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031119-lobster-on-ice

The quirky Frog & Toad shop on Hope Street carries a variety of these funny metal creatures. This lobster on ice is an especially good one for New England.

Most weeks when I am in Providence, I volunteer at Dorcas International Tuesday morning and at the Genesis Center Tuesday afternoon. Last week, because Dorcas was doing its standardized testing, I had the morning off and decided to stop in at the Swedish-themed shop called Café Choklad and then at the nearby Rhode Island School of Design Museum. Here are a few photos of that morning and another day of Providence wandering.

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Photo: Timothy Duffy
The album Black Cowboys, by Dom Flemons, retells the settling of America’s West through a new lens. It was nominated in the Best Folk Album category for a 2019 Grammy.

I’m not a big traveler. I’ve liked seeing whatever I’ve seen in distant parts of the world, but I can’t get over the idea that I’m missing a lot of interesting stuff in my own backyard — in my neighborhood, in my country.

Here is a story about a singer who was determined to use music to rescue an important swath of our country’s history from obscurity.

Ryan Heinsius writes at National Public Radio [NPR], “Dom Flemons’ latest album, Black Cowboys, is a collection of seldom-heard stories about the roles African-Americans played in settling the West after America’s Civil War. The album’s inspiration came during a road trip back home where the fifth generation Arizonan became enamored with an obscure collection of stories.

” ‘I came across a book called The Negro Cowboys that talked about how one in four cowboys who helped settle the West were African-American cowboys,’ Flemons, a co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, says. ‘And being an African-American person that’s half-African-American, half-Mexican-American from the Southwest, I just found that to be a fascinating story.’

“Now, the album has earned Flemons a 2019 Grammy nomination in the category of best folk album. …

” ‘You have people coming from slavery and emancipation and then, through their hard work and perseverance, in spite of the obstacles they had, they were able to create a new social order that still influences us to this day,’ Flemons explains.

“The former slaves-turned-settlers Flemons sings about were able to transcend segregation in the Western states. For example, Bass Reeves, the first African-American deputy U.S. Marshal in the West was likely the towering inspiration for the Lone Ranger.

“Working on the album over the course of two years became deeply personal for Flemons. His grandfather was a sawmill worker, preacher and World War II army veteran from East Texas and the musician says he sees his own family’s history in these cowboy stories. He also sees the societal legacy in these stories. ‘Steel Pony Blues’ chronicles Nat Love, who was born into slavery worked on an Arizona ranch and then became a railroad porter. That legacy, Flemons says, would eventually influence the early leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.” More at NPR, here.

And there’s a nice interview by Ja’han Jones at the Huffington Post, here, in which Flemons says, “one of the things I did for this album was visit the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. They approached me around the time I started to develop the project, so when I went there, being one of a few black people there, everybody at the event was so excited that I was doing a something about black cowboys. They knew all of these stories, but no one had ever touched this in the way I was doing. So I was given a lot of great information.”

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Photos: The Hu/YouTube
The Mongolian heavy metal band the Hu, which combines traditional instruments with Western sounds, has attracted a following on YouTube. “If lions come, we’ll fight until the end … If elephants come, we’ll fight in a rage … If you come as snakes, we’ll become Garuda birds and fly over you.”

I don’t know the first thing about heavy metal, although I have always supposed it was a rebellion thing, like punk. But as I’m always interested in cultures that are foreign to my own, I was intrigued by a National Public Radio [NPR] story about how a band in Mongolia has adapted heavy metal iconography and sounds for its own purposes.

Katya Cengel wrote, “A band from Mongolia that blends the screaming guitars of heavy metal and traditional Mongolian guttural singing has picked up 7 million views for its two videos.

“Leather jackets, skull rings and bandannas alongside intricately carved Mongolian horsehead fiddles are just some of the images in the first two music videos the Mongolian band The Hu released on YouTube this fall. Excited listeners from around the globe have posted comments like: ‘This makes me want to ride a horse and shoot people with a bow’ and ‘This sounds like ancient mongol rock of 1000 b.c.’ …

“As the Soviet Union crumbled and Western influence flooded in during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mongolian musicians chose to preserve Mongolian culture while also adapting new influences, explains University of Chicago ethnomusicology doctoral student Thalea Stokes. …

” ‘Mongolians are not just taking elements from Western music and just copying and pasting,’ says Stokes. Instead, they’re using some of these elements and making their own authentic music. ‘So it’s not rock music performed by Mongolians. It’s Mongolian rock music,’ she says.

 

“Mongolian rock combines traditional Mongolian instruments … It also involves singing in a guttural way known as throat singing while throwing heads back and forth reminiscent of the headbanging of ’80s heavy metal bands.  …

“The Hu call their style ‘hunnu rock’ — from the Mongolian root word for human being: ‘hu.’ The band spent seven years putting together its first album, which it expects to release this spring. They plan to call it Gereg, the name for a diplomatic passport used during the time of Genghis Khan. [The] idea was to find, study and incorporate as much of Mongolia’s musical culture as they could into a rock style, says the band’s 52-year-old producer and songwriter, B. Dashdondog, who goes by ‘Dashka.’ …

” ‘We wanted to come up with our own thing that we can offer to this big music family. Make something new,’ says Dashka, who spoke through a translator via Skype.

“It is not just their instruments that incorporate traditional elements. In the band’s first song, ‘Yuve Yuve Yu’ (What’s going on?), they mention Genghis Khan and how he was fated to bring nations together. The video begins with images of people inside playing video games, watching television and looking at their phones. A door is opened and the band’s four members step into different natural settings: cliffs, desert, forest and lake. The message they hope to convey through their lyrics and imagery is that people need to pay attention to nature and their history and culture, explains lead singer TS. Galbadrakh, known as ‘Gala,’ 29.”

More at NPR, here.

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Northampton Town v Forest Green Rovers - Sky Bet League Two

Photo: Pete Norton/Getty Images
Reuben Reid (front) of the Forest Green Rovers in England went fully vegan after the team’s owner introduced healthful food. He says it’s made a huge difference in his life.

Even after the retirement of founding host Bill Littlefield, the WBUR show Only a Game continues to have stories that appeal to sports lovers and lay people alike. I got a kick out of this one about England’s vegan soccer team.

Gary Waleik was the reporter.

“The menu at sports events has traditionally been a bit limited … and unhealthy. Especially at soccer games in England.

” ‘On a match day, you’re looking at a lot of sausages, burgers, bacon sandwiches. Quick and easy fried food,’ says Forest Green Rovers striker Reuben Reid. His team is broadening its menu with healthier fare. But that’s just one part of a much larger mission.

“In 2010, Forest Green Rovers, then a fifth-tier football club in Nailsworth, England, was in financial trouble. Dale Vince, who loved the sport as a kid, was approached by the team.

” ‘They said they needed a little bit of help to get through the summer,’ Vince says. ‘And I thought it would be a nice thing to do — because we could, so we should. But within a couple of months, it was clear that they needed much more than just a little bit of money.

” ‘And they said to me, “You really need to be the Chairman.” And I said, “I really don’t. I’ve got so much else to do.” But I then faced the choice — if I walked away, they would fold.’

“It was heady stuff for a guy who, two decades before, was living a hermit’s life on a hill in England’s bucolic Cotswolds region.

” ‘I had an old U.S. Air Force radar trailer that I rescued from a scrap yard and converted into a home,’ Vince says.

“In 1991, he was traveling in Cornwall. And something caught his eye.

” ‘It was England’s first modern, proper wind farm,’ Vince says. … That inspired him to build his own windmill farm, beginning in 1996. He called his new company Ecotricity. It was a big risk.

” ‘When I got started, renewable energy powered about 2 percent of Britain,’ Vince says. ‘Last year, it was 30 percent. And we’ve grown to be a company of about 700 people supplying about 200,000 customers.’ …

” ‘I saw the opportunity to use football as a new channel to speak to a new audience of people about sustainability,’ Vince says. ‘It’s still a football club, but it’s become something else, as well.’ …

” ‘We cut red meat out of the menu straight away for the players. We did it across the whole ground at the same time, so staff and fans and visitors as well. And then we took a series of other steps over the next couple of years toward full-on veganism.’

“The team dropped all meat, fish and dairy. By 2015, Dale Vince was the Chairman of the world’s first vegan sports team.

‘There were people at the time that said, “You’re gonna kill the club. Nobody’s gonna eat it. This kinda stuff,’ Vince remembers.”

Read more here.

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Photo: Bangkok Post
Masked dance tradition rises from near extinction in Cambodia.

Dictators try their hardest to wipe out whole cultures and groups of people. They can do horrific damage, but they can never fully succeed in their evil intentions. From whatever is left, new shoots will grow. The Khmer Rouge and the tyrant Pol Pot (1963 to 1981), for example, thought they could crush traditional arts in Cambodia, but today those arts are rebounding. In addition to resurrecting Cambodian ballet, devotees are also bringing back masked dance.

Check out this story by Chantha Lach, Panu Wongcha-um at Reuters.

“Cambodia’s centuries-old tradition of masked dance was nearly wiped out by the Khmer Rouge’s ‘Killing Fields’ regime, but a handful of artists managed to keep it alive and are now working to pass it along to a new generation.

“Sun Rithy’s father and grandfather were both performers of the Lakhon Khol masked dance, but the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge — who scorned most art as decadent — banned its study when he was a child in the 1970s.

“Now 48, Sun Rithy leads one of the last Lakhon Khol troupes in Cambodia, made up of about 20 performers and students aged six to 15. …

“Lakhon Khol was recently listed by UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, as an intangible cultural heritage, along with neighboring Thailand’s version of the dance, known as Khon. …

“ ‘In the Khmer Rouge, I was young and they didn’t teach people dance. Lakhon Khol was destroyed,’ said Sun Rithy, who started to learn the dance when he was 14, after the Khmer Rouge were ousted from power.

“Ahead of a recent rehearsal, students stretched their legs and hands at the troupe’s a newly built theater at Wat Svay Andet, a Buddhist temple outside the capital, Phnom Penh. …

“Cambodian Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, Phoeurng Sackona, said that the dance needed immediate preservation and urged all people to get involved.

“ ‘Elderly performers are trying to preserve the dance at this Wat Svay Andet,’ Phoeurng Sackona told Reuters. ‘But it is up to young people whether they agree or not to receive knowledge from the elders.’

“Thailand’s version of the dance has fared better than its neighbor’s, but practitioners still depend on recruiting a new generation of performers. Thailand’s Khon tradition, originally centered on the royal court, is now taught by many schools and universities.

“Mom Luang Pongsawad Sukhasvasti, 67, has followed his father’s footstep in making Khon masks since he was 10 and still hand-fashions the masks from his home studio in Ayutthaya province, north of Bangkok.

“Each mask takes a month to produce, from molding the plaster to drawing the intricate details. Pongsawad said the UNESCO listing could boost awareness.

“ ‘Teachers now must do more than teaching the dance,’ he said. ‘They need to help students understand the roots as well to preserve it.’ ” More here.

This effort reminds me of the book Farenheit 451, which takes its name from the temperature at which book paper burns. Did you see the movie, with Julie Christie playing two different women? In the Ray Bradbury story, a future civilization bans books, but in a secret camp of outlaws, each individual takes on a book to memorize to keep the treasures of literature alive. They walk around most of the day reciting David Copperfield or whatever. The experience of Cambodia suggests the 1954 science fiction story was not so far-fetched.

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Photo: Tom Gralish / Philadelphia Inquirer
Composer Andrea Clearfield sought new sounds when composing her Buddhist-enlightenment opera. Here she is pictured with Tibetan instruments from her personal collection.

A Philadelphia composer who was writing an opera decided that, much as she loved Western classical instruments, they wouldn’t be enough to capture “enlightenment.” So she ordered new sounds.

David Patrick Stearns had a report at the Inquirer in January.

“Philadelphia composer Andrea Clearfield knows to warn her downstairs neighbors when her opera is scheduled to erupt. ‘I’m writing a destruction scene. Beware!’ …

“The commotion-causing opera is Mila, Great Sorcerer: It will have a semi-staged presentation Jan. 12-13 [2019] in New York City’s Prototype Festival and dramatizes a Tibetan Buddhist parable of annihilation and enlightenment. The more demonic sections have music she describes as ‘macabre circus … dark tango … a nod to the Mummers strut,’ played by Western orchestra augmented with horns, bowls, and bells from Nepal.

“Yet the story — about a young man who acquires dark powers for revenge and is later transformed into one of the most venerated teachers in Tibetan Buddhism — still asked for something more.

Clearfield wanted sounds she had never heard, from an ethereal tricked-out music box to a drone that suggests something primeval welling up from the center of the Earth. Instrument maker David Kontak created seven new instruments to produce them.

” ‘I was looking for a third world,’ Clearfield said in her Philadelphia studio, ‘a world that is not electronic, not acoustic, blends the voices and instruments, is East and West, and is capable of transmitting this story of ultimate transformation.’ …

“Clearfield had been thinking about the subject matter for a while when by chance she met playwright Jean-Claude Van Itallie, who had adapted The Tibetan Book of the Dead for the stage and who had already written a libretto about Mila with Lois Walden. …

“Even better, the libretto was commissioned by a pair of producers who originally considered a film about Mila but concluded opera would be a better way to tell the story.

“ ‘I’m a composer who met the writer who had written the libretto to the opera I wanted to write,’ Clearfield said. ‘How often does that conversation happen?’ …

“[Says] Gene Kaufman, ‘and some moments choose you.’ Kaufman, who is producing the opera with his wife, Terry Eder, finds that ancient religious mythology contains ‘the accumulated wisdom of centuries to which modern life is only a retelling. We just need to listen. …

“Interestingly, much Mila iconography shows him with hand cupped to his ear: Listening was a major element of his enlightenment. …

“During Clearfield’s residency at the Yaddo artist colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., she often asked other Yaddo artists what enlightenment sounds like to them. The artist/author/musician/documentarian Laurie Anderson replied, ‘The resonance [that is] left in the room.’ …

“As much as Clearfield and her collaborators have immersed themselves in Tibetan culture, the greatest impact on the opera itself may not be religious or even philosophical, but elemental.

” ‘You feel the aliveness of everything [in Nepal]. Even in the rocks,’ she said.”

More here.

Bhutanese painting thanka of Milarepa [Mila]. Here Mila is listening, “reminding you to stay awake. Stay awake to your life — and move forward,” says Inquirer reporter David Patrick Stearns.

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Photo: Annie Tritt for the New York Times
Muriel Miguel, a founder of the feminist Native American collective Spiderwoman Theater, is considered a grandmother of the Indigenous theater movement in the United States and Canada.

I’ve been interested to read how indigenous peoples around the world are reaching out to one another and starting to benefit from the strength of numbers. One result has been the emergence of international festivals staking out a place for native people in the arts world. I’m late with this story, but I wanted you to know about one such festival. It took place in January in New York City.

Siobhan Burke at the New York Times noted in particular that a grandmother of the Indigenous theater movement in the United States and Canada, Brooklyn-born playwright Muriel Miguel, was scheduled to be “among the 30 or so artists participating in this year’s First Nations Dialogues New York/Lenapehoking. (Lenapehoking is the homeland of the Lenape, the original inhabitants of the area encompassing New York City.) Taking place at multiple downtown theaters, the Dialogues bring together Indigenous performing artists from Australia, Canada and the United States for a week of performances, discussions and other gatherings, beginning Jan. 5. …

“In drawing attention to the breadth of contemporary Indigenous performance — with works spanning dance, theater, performance art and genres in between — the Dialogues are something rare for New York, if not unprecedented. Describing what to expect is not easy and not intended to be. In deciding what to program, the chief organizers — [Merindah Donnelly, an organizer of the series and the executive producer of BlakDance in Australia], the choreographer Emily Johnson, and Vallejo Gantner, the former director of Performance Space — set out to challenge a notion they often come across, that Indigenous performance fits any single description. …

“Ms. Donnelly said. ‘The people making it are Indigenous, but Indigenous is not a genre.’ …

The offerings here — many of which deal with themes of trauma, grief and healing — include Ms. Miguel’s Pulling Threads Fabric Workshop, in which storytelling and quilting serve as tools for mending old wounds. …

“While the tone may be somber at times, there is also much to celebrate. SJ Norman, an Australian artist of Wiradjuri and Wonnaruah heritage, said in an email that the opportunity to gather in New York ‘feels like an honoring of the continued existence of our peoples in the big city, as well as the dynamism and globalism of our peoples, which is absolutely vast.’ …

“A Native Alaskan artist of Yupik ancestry, Ms. Johnson has been working tirelessly to counter what she calls ‘the perceived invisibility’ of Indigenous performing artists, particularly in the United States. …

“One approach to bringing the United States up to speed is an ambitious pilot program, the Global First Nations Performance Network, which will be in development during this year’s Dialogues. … The network also requires, of each presenter, a commitment to undergoing what Mr. Gantner calls ‘a kind of decolonization process.’ …

“Ms. Johnson sees this year’s Dialogues as a microcosm of what the network may eventually accomplish, including opening up international exchange. For the Australian choreographer Mariaa Randall, whose ‘Footwork/Technique,’ [explores] the footwork of Aboriginal dances, a highlight of the Dialogues is the chance to simply talk and listen with peers from around the world.

“ ‘In our countries we can become kind of siloed,’ she said. ‘I want to be able to sit with and see and hear from other First Nations females: what their struggles are, their achievements, and how they continue to keep their culture and their practice together, to keep moving forward, because sometimes it is really hard.’ ”

More at the New York Times, here.

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