Sunday, September 27, 2009

Victor Jara: Canto Libre

September 28th, 1932 - September 15th, 1973
Forget Bob Dylan. Victor Jara was the Che Guevara of folk music. He lived and died as a revolutionary, a Chilean musician who articulated the aspirations of his country's people in simple and elegant songs. An Unfinished Song by his widow Joan Jara, is a moving account of their lives together during the turbulent 60s, the rise of Salvador Allende's Popular Unity government, and Victor's death in September 1973 as a victim of Pinochet's murderous coup.

When we were in Santiago this past summer we visited the Victor Jara Foundation on the Plaza Brazil and met some of the volunteers who run it. The cops had just raided the premises in an apparent mistake and the volunteers were organizing a concert in protest. "Requiem For Victor Jara" was painted in 1973 by the German artist, Wolfgang Mattheur.

Victor was also a distinguished director, playwright and actor. He brought new forms to Chilean drama and incorporated folk elements from indigenous peoples such as the Mapuche, based in the central and southern parts of the country. Today is Victor's birthday - he would have been 77. His "canto libre" (free song) still lives on...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Japandroids: Hearts On Fire!

We run the gauntlet
Must get to France
So we can French kiss some French girls
- Wet Hair
The Japandroids are an incendiary duo hailing from East Van in the Great White North. It's all about the attack with these boys - an absolute Who-like abandon sets them apart from other noisemakers. Like the Black Keys, the Japandroids (JPNDRDS) are made up of only drums and guitar but on Post-Nothing, their first full length release from Unfamiliar/Polyvinyl records, the touchstone isn't the blooz - it's pure euphoria. Here's "Young Hearts Spark Fire:"

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Dancing With Furniture: Musical Raves & Other Contortions

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture - it's a really stupid thing to want to do." – Elvis Costello
I have to agree with Elvis: music, like sex, is always better done than said. And dancing about architecture is a really stupid thing to want to do - dancing with furniture is way more sensible. In those moments when you’re left alone with nothing but an air-guitar, stupid things can start to look pretty interesting...even fun. Sometimes the only option is to indulge, get down and do the mother popcorn with the livingroom chair.

So, with the intention of having some fun I'm going to write about a few albums that have caused me to get up and dance like a fool with the furniture in my room...albums that have yanked the "gabba, gabba, hey" from my guts and rocked my world.

First up, Astral Weeks by Van Morrison (1968), an album that evokes the joy of a sunny day by the water- intense, breezy and alive with possibilities.

From the far side of the ocean
If I put the wheels in motion
Like a Celtic Sufi in the throes of a whirling trance, Van channels the spirits of Solomon Burke and Chester "Howlin' Wolf' Burnett on this, his first complete studio album. The jazz-inflected percussion of "The Way Young Lovers Do", and the fluttering, hummingbird strum of "Sweet Thing" combine to create the perfect fusion of pop, jazz, folk and soul. Nothing before or since has sounded quite like it and amid all the music something intrinsically Irish emerges:
We strolled through fields all wet with rain
And back along the lane again
A friend and I followed the sound to Ireland, busking from Belfast to Cork. In Sligo we got billed as "The Men Who Drank Canada Dry". Very soon after we became "The Men Who Ireland Sucked Dry".

Next up, Survival by Bob Marley and the Wailers (1979). This is the culmination and most consistent articulation of Natty Dread's career. Marley fuses the smooth soul of Curtis Mayfield to Haile Selassie's vision of racial harmony and delivers a sonic proclamation about liberation and independence.

Tracks like "Africa Unite", "One Drop" and "Zimbabwe" were said to inspire the birth of a nation and Marley did play at the Zimbabwe's Independence Day Celebrations in April of 1980, the last time the British Flag flew over Africa:
Africans a-liberate Zimbabwe
Every man gotta right to decide his own destiny
Holding it all together as always, is bassist Aston "Family Man" Barrett's ganja-rasta-riddim making this one of the greatest reggae albums ever produced.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Jonathan Richman: Pixie Dusted Possibilities

I’ve got a confession to make- I've got a crush on a guy. But it isn't carnal, it's all about the spiritus mundi, as Sting once sang. This should come as no surprise to most guys; hetro or not, we all harbor affections for certain members of our own sex. There’s a name for this - hetro-gay.

One guy occupies a special place in the firmament. He's a Cosmo type, sophisticated and sensitive - a real charmer. And most of all, he's not afraid to let his feelings show. It's Jonathan Richman. 

Jonathan - Jojo for those in the know - inhabits a mysterious realm. Like Boo Radley, another outsider, his influence is benign, but largely unknown.

If The Modern Lovers was Jonathan's sole legacy his place among pop’s immortals would be secure. Like a first love it cuts the deepest and his later work never quite recaptures its magic or intensity. 

The album's defining characteristic is its unabashed amateurism – the opening call of "1-2-3-4-5-6!" saying it all.

In fact, by the time the album was released Jonathan was shying away from music that, according to him, could hurt a baby's ears. He was a geek who reveled in his geekness long before it became cool to do so, long before spazzes like the guy from Weezer or Wes Anderson's films made geek chic.

Suspended in time like an urban Peter Pan, Jonathan endures. One music writer has called him "the Jimmy Stewart of rock and roll" but this seems too cumbersome, too earnest. Jonathan wasn't bent on doing the right thing - he was bent on having fun.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Tunisia: Reclaiming "Beginner's Mind"

Back in 2002, one year after the 9/11 attacks, Yuko and I traveled to the North African country of Tunisia in an attempt to seek out our own personal dialogue with a Muslim country. 9/11 had provided an awakening for us, a spur for further inquiry to try and understand the root causes. I began searching for what the late Zen master Shunryu Suzuki referred to as "beginner's mind," one that's flexible and open to all possibilities.

We also did what many others did; embraced those closest to us. We reflected on our marriage as a Japanese and a Canadian, and were able to salvage our faith in the belief that individuals are more powerful than events or institutions in bridging cultural divides.

Tunisia seemed like a practical destination, open and more stable than some other Arab states. Then in April something unexpected occurred - a bomb blast at the El Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba killed 19, 14 of whom were German tourists. This shocking news was made even more so by the alleged involvement of al-Qaeda. After some serious hesitation we continued on with our plans, convinced that this attack was an aberration for normally moderate Tunisia.

We had no regrets. Wherever we went we were warmly welcomed and greeted with generous hospitality. Our most remarkable experience occurred while visiting the same Ghriba Synagogue with a new friend, Hamza, an economics student and a Muslim from the southern Tunisian town of Medenine.

The synagogue had been repaired and there was a visual security presence on the site with police checking ID and passports. We had met Hamza before in the main town of Houmt Souk and he offered to guide us around to a few local sites. He spoke fluent French and English, as well as Arabic.

What seemed ironic to us, a Muslim introducing us to this Jewish synagogue in an Arab country, was nothing but a sincere expression of pride for him. He considered the Jewish population to be as Tunisian as the other Berber and Turkish minorities and was proud of his country's ethnic diversity.

Hamza had proven my initial expectations to be naive, parochial and ultimately prejudicial. Somehow I had harbored the belief that Muslims were different. I knew all Christians didn't hate Muslims; why did I expect all Muslims to hate Jews?

Growing up in Canada, not surprisingly, I learned the canon of Western civilization, including much about Judaism and Israel. Throughout high school the curriculum rightly encouraged me to sympathize with Jews through the lessons of the holocaust. The establishment of the state of Israel and its justification implicitly and naturally flowed from this horrific event.

However, the Arab victims of the Christian Inquisition in the 15th century who perished or were expelled from Europe were never mentioned. The experiences of the modern Palestinians were hardly given a voice.

As a result, I've had to go far out of my way to learn anything about Arab history or the Islamic faith. In Canada this ignorance has been pervasive, promoting a biased media and an unintentionally prejudicial populace.

The "Arab world", like the "Western world", is anything but a unified monolith. There are deeply held suspicions and prejudices between countries and religious sects.

Saddam Hussein despised Muslim extremists as much as George W. Bush. The Indonesian Muslim cleric, Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, is as representative of Muslims as the American evangelist, Jerry Falwell was of Christians. Ba'asyir openly supported Usama bin-Laden; Falwell stated that the prophet Mohammed was a terrorist. Both are extremists who ultimately poison their own faiths. These similarities need to be pointed out as a reminder that no culture has a monopoly on ignorance or truth.

Seemingly pedestrian acts like choosing a vacation spot or a book to read are in fact profound expressions of political import. The fact that Tunisia is not only an Arab country, but also a Muslim one became a significant reason for visiting. It wouldn't have mattered before, and indeed, may have been a deterrent.

On the 8th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks it's more imperative than ever not to ignore or avoid questions or journeys that may seem uncomfortable or unsavory. Anger and fear are self-perpetuating traps that eventually have to give way for any deeper understanding to emerge. Small acts can be intensely meaningful and a dialogue can take on many forms.

As I stood together with Hamza and my wife inside the beautiful blue sanctuary of the Ghriba Synagogue wearing our borrowed yarmulkes, I caught a glimpse of the possibilities that emerge when people step into different cultural habitats. "The innocence of first inquiry," to quote Shunryu Suzuki once again, is the hallmark of the "beginner's mind." Our first inquiry had led us to Tunisia. Where we go next remains an open question, but one thing is certain -- our choices won't be guided by fear.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Banff: Wide Blue Yonder

My article on Banff has been published with photos by Yuko. Here's the full version (pdf), via my website.

"The only thing as bright as the sun is its reflection sparkling off the lake. It's one of those summer days when the sky above the Canadian Rockies is as blue as lapis. The white frosted crags of Victoria Glacier tower above, while, 700 metres below, the cool, turquoise waters of Lake Louise beckon like a delicious blueberry smoothie, the perfect antidote for a hot day."

"The main hiking trail around Banff National Park's Lake Louise starts near the iconic Fairmont Chateau Hotel ( and continues for about three hours along the shoreline until it reaches the Plain of Six Glaciers. The path cuts through rambling fields of wild flowers and shady copses of pine trees. After a few twists and turns the source of the lake comes into view, looking like the melt from a vanilla ice-cream cone. The surrounding glaciers crush minerals into "rock flour", which creates the milky run-off that gives the lake its striking emerald-blue colour."

"From here the path gradually climbs through alpine meadows, over glacial scree and a few snow patches. To cool off, people flop into the snow as the sprawling glaciers loom above like a pack of yetis ready to pounce. Victoria Glacier used to reach the lip of the lake but has receded about a kilometre in the past 150 years."

"The path leads to a Swiss chalet-style teahouse and along the way there are rock climbers scaling cliffs, groups on horseback and a few ground squirrels. The first Swiss climbers arrived at the end of the 19th century, at the Canadian government’s invitation, to guide the few tourists that made it this far into the Rockies. They left behind the Plain of Six Glaciers teahouse. It’s a perfect spot in which to relax and enjoy a slice of apple pie."

"There are few wilderness areas that can match the Canadian Rockies for a combination of remoteness and accessibility. Located in the western province of Alberta, Banff is only 1 hour west of Calgary by car. With not too much effort you can find yourself recharging your batteries with the natural energy of the Rocky Mountains while sipping tea in the shadow of a crackling glacier."

Most of this vast area was opened up by the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). From 1881 to 1885, the CPR brought more than 15,000 labourers from China to work on the most dangerous sections of the railway. For every mile of track laid in the Rocky Mountains, it’s estimated that four Chinese workers lost their lives. Overall, some 600 perished and many of their bodies have not been found.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Tiwanaku: Andean Cross

This Andean Cross, or Chakana, is from Tiwanaku in Bolivia. It's also known as the Inca Cross, but pre-dates the Incas by over 2500 years. It's been found all over South America and even parts of North America.

Tiwanaku is where many believe Inca culture evolved from. Dating from at least 1500 BC, it's located about 70 kms west of La Paz near Lake Titicaca and is remarkable for the huge stone figures found at the site. We spent an afternoon exploring and were blown away by the beautiful setting.

These heads are from a subterranean chamber and all convey unique features. One even has a beard leading to speculation that these early Americans had contact with visitors from far, far away...

Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian ethnogragher of Kon-Tiki fame, speculated that there was much more exchange between the world's various ethnic groups than had been previously thought. I was surpised to learn that Egyptian mummies had been discovered with traces of coca, a plant indigenous to South America.