Category Archives: Music

Haiti in Seven Snapshots – As I Experienced It

I took the photos below well before the earthquake and Sontag’s story on clean-up, but here is a look at what I saw around Leogane and Jacmel, Haiti. I spent a month in each of these cities over the summer of 2007, and I taught flute lessons and music theory to students of all ages. This opportunity was possible through a Lawrence University professor committed to helping music education in Haiti. We worked directly with two Haitian music schools / summer camps.

On a hike, away from the cities

 A blue church

 Deforestation and farming on the mountains between Leogane and Jacmel

Classroom in Jacmel

A peaceful place

Men lift cement to a neighboring roof for construction via assembly line on a rickety-looking ladder

The beach after hurricane Dean, the day before I left

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Florence + The Machine = Misinformers on Race and Violence ?

Perhaps, the optimist in me hopes, Florence Welch and her band are merely misinformed on issues of race and violence. Their prominent position in the international music industry begs a certain level of social sensitivity and awareness, neither of which seem present in their new video for the song, “No Light, No Light.” (Watch the video here.)

Some of my regular sites have been in an uproar recently about Florence + The Machine’s video for the song off their recent album, Ceremonials. I found the video lacking racial sensitivity and recycling tired primitivist tropes. The video, unfortunately, is not the band’s first demonstration of poor judgment.

One of Florence+ The Machine’s previous songs, “Kiss with a Fist,” shows a blatant disregard for domestic violence with lyrics such as: “You hit me once / I hit you back / You gave a kick / I gave a slap / You smashed a plate / Over my head / Then I set fire to our bed.”

In an interview with NPR’s Melissa Block, Welch explains she wrote the song at age 17 in an attempt to fit in with garage-rocker peers. She claims the lyrics are purely figurative, “a metaphor for first love, in all its intensities,” but she did not acknowledge the provocation in the message.

Singing about black eyes and partner violence without consequence or reflection shows a profound lack of sensitivity. “Kiss with a Fist” normalizes domestic violence, making it harder for victims of abuse to be taken seriously.

Domestic violence does not equate emotionally or psychologically to the pangs of first love. The song fails to make that distinction.

Let’s return to the more current issue at hand, racism in Welch’s newest video. In the same interview with Melissa Block, Welch expands on her musical philosophy, providing some insight into the primitivist elements in the video.

The music is a “primal and tribal bashing of percussion, mixed with the choral side of the backing vocals,” Welch explained in April of 2010.

Ceremonials was released in October of 2011, though the juxtaposition of “tribal” and “choral” elements feature prominently in the “No Light, No Light,” video.

The video grossly misrepresents race and tribalism, creating a pseudo-ritual with a voodoo doll, mask, and dancing evocative of possession rituals. The producers of the video take it a step further with a scene of the black man chasing Welch, a white woman down an alley.

The racial, primitive character does not represent any actual culture or race. He stands vilified and wild next to the purity of an all-boys church choir and Welch herself.

Blogs through Jezebel and Racialicious  analyzed and critiqued this video more thoroughly than I. Racialicious suggests that this insensitivity appears in Florence + The Machine’s video for “The Dog Days are Over” — another example that the band exhibits ignorance in their lyrics and videos. hoped to collect 2,500 signatures to demand an apology for “No Light, No Light” but only reached 902. I think continuing the discussion about the video and the band will inform more than a petition or apology.

In any case, it remains important for viewers / listeners / consumers of pop culture to consider intentional or unwitting messages in their media. As producers of popular media Florence Welch and her band take poetic license into the realm of ignorance and insensitivity toward diversity and violence. Perhaps they should join this conversation.

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Young Dancers Practice Community and “Hard, Darn Work”

I found a gym filled with funk music, young people twirling and tumbling, and a faint smell of fruit juice and chocolate cookies when I showed up to the East Madison Community Center on Tuesday. Sashe Mishur, a dancer who studied classical ballet, explained the basics of b-boying (aka breakdancing) to me during an open practice session. Mishur wore her curly grey hair half up – displaying the rhinestones on the sides of her cat-eye glasses – and spoke of the program and the dance style with enthusiasm.

 B-boying began in New York as part of the hip-hop movement among African-American and Latino youth. Those who dance in that style reject the term breakdance, Mishur explained, as it refers to the commercialized version of the culture. B-boying is now a global phenomenon.

“The most dope dancers are Korean,” said Mishur.

The group at the EMCC displayed a wide demographic. Children as young as eight danced with teenagers and adults. Hmong, African-American, and white teens danced together. And Mishur boasted that five b-girls attend regularly.

“I’ve never worked with a group that had less sexism,” she said.

Two years ago she started inviting teens in the area to practice their dance and learn from each other. Since then they’ve added a second session each week, and junior dancers (aged 8-10) recently joined in. A few experienced adult dancers, including an Epic employee and a fifth-grade teacher, help instruct and oversee the students.

“I think some of them are born dancers. And what they’re learning is that dance is hard, darn work,” said Mishur.

The students learn from each other, with observation and diligent practice. Mishur estimates 40 attendees at each of the twice-weekly sessions. The program continues to grow, despite a $0 budget and strictly word-of-mouth promotions.

The EMCC provides the gym and Mishur’s time, as she serves as an outreach worker for the center. Mishur relies on volunteers to supervise and prepare food. Because of the lack of budget, she finds snacks for the group at local food pantries. Many of the students come straight from school and spend four hours (from 4-8 p.m.) dancing at the center.  Mishur hopes to provide them dinner in the future

For the time being, cookies, orange wedges, and juice suffice for snacks, but Mishur believes the sessions can serve up “courage and fortitude.”

“Like any other discipline, as you master the dance you learn a lot of life skills,” she said.

She explained that she’s never enjoyed a job more than the time she spends with the dancers at EMCC who show up twice a week, greet her with hugs, and practice their art.

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Nepal and Ghana: As You’ve Never Heard Them Before

Late on Friday after the last shows of the night, two musicians, tired from their performance and recent travels, postponed their respective dinners to sit down with me and discuss their musical styles and philosophies. I interviewed two artists (and three organizers) with the Madison World Festival on September 16 for a radio and a print story. Through this process the quality of the music and the accessibility of the performers blew me away. Rapper Blitz the Ambassador and the percussionist in the contemporary, Nepali folk group Kutumba shared comments on their respective musical styles and missions. Blitz grew up inGhana, lives in New York City, and incorporates the cultures and musics of those locales into his own fusion style of world/funk/rap/afro beat. The group Kutumba from Nepal boasts a name synonymous with community strength and unity, and that philosophy comes through in their music as it came through in our interview.

My first interview of the night included Pavit Maharjan from Kutumba and the group’s tour director Shisir Khanal. Pavit explained the process of the group’s formation: they joined together to create a contemporary music of Nepal with local instruments, and consequently began preserving the diverse musical traditions of various ethnic groups through the country. The band members have thus learned and incorporated music from a variety of outlets, including traditional Nepalese, classical European, classical Indian, heavy metal, and jazz music. Shisir and Pavit told me of the difficulties traveling around Nepal (i.e. 30 hours to cover less than 400 miles), yet they toured the country twice. After these tours, Kutumba can boast a huge following of young and old Nepalese. Shisir said it best: “I’ve seen in Nepal, thousands and thousands of young people come to Kutumba’s concerts who are the biggest fans of rap and pop. But here Kutumba comes with traditional instruments and they say ‘wow, I’m Nepali, and I’m proud.’”

Blitz expressed a similar desire to capture young people’s attention from the allure of pop music. He’s happy to play festivals and universities to more “privileged” audiences in Europe and the US, but as he explained, “My direct audience, that I want to influence the most, it’s these young adults coming up, who really have no options – or perceivably have no options, think they have no options. [These young people] come from harder backgrounds and are influenced highly by pop culture. This means there’s often a lot of garbage being consumed. Because pop culture is pop culture … it’s not there to inform, it’s not there for critical thinking.” Blitz’s music captivates through his fusion hip hop: his lyrics are insightful and the music is dance-able. He reaches out to young people in New York and in Ghana, and his music has the aesthetic appeal and strong message to touch young and old, privileged and underprivileged.

Since my interviews, I have purchased and enjoyed albums by each performer. It’s obvious on these albums that Blitz, Pavit and their bands have mastered their art, creating unique sounds with substantial messages behind them. I tend to enjoy music more when I understand where it’s coming from. These artists don’t just share their legacy with you, they take you on a journey.

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