Thursday, December 30, 2010

Bali: People and Pollution in Paradise

“It’s Galungan and I’m very busy,” Putri said as she was pouring me a drink. She works at the hotel where I was staying. It was already close to midnight and she would have a short night. Although she said she lived close by here in Nusa Dua, during the festival she would have to go to her parental village, which involves a 1.5 hour ride on her moped. And she will have to be ready to go to the temple to make offerings to ancestors with her family at 5:30 am. Galungan is a Hindu festival, closely related to Diwali, the festival of light celebrated in India. But Galungan – like Hinduism here in general – has a distinct Balinese twist. First, unlike the annual Diwali, Gadung is celebrated twice a year and celebrates the creation of the world. For Putri and many others like her employed in the booming commercial sector the traditional festival is a source of both devotion and stress. Tradition is alive and well on Bali.

Bali has the reputation of being as close to paradise as any place on earth. The mostly Hindu island in the world’s largest Muslim nation is known for its temples, relaxing lifestyle, friendly people and beaches of white sand. But there are mounting pressures that threaten the paradise-like setting. A place whose charm so much depends on its beauty and clean nature is particularly vulnerable to environmental problems.

The most obvious pressure comes from the sheer number of people. The tiny island has some 3.5 million permanent inhabitants, making it one of the most densely populated places on the planet. This is particularly striking to me, as my own country of birth lies at the opposite end of the spectrum: Finland with sixty times the land area of Bali has just 5 million people. Of course, Bali’s tropical climate and fertile soils have in the first place been able to support such a large and growing population, unlike the frigid conditions up north. Still, the place is increasingly crowded and despite the recent rapid urbanization it is overpopulated. As reported in The Jakarta Post (30 April 2010), according to Indonesian national standard, the maximum population to be supported in Bali in a sustainable manner would only be about 1.6 million people or less than half the current population.

The urban centres themselves present a slew of problems. With haphazard growth and inadequate infrastructure, pollution runs into the rivers and pristine places are transformed into townships. Denpasar, the capital, is now like a miniature Jakarta, crowded with people, cars, mopeds and pollution. The city has a distinct waste management problem that is acknowledged by Indonesian researchers and environmentalists. The city alone produces more than 1,500 m3 of garbage every day, rendering the city planners’ beautification efforts futile. Other growing urban centres are quickly following in its destructive path.

Nusa Dua at the southern tip of the island is an ecosystem in itself. Developed for tourism, the area is built with self-sustaining hotel complexes complete with numerous restaurants, spas, pools and sporting facilities. The entire area is spotlessly clean, neat and well organized with straight roads and perfectly manicured lawns. The main shopping centre, Bali Collection, contains a complex of shops and restaurants where the prices are fixed to a level that would be far above affordable to locals used to viewing bargaining as a competitive, if good-humoured and friendly sport.

Despite this cleanliness, tourism is one of the greatest causes of strain to Bali’s environment. Again, it’s the sheer numbers of people visiting the island. There are 1.9 million visitors annually to the tiny island! The Balinese receive the visitors well and are very tolerant of their sometimes less than gracious ways. In fact, the locals are so tolerant that Indonesian Muslim terrorists bombed entertainment establishments in 2002 and 2005. The earlier bombing in Kuta killed 202 people, including 88 Australian tourists. This put a dent into Bali’s reputation as a party destination and somewhat reduced its popularity among Australians and other Westerners. But whatever slack developed, it has been quickly taken over by others. Apart from the Japanese who have been there for a long time, Chinese tourists are increasingly visible, although most of them seem to be young couples or move only in small groups. What struck me in Nusa Dua was the number of Russians. The beach was crowded with shapely blonds trying to turn their colour darker in places where their tiny bikinis didn’t cover the flesh. The men already tended to sport a naturally redder colour on their bellies, which they started to fill with the refreshing Bingtang or Bali Hai beers from an early hour.

Tourism is blamed for overcrowding the island and straining its environment. In an article with the website Bali Discovery (18 May 2009), the Executive Director of WALHI, an environmental watchdog, Agung Wardana in particular highlights the role of tourism in depleting Bali’s precious water resources. He estimates that every hotel room adds around 3,000 litres to the daily consumption of water. And the golf courses that are converting agricultural land to artificial parks for the benefit of rich and spoiled visitors add another 3 million litres a day to the consumption. This can be contrasted with the average of only 200 litres per day used by the local Balinese. There have been well justified calls for limiting the number of tourists and the construction of new facilities to accommodate them.

My purpose for being here was attending an international meeting, so one afternoon my fellow participants and I embarked on a cultural tour heading towards the temples in Taman Ayun and Tanah Lot. We passed through the booming town of Kuta, first driving through the touristic area with its rows of bars, restaurants and shops; then moving to the more traditional quarters where the locals reside. Ayu, our talkative guide, pointed out the canal running in parallel to the street, suggesting that it would not be a good idea to take a dip there. “The town has grown so quickly and there’s no sewage treatment. These canals used to be nice, actually,” she commented.

Nevertheless, the town does not by any means give an impression of a slum. It all looks rather upbeat unlike many others elsewhere in the developing world (or the USA). Nobody has the time to loiter around, as everyone goes about their business. The Galungan decorations are everywhere. Tall decorated wooden poles line the streets and statues by the numerous temples have been dressed up in checkered black and white clothes – yin and yang – intended to ward off the evil.

Ayu whose name translates into ‘beautiful’ keeps up a running commentary on the history and culture of Bali, as well as the present we can observe as we drive on. Ayu is a rather tall and lively girl whose constant white smile does indeed make her live up to her name. Both Ayu and Putri at the hotel would dispel any preconceived notions of tiny, waif-like Indonesian girls, neither one being particularly petite or shy.

We continue further inland and see construction everywhere. “Corn to concrete,” the observant Ayu remarks. Indeed, in the outskirts of Kuta farmland is incessantly being converted into buildings. But still every available plot in between has been dedicated to small rice paddies. Farmers still keep cows that roam freely in open spaces.

This land transformation – from agriculture and forest into cities, roads and, yes, hotels and golf courses – is one of the biggest problems affecting the future sustainability of the environment and even the economy of Bali. Apart from converting beautiful landscapes into sprawl, it negatively affects the ecological and water balance on the island. It even threatens food production. Every year, tracts of agricultural land is converted into non-agricultural uses.

It started to rain and the landscape turned dark. The traffic was really bad and we were barely moving forward. In the nearly two hours in the car we had gotten only half way where we wanted to go. Suddenly the driver had had enough and without saying a word decided to turn the vehicle around blocking the traffic further. We then headed back and found a roundabout route between agricultural fields where fewer drivers had wandered. Here the landscape was still serene with terraced paddies glistening wet. In spite of the rain that was getting heavier, some farmers were still working their fields. The hillsides were forested.

On the way, we made a stop at a private smaller place of worship at a traditional Balinese house in Baha Village. We caught the proprietor preparing candles and offerings to the deities. Dressed in a yellow blouse and a sarong, she went around from one shrine to the next, placing the candle and the offerings, then put her hands together in a silent prayer.

At the big temple at Taman Ayun the mood was dampened by the rain, but the hawkers along the parking lot beckoned us to shop for trinkets and soft drinks. No doubt, their business would have been better in less inclement weather. More and more busses brought in tourists as we entered. The temple complex is very impressive. Built in 1634 as the main temple of the historical Mengwi Kingdom, the area consists of a huge number of multilayered shrines known as Meru. In the middle yard there is a tower with wooden bells or Kulkul. The entire area is surrounded by a moat.

Wet and tired of sitting in the traffic in between the sights, we continued towards our final destination. Even Ayu was rather low key, only promising that the ride would not take long to reach Tanah Lot on the coast. The place turned out to be extraordinarily beautiful, the small temple of Tanah Lot being perched on a rock protruding into the Timor Sea. It has stood there facing the sometimes stormy (like now) sea since the 16th century when it was established by the Javanese priest Danghyan Nirartha. This was a spot from which to enjoy the sun setting in the west over the sea, but on this particular evening clouds obscured most of the daily spectacle. We were just happy to enjoy refreshing coconuts prepared by three sweet young ladies before settling in for a grilled seafood dinner containing fresh fish, lobster, prawns and mussels.

During the evening we were also treated to a delightful performance of traditional Balinese dance. The dancers in delicate outfits glittering with colour and gold performed elaborate dramas from history and mythology. The movements of their eyes are as important as the movement of other parts of the body. A skilful band of stone-faced musicians sitting on the floor behind their Gamelan instruments produced a hypnotic yet dynamic accompaniment to the dance. Later, we witnessed a performance unique to the Tanah Lot region. The music accompanied Barong, a story-telling dance about the fight between good and evil. Completely different from the Gamelan, the music reminded me more of the rituals seen in the South Pacific.

On a different night, I grabbed a taxi to Kuta in order to observe first hand the impacts of backpacking and party tourism on a local city. It was around 11 pm when the driver dropped me off at one end of the beach boulevard. The strip was quieter than I had thought, probably expecting to see a replica of some similar coastal towns in Thailand. This was not the case, at least yet. There were of course numerous bars lining the street, including the ubiquitous Hard Rock Cafe, but the scene was generally quite sedate. As I strolled along the waterfront, I was several times approached by local men offering young women for massage or hashish and marijuana – a particularly stupid proposition in a country where possession of drugs carries the death penalty. Most often, they only offered ‘transportation’, meaning a ride on the back of their light motorcycle. Nusa Dua was too far to make such offers attractive. Another thing that was conspicuous was the extensive construction that was going on even after midnight on this weekend night. New hotels were coming and traditional quarters were being erased to make space for them. Clearly, the local financiers and tourist industry were not paying heed to the warning calls about overcrowding the island or overextending its environment.

Bali is still beautiful and the Timor Sea surrounding it is still full of fish and accommodating to humans who wish to join them for a swim. Ample water is a key element of Bali’s attraction. It is essential equally for the survival of the traditional way of life and agriculture and the tourism-based economy. One can only hope that the quest for money will not entirely spoil the basis of which life and the rich culture rely on. At least today, we can still enjoy the beauty and hospitality of Bali and its people to the soothing sounds of Gamelan.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Second World: Geopolitics vs. Globalization

Geopolitics vs. globalization. Now that’s an interesting juxtaposition and it’s at the heart of the book The Second World: How Emerging Powers Are Redefining Competition in the Twenty-first Century by Parag Khanna. The focus of the book is fresh and delightfully geographical. Khanna, a senior fellow and program director at the New America Foundation, takes us on a whirlwind tour around the world hopping from one region to next focusing on the ‘second world,’ emerging countries that are no longer part of the third world but have not quite reached the first world status. The author’s credible claim is that much of the future of the world will depend on what happens in these countries, many of which are now finding their place amongst the larger geopolitical scene. Geopolitics is the great game in which countries and especially the dominant powers vie for influence and advantage over others. Khanna sees globalization as a potential counterforce to geopolitics wherein the interconnectedness of the entire world makes it a safer place. He is no starry-eyed idealist who believes in an overpowering positive force of globalization. Geopolitics is alive and well there is no doubt it. Khanna also recognizes that the United States is no longer the sole superpower as it might have appeared at the end of the Cold War. In fact, he makes a convincing case that its star is fading. For the first time, we live in a tripolar world, with the US, the European Union and China making claims at being dominant powers, both regionally and on a global scale. This constellation and how these three powers interact with the second world is at the heart of the book.

Like a good regional geography, the book is organized in five sections along continental lines. The first part, entitled The West’s East, focuses on the eastern periphery of Europe and the aspiring members of the EU. The second part, Affairs of the Heartland, covers the Eurasian landmass, Central Asia, which is now again the chessboard in a new Great Game, this time played by the three new dominant powers. The title of the third part, The End of the Monroe Doctrine, says it all. US dominance is no longer a given in its own backyard where the links with the old colonial powers in Europe remain strong while China is making inroads into the region. Part IV, In Search of the “Middle East” hones in on the turbulent Arab world, while the fifth part makes a call for Asia for Asians. On this tour of the world, Khanna takes us to close to forty countries or autonomous (some more than others) regions (like Tibet, Xinjiang and Palestine) all of which belong to the second world. Some are covered in a detailed and insightful manner, while others receive more superficial treatment. Some (think Azerbaijan or Syria) are covered in a couple of pages, while others stretch out over much longer passages (the longest section, at 21 pages, is dedicated to China; and this is the main section on China, not including the Tibet and Xinjiang parts or the frequent references to it throughout the book). Despite this regional treatment, as is the wont of good regional geographies (and judging from the extensive bibliography, Khanna is quite aware of the geography literature), the different parts do hang together in an exemplary manner and the author constantly reminds us of the interlinkages between places and issues. When I say that the book is very geographical, I mean that the author is acutely aware of how geography plays into the geopolitics of the places. Factors such as natural resources, mountain ranges, sea lanes, pipeline routes or urban dominance are often mentioned explaining strategic and tactical choices that countries make.

The style of the book is rather unusual in the sense that it is at the same time erudite and quite personal. The many anecdotes suggest that Khanna has indeed visited all of the countries and territories he writes about. In that sense, the book occasionally takes the form of a travelogue (and there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s a perfectly legitimate literary form). On the other hand, as witnessed by the 23-page bibliography and 65 pages of endnotes, this is a very well researched book. What put me off slightly in the beginning was Khanna’s somewhat breathless writing style. It seems that his aim has been to write a book, which doesn’t mince words and in which surprising insights sometimes shock the reader. One gets the impression that the book has been written at a flow-of-consciousness speed. At times, this has led to bad similes that make one cringe (“Latin America’s dances—salsa, samba, rumba, tango—all involve swift, jerking maneuvers, even unpredictable lurches. The same is true of Latin politics.” – p. 130).

At other times, Khanna’s attempts to move fluidly from one subject to the next has produced apparent non-sequiturs: (is it just me who cannot fully follow the logic in this passage: “In the great informality of Arab encounters, the culture of wasta—personal connections—is preferred to modern institutions. Beyond the narrow elite, which seems lost without the use of English, bloated public sectors from Libya to Saudi Arabia and also Iran remain bastions of stultifying inefficiency.” – p. 202)

Then again, this is never a dull read and the style grows on you (admittedly, some chapters are better argued than others) and the non-diplomatic language is refreshing when, for instance, Khanna writes about tiny, poor Georgia in the Caucasus that bought wholesale a neoliberal, almost libertarian stance to its development after its release from under the Soviet rule. Khanna writes: “Imagine a country of abandoned villages, collapsed buildings, battered trucks belching clouds of foul exhaust, women selling corn on the roadside, children bathing in drying riverbeds, and haggard beggars in the capital city. Now imagine that its citizens are white (p. 48).” Having visited Georgia earlier this year, I can attest to the vast differences between the lifestyles of the regular people and the new elite driving around in big German cars.

Or when he writes about America’s leading partner in the Middle East in securing the flow of oil and fighting terrorism: “Globalization appears to accelerate history, but in Saudi Arabia, history moves at two completely different speeds, one for the head and another for the heart. There are limits to how far a civilization can advance when people pray five times a day and live in the paralyzing heat of an endless desert (p. 240).” It is worth noting that Khanna is equally sanguine about the situation in Israel-Palestine, sparing no words in assessing the reality of the dual and highly unequal nation.

The author was prescient in writing the book. My paperback edition was published in 2009 and some events that Khanna predicted have already taken place, like in the case of the Central Asian ‘Stans’ when he writes that “it is a shock that there have been no major conflicts in the region (p. 76).” Well, the Kyrgyzstan coup and ethnic-based slaughter took place soon after the publication of the book.

He is critical of America’s imperial pretensions and stubbornness when it comes to dealing with ‘rogue’ nations, noting that “America’s childish silent treatment of Iran ignores the reality that in the geopolitical marketplace, attempting to isolate a country is about as effective as ignoring its existence ... Iran is diplomatically sophisticated enough to derive benefits from multiple powers simultaneously—particularly if those powers have competing motivations. The United States has focused strictly on the military potential of Iran’s nuclear program, ignoring its civilian uses and Iran’s other commercial needs (p. 230).” This is a theme that pervades the book: second world nations have a choice in the global marketplace and by trying to isolate them the United States ends up isolating itself.

Writing on the Arab region, one has to agree with Khanna when he observes that “America considers the region strategically important, but that does not guarantee it a right to military interventions, particularly since its blunders, not Arab genetic defects, are widely held to be the chief cause of terrorism, proliferation, and conflict (p. 253).”

In general, Parag Khanna is quite critical of the United States and how it sees itself in the world. America believes in military power as its strength. However, it has misunderstood both Hobbes and Darwin in the sense that it thinks that it can dominate others just by being the strongest bully on the block: “The real lessons of Hobbes and Darwin are that no single power will dominate others; rather, the most adaptive system will prevail (p. 322).” He points out that America’s prestige has waned fastest where it has been most aggressive, in Arab States and East Asia.

Similarly, America’s soft power is on the wane as the EU, China and many second world countries rise. America’s arbitrary visa restrictions stifle fertilization of the scientific and professional fields. Leading scientists have a choice of gathering elsewhere. In the moneyed sphere, hedge funds and gambling are increasingly moving to Hong Kong and London. The Al Jazeera network is effectively competing with American cable networks, except in the United States (writing this as I am in Indonesia, I can confirm that Al Jazeera is indeed a preferred source of global news). In the world of sports, America is alone not understanding soccer and cricket, the most popular sports on the globe. Even many of Hollywood’s latest successes are based on innovations from Hong Kong and Japan. Higher education has for half a century been dominated by American universities from Harvard to Yale. Now, more Indonesian kids go to universities in China than in the United States. Who would have thought that would happen so soon?

Like many observers today, Parag Khanna is upbeat about what is happening in Asia and how the Asian model provides a viable alternative to the West, and especially the United States. He praises Asian values, which feature “open societies but closed polities, restoring democracy to its place as a means to an end—not the highest virtue, but just one agenda item among many (p. 266).” He makes the extremely valid point about how East Asian traditions challenge American notions of human rights. Americans give utmost priority to economic freedom and individual rights, even if they infringe on other people’s freedoms, while Asians emphasize communitarian wellbeing. As in Europe, human rights are seen as encompassing the right from need and want for all, rather than individual liberty to do whatever one wants irrespective of its impacts on others and the larger communal good.

He astutely observes the differences between how Asians and Americans view government. In America—witness the lunacy of the Tea Party movement—government is seen as something apart from the people, something that hinders innovation and development. In Asia (and in much of Europe, especially the northern fringe where I hail from) government plays a key role in inserting capital and innovation into the system, while at the same time ensuring that the excesses of capitalism do not destroy social fabric. Khanna makes a clear distinction between the United States and Europe in this regard. He remarks that Europe is by and large welcomed in Asia for developing capacity and providing new models.

Khanna is by no means naïve, so he does not see Asia as a monolithic success story. Somewhat surprisingly, he is rather dismissive of India, stating that “India is big but not yet important. Outsourcing has made it a leading back office for Western firms, but except for a few segregated twenty-first-century oases of development, India is almost completely third-world, most of its billion-plus people living in poverty (p. 276).” He sees China, and still also Japan (as well as Korea, Singapore and Taiwan), driving change in Asia and globally.

He passes a pretty rough judgment on Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation. He appears to think that as a country Indonesia has little right to exist as a sovereign state. According to Khanna, the Indonesian archipelago is impossible to govern, by either dictatorship or democracy. The distances – both geographically and socially in this world’s largest Muslim nation where some parts are primarily Hindu – are just too great to bridge easily.

Understandably, China and its role in the world is one of the important themes that permeates the book. In many sections, he describes China’s emerging role as a donor nation and partner to poorer countries. Years ago, I have myself witnessed China’s rather heavy presence in less developed countries, such as Laos, in its backyard. The Chinese footprint could be seen both in commercial connections as well as state-sponsored projects. Both had the tendency of leading to the depletion of forests and other natural resources, while helping the country to develop its roads and other infrastructure (partly to facilitate the said extraction of natural resources). Khanna describes in some detail how China has expanded its horizons and is making similar inroads into Central and Western Asia, Africa and Latin America, often competing with the United States and other developed countries. This was again confirmed by several African participants at a very recent meeting I participated in on harmonization of development aid. The Africans, at least at an official level, tend to see this mostly in positive terms. China gives as well as takes, and this is seen as a fair exchanged with little strings attached as it comes to social or environmental safeguards that more traditional donors tend to harp on. (China is not alone in this. For instance, in Portuguese-speaking Mozambique, Brazil has stepped in with its own commercial and aid programs.)

China itself is still a developing country. Or as Khanna says, there are really four Chinas: the southeast region that houses Shanghai and Hong Kong (as well as Taiwan that is technically a separate country but economically and culturally integrated into the motherland), and contains 60 percent of China’s wealth; the northeast quadrant, including the imperial capital of Beijing, that is not equally rich but certainly no longer third world either; then the two western quadrants (including the autonomous provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang, which are ethnically and culturally separate from the Han China, but increasingly integrated through migration and economic links), which are still seriously poor and undeveloped. Like one Chinese official told me earlier this year, “China has seven Least Developed Countries in its west.”

Parag Khanna predicts that China will not democratize before it reaches its goal of a increasing the material standard of living of all its populace by mid-century. However, he also recognizes that the heavy-handed censorship of thought and jailing of China critical thinkers – and China remains “a country where telling the truth and telling lies are equally dangerous” (p. 320) – its international reputation will continue to suffer. He thinks that the country is now strong enough and its economic development so compelling that the government and Party could well afford to relax the controls.

One of the main conclusions in this interesting book focuses on the fluidity and uncertainty of the geopolitical landscape where the United States, Europe and China form competing spheres of interest, and where the increasingly powerful second world nations act as pieces on a great chessboard. In this tripolar world, each of the aspiring superpowers in its own way undermines the international architecture of global governance, “eroding the fiction that laws and institutions alone can restrain imperial competition (p. 335).”

The outcome of such a competition is not a given and each of the three have their weakness, summarized by Khanna: “America may not be able to afford its excessive consumption, nor Europe its expansion, nor China its environmental and social burdens (p. 321).”

The United States’ role is increasingly challenged in economic, financial and moral spheres. This is witnessed by how America today has must go it alone as its supposed allies balk at the military ventures, as well as America’s flaunting of international law and institutions (for example when it comes to trying to manage global climate change). The United States was central in creating the United Nations, but now disregards the organization in a way that Khanna calls “abusive negligence” (p. 336), which gives other nations the excuse to downplay the UN role equally.

One of the last chapters in the book is posed as a question, America: from the first world to the second? Referring to Toynbee, who seems to be an intellectual father of the author, Khanna recognizes that historically the most common causes of the decline of great nations have been increasing militarism and the deterioration of the creative minority. These both are evident in America’s recent developments. He observes what we living in the United States see every day, that America is no longer a middle-class nation. While the middle class is constantly squeezed, America is polarized into extremes of a superrich privileged class and a vast base of poorly educated and economically disadvantaged people. These are sure signs that the United States is inevitably slipping into the second world. In terms of income equality, the US is now competing with nations such as Brazil in displaying the widest differences.

Meanwhile, the second world is realigning itself in relation to the three poles as well as forming alliances amongst themselves. As Khanna observes, “the second-world anti-imperial belt of Venezuela, Iran, Kazakhstan, Libya, Malaysia and others will continue to focus as much on building ties among themselves as with Washington, Brussels, or Beijing (p. 325).” This process is dramatically changing the world geopolitics.

Khanna compares the tripolar world order to a stool, which can only be stable if all the three legs are steady. He calls for a new equilibrium in which the United States, the European Union, and China jointly determine the rules of the geopolitical game. He places some hope in the power of globalization that has linked the world into an intricate web of mutual interdependences that increasingly makes conflict a non-win situation. He ends the book by stating: “A century ago, globalization was defeated by geopolitics, unleashing World War I. The question is whether history will repeat itself a century later. The answer remains unknown, for as the second world shapes both geopolitics and globalization, diplomacy becomes ever more an art (p. 341).”

The Second World is an insightful and refreshing book in its politically incorrect frankness. Even if one were not to agree with every detail or prediction that Parag Khanna puts forth – as is inevitable in such a wide-ranging treatise – it seems impossible to ignore his basic arguments and conclusions about the great geopolitical changes that we are witnessing. The world will no longer be what we grew up with.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Pianoforte/pianissimo – Variations in New York

The piano is certainly the most versatile of musical instruments invented by man. I know that it can’t produce the delicate quarter tones that the violin or the flute can do. It isn’t either well-adapted to the Indian raga or Japanese gagaku. West African percussions, maybe, could be produced by banging on a Steinway, but that’s not the intention of the instrument. But I maintain: it is the most versatile instrument invented by man. As evidence, I suggest my experiences from a small number of performances held in New York City in the past couple of months that I was able to attend.

Ayako Shirasaki @ Smalls, 15 September 2010

Ayako Shirasaki is the most amazing up-and-coming pianist around New York City these days. On September 15th, I caught her at Smalls, a club in West Village that distinctly lives up to its name. The place had been set up with rows of folding chairs in front of the grand piano. I preferred to settle down on a high stool at the bar on the side. The tiny place was packed with customers. This was Ayako’s solo piano performance to launch her latest CD, Falling Leaves. She was born in Japan and graduated from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music with a major in classical music, but she then moved to the States to study jazz at the Manhattan School of Music. She never moved back to her native country, although she keeps close links there. In the name of full disclosure, Ayako and I have become friendly over the past several years I’ve gone to listen to her relatively frequent performances around town.

She started the concert with a Billy Strayhorn classic, followed by Charlie Parker’s Confirmation, thus establishing her jazz credentials right at the outset. On the latter piece, the walking bass she played with her left hand while the right hand chased rapid be-bop phrases was impressive, to say the least. The third tune was also a classic, Round Midnight. This Thelonius Monk masterpiece is so gorgeous that just playing the haunting melody is guaranteed to send shivers down one’s spine. At the same time it is so harmonically complex that it offers endless pitfalls for the performer to stumble on and creating an improvisation that flows logically is a major challenge to most players. Not to Ayako, who breezed through the harmonies with extraordinary versatility. Smalls is the perfect venue for this kind of music: it’s cosy and intimate, not overtly commercial. In many ways it is the prototype image of a New York jazz club from a bygone era.

Ayako Shirasaki is no shrinking violet. Or perhaps it is better to say that her music, like that of Monk, conveys strong emotions without ever becoming schmaltzy. Her technique is amazing and she does virtually anything she wants on the piano. She never fails to amaze me with her left hand virtuosity, no doubt a legacy of her classical training.

The rest of the two-set performance consisted of a number of standards and a few originals, like Monkey Punch, a fluid tune in a brisk tempo; or her own bop creation Three Steps Forward. She played a Bud Powell number in a somewhat aggressive style effortlessly sliding from the Latin groove to a stride piano. Some of the highlights of the evening for me were standards like Someday My Prince Will Come and Turn Out the Lights, to which Ayako gave her on distinct flair. The excellent concert ended with one of my all time favourite tunes, It’s Alright with Me. The title also pretty much summarized my feeling.

Puppets Jazz Bar, featuring Arturo O’Farrill and Ayako Shirasaki, 27 August 2010

Not much earlier, I had joined my friends Nanthi and Vasuki at a fund raiser in support of another excellent small club, Puppets Jazz Bar in the Park Slope neighbourhood of Brooklyn. The club philosophy is that it should offer quality music to aficionados while keeping the entrance free. The club makes its money from drinks and the excellent vegetarian fare that it sells. Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be quite enough to pay for the rent. So on this Friday night, the owner, Jaime Aff, had put together an extraordinary group of musicians who played in a nonstop succession from early evening until late at night. Even then there was no cover charge but buckets were sent around to make a voluntary collection from the full house of fans who had gathered in the small space.

The musicians included such local players as the trumpeter John McNeill and guitarist Randy Johnston. As always, Jaime spent much of the time on stage behind his drum kit backing up several of the other performers. The evening also highlighted two excellent yet very different pianists. Ayako Shirasaki was there, this time with a trio. This is another setting that truly suits her style. The other one was Arturo O'Farrill, the son of the legendary Cuban-born orchestra leader Chico O’Farrill (1921-2001). It was rewarding to be able to enjoy—and compare—the two pianists playing back-to-back. Arturo is a big man hulking over the grand piano. Sitting close by but right behind him it was hard to see what was happening on the keyboard as it was hidden behind his broad back. But hearing the music, there was no doubt that what did happen was very interesting. O’Farrill is a very physical player. He beats the keys with powerful chords and Latin tinged patterns. The force is by no means a substitute for sophistication or intended to hide a lack of technique. On the contrary, his chops are definitely inventive and his melodic sense is most pleasurable. It is just that he has this take-no-prisoners approach to his music.

Taka Kigawa @ Le Poisson Rouge, 26 August 2010

Taka Kigawa is a classical pianist who specializes in modern and contemporary music. I can by no means claim to be an expert in the field, but I’ve learned much about the music through Taka who is a friend. He performs regularly around town, but one of his favourite locations is Le Poisson Rouge on Bleecker Street in the Village. It is an unusual venue for classical music, as the spacious place also serves as a restaurant and patrons can order food and drinks to lubricate their artistic experience. Departing from established classical music tradition, Taka also behaves as if he were playing at a club. He dresses casually and communicates with the audience in between the pieces, making personal comments on the music and what it means to him. Consequently, despite the less than easily accessible repertoire, Taka has developed a dedicated following and even on this evening the place was packed. Thanks to Taka’s wife, Michiyo, and our friend Steve who arrived early, we were able to secure seats at a cramped up table right by the stage.

The recital started with Variations for Piano by Anton Webern, a 1936 composition that is particularly close to Taka’s heart. The rather sparse piece silenced the audience forcing us to concentrate on the notes and the spaces in between. From that point on, the mood only intensified. The second composition was Evryali by the French-Greek composer, Iannis Xenakis, which was in stark contrast to the spaciousness of Webern. Evryali hit hard with thick chords and square rhythms. Two contemporary pieces followed: On a Clear Day by the German contemporary composer Matthias Pintscher and Echoes’ White Veil by Jason Eckardt. I have to admit that to my ear Eckardt’s composition was perhaps the most pleasing of the evening, perhaps because the tune has almost an ECM jazz-like flow to it. The composer was present and Taka introduced him on stage to the audience.

Taka rounded off the recital by Pierre Boulez’s First Sonata. As the pianist stepped to the edge of the stage for deep Japanese style bows, the audience broke into a massive applause demanding more. Taka decided to reward the devoted spectatorship with a lovely Debussy rendition that provided a soothing ending to the interesting evening..

Henry Grimes with Marilyn Crispell @ Harlem in the Himalayas, 24 September 2010

A completely different experience was offered by the bassist Henry Grimes who partnered with the pianist Marilyn Crispell at the Rubin Museum of Art as part of the museum’s Harlem in the Himalayas –series (the Rubin Museum collections focus on Himalayan arts and culture). This concert took rather a free form, with both of the musicians having earned their laurels in the avant garde jazz scene of the 1960s and 1970s.

Henry Grimes’ story is quite incredible and in some ways illustrative of the situation of jazz musicians in the United Sates. The nation hardly treats the masters of its native art form with much reverence. Grimes was one of the top bassists in the heyday of experimental jazz, trusted by such luminaries as Sonny Rollins and McCoy Tyner, as well as by more avant garde experimenters like Albert Ayler, Don Cherry and Archie Shepp. Then in the late-1960s, on a concert tour to the West Coast with Al Jarreau and Jon Hendricks, Grimes’ bass was broken and he could not afford to repair it. The Philadelphia man was thus stranded in Los Angeles, without money and a job. This unfortunate episode led to the leading bass man dropping out of the music scene altogether and working as a manual labourer and maintenance man for over three decades. During this period, writing poetry was his creative outlet. Finally, in 2002 he was discovered working in LA by William Parker, a travelling fan from Georgia who then gave Grimes a bass. The old pro went into intensive practice and made his highly successful return to the New York music scene already the following year! At the tender age of 70, he added a second instrument to his repertoire, debuting on the violin!

The performance that night had a high level of energy, with intensive periods of crescendo and overwhelming cascades of notes interspersed with contemplative rubato passages during which Grimes frequently bowed his bass. At one point he also engaged in a dialogue with the piano on his newly found violin. Marilyn Crispell is also a veteran of the contemporary school of acoustic jazz that spurns the conventions of the more traditional strains of the genre. For a decade she played with the innovative composer/saxophonist Anthony Braxton and has performed with many other top names of free jazz persuasion. Not unexpectedly, then, the duo performance was scarce on the more common jazz idiom. Henry Grimes’ bass playing did contain elements of the blues and was occasionally even swinging, despite the fact that basically none of the pieces were based on a chord structure or a steady beat. The piano was even less ‘jazzy’ with Crispell creating whirlwinds of notes that flowed freely over the entire range of the keyboard, at times using the piano more as a percussive instrument, often playing arpeggios like on a harp.

Chick Corea @ Highline Ballroom, 1 October 2010

Yoko couldn’t believe that I would get tickets for Friday night when I mentioned the forthcoming Chick Corea Trio performance to her just two days before. In Tokyo, she said, Chick Corea would sell out at least half a year in advance. I am sure she is right that this would be the case in Japan; but not in the States. There are two reasons to this. First and most obviously, New York City has so much going on that even a big name will not be able to sell out his concerts easily. Secondly, jazz here where it was born seems now to be too intellectual music for most of the people. It seems fair to say that America today embraces a culture that glorifies wealth, violence and ignorance—ingredients that characterize much of the popular music of today—and there is a strong anti-elitist stream in the country that is reflected in all spheres, including politics (just think of the Tea Party movement!). Not to paint the whole nation with too broad a brush, I hasten to add, there are very many Americans in this big country who appreciate more sophisticated aesthetics and even tonight the huge locale that is the Highline Ballroom in Chelsea was quite packed.

The Chick Corea Trio consisted of Christian McBride on bass, Brian Blade on drums, and the master himself at the piano. He was his jovial self chatting to the audience in a friendly manner before the trio got to work. The concert was set to start at 8 pm and just ten minutes past the hour when no-one appeared on stage someone started a round of applause that the entire hall joined in. This was repeated in about another ten minutes. When the band appeared on stage shortly after, Chick Corea asked, “Are we too early?”

The trio started with a Kurt Weill tune, displaying the amazing lightness of Chick Corea’s touch on the ivory. He just seemed to float on it totally effortlessly. Next came an amazing interpretation of a prelude by A. Scriabin, maybe doing it more justice than the composer had himself ever foreseen when he wrote the beautiful and harmonically complex piece. In Corea’s interpretation, it had a lovely ethnic feel and ended with some well timed hand claps by the leader to accentuate the rhythm. It also was the first piece in which the incredibly talented Christian McBride played a memorable solo.

A Monkish tune followed, which Corea confirmed later as being a tribute to the late genius. McBride again played an impressive solo. The bass player is these days seen as something like Ron Carter was two decades ago, towering over the field. McBride is a guaranteed crowd pleaser – and he is truly amazing – but sometimes he appears a prisoner of his own superior technique that at times seems to obscure the purpose of his solos.

A lovely moment followed with a beautiful bolero in which Corea and McBride cooperated wonderfully in unison passages as Blake worked his array of cymbals in a highly sensitive manner. All in all, throughout the evening the trio played together seamlessly. The music was beautiful and Corea’s piano playing so effortless that it really seemed light as a feather. Yet, perhaps because of the size of the locale and the location of our table on the balcony overlooking the stage, the performance remained a bit un-engaging and distant.

Stanley Clarke Band featuring Hiromi @ Blue Note, 3 October 2010

Let me state it upfront: The Stanley Clarke Band featuring Hiromi produced the best concert I have witnessed in a long time. We caught the group on the last show of a six night engagement at the Blue Note in West Village. Despite the cold rain and the fact that it was 10 pm on a Sunday night, a long line had formed on the sidewalk outside of the club, a testimony to the star status of the leader. When the Philadelphia native (like the elder Grimes) Stanley Clarke burst onto the scene in the 1970s he was an immediate sensation. The lanky teenager handled the upright bass with amazing dexterity and musicality. Like so many others, I was totally taken by his playing with Chick Corea’s original Return to Forever band. Clarke was soon making his own records as a leader while being in demand as a sideman.

At the Blue Note the band featured Ruslan Sirota on electric keyboards and Ronald Bruner, Jr. on drums. But the start of the evening was Hiromi, the piano phenomenon who is making waves on the music scene on both sides of the Pacific. Hiromi Uehara is another Japanese child prodigy who made her debut as orchestra soloist at 12. Now at 31 Hiromi has recorded six excellent jazz CDs under her own name.

The entire band played like a single unit, a result of tight arrangements and discipline imposed by the leader. This didn’t take anything away from the spontaneity or creative of the music. On the contrary, this created an amazing tension in the music that was released during periods of untamed improvisation. While the tall and still boyish Stanley Clarke—this time focusing entirely on his acoustic bass—painted some of the most lyrical pictures of the evening in his solos, Hiromi was entirely uncontrollable. The diminutive pixie-like pianist went wild on the grand piano, jumping on her seat as she spanned the entire range of the 88 keys, playing furious runs or beating dense chords. Always inventive, Hiromi’s playing avoids any clichés just relying on her amazing technique and most of all talent. It was clear that it was not only the audience who were fascinated with her playing, but she equally inspired the veteran bassist and his band.

These opportunities of hearing half a dozen highly skilled yet so different pianists again proved that the only limits there are to the musical expression are between the ears of the artist.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Breathing Zen

A week ago I participated in a workshop with the shakuhachi master Akikazu Nakamura. The event was organized at the Japan Society in New York on October 24, 2010. Nakamura is one of the greatest contemporary shakuhachi players. He studied the traditional Japanese bamboo flute with master Katsuya Yokoyama and also graduated from the NHK (Japanese broadcasting company) school of traditional music. On top of that, he is an accomplished jazz musician, with degrees from the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston and the New England Conservatory.

The first part of the Sunday afternoon consisted of a workshop on a breathing style called missoku. This workshop had attracted a fairly large crowd of quite a mixed group of people. Most were white, although there were some Asians and African Americans amongst us. The age range was from people in their 20s to those in their 70s. The artistic director of the Japan Society, Yoko Shioya, was curious as she asked for a show of hands why people had joined the workshop. A significant segment raised their hands to affirm that their interest was through shakuhachi, but still a larger group was there because they were interested in Zen. A regular collection of New Age freaks and Buddhist romantics, I thought.

There are basically four types of breathing, Nakamura explained. The most common that we all practise daily are chest breathing and the deeper abdominal breathing. There is also contra-abdominal breathing, practised in particular in yoga, whereby the abdominal movements are opposite to what usually takes place: the abdominal muscles contract when one breaths in, and expand when one breaths out. In missoku, abdominal muscles remain immobile, as the air is pushed out by the diaphragm moving up. Nakamura believes this type of breathing was common in Japan during the Edo Period, but later disappeared. He contended that missoku was actually the feature that made Japanese culture unique from those close to it, like Chinese and Korean cultures. We all practised missoku by sitting still on the edges of our seats. As missoku breathing allows one’s body to remain immobile, it is good for work that requires precision. It is also perfect for playing Japanese traditional music on the shakuhachi, as it reduces movement as well as the sound of breathing.

The second part of the evening focused explicitly on the shakuhachi, which meant that more than half of the people in the previous workshop left. The two-hour session was listed as a ‘master class’, which had slightly intimidated me. Although I have studied the instrument for several years now under the tutelage of a professional recording and performing artist, Marco Lienhard, I had my doubts about whether I’d qualify for a master class or embarrass myself. I shouldn’t have worried. This being America, most people possess such self-confidence that they would never have doubts about their own abilities. It turned out that amongst the twenty plus participants, I was clearly amongst the top tier. Perhaps only one, Perry Yung, who is also one of the few established shakuhachi makers in America, actually belonged to a true master class, but a few of us had clearly studied the instrument with some seriousness. To my astonishment, a number of people who had decided to take the master class were actually complete beginners, some barely that. This clearly surprised the sensei as well, who gently suggested that if he comes back it might be better to divide the class into beginners and more advanced players, so that he might be able to better teach both groups.

Nonetheless, we proceeded with the class and Nakamura turned out to be an excellent teacher. Our object of study was ‘Hon Shirabe’, a classic shakuhachi honkyoku meditation. We spent more than an hour just honing the phrases of the first half – just five lines – of the piece. I had tried to play the piece also earlier and was quite familiar with it. Yet, Nakamura’s explanations and demonstrations allowed me to understand the tune better than ever before. Just for this, it was worth participating in the class.

As a bonus – or a present to us, as the master himself said – Nakamura proceeded to play two classic numbers for us. The first, ‘Tsuru no sugomori’ (or ‘Cranes nesting’), is a standard in the shakuhachi repertoire. Like so often, there are many slightly different versions of the piece being played and this night Nakamura played the most complete and complex version of the song, depicting two wounded cranes returning to their nest. When their chicks hatch, it is time for the parents to die. This sad piece of farewell demonstrates the Japanese sense of beauty found in the impermanence of life. From the point of view of the player, it requires admirable technique to reproduce the cries of the cranes and the twittering of the chicks. Akikazu Nakamura produced the whole landscape of sounds from his flute taking us to the foggy marshes of Western Japan where the red-crowned cranes nest.

The second piece was even more amazing. It was called ‘Saji’, which refers to the compassion of Bodhisattva. This piece was originally played by a monk called Shinshichi who introduced it to the Ichoken komuso temple in Hakata on the Japanese island of Kyushu. From there it found its way to Kyoto and became known in the shakuhachi catalogue. However, it is very rarely played because it is so difficult. Nakamura said that he only was able to start playing the song after he mastered missoku breathing. He also used circular breathing in order to be able to play the long fluid and dramatic segments of the tune with interruption. Akikazu Nakamura was the first shakuhachi player to develop a circular breathing technique. This technique is common with, especially oboists, but is also used by a number of jazz saxophonists and trumpeters (the most famous of whom must have been Rahsaan Roland Kirk). The idea is to push the air from your mouth into the horn using your muscles while breathing in through the nose, so as to produce an uninterrupted flow of air into the instrument. With a shakuhachi, this is particularly difficult, because any movement in the cheeks or upper lip inevitably changes the tone and the pitch. Faced with this dilemma, Nakamura developed a technique whereby he stores the air into the lower part of his mouth. ‘Saji’ left all of us spectators more breathless than the missoku-breathing master.

When the class was over and we spread out into the dark and cool autumn air in Dag Hammarskjöld Park, I was awed by the experience and inspired to redouble my own study of the wonderfully expressive instrument. A few blocks away on Second Avenue I was caught up by one of the participants, a friendly lady of a certain age. She explained to me that she loved flutes and was a collector of all kinds of wooden and clay flutes and ocarinas. She had heard the shakuhachi and thought it sounded free-flowing. Tonight she had learned that there are subtle and definite rules that guide shakuhachi music. While, she confessed, she had not understood much of the explanations by the teacher, she had realized that the shakuhachi indeed required serious study. Her enthusiasm and newly found humbleness convinced me that it was after all not so bad to have the novices in the class. Still, I hope that next time the class will be split into two.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Lac Rose

They were all young men, their dark bodies glistening with beurre de karité (or shea butter) intended to protect them against the salty water. They were immersed up to their necks in the lake excavating salt from the bottom. This was hard work, spending hours at the time digging with their spades underwater and lifting the heavy load of crystallized salt to the boats. Standing neck-deep in the water meant that every spade full of the white crystals had to be lifted to the height or above their heads. Their shining muscles strained with the movement as they heaved the load to the wooden pirogues some of which were already so overloaded that one more addition would risk sinking the morning's work.

It was still before noon and I was observing this tedious extraction work sitting in one of the flat-bottom pirogues that we had rented on the shore. The man who had leased out the boat was sitting behind me giving a non-stop commentary in monotonous French about the operation. Another man was standing in the rear steering the boat with a long pole. We were at Lac Rose in Senegal.

The lake gets its name from the vaguely red hue of its water, which is caused by an algae that blooms in this favoured ecosystem of theirs. With 380 grams of salt per one litre of water, the lake's salinity is second to only that of the Dead Sea. The salt enters the lake through periodic floods and inundation from the Atlantic Ocean, only a few hundred metres away behind prominent sand dunes. At the opposite end, the lake is fed by a freshwater aquifer. It is this combination that creates the unique conditions in which the algae thrive.

Most of the extractors in the water come from Mali, Senegal's landlocked neighbour to the east. Altogether, there are some 1,000 of them -- 600 men and 400 women -- who work in two-day shifts. Today is the men's turn. In one day, a good worker can fill about 20 sacks of salt each weighing 50 kg. These he or she can then sell to middlemen for 2,000 CFA (Central African francs) (approximately US$ 4) a piece. The money makes the toil worthwhile, although the hard work and the constant exposure to salt water has its health risks that are not insignificant. None of the men appeared to be over 30 years of age.

The shore was lined with huge piles of salt, each attributed by a sign to one of the boats. Both the salt and the beach itself glared white in the tropical midday sun. After a while, it was hard on the eyes.

Senegal has plans to develop this area into a touristic attraction. As we were standing on the shore, a couple of car loads of foreigners, mostly French, were driven in to admire the rare colour of the lake and the exotic industry it supports. A half a dozen local women had spread a long cloth on the bare ground and were hawking handicrafts and other souvenirs to us visitors. Next to them, a local artist sold small art pieces painted on wood in red, brown green and black, depicting scenes from the lake. The salt heaps in the art pieces were made from the real thing. Inevitably entering into a haggle, the vendors eventually won and I felt obliged to purchase various trinkets and a painting from a couple of them. Supporting the local economy, I rationalized. I could always give them as presents to friends...

The tourism enterprise doesn't appear particularly lucrative. A few hotels have emerged close to the lake and observing the salt extraction is certainly interesting. However, despite the scene with the colourfully painted pirogues and the dark profiles of the men toiling away in the lake, the piles of salt on the shore and the small lorries taking it away give the landscape of vaguely industrial look. This is not a place where you would like to spend days or even an entire weekend relaxing and pouring money into the incipient establishments.

Furthermore, although the place is a mere 40 km from Dakar, the capital, the road trip takes at least 1.5 hours on a good day, if the traffic cooperates. Soon after leaving the city, the fabulous four-lane highway turns into a potholed road where hundreds of vendors selling anything between telephone cards and sunglasses, water and pirated Michael Jackson CDs, wander between the cars and trucks stalled in the traffic jam. Dakar being located on a narrow peninsula jutting into the Atlantic, this is the only way out of town. Then at some point -- unmarked by any visible road sign -- one has to turn left, north, entering an unpaved road that in places is in such shape that it's safer to drive on the shoulder. This region, Rufisque, is the centre of Senegal's poultry industry and thus by no means impoverished. Heading towards the lake, we passed through a number of bustling small towns, each one of which seemed to be under construction. The driver, Romain, pointed out a huge tract of land walled off on the left side of the road. It had been acquired by the president, Abdoulaye Wade. On the right side of the road, there was a more reasonably sized area reserved for the first lady.

Having observed the salt production and bought the souvenirs, we headed towards the freshwater end of the lake, source d'eau douce, entering a small village determined to capitalize on the visitors. There was a comfortable looking fruit stand run by a group of women in the shade of a large flowering tree. It was loaded with delicious looking mangoes that were in season. There were also about a dozen or more small stands, all operated by men, selling wood carvings, small paintings, African style costume jewellery, crudely made but charming toy cars and aeroplanes, etc. Again, it turned out to be impossible to pass through the alley without stopping and ending up providing more support to the local economy.

Down by the lakeside there was a lovely shady grove lined with palms, banana trees and the full richness of the tropical landscape. A small hotel complex consisting of low bungalows, a restaurant and more souvenir shops had sprung up in this peaceful place. There was also a small crescent shaped beach here where the sweet water flows into the lake. There were small groups of people relaxing on the beach and actually frolicking in the lake, which at this end was not red. I overheard two couples speaking Spanish, while a family with mixed race daughters communicated in French. A group of Chinese (these days they are everywhere in Africa) sat at a table drinking beer, ready for lunch. On a closer look, the white beach was made entirely of beautiful small shells.

Sitting in the shade under an awning, we ordered lunch from the friendly if somewhat languorous staff. The wait was very long and when the fish finally came -- in my case a sole, which they must have gone to catch from the nearby ocean when I ordered it -- it was extremely dry and almost impossible to separate the meagre meat from the myriad bones. The fleur de sel, which must have been produced locally, however, was of high quality. Despite the toughness of the fish, it was quite pleasant to sit and relax. We were also entertained by an elderly man dressed in a pale blue kaftan and a white Muslim cap playing softly on the kora, a traditional West African instrument with numerous strings attached to a long neck and a calabash for amplification. The music was very soothing. A few days here and there'd be not a single tense muscle in your body, I thought. In fact, you might be brain dead from sheer lack of stimulation.

In the end, the two main uses for the lake -- salt extraction and tourism -- may not be fully compatible. At the very least, the salt mining brings to the lakeshore a rare kind of economic activity that visitors may find fascinating, although it is not particularly pleasing aesthetically. The salt extraction itself may not be sustainable in the long run. Meanwhile, land transformation and draining of the wetlands around the capital for to accommodate for the constantly growing settlements is altering the sensitive ecological balance. There is also evidence that the rains in the past years -- like this current rainy season -- have been erratic, possibly due to changes in the climate. Put together, these forces may result in Lac Rose turning less pink in the years to come.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Air @ Montreux Jazz Festival, 2 July 2010

I caught Air on the first night of the legendary Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Like most jazz festivals today, Montreux interprets 'jazz' rather liberally. Consequently, these slim former academics, both born in France in 1969, whose act can hardly be classified as jazz fit in perfectly. The Miles Davis Hall was packed and the audience revved up when the two unshaven co-leaders dressed in white entered the stage.

The music started with songs from their latest album, Love 2, with fantastic soundscapes created by the duo backed by the black-clad drummer. The first tune was 'Do the Joy' from the new album. The bass and drums laid out the heavy beat against which the Moog synthesizer played the superficially simple but memorable melody. It's hard to describe how good the beat was, but it immediately sucked into the mood everyone in the audience. For the diehard fans of Air (a category I readily include myself in) it hit us in all the right places. The bass vamp melded with the drums in a seamless groove, while the keyboards set the tone for things to come.

Air's music is often classified as electronica, but this is a gross simplification. Electronic instruments obviously do play a central role in the duo's music, but that is not necessarily the point. The point is that theirs is music that crosses boundaries, using elements from rock, pop, electronica and others. Their sound is uniquely their own. I've seen it compared to Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream and others equally wide apart. There is no doubt that the two musicians have had their influences (like everyone else), but they have been quite varied (including the Carpenters, according to the musicians themselves). The music of Air was brought to a wider attention in Sophia Coppola's movie Lost in Translation and the duo gained popularity amongst hipsters. It's equally clear that their music is highly original, unlike anything else that I've come across.

Air (apart from the obvious, the letters are supposed to stand for amour, imagination, rêve) has been around for a decade and a half, since the time the two friends formed the duo in 1995. Nicolas Godin was a student of architecture in Paris, while Jean-Benoît Dunckel studied mathematics. Both had played in the band Orange before. In Air, they were able to create their own sound and vision, which is both intellectual and emotionally compelling. The music is imaginative and the sounds are amazingly strong. The melodies, sung primarily by Dunckel almost effeminately softly , are simple but invariably beautiful and memorable, like in the sweet pop song 'Heaven's Light' they performed in the set tonight.

Some tunes clearly reveal the origin of the duo. Like the experimental instrumental 'Be a Bee,' which despite its steady rock beat and 4/4 bass, somehow sounds so quintessentially French.

What boggles my mind is that still today, in 2010 when everything seems to be about hype and commercialism, a band that plays intellectual music, much of which is instrumental, can command such a following of people from different genders, countries and ages. It does give hope for the future.

'Tropical Disease,' with its complex structure and tempo changes, many layers of keyboards (that Dunckel mastered superbly in a live situation) and the deceivingly facile snippets of melody, is an example of the most unlikely hit song. Yet it completely enticed the audience in the Miles Davis Hall.

The stage setting was highly psychedelic. The groovy light show was reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey with swirling colours and black-and-white kinetic visions. The spaced out impression was further enhanced by Godin using the Vocoder, sounding like Hal, in his vocals (and occasionally thanking the audience, "Merci beaucoup," in between the tunes).

Throughout the concert, Dunckel in his white trousers, shirt and tie stood between his banks of keyboards, consisting of a white Wurlitzer electric piano, a string machine and several analogue synthesizers by legendary makers such as Moog and ARP. He swayed slightly while his hands were playing the keyboards ambidextrously on both sides simultaneously. The set was designed so that the slight man in white playing the keyboards would not be obscured by the instruments. He seemed completely content at filling the centre stage.

On the right side of the stage, the bearded Godin had his own set of period synthesizers (just two of them in a 70s style wobbly stand), which he'd use sparingly. But he focused on his bass and acoustic guitars. Especially as a bass player, Godin is fabulous. With no gimmicks, he would lay the foundation solid on his white Fender Mustang. He is also a highly musical player, who plays the bass guitar melodically and expressively, while never sacrificing the groove.

Both of the Frenchmen acted cool as cornichons during the entire concert. Once in a while, Dunckel allowed himself a small smile that someone might have interpreted as arrogant, but which most likely was just an expression of satisfaction of how well the concert was going and how it was received by the mixed audience. Between the songs, one of the five little American girls, barely 20, I guessed, standing next to me screamed to the gentlemen: "We love you, sexy boys!!!"

In a recent interview with Electronic Musician, Godin and Dunckel talked about their new own studio and their music. They observed how Love 2 is more natural, using more acoustic instruments (and of course analogue synthesizers) than their earlier efforts. This was obvious also in Montreux. The electronics played a key role, but the music never sounded pretentious or cold. On the contrary, the beat was real and the sounds naturally appealing.

One of the key strengths of Air is that they have an impeccable melodic sense. So often in today's pop, the musicians are skilful at their instruments, the sound is excellent and the production flawless. But the songs just don't cut it (perhaps it's understandable: after all, there are only twelve tones in the Western scale). That is not the case with Air. Some of the songs are rather simplistic ('Sing Sang Sung'), but still somehow smart; others are just simple, but masterly so. All are carefully crafted, melodically natural, and pleasing without exception.

Towards the end of the concert the mood intensified. When after 1.5 hours of non-stop ecstasy the show was over, there was no way the audience would allow the musicians to leave the stage. They didn't and we were treated to an ample serving of more of the good stuff.

When I finally exited the hall into the balmy night, it was close to midnight. It was impossible even to think about sleep right now, so I joined the thousands of others who had crowded into the lakeside park. The night by now was dark, the Alps looming gloomily in the background as the lights from the numerous stalls selling anything from Thai noodles to tattoos, from Tarot cards to wine from neighbouring vineyards, reflected on the lake's calm surface. I felt like walking on water or, rather, air.

Monday, July 5, 2010

In defence of decency

At midnight I walked back to my hotel through the darkened city park. On this July night, not even the lights here and there could lighten up the quiet and verdant place by the lake, mostly because the lindens and other trees were covered in thick foliage through which the lamplight hardly could penetrate. It was lonesome although I was not alone. There were shapes lurking in the shadows. Mostly lovers embracing each other, but also small groups taking advantage of the balmy summer night. I could see the shapes of wine bottles as they were lifted to thirsty lips. It never crossed my mind that I should be worried that someone might try to rob me (or worse). I was in Geneva, Switzerland, a place known for its safety and decency.

When you talk with people who 'have been around', Geneva, and entire Switzerland for that matter, often come up in discussions as a 'boring' place. Yes, it's beautiful, but so dull and regulated. Pedestrians wait for the light to turn green before they cross the street, even if there's no traffic. And when there is, cars stop politely when you're about to step onto the zebra crossing. It's so neat and clean; a real traveller would need some more grit. The trains leave exactly on time, so if you're even 20 seconds late you've missed it.

Horrible, isn't it? How can a creative and free human being live under such constraints? In New York where I live, every self-respecting person takes pride in not hesitating to exercise their rights enshrined in the Constitution. Pedestrians hover halfway through the street when there's heavy and unruly traffic from all directions, thus making everyone a little less safe and a little less efficient. But waiting would show your meekness and respect for rules that someone else created. Completely unacceptable. It would cramp your style, even if it benefitted the society as a whole. Maybe it's a reaction to the fact that your risk of being run over by a rogue driver is highest when the walk/don't walk sign is green at the same time as that of turning traffic from behind. If one runs through red lights, like half of the people who drive in the city, then everyone is alert and avoids accidents.

And isn't it a sign of fascism that trains run on time? That's what Mussolini made them do in the Italy of the 1930s. It doesn't take into account that individualistic and relaxed people have to have some leeway. Never mind that they make others wait. It's their individual right.

The cleanliness must also be some form of fascism. At least it is very bourgeois and thus reprehensible. A society that is so efficient and organized must surely be repressive to the wild individualism that we're all entitled to. My freedom is sacred, even if it tramples on yours. It is my right to mess up the environment in my pursuit of my happiness.

Friends of mine once moved to Zurich. In their apartment building there was a written house rule that, after 10 pm, men also had to sit down to pee. This was so that they wouldn't disturb the neighbours with the sound of the stream hitting the water. They didn't last long and moved back to Tokyo. But hey, wait a minute, isn't Japan also supposed to be a conformist society of uniformed robots? Well, in fact, no. It's another society that allows for the pursuit of individual interests, however nutty or eccentric they may be (think about obsession with cafés where the waitresses are dolled up as manga characters), as long as they do not infringe on other people's freedoms to pursue their own happiness. Freedom with responsibility, such a new and foreign idea, especially to Americans.

Another such repressive place, of course, is Singapore. A place everyone with any sophistication loves to hate. Chewing gum is frowned upon, not because it's an ugly habit, but because the chewers have a tendency to stick their chewed globs mixed with saliva in places where other people step or, worse, try to hold onto for balance on public transportation. Anyway, public transportation is for losers, of course. Just look at the lowlife who take the 'loser cruiser,' as buses are called in the States. If you have your own car or SUV you don't have to deal with such petty inconveniences. Unless someone messes with your car.

Several years ago, Singapore had the audacity of caning an American youth, Michael Fay, for running amok in the city and spray-painting cars that had the misfortune of having been parked by their owners along his route. This was barbaric (the caning, that is). Even the then-president Bill Clinton interfered and successfully convinced the government of the independent country that an American should not be so inhumanely punished for just innocently expressing his stupidity. Singapore agreed to reduce the number of the lashes from six to just four, but still the poor lad did get spanked for his offence and could not sit for a lengthy while. It must have been so humiliating and painful. A gross violation of human rights! And for what? Just for some youthful indiscretion and fun destroying innocent people's property on which they had spent hard-earned pay. Everyone does that, right? (Somewhat ironically, just this June a Swiss business consultant, Oliver Fricker (32), confessed to spray-painting a Singapore metro-car and may thus be subject to the same fate.)

Singapore, like Switzerland, is such an oppressive place. The only thing one can do is to go drown one's sorrows on Clarke Quay or one of the other clean and lively entertainment areas by the seaside and join the thousands of other merrymakers for a Singapore Sling and some fabulous fried noodles (guaranteed not to make you sick, because the fascist state has set up draconian health controls on the restaurants that restrict the God-given right of the entrepreneur to maximize his profit). Or go to one of the many clubs for some music and dancing with the scantily clad locals (poor things are not even obese).

It seems indisputable from the evidence of places like Switzerland, Japan, Singapore and, yes, my country of origin, Finland, that wealth and its relatively even distribution, high levels of education throughout the population, and a strong government are good for the environment and well-being of the people.

Back to Geneva. It's a small town, that's for sure. But for its size it's not dead. Just this past Tuesday night I was sitting with my friend Azusa in a waterfront bar by Lac Léman. The place was crowded, but not unruly. Plenty of people were having drinks and mingling with others from different national and ethnic backgrounds in the cosmopolitan town. The noise level was such that one could actually have a discussion. All were dressed well. Not fancily or expensively, but in style. Most women looked quite sexy in their summer dresses. Midnight came and the keepers of the establishment rapidly and effectively expelled us. The closing hour specified in their licence had arrived and everyone had to leave, which we all did in an orderly fashion and without protest. Had we wanted to continue, we could easily have gone to any one of the many bars that have a licence to stay open until 2 am or stay in a nightclub until 5 am. We did not feel the urge, nor did we feel particularly deprived by the fact that we were thrown out onto the beautiful lakeside walk at this early hour.

As I wrote this, the weekend was coming and the lakeside was even more crowded than on that particular Tuesday. Some hours ago the sun had set over France. The recognizable silhouette of Mont Blanc behind the gorgeous lake had faded into darkness. The restaurants in the city centre were still teeming with people and there was excitement in the air: after all, this weekend would bring important matches of the football World Cup in South Africa and the Wimbledon finals. When I headed towards the leafy darkness of the park, the sidewalk bars were still selling drinks and hundreds of people were perusing them. Those who couldn't fit into the seating areas were lounging leisurely on the lawn. The establishments served the beers in real glasses, as opposed to plastic. It was a risk, of course, as common sense would dictate that the glasses would be broken on the grass or on the next guy's head. But these domesticated people didn't do that. They just lay there enjoying the balmy evening in harmony with friends and actually returning the empty glasses to the bars.

They must have felt so deprived. After all, they didn't even have concealed handguns on them to protect their freedom and liberty from each other and the government.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Nine Lives @ Asia Society, 19 June 2010

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern South Asia is the new book of British author William Dalrymple who has lived in and written several books about the subcontinent. On Saturday night, Yoko and I attended an unusual event at the Asia Society in New York to launch the book.

The event was built around the theme of the book, which searches the expression of the sacred in the rapidly changing and increasingly materialistic region. On both sides of the stage, square platform covered with oriental carpets had been placed. William Dalrymple sat himself down on the one to the left and introduced the evening’s program. It was organized around four different performances all bringing out dimensions of the sacred and spiritual from the subcontinent. These would be interspersed with readings by the author from his book.

The first performer was Paban Das Baul. The Bauls are a group of mystics from the Bengal region of India who perform a specific type of folk song. Their beliefs draw from Vaishnavite Hindu and Sufi Muslim traditions. Paban Das Paul was dressed in a colourful outfit that contrasted with his long curly grey hair that surrounded his bearded face. His powerful voice carried the soulful melodies to the accompaniment of an equally colourfully robed lady, Mimlu Sen, who sat calmly next to the singer providing a serene rhythm by a pair of tiny finger cymbals. She is said to be a storyteller, musician, dancer and writer in her own right, who tours and performs with Paban Das Baul.

The order of the performances had to be slightly changed, as the Shah Jo Raag Fakirs were stuck in the immigration at the JFK airport (“Could you kindly step to the side, sir?”). Apparently the three traditionally dressed and bearded men from Pakistan had raised the suspicions of the homeland security types at the border. Ironically, these gentlemen were Sufi who, as Dalrymple explained, are at the frontlines of intra-Islamic fight with the Taliban hardliners who accuse them of adulterating the pure faith. Never mind that Sufism has been around much longer than the intolerant Wahhabism that has been imported from Saudi Arabia to the volatile region mostly by the Jihadists fighting in Afghanistan. The Sufis’ celebration of the mysticism of Islam through song and dance is too much for the narrow-minded soldiers for Islam. If only there was more intelligence in the homeland security crowd to understand this, sighed Dalrymple.

While we were waiting for the Fakirs, next came the Theyyam Dance Group from North Kerala in India, who performed an ancient dance that has a tradition of more than 1,000 years. The main dancer, Hari Das, is one of the characters featured in Dalrymple’s book. He wore a spectacular red costume not very much like anything that I had seen before. In fact, the costume was a huge square from the top of which the dancer’s masked face protruded.

After the intermission, the author informed the audience that the Sufis had been allowed entrance and were in a taxi approaching Asia Society. To fill in the time, Dalrymple read another passage from Nine Lives, a moving story of a young Jain nun who witnessed the death of another nun and her friend.

Then joy: Shah Jo Raag Fakirs entered the stage and sat down on the carpeted square to the right. The three Fakirs performed two numbers with high-pitched vocals and stringed instruments, the dhamboor, created by Shah Jo Raag himself. The intensity of the music was amazing and rose constantly towards a wailing climax.

The final performer of the evening—and at this time William Dalrymple exited the stage after having introduced the act—was by far the best known in the West: the famous Tamil performer from London, Susheela Raman. She is a composer, arranger and singer who over the past decade has performed and recorded music that crosses the divisions of genre and ethnicity, incorporating ample South Asian elements from her own cultural heritage. This time, she would perform Thevaram hymns from the temples of Tamil Nadu state of India. She had studied these spiritual songs, which she had arranged to her own style.

Susheela Raman was accompanied by her long-term musical partners Sam Mills on guitar and Aref Durvesh on tabla. This trio produced sounds that were hard to believe came from such sparse instrumentation. Mills modified the sounds of his acoustic guitar electronically adding a stronger bass and full effects. Durvesh’ tabla playing was superb. He created amazing rhythms and tones from the three small drums sitting on a table in front of him, playing complex patterns on the fingers of his right hand, while providing a fluid bass beat on the left. At the centre of attention was Susheela Rahman, dressed in black with her big curly dark hair flowing. Her voice is so powerful that it is an instrument in itself, which she used skilfully to deliver new meaning to these ancient songs.

The highlight of the evening was when at the end all of the musicians gathered on the stage for several additional numbers. The first was a duet sung by Susheela Rahman with Shah Jo Raag. The second, to me perhaps the high point of the entire evening, again brought to the forefront Paban Das Paul (with Mimlu Sen again sitting quietly alone on the carpet while the mood on stage was getting riotous). He sang and danced in a highly spirited manner his colourful robes flowing as he whirled around ecstatically. The final soloist was again Shah Jo Raag whose forceful falsetto captured the audience and the other performers alike. The concert was a true treat that demonstrated the variety and the beauty of South Asian traditional music.

A further treat was to continue to a reception in Asia Society’s beautiful café where we could mingle with the artists while sampling Indian fare and fine wines. A delightful evening altogether.