Wednesday, November 19, 2008

From Abu Dhabi to Dubai - and back

This country is one great construction site, I was thinking as we sped through the desert at 150 kph. On both sides of the arrow-straight six-lane highway tall cranes obscured the horizon as buildings were coming up at a frenzied pace. Despite our considerable speed, luxury cars were overtaking us from the left at a steady pace: the usual BMWs and MBs, as well as Lexuses (Lexi?), Infinitis, a couple of Corvettes, an occasional Porsche. The road between the two largest of the seven emirates, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, was heavily trafficked. My driver, a middle-aged Filippina lady, was telling me how life in the Emirates was getting harder, while she was skilfully navigating the rapid flow of cars. She marked the turning point three years ago when a new sheikh had taken the reigns and the cost of living had just skyrocketed. Having lived in the country for 16 years, she had an historical perspective. Now, it was getting harder and harder to save any money. Housing was as expensive as in New York City—others had confirmed this to me earlier—and she had to share an apartment in Abu Dhabi with a number of her co-sisters from their archipelago nation thousands of kilometres away. The company she was driving for even deducted the speed tickets from her salary, although there was no way anyone could stick to the official limit of 140 kph.

She was one of the many foreigners who constitute some 80% of the population of 4.5 million people in the United Arab Emirates. The largest groups are South Asians from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh who work in construction and other manual labour, as well as the Filippinos mostly in service industries. My Jordanian colleague Ghaith who has lived in Dubai for 3 months had to his astonishment found that some 250,000 of his 6 million compatriots are living in this small dry land by the Persian Gulf. I had witnessed the variety of nationalities right upon arrival in Abu Dhabi. The tax free shops at the airport were all run by the Chinese. When I exited the terminal building I was offered a ride by a Pakistani taxi operator—I didn’t hesitate to enter his air conditioned car as quickly as he opened the door, such was the heat that hit me like a wall immediately when I stepped out. My hotel reception was wo-manned by two friendly ladies from the Philippines, while my bag was taken by an equally friendly—and obviously gay—Bangladeshi fellow.

It turned out that there was a stretch of land in between the two city states on the Gulf that was not under construction. Here a grey desert landscape dotted with dusty brush vegetation was prevalent. The road was lined with stubby palm trees baking in the sun. Here and there we’d pass exit signs to camel racing stadiums, a popular pastime in this part of the world. But soon enough as we approached Dubai the construction started again. On October 11th of 2008, The Economist reported that the Dubai property market was hitting a snag. Morgan Stanley had issued a prediction that Dubai property prices would fall by 10% by 2010. There simply wouldn’t be enough demand for all the property that is constantly being constructed. This might not sound like a huge drop—especially given the state of the world economy today—but here in Dubai this had come as a shock. People were used to quick returns and—literally—only considered the sky the limit!

Approaching the centre of the city the traffic was getting heavier, often slowed down by construction. Finally we pulled in front of the impressive entrance to my hotel, the Al Murooj Rotana. The huge hotel complex turned out to be luxurious as expected. In addition to the usual Filippinas, the reception and concierge were crowded with uniformed European ladies serving the customers. As I was shown into my room on the second floor, I reflected that this matched my expectations much better than the modest quarters I had been allocated in Abu Dhabi. There had been some convention or other in the town and all accommodations were full despite the outrageous surcharges the hotels had imposed on us hapless travellers. As a consequence, I had paid through the nose for what could best be described as a guesthouse, quite far from the shore, albeit in the centre of the city.

As I had arrived in Abu Dhabi at noon on a Friday, I had some time to explore the place before work started (here, Friday and Saturday are the free weekend days). Despite the heat—with only 40 degrees Celsius I heard several people express gratitude that the summer was over and the temperatures were finally coming down!—I spent much of Saturday walking about town. The city wasn’t quite as exuberant as I had imagined. There were numerous five-star hotels but otherwise the street scene was rather sedate. I talked my way past an African guard and entered the private pool complex of the Sheraton (he later changed his mind and tried to find me, but I had by then merged with the crowds) and had lunch in the shade of a palm tree. Afterwards I peeked into the fancier shops until I discovered a large variety store frequented by the lower echelons of the immigrant populace. Here the prices were very reasonable and I decided to stock up on necessities such as toothpaste that I knew was running low. I also followed the advice of my hotel’s nice Bangladeshi doorman and found an internet café. The hotel did, of course, have an internet connection in the rooms, but at an exorbitant rate! This dinghy place was completely full with foreigners so I had to wait—and the air was so thick with grey cigarette smoke that one could cut it with a knife—but the connection was good and reasonably priced.

The evenings were pleasant, as there was a slight wind from the Gulf that moderated the heat after sunset. On the first night, I wondered into a spacious pub called Mood Indigo, located within the Novotel Centre Hotel. I was lured in by the sound of live jazz streaming out through the door. It turned out to be an excellent choice. The band consisted of four skilled musicians on trumpet, piano, bass and drums playing jazz standards with flair. I sat back with a pint of cider and enjoyed the music as long as it lasted. The piano player was particularly versatile with a fluid technique and obviously deep knowledge of musical history. When the concert was over after midnight I wandered over and joined the band at its table. It was another crew demonstrating the variety of the Emirates’ population. The piano virtuoso, Vladimir, was from Belarus (and, as it turned out, was only sitting in for the missing pianist; his main instrument being the saxophone). The smooth bass player, Denis Mercado, came from the Philippines, while the horn player was American and the drummer Australian. They played gigs in the hotels and restaurants both in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

On the following night, I decided to splurge on a good meal. After having studied local tourist magazines, I jumped into a cab that took me a good fifteen minute ride on the coastal road to the Hilton Abu Dhabi at the other end of the city. Somewhat separate from the hotel on the beachside of the road was Vasco’s, a recommended restaurant named after Vasco Da Gama with eclectic international cuisine. My initial preference would have been to stay inside because of the heat but the place was crowded, so I was directed to a table on the spacious terrace. This turned out to be lucky. The evening was dark and there was an Arabian moon above the sea. The meal I had was absolutely gorgeous. I started with a fresh salad and a cool glass of dry Sauvignon Blanc. This was followed by a heavenly portion of Capelli d’Angeli pasta with jumbo shrimp and porcini mushrooms in an arrabbiata sauce. Pure bliss! After the meal I waddled over to Hemingway’s Pub on the hotel premises for a nightcap.

As evident, alcohol is quite freely available in the restaurants in UAE. Nevertheless, this Muslim country's relationship with liquor is somewhat complicated. The importation and transportation of alcohol between the emirates are prohibited by law and, while anyone can buy booze from the airport tax free shops upon arrival, possession and drinking of alcohol without a personal license is an offense. Obviously, the laws are not strictly enforced, at least for foreigners, except that blatant public drunkenness can apparently lead to stiff fines and even jail time.

Back in Dubai I was getting ready to visit the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation or MBRF. This was a new outfit set up by the Sheikh of Dubai under his own name. Sheikh Mohammed is a powerful man in this country. He is the Ruler of Dubai, as well as the Prime Minister and Vice-President of the entire UAE (the President is the ruler of Abu Dhabi). Conscious of the problems besetting the Arab region—and in particular the lack of education and a culture that appreciates knowledge—the good sheikh in May 2007 announced that he would donate US$10 billion (!) to set up an educational foundation for the Middle East. He had been particularly inspired by the 2003 Arab Human Development Report produced under the auspices of UNDP with the theme ‘Building a Knowledge Society.’ Thus MBRF was born with the lofty goal of “introducing a future generation capable of facing challenges to attain sustainable development.” The foundation was located in Dubai Healthcare City (several parts of Dubai are named with such themes, like the Dubai Media City) some twenty minutes away from my hotel in the World Trade Centre area (this was going there in good traffic; as I would find out returning to my hotel, the trip could take well over an hour during evening rush). I had meetings with the MBRF Knowledge and Education sector staff who were developing a forward-looking program with the ample funds available. In fact, the largest initiative thus far was creating an Arab Knowledge Report series to engage institutions and citizens in the Arab region in global issues and concerns related to building knowledge societies. This ambitious goal would help to enhance the understanding of the regional and national development problems and priorities thus leading to better policies and strategies to address them. The work is being done jointly by MBRF with UNDP and the first Arab Knowledge Report will be launched with appropriate ceremonies in the spring of 2009. I wish the endeavour all the success!

On the next day before heading to the airport to catch a late night plane I had some free time to look around this city of wonders. My hotel was located close to Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest skyscraper. This amazing building rises 707 metres from the ground and has 160 floors (as compared with 102 in the Empire State Building or 110 in Chicago’s Sears Tower). It has been under construction since 2004 and is now nearing completion. However, its distinction will not be long-lived: the construction of the even taller Dubai Tower has already commenced!

I again jumped into a taxi and asked it to take me to the Mall of the Emirates. One has to travel by taxi most of the time. There are not many places where one can walk and public transportation systems are only now being built. My friend Erkki who recently visited Dubai observed that people make the mistake of judging the city by European standards. The Arabian-Indian city concept consists of notable places—in the past palaces, mosques and markets; now replaced with hotels and malls—with ‘nothing’ in between. Therefore the challenge is to move between these places. The Mall of the Emirates is—you guessed it!—the world’s largest. Except that the Dubai Mall now under construction will overtake it in size. For me the Emirates Mall was perfectly sufficient, though. It consists of various promenades and wings each with a different theme. There are huge areas specialising in electronics and another wing that sells exclusive and ostentatious jewellery. One segment is like a traditional Arabic souk, complete with oriental carpets and fashion shops selling black coverall robes for women. Not that you see that many covered women around the mall. Of course, some walk around with their white-clad husbands covered in black from head to toe. But many others are dressed in jeans and designer t-shirts. What was conspicuously absent in this vast paradise of consumption was anything cultural. The only exception was the Virgin Megastore with an interesting book section and excellent music department.

Most amazingly, the mall contains a full-sized indoor ski resort, Ski Dubai, where ski lifts are taking revellers up the snowy slopes. I decided to have a snack in the St. Moritz Café where I could sit by a fake fireplace and observe the goings on in the winter wonderland. I ordered a fresh mango juice with my croque madame. The wait staff in the resort-like restaurant wore red shirts with 'Après Ski Instructor' emblazoned on the back. I wondered whether these people from their tropical homelands were aware of the connotations that the term had for us coming from the colder climes. But surely this was the only place in the world where you could lie on the beach and ski down the slopes within half a day.

In the evening it was time to leave the Emirates. My Etihad flight would be at 2 a.m. from Abu Dhabi airport (unfortunately, I had failed to secure a seat from the closer Dubai airport and had to travel another 160 km back to where I had come from). The driver picked me up at 10 p.m. and I sunk in the comfortable leather backseat of the black Lexus. This time the driver was a Pakistani national who had come to Dubai as a child with his parents. Unlike the lady who brought me the opposite direction, this gentleman had no complaints about the country. On the contrary, he spent considerable time explaining the virtues of UAE and how this was a good place to live. It was prosperous and harmonious and the Sheikh took good care of the people. He concluded that this was indeed a model for the Arab world: safe and orderly, with little conflict. We could certainly agree that such peace and harmony was in short supply in the region as a whole. Towards the end of the drive we had found a common accord against narrow-mindedness and fanaticism. As we separated at the airport, my enlightened chauffeur and I shook hands warmly and agreed to work for tolerance and understanding.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Ben Allison & Medicine Wheel @ The Jazz Standard on Election Night, November 4, 2008

In the early evening there was a lot of tension in the air. Despite the polls predicting a landslide, the first results were less than assuring. The red state of Kentucky was going to McCain and when votes from only the southern precincts of Virginia were counted they were hugely tilted towards the Republicans. The pundit duo following the count closely on their Mac laptops and commenting on stage at regular intervals could not fully agree which way the race was going. The journalist Fred Kaplan was confident and upbeat, while NPR’s Brooke Gladstone was clearly more nervous about the outcome. I told Suzanne sitting across from me that, although as a non-citizen I couldn’t vote, I felt I had a huge stake in the election. She agreed: the whole world had a huge stake in this election.

We were at the Jazz Standard, my favourite club in New York. Apart from the pundits, the stage was occupied by Ben Allison & Medicine Wheel. This whole idea of jazz and politics on the election night was the brainchild of Ben and his wife Suzanne who is a director at the Asia Society. It had attracted a full house to this cellar club in the Murray Hill neighbourhood.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to mention that Ben and Suzanne have been my good friends for many years. Still, objectively, Ben Allison is one of the most innovative and successful contemporary jazz composers of recent years. This year he was rated highly both as composer and acoustic bass player in the prestigious Down Beat magazine critics’ poll. The equally esteemed Billboard magazine raved about his new album, Little Things Run the World: “Hands down, this bassist/composer's newest is the primo jazz release of 2008 so far and promises to stand tall as one of the year's best.” His compositions, often wrapped around a bass hook, achieve the rare combination of simple, yet novel melodies and harmonies, with steady beats accentuated with surprising twists. Don’t get me wrong: there’s no gimmickry, just plain good writing.

Ben is also a politically aware person. In fact, his current band, Man Size Safe, is sarcastically named after the outgoing (finally!) Vice-President Dick Cheney who was last year revealed by the Washington Post as having a man-sized safe in his office to prevent his papers from leaking and his sinister machinations from ending up in the National Archives.

Tonight, however, it was Ben’s old band, Medicine Wheel, which had been brought back together for the event after several years of inactivity. The frontline consisted of two of the best young saxophone players, Michael Blake and Ted Nash, with the guest addition of Jenny Scheinman on violin. A strong jazz artist in her own right, Jenny Scheinman had joined the band only for tonight. As usual, Frank Kimbrough on piano and Michael Sarin on drums completed the set-up. Referring to the theme of the evening, the leader hinted that the titles of the pieces they’d play had gained new and additional political meaning.

So the first tune, ‘Spy,’ originally referred to a club where Ben and Michael Blake used to play years ago, but today its title could be interpreted differently. The performance immediately lifted the mood in the club. Following the catchy lead theme played by the two sax men on tenors, Ted Nash made a splash with a crisp solo on his curved soprano sax. This old piece already showed Ben Allison’s sense of nuance and dynamism. After the feisty saxophone, the band quieted to a pianissimo string moment with a sweet combination of violin and bass joined by Kimbrough plucking the strings of the grand piano with his fingers.

‘Green Al’ had been originally written as a tribute to Al Green, but had lately gained other obvious connotations. The laidback tune started with the composer’s funky bass backed by Michael Sarin’s sensitive and subtle groove that created a tangible tension to the music. Against this backdrop, Michael Blake blew the lyrical melody with his lush tenor sax. Adding to the sensual mood was Jenny Scheinman’s smooth and sexy violin.

The music continued interrupted only by the updates by Gladstone and Kaplan. Next came the forceful ‘Riding the Nuclear Tiger’ (which until now has been pronounced ‘nookulear’). Then a cover of Herbie Nichols’ sweet ‘Love is Proximity’ on which Sheinman’s violin and Nash’ soprano provided a beautiful background to Blake’s tenor.

‘Blabbermouth’ showcased a sturdier side of Michael Sarin. The drummer demonstrated without any doubt that he is a master of a strong groove. This piece, like every other one heard tonight, also highlighted the remarkable orchestration skills of Ben Allison. With only two saxophones, violin and the rhythm section he created such harmonies that the listener would think that there was a large orchestra on stage.

At this time of the evening, the mood was reaching the ceiling and glasses were raised to cheers. Not only was the music extraordinary, the reports of the election results were becoming increasingly hopeful. After all, we wouldn’t have to wait until late night before the real celebrations could start. There would be historic change!

A Lebanese Night in Dubai

On the last night of my two-week Middle Eastern trip I had decided to spoil myself sparing no cost. An essential part of the plan was that I would spend this last night in Dubai, an emirate known for its luxurious extravagances. I was staying at the Al Murooj Rotana, a huge hotel complex by the Emirates-based chain of luxury hotels. I would only have a couple of meetings in the afternoon and could subsequently take the evening easy. I thought I’d deserve this after the hectic time rushing around through the relentless air pollution in Cairo and the overpriced squalor of Abu Dhabi.

You can imagine my distress then when, after meetings that went on for much longer than I had hoped, my return to the hotel was further delayed for two hours by the appalling traffic in the city. On top of that, I had received a message from my boss in New York—just starting her workday when mine was supposed to wind down –that she wanted a draft paper from me within the same day. It was thus already 10 o’clock in the evening when I finally managed to walk out of my room with an empty stomach and regrets for the missed opportunities.

I shouldn’t have worried too much. Having studied the options nearby and within the sprawling Al Murooj complex already in advance, I headed straight to the superb Lebanese restaurant Mawal. The rather large, yet cosy place was only perhaps a third full as this was still considered rather early for a dinner, even on a weekday. I got a good table for myself and studied the surroundings. There were a few groups of Arabs getting ready for an evening of entertainment at various tables. All were well-dressed in casual western garb. Of the dozen or so women, only one wore a discreet headscarf; others were elegant in designer dresses.

Before I had even had the time to order, the table in front of me was starting to fill with plates. There was a basket of bread and a huge tray of big and juicy olives, hot peppers and three kinds of sour pickled vegetables, which I could only guess what they were. Another plate was piled up with fresh crudités. I added a tabouleh salad to my order in addition to a mixed grill consisting of tasty cubes of beef and spiced chicken kebab, grilled tomatoes and onion, and my favourite koobideh kebab made of minced meat. Everything was covered with ample chopped parsley that cleanses the breath after onion, garlic and spices. This turned out to be a superb meal! Then when I no longer expected anything, a real horn of plenty was placed in front of me bursting with seven kinds of fresh fruit. I initially focused on the ripe mangoes and rambutans, but the real treat turned out to be the large purple grapes that would fill one’s mouth with sweet juice.

At 11 p.m., three musicians walked to the stage. Two of them sat behind batteries of keyboards and percussion instruments, while the one in the middle picked up an electric violin. Starting with catchy Lebanese tunes, the band was immediately able to lift the atmosphere in the restaurant. These rhythmically complex songs with mysterious melodies were played with aplomb and showmanship that forced one to be drawn into the mood. In between, the violinist employed his considerable skills to interpreting some popular but trivial western tunes played against the mechanical Euro beats so much detested—and perhaps rightly so—by the Americans. Luckily, he soon returned to the more appropriate Arabic modes.

By this time more customers had entered. I observed as a third member joined two other chic ladies at a table right next to the stage. By their appearance, I suspected that this graceful but merry trio were Lebanese. The small Mediterranean nation is widely known for three things: excellent music, superb cuisine, and extraordinarily beautiful women. I was lucky to be witnessing all these attributes here tonight. (Incidentally, the other night watching Aljazeera on TV, I happened on an interview with the Irish rocker Chris De Burgh who is particularly popular in Lebanon; he appeared to attest to the same triumvirate.) The fourth attribute, unfortunately more often associated with Lebanon, is of course the persistent war and conflict that has persistently flared up over the past three decades. This conflict has involved the multicultural Mediterranean nation’s Muslim and Druze populations and is kept alive by the anti-Israeli militia, Hezbollah. It in turn is backed by the Iranian regime in Tehran. The Machiavellian neighbour Syria also likes to add to the mess and stoke the fires for its own political purposes. Sadly, this has turned Beirut—formerly known as the Paris of the east—into ruin.

Just as the three ladies were about to embark on dinner, the lights were dimmed and the keyboardist announced against a backdrop of dramatic sound effects that it was time to welcome the belly dancer! Now, I have seen several belly dancing performances in places like Cairo and Istanbul, but this one turned out to be a particular treat. The tall and attractive lady swooped to the stage to the accompaniment of the band that was creating a full and authentic music layered with the live and pre-programmed oriental instruments through the synthesizers. The dancer was dressed in an Islamic green bikini top glimmering with jewels and tiny mirrors, and a matching long skirt, with a slit upon one thigh that reached all the way up there. In addition, she had two large pieces of white silk tied to her waste that she used to the effect of angel wings or sails fluttering in the wind.

She was clearly able to shake each and any part of her voluptuous body independently from any other part. She would glide rapidly through the floor apparently barely moving her feet or her head, all the while every part in between would do the seductive dance. Every dance she performed was different, with a different tempo and theme. The angel wings were gone after the first dance and we could now focus on her movements without the distraction of the whirling silk. Sometimes she would use her long hair as a prop, at times spinning it around in coordination with the music; at other times using it as a veil to cover her face. In one dance she grabbed a silver coloured walking cane as a prop (obviously not used during the times of a thousand and one nights). She would twirl it skilfully like a cheerleader might in front of a marching band in America. She then placed the stick horizontally on her head leaving it there while continuing to gyrate her hips and other parts of her anatomy below the neck. Later she repeated this trick with an Arabian style sword which she put on her head as she slithered slowly as a snake to the lengthy cadenza played by the violin virtuoso. These dances drew huge applause from the audience, almost all of whom were Arabs.

Towards the end of the hour-long show her smooth bronzed body shone sensually with sweat in the air conditioned room. I could not help but to think about the performance by the Finnish soprano Karita Mattila singing the name role in Salome at the Metropolitan in New York. My friend Vesa and I had witnessed the culmination of the opera in the ‘Seven Veils Dance’ which has made the diva even more famous. Richard Strauss, when composing the music in 1924, had invested all of his imagined oriental entrapments into this song. And it is still today very impressive and beguiling. Yet it cannot compared with the real thing.

Walking back satisfied after the meal and performance, I was thinking how rich the Middle Eastern culture is. It is a pity that there are elements in this region who see all of this as sinful and unlawful and who therefore wish to impose their intolerant version of Islam on their fellow humans.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Leaving Cairo - Patience and flexibility are a must!

Is it possible to be patient and aggressive all at the same time? In any case, these are some of the traits that are required when one passes through Cairo airport. Flexibility is another one. The chaos starts at the parking lot. I had left my hotel on the Nile waterfront, Corniche el Nil, in good time and everything went smoothly on this Friday morning (Friday is the weekly holiday in Egypt and other Muslim countries, so the traffic was light) until we reached the airport. Unlike at most other airports of the world where the taxi drops off the passenger on the curb in front of the departure hall, in Cairo the parking lot away from the terminal building is as far as the taxis get. Already there, complete and utter chaos reigned with cars and vans gridlocked—horns blaring, needless to say—in the tight spots. Passengers with their loads of luggage fought to squeeze in between the cars towards the distant terminal.

Once in there, it got worse. The throngs were incredible. It seems that every departing passenger had brought along his or her relatives, extended family, friends, and probably a few strangers just for show, to wave them off to their destinations. The crowds were almost impossible to penetrate. There were very few foreigners, which is understandable as this terminal was exclusively for Egypt Air departures. Anyone with the wherewithal would do his or her utmost to choose some—any!—other carrier. The few Europeans who were there looked desperate. The information on the rare screens was confusing even to the initiated and airline employees were screaming instructions over the commotion. This wasn’t very helpful, as the details were provided in Arabic. At least I thought it was Arabic, although it was hard to hear over the general noise. Trying to penetrate the crowd and move towards my check-in area I suddenly hit a wall. The mob was so large and densely packed that it couldn’t move anymore in any direction. I estimated I’d still have a good twenty meters to reach the safety of the passengers-only area. For several minutes I did not move. Children started to cry loudly, although one little boy found it amusing to run between the legs of the waiting people, as if he were in a thick forest of big trees, in the process trampling on many feet. In front of me, several baggage trolleys were fatally interlocked. At the same time, I saw some important looking thugs ushered through the side gates without having to queue at all. I was fuming at this unfairness, while starting to despair at the lack of any progress. I do not do well in these kinds of situations.

Suddenly, a young Egyptian man appeared next to me. In good English, he suggested that he could take me through quickly, as he didn’t want to see me suffer inside the horde. I could thus become like those thugs who used their privileges and money to bypass the discomforts accorded to the commoners. Out of principle, I refused his services. But after several minutes when he found me again at precisely the same spot, I relented and handed my suitcase to him. Corruption breeds corruption. Miraculously, he managed to lead us through, the multitude of humanity parting in front of his determination like the Red Sea in front of Moses. It turned out to be a lucky decision on my part to sacrifice my principles. Namely, the fellow headed to an unexpected direction. Unbeknownst to me, it had been announced (in Arabic) that the flight to Abu Dhabi departs from Hall 2. Without the kindness of this stranger, I would have wasted the morning in Hall 1 only to find that I had joined the wrong throng. We breezed through the terminal scattering groups of people, sailing past lines, through gates that would suddenly be opened to us by uniformed officers who obviously were in this little enterprise together with my facilitator. I felt relieved, grateful that I had been born wealthy enough to afford this service.

Finally inside the check-in hall we separated and I joined a line behind the Egypt Air counter. This was not too bad. There were not so many people in front of me and the hall itself was only half-full. Of course, the decibel level was still well above internationally accepted WHO norms. There were what seemed like hundreds of children, seemingly belonging to only a handful of women. Those that were not running around and screaming excitedly at the prospect of travel were wailing in frustration because of the same.

I was in my thoughts and noticed too late that a few people had squeezed in between me and the man in front of me in the line. Nothing to do about that; the opening had been for grabs. In Egypt, one has to breath into the neck of the guy before you—and move strategically to block any sideline attempts—if you want to keep your place in a queue. The cutting is not even remotely subtle; it’s pure survival of the fittest.

It turned out that I had chosen the wrong line anyway. The large gentleman, traveling with what I assumed were his son and his wife and little daughter, was negotiating with the agent about the obviously excessive amount of luggage. From the scales I saw that the family had 146 kg of bags to check in. The negotiation—which alternated between loud and threatening shouts and sweet smiling cajoling—lasted a good fifteen minutes. Finally money exchanged hands as the portly man doled out the agreed sum from a thick wad of Egyptian pounds in his pocket. Whether these would actually go to the airline would never be known.

In the meantime, a fight was about to break out in the next line to my left. The situation looked menacing. The reason for conflict was apparently the same. I saw that the lone gent was proposing to check in 72 kg worth of luggage. I am sure he would prevail in the end. What they were doing was only negotiating the price. Third World people do not travel light. I was beginning to worry whether our old 737 would be able to take off with all this overweight!

The next hurdle would be passport control. Again, the lines did not look too bad, but looks were deceptive. The system ensured that it would take the required time. There were two people at every passport counter: a uniformed man checking and stamping the passports, and a lady wearing a headscarf entering the information from the departure cards into an ancient computer (a classic case of two officers of whom one knows how to read and the other how to write). Furthermore, they would occasionally allow women with children—did I mention that there were children?—jump the line, presumably on humanitarian grounds. From his high counter, the border official looked down judging all passengers. I hoped that I had filled in the departure card correctly, so as not to be sent back to the end of the line. I sighed in relief when I was handed back my stamped travel document.

Behind the passport control there was another counter where an elderly man was waiting to—get ready for this—check your passport. This was a more casual inspection and the uncle was glad to wave me onwards.

Now that I had been cleared through, it was obvious that what I had thought of as ample lead time I had given myself at the airport had been just about enough. Departure time was approaching, and I had made it. It was still only 9 o’clock in the morning, but it felt like I had done a day’s work. So when my hopeful eyes detected that the snack bar actually sold beer, I happily ordered a cold Egyptian Stella. The cashier produced the can. I said that I’d have to pay in US dollars, as I had given all of my remaining pounds to the facilitator. The man behind the cash machine said: no dollars, only pounds. This is the international airport of a world city and a major regional hub, and they only accept local currency, I thought with my mood sinking rapidly. However, if there’s one thing that I had learned, it was: be flexible and never take anything at face value. So I entered into a negotiation with the kind coffee shop employee. Naturally, we soon agreed and I laid down four greenbacks in exchange of the cool beverage. Smiling, we both agreed this was a fair price and, indeed, it was worth it. Life was starting look up.

Night out on the Nile

The other night one of my old friends, Roland, took me out on the town in Cairo. We met at my hotel, the Conrad, where we enjoyed the ‘happy hour’—meaning two drinks for one, which still left each one of them outrageously pricey!—in Le Bar. We then crossed the Corniche el Nil, risking our lives dashing between the never-ending and fast-moving flow of cars along the Nile, and grabbed a taxi upstream. After a while in the disastrous traffic, the driver reached the crossing in the Garden City area where we were supposed to turn left to reach our destination, but armed guards blocked our way. Cars without a specific pass were not allowed beyond this point. We had to abandon the taxi and continue on foot into the quiet residential neighborhood. We passed the British embassy, which stood dark, fortified with serious barricades; then the American embassy—the biggest mission of the nation anywhere in the world—a veritable fortress from whence the good diplomats would hardly ever have to venture.

We turned right onto a yet another residential street. Egyptian soldiers dressed in camouflage fatigues were lounging around in the shadows, smoking. The streets reminded me vaguely of some of the residential neighborhoods in Rome, with small European cars parked haphazardly along—and sometimes on—the sidewalks. One of the soldiers pointed us to the right direction and finally Roland recognized the building where the Cairo Capitol Club was located. Downstairs, I was surprised to notice, was more than half-shabby. There were four elevators, only one of which would reach the exclusive 19th floor club. After a considerable wait, the elevator picked us up. The style of the building changed already in the small cabin, which was lined with fake bookshelves decorated with faux leather-bound volumes, which upon casual observation appeared quite real. Only a closer look revealed that none of them were actual books, but just their backs inscribed with the name of the club and some of its dignitaries. Classic western pop music was playing through the piping.

I followed in Roland’s footsteps as he walked in determinedly. As we entered the venerable club we found that we were the only people on the top floor overlooking the Nile. A beautiful young lady ran after us asking whether we actually were members. Roland explained honestly that, no, we were not, but that he’d been there on several occasions before. This explanation seemed to satisfy the maitre d' who returned to her counter while we positioned ourselves on some well-worn but comfortable leather sofas by the floor-to-ceiling windows and ordered rum and coke. It was fabulous to sit down with my old friend, who with his wife moved to Cairo just six weeks ago, and inhale the gorgeous view across one of the world’s mightiest rivers.

I had arrived in Cairo on the Friday before, on a flight that could be kindly described as less than satisfying. It had been a direct flight from New York on Egypt Air—in business class, no less. Still, it was so cramped that it would have made some of other airlines’ economy classes seem spacious. Next to me on the 10-hour flight sat a very pleasant Filippino-Canadian gentleman, on his way to a gorgeous holiday involving a cruise on the Nile and a lovely sojourn to the fabled Masai Mara game park in Kenya with his gentleman friend. He was delightful company but when he slept—that is, most of the night—it was impossible for me to get out of my claustrophobic little corner by the window. My claustrophobia was not eased by the fact that, true to Islamic ways, the good airline didn’t carry any alcohol that could have at least dulled the pain.

The taxi driver who took me to the Conrad from the airport assured me that the hotel was the “best in Cairo,” a veritable “7 stars!” It was neither, of course. But it was comfortable enough to allow me to rest well over the past few nights after the distressing flight.

I was on a business trip—a ‘mission’ as the UN calls them somewhat pretentiously—and was traveling with two companions. Fuat is an elderly (only as counted in chronological years) gentleman originally from Istanbul. Mouna has spent most of her life in places other than her native Yemen, including Beirut, Paris and New York. Both are extremely sophisticated, smart and—most importantly—fun people. In the first three nights in town we had gone out together to places, such as the Naguib Mahfouz Café (where the Nobel prize winning novelist apparently used to sit every night; on our night, though, everyone in the main dining room was a tourist), a wonderfully eclectic joint called Abu Seid (Fuat seemed to think it was a bit too funky for him), and the restaurant Le Tarbouche on a boat moored to the Nile banks (here the music played on an oud and a hand drum was perfect in both tone and atmosphere)—so tonight was a welcome opportunity to escape from my partners in crime, as much as I enjoy their company.

Roland and I have met each other in many countries—we counted Bangladesh, Germany, Austria, USA and Sri Lanka amongst them—since we left Rome where the both of us used to live two decades ago. Through all these years we’ve kept in touch, although sometimes long passages of time would take place between our meetings. Despite the time that has passed since our original encounters, we again realized that nothing has changed. We are still the same silly young men, with the same silly joys and silly concerns, as before. And why should this change? Cairo is still the same after a much longer history. Of course, its population has grown, the pollution increased, and some neighborhoods have thrived, while others have declined.

The view from the 19th floor was unparalleled. On the river, as every night, a colorful parade of boats entertaining guests for merriment was passing at frequent intervals. The traditional feluccas—the boats with white triangular sails that feature in so many Cairo postcards—seemed hardly existent. From the height we could only observe a couple of their darkened silhouettes silently gliding on the black surface. Have the commercialized motor boats truly replaced the quiet and clean sailing vessels that so defined this mighty river since thousands of years? Hopefully not fully replaced; but certainly overwhelmed them in number.

The talk of the town in Cairo for the several weeks before this had been the murder of the famed Lebanese songstress Suzanne Tamim in Dubai in late-July. The murderer—an off-duty Egyptian policeman—had been identified from security camera pictures as he cheated his entrance disguised as a maintenance man to the glamorous woman’s unit, only to slash her throat in quick succession with a large knife. What made this story unique was that it was soon determined that the killer was most likely doing his deed at the orders of the renowned Egyptian billionaire magnate, Hisham Talaat Moustafa, who had been the starlet’s former lover. It appeared that the man had become savagely jealous when the woman had wanted to end the affair and moved to Dubai to escape her pursuer. The man had not been able to tolerate the humiliation and had contracted the officer to kill her. This was not the most amazing part of the story, however. It was that, in the face of overwhelming forensic evidence, the Egyptian police actually decided to arrest the real estate developer in September. It was completely unheard of in Egypt that a powerful oligarch—and a personal friend of President Mubarak’s son (who himself may well be the next President Mubarak)—actually would (could!) be held accountable for anything that he did, even if it was outright murder. People were stunned. Many theories and rumors flew around wherever Egyptians gathered. One of the more believable ones was that, while the law was the same for everyone (and the death penalty applied to murderers as well as those who commissioned them), the tycoon had already been allowed to leave the country. He would be living somewhere else under an alias, while a substitute would be hanged and presented as proof that the law is the same for the rich and the poor.

We remained the only guests on the top floor of the club for the entire night. On the floor below, there was an engagement party with a bunch of rowdy and obviously affluent Egyptians. The music—ranging from Arabic dance music to the western pop of yesteryear (think Tom Jones)—penetrated upstairs. Raising his glass, Roland toasted to "the exclusive dinner with the inclusive music!” The food was indeed exquisite. The Mexican tomato soup (as opposed to the "fresh" tomato soup also on the menu) with chicken balls (they exist, you know) was absolutely delicious. My main course of salmon (probably flown in earlier in the day from Scotland or Norway—not by any means an environmentally recommendable practice) was one of the best I’ve ever had—and that’s a statement from a Nordic character who grew up on salmon! It was placed on a bed of lentils that was as subtle and tasty as—well—pulses can be. We washed it all down with a local Omar Khayyam white wine, which proved itself to be almost as poetic as the person who lent his name to the beverage.

Cairo never sleeps, says the slogan, but we decided it was time. Descending down in the old library-elevator, we again entered the quiet, well-guarded street. Passing by the concrete stoppers and ignoring the heavy weaponry nonchalantly pointed at us, we were back on the Corniche. An old Peugeot 504 taxi soon stopped at our beckoning. The driver initially protested that he wanted to go home quickly, but soon agreed to make a u-turn and take us to our respective homes. The driver sporting a thick moustache was in an exuberant mood. He asked us in broken English, why did we think he’d be so full of joy. When we couldn’t guess, he revealed that in only two days would his first son reach 7 years of age! This made him so happy that he was talking nonstop. Speeding through the Cairo thoroughfare at astonishing speed (which, in the absence of a working speedometer, was impossible to verify) while the driver was half the time turned towards the back seat declaring his friendship toward us made me wonder whether I’d be able to reach my own next birthday. When we stopped in front of my hotel, I shook the driver’s hand and wished his young son a happy birthday. Our brief encounters had been brotherly.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Sadao Watanabe @ The Blue Note, September 8, 2008

Sadao Watanabe is one of the grand old men of Japanese jazz, so when I saw that he would give one of his increasingly infrequent performances on this side of the globe I decided it would be an event not to be missed. It was also opportune since my old friend Pekka was visiting from Helsinki and wanted to hear some good live music. So we headed to the Blue Note in West Village. Luckily we arrived early as the place was quickly getting crowded. We were still able to secure stools at the bar with a perfect view of the stage; had we arrived 15 minutes later this would not have been possible. Needless to say, as is always the case at New York jazz clubs, many in the audience were Japanese, either locals or visiting. Jazz is a major Japanese interest and famous clubs like the Blue Note are a must for many tourists from the Land of the Rising Sun. However, word of the rare performance had spread in the Big Apple music circles and the performance was soon sold out to a thoroughly mixed audience.

The 75-year-old master entered the stage quite promptly on schedule. He was in a joyful mood and thanked the sponsors of the trip, as this had allowed him to travel with his own band from Japan, as opposed to putting together a group of local musicians on the spot. Playing with his own band guaranteed the performance’s tightness.

The first number, as well as the one that followed it, were light hearted romps. Watanabe’s alto sax sound was as clear and beautiful as ever. The youthful band played the rolling funk so cheerfully, prompting Pekka to suggest that it sounded almost vacuous and that especially the guitar played by Jun Kajiwara was even too light. I had to agree. Luckily, this mood was only for the beginning. Already the third tune, a version of Dizzy’s classic Salt Peanuts, carried much more weight. Even if the piece is not known for any manner of serious-mindedness, it provided the sax man a chance to show off some serious be-bop chops.

This was followed by the lovely ballad You Should Go Now, which Watanabe interpreted wonderfully. His alto was crisp singing the melancholy melody with lyrical determination. The keyboardist Akira Onozuka, now on acoustic piano, was equally expressive in his solo demonstrating some highly original harmonies.

After this, the mood turned outright festive with tunes like the Brazilian favourite Chega de Saudade (which aptly translates into ‘end of melancholy’) boosting the rhythm section, consisting of Kiichiro Komobuchi (electric bass), Masaharu Ishikawa (drums) and N'diasse Niang (percussion), into infectious samba swing.

Around this time one Japanese customer was forcibly removed from the club by two large security guards. I did not see what caused this incident, but I had earlier paid attention to the middle aged man when he was hanging around the bar before the performance. It was not only his somewhat unusual outfit – a fedora and a leather vest on top of a tank-top – but the threatening way he was eyeing the other customers. This was the first time I had witnessed anything similar at this venue – or with Japanese customers.

Nevertheless, the show went on and the audience was growing more and more enthusiastic. To me, the high point of the evening was a tune, which Sadao Watanabe explained he had heard a young woman sing on the Indian Ocean beach in Tanzania years ago. He had approached the beautiful lady and asked about the song. He later adapted the traditional tune to this new format. He played the haunting melody with a breathy flute before turning back to his sax for the solo. The piece also highlighted the percussionist, N'diasse Niang, who was the only non-Japanese player in the band. Watanabe had originally encountered him in the National Ballet of Senegal but the man now lived in Yokohama. His solos throughout the evening received some of the most enthusiastic applause.

This was all in all a lovely performance by an old Sensei surrounded by a select group of his disciples.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Contemporary Tradition: Asian Music in New York

There’s no place like New York to hear music from all walks of life. A period of few weeks earlier this year demonstrates it perfectly. I’ve seen and heard amazing acts of Asian music, drawing upon ancient traditions, rendered in new forms.

Hogaku: New Sounds of Japan 2008 @ Asia Society, January 12, 2008

As a general term Hogaku refers to traditional Japanese music, as opposed to Western music. In this series of performances on one Saturday night in January, the music was distinctly Japanese, although the tradition was perfectly merged with contemporary sounds. Still the evening’s performances were all on acoustic Japanese instruments.

First on stage were Goto & Obama, a duo that has performed together since 2002. In his introductory remarks, the Director General of the Japan Foundation in New York, Isao Tsujimoto, joked that we should not expect to be entertained by any presidential candidate tonight. Instead, one half of the duo was Akihito Obama who plays shakuhachi, the bamboo flute. Playing the Japanese biwa-lute was Yukihiro Goto. Both of these instruments belong to the pantheon of Japanese music. However, neither is a mainstay in Japanese classical music, but rather have more folksy roots and were originally brought to Japan when Buddhism spread there from China. The Shakuhachi was played in mountain temples some thousand years ago and was later disseminated further by wandering monks called ‘Komuso.’ Both instruments became popular beyond their Buddhist connotations and much popular music has been performed on them over the past couple of centuries. Seldom, however, have they been played together in Hogaku.

Goto & Obama’s music was firmly based on traditional Japanese melodies and sounds. Indeed, their performance consisted of a number of traditional tunes - such as the solo shakuhachi piece Tamuke and Itsuki-no-Komoriuta - as well as pieces penned by the two musicians themselves. While the atmosphere was true to the musical origins, the two instrumentalists stretched the limits of the form by borrowing from jazz and rock expression and improvising skilfully around the themes. As a student of shakuhachi, I was particularly taken by the fluidity with which Obama moved between these worlds.

After the intermission, the voltage was turned up a notch by Wariki, a quartet that combines music and dance to create the carnival-like atmosphere of Japanese street performances and festivals. Formed in 2001, the band draws from a variety of performance traditions around the country – including the shishimai lion dance and Shintoist kagura folk music and dance – rendering them into joyous celebrations completely in tune with current sensibilities. In fact, Wariki’s performance this night was so cheerful that it completely engaged the audience.

The quartet was fronted by Akira Katogi, whose main role is dance and street performance, but who also plays percussion on the taiko drums. Shunsuke Kimura played the yokobue, a horizontal bamboo flute. Both he and percussionist Etsuro Ono doubled on tsugaru shamisen, the Japanese banjo. Shingo Ikegami joined as a guest on koto, the complex zither.

Akira Katogi’s antics as he performed in flashy festival outfits cheered up the somewhat stuffy audience. As the show progressed, people were increasingly animated and laughing at the humorous twists on the stage. At the reception following, I briefly talked with Katogi who turned out to be as sympathetic and good-humoured off-stage as on it.

The stage was thus set for the final jam session in which all of the six musicians for Wariki and Goto & Obama joined in a jazzy romp. Goto and Ono showed off their jazz chops trading fluent improvisational lines between the biwa and the shamisen. For me, however, the highlight of the evening were the solos on shakuhachi and yokobue, respectively, by Obama and Kimura. The entire evening left me exhilarated as I exited the Asia Society premises to the chilly and dark Park Avenue.

Kaoru Watanabe and Tatsuya Nakatani @ Tenri Institute, February 6, 2008

A few weeks later on a Wednesday night I headed to Union Square south on Manhattan to catch what seemed like an interesting performance involving flutes and percussion by Kaoru Watanabe and Tatsuya Nakatani. Unlike the more formal concert hall setting of the above hogaku event, this performance took place in the exhibition hall of the Tenri Institute where folding chairs had been placed in a semicircle in front of a wall that donned contemporary Korean calligraphy.

The two performers both are bona fide jazz musicians of the free improvisational persuasion, albeit with a keen awareness of their native roots. Kaoru Watanabe was actually born in St. Louis and studied at the Manhattan School of Music, although he moved to Japan in the late-1990s living and performing there as a flautist for nine years. His background includes collaborations with well-known jazz and world music performers, as well as in traditional Japanese settings. He occasionally sits in with the Tenri Gagaku Society orchestra, of which my wife Yoko is also a member.

The drummer and percussionist, Tatsuya Nakatani hails from Osaka but has performed all over the world and has released many recordings of improvisational music. The performance started with him alone on stage, using a bass violin bow on a large gong building up a huge thunderstorm into which walked Watanabe from behind the audience with his side-blown ryuteki-flute.

Nakatani continued to create imaginative sounds from his stripped down Western drum set and various percussion instruments. He had a series of brass bowls out of which he would tease a wide range of tones. On occasion, he would grab a small cymbal and blow through its center hole while placing it on the snare drum. This would create whispering sounds that would rise and produce overtones that would mix with those of the flute.

Watanabe had placed a range of flutes, including a Western silver flute which he used only briefly, on a chair beside him. The unplanned improvisational character of the music became obvious from how he hesitated to choose a particular flute before first listening carefully to which direction his partner was moving. As a result, the music was both varied and sensitive. Watanabe played some beautiful mellow shinobue on a piece that swayed in a smooth bossa nova rhythm. He demonstrated his impressive technique in a jazzy solo on the ryuteki, a historical flute not known for its versatility.

After a brief intermission, the duo returned for a brief reunion. This time Nakatani entered from behind the audience blowing on the head of the tom-tom producing sounds imitating elephant bellows. The second set consisted of a range of styles that merged into a cohesive whole in the hands of these two musicians. They played a very pretty traditional Japanese folk song, even a tune from the very old gagaku court music repertoire, as well as free music on a high pitch nohkan, a flute used in the traditional noh theater, and percussion verging on SciFi tonalities.

The two musicians have known each other for two years but this was only their second performance together. It was an inspiring event in the clean and simple, yet intimate space of the Tenri Institute. In his own words, Kaoru Watanabe enjoys the Japanese sensibilities of space and a variety of tonal qualities. These were ample in the music we heard that night.

Akiko Yano @ Japan Society, February 8, 2008

On the Friday night of the same week, the legendary Japanese musician Akiko Yano performed at the Japan Society. She is undoubtedly a genius whose music resembles that of no other artist (the only fleeting connotations in my mind were some of her piano solos that reminded me of the sensibilities of Chick Corea). She has recorded 26 albums under her own name. This was the third time I had the great pleasure of hearing her live. In Japan, Akiko Yano is a mega-star who fills up the Budokan and other arenas, so it was a particular treat to sea her about five meters in front of me in the smallish hall in Manhattan where she’s lived since 1990.

Akiko Yano showed up on the stage looking great in a flowing black, white and grey dress that left her shoulders bare. Her hair was brown, long and flowing in large curls. When she sat behind the grand piano her touch managed to combine the powerful with the frail in her unique way. The first tunes were played in a trio setting with Chris Minh Doky and Cliff Almond backing up Ms. Yano on bass and drums. On the first tune, Hou-hi, a Japanese folk song, Akiko displayed her amazing ability to play funky while singing in the inimitable way that only she knows. The backing musicians easily settled into a free floawing groove that perfectly accompanied the music.

The second song, Chinsagume Hana from Okinawa, started with an ostinato played by Doky into which Akiko and Almond joined. The song drifted into a dreamlike state followed by a complex vamp during which the band intensified the approach. After the intensive period, Akiko got back into the melody and the song ended with Doky playing the same ostinato he had started off with.

The middle part of the concert consisted of a series of songs played solo by Akiko Yano. A few of the songs were her renditions of Japanese children’s songs and nursery rhymes, such as Imomushi goro-goro. She would chatter with the audience in a seamless mix of Japanese and English, then start on a song only to soon venture far from the theme on both vocals and the piano. At one point she’d play a tune composed for her by Pat Metheny, which – like Ms. Yano herself explained – didn’t take account of the singer’s range: Metheny, a fabulous musician and composer but not a singer, had written a melody line that challenged even Akiko Yano’s soprano. Another new song was by T-Bone Burnett, who has produced Akiko Yano’s forthcoming 27th CD. The slow funky allowed her to display her blues abilities.

The back-up musicians returned and the band went back into a jazz mood for the rest of the concert. Akiko Yano’s childlike singing is unique. She is an amazing pianist and her interpretation of music is like no-one else’s. There are few musicians anywhere in the world as brilliant and original as Akiko Yano.

Electric Kulintang: Susie Ibarra & Roberto Rodriquez @ Noguchi Museum, February 10, 2008

Just two days later, I went to the Noguchi Museum in Queens to catch a Sunday matinee with Susie Ibarra and Roberto Rodriguez amongst the imaginative stone sculptures of Isamu Noguchi. It was starting to snow outside and the austere setting in the museum was perfect. I grabbed a straw mat to sit with Yoko on the concrete floor against a white wall just in front of where Susie had placed her kulintang and other percussions. Kulintang is a traditional Filippino instrument, a kind of a xylophone with eight brass gongs played with mallets. The word ‘kulintang’ also refers to the kind of music and dance from the Philippines. Electric Kulintang was formed after Susie Ibarra and Roberto Rodriguez travelled to the archipelago in 2005 to research the musical tradition of her home country.

In the matinee the duo played music they had composed to the poem ‘War Horses’ by Yusef Komunyakaa. The poem narrated from a tape was accompanied by Susie on the kulintang and Roberto on various kinds of percussions and electronics. The short pensive concert played to an appreciative and artsy audience produced some interesting ideas that suited the atmosphere of the winter afternoon superbly. Yet, it was not something that would impress me excessively. I much prefer the duo's debut album, Dialects, in which the Electric Kulintang gets deeper into creating its innovative brand of “Filippino trip-hop.”

Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble @ Kumble Theatre, February 15, 2008

On yet another Friday night in February I took the subway underneath the East River to attend an Asian New Year Celebration at Long Island University's Brooklyn Campus. The attraction for me was the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble, established and led by violinist Meg Ogura since 2005. I had purchased their first album already a couple of years ago and was intrigued by the music, so I looked forward to catching them live in the university’s Kumble Theatre.

The setting was not terribly promising. There was confusion at the entrance, which was clearly staffed with volunteers. A sponsor, Chatham Imports, Inc., that represents Chinese Baojing White Spirits, had failed to show up and the pre-show tasting was thus cancelled (a disappointment). The auditorium was only half-full and many in the audience appeared to be students and parents of the performers who would be on stage after Meg Ogura’s group. I settled in the middle of the hall close to the stage.

The Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble has five members, four of whom are female and three of Japanese origin. Tokyo-native Meg Ogura herself plays the violin and the Chinese violin, erhu. She is an established musician with a superb classical background, having graduated from Julliard. She has performed with the New York String Orchestra and as concert master with stars, such as Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones and Diane Krall. In addition, she’s a professional jazz violinist who has recorded as a sideman for some of the biggest names in jazz. The other members are Jun Kubo on the Western flute and shinobue, Mamiko Kitaura on piano, Jennifer Vincent on cello, and Rich Stein on percussion. The ensemble entered the stage dressed elegantly in all black and sat down in a semicircle like a chamber orchestra should.

The first piece, Dance at the Palace, set the scene with a light swing. However, the main event was the world premiere of Meg Ogura’s composition Lu Chai or ‘Deer Park’ based on a poem by the Chinese poet Wang Wei (699-761). Although Meg Ogura herself is from Japan, her musical sensibilities are, indeed, pan-Asian. Lu Chai drew more on Chinese tonalities than Japanese. Although these two traditions are related, there are significant differences. In this piece, the composer used two different pentatonic scales, one from China, the other from Japan (the so called ‘Miyako-bushi’ scale).

Ogura’s four-part composition was intricate and sensitive, yet it was constantly moving and at times swinging, with the cello providing a base that was closer to a walking jazz bass than the classical basso continuo. Not unexpectedly, Meg herself proved to be the most powerful soloist on both of her instruments. Jun Kubo’s flute had a perfect but somewhat thin tone approaching a sini curve, but on the shinobue she demonstrated a remarkably beautiful sound (already a third shinobue player this year that has surprised me!). The pianist, Mamiko Kitaura, was another remarkable player who switched effortlessly from restrained classical style piano playing to fiery solos a la McCoy Tyner.

In the next phase of the evening the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble accompanied the C. Eule Dance troupe in a ballet called Tsuru-no Ongaeshi (‘The Crane Wife’) based on an ancient Japanese fable. Meg Ogura had composed the music and the artistic director and choreographer was Caron Eule. As I don’t feel qualified as a ballet critic, I refrain from commenting further.

As the night wore on, the performances became increasingly amateurish but some were charming. After the ballet, they were performed by the Asian Student Association of Long Island University. I did stay until the evening ended with the famous Lion Dance.