who dedicate themselves to the capriciousness of art. This is Christopher Moore at his best, underneath the laughter lies the truth the clown usually covers with a greasepaint smile.

(Article first published as Book Review: Sacré Bleu By Christopher Moore on Blogcritics.)

April 10, 2012

Music Review: Kayhan Halhor & Ali Bahrami Fard - I Will Not Stand Alone

For most of us in the West classical music calls up visions of men in tuxedoes and women in long gowns playing highly formalized and rigidly controlled music. This is the last type of music we'd ever associate with any sort of improvisation with the musicians there to serve the wishes of the composer as interpreted by the conductor. Unless they're a soloist of very high standing they have little or no say in how the music sounds and what it expresses.

So it might come as a bit of shock to find out that the traditions surrounding classical music in other cultures actually encourage improvisation. For, while in countries like India there are certain formal patterns of structure adhered to, within the form there is plenty of room for the musician to interpret the music. As the performances of music is considered a personal spiritual journey, a means of expressing a connection to the gods, it can't help but change from individual to individual. India is not unique in having this kind of musical tradition, and considering the cross-pollination of culture between the two countries down through history, it's not surprising to find a similar tradition has existed in Iran since the twelfth century.

Persian classical music, like many others where there was originally nothing committed to paper, involves a long and involved training period for anybody wishing to perform it. First of all a student has to memorize a canonic repertoire known as radif (literally translated as order) comprised of over 200 model pieces of music known as gushehs. These gushehs are grouped together as progressions of modally related pieces into twelve distinct dastgah (systems). Once a musician has memorized not only all the gushehs individually and collectively in their respective dastgah, they are ready to begin creating. Unlike the West where we have specific pieces of music to perform, the radif is not something that is actually performed as an individual piece of music, but serves as the starting point for creative improvisation.

Of course listening to music the theory behind it usually flies out the window as you get swept up in the sounds and emotions being generated by the artist in question. Such is the case with I Will Not Stand Alone the latest release from Kayhan Kalhor on World Village Music in February 2012. The recording features Kalhor playing a variation on the traditional Middle Eastern four stringed bowed instrument, the kamancheh, called a shah kaman accompanied by Ali Bahrami Fard on a hammered dulcimer type instrument known as a bass santor. If you had any thoughts that the conditions described above for the creation and playing of music were restrictive they will be quickly dispelled as you listen to what these two men are able to generate between them.
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Looking at a picture of a kamancheh - the shah kaman has a slightly deeper tone then the original - you'll be amazed at the quality of sound Kalhor is able to create with what looks like a very simple instrument. With only four strings and a resonating chamber made out of a gourd covered by an animal skin you'd think its sound would be limited or at least thin. I don't know whether its the virtuosity of the player or a matter of appearances being deceiving, but on this recording it seems to have the ability to sound like most of the bowed four stringed instruments in an orchestra. From the heart stopping emotional clarity of a violin, the rich texture of the cello to the mid tones of the viola Kalhor not only covers almost the entire musical scale as we know it but its emotional equivalent as well.

Serving as a combination percussion and bass Fard's bass santor not only offers a rich counterpoint and underpinning to Kalhor's playing, he adds the additional element of being able to emphasize the rhythm through his use of the hammers required to play his instrument. Any expectations we might have as to its limitations based on our experiences of bass instruments in other compositions are quickly dispelled. For Fard does far more than merely play a simple bass line instead he plays a melodic accompaniment in the lower register that is every bit as involved as Kalhor's lead instrument.
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In the liner notes accompanying the recording Kalhor describes the eight pieces of music as having their origins during a period of unrest in Iran. He's unclear as to whether he's talking about the revolution which saw the overthrow of the Shah back in the 1970s or the more recent period of turbulence and its unsuccessful attempt to push for reforms. Whenever the period was, he describes it as one of the most difficult periods in his life, "where darkness and violence seemed to be taking over". Out of this period came the realization that music has the capability to open what he refers to as doors of hope and he made the choice to play his music for the people for this reason. The actual playing and recording of the music was a way for him to break out of the isolation he felt because of the unrest and connect with those around him - hence the title I Will Not Stand Alone

Listening to the music after reading these notes one can't help but be struck how well it captures the journey he took from darkness to light. The titles of individual pieces aren't what you'd call an accurate indication of their musical content, you'd think tunes called "The Laziest Summer Afternoon" or "Dancing Under The Walnut Tree" would be light hearted and carefree when the former sounds nothing at all like any idle summer day I've ever had and the latter bears no relation to dancing. Perhaps something was lost in their translation from the original Farsi, but I think he's commenting on the sense of disconnect he must have felt witnessing scenes of violence and trouble on beautiful summer days. Idyllic conditions have no bearing on how humans behave. It can be a beautiful day and people can still commit atrocities as easily as if there were a horrible storm taking place. The distance between the meaning conveyed by the title of the song and the story the music tells us captures that horrible irony better than anything I've heard before.

Everyone of these pieces has an emotional depth that far outstrips most music we're used to hearing, whether popular or classical. Kalhor has taken the basic skill set required to play Persian classical music and has built a collection of pieces that explore both the depths the human spirit can sink to and the heights it can ascend. You many have trouble believing this is the work of only two men playing given the multitude of sounds, tones and emotions they are able to express, but it is only Kalhor and Fard and their two instruments on each track. If you've never experienced non-European classical music this recording will be an eye opener for you. It will dispel any doubts you ever had of music's ability to cross cultural and linguistic boundaries. The gulf between the Iranian and Western governments is huge these days. Listening to recordings like this one help to remind us the divide between the people of our respective cultures is far smaller than some would like us to think.

(Article first published as Music Review: Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard - I Will Not Stand Alone on Blogcritics)

November 12, 2011

Music Review: John Cale -Extra Playful(EP)

Once upon a time in the magic kingdom of New York City there was a White Prince. The White Prince, through dint of his own special powers, was able to attract a large following among the wild and weird of the kingdom. Together, in their mystical palace called The Factory, The White Prince and his adherents created films, theatre, art, music and things called "happenings" that were beyond the ken of the rest of the denizens of the kingdom. Most of what was created in those strange and magic days has long since been forgotten and fallen into the mists of time. However, there are those whose tales are still told today, and foremost among them were the ones who banded together to form what was known as The Velvet Underground.
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While the White Prince championed the band, they had been the brain child of Lou Reed and John Cale. Originally from the far off land of Wales Cale had come to the magic kingdom to study modern composition and had previously worked with composers like John Cage. However his stay in the new world had made him more and more interested in popular music. Reed's background in popular music, but burgeoning interest in the avant-garde, seemed to make them an ideal fit for working together to create something new and exciting. Unfortunately for the world Cale and Reed were both brilliant men who weren't destined to work together. After only two recordings Cale had left the band as he and Reed couldn't get along.

It's been over forty years since that fateful split took place and while Reed is much more well known than Cale, the latter has never stopped creating. As a musician and producer he has worked with some of the most interesting and complex popular artists of the last three decades including Patti Smith and Brian Eno. Aside from his work in popular music he has also composed scores for films and created video art for prestigious events like the Venice Biennale. His latest foray into music, Extra Playful, a five song EP available for digital download at all the usual places, released by Domino Records, shows he's lost none of his willingness to experiment with style and form and is still far more interesting to listen to than the majority of popular musicians.

From the new wave sound of the opening song "Catastrofuk", with its nod to the Talking Heads of the the late 1970s, the melodic and melancholy "Whadya Mean By That", to the challenge of "Hey Ray", Cale takes the conventions of pop music and tweaks them into something enough off centre to make them intriguing. He uses our own assumptions of what a song should sound like against us. So while a song like "Catastrofuk" sounds like its going to be your typical electro-pop number with keyboards and other digitally enhanced sounds, just as you settle into anticipating how it should it continue Cale refuses to follow the expected pattern and takes you somewhere else.

While he takes his work seriously, the wonderful thing about Cale is his refusal to take himself seriously. Far too many pop musicians have an over inflated sense of their own importance which usually creeps into their work. This is especially true of most of those who lay any claim to being avant-garde. Cale, on the other hand, has his tongue firmly planted in his cheek and on cuts like "Hey Ray", with its sardonic take on the 1960s, he not only makes fun of people's nostalgia for a "golden age", he whittles away at his own place in pop history. All I could think of while listening to this song was the Velvet Underground's infamous "Sister Ray", and it was a response to people's attempts at mythologising the band.
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"Perfection", the final cut on the EP, is a glimpse of Cale's more introspective side. Whether he's talking about the search for perfection in the creation of art, in personal relationships or even in terms of how we all live together on this planet isn't made quite clear. However, it's also not important. The song seems to be about the agonizing glimpses we occasionally manage to catch of perfection. We're aware of its existence, but at the same time we realize how unrealistic it is to ever think of achieving it in whatever we attempt. We can respond in one of two ways - either give up in frustration and settle for less, or, even though we know we're doomed to fail, keep striving for it anyway. How we chose to answer that question dictates what kind of life we have. We can play it safe and settle for a known mediocrity or we can take the chance of doing something great by risking failure and striving for perfection.

An EP is like a preview to give listeners an idea of what a musician is currently working on. With the release of Extra Playful Cale is showing us he's still pushing the envelope by blending pop music with an avant-garde sensibility. He sees things differently than most pop musicians and isn't afraid to give us glimpses of his point of view. Unfortunately it's not always a comfortable way of looking at the world, and some people might not appreciate it. While some might wish for the once upon a time days of the Velvet Underground and the Factory, Cale's work is not an exercise in resurrecting the past. Extra Playful is currently available for download, and will be released on CD November 25 2011 with an additional two songs. If its an accurate indication of the direction he's taking his music, its definitely a sign of very exciting things to come in the future.

(Article first published as Music Review: John Cale - Extra Playful (EP) on Blogcritics.)

November 8, 2011

Book Review: Tomorrow Is Another Song by Scott Wannberg

If there was any justice in this world Scott Wannberg would never have been able to leave his house without being hounded by the press. He would have been under a constant spotlight, his every move scrutinized, his every word pored over for controversy and his picture would have shown up on tabloid covers every week. Unfortunately poets in our society don't have the status of celebrities. In another time or another culture his abilities with words might have made him famous, or at the very least infamous. In the courts of the Chinese Emperors civil servants, or mandarins, were judged as much on their ability to compose poetry as their ability to draft policy. Unless obfuscation is considered an art form, times sure have changed.
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All of which means that outside of a relatively small number of people who were blessed with an awareness of his work, Wannberg lived out his live in obscurity. He was fifty-eight when he died on Friday August 19 2011 at his home in Florence Oregon. Suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease he had moved there from Los Angeles upon the closing of Dutton's bookstore, where he had been a fixture for twenty-five years, in 2008 for health and economic reasons. According to friends quoted in his obituary in the Los Angeles Times Wannberg was constantly writing poetry, whether off the cuff introductions for associates as they entered the store or more traditionally with pen and paper; it was as natural to him as breathing is to most of us. Poetry, according to one friend, allowed Wannberg the chance to formalize his natural inclination to speak in a kind of ongoing stream of consciousness narrative about the world around him.

On September 30 2011 Los Angles based independent publisher Perceval Press released Tomorrow Is Another Song, the second collection of Wannberg's poetry they have published. One of the first impressions I formed upon reading through it was there was a sense of urgency pervading his poetry that was absent form earlier work. I don't think it was any sort of prescience on Wannberg's part concerning his death, it was more like he felt America had been given a very small window of opportunity with the election of Obama, and he could feel it closing almost even before it had been opened.

In earlier poetry he had taken great pleasure in railing against the Bush/Cheney administration and everything they had represented. In biting satires which directly referenced them or in his advocation of things they opposed, he took great pride in describing a vision of America far different from the one they espoused. For Wannberg, like Carl Sandburg and e.e. cummings before him, was quintessentially an American poet. He loved the potential the country represented and hated how it was failing to live up to it. In poems encouraging people to find their own song and and not being afraid to hide their light under a bushel basket, or in others where he questioned what kind of world had they created where teenagers attempted to commit suicide, he critiqued the loss of love and hope he saw around him.

I don't know what I expected from this collection of his poems, but I don't think it was, "Everybody says they want to be loved/The say it over and over and over/As soon as they finish hitting me over the head/I will get up and love them." ("Earful Of Sun") However, that was the genius of Wannberg. He was always so far ahead of us in describing what he saw that our expectations couldn't keep up with him. Anyway, why should he live up to anyone's expectations? Why should he all of a sudden start writing about sweetness and light just because the names at the top changed? Maybe, unlike the rest of us who have grown disillusioned with Obama for failing to live up to our expectations by changing the world simply by being elected, Wannberg understood the only way change can happen is if we are willing to change. With all of us yelling "What about me?" at the top of our lungs, we're never going to hear anybody else or understand it's not just the other guy who has to change, we have to as well.

Wannberg spoke/wrote in a voice most Americans (and North Americans from above the 49th parallel) will recognize. His poems are filled with cultural references we are all familiar with and he espouses the core values we all claim to hold so dear. That doesn't mean he mouths platitudes about freedom and independence. What it does mean is his poetry celebrates those who are truly independent and the freedoms nobody wants to protect. It's amazing how so many people yell about their rights to own weapons and the freedom to say how much they hate somebody because of the colour of their skin or their sexual orientation and nobody thinks twice about it. Yet those same people don't believe in a woman's freedom of choice or an individual's right to hold the job of their choice no matter who they are.
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It's that hypocrisy that comes under attack in Wannberg's poetry. Unlike others he very rarely attacked individuals or their beliefs (the only exceptions are politicians and the political personalities for whom hypocrisy is a way of life) as he is genuine in his belief that we really could do a better job of being nice to each other. "The stupid angry people smash, gouge, cut, kick, and bite./They do it for love and God and country."("The Angry Stupid People") There are so many voices telling us we shouldn't enjoy ourselves, or that we should be worrying about the state of the world all the time, Wannberg had a better idea. Whether directly or indirectly his poetry encouraged us to celebrate being alive. Embrace the messy, emotional condition of being human. What other choice do you have anyway, might as well enjoy it while we're here. This was from a guy who for the last few years of his life had to travel around with an oxygen tank, yet his poetry was still filled with calls to all of us to find our songs and dance like crazy.

There is music in the American idiom he says,/and wipes his face for the last time,/and begins to think about going up to bed./Tomorrow is another song./Tomorrow will be other patients and/words to discover and stories behind such words/ that illuminate./The game, after all/is one of discovery./The day you stop finding out things/is the day/you might as well/turn yourself in for good." "The Dancer Steps Forward" Scot Wannberg

It's easy to become cynical in the face of so much bullshit. It's easy to throw rocks at those you don't agree with and it's really easy to pretend you don't care. Scot Wannberg cared and wore his heart on his sleeve for all to read. He dug deeply into the soil of America, because like all poets he knew where the bodies were buried. But he was looking to do more than just exhume its dirty secrets, he wasn't merely looking to spatter others with the dirt that flew from his shovel, he dug and dug in order to remind us of the beauty of the heart that's been submerged by two hundred odd years of rhetoric spouted in the name of politics and expediency. One person can't scrape off that much accumulated rust and corrosion, but he can give us a good idea of how to go about getting the job done. For those who have eyes to see and ears to listen Wannberg's poetry provided all the tools necessary - we just have to remember how to use them.

(Article first published as Book Review: Tomorrow Is Another Song by Scott Wannberg on Blogcritics.)

November 5, 2011

Interview: Author, Michael Muhammad Knight

American author Michael Muhammad Knight's has been referred to as everything from controversial to outrageous. Some have even gone so far as to call him the Hunter S. Thompson of religious writing or something along those lines. Why is it whenever somebody has the bravery to speak from their heart and be as truthful as they possibly can we always refer to them as controversial? Why do we never say, wow this person is really brave,? How about, it sure is refreshing to hear somebody doing their best to be straight with us for a change?

Nope, we always have to look at them as if they were doing something really out there. Of course that says more about us, and that's the big us society, than it does about them. Have we become so unused to people speaking straightforwardly from the heart that those who do are considered something of a freak and maybe even a little bit dangerous? I don't know about anybody else, but I find it a wonderful break from the mindless drivel that passes for entertainment these days to read something where I know the writer has not only put a lot of thought into what he's written but has also been as honest as possible.

Recently he very kindly agreed to answer some questions I had about his most recent book, Why I Am A Five Percenter, his writings in general and religion. His answers are as straightforward and thoughtful as everything else he writes and reading through them I can't see anything outrageous or controversial about them. Integrity and self-awareness are two characteristics noticeably in short supply theses days, which could explain why people have such a hard time recognising them when they see them, but Knight doesn't seem to know any other way of being.

1) As you have written extensively about your early years (Impossible Man) we can skip over most of the biographical stuff I usually start interviews with. However I think its important to talk about your decision to convert to Islam as a teenager. Can you briefly describe the reasons you gave yourself back then for converting?

I converted because I thought that I had found the ultimate truth of the universe.

2) Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight and increased self awareness, do you now discern reasons that you weren't aware of, or didn't want to admit to, at the time?

I don’t think that anyone has ever converted to a religion for purely religious reasons. The average age for religious conversion, across the board, is fifteen. I was fifteen when I found Islam. I was going through the things that some fifteen-year olds go through, and my brain was a fifteen-year old brain. Cognitively and socially, that’s where I was at.

3) This is probably over simplifying but roughly speaking you've described yourself as passing through various stages in your belief: at first you were close to fanatic, second you experienced severe doubts and finally taking it into your heart, but not blindly obedient. Through all these stages, and over the years, what is there about the religion that has enabled you to continue having faith in it. For you, what is it that makes Islam more true than any other religion?

That’s like asking what makes English more true than any other language. The only thing that’s more true about English for me is that I understand it. English is the language in which I think. That’s how I feel about religion. I don’t speak the language of Hinduism, but that doesn’t mean I see it as less legitimate for those who speak it. I have a couple languages that I speak; I speak a few variations of Islam, I speak the Five Percent, and I grew up speaking Catholic so maybe I can remember some of that language too.

4) In Aatish Taseer's book Stranger To History, where he describes his journey through the Islamic world looking for his own sense of identity, he describes a conversation with one Muslim who says something along the lines that Islam is the best religion because its the only one that provides you cut and dried answers to all questions. As long as you follow the word you'll never know doubts again. I find that kind of blind certainty terrifying, be it from the mouth of an American nationalist or an Islamic Cleric - yet isn't that the point of religion - to offer its adherents a way of living and the ideology to walk that path?

Lots of people will say that about their religions, but it’s not what I’m doing with mine. I don’t know what the point of religion might be, but I wouldn’t say that religion has to have the same purpose for every single person who takes part in it. Simply defining the word “religion” is hard enough; there are scholars of religious studies who argue that we shouldn’t even use the word because if you look across cultures and historical contexts, it doesn’t reliably describe anything.

5) As a follow up to that, if not following the strict letter of the law, how can a person say they are part of a specific group, be it Christian, Jew, Muslim or anything for that matter? Why aren't these all or nothing things?

It’s against the law to smoke weed. If I break this law, or disagree with the principles of that law, would it mean that I can no longer claim to be American?

More importantly, religious laws can change, depending on how you read them. Religions aren’t “all or nothing” things because they can’t be. Religions aren’t made of stone; they’re made of water. We like to imagine a religion as this unchanging entity that exists outside of history and remains eternally consistent, always saying the same thing, no matter what is happening around it. Both Muslims and non-Muslims will do this with Islam, saying that Islam came fully formed with the Prophet Muhammad, and has remained intact through fourteen centuries. That’s the crisis that people are imagining when they say, “How can Islam exist in the modern world?” as though Islam has never changed or adapted to anything until after 9/11. This kind of thinking is not rooted in any historical reality.

Or, if people are willing to admit that Islam has changed and taken different shapes, they will argue that these new shapes are somehow less authentic than the original or “real” Islam. They imagine that they have a direct line to the “real” Islam, that it exists somewhere and we can find it if we just look hard enough at scripture or the early history. I don’t take that seriously. You can’t ask me, “What does Islam say about women?” or “What does Islam say about violence?” because these are impossible questions. Muslims say all kinds of things, but Islam says nothing. We can look at Muslims in a particular time and place and examine what they said, but there’s no Islam beyond that.

6) In your most recent book, Why I Am A Five Percenter, you spend a lot of intellectual energy trying to find a bridge between Islam and Five Percenter ideology. What was it about the Five Percenters which attracted you initially and why do their practices continue to exert such a pull on you in spite of the differences between them and even the most progressive elements of Islam?

The Five Percenters gave me a statement on whiteness that spoke to my experience as a white American. I went heavy into the white-devil mythology. I couldn’t buy into it as something rooted in genetics, because “white people” don’t exist as a biological reality. But white people do exist as a political reality, a social reality; so thinking about whiteness as a concept that exists only as a power strategy, a justification for the mistreatment of people, then yes, whiteness is devil. It’s nothing but devil. Spending time with the Yakub myth really gave me something that I could use.

The Five Percenters also provided a critique of religion that spoke truth to me. I was coming from a place of dissatisfaction with organized religion. The basic message that I got from the Five Percent was that it’s all about me; whatever wisdom I pull from the Qur’an, whatever jewels I can retrieve from a particular story, and the meanings that I assign to my tradition, it’s all in me. You can take that idea of Islam as “I Self Lord And Master” and build your own path. Be Muslim, be Christian, whatever, and just know that the religion is in your hands. Make the story what you need it to be, because there’s no one on this earth with any kind of transcendent supernatural power to hang over your head.

7) The Five Percenters, like the Nation Of Islam, were founded by African Americans, specifically for African Americans, in reaction to their treatment at the hands of the white majority in America. While it's one thing to be philosophically aligned with them, doesn't the lack of a shared history make it extremely difficult for someone outside that specific community to be fully appreciative of their goals and objectives?

There’s not a lack of shared history. I got into the Five Percent’s commentary on whiteness because we absolutely have a shared history. It’s our shared history that qualifies a movement of mostly African-Americans to speak about white people. The history of oppression is not only the history of oppressed peoples; it’s also the history of oppressor peoples. Part of my engagement of the Five Percent was coming to grips with that history and thinking seriously about how much that history still writes my reality today.

8) In Why I Am A Five Percenter you stand the whole outsider/insider aspect of race in American society on its head with your description of the level of acceptance you've managed to obtain within them. Your conversion to Islam removed you from the mainstream of American society and now your interest in Five Percenters is making you an outsider in the religion of your choice. Being an outsider seems to be something you fall into, whether consciously or not. What are you searching for that finds you in that position?

It’s just my luck. Being Five Percenter puts me out of the Muslim mainstream; being Muslim puts me out of the Five Percenter mainstream. And I don’t meet anyone’s checklist of required beliefs.

Some people want religion to be that all-or-nothing, clearly defined set of beliefs and behaviors. Get enough of those people in a room together and you have a community. But if it’s all or nothing, then falling out of line isn’t that hard. I don’t see any community, Islamic or otherwise, as answering every one of my needs to perfection. There are things that I love about various Islamic cultures and traditions, but I don’t feel that I have to align with one tradition or group and forsake all others. The Five Percenter lessons taught me to take the best part for myself and leave the worst part behind.

9) You spend a great deal of time in Why I Am A Five Percenter upon the metaphysical aspects of Islam searching for a way to combine the Five Percenter credo of there is no "mystery god" with the Muslim belief in a "Supreme Being". You then relate how when you took this information to Five Percenters they reminded you that their founder told them not to have anything to do with religion. It seems to me like its an either or choice and you can't be both Muslim and a Five Percenter. How do you deal with that issue?

People will tell you that you can’t be both Muslim and Hindu, or Hindu and Roman Catholic, or Muslim and Marxist, but I can show you individuals or even communities that have done all of those things. To me, there’s actually no such thing as “Islam” or “Christianity” or “Hinduism.” I can talk about Muslims a lot easier than I can talk about Islam. Religions are just made-up labels, and the differences between them exist only because enough people believe in the differences, and people build up institutions that reinforce the differences. Religious identity is like racial identity in that way; apart from the power of social constructions, none of it’s real.

That said, not all Five Percenters object to being called Muslims. Most do object, and I understand why. These symbols, stories, and ideas are being used to build an identity, and when you call that identity “Muslim,” then it puts the symbols, stories, and ideas under the domain of Muslims. To think of the Five Percenters as Muslims automatically turns them into an heretical fringe sect that lacks authenticity in relation to the so-called “classical tradition.”

My reality is that I’m coming from a Muslim background, and Muslim-type things are meaningful to me, and I’m married to a Muslim woman with a Muslim family and we share a sense of Muslim community. So my engagement of the Five Percent is going to negotiate with that reality. I don’t personally feel a need to erase that part of myself.

As for reconciling theologies: it’s not really so hard because there are such wide spectrums of thought among both Five Percenters and Muslims. I can find Five Percenters who sound like they believe in a mystery god, and Muslims who sound like atheists, and I have my own thought, in which one tradition actually becomes my portal into the other. The question is whether doing comparative theology just cuts you off from real life and locks you up in your own nerd-world. The lessons warn against wasting trillions of years on those pursuits.

10) I really liked what you had to say about race and the arbitrary nature of who is considered white and who isn't. Would you say it is more of a state of mind than anything else, or is it a combination of things.

It’s not only a state of mind, because that state of mind has produced real effects in the material world. It’s not only a state of mind when there is economic power, political power, and so forth. That’s the trap that white people fall into when they imagine that they’ve ended racism just because they don’t think of themselves as belonging to a race. For me to realize that race isn’t biological doesn’t mean that I stop being white. I wish that it could be so easy.

11) My wife and I come from two very different backgrounds which gave us entirely different outlooks on life based on expectations and privilege. When it comes to your position within the Five Percenters how much has the differences in your background from those of the majority presented difficulties for you?

I realized that to a large extent, whatever I do, I’m doing in my own house. I’m at peace with the Five Percent. I have a lot of friends in the community, I visit the Allah School and it’s all love. Some call me a Five Percenter, and that’s fine, but I don’t try to put myself over as a card-carrying member. I respect that it’s not my territory, and I think that’s what actually makes my friendship to the community possible.

12) Where do you see your search to find a place for yourself in Islam taking you next?

When it comes to my place in Islam, I’m more or less settled. There’s always room for me to grow as a human being, and I approach that process as a Muslim; but I know what I can reasonably expect from a religion, and I don’t ask for more. One alif is all I need, like Bulleh Shah said.

13) What made you decide to first write your works of fiction, (Taqwacore and Osama Van Halen) and then make the switch to the more autobiographical works that have followed.

I’ve bounced around a little. I first wrote a novel (The Taqwacores), then a nonfiction work (Blue-Eyed Devil), and then started my non-fiction memoir, Impossible Man, while also writing my history of the Five Percenters, and then wrote my second work of fiction (Osama Van Halen). The publishing history can make it look as though I deliberately shifted from fiction to non-fiction, but that’s not my writing history. I have a manuscript on my laptop right now, and I don’t even know whether it should be called fiction or non-fiction. If the story ever comes out, I would have a hard time assigning it a category.

14) What have you hoped to accomplish with your writings, and who do you hope reads them?

I started out with wild swings in the dark, writing about Muslim punk rockers and pretty sure that all of my obscure references and unacceptable ideas were just going to alienate everyone. I came from a punk rock ethos, and also a certain kind of Muslim ethos, that made it cool to be ignored and alone on the margins. Now that I have something of a readership, I’ve started to have more questions about what I publish. I mean, I write about Islam from where I stand as an American Muslim, and there’s nothing wrong with that; but my stuff might read differently in Europe, which is a whole other political climate when it comes to Muslims. My books have been translated into European languages, and it sometimes makes me uncomfortable, because I’m travelling into all of these new contexts for which I wasn’t prepared.

15) You have a new book coming out early in 2012, William S Burroughs Vs. The Qur'an. That's a very intriguing title and I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about it in general terms.

In general terms, I’d say that it’s about heroes and hero-worshipers, fathers and sons, ego and spiritual authority. More specifically, it’s about Sufism, Iran, Hassan-i Sabbah, race, gender, America, science fiction, writing as a spiritual quest, an unfinished biography of Hakim Bey, an unfinished novel, wahdat al-wujud, Supreme Mathematics, 1960s hippie religion, Tim Leary, Henri Corbin, and I guess William S. Burroughs is in there, and also the Qur’an. For its sense of balance and what it ends up doing, it might be the strongest book that I’ve ever written. It’s also possibly the weirdest book that I’ve ever written, but weird in the right way. My novel Osama Van Halen with the Muslim zombies and psychobilly jinns and kidnapping Matt Damon was pretty weird. William S. Burroughs vs. the Qur’an could be just as weird, but a better kind of weird.

I'd just like to thank Michael Muhammad Knight for taking the time our of his busy life to answer my questions. As is often the case, we were only able to do this via email, so I sent him my questions and what you've just finished reading were his answers exactly as he wrote them.
(Article first published as Interview: Author Michael Muhammad Knight, of Why I Am A Five Percenter on Blogcritics.)

November 2, 2011

Book Review: The Conference Of The Birds by Peter Sis

There's a fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Whether intentionally or not the line is crossed by the majority of writers who attempt to write about another's culture as an insider. No matter how long you've lived somewhere or observed people you can't help but be a visitor. Without the weight of generations of tradition laying heavy on your shoulders and the awareness of how you are part of something larger than yourself, you can only interpret what you see, not believe in it.

At best the results are merely insulting, but most of the time they are also misleading and give people horribly inaccurate ideas about the cultures in question. Taking somebody else's mythology or beliefs as the basis for a horror story is probably the worst offence carried out by Western writers. What would you think if you were to read something in which the story of Jesus raising Lazurus from the dead was used as the basis for a Zombie novel? (Although the more I think about it the more fun that idea sounds - literally born again christians go on a rampage to convert everybody to their faith and the sacrament of communion really begins to make sense.)

Thankfully there are writers like Peter Sis who instead of slapping their own interpretation onto something offer recreations of the original stories which not only capture their artistry but keep their original intents intact. Proof of this is offered in his most recent publication, The Conference Of The Birds published by Penguin Canada on November 1 2011. The original poem was written by Farid ud-Din Attar, a twelfth century Sufi poet and mystic who divided his life between what is now modern day Iran and Northern India. As with many Sufi poets and mystics his works were parables whose hidden messages offered everything from spiritual advice to the relationship between man and his god.
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One of the reasons why Sufis wrote in this manner was then, as today, they would often deviate from mainstream interpretations of Islam and running afoul of the clergy could result in accusations of heresy leading to exile or death. As Attar could have attested, having been exiled for heresy, sometimes they weren't careful enough. The Conference Of The Birds, which was also known as A Parliament Of Birds, doesn't appear controversial on the surface, but I'm not an Islamic scholar and have no idea if its underlying message would have been considered heretical by people of his time.

In Sis's retelling he has Attar waking from a dream and realizing he is a hoopoe bird, an Afro-Eurasian member of the same family as Kingfishers, who has been entrusted with a message for the birds of the world. The message is they are to undertake a great journey which would involve flying through seven valleys to the mountain of Kaf where their true king Simorgh lives. The names of the seven valleys they must fly through are; The Valley Of Quest, The Valley Of Love, The Valley Of Understanding, The Valley Of Detachment, The Valley Of Unity, The Valley Of Amazement and, finally, The Valley Of Death. Naturally some of the birds quail (sorry couldn't resist) at the idea of making the journey and surrendering their comfortable existence for the unfamiliar. However, the Hoopoe is able to turn each of their arguments for staying put into their reason for making the trip. When the Peacock says he shouldn't have to go because he's special - "look at all my colours" - the hoopoe responds by telling him he should share his beauty with the whole world.

Needless to say each stage on the journey brings a new lesson for those birds who stick with it. Some of them give up even before the first stage is complete while others don't survive to complete the journey. In fact of all the birds in the world who had set out on the journey in the first place, only thirty make it through to the very end to meet their true king. "And they saw Simorgh the king, and Simorgh the king was them".

Unlike other translations or interpretations of ancient stories Sis has not only resisted attempting to interpret the parable for his readers he manages to to tell it in such a way that the beauty and mystery of the original are retained. For this is not just a translation of the text, it is a visual feast for the eyes as well. You see Sis is a magnificent illustrator and this is as much a pictorial retelling as anything else. I suppose some would want to call it a picture book, and dismiss it as being for children only. However, not only would that be doing it a disservice, it ignores the quality of the illustrations and the depth of meaning in the book's message. Each page not only furthers the story of the journey of the birds, its also a work of art.
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As with the text the longer you contemplate the illustrations the more you discover their hidden meanings. A change of hue here, a change of perspective there and what at first looked straightforward is revealed as having depths of meaning. If you were to flip through the pages as a casual reader you'd miss things like the explanation for the transformation of the poet to the Hoopoe bird. An illustration of a human eye within which you see the reflection of a small human being either walking towards us, or maybe even walking out of the side of the poet's head. Taken with the opening lines of the story, "When the poet Attar woke up one morning after an uneasy dream, he realized he was a hoopoe bird", we have to wonder what Sis is trying to tell us. Did the Sufi mystic really believe he had changed into a hoopoe or is Sis giving us a glimpse into the ways in which the inspiration for the original came to the poet?

Those who have any familiarity with Islamic art will know they don't have a tradition allowing figurative representation. Instead, the majority was decorative with designs made up of beautifully executed geometric patterns. In The Conference Of The Birds Sis' artwork pays homage to that style without either simply imitating or claiming it as his own. Instead he has incorporated it into his illustrations - clouds made out of the countless bodies of birds float across the page and the shape of a labyrinth shows up on page after page. Not only does the latter echo the motif of repeated geometric shapes common to Islamic art of the twelfth century, as a symbol long used to represent an inner journey or the path of a person's life, it emphasizes the overall theme of self-discovery so important to the story.

Like the Sufi mystics of old Peter Sis' reinterpretation of Farid ud-Din Attar's twelfth century epic poem, The Conference Of The Birds, works on many levels. Children and adults will delight in its glorious illustrations. The story of a poet turning into a bird and then leading all the birds of the world on a great adventure to find their king is sure to be one that will appeal to young people, while adults can ponder the messages of the story and perhaps even find ways of conveying them to younger readers. There are many different paths leading to self awareness, and Sis and Attar prove they don't have to be devoid of beauty and you can enjoy yourself along the way.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Conference Of The Birds by Peter Sis on Blogcritics.)

October 31, 2011

Book Review: The Complete Record Cover Collection by Robert Crumb

Those of you whose primary experience with recorded music has either been with CDs or downloads will understandably probably not share previous generations' appreciation of album art. Even the name, album art, hearkens back to an era when music was released on long playing (LP) records made of vinyl. Instead of the 5 inch by 5 inch covers that now adorn CDs, designers would have a canvass of approximately eighteen by eighteen inches when creating the art for an LP. There was nothing quite like the experience of walking into a large record store whose walls were adorned with years and years worth of record covers. Sometimes you'd go into a record store merely to flip through the bins of LPs and revel in the diversity of artwork and design.

While a sizeable percentage of covers were made up of pictures of the bands striking some kind of pose or another, even some of them could be interesting, or at the very least informative. I used to be able to get a pretty fair indication of whether I'd be interested in the music on offer from the way in which a band displayed itself. However, it was albums with artwork on their covers that would have a better chance of capturing my attention. First of all they were a refreshing change from pouting rock stars trying to look dangerous and secondly some of it was genuinely fascinating. There were quite a few occasions where I would buy an album without knowing anything about the band simply because I liked the art work so much. What was amazing was how many of those recordings I ended up liking. While there were a few which didn't live up to the promise of their art work, most of the time if the cover art appealed to me so did the music.

Cover art has also been a pretty accurate reflection of the overall state of the music industry, especially when it comes to popular music. From the early to the late 1960s as the music became freer and more expressive the cover art became wilder and more experimental. From Andy Warhol pop art on Velvet Underground covers to Peter Max's art work for the Beatles' Yellow Submarine it was a period where almost anything went. Of course this explosion of freedom of expression wasn't just limited to popular music, it was in all the art forms.
Cover The Complete Record Cover Collection by R. Crumb.jpg
Famed American underground cartoonist and illustrator Robert Crumb said in a recent interview how he had given up being a commercial artist in 1968 and was amazed he could get his crazy comics published in the so called underground press at the time. There might have been little or no money in it at the time, but it was total freedom of expression in his chosen medium. While Crumb is best known for his comic work from that time, it was also when he made his first contribution to the world of record cover art when he was offered the then princely sum of $600.00 to do the cover for Big Brother & The Holding Company's album Cheap Thrills. While he probably could have parlayed that cover into more jobs for record companies, Crumb has never been a particular fan of popular music, except for rock and roll from the mid 1950s to around 1968, and lost interest in it altogether by 1970.

However a new collection of his artwork, The Complete Record Cover Collection, being published by Norton Books in the US on November 7 2011 and Penguin Canada October 25 2011 reveals a side of Crumb that many will not have been familiar with - his passion for recordings made in the early part of the twentieth century. Contrary to the book's title, cover art for records is only one component of Crumb's music related art works as the book is replete with everything from illustrations of musicians from various parts of the world to logos and business cards he's designed for a variety of independent record companies and stores. As you look through the book the first thing you'll notice is not only the wide range of projects he's taken on over the years, but how much more incredibly diversified he is as an artist than is commonly realized.
Robert Crumb Self Portrait.jpg
Crumb is probably best known for the rather flamboyant and exaggerated style of his comics; a style that is highly reminiscent of cartoons of the early part of the twentieth century. Looking at his illustrations, or even many of his comics, you can almost hear that old time cartoon music playing underneath them. You just know the characters would have a bounce in their step as they walk jauntily down the street to the sound of a ragtime band if they are happy and if sad trumpets would roll out long mournful notes echoing their disconsolation as they sob their hearts out. While the cover for the Cheap Thrills album and some of the other art work in the book utilize that style, you'll see how he's able to gradate his style between the over the top cartoon work and realism as requirements and inspiration dictate.

While I've heard any number of people dismiss cartoons or illustrations as something of a lessor cousin to painting when it comes to the visual arts I've never agreed with that assessment. You only have to look at what Crumb is able to communicate with some of the work in this collection to come to appreciate that while what he does may not be framed and on gallery walls, his work has a validity of its own that makes it the equal to much of what is categorized as "serious" art. Even at its most exaggerated and cartoonish his cover art not only captures something of the nature of the artist who is being represented, it also gives you some insights into the time period the music is from.
Cover Cheap Thrills Big Brother And The Holding Company By R. Crumb.jpg
However for pure artistry nothing beats the portraits of various musicians scattered throughout the book. Some of them, Frank Zappa, Woody Guthrie, Lighting Hopkins, Merle Haggard and George Jones are of famous folk, others are of obscure country and blues players and a third group are of anonymous musicians from various parts of Europe. Yet no matter who they are each of the pictures captures some intangible quality of the person that stimulates your imagination in such a way you find yourself either remembering what details you know of the person's life or trying to imagine something about them - what their life was like and what playing music meant to them. While for some of them he's used old photographs as his source material, Crumb's illustrations imbue what were obviously posed pictures with far more life then the original portrait could possibly have contained.

While the book appears to be laid out without any discernible order, record covers and logos for vintage record stores share pages and musicians from the 1920s stand shoulder to shoulder with others from the early part of the twenty-first century, that actually adds to the fun of scanning through the book. Not only does it mean that each page contains examples of Crumb's diversity as an artist, but it makes looking through the book that much more interesting because you're never quite sure what to expect as you flip from one page to the next.

This is the time of year when publishers are flooding the shelves with coffee table books of various sorts in anticipation of the upcoming present buying season. The shelves of your local bookstore are going to be filled with collections of photographs of everything from the glamorous to the infamous, buildings and cute animals and of course the obligatory photo album of the Royal Family and the new Royal Couple. In a crowd like this The Complete Record Cover Collection by Robert Crumb stands out like a speck of gold in a sea of nickel. If you're going to buy one coffee table book this season make it the one with a spark of life and subversive enough to bring some much needed spice to the season. In an age of conformity and homogenization people like Crumb are needed more than ever. His artistry is as unique today as it was when he first started out and its high time for him to receive the recognition he deserves.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Complete Record Cover Collection by Robert Crumb on Blogcritics)

October 27, 2011

Music DVD Review: Peter Gabriel - New Blood Live In London

I have to admit that I've never liked orchestrated versions of pop songs. As far as I'm concerned its usually one step removed from Muzak - pop music for people who don't like pop music. Even worse, as far as I'm concerned, are those times when some performer starts taking themselves way too seriously and decides to use orchestral elements in their music. The results are usually god awful as they simply don't have the talent to make it work, The smarter ones will hire somebody else to do the arrangements, but there's very little modern rock and roll that works orchestrated. One of the worst experiences I ever had in my life was sitting in an all night restaurant at 3:00 AM and hearing an orchestrated version of "Light My Fire" by the Doors.

After a scarring experience like that you'd think I'd swear off orchestrated pop music for the rest of my life. However I'm a firm believer in the maxim that its the exceptions that prove the rule. If there's one performer of popular music around today who has always been an exception to most rules it's Peter Gabriel. So when I first heard about his deciding to orchestrate a selection of music spanning his career I was intrigued. Last year he released a CD and toured with the equivalent of a chamber orchestra - a forty-six piece ensemble he called The New Blood Orchestra. Now, for those of us who weren't able to attend one of those concerts, Eagle Rock Entertainment has released DVD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D and special edition four disc digital CD versions of New Blood Live In London, recorded over two nights at London England's Hammersmith Apollo concert hall last March, on October 25 2011.

As I had hoped Gabreil has not just pasted an orchestra over top of his more popular songs by having them play the tunes instead of the usual mix of guitars, electric bass, drums and keyboard. Instead he and arranger John Metcalfe set out to reinterpret the material making use of the diversity of sound available with the instruments at their disposal. The name New Blood Orchestra proved very apt, as they have indeed injected new blood into the material in question. Right from the opening number on the DVD, "Intruder", you realize that once again Gabriel has pushed his music in a direction few others would either dare to attempt or have the talent to carry off.
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Instead of simply transposing the music to suit the range of the instruments in the orchestra, Gabriel and Metcalfe have broken the songs down into their component parts of rhythm and melody. Then they designated individual sections within their orchestra to bring them to life. The result is on some songs instruments, like violins, you would normally associate with the melody, are busy performing sequences of notes representing one element of the rhythm while the brass section plays another. The overall effect is stunning, for where you would normally hear these parts being played by two or three instruments at most and not notice the number of elements going into the rhythm, in this case you not only hear the overall pattern, you also hear each of its distinct components. At first it might feel a little chaotic as your mind tries to sort out and separate the sounds from each other because that's how we are used to listening to music. However, in the space of only a few minutes you find yourself starting to listen to the whole, including Gabriel's vocals, and the impact is as strong, if not stronger than anything you'll have heard produced by amplified instruments.

Of course a Gabriel show is more than just the music and the DVD does a fine job of capturing the visual presentations that accompany the songs. A series of screens and scrims - for rear projection - are hoisted in and out, some even dropping down in front of the performers, with various images being broadcast. Initially these consist of primarily abstract visualizations relating to either a song's theme or its musical content. However as the concert progresses they start to include film being shot live on stage by a variety of cameras. Some are in the hands of crew members scrambling around the stage, but others are hung from the grid above and offer the show's floor director what must be a confusing array of shots to pick from for broadcast. One of the cameras is given enough slack that Gabriel is able to swing it in gentle arcs out over the audience and the orchestra. Thankfully, as I would find that sort of thing paling quickly, they only use that technique sparingly - primarily for "Solsbury Hill".

The special feature included with the DVD package is a roughly twenty minute documentary about putting the show together called "Blood Donors" and features interviews with Gabriel, Metcalf, conductor Ben Foster and Blue Leach who directed the filming of the concert. The talk is primarily focused on the process of adopting the music and how their goal all along was to avoid as much as possible slapping an orchestra over top of popular music. It was fun to hear Gabriel talk about the project, because at no point does he ever take himself too seriously. I've found in the past that nothing guarantees pomposity among pop musicians quicker than an orchestra. So it was a delight to hear Gabriel freely admitting to going slightly over the top when they adapted "Solsbury Hill", including throwing in a few bars of Beethoven's "Ode To Joy" as a tip of the hat to the old Beatles tunes which would sometimes fade out on classical tunes (Think of "All You Need Is Love").
Peter Gabriel And New Blood Orchestra.jpg
It's in the documentary that you also discover the 3D effects in the film were not shot during the live performance, but during the rehearsals with Gabriel wearing a metal harness upon which the camera was mounted. The framework extended in front of him what looked to be about six feet and the camera was focused directly on his head. The resulting shots would obviously be of his head suspended in front of the rest of the performers. During the concert itself Gabriel would augment those shots with ones he filmed while holding onto the camera suspended from the lighting grid that I mentioned earlier. Without a 3D television, and not watching the official 3D release, I can't tell you exactly how the effect worked out. What I can tell you is on my regular television it looked like Gabriel's head and upper torso were distinct from the background and floating around like a balloon. The only thing that saved it from being cheesy was the fact Gabriel was having so much fun with it, making it obvious he considered it a toy.

Aside from "Solsbury Hill", the set list for the DVD includes favourites like "Biko", "Single To Noise", "Red Rain", "Don't Give Up", "The Rhythm Of The Heat" and sixteen more tunes. Like most of Gabriel's work, it's neither an easy listen nor is it the type of thing you can throw on in the background. While there will probably be some dissatisfaction from fans over the way tunes have been changed and how what was once familiar is no longer, I think anyone who genuinely appreciates Gabriel's music can't help but be impressed. The orchestral interpretations bring another dimension to each of the tunes and reveal just how sophisticated the material was in the first place. I've always thought acoustic instruments have a far greater emotional depth than any electric or electronic instrument and hearing these reinterpretations only confirmed that belief.

"Biko", the song in honour of South African anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko who was killed in police custody in 1976, has always moved me. Yet it was like I had never heard it before. A bass and floor drum establish the rhythm to start the piece then are joined by bassoon and clarinet which begin to play the melody. Then, as the song progresses, new layers are added to the rhythm as the string sections begin to play the melody in time to the cadence established by the drums. Gradually the volume increases until by the time Gabriel turns the singing over to the audience - the chant which ends the song - its built to a spine tingling crescendo. Then, everything stops save for the two drums which started the song in first place, until they too come to a rest like a heart that's stopped beating.

As you would suspect the sound quality on the DVD is superb, with the option to choose from regular Dolby Stereo, 5.1 surround sound and Dolby Digital for the concert footage, and the picture quality is fantastic - I can only imagine what it would be like in High Definition for those with Blu-ray capability. The DVD comes with a booklet containing complete credits, track listing, and includes some nice still shots from the concert. However, it's the contents of the DVD which really matter, and in this case they are spectacular.

In his interview during the documentary, Gabriel said he's already moving on to something else and won't be doing any more orchestrated versions of his material. So this will be the only time he'll be releasing these interpretations of his songs. Don't miss this opportunity to see and hear what happens when somebody makes the effort to take finely crafted pop music and turn them into equally finely crafted pieces of orchestrated music. The results are as truly unique as Gabriel, and prove once again that unlike many of his contemporaries he is deserving of being referred to as an artist.

(Article first published as Music DVD Review: Peter Gabriel -New Blood Live In London on Blogcritics.)

October 15, 2011

Interview: Robert Crumb - Illustrator and Musician

Robert Crumb is probably best known from his career as a comic book artist, specifically from the world of underground comics in the United States in the late 1960s and early to mid 1970s. Characters such as Mr, Natural have assured Crumb's name will endure amongst comic fans for years to come. However, talent like his does not pass unnoticed and his work has graced more than just the pages of comic books. Aside from illustrating Crumb has another passion, early twentieth century popular music. Over the course of his career drawing comics he has also been steadily amassing a portfolio of music related art work. He's designed everything from record covers to business cards and letter head for small companies to promotional material for concerts and record stores.

However he's not limited his passion for music to just illustrations and is not only an avid collector of old 78 RPM records of his preferred music, he has also become an accomplished musician in his own right. Most recently he lent his talents as a mandolin player to the Eden and John's East River String Band recording Be Kind To A Man When He's Down, but he's been playing music since his days as leader of the Cheap Suit Serenaders back in the late 1970s. While some of that music is readily available the same can't be said for his music related illustrations. However that's all about to change with the forthcoming release of The Complete Record Cover Collection from Norton Books in November of 2011.
Cover The Complete Record Cover Collection by R. Crumb.jpg
I had the good fortune to be offered the opportunity to put some questions to Mr. Crumb regarding this new book and the music that inspired it. I forwarded my questions for him by email, and what you're about to read are his answers exactly as he wrote them. A fascinating man with an amazing talent, hopefully the following interview will provide you some insight into how his passion for music developed and how that translated into his artwork. I'd just like to thank Robert Weil at Norton Books for setting the interview up and Robert Crumb for taking the time to answer them. Enjoy.

1) When did you first discover music? What was it about the music you heard that captivated you?

 When did I first discover music?  I first discovered music on April 23rd, 1947.  No, just kidding.  I don’t think people “discover” music, as there is always some kind of music around from the time we are born.  We just become gradually more aware of it as we grow.  In the modern world with its pervasive mass media, the first music most of us become aware of, aside perhaps from nursery songs, is mass-produced popular music.  I remember as a kid in the late 1940s -- early ‘50s hearing the popular music of the time coming from radios.  I recall that it had a mildly depressing affect on me... Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, Vaughn Monroe, Frankie Lane, Patti Page, Thersa Brewer.  There was something unspeakably awful and dreary about this pop music of the time.  In general I have had a loathing for popular music all my life, except for the period of early rock and roll; 1955-1966.  I liked some of that music, and still do.  I really lost interest after about 1970.

The first music that really “captivated” me was film and cartoon sound track music from the early days of the “talkies,” the early 1930s, which I was exposed to from watching television in the 1950s.  Early Hal Roach comedy shorts such as “The Little Rascals” and Laurel and Hardy were shown over and over again, and the background music in these reached deep into me, I’m not sure why.  Much later -- decades later -- I learned that these great bits of background music in the Hal Roach comedies were all composed by an unassuming, behind-the-scenes music business man named Leroy Shield; he is still relatively unknown and forgotten.

Then at age 16 I discovered that this kind of music could be found on old 78 rpm records of the 1920s and ‘30s.  That was a great revelation, and from then on I became an obsessive collector of old records.  At first my main interest was the old dance orchestras and jazz bands that sounded like the music in old movies and Hal Roach comedies, but then I started listening to old blues 78s that I found.  They sounded strange and exotic to me at first, but I grew to love this music  -- blues of the 1920s -- early ‘30s.  Then I discoverd old-time country music.  Again, at first it sounded crude, rough, but this music, too, I grew to love.  From there I went on to find that old Ukrainian and Polish polka bands of this same period -- 1920s - early ‘30s -- were also great, and then I found old Irish records -- wonderful stuff -- Greek records, Mexican, Carribean, on and on. Over here, living in Europe, I found great old French music, Arab/North African music, sub-saharan, black African music, Armenian and Turkish music, even Hindou Indian music, on the old pre WW II 78s.  So now, you can imagine, I have a pretty big collection of these old discs -- 6,500 of them, more or less, an embarrassment of musical riches.

2) Illustration became your first primary means of expression, not music, what held you back from pursuing a career as a musician?

From an early age I had a strong desire to play music but there was no one in my immediate environment to show me anything.  My parents had no interest in music beyond listening to pop radio.  I started on my own at age 12 with a plastic ukulele, and a pamphlet showing how to tune the thing and some chord positions.  Ironically, my mother’s father had been a musician, playing string instruments -- banjo, mandolin, guitar -- but he died when I was only a year old.  None of his children showed any interest in learning to play music.

As with comics and cartoons, I learned to play music just by working at it on my own, with no formal lessons. But I did not possess a “real” instrument til I was in my late 20s.  It was not until then that I finally met others my age who liked and played the same kind of music as me.  I have always enjoyed playing music but never particularly enjoyed performing in public.  though I did play many gigs with various bands, I never got over feeling extremely nervous and self-conscious in front of an audience.  A career in music did not interest me.  I already had a “career” as a cartoonisht/artist, anyway.  Plus, there really is no such thing as a career in the kind of music I like to play.   You gotta have a regular job and play old-time music on the side, for the pleasure of it.
Robert Crumb Self Portrait.jpg
3) Aside from those illustrations directly related to music, album covers, promotional materials etc. what if any influences did the music you love have on your art work?

None that I can perceive. 

4) Your first commission for an album cover was, I believe, for Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1966. How did that come about?

In 1968 I was living in the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco. ZAP Comix had already come out and I was beginning to be well-known in the hippy subculture.  I was approached by someone in the “Big Brother” band to do the album cover.  I was not crazy about their music but I needed the money.  We (my wife Dana and I and our son Jesse) were living on public assistance, or welfare, at the time.  Columbia Records offered $600 for doing the cover.  That was big money to me at the time.  Actually, I was drafted at the last moment, as the band was not happy with the cover produced by the record company.  I had to “pull an all-nighter” to get it done.  I took some amphetamines and cranked it out.  I remember finishing the work as the sun was coming up over the house tops outside my window.  You can do that kind of thing when you’re 25.

5)  Did you start actively seeking out gigs doing album covers after that, or did you think of it as a one off deal at the time? 

I’d given up on being a commercial artist by 1968, and had found to my complete amazement that I could do my own crazy comics and get them published in the hippy so-called “underground” press.  There was little or no money in it, but who cared?  It was TOTAL FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION in my chosen medium -- print!  It was the hippy era, man, survival was “transcendental.”  We didn’t worry too much about money.  That came later, when my work actually started to MAKE money, then there were lots of money problems, I was buried under money problems by the mid-1970s.  But that’s another story.

The only other album cover work that interested me much was making covers for reissues of the old music from 78s that I loved, and that I usually did in exchange for -- guess what? -- 78s!  I’m still doing this today.

6) The majority of your album covers appear to reflect your taste in music - old time country, traditional jazz and acoustic blues. Were there gigs you turned down because they weren't from one of those genres and if so why? What is it about that type of music that attracts you more than others?

I’ve turned down a few offers to do album covers for rock bands -- not much.  I don’t need the money, I hate the music -- Why do it?

What is it that attracts me to old time music of the 1920s and ‘30s?  I don’t know.  I could go on about how the older music sounds more authentic, less contrived, more home-made, etc.  But I’m not sure that really explains it.  Some kind of neurological fixation  I don’t know.  Who can explain these things?  You tell me, why do you like what you like?
Cover Cheap Thrills Big Brother And The Holding Company By R. Crumb.jpg
7) What's your process for creating the cover art for an album? For Eden and John's East River String Band's most recent recording, Be Kind To A Man When He's Down, you created an image based around the disc's title featuring the musicians playing in the disc, but what other attributes influence you?

Creative processes are a hard thing to talk about, and there are so many different processes or approaches.  For instance, in the case of Eden and John’s East River String Band, the idea for the cover was suggested by them.  I liked their idea and used it.

8) You were one of the musicians on that album, mandolin. When did you start playing and performing music? Why a mandolin? 

I “graduated” from the ukulele in my 20s to the tenor banjo.  For many years, I just banged out chords on the banjo, then I branched out into the guitar and the mandolin, in my ‘30s.  I’ve also fooled around on piano and accordion.  I tried the fiddle for a while, but gave up on it as it sounds pretty awful until you get good at it, after a lot of practice. Now I think I should have stuck with it.  By now I’d probably be at least serviceable on it, if I’d persisted.  I’d be able to get through, you know, “Home Sweet Home” or “Oh Suzanna,” stuff like that.  That’s about my speed anyway.  I never achieved virtuosity on any instrument, plus, I play string instruments backwards, left-handed, which is a serious handicap, although it didn’t stop Jimi Hendrix.

“Why a mandolin,” you ask.  Why not a mandolin?  Okay, yeah, by now it’s like, an antique instrument, right?  One reason I took up the mandolin is that it’s a very easy instrument to learn, much easier than either the fiddle or the guitar.  I gave up on the fiddle and took up the mandolin.  You can play something resembling music pretty quickly, with only a little practice, on the mandolin  That’s why back in the golden age of string instruments, the 1890s - 1920s, there were mandolin clubs all over the place.  These clubs were full of ordinary people, lots of young people, kids, teenagers, as well as older people.  There were also banjo clubs.  They’d play together in huge ensembles, just for the pleasure.  Electronic media killed all this;  radio, movies, jukeboxes, then television.  Television delivered the coup de grace to widespread, grass-roots, self-made recreations.  They just sat and viewed, they were hypnotized... zombies... They watched anything that was on... It held them spellbound.  That was another thing the hippies sort of rebelled against... for awhile at least... But the media is now more powerful than ever.  We’re hooked... There’s no escape... It’s changed, though... Now it’s, you know, “interactive”...

9) What similarities and differences have you found in your creative process as a musician and as an illustrator?

Music and drawing pictures and writing... totally different things... I would not call myself a “creative” musician.  I don’t compose my own music, I don’t do fancy improvisations on my instrument.  When playing, I’m happy if I can play a tune smoothly, rhythmically, bringing out whatever beauty is in the melody itself... That’s enough for me.  I’m not trying to “kick ass” when I play music, or anything like that.  The drawing is something else again.

10) Among the illustrations included in the new book, R. Crumb The Complete Record Cover Collection are a series of portraits of jazz, blues and country musicians of the past. Some of them are taken from packages of cards you created. Where did the idea for these collectibles come from and were you able to choose who you included in each series? If yes to the latter what criteria was used for selecting who was to be included in each set?

I was inspired by the old baseball bubblegum cards to make those musician cards.  Yes, I chose the performers, the categories, everything.  I was looking for some way to pay tribute and to evangelize for this music that I loved, music that was so buried under the avalanche of later popular music.  Some of those musicians or groups that I drew have never even been commercially reissued since the original 78 was made back in the ‘20s.  Mumford Bean and his Itawambians, for instance.  Are they obscure enough for you?  They made one 78 in 1928, two sides.  Never reissued.  That’s how fanatic I am.  The French accordion players are even more absurdly esoteric.  Those didn’t even sell well in France.  Nobody’d ever heard of them!

11) Of all the music related illustrations you've created are there any in particular that stand out and why?

No, not really.

Once again I'd like to thank Robert Crumb for taking the time to answer my questions for this interview. If you're unfamiliar with his artwork check out his web site. You'll soon see why he's fascinated people for ages with his work. If that whets your appetite for more, or if you're already a fan, then your sure to enjoy the work on display in The Complete Record Cover Collection when it hits the shelves some time in November.
(Article first published as Interview: Illustrator and Musician Robert Crumb, Author of The Complete Record Cover Collection on Blogcritics.)

October 12, 2011

Book Review: Every Picture Tells A Story - Baron Wolman The Rolling Stone Years

Once upon a time in the city of the Golden Bridge by the edge of the Pacific Ocean, there lived many happy people who dressed and acted differently from the rest of the land. People would flock from all over to point, look and wonder. In this magic land there lived smaller groups of people who had been blessed with the ability to make wondrous sounds. Taking strange and other worldly names like Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Brother and the Holding Company, they would perform at large ritual gatherings for the inhabitants of the magical kingdom. Among those attending there would be some who would ingest strange substances and then dance with wild abandon. It was a time of innocence and joy.

Okay, so maybe it wasn't really like that in San Francisco, but there are times when you read about the heyday of the Bay Area music scene from around 1964 to 1969 it sure sounds like some sort of fairy tale. There's no denying it was a centre of creative energy whose influence spread far beyond the borders of not only the city but the state. One could easily make the argument that the Woodstock Music & Art Festival on the other side of America in Bethal New York, was as much a part of the San Francisco music scene as the free concerts in Golden Gate Park. So it's not surprising that the first magazine devoted solely to the popular music of the time, Rolling Stone was born in that city in 1967.

In his wonderful new book, Every Picture Tells A Story: Baron Wolman, The Rolling Stone Years published by Omnibus Press, photojournalist Baron Wolman recreates for us those early years at Rolling Stone. In a combination of text and photos he recounts the history of the magazine's first tentative issues. From his original meeting with founder/editor in chief, the then twenty-one year old Jann Wenner, through his three years of photo shoots for the magazine, Wolman's descriptions of events captures both the pure magic and the pathos of the times.
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Wolman describes himself as something of an outsider to the pop music scene. While he and his wife lived in the Haight Ashbury district which was the nexus for the scene, he was thirty years old and not that familiar with either the music or the musicians he was being assigned to shoot. However that didn't stop Wenner from reaching a deal with him that saw his photographs appear in the magazine in exchange for stock in the company and Wolman retaining all rights to the material. While at the time it meant that Wolman would also have to hunt down paying gigs while shooting material for Rolling Stone, he obviously has no regrets about the arrangement and is honest enough to say the deal has worked out very well for him.

One thing you find out very quickly is Wolman is from a different era then the one we live in today. He wasn't like one of the hordes who now stalk celebrities in the hopes of catching some indiscretion on film. It was also long before promotional videos, branding and image creators. Wolman would typically accompany the writer assigned to write a story to the subject's home and take his photos on location. There were no make up artists, no wardrobe changes and no lighting effects. He would shoot Janis Joplin in the basement of her Laural Canyon home shooting pool with members of her band, Frank Zappa lurking in caves or playing on construction equipment behind his house, or Tiny Tim beaming with delight over the bouquet of daisies just presented him by Wolman and the writer.

These aren't candid shots obviously, but something of the person's real character shines through unlike so many of today's carefully sculpted arrangements. Wolman talks about the difference between then and now and puts a lot of it down to being a matter of trust between the subject and photographer. "They trusted me...and the rest of us... not to make them look like fools." For Wolman the biggest change was when studios started to become involved and began dictating what they wanted and pushed the photo shoots further and further away from being a one on one interplay between photographer and musician. With the advent of MTV image became far more important then it once was and according to Wolman bands were no longer happy with simply being photographed - they wanted to look a certain way and wanted photographers to achieve it for them.

As a photojournalist Wolman had learned how to capture moments on film that would tell a story. In his photos for Rolling Stone the subject was usually the story. So whether the shots were in a recording studio, backstage or on stage, each one of them tell us a little bit about the person in question. Even those he took in his studio at home, with lights and posed in front of a seamless background still reveal something of the person's story. Sometimes even Wolman was surprised at what his photos showed. He remembers puzzling over a photo of Jerry Garcia he took in his home studio; wondering how Garcia was able to contort one of his fingers so that it looked like it was missing, until realizing it was actually missing. It's a beautiful shot of Garcia smiling into the camera and holding up the hand with the missing finger as if caught waving. What Wolman didn't know until much later was that it's also one of the only photos Garcia ever allowed to be taken where he wasn't hiding the fact the finger was absent.
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Looking at the pictures, both scattered through out the book and those in a separate section comprising some of Wolman's favourite shoots, you can't help but be struck by how intimate some of the shots are. Even some of the caught in performance shots capture moments on stage when the performer is turned inward and is in the process of vanishing into the music. Of the galleries of Wolman's favourites shoots the ones of Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin which I personally found the most interesting. Wolman makes no secret about his love of shooting Hendrix whether on stage or off and it's obvious from the photos. Hendrix may have been a shy person, but Wolman's camera captures the life in his eyes even when he's sitting and relaxing.

Miles Davis must have existed at the opposite end of the universe from Hendrix. The intensity of his stare, even when he's relaxing at home with his wife, is enough to burn a hole in the page. Looking at shots taken of him in a gym shadow boxing are like looking at a coiled spring releasing and snapping back into place again. Wolman mentions how Davis seemed filled with anger so much of the time, and that certainly comes through in the photos. However, nothing matches the pictures of Janis Joplin for poignancy. Maybe it's because we know about her sad end, but looking at the shots of her smiling face are enough to break your heart. It's far sadder to see the potential for joy that lived inside her and know she very rarely had the chance to experience it than to look at those which show her sadness.

As the book's title so aptly says every picture can tell a story, and while you may purchase the book for its pictures alone, do not ignore the text. Wolman tells the story of his time photographing the great and famous among popular music's pantheon in refreshingly honest prose. Candid about what he sees as his own deficiencies as a recorder of musical history, he readily admits to knowing little or nothing about the people he was shooting or their music prior to his assignments, he doesn't offer any critiques about anyone's place in history, he simply speaks of them as human beings. Much like his pictures reflect the individual as much as the rock star, his text humanizes, and thus makes them more real, each of those he saw through his viewfinder.

From free concerts in Golden Gate Park to the blackness of Altamant and, after leaving Rolling Stone, the Concerts on the Green in Oakland in the 1970s, Baron Wolman and his camera captured most of pop music's royalty. While he might have regrets for the pictures he didn't take, we can only be grateful for those he did. After reading Every Picture Tells A Story - Baron Woman The Rolling Stone Years you'll find yourself believing in the fairy tale of San Francisco of the 1960s and perhaps even wishing we could somehow turn the clock back to those more innocent times.

(Article first published as Book Review: Every Picture Tells A Story - Baron Wolman, The Rolling Stone Years by Baron Wolman on Blogcritics)

October 9, 2011

Music Review: Johnny Cash - Johnny Cash Bootleg Vol. 3 - Live Around The World

Sometimes concert settings are the best places to see a band in order to appreciate them and sometimes there not. There are a ton of variables which can come into play and impact the quality of a performance, some beyond the control of the band and others which are their responsibility. The venue, the crowd, equipment problems and even the touring schedule are things beyond most band's control these days, and each of them can have a hand in determining how a concert comes off. However a band can also become complacent from playing the same music over and over again and while they might not make mistakes in their performance, the risk of them merely going through the motions instead of giving their all to a performance is always real. Finally there are those performers who can't be counted on to show up in the right state of mind, so to speak, for a concert, if they even deign to show up at all.

Now a days those who fall into the latter category are far fewer then they once were. With popular music becoming such a big business the industry has become far less tolerant of such behaviour. Performers who can't fulfill their commitments are liable to soon find themselves without recording contracts no matter how talented they might be. Unfortunately, the history of pop music is filled with stories of those whose lives ended before their time because the individuals weren't able to control their excessive behaviour. Thankfully there were also some who were able to stop before they went too far down the path of self destruction and find a way to stop the bleeding before it was too late. One of the most famous of those was Johnny Cash.

While we might never know the depths to which he sunk personally the forthcoming release, Johnny Cash: Bootleg Volume 3 - Live Around The World, on Legacy Recordings October 11 2011, a collection of Cash's live performances from 1956 to 1979, provide a glimpse of how close to the edge he came at certain points in his career. You only has to listen to his behaviour and demeanour on stage in the early to mid 1960s compared to how he was from the late 1960s on to appreciate the difference between the two stages of his life. In fact, one of the most amazing things about this new two disc CD package is how it manages to capture the arc of his career.
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From the early days, the Big D Jamboree in Dallas Texas in 1956, when he was still young and caught up in the excitement and thrill of being a musician; the middle period, performances given at the New River Ranch, Rising Sun Maryland in 1962 and at the Newport Folk Festival, Rhode Island in 1964, when he was on the verge of losing control, to when he turned it around and began again, a 1969 concert in Long Binh Vietnam at an NCO club, a command performance at Richard Nixon's White House with the Carter family in 1970 and excerpts from concerts as far afield as Osteraker Prison in Sweden 1972 and as close to home as Exit Inn, Nashville Tennessee 1979.

While that distinctive voice never changes through the years, and he never makes any of those mistakes you would normally associate with substance abuse, there's something awfully uncomfortable, and almost embarrassing, about listening to Cash's performances in the middle period. Whether it's because he sounds like he's trying too hard to be the life of the party by doing his imitation of a record with a skip in it during the concert in Maryland or making bad jokes while playing "Rock Island Line" at the Newport Folk Festival, or some underlying nastiness that comes through on occasion, he comes across like the drunk at the party who everybody spends the evening trying to avoid. They are especially difficult to hear after listening to the opening three tracks taken from the Texas concert in 1956, where he comes across as happy and excited, just glad to be invited to the party.

So it's something of a relief to listen to the recording of the 1969 concert at the NCO club in Vietnam to hear the Johnny Cash we're all more familiar with. For while you won't notice many differences in the quality of his performance or the sound of his voice, what you will notice is he's no longer trying to prove himself the life of the party or acting the fool. Instead of being there for his own ego he's there for the audience and it makes a huge difference. Cash's music has always spoken to people in much the same way Woody Guthrie's did because of his ability to put the things that matter to us to music. He can sing about everything from his belief in his saviour to what it's like to be a dirt farmer and on some level or another we'll all understand what he's talking about.
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In those middle years when he was more concerned with showmanship and following a path of self destruction you can hear how the stories, while not lost, were certainly diluted. All you have to do is compare the way he sings the same songs at different points in his life in order to notice the difference. When I first received my copies of this two disc set I was surprised to see how so many of the songs on the first disc were under two minutes in length, including songs I could have sworn were much longer whenever I'd heard them before. The reason is he was rushing through most of them and barely even listening to the words he's singing. The contrast between those performances and the ones in the later years, when he is taking the time the material requires, is so strong you can almost reach out and touch it.

While it's hard to listen to Richard Nixon introduce Cash for the White House performance in 1970, that concert is one of the discs highlights as far as I'm concerned. First of all there's the fact that he's joined by the entire Carter Family for all thirteen tracks, and no matter whether you agree with the Christian message of much of their music or not, you can't help but appreciate their music. It also represents a chance to hear a piece of American music history as you listen to America's first family of country music singing with one of the men who first started merging it with African American blues. Of course the irony of hearing Cash singing "What Is Truth" to "Tricky Dick" is nothing short of priceless.

Needless to say the disc contains nearly all of everyone's favourite Cash tunes including "Big River", "Give My Love To Rose", "Boy Named Sue" and "Walk The Line" to name but a few. However, I was personally more thrilled to see some of his covers of tunes like 'Sunday Morning Coming Down" Kristofferson and "City Of New Orleans" by the late Steve Goodman included. Those are tunes, especially the latter, I've had a hard time tracking down recordings of Cash singing, so to find them as well as a couple of others is a real bonus.

While the quality of some of the recordings isn't great - the two tracks recorded in 1976 at The Carter Fold are scratchy and the ones from the Exit Inn from 1979 sound like everybody, crowd included, are off in the distance - that doesn't depreciate this release's value. Most of the time collections of this sort shy away from casting the artist in a less than perfect light. Here though, whether intentionally or not, the producers have given listeners an incredibly accurate history of Cash's performance career. It's not always the prettiest of pictures, but it's an honest one, and it makes you appreciate the road the man travelled all the more. Cash himself might have winced upon hearing some of those recordings, but I'd like to think he was honest and brave enough to have been okay with them being released. He always wore his heart on his sleeve, was always honest about who he was, and this release carries on that tradition.

(Article first published as Music Review: Johnny Cash - Johnny Cash Bootleg Volume 3 - Live Around The World on Blogcritics.)

October 8, 2011

Music Review: Jordi Savall & Various Artists - Hispania & Japan: Dialogues

It's hard to imagine two countries as different as Spain and Japan having enough in common musically for someone to create pieces combining elements of both cultures. Yet that's exactly what Jordi Savall, cellist, composer and one of Spain's foremost performers of Western early music utilizing period instruments, has done. (Early music defined as being either from the Medieval, Renaissance or Baroque periods - roughly from 500 AD to 1760 AD) In 2006 he released The Route Of The Orient which set out to recreate in music the voyages of Spanish Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier (Francisco Javier). Not only did Xavier, who lived from 1506-1553 travel the East with stops in Mozambique, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and China, he was the first European to ever visit Japan.

In his attempt to win converts to Christianity Xavier relied heavily upon music, setting his religion's texts to a country's native melodies in order to make them more accessible. In the original recording Savall gathered together musicians from the various countries the missionary had visited in order to recreate what these pieces could have sounded like. It was during the research and performances surrounding this recording he also met various Japanese musicians with whom he became friends. It was following the catastrophes that struck Japan last year he, along with musicians from Japan and Spain created Hispania & Japan: Dialogues, being released through Harmonium Mundi on the Alia Vox label October 11 2011, focusing on the specific pieces Xavier used in Japan.

Upon his arrival in Japan Xavier, and the Portuguese missionaries accompanying him, walked through the country singing Psalms. The Japanese people who flocked to see these strangers in their midst, were fascinated by their singing. In 1605 a publisher in Nagasaki printed Mauale ad Sacramenta a volume containing nineteen of those pieces. This is significant for not only being the beginning of Western music in Japan, it also provided Savall and his musicians with a template from which they built their recordings. In fact, while they have made use of a couple of other European and Japanese songs, "O Gloriosa Domina" (O Glorious Mistress), a Gregorian chant from that volume, provides the inspiration for more than half the music.
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Much as Xavier incorporated regional melodies, the Japanese musicians on this recording have improvised music for the song. However, instead of simply having them create new versions of it, Savall has given them far more room for interpretation. You won't hear somebody singing the psalm in different ways to various arrangements of Japanese instruments. Instead they have created pieces which attempt to capture the essence of the music. The opening piece is a beautiful example of this with Ichiro Seki, playing a type of Japanese bamboo flute known as a shakuhachi, creating a haunting piece of music which makes use of his instrument's ethereal qualities to establish the proper spiritual context for the music to come. Over the course of the first half of the recording Savall intersperses these improvisations with recordings of the song as it would have been performed in Europe during the sixteenth century. Ironically, at least to my ears, it's the Japanese interpretations which seem more capable of transcending the earthly realm and leading one's thoughts heavenwards.

This isn't a slight against the Spanish musicians or the music they play. I think it has more to do with the differences in the natural qualities of the instruments being played and the two cultures' approach to religion. Western religion, and by extension its music, has always felt more human centric than its Eastern counterparts. For while Christianity stresses personal salvation, many Eastern religions focus on spiritual enlightenment. By obeying a set of rules Christians hope to secure their place at God's side while Buddhists strive to become one with the universe. Listening to the Japanese musicians on this recording you can hear the difference between music praising individuals who control one's fate and that which celebrates the wonder of creation. Even here, where they are each working from the same material, the distinction is obvious. It doesn't mean one is better than the other, it's a matter of personal preference which of the two will stir your soul the most, yet there can be no denying there is something far more otherworldly about the Japanese music than the Christian hymns.
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Yet, in spite of the differences between the two traditions, musically and religiously, neither the juxtaposition or combining of the two is ever jarring or discordant. Unlike some forced marriages of West and East which ring more false notes than true, this work recognizes and celebrates the distinctive elements of each style instead of trying to meld them together. It's like listening to the same story in two different languages with each telling taking on all the flavours and characteristics of the tongue recounting it while the core elements remain the same. What you gradually realize as you listen to the pieces on this recording is how not only do the two compliment each other, they also complete each other. In fact, listening to the two types of music being played separately and then coming together in pieces towards the end of the CD, you begin to realize how the two together make up a whole by filling in gaps in the other you didn't even know existed before.

Hispania & Japan: Dialogues comes packaged with a book which supplies the details behind how the project came into existence, a breakdown of the musicians involved and the instruments being used and pictures taken during performances of the piece. Enclosing it all is a separate cover which is a reproduction of a piece of Japanese art depicting the landing and travels of St. Xavier in Japan. While the packaging and the music are equally beautiful, the fact that the money raised through its sales will be donated to aiding the relief efforts in Japan makes it even more precious.

The old saying of "Oh East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet" may have been written by Rudjard Kipling in reference to India and the West, but its often been quoted by those wishing to stress the impossibility of us ever finding common ground with anybody East of Europe. However, Jordi Savall and the collection of Japanese and Spanish musicians he's gathered around him prove the lie in that statement over and over again with Hispania & Japan: Dialogues. For instead of looking at cultural differences as some sort of impenetrable barrier they have seen how they actually compliment each other to help form a more complete picture of the world we live in. So not only have they created some beautiful music, they offer a timely reminder that differences aren't something to worry about, they are something to celebrate. Instead of worrying about how others can be more like us, or we like them, isn't it better to see how all of us fit together as pieces in the puzzle making up a portrait of our world?

(Article first published as Music Review: Jordi Savall & Various Artists - Hispania & Japan: Dialogues on Blogcritics)

September 28, 2011

Music Review: Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie - Various Performers

July 14 2012 marks the centenary of the birth of one Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, better known to most people simply as Woody. While September 27 2011 might seem a little early to begin celebrating that event, when you stop and consider the impact this one man from Okemah Oklahoma has had on popular culture, specifically popular music, in North America and the rest of the English speaking world, you'll realize even if we spent every day from now until December 31 2012 looking through the body of his work we'd only barely begin to scratch the surface of its significance.

Just to begin with there are the musicians around the world who he influenced. Everyone from folk music icons like Bob Dylan, mega stars of rock and roll like Bono of U2 and punk rockers like the late Joe Srummer of the Clash all have cited Woody as one of their inspirations. Woody had the unique talent of being able to look at huge impersonal events like the depression and find a way of expressing how it affected people on a personal level. Not just the farmers suffering through the dust bowl either. He could write with equal empathy about miners, textile workers, field hands, bus drivers and soldiers. Not only could he give voice to their stories, he did so in words they understood and a voice that sounded like their own. However he didn't just write about the poor and oppressed, he wrote about everything. He wrote what is perhaps the most stirring song ever written celebrating his own country, "This Land Is Your Land", a celebration of the hope for the potential it represented.

When he died 1967, after spending nearly his last thirteen years of life hospitalized by the Huntington's Disease which killed him, he left behind a massive legacy of unpublished writings, including song lyrics, poems, manuscripts for books, plays and note books. Woody's son Arlo once said that it was always dangerous to have his father as a house guest, because he was constantly writing song lyrics. If he couldn't find any scraps of paper to write stuff down on you could wake up in the morning and find your walls covered as his inspiration wasn't something that was going to be denied. It's only been recently that his family has begun the labour of love of bringing those unpublished works to life. In 1998 British folk/punk singer Billy Bragg joined with the American band Wilco to release Mermaid Avenue a collection of previously unreleased Woody songs, which was followed a couple of years later by Mermaid Avenue Volume 2.
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Now to kick off the celebrations of the centenary of Woody's birth 429 Records is releasing Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie featuring twelve songs inspired by the writings of Woody Guthrie by a collection of performers spanning five generations of American popular culture. From Woody's contemporaries, Pete Seeger and the late author Studs Terkel; those who have picked up Woody's torch to become voices of protest today, Ani DiFranco, Michael Franti and Jackson Browne to a real surprise Lou Reed. They and the six others involved have either taken previously unrecorded songs by Woody or, like Jackson Browne, were inspired by entries in Woody's journals.

No matter what the source, each of the songs captures one of the myriad elements of Woody's voice. What's particularly fascinating about this collection is how it continues where the Mermaid Avenue collection left off and gives us a chance to appreciate the breadth of subject material that captured his attention. Pete Seeger, accompanied by Tony Trischka, ruminates on the nature of music and why it matters so much to humanity on "There's A Feeling In The Music", while both Ani DiFranco, "Voice", and Studs Terkel, "I Heard A Man Talking", tackle the subject of lyrics. While Terkel's is a straight recounting of a conversation overheard in a bar, both DiFranco's and Seeger's songs show an introspective side of Woody revealing just how much thought went into what appeared to be so spontaneous. As we hear in both songs Guthrie's work was rooted in an artistic philosophy based on honesty and universality that was as every bit as intense as any political ideals his music might have expressed.
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Of course you can't ignore the social justice aspect of Woody's music, and "Wild Card In The Hole", performed by Madeleine Pevroux and "Old Folks", sung by Nellie McKay are two fine examples of Guthrie's approach. Less typical of the genre, and an indication of what made him so special is "The Debt I Owe" put to music by Lou Reed. Initially it appears to be about a man wandering through a deserted Coney Island amusement park worrying about the hole he's in financially. However we soon realize those aren't the only debts eating at him. No the ones he's really tortured by are those he owes for how he's treated the people in his life, both in the present and the past. Reed is the perfect performer for this piece as he's able to capture the bleakness of the man's soul with the right level of detachment in order to prevent it from descending into a self-pitying wallow. Its as wonderful a commentary on the compromises and bad choices forced on so many people, usually at the expense of others, by the conditions of modern living as you're liable to hear anywhere by anyone.

The final song of the recording shows us a side of Woody Guthrie the public has only recently begun to discover. We don't associate him with love songs, but as is apparent from Jackson Browne's fifteen minute song, "You Know The Night", (a shorter version was prepared for radio and released on August 15 2011 and can be heard on line at this web page) based on a thirty page entry in Woody's journals talking about the night he met his second wife Marjorie Mazia, it's not because he never gave the subject any thought. The song is an unabashed confession of love combined with a wonderful compiling of reasons for that love coming into existence. All that sparks the desire and need one person feels for another, from sexual attraction to intellectual compatibility, are dealt with as Woody/Jackson run down what it was about her which attracted him. Yet its far more than just a shopping list of reasons for falling in love, as the song itemizes not only what the observer sees in the person across from him, but the feelings each evokes in him. The song is filled with the joy and fears of a man finding himself inexplicably falling in love, and expresses the wonder we all feel when we know we've met the person we believe we're supposed to spend the rest of our life with.

Woody Guthrie should be a national icon in the United States for the way in which he was able to express the hopes and dreams of people who normally don't have a voice in his music. The anti communist witch hunt of the post WW II era followed by the onset of the disease which killed him not only denied him the opportunity of writing and performing, but also ensured his music and name were kept from a great many people. It wasn't until the folk music boom of the 1960s that he was "discovered" by a new generation, and even then it was only as the guy who inspired Bob Dylan, not in recognition for his own work. Sure school kids around the country might have been learning the words to his most famous song, but nobody was telling them who he was or anything about the rest of his music.

Woody wrote about subjects nobody wanted to talk about, the plight of migrant workers, dirt farmers, share croppers and how the greed of a few could hurt so many. Those weren't popular topics in the post war boom days and in the 1960s most people were more concerned with avoiding being drafted and getting stoned then fighting for the rights of poor farmers in Tennessee and Oklahoma. Yet if you stop and listen to his songs, any of his songs, you'll realize they have the unique ability to speak truths without preaching, tell people's stories without sentimentalizing them, and speak to something we all have to one degree or another, our hearts.

In Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie we hear twelve American singers, musicians and writers from across the generations offer us their interpretations of material he wrote that has never been heard before. Yet somehow, no matter what format they were presented in or their subject matter, there was something familiar and comforting about each of them. It was like hearing the voice of a loved one you'd thought never to hear again all of a sudden whispering in your ear. From now until the end of 2012 let's hope that everybody has the chance to share in the experience of hearing that voice. Maybe by the end of celebrating Woody Guthrie's centenary, he'll be appreciated for the artist he was and along the way open a few more hearts to the possibilities for justice and joy in the world.

(Article first appeared as Music Review: Various Artists - Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie)

September 14, 2011

Music Review: Jimi Hendrix - In The West & Winterland (Box Set)

Jimi Hendrix was shy of his twenty-eighth birthday by a couple of months when he died. (November 27 1942 - September 18 1970) and we'll never know how much more he could have accomplished if he had even lived another decade. In her coming of age memoir of life in New York City in the late 1960s early 1970s, Just Kids, Patti Smith describes meeting Hendrix at the opening night party for his Electric Ladyland recording studios. She was hanging around outside, a little shy of a party full of people far more established than herself, and the host/honoured guest was hanging out on the fire escape escaping the noise and confusion of the party. The two struck up a conversation and in the short time they spoke he talked to her about his hopes and dreams for the studio and a little of what he hoped to achieve.

Of course we'll never know what would have happened if he had lived. I remember friends joking in the late seventies that Hendrix would be playing disco if he had lived. They were mostly kidding, as they were all big Hendrix fans, but it was fun to imagine what he might have done. With all the guitar heroes who have come and gone since Hendrix's death, and now that I don't listen to him on a daily basis, it's easy to forget how special he was. One of the key indicators of any artists status is the respect his or her peers hold them in and their influence on others. In 1980 famed British guitarist Robert Fripp (King Crimson, League Of Gentlemen, and many collaborations with Brian Eno) was touring his solo "Fripatronics" soudnscapes music. On his stop in Toronto he interrupted his evening of electronics to pay tribute to the "one rock and roll guitar player I respected, Jimi Hendrix", and tore through a wild version of "Wild Thing" When the desert warrior/musicians of the Tourag first picked up their electric guitars, it was Hendrix's playing that caught their imaginations. Somehow it seems fitting that a Seattle born mixed blood African/Native American's music would inspire a group of nomadic tribesman looking to preserve their way of life.
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Still all of that is only talk. The only way to truly appreciate Hendrix is to listen to him. While there have been plenty of reissues of his work over the years, most of them have been of dubious quality and haven't really managed to capture his magic. It now finally looks like the record is being set straight as the latest series of releases from Legacy Recordings shows. While his studio work was inspired, it was live that Hendrix really showed what he was made of, and both Hendrix In The West and the four CD Box set Winterland coming out on September 13 2011 are stirring examples of what made him so special.

In The West was originally released posthumously by Polydor Records in 1972 and was intended as a memorial to Hendrix's ability as a performer. The producers gathered together material recorded at concerts during the last two years of his life performing with both the original Jimi Hendrix Experience, Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass, and 1970's version with Billy Cox replacing Redding. The venues ranged from the Isle Wight festival of 1970, the San Diego Sports Arena, Berkeley Community Centre and two tracks recorded at the Royal Albert Hall in London. As the last two were used without proper legal permission, (they were listed in the original credits as being taken from the San Diego concert) and have been reissued properly somewhere else, on this version of the disc they've been replaced with a version of "Little Wing" recorded at the Winterland and the actual version of "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" recorded in San Diego. (On the original the record company even misspelt the latter calling it "Voodoo Chile"). As well as the replacements the new version of the disc included three tracks not on the original recording "Fire", "I Don't Live Today" and "Spanish Castle Magic" taken from the San Diego concert.

The original Polydor recording was one of the first Hendrix albums I listened to, it and Smash Hits,were in my older brother's record collection, and along with the soundtrack to Woodstock, was my first exposure to popular music outside the safety net of AM radio. Most people now a days thing of the Sex Pistols when you mention "God Save The Queen" within a pop music context, but to me it will always evoke memories of Jimi Hendrix exhorting the crowd at the Isle of Wight festival to stand up for their culture and fuck you if you don't - then playing the British national anthem. (To be honest I didn't remember the fuck you part of Hendrix's introduction on the original recording and wonder now if it was only restored for this reissue) Unlike his version of the "Star Spangled Banner" which was a searing indictment of its military implications, the soars and leaps he puts his guitar through for the Queen are more tongue in cheek than bitter. Segueing into the Beatle's hit "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band" makes it seem all the more good spirited. It helps to remember Hendrix made his name in England first, and two thirds of his original band were Brits., and it sounds like he's paying tribute to the land which first recognized his talent.
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As a kid the other highlight on the original album had been his renderings of Chuck Berry's "Johnny Be Good" and Carl Perkin's "Blue Suede Shoes". What I had liked then, and still appreciate today, is how little he did to them. Most guitar heroes would look on these types of tracks as excuses to go to town and stamp themselves all over the songs. Hendrix never did that sort of shit, he had too much respect for other people's work. Sure he threw in some searing solos where appropriate, but he was paying tribute to the music he loved growing up, the music which influenced him, and it shows. He plays them with love and spirit so that even songs everybody knows and has heard countless versions of, sound fresh and invigorated. At the same time he managed to give them back the whiff of danger and excitement that reminds you of why rock and roll was considered the music of rebellion.

While the music on In The West is great, it's not until you listen to the recordings on Winterland, culled from six shows on three days in October 1968 (10,11 and 12) that you begin to get some insight into Hendrix's real genius. The band had been on the road almost non-stop for two years across Europe and the United States playing pretty much the same material over and over again. To some it might appear as if it were a miracle, as Redding says at one point, they "we're still standing", let alone performing. After an intense period of playing like this there are two ways a band can go; they can either get to the point where they are doing their set by the numbers and play each song by rote or they've reached the point where they're so comfortable with each other and their material they use it as a springboard to jump higher each and every night. For these six gigs in 1968 Jimi Hendrix and company were definitely in the latter camp, throwing caution to the winds and finding every single possibility available in each song.

Each time you hear "Purple Haze" it's like the first time again. Even though you can't help but recognize what have to be almost the most familiar opening chords in rock and roll after "Smoke On The Water", you can't help but experience a sensation akin to the shock of hearing something for the first time. Maybe it's the anticipation of wondering what's to come and where is he going to take the song this time? But every time I heard that familiar wavering tremolo as Hendrix holds the opening note for what sometimes seems like an eternity before playing those big chunky chords of the opening, I felt a flutter of excitement coursing up my spine as if it were a new experience each time. At the risk of sounding like some artifact, his music was an experience in all senses of the word. It creates images in your minds eye, you feel it in your body, naturally you hear it and sometimes you feel like you can bloody well reach out and touch it. There's such a tangible presence to what he created it doesn't seem possible that there were only three men on the stage - the music was almost a fourth person brought to life by the other three.
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A couple of times over the three days they were joined by guests. Jack Casady subbed for Redding on bass for a song on the opening night, and instead of playing "Voodoo Child" as planned Hendrix swings into Howlin' Wolf's "Killing Floor". When the Experience are joined by flautist Virgil Gonsalves from the Buddy Miles Band for "Are You Experienced" they extend the song to twice the length they performed it the previous night as Hendrix feeds off the flute to inspire his solos. Listen closely to what you think is the same set list over and over again during the course of the four CDs and on each song you'll hear something new and exciting inside a familiar framework. Therein lies the true genius of Hendrix; he can repeat something note for note when required but isn't tied to any pattern and created something special every time he picked up a guitar.

If you've ever wondered what all the fuss is about, or have forgotten, listening to either of these releases will enlighten you. Also included on disc four of Winterland is an interview recorded with Hendrix backstage at a concert in Boston. While the sound quality isn't the best it does give you some insight into who he considers inspirations and he makes some interesting comments on the difference between English and American music that make a lot of sense. However, the real story of Hendrix is his music and to experience that is to understand how little everyone else since has explored the guitar's potential. It also makes you wonder what he could have done if he hadn't been so limited by the technology at his disposal. Even if he had ended up playing disco, it wouldn't have been like the disco anyone else played.

(Article first published as Music Reviews: Jimi Hendrix - In The West & Winterland [Box Set] on Blogcritics.)

August 30, 2011

Music Review: Tinariwen - Tassili

Do you remember back to the days of your high school English literature classes learning about literary devices like foreshadowing and pathetic fallacy? The latter, imbuing events in nature or inanimate objects with human emotions to help create atmosphere and to intensify mood, was the one teachers always trotted out during the study of any of Shakespeare's plays. Unlike most of the modern writers we would study in high school he understood the power of natural imagery and how it could evoke reactions at a visceral level. Perhaps that was because in the era when he was writing nature still had far more of an impact on the day to day lives of people. Today, unless its a storm of some magnitude, like a hurricane or tornado, we can pretty much carry on blithely ignoring the elements. Oh rain and snow might inconvenience us slightly on occasion, but for most of us they don't dictate our food supply or our overall chances of survival.

While you'll still see the occasional reference to "angry storm clouds" popping up in writing, the use of pathetic fallacy appears to have waned with our continued disassociation with nature. The further we move away from the natural world, the less she becomes part of our frame of reference. For instance, when we refer to a place as being our home land we are referring to the space defined by lines drawn on a map and a name representing a social/political entity not the land itself. Your far more likely to read an urban landscape described using natural terms, the canyons of Manhattan, or man made articles being imbued with human emotions, the angry tooting of a car's horn, than references to natural events in order to create mood. No longer able to identify with nature, we look to what we are familiar with and designate it as a replacement.
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This was driven home to me recently while listening to, and reading the translations of their lyrics, the newest release from the Kel Tamashek (more commonly referred to by the name given them by conquering Arabs, Touareg, or rebel) band Tinariwen. Tassili, being released in North America on Anti Records Tuesday August 30 2011, wasn't recorded in a studio in the midst of some urban centre. Instead it was recorded in the Sahara dessert in southern Algeria. The band spent five weeks coming up with material and recording it inside a large tent offering only minimal protection from the elements. For while this is a band who experienced some international success after playing at music festivals all over the world, they have never lost sight of who they are and their reasons for making music.

While the romantic image of band members riding camels with an electric guitar slung over one shoulder and an automatic rifle is appealing, times have changed. True some of the founding band members participated in the uprisings in Niger and Mali while recording music on cassettes that broadcast the message of the rebellion; a rebellion and a message designed to promote and protect the rights of a nomadic people from the policies of repressive governments. With peace treaties now signed supposedly offering the Kel Tamashek guarantees, their situation remains fragile as years of drought and encroachment on traditional territories have wrecked havoc on their world. Perhaps it's because of this for this recording the band has relinquished their grips on electric guitars in favour of acoustic and utilized unamplified percussion in order to forge an even stronger connection to both their environment and their traditions. Now, just as much as during the rebellion if not more, their people need reminders of who they are and why the desert is an important part of their lives. They may no longer be carrying machine guns, but Tinariwen are still actively fighting to ensure the survival of their people. It's not just the subject matter of the songs communicating to the listeners now, it's the manner in which it is being presented. This is very much a case of the media being as much a part of the message as the message itself.

Those who have listened to Tinariwen will know of the almost trance like quality of their music. How it seduces and entices you to let your mind sink into an almost dream like state in an attempt to reproduce some of the sensations created by living in the dessert. One can almost imagine the vistas of sand spreading out in an endless tableau before you as you listen. The lyrics, in Tamashek, and sung/chanted primarily by front man Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, wash over the steady throb of the percussion and scratch of the electric guitars, occasionally interrupted by an outburst from one of the guitars. These burst of sound are like alarms reminding us to not to be hypnotized by the environment as while the sands may appear lifeless and barren they actually team with life and sudden changes.

On Tassili the band's new approach not only allows you to go deeper into the atmosphere they have always created, it conveys far more of the emotional and spiritual bond their people have with the desert. The intimacy of the acoustic instruments and the focus required to play and record on location has strengthened the ties their music has with the environment to the extent its influence is an almost palpable presence. You would think that this type of recording would be the least likely for the band to start introducing performers who come from other places into the mix. In fact one would almost expect the inclusion of North American guest on the album to be jarring interruptions that would take away from what they were seeking to create.
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However, that's not the case. I don't tend to read liner notes prior to listening to a CD as I want to create my own impressions of the music without being influenced by what anyone else has to say about a recording. On my first listening, even though the contributions of outsiders included vocals sung in English on the third track, "Tenere Taqhim Tossam", by Tunde Adebimpe of the band TV On The Radio and horns by New Orlean's Dirty Dozen Brass Band on the fourth track, "Ya Messinagh", they barely registered. I was so caught up in what the band had created, and the additions were so carefully worked into the mix, the contributions of the other musicians were merely another part of the whole experience Tinwariwen were creating. Even on listening a second and third time, knowing there were additional musicians involved and listening for them, it didn't make any difference.

It would be easy for a band in Tinwariwen's position, gaining international acclaim and being lionized by pop stars like Robert Plant and Carlos Santana, to drift away from who they are and lose their focus. However, instead of succumbing to any potential temptations to make their music more accessible to wider audiences they have moved in the opposite direction to return even closer to their roots. It's as if they have decided that after introducing us to their world, they are now prepared to take us another step deeper into it. On the other hand one always has to remember the circumstances under which they began playing music in the first place. They may have put down the rifles and the fighting might be over, for now, but the war is far from done.

As the world encroaches further and further into their traditional territories and more and more of the Kel Tamashek are being forced to leave the desert to live in cities, they are being disconnected from the life and traditions which gave them direction as a people. Tinwariwen, and other Kel Tamashek bands and musicians are continuing to do their best to ensure the survival of their people and their culture through their music. They know they can't keep the rest of the world at bay, hence the inclusion of those sympathetic to their music and cause on the album, but with this disc they are telling their audience, both Kel Tamashek and the rest of the world, we can still be who we once were no matter what the rest of the world throws at us. This beautiful and haunting recording is not a plea for help, rather it is a statement from a proud and dignified people proclaiming their right to live as they want to and celebrating who they are and the land they love.

(Band photo by Marie Planeille)

Article first published as Music Review: Tinariwen - Tassili on Blogcritics)

Book Review: Storm of the i: An Artobiography by Tina Collen

Over the past ten years the market has been flooded with an outpouring of memoirs from people who think the rest of us want to hear their tales of woe. While some have been written from a genuine desire to assist others struggling to come to grips with their own recovery, far too many have been self-serving attention seeking grabs for a flicker of celebrity. Unfortunately the numbers in the latter category have come to so outweigh the former many of us cringe upon hearing yet another "brave story of one (insert gender here) struggle to overcome past" has been unleashed upon the public. All of which means those few voices which might have something of value to say, aren't receiving a fair hearing.

Personally, I'm one of those whose instinctive reaction upon receiving a press release containing anything close to the "brave story" phrase is to hit delete and move on. As a survivor and a writer I find most of them either tedious or downright offensive. Having gone through years of therapy and dealt with my own shit, frankly I've little interest in wading through other people's manure, especially when they have nothing new to say about the subject at hand. That's especially true about those who are looking for their Oprah moment by telling the world about how miserable they were as a child. What are you trying to accomplish by spilling your guts to the world without putting it into any sort of context beyond self-pity and the confessional? No matter what anybody might say to the contrary there is nothing "inspirational" in reading somebody's tale of woe. What would be inspirational would be for you to have the courage to go to a therapist once a week and deal with your problems, but that makes for pretty boring reading and won't garner you any headlines.

So to say I was surprised to find myself intrigued enough to not only read the entire press release, but to request a review copy of Storm Of The i: An Artobiography by Tina Collen, published by her own Art Review Press, is a bit of an understatement. However, there was something about the attitude expressed in the release, and the outline of the concept for the book, that intrigued me. That the kiss of death "brave" catch phrase was nowhere to be seen and the author, a visual artist and graphic designer, was unabashedly proud of her other work, implying she was anything but the victim type, helped convince me this might be a story worth reading. However the real clincher was the fact you could tell that Ms. Collen, in spite of whatever her story was, had never lost her sense of the absurd and was still able to laugh at the world in spite of what it may have done to her.
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As a graphic and visual artist Ms. Collen has elected to tell her story utilizing the skills she is most comfortable with as well as the written word. (Hence the sub-title "An Artobiography") Having grown tired of the standard format of both biographies and autobiographies, with their written equivalent of the talking heads in a documentary movie telling a person's story and passionless listings of events in neat chronological order, even somebody daring to consider an alternative was exciting. It was the obvious question of how she would do this which first sprang to mind. However the answer wasn't anything as neat and tidy as I thought. Instead of the book being filled with images either reflecting her emotional state during the process of recovery or recently created works that looked back on her life telling the story in hindsight, she has done something far more revealing.

Any creative person, but especially one working in the visual arts, tells their own story through their work whether they are aware of it or not. No matter what the subject matter part of who they are and how they are feeling at the time they worked on a project can't help but being communicated in the finished result. While Ms. Collen had always known her relationship with her father was a source of grief in her life, it felt like everything she did, from dating to having children, angered him and that he was constantly belittling her, it was in her work that the true impact of their relationship was manifested. Looking at various pieces she had created throughout her life she began to notice recurring themes of emptiness. The void inside of her created by her father's apparent lack of love that she had repressed and carefully hidden from herself and the world had been on display for all to see if they, and she, had only known what to look for.

Even more frightening, in some ways, was coming to the understanding her ability to lose herself in her work, to become immersed in whatever she was working on, was in fact a means of running away from dealing with the issue. While all artists lose themselves in their work to the extent they can block out the world around them if their focus is sufficient, some of the examples of Ms. Collen's pieces included in the book border on obsessive in their need for attention to detail. She created a truly brilliant and witty series of works where she painstakingly created very realistic pictures of flowers by using body parts cut from pornographic magazines as the material. (For more on these works check out the Fleurotica section of her web site)

To the world she exuded confidence and bravado, always able to make those around her laugh and delight in her creativity and intellect. But she was crippled by back and neck pain and swamped by tidal waves of guilt, remorse and grief that began to manifest in debilitating as periods of depression so deep she wouldn't want to leave her bed. But this is not solely a tale of woe, its also a celebration of a life filled with creativity and a zest for experiences. Unlike other tell all confessions filled with self-abasement, recrimination and negativity, Collen doesn't leave you feeling like you're on a guided trip of the nine circles of her personal hell. In creating this map of her journey she details the whole process not just the negatives. She even owns up to having taken pleasure out of her life, not something you'd expect to find in this type of book.

One thing, and I was ever so grateful for this. she doesn't claim to have are the answers. She's very careful never to cross the line between telling her story and telling people what to do with their situations. While she does talk about the various therapies she has attempted in her search for relief, she refrains from becoming an advocate for any particular one. Even her description of attending an intensive seminar/lecture series whose methods very obviously don't work for her, makes sure to point out how it works for a number of the participants. What she does make clear is that no matter what therapy you use, recovery from any type of early life trauma is ultimately dependant on whether or not an individual is willing to be completely honest with themselves and do their own work. A therapist is only a guide, they can't change your life for you, only you can do that. Not only does Collen make that clear, she also makes it obvious that each of us are different and that her story isn't to be taken as any sort of guideline for recovery.
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So what was her purpose in writing this book if it wasn't for that reason? She's honest enough to even tackle that question. At one point she wonders out loud if the process of writing this book. with all its little intricacies and design features, isn't just another means of escape. However, she doesn't try to justify its writing by saying things like, I hope my story will inspire others or some such crap. She's doing it because she needs to, it's part of her process. She's a creative and intelligent person who thrives when making pieces of art. This book is simply one more of her creations, this time it just happens to be a very realistic, multi media, self-portrait. While other artists might have painted out the wart on their chin, she's more inclined to follow in the footsteps of people like Van Gogh who had no fear of showing the world their true state when putting their own image onto canvas.

Some of the reviews for this book I've read warn this style of memoir might become a trend, with people publishing scrap books of their lives in an attempt to tell their stories. All I can say is I sincerely hope not. In the hands of an artist gifted with the honesty, humour and integrity of Tina Collen, this book works. While some might find its lack of traditional book structure - one page might be pictures of events in the past with little written explanations of the events depicted while the next deals with something completely unrelated - confusing because its not divided up into neat chapters nor told in what appears to be a chronological order. Yet, if you think of it as a really large canvass made up of the multitude of experiences that exist inside her brain right now - after all we are inherently cubist as everything we have ever done lives on somewhere inside of us making us all multifaceted whether we're aware of it or not - you'll realize you've actually been given more of a complete picture os a person's life than either an autobiography or biography would normally supply. Like a collage it's all laid out in front of us to look at and absorb as individual images and ideas catch our attention.

Tina Collen has taken the staid and boring world of biography/autobiography and blown it wide open. While you may never have heard of her and her work before, with Storm of the i she has created something both remarkable, for its bold and fresh approach, and worth taking note of as a piece of art. In a digital age with the Internet at her disposal, she has chosen to utilize two of humanities oldest means of expression and combine them in ways that both challenge and engage the reader. Asking what purpose does it serve is no more relevant than asking what purpose any painting, novel, song, dance, opera or sculptor serves. Remember all art has its roots in the autobiographical, this work is just a little bit more obvious about it than others.

(Article first published as Book Review: Storm of the i: An Artobiogrpahy by Tina Collen on Blogcritics)

August 21, 2011

Music Review: Erdem Helvacioglu & Sirin Pancaroglu -Resonating Universes

When you think about modern electronic compositions you normally expect the instruments employed by the performers to be something you'd plug in. Keyboards, guitars and anything else that's already electronically inclined. One of the last instruments you would probably associate with these types of works would be the harp. Whether one of the huge concert harps used with a symphony orchestra or one of the many different "folk" harps from cultures around the world, they seem to be the epitome of an acoustic instrument. Delicately plucked strings picking out a melody which makes one think of ancient folk songs, minstrels and bards would on the surface appear to have little in common with music generated by computer processors.

Yet its just such a juxtaposition of the old and the new that composer and performer Erdem Helvacioglu and harpist Sirin Pancaroglu have attempted on their CD Resonating Universes on the Sargasso label. A composition for concert harp, ceng (traditional Turkish harp), electric harp and electronics, Resonating Universes is not merely an attempt to redefine our expectations when it comes to the type of music a harp is capable of producing or to shock listeners. Rather its an exploration of sound and the process of composition itself.
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In composing the eight parts of the nearly hour long piece, Helvacioglu first recorded Pancaroglu playing the concert harp and assembled samples of the huge variety of sounds and textures the instrument is capable of creating. The process was then repeated with each of the other two instruments in order to create a library of as many sounds as possible reflecting the sonic world of the harp. Pancaroglu's contribution was not limited to sitting in a studio plucking strings randomly in order to make sounds, She created and defined the boundaries of the universe through her abilities with the instruments in question. While the final result heard on the disc came from Helvacioglu's manipulation of the sounds, it was she who was responsible for the context within which he would work. She was the one who knew what her instruments could create and how to respond to what had been already been recorded with complimentary music and sounds.

For those not familiar with Helvacioglu's method of composition you need to know he specializes in improvisational work. After laying down a core of music he will then proceed to build layer upon layer of sound with each layer building upon the previous one until a piece reaches its conclusion. Like an abstract painter somebody working in this manner has to know when to remove their brush from the canvass in order not to ruin the painting. What they leave out of the final composition is just as important as what they have included. Just as if you keep mixing colours together you end up with something that looks like mud, adding too many sounds to the original base can quickly cause a composition to cross the border from music to cacophony.
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Thankfully that's not the case here, for although Helvacioglu pushes the envelope as far as he can go, he never once steps over the edge into sludge. However, before sitting down to listen to this disc you are going to have to rid yourself of any expectations you have about harps and the music they create. This is not a collection of ethereal folk songs by any stretch of the imagination as Helvacioglu and Pancaroglu have taken the instrument to places it has never been before. I'm sure there are many out there who aren't going to be able to listen to this because of what they think a harp should sound like, but there were plenty of people who wouldn't look at a Jackson Pollack painting either because they didn't adhere to their definition of visual art. In fact, if you're not familiar with modern composition, prior to listening to this piece you're going to have to rid yourself of any preconceived notions concerning what makes something music.

As with any abstract form of expression each of us are going to react to these pieces in our own way. While we can admire the technical abilities that allow Helvacioglu and Pancaroglu to create the material objectively, the results are an entirely different matter. So, all I can give you is my impressions of what I listened to and hope they provide you with an idea of what the music is like and a guide to help you listen to it. However, I've no way of knowing if my interpretation has any bearing on what the two artists involved in its creation were intending. I looked to the composition's title, Resounding Universes as a guide and went from there.

Thinking of each phrase of harp music, even each note, as a possible universe based on their potential to inspire other sounds allows you to develop a kind of road map into each of the eight parts that make up the piece. Although we are presented with a finished product, the original harp buried beneath the layers upon layers of sounds and effects Helvacioglu has built up around it, keeping this in mind allows us to understand and appreciate the relationship that binds them together. It's like being able to experience all the possible ripples of dropping a pebble in water at once instead of watching it gradually develop. Instead of sitting and wondering what will happen when the butterfly flaps its wings in Japan, we hear cause and effect simultaneously.
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That's not necessarily a pretty sound, but the creation of a new universe is a messy affair. Heck the ongoing evolution of a planet like earth isn't the neatest thing, what with volcanoes erupting, earthquakes moving continents around and oceans overflowing their boundaries periodically. Yet there's something about the raw power that is awe inspiring and beautiful. Looking past the surface discordance of the pieces on this recording offers one the opportunity to experience that totality of creation in all its raw power, disharmony and beauty. When even something as traditionally gentle and unassuming as the harp has the potential for this type of power, what does that say about the process of creation in the natural world?

Resonating Universes is not something you're going to put on the CD player for light listening or as some sort backdrop for meditation. It's far too grounded in the rough and tumble of reality for either purpose. This is music that reflects the clash of powers occurring during the process of creation and that's as far from a relaxing experience as you can get. So for those of you looking to listen to some nice gentle harp music that will keep your senses dulled and help keep you asleep to the world around you, look somewhere else. However if you want to experience in some small way how one spark, no matter what the spark is, can set off the amazing chaos of creation, then this disc is for you. It's an experience you'll not soon forget.

(Photo of Sirin Pancaroglu - Baris Dervent)
(Article first published as Music Review: Erdem Helvacioglu and Sirin Pancaroglu - Resonating Universes on Blogcritics)

August 1, 2011

Book Review: Dancing Barefoot, The Patti Smith Story by Dave Thompsom

I was recently asked a question regarding the story of a person's life that gave me serious pause for thought about the reasons for writing biographies in general. The question was, what is there about this person's story that people will be able to identify with? After I had answered the question regarding the person under discussion to the best of my ability, it led me into thinking about why it is people would want to read about another person's life in the first place. If you've walked into a book store recently you can't have helped noticing non-fiction sections are awash with books about the lives of so-called celebrities. Rock stars, reality TV stars, movie stars, wives and husbands of movie stars and so on stare back at you from display tables and book shelves asking you to shell out your hard earned bucks to.... to what?

Some of them are obviously extensions of the type of coverage you'd expect from the celebrity gossip columns and television shows that pass for journalism or entertainment reporting these days. Collections of photos and filled with the titillating tid-bits aimed at perpetuating whatever myth has grown up around the subject matter. There are also the "My life with so and so" type, which are a version of the tell all book that involves ex-wives, husbands, butlers and pool-boys attempting to cash in on their relationship with the subject by telling the world how they were abused, under tipped or what was involved in a post pool party clean up. A little further up, or lower depending on your point of view, the food chain are the more in depth tomes tracing their subject's life from infancy to death based on interviews with such credible sources as friends of a friend of the guy who drove the ice cream truck through their neighbourhood. Unsubstantiated should be blazoned across the cover of these books rather than the ubiquitous "Unauthorized" as the pages are filled with "he (or she) said" followed by "he said" of quotes that can be neither proven or discredited as the author has gone to great pains to protect his or her sources anonymity.
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Candy floss books like those are people looking for to get the same fix of outrage and envy they receive from reading about "celebrity scandals" in their magazine of choice. Anybody who already buys a tabloid devoted to the antics of "Teen Moms" aren't going to be the most discerning or demanding of audiences and will be more than satisfied with anything that gives them more of the same but in a fancier package. However, what about biographies about the non-celebrity; the world leaders, the history makers, the great scientist and the brilliant artist? What are we looking for when we pick up a biography of someone like Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, Stephen Hawking or Pablo Picasso? These are people who have left an indelible stamp on history and I think its natural there will be curiosity as to what made them who they were and how it came about. How is it this person became so much more than the person sitting next to them in school? Was it they were simply smarter, did they catch some sort of lucky break or were they driven by some burning desire or ambition that propelled them to the pinnacles they obtained? But I also think we want more than just a person's what when we read a biography, we want to gain a deeper understanding of who they are.

We've seen their lives from the outside, but people are more than a collection of actions. It also seems the greater a person's accomplishments, the more interesting and complex they are, and some clue as to who that might be is something we're all naturally curious about. Maybe its just because we hope to find something of ourselves in the pages of their story and in the process some way of personally identifying with them and feeding that small part of ourselves where dreams live with "if they can do it why can't I"? Naturally each individual is going to have different variations on the above motivating their curiosity about the subject of a biography, and depending on who and what the person is known for, there's no saying it will have to be the same reason each time.

When I picked up the new biography of poet/musician Patti Smith, Dancing Barefoot: The Patti Smith Story, by Dave Thompson being published by the Chicago Review Press on August 2 2011, I was already fairly familiar with what her life and career have consisted of and was interested in seeing if the author would be able to provide any more insights into who she was. For while its true Smith recently published her own in depth autobiography,Just Kids it was primarily concerned with her early life in New York City and her relationship with her dear friend Robert Maplethorpe. The other major piece of biographical material available is the ten year in the making documentary by Stephen Sebring, Patti Smith - Dream Of Life, which, although it contains extensive footage of Smith and is remarkably moving in places, I found left me wanting to know more about her.
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Thompson was exhaustive in his research for this book and its not lacking in facts and information. Not only did he conduct extensive interviews with those who knew Patti at various points in her life, he seems to have read nearly everything ever written about her in both the press and other people's writings. However, even more promising as far as I was concerned, was his mentioning in the introduction how he tried to turn to her words and writings whenever possible for information. While the majority of the latter turned out to be interviews she had given at various points in her career, it also included her poetry, lyrics and even Just Kids and whatever other autobiographical writings he was able to access. Thompson also had the benefit of having been there himself when her career took off during the heydays of punk rock in the mid 1970s. (In fact portions of this book previously appeared in one of his earlier works, London's Burning:True Adventures on the Front Line of Punk 1976 -1977) which should have enabled him to bring his own emotional memories of the time to bear upon the subject.

The book traces Smith's life and career from pretty much her birth right to 2010. While a great deal of this was covered in Smith's Just Kids, Thompson switches the focus away from her relationship with Maplethorpe, although as that was such a formative part of who she is he can't ignore it, and focuses instead on those aspects of her life more directly related to her career. While there is still quite a bit of overlap between the two books, his emphasis on how her career was being shaped by those events distinguishes his work from hers. We also hear from those who knew Smith and Maplethorpe during this time, and their observations at least offer a different perspective on things Smith described in her book. While at times it feels somewhat strange to read these third person accounts it does help to explain how Smith was able to begin establishing herself as a force to be reckoned with in the artistic community of New York City in the late 60s early 70s.

There are also details, like Smith's fascination with Jim Morrison of the Doors, which she had barely touched on in her own book, that Thompson recounts. With descriptions of things like Smith standing at Morrison's grave in Paris for two hours in the pouring rain hoping to receive some sort of communion from beyond, he makes a case for Morrison's combination of rock and roll and poetry as one of the bigger influences on her career. While he never comes right out and says it in so many words, the fact that Thompson keeps bringing him up time and time again in relationship to Smith's work is an indication of the importance he places on it and his ability to cite her own references to the late rock and roll singer gives the suggestion credence. Personally I never thought that much of Morrison, so my own personal prejudices made it difficult to accept that Smith's work would have been inspired by someone whose work was, what I'd consider, far inferior to hers, but he does present a very convincing case in support of the theory.
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Thompson's meticulous research pays off for the reader in his recounting Smith's near fatal accident during a performance in Tampa Bay Florida when while dancing on stage she tripped over a monitor and fell over the edge to the concrete below damaging vertebrae in her neck. While rumours have circulated as to the cause of the accident the truth was as the opening act on the tour they were forced to work around the headlining group's gear and the monitor was not where she thought it would be. I'd never even heard of this incident, it's not mentioned in either her book or the movie, so was shocked to discover how serious it had been. For a while after the accident there was not only doubt as to whether she would ever perform again, but if she would ever walk again. Smith was part of the reason the fall was downplayed so much, as she was never aware how serious the problem was. Unused to pain medication she would cheerfully answer fine to people's queries as to how she was feeling. So unless you were actually in the hospital room to see her immobilized, you'd not have known the risk she was at.

While these and other facts are interesting and Thompson has done a fine job in organizing and relating them in a neat chronological package, I came to the end of the book not feeling like I had come to know the person behind the facts any better then I had before I started. Perhaps that's because I'd read her own book, own a copy of Sebring's movie and its accompanying book and have watched a number of interviews with her where she has discussed both herself and her career and was already familiar with her. Perhaps my expectations outstripped what is possible to accomplish within the format of a biography, but still I felt there has to be more to someone's life than the mere recitation of what happened to them and when. Thompson's background in journalism shows in his unwillingness to stray too far from laying out facts and very rarely expand upon them in an effort to give us more of a sense of who Patti Smith is. Don't get me wrong, that's not his fault, it's, at least as far as I'm concerned, one of the inherent flaws in the biographical genre. They reduce flesh and blood people down to facts and in the process remove the passion in their lives which made them so fascinating in the first place. You'll learn all about Patti Smith and her career by reading Dancing Barefoot, The Patti Smith Story but you won't know her any better after reading it then before you opened it.

(Article first published as WORKING GH Book Review: Dancing Barefoot: The Patti Smith Story by Dave Thompson on Blogcritics)

July 18, 2011

Tinariwen Denied Visas To Enter Canada

Well it hasn't taken Steven Harper's newly elected majority government in Canada very long to embarrass Canada internationally and send a chill through the Canadian artistic community at the same time. The Malian based, internationally renowned Kel Tamashek band Tinariwen has been denied visas to enter Canada in order to perform twice in the past couple of months. First they were turned down for a visa so they could perform as scheduled at the Winnipeg Folk Festival and then when they re-applied in Los Angeles in order to make it to the Vancouver Folk Festival they were turned down again. It's not as if this is the first time the band has travelled to Canada as they've been performing here on a regular basis since 2004.

So why have they all of a sudden been denied entry to Canada? It can't be because of security problems as they have had no problems with gaining admission to the United States for that part of their North American tour. In fact if you check out their touring schedule listed at their web site you'll see they're booked to play almost every major music festival in Europe and around the world this summer, except of course for Canada. When asked for comment as to why they denied the band their visa's this year, Citizenship and Immigration Canada refused to say anything except each application is assessed on its merits. According to the spokesperson quoted in the Globe and Mail on July 15/11, Johanne Nedeau, they consider the profile of the event, invitations from the Canadian hosts and whether letters of support were received.

Okay, so the first event they were turned down for was the Winnipeg Folk Festival which has been on going since 1974. According to figures released by Tourism Winnipeg in 2009 the folk festival creates 244 jobs, generates $25 million in economic activity and its impact on Manitoba's Gross Domestic Product is around $14 million. For those of you who don't know Canada that well, Manitoba, where Winnipeg is located, is not one of the richest provinces in Canada. It doesn't have the industry of Ontario, oil wells of Alberta or the wheat fields of Saskatchewan. It needs any little boost it can get and the Winnipeg Folk Festival with its annual attendance of over 70,000 per annum is not small potatoes.
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Artistically the festival has been attracting performers from across North America and around the world since it began. This year's festival was promising to be more of the same with acts like k.d Lang, Blue Rodeo, Lucinda Williams, Blackie and The Rodeo Kings and Little Feat from North America mixing with international performers like Omar Souleyman from North Africa, actor Tim Robbins and his Rogues Gallery Band and Toots and the Maytals from Jamaica. Not only do they hold there annual weekend concert series, the festival also runs year round programming to encourage and develop local talent and introduce young people to international music. I would think that qualifies them as a pretty high profile event both artistically and economically.

The Vancouver festival didn't get started until 1977, but it has more than made up for its late start by now. Being in a larger metropolitan centre hasn't hurt, and being on the West Coast of Canada also allows them access to bands in Asia that other festivals don't have. This year's acts include mainstream artists like Roseanne Cash, Josh Ritter and Gillian Welsh as well as international artists like Cassius Khan, Emmanuel Jal and Tinariwen - oops, not them, they weren't allowed into Canada that's right. The Vancouver festival is one of the major international folk gatherings each year. Bands and performers from around the world make sure to include it as part of their touring schedule. You wouldn't believe how many times I've requested information from publicists about whether their band was going to be performing in Canada only to find out they would only be showing up in Vancouver for the folk festival and nowhere else.

So I think we've established that both the Vancouver and Winnipeg Folk Festivals are significant events in the year's calendar, and we know Tinariwen was invited by each of the festivals to perform. As for the letters of support, upon finding out about the band being denied a visa for Winnipeg, two Canadian Members of Parliament wrote letters supporting their application for entry to perform in Vancouver. Yet somehow or other despite all the requirements for granting of a visa being met, Tinariwen still weren't allowed into Canada. One really has to wonder what was motivating the decision to refuse them entry.
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Tinariwen are fast becoming one of the biggest draws on the international music circuit. Support from main stream musicians like Robert Plant and others has given them a much higher profile than most international bands. Preventing the band from playing at these two folk festivals will definitely have an impact on their box offices as each event had scheduled them for a headlining concert - they were to have to been the opening night act in Vancouver. If one looks at the results from the last election, both British Columbia and Manitoba gave a healthy majority of their seats to the Conservative Party - so on the surface there doesn't appear to be any reason for political motivation. However, those most likely to attend and/or organize either one of these festivals are not the types who are liable to vote for the Conservative Party of Canada.

This is the same government who has already cancelled funding for a theatre festival because they did not agree with the content of a play performed in its previous season. Toronto's Summerworks Theatre Festival had its funding cancelled by the Department of Canadian Heritage because they staged a play the government didn't like. Only weeks before the festival is scheduled to begin they have been told its 2011 grant of around $48,000 was being pulled, an amount that represented 20% of the festivals budget. The message is clear, there's no such thing as arms length arts funding in Canada and if the government doesn't like you or your politics you can expect to be screwed over in one way or another.

Vancouver and Winnipeg's folk festival have paid the price for not representing Steven Harper's vision of Canada by having one of their biggest draws refused entry at the border. While cutting funding to artists is still the easiest way to silence them the government is also showing itself willing to find new and inventive ways of punishing those it can't touch through funding cuts. What kind of message is our government sending when it cuts funding to artists who express opinions different from their own and arbitrarily prevents others from crossing our borders? The one I'm hearing is if you don't agree with us we're going to make you suffer. In the long run it will be the people of Canada who suffer the most as we're gradually cut off from freedom of expression. Preventing Tinariwen from gaining admission to Canada is only the tip of the ice berg representing the beginning of what looks to be a big chill artistically in Canada. Harper and his Conservative Party of Canada have five years to do what they want, and it looks as if they're off to a flying start in reshaping the country in their image.

(Article first published as Tinariwen Denied Visas to Enter Canada on Blogcritics)

June 14, 2011

Music Review: Boban & Marko Markovic Orchestra Versus Fanfare Ciocarlia - Balkan Brass Battle

Ah, gypsy music! The wild violins, the flamenco style guitar, the hammered strings of the cimbalom, the deep rumble of a double bass and the careening clarinet accompanying a tortured voice singing of love, religion, troubles and other aspects of their marginalized lives. In spite of the fact there are Romany people living across a span of territory stretching from India to Spain in Asia, the Middle East and Europe, most people tend to latch onto this one, very romantic, notion of what their music should sound like. While its true there are bands where the violin is important, the music can not only be radically different depending upon which country those who play it reside in, even within a single country it can change from province to province and town to town.

For not only were the Romany a nomadic people who absorbed the musical influences of those whose territories they passed through, they were also survivors who learned quickly how to adopt the music of the local dominant culture so they could earn their keep as entertainers. While in some cases it has become difficult to tell whether the Romany have adopted local folk traditions or vice versa, in others the non Romany influence is obvious. When the Ottoman Empire of Turkey swept up the Danube River through Eastern Europe, until they were halted at the gates of Vienna from entering the West, they brought with them a sound that was new to European ears. While marching bands, military bands especially, are now commonplace, they were first introduced to Europe by the conquering Turkish armies. Throughout the territories they occupied they brought with them their love of brass bands and those wishing to perform for the new rulers quickly learned to play what would sell.
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Not only did the Romany people under the Ottoman Empire pick up brass music, they gradually developed their own distinct styles of performance which reflected both their own musical heritage and the regions of Europe they lived in. Although it's only been recently this style of music has made its way over to North America, it is easily as popular and well known as what we refer to as "traditional" Romany music elsewhere. The Guca Festival of brass bands in Serbia, featuring Romany bands from across Europe, is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year and routinely draws over two hundred bands who compete for the title of champion brass band of Europe. One of the most celebrated contestants was Serbian native son the Boban & Marko Markovic Orchestra, who, after receiving unprecedented high marks from all the judges in all the categories at the 2001 festival, no longer competes but performs as a special guest every year. Needless to say they were shocked when whispers began reaching their ears of a band of part time musicians from a small town in Romania who were gaining international recognition and acclaim and being talked about in the same reverential tones usually reserved for them.

Fanfare Ciocarlia from the tiny village of Zece Prajini, Moldavia in north eastern Romania were one of the last brass bands in the country. With no tradition to draw upon, and almost no contact with the outside world during the communist era, they developed their own unique approach to the music. Barnstorming through Western Europe and even North America, they have wowed audiences everywhere they've been. Somehow, the two bands never crossed paths until a few years ago, although each had been asked about the other by fans. Until now the two bands have never shared a stage, let alone been in the recording studio together, so there has been no way for aficionados of the music to compare the two and perhaps decide which is the better.

All that has changed with the release of Balkan Brass Battle on the German Asphalt Tango Records label and a whirlwind tour of European cities under the same name. The CD features both solo and combined performances from the bands, four tracks of each, as they stage a semi-mock competition for the title of King of the Romany Brass Bands. For those of you, like me, whose only previous experience with brass bands has been limited to marching and military bands or those euphemistically referred to as stage bands (massed brass instruments playing pop tunes a la the James Last Band) the music of these two groups will be nothing like you've heard before. Sure the instruments are the same as those used by the other types of bands, but the music produced is something else all together.
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I'm not even going to attempt to pass judgement on which of these two bands deserve the title of King of Brass Bands, but I will say that after listening to both of them I'll never be able to sit through any other type of brass music recital. It's like the difference between listening to a Muzak rendition of Jimi Hendrix and listening to the real thing. Aside from the occasional solo performance from the best jazz players, I've never heard these instruments played with the energy, passion and soul as they are in the hands of both these bands. Of the two the Boban & Marko Markovic Orchestra are probably the one which sounds most like bands you might have heard before. However that's only because trumpets play a larger role in their sound than they do in Fanfare Ciocarlia. Occasionally you'll hear something in their trumpet playing that might strike you as familiar, the high silver sound we've come to identify with Mexican/Spanish trumpet playing for instance. But that's only one moment in one song and you quickly realize they have more ways of coaxing sound out of trumpets than you'd have thought possible.

Any of you who have seen the movie Borat will have already been exposed to Fanfare Ciocarlia as they were the band covering "Born To Be Wild". While the novelty of listening to that played on brass instruments made it fun to listen to, you'll soon realize how much more there is to this band than this tune. First of all, while it might have seemed like they were playing fast and furious on that rendition, judging by what you hear on this disc the reality is they were only playing at about half their potential speed. Unlike other bands who play flat out, the thing you quickly understand about Fanfare Ciocarlia is they aren't rushing. No matter what speed they play at each note is distinct and clearly defined so that we feel and hear even the smallest nuances. Unlike their Serbian counterparts whose main weapon is the trumpet, Fanfare are led into battle by their woodwinds, clarinet primarily, which gives them a much more distinctly Eastern European sound. You can easily believe how at one time Romany musicians joined forces with Jewish Klezmer bands when you hear the almost plaintive sound of the clarinet dart like a small bird through the thunder of the brass rhythm section.

While individually each band is a force to be reckoned with, on the four songs where they combine forces you have to wonder how the studio walls stayed standing under the onslaught. It's not just because of the volume of sound they produce, but because of the intensity of their music. In fact its hard to believe that the CD you're listening to has managed to capture all that was created during the recording sessions. Listen to the sound of the band member's voices in between and before the tracks and the joy and excitement they express just from being involved in the process. You'll quickly become aware of the limitations of even our most sophisticated technology. There's no way in hell it could have captured what all those voices represent during the recording of the music. We are able to hear the music and a good deal of the passion that has gone into its creation, but we can't see the smiles on the musicians faces, the laughter in their hearts or the pride in their souls.

If you are lucky enough to be in Europe at some point over the course of the summer of 2011 and you have the opportunity to witness one of the Balkan Brass Battles that will be occurring in cities throughout the continent, don't pass it up. Judging by what has been captured on this CD it will be a concert experience unlike any you have had before or are likely to have ever again. The rest of us will just have to make do with this recording, and be grateful that it at least exists. For those who have never experienced the uninhibited ferocity of either Fanfare Ciocarlia or the Boban and Marko Markovic Orchestra this disc will be a revelation as to what a brass band is capable of producing. Even those who might be familiar with one or other of the two bands will be amazed at how they each push the other to new heights. After listening to Balkan Brass Battle you'll feel like you've never heard brass band music before as everything else will pale in comparison.

(Article first published as Music Review: Boban and Marko Markovic Orchestra & Fanfare Ciocarlia - Balkan Brass Battle on Blogcritics.)

May 25, 2011

Book Review: Cold Comfort Farmby Stella Gibbons

When talking about the classics of modern literature people usually number Joyce, Woolf, Fitzgerald, Burroughs, Miller, and Mailer among those authors who have penned works worthy of that status. While they, and others, may have pushed the art of writing in new directions and redefined the boundaries of what constituted a novel, the elevation of their work into some separate firmament has had the unfortunate side effect of causing other worthy writers to be ignored and their work to fall by the wayside. This problem is compounded by our world's tendency to always be looking for the next "best thing" and our general disregard for the past. As a result, outside of the occasional university survey course in fiction, the majority aren't even aware of the vast body of fiction, most of which is of a much higher quality than what's available today, written in the first part of the twentieth century.

Thankfully there are still some publishers who have memories and who also realize there is value to be found in their back catalogues. I know there are those who look at a massive conglomerate like The Penguin Group of publishers with disdain, the fact remains they have been one of the most consistent producers of English language books. While some may still see in them vestiges of the old British Empire as they maintain outposts in former colonies India, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Ireland, they do in fact publish work by authors from each of those countries and don't just use local branches as clearing houses for remaindered works and boosting international sales. There's also an enormous plus side to their English language history as to what it means in regards to the books they have at their disposal from the past. Even better is the fact they make good use of this material and periodically reach back in time to dust off titles which otherwise might be lost to obscurity.
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This year they have reissued a group of titles under the heading of Penguin Essentials, with works by authors ranging from Thomas Hardy to Hunter S. Thompson and all sorts of stops in between. While some, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov and Lady Chatterly's Lover by D.H. Lawrence have already been enshrined as classics and are familiar to a wide range of people, others are perhaps less well known. While it might never obtain the same status as some of the others in this list, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, released earlier in May 2011 by Penguin Canada, is more than deserving of its new release.

First published in 1932 as a wonderful satire of its times, the humour and points made by the author are timeless, so even if some specifics might be lost on a contemporary audience, its overall impact is still strong and the subject matter still relevant. You see, Gibbons' targets are universal as she pokes fun at the artistic pretensions of the idle British rich, rural melodramas along the lines of Wuthering Heights and other tales of steamy passion set amidst the wilds of Sussex farmlands. Along the way she also manages to take some shots at the "talkies", the upper classes in general, and the extremes of evangelic Christianity. However this is not the broad humour, almost farce, that passes for satire today, this is subtle and dangerous stuff in that you may not be able to catch on immediately to what is and isn't being made fun of. In fact she seems to have very deliberately made some of her targets very obvious, while others require careful thought and observation before being spotted. She may have felt the need to be somewhat circumspect with her barbs as some of those targeted were also those who would have made up her potential audience.

Cold Comfort Farm tells the story of twenty-something Flora Post. After living a privileged early life she discovers upon the demise of her parents she's nowhere near as well off as she thought as her father left her nearly as many debts as assets. While she's taken in by her affluent friend, Mrs. Smiling, Flora feels she must make her own way in the world. Having no money and no inclination to work, she wants to write a great novel when she's fifty-three and spend the interim period accumulating experiences, she decides to draw upon her one asset - a wealth of relatives. Encamped in fashionable London she sends out plaintive letters to relatives inviting herself to live with them. While most of them, "just won't do", her cousins the Starkadders, owners of Cold Comfort Farm in darkest Sussex, sound ideal.
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Flora is obsessed with organizing other people's lives and making sense out of the chaos most of them seem to live in. In the Starkadders and Cold Comfort Farm she finds the perfect subjects to put her skills to work. Her great aunt Ada Doom has hidden in her room for the past two decades, horribly scarred by what she saw as a youngster in the woodshed (or was it the potting shed or the bicycle shed?) Ada rules the roost at the farm, not allowing anyone to leave and controlling finances down to the last penny. Under her thumb are her son in law Amos, part time evangelical preacher; daughter Judith who gives new meaning to the word gloomy; their children, stolid farmer Reuben, over-sexed Seth and artsy, will o' the wisp, Elfine and various other assorted cousins and hired hands.

By the time Flora is finished with them their world has been turned upside down as she proceeds to take them all in hand individually and sort out their lives for them. While this process is the nominal plot for the book, the real joy in the reading comes from how Gibbons manages to weave her hooks and barbs into the story. Whether its her description of a church service conducted by Amos, the conversations between Flora and her various cousins, or what's revealed through the thought processes of her characters and their opinions of life, she manages to hit each and everyone of her targets in the bulls eye. Gibbons not only a gives clinic on how to write satire, she shows how it is possible for a skilled author to have multiple targets in a single book without creating a tangled mess.

Cold Comfort Farm is an example of just one of the wonderful treasures from our past awaiting our reading pleasure. Just because a work hasn't been designated a classic or isn't deemed literature doesn't mean it should be relegated to some dust heap. Hopefully new e-book readers will gradually make works like this one more readily available, but in the mean time we should just be grateful that some are at least hitting shelves of a book store near you.

(Article first published as Book Review: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons on Blogcritics.)

April 18, 2011

Music Review: Azam Ali -From Night To The Edge Of Day

Is there anything more romantic than the image of a mother holding her babe in her arms and crooning a lullaby? I'm sure to most of us the idea conjures up images of times long since gone by. Lovely scenes of women sitting by a flickering fire with her baby at her feet in its cradle as she gently sings it off to sleep. The idea that a woman nowadays would have the time to sing, or even know, cradle songs is seems impossible. In our highly sophisticated and fast speeding world it's more likely mothers would have a recorder programmed to play soothing music to help baby nod off then have time in her day to sit with the child and sing.

This isn't a criticism of anything, it's just a fact of life. Anyway, lullabies weren't necessarily the sentimental thing we think they were. The image projected above is a highly romanticized version of reality probably. Sure mothers in the past have sung their babies to sleep, but the songs haven't all been about passing maternal love through music or attempts to soothe children to sleep. In some traditions cradle songs were the beginnings of a child's education. It was with them they would begin the process of learning communication as these were the first words they would hear. The songs would also mark the start of their initiation into the culture of their people and their subject matter would cover everything from simple morality to basic awareness.

In our selfish world we see lullabies as a means for a woman to build a one on one connection to her child. While that is all very well and good, it also means the child's first impressions of life are that it is the centre of the universe, and that universe revolves around one figure only. It may seem inconsequential to some of you how or what is sung to a child in a cradle, but if their earliest impressions are the world exists to gratify them and say nothing about what their responsibilities to the world will be, what kind of person do you imagine them growing up to be?
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On her newest release, From Night To The Edge Of Day on Six Degrees Records, Azim Ali has set down versions of the cradle songs she sang for her son. In exile from her Iranian homeland she wanted to ensure he was steeped in the culture of her people and their religion. So she sang him a mixture of traditional lullabies and adapted songs that would not only teach him about who he was, but his place in their world. Not being blind to the schisms that have set Muslim against Muslim over the years she chose to sing more than just songs from her Persian heritage, and the songs collected on the disc have been deliberately chosen to reflect the ethnic diversity within Islam.

Unlike in the world at large this means that Kurdish songs rest peacefully next to those from Turkey and Iraq, Sunni and Shiite stand together and the lesser known people of Azerbaijan are just as important as everyone else. While the songs are sung in the languages appropriate to their country or culture of origin, Ali has provided translations of each song in the CD's accompanying booklet. While a quick glance might make it appear that the songs are fairly typical protestations of a mother's lover for a child - the usual make the child the centre of the universe thing - closer attention will see there are phrases scattered throughout them to begin to open a child's eyes to the world around it. "You will not be mine for long" sings the mother in the traditional Iranian song "Mehman" (The Guest), recognizing that a child is only temporarily a parent's possession and he or she should use this time wisely to sleep while they are still sheltered.

Probably the most poignant lyrics of any of the songs on the disc are to be found in the one written especially for Ali's child by Palestinian oud player and singer Naser Musa. "Faith", is a beautiful song of hope for a better world for the child to grow up in. This from the pen of a man who has lived as a refugee for the majority of his life is a small miracle in itself, that it comes from a region where hate is far more common than hope is almost beyond belief. What would the world be like if people everywhere could rise above themselves and their situations to wish for a world where "childhood will be restored to the smiles of youth which were deprived of compassion" for those who are inheriting the earth from us? If parents around the world could find it inside themselves to whisper words of this sort into their child's ears instead of passing along our own prejudices as is our habit wouldn't the chances of peace be greatly improved?
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Musically Ali and those accompanying her on this disc have created a lush combination of traditional Arabic music and modern technology. While the club scene has what it calls its trance music, after hearing the arrangements and playing on this disc, you realize it is a pale facsimile of what can be expressed with the genre. While any of the former I've heard seems designed to reduce people to a drone like status, unthinking and unemotional automatons blissed out on their electronic drug noise, this music enlivens the senses instead of numbing them. Like the Dervishes of old who would use dance and music to obtain a higher state of being that would allow them to open themselves up to the glories of the universe, the music created by Ali and co-producer (and husband) Loga Ramin Torkjan is designed to open the listener up not close them down.

Of course Ali's rich and expressive voice is the focal point, but all the instruments are distinguishable within the mix of sounds each song is composed of. Here trance music does not mean simply a drone of sound lulling you into submission, it is instruments working together to form a texture or atmosphere that opens your mind to the emotions and mood of each song. True the intent of a lullaby is to send an infant safely off into sleep, but while some would employ them simply to put a child to sleep, these songs are also shaping the nature of a child's dreams allowing him or her to have their first experience, in one way or another, of the world beyond themselves.

Azam Ali's collection of lullabies gathered from throughout the Islamic world is a reminder that parents the world over dream of a better world for their children. While the songs point out the differences between our cultures in some ways, the love a parent feels for a child isn't unique to any one people. What we do with that love and how we express it dictates how our children see the world and what they bring to it. If more parents were willing to offer the kind of messages found on this CD to their children, messages of love, hope and faith, don't you think they'd have a chance at a better life? Isn't that worth at least making the effort to ensure the messages we pass on to our children aren't the same ones we were given?

(Article first published as Music Review: Azam Ali - From Night to The Edge of Day on Blogcritics)

April 15, 2011

Interview: Steven Erikson Author Of The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Sequence

For the best part of the twenty-first century Steven Erikson's and Ian Cameron Esselement have bewitched and amazed readers with their joint creation of the world inhabited by the Malazan Empire. As the first of the two authors to publish books in the series, and the first to finish his contribution to world building with the publication of his tenth and final book in his "The Malazan Book Of The Fallen sequence, The Crippled God, Erikson's name is the one most still identify the series with.

Over the course of reading the series I've read little bits and pieces of quotes from Mr. Erikson about the series. However, to be honest, I have avoided sitting down and reading any of the interviews he's given or delving too deep into any of the other background material that has surfaced on the web that either he or Mr. Esslement have let slip. At one point I made a half hearted attempt to see about interviewing him through his publisher in Canada, Random House Canada, but part of me didn't want to hear anything about the hows and whys of the series from his point of view while he was still writing it.

Somehow or other it just didn't seem right. As a reader I think I might have thought that asking questions about the series while it was still in progress might have taken a little bit of the magic out of it. Spoiled the illusion that perhaps this world they created could really exist outside of the two fevered brains which had cooked it up. My reviews of both author's books have reflected this as they lacked anything approaching critical objectivity and usually ended up being somewhat incoherent peons of praise as I was usually at a loss as to how to stretch "Holly Fuck what a great book" into something resembling review length.

Like a glutton waiting for a particularly lavish meal to end, but for whom anticipating each course makes up a great deal of the pleasure, any hints as to what was in store for dessert would have been a deadly disappointment. However with Mr. Erikson finished his contributions I found myself wanting just that little bit more, so emailed him to see if he would be willing to answer some of the questions that had occurred to me over the course of reading his books. Here then are both the questions I emailed him and his answers. Hopefully they will not give anything away for those who have not yet had the pleasure of reading his books or finishing the series, but will give all of you a deeper appreciation for what he has accomplished in their writing.

Why writing? What is it about the media that attracts you and when did you first start becoming interested in writing?

From early on and throughout high school I was being directed towards painting and illustration. I was sent by my school to life-drawing courses taught at the city’s art gallery, and I spent most of my free time drawing (especially during Math and other subjects that baffled me). I was reading fantasy and SF at the time, ever since I was about twelve, and had initially been drawn to those genres by the cover illustrations, in particular those painted by Frank Frazetta. This was where my ambitions seemed to reside. Increasingly, however, my efforts pushed me towards a kind of visual narrative. I toyed with the idea of doing comic books, but it seemed like a lot of work (this was in the time before computers handled the formatting tasks, etc – I recall using Letraset for the first few panels), and I wasn’t quite as nimble with India ink as I was with ball-point pens (me dipping a quill while doodling in class would not have gone over well).

When I entered university a friend tracked me down and invited me to a partnership doing a cartoon strip for the campus newspaper. I did a few editorial cartoons as well. We then schemed to produce a spoof edition of that campus newspaper, and this led me into writing mock articles and the usual juvenile attempts at satire. From there we ended up co-editing a magazine for the Faculty of Arts (the mag was called "The Sophisto", stolen from A Clockwork Orange). This led to quasi-journalistic writing of the offensive variety (I remember a phone interview my co-conspirator conducted with Barbara Amiel (future wife of Conrad Black) that really ticked her off).

As that endeavour was wrapping up, with booze-spiked coffees at faculty meetings, and us putting a sign up on our office door (GO AWAY), I saw in the local city paper an invitation to a short-story contest, and decided to try for it. Won second place, a hundred dollars and the adoration of a gaggle of very old ladies.

Finishing my degree in archaeology I wrote up two more stories along with the second-place winner and applied to the Vermont MFA in writing program and got turned down. So I applied to take an undergraduate (BFA) in creative writing at the University of Victoria a year later, and got accepted.

Illustration led me into narrative, and words were much faster for me than drawing.

Have there been any particular writers, styles, or media that have influenced your writing? Who what and why?

Influences can be pernicious. I recall reading George MacDonald Frazer’s The Pyrates and writing everything in pirate vernacular for six months thereafter, including memos at work. The thing is, one takes it all in, and hopefully when it comes back out it’s all a mishmash, which eventually becomes your ‘style.’ I remember fellow students in the writing programs I was in taking up the styles of famous writers and, to be honest, I’m not sure how much is actually learned by doing that. The only thing that teaches a beginning writer is writing, and in as many unique voices as one can manage. We all have our peculiar rhythms, and learning to write is learning to see and hear one’s own rhythms (once you know them you can then mess with them, experiment, etc). This ‘finding’ process is often what frustrates beginning writers, to the point that they end up quitting. It’s not ego that drives one so much as it is faith, and the early twenties for most of us is not a time when faith in oneself is at its strongest. What drives someone to write? Is it all the books seen in bookstores? Is it all the books read followed by the dream and conviction that I can do just as well? The desire for recognition, validation, fame, wealth? To be honest, probably all of those things came to the fore at one time or another, but dreams are not tickets to entitlement, and the end goal may not be what one first dreamed about – no matter. It’s all down to work in the end. You could take ten writers and task them all with the same subject on which to write about; even the same plot; and no two will be alike.

You will see that I pretty much avoided answering your question. I could offer up lists, but those lists would consist of writers and books I like or once liked: but it’s just a list, not a guide book to understanding, or, heaven forbid, following in my footsteps. But, before people jump, it’s not a position of arrogance I’m taking, but the opposite. Influences are down to tastes, but I well know that my ‘list’ is constructed as much from what I haven’t read as from what I have read, and if anything only highlights my deficiencies.

I could note that I am presently reading the collected works of Shakespeare. Why? Because it’s fun and perhaps more significantly, it justifies my buying a Kindle.

I've read that the Malazan Book Of The Fallen evolved out of yours and Ian Esselemonts's love of role playing gaming. Can you give me a quick overview of how that evolution happened. (I spent many an afternoon in smoke filled basements with others playing versions of Dungeon and Dragons back in the early 80s and only ever came out of those games with headaches - so there must have been something different about the way you guys approached these things then we ever did. Ours usually degenerated into drunken/stoned, bleary eyed, silliness)

The first game I ever played was run by Cam (Ian) on a dig on Lake of the Woods in Northern Ontario. We were bored rigid. We got stoned, and when the wolves attacked to mark our first effort at fighting, my character threw away his weapons and climbed a tree; another player’s character hid under his shield. Later on, yet another player tried to backstab a ranger NPC, but being a Halfling only managed to prick the back of his leg. Not an impressive first outing.

When Cam and I ended up sharing a flat in Victoria, we started gaming in earnest and you’re right in guessing that they were unusual games. We were both in the writing program at the time, and narrative was uppermost in our minds: these sessions were as much storytelling as gaming and often involved little more than protracted conversations between characters – finding their voices, acquiring a sense of their histories, their world-views, and all the conflict born of those world-views clashing. When scraps arrived they were brutal and irreversible for the characters, and we liked that. A lot. We burdened those characters with bitter memories, with old pains and open wounds; we made them tired of living but unable to give up. Not your typical game, I guess.

Later on, when I ran an actual group, I carried all that over, and the players often ended each session looking shellshocked.

When a reader picks up Gardens Of The Moon they have the feeling they're entering into a story that's been going on for some time. This goes against almost all the traditions of narrative in Epic Fiction, which usually has a static beginning, middle and end. Why did you elect to work from the middle, backwards and forwards, out, so to speak, and did you run into any significant resistance from editors/publishers along the way because of that decision?

Eight years of resistance. We did it because we’d gamed a history that provided the foundation on which to build new tales. Also, as archaeologists, we were well aware that in history there is no real beginning or end: it just goes on. The old lesson we had drilled into us in our writing workshops was that a story begins with a crisis of character, and we began our novels with that in mind. We could do that because we had a sense of the backgrounds of these characters – we’d been them for years, after all – and it’s that sense that gave the crisis meaning, each and every time (at least for us, and for it to affect others it had to affect us first – what followed then was simply the challenge of communicating what we felt. When it works, we and the reader share something, and if there’s one single desire behind writing, it must be that one).

I have to ask - you did work from an outline right - you didn't just wing it and hope for inspiration along the way? If yes, what form did the outline take and how detailed was it?- I have visions of a huge flow chart covering the wall of a fair sized room filled with circles and arrows and notes.
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I had a big chart for Gardens of the Moon, but all it had was chapter listings made up of sections defined by character names, and then a square box that I filled in once the section was done, physically tracking my progress. I had notes in a notepad, and I still do that in a chaotic, confused way. No physical outline, then; just the one in my head, which consisted of big scenes loosely arrayed in a particular order, and from that the driving need to move from one to the next, and to make sure that the ‘filler’ provided as much as was needed to give those big scenes the impact desired. Mostly, what drove and drives me still is the sheer pleasure of writing: the telling of a tale.

In the midst of writing a scene, I would on occasion hit on an image that I would mentally flag, and file away. And I learned to trust in my instincts on when next to riff on that image (or word choice) to create a kind of resonance. This was how I was taught to write short stories, and I extended that across novels, and then across all ten books. Even now, only a few months after the series is done, I look back and am not quite sure how I managed to hold it all in for so long, across so many thousands of pages. I don’t myself understand the creative process well enough to say: this is how it’s done; this is how I remembered everything I needed to remember (besides which, I obviously didn’t remember everything, as inconsistencies did indeed arise from time to, uh time). All I can say now is: I remembered the stuff that was important to me, in the telling of this tale. I did that much, at least. How I did it, I’ll never know.

You created numerous different civilisations and societies for the series and I wondered if you could explain your process in developing them. Were they based on ones from earth's history, did they just spring out of your imagination, was there any specific intent behind some of their characteristics? The Letherai Empire for example with its extreme version of free market social Darwinism and organisations like The Patriotists.

If you can steal but leave no clues, no tracks ... well ... no, it’s not even that. Anthropology is the study of human culture: empirical observation over generations of study seem to have established certain continuities of behaviour, best described as a society’s relationship with its environment (it all goes back to environment). There are, however, endless variations on that theme, but in context they all possess psychological consistency – even the fucked up ones, as with, say, the Aztecs). At the same time, every anthropologist knows that they can never truly understand a foreign culture, inasmuch as we all struggle to understand even our own; and that, to compound matters, cultures are in evolution (even apparently stagnant ones) and by nature protean. To create a fictional culture in fantasy (quick guide), begin with the environment. Plains, boreal forest, mountains, steppes, flood-plain, dry, wet, warm, cold, coastal, mineral rich, fauna poor – the more details you decide on, the tighter the potential characteristics of the resident culture. Next: choose technology level and principal sources of subsistence. These will further shape that culture: farmers, fisher-folk, whalers, raiders, herders – when it comes to food procurement, we’re all rather limited. If, say, it’s a hunting culture, well, it’s not likely to be a populous one, is it, since no wild environment can sustain a large, sedentary population of predators such as people. If it is a herding culture, and you have steppes, well, best expect a mobile boom and bust cycle for that culture (see Mongols) involving rapid, violent expansion followed by fragmentation and assimilation into the more materially established sedentary cultures they may have conquered – a civilisation that can vanish like dust in the wind (Huns). If you want cities you need to work out what feeds its denizens ... outlying farms, mercantile wealth (if in, say, a trading crossroads like Constantinople), harvest from the sea – and in each case you should refer to the technology level. If farming, do the farmers irrigate and if so, where does the water come from? Related to the seasons and weather patterns – is it in fact situated on a cusp of potential disaster should drought strike, or is it relatively stable as with, say, The Nile. For comparison on how the two shape their cultures, do a compare and contrast between ancient Egypt and the Mayans of Central America. Fairly similar in terms of technology – how much did the need to appease capricious sky gods affect the almost psychotic sacrifice frenzy of the Mayans, compared to the sedate, generally passive culture of Egypt?

What other factors might impede that culture in its pursuit of quality of life? Caste, class systems, indenture – who’s pulling the strings and how firm is their grip? The Mayan priests might have felt on top of the world (on top of the pyramids, too) but when the environment collapsed so too did their power base. What forces are at play resisting progress? Religious dogma, social institutions (slavery), indolence? Is there any social mobility? How fares its arts, its centres of learning and philosophy? Is it warrior-based? If magic exists, how does it work and what does it do to shape the culture using it?

All anthropological, I suppose, and geographical too. It’s why I always started with a map, because that told me so much of what I need to know about the resident civilisations. Obviously, the question of the role of magic was a central one that needed answering early on: we chose an egalitarian structure, based on hard work – not gender-based in any way – and from this we posited civilisations that could not impose gender-based hierarchies in terms of access to and exploitation of power. This, as you might imagine, opened things up considerably, which was most pleasing.

I was fascinated by the system(s) of magic you created for this world. A system which seemed based on a person's ability to channel an aspect or characteristic of a particular god or goddess yet wizards weren't necessarily priests and vice-versa. How did you come up with this system and why did you elect to use it.

See above! We wanted something malleable yet mysterious; so instead of devising a single or handful of paths to magic, we created a multitude of paths, and then embodied that theoretical theme in the Warrens (made the metaphor real), which is why when people ask us about the magic system we mostly just shrug. It defines itself. It is exactly what it looks like: multiple paths to magic. For us, that’s all we needed, and we could adjust all we liked for each character using it – potential applications are endless, unconstrained, forever fluid. It became a dynamic system where even the attempted impositions (Deck of Dragons, cults and priest-hoods) had a tendency to slip from the grasp of the users. We’re not into ‘systems.’ We never were. We like things much messier.

Psychologically, we wanted magic to have the effect of napalm descending from the skies to hammer into the ground peasant soldiers. It’s ugly, terrifying, unpredictable.

In the books there are a strata of people who appear to exist on a plane somewhere between the gods and mortals, ascendants. What was the purpose of having this type of hero class of character?

Inspired by two things: on the one hand, this was all Homeric, incorporating the ancient bronze age/iron age proto-Greek sense of the pantheon and its mix of Olympian and chthonic deities, including demigods, Lapiths and forces of chaos – all of them as venal and petty-minded as our regular mortal affairs. On the other hand, we role-played characters in the old ‘powering up’ fashion consistent with all fantasy games. They had to have the potential to achieve something, if they so chose. The interesting is that, in the games, we ended up with so many characters who ultimately chose not to ‘ascend.’ And that was brilliant, and from these individuals came the real story of the world, as we have and are telling it. Because they were just like us.

Was there any particular pantheon of gods in our world which inspired your depiction of gods and their relationship to the mortals who worshipped them? How would you describe that relationship?

The key was giving those gods personalities, not just ‘aspects’ or ‘themes.’ Make them old, yet some older than others, some almost forgotten, others ambitious and young, some remote, others not so remote. As personalities, they were then open to specific relationships with their followers, sometimes benign, sometimes malicious. Many gods in our own world were worshipped to appease, lest vengeance and terror descend. That was not a benign relationship, was it? Its fuel was fear, and the notion of getting direct attention from a god was, for very good reasons, terrifying. By extension, exploring such relationships in fiction can also address how we, as individuals, relate to the world around us, to the vagaries of happenstance, fate and bad luck. Cause and effect is central to our intellect, and for those causes we cannot find, we invent, and so persist in a lifelong dialogue with indifferent nature.

We spend a great deal of time among soldiers and on the battle field during the course of the series and you don't hesitate from describing the action in graphic detail leaving us no doubt as to its grim reality. Yet most of the lead characters, those we come to admire, are soldiers who take part in those battles and I was wondering if there were any message in particular you were trying to deliver because of that, and if so what it was?

All too often in fantasy fiction we’re stuck with the rulers, the leaders, and we see their machinations in a generalised sense of victory and loss, even good and evil. Until Glen Cook, we rarely saw the brutal consequences of all these toffs vying for dominance. When approaching our own novels, we wanted to emulate Cook’s ground-up approach, covering the entire social strata from the lowly street urchin to the gods and everyone in between. History is, as you mentioned, a thing that flows in all directions, and we liked the idea that even though shit always flows down, on occasion some poor bastard is going to rise up from the muck and throw a handful back upward, hopefully straight into the face of one of those toffs. There is always an implicit commentary in medieval-style fantasy, whether the author intends it or not – that has to do with inequality, with purity of blood and nobility of form, with who the heroes are and just how beloved they are when the last battle’s won. For the majority of people, feudal life was misery; yet here we get again and again all these tales about high-born elites – granted, some authors make a point of highlighting just how well-meaning and benign those rulers are. The fact remains, however, that they take as a birthright their right to decide who lives or dies among their subjects.

For myself, I’ve had my fill of those implicit assertions on inequity, and some central threads of the Malazan Book of the Fallen made a point of addressing that.

I have to ask - where did Kruppe come from. He's an absolutely brilliant character and I'd love to see more of him elsewhere. Any hope of that happening?

Character I rolled up, and on spur of the moment elected to make him ... the way he is. I believe he makes a return in Cam’s novel set in Darujhistan.

There were quite a few loose ends left behind with the conclusion of the tenth book and I was wondering if you were considering filling them in, or will that be Ian Esselemont's job with his books set in the Malazn Empire?

Cam will cover some of them, but not all, nor should anyone expect him to. We’re comfortable with threads left dangling. No history is complete and if people are left with questions, well, how like real life is that?

I can't think of a more appropriate note to end this on save to say thank you to Steven Erikson for taking the time to answer my questions. Now when will Ian Cameron Esslement's next book be released?

(Article first published as Interview: Steven Erikson, Author Of The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Sequence on Blogcritics.)

April 5, 2011

Book Review: The White Luck Warrior: The Aspect Emperor Book 2 by R. Scott Bakker

For a group as supposedly radical and freethinking as artists are supposed to be, the history of Western art, especially literature, prior to the twentieth century is marked by its adherence to convention. Perhaps it was economic need, if one wanted audiences to attend your plays or read your books, you had to give them what they had come to expect. There were few troubling grey areas when it came to morality as questions of good and evil were defined by however Christianity was being filtered by the society of the day. Nineteenth century Britain, with its need to justify moral superiority over what it deemed inferior races, produced works that might question certain practices, but not even Dickens ever questioned the system which gave rise to the conditions described in his books or the morality that allowed them to exist.

A whiff of Aristotle's Poetics, with its definitions of what constituted tragedy and the other genres, kept pages and stages home to heroes from the noble class and the baser elements of society to supporting roles or villains., While there was nothing wrong with a funny servant who would want to read an entire book about him?And of course, while there were occasionally female characters taking a central role, headstrong individuals who attempted to control their own destiny would end up rescued by a man or falling into ruin. A woman's usual place was in orbit around her man's gravitational pull and it was a rare thing to see one make her own way in the world.

However change did come, eventually, with the twentieth century and fiction and stages began to more accurately reflect the faces of all society. Instead of heroes we now had anti-heroes, men and women who embodied few if any of the noble qualities that were once considered essential for a lead character in a play or novel. Not only aren't they royalty or even nobility, most of them have lived on the fringes of what society would even consider normal. Yet somehow they have struck chords within readers and developed followings.
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Still, it's only been recently that one of the oldest forms of literary story telling, the epic tale, has received the same treatment. Both the fantasy and science fiction genres have kept the epic tradition alive, even to the point of maintaining the tradition of the heroic quest. From Lord Of The Rings to Star Wars heroes set out across their universes, in spite of long odds to right wrongs and win the battle of good over evil. Now fantasy writers have begun the process of deconstructing the epic and putting it back together again to reflect the world's lack of black and white definitions of anything, let alone good and evil. The White Luck Warrior, released by Penguin Canada, is the second book in R. Scott Bakker's Aspect Emperor trilogy, the sequel to the Prince Of Nothing trilogy, and part of a series that promises to be eight books in length upon completion, and a fine example of the new anti-epic fiction at its best.
Anasurimbor Kellhus, the Aspect Emperor, is leading the armies of mankind, on what he calls the Great Ordeal, into the northern wastes against an ancient foe and the threat of the Apocalypse. Although only a few years ago the few wizards who preached warnings of this very threat from the north were ridiculed and laughed at for believing in unseen enemies, the entire civilization has set aside their petty enmities to seek out their hidden vastness, the near mythical city of Golgotterath. At first they proceed with no enemies lined up against them save for lack of supplies as there is only a finite amount that could be carried. Such is the distance they have to travel before they even fight, it had long been planned the Ordeal would have to forage. What wasn't planned was an enemy who would scour the land ahead of them, poisoning the water and laying waste to game and fodder.

Herding their enemies ahead of them. the sub-human Sranc, the Ordeal is forced to split into three armies in order to feed itself. While their enemy's numbers grow as they run in front of them, the men of the various armies start to feel the effects that a lack of food and water can have on a body. Slaves and servants are put to death in order to conserve supplies, the sick are abandoned, and spare horses are eaten. Compounding their troubles are worrysome rumours from back home in the Empire. There's a chance that even if they win through in this battle out in the wastes they could return home to find themselves no longer ruling in their own lands.

The Empress, Esmenet, is under siege from the priests of minor gods who resent the rise of her husband as prophet, rebellions on the outer edges of the Empire from those who don't accept the divinity of her husband, the madness of her own children and what she thinks is a plot by her brother in law to replace her. As he is the head of the church and half-brother of the Emperor, she knows he not only has the power base to carry out a coup, he has many of the same powers of persuasion her husband possesses and could easily sway the masses to support him once she's gone. Beset and bewildered she can only hold on and hope for some sort of reprieve, but it feels like the empire is crumbling beneath her and she can do nothing to prevent it.

As one of those who had dealt with the ridicule of the world for his belief in the ancient enemy of the north you'd think Drusas Achamian would be one of Anasurimbor Kellhus' biggest supporters. Yet while his "school" of sorcery, The Mandate, has allied themselves along with all the others and joined the Ordeal. Achamian rejected the Emperor as a phoney twenty years ago and went into self-imposed exile. He too is making the long journey north, though in the company of bounty hunters instead of knights, and to look for proof of Kellhus' deception in the ruins of a once famous library. Accompanying him is the Empress Esmenet's daughter, Mimara, from before she married Kellhus, who sought him out in an attempt to force him to teach her his magic.
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They too have barely survived their trip to this point, and in fact if not for the unearthly powers of the bounty hunter's wizard, an immortal survivor from the days of the first apocalypse, who goes by the name of Cleric, their entire party would have perished. As it is their numbers have been reduced greatly and they still have great swathes of wilderness to traverse and countless numbers of Sranc to either avoid or kill before they obtain their destination. Yet somehow, in spite of facing overwhelming odds against them. all three of these groups, The Great Ordeal, The Empress, and Drusas Achamian and his party, find a way to continue. But at what cost, and is the reward worth the cost paid? Or do such equations even matter anymore when you have travelled as far beyond the boundaries of normal human behaviour and reasoning as each of these groups have done in their own way?

Kellhus has preached to his army about the cost they will pay in order to succeed in their goal of preventing a second apocalypse. A cost that has already included having to kill servants, the near extermination of one of the armies of the ordeal and the slaughter of countless Sranc. Drusas Achamian and Mimara have seen their party killed one by one around them as they inch closer to their goal and the Empress must decide what she is willing to do in order to preserve her place on the throne without her husband's presence to support her. Does there come a point where you can no longer justify the means you use to obtain your goals, no matter how right you goal might be?

To save the world from the apocalypse the men of the Great Ordeal are living through their own minor version of one. Death, famine, disease and war ride with them on their journey into the north. The lines between good and evil are blurred beyond recognition but it also seems easier and easier to justify each new act that allows the armies, Drusas and the Empress to survive. Bakker has pushed his characters so far over the edge of what we would consider normal behaviour that we in turn have to stop us ourselves from accepting what they do as only matter of course and not thinking there is anything abhorrent in their behaviour.

This is the secret to what makes this work so great, the way in which we as readers are pulled into each story line to the point where we begin to identify with whatever point of view is being expressed. Each of the characters and their circumstances are documented with such perfect clarity that we can't help but believe in them and their goals no matter what the repercussions of their actions portend. Bakker has done such a great job in creating what feels like a typical epic adventure, we are almost lulled into accepting the character's actions as normal and almost miss noticing the moral vacuum they are acting in. The contrast between their high sounding ideals and their actions is the only reminder of just how far they've fallen.

Our world has seen countless so called moral crusades against what's been called evil used to justify any number of sins. Acts that under normal circumstances would be considered abhorrent are instead accepted as being perfectly reasonable because they are committed in the service of some glorious purpose. In his White Luck Warrior R. Scott Bakker leads us down that slippery slope towards accepting amoral behaviour and forces us to see how easy it would be for any of us to be swept up by events into becoming willing participants in terrible actions. This mirror onto our world is extremely difficult to look into, but is so well written we are held spellbound for its entirety. He has ripped aside the veil, and we will never be able to read about acts of so called nobility done in the name of the greater good in the same way again. This is one of the more brilliant pieces of writing that you're liable to read for a long time, just be prepared to start questioning a lot of things you might have previously accepted at face value.

(Article first published as Book Review: The White Luck Warrior: The Aspect Emperor, Book 2 by R. Scott Bakker on Blogcritics)

March 24, 2011

Music Review: Eden & John's East River String Band - Be Kind To A Man When He's Down

Musical styles come in and out of fashion as often, if not more frequently, than clothing styles. However, unlike trends in clothing or other transitory fads, many of the musical genres which become flavours of the month had their small pool of adherents who both played it before it became popular and continue to play it long after its popularity has waned. Ironically it's not even those who have been playing and keeping the genre alive who are usually the ones who enjoy the benefits of their style's fifteen minutes in the spotlight as they aren't usually the types a record company feels comfortable with as star material.

Once the brief flurry of interest in the genre has died down most go back to being played and appreciated by those who had all along, while everybody else has moved on to the next "new" discovery. Sometimes the only record to mark a genre's passing is if a commercially viable form of the music is created which allows for the creation of a new top one hundred chart in its name. Aside from that, for most of the world it's as if the music ceased to exist as miraculously as it appeared. Thankfully, that's not usually the case, it's just that the music is out of the public eye again, but it's still being played and recorded if you know who to look for.

Ever since the movie O Brother Where Art Thou? was released about a decade ago there have been periodic revivals of interest in what's called everything from roots music to Americana. Now most of the songs used in the soundtrack were familiar to people already, but what made them so fresh was they were performed in the style they would have been during the time the movie took place. Instead of the overblown production that's been associated with country music for the last thirty or forty years, the songs were stripped down to their basics and sounded amazing. Somehow or other though, that point got lost, and it's become harder and harder to hear the music played as it was originally.
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Thankfully, for those who want to hear this music played as it should be, there remain select groups of musicians scattered around the country dedicated to keeping the legacy of this music alive. One of the finest examples of this are Eden & John's East River String Band. Eden and John are Eden Brower (ukulele, kazoo and vocals) and John Heneghan (guitar and vocals), and on their latest disc, Be Kind To A Man When He's Down, the band is rounded out by Robert Crumb (mandolin), Pat Conte (fiddle) and Dom Flemons (guitar). (For those wondering, Robert Crumb is indeed the illustrator of underground comics from the 1970s. Not only does he play with the band on occasion, he has created all their album artwork).

On this disc the band has focused on traditional songs and adapted and arranged them to suit their needs. One of the first things you'll notice when looking at the album credits is the lack of any mention as to who has written the material. These songs have obtained the status of being so ingrained into the social and artistic fabric of American culture who wrote them no longer matters; they are a part of the country's cultural heritage in the same way songs like "John Barley Corn" are part of the heritage of the British Isles. In fact two of the titles on the disc are most likely ones that a high percentage of Americans will hear at least once in their lives and whose names will be recognized by nearly as many: "Oh Suzanna" and "Swanee River".

Both songs were written by the first great composer of American popular music, Stephen Foster, in 1848 and 1851 respectively. A product of their times, their original lyrics aren't what anybody would call racially sensitive as they were written in faux slave dialect, and in the case of "Swanee", have the narrator yearning for life on the plantation and by implication life as a slave. Both songs gained their initial popularity through being performed in "Minstral Shows", white performers appearing in black face singing and playing Dixieland jazz style music. While this may sound offensive to us, the songs were a reflection of contemporary attitudes and in no way diminishes their quality musically.
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While these two songs are well known, others of the fourteen included on the disc have a slightly more obscure provenance. Take "On The Banks Of The Kaney", it was originally recorded in 1929 by Big Chief Henry's Indian String Band, a Choctaw Indian string band from Oklahoma. From what little I was able to find out about this group they wrote and recorded songs for Choctaw audiences and were discovered playing at the Choctaw Indian Fair in Mississippi. Just like the fact there were African American string, or country/bluegrass type bands, back in the 1920s and 1930s has almost been forgotten, probably very few people are aware there were Native American bands as well. That alone would make contemporary recordings of this song and the others on the disc worthwhile, but these are more than just dusty pieces of history of interest only to musicologists.

For, as performed by Eden and John and friends they sound as fresh and alive as if they were written today. The combination of their enthusiasm, energy, skill and the sense that all of them are having the time of their lives playing the songs on the disc make it far more enjoyable to listen to than the majority of contemporary music. There's something irrepressible about Eden's vocals which makes her sound like she's tapped into the secret of knowing how to have the best time in the world. She and the rest of the band might take their playing seriously and are as good a group of instrumentalists as you'll find anywhere, but they don't take themselves seriously and always remember to have fun with what they're doing. Maybe it's the fact that a kazoo features predominately in the mix on quite a number of tunes (I've always had a soft sport for a well played kazoo), but listening to this disc was the most fun I've had listening to music in a long while.

With all the the talk of Americana and roots music, the irony is how much of the real roots of American popular music is still being ignored today. Or even worse, far too many people forget that it was meant to be listened to and enjoyed. They forget that it was performed at county fairs under tents so people could try and forget about the troubles of the world for a little while. Sure its important culturally as it integrated African and European music in ways that had never happened before, but it was also the dance and good time music of the day.

The music on Be Kind To A Man When He's Down comes from another age - spanning the years from just before the American Civil War to just before WWII - but it can bring a smile to your face and a spring to your step far more readily than most of what passes for popular music today. In these days of war, famine, pollution and other horrors it's hard to remember there was a less cynical time when music could make you feel glad to alive. This album is not only a collection of timeless treasures, it's a reminder that popular music can be fun. Be Kind To Be A Man When He's Down is available in both CD and 180 gram yellow vinyl. If you have a turntable buy the LP as that way you can not only enjoy a full sized piece of Robert Crumb's art, but I have a feeling this is the type of music that will be best appreciated listened to on a turntable.

(Article first published as Music Review: Eden & John's East River String Band - Be Kind To A Man When He's Down on Blogcritics.)

March 17, 2011

Music Review: A Hawk and a Hacksaw -Cervantine

A couple of my pet peeves are things I call cultural colonialism and cultural appropriation. In some ways they're close to being the same thing, in that it usually involves a person of one culture stealing from another for a variety of reasons. Quite a number of times it means a member of the dominant Western culture looking upon something from across the world, seeing it as exotic and then picking out the bits and pieces of it that amuse them without ever bothering to learn about the context they came from.

In some ways it's a lot like putting on a police officer's uniform because you like the way it looks and then walking the streets. You may look like a cop on the surface, but the reality is you nothing of what doing the job involves. Most of those who are cultural appropriators are guilty of something similar. They dress themselves up in the trappings of a culture without knowing what it really means. Whether it is the pop star who picks up the sitar because it sounds cool or the new age musician who tries to make themselves sound more "spiritual" by using Native American flutes in their compositions, it amounts to little more than thievery.

However, music is supposed to be a universal language is it not? We're always hearing stories of musicians from different backgrounds getting together and being able to find common ground through the instruments they play even if they can't speak each others language. There are also classical musicians who spend years studying and training in order to be able to play whatever music they chose, including pieces written by composers from other cultures and times. Their study have not only given them the technical ability to play a multitude of music and styles, but the means to understand the context they were written in. If a musician is willing to immerse themselves in a culture, or the music, then he or she will be able to play it, no matter what their own background.
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Which goes a long way in explaining how a band from New Mexico in the United States can play the music of the Balkans and Eastern Europe and sound like they were born to it. On their most recent release, Cervantine, on their own L&M Duplication label and distributed by Midheaven, A Hawk And A Hacksaw perform eight glorious songs which not only sound like they're being played by people from their originating regions, but people steeped in its musical traditions.

Starting in 2004 core members and founders, Jeremy Barnes (accordion and percussion) and Heather Trost (violin/viola) made a pilgrimage through Eastern Europe learning and experiencing the music of the Roma, Hungary and the Eastern European and Asian influences that have permeated both. For two years they were based out of Budapest, Hungary and toured Europe with some of that country's finest musicians. They have played on the streets of Amsterdam with Roma, a road outside of Jaffa, in Israel, for Palestinians and Hassidic Jews and in a small village in Romania, in a house with no running water, recorded with the famed Fanfare Ciocarlia (The band who play "Born To Be Wild" in Borat) However, in spite of the obvious influences these adventures have had on the band, they say they have no interest in simply recreating the music they've heard or in being some kind of ethnographic sampler.

All it takes is just listening to the opening track on the CD to hear they how well they live up their word. Sure "No Rest For The Wicked", a knock down, drag out, wicked, almost eight minute long instrumental piece, starts off sounding like your fairly typical Roma/Eastern European/Klezmar mix - which when you think about it isn't so typical to begin with - but they throw in this sudden break where the music slows to almost a stop, and when it picks up again the song has morphed into something different. In some ways it's almost as if they've taken the title of the song and translated it into musical action; the music might slow down, the beat might change, hell even the tune might not always sound the same, but there can be no rest for the wicked.

They've got a crazy sense of humour these folk who call themselves Hawk and a Hacksaw. But they also play music that shakes the earth. It's got a pull you can't help but respond to; something that reaches right inside and appeals to some part you might not even know exists and sets your blood to stirring. They've tapped into something that would be downright scary if it weren't so exhilarating, and then translated it into music. Perhaps it's because they are able to draw upon musical traditions from cultures normally in opposition to each other, like Turkey and Greece in "Mana Thelo Enan Andra", and create something beautiful out of a centuries long hatred, that we respond so readily to what they have to offer. On the other hand it could be just because they are such bloody wonderful musicians and they could play anything and make it a miracle of sound.
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While the majority of the emphasis is placed on the instruments, when their is need for a vocalist Stephanie Hladowski steps centre stage and is a match for anything her band mates throw at her. Her voice is filled with the raw passion of a violin scrapped raw by its bow but her control is such that she can turn it from a caress into a challenge in the blink of an eye. There is none of the awful refinement to her that you'll find in pop singers and their meaningless songs of adolescent romance, instead you'll hear the grief and joy of lives lived to their fullest echoing through her singing.

The instruments you'll hear played on this disc are as diverse as the countries represented by the music. Chris Hladowki's Greek bouzouki, Issa Mallug's Turkish dumbek and riq, Samuel Johnson's trumpet and flugelhorn, Mark Weaver's tuba and euphonium and Charles Papaya's bass drum and cymbal swirl, keen, pound, stomp, and soar in a kind of frenzy that occasionally borders on the chaotic, but which never actually loses control. Listening to them play is like watching the funnel cloud of a tornado and being amazed a thing of such uncontrolled power can hold its shape.

Listening to Cervantine you'll hear the sound of the Balkans, mixed with Klezmer, rhythms from Turkey and tinges of the Latino sound of the band's native New Mexico. While on the surface that sounds like it has the potential to be a discordant mess, Hawk and a Hacksaw somehow weave it all together to make incredible music. Anyone who ever doubted that the music of such diverse cultures could be brought together in harmony only needs listen to this band at work to become a believer. This is truly world music.

(Article first published as Music Review: A Hawk And A Hacksaw - Cervantine on Blogcritics)

March 10, 2011

Music Review: Bombino - Agadez

I've been sitting with a CD for a couple of weeks now, listening to it, thinking about it and sort of letting it percolate inside of me. It's not often I have the luxury of doing this with a recording that I've been asked to review, but the company sent this one out to me well in advance of its release date hoping I could give them some quotes to help promote the performer. All of which is very cool, but the problem is that I'm sitting here and I don't really know what to tell anybody who reads this about the music. It's not that I don't like it, because I do, I think the music and the performer are bloody amazing, and what he's doing with his music is important.

You see there's the rub, there's a lot of history that comes with this recording, not just of the person whose made the recording, but something like 1400 years of a people's, and a place's, history. Writing about the music on this CD without touching upon any of that would be ignoring at least half of what has gone into the music's creation. So, while people don't read a critique of a CD for a social/political history lesson, the specifics of this man, this music, these people and this land are as important to talk about as the music. As you'll see, in some ways, that's the point of the music in the first place.

The land is some of the harshest in the world, the Sahara desert, specifically the parts of it which fall within the boundaries of Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. The people are the Kel Tamasheq, more commonly referred to by the name given them by the Arabs who invaded these lands, Tuareg, or rebels, for their refusal to accept Islam without a fight. Nomads and herdsmen, they have guided caravans from Algeria to Niger and raised their flocks throughout the Sahara for centuries. Steadfastly refusing any outside influence they have fought to remain independent against any and all who have tried to control them. The music has roots that can be traced back through the history of the people, to the electric guitars of modern rock icons Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, and the armed rebellions against the Niger and Malian governments during the 1980s by the Kel Tamasheq. For it was veterans of those uprisings who put down their machine guns, picked up guitars and changed the nature of their rebellion.
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Omara "Bombino" Moctar, whose given name is Goumar Almoctar, was born in 1980 in a desert encampment adjacent to Agadez in western Niger. When the Niger government lashed out against Kel Tamasheq people living in their territory in retaliation for the rebellion in the 1980s, Bombino's family fled to stay with family in Algeria. In the early part of the 1990s his family returned to Agadez when it appeared there was a chance for a settlement of the conflict with the Niger government. While he had started learning guitar while in exile, upon his return to Agadez Bombino was taken under the wing of a more experienced musician. He was the youngest and smallest member of the band and they gave him his nickname, "Bombino", as a play on the Italian word, bambino, baby.

For as long as the peace lasted in the 1990s and into the new century Bombino's musical career grew steadily. However in 2007 the uprising began again and the Niger government began targeting "guitar players", naming them enemies of the state. When two of the musicians he played with were killed by the army, Bombino went back into exile again, this time to the west and Burkina Faso.

It was here, after a year of searching, he was tracked down by a documentary film maker named Ron Wyman who had heard a cassette of his music while making a movie about the Kel Tamasheq (Agadez - The Music And The Rebellion) Wyman was so impressed with Bombino's music that he took him back to America where they began to record Agadez, which will be released on April 19 2011 on the Cumbancha label. Then in 2010 the army in Niger overthrew the government and signed a peace treaty with the Kel Tamasheq rebels and exiles were able to return home. So Wyman and Bombino returned to Agadez where they completed recording the CD and finished the movie at the same time.

Like the first generation of musicians who play what they call "Ishoumar", a derivative of the French word for unemployed, chomeurs, and which is now synonymous with rebel music, Bombino's sound is a mixture of the modern and the traditional. Electric guitars overlay the steady beat of the drum to create an almost hypnotic effect which wraps the listener in a cocoon of sound. Periodically Bombino's guitar will take flight into a solo, weaving in and around the rhythm like an expression of his people's desire for freedom. Unlike far too many rock and roll guitar solos which always seem to interrupt a song, Bombino's feel like emotional extensions of the material. At times they capture his excitement and enthusiasm for the promise of the better future he obviously hopes lies in store for his people, and at others they express a yearning that can make the heart ache.
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In interviews quoted in the press materials accompanying the CD he talks about his relationship with the desert and how it serves as his inspiration and how, like for the rest of his people, its his home. While I can't understand the lyrics he sings, nor are translations included with the CD, reading the English translations of individual song titles, and listening to his guitar and his voice when he performs them, you begin to understand just how deeply these people and where they live are interconnected. Of the three traditional songs on the disc he has adapted, two, "Ahoulaguine Akaline" (I Greet My Country) and "Tenere" (The Desert My Home), by their titles alone, tell you all you need to know about the depth of that bond. Listening to them, and maybe this is because I've seen footage of the Sahara, I couldn't help but visualize the stark beauty of the land and experience the same feelings that pictures of it evoke.

During the uprisings the Niger government first banned the music of, then targeted the "guitar players" because their songs spread the message of the rebellion. They weren't calls to arms, rather they were reminders to the people to take pride in who they were and to hold onto their traditions. With so many of the Kel Tamsheq displaced into the cities because of drought and loss of their territories to uranium mining, those messages have become even more important as a means of helping them retain their identity and instil within them a sense of pride in who they are. Of his original material, two of Bombino's songs, "Tigrawahi Tikma" (Bring Us Together) and "Azamane" (Mr Brothers United), on this disc are obviously meant to encourage his people to stand firm against anything that would take away their freedom or force them to change how they live their lives.

The Kel Tamsheq have survived this long by being able to live in one of the harshest environments on the planet and by learning how to adapt to the changing realities of the world around them. While they have fought fiercely over the centuries to preserve their independence, they also know there are many different ways to fight and win a war. The music of Omara "Bombino" Moctar and the message his songs have for his people, are one of the strongest weapons they have in their arsenal right now. A passionate voice, a guitar that sings and the ability to communicate through sound alone will bring tears to your eye and a send a shiver running up and down your spine. Agadez is being released on April 19 2011, and it will take your breath away.

Photo of Bombino and band members Ibrahim and Kawissan by Ron Wyman.
(Article first published as Music Review: Bombino - Agadez on Blogcritics)

March 3, 2011

Movie Review: Agadez - The Music And The Rebellion

Open up Google Maps and check out Agadez in the Western part of Niger and the Sahara desert. If you switch over to the satellite view of the city and pull back far enough it disappears into the surrounding desert. It becomes just another shade of brown in what appears to be a never ending vista of tan. How did this city come to appear here in what is apparently the middle of nowhere? Is it just some recent thing that sprang up in response to human greed for something buried beneath the shifting sands? In actual fact the city was founded sometime before the 14th century and was officially designated a Sultanate in 1449. More importantly it is the capital of Air, one of the traditional Tuareg federations, and was one of key way stations along the caravan routes they followed carrying trade from Algerian ports on the Mediterranean Sea into the interior of Africa and back.

Descendants of the Berber tribes of North Africa they were named Tuareg, Arabic for rebels, for their initial resistance to adopting the Muslim faith, but refer to themselves as the Kel Tamsheq after their language. Even though they eventually adopted the religion and the camel herding nomadic lifestyle they now live of the colonizing Arabs, they have continued to resist any kind of external control over their lives to this day. From French colonial rule to having the way they practice their religion dictated to them by outsiders they have have struggled preserve their way of life and traditional territories. Since the withdrawal of French rule from the Sahara in the early 1960s the lands they used to move through freely have been divided up amongst Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Algeria. Since 1963, and the first uprising of the modern era, they have taken up arms to protect their rights in the 1980s, the 1990s and most recently in 2007.
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Much like elsewhere in the world the Kel Tamsheq discovered treaties have a way of being forgotten when governments change or when it is discovered the useless land they were given is rich in natural resources. It would come as no surprise to Native Americans to hear that when uranium was discovered in Niger all the treaties were thrown out the window. While the 1980s had seen the Kel Tamsheq fighting for their lands, the 1990s saw them fighting for survival as the Niger government began to target them for persecution. Libya and Algeria have both served as homes in exile for them in the past, and did again in the 90s. Among those whose families fled to Algeria at the time was Omara "Bombino" Moctar from Agadez. Twenty some years later, both Moctar and Agadez are the subject of a new documentary film, Agadez, The Music and the Rebellion, directed and produced by Ron Wyman and his Zero Gravity Films production company.

Since the 1980 uprisings more and more among the Kel Tamsheq have turned to music in order to both further their cause around the world and as a means of keeping their own culture alive for new generations who have been cut off from the traditional lifestyle of their parents. With the loss of their habitat to expanding populations and resource exploitation a generation faces the risk of being cut adrift from what it means to be a Kel Tamsheq as they come of age in the cities instead of the desert. According to Wyman's notes he had initially set out to make a film about the people and the city of Agadez. However the movie evolved into including the young musician, Omara "Bombino" Moctar (He was given the nickname Bombino by the older musicians who he first played with as a play on the Italian word for baby bambino) whose music they were introduced too via a cassette tape their guide played endlessly while driving them, and the role music was playing in furthering their cause.
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Sometimes changing horses in mid stream like this can result in either never making it across the river or at least getting soaking wet. However, in this case Wyman has done a magnificent job of integrating the two seemingly divergent directions his film could have taken. Primarily this is because he has the courage the recognize the strength of the bond between the music, the environment and the people to let them speak for themselves through the visuals supplied by his camera instead of relying only on talking heads to make the point. The movie's opening frames not only establish his intent to adhere to the credo of a "picture being worth a thousand words", they also prove out the adage by taking our breath away and letting us know we're entering into an environment far removed from anything most of us have ever experienced.

However, since images can be misunderstood by a viewer's preconceived notions of what is important in life based on their own circumstances, Wyman wisely ensures we are given the proper context to place them in. To us what looks like abject poverty and primitive living conditions - hauling water from wells, cooking over open fires and a noticeable lack of any of the amenities we consider bare essentials, are simply the realities of living in that environment. Through interviews with members of the Kel Tamsheq community of Agadez, well educated people who have experienced life outside of the desert and chosen to return home, we learn enough of the people's history and their philosophy of life to begin to understand what they consider important and why these "hardships" are a small price to pay for being able to live as they choose.

At one point one of those interviews tells the story of how at first the people cursed their parents for bringing them to such a harsh land where survival was so difficult. However they soon came to bless them, for nobody else wanted it and they could live as they wished. As with any other culture whose people are as in tune with their environment as the Kel Tamsheq, it's when they are removed from it problems arise. This is why they have fought so hard, and against increasingly impossible odds, for the right to live as they have always lived. However they are also realists and have come to understand they will never win through force of arms and the times require a different approach.
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The need to integrate their approach to life with living in the modern world is what has made the role of musicians like Bombino so important to the Kel Tamsheq. For not only are they able to carry their case to the world, they are also the means of communicating to the new generation what it means to be one of the Kel Tamsheq and why they should take pride in who they are. In telling the story of Bombino, Wyman shows us how music is the chain connecting the generations both through the way he learned to play and how he is continuing the work begun by his teachers. The music he plays combines the modern and traditional worlds his people move through both in the content of his lyrics and in the music itself.

The life of the Kel Tamsheq is not easy, but it is the life they have chosen to live and desire to keep on living in as much as the modern world will allow them to do so. In Agadez, The Music And The Rebellion Ron Wyman has done an excellent job of not only depicting their life without romanticizing or sentimentalizing it, but showing what they are doing to preserve it in the face of increasingly difficult odds. Follow his camera into one of the harshest environments on earth and meet the people who not only live there, but cherish the freedom it brings them. You will also meet the remarkable young musician, Omara "Bombino" Moctar, whose story of exile and return is typical for his generation, but whose talent is unique. Like his people he has persevered in the face of persecution (two of the musicians he used to play with were killed by the Niger army when they targeted the musicians among the Kel Tamsheq in the 2007 uprising and he was in exile in Burkina Faso until 2010) and now uses what he does best to fight for them.

Named Tuareg, rebels, by the first wave of invaders who tried to dictate to them how to live, the Kel Tamsheq may have laid down their weapons but that doesn't mean they have given up their battle for independence. Ron Wyman's film is currently making the rounds of film festivals in North America and around the world telling their story. Hopefully it will find its way onto DVD soon. There are many people in the world who claim to speak for freedom and liberty, but few whose way of life epitomizes those ideals as much as the Kel Tamsheq. If for no other reason it will be a shame if this movie is not seen by as a wide an audience as possible. The good news is those wishing to hear the music of Bombino won't have to wait long as his CD, Agadez, is being released by the Cumbancha label on April 14h 2011.

Photo credits: Agadez Mosque By Moonlight Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak, Photo of Omara "Bombino" Moctar by Ron Wyman
(Article first published as Movie Review: Agadez - The Music And The Rebellion on Blogcritics.)

February 13, 2011

Music Review: Sanda - Gypsy In A Tree

I can still remember the first time I heard a recording of Lotte Lenya singing. It was the original cast recording of the first English production of the Kurt Weill, Bertol Brecht play The Threepenny Opera. While the rest of the cast sang their material with the glossy voices you expect in American musical theatre, Lenya's voice was as coarse as rough sand paper and a wonderful relief from the parade of characterless voices which had proceeded it. Brecht and Weill's biting piece of social commentary had been turned into a pretty piece of musical theatre with Lenya's performance being the only tie to its roots in the political theatre of Germany in the 1920s and 30s.

Brecht hadn't been interested in creating pieces of escapist entertainment, and strove to rid performances of the sentimental attachment the audiences made to the characters in a play. His theory of "alienation" was to constantly remind the audience they were watching actors on stage performing in a play so their intellect wouldn't be clouded by forming any sort of emotional attachment to the characters. He wanted performers with real and gritty singing voices; people who weren't your typical matinee idols playing the romantic hero to the young ingenue. While there was far more to his alienation technique than his preference in actors, its something to keep in mind when listening to Gypsy In A Tree, the new CD from Sanda Weigl (she is referred to by her first name only) on the Brooklyn NY Barbes Records label.
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For while Sanda was born in Romania her family moved to East Berlin in the early 1960s. As a child she had loved to watch the gypsy street musicians in her home of Bucharest, and quickly learned to sing the songs she heard them performing and had even been a child star on Romanian State television. In Berlin, her aunt, Helene Weigel, who was not only Brecht's widow but had taken over the running of his company The Berliner Ensemble, Sanda under her wing and introduced her to Brecht and Weill's style of musical theatre. From there she graduated to being the member of a rock band and also winning the Dresden International Song Festival when she was 17 with her rendition of a traditional Roma (Gypsy) tune "Recruit". In 1968, when the Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to put down the reform movement, she joined an underground student group to protest the invasion and East Germany's oppressive rule and was subsequently arrested, sentenced to three years of hard labour and then exiled as an enemy of the state to West Berlin.

In West Berlin Sanda returned to the theatre and her first love, the music of the Roma she had heard as a child. She began performing again with a band made up of musicians from the Tom Waits (music and lyrics) and William S Burroughs (book) musical The Black Rider which was originally staged in Germany. Encouraged by Black Rider's director, Robert Wilson, she and her husband emigrated to New York City to allow her to further her singing career. Since her arrival in New York City she has continued to perform and released her first disc in 2002, Gypsy Killer, and now, nine years latter, she has finally released her follow up. Ten of the eleven tracks on Gypsy In A Tree are traditional Roma songs which Sanda has adapted and arranged with the help of pianist Anthony Coleman and her current band, avant-garde jazz musicians Shoko Nagai (accordion, piano and Farfisa organ) Stomu Takeishi (bass) and Satoshi Takeishi (percussion).

While Sanda sings in Romanian (the booklet accompanying the CD provides copies of each song's lyrics in Romanian, English and German) the music builds off the traditional melodies to reflect the many cultures and countries both Sanda and the Roma have been influenced by and travelled through. So while the opening song on the disc, "Intr-o Ai La Poarta Mea" (One Day In Front Of My Fence) sounds like it could have been lifted directly from the stages of Brecht and Weill's 1920s Germany, the very next song, "Un Tigan Avea O Casa" (A Gypsy Had A House) shows definite signs of modern jazz influences.

However, no matter what musical style has been incorporated, Sanda's vocals are so mesmerizing they are the listeners primary focus. She has a range that would be the envy of any musical theatre performer and an expressiveness that conveys meaning even though we might not understand the words she's singing. Reading the English translations of the songs alone doesn't convey the depth of feeling behind the lyrics, and Sanda is able to imbue each of the songs with what is necessary to convey the layers beneath the surface.
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Take the song "Jandarmul" (Gendarme - Romanian Gypsy word for a member of the cavalry) where a horseman refuses to give a young Roma girl a lift as she trudges along barefoot in a muddy road. On the page it sounds like she merely wishes him misfortune when she asks, "Oh Lord, dear Lord, make the rains so heavy/ That all the land is flooded/The horse stumbles in the mud/And the roads are no more". Somehow, Sanda is able to express through the soldier's attitude towards the young girl the disdain the majority of Romanian society has for the Roma, and the fatalism this has bred in response. It's as if the young girl is saying, fine if the world is going to make it so hard to walk and not offer any assistance, it might as well do away with roads altogether. Yet there's also an air of defiance, as she also seems to be saying, no matter what the world does to us we will continue on our journeys.

In some ways the songs on this disc are the blues songs of the Roma. For a great many of them reflect the pain of the Roma along the lines of "Adu Calu' Sa Ma Duc" (Bring My Horse It's Time To Go) which features an exchange of farewells between lovers who are being forced to part because of circumstances. "Bring my horse it's time to go/ I must leave this place/Where luck wants no part of me/If luck were with me/I wouldn't be punished thus/Torn away from you/My heart is always weeping". Much like blues musicians sing about misfortunes and bad times in an attempt to take some of the sting out of a people's bad experiences, Sanda does the same with her material. While those lyrics are potentially maudlin, listening to the sound of her voice as she sings them, you experience something similar to what you feel when listening to a great blues singer sing about her man doing her wrong. It's not just about this one incident, nor is it about feeling sorry for yourself, these songs are a way of making sure you don't brood about the bad things in life by proclaiming them to the sky and not letting them rule you.

In the early part of the 20th century when Romanians would hire Roma musicians to play for family events like weddings and other celebrations, they were forced to keep out of sight of the guests to the extreme of having to sit in trees if they were performing outside. Gypsy In A Tree takes its title from that reprehensible practice, but while the songs on the disc might have lyrics which talk about the hardships the Roma have faced, and continue to face this day, Sanda's performance make them more than just laments. With an obvious empathy for the material and the people who created it, Sanda is able to convey the strength of spirit of a people who have not only survived this treatment for centuries, but have managed to create a strong and vibrant culture along the way.

While it may seem like an odd combination, a Romanian vocalist accompanied by three Japanese musicians, performing traditional Roma material, their approach has been the perfect combination of respect and experimentation to bring the songs to life. Of course the combination of great songs, great musicians and a spectacular vocalist is usually a winner, and that's the case here.

(Article first published as Music Review: Sanda - Gypsy In A Tree on Blogcritics.)

February 12, 2011

Music Review: Mamadou Diabate - Courage

If you look at old maps you'll notice Europe dominating the rest of the world. Not only is it in the centre of the map, it is also represented as being much larger than any of the surrounding continents. While the excuse could be made the maps were composed out of ignorance as they didn't know the locations or sizes of the other land masses at the time, there can be denying they also thought the world revolved around them, if not the whole universe. Remember it wasn't until after they burned Copernicus at the stake for espousing the view the world revolved around the sun, did that belief begin to take hold. So it's pretty easy to see how they could believe themselves to be the centre of the world.

Over the years, as more and more of the world was revealed through exploration, maps gradually became more accurate in their depiction of the world and countries' and continent's sizes in relation to each other, but our Euro-centric view of the world hasn't changed at the same speed. While we might recognize certain geo-political realities, when it comes to culture, we tend to diminish the creations of certain countries of the world as if they couldn't possibly have the traditions or history required to produce art of real quality. Aside from ignoring the fact these civilization existed long before Europe, it has resulted in the art produced in those regions being dismissed as "folk" art and not being appreciated appropriately.
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One of the most glaring examples of this is the way the music of the various African nations has been relegated to either the world music or folk categories down through the years without regard to what is being played. If the instruments aren't immediately recognizable as ones that look like they belong in a symphony, or the music being played doesn't fit into any of our preconceived notions of "what" it should sound like, the idea of it bearing any resemblance to what we call classical music is considered laughable by most people. The thing is, there are musicians and composers of all types scattered through out the length and breadth of Africa who, like their European counterparts, are playing music of incredible complexity and emotional depth passed down from generation to generation and which inspires the work of contemporary composers. All of which sounds remarkably similar to our definition of classical music.

It was while listening to the newest release, Courage on the World Village Music label, from Malian kora player and composer Mamadou Diabate these thoughts really took shape, I've been trying to put my finger on what bothers me so much about the practice of lumping all music from outside English speaking North America and Europe into one grouping, world music, no matter what type of music is produced. How can you put this man and what he creates into the same genre as, for example, the Tuareg musicians of the Northern Sahara and their electric tribal blues, let alone the same genre as the musicians of Southern India or Flamenco players from Andalusia in Spain? It makes as much sense as putting Jimi Hendrix and Mozart into the same musical category.
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This cultural snobbery has its roots in colonialism and European refusal to believe any "native" could be as sophisticated as them. While it is nowhere near as blatant as it once was the attitudes really haven't changed that much as I doubt very few people would believe the music Diabate composes on his twenty-one string Kora is every bit as intricate and sublime as the work of J.S Bach or other European classical composers. How could a man who plays an instrument which has its resonator made out of a calabash covered with cow skin, and whose only accompaniment is somebody playing a wooden xylophone (Lansan Fode Diabate - balafon), a small stringed instrument which looks like a stick stuck into a tube shaped drum with four strings (Abous Sissoko - ngoni), a percussion instrument made from a gourd (Adama Diarra - calabash) and a guy on acoustic bass (Noah Jarrett), be compared to one of the most revered European composers who lived?

Actually it was very easy. I was listening to the third of the eleven tracks on the CD, "Dafina", when it popped into my head how much this disc reminded me of a recording I had heard of Glen Gould playing Bach's Goldberg Variations. It was about the third or fourth time listening to the disc when I was struck by the similarity. It wasn't that track in particular which triggered the thought, it was more a cumulative effect of having listened to the music a few times and it no longer mattering what instruments were being used. Obviously Diabate's music doesn't sound much like a solo piano performance, (and he doesn't hum tunelessly along to his performance like Gould used to) rather it was the intricacy and arrangement of the notes - the patterns they formed - that put me in mind of the Bach.

I realize this is all very vague, but the best I can do is tell you is Diabate's music generated the same feelings the Bach did the first time I fully appreciated it and allowed it to carry me away. Each of the eleven tracks on the disc are a piece onto themselves and express individual themes or ideas. "Yaka Yaka", the opening track, is dedicated to the love he feels for his mother, while others are less personal and reflect the concerns he has with the state of the world. Track four, "Humanity" and the disc's closing track, "Bogna" (respect), were inspired by his understanding any hope we have of solving today's problems rests in us learning to treat each other with a heck of lot more respect and humanity than we do now. While we might not be able to "hear" the message in each track, their combined effect is to create a disc of amazing emotional power imbued with overwhelming sense of hope.
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Yet the title of the disc, Courage indicates Diabate does not cling to false hopes or suffers from any illusions about what is needed to overcome so many of our problems. Listening to his music you have the sense the courage he is referring to is the kind which allows you to stand up and admit you were wrong, the kind that allows you to forgive your enemy and look for the common ground you'll need to forge peace between you or the kind allowing you to respect other people's beliefs and not be scared of something because you don't understand it. Like Bach, Diabate's work has been inspired by something greater than his own personal feelings and objectives and he has responded by creating music every bit as technically sophisticated and emotionally uplifting as any composer you care to name. The Grammy he received in 2009 was for best Traditional World Album. I don't know if they have a Grammy for best Contemporary Composition, but if they do that's the category this disc should be considered under. This is a truly remarkable disc of music and deserves to be considered equal to anything written or recorded by any composer or symphony orchestra in the rest of the world.

(Article first published as Music Review: Mamadou Diabate - Courage on Blogcritics)

February 8, 2011

DVD Review: The People Speak

Open a newspaper, any newspaper, in order to read about what's going on in the world and you'll usually be treated to reports on what's been said by a select minority. Spokespeople from government, business leaders and, if you're lucky, a politician in opposition to the government's position will all weigh in on the issue at hand. They usually talk in broad generalities about the big picture without ever giving any indication on the impact their actions might have on people further down the food chain. When the government announces a ten per cent cut in the corporate tax rate and the business leader says he can live with that and the leader of the opposition says he would have cut it more although its a good start, nobody bothers to mention what will happen because of the ten per cent lose of revenue.

In theory paying ten per cent less in taxes is supposed to allow business to increase productivity, lower prices and hire more workers all of which will generate sufficient revenue to make up for the short fall created by the tax cut. In practice what happens is the companies simply increase their profit margins and nothing ever is passed onto the consumer or the labour force. But we never hear from the single mom who is trying to buy food and pay rent while working minimum wage about how the increase in food costs, rent, utilities and medical expensed not covered by her health insurance because of government cut backs in social services to pay for the ten per cent cut in the corporate tax rate have affected her. We never hear how the streamlining of departments in order to save money has resulted in the number of workplace health and safety inspectors being reduced and she's working in increasingly unsafe conditions or how she is forced to quit her job because the day care she had her kids in was closed due to "rationalization".
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Not only won't you find her voice in most newspapers, you can pretty much be guaranteed of not finding her voice, or voices like it. in most history books either. It's pretty difficult to get a balanced picture of events when you only read one view point don't you think? How accurate a picture do you think you're getting when you read about the labour unrest in the early part of the 20th century and you only read about what the government and corporations have to say and nothing from the rank and file of union workers? The late American historian Howard Zinn had the idea that people might want to read about history from the point of view of the workers and the single mothers and it turns out he was right. Since his People's History Of The United States was first published it has sold over a million copies, which must be some kind of record for a history book. Taking the concept a step further in 2009 he and co-author Anthony Arnove published Voices Of A People's History Of The United States, a collection of speeches, letters and other documents giving first hand accounts of events throughout the history of the country by those whose voices aren't normally heard. From soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War to the parents of people killed when the World Trade Centre went down, all of them gave readers a perspective on history they might not have read or heard before.

In an effort to bring these words to the public actors Matt Daemon and Josh Brolin put together a touring show of their fellow actors that went university campuses and the occasional public hall, in order to present live readings from the book. The show was filmed at two separate locations and that footage has been edited onto one DVD, The People Speak. Also edited into the movie are performances of various musical pieces by performers who either played live with the actors or who recorded their segments especially for the DVD. Unfortunately the only review copy I was able to obtain was via a download from I-tunes, which didn't contain any of the special features which are included on a second disc when you purchase the package. It also meant there were no notes available to consult to double check the identities of who was reading what. (Oh, and I-Tunes has to be the worst facility for downloading video - it took me over three hours to download something less then two hours in length using a high speed connection)

Howard Zinn serves as the narrator and host for both the DVD and the live performances, and he starts off by telling us a little about himself and the impetus for creating both his first book and this follow up. He makes no bones about the fact the voices we are about to hear are ones of dissent - the people who spoke out against the status quo and who refused to toe the official party line. However, as he says, since America was founded through dissent, it only seems appropriate these voices should continue to be heard. The first account we hear is of how during the Revolution, officers acted pretty much like they would have were they in the British army and lorded it over the enlisted men. The enlisted men were poorly clothed and starving and when they dared protest they were whipped or hung. The first reading of the night, by Viggo Mortensen, was of a letter describing the whipping and hanging of one Sergeant Macaroni for having the nerve to protest about conditions on behalf of his men and then during his whipping continue to do so which resulted in his being immediately hung.
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So much for the myth of soldiers freezing to death willingly out of patriotism. As we continue down through the years balloons continue to be popped. The great emancipator Lincoln writes to the effect that he would willingly allow slavery to continue if it meant the salvation of the Union. There were also riots in the cities of the north protesting the fact that rich people could buy their way out of the draft for $300.00 (somethings never changed as wealthy people were able to obtain deferments from service as long as there was a draft). As to the myth of Johnny Reb which exist even to this day - well most of them were conscripts who would desert at the first chance as they had little interest in dying for the big landowners.

For those who might doubt the veracity of some of the material being read during the performance, it's interesting to note how much of it comes from the trials of various people who were arrested for doing things like voting illegally or trying to abolish slavery. John Brown was hung for trying steal weapons in order to liberate slaves and Susan B Anthony tried to vote before it was legal for women in the United States. Both were tried and found guilty of their crimes and what the actors read are the speeches both gave when asked if the defendant had any words to say before sentencing was carried out. Other readings are from speeches that were given at public events like ex-slave Soujourner Truth's "Ain't I Woman" speech from 1851 given to a group of white abolitionists.

The performers on the DVD are pretty much instantly recognizable: Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover, Josh Brolin, Morgan Freeman, Jasmin Guy, Benjamin Bratt, Marisa Tomei, Mat Daemon, Don Cheadle and David Straitharn to name a few, and their performances range from simple readings to near dramatic re-enactments. Interestingly enough it was an actor I was unfamiliar with before this, Kerry Washington, who made one of the strongest impressions with her performance of the above mentioned Sourjourner Truth's speech. Not only did she do a fine job of assuming the accent of a black woman from the times but she was also able to bring the speech to life. While all the performers did capable jobs of reading their pieces so an audience would understand what was being said, there were times when I wished they had invested them with a little more emotion - created more of a performance.
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On those occasions an actor chose to give a performance you were given a much deeper understanding of what the original document was about and the intent behind the letter or speech. Ironically I can't remember the people he depicted, but David Straitharn's presentations were some of the most emotionally powerful of the night. It wasn't that he ranted or raved, it was the way in which he was able to raise his level of intensity while talking to match his character's emotions. Another performance of note was Viggo Mortensen's reading of a letter from a parent whose child was killed in the bombing of the World Trade Centre. First of all it was the only reading in Spanish during the night, and second of all you didn't need to speak the language to understand the depth of the father's anguish and the passion he felt for his subject. The actress performing the wife read the letter in English - the couple are Hispanic - so we were able to understand they were pleading with people not to use their son's death as an excuse to perpetuate violence.

Interspersed between the speeches were the occasional musical performance. Bob Dylan, accompanied by Ry Cooder and Van Dyke Parks, went back to his roots and played Woody Guthries "Do Re Mi" from the days of the dust bowl quite credibly and Bruce Springsteen did a typically intense solo version of his own "Tom Joad", the performer who took me most by surprise was Pink. I had only heard of her vaguely before and her performance of "Dear Mr. President" is the highlight of the DVD. The passion for her material and her vocal ability were a remarkable combination and one wondered how anybody could have listened to this song and not be moved. Some might wonder what she or her song have to do with history, but according to Howard Zinn, we are all living history all the time and what goes on today is just as important as what happened yesterday.

The People Speak represents an opportunity very few of us are given. Not only does it present aspects of history not everybody is familiar with, it brings it to life and makes it real. For too many people history has been confined to the pages of dusty books and boring classrooms - this represents a chance to see and hear it brought alive. We may not be able to travel back in time, but this DVD brings the past to us.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The People Speak on Blogcritics.)

February 7, 2011

Music Review: Erdem Helvacioglu & Ros Bandt - Black Falcon

Perhaps it's because we envy them their ability to soar effortlessly on air currents invisible to our eyes that humans have long equated the flying birds are capable of with freedom. With gravity's grip relentlessly keeping us rooted to the earth we can only watch in helpless awe as even the humblest pigeon easily passes over walls that confine even the mightiest of men. Poetry and songs from all over the world confirm our fascination with birds in the way they are constantly used to evoke thoughts of freedom and escape from peril. Even now when we have developed our own clumsy means of taking to the air, who hasn't stopped to watch a bird's passage and marvel at its effortless crossing of the sky.

Of course nothing we have accomplished to date can match the natural aerodynamics and control exercised by the hunting and diving birds who stalk their prey from thousands of feet above until suddenly plummeting from the sky like a bolt of lighting to swoop away with a fish from beneath the waters or break the spine of a rabbit. Raptors of all kinds can instil fear in the best of us, which could be why the eagle has been a symbol of power and intimidation for empires and royalty since the time of the Romans. Others, with more respect for the natural world, have interpreted their power as a sign of being touched by the divine, and eagles are considered the messengers of the Creator, with the smaller raptors taking secondary roles.
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While the eagles, condors and hawks of the world are recognized for their power, when it comes to speed falcons are known to outstrip their larger relatives by a good margin. Unfortunately these small birds also seem to have come into conflict the most with humans in competition for habitat. While some falcons have been able to make homes for themselves among the skyscrapers of major cities - some cities have encouraged this nesting in the hopes the falcons will help with pest control by feasting on rat and other vermin - the populations in the wild have dwindled. The peregrine falcon of Northern Canada flirted with extinction until it was declared a protected species. The black falcons of Europe and Australia are not quite as fortunate, and both are considered endangered. Nomadic animals, the very freedom we envy is what's being denied them by the continual erosion of habitat as we devour more and more of the wild.

It's both the steady decline in the falcon's numbers and the conflict between man and the wild which provided the impetus for the collaboration between Turkey's Erdem Hevacioglu and Australia's Ros Bandt and their new release on Double Moon Records, Black Falcon. The seven compositions on the CD combines modern and traditional musical technology as both a lament for the falcon and an expression of the conflict between the wild and humanity's insatiable desire to subdue the untamed. With the disc being recorded in only one day, and five of the seven pieces improvised, the project in of itself isn't what you'd call tame, as the two artists are having to rely on their artistic instincts in order to pull it off.

Even the instruments used in the creation of the pieces reflects something of the tension between the natural world and the technology we use to shape and control what's around us. While Helvacioglu creates layers of textured sound utilizing electric guitar and electronics, Bandt is playing a simple four stringed instrument modelled on an ancient design called a long necked Tarhu. Inspired by instruments as diverse as the double bass, traditional Eastern and middle Eastern spike fiddles and the Indian Vina, Australian luthier Peter Biffin created an acoustic system for the tarhu which transfers its strings vibrations to a featherweight wooden cone suspended from its body. Whether bowed or plucked the design means the instrument is exceptionally sensitive and offers a musician a huge range of tones to work with.

I suppose we could continue to carry the analogy further by stressing how much the tarhu is like nature in when you pluck one string the whole resounds in ways you can't predict. However it would create the misleading impression of the two musical styles being in conflict, which is the furthest thing from the truth. Technology in of itself is not evil, nor are all modern advances. What is dangerous is how we have let them both deaden our senses to the world around us. In the hands of as gifted a musician as Helvacioglu a piece of electronics can create music as sensitive as any acoustic instrument no matter what its pedigree. Needless to say, Bandt proves herself just as capable of producing sounds and tones that are as unsettling as anything you'll hear created on any electric instrument. Maybe the irony here is that both the modern and the traditional employ freedom and wildness to deny our expectations of what they should do.
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The music itself is a series of abstract creations built around various themes. The opening track, "Black Falcon", does more than just try and define the bird, but also brings us into its world. By that I don't mean the two have gone the obvious route and tried to recreate the sounds of flight. What they have done is created something that might give us the idea of what it could feel like to be as unfettered and free as a falcon. While there is beauty, there is also sadness as the bird and the freedom it represents are slowly vanishing, so in the midst of this celebration of its prowess we are made aware of the awful hole that would be left if it were to vanish forever.

While the various pieces on the disc celebrate the wildness of the natural world, never once do you have the impression they are guilty of sentimentalizing it either. There's nothing idyllic or pastoral about this animal's life, it is a predator after all and relies on killing other creatures to survive. As the music progresses over the course of the disc the two delve deeper into the meanings of untamed and why it strikes such fear into the hearts of humans. Wild just isn't being born free, its the unchecked rage of a hurricane, the explosive power of a volcano and the uncaring nature of the towering mountain. The falcon goes about its life and business in much the same way as it would if we weren't around to intrude upon its existence the same as any other elemental force.

It's fascinating to hear how this image is created over the course of the recording. At times I was hard pressed to remember there were seven individual pieces on the disc and found that I was listening to it as a single entity. Perhaps your experience with it will be different. For like any abstract work, perceptions on what is being presented will change from individual to individual. However, no matter what you "get" from the music, you can't fail to be impressed by the talents of the two musicians and the scope of their achievement. At times I was unable to distinguish who was creating which sounds so adept were each with their instruments. Bandt's control of tone and texture is so good at times it was hard to believe she was creating her sounds acoustically, while Helvacioglu electronic washes of sound were so delicate they could be mistaken for something occurring naturally.

Humans are split between our envy of the freedom represented by a bird in flight and our desire to control the wild nature behind the ability. Unfortunately the one can't exist without the other and if we continue on the way we are going we will destroy that which we desire so much. Perhaps that's why we are so bent on the destruction of nature - our selfishness won't let us simply enjoy something that splendid. If we're not to be allowed those gifts we aren't willing to let anyone else have them either. The music of Erdem Helvacioglu & Ros Bandt on Black Falcon might not say such things explicitly, and it may suggest some other idea altogether to you, but you won't be able to listen to it without being affected in some way.

This is a wonderful piece of work created and performed by two very unique talents. With this creation they have given us a perfect example of how acoustic and electronic instruments can work together to create something that combines the best elements of each without either overpowering the other. I wonder if there's a lesson in there somewhere; what do you think?

(Article first published as Music Review: Erdem Helvacioglu & Ros Bandt - Black Falcon on Blogcritics.)

February 6, 2011

Music Review: Susan McKeown -Singing In The Dark

You'd think we'd have matured enough by now we could talk about mental illness openly and honestly. Instead the stigma attached to even the most basic of emotional difficulties is so great most people are still loath to even admit they're seeing a psychiatrist or therapist. All you have to do is watch people squirm and try to change the subject when you bring up the fact that you've been seeing somebody to help you deal with emotional problems to understand what I'm talking about. The only thing worse than dealing with the rest of the world's reactions to your circumstances are the way the majority of the medical profession - especially those who treat them specifically - deal with mental illnesses.

They see their job as doing their damnedest to take your square pegged self and make you fit into the nice little round holes society wants us all slotting into. The problem is that far too much of the time its been trying to fit into those little round holes that have caused you all the problems in the first place. The usual answer offered by the profession is to medicate the crap out of you so you don't notice the shit that caused you to slip off the rails. So if you've been having the perfectly normal reaction to the tensions of living in our world today of having anxiety attacks they'll pump you full of pills to deaden your emotions and turn you back into a mindless sheep content with career, house in the suburbs and the ability to swallow what you hear and see in the media as the gospel truth.

While for some that might be the answer to their troubles, others might find that a cost their not willing to pay for easing their minds. It's probably no coincidence that throughout history artists, specifically poets, have been troubled by what we would call mood disorders. What has been commonly referred to as the "artistic temperament" may actually have been an indication of something deeper: depression, manic/depression, anxiety or some other form of emotional imbalance. During their lifetimes a great many poets lived lives of intense suffering and poverty as they were shunned by "normal" society and it was only in their art they were able to find solace. The insights into human nature and emotions which have been the hallmarks of some of the world's great poetry, ensuring their places in history, are in most cases a result of the writer suffering from some sort of trouble of the mind.
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When singer/songwriter Susan McKeown began researching her family tree she was startled to discover the high incidence of disturbances among the creative members of her ancestry. Fascinated by this correlation she set out to discover more, and soon realized her family wasn't an anomaly. In an effort to try and reduce some of the stigma attached to people dealing with these issues McKeown has created an album adapting the work of poets who wrote about those feelings. The result, Singing In The Dark, is a beautiful and haunting collection of work capturing both the emotional highs and lows experienced by the creative spirit.

McKeown has gathered together the work of poets throughout history whose work either reflects their own struggles with emotional imbalances or has something to do with the subject. Trawling through the ages she has reached back into our earliest works, "Mad Sweeny", whose origins lie in the 5th century and travelled through to modern times and Leonard Cohen's "Anthem". Along the way she pays her respect to writers on both sides of the Atlantic including Lord Byron, "We'll Go No More A Roving" and John Rowland, "In Darkness Let Me Dwell" from England; Nula Ni Dhomhnaill, "The Crack In The Stairs" and James Clarence Mangan, "The Nameless One" from Ireland; Theodore Roethke, "In A Dark Time" and Anne Sexton "A Woman Like That (Her Kind)" from America and Spaniard Violeta Parra, "Gracias A La Vida" (Thanks To Life) amongst them.

As you can tell from their titles these songs, poems, go places most of aren't used to, or interested in, going when listening to music. However, there's a reason these works have survived and are around today for McKeown to have adapted, and that's because no matter how depressing you might think the topic at hand is, there is something uplifting or compelling about each of the works. Part of that is McKeown's abilities as a performer and her incredible command of her voice which allows her to sing one song, "The Crazy Woman" by Gwendolyn Brooks, in an aching tenor and another, Cohen's aforementioned "Anthem" in a rich alto.

The material isn't hurt by the fact she has surrounded herself with what is obviously an amazingly gifted group of musicians and technicians who have helped her bring her vision to reality. I mention the latter because as I was listening to this disc I couldn't help but notice how cleanly the songs have been mixed so each instrument sounds like its been nestled in a cocoon keeping their integrity intact while still being obviously only one small piece of a much larger picture. With the variety of instruments being used it would have been easy for the sound to have turned to mud, instead it is crystal clear.
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Musically she also has some surprises in store for listeners. Upon reading the disc is composed of songs adopted from poems dealing with mental illness, one could almost be forgiven for assuming the material is going to be full of sweeping electronics, melodic strings, and other typical means of creating atmosphere. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to hear the amount of fuzz being used on the electric guitar on the Roethke piece opening the disc and the rocking lead guitar searing through the adaptation of Sexton's piece that follows. While in the opening track the fuzz serves as a contrast to McKeown's voice, on "A Woman Like That", she develops the roughness of voice to match the guitar. I like the irony of her dealing with a topic that's been subject to so much misconception by shattering a great many of the preconceived notions most people would have had about how this type of material would be presented. Just because its poetry doesn't mean its going to be pretty or precious. Of course if you think about it, with such gritty subject matter it makes sense for the music to be equally real.

However, no matter how interesting and well played the music on the recording is, its still the words which lay at its core. Here's where McKeown shows her amazing capacity for understanding the various aspects of emotional conditions. The material reflects not only a variety of experiences but the diversity of emotions felt by those who deal with them their whole lives. Again expectations are probably going to be dashed as in spite of what anyone might think, people suffering from emotional disturbances, even sever ones, are still quite rational and aren't necessarily depressed or manic all of the time. In fact one of the more prevalent emotions you can hear being expressed on this disc is hope. Whether its in the firmness of the convictions expressed by the woman in the "The Crazy Woman", "I'll not sing a May song/A May song should be gay/I'll wait until November/And sing a song of grey", or the knowledge that even when the darkness seems complete light still has a chance as Cohen's "Anthem" makes sure to point out, "Ring the bells that still can sing/Forget your perfect offering/There's a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in/That's how the light gets in".

There's no denying though, there are some pretty torturous paths being followed by the minds of some of the poets she has drawn upon. However when you read about their life stories, or the history surrounding a specific piece, as described in the CD's liner notes, you will see how a great many of these writers were pushed into darkness by their circumstances. Too often we tend to look at someone's behaviour and judge them without searching beyond to see what might have caused it. The number of abused women who are punished for being overtly violent, put into anger control programs, or worse, for lashing out at those who have been torturing them is only one indication of how deeply we are failing those dealing with emotional disorders.

Easing their burdens shouldn't be so difficult, and Susan McKeown's is another voice being raised on their behalf in an attempt to demystify these types of "illnesses". Not only does Singing In The Dark offer moral support, a portion of the proceeds from its sale are being donated the following groups helping people: National Alliance on Metal Illness (NAMI), Fountain House, BringChange2Mind and The Mood Disorders Support Group (MDSG). This is an album of spectacular singing, great musicand intelligent lyrics in support of a good cause - what more could you want?

(Article first published as Music Review: Susan McKeown - Singing In The Dark on Blogcritics.)

February 1, 2011

Music Review: Ballake Sissko & Vincent Segal - Chamber Music

The cello is not most peoples idea of a glamourous musical instrument. Even in the world of classical music, where there have at least been pieces of music written specifically for it, it plays second fiddle (couldn't help it) to its sexier kin in the string section, the violin. Outside of the concert hall it receives even less recognition, for while instruments like the trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, violin, and even its larger cousin the double bass have become staples in the world of jazz, you don't often hear a cello leading a jazz combo or showing up in your average rock band.

What most people don't realize, save those who have taken the time to sit and listen, is the astounding variety of sound and the wondrous richness of tone a cello can produce. As a child my parents decided, in spite of an almost complete lack of aptitude, I should play an instrument as part of my education, and I somehow ended up paired with a cello. For three years I learned proper bowing and fingering techniques, but it was soon obvious I was no match for the demands of the instrument, surrendered to the inevitable and stopped inflicting myself upon the poor long suffering music teachers in my school system. However, even my pitiful scraping of the strings were enough to convince me that in the hands of someone who knew what they were doing the cello would sound wonderful.
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All of which brings me to the intriguing new project released earlier this month by Six Degrees Records entitled Chamber Music. Normally the term chamber music refers to pieces performed by a condensed version of a symphony orchestra with the number of musicians reduced from its usual over a hundred to around thirty or forty. In this case though, we're dealing with something even less traditional as cellist Vincent Segal of France is joined by the kora playing Malian Ballake Sissoko. While this may seem like a strange combination at first glance, a twenty-six string traditional harp like African instrument being paired with an instrument from the European classical repertoire, the gap between the two men and their instruments isn't actually that large.

Both Segal and Sissoko, while trained in the classical traditions of their instruments, have worked in what most would considered non-standard genres musically before. For Segal this has meant working with everything from jazz combos to hip-hop groups while Sissoko has collaborated with people like Taj Mahal and contemporary composers. At the same time the music both men were initially trained in has far more in common than you'd think. In spite of increased exposure due to the proliferation of world music labels there is still the widespread misconception that music from African countries is either high energy pop music or tribal based drumming. Sissoko's training was in a much different type of music as like his father and grandfather before him he had been prepared for the role of historian, praise singer and bard for his people. The music he played was designed to help tell stories and create an atmosphere that was conducive to people listening to him, not to pulling them on their feet.

Even if you don't know anything about the two men or their backgrounds, as soon as you listen to them playing together the connection between them and their music is obvious. From the opening, title track "Chamber Music", to the closing song on the disc, it sounds as if they have been playing together for decades. First of all the two instruments compliment each other perfectly as the kora, much like a European harp, has a light almost ethereal sound that blends beautifully with the cello's rich, earthy tones. However, instead of the cello being relegated to being a support instrument, as is the case most often in European classical music, playing the bass line to the higher pitched instrument's melody, the two men have created pieces in which neither is confined to any set role.
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Some of the pieces are based on traditional African melodies Sissoko suggested and in those Segal has improvised an accompaniment. It's fascinating to hear the sounds of the two instruments interweaving as Segal mixes bowing, plucking and slapping his strings to create a solid foundation for the complex tunes Sissoko picks out on his kora. Then there are tunes like the more jazz sounding "Oscarine" where the leads they pass back and forth build off each other in much the same manner as you'd hear in any jazz combo. On this occasion the contrast between the sounds of the two instruments is at it's most striking and potent, pulling the listener into the music through our anticipation for the next interesting combination of tones.

While the disc is primarily a collection of instrumental tunes, the two men are joined by Malian Awa Sangho on the track "Regret". The song is a tribute to Sissoko's late friend, singer Kader Berry, and is a stirring and emotional piece in which you can hear the feelings of the title expressed in almost every note. Sangho's vocals are a third instrument and serve as a focal point for both the listeners and the two other instruments. While the cello delves into the depths of regret one can hear in the singer's voice, the kora echoes the sharpness of the pain felt from the loss of a dear friend.

Musical collaborations between cultures used to be few and far between. Times have changed however, and we are starting to see more and more musicians searching for the common ground which will allow them to work with others from different traditions. While it might seem a cellist trained in European classical music would have little in common with a traditional Malian kora player, Chamber Music proves otherwise. This is a wonderful combination of sound and style that will both surprise and delight listeners from all backgrounds

(Article first published as Music Review: Ballake Sissko & Vincent Segal - Chamber Music )

Music Review: Dhoad: Gypsies Of Rajasthan -Roots Traveller

While everybody assumes the people most refer to as Gypsies, who prefer the name Roma, are travellers. In fact the common stereotype we have of the Roma is they travel around in caravans stealing from regular hard working folk like ourselves. Since most decent hard working folk tend to spit on the Roma as soon as look at them, their opinions and views, on the whole, can probably be safely disregarded. Even the one part of the picture they manage to get partially right doesn't even begin to tell the story of these people. For, if they are such wanderers by choice, why are there permanent Roma settlements throughout Eastern Europe?

The people we call the Roma are descendant of folk who left the Rajasthan province of Northern India some time during the early part of the first millennium. The best guess is their migrations began around the same time the Mogul Empire began its expansion into Northern India from Persia. Maybe they were simply fleeing the fighting, or maybe they had no wish to live under the rule of this new Empire, we'll never know for sure. What we do know is they began to make the long trek West following the Silk Road through the Middle East and eventually made their way into Europe following the Danube River. A wonderful documentary movie, Latcho Drom, retraces the route they took through visits with musicians in each of the countries the Roma have settled in.

As with any diaspora of people, not everybody left, and there are still many in Rajasthan who are the descendants of those who didn't make the migration. However, as their role in the history of the Roma has been a relatively recent discovery for the world at large, we still know only a very little about the people and their culture. Aside from the movie mentioned above, their music was also featured in the film When The Road Bends: Tales Of A Gypsy Caravan, a documentary which followed the North American tour of Roma musicians from all over the world. Unfortunately both movies only offered samples of the type of music on offer from the people of Rajasthan and releases by individual bands from the region were scarce and hard to come by.
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Thankfully that situation looks like it's beginning to improve. While there might be something slightly cynical about a few thousand year old culture being "discovered", a benefit is the increased availability of music from the region. One such example is new disc out on the very good international music label, World Village Music, from the French based Rajasthan band, Dhoad: Gypsies Of Rajasthan, called Roots Travellers. Unfortunately, as sometimes happens, the review copy I received didn't contain the DVD included with the CD as a bonus feature. However judging by some of the stills you can see of them performing at their web site, both dancing and fire breathing appears to play a role, it has the potential for being quite the spectacular.

Dhoad are now the third or fourth group of musicians I've heard from this region of India and my experience this time was no different from the previous occasions. The difficulty faced by Western audiences listening to music from India is we are so unfamiliar with the both the scale in use and the sound of the instruments, no matter what region its from, initially, it all sounds the same. So don't be surprised if Dhoad, in spite of the word Gypsy included in their name, at first listen sound little or nothing like Roma music from the West and a whole lot like most everything else from South East Asia.

However as you start to pick out individual instruments within the mix you'll begin to hear patterns in both the instrumental work and vocal stylings that have things in common with bands in Romania and other European communities. The first of the disc's ten tracks, "Banno", is a good example of this as what catches your attention are the vocals and the multilayered rhythm of the tabla. The vocals have the high pitched, almost falsetto, nasal quality I've come to associate with male singers of a certain style from India and the tabla being played in a time signature my body raised on the basic syncopation of the West - everything a multiple of two or three - just can't recognize. Yet, when a break occurs and the vocals and tabla fall away leaving only the sound of their harmonium type instrument playing, all of a sudden there's a note of familiarity. In it I can hear the accordions of the bands from Eastern and Western Europe. It's not just the way the instrument sounds that is familiar, but the way it is being used. Both the tempo it is being played at and the quality it is adding to the music are identical to the contribution made by its Western counterpart.
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When the second set of vocals kicks in on the same track anybody familiar with other Roma bands will hear startling similarities between this singer's voice and vocalists in other bands. It might have been just my imagination, but there was even something about the way the language sounded that was somewhat the same as what I've heard sung by some Romanian Roma. Of course there are other songs on the disc where Dhoad are deliberately sounding like other musicians. "Rajasthani Reggae" starts off with an obvious nod in the direction of Jamaica - which doesn't really have much to do with Roma music no matter how you look at it, but is in keeping with the disc's title of Roots Travellers. They might not be the first band from outside the Caribbean to take a stab at a reggae tune, but theirs is one of the most original ventures into that genre you'll ever hear.

One of the most difficult things about listening to the music of another culture is avoiding the trap of interpreting what you hear based on the criteria you would use when judging music you're more familiar with. We tend to make decisions about someone's emotional state based on the sound of their voice. In most cases, even in the instance of listening to a song in another language like French or Spanish, we would be completely justified in our efforts as we share many vocal indicators in common with most Western languages. In the case of this recording though, all of those preconceived notions have to be discarded as the vocal clues given off by the singers aren't ones we're going to be familiar with. In fact if we judged them by our standards it would sound like all of the songs were plaintive appeals dealing with grief of one kind or another.

Listening to this disc is an adventure, a real journey into unknown territory. If you approach it with an open mind you will find ways to appreciate the music you hear for what it is, not what you anticipate music should be. Listen for the interplay of melody and rhythm, the intricate patterns made by the weaving together of the vocalists' harmonies, the tabla and other instruments to create a tapestry of sound both rich and colourful. While those who have an understanding of the music of South East Asia will obviously get more out of this disc than others, there's still plenty for the rest of us to enjoy. Don't think of this disc as a door that's closed to you, rather think of it as an opportunity to begin opening a door to a new world. You might feel a little lost at times, but you'll soon develop your own map for finding your way around.

(Article first published as Music Review: Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan - Roots Travellers on Blogcritics)

DVD Review - Discovering Hamlet

Having worked, read lived, breathed and died, in theatre for a little over a decade, I'll never be what would call a passive observer of the action taking place on a stage. In fact I'm probably the person you least want to sit beside when your in the audience of your local community theatre's production of anything. If you thought the critic from your paper was a snot, before the first scene is over you'll probably want to have me physically removed from the theatre. If its not the muttering under my breath about incompetent actors who shouldn't be allowed on stage, it will be because of the constant shifting around in my seat as I fight the urge to stand up and demand the show be closed down.

And that's just for those occasions when people are hacking their way through summer stock fare like Noel Coward or Neil Simon. When it comes to anybody foolish enough to try and attempt even the simplest of Shakespeare's work thinking if Mel can do it why can't I, I turn from being merely insufferable to deranged. Usually the only difficulty I'm faced with under those circumstances is figuring out what is pissing me off the most, the fact nobody understands what they're saying or how they attack their speeches like sprinters attempting a world record in the 100 meters.
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I refuse to apologize for any appearance of snobbery or elitism these attitudes might convey, for having experienced the magic and wonder of seeing Shakespeare performed by those who know how to speak the language, anything less is tantamount to sacrilege. Unfortunately the opportunities to see these works performed at those standards are few and far between if you don't live in a major metropolitan area or a community like Stratford Ontario, which hosts a professional Shakespearean festival every year.

Well, if you can't go to Shakespeare the next best thing is to bring it into your home. The new, two disc, DVD package of Discovering Hamlet, from the Acorn Media Group, provides the viewer with not only a chance to see great actors at work, but also provides some insight into what goes on prior to what you see on stage opening night. The first disc is a documentary made of the rehearsal process for a 1988 production of Hamlet directed by Derek Jacobi and starring Kenneth Branagh.The second disc features extra footage from the film, including extended versions of the interviews with the actors in the play, choreographing the stage fight between Hamlet and Laertes that ends the play and hanging out backstage with the actors at the opening night party.

In 1988 Branagh was just on the cusp of international renown as his film version of Shakespeare's Henry V would be released shortly after this production of Hamlet closed its run. He had already established himself as the next rising star of British classical theatre and was now set to climb the next rung on the ladder. As the director of the play, Derek Jacobi, says in an interview conducted many years after the film was made, the role of Hamlet is see as a bell-weather mark for classical actors of a certain age. All the great ones, and he listed Olivier, Gielgude, Richardson, Redgrave, Burton, and then shyly included himself, took on the role at roughly the same point in their careers and it was now Branagh's turn to put his stamp on it. The impression we're given is not only was Branagh tackling one of the more challenging roles in classical theatre, he was also feeling the pressure to step into the shoes of those who came before him. So not only does he have to learn an amazing amount of dialogue and create a character, he also has to do so knowing that his performance will be compared with those who have come before and judged accordingly.

If you think that's a daunting task wait until you hear the rest of what he's up against. Hamlet was being presented by Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company in repertory with two other works by Shakespeare. Meaning, he was not only spending his days in rehearsal, at night he was performing in one of two other plays as well. The company has only four weeks with which to pull the production together with a first time director at the helm. For while Jacobi was, and is still, an accomplished actor, this was to be his first, and he now claims his last, directing job. As Jacobi is the first to admit, just because someone is a gifted actor, it doesn't mean they will have any talent for directing.
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The movie, which is narrated very capably by Patrick Stewart, joins the actors and director in the first week of rehearsal and then follows them though to just before Branagh walks on stage opening night. We don't actually see his performance, although we do see clips shot during the final dress rehearsal, but what the movie does is show us the process both actors and directors go through in preparing a play as complex and difficult as Hamlet. If nothing else, viewers will gain a far better understanding of just how much work it takes to bring a piece of professional theatre to life on stage. The actors not only are in rehearsal for close to eight hours a day, they are also expected to learn their lines when they're not rehearsing and are expected to have them memorized by the third if not the second week. (The fight scene I mentioned earlier was choreographed outside of the normal rehearsal hours, meaning the actors involved had to show up early that day.)

However, don't be looking for anybody giving away any acting tips or hints on how to mount your own production of Hamlet. In fact I had forgotten how frustrating it can be to talk to actors and directors about their process for developing a character or staging a play. It's not that they don't know what they're doing, it's just not the sort of thing you can easily articulate to people who are not directly involved with the project you're working on. While the woman (Dearbhla Molloy) playing the role of Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, says something about drawing upon her relationship with her son to help her prepare for the role, that's the closest any of the actors come to talking specifics about what they did to help them prepare. Even when we overhear the rehearsals via the camera, it doesn't make much of a difference as everybody seems to be talking in a shorthand incomprehensible to those who don't work in theatre. At one point we watch Jacobi giving notes to his actors - telling them things they need to work on to improve their performance - and while his words obviously mean a lot to his actors, the fact that he's telling them they need to listen to each other more instead of anticipating their lines will probably mean nothing to those who haven't worked in theatre in some capacity.
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The other thing you have to be aware of is even when the camera does capture some of Branagh's, or any character's performance for that matter, it will seem like they are overacting horribly. This is when you realize the huge difference between film and stage acting. Aside from having to memorize the whole script at once instead of merely whatever pages you'll be shooting on a day, actors are also having to make themselves understood by people who are as much as 200 feet away from them without using any amplification when they are on stage. On film they will look ridiculous because of the mediums tendency to exaggerate even the smallest motion. (In the interview conducted years later with Jacobi, the director of the movie asks him what he thinks is the biggest challenge facing the classical theatre today. Jacobi's answer is actors have become so reliant on amplification few know how to use their voices sufficiently well to handle the nuances required to perform Shakespeare live anymore.)

Discovering Hamlet won't tell you very much about the process of putting on a play or creating a character. However this glimpse of life backstage and in the rehearsal hall does help you realize there is real magic in the world of theatre, although it might not be quite what you were expecting. The magic is how these seemingly perfectly normal looking people, wearing jeans and t-shirts for the most part, transform themselves into princes, kings and queens. Perhaps after watching this two DVD set you'll begin to understand some of my frustration with watching less than stellar performances of Shakespeare. For while it might not allow you to experience the excitement of seeing the play performed, the glimpse you are offered of actors preparing will whet your appetite to seek out the plays as they should be seen. On stage and performed by actors who are able to fulfill Hamlet's instructions to the company of travelling players he hires in Act III scene 3: "Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue, but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had lief the town crier spoke my lines."

(Article first published as DVD Review: Discovering Hamlet on Blogcritics.)

January 16, 2011

Music/Spoken Word Review: Viggo Mortensen -Canciones De Invierno

Our local university radio station has a spoken word program every week. Almost each program features excerpts from a live poetry reading the show's host organizes once a month. What has struck me the few times I've listened to the program is people's inability to read their own work aloud. Not only are the majority unable to communicate any of the emotion they might have been feeling when writing, or sense of what their poems are about, a great many of them fail to even pay attention to the structure of their piece. It's like they take a deep breath before they start reading and then blurt it out in one long sentence in an attempt to get something unpleasant over with.

I understand that not all poets are going to be good performers, but I would think if you were going to read your poems aloud to an audience you would make the effort to read them over beforehand. That way you could at least ensure reading through it without having to stop due to misreading a stanza because you ran two thoughts together accidently. It doesn't seem to matter how seasoned a poet the person is either, for while many of the poets on the radio show mentioned above might not have much experience, I've been bored into a stupor by so-called "professional" poets on countless occasions. While I don't expect a performance, I'd hope if somebody was going to read their work they could sound like they were interested in it. However, given the number of times I've sat through monotone recitations it seems like that might be too much to ask for.
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The difference between those who put some thought into their presentation and those who don't become intensely obvious when you listen to someone like Viggo Mortensen. His latest CD release, Canciones De Invierno from Perceval Press, combines readings of the poems from the book of the same name and some of Mortensen's compositions for piano. Included with the CD is a small booklet containing the poems, and their English translations, recited on this recording plus a selection of other works by the author.

I'm sure you couldn't help notice the words English translation in the last paragraph in reference to the poems; well that's because all of the poems are read in Spanish. I confess I hadn't known that when I asked for a copy of the disc to review, and I might not have done so if I had, for I can't speak a word of the language. However, after having listened to the disc a couple of times now, language is less an issue then I had first anticipated it being. Sure I'm not getting a word by word literal translation while listening to the poems being read as trying to keep up by reading the English version is nowhere near as effective a means as lets say watching a subtitled movie. However you still are able to come to a basic understanding of what's being said in the moment, and then an even clearer one when you read them over afterword.
Of course it also helps that Mortensen does a superb job of reading his poetry. While it doesn't make much of a difference when it come to a literal comprehension of the poem when you're as uni-lingual as myself, his readings communicate on an emotional level as well as intellectual. I don't mean that his voice breaks with tears or anything as melodramatic as that, rather it's what he does with his inflections, tones and intonations that give the listener an indication of his state of mind when listening to him read. I have to admit that on occasion his abilities actually worked against comprehension as it was easy to become caught up in the sound of his voice and let yourself be carried away by its cadences. It might have been your intention to read the translation a pace with his recitation, but then you are caught up in the sound of his voice and before you know it the poem has ended without you having even glanced at the English.

I was forcibly reminded of a conversation I once had about opera with somebody. I had commented that I couldn't understand how you could enjoy it without comprehending what was being sung. In reply I was told the words weren't important, it was the music that mattered. It's only been in recent years as I've begun listening to music with lyrics sung in languages other than English that I've been able to let go of having to know what's being said in order to appreciate a piece of music. It's very much like learning how to appreciate anything in the abstract and allowing a piece to move you for what it does and not what it is.
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The expressiveness of Mortensen's voice is such that it imparts textures and layers of imagery to his readings in much the same way a painter would with paint on a canvas. Inflection, intonation, rhythm and cadence work together in much the same way music does for an opera singer in helping to convey the emotional message of a poem. You may not understand a poem's literal meaning but you will appreciate it none the less. The fact that he has included a variety of his piano pieces on the CD goes a long way in assisting the listener in accepting the poems in this manner. For while they may not be directly associated with the spoken word aspect of the recording, they establish an atmosphere conducive to this approach.

In some ways his music is very similar to his poetry in style and expression. There are no mad progressions of notes or rousing choruses to manipulate your emotions. Instead there are seemingly simple arrangements of chords which carry the listener with them as they journey through the emotional landscape Mortensen is mapping. It would be easy to think of the music as sad or even moody. but the truth is, like the poems, it is more conducive to introspection than any particular emotion. As you listen you'll be aware of your thoughts drifting away from the music and then circling back again. In fact you may not even return to awareness until your reverie is gently interrupted by the sound of his voice beginning the next poem. Like the sound of the Spanish, for those of us who don't speak the language, the music is another river of sound for us to float along, absorbing what we will, when we want.

Canciones De Invierno is a collection of music and poetry that proves language is no barrier to communication. While many poets have trouble getting their message across even when speaking the same language as their audience, it seems no matter what language he's speaking in Viggo Mortensen faces no such difficulty. While I'm sure those who understand Spanish will appreciate this work more, don't let a lack of fluency stop you from enjoying this collection. There really is something for everyone in it. Canciones De Invierno can be purchased directly from Perceval Press

(Article first published as Music Review: Viggo Mortensen - Canciones De Invierno (Spoken Word) on Blogcritics.)

January 12, 2011

Book Review: Canciones De Invierno/Winter Songs by Viggo Mortensen

When the snows come the world becomes a different place. Even in our big cities we notice how the first fall of the year mutes the sounds of everything from traffic noise to people's voices. It's almost as if there is a collective holding of breath, an age old instinctive response to winter and its potential for danger that overtakes us as we wait to see what are we going to have to cope with. For winter never used to be something we are occasionally mildly inconvenienced by but a time when survival could not be taken for granted. A blizzard didn't just meant travel plans were jeopardized, it meant the possibility of freezing to death if you were caught out in the open or starving to death if you hadn't enough food put by.

Like the other creatures around us humans would spend the rest of the year preparing to survive winter. Spring, summer and fall would be for: planting, nurturing and finally harvesting of crops; either fattening up animals for slaughter and smoking in the fall or hunting and salting meat to be used over the winter; and chopping the wood needed for heating and cooking. Once the winter came you just hoped you had stored enough aside to see you through and were lucky enough to augment your stash with occasional fresh meat from hunting. As the days shortened and the cold deepened, activities would be limited, and hours on end would be spent indoors huddled around fires to keep warm.

It's no wonder many of North America's indigenous people came to associate winter with introspection and the process of travelling inward on the voyage of self-discovery. It was also the time many nations reserved for the telling of stories and reflecting on the life lessons they contained. Winter was a time for finding safe paths through both the external landscape and the internal as well. In his latest volume of poetry and photography, Canciones De Invierno/Winter Songs published by Perceval Press, Viggo Mortensen has brought together works which capture both the raw beauty of the season and the ancient imperative to travel within it has been known to inspire.
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Those at all familiar with Mortensen's poetry and photography will know of his ability to capture moments in time with both. Whether an instant of emotion shaped in words or a piece of the world caught and immobilized with the click of a shutter he has the uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time to see, hear and record what others often miss. We can all look at the same vista or think the same thoughts, but it's what we are able to do with that information that separates the artists from the rest of us. Some might choose to shape our opinions of what is in front of their eyes by the use of certain words or shooting a scene in a specific way. Others, like Mortensen, will allow us to shape our own thoughts on what they have recorded, and of the person doing the recording.

While we've come to expect a certain baring of the soul from poets in their declarations on love, beauty, nature and whatever else captures their fancy, Mortensen's work has always been somewhat different. While he does not shy away from emotion, he's not inclined towards sentimentality, the standard avowing of eternal love or raptures on the beauty of nature. Instead these are honest attempts to describe what is in front of him, with either representations of actual physical reality or abstractions brought to life through symbolism and imagery, woven together with a thread of introspection. At first glance, or on a casual read, his poems might appear to be no more than descriptions, but listen to the words as you read them in your head and you will hear what he feels. It's how he chooses to describe something that provides the editorial. He has no need to do anything so obvious as proclaim at the top his lungs, when every word he speaks resounds with his feelings.

In the poem "Libertad/Freedom" (each poem is in both Spanish and English) from this collection, he attempts to reassure an unnamed partner. "It's not/so you'll accept/and agree/it's not/to lose you/or let you go/that I give you/what I love" he concludes after detailing the various means he has of ensuring that she enjoy what he loves, "Freedom", and reassuring her that it doesn't mean he wants to be rid of her. "It's not/that I don't hear you/or believe in us/it's not/because I tire/or surrender/that I show you/a door". While some might not understand how his listing of the various ways he would give her her freedom is a love poem, I've yet to read anything proclaim trust for another as much as this piece does, and trust is the most heartfelt avowal of love I know.
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Ever since somebody wrote down that God gave humans dominion over nature we've been either screwing the world over or, just as damaging, sentimentalizing nature as something beautiful that was created for our pleasure. Those of us who live with winter are given yearly reminders of just how little control we actually are able to exert over nature and how there's nothing remotely cute or cuddly about her. While not all the photographs in Winter Songs are of nature, the majority of the work is taken from two series of images Mortensen has been working on for a couple of years: The Road, shots I imagine that were taken while on location for the movie of the same name, and Forward. Previously I had been struck by his ability to capture the primordial essence of the forest in his work. Here he takes us beyond the woods to give us work that is unstinting in its depiction of nature as a force not only beyond our control but way beyond our understanding.

Of course there is beauty to be found, how can we not be awed by a full moon caught swelling in all her splendour behind the stark silhouettes of tree limbs or a radiant sky of oranges, whites and deep sapphires? However it's difficult to suppress the shiver that runs up your spine when you look at these and other images as their beauty hints at a wildness which cares nothing for our wants or needs. This is driven home with even greater firmness in those images where the human element intrudes as they only serve to emphasize the elements' indifference to our presence. Winding roads travelling through the middle of nowhere in snow dusted landscapes with distinguishing landmarks hidden or blurred by snow, fog and mists are a reminder of how little we matter. No matter how beautiful the image may look sitting static on the page of a book, try and imagine yourself being in that landscape and see how you feel.

Look long enough and hard enough and you might begin to have some idea of what winter must have meant to people who came before us. While they were able to appreciate the wonder of a snow covered glade shining blue in the night, the atmosphere responsible for creating those conditions could also spell their death. Respect and admiration go hand in hand in Mortensen's photographs ensuring his vision isn't coloured or impaired like so many other shots of nature by the need to tame them for human consumption.

Winter is a time when the world around us slows down and takes the rest it needs to come forth rejuvenated for another year. The dormant period where the old dies away in order to prepare the way for new is essential for ensuring life. At one time humans understood this by equating it as a time for introspection and learning in order to prepare themselves for walking in the world around them when it came back to life. In Winter Songs, through his poems and photography, Viggo Mortensen exemplifies the spirit of that belief. Spend some time leafing through the book, pausing to gaze at an image or absorbing a poem, over the remaining months of winter and see what happens. We may no longer be allowed to hibernate and reflect for the winter, but within the pages of this book some of that experience will come to life for you.

(Article first published as Book Review: Canciones De Invierno/ Winter Songs by Viggo Mortensen on Blogcritics.)

December 31, 2010

My Favourite Reads Of 2010

I don't know how many books I read over the course of a year; especially when you include the ones I re-read, so for any title to stand out sufficiently for me to remember it from one end of the year to the other means it has to be something pretty special. Some years I've not been able to come up with ten books, and, others I'm hard pressed to chose among them, when putting together a year end list of favourites. This year sort of fell in between as after reading through the list of reviews I'd written over the course of the year and jotting down the titles of those which stood out, it just happened to turn out that I had picked exactly ten.

Any who have read my reviews in the past will be well aware of my liking of epic fantasy, and this year is no exception, but there are also a couple of non-fiction titles and a couple that might even be referred to as straight fiction. I know there are still those who would look down their noses at what some refer to dismissively as 'genre' fiction, but as far as I'm concerned it's there you'll find the closest we have come to continuing the oral tradition of storytelling that began with Homer and Valmiki. We may no longer rely on stories to explain away the workings of the world or the peculiarities of our gods, but they do provide us with the means of stretching our minds in ways we might not otherwise. Hopefully reading this list will encourage you to at least follow the links back to reading my full review of each title, and maybe even to read one or two of them as well. So, in order of when they were read over the course of the year, here are the ten books which were my favourites in 2010.

Dust Of Dreams by Steven Erikson. The ninth book of ten in Erikson's Malazan Book Of The Fallen series finds the world apparently on the brink of blowing apart at the seams as the schemes of gods are starting to fall into place. All that's seemingly protecting the world are what seems to be a pitifully small force of mortals, remnants of the once proud armies of the Malazan Empire. This near the end of a series most authors would have probably been content with simply continuing the story where it left off from the last chapter, but not Erikson. He has a whole world of beings to draw upon who are going to want to have their say in how things turn out, and be they living, undead, god, mortal or something in between they will be heard. Amazingly, one never feels confused when reading Erikson's work as the multiple plot lines and myriad characters always find a way to fit into the overall picture he is creating. It might take some time to see how a particular piece fits into the puzzle, but half the fun of reading is finding that out. Dust Of Dreams is another wonderful instalment in Erikson's epic tale with the only disquieting note being the realization there's only one book left after it.

Voices Of A People's History Of The United States by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove. Most histories that you read will tell of the big events from the point of view of the generals, politicians and other larger then life figures who have somehow been designated as the movers and shakers shaping them. The majority of the time we are asked to take somebody else's word that what we are being told is what actually happened. In their history of the United States Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove have decided to let you have the opportunity to hear from people who actually participated in events throughout the years and let you form your own opinions. Instead of reading about generals and their great victories you'll hear from the soldier who fought in the trenches in the form of a letter home. This collection of speeches, letters and other writings from down through the years provides the reader an opportunity to hear from those whose voices don't usually make it into history books and provides a totally different perspective on events that you thought you knew so well. In these days of misinformation and spin, this book is a refreshing change of pace as we are able to read first hand what people actually said, not what somebody else wants you to think they said.

Motorcycles & Sweetgrass by Drew Hayden Taylor. Somewhere in the backwoods of Ontario the old ways and the new world are having a head on collision. Ojibway novelist and playwright Drew Hayden Taylor creates a wonderful vision of what would happen on a modern day reservation if the trickster, Nanabush, from his people's legends, were to show up and try to liven things up a little. Nobody knows what to make of the stranger who roles into town on the back of a classic Indian motorcycle for the funeral of one of the town's oldest inhabitants, but they know there's something not completely right about him when the local racoon population are all so set against him. Funny, yet at the same time realistic in its depiction of life on a reserve, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass might not jibe with people's image of the noble savage or the drunk welfare bum Indian, but it does show how traditions can live on comfortably in the modern world. Pickup trucks may have replaced more traditional modes of transportation and computers and cell phones are as common here as anywhere else, but that doesn't mean you forget who you are and the stories that shaped your people.

The Good Fairies Of New York by Martin Millar. Technically speaking this book probably shouldn't be on a list of books released in 2010 as it originally came out a number of years ago. However as I only read it for the first time this year I decided to include it. Martin Millar has always had a wonderful sense of the absurd and this is a shining example of that at work. How else would you describe a book featuring a massive battle between two fairy armies in Central Park, two Scottish fairies who've decided to go against tradition and play punk versions of old fiddle tunes and the ghost of the late New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders searching for his lost Gibson guitar? I guarantee you haven't read another book quite like this one, and not only will it make you laugh out loud, you'll never look at fairies in quite the same way again.

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay. Guy Gavriel Kay has the incredible ability of being able to pull a reader into the world of his story right from the opening lines of his book. Before you've even read more than a few pages into one of his creations you've become so immersed in the world that no matter what the setting, its as familiar to you as your own. Under Heaven is no exception as he takes you into the subtle and dangerous world of 8th century China where sophisticated political minds, warrior societies and mysterious magical forces co-exist. As the story slowly unravels the combination of intriguing characters, twisting plots and intricately described world make this a fascinating and compelling read. This is historical fantasy as it should be written; most anything else is just a pale imitation.

Just Kids by Patti Smith. Smith's recounting of her formative years as a young artist is as much a love story about her relationship with Robert Maplethorpe as it is an autobiography. A beautiful and honest recollection of both individuals coming of age as people and artists, Just Kids distils the innocence and excitement of two children discovering themselves and leavens it with the realities of living poor and struggles with sexual identity. As honest and unstinting a work as anything Smith has ever produced, this fearless book is not only her story, it also manages to evoke its era with everyone from Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, William Burroughs and Allan Ginsberg making guest appearances in its pages. I don't normally like autobiographies or biographies for that matter, but if you read only one book this year - let it be this one. It will break your heart and lift you higher than the moon - a work of art by a brilliant artist.

The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight. The book that started it all. This was Muslim convert Knight's first book set in the fictional world of Islamic punks and the inspiration for the real life imitating art tour by Knight and various Muslim punk bands captured in the documentary Taqwacores: The Birth Of Punk Islam. In some ways the book is about the immigrant experience in America as second generation Islamic children try to find their place in a society where they are outsiders. Like other teenagers away from home at collage they explore sex, drugs and alcohol while trying to learn about life. What separates this from other coming of age stories is the underlying tension between the characters' religion, which they continue to practice and respect, and their attempts to reconcile it with their behaviour. Full of the noise and confusion of youth spreading its wings The Taqwacores manages to put a human face on Islam like few other works of popular fiction.

Curse Of The Wolf Girl by Martin Millar. This is Millar's second appearance on this list, this time though for a book published this year. The sequel to his Lonely Werewolf Girl picks up where he left off with the adventures of Kalix, the banished werewolf princess, still trying to get her act together. Helped and hindered in equal parts by her human and fire elemental friends, hunted by family members and werewolf hunters, she faces her sternest test yet - remedial English and Math classes. This book was eagerly anticipated in my household and unlike many other sequels it not only lived up to expectations, but even surpassed them. Millar refused to take the easy way out by repeating the formulae that worked in the first book, and he has not only sustained the world he developed so well, but taken his characters and expended on the groundwork he had laid earlier. Is it possible for a near suicidally depressed teenage werewolf with an addiction to laudanum to be happy? Maybe, maybe not, but Kalix, bit by bit (and bite by bite if the truth be told) is taking her first steps towards independence and despite her occasional habit of ripping out throats of those who upset her, at least finding something close to peace of mind. A wonderful book in its own right, Curse Of The Wolf Girl is a must read for fans of Kalix and her buddies. If your sick of the whole romance story/vampire thing going on right now - this is the perfect antidote - I can't see any of those little whiners lasting more than a second or two in Kalix's world.

Pirates Of The Levant by Arturo Pedro-Reverte. It's long been a tradition among fighting men that when things get a little too hot for comfort at home, one takes to the seas for relief. After saving the king's life one would think that Captain Alatriste and his ward Inigo wouldn't have a care in the world. Unfortunately they managed to piss off a lot of well connected people in 17th century Spain in the process, including members of the Inquisition who could make life very hot for them. Which is how they find themselves cruising the Mediterranean as part of the Spanish fleet preying upon the enemies of Spain. Off the coast of North Africa and Southern Europe that can be anyone from English privateers to Turkish merchant ships loaded with slaves, gold and perfumes. As usual Reverte has not only managed to capture the times the book is set in perfectly, his characters are so full of life they nearly leap from the pages. Combined with his ability to take you into the heart of a battle, with each sword stroke and musket ball described in such detail you almost feel the breeze they create stir your hair and scorch your skin, this makes for not only a great adventure, but a sobering contemplation of the wastes of warfare and the depths humans can sink to when in peril. This is the sixth book in the Alatriste series translated into English so far, and hopefully they'll be plenty more to come, as any other book of a similar type just pales in comparison.

Stonewielder by Ian C Esslemont. The year started with a book set in the world of the Malazan Empire, so it seems only fitting that it should end that way as well. Esslemont has published two previous works set in the world he and Steven Erikson created, and in Stonewielder he picks up with the characters he's introduced us to previously. Esslemont, like Erikson, has the ability to not only recreate the great sweep of events that make epics such a wonder to read, but to create characters who are so real that we experience what it's like for everyone from the foot soldier, the supreme commander of an army and the gods themselves to live through them. With each characters' perspective coloured by their own self-interest we are offered a variety of views of the same events and are left to decide on our own what's right and what's wrong. While Esslemont's books work fine as a stand alone series in their own right, taken in tandem with Erikson's they raise both up to a higher level. Remarkable books by remarkable writers make for great reading, and that's the case with this book and any book in this series.

(Article first published as My Favourite Reads of 2010 on Blogcritics.)

December 21, 2010

Book Review: Simon's Cat His Own Book & Simon's Cat: Beyond The Fence by Simon Tofield:

Nine times out of ten when somebody starts to recount some particularly memorable, at least in their minds, thing a pet has done there's a good chance that most will smile politely and nod. Like doting grandparents who can't understand not everybody is interested in every last move their little dears make, pet owners will regale the world with pictures and stories of their furred darlings without surcease. What most people with pets fail to understand is that, unlike what my cats get up to, there is nothing remotely interesting about their animals' behaviour. Being incredibly special, super intelligent and extraordinarily cute, my cats are of course the exception to that rule, and everybody will want to hear everything about them; from where they spew hair balls to how loud they can meow.

In fact pet owners are so renowned for this when I first started writing on the Internet the term "cat blog" was used derisively to refer to any blog which was no more than a personal diary. The attitude I expressed above is common to most of us who dote upon four legged critters, but really who is going to want to hear endless recounts of their doings? Let's be real, nobody is going to find stories about other people's pets funny enough to search them out on the Internet and read them, right? Well, try telling that to Simon Tofield, creator of Simon's Cat.
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Tofield is a British animator and illustrator who has taken idle sketches of his cats and turned them into incredibly popular short animated cartoons on You Tube. With over 50 million fans watching his videos, he must be doing something right, and if you check out the films page on his web site you'll see just what that is. A combination of simply rendered line drawings, cat sounds and over the top cat behaviour make them some of the most hilarious cartoons I've seen in ages. Ranging in length from around thirty seconds to a few minutes, they take such identifiable cat behaviours as playing with an empty box, stopping at nothing in the hunting of an insect and asking to be let inside and turn them into moments of hysteria. Tofield's humour resides in his ability to exaggerate normal behaviour to the point where it's ridiculous but still believable.

Well now the star of Internet video is available in book form; Simon's Cat: In His Very Own Book and Simon's Cat: Beyond The Fence are both available through Penguin Canada, and he is every bit as funny on the page as he is in your browser window. (Beyond The Fence is only currently available in the US as an eBook and won't be released in hard copy until June of 2011) Tofield's ability to communicate a lot with little translates onto the page wonderfully, making both these collections as much, if not more, fun than the videos. For the static frame has allowed him to add detail to his images not seen in his animations that, especially in Beyond The Fence, make them more complete.
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In His Own Book, first published a year ago and now re-printed as a softcover, introduced us to life around the house with Simon and his cat. Anybody who has ever shared space with a cat will be able to quickly identify with all of the scenarios depicted. Sure there are some instances when our cat friend's behaviour crosses out of the realm of realistic into fantasy. However, you have the feeling, if it were possible for a cat to do things like attempt to open a can of food on its own, it would do so in the manner Tofield depicts. If the little buggers can break into cupboards it's not much of a stretch to imagine them utilizing blunt instruments to try and smash cans open. Lacking opposable thumbs can openers are out of the question so it becomes necessary to find an alternative means of gaining access to a can's contents.

Beyond The Fence sees Cat carrying out every young child's threat of running away from home. After being forced to face the indignity of being bathed, hysterically depicted in a series of large panels - anybody who has ever tried to give a cat a bath will wince in sympathy as memories of being soaked and bleeding from numerous cuts surface - Cat stalks out of his "cat-flap". One can almost hear him yelling back over his shoulder that he's running away from home and won't you regret treating me like this now! For the rest of the book we follow Cat through a series of adventures out in the wilds. Who'd have thought that birds, mice and rabbits could be so cruel. The indignities he suffers at their paws and wings; although there is the mitigating factor that he is attempting to hunt them that speaks in their defence. Still, these are humbling experiences for our erstwhile hero in his quest for freedom and independence.
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While Tofield continues to employ only black and white, in this book he has taken more time with backgrounds and filling in Cat's surroundings. Yet, he does not ignore the details which have been the key to the cartoon's success. Specifically, his amazing ability to bring expressions alive on his character's faces with only a few simple lines. Giving animals human facial expressions is a tricky business as it can often end up being insufferably cute. Tofield somehow manages not to fall into that trap by avoiding making them overtly human. No matter if it's a haughty blue heron, a friendly otter, a snarky mouse or our long suffering Cat, each critter retains their animal identity while making no secret of their feelings.

Usually only fellow cat owners would be at all interested in stories regarding the antics of our four footed companions. With his wonderful sense of the absurd and deceptively simple drawing style, Simon Tofield has managed to break down that barrier and find a way to make cat stories universally appealing. While cat lovers will be identify with the cartoons on a personal level, having experienced something similar to what's being depicted at one time or another, the humour is such it will be next to impossible for anybody to resist the charm of these two books.

(Article first published as Book Review: Simon's Cat: In His Very Own Book & Simon's Cat: Beyond The Fence by Simon Tofield on Blogcritics.)

December 20, 2010

Top Ten Listens Of 2010

Another year is drawing to a close and now is the time for all those with pretences of critical prowess to pontificate on what they thought of as the best music of the past twelve months. We all take pride in our taste and discernment; we all wish to show how unique we are in our judgements and impress you, our readers, with our worldliness through the obscurity of our choices. To be honest, after five plus years of receiving at least a CD a day in the mail I've been finding it harder and harder to find anything original to say about what I hear. While this has probably more to do with my inability as a writer rather than any lack of talent in the musical world, it doesn't change the fact its taking more to excite me enough to sit down and review a piece of music.

Whatever the reason, I've reviewed far fewer CDs this year then in the past, and its from that much reduced pool that I've selected the following ten discs (plus two honourable mentions) as the ones that impressed me most. There's no real rhyme or reason to my choices, they just all happen to be ones which distinguished themselves sufficiently they stuck out when I surveyed my past year's worth of reviews.. If you wish to read the full review for any of the following their titles serve as a link to its location. So without further ado, and in no particular order, here then are the ten music CDs which stood out the most for me in 2010.

Sin Rumba no hay Son Septato Nacional. Formed in Havana Cuba in the 1920s this is the fourth generation of musicians to perform under the banner of Septato Nacional. While true to their roots as one of the originators of the Afro/Cuban sound, their ebullience and skill keep the music as fresh as if it were only just being discovered today instead of eighty years ago. You'll have difficulty believing there are only seven people performing so full is their sound. So infectious is their enthusiasm, not only will you find yourself swaying to the beat of their music, don't be surprised if you find yourself on your feet dancing. Truly a Cuban national treasure for all to enjoy.

Koonyum Sun Xavier Rudd & Izintaba. Hailing from Australia Rudd has long been associated with surfers, a laid back reggae influenced sound and the Aboriginal influences in his music. Originally a one man band, playing guitar, kick drums and yirdaki (commonly known as digeridoo) his sound has evolved over the course of his career to the point where he now is accompanied on this album by the South African drummer and bassist duo known as Izintaba. Even more impressive is the growth he has undergone as a lyricist and the emotional commitment to his music he now displays. While he has previously penned songs about conditions among Australia's Aboriginal population, the environment and his personal connection to both subjects, on Koonyum Sun he has taken the next step in his development. He has taken his personal feelings on the dissolution of his marriage and translated them into universal expressions on the nature of love, freedom and individuality. This is the work of a mature artist who can write about personal experiences in such a way that all can identify with them.

Homeland Laurie Anderson. Not many people have hit records by accident, but one has the feeling that's what happened to Anderson back in the late 1970s when her song "O Superman" brought her to popular attention. Even referring to her simply as a musician fails to do justice to the complexities of her creations as they have far more in common with stories than they do with songs. Homeland has her focusing her unique talents on the state of the world, specifically the United States, today. While she is well known for her use of technology in her work, vocoders to alter her voice and effects for her violin, there is something infinitely human and intimate about it. While definitely intelligent, Anderson also possesses a wonderful sense of the absurd which when combined with her apparently innate appreciation for the beauty in the world makes her material as close to sublime as possible for a secular artist.

Elephant: An African Tale Francis Jocky. Hailing from the Cameroon Francis Jocky has had to deal with other's expectations that he play "African" music when his interests have stretched far beyond his home continent's borders. So there is almost something tongue in cheek about his sub-title "An African Tale" in this instance. For while the story he recounts over the course of this song cycle is firmly rooted in his birth nation, it is not blinkered to the fact there is a huge world out there waiting for all of us. His recounting of one family's struggles expresses the hopes and fears of people all over the world. It may be based in Africa, but this is a truly international recording.

Woman In Sin Fishtank Ensemble. Every once in a while a band comes along who manage to convey a wildness of spirit with their music that no matter what they play your can't help envisioning people dancing with reckless abandon around a bon fire in a forest glade. There's something about Fishtank Ensemble, no matter if they are covering a torch song or playing a crazy reel, which makes you remember what it is about music that can upset the status quo. It frees the spirit and releases you from your inhibitions just as easily as booze and drugs, but without the nasty side effects. This group of extremely talented musicians are the perfect antidote to the deadening effects of the mundane. If you ever feel the need to remember what it means to be alive in body, mind and spirit again - this is the band for you.

Oooh La La Crash Test Dummies. Brad Roberts' voice, intelligent lyrics filled with wry humour and emotional insights combined with weird and obscure musical toys from the 1970s; what more could one ask for? Heck I could sit and listen to Brad Roberts sing pretty much anything and be content, but thankfully the main creative engine behind Crash Test Dummies has never given into the temptation to just get by on his voice. Oooh La La is no exception as he and co-producer Stewart Lerman used a stock of musical toys as inspiration for the musical accompaniment to Roberts' lyrics and created something truly distinct. The result was a delightful mishmash of styles tinged with that slightly mechanical feel one identifies with the sound of electronically produced music from before the age of digital recordings. The contrast between his rich baritone and the undertone of cheap circus music the old toys give the music might disconcert initially, but, in the end, made this one of the more original and invigorating releases of the year.

Sub City 2064 Erdem Helvacioglu & Per Boysen. Erdem Helvacioglu changed my perspective on electronically enhanced music forever the first time I heard one of his recordings. Unlike others who rely on machines to create their music, for him they are another instrument to be used in the creative process. On Sub City 2064 he and collaborator Per Boysen have created a series of atmospheric creations that bring to life an imagined future where we live beneath the waves. In turn beautiful and frightening the two men have created a recording which should serve as the benchmark for composers of electro-acoustic music in terms of emotional honesty. A work of intense beauty, it will remind you its the artist behind the instrument who matters, and artistry and creativity will shine through no matter what the circumstances.

Leva-me Aos Fado (Take Me To The Fado House) Ana Moura. Fado music is said to have been borne out of the songs Portuguese sailors sung when missing their loved ones while sailing the oceans. That will give you some idea as to the nature of the music and how, in the wrong hands, there is the potential for it to be tiresome. However, in the hands of Ana Moura, Fado becomes more than the sum of its parts. These aren't merely love songs bemoaning missing sweethearts or broken hearts as the ache expressed by their yearning could be caused by the loss of freedom to tyranny, worry for one's loved ones in a time of war or any of the numerous ways in which the world can break one's heart and spirit. It's no wonder the former military dictatorship of Portugal closed the Fado Houses upon taking power; the last thing they would have wanted were such vivid reminders of the emotional costs of their reign. Don't listen for overtly political lyrics in Moura's words, but if you can't hear the crying of a mother who has lost her child to an act of violence in her voice, you need a hearing test.

Metal Machine MusicLou Reed. In 1975 Lou Reed set records for the number of returns generated by a newly released popular musical album when he first released Metal Machine Music. Ironically if it had been released as a work of contemporary composition it probably wouldn't have raised any complaints. Reed's experimentation with sound, electronics and electricity was very much in keeping with work being done by composers John Cage and others in the avant-garde. His mistake was in hoping people would be able to forget that he was a pop musician and listen to his music in its proper context. Now, finally, Metal Machine Music has been released as it should have been it done thirty-five years ago. Taking advantage of digital technology he has re-mastered the original quadraphonic sound to accommodate modern audio equipment and offered both CD and DVD versions of the recording in one package. Hopefully the world will be ready to listen to this other side of Lou Reed a little more readily today then it did years ago.

I Can See The Gates Of Heaven Marta Sebestyen. Probably the best thing about the fall of Iron Curtain that separated Eastern Europe from the West has been the new accessibility we've gained to musicians previously denied us. Marta Sebestyen is from Hungry and sings a mixture of traditional sacred music and folk songs from her homeland. A beautiful singer, she has an expressiveness to her voice that makes an understanding of Hungarian moot as she is able to convey emotions and feelings through her tone alone. One of the real treasures of Eastern Europe, Sebestyen's music will lift your spirits no matter which God you believe in and what part of the world you come from.

Last, but not least, are two albums released in 2010 that couldn't be ignored. Compilation and greatest hit type releases aren't normally titles I would consider for this type of list, but these two merit special consideration. Baby How Can It Be? Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s & 1930s is just what its title claims, and is one the best collections of material from that time period that you'll ever hear. While you might still have trouble getting half of it played on the radio today, the majority of the songs on this collection are far superior to what passes for the equivalent you'll hear on today's airwaves. The second release probably wouldn't present any problems with obtaining air time as Hank Williams: The Complete Mother's Best Recordings gathers together all of Hank's old radio broadcasts sponsored by the Mother's Best Flour company originally recorded in 1951. While some of the material is hokey and sentimental, having the chance to hear Hank play live with his band and offering up trial version of new material, is something not to be missed. The collection comes with a book detailing the history of the recordings and providing full notes for each song on the fifteen CDS. There's also a DVD included featuring Hank's daughter Jett interviewing two members of Hank's band and one of the engineers from those broadcasts. Either one of these compilations would make a great addition to anyone's collection and are great fun to listen to.

So there you go, that was the music that stood out the most for me in 2010. A completely subjective and personal list of preferences, but than again, what did you expect, objectivity?

(Article first published as My Favourite Listens Of 2010 on Blogcritics.)

December 8, 2010

Book Review: To Whom It May Concern by Bob MacKenzie

When it comes to the arts I've always been a firm believer in the treatise that one should learn to walk before they start to run let alone fly. To my mind that means a painter learns figurative drawing and realism before they challenge reality with abstractions; a composer learns the basics of arrangement and orchestration before trying their hands at atonal sound collages; and a writer learns proper sentence structure, grammar and how to create a traditional story with a beginning, middle and end before they take a stab at something like stream of consciousness. If you don't know the rules, how can you possibly know how to break them?

That might sound like a stupid question, but think about it in terms of flaunting conventions or rebelling against something you object to in society. If you don't know what is conventional, or acceptable behaviour, how can you know what to do that will upset people? If a writer doesn't know how to write a proper sentence or a coherent story, how are they going to know what to do in order to stand those conventions on their heads? In order to draw a circle backwards you still have to know how to draw a circle, and no matter how you approach writing a story you still have to put the words down on a page in some sort of order and the person reading it should still be able to understand what it is you're trying to say.
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My own experiments with style and form have not been as successful as I would have liked. So whenever I come across a piece of work, no matter its size, where the author has not only written a good story, but the manner in which he tells it is part of what makes it a compelling read, I'm thrilled. Such was the case with a story just published by To Whom It May Concern by Bob MacKenzie. Poet, songwriter, novelist and visual artist, MacKenzie has created in this instance the written equivalent of a cubist painting. For not only is the story told from the points of view of each character we meet, the characters represent different time periods.

The story opens with a description of your standard working poor apartment. Basic furniture and appliances with nothing to distinguish it from others of its kind save for the author drawing our attention to a couple of details - scorch marks on the kitchen table and a few sheets of paper scattered on the floor next to the table. Like an establishing shot in a film, MacKenzie carefully pans across the scene ensuring the reader understands the story is firmly set in a familiar world. What follows after though is anything but familiar as he begins to introduce us to his various characters.

At first there doesn't appear to be any sort of connection between the first people we meet, a mysterious girl with a pet crow and an ability to play with fire who frightens a young boy by running her hand through a candle and a man who appears over an infant's crib, and subsequent characters as they are introduced. In fact we don't even know what it is we're dealing with in terms of a story until we all of a sudden realize the apartment described in the opening of the book is the setting for a police investigation of a missing person. However as the pieces of the story are gradually slotted into their appropriate places in the overall picture we understand that the child in the crib, the boy the girl with the crow frightens, and the man who has disappeared from the apartment described at the onset, are all one and the same person.

While the police are doing their best to try and puzzle out what might have happened to the occupant based on the contents of the letter they find on the floor and what bits and pieces of his life they are able to assemble by questioning neighbours and his landlord, we are learning the truth of the matter. A few pages from his mother's diary expresses her concerns about a story he tells as a child meeting a young girl with a crow who can play with fire. We also learn that quite a few people in his family have died by being struck by lighting - although that's not really unusual for a family that's lived for generations on the open prairie, and that his mother died young under mysterious circumstances.
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To Whom It May Concern doesn't follow a normal narrative pattern as it doesn't travel a straight line from point A to B. While readers might find that disconcerting at first, what ends up happening is MacKenzie has created something that is far more satisfying to read than your standard mystery/fantasy story. Not only do we learn what lies at the heart of the mystery surrounding what happened to the occupant of the apartment, we do so in a manner that makes the mystery all the more intriguing. We not only eventually discover what has happened, we also are able to experience what it would be like to be the police officers investigating the disappearance without the benefit of our inside information. MacKenzie has managed to create two separate realities, each offering their own distinct perception of the events in the story, and both are equally believable.

There aren't many writers who can handle the rigours of not only playing around with the conventional structure of story telling successfully, but telling a good story at the same time. In To Whom It May Concern Bob MacKenzie has not only created an intriguing mystery story, he has found a way to alter the conventions of storytelling in such a manner that the audience is pulled deeper into the material than normal. It may not be what you're used to when it comes to a mystery story, but this is one of those occasions when different is definitely better.

(Article first published as Book Review: To Whom It May Concern by Bob MacKenzie on Blogcritics.)

December 1, 2010

Music Review: Various Performers -Baby How Can It Be? Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s & 1930s

After more than five years of reviewing what feels like thousands of different music CDs a great many of the titles I've covered have vanished into the haze of my memory. It's one of the reasons I don't review nearly as many titles as I once did, there's only so many different ways I have of saying basically the same thing over and over again for music that's all beginning to sound suspiciously similar. For someone to stand out enough for me to remember not only their name, but exactly what they've done, means there was something remarkably distinctive about them. In some cases that might mean they were such an absolute horror show that you can't help but recall them with a shudder.

But as in the case of the Eden & John's East River String Band's disc, Some Cold Rainy Day, there are recordings where a love of the material being performed combines with the skill and passion necessary to bring it to life results in the creation of something truly special. On the above album Eden and John went deep into the past of American popular music for their material and play the tunes on instruments - vintage archtop guitar and resonator ukulele - from the era. However, these are not just lovingly presented museum pieces, Eden and John throw so much of themselves into the pieces they take on new life and are just as relevant as anything written today.

It turns out that John Heneghan, the John from the group's name, is not only a fan and performer of music from the 1920s and 30s, he's also an avid collector of recordings from the era. Blues, jazz, country and Hawaiian are only a few of the genres that are apparently represented in his vast collection of old 78 rpm discs. It was this resource that Heneghan drew upon when compiling the latest release for the Dust To Digital label. Baby How Can It Be: Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s And 1930s is a three disc collection of over sixty tunes that cut across race, genre, geographical boundaries and gender. While the historical significance of this release is obvious, its a brilliant snap-shot of the variety of popular music created during those two decades, listeners are also going to be surprised and delighted by the material for its own sake. In fact you'll probably even experience quite a sense of regret that this music has been forgotten over the years, as a great deal of it is every bit as good, if not better, than most of what's being written today around the same themes.
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I think what might surprise people the most is how graphic some of the material is. If Tipper Gore had problems with the "Mature Content" of rap songs, I wonder what she'd make of songs with titles like "Let Me Play With It" or lyrics like those of the song "Pussy" where the singer talks about stroking his woman's pussy. The sexual innuendo isn't exactly subtle and the double entendres fly fast and thick in quite a few songs, but especially on the second disc of the set, subtitled "Lust". Oh and if you think only the male singers are raunchy, well you really have led a sheltered life haven't you. Don't worry, Mississippi Matilda will set you straight as she sings to you what's it like to be a "Hard Working Woman". There's also songs that won't offend the more delicate sensibilities out there as well like "Tip Toe Through The Tulips With Me", the original version by Eddie Peabody not Tiny Tim. It's still done on ukulele, and still annoying, but make sure you listen closely to the lyrics, you won't regret it.

While there are a few other familiar names that pop up in the credits and titles; Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Mississippi John Hurt are probably the three most widely recognized names; the reality is that even they aren't what you'd call household names anymore. While some of the material and the people performing them have very rightly been swallowed up by the mists of time, the majority are tunes well worth listening to, and if there were any justice in the world, would still be listened to on a regular basis today.

As previously mentioned the second disc in the set contains material that revolves around the theme of "Lust". Each of the other two discs are similarly organized with the first focusing on "Love" and the third on "Contempt". While you might be tempted to skip over the first disc in order to sample what "Lust" and "Contempt" have to offer (Love songs are a dime a dozen these days, but how many good contempt songs have you heard recently?) don't let yourself be prejudiced by thoughts of contemporary songs. Where else are you going to hear bands like Banjo Ikey Robinson and His Bull Fiddle Band or Little Kimbrough and Winston Holmes and songs with titles like "That's What The Bachelor's Made Out Of " (Taylor's Kentucky Boys) and "Insane Crazy Blues"? (Charlie Burse with Memphis Jug Band) Believe me when I tell you they don't write love songs like these anymore, and while not all of them are going to appeal to everyone, the great thing about this collection is if you don't like a tune - skip ahead to the next because its going to be something completely different from what's come before.
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Of course some of the best titles are to be found on the "Contempt" disc; "You Gonna Look Like A Monkey When You Get Old", "Wimmin-Aaah!", and "Its A Shame To Whip Your Wife On Sunday". The latter very pleasantly reminds listeners that there's no need to whip your wife, or do any manner of things on Sundays, as there plenty more days of the week for you to take care of those tasks without violating the Sabbath. While there is great material throughout the collection, there seems to have been something about "Contempt" that inspired people that little bit extra. Not only are there more songs on this side than either of the other two, there's no denying that on the whole they're a good deal more interesting. It's been said that love and hate are the opposite faces of the same coin, but in the case of popular music from the 1920 and 30s it seems like people might have spent a little more on despising then they did on adoring.

A lot of trouble has been taken with creating an appropriate package for the music on these three discs and you can't help but appreciate both the artwork and the photographs used as covers, labels for the CDs and in the accompanying booklet. The booklet and the disc's gatefolds are adorned with period photographs reflecting the title's themes and each disc comes complete with a label done in the Art Deco style of the period.

Baby How Can It Be: Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s & 1930s is a veritable cross section of American popular music. What's truly wonderful about it is that no matter what genre the song, it predates the era of slick presentation and commercial concerns whose end result was to reduce everything to its lowest common denominator. This is a trip back to the days when not all popular songs sounded alike or adhered to some industry dictated formula for success. The material on these discs are the real roots of American popular music, but much of it has been forgotten or ignored over the years. While unfortunately a great deal of what was recorded in the time period represented by this collection has been lost, the samples offered by it give us some indication of just how rich and vibrant our popular music culture once was. If nothing else, maybe this collection will inspire people who hear it to seek out more of the same and others to open their eyes to the limitless possibilities of popular music.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Baby How Can It Be? Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s & 1930s on Blogcritics.)

November 6, 2010

Concert Review: Septeto Nacional Live In Kingston Ontario November 3/10

In the first week of November the temperature starts dipping below freezing in Kingston Ontario, so it was some relief to have a warm Caribbean breeze blow in from Cuba November 3/10 and plunk itself down on stage at the city's Grand Theatre. Septeto Nacional has been bringing son habanero (the sound of Havana) to the rest of the world in various incarnations since 1927 and it was the fourth generation of players who blew into town and succeeded in helping to stave off winter a little longer. Infectious, enthusiastic and skilled the seven piece band (and two friends) seduced the evening's crowd with the sultry rhythms of their Afro/Cuban music.

On tour in support of its newly released CD, Sin Rumba no hay Son!, the band is criss-crossing North America. While the CD is a joy to listen to, it's only be seeing and hearing Septeto in performance that you can truly experience their finer qualities. Under the leadership of vocalist Euenio Rodriguez Rodriguez, "Raspa", the seven piece band weaves a musical spell that works its way under an audience's skin without them noticing. Just before intermission they showed how successful they had been by pulling the entire audience out of their seats to have them swaying to their music and dancing in the aisles.

The backbone of the band is their rhythm section consisting of Francisco David Oropesa Fernandes "El Matador" on bongos, Dagoberto Sacerio Oliva on guitar and Raul Acea Rivera on Bass. For those of us used to a band requiring at least a drummer playing a full kit and maybe an additional percussionist in order to lay down a steady beat, it might seem that one man playing bongos would be insufficient to create anything solid enough to carry a song let alone a band. However, "El Matador" not only was strong enough to get toes tapping, he worked in fills and frills that would make many a jazz drummer green with envy with only his two hands and one set of bongos. With Rivera and Oliva laying down the current feeding the tempo, Fernandes skipped and hopped like a water bug over top giving the music that extra edge which allows it to mysteriously find its way into an audience's feet.

Enrique Collazo Collazo on tres (a Cuban guitar) and Agustin Someillan Garcia on trumpet rode the stream laid down by their rhythm section like experienced sailors running before a steady wind. Collazo's subtle yet intricate fingering was a constant presence as he picked out melodies on his instrument. However, unlike rock and roll lead guitar players who seem to be always demanding that we pay attention to them with their flamboyant moves and attitude, Collazo played in service to the song at hand and nothing else. While he was always felt, the only time you were really aware of him was during his specific solos.
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A trumpet stands out at the best of times, so you'd think as the sole brass instrument amongst Septepto's players it would stick out like a soar thumb. However, in the case of Garcia, unless you specifically listened for him, he integrated himself so well into the band's sound, you would be forgiven for forgetting there was even a trumpet playing. That's not to say he was buried in the mix, or anything like that. Rather his playing was so perfectly pitched to the rest of the band's sound it was like he was singing another harmony to the two lead's vocals.

While Crispin Diaz Hernandez left the bulk of the lead vocals to his senior, "Raspa", when his turn came he showed a skill set that equalled the maestro's. It was he who was responsible for pulling the audience to their feet at the end of the first intermission through the simple expedient of a big smile and gesturing with his hand that everybody should rise. (As none of the band spoke much English, most of the on stage patter was lost on the mainly Anglo audience although judging by the laughter rising from the pockets of Latinos present it must have been funny). However, he wasn't just good at communicating with the audience, he had a wonderfully expressive and evocative voice, and you couldn't help but be swept up by the enthusiasm generated by his performance.

Yet, in spite of the skill shown by the rest of the band, whenever the dapper figure of Eugenio Rodriguez Rodriguez "Raspa" stepped up to take the spotlight, we were all instantly in the palm of his hand. Playing a bit of a fool with his between the song patter, slipping in and out of rapid fire gibberish and Spanish and pulling faces as if he just stepped off some vaudeville stage of the twenties, the moment he opened his mouth to sing you were transported. You wouldn't think such a small body could contain such a large voice. Soaring over the rest of the band he effortlessly carried the audience with him on every one of his flights of fancy. Not understanding his lyrics didn't seem as important as being carried away by the delight of listening to him sing.

Septeto Nacional are coming to the end of their fall North American tour, but will be back again in the spring. (You can find details of their tour on their page at the World Village Music web site) to hit any of the places they might have missed this time round. Judging by their performance in Kingston Ontario last night (Wednesday November 3rd/10) this isn't a band you want to miss hearing and seeing perform if the opportunity presents itself. My only complaint was there wasn't a program telling us who the guests were joining them on stage, which prevents me from giving credit to the guest vocalist and the Em C who are travelling with them.

There aren't too many bands who can get an audience ranging in age from tots to seniors up and dancing en masse, but these guys can and will. So bring along a pair of dancing shoes and practice smiling because you're going to be doing plenty of both.

(Article first published as Concert Review: Septeto Nacional, Kingston, Ontario - November 3, 2010 on Blogcritics.)

November 2, 2010

DVD Review: Charles Bukowski: One Tough Mother

Say poetry and most people will immediately think of something intellectual, slightly effeminate and not usually worth the effort it takes to understand. They'll think back to their days in high school trying to make sense of seemingly incomprehensible words strung together apparently without rhyme or reason while their teacher droned on about metaphors, similes and deeper meanings. The idea that poetry might actually have something to do with the real world or be written in language that anybody can understand would come as quite a surprise to most people. That the same poetry might be about the mean streets of big cities featuring casts of characters who hang out in old dingy bars or the cracked stone steps of tenement buildings drinking two dollar bottles of wine and rot gut whisky would never even cross their minds.

Until his death in 1994 American writer Charles Bukowski produced scores of poems and prose depicting life among those who eke out an existence in low paying menial employment and who seek solace in the bottom of a bottle, cheap whores and whose hopes for the future rely more on the long shot at San Marino or race tracks like it around the country. Not only did his poetry talk about subject matter most others wouldn't or couldn't tackle, it did so in the language of the people who populated them. Sex, bodily functions, drinking, gambling and generally life on the skids are fixtures of Bukowski's poetry.

Yet, that's not the be all and end all when it comes to his work. For behind the words is an intelligent and compassionate mind which, although he makes no effort to hide his readers from the nastier realities of life on the skids, never makes those populating his work figures of ridicule or objects of sympathy. He finds humour and pathos among them in equal measures, and is just as likely to be laughing at himself as anybody else. For Bukowski not only wrote about the down and outs, for the longest time he was one himself, and a good deal of autobiographical detail makes its way into his work..
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Although Bukowski lived until 1994 he gave his last live poetry reading in 1980. A newly released two DVD set, One Tough Mother, produced by mondayMEDIA and the Infinity Entertainment Group, combining the films made of his last two readings (There's Going To Be A God Damned Riot In Here!, Vancouver 1979 and The Last Straw, Redondo Beach California 1980) give one a fairly good indication as to why he stopped giving doing them. As its title suggests, the Vancouver reading degenerated at times into a shouting match between Bukowski and the audience and even though it was a less antagonistic gathering in California, the atmosphere still left a lot to be desired.

Far too many people made the mistake with Bukowski of confusing fiction with reality. For while it was true that at one point in his life he had lived much like those who inhabited his poetry and prose, by this point in his life he was no longer living rough. There was no reason for him to have to fight for his survival, but if these two readings were any indication as to how audiences reacted to him, they expected him to be one of the foul mouthed protagonists depicted in his work. In both instances he tries his best to remind them of who he has become by reading a work which deals with the issue directly. In the poem he talks about how he receives letters from men living in single rooms written on torn lined paper which compliment him on how he's captured their lives on paper. He then continues on to wonder what they would think if they knew their missives were ending up at a two garage house where he leads a perfectly comfortable life and keeps a young man in a cage, beaten two or three times a week and fed on cheap whisky, who writes all his poetry these days.

However in spite of everything, the heckling from the audience and Bukowski's increasingly angry rejoinders - in Vancouver he becomes so angry he lashes out at audiences in general because there are always two people who sit right down front who insist on talking through his readings - both movies are still valuable records of one of the most original poetic voices of the twentieth century. While his reading style is fairly low key, the power of the words is such that we very quickly find ourselves falling under their spell. There's no beating around the bush with Bukowski's poetry; little in the way of allegorical language, metaphor or any of the other poetic devices our teachers were so fond of forcing us to try and interpret so we could find the meaning hidden in the words. Indeed there is very little subtlety to his work at all, just like the world he uses them to describe. Whether he's describing the state of his money after he drops his wallet into the toilet after he has had a particularly foul smelling dump or inviting us back to his room where he's spending the night with a women.
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Needless to say a poetry reading isn't the most visually exciting thing you'll see on a DVD as the camera is forced to stay with its rather static subject the whole time. However, its fascinating to watch Bukowski right from the moment he walks onto the stage. Whether he's smoking his ever present Bidi (an Indian clove cigarette), taking large gulps from a seemingly bottomless glass of red wine, talking with the audience and even reading the occasional poem, his weathered features and rough hewn voice hold our attention where others wouldn't. He has some sort of charisma which is hard to define as its not the standard issue stuff handed out to the good looking or otherwise conventional types we're normally attracted to.

There's a clue to be found in his readings as to what it is that keeps us focused on him. For while he has no problems joking with the audience about himself or trading insults, you could see genuine anger come through when his poetry was derided or treated with indifference. It's that passion for his work, the total commitment to his art that we feel emanating from him, that keeps our attention focused on him throughout the reading. Even when he seems to be uncaring and blasé about the whole affair, there's the sense of something lurking beneath the surface that's not quite safe - like a hibernating bear who is slow to rouse we're aware he could wake up at any moment and rip someone's head off.

Each disc comes with bonus features that weren't available when they were released individually. While some of them are just your standard talking head things with academics pontificating about Bukowsik's work (God he must be laughing about that) its well worth checking out the readings of his poetry by people like Bono, Tom Waits and others that are part of the interview with Johm Dullaghan who directed the documentary Bukowski: Born Into This and the excerpts from a performance of the play Love Bukowski. However no matter how interesting any of these features might be, none of them compare to the genuine article itself. While you only receive the smallest taste of just who or what Charles Bukowski was and what his poetry was like, for those who have never experienced him before this will make an unforgettable introduction and give everybody else a few more moments to savour his genius. Charles Bukowski ain't like the poetry you learned about in school, but its some of the best damn stuff you'll ever have the opportunity of reading or hearing.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Charles Bukowski: One Tough Mother on Blogcritics.)

October 8, 2010

Book Review: The Tree by John Fowles

Humankind doesn't have a very good record when it comes to the way we deal with things we either fear or don't understand. More hate based wars have been fought because of them than probably anything else. In fact, throughout our long and rather bloodthirsty history the majority of our worst crimes against ourselves and the world around us have been brought on by our inability to overcome just how much we fear what we don't understand. What we don't destroy we seek to control or beat into submission in order to make sure it is unable to challenge us.

While not generating quire as strong feelings of antipathy, those things which seemingly have no intrinsic value, or use, manage to risk our ire to nearly the same extent. So woe betide anything or body which manages to not only have no apparent use, but that also confuses and scares us. In his treatise The Tree, first published thirty years ago and now re-printed by Ecco Books, an imprint of Harper Collins, the late British author John Fowles (1926 - 2005) postulates that for the majority of us the natural world, and, by dint of what the two have in common, the spirit of creativity, fall into that category.

According to Fowles one need look no further than our relationship with forests in general, and trees in particular to find proof of this sentiment. Even before the Christian church began its campaign against earth based religions by spreading the belief that evil dwelt in the dark places of the forests, we were turning against the untamed world around us when we made the switch from hunter gathers to a more agrarian trade based society. Early civilizations were just as inclined to see nature as a force to overcome and be controlled as later day ones. Supplications were made to gods and goddesses in order to ensure bountiful crops and men enacted rituals binding them to the land so their divinity over it was ensured.
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It was the industrial revolution of the 19th century which combined our fear of the dark and unknown with the utilitarian attitudes we hold today that completed our separation from the natural world. Up to then the majority of people still looked to the land for their living as we were primarily an agrarian society. With the coming of industry and its need for raw materials, any thought of nature existing merely for the sake of existing went out the window. If something wasn't of use, if it couldn't feed the maw of industry in some manner, it had no purpose at all and was deemed extraneous to our needs.

Interestingly enough, Fowles points out, until the 19th century nature hadn't made much of an appearance in the arts. Although he confines himself to writing and the visual arts, he makes a very strong case for his argument that until then the majority of the arts had depicted nature either as a backdrop against which human activity took place or which expressed our need to exert control over it through pictures containing formal gardens and tales describing the evils existing in a forest's dark places. It was only with the Romantics and the Impressionists of the 18th and 19th century, as the world became more urbanized, that painters began to break with that tradition and attempt to represent the natural world honestly. Looking at the work of Impressionists today it's hard for us to find anything controversial about them, but to their contemporaries they were strange and confusing works that very few saw anything of value in, much like their attitudes towards the subject matter depicted.

Science, which most of us today see as being diametrically opposed to religion, according to Fowles, is as much, if not more, responsible for our attitudes towards nature through its obsession with cataloguing, categorizing and explaining the world. We are unable to allow anything to merely exist in its own right, we must ensure it be given a proper name and purpose in the order of things as we see it. If we can't name it or define it, we don't understand it and fear it. Fowles postulates that as long as we continue to attempt to find a "use" for nature through these means we will never break down the barriers we've erected that keep us from appreciating it for what it is and will eventually bring about its ruination.
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Fowles lays out his argument as a mix of personal anecdote, observation, history lesson and analysis. In nintey-one pages he manages to cover: the history of science, civilization, religion and how each relates to the way we perceive nature; recollections of his childhood both in pre-world war two suburban London and as a evacuee from the bombing of the city during the war in Devon and how the contrast between the two worlds shaped his view of nature; the difficulties inherent in trying to bring nature to life with the written word and the interconnection between artistic creation and nature. This is not a book to be picked up casually and read while trying to do anything else as the thoughts expressed need to be given careful consideration and can't be simply skimmed over if one is to gain anything from reading it. In fact a reader is best served by putting the book down periodically and walking away from it for a while to give themselves time to consider each section before moving on.

That being said, the rewards gleaned from reading The Tree are worth the effort. Never before have I read such a passionate, yet intellectually sound argument made in defence of the natural world. Instead of launching the usual sentimental appeal for our attention though descriptions of beauty and cuteness, he has crafted something that forces us to confront the myths we have created about nature through so called reason and religion. He shows us how each have purposely, and inadvertently, caused our alienation from the natural world while through his own experiences attempts to communicate what we have missed because of it.While he freely admits that the printed word is woefully inadequate for describing the effect of nature on us, through his efforts he manages to impart enough of the wonder he feels at visiting certain places in England for us to begin to understand what we risk losing with the destruction of truly wild places.

Nature is awkward, ugly, uncomfortable and doesn't do what we want it to do. For most of our civilized existence humankind has attempted, through various means, to control it. However one only has to look at events of the past decade in both North America and the South Pacific - the tsunami that wrecked havoc in Indonesia and the devastating results of Hurricane Katrina upon New Orleans - to see how fruitless those attempts have been. Even worse, according to Fowles, is how we are depriving ourselves of an essential part of the experience of being alive on this planet through our desire there be a place for everything and everything to be in its place.

There are authors who can write hundreds of pages and say nothing at all. In the ninety-one pages of The Tree the late John Fowles says more about our relationship with nature than any other author I've ever read. Republished in honour of its thirtieth anniversary, this book will open your eyes to the world around you and hopefully have you looking at the next tree or forest you pass in an entirely new light. Or, even better, to not pass it, but sit down and spend some time with it.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Tree by John Fowles on Blogcritics.)

September 7, 2010

Book Review: Pirates Of The Levant by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Fate is as capricious a whore as any whose plied her trade in the bordellos and inns of the seaports and fortress towns frequented by the soldiers and sailors fighting for God, King and country during the reign of his good Catholic Majesty Philip IV of Spain in the mid 1600s. How else could you explain how a loyal soldier of the crown and his young protégé, (having served with distinction in the fields of Flanders against the heretic Dutch, carried out a daring raid to secure much needed gold for the royal treasury and finally saved the most royal hide itself from suffering the indignity of being impaled upon two feet of finely tempered steel) find, in the interests of their own health and safety, seek exile at sea? Well, if one insists on competing with his most sainted majesty for the affections of a certain actress, one must realize that no matter what heroic deeds or services one may have performed for the crown in the past, it might be perhaps in one's best interest to make oneself scarce for a period of time.

Which is how we find "Captain" Diego Alatriste and his now seventeen year old page, Inigo Balboa, once again serving their country as stolid infantry men. This time thought it's with the planks of heaving galleys beneath their feet instead of solid earth and the blazing sun of North Africa on their backs instead of the fog and rain of the Dutch lowlands. Pirates Of The Levant, the latest chapter of Arturo Perez-Reverte's story of life in the declining years of the Spanish Empire, published by Penguin Canada, takes the reader to yet another of Spain's outposts in her holy war of greed and expansion in the name of God and lining the pockets of an equally corrupt nobility and clergy. From their home port of Naples in Italy to the narrow gap of sea separating Spain from Muslim Northern Africa the crew of the war galley Mulata have harry French, Dutch, Turkish and English ships for booty and protect Spain's interests from her enemies.
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This is no world for the faint of heart or those with weak stomachs, as life aboard the galleys would be unpleasant even if one were merely peacefully rowing between one port and another. Exposed to the elements and at the mercy of the winds and the sea, sailors, soldiers and galley slaves endure hardships that would test the fortitude of the bravest. While the latter have no choice in the matter, either having been sentenced as punishment by the Spanish courts or prisoners captured in battle and set to row instead of dangling by their necks from the yardarm, to power the craft when the winds fail, one has to wonder what would make any sane man volunteer for duty as one of the former. From the diet of lice ridden biscuits, and even less savoury meat accompanied by wine watered with brackish water, and with death being the least of evils that could befell one in combat, ("Don't let them take you alive" is the advice given to every soldier before his first encounter with a Turkish vessel) there seems little to recommend it as a viable career option.

However this is Spain and if an "honest" swordsman or soldier desires to be paid for his services to his country he must take creative measures. For, as Inigo explains, the money supposedly meant for their wages somehow never quite finds its way into their pockets no matter where they serve. Most soldiers return from battle with no money in their pockets and no prospects for finding a way to earn what's needed for even the barest of necessities save to become a sword for hire in the alleys and back streets or to re-enlist and hope to survive long enough to enjoy the spoils of a few victories. Alongside Alatriste Inigo has managed to stay alive for a season on the sea so far. After wintering in their home port of Naples they and their fellows are once again broke and hunting the waves in search of booty when we catch up with them.

As in the previous books in this series Perez-Reverte not only brings the field of battle his characters find themselves upon to life with such vivid detail that you almost feel the salt water spray in your face, he ensures the reader is aware of how this particular battlefield came into being. Unlike Flanders, and the other battlefields of Europe where Spain fights to preserve empire or the Ottoman Empire of Turkey looks to expand its borders, here in the no man's waters off the coast of Europe, and in port towns scattered through Northern Africa, a different sort of battle is being fought. On the seas Dutch, Turk, French and Spanish boats prey upon each other and their cargos with no thought for gains in territory but merely as a means of swelling their respective coffers. Each vessel's captain is issued with a charter from its respective crown to seek out and find such prizes as they may. Unlike pirates, who keep all they win for their own pockets, they must pay tithes to their various benefactors before lining their own pockets.
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The animosity between Turk and Spaniard is particularly fierce as it has only been within the last hundred years that Spain was able to finally push them back beyond the borders of Portugal and into Africa. In the years since then Alatriste has witnessed some of the horrible indignities his fellow men are capable of committing against each other. When he was part of the campaign that saw the expelling from Spain of Muslims who had converted to Christianity he saw innocent men, women and children not only cut down by soldiers, but were stoned and set upon by civilians as they attempted to flee with what little possessions they could carry. For him there is nothing glorious or noble in what he does - he will do it with as much honour as he can bring to it - but it is simply a matter of kill or be killed as far as he's concerned. If he had any other means of making a living he'd do so. but that option is not available to him.

Unfortunately Inigo still holds onto notions of glory and is full of both righteous indignation and himself. Even after he, albeit inadvertently, starts a full scale riot between Spanish and Venetian sailors while on the island of Malta, he retains an over inflated opinion of himself and his abilities that almost results in his death. So naive is he that he's not even aware that Alatriste has had to take matters into his own hands in order to prevent Inigo from being found in an alley with his throat slit. In fact Alatriste shows remarkable restraint in not being the one to slit his throat himself for some of the things Inigo says to him in his pride and stupidity. He even debates leaving the boy to his fate, but in the end his own sense of dignity pushes him to intervene and take the steps necessary to keep him alive.

Any who have been following the adventures of Captain Alatiste and Inigo for any length of time are aware of Arturo Perez-Reverte's skills as a writer. In Pirates Of The Levant he has brought all of his considerable talent to bear in creating a work riveting in its historical and realistic details while still managing to be an action packed adventure. Alartiste remains a fascinating character. The anti-hero of the swashbuckling world, on one hand a cold callous killer who has no qualms about killing someone for a perceived slight to his honour, but who is yet reluctant to kill those others wouldn't think twice of dispatching. Fiercely independent, he doesn't like anybody telling him by inference or otherwise, who or what he should kill. If that means killing a couple of Spaniards he catches trying to rape a young Muslim woman when most of his contemporaries would have turned a blind eye, so be it.

Inigo thinks he may understand the Captain, and even for a time believes he no longer needs anybody, especially the Captain, telling him how to live his life. However, he's fortunate enough to learn that until he's lived a great many more years, killed, and seen killed, a great many more men, and stood on a quite a few more battle fields, he's as much chance of learning to fly as he does of understanding Diego Alatriste. It's not every man who will one moment be prepared to challenge his king for the right to sleep with a woman, and the next risk his neck to save the same king. That's Captain Alatriste, and this is the latest recounting of his checkered history. We can only hope Perez-Reverte continues recounting it to us for years to come, or at least as long as the glory of Spain persists.

(Article first published as Book Review: Pirates of the Levant by Arturo Perez-Reverte on Blogcritics.)

DVD Review: Tony Palmer's Leonard Cohen - Bird On A Wire

In 1972 Canadian poet and musician Leonard Cohen was at the height of his popularity both in his native country and abroad. The antithesis of the rock and roll gods who normally dominate popular music and fill venues where ever they play, Cohen captivated audiences and listeners with the unabashed sexuality and intellect of his work. Even today, with him well into his seventies, he remains a charismatic figure and retains the ability to enthral audiences the world over. Somehow, even those who might not have sufficient knowledge of the English language to grasp the nuances of his words, are held as if in thrall when he climbs on stage. A true troubadour of the heart and soul nothing seems to impede his ability to communicate with an audience.

However, what we have witnessed over the last couple of years, whether in person or on DVD, are a master in his declining years. Though, even now there are few performers today able to match his power to connect with an audience, what must it have been like to see him when he was at the peak of his prowess? While the release last year of footage taken from his performance at Isle Of Wight in 1970 gave us some idea as to his abilities, the conditions in which the concert took place - due to rioting by the audience and other crazy circumstances he ended up not taking the stage until around two in the morning - did not make it ideal for viewing him at his best. While it was amazing to see him calm down close to half a million people who had gone as far as setting fire to the stage after nearly five days of bedlam, it wasn't what anyone would call a typical Cohen concert, if there could be such a thing, from the period.

Two years after that performance Cohen embarked on a twenty city tour that would take him from Dublin Ireland to Jerusalem accompanied by a film crew under the direction of British documentarian, film,theatre and opera director, author and critic, Tony Palmer. Probably best known for his astounding seventeen part television history of Pop Music, All You Need Is Love, by 1972 Palmer had already directed twenty-three movies including concert films of Cream, (Cream Farewell Concert 1968) Frank Zappa's 200 Motels and the documentary Ginger Baker In Africa. For some reason though, Cohen wasn't happy with Palmer's edit of the footage and requested it be re-edited by a person of his choice. Unfortunately the result was so botched that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), who had commissioned the film, refused delivery and it was never broadcast.
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Fast forward to 2009 when Palmer was informed that the original footage, something like two hundred cans of film, had been found in a warehouse. While some of the footage was in dubious condition, the sound was in perfect shape. So Palmer set to the painstaking task of sorting and restoring miles of film with the result that almost forty years after it was originally shot Bird On A Wire, has been released on DVD, distributed by MVD Entertainment. While the story behind the movie is almost enough to make it worth seeing in itself, you'll soon discover this is no mere curiosity piece. Rather it is a masterful piece of work by a gifted and experienced documentary film maker.

The film follows Cohen and his band off and on stage as they wend there way east across Europe from Great Britain until their final two concerts in Israel, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Palmer has chosen to open the film with footage of the second to last concert in Tel Aviv, where once again we find Cohen in the position of having to try and pour oil onto troubled waters. This time it's not the audience who riot, but the security personnel who go over the top. At one point during the concert Cohen invited audience members at the back to come and sit down in what he saw as an open space in front of the stage so they could hear and see better. Perhaps he should have checked with the bouncers before hand, for when people started to come down to the front of the stage and sit, they were forcibly removed. In spite of Cohen's pleas for restraint things quickly descended into chaos and the concert couldn't go on.

What we don't know at the time, and which gradually becomes clear over the course of the film, is at some point early on in the tour something had gone wrong with the sound equipment they were using. As a result the band had to make do without the use of on stage monitors - meaning they were virtually unable to hear themselves - and the whole system eventually feeding back if they exceeded a certain volume. On one occasion we saw Cohen invite those in the furthest reaches of an auditorium who were having difficulty in hearing to come up and sit on stage with the band so they could hear. It's a testament to the respect audiences held Cohen in, that when he asked that only those who were truly having difficulties come up on stage, they listened to him. Instead of the mad rush you might have expected upon the issuing of this invitation, only those who weren't able to hear came forward while everybody else stayed in their seats.
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While that is a rather extreme example, it typifies how well the film captured the rapport Cohen had with his audience. Some of the lighter moments included him chiding the audience for starting to clap for a song after he'd only played a few chords, reminding them that all his songs sound the same because he only knows a couple of chords so how could they possibly know what song he's about to sing? What's truly remarkable about those moments are how warmly the audience responded and the affectionate laughter that met these and other self-deprecating comments he would make.

Aside from the fact that some of the footage was in black and white and it was obviously shot on film, such was Palmer's skill as a director there were times while watching it is easy to forget the footage that is nearly forty years old. It was far harder to maneuver cameras and crew in those days, yet somehow he and his people managed to not only capture remarkably intimate concert footage, they were obviously so unobtrusive Cohen and those around him acted as if they were unaware they were being filmed. (There is one memorable moment, however, where Cohen is talking to a very pretty women visiting back stage and he turns to face the camera and comment on how hard it is to chat someone while being filmed) As a result the footage taken offstage captures life on tour; backstage before and after a show, in transit, interviews with the press, and the interaction between the band members; far better than I've ever seen it depicted.

While all of this is interesting, what really makes Bird On A Wire a treasure is what we see of Cohen himself. The expression wearing your heart on your sleeve might have been coined for him at this stage in his life as he can't hide how he's feeling from anybody, including his audience at times. However, at the same time he exudes a sense of power that allows him to stand up in front of his audience and almost reprimand them like a parent would a misguided child and they actually listen to him.
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Like all artists he's plagued by the desire for his work to be perfect, and if it can't be it shouldn't be seen. At one point he stops his show in Jerusalem because he's not happy with the quality of his performance and takes the band off stage, uncertain as to whether or not he'll continue with the show. It's not about pride, or if it is it's the right kind, because he refuses to cheat the audience by giving them anything less than what he considers his best. He eventually does go back on, and the audience doesn't want him to leave. Eventually he has to come back on stage after multiple encores to tell the audience that he and all his band are back stage crying right now and couldn't possibly do another song.

While there are none of the special features we've all come to expect from modern DVD packages included on the disc, there are some lovely surprises in the packaging, Aside from a nice sized booklet with each page containing collages of pictures, quotes, and clips from newspaper articles about Cohen, a replica of the poster for the film and what looks to be a postcard sized replica of promotional artwork of Cohen from the 1970s are also included. Naturally the image quality and the sound reproduction are limited by the condition the film was found in and the technology used to shoot it in the first place. However, all things considered, and this is a sign of a remarkable restoration job, they are probably better quality than anybody had any right to hope.

Bird On A Wire by Tony Palmer should be compulsory viewing for anyone wishing to make a documentary about a concert tour. Its combination of impeccably filmed concert footage and fly on the wall off stage reporting makes it probably the best movie of its type that I've ever seen. It succeeds in presenting an intimate portrait of one pop music's more enigmatic and charismatic figures. This is Leonard Cohen as you may never have seen him before and definitely won't ever again.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Leonard Cohen - Bird on a Wire on Blogcritics.)

September 1, 2010

Music Review: Xavier Rudd & Izintaba - Koonyum Sun

You can tell a lot about a person's artistic quality by the way in which they respond to a personal crises, or any period of radical change with their chosen media. Do they descend into self indulgence and wallow in their own misery by creating stuff that excludes their audience through focusing on their own problems? Or are they able to find the language that allows them to use their own experiences as the basis for creating material which speaks to more than just themselves? The break-up album, the album a pop singer writes when his or her relationship goes south, has become almost a cliche by now as everybody from heavy metal to country singers have written "She/He done me wrong" songs.

Thankfully there are performers who are able to transcend the cliche and write songs expressing more than the typical sentimental garbage about crying in the dark while drinking their way through acres of beer. Change of any sort is difficult to deal with, and when it involves the sudden dissolution of a long term relationship the impact is even more profound. Yet change is the key to artistic growth, and it's only through embracing it is an artist is able to prevent their work from stagnating. It doesn't matter what the change is, its what the artist does with it. So when you listen to Xavier Rudd's most recent release, Koonyum Sun, you can't help but be impressed by his success in creating material which not only reflects changes in his personal life, but which is significantly different from anything he has released previously.
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During an interview I conducted with him in July of 2009 he was already talking with excitement about heading into the studio the following fall with his new bandmates, Izintaba; bass player Uncle Tio Moloantoa and drummer/percussionist Andile Nqubezelo. For the guy who started out as basically a one man band playing behind a bank of three Yirdaki, (didgeridoos) a slide guitar cradled on his lap, keeping beat with drums controlled by his feet and hiring musicians as needed for studio work and touring, working with even this modest sized band represented a significant change in how he'd have to approach his music. So while I anticipated Koonyum Sun would have sizeable musical differences from his earlier recordings, having no idea that his decade long marriage had ended as well, I wasn't prepared for the sudden maturity in his song writing.

While Rudd has always had the ability to communicate with his audience on a level that few of his contemporaries can match, there's an immediacy and intimacy to the material on this disc that makes it the most compelling work he's ever done. While there are songs that obviously refer to his marriage breaking up, "Love Comes & Goes" and "Set Me Free", they don't diminish the overall sensation of hope generated by the material on the disc. For while they don't deny the pain that he felt over what happened, they do so in a manner that recognizes while one part of his life has come to an end there is still plenty to look forward to. Even better, instead of wallowing in self-pity and inflicting the listener with his tales of woe, he has created lyrics which capture the experience so we can all understand it, even if we've never personally lived through something similar.

"The roads we take in life often seem to be very strong/We walk them carefully like we're walking on bricks and stone/Only when we look behind you will see the road is cracked/From there we must move forward/Gently as we tread... There's no other pain like losing a soul mate". Xavier Rudd "Love Comes & Goes" Koonyum Sun 2009

As Rudd has proved in the past he cares deeply about the world around him and has no hesitation in singing about those things. However instead of preaching about what he thinks is wrong with the world or what we should be doing to make things better, he gives us the opportunity to experience the world as he does through his lyrics. So we share his wonder and joy at the grandeur of nature or his sadness at how we are in the process of letting it all slip away through carelessness and neglect. "Shy To Ground", the disc's opening song is a great example of this as he offers a series of contrasting glimpses of the world around us. "I've seen all of the fear and all the murder on TV and I've been free on solid waves, Mother Earth's greatest treat".
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Musically, even in the days when he was a solo act, Rudd has always drawn upon a variety of styles and traditions including reggae, afro-pop, Native American and the aboriginal music of his native Australia. In his earlier material the reggae influence gave his songs a somewhat light hearted feel, as if in spite of any problems there might be in the world, we'd always be able to kick back and enjoy ourselves. While over the years he may have broadened his perspective so that his music has gained in intensity, he's still held onto the same joie de vivre that made him so appealing in the first place. On Koonyum Sun the music reaches new levels of intensity and complexity.

In part that's thanks to his new partnership with Itzentaba whose contributions on bass, percussion and vocal harmonies have added new layers of texture to his sound. There's a depth and intensity which didn't exist on previous albums, giving the music on this disc an urgency making the material even more compelling then previous works. Working with Moloantoa and Nqubezelo has also encouraged Rudd to experiment more with rhythm and tone. Building from their common background in reggae the three men have created new ways of using a familiar style so it sounds fresh again.

It's not often that you find an pop musician as willing to embrace change, no matter what shape it comes in and the difficulties entailed, as Xavier Rudd. At the same time, he has managed to hold onto the elements of his style which made him such an appealing performer in the first place. Koonyum Sun is perhaps his most musically and lyrically mature release to date and is easily one of the best new releases this year. If you've liked Xavier Rudd in the past, you'll not be disappointed, and if you've never heard him before, well, there's no time like the present for starting to listen to one of this generation's most articulate and passionate voices.

(Article first published as Music Review: Xavier Rudd & Izintaba - Koonyum Sun on Blogcritics.)

July 14, 2010

Music Review: Laurie Anderson - Homeland

When the world is as confusing as ours is these days, when we're inundated with information to such a degree that it becomes almost impossible to pick out individual messages from the overall cacophony of noise, the temptation to accept simplistic answers as the solution to our problems is almost irresistible. When you spend your day worrying about work, what the kids are up to at school, how far the money is going to stretch this month, it's such a relief when somebody can give you an easy to understand explanation as to what's wrong with the world. When white is white and black is black you don't have to think and you can let those who know best get on with making sure everything will turn out all right in the end.

The simple life: where global warming, the economy, terrorism, wars in foreign countries and disease aren't things you have to concern yourself with. Things can't be that bad after all if it's business as usual? The shelves are still filled with stuff for us to buy and the airwaves filled with people telling us what we should buy and why. There's nothing to worry about say the newscasts, a correction, a minor setback, an outbreak far away, and its all under control now. Anyway, it was somebody else's fault and it would have never happened if "we" had been in charge, but now we are so its all going to be okay. So sit back and listen to somebody sing sincerely about nothing, watch an explosion of colour in high definition that means nothing, push your needle of choice into your veins from what's being offered up these days as the opiate that will help keep you from noticing the world is going to hell in a fucking hand basket. It's all designed to make you deaf, blind and voiceless.

What does any of this have to do with Laurie Anderson'slatest CD release, Homeland, on Nonesuch Records? Nothing and everything. Nothing in that she's nothing like what I've described above, and everything because she is everything an artist should be in times like these. Anderson is not what you would call your standard popular musician, in fact it does her a disservice to even consider the work she does in the same breath as popular music. Yes, she writes music and lyrics to accompany it, but what she creates has as much to do with popular music as the words inside a Hallmark Card have to do with poetry. Her husband, and co-producer of Homeland, Lou Reed, struck to the heart of the matter with his comment regarding the disc in the documentary, Homeland: The Story Of The Lark, part of the bonus DVD included with the CD, "The more intelligent you are, the more you'll get out of it."
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In a society where the majority of what passes for entertainment is geared towards the lowest common denominator, intelligence is not usually a required prerequisite for appreciation. It's not that the material on Homeland requires one to have any sort of special knowledge or is in any way elitist, it's that Anderson doesn't manipulate her listeners with sentimentality. This is a music of ideas, and any emotions generated in the listener will be because of reactions to what is heard. For example, some people are going to be angry - for a variety of reasons - when they listen to songs like "Only An Expert" where Anderson satirizes our reliance on so-called experts for guidance in everything from our love life to what actually constitutes a weapon of mass destruction.

For those of you familiar with Anderson's work you'll know she's something of a storyteller as well as everything else, with pieces being spoken word and the music accenting the narration or serving as background. On the cover of Homeland is a picture of Anderson made up and dressed as a rather odd looking man. In the past she's used voice modification software to assume a masculine character, someone she refers to as a kind of alter-ego. Well, now for the first time, he's more than just a voice, he's become a character by the name of Fenway Bergamott who regales us with his version of a state of the union address, "Another Day In America." The situation, according to Fenway, is one of confusion. Sort of betwixt and between the good ol' days, which might not have been so good, today's reality, and the no way of knowing what the future holds. Supposedly it's a whole new beginning, but if that's the case why does so much look like something we've seen before?

One thing Anderson isn't afraid of doing is asking questions, but not the type of questions you're used to hearing. "Was the constitution written in invisible ink?", she asks in "Dark Time In The Revolution", as she compares modern day America to the ideals which shaped the revolution responsible for its birth and finds it wanting. "Welcome to, welcome to, welcome to the American night". She points out that during the darkest hour of the original revolution, when things were horribly desperate, Thomas Paine wrote one of the first best sellers, Common Sense. In it he asked, "Does it make common sense for an island to rule a continent?' Well that inspired everybody to go that extra step and continue to fight for freedom. In this dark time, when the revolution has faltered, she asks,"Does it make common sense for a country to rule the world?"
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However Anderson does more than just focus on the big picture. Songs like the disc's opening piece, "Transitory Life", describe something of the struggle to be in modern America. "It takes a long time for a mouse to realize he's in a trap/But once he does something inside him never stops trembling". You can take a line like that and apply it to a number of different situations - trapped in a marriage for no reason, trapped by the material possessions you've gone into debt for - it doesn't really matter what though, for we all have some sort of personal mousetrap we're caught in. With just those few words Anderson has been able to get to the heart of what's behind so many people's disquiet. Yet there's also something about them encouraging the listener to look at the deeper implications behind their surface meaning. What does it mean for people to understand the life they've been leading is a trap? What does that say about our society? What does it say about the implied promises that have been made to us as participants in the American Dream?

In the documentary, Homeland: The Story Of The Lark, Anderson talks about the process of creating the recording. Instead of the usual practice of going into the studio and then touring to support sales, she performed the songs with various musician in front of live audiences for three years before entering a studio. It was through this process that she came up with the music and the arrangements for each of the songs. The results are stunning as the music in each case serves as a perfect compliment to the words and ideas being expressed. However, and this is key, that doesn't mean the music offers you signposts as to how you're supposed to react emotionally to the lyrics - in some ways it does the exact opposite by encouraging you to think about what is being said and then form your emotional reaction based on what you think not on what you "feel".

In an era of mass produced entertainment, which appears to discourage independent thought, where the antics of those involved in its creation is more important than whatever is actually produced, the fact that Laurie Anderson's work is being made available at all, let alone for mass consumption, is a gift you don't want to take for granted. There is very little this intelligent, beautiful, accessible and enjoyable being offered these days and you would be doing yourself a great disservice if you don't at least give it a listen. If there's one CD so far this year that's a must buy - Homeland is it.

(Article first published as Music Review: Laurie Anderson - Homeland on Blogcritics.)

May 25, 2010

DVD Review: Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam

When he was seventeen years old Michael Muhammad Knight followed in the footsteps of Muhammad Ali and converted to Islam. However unlike Ali, and the majority of other Americans who become followers of the Nation Of Islam, Knight isn't an African American. Brought up in an Irish/Catholic household, his conversion to Islam was in reaction to his white supremacist father. Like many other converts to a new religion he became something of a zealot to begin and travelled to Pakistan to study at a very conservative mosque.

However there came a point where the dogma became too much for him. Islam was still important to him, but not the narrow minded view of the world the conservatives dictated should go with it. So he ran from one extreme to another and sat down and wrote the novel The Taqwacores, which supposed the existence of a house full of Islamic punk rock musicians sharing a house together in Buffalo. Initially self published the book began to strike a chord with disaffected Muslim youth across North America and Knight was constantly writing people to tell them the characters in the book didn't exist.

In a strange twist on the old life imitating art thing though, it came to pass that Michael and a collection of Islamic punk musicians - mainly the young people who contacted him in the first place - came up with the idea of bringing the book to life. In the book the musicians set out on the road to tour around North America with their ultimate destination being the annual Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) convention in Chicago. So, piling into a school bus painted green and decked out with graphics and slogans, bands like the The Kominas from Boston, The Secret Trial Five from Vancouver, Al-Tharwa from Chicago and individual musicians like Omar Wagner from Washington DC, set out to shock and awe America.
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Joining them on the bus, and for the the tour and beyond, was a documentary film crew headed by Canadian director Omar Majeed. The resulting film of this strange pilgrimage, Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam (not to be confused with the soon to be released film adaptation of Knights book The Taqwacores) is now available on DVD through Lorber Films. The film is roughly divided in two with part one introducing us to the various bands on the tour, following their misadventures as they attempt to play gigs, get stopped by cops, spend the night in a mosque in the middle of a corn field in Ohio, and finally make it to the ISNA conference. Part two picks up at some point after the tour in 2007 as two members of The Kominas have moved back to Pakistan and are attempting to bring punk with them and Knight comes to visit with camera crew in tow.

As we meet the young people involved in the Taqwacore tour (Taqwa - the Muslim term for God consciousness - core for hard core punk) we realize that like Knight they are all trying to find a place for themselves in the world. As young Muslims in North America they don't want to give up their faith, but at the same time they want the freedom to be who they are as individuals as well. Gay, straight, male and female their songs range from the overtly political like The Secret Five's "Guantanamo Bay" or tongue in cheek satire like The Kominas' "I'm An Islamist" - their version of the infamous Sex Pistol tune.

While watching them wander across America in their green school bus I couldn't help but be reminded of another school bus forty some years earlier and the book that recorded that journey. American author Ken Keasy and his band of Merry Pranksters drove an old converted school bus around the country in the early 1960's preaching the gospel according to LSD and were memorialized in Tom Wolf's Electric Kool-aid Acid Test. However the great thing about film is that we have a much more direct link to the action and it's not so blatantly filtered through an author's voice. With Wolf's book you have the feeling it was written with the idea of giving middle class liberals a few cheap thrills, while Taqwacore is far more intent on telling the story and perhaps broadening viewer's minds as to who Muslims are.
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While the attempt to bring punk to an Islamic audience in America met with mixed success; when they performed at the ISNA conference they were closed down by the organizers for having female singers and dancing but the audience of young girls wearing headscarves were more than happy to sing along with lyrics like "Stop the hate"; what kind of reception would it get in an Islamic country? When Knight arrives in Lahore Pakistan he finds that his two old buddies from the Taqwacore days have sunk into a bit of a hash soaked stupor. They've pulled together a band but are finding it next to impossible to play gigs. What they hadn't counted on was the fact that popular music is mainly for the small percentage of affluent people, while the poor people whose message punk is aimed at are much more interested in traditional music or Bollywood. It's also almost impossible to bring the two audiences together in a single venue because of the class differences still very prevalent in that country.

While they eventually do manage to give a successful free concert in downtown Lahore, the majority of our time in Pakistan is spent with Michael Knight as he travels around visiting various shrines and mosques. He even braves going back to the mosque where he studied years ago and sits and talks with the cameras about himself for a while. What's really quite amazing about him is his incredible ability to be completely honest with himself. At one point he talks about his behaviour when he first converted and how he used to lecture his mother about her way of dressing and the fact that she would have a glass of wine before sleep. At first he thought her reactions to this, soft smiles and not arguing with him, were the sign of a mother's loving patience, but then he realized it was also the behaviour of a person who had been seriously abused for a long time.

His father used to threaten her endlessly and she had to sit through hours of torment while he would accuse her of everything from having the Devil for a lover to giving birth to the Devil's son. Her only defence was to never fight and passively let him rant on and on. When Knight finally put two and two together he understood that his lecturing his mother on her behaviour in the manner he was doing was abuse. When someone is able to admit this to himself any doubts you might have had about their sincerity are lost. His conversion to Islam may have initially been an act of rebellion, and his subsequent conversion to punk an expression of frustration that Islam wasn't able to supply all the answers he wanted, but the journey he and all the other young people we meet in this film are on, are sincere attempts to find a path that honours both their faith and themselves.

While the idea of punk rock Muslims might sound ridiculous to some people and to others it might even be blasphemous, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam is inspiring and hopeful. Not only do those involved dispel any stereotypes you might have about Muslims, they also show how it is possible to be a religious person without letting your religion dictate who and what you are as an individual. The underlying message of tolerance and respect, mixed with a healthy dose of the benevolent chaos of punk, is one the world could stand hearing over and over again.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Taqwacore -The Birth Of Punk Islam on Blogcritics.)

May 16, 2010

DVD Review: Sound Of The Soul

The lack of tolerance for other people's belief's has been the bane of mankind's existence for who knows how long. Theoretically we're a rational species and after the millions of years we've been hanging around on the planet you'd think we'd have matured sufficiently to accept not everybody looks at the world the same way. Unfortunately the reverse seems to the be the case as the longer we hang out the more intolerant we seem to become. From east to west you'll find the world has become more and more divided into "us" and "them", with them being responsible for all of "our" problems, no matter who they are.

Yet wouldn't the world be a lot easier to live in if we weren't afraid of the person beside us on the plane because they're a different colour or call their god by a different name they we do? What makes it so hard for people to be tolerant of somebody else's beliefs or even worse, makes it so easy to hate and fear them for it? Are we all so desperate to find somebody we can blame for what's wrong in the world that we have to find a scapegoat? Why is it so easy for our leaders to convince us that those others over there are evil and we are good? Have you ever stopped to think what would happen if there were a place where people of all faiths could come together and appreciate what they have in common instead of fearing their differences? Where we could all celebrate the fact that we all believe in something and see that for the miracle it is?

You might think that's an impossibility in this day and age, but every year since the first Gulf War people of all faiths from all of over the world have been coming together to do just that for a week in June at the Fez Festival Of World Sacred Music in Morocco. Of course Morocco is a bit of an oddity in itself, for as hard as this may be for many to believe, its an Islamic country where Christians, Jews and Muslims have lived together in peace for centuries. The festival brings together faith based musical groups of all beliefs from countries all over the world to perform for international interfaith audiences.
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A few years ago director Stephen Olsson travelled to Fez to record the event and find out more about the remarkable circumstances that have allowed it to happen. The resulting movie, Sound Of The Soul is now not only available on DVD through Alive Mind Media, its also being broadcast on the Internet by Global Spirit, one of the many programs available through Link TV. (The initial broadcast is on Sunday May 16th/10 at 6:00 pm EST but check the schedule as it will be re-broadcast throughout the month) The Global Spirit broadcast will include a question and answer session with the director and a panel discussion about the film with Marla Kolman Antebi, Sarah Talcott and Kabir Helminski, a Jewish scholar, an organizer of Inter-faith youth camps, and a Muslim/Sufi scholar and musician respectively.

The movie not only takes viewers to the Fez Festival to enjoy the variety of music on display; vocal groups from Ireland, England, and Russia, a French Jewish vocalist singing with a Moroccan Muslim orchestra, a gospel band from New York City, a fado singer from Portugal, and performances by groups from Afghanistan, Morocco, various African countries, and South America; but provides a look into the remarkable history of its host country. Founded by a Sufi saint Morocco has a history of tolerance that should make it the envy of the world. When the Ottoman Empire was overthrown in Spain, Jews, Muslims, and those Christians not comfortable living under the Inquisition, fled across the Mediterranean to North Africa and settled in Algeria and Morocco. It was the latter that has proven to be the haven for all, as even through the turmoil of the last century she has not been swayed from her founding creed of respect for all.

The film maker interviewed leaders of all three faiths who talked about the history of their people in the country and their current situation. While the founding of Israel saw the Jewish community's numbers drastically reduced as people immigrated, it didn't create the huge divisions that occurred in other countries where there had formally been tolerance between Muslims and Jews. Not once in any of the interviews did you have the feeling that any of those being interviewed were dissembling in any way. It never felt like they were glossing over any uncomfortable truths or making the situation sound any better than it is.
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As we followed the cameras through the streets of Fez what strikes one is the way the modern world and the past have come together so comfortably. Narrow streets filled with people of all ages and sexes dressed in everything from t-shirts and shorts to headscarfs and robes rub shoulders naturally and seemingly without discomfort. We visit courtyards that are hundreds of years old and stare in awe at what first appears to be decorative patterns carved into the walls, only to discover it is scripture spelling out the tenets of Sufism etched by hand hundreds of years ago.

Of course its the music that brings people to Fez each year, and the music is incredible. If you buy the DVD you'll not only find bonus features of complete concerts, there's also a CD featuring some of the performers from the film. While there is plenty of commentary provided by members of each faith on the importance of music for building bridges between peoples, watching people's reactions to the different performers tells the story of music's power far more than talking head can hope. One only has to watch the young Moroccans dancing up a storm to the New York City based gospel group,The McCullough Sons of Thunder, to make that connection.

The camera also go behind the scenes at the Festival to cover a symposium being held at the same time featuring spiritual and business people from around the world, including members of the World Bank and the head of the World Trade Organization Michael Moore. This was the one part of the film where you could feel the tensions of the world intruding on what had been an oasis of peace until that point. It was hard to watch somebody like Moore, whose organization is one of the root causes of suffering in the developing world through policies that continue to siphon the wealth of many into the hands of few, spout words about tolerance and understanding without feeling a wee bit cynical. When the camera drew back to show his audience you could see the scepticism on the faces of many of those listening - especially those spiritual leaders from the developing countries. While the point of the symposium was the need for balance between the spiritual and the secular needs of the world, it was obvious the spiritual leaders present weren't convinced of Moore's sincerity.

Sound Of The Soul is a wonderful movie in that it gives us an example of what the world could be; of how it is possible for men and women of all faiths to appreciate and respect each other and their beliefs. However at the same time it makes perfectly clear just how unique The Fez Festival Of World Sacred Music is, and how far the world has to travel before we can live up to the example of Morocco and its remarkable people. In a world where hope for peaceful coexistence is in increasingly short supply, this movie is a godsend - no matter what your god looks like.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Sound of the Soul on Blogcritics.)

May 6, 2010

Music Review: Erdem Helvacioglu & Per Boysen - Sub City 2064

When we hear the word composer I'm sure most of us still call to mind an image of an intense looking, white haired man wearing a frock coat bent over a desk scrawling away with a feather quill. For some reason the word just doesn't seem to quite fit into our world of computers and digitally created sound. Yet since the 1960's men and women have been creating pieces of music using electronic equipment, and I don't just mean the occasional pop song either. No, we're talking about pieces of the same complexity and length as anything any of those white haired dudes might have come up with a few hundred years ago.

While many of us have some familiarity with the more famous of the classics from those earlier days, I'm sure most people can still hum the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and are able to recognize his Ode To Joy, the reality is very few of us have the opportunity to experience any of those great works in their entirety. However inaccessible their music might seem though, it's nothing compared to the miniscule amount of exposure we have to those composing electronic music today. Can any of you name even one twenty-first century electronic composer who doesn't work in popular music? Don't get me wrong, I'm not much better than most, it's just an unfortunate fact of life that unless you happen to be working in the field the chances of you even having the opportunity to listen to any of their work is slim.

Ironically you'd think with our widespread acceptance of the use of electronic equipment in popular music these days we'd be much more open to electronic compositions. You go to any dance club now and I'd guess a good ninety per cent of the music is going to have been produced digitally utilizing electronic instruments and processors. When was the last time you went into a club and could actually discern a guitar in the mix? Even what little vocals there might be have been fed through a variety of enhancers. Yet there still persists the idea modern electronic compositions are for a few people only, and most of us wouldn't enjoy them.
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Well I defy anyone to listen to Sub City 2064, the results of a long distance collaboration between the Turkish composer Erdem Helvacioglu and Sweden's Per Boysen, and come away not only impressed by what they have accomplished, but still thinking electronic music can't be enjoyed by more than a few. Like any other musical genre you're not familiar with there might be a period of adjustment that you'll have to go through before you can fully appreciate what it is they are doing. but the learning curve isn't steep at all. Anyone used to hearing electronic music of any sort will be able to find enough familiar elements in their compositions to have no problem getting into the swing of things.

The intent behind Sub City 2064 was to create music along the lines of the soundtrack to a science-fiction horror movie. As both men specialize in creating through improvisation instead, of sitting down and composing (see the white haired guy with the feather earlier), they used a series of synopsis describing scenes, or atmospheres, from the "movie" for inspiration. For example, the first piece is called "Radiation Patrol", and they used the sentence, "Every night a team swoops the city to check for new radiation leaks.", as the impetus for the music. While that's a pretty direct instruction as to both action and atmosphere, some of the other phrases are far more vague. Yet each of them are like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle so that when they are all fit together we end up with a very clear view of life in this futuristic world.

Now obviously music, no matter what kind, is unable to spell things out as clearly as words. What it can do though is bring the atmosphere and environment suggested by the words to life. Taking the line mentioned above as an example it's obviously next to impossible to get across the exact meaning of that phrase through music alone. However what Boysen and Helvacioglu have managed to do is create a rather ominous sounding soundscape, like one might hear during the opening of a movie. I'm sure most of us have seen a movie where during the opening the camera moves through some sort of alien landscape establishing we are somewhere filled with unknown threats and the potential for disaster.
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Listening to "Radiation Patrol" one feels the same sensations as you would if you were seeing the opening of that movie. There's an ominous feel to the music that makes it clear we're not in our normal environment anymore, yet there's also the sense that we're not in any specific danger, merely somewhere different and strange. Even better is how the two were able to convey those messages without using any of the stereotypical movie soundtrack conventions for expressing those sentiments. Helvacioglu's guitar and Boysen's flute pick out notes and phrases that express the emotions, while their combined use of electronics creates the sensation of travel you would normally associate with moving through an environment.

In each of the ten pieces that make up the "soundtrack" they repeat the same process creating another dimension to the world of the movie. While they may not convey the literal meaning of a specific phrase they bring the atmosphere to life so convincingly you have no trouble believing in the environment they have created. While it may be true that a picture is worth a thousand words, Boysen and Helvacioglu show just how effective music is at creating imagery.

The process of composing may have changed quite a bit since the days of a feather quill scratching out notes on a sheet of paper, but the intent remains the same. Today's composers of electronic music are just as concerned with creating pieces which stimulate our emotions and excite our imaginations as their predecessors were, and Boysen and Helvacioglu show they are every bit of capable of succeeding in that objective. Anybody still under the impression that electronic music is without soul or heart hasn't been paying enough attention.

Article first published as Music Review: Music Review: Erdem Helvacioglue & Per Boyesn - Sub City 2064 at

Music Review: Ana Moura - Leva-Me Aos Fados (Take Me To The Fado House)

Searching the Internet for information about the Portuguese folk music known as Fado realizes few conclusive answers as to its origins. Although most sources seem to agree that it first gained widespread popularity in the 1800's, they are universally vague as to where, how and when it first developed. Like North American blues music originally offered African Americans the means to help relieve the pain of their day to day existence, fado, played on the street corners and in the brothels of working class districts in Lisbon and other metropolitan centres, provided the poor and working class of Portugal with similar relief.

Whether or not, as some claim, it came as a dance from Africa that the poor adapted or from homesick sailors at sea as others insist, by the twentieth century it was the most popular form of music in Portugal. One need look no further than the three days of official mourning declared by the country's Prime Minister in 1999 upon the death of Amalia Rodrigues, who had been the genre's biggest star since the 1940's, to understand the depth of its popularity.

Traditionally fado is performed by a trio comprised of a singer and two instrumentalists playing Portuguese Guitar, a type of twelve string, and a classical guitar. There are two distinct types of fado; that of the poor in Lisbon and that which had its beginnings in the university town of Coimbra among the students and professors. The latter is less concerned with the pain of everyday life and more poetical in nature as its themes focus on love and friendship. However no matter where it, or what type, is being played the essential element of saudade is shared. Roughly translated in to English as a longing, or nostalgia, for unrealized dreams, it is expressed by lyrics that speak of a yearning that can't be satisfied or fulfilled. It's this highly fatalistic world view that gives the music its shape and the sense of longing audiences look to hear and see in performers.
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At one time the performances by women were highly stylized affairs.They would stand slightly in front of the two guitar players with their head covered by a shawl and barely move for the length of their show. It was only through facial expressions and hand gestures that they were able to communicate any additional information their vocals and the song's lyrics were unable to express. While times have changed and there has been some slackening of expectations among audiences with regards to how fado is presented, the demand that the performer still be able deliver on the promise of saudade hasn't relaxed in the least. Just as we still expect a blues performer to "feel" what he or she are singing, a knowledgeable fado audience won't accept anything less than the genuine article.

Now in spite of my one quarter Portuguese heritage I can't make any claims to being a fado aficionado. However, I am quite capable of listening to a voice and recognizing genuine passion when I hear it, no matter what language it is singing in. From the opening bars of Ana Moura's Leva-Me Aos Fados (Take Me To A Fado House), released in April on the World Village Music label, I knew at once she was the genuine article. Maybe hers isn't the type of voice to sing blues as we know it, but there can be no mistaking feeling and passion when they are so obviously present. The seventeen songs on the disc are in a variety of musical styles and show quite a number of different influences that she brings to the music, but no matter the tempo or the style her voice is without fail believable at all times.

Moura exhibits not only wonderful range as a singer, but control as well. There is no strain to be heard when she holds a note or as she goes up and down the scale. Unlike so many popular singers who attempt to make what they are doing sound difficult in order to impress us, there is a glorious ease in the way she moves through a song. Even better, as far a I'm concerned, she's not one of the school who think the louder and more piercingly I sing the more emotional I'm being. While it may result in you receiving a million dollars a gig in Las Vegas, try it in a Fado House and you'd be booed off stage. (During the reign of the dictator Salazar in Portugal Fado performers were forced off the streets and brothels and confined to "Fado Houses" and in these "Houses" tradition still holds sway)
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Aside from the variety of musical styles on the disc distinguishing her from more traditional fado performers, Moura also changes things up somewhat by increasing the number of her accompanying musicians and utilizing a wider assortment of instruments than is usual. While the sound is still guitar dominated the inclusion of bass and acoustic bass on some of the tracks not only gives the music added texture, but gives some of them a jazz feel. While there's an obvious appeal to the starkness of the original sound as she performs it, by adding the bass to the mix Moura, and her arranger/producer/composer Jorge Fernando, have found a way to compliment it without changing the overall intent of the music.

In fact, everything Moura and Fernando have done on the disc that might be considered a modernization, or change from tradition, has been implemented in such a way that when compared to the more traditional songs they sound like natural progressions. Instead of forcing a sound in order to make it more appealing to a new generation, they have been very careful to build on the existing base so it's still respectful of the original.

Of course that task is made easier by Moura herself. Listening to her you never doubt her sincerity, even if you've no idea what she's singing about, and you can't help but feel the passion she is expressing. You don't have to speak or understand Portuguese to feel the longing that underlies each song or appreciate the haunting beauty of the material. No matter what or how she is singing it sounds like she is keeping the spirit of fado alive in the song. What's most impressive as far as I'm concerned is how closely the feelings she generates while singing match up to the meanings of the translated lyrics for each song. I can't count how many times I've listened to a song in a language I don't understand and completely misconstrued its meaning based on the singer's presentation. With Moura you can count on the fact that what you're feeling when she sings is exactly the feelings generated reading the lyrics.

You may not speak any Portuguese or know the first thing about fado music, but that shouldn't stop you from appreciating Ana Moura's recording Leva-Me Aos Fados.This is a wonderful recording of beautiful and haunting music that won't fail to touch your heart. If you've forgotten what true passion feels like, this will serve as a timely reminder.

(Article first published as "Music Review: Ana Moura Leva-Me Aos Fados (Take Me To The Fado House) at

April 26, 2010

DVD Review: Six Centuries Of Verse

Sometimes when you think of the opportunities for the sharing of information and the dissemination of knowledge that are being neglected and compare it to what's normally on offer through today's mass media, it's hard not to be appalled at the waste of technology and resources. Humans have created so much that is beautiful and awe inspiring in the past few thousand years, yet the chances of seeing any of it outside the confines of educational programming are minimal. Instead of using the media as a means of celebrating our genius and inspiring people with examples of our potential for greatness, it's main use appears to be as a means of advertisement. What else can we assume when keeping sponsors happy with high ratings is apparently the major factor in deciding what is aired or isn't aired?

Even more demoralizing is how the majority of the shows created which might make a difference and expose people to some of the marvels of creation are as likely to alienate viewers as enthral them. For instead of dispelling the beliefs that intelligence and appreciation of the arts are not only suspect but the preserve of an elite segment of society alone, they end perpetuating both lies. Either the material is presented in such a reverential manner the viewers can't help be intimidated or believe it has nothing to say to them or their lives, or it comes across as being beyond their abilities to understand.
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British television has rightfully garnered a far better reputation for presenting intelligent programming than its American counterpart. However, that doesn't mean they aren't subject to falling into some of the same traps as their counterparts across the Atlantic ocean when it comes to dealing with the arts. That was brought home to me again while watching the new three disc DVD package Six Centuries Of Verse being released on April 27th/10 by Acorn Media through its Athena label. Originally broadcast by Thames television in 1985, airing on public television in North America in the 1990's, the sixteen episodes of the series trace the history of English language poetry from Beowulf to the 1980's. Each of the episodes deals with a specific period in history, the poets and the style of poetry associated with it.

Hosted by Sir John Gielgud, the series also features assorted British and American actors reciting the poetry from the different eras. While there are names we would normally associate with this type of thing amongst the cast, Anthony Hopkins and Dame Peggy Ashcroft, there are also a couple of surprises, Lee Remick and Stacy Keach, actors more well known for their association with popular television shows and movies than the classics or poetry. When I read the names of the last two amongst those listed, I had hopes the creators of the series had attempted to make it appeal to a wider audience than usual for an arts related program, especially one that deals with poetry.

Unfortunately that ended up not being the case as right from the outset the atmosphere created was one of cloistered elitism. While there is no doubt that Gielgud had one of the finest voices of his generation and was a marvellous actor, the very qualities that made him renowned actually worked against him. He is too perfect in his speaking, and very British, two things that are most associated with the upper classes and higher education and most likely to give people the impression the material at hand is meant only for people like that. Filming him in what looks to be the drawing room of your typical English manor house and its environs only served to increase that impression.
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Thankfully they had the sense to ensure that the audience could at least understand the excerpts from Beowulf and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in the early episodes through the use of subtitles in the case of the former and reading a translation into modern verse of the latter. However, while I understand the desire to present the material in a chronological order, it might have been a better idea to find a way of starting with something more accessible. Poetry in of itself is incomprehensible to so many people that starting off with pieces in a "foreign" language is sure to frighten them away. Perhaps it would have better to have an introductory episode where they gave samples of poems from later eras which could entice viewers into watching. Then, when you do travel back in time to the roots of English language poetry, there's not really the need to spend more than one episode on examples of Old and Middle English verse. It's rather too much to expect people to sit through an entire episode on Chaucer, as even translated his work isn't something people are liable to read outside of the classroom these days anyway.

What I did appreciate about the program was their attempts to place the material in an appropriate physical context. Poems that were set in certain obvious locales, like prison cells or in a forest, were recited in those locations, giving the audience a much better chance of understanding not only the poem, but how poetry is able to convey emotion and ideas in a way that prose can't. While some of the actors gave into the impulse sometimes to "perform" the poems they were reciting, the times they chose to simply recite the material and strove to convey the poems meaning to the listeners were far more effective.

While Six Centuries Of Verse does a reasonable job of representing the history of English language poetry from Beowulf to the modern day (although their omission of the "Beat" poets like Allan Ginsberg and modernists like e.e. cummings, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce was strange) it, like other programs of its type, failed to take advantage of the opportunities offered by television to reach a wide audience. Surely there must be a way of presenting poetry, and the arts in general, so that it can be appreciated by more than just those who are all ready interested in it? If even I, who appreciate most of the works presented over the three discs found my attention wandering, what does that say about its appeal to an audience who'd rather be watching American Idol? If we're really serious about the arts being for more than just a few, we need to find a way of overcoming the elitist stereotype associated with them. Unfortunately this set, while making a few steps in the right direction, still doesn't manage to make that breakthrough.

April 22, 2010

Laurie Anderson Collaborator Competition For New Disc Homeland

When I first heard "Oh Superman" back in the 1970's I thought it was somebody's idea of a joke. In some ways it sounded like, at least to me, a take off of the European electro-pop that you could occasionally hear on the radio from groups like Kraftwerk. But, than again, I had no idea who Laurie Anderson was or what she was all about either. It wasn't until late 1979 or early 1980 that I started to hear excerpts from what was her major opus at the time, United States, a collection of tales, songs, and performances, that I realized she was far more than what could be contained within the confines of a five minute pop song.

Those were the days when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was still broadcasting interesting and diverse programming, and one of the best of those shows was called "Brave New Waves". You could hear everything from punk to avant-garde during the show, and it was here I first heard United States. One night the announcer came on the air and said, "Laurie Anderson was in town tonight" (Montreal), and she then proceeded to play it in its entirety. I had never heard anything like it before. It opened my mind to possibilities that I had never even considered when it came to the idea of performance. Unfortunately what I didn't understand at the time was that it required quite a singular talent to be able to realize those potentials, and since then have failed to find few, if any moments, to equal the excitement generated by that initial hearing.

The past thirty years have seen quite a few changes in my life but I've yet to lose the motivation to create inspired by that night and I still experience a thrill when a new Laurie Anderson release is announced. Although I long ago realized there is no hope of re-creating my experience of all those years ago - it was a singular conjunction of events and circumstances that were as much to do with my age and where I was in life as what it was I heard that night - her work is still something special for its intelligence and ingenuity. You can honestly say there's really nothing else quite like what she does being performed by anyone else.
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Although she has produced albums like other recording artists, a number of her recordings are actually records of performances she has been touring for some time. So instead of merely being a collection of songs that may or may not be interconnected, they are more like listening to a unified work along the lines of a orchestral piece or even a play. Unlike those structured pieces though her work in the past has been less formal in its presentation, and is more a collection of music and spoken word works designed to communicate with her audience her thoughts and feelings about the state of the world.

Such is apparently the case with her forthcoming disc on Nonesuch Records, Homeland, which is being released on June 15th/10. While its technically her first studio album since 2001, she has spent the last two years developing the music that will appear on it through touring a performance of the same name. According to the press materials from her label while it will feature Anderson's distinctive violin playing and vocals - including the assuming of different persona as she has in the past - she will also be drawing upon a range of musical styles and working with musicians from as diverse backgrounds as Tuvan throat signers to experimental jazz players from New York City. However, the most unusual collaboration will be what's planned for the song "Only An Expert".

Taking advantage of the increasing sophistication of Internet technology, Anderson has made the source tracks from the song available to musicians all over the world to see who can come up with the best re-mix of the track. Using the services of Indaba Music, a site where musicians find collaborators for projects by uploading and sharing their music, she has opened the competition to anybody who wishes to make a stab at either re-mixing, or even covering, the song. From now until May 13th/10 at 5:00 p.m. EST those wishing to participate can register at Indaba Music and then either download the tracks from the "Only An Expert" remix program page for use on their own equipment, or they can make use of Indaba's on line studio instead.
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While the winner won't have their track included on the hard copy of the CD, they will win $1000.00, be featured as an exclusive track on the ITunes release, have their track streamed on Nonesuch's and Anderson's web site and receive a year long Platinum membership to Indaba Music (A value of $250.00 - see their membership page for details). In addition to the grand prize winner there will be two second place winners who will have their track streamed on the Nonesuch web site and receive a year long Platinum membership and ten honourable mentions who will have their track streamed on Anderson's web site, receive a signed deluxe package of Homeland and a Pro membership to Indaba Music. Both the grand prize and runner ups will be selected from all the submissions by the judges; Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed and Mantis Evar from Indaba, while the ten honourable mentions will be selected from the twenty-five re-mixes who are able to garner the most support through voting conducted at the web site. Once an entry is uploaded and entered it can start receiving votes, and entrants are being given the opportunity to promote their contributions with widgets they can post at personal web sites and social networking pages.

Judging from the tracks I've downloaded (my wife is a singer/poet/songwriter and percussionist so I'm encouraging her to enter) the song is a biting piece of political and social satire dealing with our love of problems and the experts needed to solve them. If its any indication as to the rest of the release, Homeland promises to be as evocative and challenging as anything Anderson has put out in her career until now. While some might see this contest as merely a means of marketing the release, I'm of the mind that its a genuine way on her part of encouraging people to express themselves and make their voices heard about issues important to them. A contest like this is bound to generate as much resentment as good will - people complaining about not winning etc - and actually represents something of a risk in these mass communication, viral video messages gone wild days. All it would take would be one disgruntled competitor with a grudge and access to a server to generate enough bad publicity to hurt sales significantly.

Laurie Anderson is a unique talent who in roughly thirty years of producing music has only ever come to popular attention by accident. For the most part she has quietly gone about creating and performing her music, painting, and writing with little or no popular recognition. While it would be nice to think that this competition will draw more people to her work, the reality is that the majority aren't ready to deal with the issues she raises or the style in which she presents them. Intelligent, insightful and awe-inspiring she has the ability to take a listener places they might not have gone on their own, unfortunately too many people aren't prepared to make that type of trip. For those who are, you have Homeland to look forward to and in the meantime check out what other people have been making of her music over at Indaba Music, or even enter yourself - you might just end up being surprised by what you can accomplish when inspired.

Book Review: Instructions By Neil Gaiman Illustrated by Charles Vess

As adults we tend to forget how to children everything about them is strange and wondrous; that every step away from the familiar is fraught with peril and filled with potential dangers. Who knows for sure what lurks beneath the roses or what caused the bush in the deepest darkest corner of the garden to tremble? If the garden itself is filled with so many mysteries, what great adventures await should you choose to leave its safety? In the garden shelter is only a short sprint away, but out there in the world there will be no kitchen to replenish supplies when they run low or door to lock behind you when the sun expires and the shadows come alive.

It will take nerves of steel and a brave heart to venture beyond into the unknown for the first time. In fact, it's almost to much to expect anyone to take that dangerous plunge on their own. Even the bravest of adventurers has always at least consulted some wise person or oracle prior to seeking his or her fortune in the wild world, so it's not asking too much to seek some guidance. The only trouble is who can today's explorer turn to for advice in these matters? Parents may know about not touching burners or pulling on electrical cords, but what do they know about the little people who live under toadstools, the proper way to deal with giants, or how to hitch a ride on a giant eagle? No, one needs to turn to those who haven't forgotten how to look at the world and see behind the prosaic.

Thankfully not only do two such people exist, but they have just put out a guide book for all those wishing to travel through that door in the garden they've never seen before; a door leading to the world of imagination and mystery. In fact as their new book Instructions, released by Harper Collins Canada April 19th/10, (April 27th in the U.S.) shows, there can't be two gentlemen more suited for this task than author Neil Gaiman and illustrator Charles Vess. Not only have they created numerous fantastical worlds together in the past, (worlds where almost everything imaginable, and even some things unimaginable exist) both men have always seemed to have an intimate knowledge of the secret places where magic exists. I've always been inclined to believe their work in the past has been based on first hand experience, as if they had travelled to the places they've written and drawn about and not just visualized them in their mind's eye.
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Instructions is one of the handiest guides an explorer will ever come across as its filled with all sorts of useful information about the world in which fairy tales, myths, and legends exist. Unlike those boring guide books you see some people reading, filled with pages upon pages of text telling you where to find the best hotels and various tourist attractions, here words are kept to a minimum. Seeing is believing after all. Therefore, anyone you come across, or anything, in these pages, one way or another there's a good chance you might meet up with them someday.

Now instead of merely describing what awaits you beyond the wall, Mr. Gaiman and Mr. Vess have enlisted the help of a friend to take a trip into the unknown so you can experience everything first hand. He's come into quite a few tales on his own and is known as quite an adventurer. Since they don't mention his name, I think he wanted to remain anonymous; but he has whiskers and a tail, and wears a fine set of boots, so you'll probably guess who he is easily enough. The first thing you'll notice when we step out through the door in the back of his garden is how important it is to keep your eyes wide open. There is plenty to see everywhere right from the start, including many friendly faces you've known from earlier days.

However, that's no reason to let your guard down, for you never know what might be lurking under the roots of a tree or when something as innocuous as a door knocker could give you a nasty bite. That's where what little text there is in the book become so important, for they are the specific instructions for you on how to act in certain situations. Whether they remind you to be kind and compassionate to any beings in need you meet along your journey, to be very careful about falling into wells as they lead to dark and dangerous worlds, how to best avoid giants or what you need to know about witches, their advice is the type of common sense you'll need when out in the world.

As might be expected from a work by the team of Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess Instructions is a lush and beautiful book filled with their love of the fantastic and the imaginary. You'll find they've paid homage to fairy tales and nursery rhymes from all around the world through both indirect and direct references. Part of the fun for people of all ages will be the moment of recognition they'll feel when they come across something or somebody familiar. Even though they are fantastic you will feel like you have met an old friend, somebody you loved dearly but haven't seen in a long time.
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Vess's illustrations do a wonderful job of bringing all the creatures, both good and bad, to life. What I especially appreciated was hoe he did so without resorting to imagery that was so nasty younger adventurers would fear the world beyond their door and how good wasn't always depicted as pretty and cute. You'll still know who is to be avoided and who is safe to talk to, but it will because of who they are, not just what they look like. An important lesson no matter what world you're travelling through.

As already mentioned Gaiman's text is sparse, but it applies equally to the fantastic journey depicted in the illustrations and the journey through life we all take. For while it's not very likely you'll be literally flying on a giant eagle's back anytime soon, it is important for you to aspire to fly as high as you can without being afraid of falling. Perhaps younger readers may not understand all the allusions in the text, but they can't help but get the overall message of not to be afraid of new experiences, and while the world might seem big and mysterious its nothing to be afraid of.

Like all the best fairy tales and nursery rhymes Instructions is as much set in our world as it is in the fantastic. Gathering together elements and characters from throughout familiar imaginary worlds in one place, Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess have created a world that is both recognizable and mysterious in much the same way the real world might look to someone when they prepare to set out into it for the first time. However, the instructions in this book are ones we'd all be wise to follow and remember, no matter what our age or experience.

April 19, 2010

Book Review: Just Kids by Patti Smith

It was a late fall night in 1981 and six of us were jammed into car cruising through Toronto's streets with Patti Smith's "Rock and Roll Nigger" blasting from the car's stereo. We all joined in as she tore into the chorus: "Outside of society. We were young and artists and the lyrics fuelled, along with whatever we had taken earlier in the evening, our excitement at being alive and ready to conquer the world. Patti understood what that meant - we could tell by the way she sang about being an outsider - and there was no one more special, or outside, than someone still in love with the idea of being an artist who hasn't really begun to experience the complete reality of what that entails. Hard lessons and rude awakenings still lay on our horizons, and we could abandon ourselves to the wild joy of knowing we were different and celebrate it.

We were at the stage where being an outsider was part of the romanticism of being an artist, so it was only natural that we'd latched onto the song's chorus as almost our battle cry that night. Look out world here we come - young middle class kids with dreams of doing something more than sitting in an office, of having something more to give to the world than just being another cipher or cog in the wheel. Maybe we weren't all that sure what that was, but we knew, oh yes we did. It sounds more than a little arrogant when said that baldly, but there's actually more innocence and naivety to it than anything else.

At the time I knew almost nothing about Patti Smith save for her music, and its only been in the past year or so that I've begun learn her story. It turns out that of all those who seemed to come out of New York City's 1970's punk scene centred around CBGB's, it makes the most sense that Patti Smith would be the one whose music celebrated being an artist. In the past couple months I've watched two movies, Dream Of Life and Black, White + Grey which have touched somewhat on her early years. However, as the former was more about the last eleven years and the latter only about her in terms of how her life had intersected with the famous American curator Sam Wagstaff, they didn't offer very complete pictures. Well, all that changed with the publication of her book Just Kids by Harper Collins Canada January 2010.
Cover Just Kids.jpg
Just Kids is not your typical autobiography. Sure it contains all the usual stuff like where she was born, Chicago; how her family moved to Philadelphia and then New Jersey when she was a child; and how in 1967, realizing there was little or no chance of even attempting to realize her dreams of becoming an artist while working in a factory, she left New Jersey for New York City. For its also the story of how her life intertwined with Robert Mapplethorpe's, the other kid of the plural in the title and one of America's best known contemporary photographers, until his AIDS related death in 1989. Almost the first person she meets upon her arrival in New York City, they began living together, as soon as they were able to afford a place and stayed together until the early 1970's.

Smith writes with a clarity and straightforwardness that is deceptive at first in its simplicity. When reading prose its easy to forget that the person writing is a poet, and has a poet's gift for words, so what on the surface might appear to be a simple recounting of an occurrence ends up being far more. You don't just read what she has written, you somehow end up living and experiencing it with her. We share the small comforts that make their days more bearable - the baker who slips them a couple of extra cookies because she feels sorry for the two waifs - and feel the pain of their hunger when they go days without food. Mainly though we share their excitement as they discover their talents and start to push and pull them into shape.

They are a team - us against the world - and together they are unbeatable as nothing, lack of money, lack of food, or even a lack of a place to live can conquer them. For a while they drift from dive to dive, until Robert almost dies when Patti takes an extended vacation with her sister and returns home to find him rotting in a junkie hotel. He's not sick from drugs, but he has trench mouth, lice, and gonorrhoea. She gathers up his belongings and together they move to what will be their final shared home - The Chelsea Hotel. In 1969 The Chelsea attracted artists like a magnet, and they meet everybody from Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter, and Bob Dylan to Gregory Corso and William S. Burroughs. Smith recounts a wonderful story of going to an automat to buy a sandwich and having Alan Ginsberg pay for her lunch when he mistakes her for a pretty boy. Years later he asks her how she would describe their first meeting and she says simply "You fed me".
Patti Smith & Robert Mapplethorpe by Kate Simon.jpg
Having been raised a very strict Catholic Mapplethorpe was carrying a lot of baggage when it came to his sexuality. In fact, he and Smith had to pretend they had been secretly married before he would even take her to meet his parents, or else face accusations of living in sin. Both of them are in fact so innocent, that neither really understand Mapplethorpe's homosexuality. While there are some obvious rough spots, including him being jealous of her relationships with other men, they are able to transcend them through the bond forged between them by their respective arts. Put baldly like that, it may sound cliched, but as you read the book, you see and feel how their connection is forged. We see how they struggled and supported each other through everything, encouraging and pushing the other along in they developed as both artists and human beings.

Obviously being in New York City in the late 1960's didn't hurt, as they not only had the benefit of being exposed to the great ones of an earlier generation for guidance but the example of those around them who were already succeeding for inspiration. They moved in what can only be called rarified circles as they were invited to hang out with The Band in Woodstock, the opening of Electric Ladyland Studios (where an equally shy Jimi Hendrix joined Patti in lurking on the fire escape and encouraged her to join the party), and the back room of Max's Kansas City with Andy Warhol's inner circle from The Factory. Although already minus Warhol by that time and almost reduced to a caricature of what it once was, this circle of intimates still provided the two young artists with introductions to people who would help their careers.

What's most amazing about Just Kids is how little it feels like an autobiography. Smith writes with such direct honesty and love that it's impossible not to be caught up in their story and find yourself wanting them to succeed. She captures the incredible mixture of fear and exhilaration that occurs when you give yourself over to something as completely as they did to their goals of becoming artists. What some might have tried to romanticize as bohemian, she brings to life with a sense of innocence and wonder that makes it sound like she still can't believe she could have been so blessed as to not only have the opportunity to do and be what she wanted, but actually have succeeded at it on her own terms.

Just Kids is a love story; of two people and their love for each other and their mutual love of art. Beautifully written, its both joyful and heartbreaking in equal measure. Smith doesn't shrink from describing both the harsh realities of the life she and Mapplethrope led together as well as the moments of celebration. However, even more importantly, she manages to convey what motivates a person to make the choice to be an "Outsider of society", and how its worth the price no matter how steep it might seem to an observer. Anyone who has ever wondered what it really is to be an artist and why anybody would go to all that trouble, reading this book will give you some idea as to the answer. Most of all though, no matter who you are or what you do, it will remind you that life is worth celebrating and to make the most of what you have while you're here.

April 15, 2010

Music Review: Lou Reed - Thirty-Five Years Of Metal Machine Music

In his book, Miami And The Siege Of Chicago, about the 1968 Republican and Democratic national conventions that selected Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey as their respective party's candidates for President, Norman Mailer started a chapter in the section about Chicago with a quote from the Village Voice about electric guitars. To be honest I can't remember the context - how it fit in with his reporting on the riots in the streets and the pall cast over the convention by the murder of Bobby Kennedy - but it was about how when you plugged into the wall your guitar became a channel for the electrical energy that flowed not only from the individual outlet, but the entire electrical grid. With this type of power at your disposal your potential should be limitless

Well it was a nice thought Norman, but aside from a few people like Hendrix who experimented with feedback, hardly anybody pushed the envelope of how a guitar could channel power. Even in those heady days of "rebellion" where that quote originated, not many were willing to look beyond variations on conventional rock guitar in an attempt to discover more of its potential. Then in 1975 RCA records released an album that set records for the number of returns it generated as stores couldn't give it away and of those who did buy it the majority demanded their money back. While cynics say it was he only did it because he owed the label one more record under the terms of his contract and made the least commercially viable thing as possible in revenge, listening to the thirty-fifth anniversary edition of Metal Machine Music that Lou Reed is releasing, you realize how unlikely that is.
Lou Reed MMM3 Tour.jpg
While there is no denying it could never have been a commercial success in 1975 considering what was popular at the time and how conservative the industry had become by then, Metal Machine Music was a serious piece of music by someone looking to explore the boundaries of what was accessible with his art. It's important to remember that Reed had been part of Andy Warhol's factory and would have had plenty of exposure to many different types of new music and an atmosphere that encouraged experimentation far more than most popular musicians of the day. It's not as if even his so called popular music was what you would call readily accessible to the masses; I've often thought that commercial success wasn't something he strove for, it was just something that happened periodically by accident.

While the original Metal Machine Music had been recorded for playback on quadraphonic stereo systems, this new edition has been re-mastered for playback on modern theatre system and includes both a discrete four channel and a stereo version of the piece. It's being offered in three different formats; Audio DVD, 180 gram vinyl record, and Blu-Ray which can either be purchased individually or as a package containing Blu-Ray and vinyl or DVD and vinyl directly from the Metal Machine Music page at Reed's site. The copy I received was the DVD, and as befits the music, the packaging is quite austere; a few pictures of Reed circa 1975, and what I take to be the original liner notes which freely admit most aren't going to like what they hear and give fair warning that its not like anything they've ever heard before.
Metal Machine DVD Cover.jpg
Not having stereo equipment sophisticated enough to differentiate between the two formats on offer, I can't comment on how one might be better than the other or how well it has recreated the original sound. As far as the music itself goes, what surprised me the most was how accessible it was. The myths around Metal Machine Music are such that you're probably expecting some sort of aural assault from the second you begin listening to the moment you rip the disc out of your system screaming enough already. In fact it was almost a bit of let down when it turned out to be a carefully constructed orchestral piece for electric guitar, feedback, and effects. Oh I'm sure there are still plenty out there who won't be able to listen to it, these types of compositions aren't for everyone after all, but it was fascinating to hear how with only a guitar and the limited effects Reed had at his disposal at the time he was able to create such a multi layered and textured piece of music.

Over the years since its release Metal Machine Music has been gradually gaining the recognition it deserves. In 2007 a CD/DVD set was released of its performance by The Zeitkratzer Ensemble and Lou at the Berlin Opera House in 2002. Saxophonist Ulrich Krieger transposed the piece for chamber ensemble and electric guitar and in the process gave proof there was more to it than just noise. Perhaps it was the success of this project that encouraged Reed to continue to experiment with different styles of music and in 2007 he released Hudson River Wind Meditations, a collection of music designed to work in adjunct with Tai Chi to relax the body, mind and spirit.
Ulrich Krieger MMM -3.jpg
In 2008 Reed reunited with Krieger and they have been joined by Sarth Calhoun, a self proclaimed electronic alchemist who uses audio equipment on stage to create live loops and on the spot processing, resulting in the formation of Metal Machine Trio (MM3). Their first recording, The Creation Of The Universe,was of two nights of live shows, of what Reed is now calling deep noise, from the Red Cat theatre in Los Angeles. It doesn't take long to hear that although the name has been passed along the music has changed significantly.

First of all its now more than just Reed, his guitar, a couple of amps, power, and some analog effects. The processed guitar that Reed plays on its own probably can accomplish more than what he did back in 1975, and now he's joined by Krieger on saxophone playing through all sorts of toys, and Calhoun who captures all the sounds they make and plays back bits and pieces for them to play against. Of course it's doubtful that you'll actually hear a recognizable saxophone or a guitar note over the course of the two disc set. What you do have is two distinct compositions, one per disc, as each time they perform a new piece is created, of sound that is both compelling and surprising in its gentleness. Aside from its increased sophistication, the music is also far more complex than the original as both the technology and the increase in players has allowed for more layers of sound and texture to be developed.
Sarth Calhoun MMM-3.jpg
Of course its still no more commercially accessible than its predecessor was thirty-five years ago. Yet instead of being almost universally reviled, Creation Of The Universe and MMM3 are not only critically acclaimed, but judging by the sounds of the audience on the disc, meeting with popular approval as well. For while the mainstream of popular music really hasn't changed that much philosophically, there are now audiences for experimental works of new music on a far wider scale then ever before. The original recording by Lou might have been binned in record numbers, but MMM3 are setting out on a short tour of the United Kingdom and Europe. Starting April 17th in Cambridge they continue on to Oxford on the 18th, London the 19th, Paris, France the 21st, Brussels, Belgium the 22nd and wrap up in Copenhagen, Denmark on the 24th. While the tour coincides with the release of the re-mastered version of Metal Machine Music audiences shouldn't be anticipating a greatest hits of Metal Machine type experience, and be prepared to hear something different each night.

Electric guitars and the equipment available to produce sound are far more sophisticated today then they were when Norman Mailer quoted that anonymous guitar player back in the late 1960's. However you still plug it into the wall, and no matter how many things you use to distort, modify and change the sound, it all has to pass through human hands at some point and be shaped and modulated. Thirty-five years ago Lou Reed released his first attempts at exploring what the intersection of man, guitar and electrical power could create. Today, he continues in pursue the same objective, and while the results may still not be to everybody's taste, there's now no denying the thought and creativity behind the work, nor dismissing it as only noise.

(Live photos of MMM3 (c) Amy-Beth McNeely)

April 9, 2010

DVD Review: Black, White, + Grey

Over the course of history the visual arts in the Western World have gone through any number of transformations. However, it was in the twentieth century when non-representational, or abstract, works began being created the cry "But is it art?" was heard most often. From Picasso's cubist reconstruction of form, the Sur-realists absurdist creations, to Jackson Pollock's spatter strewn canvases, preconceived notions of what made something a work of art went out the window. No longer would art merely glorify the wealthy and the sacred or be content with creating pretty pictures, so the definitions of what constituted art was, and is, continually being re-evaluated.

The history of art in the twentieth century looks to have been a series of explosions occurring one after another which refused to allow for any sort of complacency on the part of the observer. Just as you were getting used to the power and density of the work of somebody like Pollock, along comes the stripped down work of the Minimalists. In the post- war world of American art it seemed like every time you turned around there was something new either waiting to be discovered or to outrage. This was the world that curator, collector, and sometime patron of the arts, Sam Wagstaff found himself in when, after a spell in advertising in the 1950's, he returned to university and graduated with a degree in art history.

If you've not heard of Sam Wagstaff don't feel too bad, it's doubtful very many people have. However a documentary movie now on DVD, Black White + Grey, from Art House Films, shows the key role he played in helping shape definitions of art. While he did curate some provocative shows, and champion the work of some new and influential artists early on in his career, it was how he almost single-handedly legitimized photography as one of the fine arts which makes him most important. Intertwined with his fascination with photography was his relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Wagstaff not only became the largest single promoter of Mapplethorpe's work and ensured the success of his career, he was also his lover.
Cover Black White + Grey.jpg
As the film points out you couldn't have found two people more different from each other than Mapplethorpe and Wagstaff; the latter was from as aristocratic a family as you can get in America while the former was from a working class neighbourhood in Queens. Wagstaff was from the generation where gay men served as escorts for women who wanted a safe date and were useful when an extra was needed to make up for an odd number of guests at a dinner party. Mapplethorpe was part of the new generation who frequented the bath houses, wore leather, and didn't hide their sexuality. Some of those interviewed for the movie make it clear they felt Mapplethrope was only using Wagstaff for his money and influence in the art world. However, others, like Patti Smith, offer a different perspective.

Smith and Mapplethorpe had set up house together at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City in 1969 and she recalls Mapplethorpe coming home from a party one night all excited about a man he had met, Wagstaff, describing him as everything he ever wanted in a partner. Smith's description of the three of them together belies any of the more catty comments made by others, Though there is no doubt in anybody's mind that Mapplethorpe would never have had the meteoric success he enjoyed without Wagstaff's support, no matter what anybody might have thought of his subject matter, they were all in agreement there was no doubting Mapplethrope's talent. Wagstaff may have given him a leg up, but if he hadn't had the spark of creative genius somewhere inside of him he'd have never been able to establish himself as one of the pre-eminent photographers of his time.

While Wagstaff had never been short of money, it was only in 1973 with the death of his mother that he inherited sufficient to be considered truly wealthy. It was at this time he began his obsessive collecting of photographs, a collection he was later to sell to the Getty Museum for millions of dollars. Smith describes the three of them going out hunting for photographs and how Wagstaff would literally fill brown paper shopping bags with them. As his collecting grew more refined he started attending auctions in both New York and London, buying anything from job lots to single rarities. There doesn't seem to be any discernible pattern to his purchases as he would buy everything from portraits and landscapes, to photographs of those suffering from medical abnormalities.
Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe.jpg
In the special feature included with film, a speech Wagstaff gave at a symposium on art at the Corcoran Museum, he talks about how being from the world of sculpture and paintings he had never considered photography to be in the same league artistically. However when you think about the technology involved with early photography - people having to hold poses for a period of time to allow the image to be etched onto a plate - and you look at some of the subject matter of the items he collected, you realize they were as carefully composed as any painting.

There's one shot in particular that brings that point home, an image of a group of young men gathered around a dock at various stages of going into and coming out of the water. If it had been taken recently we would have just considered it a candid snapshot that anybody could have taken. However, because of the time period it meant that each individual had to be carefully positioned and posed by the photographer to achieve the effect he was after. Art is about intent as much as anything else, and what Wagstaff was able to show with images like this one was the intent to create is just as viable in photography as in any other form of the visual arts.

Some may not remember, or even care, but one of the horrors of the 1980's was reading the obituaries and watching the death toll from AIDS rise. With his connections and money Wagstaff was able to keep the particulars of his illness secret until he died in 1987. Mapplethorpe, always the more open of the two, made no secret of what it was that eventually killed him in 1989. In fact the Mapplethorpe Foundation, founded after the artist's death, splits its funding between photographers and AIDS research. However as the movie makes clear their true legacy is the important role each man had in establishing photography in North America as more than just the poor cousin of painting and sculpture. While the movie does touch upon the more sensationalistic aspects of their relationship, and what it meant to Wagstaff personally in regards to the way he dealt with his sexuality, the major focus remains on their contributions to the world of art.

One of those interviewed in the movie commented on how at one time curators were hired more for their artistic abilities than their academic credentials. With the proliferation of new modes of expression in the sixties and seventies - from happenings, installations, to video and performance art - it took somebody with the eye of an artist to be able to "see" what was being attempted and to access its validity. Sam Wagstaff was one of that breed of curators. As he had so many times earlier in his career he saw something in both Robert Mapplethorpe, and the medium he worked in, that convinced him of there importance. Black, White, + Grey does a remarkable job of not only telling the story of their relationship, but in making sure that Wagstaff is given his due place in the history of modern art. His more notorious protégé's name might be more well known, but Wagstaff built the foundation upon which Mapplethorpe and other photographers have since been able to erect careers.

January 21, 2010

Music Review: Jerry Leake - Cubist

The Cubist movement in painting, spearheaded primarily by Pablo Picasso in the early years of the twentieth century, attempted to represent all possible views of a person or object on a two dimensional surface. The resulting chaos of shapes and colour resulted in images that seemed to bear no resemblance to reality, yet have managed to strike a chord in viewers so that they have become some of the most famous works in modern art. Picasso's Guernico, his cubist representation of the German bombing of the Spanish city of Gurenico during that country's Civil War in the 1930's, is as now readily identifiable as many of the works of Leonardo De Vinci and other traditional painters from previous eras.

However, this does not prevent hearing the word cubist bringing images of disjointed faces, with noses in places you'd normally expect to find ears, to mind. So when I first read the title of percussionist Jerry Leake's new CD, Cubist, released through his own Rhombus Publishing imprint, I couldn't help thinking that listeners would be in for a bit of a dissonant ride. For if one were to try and literally express cubism with music, wouldn't you have to try and show all the sides of the music at once? What kind of noise would that result in? Would you have to play songs backwards and forwards at the same time in order to hear everything?

Thankfully Leake and those who have accompanied him on this new CD haven't taken it quite that literally. Instead what they have done is reached out to the world's various traditions of music to explore what each has to offer and combine them on one recording. The title of the disc refers not to the structure of each song as much as it does to its content as it presents the many faces and sides of music from around the world. Everything from classical Indian to hip hop are performed using traditional as well as modern instruments. Whether its Leake himself on tabla and balafon, or Mister Rourke spinning turntables, it seems like they've attempted to integrate as many conceivable instruments as possible into this project.
This still sounds like it could be a recipe for chaos, as the idea of following traditional music from Tibet up with a rap song doesn't really sound very appealing. However, the result, while a little frantic in places, ends up being far more coherent than you'd think. While the nearly eighty minutes of music on the disc are divided up into sixteen tracks, I seemed to always end up listening to the disc as if it were one long composition. That's not to say that the individual tracks are not distinct onto themselves, but they also have enough in common the flow from one to the next is so natural that you barely notice any transition.

Each of the songs has used one culture as its base, and then been built up around that. For instance the opening track of the CD, "Aldebaran", opens with a decidedly Far Eastern sound that continues through out the track. The gongs and bells which serve as its opening fade out to be replaced by violin playing the melody, but the theme they began is continued by the glockenspiel that punctuates the rhythm. Nearing the mid point, the gongs and bells return, and, much like the bridge in a pop song, acts as a break between the opening and concluding halves of the song.

Throughout the disc each track has one predominant theme, but underneath layers upon layers of percussion instruments from various places around the world are being played. Listen, for example to the thirteenth song on the disc, "Chrysalis", and underneath the lead percussion instrument, in this case tabla, and the guitars playing the melody, you can hear a variety of bells, shakers, bells, gongs, and other instruments punctuating the sound. While this could have become an unholy mess resulting in nothing more than noise, through careful engineering and skilful playing it ends up sounding as if the various percussion pieces are working like the voices in a barbershop quartet singing in perfect harmony.
Jerry Leake.jpg
By placing each instrument at a different point in the stereo spectrum during recording you hear each individual sound clearly. As a result you can almost visualize the instruments laid out in a line and "see" how they are working together in harmony. Even as one replaces the other, a shaker is removed and a gong is sounded, the tabla is a consistent sound in the centre of the line holding them all together. Much like a lead singer provides the melody for others to harmonize to, it provides the beat which every other instrument relates to.

Not every song is so complex, but each of them combine elements in a similar manner as the one described above with the same amount of success. In this way each of the disc's sixteen tracks not only allow the listener to experience the different ways in which rhythm and melody can be expressed, they also contribute to the overall "picture" the CD is creating of music. There's no way that one song could present all "sides" of music in the same way that a cubist painter is able to with his subject matter on canvass. The result would be a horrible cacophony. By creating a series of individual tracks that work together as a whole, Leake overcomes that obstacle and presents as true a vision of cubist music as I think possible.

Cubist is not only an interesting experiment, the music on the disc is well played and intelligent. Combining elements from various traditions and styles is not an easy task, but Leake and those he has chosen to work with on this disc have done an excellent job in finding interesting and exciting ways to do it. Not only have they found a way to ensure each style retains its own distinct qualities, but they have also found a way to ensure they work together in harmony.

December 2, 2009

Book Review: Eragon's Guide To Alagaesia By Christopher Paolini

When I first saw a copy of Christopher Paolini's Eragon's Guide To Alagaesia, published by Random House Canada, I have to admit to being of two minds. My first, albeit selfish reaction was, damn this is going to cut into sales of the book, What Will Happen In Eragon IV, I had been commissioned to write by Ulysses Press last year. However, as a fan of the series I was also interested in seeing how the various artists involved would bring Paolini's world to life visually. I've not seen the video game, but having found the movie adaptation of the first book in the series, Eragon, to be disappointing not only as a retelling but visually as well - heck they couldn't even recreate some of the beings accurately in spite of Paolini giving very accurate descriptions - I hoped for something a little better in this attempt.

I don't know how much say Paolini had in the decision making process as to the art used or the artists employed for the book, for the usual practice in book publishing is the author has little or no say in things like what a book's cover will look like or the design of the book. However in the case of Eragon's Guide To Alagaesia there would have had to be some co-ordination between the artists and the author as the art and text have been very carefully integrated. Still, Paolini could have come up with the text independently, and the artists and designers worked to create the illustrations and lay out of the book based on what he had written without consulting him. Therefore, much like the movie, there's a good chance he didn't have much say in the matter, meaning there was the possibility this could have been equally disappointing.
Eragon's Guide To Alagaesia Cover.jpg
Thankfully his publishers aren't about to mess around with one of their hottest properties, and as this book is obviously meant to tide people over until the release of book four, they have gone to great pains to be as true to Paolini's vision as possible in their selection of illustrators and illustrations. Again I'm not sure whose idea it was, but it was a brilliant stroke to have the text read like a personal letter from Eragon, welcoming the reader into the fold as a dragon rider and offering them the benefit of his knowledge of Alagaesia and its inhabitants. This allows the text to have a much more conversational tone then most books of this type. Far too often they end up coming across as a mixture of encyclopedia, dictionary, and history text, with the words and the illustrations end up existing as completely separate entities within the same covers.

The illustrations, by Fred Gambino, Larry McDougal, Ian Miller and David Wyatt, range from wonderfully detailed black and white pen and ink drawings, coloured illustrations, detailed maps, to the equivalent of full colour paintings that capture both the magical attributes and the harsher realities of the world created by Paolini. Jonathan Lambert's design has ensured the artwork is not only shown to its best effect, it also integrates the text superbly. There's always the risk in a book like this of trying to cram too much information onto one page resulting in a confusing hodgepodge of information. Lambert has avoided this through his careful use of fold out flaps to expand some pages, small, beautifully decorated, booklets that when opened reveal information specific to the subject at hand, and occasional samples of the objects under discussion, while never over saturating a page.

For example, on the page devoted to discussing the elvish people of Alagaesia the reader not only is treated to illustrations and text describing them and their home city of Ellesmera, you will find a collection of key phrases in Elvish, a description of their queen Islanzadi, and a description of their clothing in the small booklets affixed to the page. Carefully attached to these pages are also a small sample of the fabric elves use for making their clothes, while another envelope contains a small piece of elvish craftsmanship the reader can carefully remove to treasure as a souvenir of their trip to that country. There are treasures like this scattered throughout the book, ranging from an example of what a dragon wing feels like, to a very special treasure at the end of the book which I'll leave for the reader to discover on their own.
Paolini And Brisingr.jpg
As for the text itself, well you won't find out anything new about Alagaesia, the story, or anything about the characters in the story. What you will find in each section is that all the information Eragon has compiled during his journeys about a particular subject has been summarized in easy to digest chunks. From the overall history in the shape of a timeline, the map of the continent (with accompanying illustrations of some of the story's key locations), the history of each of the four main races of beings (elves, humans, dwarfs, and urgals), and on down the list including the wildlife found on the continent, each section will gives the reader an overview at a glance and the opportunity to explore the subject in more detail through the added pockets of information.

From Eragon's letter of welcome, tucked into an envelope stuck on the inside of the front cover, to his final message on the inside of the back cover, Eragon's Guide To Alagaesia offers a beautifully illustrated history and overview of the world Paolini created for his adventure. The individual illustrators have done a remarkable job of realizing Paolini's vision by bringing the environments and beings of the world to the page in a manner that is faithful to his text. While some people or places may not be exactly as you might have visualized them in your head while reading the books, there is never any doubt in your mind as to who or what are being depicted.

While you won't find any clues or discussion as to what the future holds for Alagaesia or Eragon, you can find that in another recently published book, for the fan of Christopher Paolini's Inheritance cycle this book will be a visual treat and a pleasure from beginning to end. It may not be Book Four, but in the interim it will do just fine.