Into the Sand

28 08 2007

Burning Man

Innercontinental will be enjoying the modern mythology of Burning Man for the next week; we return on Sept 5.

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In Giant We Antitrust

27 08 2007

Gavel

By Jill Ettinger

In what was strangely starting to resemble a Pink Panther spy movie, Whole Foods Markets CEO John Mackey was recently outed for behaving a bit like the bumbling Inspector Clouseau, disguising himself in various chat rooms and forums  in attempts to boost the reputation of his beloved supermarket chain. Despite Mackey’s clumsy antics, the announcement came last week that Whole Foods received clearance from the U.S. Court of Appeals to proceed with their half-billion dollar buyout of Colorado-based Wild Oats Markets.

Mackey’s “grassroots” networking came under the microscope as the FTC was crying antitrust, challenging the merger and insinuating that Whole Foods would gain major market domination in the organic and natural products segment, limiting customer choices and commanding higher prices in an already expensive category. What is so curious about this claim is the fact that organic food represents less than 4% of total food sales in the U.S.

That’s worth a moment of contemplation.

Who is being forced what here? Look at this way: only 3.5 or so mouthfuls out of 100 aren’t covered in pesticides. It’s true, lots of food choices aren’t certified organic and are grown conscientiously with minimal exposure to harmful practices. So even being generous and doubling the number of “safer foods,” that’s still under 10% of all the food consumed in this country – a startlingly low number, considering how prevalent organic seems to be. In Manhattan alone there are four Whole Foods markets, with two more on the way in the next year. Those residencies are fairly recent on the island, where long-standing organic peddlers like Westerly’s, Commodities and Lifethyme have been supporting healthy options for decades.

Theoretically, it makes for a good economy to allow diversity and competition to thrive, but is that what Americans are really getting? Corporate conglomerates like Proctor & Gamble, Coca Cola and Kraft own hundreds and hundreds of major brands worldwide. They have single brands that turn more revenue than the entire organic industry. It’s the American way around antitrust laws – buy the competing brands, control growth yielding to the cash cows. Let the people think they’re getting choices. That way, they’ll actually buy more.

Though we have the largest economy in the world (GDP is roughly $13.6 trillion), our nation is the largest debtor, owing over $10 trillion – primarily to China and Japan, but even countries like India and Thailand have been spotting us. That’s kinda like Donald Trump bumming enough to buy a Vente Frappucino from the guy at the red light with a cupful of pennies. No wonder the stock market seems more volatile than ever. The personal savings rate in this country is negative; collectively we spend more than we earn, amassing houses full of gadgets, gizmos, wardrobes, cars. Also known as debt.

Isn’t this precisely the type of America the FTC claimed to be standing against in the Whole Foods complaint, or any other antitrust case? I use this word tenderly, but isn’t debt a form of slavery? If Americans are spending more than they earn on stuff that is most likely not good for them or the planet, our banking systems and government are not only selling us bunk products, but they’re not giving us much choice in the matter. They hock our children to corporate bullies in clown suits, and sell our souls to Chinese factories. Bigger is better. Less is not more; it’s not nearly enough.

But all is not lost. The Whole Foods/Wild Oats merger is a bright shiny solar panel beaming light into the shadowy dark clouds of our chronic trade deficit. Regardless of who-or-how the Super-supermarkets are being funded makes no difference in the big picture. If Whole Foods is able to effectively “heal” our country, things like hedge funds and private equity won’t matter so much. If that sounds bold, you’re paying attention.  The point is this simple. A pound of gold will always weigh as much as a pound of feathers, but one is obviously worth a whole lot more. Americans have been running the hamster wheel to pay off a lot of feathers. Health is our greatest wealth. It’s what we live for; it’s why and how we live. It’s our birthright, if we’ve got any – access to things that will nourish our journey, an unchallenged number one.

If access to healthy food options would have been decided a classic case of antitrust, we’d be in a lot of trouble. “You are what you eat” is a wise and timeless saying. Have we really spent the last few decades longing to become donut holes and candy corn? Is that the destiny of man? It’s not a cop out; we are individuals with freedom of choice, but someone has done a hell of a job tempting us with clever advertising and ubiquitous branding that have led us so far into disease, and debt. It just can’t last. Solving our country’s economic nightmare is a problem that’s going to take a lot of work, but it can be resolved. A clear mind and healthy body are the primary tools needed to figure that one out. Very soon thankfully, there will be at least 300 Whole Foods stores nationwide. They are open late, providing healthy nourishment we all could use. In this case, bigger is definitely better.





Hypnotized…But How?

26 08 2007

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

By Derek Beres

Street art comes in many shapes and sizes, and in New York there’s as much music outside of clubs and bars as inside. Street corners are transformed into stages for the modern bard and bardesses. Over the past decade, one of my favorite and consistent performers has been Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, a collection of brothers that play some of the largest brass sounds imaginable, cut deep in the pocket with heavy, heavy grooves. If you’re anywhere in the vicinity (of a mile, say), you’re liable to stop, listen, and be amazed. Their magnetism matches the integrity of their music.

I’ve been catching quite a bit of their performances outside of Whole Foods in Union Square lately. It’s prime real estate, for certain, which is why Dax and I have been selling our books in the park every Saturday. Inevitably, dozens upon dozens of wide-eyed spectators, shoppers and tourists stop to headnod, snap photos and videos (as indeed I did yesterday; see below). Yet what I’ve noticed about their recent performances left me slightly surprised, and disappointed.

I’ve seen these guys dozens of times in the past half-decade. I would often stop and bob along as they presented near-concerts, extending their songs to six, eight, ten minutes at a clip, segueing song into song with the high timber of trumpets and trombones bottomed out by the drummer and tuba. Always, brilliant. Their manager, or one of the members, would hold up CDs for sale, or walk around the crowd trying to pimp their sonic wares.

(Quick aside: their CDs are decent, but not produced especially well. If they tweaked the tuba and gave the bottom end some more oomph, it would come much closer to countering their incredible live performances. Still, worthwhile, but not the creme.)

Recently, however, they’ve taken to new tactics. Their songs now rarely run over four minutes, and as soon as each song is done, each member holds up CDs and beckons the audience over. Selling street art, in whatever form, is a hustle. I’ve learned that from experience. I have no doubt whatsoever that Hypnotic is selling many more records this way. In fact, I’ve witnessed it, a few times. With each song, they’re selling oodles more than their old manner. And they deserve it.

Still, from an artistic standpoint, I miss their old show, and manner. Sitting across the street in plain sight and sound, they maybe played ten songs in three hours, each one a few minutes long. Remember, this is a band that used to play entire sets in a clip, now reduced to spending their hours outside networking and selling, instead of playing. I watched their visual cues as the songs concluded, and instead of seeing talented artists play from their soul, I’ve been watching talented artists capitalizing on a business opportunity. You can see this in the video, when one of the members pauses and yells something about videos when he saw me taping, and another walks over to hold up their CD for my camera, as if I weren’t going to credit them.

I can’t blame them. Selling your art, as I said, is tough. And if these cats are pulling in more to support themselves, I’m happy for them. They’re skilled in what they do and enjoy the hustle of the streets. In the winters, they hole up underground, adding a greater and louder resonance to each song amidst the flurry and fury of screechy subway cars and tens of thousands of rapid feet. I can only wish that this new formula doesn’t make them forget their origins. As Bill Laswell once told me, a four-minute song isn’t music, it’s a business idea. It destroys the ritual of music, and no amount of money can buy that back.





Dwelling in the Desert

24 08 2007

Desert Dwellers

By Derek Beres

With the social and economic explosion that yoga has caused in America, it is rather surprising that an industry that has become as much lifestyle as practice – with a virtual flooding of yogic clothing, nutrition, DVDs and supplies – has not properly tapped into the music market. This is not to say there have not been attempts, but outside of someone like Krishna Das, who is performing a minor, and appreciated, tweaking of an old art form (kirtan), little is evolving the scene.

Hence the disastrous calamity known as “lounge” music meshing with sitars, tablas and high-pitched Indian women (or bluesy, over-emotional Westerners) singing about this god or that. Now, devotion is a personal affair, and this brand of bhakti yoga is more than acceptable on an individual level. (“If you can speak, you can sing…”) But we’re talking about producing records, and in that case it’s easy to see why the culture within the culture is wearing blinders. The goddess may have many arms, but those arms are distinct and used for specific reasons, and if not developed properly the entire body will not become fit.

For many years, as a yoga instructor and music journalist, I’ve searched for complete albums that accomplish this task. I’ll find a song here, a couple there, music that works on many levels: in the headphones, in the midst of a Vinyasa yoga class, and just for general chilling. I knew the possibility existed, but every time I came across something promising there was always some element carrying it into the unforgivable terrain of “New Age.” While men like Krishna Das and Benjy Wertheimer have been making consistently amazing acoustic music, I wanted something with bass, endowed with a bottom end that would lay foundations for what an electronic yoga would entail.

Then I received these two discs.

To read the full review on EthnoTechno, click here.





Reorganizing Top to Bottom

23 08 2007

Ravi Shankar

By Derek Beres

Currently building my Ravi Shankar collection (see yesterday’s post), I walked into Virgin Records the other day in search of the concerts I did not have in my possession. The store in Union Square has always irked me in many ways – it is designed to make you feel like you’re walking through, and living inside, of a television show – yet they have a decent (slightly above mediocre) selection of international music. Since Tower Records shut down, there’s few options for me to pick up non-digitized music, so outside of Virgin and Barnes & Noble,  my options are limited.

The entire store, first of all, is on sale. I’ve never seen such a display of panic disguised as ingenuity. Ingenious, really. I walk through rows and rows of discounted discs, packed the overflowing magazine racks, around the merchandising area that’s bent on revamping horrid ’80s denim fashions plastered with Pink Floyd and Doors logos, past the dominant global genres – reggae and Latin – and end in “Asia.” The row encompasses everything imaginable under that umbrella term, from orchestral Chinese music and Japanese Zen meditation discs to bhangra,  Malaysian pop, Asian Underground and Tibetan monk chants. And, of course, what I was seeking, the classical music of India.

Their selection, again, mediocre at best, was further confused by the complete disdain the employees must hold for things like: organization and coherence. There was none of it. I found ’80s bhangra hits under Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Karsh Kale discs thrown into the section marked Ryuichi Sakamoto. Cheb i Sabbah was filed under dance compilations, and some horribly cheesy Indian pop singer with glasses and gold chains was resting inside of the space supposedly reserved for Ustad Sultan Khan. I did find the section of Ravi Shankar, though I also found more of his discs not in that section – for example, in Bollywood.

Add to this sad display of retailing this report I read yesterday on Billboard’s website. The opening graph will suffice: “A new study released today by the Texas-based Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI) estimates that global piracy of recorded music has cost the United States $12.5 billion in economic output and 71,060 jobs annually.” It would make sense that Billboard would post such nonsense, seeing as their publication relies on the financial support of large record labels. They’ve been holding hands with the RIAA since the entire online debacle began.

Cost the United States $12.5 billion? How, exactly, is this even possible? How can one account for money never spent? I spend a good portion of my journalistic time dealing with record labels that, while concerned about piracy, are actually figuring out how to make money in a changing market. Changing. That word is key. You cannot base 2007’s sales on what had been sold in 1997. It’s a different market entirely; a different industry, a different artistry. Yes, part of the art has to do with earning a living without selling millions of CDs – you know, what over 99.9% of musicians have been doing all along.

Yet that .01% clings tenaciously to their media stronghold. And really, it’s little more than that. They’ve bought their way with magazine and television advertisements, and continue to influence the phrasing of industry standards. That’s how their able to make people feel like criminals, or even worse, victimized, when all that’s really going on is a changing of the guard. The new shift has arrived, and they’re not ready to leave, so they’re going to do everything possible to make us believe they don’t need relief. We’ve already seen it with the presidency of this country; the record industry is merely following his lead. And, in some respects, it’s working.

In others, however, it’s not. Hiring think-tanks to do your dirty work is a temporary balm to a deeper burn. When something i diseased at the top, it’s going to filter down to the lowest levels – hence, the complete disregard of record store employees earning low wages and not being given reason to keep the shelves in order. Nothing else is. Still, it’s a shame. International music is already given a position of importance in stores near the bottom of the totem pole. Yet the bottom rungs hold the foundation, something the higher classes always forget when fingering their bankrolls.

Most of these artists and countries remain in the exotica section, something “other” people listen to. Never mind the fact that, when given a chance, many fall in love with the music of other cultures. It happened to me, enough to make a career out of it. And through my experiences in journalism, DJing and teaching yoga, where I’m able to reach my largest audience on a consistent basis, I’ve had so many people ask about these wonderful musics that a day rarely goes by when I have not written down a song title, artist name or record for someone. It’s just a shame to consider that when they go into the store, they may never find it.





The Continual Dawn

22 08 2007

By Derek Beres

Nearly finished with Peter Lavezolli’s intense and exhaustive study, The Dawn of Indian Music in the West (Continuum), I’ve been revisiting much of my Ravi Shankar collection, as well as picking up titles that I’ve overlooked in my years of collecting. It is difficult to separate the entire genre of Indian music from this innovator’s name, though, like many “gateway” musicians, an entire crew emerges the deeper you enter. And there’s good reason Shankar is the first point of contact: he’s simply a legend, in every facet of his music, from what he plays and how he plays it, to what he presents and what he represents. Music has never been anything but the first and foremost connection to the perpetuality and beauty of the universe. You hear it in all his songs: music is divine.

Reading the many lucid interviews in this book, I’m continually reminded of the importance of understanding the depths of which the yoga practice entails. One of the topics many musicians discuss – Nada Brahma – is the Yoga of Sound, or that Sound is God. As a yoga instructor, I’m constantly aware of the importance of what music is played in my classes, and very often base the sequencing of postures and opening of nadis and muscle groups from the soundtrack I create each week. This form of “sound yoga” is based on two ideas: Bhakti yoga, which is the art of devotion, and Mantra yoga, the repetitious chanting of names and gods. These are two aspects of one practice, just as all facets of undergoing the arduous path of yoga entails.

The book, as is the case with musicians like Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, John Coltrane and numerous others discussed in detail, is a reminder that the physical yoga we usually associate the term with – Hatha yoga, or the practice of postures – is merely skimming the surface of what is actually yet another form of meditation. (This holds true in every aspect of yoga: Hatha is a meditation of movement; Bhakti, of devotion; Karma, a meditation of selfless giving; Jnana, one of knowledge, and so on.) Whatever mode of yoga you are engaged in, it is a continual fine-tuning of focus and discipline. To hear the fluidity of sound rise from Shankar’s finger, or the water of his longtime tabla accompanist, Alla Rakha, is not to hear the result of practice alone. There is faith in their fingertips, which each syllable and note.

Below is a clip from one of the performances that really helped to launch Shankar’s name to international acclaim, from the Monterey International Pop Music Festival in  1967. It helps capture the merging of two seemingly disparate and separate worlds, and – again, as the book goes into detail to highlight – how these worlds were never apart to begin with.

This performance is also captured live on an excellent sounding recording on Angel Records, Live: Ravi Shankar At The Monterey International Pop Festival. For fans of Shankar, I highly recommend the two-CD Vision of Peace set, which includes the painstakingly beautiful Toward The Rising Sun and The Spirit of India-Ravi Shankar Plays Ragas, as well as his groundbreaking effort with classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin, West Meets East: The Historic Shankar/Menuhin Sessions.





Underdogs Arise

20 08 2007

On Friday, August 17, we celebrated the release of The Underdog’s Manifesto, one of Outside the Box Publishing‘s most recent publications at Joe’s Pub. The author, Creature, performed an upbeat and on-point set, and fellow Underdog Preachermann brought his Revival out for an eight-piece explosive show. Co-author Dax-Devlon Ross emceed the show. The book has been getting some great reviews and accolades from press and those that have read. As for the show, it was of the high caliber we’ve grown to expect of these amazing musicians. I was excited and honored to be stage side to capture the moments on film and video. – DB

For more information on the book, click here

Creature
Creature

Preachermann
Preachermann

Dax-Devlon Ross
Dax-Devlon Ross


Preachermann & The Revival: Whipping Post


Preachermann & The Revival: Preachermann