Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Mardi Gras Costumes Wickedly Satirical

Mardi Gras Costumes Wickedly Satirical

By MARY FOSTER, Associated Press Writer 40 minutes ago

The crowds were small and the costumes wickedly satirical as Mardi Gras reached its boozy climax Tuesday in this hurricane-buckled city that could use a few laughs.

The culmination of the eight-day pre-Lenten bash fell nearly six months to the day after the Aug. 29 storm that smashed thousands of homes and killed more than 1,300 people, the vast majority of them in New Orleans.

"I lost everything," Andrew Hunter, 42, said as he sat on the steps of his ruined home on Jackson Avenue. "But what the heck. This helps us keep our spirits up, and we need all the help we can get with that."

Even amid the typical debauchery — including early morning drinking, flashes of bare breasts and skimpy costumes in the French Quarter — there was no escaping reminders of the storm.

Zulu, the 97-year-old Mardi Gras club, or krewe, that lost 10 members to Katrina, paraded amid homes that still bear dirty brown water marks from the floodwaters that covered 80 percent of the city. Another krewe, Rex, King of Carnival, paraded past a boarded-up store bearing a spray-painted warning that looters would be shot.

Kevin and Marie Barre, a husband and wife from New Orleans, wore white plastic coveralls bearing the all-too-familiar spray-painted "X" that denotes a home that has been checked for bodies. "It's a reminder. A lot of people who are coming down here don't understand what we've been through," Kevin Barre said.

Members of another club called the Krewe of MRE covered themselves with brown labels from the Meals Ready to Eat that were served to thousands who huddled in the Superdome after the storm. Others dressed as giant maggots, recalling the days when city streets were lined with abandoned refrigerators full of rotting food.

Mayor Ray Nagin, wearing a black beret and camouflage uniform, portrayed cigar-chomping Gen. Russell Honore, the military man who led the first big relief convoy into the city.

"It's been absolutely — I don't know how to describe it — great," Nagin said of the party. "Katrina did a lot of bad things. But it has done something to give New Orleanians a fresh love for their city."

Several people draped themselves in blue tarps like those used to cover damaged roofs, fashioning them into ballgowns and nun's habits. A man with a model of a military helicopter suspended over his head wrapped himself in a white blanket with "2000 lbs" stenciled on it — he was a giant sandbag, like the ones dropped into one of the breached levees.

Another group of French Quarter revelers dressed as blind people with canes and dark glasses. They wore hard hats and T-shirts emblazoned "LEVEE INSPECTOR."

Along an Uptown parade route, a family who lost their Lakeview home to flooding poked fun at former FEMA director Michael Brown. Jenny Louis, her husband, Ross, and their three children strolled around in all-brown costumes, similar to the uniforms worn by UPS drivers. Printed on their backs: "What Did Brown Do For You Today?"

After the parades, Bourbon Street was crowded with hard-drinking revelers. Police on horseback generally clear the street at midnight, although the party often continues in French Quarter bars into the early hours of Ash Wednesday.

Despite partly sunny weather and temperatures in the 70s, the crowds were smaller than usual in a city that still has less than half its pre-storm population of almost a half-million. Finding a prime parade-watching spot was not hard.

"We came out about 5 this morning and had no trouble getting a good spot," said Tammi Harlan, 56, of Metairie. "We've been coming to this spot for about 20 years, but normally the guys come the night before to make sure we get it."

Traditions held. About 160 members of clarinetist Pete Fountain's Half Fast Marching club had breakfast at the shuttered Commander's Palace restaurant before heading down the parade route — but without Fountain, who is ill and missed what would have been his 46th trip with the group. The celebrated musician is 75.

Visitors included New Orleans native Donald Rooney, now of Denver, who wore a purple, green and gold fright wig.

Mardi Gras is about "helping the city rebuild," he said. "It's my hometown. There's still a great soul that lives in the city that 10 feet, 12 feet of water can't kill, and it's coming back."

Lissette Sutton, owner of a French Quarter souvenir store, said she hoped the celebration would show that the city can handle tourists again.

"I had a lady come in over the weekend who said she actually brought a can of Lysol because she was convinced there would be mold in her hotel room. She was delighted to see how clean it is," Sutton said.


Associated Press writers Hank Ackerman, Cain Burdeau and Janet McConnaughey contributed to this report.

Mardi Gras traditions

New York Times
February 28, 2006
Mardi Gras Dawns With Some Traditions in Jeopardy

NEW ORLEANS, Feb. 27 — Surrounded by bags of feathers and beads in the bedroom of a temporary apartment, Monk Boudreaux had plans for the long Carnival weekend before Mardi Gras. Amid the parades, costume balls and general excess here, the 64-year-old Mr. Boudreaux would be doing what he has done for decades: sewing his suit for Mardi Gras on Tuesday.

That suit, created anew each year, is a larger-than-life assemblage of glitter, sequins, extremely fine hand beadwork on leather patches and giant ostrich plumes, each feather securely sewn in to withstand a lot of dancing. He was also finishing five other suits for his grandchildren. Mr. Boudreaux is the chief of the Golden Eagles tribe of Mardi Gras Indians, a New Orleans African-American parade tradition that dates back more than a century.

For longtime New Orleanians, Mardi Gras isn't a frivolous diversion from deep problems; it's a symbol of continuity and identity. "It's not that we're going to celebrate and party and forget our rough times," said Irvin Mayfield, a jazz trumpeter whose father drowned during the flooding after Hurricane Katrina. "We're going to celebrate and party and make that about our rough times."

Through the weekend of Carnival, parade floats for organizations like the Krewe d'Etat and costumes at parties like the annual Mom's Ball made pointed references to the storm and its aftermath. Krewe d'Etat's theme was a post-Katrina Olympics, with events like Breach Volleyball and Looter Shooting. At Mom's Ball, along with the glitter, revelers made costumes from hard hats, hazmat coveralls and the blue tarpaulins used for temporary roof repairs.

After Katrina, the lingering question is whether the New Orleans cultural traditions that had sprung up spontaneously in African-American neighborhoods would survive.

The people in neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward, some of whom had lived there for generations, have been scattered by the evacuation. But New Orleans musicians, almost unanimously, insist that their traditions will prevail.

"You only come to New Orleans for the culture; there's no reason to come down to these swamps otherwise," said Bruce (Sunpie) Barnes, a zydeco musician who is also part of a Mardi Gras tradition called Skull and Bones: skeleton-costumed dancers who pop out at Mardi Gras parades as a reminder of mortality. They plan to appear this year.

Bands whose members have been scattered to various states have driven and flown in to play New Orleans dates. Mardi Gras Indian practice sessions have been held as far away as Texas. Coolbone, a brass band that played a jazz-funeral tribute to Clarence (Gatemouth) Brown on Saturday afternoon, now has members in Texas and Alabama; a saxophonist for the Rebirth Brass Band now lives in New York City. But the groups are staying together.

Musicians who are synonymous with New Orleans, like the trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, have moved back and reclaimed their regular local dates. "I couldn't wait to get back," said Mr. Ruffins, who established himself so quickly in Houston after the storm that he's lending his name to a barbecue restaurant there. "All my life I grew up in the little nightclubs, and I couldn't wait to go back to just the old hole-in-the-walls."

For musicians, as for hundreds of thousands of other displaced New Orleanians, housing is the main problem. Real estate prices have skyrocketed because so much of the city is uninhabitable. Mr. Ruffins said that musicians who could make comfortable livings as New Orleans expatriates would still be eager to return. "If they had thousands of homes for people to stay in, I know that every musician who left would be right back," he said.

No upheaval would make Mr. Boudreaux change his Mardi Gras ritual. "You gotta do this," he said. "If that spirit is in you, it has to come out."

The Mardi Gras Indians represent one of New Orleans's endangered neighborhood traditions. So do the brass bands that play for jazz funerals and other neighborhood parades. Parades in New Orleans aren't complete without a "second line" of strutting, dancing, clapping spectators turned paraders — a street-level, neighborhood celebration. Now, in places like the Lower Ninth Ward, there are no neighbors.

On Mardi Gras morning the Indians appear: shaking tambourines, dancing down the streets and singing bellicose chants like "Iko Iko" (the basis of the old Dixie Cups hit) and "Meet the Boys on the Battlefront." The syncopated beat of those chants, a beat shared with old brass-band struts, pervades New Orleans music from traditional jazz to funk; it's also called the second line. Once the Indians were like gangs battling for turf with shotguns as well as songs. Nowadays, they are more cooperative, and the competition is for who can be the flashiest and the "prettiest."

The Indians traditionally have done everything on their own — most of them never tote up how much they spend on materials for their suits — but this year, some of them had help. A foundation associated with the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (which starts April 28) bought and distributed 900 strings of marabou feathers and 175 pounds of custom-dyed large African ostrich plumes — two pounds per Indian, with 75 to 100 feathers per pound. The festival has also been paying the cost of police permits for second-line neighborhood parades — which was raised, in January, to $3,605 — and fees for the brass bands. "This is all that is left of this jazz culture in the world," said Quint Davis, the director of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Tipitina's, a club devoted to New Orleans music, is now a nonprofit foundation. It has been distributing instruments, including a shiny new brass sousaphone for the leader of the Rebirth Brass Band, which had New Orleans gigs all through the weekend. It also turned its upstairs offices into a community center for musicians, where they can use computers, get free legal help and meet one another: a kind of substitute for neighborhood hangouts that are now gone. And in November 2005, it began holding Mardi Gras Indian practices, which used to take place in neighborhood bars. The practice sessions doubled in size each time until they outgrew the club.

Long-term questions remain about what will happen to New Orleans traditions. High school bands in African-American neighborhoods were a vital training ground and source of instruments for young New Orleans musicians; with far fewer students in the city, many schools are closed down or consolidated, and music instruction is unlikely to be the most pressing priority for those that reopen. But on Carnival weekend, the clubs were full of familiar New Orleans names and sounds: brass bands like the Hot 8 and the Soul Rebels, funk bands like Galactic and the Radiators, the bluesman Walter Wolfman Washington and jazz musicians like the New Orleans Vipers and Trombone Shorty.

In the aftermath of the storm, there has been a huge surge of interest in New Orleans music. "Since Katrina, the culture in this city is being recognized more," said Bo Dollis, chief of the Wild Magnolias, another parading tribe. "And without the music, I don't know how this city will survive."

Then, flanked by tribe members in feathers and beads, he took to the stage of the Rock 'n' Bowl in the Mid-City neighborhood — much of it still dark and deserted — to sing the old Indian songs once again.

photo: Big Chief Donald Harrison with his 2006 costume

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Notable Mardi Gras Absences Reflect Loss of Black Middle Class

Washington Post
Notable Mardi Gras Absences Reflect Loss of Black Middle Class
By Julia Cass
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, February 25, 2006; A01

The Bunch Club, a group of African African professionals that has sponsored a Mardi Gras dance since 1917, in the last group photo taken at a black-tie dinner 71/2 months before Hurricane Katrina hit. (By Lloyd Dennis -- Courtesy Of Bunch Club)
Photo Credit: By Lloyd Dennis -- Courtesy Of Bunch Club

NEW ORLEANS -- Since 1917, the Bunch, an African American social club made up of 50 doctors, lawyers, dentists, bankers, businessmen and other professional men, has sponsored a dance on the Friday before Mardi Gras -- a coveted invitation during the weeks of parties that precede Fat Tuesday.

But last night there was no Bunch Club dance. The Black Pirates, Plantation Revelers, Bon Temps, Vikings, Beau Brummels, Original Illinois Club and Young Men's Illinois Club have also canceled their carnival balls.

The lack of revelry reflects the lack of people -- New Orleans's black middle class is gone.

Many African Americans prosperous enough to pay dues to a social club and buy tuxedos and gowns for debutante balls lived in the predominantly black subdivisions of New Orleans East, a former marshland drained by canals that severely flooded after Hurricane Katrina. Mile after mile of suburban homes along its cul-de-sacs and man-made lakes as well as a similar neighborhood, Gentilly, are virtually empty.

"The impression is that just poor people were displaced, but Katrina has had a devastating effect on the black middle class, too," said Willard Dumas, a dentist who serves as the Bunch Club's recording secretary and now lives in Baton Rouge. "You spend 45 years building a life and then it's gone. Your home was flooded; your business was flooded. And this happened not only to you but to practically everyone you know, so your patients or clients are gone, your friends are scattered, and your relatives are somewhere else."

White groups are holding their events this month, and debutante pictures are filling the society pages. The difference for the black groups can be explained by geography: Wealthy white neighborhoods were mostly on high ground, but black neighborhoods both poor and rich were on lowland that flooded.

Those black professionals are scattered across the South, finding new jobs, establishing new medical and legal practices and businesses. The longer they are gone, the greater the worry that they will not come back -- leaving New Orleans, a majority-black city before Katrina, without a core of African American leadership.

"We are a productive group of people," said lawyer Bernard Charbonnet Jr., 54, whose home was flooded. "We are the teachers, lawyers, firemen, doctors; the people who get up every morning and go to work; the people who have missions, goals and purposes; the people who serve on boards of civic organizations."

The Bunch Club personified that leadership as well as the longevity of blacks here. Some of its members have ancestral ties to the nearly 11,000 free blacks in New Orleans during the Civil War. The club began as a "bunch" of friends who gathered to play cards and decided to hold an annual carnival dance to meet women.

During the many years that hotels would not host African American events, the dance was held in the gym of Xavier University, the nation's only historically black Catholic university. More recently, the club has rented hotel ballrooms for the dance, which features a live orchestra and a march at midnight for the members and their guests.

In addition, the club's monthly meetings -- held at the now-closed Dooky Chase, a 65-year-old black-owned restaurant famous for its Creole food -- provided a chance to network. These days the group includes some of the city's most accomplished and influential African Americans, including Alden McDonald Jr., founder of Liberty Bank and Trust, the city's largest black-owned bank, and Xavier President Norman Francis, who is now chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

Charbonnet and Francis are still in New Orleans, but most of the rest of the Bunch are gone. Of the 44 members living in New Orleans before Katrina, only eight lived in houses that were not flooded and are inhabitable.

"The professionals who served the black population probably were the most impacted because they lost not just their homes but their clientele," said Francis, noting that 5,000 schoolteachers and 3,000 city employees, many of them black, have been laid off. "They are no different in a way from those families lower on the economic scale. They, too, don't have a home or a job."

Just two of the Bunch's doctors -- who were attached to hospitals on high ground -- practice in New Orleans today. White doctors, lawyers and other professionals also are experiencing difficulties, but proportionately more of their clients have returned.

Louis Bevrotte, the Bunch president, exemplifies the doctors' situation. Before the storm, he and his wife lived in the Lake Forest Estates subdivision in New Orleans East in a 4,700-square-foot home with a deck overlooking a man-made lake. McDonald, the bank president, lived across the street.

The East's 33 square miles of mostly single-family homes, developed in the 1970s and 1980s, became the "Freedomland," as one Bunch member put it, for African Americans of means. Bevrotte's office was a five-minute drive away, and he practiced at Methodist Hospital, one of two hospitals in the East, both now closed. He was so rooted in New Orleans that he did not have long-distance telephone service: his friends, his three children and other family members all lived in the city.

Now, Bevrotte, a pediatrician, practices in Kinder, La., population 2,000, about 220 miles west of New Orleans. In New Orleans, Bevrotte said, 95 percent of his patients were black; now, 95 percent are white. His wife, Yolanda, a nurse, works with him.

"We went through some rough times. We weren't used to having our lives out of our control," said Bevrotte, 60.

The worst part, he and his wife said, is being separated from their children and grandchildren, who live in Houston, Dallas and St. Francisville, La. "We cried when we separated six weeks after the storm and knew we would not see them the next day," Yolanda said.

The Bunch's dentists are experiencing the same dislocation. One is working in a prison near Jacksonville, Fla.; another moved to Louisville. The part-owner of a flooded professional building of black dentists and doctors, Dumas, 63, now works three days a week in a practice in a Baton Rouge suburb owned by a young dentist who had once worked for him.

Farrell Christophe, a former president of the Bunch, owns a five-bedroom house in Pontchartrain Park, the first black suburban-style subdivision in New Orleans, built 50 years ago. The home was flooded, and Christophe, 61, is living in Cane River, La.

He and his wife own three Steak Escape fast-food franchises in New Orleans. Two remain closed. Christophe fears he will have to walk away from them, because he thinks they are no longer viable businesses for him or a potential buyer.

"We aren't destitute, but our whole livelihood has changed," he said. "We don't know what we'll be doing six months from now. You might think: 'What's the matter with you?' You're both businesspeople, fairly intelligent. You should have plans.' But right now we don't know."

Those few Bunch members still in New Orleans with work and intact homes have lost their social network.

Keith Weldon Medley, 56, a writer who specializes in black New Orleans history, is the club's historian. He lives in the Marigny neighborhood, a part of the original crescent built in part by African American brick masons, carpenters and plasterers. Although he considers himself fortunate, he is not happy. Few of his family or friends are in the city anymore, and the tours he gives of New Orleans distress him because so many historic places, representing 300 years of black achievement, are damaged and closed, as are the schools he attended and the black-owned restaurants he liked.

"Life in New Orleans right now can be inexpressibly sad," he said.

Bunch members still return to New Orleans to meet insurance adjusters and gut homes. Many have complained that Mayor C. Ray Nagin's rebuilding commission turned its back on blacks when it called for a smaller city and turning neighborhoods like New Orleans East into green space. That plan is uncertain, but so are the new elevations the Federal Emergency Management Agency will require for rebuilding in flooded areas and where the financially strapped city will be able to provide police, fire and other services.

How many Bunch members and other black professionals will return is another unknown. Most said they want to come back.

Charles Bowers, 32, a doctor finishing his residency this spring in a hospital just outside New Orleans, said that his father and grandfather practiced medicine in the city and "I want to do the same. That was the plan. Now I'm weighing my options. I don't know."
© 2006 The Washington Post Company

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Drummer contracts anthrax from drumheads

New York man falls ill with anthrax
Musician reportedly had contact with natural anthrax sources

(CNN) -- A New York musician has tested positive for anthrax that authorities say came from unprocessed animal skins used to make traditional African instruments.

He is in stable condition at a Pennsylvania hospital, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

"The man poses no public health threat of transmitting anthrax to the community or the health care providers caring for him," the department said in a statement. (What is anthrax?)

The 44-year-old man recently traveled to Africa, where he bought animal hides and took them back to New York City to make drums, the department said.

The man, who plays native African music, complained of flu-like symptoms before collapsing last week at the end of the Kotchegna Dance Company show at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania, sources said.

The department said he was taken to Robert Packer Hospital in Sayre, Pennsylvania, about 50 miles northeast of Mansfield.

Blood tests were taken Friday, and on Tuesday the tests detected anthrax bacteria in the man's system, according to the state health department.

"At this time, there is no indication that the exposure was from an intentional release of anthrax," according to a release from the department. "The patient has a history of contact with unprocessed animal hides and recently traveled to Africa, where he purchased unprocessed hides."

It adds, "Unprocessed animal hides can be a source of anthrax spores."

Anthrax bacteria lie dormant in tough cells called spores until conditions are favorable for them to infect animals or humans.

New York City and federal authorities discussed the case at a news conference Wednesday afternoon, where they assured the public that the incident does not pose a health threat. (Watch Mayor Michael Bloomberg explain how the case is an isolated one -- 3:27)

The FBI and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are assisting local authorities in the investigation.

It includes an assessment of the patient's home and workspace in Brooklyn. Authorities also are trying to find anyone who might have had contact with the hides as well as members of the dance company, who are all from New York City, according to the state health department news release.

Dr. Calvin B. Johnson, the department's secretary, said a team of health experts has been sent to Mansfield University, and a public meeting was scheduled at the university Wednesday evening.

CNN's Terry Frieden contributed to this report.

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Friday, February 17, 2006

Firm pays heirs of ‘Lion’ song composer

Firm pays heirs of ‘Lion’ song composer
Family lives in poverty in Soweto; song has earned $15 million
Updated: 2:25 p.m. ET Feb. 17, 2006

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - A U.S. company has settled a long-running legal dispute with a South African family over the copyright to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” one of Africa’s most famous tunes, lawyers said Friday.

Lawyers acting for the family of Zulu migrant worker Solomon Linda, the song’s original composer, said Abilene Music -- which administered its copyright in the United States -- had agreed to settle the dispute for an undisclosed sum.

“The amount is confidential ... but it’s been described as an amount which is suitable for the family’s needs and includes both back payments for royalties as well as future payments,” lawyer Herman Blignaut told Reuters.

Linda’s family live in poverty in the Johannesburg township of Soweto and were originally claiming 10 million rand ($1.6 million) in damages against the company.

“The family are obviously very happy that this matter has been settled and they have something to show for it ... a trust has been established to manage the funds and give them guidance as it’s a significant sum of money,” Blignaut said.

The song has earned an estimated $15 million since it was written in 1939 after being recorded by at least 150 artists around the world. It also features in the Walt Disney Co. film “Lion King” film, as well as on stage.

The law firm of Spoor and Fisher originally brought the case against Disney, as they had no jurisdiction against Abilene Music in South Africa. Disney has repeatedly said it obtained the copyright for the song properly from Abilene.

Abilene Music confirmed it had agreed to pay compensation for administering the copyright.

“It is confirmed that ’The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ was derived from Mbube and that Solomon Linda was therefore a co-author of the musical work,” it said in a statement received by Reuters on Friday. “Mbube” was the original title of Linda’s song.

“Solomon Linda’s heirs will now receive appropriate compensation for past and future uses of ’The Lion Sleeps Tonight,”’ the statement said.

Linda’s relatives were not available for comment.
Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of Reuters content is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Reuters.

© 2006 MSNBC.com

URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11410785/

Latin Jazz Drummer Ray Barretto Dies

Latin Jazz Drummer Ray Barretto Dies

2 hours, 34 minutes ago

Ray Barretto, a Grammy-winning Latin jazz percussionist known for integrating the conga drum into jazz, died Friday, officials said. He was 76.

Barretto had undergone heart bypass surgery in January and suffered from pneumonia, said George Rivera, a friend and family spokesman. He died at Hackensack University Medical Center with his wife and two sons by his bedside.

"He was suffering too much, so the Lord took him," Fidel Estrada, a family friend, told The Associated Press in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila said news of Barretto's death was met with great sadness.

"He left us a great musical legacy of humility, love and fullness that should be emulated to serve as an inspiration for the benefit of future generations," the governor said in a written statement. "We give thanks to God for the opportunity to have celebrated his music, and the happiness that characterized all of his life."

Barretto won a Grammy for best Tropical Latin performance in 1989 for the song "Ritmo en el Corazon" with Celia Cruz.

The following year, Barretto was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame, and last month, he was named one of the National Endowment for the Arts' Jazz Masters of 2006, the nation's highest jazz honor.

Barretto's "Time Was - Time Is," released last September, was nominated for a Grammy this year as Best Latin Jazz Album.

His 1979 album "Ricanstruction" is considered one of the classic salsa recordings.

Barretto grew up in New York City listening to the music of Puerto Rico and to the jazz of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman.

In the late 1950s, he played in Tito Puente's band, and his popularity grew in the New York jazz scene. Over the years, he recorded with such musicians as Cannonball Adderley, Freddie Hubbard, Cal Tjader and Dizzy Gillespie.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Confronting America's Racial Divide, in Blackface and White

February 16, 2006
Confronting America's Racial Divide, in Blackface and White

Brian Sparks, a black man in whiteface, for the first time in his life had a salesman actually slip a shoe on his foot. Bruno Marcotulli, a white man in blackface, declared that the black Bruno and the white Bruno received the same general treatment. He was just waiting to be called a common racial epithet, he said, to show calmly how he would not allow the word to hurt him.

If race is the "third rail" of culture, as John Landgraf, president of the FX cable channel, believes, then his network's new series "Black.White." is high-voltage reality TV.

"Black.White.," a six-part documentary that makes its debut on March 8, follows the race-swapping experiment of two families. The white Wurgel-Marcotulli family of Santa Monica, Calif., (along with Rose Bloomfield, the 17-year-old daughter of Carmen Wurgel) and the black Sparkses of Atlanta, including Mr. Sparks's wife, Renee, and 16-year-old Nick, undergo a racial transformation through the magic of sprayed-on color, wigs, contact lenses and other makeup tricks. The whites appear black; the blacks appear white.

"Black.White." is the debut of such a dramatic switch on television, the producers say, although such adventures in pigmentation have been the stuff of literature and film, from the 1961 book "Black Like Me," by John Howard Griffin, to the 2004 film "White Chicks," starring Shawn and Marlon Wayans.

This time, viewers see the families (who temporarily leave work and school) in the Los Angeles area, secretly integrating a bar with a bartending job (Mr. Sparks) or joining a black poetry group (Ms. Bloomfield). Mostly, the families try to get a taste of life in another skin as they shop, go to church or seek help with a broken-down car. For six weeks last summer, they even lived together in a big San Fernando Valley house, debating the meanings of their experience and sharing their lives.

The first episode ends with Mr. Sparks and Mr. Marcotulli (in black makeup) sitting in a van, refusing to meet each other's eyes. "I think, from your reaction today, you're looking for it," Mr. Marcotulli, a 47-year-old substitute schoolteacher, says of racism, which Mr. Sparks says he can discern after a lifetime in black skin. "You see what you want to see," he complains.

Mr. Sparks, a 41-year-old computer expert, snaps back, "And you don't see what you don't want to see."

At times the participants address the camera. They also sit around the dinner table, struggling to communicate. Ms. Sparks, a 38-year-old dental office manager, declares she is "mad and angry at the same time" because Ms. Wurgel, a 48-year-old location scout, used the term "beautiful black creature" to describe a member of her daughter's poetry group. Ms. Wurgel says she is tired of being misinterpreted. "They already knew whites were insensitive and ignorant; I heard that from the beginning," Ms. Wurgel says. The teenagers look embarrassed.

"Somebody's feathers are going to get ruffled," Mr. Landgraf said, when asked about the reaction he anticipated to "Black.White.," whose participants have already taped an episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show," the closest thing to a national town hall. "That's what people expect from our network: risks," he said. But beyond his desire for FX to develop more documentary-style, unscripted shows, Mr. Landgraf said, he specifically took on the sticky, unarticulated subject of race.

"There is a lot less overt bigotry in America," Mr. Landgraf said, so he wanted to find a way to probe the more subtle side of racial conflict. "What you find is that there is still a misunderstanding of the different histories and life experiences of blacks and whites."

The three executive producers — the documentarian R. J. Cutler (the television series "30 Days," "The War Room"); the actor and rapper Ice Cube, who starred in and produced the films "Barbershop" and "Barbershop 2: Back in Business"; and Matt Alvarez, a partner at Ice Cube's company CubeVision Productions — said they simply sought to capture reality. The families, they said, did not receive any instructions. In public settings the cameras were either hidden or were present under the pretext of making a documentary about a family. Mr. Cutler said that race is "the central defining issue in American society, American history, where we are now, where we're going, and it's something that doesn't get spoken about."

Ice Cube, who sings the series's theme song ("Please don't believe the hype/ Everything in the world ain't black and white"), said the show would give people a reason to talk about race at work the next day. "And hopefully, in discussing the show, learn a lot more about each other and maybe deal with some of the issues," he said in an interview.

All the on-camera participants said they saw "Black.White." as a way to show how the emotional paper cuts of everyday interracial interactions can aggravate bigger issues like discrimination in housing or employment. The adults, in particular, said they walked away feeling misunderstood by the other couple and frustrated by the inability to get into one another's skin.

"They really wanted me in this show to really come off at the end as, 'Gosh, I see' and 'Oh, my heart is open,' " Mr. Marcotulli said in a recent telephone interview. He is compassionate, he said, and he knows that racism exists. "But you know what? Life is tough for millions and millions and millions of people. And I just can't say, you know, 'Yes, the African-Americans, gosh, they have it tough and they deserve reparations and we should do everything we can.' No."

Renee and Brian Sparks, though, said they believed that Mr. Marcutolli had tended to shrug off the subtle racism he encountered from whites and waited to hear the racial slur, which they repeatedly told him was unlikely. They were right. They also said that the white couple had the misguided perception that they had needed a radical transformation to "pass" for black; at one point in the show, Bruno and Carmen buy African garb for a church service. Black people, the Sparkses said, are accustomed to being a minority and making small accommodations to blend in with whites, like changing their speech patterns.

While the two teenagers did not engage in the same verbal skirmishes as the adults, Ms. Bloomfield challenged the notion that race was less fraught for their generation.

"I was kind of surprised to find that I learned more about this invisible barrier than I thought actually existed," said Ms. Bloomfield, now an 18-year-old aspiring actress. After participating in a rap poetry group and "coming out" as white to the black performers, she discovered that the group treated her differently.

But Nick Sparks, now a 17-year-old student, does not buy into notions of outsize cultural gaps between the races. "In our generation, we don't see race," he said. "I was treated about the same when I was black and white."

Given that the producers deliberately sought families who identified themselves as progressive and open-minded, the differences in perspective exposed by "Black.White." are instructive, Mr. Cutler said.

"This show ends up being a critique of the notion of colorblindness as much as anything else," he said. "It's still blindness. And blindness is dangerous."

It hurts to post it, but: American Idol

Why we worship 'American Idol'
By Thomas de Zengotita
THOMAS DE ZENGOTITA, a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine, is the author of "Mediated."

February 12, 2006

WHEN THE ratings numbers came in after last week's Grammy Awards, the news wasn't good for the professionals. A show that features amateurs had attracted a far bigger audience than had one with the likes of Madonna, Coldplay and U2.

"American Idol," now in the fifth week of its fifth season, drew almost twice as many viewers as the awards show. What's going on here? Why does this reality show consistently attract the weekly attention of close to 35 million viewers?

It's a nexus of factors shaping the "virtual revolution" unfolding all around us, on so many fronts. Think chat rooms, MySpace.com, blogs, life journals illustrated with photos snapped by cellphones, flash-mobbing, marathon running, focus groups, talk radio, e-mails to news shows, camcorders, sponsored sports teams for tots — and every garage band in town with its own CD.

What do all these platforms have in common? They are all devoted to otherwise anonymous people who don't want to be mere spectators. In this virtual revolution, it's not workers against capitalists — that's so 19th century. In our mediated world, it's spectators against celebrities, with spectators demanding a share of the last scarce resource in the overdeveloped world — attention.

The "American Idol" format combines essential elements of this revolution.

Have you followed the ruckus over why people don't have heroes anymore — in the old-fashioned statesman, warrior, genius, artist kind of way? People concerned with education are especially alarmed. They invest a lot of energy in trying to rekindle an aura of greatness around the founding fathers. But it's hopeless. Ask natural-born citizens of the mediated world who their heroes are, and their answers fall into one of two categories: somebody in their personal lives or performers — above all, pop music performers.

The "everyday hero" answer reflects the virtual revolution, but what about performers? Why are they so important to their fans?

Because, in concert especially, these new kind of heroes create an experience of belonging that their fans would otherwise never know, living as they do in a marketplace of lifestyles that can make one's existence feel optional. That's why there's a religious quality to a concert when the star meets the audience's awesome expectations and creates, in song and persona, a moment in which each individual feels personally understood and, at the same time, fused with other fans in a larger common identity.

"Performer heroes" are, in the end, all about us. They don't summon us to serve a cause — other than the one of being who we are. So, naturally, they have been leaders of the virtual revolution. From their perch on high, they make us the focus of attention.

"American Idol" takes the next step. It unites both aspects of the relationship — in the climactic final rounds, a fan becomes an idol; the ultimate dream of our age comes true before our eyes and in our hearts.

That's mediational magic.

And don't forget the power of music. "American Idol" wouldn't be what it is if, say, amateur actors were auditioning. You can disagree with someone about movie stars and TV shows and still be friends. But you can't be friends with someone who loves the latest boy band, in a totally unironic way, if you are into Gillian Welch. That's because tastes in pop music go right to the core of who you are, with a depth and immediacy no other art form can match. Music takes hold of you on levels deeper than articulated meaning. That's why words, sustained by music, have such power. There is nothing like a song for expressing who we are.

That brings us to the early rounds of "American Idol," in which contestants are chosen for the final competition in Hollywood. The conventional wisdom is that they're an exercise in public humiliation, long a staple of reality TV. That's not wrong, as far as it goes, but it isn't just any old humiliation exercise — it is the most excruciating form of voluntary personal humiliation the human condition allows for because it involves the most revealing kind of performance there is, this side of pornography.

During this phase of the show, the audience, knowing it will eventually fuse in a positive way with a finalist idol, gets to be in the most popular clique on the planet, rendering snarky judgments on the most embarrassing pool of losers ever assembled.

"American Idol" gives you so many ways to feel good about yourself.

No wonder it's a hit.

OBITUARY: Shoshana Damari, 'Queen of Hebrew Music'

Shoshana Damari, 83; Israeli Singer, 'Queen of Hebrew Music'
From Associated Press

February 15, 2006

Shoshana Damari, whose voice came to embody the emerging nation of Israel and comforted its people during their most trying times, died Tuesday. She was 83.

Damari, who was battling pneumonia, had been taken to Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv on Friday and put on life support. Her many friends, as well as leading Israeli singers, congregated around her hospital room in recent days, singing her songs and praying for her recovery.

She made her last public appearance a week ago at the Ami Awards, Israel's equivalent of the Grammys, where she complimented the nation's young generation of singers.

Known as "the queen of Hebrew music" and a recipient of the country's most prestigious cultural prize, Damari entertained Israeli civilians and soldiers for nearly seven decades with her booming alto voice, continuing to perform until shortly before her death.

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called Damari "one of Israel's cultural greats."

"Her voice and noble image guided us for more than 60 years … through the establishment of the state, through wars and peace, happiness and grief," Olmert said in a statement. "Shoshana Damari was an example for love of humanity, love of the land of Israel and, especially, love for the Hebrew song….

"We will remember her forever as the national voice."

Damari immigrated to Palestine, now Israel, with her family from Damar, Yemen, as an infant in 1924, but her singing featured a distinctive Yemenite pronunciation, adding an ethnic quality to her Hebrew songs.

The diminutive performer was known for her powerful, low-pitched voice that seemed to start from her toes, working its way up her body.

She studied singing and acting and began appearing in public in her teens, performing on radio from the age of 14. She made many recordings and helped soothe the nation during its war of independence in 1948.

In 1988, Damari was awarded the country's top civilian honor, the Israel Prize, for her contribution to Israeli vocal music.

As word of her death spread Tuesday, a wave of nostalgia washed over the country.

Her songs, such as "Kalaniot" (Anemones), were played repeatedly on the nation's main radio stations, evoking memories of a bygone era of innocence. Israeli television also went to special programming Tuesday night, with tributes to her career and the airing of her last interviews and concert performances.

Damari is survived by a daughter who lives in Canada. Funeral plans were not immediately announced.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

A Hip-Hop History Bus Tour

February 12, 2006
A Rolling Shout-Out to Hip-Hop History

JUST before noon on a raw, wet Saturday a few weeks ago, two dozen tourists piled off of a bus at Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 155th Street in Harlem and made their way into Rucker Park. The park is a Harlem landmark, the site of the annual Entertainer's Basketball Classic, a summer tournament that pits local legends against professional players. But the tour group was there for a different kind of performance.

In the otherwise empty park, they were greeted by Wonder Rock and Mouse, two break dancers from Brooklyn, who hooked up an MP3 player to a Pignose portable amplifier, blasted a James Brown breakbeat, and were soon moving across the rain-slickened asphalt, demonstrating moves like the toprock, the coffee grinder and the windmill. When the show was over, the audience was invited to clamber down from the bleachers for a quick tutorial. A paunchy, 40-ish white guy from Dallas announced that he had been in a break dance crew a couple of decades earlier, and was soon down on the ground, executing a better-than-passable windmill.

That elicited whoops from the tour guide, a burly 45-year-old named Curtis Fisher, better known as Grandmaster Caz. Caz is a renowned figure in early hip-hop, a member of the venerated Bronx rap crew the Cold Crush Brothers and the ghostwriter of some famous verses of "Rapper's Delight," the 1979 Sugarhill Gang song that became rap's breakthrough single.

Today, he has gone from making history to teaching it. Caz is one of several hip-hop pioneers — including Kurtis Blow, Doug E. Fresh and D.J. Red Alert — who work for Hush Tours (www.hushtours.com), a Manhattan company that since June 2002 has run hip-hop-centric sightseeing tours of Harlem and the Bronx.

The success of Hush Tours is a sign that hip-hop has become part of New York's official cultural heritage — for younger visitors especially, a tourist magnet right up there with the Brooklyn Bridge or the Statue of Liberty.

But Hush Tours offers something more than just sightseeing: an argument about authenticity, an opportunity, in the words of its promotional literature, to "see, hear and feel the true meaning of the elements of hip-hop." In so doing, the tour reflects debates about history, memory and "the real hip-hop" that have become more pronounced and contentious as the years have passed, and hip-hop culture has developed a self-consciousness about its past.

As Hush Tours takes pains to point out, hip-hop history stretches back to the early-1970's, years before the first rap records were even recorded. "This is the 32nd year of the culture of hip-hop," said Caz, as the bus rolled north on Madison Avenue, adding, with an M.C.'s flair for self-mythology, "This is my 33rd year in the game."

HUSH Tours is the brainchild of a 38-year-old Bronx native, Debra Harris. Several years ago, Ms. Harris, a legal secretary, began taking members of her family on impromptu driving tours to places like the former site of Harlem World Entertainment Complex on 116th Street, where rival rap crews had faced off in rhyme battles a quarter-century ago. Ms. Harris was motivated, she said, by a desire to pass along knowledge of hip-hop's roots to her children. She soon realized that she had stumbled on an untapped tourist market.

"When you go to Nashville, you know that's the home of country music," Ms. Harris said. "New York needed to step up to the plate, to say officially that this is the birthplace of hip-hop. The city was sleeping on it. I discovered that younger visitors who loved rap music were eager for more knowledge, for a different kind of tourist experience that would get them out of Times Square."

Today, for the price of $70, the Hush Tours bus whisks visitors to the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, making stops at, among other places, the Graffiti Hall of Fame at 106th Street and Park Avenue, a schoolyard featuring enormous murals by some of the city's top graffiti artists, and Bobby's Happy House, a record store owned by Bobby Robinson, the onetime proprietor of Enjoy Records, which released some of the earliest hip-hop singles.

At the Graffiti Hall of Fame, there is a Disneyish touch: Caz distributes Kangol hats and fake gold chains with dangling dollar-sign pendants to the tourists, who cross their arms and strike B-boy stances for snapshots in front of the spray-painted walls. Harlem residents have seen a lot over the years, but a gaggle of white tourists dressed like LL Cool J circa 1985 is something new.

The real action, though, takes place on the bus, where the tour guides play music, reminisce, instruct and proselytize. "This is an opportunity to pass on the truth," said the rapper Kurtis Blow, who is also host of "Backspin," a Sirius Satellite Radio program devoted to old-school hip-hop. "Hip-hop history has been lied about, distorted and in some cases outright destroyed."

Leading bus tours is not exactly the standard afterlife for onetime stars like Mr. Blow, whose 1980 single "The Breaks" was the first rap record to go gold. But the hip-hop pioneers regard the tours as a way to ensure their legacies.

Red Alert, a longtime fixture on the New York airwaves, said: "It's great because we didn't have a platform to pass on our knowledge. The tour has given us a platform to explain the history that we experienced, the history that we set in motion."

On that chilly Saturday a few weeks back, Caz was a jovial, blunt tour guide. "Today you're going to learn what hip-hop is and what it's not," he announced at the tour's outset. "It's not just rap music, and it's definitely not just the 10 records you hear over and over again on the radio."

He peppered his talk with oft-told hip-hop tales and intriguing nuggets of cultural history. He told hip-hop's creation story, of the famous 1973 party in the Bronx, at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in Morris Heights, whose host was the legendary Jamaican immigrant disc jockey, D.J. Kool Herc. He described how the looting of hi-fi stores during the 1977 New York City blackout propelled D.J. culture. ("It was like Christmas for black people" he said. "The next day there were a thousand new D.J.'s.")

He played charmingly primitive early rap records, like the Fatback Band's "King Tim III (Personality Jock)" (widely regarded as the genre's first single) and songs by the Sequence, one of the earliest all-female rap ensembles. He waxed rhapsodic over hip-hop's humble beginnings, when the biggest rap shows in New York were announced on hand-lettered Xeroxed fliers (Caz distributed several vintage examples), and D.J.'s powered their sound systems for outdoor block parties by tapping into the wiring of street lamps.

"The rappers today who can drive around in Bentleys, with their jewelry and million-dollar homes," Caz told the tour group. "They're able to live like that because cats like me and Bambaataa" — the famous rapper and D.J. Afrika Bambaataa — "were in the trenches back in the day, laying the groundwork and getting chased off the block by the police."

That sense of grievance is common among old-school rappers and D.J.'s. "All of the pioneers that I know feel overlooked and dissed," said Ms. Harris, whose tour guides have also included Rahiem of the Furious Five and Reggie Reg of the Crash Crew. Of course, long-term memories are rare in popular music, and hip-hop M.C.'s and producers are particularly unsentimental about the musical past. For good reason: it is precisely that ruthless fixation on novelty — new sounds, fresh styles, the next big thing — that has kept the genre vital for so long.

"We have a real thing in hip-hop about out with the old, in with the new," Ms. Harris said. "I'm shocked about how little awareness of history there is, especially since so many people are making so much money in the rap industry. There's much more awareness of hip-hop history in other countries."

Artists like Grandmaster Flash tour regularly overseas, where they draw far bigger audiences, and Ms. Harris estimated that 80 percent of Hush Tours' patrons are "international visitors." Sure enough, a recent tour included just four Americans, along with tourists from England, France, Germany, Australia and Kenya. In this respect, old-school rappers and D.J.'s have in recent years become similar to jazz musicians, who have long experienced rapturous receptions in Europe and Japan while struggling at home to find respect and decent-paying gigs.

Still, hip-hop culture does not lack a sense of history. Rappers have long been shouting-out their elders and dropping allusions to past raps into their rhymes. Sampling is, among other things, an art of historical preservation, resurrecting the sonic past to serve the present. And as hip-hop has entered its fourth decade, the process of historical investigation and canon-making has swung into high gear.

Recent years have seen the publication of important books on hip-hop's origins (including "Yes Yes Y'all: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-Hop's First Decade" (Da Capo Press) and "Can't Stop, Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation" (St. Martin's Press) by Jeff Chang) and the arrival of VH1's annual "Hip-Hop Honors" telecast, a counterpoint to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which has thus far ignored rap artists.

Meanwhile, a cult of the good old days is much in evidence among normally nostalgia-averse rappers. The "back in the day" pastorale has become a hip-hop cliché: seemingly every third rap album includes a soft-focus ode to such old-school symbols as Cazal eyeglasses, fat sneaker laces and Eric B. & Rakim. (On the tour bus, Caz played one of the more famous examples, Tupac's "Old School," which opens with the lyric, "I remember Mr. Magic, Flash, Grandmaster Caz.") This nostalgia is especially entrenched among underground or "backpacker" rappers, who position themselves as the true heirs to the old school, carrying the spirit and politics of hip-hop's "golden era" into a debased age of bling and chart-topping gangstas.

From ragtime revivalists to 1950's folkies to roots rockers, there have always been purists who mourn the fall from pre-commercial "authenticity" to mainstream popularity. But that reverence for the past can cause some fuzzy historical thinking. It's worth noting, for example, that the current gangsta-bling era now spans far more years than any of hip-hop's purported golden ages. At this point, who is to say that that gangsta rap isn't the real hip-hop? Does anyone really believe that Spoonie Gee and Whodini were better rappers than, say, Snoop Dogg or Ludacris?

The cult of the old school also smacks of basic New York chauvinism. Now that the hip-hop diaspora has spread worldwide — and current-day rap history is largely being narrated in a Southern twang — it is silly to argue that New York has some kind of monopoly on hip-hop authenticity.

Ms. Harris is adamant that Hush Tours has no axe to grind. "We're certainly not hating on today's rap music," she said. "We're just trying to make sure that people know where it all came from. If we stay in business, 20 years from now we'll be giving guided tours to today's hip-hop."

As for Grandmaster Caz, he has some scores to settle, which he does, of course, by rapping. As the tour wound down and the bus headed south from Harlem down Fifth Avenue, Caz stood up at the front and regaled the crowd with rhymes extolling the old school. The tour de force is a rap called "Before," in which Caz makes a grand metaphysical boast in behalf of hip-hop itself: "Before Reganomics/ Before rappers got shot in their stomachs/ Before Britney, Mariah and Janet/ Before Soul Sonic Force rocked the planet/ In its lyrical form and in the essence of time, by no means get it twisted/ My name is hip-hop, and I have always existed."

It's one of the more basic hip-hop lessons, as valid now as it was back in the day: polemics go down easier when delivered in rhymed couplets, over a beat.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The New Met

February 11, 2006
As Audience Shrinks, the Met Gets Daring

Revolution is afoot at the Metropolitan Opera, the world's largest opera house, which has been plagued in recent years by declining attendance and budget woes.

Peter Gelb, who takes over in August as the Met's first new general manager in 16 years, has laid out broad-ranging plans to remake the venerable house, sharply increasing the number of new productions, commissioning more and different kinds of new works, bringing in a wave of high-profile theater and film directors and striding into the world of digital transmission.

This attempt to reconceive the Met as an institution more open to popular influences and more attractive to a wider public may well alarm opera traditionalists, who are the heart of the Met's audience. It is also a response to the long reign of the current general manager, Joseph Volpe, who has worked at the Met for 42 years.

"I told the board at the time of my choice that I wanted to take this great institution that had grown somewhat isolated artistically and reconnect it to the world," Mr. Gelb said.

Mr. Gelb's program calls for a collaboration with Lincoln Center Theater that will engage Hollywood directors like Anthony Minghella and Broadway directors like George C. Wolfe, as well as musical figures like the theater composers Michael John LaChiusa and Adam Guettel and the jazz musician Wynton Marsalis. Major conductors who have never appeared at the Met will make debuts, including Riccardo Muti, Daniel Barenboim and Esa-Pekka Salonen. The Met will install a gallery for works by contemporary painters, extending its reach into the visual arts. The artists include John Currin, Richard Prince and Sophie von Hellerman.

Mr. Gelb said he wanted to embrace new technology. Performances will be broadcast nationwide in high-definition movie theaters and made available through downloading, if agreements can be reached with the house's unions. CD's and DVD's could follow.

In a two-hour interview on Thursday, Mr. Gelb sketched out plans that could radically remake the house and influence opera houses around the world, given its size and influence. "My work at the Met is going to involve everything," he said, "even subtitles."

A former record company executive who produced Met telecasts in the late 1980's and early 90's, Mr. Gelb formally takes over on Aug. 1. But since January 2005 he has been working alongside the strong-willed Mr. Volpe.

Mr. Gelb, who is a son of Arthur Gelb, a former managing editor of The New York Times, said his plans were not meant as a criticism of the Volpe era. He noted that a sharp drop in opera attendance since 9/11 afflicted many institutions.

But he went on to say that the house had been "coasting" and that the old formula — counting on dedicated operagoers to fill the house for standard productions — no longer worked. He also took note of criticism that the Met has not attracted enough world-class conductors. Regarding singers, he said, it has "waited too long to jump on talent."

Mr. Volpe said his successor's approach might ruffle feathers. "Our audience loves standard opera done in a traditional way," he said. "But if it's very theatrical and well done they will be very happy with it. I think it's a good direction."

Mr. Volpe said he did not consider Mr. Gelb's plans a repudiation of his stewardship. "What I did, in my opinion, worked," he said. "If the new direction is successful, then you could say that the way the Met operated in the last decade should have been changed." If the audiences do not accept the new productions, he added, "then that's another result."

Martin Bernheimer, the New York-based music critic of The Financial Times, said Mr. Gelb appeared to be "desperately looking for a new audience and a new kind of opera."

"I think that's fine," he said. "But the question is, what will he do with the core audience while he's courting this new audience?"

Mr. Gelb said he wanted to create a "constant kind of excitement" by staging a new production every month, raising the average from four a year to seven. He will immediately scrap the tradition of an opening-night gala of big stars performing acts from several different operas.

"The idea that the Met has not opened a season with a new production in 20 years I find remarkable," he said. Hence, a new "Madama Butterfly," directed by Mr. Minghella and produced in cooperation with the English National Opera, will open the next Met season. It was a hit in London last fall.

Making such changes in the opera world, in which seasons are planned many years in advance, is unusual. But the Met had already scheduled an old "Butterfly" production for October, so that puzzle piece was replaced with a new one.

Mr. Gelb said that his goal with all the changes was to create bridges to a broader public. But the strategy also carries the risk of alienating traditional opera lovers and serious-minded critics. It remains questionable how congenial iTunes opera downloads would be to the typical Met attendee, whom the house has identified as a 62-year-old college graduate earning about $120,000.

Mr. Gelb acknowledged the need to keep traditionalists in the fold.

"My plans are not intended to frighten them," he said. "What I'm trying to do is to honor the aesthetic traditions of the Met while at the same time moving forward. If I were to function purely as a curator, then the Met would not continue to function and thrive."

The Met has cut its budget in midseason three years in a row, and in December it reported an expected box-office shortfall of $4.3 million. After selling more than 90 percent of its tickets in the 1990's, it is selling about 85 percent now, and a much larger proportion of them are discounted.

Mr. Gelb said he would change ticket prices next season to increase revenue. The highest-priced seats would rise from $320 to $375, and costs would go up for 60,000 seats out of the 857,000 total capacity next year. But the lowest ticket price would drop from $26 to $15, and 90,000 seats would decline in price.

The next three seasons have already been mostly planned, but Mr. Gelb said he had some influence, adding two new productions each season in 2007-8 and in 2008-9.

The first season fully planned by Mr. Gelb will be 2009-10. It will have seven new productions.

The season will open with a new "Tosca," possibly directed by George C. Wolfe, the former producer of the Public Theater. Karita Mattila will sing the title role for the first time. Angela Gheorghiu, a high soprano, will sing Carmen, a mezzo role. Matthew Bourne, a choreographer, and Richard Eyre will direct. The two collaborated on the musical "Mary Poppins," now playing in London.

The elusive Mr. Muti will make his Met debut with the early Verdi work "Attila," one of his signature operas. Mr. Salonen will conduct Janacek's "From the House of the Dead," directed by Patrice Chéreau. Renée Fleming will star in the early Rossini opera "Armida," directed by Mary Zimmerman. The next season, 2010-11, the Met will begin presenting a Wagner "Ring" cycle directed by Robert Lepage, a master of theatrical spectacle and technology who recently created the Cirque du Soleil extravaganza "KA" in Las Vegas. It will also present a commissioned work by the currently prominent Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov.

Notably absent from Mr. Gelb's outline of his plans was a discussion of the repertory's more challenging works, like Berg's "Wozzeck" and "Lulu," which are close to the heart of James Levine, the music director and longtime artistic soul of the Met. When asked, Mr. Gelb said both would continue to have short runs in coming years.

"We have to balance the season," he said. "And Jimmy insists on that, and he's right."

Mr. Levine said he fully supported Mr. Gelb's plans. "What I think he wants to do is produce a noticeable change right away," Mr. Levine said, "where he will have a way in front of him to evaluate what works."

But he cautioned that financing was not a given and the Met's plans depended on whether guest artists do in fact appear. He cited the fragility of voices during winter and the whims of conductors.

"If all those conductors to whom Peter spoke really come and do what they've agreed to do," Mr. Levine said, "that will be really exciting."

One of the biggest and perhaps most controversial departures is the collaboration with Lincoln Center Theater, which Mr. Gelb said was designed to produce operas with better dramatic flow from unexpected composers and to give them a chance for improvement before hitting the stage.

The Met and the theater have commissioned works from a range of composers and playwrights, some of them outside the classical tradition. The pieces will be workshopped and then guided toward either the Vivian Beaumont Theater or the Met stage. The Met is holding open a spot during the 2011-12 season for the first product of this collaboration. The artists include the team of Jeannine Tesori and Tony Kushner, as well as Rufus Wainwright, Scott Wheeler and Michael Torke.

Mr. Gelb said that if a revenue-sharing agreement with the house's unions could be reached, he hoped to start movie house broadcasts next year. The Met would begin with six Saturday performances in its radio broadcast season, relayed to theaters outfitted with high-definition systems, for about $20 a ticket. Two movie chains are interested, he said.

"The idea is to really conceive of it as an event," he said, "because that's what's exciting about opera."

Thursday, February 09, 2006

laptop musicians

Performers Turn Laptops Into Instruments

By SHEILA FLYNN, Associated Press Writer1 hour, 2 minutes ago

Phillip Washington stepped on stage and began fiddling with the wires dangling from his laptop computer, his slight frame bent over the machine and adjacent keyboard as chatter among audience members filled the darkened Dallas nightclub.

But the crowd grew silent as Washington began his performance, pounding the keyboard to unleash electronic beats that shook the club's floorboards. The audience cheered and pumped their arms as the bespectacled Washington exchanged his quiet demeanor for an intense stage persona, howling to the synthetic sounds as he stomped his feet and contorted his body in jerky, arm-flailing motions.

Washington, who uses the stage name Cygnus, doesn't sing or even know how to play a musical instrument, but in the world of laptop music, he's a pro.

A growing number of tech-savvy musicians use laptops instead of guitars or turntables to make eclectic electronic music, then go up against each other in competitions in cities like Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington D.C. The events get publicized through word-of-mouth and the Internet.

Washington, 21, competed against 15 others at a Laptop Deathmatch in January at the Gypsy Tea Room. The artists — they are musicians of a sort — are judged on creativity, technique and stage performance. Washington, an animation major at Dallas' Richland College and a previous Deathmatch winner, made it through several rounds, but lost after more than five hours of competition.

Zach Huntting, who co-founded Laptop Battle in Seattle in 2003, said interest in the competitions has grown strongly over the past two years.

"It seems to be pretty mixed crowds — everything from people that go out to clubs to dance, scenesters, people that are into the music, nerds, tech people, anybody with any type of curiosity about laptops," said Huntting, 29. "It's sort of on the edge of both of those cultures" — computers and music.

Many compositions incorporate sounds from everyday life — nature, human voices, guitars — which are recorded and then digitally processed into music using off-the-shelf software such as Ableton Live, Reason, MAX and Traktor DJ Studio. Most of the Dallas contestants used Mac computers.

"There's a pretty big void — a lot of people are into laptop music and there's not too many outlets for it," said Mwanza Dover, who organizes Laptop Deathmatch in the Dallas area. "There are so many kids out there that have a laptop, and their parents get them a $300 music program for Christmas and they run with it."

Washington, for example, said he often incorporates snippets of television theme music or manipulates his own voice, giving it a discordant echo during a performance.

Contestants usually get only three minutes to perform and may only use one other external device, such as an electronic keyboard. While some sit back and nod their heads to the beat as their piece plays, others use fancy fingerwork to modify and play back their creations.

"You really never know what you're gonna get," said Dover, 32. "This one guy, he actually was going to the audience and sampling different people's voices and then making beats out of their voices."

In Dallas, the crowd of about 100 people was young and curious — and filled with more than a few future competitors.

Computer programmer Brad Yeager said he dabbles with home recording software but he'd never seen anything like Laptop Deathmatch.

"It's great that it just gives people the opportunity to showcase their stuff without being an established artist," Yeager said.

Chad Retz, 21, who mostly listens to hip hop, said he was interested in the competition's premise.

"I wanted to see how people throw it down on the laptop," Retz said. "I appreciate it for what they're doing."

Though interest in the subculture continues to grow, many hope it can avoid mainstream popularity, convinced that a higher interest level would taint the purity of the music.

"As long as this kind of thing remains underground and unplucked by the very popular media, it will live and grow forever," Washington said. "It's a personal thing for the artists, and it does not need to become about money."


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Sunday, February 05, 2006

Polka Grammies

February 5, 2006
The Polka King Rolls Out the Barrel for the 19th Time

WITH one hand, Jimmy Sturr, the polka king, reached for his pen. With the other, he picked up a glossy promotional flier featuring his brightly smiling head shot and the words "FOURTEEN TIME GRAMMY AWARD WINNER."

Sitting in his office 55 miles from Manhattan, in tiny Florida, N.Y., its walls cluttered with gold-colored castings of his records, snapshots of celebrities and dozens of albums with titles like "Polka Fever" and "Super Polka Party," Mr. Sturr, whose frozen wave of light-brown hair and chipper smirk give him a slight resemblance to Regis Philbin, made a quick correction to the text, changing "18 consecutive Grammy nominations" to 19.

"Actually," he said, correcting himself again, "it's only 18 consecutive, because last year I wasn't nominated. So let me cross that out. I'll just add the word 'almost.' "

Mr. Sturr, who at 64 lives with his parents in the house he grew up in — "the same room," he said pointedly — leaned back at his desk one sunny Saturday afternoon recently, clearly proud of a life's work in polka. He has won more Grammys than Michael Jackson or Bruce Springsteen, and on Wednesday he will be up for his 15th, which would place him with Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman.

His success illustrates the odd role played by the Grammys in the vast world of music beyond the Mariah Careys, Norah Joneses and Eric Claptons of the world. For a fortunate few like Mr. Sturr who have won in some of the dozens of categories not included in the televised ceremony, the Grammys can provide an important if almost invisible boost, helping musicians to build their careers and whole genres of under-the-radar music to survive.

But Mr. Sturr's 14 Grammy statues, lined up neatly on two shelves in a back room of his house, also point to the institutional inertia of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the organization that presents the awards. Slow to respond to changes in music and the marketplace, the academy can take years to recognize worthy new genres and, in older categories like polka, can get stuck on a small group of habitual nominees. These oversights can devalue the awards across the board.

"If Jimmy Sturr is going to win every year," said Elijah Wald, a Grammy-winning music historian who has written liner notes for Mr. Sturr, "then the polka category is useless."

A joyfully manic two-beat dance that originated in Bohemia in the 1830's, polka has taken its punches over the years. In the middle of the last century, it made Lawrence Welk a star and Frank Yankovic ("Just Because") a million-selling band leader. But the music has long since been relegated to so-unhip-it's-still-unhip status.

"Polka's taken a bad rap," Mr. Sturr said. "Everybody thinks it's for your grandmother or your grandfather. Everybody thinks of 'Lawrence Welk' — which was a great show, don't get me wrong — but it's not like that. It's very updated. We've Americanized polka a lot."

Dressed in shiny, Vegas-tinted outfits like a polka Elvis and with his 10-piece band playing slick, showbizzy arrangements, Mr. Sturr, who sings and plays clarinet and saxophone, has built a small musical empire. He tours constantly, playing at casinos, state fairs and festivals (including his own Polkapalooza) — more than 150 dates a year, he said. And he has released a steady string of albums with guest appearances by mainstream stars like Willie Nelson, Duane Eddy, Alison Krauss and the Oak Ridge Boys. A successful album in polka sells about 10,000 copies, a hurdle that Mr. Sturr regularly crosses.

Churning out albums like sausage links within a few weeks of the Grammy deadline each year, Mr. Sturr is nothing if not efficient. He records his band in New Jersey over a weekend, then adds the vocal stars in Nashville later. Over decades of work his band has perfected a quick-footed and precise style, so confident in its bopping beat and pealing horns that it seems able to absorb any song, be it the Beach Boys' "Fun, Fun, Fun" or "St. Patty's Polka Medley."

He is not without competition. The polka has developed a rich regional variety; besides Mr. Sturr's zippy, big-band Eastern style, major variants include the heavy-on-the-trumpets Chicago school and the Cleveland or Slovenian style, which emphasizes the accordion and the banjo. Today hundreds of polka bands crisscross the Midwest, Northeast and Appalachian states, as well as Florida and Texas, and the most successful have found ways to modernize the sound and connect it to a broad stream of American ethnic music.

"The biggest stigma is the name polka," said Eddie Blazonczyk Jr., 38, a Grammy nominee this year who took over his father's long-running Chicago band in 2001 and outfits it in sharp gangster black-and-white. "Today's polka is definitely alternative dance music, related to zydeco and Cajun and Tex-Mex and conjunto and so many vibrant and exciting kinds of music."

But the scene remains largely invisible to the music industry. Today no polka artist is on a major label, and few have national distribution. Of the five albums nominated for the Grammy this year, only Mr. Sturr's, "Shake, Rattle and Polka!" is registered with Nielsen SoundScan, which tracks 90 percent of the music purchases in North America. The SoundScan figures for "Shake, Rattle and Polka!" are negligible, with only about 200 sales recorded since it was released in September. But a spokeswoman for Rounder, Mr. Sturr's label for the last decade, said that it sells about 10,000 copies of his albums each year, and that Mr. Sturr sells hundreds of thousands at concerts and on television.

"The stuff I do on the road," he said, "I don't even report to SoundScan. I mean, I should, and Rounder gets upset with me. I got the forms —" he gestured to a pile of papers on his desk — "I just get so busy and stuff that I just don't do it."

When Mr. Sturr was growing up, polka was mainstream music. He is of Irish descent, but his hometown had large numbers of Eastern European immigrants, and the music was everywhere. "Our high school dances had a polka band," he said. "The local radio station had a daily polka show. All the weddings had polka bands." He played in polka bands from the age of 11, he said, and devoted himself to the music full time by his early 30's. "I just thought polka was the biggest thing going," he said.

By the mid-1980's, polka world began to see its profile slip, and lobbied the recording academy for official recognition. The first polka Grammy was awarded in 1986 to Mr. Yankovic, who died in 1998.

POLKA is only one of many new Grammy categories that have been created because of campaigns from particular musical constituencies. In the last 10 years, the number of categories has swelled by 19, to 108.

One result is a sprawl of musical taxonomy that doesn't always make sense. There are eight categories for gospel but only one for Mexican music, which accounts for about half of all Latin music sales in the United States. There are no categories at all for Cajun or zydeco. And while a Hawaiian category was added last year, so far there is none for reggaetón, the hybrid of hip-hop and dancehall reggae so popular that it has already spawned a new radio format.

Neil Portnow, the president of the academy, explained that alterations to the category list is a slow and considered process. "We're not really interested in recognizing a fad," he said. "We're more interested in recognizing a category that has staying power."

That staying power can sometimes look like stasis. In jazz, for example, Michael Brecker has won nine times (plus two awards in other categories); so has Chick Corea — and he has been nominated 49 times across all categories.

"The Grammys often miss quality," said Tom Sarig, an artists' manager who has helped found two alternative awards, the Shortlist and the New Pantheon. "They tend to recognize the things that are the most popular, and established, familiar names, over truly good music."

Mr. Sturr has long heard a similar complaint: that he wins because his albums are filled with stars who appeal to Grammy voters. But he dismisses the idea. "That's baloney," he said. "The reason we win is quite frankly because our recordings are the best. And that's what should win. When I didn't win, the reason was our recording wasn't the best that year."

This year only 20 albums were considered by the academy for the polka category, about half as many as it has had in its strongest years. "Interest does seem to be dwindling" in the Grammy, said Carl Finch of Brave Combo, an eclectic polka group from Denton, Tex., that has won the award twice. "It doesn't seem to matter to anybody except us and Jimmy Sturr."

But Mr. Blazonczyk said everyone could feed off Mr. Sturr's bounty. "He's taken our music to Nashville, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center," he said, "and a few years later I did as well. We've played places that maybe that door might not have been open if Jimmy didn't do it first."

Mr. Sturr beams when showing off his rows of Grammy Awards, though he seems most proud of the smooth efficiency and constant activity of his business. He has dates booked throughout the year, including a polka cruise through the Caribbean for which fans must buy a ticket through his own Jimmy Sturr Travel Agency. For landbound gigs, his group has its own customized tour bus, a sleek black fortress he bought from Billy Ray Cyrus. (Its license plate is, of course, POLKA.) He parks it in the driveway behind his family house, and said that during the summer there was nothing he liked more than to mow the lawn and wash the bus.

He said he was not planning to attend the Grammys this year. First, his father is ill. Then he said he felt snubbed since once again polka would not be a part of the live broadcast.

"Look, I know where my place is," he said. "And I know the whole thing has to do with ratings. I know they're after young people, and that's all well and good. But there's always the old people out there."

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Rock n Roll in Iran

Rock'n'roll in Iran
Editor's note: Christiane Amanpour is CNN's chief international correspondent. Her reports on Iran air tonight on "Anderson Cooper 360°" 10 p.m.-midnight ET.

It's always a rush to revisit Iran. I grew up there, left during the Islamic revolution 25 years ago, and now regularly go back on assignment for CNN. I went back recently for a series of reports on the country.

I never quite know what to expect these days. Who would have thought Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a fundamentalist Islamic hardliner, could have been elected president by a country that's overwhelmingly young and overwhelmingly wants reform, modernization, travel and dialogue with the West?

For me, the most interesting thing about this country is the juxtaposition of the regime's hardline, even militant, supporters with the young kids, teenagers and adults who could belong anywhere, even the United States.

One day, I head underground to listen to...a ROCK BAND!!!! The next day, I head to the mosque to hear the young hardliners wax passionate about the Islamic revolution that happened in 1979, as if it were yesterday, praising the new conservative government for taking them back to those values.

Many of these kids just want to play their music. They are not political, yet they have to play their music in secret.

There are definitely two Irans. The dilemma for the West is figuring out which one to deal with: Who to punish? Who to reward? And how? There are no easy answers on Iran, only constant questions. And never has that dilemma been so critical to solve as today, now that Iran's new president has hauled the world into yet another nuclear crisis.

Each time I leave Iran, I don't know what I'll find when I come back. No one does.
Posted By Christiane Amanpour, CNN Correspondent: 5:06 PM