Sunday, December 26, 2010

NYT on the decline of diva melissma in pop singing

December 24, 2010
Trilling Songbirds Clip Their Wings

AS symbolic shifts go, two recent events in pop music couldn’t have been more illuminating. On Nov. 24 “Burlesque,” a big-screen musical starring Christina Aguilera, opened and landed with a thud, both critically and at the box office. On Dec. 2 came the Grammy Award nominations. Among releases up for the album of the year award are those by Lady Gaga and Katy Perry; Ms. Aguilera, who also released an album, “Bionic,” in 2010, was ignored.

Such turnover is part of pop’s constant process of renewal: out with the old idols, in with the new. But the ground shifted under pop in an even bigger way. As seen and especially heard in “Burlesque,” Ms. Aguilera has been one of the foremost practitioners of the overpowering, Category 5 vocal style known as melisma. The female pop stars who have dominated the charts this year rarely opt for that approach. Their ascent makes it clear that melisma has retreated, while pop, which has just wrapped up one of its best years in at least a decade, has benefited from a return to less frilly, less bombastic vocal showcases.

Although there’s nothing simple about it, melisma in its simplest form is a vocal technique in which a series of notes is stretched into one syllable. Its roots can be tracked back to gospel, blues and even Gregorian chant; Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder used it sparingly early in their careers.

But beginning two decades ago, melisma overtook pop in a way it hadn’t before. Mariah Carey’s debut hit from 1990, “Vision of Love,” followed two years later by Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You,” set the bar insanely high for notes stretched louder, longer and knottier than most pop fans had ever heard. A subsequent generation of singers, including Ms. Aguilera, Jennifer Hudson and Beyoncé, built their careers around melisma. (Men like Brian McKnight and Tyrese also indulged in it, but women tended to dominate the form.)

That melisma heyday is jarringly invoked on Ms. Carey’s current album, “Merry Christmas II You,” a collection of seasonal standards and originals. One of the tracks, a rendition of “O Holy Night” recorded in 2000, is a reminder of the days when Ms. Carey and her voice were in full melismatic overdrive.

Whether it’s because of public fatigue or the advancing ages of its mainstays, who can’t quite sandblast the high notes as they once did, those days appear to be over. Ms. Aguilera’s “Bionic,” along with recent releases by Ms. Carey (“Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel”) and Ms. Houston (“I Look to You”), have sold far below their usual multimillion levels. “American Idol,” whose contestants have long been clearly influenced by melisma, is in ratings and buzz decline.

Beyoncé and Pink, who embraced melisma early in their careers, have both left it behind. Pink’s new compilation, “Greatest Hits ... So Far!!!,” is dominated by her rock-leaning rasp, whether she’s taking a crack at a ballad (“Dear Mr. President”) or a party anthem (her current single, “Raise Your Glass”). Although she was fond of elongated syllables while a member of Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé gradually moved away from brassy displays. Her luminous recent hit “Halo” has only a suggestion of melisma. It’s telling that her most recent hit, the irresistible dance pop song “Telephone,” is a collaboration with Lady Gaga.

Starting with Lady Gaga and Ms. Perry the nonmelisma female performers who have taken over iPods and the radio couldn’t be more different vocally. On “California Gurls” and “Teenage Dream,” her ubiquitous 2010 hits, Ms. Perry opts for short, breathy gulps in her singing. Her voice occasionally glides into an upper register, as on the bridge of “California Gurls,” but it mostly aims to convey likability and approachability, not prowess and imperiousness.

As heard on her current single “We R Who We R” from her new mini-album, “Cannibal,” Kesha has a thin, often computer-manipulated voice that recalls ’80s new-wave pop acts. It’s often hard to tell when her singing voice ends and the Vocoder processing kicks in.

The technically best singer of the bunch, Lady Gaga, has a deep, mildly nasal delivery that, on hits like “Alejandro,” evokes a more tuneful Madonna. Her version of melisma is more visual than aural: her Broadway-inspired stage shows, arresting videos, Warhol-redux costumes and exploding bras are over the top, as opposed to her singing.

What all those singers have in common is a delivery far less virtuosic than the melisma queens of old. (Some, like Taylor Swift, they may not be vocally capable of it either.) None is likely to inspire contestants who will stand before Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler on the next season of “American Idol.” Rather than wrestling the melodies to the ground, these singers adhere closely to them. The high notes Ms. Perry reaches for on “Teenage Dream” are the merest of vocal trills. One of the year’s most arresting hooks, Rihanna’s contribution to Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie,” conveys sadness and regret in a beautifully understated manner devoid of vibrato.

What makes singles like “Telephone” and “Alejandro,” “California Gurls” and Kesha’s “Tik Tok” and “Your Love Is My Drug” stand out aren’t the voices at their core. It’s the combination of vocal personality, arrangement, hook and songcraft — the eternal, enduring ingredients of classic pop. Even their voices are turned into hooks: one of the most memorable parts of “Telephone” is the moment Lady Gaga’s voice imitates a busy signal.

Those songs were also central to this year’s invigorating resurgence of pop. From the teen-bop star Justin Bieber to the casts of “Glee” and the boy-band TV series “Big Time Rush,” dance-infused pop singles made a triumphant comeback in 2010. Beats and melodies once again became the stars — a welcome reprieve from the melisma era, when emphasis shifted from songwriting to Olympic-style displays of lung power. To test the damaging influence of melisma, one need only try to hum one of Ms. Carey’s vaporous hits all the way through; it’s virtually impossible.

Melisma may have also run its cultural course. Ms. Carey, Ms. Houston and Ms. Aguilera, to name its three main champions, are most associated with the period from the late ’80s through the late ’90s: an era now largely associated with money, ostentation and American power, especially during the latter half of the ’90s. Their brawny vocal approach and lush, widescreen records reflected their times as much as the Clinton-era Wall Street boom.

Pop’s new divas may not be able to ascend to vocal heights the way Ms. Aguilera still can in “Burlesque.” But in many ways they’re better suited for the post-crash economy. Every so often even pop music has to downsize.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Roentgenizdat: Soviet Era "X-Ray LPs" of Banned Western Recordings

From Weird Vibrations

October 12, 2009
Roentgenizdat: Sentimental Songs on X-Ray

In the 1950s, music enthusiasts in the Soviet Union made copies of banned Western records using sheets of x-ray film purchased from clinics and hospitals. Photographic film, like wax, acetate, or vinyl, is thick and firm enough to be used with commercially available music engraving machines. X-rays weren’t the ideal medium, being prone to warping, but they worked well enough, and were cheap to boot.

Comments on roentgenizdat have been floating around for a few years, and Princeton English professor Eduardo Cadava is writing a book on the subject, out soon.

Roentgenizdat are interesting, first, as a series of artifacts. Prefiguring picture disks, non-circular shapes, and other graphically novel record gimmicks, these albums feel like an early example of what few people got into until the 70s and 80s – experimentation with records as objects. Although dubbing onto x-ray was in this case a matter of political necessity rather than unprovoked aesthetic tinkering, the dubbers quite clearly paid attention to the images they chose, as well as the placement of the center holes.

Read the entire post HERE.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Music Helps Aging Adults' Movement

November 26, 2010
Aging: Unsteady on Your Feet? Try Moving to Music

Elderly people in a new study cut their risk of falling by more than half after they took classes in eurhythmics, an exercise-and-music program designed for young children.

The 12-month trial recruited 134 people, average age 75, who were unsteady on their feet. Half were randomly assigned to weekly hourlong eurhythmics classes for the first six months, and the other half took no classes until the following six months.

The program, developed by the early-20th-century Swiss composer Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, teaches movement in time to music, from Mozart minuets to jazz improvisations. Participants have to walk and turn around, stay in step with changing tempos, learn to shift their weight and balance, handle objects while walking, and make exaggerated upper-body movements while walking.

The two groups were monitored to determine how many times they fell. In the first group, there were just 24 falls over the first six months, compared with 54 among those who were not in the classes.

Even after the classes ended, the participants maintained their improvements in balance, walked with a more regular gait and were better able to walk while doing other things. The study was published online in Archives of Internal Medicine.

Read the full article HERE.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Singing and Dancing Robot (Japanese, of course)

And female, of course. I really hate the legs; they give me the creeps.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Vocaloid Holograph Anime Pop Singer Miku Hatsune

Voice is electronically generated (hence the vocaloid), performance is mix of extremely sophisticated holographic imagery and a slamming live band. The technology is pretty amazing; I've watched a couple of times just to watch how the necktie tracks or how they step out of the spotlight or in front of each other. Some comments here and there are grumbling about preferring music made by humans, but really, it's all made by humans; it's not like the hologram wrote her own stuff! The possibilities reel the mind. I find the anime body incarnate troubling. Still, age of wonders...

Check out the instant costume changes in this medley:

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Shadow Scholar: Writing College Assignments for Profit

Here's a rather depressing article written by someone employed as a writer of college papers for cheating students: undergrads, grads, theses, basically everything.

November 12, 2010
Chronicle of Higher Education
The Shadow Scholar
The man who writes your students' papers tells his story

By Ed Dante

Editor's note: Ed Dante is a pseudonym for a writer who lives on the East Coast. Through a literary agent, he approached The Chronicle wanting to tell the story of how he makes a living writing papers for a custom-essay company and to describe the extent of student cheating he has observed. In the course of editing his article, The Chronicle reviewed correspondence Dante had with clients and some of the papers he had been paid to write. In the article published here, some details of the assignment he describes have been altered to protect the identity of the student.

The request came in by e-mail around 2 in the afternoon. It was from a previous customer, and she had urgent business. I quote her message here verbatim (if I had to put up with it, so should you): "You did me business ethics propsal for me I need propsal got approved pls can you will write me paper?"

I've gotten pretty good at interpreting this kind of correspondence. The client had attached a document from her professor with details about the paper. She needed the first section in a week. Seventy-five pages.

I told her no problem.

It truly was no problem. In the past year, I've written roughly 5,000 pages of scholarly literature, most on very tight deadlines. But you won't find my name on a single paper.

I've written toward a master's degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I've worked on bachelor's degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I've written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, sports management, maritime security, airline services, sustainability, municipal budgeting, marketing, philosophy, ethics, Eastern religion, postmodern architecture, anthropology, literature, and public administration. I've attended three dozen online universities. I've completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else.

You've never heard of me, but there's a good chance that you've read some of my work. I'm a hired gun, a doctor of everything, an academic mercenary. My customers are your students. I promise you that. Somebody in your classroom uses a service that you can't detect, that you can't defend against, that you may not even know exists.

I work at an online company that generates tens of thousands of dollars a month by creating original essays based on specific instructions provided by cheating students. I've worked there full time since 2004. On any day of the academic year, I am working on upward of 20 assignments.

In the midst of this great recession, business is booming. At busy times, during midterms and finals, my company's staff of roughly 50 writers is not large enough to satisfy the demands of students who will pay for our work and claim it as their own.


Read the full article HERE.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Rappers Arrested in Iran


Young rappers arrested in Iran
By Reza Sayah, CNN

(CNN) -- Police in Tehran have arrested several members of underground Iranian rap groups, the semi-offical ILNA news agency reported.

Tehran Police Chief Hussain Sajedinia told ILNA that several young boys and girls were discovered using vacant homes to record and videotape illegal rap music for various websites and satellite networks.

Police raided the homes, arrested the young musicians and confiscated "western style musical instruments" and several bottles of liquor, according to ILNA.

The report did not specify when the raids took place, how many rappers were arrested, or how old they were.

"These groups use the most trashy, juvenile and street-like words and phrases that have no place in proper grammar," the police chief told ILNA. "More importantly, they have no regard for the law, principles, proper behavior and language."

Police were searching for a girl and several other of the young rappers after identifying them in material found during the search of the vacant homes, ILNA reported.

"A court order has been issued for the arrest of all of the accused and police in Tehran will make their utmost effort to arrest these people," Sajedinia told ILNA.

In Iran, rap and rock music is not a serious crime but is considered un-Islamic. Ignoring the laws against playing rap and rock music can lead to accusations of Satan worship and sentences of flogging or a night in jail.

It's not clear if the young Iranian rappers are still in jail or what they're being charged with.

Sajedinia accused Iran's underground rap scene of spreading profanity and poisoning young minds. He called for an increase in traditional Iranian music to counter the influence of rap music, ILNA reported.

"Those who have been arrested are among those who have veered away from proper behavior, who have distanced themselves from all of life's hardships and are in search of comforts that have no limits," he said.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Another what's wrong with classical music post

This one, with some good sections, is from 3quarksdaliy:


The use of classical music in public places is increasingly common: in shopping malls, parking lots, and other places where crowds and loitering can be problems. The TTC is by no means the only transit service to use the technique: in 2005, after classical music was introduced into London’s Underground, there was a significant decrease in robberies, assaults and vandalism. Similar results have been noted from Finland to New Zealand. The idea may be a Canadian innovation: in 1985, a 7-Eleven store in Vancouver pioneered the technique, which was soon adopted elsewhere. Today, about 150 7-Elevens throughout North America play classical music outside their stores.

As a classical music lover, I’d like to believe that my favourite music has some kind of magical effect on people – that it soothes the savage breast in some unique way. I’d like to think that classical music somehow inspires nobler aspirations in the mind of the purse-snatcher, causing him to abandon his line of work for something more upstanding and socially beneficial.

But I know better. The hard, cold truth is that classical music in public places is often deliberately intended to make certain kinds of people feel unwelcome. Its use has been described as “musical bug spray,” and as the “weaponization” of classical music. At the Bathurst Street Subway Station, the choice of music conveys a clear message: “Move along quickly and peacefully, people; this is not your cultural space.”


Read the full post, with summarized reasons for classical music's unpopularity and some suggestions at the link above.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Klingon Opera

From the encyclopedia Brittanica blog comes an entry about an actual Klingon opera, though I really question what they built their opera upon. I think if Worf would have heard this he would have taken a bat'leth to the composer's gut.

Looking at this clip, the Klingons really deserve something better or, as the blog author notes, today is a good day to die.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Michael Manring Solo Bass: "Selene"

Michael Manring plays a custom Zon bass like noone else. This amazing solo piece shows part of his technique:

Historical Star Wars Art

A great collection of sci-fi art and the original references is located HERE.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

U2's "Walk On" From a Tribute to Heroes Concert

Springsteen's "My City of Ruins" on The Tribute to Heroes Telethon

On this contentious anniversary of 9/11, I thought I would post this. This is the opening song of the A Tribute to Heroes concert, a benefit concert for the victims of 9/11 that took place on 9-21-01. Truthfully, I don't think I have ever been so proud to be a musician as when I saw this. It's a nice song, but in the context of that performance it was, well...everything, at least everything it needed to be. Sometimes you really do need a voice and a song.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Classic Parkour Film Scene

Back in 2004 parkour hit mainstream entertainment in this fantastic low-tech chase scene from Banlieue 13 featuring the king of parkour David Belle:

And a parkour fail bonus from Failbog/Funny or Die:

Bacteria in brass instruments

on man, this is disgusting. And if you have ever been around a lot of brass players, you know that wherever they play, they slow condensation and saliva onto the floor via their spit valves. Keep that in mind when you read this:

Think Music Heals? Trombone Player Begs To Differ

by Diane Orson
September 8, 2010 from WNPR

Each day, thousands of music students head to band practice with their trumpets, trombones and saxophones. But they may want to pay a bit more attention to the way they clean out their instruments when rehearsal is over. One musician in Connecticut learned the hard way about the dangers of not cleaning his horn — after he developed a condition that's being called "trombone players' lung."

Scott Bean spends hours each day performing, practicing and teaching the trombone. But for years, Bean struggled with health problems that made it hard to play his instrument.

"I coughed. I had a horrible deep barking cough — especially when I played trombone. I had a sore throat, lost 60 pounds at a time, had a low-grade fever," he says. "It was a huge hindrance."

The Stuff Inside

Doctors thought Bean had asthma, but none of the usual therapies worked. After 15 years, Bean went on vacation for the first time without his trombone — and felt better. He began to wonder if the instrument could be making him sick.

A doctor at the University of Connecticut took a culture from inside his horn.

"Then he calls me up and says, 'Scott, we know what's in your trombone,'" Bean says.

It was a mold called fusarium, says Mark Metersky, a professor at the University of Connecticut Medical School's division of pulmonary and critical care.

"He also grew a type of bacteria called a mycobacterium, sort of a cousin of tuberculosis," Metersky says.

This stuff inside the trombone was causing an allergic reaction, which led to hypersensitivity pneumonitis, a severe inflammation of the lungs. Microscopic organisms were breaking off and getting into Bean's lungs each time he inhaled.

Bean admits brass players are often lax about cleaning their horns.

"You talk about cleaning out your instrument, and they laugh and make some funny remark about it," he says. "I never cleaned out my trombone — maybe once every other year. We never clean it out."

Not Alone

Mold and bacteria could grow in any brass instrument. And for most players, it wouldn't matter much, except maybe aesthetically. But for a subset of people who react to these organisms, it's no joke. Metersky set out to see how common a problem it was. He asked several professional musicians if he could culture the insides of their trombones and trumpets for a pilot study.

"Things plopped out," Metersky says. "It was disgusting. Imagine the worst thing you've found in your refrigerator in food that you've left for a few months, and that was coming out of these instruments."

Metersky stopped testing after 10 instruments, because they all were contaminated....

Doctors have known about this disease for a while, but Cecile Rose, a hypersensitivity pneumonitis expert at National Jewish Health in Colorado, says no one has ever thought to connect it to musical instruments.....
Read and hear the entire story HERE.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Cartoon classic: David Byrne runs into Paul Simon

Classic world music zinger of a comic.
David Byrne and Paul Simon as modern-day Stanley and Livingston (armed with microphones and recorders rather than rifles), searching the world for hip and exotic inspiration:

By Drew Friedman from Spy Magazine, date unknown.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Infamous Early 1990s Music Industry Rant by Steve Albini

Hosted by Negativland here. Here's a sample:

Whenever I talk to a band who are about to sign with a major label, I always end up thinking of them in a particular context. I imagine a trench, about four feet wide and five feet deep, maybe sixty yards long, filled with runny, decaying shit. I imagine these people, some of them good friends, some of them barely acquaintances, at one end of this trench. I also imagine a faceless industry lackey at the other end holding a fountain pen and a contract waiting to be signed. Nobody can see what's printed on the contract. It's too far away, and besides, the shit stench is making everybody's eyes water. The lackey shouts to everybody that the first one to swim the trench gets to sign the contract. Everybody dives in the trench and they struggle furiously to get to the other end. Two people arrive simultaneously and begin wrestling furiously, clawing each other and dunking each other under the shit. Eventually, one of them capitulates, and there's only one contestant left. He reaches for the pen, but the Lackey says "Actually, I think you need a little more development. Swim again, please. Backstroke". And he does of course.

Every major label involved in the hunt for new bands now has on staff a high-profile point man, an "A & R" rep who can present a comfortable face to any prospective band. The initials stand for "Artist and Repertoire." because historically, the A & R staff would select artists to record music that they had also selected, out of an available pool of each. This is still the case, though not openly. These guys are universally young [about the same age as the bands being wooed], and nowadays they always have some obvious underground rock credibility flag they can wave.

Lyle Preslar, former guitarist for Minor Threat, is one of them. Terry Tolkin, former NY independent booking agent and assistant manager at Touch and Go is one of them. Al Smith, former soundman at CBGB is one of them. Mike Gitter, former editor of XXX fanzine and contributor to Rip, Kerrang and other lowbrow rags is one of them. Many of the annoying turds who used to staff college radio stations are in their ranks as well. There are several reasons A & R scouts are always young. The explanation usually copped-to is that the scout will be "hip to the current musical "scene." A more important reason is that the bands will intuitively trust someone they think is a peer, and who speaks fondly of the same formative rock and roll experiences. The A & R person is the first person to make contact with the band, and as such is the first person to promise them the moon. Who better to promise them the moon than an idealistic young turk who expects to be calling the shots in a few years, and who has had no previous experience with a big record company. Hell, he's as naive as the band he's duping. When he tells them no one will interfere in their creative process, he probably even believes it. When he sits down with the band for the first time, over a plate of angel hair pasta, he can tell them with all sincerity that when they sign with company X, they're really signing with him and he's on their side. Remember that great gig I saw you at in '85? Didn't we have a blast. By now all rock bands are wise enough to be suspicious of music industry scum. There is a pervasive caricature in popular culture of a portly, middle aged ex-hipster talking a mile-a-minute, using outdated jargon and calling everybody "baby." After meeting "their" A & R guy, the band will say to themselves and everyone else, "He's not like a record company guy at all! He's like one of us." And they will be right. That's one of the reasons he was hired.

These A & R guys are not allowed to write contracts. What they do is present the band with a letter of intent, or "deal memo," which loosely states some terms, and affirms that the band will sign with the label once a contract has been agreed on. The spookiest thing about this harmless sounding little memo, is that it is, for all legal purposes, a binding document. That is, once the band signs it, they are under obligation to conclude a deal with the label. If the label presents them with a contract that the band don't want to sign, all the label has to do is wait. There are a hundred other bands willing to sign the exact same contract, so the label is in a position of strength. These letters never have any terms of expiration, so the band remain bound by the deal memo until a contract is signed, no matter how long that takes. The band cannot sign to another laborer or even put out its own material unless they are released from their agreement, which never happens. Make no mistake about it: once a band has signed a letter of intent, they will either eventually sign a contract that suits the label or they will be destroyed.

Read the full thing, including the dollar breakdown of a sample contract at Negativland.

Parody of Hip Megachurch Productions

Definitely a relative of the earlier movie trailer parody.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Springsteen's Born In the USA (live and acoustic)

It's easy to see in hindsight how Springsteen's post-Vietnam Rust Belt anthem got mistaken for a jingoistic rock tune. Funny how music has a way of doing that (making one misinterpret or overlook the words). I remember seeing Springsteen doing this acoustic version a long time ago on the Charlie Rose Show (PBS). The show was an hour-long interview and then they finished with this,no introducing it, no comment afterword, just the titles (at least that's how I remember it). It was the first time I had seen the acoustic version and I was floored. I recently found the show version on YouTube:

And here is another live acoustic version from a concert. The twelve-string sounds great:

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Afghanistan: Musicians Struggling To Revive Classical Heritage After Taliban

Radio Free Europe

By Country / Afghanistan
Afghanistan: Musicians Struggling To Revive Classical Heritage After Taliban
November 11, 2005

Decades of war and the Taliban's five-year ban on music took their toll on Afghan classical music. Musicians have been trying to resuscitate the art since the end of Taliban rule. But they face serious economic and artistic challenges -- including the threat of possible attack by Taliban fighters if they perform in provincial areas. Through interviews and field recordings, RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz has documented attempts to revive Afghan music since the collapse of the Taliban regime nearly four years ago.

Kabul, 11 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Three warring Afghan militia factions in Wardak Province put their disputes aside long enough in early 2002 to celebrate a feast together in the district of Chak.

Hundreds gathered to hear the first performance there of Afghanistan's national dance, the "Atan-i-Mili," since the Taliban silenced music five years earlier.

But only one elderly musician was found to play a double-sided Afghan drum called a dhol. There were no others to play the complex rhythmical counterpoints of the dance. And there was no one to play the traditional melody on the raspy, flute-like surnai. It was a sparse sound testifying to the state of music in southern Afghanistan immediately after Taliban rule.

Instead, militia fighters fired their AK-47s to the drumbeat in the way Western DJs use old records to perform "scratch" rhythms.

Within two years, after many Afghan musicians returned from lives as refugees in neighboring Pakistan and Iran, the sound of a full group playing the Atan-i-Mili would be common in Afghanistan again.

Life today remains difficult and dangerous for Afghan musicians. An ethnic Turkmen singer named Quarab Nazar was gunned down recently along with six of his backing group after performing at a wedding party in northern Jowzjan Province. Police say the attackers were Taliban fighters. The Taliban also is blamed for other recent attacks against musicians in the south and east of the country.

Still, classical Afghan musicians want to breath life back into their heritage after decades of war and repression.

Read the full story, including photographs and audio clips, HERE.

(h/t Farhad)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Beijing Opera, a Historical Treasure in Fragile Condition

August 29, 2010
Beijing Opera, a Historical Treasure in Fragile Condition

BEIJING — “Watch out for that sword,” the rehearsal director shouted.

“I don’t want anybody’s head getting cut off because you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Lots of weapons were on stage at the Beijing Opera Academy of China here the other day. Teenage future opera stars were armed with lances, spears, swords and daggers as they carried out an elaborately choreographed, intricate, stylized and acrobatic fight scene, all to the clash of cymbals, drums, wooden clappers and a substantial orchestra of Chinese string and woodwind instruments.

Here and there in this ever more steel and glass city where old neighborhoods disappear from one month to the next, there is a glimpse of what the previous city was like — quiet, tree-shaded streets with small storefronts and bicycles, a locust tree leaning over a wall that hides an old courtyard house.

This modest and slightly shabby theater in the academy exists in a neighborhood in the southwest part of the city that has not been entirely torn down and rebuilt yet. The academy occupies the former site of the Beijing Dance Academy and does not seem to have been physically upgraded or modernized. It still has dingy corridors, ancient washrooms, rusting bunk beds (six to a room), a single fluorescent bulb hanging from the ceiling and an ancient radiator in front of the window.

And, of course, nothing could more suggest old Beijing than Beijing opera, with its masks, its stylized movements, its atonal, strangely modern arias, its fantastically intricate scenes of battle, and, probably most important, its audience of connoisseurs who know when to shout a throaty “hao!” — good! — after an especially well-executed movement or song.

The worry though is that, like the city’s old neighborhoods, Beijing opera could fall victim to China’s rampant commercialism and modernization. If it did, it would be a bit like Italy consigning Verdi or Donizetti to a few small halls in Milan and Rome, or to those folkloric shows for tourists who mostly do not know much about what they are seeing.

“Objectively speaking, right now there are some difficulties,” said Qiao Cuirong, a senior professor at the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts, summing up the current state of Beijing opera. “People are interested in money and modernity and Western things, so our own culture has lost something.”

It would be premature to say that Beijing opera has turned into an antique relic, but clearly it is not what it was in the late 18th to early 20th century, when it was northern China’s most popular theatrical entertainment. The big national spectacles of recent years have included the 2008 Olympic opening ceremony, which, while drawing on China’s rich tradition, did not echo the traditional opera. There was also the lavish production of Puccini’s “Turandot,” directed by the celebrated filmmaker Zhang Yimou. That production was a Western import that was once banned in this country because it was deemed insulting to China.

Beijing opera certainly was not helped by the fact that during the turmoil of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, the form was deemed feudalistic and reactionary. But then again so was just about every other art form, including Western music and modern dance, both of which have since made vigorous recoveries.

But Beijing opera faces particular difficulties, aside from the aging and fading away of a knowledgeable audience.

“The more you know about Beijing opera, the more you love it,” said Liu Hua, a former performer and now a teacher at the school. “The problem is that it takes a lot to know it, and fewer and fewer people have the time or the inclination.”

Also, Beijing opera is an especially demanding form, both to perform and to witness.

“It takes a very long time to study, at least 8 to 10 years just to get in the door as a performer,” Mr. Qiao said. “And the whole thing is very slow. It’s not like a movie, and right now people want things to be fast. That’s why we’re losing the young crowd.”

Still, there seems, perhaps paradoxically, to be no shortage of students, as all those highly talented and professional-looking teenagers on the school stage the other day indicated. Young people start their training at age 11, going to one of the several Beijing opera academies around the country aimed at producing professional performers.

“Children really like it,” Mr. Qiao said. “Another reason is that some parents love it, and they want their children to learn it, even if they’re not thinking about having them become professionals.”

The early training lasts for six demanding, rigorous years. Given that Beijing opera is fading in popularity, especially among the younger generations, it seems strange that so many young people would want to go through it.

“It’s such good training that the students can go in almost any direction even if they don’t end up in the opera,” Ms. Liu said.

“A lot of our students end up on television or in the movies,” she added. “There are a lot of martial arts movies, and our students are all good at martial arts. Some of them become popular singers or actors. They’re not worried about their future.”

The Chinese Ministry of Culture, anxious about the form’s survival, lavishly subsidizes it, renovating theaters, commissioning new works, paying substantial salaries to the bearers of the tradition, like Mr. Qiao.

This year, for the first time ever, the state-run Chinese Central Television has been holding a national Beijing opera student competition, with the finals to be televised in October. During the preliminaries in Beijing recently, 24 contestants, each with a supporting cast of extremely acrobatic soldiers and others, took the stage in an awesome display of skill and talent.

The emphasis was on what a nonconnoisseur might think of as the best parts — the battle and martial arts scenes, with performers in astonishing costumes leaping and somersaulting in midair, twirling, jabbing, tossing and juggling an arsenal of weapons and batons, singing at the same time.

And there was the knowledgeable audience — theater entry was free, which is perhaps itself a sign of the form’s fragile standing with the public — shouting approval and applauding enthusiastically. “We teachers are doing our job, and the government’s Culture Ministry is supporting us,” Mr. Qiao said. “Everybody’s doing their best to keep this as a cultural treasure, whether people go to see it or not.”

Monday, August 09, 2010

The Music-Copyright Enforcers (NYT Mag)

NYT Magazine

August 6, 2010
The Music-Copyright Enforcers

Beginning and excerpts:

Few things can make Devon Baker cry.

There was the time her pet hamster, Herschel, died. There was the time she was run over by a car. Neither episode provoked tears. Not even close. And yet, on a recent Thursday, as Baker drove down Highway 60, about 55 miles northwest of Phoenix, she had to wonder, Is today one of those days when I’m gonna cry?

Baker, who has preternaturally white teeth, green eyes, soft brown hair and a friendly way that she’s the first to describe as “country,” was on her once-a-month, weeklong road trip. She’d flown to Phoenix to meet with bar and restaurant owners to discuss a rather straightforward business proposal. Off she went on her rounds each day, navigating with a special Microsoft Streets and Trips plan she prepared in advance, with 60 to 80 venues marked with dots, triangles or blue squares, according to size, dollar value and priority, wearing her company badge with photo ID, hoping for a little friendly discussion. Except it didn’t always work out so friendly.

Once, a venue owner exploded, kicked her off his property and told her, as she recalled, “to get the bleep outta here.” Another hissed at her that she was “nothing more than a vulture that flew over and came down and ate up all of the little people.” It wasn’t fun. It was just the sort of thing, in fact, that could bring Devon Baker to tears.

Baker, 30, is a licensing executive with Broadcast Music Incorporated, otherwise known as BMI. The firm is a P.R.O., or performing rights organization; P.R.O.’s license the music of the songwriters and music publishers they represent, collecting royalties whenever that music is played in a public setting. Which means that if you buy a CD by, say, Ryan Adams, or download one of his songs from iTunes, and play it at your family reunion, even if 500 people come, you owe nothing. But if you play it at a restaurant you own, then you must pay for the right to harness Adams’s creativity to earn money for yourself. Which leaves you with three choices: you can track down Ryan Adams, make a deal with him and pay him directly; you can pay a licensing fee to the P.R.O. that represents him — in this case, BMI; or you can ignore the issue altogether and hope not to get caught.

P.R.O.’s like BMI spend much of their energy negotiating licenses with the biggest users of music — radio stations, TV and cable networks, film studios, streaming Internet music sites and so on. But a significant portion of BMI’s business is to “educate” and charge — by phone and in person — the hundreds of thousands of businesses across America that don’t know or don’t care to know that they have to pay for the music they use. Besides the more obvious locales like bars and nightclubs, the list of such venues includes: funeral parlors, grocery stores, sports arenas, fitness centers, retirement homes — tens of thousands of businesses, playing a collective many billions of songs per year.

Most Americans have no problem with BMI charging for its music — except when they do. As Richard Conlon, a vice president at BMI in charge of new media, put it: “A few years back, we had Penn, Schoen and Berland, Hillary’s pollster guys, do a study. The idea was, go and find out what Americans really think about copyright. Do songwriters deserve to be paid? Absolutely! The numbers were enormously favorable — like, 85 percent. The poll asked, ‘If there was a party that wasn’t compensating songwriters, do you think that would be wrong?’ And the answer was, ‘Yes!’ So then, everything’s fine, right? Wrong. Because when it came time to ask people to part with their shekels, it was like: ‘Eww. You want me to pay?’ ”


Performing rights organizations in the United States came into being in 1914, when a group of musicians, including Victor Herbert, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and John Philip Sousa, founded the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, otherwise known as ASCAP, the nation’s first P.R.O., in 1914. It was formed in response to a 1909 amendment to United States copyright law that explicitly provided for performance rights as opposed to mechanical rights (paid to a performer who plays a song, regardless of who wrote it) or sync rights (music synchronized to pictures). The law — and ASCAP — were given new force when Herbert, then a celebrity composer for Broadway, sued a New York restaurant called Shanley’s after hearing one of his compositions performed there. The case took a couple of years to wind through the courts, but in the end, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes decided for Herbert. “If music did not pay, it would be given up,” Holmes wrote. “Whether it pays or not, the purpose of employing it is profit and that is enough.”

In 1939, radio broadcasters, irked at paying royalties set by ASCAP, which was then a monopoly, founded their own P.R.O., BMI. This they did by rounding up the many songwriters excluded from ASCAP’s umbrella: “race musicians,” toiling away in the déclassé genres of jazz, country, blues and, later, rock ’n’ roll. Today, BMI represents some 400,000 songwriters (ASCAP has 390,000, many of whom are from those formerly déclassé genres), including Willie Nelson, Dave Brubeck, Keith Urban, Lady Gaga, the Beach Boys, Taylor Swift, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Café Tacuba, Kanye West, Shakira, Linkin Park, Mariah Carey, Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock. The songs and compositions written by BMI signatories number some seven million tunes — about half the music in America — and bring in close to a billion dollars per year, which is distributed to its artists in quarterly royalty checks. For antitrust reasons BMI operates (as does ASCAP) by consent decree from the Department of Justice. It is privately owned but chartered to operate as a not-for-profit, to guarantee the maximum possible return to its songwriters and publishers (in 2010, it retained 11.6 percent of royalties collected for administrative costs).

In the past, BMI had 14 regional offices around the country, with field agents reading local newspapers and scouring the land on foot and by car, ever on the lookout for new bars and restaurants or old ones that aren’t paying for their music. Now those offices are closed, and employees like Devon Baker do much of their work by phone from headquarters in Nashville. But with the Internet, it has never been easier to keep tabs on the nation’s businesses­. Venues advertise online which nights they offer live music or karaoke; state governments post liquor-license and corporate registries that give the names and addresses of business owners.

Once contacted by BMI, owners are given a worksheet. Does their venue use a radio, CD players, karaoke machine? Do they feature live music? If so, how often? How many people can the venue legally hold? For smaller businesses with low capacity that don’t make much use of music, a license may be as little as $300 a year. For really big operators, the cost might be as much as $9,000 per location per year, the maximum BMI is permitted to charge a single customer. (The fees are distributed to artists based on what BMI calls “an appropriate surrogate” — local radio or TV — that reflects a sampling of bars and restaurants in the area.) All in all, the division Devon Baker works for, General Licensing, accounts for 11 percent of BMI’s revenue.


Being a BMI licensing exec is one of the hardest jobs a person can have, Mike O’Neill, senior vice president of repertoire and licensing, told me. “It’s different from other industries and sales situations,” O’Neill said. “Clients aren’t deciding whether to pay you so you can send them your product. They’ve already got it.”

We have a hard time paying for music, says O’Neill, because most of us grew up listening to it on the radio. It was free then. Shouldn’t it be free now? Of course, music on the radio was, in fact, not free. Radio stations paid licensing fees to BMI and ASCAP and paid for those fees by airing commercials, which took up some 20 percent of airtime. The Internet allows users to download tunes, often without paying for them, avoid annoying commercials and play a song whenever they wish. The ease with which music can be had has contributed enormously to the notion that it’s there for the taking. In 2008, 40 billion songs were downloaded illegally. It is estimated that 95 percent of music tracks are downloaded without payment to the artist or the music company that produced them. Peer-to-peer (P2P) file swapping of movies and music currently accounts for up to 80 percent of Internet traffic. Music sales among American record labels in 2010 are about 42 percent of what they were a decade ago. As an industry report from January of this year states, “A generation of young music fans is growing up with the expectation that music should be instantly available, with near-limitless choice and access and, of course, free.”

Many musicians have coped with downloading by focusing on touring. They have learned to consider their recorded output, formerly their bread and butter, as a form of promotion for live shows. But the rise of musical genres, like northern Brazil’s “tecno brega” (“cheesy techno”), which remixes and reworks popular songs, offers another, more direct challenge to who should be paid when music is recorded or performed. The producers give away their mixes, so there’s no copyright infringement, then make their money by staging dance parties, to which admission is charged. In the States, producers like Danger Mouse and Girl Talk have created mash-ups of marquee copyrighted material, like Beatles songs, then released them to the general public free, daring authorities to charge them.

Most well-known songwriters are reluctant to advocate publicly for copyright law, out of fear of alienating fans. Dolly Parton is not one of them. “Ain’t nobody got so much money they don’t want all the money that’s coming to them,” she said when I spoke to her recently. Rank-and-file songwriters, whose livelihood can depend desperately on their BMI royalties, are the most likely to express sentiments similar to Parton’s. One day, I visited a Los Angeles DJ and electronica composer named Alex Amato. Amato, as it happens, lives in a converted barn near Vine and Santa Monica that, he said, belonged to the filmmaker Kenneth Anger. Under the name Genuine Childs, Amato composes music with his twin brother, Anthony, which they’ve sold to reality shows like MTV’s “Real World” and “Road Rules.” They’ve also composed DVD menu page music for several big studio releases like “Scarface” and “The Bourne Identity.” It’s a rarefied niche, but Amato seems happy: his music reaches millions of listeners.

Amato also waits on tables and manages a restaurant near his house. His quarterly BMI checks, he insists, are the key to survival. “It’s like my magical Willy Wonka ticket,” he says. Creating music, Amato points out, costs money. It takes money to rent a space, buy equipment, run the equipment. How does music get made if everything suddenly becomes free?

“There are more people listening to music now than ever before,” he told me. “But because of this new kind of accessibility, people feel like they don’t have to pay. Why is that? Why does constructor Joe get to build a house, and he gets paid the same as before, but suddenly, there’s this judgment about this one way of earning a living?”

It is worth noting that during the years the recording industry lost nearly 60 percent of its income, BMI and its competitor ASCAP had steady increases in profits. BMI has done so by going after how people use music commercially, regardless of medium. As the president and chief executive of BMI, Del Bryant, likes to say, “You have to be in the future a little bit.”

In BMI’s case, this has meant leapfrogging from AM radio to FM, from movies to cable to digital radio to streaming to (once-illegal) downloading companies like Napster. (BMI began working on a deal with Napster about streaming music even before it sorted out its legitimacy.) They also signed with Rhapsody, the online streaming site, when the company was in its infancy. The trick, says Bryant, is to understand the content world as an ecosystem. When a new player comes along, don’t kill it, make a deal with it. With each new medium, he says: “We made agreements that weren’t that heavily monetized, and not that heavily binding because we didn’t know if it’d be around for long or how it would evolve. They were place keepers, ways to get us working together. And they slowly solidified. It’s all a question of pricing. The system has to serve everyone’s purposes.”

Richard Conlon echoed what Del Bryant said. “We’re not about shutting things down.” he told me. “We’re about nurturing markets. We don’t want people NOT to use it. We know the market is fractionalizing. You wanna take our music and stream it and have electronic whatevers that play when you stick a chip into something or somebody? Go ahead! Do it! Just pay us!”


BMI is rosy about the future. According to Conlon, who spends a lot of time watching how 8-to-15-year-olds use technology, downloading is out, streaming is in. And guess what? Streaming pays — just like radio. Legally the climate is good too. In May, a federal court found LimeWire, one of the few remaining big free peer-to-peer file-sharing services, guilty of inducing copyright infringement. The company could be fined as much as a billion dollars.

While the rest of the content world worries that technology will be the end of content, P.R.O.’s are banking that technology will save it. BMI has developed a system called Blue Arrow that deploys the same technology as iPhone’s Shazam to identify music. (ASCAP uses a similar system called Mediaguide.) These systems can listen to Internet sites, as well as radio and TV stations around the world and identify, in two seconds, virtually any piece of music being played — not just American, but Turkish, Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Latin, Japanese and so on. The Blue Arrow database has a capacity of 500 terabytes (one thousand gigabytes each) of music, and can recognize eight million songs. About 3,000 new songs are added each day.

David DeBusk, who was vice president of business development when I met him this spring but has since left BMI, offered to show me how Blue Arrow works. An employee punched a few keys to find out which radio stations in Germany were playing “schlager music,” a bizarrely kitschy form of country pop. One tap of the keyboard, and we were listening live: Oom pah pah, oom pah pah. We went on to display all stations, worldwide, playing Swedish death metal. Did I want to see which ones were playing compositions by the composer Milton Babbitt? How about radio stations in Laos?

In the old days, P.R.O.’s relied mainly on playlists from radio stations and queue sheets from TV networks to figure out which songs were broadcast each month. Queue sheets were quite precise, listing every song a station broadcast, but playlists were, at best, a sample, an attempt to track the bulk of what got played. With Blue Arrow, however, it is possible to count every song played by a representative sampling of 400 radio stations across the country. Under the old system, hit-makers tended to dominate the machinery of royalty collection and distribution. Now, the “long tail” can be more effectively monetized: writers with minor hits, older hits, songs played here and there.

When DeBusk and his team began to hear the world through Blue Arrow’s ears, one thing they noticed was the number of “nonsong performances.” Everyone knows that rap music relies on sampled music, some of which should be paid for and isn’t. What surprised DeBusk was how common it was for copyrighted bits of music to be used free in jingles, as station-identification ditties and background music. DeBusk pulled up a screen detailing a list of nonsongs with generic names like “Graceful Power” and “Happy Days.” Such compositions, he said, are known as “production music,” written for ads and station identifications or for TV documentaries, and then sold to music libraries. If producers are looking for something that, say, sounds like boogie woogie or bebop, they go to a music library, listen to a few samples and purchase one.

One click with Blue Arrow and we knew that “Happy Days” was broadcast at five different times that morning on networks in the Southeast. Another click determined that it was used in a commercial for Country Crock margarine. Yet another click located its source: a music library in Atlanta. A few more key punches, and you knew if the library got their fee.

It was an awesome (or chilling) glimpse into the future: a world where if it can be tracked — on TV, on YouTube, in China — it will be charged for. Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor known for his stance against what he views as an overexpansion of copyright law, is not against BMI’s being paid for its fair share but worries about the slippery slope created by new technologies. “If technology creates efficient ways to charge commercial users of copyright, then that’s good,” he told me recently, “but what I fear is that we evolve into a permission culture, where every single use of music creates an obligation to pay. I wish the line could be as clear as commercial exploitation — you’re running a dance club, using it in a movie. The author ought to have the right to be paid for that. But I don’t think that that right should translate into the right to control whether my kid uses the music for a collage he makes for a class about his trip to Costa Rica!” Friends I talked to had a similar reaction. To a one, they said: “Jesus. Sounds like Big Brother.” When I mentioned this to DeBusk, he smiled ominously. “Yes. Well. We’re here to help.”


It's a long story; read it HERE.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

In Cairo, An End To The Cacophony Of Calls To Prayer

In Cairo, An End To The Cacophony Of Calls To Prayer

by Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson

August 5, 2010

There are few Islamic traditions in Cairo older than the ritual, five-times-a-day call to prayer. But as of next week, that call is undergoing a radical change.

No longer will the melodic call, the azan, be delivered by a sea of voices from minarets across the sprawling Egyptian capital.

Responding to criticisms that the current uncoordinated delivery lacks dignity, the government's Ministry of Religious Endowment has announced plans to broadcast a single Islamic call to prayer from a downtown Cairo studio.

That call will be transmitted through special receivers to thousands of mosques registered with the government. The mosques, in turn, are required to stop using their own callers, or muezzinine, and instead use the new call.

The hope is to bring uniformity to a ritual that some say is out of control.

"It's chaos, chaos," says Abdul Munam Suroji, during a visit to a hilltop park in the capital where he listened to the call. The 54-year-old Syrian tourist says the azan in Damascus sounds much better because it is a uniform call.

Egyptian officials say they have selected 30 of the best muezzinine from among the thousands in the city to take turns delivering the call to prayer starting on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan next week. The new call will be heard in a single district of Cairo, but will gradually be introduced throughout the capital and eventually to all of the 106,000 official mosques across Egypt.

Many religious scholars, including Mohamed el Shahat el Gindy, who heads the Islamic law department at Helwan University, support the decision. El Gindy said the current call is "against the spirit of azan."

Also, he added, the verses sung may differ from mosque to mosque, thereby confusing worshippers.

New Policy Meets Resistance

But muezzinine like Ehab Mohammad, who will no longer be allowed to deliver the call, are not happy about being silenced, even though he and others will continue to receive their monthly salary of roughly $55 a month.

His friend, Mohammad Fawzi, who delivers the call to prayer at a mosque down the street, says it is not just a job. He believes being a muezzin gives him and others a leg up in the next life.

"The prophet says those who lead the [call to] prayer have the longest necks and will stand the tallest on judgment day," Fawzi says. "So of course I'm against them denying us the azan."

Cairo resident Aya Hassan, a 20-year-old pharmacy student, is displeased about the ministry's plan.

"All the different voices make you feel like everyone is kneeling and praying to Allah at the same time," she says. "One voice will seem empty."

Hassan worries that residents in the city's many squatter neighborhoods could end up unaware of when to pray if their unofficial mosques are not given transmitters.

Others say the call to prayer is a religious matter and the government shouldn't be involved in changing it.

But for the religion ministry, the matter is no longer open to discussion.

Read the story, listen to the broadcast story (4 minutes) with sound examples plus photograph HERE.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Guitar and Bass Flip/Swing/Spin Fails

Yes, some people spend hours practices whirling their guitar or bass guitar around their backs for dramatic stage action. And sometimes, such actions fail and really make people look like fools. First, the practice fails.

Bass Swing practice fail:

Especially nice are the live performance fails.

Guitar flip fail:

Bass flip fails:
This one is probably my favorite.

Turf Feinz Incredible Dancing in the Rain

Been out there a bit, getting some love and I'm happy to jump on board because it's wonderful:

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

New Orleans' Gender Bending Rap: NYT on "Sissy Bounce"

Long story in NYT Magazine.

July 19, 2010
New Orleans’s Gender-Bending Rap

If “gay rapper” is an oxymoron where you come from, how to get your head around the notion of a gay rapper performing in a sports bar? What in most cities might seem plausible only as some sort of Sacha Baron Cohen-style provocation is just another weeknight in the cultural Galapagos that is New Orleans. Sometime after midnight on the sweltering Thursday before Memorial Day, the giant plasma-screen TVs at the Sports Vue bar (which “proudly airs all major Pay Per View events from the world of Boxing and Ultimate Fighting”) were all switched off, and the bar’s backroom turned into a low-lit, low-ceilinged dance club, where more than 300 people awaited a return engagement by Big Freedia, who by day runs an interior-decoration business and who is, to fans of the New Orleans variant of hip-hop music known as “bounce,” a superstar.

At 1 a.m., though, Freedia (pronounced “FREE-da”) was still a mile or so away, fulfilling a paid celebrity-hosting gig at Club Fabulous. The fabulousness of Club Fabulous, on this night at least, seemed a function mainly of its Mardi Gras-themed décor, conceived and executed by Freedia herself. Otherwise the crowd was sparse, largely straight and listless. Freedia looked weary as she leaned back against the bar with her dyed, diagonally cut bangs over one eye, holding a cordless microphone. (Freedia, who is about 6 foot 2 and very powerful-looking and dresses in a fashionable but recognizably masculine style, is genetically a man; but neither she nor anyone who knows her uses masculine pronouns to refer to her.) When “Rock Around the Clock,” one of her signature songs, came on the sound system, a few women walked over to Freedia and stood with their backs to her, but the atmosphere wasn’t quite electric enough for them to really start dancing, and the men just continued playing pool. After a while, Freedia’s D.J. and de facto manager, who goes by the name Rusty Lazer — a whippetlike 39-year-old white man with a salt-and-pepper beard — let Freedia know that it was time to move on to the next show.

The two of them had just returned from three nights at three different venues in New York, with a stop for another show in Philadelphia on their way home. These days Freedia performs five or six nights a week, often more than once a night — and increasingly, not just in New Orleans.

“Girl, I’m tired,” Lazer said as he drove them to the Sports Vue in his minivan, which was full of boxes of hand-screened Big Freedia T-shirts he sells at $10 a pop.

“Really?” Freedia said laconically. “I’m just starting to get my energy back.”

At the first sight of the commotion outside the Sports Vue, everyone’s energy level picked up. Lazer pulled the minivan into a long maze of cars parked haphazardly all up and down the grass median on Elysian Fields Avenue. Outside the metal detectors at the entrance, cops were pretending to listen to the grievances of two women who had just been thrown out of the bar. “Every night,” Lazer said fondly. While patrons were being patted down by bouncers inside the door, he and Freedia disappeared into the crowd; a few minutes later, the music stopped, and a loud, excited voice yelled into a mic a brief introduction — so brief the longest part of it was the polysyllabic participle between the words “Big” and “Freedia.”

And then something remarkable happened. The crowd — just about evenly divided between men and women — instantly segregated itself: the men were propelled as if by a centrifuge toward the room’s perimeters, and the dance floor, a platform raised just a step off the ground, was taken over entirely by women surrounding Freedia. The women did not dance with, or for, one another — they danced for Freedia, and they did so in the most sexualized way imaginable, usually with their backs to her, bent over sharply at the waist, and bouncing their hips up and down as fast as humanly possible, if not slightly faster. Others assumed more of a push-up position, with their hands on the floor, in a signature dance whose name is sometimes helpfully shortened to “p-popping.”

Freedia did “Rock Around the Clock,” which begins with a sample from the Bill Haley classic but departs pretty drastically from there, as well as her longtime club hit, “Azz Everywhere,” a title as perfectly high-concept in its way as “Snakes on a Plane.” Softspoken in person, Freedia has an onstage voice as deep and exhortatory as Chuck D’s. Her older songs sometimes had choruses that were actually sung (“I got that gin in my system/Somebody gonna be my victim”), but in her recent work, the beat is too fast to permit much more than short, repetitive chanting. Not that it mattered much in the context of the less-than-state-of-the-art sound system at the Sports Vue, where an occasional obscenity was pretty much as audible as any of the lyrics got.

A Big Freedia set generally lasts only four or five songs (which is why she can book two or three of them a night), but the energy brought to, and generated by, those songs is astounding. So, 20 cathartic minutes later, it was all over. Freedia left the stage, the men gravitated back toward the women and the sexual balance at the Sports Vue was restored. “Well,” Lazer said with a grin as he gave me a lift back to my hotel in his minivan, “I’ve lived in New Orleans a long time, and I know a lot of people, but you’ve just seen something that about 95 percent of my white friends will probably never see.”

Bounce itself has been around for about 20 years. Like most hip-hop varietals, it’s rap delivered over a sampled dance beat, but it has a few characteristics that give it a distinctively regional sound: it’s strictly party music, its beat is relentlessly fast and its rap quotient tends much less toward introspection or pure braggadocio than toward a call-and-response relationship with its audience, a dynamic borrowed in equal measure from Mardi Gras Indian chants and from the dawn of hip-hop itself. Many, if not most, bounce records announce their allegiance by sampling from one of just two sources: either Derek B.’s “Rock the Beat” or an infectious hook known as the “Triggaman,” from a 1986 Showboys record called “Drag Rap.” (That’s “drag” not as in cross-dressing but as in the theme to the old TV show “Dragnet.”) Just as the earliest New York rap records featured compulsory shout-outs to the boroughs, lots of bounce songs will demand (especially when performed live) audience acknowledgment of the city’s various neighborhoods and housing projects (“Shake it for the Fourth Ward/Work it for the Fifth Ward”), even those that have been razed. Otherwise the lyrics are mostly about sex and are so habitually obscene that they have helped keep bounce from spreading too far beyond its New Orleans borders. The success of bounce-tinged New Orleans artists like Lil Wayne and Juvenile notwithstanding, at least one New Orleans record-company executive speculates that major labels consider unadulterated bounce too hard to distribute, because it can’t be played on most radio stations or even sold in many venues.

The overwhelming majority of bounce artists are, of course, straight. But 12 years ago, a young drag queen who goes by the name Katey Red shocked the audience by taking the mic at an influential underground club near the Melpomene housing project where she grew up, and in that star-is-born moment, a subgenre of bounce took root. It is a sad understatement to say that homosexuality and hip-hop make for an unlikely fusion: hip-hop culture is one of the most unrepentantly homophobic cultures in America, surpassing even its own attitudes toward women in bigotry and smirking advocacy of violence. But New Orleans’s tolerance of unlikely fusions is legendary, and today Katey Red, along with a handful of other artists — Big Freedia (who grew up four blocks from Katey and started out as one of her background vocalists), Sissy Nobby, Chev off the Ave, Vockah Redu (who was captain of the dance team at Booker T. Washington High School) — are not just accepted mainstays of the bounce scene but its most prominent representatives outside New Orleans. Katey recently received a New Orleans consecration of sorts when she appeared as herself, unidentified, in an episode of the HBO series “Treme,” with her song “So Much Drama” playing in the background.

Some part of this subgenre’s popularity is surely due to the catchily discordant name by which it has become known: sissy bounce. The term is problematic, because the artists themselves do not care for it at all — not because they object to the word “sissy” but because they consider it disrespectful to bounce music. Even when their lyrics are at their frankest (“I’m a punk under pressure/When we finish, put my money on the dresser”), they rush to point out, correctly, that they’re just drawing from the life at hand in the same way virtually every rapper does. They have no desire to be typed within, or set apart from, bounce culture; and indeed, within New Orleans itself, they mostly are not — even as their bookings elsewhere in the country are founded increasingly on the novelty of their sexual identities.

The term “sissy bounce” is one for which a young New Orleans music writer named Alison Fensterstock takes very reluctant credit....

Check the original story for the rest, including images and video clips, which you can find HERE.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Often-abused Cardiff surfer statue attacked by great white shark


Often-abused Cardiff surfer statue attacked by great white shark

By Terry Rodgers, Special to the Union-Tribune

Originally published July 24, 2010 at 2:24 p.m., updated July 24, 2010 at 3:09 p.m.
An often-abused statue of a surfer on Coast Highway 101 in Encinitas was turned into a Jaws-dropping artwork early Saturday morning by a group of unknown pranksters.

Crowds of gawkers and picture takers nearly created a traffic hazard, as they gathered around the bronze statue, which, sometime in the early morning hours, was entombed inside a 15-foot tall papier-mâché version of a great white shark’s massive snout.

A San Diego County sheriff’s deputy briefly stopped by to pluck two 2.5-foot tall papier-mâché fins that had been placed in the traffic median. The deputy declined repeated pleas from camera-laden onlookers to pose with the Jaws-like tableau.

Nearby campers at San Elijo State Beach said they heard a ruckus near the statue about 4 a.m., but didn’t see or hear how the pranksters were able to put the giant shark around the surfer.

They said the shark’s didn’t appear without warning. Large sharklike fins had been placed on the other side of the highway, along San Elijo Road, earlier this week then, over the course of the past two days, the fins were moved closer to the statue, as if the shark was circling in on its prey.

Read the story HERE.

For an earlier prank on the statue, see HERE.

For the original controversy regarding the statue, see HERE.
and here is the original:

Friday, July 23, 2010

Westborough Baptist Church vs. Comic-Con

and Comic-Con wins.

You know the Westborough Baptist Church, the hate group that holds up signs saying "God Hates Fags" as they protest soldier's funerals? Well, they came back to San Diego to protest Comic-Con. And while the best way to deal with these lunatics often is to ignore them, the colorful contingent that met them today was pretty damn excellent. How you gonna win an argument against a cartoon robot, a Vulcan, a princess in a steel bikini, a wizard, an anime nymph, and a Jedi? (Oh, and Robin, who is most probably gay. Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

More at San Diego Comic-Con and Comic Alliance.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Slate on Women's Vigilante Gangs in India

Wear a Pink Sari and Carry a Big Stick
The women's gangs of India.
By Amana Fontanella-Khan
Posted Monday, July 19, 2010, at 10:01 AM ET

In March, the Indian upper parliament passed a historic affirmative-action bill. If approved by the lower house, the law would reserve 33 percent of all parliamentary seats for women. You might think this would be well-received by rural women in India. But they long ago gave up on the government and have taken things into their own hands. India is witnessing a rise of vigilante groups, the most sensational of which is the gulabi, or pink gang, operating in the Bundelkhand district of the Uttar Pradesh state, one of the poorest districts of India. Some gangs have started what Indian journalists describe as a "mini-revolution" on behalf of women.

The founder of the gulabis is the fearless Sampat Pal Devi, 40, who was married off at the age of 12 to an ice-cream vendor and had the first of her five children at 15. The gulabis, whose members say they are a "gang for justice," started in 2006 as a sisterhood of sorts that looked out for victims of domestic abuse, a problem the United Nations estimates affects two in three married Indian women. Named after their hot-pink sari uniforms, the gang paid visits to abusive husbands and demanded they stop the beatings. When obstinate men refused to listen, the gulabis would return with large bamboo sticks called laathis and "persuade" them to change their ways. "When I go around with a stick, it's to make men fear me. I don't always use it, but it helps change the mind of men who think they are more powerful than me" says Pal. She has assumed the rank of commander in chief and has appointed district commanders across seven districts in Bundelkhand to help coordinate the gang's efforts.

Pal's group now has more than 20,000 members, and the number is growing. Making her way from one far-flung village to another on an old rusty bicycle, she holds daily gatherings under shady banyan trees, near makeshift tea-stalls selling the sweet Indian drink chai and other popular village hangouts to discuss local problems and attract new recruits.

Pal has a long list of criminal charges against her, including unlawful assembly, rioting, attacking a government employee, and obstructing an officer in the discharge of duty, and she even had to go into hiding. Her feistiness has secured notable victories for the community, however. In 2008, the group ambushed the local electricity office, which was withholding electricity until members received bribes or sexual favors in return for flicking the switch back on. The stick-wielding gulabi stormed the company grounds and proceeded to rough up the staff inside the building. An hour later, the power was back on in the village.

While the gulabi use a mild level of force, more violent strains of vigilantism have been reported elsewhere in India among dispossessed women. In 2004, a mob of hundreds of women hacked to death the serial rapist and murderer Akku Yadav, after the courts failed to convict him over a period of 10 years. After the deed was done, the women collectively declared their guilt in the murder, frustrating police efforts to charge anyone with the crime. This kind of violence has generated concern among some Indian commentators, who say that while many vigilantes have noble intentions, too many of them are brutally violent.

What's the context for this phenomenon? The Indian press often points to a host of ills plaguing modern India, such as honor killings, dowries, child marriages, and female feticide. These account for female despondency but not for the gangs as an outlet for it. In the past, many Indian women would have taken these pressures out on themselves, through self-immolation or hanging, for example. As women have gained political power, through initiatives like the affirmative-action bill, dispossessed rural women have realized that they can instead respond boldly and collectively to abuse. Why aren't they turning to political activism as opposed to vigilantism? To begin with, the gangs offer more immediate benefits than politics does. Another reason is that female politicians rising to power from the lower castes have been dismal role models. These politicians have the potential to inspire poor women more than dynastic leaders like Sonia Gandhi, but they have disappointed the women they claim to represent by being as corrupt and criminal as the male politicians they despise.

Read the full story HERE.

Street Sign Posted in Klingon

I love it. Comic-Con is getting ready to drop in San Diego, so in the spirit of that the city changed one of its public transit signs to the Klingon language to encourage Klingons to use public transportation. See original UT story HERE.

New book on "Black National anthem"

Professor at historically black college questions 'black national anthem'
By Liane Membis, CNN

(CNN) -- "Lift Every Voice and Sing" is an uplifting spiritual, one that's often heard in churches and popularly recognized as the black national anthem. Timothy Askew grew up with its rhythms, but now the song holds a contentious place in his mind.

"I love the song," said Askew, an associate professor of English at Clark Atlanta University, a historically black college. "But it's not the song that is the problem. It's the label of the song as a 'black national anthem' that creates a lot of confusion and tension."

The song and its message of struggle and hope have long been attached to the African-American community. It lives on as a religious hymn for several protestant and African-American denominations and was quoted by the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery at Barack Obama's presidential inauguration.

After studying the music and lyrics of the song and its history for more than two decades, Askew decided the song was intentionally written with no specific reference to any race or ethnicity.

Askew explains his position in the new book, "Cultural Hegemony and African American Patriotism: An Analysis of the Song, 'Lift Every Voice and Sing,'" which was released by Linus Publications in June. The book explores the literary and musical traditions of the song, but also says that a national anthem for African-Americans can be construed as racially separatist and divisive.

"To sing the 'black national anthem' suggests that black people are separatist and want to have their own nation," Askew said. "This means that everything Martin Luther King Jr. believed about being one nation gets thrown out the window."

Askew first became intrigued with "Lift Every Voice and Sing" while working on his master's degree at Yale University. He was a Morehouse College music graduate, young, passionate and hungry for knowledge about African-American culture. A fellow classmate suggested Askew explore Yale's collection on James Weldon Johnson, an early civil rights activist who wrote the song decades earlier.

Johnson first wrote "Lift Every Voice and Sing" as a poem in 1900. Hundreds of African-American students performed it at a celebration of Abraham Lincoln's birthday at Jacksonville, Florida's Stanton School, where Johnson was principal. Johnson's brother, John Rosamond Johnson, later set the poem to music. By 1920, the NAACP had proclaimed the song the "Negro National Anthem."

"I remember methodically going into the Yale library every day and sitting there on the floor, rummaging through 700 boxes of James Johnson's work," Askew said. "I became so fascinated in his life and letters, that I wanted to know more about the creation of the song and how it related to our modern understanding of it."

He found letters of appreciation to Johnson from individuals of all different ethnic backgrounds. At that moment, Askew had a revelation: The song he'd known as the "black national anthem" was for everybody.

Some will call his perspective on the song a contradiction, Askew said, especially because he works at a historically black college. But he argues that universities like Clark Atlanta accept students of many races and ethnicities; a national anthem for one race excludes others, and ignores an existing national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner" by Francis Scott Key.

"Some people argue lines like 'We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,' signify a tie to slavery and the black power struggle," Askew said. "But in all essence there is no specific reference to black people in this song. It lends itself to any people who have struggled."

He's not the only one who sees fault in a national anthem just for African-Americans.

Kenneth Durden, an African-American conservative blogger, responded to Askew's claims on his blog, "A Free Man, Thinking Freely." He said in an interview that Askew is right to make connections to King's view of one America.

"King always appealed to the American dream for all," Durden said. "He was a patriot and he never wanted blacks to deny or separate themselves from being American. I think claiming an anthem for ourselves as black people is doing just that."

What troubles Askew more is that the song became an identity marker for African-Americans.

"Who has the right to decide for all black people what racial symbol they should have?" Askew said. "Identity should be developed by the individual himself, not a group of people who think they know what is best for you."

Hilary O. Shelton, senior vice president for advocacy and policy for the NAACP, said Askew's ideas might be far-fetched.

"I don't see anything that is racially exclusive or discriminatory about the song," Shelton said. "The negro national anthem was adopted and welcomed by a very interracial group, and it speaks of hope in being full first-class citizens in our society."

"Lift Every Voice and Sing" isn't meant to cloud national identity or persuade African-Americans to be separatists, Shelton said. It's often sung in conjunction with "The Star-Spangled Banner," or with the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance at NAACP events.

"His presumption is that this song is sung instead of our national anthem -- that we are less American and we are not as committed to America because we take pride in the Negro national anthem," Shelton said. "It is evident in our actions as an organization and here in America that we are about inclusion, not exclusion. To claim that we as African-Americans want to form a confederation or separate ourselves from white people because of one song is baffling to me."

Read the full post HERE.