Something Beautiful

28 06 2007


By Jill Ettinger

If art is anything, the label often fitting is: misunderstood. Individual interpretations unite us in curious contemplation, and artist’s intentions drift somewhere in the spaces between our reflections. Still the fire burns to create for art’s sake. Sinead O’ Connor is one of those artists whose intentions have not only been misunderstood, but gravely unappreciated. She will in all likelihood be most remembered for her 1992 Saturday Night Live performance where she changed a line in Bob Marley’s classic “War” to reveal her contempt with the Catholic church. Her reinterpretation followed the statement “fight the real enemy,” as she tore to pieces a picture of the Pope. The crowd fell silent, no doubt stunned and confused. She would suffer the humiliation of overplayed media misogyny and hyper religious groups destroying her albums en masse, as vengeful, self-righteous payback on behalf of heaven’s papal correspondent.

But perhaps falling into a reclusive position was a blessing in disguise. Her artistic explorations seemed to become bolder and more left of center than if her path led to more MTV airtime. Such evolutions are exciting, and O’Connor’s Theology is an incredibly soft and intrepid progression. On the heels of her highly acclaimed 2005 reggae cover album Throw Down Your Arms, O’Connor blends spiritual inspiration from her Catholic upbringing and continuous fascination with Rastafarian culture on 22 Songs. (Two versions of ten: one acoustic “Dublin,” and the other, full band “London” style, plus a 43-second traditional Irish Folk Song and cover of Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”)

Theology’s original compositions are heavily based on passages from the Old Testament with a Rasta tone, this Dubliner delivers eerily well, as evident on rootsy tracks like “Glory of Jah” and “Psalm 33.” Theology is definitely a religious recording; much in the same way Dylan’s Slow Train Coming was a personal spiritual exploration, not pious pontification. The haunting melody on “Watcher of Men” begs as boldly as lyrics: “And where rest those whose strength is spent/where small and great are alike and the slave is free of his master.” Two gorgeous versions of Curtis Mayfield’s “We People Who Are Darker Than Blue” reveal O’Connor’s raspy request for a world of tolerance and respect. “Whomsoever Dwells” (London Session) drifts upwards into one of the records highlights with a bumpy bass line (courtesy of Robbie Shakespeare of Sly and Robbie) tipping off as O’Connor’s whisper drips to meet it. “If You Had a Vineyard” lingers, with its harsh Irish annunciation, but it’s the achy plea on “Something Beautiful” is where O’Connor is most exposed. It is a candid love song (to her deity of choice), sung in the “Nothing Compares 2 U” uniquely Sinead way. Her bellowing voice has matured and her desperate, humble petitions are remarkably undeniable.

On the surface, dread Rasta meets Catholic catechist may seem an unimaginable marriage, and to some no doubt, even deplorable. But it works. O’Connor is an incredibly talented artist who takes risks. She has no fear in speaking her truth through her art and that is something beautiful.


That Sweet Ghana Sound

27 06 2007

Bokoor Beats


One never knows where a passion will lead. It was his love for Ghanaian music that led John Collins to co-found the Bokoor Band in 1971 alongside local guitarist Robert Beckley, which then set these upstarters off performing regional highlife alongside Carlos Santana and James Brown covers. This cross-pollination of musical styles between Africa and America continues to this day through hip-hop, even fusing that into highlife a la hip-life. Reading through Collins’ musical history is a bible of following your bliss, despite circumstances. The band was so poor that he would rub pumice stone over rusted guitar strings, and more than one political overthrow led to the shutting down of nightclubs (and hence his paying gigs). In 1982 he opened Bokoor Studios and went on to record over two hundred local acts of many genres. Doubling as professor and musicologist, Collins releases a dozen treats from those studio days, focused on five bands: T.O. Jazz, the Mangwana Stars, Oyikwan Internationals, Brekete & The Big Beats and, of course, the dominant figure, the Bokoor Band. While you won’t hear any James Brown songs, you will find the influence of American funk and soul on the harmonica blares, bass beats and smooth hooks throughout these tracks. Front and center is the guitar work, of Collins and other six-stringers, leading the melodic and soulful rhythms that are underscored by the heavy use of percussion. The subtle and overt become sublime in these twelve dance tracks that stand the test of time on club sound systems. The analog, gritty flavor adds ambiance, for one can only imagine the hypnotic frenzy these players were engulfed by during those memorable sessions at this small studio in Ghana. And remembered they shall be – it was Ghana’s musical satellite to the outside world, one still beaming broadcasts anywhere ears are open to listen. Derek Beres

Sign of the Times

25 06 2007


By Jill Ettinger

Summer in the Northeast, New York City especially, has such fragrance. The state flower is the rose, a delicious scent that never gets old; magnolias and honeysuckle, pine and lilacs sweeten the warm breezes, but in the sweltering city there is that ever-present odor synonymous with July: rotting garbage. With more tourists visiting, and more people dining out, it seems the garbage increases ten-fold. Northeast summer heat means massive humidity that leads to sticky , sweaty, brutally hot days which requires adequate re-hydration. And in the city streets of New York, that means convenience stores and lots of bottled water. Or rather, lots of empty bottles. Even with our best efforts at recycling (which uses TONS of fresh water!), much of our trash is filled with bottles awaiting rest in a landfill. Big applause goes out to San Francisco’s Mayor Newsom for his recent ban on bottled water in city departments.

The article states that over one billion bottles end up in California landfills each year. (And they have one of the most progressive recycling programs in the country.) There’s got to be a better solution, perhaps something akin to Vancouver’s innovative Seymour Capilano Filtration Project that will produce 475 million gallons of clean water a day.

It’s ironic that our pursuit of environmental stability is entwined with consumption practices that are actually endangering our most precious resources. Clean water is the most obvious example. Everyone wants pure drinking water, yet it is becoming harder and harder to secure. Fresh water sources can’t sustain the current pace of population growth, and the damage we’re causing to the environment is most evident in the water we drink, or rather, avoid drinking. We buy fancy filtration systems, have weekly water cooler delivery services and of course, the fastest growing category in grocery stores: bottled water.

It’s big business, yet you have to sell a lot of water to be profitable. Even though shelf prices seem high, a bottle is rarely over $5. It’s heavy stuff to ship and the freight costs eat up most of the profits. Strange how we’re seeing more and more water on our shelves coming from remote parts of the planet (Iceland, New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii) at costs comparable to local sources.

Think now for a moment, if you haven’t already, about all those plastic bottles, and all the factories employed in their manufacturing, from the bottle itself to labels, lids and cardboard cases. Think about the trucks that transport them to your local grocery store and all the resources they consume, right down to the fresh water rinse right before the wax goes on the chrome finish. Mayor Newsom has definitely been doing a lot of thinking.

Certainly we all deserve access to the world’s pure resources. Yet in the pursuit of those options to be made accessible for everyone, we must be healthy. Being sick and diseased is often a result of poor water quality. Add dehydration to the mix and you’re suddenly in a serious situation. It’s no surprise that fresh and abundant sources of water are at the forefront of many conscious and unconscious actions, but systems always need improvement

We are a nation of convenience. Just like our food now comes from boxes, bags and microwaves (rather than trees, farms or gardens), our water comes in cases of twelve or gallon-sized. We’ve again found a way to add another layer between ourselves and our resources for staying alive, and someone else is, of course, making money from it. In Manhattan, even up until the early 1800s, wells were the primary source of water. People were engaged in the process of connecting with their source; it took effort, and thought.

I recall my first trip out of the country at just twenty-one, climbing up a mountain side in an extremely remote part of Tasmania. We came across a small stream flowing right down from the top of the mountain just a few hundred feet above us, and we drank the water. I was terrified. I asked my boyfriend again and again if he was certain that it was safe, for all I could think was that it was impure, even though there were no signs to indicate the possibility. My experience was that water came from faucets or bottles, undergoing “processing” to cleanse and purify was the only full(fool!)proof way to hydrate. For days I wondered if I was going to become sick from what was probably the freshest, cleanest and purest water I’ve ever drank in my life.

Bottled water has slipped into the convenience segment of our consciousness, as it should be accessible and clean where ever our travels take us. But this is not the case. We think we are doing good for ourselves and families, drinking “pure” pricey water without seeking ways of creating a more sustainable system. We cut into the Everglades, to develop million dollar homes which we say is good for the economy, with little regard for what is like severing an artery. South Florida continues to face fresh water shortages, as all their drinking water is sourced from the massive aquifers under the the most critical ecosystem east of the Mississippi. So we have come to ignore the sources for our survival and rely on this precious liquid coated in plastic, sitting on shelves under fluorescent lighting, expensively priced, not to cover the cost of the water, but the massive industry that supports it. This is the water hole of modern America. There’s one really important thing about water holes that all animals know, except maybe one: sooner or later they dry up.

Solstice Reflections and a Creative Native

21 06 2007


By Jill Ettinger

The 40th Anniversary of the Summer of Love kicks off with today’s solstice.  I celebrated earlier this week at the Highline Ballroom performance by Native American folk legend, Buffy Sainte-Marie. Like most of my generation, I grew up watching the innovative learning program Sesame Street. Buffy (and later with son Dakota) played a pivotal role(s) on the show, exposing new sounds and educating on an important culture very much absent from my western Pennsylvania neighborhood. My father owned her records, and I remember being captivated by the cover of Fire, Fleet and Candlelight, which featured Buffy dressed in that beautiful orange and yellow traditional dress.

Western Pennsylvania, like most of this country, used to be home to many Native Americans. Though they were not evident in my white, upper-middle class neighborhood, there is no question that their ancestry pervaded my experiences. Buffy’s image, music and smile delivered a familiarity to a culture that we are only barely separated from. Imagine what it would be like if our neighbors lived in teepees; what a different world we’d be living in now if our ancestors had come to this country with respect. As we continue to engage in war, we lose sight of what brings us together.

What I find most unique about Buffy’s music is that it incorporates traditional Native elements and modern folk-pop. This no doubt the combination of her upbringing; a Canadian Cree tribe native, Buffy was adopted and raised state side, but always remained connected to her roots. She arrived on the music scene between beatniks and hippies with a unique sound and look. At a time when Dylan and Baez were singing four-hundred-year-old English folk songs, Buffy was writing and performing her own soon-to-be-classics, like “Until It’s Time for You To Go” and “Universal Soldier.”

Her politics wove into music in a way still timely, addressing issues  unique to Native Tribes while applicable to the world family. As her beaming smile filled the ballroom, she spoke of the atrocious uranium mining on reservations that are creating uninhabitable environments, disease and  death. She reminded us of the unjust case against Leonard Peltier being widely ignored. As the race for president heats up, it is really quite amazing that Native issues are so far down (if even at all) on the platforms. She addressed global issues like environmental havoc, blood-thirsty war lords, poverty, hunger and water shortages. I found myself wondering what it must be like to have started a career on these platforms over forty years ago, and find these topics morbidly enhanced.

When Buffy came onto the scene, our culture was embracing folk music. She won Billboard artist of the year and slews of other recognition that we now see rewarded to American Idol contestants and major label machine products. Now she plays to small crowds off the beaten path, while the latter fill Madison Square Garden. But we keep moving forward, sometimes with a litte help looking behind. Here’s the clip from Sesame Street of Buffy playing the mouth bow that had a profound impact on me about this big wide world filled with beautiful diversity.

Loving the Death Watch

20 06 2007


Important op-ed in the NY Times:

Millions of Missing Birds, Vanishing in Plain Sight
By Verlyn Klinkenborg

Last week, the Audubon Society released a new report describing the sharp and startling population decline of some of the most familiar and common birds in America: several kinds of sparrows, the Northern bobwhite, the Eastern meadowlark, the common grackle and the common tern. The average decline of the 20 species in the Audubon Society’s report is 68 percent.

Forty years ago, there were an estimated 31 million bobwhites. Now there are 5.5 million. Compared to the hundred-some condors presently in the wild, 5.5 million bobwhites sounds like a lot of birds. But what matters is the 25.5 million missing and the troubles that brought them down — and are all too likely to bring down the rest of them, too. So this is not extinction, but it is how things look before extinction happens.

The word “extinct” somehow brings to mind the birds that seem like special cases to us, the dodo or the great auk or the passenger pigeon. Most people would never have had a chance to see dodos and great auks on their remote islands before they were decimated in the 17th and 19th centuries. What is hard to remember about passenger pigeons isn’t merely their once enormous numbers. It’s the enormous numbers of humans to whom their comings and goings were a common sight and who supposed, erroneously, that such unending clouds of birds were indestructible. We recognize the extraordinary distinctness of the passenger pigeon now because we know its fate, killed off largely by humans. But we have moralized it thoroughly without ever really taking it to heart.

The question is whether we will see the distinctness of the field sparrow — its number is down from 18 million 40 years ago to 5.8 million — only when the last pair is being kept alive in a zoo somewhere. We love to finally care when the death watch is on. It makes us feel so very human.

Read the rest of the article.

The Good American

19 06 2007

Ralph Ellison

By Dax-Devlon Ross

Biographies are usually hit or miss. So much depends not on the life the subject led, but on how the storyteller presents it, which, of course, depends on how intimately he or she has lived with the subject, which, ultimately, depends on how much of a paper trail the subject left behind for the storyteller, which, finally, depends on whether the subject thought his or her life was worth preserving at the time he or she was living it.

Following this brand of home-spun logic, Ralph Ellison, his wife, Fanny, and their friends and correspondents evidently knew a biographer would want to investigate the puzzling, charmed, but unmistakably heartbreaking life of the author of Invisible Man one day; for the breadth, depth and range of sources Arnold Rampersad canvassed to piece together this significant biography is staggering. On the surface Ellison could very easily be (and has been) dismissed as an elitist, an Uncle Tom, a one-hit wonder, a token Negro; just as easily he could be lauded as a genius, a tribute to his race, the standard bearer of black American literature. But in Rampersad’s hands he is nothing short of a man worthy of unyielding compassion. Lest we forget, Ralph Ellison was a black man who in the middle of this nation’s troubled twentieth-century aspired for entry into the privileged American society through art and, for all intents and purposes, achieved just that with his first book. Without ever having tried his hand at a novel, Ellison devoted nearly seven years – practically his entire thirties – to writing Invisible Man. Chew on that for a moment. Just let it sink in. He had that much belief, that much faith, in himself at a time in our nation’s history when blacks had all but lost their faith in American democracy. And the literary world validated that faith with the highest honor given to an American novelist, the National Book Award. Besting the likes of his literary hero, Ernest Hemingway, Ralph Ellison became the first black author to win the award in 1953, a year before the Brown decision, two years before the Rosa Parks would refuse to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus.

Read the full review on Dax’s blog, The HNIC Report

The “Us” in Business

15 06 2007

 Kopali Bus

By Jill Ettinger

How do you measure things? In dried mangoes of course. At least Norman Brooks does. Dinner for four? Seventy bags of mangoes. A year long veggie-oil bus tour around the country? Two hundred thousand bags. Brooks and son Stephen, along with an exceptional crew, comprise Kopali Organics. Born out of the interest from Whole Foods to carry unique products (like banana vinegar), Kopali started to source the finest tasting foods with a mission: promoting dried mulberries and heirloom tahini from a women’s cooperatives in Turkey, and sustainable farmed bananas in Costa Rica (where they also have an educational farm called Punta Mona), and of course delicious dried mangoes from Mexico. Before long, Kopali had dedicated sections in Whole Foods around the country, and the veggie bus traveling to every one to offer demos and interactive education on sustainability.

Passion is quite common in the natural foods industry. It’s a fairly young and ambitious movement, but with big plans. Triple bottom line is becoming standard practice for many companies, from manufacturers to distributors to retailers. While many veterans of this industry still lead the way in pioneering new products and projects, every day more and more converts come aboard with visions, talent and enthusiasm – like Brooks. A dentist by trade, he raised his family in South Florida’s Miami Shores neighborhood. Son Stephen went off to college, and came home with ideas most fathers would shrug off. But Brooks knows a good idea when he hears it, even if coming from an incredibly determined son. Both father and son are effective businessman, yes, but both compassionate men before anything.

I spent the better part of this last week in company with Norman and members of the Kopali crew.  A set of unusual circumstances sent me to ask his help, but I had no idea just how much he would effect me. Similar to Kopali, Sunfood Nutrition is experiencing rapid growth. If I worked around the clock without sleep, there’d still be work. It’s not a complaint; quite the contrary. I love what I do, but I also recognize the limitations of my abilities. It takes discipline and sometimes even force to tear myself away (and write blogs!). In the midst of our growing pains, a tradeshow paperwork mix up left Sunfood without a booth. Plane tickets and hotel reservations paid in advance and just a week before the show, the phone call comes about the error. My mind scrambled for solutions.

Having been in this industry as long as I have, I am fortunate enough to know many people. A list ran around in my head of who I could call to see about splitting a booth. Surprisingly, I did not think first of my old colleagues, but rather of Kopali. We are one of the sponsors on the Conscious Goods Alliance veggie bus tour, so perhaps it would make sense for us to share a table and talk about our partnership as we sampled products. Of course we would pay Kopali for use of their table and help out in every way we could. Norman, however, insisted he would take no money. “The table’s already paid for,” he said “just come, we’ll make room for you!”

As the hours inside the uncomfortably cold ballroom seemed to slow to a still, I found myself marveled by him. We signed on to the bus tour in March, and prior to that I had only met Norman briefly once before. Here I stood in utter amazement watching this dentist, who a few short years ago probably never thought he would be doing what he’s now doing. He makes you feel instantly comfortable. There are no fronts with this guy, he loves everyone so obviously, so enthusiastically and beautifully, it’s simply wonderful to witness.

This industry is growing fast. There is a lot of money, and like other industries, there are some people whose focus is extremely myopic. But then, there are people that define what sets things apart. Money does matter. But so do mangoes. And mango farmers. And everyone and everything in between.  Brooks sees things from a perspective focused on the inherent good in each of us, the communities we are striving to create. This year Norman will make his fourth trip  to Burning Man with Stephen and the crew. This is a man who stands for something, but flows with everything.

So back to the trade show. Sharing the table with Norman’s team was not only a humble reminder of the things I value tremendously, but a plethora of connections, learning experiences and ideas for ways we can continue to work together as companies, as individuals and as partners. I realized the money I offered to pay him for the experience was something I couldn’t measure, even in mangoes. The least I could do was treat him to dinner. Norman snatched the check out of my hand with Muhammad Ali like quickness.

During one of our intense conversations over the week, Norman told me a story he heard from his Rabbi. “What gives you a good name?” he asked me. I knew I would stumble over answers and miss the point, but I obliged, “good actions.” He smiled and said that was what most people would say, but the real answer is “when you become goodness. When you become integrity and honesty so much that you are inseparable from it.” As I looked up into his gentle eyes I smiled, as the proof was standing right in front of me.