JUST IN TIME FOR CHRISTMAS: New Zealand Film Locations map: A3 poster * Snowflake Christmas/seasonal card * Queen Galadriel holiday card * Middle Earth New Zealand 2013 photo calendar

TREAT YOURSELF TO SOME MUSIC: Harp sheet music store * Travels in Middle Earth CD
Asni the Harper digital downloads: CD Baby ** Amazon MP3 * iTunes

Also available: Music CDs * Sheet music * Greeting cards * New Zealand photography

In this newsletter:
*** Living in the Wairarapa: Hitting the Beach
*** News and Current Projects
*** Cool Things Friends Do: Gifts, Good Works, and lots of Humans
*** Music and Mama Africa

Living in the Wairarapa: Hitting the Beach

First up, a merry Christmas, frohe Weihnachten, vrolijk Kerstfest, feliz Natal, god Jul, häid jõule, joyeux Noël, feliz Navidad, buon Natale, glædelig Jul, veselé Vánoce, wesołych świąt bożego Narodzenia, с Рождеством Христовым, hyvää joulua, boldog karácsonyt, merii kurisumasu, meri Kirihimete, happy Solstice, joyful Kwanzaa, and, no wait, Hanukkah is already over! I hope you had a good one –– or whatever else you celebrate, in whichever language you speak –– to all my readers!

And all the best for the new year 2013. I'll keep it simple.

As this has become something of a tradition, I have recorded a new Christmas carol this year – O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf, a German carol dating back to the 17th century. Frankly, to me it sounds completely pagan. But the other songs I was looking at were talking about how the Saviour should come forth from his father's womb, and I thought that was taking patriarchy a little too far. So there! I've uploaded a strictly acoustic version this time, just me and me harp, and nope, it's not overdubbed. And there is minimal sound processing, just noise filters, and a bit of subtle artificial stereo spread and reverb, so it doesn't sound so obviously like my living room. You can listen to it on my Reverbnation profile. I have recorded single tracks of voice and harp as well, to play around with – so stay tuned for the grand symphonic version! This song practically screams for some debauched percussion. :D

Three days ago, I planted a fig tree, and a tea plant (as in, tea sinensis) – my newest experiment in self-sufficiency. Not bad, for the day after the end of the world! I'm rather glad it is still there – for me, this year is ending on a high note, or even several of them: But more of that further down under News and Current Projects.

My Christmas tree this year is a blood orange I spotted at the local garden centre – I was aiming for an almond, but failed to find the variety I'm after in time for Christmas, and could not be convinced to go for the imaginatively called "all-in-one" which is supposedly "the best choice for the home garden". That sounds a little patronizing. As in, "but leave the real almond trees to the professionals"! – I also could not fail to notice that the two prune trees I bought from a commercial nursery up in Northland last winter, appear to be much healthier and more mature trees than the cherry and pear I bought from the garden centre. So I reckon I'll leave the almond planting for late autumn or winter, and get me a proper tree!

The Fantastic Journeys exhibition is now happily hung and will be on display until January 13. The exhibition space at the Carterton Events Centre is more compact than at Thistle Hall, where I exhibited the paintings two years ago, but rather than making it look cluttered, it's actually nice to be able to see the entire series as a whole – it works more or less like a big giant comic strip.

The opening was fairly low key – not very many people came, but those who did were mainly fellow artists from the Wai Art Group, who, in the two years since my joining, have been unrelentingly supportive. It was a nice opportunity to chat over a glass of wine and some nibbles, and before we knew it was an hour later than the event was scheduled to finish! But who'd complain, if there is free wine.

The arts enthusiasts in the Wairarapa, who are generally so vocal about the benefits of fostering the creative sector, and raising the profile of the region, have shown their active and earnest support by not deeming my exhibition worth a mention even in the local Featherston paper – so no press clippings, this time. But the local Featherston show on Arrow FM, has run an interview, and a pretty extensive one at that! It will be streamed on the internet again on Thursday, 27 December, at 8 pm NZDT – so that's quite early in the morning for those of you in Europe, or late at night on Wednesday-slash-the wee hours of Thursday, for people in America. Fortunately, Lucy Cooper has kindly sent me an mp3 file of the interview.

Listen to the Arrow FM interview on Myspace

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Napier: Christmas decorations

By the time the exhibition was up, and the last batch of newly produced shop items picked up from the printer and put in the mail, exhaustion was making itself felt. What with the garden, and the hot sunny weather, taking an extended holiday in summer isn't really a possibility – at least until I can set up an irrigation system, or make friends with a neighbour! But I desperately needed to get away to a beach where I could pitch my tent for a couple of nights. So I decided to simply head up to Hawke's Bay, which had the additional advantage of being the bargain option.

It was no loss. Who needs a lot of cash, when three or four hour's drive up the highway will bring them to one of the most gorgeous beaches on the planet. To pitch a tent on a beach like that, and just spend a couple of days doing nothing much but sitting in the sun reading a book, and splashing in the waves, then driving into Napier for some fish and chips in the evening, and perhaps going for a bit of a hike through native bush and sweet smelling pine woods hot in the sun the next day – that's all it takes to recharge the proverbial batteries, make up for any number of sleepless nights, and be ready to face a new year which looks like it is shaping up to be at least as busy as this one was!

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Napier: street scenes

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News & Current Projects

Not to blow my own trumpet too loudly, but wether it is the constellations, or the dose of reflected mana I undoubtedly received when I put my signature next to Peter Jackson's and Elijah Wood's at that Hobbit fan party – it is beginning to look like I am well on my way to becoming a full-fledged Internet Goddess.

The other day, I found an email in my inbox announcing that my website has won the Popular Website Award – "a widely recognized internet award program and inspirational portal, that identifies the pioneers on the internet. We recognize websites that combine beautiful interactive design with intelligent technology, along with an unmatched dedication to the quality of their service. We have reviewed your website, and after reviewing it, we are happy to inform you that your company has been found to pass our quality criteria and we have selected you for receiving the award. This will be an online award, You can put our verifiable award logo on your website and get more customers, earn the honor, recognition and respect you deserve. "

Nice, I thought, better do the usual scam check. It seems to be genuine. They don't want money from me, and they're not trying to get me to submit my personal information, or put some malicious code on my website. I don't know if it means much, but it doesn't look like it can hurt. Besides, I like that stuff about "getting the honor, recognition, and respect I deserve". :D – Though if they are so widely recognized, I wonder why I can't find them on Wikipedia, or how come their website has only been around for 4 months ... whatever. Maybe they're a scam, and maybe they're the next big thing. Maybe they're after advertising revenue, or maybe they're just trying to make people feel good. In any case, a shiny golden goblet displayed on my home page looks nice and official, though the bright blue logo does nothing to improve the old muddy green. Perhaps it will be an incentive to get on with the redesign of the site, next year!

But no, that isn't the end of this month's achievements: I have also landed a new gig as designated visual arts blogger for the soon-to-be-launched Amazing Stories website – a revival, in a new cyber age format, of the cult Science Fiction Magazine that was originally published in 1926 by the father of science fiction, Hugo Gernsback.

Amazing Stories helped to launch both the science fiction genre and its most enduring feature, science fiction fandom.  The magazine is well known for publishing the first stories by many iconic authors such as Isaac Asimov, Jack Williamson and Ursula Le Guin. The magazine itself ceased publication in 2005; in 2008 the new publisher, Steve Davidson, discovered that the trademarks had lapsed and applied for them.  The marks were finally granted in 2011.

The relaunch will take place in two phases.  On Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013, the Beta Test of Phase 1 of the return of Amazing Stories will hit the internet, with a team of more than 50 writers from around the blogosphere: authors, artists, collectors, editors, pod casters, designers and bloggers posting their initial posts. That includes your's truly! I can't give a link for the upcoming blog article yet, but feel free to admire my spanking new official Amazing Stories author profile.

There are still some spots left on the team! Those interested in participating in the Beta Test of Phase 1 should contact the publisher at  Participants will receive full access to the site with Member status and will receive on-site benefits as the project moves forward. Read: so far, this is not a paid job. But it confers clout, and if the project flies, it might well turn into one: so if you want to help me into paid work, make sure to check out the new website – and my blog thereupon, of course – frequently! :)

Additional history and background on Amazing Stories can be found at the Science Fiction Encyclopedia and Wikipedia.  A complete gallery of all 609 previous issues with publication history is also available.

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Street art in Napier

Now that Christmas is upon us, I am selling some of my shop items cheaper! Middle Earth New Zealand 2013 calendars now sell for US$ 18 / Euro 14. I have also revised the pricing on the new New Zealand Film Locations map – or rather, I've had a think about shipping options! Shipping the posters in a roll, so they won't get creased, notches up the postage very considerably, but it seems a lot of people don't mind having it folded over. So I am now offering a cheaper base price of US$ 12/ Euro 9, and the poster will be folded two times over, to A5 size. If you would rather have the poster shipped as a roll, so that there are no folds or creases, please let me know – there will be a surcharge for shipping. I'm also offering a map and calendar combo pack in my Etsy store, for this the map will be folded over once, and included free of additional shipping charge.

My new set of greeting cards is not so explicitly Christmas themed, that you can't send them later in the season! And there are plenty of other nice things to choose from: more cards, artwork, CDs, sheet music... perhaps the holidays will be a good opportunity to visit my online store, and have a browse. You can also order through my Etsy store – and I am regularly listing items on Ebay, where you may be able to grab them for even a little cheaper, if you have nerves of steel and want to bid! :D

I've taken a break from art or illustration projects this month, in order to sink my teeth into a nice juicy piece of web development: namely, getting my friend Diane Severson's new website ready to launch in January. It's an interesting and quite enjoyable project, and the site is shaping up very, very nicely – but more of that next month, when – if all goes according to schedule – it will be launch time!

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Blue flowers

When I look around my garden, it tells me that I have a predilection for blue flowers. A remnant of my youthful infatuation with German romanticism? I used to be rather fascinated with the writings of Novalis – poet, philosopher, scientist, mystic, and author, among other things, of a volume of poetry evocatively entitled Hymns to the Night. He lived a very short life, but his ideas were picked up and amplified by the romantic movement in Germany (culminating in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, which is one big five hour long Hymn to the Night, and celebration of the "religion of love") – and in Great Britain: Novalis' works were translated into English by George McDonald, who in turn was a major influence on the modern fantasy and science fiction genre, from Tolkien and C.S. Lewis all the way to Ursula Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, and George R. R. Martin. Well, according to Wikipedia, Novalis was aiming for a "connection of science and poetry". That sounds suspiciously like "science fiction" to me.

But, this is the gardening section, so back to real existing flowers: earlier in spring, my flowerbeds were awash with forget-me-nots – the progeny of that one pack of seeds I once bought when I was still living in Northland. This last month, the cornflowers have really come into their own – they make a stunning display, and I wouldn't mind at all if they also started seeding themselves, and returning each year in ever greater profusion! Failing that, I will most certainly put another set on my sowing list next year.

One garden tool I do not have, is a grass cutter that allows me to cut paths which are too narrow for my lawnmower: the elaborate spiral bed I set up in my front yard in spring, has been going out of shape a bit with weeds in the inbetween-spaces, so it's a good thing I outlined the borders with lobelia seedlings! They have now started to blossom, and are quickly advancing on my "top garden hits" list.

Since my tender teenage years, plumbago has been one of my all time favourite plants: blame it on the specimens they keep at Schloss Charlottenburg in Berlin, which I used to pass by on my bus trip to school in 5th grade, every day in September. Last year, I took a few cuttings from a rather splendid plumbago bush I had encountered near my old flat in Northland. I now have three hopeful young plants in my garden, two more still in pots, and with a bit of luck, there will be blue blossoms in my garden all the way to late summer.

And borage! It's my new addiction. I planted some as part of my growing herb collection (culinary, medicinal, and smelly), because the seed catalogue promised me that it was good for me health. It grows profusely. So profusely that it already requires thinning out, even before it reached blossoming stage. So I've been looking up recipes. The leaves are full of little spikes, so if you want to eat them in salad, better use them very young! A few bits of leaf crunched into a chilled summer drink add a very pleasant fresh, cucumberish flavour. I've also tried it for making pesto (or the Argentinian version, chimichurri), mixed with oregano, garlic and chili. Perfectly addictive! Good thing that thanks to Fly Buys, I now own a blender – an entirely new luxury in my kitchen life.

The health benefits of borage seem to be under some debate: modern chemical analysis has found that the leaves contain a substance with causes damage to the liver. Apparently that hasn't bothered anyone overmuch for the past several centuries, when the leaves and flowers were popular crushed in wine, cooked like spinach, sprinkled over salad, or candied as a sweet. The herb was said to "make a man merry" and drive away "the poisonous fumes of the brain", or even cure lunacy! As I have been in a pretty sunny mood these last several weeks anyway, I can't confirm (or deny) that it works as a mood lifter, but it is also said to be good for a whole range of other things, and is rich in potassium and calcium, to offset the liver poison. As far as I'm concerned, just the taste of it in a glass of cool fizzy drink or summer ale, makes me pretty happy. Especially if I get to drink it on a hot and sunny Featherston summer afternoon, lounging in the shade under my plum tree, looking at my garden blossoming all blue. Who needs holidays, anyway!

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Herbs and harvests

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Humans of New York: style & attitude. Images © Brandon Stanton, HONY

Cool Things Friends Do: Gifts, Good Works, and lots of Humans

Given that I am currently working away on my first set of features for the Amazing Stories blog, I will make this year's holiday feature a short and sweet one: bring on the Christmas spirit!

Fellow harper and songwriter Corrina Hewatt has come up with something really totally special: She invites you to consider giving a handcrafted tune for a gift. "Would you consider giving a tune as a present this Christmas? Could be a fiddle tune, harp tune, whistle or piano, or a poem of your choice set to music - I would happily write one for you, if you message me who it is for, give me a little info or background to why you would like to gift them a tune, and we can take it from there." Payment is whatever you feel it is worth – and it doesn't even have to be for Christmas! Read more on Corrina Hewatt's website.

Sunila Sen Gupta, who has been something of a regular in this feature spot, has made another illustrated children's book which she is selling for a good cause. The book is in French, but an English translation is available on request. You can pre-order her book here: it looks great, as usual!

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Humans of: Shiraz, Oslo, New Zealand, Berlin, Brazil. Images © the photographers of the respective Facebook pages & websites.

Facebook is marvellous, really. A while ago, I became a "fan" of Joan Baez's page, and now every once in a while, I get one of her status updates among my personalized stream of chatter. Well, it is probably by whoever runs her Facebook page for her, but then who knows. There seem to be plenty of famous and sort-of-famous people who actually really are on Facebook, and actually really engage personally with their fans. Anyway. Joan Baez's page sent along a link to this website which sells bracelets made from the discarded guitar strings of people like, well, Joan Baez. This is so weird in such a cool way (or the other way round), I might have been tempted – but only until I saw the price tag. The profit, however, in true Joan Baez fashion, is to benefit the Resource Center for Nonviolence. A very topical fundraiser, too.

Good point, anyway! If one could channel all the time and money and energy and effort some people spend to satisfy their craving to somehow make a connection with whichever celebrity they have elevated into their personal pantheon of worship, one could get rid of a lot of guns used to shoot a lot of small children, eh.

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Humans of India. Images © Megha Majumder, Ajay Chakrabarti, HOI.

Speaking of celebrities who channel their fame into philanthropy – my discovery of the year has been the Humans of New York Facebook page (and associated website). Brandon Stanton, by his own account, is an out-of-a-job ex stockbroker with a keen eye for photographic composition, and the beauty of the human race in all its forms and shapes and shades (yes, and sometimes the beauty of chickens). A couple of years ago, he decided to start a "photographic census of people in New York", and post them, and the stories the people in the photos told him, on Facebook: just because it seemed a good idea to do so. He doesn't make money from it. He isn't employed by anyone. He doesn't even try to sell anything. Except perhaps an appreciation for the beauty and variety of the human race in all its forms and shapes and shades.

But whenever someone goes and does something simply because it seems a good idea to do so, chances are other people will also think it is a good idea that he or she does so. Not only does the HONY Facebook page have (as of today) 474 000 + followers, chapters of "Humans of ..." have sprouted all across the planet. On my personal watchlist, apart from the original, I have Humans of New Zealand, Humans of India, Humans of Brazil, and Humans of Berlin. I was briefly considering starting my own "Humans of Wairarapa" (seeing that Humans of New Zealand was already taken), but realized that if I wanted to turn that into anything like a sustained effort, I'd be better off calling it "Cows of Wairarapa". Besides. I am already doing five too many things.

Recently, Brandon did a fundraiser for the benefit of people affected by Hurricane Sandy. He put some of his images up for sale, and for a rather large donation, people were invited to follow him around for a day. The goal of the fundraiser was to raise $100,000 in 10 days. They reached that goal in less than 24 hours. By the end of the 10 day Indiegogo campaign, $318,530 had been donated for the fundraiser. By people who follow Humans of New York on Facebook. It averages to less than a dollar per fan.

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Humans of New York: attitude & style. Images © Brandon Stanton, HONY

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Music and Mama Africa

When I was at the harp festival in Edinburgh in 2006, I got to take a lesson with kora player Seikou Susso, a Mandingo originally from Gambia, now based in Yorkshire. Rather than having me attempt to play his kora, we decided that he would teach me a tune to play on my triple harp. We had a good laugh at my inability to grasp the full subtlety of the rhythms involved. I managed most of it – even had a dash at some embellishments – but there was that one pesky beat which I just could not figure out where precisely it should come. It tripped me up every single time. Still, we both had a great deal of fun, and for me, it was the fulfilment of a long cherished wish. When we were packing up, Seikou spontaneously made up a little song of praise, which he was singing more to himself than to me, as we were leaving.

The kora, also known as "bow harp", is the instrument of choice for many West African griots, or jalis – singer-historian-storytellers, or just call them "bards". Its construction is essentially the same as the harps one can see in Egyptian wall paintings from a couple of thousand years before the Christian era. I was first introduced to African kora music back in 1993, when I started working with Artek in New York, and a fellow musician played me a tape he had bought from a New York street musician. It sounded suspiciously like some very early 16th century Italian dance music for Renaissance lute ... a possible connection which has fascinated me ever since.

They say that "to kill a griot, is to burn a library": all the songs and stories, and the memories of events he carries, will be lost. And yet, this statement is somewhat misleading. Because it implies that African culture has a similar concept of history, of "historical facts", of "documents", of "authority", as our European one. It doesn't. Not that I am the expert, but I have read a book or three on the topic, and this is the one point they all agree upon (because it has every European stumped): Africans do not care to conserve a record of history, the way European or Asian people do. If most African cultures never bothered to adopt a system of writing, it was not because they were naked savages who weren't intellectually capable of emulating a "higher civilization", like Europe, or Egypt, or the Arab world: it was because they saw no use for it.

Griots do not hand down songs, father to son, which can be traced back all the way to Ancient Egypt. The tradition in which they operate may well be this old – but the songs a griot sings, are his own songs, which he makes up in reaction to whatever happens around him. A griot is rather more like a newspaper, than a library. They are concerned with the present, not the past. And they relate present events to the formulaic schemata of the songs they have inherited: a sort of instant, on-the-spot myth making.

When I lived in Brasil as a teenager, it was very obvious to me how the culture had been influenced by the Portuguese conquerors and settlers: the style of building, the language and literature, the furniture, the churches. Things that were built in stone, or stored in books and libraries and archives. Things you could touch, and preserve, and hoard.

It wasn't until my year at SOAS in London, that I realized how very deeply Brazilian culture is related to Africa, under that thin veneer of, to me, more easily recognizable Iberian-ness. The music, the mind-boggling drum rhythms, the dance, and the ubiquitousness of it. People's propensity to use every excuse to burst out into the streets to beat their drums and dance samba, and have a big noisy celebration. The food people ate. The stories and images that came across in the popular songs on the radio. The "syncretic" religion of Camdoblé, with its spirit mediums, and its African gods grafted onto Catholic saints. On a visit to the historic town of Salvador de Bahia, we saw an exhibit of old Candomblé costumes, or "masks" representing various gods of that cult. When I was in London, I saw those exact, precise same masks in some video footage of a traditional mask dance, shot by an ethnomusicologist in Angola.

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Hawke Bay forest walk

In 1999, I went to live in London and work on a PhD in music history. I was on a quixotic quest after vestiges of an elusive practice of vocal harmonic improvisation, which apparently had been a staple of Spanish church music from sometime in the 14th or 15th, until way into the 18th century, or possibly even later. Renaissance barbershop, or something like that. The plan was to see if I could identify any surviving musical practices in Spain (or elsewhere in the Mediterranean), which might be connected to it. I had ambitious plans to combine ethnomusicological field research with historical source studies: just like we musicians who were involved in the early music revival, were then busy discovering the sounds of non-European, or European non-classical music traditions, and mentally relating them to the un-hearable sounds we were so busy trying to reconstruct from old scores and descriptions. So I ended up taking a postgraduate seminar in Ethnomusicology at SOAS. If I had done nothing else that whole year in London, it would have been worth it just for being part of that group, and participating in those discussions. They have influenced my thinking profoundly, and even, I might say, the course of my life from then on.

One of my fellow aspiring PhD candidates was Chartwell Dutiro, a master mbira player, songwriter, and researcher, a Shona from Zimbabwe. His research project was a Western ethnomusicologist's wet dream: a prominent proponent of a non-European musical culture, writing about his art from the insider's perspective! The very thing no European researcher, by definition, had ever been able to do.

And Chartwell is the real item: he grew up in rural Zimbabwe, picked up the mbira as a small boy, and played it at ceremonies to invoke the ancestral spirits, just as the instrument had always been used. He then joined the Salvation Army band – he told us how offended he was when he found out that the name given to him, if I recall correctly, by a Salvation Army officer, is that of Winston Churchill's family home, and not a proper name for a person at all! Eventually, Chartwell joined Thomas Mapfumo's band and toured the world for eight years, before settling down in the UK.

By Western academic standards, he wasn't "educated". For someone of his background to find himself in the British academic system and working on a PhD research project, is a feat of bright intelligence and cultural adaptability that makes Lawrence of Arabia look like a pre-schooler. But by the time I met him and heard him talk about his thesis, he was in troubled waters. He was having the greatest trouble fitting the things he knew and thought relevant to his art, into the structure of a European style research thesis. For him, the interest lay not in the rhythmic and melodic structures, the harmonic patterns, the technicalities of the music – things that bewilder Western ears, and with whose description and analysis Western music theory has been primarily concerned. Neither was his primary interest in the history of his instrument, or developments in musical style, or the musician's place and function in society. No. For him, the single most important aspect of playing mbira was making a connection with the spirit world.

And that he knew how to make that connection, was entirely evident when he performed. I cannot remember ever witnessing another performance when it was so blatantly obvious that the performer had gone to what I, when talking to myself, simply refer to as "The Place". Bob Dylan has called it "The garden pathways of the sun". Probably the best description I have ever read is the first page or so of Ben Okri's Booker prize winning novel The Famished Road – completely recognizable to me as that other plane of reality which I access and channel, or translate, when I make music, or paint, or meditate – and which this Nigerian author also calls the "spirit world". A plane of reality which has been experienced and described, in very similar and mutually recognizable terms, by artists and mystics across cultures and generations. A plane of reality whose very "reality" is, by definition, denied by Western science and academic scholarship.

So here was, finally, an African master musician who was also a British PhD student, and who ought to have been an unquestioned authority on whatever anyone wanted to know about his musical practice and style. And he was trying to tell those profoundly interested European scholars that they'd been asking all the wrong questions all along. None of the things they thought important – that the culture of Western scholarship thought important – mattered at all to an African who had grown up in this musical culture and spoke it as his native language. None of the things that mattered to someone who had grown up in this musical culture, were at all appropriate topics for a Western style academic PhD thesis. So much for the self-proclaimed dogma of Western academic culture, of being universally applicable, and free from cultural bias!

I don't think Chartwell finished his PhD. He doesn't carry the title, and while his biography mentions that he has "an academic qualification" from SOAS, it doesn't state which one. (it does, however, state that he "has seven known children", which I find deeply intriguing. :lol:) – I didn't finish mine either. And perhaps hearing about Chartwell's dilemma had something to do with that, too. There were a number of reasons, but the most important one was that it simply didn't seem something that it was worth wasting three or more years on. And I had come to a point where I was becoming all too aware of all the ways in which academia, as an institution, serves to maintain the status quo and keep those social groups who have power, in power. My own artistic and intellectual goals, I could not achieve if I stayed inside "the system".

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Hawke Bay forest walk

There has been a flurry of public outrage recently – which reached me via Facebook, but apparently originated from a documentary about the situation of musicians in Mali which was broadcast on BBC, and a couple of articles in British newspapers. "Militants declare war on music", reads the headline in The Guardian. The article seems to be based largely on a press release which a Facebook friend of mine passed on, and which Facebook now seems to have swallowed – again! Note to self: next time I read something on the internet that I think I might use in a newsletter somewhere down the line, take a screen shot, or save the file. Information seems to be strangely in flux these days ... one can never be sure that the article one has had thoughts about one day, will still be there, or indeed be the same article, next week or next month.

Well, you'll just have to take my word for it, then. After graphically describing a couple of examples of heinous mistreatment of Malinese musicians ("they took away his instruments!" "they burned all his precious tapes!"), in heightened emotional language which one usually associates with charity fundraisers ("help those poor black babies with the cute round eyes"), and with a good dash of fashionable anti-islam sentiment thrown in ("those evil fundamentalist mullahs don't appreciate our beautiful music"), the press release (and the Guardian article with it) – then devotes a rather conspicuous amount of space to the Festival in the Desert, which takes place annually in Timbuktu, and is organized by Manny Ansar, a Tuareg who also manages the band Tinariwen, which – surprise, surprise! – gets quite a bit of stage time, and a picture, in the Guardian article. I know the names of quite a few musicians from Mali (all of them Mande, I think) – Toumani Diabaté, the late Ali Farka Touré and his son Vieux Farka Touré, Oumou Sangaré have all attained world stardom on the "World Music" circuit, and music is one of the country's main export articles – but the name of this band did not ring a bell. I should hire that man to be *my* manager. He's good!

Both texts then proceed to praise the "courage" of Western music icons like Bono, who has performed at the festival, and Damon Albarn (a Brit), who has collaborated with musicians from Mali on his album Mali Music. Not to be confused with the album Mali Blues, by JeConte (an American) and the Mali Allstars. Here's their website. With a band picture. JeConte, that's the white guy. In the middle. Do have a look at the Youtube video which Damon Albarn and his Malinese collaborators have recently recorded for Oxfam, as well. Do you also get the feeling that the white guy is hogging the attention of the camera? Might be because he's in the center of the frame. Or it might be the exaggerated movement. The other musicians are so laid back, they hardly move. Notice how, the moment Damon Albarn stops playing, the piece falls properly into place? If I was one of those Malinese musicians, and had that hyperactive European sitting next to me distracting me from my groove, I swear I would have knocked the monkey over the head! Vanity, oh vanity. Or let's just say, exploitation comes in many forms and shapes.

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Hawke Bay forest walk

What precisely is happening in Mali, for me, it is impossible to say. I have never been there, I don't understand the culture, I don't know the people. There was some sort of revolution earlier this year, and apparently the country continues to be in a state of unrest. As usual, the Western media have taken little notice of what goes on in such an out-of-the-way spot (they don't have oil in Mali). One aspect of it seems to be that the Tuareg population in the north is claiming independence from the rest of Mali. There is no mention of that little detail in either the Guardian article, or the press release I remember reading.

Ok, so the new powers-that-be in Mali have passed a law against music. What else is new. The track record of staid clerics of one paternalistic and authoritarian religion or another, trying to repress the "lascivious" music and dance of the Africans, goes back AT LEAST to Spain in the 16th century. Is this going to kill the griot tradition? I hardly think so. I did go to the trouble of looking up the Myspace profiles of a few Malinese, and other West African musicians I have on my friend list. Thinking that, if the situation was serious, there would likely be outrage, rallying cries, or expressions of sympathy, on someone's blog. There was nothing. Which is not to say that the whole thing has been completely made up, but it doesn't seem to worry anyone in Africa unduly. Admittedly, several of the profiles hadn't been updated in quite a while, but the more up to date ones were blithely announcing their upcoming projects as if nothing out of the ordinary was under foot. Including upcoming concerts in Bamako in 2013. The only mention of "the sad situation in our home country" I could find, was on Rokia Traoré's blog, a few posts down. She lives in Paris.

The articles and press releases I have read could not even agree on wether the new regulations affected only "Western music" (in which case I would not have a clue why that was supposed to threaten the griot tradition), or all "secular music", i.e. anything that was not Islamic chanting. What does seem clear, is that whatever happened, threatened to prevent the 2013 Festival in the Desert from going forward. One website I found, dated October 29, 2012, states that the 2013 Festival has been cancelled. The Festival's official website now announces that it will take the form of a "caravan", and will tour not only Mali (hey, I thought they had a law against music?) and neighbouring countries, but travel on to the US, Europe, and South-East Asia, then do a presentation for the United Nations. Nice publicity stunt, eh!

For further reading: Article on Afropop Worldwide about the coverage of the crisis in Mali, and the band Tinariwen, in Western media. Note this article dates back to April 2012.

And here is the interview with band members of Tinariwen, which this article refers to. They are very outspoken about their hopes that the Western media attention on Mali will also help the cause of Tuareg independence. So this is why I, personally, refuse to pass any sort of judgment on the situation, based on information fed to me by Western media who have, if it is much, one local correspondent on the ground. The more remote and out-of-the-international-spotlight the location, the easier it is for one or another interest group with the right connections, to simply push their agenda. Read M. M. Kaye about that!

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Hawke Bay forest walk

To those who think that as a right-thinking liberal and artistic leftie, I ought to get wound up about the mullahs in Mali who are suppressing the poor helpless (cute little round eyed babies) population, and killing the record of thousands of years of history and culture faithfully stored in a couple of griot's heads, I say: please go and listen to this TED talk by Ernesto Sirolli, entitled You want to help someone? Shut up and listen. He talks about his seven years of experience as an international aid worker in Africa, when he was a young man: How every single project he was involved in was a failure, and worse: it did a lot of damage. For one reason: because Westerners butted in, full of paternalistic goodwill to help the poor starving naked heathen savages, and teach them things they obviously hadn't been capable of figuring out themselves: such as how to grow food. It never occurred to them that the locals, being far better acquainted with the local conditions, perhaps had good reasons for doing as they did!

"The first principle of aid is respect," says Ernesto Sirolli. And respect starts with knowledge. Rather than passing someone's press release around on Facebook without comprehending the first thing of the background of the situation, why not do a bit of reading. How much do you know about Africa? Her history, her many nations and languages, her rich and varied and ancient cultures? Her architecture, her cookery, her art and her crafts? The social organizations, the beliefs, the myths and stories and songs and dances, the spirituality, the perpetual wars and rivalries of her people? The institution of slavery? The impact of Western colonialism, and later Western aid, which, under the guise of humanitarianism, is often just a continuation of the "imperialist, colonialist, missionary" attitudes of Westerners?

Africa, by and large, is a big blank spot on most Western people's mental map. It doesn't even figure in our school books, other than as a locus for European exploration, a source of slave labour, and a recipient of huge sums of monetary aid. A place where lions and zebras and elephants and giraffes and gazelles live, and white men in tropical hats shoot big game, attended by hordes of chattering, nameless black servants. Where black skinned women run around topless and men butt naked, where there are starving skeleton people with hunger swollen stomachs, and lots of cute round eyed black babies, whom we donate money for at Christmas.

Yet humans have been living in Africa for longer than anywhere on this planet. If one believes in the theory of evolutionary development of human societies, then it stands to reason that the solutions African people have come up with: their social organizations, their economy, their culture – are at a more developed stage than ours, rather than a more "primitive" one: as we persist in wanting to believe, which is why we insist that we ought to help and educate. When it comes down to it, Mama Africa is the Mama of us all. Let's treat her with some respect.

Here are some books to get you started:

And talk to people! If you are a musician, and have a chance to work with African musicians, what a great way to get a glimpse into their minds and their culture. I consider the handful of opportunities I have had, as great privileges. But don't put yourself in the middle of the frame! The Western rock and pop stars I have cited above, have a long way to go to even begin to be able to hold the candle to the sense of rhythm and groove of their African peers.

In school, I was taught that African music is "primitive", that it doesn't amount to much more than beating some drums, and perhaps a xylophone. Half an hour of listening to an African musician perform, will quickly divest you of that idea. Most Westerners are befuddled by even the simplest patterns – as I was, when I tried to learn a tune from Seikou Susso.

My teacher used to say that the difference between a white and a black musician is, that a white person will clap along with a piece of music on the beat, while a black person will clap offbeat: inbetween, before, after, around it. That is perhaps simplistic, but it is also true. And how dull must a piece of European or American music sound to an African! Be it a classical symphony, or a piece of rock'n roll. Europeans have atrophied their rhythmical facility. In all that vast quantity of music, there are only two kinds of beat: four-square, or triple. And we consider a "rhythmical piece", one that unimaginatively and relentlessly emphasizes that beat. How exceedingly primitive!

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Hawke Bay forest walk

Quite frankly, the very idea that a bunch of Islamic fundamentalists and their gunmen could succeed in killing something as deeply ingrained in African culture as its music, and its griot tradition, seems preposterous – if not completely ridiculous. Perhaps that is why none of the African musicians I checked on Myspace even bothers to comment on it. You might just as successfully try to pass a law against breathing.

In 2005, David LaChapelle's film Rize, a documentary about a new dance style that originated in the black youth culture of LA, hit the film festivals and art house cinemas. It is a truly fascinating film to watch, and high on style and entertainment value. The dance these kids invented has some of its roots in clowning – there is a particular type of makeup involved. At one point, the film maker shows the kids footage of a traditional mask dance of, I forget which African nation. It might have been Yoruba. The similarity between the styles of body paint, and the movements, is striking. Apparently, none of the youngsters who developed the street dance in LA, or any of their mentors, had been aware of those roots. It's as if it was somehow transmitted in their DNA – surviving centuries of slavery, displacement, and alienation from their cultural roots.

When I was working with ARTEK in New York in the 1990's, one year we put on a Christmas show which featured a "Dance of the Three Mages". Caspar and Melchior were baroque dancers trained in New York, Balthasar was Mamadou Dahoue from Cote d'Ivoire, who did a traditional dance from his country. The music they were dancing to were ensemble arrangements of some of the dances from Ruiz de Ribayaz's Luz y Norte Musical. For Balthasar's dance, we chose Zarambeques, one of several dances in that collection whose title suggests an African origin, and which are based on very simple cadential patterns repeated over and over again with different kinds of rhythmic embellishments, which has always put me in mind of West African kora music.

Apparently the dancer thought so too – for as we were rehearsing, he began humming a tune which was evidently a traditional Cote d'Ivoirean song. It didn't quite fit all the way, harmonically, but it fitted well enough to work. He didn't know, as far a I am aware, about the provenience of the piece of music. He simply reacted to something vaguely familiar in the chords and embellishments a 17th century cleric from Spain had included in his collection of dance music popular in his time, which he committed to print for the benefit of settlers in the American colonies who wanted to learn the harp and did not have the benefit of a teacher – and which a young harper from Berlin had transcribed from their old tablature notation, and performed and improvised upon with the sounds of a New York street musician, whose tape a friend had played her, in her inner ear.

Shortly after hurricane Sandy hit New York earlier this year, devastating whole neighbourhoods, Humans of New York posted a photo of another New York subway musician: here's a griot, doing his job.

Arohanui, from Asni

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