Wednesday, February 24, 2010

interzone radio show, podcast & playlist, for tues. feb. 23

podcast for this show is here.
playlist for the show is here.

included in the show is the musical soundtrack to a stunningly beautiful video by Tashweesh. this is a must, must see. Tashweesh is Basel Abbas and boikutt, formerly of Ramallah Underground and Ruanne Abu Rahme, a really brilliant video artist. the still photo reproduced here is from the film. again, please watch it. here.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Is "Avatar" (Secretly) Pro-Palestinian?

Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin for the NY Times

The cover of today's Sunday NY Times Magazine features a photo of Avatar co-stars Zoë Saldana and Sam Worthington. And you notice, right next to Saldana's left breast (in the shadows), a dramatic tattoo, in Arabic letters!

It's rather amazing that Hollywood stars desiring to have a bit of Middle East exotica inked onto their bodies can't seem to find an Arabic or a Persian speaker who could produce actual words that make sense. LA is full of such people, as everyone (except the stars, I guess) knows. So Saldana's tat here does have Arabic letters, but it makes no sense, the letters are just strung together randomly, and in some cases, incorrectly. Rihanna's Arabic tat, as you will recall, is slightly more sense-making.

I did a bit of hunting, and this photo from the NY Times may mark the first public display of this particular Zoë S. tattoo. As far as I could determine, from scouring some of the sites that pay close attention to celebrity tattoos, Zoë Saldana had previously revealed only two tattoos, one on her bikini line, and another on her left foot, also in Arabic. The second word may be is'al-ha, or "ask her," but I'm not really sure.

As for Avatar and whether or not it's pro-Palestinian, Zoë Saldana's tattoos are just a ruse. I seriously doubt whether James Cameron or anyone involved in the making of the film gave Palestine any thought at all.

Nonetheless, some Palestinians have strongly identified with the Na'vi, the "blue people," of the film. It's not hard to imagine why. Palestinians' experience of occupation, their very strong attachment to the land of Palestine...But more important is the fact that the Na'vi defeat and expel the colonizers. This is where the comparisons that critics of Avatar have drawn with Dances with Wolves perhaps falter. Avatar is a much more hopeful film for those confronting Western colonialism than Dances. Moreover, while the trope of the white guy who joins up with indigenous peoples in order to save them is rather old-school, 19th century, Palestinians today routinely incorporate "non-natives" into their struggles. In fact, the most important struggles going on in the West Bank today, struggles against the Wall, particularly at Bil'in and Nilin, as well as struggles against the ethnic "cleaning" of Jerusalem, typically involve Palestinians demonstrating side-by-side with Israeli progressives and "internationals"--the latter frequently involved with the International Solidarity Movement. The Israelis and the internationals aren't "liberators" coming from the outside but are there in solidarity with grass-roots movements that are led by Palestinians.

Therefore the stunning image I saw in the Los Angeles Times on Friday, Feb. 12, of demonstrators at Bil'in dressed up as Na'vi, made sense. The demonstrations at Bil'in started up in December 2004, and have been held weekly since 2005. They are one of the most hopeful examples of principled, non-violent, grass-roots struggle against the Israeli occupation, as well as of international solidarity. So I was glad to see them receive a bit more media attention, albeit short-lived and episodic.

This is the Reuters photo I saw reproduced in the LA Times, which was published in multiple outlets. I love the look of Palestinian Na'vi wearing kufiyas as loincloths. (The five demonstrators who dressed up as Na'vi included internationals and Palestinians.)

Check out the video to see the demonstration, and Palestinian Na'vi getting teargassed.

More photos are here, in a blog which unhelpfully calls this look "protest chic."

Monday, February 15, 2010

Another 'tough guy' kufiya: Matt Damon in "Green Zone"

I haven't even had a chance to see From Paris with Love or The Book of Eli yet, and now there's already another film with a "tough guy" character garbed in kufiya coming up. Green Zone, starring Matt Damon, is based on Rajiv Chandrasekaran's acclaimed book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City. The book is non-fiction, the film, a fictionalized version. Damon plays the part of Ray Miller, a warrant officer who is helping the CIA in its hunt for WMD's, and comes upon some sort of CIA conspiracy. It opens March 12.

Miller seems to be the only American in the film wearing a kufiya. He wears it US military style, as a scarf, kept inside the jacket, just the top bit protruding. It's never worn hipster, "triangle" style, nor is it ever wrapped around the head. That Miller (Damon) is shown with it in almost every scene would seem to indicate that it's an important insignia, an insignia, I'm pretty sure, of Miller's toughness. The fact that he's the only one shown wearing one distinguishes Miller/Damon as number one tough guy.

Given that the film is directed by Paul Greengrass, who also directed the Bourne trilogy, and given that it's based on the Chandrasekaran book, the film promises to be (a) action-packed and (b) politically interesting. The trailer makes one hopeful.

And the film will at the minimum have that kufiya thing going for it.

Did The Hurt Locker set off a trend? Or do such films just accurately depict US military styles in Iraq?

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Kufiya: not dead by a long shot

The kufiya has had its designer moment. That's over. But it still remains an important style item. Here are a few examples.

1. Bill Cunningham's always wonderful series of street-fashion photos in the Sunday New York Times Style section today has a particularly exciting report. Cunningham claims that male fashion in NY City is today as vibrant and creative as it was in the 60s. And he has the photos to prove it. Check out the video and Cunningham's smart commentary.

One of Cunningham's photos features a young man in kufiya (at left). This look, of course, is in no way "hipster" fashion, as conventionally understood. Artsy middle class professional? I'm not sure how to describe this look.

When I was in Philadelphia in December most of the kufiyas I spotted were worn by African-Americans. They weren't displayed in quite such spectacular outfits as this one, but on the other hand, they were not hip-hop either. More bohemian or artsy. And various colors. These days I find myself particularly liking the turquoise ones.

2. To support my point about kufiyas being stylish in urban Africa-America, here's a photo from of a mother and daughter, on the streets of NY City, November 2009. Rochelle, who spotted this for me, particularly likes the white dangly balls. I agree. Cunningham observes in his commentary today that men in New York have opted for color in their clothing, while women have gone toward black. He calls this "peacock" style. This photo would seem to support that observation.

3. I reported earlier on the "jerk" dancing phenomenon. Here's some more evidence that the kufiya often goes along with the distinctive skinny jeans. This photo is from a video by the Long Beach jerkin' outfit Team Dummy, which shows them out on the streets, jerkin'. Watch the vid here.

My kufiya posting is way behind. There's still a substantial backlog to put up and describe...stay tuned.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

(St.) Patti Smith, Jaffa, and Felafel

In heart I am a Moslem
In heart I am an American
In heart I am Moslem
In heart I'm an American artist, and I have no guilt.
-Patti Smith, "Babelogue," Easter (1978)

Last Sunday's laudatory review in the New York Times of Patti Smith's new book, Just Kids, got me into a Patti mood.

This inevitably led me to the Patti Smith documentary, Dream of Life, which I had missed when it screened on PBS recently.

The film is beautiful, providing a rich and complex account of Patti. I seem to have given myself the full-time job of looking for "Arab traces" wherever I can find them in US pop culture, and so my account of the film focuses on those. The film of course is much, much more, but I want to argue that Patti's interest in the Middle East is an integral part of her life and therefore is important to the film as well.

Here's the first thing I spotted, a ginbri (a.k. hajhouj), the distinctive instrument played by the Gnawa of Morocco. Why and how it got into Patti's NY City apartment, I don't know, but there it was. About thirteen and a half minutes into the film.

Then there is this: Patti picks up a small antique Persian urn that's in her flat, and struggles for a moment to open it up--she says she hasn't tried to for some time. Inside, it turns out, are some of her ex-boyfriend Robert Mapplethorpe's remains.

Mapplethorke's folks have most of the remains, but Patti has a bit. She remarks that, if she likes, she can schlep Robert around with her, in the urn.


(I found the photo of the urn on the website for Dreams of Life. It's part of a slide show of some items that were in the exhibit, "Objects of Life"--photos, videos, paintings and personal belongings connected to the making of the film, which was made over a period of 11 years.)

At around an hour and twelve minutes into the film, we hear Patti in concert--chanting from the Declaration of Independence, and then indicting George W. Bush for a series of crimes, including the invasion of Iraq. Onscreen we see Patti writing, typing, sitting, at the Lincoln Memorial. It's really remarkable: watch it.

At about one hour and 28 minutes into the film, we see footage of a demonstration against the Iraq war that Patti participated in. Eventually we see her addressing the crowd--chanting with the backing of members of her band, against war, for peace. I'm not sure which of the many mobilizations against the Iraq war this was, but it appears to be one that was organized by ANSWER, and to have taken place in DC. Note the guy in the kufiya on stage with her.

We invented the zero
And we mean nothing to you
Our children run through the streets
And you sent your flames
Your shooting stars
Shock and awe
Shock and awe
Like some, some
Imagined warrior production
-Patti Smith, "City of Baghdad," Trampin' (2004)

Patti was quite active in speaking out against the Iraq war between 2003 and 2005, and she appearing with Ralph Nader and Howard Zinn (RIP) at several anti-war events. And she is, or at least was, a supporter of the Green Party.

For five long years
I wasn't a man
dreaming chained
with the lights on
in another world
a netherworld

Patti Smith, "Without Chains"

In 2006 Patti put out a song, "Without Chains," about the case of Murat Kurnaz, a German-born Turk, who was arrested in Pakistan after 9/11, detained at Guantanamo for five years, and released in 2006. He now lives in Germany. Kurnaz reports having been waterboarded whileh he was held at the US military base at Kandahar, as well as having endured torture at Guantanamo. You can read what Patti has to say about the song, about Murat Kurnaz, and about John Walker Lindh, here. The song is not available on any recording, only here.

The last ten minutes or so of Dream of Life are really remarkable because they are all shot in East Jerusalem, chiefly the Old City. There are some scenes of the Wailing Wall, but otherwise it's almost entirely Arab Jerusalem. I don't know what the occasion was that brought Patti to Jerusalem, so I suppose it was just a visit, with no concert appearances. The film gives no explanation. (The film screened, incidentally, at the Jerusalem Film Festival in 2008--and the festival director claims it was one of that year's highlights.)

Here's Patti, walking in the old covered suq (market) in East Jerusalem. Despite the Israeli military occupation, despite the continued efforts of the Israeli state and Jewish settlers to confiscate and occupy Palestinian properties, the suq, and Arab Jerusalem, continues to exist. If not exactly always to thrive. Jerusalem's Old City is one of my favorite places in the world.

Here's Patti, eating some felafel, in a typical East Jerusalem eatery. I've probably eaten at this place myself.

She probably knows that felafel is originally a Palestinian-Arab dish, and that Israel's efforts to turn it into an Israeli national dish are both an act of cultural expropriation and an effort to erase felafel's Arab character. (Felafel in Israel, especially when it's made by Palestinian citizens of Israel or by Mizrahi Jews, is quite delicious.)

Here Patti is checking out a scarf sold in a shop in the suq. Note that it's right next to a red-and-white and a black-and-white kufiya. These look like the made-in-China kufiyas that make up most of the kufiyas sold in Palestine today.

Patti doing a typically tourist thing: riding a donkey. Not sure who is with her--her son and guitarist Jackson Smith?

Here Patti is just outside the wall of the Old City, on its south side, I think near the Dung Gate. Note the soldiers of the occupation.

Another shot at the same location.

This is my favorite scene of Patti in Jerusalem: Patti outside the office of The Arab Cultural Center for Jaffa and The League for the Arabs of Jaffa. I don't know where this office is located in the Old City, but I'm pretty sure that Patti isn't just standing in front of the door because it has a pretty painted design. Jaffa was the cultural and economic capital of Arab Palestine during the British mandate, and it was ethnically cleansed in 1947-48. I just can't imagine that Patti is posed here for no reason.

I can't imagine it because Patti's song, "Peaceable Kingdom" (on Trampin', 2004) was reportedly inspired by and dedicated to Rachel Corrie, who was killed in March 2003 trying to defend a Palestinian family in the Gaza Strip, whose home was threatened with demolition. Run over by a Caterpillar bulldozer driven by an Israeli soldier. Patti made a videotape of her performance of an acoustic version of the song and sent it to be played at an event held in Rachel's memory at New York City's Riverside Church, called "Rachel's Words," on March 22, 2006.

And I also can't imagine that the film's Jaffa reference is just random because Patti also recorded a song in memory of the Lebanese who lost their lives when Israel decimated the village of Qana in 2006. You can download the solo version here, and there is also a version with her band.

Limp little bodies
Caked in mud
Small, small hands
Found in the road

Patti Smith, "Qana"

Patti performed at the Byblos Music Festival in Lebanon in July 2008; read about it here.

The last scene of the movie, Dream of Life, is in Jerusalem. It shows Patti, with her back to the camera, in the Old City, looking west. Sorry, it was hard for me to get a good photo of the scene. Also sorry that I can't remember what was being spoken during this last seen. Go see the movie for yourself. You'll be glad you did.

As I watched the movie, Adventureland, I thought to myself, when will someone make a movie about a very cool but maybe slightly nerdy girl who harbors artistic ambitions and whose hero(ine) is Patti Smith? But since most of our directors are men, all we seem to get are movies like Adventureland. The film's protagonist, James, the nerdy guy who wants to become a writer, is "cool" because his hero is Lou Reed. I love and admire Lou Reed as much as the next person. (And Lou Reed has performed for the benefit of Palestinian children--for the Hoping Foundation.) But isn't it about time to start promoting the notion that some women artists might be models of cool as well? Patti really deserves waaaay more respect and honor than she gets.

(And by the way, why is it that in Adventureland, it is only James' intellectual interests that are revealed? He wants to go to Columbia to study journalism, to be a writer. The girl he falls for, Em, also goes to college, to NYU. But the film never thinks it important enough to tell us what her major is. Or whether she has any intellectual or artistic ambitions. Instead, she is just a pretty face and a hot body, with a cool, tough attitude. I'm tired of all these guy movies. I really want Katherine Bigelow to win an Oscar for best director.)

This is not to say that Patti isn't, in some ways, pretty male identified. Her three best-known romantic partners just ooze street cred: Robert Mapplethorpe, Sam Shephard, and Fred "Sonic" Smith (of The MC5). Her cultural heroes are William Blake and Arthur Rimbaud. She knew and hung around with the likes of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan. I don't know what well-known women she admires/d or has hung out with.

Nevertheless, she is a saint.

(A really good account of Patti Smith, that demonstrates convincingly that she is the most awesome female rock artist ever, is to be found in Simon Reynolds and Joy Press' book, The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock 'n' Roll [Harvard, 1996]. Despite the book's deployment of Jungian archetypes as an analytical framework, it is quite incisive. Especially on Patti.)

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

interzone radio podcast for feb. 2 is up

last night's interzone radio show, hosted by d.j. teo, is now available as a podcast, by going here.

the playlist is here.

lots of great stuff.

i'm particularly fond of the Mexican Orientalism of DJ Tenebros, on "Taliban Guitars #2," which i learned about thanks to jace clayton.

don't forget Haiti:

Monday, February 01, 2010

Massive Attack and the Palestine Connection (of course)

Massive Attack's latest (fifth) album, Heligoland, is out now. I am listening to it right now, because it is now available to listen to in its entirety, thanks to NPR. (This almost, but does not quite, make up for the execrable attack on All Things Considered last week on the late Howard Zinn. Almost.)

Go here for NPR's take on Heligoland. To listen:

I've only listened to a few tracks, so can't give an informed opinion, except to say that so far I like it. I've loved Massive Attack ever since the first one, Blue Lines, back in 1991.

Long after I had become an avid fan, I learned of another reason to admire Massive Attack: for their politics. I noted back in 2007 that the band had played benefits for the Hoping Foundation, which supports projects for children in Palestinian refugee camps.

I want to quote now from a longish article about Massive Attack that was published in New Statesman back in 2007 ("Two-man Army," by Alice O'Keeffe, Feb. 5), that tells us a bit more about the group's notions about Palestine, about the Iraq war, and about the potentiality for development of a Middle Eastern trend in the British music scene. NPR won't be talking about this aspect of Massive Attack. (In the photo above, which is "sampled" from Massive Attack's blog, Grant (Daddy G) Marshall is at left, Robert (3D) Del Naja at right.)

It quickly becomes evident that [Robert] Del Naja is unfashionably political, and not in the woolly way we have come to expect from our pop stars. "When you are travelling around the world on tour, you see all these places that you hear about on the news and you start to actually feel some connection with them," he says. "We've been to Israel, to Bethlehem twice, and to Lebanon, performing in Baalbek, which was heavily bombed in the last [Israeli] attacks. You see these places and you start to feel a connection, and to feel a bit more responsible for what happens there. I wanted to actually do something."

Thus it is that Massive Attack will be playing three benefit concerts this month in Birmingham and London for the HOPING (Hope and Optimism for Palestinians in the Next Generation) Foundation, a charity set up by Jemima Khan, Bella Freud and the academic Karma Nabulsi to support grass-roots organisations in the Palestinian refugee camps across the Middle East. Primal Scream played a similar concert in 2004 (it was Primal Scream's lead singer, Bobby Gillespie, who introduced Massive Attack to Nabulsi), but Del Naja insists this is not simply a case of "sleb" guilt. "It is easy to get cynical about this kind of thing. As much as an event like Live 8 was monumental, it left me cold. It does raise awareness, but then you ask, 'Were any of those ambitions really met? Which targets have been reached?' This charity is a small group of people, with specific aims. You can understand that; you know where you are."

For more on some of the Hoping Foundation benefits, which have involved the likes of Elton John, Jade Jagger, Kate Moss, Hugh Grant, Chrissie Hynde, Nick Cave...go here. I've said this before, but here goes again: our US celebrities are lame on the question of Palestine compared to the Brit stars. Or is it that we have no Karma Nabulsi to mobilize them?

Del Naja has occasionally been sneered at by less earnest music-industry types for his interest in political issues - an indication, perhaps, of how disengaged pop music has become. On the eve of the 2003 Iraq invasion, he and Damon Albarn tried to organise a group of similarly prominent musicians into an anti-war campaign, only to be greeted, he says, with a silence bordering on hostility. "We approached people who we knew, people who were our peers or who we respected. But no one was interested. The only ones who got behind it with us were [the British Asian rap group] Fundamental. The majority didn't even respond, and those who did asked us if we supported Saddam Hussein's regime.

"Everyone is happy to get behind a cause like Make Poverty History, or fair-trade and environment issues. But when it comes to politics, they are reluctant."

Comment: props, once again, to Damon Albarn--who, as far as I can tell, is not often credited for being so politicized. The heavy involvement he has had in promoting Arab music in England, through his Honest Jons label, is certainly connected to his politicization around Middle East issues. As for Fun'Da'Mental, well, if you read this blog, you know about Fun'Da'Mental.

I wonder if Asian and Middle Eastern cultures might begin to permeate popular music, in the same way as Massive Attack and their ilk absorbed African-Caribbean influences during the 1990s. "It's interesting - we have done some exciting work with Asian and Arab artists, but I think there is still an unbridgeable gap there in terms of what happens in clubs and bars," he says. "When I was a kid, the Asians got more passive abuse than any other race, just because people are ignorant - they don't understand the culture. And of course, integration is difficult in the current political climate."

Again, Del Naja is pretty clear-eyed on the problems of racism toward Asians and Middle Easterners in England. We can only hope that the work of artists like U-Cef and Natacha Atlas are helping to shift things, at least a bit.

(Wish I knew which Arab artists Massive has worked with.)

I seem to remember that Massive Attack had made some statement in the wake of Israel's assault on Gaza. If they did, I cannot put my hands on it. But check out the group's blog. Almost every one of the 'relevant links' is about Gaza. (And people think I'm obsessed!)

The Fez Series: Sun Ra & his Arkestra in Chicago, 1960, & the Tom Wilson connection

This is my reproduction of the inner tray card of the Sun Ra CD, "Music from Tomorrow's World" (Atavistic, 2002). L-r: Marshall Allen, Jon L. Hardy, John Gilmore, Sun Ra, Ronnie Boykins, George Hudson. (Credit: the original photo was transferred and restored by John McCortney, AirWave Studio, Chicago.)

Allen, Gilmore, Boykins and Hudson are all wearing fezzes (tarabish).

See my earlier post, where I quote Robert Campbell et al who write: "The [1957] photo that accompanied the Defender announcement showed Sunny wearing a fez, as he and the rest of the band had done for a little while the previous year. It is said that they quit after some of Elijah Muhammad's bodyguards showed up one night and told them, 'No more fezzes.' Apparently such headgear was reserved to the Nation of Islam."

I'm not sure how the chronology works out here, as the photo above shows the Arkestra still wearing fezzes in 1960. When did the NOI issue their threats?

And I wish the photo was a bit clearer--would like to work out what is on those patches sewn on the fezzes.

Do you think it's possible that über-cool Bob Dylan producer Tom Wilson was inspired to wear a fez by Sun Ra? (He wore one in one of the alternate cuts for "Subterranean Homesick Blues"--read more here.)

Wilson put out Sun Ra's first album, "Jazz by Sun Ra," on his Transition label in 1957. (He also put out records by John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Donald Byrd on Transition, whose catalogue was eventually purchased by Delmark.)

Then, of course, Wilson went on to produce several monster pieces of music. He added the electric guitars to Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sounds of Silence." His production credits include Bob Dylan's Don't Look Back, the Mothers of Invention's Freak Out!, The Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat, and Nico's Chelsea Girl.

Why, for gods' sake, has no one written a biography of this amazing producer, arguably as important as Phil Spector and the like?

Wilson also produced Sun Ra's 1961 album, The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra.

And Wilson also produced one of the most unusual recordings (among a legion of them) that Sun Ra was ever involved in: Batman & Robin, by The Sensational Guitars of Dan & Dale (Tifton Records, 1966). The personnel on the album, in fact, was the Blues Project (whose 1967 album Projections was also produced by Wilson) and Sun Ra, John Gilmore, Marshall Allen and Pat Patrick of the Sun Ra Arkestra. Ra's Hammond B-3 organ playing is excellent! But it is definitely weird to hear the Ra men play together with the Blues Project, on songs that are mostly rock and blues.

Until I pieced all this together, I could not for the life of me figure out how Ra and the Blues Project appeared on the same album. Now I get it--it's the Tom Wilson connection.

And of course this all connects back to that fez scene in Mad Men. Season one, episode 8. When Don goes slumming with the beatniks.