Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Dengue Fever "Venus On Earth"

So yeah, as previously noted, Dengue Fever are the band mysteriously thrown together by these American fellows who developed an interest in the exciting pop music that existed in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge took over and decided to kill everyone. They found some beautiful Cambodian American woman to front their band, and so a winning formula was born. It is striking, though, how fresh Dengue Fever sound, and how unlike some lamer covers band. A lot of this, of course, comes down to their decision to write their own tunes, ones which nod stylistically to the Khmer Pop sounds of yore while still being new and exciting and oddly surf influenced. That the DF singer has an amazing voice is of course no hindrance.

On this record, some of the tracks are sung in Khmer, but some are also sung in English, for maximum whitey appeal. Two of these are duets between the woman and the main American fellow, on which he reveals a weak yet surprisingly affecting voice. These tunes play to ideas of trans-Pacific relationships (with their slight undercurrent of exploitation mixed in with all the gooey wuv*) and are, for me, the highlights of the album. My particular favourite is 'Tiger Phone Card', with the song being a duet between two lovers singing down the phone from opposite ends of the world. It got a lot of play in Panda Mansions while Irene was off in Ethiopia.

I also like the tune that knocks off 'Hotel California', and indeed all the other songs. I gather they played at the recent Electric Picnic festival. I wonder how they went down with the young people; well enough, presumably, as they are coming back to play in the Sugar Club in November. I already have my reasonably priced ticket, maybe see you there?

* Or maybe I have been reading too much of Barbara Ehrenreich's Global Women, current contender for being the World's Most Depressing Book.

Monday, September 29, 2008


Yesterday I went to the Hugh Lane Gallery to see some art. There is a long and complicated story about the Hugh Lane Gallery's collection – its original core collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works were part of a bequest from collector Hugh Lane, but ownership of these is shared between the Hugh Lane Gallery and some museum in London. The paintings tend to flit backwards and forwards across the Irish Sea, with some always being in each of the museums. For a limited period ending today, however, the whole bequest was in Dublin, and I popped down to see the lot in its entirety.

The stars of the collection are probably Renoir's Les Parapluies and Monet's Waterloo Bridge. The Renoir piece is a particular favourite, one I am always happy to see again. With it, I always remember not so much the umbrellas as the little girl on the right, and the attractive black clad woman on the left (and the leering bearded bloke behind her). All human life is here.

There were some striking other paintings I had not noticed before. Many of these were by some fellow called Antonio Mancini. His pictures were odd, in that when first seen they often looked a bit meh, but they would be very impressive when seen across a room rather than in close up. This was especially true of a portrait of Hugh Lane's sister and another of Lady Gregory. Close up, these works seemed too obviously paint on canvas, but from a distance they coalesced into strangely compelling image.

I was also struck by a picture painted by Augustus John. As you know, this painter would get up on a slow dog, and reputedly had so many illegitimate children that he would pat any child he passed on the head just to be on the safe side. The particular picture shows two women and four or five children. The women are John's wife and the woman he married after her death. The children are all John's, though the notes did not see who their mothers were. What really struck me about this was how demonic two of the children were… they looked like changelings, or the results of an obscene union between a woman and The Devil. I wonder could SATAN have been jazzing Augustus John's ladies behind his back? I think that it would be foolish to discount the possibility.

There were lots of other nice pictures, though none about which so much can be said.

More Vintage

Mahmoud Ahmed Éthiopiques 6: Mahmoud Ahmed 1973
v/a Éthiopiques 13: The Golden Seventies/Ethiopian Groove

Woahhh yeah. Two CDs picked up over in London towne, at that Éthiopiques gig I mentioned glowingly a while back. Eh… yeah, you probably get the idea of all this 1970s Ethiopian jazz and nightclub music. I know I do. Mahmoud Ahmed has a nice voice, but I prefer the stuff on the other disc, partly because it has the original of that track covered by The Ex and Gétatchèw Mèkurya, partly because I prefer the variance you get with the multi-artist Éthiopiques records.

By the way, I wonder where I will go next with the Éthiopiques records. I would like to hear some of that Tigrayan music, or on music fronted by women. That one with Tigrayan lady playing the kora should be right up my alley.

And then, of course, the same people are bringing us all those Zanzibari records. How many of these African countries had their own crazy jazzer scenes? That's what I want to know.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Comics Roundup 28/9/2008

I get the impression that virtually no one reads my weekly comics roundup, but it's too late to stop now. You can read my thoughts on this week's batch below.

Madame Xanadu #4, by Matt Wagner, Amy Reeder Hadley, Richard Friend

So in this issue the main character, whose name I can't remember (Niue or something like that?), teams up temporarily with Marco Polo to foil a sinister plot against Kublai Khan. She nevertheless still finds herself having to scarper from Xanadu. In narrative terms, this is probably a good thing, as an ongoing series about Kublai Khan's court magician would run out of steam very quickly. The art remains very impressive here, soft and gentle, but with a subtle depiction of character. Emblematic of this is Kublai Khan's face when Niue asks him an awkward question. Niue's own character continues to be an intriguing mix of ingénue and ancient barely human witch.

I must try and find the first two issues of this.

Superman #680, by James Robinson, Renato Guedes, & Wilson Magalhades

So in this story, Superman is having the shite knocked out of him by some bad guy, after some bad guy has drained away his powers using MAGIC. But then, he is rescued by Krypto, Dog of Steel. As you know, Superman is from the planet Krypton, and like all people from there he gets super powers from the rays of yellow stars like our Sun. And Krypto is from Krypton too, hence his amazing powers. And he is immune to the magic that has laid Superman low. Superman is lucky to have a good dog like Krypto.

Glamourpuss #3, by Dave Sim, with help from Sandeep Atwal

This is only really a comic in that it features both text and pictures, is sold in a comic shop, and is the same size as a typical US floppy. It remains an odd mix of discussion pieces on pioneers of US comics satirical stuff about fashion magazines. And the fashion satire stuff is done through the mouth of the titular Glamourpuss, a wafer-thin model from that world. I enjoy the strangeness of this, and in fairness the stuff on the comics old-timers is pretty informative, while the fashion satire seems pretty well observed and can be quite chortlesome. Quite what started Mad Dave Sim reading so many fashion magazines is anybody's guess.

Ultimate Fantastic Four / Ultimate X-Men Annual, by Joe Pokaski, Aron E. Coleite, Eric Nguyen, & Brandon Peterson

Marvel Comics' Ultimate comics are an attempt to reboot some of their long-running characters, jettisoning all that continuity shite and getting back to the thrill power. This one sees the X-Men (mutant outcasts with kewl powers) and the Fantastic Four (national heroes with kewl powers) teaming up to travel forward in time to fight the evil future overlord of the world – who turns out to be the future Sue Storm of the Fantastic Four – OMG WTF!

Sadly, this is not quite as thrill-powered as the initial premise suggests. Some of the art is not great, and I found the interrelationships between the characters a bit confusing. Still, it has its moments, like when the future and present day Things both get to say "It's clobbering time!" together ("it's clobbering time" being what The Thing (a member of the Fantastic Four) says before he punches the lard out of someone).

All Star Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder #10, by Frank Miller and Jim Lee.

Whereas All-Star Superman covered Superman at the end of his life, this covers Batman in his early years, with the Boy Wonder a new acquisition for the Dark Knight. Batman is having girl trouble in this issue, with the Black Canary seemingly out of control while someone Catwoman has been nearly killed by… someone whose name begins with J. Meanwhile, Detective James Gordon's daughter has been arrested after dressing up as a bat-person and starting a riot in some seedy amusement park.

There is a part of me that thinks this All Star Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder is just a little bit slow moving. But maybe this is only in comparison to All Star Superman, where so much happened in every episode. This does still feel like something that will only really work when it is collected into one volume.

Friday, September 26, 2008

A Question for Readers

I am looking for two books, to give to someone. Ideally, I want each book to require very little prior knowledge about their subject on the part of the reader. I would also like each book to be fairly short, or at least small - so that the cost of posting them would not be too great. I'd also like the books not to be too expensive, as I am a bit of a tightwad. You are erudite people, maybe you can recommend books for me. The subjects I am looking for are:

1. A book about Ireland, tracing the country's history roughly from independence to the Celtic Tiger and peace process Northern Ireland. The most convincing candidate I have seen so for is some book of Irish social and cultural history by that Terence Brown fellow.

2. A book about Europe during the Cold War. I have seen two possible candidates for this, both of which have their problems. First of all, there is Tony Judt's book about post war Europe (possibly even called "Post War" - very impressive looking, and by someone who is brainy and says sensible things I agree with, but it is a bit porky. The other one is Mark Mazower's Dark Continent - nice and concise, by a well regarded writer, but it covers Europe's whole 20th century, not just the Cold War period.

Do you have any better suggestions?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A clever dog

Click on the link to see a very clever dog. Hat tip to "Aileen".

The Music of Ethiopia, part four: Ian buys CDs

I think maybe the Hotel Ghion band missed a trick by not having any CDs to sell to whitey, but the Hotel shop did sell some local music discs. These leaned more to the world of contemporary Ethiopian pop, something I know next to nothing about and did not want to take pot-luck with. I nevertheless purchased two discs during my stay in this institution, both of which have their problems.

The first one was an album called Assiyo Ballema by Mulatu Astatqé. Maybe you know him, he is one of the stars of Ethio-Jazz, with Éthiopiques 4 being largely given over to his music; he also recently appeared in the Barbican and at the Dun Laoghaire Festival of World Cultures. Although an actual musician, he is perhaps more noted as a band-leader and arranger, explaining his understated presence when I saw him in July. This Assiyo Ballema record leaped out at me partly because it was by someone whose music I knew. Its other draw was that the cover showed Mulatu jazzing away but in tandem with someone else playing a masinko or kora, suggesting that this record was some kind of awesome hybrid of Ethiopian folk music and Ethio-jazz. Sadly it is not. It is in fact one of the worst records I have ever heard, being basically Mulato's slide into 1980s synthijazz shite. Irene dubbed it his Tutu, which maybe gives you an idea how dreadful it is. And the worst thing is they palmed a bootleg CD off on me, so I cannot even donate it to Oxfam.

The other disc is an album called Fiker by Aster Aweke. Aster is this woman singer who is very famous to people who are interested in contemporary Ethiopian music. She is getting on a bit now, but the guy who wrote the Bradt guide spoke very highly of her. So I decided to take a punt on this record. The woman in the shop seemed quite excited that I was buying it, which seemed promising.

Listening to Fiker you can see why people would like Aster, as her voice is exceptional and she seems to know what to do with it. The big problem with the record, though, is the musical accompaniment – bad cheesy pop of the sort that you roll out by the yard from cheap and nasty synthesisers. I suppose this kind of thing is easy to produce and not overly straining on the budget, but it sounds dreadful and chokes the life out of Aster's vocals. I think Mr Bradt Guide compares her to Kate Bush – something of a lazy comparison that usually means the person in question is a woman with a striking voice. In this case it misses that Bush's own skills as a composer, arranger, and player of music make her much more than just a singer. So Fiker is a flawed record, with the accompaniment doing a lot to cancel out the strength of Aster's voice. I may yet keep this, but it could soon be selling for a Euro in Oxfam.

And that's it for Ethiopian music and me, at least with respect to records purchased or music experienced in that country itself. Until my next visit, of course.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Comics Roundup 20/9/2008

All Star Superman #12, by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely

This is the somewhat disappointing last episode of this title. Previously, evil Lex Luthor had tricked Superman into overdosing in yellow star radiation, so that he started to die. Last issue he finally kicked the bucket, just as a temporarily superpowered Luthor took over the world (in concert with his crazy niece and a tyrant sun called Solaris (eh, yes, a tyrant sun). So it's the usual superhero bollocks after all, with a character who just won't stay dead. Nice art, though, and maybe this will impress more when all the issues are read together.

Air #2, by G. Willow Wilson & M.K. Perker

More air hostess action, but this one seems to be turning a bit more into the usual conspiracy/fantasy stuff, with far less in the way of crazy air travel action going on in it. We will see how it goes.

Super Pandas

The Music of Ethiopia, part three: The Hotel Ghion house band

Back in Addis Ababa, and this time with my beloved, we ended up eating in the restaurant of the Ghion Hotel where they serve national food, with live musical accompaniment. As with the Azmari place in Bahir Dar, the extent to which all this was laid on for whitey was somewhat debateable – on one occasion, we were the only Caucasian diners present.

This music seemed to be of a broadly traditional sort, so from the world of neither 1970s Swinging Addis nor contemporary Ethio-pop. It was also rather different to the Azmari stuff too. At the start of the show, while the other musicians were tuning up or getting ready, this older guy who came across as the band leader would play haunting and almost melancholic notes on an accordion. I think he was improvising to some extent, at least with respect to timing; he sounded very much on one occasion like he was mocking some twunt who was ignoring his important Asian guests by talking loudly into his mobile.

The accordion player largely sat out the main performance, but he kept a watchful eye on things. I don't know the names of the instruments the other four musicians played, but I think one was a masinko and another this kora thing you sometimes hear about. That instrument was an interesting one, being a stringed instrument that produced sounds not unlike a guitar for all that it looked more like a lyre. This band was really impressive, sounding at times almost like The Fall (though without Mark E. Smith on vocals).

The band would play some of their tunes alone, but sometimes they would be joined by dancers and/or a singer. The dancers seemed, weirdly, to be the real stars of the show, typically getting applause from everyone after a song when it was usually only Irene and I who would applaud the dance-free tunes. There were four of the dancers, two men and two women. They certainly deserved their applause, displaying an astonishing skill at the balletic arts. They also changed their costumes between each number, on one occasion looking to me like they were meant to be whitey tourists. As is the way of these things, the lady dancers were amazingly rowr, while the two blokes were perhaps a bit camp, though one has to be wary of applying ideas from one culture to another.

The thing with the music in the restaurant is that I think it was just meant to be an accompaniment to your meal rather than a draw in and of itself, kind of like pubs that play music here. So when people finished their food they would wander off, even when the band was still playing. We stayed more or less to the death one night, and when the band proper finished, the accordion bloke swung back into action. Now he seemed to have turned into an Azmari singer, as he appeared to be singing songs about people in the audience. The feel was a bit different, though. His facial expressions and so on suggested that this was more ribald comment on the punters, but the music and his vocal tone suggested something more austere. It was all very strange, and I wished even more than when in Bahir Dar that I could understand Amharic. At times he sounded almost questioning, like we were meant to say something back to him, but we smiled politely and gestured to indicate our bafflement. We also did the local money on forehead thing.

It is hard to overstate how great this guy was – I have seldom seen a musician with such an air of authority.

You may have heard about how the Dun Laoghaire Festival of World Cultures this year had some of the Ethiopian jazzers over, playing with some American musicians. While in Ethiopia, I started thinking that what they really should have done is get the Hotel Ghion band over, as they would go down a treat and provide a much more world musicy experience for the festival-goers. While they are at it, they should get an Azmari band to play in one of the pub venues – people will not understand what they are singing, but they will surely get the idea.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sad News From Germany

Some of you may remember Eisbärbaby Knut, the polar bear from Berlin Zoo who had to be hand-reared after his mother rejected him. Some of you may also remember Thomas Dörflein, the zoo keeper who looked after Knut and used to play with him until he got too big and dangerous.

The Guardian reported today that Thomas Dörflein has died; he had been ill for some time. It has already been reported that Knut himself is not in the best of shape. Although now too big to have in the company of people, he is still of an age where in the wild his mother would look after him, so he is on his own and is apparently a sad little bear.

You would really have to wonder about the wisdom of keeping polar bears in zoos. In the wild, polar bears have massive ranges, happily travelling hundreds of miles over the summer hunting season. That the constraints they find themselves in in zoos lead to them going mad and neglecting their young should perhaps not be too surprising. I remember hearing anecdotally that when Dublin Zoo had polar bears, the mothers used to eat their babies, while in Germany another baby polar bear was abandoned by its mother earlier this year.

There have been reports (1, 2) that Berlin Zoo (among others) has been over-breeding cute baby animals to keep visitor numbers up, and then quietly exterminating older and less appealing specimens. If true, these allegations are disturbing, and they challenge the whole idea that zoos serve any kind of useful function.

Thomas Dörflein is succeeded by his partner and three children.

The Music of Ethiopia, part two: Azmari

My driver brought me out to a local bar in Bahir Dar. This had a form of local music going on in it, which research suggests is called Azmari. In this place, there were a couple of people making music, including someone playing drums, someone was playing a stringed instrument called a masinko, and a couple of people were singing. The masinko sounds not unlike the fiddle in Irish traditional music, and at times it sounded like it was about to break into something you would hear at a trad session, but then the other instruments would come in and take things off in some crazy direction. Azmari is this folk musical form that seems to have adapted well to modern life in Ethiopia. It works both as unproblematic fun for the locals and a window into exoticism for whitey. Azmari's big thing seems to be the vocals, with multiple singers trading call and responses and stuff.

Now, my Amharic is not up to much, but it was easy enough to work out that a lot of the vocals were being improvised and consisted of chortlesome comments about individual members of the audience. It all seemed very good-natured. Or so I hope, for a fair few were directed at me, as one of very few white people in the place. I did a lot of smiling politely.

Whitey also got down. One of the things with this place (and perhaps with Ethiopia generally) is that people would keep hopping up and doing a bit of shoulder dancing to the music. Shoulder dancing involves moving your shoulders rhythmically at high speed, perhaps in combination with a weird kind of chicken strut head movement. If you haven't been doing it all your life it is all semi-impossible, but giving it a go is fun. In this case, I briefly partnered one of the troupes' dancers (a fellow clad only in red satin hot pants), providing more cheap laughs for the locals. No pictures of this event exist.

Shoulder dancing seems to go with all music in Ethiopia – Alèmayèhyu Eshèté did a bit in London, the Azmari fellows did it, and whenever I saw any music videos on television, there would always be a few shoulder dancers. While the dance does seem to be one for both men and women, with the ladies it leads to a certain jiggletastic action. This seemed especially noticeable on one tune I saw on TV, where the singer seemed to be trying to get two lady shoulder dancers to shake their breasts around as much as possible (and perhaps it is no coincidence that the song's chorus seemed to be "Pervert! Pervert!"). I have heard stories of topless lady shoulder dancers – great potential for eyes being had out.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Music of Ethiopia, part one: Power Ballads

As you know, I was recently in Ethiopia. I know what you like – you would like if I wrote about my own time there in a style similar to the one used when recounting Irene's adventures. Well, you're not getting that, or at least not yet. What you are getting now is some commentary on musical stuff I came across in that country.

First of all, I must mention the music my driver would play as he drove me around and between Bahir Dar and Gondar. He did play some Ethiopian music, including one or two tracks that sounded like they might be Éthiopiques-era tunes (with Alèmayèhyu Eshèté or one of his sound-a-likes getting a look in). This was not really where his heart lay, however, and whenever he put on any of this type of stuff he would usually take it off after a couple of tunes. The replacement would be R. Kelly style music – not Trapped In The Closet, but the kind of thing where the power ballad meet the lamer end of hip hop. Now, for me this is the very nadir of popular music, the kind of thing that rehabilitates rockist ideas, but the driver really loved it, and I have the vague idea that this kind of thing has a lot of purchase in the global south. In D-----'s case, I think the endless beseeching and yearning you get in this music suited his mood, as he had been away from his family in Addis Ababa for ages while he drove whitey around the tourist trail.

Power Pandas

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Picture Paints A Thousand Words

I keep forgetting to mention that I have a Flickr website now. Here it is. There are a number of delights to be found here.

1. More Pictures From Ethiopia Than Anyone Will Ever Want To Look At, specifically:

- Pictures from Addis Ababa
- Pictures from Bahir Dar and its environs (lake monasteries etc.)
- Lots of pictures from Gonder (Ethiopia's 17th century capital)
- Pictures from Lalibela (rock hewn churches etc.)
- More pictures from Lalibela
- Pictures from above Lalibela

2. Pictures from the Frank's APA 100th Party. Remember, these glamourous people could be your friends too.

3. Pictures from the Final Countdown Bowlie meet-up. These people cannot be your friends, as the Bowlie forum is no more.

4. Pictures of reconstructed Dutch ships from the 17th century. I have previously written about the Batavia, one of these ships, and described visiting it - now see what it looks like.

5. And much much more.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Ethiopian Journey: coda

Yesterday evening, after dinner, I found myself enjoying a bottle of fine cognac with some old friends. One of them has been reading my beloved's account of her experiences in Ethiopia. "But tell me, Ian," he said, "These terrible events that Irene is describing – did they really happen?"

I later put this question to Irene herself.

"Would to God that they had not!" was her reply.

I will soon be writing about my own travels in Ethiopia. I fear they may prove less engaging than Irene's account. There was, of course, that incident with the Ark of the Covenant… but the world is not yet ready to hear that tale.

Ethiopian Journey: part six

Irene has informed the other team's chief coordinator that his project has been cancelled, with immediate effect.

"There is not much more to say. There was some trouble with the students, when they learned that they were being sent away before their course's conclusion, with no certificate to compensate them for what they had gone through. But we were able to face them down. After that, we watched as the volunteers packed their things and made ready to leave. They were all shaken, some of them crying, but K---- himself seemed unperturbed. He sat in his office, saying nothing, while D----- prepared a travel bag for him.

"The next day, we caught an early bus to Addis Ababa. We had the bus to ourselves. The locals would not travel with us. A sullen mood had now taken over K-----'s volunteers, and they eyed us with resentment. At the same time, they were beginning to sense the depths to which they had fallen. K----- himself sat at the back of the bus, alone, staring into space and refusing any attempts at conversation.

"Eventually we arrived in the country's capital and checked into our hotel. The team from S----- were to fly back to Ireland the next day, while we would be returning to our own project. The following morning, though, I was woken early by D----'s pounding on my bedroom door.

"'Mr K-----! He's gone!'

"He recounted that he had gone to K-----'s room to see what he wanted for breakfast, but found that in the night he had slipped away. The sudden desertion seemed to have completely broken D-----'s spirit, and he stood around wailing until we bundled him onto his flight home.

"I never saw K----- again. We heard rumours later that he had flown to another country, possibly changing his name, and had been taken on in a new position by one of the less scrupulous NGOs. But it is all conjecture. I know, though, that I will never forget his eyes, the way they drilled into the darkest recesses of my mind."

I realised then that nothing I had experienced in Ethiopia could compare with the terrible things Irene had seen.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Ethiopian Journey: part five

Irene and her colleagues have discovered the full extent of the other team's deviation from agreed procedures.

"It was all too much for J-----, and she fainted dead away. While we tried to revive her, D----- wittered away in my ear about how Windows was all the locals could get to grips with, that there was no point troubling them with Ubuntu. Eventually we were able to return J----- to consciousness.

"'Look," I exclaimed to D-----, 'We've seen enough. There's no time to waste. We must see K----- immediately. Bring us to him! Now!'

"'Of course, yes, this way,' he muttered back obsequiously, gesturing us down a corridor into the hotel's interior. Then he brought us round a corner and into a room, darkened by closed blinds, where, behind a desk, sat the man who had to be the team's chief coordinator.

"So this was K-----. Like the other volunteers here, he was clad in a soiled linen suit. It seemed like a diet rich in injera had been hard on him, for he had bloated to monstrous proportions. As we came into the room, he looked quizzically at us, with sad eyes that seemed to see into our very souls.

"'They are from the other team, Mr K-----!' said D-----. 'I showed them the classroom, the great work…' His voice trailed off. K----- made no reply.

"I took C-----'s letter from my pocket. 'K-----,' I said, 'my name is Irene. C----- has sent us to see you. He has directed us to bring your project to an end.' This brought a sharp intake of breath from D-----, but no reaction from K-----. 'He has given me a letter to read to you.'

"'"Dear K----. I know you have done good work for us before, but what you are doing now is unacceptable. I appreciate that you are still achieving excellent results, but your deviation from our policy puts the entire programme at risk. I therefore have no choice but to close down your project, with immediate effect. I repeat: your team is to stop its work now, as soon as you receive this message. Instruct the volunteers to send away the students, without certificates, and then have them pack their things. They are to take the first bus to Addis Ababa and – check into the Hotel T-----. There they will fine… "' The rest of the letter was taken up with the details of the team's transport back to Ireland.

"D----- looked plaintively at the chief coordinator. 'Mr K-----?' With a glance at him, and a shrug of his shoulders, K----- signalled his acquiescence to the project's cessation. 'So it is over!' exclaimed D-----, plaintively.

v/a "Lullaby for the Moon: Japanese Music for Koto and Shakuhachi"

Another cheap record from Claddagh, this has music played on both the funny stringed instrument we saw Miya Masaoka using at the DEAF festival (this being the Koto) and that bamboo flute the Japanese love (the Shakahachi). This is restful, contemplative music; I would have put some on my own second Extremely Uneventful Music compilation, if I had not already put it together.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Ethiopian Journey: part four

Irene and her colleagues have arrived at the hotel where her organisation's other team in Ethiopia are based. They are there to inform the team's chief coordinator that his project is being immediately closed down.

"There were a couple of volunteers loafing around at the entrance to the hotel, but we barely recognised them as such. They weren't wearing the black t-shirts with the organisation's logo, but instead were clad in white linen suits, but suits that looked like they had been worn continuously, unwashed, since their arrival in S-----. And they had the vacant eyes and continuously working jaws indicating enslavement by khat, a local narcotic. One of them, though, seemed a bit more alert than his fellows. Seeing us, he bounded over excitedly. I recognised him as D-----, a puppyish fellow I had met at an orientation meeting in Dublin. His eyes looked now like he had seen things that had aged him beyond his young years.

'"You are here to see the great work we are doing, yes?', he asked. 'It is all thanks to Mr K-----. His methods have yielded the most excellent results'.

"'Where is K-----?' I asked. 'We need to see him.'

"'I will take you to him, of course, yes. Come this way!'

"He led us into the hotel, which seemed to double up both as where the team were staying and where they were conducting their courses.

"'Look here!' said D-----, 'A classroom! See what we are achieving!'

"He pointed us into a classroom, where Ethiopian students were working at computers while linen-suited teachers strode up and down behind them. But this was not like any other of our classrooms – the teachers were carrying canes, and striking the students in response to mistakes or perceived lapses of concentration.

"D----- saw our dismay. 'It's the only way,' he said, 'It's the only language they understand. K----- saw it clearly, we must make them fear failure if they are ever to succeed.'

"But then my colleague J----- interrupted. 'Dear God! Look at the screens! See what they have on the screens!'

"Would to God I had ignored her, that I had looked away. But I did look, and I cannot forget what I saw. On the computers' screens we could see their workspaces. But they were not Ubuntu workspaces. The PCs were running Windows!

v/a "Steppa's Delight: Dubstep Present to Future. Volume 1"

I bought this because the dubstep music they were playing before Public Enemy sounded really good. At least, I think it was dubstep… well, DJ Krossphader said it was, and he is a man of honour. Anyway, this compilation, pretty good stuff. If you have ever read anything about dubstep or the music young people like these days you will broadly get the idea – super-low frequencies, music reminiscent of that Jungle stuff David Bowie invented eleven years ago. Some of the tracks are maybe a bit generic, but 'Poison Dart' by The Bug and Warrior Queen stands out as being that bit more engaging. Maybe I am just being seduced by tracks with vocals, but this song smokes and I can imagine it being pretty tasty on the dance floor. Can anyone recommend anything else by The Bug and/or Warrior Queen?

Because I am an idiot, I bought this on vinyl. I mean, for fuck's sake, what likelihood is there that some moron would invite me to DJ somewhere where playing dubstep would be appropriate? I should have got this on CD, so that i) I could play it all the way through without having to keep turning over the record after every second track and ii) I could listen to it on my iPod. Does anyone have it on CD and want to swap?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Ethiopian Journey: part three

My beloved has been telling me about her journey to close down the work of the other Ethiopian team of her organisation.

"We were several days on that bus. S----- is not that far away, but this was the rainy season, and we were not travelling on asphalt roads. As the bus trudged through the mud, I thought about what we would find when we reached S-----. What could K----- have done that was so severe that it required the closing down of his project? And what kind of man could K----- be, that he would deviate from the organisation's guidelines? Some of my companions had met K----- previously, at events back in Ireland, and I tried to get them to tell me about him. But they remained uncommunicative, answering my queries with monosyllables.

"When the bus reached S-----, the other passengers disembarked and scurried away as quickly as they could. Now, when you arrive in an Ethiopian town, you are normally greeted by hordes of children demanding money, sweets or pens, or by plonkers intent on monopolising your attentions. In S-----, though, it was different. On seeing us, the bus station loafers beat a hasty retreat. As we moved on into the town, it seemed like everyone else was determined to avoid us, with people running away or indoors as soon as we came into view.

"It was not easy to find our way to the hotel where K----- and his team were conducting their project. We had no map, and the townspeople fled before we could ask for directions. Eventually, though, I was able to corner a small child, and after a few clips on the ear he pointed us in the direction of the Hotel P-----.

"The Hotel P----- was built in the 1930s, during the Italian occupation, and it is an attractive building, albeit one that has seen better days. As we approached it, however, it was not its Italianate design that drew our attention. Rather, we were struck and, I must say, horrified by some recent additions. Four wooden posts had been placed at the corners of the hotel's grounds. And on these posts had been mounted computer monitors, with their screens smashed.

Public Enemy: live in the Tripod

This was one of those Don't Look Back style concerts, where a band plays the songs from their classic album in order. I always swore that I would stay from such things, so how come I found myself here? Have I become a hypocrite? Well, maybe, or maybe not. It suited me to go because I enjoyed Public Enemy a lot the last time I saw them, so seeing them play in the Tripod sounded like a potentially very big bag of fun. And hey, I do actually like the tunes on It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back.

And ah, yeah, coming up against time pressure now, so let me just say that this was great. Hank Shocklee of the Bomb Squad was DJing beforehand, playing music that DJ Krossphader felt counted as dubstep, but which Shocklee named differently. Public Enemy themselves delivered 100%, even if (as with Ladytron) the vocals were initially mixed a bit too low. Chuck D and Flavor Flav made a great double act, the S1Ws were endearingly camp, all the musicians did their job, and DJ Law filled in well for the retired Terminator X. Thanks to George Bush, Professor Griff could not be with us on this occasion, so nothing about selling to the other man instead of the brother man, and so on.

Chuck D is such a inspirational front man, kind of like the American Billy Bragg. There is something righteous about him, which makes him maybe a bit anachronistic in our apolitical age but nevertheless appealing to oldarses like me.

Highlights: 'Night of the Living Bassheads', 'She Watch Channel Zero'.

One big lowlight, though, was all the camera action from certain cockfarmers in the audience. There did seem to be a lot of those fuckers who spend the entire gig with one arm extended above them, people who experience the entire concert by watching not what is onstage but instead a small screen just in front of their face. I have had it with these people – the day is coming soon when true music lovers will bring instant justice to bear on them. On this occasion I contented myself with doing the lizard king as often as possible, taking care to position my arm in front of the camera cockfarmer behind me.


Monday, September 15, 2008

Ethiopian Journey: part two

Irene has been telling me about how her organisation had decided to shut down the other team working in Ethiopia.

"'Us?' said J-----, one of my team-mates. 'You want us to up there?'

"'I'm afraid so,' said C-----, our organisation's head. 'I've barely have been able to find time to come here, and I definitely can't go there myself. You need to leave tomorrow. Your colleagues here can take on your classes. And when you reach S-----, you should read this to K-----,' he said, holding out an envelope which I took from him. 'It will make our position clear'.

"C----- left for a flight from Addis soon afterwards. We packed our things and then went to bed, trying to be as rested as possible for the journey. I can't speak for the others, but I had trouble sleeping that night.

"The following morning, we caught the first bus to S-----. You've never travelled by bus here yourself? It is an interesting experience. The locals tend to strike up conversations with the exotic farangi, asking them where they are off to, and why. So it was this time. But it was noticeable, and worrying, that people went silent when they learned we were with our organisation, and that we were going to S----- to meet the team there. The bus generally fell silent, save for people pointing at us and muttering to their neighbours in Amharic or Oromo. The bus driver even turned off his tape of Teddy Afro. We ourselves were too self-conscious to talk to each other, so for most of our journey all was silent, save for the sound of the road.

v/a "Early Morning Hush: Notes from the UK Folk Underground 1969-1976"

I think wor bird picked this one up, when we visited popular local record shop Claddagh on a record buying splurge. This one was pretty cheap, I seem to remember, and we are always easily tempted by cheap treats. It is also really good. In musical terms, it does what it says on the tin, but the selections are a lot better and less generic than I expected. In some ways this is like an English language version of one of those Welsh Rare Beat records. I wouldn't like to play favourites with this record, as it all brilliant and all of a piece, but the tune that sticks in my head the most is maybe 'Cherry Blossom Fool' by Duncan Browne, though that is not to say that it is actually the best. 'Harvest Time' by the Water Into Wine Band is also interesting as the source of all Michael Nyman's musical ideas.

Actually, listening to these tracks again, in order to try and name a few more exceptional ones, I am struck again by the uniformly high standard here. If this is what some random collection of UK folk has to offer then maybe it is time I started exploring the UK folk scene of the period in more detail.

Early Morning Panda

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Ethiopian Journey: part one

In Ethiopia some unfortunate circumstances meant that my beloved and I had to spend a week in Addis Ababa instead of travelling to see the country's historical sites. This did at least allow me to quiz Irene on her experiences with her organisation. Over dinner one evening in the Hotel Ghion restaurant, she described her time imparting basic computer skills to teachers in the south of the country. The story was a straightforward one – some successes despite certain obstacles (including the petty personality clashes that go with such an endeavour). I sensed, however, that she was holding something back, that there was something else that she was loth to talk about while nevertheless wishing to get it off her chest.

After dinner, as we relaxed over a glass of tej (a local drink made from fermented honey), Irene talked some more about her team and their progress, but this seemed merely a prelude to what came next.

"And then there was the other team," she said. "They were based in the town of S----, far to the south of us. I had not met their chief coordinator, but he was greatly admired within our organisation. People often talked of the great successes he had achieved on previous projects, and this time too reports were coming back from S---- of his team's excellent results. Or so they were at first, anyway. But as the weeks wore on, reports from S---- were less positive. There were suggestions that they had deviated from the organisation's agreed programme, though our coordinators seemed unwilling to discuss this directly with the rest of us.

"Then C---- arrived from Dublin. You remember meeting him? He is the head of our organisation, and his unexpected arrival threw us all into agitation. We could tell that time was of the essence for him, as he had come straight to our teaching centre, dispensing with the usual parade through the town. He summoned a small group of volunteers, including me, into a back room.

"'I'll come straight to the point,' he said, 'It is the other team. I'm sure you have heard the rumours. It's their chief coordinator. He is no longer following procedure. His results are still impressive, but the way he is achieving them is… inappropriate. He is bringing us into disrepute. There is only one thing for it. I need you to go to S----- and bring the project there to an end, with immediate effect'

Comics Roundup 14/9/2008

100 Bullets #95, by Brian Azzarello & Eduardo Risso

One of the odd things about this title is how hard it is to kill the main characters. I remember one time when one fellow was pumped full of bullets by some cops. "That's the last we'll be seeing of him", I thought, only for him to show up again some issues later, arriving into a jail. More recently, the scary lady character took a close-range shot straight into her chest, but it seems to have done nothing bar giving her a fetching scar. In this issue, we meet again a character who took part in an assassination attempt a couple of issues back. His strike failed, and the issue ended with an explosion taking off both his hands. I am not a medical expert, but I suspect that if a blast severed your hands then you would bleed to death in no time. But this issue finds him in hospital, sans hands, but not dead.

Beyond that, though, this is a great issue, cutting between the guy in hospital being visited by a friend while his estranged brother takes a taxi across town to see him. It all ends badly, with some astonishing coincidences lending events some neat ironic reversals.

I should mention the cover, by Dave Johnson. It is a striking piece of design, calling to mind avant garde 1950s film posters or those anarchist prints of buildings coming alive and attacking people.

Criminal #5, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

And this is another noir-influenced title. This issue is the second part of a four part story, seeing a newspaper cartoonist and retired forger being sucked into a worryingly suicidal caper by an archetypal femme fatale and her psychopath lover. You also get a bit of background on the cartoonist, who has previously been something of an extra in this title. As kind of expected, things take a grim turn in this issue, with signs suggesting that they will be getting worse. I can't but think that future episodes will stick to noir conventions by having the woman betray the cartoonist – she seems the type.

This comes with an interesting essay on the 1992 film One False Move, which I was fortunate enough to see in the cinema when it came out. This somewhat forgotten film is a classic dark thriller, playing on racial and urban-rural oppositions. I recommend seeking it out.

one false panda

Tuesday, September 09, 2008


This year's Dublin Electronic Arts Festival looks pretty interesting. I have not seen the hard copy programme yet, so I don't know if it is the usual design-heavy illegible monstrosity, but the web lineup has loads of kewl stuff on it - people from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Detroit techno fellows like Model 500, gratuitous swearers like Fuck Buttons, and so on. I'm surprised they are not making more of having David Vorhaus along, given that he is apparently the man who recorded the ORCH5 sample. Not like I am obsessed or anything. It would be great if they got Vorhaus and some orchestra to do a live performance of ORCH5, though what he is actually going to be doing is playing the White Noise's Electrical Storm album live - a possibly worrying outbreak of Don't Look Back style rockism. I will still be there, if it has not sold out already.

ORCH5 Pandas

Monday, September 08, 2008

Problem of conversation solved

Wow, Eircom seem to have turned on my home internet again.

Ladytron Live

If you've been paying attention, you will understand that I have a certain fondness for Ladytron. This was initially born from a hearing of their single 'Seventeen', and then from the album Light & Magic from whence it sprung. That album is still very much my favourite, but there are tracks on their others that also meet my approval. I also use and endorse Softcore Jukebox, their compilation of tunes they like.

But for all my love of the Tron, I have long failed to catch them live. While they had come over to Ireland a couple of times, it was always either to deliver DJ sets at clubs for kewl people or to play at one of those boorish music festivals the young people like. So I was rather excited when they announced a concert in Dublin's Tripod, a short hop from where I live. My beloved and I found ourselves there, where we ran into old pals Justin and Catherine. The old memory is not the best, so I cannot tell you if there was a support band.

I suppose you have some familiarity with Ladytron? They were one of those synthesiser bands, comprising two men and two women. They all play the synths, but the women also sing. In their early days, they really went for it with the whole synthesiser weirdo thing, appearing in photographs wearing uniform tunics. Their look is a bit less extreme now, but still pretty severe. Musically… well, it's synthpop, surely you know what that sounds like? Ladytron belong to the deadpan vocals school of synthpop, though they are not so robotic as the likes of Kraftwerk.

I thought maybe the concert was a bit slow to start, partly down to the sound quality being initially a bit shite, with the vocals in particular being mixed down a bit low. This is a bit problematic in a band where the singing is a key part of the package, for all that even on record it is not very in your face. There was also the curious fact that the Ladytron ladies ended up coming across as being a bit *shy*, something you don't want in a band that is meant to be fronted by implacable sex androids. I thought they could have been a bit more drilled – while 'Seventeen' was totally great, it would have been even better if the two women had been able to dance in rigid formation.

Things did pick up, though, and by the end phrases like "best gig ever" were being uttered by some people. This was basically because the mixing improved, so the vocals became audible. Result. Still, the band did seem to fluff 'Destroy Everything You Touch' (standout track from the Witching Hour album), which they played as part of an encore.

For all that this gig write-up is mainly a load of nitpicks, you must understand that this concert was a big bag of fun, and I can't wait for Ladytron to come back and party down my town (although I probably won't go and see them in November, as I need to spread the love).

Before moving on to the vital post gig loafing in which we engaged, I should mention the crowd. There were plenty of trend people and haircuts present, but there were also a load of seriously ugly blokes in the audience. By ugly, I mean even more muntery than me. I'm not sure if they were there because they reckoned they were in with a shout for some Ladytron lady action, or whether they recognised a kindred spirit in the bloke from Ladytron with the heroically nasty tache. But we are all God's children.

After the concert, we hung out with Justin and Catherine, and the backroom DJ played some long LCD Soundsystem tune about running. It seemed pretty good. There was also some song by Hercules & Love Affair played, these being one of those disco art project get-togethers, that features vocals by yer man Antony from Antony & The Fucking Johnsons. In this context, stripped of the "lovely song" connotations that drag him down normally, his vocal contribution seemed quite impressive, so I may even acquire the H&LA record some time when I want to get down with the kewl sounds of today. And then Justin & Catherine went home to rescue their baby sitter. Before leaving ourselves, my beloved and I wandered into the main area again, now transformed into a dance music night club… and what seemed like a pretty good one, judging by the banging tunes, nice lights, not totally wankerish crowd, and general room to dance. If you are ever in Dublin and feel like an old-school night out dancing, you could do worse than hit the Tripod on a Friday night.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Comics Roundup 5/9/2008

These are actually last week's comics – there were no comics worth buying this week.

Guerrillas #1, by Brahm Revel

This is an odd comic. It is set during the Vietnam War, and for most of it it takes the usual Vietnam War story form – soldier arrives in Vietnam, finds everything very scary, people get killed around him, horrible dehumanising events are witnessed, and so on. And then suddenly it all takes the most bizarre turn, with the kind of thing you would get ending a Tharg's Future Shock jumping out at the reader. Blimey. Frankly, the ending of this issue is so bizarre that maybe it should have ended there and then, but this Guerrillas is actually a nine-issue limited series. I reckon I will give it another issue or two to see if Mr Revel is able to stretch his odd premise over the full run of issues.

Madame Xanadu #3, by Matt Wagner & Ann Reeder Hadley

So I somehow managed to miss issues one and two of this hot new Vertigo title, probably as a result of being in Ethiopia. The main character here is this magician lady who has a job as court mage to Kublai Khan, Lord of the Mongols (with the action being set in Kublai Khan's somewhat mythical capital Xanadu (hence, presumably, the comic's title)). And she is from England or somewhere in Europe. And then Marco Polo and his pals arrive at the court of the Mongol King, and stuff starts to happen.

My initial impressions of this title are favourable. Ann Reeder Hadley's art has a soft and sensuous quality, with the main character having the kind of big-eyed rowrness that appeals to a certain type of heterosexual man but without alienating women readers. The story has the kind of dreamy floaty quality that recalls Neil Gaiman's Sandman. Matt Wagner (the writer) – his name sounds familiar, what has he done before? I'm curious enough as to where he will go with this to stick with this for a while. One thing I wonder is whether the story will always be set in the 13th century (or whenever Kublai Khan lived). It is apparent from this issue that the protagonist has access to secret remedies that make her able to live far far longer than normal humans, so maybe future stories will jump backwards and forwards in time, showing her doing stuff in different historical eras. Or maybe not.

Anyway, I think my mission for now must be to look for issues one and two of this title.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

This Week's Star Letter

Comes from COUNT UGLUK, a servant of the Great Grishnackh, who took issue with my comments on BURZUM, MAYHEM, and other weirdo Norwegian metal acts. See here.

evil pandas