Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Lovely Rememberance of Paul Newman

Paul Newman
He used his fame to give away his fortune.
By Dahlia Lithwick
Posted Saturday, Sept. 27, 2008, at 10:20 AM ET

The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp opened in Connecticut in 1988 to provide a summer camping experience—fishing, tie-dye, ghost stories, s'mores—for seriously ill children. By 1989, when I started working there as a counselor, virtually everyone on staff would tell some version of the same story: Paul Newman, who had founded the camp when it became clear his little salad-dressing lark was accidentally going to earn him millions, stops by for one of his not-infrequent visits. He plops down at a table in the dining hall next to some kid with leukemia, or HIV, or sickle cell anemia, and starts to eat lunch. One version of the story has the kid look from the picture of Newman on the Newman's Own lemonade carton to Newman himself, then back to the carton and back to Newman again before asking, "Are you lost?" Another version: The kid looks steadily at him and demands, "Are you really Paul Human?"

Newman loved those stories. He loved to talk about the little kids who had no clue who he was, this friendly old guy who kept showing up at camp to take them fishing. While their counselors stammered, star-struck, the campers indulged Newman the way they'd have indulged a particularly friendly hospital blood technician. It took me years to understand why Newman loved being at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. It was for precisely the same reason these kids did. When the campers showed up, they became regular kids, despite the catheters and wheelchairs and prosthetic legs. And when Newman showed up, he was a regular guy with blue eyes, despite the Oscar and the racecars and the burgeoning marinara empire. The most striking thing about Paul Newman was that a man who could have blasted through his life demanding "Have you any idea who I am?" invariably wanted to hang out with folks—often little ones—who neither knew nor cared.

For his part, Newman put it all down to luck. In his 1992 introduction to our book about the camp, he tried to explain what impelled him to create the Hole in the Wall: "I wanted, I think, to acknowledge Luck: the chance of it, the benevolence of it in my life, and the brutality of it in the lives of others; made especially savage for children because they may not be allowed the good fortune of a lifetime to correct it." Married to Joanne Woodward, his second wife, for 50 years this winter, Newman always looked at her like something he'd pulled out of a Christmas stocking. He looked at his daughters that way, too. It was like, all these years later, he couldn't quite believe he got to keep them.

Of course, it wasn't all luck. He lost his son, Scott, to a drug overdose in 1978, so in 1980, he founded the Scott Newman Center, which works to prevent substance abuse. When he first began to donate 100 percent of the proceeds from his food company, Newman's Own, to charity, critics accused him of grandiosity. Grandiose? Tell that to the recipients of the quarter-billion dollars he's given away since the company's creation in 1982. First Paul Newman made fresh, healthy food cool, then he and his daughter Nell made organic food cool. Then he went and made corporate giving cool by establishing the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy. And all this was back in the '90s, before Lance Armstrong bracelets and organic juice boxes.

But Newman never stopped believing he was a regular guy who'd simply been blessed, and well beyond what was fair. So he just kept on paying it forward. He appreciated great ideas for doing good in the world—he collected them the way other people collect their own press clippings—and he didn't care where they came from. Whether you were a college kid, a pediatric oncologist, or a Hollywood tycoon, if you had a nutty plan to make life better for someone, he'd write the check himself or hook you up with somebody who would.

Today there are 11 camps modeled on the Hole in the Wall all around the world, and seven more in the works, including a camp in Hungary and one opening next year in the Middle East. Each summer of the four I spent at Newman's flagship Connecticut camp was a living lesson in how one man can change everything. Terrified parents would deliver their wan, weary kid at the start of the session with warnings and cautions and lists of things not to be attempted. They'd return 10 days later to find the same kid, tanned and bruisey, halfway up a tree or cannon-balling into the deep end of the pool. Their wigs or prosthetic arms—props of years spent trying to fit in—were forgotten in the duffel under the bed. Shame, stigma, fear, worry, all vaporized by a few days of being ordinary. In an era in which nearly everyone feels entitled to celebrity and fortune, Newman was always suspicious of both. He used his fame to give away his fortune, and he did that from some unspoken Zen-like conviction that neither had ever really belonged to him in the first place.

Hollywood legend holds that Paul Newman is and will always be larger-than-life, and it's true. Nominated for 10 Oscars, he won one. He was Fast Eddie, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy. And then there were Those Eyes. But anyone who ever met Paul Newman will probably tell you that he was, in life, a pretty regular-sized guy: A guy with five beautiful daughters and a wonder of a wife, and a rambling country house in Connecticut where he screened movies out in the barn. He was a guy who went out of his way to ensure that everyone else—the thousands of campers, counselors, and volunteers at his camps, the friends he involved in his charities, and the millions of Americans who bought his popcorn—could feel like they were the real star.
Dahlia Lithwick is a Slate senior editor.

Article URL:

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Turkish bus driver jailed for playing Kurdish recording

The brief news item and the song in question (translated) at Freemuse. Also, read a story about a ten-month sentence Turkey gave to a Kurdish musician because he performed a Kurdish song in Turkey.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

MacArthur "Genius Award" Winner Walter Kitundu

He is an amazing instrument maker, composer, turntablist, and sculptor. Here is a sample of his work: the phonokora, a hybrid of a West Africa kora, a turntable, and electronics (congrats to him!):


Saturday, September 20, 2008

We Are the Dog (Aging, Nostalgia, Music)

September 18, 2008, 6:36 pm
Domestic Disturbances

Judith Warner

We Are the Dog

Tags: middle age, pop music, weddings

Chronicles of Middle Age, Chapter II (At Least): In Which I Attend a Wedding

Do you know what the youth of today are doing?

They’re listening to ’80s music.

R.E.O. Speedwagon, and Madonna, and Michael Jackson and Journey.

“Living on a Prayer” sounds just great to them, and “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” is a fist-flying, foot-stomping generational anthem. (Though you might be interested to know, in this age of idiocracy, that the original title on the 1981 album “Escape,” included the “g” at the end.)

I know all this; indeed, I am an expert in the Youth of Today, because I’ve attended two weddings of twentysomethings in the past year.

They were the first weddings of twentysomethings that I’d attended since the early 1990s, when the twentysomethings in question were my cousins and friends. The wedding I went to this past weekend was a first in a more remarkable way as well: it was the very first time I was invited as a friend of the parents.

Yes – a friend of the parents. One of those staid, faded people you remember from your own wedding, the vaguely known or (in our case this weekend) almost never-before-seen interlopers toward whom you tried not to show your utter lack of interest before slinking off to enjoy yourself with your friends.

“You don’t know who we are,” my husband, Max, said to the bride on Saturday night, “but thank you for inviting us.”

“Thank you for coming,” she answered, with a smile.

This was an impressive exchange. But then, I am generally much impressed with the youth of today. They strike me as earnest. Forward-looking. And sincerely, almost unbelievably nice.

According to surveys, they drink less, do fewer drugs and experience less anomie than today’s fortysomethings did at their age.

And, most shocking of all, they appear to like their parents.

They seem not to have the general disgust for older people and the distrust of their institutions — like marriage — that people of my generation did in the 1980s.

In fact, as Max and I lounged on a loveseat, watching the young people dance and whispering sweet nothings (“What?” I would honk. “Shout directly into the ear horn!”), a few of them cocked their heads sideways at us, and found us adorable.

“Awww,” they cooed.

It was nice to get this validation from the youth. Part of me thought, though, that we should do something along the lines of showing them How It Was Done, and get up to dance to “Billie Jean,” “The Breaks” or “Like a Prayer,” which were, after all, our songs. But another part of me was tired, having had a whole half glass of champagne over the course of the evening, and many other parts felt like they were being gouged by plastic flexicuffs, so tight and complicated were the supports holding my cantilevered body in place in my ambitious party attire.

Besides that, I remembered all too well the abject horror I used to feel, in my twenties, when people in their forties tried to dance. I didn’t want to embarrass anyone. Least of all, me.

For some clever part of me knew that the twentysomethings’ embrace of all the worst music from my past was, in fact, ironic. I also knew that my reclaiming of it would not be. Not any longer.

It’s a funny thing I’ve noticed lately, listening to the “classic rock” stations that are now — unbelievably — broadcasting the soundtrack of my life: bad music sounds so good once it becomes the music of your youth. All the songs you hated, all the bands you mocked, all the pop clichés you spurned because you were so much cooler than all that now sound so soulful, so very real.

This nostalgia for self is quite a shocker, particularly for someone who — like most people, I imagine — spent much of her youth striving to escape from herself.

How silly it is to cling to non-existent memories. To smile dodderingly at “Sweet Caroline” when I’m not really old enough to remember it from the first time around. To wax sentimental for “Hotel California” when I found it sinister in the seventies. To grin with recognition at “Maneater,” when in fact it has always made me grimace with pain. How weird it is to suddenly morph from a person who looks out at life through the jaundiced eye of studied irony to one who – children growing older, parents older still – grasps at life, buying Hallmark greeting cards with great care and attention and crying at weddings of people I’d never met before.

Last month, when Max was away for two weeks at the Democratic and Republican conventions, I discovered E-cards. I was missing him, so I sent him cards with setting suns and flying birds and blooming flowers and equally flowery words of love. I sort of sent them as a joke.

“Sobbing now,” he sort of joked back, in an E-card thank you.

What has happened to us?

Middle age, that’s what.

On Sunday, I had a phrase lodged in my mind, as Max and I drove home to D.C. from the Connecticut wedding, listening to the classic rock stations in state after state.

“I am the dog,” I said it was.

“You are the dog,” Max insisted.

It was a phrase we both thought we remembered from an article we’d read, early in our marriage, in Rolling Stone magazine. Max said it had to do with smoking pot: the author had described how, when she was young and stoned with friends, a dog’s entering the room could seem improbably hilarious (a “whoa … fur” kind of a thing), whereas, once she reached her thirties, pot-smoking had led to the quickly sobering thought that “You are the dog.”

I said that it really was about age: “I am the dog” when I realize I am all that I once found ridiculous.

I hunted the story down this week, thanks to a kind Rolling Stone researcher, and found that, in fact, we both had been right. “The Dog Is Us” had been written in 1992 by Marcelle Clements, who was revisiting an earlier essay she’d written in 1982, charting the end of her sixties cohort’s romance with smoking pot. (“Now the dog is us. And it’s not funny.”)

And she had concluded that her dog semi-metaphor hadn’t been about pot-smoking at all. The dog, she’d realized in her forties, was “indeed, me.”

There is much that is good about being the dog. It is to be connected, engaged, centered, happy. But there is a worrisome aspect to it as well. Professionally, I find being the dog to be a terrifying prospect.

Being at peace with the world doesn’t lend itself well to polemics. What if contentment heralds the death of having anything interesting to say?

I obsessed about this all the way through New Jersey.

Thank god for anxiety, is all I can conclude. And thank god for the dog.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Read Me a Story, Brad Pitt: When audiobook casting goes terribly wrong

SLATE [audio at original post site]
Read Me a Story, Brad Pitt: When audiobook casting goes terribly wrong.
By Nate DiMeo
Updated Thursday, Sept. 18, 2008, at 11:15 AM ET

M&C NOTE: This article gets into my archive for the phrase "audio blackface."

For all the column inches downloaded to Kindles this year about how electronic books will someday replace traditional ones, little has been made of the steady rise of another rival to the printed word: audiobooks. Nearly $1 billion worth were sold last year, meaning 15 percent of all books sold these days are the kind that read themselves.

Today's recorded book has come a long way from its humble, federal origins. In 1931, Sen. Reed Smoot (he of the arguably Depression-spurring Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act) helped bring forth the Books for the Adult Blind Project—a bit of progressive do-goodery intended to give the gift of literature to the sightless. The result was audiobooks with a vaguely institutional air, employing bland, monotone narrations thought appropriate for the incapacitated. They remained this way through the 1970s, until the gas crisis brought over more fuel-efficient Japanese cars and their standard-issue cassette decks. Soon commuters in their Datsun B210s discovered the time-killing properties of audiobooks.

The industry came of age in the '80s: Sales grew, and the listening experience improved. Nowadays, narrators are recruited from the ranks of top-notch voice-over talent, big-name authors, renowned stage actors, and Hollywood stars. Audiobooks can be spectacular. But too many fine books are still being turned into bad audiobooks; worse still, their producers are making the same mistakes over and over. What follows are the three most common pitfalls—and how to avoid them.

The Perils of Genre Rigidity
Genre fiction can make for great audiobooks. Detective novels come to life when read by a well-cast, hard-boiled narrator, and the smoky-voiced actresses of Great Britain are Play Mediakept very busy these days by the demand for erotic audiobooks. But producers get flummoxed when a title bumps up against the confines of genre. Take Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, David Simon's nonfiction account of the year he spent shadowing the Baltimore Police Department's homicide unit. Simon's remarkably well-observed account is written in matter-of-fact prose that destabilizes the reader who has previously encountered city police only through Hollywood stereotypes. The audiobook is read by actor Reed Diamond, a regular on the TV series inspired by Simon's book. Diamond's tough-guy noir narration is dissonant with the text: The dismal reality of Simon's work gets undercut by the unreality of Diamond's heavy-handed line readings.

A similar fate befalls Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century. Ross' history of Classical composition in the age of mechanical reproduction, atonality, and world wars is written with a passion and urgency that helps make the esoteric relatable. Appropriately, it reads like a really long New Yorker article, and in a more perfect world the audio version would sound like a really long episode of public radio's Studio 360—smart, witty, and intimate. Instead, audiobook veteran Grover Gardner comes off like a tweedy prat holding court at a dinner party. The stentorian, lecture-hall tone is off-key; just as Homicide is miscast as a potboiler, The Rest Is Noise is miscast as a dusty dissertation in an unvisited corner of a university library. With Gardner reading, Ross' vibrant book about Life and Art and Passion becomes a book about Classical Music.

One Reader + Multiple Voices = Multiple Problems
The audiobook experience descends from that of the old radio-plays, but full-cast dramatizations are rare (though, typically, rad; Max Brooks' smarter-than-it-has-any-right-to-be zombie novel, World War Z, and Phillip Pulman's His Dark Materials trilogy are great listens in large part due to their full casts). Usually, the listener gets one reader who uses tone and inflection to distinguish between the narrator and the book's characters. The best readers aren't necessarily great at "voices"; they're able to differentiate between characters without resorting to showy parlor tricks. British actor Jim Dale has achieved a deserved rock-star status (of the peculiar, audiobooky sort) for his work on the Harry Potter series, modulating between Lavender Brown, Parvati Patil, and Gilderoy Lockheart with a nimbleness that should be the model for all school librarians and bedtime-story readers.

But too often, an overreaching reader ruins a book. Nothing is less intimidating than a noir tough guy voiced by a hammy female narrator, and nothing is less sexy than a literary seductress voiced by a dude in falsetto. Too often a narrator will opt for bad audio drag when "she said" would suffice.

While gender bending can grate, racial drag can offend. Consider Columbia sociologist (and occasional Slate contributor) Sudhir Venkatesh's best-seller, Gang Leader for a Day. The book recounts the author's decade-plus immersion in a decaying Chicago housing project. His observations about the social and economic lives of crack dealers, prostitutes, project-squatters, and poor strivers reveal a side of American life few readers—including academics and policymakers—have ever experienced. The book humanizes characters that most of America has encountered only through crime statistics. The audiobook does something quite the opposite.

The reader, actor Reg Rogers, is a white guy. Every character but the Indian-American narrator is black. This is always tricky audiobook territory, but here, not only has Rogers unwisely chosen to bring a little "sound of the street" to his characters, he's opted to bring the sound of the street from movies of the 1960s. JT, a twentysomething gang lieutenant, sounds like Sydney Poitier circa In the Heat of the Night. Ex-gang members in their 50s veer toward Fred Sanford at best, Uncle Remus at worst.

After forcing us to suffer through seven hours of Rogers, the producers of the Gang Leader audiobook make an interesting choice: The book's final hour is read by the author. In that hour, the lives that Venkatesh worked so hard to bring to the page become real lives. He's no professional voice actor—he doesn't always punch the right words for emphasis, the art of the dramatic pause eludes him—but he tells a straightforward story in a straightforward fashion. No outrageous accents. No audio blackface. And the listener, and his subjects, are better off for it.

Read Me a Story, Brad Pitt
Actors can often find in the audiobook realm a stardom that has eluded them on stage and screen. Roles such as "Deputy" in the direct-to-video The Killing Grounds have not made Scott Brick a household name, but the man has narrated more than 200 books—he has a devoted following and is one of the most in-demand readers in the business. (His tone is cultured with a dash of swagger—he's brought an enjoyable air of righteous indignation to books like Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven.)

Lately, with the audiobook business booming, actual Hollywood stars are frequently stepping behind the mic. Kevin Spacey has read Bob Woodward. Oprah reads White Oleander. Matt Damon reads A People's History of the United States. While a big-name Hollywood actor may help sell a title, using a big star can backfire on the listener. I can't listen to Sean Penn read Bob Dylan's autobiography without thinking, "That's Sean Penn reading Bob Dylan's autobiography."

You can't help but wonder if the demands of celebrity prevent the Hollywood star from taking the time with the source material that an audiobook star would. Whether it's a clumsy cadence or a preponderance of retakes (which jump out at you when listening on headphones), there seems to be an inverse proportionality between the size of the star and the quality of the experience. Here, Brad Pitt shows off his español while reading Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses.

But we can't really blame Brad Pitt or, for that matter, any of the mis- or overmatched narrators who keep good books from becoming good audiobooks. The unsatisfied listener should direct her complaints to the producers making the casting and directing decisions, who keep making the same mistakes. As Brad might put it, no más.

Behold! The World's Ugliest Guitar

Otherwise known as the ESP Samurai Kyomoto Special. Courtesy of Music Thing:

Saudi Women Find an Unlikely Role Model: Oprah

September 19, 2008
Dammam Journal
Saudi Women Find an Unlikely Role Model: Oprah

DAMMAM, Saudi Arabia—Once a month, Nayla says, she writes a letter to Oprah Winfrey.

A young Saudi homemaker who covers her face in public might not seem to have much in common with an American talk show host whose image is known to millions. Like many women in this conservative desert kingdom, Nayla does not usually socialize with people outside her extended family, and she never leaves her house unless chaperoned by her husband.

Ms. Winfrey has not answered the letters. But Nayla says she is still hoping.

“I feel that Oprah truly understands me,” said Nayla, who, like many of the women interviewed, would not let her full name be used. “She gives me energy and hope for my life. Sometimes I think that she is the only person in the world who knows how I feel.”

Nayla is not the only Saudi woman to feel a special connection to the American media mogul. When “The Oprah Winfrey Show” was first broadcast in Saudi Arabia in November 2004 on a Dubai-based satellite channel, it became an immediate sensation among young Saudi women. Within months, it had become the highest-rated English-language program among women 25 and younger, an age group that makes up about a third of Saudi Arabia’s population.

In a country where the sexes are rigorously separated, where topics like sex and race are rarely discussed openly and where a strict code of public morality is enforced by religious police called hai’a, Ms. Winfrey provides many young Saudi women with new ways of thinking about the way local taboos affect their lives — as well as about a variety of issues including childhood sexual abuse and coping with marital strife — without striking them, or Saudi Arabia’s ruling authorities, as subversive.

Some women here say Ms. Winfrey’s assurances to her viewers — that no matter how restricted or even abusive their circumstances may be, they can take control in small ways and create lives of value — help them find meaning in their cramped, veiled existence.

“Oprah dresses conservatively,” explained Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, a co-owner of a women’s spa in Riyadh called Yibreen and a daughter of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to the United States. “She struggles with her weight. She overcame depression. She rose from poverty and from abuse. On all these levels she appeals to a Saudi woman. People really idolize her here.”

Today, “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” with Arabic subtitles, is broadcast twice each weekday on MBC4, a three-year-old channel developed by the MBC Group with the Arab woman in mind. The show’s guests, self-improvement tips, and advice on family relationships — as well as Ms. Winfrey’s clothes and changing hairstyles — are eagerly analyzed by Saudi women from a wide range of social backgrounds and income levels.

The largest-circulation Saudi women’s magazine, Sayidaty, devotes a regular page to Ms. Winfrey, and dog-eared copies of her official magazine, O, which is not sold in the kingdom, are passed around by women who collect them during trips abroad.

The particulars of Ms. Winfrey’s personal story have resonated with a broad audience of Saudi women in a way that few other Western imports have, explained Mazen Hayek, a spokesman for the MBC Group.

Saudi Arabia was an impoverished desert country before it was transformed by oil money and, in just a couple of generations, into a wealthy consumer society. Saudi women readily identify with “this glamorous woman from very modest beginnings,” Mr. Hayek said, in a phone interview from Dubai.

Maha al-Faleh, 23, of Riyadh, said, “Oprah talks about issues that haven’t really been spoken about here openly before.

“She talks about racism, for example,” she said. “This is something that Saudis are very concerned about, because many of us feel that we’re judged for the way we veil or for our skin color. I have a friend whose driver touched her in an inappropriate way. She was very young at the time, but she felt very guilty about it — and Oprah helped her to speak about this abuse with her mother.”

MBC edits some “Oprah” episodes to remove content banned by censors in the region, officials at the channel say. It does not broadcast segments on homosexuality, for example. But the officials say they make most episodes available to their regional viewers uncensored, including some about relations between Arabs and Westerners and about living with the threat of Islamic terrorism.

Saudi women say they are drawn to Ms. Winfrey not only because she openly addresses subjects considered taboo locally, but also because she speaks of self-empowerment and change.

Wafa Muhammad, 38, a mother of five from Riyadh, said she believed that, in their adoration of Ms. Winfrey, Saudi women are expressing a hesitant sense of longing for real change in their country.

“Many of us feel that the solutions for our problems have to come from outside,” Ms. Muhammad said. When President Bush visited Saudi Arabia in January, she continued, as an example, his presence briefly became a locus of hope for Saudi women. “A lot of women were saying that they wished they could talk to Bush about problems like forced marriage, about how our children are taken away if our husbands divorce us.”

In a country where women are forbidden to vote, or to travel without the permission of a male guardian, a sense of powerlessness can lead women to look for unlikely sources of rescue, Ms. Muhammad explained. “If women here have problems with their fathers or their brothers, what can they do but look to Oprah?” she asked. “The idea that she will come and help them is a dream for them.”

Nayla, the homemaker in Dammam, a Persian Gulf port city, says Ms. Winfrey helps her cope with a society that does not encourage her to have interests. “The life of a woman here in Saudi — it makes you tired and it makes you boring,” she said, sighing.

Like many Saudi women, Nayla struggles with obesity, a major issue in the kingdom because many women are largely confined to their homes and local custom often prevents them from participating in sports or even walking around their neighborhoods.

She says that Ms. Winfrey has inspired her to lose weight and to pursue her education through an online degree course, a method acceptable to her husband since she will not have to leave home.

As she spoke, Nayla sat on the floor of the women’s sitting room of her mother-in-law’s house. A battered wooden bureau, its top littered with hairbrushes, plastic figurines, and perfume bottles, was the only piece of furniture.

Several female relatives sat with Nayla, and the door was kept slightly ajar so that their small children, chasing one another in the hall outside, could enter. But at the sound of heavier, male footfalls approaching, the women all jumped to their feet and scurried to hide their faces behind the bureau. It would be shameful if a brother-in-law accidentally caught a glimpse of their uncovered faces, Nayla explained.

“Oprah is the magic word for women here who want to scream out loud, who want to be heard,” Ms. Muhammad said. “Look at what happened to the girl from Qatif,” she said, referring to the infamous case of a young woman who was gang-raped, then sentenced to flogging because she had been in a car with an unrelated man.

The young woman from Qatif received a royal pardon last year after her case became an international media cause célèbre.

“The Qatif girl was heard outside the country, and she was helped,” Ms. Muhammad said. “But we need to have Saudi women who help women here. We need to have women social workers, women judges.”

“We have a very male-dominated society, and it’s very hard sometimes,” Ms. Muhammad said. “But for now I have my coffee, and sit, and I watch Oprah.

It’s my favorite time of day.”

Thursday, September 18, 2008

People in Need Ads

Some rather effective and striking donation solicitation photographs (by Carl Stolz) from the Dutch charity Cordaid Mensen in Nood (People in Need). Wow.

Take It Off, Brünnhilde: On Opera and Nudity

New York Times
September 18, 2008
Take It Off, Brünnhilde: On Opera and Nudity

Correction Appended

It had to happen. Nudity is coming to opera.

In recent years, with all the talk from general managers, stage directors and go-for-broke singers about making opera as dramatically visceral an art form as theater, film and modern dance, traditional boundaries of decorum have been broken. Opera productions have increasingly showcased risk-taking and good-looking singers in bold, sexy and explicit productions.

How explicit? On Tuesday the soprano Karita Mattila returns to the Metropolitan Opera to portray the title character in Strauss’s “Salome,” a revival of the modern-dress Jürgen Flimm production created for Ms. Mattila and introduced at the Met in 2004.

Ms. Mattila’s emotionally intense, vocally molten and psychologically exposed portrayal four years ago made her seem born to this daunting role. And yes, during her uninhibited and kinetically choreographed performance of the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” she shed item after item of a Marlene Dietrich-like white tuxedo costume until, in an exultant — and brief — final flourish, she twirled around half-crazed and totally naked. Expect the same this time.

On Sept. 7, for the Los Angeles Opera’s American premiere production of Howard Shore’s new opera “The Fly,” the young Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch bared all. During the crucial final scene in the first act of the opera — based mostly on the 1986 David Cronenberg film and directed by Mr. Cronenberg — the scientist Seth Brundle impulsively decides to use himself as a guinea pig in his invention, which molecularly breaks down a human body and transports it through space. Mr. Okulitch stripped naked, climbed into one brightly lighted telepod, closed the door, and moments later emerged from another telepod, facing the audience with his arms spread, looking transformed, a moment of radiant self-benediction. (There are two more performances, on Saturday and Sept. 27.)

It could be argued that since opera is theater, anything goes. Opera buffs have seen plenty of alluring sopranos in skimpy dresses and handsome bare-chested baritones. Is actual nakedness, if the dramatic situation justifies it, such a big leap?

Maybe not. Still, if opera ventures increasingly down this path, it will have to grapple with the same questions of relevance, gimmickiness and sensationalism that have dogged theater, film and dance.

Dance has broken this barrier the most boldly, which makes sense, since its instrument is the human body in all its beauty and expressivity. Yet choreographers have to be careful not to use naked dancers to inject an easy jolt of eroticism into a mediocre piece.

Nudity in theater has provoked a more contentious debate. There is no question that in many plays explicit nude scenes have been used to compensate for shallow writing or simply to lure people into seats. But when nudity seems called for and natural, it can lend disarming humanity to a drama.

There was, for example, Richard Greenberg’s “Take Me Out,” at the Public Theater in 2002, about a superstar baseball player who reveals that he is gay. The play could not have explored how the interpersonal dynamics of baseball’s locker-room culture are shaken by the star’s announcement without showing the players in the clubhouse showers.

But nudity in the theater can seem the most profound when the characters involved are vulnerable and unglamorous. A crucial, emotionally overpowering moment in Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Wit,” first produced in 1995, comes when the actress playing the middle-aged main character, who is dying of cancer, exposes her gaunt, naked body.

Already in previews at the Broadhurst Theater on Broadway is Peter Shaffer’s “Equus,” a new production from London of the 1973 play. Naturally, fans of the young Daniel Radcliffe will be enticed by the chance to see him, our adorable Harry Potter, in the buff. But nudity is essential to this wrenching scene. A young boy and a young girl, nervous, insecure and full of confused attractions, strip in a stable and approach each other. When the deeply troubled boy cannot get aroused in full view of the horse he worships, he angrily chases the girl away and viciously blinds the horses with a hoof pick.

Though this may be a minority point of view, to me it seems easier to make nudity seem natural in the theater than on film. In a movie, what you see is completely controlled by the director. In sex scenes, the director teases you with glimpses of flesh, letting you see just so much and not more, or sometimes making you see more than you want too. But the viewer cannot help feeling manipulated.

There has been nudity in opera, of course, but mostly involving extras, supernumeraries or dancers. In 1998 the New York City Opera presented the choreographer and director Martha Clarke’s staging of Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice,” a co-production with the English National Opera. During the blissful scene when Orfeo enters the Elysian Fields, an ensemble of captivating dancers appeared in all their naked splendor, portraying the heroes and heroines who inhabit this heavenly realm. But it is another matter to ask opera singers in leading roles to disrobe onstage, artists who, after all, have much else to do.

Here is where opera may soon court trouble if things get too cavalierly explicit. First and foremost, opera is a vocal art form. Never underestimate the visceral dramatic impact of fine singing. A great voice can be very sexy. Listen to Birgit Nilsson’s recording of “Salome.” For sheer sensual power, it’s hard to match Nilsson’s incandescent singing.

The question of exposing flesh in opera to make up for subpar music hovered over “The Fly.” At both its world premiere this summer in Paris and its recent production in Los Angeles, critics found Mr. Shore’s music ponderous and undistinguished. But most reviewers praised cast members for giving their all to the production, especially Mr. Okulitch, a sensitive singer and dynamic actor with a warm and appealing if modest-size voice. That he also has a handsome physique takes nothing away from the courage it took to strip bare for the telepod scene. If only the music had matched the moment. Still, the dramatic situation absolutely called for Brundle to be naked, and Mr. Okulitch complied.

But with Ms. Mattila in “Salome,” we have one of the major sopranos of our time singing an indisputably and persistently shocking early-20th-century opera. Going back to the story’s New Testament source, you could argue the text implies that to get her way with Herod, Salome indeed removed all her of veils. This was clearly Mr. Flimm’s idea, and his glamorous star was game. As I commented at the time, Ms. Mattila’s nudity may have taken less courage to bring off than the psychological nakedness she revealed in her mesmerizing portrayal.

On the other hand, one thing opera buffs have always valued about their beloved art form is that so many excellent opera singers look like everyday people, like us. There is no reason that Rodolfo and Mimi have to look like supermodels. They need only convey that they are beautiful to each other. The music, if sung with tenderness and passion, does the rest.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: September 19, 2008
A music column on Thursday about nudity in opera, including Karita Mattila’s nude appearance in Richard Strauss’s “Salome,” misidentified the source of the story on which the opera is based. It is the New Testament, not the Hebrew Bible.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Motown/Soul composer/producer Norman Whitfield (1941-2008)

LA Times
Norman Whitfield dies at 67; Motown producer and songwriter won two Grammy Awards
The producer for the Temptations and the writer of such hits as 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine' had long struggled with diabetes and other ailments.
By Randy Lewis
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

September 18, 2008

Norman Whitfield, the Grammy-winning songwriter and forward-thinking producer who helped shape the direction of R&B and soul music at Motown Records in the 1960s and '70s, died Tuesday. He was 67.

Whitfield, the co-writer of dozens of Motown hits, including Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” and producer of most of the Temptations' recordings, died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, reportedly of complications from his long struggle with diabetes. He also had a history of heart and kidney ailments.

"Norman Whitfield was one of the most prolific songwriters and record producers of our time," fellow Motown veteran Smokey Robinson said in a statement Wednesday. "He will live forever through his great music."

Whitfield wrote, usually with Barrett Strong, and produced such era-defining hits as "Grapevine," “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)" and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” The latter earned Whitfield one of his two Grammy Awards as a songwriter and composer.

His ambitious production work helped move Motown from the catchy love songs that typified the label's output in the early and mid-'60s into social commentary reflecting volatile issues that were at the heart of the civil rights movement.

"Of all the brilliant writer-producers that Motown has given to the world, I believe none was more brilliant than Norman Whitfield," the Temptations' longtime manager, Shelly Berger, said in a statement Wednesday.

"Most producers stick to basically one type of music," Berger added. "When you listen to Norman's body of work, from 'Beauty Is Only Skin Deep,' 'Ain't Too Proud to Beg,' 'Ball of Confusion,' 'Cloud Nine,' 'Papa Was a Rolling Stone,' two [hit] productions of 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine,' then top it off with 'Just My Imagination' . . . Norman [is] in a class of his own."

Whitfield had a reputation as a tenacious songwriter and producer who extended the life of his songs by recording them with different artists and varying arrangements.

"I Heard It Through the Grapevine" had been recorded with little success at Motown by the Isley Brothers and the Miracles -- and Gaye -- before Whitfield tried it with Gladys Knight & the Pips.

He recorded it with her in part out of frustration over Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.'s refusal to release Gaye's version as a single. Knight's record went to No. 1 on the R&B chart and No. 2 on the pop chart, persuading Gordy to change his mind and put out Gaye's version, for which Whitfield had pushed him to the upper limit of his vocal range.

"While working on the songs for the 'M.P.G.' album, Norman set the songs in keys that were too high for Marvin so he could get Marvin to strain and hit the top of his tenor range without going into falsetto," said David Ritz, author of "Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye." "That drove Marvin crazy and they almost came to blows."

Gaye once told an interviewer that while recording "Grapevine": "I was reaching for notes that made my veins bulge. . . . Had I written the song myself, I would not have sung it at all like that, but there are many benefits in just singing other people's material and taking directions."

That 1968 recording spent seven weeks at No. 1 and pushed Gaye's career to a new peak. "When people heard 'Grapevine,' they said, 'This is a phenomenal artist -- he can do anything," Strong said in 2003.

That success also gave Motown renewed cachet at a time when the hits were slowing down from the label's earlier powerhouses such as the Supremes, Four Tops and the Miracles, before the Temptations got their second wind thanks to Whitfield's guiding hand in the studio.

Whitfield and Strong's "Psychedelic Shack" brought the sound of experimental rock into the halls of Motown in 1970 and became a Top 10 hit for the Temptations. They scored an even bigger hit with the follow-up, "Ball of Confusion (That's What the World Is Today)," a sonic whirlwind that piled on topical lyrics and rhymes á la Bob Dylan or John Lennon.

"To me, he gave Motown another 10 years of life by coming up with this new attitude," said Ritz, who also collaborated on Robinson's autobiography.

"Smokey said the great thing about Norman -- and they were extremely competitive with each other -- was that he brought out the best in everybody," Ritz said. "It was almost like by being confrontational with the vocalist, he got them to not only sing their [best], he also got them to dig into their souls a little bit deeper."

Whitfield was born in 1941, according to voter registration records, in New York City and was a teenager when his family moved to Detroit, where Gordy had recently launched Motown Records.

As a teen, Whitfield produced recordings for local R&B acts at Thelma Records. He often hung around Motown, and in 1962 was hired as a songwriter, joining Gordy's growing stable of writers that included Harvey Fuqua and the team of Brian Holland-Lamont Dozier-Eddie Holland.

Gordy teamed Whitfield up with Strong, whose 1960 recording of his own song, "Money," gave Motown one of its first hits. After some early successes with their songs, Gordy recognized Whitfield's talent at production and put him in charge of the Temptations, who first reached No. 1 on the pop chart with "My Girl," written and produced by Robinson.

But starting with "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" in 1966, Whitfield wrote and produced more than two dozen hits for the group over the next eight years.

"We grew up together," original Temptations singer Otis Williams said Wednesday. "He was my lifelong friend [and] one of the best producers Motown ever had."

Whitfield also oversaw recordings by Edwin Starr, who hit No. 1 with Whitfield's thunderously produced single “War,” and the Undisputed Truth.

In the mid-1970s, Whitfield left Motown and started his own Whitfield Records, and went to No. 1 again with Rose Royce's disco-era hit “Car Wash.” The musical score for that 1976 film snagged Whitfield his second Grammy.

Said author Ritz: "I was working with Berry Gordy once and he told me 'Man, if the Motown Museum should have a whole wing dedicated to one person, it would be Norman Whitfield.' "

In 2005, Whitfield pleaded guilty to tax evasion and was fined $25,000 for failing to report more than $4 million in income. He was sentenced to home detention rather than prison because of his failing health.

Information on Whitfield's survivors or funeral services was not immediately available.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Sarah Palin Baby Name Generator

Yep, now you can have a name like Track, Trig, or Piper. Behold, the Sarah Palin Baby Name Generator!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Orlando "Puntilla" Rios (1947-2008)

Global Rhythm

Master batá drummer Orlando “Puntilla” Ríos, a seminal figure in the New York Latin music scene, died in a New York City hospital August 12 of complications from heart surgery. He was 60.

Ríos arrived from Cuba in 1980 with the Mariel boatlift and formed an Afro-Cuban folkloric group called Nueva Generación (New Generation) intent on preserving and disseminating both sacred Afro-Cuban music and secular forms such as rumba. He became a pillar of the religious Santería community in New York City as well as an in-demand session musician, recording with such luminaries as the Latin jazz pioneer Chico O’Farill.

Ríos relished his role as mentor and teacher to up and coming percussionists, transmitting what Cubans call “fundamento” (fundamentals) on the sacred, two-headed batá drum used in Santería ceremonies and increasingly in secular music. He was also renowned for his prowess on the conga drums and diverse percussion instruments. Ríos’ polyrhythmic performances and recordings such as 1996’s Spirit Rhythms: Sacred Drumming and Chants From Cuba are credited with exposing a wider audience to Cuban folkloric music. His last project was a tribute album honoring the guaguanco rumba legacy of the late Cuban singer-percussionist Gonzalo Asencio (“Tío Tom”). Released this year by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Ríos recorded the album in Havana’s legendary Egrem studios accompanied by El Conjunto Todo Rumbero.

Born in Havana in 1947 (Dec. 26?), Ríos was a teacher of percussion at the National School of Art in Cuba between 1971 and 1978. He went from performing in the city’s most exclusive hotels - storied cabarets such as the ones in Tropicana and the Hotel Riviera, to accompanying great Latin music figures of the stature of Celia Cruz and Tito Puente on the international stage. He is survived by his wife Ileana. - Lissette Corsa

Music-Play Project Fosters ‘Response-ability’ in Children with Autism

FSU Newswise
Released: Tue 02-Sep-2008, 12:40 ET
Music-Play Project Fosters ‘Response-ability’ in Children with Autism

Newswise — In a room dubbed the E-WoMP (exploratory world-music playground) that serves as the centerpiece of the Music-Play Project housed at Florida State University’s College of Music, children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are making impressive gains in creativity, emotional regulation and social participation.

FSU ethnomusicologist Michael B. Bakan likes to call such gains “response-ability.” He’s the director of the innovative medical ethnomusicology program, which uses an array of unusual musical instruments from around the world for improvisational music-play activities that help create a unique therapeutic environment.

“Our program emphasizes ability and personhood over disability and ‘treatment’ and accepts that there are different ways of interacting, just as there are different ways of making music in different cultures,” said Bakan, an associate professor in the College of Music. “The Music-Play Project fosters the growth of response-ability, and in turn, happiness, because it gives children the chance to contribute to the co-creation of culture who too often are characterized as being incapable of doing so.”

Bakan and FSU colleague Benjamin Koen, an assistant professor of ethnomusicology, developed, launched and now oversee the interdisciplinary project in collaboration with researchers at the university’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities and College of Medicine.

The Music-Play Project welcomes children three at a time to the E-WoMP, where they can choose from among safety-modified world-music options such as Balinese gamelan instruments, a West Javanese angklung (tuned bamboo-tubes rattle), and a West African gyil (xylophone), among many others. Less exotic choices might include homemade shakers, small cymbals and slide-whistles. Soft, colorful rubber swimming-pool dive sticks are used as mallets. Bakan describes all the instruments as “high yield for low input” because they yield satisfying sounds with minimal effort and require little or no technical competence.

Children can freely explore the creative and social possibilities in the E-WoMP on their own terms or with one another, the parent accompanying them, or Bakan and Koen, who as expert improvisers trained in diverse world music traditions, serve as music-play facilitators.

“By supporting a child’s expression and creativity, following instead of leading, responding rather than directing, and integrating instead of teaching, our approach helps children on the autism spectrum in ways that more directive, skills development-based interventions, music-related or otherwise, may not,” Bakan said.

Participants in the Music-Play Project are first evaluated and then referred to the program by the FSU Center for Autism and Related Disabilities. To date, there have been three, six-week programs of weekly, hour-long sessions, which Bakan and colleagues aim to further develop and eventually expand.

For a comprehensive overview of the Music-Play Project there’s “Following Frank: Response-Ability and the Co-Creation of Culture in a Medical Ethnomusicology Program for Children on the Autism Spectrum,” a paper that is published in the current (Spring/Summer 2008) edition of the prestigious scholarly journal Ethnomusicology. Bakan was the lead author.

“Following Frank” also describes a 2006 study of the Music-Play Project that focused on a memorable six-year-old participant called “Frank” (not his real name), whose autism-related challenges were profound and pervasive compared to those of most of his music-play peers. Even so, Bakan observed remarkable, positive changes in the child’s response-ability during E-WoMP sessions that also were evident in his social interactions at home.

“The medium of free music-play can help children with ASD to gain confidence and self-esteem, and we are seeing this bear fruit not just in the E-WoMP but also at home, at school and in peer relationships,” Bakan said. “Both in what it achieves and what it reveals about what is already there, the Music-Play Project at FSU is providing a lens through which others can view these children as creative and social makers of culture.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one in 150 U.S. children is affected by ASD, which encompasses a wide range of developmental challenges of varying degrees in verbal and non-verbal communication and social interaction.

With Bakan as lead author, co-authors of “Following Frank: Response-Ability and the Co-Creation of Culture in a Medical Ethnomusicology Program for Children on the Autism Spectrum” are Koen, FSU College of Music; Fred Kobylarz, M.D., former associate professor of geriatrics, FSU College of Medicine, now at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School; Lindee Morgan, director, Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, FSU; Rachel Goff (FSU, B.S. 2007), graduate student, Division of Speech and Hearing Sciences, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; Sally Kahn (FSU, B.S. ’07), graduate student, Division of Speech and Hearing Sciences, Vanderbilt University; Megan Bakan, research associate, Dyslexia Research Registry, FSU.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Music lovers are going back to the future with vinyl

San Diego Union
Music lovers are going back to the future with vinyl

By George Varga

September 14, 2008

Step aside, iPod users. Move over, digital downloaders (legal and otherwise). A very cool “new” form of recorded music is growing in popularity with teens, twentysomethings and even their parents: It's called . . . vinyl records?

That's right.

Against all odds in this high-tech age, vinyl albums – those round, 12-inch discs that look like thin Frisbees with a small hole in the middle – are experiencing a resurgence in popularity in San Diego County and across the nation.

Granted, vinyl albums are unlikely to regain the dominant position they held before the advent of CDs, even as CD sales continue to plunge. (CD sales in this country last year totalled 511 million, a 17.5 percent decline from 2006 and a whopping 30.5 percent drop from 2005.)

But sales of vinyl albums, which were officially pronounced dead in the mid-1980s after CDs were introduced to the buying public, jumped to 1.3 million last year. That's a 36.6 percent increase from 2006, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, a figure that is deemed dramatically low by some industry experts.

“I'd have to say there are more than 5 million new vinyl records sold in the U.S. each year. And that's not accounting for the 20 million used albums selling annually,” said Josh Bizar, sales director for Musicdirect, a Chicago company that services nearly 300 independent record and electronics stores around the world.

“Most vinyl albums are sold in independent stores, through mail-order companies and over the Internet, and none of them uses the Nielsen scanning system that tracks sales in national chain stores,” Bizar noted. “Demand for vinyl is through the roof. We had to buy a new warehouse just to store all our stock.”

For the beleaguered record industry, soaring vinyl album sales are providing rare glimmers of hope:

Amoeba Records, Los Angeles' biggest independent record store, is now selling 2,000 vinyl albums a day, up 15 percent from last year, while Best Buy stores nationwide are starting to sell vinyl.

Nationally, turntable sales climbed to nearly 500,000 last year, up from 275,000 in 2006. “We've seen a huge increase in sales, not just for turntables, but also for styluses (needles) and record-cleaning products,” Bizar said.

On Sept. 2, EMI/Capitol Records re-released multiple albums on vinyl by the top rock bands Radiohead and Coldplay, along with the Beach Boys' classic “Pet Sounds,” R.E.M.'s “Document” and The Steve Miller Band's “Greatest Hits 1974-78.”

Consumer appetite for new vinyl is creating production delays. “We're having issues with manufacturing capacity because demand has surged so quickly,” said Bill Gagnon, EMI's senior vice president of catalog marketing in Los Angeles. “We weren't releasing anything on vinyl five years ago.”

Indie-rock favorite Beck – who performs at San Diego's Street Scene festival Saturday – went so far as to have the online MP3 version of his new album, “Modern Guilt,” taken from the vinyl pressing of the album. As a result, the first thing listeners hear on the opening track is the needle dropping onto the original vinyl.

“At this point, everything is coming out on vinyl,” said Heather Johnson, the co-owner of M-Theory, an independent record store in Mission Hills.

“For the more mainstream releases, like Radiohead's 'In Rainbows,' the price of the vinyl album is $17.99 and the CD is $14.99. For the new Calexico album, the CD is $12.99 and the vinyl is $14.99, but it includes a redemption number to get a digital download of the album. And for the new Bon Iver album, both the vinyl and CD versions are $15.99.”

Johnson estimates that new vinyl releases account for 30 percent of M-Theory's sales, while used vinyl sales account for another 30 percent to 40 percent of sales. M-Theory's best-selling new vinyl releases so far this year are by Radiohead, Nada Surf, The Hold Steady, Portishead and My Morning Jacket.

At Lou's Records in Encinitas, the largest indie music store in San Diego County, vinyl sales have grown steadily over the past year while CD sales have continued to decline. The best-selling vinyl albums at Lou's are by Radiohead and indie-rock favorites Dr. Dog and Conor Oberst, along with a recent vinyl reissue of “Pacific Ocean Blue,” the 1977 solo album by Beach Boy Dennis Wilson.

“Our Top 20 selling albums right now are all vinyl,” said Andrew Snodgrass, Lou's manager. “ is now selling vinyl, and I think you'll see other places start carrying vinyl, as well.”

This unexpected surge has been dubbed “the vinyl solution” by some. Under any name, it's clear many fans are now embracing vinyl, a medium that – until recently – had little cachet beyond turntable-manipulating DJs and hip-hop producers seeking obscure songs to sample.

In some cases, there's a growing frustration with the thin, compressed sound of MP3 files, which rarely match the warmth and audio depth of vinyl. In others, it's a desire to have a more meaningful experience with music and to be able to enjoy the art on an album sleeve and read the credits and liner notes while listening.

The vinyl payoff is palpable whether listeners are using an old turntable, which can be hooked up to their home entertainment systems, or a new turntable equipped with a USB connector, which allows music from vinyl records to be transferred to a computer. Turntables are available locally at RadioShack, Costco and other chain stores, though styluses can be harder to find outside of specialty stores, such as Stereo Unlimited, or from mail-order Web sites.

“Customers are frustrated with the sound quality of downloaded music and their MP3s are crashing,” said M-Theory's Johnson. “So the growing popularity of vinyl is a backlash to downloading and also a little bit of a generational thing, with kids who grew up on their parents' vinyl now embracing it.”

In the case of San Diego musician Ray Suen, 23, aesthetics and a deep love of music prompted his newfound passion for vinyl.

“I got into vinyl last year,” said Suen, who is now a touring member of top national rock band The Killers, with whom he'll perform on “Saturday Night Live” on Nov. 22.

“The first vinyl album I got was Elvis Costello's 'Imperial Bedroom,' and it was so much more of an engaging physical experience to sit and listen to it. When side one was done, I flipped it over. It demanded my attention; I try not to read or do anything else but listen.”

Suen used to download music from Napster and other pirate music Web sites, he said, but now finds himself buying vinyl copies of many of the same albums he had previously purloined digitally.

“I'm sort of paying penance,” Suen said. “Now that I collect vinyl, I just can't stand CDs anymore. I really think CDs are on their way out.”

So does Musicdirect sales director Bizar.

“The forecast is for the eventual demise of CDs,” Bizar said. “But 50 years from now, there will still be new vinyl albums being made. Vinyl will outlive us all.”

Staff researcher Beth Wood contributed to this report.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Kids Music: Goodbye Raffi, hello hipster!

Christian Science Monitor
Goodbye Raffi, hello hipster!
Kid's music gets a rock 'n' roll makeover that soothes adults.
By Amy Farnsworth | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the September 5, 2008 edition

Imagine rocking your baby to sleep to the sounds of sweet, melodic renditions of U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" or rapper Kanye West's "Gold Digger," plunked on a glockenspiel.

Parents who once rocked their little ones to the dreamy "Twinkle, twinkle little star" are changing up baby's bedtime listening selection. And Rockabye Baby! record label, whose 24 albums offer lullaby renditions of popular rock band tunes, is on the leading edge of that trend.

It all started, says Rockabye vice president Lisa Roth, when she went shopping for a baby-shower gift only to be disappointed with the selection of music. She decided to fill the gap herself. "We wanted a product that parents could enjoy and feel comfortable sharing with their little ones – something that was entertaining to listen to for an adult and soothing for a baby," Ms. Roth says.

Her idea met a need. In a market once dominated by Barney anthems and ABCs, there is a flood of new products getting the chic rock 'n' roll makeover.

Independent record labels and marketers are tapping into the children's music market by appealing to adults, prompting some parents to say goodbye to Raffi and wave hello to hip, trendy independent kid's music or "kindie."

Kindie is bridging the gap between Generation Xers and their young ones, allowing both parent and child to share a musical experience where parents won't be tempted to rip their hair out after listening to "The ABCs" ten times on repeat.

"[Children's] music has grown tremendously in the last six to seven years," says Craig Balsam, co-owner of Razor & Tie Entertainment and cocreator of the Kidz Bop series. "Certainly, Disney has become very aggressive as has Nickelodeon because they realize there's an opportunity."

Disney banked on the success of High School Musical soundtracks. The first copy sold 3.7 million albums in 2006, claiming a spot as the top musical album of the year and surpassing Raffi's 3 million album sales, according to Nielsen Soundscan. Disney had similar success with Hannah Montana and the Curious George soundtrack, powered by the mellow tunes of surfer-turned-songwriter Jack Johnson.

Kidz Bop, the series that recreates Top 40 hits with the voices of children, released its 14th album last month. The album sales, which total 9 million, sparked a national tour – what Mr. Balsam calls a "children's rock show" – complete with a live band and child performers. Balsam says that parents who bring children can expect a family-friendly atmosphere: The volume is turned down and kids can dance in a tame mosh pit near the stage.

But what's fueling this change in children's music?

"It's a function of there being more music available that's interesting and exciting to kids," Balsam says. "If you look at the Billboard charts and the relationship between children's music and its audiences, there's a very energized audience. Sales are much higher than they have been."

Independent record labels see the potential for growth and creativity. Rockabye's Lisa Roth notes that children's music is "broadening its horizon in that it's appealing to adults as well.... I think it's becoming slightly more sophisticated and respectful."

That's why Kevin Salem, CEO of Little Monster Records, tinkered with the idea of releasing a jazz album by Medeski Martin & Wood trio for the kid set. The record "Let's Go Everywhere" sold about 15,000 copies in nearly a year, Mr. Salem says. Among the label's other projects: a Beatles cover album featuring the voices of The Bangles, Rachael Yamagata, and kids; and a release from lead singer Robert Schneider of the indie band The Apples in Stereo who goes by the nickname Robbert Bobbert.

In a world of emerging children's music, Salem says, the quality of that music should measure up. "You wouldn't feed your children [at] McDonald's every day any more than you would want to play bad music every day."

Creating quality music drove The Barenaked Ladies into the studio to record their first children's album, "Snacktime," last spring. After 20 years of playing together, band members have 11 offspring of their own, and BNL's bassist Jim Creeggan says a children's album was a natural progression. The album, now No. 16 on the kid's Billboard chart, has forged an avenue for BNL fans to share the band's music with their children.

BNL was inspired in part, Mr. Creeggan says, by They Might Be Giants, an indie band that catapulted onto the kindie scene with three albums singing about the alphabet, grammar, and numbers. In the future, BNL hopes to combine their two genres on tour, Creeggan says, playing kid's music in the afternoon and more grown-up hits at night.

Purity rings are the hot accessory in pop music

Purity rings are the hot accessory in pop music
The Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus and Jordin Sparks all wear the rings

Reuters - Fri., Sept. 12, 2008
LOS ANGELES - Teen star Miley Cyrus wears one, so does “American Idol” winner Jordin Sparks and the members of the hit boy band The Jonas Brothers.

But it took the ridicule of a British comedian at a music awards show this week to highlight the entry of purity rings into the old equation of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll — minus the drugs.

Purity rings, also known as chastity or promise rings, are worn by tens of thousands of young American teens who have pledged to remain virgins until marriage.

Originating in the 1990s among Christian groups, the rings are embossed with words like “True Love Waits” or “One Life One Love” and are worn by both sexes.

The concept has increasingly entered the world of pop rock music that once was the dominion of teen rebellion, and that fact perplexed Russell Brand, the anarchic host of Sunday’s MTV Music Video Awards show in Los Angeles.

“It is a little bit ungrateful because (the Jonas Brothers) could literally have sex with any woman they want, but they’re just not going to do it!” Brand told the audience. “That’s like Superman just deciding not to fly, but to go home on a bus.”

Sparks, 18, stood up for teen heartthrobs Kevin Jonas, 20, and his brothers Joe, 19 and Nick, 16, telling a cheering audience of rock stars. “I just wanna say, it’s not bad to wear a promise ring because not every guy and a girl wants to be a slut, OK?”

Denny Pattyn, an evangelical pastor who founded the Silver Ring Thing 12 years ago, says celebrities can both help and hurt his group’s quest to create a cultural shift in America where premarital abstinence becomes the rule rather than the exception.

Britney Spears once wore one and so did singer Jessica Simpson, who said she kept her pledge before her brief 2002 marriage to Nick Lachey.

“The Jonas Brothers, Jordin Sparks, Miley Cyrus — they are doing a great job so far,” Pattyn told Reuters.

Disney actresses Selina Gomez, 16, and Demi Lovato, 16, also wear purity rings.

“But when a celebrity has maybe put the ring on without the right education and inspiration and then they go out and do something crazy, then it’s a reflection on us.”

Pattyn said that wearing a ring is a constant reminder to stick with the promise.

“It is a commitment, like a wedding ring. It is more likely to work,” he said.

The Silver Ring Thing, which runs high energy music stage shows encouraging 12-18 year-olds to take an abstinence pledge, is expanding its U.S. programs to South Africa, Brazil, Britain and Romania to meet public demand there.

Critics applaud the principle but say the problems arise when young Americans grow up, and are often ignorant of how to manage contraception and sexual health when they do decide to have sex.

“It is probably a nice thing that we have celebrities who are trying to be role models and model healthy behaviors,” said Michael Reece, director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University.

“But these abstinence pledges leave people completely unprepared, once they make the decision to become sexually active, and what happens is that we have a society that is sexually illiterate,” Reece told Reuters.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Watching ‘Friends’ in Gaza: A Culture Clash

September 7, 2008
Watching ‘Friends’ in Gaza: A Culture Clash

GAZA — In a dingy storefront on a noisy block in the middle of Gaza City, metal shelves bulge with dusty audiotapes extolling Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad. Alongside them, a pouty Jennifer Lopez beckons from the cover of a CD. DVDs are also on offer, of not-yet-officially-released movies like “Wanted,” “Hancock” and “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” the Adam Sandler comedy about a Mossad agent turned hairdresser in a New York City salon run by a Palestinian woman.

Amer Kihail, 32, a slender man with an elastic, hangdog face, runs the store, called New Sound. Do Gazans living under Hamas buy much Western music or many Western movies? Mr. Kihail looked baffled, and maybe even a little annoyed, by the question.

“Of course,” he said.

Ruled by Hamas, penned in by Israel, grappling with daily shortages of food and supplies, Gazans need an escape. Culture turns out to be not just an afterthought but, many say, essential to surviving here. Especially for young Gazans, what’s on satellite television and the Internet, on tapes and compact discs, is a window to the world beyond the armored checkpoints, and a link to Arab society elsewhere and, crucially, to the West.

And in what is clearly an emerging struggle within Hamas between political pragmatists, trying to consolidate their new authority, and extremists who have begun pressing a more fundamentalist agenda, culture is a central battleground for control of Gaza. A release from confinement and hardship, even mundane television becomes freighted in this context.

As much as the Pakistan-Afghan frontier, this is a front line in the so-called global war on terror, in which anti-Western strains of Islam rub up against the social and cultural proclivities of many, perhaps most, Muslims.

How the West fares, improbable as it might seem, may depend as much on whether people in this forsaken strip of land and elsewhere in this part of the world are watching “Zohan” and Dr. Phil, as on skirmishes in the mountains south of Kabul. What’s happening in a humble Gazan music store, it turns out, has repercussions across the region and beyond.

Gaza isn’t what you might imagine, culturally speaking. Like the West Bank, it occupies a special place in the Middle East: Gazans may loathe Israel but have worked there or spent years in Israeli prisons, and while they haven’t taken up Jewish culture, they’ve experienced Western life as many other Arabs haven’t. This has encouraged a sensibility that, until lately anyway, had a moderating effect on religion and society.

Not far from New Sound, booksellers in this city’s ancient market hawk sex-instruction manuals alongside yellowing paperbacks from Egypt interpreting the Koran. Arabic translations of old Harlequin romances are laid out on folding tables cheek by jowl with joke books in which Muslim characters do borscht belt shtick. (Wife at a psychiatrist’s office: “My husband talks when he’s sleeping. What should I do?” Psychiatrist: “Can you give him a chance to talk when he’s awake?”)

A skinny boy with bad teeth, manning the book tables the other morning, grinned when a woman came by and thumbed through “What to Do if You Have Weaknesses in Sex.”

Pointing to the religious books, she asked, “Do many people buy those?”

“Sure,” the boy said.

“These, too?” she asked, gesturing toward a stack of flimsy softcovers with a picture of the young Cheryl Tiegs on the front.

“Oh yes!” he said.

That evening, in the garden of a family restaurant called Roots (“No Weapon Please,” a sign said on the front door), patrons munched salads and gazed at “Friends” on a big screen. Everybody was waiting for “Noor.”

As they do throughout much of the Arab world these days, the streets here clear each night when “Noor” comes on. A Turkish “Dallas,” centered around the title character and her rich Muslim family enduring the usual soap opera imbroglios, the show has become so wildly popular that imams in Saudi Arabia and Gaza have lately issued fatwas against anyone who watches it. Naturally, nobody pays attention.

Even Hamas tunes in. Imad Alifranji is helping to start up Alquds, a new Islamic television station, Gaza’s second after Al Aqsa, Hamas’s station, which recently devoted three full days of programming to stories about promising Gazan high school students. Mr. Alifranji is wrestling with what might attract just a few more viewers.

“There’s so much pressure here to find jobs, because of the Israeli siege, because of internal fighting, and with no places for young people to go out, that Gazans take comfort in a Turkish soap opera,” Mr. Alifranji said with a shrug. “It is true,” he said, “Hamas is upset with some scenes in ‘Noor,’ which it fears provide a bad example for Palestinian families, scenes of sex before marriage. My 15-year-old daughter is obsessed with ‘Noor.’ My son, Mosab, who’s 18, tries to stop her from watching. He disapproves.”

As if on cue, Mosab, who looked 12, walked into Mr. Alifranji’s office. The only time he visited a Gazan cafe, Mosab said, he left because “Noor” was on television. He used to listen to Arab pop stars like Elissa and Tamer Hosni, but now finds “they have no respect for religion.” He prefers Jackie Chan movies and rap. “ ‘Noor,’ ” he said, “doesn’t know the difference between what should be taboo and what is acceptable.” Suddenly, Mosab’s cellphone rang. He blushed.

The ringtone was the theme from “Noor.”

Hip-Hop and Soap Operas

Gaza has not had any movie house since the last one burned two decades ago during the first intifada. The Palestinian territories are bitterly split, with the more moderate Fatah ruling the West Bank, and Gaza under the control of Hamas, which won the Palestinian popular election two years ago and fought back an attempted coup by Fatah last year. Now Gaza has become isolated. The French Cultural Center is virtually the only institution that organizes a modest art exhibition or music recital once in a while.

But that doesn’t mean Gazans don’t consume and make culture themselves. One broiling afternoon, a dozen young married friends sat around a picnic table at a swim club, near the beach in Gaza City, talking about “Oprah,” “24” and “Prison Break.”

The club, a private retreat amid garbage and ruins, was a whitewashed oasis of bougainvillea and tattered canvas awnings on rusty blue poles, a kind of faded Polaroid of Coney Island around 1965, but with female swimmers in soggy pants and T-shirts, not bikinis, and shirtless teenage boys kicking around a soccer ball.

“We do as we like in private,” explained Rajah Abujasser, 20, wearing a green head scarf and long sleeves despite the heat.

Across town, Mothafar Alassar was taping a new track at Mashareq, a recording studio. He’s 20, a baby-faced rapper with a shaved head. A few years ago he formed the band S.B.R. with a friend.

“Through TV and the Internet I fell in love with rap, with Tupac and 50 Cent, Keny Arkana from Marseille,” he said. “People laughed at first. Rap was new in Gaza. The French Cultural Center, they gave me money to make an album. Now, when we had a concert recently, 700 people came.”

Hamas then arrested Mr. Alassar, saying he had no license to perform, but released him after he gave a live sample of his hip-hop to a bemused, bearded official. “Hamas is not against art,” Mr. Alassar said. “They just don’t understand it.”

Rima Morgan, a 28-year-old business student turned singer in a white head scarf and black leotard, was also at Mashareq, recording a jingle for a West Bank radio station. “My family, which is traditional, didn’t want me to sing, because it meant late nights, at parties, with men and women together,” she said. “But for me singing is the only way to keep going.” She said she listens to Indian music, to Céline Dion and Julio Iglesias, and to Arab pop stars like Elissa. On television, she watches “Friends.”

And “Noor,” of course.

“We can’t travel, so it’s our exposure to another Islamic society,” she said.

Ramy Okasha, a fellow singer, who was also there, shook his head. “The man is not a man,” he complained about Noor’s husband, Mohannad, the soap opera’s blue-eyed answer to Fabio; his face, like that of Noor’s, hangs on the bedroom walls of countless Gazan teenage girls. “She’s too stubborn,” Mr. Okasha grumbled.

What does he watch instead?

“ ‘The Bold and the Beautiful,’ ” he answered.

Cartoons Cutting Too Closely

Hamas produces its own version of culture. The cartoonist Omayya Joha’s caricatures appear in many Arab magazines and newspapers. She’s the widow of a Hamas fighter killed by Israelis. She married another fighter after he died.

“I have a quill in one hand and a gun in the other,” she likes to say. At a Hamas office not long ago, sitting reservedly in hijab and black gloves before a conference table and tray of candy and fruit juice, she said coolly: “Israel thinks of me as a radical anti-Semite, but I’m not. I simply do not think that we can ever have peace. No way. Never.”

She studies Western cartoons. “The exposure is very important,” she explained, brightening at the prospect of talking shop, not politics. Lately, the Fatah-linked newspaper in the West Bank rejected some of her work and that saddened her.

“You start to think about self-censorship,” she frowned, “anticipating what Fatah will not like.”

This is exactly what many Gazans say Hamas has lately caused them to do.

She stiffened at that remark. “There is a price to pay for your affiliations,” she said. Eyad Sarraj shook his head when this was repeated to him. “Hamas has not yet officially imposed its cultural program, but it’s in place,” he said. He is a Gazan psychiatrist. “After the election last year, we were assured Hamas would not infringe on our personal freedom, but now they are trying hard to prove us wrong. They are coming into our homes.”

He was alluding to an episode last month when hooded Hamas policemen broke into the rooftop apartment of a businessman and his wife, who were quietly drinking with guests. The police officers beat up the men and confiscated the liquor.

Ayman Taha, a Hamas leader, claimed that was a mistake. “Those were wrongdoings by some individuals in Hamas who don’t reflect the movement’s position,” he said.

Stone-faced, built like a weight lifter, he was sitting on a patio overlooking the sea, staring undazed into the sun. Below, teenage boys played paddle ball in the surf and women in head scarves, and also some without, sat under makeshift tents. Rifles across their laps, black-clad policemen, who are everywhere in Gaza, perched on a ruined embankment beside the patio, watching. “Hamas has not implemented any restrictions regarding cultural life,” Mr. Taha said.

Aside from slowing Internet access, ostensibly to deter Gazans from looking at pornography, that’s technically true, but there is also no law here against alcohol and you won’t find a bar in Gaza. Mr. Taha chalked up the attack on the businessman, along with a rising number of similar events, to rogue elements in Hamas, former soldiers who are now unseasoned policemen who, he stressed, do not disrupt basic party unity. “If some people are restricting their own freedoms as a reaction, out of fear, that is their decision,” he went on in a deadpan voice. “Do you hear that music?” A restaurant was piping Steely Dan across the patio.

“Do I use my power to stop this?” he said. “No. People are entitled to their behavior — so long as they do not harm this culture.” And there’s the rub. Gallery Mina, a Ministry of Culture art space that for years hosted poetry readings, films and Western-style art exhibitions, was among hundreds of organizations recently raided by Hamas, with the excuse of flushing out Fatah links; now Mina has been turned into a home for Hamas-approved events.

The Culture and Free Thought Association, a nonprofit organization in Khan Yunis, a town in southern Gaza, with a theater, a summer camp and a variety of arts programs, was looted not long ago by Hamas security forces who held the woman in charge at gunpoint and later went to her home. Leaders of Hamas in Khan Yunis apologized afterward, claiming, like Mr. Taha, that the raiders were renegades.

It’s noteworthy that the places raided by Hamas aren’t book stalls selling sex manuals or cafes showing sitcoms, but cultural centers promoting art that aspires to be more than an opiate for the people, implying an organized attack.

“Hamas wants to create an impression in Gaza that they are not controlling individual life or suppressing cultural freedom, and they want that message to reach outside,” said Jamal Al Rozzi, director of the Palestinian Theater Association in Gaza, whose office was also attacked. “But at the same time, everything is under its control. Hamas doesn’t officially tell us that we can’t do anything, but you can be taken away to prison and beaten for 30 days and no one will even know where the hell you are.”

Security at a Price

Khan Yunis is, even by Gazan standards, a bastion of religious tradition, a sun-baked puzzle of tumbledown buildings and dirt streets, the Wild West compared to the cosmopolitan Gaza City. It’s also a Hamas stronghold, although before Hamas took over, a local shop was bombed by Islamic extremists for selling pop music.

“After the explosion, we lost so much that we could only afford to rent half our former space,” said Mazin Abdeen, 35, the store’s owner. He was leaning against the front door of his new place one recent afternoon, chatting with an ice cream salesman next door over the roar of a generator. As usual, the electricity was out. The air was ripe with the stench of reused cooking oil, which, because Israel provides little gasoline, Gazans have turned to for fuel.

On a glass counter in Mr. Abdeen’s shop, stocked with watches and women’s underwear, were tapes by Elissa and Nancy, the pop singers. “Now that Hamas is the government, there is no problem,” he said. “They protect us.”

That is the paradox. Hamas has provided the formerly lawless Gaza with security, which won the party the election over Fatah. But Hamas now makes many Gazans feel insecure. Majeda Alsaqqa is the woman running the Culture and Free Thought Association, the one held at gunpoint. For the moment, she’s back in business. But Hamas not long ago took over the local library, and it stages plays about the lives of Palestinian soldiers killed by Israel, which are sometimes performed in the street just outside Ms. Alsaqqa’s garden.

“They use real explosives!” she said, laughing. “It used to be different here. I used to ride around on a bicycle wearing a dress. The raid on us was about imposing a different culture — about not liking our kind of theater, where men and woman mix. These were brainwashed kids who came with the Kalashnikovs, who are taught not to like foreigners or summer camps, where we teach children not to take anything for granted. For the first time, I’m scared.”

She’s not alone. Even so, Gazans can be stubborn. These days, playing songs extolling Fatah in public is a direct provocation against Hamas. The other night, a Fatah anthem sounded through the streets. It turned out to be a bachelor party. A rented bandstand with flashing lights had been erected in a square.

The men, heads skyward, danced with a mad intensity, escaping into the deafening music. The inky sea was up the street, silent and shimmering. There was no traffic, no movement on the sidewalks otherwise, but at the end of the block, several young, armed Hamas soldiers lingered in the shadows.

“You never know,” said Mr. Kihail, back at New Sound. “No direct threat has come, but you cannot joke with Hamas.” Next to the cash register — beside tapes bearing an image of the long-faced, white-bearded Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin — he nonetheless still stocks Fatah tapes with pictures of Samih Madhoun, the fighter whom Hamas last year elaborately executed. When asked to play a selection from the tape, Mr. Kihail kept an eye on the door.

“Arafat, you left,” the singer wailed, “but you left behind an earthquake that is Samih Madhoun.”

Just then, a middle-aged woman in a head scarf wandered in, and fondled a CD by Mustafa Amar, an Egyptian singer in a dashing white scarf, standing before the Pyramids. “It’s an escape,” she said, making clear she meant the music, not the album cover.

Mr. Kihail asked her if she was also a fan of Abdel Halim, the Egyptian crooner, who died in 1977 and who remains universally beloved here. He cued up a Halim song, one about a man abandoned by his lover, with a baleful melody. She nodded. Briefly, Mr. Kihail teared up.

“I blame him,” the woman said, about Halim, “for being so romantic. Life is not like that.”

“No,” Mr. Kihail said, “it isn’t.”