Friday, March 31, 2006

A Poverty of the Mind

A Poverty of the Mind

New York Times
March 26, 2006
Op-Ed Contributor
A Poverty of the Mind

Cambridge, Mass.

SEVERAL recent studies have garnered wide attention for reconfirming the tragic disconnection of millions of black youths from the American mainstream. But they also highlighted another crisis: the failure of social scientists to adequately explain the problem, and their inability to come up with any effective strategy to deal with it.

The main cause for this shortcoming is a deep-seated dogma that has prevailed in social science and policy circles since the mid-1960's: the rejection of any explanation that invokes a group's cultural attributes — its distinctive attitudes, values and predispositions, and the resulting behavior of its members — and the relentless preference for relying on structural factors like low incomes, joblessness, poor schools and bad housing.

Harry Holzer, an economist at Georgetown University and a co-author of one of the recent studies, typifies this attitude. Joblessness, he feels, is due to largely weak schooling, a lack of reading and math skills at a time when such skills are increasingly required even for blue-collar jobs, and the poverty of black neighborhoods. Unable to find jobs, he claims, black males turn to illegal activities, especially the drug trade and chronic drug use, and often end up in prison. He also criticizes the practice of withholding child-support payments from the wages of absentee fathers who do find jobs, telling The Times that to these men, such levies "amount to a tax on earnings."

His conclusions are shared by scholars like Ronald B. Mincy of Columbia, the author of a study called "Black Males Left Behind," and Gary Orfield of Harvard, who asserts that America is "pumping out boys with no honest alternative."

This is all standard explanatory fare. And, as usual, it fails to answer the important questions. Why are young black men doing so poorly in school that they lack basic literacy and math skills? These scholars must know that countless studies by educational experts, going all the way back to the landmark report by James Coleman of Johns Hopkins University in 1966, have found that poor schools, per se, do not explain why after 10 years of education a young man remains illiterate.

Nor have studies explained why, if someone cannot get a job, he turns to crime and drug abuse. One does not imply the other. Joblessness is rampant in Latin America and India, but the mass of the populations does not turn to crime.

And why do so many young unemployed black men have children — several of them — which they have no resources or intention to support? And why, finally, do they murder each other at nine times the rate of white youths?

What's most interesting about the recent spate of studies is that analysts seem at last to be recognizing what has long been obvious to anyone who takes culture seriously: socioeconomic factors are of limited explanatory power. Thus it's doubly depressing that the conclusions they draw and the prescriptions they recommend remain mired in traditional socioeconomic thinking.

What has happened, I think, is that the economic boom years of the 90's and one of the most successful policy initiatives in memory — welfare reform — have made it impossible to ignore the effects of culture. The Clinton administration achieved exactly what policy analysts had long said would pull black men out of their torpor: the economy grew at a rapid pace, providing millions of new jobs at all levels. Yet the jobless black youths simply did not turn up to take them. Instead, the opportunity was seized in large part by immigrants — including many blacks — mainly from Latin America and the Caribbean.

One oft-repeated excuse for the failure of black Americans to take these jobs — that they did not offer a living wage — turned out to be irrelevant. The sociologist Roger Waldinger of the University of California at Los Angeles, for example, has shown that in New York such jobs offered an opportunity to the chronically unemployed to join the market and to acquire basic work skills that they later transferred to better jobs, but that the takers were predominantly immigrants.

Why have academics been so allergic to cultural explanations? Until the recent rise of behavioral economics, most economists have simply not taken non-market forces seriously. But what about the sociologists and other social scientists who ought to have known better? Three gross misconceptions about culture explain the neglect.

First is the pervasive idea that cultural explanations inherently blame the victim; that they focus on internal behavioral factors and, as such, hold people responsible for their poverty, rather than putting the onus on their deprived environment. (It hasn't helped that many conservatives do actually put forth this view.)

But this argument is utterly bogus. To hold someone responsible for his behavior is not to exclude any recognition of the environmental factors that may have induced the problematic behavior in the first place. Many victims of child abuse end up behaving in self-destructive ways; to point out the link between their behavior and the destructive acts is in no way to deny the causal role of their earlier victimization and the need to address it.

Likewise, a cultural explanation of black male self-destructiveness addresses not simply the immediate connection between their attitudes and behavior and the undesired outcomes, but explores the origins and changing nature of these attitudes, perhaps over generations, in their brutalized past. It is impossible to understand the predatory sexuality and irresponsible fathering behavior of young black men without going back deep into their collective past.

Second, it is often assumed that cultural explanations are wholly deterministic, leaving no room for human agency. This, too, is nonsense. Modern students of culture have long shown that while it partly determines behavior, it also enables people to change behavior. People use their culture as a frame for understanding their world, and as a resource to do much of what they want. The same cultural patterns can frame different kinds of behavior, and by failing to explore culture at any depth, analysts miss a great opportunity to re-frame attitudes in a way that encourages desirable behavior and outcomes.

Third, it is often assumed that cultural patterns cannot change — the old "cake of custom" saw. This too is nonsense. Indeed, cultural patterns are often easier to change than the economic factors favored by policy analysts, and American history offers numerous examples.

My favorite is Jim Crow, that deeply entrenched set of cultural and institutional practices built up over four centuries of racist domination and exclusion of blacks by whites in the South. Nothing could have been more cultural than that. And yet America was able to dismantle the entire system within a single generation, so much so that today blacks are now making a historic migratory shift back to the South, which they find more congenial than the North. (At the same time, economic inequality, which the policy analysts love to discuss, has hardened in the South, like the rest of America.)

So what are some of the cultural factors that explain the sorry state of young black men? They aren't always obvious. Sociological investigation has found, in fact, that one popular explanation — that black children who do well are derided by fellow blacks for "acting white" — turns out to be largely false, except for those attending a minority of mixed-race schools.

An anecdote helps explain why: Several years ago, one of my students went back to her high school to find out why it was that almost all the black girls graduated and went to college whereas nearly all the black boys either failed to graduate or did not go on to college. Distressingly, she found that all the black boys knew the consequences of not graduating and going on to college ("We're not stupid!" they told her indignantly).

SO why were they flunking out? Their candid answer was that what sociologists call the "cool-pose culture" of young black men was simply too gratifying to give up. For these young men, it was almost like a drug, hanging out on the street after school, shopping and dressing sharply, sexual conquests, party drugs, hip-hop music and culture, the fact that almost all the superstar athletes and a great many of the nation's best entertainers were black.

Not only was living this subculture immensely fulfilling, the boys said, it also brought them a great deal of respect from white youths. This also explains the otherwise puzzling finding by social psychologists that young black men and women tend to have the highest levels of self-esteem of all ethnic groups, and that their self-image is independent of how badly they were doing in school.

I call this the Dionysian trap for young black men. The important thing to note about the subculture that ensnares them is that it is not disconnected from the mainstream culture. To the contrary, it has powerful support from some of America's largest corporations. Hip-hop, professional basketball and homeboy fashions are as American as cherry pie. Young white Americans are very much into these things, but selectively; they know when it is time to turn off Fifty Cent and get out the SAT prep book.

For young black men, however, that culture is all there is — or so they think. Sadly, their complete engagement in this part of the American cultural mainstream, which they created and which feeds their pride and self-respect, is a major factor in their disconnection from the socioeconomic mainstream.

Of course, such attitudes explain only a part of the problem. In academia, we need a new, multidisciplinary approach toward understanding what makes young black men behave so self-destructively. Collecting transcripts of their views and rationalizations is a useful first step, but won't help nearly as much as the recent rash of scholars with tape-recorders seem to think. Getting the facts straight is important, but for decades we have been overwhelmed with statistics on black youths, and running more statistical regressions is beginning to approach the point of diminishing returns to knowledge.

The tragedy unfolding in our inner cities is a time-slice of a deep historical process that runs far back through the cataracts and deluge of our racist past. Most black Americans have by now, miraculously, escaped its consequences. The disconnected fifth languishing in the ghettos is the remains. Too much is at stake for us to fail to understand the plight of these young men. For them, and for the rest of us.

Orlando Patterson, a professor of sociology at Harvard, is the author of "Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries."

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Solomon Linda's Heirs Win Royalty Case

Women Win Battle in 'Lion Sleeps' Case

By MICHELLE FAUL, Associated Press Writer 22 minutes ago

Three impoverished South African women, whose father wrote the song known as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," have won a six-year battle for royalties in a case that could affect other musicians.

The story surrounding the song that never seems to go out of date amounts to a rags-to-riches tale, replete with racial overtones.

No one is saying how many millions will go to the daughters of the late composer Solomon Linda, who died in poverty from kidney disease in 1962 at age 53. But the family's settlement last month with New York-based Abilene Music gives Linda's heirs 25 percent of past and future royalties and has broad implications.

Linda composed his now-famous song in 1939 in one of the squalid hostels that housed black migrant workers in Johannesburg. According to family lore, he wrote the song in minutes, inspired by his childhood tasks of chasing prowling lions from the cattle he herded. He called the song Mbube, Zulu for lion.

It was sung, in true Zulu tradition, a cappella. Linda's innovation was to add his falsetto voice, an overlay of haunting "eeeeeees," to the baritone and bass main line. To this day, this style is called Mbube in South Africa.

The song sold more than 100,000 copies over a decade, probably making it Africa's first big pop hit.

In the 1950s, at a time when apartheid laws robbed blacks of negotiating rights, Linda sold worldwide copyright to Gallo Records of South Africa for 10 shillings — less than $1.70.

The song became one of the best known songs in the world as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," attributed to George Weiss, Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore. American singer Pete Seeger adapted a version that he called "Wimoweh," making it a folk music staple.

Owen Dean, South Africa's leading copyright lawyer, argued successfully for Linda's family that under the British Imperial Copyright Act of 1911, which was in force in South Africa at the time Linda composed his song, all rights revert to the heirs, who are entitled to renegotiate royalties.

"Now the way has been shown," Dean told The Associated Press. "Others in similar circumstances can fight such injustice, and I have no doubt that there are other people in this position."

The 1911 act affects all countries that were part of the British Empire at that time — a third of the world.

It remains to be seen how the settlement with Abilene, which holds the copyright to the popular songs that grew from Linda's composition, will affect his family. Abilene couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

Of Linda's three surviving daughters, only the youngest has a job, as a nurse, and she still lives in the family home in Soweto, a satellite suburb set up for black workers under apartheid. Her sisters never reached high school. One runs a home-based grocery. The other recently lost her job cleaning a doctor's office and supports a daughter who gets occasional work cleaning homes.

Linda's fourth daughter died of AIDS in her 30s in 2002 as the lawsuit dragged on, without money to buy drugs that could have saved her life.

Kevin Chang, a Jamaican reggae expert, said the case means that "musicians living in poverty, and other artists, may finally be rewarded for their work."

Chang believes the decision could be applied to an ongoing British court case in which Carlton Barrett of Bob Marley and the Wailers is suing Marley's estate for royalties, arguing songs he co-authored are being credited only to Marley.

Web sites list hundreds of versions of the "Lion," including many top of the pops over the years. Folk, swing, minstrel, big band, reggae and R&B versions have been sung over the years. The New Zealand Army had it as a favorite tune for a while.

In the 1970s, Linda's widow signed over the rights to Abilene.

The song's captivating rhythm poured from the soundtrack in Disney's blockbuster musical "The Lion King" — one of at least 15 movies in which it's been featured.

"The musical was netting millions of dollars and Solomon Linda's daughters were trying to survive as domestic servants, not earning enough to feed their families," Dean told the AP.

Dean's tactics included winning a court order last year freezing Disney's rights to income in South Africa from legendary trademarks including Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Winnie the Pooh pending resolution of the dispute. That appears to have been a turning point, though Disney never was sued in the court case.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Reteaching the National Anthem

New York Times
March 14, 2006
Project Reteaches National Anthem

PHOENIX, March 10 — Consider little Dean Nunley, 3 years old and warbling in a breathy, singsong voice at a "Star-Spangled Banner" singing contest at the Phoenix Zoo on Thursday: "Ooooh, say kin yooseeeeee?"

His treatment was touchingly intelligible before running into trouble at the ramparts and the perilous fight. He came back strong at the end, a feat of memorization and tune over comprehension. Dean, who had learned the song at hockey games, smiled at the applause and waddled off with his mother.

The problem, it has been suggested, is that little Dean is about as good as it gets in this country. The National Anthem Project, undertaken by a group of the nation's music teachers, says most Americans have largely forgotten the words to the national anthem and the story behind the song.

A Harris poll of 2,200 men and women conducted for the group found that 61 percent did not know all the words. For example, when asked what follows "whose broad stripes and bright stars," more people than not tended to mistakenly place phrases like "were so gallantly streaming" (34 percent) or "gave proof through the night" (19 percent).

The National Anthem Project is touring the country with a singular mission: to reteach a nation its anthem. The effort is much like the way the song first spread, state by state, though this time it has corporate sponsors, led by Jeep. The tour began in January in Florida, and Thursday's visit to the Phoenix Zoo was its 17th stop.

"Of all the millions and millions of songs that Americans are exposed to, the national anthem is our national anthem, the one piece that people should know how to sing," said David E. Circle, president of the National Association for Music Education, the teachers' group that came up with the idea.

And Cliff Siler, the tour manager, said: "This song is the spirit of America. We lost a lot of that at some point along the line."

As the girls from the choir of Cordova Middle School in Phoenix just learned, "The Star-Spangled Banner" was written by Francis Scott Key in 1814.

"Something about Fort McHenry," said Bianca Nevarez, a seventh grader. "It was actually a poem, but they made it into a song."

Bianca is correct: struck by the sight of the American flag amid the smoke and flames of a battle with the British on Sept. 13, 1814, Key dashed off a poem on the back of a letter. The first verse became widely known as the anthem, but there are three that follow. The poem, "Defence of Fort McHenry," was published in newspapers around the country.

(The later verses maintain the hopeful tone while examining the effects of all those rockets and bombs bursting in air. "Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution," Key wrote of the enemy, a line perhaps not ill suited for hockey games, but difficult to imagine teaching 3-year-olds. "No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.")

Another choir singer, Kassandra Rosas, 12, said: "It was a beer-drinking song. They made it into the national anthem."

Kassandra is correct: it is believed that a relative of Key got the idea to sing the words of the poem to the tune of "To Anacreon in Heaven," an English song popular in taverns. In fact, the first known performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" took place in a bar the month after the battle, sung by a Baltimore actor, Ferdinand Durang. The song became the national anthem in 1931, having been performed at military and sporting events for many years.

There have been earnest attempts to drop the song as the anthem, and replace it with something more benign, like "America the Beautiful." A major problem with "The Star-Spangled Banner," experts say, is that it is all but unsingable.

Steven Blier, a vocal coach at the Juilliard School, rattled off four reasons: "It's rangy, it has that legato phrase on a high note, the climax ends on a high note with a bad vowel, and the word setting is bad at some crucial spots." The song's lowest note, at the word "say" in the first line, is an octave and a half below its highest notes, at "red glare" and "free" toward the end.

So, paradoxically, the song may arouse feelings of humiliation and embarrassment rather than pride. "It's an awkward song to ask untrained people to belt out," Mr. Blier said.

The song's pitfalls did not dampen the spirits at the Phoenix Zoo, where several children and adults took turns before a microphone in unseasonably warm weather. Lynda Holly, 56, a former lounge singer who is a train operator at the zoo, was among the first.

"It's always been my mom's dream," Ms. Holly said, quoting her: " 'If I ever had a last wish, it would be to have my daughter sing at a ballgame.' "

The tour manager, Mr. Siler, is a father of five in Fort Worth, a stuntman and performer at live-action shows for children. "This is the job of a lifetime for me," he said. "I love this song."

At each stop, the tour sets up tents with literature, games and musical instruments. Two young men from Flint, Mich., operate the 48-foot tractor-trailer that hauls everything to the next state.

"I was in school, and I needed a break from that," said one of them, Mike Kirkwood. Mr. Kirkwood hears more of the anthem than he would prefer — "It haunts me," he said — but what drew him out of Flint might have made Key proud.

"I just wanted to see the country," he said.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Condi Rice gets a Coca-covered charango

Pushing a top crop, Bolivian president gives Rice coca gift
Rice, Morales discuss drug initiatives in South American nation

VALPARAISO, Chile (AP) -- Cooperation against illegal drugs was one theme of a cordial first meeting between the top American diplomat and the flamboyant coca growers union boss who is now Bolivia's democratically elected president, but Bolivian leader Evo Morales used the session to send another message to Washington.

Morales gave Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a traditional Bolivian Indian musical instrument called a charango that resembles a ukulele and is usually made from animal hide.

This one, however, was covered with bright green coca leaves.

Coca is the raw material for cocaine but also has traditional uses in Bolivia, where the leaf is brewed as tea, chewed and incorporated into ceremonies.

The gift was a reminder that coca and coca farming are legal in Bolivia, South America's poorest nation.

Rice gamely strummed the instrument for a moment and posed with it for a Chilean television camera. U.S. officials were checking with Customs, but it's not clear whether Rice can legally bring the instrument into the United States.

Wailers' bassist sues Marleys for royalties

Wailers' bassist sues Marleys for '£60m royalties'

High Court to resolve wrangles over reggae musician's legacy
Alice O'Keeffe, arts and media correspondent
Sunday March 12, 2006

Would Bob Marley have made it without his distinctive bouncy basslines? The question will be put to a judge this week as a protracted legal wrangle between the Marley family and the bassist in his backing band, the Wailers, finally comes to the High Court.

Aston 'Family Man' Barrett is suing the Marleys and the Universal Island record label, claiming that neither he nor his deceased brother Carlton, the band's drummer, have received any royalties since Marley's death in 1981. If he is successful, Barrett, now in his sixties and father to 52 children, could receive a payout of up to £60 million.

Barrett claims that he and his brother signed a contract, alongside Marley, with Island in 1974, which entitled them to royalties as 'partners' in the group. Barrett also co-wrote several songs with Marley, for which he claims he was never paid publishing fees.

Lawyers for Universal Island and the Marley family, headed by the singer's widow Rita, are expected to argue that Barrett gave up his right to royalties when he signed a legal settlement for several hundred thousand dollars in 1994.

Barrett's fellow Wailers Junior Marvin, Tyrone Downie, Earl 'the wire' Lindo and Al Anderson are expected in London for the trial, which starts tomorrow. The British journalist Vivien Goldman, author of the forthcoming Marley biography The Book of Exodus, will also testify.

The business dealings surrounding Marley's legacy have been dogged by a series of legal disputes since his death. The singer, who died of cancer, refused to make a will because his Rastafarian religion prohibited him from believing in death. The settlement was further complicated by his domestic arrangements: he had 11 children by nine women.

During one of the legal cases in 1986, Rita Marley was accused of forging her husband's signature on two documents, which transferred interests worth tens of millions of pounds into her name. She blamed her husband's attorney and accountant who were ordered to pay damages.

Sources close to the Barrett case said his lawyers would try to prove that other Marley collaborators, including Vincent Ford who co-wrote 'No Woman No Cry', were owed money by Universal Island and the Marleys.

The Barrett brothers played with Marley from 1969, contributing a distinctive, rhythm-driven sound to the breakthrough album Natty Dread and 11 subsequent albums, including Rastaman Vibration, Exodus, Kaya and Babylon by Bus.

The Barretts were among the most outstanding artists to emerge from Jamaica's thriving music scene. They were both self-taught: Aston's first bass was home-made and had only one string, and his brother practised percussion using pots and tin cans. Following Marley's death Aston has continued to tour with the Wailers. Carlton was murdered in Jamaica in 1986.

'If you listen to Bob's early stuff it sounded good, but it only became brilliant when the Barrett brothers joined,' said Wayne Jobson, a musician who knew both Marley and Barrett during their early years. 'Bob delegated a lot of the arranging, so Aston and Carlton really created the Marley sound we recognise today.

'Aston is still travelling the world promoting Bob's music and he's making no money out of it. It's shocking how he has been treated, it's just total greed because there is enough money to go around. Bob would be turning in his grave to think they weren't getting any money.'

Other experts dispute the extent of the Barretts' influence. 'Aston is an exquisite bass player, but he was a session musician rather than a partner,' said Jeremy Collingwood, author of Bob Marley: his Musical Legacy. 'Marley was always the driving force, and if the Barretts hadn't been around he simply would have found other good musicians. I've a lot of sympathy with Aston, but he was offered a royalties-based contract while Marley was alive, and he turned it down in favour of a generous, regular salary. At the time, it must have seemed like a good deal.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Antheil Composition Gets All-Robotic Show

Antheil Composition Gets All-Robotic Show

By CARL HARTMAN, Associated Press WriterSat Mar 11, 4:28 AM ET

It's a concert without musicians when 16 baby grand player-pianos accompanied by a variety of drums, bells, xylophones and a siren perform American composer George Antheil's "Ballet Mecanique," or Mechanical Ballet.

This very untraditional concert takes place Saturday not in a traditional performance hall, but at the National Gallery of Art.

The gallery perched the ensemble on a mezzanine outside the entrance to its current exhibit on "Dada," the early 20th century art movement that was a rebellion against tradition. A typical Dada piece is the reproduction of the Mona Lisa with a mustache and goatee.

The technology of Antheil's time — Paris in 1925 — could not put together the four piano parts with seven electric bells, four bass drums, three xylophones, two airplane propellors, a Chinese tam-tam and a siren. All are listed in Antheil's score, the gallery said. All will be played mechanically, powered by electric motors.

Antheil's list did not specify the kind of siren, so a red fire siren was chosen for the robotic performance. In place of actual propellors, technicians substituted fans with blades that hit pieces of plastic to make the noise.

Human musicians have played the percussion instruments in previous performances, said composer and scholar Paul D. Lehrman, in charge of the musical arrangements. He is writing a graduate thesis on the history of the music.

"I like it more all the time," Lehrman said.

He has excerpted 10 minutes from the work's original 25 and adapted it to a short film in the unconventional Dada style. It was Antheil's original intention to combine the music and film.

Though Lehrman called the work "noise" and "formless," he said he has caught echoes in "Ballet Mecanique" of earlier composers, especially Igor Stravinsky.

Recalling that Stravinsky's path-breaking "Rite of Spring" had provoked conservative Paris music lovers to riot at its first performance years earlier, Lehrman said a friend of Antheil's, poet Ezra Pound, had acted as his unofficial press agent and started fights on the Champs Elysees so Antheil could have a riot too — and the resultant publicity.

The 10-minute version will be played at the National Gallery twice on weekdays through March 29, and once on Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is free.

One difficulty in realizing Antheil's dreams, according to Lehrman, is that his instructions seem to call for piano-playing as fast as 152 beats a minute, but even today's technology has only been able to reach 138 beats. Human pianists can only do about 120, he said.

Lehrman, who has been working on the project for eight years, was asked if he would still try to get a faster beat.

"Sure," he said, "if they invent new pianos."

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

African Musician Ali Farka Toure Dies

March 7, 2006
African Musician Ali Farka Toure Dies

Filed at 3:52 p.m. ET

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) -- Two-time Grammy Award winner Ali Farka Toure, one of Africa's best-known performers, died Tuesday in his native Mali after a long illness. He was either 66 or 67.

Mali's Culture Ministry said Toure died at his home in the capital, Bamako, after a long struggle with an unidentified illness. His record company, World Circuit Records, said he suffered from bone cancer and died in his sleep.

Toure melded traditional Malian stringed instruments and vocals with the American blues guitarwork he considered firmly rooted in West Africa, where most North American slaves were shipped from.

One of the original progenitors of a genre known as Mali Blues, Toure played a traditional Malian stringed instrument called the gurkel.

He was best-known overseas for his 1994 collaboration with American guitarist Ry Cooder on ''Talking Timbuktu,'' which netted him his first Grammy.

He won his second Grammy last month, taking traditional world music album honors for his ''In the Heart of the Moon'' album, performed with fellow Malian Toumani Diabate.

World Circuit Records said Toure had just completed work on a new solo album.

Across this deeply impoverished west African nation, people mourned Toure's passing and radio stations suspended regular programming to broadcast his signature lilting sounds.

''A monument has fallen. With the death of Ali Farka Toure, Mali is losing one of its greatest ambassadors,'' said Mbaye Boubacar Diarra, a television producer.

''I'm completely in mourning,'' singer Djeneba Seck said through her tears. ''It's as if I lost my father.''

Toure was born in 1939 in the northern Sahara Desert trading post of Timbuktu. Like many Africans of his generation, the exact date of his birth was not recorded.

He learned the gurkel at an early age and later took up the guitar. He cited many Western musicians for inspiration, including Ray Charles, Otis Redding and John Lee Hooker.

He once said in an interview that his songs examined education, work, love and society, according to the Web site He released at least 10 albums and toured often in North America and Europe.

His record company called him ''a true original.''

''He transposed the traditional music of his native north Mali and single-handedly brought the style known as desert blues to an international audience,'' the company said in a statement.

Toure spent much of his older age in his childhood town of Niafunke, which has become a pilgrimage spot for many music-loving Africans and tourists.

In 2004, Toure became mayor of the small farming town.

His family said although no date had yet been determined, he will be buried in the sandy loam near Timbuktu.

''For some people, Timbuktu is a place at the end of nowhere,'' he once was quoted as saying. ''But that's not true. I'm from Timbuktu, and I can tell you that it's right in the center of the world.''


On the Net:

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Amen breakbeat

A great video about the history of a breakbeat by Nate Harrison

Thursday, March 02, 2006

End of Black Debutante Tradition in NOLA

New York Times
March 2, 2006
No Cinderella Story, No Ball, No Black Debutante

Amanda Williams, 18, was to have worn this gown to the Original Illinois Club cotillion in New Orleans.

NEW ORLEANS, March 1 — Just before midnight on Tuesday, the young women of this city's most prominent white families waltzed and waved in flowing gowns and tiaras at the formal galas held by the oldest and most glittering krewes of the Carnival season, Comus and Rex.

Usually, there are parallel Mardi Gras balls held by the city's large, historically black Carnival organizations.

Amanda Williams and Amirah Jackson, in fact, were supposed to be among the young women whose accomplishments and dreams for the future were announced to society at largely black cotillions here this year.

But unlike the mostly white families of Comus and Rex who were able to continue their traditions in the face of Hurricane Katrina's destruction, Ms. Williams and Ms. Jackson could only daydream about what might have been in the ball gowns they never got to wear.

They were to have been presented by the oldest black Carnival society in New Orleans, the Original Illinois Club, which has been holding a tableau ball on the Saturday night before Mardi Gras since 1895. But for the first time in two generations, there was no Original Illinois Club ball, or any other debutante soiree given by the large historically black Carnival organizations. They simply are not here anymore.

Ms. Jackson and Ms. Williams, both 18, watched the Carnival season unfold without them from Frisco, Tex., a town just north of Dallas, where they had to explain to their white friends that, yes, young black women make their debuts, too.

"It was a family tradition for me; my mom did it and my grandmother did it," said Ms. Jackson, whose home was badly damaged in the hurricane. "I was going to be the first one to do it in my generation. We were all with the Original Illinois Club. My mom has been talking about it to me since I was little. Really, I just wanted to see her smile about it."

Like so many other aspects of New Orleans, Mardi Gras has long been rigidly polarized along racial lines, with its black and white adherents celebrating equally enthusiastically but almost totally separately in krewes, which are private, nonprofit clubs.

Rather than open its membership to blacks, for instance, Comus simply stopped parading in 1991 when a city ordinance banned discrimination within organizations that hold Mardi Gras parades, which rely on public money for crowd control and sanitation, among other things.

Like other krewes that stopped parading, Comus, made up almost exclusively of white men, continued to hold balls. Other krewes, like Rex, opened their membership and have held integrated parades, but the debutantes at their balls are almost exclusively white.

In the 19th century, middle-class blacks felt so excluded from the Carnival spirit that they formed their own organizations, and several of those, like the Original Illinois Club, thrived until the storm. They not only held parties, members say, but did good works throughout their communities and gave upwardly mobile blacks a needed citywide network of professional contacts.

Now their notable absences highlight the changed demographics of this shrunken city: it is largely devoid of its black middle and upper classes, while poorer blacks have begun to return to largely undamaged neighborhoods in the inner city in significant numbers. Whether the black educators, lawyers, business executives and health care workers who mostly lived in the ravaged areas of Gentilly and New Orleans East will return remains unclear.

But for those whose lives revolved around it, the Carnival season this year was a lesser celebration as a result of the loss of a unique ethnic tradition.

"It represents a very elegant part of black society that many people don't get to see — it's something you have to be privileged to see," said Phoebe Ferguson, a documentary filmmaker who lives in Brooklyn and is completing a project that focuses on black society called "Member of the Club: A New Orleans Cinderella Story."

Unlike the white clubs that have traditionally emphasized family names and lineage, the black clubs focused on accomplishment above all else, local historians say, putting emphasis on a young woman's education and suitability for higher learning and the work force.

In a city where family roots run deep, and where formality, tradition and Carnival season theatrics are among the most enduring traits, it is hard to overstate the lingering social importance of the debutante ritual. It is a coming-of-age event as integral to a certain segment of society here as Sweet Sixteen parties or bat mitzvahs are in other places.

The local newspaper, The Times-Picayune, provides extensive coverage of the balls, and publishes a special section every year profiling the debutantes who are to be introduced throughout the season.

Ms. Williams's profile, which was published in July, before Hurricane Katrina, stated that she hoped to "attend medical school to prepare for a career as an obstetrician/gynecologist." Ms. Jackson's profile had the headline, "Athlete Also an Author."

Ms. Williams, a senior in high school, had already bought seven formal gowns for events in the weeks leading up to the actual debutante ball. She had to be dressed appropriately for black-tie parties given by the court's queen and several of her maids, in addition to teas and brunches and weekends of afternoon dance practices. The rules were strict: nothing skimpy, nothing fitted, nothing black.

"There's nothing that compares to it," Ms. Williams said. "It's the way to say, 'I'm a woman now.' Everyone gets to hear your life story, your accomplishments, what you plan for the future. None of that happens at a prom; there's no comparison. You're just hanging out with your friends. At the ball, you meet other girls and form a bond. It's a social thing that also connects you to everybody who's ever come out with the club."

Many of the black clubs are hoping to hold traditional debutante balls next year and plan to invite the young women who missed their turn. But the future is uncertain.

"A lot of the organizations are struggling financially because of the storm," said Gerard Johnson, a member of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, of which he was king in 2004.

Zulu, the largest black Carnival krewe, paraded this Mardi Gras but did not hold a debutante ball.

Zulu's annual ball usually draws 16,000 people to the New Orleans convention center. In lieu of the ball, Zulu held a smaller party for its members last Friday night.

Earl Jackson, a former king of the Original Illinois Club and its financial secretary, said only one of 50 members lived in New Orleans now.

"It was probably one of the saddest moments we've ever had, canceling the ball," he said, vowing that it will be back next year. "We will not let it die."

Members say the club took the name Illinois because so many of its founding members were Pullman porters on the Illinois Central Railroad — a position of some prestige among blacks in the 1890's. Over the decades, members gradually moved into the professional class, but they still cherish their roots.

"A lot of other people I know, African-Americans who aren't from New Orleans, they laugh at us," Ms. Williams said. "They say, 'You're a debutante? I thought only white people did that.' I say: 'Not where I'm from. We make our debut, and it's a big deal.' "

Although most of the Williams family possessions were lost in the flood, the ball gowns, protected in plastic garment bags, were among the only things to survive.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Baudrillard Comments on The Matrix (2004)

From the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (please visit the original)
ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 1, Number 2 (July 2004)

The Matrix Decoded: Le Nouvel Observateur Interview With Jean Baudrillard1

Translated by:

Dr. Gary Genosko (Canada Research Chair in Technoculture Studies, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada).


Adam Bryx (Graduate Student in English, Lakehead University).

The simulacrum hypothesis deserved better than to become a reality.2

Le Nouvel Observateur: Your reflections on reality and the virtual are some of the key references used by the makers of The Matrix. The first episode explicitly referred to you as the viewer clearly saw the cover of Simulacra and Simulation.3 Were you surprised by this?

Jean Baudrillard: Certainly there have been misinterpretations, which is why I have been hesitant until now to speak about The Matrix. The staff of the Wachowski brothers contacted me at various times following the release of the first episode in order to get me involved with the following ones, but this wasn’t really conceivable (laughter). Basically, a similar misunderstanding occurred in the 1980s when New York-based Simulationist4 artists contacted me. They took the hypothesis of the virtual for an irrefutable fact and transformed it into a visible phantasm. But it is precisely that we can no longer employ categories of the real in order to discuss the characteristics of the virtual.

Nouvel Observateur: The connection between the film and the vision you develop, for example, in The Perfect Crime, is, however, quite striking. In evoking a desert of the real, these totally virtualized spectral humans, who are no more than the energetic reserve of thinking objects… .

Baudrillard: Yes, but already there have been other films that treat the growing indistinction between the real and the virtual: The Truman Show, Minority Report, or even Mulholland Drive, the masterpiece of David Lynch. The Matrix’s value is chiefly as a synthesis of all that. But there the set-up is cruder and does not truly evoke the problem. The actors are in the matrix, that is, in the digitized system of things; or, they are radically outside it, such as in Zion, the city of resistors. But what would be interesting is to show what happens when these two worlds collide. The most embarrassing part of the film is that the new problem posed by simulation is confused with its classical, Platonic treatment. This is a serious flaw. The radical illusion of the world is a problem faced by all great cultures, which they have solved through art and symbolization. What we have invented, in order to support this suffering, is a simulated real, which henceforth supplants the real and is its final solution, a virtual universe from which everything dangerous and negative has been expelled. And The Matrix is undeniably part of that. Everything belonging to the order of dream, utopia and phantasm is given expression, “realized.” We are in the uncut transparency. The Matrix is surely the kind of film about the matrix that the matrix would have been able to produce.

Nouvel Observateur: It is also a film that purports to denounce technicist alienation and, at the same time, plays entirely on the fascination exercised by the digital universe and computer-generated images.

Baudrillard: What is notable about Matrix Reloaded is the absence of a glimmer of irony that would allow viewers to turn this gigantic special effect on its head. There is no sequence which would be the punctum about which Roland Barthes wrote, this striking mark that brings you face-to-face with a true image. Moreover, this is what makes the film an instructive symptom, and the actual fetish of this universe of technologies of the screen in which there is no longer a distinction between the real and the imaginary. The Matrix is considered to be an extravagant object, at once candid and perverse, where there is neither a here nor a there. The pseudo-Freud who speaks at the film’s conclusion puts it well: at a certain moment, we reprogrammed the matrix in order to integrate anomalies into the equation. And you, the resistors, comprise a part of it. Thus we are, it seems, within a total virtual circuit without an exterior. Here again I am in theoretical disagreement (laughter). The Matrix paints the picture of a monopolistic superpower, like we see today, and then collaborates in its refraction. Basically, its dissemination on a world scale is complicit with the film itself. On this point it is worth recalling Marshall McLuhan: the medium is the message. The message of The Matrix is its own diffusion by an uncontrollable and proliferating contamination.

Nouvel Observateur: It is rather shocking to see that, henceforth, all American marketing successes, from The Matrix to Madonna’s new album, are presented as critiques of the system which massively promotes them.

Baudrillard: That is exactly what makes our times so oppressive. The system produces a negativity in trompe-l’oeil, which is integrated into products of the spectacle just as obsolescence is built into industrial products. It is the most efficient way of incorporating all genuine alternatives. There are no longer external Omega points or any antagonistic means available in order to analyze the world; there is nothing more than a fascinated adhesion. One must understand, however, that the more a system nears perfection, the more it approaches the total accident. It is a form of objective irony stipulating that nothing ever happened. September 11th participated in this. Terrorism is not an alternative power, it is nothing except the metaphor of this almost suicidal return of Western power on itself. That is what I said at the time, and it was not widely accepted. But it is not about being nihilistic or pessimistic in the face of all that. The system, the virtual, the matrix – all of these will perhaps return to the dustbin of history. For reversibility, challenge and seduction are indestructible.5


1 Jean Baudrillard was interviewed for Le Nouvel Observateur (19-25 June 2003) by Aude Lancelin. The Editors of IJBS are grateful to Ruth Valentini and Le Nouvel Observateur for permission to translate and publish this interview in English

2 Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories IV. New York: Verso, 2003:92.

3 Upon opening the book during the “Follow Instructions” scene in Neo’s apartment, the hollowed out text reveals the first page of the short essay “On Nihilism.”

4 It was perhaps Peter Halley more than any other American Simulationist painter who triumphed Baudrillard’s conceptualization of hyperreality in relation to day-glo colours. And, as he wryly notes, Baudrillard dashed the hopes of Halley by distancing himself from claims on him. But it wasn’t only Simulationist painters who received a cold critical shoulder. As Paul Hegarty heard in a recent interview with Baudrillard (April 2003; in his book Jean Baudrillard: Live Theory, London: Continuum, 2004), “the last ones were those ‘symbiotic’ artists. They kept pestering me, saying, ‘but you must love what we’re doing. I said, ‘hang on, this is not acceptable’.”

5 Gerry Coulter's essay in this volume examines this aspect of Baudrillard's writing over the past thirty years. See Gerry Coulter. "Reversibility: Baudrillard's One's Great Thought"

Hip-hop at the Smithsonian

New York Times
March 1, 2006
Smithsonian's Doors Open to a Hip-Hop Beat

Grandmaster Flash gave his prized Technics turntable. Ice-T offered vintage tour T-shirts and rare CD's. Afrika Bambaataa gave a trove of jackets, caps and jewelry in his trademark Afrocentric style.

All will go to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, where they will reside alongside the flag that inspired "The Star-Spangled Banner" and the Woolworth's lunch counter from Greensboro, N.C., where four black students sat for civil rights in 1960.

At an emotional and at times rowdy news conference yesterday at the Hilton New York, a group of hip-hop pioneers gathered beside the dark-suited, white-gloved Smithsonian staff to announce a plan for a major new collection devoted to the music. Called "Hip-Hop Won't Stop: The Beat, the Rhymes, the Life," it is to be a broad sampling of memorabilia, from boomboxes and vinyl albums to handwritten lyrics and painted jeans jackets, as well as multimedia exhibits and oral histories.

"Now whenever anybody asks me about my music," Ice-T said, he would direct him — with a torrent of blunt epithets — "to the museum."

Brent D. Glass, the director of the museum, said the project was begun in recent months with seed money from Universal Records and was still in its earliest stages of planning. But he said that he and his curators believed the time had come to recognize hip-hop, with its straight-from-the-gut raps and minimalist funk, as a significant cultural force that had spread all over the United States and, increasingly, the world.

"American music is the soundtrack to American history," Mr. Glass said. "Hip-hop has been a part of American music for more than 30 years."

With help from the music industry, the museum has been soliciting donations, and most of the initial contributors were present: in addition to Ice-T, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash, Russell Simmons, DJ Kool Herc and the dancer Crazy Legs have opened their archives, and were clearly proud of the recognition.

"Nobody expected this thing 35 years ago to be mentioned in the Smithsonian conversation," said Kool Herc, one of the prime technological innovators in the early days of hip-hop in the Bronx, who was still trying to decide what to donate.

The National Museum of American History is not the first major institution to collect hip-hop materials. The Experience Music Project in Seattle has also built a sizable collection, and in 1999 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland organized an exhibition of hip-hop memorabilia that traveled to the Brooklyn Museum.

Mr. Simmons, the impresario who was a founder of the Def Jam label, said that at first he had feared that hip-hop's inclusion in a major museum would mean it had lost its power and novelty. His initial thought when contacted by the Smithsonian, he said, was "It must be over."

But in an opinion echoed by nearly every speaker, Mr. Simmons suggested that as hip-hop aged it was in danger of losing its connection to its roots and that younger fans and performers would profit from direct experience of the music's history. Hip-hop, he said, is "the only real description of the suffering of our people."

Museum officials say that the collection may take three to five years to develop and that they are still approaching musicians about donations. When complete, they say, the collection will be used for a long-term exhibition. The museum also plans scholarly symposiums to discuss the content, as well as a traveling show.

Afrika Bambaataa, who helped integrate hip-hop with electronic music in the early 1980's on recordings that remain influential, praised the museum in his familiar declamatory tone for its attention to "factology" in representing the music's history.

"Brothers and sisters," he said, "this is beautiful that the Smithsonian Institution is recognizing hip-hop culture for what it is."