Fate of a Different Kind

28 02 2008

By Jill Ettinger

The world does not need to be saved.

Earth is not in any immediate danger of disintegrating, falling into a black hole, or even being taken over by planet-eating aliens. The future of the human race (and all terrestrial creatures) is however, another story altogether.

As far as science can tell, the planets, moons and stars in our galaxy have been around longer than the human mind can rightfully perceive. Artifacts buried in ancient rock molecules and riverbeds leave hints of a planet eons before our time, but the precise truth is still a great mystery. However, we’ve come to a shared belief about the history and timeline of the Earth, even though its origins are constantly debated. Religion commingles with relics, carving out convenient stories of divination, positing the Earth as a waiting room for Heaven, or in some cases, Hell.

The human race has carried on this way since standing upright – pockets of people all around the planet diving head first into beliefs, faiths and dogma. Ghosts and spirits are dismissed as irrational hallucinations of the unfortunate and mentally unstable, while the majority of the planet submits to arbitrary Godheads conjectured thousands of years ago but still unverified.

Perhaps we’ve somehow jinxed ourselves, making communion impossible at the present time. This is highly possible if one subscribes to the tenets of most religions, where our sinful ways have led us into a time of darkness. According to them, planetary imbalances are not brought about by lack of stewardship and neglect, but rather the acts of a wrathful God.

Whatever the source of our plight is, real warnings are visible. Yet we continue to hypothesize about the “world” being in danger when the planet itself shows no signs of jeopardy. Its track record is virtually flawless – surviving millennia of transitions without falling out of orbit, losing any mass, maintaining its moon and so on. Our brief blip on the timeline however has been mostly traumatic if one is to judge our species by the effects we’ve had on other species, ecosystems and each other. Individual joy certainly exists, but as a whole our positive contributions are questionable.

While certain species tend to appear more complicated than others, all life is series of complex intricacies. Even those seemingly inanimate earth-bound objects are all part of this planet, which is intrinsically alive. If we were to view earth as a person, maybe then we begin to see how all parts work synergistically and why death – even extinction – is a necessary function for survival. Think of baby teeth, clipping fingernails, going to the bathroom and menstrual cycles. These are not viruses or diseases, but parts of our being that no longer serve the whole, or that need regeneration. And like viruses and diseases, when things are not in service to the organism, it consciously or unconsciously finds a way to remove them. This then raises the question: Are humans akin to baby teeth or a deadly virus? Regardless which description is more accurate, one thing is quite clear: we seem to be on our way out.

That we have doubled the planet’s population in forty years is quite unbelievable, but truth it is. We’re pacing ourselves to add another three billion in the next forty. Already we’re at an unsustainable number, with millions dying of starvation and treatable diseases every year. Half of the world lives in impoverished conditions, on less than $2 a day while fortunate westerners press on, many with savior complexes trying to solve all the world’s “problems” in manners one could also label as arrogant.

In the United States, countless families live paycheck to paycheck while employers fly private jets, own multiple homes, yachts, Rolls Royce’s and the like while trimming employee benefits. To each his own is a well-fitting perspective, though a lion that greedily kills all prey in the jungle will soon meet a harsh fate.

Whether lion or prey, we’re all interconnected in this upright ecosystem-in-danger. Our threatened survival is no longer unavoidable, yet still the urge remains to externalize the situation to the “earth’s problems” and not necessarily our own. Certainly the problem is on the large-side of reckoning with, which can certainly cause knee-jerk reactions and fear, but chances of the answers lying somewhere in more Cadillacs or celebrity perfumes seems unlikely.

Likewise the recent move towards mainstream greenwashing is already losing  power, washing into the fabric of our marketing security-blanket (like John Stewart announcing the Oscars were “going green” because celebrities were * walking * all the way to the podiums). One too many calls from the recycling bin leave a country full of the all too familiar excuse (and perhaps famous last words): “Someone else will do it.”

So it may be god or the devil or just plain bad management of resources that have put us in this situation. No matter, really. Perhaps we’ve been going about it all wrong. Maybe the real victory isn’t in saving anything. Maybe it’s in being amongst the last of a species like no other the Earth has ever known.


The Near Transformation of Erykah Badu

27 02 2008

By Derek Beres

We can’t quite argue that New Amerykah Part 1 (4th World War) is the highlight of your career, because you’ve always been making serious records. There has certainly been a progression of experimentation since the Baduizm days, though ever since “On & On” you’ve been spinning circles with your three dollars and six dimes. On the latest you’ve turned thirty-six, which is the human approximation of that 360 degrees. The circles have never stopped in the 11 years between, and the integrity and musicality is, to these ears, the most complete you’ve created to date. Great artists evolve, and I don’t believe there is any argument that you are anything but.

Still, you had our ears. You had our attention and didn’t go all the way. You backed out.

There is an old argument about having it both ways. Some musicians feel that music is a sacred and/or social craft, and they should remain separate from the sphere of public (read: political) influence. They label themselves entertainers and want nothing to do with the translations and expectations of third parties in the media or in the headphones. They shy away from affiliation of any kind, even if they make their living from money spent by the public. They are there to divert and delight, not preach or influence.

Others use the microphone and amplifiers as a pulpit for political and spiritual exhibitionism. They work out their own issues in the public sphere, and take you along for their ride. They purposefully influence listeners with their lyrics, not to mention the choice of instrumentation, presentation and tempo — as sound is as important as meaning. In fact, many traditions consider sound more important than meaning (including America’s medieval European roots). In a culture educated and defined by the meaning of words, this seems a stretch, but for innumerable traditions — which include bhakti yogis, Moroccan gnawas, medieval prose writers and Greek philosophers — the quality of the word was judged by the effects on the ear, and not the definition on the page.

Read the full article on the Huffington Post.

Movement of Many Musics

26 02 2008


So much music these days is being manufactured in unimaginable ways. That’s not necessarily bad, but it makes a story like that of Rootz Underground just that much more special. Crafting their sound on stage for over five years, they finally stepped into a studio. The result is smooth reggae riddims on Movement. This rootsy rasta sextet delivers a well developed balance of easy skanking and reverent passion that was well worth the wait. The nineteen tracks shine with gems like “Victims of the System”, “In The Jungle”, “Herb Fields” and the gorgeous bluesy ballad “In My Hut.” Their Pete Seeger inspired “Hammer” is simply incredible, giving irie new meaning to the traditional folk song. Singer Stevie G’s vocals mix memories of Nesta himself with Midnite’s Vaughn Benjamin atop solid bass lines and unique guitar work from Charles Lazarus. They’re calling Kingston home for now, but the world is soon to be all theirs. JE

P.D.P. (President Dey Pass)

Fela Kuti’s imprint on music was as significant as the instruments synonymous with his sound. Chirping saxophones and trumpets sound off as congas, drums and bass bring the beat up to meet the melody of keyboards, guitars and of course, those vocals. Having performed with Kuti for a decade, Akoya Afrobeat’s front man Kaleta brings an elevated West African funk to a world that seems to need more dancing. He’s got quite a solution brewing on the 13-piece New York City-based outfit’s second recording. P.D.P. (President Dey Pass) is simply hypnotizing. With four of the six original tracks clocking in at over twelve minutes apiece, it’s no wonder. Dancing clearly wasn’t meant to end after three minutes, as pop songs insist. At that point it’s just getting started. JE

Yes We Can?

22 02 2008

By Derek Beres

In 1976, Bob Marley released Rastaman Vibration, which included what has become of his most memorable songs, “War.” In it he took the text of Ethiopian king Haile Selassie’s 1963 UN Conference speech and set it to music. The song (like the speech itself), while geared toward the liberation and uprising of Africans who had been colonized by European forces for nearly a century (and enslaved for many more), featured universal sentiments about social and political freedom. Notions such as “lasting peace,” “world citizenship” and “international morality” were entwined with reminders about the social and political stability of Mozambique and Angola, making the universal and the particular inseparable. Such was Marley’s legacy, turning political empowerment into sonic sorcery. His music was truly an agent of change, as the man behind the sound involved himself heavily in the plight of his peers.

Outside of the importance of content is the music itself — “War” is a damn good song: hard horn stabs, lax and precise hi hat behind a pounding bass drum, the easy swagger of Nesta’s skanking guitar. And of course, that undeniable and irreplaceable growl. Marley knew that the message and the medium were one and the same; he could not, as politically motivated songs have the knack of doing, compromise the musicality for the meaning. He knew that the musicality is the meaning, and to reach the hearts and minds of his audience, musical integrity was the primary concern.

Perhaps we cannot expect so much of musicians — Bob Marley was, in so many ways, unique unto himself. And yet when listening to the Barack Obama-inspired speech/song, “Yes We Can,” I can only shake my head at what is, from a musical standpoint, a blatant attempt of reaching the lowest common denominator. Such “superstar” cause songs are not new, and in this number’s glossy strains and overly impassioned vocals one is reminded of “We Are the World,” a record which exposed America to the famine trouble in Ethiopia — the same land Selassie once ruled over — while playing for the widest possible audience via radio waves and MTV.

In itself, popular music is indefinable. It has recognizable traits, and relies on certain formulas, though just exactly what “pop” means is rather elusive. When considering it, I always reflect back on what bass player Bill Laswell told me a few years ago: the four-minute song is not music, but a business idea. Of course, this does not apply to every four-minute piece of music; “War” clocked in at 3:37, for one. But the 4:30 “Yes We Can,” produced by Black Eyed Peas member will.i.am, certainly falls into that category. While it may be argued that it is a political, and not business, idea, I cannot see the difference between the two.

Read the full blog on Huffington Post.

Devotion Through Music

21 02 2008

By Derek Beres

The objects of devotion are seemingly limitless. Some are defined by culture, and appear as figures, crosses or mandalas; others are expressed through different mediums, such as chanting, painting and mathematics. (Yes, some consider numbers to be sacred.) Making music is possibly the most ubiquitous and widespread form of devotion the world knows. When applied in this manner, music is a form of prayer; it is an oblation, ritual and correspondence.

While Western traditions hold that prayers only travel in one direction, and may or may not be “answered” (depending on the whim of their deities or the sincerity of the effort), in the East it is not considered you, specifically, who is praying through music. A more appropriate way to phrase the resulting music would be to say that it is the god using you, through the sound, as a vehicle for prayer.

This is generally true of polytheistic theologies, where gods are not overseers as much as emotional states or natural phenomena. The entire spectrum of Ancient Near Eastern and Indian deities represented natural forces (wind, water, sky, fire), while the Greeks understood love as Eros, regeneration as Persephone and direction as Hecate. If there is one entity at the helm, he or she (or more appropriately, it) is not so much a ruler as a caretaker of the process. To be engaged fully with the deity is to be full aware of yourself. This is why in Buddhism, enlightenment is called “self-realization”. It is an awakening to the inherent similarities between the individual and the external world, both of which are involved in one continuous process; namely, existence.

Devotion, then, is a form of psychology rather than some quasi-unreliable mystical state. A person that is devoted does not have to be devoted “to” something. Simply being devotional is enough. As stated, people like to choose idols, gurus or historical persons as the object of their worship. And many, like the artists that follow, use music as the vehicle for expressing their sonic sanctity.

Read the full blog on PopMatters.

The Wasted Years

20 02 2008

By Jill Ettinger

Our enormously productive economy…demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption…we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.” – Victor LeBeau, Retail Analyst Post WW II

Circling the web like a good Mom rounding up kids for school, the Story of Stuff’s viral message is affectionately startling, gently nudging us to wake up to some very large elephants quickly filling up the room. Viewed over 1.5 million times, Annie Leonard’s matter-of-fact practical approach appeals to a child-like mentality, important for both the children inheriting this messy situation and the deer-in-headlights-National-Enquirer-population still obsessed with making it. Leonard’s no ordinary Mom though; she is Coordinator of the Funders Workgroup for Sustainable Production and Consumption, working for two decades to raise awareness about international sustainability and environmental health issues.

Her point is simple and straightforward: the world economy follows a straight-line growth model based on planned obsolescence, while the world itself prefers to work in a circular symbiotic relationship. Because of the causal bond marketing has with our spending habits, in just fifty years, America (and most Western cultures) has doubled consumption rates. Leonard walks us through the process from extraction of natural resources to production and distribution and finally to consumption and disposal of the accumulation of all these products (all while our government, supposedly for the people, sits back and takes direction from corporate interests). Some of the more incredible facts she’s collated:

• 80% of the world’s forests are gone.
• 2000 trees a minute are cut down in the Amazon alone. That is 7 football fields a minute!
• The U.S. has less than 4% of its forests left.
• 40% of our waterways are undrinkable.
• The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 30% of the waste.
• 75% of global fisheries have been fished beyond capacity.
• 100,000 synthetic chemicals are used in production today.
• Bromated Flame Retardants (BFR) neurotoxins (toxins to brain) are in computers, mattresses, pillows.
• Food with highest level of contaminants is mother’s milk.
• 200,000 people a day are moving to cities from environments that no longer support them.
• U.S. industry *admits* to 4 billion pounds of toxic pollution released per year (likely far more).
• We see more ads in one year than people 50 years ago saw in a lifetime. 3,000 ads a day!
• Average house size has doubled in the U.S. since the 1970’s.
• Average American creates 4.5 lbs. garbage a day — an amount doubled from 30 years ago.
• For every one garbage can you put out at the curb, 70 cans were filled by all the processes needed in order to make it.
• 99% of all those things we buy are not in use after 6 months.

To read the full column on Reality Sandwich click here.

Looking Good for 801

16 02 2008

The Passion of Rumi (Quarter Tone)

For being 801 years old, Rumi is holding up pretty well. The Persian poet became the highest-selling wordsmith in America during the 1990’s, thanks to Coleman Barks’ translation work, which scanned over a quarter-million copies. Musical breakthroughs via the likes of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan pumped Pakistani qawwali into global ears, opening doors into America for numerous forms of Persian music. Shahram Nazeri needed no introduction—at least not in his native Iran. When the Rumi Ensemble, founded by Shahram’s son Hafez in 2000, played in Tehran, over 140,000 people attended. Thus, one would expect the music on this album to be of the highest magnitude. There should be little surprise that it is just that. Persian classical music is done more justice with colors than words, as it is something to be experienced—lived through—than it is to be discussed. This 52-minute recording is a sound collage that ebbs and flows with the melodies of the setar and kammancheh, to the rhythms produced by the daf and tombak. And, of course, Shahram’s voice, a silky, golden vestibule through which the poetry of Rumi is rediscovered and recreated. While Hafez does no singing on this recording, his interpretation on “Journey to Eternity”—playing the setar in accordance with the habits of a guitar—creates a majestic, emotive and triumphant instrumental piece reminiscent of the passionate strums of the flamenco player (whose style, indeed, was influenced by the Persian tradition). In fact, Shahram’s vocals are eerily familiar to the gut-wrenching screams of that Mediterranean craft, during moments of fury and flight on “Enchanted,” for one. Their passion continues an unbroken eight-century old thread, a victory social and musical all at once. DB