Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Einstein and Mozart

January 31, 2006
A Genius Finds Inspiration in the Music of Another

Last year, the 100th anniversary of E=mc2 inspired an outburst of symposiums, concerts, essays and merchandise featuring Albert Einstein. This year, the same treatment is being given to another genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, born on Jan. 27, 250 years ago.

There is more to the dovetailing of these anniversaries than one might think.

Einstein once said that while Beethoven created his music, Mozart's "was so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master." Einstein believed much the same of physics, that beyond observations and theory lay the music of the spheres — which, he wrote, revealed a "pre-established harmony" exhibiting stunning symmetries. The laws of nature, such as those of relativity theory, were waiting to be plucked out of the cosmos by someone with a sympathetic ear.

Thus it was less laborious calculation, but "pure thought" to which Einstein attributed his theories.

Einstein was fascinated by Mozart and sensed an affinity between their creative processes, as well as their histories.

As a boy Einstein did poorly in school. Music was an outlet for his emotions. At 5, he began violin lessons but soon found the drills so trying that he threw a chair at his teacher, who ran out of the house in tears. At 13, he discovered Mozart's sonatas.

The result was an almost mystical connection, said Hans Byland, a friend of Einstein's from high school. "When his violin began to sing," Mr. Byland told the biographer Carl Seelig, "the walls of the room seemed to recede — for the first time, Mozart in all his purity appeared before me, bathed in Hellenic beauty with its pure lines, roguishly playful, mightily sublime."

From 1902 to 1909, Einstein was working six days a week at a Swiss patent office and doing physics research — his "mischief" — in his spare time. But he was also nourished by music, particularly Mozart. It was at the core of his creative life.

And just as Mozart's antics shocked his contemporaries, Einstein pursued a notably Bohemian life in his youth. His studied indifference to dress and mane of dark hair, along with his love of music and philosophy, made him seem more poet than scientist.

He played the violin with passion and often performed at musical evenings. He enchanted audiences, particularly women, one of whom gushed that "he had the kind of male beauty that could cause havoc."

He also empathized with Mozart's ability to continue to compose magnificent music even in very difficult and impoverished conditions. In 1905, the year he discovered relativity, Einstein was living in a cramped apartment and dealing with a difficult marriage and money troubles.

That spring he wrote four papers that were destined to change the course of science and nations. His ideas on space and time grew in part from aesthetic discontent. It seemed to him that asymmetries in physics concealed essential beauties of nature; existing theories lacked the "architecture" and "inner unity" he found in the music of Bach and Mozart.

In his struggles with extremely complicated mathematics that led to the general theory of relativity of 1915, Einstein often turned for inspiration to the simple beauty of Mozart's music.

"Whenever he felt that he had come to the end of the road or into a difficult situation in his work, he would take refuge in music," recalled his older son, Hans Albert. "That would usually resolve all his difficulties."

In the end, Einstein felt that in his own field he had, like Mozart, succeeded in unraveling the complexity of the universe.

Scientists often describe general relativity as the most beautiful theory ever formulated. Einstein himself always emphasized the theory's beauty. "Hardly anyone who has truly understood it will be able to escape the charm of this theory," he once said.

The theory is essentially one man's view of how the universe ought to be. And amazingly, the universe turned out to be pretty much as Einstein imagined. Its daunting mathematics revealed spectacular and unexpected phenomena like black holes.

Though a Classical giant, Mozart helped lay groundwork for the Romantic with its less precise structures. Similarly, Einstein's theories of relativity completed the era of classical physics and paved the way for atomic physics and its ambiguities. Like Mozart's music, Einstein's work is a turning point.

At a 1979 concert for the centenary of Einstein's birth, the Juilliard Quartet recalled having played for Einstein at his home in Princeton, N.J. They had taken quartets by Beethoven and Bartok and two Mozart quintets, said the first violinist, Robert Mann, whose remarks were recorded by the scholar Harry Woolf.

After playing the Bartok, Mann turned to Einstein. "It would give us great joy," he said, "to make music with you." Einstein in 1952 no longer had a violin, but the musicians had taken an extra. Einstein chose Mozart's brooding Quintet in G minor.

"Dr. Einstein hardly referred to the notes on the musical score," Mr. Mann recalled, adding, "while his out-of-practice hands were fragile, his coordination, sense of pitch, and concentration were awesome."

He seemed to pluck Mozart's melodies out of the air.

Arthur I. Miller, professor of the history and philosophy of science at University College London, wrote "Empire of the Stars."

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Fayard Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers (1914-2006)

From the Los Angeles Times
Fayard Nicholas, 91; He Was Elder Half of Tap-Dancing Nicholas Brothers
By Dennis McLellan and Lewis Segal
Times Staff Writers

January 26, 2006

Fayard Nicholas, the elder half of the show-stopping Nicholas Brothers tap-dancing duo that thrilled audiences during the 1930s and beyond with their elegance and daring athleticism, has died. He was 91.

Nicholas, who had been in failing health since suffering a stroke in November, died of pneumonia Tuesday at his home in Toluca Lake, said Paula Broussard, a friend.

The self-taught Nicholas Brothers — Fayard and Harold — tap-danced their way from vaudeville and Harlem's legendary Cotton Club to Broadway and Hollywood. Known for their airborne splits and acrobatics, the handsome, dapper duo is considered by many to be the greatest dance team ever to work in American movies.

The Russian ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov once called them "the most amazing dancers I have ever seen in my life — ever."

When filmgoers saw the Nicholas Brothers' dazzling acrobatic routine in the 1940 movie musical "Down Argentine Way" (starring Don Ameche, Betty Grable and Carmen Miranda), they were known to applaud and stomp their feet until the projectionist rewound the film and played the dance sequence again.

Fred Astaire considered the Nicholas Brothers' "Jumpin' Jive" dance sequence in the 1943, all-black musical "Stormy Weather" the greatest dance number ever filmed.

Miles Kreuger, president of the Los Angeles-based Institute of the American Musical, agrees.

"With its spectacular splits and leaps, their 'Jumpin' Jive' number is easily the most exhilarating dance routine in all of cinema," he said.

The show-stopping performance, set in a large cabaret with the Cab Calloway band playing, has the brothers jumping onto tabletops and leaping off a grand piano onto the dance floor in full splits.

The highlight of their breathtaking, synchronous routine occurs when they leap over each other in splits while descending an oversized staircase.

"That was one take, coming down those stairs … jumping over each other's heads," Nicholas told The Times in 1989.

"It's simply unbelievable," Kreuger said.

Fayard Nicholas was born in Mobile, Ala., in 1914; Harold arrived seven years later. Their musician parents played in vaudeville pit orchestras, and Fayard learned to dance by watching the shows.

"One day at the Standard Theater in Philadelphia," he told Associated Press in 1999, "I looked onstage and I thought, 'They're having fun up there; I'd like to do something like that.' "

So he copied what he saw, taught it to his brother and worked up a vaudeville act called the Nicholas Kids.

"We were tap dancers, but we put more style into it, more bodywork, instead of just footwork," Harold Nicholas said in a 1987 interview.

Fayard, he said in another interview, "was like a poet … talking to you with his hands and feet."

In 1932, the two young performers made their film debuts in a short subject ("Pie, Pie Blackbird" with Eubie Blake) and the same year began singing and dancing at the Cotton Club.

They caught the eye of Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn, who hired them for their first major film musical, "Kid Millions" featuring Eddie Cantor (1934). "The Big Broadcast of 1936" followed.

The Nicholas Brothers appeared on Broadway in "The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936" and in 1937 they worked with ballet choreographer George Balanchine in the Rodgers and Hart Broadway musical-comedy "Babes in Arms."

In 1938, the Nicholas Brothers used their engagements at the Cotton Club to refine and update their style, and they took that style back to Hollywood in a series of musical films made throughout the 1940s.

Among those films are "Sun Valley Serenade" (1941), in which they memorably performed the number "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" with Dorothy Dandridge, whom Harold later married and divorced; "Orchestra Wives" (1942) and "The Pirate" (1948), which was highlighted by their acrobatic routine with Gene Kelly in the "Be a Clown" number.

"We call our style of dancing classical tap," Nicholas said in a 1991 Washington Post interview. "Some people think we're a flash act. But we're not. At the end of the act, we'd put those splits in, but we'd do them gracefully. You don't just hit, bam and jump up. We tried to make it look easy. It's not easy. But we tried to make it look that way — come up and smile."

After spending a year in the Army stateside during World War II, Fayard re-teamed with Harold. In 1946, Fayard had a featured role in the Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer Broadway musical "St. Louis Woman," in which Harold had the lead. They then embarked on a series of international tours.

In 1948, they gave a royal command performance for the king of England at the London Palladium. Later, they danced for nine U.S. presidents.

Nightclubs, tours and television appearances dominated their performing schedule for the next decade, along with a number of projects away from each other.

With Harold working in Europe and Fayard in the United States, the Nicholas Brothers did not perform as a team for seven years.

The brothers reunited as a duo in 1964 for an appearance on "The Hollywood Palace" TV variety show.

But they lived on opposite coasts after that, Broussard said, and when not performing together they performed separately.

On his own, Fayard Nicholas took on a dramatic role in the 1970 movie "The Liberation of L.B. Jones" and won a Tony for his choreography for the Broadway revue "Black and Blue" (1989), which included a dance on stairs for three child tap dancers, one of whom was a young Savion Glover.

Among a string of awards in their later years, the Nicholas Brothers in 1991 received Kennedy Center Honors and were honored at the Academy Awards.

Broussard, who had been working with Fayard on a biography of the Nicholas Brothers in recent years, said he remained active after his brother's death in 2000, dancing at tap festivals and giving lecture-demonstrations — after having had both hips replaced due to arthritis.

"He was the consummate entertainer and just one of the nicest people I've ever met," Broussard said. "He just always had a big smile on his face."

Fayard Nicholas' dance choreography and the brothers' place in dance history were chronicled in the 2000 book "Brotherhood in Rhythm" by Constance Valis Hill.

The Nicholas Brothers also were the subject of a television documentary, "The Nicholas Brothers: We Sing and We Dance" (1992).

The late tap dancer Gregory Hines said in the foreword to "Brotherhood in Rhythm" that if Hollywood were to make a movie of the Nicholas Brothers' lives, "the dance numbers would have to be computer-generated."

Nicholas is survived by his third wife, Katherine Hopkins-Nicholas; his sister, Dorothy Nicholas Morrow; his sons, Tony and Paul; four grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

Services are pending.

Death of the Rock Drum Solo

From the Los Angeles Times

The Big Bang
By Dan Neil

January 22, 2006

Once upon a time, giants thundered across the land: Moon, Bonham, Baker, Palmer. These sweaty and indifferently groomed young men gave the world that curious and hard-to-love artifact of rock, the drum solo.

Won't somebody please hold up a flaming lighter?

For a couple of decades—from, say, 1967, the release of the first Vanilla Fudge album with Carmine Appice on skins, to the break-up of the Police, when drummer Stewart Copeland and Sting could at last no longer stand the sight of each other—the drum solo was a reliable part of arena rock's audio furniture.

And I was there. Nazareth. Black Sabbath. Pink Floyd. Yes. Emerson Lake and Palmer. Blue Oyster Cult. Aerosmith. Queen. The Who. Jethro Tull. I'm one of those few survivors who saw Led Zeppelin in concert—how quaint that sounds now—and heard John Bonham play the furious and fundamental "Moby Dick," with its phase-shifted tympani, tom-toms played barehanded like Indian tabla, machine-gun triplets and cymbals hissing like lava pouring into the sea.

It's been 25 years since Bonham's tragically clichéd drummer's death—choking on his own vomit during an alcoholic blackout—and while he is sorely missed, the same can't be said of the drum solo per se. Somewhere along the way, the drum solo became a rock-and-roll punch line of the "More cowbell!" variety. Among the top concert draws of 2005, the Rolling Stones didn't break stride to give Charlie Watts—an exceptional jazz drummer when not propping up Mick and the lads—a 20-minute showcase; neither did U2 step aside for an intimate moment with drummer Larry Mullen Jr., because if they did, well, just think of the crush at the snack bar.

The passing of rock drum solos was so unlamented that I might have missed it but for a new DVD by Neil Peart called "Anatomy of a Drum Solo." Peart is the drummer/percussionist for the arena rock institution Rush and is widely considered the greatest living rock drummer. By my calculation, Peart is also the most prolific drum soloist ever. In its astounding 31-year history with its original lineup, Rush has spent more time on the road than the Roman army, and there was always, always a drum solo in the show. At least there was the five times I saw them.So I called Neil Peart to ask: What happened to the drum solo?

"Rock drummers killed the solo themselves," Peart tells me when we meet at a coffee shop in Santa Monica. "It got to be so predictable and manipulative. They cheapened it by making it a clap-along or a boring ramble."

Oh yeah. Few things in music are so grating as a long, thrashing drum solo by some sweaty dude working his way around the trap kit (Tommy Lee, are you listening?). The trouble is, it was always so. One of the sacred texts of solo drumming is Ron Bushy's notoriously flatulent 2 1/2-minute tumble on Iron Butterfly's 1968 monster hit "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida."

"Even as a kid I hated that song," says Peart. "It was the anti-drum solo. There was no technique, no musicality, no dynamics at all."

If you owned this album, that's not incense you're smelling, it's shame.

Peart's larger point is that the rock drum solo, which emerged out of an honorable tradition of showmanship set by big band players such as Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, rapidly descended into musical cynicism. Partly at fault was the economics of the arena itself. When rock bands started selling out 10,000-seat coliseums in one town after another, any sense of intimacy—or rock's rebellion—was swallowed by the vacancy of the venue itself. The drum solo became part of a repertoire of arena-rock tricks to pull huge and disconnected audiences into the show.

"Asking the audience to clap along can be part of a really sincere desire to include the audience in the music or the performance," says Peart, "or it can be just like pressing a button. It can be a beautiful thing or an ugly thing."

So what started out as a virtuoso exploration of an instrument's solo potential became, almost immediately, rock's 7th-inning stretch.

The other big problem with drum solos? The audience. It became clear to me after watching Peart's explanatory DVD that civilians—which is to say non-drummers—don't really understand what they're hearing. In one section of Peart's "Der Trommler" solo, he keeps waltz time, 3/4 rhythm (PA-tah-tah, PA-tah-tah) with his feet, while playing lightning-fast 6/8 and 7/8 drum fills across his other drums. In terms of physical coordination, this is something like playing badminton with two rackets while typing with your feet. But if you hadn't been enlightened, you might think it just sounds like billiard balls in a dryer.

Peart amiably disagrees, wincing at the suggestion that the audience somehow just doesn't get it. "Drumming shouldn't be something you need an education to appreciate." After all, he says, "You can't blame the audience for everything."

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Navahoax: a huge author scandal


Did a struggling white writer of gay erotica become one of multicultural literature’s most celebrated memoirists — by passing himself off as Native American?
Wednesday, January 25, 2006 - 3:31 am

Illustrations by Ronald Kurniawan

“So achingly honest it takes your breath away.”

—Miami Herald on The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping

In June of 1999 a writer calling himself Nasdijj emerged from obscurity to publish an ode to his adopted son in Esquire. “My son is dead,” he began. “I didn’t say my adopted son is dead. He was my son. My son was a Navajo. He lived six years. They were the best six years of my life.”

The boy’s name was Tommy Nothing Fancy and Nasdijj wrote that he and his wife adopted Tommy as an infant and raised him in their home on the Navajo reservation. At first, Tommy seemed like a healthy baby, albeit one who consistently cried throughout the night. “The doctor at the Indian Health Service said it was nothing. Probably gas.”

But it wasn’t gas. Tommy suffered from a severe case of fetal alcohol syndrome, or FAS. Though Tommy looked normal, his crying continued and as he grew older he began to suffer massive seizures. “I thought I could see him getting duller with every seizure. He knew he was slowly dying.”

Nasdijj knew too, and he tried to give his son as full a life as time would allow. Fishing was Tommy’s favorite thing to do and they went often — sometimes at the expense of his medical care. “For my son hospitals were analogous to torture. Tommy Nothing Fancy wanted to die with his dad and his dog while fishing.”

Nasdijj’s wife wanted Tommy in the hospital receiving modern medical treatment. “She was a modern Indian... She begged. She pleaded. She screamed. She pounded the walls. But the hospitals and doctors never made it better.”

Though the conflict tore his marriage apart, Nasdijj continued to take his son fishing and, true to his last wish, Tommy died of a seizure while on an expedition.

“I was catching brown trout,” Nasdijj wrote. “I was thinking about cooking them for dinner over our campfire when Tommy Nothing Fancy fell. All that shaking. It was as if a bolt of lighting surged uncontrolled through the damaged brain of my son. It wasn’t fair. He was just a little boy who liked to fish... I was holding him when he died... The fish escaped.”

The Esquire piece, as successful as it was heartbreaking, was a finalist for a National Magazine Award and helped establish Nasdijj as a prominent new voice in the world of nonfiction. “Esquire’s Cinderella story,” as Salon’s Sean Elder called it, “arrived over the transom, addressed to no one in particular. ‘The cover letter was this screed about how Esquire had never published the work of an American-Indian writer and never would because it’s such a racist publication,’ recalls editor in chief David Granger. ‘And under it was... one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I’d ever read.’ By the time the piece was published in the June issue, the writer (who lives on an Indian reservation) had a book contract.”

The contract was for a full-length memoir, The Blood Runs Like A River Through My Dreams, published by Houghton Mifflin in 2000 to great acclaim. It was followed by two more memoirs, The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping (Ballantine, 2003), and Geronimo’s Bones: A Memoir of My Brother and Me (Ballantine, 2004). As if losing a son was not enough, the memoirs portray a lifetime of suffering.

Nasdijj was born on the Navajo reservation in a hogan in 1950, he claims, the son of an abusive white cowboy “who broke, bred, and bootlegged horses” and a Navajo mother. “My mother,” he writes, “was a hopeless drunk. I would use the word ‘alcoholic’ but it’s too polite. It’s a white people word... There is nothing polite about cleaning up your mother in her vomit and dragging her unconscious carcass back to the migrant housing trailer you lived in.”

Nasdijj says his father would sometimes pimp his mother to other migrant workers for “five bucks” and that she died of alcoholism when he was 7. Though their time together was short and turbulent, Nasdijj says his mother instilled in him the Navajo traditions that now inform his work.

His father, he says, was a sexual predator who raped him the night his mother died. Because his father was white, Nasdijj says he was treated like an “outcast bastard” on the reservation. Like Tommy Nothing Fancy, Nasdijj claims to have fetal alcohol syndrome and to have been raised, with his brother, in migrant camps all over the country.

Nasdijj knows how to pull heartstrings. Both The Blood and The Boy revolve around the lives and deaths of his adopted Navajo sons. “Death, to the Navajo, is like the cold wind that blows across the mesa from the north,” Nasdijj writes in The Blood. “We do not speak of it.” But Nasdijj does speak of it. In fact, he speaks of it almost exclusively. Death and suffering are his staples.

“My son comes back to me when I least expect to see his ghostly vision,” he writes. “He lives in my bones and scars.”

But Nasdijj hasn’t built his career purely through the tragic and sensational nature of his stories. His style is an artful blending of poetry and prose, and his work has met with nearly universal critical praise. The Blood “reminds us that brave and engaging writers lurk in the most forgotten corners of society,” wrote Ted Conover in The New York Times Book Review. Rick Bass called it “mesmerizing, apocalyptic, achingly beautiful and redemptive... a powerful American classic,” while Howard Frank Mosher said it was “the best memoir I have read about family love, particularly a father’s love for his son, since A River Runs Through It.”The Blood was a New York Times Notable Book, a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award and winner of the Salon Book Award.

The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping was published to more glowing reviews — “vivid and immediate, crackling with anger, humor, and love” (The Washington Post) and “riveting... lyrical... a ragged wail of a song, an ancient song, where we learn what it is to truly be a parent and love a child” (USA Today).

Shortly after The Blood came out, Nasdijj writes, he moved back to the Navajo reservation, where word of his book and his compassion spread. One day while fishing, a Navajo man and his 10-year-old son approached him. The man took Nasdijj aside and explained that he, his wife and their son, Awee, had AIDS. “They were not terrific parents,” Nasdijj wrote “but they wanted this child to have a chance at life.” Nasdijj was that chance. For the next two years Nasdijj cared for Awee until his death from AIDS-related illness.

The Boy won a 2004 PEN/Beyond Margins Award and helped solidify Nasdijj’s place as one of the most celebrated multicultural writers in American literature. But as his successes and literary credentials grew in number so did his skeptics — particularly from within the Native American community. Sherman Alexie first heard of Nasdijj in 1999 after his former editor sent him a galley proof of The Blood for comment. At the time, Alexie, who is Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, was one of the hottest authors in America and was widely considered the most prominent voice in Native American literature. His novel Indian Killer was a New York Times notable book, and his cinematic feature Smoke Signals was the previous year’s Sundance darling, nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and winner of the Audience Award. Alexie’s seal of approval would have provided The Blood with a virtual rubber stamp of native authenticity. But it took Alexie only a few pages before he realized he couldn’t vouch for the work. It wasn’t just that similar writing style and cadence that bothered Alexie.

“The whole time I was reading I was thinking, this doesn’t just sound like me, this is me,” he says.

Alexie was born hydrocephalic, a life-threatening condition characterized by water on the brain. At the age of 6 months he underwent brain surgery that saved his life but left him, much like Tommy Nothing Fancy, prone to chronic seizures throughout his childhood. Instead of identifying with Nasdijj’s story, however, Alexie became suspicious.

“At first I was flattered but as I kept reading I noticed he was borrowing from other Native writers too. I thought, this can’t be real.”

Indeed, Nasdijj’s stories also bear uncanny resemblance to the works of N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Silko and especially Michael Dorris, whose memoir The Broken Cord depicts his struggle to care for his adopted FAS-stricken Native Alaskan children. Although there was never more than a similar phrase here and there, Alexie was convinced that the work was fabricated. He wasn’t alone.

Shortly after his review of The Blood came out in The New York Times Book Review, Ted Conover received an Internet greeting card from Nasdijj chastising him for his piece. Conover, an award-winning journalist whose 2003 book Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, was taken aback. Not only is it highly unusual for an author to attack a reviewer, but it is especially unusual when the review in question was overwhelmingly positive — Conover’s flattering words would grace the paperback cover.

Conover’s main critique was that Nasdijj was “stingy with self-revelation.” He questioned certain inconsistencies in the author’s background, noting that Nasdijj sometimes said his mother was “with the Navajo,” sometimes she was “Navajo, or so she claimed,” and other times she was just “Navajo.” Conover never accused Nasdijj of lying, he merely suggested that the writer be more forthcoming. Nasdijj, however, rejected this suggestion and sent the angry letter, which Conover characterizes as a sprawling diatribe.

“The whole thing was just really bizarre,” Conover says.

Conover sent a copy of the card to Anton Mueller, Nasdijj’s editor at Houghton Mifflin and an acquaintance. “I wondered if he might shed a little light on this,” he says. Mueller, however, never responded and the incident left Conover wondering whether he should have been more thorough in investigating Nasdijj before writing his review. It didn’t take him long to find an answer. Several weeks later, Conover was contacted by an expert in fetal alcohol syndrome who had read his review. She informed him that while she sympathized with the plight of Nasdijj and his son, the symptoms described in The Blood are not actually those of FAS.

Says Conover, “I immediately thought, ‘Oh no, I’ve been duped.’”

Back Then: Tim Barrus in his 1969 Lansing, Michigan high school yearbook photo, right, and with his Key West compatriot, Bill Bowers, circa 1984. Bowers on Barrus: ''He was really a master of publicity.''
This work is a memoir and represents, to the best of my ability and my memory, an accurate reporting of facts and events as I know them and as they have been told to me. I have attempted to protect the privacy of people through the editorial decision to frequently change names, appearances, and locations, as these are not relevant to the focus of the work or the issues the work strives to deal with.

No, these are not the words of James Frey, author of the exaggerated A Million Little Pieces, but of Nasdijj in the author’s note for The Blood. But why? Was this just standard legalese or was Houghton Mifflin concerned about the veracity of this book? Had Sherman Alexie actually gotten through to them? Is the “author’s note” a cynical attempt to protect a piece of fiction passed off as memoir?

Anton Mueller, editor of The Blood, says no. “Nasdijj’s life is hazy and complex, and we both felt it would be a good idea.”

Indeed, getting to the bottom of Nasdijj’s story is no easy task. He alleges a nomadic existence that is virtually free of specific names or places, rendering it difficult to substantiate his claims. A Google search brings up first and foremost his blog — www.nasdijj.typepad.com. (Shortly after Nasdijj was contacted for this story, his blog was taken offline.) A sampling of his almost daily blogs over several months suggests that one (and perhaps only one) thing is clear: Nasdijj is a very angry man. If in the books his passion and fierceness are modulated and concentrated, his blog posts are full of rants and denunciations. Targets include the American health care system, government treatment of Indians, middle-class values and, especially, the publishing industry.

He has recently made a routine of calling ReganBooks über-publisher Judith Regan a “cunt,” a designation that in Nasdijj’s estimation she shares with Gina Centrello of Random House among countless others. “Like the naked Jew who covers his penis before he turns the shower on, there is no fucking hope for you,” he admonishes them.

Non-metaphorical Jews alike are not immune from Nasdijj’s wrath. “Jews [in publishing] would sell the gas chamber shower heads if they thought it might make a buck.” In his acceptance speech for the prestigious PEN/Beyond Margins Award, an edited version of which was delivered in absentia, he took the opportunity to call New York literary agent Binky Urban a “white bitch.” (It’s available online at www.literaryrevolution.com/mr-nasdijj-62804.html.)

Nasdijj’s blog is typical of a recent shift in his work. Though his first book was thoughtful, even tender, as his career has progressed Nasdijj has increasingly taken the role of an artist whose willingness to push boundaries often borders on disturbing. His most recent book, Geronimo’s Bones, brought Nasdijj’s tales of suffering to startling heights, or lows depending on your perspective. Surrealistic accounts of forcible incest by his father read less like rape and more like lukewarm trysts. “His lips to mine. His tongue in my mouth. His words: ‘Nasdijj, please, please love me.’ ...He was a lousy lover with his tongue in my mouth. The same tongue that had just been inside my bowels.”

Though incestuous rape may be difficult to trump, perhaps even more disturbing is Nasdijj’s tendency to sexualize teenage boys. A recent post on his Web site featured a nude photograph of the open anus and testicles of a supposedly cancer-ridden teenager. Nasdijj claims this was done in an effort to humanize the disease, but such pictures are often posted alongside graphic accounts of adolescent sexuality. Indeed, they are sometimes posted alongside naked sadomasochistic pictures of Nasdijj himself.

But Nasdijj’s explicit Web site isn’t the only curiosity a Google search of his name reveals — it also brings up a rather caustic reader review of The Boyand the Dog are Sleeping on BookBrowse (www.bookbrowse.com). “I find this book full of the author’s misinformation regarding his family,” it begins. “I take exception with his opinion of his ‘Anglo father’ and his ‘Navajo Mother.’ I happen to be related to this author and his family is tracable [sic] back through the American Revolution on his father’s side and to Holland on his mother’s side. I resent the fact that he seems to be ashamed of his notable ancestor’s (i.e., Cyrus McCormick, a great grandfather that pioneered nerve block dentistry, couragous mem [sic] that lost their lives at Valley Forge). This kind of dribble [sic] should have been investigated prior to printing or should have been labeled as purely fiction.”

While such a review could easily be dismissed on its own, a Yahoo search of the name attached to it offers up a comprehensive genealogical site. And when the reviewer’s name is searched in conjunction with the name of Nasdijj’s daughter, Kree, one name comes up: Timothy Patrick Barrus.

Barrus, the site says, was born in 1950 (the same year as Nasdijj), is married to Tina Giovanni (also the name of Nasdijj’s wife), and has a daughter named Kree. The site then charts his family lineage back several generations to the 1700s, and, indeed, as the review states, to the McCormick family.

Evidence compiled from other searches seems to corroborate the site.

Just like Nasdijj, Tina Giovanni also hosts a blog — www.autism911.blogspot.com. (It also was taken offline in the past week but has returned minus its archives.) A post from Giovanni in July 2005 shows a picture of Nasdijj’s daughter, Kree, and Kree’s husband, Steve, both of whom, Giovanni says, are teachers in La Paz, Bolivia. A follow-up Internet search reveals the December 13, 2004, meeting minutes of the American Educational Association of La Paz, announcing the hiring of Kree Barrus and Steve Poole as teachers at the American Cooperative School in La Paz. (A photograph of Steve Poole on the American Cooperative School’s Web site confirms that he is the same Steve pictured in Giovanni’s blog.) As for Giovanni, a records search reveals her legal name to be Tina Giovanni Barrus, with addresses in and around Taos, New Mexico. This obviously begs the question — who exactly is Timothy Patrick Barrus?

Yet another Google search, this time for Tim Barrus, brings up the heading “Sadomasochistic Literature” and the following: “Some of the best pornographic fiction to come out of the leatherman tradition is by Tim Barrus whose Mineshaft (1984) describes the sexual exploits of the infamous New York S/M palace of the same name.” The site is GLBTQ: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender and queer culture. The section in which Barrus’ name appears is titled “Gay Male Writers Since the 70’s.”

Could the heart-wrenching Navajo memoirist actually have been the gay leather novelist in a previous life?

Fiction? Barrus’ Vietnam novel, above, and Nasdijj’s memoirs. Says his former editor, ''We don’t fact-check books.''

The streets of downtown Lansing, Michigan, are crowded on a Friday night, but not with people; with squirrels. They congregate in the middle of Washington Street, staring with incredulity as a lone car approaches. Despite an impending collision, they don’t bother to move out of the way, apparently shocked to see anyone out at this time of night. The oncoming car doesn’t slow down and crushes one of them into the red brick street. No one is around to notice. It wasn’t always like this.

In the 1950s and ’60s, when Tim Barrus was growing up here, Lansing was a prosperous middle-class community. Washington Street wasn’t a sight of squirrel manslaughter, but the heart of a thriving theater district. Oldsmobile, Fisher Auto Parts and General Motors all had factories nearby.

No cowboy, Maynard Barrus worked as a shift foreman at the Lansing Board of Water and Light. In 1948 he married Barrus’ mother, Jean Anne Steginga, a local Lansing girl of Scandinavian descent. Two years later, Timothy Patrick was born.

Tim Barrus was raised with his younger sister, Suzanne, in a modest three-bedroom home off of Aurelius Road close to the Michigan State University campus. His mother was in fact around throughout his childhood and is still alive today. He has no younger brother.

Barrus attended Eastern High School in Lansing, where he was far from a slayer of suburban values. He was a member of the student council, the forensics team, the forum club as well as a homeroom officer. He was also an actor, playing several minor roles in the 1968 class production of Moliere’s The Physician in Spite of Himself.

“He was a good, good actor — very passionate,” says one former castmate of Barrus’ who wishes not to be named. “He was able to completely absorb himself into the mind of a character in a way that most people are never able to.”

“He was a thinker — very pensive,” the castmate continues. “But he was a warm person, very friendly.”

Beneath his generally pleasant veneer, however, a simmering temper would occasionally boil over.

“You didn’t know what you were going to say to the guy to make him angry,” recalls Rosemary Taylor, who was also in the cast alongside Barrus, “so you were extremely careful with him because you wanted to stay in his orbit. He was one of those guys that was a little ahead of his time.”

Barrus graduated from high school in 1969 and a year later married Jan Abbott, a local girl from neighboring Okemos. According to a source close to the family, the couple took in foster children to make ends meet. In 1971 Barrus and his wife moved to Largo, Florida, where his sister, Suzanne, lived with her husband, Steve Cheetham. Barrus attended community college while Abbott worked at Winn-Dixie to support him, according to Cheetham. Although Barrus wasn’t publishing his work at the time, he wrote constantly. “He wrote most of his life in one way or another,” says Cheetham by phone from Lansing. “He’s a storyteller. You never knew if he was telling you something true, or part of his imagination or what.” In 1973 the couple moved again before finally winding up back in Lansing. Cheetham never saw Barrus again.

In 1974, Barrus’ only daughter, Kree, was born and, according to sources, the couple also adopted a mildly autistic boy around this time. The boy could have inspired Tommy Nothing Fancy, although several discrepancies exist between his story and Tommy’s.

Nasdijj claims that he adopted Tommy as an infant and that he died at age 6. A Kree Barrus resumé posted online, however, indicates that as a girl she helped care for a mildly autistic 7-year-old. Likewise, an article written by Barrus in 1996 asserts that he adopted his son at age 4 and that he was alive and well as of the ’90s, having survived adolescence and grown “almost as big as I am.”

Cheetham, who was still married to Barrus’ sister at the time, tells a slightly different story. According to him, Barrus and his wife did indeed adopt an autistic boy, but that the boy’s “emotional problems” proved too much for the couple to handle. After less than a year they were forced to give the boy up, and to Cheetham’s best recollection he returned to being a ward of the state.

Address records indicate that the young family lived in an apartment on Cooper Avenue near downtown Lansing until 1975. It is unclear where they moved immediately after that. At some point, Barrus and his wife divorced, and he moved to San Francisco where he began to write — primarily for the gay leather magazine Drummer. Barrus was widely praised for coining the term “leather lit,” and for being one of the founders of the newly formed genre.

In 1984 he moved to Key West and, according to his friend Bill Bowers, took residence with his partner Adolfo. (Barrus would later deny being gay.) There he published his first book, The Mineshaft, a sloppy attempt at erotica, but one that nonetheless garnered him some attention. He soon became a regular contributor to The Weekly News, the local gay newspaper, writing fictional stories reminiscent of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.

It was in Key West where Barrus met Bowers, a local artist and photographer, and the two began work on a number of projects together.

“He was a crazy queen. He did things other people just didn’t do,” says Bowers fondly of Barrus. “He was really a master of publicity.”

Bowers remembers collaborating with Barrus on an erotic photo exhibit called Sadomasochism: True Confessions. After the opening night of the show drew lukewarm interest, Barrus assumed the fake name John Hammond and wrote an open letter to The Weekly News attacking the exhibit.

“Sadomasochism is a disease,” the letter read “and gay men who are into that scene are wrong.” He then had Bowers write a response to their mythical antagonist Hammond, inviting him to “take a Valium, take a douche,” and published it in The Weekly News. “The next time Mr. Hammond wants to show his ignorance he should do some heavy research before he rejects his very own brothers.” The ensuing controversy rallied the gay community around the artists and propelled the exhibit to a successful run.

“He would do anything to shock people,” said Bowers. “It works every time if you want a reaction, be it good or bad. Bad is good too, sometimes better.”

Not all of Barrus’ acquaintances found his antics quite so charming however. Lars Eighner grew quite tired of his routine. “If you look up dilettante in the dictionary, there’s a picture of Tim Barrus,” says Eighner.

Best known for his 1993 book Travels With Lizbeth (which The Blood would partially parrot), Eighner first became acquainted with Barrus around 1984 after he received a random letter from Barrus expressing his most frequent theme — “publishers are scum.” Eighner was just breaking into writing at the time and found Barrus’ angry candor instructive. The two soon began a three-way correspondence with another gay writer, T.R. Witomski, which lasted for several years.

Though he never met Barrus in person, Eighner came to know him quite well through his letters and phone conversations. Barrus would routinely harangue Eighner with long soliloquies about the evils of publishing. “There was always some great injustice that had been done him — he had been slighted by everyone, betrayed; there was treachery everywhere.” Eighner is quick to point out that he didn’t think Barrus was crazy — just irrationally angry.

“He didn’t think windmills were monsters, he just hated windmills.”

According to Eighner, Barrus and the established gay writer John Preston had a one-sided literary rivalry — and Barrus was the perennial loser. While Barrus’ books were well reviewed in the gay press (The Advocate called his 1987 book Anywhere, Anywhere “a rewarding encounter with compelling characters,”) he was never able to achieve the mainstream success that Preston, Witomski and eventually Eighner were able to. This made him, according to Eighner, “insanely jealous.”

That Barrus might have adopted a Native American persona to facilitate his career strikes Eighner as completely in character. Similar behavior was routine when Eighner knew him. Barrus’ third book, Anywhere, Anywhere is supposedly a novelized account of his service in the Vietnam War, which, Eighner says, “some serious publications thought was really a memoir of a gay soldier.” The book is a love story between wheelchair-bound Chris and his commanding officer in Vietnam, Boss. The pair fell in love fighting alongside each other and upon their return to America they used their feelings for each other to battle the physical and emotional scars inflicted on them by the war. Anywhere, Anywhere was praised in the gay press for revealing the previously untold gay experience in Vietnam. “Of course Barrus had never been near Vietnam or military service,” says Eighner. (When asked if his brother-in-law served in Vietnam, Cheetham replies, “Absolutely not.”)

In a 1994 article he wrote for the Lambda Book Report, however, Barrus claims to be a Vietnam vet, or so it seems: “I knew lots of gay men in Vietnam. Not that I had sex with them. No one was telling their story.”

Barrus, a natural mimic, would routinely take stories that had happened to Preston or Witomski, and tell them as if they had happened to him. Eventually, word got back to the other two that this was going on and they both fell out with him. “As you may have guessed, Barrus doesn’t wear well,” said Eighner. “Whether it’s the first or 15th time you catch someone telling your anecdotes as if they were his own, eventually, almost everyone has a limit.”

Witomski took special umbrage and in a 1992 article published in The Advocate shortly before his death, he labeled Barrus one of “five gay writers we could do without.” Other writers followed suit in their condemnation and Barrus’ delusions of censure became reality. In 1993, with his bridges burning in gay publishing, Barrus met and married his current wife, Tina Giovanni, in San Francisco and disappeared. Eighner never heard from him again. And neither did the Internet until 1996 when something (and someone) curious emerged. In an article now available only through the archives of an obscure Australian company called Infant Massage Australia, a kinder, gentler Barrus appeared in a service article on how to be a loving father. Though the piece is trite and filled with gooey, ’90s parenting clichés (“It takes a real man to nurture”), it appears to be his first experimentation with the caring father persona.

Sometime between then and the Esquire article that launched his career, Nasdijj was born.

Peering out from behind a pair of silver-framed glasses, Irvin Morris sits at his office desk thumbing thoughtfully through a weathered copy of The Blood. A quiet man with sad dark eyes and a closely trimmed head of raven black hair, Morris is focused as he reads, occasionally sighing in dismay when something he sees disturbs him. A giant fake plant hovers over him, draping plastic leaves onto a sizable portion of his cluttered desk. He looks up briefly from the text in time to catch me eyeing the plant strangely. “I don’t know where that thing came from,” he says with a smile, “but I really should do something about it.” But first thing’s first — another possible impostor needs to be dealt with.

Morris has suspected for years that Nasdijj is not who he says he is. A full-blooded Navajo and a professor of literature and Navajo studies at Dine College in Tsaile, Arizona, on the Navajo reservation, Morris is among the world’s foremost authorities on Navajo culture. Shortly after The Blood was published, he saw Nasdijj’s name listed on the national index of Native writers. Under the author’s bio, it said Nasdijj claimed his name meant “to become again” in Navajo Athabaskan. This came as news to Morris, who is fluent in Athabaskan. “There is no word ‘Nasdijj’ in the Navajo language,” he explains. “It’s gibberish.”

Not long thereafter, Morris got a call from Sherman Alexie asking if he would take a look at The Blood. After reading the book, Morris felt certain Nasdijj was not Navajo. “He seems to know some facts aboutthe culture, but he has no sensibility of it.”

“Every Navajo he meets seems to live in a hogan,” Morris jokes. “No one has really lived in hogans since HUD housing started being built on the reservation in the ’60s. Only people who are extremely traditional live in hogans.” Traditional people who would not make the kind of cultural errors that Nasdijj depicts them making. Navajo Rose for instance.

Navajo Rose is a character in The Blood who, Nasdijj writes, lives in a hogan near his on the reservation. Navajo Rose is illiterate and, though Nasdijj says she graduated from high school, she somehow has never seen the inside of a library.

Barrus meets Nasdijj? A Google image search brings up this photo of ''Nasdijj by Rosen.''
“You have to be really traditional to have never even seen inside a library,” says Morris.

Nasdijj takes it upon himself to teach Navajo Rose how to read and drives her off the reservation to “White People Town” to see her first library. “She was impressed with all the books,” Nasdijj writes.

Morris bristles at the condescending tone. “We do have libraries here.”

But the error that really made Morris crazy was a culinary one. To thank Nasdijj for his lessons, Navajo Rose routinely brings him Navajo tacos made of mutton. “Now that’s just disgusting,” says Morris of the tacos, which are traditionally made with beef. “We love our mutton but no one would use it in a Navajo taco; the spices just don’t mix.” (Indeed, in my experience on the reservation, the suggestion of a Navajo taco with mutton induces a nearly universal crinkling of noses in distaste.)

While a non-Navajo may see these gaffes as minor, Morris asserts they add up to a character that doesn’t exist. Like a rabbi eating pork or a Hindu beating his cow, they are culturally incriminating; and the book is littered with them, he says. Nasdijj writes that as a boy his mother used to have sings (a religious ceremony) for him to familiarize him with his culture. “That’s a communal activity,” Morris says. “To have a sing by yourself is highly aberrant behavior. Like holding a church service for yourself.”

Most startling and offensive to Morris is Nasdijj’s depiction of Navajo clanship, which plays a vital role in tribal identity. In Geronimo’s Bones, Nasdijj claims his mother was a member of the Water Flowing clan; no such clan exists however. “There’s a Water Flowing Together clan,” explains Morris, “but the difference isn’t insignificant. If I was going to claim my mother’s clanship I would at least make sure to get the name right.”

Nasdijj also writes that because his father was white and without a clan, Nasdijj had no clan and was therefore treated as an “outcast bastard” by other Navajo. This, says Morris, is misrepresentative in that it wrongly portrays the Navajo clan structure as an authoritarian caste system. It is also factually incorrect. “Our lineage is passed on through our mother. If his mother had a clan, he has a clan.”

Immediately after reading the book Morris contacted the Native author registry and asked them to take Nasdijj’s name off the list. Without specific information about Nasdijj’s true identity, however, the registry refused, and Morris let the subject drop.

“I have always been bothered by the false claim to the Dine identity by Nasdijj,” Morris says, “but if I spent my time tracking down every white writer pretending to be Navajo, I’d have no time left to do anything else.”

Indeed, in the long history of Indian appropriation by whites, the Navajo have become the primary target. Of particular ire to the Navajo is mystery writer Tony Hillerman. For the past several decades Hillerman has written detective stories from the perspective of his Navajo protagonists, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Though not actually claiming Navajo ancestry, Hillerman infuses healthy doses of Navajo spirituality into the story through his characters — sometimes accurately, sometimes not. Hillerman’s appropriation is well known and disliked across tribal lines and was the subject of parody in Sherman Alexie’s book Indian Killer. But despite the criticism from Alexie and other Native writers, Hillerman’s success has sparked imitators. So much so that Morris claims the existence of at least 14 white authors living in nearby Gallup, New Mexico, writing Navajo murder mysteries.

Of course, white appropriation of native identity far predates Tony Hillerman. Arguably the most infamous Indian appropriator is rabid segregationist and Ku Klux Klansman Asa Earl Carter, the former speechwriter for George Wallace who penned the notorious “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” speech. After Wallace’s failed presidential bid and the collapse of segregation in the South, Carter assumed the identity of a Cherokee orphan and began publishing memoirs under the name Forrest Carter, allegedly in honor of KKK founder Nathaniel Bedford Forrest. His 1976 book Education of Little Tree was a critically acclaimed best-seller, and despite being outed as fraudulent decades ago, it is, remarkably, still in print.

Though Carter’s is perhaps the most unusual case of Indian impersonation, there are many others, most of whom romanticize Native spirituality and culture, even though they often misrepresent the culture to suit their spiritual or literary aims. What’s interesting about Nasdijj is that, on the surface, anyway, he doesn’t. The Nasdijj persona lacks the spiritual ambitions that Indian appropriators have historically tried to capitalize on. He mentions Navajo spirituality as if only to prove he is familiar with its conventions. Instead, his preoccupation is the social world: the world of men and especially boys.

His Indians are often both spiritually and monetarily poor, sometimes gay, and have AIDS and FAS; mainly they are powerless and sometimes homeless little boys. There are no parents in their lives, other than the author, and an absence of embracing and strengthening culture. He uses these impoverished characters, including his own persona, as a springboard to attack the dominant white culture, which has, apparently, spurned him. In the pantheon of self-appointed Native spokesmen, this puts him more in the company of contemporary gadfly Ward Churchill, who uses his dubious heritage as a soapbox for an airing of his political ideology and personal grievances.

The question that remains is how these frauds are perpetrated in such abundance. A writer, seemingly white in appearance and lacking anything resembling a verifiable personal history, turns in a manuscript filled with sage-like wisdom from an ancient and secretive people and no one bothers to check the facts? Houghton Mifflin’s Anton Mueller, presumably speaking for the publishing industry at large, has an answer: “As you know, we don’t fact-check books.”

There is a Chinese proverb: How is it that a toad this large comes to stand in front of me?

James Dowaliby can tell you. A former vice president of Paramount International Television Group, he decided to pick up a copy of The Boy after reading a review and noting it was about fatherhood, a topic Dowaliby considers too rare in publishing. A single father himself, Dowaliby was astonished by what he read: “I’d never seen a book that so articulated a father’s love for his son.” Dowaliby knew immediately that this was a film he wanted to make and after securing the rights to the book from Nasdijj he was able to bring FilmFour (the filmmaking arm of Channel 4 in the U.K.) into the project. By the end of 2004, a feature-length adaptation of The Boy was greenlighted for development.

After securing the film rights to The Boyand the Dog are Sleeping and negotiating the deal with FilmFour, in early 2004 Dowaliby was finally ready to get down to the business of making a movie with Nasdijj. What Dowaliby didn’t know at the time was the controversy that nearly derailed his new partner’s burgeoning career four years earlier.

When he received his galley copy of The Blood and determined the book was fraudulent, Sherman Alexie not only refused to blurb the book but openly accused Nasdijj of both manufacturing his identity and plagiarism at a private lunch with Nasdijj’s editor, Anton Mueller. Alexie says he begged Mueller to reconsider releasing the book.

“I said, you’re going to pay for this later — this is not real,” Alexie says.

According to Alexie, however, Mueller was unmoved by their conversation. “Basically his attitude was that it’s a great book and the art is more important than the truth.”

“I know I may sound like Tipper Gore here,” says Alexie, “but we have to hold our art to higher standards.”

Mueller acknowledges he spoke with Alexie but says that he found the allegation of plagiarism to be an “odd claim” and unjustified. Regarding Nasdijj’s supposed Native heritage, he says, “I think even Nasdijj would tell you his own biography or parentage is something he has never been entirely sure of.”

After his unsuccessful meeting with Mueller, Alexie sent a letter to Houghton Mifflin, asserting that the author was a fake who had borrowed heavily from several Native writers, including himself. His accusations were dismissed, however, and the publication went forward. “And every time I bring it up, I’m ignored,” says Alexie.

Alexie’s allegations, however, did have some apparent effect. After The Blood came out, Nasdijj’s then-agent, Heather Schroeder, dropped him and Houghton Mifflin declined to publish his next book. Mueller credits Nasdijj’s erratic behavior as the reason: “To be honest, Nasdijj is simply not the most stable person in the world. It showed up in the editing process. His instability wore me down. Sending inappropriate e-mails to people like Ted Conover. His blog. I couldn’t deal with it.”

Did this unstable behavior lead him to suspect the veracity of Nasdijj’s story? “Well, I didn’t publish a second book with him, so that indicates something. But I would say that it was mainly because of his instability.” Yet Mueller still regards Nasdijj as “one of the most, if not the most talented writer I have ever worked with.”

Nasdijj found a new agent, Andrew Stuart, and eventually secured a multibook deal with Ballantine. The Boy was published with the specter of The Blood hanging over the proceedings.

By the time Dowaliby began trying to make a film version of The Boy, he was stuck with a giant toad standing in the road in front of him. Following a few weeks of discussions, FilmFour and Dowaliby agreed to solicit a prominent British screenwriter, who had previously scripted a film about Navajo code talkers, to adapt the book. The writer had spent significant time on the Navajo Nation researching his film and had acquired a great deal of knowledge and respect for the Navajo culture. Immediately after reading The Boy, however, he called Dowaliby with his concerns.

The writer pointed out several inconsistencies in Nasdijj’s story that he found suspicious, particularly Nasdijj’s mischaracterization of Navajo clanship. “What did I know about clanship?” says Dowaliby. “I had taken Nasdijj for his word.”

For both creative and liability purposes, Dowaliby was already fact-checking the book and he promised the writer he would look into the matter further. Dowaliby then began the almost daily routine of trying to draw honest information from Nasdijj about his past. He had little success. Dowaliby needed specifics; Nasdijj gave him none.

“He just kept recycling the same story about sheep camps and migrant work,” Dowaliby says.

The producer intensified his background check of Nasdijj and found out about the Alexie incident. His doubts grew, and Nasdijj’s responses to his queries only raised more questions. As the deadline for hiring the writer neared, Dowaliby concluded that Nasdijj was either unable or unwilling to confirm the details necessary to back up the truth of his story. He briefly considered simply billing the project as “inspired by true events” or the weaker “based on the book by Nasdijj” and not offering it as true in any fashion. “But admitting it was fiction would have ruined the emotional truth — the core of the book.”

Dowaliby refused to go forward with the film until he got answers. Nasdijj refused to speak with him, claiming that he had moved back to the Navajo reservation. Dowaliby did, however, get a response from Nasdijj’s wife, Tina. Though Dowaliby will not repeat what they discussed in confidence, he admits that she came clean about a number of things. Shortly thereafter it became apparent to him “that this wasn’t just a fraud against the intellectual community, but against the entire Navajo nation, and that Nasdijj needed to apologize.”

Dowaliby then contacted FilmFour and told them the project needed to be dropped. “People like Nasdijj,” he says, “can’t exist without some sort of complicity.”

In the Woods: A recent publicity photo of Nasdijj. Photo by Tina Giovanni
What can you do when the truth isn’t enough?

For as long as white writers have been impersonating Indians, Indians have been exposing them as frauds. Yet despite remarkable investigative successes in uncovering the truth, their efforts have been largely ignored.

“For some reason people lose their sense of discernment when it comes to Indians,” says activist and Indian Country Today columnist Suzan Shown-Harjo.

Harjo, who is Muscogee Creek and Cheyenne, has had her own battles outing those she believes to be Native American impostors. She challenged University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, who gained notoriety last year when he referred to the victims of the 9/11 attacks as “little Eichmanns,” and who claims to be of Cherokee and Creek descent. Though he has no specialized training in the field, he rose through the university ranks to become chair of the Ethnic Studies Department, largely on the basis of his claimed heritage. Yet as Harjo and other journalists have pointed out, he is not an enrolled member of any federally recognized tribe. Likewise, genealogical research carried out by the Rocky Mountain News and several Native journalists could find no trace of Indian blood in Churchill’s family. Despite the insistence of both the Cherokee and Creek nations that Churchill is not one of them, Churchill maintains his position as a professor of ethnic studies and is frequently paid to lecture on Native and political issues around the country. In response to those who question his identity, he simply denies everything and calls his accusers “blood police.”

“Indian identity has nothing to do with blood quantum,” counters Harjo. “You hear that from the phony baloneys trying to attach themselves to some 1,000th particle of Indian blood.”

For Harjo and many Native Americans, the issue of identity extends well beyond the existential or racial question of “Who am I?” It is a legal issue of citizenship. As sovereign entities, tribes have laws that govern who is and isn’t Native. “Someone who’s Italian doesn’t have to look a certain way or be a certain way,” Harjo explains. “They are Italian by virtue of being an Italian citizen. The same is true in Indian country.

“If I go to Italy and say, ‘I think the world of you people. I speak a little Italian, I love spaghetti, so I’m going to be voting in your next election. Give me preference as an Italian citizen as opposed to non-citizens. Give me a job. Give me grant money. And maybe I’m going to carry on your diplomatic relations with other nations,’ people would lock me up. But that’s what happens. The people that step into our world don’t do so in a respectful way. They rush right in and say ‘I’m your leader, I’m the articulator of your culture.’”

But given the response of many, including prominent publishers and Oprah Winfrey, to the James Frey affair — that his message of redemption is true and so who cares about literal untruths — is it possible that Tim Barrus is using the Nasdijj persona as a vehicle for social justice? After all, AIDS and FAS on the reservation have been themes of his for more than six years. Though his methods are misguided, could his intentions be genuine, and if so, what is the problem with that?

“It’s crazy,” says Harjo, “that’s the problem with it. Why can’t you be who you are, a non-Native person, supporting the same things Indians care about? Why do you have to be one of us to support us? That’s a little loopy, isn’t it? So you have to stand back and say why is that person lying about that? And the answer is because people like that don’t do it for altruistic reasons. It’s about profit. They think pretending to be Indian will help them sell more books.”

And provided the complicity of a publisher, they may be right. On many issues, preachy whites simply lack the political and cultural cachet of someone perceived to be Native American.

“My stepfather once told me, if you want anyone in the world to like you, just tell them that you’re Indian,” says Sherman Alexie. “For some reason we are elevated simply because of our race. I’m so popular I could start a cult. I could have 45 German women living with me tomorrow.”

Indeed, the world has had an Indian fetish since the days of P.T. Barnum. Certain steps have been taken to protect cultural integrity — the Native American Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, for instance, makes it a federal crime for anyone not enrolled in or associated with a federally recognized tribe to sell their art as “Indian.” Yet literature, strangely enough, is not covered under the Arts and Craft Act, leaving it vulnerable to exploitation.

“The backbone of multicultural literature,” says Alexie, “is the empathy of its audience — their curiosity for the condition of a group other than themselves. Nasdijj is taking advantage of that empathy.”

If Nasdijj is not Native American, he’s not only misinforming his audience, he’s making it harder for genuine work to come forward. The PEN/Beyond Margins Award is given annually to a Native American writer to help spread “racial and ethnic diversity within the literary and publishing communities.” When Nasdijj accepted the award in 2004, he accepted money and prestige specifically earmarked to help Native Americans share their story.

“The last act of colonialism is for the dominant culture to completely supplant the Native one,” says Alexie. “Nasdijj is disappearing people. With every book he writes he makes Indians disappear.”

In the end it is, ironically, Nasdijj who sums up appropriation most eloquently. In an essay on Louis L’Amour titled “The Saddest Book I Ever Read,” Nasdijj writes, “The accumulated weight of fictions (like L’Amour’s), when added up, form a place that never was and a time that never happened. Fictions like this are murderous. They pass off illusion as fact, stereotype as portraiture... Counterfeit comes to be seen as the genuine article. It kills people. It kills culture. It kills even the shadow of truth.”

Epilogue: When I approached Nasdijj last week, via e-mail after many attempts to find a working phone number, I received a quick reply from someone called Mike Willis, who identified himself as Nasdijj’s assistant. He told me that Nasdijj was high in the Sierra Madres of Mexico without access to phones or the Internet. He offered no sense of when Nasdijj might return, adding that it was “quite sad” that the author couldn’t “defend himself.” When asked for a phone number for either himself or Tina Giovanni, Willis did not reply. Shortly thereafter, Nasdijj’s Web site was taken offline and all mention of his daughter Kree Barrus was removed from the archives of Giovanni’s blog. The next day, that blog was also shut down and queries sent to Nasdijj’s e-mail address went unanswered. But on Monday, the following post appeared on Nasdijj’s blog: “For those seeking Refuge consult the Hyena. Follow those directions to the Old Hotel. To find N, take the stairs to the roof. Bring your medication. The view is magnificent. And safe. You know who you are. Do not answer questions. Sealed. They do not care about you. You know that. Do not be fooled. Someone will. You will connect. Follow the Hyena’s path. Mike.”

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Wilson Pickett dead at 64

Soul singer 'Wicked' Wilson Pickett dead at 64

By Dean GoodmanThu Jan 19, 11:35 PM ET

Veteran soul singer Wilson Pickett, known for such hits as "Mustang Sally" and "In the Midnight Hour," died on Thursday of a heart attack in Virginia, his manager said. He was 64.

Pickett, an Alabama native famed for his trademark screams, flaming delivery and flamboyant costumes, performed on a regular basis until about a year ago, when he began suffering from health problems, said his manager, Margo Lewis.

Dubbed "Wicked" Wilson Pickett by Jerry Wexler, the co-founder of Atlantic Records, where he enjoyed his greatest success, Pickett was one of the leading exponents of the hard-edged Memphis sound, a grittier alternative to the pop singles being churned out by Motown Records in Detroit.

Often recording with the house band of Memphis-based Stax Records, Booker T and the MGs, he enjoyed a long string of hits during the 1960s, including the R&B chart-toppers "634-5789," "Land of 1,000 Dances" and "Funky Broadway."

"We've lost a giant, we've lost a legend, we've lost a man who created his own charisma and made it work around the world," soul singer Solomon Burke, a close friend of Pickett's, told Reuters. "It's just hard for me to really grasp that Wilson is already traveling toward the greater place."

"In the Midnight Hour" was his breakthrough hit, transforming the relative unknown into a soul sensation virtually overnight in 1965. Pickett co-wrote the tune with MGs guitarist Steve Cropper in about an hour, and it spent a week atop the R&B singles chart in August of that year.


His luck ran out by the early 1970s, when he switched labels and suffered what he once described as a "career breakdown." An ambitious plan hatched in 1981 to tour as the "Soul Clan" with fellow R&B veterans Solomon Burke, Joe Tex, Don Covay and Ben E. King quickly fizzled.

Somewhat bitter about his diminishing fortunes, he endured various domestic disputes, and got into trouble with the law during the 1990s for cocaine possession and drunk-driving.

Burke said Pickett had turned his life around, and the two of them were planning to reunite with King, Covay and "Mustang Sally" songwriter Mack Rice to record an album this year.

Born March 18, 1941 in Prattville, Alabama, Pickett grew up in a poor household with 10 brothers and sisters, an abusive mother, and a preacher grandfather who beat him whenever he sang secular songs. He moved up to Detroit in his mid-teens to live with his father, and quickly gravitated to the sounds being purveyed by the likes of local singers Jackie Wilson and Little Willie John.

Although he considered himself a gospel singer, Pickett was invited to join an R&B group called the Falcons. He wrote and sang lead on their 1962 hit "I Found A Love." He became a prolific songwriter and enjoyed a handful of modest solo hits including "If You Need Me," a tune that was also covered by both Burke and the Rolling Stones.


Pickett signed with Atlantic in 1964, and was sent down to record in Memphis after his first few singles disappeared without a trace. "Midnight Hour," one of three recorded in one night, became the subject of an authorship dispute in later years. Pickett told music writer Gerri Hirshey in her 1984 book "Nowhere to Run" that he deserved sole credit. Cropper told Reuters a decade later that Pickett was "completely crazy" and "had nothing to do with writing that music."

Although Pickett was best known for his urgent, propulsive tunes, he also earned acclaim with non-R&B fare, most notably his 1969 cover of the Beatles' "Hey Jude," which featured Duane Allman on guitar. He also recorded bold interpretations of such tunes as Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" and even make-believe group the Archies' "Sugar, Sugar."

Pickett was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, and experienced a career renaissance that same year with the release of the movie "The Commitments," which revolved around a Dublin band that idolized him. He released his last album, the Grammy-nominated "It's Harder Now," in 1999.

He is survived by a fiancée, two sons and two daughters. A viewing will take place in Virginia next week, and then he will be interred with his mother in Louisville, Kentucky, his manager said.

(Additional reporting by Dean Goodman)

Monday, January 16, 2006

Rick Rubin, Song Doctor

Washington Post
The 'Song Doctor' Is In
From Audioslave to Neil Diamond, Recording Artists Know Producer Rick Rubin's Touch Is a Powerful Tonic

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 15, 2006; N01

LOS ANGELES It's impolite to stare, but since Rick Rubin is in a meditative state, his eyes sealed, there's little chance he'll catch you gawking.

And so you lean forward to study the iconoclastic record producer's beard up close. What a sight!

Rubin's hirsute hallmark is wiry and unruly, its craggy tips resembling a seismic reading. Nearly as long as it is wide, the salt-and-pepper beard droops to Rubin's chest; given his sprawling bald spot, it's as if there'd been a hairslide on his ample mug and nobody bothered to clean up the mess.

Maybe they were all just afraid: With his similarly unkempt hair, Rubin can appear ridiculously imposing, almost Hell's Angelic -- though in his current state of tranquillity, he sort of resembles Confucius, or maybe David Crosby during his nodding-off days.

And . . . and suddenly Rubin is staring right back, with piercing blue-green eyes.

Gulp .

"Isn't it beautiful?" he says softly.

He smiles. You nod.

He nods. You blink.

"It really feels like we captured a moment in the studio," he finally says.

Oh, right -- he's not talking about his beard , silly! It's the Neil Diamond song that's been thundering over the outrageously high-end stereo system here in the library of Rubin's magnificent Hollywood Hills home.

Rubin is playing one of his favorite tracks from "12 Songs," the riveting album he coaxed out of Diamond last year. It was the crooner's best-reviewed work in decades, landing on more than a few music critics' best-of-2005 lists; "12 Songs" also resonated with fans, reaching the No. 4 Billboard ranking -- Diamond's highest chart position in 25 years.

Not that the success was a surprise, given Rubin's record for producing critical and commercial hits -- particularly in 2005, when the sonic swami sandblasted the upper reaches of the charts and repainted them in all of his favorite colors. Gold and platinum, to be precise.

You may not have heard of Rick Rubin, but you've definitely heard Rick Rubin, whose variety-pack soundtrack has become inescapable. The mercurial master of many domains, from rap and metal to country and Top 40, Rubin is probably the only producer in pop music capable of restoring Diamond's relevance while also making the art-metal band System of a Down sound sublime. Twice.

Two System albums ("Mezmerize" and "Hypnotize") headbanged their way to No. 1 last year, and Rubin had a hand in five more albums that reached the Billboard Top 5, plus an eighth that narrowly missed the Top 10.

Few producers have that sort of success in a career, let alone a single year. And certainly none do it working with such a broad range of artists: Dubbed "the king of rap" two decades ago by the Village Voice, Rubin has traded up to "the most successful producer of any genre," according to Rolling Stone. (Whether most successful means most moneyed, though, is unclear. Asked later what his net worth is, Rubin says, through a publicist, "No idea.")

The scorecard doesn't lie. Rubin's hits last year also included Audioslave's hard-rock album "Out of Exile," which went to No. 1, and Weezer's alt-rocker "Make Believe," which hit No. 2. There were also the two albums Rubin executive-produced for the hip-swiveling Colombian pop star Shakira ("Fijacion Oral Vol. 1" and "Oral Fixation Vol. 2," both Top 5 U.S. entries), plus "The Legend of Johnny Cash," a country retrospective that included six songs produced by Rubin. The Cash collection reached No. 11.

There was so much success that Rubin sometimes employs the royal we in discussing it.

"It feels nice that all the work we've done over the last 10 years has built up to this point," he says. "It's a testament to hard work; we're really not fooling around."

He adds: "I'm just trying to make my favorite music. That's how I work; I just do things based on the way they feel to me. I want to be touched by the music I'm making. Luckily, other people have shared that response to my work over the years."

And here, by the way, is how Rubin responds to his own work: While Diamond's song "Oh Mary" plays, its producer is entranced, his eyes closed, his bearish body swaying as he sits on a couch, barefoot, legs folded in the lotus position. As the track reaches a crescendo and Diamond's portentous baritone soars over a swelling string arrangement, Rubin leans back, as though floored by the emotional power of the song.

And he strokes that beard vigorously.

It's great to be Rick Rubin!

The respect! The royalty checks! The Rolls-Royce! The painstakingly restored 1923 mansion perched above Sunset Strip! The weekend house up the coast! The assistant who can be summoned from the next room via BlackBerry when he's thirsty for a bottle of organic unsweetened iced passion-fruit green tea! Ah, trappings.

Then again, there's work itself. That part is not so great, Rubin laments.

"I've really lived the last 20 years of my life in a recording studio," he says. "It's yielded great artistic results, but I don't know how good it's been for my life. I can't say it's always the happiest existence."

His sorrowful eyes seem to confirm this.

Rubin has a girlfriend and plenty of pals -- many of them famous. (Actor Owen Wilson, Rubin says, is "probably my best friend.") But he's consumed by his work, of which there's plenty. Just consider his current schedule: He's producing something like a half-dozen projects, for the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dixie Chicks and former boy-band idol Justin Timberlake.

"We put everything we have into it all the time, whatever it takes," he says. "If we're going to do it, let's aim for greatness. Because, honestly, the physical act of documenting the ideas that you have is not fun. So if it's not going to be great, I'd much rather go swimming. Really. I might rather go swimming anyway. But at least aiming for greatness is a good foil for not being in the water."
The Tao of Rap

Since Rubin produced his first two rap singles in 1984, while attending film school at New York University, he's amassed a discography that's more than 90 albums long, a catalogue that's sold in excess of 100 million. What is the Rick Rubin sound? There isn't one. Just that signature standard for greatness, as Rubin's résumé includes more than a few classic albums.

There are the early rap masterworks (L.L. Cool J's "Radio," Run-D.M.C.'s "Raising Hell," the Beastie Boys' "Licensed to Ill") and the landmark rock albums (the Chili Peppers' "BloodSugarSexMagik," Slayer's "Reign in Blood," System of a Down's "Toxicity"), plus the series of superlative recordings Rubin made with Cash over the last decade of the country legend's life.

"Rick is a brilliant producer, probably the greatest producer alive," says Dan Charnas, a music journalist who worked as vice president of A&R and marketing at Rubin's American Recordings label in the 1990s. "He's fantastic with sound and arrangements, and he's tremendous with artists. They love him. He shows them how to make it better, and he gets more honest and exciting performances out of people than anyone."

Or, as Timberlake told MTV News this month: "I saw Chris Rock out one night, and he said, 'You know who you should work with? Rick Rubin. He never does anything bad.' I was like, 'You've got a point.' "

If you enter Rubin's inner sanctum expecting to find chaos, mayhem and noise, you're bound to trip over your own disappointment.

He might still have an affinity for the kind of loud, confrontational music that makes adults twitchy. (See: Down, System of a. Or Slipknot.)

And the formidable man once dubbed "The Devil" by co-workers might look like a ZZ Top roadie, given his Buddha belly and beard, plus his penchant for wearing shades, jeans and oversize T-shirts. (Cash, upon first meeting Rubin, thought the producer looked like a hobo, in "clothes that would make a wino proud.")

But Rubin, at 42, is a man in search of peace.

The first sign is literally a sign as you enter his multilevel house, which also doubles as Rubin's primary recording studio: "Quiet Please, Meditation in Progress," it reads.

Inside, the place reeks of antiques and incense. Rubin apologizes for being wet, saying he's just taken a swim. He then leads you past the den, where a massive Buddha statue sits between two speaker towers, and into his library. There are black-and-white photos everywhere of Hendrix, Churchill, John and Yoko, and the bookshelves are heavy with path-to-enlightenment volumes, among other topics. A small dog follows Rubin to the couch, passing a taxidermied polar bear along the way. The bear, it's worth noting, is missing the middle digit on one of its paws.

Outside the French doors, beyond the twin palm trees, you can see L.A. in all its seedy, hazy, gridlocked glory. But you can't hear it; save for the sound of a helicopter that passes overhead, it's quiet in here. And bright. The room is bathed in sunlight, which is surprising given Rubin's reputation for leading a vampire existence.

"It's part of my constant move toward better things," he says. "When I wake up in the morning now, I even spend 20 minutes in the sun. When it was suggested to me, it sounded like jumping off a cliff. I always slept late, wore dark glasses, spent more time up and out at night. But I changed my hours two years ago, so I wake up in the shock of the sun before 9, and there's more natural light, and I really love it." He adds that he even takes two hours of "quiet time" when he wakes.

As his words trail off, the house falls eerily silent. Rubin seems to revel in the complete absence of noise -- a somewhat peculiar thing given that his life and livelihood revolve around sound, much of it "noizy."

But Rubin, who calls himself "a spiritual quester," says his favorite place to be these days is his second home in the coastal California town of Point Dume. "It's so quiet there," Rubin says. "I love that."

When he does venture out, it's often to dine at his favorite organic vegan restaurant in West Hollywood. (Rubin is a vegan, albeit one who wore a floor-length fur coat in Jay-Z's "99 Problems" video three years ago.) Mostly, though, he's home reading. Or listening to Bach. Or meditating.

"It's a big theme in my life, learning about myself and being a better person," he says. "I'm a work in progress; I have revelations every day."

Rubin is engaging, thoughtful and warm. He seems . . . sweet.

The cynic in you begins to wonder if he's putting you on.

This is, after all, the same guy who used to date a porn star, who once owned part of a wrestling league, who went to the First Amendment mat for Slayer, Geto Boys and Andrew "Dice" Clay -- abrasive artists who recorded, under Rubin's production guidance, some of the most shocking, controversial albums of the past 25 years, with unflinching tracks about murder, Satanic worship, necrophilia and Nazism.

So you check one of Rubin's references. Over the phone later, Neil Diamond says that the New Agey Rick Rubin is real.

"Despite his appearance, which can be really intimidating, Rick's a really good, sweet person," Diamond says. "He's really likable and sincere, and he's very easy to be with."

He laughs, then offers an addendum: "He certainly wasn't easygoing in the studio. He's a passionate, obsessive person, like I am. But I have so much respect for the guy. He's talented, and he knows music and he brings a fresh perspective." Diamond says he's itching to work with Rubin again: "I'm already writing songs for the next album."
The Tracks Ahead

What direction that project might take is anybody's guess. Including Rubin's.

"I never have a preconceived idea," he says. "I think that's one of the secrets of doing it, is not having any expectation of what it's supposed to be. You just let it take on a life of its own. Our job is to pay attention and watch and know when it's good. We just wait for those moments and try to capture them."

For Rubin, the production process begins well before entering the studio downstairs.

Songwriting is critical, he says. Always has been.

In 1984, when Rubin was trying to launch a record label out of his dorm room at NYU, he implored an aspiring teen rapper to add traditional song structure to his work, figuring that if it worked for the Beatles, it should work for everyone else. Rubin signed the artist shortly thereafter, and L.L. Cool J would become rap's biggest solo star. (Def Jam Records, the label Rubin founded with rap impresario Russell Simmons, didn't do so badly, either.)

A few years later, while working as a freelance producer for the Chili Peppers, Rubin was intrigued by an entry he'd discovered in one of lead singer Anthony Kiedis's notebooks. It was a poem about overcoming heroin addiction, and Rubin talked the reluctant singer into presenting it to the band. "Under the Bridge" would become the Chili Peppers' breakthrough hit.

"I don't even know what a traditional producer is or does," says Rubin, who unlike many other producers doesn't do the hands-on work with sound boards and such. "I feel like the job is like being a coach, building good work habits and building trust. You want to get to a point where you can say anything and talk about anything. There needs to be a real connection. My goal is to just get out of the way and let the people I'm working with be their best."

Says Daron Malakian, the principal songwriter for System of a Down: "Production with Rick doesn't mean you're going to sit in a studio. It might mean you go to a record store or to the beach. Or you go for a drive. You bond as people first. And then you get these songs, and Rick's like the song doctor.

"If you play something for him, it's like going in for a checkup. He's like, 'Here, take a couple of these vitamins and see how you feel.' And the songs always feel better after his suggestions. And so do you. He's just so easy to be around. That's why people keep going back to him."

Frederick Jay Rubin grew up in Long Island, in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. He was, he says, smothered and spoiled by his parents, Mickey and Linda. His father worked in the wholesale shoe business, but his parents hoped their only child would become a doctor or a lawyer.

A fan of hard rock (AC/DC, Aerosmith) and punk (Black Flag, the Germs), Rubin was something of an outcast in school, wearing black leather and sunglasses and playing guitar in a hardcore band that landed a few gigs at the legendary New York rock club CBGB. He enrolled at NYU and had every intention of applying to law school until rap got in the way.

Enamored of what he considered to be black punk rock, Rubin was a regular at hip-hop clubs throughout New York but was disappointed by most of the studio recordings coming out of the burgeoning rap scene. So he began shopping his services as a producer.

"I'd buy the new hip-hop records -- and in those days you bought all of them, since there were only between three and five singles every week -- and they'd be these disco songs with guys rapping on them," he says. "And most of them were not good. I wondered what it would be like if a record felt and sounded like being at a club instead of trying to sound like a record."

In 1984 Rubin produced his first single, "It's Yours," for T La Rock and Jazzy Jay. Within two months the spartan song -- built around beats, rhymes and little else -- was one of the biggest rap hits in New York. Among those taking notice was Russell Simmons, a music promoter from Queens who also managed his kid brother's group, Run-D.M.C.

Simmons was shocked to discover that "It's Yours" -- which he'd declared the "blackest" song he'd ever heard -- was produced by a Jewish kid from Long Island. "For a long time I was the only white person in that world," Rubin says. "But it wasn't like I was let into a secret society. I was just the only one who cared. It was such a little underground scene at that point."
Room 712

Not for long.

In late 1984, Simmons and Rubin joined forces to launch Def Jam out of Room 712 at NYU's Weinstein Hall, with Rubin's parents fronting $5,000 for the venture. Soon, Def Jam landed a $2 million distribution deal with Columbia and the hits began coming, including L.L. Cool J's marvelously minimalist 1985 album "Radio" ("reduced by Rick Rubin," according to the credit).

At the age of 22, Rubin graduated from NYU and began working on albums by Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys. Obnoxious and bratty, the Beasties' 1986 debut, "Licensed to Ill," exploded rap's sonic boundaries (adding punk and metal to the mix) and blew up its demographic demarcations, too, by hooking masses of white suburban kids. "Licensed" became the first rap LP to land atop the Billboard pop chart. Along with "Walk This Way," the groundbreaking rap-rock summit recorded by Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith at Rubin's behest, the Beastie Boys album helped shove hip-hop into the mainstream.

As Def Jam flourished, though, Rubin's relationship with Simmons suffered. He also began turning his attention back to rock. By late 1988, Rubin divorced himself not just from Def Jam but from the East Coast entirely, moving to Los Angeles to launch Def American, "a label about American values." Hah!

Def American -- which eventually dropped "Def" from its name -- hardly trafficked in the sort of stuff you'd expect to find on William Bennett's iPod. Not with a controversial roster that included the Geto Boys, Slayer and such.

"I guess edgy things tend to get my attention," Rubin says. "But it wasn't the fact that it was offensive that made me like it. There were other offensive records that came out that I didn't like and wouldn't support, like 2 Live Crew. The music is what drives me; I just like great art and music, even if it's great and ordinary. But if it's great and it happens to be offensive, too, then that makes it even more exciting."

Rubin entered into a partnership with Time Warner that was reported to be worth between $75 million and $100 million, and his label jumped out to a fast start with bestsellers from the likes of the Black Crowes and Sir Mix-a-Lot. But the hits eventually stopped coming, even as Rubin was having success producing work for artists signed to other labels (Mick Jagger, the Chili Peppers, Tom Petty). And by the mid-'90s, he was in a dark place emotionally -- though it wasn't necessarily the stuff "Behind the Music" is made of, given that Rubin doesn't drink and says he's never done drugs. But still.

"We were going through a cold period, and it didn't feel good," he says. "I'd never had to deal with anything like that in my life. My work was being questioned, and it really shook me. It's a normal real-world experience, and if I'd had a different upbringing, it probably would've been nothing. But I was a spoiled only child, and I'd had success professionally from the beginning. There were certain issues that I didn't have to deal with before that were stirred up. I went through a period of depression."

Here, Rubin takes a deep breath, as if instructed by a yogi.

"I think I probably relate better to some of the artists now," he says after a few beats. "Because when they're in pain, I know what it feels like. . . . I'm definitely a different person now, and in a lot of ways I'm a better person. Probably not universally. But I like where I am."

Eventually the talk returns to music and to the country legend with whom Rubin forged a special bond. He offers to play a song from the posthumous Johnny Cash album he's readying, then digs through a stack of CDs and cues up the stereo.

As Cash's haunting spirit fills the room, Rubin again shuts his eyes. And this time, you do, too.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Sensational interview with Taarab scholar Kelly Askew

Go to the original at Afropop Worldwide: http://www.afropop.org/multi/interview/ID/81/Kelly+Askew-2005

Kelly Askew-2005

Place and Date: Ann Arbor, Michigan
Interviewer: Banning Eyre

Excellent book on Taarab music by Kelly Askew

Kelly Askew is a professor of Anthropology, and of African and Afroamerican Studies at the University of Michigan. She lived in Tanga, Tanzania, studying taarab music from 1992-95, and published “Performing the Nation: Swahili Music and Cultural Politics in Tanzania” in 2002 (University of Chicago Press). Banning Eyre interviewed her in August, 2005, for the program East African Taarab. Here’s the complete text of their conversation.

Banning Eyre.: Welcome to Afropop Worldwide.

Kelly Askew.: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

B.E.: First, why don't you tell us a bit of your story as a musician and scholar, and how you ended up in Tanzania.

K.A.: I started playing piano when I was about seven years old or so, and continued all the way through high school. I attended a school for the performing arts in California, where I grew up, in Los Angeles, and continued on in college as a music major at Yale University. But I also discovered in college anthropology, and discovered I had a second love in life, and decided to find a way in which I could merge my two interests. Hence ethnomusicology, which became my application.

Map of East African trade routes (Eyre)

B.E.: And Tanzania?

K.A.: I ended up in Tanzania because I went to Yale, which has a very esteemed African Studies program and they teach Swahili, and although I thought my heart was in West Africa. Originally, I thought I was headed towards India. But I discovered that the Swahili program was too good to pass up, and that there are Indians in East Africa as well. So I thought my original project was to study Indian music in East Africa, and try to see whether there was any sort of interesting hybrid stuff going on there, only to discover when I first went to Africa as a Junior in college for a summer project, that the Indian community is very purist about their music. They import the musicians for their events, and music is one of the ways that they maintain their separateness as a community. So what was more interesting to me was taarab music, which I discovered on that same trip in 1987. So this is Swahili coastal music, but very, very welcoming of any kind of musical influences from anywhere abroad, including the West, India, and the Middle East. It's very much an amalgam of all these different musical traditions.

B.E.: So that quality of openness and inclusiveness was more interesting to you as a scholar?

K.A.: Yes. The music was a little hard to get used to at first. Just because of the different aesthetics, and the preparation that I had as a classical pianist. The melodic structures were quite different. Of course, the rhythmic structures were different. Everything was different about it. The quality, the voice, the timbre. All of that were things I had to get used to. But once I did, I fell in love with it. And 18 years later, I am still working on it.

B.E.: Some of our listeners may be confused about the term “taarab.” We’ve talked a lot about tarab, “the art of ecstasy in Arabic music,” to use A.J. Racy’s nice phrase. This is something different in East Africa, isn’t it?

K.A.: Yes. The word itself means "to move the heart." It means to feel feelings of rapture and ecstasy, and it’s often used as an adjective in describing other kinds of music outside the East African phenomenon. When you speak about any form of Middle Eastern music, we can talk about it as having evoked taarab in them, or being a great example of taarab. But when we speak about taarab in East Africa, we are speaking about a very specific form of sung, Swahili poetry, that emerged… at some point in the 19th century, and became very, very popular in the 20th century, early 20th-century and into the late 20th century.

Excellent double CD of taarab and kidumbak music

B.E.: That’s great. Help us put East African taarab in a historical context. Let's start with a little pre-colonial history. What we know about Tanzania before the Arabs arrived, and then you can bring us up to the Arab, and European phases.

K.A.: Tanzania as it is now only came into existence in 1964. Before that, it was part of the Bantu area of Africa. The Bantu language family originated more in West Central Africa, and the Bantu people spread out through eastern, western and southern Africa. So Swahili is a Bantu language in its noun and verb forms and its grammatical structure, and there are over 120 different ethnic groups in Tanzania, which makes it very diverse, especially compared with some of its neighbors. So, for instance, in Zimbabwe I believe there are two major groups, the Shona and the Ndebele. And in South Africa you have 10 or 11 national languages. Compare that to Tanzania with 120. It's quite a diverse place.

So, you had various types of political organizations, you had some kingdoms, and no one major group that really dominated, or even two or three. Sukuma were pretty powerful, and Nyamwezi. They controlled trade routes. But the Swahili people who grew up, sort of developed or emerged along the coast. Swahili, the term, comes from the Arabic word sawahil, which means margin or coast. So the Swahili are the people of the coast. It also comes from the word sahel, which again means on the margins, sahel being the border of the Sahara Desert. So the Swahili are the people of the coast, and they really emerged as an economic power in being able to control the trade between the African hinterland, the overland caravan routes, and also the ocean trade, crossing the Indian Ocean. They were ideally situated to exploit both ocean and land routes of trade, and they did very well for themselves, developing this wonderful maritime but land-based economic trading culture that still had some agricultural elements to it as well as fishing communities and things like that.

The Swahili have been documented for at least 2000 years if not more. Some archaeological evidence implies that there were communities going back as many as 3 to 4000 years ago, and then Arabs started making their appearance in the area soon after the death of the Prophet Mohamed, coming down to proselytize, to convert people to Islam. And then the Portuguese appeared with Vasco de Gama. In the late 1400s, 1498. So Portugal entered into the region as a colonial power, only to be supplanted ultimately by Oman, and then Germany, and then England.

B.E.: So you had some 3000 years of what we call Swahili culture, but the name “Swahili” didn't come about until the Arabs came about in maybe the eighth century, maybe even later. Is that right?

K.A.: Even then they didn't really use that term. They used more the term Zanj.

Tippu Tip portrait. (2004-Eyre)

B.E.: So Zanj is older term for Swahili?

K.A.: Yes. They referred to the coast as Zanj. They also referred to it as Azania. Ibn Batuta wrote about it as Zanj.

B.E.: And he was writing in the 14th century.

K.A.: That was 1331. But Ptolemy wrote about it as Zanjian in about 150 AD. And also the anonymous writer of the Periplus, in about 48 the referred to it as Azania.

B.E.: So what is the earliest use of the term Swahili?

K.A.: I don't know that we know that. But because of the word meaning coast, people from outside simply referred to as the people from the coast.

B.E.: When we talk about Swahili culture today, it is both an island or coastal and the mainland phenomenon, and somewhat uncomfortably so it seems. This is jumping ahead a little bit, but talk about the Swahili identity today.

K.A.: Well, there aren't that many people who self-identify as Swahili, ironically. This actually served nationalist purposes later on, which we might talk about. Swahili culture doesn't have the same rigidity to it, or concreteness, as many other ethnic groups. So for instance, from Tanzania, you might talk about Sukuma culture with more concreteness. People would identify as Sukuma, they would identify as Nyamwezi, they would identify as Chagga. But people don't often say, "I am a Swahili." They will say I'm from the coast, or they will talk about the city from which they are from. Some people from Mombasa, Kenya, talk about being Sefita. People from the northern canyon coast, talk about being Waahmu. People from Zanzibar call themselves Wanguja. Swahili has oftentimes taken on negative connotations, which is why people don't self identify as such now. When people talk about, "Oh, he is such a Swahili," the connotation is that he's shifty, or not fully honest somehow, deceitful, not somebody who is straightforward, somebody that you would want to deal with.

Back view from Tippu Tip's house (2004-Eyre)

B.E.: That's interesting. I wasn't aware of that. When you think that came in? What is the history of that?

K.A.: If I would hazard a guess, it has to do with the economic position of the Swahili, being in that position to negotiate between Inland traders and overseas traders. Everyone had to place their trust in these middlemen, and then not really deal directly with the purchasers of their goods, or the sellers of their goods. So, maybe because of that, people were not 100% sure that they were being told the truth by that middleman, having to invest faith in that person, and knowing that people are in it for their own profit as well. The term has over time also had multiple meanings attached to it. In political circles, people would identify as Swahili as a way of sort of taking on a nationalist persona, not a tribal persona. So there have been occasions when, the first president of Tanzania Julius Nyerere, for example, said, "I am a Swahili." Even though it’s well-known he's not from the coast at all. In fact, he's from the place farthest away from the coast, a small island in Lake Victoria. He is from an ethnic group called the Zanaki. So for him to say he's Swahili, clearly this is not in an ethnic sense, but in national sense.

B.E.: That's fascinating. And he did that as part of his political vision of unifying people, right? You write in your book that Nyerere succeeded in Swahili-izing—if that’s a word-- the country more than many neighboring countries. He wanted to create a national culture, and this struck him as a good way to do it. Is that correct?

K.A.: Correct. The advantage of having Swahili be an ethnic term that is not necessarily a positive one is that it was lying there to be used by others for broader national purposes. So that is what Julius Nyerere did. He took this name, this label, and this language. The language is the key element there, because by that point, due to the caravan routes, due to the importance of the Swahili middlemen in those routes, the language, Kiswahili, had spread far and wide along the caravan routes, and beyond, up and down the coast. So you had this national language, essentially already in use, that was far beyond anyone ethnic area, that would be usable for nationalist, unifying purposes, when you are a new country that has just come out of this difficult colonial history, and you've got 120 ethnic groups that you've got to convince that they belong to something bigger than themselves. So Julius Nyerere did tap into that, and because the Swahili themselves don't affiliate with each other in any sort of political or jurisdictional, economic sense, as a unit, it made it very easy to use Swahili without being charged with favoritism, saying that you are elevating one group over others. Because there was no Swahili group there to be perceived as favorites.

Old Stone Fort (Eyre-2004)

B.E.: That explains a lot. Let's now shift our focus to taarab music. Maybe as a setup, you can tell us how it came to be that in the early 19th century, you had an Omani sultan in Zanzibar.

K.A.: The history of taarab, officially, began during the reign of Sultan Barghash of Zanzibar. Now, how did Zanzibar and up with sultans? I mentioned briefly that Oman came in as the colonial force. They routed out the Portuguese from East Africa, when people from East Africa went to Oman and asked for assistance to come and take out the Portuguese. They didn't like being under Portuguese rule, and Oman had succeeded in routing the Portuguese in their neck of the woods. At this point anyway, the Sultan of Oman, a man named Seyyid Said, he derived a lot of his wealth already from the ocean networks that ships travel between East Africa and the Middle East and South Asia. By that point, East Africa was a major supplier not only of ivory but of gold and rhinoceros horns, Amber, precious luxury goods that could not be obtained elsewhere. The ivory from Africa was of higher value than the ivory from India. It is harder I believe. So there were certain goods that he was already capitalizing on quite heavily. So he realized at some point in the early 1800s that he had to go and protect the trade roots, and being out on the tip of the Persian Gulf, he was quite far from where the action was. He could be encroached upon by other powers. So he picked up his entire retinue, his court, and moved everyone to Zanzibar some time in the 1830s, and established himself there as Sultan of Zanzibar and Oman, leaving behind in Oman a son of his to control that part of his domain.

So in Zanzibar, upon his death, he had numerous sons. Although he had just one wife, he had numerous concubines and lots and lots of children. There was a series of successions over the throne, and one of the sons that came to power was a man named Barghash. He did not immediately succeed his father. He tried to, but was usurped by another brother, and sent off into exile for having attempted to take the throne by force. When he was in exile, we're told that he spent quite a lot of time in India and traveling the world, and he saw court life in other parts of the world and decided that when he would return to Zanzibar-- and he was quite sure that he would at some point return as Sultan-- that he would develop a court life like he found elsewhere, a major component of which is music. There was court music, and court musicians in other courts that he visited, so when he became Sultan, as he did in the 1880s, he brought musicians from Egypt to come and play court music for having and his court, and he also sent musicians to be trained in Egypt, and he ordered instruments and created this court music that was pretty much an Egyptian court music transplanted to Zanzibar.

However, that didn't last very long, and over time, the music became very much indigenized. Instead of singing in Arabic, people started to sing in Swahili. Instead of using exclusively Arabic rhythms, and the maqamat, or modal system found in Middle Eastern music, they started incorporating African rhythms, and also a lot of Western rhythms, foxtrot, waltzes, cha-cha-cha. In the early 1900s, these were the popular rhythms in taarab music.

Sea view from Tippu Tip's (2004-Eyre)

B.E.: So you are saying that the Arabic modes and rhythms didn't last long it all. It is not a recent thing that they fell out of the music. It seems that happened even in the first 20 years.

K.A.: Yes. Some of that has remained, especially in the form of the bashraf. The bashraf are the instrumental interludes that start any given concert in Zanzibar. It's really a Zanzibar and possibly a Dar es Salaam phenomenon. Those two areas have retained more. And the proximity of Dar to Zanzibar of course is a factor. Today, it's a two-hour boat ride. It's 24 miles through this short channel. So they have retained the bashraf, which typically does use Arabic rhythms and Arabic maqam. Beyond that, there's not much that has been retained. Although, in Mombasa, Kenya, there is still some Arabic taarab that is performed today to my knowledge.

B.E.: Politically speaking, this Omani Zanzibar sultanate exercised power on the mainland as well, didn't it?

K.A.: I talked about Sultan Seyyid bin Said, the first Sultan of Zanzibar. He really was able to build up the economy of Zanzibar such that they used to say, "when the pipes play in Zanzibar, people dance at the lakes," meaning Lake Victoria, and Lake Tanganyika, all away across the other side of East Africa. Sultan Said introduced plantation agriculture, and developed the clove industry in Zanzibar, which became its prime product for 100 years or more, and really developed Zanzibar into this huge economic force. His son, the one who is often associated with the start of taarab, Barghash, ruled Zanzibar from 1870 to 1888, and he inherited this powerful domain that his father had built-up and was able to continue it. But it was substantially weakened, because by then, the British had come in and started to employ indirect rule by claiming Zanzibar as a protectorate, and ruling through the Sultan, but really being the power force at that point.

Church built on old Slave Market

B.E.: How to slavery fit into this story?

K.A.: The East African slave trade started out later than the Atlantic one. Slaves were traded on the East African coast, but they were not a commodity of importance until quite late, relatively speaking as slavery goes. The West African slave trade was up and running certainly in the 15th through the 18th, even 19th-century. But in East Africa, slaves didn't become a commodity of importance until really late in the 18th and into the 19th century. Slaves did not become a commodity of importance until the reign of Sultan Seyyid Said, because he was the one who introduced plantation agriculture with the clove industry. At that point, they needed an influx of slaves. There were slaves being sent out early to the Middle East, to what's now Iraq. There were Zanj being sent to Iraq quite early. In 1200, there was a very famous revolt, the Zanj Revolt of black slaves in Iraq, who drained the marsh land. The revolt was so successful that Arabs in that region decided not to employ massive amounts of slaves because it proved too costly to maintain order over them. So large-scale slavery didn't really picked up on the East African side of things until the French got involved in things with the sugar plantations in Mauritius and the Seychelles, and then the clove industry in Zanzibar. That's in the early 19th century.

B.E.: You mentioned that there is an alternative narrative about the origins of taarab.

Spices in Stonetown, Zanzibar (2004-Eyre)

K.A.: Yes, absolutely. The official script is one that I have been fighting against for awhile in my work, along with a couple of other scholars. We are of the opinion that taarab often gets overlooked for the way in which it developed on the coast, not only on Zanzibar, on the island, in the Sultan’s palaces, but how taarab emerged just through ordinary interactions among musicians on boats, who came in through these Indian Ocean networks, meeting up with musicians they met on the docks, and sharing musical ideas back and forth. Through those musical interactions, those very unrecorded, undocumented interchanges between people just sharing music and coming up with some interesting sounds together-- that is where I would say taarab also developed on the coast. And there you have, as opposed to the really imposed Middle Eastern sound, you had something else emerging that was very much syncretic from the get go. It didn't have to be sycretized after-the-fact, but was syncretic from the get go, with different musical instruments being contributed to the mix, as well as musical ideas, in terms of really, melody, and form.

B.E.: So this official version about Barghash and musicians from Egypt has gained currency because people so often repeat it. But is there any political significance to these two narratives? Or is it one of just people repeating the story and not questioning it?

K.A.: I think it's that. I think people have just accepted it. It has been repeated so often that people assume that is indeed the start of taarab. What is true is that Zanzibar taarab really was very, very dominant in part because of a particular singer by the name of Siti binti Saad who became wildly famous throughout East Africa and beyond. She did some recordings in Bombay in the late 20s, and those recordings circulated, so she got some fame outside of East Africa, but within East Africa, she was certainly a big hit in the 1930s. Zanzibar's version of taarab, because it got the official support from the court, did get to get recorded and played. By the way, do you also know the book by Laura Fair? She wrote a book called Pastimes and Politics [Culture, Community, and Identity in Post-Abolition Urban Zanzibar, 1890 –1945: Ohio University Press, 2001] She has a whole chapter on Siti binti Saad. [Editor: Kelly subsequently provided this chapter and it is an excellent essay, indispensable to anyone interested in Siti Binti Saad!]

BE.: Who is Siti binti Saad?

K.A.: Siti binti Saad was a woman of slave ancestry who became a very, very famous taarab singer, whose voice became known outside of Zanzibar, certainly all up and down the East African coast, and beyond, because she was lucky enough to be taken introduced a recordings in Bombay, I think on the HMV label, and became a phenomenon far and wide. So her name became affiliated with taarab in a way that nobody else has since.

Siti Bint Saad (2004-Eyre)

B.E.: You write that she became responsible for “Africanizing" the taarab genre.

K.A.: She Africanized it because, although she was one of the first women taken in to sing for the Sultan as one of his court musicians—Sultan Barghash—she didn’t only sing it in Arabic as the Egyptian musicians before her had done. She started singing in Swahili. And she also started singing outside the palace walls. There was actually a rule prohibiting the performance of taarab outside of the palace, but nevertheless it was done, and her house was one of the places where people gathered to listen to taarab and on the spot improvisation of Swahili lyrics, to comment on what ever was happening of importance in the neighborhood or in court, to talk about political matters. One could do that through taarab, and do it in such a way that you camouflage what it is that you were really talking about. [Editor: Laura Fair’s essay details Siti binti Saad’s amazing history of commenting pointedly through music on the Sultan’s law, and later that of the British courts, both terribly unfair to women.]

B.E.: Let's talk about Swahili poetry, obviously an important aspect of taarab music.

K.A.: Swahili poetry extends quite far back in time. We have some very early poetic texts. One of the earliest is called “The Advice of Mwana Kupona,” sometime in the 18th century. This was a poem supposedly written by woman to tell her daughter how she should compose yourself as a future wife, how she treat her husband and have respect for him. We know Swahili poetry goes back several centuries. We don't have a precise dates as to when it first emerged, of course, but one of the names most affiliated with Swahili poetry is that of Lyongo Fumo, who is one of the national heroes of the Swahili coast, who is said to have lived in 1600s. And he is also a credited with being a poet himself, and having sung songs that are still connected today with wedding dances up and down the Swahili coast. So there is a long, rich literary tradition, and very different forms of Swahili poetry exist. You have the utenzi, which are the epics. You have wimbo, which is a word for song, and is a more simple poetic structure of typically six syllables for each half line. The taarab line is typically eight syllables plus eight syllables. So different forms of Swahili poetry have emerged over time, but there is a very rich, very extensive tradition of Swahili poetry. Sometimes, it is in the form of dueling, where people combat each other by composing on the spot, improvisatory poetry, and hurling insults sometimes back and forth at each other. So there is a lot in terms of Swahili poetry that one could go into, of which taarab is only one component.

Inside Tippu Tip's house (2004-Eyre)

B.E.: Let's talk about this idea of duality is that you write about. Counter opposing opposites is very popular form of presentation in Swahili culture, isn't it?

K.A.: Sure. Dualism up and down the Swahili coast is something that has been commented on by both local and foreign observers over the centuries. We have a wonderful text, a book dating from the 19th century by a Swahili anthropologist of sorts named Antor Benwengyi Bakari, who wrote down the customs of the Swahili people as he saw them at the time. So we have this wonderful knowledge about how Swahili culture was lived, by local as well as foreign observers. And one thing that has been commented upon, and frequently exemplified by stories and anecdotes of various kinds, is the competitive spirit that we see in so many aspects of life. The political life certainly. We see it in sports. Whereas, say, in the United States, it is typical for each major city to have a single basketball team, a single baseball team, a single football team, in East Africa—and I think it goes even beyond East Africa—you will have at least two teams per town. And everyone in town becomes a diehard fan of one or the other.

Zein L'Abdin CD, taarab from Mombasa, Kenya

This also comes out where I lived in Tanga, on the northern coast of Tanzania, in its religious life. There were mosques that had dualistic relationships with each other, where one would announce that it's Eide, and then the other one would say, no, it's not Eide yet. This certainly comes out in music as well, and so you would have musical groups pitched against each other, singing songs about each other. Often times, ngoma societies—ngoma being the traditional dance forms, with people forming ngoma societies to perform at their weddings and also to serve as self-help groups, to assist people when they're putting on events. In the 1950s, two ngoma societies were especially popular in Tanga. One is called Fanta, and the other is called Kanada Dry, Kanada Dry being a form of ginger ale that had recently been introduced, and Fanta being a form of orange soda that had recently been introduced. So when anything appeared in twos, this made an obvious choice for naming these dualisms that keep reoccurring.

This goes back even into the spatial organization of the villages and towns along the Swahili coast, which were often divided into two halves, that in anthropological terms are called moieties. There would be a spatial division between the town, but it would also take on more symbolic meanings, in terms of newcomers versus old-timers, long-standing Freeborn people versus people of more slave ancestry. These are the ways in which these dualisms could play out. So, in 1950s Tanga, these two sodas had just been introduced, and because there were two of them, the local women's groups decided to take on new names and named themselves after the sodas. So these women's Ngoma groups started putting on performances insulting each other on the basis of their various qualities, the number one being membership in the wrong group. So the Fanta people would sing songs against the Kanada Dry people, and the reverse would be true as well.

B.E.: How did this get expressed in taarab music?

K.A.: In terms of taarab, this came out, as it did with the ngoma groups, with the emergence in the 1970s of two groups called Black Star and Lucky Star Taarab. … Taarab in Tanga has a very different style from that of Zanzibar. Zanzibar taarab, because it started at this very state supported level, had access to more instruments, and develop these large orchestras that today still number of around 30 to 40 people. The two most famous ones today in Zanzibar are Ikhwani Safaa Musical Club, “ The Brotherhood of Purity," and Culture Musical Club. You did not have that phenomenon developing in small towns and villages up along the coast. In Tanga, where I lived, Black Star and Lucky Star Musical Club still had 10 to 20 people in them. The number of musicians was much smaller, but you still had a lot of people singing chorus and back up.

So Black Star emerged in 1970, and they started their tradition of incorporating rhythms from the popular dansi groups. Dansi, now. I am using that term to refer to the popular dance music that was performed and towns primarily. That was pan-ethnic. It wasn't like ngoma, which is usually ethnically based. Often, you would differentiate ngoma on the basis of whether it was a Sukuma ngoma, a Chagga ngoma, a Nyamwezi ngoma, or what have you. Dansi is the urban, jazz music one hears in bars, and that was where Western influence was most often heard, along with Congolese music. The soukous sound in today’s dansi, is just the latest iteration of that.

Maulidi Juma and party rehearsing (Eyre)

So, Black Star Musical Club took taarab along a different path by taking the rhythms from the dansi groups of that era, and also taking the more electronic instruments, such as the electric guitar, and electric bass, and ultimately, electric keyboard, and using these to replace the older taarab instruments like the oud, the string double bass, and the harmonium. Black Star Musical Club developed a rivalry with a group that broke off from it called Lucky Star Musical Club, also known as Nyota Njema, which means Lucky Star in Swahili. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, these two bands warred with each other by singing songs about each other, but always through the employ of metaphor. They would have very rarely sung direct insults toward each other. Taarab, the poetic form, is well-known for its use of innuendo and metaphor and multiple layers of meaning to talk about social life, and comment on social life. So Black Star and Lucky Star offers only one of several examples of this competitiveness one finds up and down the Swahili coast.

B.E.: Let’s talk about some of the particular songs that Black Star and Lucky Star sighing against one another.

K.A.: One of the first songs that was directed against Lucky Star by Black Star was the song “Mnazi Mkinda,” which means “Young Coconut-Palm.” It was composed by Black Star’s composer Kibwana Said, and sung by their lead singer, Sharmila. The song describes a Young Coconut Palm, the height of which is the important part. It says, "You protect yourself, yet your wealth is destroyed. Your young coconut palm—wily people toy with it. They beat you in cunning, those thieves who desire it.” What it was referring to is the fact that because the coconut palm is still young and short, people can come up very easily and steal the coconuts off of it. This was a very oblique way of talking about a woman whose fruits are easily taken by others, meaning that she's more loose and promiscuous, and the implication was that, Black Star was singing the song directing it towards Lucky Star’s key singer, a woman named Shakila who happens to be rather short. So it was taken as an insult against her.

Now, Lucky Star didn't take this lying down, no, they had to write their response back. And their response was a song called “Kitumbiri,” which means “Monkey.” “Kitumbiri” didn't insult a particular person per se within Black Star, but tried to talk about bigger issues, saying that Black Star shouldn't be jealous about having Lucky Star also on the scene. They shouldn't be greedy and try to take all the taarab success in this one city of Tanga for itself, that there could be more than one taarab group there. So “Kitumbiri,” the song “Monkey,” says, “Even you, monkey, favored monkey, you thought yourself so great, wanting to uproot trees. In fact you are incapable of breaking branches. Goodbye, favored monkey. I think you are confused if you come looking for a fight. If the mighty tree falls on you, you will be injured." And the refrain says, "Favored monkey, you eat at your home and then come to eat against ours." So this was saying: You have your success. You have your fans. There is no need way you have to also try to steal our fans and our success. We can have ours too. Don't be greedy. So that's an example of some of the exchanges that were sent back and forth between these two groups as the rivalry was at its peak in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Globestyle CD of Tanga taarab

B.E.: People really got into this, right?

K.A.: Oh, they loved it. In the seventies and eighties, Black Star and Lucky Star, not only in Tanga. It went far beyond that, because they were also recorded by studios not too far away in Mombasa, Kenya, just across the border in Kenya. Their recordings were played on Radio Tanzania, and also in Kenya, on KBC, and the popularity of Black Star and Lucky Star spread throughout what is now Tanzania.

B.E.: So the music is one thing, but the competition creates a sense of drama that people are drawn into as well, right?

K.A.: Oh, yes. As with the sports teams, people become passionate fans of one club or the other. They come to all that club's performances and show their support in the same way as they do at sports events here are elsewhere, routing your team on, and showing your support by coming in high numbers when they perform. In

Lucky Star Musical Club of Tanga

B.E.: Ultimately, it's not really about anything, is it? It's just personal choice.

K.A.: Well, people have talked about how earlier on, especially, when slavery was recent history, not the older history that it is now, when slave ancestry still very much defined people, groups could be identified as having more slave ancestry attached to them as opposed to more freeborn ancestry. But certainly over the last hundred years, that has faded away, and the now, it is just a matter of personal choice.

B.E.: I find it interesting that in the sleve notes to the Black Star/Lucky Star CD on Globestyle, Werner Graebner does not discuss the rivalry between the groups. He stays away from that altogether. What do you make of that?

K.A.: I don't know why. But you know, the kind of rivalry it was, even though it could occasionally, as in the case of “Young Coconut Palm,” take a nastier tone to it, in fact, most of the time, I don't think it was terribly nasty. It was just good fun. It was just supporting your group, and your family would be more aligned with a certain band than another. But ultimately, all the musicians had started out together. They were all members of Black Star at one time, before they broke off. This is a pattern that would then be repeated further on down the line in 1980s and nineties, when Lucky Star would break apart, and other people break apart from Black Star, to form yet another group. You saw the emergence of Golden Star Taarab and White Star Taarab, and then Babloom Modern Taarab, all through the same process of groups breaking apart on the basis of sometimes personality differences, sometimes disputes over the finances, or what have you. Or just wanting to have the opportunity to have more creative authority. So I don't think there was always a very nasty component to it, although it could take that route.

B.E.: OK, I've got some terms I want you to define for us. Talk about mipasho, mafumbo, and vishindo.
Babloom Modern Taarab (K. Askew)

K.A.: Well, when we talk about taarab music, especially talking to people of an older generation, the word that will often come up is mafumbo. Mafumbo means metaphor. That's being able to talk about something by employing metaphor or simile. An example would be the song "Monkey." This is Lucky Star talking about Black Star, but not referring to them by name, referring to them instead as a monkey, trying to employ the attributes of monkeys—monkeys that are always trying to eat anything and everything that they find in a very greedy manner—trying to employ those attributes in reference to Black Star Musical Club. Taarab as very often performed in the context of wedding ceremonies. So love and marriage and sex or key elements of that. So, because of local concepts of etiquette, if you don't want to speak about sexuality openly, you would employ mafumbo to talk about sexuality. You might also employ metaphor to describe your lover in very positive and admiring ways, so mafumbo is a very important word in terms of taarab poetry.

Mipasho is another word that gets used these days, in fact much more than in times past. Mipasho means messages, and sending messages through the text, often by employing mafumbo. So in the case of Black Star and Lucky Star, the monkey is a mafumbo. It's a metaphor, but also there is a message being sent is well saying, "Don't be greedy." So that's the mipasho that is being sent through that song. Mipasho these days oftentimes don't employ mafumbo, which is one of the ways people talk about taarab today being very different from the taarab of a couple of generations ago. They say that mipasho are now right out there, very direct. And it's true. A lot of the lyrics that we have today are more direct. They will be saying, "Don't take my man. You are nothing compared to me. I can beat you any time." Instead of, as in the case of “Monkey,” trying to use a metaphor to and say the same things.

Bi Kidude CD-Zanzibar

Vishindo is another term that comes up in the context of taarab, and that is challenges, challenging somebody in terms of their moral upstandingness, or their character, or their reputation. Vishindo is a word that gets used describe how taarab lyrics can incite or provoke people, especially women—unfortunately so, because that's a relatively recent development in the history of taarab performance. Before, it used to be very sedate and cordial. There would be these undercurrents certainly of critique being passed back and forth through lyrics, but nevertheless it would be very much under the surface. You wouldn't notice. Even when I started doing my research in the 1980s, and early nineties, it was still very much under the surface. I mean, the first time I ever experienced taarab being employed in this way. I didn't know what had happened. It happened so quickly that I hadn't caught it. All I knew is that I was sitting there with a group of women at a wedding event. There was a song being played. The next thing, a woman was running out of the room in tears, and she had been publicly insulted. I completely missed it. And the only way you could have known was if you understood the lyrics and you also understood the gossip in town, and you knew that the lyrics that had been sung at that particular moment, which were saying something the effect of, "Oh, I know you for what you are. You are a snake. You are coveting my husband. But I am not beguiled. I am fully aware of your character." So the song is saying that and then at that moment, during that song, another woman out of the audience going up to tip the musicians. Ostensibly, it's just to show appreciation for the music. You could be implying that you like the particular vocalist singing, or that you just like that song. But everybody else knows that these things are often very meaning-laden. By choosing to tip at a certain moment in time, or who you look at when you tip, or in what direction your face is pointed when you are tipping, or perhaps a nod of the shoulder, or any sort of indirect gesture with your hand, could send the meanings of that lyric towards somebody else in the audience. So in the case that I first experienced in 1987, this woman had been publicly accused of coveting another woman's husband, and ran from the room. But it was very much under the surface.

B.E.: You talk about "taarab interventions," how in some cases these kinds of the events can actually change the course of people's lives. Can you give an example of that?

K.A.: Sometimes, the use of taarab can actually have long-lasting implications, or consequences that can change people's lives. So for instance, there is a case that I was told love but did not actually witness, of the wife of a taarab singer who heard rumors about her husband's wandering ways, and left him. And when his group was out performing somewhere at a distance—it was an overnight tour, and when he came home, he discovered that his wife had packed up the children and her belongings and left and returned to her familial home. So he was now separated. The town knew about this. It was quite the talk of the town. Life went on, but eventually, the time came when he and his band performed in town, and his wife came to the performance, and during the song that's called “Jamvi la Wageni,” which means “The Visitor’s Mat,” she came up to tip. The song says, "Truly, I believe that a person's character is revealed through their behavior. I never would have believed it. I, your friend, was taken by surprise. In fact he is a visitor's mat on which many have taken rest. He considered me at dupe, the world's biggest fool. He could not get used to being inside. He went seeking out others to sit on. I've had enough of him, my friends. It's not that I hate him. It's that it's not right for one person to remain true and faithful, while the other becomes a visitor's mat on which others sit."

Culture Musical Club singers

So, here again, we have an example of how a mafumbo is being employed, namely a visitor's mat, which is very common. When you go visit somebody in the Swahili household, they would pull out a special mat for you to sit on. Now in this case, the song employs that to mean something else, an unfaithful and promiscuous spouse. So this wife went up and tipped her husband during this song. He was not singing it. Someone else was singing it. She didn't even look at him. She just went up and tipped and went back to her seat, but because everyone knew the gossip going on, that she had left him, and he was there, it was recognized that she was sending a message to him. And then, soon after that, the negotiations between his family and her family picked up, and a lot of pressure was put on them to reconcile, and in the end they did. And so people say that was a case where, by taking it out of the private domain, and putting it in a very public place, yet in still a very oblique way-- it wasn't a public accusation in the sense that we normally think of, although it was-- it had the impact by resounding throughout and causing yet more talk about their situation, that the elders picked up their pace in trying to negotiate peaceful solution to the problem, and in the end were able in fact to bring about a reconciliation.

B.E.: While we're on the subject of negotiations, you talk about the Tanzanian national identity as being a negotiated phenomenon. It's a complex world with lots of contradictions and paradoxes. Is it possible to connect the kind of story you just hold on a personal level with the broader, more political, realm?

K.A.: Although people think of taarab as being most linked to these kinds of domains, the personal, what I call the politics of the personal, and social relationships, and very intimate communities, people who know what's going on, people who hear the gossip about each other—that’s where taarab is very particularly potent, because that's where meaning can be drawn out from a person's actions as they go up to tip the musicians are not. Nevertheless, despite having a great amount of potency and consequence in those local, intimate settings, still, taarab has managed to have relevance at the national level, not the same relevance, not the same significance, but nevertheless a great deal of significance.

In my work, I talk about how in 1992, Tanzania officially embraced multipartyism. Up until that point, it had been officially a single-party, socialist state. Now, socialism as an economic program had been dispensed with in the 1980s. Liberalization started in the mid-1980s with the second president, Ali Hassan Mwenyi. But socialism still was kind of the official line, and actually it still is. The Constitution has been recently amended, but it still says, "Our goal is to create a socialist society." But in 1992, due to pressure from the World Bank and the IMF, in terms of loan conditionality, it was required that Tanzania adopt a multiparty, democratic system. A lot of money was poured into the country to support the emergence of new political parties that would be able to contest the elections, and oppose the ruling party of Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), which means Party of the Revolution. That is still the ruling party of Tanzania today. So this other political party came up into existence, but they have been very weak and very young. The didn't have a whole lot to them, besides having the support of the West, and of international power brokers. CCM very much had an advantage in terms of having inculcated a couple of generations of Tanzanians into believing that CCM was the end-all and be-all of political life in Tanzania. And so they had that advantage. They also have the advantage of control over the major media resources, the radio, and in Zanzibar, they had television. The Tanzanian mainland, surprisingly, did not get television until 1994, two years after multipartyism was introduced.

Culture Musical Club with Bi Kidude (Eyre)

So, the problem became for the ruling party was how did they convince people that they still deserved support, despite the terrible economic situation that had emerged by the early 1990’s. The eighties were a terrible time for Tanzania in terms of economics. There had been the war with Idi Amin in Uganda where the Tanzanian's went in and single-handedly ousted this guy who was threatening them and many others. The oil crisis had terrible ramifications for Tanzania. There were a whole series of droughts and famines and climatic problems, issues with rainfall, such that Tanzania and much of Africa in the early eighties was suffering terrible economic problems. So the ruling party had to convince people that despite having all these problems they were still the party to lead into the next new phase of multiparty democratic Tanzania. How could they do that?

Well, one of the things they did in 1992 was to create a brand-new cultural troupe called TOT, Tanzania One Theatre. The main attraction for this troupe would be the taarab. This was pretty interesting a development, because although there had been some government support for taarab groups, it was really minimal compared with the government support for, say, ngoma, the traditional dance forms that peppered the country. Ngoma got a lot of government support because it was seen as indigenous, unproblematically African, very authentic. Whereas, taarab was problematic in that it sounded mixed, as it is. It is a syncretic form. It sounds Middle Eastern. It sounds Indian. It sounds African. It's all of that. And therefore it is not so automatically authentic to the newcomer. So the government had not really put a lot of money into taarab.

In Tanga, Lucky Star got a lot of government gigs to perform for visiting dignitaries, and to go and tour and represent Tanzania outside, but not as much as ngoma societies, and not even as much as dansi groups. So TOT, this Tanzania One Theatre, was something quite new in terms of cultural policy, and it burst onto the scene after the government had laid all these rumors in the press about how something new was coming, and it was being hidden, sequestered in the army barracks in Bagamoyo. And this was their new weapon. It was actually called that in the newspapers, “the new weapon of the ruling party." And it turned out it was this taarab group. It wasn't only taarab. They also did ngoma, and dansi, and theatrical performances, but really, the main attraction was taarab. This group merged the sort of large, Zanzibar, orchestral sound with elements of modern taarab from the mainland and places like Tanga. They took the faster beats, such as one that's very popular called chakacha, and also took the lyrics to a new level of directness that had not yet really been seen. Although there were still some songs with mafumbo, there was a lot more directness, and some people even say matusi, which means profanity, very thinly disguised references to sexuality.

Culture Musical Club with Bi Kidude (Eyre)

B.E.: Tell us about one of their early hits, the one about the high-class a prostitute.

K.A.: The first big hit of TOT was a song called “Ngwinji.” “Ngwinji” means "High-Class Prostitute." The song lyrics say, “A prostitute puts on airs! For what does she put on airs? She also boasts! Of what can she boast? Even if she puts on makeup, who will want her? You prostitute, don't include yourself in the group,” meaning in our group. "She sits and groups, telling people lies that every weekend she spends US dollars. But who will give you money, prostitute. You are not included among those who are loved." So that was one of their songs, very direct, not using metaphor at all except maybe in US dollars being used to represent sort of high-class, foreign status. So to be able to sing about prostitutes in so bald a fashion, by the government troupe, this being their number one, debut song, was considered rather shocking, but exciting at the same time. It really broke new ground in terms of taarab performance, because once the government could do it, then of course others could be equally bald in their references.

Another big hit that the government group did was a song called “TX Mpenzi,” which means "Expatriate Lover." And that was kind of a mafumbo song in that the song is technically about a doctor, trained abroad, so he's an expatriate-trained doctor, which makes him a better doctor supposedly than one trained in Tanzania. It says, "Expatriate lover, my doctor from long ago, he has been removing tumors from my abdomen since long ago. TX, cut me open. Remove my inner illness. I am his only patient. Lady, step aside. I love his injections. They do not hurt my body. When he applies his medicine, my body goes numb. Cut me open, doctor. Cleave me. I await your operation." So this was a metaphor of sorts, but very bald in its meaning.

Sign outside headquarters of CMC (Eyre)

B.E.: Would this qualify as matusi, or profanity?

K.A.: Yeah, this would be an example of what was making people say that now taarab has entered the realm of matusi. It is no longer mafumbo. It is now matusi.

B.E.: Let's go back to the nationalists for the moment. At that time, you write there were really four kinds of music, taarab, dansi, ngoma, and kwaya. Can you just go through that list and tell me how the nationalists used and viewed each of these genres?

K.A.: The way in which the government of Tanzania approached culture changed very much over time. I would say that in the nationalist period, say 1954 to 1967—that would be the period leading up to independence and immediately after, before the introduction of the Arusha Declaration, which introduced socialism—during that period, the two forms of music which were much more privileged were dansi and ngoma, dansi much more so. Dansi had a lot of influences from not only Congolese music, but Cuban music, and Westerns swing. Foxtrot, cha-cha—these were the beats that were very popular in dansi at the time. This was the music that was danced to by the colonial elite. It also became the music danced to by the African elite, who were aspiring to be their own leaders, so this was a way of establishing cultural parity by saying, "We are your cultural equals. We dance to the same music. We can create same kind of music that you do." So dansi was very much privileged in the nationalist period.

Immediately after independence, however, the first president of Tanzania was Julius Nyerere, and he said, "We don't want to be black Europeans. We want to be ourselves, Tanzanians.” So, suddenly, ngoma became more important than dansi at that point. And ngoma, the traditional dance forms, were sort of a turning of the eye inward to the roots, to try and celebrate that which had been denigrated by the colonial order. So the colonial order thought of ngoma as being incessant drum music that didn't have much meaning, and now finding beauty in that, finding that to be a source of pride, was very important for the new nationalist government in the early sixties.

Culture Musical Club with Makame Faki (Eyre)

In 1967, Julius Nyerere introduced socialism into the political and economic system of Tanzania. And his brand of socialism came to be known as Ujamaa. Ujamaa means “familyhood.” He meant it in the way of coming together of people as members of a family, working together, helping each other, and sharing responsibilities for the growth of the nation, the big family, writ large. So in the Socialist period, Ngoma became again the preferred form of music, because it was music of the people. It wasn't associated with an elite class the way that dansi was. And taarab was also associated with an elite class, because it had been associated with the Sultan’s court in Zanzibar. So that was very much upperclass, bourgeois stuff. Even though it really wasn't always. Siti binti Saad was not at all a member of the upperclass. She brought taarab down to every day, ordinary people's music. But nevertheless, it was affiliated with that, with the Sultan’s palace, and certain people's minds, especially the policy makers and the intellectuals of Tanzania during the Socialist period. So ngoma was their preferred form of music, because it represented the music of the masses.

Ngoma, however, had to be altered sometimes to be completely in tune with the Socialist agenda. So when there were ngoma that were either exclusively female or male, if they were going to the representative of the Socialist, gender-equal nation that Tanzania was aspiring to be, then they had to be modified to include both men and women. So you saw the re-choreographing of a lot of ngoma to sort of fit that. They also got re-choreographed to be more Socialist in an aesthetic sense. Oftentimes Ngoma were danced in circles, and this was seen to be somehow backward by some of the people who were in charge of culture in the Ministry of Culture at that time. They thought that it would be better to dance in lines, that that was more modern. Because socialism has a modernist element to it. It sees itself as a rejection of the past, especially in Marxist socialism, and Maoist socialism. Nyerere socialism is less so. He did embrace the past, but he nevertheless did sort of modify it to suit the vision he had for the future. So ngoma were modified to be more Socialist in the eyes of these policy makers.

After the Socialist period ended in the 1980s, now we had economic liberalization occurring. Things started to change, especially with the introduction of political pluralism in 1992. And that’s when taarab had its turn as part of the scene. A fourth kind of music that did have a place in all this was a form of music called kwaya, which is a form of the English word "choir". And it is derived originally from religious music, from choir music found in churches that missionaries had introduced into East Africa. So hymns and choirs were introduced, but they were changed in Tanzania to also be a form of secular, political music. So you have choir music that is not at all religious, but sings about the government, about party leaders, and is very much used especially in Youth Congresses and youth groups. I was an ironic twist, because it really is very much of foreign import, not at all like ngoma with indigenous roots, but nevertheless was included in the national policy of cultural support because it was tweaked to become a form of political praise song.

Culture Musical Club with Makame Faki (Eyre)

B.E.: Let's talk about taarab music beyond Tanzania. You write that the trained ear can easily distinguished taarab of Mombasa, Zanzibar, Tanga, or Dar es Salaam. What would the trained ear be listening for in making those distinctions?

K.A.: Regional styles can be distinguished on the basis of their musical attributes. So for instance, Mombasa taarab is thought of as more influenced by Indian music, especially Bollywood, Hindi films, or being more purely Arabic. I'm thinking of Zein l’Abdin who does still adhere to some of the maqamat [classical Arabic modes] when he plays the oud. Maqamat are not really relevant any more in other parts such as Tanga or Dar es Salaam. The oud is still played in Zanzibar, so Zanzibar and Mombasa are the two places where you are still regularly hearing the oud. Mombasa groups tend to be smaller, very small, four or five musicians maximum. They will have a lot of acoustic instruments, the oud as I mentioned, but also sometimes the ney, tabla or dumbek.

Female singers for Culture Musical Club (Eyre)

B.E.: Taishkota?

K.A.: Taishkota? Nowadays, yes, because of Werner [Graebner]. It had died. Werner resuscitated it. But also sometimes the violin or fidla, which is what they used to use before the taishkota. Linguistically, you can also pick up Mombasa songs because there are certain ways in which they pronounce things in Swahili that are different from places in Tanzania. So the small sound, the more common use of Indian melodies, and sometimes the use of the maqamat would be the ways in which you would distinguish Mombasa taarab. And also, in the Mombasa a region, they would use ngoma rhythms from that area. Mombasa is close to groups such as the Digo and the Giriyama, and other groups that you don't have in Tanzania. So whatever rhythms are unique to those groups, those could find their ways into Mombasa taarab, and that would be different from taarab elsewhere.

On the northern coast of Tanzania, not too far from the Kenyan border, is Tanga, with about 200,000 people in it. As I mentioned, Black Star and Lucky Star are the two groups that most became identified with Tanga. These groups, their sound, was unique in that they were among the first to really incorporate electric guitar, electric bass, and electric keyboard, and they were among the first to start introducing the western drum kit as well. Again, like the Mombasa groups, they are smaller. They tend to be five or six musicians, several vocalists and then backup singers, for total ensemble of 10 to 12 people. But what distinguishes the sound of Tanga is more use of and Ngoma rhythm called chakacha, which you can also find in Mombasa. You can find it anywhere, but Tanga is particularly famous for that. Chakacha is a fast, triple beat. We might consider it a 6/8 beat in western notation. And the nice thing about chakacha, as with any beat felt in six, is that it is divisible by three, and also by two. So you can feel it as 1 2 3, 4 5 6, or else 1 2, 3 4, 5 6. So that you're feeling a strong two downbeat or else a three downbeat.

The Zanzibar sound, because of its supposedly courtly origins, developed these large orchestras. You didn't exclusively have large orchestras in Zanzibar. In fact, Zanzibar used to have quite a number of smaller groups. A lot of those have died out, especially the women's taarab groups. There used to be exclusively women's taarab groups, but they've all pretty much died out now. You have smaller groups called kidumbak, which is taarab that's got a very fast pace to it. It's almost necessary to draw that distinction, because what does get associated first and foremost with Zanzibar is the large orchestra sound. Now you have these modern taarab groups in Zanzibar which are quite small because they are very heavily dependent on the synthesizer and drum machines. So the quintessential Zanzibar sound would be the orchestral sound with the string ensemble of several violins, cello, string double bass. You would also have oud and the ganun. Zanzibar and some few groups in Dar are about the only places on the East African coast where you will find the ganun, which is the trapezoidal zither. You will also have various percussion instruments, bongos, and the dumbek, tambourine, maracas, “timing sticks,” which we call clave in English. So you would have a wide range of acoustic, percussion instruments. Nowadays, the orchestras in Zanzibar also have electric guitar, and sometimes electric bass as well, and electric keyboard.

Taishkota used by Maulidi Musical Party (Eyre)

The songs in Zanzibar are also something that are different in terms of their length. The typical Zanzibar taarab song last 20 minutes. A typical Tanga taarab song lasts eight. So in Zanzibar, the lines are repeated more, and their much longer interludes between verses. That also is sedate giveaway for a Zanzibar song. And then Dar es Salaam is identifiable in being sort of an amalgam of the Zanzibar, large orchestral sound, with the more fast-paced chakacha beat of Tanga. TOT, the Tanzania One Theater group, is perhaps representational of Dar es Salaam, along with Muungano Cultural Group, which actually predates TOT, and was doing a lot of what TOT does, but an earlier point in time. Muungano and TOT became rivals, and still are until today.

B.E.: Let's talk about a few more these songs. How about “Kubwa Lao,” “The Toughest One,” by Babloom Modern Taarab?

Kidumbak CD

K.A.: Another example of a song that employs mipasho, the more direct accusations, even vishindo, these challenges back-and-forth, is a song called "Kubwa Lao.” It really means "The Biggest of Them All" or "The Toughest One." In this song, the composer, a man called Seif Kassim Kisauji, tried to incorporate his knowledge of English, so it's a mix of Swahili and English, let me read you one verse so that you can get a sense of that. “I have already prepared myself for today's event, and I'm sure all challenges end here with me. The floor has cleared. Let the toughest one stand up." And the chorus to the song says, "For calmness, I have no match. And for evil, I am number one." Evil, perhaps, wasn't the best word, but I couldn't find a really good corresponding term for that. It just means for doing that somebody, if I want to. Not that I evil through and through. But if I want to do something against you, I can. This song is a direct challenge to somebody. It's a direct song in a sense of being a mipasho. There are no metaphors all. It's just telling someone: watch out. I'm the toughest one. Don't try to challenge me because you will fail. That song is used a lot, but it became very popular in the mid-1990s, towards the tail end of my field research.

By this time, the decorum of a typical taarab event had started to lift, and started to fragment. By the end of my time in the field, some men I knew were not allowing their wives to go any more to taarab events, because the decorum had fallen aside so much that people were overtly fighting at events. It was not uncommon any more to go to a taarab event and have one woman tipping at the same time another woman is tipping, and they're both tipping for the same reason, so for instance, during this song, they're both saying, "I am number one." "No, I'm number one." "No, I'm number one." "No, I'm number one." And for things to devolve to the point where they would start shoving one another or even tearing at each others' clothes. So that’s a big difference from even the start of my fieldwork and what I understand taarab to have been like in 1970s and 1960s, and certainly earlier, when civility and courteousness and decorum were very much the mode of the day.

B.E.: That's fascinating. And while we’re on that, do you have an update on that situation having just being in Tanzania?

Werner Graebner and Makame Faki (Eyre)

K.A.: I was just in Zanzibar to film a documentary about Ikhwani Safaa Musical Club, which celebrated its 100th anniversary this year, which I'm pretty excited about because very few people know that Africa even has orchestras, much less ones that are as old as that. It fact, that's older than the London Philharmonic, so that's pretty amazing. When they are performing, there's still a lot of decorum, because it's very much considered the more classical, ideal form of taarab. That's not to say that it's not an exciting event. Women still jump up in large numbers. At this 100th anniversary concert, huge swarms of people came up to tip, and tipping multiple times sometimes during the same song. There was a lot of excitement and dancing, although technically you are not really there to dance.

I once made the mistake when I was in the field of saying to my friend, "Come on, let's go and dance." And she said, "No, no, no. I will go tip, but I won't dance." She corrected my Swahili. I was saying kuchesa, to dance. Kutunza is to tip. That is acceptable for Swahili women. You can go and tip. That is decorous. That's civil behavior. The dancing is questionable. You might call your reputation into question that way. So there's still a lot of tipping. I don't know that it has devolved any more. That moment of violent behavior has come and I don't know whether it's gone, but it's certainly been tamed. I think in certain situations, depending on where the taarab is being performed, it might be more likely to occur than in other places. But you still have very much the courteousness of taarab, still even as you have some more riotous behavior breaking out.

B.E.: How about the song “Kumanya Mdigo?” That is the song you used to sing with Babloom Modern Taarab, right?

K.A.: I had trained as classical pianist all throughout college, and I went to the field for my first time in 1987. But when I went to do my doctoral research, it was 1992 to 95. My first year, I was very much the observer. In anthropology and ethnomusicology both, one of our main field techniques is participant observation. So that first year of my three years was more on the observing side. If I participated, it was as an honor on cultural officer. I would go to offense and the given a special, honored chair, and I would sit and watch them, and people would come and ask me for advice on how we do things in the West, and how they could improve their performance practice, and things like that. I didn't really particularly want to be in that role.

Kelly Askew with Babloom Modern Taarab

But eventually, some of the bands that I was getting to know by attending their rehearsals invited me. One band in particular was a group called the Babloom Modern Taarab. They had been invited to perform on Kenyan television. And it's not that far away. Depending on how long you set the border—the border crossing was always the long part of it—but it could be as short as a three-hour drive from Tanga to Mombasa. So we went to Mombasa for them to perform at KBC, the Kenyan Broadcasting Corporation studios, for a show called Borodani, which means entertainment. It was a show that featured mostly local, East African musicians. We had all this time to kill on the bus, and at the border, going and coming back, and they asked me, "Why are you so interested in our music?" And I mentioned, "Well, you know, in my country, I am also a musician." And they said, "Oh really? What do you play?" And I said, "I play piano." I tried to describe what I piano was, but most people had never seen one. Being the tropical, equatorial place that it is, pianos don't live very well in such conditions. But they had a keyboard with them, a small Casio keyboard. And I said, "It's kind of like that, but many more keys, and bigger."

So they urged me to play for them, and once they discovered my ability, they decided that they would teach me to play with them. And as happened so often in these taarab groups, they break apart, and members leave to join other groups, and to form their own new groups. So part of Babloom split off and ended up forming a different group called Freedom Modern Time. And one of the people that left to form Freedom was the keyboardist. So suddenly a spot was open, and a very much needed a keyboardist, and it just so happened that I was there. So they trained me to be their new keyboardist.

An interesting thing about instrumental music in East Africa is that women are not typically instrumentalists. If they play anything, they play small percussion instruments like the daff, which is a larger, snare drum type thing. Or the tambourine, or clave, which they call timing sticks. So one of the most famous pictures of Siti binti Saad is one where she's holding this daff. So it is certainly not impossible for women to play instruments, but to play something like the keyboard or the guitar or the oud, this is not typically seen. So when I was invited to play, there was a funny story about how they decided to give me a band uniform. My first day to play, I was so honored that I was being incorporated into the band to this degree. I was so honored that they had thought to make me a uniform, and they so proudly presented me with this brand-new shirt. They were all going to wear black pants, and so I wore a black skirt with my new shirt, and impressed upon me how they had made sure to tell the tailor to sew it as a woman's shirt rather than a man's shirt. And yet when I got to the performance, I discovered that all the women were wearing yellow polkadotted dresses, and I was dresses as a classificatory male. I was classified as a male because of my role as instrumentalist, because men are the only ones who normally play instruments. So I became a classificatory male, until they discovered I could sing! Then, I got to wear the uniform of the women. So that was an improvement in my stature, I thought.

Culture Musical Club violinist (Eyre)

So the song, “Kumanya Mdigo,” is one of the songs that I was assigned to sing, and it is unusual in taarab, because it is not in Swahili. I have talked about taarab as being Swahili poetry, but it does not exclusively have to be in Swahili. There are cases where other languages from Tanzania and Kenya are employed, so you have the occasional Giryama taarab song, or Haaya song. And it so happens that this song, “Kumanya Mdigo,” is sung in the language Kidigo. It was written by a Digo member of the group, and it's a very interesting song. I mean, some people would think of it as self-deprecating, because the song says, "Watch out for the Digo. When you see a Digo going about town, don't look down on him. When you see him growth thin, it is due to hardship. Don't do to him things that he doesn't like. Despite his appearance, he is as hard as nails. When he walks, he looks weak because his body is aged. But don't be frightened of him. Don't play around with them. The Digo has no friends. His friend is the millipede. Do not laugh at him or mock him. So if you don't know the Digo, ask, and you will be told. You should be afraid of him. Don't play around with him."

It's sort of pointing out the fact that a lot of Digo are poor. The common occupation for a Digo is to be a fisherman, or a small-scale agriculturalist, a small-scale farmers. Still, he's saying they are tough as rocks. It was composed by a Digo person, and that is the song I became affiliated with singing, even though I am not at all Digo, much less Swahili.

B.E.: You seem to argue that music has played a role in building Tanzania's national identity. How has that worked?

K.A.: In my work I talk about how people employ music, people in all different positions of social life, the wife of the taarab singer having to comment on her husband's unfaithful ways, up to the ruling party trying to harness the potency of taarab, trying to let taarab groups sing songs that would support it. When Tanzania One Theater were performing songs that were very bald in their meaning, more so than any other group had ever attempted before, it seemed rather ironic that they were linked to the government, which had very strict censorship rules. Songs would all have to pass before a censorship board before they could be aired on the radio or recorded by the national recording company at the radio station. It seemed an abuse of power that now that this government troupe should now be absolved of having to go through the same hoops that the other groups had to go through. They could sing whenever they wanted. You would have expected, if you thought about government groups singing for the government, you would expect of them not to be singing about prostitutes or foreign doctors injecting women, but in fact singing about the government, singing the praises of the government, and the ruling party, and the president. And it's true that some of the groups did that, some of the songs did that. But taarab's power is in the realm of social relationships, and people use it to negotiate different things in terms of their social relationships.

Culture Musical Club violinist (Eyre)

Political relationships are certainly one aspect of social relationships, as in songs such as “Mwanya.” A mwanya is a hole, the gap between the two front teeth. It is considered a mark of beauty to have a small gap, and this song called “Mwanya,” that was very popular in Tanga in the mid-1990s, was very popular in the wedding circuit because it talked about small holes that became big holes, and became a metaphor for chaste women who became loose women. It said, "You used to have a beautiful, small gap between your two front teeth. You let down your guard. You got punched in the face. You lost a tooth. Now you have this terrible, gaping whole.” And a whole song went on to describe the consequences of this gaping hole, terrible snoring at night, drooling, on and on. This was a metaphor. It was a rather bald metaphor, but it was a metaphor nevertheless to say that you had something that was valued and something that was considered beautiful and now you lost it, and now you have a terrible life as a result.

So in the wedding circuit, that song came to talk about sexuality, and a woman having lost her good reputation. But other people put different meanings to it. One person told me he thought it meant a person had a good wife, and then he was unfaithful, and he lost his good wife. Or someone else said you had a good job and you are drunk or late all the time, and then you lost your good job. Nevertheless, it's something that you had that was good, that you lost through your own negligence, and as result you are suffering. But ironically, the local ruling party structure in Tanga adopted this as their theme song for the campaign of 1995. This became the song that got performed at each and every political rally, and it would seem again at first glance to be an odd choice. A song that other people knew to be talking about sexuality in very explicit ways to be suddenly representing the ruling party? But because it could be used to mean you had something good, now the ruling party was ridiculing the opposition saying, "You had something good. You had to support of the IMF and the World Bank. You had all this foreign support behind you, and yet what will happen? You will nevertheless lose this election." And, low and behold, they did. You had something good, but it doesn't matter. You lost it.

B. E.: To end, let's go to the big picture. For all Tanzania's problems—the economic failure of socialism, the ineffectual efforts of the culture ministries, and so on—you have to see Tanzania as something of a success story, especially when compared with its neighbors, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Congo, even Zimbabwe. Can we make any connections between the music and that success?
Culture Musical Club with Saada Mohamed (Eyre)

K.A.: Some people think that the attempts to institute socialism in Tanzania mark it as one of the failures of African history, but in fact, Tanzania was one of many countries that were suffering in the 1980s, irrespective of political and economic platform. All of Africa suffered in the 80s as a result of poor terms of trade, and the global market for their agricultural products, because of the oil crisis, and yet, despite that, Tanzania gets a bad rap for the socialism, and for the problems that it had. Nevertheless, in terms of culture, and in terms of national unity, one cannot say that Tanzania is a failure. Tanzania is in fact a great success story in that respect, because it managed to unite 120 different ethnic groups into something that is really remarkably strong as a nation, especially when compared with some of its neighbors. One needs only to look at Rwanda and Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Even Kenya has had some of the ethnic problems that Tanzania has been blessed to not have. There have been some problems with the union with Zanzibar, but by in large, Tanzania has not been plagued by ethnic conflict, and some of that can be attributed to the policies of Julius Nyerere, and his attempts to really put culture and the arts at the forefront, and support them in ways, and draw attention, and encourage people to think of themselves as Tanzanians, having this shared culture, having this shared language, and having shared musical tradition. Maybe the best example of that is that when Julius Nyerere died in 1999, just about every kind of music put forth songs honoring his life and his accomplishments. They were called Nyimbo za Maombolezo, “laments songs." Bands across the country, hundreds of bands turned out and composed these songs honoring him. They really came together, and that's one example of how music shows the national unity Tanzania has managed to create.