Thursday, December 09, 2004

Frank and Frances (or 500 Steps)

So you're all caught up in your troubles, the world's weight is on your shoulders as you round the corner and prepare to head to work in the deceptively cold Boston winter. All manner of loose ends are floating about in your head; you need to wrap them up before the year ends. And then you hear someone muttering something behind you. You turn and then you see her: it's that old lady from your building, leaning back on a parked car, walking stick in hand. She'd probably been trying to call out to you when you passed her but her wizened voice was barely a whisper and, truth be told, you had your game face on so she simply didn't register.

She's headed to the lab at the hospital, just around the corner: a few hundred meters. But "there's too much wind" and so is considering turning back. You were a boy scout once, and have helped her and the other old ladies in your building on numerous occasions with their groceries, laundry or other odds and ends; this can be your good deed for the day. You offer to walk her over.

She settles on your arm, leans on you and you begin to make your way. It takes a few moments for both of you to get comfortable as you shuffle along. You have to walk in the middle of the streets; Cambridge sidewalks are far too treacherous for her. Luckily, for part of the journey, there's a bike lane and so she can concentrate on staying on the right side of the white line in the road, legally protected from predatory taxis. Plus you're there as her anchor to prevent her being buffeted by the (in your view, slight) wind.

There's nothing so humbling as seeing someone disarmed and perplexed by the sight of a manhole cover on a road. It's said that the perils of old age include infantilism but in this case it's more like a renewed curiosity and bemusement. She notices the smallest deviation from her routine: the new items on her path - the empty trash cans the garbage men discarded carelessly, and the missing leaves since today's street cleaning has just taken place.

The pair of you make an incongruous sight. She's almost 90, shriveled down to just about four feet, and light as a feather. You're "six feet one, dark and lovely" like Big Daddy Kane used to boast. The traffic stops and horns blow as they consider your snail-like progress when you cross. It's rush hour. You should be rushing like everyone else.

She's gets out of breath every fifty yards, you reflect that you could have carried her and done the trip four times over. Apologetically, she explains that she doesn't call a cab because drivers hate such short trips.

Your four minute walk is turning into a half hour stroll so you settle down and exchange pleasantries about life in the building and other marginalia. You listen to her stories about the old days, like the time when old Mrs Calloway went to sleep having forgotten to turn the gas off and when she smelt it and had to call the gas company to save the day. Mrs Calloway has had to move to an assisted living community this past year just after her 92nd birthday. Or forty years ago, when she first moved in along with her husband, "this was a grand building back then". Your own 8 years of residence make you a mere amateur.

You wish you'd had the patience, back when Papa had Alzheimer's, to listen as intently as you now are, for there are pearls of experience in all her anecdotes. Best not to dwell on that though, the impatience of youth is a commonplace. Keep chatting...

You've observed her in the past embarking on her expeditions - she continues to insist on running her own errands. You wonder how much longer she'll be able to survive on her own. She doesn't have any family that you know of and has to be very frugal, relying on clipping coupons and manufacturer's specials in her dotage. This little journey "to the lab" won't be much fun once the snow and ice starts in a few weeks. You ask yourself "Do you really want to grow old in this cold country?". And all those other questions that are coming to mind. Hush. One foot before the other.

So you finally deliver her to the hospital, surviving the rush of high school students and a scare with the semi-automatic doors that threatened to bump her awkwardly. You are attentive and make sure that she settles in the waiting room and that someone knows she's here. Everyone knows her at the lab so the stress is lifted from her face, she even starts humming a little to herself. She beams and thanks you repeatedly. She mishears your name again: Koranteng becomes Frank, not for the first time with her. She's Frances of course. Frank and Frances had a nice walk today. "See you in the building".

You turn and head towards the square. Those loose ends again.

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Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Eating People Is Wrong

I've spent the past few weeks reading Malcolm Bradbury's sublime satire and novel of social observation of campus life in England in the 1950s, Eating People Is Wrong.

It's been very interesting to read this book in public. The looks I got on the subway or bus once people made out the title were priceless, accentuated further once they observed me chuckle constantly at the numerous puns. The equation was something like:

Black guy + weirdly titled book + laughs = Reluctant Cannibal?

In any case, this novel is highly recommended. As befits the title, the writing is dazzingly witty and the characters richly memorable. I suppose it should be placed in the same company with the almost contemporaneous Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis or David Lodge's later Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses which represent the pinnacle of the "campus novel" but the emphasis here is less on the intricacies of the plot and more on observation.

He focuses on the unease and self-concious bemusement of the liberal in England of the 1950s with the British empire in rapid decline, yet with politicians claiming that "you've never had it so good" (after all the National Health Service was in its second decade at that stage). His commentary on the changing social and sexual mores of the time is sensitive without being jaundiced. He's especially good on class and provincialism and coming to terms with life in middling institutions in a middling part of a middling country.

Of course he plumbs the depths of the numerous quirks of university life with many finely detailed set pieces: the cocktail parties and mixers, the literary societies, the visiting professors, the foreign students and cross-cultural misunderstandings, ungainly youths, nervous breakdowns etc. Although a period piece, I found many parallels to today's world albeit with a few changed labels in the interim (political correctness is more formally articulated these days).

Here then, some snatches of sometimes absurd dialogue.

On the English:

'I like the English, They have the most rigid code of immorality in the world.'

On writers:
'I suppose you know a lot of writers,' she said.
'I know some,' said Treece, 'but I think I prefer people.'

Worthy of Ionesco:
The lady in the flower-pot hat sat down beside Treece and sighed deeply. 'It's terrible to be abnormal,' she said, and heaved another sigh. 'Did you have an unhappy childhood?' 'I had an unhappy maturity,' said Treece. 'I had a frankly bloody childhood,' said the woman. 'Tell me, do you like this hair style? Be frank. I can have it done again somewhere else.'
'Darling, I was going to ask you, what happened to it?' said a man in a bow-tie. 'You could have foungt back. Or did they give you an anaesthetic?'
'You should have seen what he did to my dog,' said the lady.

On pompous professors:
The children's novelist now leaned over. "Do you read much children's literature, Professor?" he asked. "I don't," said Treece. "I think you're ignoring, if you don't mind my saying so, a very fruitful field for study," said the novelist. "I'm sure you're right," said Treece, "but the trouble with me is that I have a sophisticated mind. Was it Chesterton who said he didn't like children because they smelled of bread and butter. I dislike them because they aren't grown up".
Harry Potter anyone?

On English provincialism (substitute today's America and you won't be too wrong):
Poor man, he has tried to show us all that foreigners aren't funny; but they are. After all, there was one thing that every Englishman knew from his very soul, and that was that, for all experiences and all manners, in England lay the norm; England was the country that God had got to first, properly, and here life was taken to the point of purity, to it's Platonic source, so that all ways elsewhere were underdeveloped, or impure, or overripe. Everyone in England knew this, and an occasion like the present one was not likely to prove that things had altered. I have lived in England, was the underlying statement, and I know what life is like

Read the novel not only for the farce, which is plentiful, but also for its considerable social insight, which will make you return to it time after time.

You can eat also this cannibalistic toli at Blogcritics.

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Sunday, November 21, 2004

A Neighbour's House On Fire

"It is only a fool who does not worry when his neighbour's house is on fire".

Back in 2002 at the start of the current Ivory Coast conflict, Ghana's President John Kufuor recounted this old proverb to explain why he was spending valuable time and political capital trying to mediate. He's a ponderous man, a lawyer who, like the Thabo Mbeki-types running South Africa, would gladly spend hours discussing constitutional dispensations. Ghana had just emerged from 18 years of military adventurism and cronyism, all it was looking for was a few years of quiet to put things back on track. Instead of newly-nominated ECOWAS secretary general, Ibn-Chambas, spending his time on things like economic harmonization, a single currency, or shared investment in infrastructure like a West African railroad, all the best minds of the region were having to arrange cease-fires and negotiations with temperamental and easily-aggrieved parties. As the events of the last month have shown, it is clear that all that effort (two years worth) has been wasted.

Throughout they were treated with the irresponsible and inflammatory rhetoric of Ivory Coast's accidental president Laurent Gbagbo and his enforcers such as Blé Goudé. Some recent examples: Colonial Tensions Reemerge in Ivory Coast and In Ivory Coast, Agitator Rallies 'Young Patriots' Against French.

All this is essentially a failure of political will. Ivory Coast has its own set of irascible politicians ala Milosevic and they are reverting to type. They are quick to blame everyone except themselves and to do anything except negotiate. Especially egregious are the short-sighted appeals to nationalism; the concept is so-called ivoirité i.e. a means to disenfranchise half the population. Also on hand, are appeals to religion and, if all that fails, to tribalism or that old standby, the privately-funded militia.

Gbagbo and company have a keen sense of theatric and are fully conversant with the lingo of CNN, thus they inveigh against imperialism, or say that France wants "regime change" and wants to reimpose colonialism. Now there's a grain of truth about that, but barely so and it misses the point. True, the French in Africa aren't choirboys, but they never left Ivory Coast. One of the surprising things of the past 2 years is that, by and large, the Ivory Coast economy continued to function and cocoa production has not suffered much. Ghanaians know this because there is still cross-border smuggling of cocoa to Ivory Coast. Economic stability under the circumstances is due to the Ivorian business class and, especially, the French investors have ignored the politicians and kept their businesses going. All that is about to end.

After being targeted, and having their women raped, the French will now be as plainly unsentimental as is their wont. They are on their way out, the only question is whether they will leave the light bulbs or dismantle them like they did when they left Sekou Touré's Guinea when he had the temerity to ask for independence. As for the 40 percent of the country that don't agree with Gbagbo, they know that those violent mobs will be turned on them once the white or Lebanese foreigners are no longer around to be scapegoated.

This is what Laurent Gbagbo will be remembered for: breaking a peace, bombing the people you're supposed to negotiate with, bombing the peacekeepers who have come at considerable expense from the region, resorting to preemption and military measures because of impatience with diplomacy and ultimately ruining a country.

So we'll have 3 failed states in Ghana's neighbourhood, two that are now making baby steps trying to recover from untold grimness, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and now one that is threatening to descend into that same hellhole. See these kinds of images to get a flavour of how bad it is going to get.

The signs are plainly evident of a country walking into a disaster. There are death squads and grotesque Lady Macbeth types: Gbagbo's wife runs a particularly nasty private militia squad that murders any political opposition.

Now we're going to have more refugees, quietly we'll take them in uncomplaining in the best African tradition, as the bulk will be far away from the cameras. It was only this year, 15 years after the worst of Liberian madness that the Liberian refugees who escaped to Ghana have begun trickling home. Ironically, now people are fleeing Ivory Coast for Liberia. 20,000 refugees and counting now in a region that can ill-afford it.

I suspect when I head home for Christmas I'll be hearing lots of French around Accra. Watching the news, the look in the faces of the refugees says it all, a lot of Ivorians have left for good. Sadness all round and worry too: will the flames spill over the border?

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Tuesday, November 16, 2004

In A Blanket Of Soul

If July was spent revisiting the roots of reggae, and August, a jazzy excursion away from silly season, September brought the Toli Music Class of 2004. Late October however, found me wrapped in a blanket of soul, an abundance of rare groove to warming me in anticipation of that fast-approaching Bostonian winter of our discontent. Herewith then, this past month's soul-comforting playlist.

I Want You
Musical MassageLeon Ware - Musical Massage

The seventies witnessed the great flowering of the concept album (What's Going On and Innervisions amongs others). Singer/songwriter, Leon Ware wrote one of the best of these in I Want You, a full-length suite in the vein of longing. When he brought a few songs from the demo to his Motown patrons, Marvin Gaye jumped at it and wanted to record the whole suite. This was what came to pass after some Berry Gordy arm-twisting. Marvin, a sensualist at heart, went on to embue the songs with his own blend of erotomania and recorded one of the great bedroom come-on albums. When you listen to the original album (a few tracks of which are tacked on to the remastered Massage album), you realize that the blueprint had been put in place by Ware; all Marvin did was turn up the lust quotient. The instrumentation is mostly unchanged and the only contrast is Marvin's more silky voice. Tracks like Come Live With Me (Angel) would be classics regardless of who sung them.

Musical Massage then was Leon Ware's follow up and the title fits: it feels like a full-body rub of sorts, relaxing and deeply invigorating. The arrangements in all the songs work to put you in a trancelike state. A great and seamless musical experience and well worth rediscovering. Minnie Ripperton features on Instant Love and flirts with us. Bobby Womack, and Marvin himself returning the favour, feature in the studio console. Body Heat is full of fire and mindful of the heat Ware was bringing in his contemporaneous work with Quincy Jones. The flutes and strings that drift in and out underscoring the point are clearly the flourishes of a skilled shiatsu masseur.

So that's the music, what's the toli you ask? Well it's simple: Berry Gordy was a pimp. That at least was the gist of a couple of famous articles in the New York Review of Books. I had long thought this theory had a touch of hyperbole about it but I've increasingly come to see its essential insight.

The back story of the way this Leon Ware album was treated is an interesting case in point. Despite being one of the strongest albums of 1976, and having given up his previous album to Marvin, Berry Gordy wanted this album for Marvin also. After Ware demurred, it was finally released under his name but then was barely promoted by Motown; Gordy is not a man to cross and Musical Massage paid the price.

The previous evidence of Gordy's pimphood were things like the Funk Brothers never getting their dues until it was almost too late a few years ago when Standing in the Shadows of Motown was released. Similarly the story of James Jamerson, one of the all time greatest guitarists, having to scalp a ticket to see the Motown 25 show (he who had played on almost all the songs performed there) and dying destitute grates me deeply.

The wistful way all these great musicians reminisce about their Motown years just underscores the point; the power imbalance in the relationships being plainly evident. The essential stinginess of the man who lured them with promises of wealth but made sure that they gave him the money first. There was capricousness, arbritrariness, favoritism - the "bottom bitch" in this case being Diana Ross. The wheedling and cajoling, the occasional flamboyance and fundamentally the factory line approach that Gordy pioneered in managing the "talent" all speak to this point.

Now it's a sad thing to think of successful black men and place them in proximity with a word like pimp. One might expect that of boxing promoters like Don King but that comes with the territory, we expect a little sleaze amidst the sweat of fistic endeavours. Our musical heroes deserved better than the exploitation that was their daily fare. Leon Ware isn't bitter about his treatment and his music stands the test of time. It's a crying shame, however, that he didn't reap the rewards of his considerable artistic achievement and I lay the blame squarely on Berry Gordy.

Al Green - Call MeAl Green - Call Me

Al Green was in a zone for 4 years forging an intense collaboration with Memphis producer Willie Mitchell in the early 70s. This was before he had his own Road to Damascus incident admonishing him to stop singing devil music and to embark on the path of the good Reverend Al. It's not that the gospel-inflected music that followed was any less good, but it's a plain fact Willie Mitchell-era Al Green embodied baby-making music. Sophisticated and unhurried, soothing like a good wine, low lights and some candlelights, honey-glazed, chocolate heaven...

Oh! I forgot myself for a minute...

Call Me didn't sell as much as Let's Stay Together or I'm Still In Love With You which arguably had more hits. And yet I find it his most cohesive music. In this same vein, some point to Talking Book as Stevie Wonder's peak even though Innervisions was the greater album.

Listening to the album, it's hard to account for all the goodies, the title track obviously is a standout, but also Here I Am (Come And Take Me) later to be covered by UB40 in their Labour of Love project which only proves what great taste they had. Similarly I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry definitively captures a plaintive mood. It would take twenty years for another artist to come close to doing justice to it and we can thank new moon daughter Cassandra Wilson for taking on that task. Even so, Al Green is untouchable.

Ship AhoyThe O'Jays - Ship Ahoy

The first shot across the bow by Philly International writer/producer pair Gamble and Huff was perhaps the O'Jays Back Stabbers album. To my mind though, Ship Ahoy, the follow-up is the apogee of Philly Soul. Where Back Stabbers had hits in Sunshine, Love Train and of course the title track, it was an album more concerned with relationships. This album, a year later, is more topical. After all, you couldn't help but respond to the kind of engaged and thoughtful music that the competition (Marvin, Curtis, Issac and Donny) were laying down. And so the Philly International turned political over the course of the album producing grown-folks music that one couldn't help but groove to.

Ship Ahoy explodes with killer singles. The title track is a nine minute journey on the slave ship from Africa to America. The string arrangements are a signature of Gamble and Huff, multi-layered and delicate, cellos, violas and violins combining with a horn section sans pareil. For the Love of Money is the monstrous dancefloor hit, a guitar lick sans-pareil that simply radiates funk. Play this at any barbecue and everyone will be bumping and grinding and forget that you just stole their last piece of spare ribs. And yet the lyrics speak of social ills of people selling their soul for the mighty dollar. Similarly, Now That We Found Love is essential soul. A very influential track covered by the likes of Third World who gave it some reggae flavour and also by Heavy D with a hip-hop take.

My favourite song on this is You've Got Your Hooks In Me. Listening to it is just like the moment when that tall man with that deep, gravelly voice who normally doesn't talk much, and sits at the back of the church, gets up and startles you as he begins to testify. Testifying is what this gospel/soul song achieves. The organ propels the voices and the rest of the congregation join in. This is manhood incarnate talking about love: voices harmonizing, call-and-response declaiming and pronouncing.

Eddie Levert's vocals recall the similarly electric Otis Redding, Sam Cooke or Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. This is The O'Jays' reply to songs like I Miss You or Try a Little Tenderness from the point of view of the pulpit. I suppose that a few years later they created the ultimate ballad in Stairway to Heaven which also fused the secular and sacred. But that was a more mature work, more polished and the arrangement was more complex and had more strings. The singing here is more fun, closer to church. Indeed let's call it pure church - a Philly baptist take on a modern day Song of Solomon.

Rufus and Chaka KhanThe Very Best of Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan

Chaka Khan's work early on in her career as lead vocalist for blue-eyed funk band Rufus placed her in elite company with the likes of Patti Labelle and Stephanie Mills or even Aretha Franklin. This greatest hits compilation actually should properly be called "early hits" since it doesn't have the mid-eighties standouts like Ain't Nobody and I Feel For You - missing Grandmaster Flash stuttering "Chaka, Chaka, Chaka Khan" is criminal.

Still by concentrating on early albums like Rufusized and Ask Rufus, the bases are covered. Tell Me Something Good, written by Stevie Wonder is a tribute to her vocal stylings. You've Got The Love still tears up a dancefloor and has been sampled to death, think Tone Loc - Loc'ed After Dark for example.

During the acoustic guitar section of Prince's last tour, he would play Sweet Thing and after the first five notes, everyone responded with the warmth that such an all-time classic deserves. Mary J Blige stated a claim to shrewdness by associating herself with that song on her first album. Erykah Badu also knew a good thing when she wailed on Stay in her live album. Of course she can't quite capture the out-and-out ferocity of the original but then who can. Chaka Khan is such an emotional singer and Rufus the band were a great complement to her talents.

C.K.Chaka Khan - C.K.

Another Chaka Khan album here, this one from 1989 is essentially a star-studded celebration much like Duke Ellington's Jazz Party album 40 years earlier. Good friends and scary talent coming together with music on their minds. Brenda Russell delivers solid soul songwriting, Bobby McFerrin joins in the Soul Talking. George Benson turns up with some nice fills on guitar and of course Stevie Wonder adds his harmonica to a reprise of his own Sign, Sealed Delivered (I'm Yours).

It's My Party was the radio hit, featuring Womack and Womack coming straight off their success on Teardrops (let's sing along: Footsteps on the Dancefloor / Remind me baby of you / Teardrops in my eye/ Next time I'll be true).

Chaka has always had jazz inclinations and here she covers couple of Billie Holiday standards: I'll Be Around and The End of a Love Affair. It's a different emotion than with Lady Day but unlike others who have tried, and failed, to emulate Billie, Chaka's hard life serves as a foundation for an authentic take on that blue mood. Baby Me is quietly devastating with a bassline resulting in a perfect pop/soul/rock fusion. I can't fail to sing along with it.

And then there's a purple combination. Who can resist the combination of Chaka Khan, Prince and Miles Davis on the same track. Birds of a feather and iconoclasts all, Sticky Wicked is a confection of psychaedelic, neo-funkified, horn-inflected paisleydom.

Caramel-coated, pseudo-happy
Call her Sticky Wicked

Prince has always been in love with divas (his first major hit I Feel For You was originally written for Patrice Rushen and ironically was best sung by Chaka Khan in 1984). After this collaboration, he would try to recreate this groove with Mavis Staples in Jaguar but this song is the prototype of the minneapolis genius at work with late-era Miles adding his customary accents. Prince also donates one of his best ballads, Eternity, a clock ticking excursion into love. It's a party all right.

Maze AnthologyMaze ft. Frankie Beverley - Anthology

A bed of soul without Maze and the lilting voice of Frankie Beverley is missing its essential warmth. As a band, they never got a Number 1 on the pop charts (in much the same way that James Brown never really got pop acceptance). Their most influential song, Joy and Pain, was an album track and was never released as a single - Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock rode that breakbeat for their 15 minutes or fame. And yet they'll sell out any number of venues whenever they go on tour. Their dedication to crafting sonic gems is on display throughout and the care with which they go about it is a pleasure. Running Away is rare groove defined. Before I Let Go is delicious jazz-funk. And the ballads, such ballads: While I'm Alone, Golden Time of Day to say the least. These are songs that just creep onto you, before you notice it you're smiling and your mood has lifted.

WarWar - Grooves and Messages

People often think that War were responsible for that classic "War, Was is it good for?", but no that was The Temptations. Still the confusion is well-placed, the band War was known for its conscious messages delivered over jazzy beats. Tbe band was a collective that came out with rare groove anthems like The World Is A Ghetto, lazy funk that ambled. When necessary they could be as cold as Funkadelic as on Cisco Kid and Low Rider, more often though they stuck to great instrumental Jazz-Funk with a latin twist thrown in to keep you in the pocket: Slipping into Darkness is a good case in point.

Unlike Kool and the Gang and Cameo, they didn't really have much success beyond the 70s. I think this is a good thing because along with Brass Construction or The JBs, they are the best example of the pure Jazz-Funk band. Their horns reigned supreme, the konga and percussion was varied rather than metronomic and their artistic choices were always inspired. As a bonus treat the second disc of this set features some interesting remixes offering sometimes radical reinterpretations.

Booker TBooker T. & the MGs - The Very Best of Booker T. & the MGs

I'll end with instrumental soul straight out of Memphis. Booker T. & the MGs were the house band for countless hits on Stax, they were immensely influential and popular in their own right. No rock and roll, blues or funk band has failed to test their chops on Green Onions which stands as one of the most memorable songs we have. For that song alone, they were destined for the Hall of Fame. And for drumming, few could compare to Al Jackson Jnr, the distinctive and gritty backbeat to almost all southern soul. Every instrument is locked in a groove that just meshes together perfectly. The Roots recently covered Melting Pot which is my favourite amongst the abundance of riches here. It has all the ingredients of my kind of music: soul, intelligence, wit and virtuousic execution. With such a soundtrack ringing in my ears, I'm a picture of serenity these days.

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Saturday, November 13, 2004

On The Wire

A blogospheric parable of sorts...

In the midst of discussing Porter Goss's upcoming (or rather ongoing) pogrom of those in the CIA who tried to leak just enough to cause Bush to lose the elections, Matt Yglesias reaches out to The Wire and cites Omar

"If you come at the King, you'd best not miss"
Brad Delong counters with a more classical reference from Alessandro Farnese
'He who draws his sword against the prince needs to throw away his scabbard.'
Arcane Gazebo then trumps both pointing to Cersei Lannister
"When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die."

As someone whose professional life has been spent trying to develop software tools that allow serendipitous group-forming this is all music to my ears. Not to mention that I'm also a fan of the show being discussed and admire its sense of language.

If I was a Clay Shirky type, I'd be talking about how such exchanges are the natural outgrowth of the confluence of ease of publishing with tools like Blogger and Moveable Type, standards like Atom/RSS, HTML and XML, the ubiquity of REST-ful platforms based on HTTP, URIs and distributed hypermedia as well as search infrastructure like Google and Technorati that has come to terms with end-to-end intelligence and the virtue of the link.

I'd say all that and more. I'd add in some theory about how this infrastructure is helping us harness those beneficial network effects bounded by Metcalfe's Law and Reed's Law. That such fun and informed repartee is the endpoint of contributors from Gutenberg on etc.

Now I suppose that policy wonks and Berkeley economists would be inevitably part of the same community. But would someone like me have been able to add in my own take in this debate without that great global water cooler conversation engine that is the blogosphere?

Surrounding all this commentary is the shared context of a novelistic TV show. It helps to have to some artist mining the cultural zeitgeist, the kind the social lubrication I pondered in that Sign Of The Times piece. This is what sociologists like Elster call The Cement of Society: the shared cultural context of literature, music, religion, history, film and, yes, also the infrastructure that smoothes these exchanges.

I'm positive that this is what David Simon and Ed Burns set out to do when they conceived of the show. They have assembled a fine set of writers who weave these gritty urban tales together. To my ear, it's probably novelist George Pelecanos (now also a producer on the show) who authored Omar's line. It's the kind of classicism I've read in some of his works like The Big Blowdown and Soul Circus. In this season, they've also reached out to such crime novel stalwarts as Dennis Lehane and Richard Price. I'd also note the as yet unheralded Rafael Alvarez who was the conscience of the Greek dockworkers of the second season. With such fireworks in the writing department, boosted by an amazing cast and strong direction by the likes of Ernest Dickerson, it stands to reason that we'd be drawing on its lessons in our own discourse. The framework they have set down is quite simple: Baltimore city as a character, bureacracies on both sides The Law and The Street, the occasional mavericks, doomed but sympathetic characters like Bubbles and an ear for language that rings true to life. So now let me add some more fodder to the conversation from The Wire.

Consider the always quotable Proposition Joe wrapping up a Godfather-like gathering of drug crews in a conference room in a Baltimore hotel, the dealers have just decided to set aside lethal differences to combine resources to buy better drug product from New York.
"For a cold-ass crew of gangsters, y'all carried it like Republicans an' shit."
Isn't that akin to the coalition that came together to re-elect Bush?

Or from the democratic standpoint, what about Blind Butchie who notes in his inimitable trancelike way:
"Conscience do cost"
when Omar has to cough up $1,500 to retrieve a cop's lost gun and return it to the authorities. Detective Bunk's tirade about predatory people like Omar (who incidentally was only a few years behind him in high school) touched a nerve and Omar tries to asuage the unease Bunk raised when he evoked the old days
"We had us a community back then".
Doesn't that stand close to the kind of wrangling half of the country is going through (and the rest of the world I might add) as it anticipates what will be lost of its soul in the next four years under Bush?

Excusing the street ebonics if you will, I tend to agree: conscience do cost.

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Saturday, October 30, 2004

Sign Of The Times

To paraphrase Prince, I was feverish when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray...

"These Are Trying Times", Donny Hathaway sang 30 years ago as Vietnam and Nixonian malaise reigned. Less highbrow perhaps, Pete Rock & CL Smooth talked about "The Anger In The Nation" a decade ago in a post-Rodney King LA riots era. These are not the most obvious examples but they are audible fragments of a meme that has been floating around my head.

I've been growing increasingly uneasy of late and, like many, have been grasping for a vocabulary with which to express what I feel. I find myself falling back to popular culture to better articulate this and hence I've been thinking a lot about the artistic response to one's times.

Life in America in the post September 11 era is in many ways a matter of angst in the nation. It is no coincidence that one of the things I'm reading is a piece in Harper's titled "Our Present Disillusionment" or that recent series in the Detroit Free Press, Anger in America. And it's not just that this past few months have been a Rovian-inspired season of electoral frenzy. It's a more pervasive sensibility that is quite unsettling to an outsider and even to someone as assimilated as I am to this culture.

Perusing today's headlines I notice Eminem giving Bush the finger and Springsteen on the stump for Kerry. And yes, I've read The Culture of Fear, watched Bowling for Columbine and the Fog of War, listened to the pundits, read the historians, politicians, economists and the social theorists. I read widely, but I still don't have the words to describe what I feel.

I suppose I'm asking for a poet laureate, for a crown prince to mine the zeitgeist, and sing Strange Fruit, someone who'll paint the Guernica of our times. Reading a piece on Bob Dylan, who fits that bill for a certain generation this quote stood out to me:

One mark of a genius is that "he's attuned with what's going on, what needs to be named or said."
My own affinity is to urban griots of one sort or another (I don't like Dylan much to be frank) and I'm not searching for a genius; I do want someone to name these things for me however.

Listening to the news these days is very trying, and made worse if you are a news junkie like me, monitoring dozens of news sources regularly. The litany of tragedy is, as ever, epic, awful and mostly man-made: Darfur, Haiti, Beslan, Madrid, Bali, Istanbul, Casablanca, last week Taba and the list goes on.

And then there's Iraq, that unmitigated disaster. The continued almost-daily suicide bombings, so-called precision munitions bombing residential areas, beheadings and now summary executions. And the black hole of pestilence and perversity that Abu Ghraib stands for just underscores everything. Ineffable sadness all around.

But there's also the perennial mindless savagery of adolescent rage take for example the teenager shooting up his school in Argentina killing his classmates.

Economic anxiety doesn't help, a recession and job insecurity all contribute to my unease but I discount those somewhat. What does makes thing worse is that cognitive dissonance is so prevalent. It's not the flag-waving that bothers me, it's what appears to be a uniquely blinkered outlook in the discourse. No one wants to admit that they were wrong, or, as the case may be, duped, despite the best evidence to the contrary.

Where once angst was an occasional issue, the words of the day are more forceful and pervasive: unease, disquiet and foreboding. My own outlook hasn't reached for those heavy hitters (fear, trouble or terror). However everywhere I look, many are behaving accordingly. Aaron MacGruder's Boondocks comic strip has been skewering this trend in recent weeks: people stocking up on duct tape, hiding from the world and checking Tom Ridge's colour-coded Homeland Security threat alert system. It might as well be Code Red when people start censoring themselves and others or spying on their neighbours.

As an African immigrant, I tend to keep a low profile (borne of years of seeing the radioactive effect of carrying a Ghanaian passport which loudly advertises economic desperation). I can't imagine however looking vaguely middle-eastern or carrying a Saudi or Pakistani passport in America these days (or in the Russian context, being a Chechen woman). Chris Rock has a good bit about how it feels good to be black after September 11 because now there are others who were receiving worse treatment. It's twisted social commentary but it hits a truth that you can even be part of the establishment these days and worry (somewhat) less about things like 'driving while black'.

We all like to watch train wrecks but this society actively celebrates ambulance chasers (viz. the rise of reality TV). The problem is that train wrecks these days don't only come in the form of O.J. Simpson or Michael Jackson. These days it's a matter of beheadings, hostage taking and torture (of the Rumsfeld-Cambone nudge-nudge wink-wink variety or even of the official policy kind). And all of this captured on tape as Susan Sontag has noted (Regarding the Pain of Others).

I wasn't alive during the height of the Cold War paranoia in the 50s and 60s but I feel a similar paranoia reigning today. There's a distinct chill in the air even in soi-disant "liberal" Massachusetts. A puritanical streak and self-righteous hurt will of course lead to witch hunts and here the overbearing John Ashcroft looms large on the discourse. My impressions of the hysteria of McCarthyism are informed the arts, plays like Arthur Miller's Crucible or films like The Front. In this sense the remake of The Manchurian Candidate is timely reminder of paranoia as is a movie like Dogville on Puritanism, even if so didactic and stylized.

I suppose all this is a pointer to a foundational shock to the American psyche. America is a huge country dominant in so many ways but one gets the sense of a fragile cultural fabric, easily traumatized by a short history. And yet the solipsism borne of wounded pride is a little jarring. It's an insular and personalized defiance that one can't counter with european-like sophistication that terrorism is nothing new. Sighing wearily that that I've lived through the depredations of the IRA is of no consolation in fact it's positively enervating. Nor are anecdotes about being stuck weekly on crowded trains in the London Underground for some security alert or the other. Security is a process and a nuisance but everyone should just got on with it. Instead there's an exceptionalism in the trauma: no one has ever been hurt more than us. In much the same way, I've seen people bristle about how nothing could compare to the Holocaust, not genocidal Cambodia, not low-budget but highly efficient bloodbaths in Rwanda.

Via Tom Engelhardt and Jonathan Schell, I note James Carroll's piece which gets to the language that we use. George Lakoff would likely have much to say about framing in the same vein.
After decades [following the A-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki] of implicitly waiting for the mushroom cloud to appear over the nation, we saw the clouds of ash rising from the World Trade Center as a version of that horror. As I heard the scholar John Dower observe, the use of the term 'Ground Zero' in New York is an unconscious appropriation of the authentic Ground Zeros in Japan. That is why 9/11 traumatized us out of all proportion to the scale of destruction, which, while tragic, was hardly world-historic.

Queasiness


As the proverb goes, when elephants fight it is the grass that gets trampled. Africa has long paid a price for being a battleground. Just ask Angolans what Jesse Helms' friend, that freedom-fighter, Jonas Savimbi has wrought. Latin Americans too know all about power imbalances. And to add to economic and ideological warfare, we are now prey to the theological nihilism of Al Qaeda. What had Kenya or even proto-socialist Tanzania ever done to deserve being waylaid by the 1998 US embassy bombings?

When I read a story titled Al-Qaeda tea brew hits Guinea, I sincerely hope that the locals are just doing good agitprop marketing and nothing more. You really don't want the US Army in your backyard as you're trying to get on with that messy business of rising from poverty. Nor do you want to be the combat ground, the soft target or the collateral roadkill. And that explains the alarm that I felt on my Christmas 2001 trip home when I saw that little girl running around Osu wearing the yellow Osama Bin Laden shirt. God help us. Thankfully I haven't seen more of that since but it's worth worrying about any residual currents. Development is hard enough that we know we can't afford Nigerian Taleban.

Africans are no strangers to social dislocation. In many ways upheaval is our close companion. The contours of my life and of many my age have been shaped by 3 coups d'états so it stands to reason that these I would reach to them to try to grapple with defining my unease. A slight detour then into personal memory...

A signal part of Rawlings' first coup in Ghana in 1979 was when the 8 generals and other senior officers were summarily tried in a kangaroo court, tied to the stake and executed by a firing squad of blood-thirsty junior officers. Memory being what it is, I can't recall if I watched the grainy broadcast or saw the photos of these poor men. What I do remember vividly was the tenor of the talk in the playgrounds in the ensuing weeks, the urban legend being about the colonel who refused to die and kept getting shot. Similarly, after the December 31st 1981 coup, at school children talked about some of the people who were being called up on radio to report to the army camp, Burma Camp, "with immediate effect" some of whom we knew would never make it back and many who returned broken.

And yet it was not the armed soldiers and tanks on the streets or the oppressive curfew that caused the dread and disquiet, it was rather the tone of the talk, something that hit very close to home. The French word, ricanement (roughly translated as snigger), comes the closest to encapsulating the mocking tone I heard in those voices: the sound of unfocused vengeance, score-settling, of larger violent forces wrecking havoc on lives.

In Ghana there's been a National Reconciliation Committee, which has just completed its look at the more egregious episodes we've faced in the hope of finding catharsis. My own submission to such a forum would not be about the upheaval in one's life, which after all was all too common, but rather a pointer to this great queasiness that returns in my thoughts. Of the worrying about friends and family and even those perfect strangers who would get caught up in the turmoil. Of the sheer waste, injustice and arbitrariness of it all.

In 1989 or maybe 1990, I recall heading to an acquaintance's house (he was Liberian, there were a number of Sierra Leoneans and Nigerians there) only to discover them watching the notorious video of the last hours of Samuel Doe, when Prince Johnson's militia did its worst. I walked out, why watch this? True Master Sergeant Doe was an ogre in the mould of Idi Amin, savage and ruthless (and a useful pawn during the Cold War) who similarly tortured his opponents. But what did all this bode? What did the circulation of these bootleg videos, passing from hand to hand from Liberia to London, bode? Think of the bazaars in Baghdad today?

And so it came to pass. Liberia and Sierra Leone have endured the most wrenching 15 years with more cruelty and viciousness than ever. In the grand annals of wickedness, people like Charles Taylor would have a lot to pay for (and of course Ghaddafi, who has sponsored almost every misadventure in Africa and elsewhere). Instead it's a comfortable exile...

I offer these anecdotes, and grasp onto the inchoate emotions they raised because they are close counterparts to my rising unease, accelerated as it is by this notion that such things are filmed, that depravity is such a commonplace that it can be entertainment or even motivational. And so when I think of a world of Abu Ghraib, I reach for Anthony Burgess and Stanley Kubrick's take on "A Clockwork Orange".

On War


I long for the War on Poverty but am confronted only with the War on Drugs and that new friend, the War on Terror. The creeping militarization of the US troubles me greatly. I personally prefer the police and I write this with wary trepidation of the living memory of the 41 bullets that lay Amadou Diallo down.

Armies everywhere are awful - just ask anyone living near about a army camp. Power and perversity are close cousins and combining youth, testosterone and guns is a dangerous thing. So the military is at its honourable best, a necessary evil, but is more often a coercive force (and in the case of modern Africa or Latin America, an entirely disastrous institution). And so the spread of this military and security industry is alarming. When I attend conferences, I see that a large proportion of the jobs in my field are targeting defense.

Artists from Homer to Hemingway via Wilfred Owen have long found prime material in considering war. I thought David O. Russell's Three Kings was a great take on the first Gulf War and highly relevant to this present Iraq excursion. It is in the same vein of Robert Altman's M*A*S*H and Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove and Coppola's Apocalype Now which considered earlier misadventures.

I've been reading the first part of Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honor trilogy, Men in Arms which is suitably trenchant in skewering English society in the Second World War shining a light on the conduct of war. It's a great novelistic examination of that blight on the last century. But it is a passage from his earlier savage satire, Vile Bodies (recently turned into a very good Stephen Fry film, Bright Young Things) that I turn to in thinking about these times of war. This was written in 1930 displaying a prescience about the coming war with Hitler and it could well stand in for much of the discourse of the past three years.
"And anyway, what do you mean by 'historical'?"
"Well, it's like this war that's coming... "
"What war?" said the Prime Minister sharply. "No one has said anything to me about a war. I really think I should have been told. I'll be damned," he said defiantly, "if they shall have a war without consulting me. What's a Cabinet for, if there's not more mutual confidence than that. What do they want a war for, anyway?"
"That's the whole point. No one talks about it, and no-one wants it. No one talks about it because no-one wants it. They're all afraid to breathe a word about it"
"Well, hang it all, if no one wants it, who's going to make them have it?"
"Wars don't start nowadays because people want them. We long for peace, and fill our newspapers with conferences about disarmament and arbitration, but there is a radical instability in our whole world-order, and soon we shall all be walking into the jaws of destruction again, protesting our pacific intentions."
"Well, you seem to know all about it," said Mr. Outrage, "and I think should have been told sooner."


On September 11th


The heavy hitters of American letters, Updike, Delillo, Mailer and now I suppose Phillip Roth, have all tried to grapple with September 11th but I'm left cold by their efforts. Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 is more vigourous but felt like a hammer where a scalpel was needed.

This has meant that so far Spike Lee's 25th Hour has been the best artistic response to that tragedy. The city of New York is itself a character in the film and, like all the other characters, is uneasy and walking wounded. This is the tenor of our time; the tragedy is mostly only obliquely referenced but its undercurrent is plainly evident. When Spike Lee has strong material (as when taking over from Scorsese and bringing Richard Price's tome of urban dysfunction Clockers to life) he is almost untouchable... of course then he follows up with She Hate Me...

On Violence


The Columbine massacre has been well covered by artists in documentaries like Bowling For Columbine, novels like Vernon God Little or even Gus Van Sant's Elephant. But I turn to City of God as perhaps the best recent commentary on violence and its effects - a panoramic film about young life in the favelas in Rio. Apart from being utterly compelling, extremely well-edited and controlled, it was a personal, yet Dickensian look at urban blight and the unruly life on the margins; news from a personal war, as it were.

On the war on drugs I turn to my favorite show The Wire a novelistic approach to the topic that deconstructs the city of Baltimore and all the various players, to that Channel 4 mini-series Traffik (along with its American remake Soderbergh's Traffic) and think of the mournful weight in Benicio Del Toro' and Don Cheadle's eyes. And I'd add the recent Maria Full of Grace humanizing the mules in the drug trade.

The Urban Griot Soundrack


The seventies saw a great flowering of the social commentary from the arts. In music this was spurred on by the rise of the album. Many took full advantage of the expanded freedom of that form and started a conversation full of call-and-response.

Marvin Gaye's entire What's Going On album is thus a focused meditation on his times and perhaps the best examination of that era, certainly my fondest. The story of his soldier brother returning from Vietnam and discovering mayhem in the social fabric: those Inner City Blues were enough to make you wanna holler Mercy, Mercy Me.

The Temptations jumped in and bluntly asked War, What is it Good For? Donny Hathaway too kept everyone honest and wondered about The Ghetto and the Voices Inside while hoping that Someday We'll All Be Free. Similarly Bobby Womack considered the broken windows Across 110th Street. The O'Jays wondered what people would do For The Love Of Money.

Curtis Mayfield too was a major part of the debate. A serious musician, his earlier work with The Impressions was the soundtrack to a forceful civil rights movement: People Get Ready was essential in this respect (and served to inspire the Bob Marleys of this world). As he grew as an artist, he couldn't fail to comment on the ills of his time. In SuperFly, he wanted his music to stand as a counterpoint to what was displaying on the blaxploitation screen. I'm Your Pusher is a commentary on a problem not a glorification of the dealer. Or consider songs from the essential Curtis (Live) album like We're a Winner where everyone is 'moving on up' and the admonitions to "keep on pushing", the ironic (Don't Worry) If There's A Hell Below We're All Gonna Go, Stone Junkie (about escaping from reality through drugs) or even the sublime We the People(who are darker than blue)
We People Who Are Darker Than Blue
Are We Gonna Stand Around This Town And Let What Others Say Come True
We're Just Good For Nothing, They All Figure
A Boyish Grown Up Shiftless Jigger
Now We Can't Hardly Stand For That
Or Is That Really Where It's At?

James Brown too knew that it was Hell, and that King Heroin reigned. Truth be told though, Soul Brother Number One was more interested in getting on the good foot than on being a generation's conscience. He had to be prodded into making "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" and was happy to campaign for Nixon and even to sing at Nixon's inauguration. This juxtaposition with the likes of Spiro Agnew still confounds me when I think about him.

Gil Scott-Heron who has maintained his stance as the angry young man to this day claimed The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and asked with mournful indignation Who'll Pay Reparations On My Soul? Later on he considered the effects of drugs in tracks like Angel Dust and more generally his society, see Winter in America.

But it isn't all bleak. Stevie Wonder's Songs In The Key Of Life is all exuberance. The double album, set a decade after the civil rights gains, is an affirmative celebration of all the facets of his times. Of course, he didn't realize that it was an interregnum, that the reality would be more like the one he painted in Living For the City five year's earlier in Innervisions.

Similarly Chic talking about the Good Times in a contemporaneous disco era were only fooling themselves. Carter's malaise was well-founded since for African-Americans the coming years were of the Reagan Retrenchment and the Crack epidemic. A comedian like Dave Chappelle nevertheless proudly mines that legacy today.

And what of the more recent music? Responding to September 11th, I like Meshell NdegeOcello's Forgiveness and Love more for the feeling in music than any real lyrical insight. The DJ Shadow/Zack De La Rocha collaboration March of Death was similarly topical, and had a grinding and dirty industrial backbeat that would have made the Bomb Squad proud. Antibalas also pose the question: Who is this America Dem Speak Of Today? from the Afrobeat context.

One strain in hip-hop, outside the braggadocio, lyrical gymnastics and beat mining is that pose of representing the streets, of realism, of being the social barometer for what is going down. That's why Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets are often mentioned as important precursors to say Grandmaster Flash's The Message or Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation to Hold Us Back. Rappers like KRS-One, Ice Cube, Rakim and N.W.A. among others would claim to be the CNN of the ghetto. And so there a multitude of hip hop artists jostling over this throne but I discount most of them - deep down, most just really want to party and that's fair enough. We can use some groove in these days.

I'll skip the brouhaha over Eminem's latest screed and just mention two recent songs both titled Why? that are among the hip-hop generation contribution to this debate. The first by Jadakiss and Anthony Hamiltonwas percolating in the charts all summer. Jadakiss is not my kind of thing as a rapper (and it struck me as simplistic Bush-bashing as inane as say Puff Daddy's Vote or Die stance) but the song (especially the remix with Common, a more 'conscious' artist) proved to be very popular, put people on the dancefloor and did, in fact, foster some contemplation. The second Why is more thoughtful and articulate given the source; it closed out The Root's Tipping Point album. They acknowledged it in their liner notes as a gesture towards creating their own What's Going On to serve as a poignant commentary on this Dubya era and it works well in that respect.

And so I'll end this by commenting on the song that for me best exemplifies the artist responding to his times and managing to capturing it all, Prince's Sign 'O' The Times. The lyrics depict headlines from a week or even a precise day in the late 80s but they still they resonate today in their depiction of social dislocation. The musical arrangement of song itself is very spare: Lynn drum, bass, quiet fills of rhythm guitar. Buried in the mix is an emotional guitar solo that gets me every time I listen to it. A few lyrics:
In France A Skinny Man Died
Of A Big Disease With A Little Name
By Chance His Girlfriend Came Across A Needle
And Soon She Did The Same
At Home There Are Seventeen-Year-Old Boys
And Their Idea Of Fun
Is Being In A Gang Called The Disciples,
High On Crack, And Totin' A Machine Gun.
Time, Time

Hurricane Annie Ripped The Ceiling Off A Church
And Killed Everyone Inside
U Turn On The Telly
And Every Other Story Is Tellin' U Somebody Died
Sister Killed Her Baby
Cuz She Could Afford 2 Feed It And
We're Sending People 2 The Moon
In September My Cousin Tried Reefer 4 The Very First Time
Now He's Doing Horse, It's June.
Times, Times.

It's Silly, No?
When A Rocket Ship Explodes
And Everybody Still Wants 2 Fly
Some Say A Man Ain't Happy
Unless A Man Truly Dies
Oh Why?
Time, Time.

This line about "Some Say A Man Ain't Happy Unless a Man Truly Dies. Oh Why?" has been my personal soundtrack for the past few months. Still, I like the way he ends the song: it isn't all doom and gloom, life carries on.
Sign O' The Times,
Mess With Your Mind,
Hurry Before It's 2 Late
Let's Fall In Love,
Get Married, Have A Baby
We'll Call Him Nate (If It's A Boy)

So I try to just get on with it, to get back to work.
It's just a song, it's just a book, it's just another movie.

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2004

On GMail and DHTML architecture again

So Jon Udell has been pondering GMail and its architecture on his blog. He's also trying to figure out when to augment DHTML apps with even richer client technology. Below follows what I thought would be a short email that I repeat here for blogospheric conversation's sake.

GMail's architecture is actually very generic for a DHTML app. Everyone with a clue should be trying to leverage the browser and that, in essence, is all they are doing.

I helped implement an analogous architecture in Lotus K-station back in 1999. The major difference now is that everyone is using the "v.5" versions of the browsers; no one cares any longer about Netscape 4.7x.

For me the tipping point for rich DOM/JavaScript applications came when we saw mainstream applications like Hotmail and Yahoo Mail start using DHTML menus. My Yahoo only switched to DHTML menus when it was relaunched a few weeks ago and that's my litmus test for conservatism. (Ironically GMail switched back from DHTML menus to standard HTML selects for its "More actions" and apply label bar a month or so ago - although that might just be from usability testing). A similar event happened in the past year with the way users can rate items in Amazon.com wishlists and also in Netflix without seemingly causing page reloads - you know those five stars.

I mention the spread of all these little DHTML flourishes because I remember back in 2000 spending 3 months and well over 10 heated meetings trying to convince IBM architects to allow the use of simple things like DHTML menus and losing the battle. Of course given that kind of resistance, it was unlikely that features like drag-and-drop which one got from the UI engine in K-station would see the light in WebSphere Portal.

I was arguing that judicious leverage of DHTML could improve the user experience and that it could done while addressing accessibility concerns. Ostensibly the objections were not about usability or consistency but rather about not wanting to write multiple UIs and lack of expertise in DHTML programming. I realized then that the argument was not really about "to-DHTML-or-not" but more about comfort with a repartitioning of one's architecture.

It is riskier to do more on the rich browser client because it has been a more brittle platform over this past decade. Companies that do middleware and server-side tooling take a while to move from their core competency. Architects that thrive in that environment are essentially conservative and for good reason... Four years later, I now hear mutterings about drag-and-drop and richer clients in our corridors...

This only underscores the point that Jakob Nielsen's predictions about browser adoption cycles have turned out to be pretty accurate. Even though web application developers have been quietly spreading unobtrusive javascript usage in the interim, it is only now that there's a critical mass of clients that can leverage them; when Amazon and Yahoo move, something must be happening.

The developer tools and resources have gotten (slightly) better and there's more experience with the DOM. Increased adoption of broadband also helps reduce latency for the average client so you don't have to fight the inevitable arguments about performance and can couch your advocacy in terms of user interaction. In any case if and when you do have the performance discussion you can always argue that caching as close to the client as possible is a good thing and what better cache than the browser itself. It just so happens that applications like GMail, Bloglines and Oddpost are the state of the art in terms of browser leverage.

I recently wrote about this type of architecture in my recounting of the history of the DHTML spreadsheet and presentation components that are the genetic forebears of OddPost.

The idea is to fetch an HTML skeleton, decide what content you need, fetch that (as XML), and cache it wherever you get a chance. Render incrementally.

The pattern is simple:
Database <-> XML (Optional) <--> JavaScript Object Bindings <--> UI Bindings (HTML) + UI management code

This pattern works very well for page oriented applications like portals, email, aggregators. You can cache or preload your javascript objects and just manipulate the CSS display or visibility attributes for your UI Bindings.

Incremental rendering and multithreaded loading is the name of the game here. Your application is essentially architected as a hypermedia browser just like the browser and leverages the browser's built in core features, our old favorites: incremental rendering and multithreaded downloading.

The decision about using XML as the data transfer format instead of Javascript objects is a toss-up, trading off client reach and memory. XML support in Safari and Opera is not as baked as MSIE or Mozilla so having JavaScript as your interchange format with your UI engine will buy you increased reach and smaller footprint.

Ultimately though XML will be your backend data format so the temptation will increasingly be to use the various XML-on-the-wire APIs (XMLHTTPRequest). Maybe another 4 years is needed for this pattern to see more widespread usage, JavaScript on the wire suffices for now.

Perhaps K-station was too bleeding edge trying to go for XML over HTTP, DHTML and extreme leverage of the browser client 5 years ago but that experience was a great testbed for me and I learned lots of lessons about building rich REST-ful applications, the importance of URIs etc.

Again the major missing feature for this rich web application platform is offline usage and synchronization without introducing new security holes in the browser. But then that's why Bosworth is at Google as the rumour goes, right? I suspect he's got other things in mind though...

I would note that the Mozilla folks know that the offline capabilities in their platform are a bust so I'd expect some eyes on this. Look also at applications like FormsPlayer for innovation in this space or anyone doing forms in general. XForms is my current thing and offline forms are a great feature that users can understand and demos very well; it's also something that the Notes platform does very well. Our old friend, Groove, also does that kind of synchronization well but I'd want that for the web, natively in the browser.

I think that increased leverage of the browser and the DOM is a good thing. It's also a clear trend and for many applications, the browser is good enough. Good enough for Google, good enough for Yahoo, good enough for me.

Sidenote:
One note about memory consumption and pushing things onto the client. There's an end-to-end argument for this notion of pushing intelligence to the endpoints but there is a cost and in this case it's memory consumption. It's mininal but it exists in this case. One lesson I learned was that it's good to use the kind of machines that the average client would be using and consequently I always hoard older machines. I've noticed that with lots of tabbed browsing and increased use of GMail and Bloglines, my four year old Windows ME box (Athlon 900 Mhz 512MB RAM) thrashes memory more often and I've seen more sporadic crashes/freezes with Mozilla. I know this is actually a lagging indicator and that most users are now on Windows 2000 and possibly XP, but it is a pointer to the memory consumption overhead of DHTML apps. All my other machines are fine and I should note that these applications run just as fine on ME as on other platforms in terms of interactivity and all, it is just prolonged use and a piece-of-junk memory and resource subsytem in that excuse for an operating system... My next representative machine is a Win2k box and on that evidence everything is in order even with these highly leveraged applications.

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Monday, October 25, 2004

Cooking with Rokia Traoré

A night with Rokia Traoré at the Somerville Theatre, October 15, 2004

For many, the peak of Miles Davis's first great quintet were the four albums they recorded during a marathon studio session one magical day in October 1956. Relaxin', Workin', Cookin' and Steamin' were the album titles and collectively, they displayed the best of the jazz form of almost any era.

This was a group that had made a reputation touring together with a varied repertoire. The rhythm section of Red Garland, Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers was so well-oiled that it was called "The Rhythm Section", bold and capitalized. The quintet set the gold standard for musical empathy and high caliber fireworks something augmented in these recordings especially when a young John Coltrane would egg on bandleader Miles and trade solos.

The albums were recorded as if they were in a nightclub, Miles would call out a tune and off they would go laying out the definitive treatment of standards like Surrey With Fringe On Top or It Never Entered My Mind along with originals like Four and Half Nelson. These albums were probably the most conventional that Miles would make; he was never one to look back.

I mention all this because in many ways, Rokia Traoré's performance with her eight piece band last Friday reminded me of those landmark albums, in conception, in attitude and especially in the flawless execution.

Rokia Traore BowmboiRokia Traoré - Bowmboï

Relaxin'


Relaxing


She walks out onto the stage quietly, picks up a guitar and begins playing. There are no diva theatrics - think of Beyonce being carried out Cleopatra-like by a guard of six hardbodies. This is a musician first and foremost; an unassuming singer/songwriter who knows that the music will speak for itself. She's lost the braids from a few years ago and her head is shaven, she's rocking the Angelique Kidjo aesthetic.

A back-up singer and a kora player accompany her and they begin with a touch of reflection, a couple of soft lilting ballads She's trying out the material from the new album, Bowmboï. It's a gentle introduction for the audience, fodder for a quiet evening on the porch.

Malian music is very well marketed in the West, moreso than say soukous, highlife or other forms of African music. The reason being that it is typically less frenetic than those forms and also because in many ways, it fits with a certain notion of "World Music": folky, laidback, and vaguely "authentic". The idea is that it's rural, bluesy, folk music: think Ali Farka Toure, think the "Roots of The Blues" etc. Never mind that the picture on the ground is more complicated or that the influences are varied and cross cultural boundaries. Never mind all that. This is the terrain of the African artist. Their music belies the frame in which they are portrayed.

The first time I saw her, four years ago, it was across the street, at Johnny D's, a small, homely joint that seats maybe a hundred. Back then, she was promoting her second album, Wanita, a dreamy affair firmly in traditional mould. These days though, she can sell out the Somerville Theatre which seat about 1,000 which give you some idea of the attention that has been paid to building up an audience. Nonesuch is the new record label and you know that they are no fools.

Workin'


Working with the Miles Davis Quintet
Rokia Traore


The rest of the band join them and the evening's groove begins. Rokia is a diplomat's daughter and has lived in the Middle East and the West. She's listened closely to all those other rhythms but finds comfort in her roots, thus we have the balafon (xylophone), the kora, the two n'gonis (lutes)and the calabash and talking drums. Clearly the decision to use traditional malian instruments is a conscious one.

Her voice is not as full as Oumou Sangare - the éminence grise of Malian vocalists; it's lighter and more ethereal. The backup singer overlays and harmonizes very well. They are sisters in harmony.

She's got a young band, a set of young Malian musicians who are enjoying every minute of their time together and are committed to the journey she's taking them on. As a bandleader, she is not the imperious commander type although she has a clear conception of what she wants to achieve. She is more the team player, allowing everyone to shine and produce a zone offense, if there's such a thing.

One surprise though is the new guitarist/bassist Christophe "Disco" Minck, a tall long-haired Belgian so-and-so who lays down the fierce and metronomic break beats and wah-wah effects while jerking like a funky chicken. It adds some flavour to the gumbo they are cooking up on stage. This is akin to the addition of Money Mark's Fender-Rhodes keyboards during Femi Kuti's tour a few years ago promoting the Fight To Win album. There's something about the cross-cultural exchange by having another set of ears in the mix. She's been listening to all sorts of music and it informs her writing on the songs on the new album. It's hypnotic and mellow yet, rendered live, it's propulsive stuff.

Cookin'


Cooking with the Miles Davis Quintet

Wanita


During the Wanita tour, she very generously shared her stage with a group of young Malian drummers and rappers. The whole world listens to hip-hop and it was interesting to see the exuberant youth reinterpret the old tunes to a griot backbeat. She welcomed their melodic ideas and rhythmic wordplay then but this sensibility is only occasionally hinted at in her own music. She manages to be sound contemporary while keeping a traditionalist slant to things.

Back home, her biggest competition among the young lions is probably Habib Koite who is a similarly gifted writer. The blind duo, Amadou & Miriam are the folk heroes. Of course the gold standard are artists like Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare and all those great kora players (Toumani Diabate among them).

The new album recorded last year has been getting some buzz in Africa and Europe. Bowmboï won the BBC Album of the Year award and you begin to get an idea of what the judges for that competition were thinking as imperceptibly the band begins cooking. Polyrhythmic innovation quickly ensues, fired on by wah-wah guitar and alternatively some thumping electric baselines.

On the album she enlists the Kronos Quartet on a couple of songs - the effect is to add a classical tinge to the malian and occasional middle-eastern soundscape. Live though, the band gives vent to the interplay between the n'goni and the calabash, her own guitar quietly filling in the space.

For me it's the soul clap factor, once you've got me clapping, your work is done: I'll be your evangelist. She's got me clapping for sure.

As if to prove my point, she starts dancing with her backup singer, with flowing and languid movements. The men get very interested at this, if they weren't already: the two are lithe and sexy. The women in the crowd stay interested because their dancing is not as overtly sexual as for example those female dancers in Femi Kuti or Koffi Olomide's bands; it's tastefully done and no competition. They proceed to reel off five or six joints that are simply perfect, insistently intelligent, long groovy pieces that they explore to the fullest. We are all elated by the end of things.

Steamin'


Steaming


As she comes out for the encore, she enjoins the crowd in her bookish, impeccably correct and french-accented english, to feel free to stand and join her in moving to her music. "For me, singing onstage was a dream that has come true." Like a good diplomat, she knows how to charm her audience. The Girlfriend and I of course had been nudging each other throughout noting that African audiences would never have sat down through the type of performance that we have been treated to so far. Well this is Massachusetts so we take what we get.

The crescendo builds up in the three encore songs, and this is what is extraordinary about this: the music while clearly akin to Ali Farka Toure blues is nevertheless very danceable. More to the point the groove is trance-like and plainly funky. How do you manage to make funk out of kora and xylophone, pray tell? Now others in the crowd don't need any prodding to join in the soul-claps and the call-and-response that clearly delight both musicians and audience.

I think the space created by the two interlocking n'gonis is a vital part of the mix. Also we are treated to shifting tempos and some sublime changes just like in soukous or old highlife (see King Bruce or E.T. Mensah). Think of it as 5 or 6 in-situ remixes of the songs, radical reinterpretations of a basic sketch. So the dancing gets wilder, the atmosphere gets sweaty and we are all making a beautiful sound. At the concert closes the entire band is showcased and they do justice to it all. We're leave hyped by what we've heard. Come back Rokia... Steaming is the least of it.

Now that I've placed Rokia Traoré in august company for this review asserting that she's channeling the spirit of the Miles Davis Quintet, I should close by commenting on the context in which to place the evolution of her nouveau-funk Malian brew. For Miles Davis, the cooking sessions confirmed his place among the jazz greats and cemented his reputation as a bandleader par excellence. Bop traditionalists still look back on fondly on them as a landmarks. Albums like Kind of Blue and Somethin' Else would soon follow these classic and Miles' experiments would multiply in the ensuing years. Rokia Traoré's new album and especially the live performances in this tour are similar, confirmation of a great talent and a wonderful bandleader, I can't wait for the next album or to see what direction she goes in. You want to be along for the ride.

The critical response to her tour has been suitably estatic (see these various reviews for example). But don't take it from the Times or The Post, down here in the streets of Cambridge, the toli is that Rokia Traoré has arrived. Keep your eye on her.

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