Thursday, July 31, 2008

Soap Opera Upends Traditional Arab Gender Roles

MSNBC Worldblog

Posted: Thursday, July 31, 2008 9:48 AM
Filed Under: Cairo, Egypt
By Charlene Gubash, NBC News Producer

CAIRO, Egypt – A relative newcomer to Arab TV, the Turkish soap opera "Noor" has helped narrow the gender gap between men and women across the Middle East.

Women see the lead female character – the independent, aspiring fashion designer Noor -- as a role model. Meantime, her husband on the show -- the blue-eyed former model and athlete Mohannad -- has become the region’s first pin-up boy.

The nightly soap opera has mainly female viewers glued to their TV sets not only because Mohannad is a cuter version of Justin Timberlake, but because he offers something many lack in their lives: romance, tenderness and a supportive partner to his independent wife. Mohannad has become the standard against which many Arab men are being judged, much to their chagrin.

Too much to live up to
According to Arab newspapers, marriages in Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia have dissolved because wives insisted on putting Mohannad's picture on their mobile phone display, or on their bedroom wall. In Bahrain, a woman allegedly begged her husband to have plastic surgery to look like the actor. Another recent divorcee allegedly told her husband "I want to sleep with Mohannad one night and then die."

In Saudi Arabia, where about one in seven people tunes in each night, men circulated the rumor that Kivanc Tatlitug, the actor who plays Mohannad, is gay, which left female viewers distraught until the rumor was dispelled.

Saudi society abounds with Mohannad jokes such as this one: A Saudi woman was touring Turkey with her husband and son when her husband went missing. As she described him to the police, her son shouted, "But that's not what Daddy looks like." "Be quiet," she whispers, "They might just give me Mohannad."

"Mohannad" and "Noor" are now the hottest babies' names in Saudi – even though the religious establishment has condemned the show. A top Saudi cleric forbade viewers from watching the "malicious" soap operas that "corrupt and spread vice" and has also declared that any TV station airing them is against God. This has put Saudi-owned Middle East Broadcasting Company (MBC), which airs the show three times a day, at loggerheads with Saudi religious leaders.

Saudi clerics may have an uphill battle: The Turkish serial has so wooed Saudis with its scenic backdrops of the Bosporus, and green, clean vistas of Istanbul that Turkish tourism officials say it has caused Saudi tourism to the country to more than double.

The series has not only made Saudi women aware of the failings of their partners, but the advantages engendered by a more liberal, tolerant Islamic society such as Turkey.

"It is eye opening for Saudi women. They haven't seen such a sensitive, passionate, giving personality," explained Dr. Fawzaya Abu Khalid, a writer and women's activist based in Riyadh.

For many women, the show has opened a whole new world and a lot of men aren’t happy about it. "Men feel threatened. It is the first time women have a role model for male beauty and passion and can compare him with their husbands," said Abu Khalid. "It is the first time they found out their husbands are not nice, that they are not being treated the way they should be, and that there is an option outside."

Glued to TV across the region
Filled with scheming relatives, corny romantic scenes, melodramatic acting and amateurish effects, the sequence bombed in its native Turkey, but found new life among Arab women of all ages from Riyadh to the West Bank, when MBC began airing a dubbed Arabic version four months ago.

Reem, a young Saudi businesswoman who prefers to use her first name only, was introduced to the show by her nieces, ages seven and eight. Reem explained the show’s allure. "Romance is not here, living in a dry desert. Saudi women are missing something in their lives, in the treatment in the family, the wife with her husband and the husband with his wife. What I see from my female customers is that they are attracted by the love and romance and the way the man is treating the woman."

And in east Jerusalem, every night at 10 p.m., the streets are suddenly empty – everyone is glued to the TV watching "Noor" there, too.

Bakiza, the matriarch of a large household in Jerusalem’s Old City, surrounds herself every night with her children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. They each take something different from the show. "I admire the story of Mohannad and Noor because of what it shows about how a family should be," said Bakiza. "The grandfather, Fikhry, is the one who takes care of the whole family, decides everything, and solves all the problems. Everyone respects him."

Malouk, a 15-year-old niece of Bakiza, has her own reason for watching the show. "I can only watch it because of Mohannad. He is handsome, romantic, and takes care of his wife. In fact, he is better than his wife."

The popularity of the series goes beyond the family room. It is also a business success story in the local communities. Restaurants, coffee shops, and clothing stores, proudly display posters of the couple in their windows to attract business. In Ramallah, nargila cafes (where water pipes are smoked), have their TV sets tuned for the channel of the series, to keep the customers there.

Even small children are onto the show and are making purchases based on the series’ merchandising. Haitham al-Halak, 45, a grocer in the Old City, says, "I was surprised how children from 6 to 15 years old, are buying from me only the potato chips with their pictures on it!" said Haitham al-Halak, 45, a grocer in the Jerusalem’s Old City.

A positive role model for women
To some young women, the aspiring fashion designer Noor, provides a positive female role model and encourages them to raise the bar not only on future spouses but on themselves.

In Cairo, Na'ama Hegazy, a single 25-year-old, watches "Noor" three times a day and says it has influenced the way she sees her future.

"I want a romantic [man] who treats me like how Mohannad treats his wife. Every day he brings her flowers and tells her romantic words," said Hegazy. "The life will be very good when a husband treats his wife [like that]."

But Hegazy also wants to emulate Noor who is a both a good wife and mother, and a self-reliant professional. "When she has troubles with Mohannad, she wants to him to leave her alone. She wants to work and doesn't want anything from him. This means any woman who falls out with her husband can work and depend on herself."

NBC News’ Lawahez Jabari contributed to this report from Jerusalem.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Tree Drawings: Art by Tim Knowles

Artists Tim Knowles attaches pens to trees and gets them to draw pictures. See Tim Knowles Tree Drawings here.

See his motion artwork (including Nightwalk #3 below) here.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Film on Mobile's Segregated Mardi Gras: The Order of Myths

CNN has a two-minute video story on the film here.

An the website for The Order of Myths film is here.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Too Funny: Zombie Dating Service

Helping the reanimated undead hook up: Zombie Harmony

I found a date through zombie harmony - one of the best free dating sites for zombies
Created by (Dating for non-zombies)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A 7,500-Square-Foot Ad for Chanel, With an Artistic Mission

July 24, 2008
A 7,500-Square-Foot Ad for Chanel, With an Artistic Mission

A rectangular patch of sand in Central Park may be the last place you’d expect to find a gleaming “Star Trek”-style spacecraft. But an art pavilion that resembles just that will make a temporary landing there this fall.

Called Mobile Art, the structure itself was designed by the renowned London architect Zaha Hadid and will occupy the Rumsey Playfield, midpark at 70th Street, from Oct. 20 to Nov. 9. (It is Ms. Hadid’s first New York building, albeit temporary, and has already made stops in Hong Kong and Tokyo and is headed later for London, Moscow and Paris.)

Yet beyond its artistic mission, the pavilion is a provocative advertisement. Chanel, the fashion brand, commissioned Ms. Hadid to create the traveling structure to house works by about 15 hot contemporary artists. Each was asked to create a work that was at least in part inspired by Chanel’s classic 2.55 quilted-style chain handbag, so named because it was first issued in February 1955.

Maureen Chiquet, Chanel’s global chief executive, declined to give specifics on financial arrangements. But officials familiar with the project, requesting anonymity in deference to Chanel, said that the fashion house was donating a sum “in the low seven figures” to the Central Park Conservancy. Chanel will also pay the city a “use fee” of $400,000.

Artists recruited for the project include Sophie Calle of France, Sylvie Fleury of Switzerland, Subodh Gupta of India and the Russian collective Blue Noses. The resulting works in the show, organized by Fabrice Bousteau, editor in chief of Beaux Arts magazine, include sculpture, photographs, videos and installation pieces.

Many of the artists explored the notion of the handbag as a cultural symbol, often with a dash of irreverence. Mr. Gupta produced “All Things Are Inside,” a video installation that is a meditation on people in transit, like an Indian laborer who returns from Dubai. It also includes clips from Indian films in which the handbag emerges as an element in a human drama.

Blue Noses created “Fifty Years After Our Common Era or Handbags Revolt,” an installation of packing boxes in which videos show satirical moments in the life of a handbag. Ms. Fleury created a giant Pop Art-style quilted handbag lined with pink fur; inside is a makeup compact in which you can view a video of women shooting handbags with guns.

The genesis for the project was the handbag’s 50th anniversary in 2005, when Chanel’s designer, Karl Lagerfeld, issued a new version of the purse, Ms. Chiquet said. The project took several years to come to fruition.

Admission to the exhibition in Central Park will be free, although visitors are advised to book timed tickets at

With the weakened dollar New York has become a magnet for European and Asian visitors, and city officials are hoping that the art pavilion will be a draw for tourists. They cited precedents like Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “Gates,” in which 7,500 gates festooned with saffron-colored fabric panels were positioned along Central Park’s pathways for 16 days in 2005, or the four waterfalls designed by the artist Olafur Eliasson that grace the shores of Brooklyn, Manhattan and Governors Island this summer.

“Right now Central Park is one big international duty-free zone,” said Adrian Benepe, the city’s parks commissioner. “You can’t walk through it without hearing lots of different languages.”

Douglas Blonsky, president of the Central Park Conservancy, said the pavilion would fit perfectly on the 1.5-acre playfield. “It’s low enough so it won’t disturb people,” he said. “We wouldn’t use the Great Lawn or Sheep Meadow. It’s not taking over someone else’s space. It’s a neat little surprise.”

He and Mr. Benepe described Chanel’s donation as a windfall for the park. The money will go toward enhancing its horticulture, particularly in the area from 85th Street to the Harlem Meer.

Asked whether he anticipated criticism for allowing Chanel to advertise one of its products in the park, Mr. Benepe countered, “Everything has a sponsor.”

“Artists in 17th-century Italy wouldn’t have been in business were it not for their patrons,” he added, noting that ING lends its name to the New York City Marathon, which generates millions of dollars in tourist revenue each year.

The convergence of art, architecture and fashion is commonplace these days. A Louis Vuitton bag designed by the artist Richard Prince is constantly spotted on the streets of New York, Basel and London. The Japanese artist Takashi Murakami’s creations for Louis Vuitton were sold in a special shop that formed part of a Murakami retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. The architect Rem Koolhaas has helped define the look of Prada shops, and Frank Gehry recently designed a line of jewelry for Tiffany & Company.

“Art is art. Fashion is fashion,” Mr. Lagerfeld said. “However, Andy Warhol proved that they can exist together.”

Noting Ms. Hadid’s star status — she won the architecture profession’s highest honor, the Pritzker Prize, in 2004 — he suggested that “the most important piece of art is the container itself.”

In an interview in her London office, Ms. Hadid said that even though she has not yet designed a permanent building in New York, she liked the idea that the pavilion “lands, creates a buzz and disappears.”

The challenge, she said, was to create a pavilion that was both visually compelling and could be easily transported. Each piece had to fit together like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

Using computer software Ms. Hadid designed a 7,500-square-foot doughnut-shape structure with a central courtyard. Its lightweight panels can be packed in 51 shippable containers; no panel is wider than 7.38 feet.

Skylights admit natural light, and computer-generated lighting casts a rainbow of colors around the base of the exterior that glows day and night.

Visitors entering the pavilion will be given MP3 players. On a track created by the sound artist Stephan Crasneanscki they will hear the French actress Jeanne Moreau discussing everything from sex and love to the secrets at the bottom of a woman’s handbag.

After “Mobile Art” makes its last stop in Paris in 2010, Chanel will have the option to buy all the art. As for Ms. Hadid’s pavilion, Ms. Chiquet said, Chanel owns it but is not yet sure what it will do with it.

Its transitory nature, everyone agreed, will be part of the allure. “It’s like an alien spacecraft that lands in the park and, before you know it, takes off again,” Mr. Benepe said.

Pole Dancing: From the Erotic Domain, an Aerobic Trend in China

Shiho Fukada for The New York Times - Students taking a lesson at Lolan Pole Dancing School in Beijing. The school has five studios and plans to open six more this year.

From the NYT

July 25, 2008
From the Erotic Domain, an Aerobic Trend in China

BEIJING — Clad in knee-high leather boots, spandex shorts and a sports bra, Xiao Yan struck a pose two feet off the ground, her head glistening with sweat and her arms straining as she suspended herself from a vertical pole.

“Keeping your grip is the hardest part,” she said. “It’s really easy to slide downward.”

Ms. Xiao, 26, who works as a supermarket manager, is one of a growing number of women experimenting with China’s newest, and most controversial, fitness activity: pole dancing.

“I used to take a normal aerobics class, but it was boring and monotonous,” Ms. Xiao said. “So I tried out pole dancing. It’s a really social activity. I’ve met a lot of girls here who I’m now close friends with. And I like that it makes me feel sexy.”

A nightclub activity mostly considered the domain of strippers in the United States, pole dancing — but with clothes kept on — is nudging its way into the mainstream Chinese exercise market, with increasing numbers of gyms and dance schools offering classes.

The woman who claims to have brought pole dancing to China, Luo Lan, 39, is from Yichun, a small town in Jiangxi Province in southeastern China. Her parents teach physics at the university level.

“I’m not good at science like my parents. I’m the black sheep of my family, in that sense,” she said.

Ms. Luo said she struggled in 20 different occupations — secretary, saleswoman, restaurateur and translator among them — before deciding to take a break. She traveled to Paris in 2006 for vacation. It was there that she first saw pole dancing.

“I wandered into a pub, and there was a woman dancing on the stage,” she said. “I thought it was beautiful.”

Ms. Luo, who quickly discovered that pole dancing for fitness was popular in America, realized that if she could take away the shadier aspects of the erotic dance and repackage it into an activity more acceptable to mainstream Chinese women, she might create a Chinese fitness revolution. Here was an exercise that would allow women to stay fit and express their sexuality with an unprecedented degree of openness and freedom.

But she remained keenly aware of the challenges in a society where traditional values dictate that women be loyal, faithful and modestly dressed.

Upon her return to Beijing, Ms. Luo invested a little under $3,000 of her savings to start the Lolan Pole Dancing School. She placed advertisements in a lifestyle newspaper and called friends to get the word out.

Slowly, young women trickled in to take a look.

“People here have never seen a pole dance, and for that reason they don’t associate it with stripping or women of ill repute,” Ms. Luo said. “I knew if I could give people a positive first impression of this as a clean, fun, social activity, people wouldn’t just accept it, they’d embrace it.”

Before long, Ms. Luo was contacted by several magazines. In March 2008, Hunan Television, a nationally broadcast network, invited her and a group of her students to perform on a talk show.

“Most of the people in the audience had no idea what this was,” said Hu Jing, 24, an instructor at the Lolan School. “They just thought it was fun and clapped afterward.”

Since the broadcast, pole dancing for fitness has spread through China. The school now has five studios with plans to open six more this year. A rival pole dancing school, Hua Ling, opened half a year after the Lolan School.

Pole dancing’s move onto the fitness scene, however, has been a rocky one. Many Chinese, who disapprove of its sexual movements, consider it unruly and licentious.

“Five years ago, this wouldn’t have been permitted,” said Zhang Jian, 30, a manager in an interior design firm. “I think this is just a fad, and I don’t think it’s appropriate for women.”

Ms. Luo said she had received prank calls and plenty of criticism. “I’ve been contacted by many people who don’t like what we’re doing,” she said.

But those who embrace pole dancing for fitness are a snapshot of urban youths whose values are changing from those of their parents.

Although China has no state religion, study of Confucianism and Taoism, two conflicting philosophies that underlie much of modern Chinese thought, is mandatory in China’s education system. While Confucianism emphasizes achievement and propriety, Taoism stresses the unseen strengths in being humble and, in some cases, being perceived as average.

Although Jiang Li, 23, a pole dancing student, studied both philosophies in school, she said she could subscribe to neither.

“A lot of people expect Chinese women to be subdued and faithful, that we should marry and take care of kids at an early age,” she said. “But I don’t think that way — I want to be independent. I’ve been studying traditional Chinese dance for many years, but this is totally different. I feel in control when I do this. If I learn this well, I feel I can be a superstar. I want to be a superstar.”

Lucy Liang contributed research.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Florida A&M's Marching 100

July 23, 2008
Camp Leads a Drumbeat for a Marching Band’s Style

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — As his extended family gathered around the table for dinner last Christmas, Ben Brock received one final present. It was a scrapbook, each page adorned with photos of him as a child and handwritten notes from his relatives. Then, on the last sheet, the names of his mother, sister, uncles and aunts appeared, with a dollar figure next to each.

Those numbers reflected the money they had pledged to send Ben, 16, almost as far from his home in Seattle as it was possible to go within the continental United States. At the end of that journey lay the dream he had nurtured since watching the movie “Drum Line” in sixth grade: to become part of the Marching 100, the renowned band at Florida A&M University.

So on a gauzy gray morning seven months later Ben and his snare drum strode onto the dewy grass of the band’s practice field on the Tallahassee campus. He had been awakened at 5 a.m. and the day’s last rehearsal would not end until 10 p.m. His feet screamed. His shoulders ached. Gnats swarmed around his face, daring him to break rhythm and lose composure.

“Snap, precision, lock in with the tempo,” called out an instructor, very much in the manner of a Marine drill sergeant. “Now step it up, get some volume.”

But this, all this, is what Ben Brock had sought, he and 450 other high school students, drawn from throughout the United States and as far as Germany. They had enrolled in the summer band camp operated by the Marching 100. For the campers, these eight days offered a kind of initiation; for the band, they offered the chance to recruit future members and to spread its ecstatic performance style literally around the world.

In the nation’s historically black colleges, marching bands have long provided far more than “The Star-Spangled Banner” for football crowds, and none, arguably, has grown more famous than Florida A&M’s.

The group’s traditional and official name, the Marching 100, is a rare bit of false modesty: the group now numbers upward of 350 musicians, drum majors and flag-carriers. The unit has built a national, even global, following with appearances at the Super Bowl, both of President Bill Clinton’s inaugural parades, the Grammy Awards and the bicentennial of the French republic.

The only reason Florida A&M was not explicitly identified as the inspiration for “Drum Line” is that the script called for the Marching 100 to finish second in a battle of the bands, and, as the group’s director, Prof. Julian E. White, put it the other day, “We don’t lose.”

The Marching 100 has created a revolution in band style, radically infusing the traditional catalog of songs and formations with the sounds and dances of black popular culture. “It slides, slithers, swivels, rotates, shakes, rocks and rolls,” the band’s founding director, Prof. William P. Foster, wrote in his memoirs. “It leaps to the sky, does triple twists, and drops to earth without a flaw, without missing either a beat or a step.”

It also attracts plenty of acolytes. When Dr. White began the summer camp 18 years ago, he expected to attract mainly African-American students from the Southeast. Not only has the enrollment soared to 450 from an initial 90, the geographical and racial range has expanded. (Tuition is $475, with many students receiving scholarships.)

Three busloads of campers came this summer from Michigan alone. Dozens of Hispanic and white teenagers have flocked to the program, including the archetypal slacker this summer who wore a T-shirt explaining, “I’m Probably Late.”

“They come here, they ignore the gnats, they ignore the heat, because of the uniqueness of what we do and the pride we feel, the dedication,” Dr. White said. “And when they leave here, their parents say they sleep for a week.”

Ralph Jean-Paul remembers those sensations well. Now the band president and a tuba instructor for the summer program, he started out eight years ago as a camper.

“I felt I had come to an empire,” Mr. Jean-Paul recalled. “To see this magnitude of musicians, all working in one place, 30 tubas alone. That first day, I told myself, ‘This is where I want to be.’ ”

Technology has enhanced and challenged the summer camp. On the one hand, teenagers anywhere in the world can find clips of the Marching 100 on YouTube or visit its MySpace page.

“I saw people doing a dance routine with their drums that I thought was completely impossible,” Mr. Brock said of his online exploration. “I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to learn how to do that.’ ”

On the other hand, the rise of hip-hop and the computerized music programs like GarageBand has depleted the pool of young instrumentalists. In addition, many public schools have reduced or eliminated music classes to provide double periods of math and reading, which are tested annually under the education law No Child Left Behind.

The camp makes no concession to any of it. Within the program’s single week, every student is expected to learn a pregame and half-time show, and to perform with a symphonic, chamber or jazz ensemble. Veterans know to bring along insect repellent and ice packs.

“They’re serious down here,” said L’Dante Brown, a 14-year-old drummer from the Virgin Islands. “When they tell you to stand still and be quiet, you can hear the mosquitoes flying.”

And when they tell Mr. Brown and the rest to move and make noise, and all the French horns and piccolos and saxophones and trombones sashay into action, the syncopated sound echoes across the hilly campus.

“I know I’m not the best player,” said Dana Dixon, 16, a clarinetist from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “But I’ve learned notes. I’ve learned steps. I’m happy and I’m sore. I thought waking up at 5 o’clock would be terrible, but it’s nothing. It’s, like, let’s wake up and do it.”

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Study: Loud music makes customers drink faster

Loud music makes customers drink faster

Fri Jul 18, 8:30 PM ET

Customers of bars that play loud music drink more quickly and in fewer gulps, French researchers said on Friday.

Their study, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, found that turning up the music spurred drinkers to down a glass of beer about three minutes more quickly.

To gauge the effect of sound levels on drinking, the team spent three Saturday nights visiting two bars, where they observed 40 men aged between 18 and 25 drinking beer.

"We have shown that environmental music played in a bar is associated with an increase in drinking," Nicolas Gueguen, a behavioural sciences researcher at the University of Southern Brittany in France, who led the study, said in a statement.

With help from the bars' owners, the team turned the music up and down and then recorded how much and how fast people drank. The men did not know they were being observed.

Louder music spurred more consumption, with the average number of drinks ordered by patrons rising to 3.4 drinks from 2.6 drinks, Gueguen found. The time taken to drink a beer fell to an average 11.45 minutes from 14.51 minutes.

The researchers acknowledged some limitations to their study, for example that the experiment was on a small scale and could not be applied to every bar.

They said it was not clear why louder music appeared to increase alcohol consumption but said it might make conversation more difficult, forcing people to drink more and talk less.

(Reporting by Michael Kahn; Editing by Maggie Fox and Catherine Evans).

Court rules lesbians not just from Lesbos

Court rules lesbians not just from Lesbos
Island residents asked for a ban on use of 'lesbian' to describe gay women
updated 7:27 a.m. PT, Tues., July. 22, 2008

ATHENS - A Greek court has dismissed a request by residents of the Aegean island of Lesbos to ban the use of the word lesbian to describe gay women, according to a court ruling made public on Tuesday.

Three residents of Lesbos, the birthplace of the ancient Greek poetess Sappho whose love poems inspired the term lesbian, brought a case last month arguing the use of the term in reference to gay women insulted their identity.

In a July 18 decision, the Athens court said the word did not define the identity of the residents of the island, and so it could be validly used by gay groups in Greece and abroad.

The ruling ordered the plaintiffs to pay court expenses of $366.2.

"This is a good decision for lesbians everywhere," Vassilis Chirdaris, lawyer for the Gay and Lesbian Union of Greece, told Reuters. "A court in Athens could not stop people around the world from using it. It was ridiculous."

He said the plaintiffs were free to appeal the decision in a higher court.

Lesbos, which lies just off the Turkish Coast, has become a gathering spot for gay women from around the world, especially at the village of Eressos which is regarded as the birthplace of the poet in the 7th century B.C.

Several residents testified during the trial that the use of the word lesbian had brought recognition to the island and boosted its tourist trade.

Rock drummers 'are top athletes'

Rock drummers 'are top athletes'

"It is clear that their fitness levels need to be outstanding"
Dr Marcus Smith
Chichester University

Playing the drums for a rock band requires the stamina of a Premiership footballer, research suggests.

Tests on Clem Burke, the veteran Blondie drummer, revealed that 90 minutes of drumming could raise his heart rate to 190 beats a minute.

Despite rock's reputation for unhealthy living, Dr Marcus Smith, from Chichester University, said drummers needed "extraordinary stamina".

A hour in concert could burn between 400 and 600 calories, he said.

Clem Burke, who provided the beat for hits such as "Heart of Glass", "Atomic" and "Call Me" was invited to take part in the eight-year project by Blondie fan Dr Smith.

It is hoped that the results could help develop outreach programmes for overweight children who are not interested in sport.

Burke was connected to equipment to measure his heart rate and oxygen uptake, and the levels of lactic acid in his blood.

He found that during a performance, his heart averaged between 140 and 150 beats a minute, peaking at 190, levels comparable to other top athletes.

However, Dr Smith said that while top footballers were expected to perform once or twice a week, drummers on tour would be doing it every night at a different venue.

Please turn on JavaScript. Media requires JavaScript to play.

Drummers burn 4-600 calories per hour

He said: "Footballers can normally expect to play 40 to 50 games a year - but in one 12 month period, Clem played 90-minute sets at 100 concerts.

"Footballer find playing a Champions League game once every two weeks a drain, but these guys are doing it every day when they are on tour.

"It is clear that their fitness levels need to be outstanding - through monitoring Clem's performance in controlled conditions, we have been able to map the extraordinary stamina required by professional drummers."

The project was conducted jointly by the University of Gloucestershire and the University of Chichester.

A dedicated "drumming laboratory" is now being built at the Gloucester campus and it is hoped that other professional drummers will be tested.

Dr Steve Draper, from Gloucestershire University, said: "This is the first facility of its kind in the world."

Professor Edward Winter, a specialist in the physiology of exercise at Sheffield University, said that the challenge of playing the drums should not be underestimated.

He said that at 190 beats per minute Clem Burke was probably exceeding the maximum heart rate predicted for a man of his age.

"Rock drumming in particular is very energetic, and to add to this, these guys are playing in a hot environment - you'll see them literally dripping with sweat."

Monday, July 21, 2008

$100,000 a beat

The AP had a story on hip-hop/pop producer Scott Storch (34), who has apparently blown through his millions and fallen into a bit of a slump. This little detail caught my eye:

"In 2004, everyone wanted the Storch sound, and he reportedly commanded $100,000 per beat. An extensive Rolling Stone profile called him "hip-hop's Liberace" and said he had earned $70 million."

$100,000 a beat?! Yikes!

You can read the whole story here.

Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, REsistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (book review)

From the NYT
July 20, 2008
Rock the Casbah
Skip to next paragraph


Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam.

By Mark LeVine.

Illustrated. 296 pp. Three Rivers Press. Paper, $13.95.

This professor of Middle Eastern history walks into a bar in Fez, Morocco — right from the get-go, Mark LeVine’s “Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam” is not your typical dry academic slog. (Did I mention he’s also a longhaired Jewish rock guitarist whose bio lists gigs with Mick Jagger and Dr. John?) So when somebody in that hotel bar starts talking up the local punk and metal scenes, an incredulous LeVine is hooked. “There are Muslim punks? In Morocco?” Quicker than you can whistle “Rock the Casbah,” he’s on the trail of Western-influenced underground music movements that have blossomed under authoritarian regimes across the Middle East and North Africa.

Going to meet the seven-string guitarist Marz of Hate Suffocation, a Cairo band, LeVine confesses sheepishly, “I still couldn’t tell the difference between death, doom, black, melodic, symphonic, grind-core, hard-core, thrash and half a dozen other styles.” (Marz explains that his group plays a cross between death and black metal: “But it’s not blackened death metal!”) Despite a certain amount of scholarly dogma that goes with the territory — here any combination of “neoliberal” and “globalization” is as ominous an epithet as Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” — “Heavy Metal Islam” offers the hit-and-run (as well as hit-and-miss) pleasures of a lively road trip. Practicing a first-person brand of shuttle diplomacy as he moves between countries and cultures, musicians and Islamic activists, LeVine manages to unpack enough cross-cultural incongruities to mount his own mosh pit follow-up to “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan.”

An ex-Mossad hairdresser is scarcely more anomalous than disheveled Moroccan riot grrrls, virtuoso Egyptian metalheads, Lebanese “muhajababes” (young women wearing full head scarves, army fatigues, tight black T-shirts and Hezbollah wristbands), Tupac-influenced Palestinian M.C.’s, “the Israeli Oriental death-doom metal band Orphaned Land” (complete with a devoted Arab following) and rapt Iranian Iron Maiden acolytes. A participatory, hands-on guy, LeVine not only meets and eats with Muslim headbangers, he jams with them in apartments, studios and outdoor festivals, taking in the food and the noise and the people as if it were all a movable metal feast.

Eagerly seizing on the stereotype-busting possibilities of “an 18-year-old from Casablanca with spiked hair, or a 20-year-old from Dubai wearing goth makeup,” LeVine would like us to see them as the faces of an emerging Muslim world, potentially a much less monochromatic place than the one represented on TV by the usual “Death to America” brigades. “Heavy Metal Islam” turns the notion of irreconcilable differences between Islam and the West on its head, appealing to the universality of youth culture as “a model for communication and cooperation” in the Internet age. LeVine reckons the likes of Metallica and Slayer provide a brute lingua franca that knows no borders, opening up breathing room in cloistered societies, gradually undermining rigid belief systems — a benign, bottom-up brand of globalization as opposed to the ruthless corporate or state-sponsored kind.

It’s that old-time Lennon/Bono rock idealism reimagined for a post-Cannibal Corpse world, and that’s winning on a case-by-case basis. In lands where playing “satanic” music or even attending semi-clandestine concerts can get you thrown in jail (actually charged with things like “shaking the foundations of Islam”), there’s something truly heartening about the Moroccan thrash girls Mystik Moods striving to break through centuries-old sexist taboos, or Hate Suffocation trying to carve out a niche to play music and “be left alone by both the government and society.” In theocratic Iran, when Arthimoth’s leader wears a T-shirt reading “Your God Is Dead,” he’s risking a fate much worse than being suspended from school or getting dirty looks at the mall.

“Heavy Metal Islam” gets trapped by its good intentions whenever it attempts to shoehorn the headbangers’ intransigence into preconceived political slots. Metal music, however you parse it, is dystopian in the extreme: hyper-aggressively embracing the death instinct, regimented chaos, deliriously fetishized morbidity. Call it cathartic, sure, even a way of keeping sane in an insane world (as one performer here says, “We play heavy metal because our lives are heavy metal”), but don’t confuse it with “If I Had a Hammer.” Unless it’s a hammer of the nihilist gods aimed at your forehead — not to hammer out justice or a warning or “the common struggle for democracy and economic equality,” but to crack your skull open, scrape out your pulverized brains and feed them to the wolverines.

Even though these antisocial bands want no part of hard-liners like the mystical Justice and Spirituality Association in Morocco or the spooky Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (and the disdain is often mutual), LeVine thinks if they could all put aside their petty differences and work together, they could start a domino effect in the Middle East like the one that toppled the Eastern bloc. (He’s like the straight arrow in comic books who’d invariably look around at the scene of Armageddon and say with a sigh, “If only we could have harnessed their mutant energy for goodness.”) The punch line of LeVine’s informative, valuable and moderately mad book is twofold: this conscientious anti-imperialist has written a swell tract in favor of large-scale cultural imperialism — a Marshall Amps Plan — and his program is undoubtedly the first to enlist death metal as the spearhead of a new Peace Corps(e).

Howard Hampton is the author of “Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses.”

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Neil Young, Where Politics and Technology Meet

New York Times
July 19, 2008
Neil Young, Where Politics and Technology Meet

When Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young booked a concert tour for the summer of 2006, it was supposed to be an easygoing, no-surprises reunion ticket for the Chardonnay set.

But Neil Young being Neil Young, it ended up a much more confrontational affair. Prodded by Mr. Young, the band reshaped the program around his album “Living With War,” a grungy jeremiad written, recorded and released in a few weeks that spring.

“I played them the record and said, ‘This is all I want to do,’ ” he recalled in an interview this week.

As recorded in Mr. Young’s new documentary of the tour, “CSNY: Déjà Vu,” which opens July 25 in New York, Los Angeles and 17 other cities, his band mates took to the antiwar theme eagerly. (In one scene, David Crosby calls the band “a benevolent dictatorship” and adds, “Neil is in charge.”) But the audiences were not exactly unanimous in agreement. In Atlanta, the first verse of Mr. Young’s “Let’s Impeach the President” brought boos, middle fingers and worse.

“The ‘Living With War’ album got such a varied reaction,” Mr. Young said. “Extreme negative and personal attacks, all kinds of things I had never had before from any kind of record. But that’s what made it so interesting, and such a great subject for a film. We didn’t know what was going happen, but we knew something was going to happen.”

To establish a journalistic tone for the film, Mr. Young hired Mike Cerre, a former ABC war correspondent in Iraq and Afghanistan, to be “embedded” on the tour, interviewing fans and capturing the mood of the shows.

“I called my wife and cameraman and told them I was going to be embedded in a rock tour,” Mr. Cerre said in a telephone interview. “They thought I said Iraq. There was a long silence at the other end of the phone.”

Mr. Cerre said he was given complete freedom to produce 12 newsy segments. Larry Johnson, the film’s producer, said most of them were used, and with only minor editing for length. Mr. Cerre found some support among concertgoers for the band’s politics, but what stands out are unflattering shots of the aging group onstage — like Stephen Stills, then 61, struggling to get up after a fall during “Rockin’ in the Free World” — and complaints from fans, not always civil, who disapproved of the political message.

When asked why he included such harsh reactions and images, Mr. Young said simply: “Because it was harsh. It’s content. This is a documentary.”

Mr. Young’s career as a musical provocateur is well known, but his interests as a multimedia mogul aren’t. “CSNY: Déjà Vu,” made under his pseudonym, Bernard Shakey, is the fifth release in his sporadic career as a director, following the surrealistic comedy “Human Highway” (1982) and “Greendale,” based on his concept album of the same title from 2003.

He also has a company developing high-quality audio downloads and a project to convert a 1959 Lincoln Continental Mark IV — all 2 1/2 tons and 19 1/2 feet of it — to ultra-efficient electric power, with the help of an international network of scientists and businessmen. Even more ambitious is his archives project, using technology for Blu-ray discs (the prevailing high-definition format of DVD) that he developed with Sun Microsystems. The first of five volumes, a 10-disc package covering 1963 to 1972, is scheduled for release in October.

At 62, Mr. Young still wants to change the world, and he seems to embrace the contradictions of his persona. Staying at the swank Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, he was interviewed with two signed Picasso prints over his shoulder, but his plain shirt and rumpled khaki pants were spattered with paint. Giving a photographer less than 60 seconds to shoot his portrait, he seemed very much the impatient superstar, but in an hourlong interview he was casual and energetically talkative.

He said he has no great box office expectations for “CSNY: Déjà Vu,” which might be wise, given the poor ticket sales of recent war documentaries. This year’s Oscar winner, “Taxi to the Dark Side,” from Alex Gibney, has brought in about $275,000.

“My films are pretty wacky,” he said. “They definitely don’t have much of a commercial appeal. This is probably the most serious film I’ve ever made. It’s more like journalism.”

In conversation Mr. Young went back and forth between politics and technology, and in discussing his Lincoln Continental project — called “Linc-Volt” — he linked the two. Its goal, he said, is to eliminate the need for oil and therefore the cause for war. “Why are we having a war?” he said. “It’s all about energy. Trying to get rid of the reason for the war, that’s something that’s doable.”

His archive project is not political but is challenging nonetheless. Conceived more than a decade ago but stalled for technological reasons, it uses the high-quality multimedia capabilities of Blu-ray to display music, video and other digital documentation through a file-cabinet structure — pull out the cabinet with a click and choose the rarity. A demonstration revealed some astonishing footage, like two moments from the 1971 sessions for the album “Harvest” and a spontaneous performance at a Greenwich Village folk club in 1970.

Like the archives, “CSNY: Déjà Vu” involves no small amount of nostalgia. The first words in the film are, “In the 1960s the Vietnam War was raging,” and the antiwar activism of the Vietnam era is frequently invoked, both as bona fides for the band’s history of political protest and as a foil for the more conservative climate that the four men encounter nearly 40 years after their first performances together.

But Mr. Young rejected a suggestion that the film might be more about Vietnam than about Iraq.

“It’s about war; it’s not about either one of them,” he said. “In our sound-bite society, ‘Let’s Impeach the President’ and the political side of it seems to be the side that the press focused on the most. But that’s an offshoot of the real story, which is the tragedy of war, and the families, and how it affects people.”

Thursday, July 17, 2008

UK Massive Attack Interview

From the The Guardian (UK)
'It's always a terrible and crucial time with us ... that's Massive Attack'

The Bristol band's sound has helped define British pop for 20 years. Now, they are curating the South Bank's influential Meltdown festival. In an exclusive interview, Miranda Sawyer talks politics, camper vans, and their upcoming album
Miranda Sawyer
Sunday May 11, 2008

Grant and D of Massive Attack always look down in photographs - literally and in mood. It's rare to see a snap of them doing anything but giving it glum. This suits their music, which is intense, rhythm-driven, atmospheric, modern - but it's a shame, because they're upbeat company, even while they're having their picture taken, a process musicians traditionally enjoy as much as high tea with the taxman.

'Have you tried one of these?' grins D, short for 3D, or Delge, real name Robert Del Naja. 'Frozen Jaffa Cakes. Just the normal ones, but you put them in the freezer, they're unbelievable. They taste completely different! The orange really snaps.' He passes them around the company. I can report that frozen Jaffa Cakes are... freezing. Meanwhile, Grant (surname Marshall, aka Daddy G: keep up), is discussing the merits of VW camper vans with Harry the photographer. 'I'm getting a new one,' he announces. 'You can get 'em made, brand new, in Mexico. An authentic Sixties camper van but new, with a Passat engine.'

We are upstairs in Massive Attack's two-storey studio in Bristol. Outside is Grant's current camper: battered, unpretty, furnished with camouflage cushions. Inside the studio, on the ground floor, are the switch banks, dimmed lights, scrawled notes, furry walls of a working studio. Upstairs, the hang-out area is dominated by a twisting installation of silver air-conditioning pipes. 'I'm going to put a Cyberman in the middle of them, just popping his head out,' informs D.

In the corner rest several vast canvases: a couple of D's pieces and one instantly recognisable as the work of Jamie Hewlett of Gorillaz fame. These, and the camper van, hint at the reasons behind Massive Attack's most recent pause between LPs. The band's last release, 100th Window, was in 2003. Since then, D has been doing his painting and working on film scores (four in the last year), plus contemplating the slow process of having his house done up. 'I took the roof off and replaced it with glass - that took a while.' Grant, meanwhile, is ensconced in family life. He and his partner, Sylvia, have three children, aged six, three and one and a half. 'So with work, I'm on a three-day week,' he says.

By their reckoning, he and D have been properly grafting on their fifth, as-yet-untitled album, for 'only' the past two years. It's due out in September. 'But you never know with us,' says D. 'It might be next year.' What point are you at with it? I ask. Are you at a terrible and crucial time? 'It's always a terrible and crucial time with us,' laughs Grant. 'That's Massive Attack.'

Massive Attack have never operated like a 'normal' pop group. No drums-bass-guitar-singer structure, no attention-grabbing frontman, no sense of release schedule urgency. 'We tend to get distracted,' admits Grant. The band have always been a hazy, collaborative collective, with members coming and going as they pleased and vital contributions arriving from guest vocalists, such as Shara Nelson, Tracey Thorn, Elizabeth Fraser, Horace Andy (Andy, Damon Albarn, Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval and Tunde Adebimpe from TV on the Radio all feature on the upcoming album). This may sound hippie; over the years, it has proved both pragmatic and fraught. There have been as many falling-outs as joining-ins.

Massive Attack grew, in the late Eighties, out of the Wild Bunch, a Bristolian hip hop sound system that also included Nellee Hooper. In the beginning, there were four permanent band members: D, Grant, Mushroom and Tricky. Tricky left to forge his own career and, for a long time, there were three. Then, 10 years ago, after the release of third LP, Mezzanine, Mushroom left, unhappy with the direction the music was taking (too dark, not hip hop enough) and unhappy, full-stop: none of the three was on good terms by then.

Finally, during the making of 100th Window, Grant left too. Though not officially; the release coincided with the birth of his first child and he and D were sick of each other. They didn't speak for three years.

Not that you'd know it today. The pair are relaxed, with each other and with me. As ever, D does most of the talking, his Bristol burr rapid-fire, his mind churning. Grant is less excitable, his accent just as strong; he tends to let D speak first and then chime in. They make each other laugh, you notice. At the moment, they're chatting about the local beach resort of Weston-super-Mare. D visited the other day: 'In the shops, they were selling golliwogs! Rows of them. Furry ones, metal ones, plastic ones...'

'Ah, negrophilia,' says Grant. 'I actually collect a bit of that. You should try reading Enid Blyton. The new ones are edited, but I got some second-hand ones and it's all golliwogs and bulging eyes.' They both crack up.

But we're not here to talk about racist stereotyping for kids, Massive Attack are this year's curators for the Southbank's Meltdown festival and they've come up with a brilliant selection of artists: Grace Jones, George Clinton, Stiff Little Fingers, Elbow, Gong, Tunng, Gang of Four, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Terry Callier, the Shortwave Set, Horace Andy, plus newer acts like Fleet Foxes, George Pringle and Aloe Blacc.

The artists they've chosen illustrate their musical obsessions: hip hop, punk, funk, reggae, new wave, electronica - sounds that weave throughout Massive's dark musical universe. 'The idea was to try to encapsulate what we always did as a sound system,' says D, 'but put it on as an event.' Characteristically, D and Grant were a bit disappointed that Meltdown doesn't work like an outdoor festival; they thought that the musicians would be able to wander between venues and mix things up. Still, they're very excited: all that music, all that partying. 'Eleven days,' says Grant. 'We'll be meeting and greeting everyone playing, making sure all their needs are taken care of. Drink, drugs...'

'To be honest, the worry is sustaining,' says D. 'We're playing on the first night and then we've got to last through the next 10.' They're performing on the last night, too, and, during the festival, doing a live mix of the Blade Runner soundtrack as it's being played by the Heritage Orchestra.

Massive Attack have always had a strong visual sense (another possible reason why they don't smile in photos); plus, over the years, an increasingly dominant political bent. So there are films and outside events on top of the gigs. A selection of graffiti/ cartoon artists, such as Hewlett, Banksy (who's from Bristol, too, and a friend) and up-and-coming painter Insekt, is due to create works for an exhibition and there are some interesting movies scheduled, such as Shane Meadows's new one, Somers Town and Alex Gibney's Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, about the death of an Afghan taxi driver while in the custody of US troops. Taxi to the Dark Side will be followed by a discussion with Moazzam Begg, a former detainee at Guantánamo Bay who stars in the film, and Clive Stafford Smith, legal director and founder of Reprieve, which works against the death penalty but is increasingly acts against human-rights violations.Stafford Smith has issued more than 100 writs against the US government on behalf of Guantánamo Bay inmates.

Massive Attack have been involved with Reprieve for a few years; it is, says D, almost a relief to be helping a charity that focuses so intensely on individual situations, after the band's anti-Iraq war efforts (D was heavily involved in CND's protest campaign). 'I wasn't naive enough to believe that the war would be stopped, we all knew it was a foregone conclusion,' he says. 'But I thought en masse protesting would create an impression that would be indelible, so the next government would have to think twice - which didn't happen. With Reprieve, it's a more containable objective; you're helping individual people, and you can imagine being in their situation. It's human, it's real, you can engage with it.'

D and Grant are wary of publicly talking politics - they know how pompous pop musicians can sound when they do - but once they get going, they find it hard to hold back. They treat me to an entertaining dissection of local government. Sadly, it's nearly all libellous, so I can't repeat it. Some of the printable stuff includes their question as to why Bristol's new buildings all look like 'big Barratt homes' and why the city still doesn't have a music arena for bands to play. After all, Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky created for Bristol a modern musical reputation to rival Manchester's and Liverpool's - so why no great venue? 'It's pathetic,' grumbles Grant.

They also get stuck into the US elections (they're both Obama supporters). Grant is convinced that Hillary will get the nomination - 'There's no way the people with real power will let a black man run for President' - and that McCain will win: 'The Democratic race is a side-show.' D, naturally more optimistic, is hopeful that Obama will win through.

All very interesting, but talk soon moves on to more domestic affairs: to flowers (D has got into gardening), camping, houses and cars (D is learning to drive and has bought a Prius - he's also had solar panels installed, after inquiring about a wind turbine and learning that the resulting energy would be fed back into the National Grid and he would just get a discounted bill). 'That's not the point, is it?' he trumpets. 'I want my own little system, outside the system.' His house is outside Bristol; Grant's is in the city, in Montpelier. 'He's got a great garden,' informs D. 'An urban oasis.' 'With a load of crack addicts outside,' says Grant.

As they talk, it becomes clear that they don't usually chat about such everyday matters; there's a feeling of catching up. Grant is surprised that D's girlfriend had moved in, for instance. Like many musicians, they only discuss music when they're working, plus, they each tend to tinker on different tracks anyway. In the end, this distance is why Massive Attack have endured. It's clear they have loads in common, but so have most bands when they start. The process of being in pop music strains those bonds and very few bands last. Massive Attack have survived over 20 years because, like a good marriage, each partner has outside interests and they give each other space without actually walking away. And, like a good marriage, they only argue when they really, really have to.

It's decided that we'll go out to get some lunch and do some more photos. 'Let's go and get a pint,' says D. The Massive Attack work ethic strikes again. How they ever get anything done is beyond me.

· Meltdown is at the Southbank Centre from Friday 13 June to Sunday 22 June. Information at The Observer is media partner

Trip hop pioneers: Back in the groove

Early years Founders Robert Del Naja (3D), Grant Marshall (Daddy G) and Andrew Vowles (Mushroom) mixed down tempo beats and soulful vocals as the pioneers of trip hop in 1988.

Riding High Blue Lines (1991), the debut album, acclaimed as groundbreaking. Protection (1994) also well received.

Fall-outs and fallow years Mezzanine (1998) and 100th Window (2003) were less popular. Disagreements led to Mushroom leaving in 1998 and Daddy G in 2000.

Back on track After not speaking for three years, 3D and Daddy G have recorded a fifth album and will curate the Meltdown Festival next month.

Katie Toms

Interview with Portishead's Adrian Utley interviewed Portishead's Adrian Utley in his home studio.

Part 1 here
Part 2 here
Part 3 here

Hat tip to the most excellent Music Thing.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Jets? Yes! Sharks? ¡Sí! In Bilingual ‘West Side Story’

In the New York Times
July 17, 2008
Jets? Yes! Sharks? ¡Sí! In Bilingual ‘West Side’

More than 50 years after the musical “West Side Story” had its original Broadway premiere, it is set to return in February in a darker, grittier, bilingual revival, the show’s producers said on Wednesday.

In an element that its director, Arthur Laurents, said would heighten the passion and authenticity of the show, much of the dialogue — both spoken and sung — will be in Spanish.

“They will speak Spanish where they would naturally,” Mr. Laurents said in a telephone interview from his home in Quogue, N.Y., adding that supertitles would be used to aid the audience. “The scenes with the Spanish are wildly exciting because they are much less inhibited. I don’t think many eyes are going to stray to the translation.”

Mr. Laurents, the author of the book for “West Side Story” and the director of the current Broadway revival of “Gypsy,” whose book he also wrote, has vowed to make this revival a more realistic version of the original, a teenage-gang-romance musical modeled after “Romeo and Juliet” and set on the West Side of Manhattan in the 1950s. With music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, it was first staged on Broadway, to great critical success, in 1957. Writing in The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson called it “a profoundly moving show that is as ugly as the city jungles and also pathetic, tender and forgiving.”

After playing for 732 performances, “West Side Story” was turned into a film starring Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer in 1961, and later revived in 1964 and 1980.

Mr. Laurents still rankles at the mention of the 1980 revival, which he called bland, and the film version, about which he said: “Bogus accents, bogus dialect, bogus costumes. I think it’s also terribly acted.”

Earlier interpretations left the teenage characters appearing too innocent, Mr. Laurents said. “You don’t treat these kids as little darlings, but as what they are,” he said. “They’re all killers, Jets and Sharks. And the piece is really about how love is destroyed by a world of violence and bigotry.”

The idea for a 21st-century revival first came up nearly five years ago, said Kevin McCollum, a producer along with Jeffrey Seller and James L. Nederlander, but after several discussions, it was set aside. “It just wasn’t the right timing,” he said.

Then two years ago Mr. Laurents called. “He got me to the apartment and said, ‘I’ve got it,’ ” Mr. McCollum said. “He really wanted to play with the idea of authenticating the language, and that got us really excited.” (Mr. McCollum and Mr. Seller also produced “In the Heights,” a musical set in Washington Heights and peppered with Spanish phrases.)

Mr. Laurents, who turned 91 on Monday, traced the origin of the new revival to his companion of 52 years, Tom Hatcher, who died in 2006.

Mr. Hatcher was a fluent Spanish speaker, and on a visit to Bogotá, Colombia, saw a staging of “West Side Story” in Spanish.

In that version, Mr. Hatcher reported back to Mr. Laurents, the language had transformed the show: the Sharks were the heroes and the Jets were the villains.

That sparked the idea of incorporating Spanish into a modern revival. “I thought it would be terrific if we could equalize the two gangs somehow,” Mr. Laurents said. “But I had a lot of trouble because I was depending on Tom, who is fluent. And then he died.”

Not long afterward, two of Mr. Laurents’s friends in Buenos Aires told him that they had a “West Side Story” script entirely in Spanish, on which Mr. Hatcher had made handwritten notations. “It was like he was telling me, ‘You must do it,’ ” Mr. Laurents said.

So with the help of a translator, Mr. Laurents began adding Spanish to the original script.

The result is what he calls “bilingual sexual spats” between the characters Anita and Bernardo, and some of the Stephen Sondheim lyrics translated into Spanish. Other elements, like the original choreography by Jerome Robbins, remain unchanged.

Casting for the show has begun and should be completed by mid-September, Mr. McCollum said. The show will play for a four-week engagement at the National Theater in Washington beginning in December.

Mr. Laurents said he intended to cast Hispanic actors in the roles of the Puerto Rican Sharks and particularly the lead role of Maria.

“I’m not about to go slap some dark makeup on her,” Mr. Laurents said. “I think it’s important to have a Latina in the role for a very simple reason — I think they know what it feels like to be an outsider. If they’ve got Puerto Rican blood, they know what prejudice is. If they’ve got any kind of Hispanic blood, they know what prejudice is.”

Monday, July 14, 2008

Afropop Worldwide: Cuban Abakuá

From Afropop Worldwide, which includes photographs, sounds, and links.
Ivor Miller 2007

Place and Date: Brooklyn, New York
Interviewer: Ned Sublette


Ned Sublette: I’m talking to Dr. Ivor Miller, Research Fellow in the African Studies Center of Boston University and author of the forthcoming Voice of the Leopard, from University Press of Mississippi in the Fall of 2008. What does Voice of the Leopard mean?

Ivor Miller: The voice of the leopard is the main symbol of the Ekpe society of the Cross River region of Nigeria and Cameroon, which was re-created in colonial Cuba as the Abakuá society. And it’s a symbol in both. Essentially the leopard is a sign of royalty all over Central West Africa and the Calabar zone, and it’s a symbol of their political autonomy. Every village in the Cross River region that has Ekpe has their own way to manifest the voice, which means, “we are independent.”

NS: In Cuba the Abakuá occupies a unique position in the history of the society. Can you give us a sort of thumbnail of what Abakuá has meant in Cuba?

IM: Abakuá is at the foundation of Cuban society. It was founded around the 1830s in Havana by African Ekpe members who had been enslaved and brought over. They reorganized themselves in the cabildos and they would not allow their offspring born in Cuba to join, because of the well-known tensions between the so-called old world and new world people. So eventually they decided to establish a lodge of their offspring, the black Creoles, and they called it Efik Butón, after a settlement in Calabar. To do that they had to create a fundamento [consecrated object], which represented the autonomy of that lodge.

NS: When you say they created a lodge, that’s a word that we associate maybe with the Masons or the Odd Fellows.

IM: The great Cuban scholar Don Fernando Ortiz used to refer to Abakuá as “African masonry,” because there are similarities in the fact that it’s a graded system – there are titles – and they are an independent group of mutual aid. The function of Abakuá was to buy people out of slavery, so Abakuá is known as a force of liberation in Cuban history. And in the wars of [Cuban] independence, representatives of Abakuá lodges interacted with Freemasons – people like Antonio Maceo, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, all the leaders of the Mambí independence army, were Masons – so they’re parallel systems.

NS: What about the aspect of secrecy? The Abakuá is a secret society of men…

IM: Yes. Abakuá is exclusively for men, and there’s a lot of reasons for that we could talk about. But another way of saying a secret society is to say an initiation society. Once one is initiated, one takes oaths about maintaining discretion about what one learns. What they call the esoteric knowledge, the insider’s information, are the secrets. There are secret societies all over the world. The Vatican is a secret society. Whatever happens at the top layers of the U.S. government, those are secrets too. Essentially these secret societies or initiation schools are really schools of learning, and in order to begin to learn, you’ve got to take an oath.

NS: Now these hermetic societies also existed in the Cross River Delta of Africa. How did they function there?

IM: In the Cross River region, Ekpe is the indigenous government. As an example, in order to found a settlement – okay, we want to take my family and move to a new place? We’ve picked a piece of land. The first thing we do is create the Ekpe lodge, and then we create the settlement, because that is the symbol that we are an independent settlement. You can’t come here and do anything you want, you’ve got to deal with Ekpe. It’s the indigenous system. The legal system, the judiciary, the executive branches, are all Ekpe.

NS: In place of a strong centralized government, there were Ekpe lodges throughout the region.

IM: That’s exactly it. Whereas the Yoruba have a centralized system, Ekpe was how a series of autonomous villages could trade and interact in meaningful ways. If one was an Ekpe member in the Cross River region, one could travel anywhere and be safe. Because wherever there was a lodge, you were protected.

NS: So there were offshoots of this system that were transported to Cuba. But unlike the Yoruba system – or santería, or Ifá, or Ocha, or Lucumí, whatever you want to call it – which has gone all over the world now, Abakuá has remained only in Havana and Matanzas province, not even in Oriente in Cuba. Only in these two parts of Cuba and only there in the entire New World. Why is that?

IM: Because the Abakuá have retained what they were given by the Africans with a remarkable orthodoxy. In order to establish a lodge, one has to get the permission of all the elders. There has to be a collective consensus. And that’s part of what makes Abakuá so important. They want to control the morality of their citizens, as it were, of their initiates. And if it starts spreading anywhere, it will be transformed and perhaps used for other means.

NS: So it has been a decision of the elders in Cuba that this not spread.

IM: Exactly.

NS: How did you get involved with studying this, and what is your status vis-à-vis this practice?

IM: I first went to Cuba in 1991 as a student of the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional to study dance -- I danced professionally in New York -- and really became interested in Cuba from being in New York and going to toques [Yoruba ceremonies] with Puntilla [Orlando “Puntilla” Ríos]. While there [in Havana] studying the Lucumí [Yoruba] system, in my andanzas [wanderings] in the city, I was introduced to a gentleman [7] who was in his 90s. His grandfather had come over from Calabar. He wanted to tell me the story of this, and he was an incredible storyteller. Andrés Flores was his name. And all the members of his family were members [of Abakuá]. He was not. That gave him certain liberty to tell me the story.

NS: Because an initiate can’t tell the stories.

IM: Or one would run the risk of being castigated.

NS: Well, they’re quite serious about their secrecy within this practice. Can you explain about how the militancy with which this secrecy is maintained?

IM: You have to understand the context within which Abakuá was founded and created: the extreme oppressive society of colonial Havana. Anyone who reads the history knows that the Year of the Lash, 1844, was an extreme repression. Abakuá, in order to survive, have maintained discretion in order to not announce their presence.

NS: So there are things you can talk about and things you can’t talk about.

IM: And in much of the Cuban popular music we’re going to listen to [in the Hip Deep episode in which portions of this interview appear], there is Abakuá language. It can be spoken, because people don’t understand what they’re saying. So in “Ritmo Abakuá” of the Muñequitos de Matanzas, they’re essentially greeting the first lodge in Cuba, Efik Ebutón, they’re greeting it as a way of saying, “we thank God for the birth of Abakuá. We’re members from Matanzas, and we greet Havana.” And this is all in Abakuá language.

NS: And this is recorded in 1956.

IM: It’s the first Abakuá recording from Matanzas, as far as I know.

NS: So if you’re not an initiate, there are sounds you’re allowed to hear, and sounds you’re not allowed to hear. I recorded the Muñequitos de Matanzas, as you know, playing a number called “Abakuá Makánica,” in which they play traditional Abakuá drums. And that’s allowed. But in their ceremonies, there’s a drum you can see that does not make sound.

IM: Exactly. There’s a drum that is called the eribó – the sese eribó, which is a silent drum, it’s symbolic. It represents the mother of Abakuá. This refers to the foundational myth of how Abakuá was perfected, in a place called Usagaré, now known as Isangele in southwestern Cameroon. The story is that a princess went to the river to get some water. She put her ceramic jar in the water, and inadvertently, a fish entered it, and the fish made a roaring sound. She put the jar on her head and she became in effect the first initiate. This is a story to talk about divine creation. She’s the universal mother, and when men are initiated they’re effectively reborn, so as in any other religion, initation in Abakuá is a rebirth, symbolically.

NS: And this story is what Benny Moré is referring to when he sings “En el tiempo de colonia / tiempo de senseribó.” [“In colonial times, times of the senseribó”]

IM: A classic! That’s a classic. Yes, so this is the drum that’s symbolic and it doesn’t make a sound. And why? What is the message there? This is Ekpe philosophy. If you know esoteric secrets, you don’t talk about them. That’s the message in the silent drum.

NS: Now what about the sound? The voice of the leopard is a sound. What is that sound?
IM: In Ekpe they describe it as a mystic sound that emits from the butame, the temple, and only the high levels of society’s leaders know what makes that sound. It’s not known by others. But the sound is the symbol that Ekpe’s in session, and those who are not members should move away, should stay clear.

NS: Do you consider Abakuá a religion? Do you consider it a society? Do you…

IM: Well, Abakuá describe it as a religion. But that’s a very interesting question, because it’s an exclusive thing that not everybody can join. So it’s really a club of prestige that has a very deep spiritual base.

NS: And this is based on a sound.

IM: Mm-hmm…

NS: But it’s a secret sound. It’s a sound that we can’t play on the radio.

IM: Exactly.

NS: Why can’t we play it on the radio?

IM: [pauses] Well, because that might be seen as disrespectful by the leadership. They don’t take this lightly at all. And as a matter of fact, on none of the recordings that I know from either West Africa or Cuba is that sound reproduced.

NS: That sound is never heard outside the sacred region.

IM: Exactly.

NS: And you can’t really talk about it.

IM: Exactly. But the point is that it’s not the vehicle that makes the sound that’s important. It’s the sound that is adored, that is worshipped, that is seen as the voice of God. It’s connecting humans with the divine.

NS: And at the same time, the sound has been evoked frequently in popular music by Abakuá members. It’s not the same sound, but it’s evoked.

IM: Exactly. As you well know, some of the same recordings by Sexteto Habanero in the 20s, there’s a track called “Criolla Carabalí”, we’ll hear some of the bongó drum, the glissade-making.

NS: When the bongosero moistens his finger and slides it across the drumhead, making a friction sound.

IM: It’s a reference.

NS: There are friction drums all over Africa, that make various sounds. One place the sound is referenced, and it’s a unique recording -- could you talk about the importance of Arsenio [Rodríguez]’s recording of Abakuá music?

IM: Well, one of the incredible things about the story of Abakuá is that like other African-derived traditions it’s expressed most fully through artistic means – through popular music, through dance, through theater. The commercial recordings made by Abakuá people and people who love Abakuá, whether they’re members -- or not, like Arsenio – these commercial recordings are important to understand the history of Abakuá. And New York has played a fundamental role in this story. Many Cubans have come to New York throughout history. Ignacio Piñeiro was one. Chano Pozo was another. And Arsenio in New York in 1963 recorded “Canto Abakuá,” a fantastic tune. In it he’s evoking Abakuá, and he’s speaking about the relationship of the Congo, of which [religion] he’s a member, and the Carabalí, which is the base of Abakuá. And it’s a very important track for bringing up the relationship between Congo and Carabalí. And also, at the end, there is an evocation of the voice of the leopard by the bass.

NS: In your work, you did something no one else has done: you made a re-encounter between Cuba and Africa. The Ekpe of Cuba, which began in 1830, has continued all this time, but meanwhile, in the Calabar region, the Ekpe society there has also continued. But there was no contact between Cuba and Calabar during all this time, as far as anyone knows.

IM: I don’t know of any contact, if there was. And this is quite a unique situation, because in the Yoruba case, especially between Yorubaland and Brazil there was a lot of contact and moving back and forth. In terms of Cross River and Cuba, as far as we know, there is none. That’s why it’s extraordinary that Ekpe in Calabar can listen to speech by Abakuá, and music and chanting, and understand it and recognize the rhythm and many of the words.

NS: Now tell me about what you did.

IM: From 1991 until the 21st century I was in Cuba documenting history. Cataloguing when each Abakuá lodge was founded, its name in Abakuá language, et cetera, et cetera. Because I recognized there was an incredible story that had not been told about the migration of African peoples and how their actions helped found Caribbean societies. And in order to prove that, in 2004 I was able to go to Calabar.
I brought some videotapes of Abakuá ceremonies. I brought some recordings of Abakuá music. And I gave a talk at the National Museum in Calabar. And the Ekpe people there were overwhelmed. When I played “Criolla Carabalí,” they freaked out. They got up and strated dancing, and they said, “This is the way our parents used to play.” And they recognized the very specific rhythms that the Cubans were playing as the rhythm of a particular grade. The Ekpe system has nine different grades. One of those grades is called bonkó. Bonkó really represents the universal mother, the myth of the woman I talked about, and this is the rhythm that they recognize in the Cuban music. They’re playing the bonkó rhythm. There happens to be a grade in Cuba called bonkó, which is the talking drum that we hear referred to in a lot of the recordings.

Bonkó enchemiyá is the full name of the drum. And as we know from Joseíto Fernández’s recording, “Así Son Bonkó,” and Arsenio Rodríguez’s “Oigan bonkó / Como se gozan en el barrio,” bonkó has become a word that means truth.

NS: How many times have you been to Calabar?

IM: Three times. I went in the summer of 2004, and I brought materials. I met essentially with all the paramount rulers of Calabar, which has three different groups: the Abakpa, which are also known as the Qua Ejagham, and the Efik, which are [known as] the Efí in Cuba, and the Efut, which are [known as] the Efó in Cuba, so I met with all three of these leaderships.

And it so happens that the leader of one of the lodges – Efé Ekpe, Eyo Ema, and the lodge is also known as Ekoritonkó, which happens to be a lodge in Havana -- the leader of this lodge invited me to come to a ceremony soon after I had showed them all this material. During that night they initiated me. It happened that way – “please come to our ceremony” -- and essentially they recognized the importance of this connection with Cuba, and in order to help me with my research, they initiated me so I could actually go to different settlements and talk about Ekpe, because it’s off limits to non-initiates.

NS: So you haven’t been initiated in Cuba, but you have been in Calabar.
IM: Exactly. So I’m unofficial ambassador of Calabar Ekpe to the Caribbean. After the talk in the National Museum, there were some government representatives there, and they announced that they were going to put their support behind this project for the Third International Ekpe Festival. There’s a festival there every December, to which y’all are invited.

NS: I’m there.

IM: And I was able to go with two Abakuá members – Vicente Sánchez and Román Díaz, who both happened to be from the Ekoritonkó lodge of Havana.

NS: And who both live in New Jersey now.

IM: They’re both professional musicians from Havana that now work in the New York area. It was a very spontaneous visit. You know, Abakuá’s a collective society. To have a full conjunto, a full ensemble of Abakuá, you need about ten people, with the dancers, the drummers, the chanters, and all that. We had two. But they did a beautiful job, and we have some recordings of Román chanting to an audience of about 2,000 in Calabar.

NS: What happened when he chanted?

IM: We came to Calabar in December of 2004, invited by the government of Cross River state for the Third International Ekpe Festival. The day we arrived to the Calabar Cultural Center, there was a huge open space, and at what they call the “high table” in Nigeria, where the important people sit, was the governor of Cross River state and the iyamba of the Eyo Ema lodge Ekoritonkó, who were judging the event as a competition of masked dancers. Masked dancers are another thing shared by Ekpe and Abakuá. They represent ancestors, who are there to make sure that the living conduct the ceremonies in the right way, another part of the orthodoxy we talked about.

So Román Díaz and Vicente Sánchez arrive. There’s about 3,000 people there in a circle, about the size of a football stadium, a hundred-yard circle. And the masked dancers come out one by one and are performing. There is no rehearsal for any of this. Román Díaz is asked to come out. He goes over to the percussion ensemble and gets them in a pace that he likes. Which is very easy, because they’re basically playing the same music as the Abakuá do – the same instruments, fabricated in the same way, the same construction. So Román goes out and he starts chanting the phrase about the foundation of Abakuá in Cameroon: Iya, iya, kondondó. And all of a sudden the crowd starts responding, two to three thousand people. Usually an Abakuá ensemble is ten people, but Román is going out there essentially alone, with Vicente on the bonkó. And the entire crowd responds. And then using, of course, Cuban methods, he calls out the masked dancer, who responds to him and enters the competition. He picks up a drum which he uses as the symbolic drum to call out, because the drum is the symbol of authority, so the drum calls out the masked dancer, and he brings it to the high table, just like the others had done. The crowd goes wild, and for everyone there it’s the confirmation that the Abakuá is obviously an extension of their own culture. Iya, iya, kondondó is related to the myth of the woman who goes to the river. Iya is the fish. The fish who was an ancestor, who came back to bring the divine voice. In Efik iya is fish. In Abakuá iya is fish.

NS: What does kondondó mean?

IM: It means arrival. The people understood what he was saying, and they responded. Unrehearsed. Very powerful.

NS: So what then happened in terms of your experience in Calabar with the Abakuá?

IM: Essentially what I’m trying to do as a historian, as a scholar, is facilitate this conversation. Because the first thing is to confirm that this cultural migration actually happened. The Cubans have had no contact with Calabar since the 1830s. They know this language and they’re told it comes from somewhere. But there’s doubt, if you don’t have concrete information, so I’m trying to share information, very much in the way that Pierre Verger did between Yorubaland and Brazil. And the Calabar people are very happy about this, because all of a sudden they have an international dimension to their culture, which they never knew about. Something they’re very proud of. I think this encounter is strenghtening the historical awareness of both groups, and it’s strengthening their practice.

NS: Let’s talk about some of the music we’re going to hear in this program.

IM: There are some wonderful field recordings done through the years. Harold Courlander went to Cuba in the 40s and recorded some beautiful stuff by Alberto Zayas, an important rumbero who had his own group in the 50s, an Abakuá man.

NS: The first person to record rumba in Cuba, in fact. Before the Muñequitos.

IM: That’s right, Alberto Zayas, “El Vive Bien.” So Courlander did a field recording, and then in the 60s, or maybe it was ’59 or ’62, Argeliers León recorded Víctor Herrera. Víctor Herrera had a folklore troupe called Efí Yawaremo – it’s an Abakuá term – and they did in the first-ever Abakuá performance in the National Theater. So he recorded the chant, Iya, iya, kondondó.

Essentially the Abakuá tradition is epic poetry. It’s Homeric in that way. The artists who are chanting it are drawn from an epic tradition, and they’re telling the story of the mythic past, which they believe to be their authentic history. And they are re-creating it in the present, so every time there’s an initiation, they’re recreating the original initiation in Usagaré.

NS: You were telling me about a recording that you believe is the most important, greatest Abakuá recording ever done.

IM: In 2001, a group of Abakuá masters – people who in the barrios performed the ceremonies and, really, the vanguard of the culture -- got together in a studio and they recorded an album called Ibiono. Ibiono is an Abakuá word for music with swing. Each track is to a different territory in Cross River, and they’re laying down the basic elements of their mythic history. They start with the Efó group, who are the Efuts in Cameroon, then they move to the Efí, who are the Efik of Calabar, and they end with Orú, who are likely the Uruan people of the Cross River region. All of them have Ekpe, and all of them interacted to create what’s known as the modern Ekpe system -- a cosmopolitan form of Ekpe.

NS: This is basically an album of poetry.

IM: And it’s an essential album for any student, any scholar, or any practitioner of this cultural system. The importance of this album is that it confirms all the Abakuá chants that have been recorded throughout the 20th century in little fragments. This pulls them all together into one epic narrative. And by the way, this album is only a small piece of what could be [done], what’s out there.

NS: These fragments have been dropped into popular music over the course of Cuban music history since the beginning of recording in Cuba. You made the observation to me when we were talking earlier that whatever the important style of recording Cuban music was in any given era, Abakuá was always present.

IM: As you well know, there’s no recordings from the 19th century, but the titles of habaneras and danzones have Abakuá terms in them.

NS: For example?

IM: [20] Miguel Faílde was using Abakuá rhythms – “andante ñáñigo” [ñáñigo: an Abakuá practitioner]. There was a danza by Enrique Peña, who was Antonio Maceo’s cornet player during the invasion of the west [of Cuba, in 1895]. He composed a danza in 6/8 rhythm called “El ñáñigo” that starts off with the trumpet call to arms of the military band. Abakuá musicians tell me the tune is definitely Abakuá.

NS: Let’s talk about Ignacio Piñeiro.

IM: “Los Cantares del Abakuá” by Ignacio Piñeiro – Piñeiro was an Abakuá man. He was a member of Efori Enkomo, the parent lodge to Muñanga. He was fantastically important in the development of the son. He had a coro de clave [19th-century style of ambulatory choral group] called Los Roncos at the turn of the 1900s. He played with María Teresa Vera in her Sexteto Occidental.

NS: And they recorded “Los Cantares del Abakuá.” Can you tell me about that?

IM: Ignacio Piñeiro is known as the poet of the son. He’s supposed to have composed about 400 sones. A prolific person. A lot of his compositions are in the costumbrista genre – meaning, he was describing the customs of the era, what was happening in the neighborhood. Things he overheard people talking about, or what happened last night at the Abakuá plante, the Abakuá ceremony. “Los Cantares del Abakuá” is talking about the police invasion of an Abakuá plante, because Abakuá, being a symbol of liberty for the black population, being an organized black society, was repressed throughout Cuban history.

NS: And was considered witchcraft by the ruling class.

IM: Everything that the nation was held to be, Abakuá was not. Progress, et cetera. And so Abakuá are essentially the boogeymen of Cuban history. And so “Los Cantares del Abakuá” describes the police invading a plante and how even in spite of that the plante continues, because the people and their culture cannot be stopped.

NS: What is a plante?

IM: A plante is an Abakuá ceremony that happens in the temples and the patios. And we talked about how in the Cross River the Ekpe lodges represent an independent community, and so the temple grounds of Abakuá are off limits to anyone who’s not a member. So it’s a very sacred space, and not anyone can just go there.

NS: So when the Cuban police came to an Abakuá plante…

IM: Well, as I said, the Abakuá have historically been the boogeymen of Cuba, and they’re described as criminals throughout Cuban history, especially the colonial period. So the police thought there was criminal activity happening, they wanted to get inside the temple, and they were not allowed to, so there were conflicts about that. Piñeiro’s describing one of these, and how in spite of the repression, the culture continues. And for me, the important lyric in this is: “En cuanto suena el bonkó, todo el mundo se emociona” -- when the bonkó drum sounds, everyone is moved. This is a very poetic way of talking about the importance of Abakuá music in commercial recordings in Cuba. The Abakuá clave, when it’s heard, people get excited, because it represents their capacity to be autonomous people on their own terms. It’s a symbol of liberation, and so forth.

NS: So, 1928 – Septeto Habanero, “Criolla Carabalí” – what gives?

IM: The composition “Criolla Carabalí” evokes the union of tribes, territories and people through the adoration of Ekpe. There’s a phrase in this track that says, “aba íreme efí, aba íreme efó, bongó itá.” That is, it doesn’t matter if you’re from the Efí tribe or the Efó, our adoration of the Ekpe makes us one. So this 1928 recording is essentially describing the function of Ekpe in Cross River.

NS: But it’s a Cuban son, released commercially on Victor.

IM: Exactly. So this is part of my proposition, that the narratives left by Africans in Cuba are useful to understand African history. And also they’re describing, of course, the Cuban context, because there are lineages of Efí, Efó, and Orú. Each is considered a different territory in the Cross River, and they’re talking about, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, we’re all one in the drum. Because the drum is a universal mother, and we’re reborn as a brother. In Abakuá they say yeniká. It’s like saying ekobio, it’s brother. It means “brother of the same mother,” literally.

NS: Let’s talk about Chano Pozo and Abakuá.

IM: Chano Pozo, one of the great composers of Cuban music in the early 20th century. He came to New York in 1947, ended up playing with Dizzy Gillespie and transforming the sound of bebop music in that era. And a couple of months before Chano met Dizzy, he recorded a very important Abakuá track. As you stated in your book, it’s the first real recording of rumbas de solar. This track is called “Abasí,” which is the prime mover, the supreme being. “Abasí” is God almighty. This track has an incredible swing in the rhythm. Oh my lord, it’s just a beautiful piece. Essentially Chano is evoking an Abakuá ceremony. It’s all in Abakuá language. You start off by greeting the astros – the stars, the moon, the sun, the ancestors, and then you greet the living leadership in all their hierarchies, and then you commence. He introduces himself as a member of the Muñanga lodge of Havana. And there’s a point where he starts to bring out the íreme, who are the representatives of the ancestors, the masked ancestors. And to do that he says, cle-cle-cle-cle-cle, which means, come, come forward, come forward.

Now this track influenced a lot of people in New York at the time. And one of them was Machito. In the 1949 version of “Tangá,” Machito is riffing on Chano Pozo’s cle-cle-cle-cle-cle, when this mambo-tanga begins, and he’s inviting the dancers to come out to the ballroom and get down. And he says, “Cle-cle-cle-cle-cle-cle-cle” – a wonderful example of the influence of Abakuá on the popular music of the day.

NS: What’s the influence of Abakuá on rumba?

IM: It’s profound. I believe that the influence of Abakuá and rumba begins at the foundation of Abakuá itself -- let’s say, in the mid-1800s -- when the Africans were in their cabildos, their nation groups, performing. Down the street in Matanzas there was a Congo cabildo, and on the other block was a Carabalí cabildo, and they would hear their music and they would interact, they’re part of the same community. That fusion, I believe, is how the rumba emerged as a so-called secular form, but all the people involved in it are definitely initiates in all the Cuban traditions, and they’re referring to it each time they play.

The Muñequitos are the best example of that. They’re an all-Abakuá troupe, as well as practitioners of Congo and Lucumí, and their messages are all about the importance of these traditions to the well-being of their communities. And they’re doing it in coded languages, but that’s the message. They’re talking about their philosophical system, and how it’s been a heartbeat for the communities in Cuba.

NS: You identified Agustín Gutiérrez, going back to “Criolla Carabalí” for a minute. We were talking about the referencing of the sacred sound in the bongó playing in son. Agustín Gutiérrez is, I think, one of the key figures in Cuban percussion, and often overlooked.

IM: I’ve heard some speculation that Agustín Gutiérrez came from Santiago de Cuba. I don’t know if that’s rumor or what. There’s also speculation that this sound, this glissade, actually came from Santiago de Cuba with the son already, because there are Carabalí cabildos in Santiago as well. So, whereas Abakuá was only established in Matanzas and Havana in northwestern Cuba, Carabalí culture was throughout the island in the cabildos, and that’s something that really hasn’t been studied yet, but I can tell you an anecdote that Fernando Ortiz got me started on. During the wars of independence, known Abakuá were captured and they were sent overseas, to Ceuta and to Fernando Pó, along with a lot of other people, like Masons and any rebel. And it was in Ceuta that Carabalí members and Abakuá people from Havana and from Santiago could meet and interact, and therein may be part of the history of the son and the story of that sound.

NS: Wow.

IM: So that’s a bomb I’m dropping. It’s unconfirmed, but it’s quite possible.

NS: And ironically, Abakuá were sent to Fernando Pó, which was right across from where Abakuá originally came from in Africa.

IM: Yeah, Fernando Pó is a really incredible story. From the 1820s to the 1840s, the British were centered there, and it was their anti-slavery base. They were trying to stop slavery in Calabar and in that whole Biafra region. Ekpe members were interacting with the British in Fernando Pó, so there was Ekpe going to Fernando Pó also. The Cubans started coming in the 1860s, because part of the Spanish project was to make Fernando Pó another plantation colony. At one point it was called the “African Cuba,” because there were so many Cubans being sent there. [Note: Cigars made from tobacco grown on Fernando Po plantations run by Cuban deportees won the Amsterdam Prize in 1878 ]. And of course the white Cubans didn’t want to go, so they were getting black laborers to go work the tobacco crops in Fernando Pó.

So again, it’s very under-researched, but there is definitely an Abakuá resonance, and perhaps they were meeting with Ekpe there. And some of those people came back. Most died. But many Cubans were able to come back, and if there was a meeting of Abakuá from Havana and Carabalí from Santiago, they each came back having learned more from the other folks.

NS: You identified Agustín Gutiérrez as an Abakuá member.

IM: I learned this from the director of Septeto Habanero in the 90s, because they know the story of their conjunto very well. And yes, he was a member. As I said, when I played this track to Ekpe people in Calabar, they got so excited, started dancing, they responded to this viscerally.

NS: Let’s talk about Tito Rodríguez and “Abanekue.”

IM: So Chano Pozo arrives. He records “Abasí.” With only Cuban musicians, by the way. It’s very interesting to listen to “Manteca” and the Afro-Cuban drum suite that he does with Dizzy Gillespie, because he’s so articulate when he’s chanting Abakuá in “Abasí,” and if you compare that to his chanting with Dizzy, he’s diminishing it, he’s become very discreet. He’s sort of turning it into a scat. Because he knows they’re not going to be able to understand him, and he’s also being respectful of the tradition by not articulating it among people who aren’t members.

So the work of Dizzy and Chano changes jazz history, essentially, and in 1950 Machito does another track called “Negro Ñañamboro.” I consider it to be in the dance instruction genre. You know, usually they’re teaching you how to do the latest step? Here he’s describing the person who catches the spirit. He’s mounted by an orisha, so the shirt is taken off, the shoes are taken off, and the hat is taken off, and he’s saying, “Negro ñañamboro, arrollando como es.” He’s dancing like it should be done. But ñañamboro is – there are two Abakuá phrases, ñaña is the masked dancer, and Embemoro is an Abakuá lodge. So it’s a playful use of Abakuá themes, but he’s evoking ritual in the mambo context in the Palladium. Kinda nice.

In the same year, Tito Rodríguez does “Abanekue,” which is a beautiful Abakuá-inspired dance tune. The title “Abanekue” means “initiate.” Some people in Cuba say obonekue, but the term is also abanekue, which is what the Efik call it. This is the earliest recording of Abakuá material by a Puerto Rican that I know.

NS: How did Tito Rodríguez, who was a Puerto Rican, learn about this?

IM: I wish I knew. That’s a great question. It’s an expression of the interaction of the musicians from all over the Spanish Caribbean in New York, and their mutual support and enthusiasm.

After Tito Rodríguez did “Abanekue” in 1950, there’s been some amazing recordings by Puerto Rican bands. El Gran Combo did “Írimo,” which is íreme, the masked dancer. And it’s a wonderful dance tune. This is popular music. And they’re talking about the íreme coming out, the representative of the ancestors, and interacting with the bonkó. Now what’s amazing for this – talk about the Abakuá influence in the rumba. That’s exactly what happens in the rumba – the caller and the drum bring out the dancer, and they begin to interact. It’s the same structure. Then another important track is La Sonora Ponceña, who did “Congo Carabalí,” which is a fantastic Abakuá-inspired track, which I hope you can play.

NS: Can you talk about the role of Abakuá in Puerto Rican culture in general? They have that famous word…

IM: Which is?

NS: Chévere.

IM: Chévere, qué chévere, qué chévere. I was just in Venezuela, where chévere is in every other sentence as a term of affirmation. What’s so incredible about using music as a way to understand Abakuá -- the perspective we get is totally different from what’s in the official histories of Abakuá as criminals, as something negative, like, “watch out, kids, don’t go out, the Abakuá will get you.” Because chévere is a positive term of affirmation. To be chévere is to be, that’s great, it’s positive, what could be better. It’s an Abakuá title, they say Mokongo machévere, because Mokongo was a valiant warrior who, thanks to him, the society was created in Africa. And the term Mokongo machévere is in almost all the Abakuá recordings that we’ve mentioned, somewhere. Usually it’s the last phrase – Mokongo machévere. It’s in the Muñequitos “Ritmo Abakuá.”

NS: Let’s talk about Mongo Santamaría, a figure who just gets bigger as time passes.

IM: In the 50s in New York, the mambo was happening, and the involvement of Puerto Ricans cannot be underestimated. It’s tremendous. Tito Rodríguez, Tito Puente. When Mongo came on the scene, Tito Puente hired him in his band – another example of Puerto Ricans supporting and sustaining this culture. Mongo ends up recording a very important Abakuá track called “Bríkamo” in the 1950s. I think around 1958 Mongo records “Bríkamo.” And Bríkamo is a Carabalí tradition in Matanzas, it’s sustained by the Calle family. They’re very famous rumberos.

NS: Co-founders of the Muñequitos.

IM: Exactly. And Bríkamo – the Abakuá language is called Bríkamo, and Bríkamo is understood to be a reference to Usagaré, the place where the woman got the fish in the river and Ekpe was perfected. So Mongo lays this track down with Willie Bobo and Francisco Aguabella in 1958.

NS: Now what about Julito Collazo?

IM: To talk about Julito Collazo, we’ve gotta talk about [choreographer] Katharine Dunham, a very important figure in the Caribbean cultural scene in New York in the 1940s and 50s, and onwards. Katharine Dunham went to Cuba, where she hired some Abakuá musicians for her international troupe to tour the world, and she did Abakuá-inspired pieces. One was called “El ñáñigo.” Katharine Dunham hired Julito Collazo, and brought him to New York, where he became a foundational figure in the culture of santería, in the culture of batá music…

NS: …and in the culture of palo…

IM: Exactly. And Julito taught a lot of people. René López, who organized the Grupo Folklórico y Experimental Nuevayorquino, worked with Julito Collazo. Mongo and Julito went on to record a very important track in the 70s – I think, 1976, called “Ubane,” with Justo Betancourt. “Ubane” uses jazz harmonies, and it’s an Abakuá track, praising an Abakuá lineage, Efí Obane. It just so happens that Oban is a very important Ekpe village of the Ejagham people in the Cross River region, so again, when I play this for people in the Cross River they get it immediately, and they’re amazed that their town is remembered 200 years later in Cuba.

NS: Ivor Miller, thank you so much for sharing your deep experience with us today. I wish we could go on longer because this is obviously endless, but this has given me a lot to think about.

IM: Well, thank you. This is really part of a process, and it’s been a real privilege for me to share this information and be part of this historic connection. And the Ekpe festival in Calabar is ongoing. It’s meant to be an annual event, and details are posted up on Afrocubaweb, so folks can go there and check that out.