Monday, November 22, 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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