Friday, September 28, 2018

A Window Above: Shamus-Ud-Doha Bader-Ud-Doja

Song: "Shamus-Ud-Doha Bader-Ud-Doja"
Traditional Sufi devotional song
Performer: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was already a superstar in his native Pakistan when Peter Gabriel brought him international exposure by featuring him first in the music of The Last Temptation of Christ, then on his Real World record label.  Khan is the most famous of his family's 600-year long line of Qawwali singers.  Qawwali is the devotional music of Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam.

It is one of the many beautiful contradictions of world music history.  Islamic scripture forbids music for worldly pleasure and yet the Islamic Empire was a cultural force rivaled by few others in the spread of musical ideas.  The fact that the words guitar and sitar rhyme is a coincidence but the similar physical construction of the two instruments is not.  Stringed-instruments with box resonators range from Europe to India and they are culturally linked through the Middle East.  All of those western orchestral instruments you think of as European: violins, violas, cellos, oboes, bassoons?  They're all North African in origin.  Jewish musicians, already on the lowest social rung in Arabia, brought the music of their Muslim patrons along with their own when they migrated to Eastern Europe.  Whenever people of one culture encounter those of another, music grows and expands.  It is the history of the world at its best.  We have lost thousands of languages over the millennia but the musical voice survives.

Not everyone sees it that way.  I am likely naive in my White boy romanticism.  Cultural voices do die.  Small nations are absorbed by larger ones.  The oppressed are too easily silenced, their distinctive arts co-opted by the oppressors if they survive at all.  Such is the history of the world at its worst.  Plenty have criticized people like Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel for the diluting impact of world beat and maybe they're right.  But I still contend that there's something cool about the fact that a culture's music is most often defined by the marginalized peoples within that culture.  The dominance of Black music in the United States is no surprise.  It's been happening all over the world for centuries.

Getting back to Qawwali, Sufis, like mystics of any religion, tend to bend the rules.  Qawwali dates back to at least the 13th century.  The poetry is often spiritual though not exclusively so.  Below is a live performance of the same piece with Khan and his full party, the traditional name for a Qawwali band.  The studio version above has a cleaner sound but Khan had such an amazing stage presence that it would be wrong not to share.

Want to hear all of the songs I have featured in a convenient playlist?

Enjoy: A Window Above

What are you listening to these days?

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

On the Coffee Table: The Art of Happiness

Title: The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living
Authors: His Holiness The Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D.
via Amazon
I've had The Art of Happiness on my shelves for several years.  Though I hadn't planned it that way, I finally got around to reading it at a good time.  Last month, I wrote about my current professional push to develop more student-directed classrooms (read here).  Empathy is essential to doing this work well.  Obviously, a teacher always needs empathy.  Beyond that, my students themselves have identified it as a need in their relationships with each other.  The Dalai Lama's teachings in The Art of Happiness all center around increasing empathy and compassion.

The book is written from the point of view of Dr. Cutler, an American psychiatrist.  The material is gathered mostly from Cutler's extensive interviews with The Dalai Lama, though it also includes excerpts from public presentations by the religious leader as well as reflections from Cutler's psychiatric practice.  Cutler's questions derive from typical Western scientific skepticism.  By the doctor's own admission, Western medicine doesn't usually address the matter of happiness.  The goal is to cure what ails - to combat the negative, rather than nurture the positive.  The Dalai Lama always responds with serene superior wisdom.

The book is quite pleasant, though not the easiest cover-to-cover read.  The actual religious material is minimal.  The Dalai Lama is a devout Buddhist, obviously, but he promotes a more universal spiritual message that extends to all major religions and, indeed, non-believers as well.  I feel I would need to read the book again to gain full benefit, though I doubt I will.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Squid Eats: Al's French Frys

Al's French Frys is a northwest Vermont institution, a roadside diner in ever-sprawling suburbia.  They claim to have stuck to the same french fry recipe since the place opened in the late 1940s.  No table service.  You stand in line fast food style, though the food quality is definitely a step up.  They have creemies (soft serve ice cream) in the warmer months which definitely brings in the crowds.  Not that much help is needed there.  The place is always packed.

And yes, the fries truly are good.

For our most recent trip, it was just my daughter and me.  She's started high school this year.  My baby girl is growing up.  As I have written before, I've never been one to wish she wouldn't.  I think it's exciting to watch the young woman emerge.  Even so, four years until college doesn't seem too long at all.  I worry I'll feel I'm just getting to know her, then off she'll go.  It's life, I know, and it's good.

Even so, high school is exciting.  I loved high school myself and she, at least for the moment, likes it for the same reasons I did.  Much of the middle school social absurdity subsides.  Everyone grows up and in my experience, maturity looks good on most people.  The increased work load is a bit overwhelming but we're all learning to manage, together.

We were on a mission that day: a new electronic keyboard.  Over the past six years of piano lessons, she has made do with the 60-key Casio I bought in New York City twenty years ago, not long before I met her mother.  She's gotten pretty good despite its shortcomings but it was time for a new one.  Change doesn't come easily to her, even when it's an obvious change for the better so she was a little testy over lunch.  Maybe I was, too, I don't know.  I know we both felt better after food.  It certainly helped the keyboard shopping afterwards go more smoothly.

Friday, September 21, 2018

A Window Above: Can I Kick It?

Song: "Can I Kick It?"
Writers: Lou Reed, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, J. Davis
Original Release: April 17, 1990
Group: A Tribe Called Quest
Album: People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm

So, we need to talk about hip hop.  I first heard rap on the school bus back in the mid-'80s, long before the music became mainstream.  The first song I remember hearing was "Roxanne, Roxanne" by U.T.F.O., released in 1984.  My experience of the music was also, of course, tied to break dancing. In the beginning, I was more drawn to the dancing than I was the music.  Couldn't do it but I sure loved watching.  When the dancing faded away as fads do, I assumed the music would, too.  Not so.  Run DMC hooked up with Aerosmith and the rest is pop music history. 

That said, I would never have gone so far as to say that I actually liked hip hop.  I didn't actively hate it the way a lot of rock purists did and still do.  Those who argue it's not real music or it's junk are kidding themselves.  Not only is it here to stay but for those who yearn for music that "says something," hip hop has been delivering for a long time.  No genre has had a greater impact on the industry over the past 30 years.  It's not even close.

The blatant misogyny in some of the music is certainly a turn off and I am frequently annoyed by the fact that so many deeply White adolescents only seem to like it for the swear words.  But in the end, I have no one but myself to blame for my ignorance.  I never spent enough time with hip hop to fall in love with any of the songs.  Pandora changed that.

Over time, I did gain appreciation for some of the fusion acts: Us3 and definitely the Fugees.  In fact, I liked them enough to include them as seeds when I started building Pandora stations.  Somehow, "Can I Kick It?" had evaded my notice for 19 years.  Of course, the Lou Reed sample (see last week's post) hooked me instantly.  The beats did the rest.  The song's just fun.  Is it about addiction?  If not, what's he trying to kick?  The line about dropping your pants is a bit off color.  Man, what is this song about exactly?  Does it really matter?  No.  Just get over it and dance, silly White boy!

Sampling has been a part of hip hop from its earliest roots and that, in itself, has been a long-standing objection from the purists.  Mind you, established rockers have not been shy about cashing in on the breaches of intellectual property law.  Thanks to his attorneys, Lou Reed claimed all of the profits from the "Can I Kick It?" single.  Interestingly, the single version of the song features "Walk on the Wild Side" less than the album version featured here does.

There's certainly an interesting discussion to be had over all of this.  After all, haven't White musicians - not to mention recording studio executives - been profiting from the appropriation and even direct theft of Black music for several generations now?  What goes around comes around.  I can't deny that it bothers me sometimes.  I couldn't stand it when Vanilla Ice lifted the bass line from Queen/David Bowie's "Under Pressure."  But that's mostly because the song he made with it sucks.  There is plenty of room in my heart to love both "Walk on the Wild Side" and "Can I Kick It?"

The Icelandic rap duo Bent and 7Berg made a cover called "Má Ég Sparka?"  Need I say more?

Want to hear all of the songs I have featured in a convenient playlist?

Enjoy: A Window Above

What are you listening to these days?

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Squid Mixes: Hanky Panky

A hanky panky combines gin and sweet vermouth with a couple dashes of Frenet Branca, a bitter Italian digestivo, orange peel garnish.  It was invented by Ada Coleman, head bartender at the London Savoy Hotel at the turn of the 20th century.  My recipe came from a new book for me: 3-Ingredient Cocktails by Robert Simonson.

3-Ingredient Cocktails has a beautifully simple premise.  Simonson asserts that the best cocktails are based on an old-fashioned formula: base liquor, sweetener and bitter.  Ice and garnishes don't count against the three ingredients.  It's a stunning book with exquisite photography.  Simonsen also provides lots of cocktail history, unfortunately not always accurate.  He mistakenly listed the inventor of the Hanky Panky as Ada Calhoun.  We certainly enjoyed the drink.

However, I was hoping for a book that emphasized simple ingredients as well as simple recipes.  Frenet Branca is a little on the exotic side.  It was only by luck that we had a bottle in the cabinet.  He even occasionally goes so far as to list specific brands.  I'm not above substituting, of course, and the book might provide inspiration when we are inclined to explore above the lower middle shelves at the liquor store.  I was just expecting something different.

Friday, September 14, 2018

A Window Above: Walk on the Wild Side

Song: "Walk on the Wild Side"
Writer: Lou Reed
Original Release: November 8, 1972
Album: Transformer

Surely, someone out there in academia has written a master's thesis about this song.  To be sure, there's plenty of material.

To say "Walk on the Wild Side" was ahead of its time lyrically is an absurd understatement.  In 2018, references to oral sex and transgender people don't seem like such a big deal but early '70s mainstream radio had never seen anything like it.  All of the characters mentioned in the song are based on real people, all of them regulars at Andy Warhol's New York studio, The Factory.  Though listeners may have blushed, they still bought the record.  "Walk on the Wild Side" peaked at #16 on the Billboard charts.  Today, it resides comfortably among rock's all-time classics.

There are great stories on the musical side, too.  If you've never seen the documentary Classic Albums: Lou Reed: Transformer, it's well worth your time.  In fact, the entire Classic Albums series is pretty amazing.  My favorite story is the creation of the extraordinary bass line.  Herbie Flowers recorded both the acoustic and electric basses on the same track.  Flowers has admitted in interviews that he did it for purely capitalist motivatons: by playing two instruments, he would be paid twice.  No matter.  The final effect is hypnotizing.

Want to hear all of the songs I have featured in a convenient playlist?

Enjoy: A Window Above

What are you listening to these days?

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Wine: Thirst Wine Club

This is our first month as members of the Thirst Wine Club at Daedalus, a restaurant and wine shop in Burlington.  We get two featured wines each month as well as 10% off anything in the shop.  I don't know if it will be one red and one white each month but that's what we got this time.  With each, we get an info sheet including tasting notes and recommended recipes. 
The white is an Alsatian, Edelzwicker 2017 by Meyer Fonné.  Alsace is best known for its Rieslings and Gewurtztraminners, drier and more interesting than the German versions of the same.  An Edelzwicker is a blend of Pinot Blanc, Muscat, Chasselas and Riesling.  This one had a pleasant apple flavor.  My wife and I traveled to Alsace for a wine vacation many years ago - our last big pre-parenting adventure, actually.  Alsatians generally pair well with spicy food, including the paprika chicken my wife made that night.
The red is the Madiran Aydie l'Origine 2015, produced by Famille Laplace in Gascony.  Even while pouring it, my wife could tell from the scent, "This is going to be one of your wines."  I love a spicy red.  Years ago - again, pre-kid - we had an unforgettable Chateau Musar from Lebanon that set my mouth on fire, setting my standard for reds forever.  This Madiran wasn't quite so exciting as that but it was still awfully nice, a good match for the pizza chicken my wife prepared.  L'Origine is also a blend: 70% Tannat, 30% Cabernet Franc.

Friday, September 7, 2018

A Window Above: Diguedin

Song: "Diguedin"
Traditional Quebcois folk song
Perfomers: Les Charbonniers de l'Enfer

The Canadaphilia I have experienced over the past several years most definitely extends to music.  In particular, I have grown quite fond of Quebecois folk music, known as chansons.  The songs date back centuries, some of them probably back to France, though the style is different from that of the Acadians in Nova Scotia and the Cajuns in Louisiana.  Les Charbonniers de l'Enfer is one of many groups to have inspired renewed enthusiasm for Quebecois chansons, Le Vent du Nord probably the most prominent these days.  I prefer the more traditional, a cappella performance style.

Want to hear all of the songs I have featured in a convenient playlist?

Enjoy: A Window Above

What are you listening to these days?

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Squid Mixes: Vodka Cooler

A vodka cooler is exactly like a gin cooler (see this post) apart from the obvious replacement of gin with vodka.  My recipe came from The New York Bartender's Guide

"I feel cooler already," said my wife after the first sip.