The Pimps of Joytime

28 09 2007

By Derek Beres

New York City, in structure and sound, is a permanent transition, a go-between where cultures converge and conform and create. Salsa has roots here; hip-hop is a borough bedrock; funk and R&B has had many champions call this land home. The city is a song that continuously remixes itself, pulling parts from eclectic masterpieces and calling them its own. This movement is not a fusion as much as the constant replication of new strains of sonic DNA.

Many travel here with such dreams in mind, but natives have a particular edge. They were born into this borderless culture; it is as much a part of them as their skin, their voices, and the ten fingers strumming their guitars. So even though he did time on the left coast, Brian J returned to NYC in 2004 to leave his legend as The Pimps of Joytime. The three years between then and now have resulted in High Steppin (Wonderwheel), an exceptional blend of so many qualities of the city that it’s challenging to know where to even begin.

From the posturing of their press photos, one immediately assumes funk. The style fits the sound. Shades of the hyped and sexy strums of funk do lay a serious foundation, along with a heavy dose of Latin percussion and keys. Horns appear, then dissipate under the heady fog of bass. Turntablism plays an important duty- the other half of the original Pimps line-up is Black Pearl, a DJ that Brian J met in the early days. The guitars can blaze in serious rock accolades, and whisper melancholy chords of the blues diaspora.

Maybe it’s best summarized by Wonderwheel label head and DJ Nickodemus, one of the city’s finest tastemakers. “When I first listened to Brian’s demo, I heard the cross-cultural blend of the Bell Band, the catchy songwriting of the Brazilian Girls, the Afro funk groove of Antibalas, the smoothness of Si*Se and the Latin Rock of Radio Mundial. Most importantly, what I heard are songs, beautiful and honest songs that you learn the lyrics to, to sing over and over.”

It’s easy to hear why these songs stick. Production is top-notch, each groove is stitched for the pocket, and every hook hits you in the heart and head. High Steppin is the perfect alchemy of hip-hop influenced bass-heavy beats, tempered by animated synthesizers and ignited by New Orleans soul. This is gospel for the church with borders, a virtuous and inspired tincture for able hips and open minds.

With a collection of superb guests, including percussionist/vocalist Cyril Neville and Radio Mundial frontman Jean Shepherd, The Pimps of Joytime are selling some serious soul. Each second of these sixty-two minutes drips and bleeds with such enthusiasm and passion that it’s impossible not to get pulled into the dance. After you emerge for the first time, it will be you that sends yourself, again and again, into its grip.


Passport to the Future

24 09 2007

Manu Chao

by Derek Beres

June 2001. I’m lying on a thin cot propped up on a wooden plank that’s trying to pretend to be a mattress. A gentle summer air blowing across the ocean creates a splendid, starlit night, but inside my cabana, where no breeze enters, I am but a tourist disguised as an experiment in high-pressure cooking. A single sheet covers my entire body, my only armament against fist-sized mosquitoes that have entered where the breeze cannot. The sweat dripping from my skin is their version of tangy dressing. Their daggers puncture my flesh through this humble and laughable line of defense.

Perhaps it is my own fault, believing I deserved more for eight dollars a night. Tulum is a sanctuary of stone and sea, and I wondered how the skeletons in those gorgeous ruins once dealt with these pesky invaders when they were but scaffolding for flesh. Outside the thing trying to be a window in my hut, dozens of people are congregated, loudly, at the bar, the one where I tried to drown the misery of Montezuma’s Revenge with two shots of Sacrificia de Maya. As the waitress set fire to this blend of Kahlua, Anise and Tequila, I sucked the burning liquid through a straw, wondering what form of sacrifice it would demand of my intestinal system.

Like all journeys through the inferno, there must be a reward. Mine was a unique sound rising above the drunken tourists on tinny club speakers. At first it sounded like circus music; a repetitive, high-pitched single chord strummed from a guitar, over and over and over, above someone that seemed to be singing about being a king of bongs. That noise—and I was waiting for a ghoulish clown to break down the cheap plank that was pretending to be a door – reverberated endlessly, for hours, as I pretended to sober up from my drunken stupor. Ironically, it soothed, rather than maddened, me. That was my introduction to Manu Chao.

To read full column on PopMatters, click here.

My Pet Dragon

22 09 2007

This is an isolated clip from my short doc, Satori: Burning Man 2007. I met Todd Michaelsen while he was singing vocals for Karsh Kale’s Realize Live project, a duty he still performs when called for. His main project, My Pet Dragon, features his wife Reena Shah, who is trained in classical Indian dance. It was a nice surprise to walk to the cafe at Burning Man for my morning chai and find Todd and Reena performing, and I was able to capture their last song of the set, “Lightning Inside.” – DB

Deeper into Deeper

21 09 2007


By Jill Ettinger

Like many people, I’ve bashed Wal-Mart on a number of occasions (as recently as my last post, in fact). They shock and frustrate those of us working to build a world in which triple bottom line becomes the only foundation of any credible or successful business.  Wal-Mart’s hostile treatment of employees, suppliers and the environment along with their misuse of government subsidies costs hard working tax-payers money and time they don’t have to spare.

But I must admit, I was recently inspired to let up on my disdain for the Wal-Martians after reading an article in Fast Company on Adam Werbach, Founder/CEO of Act Now, the organization that implements sustainable strategies for the curious behavior of companies like Wal-Mart and Sony. It’s actually pretty awesome, even though Werbach has come under a ton of scrutiny for “helping the enemy.” As former President  (and the youngest person to hold the position) of the Sierra Club, who himself had called Wal-Mart a few well-deserved but not-so-pretty names, he seems to be drawing a lofty amount attention away from real issues by simply being who he has to be, which as far as I can tell is someone who has never lost sight of the big picture. Naysayers have lauded large complaints and campaigns against him for his support of Wal-Mart instead of for the causes supposedly near and dear to their hearts.

Working with Wal-Mart is a tall order, but, someone has to do it. Kudos to Werbach for stepping into the murky waters and unclogging the drain backed up by confused corporate raiders. They are getting the best plumber money can buy, and that perhaps is what is causing the friction with his peers. Maybe they’re not judging him for “switching sides,” but perhaps more in a tone of envy for having the courage to do so. Wal-Mart is not going to disappear anytime soon. Act Now is brilliantly effective, like the good people at PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), who often take the road of not-so-victorious-but-damn-important small steps rather than stand stonewalled on principles that will simply not be conceded over night – if at all. You’ve got to start somewhere or you’ll get nowhere, which would be a contradiction for Act Now. They’re simply living up to their name.

My last post (“Dinosaurs Return”) includes a clip from the CNBC special “The Age of Wal-Mart,” which on a lot of levels is disturbing. But this archaic entity can respond to change. Just how real this change can be came to me last Sunday night. This month marks my sixth anniversary of completing my yoga teacher training in upstate New York. There’s something strange and humbling in looking back at the moments when I began to realize I was “awakened.” Not awake in the sense of being enlightened, but rather in the sense of how aware I am that I am so far from enlightenment. (Or perhaps just a little bit closer to it?) Still, that moment of understanding came to me not too long before  teacher training began.

One critical moment came in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, in a used CD shop circa Spring 2000. At the time, I was a natural products broker, heading home after a visit to the (now closed) Wild Oats on Sunrise Blvd. I felt compelled to stop at this hard to see little disc shop in a strip mall. Though it’s baffling to imagine life without iPods or satellite radio, perusing bins of cracked jewel cases had an appeal. So I rummaged as the traffic whizzed by the front window. I remember the moment my fingers stuck to Live From Earth by Krishna Das. This was something special, I was quite sure of that, like an archaeologist finding the scattered bones to an ancient mastodon.  I knew, though I really didn’t know, that I had found something key to unlocking more of me.

Krishna Das would become an integral figure in my “awakening.” From the ride home that night to my time living at the Sivananda ashram learning the chants inside and out, to taking intensive retreat with him and attending his kirtan at least a dozen other times. On so many levels, he’s an ordinary man, and that is exactly what makes him so extraordinary.

Sunday night though was even more inspiring than I had come to expect from Das.  I was honored to be invited to spend the evening with two forward thinking individuals: founder of Under The Canopy organic clothing, Marci Zaroff, and founder of New Leaf Paper, Jeff Mendelsohn. Sitting there with inspiring friends, the echo of mantras filling the room, I started to think about greatness, and change. I’m quite fascinated by people who can take an idea – be it Sam Walton or Oprah Winfrey – and make it a reality. As the CNBC Wal-Mart exposé concludes, the monster chain is just really scratching the surface both in the U.S. market and abroad. They have much loftier goals than even they can really grasp. Just like Werbach and his team are working to make shifts in all aspects of the Wal-Mart machine, as Krishna Das took me deeper into deeper, I could feel how what once seemed impossible is gracefully moving mainstream. I imagined that it is not long before Wal-Mart shoppers peruse aisles of recycled New Leaf paper, or are greeted by those lovely blue smocks eventually made of Under The Canopy organic cotton (and let’s hope a little style upgrade too).  Maybe Krishna Das CDs will sit next to Keith Urban and goji berries where the Pop Tarts used to be.

One of the biggest questions I had while watching the CNBC report and in reading the Fast Company article was how does teaching the beast these ecotricks really have an effect if it’s not safe to let it out of its cage? Their existence is based on a brawny justification of the fundamentally unnecessary. Aside from the grocery/household items, a majority of what they sell is useless junk. Much like the credit system in this country banks on consumers who will never be able to pay off their debts, big box store mentality relies on the complacency and over-consumptive tendencies of the average American to keep filling their carts full of wallpaper, duvet covers and lawn statues. And of course, it’s a win-win if these horrid purchases are swiped through to Bank of America or Capital One for their favorite money making customer: the minimum monthly payer.

So this is where the chanting – or any type of meditation – comes in and makes that seamless connection. Anyone who’s shared kirtan with Das has likely heard his story. Longing for enlightenment via his guru and the years of separation from his practice only to reunite in a penetrating embrace of love’s most magical warmth. When sitting in the bright darkness of the meditation, repeating the names of the divine, it is the transparent power of love that appears to answer every question. As the gorgeous sound and silence consumed me I found it more transformative than all my previous kirtan experiences. Rather than try so hard to force the kirtan to “work” on me, I changed by not doing much of anything except being open to the experience. Wal-Mart is just one example of the ways in which just purely loving something can actually inspire the greatest change of all. It matters not our methods to greatness, but only that we understand its potential is in every one of us, and everything we do.

Feeding the Lifeline

20 09 2007

Ben Harper

By Derek Beres

I’ve had the pleasure of conducting over 400 artist interviews in my past fourteen years as a journalist. When you slide into questioner mode, there is usually little separation between you and the person interviewed. Some are much more descriptive and eloquent, while talking to others can be like pulling teeth to get anything more than single-word and -line responses. It’s all part of human nature. Oddly enough, in all of those years, there has only ever been one person that I was nervous talking to. The funny thing is, as life often has it, he was the person I least needed to be anxious around.

Perhaps it’s because his songs are that meaningful to me that I stumbled a bit talking to Ben Harper. This was in 1999, for the release of Burn to Shine, the first instance where he really started to create colors of country and Americana. (As primitive as the writing is to me, as a constant perfectionist, I keep it housed online.) Years later I would sit next to Ben and Jack Johnson in SoHo’s Hampton Chutney, disbelieving my eyes when two of my musical favorites ended up in the dosa hut I frequented daily. I had met Jack before, and shook Ben’s hand for the first time, not nearly as nervous as when we spoke on the phone five years prior. Still, as much as a “regular human” that he insists himself to be, and, from what I could tell, actually is, there is just something superhuman in his music. Or, best put, completely human.

It’s not in any way mystical, or out of this world, or any such nonsense. All this music is in his heart. His ability to open that organ to the rest of the planet is rare and inspiring. There’s tons of, as one song title goes, pleasure and pain in every moment. He does not differentiate between light and shadow; opening your heart, as much as we hope to think natural, takes a lot of courage, and faith, and discipline. You can’t do it once and think the beast is sated. Compassion is a practice, and takes practice to understand, and to offer to others. You can only be compassionate to others when you first learn to be so toward yourself.

No surprise that his latest, Lifeline, continues to wrench the heart. The lyrics and delivery of “Fool For A Lonesome Train” brings tears to the eyes, and the closing ballad, “Lifeline,” is soulful juggernaut that fans of “I Shall Not Walk Alone” and “Walk Away” will immediately memorize the lyrics to.

Below is a brief review I penned for Relix. At the time, I had to listen to it on an unreliable stream from the label that was low quality and kept freezing while I listened. When I asked the publicist at Virgin if he would send me a copy after it was released, knowing their constant fear of “stealing” and “leaking” music before it was released, he said of course. Unsurprisingly, it never came. What the labels have not, or refuse to, understand is that music will find its way, with or without their help.

Lifeline (Virgin)

Ben Harper sings, over and over, “If you put your heart into it” on the bluesy “Heart of Matters.” The man has put his own into 15+ years of recording some of the most inspirational and diverse music in America. Fans of the excellent Danny Clinch documentary, Pleasure & Pain, will recall Harper stating he doesn’t “try” to do anything musically; he merely plays what he feels. While Lifeline is blues-based and acoustic – nearly an expanded version of Both Sides of the Gun’s Disc One – he finds fuel on “Needed You Tonight” and gospel-hooks of “Put it On Me.” The harmonica on “Fool For a Lonesome Train” and piano-driven “Younger Than Today,” however, are agents of a mellower mood. By the time the album commences with an instrumental, “Paris Sunrise #7,” and the certifiably to-be-requested title track, Harper has led you on a journey of heartbreak and enduring love, with every moment worth revisiting.

Dinosaurs Return (The Age Of The Big Box Monster)

17 09 2007

Scott Rex

By Jill Ettinger

Some time before Jesus arrived and after the aliens left, big giant gnarly reptile monsters roamed the earth. They were pretty much alone most of the time, so no one knows exactly everything they did, but it seems like mostly they just chilled, walked (stomped) really far and rued their nemesis, King Kong. Some were pretty cool, ate grass and leaves, and eventually hung out with cave people like Fred Flinstone. Others were hedonistic killers that spit fire and ate their herbivorous cousins.

Eventually all dinosaurs mutated into other forms. Some died off completely, but some nice ones became puppies, kitties and cows. (Still in question: Barney.) The evil ones came back as folks like Genghis Khan, Hitler and Dick Cheney. A few even had incarnations as lead singers for Van Halen. Now, if we did DNA tests, we could absolutely prove that the most nefarious to date of all the ancient gargantuan lizards has reincarnated into Lee Scott, CEO of Wal-Mart, and his Walton descendent “associates” at the world’s largest retailer.

You might be thinking that Scott is far too polished to be a Tyrannosaurus Rex or Velociraptor, but I assure you, he is. It’s called evolution. See, these monsters have been around a long, long, long, long, long time, therefore they’ve become much more adept at surviving. They used to need to be really big with sharp teeth and claws, but that’s no longer practical, as there is less space on the planet and airlines make you buy an extra seat. When you’re that large, it’s really just a huge hassle. And, since Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, people just don’t scare as easily as they used to. (Until they watch reruns of “Family Ties,” that is.)

So, for the most part, in order for the oldest evil creatures on the planet to come out of extinction, they’ve had to “tone down” their hideous ferocity. For example, instead of ripping off bunny heads with their teeth, these soul-less monsters can now just inhibit the salaries and benefits of capable workers who are forced to work at Wal-Mart because it ate up their former place of employment. And since Chinese children really have no use for school or fun or safety, making them slave away for eighteen hours a day in a toy factory is a pretty easy way to ensure that monsters like Scott will be able to still cause gruesome suffering, but you know, in a “modern” way.

It is a common misconception that dinosaurs once roamed the entire earth. They did not. They only roamed MOST of it. Well, thanks to their crafty evolution coming back as Scott and the Wal-Martians, they are poised to “finish what they started.” No need to panic though, we still have a whole twenty-five, maybe thirty years, before they completely dominate the planet.

The Dogs of War

13 09 2007


By Jill Ettinger

I always laugh when asked the question, “does your dog bite?” Though it’s not necessarily funny, it is definitely something I cannot answer. In general, Sita is a gentle, loving and quite absurdly silly animal. I rescued her over six years ago, and since then, like all living creatures, she’s gone through many adjustments. She is protective of me, and our cat Turbo too, but she’s not malicious. However, she is an animal and though I often know what she seems to be thinking, I certainly cannot control her instincts. She yields off leash in the park and knows what is expected of her in order to have that freedom, but as to whether or not she would ever feel the need to bite someone is a behavior I cannot predict. Nor should I have to.

It’s interesting that we hold people to a level of responsibility for things that cannot really be controlled. Is anyone to blame for shark attacks? We all know they’re in the ocean. Any responsible parent would never let their child beyond ankle-deep waters. Hiking in the forest also should be forbidden, as there are bears, wolves and cougars and other merciless predators far less conspicuous, like wasps. In loading up our van for Burning Man, I accidentally stepped on a yellow jacket nest. In a matter of seconds I was under attack.  A swarm of intelligent, stealthily stinging ninjas crept into my sleeve and sent me flying out of the van, squirming out of my shirt and seeking help in getting them off my back. (The one found burrowing into my scalp twenty minutes later would be much more bothersome). It was a traumatic experience, a brush with the intensity of nature and all the ways in which it can surprise. Obviously these type of attacks differ from being a responsible pet owner, but, not really.

In (quite possibly the best movie of all time) “Snakes on a Plane,” pheromones are used to make snakes attack everyone on board. Otherwise, the serpents would need a reason to lunge. Much like my dog. And, myself.  Killing is hard work, even if it is the only way to survive; it’s not usually a preferred option, aside from seeking food. I am thinking about all this because of a rather bizarre situation that happened today. My doorbell rang and when I went to open it, there was a package on the step. I picked it up and came back inside, went back to the office. Though I live in a very urban area, I actually have a great little backyard. I’ve got a doggy door and Sita spends most days chasing imaginary (or just invisible) creatures out of the yard, and chewing the neighbor’s grass that grows through our fence. It’s definitely one of – if not the only – reason I’ve stayed in this apartment as long as I have.  Traveling often, I take comfort in knowing Sita can enjoy her freedom safely and conveniently. Anyway, she somehow snuck out the front door behind me when I went to get the package! She’s not very small (or very quiet), and I’m shocked I didn’t notice her leaving. About twenty minutes later, I hear her barking, which is not abnormal. But this was accompanied by shouting, all obviously coming from my front window. Strange.

When I walked over to investigate, I saw a woman was coming up the stairs, shouting. Sita was cowered in the doorway, barking. Sita was clearly scared, as she has never been left out in the front alone, nor has she ever had a crazy person shouting at her where she had no means to escape. For whatever totally stupid reason, this belligerent maniac approached a dog with no collar, no fence, no leash and started shouting. Sita did not bite, but as the idiot came closer, she sure as hell barked. (Personally, I would have bitten.) I immediately ran over and let Sita in and the woman proceeded to bang furiously on the front door, practically shattering glass. Neighbors came out of their houses and everyone stood in amazement at what was essentially, a reaction to nothing. Sita had been sitting at the door crying to be let in. (Which, thanks to the Wu Tang Clan I couldn’t hear. Maybe I should sue the RZA!) Then this lady started shouting at her, according to my nextdoor neighbor. The crazy person said she was going to call the ASPCA. There was no reasoning with her in that state. What was an obvious accident did not only not cause anyone any harm, but I wasn’t even given the human decency of being allowed to apologize or offer an explanation.

So I started thinking about yesterday, September 11th and how I have been living in a nation at war for half a decade; a war for all intents and purposes that I just can’t understand. Like Sita must have felt out of place and scared, forced to defend herself when she instigated nothing, we are a species that has the ability to explain our situations and give others the opportunity to understand. Yet so often we do not. Sita’s been sitting here by my side since the incident, visibly shaken up. I’ve been cuddling with her every few minutes, just to make sure she remembers what love is, so that she doesn’t assume everyone is going to start attacking her. That would really suck. Anybody want to give that a try with the crazy shouting lady? Or, how about an American president? Please?