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Photo: Associated Press
If it’s a heavy metal knitting competition, it has to be Finland. Finland has the world’s most unusual contests.

I love stories about the unique contests the Finns come up with. Remember cellphone tossing, swamp soccer, and wife throwing? So glad the Huffington Post shared this July report from the Associated Press.

“Armed with needles and a yarn of wool, teams of avid knitters danced Thursday to the deafening sounds of drums beating and guitars slashing at the first-ever Heavy Metal Knitting World Championship in eastern Finland.

“With stage names such as Woolfumes, Bunny Bandit and 9″ Needles, the participants shared a simple goal: to showcase their knitting skills while dancing to heavy metal music in the most outlandish way possible. …

“The competition took place in a packed square in the small town of Joensuu close to the Russian border. An eclectic group of around 200 people watched the performances, from families with young children and elderly to the less conspicuous heavy metal fans donning leather-jackets and swirling their long hair to the fast-paced rhythm of the music.

“A niche musical genre in many countries, heavy metal is more mainstream in Finland, with several bands household names frequently played on the radio. Its popularity grew further in 2006 when the Finnish band Lordi won the Eurovision Song Contest dressed as monsters. …

” ‘In Finland it’s very dark in the wintertime, so maybe it’s in our roots. We’re a bit melancholic, like the rhythm,’ said Mark Pyykkonen, one of three people judging the competition. …

“Said Mari Karjalainen, one of the founders of the event, ‘[Winter] really gives us lots of time to plan for our short summers and come up with silly ideas.’

“Thursday’s competition saw participants from nine countries, including the United States, Japan, and Russia, put on inspired performances full of theatrics, passion and drama and the jury struggled to agree upon a winner.

“Finally, it was a Japanese performance by the five-person Giga Body Metal team that clinched the title with a show featuring crazy sumo wrestlers and a man dressed in a traditional Japanese kimono.

“ ‘It’s a great release,’ said Elise Schut, a 35-year-old nurse from Michigan who performed with her 71-year-old mother and 64-year-old family friend, Beth Everson, who added that ‘knitting is such a meditative activity but now it’s energetic and heart pumping.’ ”

More.

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As you know from your earliest history classes, the first immigrants arrived in Virginia in 1607.

For good or evil, depending on how much you identify with an indigenous heritage, immigrants have made America what it is today. The migration started as early as 1607 in Virginia.

That’s what came to mind when I read this news story about the contribution of immigrants to the economy of present-day Virginia.

Katie O’Connor writes at the Virginia Mercury, “A new report from the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis says immigrants are key contributors to the state’s overall economy, despite challenges that include health insurance access, discrimination, language barriers, ‘brain waste’ and housing costs. …

“As many parts of Virginia struggle to find enough workers, many immigrants are ‘relatively young, well educated, fluent in English and more likely to participate in the workforce.’

“The one million immigrants in Virginia make up 12.5 percent of the state population. … And while immigration from Mexico tends to dominate the national debate, Virginia’s immigrant population comes from a wide variety of countries.

“ ‘Mexican immigrants make up just 5% of all immigrants in Virginia, fourth after people born in El Salvador (11%), India (9%), and Korea (6%),’ the report says. ‘Looking at continent of birth, rather than country of birth, there is a similar diversity. Forty-three percent of Virginia’s immigrant population was born in Asia, the largest group from any continent.’ Most of them are also between the prime working ages of 25 and 54. …

“ ‘Immigrants participate in Virginia’s workforce at a much higher rate than U.S.-born residents — 72 percent compared to 65 percent — and at a rate six percentage points higher than the national participation for foreign-born residents.’

“But the report also points to public policies that would help address the challenges immigrants face. More than one in three noncitizen residents lack access to health insurance in Virginia, ‘even worse than in the country as a whole,’ the report states. …

“Immigrants face all the challenges that come with lack of health insurance, like large medical bills and a lack of preventative care. Virginia is also one of only six states to require legal, noncitizens to work for at least 10 years before they qualify for Medicaid.

“Housing and poverty remain problems for the state’s immigrants, as does what’s called ‘brain waste’: when people aren’t working jobs that match their educational attainment.

“ ‘In Virginia, 21 percent of college-educated immigrants 25 and older are working in low-skill jobs or are unemployed. This is well above the average for U.S.-born Virginians,’ the report states. ‘Lawmakers, employers, and workforce development officials all have a role to play in reducing this needless inefficiency and maximizing opportunity for the state.’ ” More.

When a much-needed resource is right under our noses, it’s penny wise and pound foolish not to help it flourish.

Hat tip: Economic Policy Institute on twitter.

P.S. I can’t resist adding this poem by Emily Dickinson from today’s Boston Globe:
“These Strangers, in a foreign World,
“Protection asked of me—
“Befriend them, lest Yourself in Heaven
“Be found a Refugee—”

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Photo: Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater
Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater, based in Chicago, is among a growing number of American flamenco companies.

I had no idea that there is a vibrant branch of flamenco dance culture evolving right here in the United States, but a recent article in Dance Magazine set me straight. Alice Blumenfeld begins by noting a Dance Magazine interview with Cuban Flamenco star Irene Rodriguez.

The interview, she says, ‘mentions only a few of the many flamenco companies in the U.S. and claims a lack of innovation in American flamenco. [It] brings to the forefront a deeper problem surrounding flamenco in the United States.

“Why are so many flamenco dance companies and dancers in the U.S. — especially those pushing the form forward — overlooked and undervalued? Why do we constantly have to defend our work?

“When I toured the U.S. with Flamenco Vivo, my first two tours I wore the iconic red bata de cola. I’d run onstage and hit a pose in the middle of the first piece — and almost without fail, the audience would cheer. I’d hold my pose, chest and chin lifted, castanets drawn and ready. But in my head, I was thinking: Why are they clapping? I’ve done nothing worthy of applause — entering the stage and making a pose is not such a special feat. Presumably, it was the appearance of the red dress and the dramatic change in lighting.

“Why is the audience trained to clap at that moment? I could start with Franco, who used the image of the flamenco dancer to attract tourists to Spain. The woman in the red dress is even an emoji. …

“Pursuing flamenco outside the norms is not so easy. … Sometimes, flamenco is sidelined because it isn’t fully understood. (One MFA program called and asked me why I wanted an MFA, since I was a flamenco dancer. Only upon including in my answer that I also study contemporary dance and had a foundation in ballet did it seem to make sense to them.)

“I am ever-grateful to my experiences dancing with several of companies Rodriguez admires … But only as I started to branch out did I realize there are many people breaking boundaries in flamenco in the U.S. in incredible ways that could only be possible in the melting pot that is America. … Many cities in the U.S. champion vibrant flamenco scenes with outstanding dancers and musicians, and some, like Pittsburgh and Austin, have burgeoning scenes. Building a flamenco community takes decades of tireless work, and many of us creating today are standing on the shoulders of often unrecognized artists.

“As foreigners, we have to prove five times over we know the rules before we can break them. … I want aspiring flamenco dancers to know it’s okay to not wear a red dress and polka dots, to branch out, and to explore one’s own style, story and self through flamenco. And I want audiences to know flamenco is more than passionate and fiery footwork. …

“I want people to understand there is an ever-expanding horizon in flamenco, that flamenco has a specific (and fascinating!) political and cultural history. … Flamenco can be for anyone willing to put in the time to study it — the technique, structures, history, music — and then deepen that knowledge with their own interpretation.”

More here.

Photo: Angelica Escoto/ Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana
Alice Blumenfeld performing with Flamenco Vivo.

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Greece Enigmatic Islet

Photo: Greek Culture Ministry via AP
A newly discovered stone staircase is seen in the lower terraces of Dhaskalio islet off Keros island in the Aegean Sea, Greece.

I’m a sucker for any story with revelations about Ancient Greece. But the first article I read on excavations on Keros island made wild claims about how they showed the origins of Greek culture and the reasons the ancients thought their gods lived on mountain tops. Worse, in illustrating the story, the newspaper chose a photo of a burial mask that has been around forever. I had a replica of that very mask as a kid, when there was speculation it was Agamemnon’s.

So I looked for a more more factual article.

The Athens-Macedonian News Agency reports at the National Herald, “An extensive and extremely interesting series of exhibitions has been organised on the Cyclades islands this year by the Cyclades Ephorate of Antiquities. …

“Among these are the exhibitions ‘From the world of Homer. Tinos and the Cyclades in the Mycenaean era’ that runs between July 13 and October 14, which is being held in cooperation with the Piraeus Group Cultural Foundation (PIOP) at the its Museum of Marble Craft in the village of Pyrgos, Tinos. A second exhibition [is] to be inaugurated on July 14 at Archaeological Collection of Koufonisia and will run until September 30, 2019.

“ ‘Both exhibitions are extremely important,’ said Dimitris Athanasoulis, Director of the Cyclades Ephorate of Antiquities, to the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA). ‘On the occasion of the founding of the tomb of Agia Thekla in Tinos, we have a first exhibition for an unknown period of the Cyclades, the Mycenaean period, presenting great and unknown material.’ …

“Four-year excavations and research on the extraordinary architectural findings of Kavos on the island of Keros in the Cycladic Islands group confirmed the existence in Early Cycladic times of a complex, stratified and technically expert society.

“[The research programme under Cambridge University] has ‘revealed impressive architectural remains of a significant Early Cycladic settlement,’ the ministry said.
Under the project, excavations took place on the small islet of Daskalio, originally connected to the nearby site of Kavos on Keros through a narrow strip of land. … The remains of the culture at the time include ‘impressive staircases, drainage pipes and stone buildings that reveal an advanced urban architecture without precedence for the specific period. …

” ‘The complicated, interlinked and multi-level architecture shows the existence of a well-organised and well-built settlement on a steep promontory,’ it added. …

“According to co-excavator professor Colin Renfrew, Daskalio shows that the building techniques that were applied, the existence of huge entrance gates, stone ladders and the drainage pipes throughout the island show that there must have been a specialist architect and a central administration to carry out the building programme. He said the complexity of the construction is only comparable to Knossos on Crete for the same early period, he said. …

“Co-director of the site Michael Boyd added that a unique feature of the site includes the fact that metallurgy played a significant role throughout the life of the settlement. Its extent and scale proves a constant replenishing of raw materials from western Cyclades and Attica, and a social structure that trained and passed skills on to newer generations.”

More here.

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Image: South Africa’s Got Talent
What are the chances for a taxi driver with a great voice to move from entertaining his passengers to the opera stage?

I wonder if someone with a tremendous talent who delights himself and a small circle of others with his singing necessarily wants an international audience. That is the question that came to my mind as I read about the fun that a taxi driver in South Africa is having as he sings for passengers.

Stephen Moss writes at the Guardian, “Are opera singers born or made? Are there wonderful natural operatic voices out there waiting to get a break on Britain’s Got Talent? Or maybe on South Africa’s Got Talent, because the reason to pose the question comes courtesy of an opera-loving South African Uber driver called Menzi Mngoma, whose impromptu performances in the front of his cab in Durban have caused a frisson of excitement among those who want to believe that great voices and instant opera stars are all around us.

“Mngoma is a self-taught tenor who likes to belt out arias for his passengers. One of his customers, Kim Davey, liked his singing so much that she posted a video on Facebook. That, in turn, attracted media attention and the 27-year-old Mngoma’s career was launched. He is said to be auditioning for Cape Town Opera. A stadium tour will no doubt follow.

“It generally pays to be suspicious of such stories. The media want to believe in fairytales because they make good copy. Being an opera singer is about more than giving a passable two-minute rendition of ‘La donna è mobile.’ It is singing and acting a role over three or more hours in an opera house twice a week; having the vocal technique to sustain a 20- or even 30-year career; performing a wide range of parts in up to five languages. It is bloody difficult.

“That said, Mngoma does have the spark of something. I played the clip to the Guardian’s opera critic Tim Ashley, and while Ashley said there was barely enough to make a judgment, he thought Mngoma ‘sang “La donna è mobile” perfectly decently and with no strain at the top [of the voice].’ Ashley says that being self-taught is ‘unusual but not completely unheard of.’ …

” ‘You have to be born with talent – that can’t be taught – but teaching will hone that talent,’ says Martha Hartman, the manager of the vocal studies department at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She says that singers do not have to start studying in their teens: the Guildhall has several students in their late 20s, including one who used to be a builder. But she emphasises that natural talent is not enough. …

“If Mngoma wants to be a professional opera singer, the hard work starts now. ‘If you find a singing teacher and if you hone your skills and if you have some classes in stagecraft and movement and drama and all these things that go into being a singer,’ says Hartman, ‘then you might have some roads open to you. But most opera houses and orchestras will demand knowledge of repertoire, and that’s a very big piece of the puzzle: knowing how to learn music and learn a role.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: estonianworld.com
The Estonian Song Celebration every five years brings together a huge choir of up to 30,000 people for a weekend in July.

How do you get 30,000 people to sing together and hit the same note at the same time? It’s not easy. But if any group of people can do it, it’s the Estonians. They’ve had a lot of practice.

Writes Estonian World, “The Estonian Song Celebration is a unique event, which every five years brings together a huge choir of up to 30,000 people for a weekend in July. Approximately 100,000 spectators enjoy the concerts and sing along to the most popular songs.

“The first Song Celebration was initiated in 1869 by newspaper publisher Johann Voldemar Jannsen and celebrated freedom and the 50th anniversary of the end of Estonian serfdom at the hands of the Russian tsar in 1819. The first singing event was held in Tartu, with 878 male singers and brass musicians. All the songs were in Estonian and Estonians – mostly peasants and farmers at the time – discovered the value of their own language and cultural heritage through singing. …

“After the Second World War, during the Soviet occupation of Estonia, the song celebrations again helped keep the national identity alive. In the summer of 1988, several hundred thousand people gathered at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds and sang for freedom for many days and nights. Dubbed ‘The Singing Revolution,’ it indirectly led to Estonia’s independence once again in 1991.

“The 27th Song Celebration [features] 1,020 choirs, which include over 35,000 singers. The youngest participant is Emma Kannik (5) from Musamari Koorikool (Tallinn) and the oldest is Aino (90) from the New York Estonian Choir.

“The smallest choir of 12 singers is Kauksi Primary School Choir and the largest is the European Estonian Choir, with 123 singers. The latter is not the only expat choir – 25 Estonian choirs from abroad and 17 foreign choirs are performing at the celebration.

“The emotional celebration kicked off with a traditional parade on 6 July, during which the performers walked along a five-kilometre route from the Tallinn city centre to the Song Festival Grounds, where 82,000 people later watched them perform old and new Estonian choral songs and other classical pieces. …

“Tickets sold out on Sunday as 95,000 people came to Tallinn’s Song Festival Grounds for the second day of the 150th anniversary of the Song Celebration, Minu Arm (My Love). … There were more singers, more choirs, more tickets sold, and there had been more dancers than ever before at dance festival earlier in the week. The festival organisers said there were 1,020 choirs, 35,000 singers, and 11,500 dancers. …

“[Song Celebration’s artistic director, Peeter Perens] noted his ideas for the song celebration had been built on the Finno-Ugric culture, which the Estonia language comes from, and the European culture which brought the singing festivals to Estonia more than 150 years ago. The programme was created three years ago and since then more than 300 rehearsals took place. …

“[Marju Lauristin, professor emeritus at the University of Tartu,] discussed her research that shows that 48% of the Estonian population has, at some time in their lives, taken part in the song celebration and is one of the remaining activities that is enjoyed by the whole of society.

“Discussing the history of the song celebration, she said, ‘Through 150 years these people have the same memories, coming together in winter, through snow, in times when there were no cars, no internet, walking 10-15 kilometres to school or place where they would gather and have a singing society, all over the country.’ …

“Lauristin added that the atmosphere of the song celebration had changed over the years from one of bitterness during the Soviet occupation, to one of joy today.

“[Composer Riho Esko Maimets said] that the experience of being at the celebration felt ‘very selfless, [like you are] existing as one little particle in a great mass of your nation.’  More here.

I’m impressed that so many people can sing together. I gave up on our town’s Christmas tree carol singing because the people on one side of the tree were always at a different place in the song than the people on the other side. And that leader was trying to keep together fewer than 100 people, not 30,000!

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Astronaut-honoring butter sculpture at the Ohio State Fair. Butter sculptures are traditional at many Midwest state fairs.

How I remember the kooky state-fair butter sculptures I saw when I lived in Minnesota! This year, to honor the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, there was a particularly unusual one at the Ohio state fair.

Elizabeth Howell wrote at Space.com in July, “The Ohio State Fair is buttering up its visitors with a sculpture series to celebrate the big moon-landing anniversary 50 years ago.

“The sculptures are of the Apollo 11 moon crew – Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins – as well as a separate buttery interpretation of Armstrong in his spacesuit by the lunar module, Eagle. There’s also a butter cow and calf standing beside the Apollo 11 patch. This took more than 2,200 pounds (1,000 kilograms) of butter to create. …

“Said Jenny Hubble, senior vice president of communications for the American Dairy Association Mideast, [the sculpture] pays special tribute to Armstrong, who is originally from Wapakoneta, Ohio. …

“In between gazing at the yellow sculptures of the crew, visitors will have a choice of many dairy foods, including ice cream, milkshakes, cheese sandwiches — and of course, milk.

“While the butter connection seems at first to be a stretch, Armstrong did buy a dairy farm in Ohio after leaving NASA in 1971, two years after his epic first steps on the moon, according to a 2012 article in the Independent.” More.

According to Wikipedia, “Butter sculptures often depict animals, people, buildings and other objects. They are best known as attractions at state fairs in the United States as lifesize cows and people. … Butter carving was an ancient craft in Tibet, Babylon, Roman Britain and elsewhere. The earliest documented butter sculptures date from Europe in 1536, where they were used on banquet tables. The earliest pieces in the modern sense as public art date from ca. 1870s America, created by Caroline Shawk Brooks, a farm woman from Helena, Arkansas. The heyday of butter sculpturing was about 1890-1930, but butter sculptures are still a popular attraction at agricultural fairs, banquet tables and as decorative butter patties.”

Butter Art: Caroline Shawk Brooks, 19th century Arkansas farm woman
“Dreaming Iolanthe” depicts Yolande, Duchess of Lorraine, the heroine of Henrik Hertz’s play
King René’s Daughter. Says Wikipedia, “It was this 1876 masterpiece that ignited popular interest in butter sculpting as a public art form. The bowl was kept cool with ice underneath it.”
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