Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Hearing Focuses on Language and Violence in Rap Music

New York Times
September 26, 2007
Hearing Focuses on Language and Violence in Rap Music

WASHINGTON, Sept. 25 — What a difference a week makes.

Last week, the purveyors of rap music cheered as new CDs from Kanye West and 50 Cent burst onto the top of the Billboard chart. But on Tuesday, rap artists and entertainment executives found themselves fending off Congressional criticism that they exploit violence and sexism for profit.

In a hearing convened by Representative Bobby L. Rush, Democrat of Illinois, lawmakers asked music industry executives about their companies’ role in the production of explicit rap, at one point inviting them to read aloud from 50 Cent’s lyrics. The lawmakers also asked whether marketers were doing enough to shield young listeners from graphic content.

“This hearing is not anti-hip-hop,” said Mr. Rush, a former Black Panther who several years ago fought a challenge from a then little-known Barack Obama to hold on to his House seat. Still, he said, violence and degradation have “reduced too many of our youngsters to automatons, those who don’t recognize life, those who don’t value life.”

Mr. Rush, echoing comments of others on the panel, praised freedom of expression but asked the chief executives of two music companies whether they would consider a ban on certain words considered derogatory.

“We don’t think that banning expression is an appropriate approach,” said Edgar Bronfman Jr., chairman of the Warner Music Group. Tasteless language, he added, “is in the eye of the beholder.”

Under questioning, Mr. Bronfman and Doug Morris, chairman of the Universal Music Group, stood by the industry’s existing method of handling explicit content, including the voluntary labeling of graphic CDs with parental-advisory stickers. Though they defended the industry’s practices, Mr. Bronfman and Mr. Morris lamented that efforts to restrict young listeners’ access to explicit music had become futile amid the proliferation of copyrighted songs and videos online.

The hearing, before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, reflected the continuing debate that has swept the rap world since CBS fired Don Imus, the radio host, for making derogatory comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. Mr. Imus’s ouster prompted discussions about performers’ use of misogynous or violent language in songs and music videos.

All of that culminated in the hearing on Tuesday. It touched just lightly on the Imus case, in which a white radio host insulted black women. Instead, the spotlight fell on a panel of white executives defending music principally recorded by black men, and in some instances considered offensive to women. The focus was not only on record labels. Also questioned were executives from Viacom, the parent of MTV and BET; Radio One; and the video-game maker Take-Two Interactive Software.

At least one performer at the hearing told lawmakers that rap music had been unfairly singled out as a scapegoat for deeper social problems. “Gang violence was here before rap music,” said David Banner, a rapper who records for Universal Music and whose real name is Levell Crump. “I can admit that there are some problems in hip-hop, but it is only a reflection of what is taking place in our society. Hip-hop is sick because America is sick.”

A different note was sounded by Master P, previously a dominant force in rap, who has recently struggled to find a hit. Master P, whose real name is Percy Miller, said rap artists needed to consider how fans might be affected by their music. While societal woes contribute to violence and other problems, he said, “we are inflaming this problem by not being responsible.” He said he had devoted himself to producing cleaner music with positive messages.

Mr. Miller also apologized to “all the women out there,” and added, “I was honestly wrong.”

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Does Simple Music Form Simple Faith?

NYT - September 23, 2007
Does Simple Music Form Simple Faith?

A CEREMONY at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Sept. 11 offered some patriotic music and a few dabs of the classics, but everything else made me wonder whether I should be listening as a critic or as a Christian. A lot of liturgical music these days asks you to choose between the two.

With its hand-clapping, inspirational, just-folks character, how different this music is from a tradition that ran from plainchant through Josquin and Palestrina to Mozart and Beethoven, and finally to Messiaen and Britten. Without the church to inspire — not to mention finance — great composers, how diminished the history of music might seem to us.

Beauty of musical color, elegance of harmony, soundness of construction and exquisiteness of originality once worked as the lure that would draw the faltering worshiper nearer. Music, as well as architecture and visual art, represented heaven to the earthbound, something dazzling and unapproachable, an advertisement for a paradise still held at arm’s length.

The neo-Edwardian anthems and elaborations on ethno-popular culture at St. Patrick’s, on the other hand, might lead us to infer from Bach’s B minor Mass or Haydn’s “Creation” a certain irreligion, a seductiveness that captures the senses and leads the heart away from true communion with God. Does simple music form simple faith, arguably the best kind? Has the Dark One used great musical art to his advantage?

Sophisticated music that doesn’t reach out directly to its listeners — that doesn’t depend on their response — bears the seeds of its eventual irrelevance. One reason classical music struggles as it does today lies with the several generations of composers in the last century who demanded that audiences understand them rather than the other way around.

But music written solely for the comfort of its audience is equally irrelevant. Pushing ethnic buttons as a form of quick access to the worshiper’s attention is only advertising. Easy familiarity acts like the door-to-door salesman’s foot in the door, the prelude to making that sale.

The Christian, on the other hand, can argue with perfect rectitude that music is just one more evangelical tool, useful Muzak to accompany the winning of converts and the reinforcement of faith. Interesting music distracts the faithful, or so this line of thinking goes. Interesting music does not tell us to be good or bad. It asks only to be admired. Getting great music and simple faith together happens, but with difficulty.

Verdi’s Requiem, with its visceral depiction of human fright at Judgment Day, comes pretty close to satisfying both the critic and the Christian. My nominee for the music that both thrills the senses and puts into its auditors the appropriate fear of God is the gospel singing of black churches. The sounds are amazing, and everyone in the building has something to do with making them.

The church has reason to fear great beauty, hence the effort to rescue our attention, through plainspoken and deliberately flat-footed modern texts, from the mesmerizing graces of the Latin Mass or the splendid poetry of the Anglican Church’s Book of Common Prayer. I am one small example, having spent the Sunday mornings of my youth in the Episcopal Church allowing Thomas Cranmer’s magical imagery and liquid liturgical responses to roll off my tongue without a thought to God at all.

One reason that less important music is being written for churches is that composers have other things on their minds: among them, making a living. Churches were once the center of life, and centers of wealth and power as well. Composers thrived in their employ in times when public concerts barely existed. The rich commissioned liturgical pieces as their personal upscale rapprochements with God. What money for composers circulates today is largely in secular hands.

The decline in classical music and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have things in common. Musical audiences dwindle and age; church attendance in Europe has dropped precipitously; and evangelical and fundamentalist movements in once solidly Catholic Latin America are growing exponentially. Without the divide between audience member (parishioner) and artist (clergy), rock ’n’ roll, rhythm and blues, and like species so involve listeners that the audience becomes an added instrument, singing along or shouting approval. Religion in country churches is not about intransitive shows of respect but about energy bouncing back and forth.

In a television interview not long ago the novelist Margaret Atwood gave as good a reason as any that a recognizably human, touchable God so engages spiritual seekers. People are lonely, she said. When they look out at the universe, they don’t want to see rocks and gases; they want someone to talk to.

Do we go the other way, approach God as spectators and accept religious art’s tantalizing promises of a kingdom of heaven filled with nonstop Mozart and Michelangelo? Or do we sit down, take our maker by the shoulder, put beauty in its place and work things out person to person?

Ritual-driven, beauty-ridden Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans may not be doing as well right now as they would like, but history keeps turning in circles, and they may have their day again.

Meanwhile grab that guitar. Clap those hands.

The Day Louis Armstrong Made Noise

September 23, 2007
Op-Ed Contributor
The Day Louis Armstrong Made Noise

FIFTY years ago this week, all eyes were on Little Rock, Ark., where nine black students were trying, for the first time, to desegregate a major Southern high school. With fewer than 150 blacks, the town of Grand Forks, N.D., hardly figured to be a key front in that battle — until, that is, Larry Lubenow talked to Louis Armstrong.

On the night of Sept. 17, 1957, two weeks after the Little Rock Nine were first barred from Central High School, the jazz trumpeter happened to be on tour with his All Stars band in Grand Forks. Larry Lubenow, meanwhile, was a 21-year-old journalism student and jazz fan at the University of North Dakota, moonlighting for $1.75 an hour at The Grand Forks Herald.

Shortly before Mr. Armstrong’s concert, Mr. Lubenow’s editor sent him to the Dakota Hotel, where Mr. Armstrong was staying, to see if he could land an interview. Perhaps sensing trouble — Mr. Lubenow was, he now says, a “rabble-rouser and liberal” — his boss laid out the ground rules: “No politics,” he ordered. That hardly seemed necessary, for Mr. Armstrong rarely ventured into such things anyway. “I don’t get involved in politics,” he once said. “I just blow my horn.”

But Mr. Lubenow was thinking about other things, race relations among them. The bell captain, with whom he was friendly, had told him that Mr. Armstrong was quietly making history in Grand Forks, as he had done innumerable times and ways before, by becoming the first black man ever to stay at what was then the best hotel in town. Mr. Lubenow knew, too, that Grand Forks had its own link to Little Rock: it was the hometown of Judge Ronald Davies, who’d just ordered that the desegregation plan in Little Rock proceed after Gov. Orval Faubus of Arkansas and a band of local segregationists tried to block it.

As Mr. Armstrong prepared to play that night — oddly enough, at Grand Forks’s own Central High School — members of the Arkansas National Guard ringed the school in Little Rock, ordered to keep the black students out. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s meeting with Governor Faubus three days earlier in Newport, R.I., had ended inconclusively. Central High School was open, but the black children stayed home.

Mr. Lubenow was first told he couldn’t talk to Mr. Armstrong until after the concert. That wouldn’t do. With the connivance of the bell captain, he snuck into Mr. Armstrong’s suite with a room service lobster dinner. And Mr. Armstrong, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, agreed to talk. Mr. Lubenow stuck initially to his editor’s script, asking Mr. Armstrong to name his favorite musician. (Bing Crosby, it turned out.) But soon he brought up Little Rock, and he could not believe what he heard. “It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country,” a furious Mr. Armstrong told him. President Eisenhower, he charged, was “two faced,” and had “no guts.” For Governor Faubus, he used a double-barreled hyphenated expletive, utterly unfit for print. The two settled on something safer: “uneducated plow boy.” The euphemism, Mr. Lubenow says, was far more his than Mr. Armstrong’s.

Mr. Armstrong bitterly recounted some of his experiences touring in the Jim Crow South. He then sang the opening bar of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” inserting obscenities into the lyrics and prompting Velma Middleton, the vocalist who toured with Mr. Armstrong and who had joined them in the room, to hush him up.

Mr. Armstrong had been contemplating a good-will tour to the Soviet Union for the State Department. “They ain’t so cold but what we couldn’t bruise them with happy music,” he had said. Now, though, he confessed to having second thoughts. “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” he said, offering further choice words about the secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. “The people over there ask me what’s wrong with my country. What am I supposed to say?”

Mr. Lubenow, who came from a small North Dakota farming community, was shocked by what he heard, but he also knew he had a story; he skipped the concert and went back to the paper to write it up. It was too late to get it in his own paper; nor would the Associated Press editor in Minneapolis, dubious that Mr. Armstrong could have said such things, put it on the national wire, at least until Mr. Lubenow could prove he hadn’t made it all up. So the next morning Mr. Lubenow returned to the Dakota Hotel and, as Mr. Armstrong shaved, had the Herald photographer take their picture together. Then Mr. Lubenow showed Mr. Armstrong what he’d written. “Don’t take nothing out of that story,” Mr. Armstrong declared. “That’s just what I said, and still say.” He then wrote “solid” on the bottom of the yellow copy paper, and signed his name.

The article ran all over the country. Douglas Edwards and John Cameron Swayze broadcast it on the evening news. The Russians, an anonymous government spokesman warned, would relish everything Mr. Armstrong had said. A radio station in Hattiesburg, Miss., threw out all of Mr. Armstrong’s records. Sammy Davis Jr. criticized Mr. Armstrong for not speaking out earlier. But Jackie Robinson, Sugar Ray Robinson, Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt and Marian Anderson quickly backed him up.

Mostly, there was surprise, especially among blacks. Secretary Dulles might just as well have stood up at the United Nations and led a chorus of the Russian national anthem, declared Jet magazine, which once called Mr. Armstrong an “Uncle Tom.” Mr. Armstrong had long tried to convince people throughout the world that “the Negro’s lot in America is a happy one,” it observed, but in one bold stroke he’d pulled nearly 15 million American blacks to his bosom. Any white confused by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s polite talk need only listen to Mr. Armstrong, The Amsterdam News declared. Mr. Armstrong’s words had the “explosive effect of an H-bomb,” said The Chicago Defender. “He may not have been grammatical, but he was eloquent.”

His road manager quickly put out that Mr. Armstrong had been tricked, and regretted his statements, but Mr. Armstrong would have none of that. “I said what somebody should have said a long time ago,” he said the following day in Montevideo, Minn., where he gave his next concert. He closed that show with “The Star-Spangled Banner” — this time, minus the obscenities.

Mr. Armstrong was to pay a price for his outspokenness. There were calls for boycotts of his concerts. The Ford Motor Company threatened to pull out of a Bing Crosby special on which Mr. Armstrong was to appear. Van Cliburn’s manager refused to let him perform a duet with Mr. Armstrong on Steve Allen’s talk show.

But it didn’t really matter. On Sept. 24, President Eisenhower sent 1,200 paratroopers from the 101st Airborne into Little Rock, and the next day soldiers escorted the nine students into Central High School. Mr. Armstrong exulted. “If you decide to walk into the schools with the little colored kids, take me along, Daddy,” he wired the president. “God bless you.” As for Mr. Lubenow, who now works in public relations in Cedar Park, Tex., he got $3.50 for writing the story and, perhaps, for changing history. But his editor was miffed — he’d gotten into politics, after all. Within a week, he left the paper.

David Margolick, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, is the author of “Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling and a World on the Brink.’’

Saturday, September 22, 2007

A Virtual Art Tatum concert

Play it again, Art
Digital technology will enable jazz pianist Art Tatum, who died in 1956, to 'perform' at the Shrine again.

September 22, 2007

Jazz pianist Art Tatum will return to the Shrine Auditorium on Sunday to perform the nine songs he recorded there in 1949, seven years before he died.

It won't be Tatum in the flesh, of course. But it's not him on Memorex either. Instead, a virtual Tatum will be on stage inside a computer the size of a dictionary, sending electronic instructions that will move the keys and pedals of a robotic, 9-foot-long Yamaha concert grand piano. Think of it as a player piano for the digital era, powered by software instead of paper rolls.

The point is to re-create one of Tatum's long-playing masterworks, "Piano Starts Here," which features the Shrine recordings and four tracks from his first studio sessions in 1933. Sony BMG (the record company that owns the copyrights) could have modified the original tapes digitally to remove the maddening hiss and simulate stereo sound. But it turned to Zenph Studios, the North Carolina start-up, for an exponentially more difficult solution. Zenph's software engineers analyzed the recording to determine not just the notes Tatum played -- no mean feat, given that his hands flew across the keys like a flock of birds spooked out of a tree -- but also how he played them. There are lots of different ways to strike a piano key: You can lean into it, jab it, tap it, caress it like a piece of fabric or pound it like a nail. Taking advantage of the Yamaha's extensively programmable robotics, Zenph's algorithms try to replicate what, exactly, Tatum's fingers did, and how his feet worked the pedals. The result, if all goes right, will be a new CD that replicates the original performance, in stereo and higher fidelity.

Zenph, which also revived pianist Glenn Gould's 1955 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations, has ambitions that stretch beyond re-performed piano works. The company's co-founder, John Q. Walker, says the technology will eventually be extended to other instruments -- and voices. And once enough data are gathered about a performer, living or dead, that person's distinctive playing or singing style could be applied to material he or she never recorded. Imagine adding Eddie van Halen's guitar pyrotechnics to your band's sound, without needing him in the studio. Or paying him.

This is heady stuff, and frankly a little creepy. It also suggests a battle to come over who, if anyone, owns a playing style. Lawmakers didn't anticipate technologies such as Zenph's when they wrote the statutes governing copyrights and other intellectual property, so it's not clear how the courts might rule. Nor do we know how these technologies will develop and be used. The only sure thing is that because of Zenph, we have a lot more useful knowledge about how Art Tatum played the piano -- knowledge that could conceivably lead to a panoply of new creative works. As a result, Tatum's signature cascades of sound will reverberate out of the Shrine Auditorium long after his computerized self has left the building.

Composer Alf Clausen on writing for "The Simpsons"

The man who makes 'The Simpsons' sing

By Todd Leopold

(CNN) -- Alf Clausen never knows what to expect.

Sometimes it's an arrangement of a classic melody, such as the theme to "The Great Escape." Sometimes it's a parody of a show tune, such as "The Monorail Song" (a "Music Man" pastiche) or several numbers from "My Fair Lady." Sometimes it's an original piece, such as "The Stonecutters Song." Sometimes it's basic instrumental interludes.

And sometimes, it's all of the above. After all, we're talking about "The Simpsons."

But perhaps the biggest challenge facing Clausen, who has scored the show for 18 of its now 19 seasons (the 19th begins Sunday), is time. He doesn't get much -- during the season, about a week to write and record the musical cues. Watch a slide show of Clausen and his work »

Clausen -- a veteran composer and music director who has worked on "ALF" ("no relation," he's quick to say) "Moonlighting," "Police Story" and several films -- wouldn't have it any other way.

"The show is still really interesting," he says in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles, where he was working on "Treehouse of Horror 18." "I don't think I've ever been on a series where I walk into a music-spotting session never knowing what to expect. As a television composer, in the past I could spend a few weeks on a series and kind of get a drill for the way the score is supposed to be done. ... You can't do that with 'The Simpsons.' Every episode is a new surprise." Interactive: "Simpsons" 101 »

Clausen's most recent work is showcased on a new "Simpsons" CD, "The Simpsons: Testify" (Shout! Factory). The disc contains, among its 41 (!) cuts, "Everybody Hates Ned Flanders" (featuring David Byrne), the "My Fair Laddy" medley (from an episode in which Lisa attempted to remake Groundskeeper Willie), the "King of Cats" Itchy & Scratchy medley and "The Very Reason That I Live," another showstopper for Kelsey Grammer as Sideshow Bob.

Grammer is a particular favorite, says Clausen.

"He is so great. He's just amazing," he says. "You can tell he has this love of musical theater and he has the vocal instrument to go with it, so I know whatever I write is going to be sung the way I've heard it."

Clausen got his start in television almost three decades ago. After a childhood in North Dakota and a college major in mechanical engineering ("nobody knew one could make a living at music," he says of the time), he got a job as a professional musician and later studied at Boston's Berklee School of Music. Upon graduation in the late '60s, he lit out for Los Angeles, where he did jingles and variety shows (including "Tony Orlando & Dawn" and "Donny and Marie").

One job led to another, but as often happens with the business, Clausen found himself at loose ends when his show was canceled. A friend mentioned that a rather new comedy called "The Simpsons" was looking for a composer. Was Clausen interested in doing an animated comedy?

Clausen was not -- "I wanted to get more into movies of the week and feature films as a drama composer" -- but he went for an interview with "Simpsons" creators Matt Groening and Sam Simon anyway.

"Matt said, 'We look upon our show not as a cartoon, but as a drama where the characters are drawn, and I'd like it scored that way,' " Clausen recalls. His audition assignment was the first "Treehouse of Horror."

Now Clausen is a regular, with a steady -- if occasionally frantic -- workweek. As scripts are developed, he'll meet with the writers to see if they have certain ideas in mind that would require special music. Meanwhile, he has a regular meeting with producer Al Jean and other staffers to go over an episode, scene by scene, noting the spots that will contain music.

There are usually 30 to 35 cues per episode, he says -- more than one a minute -- and may contain music the show has licensed (which Clausen needs to arrange for his 35-piece orchestra) or emotional prompts.

"It's a pretty tight deal," he says. There's a week to create the compositions and arrangements, a recording session on Friday, mixing early the next week and then on the air Sunday.

Fortunately, Clausen finds it easy to get into the spirit of the show, with its loving parodies of musical styles. "I have a very, very deep love for Broadway musicals," says Clausen, "and I'm a big jazz lover, a big-band lover, I like contemporary classical works." He also gets to use his own orchestra, called (naturally) the Alf Clausen Orchestra.

His work hasn't been unnoticed: "I've had music teachers come up to me and thank me for keeping the sound of the live orchestra in front of students on television," he says.

Ironically, given the way the show is produced, Clausen has little contact with the main voice cast or some of the guests. ("When it's time to record the cast, I'm busy doing a score," he says.) But there are the perks. Clausen's gotten to conduct a session with the late Tito Puente, as well as do a session with Bono and U2, who sang Clausen's song "Garbageman."

And if you're going to compose, there are worse places than "The Simpsons," which probably will be airing Clausen's work in reruns for decades to come.

"There's a lot to do. I don't think I've ever seen a job quite as demanding on a composer-songwriter as 'The Simpsons' is," Clausen says. "But it's all very healthy, so I have no problem with it."

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Real orchestra performs in Virtual Venue

September 18, 2007
Watching a Cyber Audience Watch a Real Orchestra Perform in a Virtual World

People really dress for concerts around here. One man sports a bright purple suit, with a hat and roller skates to match. A woman wears a gown that appears to be made of peacock feathers, and a large blue butterfly flaps gently in circles around her.

We’re not in Kansas anymore, or even in Liverpool, England, where the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic opened its season on Friday night. For the occasion the orchestra went to the unusual extreme of building a new hall: a virtual environment in the online world Second Life. In a virtual replica of the Art Deco hall, an audience of animated figures, known as avatars, watched the orchestra perform live in a choppy video streamed over the Internet on a screen at the front of the room.

Call it the future, call it a stunt, Second Life is attracting more and more attention, and classical music is starting to get in on the act. Universal Classics has built an online island where visitors can inspect a replica of the exhibition of artifacts associated with the legendary mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran that is now touring Europe to promote Cecilia Bartoli’s next Malibran-themed album.

In May the pianist Lang Lang, in the form of an avatar, gave a live concert. And the Liverpool was the third orchestra to give a live concert on Second Life this year, after Sinfonia Leeds, an amateur group in England, and Red {an orchestra}, a chamber ensemble in Cleveland.

There are technical and conceptual hurdles in watching animations play live music in a virtual world. A YouTube video of a Dutch pianist playing Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata on Second Life illustrates some of the issues: the performance is fine, but the figure’s fingers keep disappearing into the keys.

“It’s an odd medium,” said John Shibley, the director of organizational learning at the consulting company EmcArts, which helped manage Red’s performance. “It’s sort of like listening to the radio and watching a puppet show, and the puppet show is not synched to the radio.”

Each of the three orchestras to perform so far has taken a different approach. Leeds offered live streaming audio, with a small orchestra of miming avatars. Red created the equivalent of a television broadcast. Liverpool opted for a cheaper solution: a single static camera.

This approach, though inelegant, may have been the most workable. Red’s chief executive, John Farina, estimated that had the orchestra not received many services pro bono, its event would have cost around $200,000. The orchestra was left with a professional-quality broadcast tape, which, because of restrictions in its contract with its musicians, it cannot broadcast again.

Liverpool, by contrast, paid only $16,000 or so, $6,000 of which went to buying the “sims” on which the concert hall was built. (A sim is the unit of land on Second Life.) The orchestra also has the advantage of a new contract with its musicians that involved buying their potential share in broadcast rights.

“We can use any material in any way we like,” said Millicent Jones, the orchestra’s executive director of marketing and communications, who is already looking into future Second Life performances.

There are certainly limitations to the Second Life concert experience. A sim can hold only 50 to 70 avatars without crashing, so even though Liverpool built its hall over two sims and broadcast the concert to other Second Life locations, it had a relatively small audience.

And as with any streamed Internet broadcast, transmission quality depends on your Internet connection. On my computer the sound was so distorted that a preconcert lecture was utterly unintelligible; the soprano, Kate Royal, sounded as if she were singing a duet with herself in Ravel’s “Shéhérazade.” It was impossible to assess the music, which included world premieres by Kenneth Hesketh and John McCabe.

Other listeners said their connections were fine. And afterward the audience, congregating in the bar for virtual drinks and a question-and-answer session with the conductor, Vasily Petrenko, seemed to have loved the whole thing — perhaps as much for the experience as for the music.

“Classical music is not very accessible where I am, so I really appreciated it,” said a user whose Second Life name was Nobody Fugazi.

Despite predictions that virtual worlds will become increasingly prevalent, the technology of Second Life is in its infancy. Both within classical music and outside it, there is debate about whether the place represents a brave new world or simply a curiosity.

“It’s still kind of in the stunt phase,” said the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, though he personally knows the people at Linden Labs who invented the site and is a fan of the novel “Snow Crash,” by Neal Stephenson, which inspired it. He and Linden Labs, he said, are “talking in friendly stages about something we might do.”

Jonathan Gruber, the vice president for new media of Universal Music Group, said: “We’re not 100 percent sold on it. It’s experimental. We are interested in making sure that if there are opportunities for us to reach people through a medium like Second Life, we’re there for it.”

The medium may be cutting-edge, but tastes remain rather conservative. Some listeners reacted in horror to the exuberant loudness of Mr. Hesketh’s piece, and one called it “just noise.”

Dave Schwartz, the founder of Music Academy Online, where he conducts small listening sessions, dreams of bringing classical music to a wider audience by creating a “Disney World of classical music” on Second Life.

But Mr. Schwartz is also trying to bring newer music to this environment. .

“You haven’t heard ‘Poème Électronique,’ ” he said, referring to a piece by Edgard Varèse, “till you’ve heard it streamed over the Internet in a virtual world.”

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Musicologist Barred From U.S. for Unknown Reasons

September 17, 2007
Music Scholar Barred From U.S., but No One Will Tell Her Why

Nalini Ghuman, an up-and-coming musicologist and expert on the British composer Edward Elgar, was stopped at the San Francisco airport in August last year and, without explanation, told that she was no longer allowed to enter the United States.

Her case has become a cause célèbre among musicologists and the subject of a protest campaign by the American Musicological Society and by academic leaders like Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College at Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., where Ms. Ghuman was to have participated last month in the Bard Music Festival, showcasing Elgar’s music.

But the door has remained closed to Ms. Ghuman, an assistant professor at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., who is British and who had lived, studied and worked in this country for 10 years before her abrupt exclusion.

The mystery of her case shows how difficult, if not impossible, it is to defend against such a decision once the secretive government process has been set in motion.

After a year of letters and inquiries, Ms. Ghuman and her Mills College lawyer have been unable to find out why her residency visa was suddenly revoked, or whether she was on some security watch list. Nor does she know whether her application for a new visa, pending since last October, is being stymied by the shadow of the same unspecified problem or mistake.

In a tearful telephone interview from her parents’ home in western Wales, Ms. Ghuman, 34, an Oxford graduate who earned her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, said she felt like a character in Kafka.

“I don’t know why it’s happened, what I’m accused of,” she said. “There’s no opportunity to defend myself. One is just completely powerless.”

Kelly Klundt, a spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection in the Department of Homeland Security, said officers at San Francisco International Airport had no choice but to bar Ms. Ghuman because the State Department, at its discretion, had revoked her visa. The State Department would not discuss the case, citing the confidentiality of individual visa records.

Mr. Botstein, who wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the hope of having the visa problem resolved before the music festival, said Ms. Ghuman’s case is symptomatic. “This is an example of the xenophobia, incompetence, stupidity and then bureaucratic intransigence that we are up against,” he said, also citing the case of a teacher of Arabic at Bard who missed the first weeks of the spring semester this year because of visa problems. “What is at stake is America’s pre-eminence as a place of scholarship.”

Ms. Ghuman is certainly not alone in her frustration. Academic and civil liberties groups point to other foreign scholars who have been denied entry without explanation at an airport, or refused a visa when they applied. A pending lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union contends that the Bush administration is using heightened security measures to keep foreign scholars out on ideological grounds in violation of the First Amendment rights of American scholars to hear them.

But Ms. Ghuman’s case does not seem to fit such a pattern. Few believe that her book in progress, “India in the English Musical Imagination, 1890-1940,” or her work on Elgar, best known by Americans for “Pomp and Circumstance,” could have raised red flags in Washington. And if it were a question of security profiling, nothing in her background fits.

She was born in Wales. Her mother is a British homemaker, and her father, an emeritus professor of educational psychology at the University of Wales, was born in India to a Sikh family and moved to Britain in the 1960s. Last semester, Ms. Ghuman tried to teach her students by video link. This academic year, she is on an unpaid leave of absence.

“The arbitrary and inexplicable exclusion of Dr. Ghuman has been a personal tragedy for her and a cause of distress to Mills and to American higher education,” said Janet L. Holmgren, the president of Mills College, who called her “one of our most distinguished faculty members.”

“She seems to be in this limbo,” said Ms. Ghuman’s fiancé, Paul Flight, 47, who has visited her three times in Britain and is considering a move there. Mr. Flight, a countertenor, co-directed Darius Milhaud’s opera about Orpheus and Eurydice with Ms. Ghuman at Mills three years ago.

Ms. Ghuman’s descent into the bureaucratic netherworld began on Aug. 8, 2006, when she and Mr. Flight returned to San Francisco from a research trip to Britain. Armed immigration officers met them at the airplane door and escorted Ms. Ghuman away.

In a written account of the next eight hours that she prepared for her lawyer, Ms. Ghuman said that officers tore up her H-1B visa, which was valid through May 2008, defaced her British passport, and seemed suspicious of everything from her music cassettes to the fact that she had listed Welsh as a language she speaks. A redacted government report about the episode obtained by her lawyer under the Freedom of Information Act erroneously described her as “Hispanic.”

Held incommunicado in a room in the airport, she was groped during a body search, she said, and was warned that if she moved, she would be considered to be attacking her armed female searcher. After questioning her for hours, the officers told her that she had been ruled inadmissible, she said, and threatened to transfer her to a detention center in Santa Clara, Calif., unless she left on a flight to London that night.

Outside, Mr. Flight made frantic calls for help. He said the British Consulate tried to get through to the immigration officials in charge, to no avail. And Ms. Ghuman said her demands to speak to the British consul were rebuffed.

“They told me I was nobody, I was nowhere and I had no rights,” she said. “For the first time, I understood what the deprivation of liberty means.”

As Ms. Ghuman tells it, the officers said they did not know why she was being excluded. They suggested that perhaps a jilted lover or envious colleague might have written a poison pen letter about her to immigration authorities, she said, or that Mills College might have terminated her employment without telling her. The notions are unfounded, she said.

One officer eventually told her that her exclusion was probably a mistake, and advised her to reapply for a visa in London after a 10-day wait. But it took more than eight weeks for her file to be transferred to the United States Embassy in London, in part because of routine anthrax screening at the State Department.

As for the possibility that she has been deemed a security threat, Ms. Ghuman said: “It’s not only insulting and heartbreaking, but how? In what way? Musicians, dangerous people? Is it my piano playing?

“I have no indication at all,” she added, “and it has been 13 ½ months.”

Inquiries by Ms. Ghuman’s representative in Parliament and several members of Congress, including Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, have been to no avail, said Byron Adams, a professor of music at the University of California, Riverside, who said he had known Ms. Ghuman for years and respected her work.

“All of these people have gotten the runaround from the State Department,” Mr. Adams said.

In late spring, when hope faded that Ms. Ghuman’s visa nightmare would be resolved quietly, Charles Atkinson, the president of the American Musicological Society, asked its 3,600 members to send letters to the State Department expressing “our profound consternation and anxiety over the treatment of one of our members.”

The society has invited her to lecture at its conference in November, which, “in a fortunate circumstance,” Mr. Atkinson said, is to be held in Quebec.

The $500 travel grant they have awarded her will not cover the cost. But at least, he said, she can expect Canada to let her in.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Bobby Byrd of James Brown Fame Dies

From the Los Angeles Times
Bobby Byrd, 73; singer collaborated with James Brown
From Times Staff and Wire Reports

September 15, 2007

Bobby Byrd, a longtime collaborator with the late "godfather of soul" James Brown, has died. He was 73.

A singer, songwriter, keyboard player and arranger, Byrd died Wednesday at his home in Loganville, Ga., said a spokesman for Willie A. Watkins Funeral Home in Atlanta. News accounts attributed Byrd's death to cancer.

One of the chief architects of Brown's trademark sound, Byrd made contributions that can be heard on early James Brown soul tracks and on hits that laid the foundations of funk, like "Get Up [I Feel Like Being a] Sex Machine." The punctuating phrase "Get on up," which repeats throughout that song, was sung by Byrd.

"You listen to those records and those voices together, it was incredible," Keith Jenkins, a member of Brown's Soul Generals, told the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle. "Whether they were singing in harmony on something like 'Licking Stick' or doing call and response on 'Sex Machine,' it was always something special."

Byrd was born in 1934 in Toccoa, Ga. He sang in church choirs growing up and met Brown when they were teenagers playing on opposing baseball teams.

Brown was serving a sentence in a north Georgia reform school for breaking into cars and pitched for the juvenile detention facility's team. Byrd, a law-abiding youth, played shortstop for his local youth team.

Byrd and Brown became friends, and in 1952 Byrd's family arranged to take Brown into their home.

Byrd also took Brown into his gospel group. Soon they changed their name to the Famous Flames and their style to hard R&B.

Byrd stayed with the Famous Flames, and the JBs after that, until 1973. Later, he would have a string of modest R&B hits.

Starting in the 1980s, Byrd enjoyed a resurgence in popularity when hip-hop artists began sampling his music for their recordings, most notably Eric B. and Rakim's use of Byrd's 1971 song "I Know You Got Soul" in 1987.

In 2003, Byrd sued Brown and his record label for unpaid royalties on songs he said he wrote, including the breakout 1956 single "Please, Please, Please." The lawsuit was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.

Despite the legal wrangling, the two men remained on good terms. Byrd performed at Brown's memorial service in December.

"Uncle Bobby and Daddy, they were like brothers," Brown's daughter Deanna Brown told the Augusta Chronicle this week.

Byrd's survivors include his wife, Vicki Anderson, who also sang and performed in Brown's touring band.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Josef Zawinul (1932-2007)

From the Los Angeles Times
Joe Zawinul, 75; influential jazz keyboardist led Weather Report
By Don Heckman
Special to The Times

September 12, 2007

Keyboardist Joe Zawinul, whose innovative playing and composing influenced musical genres reaching from soul jazz and avant-garde to fusion and world music, died early Tuesday in Vienna. He was 75.

According to the Associated Press, his death was confirmed by a spokesperson for Vienna's Wilhelmina Clinic, where he had been hospitalized since August.

Zawinul's manager, Risa Zincke, told the Austria Press that he suffered from a rare form of skin cancer.

Zawinul's achievements stretch across five decades and numerous stylistic borders.

A native of Vienna where he played accordion as a boy, Zawinul arrived at the Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1959.

But he quickly left school and gigged with Maynard Ferguson and Dinah Washington before joining the quintet of alto saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley in 1961.

His groove-driven piece, "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," with its surprisingly authentic -- for a European musician -- connection with American blues and gospel music, was one of the significant compositions of the then-popular soul-jazz style and was a hit for Adderley.

Switching into a different mode, he was a vital participant in Miles Davis' transition into electric jazz, writing the title song for "In A Silent Way" and performing on "Bitches Brew," albums that opened the door to combinations of jazz, rock and electronica that would follow.

From 1970 to 1985, Zawinul co-led the groundbreaking ensemble, Weather Report, with saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter. Viewed by many as the band that defined jazz fusion, it was universally praised as a creative breakthrough, the character of its sound driven by Zawinul's synthesizers.

"The synthesizer was not a toy in Joe's hands," Shorter said Tuesday. "He even practiced how to touch the keys on a synthesizer. He'd say, 'You touch them differently than you touch an acoustic piano. People approach it like it's going to do something. You have to play it like it's not going to do anything; you have to do everything.' "

Weather Report's effects were felt across genres, triggering the arrival of a succession of jazz fusion ensembles, as well as jazz-oriented pop groups.

Despite its popularity, however, and largely because of the presence of its two leaders, the band retained the respect of the most critical jazz observers.

Reviewing the Playboy Jazz Festival in 1982, Leonard Feather wrote in The Times, "Weather Report is less a collective of five men than a single instrument with 10 magisterial hands; a soaring sonic spaceship controlled by two far-from-automatic pilots, Zawinul and Wayne Shorter."

According to Shorter, however, the group was initially formed with far different goals in mind. "When we got together," Shorter said, "we spent very little time describing what we wanted to do. In the beginning, we mostly talked about music as literature. Almost compared like to James Joyce -- sentences without periods or commas, without capital letters, or maybe with all capital letters.

"The musical changes that took place emerged along the way. Instead of saying, 'Let's do this,' and then planning to take it someplace else the next night, we just worked on a musical dialogue. We knew that sending out what we were trying to do, and having it be received, wasn't going to take place overnight."

Nevertheless, Zawinul's "Birdland," released on Weather Report's 1977 album, "Heavy Weather," was a significant jazz hit, garnering Grammy awards for the original version, as well as cover versions by Quincy Jones and one with lyrics by Manhattan Transfer.

The band broke up in 1986, and over the last 20 years of his life, Zawinul's musical activities largely centered on his sextet, the Zawinul Syndicate.

Mixing rhythms from every part of the world with his own complex of synthesizer sounds, he would sit behind his keyboards like an alchemist, tossing musical phrases back and forth to musicians from across the globe.

"I'm a traveler and a listener," Zawinul told Bill Kohlhaase in the L.A. Weekly in 2000. "I'm into the folklore of music, but I've never taken a single bar from another culture. The music [of the Zawinul Syndicate] is just the feeling I have for it. It's what I have in my stomach."

Zawinul also composed and performed in other contexts. A recording of his "Stories of the Danube," a seven-movement work for orchestra, incorporating several of his well-known themes, was released on Philips in 1996.

And in 1998, he appeared as a soloist on the site of the World War II German concentration camp in Mauthausen, Austria, drawing a crowd of 10,000.

Zawinul's illness apparently had already progressed in July when his wife, Maxine, who was the first African American Playboy bunny, died. Shorter recalled seeing him around that time and asking about his health.

"The only thing that he said to me," he recalled, "was something really quick: 'I've got this cancer, man.' He just kind of tossed it off. Not that he was in denial. It was more like he was talking about a nuisance. That was Joe."

In August, Shorter, finishing a European tour, visited Zawinul at a concert in Hungary. Although they had spoken several times about a Weather Report reunion, it had never actually taken place.

"As we drove in from the airport," said Shorter, "his son said that this could be the last time Joe and I would play together. When we got to the concert, I went on stage near the end of his program. Joe and I did the introduction to 'In A Silent Way,' which is the part that his wife, Maxine, liked. When we played together, it was very concise and to the point -- very eye to eye, that kind of thing. When we finished they got a wheelchair, and that was the first time, and the last time, I saw him in a wheelchair."

Zawinul lived in Malibu and Vienna, where he started his own club, Birdland. He is survived by three sons, Anthony, Erich and Ivan, and several grandchildren.

Although no funeral plans have been announced, Vienna Mayor Michael Haeupl said Zawinul would be buried in a place of honor in Vienna.

Friday, September 07, 2007

House votes to cut Cherokee funding over Freedmen Issue

House votes to cut Cherokee funding
Decision follows tribal decision to oust descendants of black slaves
The Associated Press
Updated: 6:33 a.m. PT Sept 7, 2007

WASHINGTON - The Cherokee Nation would lose some of its federal funding under House legislation passed Thursday if it doesn't reinstate descendants of its former slaves as tribal citizens.

The bill delays the funding cuts until the issue has been addressed in federal court, potentially giving the Oklahoma-based tribe years before it would lose any money. Critics said it sends a clear signal that lawmakers are not happy with the Cherokee decision earlier this year to oust descendants of black slaves, known as Cherokee freedmen.

"The fact that the Cherokee freedmen issue has been raised on floor of the House of Representatives demonstrates the gravity of the issue," said Rep. Diane Watson, a California Democrat who introduced broad legislation earlier this year to cut off Cherokee funding. "If the Cherokee Nation does not move expeditiously (to) comply with its treaty obligations, Congress is poised to take stronger action."

The Cherokee language was included in a bill authorizing funding for Native American housing assistance, which passed 333-75.

'I think this can be worked out'
The House originally adopted an amendment from Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., prohibiting money from going to the tribe unless it reversed its freedmen decision. It later softened the language with a second amendment from Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla., that would delay the funding cuts as long as the Cherokee continue recognizing the descendants' tribal status as the matter works its way through federal court.

Mike Miller, a Cherokee spokesman, said the tribe appreciates Boren's efforts to slow things down.

"No federal court has ever said that the Cherokee Nation does not have the right to determine its own citizenship," Miller said. "What this does is allow an opportunity for the facts to be presented in an impartial forum in court."

"I think this can be worked out," Boren said, estimating that the tribe gets about 10 percent of its $300 million in annual federal funding through the housing assistance bill.

Race versus tribal identity
The dispute dates back to a post-Civil War treaty with the U.S. government. In that treaty, the tribe - which originated in the Southeast but was forcibly moved to what is now Oklahoma in the 1830s - agreed to free its slaves and give them full rights as tribal members.

The freedmen were considered tribal members from 1866 until 1975, when a vote of the tribe denied them citizenship. The Cherokee Supreme Court decided in 2006 that vote was in error and restored the freedmen's rights.

After a petition drive, the tribe passed a referendum March 3 amending the tribal constitution to again disqualify freedmen. The vote affected more than 2,800 freedmen who had applied for citizenship.

The tribe insists the issue has nothing to do with race and is a sovereign matter of tribal identity. Cherokee leaders said recently that freedmen would continue receiving tribal benefits until the issue is resolved in court.

The bill is HR 2786.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Appraising Pavarotti

September 6, 2007
An Appraisal
A Master of Italian Operatic Artistry

In the old days of the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts, a popular feature on the “Texaco Opera Quiz,” as the intermission show used to be called, involved playing recordings of several artists singing the same well-known aria and asking the panelists to identify the singers. It was surprising how often even opera experts would confuse one great artist with another.

But no one ever mistook the voice of Luciano Pavarotti. There was the warm, enveloping sound: a classic Italian tenor voice, yes, but touched with a bit of husky baritonal darkness, which made Mr. Pavarotti’s flights into his gleaming upper range seem all the more miraculous.

And it wasn’t just the sound that was so recognizable. In Mr. Pavarotti’s artistry, language and voice were one. He had an idiomatic way of binding the rounded vowels and sputtering consonants of his native Italian to the tones and colorings of his voice. This practice is central to the Italian vocal heritage, and Mr. Pavarotti was one of its exemplars.

For intelligence, discipline, breadth of repertory, musicianship, interpretive depth and virile vocalism, Mr. Pavarotti was outclassed by his Three Tenors sidekick and chief rival, Plácido Domingo. But for sheer Italianate tenorial beauty, Mr. Pavarotti was hard to top. That was certainly the position of his former manager, Herbert Breslin, who combined his own promotional savvy with his chief client’s vocal greatness to produce the moneymaking phenomenon that was Mr. Pavarotti’s career. Call it Pavarotti Inc.

“Nobody in the tenor world has Luciano’s sound, that Italian sound,” Mr. Breslin told Manuela Hoelterhoff for her wonderful 1998 book “Cinderella & Company.” “Domingo,” he added, “would have to go pray in 17 churches in Guadalajara to find that sound.”

However partisan that zinger may have been, there was some truth to it. To hear Mr. Pavarotti at his best in a role like Riccardo in Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera” — spinning lyrical phrases with bel-canto elegance, then stunning you with visceral vocal outbursts — was to hear Italian operatic artistry at its finest.

In a career quirk, a French role became the vehicle of Mr. Pavarotti’s breakthrough to the big time in the early 1970s: Tonio in Donizetti’s “Fille du Régiment,” written for the Opéra-Comique in Paris. Mr. Pavarotti’s French may have sounded like French-tinged Italian, but it didn’t matter. The opera has a showpiece aria in which, over a breezy oom-pah-pah accompaniment, Tonio must dispatch nine very exposed high Cs. Other great tenors, like Alfredo Kraus, had excelled in the role. But no one ever tossed off those high Cs with the ease, pinging tone and utter glee of Mr. Pavarotti in those years. He was quickly promoted as the King of the High Cs, and so began his 30-year conquest of the public.

By natural endowment Mr. Pavarotti was essentially a lyric tenor, ideally suited to lighter roles in Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi requiring lyrical grace and agile passagework. Yet his voice, like everything about him, was uncommonly large. With that big throbbing sound, he was tempted into weightier repertory requiring dramatic power and heft, like Calaf in Puccini’s “Turandot.” Some opera purists maintain that Mr. Pavarotti erred by straying from the lyric terrain. Don’t tell that to anyone lucky enough to have heard him sing “Nessun dorma” in his prime, not just as a signature aria for televised stadium concerts, but in the context of a full production of “Turandot.” Wow!

Mr. Pavarotti, who was 19 when he finally began serious studies in voice, could barely read music. In itself this need not have been a problem. Enrico Caruso also had only rudimentary knowledge of music theory, and that didn’t hurt him any. But this deficiency clearly set Mr. Pavarotti apart from Mr. Domingo, who grew up preparing orchestrations for his parents’ zarzuela company.

Still, in singing, knowledge is not enough. Musical instinct is crucial, and Mr. Pavarotti had powerful instincts. He was never as interesting a singer as Mr. Domingo, but at his best he could be inspired and, in his way, profound. Moreover, he genuinely liked performing and pleasing people, which made up for his limited capabilities as an actor.

During the first half of his career he worked hard to compensate for his late start and minimal knowledge. Though he sang only 26 roles on stage, some involved risky ventures into less familiar repertory, like Fernando in Donizetti’s “Favorita,” filled with taxing spans of ornate vocal lines.

Yet ultimately, for all that Mr. Pavarotti gave to opera, it’s hard to avoid feeling that he never completely fulfilled his potential, that he squandered some of his awesome talent by letting his enablers turn him from a hard working artist into an overindulged and sometimes clownish superstar.

In the disappointing last decade of his career he coasted on his talent and popularity. His old friend and colleague Joan Sutherland dropped hints in interviews that he should retire. For me, the low point came in 1997, seven years before his last Met appearances, when he sang a recital on the Met stage as a pension-fund benefit, a program of songs by Schubert, Scarlatti and others, with a few hit arias. He was shockingly unprepared, glued to his music stand even during staples like Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” He tried to sing a selection of lighter Italian songs by Tosti from memory. But his pianist had to feed him the first word or two of nearly every line, as one could hear from Row L. What did this performance say to aspiring singers about the prerogatives of fame and fortune?

But this is a day to remember the glory of Luciano Pavarotti, like the Met’s 1996 production of Giordano’s “Andrea Chénier,” mounted for him. He hardly cut the figure of a dashing revolutionary poet in late-18th-century France. And if he was no longer the King of High Cs, he dispatched some kingly high B flats and a high B that was at least princely. Still, there was revolutionary ardor in the melting warmth, power and urgency of his singing. And there was that sound.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Palo religion in Caracas

From the Los Angeles Times
Not even the dead are safe in Caracas
A ghoulish crime wave in the Venezuelan capital supplies a black magic cult whose popularity is fueled by faith and politics.
By Chris Kraul
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

September 5, 2007

CARACAS, VENEZUELA — Skulking in the dead of night in the remote and overgrown Las Pavas section of the Southern Municipal Cemetery, robbers armed with crowbars and sledgehammers first shattered the tomb's concrete vault and the granite marker that read, "To our dear wife and mother in heaven, Maria de la Cruz Aguero."

Then they lifted the coffin lid and stole leg bones and the skull of the woman, who had died Sept. 9, 1993. They sold the bones for $20 each, the skull for as much as $300, said Father Atilio Gonzalez, the cemetery's resident Roman Catholic priest.

Sometimes entire skeletons, particularly those of children, are stolen from crypts in this final resting place of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans, including three former presidents.

"These unscrupulous people are insulting God and committing a mortal sin," said Gonzalez. He said that graves in the city's largest cemetery are robbed every night, and it's getting worse. "They have perfect liberty to desecrate the tombs because the government does nothing to stop it."

The desecration of the woman's tomb was part of a ghoulish crime wave, including assaults, rapes and dope deals, that has made the cemetery so dangerous that funeral home workers say they carry weapons whenever they have to go there. Parts of the vast cemetery, particularly the remote hillside sections reserved for the poor, are in ruins and choked with weeds, providing perfect cover for thugs and the homeless.

In the past when graves were robbed, the primary objective was to steal personal effects such as jewelry or gold dental fillings, said Odalys Caldera, an investigator in the city's judicial police. Today, thieves are pillaging the graves for darker reasons.

The buyers of the bones are paleros, the practitioners of a black magic cult related to Santeria whose rise in popularity here is fueled by a strange brew of faith and politics.

"Santeria, witchcraft and black magic are much more out in the open now. That's the reason," Caldera said. "Of course the state is aware of the robberies, but hasn't taken the necessary steps to impede them."

Santeria, which combines Catholicism and African and indigenous spiritualism, was brought to the New World by slaves from Africa centuries ago and still thrives, particularly in Cuba, Haiti, Brazil and, increasingly, Venezuela. It is also popular in regions of the United States with strong Caribbean immigrant communities, such as south Florida, Washington and Los Angeles,areas where hundreds of thousands are thought to practice it.

Although most Santeria followers steer clear of the use of human remains and Satanism, the paleros embrace them. They use bones in black magic rituals in which the objective is to cast evil spells on enemies: to induce bad luck for an unfaithful spouse, a car accident for unwanted in-laws, a serious illness for a business competitor, Gonzalez said.

Police, church officials and historians offer a variety of theories for the rise in Santeria generally and of black magic in particular in Venezuela. Some, including anthropologist Rafael Strauss, point to the vacuum left by the Roman Catholic Church, which, as in many other Latin American countries, has lost believers in Venezuela to evangelical and other Protestant religions. Church rolls also are suffering from a lack of interest among younger people.

"We are seeing a new syncretism that is uniting parts of different religions," said Strauss, a retired University of Central Venezuela professor. "It's how people make it easier to meet their spiritual needs."

Gonzalez acknowledged that the country is suffering a crisis in belief.

"People are losing faith," he said. "Instead of assuming responsibility to accomplish something good, they resort to witchcraft, which they see as the easy way."

But others see politics at work. Father Manuel Diaz is a parish priest in the El Hatillo suburb of Caracas where three Santeria babalaos, or shamans, have recently opened centers. He says the government of leftist President Hugo Chavez is encouraging the rise of Santeria to counter the authority of the Catholic Church, which Chavez has viewed as his enemy.

In a pastoral letter to his parishioners last month, Diaz said the government has a "concrete objective, to undermine the authority of the church and align its faithful with certain ideologies." In the letter, he wrote that leaders of the movement to discredit the church were coming from an unnamed "Caribbean country," presumably Cuba.

Although Santeria and other spiritualist religions have been present in Venezuela since Spanish colonial days, the rise of black magic, including that practiced by paleros, is relatively new, said Maria Garcia de Fleury, a comparative religions professor at New Sparta University in Caracas.

"We've always had a little witchcraft, but nothing like what has been unleashed recently," De Fleury said. "This is not Venezuelan."

Without offering hard evidence, De Fleury and some church officials blame the growing presence of Santeria on Cuba, which she says is exporting babalaosalong with doctors, teachers and sports trainers to Venezuela as part of closer economic relations with Chavez.

"It's because the government is behind Santeria, promoting it, letting in Cuban babalaos who are proselytizing very actively," De Fleury said.

While not addressing Santeria, Chavez in a February 2003 broadcast of his "Alo Presidente" TV talk show denied that he was a believer in black magic. He is known to be a mystic of sorts, and some say that he believes he is the reincarnation of a 19th century Venezuelan leader, Ezequiel Zamora.

"President Chavez, who knows the mentality of Venezuelans, takes advantage of their magical religious imagery to further his popularity and his revolution," university professor Angelina Pollak-Eltz said in an essay shortly after Chavez took power in 1999.

Yarlin Mejia, a hotel worker who is also a babalao in the Catia slum of Caracas, said the majority of Santeria believers stay away from witchcraft. "The paleros work for evil," Mejia said. "I do it differently. I work for positive things."

Half a dozen people come every Sunday to Mejia's house, where his ceremonies involve "white magic" -- rituals that aim to help believers attain specific goals, be it a new house, a better job or success at school. A chicken is usually sacrificed. Mejia says interest is growing and attributes it to the presence of Cubans.

"They're everywhere," Mejia said.

Father Gonzalez, whose parish could be said to include the hundreds of thousands of dead that populate the Southern Municipal Cemetery, made a baleful round of the grounds recently to assess the losses.

Half a dozen more graves had been "profaned" over the weekend in the Black Road section of the cemetery, a place of paupers' graves where 70% of the tombs have been robbed, he said.

He said lax municipal vigilance has turned the cemetery to which he has given heart and soul for 18 years into a frequent crime scene. Three or four armed assaults a week and several rapes a month happen here.

Maria Machado, who had come to visit the grave of her husband, Jose, who died in 2000, said she feared for her life each time she paid her respects.

"It wasn't this way before, when there was another president," said Machado, whose husband's grave was bordered by several looted tombs, one of which contained the carcass of a chicken sacrificed in a Santeria rite.

"I'm worried I'll come here some day and my husband will be gone," Machado said. She and her two grandchildren were the only visitors in the Las Pavas section of the cemetery, which when founded in 1867 was far beyond the southwestern borders of the city.

On a recent day, the cemetery was the scene of a macabre ritual that has become a regular occurrence whenever a young gang member is buried, Gonzalez said. It provided another example of the lawlessness here.

During the funeral procession for a 25-year-old gunshot victim, friends suddenly halted the cortege and removed the corpse from the coffin to give it one last joy ride around the cemetery on the back of a buddy's motorcycle.

As a final homage before burial, the dead man was given a 30-gun salute -- from pistols fired by his pals. One of the bullets punctured the umbrella of Father Gonzalez, who officiated at the burial.

"Now I suffer not just from the pain felt by the loved ones of the dead," he said, "but for the lack of respect for this holy place."

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Christianity vs. the old gods of Nigeria

Christianity vs. the old gods of Nigeria

By DULUE MBACHU, Associated Press WriterTue Sep 4, 1:19 PM ET

Born to a family of traditional priests, Ibe Nwigwe converted to Christianity as a boy. Under the sway of born-again fervor as a man, he gathered the paraphernalia of ancestral worship — a centuries-old stool, a metal staff with a wooden handle and the carved figure of a god — and burned them as his pastor watched.

"I had experienced a series of misfortunes and my pastor told me it was because I had not completely broken the covenant with my ancestral idols," the 52-year-old Nwigwe said of the bonfire three years ago. "Now that I have done that, I hope I will be truly liberated."

Generations ago, European colonists and Christian missionaries looted Africa's ancient treasures. Now, Pentecostal Christian evangelists — most of them Africans — are helping wipe out remaining traces of how Africans once worked, played and prayed.

As poverty deepened in Nigeria from the mid-1980s, Pentecostal Christian church membership surged. The new faithful found comfort in preachers like evangelist Uma Ukpai who promised material success was next to godliness. He has boasted of overseeing the destruction of more than 100 shrines in one district in December 2005 alone.

Achina is typical of towns and villages in the ethnic Igbo-dominated Christian belt of southeastern Nigeria where this new Christian fundamentalism is evident. The old gods are being linked to the devil, and preachers are urging not only their rejection, but their destruction.

The Ezeokolo, the main shrine of Achina — a community of mainly farmers and traders in Nigeria's rain forest belt — has been repeatedly looted of its carved god figures. While no one has been caught, suspects range from people acting on Christian impulses to treasure thieves.

Recently, a village civic association volunteered to build a house to keep burglars away from a giant wooden gong decorated with carved male, female and snake figures. The gong in the market square is reputed to be more than 400 years old, and in decades past was sounded in times of emergency.

"We feared it may be stolen or destroyed like so many of our traditional cultural symbols," said Chuma Ezenwa, a Lagos-based lawyer.

But the move to protect a communal symbol has not changed the minds of others.

Ikechukwu Nzekwe, a 48-year-old farmer who belongs to a traditional masquerade cult, rues the action of his younger brother, a born-again Christian who destroyed the family's masquerade costume, including pieces dating back seven generations.

The masquerade cult was once part theater, appearing at festivals to perform songs and dances, and part traditional police — its members helped enforce mores and customs. Now its role is largely restricted to theater, including performances and races by men in costumes depicting ancestral spirits.

Ukpai, the evangelist, tells followers the artifacts bear "curses and covenants" linked to the gods they represent.

"Since the curses and covenants do not automatically disappear when we repent, Rev. Dr. Uma Ukpai is a man called by God for the total liberation of mankind," he says on his Web site, claiming to have the spiritual backing of Jesus to break the curses.

Efforts to speak to Ukpai were unsuccessful, and e-mails to his office asking for an interview received no reply.

Early missionaries to Nigeria condemned most traditional practices as pagan. Roman Catholics and Anglicans later came to terms with most practices, even incorporating some traditional dances into church liturgy. But there was no room for local gods once their erstwhile worshippers became Christians.

Similarly, Muslim preachers in Nigeria's predominantly Islamic north forbade interaction with figures dedicated to local idols, although many cultural dances featuring traditional masks are still tolerated.

Most converts are in constant tension over how much of the old beliefs can be incorporated into their new faith, said Isidore Uzoatu, a specialist in the history of Christianity in Africa affiliated with Nnamdi Azikiwe University in southeastern Nigeria.

"Where the older Catholic and Anglican denominations are more tolerant, the Pentecostals reflect more strictly the idea of a jealous God that would brook no rival," said Uzoatu.

The changing attitudes have not escaped the attention of art dealers.

"This work you see here is from a shrine. It was brought to me by one woman who said her pastor had asked her to get rid of it," said Wahid Mumuni, a dealer at Ikoyi Hotel in Lagos, gesturing toward a carving.

Mumuni said the price was the equivalent of $1,500 and he expected a European visitor to take it away soon.

The National Commission for Museums and Monuments, which is responsible for protecting the country's cultural antiquities, has responded with a sensitization campaign.

"We are ... telling the Christians that they can't detach themselves from their past, that there is a beginning to their history," said Omotosho Eluyemi, a senior commission official.

The commission urges those who do not want to keep sacred objects to take them to local chiefs. It also seeks stricter enforcement of the law prohibiting export of artifacts.

Okwy Achor, an archaeologist, fears the government's response has been weak compared to the fervor of the evangelists.

Achina is part of the region where famed Igbo-Ukwu bronzes were discovered in a private compound in 1958. Older and more sophisticated than the better-known Benin and Ife bronzes, the Igbo-Ukwu bronzes date to between the 8th and 10th centuries and provide proof that a unique form of metallurgy evolved in Nigeria.

While Achina had few Christians 60 years ago, they now constitute more than 95 percent, says Emmanuel Eze, a retired teacher.

"There is hardly anyone around these days to speak up for tradition," said Eze.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Rick Rubin: The Music Man

NYT - September 2, 2007
The Music Man

Rick Rubin is listening. A song by a new band called the Gossip is playing, and he is concentrating. He appears to be in a trance. His eyes are tightly closed and he is swaying back and forth to the beat, trying at once to hear what is right and wrong about the music. Rubin, who resembles a medium-size bear with a long, gray beard, is curled into the corner of a tufted velvet couch in the library of a house he owns but where he no longer lives. This three-story 1923 Spanish villa steeped in music history — Johnny Cash recorded in the basement studio; Jakob Dylan is recording a solo album there now — is used by Rubin for meetings. And ever since May, when he officially became co-head of Columbia Records, Rubin has been having nearly constant meetings. Beginning in 1984, when he started Def Jam Recordings, until his more recent occupation as a career-transforming, chart-topping, Grammy Award-winning producer for dozens of artists, as diverse as the Dixie Chicks, Slayer, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Neil Diamond, Rubin, who is 44, has never gone to an office of any kind. One of his conditions for taking the job at Sony, which owns Columbia, was that he wouldn't be required to have a desk or a phone in any of the corporate outposts. That wasn't a problem: Columbia didn't want Rubin to punch a clock. It wanted him to save the company. And just maybe the record business.

What that means, most of all, is that the company wants him to listen. It is Columbia's belief that Rubin will hear the answers in the music — that he will find the solution to its ever-increasing woes. The mighty music business is in free fall — it has lost control of radio; retail outlets like Tower Records have shut down; MTV rarely broadcasts music videos; and the once lucrative album market has been overshadowed by downloaded singles, which mainly benefits Apple. "The music business, as a whole, has lost its faith in content," David Geffen, the legendary music mogul, told me recently. "Only 10 years ago, companies wanted to make records, presumably good records, and see if they sold. But panic has set in, and now it's no longer about making music, it's all about how to sell music. And there's no clear answer about how to fix that problem. But I still believe that the top priority at any record company has to be coming up with great music. And for that reason, Sony was very smart to hire Rick."

Though Rubin maintains that his intention is simply to hear music with the fresh ears of a true fan, he has built his reputation on the simultaneously mystical and entirely decisive way he listens to a song. As the Gossip, which is fronted by a large, raucous woman named Beth Ditto, shouts to a stop, Rubin opens his eyes and nods yes. This is the first new band signed to Columbia that he has been enthralled by, but he is not yet sure how to organize the Gossip's future. "Let's hear something else," Rubin says to Kevin Kusatsu, who would, at any other record company, be called an A & R executive. (Traditionally, A & R executives spot, woo, recruit and oversee the talent of a record company.) "We don't have any titles at the new Columbia," Rubin explains, as Kusatsu, the first person Rubin hired, slips a disc out of its sleeve. "I don't want to create a new hierarchy to replace the old hierarchy."

Rubin, wearing his usual uniform of loose khaki pants and billowing white T-shirt, his sunglasses in his pocket, his feet bare, fingers a string of lapis lazuli Buddhist prayer beads, believed to bring wisdom to the wearer. Since Rubin's beard and hair nearly cover his face, his voice, which is soft and reassuring, becomes that much more vivid. He seems to be one with the room, which is lined in floor-to-ceiling books, most of which are of a spiritual nature, whether about Buddhism, the Bible or New Age quests for enlightenment. The library and the house are filled with religious iconography mixed with mementos from the world of pop. A massive brass Buddha is flanked by equally enormous speakers; vintage cardboard cutouts of John, Paul, George and Ringo circa "Help!" are placed around a multiarmed statue of Vishnu. On a low table, there are crystals and an old RadioShack cassette recorder that Rubin uses to listen to demo tapes; a framed photo of Jim Morrison stares at a crystal ball. In Rubin's world, music and spirituality collide.

"That's why they call him a guru," Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, explained to me in August, calling from her home in Los Angeles. Maines, who has been with the label since 1997, first worked with Rubin in 2004. "At first, I didn't know if I was down with all that guru stuff. I thought, We're making a record — I don't want to be converted. But Rick's spirituality has mostly to do with his own sense of self. When it comes to the music, he's so sure of his opinion that you become sure of his opinion, too. And isn't that what gurus do? They know how to say the right things at the right time and get the best out of you."

Kusatsu, who has elaborate tattoos on both forearms and a match stuck behind his ear, puts the CD into Rubin's wireless system. This is the fourth male singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar that Rubin has heard today. The music is heartfelt, spare, poetic. "There were a lot of girls in the audience," Kusatsu says as the track begins. Rubin closes his eyes and gently rocks back and forth. His hands are resting on his stomach, and he seems to be almost meditating. "Everything I do," Rubin told me earlier, "whether it's producing, or signing an artist, always starts with the songs. When I'm listening, I'm looking for a balance that you could see in anything. Whether it's a great painting or a building or a sunset. There's just a natural human element to a great song that feels immediately satisfying. I like the song to create a mood."

He also seeks a melody. As a kid growing up in Lido Beach, on New York's Long Island, Rubin loved the Beatles. "I never really liked the Stones," he said. "Although, I loved the Monkees — they had all the best songwriters." Through his passion for the Beatles, he became fascinated by the seductive, addictive power of songs. From the first hip-hop records he produced for L L Cool J and the Beastie Boys, he insisted on classic song structure. "Before Def Jam, hip-hop records were typically really long, and they rarely had a hook," he continued. "Those songs didn't deliver in the way the Beatles did. By making our rap records sound more like pop songs, we changed the form. And we sold a lot of records." The Beastie Boys' "Licensed to Ill" (released in 1986) went on to sell what was then an astonishing four million plus records; earlier that year, "Walk This Way," which combined Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith, was the first crossover rap single and revitalized Aerosmith's career. Rubin masterminded both.

Whenever he agrees to produce an album, Rubin scrutinizes the songs before going into the studio. Currently, he is producing records for the hard rock band Metallica, the nerd power-pop band Weezer (it is part of his deal with Columbia that he can produce albums for acts that are not signed to the label) and the legendary Neil Diamond. At the moment, Metallica is touring in Europe, Weezer is writing a new batch of songs and Diamond has just started in the studio. Rubin works slowly — it can take him years to finish an album. "A lot of that is because of the songs," Rubin explained. "I try to get the artist to feel like they are writing songs for the ages rather than songs for an album. As they write, they come over and play the songs for me. For some reason, most people will write 10 songs and think, That's enough for a record, I'm done. When they play the songs for me, invariably the last two songs they've written are the best. I'll then say, 'You have two songs, go back and write eight more.' "

His responses are instant, specific and constructively definitive. "He doesn't even take notes," Maines recalled. "He listens with his eyes closed, presses 'pause' and then says, 'You need another chorus,' or 'There isn't enough of a bridge.' He's really precise, and you go back to work." In the early Metallica sessions, Rubin has been exacting about different drum sounds. "Lars" — Ulrich, the drummer — "will play two things for me, and I'll say, 'This one is great and that one is terrible,' " Rubin recalled. "Lars will say: 'How do you know? They both sound good to me.' Well, I just know. The right sound reaches its hand out and finds its way. So much of what I do is just being present and listening for that right sound."

Back in the library, the singer-songwriter's demo is ending. Rubin opens his eyes, blinks and says to Kusatsu: "We may have found one. Does he have any other songs I can hear?" While Kusatsu cues up the next sampling, Rubin texts an assistant on his BlackBerry. Within minutes, a chocolate protein drink is brought to him. As Rubin sips, he listens to the next track — a derivative, meandering song that drones like early Dylan without the lyric sophistication. With his eyes closed, Rubin begins to shake his head slowly. He looks disappointed. "And you wonder why people don't buy CDs anymore," Rubin says. "One song is great and the other is. . . . "

His voice trails off. As a producer or the head of a small independent label, Rubin could afford to be very particular. But Columbia, which is the home of established stars like Bruce, Beyoncé, Bob, Billy and Barbra, desperately needs a jolt of the new. It has also been years since Rubin worked with an artist who is not yet established. Since producing System of a Down in 1998, he has focused on reinvigorating the careers of Johnny Cash and producing records for well-known musicians like Tom Petty, U2 and Justin Timberlake. One of the biggest challenges of the Columbia job is to find unsigned artists and help chart their course.

"I don't know about this guy," Rubin says diplomatically. Kusatsu nods. "I don't want to make a decision for the wrong reason," Rubin continues. "The most important thing we have to do now is get the art right. So many of the decisions at these companies have not been about the music. They sign artists for the wrong reasons — because they think somebody else wants them or if they need to have a record out by a certain date. That old way of doing things is obsolete, but luckily, fear is making the record companies less arrogant. They're more open to ideas. So, what's important now is to find music that's timeless. I still believe that if an artist gains the belief of the listener, then anything is possible." Rubin pauses and looks at Kusatsu. "What else can I hear?" he asks.

This summer, Columbia Records began a program called Big Red. The company invited 20 college students from Harvard, Penn State and the University of Miami to work on various music projects. The interns concentrated mostly on the digital marketing and promotions departments in Columbia's offices in Midtown Manhattan, which are on Madison Avenue in a granite skyscraper designed by Philip Johnson.

At the end of their paid internships, the students took part in focus groups that were closely observed by Steve Barnett, Rubin's co-head at the label, and Mark DiDia, whom Rubin brought in as head of operations, as well as by other Columbia executives. The focus groups may have been the real point of Big Red — Barnett and the New York executives, especially those who had been at Sony for years, wanted to try to take the pulse of the elusive music audience. "The Big Red focus groups were both depressing and informative, and they confirmed what I — and Rick — already knew," DiDia told me afterward. "The kids all said that a) no one listens to the radio anymore, b) they mostly steal music, but they don't consider it stealing, and c) they get most of their music from iTunes on their iPod. They told us that MySpace is over, it's just not cool anymore; Facebook is still cool, but that might not last much longer; and the biggest thing in their life is word of mouth. That's how they hear about music, bands, everything."

Few of the kids knew that record companies participate only in the profits from records — that they derive no income from a band's merchandising or touring revenues. And they all thought that the Columbia logo stood for something prestigious, except in the hip-hop world. There it was deemed too commercial and corporate, but anywhere else it still represented a kind of impressive imprimatur. "Which was good news," DiDia continued. "It means we still have a brand that commands respect."

His insecurity on this point reflects the trepidation that is consuming the music business. Seemingly overnight, the entire industry is collapsing. Sales figures on top-selling CDs are about 30 percent lower than they were a year ago, and the usual remedies aren't available. Since radio is no longer a place to push a single, record companies have turned to television and movies. "High School Musical," which originated with a Disney Channel television show, was the top-selling album of 2006, and not only has "American Idol," with its 30-million-plus audience, created best-selling singers like Kelly Clarkson and Chris Daughtry, but an appearance on the show can also boost sales. When Jennifer Lopez performed on "American Idol," it was considered worth noting that her album "Como Ama Una Mujer," already out for four weeks, dipped only 7 percent rather than falling by the usual double digits. More impressively, songs that are heard on popular shows like "Grey's Anatomy" become instantly desirable. When the Columbia artist Brandi Carlile's song "The Story" was featured on the ABC show, it posted a 15 percent jump in sales and was downloaded 19,000 times in one week. Before being heard on the show, the song had been available for nearly two months without any notable interest.

"Until very recently," Rubin told me over lunch at Hugo's, a health-conscious restaurant in Hollywood, "there were a handful of channels in the music business that the gatekeepers controlled. They were radio, Tower Records, MTV, certain mainstream press like Rolling Stone. That's how people found out about new things. Every record company in the industry was built to work that model. There was a time when if you had something that wasn't so good, through muscle and lack of other choices, you could push that not very good product through those channels. And that's how the music business functioned for 50 years. Well, the world has changed. And the industry has not."

Steve Barnett, who is 55 and was the sole head of Columbia until he agreed to split his role with Rubin, was president of Epic Records, also a division of Sony, until 2005 and was well aware of the seismic shifts in the business. Barnett's corner office on the 25th floor of the Sony building is like a miniversion of the Hard Rock Cafe — autographed guitars belonging to Jeff Beck, Korn and Angus Young from AC/DC rest in their stands, and the walls are covered with vintage posters from the celebrated New York rock venue the Fillmore East. To the right of Barnett's large desk, above the framed Johnny Cash portrait, is a sign that reads, "Your Faith Needs to Be Greater Than Your Fear." "I have always believed that," Barnett told me in mid-August, "but it seems particularly relevant at the moment."

Barnett, who is English, is a sharp counterpoint to Rubin. He lives with his wife and two of their four sons in Connecticut. He has neatly parted sandy brown hair, and on the day we met, he was dressed in a blue button-down shirt, tan slacks and Gucci loafers with dark socks. Barnett is polite, careful, aware of his corporate status. Yet he supported recruiting Rubin. "My wife's father is Dick Vermeil, the former coach of the St. Louis Rams," Barnett explained. "My sons would go to training camp, and when Marshall Faulk started playing for the team, they called me and said, 'Not only is this guy a great player, he makes everyone around him better.' Of course, the Rams went on to win the Super Bowl. I think Rick Rubin is our Marshall Faulk. I knew he would change the culture here."

By the time Barnett first approached Rubin about coming to Columbia, Rubin had already decided that he would have nothing more to do with Columbia Records. This was because of the company's handling of the Rubin-produced Neil Diamond record "12 Songs" in 2005. Diamond was a hero of Rubin's, and he spent two years working on the album, persuading Diamond to record acoustically, something he hadn't done since the '60s.

"The CD debuted at No. 4," Rubin told me at Hugo's, still sounding upset. "It was the highest debut of Neil's career, off to a great start. But Columbia — it was some kind of corporate thing — had put spyware on the CD. That kept people from copying it, but it also somehow recorded information about whoever bought the record. The spyware became public knowledge, and people freaked out. There were some lawsuits filed, and the CD was recalled by Columbia. Literally pulled from stores. We came out on a Tuesday, by the following week the CD was not available. Columbia released it again in a month, but we never recovered. Neil was furious, and I vowed never to make another album with Columbia."

But when Barnett flew out to Los Angeles to discuss the job with Rubin, Rubin was intrigued. "I felt like I could be a force for good," he explained. "In the past, I've tried to protect artists from the label, and now my job would also be to protect the label from itself. So many of the decisions at these companies are not about the music. They are shortsighted and desperate. For so long, the record industry had control. But now that monopoly has ended, they don't know what to do. I thought it would be an interesting challenge."

As a kind of test, Rubin made some unusual demands. "Oh, God, I would have liked to have heard those negotiations," Natalie Maines exclaimed. "Rick knows what he's worth, and I can just hear him telling them, 'You might never see me, I may never wear shoes, you're not the boss of me.' And I'm sure they were saying, 'Whatever you want, Mr. Rubin.' I was surprised Sony made such a smart decision: someone who knows music should be running the company."

In addition to his "never wearing a suit, never traveling, never going to an office" demands, Rubin also suggested (strongly) that Columbia become the first major record company to go green and abolish plastic jewel boxes for all its CDs. "They thought about it and agreed," Rubin said. "And that made me think they would listen to me. It was also a turning point in terms of how big my reach could be. In the past, I would not normally have access to that kind of sweeping change. At Columbia, I'm able to operate on a much larger scale."

That was in late April. By August, Rubin still sounded optimistic, but a weariness had crept into his voice. "It's a big ship to turn around," he told me in the Hollywood Hills house. Simon and Garfunkel was playing in the background and Rubin was padding through the templelike rooms. "Columbia is stuck in the dark ages. I have great confidence that we will have the best record company in the industry, but the reality is, in today's world, we might have the best dinosaur. Until a new model is agreed upon and rolling, we can be the best at the existing paradigm, but until the paradigm shifts, it's going to be a declining business. This model is done."

While Columbia has made some small changes in its organizational structure, it has not instigated the kind of extensive alterations that Rubin says are crucial to the salvation of the business. Barnett is promoting the division at Columbia that sells music directly to TV, so that a network or cable show can introduce an artist to audiences the way radio once did. At Rubin's suggestion, he has also set up a "word of mouth" department, which will probably employ some members of the Big Red focus group along with dozens of other 20-somethings. The "word of mouth" department will function as a publicity-promotional arm of the company, spreading commissioned buzz through chat rooms across the planet and through old-fashioned human interaction. "They tell all their friends about a band," Barnett explained. "Their job is to create interest."

Rubin has a bigger idea. To combat the devastating impact of file sharing, he, like others in the music business (Doug Morris and Jimmy Iovine at Universal, for instance), says that the future of the industry is a subscription model, much like paid cable on a television set. "You would subscribe to music," Rubin explained, as he settled on the velvet couch in his library. "You'd pay, say, $19.95 a month, and the music will come anywhere you'd like. In this new world, there will be a virtual library that will be accessible from your car, from your cellphone, from your computer, from your television. Anywhere. The iPod will be obsolete, but there would be a Walkman-like device you could plug into speakers at home. You'll say, 'Today I want to listen to ... Simon and Garfunkel,' and there they are. The service can have demos, bootlegs, concerts, whatever context the artist wants to put out. And once that model is put into place, the industry will grow 10 times the size it is now."

From Napster to the iPod, the music business has been wrong about how much it can dictate to its audience. "Steve Jobs understood Napster better than the record business did," David Geffen told me. "IPods made it easy for people to share music, and Apple took a big percentage of the business that once belonged to the record companies. The subscription model is the only way to save the music business. If music is easily available at a price of five or six dollars a month, then nobody will steal it."

For this model to be effective, all the record companies will have to agree. "It's like getting the heads of the five families together," said Mark DiDia, referencing "The Godfather." "It will be very difficult, but what else are we going to do?"

Rubin sees no other solution. "Either all the record companies will get together or the industry will fall apart and someone like Microsoft will come in and buy one of the companies at wholesale and do what needs to be done," he said. "The future technology companies will either wait for the record companies to smarten up, or they'll let them sink until they can buy them for 10 cents on the dollar and own the whole thing."

Given the competition among record companies, the subscription model is bound to be tricky to organize and implement. One problem with iTunes is that, with some exceptions, all the songs are priced equally — a Justin Timberlake smash costs the same as an Al Jolson classic. Since a listener would, ideally, pay more for a Top 10 hit, that egalitarian system costs record companies potential millions of dollars. The opponents of the subscription model feel that making all music by all artists available for one flat fee will end up diminishing the overall revenue stream. They would also have to pool their talent, which is difficult for companies that have spent decades fighting over who signs with whom to accept. "There would have to be a new economic plan," Geffen explained. "And it would have to be equitable, depending on the popularity of the artists."

Steve Barnett is nervous about the subscription model. "Smart people have told me if the subscription model is not done correctly," he said, "it will be the final nail in our coffin. I've heard both sides of the argument, and I'm not convinced it's the solution to our problems. Rick wants to be a hero immediately. In his mind, you flick a switch and it's done. It doesn't work like that."

Barnett has other ideas, which he is discussing with Rubin. For instance, asking Columbia artists to give the record company up to 50 percent of their touring, merchandising and online revenue. This is unprecedented — even successful artists like the Dixie Chicks make a large percentage of their income from concerts and T-shirts. "Artists should never give that money up," Natalie Maines told me. "The companies are all scrambling because of the Internet, and they will screw the artist to meet their bottom line. I can't imagine Rick will go along with that."

Rubin won't say — he'd rather concentrate on honing the new model for the industry. "I don't want to waste time," he said, sounding a little frustrated. "The existing people will either get smart, which is a question mark. Or new people will understand what a resource the music business is and change it without us." Rubin paused. "I don't want to watch that happen."

One sunny day in June, Rick Rubin was trying to decide where the new Columbia Records headquarters in Los Angeles should be located. He may not want to go to an office himself, but he still recognizes the influence that a workplace can have on a staff. "I told the corporate Sony people that we have to get out of our old space in Los Angeles as quickly as possible," Rubin said as he disembarked from his Range Rover, which was parked outside a large, one-story former factory that now functions as a sound stage. "The Sony people thought I was insane. I'm also trying to get them to move out of their offices in New York. That space is tainted with the old way. And it's not an artist-friendly place — they search you when you walk in."

Rubin, who was wearing, as usual, khaki cargo pants and a white T-shirt, was trailed by two architects who had flown in from Manhattan for this meeting. He discovered these architects, Dominic Kozerski and Enrico Bonetti, when he saw a chair they designed in a magazine layout. Rubin loves research. He's always on a quest to find just the right thing, whether it be a book or a building. Recently, he hunted down the brand of water that claims to have the greatest level of purity (Ice Age); he pored over architectural manuals to determine what kind of hinge would have been used in 1923 (for his house); and when Johnny Cash was ailing, Rubin discovered a kinesiologist whom Cash credited with extending his life. And so on. Rubin has always been passionate, even compulsive, about his interests.

"From the time I was 9 years old, I loved magic," Rubin recalled as he walked around the cavernous loftlike space. "I was an only child, and I think that had a big impact on me. I always had grown-up friends even though I was a little kid. I would take the train from Lido Beach into Manhattan, and I'd hang out in magic shops. When I was 14, I had magician friends who were 60. I learned a lot from them — I still think about magic all the time. I always think about how things work, the mechanics of a situation — that's the nature of being a magician."

In high school, around 1980, Rubin started listening to a mix of heavy metal and punk rock. (He recalls buying the Germs' record "GI" and "Back in Black" by AC/DC on the same day.) "I saw the Ramones play every week," he said. "I was the only punk in my high school." Rubin paused. "I've always been an outsider. When I did magic, I was the only kid. When I worked with Johnny Cash, I was completely out of place in Nashville. And when I started Def Jam, I was the only white guy in the hip-hop world."

Although Rubin's parents — his father was a shoe wholesaler, and "my mother's job was me" — wanted him to be a lawyer, he had other ideas. In 1983, while he was attending N.Y.U., he borrowed $5,000 from his parents and recorded "It's Yours" by T La Rock and Jazzy Jay, a 12-inch single that became a local dance hit. Rubin then invented a label, calling his company Def Jam ("Def" meaning great, and "Jam" meaning music), and ran the business out of his dorm room. "The clerk at the front desk handled all the shipping," Rubin recalled.

Russell Simmons, who was then a hip-hop producer, loved "It's Yours" when he heard it on the radio. "I thought for sure that Rick was black," Simmons said. In 1984, a 16-year-old named L L Cool J (Ladies Love Cool James) sent a demo tape to Rubin's dorm room/Def Jam. "He was much better than anything else I heard," Rubin recalled. "And he still is. 'I Need a Beat,' L L's first single, was the real birth of Def Jam." Rubin did not release the track right away — he tightened up the structure, editing the rhymes so they more closely resembled verses in a song. The result is a spare, clean sound, rather than the endless repetitions of most early rap. "I thought the record would do well, and I asked Russell to be my partner at Def Jam. I did all the work from my dorm, and he did the promotion. Russell was five years older, and he was established. By myself, I was just a kid making records. He gave me credibility."

"I Need a Beat" sold 100,000 copies, and in the next year, Def Jam released seven more 12-inch records, selling a total of about 300,000 units. The major labels had ignored rap, dismissing it as a regional fad, but they took notice of Def Jam. CBS offered Rubin and Simmons $600,000 to pick four acts a year, a kind of finder's fee. "I was 20," Rubin said. "I sent a Xerox of the check to my parents. That's when this stopped being a hobby. At that point, I wanted to live the life of an artist."

By 1987, Rubin had already discovered the Beastie Boys, three upper-middle-class guys from New York City who could rap. The trio's anthemic hit, "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)," which was produced by Rubin, was an instant classic: the rhythms of the words form a hook that circles and loops around your brain and will not leave. The Beasties' debut album, "Licensed to Ill," was the first rap album to go to No. 1 on the Billboard chart. "And we were still in the dorms," George Drakoulias, a successful producer who worked with Rubin for a decade, told me. "Rick didn't want to leave. He got college credits for running the record company. He stayed until he graduated. And by then, he and Russell were fighting over the direction of the company."

Each had a different idea of which bands Def Jam should produce. The partnership fell apart during renegotiations for their contract with CBS. Simmons wanted to get the biggest monetary advance possible from CBS, while Rubin wanted to bet on Def Jam, take a small amount of money for the sake of independence and make most of the cash on the back-end profits. They couldn't agree, and Def Jam was split in two, an arrangement that took nearly three years to finalize.

When things went sour, Rubin flew to Los Angeles to work on the soundtrack for the film "Less Than Zero." "I never really moved here," Rubin said now, still walking around the former factory space. "I never packed and moved. But I never left Los Angeles, even though I hadn't planned to stay." He lived in the Chateau Marmont for nine months and started a new record company, Def American. Rubin changed gears: he signed the hard rock bands Slayer and Danzig and gave a record deal to the misogynist comic Andrew Dice Clay. "At every stage of my career, there have always been people telling me not to do whatever it is that I'm doing," Rubin said. "After my initial success in rap, I started making rock records, and people said, 'Why would you do this?' I made a comedy album, and they said, 'Why this?' Now people ask me, 'Why do you want to do this Columbia job?' It's always the same answer: 'I've always liked doing the stuff that I like.' I just like good music or comedy or whatever it is, and now I have the chance to bring that to a big record company. I have no training, no technical skill — it's only this ability to listen and try to coach the artist to be the best they can from the perspective of a fan."

The architects were still daydreaming about where to put the lobby and the conference room in the factory-turned-soundstage when Rubin suggested that they drive over to another potential site for the new Columbia offices. They piled into his Range Rover, which was being driven by Nino Molina, one of his assistants. In the front seat, Rubin turned on the satellite radio and Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon" flooded the car. "Where we are going could not be more different than this spot," Rubin told the architects. "In a way, this factory is like a cool, old vintage Mustang convertible and the next building we're seeing is a Rolls-Royce. In the end, they are both great and they probably cost the same money, but they are completely opposite in style." Rubin fiddled with the radio. "Every Picture Tells a Story" by Rod Stewart replaced Sinatra. "They couldn't be more different, but both work," Rubin continued.

We drove east until we arrived at the former CAA building on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. I. M. Pei designed this curvy, cream-colored travertine structure, and the most dominant feature of the space is its vast, soaring, three-story lobby. "This is a significant building," Rubin said. "How often do you get a chance to reinvent a landmark? Los Angeles doesn't have too many marquee buildings, and this is one of them."

The two spaces — one raw and full of promise and the other established and perfect for reinvention — are a neat metaphor for Rubin's divergent music tastes. "I've always been attracted to both new stuff and older stuff," he said as he opened the door to a plush screening room. "When I came to Los Angeles and started producing more, that became clearer to me."

At Def American, Rubin concentrated on a harder rock sound: Slayer's "Reign in Blood," which is considered to be a heavy metal classic, or the Geto Boys, whose rap song "Mind of a Lunatic" depicted vivid scenes of necrophilia and murder. "I just couldn't put out a record about sex with dead bodies and cutting off women's breasts," said David Geffen, whose company Geffen Records was the distributor of Def American. "I begged Rick not to put out the Geto Boys. In the end, I lost. He left and went to Warner Brothers."

Although Rubin claims that Geffen fired him, he stood by the Geto Boys: "I thought the art was good. As a fan, the Geto Boys were thrilling in the same way that a horror movie might be thrilling." In 1993, Rubin saw that the word "def" was now in dictionaries, and he decided to change the name of his company. Inspired by a documentary he'd seen about the hippie movement, Rubin held a formal funeral for Def. "When advertisers and the fashion world co-opted the image of hippies, a group of the original hippies in San Francisco literally buried the image of the hippie," Rubin explained. "When 'def' went from street lingo to mainstream, it defeated its purpose."

The funeral was lavish. The Rev. Al Sharpton was flown in from New York to deliver the eulogy, the Amazing Kreskin performed and Rubin purchased a cemetery plot and engraved headstone. The death of Def also marked a change in Rubin's career. He had never signed what he calls "grown-up artists," and he wanted to work with someone with enormous talent whose career had been eclipsed. "The first person I thought of was Johnny Cash," Rubin said now. "He was a little like this building — already a legend, but ripe for something different. I knew I could do something great with him."

In many ways, the Cash phase of Rubin's life, which lasted 10 years and produced five albums, has overshadowed all his other accomplishments. Rubin had worked intensively with artists before. When he produced the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1991, he helped reinvent their sound by persuading them to incorporate melody and a more lyrical approach in their songwriting. The Chili Peppers defined their music narrowly — as rap infused with funk — and Rubin imagined a different quality. "My job was to break down those boundaries," he explained. "No band has to fit into a little box. I saw the Chili Peppers as being like the Beach Boys in some ways. They represented Los Angeles, a place of dreams." Anthony Kiedis, the lead singer, showed Rubin his notebooks, and the producer homed in on a poem about drugs and alienation called "Under the Bridge." He persuaded Kiedis to set the words to music, and the resulting song was a career-altering hit for the band.

Rubin installed the Peppers in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills that was rumored to be Harry Houdini's former home. It actually wasn't, but the house did have secret passageways, and the rumors of its history lingered. A studio was built, and the Peppers moved in with Rubin's personal chef at their service. As he always does when he produces a record, Rubin came and went. "I do not know how to work a board. I don't turn knobs. I have no technical ability whatsoever," he said. "But I'm there when they need me to be there. My primary asset is I know when I like something or not. It always comes down to taste. I'm not there to hold their hands and baby-sit, but I'm there for any key creative decisions."

And yet it was different with Cash. While Cash was an excellent songwriter, Rubin handpicked rock songs like "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails, "Personal Jesus" by Depeche Mode and "Rusty Cage" by Soundgarden for Cash to reinterpret. (He also suggested "Addicted to Love" by Robert Palmer, but that didn't work.) He was much more involved with every aspect of the production — from the choice of songs to the arrangements to the videos — than he had been with any other artist. Rubin and Cash also had a deep spiritual kinship: during the final months of Cash's life, they took communion together every day, even though Rubin, who was born Jewish and now sees himself as not having any specific religious orientation, should not be eligible for the holy sacraments. Even after Cash's death, Rubin would close his eyes and hear Cash's voice as he said the benediction. "It was like hearing a song that you love," Rubin said. "He was there with me."

When Cash was in Los Angeles, he often stayed at Rubin's house. His bedroom, with its view of the city, was on the third floor, and Cash would take the elevator down to the recording studio in the basement. "I was always aware of how important Cash was," Rubin said. "But no one under 40 who didn't live in the South knew much about Johnny Cash besides a few hits and his name." What seems so clear now was not obvious when Rubin began working with Cash — it was risky to reinvent a living legend for a new generation.

After Cash's death, Rubin was searching for a challenge with an even higher degree of difficulty, a greater test for his powers of listening. The Columbia job is a different kind of reclamation project, but Rubin knows that, just possibly, he could restore an entire institution to greatness. "I can imagine people coming up with brilliant, creative ideas here," Rubin told the architects as they finished their tour of the building. "But Sony has to agree. I'm not sure they realize that they are selling art. Right now they could be selling any product. That's why we have to move — we're in the art business."

For the last two years, Rubin has lived in a house in Malibu that overlooks the ocean. In a way, this house is a return to his childhood in Lido Beach, where he spent his days near the water. "It's inspirational to live out here," Rubin said as he settled into a lounge chair with linen cushions facing the sea. "You feel the rhythm of the planet more keenly. I am never this aware of sunrise and sunset when I'm in town. The daily changes of nature at the beach can be deeply affecting."

Rubin has many of his business meetings here now. The '70s architecture of the house is nondescript, but the views from every room are spectacular. There's an old, elaborately carved grand piano in the living room alongside an enormous four-poster brass bed with a striking white linen canopy. When I arrived, Amanda Santos, Rubin's fiancée, was having a private yoga session. While we sat on the terrace, a small Yorkshire terrier named Henry ran between the living room and Rubin's lap. Despite a state-of-the-art sound system, there was no music playing. Only the sound of the waves.

All this Zen calm notwithstanding, Rubin, who was drinking ginger tea, was working. "Do you know about Paul Potts?" he asked as he went to the kitchen to get his laptop. "You have to see this. It totally blew my mind." Rubin found the proper link and turned the screen to face me. The clip was from a British show called "Britain's Got Talent," a version of "American Idol." Despite its popularity, Rubin has never seen "American Idol," and he had never heard of Simon Cowell, who is a judge on both programs.

"This is insane," Rubin said enthusiastically as the clip began. In the video, an ordinary-looking middle-aged man waited nervously backstage. When he faced the judges, he told them he worked at a mobile-phone store and wanted to sing opera. The studio audience looked annoyed — they clearly wanted to hear a pop song — and the judges were cold and dismissive. No one expected anything remarkable from this dull-looking, forgettable guy.

But then Paul Potts sang — "Nessun dorma" from "Turandot." He had an improbably beautiful voice. "Where does that come from?" Rubin said as he watched. Tears were rolling down his cheeks. "I can't look at this without crying," he said. "His voice is so beautiful." When Potts finished his song, Cowell said, "I thought you were absolutely fantastic." The studio audience roared with approval, and Potts beamed.

"It's August now — that show was eight weeks ago," Rubin said. "In England, Paul Potts is already gigantic, but we are going to launch him in America. This just blew my mind."

No one could have predicted that one of the first new Columbia artists to excite Rick Rubin would have been a would-be opera singer from a televised talent contest. "I certainly didn't expect his response to be so positive," said Steve Barnett, who originally brought Paul Potts to Rubin's attention. "I was surprised and pleased that he wanted to jump on it."

Rubin has an immediate plan for Potts — he wants to test the powers of his "word of mouth" department. "I want to see if we can create interest without there being a record to buy," he said. "I've told our whole staff to send it to everyone, to tell everyone, to mention it everywhere. I want to get Paul Potts out to the world." Rubin stopped for a moment. "Although, if someone tells you how great this is, it's not as moving. It's the element of surprise that makes you interested in Paul Potts: he looks so bland, and then he sings so well. If you expect him to be great, will the clip still be great?"

The question cannot be answered. A word-of-mouth campaign, like so many possible remedies for the ills of the record business, feels forced. "I just don't know how else people will see Paul Potts," Rubin said. "And I'm really glad I saw him." He paused and looked out at the surf. "I know this sounds hard to believe, but I never had any expectations of success," he said finally. "I knew what I liked, and I didn't really care if anyone else liked it. I still never assume that anyone will like anything. But I can't imagine that they won't, either."

"Sam Cooke built this," Neil Diamond said as he greeted Rubin at ArchAngel Studios in West Hollywood on a gray afternoon in late July. "I bought the place around 30 years ago. It's not open to the public, but I let Rick use it sometimes."

Rubin smiled. "I think the Doors made their first demo here," he said as he followed Diamond down the hall, past the walls of gold and platinum Neil Diamond records, past the framed album covers and into a glass recording studio. "And now, Neil."

For the past two weeks, Rubin and Diamond had been working on new material, and Diamond wanted Rubin to hear some songs that were near completion. "You know, initially I stalked Neil," Rubin said as an engineer prepared the first track. "Yes," said Diamond, who is trim and was wearing a suede baseball hat, dark shirt and jeans. "At first, it was a little scary — I didn't know what to make of it."

A classic Neil Diamond song about the renewing power of a relationship boomed from the speakers. Diamond looked down, a little self-conscious. Rubin, eyes closed, was seated at the engineer's console with his arms resting lightly on the mixing board. When the song ended, Rubin paused, opened his eyes and said: "You really caught a good mood on that. It lived for the first time." Diamond nodded. They discussed the merits of adding strings or changing the structure so that the bridge didn't sound so much like a chorus. "Some strings might inspire you," Rubin said. "And maybe some amplification near the end. It needs a little polish."

Diamond agreed, and four more tracks were played for Rubin's opinion. He was encouraging and specific — "a little percussion element could go here," he said. Or, "Let's shorten that rolling piano." After about an hour, Rubin hugged Diamond goodbye. They agreed to reconnect in a month, after he'd written some more songs. "I'll settle in without distraction," Diamond promised. "And then I'll be in touch."

Rubin headed back to his Range Rover. In the car, he said he had some live footage of the Gossip that he wanted to show me. "I saw the group at the Troubadour, and they blew my mind," he said. "It was the best show I've seen in five years. Afterward, I met with the band. They felt stressed, and they were having trouble writing songs. The energy in the room when they were performing was so intense, and I'm not even sure how we'd get it to feel like that in the studio. So we decided to record a live show during their European tour, and we're going to release a DVD of the live album as their first release."

Rubin looked pleased. Beth Ditto, the lead singer of the Gossip, is exactly what he has been looking for since he took this job at Columbia: she is an outsize personality in an outsize body with a Joplin-esque, bluesy voice. Ditto is the kind of artist Rubin loves — unique, ambitious and open to guidance. "For a band like the Gossip," Rubin continued, "the support of a record company like Columbia is still really important. I grew up in the independent music business, and you still really need the muscle of the majors. A record company call can still get you heard like nobody else."

Rubin paused. "That's the magic of the business," he said. "It's all doom and gloom, but then you go to a Gossip show or hear Neil in the studio and you remember that too many people make and love music for it to ever die. It will never be over. The music will outlast us all."
Lynn Hirschberg, editor at large for the magazine, writes regularly about the entertainment industry.