Thursday, October 31, 2013

Heavy, Heavy, Halloween

There is a little persimmon tree in our back yard with dozens of squat, oblong orange fruit hanging off, all 累累[1].  Climbing up the tree is a sturdy vine that remains green, off which a few enormous squash dangle and a Virginia Creeper that has gone all red.  A few dusty chickadees are there, standing midway up, picking at the fruit until a bullyboy blue magpie, lands and they all scatter.

I’ve had some time to consider this scene as I’ve just stood for the past hour with my face pressed up against the screen window.  It’s the only place in the house where you can get reliable cell phone coverage and so I was pinioned there, smelling that zinc screen smell considering the chickadees and the fruit.  The moment you turn away from the window it seems, the other party says “John?  John are you there?”  So you’ve no choice but to resume the position. 

It’s Halloween here in Beijing and orange fruit, the green vine, and the blood red leaves are the right, evocative color combination for the day.  Orange in ascendency, our Jack O’ lantern out there grinning atop the leaves set beside all this fallen fruit.  The kids will be home early from school today.  They’ll get costumed up and we’ll head out into the wild autumn night, armed with pillow cases to conduct their villa compound plunder.  American soft power, American gluttony, waxing full.  What kid with a choice would forgo a night of costumes and free candy with the world turned on its head?   Will China’s indomitable rise one day mean the soft power projection of Chinese holidays on to the rest of the world? Dragon Boat racing in every city with a river? Ancestor Grave Sweeping Day on the rise the developing world?

The U.S. version of the holiday goes global because things like packaged candy are mass-produced early, Hollywood reinforces the ethos with a thousand films and children are indoctrinated with this irresistible ceremony of youthful mystery and consumption.  America had some of these commercial possibilities first and established their version of ceremony as a modern norm. 

Riffing in the “Seven Deadly Starbucks” (7DS) off a poster of John Hurt of Caligula fame in an airport, I had this to say on the topic of West’s tradition of defining modernity and of what it might mean when that baton is passed to, or snatched by China:

Rome forever amoral because Christianity had to happen, to destroy it, in order to save it, and properly frame it.  Caligula, for one, had absolute power and was absolutely unhinged from moral constraint.  The lesson for all good Western children is that power freed from an ethical framing is vile.  There is a clear rupture in Western history, restart the calendar with the introduction of Christ and a millenarian promise.  A progressive march from the darkness, through much greater darkness to the reclamation of Greek and Roman thinking, applied reason, scientific methodology toward a future that is an unerring waddle towards quantifiable betterment.  And with each lurch, each notch of clear progress the renewed tension to reconcile or evolve our ideas of what is moral, even if formal religion itself is largely disposed of in the process.  We drive the future.  We will be first to articulate what electricity should mean for people, what an atomic age should mean, what an Internet should operate like.

How different the Chinese view of history!  For all but the last hundred years the past was the ideal type.  The Zhou had harmony, the Han had dignity, and the Tang had territory. [2] Answers to all questions concerning statecraft could be found in the past.  Tune properly and enjoy the mandate for a longer time perhaps, but know that it must pass eventually and your line will one day fall and the cycle will begin again. The best ruler can only aspire to what has already been achieved.  Defeats, indignation, scientific reasoning, dialectical materialism, altered the gaze forward.  Modern China, progresses now, linearly, with the rest of the world.  Catching up, overtaking has been an irrepressible theme for the last hundred-year dash.  Belief systems then again, play catch up as they are lapped and lapped again by technological enablement.  China wants to drive the future, but still must craft beliefs in reaction as others secure and articulate ever, new technical vistas.  The CCP will try to fashion a new articulation, of modern Chinese dignity, drawing expediently from the vast tradition, but it will never dispel the notion that the mandate must one day pass. 

How will Chinese ethics explain things when the breakthrough belongs to them, as it soon will?  They’ll need to assert what this means for the world.  Not simply react to another Western realization of progress.  How will the West grapple with disruptive innovation, and ethical catch-up to an entirely non-Western power?  Can the West and China articulate a new, hybrid ethical paradigm to buttress their shared responsibility for stability’s stewardship?  Richard Oppenheimer reached to the Bhagavad-Gita when he welcomed the dire responsibilities of the Atomic age.   The West has long enjoyed sole authorship of progress’ articulation.  The CCP increasingly allows the nation to debate and define what a Chinese authored progress, that long sought dream, will mean for the nation and the world.   Whether you're a Confucian who believes in dynastic cycles or a Marxist who knows that every economic system develops internal contradictions that lead to its’ demise, you know that this conversation is looming.  It will stretch the nation terribly and compromise stability and quite possibly, one Party rule itself.

A “Chinese authored progress”:  Is this really pending for the world?  Depending on where you’re sitting you might be seen as a Snickers bar treat or a rotten egg trick.  The West’s ability to solely define what progress is, appears to be passing though, like this autumn day into the exiting night ahead.  

The Geraldo Pino & the Heartbeats song “Heavy, Heavy, Heavy” came on the mix this morning.  Fine repetitive resonance that, for meditation on the theme of gluttony.  Photographs of Geraldo suggest he could certainly have set out trick-or-treating as a convincing James Brown.  This song is on a bunch of West African compilations.  The groove is tight and the organ driven break is catchy but I never considered it for much beyond that. With lyrics like “the way she does the funky dances, she’s really, really, heavy.” I’d assumed I’d plumbed where it was Geraldo was coming from. 

And geographically speaking, I’d assumed that was Nigeria.  And I was wrong.  He and the Heartbeats are, in fact, from Sierra Leone.  This was curious, as Ghana and Nigeria always get all the attention, certainly musically at least, within English-speaking West Africa.  Nigeria has by far the largest population.  Sierra Leone is only one fifth the population of Ghana and one thirty-fifth the population of Nigeria. 

Rdio has the album “Heavy, Heavy, Heavy” that must have all must have been recorded at roughly the same time as the aforementioned track, which is roughly 1972, so I dug in.  I hadn’t been aware of his afro-centric, black power agenda, beyond the heavy dancing bit.  Nor did I understand his influence on the apogee of West African popular music, Fela Ransome Kuti:

As Fela told the author Carlos Moore in his 1982 biography:
"I was playing highlife jazz when Geraldo Pino came to town in '66 or a bit earlier with soul. That's what upset everything, man. He came to town with James Brown's music, singing, "Hey, hey, I feel all right, ta, ta, ta, ta. . . " And with such equipment you've never seen, man. This man was tearing Lagos to pieces. Wooooooooh, man. He had all Nigeria in his pocket. Made me fall right on my ass, man. Ahhhhhh, this Sierra Leonean guy was too much. Geraldo Pino from Sierra Leone. I'll never forget him. I never heard this kind of music before-o, I'm telling you. Only when I went to Ghana shortly after that did I hear music like that again, soul music. Shit! If you could have seen him, man. And his equipment . . . something else!

I never got to visit Sierra Leone.  Shortly after I might have there was a terrible civil war.  I remember meeting a British woman who was teaching Freetown and she told me that she’d write her tests in the morning and give it to one of her staff to mimeograph and then find it for sale in the market, in the afternoon.  I hadn’t realized that the nation, or Freetown, the capital, at least was a city of immigrants with a long tradition of higher education, not to mention heavy dances.  With slavery abolished in 1808, it became a melting pot of various West African people’s, freed slaves and returnees from the West Indies and elsewhere.  Twenty-five years later the first European style university in sub-Saharan Africa was opened there, anchoring the city as a regional center of learning.

A few posts backed I’d talked about the soft power flow of American Rhythm and Blues returning to West Africa and shaking performers like Fela.  But it is important to remember that welterweights like Sierra Leone could also export disruptive, “heavy” soft power.

So which nation will be the next one to assert soft power so convincingly, that the children of the other nations all begin to celebrate their holiday?  This may beyond the capacity of a flyweight, or even a middleweight to achieve.  This ‘heavy, heavy’ testimony of civilizational prowess will likely go to whoever is most convincingly driving the arc of modernity. 

[1] guǒshílěilěi:  prodigious abundance of fruit (idiom); fruit hangs heavy on the bow / fertile

[2]   The Zhou Dynasty was the paragon of harmonic virtue for writers such as Confucius during the Spring and Autumn Period.  The Han have been popularized as dignified through and San Guo where Liu Bei fought to restore the Han line’s dignity as they slipped into the chaos of the Three Kingdoms period.  Ask ten Chinese people what Dynasty would you like to have lived in, if you could have lived in any, and nine will reply “The Tang”.  Usually the reason has something to do with size and strength.  The Tang territory was Han Chinese and bigger than any other until the Qing, which was a non-Han, Alien controlled dynastic period.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Who Are You Trying to Reach?

The Small Faces came on the headphones this morning.  Ian McLagan’s tune, “Up the Wooden Hills to Bedfordshire” from the 1967 album, “Small Faces”, with its dreamy organ and stereophonic pans kicked in on the walk over to the gym. Inspired, insipid air drums with Kenny Jones ensued on the 6:45 AM stroll with branches as dangling high-hats, leaves as cymbals.  By the time I was on the stair master I just started the song all over again.  This was midway through their extraordinary output.  By 1969 they’d have disbanded with Steve Marriott’s huffy departure.

One of the few songs where McLagan actually sings, he pulls it off, splendidly.  I had figured that Bedfordshire was simply another evocative English location, a 绿草如茵[1] like Chris White of the Zombie’s song about Beechwood Park.  Instead, this psychedelic paean is actually a drawing upon and older song from 1936, which British children like McLagan and the rest of his audience must have all been quite familiar with.  Dame Vera Lynn, who later went on to become “The Forces’ Sweetheart” known for songs like “The White Cliffs of Dover”, had her first recording with the decidedly un-psychedelic, “Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire” wherein the ”hill” is the stairs and “Bedfordshire” your bed.

Researching it I came across another discovery, and another new, if unfortunate assignation.  Profiling songs such as Ms. Lynn’s an article showed a typical children’s bedtime story book from that time.  The article’s author no doubt correctly suggests the “golliwog” on the cover wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows at the time.
I’d never heard the term.  It is what might otherwise be called a racist “mammy” or “minstrel” image in the States.   I never heard the term “wog” used much outside of “Lawrence of Arabia” but it seems to pop up with disturbing frequency in Australia .  I was dining in Sydney one evening with two successful businessmen, one an Australian of Italian descent and another of British descent.  It was a like watching a physical body blow when the latter tilted his head, cracked a half smile and referred to the prior as a "wog."  Nasty term.  

Dame Lynn’s tune would have fallen flat during the swingin’ 60’s but it would have fit right in, during the middle of my current read “The Mating Season” by P.G. Wodehouse.  It is one thing to use facial expressions and accents and pauses in person to elicit laughter. But writing something uproariously funny is an all-together different challenge.  Allow me to share with you all a snippet that had me snorting aloud from the lavatory the other day:

Esmond Haddock, seen close to, fully bore out Catsmeat’s description of him as a Greek god and I could well understand the concern of a young lover who saw his girl in danger of steered into rose gardens by such a one.  He was a fine, upstanding, sitting at the moment, of course, but you know what I mean, broad-shouldered bozo of about thirty, with one of those faces which I believe, though I should have to check up with Jeeves, are known as Byronic.  He looked like a combination of a poet and an all-in wrestler.

It would not have surprised you to learn that Esmond Haddock was the author of sonnet sequences of a fruity and emotional nature, which made him the toast of Bloomsbury for his air was that of a man who could rhyme ‘love’ and ‘dove’ as well as the next chap.  Nor would you have been astonished if you were informed that he had recently felled an ox with a single blow.  You would simply have felt what an ass the ox must have been to get into an argument with a fellow with a chest like that.”

I hope you enjoyed that.  While I was typing, the phone rang.  An unmarked number.  Hmm.  It could be the deal I’ve waited all my adult life for.  It could be one of my daughters calling from school.  I answered the call and was met with the Chinese equivalent of a Jerky Boy assault:

            Yeah, well?
            HEY!  Hey. 
            Sir.  Who are you trying to reach?
            I’ve got all of them right here.  What are you . . .
            I don’t know what you’re talking about.
            Who are you trying to reach?
            These.  These are all mine!  You know?
            I see.
And with that the gentleman withdrew.  You may well ask, why not just hang up after the first “Hey.”  There are mountains of spam solicitations here in China and that is of course, the default, but I’ve gotten burned doing that to my children’s teachers and my wife’s business partners, etc., who are making legitimate efforts to communicate with me, so I make the effort through the veil of thick Mandarin accents, and what almost always feels, pushy. 

I was going to continue on with our gula theme.  I’d written yesterday about gluttony unbridled in China.  Gluttony as national policy.  When you go from a culture of great scarcity to surplus in a generation’s time, it invariably strain’s the fabric of society.  Just as British bed time stories before and after Empire were notably different. 

This, from the Seven Deadly Starbuck’s (7DS) manuscript:

A flowering of rough, new money behavior and first-class entitlements makes up the new normal, for a growing slice of contemporary China.  Moral anchorage for any temperance has been snapped by the pull of the permissible. China’s at the checkout counter. They’ve miraculously introduced an America’s worth of people with copious disposable income.  First class behavior, necessarily gluttonous, that we helped define will not be denied.  First World behavior, premised on surplus can only grow gluttonous.  Three more America’s worth of Chinese citizenry are still in line with the same agenda, to be able to purchase comfort and distinction beyond subsistence.  Sprouting from the night soil of a four-decade radical egalitarian experiment, it is all new money.  Nothing about this new spend is refined, materializing as quickly as it has.  Engineering the economic challenge of growth will wane in complexity beside orchestrating the ethical challenge of temperance, that is pending for the CCP.

Managing ongoing economic growth, at anything like the rates enjoyed over the last two decades will be extraordinarily difficult.  Will managing, nurturing, a new ethical framework for an industrialized China actually be a greater challenge?  Won’t the millennium’s old civilization simply reassert itself once there is a surplus?  A people who understood civilization when the other side of the Eurasian landmass were hunting deer with rocks should be able to manage.  And this may be the case. 

But the CCP understands its role as needing to actively define and steward moral guidance.  Simply letting China be China is not the game plan.  Moral frameworks will be articulated and legislated towards.  Select pieces Confucian, Legalist and other traditions will be culled for what’s seen as utile at the moment (as per the government’s 'China Dream' posters from a few posts back) not revived wholesale. 

The Party needs to encourage domestic consumption if the next phase of economic development, moving from export-oriented growth to a services economy, is to succeed. And this is quite at odds with pressing need to tame the gluttony and waste that is everywhere manifest. 

Decency and certainly temperance can be rather complicated things to legislate effectively, as they are moving targets.  Tensions of Empire built on butlers like Jeeves and safe naptimes with characters like golliwogs all proved rather dramatically unsustainable for England.  But the Party is the only permissible voice here and these moral matters are begging for articulation.  The Party will simply have to try and we’ll all have to watch.  The greater their success with economic development, the greater such amoral dissonance will yawn. 

That word.  It’s contagious. It’s enough to make you tired.  “So please out the light, as I slip away.”

[1]  lǜcǎorúyīn:  green grass like cushion (idiom); green meadow so inviting to sleep on

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Patriotic Corpulence

Everyone fend for themselves tonight.  No sit down dinner.  Consume some of the leftovers and get back to work.

Yesterday I mentioned the organization of music in my mind.  Until recently this was exclusively done in terms albums.  I suppose if I was ten years older I might organize by “singles.”  The first music I’d ever bought was 45’s.  Paper Lace “The Night Chicago Died” was ingloriously that first purchase.  And if I was older I’d have gotten 78s and probably been wedded to them as an organizing musical principal.  Prior to this you only “bought” music to read the sheet music.  Albums I think of like novels.  They are produced with a similar cadence.  A work, created by a person or group of people, at a particular time that reflects what they wanted to create at that moment with those people, etc.  There is a consistency to that expression.

At some point when we all started downloading things randomly there was a great hauling of the nets.  What was pulled into the craft from the “gentle green ocean” with these trawls had, as Charles De Gaulle said of the Germans “a tangle of monsters and treasures.”  And songs were attributed to artists and lumped into a folder a-contextually.  From what period of the artists work is this song?  What else was recorded at this time?  With whom was he or she playing?  What year was this damn thing recorded?   You could do the work and discern these things, times hundreds or thousands of songs and, of course, that didn’t happen.  They remained, instead, in a lump, in a folder. 

I had the good fortune to see Randy Weston ten years back at an Other Minds concert in San Francisco.  It was a mighty, thundering savannah charge of a show that left me a convert.  And I think it was a post-Napster, pre-bit torrent time back then, when I opted to just download a ton of his stuff line.  I got some great music that was categorized under his name.  But I never fully engaged with him as an artist.  I never got the proper cadence of what songs were created when and what else was created along with it.

So it is with great pressure I am now engaging with the albums, not just the recorded songs, of Randy Weston, over on Rdio. “Blue Moses”, “African Cookbook”, “Sprits of Our Ancestors,”  with the remarkable opening song and title “African Village Bedford Stuyvesant.”  It’s lovely to imagine his progression as an artist over the arc of his life.

Born in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn in in 1926 Randy Weston served in the army in World War II and later opened a restaurant that hosted the great musicians of the post-war era.  By the end of the decade he was playing as a pianist in bands himself.  Later, on touring in Africa in the late sixties the last stop was Morocco and he decided to stay, opening the African Rhythms Club in Tangiers.  From there he toured the region and played in fourteen different African countries. It was from there in 1972 that he produced “Blue Moses” on which he plays electric keys and which I am enjoying now.  

I want to try to write a bit this week about gluttony.  The trawling of free music off the Internet is perhaps a form of gluttony.  Taking in more music than you ever reasonably consume and understand, squirreling it away in some pouch for future listening.  All the music becomes subliminally tainted because you came about it in a land grab. Gluttony is one of the Seven Deadly’s and it is the third that I look at in the Seven Deadly Starbuck’s (7DS) manuscript, “Gula” set there in the Beijing Capital Airport, where I catch a few bites to eat before only just boarding the plane.

Gluttony comes from the Latin gluttire.  It means to gulp down or swallow.  Eating, drinking, consuming more than you need.  Imbibing more than is required to the point of extravagance or waste.  St. Gregory the Great, Pope during the late 6th century, thought long and hard about ingesting things.  He identified five ways that one might succumb to the sin of gluttony: “1. Time; 2. Quality; 3. Stimulants; 4. Quantity; 5. Eagerness.”

Meaning you had to be very careful to tiptoe around the question of consumption, as the devil had you covered from every angle.  One could sin by eating at the wrong time, by overemphasizing the quality of what you ate, by putting things like herbs and spices on to your food to dress it, by eating too much of whatever it was that couldn’t have tasted very good in the first place, were you to 大快朵颐 [1] and, finally, for stroking and scheming at the notion of how good it was going to be when you finally sank your teeth into that next meal.  For the faithful, all of these were portals to the feeding trough of sin.

Wrought as a metaphor for consumption in general, the United States traditionally set the standard for national gluttonous behavior.  We taught the world a thing or two about what a prosperous, freedom-loving country could achieve in terms of ravenous consumption.  Now, China is in headlong competition with the “beautiful country” across the Pacific for the title of world’s largest national glutton.  America won’t cede the title lightly, but the smart money is on the People’s Republic, long famished, now raising the bar on state-consumption to a patriotic corpulence heretofore unknown. 

Traditionally the U.S. consumer has been an engine of world growth.  Now the Chinese government is committed to stimulate domestic consumption, by any means necessary.  A force-feeding.  A fattening.  We’ll take a few entries now to consider this unhealthy competition to see whose consumption will be most aggressively, most convincingly boosted and what will become of the patients, as a result. 

Right this way, down the hall, to a lovely banquet in our our honor set in our own little baojian suite. 

[1] dàkuàiduǒyí:  to gorge oneself / to eat heartily (idiom)