Thursday, December 23, 2010

Electoral Fictions

Shamelessness is an essential component of the how to hand over to yourself blueprint but, as our Ivorian brethren are currently demonstrating, there is still room for innovation within that framework, and depths of crassness that can yet be plumbed. We live in a world of politics as theater and where elections are the ultimate in stage-managed human drama. Suspension of disbelief is essential in any fiction, and disingenuousness mandatory in electoral fictions.

I write this of course after watching events in Côte D'Ivoire over the past few weeks. The initial emotion was bemusement and indeed laughter - how can one not laugh at the spectacle of someone literally tearing up election results to prevent them from being declared. Still the inept antics only brought back the automatic, unrequited cringe I've had at Ivorian politics for the past decade. I remembered that I'd even awarded Laurent Gbagbo, his wife and their death squads an award of sorts, and looking over their 2004-5 citation, all the elements were there: the needless waste of everyone's time, the hubris, the threats and the violence. Still I have been holding my breath, a neighbour's house is still on fire.

Of course we've long since moved beyond laughter to the realm of tears. It's the usual litany, the West African yearning for normalcy: why should the conduct of elections be cause for fraught headlines? Why seal borders? And those death squads and the obligatory evacuation of foreign nationals? And so forth, it's a depressing lament. Most Ghanaians are gearing up to receive the refugees who have already started leaving the place. Sidenote: if refugees are leaving Côte D'Ivoire to go to Guinea and even Liberia, a country recovering from 14 years of civil war, how many more can we expect in ostensibly stable and oil-producing Ghana?

polling station there


Incidentally, we were on notice as to how ugly things might turn out. Recall if you will, the September story about that Ivorian man arrested in California attempting to buy arms to smuggle in contravention of the UN embargo. The salient quote:
"$1.9 million wired to the US as a 50 percent downpayment on the weapons... the shipment of 4,000 handguns, 200,000 rounds of ammunition and 50,000 tear gas grenades to Ivory Coast."
As you watch the distressing news footage, imagine the additional damage this consignment would have wrought in light of the violence, reports of militias, mercenaries and nighttime disappearances. The fact also that millions of dollars were so readily transferred surely indicates the importance the old government placed on the military option and indeed the kind of planning that was involved (the International Criminal Court should take note). But anyway all that is a matter of ruthlessness, let's deal with lighter topics: shamelessness, political theater and electoral fictions.

We have seen problematic elections in this season - consider Burma as the archetype, or might you prefer the thuggish Egyptian variant held on the same day, or perhaps even the Belarusian just this past weekend. It is striking that Ivory Coast takes the cake even in such abject company. The usual saying goes that "It's not who votes that counts but it's who counts the votes"; we are witnessing new clauses being added to that formulation. Call the Ivorian innovation on this front the Gbagbo Imbroglio, if you will. Their singular contribution to the body of electoral fictions is nothing less than the fictitious election.

polling station


The usual practice when handing over to oneself is to hold back declaring results in your strongholds and wait until you know how many votes you need. In Chicago or Kansas City in the past, this was a matter of figuring out how many cemeteries to mine for the requisite ghost names. In Ghana in the 1990s, results from the Volta region always came in suspiciously late, later even than the Northern regions, and 98 percent votes in favour of the incumbent and 100 percent turnout (or more) would be the norm - shades of Mobutu or perhaps referendums in Stalin's time.

Gbagbo and company couldn't manage to do this, indeed the electoral commission that this sitting government had put in place took its job seriously and was remarkably independent - as well it should since a tremendous amount of effort had been put in place by Ivorians and the international community to stage these elections. The resort, then, was to say that the electoral commission did not have the right to declare the results. Which brings me again to that video clip I noted earlier that I've been stewing over ever since (and hopefully the BBC won't mind my using their image, I recommend to everyone their closing line: "the elections have been canceled six times in the past five years."). I haven't seen a more perfect piece of political theater in years. Every actor played their part brilliantly.

tearing up election results


When the next day, the head of the electoral commission did manage to sneak out and declare the results, the Gbagbo camp would remark that the declaration was invalid since it hadn't been made within the requisite timeframe. In other words, the declaration that could have been made the prior night had turned into Cinderella's carriage once midnight had passed.

What then followed would clearly demonstrate that Ivory Coast has had a fictitious election.

It would only be after the election results were declared that a 'Constitutional Council' would throw out the votes of 12 percent of the country so that the "results" would be in Gbagbo's favour. Surely this must be the most innovative response to an electoral contest. I can't imagine a greater slap in the face short of actual physical slaps in the face - and these have since been forthcoming.

First for 15 years ago, you say that a large part of your countrymen are not Ivorians, then you say that they are but that they can't register, then you delay for 5 years, then you allow only some to register as you then delay registration and again delay the vote. Then the whole country votes and even your folks vote against you so that the opposition win. And now you go and nullify their votes even though most of the irregularities were in your strongholds. Words fail me.

When Laurent Gbagbo would wrap himself in the flag and declare himself president, it would only bring to mind coronations of yore.

should there be chaos in our beloved country


The question at the outset was whether Gbagbo's generals would follow the Burma blueprint and make his opponent, Outtara, an Aung San Suu Kyi of sorts. Burma of course outdoored its own electoral fictions recently - said elections were timed to occur while the Nobel laureate was under house arrest serving her expediently conferred and lengthy sentence. Just to make sure of the outcome, her party was essentially banned in any case.

Earlier on, one wondered if it would it be the Algerian Algorithm that would be applied: simply don't hold the second round since you know how it would go.

There was also the option of the Abacha Abrogation - with Nigerian bluntness, simply call things off.

The Baker barrage - I'm referring to the slickness of the Bush-Gore 2000 business where James Baker was consigliere: run the clock down. Recall that group of Republican lawyer types that stormed counting offices in Florida. Then the Supreme twist - a legal opinion that should not be construed as a precedent, mutterings about irreparable harm notwithstanding.

A close counterpart is the Mugabe Mutation, a variant of the rope a dope: lose in the first round of elections and resort to the 'or else'.

Finally I suppose there is the Lukashenko option
Perhaps six out of nine Belarusian presidential candidates were in jail. One of them, Uladzimir Neklyayev, was beaten unconscious and then dragged away from the hospital wrapped in blankets.

let's put aside our sticks, knives, guns and arrows


Laurent Gbagbo has already served an extra term as President - five whole years beyond the end of his mandate. We have been on notice as to his willfulness and are watching in almost despair as he does his worst, hoping against hope. I have a pet theory that someone who has been a political prisoner will do exactly what he wants to do (pace Mugabe, and Mandela notwithstanding). It is vain to think he will do otherwise.

The irony is that Gbagbo was on the receiving end of a famously rigged election. When I wrote my 1993 piece, I was in awe of the slick manner in which Houphouët-Boigny had used his considerable powers of incumbency and dealt with his opposition in 1990.

Given all the precedents one had expected a certain finesse or perhaps panache in the electoral strategy. As a Wikileaked cable from the US embassy in Abidjan put it in July 2009, "There will not be an election unless President Gbagbo is confident that he will win it -- and he is not yet confident of the outcome."

As well he should have been. The cable also noted that it was unlikely the elections would be held in early 2010 as expected since Gbagbo would undoubtedly want to preside over the jubilee ceremonies of 50 years of independence. "The prestige and celebrity that goes with hosting such an historic event" was insufficient as we have seen.

in peace and harmony protect our nation


All of that came to pass. This was a long game and Laurent Gbagbo has never missed an opportunity to disappoint. The exasperating and novelistic playbook has been followed to a fault. Delay, suborn, browbeat, bludgeon, deny, wrap yourself in the flag, bluster, and, if need, be suppress and kill - those death squads.

We tell ourselves stories about elections, but it isn't often that the reality surpasses the myth. It has been a colossal waste of everyone's time. We have gone from electoral fictions to fictitious elections.

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Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Codes of Martial Music

Earlier, the officers threatened to kill the PM if his supporters continued street protests in his defence...

National radio interrupted its programmes to play military music, which correspondent say is code for a coup.

Guinea-Bissau army head 'seized', April 1 2010



After a day of gunfire, explosions and nonstop military music on the radio in Niger’s capital, Niamey, the whereabouts of the president, Mamadou Tandja, remained unknown...

As of Thursday evening, the government had made no announcement about its status, even as martial music continued on the radio. A wrestling program replaced the evening news broadcast on state television. The streets were deserted and shops shut early.

Palace in Niger Is Attacked by Soldiers, February 18, 2010



Bands of soldiers ransacked the homes of several ministers and gunshots rang out, residents reported. The junior officers were apparently tightening their grip on strategic buildings, with their supporters ensconced in the national broadcasting headquarters across the street from the American Embassy. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

The national radio station blared martial music. Many shops across the city were closed, though street vendors continued to sell mangoes, bananas and pineapples.

Confusion After Guinea Coup Attempt, December 24, 2008
I have many memories of the two coups I lived through in Ghana in 1979 and 1981-82. Like many of my compatriots, I have chosen not to dwell on them and instead have noted simply that we are very discriminating in what we choose to remember and forget. The safe detail that lingers, however, is of the martial music that consumed the radio, and then the TV, airwaves in the ensuing days. We were treated to waves after waves of martial music on Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) that were only occasionally interrupted by the rantings of someone who claimed he was coming to protect us. Suffice to say that I have a visceral reaction to military strongmen and their rhetoric - I am blinded by the accompanying blood.

More interesting perhaps is that I have a deep appreciation of the codes and nuances of martial music. My first response to the news of any coup is to wonder whether this time-tested ritual, the playing of military music, had been followed. And then my curiosity and propensity for musical obsession takes the best of me: I ask around about the exact pieces of music that were played. When I do manage to get the nitty-gritty details, it is almost always disappointing: in the main, a few olde English paeans to blood-lust. The Francophone coups tended to run with more folksy arrangements and the North African had a rather elusive quality - the Arab influence perhaps. The martial music of our coups all had this alien, otherworldly aura - as if to remind the listener that the military in Africa were one of the most ruinous of our colonial inheritances.

military - we train to defend ghana by land, sea and even at the peril of our lives


I am left to wondering why in this day of of digital music and ipods, the savvy aspiring military junta couldn't come up with a more inspiring playlist. And in the context of Africa, didn't our warriors of old have fearsome praise songs written for their exploits? Couldn't some talking drums have the same effect? why not a "Made in Africa" soundtrack? But perhaps this is missing the point; martial music in the context of a coup is simply a code, a social signifier, and the disrupted programming an intimation of an enduring, if disastrous, tradition. The journalistic descriptions are always about 'blaring military music'. In contrast, in my memory, the dissonance is not really about volume but rather about unfamiliarity and annoyance: the horns were especially grating coming through the modest speakers of the portable radios we gathered around. The irritation was that you couldn't avoid this music even as your favourite news broadcast was preempted. The screeching horns resonated with the tinny sounds of your Grundig Waveboy and made for a rather somber nuisance.

Coups in the past century mostly seemed to follow the same blueprint and martial music was no mere footnote, I'd even wager that they were a critical ingredient. But have there been innovations one wonders, global guerrilla adaptations of the noisome strategy? Reading closely the above news reports, what is one to make about the detail of the 'wrestling program' that preempted regular programming after Niger's coup month's ago? Was it a case of l'appel de l'arènes. And was the continued selling of "mangoes, bananas and pineapples" in the streets after the Guinea coup a flourish of journalistic colour or merely a blasé signifier about the prospects of that grim lot.

I have friends who study the history of coups and military-civilian relations and who will wax poetic on when exactly it was that the airport became a necessary target for a nascent military junta. In Francophone Africa you always had to worry about a flight of French paratroopers swooping in to restore the current client dictator. Not so with coups in Anglophone or Portuguese Africa. Technology also changes things, these days a successful putsch in a healthy media market requires that you deal with those pesky communication networks and pay a threatening visit to mobile phone operators so that your opposition can't organize countering maneuvers.

During the struggle over the abolition of the monarchy in Nepal a few years ago, the reactionary forces tried to shut down the cell phone networks. They managed — for a day, and the enduring damage was done to their cause. The monarchy is no more. Aspiring military juntas should take note that one messes with the mobile phone networks at one's peril. The communication imperative is keenly felt. Even in the bloody aftermath of Iran's last election, the authorities didn't dare take the drastic step of shutting down the mobile networks. The day I read that headline, I'll know that they are done for.

Presidential Guard


Africa will be in the news a lot this year, and not simply for uplifting reasons like the World Cup in South Africa. It doesn't matter that many African countries will be celebrating 50 years of independence, brace yourself for some dismaying headlines even if natural disasters don't dominate. A major part of the narrative is going to be about coups and military/civilian relations. Throughout, it will be about how civil society fights against encroachments on the democratic gains made since the 1990s. Watch for slippages and authoritarian thuggishness on freedom of speech, watch for arbitrariness and vendettas resurfacing, watch for soi-disant democrats averting their eyes to due process. Consider Gbagbo dissolving the government in Cote d'Ivoire - and crucially the electoral commission. Take a look at Sudan in coming weeks for example. Muse on what Mugabe will come up with in Zimbabwe this year. Worry about why North Korea arms shipments are headed to Congo-Brazzaville. Observing the twists and turns in the African story can be very trying.

What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a coup to succeed in 2010? What is needed in this modern age of citizen journalists, the internet, a web of global voices, cheap digital cameras, Twitter, Facebook, Ushahidi, ridiculously simple group forming and ubiquitous mobile phones and such? Is it enough to capture the radio and TV station as in the past? Should you even bother to threaten the newspapers? Surely the gadfly editors will be watching which way the wind is blowing with alternate headlines at the ready. Do you need to secure the army barracks or just the airport and the country's borders? What about a show of force? Send some tanks into the street? Should one surround the American, British, French and now Chinese embassy - the Chinese are big in Africa these days? In Guinea-Bissau today, soldiers were sent to surround the United Nations compound. Remember that some of the first targets of the Rwandan genocide were the Belgian UN blue helmeted peacekeepers. Or is the current fashion of targeting cabinet meetings the most expedient?

I suspect that the key feature in all this is playing martial music on the radio or TV. The dismal tones of the ironic playlists of authoritarians are symbolic laments of sorts. A dosage of aural intimations of the prospect of bloody streets, these military anthems are set to fierce drums and harsher horns. The lyrics, if any, are a celebration of fisticuffs, eviscerations and strategic disembowelments. Such are the codes of martial music.

A few more nuggets of note:
  • During the 2008 coup in Mauritania, "the first indications of a military coup came as state radio and television were taken off the air amid reports of unusual troop movements in Nouakchott". Note if you will that there was no mention of martial music and that the authors of this coup are still standing. Serious (if bloody) men that they are.
  • During the 2009 coup in Madagascar, there were no reports of martial music on the radio. Perhaps this is because the major beneficiary of the coup, Andry Rajoelina was then "a 34-year-old former disc-jockey". In constrast, there were suggestions about the army targeting the mobile phone networks. Everyone has gone on to condemn the Madagascar coup but Rajoelina is still sitting pretty a year on, his was a 21st century coup: he knew all about the playlist. Threaten the cell phones for sure, monitor Twitter, but don't mess with the radio programming.

I continue to ask, can't they get a better playlist? And dear readers, what constitutes a good martial music playlist? What tunes would you pick for your coup d'état? And what of this here musical theory of coups? Does it adequately model the gracenotes of African coups?

Soundtrack for this note



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Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Polyrhythmic Temptations of Erykah Badu

"What good do your words do when they can't understand you?"
The above chorus seemed to have rhetorical heft midway through Erykah Badu's recent concert at the Fox theater in Oakland. You see, she seemed about to escape the song form, en route to dissolving into a polyrhythmic ether of sorts. Just when lift-off appeared inevitable however, hip-hop brought her back to earth, then, after a short tribute to Michael Jackson, the soul returned. Standing in the audience nodding my head as I observed the proceedings, I started thinking about the relationship between artist and audience. What happens when your muse takes you off the beaten path? What concessions, if any, should one make on the one hand, and, on the other, how much should you, the audience, indulge the performer? Because it was a close run thing you know.

erykah badu finale


This polyrhythmic temptation, this polyphonic inclination, has taken up much of her last two albums. Indeed during the last two concerts I'd seen of her, there was no attempt made to coddle the audience. During the earlier one, in support of Worldwide Underground, she was in the throes of a liquid type of electronic soul music and had began drinking from the polyrhythmic fountain. During the last one - in 2008 in support of New Amerykah Part 1 - polyrhythms possessed her completely. To compound the musical dissonance further in this latter instance, she had made the mistake of following The Roots onstage - a frequently lethal decision on the best of days, and definitively so if the audience isn't ready to be a guinea pig for one's new directions. I enjoyed myself - to my ear it sounded much like a Funkadelic affair, a beautiful mess in short, but I'm not sure that everyone felt the same. For example, The Wife had some words later on - and she wasn't cooing. This past February's concert was fun and more audience friendly (the band was gearing up for the big push in support of her new album). She has pulled back, it would seem; one still wonders however.

Let it first be stated that I dig Erykah Badu, that on the strength of Baduizm and especially Mama's Gun, I will follow her to the musical ends of the earth and beyond. As we wait for the new album to be released in short order, the question most of her audience is asking is whether she will reign in the demons that she wears on her sleeves. Musically also, we're asking whether she'll submit to a sonic conception that is more recognizably song-like and whether melody and old fashioned soul singing will feature. The snarky will ask how long can a soul singer be post-song. The music these days is all riffs, beats, polyrhythms. Blame the sampler (that new accoutrement that has been accompanying her of late), blame Jay Electronica perhaps for a carnal and musical temptation. At times she seems consumed with sonic tics and mannerisms reminiscent of Michael Jackson after 1993. It's no doubt very exciting in the studio but rendered live, it can be challenging.

When someone like Giles Peterson hails her as the Nina Simone of our time, I think to myself, hey, I too am an aficionado of Sun-Ra and believe that the creator has a master plan, but which Nina Simone is he refering to? Does he mean the outsized musical talent or is he alluding to the late era eccentricity and mannered diva stylings? When Sly Stone is invoked, is it apropos her recent funk excursions or... well, let's leave the Sly comparison alone.

erykah badu vibe


Erykah Badu is self referential in the extreme and takes these kinds of cultural perceptions in her stride; she's all about multiple identities and musical schizophrenia. From Lowdown Loretta Brown to her other personas, she's a Kool Keith of sorts, presenting a hyperlinked conundrum asking you to stare at the performance while grooving with her. She demands attention and makes clear she will only do what she wants. It's the kind of creative freedom that few other artists have. It's also part of her mystique. In concert, she sheds skins, and is continually reincarnated. Costumes morph repeatedly as if to underlie that you can't pin her down, you shouldn't even try. To harken to the cautionary lyric that opened this note, I'll only add that there's a fine line between being elusive and being unapproachable. I was minded to call in Stevie Wonder and ask him to sing Have A Talk With God to her.

Let's not go too far and damn her with faint praise, Erykah Badu after all is a student of the great performers, and will jab and feint with the best of them. She remains very successful commercially even though the singles that are released now bear little relation to what you get when you buy the album. In the last album, Honey and The Healer, her tribute to J Dilla, were just about the only songs that moved the crowd and that were heard on the radio. Fair enough you may say, 'radio suckers never play me' is a refrain from Public Enemy on. She always makes sure to throw in a club banger, a unique video and moves units as the say. Who's to argue, right?

The earlier overt homages were to songsmiths: Roy Ayers, Chaka Khan, Midnight Star. These days however it appears that songs don't interest her, rather it is grooves, riffs, beats in short. She takes scraps of rhythm, drum and bass and forms sonic collages. The last two albums have been full of dense polyrhythms, loop backs, staccato effects, overlays and, crucially, very little concessions to the song form or indeed her audience.

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou The Vodoun Effect


I'm no musicologist but as an African I know all too well about polyrhythmic conceptions. The Congolese with their sebene (and the Ivoriens of late) have long prospered on these changes in their music but their inclinations are rather ecstatic. It's about the dance, the audience is constantly in mind, not so with our analog girl in a digital world. The closest analog to Erykah Badu's current game is the vodoun effect of T.P Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo de Cotonou. Think Benin. Think musical voodoo. It's the same aesthetic: funk underneath, musical mysticism, dense polyrhythms, polyphony and frequent changes. It's meant to be hypnotic at its best, I can only hope she reaches these heights as she continues to experiment. And if not, someone should hip her to Poly-Rhythmo.

A typical concert moment will have her holding up her hand, stopping the band just as they've built up a groove. "Hold up. Wait a minute." It's a tic if overused and you sometimes wonder if she can give it to you straight.

erykah badu wait a minute


When performing I Want You, it is almost a dissolve into liquid incorporality but then she pulls back and gets it together as if she has returned from a spell. There are commercial repercussions to how she handles these polyrhythmic temptations. Erykah Badu is by most measures the most popular soul singer of her generation (I'll skip her elder Sade in this comparison and ignore Amy Winehouse and Alicia Keys - call them pop). The soul crowd simply appreciates the voice and the songcraft. The hip hop crowd love her because she has genuine love for that aesthetic. She also happens to make rappers lose their minds such is her aural and sonic seduction. The bohemian are drawn to her mystical stick. All should be good if she holds it together.

erykah badu queen latifah jill scott 2005


I can recall fondly a joint tour with Jill Scott and Queen Latifah in 2005 when they appeared all-conquering in friendly competition. It is instructive to see how her contemporaries have dealt with fame. Jill crossed over into acting where her evident warmth is welcomed - her music hasn't been as strong since, but there are mutterings that she's hungry to get back on top - viz the forthcoming album and tour with Maxwell. Latifah? Well she's escaped music entirely - I was given the hard sell over Christmas about a Queen Latifah perfume.

I know I shouldn't, but I'm going to compare her to Amel Larrieux if only to contrast their live performances. Amel will joke that she is 'the queen of long endings' and I believe that this is an interesting way of dealing with having to sing the crowd favourites. She'll sing most of the song straight up and then go an excursion at the end and no one can tell where the song will wind up. This strategy allows the song to be different every time, depending on the mood of the band, the vibe of the crowd and so forth. Erykah's heart doesn't seem into her back catalog, she's experimental from the get go, the song doesn't interest her, it's more a mood that she's searching for and she'll add layers and rhythms. The result is that the audience doesn't get even the benefit of being moored to familiar ground.

erykah badu points


The new album, Return of the Ankh, is about to be released in few days. I suspect that the first singles won't sound anything like the rest of the album much in keeping with her modus operandi. Erykah Badu continues to be tempted by polyrhythms, this is not a temporary flirtation. Let's hope that she manages to navigate the tension between her muse's direction and the commercial imperative.

Erykah Badu at the Fox Theater Oakland, Friday 19 February 2010

Opening Act: Goapele

Goapele opened the show with a short set mostly of old favourites. She also introduced a slow and moody new blues: Tears on my pillow, capped off with a lovely organ solo. Oakland gave her love.

Here's my illicit footage of Goapele performing Closer.

Dave Chappelle showed up, drawing a great cheer, to introduce the main event.

dave chappelle

Setlist
  • 20 feet tall (from the new album, psychadelia itself)
  • The Healer
  • Me
  • My People
  • On and On
  • & On
  • Appletree - done as an electronic boogie joint
  • Michael Jackson medley finishing with Off the Wall
  • I Want You
  • Didn't you know
  • Love of my life
  • Hip-hop interlude:
    • Friends by Whodini
    • Lodi dodi by Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh
  • Large Professor interlude showcase for the dj
  • Bump it
  • Back in the Day (Puff)
  • Muddy Waters sounding joint
  • Other Side Of The Game
  • Soldier
  • Next Lifetime
  • Orange moon (snippet)
  • Tyrone
  • Bag Lady


Obligatory blurry photos: Erykah Badu Live

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Friday, March 12, 2010

Juicing the Books

My greatest acknowledged vice, according to two of the women most dear to me, is that I drink too much fruit juice. Rather than dwell on this marital and maternal complaint over what is surely a most benign addiction (compare the problems of keeping a fridge full of orange, pineapple and mango juice to alcoholism, the perils of nicotine, drugs, sex, or say dodging bill collectors due to gambling debts with loan sharks and their ilk), I thought that acknowledging it upfront would help explain how I worked myself into a state of righteous indignation over the following article. Well partially at least.

Tropicana Orange Juice Raising Prices

PepsiCo said it was shrinking its most popular size by about 8 percent, while maintaining its price, and raising the price on another size starting in May.

The 64-ounce container of orange juice will drop to 59 ounces. The suggested retail price will remain at $3.59. [snip]

Food and beverage makers react to changing ingredient costs by raising prices, changing products sizes or both. It is a way to protect their profit margins, and in the case of shrinking packages, offer less to shoppers so they can still buy products without having to pay more money at once.
Now far be it for me to complain about my suppliers raising prices. It's not a case of hell hath no fury like a juice lover squeezed. I do understand, after all, that the Florida winter damaged crops this year and that there's supply and demand and all that. Like Bubbles in The Wire, I accept what a working man has to do to make a living. It's all in the game right? No, what got to me was the disingenousness of the thing. That last line in the article is a prima facie lie, an attempt to disguise a price increase with weasel words. Well I started feeling like Bodie: the game is rigged.

You may recall me discoursing on The New Formula - the propensity of companies to tweak processes and often worsen their products in furtherance of the bottom line, a pathological hallmark of latter-day capitalism. I even had a case study showing how spikes in the prices of soybeans directly led to me losing out on my trusty Oil of Olay body wash as, first, the oil maleation process was removed and then, when there was nothing to be tweaked in the manufacturing process, soybeans were removed and the product was relaunched and relabeled "new and improved". Such is life right? Make lemonade when life gives you lemons.

But that was tinkering with process, now they're even messing with my lemonade. With commodities like juice, one would think that there is only so much you can do to process to wring out efficiencies. You can only pay the illegal immigrant labour force so little to harvest, even they need basic food and shelter after all. The gains from fertilizer are diminishing and runoff issues are quite literal. Even the politics of it are confusing; banana republics are expensive these days. Ecuador's going mildly 'socialist' to the dismay of old fashioned Texas businessmen. In all seriousness, the economics of modern day agriculture are fairly well studied and there's precious little slack.

pineapple


No. It's the package shrinking that gets me. The Tropicana deception, as I called it, this juicing of the books is only the latest in an interesting trend of manufacturers increasing prices but retaining the same size packaging. Bottles or containers are made more convex, given revamped designs to fill the same physical dimensions, the spouts are shaped to pour out more than previously. Throughout the sticker price remains constant in order to fool the indiscriminate consumer into thinking that they are receiving the same product.

This orange deception is the result of literal bean counting in the spirit of airline companies in the 1990s that literally started saving peanuts (reducing the number of peanuts per package distributed in flight - and these days you're lucky to even get any complimentary snacks). We're being nickeled and dimed to death. The sole concession to honesty is in the small print of the labels on supermarket shelves - the per unit price that generations of consumers had to fight for. Regulations that are often meaningless in the marketplace.

Consider liquid detergent in this vein. There is a fine interplay of fluid dynamics between the design of the spouts of modern liquid detergent bottles and the viscosity of the liquid they contain. And this is an engineering and marketing decision, when you pour, sometimes things come out faster than you expect. At other times, it is rather that you have to be quite lithe of hand to steady the bottle as you try to stop pouring - call the result excess runoff if you will to keep with the fertilizer analogue. It's a minor irritation to be sure but the net effect is to make you use more of the product than you expected, a cynical nod towards planned obsolescence. And I've experimented you know, I follow these things closely - for a couple of years I even kept a collection of old bottles of Ivory, Palmolive, Tide and the like. Results? Well each brand tweaked their bottle design and consumer convenience was never in mind.

But let's broaden the perspective here on this mania for manipulation, this drive to extract surplus value. We see this in strategies adopted in modern agriculture - or should I rather say agribusiness: piling on the fertilizer, force feeding animals substances that should alarm even the most jaded, corn everywhere, herding in crowded cages, top-ups with antibiotics when expedient and so forth. No wonder modern farms or say your local meat rendering plant are desolate places. But this imperative has broad applicability. Airline travel is now seen in its true light - convenient perhaps, but an exercise in stress and physical discomfort. The space in economy class of ye regular airline is now so circumscribed as to be cattle tested. The logic indeed is that we're only cattle. "Buy something you stupid consumer" as that poster goes.

But I can understand the perverse incentives. I know that there is a push at the end of each quarter to close deals and I've felt it wherever I've worked no matter how low up the totem pole I might rest. You don't need studies of companies manipulating earnings to consistently beat expectations to know what all this means. When we read about Lehman Brothers doing the Repo 105 dance, it is much the same attitude towards truth in advertising at work. The current encomiums to "do more with less" have their counterpart as we have seen, "sell less for more" is Pepsi's slogan. As someone who owns stock I can understand the profit imperative, as a consumer however, I know it will come back to bite me and in this case, it will bite me in the form of a 59 ounce juice container lovingly designed to fill much the same shelf space as its 64 ounce predecessor.

It's all a shell game and there are now so few scales left to fall from my eyes. I am now eagerly awaiting the new juice containers in May to add to my collection of deceptive latter day capitalist artifacts - an archive of products engineered for the express purpose of juicing the books.

Soundtrack For This Note



Anyone have any further examples of these newfangled "advances" in packaging?

Disclaimer: I should note that of late I've been mostly buying a brand of juice that is often sourced from South America (typically Brazil) rather than juice from Florida or California - I wonder if I'll return to Tropicana or Minute Maid after this fiasco - can't they have the nerve to simply increase the price? And while digressing, I should also again note that I've started to see pineapple juice from Ghana making it to the supermarket shelves in these California climes. I do applaud the wonders of distribution in this modern age. It's the packaging and advertising that gets me down. Deception innit?

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Saturday, March 06, 2010

A Kenkey Bounty

Happiness is finding kenkey in Oakland - and not just something purporting to be kenkey, but good kenkey. You hadn't realized how much you'd been missing kenkey in your life so you beamed when you saw those corn husks wrapped around those broken pieces of your heart. Call it a restorative. And then to cap it off you notice some good puna yam at the door of the store, "From Ghana", she assures you. Hey it's Ghana's independence day and what better way to celebrate. Your basket was quickly filled with the basics: kenkey, yam, sardines, tilapia, plantains, okro, palm oil, fufu powder, and the old faithful, gari. You had come perilously close to disaster but had remembered that piece of advice that they announce as the plane takes off from Kotoka International Airport: "A Ghanaian immigrant should never run out of gari"; it's like losing your soul.

One of the problems with being an immigrant is getting food from home, a problem exacerbated especially if, like me, your culinary tastes were locked in place by age 8 or thereabouts. Physical displacement can be tolerable - a cosmopolitan disposition helps, but culinary dislocation goes beyond the realm of physical to a certain level of metaphysical angst. Like nostalgia, it's almost a social disease. As that wise man said, "home is where the kelewele is".

kenkey bounty


I see it as a quality of life issue. Moreover I have a very specific notion of (my culinary) home. I could eat plantain every day (and often do) - and have been known to base my housing decisions on its availability. So the first thing to investigate when in a new town is where the "African" shop is and if my staples can be obtained. My kelewele has to be styled like Auntie Becky's in North Labone - and I've been known to come to virtual fisticuffs with other exiled souls who have the nerve to argue that it was rather 'the woman from Labone junction' who made the best kelewele in town. Good grief. Well, less said on that, I shouldn't blame you if you haven't been exposed to that slice of heavenly taste.

Fruits: mangoes, bananas and pineapples preferably from Aburi and its environs - I am a failed pineapple farmer - and more on that later. Fruits however can be substituted. Banku and kenkey are irreplaceable. When it comes to kenkey, it's Ga kenkey that is essential. I could of course learn how to make kenkey but I always demur, safe in the knowledge that I'll never reach the heights of some of the good kenkey houses in Osu or Jamestown. I believe in division of labour. Sidenote: to avert the inevitable Ga versus Fante kenkey critiques, I'll admit that Fante kenkey off the road from Cape Coast is quite the thing. Tell Mama Akos Esi (or rather, her grand-daughter who tends to skip school to mind the stand) that I sent you.

mama akos esi fante kenkey


There's probably a longer feature to be written about the "African shop" abroad that caters groceries, phone cards and serves as community bulletin board to the diasporic cohort. My experience in France is perhaps coloured by the relative lack of authentic African food stuffs where we lived; the substitutes helped but weren't sufficient and French cuisine leaves me completely indifferent to this day. In London in the 80s it was first Charlie's in St John's Wood that catered to our tastes - although Charlie's English reserve and hefty prices were a bit hard to take. Then, as the immigration wave crested, we started to see competition as Africa immigrants opened their own shops - the couple of Afro-Carribbean shops in Cricklewood made my day. Later, Ghanaians and Nigerians took over many parts of South London so that Deptford on a Saturday could be well be Kaneshie market. In New York and New Jersey, there were of course the Korean shops that were early entrants but again Ghanaians and Nigerians have now caught up and compete in the culinary marketplace with groceries and now restaurants. Boston was touch and go - the Ghana shop that I frequented moved a number of times - and even burnt down at one point. Still, I was never too far from plantain, yam, gari and kenkey. And the world was good. Slowly and surely the African culinary colonization is taking place and these days many supermarkets cater to our diaspora. Would that this trend continue.

Downtown Oakland has the Lucky Oriental Mart which, despite its title, is comprehensive in its purveyance of all manner of African and Carribean food. God bless the Filipino owners whose knowledge of our plants and foods is a thing to behold. The only gap in their coverage had been a regular supply of decent kenkey - now resolved. I do hope these soul sisters make it to the continent one day; on this Independence day, they captured my heart with a few balls of kenkey. A small thing perhaps, but I am duly sated. From here on, I only have a few fantasies to fulfill: some chichinga or grilled Guinea fowl - well a man can dream can't he? Everyone needs a taste of Africa.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Black Sheep

Every feel unwanted? Ever feel like a pariah? What if your country starts disappearing from the global zeitgeist? When, I wonder, did Ghana start to fade from view? All right, let's get concrete here. Try this on your iPod Touch or iPhone (I was given a first generation iPod touch - now running iPhone OS 3.1.2 - a while back as a kind of consolation prize when my job seemed in doubt - but I shouldn't digress about the pathologies of corporate America). Anyway, where was I? Yes, take your i-something, open the Contacts App, create a new contact and add a new address. Alternatively just try to edit an existing address. Now try to change the country field to Ghana. Note, if you will, the result: Ghana is not in the list of countries. Search under "Africa (Western)" and you'll see nary a trace of Ghana. Heck, look through the entire list of countries and realize that we didn't make the cut. Ghana is not a country in the eyes of Apple.

ipod touch country list bug: Ghana must go


I came across this issue over Christmas when I was home and trying to enter new addresses in this, my conflicted glorified organizer thingimijig. It's just a bug of course, and presumably if I complain loudly enough or write up a bug report against Apple, it will get fixed. Whoever wrote the Contacts app is certainly not trying to whitewash Ghana from history. They just don't have many Ghanaians using iPhones, nor indeed testing the feature hence the omission slipped through the cracks, embarrassing as it may be. Moreover I've been on the other side of the fence, producing software that at times has been seized upon for subtle local insensitivity. I've even written in the past about the cultural difficulties that any piece of technology can elicit so I won't be calling for boycotts or apologia.

But wait, there's more. It seems that Ghana has been disappearing left, right and center from dropdowns and country selection boxes all over the web. I keep coming across this kind of ethnic cleansing in my browsing. Who decided that Ghana must go? It is one thing to be a literal exiled soul, a man of many countries but no home, but it's adding insult to injury to be cast into virtual exile. What gives? Why are form widgets all of a sudden slimming down and discarding Ghana? Why are even these fleeting elements of identity, that pleasing sight of Ghana nestled in between Germany and Gibraltar, being denied me and my countrymen. For example, in the past week I've been trying to buy gift subscriptions to some magazines for my uncles (Economist, Newsweek, New Yorker) and noticed that the online payment processors that these websites use simply don't feature Ghana in the list... go take a look: Gabon, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Gibraltar. Where did Ghana go?

new yorker country list bug


newsweek country list bug


economist country list bug


I opened an investigation into this onset of web deportations but, first, let me tell a story...

My routine, ever since 1998, has been to spend my Christmas vacation in Ghana. As a fairly dutiful engineer son this means that 24 hours or so of my vacation is spent on tech support. I either bring new computers or coax the parental unit's setup into shape. They've tended to use Windows as their operating system so, as a matter of course, I would install or renew the subscription to Norton anti-virus or some software firewall or other, paying penance to the insecurity of the Microsoft ecosystem. Since 2005 however, I have been unable to renew the subscription with Symantec from Ghana. It's the usual thing, any credit card transaction from a Ghanaian or Nigerian IP address would fail silently with only a cryptic error message. I had a US billing address and yet my transaction would keep getting denied.

After repeated instances of this, I eventually worked out that the payment processor that Symantec uses had declared Ghana a nation non grata. Thus for the past 5 years, I would renew the subscription when I returned to the United States, or by using the corporate VPN (back when I was actually foolish enough to take a work computer with me on vacation) in effect pretending to be in the USA. Sidenote: the other alternative that most Ghanaians take is to simply install bootleg software or some open source or more wallet-friendly package (virtually no one actually pays Microsoft or other vendors for their wares).

Containers: cybercafe


Ghanaians have great difficulty using credit cards, PayPal, Google Checkout and the like. If we take ecommerce as one component of modern global citizenship then we are illegal aliens of sorts, and our participation is marginal at best. While remittances are a major part of our economy, we continue to pay a heavy price in all our financial transactions. Banks, wire transfer and check cashing joints salivate at the profits they make on our backs and yet the kind of routine monetary transactions that any idiot with a credit card can do in the West is a pipe dream.

The major reason of course is that a large amount of 419 scams, advance-fee schemes and outright frauds seem to emanate from our virtual lands. Payment processors tend to filter with a broad brush and their geolocation heuristics often tar almost all IP ranges from Ghana. The same story goes with spam filtering and some ISPs are known to ban entire countries arbitrarily as mitigation measure (I've seen this applied to countries like Russia, China, Korea). I have lots of Nigerian friends and their emails are often consigned to the spam folder even in GMail whose spam filtering capabilities seem to be the most discriminating. I can recall a member of the security services in Ghana quipping that two thirds of the 419 scams in the world could be stopped if police could simply round up everybody at Busy Internet and other internet cafes in Accra at the right hour. Thankfully that broad brush hasn't been applied - think of the rule of law, false positives, and Minority Report a priori censorship. Still, the actions of an unruly minority are making life difficult for us all.

Busy Internet


What is most galling now is that even our Nigerian brethren in e-criminality are on the list of countries in the above 4 cases. We have the workings of a different bug. With tongue firmly in cheek, I would say that Ghana is uniquely blacklisted. If you live in America, you expect that you won't see North Korea, Iran, Cuba or the like in your commercial browsing since sanctions and embargos pertain. Why would Ghana be in such august company?

One hypothesis, for the websites at least, is that the bug is at the level of the payment processor: Entrust, or Visa, MasterCard etc. Or perhaps our unreliable postal system is at fault. Another alternative is simply that there is a canned type of widget that is being used around the web. I know how these things work: most programmers cut and paste code when they are developing their sites, I know I do that often enough. A cursory inspection shows that the Condé Nast sites are using the jQuery toolkit, a potential source of the bug, but it could be any of the other popular toolkits, Dojo, YUI, Scriptaculous etc. These are pre-canned form widgets and one can envision that a popular tutorial site or user interface toolkit has the bug and has been widely copied.

But, what about the bug in Apple's iPhone Contacts app, one wonders? That seems like an outlier unless it too was written as a web app using much the same widgets. Does anyone have any theories on the matter?

I won't get into how Orbitz and Expedia have now followed the lead of Travelocity in removing Accra from the list of places you can book travel to - this, even though major airlines like Delta, KLM and British Airways fly there. I know that my small country doesn't warrant much attention, I know my place. But this is different, all I want to do is enter some addresses in my organizer or send my uncles some magazines. Magazines that are ostensibly a dying business won't even let me send my hard earned money to them. Someone help me, I feel like a black sheep.

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Best of 2009

Everybody likes lists so here's a list of things that moved me in 2009. I didn't blog much (a mere 5 posts - I was quite shaken) but I did leave quite a wide digital trail by compulsively tracking my consumption of various cultural artifacts - especially as I tend to make time to write mini-reviews. A cursory summary of my year: 50 books, 120 movies (blame Netflix), 10 concerts and 1 play. I remain an omnivorous consumer of the web and additionally bookmarked or shared up to 680 articles and blogposts (blame the 1099 feeds I subscribe to Google Reader) - each of these was the occasion of some pithy commentary and tags, your basic frisson de folksonomie.

Books


I read mostly novels last year and eschewed non-fiction since I haven't yet become American in my reading preferences. There was some poetry especially near the end; mostly web-based after I got interested in how poets are using the web.

Entertainments


Entertainments tend to get short shrift, dismissed as they are as guilty pleasures, yet there is something to be said to bask in the glow of literary entertainments. With hindsight, I prefer Graham Greene's self-described 'entertainments' to his serious pieces. I've resolved to increase the quotient of entertainments in my reading.
  • Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm (mini-review)
    A delightful entertainment and sublime take on a bygone era at Oxford. Compare to the best campus novels like those of Kingsley Amis and David Lodge or even more scabrous affairs like Porterhouse Blue. Satire and vicious cultural observation. Some of the dialog from the upper class twits reminded me of his Edwardian contemporary, Saki. For example,
    Are you fond of peasants? My tenantry are delightful creatures, and there is not one of them who remembers the bringing of the news of the battle of Waterloo.
    How to describe an effete English Lord in 2 sentences.
  • Comment Cuisiner Son Mari À L'Africaine by Calixthe Beyala (review)
    A novel in the form of a cookbook. A cookbook in the form of a novel. A fable in the form of a tasty barbecue. A romance spiced with flair. A delightful confection through and through, cooked with verve. A sensual read, it is also a thoroughly modern affair set in the milieu of low income housing in Paris. She was early in documenting immigrant life and prescient about the travails of exiled souls.
  • The Charlie Mortdecai trilogy by Kyril Bonfiglioli
    The three Charlie Mordecai novels, Don't Point that Thing at Me, After You with the Pistol, and Something Nasty in the Woodshed have the highest concentration of effortless wit, zingers and cultural affectation I've encountered in a long while. Who knew that the intrigues of a disreputable coward, art snob and seasoned thief would be so entertaining? The increasingly intricate plots are almost incidental - verging at times on spoofs of James Coburn spy capers which were themselves spoofs, the towering pleasures are in the asides. I want to have cocktails with Mordecai.
    My life-long study of the art of warfare has taught me that running away is certainly the most cost-effective type of fighting. It doesn't win many battles but it saves you a lot of troops. Ask any Italian general if you can catch him out of his hairnet. Or, indeed, if you can catch him at all.
    Kyril Bonfiglioli - After You with the Pistol, page 74
  • The Parker novels by Richard Stark
    Donald Westlake sadly passed away late in 2008, his alter-ego's productions are the gold standard of hard-boiled noir, spare and stripped down tales of amorality and professional crime. Luckily many are being reissued these days. The Mourner (review), The Score (review) and The Seventh were last year's comfort suites for me, variations on a heist with a relentless force of nature at the helm. Also revelatory was Darwin Cooke's graphic novel resurrecting Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter. Revenge has never been better.

Masters of Storytelling


There's nothing like letting go and putting your faith in one of these craftsmen of the tale:
  • Verre Cassé by Alain Mabanckou
    I read a lot of Mabanckou last year and an appreciation piece is sorely overdue. He is one of the best living African writers and yet few focus on him perhaps because he writes in French. Let's hope that the new translations that have began appearing remedy the situation - Broken Glass seems to be getting some buzz. Short of that, I'll become his shill. His latest, Mémoires De Porc-épic, (review) was also magisterial.
  • Moses Ascending by Samuel Selvon
    After discovering the many pleasures of Zee Edgell last year I resolved to read more Caribbean literature and, after plowing through Selected Poems by Derek Walcott, I went back to that other master of Caribbean letters, Samuel Selvon, catching up on his great creation in 1970s England. A novel packed with hilarious observations about immigrants, poor whites, Pakistanis, black power, sexual mores, the relationship with authority figures, and throughout the resilient hustle of the Caribbean immigrant.
  • The Dragon Can't Dance by Earl Lovelace (review)
    Call it a masquerade or rather a prose calypso. Wonderful social commentary on Trinidad, straight from the slum hills overlooking Port of Spain.
  • The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins (review)
    Beautiful writing, haunting characters and an unerring ear for the nuances of language. The film adaptation is a classic of tragic noir, Robert Mitchum was never better.

  • To Each His Own by Leonardo Sciascia (review)
    A sardonic lament on the corruption of the mafia. He cut out all the fat in the narrative and the result is so restrained as to be unbearable. It lingered in my mind the whole year and resonated as I watched Gomorrah. What is to be done when this malevolent thing can blight an entire society? The follow-up, The Day of the Owl (review), is if anything more menacing.

Urban Dread

  • Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas
    This one hit too close to home mainly because I know one of the barely fictionalized protagonists. Observations on race, identity and cultural anomie from the viewpoint of Boston black Americans close enough to the ivory towers to make their continuing travails and periodic falls from grace more heartrending and frustrating. An elegy for the modern strays of the world.

    Also in the same vein of urban dread, The Scholar: A West Side Story by Courttia Newland with its inner city London setting and The Turnaround by George Pelecanos who continues to mine the streets of the Washington DC area.

Heartwarming


I Do Not Come to You by Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
Young African writers are in ascendance these days. This wistful and funny study of world of the 419 scam was the best and most heartening of the lot. I never quite got to Sarah Ladipo Manyika's In Dependence or my friend Nii Ayikwei Parkes's Tail of the Blue Bird so those will have to be part of the 2010 contingent.

Theatre


The Cutting Ball's production of Ionesco's The Bald Soprano was a tonic, what with its great translation and interpretive gusto, but then you know that I love all things Ionesco.

Movies

  • In The Loop
    The best film of the year. The best adaptation of the year. The most fun of the year. A satire of the build up to the Iraq war, it hit harder than all the war movies. The Alistair Campbell character is larger than life but the entire cast shines.
  • Goodbye Solo
    Ramin Bahrani is fast becoming my favourite director; he manages to get so much out of his actors. I'm fairly sure I've been driven by a taxi driver with the same spirit as Solo (wonderfully played by Souleymane Sy Savane) in Boston. They caught the magic with this gripping meditation on life and family ties. The previous year's Chop Shop was gritty and heart-breaking.
  • Killer of Sheep
    Talking about strays of the world, how about a portrait of working class life in 1970s Los Angeles. Charles Burnett's masterpiece only received a theatrical release after 30 years. I can still hear Dinah Washington's This Bitter Earth play in the background of a hot apartment in the summertime.
  • Sin Nombre
    The most uncanny love story meets road movie meets Latin American gang life. Mesmerizing.
  • Gomorrah
    No wonder the writer, Roberto Saviano, now needs police protection; Matteo Garrone's adaptation brings stark visuals to a relentless milieu of social corruption and violence.
  • District 9
    I hope Neill Blomkamp never gets budgets ala James Cameron, his scrappy aesthetic and expedient innovations are fine by me.
  • Nuts in May, Abigail's Party
    Happy-Go-Lucky also was my top film of 2008 hence I went on a Mike Leigh spree and revisited many of his early television pieces. Fun all around.
  • Life and Nothing But
    The aftermath of the first world war is a great backdrop for a meditation on loss and love. Another Tavernier-Noiret collaboration.
  • Mapp & Lucia (series one)
    I have long loved E.F. Benson's Mapp & Lucia series, its celebration of beastly manners are economical marvels of observation. The television series didn't disappoint.

Music


I have a series called The Lost Reviews in the works so I'll simply note the high points.
And then there were the passings. Michael Jackson's death left a hole in my heart. The concert film was no consolation and the tributes barely salved the soul; the thrill is gone. Add to that the recent passings of Willie Mitchell and Teddy Pendergrass and what is a soul lover to do. Rest in peace.

Late Pass:
Kutiman's Thru You was the most creative album of the year, all the more impressive since Youtube was his orchestra and jam band. Dig it.

On to 2010. My mantra: focus and produce.

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