Thursday, September 30, 2004

At Meriel and Sozi's Wedding

abena koranteng wedding magdalene college

Abena et moi

Styling with Abena at Meriel and Sozi's wedding in Oxford a few weeks ago. I don't do tuxedos.

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Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Reading The Haitian Landscape

The grim stories from Haiti over the past couple of weeks are even more depressing than the steady drumbeat of bad news we've heard from there all year. Perhaps only genocidal Darfur, perennially shell-shocked Gaza and the West Bank, the complete disaster that is Iraq, or the parts of Sahelian Africa that are dealing with a biblical plague of locusts are comparable in the extent of desperation inflicted on the poor country. See Death Toll in Haiti Floods Rises to 1,650 or many other news stories about Hurricane Jeanne and photos to get a flavour.

True, some of the scenes from Gonaives that have emerged have even managed to make slight inroads into the solipsism of America's media; the dramatic images, of say people fighting for food or UN troops having to fire in the air to prevent looting, provide a more arresting diversion from the more orderly Florida evacuations or political navel-gazing of election season. But only for a few minutes. The media script that prevails is one that doesn't allow us to stare frontally at the abyss that is today's world. If we won't even dig into Abu Ghraib, what appeal can little Haiti have? Like the graffiti on the subway I noted proclaimed: "Buy Something, You Stupid Consumer!" That's really what it's all about in this society.

The Haitian Landscape

Still, Haiti has been a non-stop disaster all year
Floods are particularly devastating in Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, because it is almost completely deforested, leaving few roots to hold back rushing waters or mudslides. Most of the trees have been chopped down to make charcoal for cooking.

The storm came four months after devastating floods along the southern border of Haiti and neighbouring Dominican Republic. Some 1,700 bodies were recovered and 1,600 more were presumed dead.

Gonaives, the city where Haiti's declaration of independence was signed, also suffered fighting during the rebellion that led to Aristide's ouster and left an estimated 300 dead.

All this in a year supposed to be dedicated to celebrating the 200th anniversary of the country's independence from France. Haiti, the only country to launch a successful rebellion against slavery, was the world's first black republic.
In a sense this week's scenes are much like those of the Mozambiquan floods of 2000 (similarly epochal) and the woman giving birth on treetops and being rescued by helicopter. You can't ignore the human drama of the natural disaster.

Of course, the irony is that the foundation for the disaster has been man-made (albeit taking place slowly over the past century). Over the past few years, geographer, physiologist and MacArthur Foundation 'Genius', Jared Diamond, has been emphasizing the point he first made in Guns, Germs and Steel

Guns Germs and Steel

To take an example from last year, in an op-ed on Iraq in the LA Times (I can't find an online link, so this quote is from my copy), he talked about the decline of the Fertile Crescent (what we now call the Middle East and the cradle of civilization) and The erosion of Civilization
So how did Fertile Crescent peoples lose that big lead? The short answer is ecological suicide: They inadvertently destroyed the environmental resources on which their society depended. Just as the region's rise wasn't due to any special virtue of its people, its fall wasn't due to any special blindness on their part. Instead, they had the misfortune to be living in an extremely fragile environment, which, because of its low rainfall, was particularly susceptible to deforestation.

When you clear a forest in a high-rainfall tropical area, new trees grow up to a height of 15 feet within a year; in a dry area like the Fertile Crescent, regeneration is much slower. And when you add to the equation grazing by sheep and goats, new trees stand little chance. Deforestation led to soil erosion, and irrigation agriculture led to salinization, both by releasing salt buried deep in the ground and by adding salt through irrigation water. After centuries of degradation, areas of Iraq that formerly supported productive irrigation agriculture are today salt pans where nothing grows.

Once the Fertile Crescent began to decline for those environmental reasons, hostile neighbors helped speed the process. The original flow of power westward from the Fertile Crescent reversed in 330 BC, when the Macedonian army of Alexander the Great advanced eastward to conquer the eastern Mediterranean. In the Middle Ages, Mongol invaders from Central Asia destroyed Iraq's irrigation systems. After World War I, England and France dismembered the Ottoman Empire and carved out Iraq and other states as pawns of European colonial interests. As the end product of this history, the former world center of wealth, power and civilization is now poor in everything except oil. Iraq's leaders ensured that few benefits of that oil reached their people.

Iraq's decline holds a broader significance. Many other countries today face similar crippling environmental problems, including the deforestation, overgrazing, erosion and salinization that brought down the Fertile Crescent. Other countries already crippled or nearly so by such problems include Haiti, Somalia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, the Philippines and Indonesia.

You may well detect a similarity between this list of looming environmental disasters and the CIA's list of overseas trouble spots, places prone to civil wars and violent regime changes ? places to which we often end up dispatching U.S. troops. Those two lists are related by cause and effect. When environmental damage makes people economically desperate, they are likely to suffer from poor health and short life spans, blame their governments, kill each other, end up with crazy leaders and seek to immigrate illegally to more favored landscapes.
Or for a more extensive treatment in a recent take on Why Societies Collapse, consider this excerpt from a speech
If one asked an academic ecologist to name the countries in the modern world that suffer from most severe problems of environmental damage and of over-population, and if this ecologist never read the newspapers and didn't know anything about modern political problems, the ecologist would say "Well that's a no-brainer, the countries today that have ecological and populations, there are Haiti, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, the Philippines, Indonesia, Solomon Islands." Then you ask a politician who doesn't know, or a strategic planner who knows or cares nothing about ecological problems, what you see is the political tinderboxes of the modern world, the danger spots, and the politician or strategic planner would say "It's a no-brainer; Haiti, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, the Philippines, Indonesia, Solomon Islands", the same list. And that simply makes the point that countries that get into environmental trouble are likely to get into political trouble both for themselves and to cause political troubles around the world...

In trying to understand the collapses of ancient societies, I quickly realised that it's not enough to look at the inadvertent impact of humans on their environment. It's usually more complicated. Instead I've arrived at a checklist of five things that I look at to understand the collapses of societies, and in some cases all five of these things are operating. Usually several of them are.
  1. The first of these factors is environmental damage, inadvertent damage to the environment through means such as deforestation, soil erosion, salinisation, over-hunting etc.
  2. The second item on the checklist is climate change, such as cooling or increased aridity. People can hammer away at their environment and get away with it as long as the climate is benign, warm, wet, and the people are likely to get in trouble when the climate turns against them, getting colder or drier. So climate change and human environmental impact interact, not surprisingly.
  3. Still a third consideration is that one has to look at a society' s relations with hostile neighbours. Most societies have chronic hostile relations with some of their neighbours and societies may succeed in fending off those hostile neighbours for a long time. They're most likely to fail to hold off the hostile neighbours when the society itself gets weakened for environmental or any other reasons, and that's given rise for example, to the long-standing debate about the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Was the conquest by Barbarians really a fundamental cause, or was it just that Barbarians were at the frontiers of the Roman Empire for many centuries? Rome succeeded in holding them off as long as Rome was strong, and then when Rome got weakened by other things, Rome failed, and fell to the Barbarians.
  4. And similarly, we know that there were military factors in the fall of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. So relations with hostiles interacts with environmental damage and climate change. Similarly, relations with friendlies interacts. Almost all societies depend in part upon trade with neighbouring friendly societies, and if one of those friendly societies itself runs into environmental problems and collapses for environmental reasons, that collapse may then drag down their trade partners. It's something that interests us today, given that we are dependent for oil upon imports from countries that have some political stability in a fragile environment.
  5. And finally in addition to those four factors on the checklist, one always has to ask about people's cultural response. Why is it that people failed to perceive the problems developing around them, or if they perceived them, why did they fail to solve the problems that would eventually do them in? Why did some peoples perceive and recognise their problems and others not?
Soil erosion as big a problem as global warming
Societies in the past had collapsed or disappeared because of soil problems. Easter Island in the Pacific was a famous example, Prof Diamond said. Ninety per cent of the people died because of deforestation, erosion and soil depletion.

"Society ended up in cannibalism, the government was overthrown and people began pulling down each other's statues, so that is pretty serious. In another example, Pitcairn and Henderson island in the south-east Pacific, everybody ended up dead. Another example was Mayan civilisation in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico and Guatemala. Again, people survived but about 90% of the population was lost," he said.
The horrific impact of deforestation on the Haitian condition is a modern and pressing concern but some might say that Haiti was cursed from the beginning and for that we have to look at other aspects of the Haitian landscape.


Slavery throughout the Caribbean was awful but nowhere worse than in Haiti where colonists gave vent to the full flowering of racism and raw brutality, plumbing the depths of institutional degradation and humiliation. The legendary violence in Port-Au-Price and its environs still reverberates. If issues of race and its legacy still consume the US, imagine what it must be like where slavery received its highest formulations.

L'esclave vieil homme et le molosse by Patrick Chamoiseau

Patrick Chamoiseau

Patrick Chamoiseau hails from, and writes about, Martinique but this little fable about the old slave who decides to flee the cruel master and the huge mastiff that pursues him applies equally well to Haiti. This story is akin to Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and The Sea, written as a universal tale, in the exuberant voice of Creole. Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories is written in a similar tone although this time targeted at younger audiences.

Chamoiseau normally writes about life in the slum (see Texaco), and about oral history, language and modern-day griots (see Solibo Magnificent), in a stylized language that is neither french nor creole but its own invention. This short book is a departure for him and allows him to focus on the essence of the caribbean experience of slavery and less on the style. His Creole Folktales are more explicitly idealized.

Here both the language and the story are simple, drawn with broad strokes and the effect is dreamlike with sometimes astonishing details catching your attention. The master's huge dog that had demoralized all other fugitives into submission. The old slave that no one ever thought would flee, has spent his life caring for the family and the plantation. The master's rigid discipline over his domain, a firm and sometimes cruel hand - but only when necessary. The chase drawing these three characters further and further into the forest. It is a stripped-down journey of 150 pages that leaves you wanting to discover all you can about this living history that is the legacy of slavery in the Caribbean.


Voodoo too looms large in the popular imagination of Haiti. In music, we can look in recent years to D'Angelo's Voodoo album and its photos of bare-chested dancers in circles and chicken feathers floating in the air presumably about to be sacrificed. The music too is slow and mysterious, tilted towards New Orleans and Haitian Vodun and punctuated with occasional shrieks and sound effects providing ambiance. My favourite album of the past decade.
D&Angelo Voodoo

As I've mentioned before, my neighbourhood's Haitian grocery is regarded with suspicion as a sort of Voodoo emporium. You wouldn't expect this given the large population of Haitians in metropolitan Boston and the large number of christian churches that they dominate still the perception of a primitive and nativist voodoo culture informs the haitian landscape.

James Bond

In movies too, Haitian voodoo is an ongoing motif. Take the James Bond staple, Live and Let Die James Bond battling voodoo cultist and drug dealer, Yaphet Kotto, whose hold over the card reading Jane Seymour character, Solitaire, is organic and vaguely sinister - one of Ian Fleming's best novels if an ordinary Bond film.

Angel Heart

Or that great B-movie, Angel Heart starring my first crush Lisa Bonet and Mikey Rourke with its dark sounds, dances and atmospheric pathos and sense of dread.

Toussaint L'Overture and the Slave Rebellion

Toussaint L'Overture is the most striking figure in Haiti's history - a former slave who practiced herbal and African healing, although he was not a Voodoo houngan. He was the most forceful, astute and successful of the generals who led the slave uprising that lead to the founding of Haiti's Republic challenging the French (even scaring Napoleon), the Spanish, and the mulattos. His story is tragic, abolishing slavery and founding the "First Black Republic (tm)" and dying in captivity in the Fort de Joux in Doubs, betrayed by everyone.

All Souls's Rising by Madison Smartt Bell

Madison Smartt Bell

Master of the Crossroads by Madison Smartt Bell

Master of the Crossroads

The first two parts of Madison Smartt Bell's masterpiece trilogy on revolutionary Haiti cover much of Toussaint and Haiti's story. I can't say enough about the achievement of these novels and am eagerly awaiting the final part due in November 2004. He displays astounding historical imagination in exploring the rich intricacies of the period. The expansive set of characters that we follow in this disturbing and violent tragedy is a sort of greek chorus. The conscience of the story, the good Doctor Antoine Hébert is mostly powerless in the face of the epic events that are taking place yet he tries to maintain his humanity all the while observing the great men and the small people who have to live with the decisions. We see Toussaint gaining tactical awareness and power and all the various forces at work: the colonists trying to keep their plantations, France in revolution and mostly the various factions of the slaves in revolt, the landed mulattos fighting to preserve their middle ground much like the 'coloreds' in modern day South Africa.

At the end of Master of the Crossroads, that "carefully drawn road map through hell", Smartt Bell reproduces a great document from his archival research: the "Classification of Races in colonial Saint Domingue" with the 210 different hues of humankind listed according to the amount of black blood - a five pages tribute to how deeply engrained this institution was. A sample:
I. Combinaisons du Blanc.

D'Un Blanc et d'une Négresse, vient... un Mulâtre.
D'Un Blanc et d'une Mulâtresse... Quarteron.
D'Un Blanc et d'une Quarteron... Métis.
D'Un Blanc et d'une Métive... Marmelouque.
D'Un Blanc et d'une Marmelouque... Quateronné.
D'Un Blanc et d'une Quateronnée... Sang-mêle.
D'Un Blanc et d'une Sang-mêlée... Sang-mêle, qui s'approche continuellement du Blanc.
D'Un Blanc et d'une Marabou... Quateron.
D'Un Blanc et d'une Griffonne... Quateron.
D'Un Blanc et d'une Sacatra... Quateron.
Faulty biology may account for this emphasis on mixed blood - the Sang-mêle quoted above, but this skewed and awful dislocation of race writ-large continues to haunt that society to this day. You can imagine old society ladies evaluating new parvenues according to this code.

The Kingdom of this World - by Alejo Carpentier

Alejo Carpentier

Alejo Carpentier's novel delves deeply into the lurid and lugubrious depths of the years after Haiti's liberation from francophone colonial rule under the black king, Henri-Christophe. This was an era of chaotic, brutal, and horrific atrocities that gave full vent to the casual cruelty of the races. The writing is hallucinatory and surreal which suits the violent period he is covering. I suppose this is what magic realism is all about. We follow the events through the eyes of the old slave, Ti-Noel, a stoic guide to the Dante-esque corruption and superstition that ensues. The heights of sexual loathing and racial hatred are also emphasized here. Power and corruption are absolute.

Papa Doc and Les Tonton Macoute

The Comedians by Graham Greene

The Comedians

Graham Greene's 1966 novel deals with the macabre and grotesque era of "Papa Doc" Duvalier (1957-1986) that would carry on like a vicious hereditary disease under his son "Baby Doc" who now lives a life of comfort in exile in France. Haiti has never escaped social and political upheaval and here it's dictatorship as a theatre of the absurd, of pockets of arbitrary and savage violence erupting at will across the populace. As his author's introduction notes:
Poor Haiti itself and the character of Doctor Duvalier's rule are not invented, the latter not even blackened for dramatic effect. The Tonton Macoute are full of men more evil than Concasseur; the interrupted funeral is drawn from fact; many a Joseph limps the streets of Port-au-Prince after his spell of torture, and though I have never met the young Philopot, I have met guerillas as courageous and as ill-trained in that former lunatic asylum near Santo Domingo. Only in Santo Domingo have things changed since I began this book - for the worse.
Featuring an expatriate hotelier Brown, whose jaded, seen-it-all sensibility can't prevent him from getting embroiled in a doomed anti-Duvalier plot. This is not one of Greene's 'Entertainments' although there are elements of farce and how could it be? The subject matter of Haiti defies even tragicomedy. Incidentally for a very knowing look at Graham Greene see the following review: Sinner Take All - Graham Greene.

I haven't read much of the more modern fiction on Haiti. I have Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory lying around somewhere, its Oprah's Book Club label insistently staring at me. I suppose I should really read more than the first 5 pages but it looks like one of those difficult reads. Maybe later.

For now though, the eight families (light skinned) who own almost all of Haiti are happy to continue living in their paradise, shopping in the best department stores in Miami and Paris. Hell I met a number of their offspring at Harvard, bright, cultured and highly recherché in their intellectual outlook - much resented by some of the more common Haitian stock, I might add. I wonder about that resentment though: no one ever willingly gives up privilege. For the rest of the country I suppose it's mostly your garden variety third-world drudgery: a wellspring of ecological hell, cocktails of charcoal, asbestos and cheap plastic Chinese imports, albeit washed down with sprinklings of CNN, the BBC, the latest Hollywood bootleg dvds, Brazillian football and global hip-hop and reggae.

If Jean-Bertrand Aristide, eventually aided by a reluctant Clinton, brought a promise of change and restoration to Haiti in the 1990s, the result a decade later is clearly disappointing if not disastrous as he too is now in ignimonious exile and Haiti is in the news again as a poor desperado. His journey from priest to president to exile (twice) and the historical parallels are begging for a couple of novels or at least a movie.

In the world of art, it is easy to dwell on blood-soaked despair and Haiti gives much material for this vein. In the real world of Haiti however, we should always remember that there are simply people trying to get on with it under very trying circumstances. Reading the Haitian landscape is only part of the puzzle, a very proud and capable people stare back at you exuberant and expectant.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Check Your Pockets. Check Your Bags.

The next time you leave a room/plane/house, check your pockets and check your bags.

The next time there's an announcement advising you to check for your belongings be it on bus/train/plane, listen to it and check your belongings.

The next time someone asks you if you're sure you haven't forgotten something, listen to them and check that you haven't forgotten that thing. This is especially true if the person is "The Girlfriend", Mum, Dad, Grandma, or sibling - they seem have a sixth sense about these things. Check your pockets again.

It doesn't matter whether you're jet-lagged, tired or irritated by a flight delayed for 5 hours, wanting to head home or escape from the plane, from the tedious meeting or from that person who's been getting on your nerves. Check your bags.

It doesn't matter that you looked at the bag five mintues ago. It doesn't matter that you are feeling little superior and efficient today and don't want to appear like a tottering, doting old so-and-so. Check your bags.

It doesn't matter that you're a little uncomfortable in the heat, or cold and needing a sweater, or hungover, or that your stomach is given you fits. Or tired and out of sorts. Check your pockets. Make sure you have that key.

It doesn't matter that you're happy (she kissed you!), that you're sad, that your mind is on other things (work, work, work), a missing relative, a financial matter or perhaps a health issue. Check your pockets. Check your bags nevertheless.

Am I getting through? Or is this too much repetition?

Really, do take the time to check around. It won't even matter if you get a reputation for being late. Showing up is everything and you can smile and charm your way through that. That minor friction is part-and-parcel of interaction in human society. People will find something to complain about in any case.

If you don't, know that there's nothing worse than that instant when you realize that you've left something behind. If you're lucky, you'll be close to that place you left your belongings and will be a little sheepish. And that is the best case.

If you're not, then you'll be cursing yourself. You'll be scrambling, running after the taxi who's speeding off for better fares. Phrases like "arrant stupidity" will be floating in your dreams for the next few days. You'll be out of sorts for even longer.

You won't spend a week second guessing yourself wondering if you are going soft. Did you leave it in the cab? Was it in the plane? Or somewhere in the airport. You'll spend a week being bounced from agency to agency dealing with officious and overworked people who couldn't care less about your trinket. You'll be in voice mail hell, leaving hopeful messages that you know deep down no one will listen to.

Thus two weeks ago I spent a whole night screaming "Idiot. Idiot. Idiot" over and over again after I left my bag on the Virgin Atlantic plane bringing me back from a London escapade. I was so depressed that I didn't write for ten days a week, so disgusted with myself that everything suffered. I had lost that priceless notebook, you know the one I'd been carrying around for 5 years now, the one with the 30 pages of the novel, you know, with those 30 pages that I hadn't printed out or transcribed since I still mostly write longhand.

I'm sure you all have occasions where you've lost something important. For me it's getting worse as I grow older and I've had 3 occasions in the past year

  1. After a weekend in New York, I somehow lost my home keys. I suspect they fell out of my pocket. I only discovered the loss as I tried to open my front door.
  2. On the next trip to New York barely two weeks later, I lost my wallet. Losing credit cards, cash and various IDs, I had just enough coins on me to call home and get a subway token. I visions of trying to walk from mid-Manhattan to Roosevelt island. Luckily for me, I had removed my social security card which I had needed to carry the previous day. Sidenote: I got very worried about identity theft six months later when I started receiving financial statements for someone with an arabic name, Youssouf something or other (post 9-11 paranoia or was it the Cat Stevens clone Homeland Security is looking for?).
  3. the aforementioned bag left on the plane
To compensate for my growing forgetfulness, I've fallen into the comfort of routines - obviously these routines didn't prevent this past panic but I'd been fine for almost a year. I've become a firm believer in the Save Lots of Copies Everywhere (SLOCE) redundancy approach. I stash away emergency money, have duplicate keys, back up my data on various computers, give emergency records to relatives etc. But this can only go so far: there's always that item that isn't backed up - my notebook in this last case.

In addition to embracing routine, I've take to reducing the number of things that I own and carry around such as keys, striving for a certain zen, the essence of life.

The good thing this time is that the redundancy did pay off, I did have spare house keys, cash and could more-or-less function.

I suppose I should add 2 more occasions to the list:
  • My cousin lent me his cell phone, which I promptly left somewhere an hour later. This I blame on the fact that I haven't gotten a cell phone yet so it's not part of my routine
  • A week ago, when it became clear that no kind soul was going to return my bag, I bought a new replacement bag and again promptly forgot it in a restaurant just an hour later. My only justification is that the bag was empty but this was troubling
In any case this just goes to show that it is very easy to lose things given the amount of things one has to keep track of these days. Perhaps, the old folks have it right: developing a routine is the way to go. They say that if you do something 17 times in a row, it has a good chance of becoming second nature. Joy in Repetition as it were. And so I soldier on.

Luckily in this case the parable has a nice ending. After a week of phone and email harrassment of Virgin Atlantic, Logan Airport baggage services, the State Police, and the Transportation and Safety Administration, I got a call informing me that my bag had been turned in. I rushed to the baggage service office and was so grateful that my precious notebook had been found that I didn't complain that the cd player and some cash had been quietly lifted by someone with sticky fingers in the chain of people who had handled the bag. I had resigned myself to the loss of everything and hell, they even helpfully left the headphones and the carrying case.

So again please check your pockets. Check your bags.

And check out this BBC story Bags of Money: Handbags Spill Secrets of their Worth

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Wednesday, September 22, 2004

The Toli Music Awards 2004

So the September 30th deadline for Grammy nominations is fast approaching and it's time to review the music class of 2004. We'll exclude Lauryn Hill and the Fugees who couldn't get their act together on time (or maybe their marketing teams decided for a Christmas push); similarly the word is that Omar has just completed his new album and previewed the first track on Giles Peterson's show last week but that will be next year's campaign. Unfortunately too, it looks like D'Angelo's creative block will extend for at least another year as he's fast approaching Michael Jackson like minimalist hermetism (5 years between albums?)

Before I give my liner notes though, a reminder of last year's picks:

On to the short list of contestants

As others have noted, the big musical meme this year was "The Return of Prince" (see this piece also), he performed at the Grammys with Beyonce, did the most mind-tingingly explosive guitar solo at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame where he was inducted, released the 20th anniversary edition of the Purple Rain movie, toned down the 'difficult' stuff, seemed comfortable in his shell and with married life, not to mention that he had the the best tour (probably also the most lucrative this year) where he played a lot of guitar, emphasizing the pop-rock side of his work instead of the Fender-Rhodes soul, jazz/funk stylings and Jehovah's Witness' zeal of 2001's The Rainbow Children. More importantly he produced the kind of stripped down one-man-band album that he hadn't released in a long while.

Musicology has a bunch of perfectly constructed songs: the title track is prototypical James Brown, Sly Stone and Bootsy Collins, Reflection - unhurried acoustic guitar. What do you want me to do - a little perfect pop song like he used to throw out with ease (see The Ballad of Dorothy Parker, Pop Life or Raspberry Beret). Once D'Angelo's Untitled (How does it feel) reminded everyone of the kind of lush ballads that Prince used to produce, His Royal Badness needed a comeback and "Call My Name" fits the bill. On the Couch - a hilarious blues like "If I had a Harem" that he performed during the Lovesexy tour. And for me, Dear Mr Man is akin to Sign O' The Times, social commentary with a funky beat. A great album if somewhat nostalgic: like he says on the title track:
"Don’t U miss the feeling music gave U /Back in the day?"

I've already gushed at length on Amel Larrieux's live performance. Suffice to say that her album, Bravebird, is similarly artful. A dozen hypnotic and personal songs about family and love. Soul, hip-hop, jazz, folk, classical and even middle-eastern influences infuse this album with such style. The ballads are lush (Beyond), it's very danceable (Brave Bird, Sacred) and head-nod-dable (Congo - ) and the beats are ethereal. If Tricky had a case of Pre-Millenium Tension, then tracks like Giving Something Up and Say You Want it All are a case of Post-Industrial angst for the 21st century. Timbaland, Missy Elliot and the Neptunes can step aside, this is how it's done: spare, naked funk, with some trumpets floating in and out punctuating the point and the voice as an instrument inside, over and under the track. Omar's Best By Far was the last album that got me as excited and that is saying much. The peaks and valleys are in the right place, there's wonderful vocals and it is all grounded in soul and a personal musical vision - these are auteurs. All in all, a very powerful and emotional outing.

The Tipping Point is not a typical Roots album and purists might prefer Things Fall Apart which had a looser feel or Phrenology which was more experimental.

This has to do with the way it was recorded: first, weeks of jam sessions with a whole host of artists they enjoy and respect and then studio recreations of the best bits - a process that might mean something gets lost. Also as a band, they decided to showcase lead MC, Black Thought, who wasnt' getting the kudos he undoubtedly deserved rather than the normal hip-hop band 'feel' they are known for. My own feeling (see my longer review) was that this approach was inspired and a great success.

They've certainly hit a groove. It's like Prince circa 1986-7 when the Miles Davis horns came into his arrangements on the Parade. They've done the kiss-off album (Phrenology as Around the World in a Day) to throw off fairweather fans. They are now going for the vituousic and this works perfectly. Could a Sign O' The Times be in the offing next?

I suspect that this will be the album the critics will latch to and for good reason. It's a strong sophomore return from "Jilly from Philly". The subtitle is "Words and Sounds Volume 2" but there is less overt poetry than in the first album.

I saw her live in early 2000, months before she blew up and crossed-over to the big leagues. The show, at lowly Avalon, was a revelation and personal affair, think Prince at First Avenue as he previewed the tracks from Purple Rain in early 1984 just before the hysteria broke out. It was basically grungy college students and a lucky few who had heard the word. Six months later, the venue had changed, she sold out the Fleetcenter Pavillion. The black bourgeoisie was out in full effect to support their girl and this was a capitalized Event. She'd also crossed over and so Boston's finest were on display. Soccer moms felt comfortable dropping Jenny and Biff off to listen to our Jill. It was a celebration but less personal.

She still strives to maintain that unassuming girl-next-door feel but I suspect she can't quite resist the larger-than-life Diva pose when she takes charge of audiences these days. Who can blame her if both audience and record company canonize you as "The Real Deal (tm)".

About the music. First, the remixers are going to have a field day. This is the soul equivalent of Jay-Z's Black Album: there's something for everyone and you can take it in any direction. She is a very stylized vocalist, striving to make each song feel different and unlike much of the cookie-cutter "R&B" you hear on the radio. For example, on last year's collaboration with Common on I am Music and Heaven Somewhere she was sounding like Portishead's Beth Gibbons while the other divas (e.g. Mary J. Blige) were standard soul.

She keeps the same production team, A Touch of Jazz and James Poyser, who lay down great backing tracks for her to play with. She's now married and very happy with that; it shows in the writing and the confident, celebratory feel of the album. Also note that she's still obsessed with food; I guess an album without a mention of grits would be out of the question

The standouts: I'm Not Afraid - a female manifesto with some vicous beats. Bedda at Home will destroy any dancefloor and make homeboy exclaim: "That's what I'm talking about!!" as he jiggles his butt. Family Reunion - perfectly captures the late summer barbecue feel and would have been this summer's jam if she'd gotten the album out earlier. This is bravura songwriting and a great performance.

Van Hunt has given us such a lovely soul album. It reminds me of Bobby Womack, Al Green and Curtis Mayfield with a twist of Sly Stone. I guess amongst his contemporaries you'd have to put him alongside Dwele, Donnie, Tony! Toni! Tone!, Lenny Kravitz, Maxwell, and Rashaan Patterson. I mention all of these names to give an idea of the caliber of the man. Supremely confident, Van Hunt writes and produces himself ala Tony Rich Project. He's Down Here in Hell (With You) is a beautiful, beautiful song; you feel you've grown up with this song. Similarly with Her December or Anything (to get your attention) which are genius. The craft in the song-writing and arrangements is evident as in the lazy and plaintive blues stroll of Seconds of Pleasure or Who will Love me in Winter. The voice sometimes tends to the falsetto. There's also a rock tinge that keeps you on your toes: this isn't your garden variety R&B, this is soul music, grown-folks music, the stuff that you listen to late nights in Q's Jook Joint with your honey and some good friends, the soundtrack of laughs, friendship and love. He's the real deal, I definitely want to see him live.

I'll always throw in some UK soul into the mix. This is an album that will hit the States next year and will sell lots even if the record company is incompetent. Tell others that I hipped you to this before everyone got into it. The blurb:
The result of a five year search by former Fine Young Cannibals songwriter David Steele to find the perfect singer, Fried combines Steele's undeniable talents with that of 23-year old New Orleans gospel singer Jonte Short.
People will compare Jonte's voice to Macy Gray if only because it's so different from the norm. But it's nothing like Macy or Aretha Franklin or anyone else that you've heard. It's angular and it's salty and I love it. The arrangements are great, it's like a great Al Green or Sam Cooke album that your mum would be singing in the shower, or when she came home and took her shoes off. A musical massage ala Leon Ware.

Like Sade, the first lady of soul is back and it's an event. In the same way that I'll kill for a good Alexander O'Neal or Cherelle album, I run to my record store (actually its the One-Click thing) and buy an Anita Baker joint sight unseen (hearing unheard?). A decade since her last release, she comes back with ten new classics. Thankfully this is not your easy listening or smooth jazz deal, this is a real Anita Baker soul album. 'Nuff said: it's great, go buy it.

In the tradition of Fela, this New York/Nigeria Afro-beat collective bring acerbic social and political commentary (on Bush, Ashcroft, Imperialism) laced with funk, salsa and the infectious African groove. Sharp percussion and horns blend into something that grows on you immediately. 70 minutes of fun, of humour, of dance music. There are shifting beats and shifting tempos like those old highlife albums from the 50s. Musical inventiveness pervades the piece; you won't be able to sit down. About the only thing flaw is the lack of some female voices in the call and response. James Brown may have had Bobby Bland singing Git on Up, but he also knew that you needed some Memphis Soul babes in the background. Fela, Femi Kuti, not to mention Koffi Olomide tour with with electic female dancers and backing singers. It's not just eye candy or showmanship; it informs the tenor of the performance. Where are your girlfriends, fellas?

Kanye West is clearly deserving of producer of the year since he's had essentially a song in the top 10 all year writing for Twista, Dilated Peoples, Slum Village amongst others). I enjoy his sensibility and the musicial direction on the album a lot. The beats are original, the samples are well chosen, it's hip-hop grounded in gospel and the great soul singers of yore. I like the fact that a backpacker can make it to public acclaim, wearing formal jackets and as opposed to track suits or baggy pants. I like especially that a hip-hop artist (or any artist) can get get away with a Number 1 hit overtly about religion (Jesus Walks) with marching bands.

The only thing is that he just doesn't have the flow or the voice; Black Thought would massacre him in a battle. And even though he's very intelligent, I'm not one for this fake anti-intellectual pose: college dropout? Come on... Nevertheless, this album has sold a ton and has brought him much acclaim. He deserves it; it's exciting that something this focused can break out.

Having obviously seen what the Philly connection did last year for Les Nubians with whom she toured, Zap Mama go wholeheartedly for the Philadelphia production and the result is great. Collaborating with Erykah Badu, Common, Talib Kweli, Bahamadia and QuestLove of The Roots, this is essentially a Soulquarian joint, rooted in Philly. What's not to like, my favourite collective come through again. The track with Scratch (ex Roots), Wadidyusay? is acappella heaven: Congo pygmy music meets hip-hop beatbox mastery. There's less of Africa here than in the past and as in Les Nubian's masterpiece but it's a wonderful album set for much repeated listening.

Another solid, if commercial, album from Miss Mahogany Soul, much loved by all the big girls out there (if Jill Scott goes on about food, Angie is concerned with body image). I say commercial because she brings on Snoop Dogg as a guest. Still she's one of the hardest-working female vocalists. It's a long album There's very little filler but at the same time there isn't much experimentation. On the other hand, there are at least 10 songs that are club classics and dance floor bangers. And of course any album featuring Antony Hamilton and Betty Wright is all right by me. Not to damn her with faint praise though, I sometimes wish that she'd occasionally let someone else do the production and/or writing, Jam and Lewis perhaps.

Two complaints tangential to the album itself: the acoustics were horrible during her concert in Boston, in fact her opening act, Lyfe, had better acoustics which says something about her road crew and sound engineers. Second, what is it with record companies trying to copy-protect CDs especially of soul singers? First the Anthony Hamilton album and now Angie Stone. These artists need the bucks and copy protection will turn buyers away and annoy them. Anyway remember to press the shift key when you insert the cd into your computer. Just on principle, I ripped it and am sharing to the world.

What can you say about Bjork who goes acapella on this round. No instruments, just layers of voices as percussion, harmony or with some jarring squeals. Like Zap Mama too, she enlists a Philadelphia and ex-Roots Beat-box guru, Rahzel, the so-called "Godfather of Noise". Well Bjork is her own self and there is no one quite like her in pop music. Nod your head to this Icelandic ear candy.

Le funk. Gritty funk. Sweaty funk. Nasty funk. Hard funk.
I Funk. You Funk. He Funks. We Funk.
Conjugate the verb to funk please.
George Clinton would definitely tweak to this.

Give it up for Jigga for Izzo, for Hova... His last album? A retirement party for the man at the top of the game? Say it ain't so. Remixed so many times that you need Google to keep track of things (see DJ Danger Mouse's The Grey Album - Jay-Z meets The Beatles White album - or The Purple Album - Jay-Z meets Prince). This was bumping in jeeps and clubs everywhere, even in your cousin's dodgy Honda Civic. Get the Dirt of your Shoulder, ignore your 99 Problems, Change Clothes if you like. What More Can I Say.

Honorable Mentions

Dizzee Rascal - Boy in Da Corner

A hungry MC from London, voracious on the microphone. Place a Cockney accent over garage and drum and bass breaks and a street sensibility emerges. "Fix up, Look Sharp" was infectious.

The Streets - A Grand Don't Come for Free

His conversational style takes some getting used to but is a winner.

Joss Stone - The Soul Sessions.

Strictly speaking this came out last year but I only dug it recently. She does have the voice, now if they'll let her do more of her own songs. I understand a new album is in the can and hope that her promise comes through. There's so much goodwill for her plus she's a marketeer's dream: white, English voice with a voice like Marlena Shaw.

And so on to The 2004 Koranteng's Toli Music awards

Album of the year
Winner: The Roots - The Tipping Point

This would be a three-way tie by all accounts:
Prince simply because he had the best show and a decent Prince album in any year would be at the top;
Amel Larrieux because she got me excited about the possibilities of music and her album is superb;
The Roots because the five song sequence of Star, Guns are Drawn, Stay Cool, Web and Boom has to be the strongest of the year. Rendered live they took no prisoners not to mention the outtakes, Din Da daa and Melting Pot which are club gems.

Since I have to give the award, The Roots have it.

Soul album of the year
Winner: Amel Larrieux - Brave Bird

I love you Jill Scott but Amel's sophomore outing is the greater work. Be consoled that both you and Angie Stone will sell 2 million more albums than Amel...

Producer of the year
Winner: Kanye West

Well Kanye West had more hits than even the Neptunes so he gets the nod. Anyone who brings back Chaka Khan breaks and was collaborating with Rick James knows what he's doing.

Best New Artist
Tie: Fried and Van Hunt

I can't decide this one so it has to be a tie between the two self-titled debuts: Fried and Van Hunt. Perhaps, I should split this up by geography: in the United States, let's have Van Hunt, outside it should be Fried. Best Live Performance
Winner: Prince
Say no more... Even the Fleetcenter's passable acoustics couldn't deny the strength of Prince's show and the tightness of his band, The New Power Generation (Maceo Parker on saxophone, Greg Boyer on trombone, and the ever-sexy Rhonda Smith on bass and Candy Dulfer, you know "When I want sax, I call Candy", that Candy, not to mention the monstrous John Blackwell on drums, Renata with the jazz stylings on keyboards and Reverend Mike Scott sharing rhythm guitar duties). This was partying like it was 1999. Amel Larrieux lurks of course...

Other good shows: Femi Kuti (when's the next album coming?), Orchestra Baobab - a great party, Kekele (laidback Congolese Rumba) and Gladys Knight (with one Pip).

So there we have it: a comeback, some breakthroughs and lots of musical excitement to keep me spending my hard-earned Lotus cedis. Not a bad year in artistic achievement. Erykah Badu and D'Angelo what's your response?

[Crossposted at]

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Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Vibing with Abbey Lincoln

A night with the Abbey Lincoln Quintet at the Blue Note, September 4, 2004

Abbey Lincoln

So my cousin, Tei, and I were vibing with Abbey Lincoln Saturday night - so blissed out afterwards that the both of us didn't seek out any additional after-midnight New York joints and capped the night with a couple of shwarmas topped with pepper sauce, going out on a high as it were. It was a three part epic:

1. Serendipity

It was a spur of the moment thing, really: heading to the Blue Note in the Village to hear Abbey Lincoln. The long lines at PS-1 - the dance show at the MOMA earlier that night didn't augur well for much fun but when in New York, you have options. It seemed a little late for the US Open so we took the long shot and headed to the East Village. No line at the Blue Note - a good sign. We'd timed it well, arriving just as they were seating the second show. We forked out our $20 for bar seats, ordered our drinks and got ready for some jazz from the living legend.

Now mind you there was a little trepidation: when you start calling someone 'living legend', you are subconsciously wondering just how much longer she'll be living. We saw Nina Simone (Tei's favourite) on her last tour the year before she died and that was prime Diva-in-twilight stuff: raucous and rousing but sadly short. Abbey Lincoln is not that old but she was one of the great jazz voices in the fifties and that says a lot - do the math.

I've seen her twice before at Scullers in Cambridge over the years and have most of her albums. She always puts on a good show. There really should have been a third time but that turned out to be the abortive Valentine's Day date - months before "The Girlfriend" became "The Girlfriend". The first time was simply perfect. The second time was good but you begun to worry - she was forgetting a few lyrics...

She now has a quintet. James Spauling is a welcome addition on saxophone and flute - fiery stuff. Marc Cary lays down the sensitive accompaniments on the piano. Michael Bowie lays down hard bop bass and Jaz Sawyer is the drum wizard. What I like about them is that they aren't overly respectful of her; they learn from her but also challenge her every night.

She comes on to the stage with her trademark porkpie hat (echoes of Lester Young) and starts messing with the beat - a habit she shares with Billie Holiday. She works around the beat, slowing down or picking up the pace as her fancy takes her. She's never on the beat like these metronomic nouveau singers. If overdone it would be jarring, instead her artful manner excites your ear and keeps you alert. By the end she brings you back to where you expect and you're elated.

There's a grit to her voice these days. It's there even when she laughs at, or with, the overawed audience. If it was painful for some to contemplate Lady Day in her late period - with the damage of hard living showing in her voice, Abbey in autumn is a different affair. She has aged gracefully (like Sarah Vaughan) and the timbre of her voice suits the personal and almost political songs she writes. When she began writing the essential soundtrack to the civil rights movement in the 60s, she was pigeon-holed as a 'difficult' artist and her career suffered accordingly. These days though, her blues are comforting; we pretend all those issues have been resolved and are nostalgic for the good old days.

A diva at peace with her legacy, she sings the numerous standards that she wrote for herself and others, including Hey Lordy Mama which she gave to Nina Simone.
Hey Lordy Mama
I Heard You Wasn't Feeling' Good
They're Spreadin' Dirty Rumors
All Around The Neighborhood
They Say You're Mean And Evil
And Don't Know What To Do
That's The Reason That He's Gone
And Left You Black And Blue
Hey Yeah
Tell Me What You Gonna Do Now
Looking back, it is clear that she and other artists 'made' joints like the Blue Note and the Village Vanguard famous, not to mention all of these prestigious record labels they spawned. It is clear that the club owners and audiences owe her the reverence that we see. At the same time, places like the Blue Note were the proving grounds for jazz musicians - the places that made her the artist she is. And so there is this fondness flowing in both directions and a sense of playfulness and looseness with the band. But there is also a sense of electricity because she feels the need to be at her best at the Blue Note, she and the band have put on their game face.

2. The Let-down

After an hour though, the hinges start coming off.

First she forgets a lyric, looks around furtively and asks the pianist to remind her where she was. She recovers quickly though. For the next song, the band begins to build a furious groove. She begins to join in, a little tentative at first, but then says out loud: "That didn't work!" and calls for another song.

Two songs later she seems to be getting back into it but something isn't quite right, she isn't feeling it like the rest of us. And so:
"Thank you folks. I'm tired."
And she walks off the stage.

And so that was that: the temperamental diva syndrome again. Still, it was a good hour of solid if not great jazz by someone we love.

3. Redemption and Ecstasy

Or so we thought...

Ten minutes later, who should come up to the bar and sit next to us but Miss Abbey Lincoln. And that's when the vibing began as we drank and chatted for the next hour (cognac for her). With hindsight I think we were a great combination of drinking partners. I was the music lover who would pose obscure questions trying to show I had taste and knew the musicians' musicians. Tei was his usual argumentative self, prodding, teasing and flirting without commitment - crucially he made it clear upfront that Nina Simone was his thing so there was no question of adulation - something stars get too much of anyway.

Now let me tell you a few things about our close friend, Abbey Lincoln.
  • She was the 10th of 12 children.
  • Her father midwived the last 6 children at home
  • Her "real name is Anna Marie" (Woodridge). Abbey Lincoln is a stage name.
  • She was raised on a farm in Michigan. They "didn't have much growing up.. It was a hard life" (read: the family was dirt poor).
  • Her parents didn't get on towards the end. "Maybe they shouldn't have married"
And then there was the fierce discussion of marriage and human relationships.
  • "A man should have his own house."
  • "So should a woman."
  • She's not a big fan of marriage.
    "We don't need marriage."
  • She didn't think she'd take any more lovers.
    "I don't need the jealousy... Why should I be worrying about you? asking 'Where have you been? I want you to do this or do that'... Have your own place! You'll be better off."
And then there was the musical discussion:
  • I teased her that the last time I saw her, she was talking down Lena Horne. She bristled that Lena Horne was a shining star on the stage and that she would never speak ill of her. Shirley Horn on the other hand...
  • Nina Simone didn't look like a pin-up but was an outsized talent and good friend.
  • The Sarah Vaughan and Clifford Brown album was indeed a vocal milestone, like I alluded to earlier. However she thought Abbey Is Blue was better
    "And it had the same musicians!"
  • Clifford Brown died too young and Max Roach (her first husband) with whom Cliffie made legendary albums was completely devastated by the loss of his friend
  • Mal Waldron, Billie Holiday's accompanist, was one of the most sensitive men she knew. And she treasured the time they spent together and the musical lessons learned
  • Duke Ellington's encouragment was a source of strength for her.
  • Ben Webster played the most lyrical saxophone although she dug Pres more (Lester Young). Not to mention that Pres was the sharper dresser and wore the same hat as her
  • "I wasn't a peer of some of these guys [Duke, Ella, Sassy, Count Basie], but I knew them, played with them and carry their legacy... We made a joyful sound you know"
  • She identified a Stan Getz tune playing on the club sound system after barely 2 bars. "Stan Getz was a true friend. We were that close..." She later added, "We didn't screw you know... that was a good thing - a pure friendship"
We talked of the hard times for jazz artists and black artists in general and those who were forced to leave the US: Bud Powell, Sidney Bechet, Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, Josephine Baker, Nina Simone.
"And Abbey Lincoln, you know.

It was hard. My patrons were French. They're the only ones who ask you 'What do you feel like doing this time, Abbey?'"
On aging, and seeing her friends pass away one after the other:
"I don't want to be the last one... It's getting lonely, you know."
It turns out that the reason she cut the set short was that it had been too cold. They hadn't turned the air conditionning off a half hour before she came on and so she was uncomfortable and couldn't give it her all.

We also saw the perils of celebrity: the star-struck fans coming up periodically, the guys wanting advice on how to get a record deal and clasping cameraphones for the obligatory photo, the tourist: "We came all the way from France to see you. We love you Abbey. Je t'aime".

The woman from Boston who wrote a song after hearing her in Boston three years ago and who insisted on singing her vapid tune for three unbearably long minutes. Not to mention the obsequious and sycophantic club owners next to her trying to pump her up so that she would return the next night. "You're the greatest. Everything you do is success and pleasure enough. You're so wonderful". I guess the reason she liked us was that we weren't yes-men stroking her ego.

She wanted to talk about how new artists were being led astray, especially this one, Alexis something-or-other, who had been around her house and whose manager was this dirty old man. It took me almost an hour to figure out that she meant Alicia Keys.
"Oh yes, Alicia Keys. With that old man! her manager or something... He's a dinosaur! Why's he making her sing about A Woman's Worth. What does she know about struggle? When has she ever experienced loss? She's so pretty you know. Beautiful even. That man is ruining her. Let her sing what she knows".
Alicia are you listening?

But then she concluded by leaning forward conspiratorially and said "I think she (Alicia) did her hair in braids after meeting me".

Anyway, we had our drinks and got 'drunk as a skunk' over the hour, having ourselves a good old time. As we left, she hugged both of us tightly and whispered:
"Go give it to them. Go kick 'em in the ass. You guys. Really... Be strong, and go give it to them... Kick 'em in the ass"
With pleasure, Abbey. With pleasure.

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Amel Larrieux Breaking Through

All roads to good music seem to run through Philadelphia these days. This summer has seen The Roots give us The Tipping Point - virtuosic performances and the strongest album of the year (all genres), Jill Scott just dropped Beautifully Human - I'm taking a little time to fully digest that one but from my first few listens it feels like a blanket of Maze featuring Frankie Beverly and Al Green before he became a Reverend. Of late too, Bilal's album from a couple of years ago has been making a strong comeback into the playlist.

Last year's best albums, Les Nubians' One Step Forward and Roy Hargrove's The RH Factor were both soaked in Phillydom. Strictly speaking Amel Larrieux is a New Yorker but I'll argue that she does have a strong Philly connection and, in any case, her sensibility is at one with all the aforementioned artists with whom she has collaborated and toured with.

Last Thursday, Amel gave what Art Blakey used to call a "cooking session" at the Regattabar - the kind that gets your juices flowing or, to mix my metaphors, a shot across the bow, as it were. I had to travel the next day so couldn't get a repeat performance, but "The Girlfriend" reports that Friday's show was indeed all that I knew it would be and even more as word of mouth had done its duty.

It isn't often that you want to fork out your own money for two concerts in a row from the same artist. That is the measure of an inspired act, or put another way, of a cult artist, of a musician's musician like Prince. Amel Larrieux is someone who makes you want to join the street team and start handing out leaflets and posters to anyone you meet. That, I think, is a tribute to the kind of scary talent she displayed and the devastating empathy of her rhythm section.

Her first public outing in the mid-nineties was with Mantronix's Bryce Wilson on Groove Theory, a cool collaboration borne of a superb demo and the ensuing serendipity. There was a summer where "Tell Me" was played in all the clubs and house parties I attended (similarly to the way Zhane's Hey Mr DJ took off). I suspect that she got a little frustrated with the sandbox that record companies were trying to place her in and truth be told, Bryce tended towards the metronomic. Amel's vision is much wider and she's one who wants full control of the direction of her art; she has to write her own songs, do her own arrangments and put her personal stamp on the whole package.

Infinite Possibilities (2000) was her solo debut, a soulful and low-key album (think Sade meets Bjork) that probably got lost in the mix for more earthy and commercial R&B of the time. Again that's the problem: she isn't just R&B, she's more like soul by way of jazz, folk, rock and classical music. Her musical influences are diverse and her material resists easy categorization. "Get Up" was the big club hit but it was the more personal songs I kept returning to like Sweet Misery and especially the title track. I think Infinite Possiblilities sold a fair amount but nothing near what Mary J Blige, India Arie or Macy Gray sold, and she is far more talented than any of those singers. For that reason, Sony seemed to want to cut their losses. Another example of how record companies don't actually serve the artists they claim to represent and serve.

Last year she changed her record label and the label, Bliss Life, is doing a smart thing in promoting the new album, Bravebird. They recognize that she's an outsized talent who needs nurturing and they are making sure that she gets the grooming by going out on tour. That's why she's playing in the small jazz club scene. The folks who normally come out in support of artists like Cassandra Wilson will immediately see the point and start spreading the word from the grassroots. Some might see it as a shame that she isn't filling arenas, but I see it differently: the hits will undoubtedly come, spending the time to garner the "live" reputation will mean serious dollars long after Britney Spears is forgotten. Again think of Maze who never had a number one in the pop charts but will fill out the biggest theatres in DC for weeks on end.

On to the show... It was a small and intimate audience and felt like a jam session with friends and family. It was also one of the most exciting concerts I've attended all year (second only to Prince, but then who can top Prince?). The band came out and locked into a groove immediately, playing a few of her first hits. Simple arrangements: funky hip-hop drum, some Bill Evans stylings on the grand piano and a Stanley Clarke bass. After 15 or so minutes she sidled up quietly, hit the first note and never looked back. Her new songs are hypnotic and ethereal (made me regret not having snapped it up when it came out) and she re-imagined the songs from her first two albums. The live renderings give a full picture of Amel Larrieux's varied world.

Her voice is not an earthy voice, it's slight and higher-pitched, perhaps reaching towards the Minnie Riperton range. It's finely controlled and she has great technique; she wouldn't be out of place in a Jazz Academy. But the music is soul, she's just a soul singer. Her vocal approach reminds me of Abbey Lincoln, Rachelle Ferrelle when she lets her hair down, Betty Carter, and even Sarah Vaughn - yes I mean it. She swoops, scats and takes you on excursions. The song, as you remember it from the album, is only a prelude to an extended jam that deconstructs the beat ala Sun Ra. She jokingly recalled that a critic had called her "The Queen of Long Endings" but she revelled in it. And I appreciated it, I went along with her. That's what a live show should be like: we don't want the studio vinyl or just the radio-friendly jam.

And the band. What a band. Three guys who listen closely to her and each other: the essence of a jazz, hip-hop, funk, soulful, classical, basically-nasty rhythm section. Think The Roots meet the Ahmad Jamal Trio by way of Earth Wind and Fire and Debussy. They are just in a zone right now; no fat, no preservatives and just great empathy bringing out the best in her.

On the basis of last night, even Jill Scott, Angie Stone and Erykah Badu aren't quite cutting it. And as for the Alicia Keys or India Aries out there, well they're not even on the same planet as Amel Larrieux. Buy her album tomorrow or, better yet, run to see her live, she's that good.

[A year later]

Sunday Night with Amel Larrieux

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Friday, September 03, 2004

Inman Square Still Life

Inman Square is a little patch of urban anomie within walking distance of where I live in Cambridge. Unlike that other nearby paragon of urban blight, Central Square, it isn't much to talk about. No one has written eloquently words like the following:

In the face of yuppies' plans and transients' dreams, the poor and affluent alike strive for change while Boston's Central Square finds its own purpose for them all... Any big city offers its inhabitants both magic and mayhem... a haphazard mixture of therapy and activism to thwart inner-city depersonalization... Central Square... this hauntingly rendered hibernal wasteland...
Not quite. Inman Square is the stuff of blog entries; no poems or novels here, no Thoreau, no Wordsworth not even a Packer to chronicle the lives of its denizens in these environs.

Herewith some observations from last afternoon's tableau vivant.

First start with the name. Inman Square is a misnomer at best. There is no "Square" per sé, unless you count the little concrete patch where Cambridge Public Works have been storing their building materials for the incessant construction on Cambridge Street over the past 3 years.

It should more properly be called Inman Cross with 10 different streams of traffic crossing, nay colliding, in its unruly center. It is a nightmare of uncertainty for pedestrians; one of the worst in pedestrian-unfriendly Boston. The only thing preventing monthly carnage amidst the disorder being the poor quality of the roads. The drivers' muscle memory anticipating the obligatory encrusted potholes where Cambridge Street meets Beacon Street, meets Inman St, meets Hampshire St, meets Antrim St, meets Springfield St.

Inman Square is just a block off from where Cambridge encounters Somerville at Line Street but the Square proudly clings to the cantabrigian postal code. Well proud is perhaps too strong a sentiment...

The last apartment I viewed before I found my present nest was just above a storefront on the Square. It was a most dingy and seamy affair, perhaps the worst rathole I had seen in my 6 months of apartment hunting. Its Indonesian students knowingly eyed me; they had finally saved enough money to move to a better place. I must have appeared as the desperate immigrant fresh off the boat - desperate because I was inspecting their crumbs of the American Dream. The realtor actually didn't blink as we stepped over the holes in the stairs leading up to it, nor was there any comment on the 70's decor - corduroy on the wood paneling?!! - the leaking toilet, the musty smell of the mid-summer heat, nor even the exposed asbestos in the alarmingly-wide hole in the bedroom ceiling. I soaked all this in as I listened to her blathering on about what a nice neighbourhood this was. She capped it by naming the price: $900/month, heat not included !!! (in 1996?) I replied that I would take the last place she had shown me...

I suspect, in retrospect, that this was a wonderful sales tactic: show an apartment you've been having trouble pushing, listen to the equivocations and then show them their worst nightmare and say it costs more than than the previous one.

Across from Cambridge Savings Bank at the Quick Food Mart, the "Indian" storekeeper wields his weapons: a hose and a plastic brush, and tries to scrub the recent graffiti off the side wall. Actually I think he's Bengali (or are they rather called Bangladeshi?) but anyone of his complexion is "Indian" in American. Well why not? After all, in America if you have a drop of 'black' blood, you're black aren't you?

Next to it is the proletarian's friend, Punjabi Dhaba, "arguably Boston's most economical Indian restaurant", a chop bar par excellence, that has outpaced Akbar India, that other low rent joint just a block away. Cheap eats for hungry students served in utilitarian prison-ware. You could climb upstairs and enjoy the view overlooking the square: they used to have Christmas lights on last summer, it gave flavour to the whole thing but they cut down some of the trees this spring and the lights are gone. The Dhaba is busy: authentic cuisine always wins out, especially when it's dirt cheap.

There is another "Indian" grocery a few doors down (Pakistani-run this one - no name that I can gather); the competition between the two keeps the prices down, all the better for the student population. This one specializes in lottery tickets and a sign proclaims that they had a grand prize winner of mega-millions - hmm, is that truth in advertising? But more important, I think, are the dvds they sell - especially the 'special' ones you can get from behind the counter (read: some of the most varied porn you can find this side of a grimy sex shop). Mom-and-pop shops being good capitalists as it were.

The "Irish" drunks are early today, it's noon on the Thursday before Labor Day I suppose, and five or six of them are overflowing from the Druid Pub leaning against its washed out green walls. Football season has started and noontime Guinness washes things down swimmingly. It's a hot day, their swagger befits the weather...

Next door Austin Antiques sells the kind of things that wouldn't be out of place in the 'Jews for Jesus' outlet in North Cambridge - dark, vintage furniture, cabinets made with a long-lamented craft - we only have Chinese plywood these days. Same thing with the nameless vintage clothing shop where you can get some musty and frankly outré dresses from the fifties or even the early parts of the 20th century. The Indian shopkeepers are a bit more industrious and professional than these Cambridge natives for whom these shops are little more a hobby. There's a vision of growth and progress in them that has escaped the defeatist Inman Square born-and-bred types.

At the Zeitgeist Gallery there's "Yo! What Happened To Peace?" - a Traveling Exhibition of Peace & Anti-War Posters. I should check it out sometime; its a clear reminder that I live in the People's Republic of Cambridge, where good old Massachusetts liberals mix with peaceniks, anarchists libertarians and frank Marxists. The local Trotskyite office is just a few blocks away.

The funeral home is next to the law office. In actuality the buildings almost seem to merge into each other. It is right that they are a package deal. After the lawyers get their cut, you can get buried in style.

Like Sisyphus, the grocer scrubs... this never-ending exertion is repeated perhaps monthly, and sometimes daily, depending on how annoying the local teenagers decide to be. Interestingly, some of the other establishments have given up on cleaning up the graffiti. Take for example that surprisingly expensive Mexican restaurant on the other side. Haven't they heard of the Broken Window theory? And how can they justify their prices when their outside walls have teenaged angst scrawled over them. Regardless, he sprays, scrubs, sprays and scrubs, scrubs and sprays... Half an hour goes by and there still lingers a faint trace of the latest screeds.

There's a group of teenagers who observe him, smirking. Perhaps they were the nocturnal sprayers? One of them is wearing a pair of brown gloves (in this weather?) and sports a big zit - a blend of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Pinocchio. The rest have your garden-variety acne, black spots basically. They're bored. And the fun they've been having doing the earphone shuffle sharing tunes from their iPods is getting a little old. They all spontaneously break out the cell phones and begin text-messaging friends trying to find the next place to hang out.

If Indian restaurants are bargain basements that will do anything for your dollar, per contra, there are local restaurants like the S&S Deli that still don't take credit cards. Similarly, the clothes shops, the antiques looteries, and that curious toy shop, Stellabella, are all strictly cash affairs.

Legal Seafoods started out in Inman Square; similarly Jaes' first restaurant was in the square, but these have flown to better pastures and restaurant-chain fame; there's no reminder of this in The Square. The Square suffers from being a no-man's land midway between Harvard Square and Kendall Square, too far from the delights of the more urbane and richer masses of Harvard and MIT.

To the east of the Square lies the mainly Portuguese and Brazilian East Cambridge. The focus being the credit union, the insurance agency, the steak restaurants serving huge chunks of beef, the butchers with 'live killed chickens', the fishmongers whose smelly Boston Scrod is sometimes dumped onto the streets, and the pinnacle, Casal Bakery that sells the sweetest Portuguese bread in the world - all of these are family establishments. These are the poorest cantabrigians who haven't improved their lot even after 40 years of working on construction, restaurants and other odd-jobs. A fair number of the older folk still don't speak english. The newer generation though are beginning to take the American melting pot to heart but it's a struggle.

Similarly there are the nearby former projects (Prospect Towers where the internecine gang roadkill of the early nineties used to take place and youthful killers did their part as the crack epidemic ebbed) and even further, the low-income housing developments, now gentrified at the surface but resisting history at their core. Lots of teenage moms walk their strollers into the Square, trying to hold on to the sophomoric dads who are overwhelmed by it all, weeks away from abandoning their screaming offspring and current squeezes.

The City of Cambridge is set on raising property values and so everywhere there are policemen overseeing public works. There isn't enough money to lay bricks down the length of the Cambridge Street but some bright beancounter figured out that you can upgrade the town by simply having brick strips and trimmings on the sidewalk. The street has consequently been in upheaval for the past 2 months. Where they have finished however, the neighbourhood is much improved. There are now these newfangled bus stops, newly installed benches and street lights all lovingly painted black.

The Stars and Stripes flutters outside the fire station. A couple of firefighters linger outside. They are still ruing the kind of play and easy sex that they got in the months after 9/11, mourning the disappearance of the young hotties who would say to themselves: "I'm going to bed me a firefighter tonight". Normalcy has returned and even Tom Ridge's and John Ashcroft's periodic "elevated warning" hysteria hasn't been enough to loosen teenage panties of late.

These days the centerpiece of the square is Ryles Jazz Club. It may not get the upper class tier of performers but it has a solid booking schedule. The Jazz Brunch on Sundays is known all over the town and even attracts the occasional hardy tourist. Tonight is samba night and there is a certain spring in the step of the Cape Verdeans who pass by. The great innovation of the past decade were the swing classes and dances that now take place bi-weekly. Demand is strong for nostalgia and a good time; white middle-class America does love The 50s of Ronald Reagan and the B-Movies so the lines are long those nights. Ryles obliges.

Argana is the closest the square has come to gentrification. A lovely blend of Moroccan cuisine (great couscous) and decors (Arabian Nights meets The Spanish Inquisition) that would compete with the stylings of Newbury Street's Cafe Sonsie, and better food to boot. Not to mention that they have Belly Dancers every now and then that walk up to your table - even that woman who teaches dance at Central Square. Guys love the place overriding their girlfriend's jealous looks. Maybe it's a sign of things to come, a leading indicator of the future. I'm a little skeptical personally but it's good to know someone is trying. All it takes is a few more visionaries and a couple of "Developments" and before you know it, the yuppies will move in. In New York's Lower East side they talk of "Trendiness Among the Tenements" these days.

Inman Square isn't quite a slum, it lingers midway between a tenement and your vanilla urban backwater. It's akin to the brackish water, treated with alum to dissolve the brown sediment before drinking that is the lot of those poor villagers in my mum's constituency, Ho West. All they got was tins of evaporated milk in the last election. All Inman Square has is unspoken promises of cashing in someday on the dot-com and biotech boom that the rest of Cambridge is spearheading.

I leave the bank and take in the scene, the 2 clean-cut Mormons returning to the mother house after a day of proselytizing. I wonder what they think of me as I enter the Haitian grocery/Voodoo emporium to try to find some ripe plantains - the Haitians like their plantain green - I believe some wires got crossed when the slaves crossed the Atlantic...

Later I pass by Inman Pharmacy to pick up a newspaper. After 8 years as a regular customer, the Portuguese woman behind the counter has finally begun to greet me. She asks how I'm doing, smiles, I smile back and mutter the typical Yankee platitude. This doesn't come easily to my Ghanaian self and yet this personal touch makes me feel part of the community. I also get beaucoup points since I helped stop that old shoplifter a couple of weeks ago who was trying to smuggle a greeting card and a cuddly toy furtively under his clothes. My involvement in that affair was to stand arms-crossed in front of the door while he received his old-world dressing down.

Heading home, I pass the Psychiatric Emergency entrance of Cambridge Hospital where a concerned family have brought a young man - presumably a student. There's a worried look in their faces but the nurses are jaded at all of this. They've seen it all before.

All in a day I suppose.

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