Sunday, December 31, 2006
Richard Egües (1924-2006)
Richard Egües passed away this past September 1st. Richard was, in my opinion, Cuba's greatest charanga flutist of all time. His greatest career accomplishment was his long tenure with Orquesta Aragón from the spring of 1955 through the fall of 1984.
Eduardo Richard Egües was born in the town of Cruces, in the central Cuban province of Las Villas. As a child he also lived in the Las Villas town of Sancti Spiritus and then moved with his parents to the Las Villas Province capital city of Santa Clara (now known as Villa Clara). In Santa Clara Richard learned how to read music and soon became skilled in several musical instruments, such as the piano, clarinet and saxophone. He was also somewhat of a percussionist since versatility was a must in the world of music and the other arts at the time. At Santa Clara he joined his dad as a cymbal player in that city's Municipal Band and later also joined him in Orquesta "Monterrey." These musical experiences and his skills led him to choose the semi-glossy 5 key wooden flute. The flute became his favorite instrument and flute players were in demand at the time, due to the popularity of successful charanga groups such as Arcaño, Melodias del 40 and others.
Around the late 40's Richard Egües was recommended to Orquesta Aragón of Cienfuegos' founder, director and bass player Orestes Aragón Cantero. Aragón needed someone to fill in for the orchestra's co-founder and flute player Efrain Loyola, who was taking some time off for personal reasons. Richard filled in for Professor Loyola with success. In 1949 Orestes Aragón became ill, decided to retire and leave Orquesta Aragón under the direction of its first violinist, Rafael Lay, Sr. About a year later, in 1950, Professor Loyola decided to leave the orchestra to form his own group under the name of Orquesta "Loyola." Rafael Lay sought Richard Egües and offered him the vacant position left by Loyola, but for reasons best known to him, Richard refused. Rafael Lay then offered the vacancy to his longtime friend and childhood buddy Rolando Lozano who was also a greatly skilled flute player. However, five years later Rolando Lozano accepted an offer from Orquesta America's director and chorus singer, Ninon Mondejar, to join America in Mexico City. Lozano left for Mexico accompanied by his brother Clemente who was also a skilled flute player. Rafael Lay then sought Richard Egües to replace Lozano and, this time, Richard accepted and joined Aragón.
The acquisition of Richard Egües proved to be the key to an even greater success by Orquesta Aragón and soon it occupied the number #1 spot in popularity in Cuba. It was a perfect union. Around July of 1955, Lay, by popular demand of audiences in Havana, decided to move Orquesta Aragón from their native Cienfuegos in Las Villas to Havana. And there shortly afterwards Cuba's outstanding radio station Radio Progreso contracted Orquesta Aragón. The orchestra continues to play there to this day. Since both Richard Egües and Rafael Lay were proficient, to say the least, in playing their instruments and both had a natural love for classical music, together they made musical history, creating a unique style in playing Enrique Jorrin's Cha Cha Cha rhythm, earning Aragón the surname, "Estilistas de Cha Cha Cha" or "The Stylists of the Cha Cha Cha." Their unique style included injecting classical music passages into their special arrangements giving Orquesta Aragón a unique seal of identification which greatly pleased not only connoisseurs but the demanding and unforgiving Cuban public in general, elevating Orquesta Aragón to international fame status in a short period of time.
However, Richard Egües still had other sources of income as he fine-tuned pianos as a part time activity and often a then increasingly popular radio announcement could be heard on Radio Progreso as star program host and radio announcer Pimentel Molina said, "Richard Egües fine tunes pianos, please contact Richard at such and such phone number or go directly to his home at Desague St. in Havana and make sure to tell Richard, Pimentel Molina sent you." It was business creating not just more business but also new friendships and connections. Soon Richard was fine tuning virtually every piano in Havana. How he managed to squeeze so much in one day never ceased to amaze. Richard never stopped free-lancing and participated in various All-Star recordings such as Gema's Lp "Los Mejores Musicos de Cuba" which included fellow luminaries like Bebo Valdés, El Negro Vivar, Tojo Jimenez, Tata Guines and many others as well as the famous and successful all star Panart Cuban Jam Sessions.
To fathom the deep influence classical music had on both Egües and Lay, just one example of many I'd like to mention is the clever, matching and timely injection of "Rondo Capriccioso," a classical music piece composed specially for violin solos, authored by French classical music maestro "Saint-Saens" in the musical intermission of Osvaldo Alburquerque's successful bolero-cha cha cha, "No Puedo Vivir." Other similar additions in their extensive recorded and non-recorded repertoire preceded and followed keeping Orquesta Aragón at the top. The late Mongo Santamaria was once quoted as saying that the difference between the two most prominent of Orquesta Aragón's flute players, Rolando Lozano and Richard Egües, was that Lozano was the "street flute player," much like Arcaño and Fajardo to name just a couple and Egües was the "classical flute player." It was a most accurate assessment.
During the fall of 1957, when Orquesta Aragón reigned supreme in Cuba and in most of the world of Latin music, an incident almost cut short or at least greatly hindered Richard Egües' career. A jealous woman nearly succeeded in blinding him by pouring a liquid acid cleanser on his eyes as he was waking up one morning. Every newspaper, tabloid and magazine in Cuba carried the scandalous story. Richard was fortunate that he was immediately taken to the nearby "Hospital de Emergencia," the "Emergency Hospital" in Carlos III Ave. (near my house) and there, thanks to the timely and quick intervention of eye specialists, they were able to save his eyesight. There was still some minimal damage for which his eyeglass prescription had to be changed to a stronger one. In about 2 months he recovered and Richard was back with Orquesta Aragón. This scary experience compelled Richard to compose and record for RCA with Aragón the bolero-cha "Asi Es Mejor" featuring a beautiful solo vocal by Aragón's then lead singer Jose "Chino" Olmo. Unfortunately only its flip side, "Cha Cha Cha El Satelite" has been found and re-issued in recent years, but "Asi Es Mejor" is still shelved in the RCA vaults or has vanished. During his two months absence due to the acid incident, Richard was replaced with Efrain Loyola's son Jose "Loyolita" Loyola, also a highly skilled flute player, who had experience with Aragón as he had previously replaced Richard during the winter of 1956-57, during a brief absence by Richard in which he had oral surgery and then made a trip to visit his family in his native Santa Clara. At the time another RCA recording was scheduled and "Loyolita" can be heard on that recording playing with Aragón in Felix Molina's cha cha cha, "Eso No Lo Aguanto Yo" and on its flip side was the beautiful "Cha Cha Cha Navideño," or "Christmas Cha Cha Cha" also, unfortunately, never released on either LP or CD.
Some of the Richard Egües' compositions he recorded with Orquesta Aragón, were "Desconsiderada," "Picando de Vicio," "El Trago," "La Muela"(inspired by his oral surgery), "Por Que Me Tienes Asi," "Cero Penas," "Sabrosona or Tan Sabrosona" jointly with Rafael Lay, the great danzon-cha "Gladys" and of course his milestone hit and composition "El Bodeguero" recorded by virtually every artist and group in the world, definitely his biggest money making super hit song. It is virtually impossible to keep track of all the awards both national and international won by Richard with "El Bodeguero" (the Grocer) not to mention the royalties, which kept pouring in decades after he composed it and first recorded it with Aragón during the winter of 1955-56. It was astonishing to see at the time in Havana, original 45 rpm RCA Camden, New Jersey, editions of "El Bodeguero" and its flip side "Señor Juez" delivered to record stores everywhere in the morning disappear from the shelves that same day by noon time or at least early afternoon. Record shops clerks would hide a few remaining copies for friends and customers and do exactly the same thing again and again with subsequent editions. Camden just couldn't keep up with the demands, until it finally subsided somewhat about 9-10 months later! I've never seen anything like it in my entire life. "El Bodeguero" was and perhaps still is unprecedented in both national and international popularity.
Richard Egües and the Orquesta Aragón became inseparable like bread and butter, etc. But in life all good things must come to an end. On August of 1982, Rafael Lay, Sr. was killed in an automobile accident on his way to his native Cienfuegos, Las Villas. Richard Egües was named interim director of Orquesta Aragón, until November 1984 when he decided to leave "for health reasons" and was replaced as director by violinist Rafael Lay Bravo, Rafael Lay's son. It must be said that in 1976 Richard stopped playing the five key wooden flute and substituted it for the least stressful "Bohemme" metal flute due to a kidney ailment. The five key wooden flute requires more pressure and stress to play than the metal ones. After he left Orquesta Aragón, Richard founded the "Orquesta Richard Egües" and recorded an LP album for Egrem, however the new group was not very successful and disbanded, an unusual happening for his brilliant career. Richard returned to free-lancing and played and recorded with other groups, some of which were the new and reorganized Orquesta America, also Felix Reyna's then new and re-organized Orquesta Estrellas Cubanas and around 2000 a successful all-star CD for the Lideres label entitled Richard Egües & Friends- Cuban Sessions. It should be also mentioned that the Richard Egües lineage continued in the world of Cuban music as his son Rembert Egües, a superbly talented musician, has directed various musical groups and orchestras in Cuba, starting his musical career with Orquesta Sensacion in which he substituted for its director and founder Rolando Valdés.
Last month I read in Descarga about the death of Richard Egües and I am honored to write this article as a hearfelt memorial to one of Cuba's most brilliant musicians and composers of all time. Cuba and Latin music lovers everywhere will never forget our dearly departed longtime friend Richard Egües.
May God embrace him as he enters his kingdom and may he give him eternal rest and peace.
Luis de Quesada, NYC
AR: JAY-Z welcome to Talk Asia it is fantastic to have you on this show. Now, world tour, new album coming out, I have to ask, how is the retirement going?
JZ: Ah. Pretty, pretty bad. I didn't do so good with retirement, so yeah.
AR: You said the Black Album in 2003 was going to be the last one that you did. What changed your mind?
JZ: You know, when you have passion for something, when you love something, when you truly love something and that's all you been doing for the majority of your life... Got to figure, I started writing when I was nine, and then for the last ten years I made an album a year, like every eight months. And in between that I was making sound tracks and different people's albums and guest appearing and all this. So, when you're doing that amount of work in such a short period, it's like... what are you going to do?
AR: Retirement sounded great. What so bad about doing nothing?
JZ: Yes, it sounded great, yes.
AR: Did you just get bored?
JZ: No, like I said, it was just the passion for the music. Because I had more than enough to do between Def Jam and the Nets and Roc-A-Wear. I don't know why I add more work to my day, but it's all good.
AR: So, what's the difference between being an artist for a label and running the label? Because obviously with the latter you've got to be Mr. Responsible, don't you?
JZ: Well, yeah. But I've always had dual responsibilities. On my first album I was the executive producer. So, I was never afforded the luxury of just being an artist and just saying 'I don't want to do it' and just shutting down. You know, that artist thing! So I've never had that luxury, I've always had to you know, wear two hats. I always had dual responsibility, so...it's second nature! But with Def Jam it's a different monster because it is the most important hip hop label ever. You know, it's huge. You have different artists' career in your hands, who you didn't sign, who are superstars on their own. So that dynamic is a little different for me, you know...but it is what it is.
AR: Do you think that maybe it is something about yourself as a character, that you have to be doing everything all at the same time. That you know you can't let other people handle it while you just sit back and chill out?
JZ: You mean, I am a control freak now? (smile) No I am not! Haha! It is just... um...it all stems from my passion. My passion is music, you know, and music influences culture, influences lifestyle, which leads me to Roc-A-Wear. I was forced to be an entrepreneur, so that led me to be CEO of Roc-A-Fella records, which lead to Def Jam.
So, I mean everything seems like a bunch of things, but it's really all in one field. It's all inspired, it all comes from the music. Even basketball, even the team. That's inspired by the culture. That's like the cousin to rap music. All ball players want to be rappers and all rappers want to be ball players. That's just how it is!
AR: China has banned you from playing a gig in Shanghai which had been scheduled because they said that your lyrics are vulgar. Why do you think that rap music has to be quite so rude? You've got all these young people listening to it. Aren't they going to take away a bad message from that?
JZ: Well, the Rolling Stones had to take like five songs out of their set, so I'm in good company! I don't feel so bad, I feel like a rock and roll star! It's actually an honor to be next to the Rolling Stones.
But as far as rap and lyrics, you got to realize who are making the majority of rap records. These are young kids that come from urban environments. They are 17, 18 years old when they come to the game, they're young! They're young kids. They come from tough neighborhoods where tough language is used.
AR: So that's how they relate you think?
JZ: Of course, that's how they speak to one another.
AR: I've read from reports that you're worth something like 320 million dollars. That is an enormous amount of money.
JZ: Don't believe any of that.
AR: Well whatever it is, it's a LOT, way more than I'll ever earn in my life! But you know, you have always been entrepreneurial and that's just the guy that you have been all these years. Where do you think you have got that from?
JZ: Like I said, when I came into the music I was forced to be a CEO, I was forced to be an entrepreneur, I was forced to...because I was looking for a deal. I didn't have this grand scheme of starting a record company and then morphing into a clothing empire. I didn't have this five year plan, and this 10 year plan, these business plans that people write up for themselves, I wanted a deal, I looked everywhere, I looked into every single record company for a deal. I wanted a recording contract. And when I couldn't get a deal, it was like either quit or you know make your own company.
AR: Why couldn't they get you a deal?
JZ: I don't think that in that time people didn't understand. My first album was mainly dealing with street issues and it was "coded," it was called "Reasonable Doubt." So the things I was talking about...I was talking about in slang, and it was something that people in the music business was not really privy to. They didn't understand totally what I was saying, or what I was taking about.
And I didn't come in on no one else's coat tails. That's how the music business works these days, they try to play safe. So if you're Jay-Z's second homeboy next to the friend, they will sign you because there's some type of affiliation and they know they can maybe get me on a song. And that would get the artist exposure. But I came from nowhere. I didn't have any co-signer or anything, so it was a little difficult. I was just coming out of nowhere.
AR: And it is really an amazing thing, isn't it? When you were growing up you had three pairs of pants and now you got an entire clothing line - Rocawear - as you mentioned before. Did you ever imaging that this would be how your life would turn out. Just for a second?
JZ: No, not this far. I thought I would have an album out in, you know, maybe enough money to buy a house for my mom, and things like that. You know, every little boy's dream is to buy a house for your mom, get a car, and you know, have a successful career. I didn't know it would go into so many different areas. There's no way to dream about that.
Like when you grow up, you might dream about being a basketball player, you don't dream about having ownership in a team. It is just not how you dream, when you live in the Marcy Projects.
AR: And that is something that you now have.
AR: We're just going to take a very quick break here. When we come back, we'll talk with JAY-Z about life growing up in one of New York's toughest neighbourhoods.
AR: You were raised in the notoriously violent Marcy Projects. It's pretty difficult for anybody to imagine, who hasn't been down that walk of life. So, just give us an idea, if you will, of what it was like.
JZ: Well, I don't want to make it sound like...especially since I've been exposed to so many different areas in Africa just recently. ..I don't want to make it sounds like everyday was like, you know this 50/50 chance of survival just going to school. It wasn't that difficult, I had great days too. But it was a tough urban neighborhood.
So, not only are you dealing with your struggles and your everyday problems and that stress, you're dealing with other people's stress also. You're dealing with so many different people. You have to know how to navigate through that every single day. And that was just normal. This is like when Reagan was the president so you remember that era. It was drugs everywhere, it was prevalent, everywhere we went, we could smell it in the hallways. So you know that always adds an element of danger because there's a desperation. People have to, you have to, if you're stuck on junk, you have to get high. You need it every day. So you have to do, hook, crook, steal whatever you had to do to get it.
So, you mix that into you know normal stress your parents trying to juggle the light bill with the gas bill and make sure you get a pair of sneakers to go to school in. Its just, it was difficult, but like I said, it wasn't a shanty town in Angola or anything like that. We had good days.
AR: Still it is interesting that you bring up the drug issue because you yourself had a time on the street as a drug dealer. How close did you get to going to jail or even worse?
JZ: Everyday. If you're on the other side of the law, any day it could happen to you. That's what you have to realize, you know what I'm saying? You have to realize that any day, any day, any day...every single day you know, you had a chance of going to jail. But the sad part about it is when it gets normal to you. When you start getting used to it and it is not on your mind as much. That's when it's dangerous.
AR: And did you start getting used to it?
JZ: For a second. For a second, it was just like normal life, it was like everyday life. And then you know you reach benchmarks in your life. You become 18, 21, 25 you know those benchmarks when you start looking at your life and what you're doing at the time. So by the time I was 21 years old I was like, I can't do this. This is a dead end! This leads to either jail or the graveyard. There's no other way around it. You're playing percentages and the longer you are out there, and like I said, any day something can happen to you.
AR: Well I am sure millions of your fans all over the world are delighted that you did leave that life behind and now you've risen to the top of your game. But, your ex-business partner and your former close friend Damon Dash says that he doesn't even know you any more because of fame. Do you think your celebrity status has changed you?
JZ: I don't think it was fame on my part that caused you know us to go our separate ways. Like I've been famous since...I was famous before I came into the music business, I was famous. Not on the level that I am now, but you know I was a ghetto celebrity. So I've always been famous, I never wanted to be famous. If you look at my career and you look at the span of my work and the things I have done, as far as to garner fame, you'll see that I have turned down more interviews than I do. Or I turn down more things than I do.
AR: Along the way, what would you say that you learned about Shawn Carter that you didn't know before the birth of Jay-Z?
JZ: I guess, growing up I guess I was a little lazy, I didn't know I could do or take on so much and still be focused, and have like a laser-like focus and take care of what I am doing.
AR: You know some brands do incredibly well out of being part of the rap lifestyle. Including Cristal has done particular well out of your own lyrics. Things have now turned very sour though between you and them. What went wrong?
JZ: I guess, you know, I don't know how this article came about and why rap came up, but I guess the president made some disparaging remarks about...
AR: But it was more the journalist that asked the question to the head of Louis Roederer, the maker of Cristal, wasn't it that was disparaging about hip hop, not the maker of Cristal himself.
JZ: Well, if you read his quotes....I mean anything other than you know we appreciate you know the light that hip hop has given us without compensation is a slap in the face because you know we didn't say anything bad about Cristal, or do anything. All we did was we found the product that we liked and we talked about it, and be bought it in huge numbers and that's it. So, whether you've been led...you're a grown man! We're all grown up and whether the interview was being led that way, you can either say no comment or if you feel that way about hip hop or...say something nice!
AR: We're just going to take another quick break here. When we return, we'll be speaking with the hip hop superstar JAY-Z about family and we'll also discuss his relationship with one other very famous singer, Beyonce!
AR: Most recently you have been using your fame to promote the need for safe drinking water in developing countries and you appeared at the United Nations with Kofi Annan no less, to do exactly that. Why is that cause so important to you?
JZ: Well, it all started out from my going out on world tour. When I was coming out on tour, I wanted to go to the neighborhoods and experience different cultures. And you know I was saying at myself, well I can't go there and not do anything in some of these neighbourhoods. I know some of these neighbourhoods are in need. And when I was looking for a cause to take up, water was the first one. It just was Number One on the list, you know. You need that every day, for just every day basic needs.
AR: I just want to talk a bit about family and sort of personal issues for a minute. Your dad walked out when you were very young and then you only reconciled with him shortly before his death a few years ago. How greatly did that affect your life and who you are today?
JZ: In the beginning, as a kid, it made me closed because I never wanted to feel that feeling again. So I would shut people out. I mean, not to the fact where I was rude about it, but I wouldn't let anyone get so close to me that they can bring those feelings about again. But you know when I finally got to ...to see him and we made up and everything, it was a free-ing thing, it was a liberating experience.
AR: So, obviously that would have put your mother in the position of being the major influence then in your life.
JZ: Yeah, yeah
AR: How did she deal with the fact that she was brining up this young family by herself, essentially?
JZ: Amazingly strong woman! Like, very, very, very strong, incredibly strong, incredibly determined and focused. If she had any problem, we didn't know about it. The way she went about it was, we didn't feel the effect of it. So, she was just an incredibly strong woman.
AR: You have had a lot of personal tragedy in your life. Your very close friend and fellow rapper Notorious BIG was murdered in 1997. You also had your own run in with the law didn't you? You stabbed a record executive. Why is the industry so tough?
JZ: Well, you got to figure the neighborhood that you're coming from. Like once you sign a record deal, it's not like you cross a line, and be like 'okay I am out of it, you can't touch me any more!' you know.
You still have people from your old neighborhood that, you know, they feel you own them favors. Or you have your entourage who -- you might not do something, but if someone else in your entourage gets into a problem and you are anywhere in the vicinity, you did it. So it's just how it is, you know. And where we come from, it's not like...I'm not going to stand in front of a camera and be like, "I didn't do it, my friend did it. You all say I did it" You understand what I am saying?
AR: Yeah, but when is it going to come to an end? It seems amazing that, it's like the industry has let it go on.
JZ: It's part of what happens now, it's what's being sensationalized on the news. We're all to blame, right? We're all, we're all somewhat at fault because when people shed a light on it, people get bright ideas. "Wow! You know, this guy got into a fight in a bar and his record debut number one? You know, that's the way to go! So, it has to stop, but you know sadly it's part of the marketing plan now.
AR: To happier topics then, and your relationship with Beyonce is not something that either of you ever speak publicly about. But I do have to ask, any truth to the rumors that she's soon to become Mrs. Jay-Z?
JZ: Haha! No comments, ha ha!
AR: Hahaha, how did I know you'd say that? So then, let me ask you why is privacy such an issue for you both? What's the importance of staying tight-lipped about it? I mean you certainly are extremely vocal in your line of work. Why, on this subject, are you just not going to say anything?
JZ: You have to have a part of yourself that you keep to yourself, you know. You put so much out there, you put so much of yourself into your music, your passion, in everything! So much goes into your music, you need some type of refuge.
AR: Does it bother you that people, the media and also the public, your fans as well, speculate about what's going on in your private life.
JZ: No, that's part of it, you know. That comes with the job. The good far out-weighs the bad, so I am not, by no means, complaining.
AR: Not tempted to tell the story to a magazine for a six figure sum and all that?
JZ: No, I be okay. I can keep the lights on! Hahaha
AR: Now, you've also said that one of these days, you'd like some kids and a house with a white picket fence. I got to say, that doesn't sound very hip hop at all. Is that going to mark your next attempt at retirement do you think?
JZ: That's the great thing about hip hop, you know. When you're in a position to stretch the job, you have to do it. You have to do certain things that doesn't sound hip hop. Or else it's just going to stay the small thing, you know. You need it to grow. You need it to expand, you need it to go...it's limitless because it is the music of this generation.
AR: I'm sure that all your fans around the world will not want to see you retire...again! Haha, even though the first one wasn't really retirement, was it? But have you set a date for when you think it might be time to just sit back and paint your picket fence?
JZ: I don't want to get into that. I've done that already. I've made that mistake so I don't want to get into that, setting dates, saying it, you know. It will come a time when it'll be like...it's been 6 years and he hasn't put out an album what's going on? Then you'll know it's official. But I won't speak about it again.
AR: Alright, JAY-Z it was fantastic having you on the show today, many thanks indeed! And that's going to do it for this edition of Talk Asia. My guest today has been the hip hop star JAY-Z. I am Anjali Rao thanks for watching. See you next time!
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December 31, 2006
Music of the Hemispheres
By CLIVE THOMPSON
“Listen to this,” Daniel Levitin said. “What is it?” He hit a button on his computer keyboard and out came a half-second clip of music. It was just two notes blasted on a raspy electric guitar, but I could immediately identify it: the opening lick to the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar.”
Then he played another, even shorter snippet: a single chord struck once on piano. Again I could instantly figure out what it was: the first note in Elton John’s live version of “Benny and the Jets.”
Dr. Levitin beamed. “You hear only one note, and you already know who it is,” he said. “So what I want to know is: How we do this? Why are we so good at recognizing music?”
This is not merely some whoa-dude epiphany that a music fan might have while listening to a radio contest. Dr. Levitin has devoted his career to exploring this question. He is a cognitive psychologist who runs the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University in Montreal, perhaps the world’s leading lab in probing why music has such an intense effect on us.
“By the age of 5 we are all musical experts, so this stuff is clearly wired really deeply into us,” said Dr. Levitin, an eerily youthful-looking 49, surrounded by the pianos, guitars and enormous 16-track mixers that make his lab look more like a recording studio.
This summer he published “This Is Your Brain on Music” (Dutton), a layperson’s guide to the emerging neuroscience of music. Dr. Levitin is an unusually deft interpreter, full of striking scientific trivia. For example we learn that babies begin life with synesthesia, the trippy confusion that makes people experience sounds as smells or tastes as colors. Or that the cerebellum, a part of the brain that helps govern movement, is also wired to the ears and produces some of our emotional responses to music. His experiments have even suggested that watching a musician perform affects brain chemistry differently from listening to a recording.
Dr. Levitin is singular among music scientists for actually having come out of the music industry. Before getting his Ph.D. he spent 15 years as a record producer, working with artists ranging from the Blue Öyster Cult to Chris Isaak. While still in graduate school he helped Stevie Wonder assemble a best-of collection; in 1992 Dr. Levitin’s sensitive ears detected that MCA Records had accidentally used third-generation backup tapes to produce seven Steely Dan CDs, and he embarrassed the label by disclosing it in Billboard magazine. He has earned nine gold and platinum albums, which he tucks in corners of his lab, office and basement at home. “They look a little scary when you put them all in one place, so I spread them around,” he said.
Martin Grant, the dean of science at McGill, compares Dr. Levitin’s split professional personality to that of Brian Greene, the pioneering string-theory scientist who also writes mass-market books. “Some people are good popularizers, and some are good scientists, but not usually both at once,” Dr. Grant said. “Dan’s actually cutting edge in his field.”
Scientifically, Dr. Levitin’s colleagues credit him for focusing attention on how music affects our emotions, turf that wasn’t often covered by previous generations of psychoacousticians, who studied narrower questions about how the brain perceives musical sounds. “The questions he asks are very very musical, very concerned with the fact that music is an art that we interact with, not just a bunch of noises,” said Rita Aiello, an adjunct professor in the department of psychology at New York University.
Ultimately, scientists say, his work offers a new way to unlock the mysteries of the brain: how memory works, how people with autism think, why our ancestors first picked up instruments and began to play, tens of thousands of years ago.
DR. LEVITIN originally became interested in producing in 1981, when his band — a punk outfit called the Mortals — went into the recording studio. None of the other members were interested in the process, so he made all the decisions behind the board. “I actually became a producer because I saw the producers getting all the babes,” he said. “They were stealing them from the guitarists.” He dropped out of college to work with alternative bands.
Producers, he noted, were able to notice impossibly fine gradations of quality in music. Many could identify by ear the type of amplifiers and recording tape used on an album.
“So I started wondering: How was the brain able to do this?” Dr. Levitin said. “What’s going on there, and why are some people better than others? And why is music such an emotional experience?” He began sitting in on neuroscience classes at Stanford University.
“Even back then, Dan was never satisfied with the simple answer,” said Howie Klein, a former president of Reprise and Sire Records. “He was always poking and prodding.”
By the ’90s Dr. Levitin was disenchanted with the music industry. “When they’re dropping Van Morrison and Elvis Costello because they don’t sell enough records,” he said, “I knew it was time to move on.” Academic friends persuaded him to pursue a science degree. They bet that he would have good intuitions on how to design music experiments.
They were right. Traditionally music psychologists relied on “simple melodies they’d written themselves,” Dr. Levitin said. What could that tell anyone about the true impact of powerful music?
For his first experiment he came up with an elegant concept: He stopped people on the street and asked them to sing, entirely from memory, one of their favorite hit songs. The results were astonishingly accurate. Most people could hit the tempo of the original song within a four-percent margin of error, and two-thirds sang within a semitone of the original pitch, a level of accuracy that wouldn’t embarrass a pro.
“When you played the recording of them singing alongside the actual recording of the original song, it sounded like they were singing along,” Dr. Levitin said.
It was a remarkable feat. Most memories degrade and distort with time; why would pop music memories be so sharply encoded? Perhaps because music triggers the reward centers in our brains. In a study published last year Dr. Levitin and group of neuroscientists mapped out precisely how.
Observing 13 subjects who listened to classical music while in an M.R.I. machine, the scientists found a cascade of brain-chemical activity. First the music triggered the forebrain, as it analyzed the structure and meaning of the tune. Then the nucleus accumbus and ventral tegmental area activated to release dopamine, a chemical that triggers the brain’s sense of reward.
The cerebellum, an area normally associated with physical movement, reacted too, responding to what Dr. Levitin suspected was the brain’s predictions of where the song was going to go. As the brain internalizes the tempo, rhythm and emotional peaks of a song, the cerebellum begins reacting every time the song produces tension (that is, subtle deviations from its normal melody or tempo).
“When we saw all this activity going on precisely in sync, in this order, we knew we had the smoking gun,” he said. “We’ve always known that music is good for improving your mood. But this showed precisely how it happens.”
The subtlest reason that pop music is so flavorful to our brains is that it relies so strongly on timbre. Timbre is a peculiar blend of tones in any sound; it is why a tuba sounds so different from a flute even when they are playing the same melody in the same key. Popular performers or groups, Dr. Levitin argued, are pleasing not because of any particular virtuosity, but because they create an overall timbre that remains consistent from song to song. That quality explains why, for example, I could identify even a single note of Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets.”
“Nobody else’s piano sounds quite like that,” he said, referring to Mr. John. “Pop musicians compose with timbre. Pitch and harmony are becoming less important.”
Dr. Levitin dragged me over to a lab computer to show me what he was talking about. “Listen to this,” he said, and played an MP3. It was pretty awful: a poorly recorded, nasal-sounding British band performing, for some reason, a Spanish-themed ballad.
Dr. Levitin grinned. “That,” he said, “is the original demo tape of the Beatles. It was rejected by every record company. And you can see why. To you and me it sounds terrible. But George Martin heard this and thought, ‘Oh yeah, I can imagine a multibillion-dollar industry built on this.’
“Now that’s musical genius.”
THE largest audience that Dr. Levitin has performed in front of was 1,000 people, when he played backup saxophone for Mel Tormé. Years of being onstage piqued Dr. Levitin’s interest in another aspect of musical experience: watching bands perform. Does the brain experience a live performance differently from a recorded one?
To find out, he and Bradley Vines, a graduate student, devised an interesting experiment. They took two clarinet performances and played them for three groups of listeners: one that heard audio only; one that saw a video only; and one that had audio and video. As each group listened, participants used a slider to indicate how their level of tension was rising or falling.
One rapid, complex passage caused tension in all groups, but less in the one watching and listening simultaneously. Why? Possibly, Dr. Levitin said, because of the performer’s body language: the clarinetist appeared to be relaxed even during that rapid-fire passage, and the audience picked up on his visual cues. The reverse was also true: when the clarinetist played in a subdued way but appeared animated, the people with only video felt more tension than those with only audio.
In another, similar experiment the clarinetist fell silent for a few bars. This time the viewers watching the video maintained a higher level of excitement because they could see that he was gearing up to launch into a new passage. The audio-only listeners had no such visual cues, and they regarded the silence as much less exciting.
This spring Dr. Levitin began an even more involved experiment to determine how much emotion is conveyed by live performers. In April he took participants in a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert — the conductor Keith Lockhart, five of the musicians and 15 audience members — and wired them with sensors to measure their state of arousal, including heart rate, body movements and muscle tension.
At one point during the performance Mr. Lockhart swung his wrist with such force that a sensor attached to his cuff went flying off. Dr. Levitin’s team tried to reattach it with duct tape, until the conductor objected — “Did you just put duct tape on an Armani?” he asked — and lighter surgical tape was used instead.
The point of the experiment is to determine whether the conductor creates noticeable changes in the emotional tenor of the performance. Dr. Levitin says he suspects there’s a domino effect: the conductor becomes particularly animated, transmits this to the orchestra and then to the audience, in a matter of seconds. Mr. Lockhart is skeptical. “As a conductor,” he said, “I’m a causatory force for music, but I’m not a causatory force for emotion.” But Dr. Levitin is still crunching the data.
“It might not turn out to be like that,” he said, “But wouldn’t it be cool if it did?”
Dr. Levitin’s work has occasionally undermined some cherished beliefs about music. For example recent years have seen an explosion of “Baby Mozart” videos and toys, based on the idea — popular since the ’80s — that musical and mathematical ability are inherently linked.
But Dr. Levitin argued that this could not be true, based on his study of people with Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder that leaves people with low intelligence. Their peak mental capacities are typically those of young child, with no ability to calculate quantities. Dr. Levitin once asked a woman with Williams to hold up her hand for five seconds; she left it in the air for a minute and a half. “No concept of time at all,” he said, “and definitely no math.”
Yet people with Williams possess unusually high levels of musical ability. One Williams boy Dr. Levitin met was so poorly coordinated he could not open the case to his clarinet. But once he was holding the instrument, his coordination problems vanished, and he could play fluidly. Music cannot be indispensably correlated with math, Dr. Levitin noted, if Williams people can play music. He is now working on a study that compares autistics — some of whom have excellent mathematical ability, but little musical ability — to people with Williams; in the long run, he said, he thinks it could help shed light on why autistic brains develop so differently.
Not all of Dr. Levitin’s idea have been easily accepted. He argues, for example, that music is an evolutionary adaptation: something that men developed as a way to demonstrate reproductive fitness. (Before you laugh, consider the sex lives of today’s male rock stars.) Music also helped social groups cohere. “Music has got to be useful for survival, or we would have gotten rid of it years ago,” he said.
But Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at Harvard known for his defense of evolutionary psychology, has publicly disparaged this idea. Dr. Pinker has called music “auditory cheesecake,” something pleasant but not evolutionarily nutritious. If it is a sexual signal for reproduction, then why, Dr. Pinker asked, does “a 60-year-old woman enjoy listening to classical music when she’s alone at home?” Dr. Levitin wrote an entire chapter refuting Dr. Pinker’s arguments; when I asked Dr. Pinker about Dr. Levitin’s book he said he hadn’t read it.
Nonetheless Dr. Levitin plugs on, and sometimes still plugs in. He continues to perform music, doing several gigs a year with Diminished Faculties, a ragtag band composed entirely of professors and students at McGill. On a recent December afternoon members assembled in a campus ballroom to do a sound check for their performance that evening at a holiday party. Playing a blue Stratocaster, Dr. Levitin crooned the Chris Isaak song “Wicked Game.” “I’m not a great guitarist, and I’m not a great singer,” he said.
But he is not bad, either, and still has those producer’s ears. When “Wicked Game” ended, the bass player began noodling idly, playing the first few notes of a song that seemed instantly familiar to all the younger students gathered. “That’s Nirvana, right?” Dr. Levitin said, cocking his head and squinting. “ ‘Come As You Are.’ I love that song.”
Saturday, December 30, 2006
While we are on the theme of 80s technology, here's a classic demo of the Fairlight keyboard that Herbie Hancock did on Sesame Street in the early 80s:
Comedian, actor, radio show host
I'll always remember one time while in Augusta, Ga., performing at a comedy club, I saw James Brown sitting in the hotel restaurant. We started talking; he knew me from my appearances at the Apollo. As we talked, I told him how my parents would feel if they knew I was sitting here talking to you, Mr. Brown! He said, "Get them on the phone." JB sat there and talked to my mother and father like they were old friends. My parents talked about those moments with JB until they passed a few years later. I was later able to thank him several times; as a matter of fact, every time I saw him I thanked him for doing it. And every time he acted like he was supposed to do it. But having a mere taste of the fame he had, I can tell you what he did was big. Thank you, Mr. Brown, for letting me see that with my own eyes. In my book, you were, are, and will always be the Godfather of Soul.
Friday, December 29, 2006
December 28, 2006
Braguinha, 99, a Composer of Brazilian Carnival Songs, Dies
By SIMON ROMERO
Braguinha, the Brazilian composer of Carnival songs whose humorously ironic melodies influenced generations of Brazilian musicians, died on Sunday in Rio de Janeiro. He was 99.
Braguinha died after suffering a generalized infection, according to a statement from Dr. João Luiz Ferreira Costa of the Pró-cardíaco Hospital in Rio de Janeiro, the newspaper Folha de São Paulo reported.
Born Carlos Alberto Ferreira Braga, and known for part of his long career by another stage name, João de Barro, Braguinha outlived contemporaries with whom he worked in Rio de Janeiro starting in the 1930s, like Noel Rosa and Almirante. He rose to prominence in what was considered a golden age for the Carnival songs known as marchinhas. His work’s influence extended to the innovative Bossa Nova and Tropicalista musical movements of the 1950s and 1960s.
Braguinha’s songs were often nuanced celebrations of female sensuality and evocative of the lush tropical bounty of Brazil’s vast territory. Compositions like “Twist no Carnaval,” “Chiquita Bacana” and “Yes, Nós Temos Bananas” (“Yes, We Have Bananas”) contributed to his legend, with performers like Caetano Veloso subversively riffing on them in later decades as musical creativity became a way of challenging societal norms and political repression in Brazil.
The song “Touradas em Madri” (“Bullfights in Madrid”), written with Alberto Ribeiro, was one of Braguinha’s most popular and was considered a precursor to the Tropicalista movement. The song became a national obsession when fans chanted its verses during the 1950 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, in which Brazil defeated Spain.
Braguinha was born in 1907 into a middle-class family — his father was a factory manager — in the Jardim Botanico district of Rio de Janeiro. He adopted the stage name João de Barro so his plunge into the bohemian life of a musician would not tarnish his family’s status.
By the late 1930s Braguinha had become a towering figure in Brazilian popular culture. He became instrumental in adapting North American cartoons and children’s songs to Brazilian tastes. He retooled Disney productions and tales like “The Three Little Pigs” into Portuguese. He often took substantial liberty with translations and lyrics in these adaptations, as he did with “Sorri,” a Portuguese version of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” originally part of the theme music from the film “Modern Times” about keeping your chin up during hard times. The Brazilian musician Djavan, one of that country’s most popular performers, did his own version of “Sorri,” illustrating the long reach of Braguinha’s influence.
Braguinha was also a successful screenwriter, movie director and record producer, helping to start the careers of musicians like Elizeth Cardoso, Emilinha Borba and Jorge Goulart.
He is survived by his wife, Astreia; a daughter; three grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
In 1984 Braguinha won what is perhaps the highest honor in Brazil for a popular composer: his life became the theme of a song for Mangueira, the samba school that emerged victorious in the Carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro that year.
Correction: December 29, 2006
An obituary yesterday about Braguinha, an influential composer of Brazilian carnival songs, referred imprecisely to a song for which he wrote a Portuguese version. “Smile” was originally part of Charlie Chaplin’s theme music for his 1936 film, “Modern Times,” and lyrics by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons were added in 1954. It was not a song from the film.
New York Times
December 29, 2006
A Loud, Proud Send-Off for an Icon of Soul
By MANNY FERNANDEZ
James Brown gave one last show in Harlem yesterday, three days after his death, in a golden coffin lined with white velvet, on the flower-bedecked stage of the famed Apollo Theater, before a crowd of thousands who had lined up for blocks to see him.
Mr. Brown’s body arrived beneath the Apollo’s red-neon sign just before 1 p.m. in a white-painted carriage pulled by two white horses with feathery plumes atop their heads. The carriage was small, with tall windows and white curtains with silver fringe. Two solemn men sat atop it, guiding the horses, and Mr. Brown’s friends and associates and Harlem dignitaries walked alongside and behind it.
Hundreds who lined 125th Street outside the theater on a chilly, overcast afternoon cheered and applauded. Helicopters hovered. Photographers aimed their cameras from the surrounding rooftops. A guy hawked commemorative T-shirts for $10. Mr. Brown’s cries and exultations filled the street, blaring from one of his concert videos playing on a beat-up television mounted above a sign for Uptown Tattoos. A chant rose up: “James Brown! James Brown! James Brown!”
When the theater’s doors finally opened, people began streaming in for a public viewing. They walked up a few stairs and stepped onto the red-carpeted stage, where Mr. Brown’s body lay in an open coffin, washed in white and gold stage lights. The coffin was made of 16-gauge steel with a gold paint finish. Mr. Brown was wearing a cobalt, sequined satin suit with white gloves and pointed silvery shoes. Loudspeakers played his breakthrough album, “Live at the Apollo,” recorded Oct. 24, 1962.
Women wearing veils approached. A man in a suit dropped to his knees and crossed his heart. One couple broke into a brief dance. “Right now,” Mr. Brown said on the loudspeakers, in a snippet of between-song banter, “I’m going to get up and do my thing.”
Mr. Brown did his thing yesterday: he put on a show. Throughout the day, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, formed two lines on 125th Street outside the Apollo, one to its east and one to its west, each one filling up 125th Street, reaching the corner and then stretching for blocks up Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, forming a giant U. Some had been waiting since midnight Wednesday.
“We’re sending him out in the style he lived,” said Nellie Williams, 58, of Greer, S.C., who stood near the front of one line. “He was a man that had to be seen and heard.” She brought her daughter, and a copy of an oil painting her brother did of Mr. Brown, his pompadour perfectly teased, his shirt open, his smile wide. “I want to show my last respects for his last show in New York,” Ms. Williams added.
Mr. Brown, 73, died of congestive heart failure early Monday in Atlanta. He was remembered, during a private ceremony for family and friends at the Apollo, and amid the lines of fans standing outside for the public viewing, as a singer, dancer, bandleader, funk pioneer, entrepreneur, black-pride icon and entertainer who many said transformed American pop music and African-American culture.
A private ceremony will be held today near Augusta, Ga., Mr. Brown’s adopted hometown, and a public service is set for tomorrow at the James Brown Arena in Augusta.
Yesterday, the somber pageantry that accompanies the death of a dignitary could be found on the streets of Harlem, retuned for the death of a showman in the nation’s black cultural capital. The spectacle — the horse-drawn hearse gliding down 125th Street, the Apollo temporarily transformed into a funeral parlor, the crowds of admirers waiting in line for up to five hours to say a prayer near the coffin — made clear this was a different kind of funeral for a different kind of man. This was a man who personified, as the headwaiter at a soul-food restaurant put it, “the outrageous expression of life.”
Mr. Brown’s journey to Harlem began in Augusta the day before. A white hearse carrying his body left the city about 9:30 p.m., accompanied by the Rev. Al Sharpton, a longtime friend who considered Mr. Brown a father figure. Fourteen hours later, about 11:30 a.m., the hearse pulled up to Mr. Sharpton’s National Action Network headquarters on West 145th Street in Harlem.
Outside the headquarters, it was impossible to tell people were waiting for a hearse. One man played a bongo drum, and someone else played the upbeat funk of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” on a portable stereo. The carriage waited, and so did the horses, Commander and Whitey, and the man who would hold the reins, Vet Harris, 66. “It’s an honor,” Mr. Harris said. “It’s beautiful.”
When the golden coffin was removed from the hearse and placed in the carriage, there was applause. Some onlookers cried. A group of friends and dignitaries assembled behind the carriage for the march down Lenox Avenue to the Apollo, among them Mr. Sharpton; Frank Copsidas, Mr. Brown’s agent; Ali Woodson, former lead singer of the Temptations; and the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, pastor of the House of the Lord Pentecostal Church in Brooklyn.
Outside the Apollo, throughout the morning and into the evening, hordes of people assembled on both sides of 125th Street behind metal police barricades. They were a largely black crowd, young women and retired men, elderly couples and families with children. Mr. Brown’s tunes played from storefronts, and women danced to the beat and sang along to his 1968 song “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud.” His image was everywhere: On T-shirts, posters, paintings people brought from home. The computerized Apollo marquee read, “Rest in Peace Apollo Legend, The Godfather of Soul, James Brown, 1933-2006.”
Burnis Hall, 65, stood near Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard with his wife. They were on vacation from Lathrup Village, Mich. “I first saw him in 1959, in Amarillo, Tex., when I was young airman in the Air Force,” Mr. Hall said of Mr. Brown. They stood with others in the chilly wind, struggling for the words to capture the legacy of a man who worked hard to defy convention. “Here’s an old guy that’s been there since the mid-’50s, still active in 2006,” Mr. Hall said. “How can you ignore this person?”
Nearly everyone had a James Brown story. They wanted to talk about the time they jumped on stage and danced with him, or met him at a party, or, like Samuel A. Herbert of Buffalo, once shined his black boots behind the Apollo. “He gave me $5 and he touched me on my shoulder and said, ‘God bless and be in courage,’ ” said Mr. Herbert, 57, retired from his work as a cancer research technician.
Inside during the viewing, Mr. Sharpton stood near the coffin, which was flanked by sprays of white lilies, white carnations and red and white roses. One flower arrangement spelled out “J B”; another, “Godfather.” A velvet rope kept people in the fast-moving line several feet from the coffin. Mr. Brown’s friends and family members sat in the first several rows of seats.
Tomi Rae Brown was there, dressed in black, chewing gum and passing out pink roses to Mr. Brown’s relatives. Ms. Brown has described herself as Mr. Brown’s wife, but his lawyer has depicted her as the singer’s partner, and she was barred from his South Carolina home a day after his death. “He’s my husband and the father of my child,” she said. “I’m mourning.”
About 6 p.m., the public viewing was interrupted for a service for Mr. Brown’s family, friends and the news media. “One era had a Bach, another had a Beethoven, but we had Brown,” Mr. Sharpton told the few hundred who sat in the Apollo. He said that those close to Mr. Brown decided Wednesday evening that he deserved a special procession and a special coffin. “We had some 30 people offering their planes, but because of the weight of the casket, we couldn’t get an ordinary flight,” Mr. Sharpton said. “I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, we’ll drive.’ ”
Mr. Sharpton said the public viewing was being extended by an hour, to 9 p.m., to accommodate the hundreds outside who still wanted to pay their respects. At 9:20, the police announced that no one else would be allowed inside, and the few hundred people remaining moved across the street.
During the service, Mr. Sharpton called six of Mr. Brown’s children to the stage, where they held hands. Then he introduced Charles Bobbit, Mr. Brown’s personal manager, and Ms. Brown, who spoke through tears. “My name is Tomi Rae Brown,” she said. “I love that man, and I have loved that man since the day I met him.”
Mr. Bobbit was with Mr. Brown when he died in Atlanta. “Before he passed, he said, ‘I think I’m going to leave you tonight,’ ” Mr. Bobbit recalled. “I said, ‘You’re not going anywhere.’ ”
Cassi Feldman and Eric Konigsberg contributed reporting.
December 29, 2006
Bonding Over a Mascot
By JOE LAPOINTE
A few new statues of a Seminole family in 19th-century clothing stand outside the football stadium at Florida State University. The father holds a long gun, the son a bow and arrow, and the mother an infant in her arms as she looks warily to her right.
The statues represent the era when the Seminoles and the United States were at war. The public art is part of a complex relationship between Seminole culture and sports at Florida State. This bond has strengthened since a crackdown by the National Collegiate Athletic Association last year against American Indian mascots, nicknames and imagery among sports teams.
Not every university enjoys a harmonious relationship with Indians. But a sense of cooperation seems to permeate the Florida State campus in Tallahassee, Fla., where Toni Sanchez was among 21 students to complete a new course this month called History of the Seminoles and Southeastern Tribes.
Sanchez, a senior majoring in English, called the N.C.A.A. edict “beyond idiotic” and offensive. She described the new statues as beautiful.
“I know what a real Seminole is,” she said. “This Anglo guilt and regret don’t affect me.”
Sanchez is from a family with Seminole and Hispanic ancestry. Her father, once a farm worker, is now a casino operator. Her mother is a teacher. Sanchez also plays trumpet at football games in a marching band that wears arrowheads on the back of its uniforms.
Of the tribal flag near the new statues, another recent addition, she said, “Every time I look at it, I get really giddy inside.” Of the use of the Seminole imagery for the university’s sports, she said, “I’m so proud of it.”
Florida State was one of 18 institutions cited by the N.C.A.A. in August 2005 for “mascots, nicknames or images deemed hostile or abusive in terms of race, ethnicity or national origin.” The institutions were forbidden to use the symbols in postseason events controlled by the N.C.A.A., like the national championship basketball tournament that begins in March.
Five programs have since received permission to continue using their imagery because they received approval from specific Indian groups, in Florida State’s case the 3,200-member Seminole Tribe of Florida. Five others have changed or are in the process of changing, said Bob Williams, an N.C.A.A. spokesman. The other eight, he said, remain on the list and are subject to the policy, including the Illinois Fighting Illini and the North Dakota Fighting Sioux.
Myles Brand, the president of the N.C.A.A., said in a telephone interview last week that his organization made the right decision but witnessed more negative reaction to the ruling than expected.
“What we’ve accomplished in part is to raise the level of awareness nationally about how we treat Native Americans,” Brand said. “If we don’t stand by our values, we lose our integrity.”
At times, Indians are reduced to casual caricature that would not be tolerated by other groups, he said, adding that the N.C.A.A. had been honored for its stance by Indian groups in Oklahoma and Indiana.
Less complimentary is T. K. Wetherell, the president of Florida State, who said the N.C.A.A. was “more interested in being politically correct” and did not consult the Seminole tribe before making its decision.
“The way they weaseled out was to say, ‘O.K., as long as the tribe continues to support it,’ ” he said.
Wetherell, a former Florida State football player who also teaches history, wore a hunting outfit when interviewed recently in his office. He pointed to a team logo of an Indian’s face that he said had elements of caricature. “That’s not really a Seminole-looking deal,” Wetherell said. “This is a marketing tool.” He said the university might “gradually let certain things fade.”
He said he told the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s council, “If you don’t want Florida State to be the Seminoles, we ain’t Seminoles anymore.” Wetherell said the tribe approved the use partly because the campus is in the capital and tribal leaders “are not only good businessmen, they are great politicians.”
He said the new history course was proposed before the N.C.A.A. edict.
But Neil Jumonville, the chairman of the history department, said the N.C.A.A. resolution accelerated the creation of the class and that his staff received advice from local Seminole leaders.
“These are people who are savvy about their place in the American myth,” Jumonville said. “And they are smart enough to manipulate the myth for their own good.”
The first class was taught by Christopher R. Versen, who recently earned his doctorate in American history.
“I wanted to challenge students to think about identity,” Versen said. “What is it inside us that makes us identify ourselves one way or another? What external factors play into identity?”
The Seminoles are an amalgam of several tribes, predominantly Creek, that included escaped slaves. They migrated south to the Everglades in retreat from the United States Army. Some were driven out during the Trail of Tears period under President Andrew Jackson.
Those descendants live as the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. The Seminoles in Florida once had a commercial hunting economy. Since 1979, their economic status has improved because of casino gambling.
Earlier this month, the Seminoles acquired Hard Rock International — the music-themed chain of restaurants, hotels and casinos — for $965 million.
Versen said he did not discuss sports identity with his students because he was afraid it would become a distraction. But a guest speaker who raised the mascot issue was Max Osceola, one of three councilmen for the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
“If I had a child and named it after you, would you consider it an honor?” Osceola said he asked the students. He also reflected on a former mascot, Sammy Seminole, who was retired in 1972.
“He had a big nose and he lived in a teepee,” Osceola said. “He looked like a buffoon.”
The current mascot is named, coincidentally, Osceola, after a 19th-century warrior. A student dressed as Osceola rides a horse named Renegade onto the football field and throws a flaming spear. This mascot’s clothing was designed by the tribe.
Tina Osceola, who is the executive director of the tribe’s historical resources department and is a cousin of Max Osceola’s, said, “We’ve given them license to be theatrical.”
A statue of the warrior riding atop Renegade stands outside the stadium above the word “Unconquered,” because the Seminoles never surrendered to the United States.
When the Seminoles announced in New York the purchase of Hard Rock, Max Osceola joked that Indians once sold Manhattan for trinkets but were now “going to buy Manhattan back, one burger at a time.”
Not everyone outside the tribe approves of all of the Indian trappings at sporting events, including the tomahawk chop hand gesture and a droning cheer that sounds like background music heard in old western movies.
Joe Quetone, the executive director of the nonprofit Florida Governor’s Council on Indian Affairs Inc., said, “Things fans do are outrageous and ridiculous.”
Bobby Bowden, the head football coach, did not respond to four recent requests for comment on the issue placed with the university’s sports information department.
From a student’s perspective, Sanchez said that people who were genuinely concerned with the circumstances of Indians should concentrate less on sports iconography and more on alcoholism, suicide, teen pregnancy and high school dropout rates.
“After all those years of diseases, occupation and war, we’re still here,” she said. “I refuse to believe that a silly mascot will take us down.”
Thursday, December 28, 2006
BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) -- Turns out humans aren't the only primates using songs to warn of life's dangers and travails.
White-handed gibbons in Thailand's forests have been found to communicate threats from predators by singing -- the first time the behavior has been discovered among non-human primates, researchers said Wednesday.
While other animals have been shown to use song to attract mates or signal danger, researchers writing in this month's science journal PLoS One said their study was the first to show gibbons -- a slender, tree-dwelling ape -- issuing song-like warnings to each other.
"This work is a really good indicator that non-human primates are able to use combinations of calls ... to relay new and, in this case, potentially lifesaving information to one another," said Esther Clarke, a University of St. Andrews graduate student and co-author of the study.
"This type of referential communication's commonplace in human language, but has yet to be widely demonstrated in some of our closest living relatives -- the apes," she said.
Along with Klaus Zuberbuhler from St. Andrews in Scotland and Ulrich Reichard of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, Clarke spent 2004 and 2005 at Khao Yai National Park in Thailand observing groups of gibbons.
Mostly black with a white face, gibbons live in the treetops and are known for issuing elaborate hooting sounds that echo across the forest for up to a half mile to advertise pair bonds or attract mates.
To test the primates response to danger, the team conducted a series of experiments in which they put models of predators -- snow leopards, pythons and crested serpent eagles -- near a group of gibbons and then made audio recordings of their response.
What they found, Clarke said, is that the gibbons approached the potential predator and began warbling a series of sounds -- "wahs, wows and hoos" -- that were picked up by other gibbons, who then repeated the calls to others.
The sounds made when encountering a predator were more chaotic and louder than those used to win over a mate, Clarke said. "Gibbons can rearrange their songs to denote different circumstances, much like we do with words," she said.
Thad Q. Bartlett, a gibbon expert at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said the findings were interesting and significant.
"From a cognitive standpoint, the claim that gibbon calls are digital is interesting because this is one of the hallmarks of human language, that is, the ability to rearrange discrete elements to create new meanings," he said in an e-mail.
Bartlett also said the findings provide further insight into the behavior of gibbons, contradicting earlier suggestions that their small social network -- a male, female and their offspring -- was largely a result of the apes facing few threats.
"Because large group size is often seen as a response to predator pressure, researchers have long assumed that gibbons are largely immune from predators," he said.
"To my mind, this research further demonstrates the importance of predator pressure to the evolution of gibbon social systems."
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 17, 2006; C06
Walter Booker, a bass player who provided the rhythmic foundation for Cannonball Adderley, Sarah Vaughan and many other prominent jazz musicians, died Nov. 24 of cardiac arrest at his home in New York. He was 72.
Mr. Booker, who spent his formative years in Washington, came to the bass at a relatively advanced age, first picking up the instrument at 26 while serving in the Army. He had completed two years of medical school at Howard University in the early 1960s when he left his studies to pursue music as a full-time career.
Known for his precise, resonant tone, Mr. Booker was quickly recognized as one of the elite bass players in jazz, working for extended periods in the 1960s with singer Betty Carter, pianist Chick Corea, trumpeter Donald Byrd and saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Stan Getz. He also toured widely with Washington singer and pianist Shirley Horn.
Mr. Booker formed one of his most significant partnerships in 1969, when he joined the Adderley brothers' quintet, featuring Julian "Cannonball" Adderley on alto saxophone and Nat Adderley on cornet. For six years, until Cannonball's death in 1975, Mr. Booker toured the world with the popular group, which pioneered the catchy yet sophisticated style of music known as "soul jazz."
Working in several groups at the same time in the early 1970s, Mr. Booker was in one of the last ensembles led by visionary composer and pianist Thelonious Monk. From 1975 to 1981, he was the bassist for singer Sarah Vaughan.
"They were more than colleagues," Mr. Booker's wife, Bertha Hope-Booker, said of her husband's many associations with renowned musicians. "They were friends. All the music he played, he imbued with something different."
After moving to New York in 1964, Mr. Booker studied with Homer R. Mensch, a faculty member of the Juilliard School of Music who had played under conductor Arturo Toscanini.
Mr. Booker, who played a Viennese bass built in 1792 that had been salvaged from the dusty basement of a German church, became known for his bowing technique, his sure intonation and his ability to play high, accurately pitched notes. He was also known for his animated performing style, often swaying from side to side.
"He was a 'dancing' bass player," said his wife, a jazz pianist and composer in her own right. "It was like he and the bass had this connection."
Walter Monroe Booker Jr. was born Dec. 17, 1933, in Prairie View, Tex., and moved to Washington in the early 1940s, when his father joined the faculty of the Howard University medical school. (He later was the head of the pharmacology department.)
The younger Mr. Booker studied clarinet and piano, attended D.C. public schools and graduated from high school at the Palmer Memorial Institute in North Carolina. He was a graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he played alto saxophone in the concert band.
In the late 1950s, while serving in the Army in Europe -- he was in the same unit as Elvis Presley -- Mr. Booker developed his interest in the bass. After returning to Washington, he began to play in jazz bands, most notably the JFK Quintet led by Andrew White, while attending medical school.
In New York, Mr. Booker designed a recording studio based on the geodesic principles of Buckminster Fuller. His studio became a gathering place for many musicians who later had celebrated careers, including Angela Bofill, Nat Adderley Jr., T.S. Monk, Noel Pointer, Airto Moreira and the jazz-rock group Weather Report.
In the 1980s and '90s, Mr. Booker worked regularly with Nat Adderley, pianist John Hicks and, in recent years, his wife. He also led groups that performed Brazilian music, which he occasionally played on guitar, and the works of jazz pianist Elmo Hope, his wife's first husband. In the 1990s, he led workshops at the New Sewell Music Conservatory in Washington.
Mr. Booker appeared on more than 275 albums before making his first and only recording under his own name, "Bookie's Cookbook," for the Mapleshade label in Upper Marlboro in 2000. He gave his final public performances in December 2004. Suffering from prostate cancer and other ailments this year, Mr. Booker asked that his bass be brought to his hospital, where he could play it during his final illness.
His marriages to Yvonne Blakeney and Maria Smith ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 20 years, of New York; two sons from his first marriage, Randall Booker of Miami and Russell Booker of Philadelphia; a son from his second marriage, Krishna Booker, who is a percussionist with Sergio Mendes, of Los Angeles; three stepchildren, Monica Hope, Kevin Hope and Daryl Hope, all of New York; a sister, Marjorie Booker of Washington; two grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
Monday, December 25, 2006
December 26, 2006
James Brown, the ‘Godfather of Soul,’ Dies at 73
James Brown, the singer, songwriter, bandleader and dancer who indelibly transformed 20th-century music, died early yesterday in Atlanta. He was 73 and lived in Beech Island, S.C., across the Savannah River from Augusta, Ga.
Mr. Brown died of congestive heart failure after being hospitalized for pneumonia, said his agent, Frank Copsidas.
Mr. Brown sold millions of records in a career that lasted half a century. In the 1960s and 1970s he regularly topped the rhythm-and-blues charts, although he never had a No. 1 pop hit. Yet his music proved far more durable and influential than countless chart-toppers. His funk provides the sophisticated rhythms that are the basis of hip-hop and a wide swath of current pop.
Mr. Copsidas said that Mr. Brown had participated in an annual Christmas toy giveaway in Atlanta on Friday but had been hospitalized on Saturday. After canceling performances planned for midweek, Mr. Brown on Sunday night got his doctor’s approval to perform on Saturday in New Jersey and on New Year’s Eve at B.B. King’s nightclub in New York.
Mr. Copsidas said Mr. Brown used one of his best-known slogans to convey his dedication to his fans: “I’m the hardest working man in show business, and I’m not going to let them down.”
Through the years, Mr. Brown did not only call himself “the hardest working man in show business.” He also went by “Mr. Dynamite,” “Soul Brother No. 1,” “the Minister of Super Heavy Funk” and “the Godfather of Soul,” and he was all of those and more.
His music was sweaty and complex, disciplined and wild, lusty and socially conscious. Beyond his dozens of hits, Mr. Brown forged an entire musical idiom that is now a foundation of pop worldwide.
“I taught them everything they know, but not everything I know,” he wrote in an autobiography.
The funk Mr. Brown introduced in his 1965 hit “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” was both deeply rooted in Africa and thoroughly American. Songs like “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Cold Sweat,” “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” and “Hot Pants” found the percussive side of every instrument and meshed sharply syncopated patterns into kinetic polyrhythms that made people dance.
Mr. Brown’s innovations reverberated through the soul and rhythm-and-blues of the 1970s and the hip-hop of the next three decades. The beat of a 1970 instrumental “Funky Drummer” may well be the most widely sampled rhythm in hip-hop.
Mr. Brown’s stage moves — the spins, the quick shuffles, the knee-drops, the splits — were imitated by performers who tried to match his stamina, from Mick Jagger to Michael Jackson, and were admired by the many more who could not. Mr. Brown was a political force, especially during the 1960s; his 1968 song “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” changed America’s racial vocabulary. He was never politically predictable; in 1972 he endorsed the re-election of Richard M. Nixon.
Mr. Brown led a turbulent life, and served prison time as both a teenager and an adult. He was a stern taskmaster who fined his band members for missed notes or imperfect shoeshines. He was an entrepreneur who, at the end of the 1960s, owned his own publishing company, three radio stations and a Learjet (which he would later sell to pay back taxes). And he performed constantly: as many as 51 weeks a year in his prime.
Mr. Brown was born May 3, 1933, in a one-room shack in Barnwell, S.C. As he would later tell it, midwives thought he was stillborn, but his body stayed warm, and he was revived. When his parents separated four years later, he was left in the care of his aunt Honey, who ran a brothel in Augusta, Ga. As a boy he earned pennies buck-dancing for soldiers; he also picked cotton and shined shoes. He was dismissed from school because his clothes were too ragged.
He was imprisoned for petty theft in 1949 after breaking into a car, and paroled three years later. While in prison he sang in a gospel group. After he was released, he joined a group led by Bobby Byrd, which eventually called itself the Flames. At first, Mr. Brown played drums with the group and traded off lead vocals with other members. But with his powerful voice and frenzied, acrobatic dancing, he soon emerged as the frontman.
In 1955 the Flames recorded “Please Please Please” in the basement studio of a radio station in Macon, Ga. A talent scout heard it on local radio and signed the Flames to a recording contract with King Records. A second version, recorded in Cincinnati in 1956, became a million-selling single.
Nine follow-up singles were flops until, in 1958 a gospel-rooted ballad, “Try Me,” went to No. 1 on the rhythm-and-blues chart. Mr. Brown followed up with more ballads, although the Flames’ stage shows would turn them into long, frenzied crescendos. His trademark routine of collapsing onstage, having a cape thrown over him and tossing it away for one more reprise, again and again, would leave audiences shouting for more.
In 1960 Mr. Brown’s version of “Think” put a choppy, Latin-flavored beat — hinting at the funk to come — behind a sustained vocal and pushed him back into the R&B Top 10 and the pop Top 40.
Mr. Brown had his first Top 20 pop hit in 1963 with “Prisoner of Love,” a ballad backed by an orchestra. But before those sessions he had done a series of shows at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and the one on Oct. 24, 1962, was recorded. His label had not wanted to record the shows; Mr. Brown insisted. Released in 1963, “Live at the Apollo” — with screaming fans and galvanizing crescendos — revealed what the rhythm-and-blues circuit already knew, and became the No. 2 album nationwide.
James Brown and the Famous Flames toured nonstop through the 1960s. They were filmed in California for the “The T.A.M.I. Show,” released in 1965, which shows Mick Jagger trying to pick up Mr. Brown’s dance moves.
By the mid-1960s Mr. Brown was producing his own recording sessions. In February 1965, with “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” he decided to shift the beat of his band: from the one-two-three-four backbeat to one-two-three-four. “I changed from the upbeat to the downbeat,” Mr. Brown said in 1990. “Simple as that, really.”
Actually it wasn’t that simple; drums, rhythm guitar and horns all kicked the beat around from different angles. “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” won a Grammy Award as best rhythm-and-blues song, and it was only the beginning of Mr. Brown’s rhythmic breakthroughs. Through the 1960s and into the ’70s, Mr. Brown would make his funk ever more complex while stripping harmony to a bare minimum in songs like “Cold Sweat.” He didn’t immediately abandon ballads; songs like “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” a No. 1 R&B hit in 1966, mixed aching, bluesy lines with wrenching screams.
Amid the civil rights ferment of the 1960s Mr. Brown used his fame and music for social messages. He released “Don’t Be a Dropout” in 1966 and met with Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey to promote a stay-in-school initiative. Two years later “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” insisted, “We won’t quit movin’ until we get what we deserve.”
When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in 1968, Mr. Brown was due to perform in Boston. Instead of canceling his show, he had it televised. Boston was spared the riots that took place in other cities. “Don’t just react in a way that’s going to destroy your community,” he urged.
By the late 1960s Mr. Brown’s funk was part of pop, R&B and jazz: in his own hits, in songs by the Temptations and Sly and the Family Stone, and in the music of Miles Davis. It was also creating a sensation in Africa, where it would shape the Afrobeat of Fela Kuti, the juju of King Sunny Ade and the mbalax of Youssou N’Dour.
Musicians who left Mr. Brown’s bands would also have a direct role in 1970s and 1980s funk; the saxophonist Maceo Parker, the trombonist Fred Wesley and the bassist Bootsy Collins were part of George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic, and Mr. Parker also worked with Prince.
Through the early 1970s Mr. Brown’s songs filled dance floors. His self-described “super heavy funk” gave him No. 1 R&B hits and Top 20 pop hits with “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose” and “Mother Popcorn” in 1969, “Super Bad Pts. 1 & 2” in 1970, “Hot Pants” and “Make It Funky” in 1971, “Get on the Good Foot Pt. 1” in 1972 and “The Payback Pt. 1” in 1974. He provided soundtracks for blaxploitation movies like “Black Caesar” and “Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off,” and performed at the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire.
The rise of disco — a much simplified version of Mr. Brown’s funk — knocked him out of the Top 40 in the late 1970s. But an appearance in “The Blues Brothers” in 1980 started a career resurgence, and in 1985 Mr. Brown had a pop hit, peaking at No. 4, with “Living in America,” the song he performed in the movie “Rocky IV.” It won him his second Grammy Award for Best Rhythm and Blues Recording. That year he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of its first members.
Meanwhile hip-hop had arrived, with Mr. Brown’s music often providing the beat. LL Cool J, Public Enemy, De La Soul and the Beastie Boys are among the more than 100 acts that have sampled Clyde Stubblefield’s drumming on “Funky Drummer” alone. In 1984 Mr. Brown collaborated with the influential rapper Afrika Bambaataa on the single “Unity.” He kept recording into the 21st century, including a 2002 studio album, “The Next Step.”
Mr. Brown maintained a nearly constant touring schedule despite a tumultuous personal life. During the 1970s the Internal Revenue Service demanded $4.5 million in unpaid taxes; the jet and radio stations were sold. His oldest son, Teddy, died in a car accident in 1973.
In 1987, intoxicated on PCP, he burst into an insurance seminar adjoining his own office in Augusta, then led police on a car chase across the South Carolina border. He was sentenced to prison for carrying a deadly weapon at a public gathering, attempting to flee a police officer and driving under the influence of drugs, and was released in 1991.
In 1998 after discharging a rifle and another car chase, he was sentenced to a 90-day drug rehabilitation program. He was officially pardoned by South Carolina in 2003, but arrested again in 2004 on charges of domestic violence against his fourth wife, Tomi Rae Hynie, a former backup singer. “I would never hurt my wife,” he said in a statement at the time. “I love her very much.”
She survives him, along with their son, James Brown II, and at least five other children.
In 1999, Mr. Brown made a deal to receive more than $25 million in bonds against advance publishing royalties. This year, however, he sought to refinance the bonds with a new loan. The banker who had made the original deal, David Pullman, objected to the terms, and Mr. Brown filed a lawsuit against him in July.
But Mr. Brown’s status as an American archetype had long since been assured. A definitive collection, “Star Time” (Universal), was released in 1991. He received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992 and a Kennedy Center Honor in 2003, the same year that Michael Jackson presented him with a BET Award for lifetime achievement. In a 1990 interview with The New York Times, he said, “I was always 25 years ahead of my time.”
John O’Neil contributed reporting.
What’s Wrong With Cinderella?
I finally came unhinged in the dentist’s office — one of those ritzy pediatric practices tricked out with comic books, DVDs and arcade games — where I’d taken my 3-year-old daughter for her first exam. Until then, I’d held my tongue. I’d smiled politely every time the supermarket-checkout clerk greeted her with “Hi, Princess”; ignored the waitress at our local breakfast joint who called the funny-face pancakes she ordered her “princess meal”; made no comment when the lady at Longs Drugs said, “I bet I know your favorite color” and handed her a pink balloon rather than letting her choose for herself. Maybe it was the dentist’s Betty Boop inflection that got to me, but when she pointed to the exam chair and said, “Would you like to sit in my special princess throne so I can sparkle your teeth?” I lost it.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” I snapped. “Do you have a princess drill, too?”
She stared at me as if I were an evil stepmother.
“Come on!” I continued, my voice rising. “It’s 2006, not 1950. This is Berkeley, Calif. Does every little girl really have to be a princess?”
My daughter, who was reaching for a Cinderella sticker, looked back and forth between us. “Why are you so mad, Mama?” she asked. “What’s wrong with princesses?”
Diana may be dead and Masako disgraced, but here in America, we are in the midst of a royal moment. To call princesses a “trend” among girls is like calling Harry Potter a book. Sales at Disney Consumer Products, which started the craze six years ago by packaging nine of its female characters under one royal rubric, have shot up to $3 billion, globally, this year, from $300 million in 2001. There are now more than 25,000 Disney Princess items. “Princess,” as some Disney execs call it, is not only the fastest-growing brand the company has ever created; they say it is on its way to becoming the largest girls’ franchise on the planet.
Meanwhile in 2001, Mattel brought out its own “world of girl” line of princess Barbie dolls, DVDs, toys, clothing, home décor and myriad other products. At a time when Barbie sales were declining domestically, they became instant best sellers. Shortly before that, Mary Drolet, a Chicago-area mother and former Claire’s and Montgomery Ward executive, opened Club Libby Lu, now a chain of mall stores based largely in the suburbs in which girls ages 4 to 12 can shop for “Princess Phones” covered in faux fur and attend “Princess-Makeover Birthday Parties.” Saks bought Club Libby Lu in 2003 for $12 million and has since expanded it to 87 outlets; by 2005, with only scant local advertising, revenues hovered around the $46 million mark, a 53 percent jump from the previous year. Pink, it seems, is the new gold.
Even Dora the Explorer, the intrepid, dirty-kneed adventurer, has ascended to the throne: in 2004, after a two-part episode in which she turns into a “true princess,” the Nickelodeon and Viacom consumer-products division released a satin-gowned “Magic Hair Fairytale Dora,” with hair that grows or shortens when her crown is touched. Among other phrases the bilingual doll utters: “Vámonos! Let’s go to fairy-tale land!” and “Will you brush my hair?”
As a feminist mother — not to mention a nostalgic product of the Grranimals era — I have been taken by surprise by the princess craze and the girlie-girl culture that has risen around it. What happened to William wanting a doll and not dressing your cat in an apron? Whither Marlo Thomas? I watch my fellow mothers, women who once swore they’d never be dependent on a man, smile indulgently at daughters who warble “So This Is Love” or insist on being called Snow White. I wonder if they’d concede so readily to sons who begged for combat fatigues and mock AK-47s.
More to the point, when my own girl makes her daily beeline for the dress-up corner of her preschool classroom — something I’m convinced she does largely to torture me — I worry about what playing Little Mermaid is teaching her. I’ve spent much of my career writing about experiences that undermine girls’ well-being, warning parents that a preoccupation with body and beauty (encouraged by films, TV, magazines and, yes, toys) is perilous to their daughters’ mental and physical health. Am I now supposed to shrug and forget all that? If trafficking in stereotypes doesn’t matter at 3, when does it matter? At 6? Eight? Thirteen?
On the other hand, maybe I’m still surfing a washed-out second wave of feminism in a third-wave world. Maybe princesses are in fact a sign of progress, an indication that girls can embrace their predilection for pink without compromising strength or ambition; that, at long last, they can “have it all.” Or maybe it is even less complex than that: to mangle Freud, maybe a princess is sometimes just a princess. And, as my daughter wants to know, what’s wrong with that?
The rise of the Disney princesses reads like a fairy tale itself, with Andy Mooney, a former Nike executive, playing the part of prince, riding into the company on a metaphoric white horse in January 2000 to save a consumer-products division whose sales were dropping by as much as 30 percent a year. Both overstretched and underfocused, the division had triggered price wars by granting multiple licenses for core products (say, Winnie-the-Pooh undies) while ignoring the potential of new media. What’s more, Disney films like “A Bug’s Life” in 1998 had yielded few merchandising opportunities — what child wants to snuggle up with an ant?
It was about a month after Mooney’s arrival that the magic struck. That’s when he flew to Phoenix to check out his first “Disney on Ice” show. “Standing in line in the arena, I was surrounded by little girls dressed head to toe as princesses,” he told me last summer in his palatial office, then located in Burbank, and speaking in a rolling Scottish burr. “They weren’t even Disney products. They were generic princess products they’d appended to a Halloween costume. And the light bulb went off. Clearly there was latent demand here. So the next morning I said to my team, ‘O.K., let’s establish standards and a color palette and talk to licensees and get as much product out there as we possibly can that allows these girls to do what they’re doing anyway: projecting themselves into the characters from the classic movies.’ ”
Mooney picked a mix of old and new heroines to wear the Pantone pink No. 241 corona: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Mulan and Pocahontas. It was the first time Disney marketed characters separately from a film’s release, let alone lumped together those from different stories. To ensure the sanctity of what Mooney called their individual “mythologies,” the princesses never make eye contact when they’re grouped: each stares off in a slightly different direction as if unaware of the others’ presence.
It is also worth noting that not all of the ladies are of royal extraction. Part of the genius of “Princess” is that its meaning is so broadly constructed that it actually has no meaning. Even Tinker Bell was originally a Princess, though her reign didn’t last. “We’d always debate over whether she was really a part of the Princess mythology,” Mooney recalled. “She really wasn’t.” Likewise, Mulan and Pocahontas, arguably the most resourceful of the bunch, are rarely depicted on Princess merchandise, though for a different reason. Their rustic garb has less bling potential than that of old-school heroines like Sleeping Beauty. (When Mulan does appear, she is typically in the kimonolike hanfu, which makes her miserable in the movie, rather than her liberated warrior’s gear.)
The first Princess items, released with no marketing plan, no focus groups, no advertising, sold as if blessed by a fairy godmother. To this day, Disney conducts little market research on the Princess line, relying instead on the power of its legacy among mothers as well as the instant-read sales barometer of the theme parks and Disney Stores. “We simply gave girls what they wanted,” Mooney said of the line’s success, “although I don’t think any of us grasped how much they wanted this. I wish I could sit here and take credit for having some grand scheme to develop this, but all we did was envision a little girl’s room and think about how she could live out the princess fantasy. The counsel we gave to licensees was: What type of bedding would a princess want to sleep in? What kind of alarm clock would a princess want to wake up to? What type of television would a princess like to see? It’s a rare case where you find a girl who has every aspect of her room bedecked in Princess, but if she ends up with three or four of these items, well, then you have a very healthy business.”
Every reporter Mooney talks to asks some version of my next question: Aren’t the Princesses, who are interested only in clothes, jewelry and cadging the handsome prince, somewhat retrograde role models?
“Look,” he said, “I have friends whose son went through the Power Rangers phase who castigated themselves over what they must’ve done wrong. Then they talked to other parents whose kids had gone through it. The boy passes through. The girl passes through. I see girls expanding their imagination through visualizing themselves as princesses, and then they pass through that phase and end up becoming lawyers, doctors, mothers or princesses, whatever the case may be.”
Mooney has a point: There are no studies proving that playing princess directly damages girls’ self-esteem or dampens other aspirations. On the other hand, there is evidence that young women who hold the most conventionally feminine beliefs — who avoid conflict and think they should be perpetually nice and pretty — are more likely to be depressed than others and less likely to use contraception. What’s more, the 23 percent decline in girls’ participation in sports and other vigorous activity between middle and high school has been linked to their sense that athletics is unfeminine. And in a survey released last October by Girls Inc., school-age girls overwhelmingly reported a paralyzing pressure to be “perfect”: not only to get straight A’s and be the student-body president, editor of the newspaper and captain of the swim team but also to be “kind and caring,” “please everyone, be very thin and dress right.” Give those girls a pumpkin and a glass slipper and they’d be in business.
At the grocery store one day, my daughter noticed a little girl sporting a Cinderella backpack. “There’s that princess you don’t like, Mama!” she shouted.
“Um, yeah,” I said, trying not to meet the other mother’s hostile gaze.
“Don’t you like her blue dress, Mama?”
I had to admit, I did.
She thought about this. “Then don’t you like her face?”
“Her face is all right,” I said, noncommittally, though I’m not thrilled to have my Japanese-Jewish child in thrall to those Aryan features. (And what the heck are those blue things covering her ears?) “It’s just, honey, Cinderella doesn’t really do anything.”
Over the next 45 minutes, we ran through that conversation, verbatim, approximately 37 million times, as my daughter pointed out Disney Princess Band-Aids, Disney Princess paper cups, Disney Princess lip balm, Disney Princess pens, Disney Princess crayons and Disney Princess notebooks — all cleverly displayed at the eye level of a 3-year-old trapped in a shopping cart — as well as a bouquet of Disney Princess balloons bobbing over the checkout line. The repetition was excessive, even for a preschooler. What was it about my answers that confounded her? What if, instead of realizing: Aha! Cinderella is a symbol of the patriarchal oppression of all women, another example of corporate mind control and power-to-the-people! my 3-year-old was thinking, Mommy doesn’t want me to be a girl?
According to theories of gender constancy, until they’re about 6 or 7, children don’t realize that the sex they were born with is immutable. They believe that they have a choice: they can grow up to be either a mommy or a daddy. Some psychologists say that until permanency sets in kids embrace whatever stereotypes our culture presents, whether it’s piling on the most spangles or attacking one another with light sabers. What better way to assure that they’ll always remain themselves? If that’s the case, score one for Mooney. By not buying the Princess Pull-Ups, I may be inadvertently communicating that being female (to the extent that my daughter is able to understand it) is a bad thing.
Anyway, you have to give girls some credit. It’s true that, according to Mattel, one of the most popular games young girls play is “bride,” but Disney found that a groom or prince is incidental to that fantasy, a regrettable necessity at best. Although they keep him around for the climactic kiss, he is otherwise relegated to the bottom of the toy box, which is why you don’t see him prominently displayed in stores.
What’s more, just because they wear the tulle doesn’t mean they’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. Plenty of girls stray from the script, say, by playing basketball in their finery, or casting themselves as the powerful evil stepsister bossing around the sniveling Cinderella. I recall a headline-grabbing 2005 British study that revealed that girls enjoy torturing, decapitating and microwaving their Barbies nearly as much as they like to dress them up for dates. There is spice along with that sugar after all, though why this was news is beyond me: anyone who ever played with the doll knows there’s nothing more satisfying than hacking off all her hair and holding her underwater in the bathtub. Princesses can even be a boon to exasperated parents: in our house, for instance, royalty never whines and uses the potty every single time.
“Playing princess is not the issue,” argues Lyn Mikel Brown, an author, with Sharon Lamb, of “Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketers’ Schemes.” “The issue is 25,000 Princess products,” says Brown, a professor of education and human development at Colby College. “When one thing is so dominant, then it’s no longer a choice: it’s a mandate, cannibalizing all other forms of play. There’s the illusion of more choices out there for girls, but if you look around, you’ll see their choices are steadily narrowing.”
It’s hard to imagine that girls’ options could truly be shrinking when they dominate the honor roll and outnumber boys in college. Then again, have you taken a stroll through a children’s store lately? A year ago, when we shopped for “big girl” bedding at Pottery Barn Kids, we found the “girls” side awash in flowers, hearts and hula dancers; not a soccer player or sailboat in sight. Across the no-fly zone, the “boys” territory was all about sports, trains, planes and automobiles. Meanwhile, Baby GAP’s boys’ onesies were emblazoned with “Big Man on Campus” and the girls’ with “Social Butterfly”; guess whose matching shoes were decorated on the soles with hearts and whose sported a “No. 1” logo? And at Toys “R” Us, aisles of pink baby dolls, kitchens, shopping carts and princesses unfurl a safe distance from the “Star Wars” figures, GeoTrax and tool chests. The relentless resegregation of childhood appears to have sneaked up without any further discussion about sex roles, about what it now means to be a boy or to be a girl. Or maybe it has happened in lieu of such discussion because it’s easier this way.
Easier, that is, unless you want to buy your daughter something that isn’t pink. Girls’ obsession with that color may seem like something they’re born with, like the ability to breathe or talk on the phone for hours on end. But according to Jo Paoletti, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, it ain’t so. When colors were first introduced to the nursery in the early part of the 20th century, pink was considered the more masculine hue, a pastel version of red. Blue, with its intimations of the Virgin Mary, constancy and faithfulness, was thought to be dainty. Why or when that switched is not clear, but as late as the 1930s a significant percentage of adults in one national survey held to that split. Perhaps that’s why so many early Disney heroines — Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Wendy, Alice-in-Wonderland — are swathed in varying shades of azure. (Purple, incidentally, may be the next color to swap teams: once the realm of kings and N.F.L. players, it is fast becoming the bolder girl’s version of pink.)
It wasn’t until the mid-1980s, when amplifying age and sex differences became a key strategy of children’s marketing (recall the emergence of “ ’tween”), that pink became seemingly innate to girls, part of what defined them as female, at least for the first few years. That was also the time that the first of the generation raised during the unisex phase of feminism — ah, hither Marlo! — became parents. “The kids who grew up in the 1970s wanted sharp definitions for their own kids,” Paoletti told me. “I can understand that, because the unisex thing denied everything — you couldn’t be this, you couldn’t be that, you had to be a neutral nothing.”
The infatuation with the girlie girl certainly could, at least in part, be a reaction against the so-called second wave of the women’s movement of the 1960s and ’70s (the first wave was the fight for suffrage), which fought for reproductive rights and economic, social and legal equality. If nothing else, pink and Princess have resuscitated the fantasy of romance that that era of feminism threatened, the privileges that traditional femininity conferred on women despite its costs — doors magically opened, dinner checks picked up, Manolo Blahniks. Frippery. Fun. Why should we give up the perks of our sex until we’re sure of what we’ll get in exchange? Why should we give them up at all? Or maybe it’s deeper than that: the freedoms feminism bestowed came with an undercurrent of fear among women themselves — flowing through “Ally McBeal,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” “Sex and the City” — of losing male love, of never marrying, of not having children, of being deprived of something that felt essentially and exclusively female.
I mulled that over while flipping through “The Paper Bag Princess,” a 1980 picture book hailed as an antidote to Disney. The heroine outwits a dragon who has kidnapped her prince, but not before the beast’s fiery breath frizzles her hair and destroys her dress, forcing her to don a paper bag. The ungrateful prince rejects her, telling her to come back when she is “dressed like a real princess.” She dumps him and skips off into the sunset, happily ever after, alone.
There you have it, “Thelma and Louise” all over again. Step out of line, and you end up solo or, worse, sailing crazily over a cliff to your doom. Alternatives like those might send you skittering right back to the castle. And I get that: the fact is, though I want my daughter to do and be whatever she wants as an adult, I still hope she’ll find her Prince Charming and have babies, just as I have. I don’t want her to be a fish without a bicycle; I want her to be a fish with another fish. Preferably, one who loves and respects her and also does the dishes and half the child care.
There had to be a middle ground between compliant and defiant, between petticoats and paper bags. I remembered a video on YouTube, an ad for a Nintendo game called Super Princess Peach. It showed a pack of girls in tiaras, gowns and elbow-length white gloves sliding down a zip line on parasols, navigating an obstacle course of tires in their stilettos, slithering on their bellies under barbed wire, then using their telekinetic powers to make a climbing wall burst into flames. “If you can stand up to really mean people,” an announcer intoned, “maybe you have what it takes to be a princess.”
Now here were some girls who had grit as well as grace. I loved Princess Peach even as I recognized that there was no way she could run in those heels, that her peachiness did nothing to upset the apple cart of expectation: she may have been athletic, smart and strong, but she was also adorable. Maybe she’s what those once-unisex, postfeminist parents are shooting for: the melding of old and new standards. And perhaps that’s a good thing, the ideal solution. But what to make, then, of the young women in the Girls Inc. survey? It doesn’t seem to be “having it all” that’s getting to them; it’s the pressure to be it all. In telling our girls they can be anything, we have inadvertently demanded that they be everything. To everyone. All the time. No wonder the report was titled “The Supergirl Dilemma.”
The princess as superhero is not irrelevant. Some scholars I spoke with say that given its post-9/11 timing, princess mania is a response to a newly dangerous world. “Historically, princess worship has emerged during periods of uncertainty and profound social change,” observes Miriam Forman-Brunell, a historian at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Francis Hodgson Burnett’s original“Little Princess” was published at a time of rapid urbanization, immigration and poverty; Shirley Temple’s film version was a hit during the Great Depression. “The original folk tales themselves,” Forman-Brunell says, “spring from medieval and early modern European culture that faced all kinds of economic and demographic and social upheaval — famine, war, disease, terror of wolves. Girls play savior during times of economic crisis and instability.” That’s a heavy burden for little shoulders. Perhaps that’s why the magic wand has become an essential part of the princess get-up. In the original stories — even the Disney versions of them — it’s not the girl herself who’s magic; it’s the fairy godmother. Now if Forman-Brunell is right, we adults have become the cursed creatures whom girls have the thaumaturgic power to transform.
In the 1990s, third-wave feminists rebelled against their dour big sisters, “reclaiming” sexual objectification as a woman’s right — provided, of course, that it was on her own terms, that she was the one choosing to strip or wear a shirt that said “Porn Star” or make out with her best friend at a frat-house bash. They embraced words like “bitch” and “slut” as terms of affection and empowerment. That is, when used by the right people, with the right dash of playful irony. But how can you assure that? As Madonna gave way to Britney, whatever self-determination that message contained was watered down and commodified until all that was left was a gaggle of 6-year-old girls in belly-baring T-shirts (which I’m guessing they don’t wear as cultural critique). It is no wonder that parents, faced with thongs for 8-year-olds and Bratz dolls’ “passion for fashion,” fill their daughters’ closets with pink sateen; the innocence of Princess feels like a reprieve.
“But what does that mean?” asks Sharon Lamb, a psychology professor at Saint Michael’s College. “There are other ways to express ‘innocence’ — girls could play ladybug or caterpillar. What you’re really talking about is sexual purity. And there’s a trap at the end of that rainbow, because the natural progression from pale, innocent pink is not to other colors. It’s to hot, sexy pink — exactly the kind of sexualization parents are trying to avoid.”
Lamb suggested that to see for myself how “Someday My Prince Will Come” morphs into “Oops! I Did It Again,” I visit Club Libby Lu, the mall shop dedicated to the “Very Important Princess.”
Walking into one of the newest links in the store’s chain, in Natick, Mass., last summer, I had to tip my tiara to the founder, Mary Drolet: Libby Lu’s design was flawless. Unlike Disney, Drolet depended on focus groups to choose the logo (a crown-topped heart) and the colors (pink, pink, purple and more pink). The displays were scaled to the size of a 10-year-old, though most of the shoppers I saw were several years younger than that. The decals on the walls and dressing rooms — “I Love Your Hair,” “Hip Chick,” “Spoiled” — were written in “girlfriend language.” The young sales clerks at this “special secret club for superfabulous girls” are called “club counselors” and come off like your coolest baby sitter, the one who used to let you brush her hair. The malls themselves are chosen based on a company formula called the G.P.I., or “Girl Power Index,” which predicts potential sales revenues. Talk about newspeak: “Girl Power” has gone from a riot grrrrl anthem to “I Am Woman, Watch Me Shop.”
Inside, the store was divided into several glittery “shopping zones” called “experiences”: Libby’s Laboratory, now called Sparkle Spa, where girls concoct their own cosmetics and bath products; Libby’s Room; Ear Piercing; Pooch Parlor (where divas in training can pamper stuffed poodles, pugs and Chihuahuas); and the Style Studio, offering “Libby Du” makeover choices, including ’Tween Idol, Rock Star, Pop Star and, of course, Priceless Princess. Each look includes hairstyle, makeup, nail polish and sparkly tattoos.
As I browsed, I noticed a mother standing in the center of the store holding a price list for makeover birthday parties — $22.50 to $35 per child. Her name was Anne McAuliffe; her daughters — Stephanie, 4, and 7-year-old twins Rory and Sarah — were dashing giddily up and down the aisles.
“They’ve been begging to come to this store for three weeks,” McAuliffe said. “I’d never heard of it. So I said they could, but they’d have to spend their own money if they bought anything.” She looked around. “Some of this stuff is innocuous,” she observed, then leaned toward me, eyes wide and stage-whispered: “But ... a lot of it is horrible. It makes them look like little prostitutes. It’s crazy. They’re babies!”
As we debated the line between frivolous fun and JonBenét, McAuliffe’s daughter Rory came dashing up, pigtails haphazard, glasses askew. “They have the best pocketbooks here,” she said breathlessly, brandishing a clutch with the words “Girlie Girl” stamped on it. “Please, can I have one? It has sequins!”
“You see that?” McAuliffe asked, gesturing at the bag. “What am I supposed to say?”
On my way out of the mall, I popped into the “ ’tween” mecca Hot Topic, where a display of Tinker Bell items caught my eye. Tinker Bell, whose image racks up an annual $400 million in retail sales with no particular effort on Disney’s part, is poised to wreak vengeance on the Princess line that once expelled her. Last winter, the first chapter book designed to introduce girls to Tink and her Pixie Hollow pals spent 18 weeks on The New York Times children’s best-seller list. In a direct-to-DVD now under production, she will speak for the first time, voiced by the actress Brittany Murphy. Next year, Disney Fairies will be rolled out in earnest. Aimed at 6- to 9-year-old girls, the line will catch them just as they outgrow Princess. Their colors will be lavender, green, turquoise — anything but the Princess’s soon-to-be-babyish pink.
To appeal to that older child, Disney executives said, the Fairies will have more “attitude” and “sass” than the Princesses. What, I wondered, did that entail? I’d seen some of the Tinker Bell merchandise that Disney sells at its theme parks: T-shirts reading, “Spoiled to Perfection,” “Mood Subject to Change Without Notice” and “Tinker Bell: Prettier Than a Princess.” At Hot Topic, that edge was even sharper: magnets, clocks, light-switch plates and panties featured “Dark Tink,” described as “the bad girl side of Miss Bell that Walt never saw.”
Girl power, indeed.
A few days later, I picked my daughter up from preschool. She came tearing over in a full-skirted frock with a gold bodice, a beaded crown perched sideways on her head. “Look, Mommy, I’m Ariel!” she crowed. referring to Disney’s Little Mermaid. Then she stopped and furrowed her brow. “Mommy, do you like Ariel?”
I considered her for a moment. Maybe Princess is the first salvo in what will become a lifelong struggle over her body image, a Hundred Years’ War of dieting, plucking, painting and perpetual dissatisfaction with the results. Or maybe it isn’t. I’ll never really know. In the end, it’s not the Princesses that really bother me anyway. They’re just a trigger for the bigger question of how, over the years, I can help my daughter with the contradictions she will inevitably face as a girl, the dissonance that is as endemic as ever to growing up female. Maybe the best I can hope for is that her generation will get a little further with the solutions than we did.
For now, I kneeled down on the floor and gave my daughter a hug.
She smiled happily. “But, Mommy?” she added. “When I grow up, I’m still going to be a fireman.”
Peggy Orenstein is a contributing writer for the magazine. Her book “Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, An Oscar, An Atomic Bomb, A Romantic Night and One Woman’s Quest to Become a Mother” will be published in February by Bloomsbury.