Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Into The Heartland: Fisherman's Blues

"Fisherman's Blues' music is an expression of our journey from rock to roots." - Mike Scott
When Fisherman's Blues was released in the fall of 1988, I'd just returned from my own journey - a busking trip across Europe where I'd morphed into a member of Ewan MacColl's dreaded "folk police."

The only music I would listen to had its roots in the era of the "Last Spike" and I rejected anything that sounded like it came from my own century.

Fisherman's Blues changed all that. By 1986, Mike Scott and The Waterboys were moving away from the studious intensity and grand themes that had characterized much of The Waterboy's 1985 album, This Is The Sea. Scott was reaching deeper for more warmth and intimacy. These years 1986-1988 were pivotal for him, as they were for me. We were digging into the roots, uncovering the hillbilly bards – Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Robert Johnson and the wild Celtic keepers of the Irish & Scottish traditions.

In contrast to This Is The Sea, the destination for Fisherman's Blues is unknown: this time, it was all about the journey. A new mood had also taken over - the blues. Scott realized his ship had run aground, that he hadn’t obtained the kind of fulfillment promised in This Is The Sea.

The interplay of Steve Wickham's incendiary fiddle and Scott’s impassioned vocals recalls Howlin’ Wolf and his legendary guitarist, Hubert Sumlin. Wickham’s intense licks on "We Will Not Be Lovers" rip as deeply as Sumlin's on “Wang Dang Doodle.” (Check out the 3:50 mark for some truly nasty bow work!)

Fisherman's Blues was as dramatic a change as Dylan going electric, but this time Orpheus was unplugging. As with Dylan’s change of direction, Scott also alienated a huge section of his fan base. To some he appeared to have forsaken “The Big Music” for kitchen pots and fiddles. What these naysayers failed to grasp was Scott’s protean ability to transfer the power of This Is The Sea into new organic forms...

Sunday, September 26, 2010

St. Petersburg: Article 31 Protests

From AP:

Putin predicted that Russian police would keep breaking up opposition protests unless the dissidents obtain official permission to rally – permission they are routinely denied in central Moscow.

"You will be beaten upside the head with a truncheon. And that's it," Putin declared
Every month in Russia civil society gets rocked by a series of protests throughout the country for the right to, well, protest. The "Strategy 31 Group" stands for the last day of each month and also refers to Article 31 of the constitution, which guarantees freedom of assembly. But in practice any group that wants to assemble needs to apply in advance to the powers that be for permission. And most of the time - *surprise* - it gets rejected.

This summer Yuko and I were walking down Nevsky Prospekt, the main street in St. Petersburg, when we came across a large crowd. Shouts began to fill the air and our attention flashed over to a vehicle that looked like a large military bus parked by the side of the road. A man was yelling from a small opening on the roof while the crowd cheered him on. At the same time police officers and other men dressed in military fatigues pounced on the poor guy and violently pushed him back into the bus. We had no idea what was going on.

I asked this young guy wearing a "31" badge what was happening. He explained that "It happens on the last day every month." Apparently, a group of protesters had taken over the metro station to draw attention to the freedom of assembly issue and the crowd was there to support them.

It was a peaceful demonstration, but what was shocking was the overwhelming show of force. We hung around for a little while and watched as the protesters - young men and women - were hauled from the metro and thrown into the bus as though they were the morning trash. It was a sad reminder of what Putin's Russia has become and what it could be if its constitution was actually upheld.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

China & Japan: Heating Up


Tensions have flared up once again between China and Japan during this Mid-Autumn festival season. The issue involves a small clump of uninhabitable islands located in the East China Sea known as Diaoyu in Chinese or Senkaku in Japanese, depending on your sympathies.

The row started about two weeks ago on September 7th after a Chinese trawler was caught fishing in the disputed waters by the Japanese Coast Guard. The Japanese asked them to leave, the Chinese said you've no right to patrol in disputed waters, and a scuffle broke out. What happened next is unclear, but Japan claims the trawler rammed its patrol boat intentionally and then arrested the entire crew. Of course, China denies this and says any such collision was an accident. A few days later the crew was released, minus the captain who is still being held in custody and will be charged under Japanese law.

This is unacceptable for China. They view the entire event as a ruse on Japan's part to exert control over the area and claim the natural gas reserves that lie beneath the islands. China (and Taiwan) have history on their side - the islands were considered part if its territory for centuries until the later half of the 19th century when Japan began to look outward for expansion.

And now Japan's veteran boy-band - SMAP - has had its Shanghai concerts cancelled citing safety concerns. Things haven't been this bad since Chinese model Vicky Zhao was caught wearing the Japanese military flag on the catwalk...

*UPDATE - September 24*

Japan relented and released the captain today amid growing lunacy on China's part. Just yesterday, four Japanese construction workers were arrested in Hebei for allegedly taking pictures of military installations. "In Chinese custody" are three of the most frightening words anyone could ever wish to hear. So, Japan did the smart thing and China wins today...but over the long-term they'll lose. They've made a strong case for increasing U.S. involvement and aid in the region, something they were wishing would soon begin to diminish.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Rapa Nui: Awakening

Another article of mine on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) was published last month in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post Magazine. Tuhi, our guide and friend, is Tuhiira Tuki, currently a foreign representative for the Rapa Nui people. She and others are trying to build a Maori/Rapa Nui school where culture, customary traditions and history will be taught in the Rapa Nui language. They are also trying to do this without any help from the Chilean government - which has a pesky habit of turning "aid" into interference - so they are in need of support and sponsors. I hope to have more info on this soon.

In the meantime, spreading the word about this magnificent island and its people is essential. Unfortunately, the SCMP is still behind a paywall and can't be viewed without a subscription. So, here's my article...
"Iorana! " says Tuhi, our guide, as she hops out of her truck to greet us. From beneath the seats of her four-wheel drive poke bushels of fresh eucalyptus branches.

"It smells better than car interior," she says as we drive to the edge of Easter Island's main village, Hanga Roa. Here, with the Pacific on one side and green fields on the other, stands Ahu Ko Te Riku, one of the more than 900 giant moai statues that dot the island. Our first encounter with a stone giant is daunting. Towering six metres high, he looks defiant and proud.

"This is the only one with eyes," says Tuhi, referring to the white coral and obsidian stone set into the statue's eye sockets.

Once, all the moai had eyes but they probably lost them when they were toppled or destroyed during the island's bloody civil war, believed to have occurred during the 17th or 18th century. It had been thought they were designed with empty eye sockets until a fragment of an eye was discovered in 1979 by archaeologist and first native governor Sergio Rapu Haoa. It is now on display at the museum, an apt metaphor for a culture struggling to awaken from the darkness of its turbulent history.

Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, is twice the size of Hong Kong Island - but it is home to few people. Tuhi is one of only 2,500 natives, who make up roughly half the population, and, along with Rapa Nui, the local language, she speaks English, Spanish and French. Like many locals, she is a Christian. Before Chile won control of Easter Island from Peru, in 1888, Catholic missionaries succeeded in converting the few islanders who had survived centuries of conflict and disease.

There are a few basics to understand when venturing out on a moai tour. One cardinal rule is don't touch. This may seem obvious but, in 2008, a Finnish tourist was caught and fined US$17,000 for chipping an earlobe off one of the moai.

You should also know the statues were designed to stand on top of raised platforms called ahu and some wear crowns made from red volcanic stone called pukao. These are believed to have been status symbols.

In Ahu Akivi, a group of seven moai stand together on a hill, staring towards the sea. This is an anomaly, we are told, because the statues were meant to be arranged looking inwards on the population as benevolent ancestral spirits. As we approach, the seven brooding heads spring into view like giant chess pieces.

Their task may have been to guard the island from incoming dangers - such as the influx of tourists that has overtaken Easter Island in recent years. Last summer, a group of protesting locals succeeded in shutting down the island's only airport, Mataveri, bringing flights to a halt for three days. Last year alone, 70,000 tourists visited the island, a fivefold increase from a decade ago.

Silhouetted against the sea and sky, the moai of Ahu Akivi seem to stand as testament to the primal forces that have shaped this forlorn corner of the South Pacific. In the middle of nowhere (the nearest habitable island - Pitcairn - is 2,200 kilometres away), Easter Island was cut off from the outside world for centuries, until Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen led the first expedition of Europeans ashore on Easter Sunday, 1722. Rather than encounter a tropical paradise, he found a civilisation on the brink of extinction.

Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse, has documented the environmental devastation and internecine conflict the islanders wrought upon themselves, but outside influence proved to be just as fatal. The population was almost wiped out by smallpox, syphilis and forced relocations, all of which followed in the wake of the Europeans. The islanders began to fear the interlopers to such a degree that when their ships were spotted on the horizon, they would hide in caves.

Tuhi takes us to one. It's a damp and cramped space with two window-like holes that open from a cliff, about 15 metres above the shore.

As if to dispel the gloom, Tuhi suggests a visit to her uncle's house. A winding dirt path leads towards a copse of eucalyptus trees, within which there is a pastel-pink-coloured hut. On its balcony stands Francois, a former aircraft mechanic from Brittany, France, who greets us with a warm handshake. Inside, bleached horse skulls hang from the walls. Francois picks one up and begins knocking it against his hip, banging out a rhythm while Tuhi joins in, singing a local folk song. In the 1970s, Francois came to the island to work and ended up staying, earning a little money by cleaning the shore of rubbish washed up from as far away as New Zealand.

Is there anything he misses from home?

"Champagne," he says, "by the crate."

Rano Raraku is the volcanic crater at the heart of Rapa Nui. Once the quarry from which the stone for most of the island's statues came, it is now part outdoor museum, part national park. Moai in various stages of completion cover the area, some tumble-tossed as though they were shot out from the erupting volcano. It's not hard to mistake an abandoned, partially sculpted moai for a simple slab of volcanic basalt.

Rano Raraku contains one of the most important finds made by Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl in the 50s. Heyerdahl has been associated with Rapa Nui since he first sailed his Kon-Tiki raft here, from Peru, in 1947. His discovery is a statue of a kneeling man, believed to be one-of-a-kind because it not only has a beard but also legs and feet. Most moai are represented from the waist up - legs were believed to keep people rooted to the Earth and were considered to be sacrilegious additions.

Anakena beach, in the north, is where King Hotu Matua is believed to have set foot in the eighth century on his way from Polynesia. Legend has it he was the island's first settler and built his palace here. Eight moai surround us amid palm trees as my foot sinks into white sand, a contrast to the black rocks of the rest of the island's shoreline. It was here that the first moai eye was found.

Easter Island has plenty to offer - horseback riding, scuba diving, snorkelling, delicious seafood and local dance performances - but it's the moai that keep the visitors coming. When asked whether she'd support more restoration work, Tuhi is ambivalent. The cost to restore one statue is estimated to be US$500,000 and she thinks the money would be better spent on projects that directly benefit the islanders.

As we prepare to say our farewells, Tuhi reminds us that the islanders' word for goodbye is the same as that for hello. "Iorana! " she says.

Getting there: Cathay Pacific (SEHK: 0293) ( flies from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, in the United States, from where Chilean carrier LAN ( flies to Santiago (via Lima, Peru). From Santiago, LAN flies to Easter Island five times a week.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Korčula: Moreška Sword Dance

Forget all this Islamaphobiapolooza crap about burning Qur’ans or erecting mosques near 'Ground Zero' in Lower Manhattan. If you really want to make a statement, then gird your loins, pick up your swords and do like the Croats on the Dalmatian island of Korčula do - the Moreška!

The Moreška is a sword dance that originated in the 12th Century around present day Lérida in Spain to celebrate the Moors expulsion from Aragon. It was probably brought to Korčula via southern Italy in the 16th century. It's since been tidied up and all the religious triumphalism watered down for modern consumption - once upon a time it was Moor vs. Christian, but today it's black vs. white battling for the hand of a lovely maiden in distress...

Yuko and I had just spent four nights in Dubrovnik and were eager to split for Split, up the Dalmatian coast about 4 hours away. In between lay the gorgeous Dalmatian Islands so we made plans to stop off for a night in Korčula. We booked a room online and arrived a few hours later.

Korčula town is an amazing place - all cobblestones, archways and seawalls. As soon as we arrived we decided to stay for two nights.

It was a full moon the next night and this thing known as the Moreška was taking place. I had read it was a must-see since Korčula is the only place on Earth where it's still performed. We bought our tickets and weren't disappointed...

This one is from 2007 and is in a different location than the one we saw. Ours took place just inside the Old Town walls - this one is outside near the water.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Fidel: A Lover Scorned

"The Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore" - Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro has always struck me as a scorned lover, a man who expected to be embraced by his first love - the U.S. - but who was torn asunder in the end. I mean, the guy loves baseball, after all.

The Cuban Revolution was about justice, often brutal and bloody, but justice, nevertheless. Fidel wasn't a Marxist-Leninist. Within four months of taking Havana on January 1, 1959, he was in Washington shaking hands with then Vice-President Richard Nixon and denouncing any affiliation with communism:
"I know what the world thinks of us, we are Communists, and of course I have said very clear that we are not Communists; very clear."

Fidel has always known his audience.

So it doesn't strike me as a big surprise that Fidel is currently making news - via Jeffrey Goldberg - by aligning himself with current U.S. policy on Iran and stating unequivocal support for Israel's right to exist. He likes Obama's sincerity and loathes Ahmadinejad's religious dogma. This may be his last chance to woo U.S. sympathies before the Dems get torn asunder in November. Game on.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Master Bulgakov: A Satanic Soviet

"Manuscripts don't burn"
I've recently been reading one of the greatest novels to come out of the former Soviet Union; Mikhail Bulgakov's subversive classic, The Master And Margarita. The basic premise has Satan (Woland) paying a visit to Stalin's atheistic Moscow in the 1930s and wreaking havoc on all and sundry.

Satan is accompanied by a very large demonic cat, Behemoth, who has the ability to walk on his hind legs, speak and enjoy vodka. The novel is a huge sensation in Russia with Bulgakov's former Moscow home now a museum, but it wasn't always this way. Bulgakov took over 10 years to finish it - even burning the manuscript once - and continued working on it right up until his death in 1940. Even when it was finally published in the Soviet Union almost thirty years later in 1966, it was heavily censored. It appeared in the West at around the same time and has been cited as an influence on Mick Jaggers' lyrics for "Sympathy For The Devil" released in 1968.

Bulgakov was born in 1891 in Kiev, Ukraine, and after the revolution and civil war, he arrived in Moscow in 1921. He was a novelist and a successful playwright for only about eight years before critics began sniffing him out as "anti-Soviet." By 1929 he was prevented from publishing or staging any new works and he spent the last decade of his life working on The Master and Margarita before dying of the same kidney disease that claimed his father.

The Master and Magarita is a cleverly written satire spoofing the Soviet bureaucracy and makes use of magical realism and some post-modern elements. As a playwright first, Bulgakov appreciated the possibilities that could arise from mixing genres and the novel reminds me of some of Tomson Highway's work, especially Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing.

Here's an excerpt from Chapter 22, "Satan's Grand Ball":

"Let the ball commence!" shrieked the cat in a piercing voice. Margarita screamed and shut her eyes for several seconds. The ball burst upon her in an explosion of light, sound and smell. Arm in arm with Koroviev, Margarita found herself in a tropical forest. Scarlet-breasted parrots with green tails perched on lianas and hopping from branch to branch uttered deafening screeches of ' Ecstasy! Ecstasy! ' The forest soon came to an end and its hot, steamy air gave way to the cool of a ballroom with columns made of a yellowish, iridescent stone. Like the forest the ballroom was completely empty except for some naked Negroes in silver turbans holding candelabra. Their faces paled with excitement when Margarita floated into the ballroom with her suite, to which Azazello had now attached himself. Here Koroviev released Margarita's arm and whispered:

"Walk straight towards the tulips!"

A low wall of white tulips rose up in front of Margarita. Beyond it she saw countless lights in globes, and rows of men in tails and starched white shirts. Margarita saw then where the sound of ball music had been coming from. A roar of brass deafened her and the soaring violins that broke through it poured over her body like blood. The orchestra, all hundred and fifty of them, were playing a polonaise.

Seeing Margarita the tail-coated conductor turned pale, smiled and suddenly raised the whole orchestra to its feet with a wave of his arm. Without a moment's break in the music the orchestra stood and engulfed Margarita in sound. The conductor turned away from the players and gave a low bow. Smiling, Margarita waved to him.

"No, no, that won't do," whispered Koroviev. "He won't sleep all night. Shout to him 'Bravo, king of the waltz!'"

Margarita shouted as she was told, amazed that her voice, full as a bell, rang out over the noise of the orchestra. The conductor gave a start of pleasure, placed his left hand on his heart and with his right went on waving his white baton at the orchestra.

"Not enough," whispered Koroviev. "Look over there at the first violins and nod to them so that every one of them thinks you recognise him personally. They are all world famous. Look, there … on the first desk – that's Joachim! That's right! Very good...Now – on we go."

"Who is the conductor?" asked Margarita as she floated away.

"Johann Strauss!" cried the cat.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Riga: Art Nouveau

While much of Riga was decimated by the Nazis and then the Soviets, large sections managed to survive to become a treasure trove of some of Eastern Europe's finest architecture.

Not only is there the exquisite Old Town around the train station...

...which includes such reconstructed Medieval masterpieces as the Blackheads' House (1344) on the Rātslaukums...

There's also the small enclave in the Central District just north of the Freedom Monument...

It's completely devoted to Art Nouveau, or what the Latvians call Jugendstil (Youth), from the German.

Dating from 1899, many of the buildings were designed by Latvians, but some of the more audacious creations were made by Mikhail Eisenstein, father of the famous Soviet director, Sergei Eisenstein.

Art Nouveau was originally influenced by Japanese Ukiyo-e (woodcut) artists such as Hokusai and Hiroshige. Europeans like Czech artist Alphonse Mucha got caught up in the wave of Japonisme that was sweeping the continent at the time and began to develop their own style. It eventually evolved beyond the decorative arts, culminating in some of the world's most unique architecture.

Yuko and I spent an afternoon exploring the neighbourhood, frolicking around and getting freaked out by the faces that seemed to be clawing themselves away from the building's facades.

UNESCO included this neighbourhood as a world heritage site in 1997 saying it has "the finest collection of art nouveau buildings in Europe."

This is precisely why I travel - to discover the unknown, to upend my assumptions and find beauty in corners of the world I never would have expected.

Art Nouveau in the Baltics? You bet - a treasure trove.