Monday, November 10, 2008


Khawuleza means go quickly, and it's the name of one of the songs Miriam Makeba is known for. Sadly Makeba passed away on Sunday. She was the final act in a concert near Naples organized in to support writer Roberto Saviano in his stand against the Camorra, a mafia-like organization.

I've already lost the link, but one of the obituaries I read said the audience was still clapping for an encore when the call went out for a doctor in the house. Here's a conventional news obituary and the very touching statement on her Web site.

To me Miriam Makeba is a larger than life figure and I'm sure my memories are pieced together not entirely accurately. Certainly it is true that Makeba died as she lived: an activist courageously supporting justice with her song. I hold the memory of her passing that she died with the sounds of affectionate applause as she quickly passed to a better place.

There are some lovely videos of Miriam Makeba on YouTube. I marked Khawuleza as a favorite quite a while ago. And I've searched Pata Pata over and over. That link was taken from Brazilian telivision and helpfully notes that Severino Dias de Oliveira, known as Sivuca was playing the guitar, and he seems to be playing in the Khawuleza video previous. Sivuca died last year. He collaborated with Makeba during her early career and arranged Pata Pata. He was a great artist and there's a truly wonderful video from Swedish TV in 1969 playing the accordian and vocalese.

Makeba was an International star in a way seemed so remarkable to me as a boy. I think I saw Makeba on the Ed Sullivan show, maybe not, but somewhere along the line encountered the Click Song. Discovering that clicks are a part of the Xhosa was one of those factoids that delighted me as a kid.

I'm not sure that as a boy I had much sense of geography. I was at least familiar with world maps and music drove my curiosity. Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66 were popular and Mas Que Nada was something of a revelation. I was prepubescent, so there was nothing sexual about it, but these, what we might call world music songs today, made me want to move and dance. I wanted to move my hips! Indeed one of the reasons I've searched for Pata Pata on YouTube is for the dancing. I've searched and can't locate it, but it seems to me that one of those old videos of Pata Pata has a break with a young girl dancing. I thought from the looks Makeba gave the child it must have been her late daughter, Bongi. I don't think so because she was too young and the dates don't really match. Still I mention the dancing because Makeba's songs and the few Brazilian songs that I heard as a child suggested a different way of dancing I'd never imagined before. I delight in seeing the dancing now.

A few summers ago I saw Miriam Makeba play at Hartwood Acres a county park near Pittsburgh which is one of the best venues for live performances I know. My sister and her children were visiting from Florida and we filled up the car to attend the show. My father is a Jazz buff and it was fun to see Evelyn Hawkins, then the new music director for the local Jazz station dance to Pata Pata. With radio voices we rarely know what the people look like. Ah, but Dr. Hawkins danced a dance like I would have dance top Pata Pata as a child.
"When they hear Pata Pata begin to play everyone gets up to dance."
Makeba collapsed after singing Pata Pata a song that spans generations. Daude's take on the song from around 1997 proves it's irresistible. I danced in the year 2000 with Miriam Makeba singing Pata Pata. It's very sad to have lost that voice.

Koranteng Ofosu-Amaah has a new toli up that's not to be missed. He's scanned many images from Drum Magazine, circa 1969. There's a whole set at Flickr. Koranteng is a wonderful storyteller, so the stories about Drum Magazine seem a heck of a lot more interesting than my recent curiosity about old Yankee Magazines. Obviously time moves on. All of what memory serves isn't very clear, but surely is important. I have no memory of Ghana in the late sixties, but the window into the times Koranteng provides is a very worthwhile excursion.

Time indeed goes quickly. Perhaps one use for reflection about the past, or at least some digging into the media of the past, is to see how alive with potential the present always is. So much water has run under the bridge in forty years time, and so many tears. Still, as we look at the life of Mariam Makeba there are so many tears, but triumph as well. She returned to South Africa after a long exile. Nelson Mandela became the duly elected president. Some dared to dream a new world. We can thank them by dreaming a better future and leading good lives.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Obama World

It's heading into Friday morning here and I'm still a little gobsmacked by Barack Hussein Obama's win.

I shared Tuesday night's television in the company of friends and got home late. I was curious about local tallies and went online--the race I was interested in wasn't called until hours later, at about 4 AM. Clearly going online was a bit obsessive. But when I turned on my computer there was an Instant Message from a friend in Kampala thanking me for voting and leaving the message "Yes we can!." And another friend from Uganda got online and excitedly joined in celebrating the victory. And it all made me very happy.

Something about Obama's win is there's a explicit command directed at me and others:
Stand up and do something useful!
It's not simply statement: "A change is gonna come!" rather it's a challenge: "What change will you make?" The latter is exciting, but requires some lifting.

Yesterday and today I've been reading reactions online. There sure are some smart people out there. I like smart people very much, but find them intimidating. There's some truth to the intimidating part--to make timid--but there's also some truth to a different response to smart people and that's inspiring--to stimulate action. So I've read some great posts, and feel a bit intimidated that I could say anything as good. Still it does seem worthwhile to say I'm inspired by Obama.

By an odd quirk of common usage the adjective "eloquent" when applied to a black person in America is often loaded with a quality of damning by faint praise. The broad brush attack on Obama was built on top of this subtlety: "Oh sure he can talk real pretty, but who really is Barack Obama?" Obama's words have moved me throughout the campaign. Picking out highlights in my mind I thought about the Speech in Philadelphia, A More Perfect Union, but in fact I was hooked on his speeches even earlier. I am reminded right now of blogging about will. i. am.'s Barack Obama music video and a comment left by The 27th Comrade which read in part:
I can't help seeing how nearly Stalinist America is. Kids wake up to recite old speeches, be told they live in the Greatest Country in the World, that their Freedom is better than anything, that they should be Lucky to be Americans ...
Do you spot any difference between that and George Orwell's 1984? Any whatsoever?
I got pointed to a great essay today by Rob McDougall via zunguzungu. McDougall's post is here. McDougall is a Canadian historian who teaches US History to Canadian students. His observations about the election are so smart the essay is worth reading entirely. Something he said put into perspective the songs, poetry and music that's been running through my head the last couple of days. And really it goes to the point The 27th Comrade makes, in a more gentle way:
Being a Canadian living in America, Bercovitch said, was like being Sancho Panza in a nation of Don Quixotes. There was a secret everybody knew but him, a music everybody else but him could hear. Remember, Sancho Panza is Quixote's pragmatic sidekick. Sancho knows that Quixote is delusional and deranged--where Quixote sees dragons, Sancho sees only windmills--but he comes to envy his master's world of enchantment.
I do hear the music and they are American songs. McDougall's observation helps me to understand how sometimes absurd it all must sound to outside ears. I'm very fond of the fact that McDougall tries to help his students make some sense of it:
But I like my students to at least try to hear the music. To imagine themselves Americans for a day. To contemplate the possibility that words like "all men are created equal" might be bigger and more noble and enduring than the flawed men who wrote them. Like George Lucas and the original Star Wars.
McDougall surmises that our American capacity to suspend disbelief is not a bug but a feature.
Anyway, I guess I must be a lost cause. Revoke my Canadian citizenship. Because last night, for a few hours at least, I totally bought the myth. Like Walt Whitman, I heard America singing.
It's been a happy thing to read posts on the election from people outside the USA which say in so many words that they too "heard America singing."

As usual I've blathered on too long already, and I have a final point in mind. Before I go on to that I better mention the picture, an album cover from the 1970's and a song you can listen to at Youtube. I put it up because I thought I was going to riff off another of my favorite posts of the last couple of days by numerian at The Agonist. Instead, I'll just link to that. It's about this peculiar American music we hear too.

The final point is the posts that impressed me today were of the sort that we need to roll up our sleeves and get to work. There's a reason bloggers so often link to What Digby says. What Digby says in that piece is if we want President Obama to make effect important change, we'll have to make him do it. We've got to make it work. Chris Clarke makes a similar point in his essay On centrism. Stirling Newberry raises the flag in his post For Equal Marriage. In fact, Digby, Clarke, Newberry and many others have been saying as much for years. But for a person like me, slow and a little lazy, the American music that McDougall spoke about is ringing loud in my ears now.

Along the election trail Barack Obama told the story of an encounter with a council woman in Greenwood, South Carolina named Edith Childs. I've listened to his account several times and if you can view videos you can watch and hear him tell the story here. I don't get tired hearing the story. A big part of it for me is Obama's description of Edith Childs, with her "big hat, looks like she's coming from church." It's a sort of image etched on my brain, so that even while I have no idea what Mrs. Childs looks like, I picture her from that description. Edith Childs it turns out is famous for her chant: "Fired up!" and everybody says Fired Up! then she calls out "Ready to go!" and everybody sings out "Ready to go!" Obama speaks of that encounter and how it moved him:
One voice can change a room, and if it can change a room, it can change a city, and if it can change a city, it can change a state, and if it can change a state then it can change a nation and if it can change a nation it can change a world."
My task, the task for all of us, is to find our voice and use it.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Atomic Energy

In the center of the old Yankee magazines is a centerfold. For a very nominal price you could send a self-addressed stamped envelope for an unfolded copy, suitable for framing. This one is "Old-time Lane, Parsonsfield, Maine" by George French from the September 1968 issue. Today is an "Indian Summer" day, bright in the morning it's now clouded over, but it is still warm. And the colors are of autumn.

Studs Terkel died on Friday at age 96. Terkel made oral histories. He was on the radio for over forty years and wrote books of oral histories. The Chicago History Museum has a wonderful Web page that provides lots of links to some of Studs Terkel's recordings. I feel rather pleased that his recordings are being preserved, because they are a unique window onto American history.

I often go to the grocery store on Saturdays. I listen to the radio when I do, to WYEP-FM generally. WYEP-FM is an independent community radio station which plays the adult alternative format. They stream. The weekend features long-running shows with community DJs. In the afternoon is the Soul Show with Mike Canton and Stephen Chatman. The trip to the store catches about 3 songs and some chatter and 3 and some on the way back. It's a blast for me. Partly it's the nostalgia, also a good part is the banter of Chatman and Canton. Remembering takes storytelling, and telling stories again and again.

WYEP's audience is firmly adult now. I'm fond of it because I remember when the station started in the neighborhood I lived in at the time, back when I was youthful. Nowadays the cool station probably is WRCT, at least it's the freeform station in town. But I don't receive it well where I live. Perhaps the premiere freeform is WFMU in the USA is WFMU and regardless of your musical tastes WFMU's Beware of the Blog is worth checking out.

My minimal contact with young people today suggests to me that young people know a lot about music. They seem to know what their parents like and a host of obscure players and genres of music, hence the playlists at WRCT. My favorite show is Dubmission with host Kerem and if you're into playlists the Dubmission list would be worth getting emailed to you weekly. That Dubmission is coming up on its tenth anniversary on air makes me think I don't have a clue about young people today. I still like music and lots of it.

Right now as I write, I'm listening to Last FM and I truly do enjoy being able to explore music on sites like YouTube. But there's something essential in the human voice. I'm happy there's a radio station that I can listen to that features real voices. Of course there's too much to listen to online. David Dye's World Cafe is on lots of local radio stations or you can listen by stream. This American Life produces great stories. Again the program runs on many stations and streams. There are so many great blogs too which provide great stories and music in context.

In Native tradition is the Twisted Hair, the storyteller who kept the traditions alive. Twisted Hair hasn't visited me, and that's not my tradition anyway. Although I must say that I do love Native American stories very much. Stories are nonetheless very important to people all, and there's nothing like hearing a story with ones own ears. So it is with sadness that I note Studs Terkel's passing. I will miss his humane voice.

Somewhere I lost the plot.

The title is Atomic Energy and comes from my nostalgic reading of old Yankee magazines. There's a story about Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power in the April 1968 issue. There's a short statement by members of Anti-Pollution League. I wish the black and white photos in the magazine scanned better because it's quite charming to see pictures of the regular people. Henry Peterson was chairman of the League. He was a retired from Federal Civil Service. Mrs. Thomas Panzera is pictured making phone calls with a big bottle of rubber cement on her desk. Here's the gist of the League's argument:
So far, nuclear energy is being used only on a statistically insignificant scale. The real development is yet going to happen. There will be a continuous traffic of radioactive substances from the "hot" chemical plants to the nuclear stations and back again; from the stations to waste processing plants; and from there to disposal sites. The slightest accident, whether during transport or production, can cause a major catastrophe, and radiation levels throughout the world will rise relentlessly form generation to generation.
John McCain has called for the construction of forty-five new Nuclear power generation plants by 2030 as a cornerstone for his energy policy. Blogger Dr. Ducan Black at Eschaton contends that many Republican policy positions are taken simply because "They piss liberals off." He makes a good point, but like it or not all of us are simply going to have to come to grips with energy issues.

Thankfully election day is just a few days away. I've got my fingers crossed that Obama will win. I dread having to listen to John McCain and Sarah Palin very often. But, I've enjoyed checking back at Palin as President Web site which they promise will be updated until election day. The slogan "Drill Baby, Drill!" really pisses me off; it strikes me as wishful thinking. Jim Roddey is a local Republican big wig who's often on TV. Early in the year, while the candidates were still running in the Primaries, he repeated often: There's plenty of oil and gas if only the environmentalists would let us drill for it. Roddey is one of those endangered "moderate" Republicans and has a reputation for being smart. Taking that "smart" part into account, I figured he was simply being disingenuous. The scary part is I think now he really believes it. And it would seem that such simple minded and erroneous thinking pisses liberals off only adds to his certainty! Even if Barack Obama is elected on Tuesday, they'll be plenty of Americans who think that the solution to our energy demand is just one wish away.

Earlier this year Mother Jones did a feature on the nuclear option. It's worth checking out, indeed as other reporting on the subject Mother Jones has published. For the thirtieth anniversary of mass arrest at the Seabrook, NH Anti-Nuclear protest, Mother Jones put a a photo essay of the protests. There are stories about nuclear power generation we ought to tell, if for no other reason than to disabuse ourselves of the notion that nuclear is a simple solution. The story of Vermont Yankee reveals the challenges of both "too big to fail" and what a couple of decades of deregulation has wrought. Earlier in the year journalist Christian Parenti questions What Nuclear Renaissance? Nuclear power is a long story and not one that's easily taken in.

Joe Klein of Time magazine reports:
As Obama told me in our interview, a government-propelled transition to an alternative-energy economy will be his most important initiative. Translated into Washington terms, this means a massive infrastructure and stimulus package — in the neighborhood of $300 billion, according to the current speculation. There is a back-to-the-future quality to this: it's what used to be derided as big-spending liberalism. The Beltway consensus is that the economic crisis makes it necessary now. But public cynicism about government requires that the next President builds accountability into his spending programs. That's why the Infrastructure Bank that Obama proposed during the campaign may be crucial: it would create a bipartisan board of five governors who would judge and approve all major projects.
My memory isn't so reliable, but I think that I attended Bob Marley's last concert. I can't remember the date, whether it was in 1979 or 1980. According to the Wikipedia article on Bob Marley his his final concert at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on September 23, 1980. I definitely saw him at that venue. Some local memory was that the concert at the Stanley was in 1979 and his last concert was at the Mellon Arena. I don't know who's right. But I do remember quite clearly, and with emotion, hearing Marley perform Redemption Song. I can't but be filled with emotion when I hear this song even today. But I've always been puzzled by the line: "Have no fear for atomic energy/because none of us can stop the time." Puzzling as that line is "Old pirates yes they rob I" couldn't be more clear.

We must engage in a genuine way with the very real problems we face today. There's no "magic bullet" that will solve our energy and climate dilemma. Bob Marley quotes Marcus Garvey's words some forty years prior to penning his Redemption Song: "None but ourselves can free our minds." That's a great responsibility. Marley surely had twisted hair, and perhaps more than any other artist of the 20th Century reminded us that our stories, our past, has great lessons for us going forward. He entreats us:
Won't you help to sing, these songs of freedom

Cause all I ever had, redemption songs

Redemption songs, redemption songs
Sing out sisters and brothers! We got lots of work to do and the work needs every one of us.

Update: Per Pingting the lyric of Redemption Song is correctly:
Wo! have no fear for atomic energy,
cause none of them-a can-a stop-a the time.
I really like Pingting's take on they meaning of the lyric too.