Sunday, November 30, 2008

Bel Canto: Audiences Love It, but What Is It?

November 30, 2008
Bel Canto: Audiences Love It, but What Is It?

IN 1858 Gioachino Rossini, wealthy, well fed and, at 66, retired from the opera business for nearly 30 years, bemoaned the decline in the heritage of Italian singing during a conversation with friends in Paris. “Alas for us,” he is reported to have said, “we have lost our bel canto.”

He was referring to the art of singing as it flourished in Italy from the mid-1700s through the first decades of the 19th century. He might also have been referring to the approach to writing operas by the Italian composers who were steeped in the bel canto singing tradition. It is not really clear.

Quite a bit about the concept of bel canto has long been open to interpretation, including the meaning of this loose term itself, which literally translates as beautiful singing. (Or beautiful song. See what I mean?) But one indisputable point is that the singing tradition for which Rossini was waxing nostalgic was not known as bel canto during the decades when it was supposedly thriving.

The term did not come into fashion until midway through the 19th century. To speak of the bel canto era in opera is like referring to the Lost Generation of young Americans, mostly creative types, who flocked to Paris during the 1920s. Only after the fact, through the propaganda of Ernest Hemingway, did those expatriates discover that they had been lost.

Opera buffs today use the term bel canto all the time. Yet we each seem to bring a different set of assumptions to the concept.

So here is one opera lover’s attempt to explain bel canto as I understand it, a primer of sorts, along with recommendations of a few recordings for those who don’t want to wait for the presentations of bel canto operas next year at the Metropolitan Opera to bone up. Mary Zimmerman’s production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” will be revived in late January with Anna Netrebko in the title role, and Ms. Zimmermann’s new production of a Bellini classic, “La Sonnambula,” opens in early March, starring the soprano Natalie Dessay and the tenor Juan Diego Flórez, two leading exponents of bel canto repertory.

In its narrowest sense bel canto opera refers to the early decades of 19th-century Italian opera, when Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti dominated the field. But the overall concept of bel canto started much earlier, with a consensus among opera enthusiasts that there was nothing more ravishing than a beautiful voice singing a beautiful melodic line beautifully, especially a melodic line driven by a sensitive musical setting of a poetic and singable text.

The technique of singing that produced the desired results valued smooth production, or legato, throughout the entire vocal range. Ideally, you did not want to hear singers shifting gears as their voices moved from low to middle to high registers. Also prized was the ability to execute effortlessly all manner of embellishments — rapid-fire runs, trills and such — the better to decorate vocal lines. So the use of a lighter yet penetrating sound in the upper register was crucial to the style.

But as the Romantic movement took hold in the 19th century, the public taste for operatic drama evolved. Composers started writing works that demanded more intense and powerful singing. Voices grew weightier. A telling example of the shift in fashion was the acclaimed tenor Gilbert Duprez, born in Paris in 1806.

In his early days Duprez was a “tenore di grazia,” a light lyric tenor with an agile and flexible voice, which he showed in roles like Almaviva in Rossini’s “Barbiere di Siviglia.” But increasingly he displayed dramatic intensity, notably in Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell” and later in operas by Donizetti and Berlioz. He is believed to have been the first tenor to sing a high C not with the lighter, ringing so-called head voice but with a full, powerful chest voice. It drove crowds wild, but it drove Rossini crazy. He likened the sound to “the squawk of a capon with its throat cut.”

A tenor’s high C’s can still drive audiences wild. Last season, though Mr. Flórez was completely charming and sang beautifully as Tonio in the Met’s production of Donizetti’s “Fille du Régiment,” he garnered excessive attention for his dispatching of the tenor’s showpiece aria with its nine high C’s. When Luciano Pavarotti sang this bel canto tour de force, he stunned his audiences by tossing off those notes with astounding power. His voice was an uncanny hybrid, combining the colorings and agility of a lyric tenor with an enormous sound. When a light-voiced lyric tenor like Mr. Flórez sings the aria, it is not all that hard. Still, Mr. Flórez is a gift to bel canto opera fans.

The other historical dimension of the bel canto era has to do with the nature of the operas written for voices steeped in the practice. Since beautiful singing carried the day in the bel canto tradition, it was natural to compose music that would showcase such vocalism. For me the most fascinating element of the practice has to do with the approach to writing melody.

The melodic line is everything in a bel canto opera, not just in the arias but in the elaborate scenes that contain them. Those scenes offer long stretches of lyrically enhanced recitative and extended spans of arioso, a halfway station between full-out melody and conversational recitative.

Catchy tunes in all styles of music tend to have something in common: they are laid out in symmetrical phrases with simple melodic riffs that are repeated. Think of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Or the operatic equivalent of a catchy tune, Figaro’s “Non più andrai” from Mozart’s “Nozze di Figaro.” Such melodies are analogous to poetry written in symmetrical verses with lines of equal length and repeated phrases.

But the bel canto melodies that most captivate me are those that spin out in long, elegant, endless lines that almost disguise the phrase structure of the melody. For a modern equivalent, think of the Beatles’ song “Yesterday,” with its elusive and haunting melody. A prime example from bel canto would be Norma’s aria “Casta diva” from the Bellini masterpiece that bears her name.

The elaborately ornamented phrases of “Casta diva” sensitively elongate every syllable of the Italian text. But the result is a melody that seems to hover wondrously above the undulant and respectful accompaniment pattern.

It’s easy to poke fun at those simple, some would say simplistic, accompaniment patterns in a bel canto aria, or the oom-pah-pah’s in an early Verdi aria, which Wagner mocked, likening Verdi’s orchestra to a big guitar. Verdi understood, however, that when a melody was pure, strong and beguiling, it was enough for an accompaniment to provide harmonic support and rhythmic lift. Defending Verdi’s standard approach to aria writing, Stravinsky, no less, in his “Poetics of Music,” wrote that “there is more substance and true invention in the aria ‘La donna è mobile,’ for example, in which the elite saw nothing but deplorable facility, than in the rhetoric and vociferations of the ‘Ring.’ ”

As every opera historian will say, the problem in talking about early-19th-century bel canto opera is that no work from that era relied solely on creating longspun phrases of ethereal melody. Bellini was probably the purest bel canto master, but an opera like “Norma” is rich with declamatory vocal writing, fits of Romantic passion, fearsome outbursts for the volatile tragic heroine in which the soprano must summon chilling power and dispatch quick-paced lines full of daring leaps.

The practice of bel canto in its purest form had enormous influence on subsequent composers. Donizetti cleared the path that Verdi followed. Verdi became a bold innovator later in his career, but early on he struggled to find a balance between transcending the parameters of opera as it was practiced and honoring the bel canto heritage to which he was beholden.

It’s a wonder that Chopin, born in 1810, never tried to write an opera, because he was completely smitten with bel canto works, especially Bellini’s. Chopin’s melodies, like the opening theme for the soloist in the Piano Concerto No. 1, composed in 1830, sing with the long-lined, profoundly melancholic elegance of a bel canto melody. Chopin and Bellini sometimes seem like distant composer cousins drawing from the same creative well.

Listen to the scene at the beginning of Act II of “Norma,” which appeared the year after Chopin’s concerto. When the title character, a druid priestess who has secretly violated her vows and given birth to two children by an occupying Roman, contemplates killing them, she pours out her anguish in a profoundly sad melody, “Teneri figli” (“Tender children”). There are remarkable similarities.

Even Wagner was influenced by the principles of bel canto opera, though he did not like to admit it. His early works, especially “Das Liebesverbot,” have set-piece arias with florid melodies and chordal accompanimental patterns, the whole works.

Naturally, Wagner, who debunked just about everything, described bel canto singing as blandly lyrical and obsessed with vocal niceties. He called for a German school of singing that would bring spiritually vibrant and profoundly passionate qualities into vocal artistry.

For sure, Wagner demanded new levels of vocal power and stamina from singers. Yet at other times he supported the essential approach to singing that the bel canto tradition espoused. Brünnhilde has extended passages of elegiac melodic lines. Even in her trademark “Hojotojo!” battle cry, she must execute a long trill. The German soprano Lilli Lehmann, who participated in the first complete “Ring” production at Bayreuth in 1876, would later become renowned both as Brünnhilde and as Norma and considered the roles complementary. More recently Jane Eaglen also sang both prominently, though how well she handled Bellini’s florid vocal lines was a hot topic among operagoers.

As for the bel canto approach to melodic construction, Bellini and his generation were hardly the first to compose long, winding vocal lines. What could be more melismatic and endlessly melodic than medieval chant? And in the arias of his Passions and cantatas, Bach could spin a florid melodic line as well as any bel canto master.

Think of the artful pop songs of Rufus Wainwright, who knows opera like an expert and is nearly finished writing one. Or of Burt Bacharach’s dreamy melodies, like the quirky song “Alfie,” which does its thing, complete with twists and turns, oblivious to phrase structure.

And though Stephen Sondheim has a love-hate attitude toward opera, many of his melodic lines show its influence. In “No Place Like London” from “Sweeney Todd,” the title character, an avenging barber, gives hints of his woeful story to the sailor Anthony (“There was a barber and his wife”) through a slow accretion of melodic phrases that grow increasingly prolonged and anguished. Verdi could not have done it better.

I would like to think that the practice of writing free-roaming melodic lines, which continues, is in part a result of early-19th-century Italian opera, which empowered composers to push the practice to the hilt. Whatever you want to call it.

But one thing about opera hasn’t changed since the days of Rossini’s maturity. Buffs are always complaining that singing was better in the old days.

That Sound at Its Best


Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano; Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Tullio Serafin (EMI Classics 5 66438 2; two CDs).

Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Sherrill Milnes; Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Richard Bonynge (Decca 410 193-2, three CDs).

Maria Callas’s 1953 “Lucia,” with forces from the May Festival in Florence, Italy, is not just her best recording of the role but a milestone in the discography of opera. Also splendid is the 1971 recording with Covent Garden forces, starring Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti, both in superb voice.


Maria Callas, Cesare Valletti; La Scala Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Leonard Bernstein (EMI Classics 5 67906 2; two CDs).

There are excellent studio recordings of “La Sonnambula,” including the 1980 Decca account with Joan Sutherland and a superlative Luciano Pavarotti. Still, though you have to listen through some surface noise, my favorite is the 1955 live recording from La Scala, with an inspired Callas and, of all people in a bel canto opera, the 37-year-old Leonard Bernstein, conducting with a wondrous balance of urgency and lyrical elegance.

Monday, November 24, 2008

As Taboos Ease, Saudi Girl Group Dares to Rock

November 24, 2008
Jidda Journal
As Taboos Ease, Saudi Girl Group Dares to Rock

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — They cannot perform in public. They cannot pose for album cover photographs. Even their jam sessions are secret, for fear of offending the religious authorities in this ultraconservative kingdom.

But the members of Saudi Arabia’s first all-girl rock band, the Accolade, are clearly not afraid of taboos.

The band’s first single, “Pinocchio,” has become an underground hit here, with hundreds of young Saudis downloading the song from the group’s Web site. Now, the pioneering foursome, all of them college students, want to start playing regular gigs — inside private compounds, of course — and recording an album.

“In Saudi, yes, it’s a challenge,” said the group’s lead singer, Lamia, who has piercings on her left eyebrow and beneath her bottom lip. (Like other band members, she gave only her first name.) “Maybe we’re crazy. But we wanted to do something different.”

In a country where women are not allowed to drive and rarely appear in public without their faces covered, the band is very different. The prospect of female rockers clutching guitars and belting out angry lyrics about a failed relationship — the theme of “Pinocchio” — would once have been unimaginable here.

But this country’s harsh code of public morals has slowly thawed, especially in Jidda, by far the kingdom’s most cosmopolitan city. A decade ago the cane-wielding religious police terrorized women who were not dressed according to their standards. Young men with long hair were sometimes bundled off to police stations to have their heads shaved, or worse.

Today, there is a growing rock scene with dozens of bands, some of them even selling tickets to their performances. Hip-hop is also popular. The religious police — strictly speaking, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice — have largely retreated from the streets of Jidda and are somewhat less aggressive even in the kingdom’s desert heartland.

The change has been especially noticeable since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the Saudis confronted the effects of extremism both outside and inside the kingdom. More than 60 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population is under 25, and many of the young are pressing for greater freedoms.

“The upcoming generation is different from the one before,” said Dina, the Accolade’s 21-year-old guitarist and founder. “Everything is changing. Maybe in 10 years it’s going to be O.K. to have a band with live performances.”

Dina said she first dreamed of starting a band three years ago. In September, she and her sister Dareen, 19, who plays bass, teamed up with Lamia and Amjad, the keyboardist.

They were already iconoclasts: Dina and Dareen wear their hair teased into thick manes and have pierced eyebrows. During an interview at a Starbucks here, they wore black abayas — the flowing gown that is standard attire for women — but the gowns were open, showing their jeans and T-shirts, and their hair and faces were uncovered. Women are more apt to go uncovered in Jidda than in most other parts of the country, though it is still uncommon.

“People always stare at us,” Dareen said, giggling. She and her sister are also avid ice skaters, another unusual habit in Saudi Arabia’s desert.

The band gets together to practice every weekend at the sisters’ house, where their younger brother sometimes fills in on drums. In early November, Dina, who studies art at King Abdulaziz University, began writing a song based on one of her favorite paintings, “The Accolade,” by the English pre-Raphaelite painter Edmund Blair Leighton. The painting depicts a long-haired noblewoman knighting a young warrior with a sword.

“I liked the painting because it shows a woman who is satisfied with a man,” Dina said.

She had thought of writing a song based on “Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci but decided that doing so would be taking controversy too far. In Saudi Arabia, churches are not allowed, and Muslims who convert to Christianity can be executed.

Dina held out her cellphone to show a video of the band practicing at home. It looked like a garage-band jam session anywhere in the world, with the sisters hunching over their instruments, their brother blasting away at the drums and Lamia clutching a microphone.

“We’re looking for a drummer,” Lamia said. “Five guys have offered, but we really want the band to be all female.”

Although they know they are doing something unusual, in person the band members seem more playful than provocative. Unlike some of the wealthier Saudi youth who have lived abroad and tasted Western life, they are middle class and have never left their country.

“What we’re doing — it’s not something wrong, it’s art, and we’re doing it in a good way,” Dina said. “We respect our traditions.”

All the members are quick to add that they disapprove of smoking, drinking and drugs.

“You destroy yourself with that,” Lamia said.

Yet rock and roll itself is suspect in Saudi Arabia in part because of its association with decadent lifestyles. Most of the bands here play heavy metal, which has only added to the stigma because of the way some Western heavy metal bands use images linked to satanism or witchcraft. In Saudi Arabia, people are sometimes imprisoned and even executed on charges of practicing witchcraft.

The first rock bands appeared here about 20 years ago, according to Hassan Hatrash, 34, a journalist and bass player who was one of the pioneers, and their numbers gradually grew. Then in 1995, the police raided a performance in the basement of a restaurant in Jidda, hauling about 300 young men off to jail, including Mr. Hatrash. They were released a few days later without being charged. There is no actual law against playing rock music or performing publicly.

“After that, the scene kind of died,” he said.

Mr. Hatrash, who has graying shoulder-length hair, recalled how the religious police used to harass young men who advertised their interest in rock and roll. He once had his head was shaved by the police.

In recent years, with the religious police on the defensive, bands have begun to play concerts, and a few have recorded albums. Occasionally young men bring their guitars and play outside the cafes on Tahlia Street in Jidda, where young people tend to congregate in the evenings.

Although the music is mostly familiar to heavy metal fans anywhere — thrashing guitars and howling vocals — some of the lyrics reflect the special challenges of life and love in this puritanical country.

“And I Don’t Know Why,” a song by Mr. Hatrash’s band, Most of Us, has these lyrics:

Why is it always so hard to get to you

When it’s something we both want to do

Every time we have to create an alibi

So that we can meet and love or at least try...

As the Saudi rock scene grew, Dina gathered the courage to start her own band. It plans to move slowly, she said, with “jams for ladies only” at first. The band members’ parents support them, though they have asked them to keep things low-key. Eventually, Dina said, they hope to play real concerts, perhaps in Dubai.

“It’s important for them to see what we’re capable of,” she said.

Friday, November 21, 2008

What Happy People Don’t Do (Watch Television)

November 20, 2008
What Happy People Don’t Do

Happy people spend a lot of time socializing, going to church and reading newspapers — but they don’t spend a lot of time watching television, a new study finds.

That’s what unhappy people do.

Although people who describe themselves as happy enjoy watching television, it turns out to be the single activity they engage in less often than unhappy people, said John Robinson, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and the author of the study, which appeared in the journal Social Indicators Research.

While most large studies on happiness have focused on the demographic characteristics of happy people — factors like age and marital status — Dr. Robinson and his colleagues tried to identify what activities happy people engage in. The study relied primarily on the responses of 45,000 Americans collected over 35 years by the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey, and on published “time diary” studies recording the daily activities of participants.

“We looked at 8 to 10 activities that happy people engage in, and for each one, the people who did the activities more — visiting others, going to church, all those things — were more happy,” Dr. Robinson said. “TV was the one activity that showed a negative relationship. Unhappy people did it more, and happy people did it less.”

But the researchers could not tell whether unhappy people watch more television or whether being glued to the set is what makes people unhappy. “I don’t know that turning off the TV will make you more happy,” Dr. Robinson said.

Still, he said, the data show that people who spend the most time watching television are least happy in the long run.

Since the major predictor of how much time is spent watching television is whether someone works or not, Dr. Robinson added, it’s possible that rising unemployment will lead to more TV time.

The N-Word Is Flourishing Among Generation Hip-Hop Latinos

Village Voice
The N-Word Is Flourishing Among Generation Hip-Hop Latinos
Why should we care now?
By Raquel Cepeda
published: October 22, 2008

"Yo, my nigga, that nigga's crazy," declares a young Dominican guy in his late teens, early twenties. "Yeah, my nigga, that nigga was buggin' last night, my nigga," responds another hermano. Chatter like this floated in the air like the whiff of days-old garbage smoldering in the heat while I took my frequent summer jaunts along Vermilyea Avenue way uptown in Inwood, with my 11-year-old daughter in tow.

Initially, you'd find mostly Caribbean Latinos dropping n-bombs into rap lyrics—"Pigs," off Cypress Hill's classic self-titled 1991 debut, is just one example—but nearly two decades later, the profusion of the word into the New York City Latino vocabulary is reaching an almost caricaturist quality. In Spanish Harlem, el Bronx, and the Lower East Side, it's enthusiastically deployed in an almost faddish manner, as if it's going out of style literally tomorrow. With Nas threatening to name his latest album Nigga (he relented, eventually, but most fans still call it that anyway) a few months ago, and iconic Latino artists from the authentic urban native Fat Joe to one of my favorite internationalists, Immortal Technique, still flinging it about freely, the word, its meaning, and our sense of who can and cannot use it still dominates public conversation. The palpable racial tension that's been rearing its head this historic presidential election, the subject of race and who is truly considered black or white in this black-and-white race, is something Latinos need to pay attention to. For many of us, especially those of Caribbean descent who make up a sizable chunk of New York Latinos, race should matter, and so should that one particular word.

Personal feelings, premonitions, and politics aside, I took the two young boys' exchange as an interesting opportunity, an exercise in thinking about Afro-Latino identity in an unlikely way: through a hip-hop lens. Aside from the fact that we're in the thick of a predominantly Dominican enclave (for now) in our beloved Uptown Manhattan, and the first guy I'd overheard wore an oversized white T-shirt emblazoned with our motherland's flag, homeboy could've passed for an African-American man on any other stretch of blocks stateside. By comparison, his comrade looked more like Fat Joe's skinnier brother, with light eyes and pale skin. Was it OK, or more OK, for the darker-skinned kid to use the term?

As many times as I've heard it yelled across the streets and in playgrounds lately, it doesn't take away the sting. But it's naive to think Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Cuban kids in New York City aren't calling each other and themselves the n-word, especially in 2008. (It's a global phenomenon, too: In West African cities like Freetown and Accra, heads that find out you're from the States and part of the hip-hop community will find creative ways to work the word into a conversation.) For us, the word usually surfaces in the same context that arises among young African-Americans: as a term of inclusion and solidarity. "It's just a code of communication to us, a 'hood word people throw around frequently," says half-African-American, half-Dominican rapper AZ, who released his "rap thesis" on the subject, titled N.4.L. (Niggaz 4 Life), last month. "I guess people want to use it now for press and all that; I don't understand what's all the big fuss about."

Somehow, the n-word has found its way back into hip-hop's critical zeitgeist: I'm interested in exploring, as a Dominican New Yorker, how we as a community have propagated it. Recently, due to the mounting criticism of Boricua rapper Fat Joe's use of the term eight albums deep into his career (including his latest, The Elephant in the Room), Latinos are being challenged to introspect. But I can see why an impulse to laser-focus on the issue now would bewilder a veteran rapper like Joe; he's used the word consistently since emerging in 1993, as have the Beatnuts, Hurricane G, and his late Puerto Rican cohort Big Pun, to name a few. In an interview with Chicago-based WGCI radio personality Leon Rogers, Joe said that while he didn't know exactly when Latinos started using the n-word, he felt that "somehow it became a way to embrace each other." He added: "Crazy shit is, my man Reverend Al Sharpton, whenever I see him, he'll be like, 'Wassup Joe, my nigga,' and he's the dude that protests 'my nigga.' He's my friend, so he says it to me as a term of endearment."

"It draws the racial differentiations into the Latino community, which I agree with," says New York University Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis, Juan Flores, who regularly teaches courses on Afro-Latino identity here and abroad. "It's just an opportunity to check the power that Black Latinos reflect off each other and the Latino population." In other words, Latino artists use the n-word as a reminder that they too have been oppressed and are products of the transatlantic slave trade.

There may be a reason for the lack of attention: Many Caribbean Latinos are, to Americans at least, ethnically ambiguous products of miscegenation. Regardless of what we've learned in grade school, our history extends past Columbus and our Spanish conquistadores. "The European Spaniards have left a legacy of self-hatred and racism among the Latino population; without acknowledging that, we will not evolve past our own inequity," says Immortal Technique, an Afro-Peruvian hip-hop artist who also uses the n-word. "Racism in America, as horrible and ugly as it may be, still isn't as bad as what it is in Latin America, and the sad part is that we are being racist against ourselves."

Maybe, in a way, that's the statement Dania Ramirez intended to make when, as part of Nas's Grammy-night entourage earlier this year, the dark-brown Dominican actress sported a black T-shirt emblazoned with the n-word. Many folks in our parents' generation have rejected their blackness—I have older Latino neighbors who won't vote for Barack Obama simply because he's black—but those generations more informed by hip-hop are embracing their Afro-Latino identity and evolving past our own self-hatred. Perhaps. "One fallacy is that [the n-word is] blasé, like, 'Ah well, everyone can use it now that it has a different meaning,' because it's not completely meaningless," says Professor Flores. "The other extreme, though, is the absolutist who thinks no one can use it because it's taboo, under any circumstances. That's a problem, too, because every expression has the potential for ulterior meanings, depending on the circumstances of the person."

Crystal, a 13-year-old fair-skinned Dominican girl attending eighth grade in an Inwood public school, remembers first hearing the n-word in a song while hanging out with her aunt. "So then, we got on the computer and we looked it up, and it had the meaning and everything," she recalls. "I was like, 'Why would you say it in a song?' From there, you started hearing everybody on the street saying it, and then everybody started getting used to it." To be fair, parents aren't always able to interfere because they speak little to no English; those reared by hip-hop culture in the last two decades often use it themselves.

The similar term cocolo—most popularly used as an insult against Haitians by Dominicans, and by Puerto-Ricans against Dominican immigrants who look Haitian—is another word gradually being assigned a new meaning here among Latinos. Other words that translate to mean "black" among Caribbean Latinos are moreno/a and negrito/a, almost always used as terms of endearment. However, because none of these words have had the fraternal stamp of hip-hop approval, they have yet to receive their proverbial ghetto passes; speaking of which, Jennifer Lopez might've surrendered hers when she left the Bronx eons ago. While it's a fact that men in the hip-hop industry can get away with murder, women are held to impossibly high standards, and the question of authenticity played a role in how negatively the public reacted to J. Lo's use of the n-word on the remix for her 2001 single "I'm Real."

"I think with that, it was really based more upon class than anything else," Immortal Technique says. "Many people saw Fat Joe as technically black even though he was a light-skinned Puerto Rican, and he had affiliations with the streets that Jennifer Lopez probably lost on the way to Hollywood."

With few exceptions within our community—Raquel Rivera's 2003 book New York Ricans From the Hip Hop Zone devoted prime real estate to the discussion of Latino identity in hip-hop—this is a conversation we've failed to have, whatever our personal feelings. "It really don't matter if you're white, you're black, you're brown, or from the Boogie Down—it irks me to death," says Alain "KET" Maridueña, 37, an entrepreneur and artist. "Latinos in our neighborhood use it a lot—like every other word—and I'm trying to check people because I find that we're suffering, we're going through our thing, times are hard, there aren't enough opportunities out there, and I want us to rise up." But we won't rise up if we can't talk about the reasons why we haven't quite gotten there yet, and the words that've risen in prominence as a result.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Music in the WWII Concentration Camps

A 2007 article translated from German in the online journal Music and Politics.

Music in Concentration Camps 1933–1945


Translated from the German by Peter Logan (Würzburg).

It would be wrong to reduce the “Music of the Shoah” (Holocaust/ churbn) to the Yiddish songs from the ghetto camps of Eastern Europe or to the multiple activities in the realm of classical or Jewish music found in the ghetto camp at Theresienstadt (Terezín), which of course enjoyed a special status as a model camp. It would be equally wrong to restrict our view of music in concentration camps to the “Moorsoldatenlied” (“The Peat Bog Soldiers”), the “Buchenwald Song,” the “Dachau Song,” or the so-called “Girls’ Orchestra in Auschwitz,” described by Fania Fénelon – also the subject of the Hollywood film entitled “Playing for Time”.[1] Instead of this, I wish to address the topic of musical activities in general in the concentration camps.[2] Thus this chapter is about those camps that the Nazi regime started to erect just a few weeks after Hitler’s assumption of power; these camps formed the seed from which the entire system of Nazi camps grew, and which eventually consisted of over 10,000 camps of various kinds.[3]

In fact music was an integral part of camp life in almost all the Nazi-run camps. The questions covered by my research include: how was it possible to play music in these camps? What musical forms developed there? What, under these circumstances was the function, the effect and the significance of music for both the suffering inmates and the guards who inflicted the suffering? And how was the extent of musical activities affected by the development of the concentration camp system? My research is based on extensive archive work, the study of memoirs and literature, and interviews with witnesses. In the first part of this essay I describe the various forms of music performed at the behest of the SS in the camps. In the second part I analyze the very different question of the musical activities initiated by the inmates themselves.

Read the article here.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Law professor fires back at song-swapping lawsuits

Anniston Star/AP
Nov 17, 7:22 AM EST

Law professor fires back at song-swapping lawsuits

Associated Press Writer

BOSTON (AP) -- The music industry's courtroom campaign against people who share songs online is coming under counterattack.

A Harvard Law School professor has launched a constitutional assault against a federal copyright law at the heart of the industry's aggressive strategy, which has wrung payments from thousands of song-swappers since 2003.

The professor, Charles Nesson, has come to the defense of a Boston University graduate student targeted in one of the music industry's lawsuits. By taking on the case, Nesson hopes to challenge the basis for the suit, and all others like it.

Nesson argues that the Digital Theft Deterrence and Copyright Damages Improvement Act of 1999 is unconstitutional because it effectively lets a private group - the Recording Industry Association of America, or RIAA - carry out civil enforcement of a criminal law. He also says the music industry group abused the legal process by brandishing the prospects of lengthy and costly lawsuits in an effort to intimidate people into settling cases out of court.

Nesson, the founder of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, said in an interview that his goal is to "turn the courts away from allowing themselves to be used like a low-grade collection agency."

Nesson is best known for defending the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers and for consulting on the case against chemical companies that was depicted in the film "A Civil Action." His challenge against the music labels, made in U.S. District Court in Boston, is one of the most determined attempts to derail the industry's flurry of litigation.

The initiative has generated more than 30,000 complaints against people accused of sharing songs online. Only one case has gone to trial; nearly everyone else settled out of court to avoid damages and limit the attorney fees and legal costs that escalate over time.

Nesson intervened after a federal judge in Boston asked his office to represent Joel Tenenbaum, who was among dozens of people who appeared in court in RIAA cases without legal help.

The 24-year-old Tenenbaum is a graduate student accused by the RIAA of downloading at least seven songs and making 816 music files available for distribution on the Kazaa file-sharing network in 2004. He offered to settle the case for $500, but music companies rejected that, demanding $12,000.

The Digital Theft Deterrence Act, the law at issue in the case, sets damages of $750 to $30,000 for each infringement, and as much as $150,000 for a willful violation. That means Tenenbaum could be forced to pay $1 million if it is determined that his alleged actions were willful.

The music industry group isn't conceding any ground to Nesson and Tenenbaum. The RIAA has said in court documents that its efforts to enforce the copyright law is protected under the First Amendment right to petition the courts for redress of grievances. Tenenbaum also failed, the music group noted, to notify the U.S. Attorney General that that he wanted to contest the law's constitutional status.

Cara Duckworth, a spokeswoman for the RIAA, said her group's pursuit of people suspected of music piracy is a fair response to the industry's multibillion-dollar losses since peer-to-peer networks began making it easy for people to share massive numbers of songs online.

"What should be clear is that illegally downloading and distributing music comes with many risks and is not an anonymous activity," Duckworth said.

Still, wider questions persist on whether the underlying copyright law is constitutional, said Ray Beckerman, a Forest Hills, N.Y.-based attorney who has represented other downloading defendants and runs a blog tracking the most prominent cases.

One federal judge has held that the constitutional question is "a serious argument," Beckerman said. "There are two law review articles that have said that it is unconstitutional, and there are three cases that said that it might be unconstitutional."

In September, a federal judge granted a new trial to a Minnesota woman who had been ordered to pay $220,000 for pirating 24 songs. In that ruling, U.S. District Judge Michael J. Davis called on Congress to change copyright laws to prevent excessive awards in similar cases. He wrote that he didn't discount the industry's claim that illegal downloading has hurt the recording business, but called the award "wholly disproportionate" to the industry's losses.

In the Boston case, Nesson is due to meet attorneys for the music industry for a pretrial conference on Tuesday, ahead of a trial set for Dec. 1.

Entertainment attorney Jay Cooper, who specializes in music and copyright issues at Los Angeles-based Greenberg Traurig, is convinced that Nesson will not persuade the federal court to strike down the copyright law. He said the statutory damages it awards enable recording companies to get compensation in cases where it is difficult to prove actual damages.

The record companies have echoed that line of defense. In court filings in Tenenbaum's case, they contend that the damages allowed by the law are "intended not only to compensate the copyright owner, but also to punish the infringer (and) deter other potential infringers."

But are these lawsuits the only way the record industry could deter piracy? Nesson believes the industry could develop new ways to prevent copyright material from being shared illegally. One idea would be to bundle music with ads and post it for free online, he says.

"There are alternative ways," he said, "of packaging entertainment to return revenue to artists."


On the Net:

Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society:

Ray Beckerman's blog:

The Recording Industry Association of America on music piracy:

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Lost Photographs of the Hiroshima Bombing

Design Observer/Adam Levy Hat tip to the Daily Dish.

One rainy night eight years ago, in Watertown, Massachusetts, a man was taking his dog for a walk. On the curb, in front of a neighbor’s house, he spotted a pile of trash: old mattresses, cardboard boxes, a few broken lamps. Amidst the garbage he caught sight of a battered suitcase. He bent down, turned the case on its side and popped the clasps.

He was surprised to discover that the suitcase was full of black-and-white photographs. He was even more astonished by their subject matter: devastated buildings, twisted girders, broken bridges — snapshots from an annihilated city. He quickly closed the case and made his way back home.

At the kitchen table, he looked through the photographs again and confirmed what he had suspected. He was looking at something he had never seen before: the effects of the first use of the Atomic bomb. The man was looking at Hiroshima.

In a dispassionate and scientific style, the seven hundred and one photographs inside the suitcase catalogued a city seared by a new form of warfare. The origin and purpose of the photographs were a mystery to the man who found them that night. Now, over sixty years after the bombing of Hiroshima, their story can be told.

Read the post HERE.

Friday, November 14, 2008

In modern Cameroon polygamy doesn’t pay


In modern Cameroon polygamy doesn’t pay

When life is more complex than just fields to tend, a passel of wives is more a financial strain than a status symbol.
By Alexis Grant | Contributor / November 13, 2008 edition

Fongo-Ndeng, Cameroon

Benoit Ndi Wamba didn’t know exactly how many children were in his family. Like most Cameroonians born into large polygamous families, he never had a reason to count.

But with money tight after the death of his father, the 23-year-old was partly responsible for finding money to pay this year’s public school fees for his siblings. So he ticked off their names, one by one. There was lanky Jean, 21. Sylvain, 18, a top student. Janvier, an 11-year-old who wears, in this French-speaking province, a T-shirt that reads “Fabulous.” And Mr. Ndi Wamba himself was entering his first year of university.

Those were just his mother’s children. Then there were his other brothers and sisters, born to his late father’s other three wives. A handful of grandchildren and cousins also lived with the family, complicating the count. All referred to one another as brother and sister, explaining only after much prodding who, as Cameroonians say, has the “same mother, same father.”

Yet one thing was clear: With more than a dozen children who hoped to attend school this year, the Ndi Wamba family faced a pile of fees.

It was a problem Ndi Wamba swore his own children would never face; he would marry just one woman, he said, and have significantly fewer children than his father.

“If it was just my three brothers and me, we would not be having this problem,” Ndi Wamba said sternly, a folder of university enrollment forms tucked under his arm.
An increasing number of men in this central African nation are coming to the same conclusion, rejecting the polygamous lifestyles of their fathers and opting for monogamy instead. With the rising costs of school, healthcare, and food, it’s simply too expensive to have a large family, they say.

• • •

I met the Ndi Wamba family six years ago, when I was a college student studying polygamy. They were supposed to serve as a case study, but instead became my second family during the three weeks I lived with them in the village of Fongo-Ndeng, in western Cameroon.

When I returned this September for a visit, their lives had much changed. Nearly a year after the death of their 78-year-old husband, the four wives still donned all black, mourning not only his spirit but also the loss of his government pension. With the help of friends and family back home, I paid tuition for the women’s children and others who live on the compound, 18 in all.

Again I chatted with the women as they cooked over open fires on the ground in their kitches, alternating among the four dirt-floor houses that, along with their husband’s empty house, created a semicircle around an often-muddy yard. When he was alive, the husband, too, split his time among his wives, spending one night with one woman, the next with another.

Traditionally, polygamy has been a symbol of wealth and status, particularly in rural areas. Village chiefs until recently married as many as 25 women, while other men typically wed between two and eight wives.

The lifestyle has its advantages, mainly the production of a labor force to cultivate fields of corn, beans, and root crops like manioc. But modernity has taken its toll, even on families like the Ndi Wambas who have shunned other changes such as electricity and running water. Crops can feed many mouths, but only hard currency pays school fees, which start in secondary school around the equivalent of $45 annually and mount for higher grades.

“Before, maybe polygamy was good,” explains Charlotte Nguimfack, who has four children with her monogamous husband. “Life wasn’t difficult like it is now.”

While those economic difficulties are driving polygamy’s decline, other factors also are at play, including the spread of Christianity, which prohibits polygamy. And as more women become college-educated, some have begun to demand monogamy.

In the early 1990s, a quarter of married men in Cameroon had more than one wife, according to the country’s National Institute of Statistics. By 2004, just 11 percent were polygamous.

Likewise, the percentage of women who had at least one co-wife dropped to 30 percent in 2004 compared with 39 percent in 1991, institute data show.

Similar decreases are occurring in other countries across central and western Africa, says Savage Njikam, who oversees the University of Douala’s anthropology department.
“The more educated people are, the less likely they are to have the same household as their grandfather,” says Mrs. Njikam, a social anthropologist. “But you still will find educated women who will accept being second wives.”

Monogamous men and women cite another reason to avoid polygamy, one their polygamous counterparts are reluctant to discuss. Some multiwife households suffer from jealousy and conflict.

Sallahou Aboubakar, who grew up in Cameroon’s Muslim north in a two-wife home, says his mother’s disputes with her co-wife influenced him to choose monogamy.

“The wives don’t stay peaceful,” says Mr.. Aboubakar, who lives with his wife and their newborn baby in Yaounde, the capital. “It always causes problems.”

His wife’s aunt, Adamou Patou, overhearing the conversation speaks up to illustrate the point, telling a tale that has her family, all sitting on mats on the floor, roaring with laughter.

When her husband was alive, she says, she and her co-wife fought endlessly, mostly over where the husband would sleep. One morning, after the husband had spent too many nights with Patou, her co-wife entered the bedroom to find the husband freshly showered and back in bed. She threw a bucket of charcoal dust into the room, covering the bed and her husband in gray powder.

Despite such stories, some young Cameroonians continue to keep polygamy alive. Bertrand Folepe, who married his girlfriend when she became pregnant six years ago, took a second wife two years later at the urging of his parents. His father, who had eight wives, wanted him to marry a woman from his village.

Mr. Folepe didn’t protest; he is proud to carry on the tradition. On display in his family’s sitting room, which he shares with both wives, are portraits of each couple, side by side.
“If in the future I have a lot of money, I’ll take more [wives],” says Folepe, who makes a living selling small livestock.

Folepe, who lives with his wives and seven children in the small city of Dschang, has urbanized the polygamous lifestyle. Instead of dwelling in separate, adjacent homes like his family in the village where he grew up, his entire family shares one house. Each wife has her own bedroom, but the two share an outdoor kitchen, swapping cooking duties each week.

Other city-dwelling men have modernized polygamy differently, by creating separate households of independent families that share a father.

Even as traditional polygamy declines, it’s still common for men and women to have multiple partners, by either going outside their marriage or divorcing one spouse before marrying another.

Martha Ngum, head of the sociology and anthropology department at the University of Buea in southwest Cameroon, calls the latter trend “serial monogamy.” Women are driving the shift, she says, because they now attend university, work outside the home and are financially independent more than ever before.

But outside Cameroon’s cities, it’s still a man’s decision whether to take more than one wife and a woman’s responsibility to accept his choice.

Decades after accepting their husband’s decision to engage in polygamy, the Ndi Wamba wives now face another duty: providing for their many children without his financial support.

On the few days when the women aren’t cultivating the fields, they earn petty cash selling snacks at local markets. The wives hope their eldest sons, like Benoit, contribute small income. They also look to relatives for help; several of the children already have left the village compound to live with an uncle or grandmother.

For this family, the years ahead will not be easy. But as the Ndi Wamba women often say, “We must endure.”

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

2007 interview of Sound Engineer/Drug Pioneer Owsley Stanley

SF Chronicle
For the unrepentant patriarch of LSD, long, strange trip winds back to Bay Area

Joel Selvin, Chronicle Senior Pop Music Critic

Thursday, July 12, 2007
The small, barefoot man in black T-shirt and blue jeans barely rates a second glance from the other Starbucks patrons in downtown San Rafael, although he is one of the men who virtually made the '60s. Because Augustus Owsley Stanley III has spent his life avoiding photographs, few people would know what he looks like.

The name Owsley became a noun that appears in the Oxford dictionary as English street slang for good acid. It is the most famous brand name in LSD history. Probably the first private individual to manufacture the psychedelic, "Owsley" is a folk hero of the counterculture, celebrated in songs by the Grateful Dead and Steely Dan.

For more than 20 years, Stanley -- at 72, still known as the Bear -- has been living with his wife, Sheila, off the grid, in the outback of Queensland, Australia, where he makes small gold and enamel sculptures and keeps in touch with the world through the Internet.

As a planned two-week visit to the Bay Area stretched to three, four and then five weeks, Bear agreed to give The Chronicle an interview because a friend asked him. He has rarely consented to speak to the press about his life, his work or his unconventional thinking on matters such as the coming ice age or his all-meat diet.

Sporting a buccaneer's earring he got when he was in jail and a hearing aid on the same ear, he keeps a salty goatee, and the sides of his face look boiled clean from seven weeks of maximum radiation treatment for throat cancer. Having lost one of his vocal cords, he speaks only in a whispered croak these days. At one point, he was reduced to injecting his puree of steak and espresso directly into his stomach.

"I never set out to change the world," he rasps in recalling his early manufacture of LSD. "I only set out to make sure I was taking something (that) I knew what it was. And it's hard to make a little. And my friends all wanted to know what they were taking, too. Of course, my friends expanded very rapidly."

By conservative estimates, Bear Research Group made more than 1.25 million doses of LSD between 1965 and 1967, essentially seeding the entire modern psychedelic movement.

Less well known are Bear's contributions to rock concert sound. As the original sound mixer for the Grateful Dead, he was responsible for fundamental advances in audio technology, things as basic now as monitor speakers that allow vocalists to hear themselves onstage.

Says the Dead's Bob Weir: "He's good for a different point of view at about any given time. He's brilliant. He knows everything."

Bear, whose grandfather was a Kentucky governor and U.S. senator, grew up in Los Angeles and Arlington, Va. He was thrown out of military school in the eighth grade for being drunk and dropped out of school altogether at 18. He managed to get accepted to the University of Virginia, where he spent a year studying engineering. By 1956, he was in the Air Force, specializing in electronics and radar.

Later, Bear studied ballet, acting and Russian, worked in jet propulsion labs as well as radio and television, and then entered UC Berkeley in 1963, but lasted less than a year.

Then he discovered acid.

He found the recipe for making LSD in the Journal of Organic Chemistry at the UC Berkeley library. Soon after, Bear began to cook acid.

The Berkeley police raided his first lab in 1966 and confiscated a substance that they claimed was methedrine. When it turned out to be something else -- probably a component of LSD -- Bear not only walked free but successfully sued the cops for the return of his lab equipment.

By the time he made a special batch called Monterey Purple for the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival -- Owsley Purple was the secret smile on Jimi Hendrix's face that night -- "Owsley" was an underground legend.

In December 1967, agents arrested him at his secret lab in Orinda. The "LSD Millionaire" headline in The Chronicle prompted the Dead to write the song "Alice D. Millionaire." In 1970, after a pot bust in Oakland, a judge revoked Bear's bail, and he served two years at Terminal Island near the Los Angeles Harbor.

"If you make some, you've got to move some to get some money to make it," he says now. "But then you had to give a lot away to keep the street price down. So anyway, I'm sort of embedded in this thing that I'm tangled up in. ... Just as soon as it became illegal, I wanted out. Then, of course, I felt an obligation."

Bear, chemist to Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, was involved with the Dead almost from the band's beginnings at Kesey's notorious Acid Tests. Bear was the Dead's first patron and, briefly, their manager. He bought the band sound equipment and began to use the Dead as a laboratory for audio research.

"We'd never thought about high-quality PAs," says the Dead's Weir. "There was no such thing until Bear started making one."

Bear made the first public address system specifically dedicated to music in 1966. If he was the first concert sound engineer in rock music to take his job seriously, his habit of making tape recordings of the shows he mixed also gave the Dead an unprecedented archive of live recordings dating back to the band's first days. Many of Bear's tapes have been turned into albums.

Bear has always lived in a quite particular world. "He can be very anal retentive, on a certain level, on a genius level," says Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane. "I've seen him send his eggs back three times at Howard Johnson's."

His all-meat diet is a well-known example. When he was younger, Bear read about the Eskimos eating only fish and meat and became convinced that humans are meant to be exclusively carnivorous. The members of the Grateful Dead remember living with Bear for several months in 1966 in Los Angeles, where the refrigerator contained only bottles of milk and a slab of steak, meat they fried and ate straight out of the pan. His heart attack several years ago had nothing to do with his strict regimen, according to Bear, but more likely the result of some poisonous broccoli his mother made him eat as a youth.

As a sound mixer, Bear holds equally strict viewpoints, insisting that the most effective rock concert systems should have only a single source of sound, his argument quickly veering into the realm of psycho-acoustics.

"The PA can only be in one spot," he says. "All the sounds have to come from a single place because the human brain is carrying around the most sophisticated sound processing of any computer or living creature. It equals the bats that fly by echo. It equals the dolphins. It equals the owls that hunt at night without any daylight at all. It is a superb system for locating and separating one sound from everything else."

Bear left Northern California in the early '80s, convinced that a natural disaster was imminent. He predicted at the time that global warming would lead to a six-week-long ultra-cyclone that could cover the Northern Hemisphere with a new ice age. Determining that the tropical northern side of Australia would be the most likely region to survive, Bear made a beeline for Queensland and says he felt at home the moment he set foot on the new continent.

"I might be right about the ice age thing," he allows. "I might be wrong."

Old friends express shock that Bear would ever even admit to that possibility, but, if not exactly mellowed in his old age, he has found room to accommodate other points of view.

"He's come a long way," says Wavy Gravy, who visited Bear in Australia this year. "He used to be real snappy and grumpy. Now he can be actually sweet."

His four children are grown. He has five grandchildren, and his oldest son, Pete, in Florida, just became a grandfather, making Bear a great-grandfather for the first time. His other son, Starfinder, a veterinarian, hosted a party for him last month at his Oakland home attended by the old Dead crowd, a tortoise and a caged iguana. He has two daughters, Nina and Redbird, and maintains his own Web site ( where he sells his sculpture and posts various diatribes and essays.

He keeps up with the music scene -- he singles out Wolfmother and the Arctic Monkeys as new bands he likes. "Any time the music on the radio starts to sound like rubbish, it's time to take some LSD," he says.

Owsley Stanley (he legally dropped the "Augustus" 40 years ago) has also not joined the ranks of the penitent psychedelicists who look on their experiences as youthful indiscretions.

"I wound up doing time for something I should have been rewarded for," he says. "What I did was a community service, the way I look at it. I was punished for political reasons. Absolutely meaningless. Was I a criminal? No. I was a good member of society. Only my society and the one making the laws are different."

At the hilltop San Anselmo home where Bear had been house-sitting, pretty much all available space was taken over with his belongings. He squatted over the piles, trying to figure out what to ship and what to take with him. Two days before his flight, it looks like he'll need every minute.

This time, he was extending his stay to catch his old friends Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady of Hot Tuna play at the Fillmore. But when he left for the airport the next day, he got as far as Sausalito before he discovered that he had left the briefcase with the tickets back in San Anselmo, and the trip home was postponed for another week.

"I even said, 'I wonder what I'm leaving behind this time?' before I left," he says, somewhat sadly.

E-mail Joel Selvin at

This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Music to your ears is music for your heart, too

Music to your ears is music for your heart, too
Hearing favorite tunes helps blood vessels dilate, researchers find
updated 1:37 p.m. PT, Tues., Nov. 11, 2008

WASHINGTON - Songs that make our hearts soar can make them stronger too, U.S. researchers reported on Tuesday.

They found that when people listened to their favorite music, their blood vessels dilated in much the same way as when laughing, or taking blood medications.

"We have a pretty impressive effect," said Dr. Michael Miller, director of preventive cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.

"Blood vessel diameter improved," he said in a telephone interview. "The vessel opened up pretty significantly. You can see the vessels opening up with other activities such as exercise." A similar effect is seen with drugs such as statins and ACE inhibitors.

When blood vessels open more, blood flows more smoothly and is less likely to form the blood clots that cause heart attacks and strokes. Elastic vessels also resist the hardening activity of atherosclerosis.

"We are not saying to stop your statins or not to exercise but to add this to an overall program of heart health," said Miller, who presented his findings to a meeting of the American Heart Association in New Orleans.

Miller's team tested 10 healthy, non-smoking men and women, who were told to bring their favorite music.

They spent half an hour listening to the recordings and half an hour listening to music they said made them feel anxious while the researchers did ultrasound tests designed to show blood vessel function.

Compared to their normal baseline measurements, blood vessel diameter increased 26 percent on average when the volunteers heard their joyful music. Listening to music they disliked -- in most cases in this group heavy metal -- narrowed blood vessels by six percent, Miller said.

Miller said he came up with the idea after discovering the laughter caused blood to literally flow more smoothly.

"I asked myself what other things make us feel real good, besides calories from dark chocolate of course. Music came to mind. ... It makes me feel real good," he said.

Most of the volunteers chose country music but Miller said the style is not so important as what pleases each individual.

Monday, November 10, 2008

South Africa Singer/Activist Miriam Makeba (1932-2008)

November 11, 2008
Miriam Makeba, Singer, Dies at 76

LONDON — Miriam Makeba, a South African singer whose voice stirred hopes of freedom among millions in her own country though her music was formally banned by the apartheid authorities she struggled against, died overnight after performing at a concert in Italy on Sunday. She was 76.

The cause of death was cardiac arrest, according to Vincenza Di Saia, a physician at the private Pineta Grande clinic in Castel Volturno near Naples in southern Italy, where she was brought by ambulance. The time of death was listed in hospital records as midnight, the doctor said.

Ms. Makeba collapsed as she was leaving the stage, the South African authorities said. She had been singing at a concert in support of Roberto Saviano, an author who has received death threats after writing about organized crime.

Widely known as “Mama Africa,” she had been a prominent exiled opponent of apartheid since the South African authorities revoked her passport in 1960 and refused to allow her to return after she traveled abroad. She was prevented from attending her mother’s funeral after touring in the United States.

Although Ms. Makeba had been weakened by osteoarthritis, her death stunned many in South Africa, where she stood as an enduring emblem of the travails of black people under the apartheid system of racial segregation that ended with the release from prison of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and the country’s first fully democratic elections in 1994.

In a statement on Monday, Mr. Mandela said the death “of our beloved Miriam has saddened us and our nation.”

He continued: “Her haunting melodies gave voice to the pain of exile and dislocation which she felt for 31 long years. At the same time, her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us.”

“She was South Africa’s first lady of song and so richly deserved the title of Mama Afrika. She was a mother to our struggle and to the young nation of ours,” Mr. Mandela’s was one of many tributes from South African leaders.

“One of the greatest songstresses of our time has ceased to sing,” Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said in a statement. “Throughout her life, Mama Makeba communicated a positive message to the world about the struggle of the people of South Africa and the certainty of victory over the dark forces of apartheid and colonialism through the art of song.”

For 31 years, Ms. Makeba lived in exile, variously in the United States, France, Guinea and Belgium. South Africa’s state broadcasters banned her music after she spoke out against apartheid at the United Nations. “I never understood why I couldn’t come home,” Ms. Makeba said upon her return at an emotional homecoming in Johannesburg in 1990 as the apartheid system began to crumble, according to The Associated Press. “I never committed any crime.”

Music was a central part of the struggle against apartheid. The South African authorities of the era exercised strict censorship of many forms of expression, while many foreign entertainers discouraged performances in South Africa in an attempt to isolate the white authorities and show their opposition to apartheid.

From exile she acted as a constant reminder of the events in her homeland as the white authorities struggled to contain or pre-empt unrest among the black majority.

Ms. Makeba wrote in 1987: “I kept my culture. I kept the music of my roots. Through my music I became this voice and image of Africa, and the people, without even realizing.”

She was married several times and her husbands included the American black activist Stokely Carmichael, with whom she lived in Guinea, and the jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela, who also spent many years in exile.

In the United States she became a star, touring with Harry Belafonte in the 1960s and winning a Grammy award with him in 1965. Such was her following and fame that she sang in 1962 at the birthday party of President John F. Kennedy. She also performed with Paul Simon on his Graceland concert in Zimbabwe in 1987.

But she fell afoul of the U.S. music industry because of her marriage to Mr. Carmichael and her decision to live in Guinea.

In one of her last interviews, in May 2008 with the British music critic Robin Denselow, she said she found her concerts in the United States being cancelled. “It was not a ban from the government. It was a cancellation by people who felt I should not be with Stokely because he was a rebel to them. I didn’t care about that. He was somebody I loved, who loved me, and it was my life,” she said.

Ms. Makeba was born in Johannesburg on March 4, 1932, the daughter of a Swazi mother and a father from the Xhosa people who live mainly in the eastern Cape region of South Africa. She became known to South Africans in the Sophiatown district of Johannesburg in the 1950s.

According to Agence France-Presse, she was often short of money and could not afford to buy a coffin when her only daughter in 1985. She buried her alone, barring a handful of journalists from covering the funeral.

She was particularly renowned for her performances of songs such as what was known as the Click Song — named for a clicking sound in her native tongue — or “Qongoqothwane,” and Pata Pata, meaning Touch Touch in Xhosa. Her style of singing was widely interpreted as a blend of black township rhythms, jazz and folk music.

In her interview in 2008, Ms. Makeba said: “I’m not a political singer. I don’t know what the word means. People think I consciously decided to tell the world what was happening in South Africa. No! I was singing about my life, and in South Africa we always sang about what was happening to us — especially the things that hurt us.”

In a tribute, Jacob Zuma, head of the ruling African National Congress, said the party “dips its banner in tribute to an African heroine, Miriam Zenzile Makeba, a freedom fighter and outstanding African cultural figure.”

“Miriam Makeba used her voice, not merely to entertain, but to give a voice to the millions of oppressed South Africans under the yoke of apartheid,” Mr. Zuma said.

Celia W. Dugger contributed reporting from Johannesburg and Rachel Donadio from Rome.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Don't let them eat cake, Saudi cleric says: Birthdays in Saudi Arabia

Don't let them eat cake, Saudi cleric says
Birthday celebrations are banned as un-Islamic. But that doesn't stop people from throwing parties.
The Associated Press

November 9, 2008

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — When Hala Masaad invited her girlfriends over to celebrate her 18th birthday with cake and juice, the high school student was stepping into an unusual public debate. Is celebrating birthdays un-Islamic?

Saudi Arabia's most senior Muslim cleric recently denounced birthday parties as an unwanted foreign influence, but another prominent cleric declared they were OK.

That has left Masaad with mixed feelings about her low-key celebration last month. She loves birthday parties, she says, because they make her feel that she has "moved from one stage of life to another."

"But I sometimes feel I'm doing something haram," she said sheepishly, using the Arabic word for "banned."

The Saudi ban on birthdays is in line with the strict interpretation of Islam followed by the conservative Wahhabi sect adhered to in the kingdom. All Christian and even most Muslim feasts are also prohibited because they are considered alien customs the Saudi clerics don't sanction.

Only the Muslim feasts of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, which follows the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, are permitted.

Elsewhere in the Muslim world, including in Egypt, Dubai, Lebanon and Iran, people routinely celebrate birthdays, especially for children. Among middle-class and affluent families, parties can be elaborate, with cakes, toys, clowns, ponies and many presents. In Egypt, the prophet Muhammad's birthday is celebrated by handing out special sweets -- in the shape of a doll for girls and a horse for boys.

Even in Saudi Arabia, it's not hard to find Saudis who celebrate birthdays or stores that cater to putting on parties, despite the ban.

What makes the latest controversy notable is that it started when a prominent cleric, Salman Awdah, said on a popular satellite TV program in August that it was OK to mark birthdays and wedding anniversaries with parties as long as the Arabic word that describes the events -- eid, or "feast" -- is not used.

That prompted a quick denunciation by Saudi Arabia's grand mufti and top religious authority, Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al Sheik, who said such celebrations had no place in Islam and gave a list of foreign customs he suggested were unacceptable.

"Christians have Mother's Day, an eid for trees and an eid for every occasion," said Al Sheik, who also heads the Presidency for Scientific Research and Religious Edicts, speaking to Al Madina newspaper. "And on every birthday, candles are lit and food is given out."

There is no question that the television remarks by Awdah, who is not employed by the country's religious establishment, contradicted several fatwas, or religious edicts, issued by senior Saudi clerics over the years.

One such ruling, by the previous mufti, Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Baz, said Muslims should not emulate the West by celebrating birthdays -- even that of Muhammad, which is marked in most other Middle Eastern countries as a holiday.

"It's not permissible to take part in them," he said. "Birthday parties are an innovation . . . and people are in no need of innovations."

Still, some Saudis welcomed a loosening of the prohibition.

"Allowing such celebrations can be an element that can strengthen ties among people and contribute to an increase in the happy occasions in our society," wrote Ibrahim Dawood in a column in the newspaper Al Eqtisadiah.

Others, including several prominent Muslim scholars, issued statements backing the ban and denouncing Awdah.

Sheik Abdullah Manie, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, said Awdah's remarks were a "slip of the tongue that he should retract."

"We Muslims should have our identity that sets us apart and makes us proud," he said in a statement.

Some Saudis worry the controversy will be used by conservative members of the religious establishment, including the religious police, as a green light to crack down on all celebrations.

Despite the continuous fatwas against them, it's not hard to find merchandise for celebrating birthdays, anniversaries or even Western holidays like Valentine's Day. But importing the items can be tricky for shop owners.

One store owner said it's hard to say when shipments will be intercepted. A month ago, an order of balloons, hats and banners was confiscated, said the owner, who did not want to be identified.

Still, business was brisk at one gift store recently, where parties might cost from $4,000 to $32,000, depending on the decorations, giveaways and number of guests.

Customers can browse albums of wall decorations, table settings and cakes, and order party bags with coloring books and school supplies.

But one Jidda resident, Riham Ahmed, 20, said she didn't like birthdays. "It's enough to have two eids," said the economics major. "My birthday is a normal day. Even my parents don't congratulate me."

Her sister Arwa agreed.

"I missed my 25th birthday by two days [in August] and only remembered it when I checked the calendar for prayer times," she said. "I don't like it when someone tells me, 'Happy birthday.' It's like a reminder that I'm getting closer to death."

"The Singing Revolution": How Estonians sang their way to freedom

CS Monitor
How Estonians sang their way to freedom
A new documentary tells story of how the national tradition of singing helped unite the masses against the Soviet occupation.
By Gloria Goodale | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

from the October 24, 2008 edition

Walk around the verdant green amphitheater known as the Lauluvaljak, or song ground, here on the outskirts of Tallin, Estonia, and it's easy to imagine the air alive with music, reverberating up the grassy slopes from the half-domed, vaulted stage at the bottom of this natural theatrical setting.

But to grasp what it feels like to be amid an audience 300,000-strong, singing in Von Trapp family-like harmony with sub rosa political purpose, you'll just have to pick up the DVD of "The Singing Revolution," a passion project by documentarians Jim and Maureen Tusty. Released this week, it is the story of how a tiny country (population: 1 million) with a 5,000-year-old culture, perched on the western edge of the Russian giant, used its tradition of song to finally free itself of foreign occupation, in this case the Soviet state, in 1991.

This tale of how peaceful crowds managed to fend off Soviet tanks as they attempted to take over the local television station is operatic in its drama, says the married couple. "This is the story of the power of nonviolent resistance to succeed where guns and rock-throwing would have resulted in death and more political oppression," says Jim Tusty. The nation was trying to throw off the Soviet yoke, which ensnared it in 1939, when Hitler and Stalin secretly signed a pact to divide up the Baltic countries. But, says Jim Tusty, it is also the story of a relationship between art and politics.

"We wanted to tell this remarkable story ... before the generation that lived it is no longer around," he says. He adds that a number of the older Estonians he interviewed say they are grateful to have the narrative preserved. They see that the next generation – a global, externally focused cohort in a nation that is now part of the European Union and NATO – has little awareness of the struggles of an earlier generation, he says.

The story began for the filmmakers when they taught a cinema class in Estonia during the summer of 1999 and began to hear about the song festival and the revolution it had inspired. In the festival, founded in 1869 and held every five years, choirs from all over the nation audition to be part of the 20,000 to 30,000-member chorus that takes the stage and leads the huge crowds that attend.

The music is a mix of modern and traditional folk songs, many of which have what the team calls the kind of oral traditions that are full of hidden, deeply patriotic meaning that sustained Estonians through centuries of oppression. As they investigated the festival itself, they discovered the role that the traditional songs played during the critical years leading up to the fall of the Soviet Union, 1987 through 1991. Rather than engage the Soviets directly, as Hungary, Latvia, and Lithuania did, all with disastrous results, the various political groups united in song.

"They never wanted to give the Soviets a reason to arrest or hurt anyone," says Maureen Tusty. Paraphrasing one of the Estonians who survived the brutal years of Soviet gulags, her husband adds, "Art used to be serious when real political participation was not possible," but now, with meaningful political activity allowed, the arts have become trivial and the next generation is not interested in the power of this culture to make a difference.

Beyond that, the filmmakers say the film has a role to play in a world that is getting increasingly violent, particularly a Russia with more aggressive foreign policies. They have assembled a three-disc educational DVD version (available at, complete with maps and historical data. But, Jim Tusty hastens to add, they are not advocacy filmmakers. "We just believe in this story, which has its own message."

• Los Angeles-based writer Gloria Goodale toured the Tallinn festival grounds in 2007.

The changing face of Chicago blues

CS Monitor (see original for photos and video)
The changing face of Chicago blues
Foreign-born players and whites pick up the slack creating a global appeal and expanded songbook.
By Mark Guarino | Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

from the November 7, 2008 edition

Chicago - Billy Branch steps off the stage and into the crowd, leaving his band to chug through a 12-bar blues. With a harmonica pressed to his lips, Branch sends light, flirty chirps to a woman, just inches from her face. For a single moment, the hundred or so people at Rosa's Lounge on Chicago's West Side fall silent.

The woman slips into the groove and joins Branch's musical conversation, and everyone around follows her cue.

Branch barks his biography – "I was born in the North, but my heart is in the South!" – and the band guns it. His heels spin to join them.

Here, on a Saturday night in October, it is a familiar conquest: Targeting lips to hips is what makes Chicago blues so enduring. But movement of a different sort, through geography and generation, is what also makes it deceptively complex.

That journey is threatening to jump the track. The music is largely silent in the Chicago neighborhoods where it originated, due to a shuttered club scene that moved audiences to the North Side, near the friendlier confines of Wrigley Field. But more alarming is the increased passing in recent years of aged blues luminaries, an inevitable loss of stories and techniques that connect the music to its fundamental roots.

Today, the Chicago blues scene is in stark transition. Younger blacks are failing to see the music as anything but a relic, leaving an entire tradition largely up for adoption by foreign-born players traveling halfway around the world to learn from the source. Their enthusiasm is helping move the blues from isolated neighborhoods to the global stage, evidenced by Chicago bands that very recently have come to resemble a United Nations portfolio.

This cultural exchange is expanding the music's songbook with stories it never addressed before and is helping create sophisticated players schooled as much in Van Halen and Led Zeppelin as they are in Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. But advocates worry that the flashy guitar tones and studied technique threaten to replace the personal expression that has long made the music profound.

In Chicago, blues music has always lived, not through television documentaries or books, but primarily through people – the Southerners who populated the city's South and West sides and who helped pass the music's foundation on to the next generation. For this reason, the blues has always been a collaborative pact between fathers and sons, uncles and nephews, the grizzled mentors and the eager young followers who sought them out, either from the other side of town or from as far away as Japan.

"There is a crisis," says Tony Mangiullo, owner of Rosa's Lounge, which marks its 25th anniversary next year. Mr. Mangiullo is a record keeper of this turning point in Chicago blues history; he keeps a database of musician deaths, which these days can be every other month. "If we keep losing those important links, it could be catastrophic."

Younger players may neglect in their playing what Eddy Clearwater calls "a spiritual thing." Clearwater arrived in Chicago from Birmingham, Ala., in 1950 when he was 15. (This fall, he released "West Side Strut" [Alligator], his 16th album.) In the '50s, an agent changed his last name from Harrington to Clearwater, a riff on Muddy Waters; Clearwater was honored.

"He's my all-time hero. He took me in. He used to call me son," Clearwater says.

Clearwater embodies the total Chicago sound. His polished performance style is what Waters helped shape on the South Side, but his guitar style – minor chords, gutbucket distortion, raw phrasing – is identified with Magic Sam, Elmore James, and others who developed the West Side sound and whom Clearwater listened to and watched as he grew up.

Back then, music filled those neighbor- hoods when nightclubs and taverns became incubators for experimentation and collaboration, and the dozens of record labels on South Michigan Ave. sent the results to the world.

Today, only a handful of clubs on the South and West sides feature live music – the rest fell victim to the crumbling infrastructure created by the race riots of the 1960s, widespread factory closings, and gentrification. Younger blacks largely turned away from blues and toward music they considered more contemporary: soul and funk.

"All of your blues clubs were in dominant black areas. You didn't hear of a blues club in the white areas. So now it's totally the opposite," Clearwater says. "Now, more white people support the blues. I hope black people realize it's their own heritage."

Branch has held court at the Artist's Lounge on E. 87th St. every Monday for 22 years precisely for this reason: "To keep the music in the community." Also an educator, he has traveled the world since 1978, giving week-long clinics to teach blues harmonica to schoolchildren and show them how the blues can be a relevant mode of expression in their lives.

"The main reason black kids can't grasp onto it is they're not afforded the availability. It's not played on the radio, and you don't see it on television," he says.

How far Chicago blues spread outside its neighborhoods becomes clear upon any visit to a club bandstand. There, the visitor may encounter either Shun Kikuta or Guy King, two guitarists who made a beeline to Chicago from Japan and Israel respectively to learn the music they only knew through recordings. They represent a new generation that sought mentors to learn the music's fundamentals, but would never assume to represent its past.

"We still do play the 12-bar style, but the sound is much heavier. In traditional blues, there's more space between notes. But nowadays, because of the funk and rock influences, that sound is more concentrated," says Kikuta, who came to Chicago in 1990 and now plays guitar for blues luminary Koko Taylor. His recent album connects Chicago blues to his own heritage with the use of a shamisen, a three-string traditional Japanese instrument that dates back to the 16th century.

On "Livin' It" (IBF), his just-released first album, King uses the blues to talk about religion and the battle over land rights in his home country. "Some people will say it's not really blues. But I think the blues has been misinterpreted. They will tell you it's old people's music, but if you think about it, the legends were all young when they made it. Robert Johnson died when he was 28," he says.

As much as Chicago blues is changing to tell new stories or incorporate different sounds, there remain musicians who consider its earliest and simplest incarnation, the pre-electric era of the 1930s and 1940s, as the most relevant.

"I'm burnt out on the electric stuff, it seems what they're doing is headed more towards tourists," says Rick Sherry of Devil in a Woodpile, a trio that for the past 12 years has played every Tuesday night at the Hideout, a cozy bar and music room tucked inside the North Side's industrial corridor.

Long ago the band decided it would play on the floor and not a stage to make the music more intimate. On a recent Tuesday in October, 20-year-olds crowd so close to the band that guitarist Joel Patterson has to lean over while playing so as not to block the line for the bathroom.

Sherry, who plays washboard and clarinet, and kicks a 1916 drum at his feet, gets couples dancing with early 20th-century standards from Charlie Patton, Fats Waller, and others who date back to a time when musicianship was more physical: Players could not rely on amplification to be heard.

"It was like a niche that was untouched," he says. "I'm not stealing anything from anyone. I'm stealing everything from everyone. People like this music."

Country Sensation Taylor Swift: My Music, MySpace, My Life

November 9, 2008
My Music, MySpace, My Life


BY now Taylor Swift knows how to work all the different digital cameras, all the different camera phones. When surrounded by a group of fans clamoring for pictures, as she was here on a Saturday night in mid-October after a sold-out show at the McKenzie Arena, she warmly appropriated the camera of each one, struck a cute pose, snapped the picture and then handed it back, usually followed by a hug. All in all it was a fair trade: intimacy for control.

“Intimidation isn’t what I’m going for,” Ms. Swift, 18, said earlier in the day in the Zen-like tour bus she and her mother, Andrea, designed, from the leather on the sofas to the faux peacock feathers on the bathroom wall. “I don’t have big security guards,” she said as Fox News played mutely on the television. “I don’t have an entourage. I try to write lyrics about what’s happening to me and leave out the part that I live in hotel rooms and tour buses. It’s the relatability factor. If you’re trying too hard to be the girl next door, you’re not going to be.”

Thus far Ms. Swift, who spends much of her free time updating her MySpace page and editing personal videos to upload to the Internet, has not had a tough time finding the right balance. She has quickly established herself as the most remarkable country music breakthrough artist of the decade. In part that’s because she is one of Nashville’s most exciting songwriters, with a chirpy, exuberant voice. But mainly Ms. Swift’s career has been noteworthy for what happens once the songs are finished. She has aggressively used online social networks to stay connected with her young audience in a way that, while typical for rock and hip-hop artists, is proving to be revolutionary in country music. As she vigilantly narrates her own story and erases barriers between her and her fans, she is helping country reach a new audience.

Ms. Swift’s second album, “Fearless” (Big Machine), will be released Tuesday, and like her self-titled 2006 debut, it’s full of charming, clean-scrubbed songs about teenage love and heartbreak. Ms. Swift writes from her own experiences, names intact, giving her songs an almost radical intimacy, especially in a pop world of plasticized come-ons and impersonal brush-offs.

She has placed the concerns of young women at the center of her songs, subject matter that generally has been anathema in the more mature world of country singers. Most important, though, she very much sees country music as part of the larger pop panorama. A huge success on country radio, she has also found homes on pop stations and at MTV, including a gig hosting the MTV Video Music Awards preshow in September, an unheard-of slot for a country singer. This week an entire episode of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” will be devoted to her album release party. Put more plainly, she has proved that there’s no reason a country singer can’t be a pop star too.

Just four years ago, when Ms. Swift and her family moved from Wyomissing, Pa., to Hendersonville, a Nashville suburb, this seemed an impossible proposition. It had been more than a decade since a teenager last made a true impact in town, but that singer, LeAnn Rimes, had been praised for sounding grown-up; Ms. Swift’s music was unabashedly youthful. When Scott Borchetta, president of Big Machine Records, would talk to Nashville insiders about his teenage signee, “people would look at me cross-eyed,” he said. “I would feel like they were deleting me from their Blackberrys as I was telling them.”

But Ms. Swift had been carefully honing her sound for a few years already. After a trip to Nashville when she was 11, she began writing songs and learning to play guitar in earnest. (She now often plays a Swarovski crystal-encrusted one.) By the time her family moved, in the summer before her freshman year of high school, she had already been singing at coffee shops and minor league baseball games.

Ms. Swift first signed a publishing deal with Sony/ATV Music Publishing, the youngest person the company had ever signed. Every day after school she would truck off to one of Nashville’s many studios on Music Row for writing appointments.

“I knew every writer I wrote with was pretty much going to think, ‘I’m going to write a song for a 14-year-old today,’ ” Ms. Swift said. “So I would come into each meeting with 5 to 10 ideas that were solid. I wanted them to look at me as a person they were writing with, not a little kid.”

It was during this time that Ms. Swift honed her songwriting strength: looking in the mirror. Relationships and their failures, the fodder for so much teenage pop, are her primary texts. “I have an obsession with knowing the answers to things,” she said. “When I don’t know what happened, it just bothers me, gets under my skin, and I need to write about it. For years.”

Her mother, Andrea, said: “She simply has to write songs. It’s how she filters life.” (Andrea, who was previously a stay-at-home mom, now travels with her daughter; Ms. Swift’s father, Scott, is a stockbroker.)

And so, around the play-by-play details of broken hearts and romantic dreams, Ms. Swift’s sound began to coalesce. She has an ear for the indelible chorus — “She’s one of those writers who won’t run away from a hook,” Mr. Borchetta said — but her music is appropriately loose. There are obvious country flourishes in the arrangements, but mainly her vocals, excitable and airy and hardly twangy at all, take center stage.

Whether anyone would accept Ms. Swift’s sound was an open question. “We felt it wasn’t likely that country radio would embrace it unless we had a story,” Mr. Borchetta said, so Ms. Swift made a series of biographical shorts to air on the GAC (Great American Country) cable network. Then came “Tim McGraw,” Ms. Swift’s canny first single, named after the country superstar. (In the lyrics Mr. McGraw is the singer of a special song she and a boy share.) “We put that out deliberately, so people would ask, who’s this new artist with a song called ‘Tim McGraw’?” said Mr. Borchetta, who likened its reception to that of “a grenade in a still pond.”

Released in late 2006, Ms. Swift’s debut album sold a modest 39,000 copies in its first week, but as Ms. Swift gained attention and released more singles, it did not stop selling. It has now moved well over three million copies. Last year Ms. Swift won the Country Music Association’s Horizon Award for best new artist, and this year she is nominated for female vocalist of the year. She will also perform at the ceremony, which is Wednesday.

“From the moment ‘Tim McGraw’ hit the channel, she began to amass an audience that traditional Nashville didn’t know or didn’t believe existed, and that is young women, specifically teens,” said Brian Philips, executive vice president and general manager of CMT (Country Music Television). “It’s as if Taylor has kind of willed herself into being.”

She has willed herself beyond the country music world too. After landing at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart, “Teardrops on My Guitar,” the third single on her first album, became a crossover hit, peaking at No. 13 on the Hot 100. “In a lot of cities the pop stations will take a chance because there’s been exposure in that market on the country station,” said Sharon Dastur, program director of the New York Top 40 station Z100 (WHTZ-FM), which played the song in a medium-level rotation last year after it had been broken at Top 40 stations in more country-friendly markets like Greensville, S.C.; Wichita, Kan.; and Austin, Tex.

Ms. Swift is not without forebears. In the past 15 years female country stars like Faith Hill, Shania Twain, Lee Ann Womack and the Dixie Chicks have all experienced some degree of pop success. And Ms. Swift’s ability to straddle both country and pop was facilitated by the recent crossover success of Carrie Underwood, the “American Idol” winner.

Monte Lipman, president and chief executive of Universal Republic Records, which joined with Big Machine to work Ms. Swift’s records to pop radio, said: “We don’t want to alienate country radio at all because we’ve found pop success. Scott is always superserving the country marketplace first, and we work for him.”

Mr. Borchetta said that country radio would always be the top priority. “They’re always going to get the singles first, always going to be first in line at the meet-and-greets,” he said. “We overthink everything. One thing we can’t do is chase the moving target of pop radio. It could be all emo next year, all urban next year.”

No one much complains when a rapper or indie rocker crosses over to the pop charts, but a country singer perceived as trying to go pop can still raise eyebrows. Nashville remains a fiercely hermetic town and is unusually protective, or possessive, of its own.

“I’m not about to snub the people who brought me to the party,” said Ms. Swift, who when she speaks of her plan to manage her crossover fame sounds like a well-seasoned executive. “We went back and studied other cases where it had failed every way that it can fail, and we tried to avoid those things.”

Ms. Swift is, by all accounts, an extremely good-natured micromanager. “She’s a very competitive person, and she’s always got her game face on,” said the country singer Kellie Pickler, one of Ms. Swift’s closest friends. “And she’s a really smart businesswoman, smarter than a lot of 40-year-olds I know.”

Right before the show in Chattanooga, as she does before every performance, Ms. Swift loaded up her wrists with bracelets that she would later toss out to fans, allowing them to take home a small piece of her. And after she finished singing “Should’ve Said No,” about a boy who cheated on her, she dropped to her knees and bent forward, holding her head still as fans in the front rows patted it concernedly. It was a scarily intimate moment but essential to her self-presentation that there is no barrier between her and her songs, and their listeners, the consumers. That insistence informs every aspect of her work.

It has also led to the decimation of her privacy. “Every single one of the guys that I’ve written songs about has been tracked down on MySpace by my fans,” she said, a little giddy. “I had the opportunity to be more general on this record, but I chose not to. I like to have the last word.”

That may become less tenable, though, as Ms. Swift’s personal life makes its way into the tabloids, as it lately has in regards to her never-confirmed romance with Joe Jonas, the would-be rake of the Jonas Brothers. On this subject, at least, Ms. Swift is uncharacteristically mum: “He’s not in my life anymore, and I have absolutely nothing to say about or to him.”

At least until the next album, maybe, which Ms. Swift insists will detail her life just as thoroughly as the first two. “When I knew something was going on in someone’s personal life and they didn’t address it in their music, I was always very confused by that,” Ms. Swift said. “I owe it to people from letting them in from Day 1.”

But eventually, if things continue as they are, walls will have to be erected. Jakks Pacific has just released a line of Taylor Swift dolls, making her even more of an abstract idol and less of a real person. She is also the face of the l.e.i. clothing brand, carried exclusively at Wal-Mart, one of what is certain to be many endorsements to come. And next year she will be spending time in England, Japan and Australia in hopes of facilitating Taylor Swift, the global brand, a move that few country acts have been able to pull off.

That she’s likely to become only less accessible is a problem that Ms. Swift is, naturally, very attuned to. “All I can do,” she said, “is put up a MySpace video where I don’t have any makeup on and am wearing a periodic table of the elements T-shirt.”

That and continue to make connections, one person at a time. The night before Chattanooga, Ms. Swift was at Sommet Center in Nashville, opening a charity gig for Rascal Flatts. After emptying her wrist during “Tim McGraw,” she took in the sold-out crowd. “I am so proud to live in Nashville, Tennessee,” she said, “and I hope to run into you at the grocery store.”