“The Negro Problem” Visits Africa: Stew in Nairobi

I WAS really happy to see this: Stew, singer-songwriter, the imagination behind the Negro Problem and more recently the musical stage production, “Passing Strange” is blogging in the NYT about his experience in East Africa as part of The Sundance Institute Theater Program. They are headquartered in Kenya and already Stew is anxious for tastes of authenticity:

My daughter Bibi and I are to stay one night in Naroibi before we head to Manda but we are freaking cuz we cannot spend my first night in Africa eating hotel “sandwiches” designed for tourist gringos, as not a single Kenyan dish can be found on the menu. Nor can we spend my first night in Africa listening to the Afro-lounge pianist whose mango-sweet renditions keep asking the musical question: “When does the reality of an African cat playing stuff this square transcend ironic-kitsch appreciation and morph into the hold music for the Nairobi Suicide Hot-line?” Answer: immediately.

The writing is wry, beautiful, surprising and typically Stew.

Like this pointed self-reflection:

And don’t expect a hero’s welcome” screams the engine of the van dragging us away from Kenyatta’s airport “like most of our distant cousins who come “back” to Africa expecting parades, epiphanies and “Welcome Home” banners. You think you’re Obama? He doesn’t anymore! So why should you?

Nice little treat for high summer.

The rest here…

photo via New York Times Arts Blog


Voice (10)


They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Tin flatware.

Two who are Mostly Good
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.

And remembering . . .
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that

is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths,
tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.

— Gwendolyn Brooks

Let’s Get Less Physical?: Life on the Cloud, pt. 2

EARLIER TODAY, I noted that the Utne Reader just posted a piece on Tumblr about the shifting habits of music listeners, something I wrote about here earlier this week. The article, from the Guardian, points to the fact that statistically people, like me, still do want to hold on to their physical collections — and even more illuminating, are still buying CDs even if it makes them sound like “dinosaurs” — as the piece suggests. (And my Spotify invite arrived just the other day — what timing.)

Couple this with more and more brand new vinyl pressings I’m actually seeing in the stacks at bricks and mortar record stores — yes STORES and displayed like days of yore. All of it just suggests we’re still in flux when it comes to our idea of “owning” or the way we listen.

Why is the music industry so intent on abandoning CDs?

The snip here:

(via The Guardian)

Judging by the media coverage dedicated to digital music one might think the physical format is on its last legs. In fact, even the days of downloads may be numbered as growth in the sector has slowed down considerably over the past year. It seems nobody cares about owning music any more – people are happy to access music via the cloud and stream it from services such as Spotify.

It’s as if nobody wants to talk about CDs for fear of sounding like a dinosaur. But while 90% of discussion about the music industry concerns digital consumption and how to monetise it, actual sales show the majority of music fans are, in fact, such dinosaurs. In 2010, according to the BPI, 82.2% of album sales were CDs, with downloads trailing at 17.5% (vinyl and USB sticks took up the remaining 0.3%) – despite there being fewer record stores. Revenue from streaming services is pretty insignificant. In 2009 it represented £24.5m out of £928m earned from recorded music.

Full Guardian piece here:

Alex Steinweiss, 94

OH, HOW many of these did my mom and my grandmother prop against the old console stereo? I couldn’t count. Beautiful squares of color or mood. The idea that an album cover should showcase an image that in some sort of way conveyed the music inside was something I figured was a given. LP sets of jazz, classical, pop illustrated some sense of the journey you were going to take aurally. They might be abstracts, metaphors, puns or literal. But I was a kid who studied them and tried to determine the connection even as I listened.

Who knew that this was a relatively recent concept, one that artist, Alex Steinweiss, was the progenitor.

From the New York Times obit:

The record cover was a blank slate in 1939, when Mr. Steinweiss was hired to design advertisements for Columbia Records. Most albums were unadorned, and on those occasions when art was used, it was not original. (Albums then were booklike packages containing multiple 78 r.p.m. discs.) “The way records were sold was ridiculous,” Mr. Steinweiss said in a 1990 interview. “The covers were brown, tan or green paper. They were not attractive, and lacked sales appeal.” Despite concern about the added costs, he was given the approval to come up with original cover designs.

The fabulous website/blog L.P. Cover Lover art is hosting gorgeous gallery display of the bounty of impressionistic images that blooed in Steinweiss’s imagination. For something that for most listeners is so very personal — the visual image that evolves from the music — Steinweiss was expert at hinting at an overall feeling and letting you fill in the spaces.

image via New York Times

Life in the Cloud

ON MY living room floor, next to the front door I have a short-ish stack of Sunday New York Times, still sheathed in their blue, plastic jackets. Not in a “hoarding” way, just four or five papers resting atop my magazine rack. People discreetly eye them as they enter, but are polite enough not to say anything, but I know what they are thinking.

Though that stack contains “old” news, and I’ve read the most salient pieces already online — as the news cycle, we know, thunders on– I can’t yet throw away those papers until I page through them in the old-style I’d grown up with, letting my eye and mind wander. It’s an old newsroom habit, and I wasn’t even around the newsroom in the golden years, but I was around to make note of the ritual — the turning of pages the desks piled with newsprint from cities across the country and globe.

It’s so different now. It’s “all” at our fingertips. I surf and scan and click and leap and still feel I don’t quite know enough about what’s happening — particularly the why — there is something about going through the news in your hand and feeling, even if it isn’t at all accurate, that you’ve have a sense of where the world is today. For that moment, until tomorrow.

Serendipity aside, my online habits are like many people’s I know: I tend to navigate to and read what I’m interested in — it’s filtered — on paper, of course, my eye might be caught by some odd buried brief — that might bloom into a story. Yes, this can happen online too, but I read faster online, with purpose and very seldom in the leisurely way I’d become accustomed to entering into the Sunday news.

But this isn’t just about newspapers. It’s not just the medium or the platform that’s changed, it’s how we collect and store our information; and too the ritual of consuming the information has evolved as well — where we read, how we read. It isn’t just news but books and music. When I was younger, like most, I listened to music in my bedroom, door closed, on the floor, letting the music — the drum and bass in particular — seep inside. It was a private matter. As I got older, college and graduate school, that ritual survived in tact but I’d often listened with others now — friendships grew around not just particular artists, but specific songs or genres so music became more communal, although, it was always necessary to listen quietly, uninterrupted and on my own if I was really trying to absorb or understand where the music was taking me.

With the communal ritual came the notion of collection — or the displaying of the collection — and this, I know was key to a corner of my generation’s way of defining itself. This carefully collected, consumed and now displayed music (or books, etc.) was something you built LP by LP, Grove paperback by Grove paperback. You proudly displayed your interests, passions, obsessions. You pulled them out to show the very best of them to people you felt would understand them. Often you were on the money about the choices of who would understand these things that often words didn’t adequately address. A different sort of sharing.

Late last week, in a big way, I’ve been hearing, daily, about Spotify, another streaming service that promises to change the way we buy, organize, listen and share music. Already, I’ve been a member of LaLa and Pandora and now Rhapsody. I put in my request for an invite for Spotify because, I feel as if I want to know. A musician friend of mine has shifted from “concern” to “resignation” — no money in it for the artist if you aren’t on the top tier. All those inexpensive loss leader CDs we used to buy back in the 70s and 80s — compilations of back catalog B-sides with a smattering of hits that might bring the consumer back to the artists’ earlier work, this is what’s happening to that. No one expects Gen-Y and beyond to listen and collect as we had — that’s done, but he asks: “Now, tell me, who is going to be interested in listening to that old Laurel Canyon stuff?”

Well, it’s clear: It’s the people who have bought those albums already in various formats — LP, 8-Track, cassette, CD, digital — and really would rather not buy it yet again. Spotify apparently is arranged, looks and “feels” like iTunes so, as one music writer friend said to me, “You already know how to use it.” Catalog and backlist at my fingertips. That Howlin’ Wolf song I just heard the other night that snaked down my spine in the documentary I was watching? Yep, In the middle of the night, I could pull it up and put in on my playlist. It’s “Mine” in that sense as is so much else looming on those “virtual shelves.”

Rhapsody works for me in a practical sense, in that since I write about music and sometimes need to hear something to reference and double-check, it’s more often than not there. There are holes, to be sure; some albums with only a limited amount of tunes available for streaming; some not at all. I have to say having some of my collection in various places on someone’s cloud or another — has helped in keeping the collection manageable. I haven’t gotten to the place where I feel I can jettison my collection — there are so many odds and ends, weird finds, one-offs, limited pressings — that I feel like I want to have even if I don’t listen to them again — more for sentimental reasons that I can’t find words for at the moment.

Last week I had dinner with a friend, a writer, a book and music lover much in the same way I have been most of my life, and we spent a lion share of the time discussing re-adapting. Reading on Kindles and iPads, listening to music that was “ours” but wasn’t. What is this thing about owning something tangible that makes it feel more like yours — or more real because you can not just possess it, but hold it, fall inside of it — the creamy pages of an old book, the photographs and liner notes on albums we began to love cut by cut. These things, we have held, the books, the records, will just become, said the musician-friend, interior design, knick knacks. There’s some truth to that: Shelter magazines feature spreads with books shelved spines against the wall or grouped by color for some aesthetic reason not having to do anything with genre, author, fiction or nonfiction. You’ve long been able to buy frames to showcase album cover art. And I suppose, for the generation who will not grow up with the same sense of owning and building, (playlists, though personal, are very different) these things are just that — “things” — relics and curios. It’s the essence that you’re after — of the tune or lyric, or the protagonist’s voice — that you will cary with you, like that penultimate paragraph of a favorite novel, the chorus of a summer song from a decade so far in the past it doesn’t seem like your own life anymore. In your hands or in the cloud: if it matters, you still carry it with you, always.