Monday, December 17, 2007

China’s Sustainable Development is a Global Priority

China receives more than its share of negative media coverage these days. Some reasons are understandable, given the scandals related to tainted pet food and unsafe toys that have come to light this year. But much of the alarm appears to be based on an irrational fear of China’s rise as a world power. This reaction is deeply worrying and may have unfortunate consequences to the United States. Rather than its geopolitics, the more important concern is China’s environmental practice.

Since the end of the Cold War, United States has become used to being the sole superpower in the world. Now it appears that any country that is developing rapidly and acting more assertively than before is seen as a threat to the U.S. economy and security. This not only applies to China but to other countries, such as Russia, as well. It harks back to the 1980s when Japan’s rise as an economic power was watched with trepidation and anger. Yet, Japan continues to be America’s trusted ally and major trade partner.

Since it opened up its markets in the late-1980s, China has experienced unprecedented growth in its economy, much higher than those in America or other developed regions of the world. In October this year China surpassed Germany as the world’s third largest economy following the USA and Japan. This tremendous growth has been partly due to the low level from which it started. Largely, however, it is because of the enormous determination and hard work of the Chinese people who rightly aspire to achieve living standards at par with those of the industrialized world.

Similarly, China has attempted to modernize its military to a level appropriate to a major regional power. It still is no match to the American armed forces and will not be for a long while. Furthermore, there is no indication that China would have any desire for a confrontation with the United States.

There are problematic issues with China’s rapid development, for sure. These include not only the above mentioned lack of quality control of its products, but also concerns related to labor conditions and political freedoms. It seems, though, that on the whole the Chinese people are happy just to go about their business. Getting wealthy is glorious, in the words of the former leader Deng Xiaoping who opened the country’s economy. Politics is secondary. How is that so different from what most Americans feel?

Rather than attempting to isolate China, the United States should embrace it as a partner. The U.S. economic power historically has been based on high levels of management skills, capital and technology. China is still lacking in all of these, but has a huge manufacturing base. Every fifth person in the world is Chinese and as they get richer they will constitute a vast market for goods and services -- an opportunity for the U.S., not a threat.

The real problem of China’s rise for the world and for China itself is environmental destruction. Industrial growth requires energy and raw materials. Every week, two new polluting coal-fired power plants go online in China. Urbanization takes over natural lands, and the hundreds of millions of consumers demand more and more goods. In Beijing only, more than a thousand new cars are registered every day. Helping China to overcome these challenges is a global prerogative. This is one of the key issues being discussed at the Bali climate conference this month.

It is in America’s interest to support China’s peaceful and sustainable development. Fear mongering and calls for protectionism will hurt all parties, not least America. There is room for more than one big fellow on the block. China’s rise is inevitable. America’s welcome will determine how the benefits are shared.

[This op-ed piece was published in the Hawaii Reporter ( on December 14, 2007, and in Northwest Asian Weekly ( January 12, 2008.]

Monday, December 10, 2007

Jeremy Steig @ Cornelia Street Café, New York, November 17, 2007

The music started with Jeremy Steig playing the well-known bass line of Miles Davis’ ‘All Blues’ on the flute. The small downstairs room in Cornelia Street Café became quiet except for the low sound of the flute. People here had come to listen to Jeremy Steig and were now putting down their wine glasses to hear the sensitive start of the concert. Soon the bass and drums joined in and the music settled into a moderate swing.

It was evident from the very beginning that the musicians were in a great shape tonight and that we in the audience were in for a treat. Jeremy Steig was accompanied by the veteran bassist Ron McClure whose credentials span playing with a host of jazz greats on his acoustic bass to providing the electric foundation to the legendary jazz-rock band Blood, Sweat & Tears. The drummer was a younger, but no less musical talent Gerald Cleaver.

‘All Blues’ set the stage for things to come, which would combine modern jazz standards, such as ‘Nardis’, ‘Yesterdays’, ‘Billie’s Bounce’ and ‘Solar’, with adventures into Steig’s own music, free improvisation and, as it turned out, Eastern tones, Jeremy flaunting his breathy sound and wild runs accentuated with fast double-tonguing with a flair.

That night Ron McClure would be at his best, melodic and bluesy even when venturing outside to more avant garde forms. His tone was thick and sweet whether he played solid bass lines or wandered up the neck of his big wooden instrument. Throughout the evening, Gerald Cleaver proved himself to be a highly musical percussionist, listening closely to his partners and sensitively inserting nuanced commentary in reaction to their playing.

For me personally, this was close to perfection. I vividly recall the times when as a teenager in the Helsinki suburbs I would sit for hours after school listening to jazz records with a classmate. Both Kittis and I were aspiring flutists and Jeremy Steig was one of our utmost idols. We would listen to the classic recording, ‘What’s New’, he made with Bill Evans in 1969. But our real favourites were his own more experimental and funky recordings, such as ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ and ‘Legwork’. I couldn’t have imagined that decades later I’d be sitting in an intimate space in the Greenwich Village listening to Jeremy play at a close range.

It turned out that I was not the only one having a similar experience. Turning to talk to my neighbour, she responded in a German accent that she, too, was a great Jeremy Steig fan for many years. Ela was a flute teacher from Germany now studying jazz in New York under Jamie Baum.

At times, Steig would use his trademark trick of singing along with his playing. Alongside Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, Jeremy has been using this technique for years. However, he does not only use it to create an effect or to make the flute sound raunchier. His way of playing and singing the overtones adds unexpectedly complex harmonies to the music.

Suddenly there was an unforeseen surprise. Jeremy Steig announced that Badal Roy was in the audience and would join the band on stage. The famed Indian tabla master was an old friend of Jeremy’s and had just shown up at the club (during the break, Jeremy’s wife Asako confirmed that they had had no idea Roy would be here). This encounter resulted in a lengthy improvised session between the four musicians that invoked lovely and breezy tones from the South Asian subcontinent.

One of the most memorable moments of the second set was a moody rendition of the standard ‘Willow Weep for Me’, a mellow tune that is especially suited for the flute. On a couple of occasions, Jeremy brought out the long curved bass flute to add its deep haunting tones to the evening’s repertoire. He would play a brisk walking bass on the flute setting the room into a swinging mood. Then McClure would pick it up with the double bass switching roles with the leader who in turn would now play the lead. It is amazing how the trio – with the temporary addition of the tabla – could create such a broad soundscape with such sparse and fully acoustic instrumentation. This surely is a lesson that many younger musicians should remember.

This evening also marked the pre-release of Jeremy Steig’s new CD, ‘Pterodactyl’, which he recorded alone overdubbing various flutes and blowing into bottles. It is, as he himself says in the liner notes, “the closest you will come to seeing the inner workings of [Jeremy Steig’s] musical mind.” In my mind, the record, like the concert, is evidence of Jeremy Steig’s originality and continuous innovation.

© Juha Uitto 2007

Svajanam/Kinsmen – Dakshina Ensemble featuring Kadri Gopalnath and Rudresh Mahanthappa @ Asia Society, New York, November 7, 2007

The evening was truly unique. Two alto saxophone masters with both their roots in South India on the stage together: Kadri Gopalnath and Rudresh Mahanthappa – hence the title of the collaboration: Svajanam means ‘kinsmen’ in Sanskrit. But as to their approach to the saxophone, in many ways, the similarities between the two ended with their instruments and ethnicity. Despite this, the music that followed presented an amazing amalgamation of classical Indian tradition and that of American jazz.

The collaboration in practice brought together two bands each led by the respective sax masters. Kadri Gopalnath is celebrated as the first person to play Indian classical music with the decisively Western instrument, the saxophone. His renditions of Carnatic music of South India have brought him fame in his home country, as well as abroad through his many recordings and concerts in North America, Europe, Australia and Asian countries. On this night, his cohorts included the renowned female violinist A. Kanyakumari and Poovalur Sriji on various Indian percussions and electronics. Dressed in traditional garb and seated on rugs placed on a small stand on the stage, the trio could have performed pure Indian classical music.

To their left stood Rudresh Mahanthappa with his New York-based jazz quartet, consisting of guitarist Rez Abbasi, Carlo De Rosa on bass and royal hartigan on drums. Mahanthappa is by many considered one of the most original young voices on the alto sax and has been recognized as such by the prestigious Down Beat magazine over the past several years. Elegant in a black suit and dark blue shirt, wearing his wavy hair long, he looked the part of the young jazz lion that he is.

I am only making this distinction between the two sides to emphasize the varying starting points of the musicians. In reality, on stage the two musical traditions melded seamlessly into one, flowing in and out of the moulds. Both leaders, each of them masters of improvisation, soloed powerfully throughout the evening. Gopalnath blew lengthy raga-like scales covering the full range of the instrument from the honking low register to whining laments on the upper reaches. Curiously, he would sit back and remove the headjoint of his colourfully decorated sax every time any of the other musicians would start soloing.

Deeply rooted in be-bop, Mahanthappa’s playing was bluesy and his articulation more syncopated than that of his older kinsman. Mahanthappa’s alto sound is clear and unsentimental even when soaring through fast and complex runs.

The concert was paced to alternate heated rhythms created by the Indian team with Gopalnath and A. Kanyakumari’s flexible solos and pensive moods when the two traditions merged to produce new and often hauntingly beautiful moments. Some of the highlights featured Mahanthappa’s solo ballads that were matched by the inventive guitar of the Karachi-born Rez Abbasi, a rising star in modern jazz guitar in his own right.

The two Americans forming the jazz foundation of the band demonstrated their sensitivity and big ears throughout the evening. Both De Rosa and royal hartigan responded to the challenges created by the musical adventure in an extraordinarily imaginative way. Their collaboration with Poovalur Sriji’s complicated and impressive rhythms was both respectful and adding nuance to the melange. Sriji’s own credentials, ranging from performing with Western artists, such as Yehudi Menuhin and Bela Fleck, as well as with leading Indian musicians, speak for themselves. Carlo De Rosa produced one of the most memorable solos of the evening on his upright bass.

The truth is that the musicians were truly able to cross over the musical barriers that lesser talents might find insurmountable. At the end of the evening, the listener did not think about the contrasting idioms of Indian classical music and jazz; one only remembered a rewarding musical experience in which the totality was distinctly larger than the sum of its parts. Svajanam first debuted on these same premises at the Asia Society in 2005. As the creators hoped writing in the concert leaflet, Svajanam truly highlighted the “multi-faceted intricacies and intersections of jazz and Carnatic music thus creating a sound that transcends the label of ‘Indo-Jazz fusion’.” I look forward to a long continuation of this fruitful collaboration. Kadri Gopalnath and Rudresh Mahanthappa truly are kinsmen.

© Juha Uitto 2007