Can culture and politics be separated?

You can teach a student a lesson for a day; but if you can teach him to learn by creating curiosity, he will continue the learning process as long as he lives.
Clay P. Bedford

I teach two classes of 8th grade band, and my colleague teaches a third.  We coordinate our lessons and the repertoire that the students are working on so that it comes together well for the concerts, and that they are learning the same concepts.  We recently passed out new music that we selected for the Spring concert, which we tried to make diverse and international.  Selections from movies, history, and other continents are going to piece together the program.

One of the pieces that we selected was a wonderful composition that is a tribute to Ugandan folk music.  We had rehearsed it for a few days when my colleague read about Uganda’s new law against homosexuals.  When the law was first proposed several years ago, it was going to declare the death sentence on anyone discovered to be homosexual.  The law that actually passed a few weeks ago changed the death penalty to life in prison.  Additionally, if a person is caught hiding their knowledge of a person who is homosexual, they will receive the same sentence.  We had a long discussion about whether or not we should play this piece due to the connotation and reception that it could possibly receive from the friends and families of our students (if they are staying up-to-date on the news).  Between the two of us, we were not able to come to a clean conclusion, so we went a different route.  We asked our students.

First, the issue was presented as bad things that the government in Uganda was doing, without specifics about the new law.  Then, we discussed whether or not the culture and music of a society could be thought of as separate from its politics.  Could we play the music as a celebration of their society?  Or was that impossible?  Then, we went into the details of the law.  We emphasized that we were not interested in each student’s opinion on homosexuality (the community that we teach in is fairly conservative), but hoped that they still do not agree that a government should commit an act of such aggression towards its people.

After our discussions, it was beginning to be clear that the students were not interested in playing the piece any longer.  One student eloquently stated that it would not possible to separate the politics from the culture, because all that we digest from our news is what we learn and perceive about the globe.  A mature, intelligent response.

I said that we were going to look for another piece from Africa.  A student responded, half-jokingly, that no matter what, we would still find something in the news that could warrant the same issues.  At first, I was not impressed by that comment.  However, I can now see some opportunity.  If this event made some students more sensitive to the current events that surround the music that they perform, then they have gone far in their maturity as musicians and people.  Even many professional musicians do not take such an interest in current events, probably because their concern is with an accurate and successful performance.   Students in school, on the other hand, seem to be wanting to find how the music they perform (or all the material that they learn in all subjects, for that matter) relate to and enhance their lives in some way.  I do not think that students are taught to be curious, but “come that way.”  Just as in my classroom, I do not believe that anyone lacks a sense of rhythm or a sense of pitch.

I was thrilled to have had our discussion, and to see that curiosity and musicality are alive and well, and are the two states of mind that will probably end up saving the world.

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Masked LGBT supporters at a protest against Uganda’s anti-gay law. Source.

A brief journey with the classical saxophone

My name is Linus. I am a saxophone player, and I do not play jazz.

Gasp.

I have spent many, many hours in agony.  I take my saxophone out of its case, put on the mouthpiece and reed, and just before I play my first note, I weep.  The saxophone in my lap lays in silent sadness, unable to make a sound since there is no music besides jazz.

Well, no.  Not really.

I am certainly disappointed in myself for not tackling jazz while I grew up, but I had a different set of experiences instead that I need to justify to myself as good.  If I get around to studying jazz more seriously, I will be a late bloomer.  Or, I could learn how to rock climb.

“What else do saxophone players do?” you ask. The answer:

Marijuana.  Salsa music.  Rock music.  Funk.  Ska.  Fusion.  Punk.  Rap.  R&B.  Mostly, I myself have trained to play classical saxophone.

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Linus, you’re confusing the babies.

The saxophone was invented in France by Adolphe Sax 173 years ago.  One of the primary reasons for its invention was to invent an instrument that could sound like both a brass instrument and a woodwind instrument.  Mr. Sax actually invented a lot of bizarre instruments, like something called the “saxotromba” — which has gone extinct — and the expanded the clarinet family with the bass and contrabass clarinet.

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From left: Phillis, Billy, Susan, Bass, and Contrabass.

One of the most recognizable pieces of classical (orchestral) music that includes saxophones is Bolero by French composer Maurice Ravel.  Last night, I attended a performance of the Minnesota Orchestra, which included this piece on the program.  The sound of the saxophones playing was so liquid, so sultry, that it was difficult to discern whether it was really a saxophone or another reed instrument like the oboe or English horn.  Even though I have performed this piece and heard it many times, I was still fooled and found myself looking through the wrong section of the orchestra when I heard the saxophone.  D’oh!

My future family, from left: Sopranino, Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone, and Bass. (Not pictured: John and Susan)

The recording below is the second movement of a sonata for alto saxophone and piano by American composer William Albright.  If you are interested in a bit of explanation about this piece, read below the video.  Otherwise, enjoy a performance of classical saxophone.

Sonata, Mvt. II: “La Follia Nuova”
William Albright

William Alright wrote in his program notes:

Of all of the movements, the second perhaps most deserves comment. This
movement is dedicated to the memory of the composer George Cacioppo who
died unexpectedly on April 8, 1984. Co-founder of the ONCE group and mentor
to two generations of composers, Cacioppo and his music and personality rest at
the foundation of my thinking. He would have very much appreciated the use of
the traditional title “La follia” (the madness) in my reincarnation as “La follia
nuova.” Like its Baroque antecedents, the movement is in a chaconne-variation
form, although at one point the sections jumble together, or intersect. The fact that
the key is F-sharp minor may be important, or it may not be.

Throughout the piece, there is a consistent descent.  The piano line is always going downwards, as a symbol for the descent of life into death, and the descent of a body into a grave.  Optimistically, Albright gives ascending lines to the saxophone to highlight the hope for an ascent into heaven.  Despite these efforts, I find this piece is horribly tragic, and it seems as though it ends without completing the mourning process.  The saxophone player is asked to step away from the piano and play distantly; usually, the performer turns their back to the audience and walks toward the rear wall, playing the final hymn melody by memory.  They remain facing away from you while the piano painfully performs the sounds of agonizing funeral bells.  The pianist is told to play as many repetitions of the bell chords as they wish, which can create a very elongated, sad, and uncomfortable moment. (source)

How We Look at Change

Hello.

Almost a year has passed since we’ve seen each other. And to make my post interesting to you, I have made it interactive. You will have the opportunity to participate. Can I have a thumbs-up?

(Now you give me a thumbs-up.)

(That’s how this works. Nice job.)

Even though Linus has been quiet in the blogosphere, a lot of change has been occurring outside of the closed laptop. How we each look at change is amazing. Both the change around us and the change inside ourselves. (Nod.)

On the night of our recent presidential election, I was watching the news coverage in a bar with friends. Each television had a different news channel: CNN, FOX, and MSNBC. We scanned our eyes across the screens as we drank our beer and ate our cheap pizza, talking about the drastic changes that would happen if HE won, or the even more drastic changes if, God forbid, HE won. In those few hours, I realized that I had never actually created a mental image of my life in the next few years. Would I be a victim of losing my healthcare? What job would I have? Where would I even live? Would either of these men on TV actually send any ripples my way? Not metaphorical ripples that I would see from afar, but ripples that I would physically feel. (Look ponderous.)

Change takes many forms. Sometimes the world doesn't change when we need it to, and that's when fires are lit. Taken from my trip to Valparaíso, Chile, 2011.

Students protesting high tuition costs. The world may not change when we want it to. Valparaíso, Chile, 2011.

Blanket statement: In recent months I have seen a lot of change. (Applaud.)

Examples:

  1. I moved out of my home city, Minneapolis.
  2. I slept on the couches of generous strangers.
  3. I lived in Spain and experienced life as a teacher.
  4. I came back and experienced life as a teacher in the States.
  5. I graduated from college.

This is when I started to reflect. Because, as you already know, we never know that something has changed until we reach into the past bag, pull out its contents, and lay them on the table: the present. My reflection told me that I was not feeling anything different. I actually desired to feel the same. Why? (Shrug. Because you don’t know.)

When I realized that the world kept spinning without me, I panicked and pushed against its rotation.

Plaque reads, "In memory of gays, lesbians, and transsexuals, who have been persecuted and repressed throughout history." When the world doesn't see the change the way its people do. Barcelona, Spain, 2012.

“In memory of gays, lesbians, and transsexuals that have been persecuted and repressed throughout history.” When the world doesn’t see the change the way its people do. Barcelona, Spain, 2012.

Note to self: pushing against the Earth’s rotation is actually impossible. (Shake head.)

Perhaps life outside of college is ferociously fast, something like a train. And leaving college was like jumping on. You don’t jump on a train by just jumping. You jump on after you’ve run a little first. Another impossible thing.

What’s funny is that I had been encouraging students to accept change and not be afraid of vulnerability. They even wrote songs about it. Be the change you want to see in the world! they belted, quoting Gandhi, standing as a choir with myself on the piano. With their passionate and pining voices, they praised peace and respect and acting out against violence.

In that moment I found what I needed, and what it took 100 fourth graders singing on choral risers to show me. (Cutsie face. Little kids.)

Our buildings can be an image of our own emotions toward change. Do we want it, or not? The Hague, Netherlands, 2011.

Our buildings can be an image of our own emotions toward change. Do we want it, or not? The Hague, Netherlands, 2011.

Stress due to change seems to come from reaction, not proaction. And a negative reaction, like stress, comes from resistance to the unknown. (Yikes, what is he talking about?) A person who does not make themselves vulnerable enough to accept those changes is essentially tensing their muscles every hour of the day. 

Do you consider yourself easily accepting of change? Or not? Why?

Do you think we need to be vulnerable? Or protective?

(Bye.)

(Wave.)

Imitation, Improvisation, and I


You know you're in a picture just like this one.

What could that cute-as-a-button baby have anything to do with this?

Notice the girl passing notes...

Or what does that cute-as-a-button baby have to do with this?

Did you know that babies will imitate facial expressions within hours of birth? (No one has proved that they do it immediately, since they’re usually busy crying and getting power-sprayed). What these activities have in common is imitation. Learning jazz involves extensive time not spent playing, but listening. Imitating other musicians that are admired is key until different elements from all those artists are chosen to create a unique sound. In the classroom, students are imitating more than we probably want them to. A their teacher’s attitude, their peers’ behavior, even speech patterns.

Humans, particularly children, learn naturally through imitation. It is one of the many traits cute-as-button babies get from ancestors. Darwin’s theory of natural selection at work: new generations are more capable of solving the problems that plagued those that came before. This is typical of basic tasks such as communication and movement.

The sciences of mind can provide a sounder conception of human nature, which ultimately underlies all educational policy. What is the mind of a child inherently good at? What is it bad at? ….An emerging view is that the human mind is impressively competent at problems that were recurring challenges to our evolutionary ancestors – seeing and moving, speaking and listening, reading emotions and intentions, making friends and influencing people. It is not so good at problems that are far simpler but which are posed only by a modern way of life: reading and writing, doing mathematical calculations, understanding the world of science or the mechanics of a complex society. We should not make false analogies that assume that children can learn to write as easily as they learn to speak, that learning math can be as fun as learning to run and throw, or that children in groups will learn to do science as readily as they learn to exchange gossip. On the other hand we can try to co-opt the mental faculties that work well (such as understanding how objects fall and roll) and get children to apply them to problems for which they lack natural competence. (source)

This information came at me while I have been learning how to improvise and play popular music on saxophone. I have only been, one might say, “classically trained.” Making music on the spot, without inhibitions, is a difficult procedure for me. A few days ago, I was given a new jazz chart in the university jazz band I play with, and it gave me a good startle. There was a solo. I stared at it. It stared back. Unabated. More frightening than the most complicated classical composition was the lack of any notes at all. Our relationship began there, and I let my eye contact fall to my baritone saxophone lying across my lap. No help came from that. All it was saying was, “I just do what you tell me to do.” The solo had won this round.

Learning to play jazz is a lot like picking up the speech patterns of your friends. I listen to other musicians that I want to emulate, and then listen to myself to see if it’s working. This usually involves playing my saxophone straight against a wall. I probably look like an imp.

“Who do you like to listen to?”
“A lot of Chris Potter.”
“Yeah, I can tell by your sound.”

But, it’s encouraging to read the above quote and think that my hours spent trying to imitate are bridging the gap between inherent abilities (imitating, listening) and complex problems (improvising over a Giant Steps progression. Not on your life, by the way).

I find Indian music very funky. I mean it’s very soulful, with their own kind of blues. But it’s the only other school on the planet that develops improvisation to the high degree that you find in jazz music. So we have a lot of common ground.

John McLaughlin

On the other hand, learning a new language is a lot like listening to jazz musicians. (See what I did there?) Last week, a former Spanish professor asked if I would be willing to record my voice reading a few paragraphs in Spanish. She is researching the depth of accents that both native and non-native speakers have when speaking Spanish, especially those who have spent time in Spanish-speaking countries. Her questions inquired about how much time I had been learning, where I had traveled to, for how long, etc.

“Where did you go?”
“I was in Chile.”
Nods. “I can tell by your accent.”

I am interested to learn about more of her findings over time. Am I some kind of anomaly, picking up an accent after only 7 weeks, while other American students who were with me clearly did not?  Or am I just a musician? Is it all just improv?

Learning through imitation is not cultural, it’s biological. As animals, we’re geared up to learn from day one, literally. Our environment and our genes is what does the teaching.

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.

Nelson Mandela

Just as a thank-you for reading, I present you with some Balkan-flavored improvisation. Enjoy!

Chile Rising

I follow Estudiantes Informados (Informed Students) on Facebook, and earlier today they posted this video, created by Fault Lines, an English language news source from the Middle East. It beautifully describes the education conflict in Chile that I experienced, synthesizing facts, the history of Chile’s politics since the coup d’etat on September 11th, 1973, and interviews with leaders in both arenas.

The video opens with marchers playing a simple rhythm on metal fencing, an infectious pattern that became familiar while walking through Valparaíso in the middle of the day.

A group of parents and adults banging pots and pans in front of each red light.

Students, teachers, taxpayers; in small huddles or large masses; all would chant and cheer and this rhythm was the heartbeat of their collective energy.

Outside of the Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaíso.

Lemons - to reduce the effects of tear gas.

At the end of the video, you hear the song “Shock” by singer Ana Tijoux. I’ve posted and translated the lyrics at the end of this post. The song is centered around the idea of the Shock Doctrine, a term coined by author and journalist Naomi Klein in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

A “Shock Doctrine” is the employment of economist Milton Friedman’s free market economic plan during times of great turmoil and upheaval. This is what was referred to in the Fault Lines video when the Chicago Boys were sent from Chile to study economics with Friedman in the 1970s, and employ his Regean-era policies in the fresh dictatorship.

(Haz clic acá para leer las letras en español.)

Chorus:
Your monologues are poison,
Your discussions colorless,
You don’t see that we’re not alone.
Thousands pole to pole!

At the sound of one choir,
We will march to the tune,
To the conviction, “stop the robbery!”

Your state of control,
Your rotten throne of gold,
Your politics and your wealth,
And your treasure, no.

The hour sounded, the hour sounded.
We won’t permit any more, any more of your Shock Doctrine.

The hour sounded, the hour sounded. (x4)

Verse:
No countries, only corporations
That have more, more action,
Fat slices, powerful decisions by the few.

Pinochetist constitution,
Opus dei rights, Fascist books.
Coup supporter dressed by an elitist pardon.
Drop the drops, drop the purse,
The takeover takes the broken machine.
The street won’t quiet, the street is scratched,
The street isn’t quiet, debate that explodes.

Everything leaves, everything’s sold,
Everything profits life and death,
Everything’s business, like you,
Seeds, Pascuala, methods, and choirs.

(Chorus)

Coup to coup, kiss to kiss.
With desire and breath,
With ashes, with fire,
From the present with remembrance,
With certainty and with bleeding,
With a clear objective,
With memory and with history,
The future is now!

This whole test tube,
This whole laboratory every day,
All of this failure, all of this economic model
Doomed like the dinosaur.

Everything’s criminalized,
Everything’s justified in the news,
Everything leaves, everything’s trampled,
Everything’s filed and classified.

But… your politics and tactics,
Your typical laugh and ethnicity,
Your manipulated communication,
How many were those that were silenced?

Cops, water tanks, and nightsticks,
Cops, water tanks, and tuna,
Cops, water tanks don’t add up.
How many were those that robbed the fortunes?

Chorus


Close your eyes, and doo doo doo

If music were currency, and we paid for everything by sharing it, both our burdens and our feet would be wonderfully light. Here’s more great Chilean music from Papa Negro, a funk musician who writes fantastic Spanglish lyrics for those of you who can enjoy both.

Si la música fuera moneda, y la compartamos para pagar por todo, nuestros cargas y pies dos serían maravillosamente ligeros. Acá tenemos más gran música chilena de Papa Negro, un músico de funk, escritor de letras en espanglish fantástica para quienes puedan disfrutar las dos.

Papa Negro

“Wokman” (the Spanish-speaker’s way of writing “Walkman”)

Mis ojos cegados por la luz
Mi sonrisa se prepara para un día
Lleno de vida y calor
Existe un ambiente a familia
A mi alrededor

Tengo sueño
Y una brisa que recorre mi espalda
De a poco se apaga
Voy abrigado
Y una cinta that I choose a mi lado
Tomando en cuenta all the distance I travel

Press play
The silent tape noise alarga the wait
my smile twiches as my feet get the pace
and pow! the opening sound just hit me right there
leaving my mind from here to nowhere
And then ain’t nothing I could do
just smile, close my eyes and doo doo doo…

The Musician and the Con Artist

3.8.11

I forgot to mention yesterday about the music shop. Before dinner, after returning our rental bikes, we took an unfamiliar street and found it: a store that sold musical instruments and jewelry (can’t avoid the latter). Grinning, I dragged Sophie inside. On display was more copper jewelry (copper is a huge part of the Chilean economy) and local instruments: flutes, rainsticks, recorders. I began speaking with a female worker about them — she spoke in a thick French accent and directed me to a Chilean man sitting in the corner behind a work desk. He was making jewelry and happily gave me a demonstration of the recorder; a wooden tube about two feet long with large fingerholes and only a round slice in the top that you blow across to produce the sound. What a beautiful sound! It was breathy, woody, and warm, like the stove fires that keep you cozy during the Chilean winter nights farther south.

Once I told him I was also a musician, we struck a deeper chord. He pulled out a small pink rock, about the size of a pocketwatch, that had been carved into a whistle. The sound was piercing, but with a beautifully pure tone like an eagle’s cry. He changed the pitch with his thumb covering and uncovering a hole on the side, and altered the sound by rolling his tongue.

“¿No se venden?” pregunté. They’re not for sale?

“No, lo siento,” dijo. He explained that they were meant for rituals, and in respect, he couldn’t sell them.

“Entiendo,” dije.

The one he played is in the right. The larger one was unfinished.

Luego

Back to the present.

This morning we packed the last of our things in San Pedro. While looking up the address  online of our next hostel — “Terramar” — in Ancud, Chiloé, Sophie found a curious thing (Chiloé is an island — the second largest island in South America — off the coast of Chile in the 10th Region, about a 2-hour plane ride from the extreme south).

Turns out, the owner has cheated some of his guests.

Turns out, the owner has traveled around South America doing that.

Turns out, our next hostel was owned by a con artist.

According to several comments on a hostel website, he had offered tours to his guests for exponential prices. There was an entire blog post about him, with a picture, known pseudonyms, and places he was known to scam. With only ten minutes until our van came to bring us to the airport, and a day of plane rides ahead of us with no internet connection, we had to make a decision.

The website we used to make the reservation, Hostel Bookers, said we could possibly be charged for our entire stay. At $6.000 a night, or $18.000 overall for each person, we didn’t want to risk losing so much money. Also, all the scamming reported on the website had to do with the thours, while other comments claimed to love the hostel and its friendly environment.

Against everything our mothers taught us, we decided to proceed as planned, with extreme caution. We arranged our spiels: we already planned all of our touring, and we weren’t going to share any details about it. However, we would keep it in the back of our minds that at any time, we could find an excuse to leave.

“What if,” said Sophie, “we got there and it’s closed? Like, the police have shut it down?”
“Then we wouldn’t have anywhere to sleep.” 

For the rest of the day on our flights, from Calama in the desert to Santiago, then from Santiago down to Puerto Montt in the green south, then on the bus rides from Puerto Montt to the island of Chiloé and the town of Ancud, we tried to make the best of the upcoming reality that we were about to do business with a Chilean con artist.

Arriving in the south gave me some time to forget about it. My first few hours has given me a great impression. Seeing trees and grass again is like a refreshing drink of water for my eyes. The desert was a wonderful experience, but I don’t think I’ll be able to permanently live away from flora, fauna, and particularly, water. Our bus drove us onto a ferry to get to the island. Ancud is a port town, I believe, and the seafood is supposed to be incredible.

Chiloé. Something like the midwest.

So, after seeking out directions from the bus station to our hostel (around 10:30 pm), we walked along the beach and found it nestled halfway up a hill, at the curve of a road. It was later than we had told the web site we would arrive, but we didn’t think there would be a problem. Only the con-artist part.

I rang what I thought was the doorbell. Nothing. We knocked. Nothing. I tried to call them. Voicemail, no dial tone.

“What’s the deal, Terramar?!” asked Sophie, knocking loudly.

A voice called to us out of the dark. From the neighboring house, a dark Chilean woman was leaning out the window with a dab of white shaving cream on her chin. The hostel was, in fact, closed.

“¿Por siempre?” Forever?

“Sí.”

She told us, though, that they also ran a hostel-type function, called an hospidaje, and she could help us out by offering rooms.

A young woman, probably in her early 30s, answered the door. We explained our confusion, and she said they had rooms for $7.000. We said yes.

The hospidaje is beautiful. It’s a huge European house with gorgeous furniture and a dog wearing a sweater in the kitchen. We tried to pick her brain (the woman’s, not the dog’s) about Terramar, but we only learned that it closed last summer (the North American winter).

Maybe our new hostel owners are con artists too, and maybe not. But the hosue is old and cozy, with the right amount of creaky floors and musty odors. Instead of avoiding it like we would have at Terramar, I am excited to eat breakfast tomorrow and talk with the owners and other guests before we head to Castro, towards the center of the island.