Thursday, December 27, 2012

Django Unearthed

Some Django Unchained blowback from me, in response to the distinguished review by the guy who does a far better job of analysis than i do, Matt Poole

okay . . . some observations on this film

i think i hated it, but i’m not sure . . .

i didn’t say it was a bad film, i never once thought i’d rather not have seen it, or thought about walking out, but as for its ‘importance’ or ‘merit’ i have to think right now that it has little to none . . . it self-destructs

Tarantino is a dork . . .

last week, i thought one of the actors in the film was a waiter and asked him to get me a menu (which he did) . . . in retrospect it’s a cool deal, but i was horrified when i figured out what i’d done . . .

i suspect you’re going to be pretty much on the money about nominations, but i’ll hate that too . . . except that in a relative sense maybe some performances stack up, but they’re not what i would throw against some of the classic Oscar performances  . . . what i’m trying to say is that i become more and more disenchanted every year with what passes for ‘good’ performance – there is too much allowance for stretches of poor characterization forgiven for a few minutes of brilliance (this is the fault of the director imho), and too much acceptance of stereotypical characterizations rather than applauding unique performances (and which is where, imho, Pulp Fiction [or for that matter Reservoir Dogs] generously outweighs Django in the heavyweight filmmaking department; and is also why Tarantino will never achieve the level of say, the Coen Brothers, which is what i think he aspires to) . . .

Leonardo DiCaprio is one of my all-time favorite actors, but in this film he is always just rote Leo with one major hissy fit (which was not completely as out of the blue as it needed to be, but also strangely too out of character for the character we had been witness to) . . . now, rote Leo is good acting, but again he was just that caricature of a slimy (to use your word) plantation owner . . .

Kerry Washington was totally wasted . . . while this film, ultimately, i guess, was about the horrors of the time, she still was the point of the quest . . . the minuscule, in some cases totally disjointed, flashbacks and the handful of scenes in which she is a) naked, b) screaming or crying, and c) struggling to make herself believable as the incapable-of-pulling-off-a-life-saving-lie dame in distress, did nothing to make us believe in the strength of their love, to make us care about them as a couple, or to believe in the quest, despite being told in fairly pedantic and ultimately ridiculous form about the German legend (smarmy old white German guy instructing the freed black slave as Neanderthal around the campfire) . . . and, i thought everyone was just misunderstanding her name . . . there is no Broomhilda in German . . . it’s Brunnhilde . . . but alas i see she is even in the credits as Broomhilda . . . so is this some weird cultural reference to Broomhilda the cartoon witch? and what would be the significance of that? are we to think she is really a witch (in the nagging spouse sense) and he just has been blinded by love and hasn’t seen it? if so, then there is no other hint of it anywhere . . . then again, Tarantino is such a dork . . .

Jamie Foxx . . . i can’t say i disliked his characterization . . . i only wish that he hadn’t spent the entire second half of the movie either brooding menacingly or reaching for his pistol, only to impress us with his self-control, until of course he has no more self-control (warranted of course, we sorta could guess it was coming, but if you’re going to show the growth of a ‘man’ then don’t squander all that heart by making him ultimately ruthless and soulless) . . . his hero-worthiness kinda vaporized for me in that ridiculous denouement – sorry i’m gearing up to go into my story-making rant – i realize most everyone will go to the movie a) to see all the stupid gore, and by that i mean, the slapstick crap, and/or b) because Tarantino is such a dork and people want to see what he does next . . . okay, so back to Jamie Foxx, ultimately i think he is the most forgettable main character of the lot . . . sad but true . . . unfortunately i think Will Smith or Jim Carrey or Jon Heder (or whoever else QT wanted) would have been just as forgettable because this was about in-camera direction . . .

Waltz – meh . . . as you said, we’ve seen this guy before . . . and i’m not sure they’re so different . . . as with Foxx, we see him ultimately build to a breaking point, one that seems to defy the man we thought he was (again, the story is set up so that we cheer when he does it, but it felt rather manipulative to me) . . . if there’s a difference it’s that his growth was always building in that direction, we saw him grow both queasier and also harder hearted, so that his end was inevitable . . . the best part, from a story-telling angle was that, in his character, we could actually get under his skin, to feel what he felt and to have a sympathetic reaction to how he tried to handle things . . . it’s a  shame that his supporting cast was not along for the ride . . . ps, he had some really bad stretches of phone-ins

Jackson was brilliant in his role (the best total performance of the lot i think) . . . as it were . . . do i buy that someone as racially ruthless as DiCaprio would allow him to do what he does – no, i don’t . . . and yeah, i get the history between them . . . but it doesn’t square with history, nor does it square with human nature . . . if this is a complete farce, well okay i guess, but then one should definitely be comparing it to Blazing Saddles (which it obviously is in some homage to) instead of something more weighty . . . at least in Blazing Saddles they took the race issue, put it in the forefront, and did something smart with it . . . there is a huge difference in taking a comedy and using it as a cultural mirror vs. shoving a mirror in our face and then trying to get a few chuckles and guffaws out of it . . .

this might as well have been an animated feature . . .

Matt, i’m pretty sure we have gone down this road before . . . my ideas about storytelling . . . i am going to assume that this was an attempt at telling a story, if not, if it was just as it seems, Tarantino seeing how much crap he could throw up on a screen and have us pay to see, then my whole point will be moot . . .

my concept, to restate and elaborate on, is that regardless of what you are dealing in, be it film, novels, poetry, songs, painting, dance, or music, art is about telling a story . . . my story-telling acme is that in which nothing gets in the way of the telling and full understanding of the story itself . . . and so, when editing, etc., my objective is always to expand that which needs it for the sake of the story, and eliminating everything else that makes one stop and go “what was that?” . . . it’s okay to make folks stop and ponder bits of the story, it’s okay to create backstory, it’s okay to lead one down a false path as long as all those things further the finished telling . . . but making someone stop to reread a sentence ten times because it’s so poorly written that it makes no sense? in the moment it takes you to do that it removes you from the story and it falls apart . . . tell the story man, if you have a story to tell . . . if you have to constantly throw meaningless stuff in, then you probably don’t have a story to begin with . . . if you have to throw in stupid gimmicks and cutesy dialogue (and make no mistake, a lot of his dialogue IS smart and does prod the story along; but some of it is pure crap; there is a rather large difference between intellectual, or knowing, ‘smart’ dialogue, and ‘smart’-aleck dialogue that ultimately is worth nothing more than the moment in which it is uttered and delivers a chuckle . . . there is no “The Dude abides” in this film, not even a shadow of it . . .), then that is nothing but base ego (and i guess there are plenty of folks who like that gimmicky crap because it’s signature Tarantino, well fine, but it’s still gimmicky crap and it’s still, pathetically, about his ego and not the story)

there is a time and place for non-linear exposition and flashback, but Tarantino either hasn’t located that place, or he is deliberately screwing with us – if the latter is the case, then fine, he succeeded, but at what cost? the loss of story? pretty pathetic that he’ll take people’s money and do that to them . . . especially when the film had not only the potential to be something really special, but important . . . he could have made a defining statement, replete with humor and bloodshed, and odd moments, but it’s completely squandered by stupid giant titles, and beyond ridiculous violence and stunts that make a mockery of film and even his own abilities . . . he has concocted a story little short of brilliant and then turned in into a Lego version of “The Village” . . .

so . . . the Blazing Saddles hood scene, i agree, the funniest (intentionally anyway) scene in the movie . . . but it totally took me out of the story, totally, and it was also unnecessarily long, the humor could have been done in about 15 seconds . . .

so, the dog scene, i suppose, was meant to display some level of brutality, and also to show the limits Walt’s character could stand before breaking, but those things could have been handled elsewhere, and the dog scene, if necessary, could have been much shorter . . . in any case, the scene took me out of the story again . . . i feel like that’s because i had the gut instinct that the real purpose was to get Tarantino’s cutesy little hillbilly stereotypes into the story . . . again, maybe for slapstick it works, maybe not for the purpose of a good story . . .

so, a screen-sized Mississippi crawling across the screen, not only figuratively took me out of the story, but literally too, as nothing could be seen behind it . . . pure ego-flashing gimmick . . . silly at best . . .

so, i’m not much into gratuitous violence and bloodshed . . . but i can certainly handle it when it is a part of the story, and i don’t think that one should back away from depicting reality, but when it gets cartoonish (yeah, i know it’s just another signature Quentin ‘thang’, but it’s also just another really dorkish signature) then it immediately takes me out of the story because i begin thinking about how ‘unreal’ it is and dissecting scenes instead of staying engaged (and this is a fault with a lot of films the last decade) . . . when it approaches cartoonish then i am really out of the story, and this film has perhaps done that to me more than anything since Natural Born Killers & Tropic Thunder (don’t get me started) . . . it really feels most like Tarantino trying to one-up Tarantino, because no one else is willing to sabotage their own films at his level . . . the final bloodletting at the Big House was just ridiculous . . . okay the bloodnuts in the house got a kick out of it, but what else did it accomplish, besides removing one from the story? and okay, i know guns, i was a long-time instructor/hunter/yadayada, i know guns . . . there isn’t a shotgun made that will blow someone 20 feet into a bookcase and destroy the bookcase (oops, taken out of the story again), nor will a shot from a balcony from any non-military-only rifle (especially of that era) blow someone off their feet, even a petite lady, at a 90 degree angle to the shot – the killing of Laura Cayouette’s Lara was especially ludicrous, and brought the first, unintentional, laughs in the theatre i was at in probably 30 or 40 minutes, though there were a lot of attempts to humor in that time (i think we were all thoroughly numb by then) . . . so all the semi-serious bloodshed, supposedly in service to rescuing one damsel in distress, lost in one foul moment of either a) poor direction with lousy stunt engineers, b) intentionally stupid filmmaking, or as c) the last big fuck you to the audience who lined his pockets . . . out of the story . . .

i could go on, but the idea is that we spent much of the time in that quite taxingly overlong film being dragged around places that served no purpose other than to excite Tarantino fans . . . most of those moments would have been much better had they been uploaded as out of context clips on YouTube (maybe that was his real goal?)

i guess it’s obvious that my big frustration was that so much could have been done with this story and it was clearly a hugely wasted opportunity . . . maybe QT is not capable of really delivering a good story, i don’t know . . . i understand, but don’t really like, his cult appeal . . . but again, holy crap man, if you actually come up with a good story, and have an opportunity to really make a splash, to really create a living pinnacle for your really uneven ouevre, then why squander that chance for a few moments of pure goof . . . highly disappointed . . .

i’d almost like to take the film when it comes out on DVD and recut it myself, but i’m afraid i’ll find there was far less substance than even i give it credit for . . . and then i’d put the leftovers on YouTube . . .

ps, the music was cute, if obvious sometimes, and occasionally cheesy, which i know he did on purpose because there was so much spaghetti sauce lying around when he was done, high dollar Ennio Morricone sauce at that . . .  

pps the two guys i went to see the film with really liked it . . . i think . . .

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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Klinsmann And The Concept Of Openness?

By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 28, 2011) US Soccer Players -- American soccer is currently in the midst of a new policy of, for lack of a better word, “openness.” Specifically, in regards to the United States National Team where head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is making every effort to explain his ideas often and at length to anyone that is willing to listen.

It's hard to avoid him if you have any interest in American soccer. He's on camera, in articles, and giving speeches at soccer events. And it's not just the expected 'coach talk' we hear from so many in his business.

Klinsmann is sharing thoughts on his overarching concepts, sure, but he's also drilling down to specifics in a way that isn't the norm. Ideas on tactics and approach are freely given, especially as it relates to America’s awaking to the sport of soccer, the way it goes about developing its players, and how a national character can be expressed through the way the national team plays. It's at both engaging for the emerging fan and valuable for those that have been around the game. Those dual purposes can sometimes be contradictory, but Klinsmann's enthusiasm carries over.

He's also talking about individual players, up to and including opinions on their club situations and personal communication he’s has had with them about their careers. Again, something that is normally off the table. A German legend by way of Southern California has installed an eye-opening program of transparency after a long period of letting the results on the field speak on behalf of the program.

What Klinsmann is doing is simple. He's changing the way information is passed from those that control it (in this case, Klinsmann himself) to those most hungry to consume it (in this case, the fans and media). Klinsmann’s voice is now an American soccer constant, be it in videos, in quotes appearing in the myriad digital soccer news outlets, or, in the most recent development, in a podcast specifically recorded as a primer for the team’s friendly with Italy on February 29th.

It’s extremely difficult to imagine most soccer coaches doing anything similar here or in any other country. That's especially true at international level, a high stakes game of personalities and gamesmanship where keeping quiet about specifics is taken for granted. Not Klinsmann, in part due to what he learned as a player first, and then applied as a coach. Friendliness gets a person a long way, and so does embracing a new culture.

Klinsmann is the living embodiment of wanton exuberance when it comes to soccer. As a mechanism for engaging the soccer public in his grand experiment, Klinsmann’s voice fills a void and an important one. While the game is growing at a reasonable and respectable pace, the mainstream sports media has yet to take serious interest in the day-to-day world of American soccer.

For Klinsmann, if the attention isn’t going to come to him, he's clearly decided to take the message directly to the people. That's nothing new for North American pro sports, but it's rarely applied to professional soccer.

If Klinsmann was coaching a team in one of America’s big three sports for any professional or big college program, he’d certainly have a weekly show (the ubiquitous “coach’s corner”) to give his thoughts on the direction of his team. Chatting with veteran soccer broadcaster Allen Hopkins on video and podcast is Klinsmann’s own version of the coach’s corner.

Then again, Klinsmann's position is different from any of his predecessors at National Team level. Klinsmann's primary job is to win games, no difference there. But he's also supposed to be changing things from the top down. Klinsmann is a reformer, a coach who sees unfulfilled potential in American soccer and believes he can correct its course.

Listening to Klinsmann talk outside of the usual National Team areas is like listening to a politician lay out a platform. It's a mix of concrete action to be taken and abstract concepts to be explored. And like with politicians, much of that talk is the same thoughts and concepts repeated again and again. Staying on point is part of the project.

The reformer works to change the system without the need to destroy it. Hammering away with his theme of national identity, freeing players so they can express themselves, and playing attacking soccer because it fits the American spirit is, for Klinsmann, about slowly changing attitudes. This was apparent when he was running camps for elite high school players in the United States even before taking the Germany job. For him, the scope of his work is nothing new.

Klinsmann's broader interpretation of the role of National Team coach isn't without its issues. Like any coach, he has to win games with the players available in an environment not of his making. As much control as a coach has, he ends up ceding most of it over 90 minutes. It's a risk Klinsmann knows well, making his choice to talk as openly and as often as he does all the more interesting.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Scouting Report: Italy

From the US NAtional Team Players Association:

By Clemente Lisi , Feb 28, 2012

The United States will put its three-game winning streak on the line Wednesday when it goes up against Italy. The friendly against the four-time World Cup champions at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris – a place US coach Jurgen Klinsmann called “a difficult environment” – will be a tough test for the USA ahead of World Cup Qualifying in June.

While the Americans are preparing for the start of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying, the Italians are putting the finishing touches on the 23-player roster that will compete at the European Championship this summer.

Since Italy crashed out in the first round of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the Azzurri have been a work-in-progress under coach Cesare Prandelli and feature a mix of veterans and newcomers. Gianluigi Buffon can become the most-capped goalkeeper in team history if he gets any playing time. Buffon is currently tied for third-place all-time with Dino Zoff at 112 caps. Both rank behind defenders Fabio Cannavaro (136) and Paolo Maldini (126).

With the exception of Inter Milan’s Giampaolo Pazzini (23 caps and four goals for Italy), Prandelli has called up three other strikers with relatively little experience for the senior team. Sebastian Giovinco (Parma) has six caps and no goals, Alessandro Matri (Juventus) has just four caps and one goal and Fabio Borini (AS Roma), who has scored seven goals this season, is uncapped and got his first call up this past weekend. Prandelli left out an obvious option for an experienced striker, Manchester City's Mario Balotelli. Not completely surprising, since Prandelli has hinted in the past that he may not utilize him for the Euro ’12.

It has been Prandelli’s focus on youth players over the past 19 months that has helped the Italians reemerge following their World Cup disappointment.

“This team has done more than anyone had anticipated,” Prandelli told reporters on Sunday. “We hope to do even better and use the next five months to improve further.”

Italy, currently eighth in the FIFA rankings, qualified for the European Championship fairly easily last year, although it remains a team far below the level of a Spain or Germany. Prandelli has tested several tactical formations over the past year and will likely go with a 4-3-1-2 against the Americans. No matter what lineup he uses, Prandelli said he does not underestimate any opponent.

“Just look at what happened in South Africa,” he said, citing Italy’s loss against Slovakia and draws against Paraguay and New Zealand under his predecessor Marcello Lippi at the last World Cup. “We do not take any game lightly.”

Neither does Klinsmann, who has stressed what's happening with his own squad rather than focusing on the opposition. Fitness appropriate for soccer at the highest level is Klinsmann's goal along with regular exposure to top opponents.

“It’s very important that we get these games, and in particular playing them on the road. That’s when you really get players out of their comfort zone, and they have to deal with a difficult environment on a physical and psychological level,” he said. “Italy is a very smart and experienced team and there is a lot to take away from an experience like this.”

The Americans won the last game they played in Europe, 3-2 over Slovenia in November with a first choice squad. In January, they recorded back-to-back 1-0 wins over Venezuela and Panama with a squad made up primarily of Major League Soccer players. His current squad became an unintentional work in progress after a weekend reshuffle due to injuries.

Klinsmann added midfielder Sacha Kljestan and striker Brek Shea to the squad after Timmy Chandler (left hamstring strain), Jermaine Jones (right calf strain), Landon Donovan (bronchitis), and Jose Torres (right hamstring strain) were all forced to withdraw.

Even with those absences, the Americans will likely field a similar side to the one that beat Slovenia. Eight of the 11 players that started against Slovenia are available to Klinsmann. Midfielder Michael Bradley is the only player on the US roster with Serie A experience, having a standout season with Chievo. Bradley started against Genoa at the Luigi Ferraris stadium earlier this month in a 1-0 Chievo win.

Clemente Lisi is a New York-based writer.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Bullets from the Revolution

Every year Bexar County offers free weddings on the courthouse steps at midnight on Valentine's Day. This tradition dates back to 1989, begun by Joe Sullivan, pastor of the non-denominational Little Church on the River and the All-Believers Chuch, both in San Antonio. A former Air Force Engineer, he has married over 8,000 people, most of them via his Valentine's Day specials. Last night he encountered something new. One of my best friends, and one of my heroes, John Dean Domingue, organized a passel of same-sex couples to attend, knowing, of course, they could not get licenses, but wanting to demonstrate their love for each other, and partake in a little specialness for Valentine's. They were instructed beforeheand that this was about love, and to not make a scene, not to hurt the joy and celebrations of the other couples who would be present. They had done this last year, but with fewer couples and less fanfare as i understand it. Things changed last night. About a dozen same-sex couples, intending to stand for marriage, lined up on the steps with perhaps 75 other couples. A similar contingent of same-sex couples were in the crowd in support. It was an exuberant and joyous crowd, with no tension that i could detect, a little tittering as folks began to understand what the crowd of folks with multi-colored balloons represented. But as i wandered through and about the crowd, playing the dutiful photographer, i did not hear one single word of ugliness or hatred from anyone in the crowd, period. I took a lot of pics of straight couples and mixed couples and same sex couples, and never did i detect any ugliness. Until Pastor Joe Sullivan took the microphone to address the crowd and marry the couples. First he tried to shoo the same-sex couples off the steps of the courthouse. Not a one budged, nor said anything, nor argued, nor raised a ruckus . . . nor did any of the straight couples, no one yelled, or shoved, or made a scene. Everyone just waited, arm in arm, hand in hand, all stripes and persuasions. Pastor Joe said several times that only God could marry people, people couldn't marry people, and that those were defying God and taking his name in vain by pledging themselves to marriage would face damnation . . . and then brought people right back into the equation by saying no one could get married without a county-issued license. And still these folks, every one, held their ground . . . peacefully, quietly. They were, quite simply, heroic. The more they looked at peace with themselves and each other, the more Pastor Joe condemned them. I cannot imagine a display more simultaneously ‘Christian’ and ‘un-Christian’ – that great, uniquely American conundrum brought vividly to life. Finally, he just dismissed the same-sex couples as damned, and went about his business of marrying, so sprinkled with bawdyish jokes and hints about the instability of marriage that one wonders if his training came in a nightclub. I don’t think anyone expected the ugliness – perhaps being asked to move, perhaps being told that it wasn’t legal, perhaps even being ‘teased’ by parts of the crowd, but the sheer meanness i think came as a surprise. And as badly as he attempted to ruin, perhaps did ruin, the night for the same-sex couples, i think he also ruined a beautiful night for everyone else, the families there to witness something beautiful, and the joy of the folks there for ‘legal’ weddings. It sure put a permanent damper on ‘my’ idea of the ‘sanctity’ of marriage, whatever that is. And then, it was over. As a consequence of the incitement by Pastor Joe, i expected some shouting matches to happen, some ugliness passed on by some of the straight folks who’d had their night crippled. And perhaps some of that went on, but i, again, didn’t hear a single word of it, and i felt i was in the mix enough to have heard it. A rumored ‘mass citizen’s arrest’ by a fundamentalist group didn’t materialize. During the bulk of the ceremony, and the crowd gathering leading up to it, almost an hour’s worth of everyone mingling, nary a single uniformed cop was present anywhere near the plaza. Likely there were some undercover folks watching and taking notes. Then in the last 15 minutes four cop cars appeared around the perimeter seemingly from nowhere, perhaps summoned by someone fearful of what may transpire after the rabble-rousing. But in the end, all was peaceful, cops bantered among themselves but i saw no one approached by any of them. Instead, everyone went on their way, enjoying their moments with families, posing for pictures in front of the fountain and the courthouse and San Fernando Cathedral . . . people kissing, holding hands, smiling . . . straight, gay, transgender. It was quite a beautiful Valentine’s mess of humanity. With the exception of one lone soul, the primary representative of the church in the plaza, all of San Antonio is worthy of a ton of congratulations for their constraint at minimum, their tolerance as well, but i think much more so for the love they exhibited on the one day we celebrate about love. There was an awful lot of love in that place last night, unfettered, it seems, by one man’s evil castigations. As John Dean pointed out in interviews ahead of the event, it’s appropriate that St. Valentine is a saint for having the temerity and courage to couple folks he was forbidden from marrying. Pastor Joe could learn something from that i suppose.

[pictures from the event to follow later this week]

Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Sound of Songwriter José Cónde: Just Jose Conde

José Cónde lives his lyrics. He gets grooves from the names of trees. He leaves melody lines on his own answering machine. He can turn a playful refrain to his dog into a dance anthem. His songs are odes to hot dresses, Brazilian muses, discombobulated elephants, and life-giving springs.

Cónde brings a new focus and maturity to this whimsical world on Jose Conde. He turns highly personal songs into new global grooves and reflective, dynamic ballads.

“When I was in my 20s, I didn’t dance at all. I had to come out of my shell,” Cónde exclaims with a laugh. “I’m a late bloomer, though I’ve always been explorer. Now I’ll go anywhere and do anything, I’ll try anything, experimenting with flavors and playing around with different elements and sounds.”

As a songwriter and bandleader, Cónde developed a striking instinct for merging his Miami upbringing, Cuban roots, and the sizzle of New York’s Latin underground. But the new self-titled album is distinguished by a universality; catchy melodies and danceable rhythms likely to draw listeners of all stripes. Cónde has traded in his Cuban tres for a vintage Gresch guitar (and Hammond B3 and a dozen other instruments). Pan-American and trans-Atlantic influences flow effortlessly on Jose Conde. “The whole idea of fusing elements of American funk, Cuban son, and Brazilian music has been kicking around in my head for years. But it was still in the context of a ‘Latin’ band. Now I’m free to move in any and all directions.”

Cónde rocks a smoking tango (“El Vestido”) or sways through a sensuous, gentle samba (“Mabel”). Lyrically, he points to the absurdness of the habitat displacement that led to an elephant wandering into a Zambian hotel lobby (taken straight from the pages of National Geographic; on “Elephante en Hotel”). Or to the crazy, rockabilly-tinged capers of his dog (“Gordito Cabezon”).

Rumba meets infectious Brooklyn break beats on “Amor y Felicidad.” The hard-grooving “Matapalo Matamusa” sparkles with electro blips while raising the roof off the sucker, thanks to funky guitar riffs and an irresistible bass line. Cónde’s musical exuberance bursts out at the least provocation. Witness the cool cha-cha-cha-suggesting phrase in the South African language of Tsonga (“Munghana Wamina”).Yet the irrepressible spontaneity is balanced by an emotional and introspective side that turns grooves into poetry.

Cónde’s strong sense of himself as an artist, evolved over a long incubation period, demanding just the right sound. After years of working with different collaborators, for the latest record, Cónde played, recorded, and mixed the majority of the album himself, which culminated in sequestering himself for days in his bedroom with a NEVE analog mixer and a menagerie of instruments.

When no bassist could give him just the right swing on tracks like "Matapalo," he bought and polished his long dormant bass chops until his hands were shot. “I had trouble communicating the exact vibe to bass players,” says Cónde. “There’s an unusual relationship between vocal and bass phrasing that the song demanded, an interplay that lets the vocals breathe and lets the bass line get funky. It had to sound exactly as I heard it in my head.”

Yet Cónde also knew when to dip into the bubbling Brooklyn melting pot to find the right groove players. Drummer Gintas Janusonis (Anjelique Kidjo), Brazilian percussionist Ze Mauricio (Chorro Ensemble), Cuban conga player Roman Diaz, and Chilean Yayo Cerca on cajon. Cónde also recruited diverse and funky keyboard players, guitarists, and bassists from the scene, such as Jorge Bringas (La Excelencia), funky Caracas-born guitarist Rafael Gomez (Lila Downs), and Chilean keyboardist Pablo Vergara (Groove Collective).

“This isn’t just another project or a concept,” he said. “This record is about me as a songwriter. It’s about one guy in Brooklyn, his songs, and his voice. Everything else is secondary.”

about José Cónde

Brooklyn singer songwriter José Cónde reimagined the Latin conjunto. He blazed through salsa and son. He unleashed long trippy jams and massive brass sections. He dug deep into his Cuban heritage and Miami upbringing. He’s done the world music and Latin alternative thing, won the awards, and played to jubilant, rain-soaked crowds.

A fixture on the alt Latin scene, Cónde has indeed experimented with a multitude of formats, approaches, and projects, as a markedly independent musician. His music has been featured on the BBC and Californication. He won Best Latin Album at the Independent Music Awards (2008) and has gotten crowds hopping from the Montreal Jazz Festival to DC’s Kennedy Center, including a recent Central Park SummerStage show that got thousands of damp but dancing listeners in a downpour.

Cónde seriously spiced up kid’s music as the musical director and singer for Baby Loves Salsa (Rope a Dope Records/Sony; 2008). Cónde’s video, “Respondele a Obama,” which has garnered hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, became an anthem of the U.S. 2008 presidential campaign.

As a songwriter and bandleader for his big band Ola Fresca, Cónde developed a striking instinct for merging his Miami upbringing, Cuban roots, and New York’s Latin underground. In two critically acclaimed albums, Ay! Que Rico (PiPiKi/Universal; 2004) and the award winning (R)Evolución (Mr. Bongo Records UK; 2007), Cónde drew on Puerto Rican bomba and Haitian compas, Cuban son and New Orleans swamp-funk. Five songs from these albums have been featured on Putumayo and Rough Guide Records compilations.

But forget all that: “Now I just don’t give a damn where I fit in. I’m just José Cónde.”

I'm Christian, unless you're gay

What a beautiful piece of work . . .

By Dan Pearce On November 14, 201

Today I want to write about something that has bothered me for the better part of a decade. I’ve carved out no fewer than a dozen drafts of this post, all strangely unalike, all ultimately failing to accomplish the job I’ve set out to do. Truth is, I’ve been trying to write it off and on for more than a year now, and the right words have been seemingly impossible to come by.

In the end, and in order to post it, I guess I had to care more about the message than I do about potential backlash. I’m not being facetious when I say that I hope I can get this message across without offending… well… everybody.

What I really hope is that this post will spark and encourage poignant and worthwhile discussion that will lead to some poignant and worthwhile changes in the lives of at least a few people who are hurting.

That being said, I believe some strong words need to be said today.

“God hates fags.” We’ve all seen the signs being waved high in the air by members of the Westboro Baptist church. On TV. In real life. It’s hard not to take notice.

Over the years, I’ve watched seemingly never-ending disgustingness and hatred spill across the media airwaves from those who belong to the organization. For those who don’t know much about that “church,” they have made a seedy name for themselves by doing drastic things like picketing beneath atrocious signs and hosting flagrant anti-gay protests at military funerals.

Almost every person of nearly every religion has no problem loathing and condemning the Westboro Baptist Church and its members, and perhaps with reason. They take freedom of speech far beyond what our founding fathers intended when they fought to give us that right, and they laugh at the rest of the world while they do.

But today I don’t want to talk about those idiots. I want to talk about you. And me.

And my friend who I’ll call Jacob.

Read the rest here:

and some followup is here:

Monday, November 21, 2011

Distant Migrations, Close Voices: Vlada Tomova Sings at the Urbane Edge of Tradition on Tour this Fall and on Balkan Tales

All roads lead to the Balkans, and Bulgarian-born, Brooklyn-based singer Vlada Tomova hears it.

The region welcomed mysterious wanderers from Inner Asia; Greeks and Romans trading in the East; bands of weary migrants on a road that stretched from Rajastan to Andalusia. The lines of ancient movement across the peninsula are audible and tightly bound to one another, like the lives in a village.

Embracing sounds far outside the confines of tradition, Tomova has distilled years of learning songs from traditional singers and modern songwriters to tell Balkan Tales. Her arrangements fearlessly embrace flamenco flourishes and Indian resonances, Brazilian flair and Romany rhythms. Yet her mutable, flexible voice evokes the stark, rich spirit of Balkan mountainsides and byways, the old paths and deep roots of thousands of years of cultural conversation.

Joined by globetrotting kaval (traditional Bulgarian flute) master Theodosii Spassov and an avant-worldly band including alter-sitarist Chris Rael, Tomova brings this elegant balance to New York, Boston, and Chicago in late October 2011.

“The Balkans have something very unique that mixes well with other musics because of its complex and long history,” explains Tomova. “And it’s very emotional for me; it’s about connecting to the places, the ancient villages I’ve loved since childhood. It’s about home.”


Tomova recalls sitting at a modest kitchen table on a recent song-finding trip to Bulgaria. She had brought the members of her choir, Yasna Voices, to a remote pomak village, people whose ancestors had converted to Islam. There, Tomova and the American vocalists had met up with a pair of singers who were the real deal.

Across from her sat two older women who had been life-long singing partners. Traditionally, two girls start finding the close, vibrating intervals of old songs together and will continue blending their voices until death do them part. They could feel each other’s timing without a glance, sense what to say as the other improvised lyrics.

This commitment and intimacy moved Tomova deeply. “Those two women were so close, and they relied so much on each other, in an unspoken, down-to-earth, unquestioning way, which you could hear in their singing, the two voices flowing together as one,” Tomova reflects. “I wish we could find much more of that kind of interdependence, trust, and connectedness in the different layers of our everyday life today, especially in large cities, and in the Western world.”

The layers of Tomova’s own life reveal a similar spirit of interconnection. Though raised around traditional music in her native Bulgaria, she and her generation rebelled against the state-sponsored folk heard on the airwaves. It wasn’t until Tomova came to Berklee to study jazz that she discovered a completely different approach to Bulgarian and Balkan traditions, an approach that began with a spontaneous song at a Boston party and ended with concerts at Carnegie Hall and musical trips to the Bulgarian countryside.

Not content to simply sing the roots—though she is now an accomplished and respected performer and singer of Bulgarian traditional music—Tomova often collaborates with other globally-minded musicians (like Balkan Beat Box) and lends her mutable, expressive voice to installations, from a recent King Tut exhibit to the Turin Winter Olympics.

The delicious tension between tradition and bold experimentation echoes in Tomova’s songs like the close intervals loved by Bulgarian singers. It vibrates in the flamenco guitar and hand percussion that reframes the traditional Bulgarian tune, “Momche,” and in the Greek-gone-Brazilian ballad to a beloved daughter, “Augoustos.”

A set for Tomova’s Balkan Tales is just as likely to include a Russian gypsy ballad as an edgy sitar line, or to follow a full-throated village song with a complex, globally savvy extrapolation of a folk-inspired jazz number. Take “Women’s Dance,” a tune composed by Milcho Leviev, an eccentric and brilliant musician defector from socialist Bulgaria whom Tomova tracked down in Los Angeles.

Tomova’s unexpected arrangements evolved in close collaboration with her fellow musicians at Berklee and in New York’s vibrant scene, as well as from Tomova’s own feel for vocal color, ornamentation, and distinctive harmonies. This fall, the band will include Spassov, a wildly talented traditional flute player who can easily leap borders and genres; he’s worked with everyone from Indian tabla innovator Trilok Gurtu and flamenco piano star David Peña Dorantes to film music icon Ennio Morricone.

On one of his many world tours, Spassov showed up at one of Tomova’s shows and jumped in to jam with her band, and a musical friendship began. “I’ve wanted to play with Teodosii again for years,” Tomova smiles.

The diverse sounds and multifaceted musicians Tomova has brought together reflect not only the complex interchange between peoples across the Balkans; they also resonate with Tomova’s new roots in a global metropolis.

“I have dug deep into Balkan music, but I also have all these other parts in me now,” Tomova notes. “And wherever I go, even if I’m back singing in that small village somewhere in Bulgaria, I bring those other worlds with me. My band and our performances reflect that.”

Epic Co-Creation: DÜNYA’s Tale of Constantinople and Istanbul Journeys Through a Millennium of Musical Innovation and Bittersweet Longing

In every dazzling palace and every shadowy alley hums a barely palpable but evocative drone. It’s the ache of glory days now gone, a stirring melancholy that ennobles and embroils the City, once at the heart of so much.

This is the sound and pulse of Constantinople/Istanbul, and Boston-based musicians’ collective DÜNYA, with Schola Cantorum and Ensemble Trinitas, brings it to the forefront on A Story of the City...Constantinople, Istanbul, their journey through a thousand years of the music that echoed along the Bosphorus. The double CD is currently submitted for a Grammy™ award.

There, Greek Orthodox melodies collided with rousing Crusader ballads and the unexpectedly complex folk tunes from Central Asia. A Polish Protestant convert transcribed elegant 17th-century Ottoman melodies. Armenian composers wrote music for Turkish-speaking Jewish and Greek lyricists (“Bu gece çamlarda kalsak ne olur/Apopse”), while Sufi chants uniquely transformed Jewish religious songs (“Yeheme levavi”). Migrants, traders, and conquerors invented new genres, from the court music of the sultans to art music and protest pop in the 20th century.

“I think that the rich diversity reflected in this album will be appreciated by Americans,” reflects Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, musical director and co-founder of DÜNYA. “Through that appreciation, I am sure the American view of the Near and Middle East will change. The Grammies are a great platform for our work to find a greater voice, and to highlight DÜNYA’s unique structure and many talents.”


DÜNYA sprang from frustrating success. Sanlikol, who came to the U.S. to study both at Berklee and the New England Conservatory, had won a name for himself on the jazz circuit, playing festivals across Eurasia and collaborating with legends like trombone icon Bob Brookmeyer. And yet he longed for something very different.

Then one night a decade ago, he played a game of Risk. A friend wanted to provide a fitting soundtrack for world domination and included a few tracks that struck Sanlikol like a bolt from the blue. It was music many believed to have been played by the Janissaries. Sanlikol couldn’t get it out of his head.

“It wasn’t about ideology or nationalist feelings of any kind. It wasn’t because I missed Turkey, though the distance helped make the discovery genuine,” Sanlikol recalls. “It was totally an accident and completely about the music. I listened like never before, and it rocked like Zeppelin. And though I had all this theoretical training and sophistication, I just couldn’t find the tonic.”

Seriously intrigued, Sanlikol began to study Turkish music with the same dedication he had pursued his Western classical and jazz training (he is now a leading scholar on Mehter or the so-called Janissary music, as well as a professor at Brown and the New England Conservatory) He found himself taken by the entire region and took lessons in, among other traditions, Greek Orthodox chanting (from Nektarios Antoniou, leader of Schola Cantorum and DÜNYA member). He soon discovered dozens of other kindred spirits around Boston, high-powered musicians who loved Middle Eastern, Sephardic, Greek, or other Eastern Mediterranean sounds.

Sanlikol, working together with close friends Robert Labaree and Antoniou, suddenly understood: An ensemble flexible enough to cross cultures and play across musical genres, yet broad enough to embrace all the local talent, would have to take a somewhat unconventional form.

DÜNYA was born, a true collective made up of interlocking ensembles—playing everything from New Music to Anatolian folk—and concentric rings of participants circling a highly committed core. It felt like the ideal response to the unsatisfying life of a touring musician, always performing the same repertoire night after night. “With this structure, we can find a fresh kind of continuity,” reflects Sanlikol. “We can come together as friends and keep playing together over and over at radically different concerts.”

Several years ago, contemplating DÜNYA’s next concert, Sanlikol toyed with the idea of a program of songs about Istanbul, of putting together a nice, light evening of pop music. Then he got in way too deep, finding music that extended back in time, and into a plethora of cultures and faiths. “I realized, ‘Wow, I’m getting sucked into this thing. What do I do?’” Sanlikol remembers with a smile. “That’s when [Nobel laureate] Orhan Pamuk’s novel about Istanbul came out. He has this melancholic idea about the city, and it inspired me. I listened to all these musics, even military or upbeat ones, and I couldn’t help but hear that melancholic tone. It’s all over, whether it’s Greek Constantinople or Turkish Istanbul. The great heydays are long gone.”

Yet the unexpected figures who helped fashion the city’s music live on. There’s the love-struck medieval French nobleman and crusader, Gui de Coucy (“A vous amant, plus qu’a nul autre gent”). Or the intriguing Ali Ufki (Wojciech Bobowski), who converted to Islam from Protestantism and became a musician in the Ottoman court (he wrote down instrumental pieces like “Buselik Asiran pesrev”). Or Sephardic Jewish singer Haim Efendi (“La rosa enfloresse”), whose upbeat love song is pure Istanbul folk.

And the music is still glorious, though often elusive. As Sanlikol and DÜNYA began to map out their journey, starting from Greek antiquity and ending in modern Turkey, they faced a multitude of interpretational challenges. Sanlikol had little interest in historical recreation or ethnographic preservation, and opted instead for innovative twists that evoke the spirit of a time and place.

Sanlikol’s opening original composition, “Byzantium,” places the ghostly fragments of ancient Greece’s music in a bold, 20th-century atonal frame. DÜNYA fearlessly turned traditionally vocal pieces into instrumental tunes, mixed companion instruments from different traditions, and turned to thoughtfully arranged folk melodies to complement the sometimes scanty historical record. The music leaps with surprising grace from spare Sufi chants (“Salat-i ümmiye”) to full-on, wah-wah guitar-powered pop anthems (“Felekten beter vurdu”). Artfully recorded by Grammy™-nominated engineer, John Weston (Futura Productions), the result is an epic work of co-creation, mirroring the rise, fall, and continued vibrancy of one of the world’s crucial cultural capitals.

Though willing to play with tradition, Sanlikol and DÜNYA ‘s players have developed keen sensitivities to the complex emotions that surround place, time, and identity in Sanlikol’s native region. Sanlikol experienced how complex, ambiguous, and visceral the past’s impact could be: His exiled Turkish Cypriot parents recalled singing “God Save the Queen” in Turkish and knew what conflict meant. “This isn’t feel-good musical diplomacy. There’s an edge to it; there’s tension,” Sanlikol states. “When you speak of identity as a concept in mid east, in all the nation states that came out of Ottoman Empire, it’s problematic.”

“But music is first and foremost,” adds Sanlikol. “This is not the story of this or that people, but the story of the city. That’s what makes it work.”




Signature Theatre Will Host the Residency of the

Juilliard Drama Division’s “Professional Studio” at its
State-of-the-Art Rehearsal Studio and 99-Seat Performance Venue, “The Studio”

New York, NY—November 17, 2011 – The Juilliard School President Joseph W. Polisi, and Signature Theatre Founding Artistic Director James Houghton announced today an annual residency for the Juilliard Drama Division's “Professional Studio” for the next five years. Beginning in the fall of 2012, fourth and final-year students in both Juilliard’s Bachelor degree, and new Master of Fine Arts degree programs in Drama will be hosted by Signature Theatre at the Company’s new Frank Gehry-designed home, Signature Center. Professional workshops, rehearsals, and performances by students from the prestigious, world-renown Juilliard program will take place at “The Studio,” a new, 99-seat, state-of-the-art rehearsal and performance space in Signature’s new home. In addition, the students will have the opportunity to observe and participate in activities in the Center and intersect with artists in residence at Signature Theatre.

President Polisi said, "This new initiative within the extraordinary confines of Signature Center provides a whole new array of educational and artistic activities for our actors. We look forward to having our actors interact with the many seasoned artists who will be working at the Center on a daily basis."

Juilliard is accepting applications until December 1 for its newly-announced Master of Fine Arts in Drama, with auditions to take place in January and February 2012. A highly selective program that will accept 8 to 10 graduate actors annually, the program will allow the most talented young actors to explore and master the multiple skills necessary for success in the theater of the 21st century. They join an equal number of entering bachelor-level actors in fall 2012. All students entering Juilliard are chosen through a rigorous audition process. Information about the M.F.A. and all Juilliard Drama programs may be found at

The largest new theatre arts center built in New York City in the last 40 years, Signature Center spans an entire city block at 42nd Street between Dyer and 10th Avenue. Featuring three intimate theatres, a studio theatre, rehearsal studio, and a public café and bookstore, the Center will be both a theatre community hub and a neighborhood destination, and has been designed to foster interaction among playwrights, artistic collaborators, and the public.

Houghton, who is also the Director of the Drama Division at The Juilliard School, added, "This is just the right opportunity for the B.F.A and M.F.A. students to bridge their studies with the profession. All of us at Signature are absolutely thrilled to have the full spectrum of artists participating in Signature Center -- from our most seasoned to these dynamic young artists from Juilliard. Each are bound to equally inspire the other."

About The Juilliard School’s Drama Division

The Drama Division at The Juilliard School is one of the most respected and renowned conservatory programs for theater artists in the world. The Division’s outstanding creative reputation, distinguished faculty, and extraordinary level of rigorous professional training have enabled 40 years of alumni to excel as artists, leaders and global citizens. Founded in 1968 by the renowned American director, producer and theater administrator John Houseman and the French director, teacher and actor Michel Saint-Denis, the program is a four-year curriculum that emphasizes intuition and spontaneity as well as discipline, technique and intellectual development. The Drama Division has continually expanded and revised its programs, responding to and anticipating the need of the contemporary theater artist. Some of the significant additions, among others, have included expanded faculty and curriculum, additional performance opportunities, and the addition of the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program as well as Master of Fine Arts Program in Acting. Their acting and playwriting alumni have distinguished themselves in all areas of the arts including theater, film, and television. For more information on Juilliard visit

About Signature Center
Opening in February 2012, Signature Center is the new, permanent home of Signature Theatre Company. Designed by Frank Gehry, working hand-in-hand with Signature leadership, Signature Center spans an entire city block at 42nd Street between Dyer and 10th Avenue, and features three intimate theatres, a studio theatre, rehearsal studio, and a public café and bookstore. Founded in 1991 by Artistic Director James Houghton, Signature Theatre was the first theatre company to devote an entire season to the work of a single playwright, including re-examinations of past works as well as New York and world premieres. At Signature Center, the Company’s expanded programming will include: Residency One, the continuation of Signature’s core program which provides audiences with an immersive exploration of the work of a singular playwright; Residency Five, which provides five-year residencies for multiple playwrights to support the creation and staging of new work; and the Legacy Program, which honors the lifetime achievement of artists who have previously been in residence at Signature. Signature Center will serve as the artistic home for as many as 11 playwrights at any one time, fostering a dynamic creative community where playwrights will engage directly with audiences and one another. The inaugural season at Signature Center will feature three plays by South African playwright and recent Tony Award-winner for lifetime achievement Athol Fugard, as well as a new production of Edward Albee’s The Lady from Dubuque, world premieres by Katori Hall and Kenneth Lonergan, and a United States premiere by Will Eno. In addition, Annie Baker and Regina Taylor will also be in residence at Signature Center as Residency Five playwrights. More information on Signature Center and Signature Theatre Company’s expanded programming can be found at

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Dancing Beyond Stereotypes: Aboriginal Music Week Bursts with Artists’ Bold New Energy, November 2011 in Winnipeg, Manitoba

The heyday for Aboriginal artists is now. With centuries-old fiddle tunes unreeling beside bumping club beats, with killer flow rocking the mic beside gritty guitar blues, there’s never been more creative space for young people of First Nation/Native American, Inuit, and Métis (mixed European and First Nation) heritage. They can sing their roots, weave newfound urban communities, and dance beyond stereotypes.

Aboriginal Music Week (November 1-6, 2011) in Winnipeg, Manitoba showcases this vibrant new energy, bringing together a broad sweep of North American artists and a growing, youthful urban audience. Concerts get Elders square dancing, kids chanting along with MCs, and dance floors packed with soaring pow wow drum breaks.

“We have found that Aboriginal people want to see Aboriginal artists perform all kinds of music,” explains Alan Greyeyes, festival curator. “We produce the festival for Aboriginal people but we really want to use the festival and the music to build bridges with other communities. And it’s working.”

This year’s headliners show the diversity and range of Aboriginal music: A Tribe Called Red’s hard-hitting, pow wow-powered electro (Electric Pow Wow on November 4); Leela Gilday’s reflective folk; Derek Miller’s rootsy rock (The Saturday Night 49er on November 5); John Arcand’s generations-old, masterful Métis fiddle (Take the Fort! on November 1); Winnipeg’s Most and their fresh, wildly popular hip hop (Hip Hop Night on November 2).

“It’s an exciting time to be Aboriginal in Canada right now,” enthuses Bear Witness of the DJ collective A Tribe Called Red. “The community across Canada is coming together more and more, especially around the arts and music. There’s so much going on, so many interesting things, so many strong artists.”


The burst of new creative energy comes after several generations of cultural loss and stigma. “Until quite recently, there were no positive references in media or on stage to Native people, especially in urban centers like Winnipeg,” reflects Greyeyes. “The only time we were in the spotlight was for crimes. But now, kids are seeing Native people are great artists who perform and get played on the radio. They get to see themselves reflected on stage.”

This reflection has many facets. There are raw MCs from rough neighborhoods. There are young musicians picking up the jigs and reels their ancestors used to lure fur traders centuries ago. There is mestizo dub step and good ol’ country and western.

Even within genres, Aboriginal artists tend to bend the rules. Hip hop shows become family events, with preschoolers bopping on stage with their rapping fathers. An edgy club scene inspires artists to return to their roots. Community and tradition breed innovation.

“Our use of pow wow music was about getting this amazing support from the community in Ottawa. The first party we threw was packed with young Aboriginal people we didn’t know. It was a comfortable place for these urban young people to go,” Bear recalls. “We didn’t intend that, but we wanted to give back to them and create music that expressed that connection to the community. Something they could claim as their own.” The result: glittering, striking tracks that seamlessly integrate traditional songs and drums and reclaim pop culture portrayals of “Indians” via wry samples.

“I have found Aboriginal artists to be some of the most boundary-breaking, original, and refreshing artists I have ever met,” notes Gilday, whose carefully crafted songs of Aboriginal life have won her widespread respect in the folk scene. “It is an honour to be a part of a community responsible for this level of creativity, musicianship, and dedication.”

This creativity makes it easy to build bridges to mainstream acclaim. Derek Miller recently recorded a duet with Willie Nelson. A Tribe Called Red caught the ear of golden-boy producer Diplo. Winnipeg’s Most are on heavy rotation at local radio stations and kids of all backgrounds chant their lyrics in the city’s schoolyards. Aboriginal artists tour extensively and win national awards.

Connecting Aboriginal artists—from different scenes, at different points in their career—is part of the broader mission of festival producer Aboriginal Music Manitoba ( “We want to create a stronger professional infrastructure for Aboriginal performers,” says Greyeyes. The festival, along with night after night of high-calibre concerts, provides opportunities for artists to network with local community music bookers, and to create moments of contact with new, mostly young audiences.

“For such a long time, our people have been silenced, and we have had to fight to keep our traditions,” says Estella Sanchez, the spitfire mestiza MC of World Hood (November 4). “The fact that Aboriginal Music Week can bring people with similar histories from around the globe together is amazing. We have so much to share as a people, and so much to learn from each other about keeping our cultural traditions intact.”

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Opera Electric: Vagabond Opera Brings High Drama Cabaret-Close on Sing For Your Lives! and on Tour, September and October 2011

It’s a dark and stormy night. The cabaret swirls smoke, euphoria, danger. A burlesque beauty sings a swooping, eerie song and suddenly sprouts a full beard. An itinerant tenor and a melancholic balloonist croon to apocalyptic waltzers. The drums ba-da-boom, the cellos duel, the gitarrón’s been drinking.

It’s Vagabond Opera—you’d better Sing for Your Lives!

Like surrealist Marcel Duchamp packing an entire life’s work into a suitcase, the Portland, Oregon troupe tucks the high drama of opera into the tight squeeze of the sexy cabaret. By turns sinister and seedy, sweet and nostalgic, the brainy, sultry band mashes up Eastern European folk theater and classical grandeur, hot club act and avant-garde klezmer jams, perky musicals and edgy absurdism.

“We love storytelling, creating a world on stage or on a recording,” says saxophonist and songwriter Robin Jackson. “We bring people into a dark cabaret where they forget themselves.” “We draw on Old World elements and genres,” adds Eric Stern, Vagabond Opera founder, composer, and singer, “but we utterly transform them.”

The band take the polychrome pleasures of their musical, theatrical storytelling on the road in September and October, including performances in Berkeley, Chicago, Seattle, St. Louis, and Vancouver.


What’s a tenor to do?

Stern adored opera—he used to blast his tape of “The Marriage of Figaro” for his fellow teens in pre-rock show parking lots. He loved opera so much, he had to break it out of its elitist ghetto. Opera was once an art form ordinary people enjoyed, he reasoned, and it was time to take it back to those roots.

“I remember looking around the audience at a Ziggy Marley concert and thinking, ‘Why does opera have to be in an opera house, someplace that seems inaccessible to so many?’” Stern remembers. “Why can’t these people listen to opera in this venue? I wanted to snatch this art and distribute it everywhere.”

Searching for a new approach, Stern found himself omnivorously devouring everything from Hendrix guitar licks and Janice Joplin’s gritty wails, to Romanian horas and Yiddish theater music. “While I love the Western European music traditions, I saw no reason why you can’t incorporate other traditions into opera as well,” Stern reflects. “I’m Jewish and wanted more Eastern European sounds in play, things I wasn’t hearing enough of in classical music.”

So Stern set aside the high-stakes auditions and the high-powered classical circles. He hitchhiked to the Rainbow Gathering to hang in a totally different world. He wandered up and down the West Coast, playing his beloved pawn shop accordion on street corners and belting arias. He fell in with kindred spirits like Jackson in Portland’s erudite, freak-friendly art scene.

Along with Jackson—a trained ethnomusicologist, brooding free spirit, and lifelong addict of musicals—the troupe embraced a former Cirque de Soleil vocalist and carny-loving cellist native to Poland (Ashia Grzesik); a classically trained cello virtuoso with a penchant for avant improv (Skip vonKuske); an Afro-Brazilian percussion ace and jazz drummer (Mark Burdon); a Balkanologist bassist who digs black metal and traditional Mexican gitarrón (Jason Flores); and the mysterious Dr. Xander Gerrymander, a mayhem-inducing jack-of-all-trades whose wild dancing at an outdoor show so impressed the group, he was dubbed “King of the Gypsies.”

“When we first started,” Jackson recalls with a smile, “the band was a strange sort of folk ensemble, with Tom Waits and belly dance thrown in. We did a lot more klezmer at the time”—roots they still honor with songs like “Tough Mazel.” “That naturally led to gypsy brass and Turkish music. It all works together, even though it comes from different roots.”

From these similar yet diverse sources spring striking originals: a fado-laced ballad of a cursed night in a shadowy foreign town (“Coimbra”); the bittersweet tale of a heartbroken balloon expedition (“Red Balloon”), told in a tango; and hip-swinging Eastern European exotica (“Hanumonsoon”).

Art imitates surreal life: the group steps effortlessly from odd meters and vamps worthy of a Transylvanian wedding, to odd-ball skits in wild costumes harkening back to Weimar and the Roaring Twenties. They can channel Kurt Weil and Django Reinhardt, as sensual fire-dancers gyrate or hairstyling waiters hilariously turn Grzesik into a bearded lady (“Beard and Moustache”). They make the pomp of opera shimmy, by turns grave and goofy.

Vagabond Opera bust open the walls of tradition by carrying it to street corners, cabarets, and clubs. “We’ve always asked, ‘Why not work in this beautiful medium, opera, but surround it with all these unexpected instruments and sights and stories?’” Stern says. “We take this big, ambitious art form and distill it. We make it portable.”

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

France - USA On November 11th

The US Soccer Federation announced on Friday that the National Team will play France at the Stade de France at 3pm ET on November 11th. The game will be shown on ESPN2 and Univision.

"France is traditionally one of the best teams in the world," coach Jurgen Klinsmann said in a press statement. "When you look at their history, the players that have come through their team and what they have accomplished, you have to be impressed. This is an awesome opportunity for our players to play in a stadium that has hosted a World Cup Final, and a great experience for their careers."

Waiting On FIFA

The Soccer Daily, a daily soccer column from US Soccer Players' J Hutcherson.

By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 18, 2011) US Soccer Players -- World Soccer's governing body owes us an announcement later this month. FIFA will explain how they plan on reforming their organization after almost a year of discontent. Though there's a good case for dating it even earlier, the obvious trouble started with the World Cup hosting announcement and carried through a presidential election cycle.

At any point during those months, someone in power could've said 'hey, wait a minute…." Instead, FIFA waited until they'd named two World Cup hosts and allowed a presidential election to go ahead after their own ethics committee provisionally suspended the only other candidate. Add in the allegations of corruption directed at members of the executive committee and the calls for reform from those with FIFA titles along with major countries and clubs, and FIFA's problems only escalated.

Though it sounds like a cliché, the first step is always admitting you have a problem. For FIFA, that's resisting the urge to try the onward and upward scenario. What happens there is pushing whatever happened in the past - including what literally just happened - and marching forward bravely into a brighter future. FIFA tried that, almost immediately after reelecting its president. That the press conference ended up with that FIFA president lecturing the gathered media on civility and respect was enough of an indication even for FIFA that this problem would require a different solution.

Enter FIFA president Sepp Blatter's panel of learned men. Considering who made the short list as the primary influencers for change at FIFA, what that really accomplished was easy headlines and editorials for outlets that cover soccer. Again, it was almost immediately apparent that it simply wasn't enough.

From there we got a deadline for a major announcement. This Thursday, October 20th, when FIFA is expected to emerge from a lengthy period of self-examination with a clear and workable vision for the future. Unlike our old friend the NY/NJ Metrostars, FIFA is in no position to play the 60-to-90 day game. That was the Metrostars patented 'we'll have something for you' response that was always resetting the 60-to-90 day clock. For all we know, at some point a remnant of that team will actually make an announcement, like a time capsule set to be open years after the club rebranded and moved on. That won't work for FIFA. They've set their own deadline and timeframe and would cause even more problems by not meeting it.

As so many have already stressed, that's going to be an interesting public statement for an organization with several executive committee members having faced or still facing corruption charges and a public perception that the system itself has failed. There's no room to hedge here, and FIFA has to know that.

Keep in mind that this is FIFA we're talking about, an organization that spent the last World Cup cycle reassuring the world that things would run smoothly and is now doing the same thing on behalf of the next World Cup hosts. It's one where World Cup bids and presidential elections seem unable to happen without suspicions and allegations that votes are for sale. And it's also one that's been able to shake off major scandals and emerge still capable of generating massive amounts of money.

Last summer's events changed that. There was no next for FIFA, nothing on the calendar to wipe the slate and let them focus on anything else. With all respect to the Women's World Cup, that was no match for dropping a life ban on the other candidate, wiping out the leadership of CONCACAF, and dealing with multiple allegations of votes for bribes, outright bribery, and dredging up recent moments in FIFA history that the organization probably assumed were all but forgotten.

So what should we expect on Thursday?

What there's probably little hope of is the kind of reforms that would cause the worldwide media to pause, seriously consider what has been presented, and then judge whether or not it stands a chance of working. We can already safely assume that FIFA can't reasonably go far enough for some without revamping the executive committee, putting multiple FIFA bureaucrats out to pasture, and resetting the World Cup hosting decisions. We might as well add 'call for a new presidential election' to that fantasy list.

On the other end of the spectrum, another lecture on how FIFA is the organization holding the line between the beneficial state of the sport enjoyed fiscally by so many members and the 'black hole' Blatter mentioned while campaigning for reelection would be a tremendous mistake. FIFA ceded that role when they started having to investigate multiple members. If Blatter turns a needed reform movement into a mechanism for further limiting the power of the executive committee, FIFA would be missing the point. They'd also be doing exactly what that now banned rival accused the current administration of during his campaign.

Closer to reality, what FIFA has to be very careful with is playing with expectations. They have very little maneuvering room if the plan is to tweak the current model while once again promising better days ahead. Nothing we've seen so far should suggest a radical reinventing of FIFA as an organization, and this could quickly turn into another stumble as FIFA tries to get itself back on course.

Again, we're talking about FIFA here so that course is probably not going to be what most of the reformists really want. The calls for following the International Olympic Committee's lead would result in a leaner organization with fewer key committee positions, but what would that mean in practice for FIFA? Who takes those roles, and ultimately who sets the new standard for FIFA elected and appointed officials to adhere too?

USA - Slovenia Scheduled For Nov 16th

The United States will play Slovenia in Ljubljana on November 16th, the second game on their European trip. The National Team opens against France on November 11th.

"Slovenia is a small nation that has achieved big results," USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann said in a press statement. "For them to have qualified for two World Cups in such a short time is an incredible achievement. I have seen them play in qualifying and the last World Cup, and I was very impressed. This game is another good opportunity for our players to build on what we have been working on for the last few months."

The Italian Edge: Hit Week Brings the Cool and Quirky Sounds of Italy to NYC, LA, and Miami for Three Nights of Wild and Worldly Music

Francesco Del Maro was ticked off: Friends in the U.S. seemed to think Italian music was all “Volare” and Verdi, mandolin melancholy and maudlin mafia soundtracks. Yet the 15 year music industry vertran did more than just get mad; he threw a party and got dozens of hip Italian musicians to L.A. for a multi-night, multi-venue blow out.

That was two years ago. Now, Hit Week (October 10-16, 2011; full ticket details at has blossomed into a three-city festival thanks in part to support from Italian institutions, highlighting the catchiest and edgiest music Italy has to offer. On major stages and in intimate clubs in New York City, L.A., and (for the first time this year) Miami, wild-eyed Zappa devotees and electro-powered rock, sleek globally inspired jazz and dubbed-out trip hop collide for a whirlwind romp through the Italian music scene.



For Hit Week, it’s about power and savvy, not origins. “Hit Week doesn’t focus on the music that’s recognizably from Italy,” explains Del Maro. “The language isn’t important. We’re looking for music of global caliber; that’s so good, it doesn’t matter where it’s from.” This formula has worked: In its short history, Hit Week’s audiences have doubled and the festival has established a foothold in some of the toughest U.S. markets.

“There’s nothing better than seeing young Americans in their 20s shouting into their cell phones at a show about a group they’ve just seen,” remarks Del Maro, festival curator and instigator. “When you hear them rave about a band, that they can’t believe this is Italian music, it’s just amazing.”Though broadly appealing, Hit Week’s artists have a distinctly Italian spirit. Several hail from the country’s unsung musical hotspots—like the increasingly popular travel destination of Puglia—scenes few Americans are aware of.

Subsonica: Electro-laced rock with catchy hooks, big sounds, and intense appeal

Caparezza: A wacky Adriatic alt-rocker makes devilishly clever pop

Nicola Conte: Super-cool grooves and worldly sounds put polished spin on jazz

Casino Royale: The slick secret agents of Italian trip hop

Après La Classe: Wry humor and uptempo world beats from Puglia, back by popular demand

Erica Mou: Alanis Morisette’s grit meets acoustic flair and thoughtful intensity

Hit Week artists vary wildly, but they share a certain spirit. They flirt with local sounds, satirize local conditions, climb local charts, and pack local stadiums with hundreds of thousands of dedicated fans. Subsonica have scored numerous number one hits in Italy, making them the current darling of the rock scene. Caparezza sells out major arenas on a regular basis, thanks to his high-energy, always changing, innately quirky shows.

Italian artists are also quietly attracting the attention of international heavyweights, be they edgy producers or major labels. Nicola Conte just signed a deal with international jazz mainstays, Impulse. Casino Royale have teamed up with Scottish DJ Howie B (who’s worked with everyone from Tricky to U2) to trade dub breaks and licks. Rising star Erica Mou is working with Bjork’s producer, Valgeir Sigurðsson, whose shimmering electronic touches unveil new facets of Mou’s raw, personal songs.

Along side these major acts and hot newcomers, Hit Week will showcase the best of Italy’s burgeoning crop of emerging music, selected via Facebook contest, thanks to the involvement of the Italian Minister of Young Generation. Young bands get to travel to the U.S. and play for new listeners and industry heavyweights alike. “It’s been great for artists just starting out,” explains Del Maro. “Some participants from previous years went on to play various major U.S. festivals.”

Hit Week aims not only to bring creative young Italians to the U.S.; it’s reaching out to young Americans, getting them exposed to the coolest moments of the Italian scene. As part of its ongoing partnership with local universities, the festival is arranging several meet-and-greet opportunities at local colleges (UCLA, Columbia, University of Miami) that will bring together artists and audiences in a casual, intimate setting.

“Hit Week shows that Italian artists are second to none,” Del Maro says. “We are not coming from the third world of music, but have something new to tell the world.”

Hit Week is produced by Francesco Del Maro for Music Experience Roma Italy and Mela Inc. Los Angeles, with the support of The Minister of Young Generation, The Italian Federation of Music Industry, The Puglia Region, The Italian Trade Commission of Los Angeles, The Italian Ministry of Economic Development, The National Italian American Foundation, The Rhythm Foundation Miami, Gibson, Dw, Aqua Panna, Rockol, Made in Roma, Dw Drums, Paiste and more to come.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

as i predicted i made an egregious error in my review of The Big Year, pointed out by 'elizabird', in that author Mark Obmascik apparently did not consult for the movie, but instead it was birder Greg Miller. this of course makes the entire point of that paragraph/section moot . . . i have a reason, but it's irrelevant, it's wrong . . . so in addition to apologizing to Mark for that (mea culpa) i will be adding an addendum to the review to make sure i have it right in the long run.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Museum of Monterey & theBlu

On October 15, the Museum of Monterey will be the first museum to exhibit “theBlu” (, a new entertainment experience celebrating art, innovation, and the ocean.

Created by Wemo Media and a team of Academy Award-winning graphic designers, theBlu is an interactive online world meant to increase awareness of the Earth’s oceans while simultaneously providing a global canvas for the world’s digital artists. Every species and habitat is a unique work of art created by one of hundreds of developers and graphic designers around the world.

TheBlu is currently in invite-only private beta and won’t be accessible publicly until next year. The exhibit at the Museum of Monterey serves as a sneak peek of the evolving art project and represents the museum’s dedication to innovation in artistic expression. The Opening Reception is Saturday, October 15 from 12:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. and is Free to the public. Wharf parking is free for 2 hours with your ID.

More About theBlu

Picture hundreds of thousands of aquatic species and tens of thousands of underwater habitats, beautiful works of art created by artists and developers all over the world, spread across the canvas of the World Wide Web as a globally shared art gallery. And imagine hundreds of millions of people connected on the web - via phones, tablets, computers, at home, at school, in museums - with ocean life flowing from device to device across cities all over the globe - Honolulu, Sydney, Tokyo, Seoul, Mumbai, Moscow, Dubai, Johannesburg, Madrid, Stockholm, Paris, London, New York, Sao Paolo, Los Angeles... Everyone that much more aware of the Oceans, and everyone that much more aware of each other.

Wemo Media’s team is comprised of a passionate group of Academy award winning artists, technology innovators and execs from film, games and the web, including: Andy Jones (Academy award winner, Avatar), Kevin Mack (Academy award winner, What Dreams May Come), Louie Psihoyos (Academy award winner, The Cove), Joichi Ito (Director, MIT Media lab), and more.

Museum of Monterey

MoM is open Tuesday – Saturday 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Sunday 12:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. The Museum is closed Monday. The cost to visit is $5.00. For more information please call (831) 372-2608 or go to

USA 0 - Ecuador 1

United States National Team Team Players Association, October 11, 2011

The United States fell to a second-half goal from Ecuador at Red Bull Arena on Tuesday night. With Ecuador coming off a World Cup qualifying win over Venezuela, they brought a mostly first choice team that had a tough time cracking the United States defense in the first-half. With US coach Jurgen Klinsmann making four substitutions at halftime and eventually using all six, Ecuador faced a different version of the US when they capitalized in the 79th minute. Jaime Ayovi scored the game's only goal, with Maximo Banguera picking up the shutout.

“It’s crazy to see, and you may disagree, but since the Mexico game we haven’t given up a ton of chances," US goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "It’s hard because one goal kills the game so it looks terrible, but we’ve given up four goals in five games and that’s not the end of the world. We’re not giving teams chances, and that’s a positive thing for me as a goalkeeper. We’re creating chances too, they’re just not falling."


Match: U.S. Men’s National Team vs. Ecuador
Date: Oct. 11, 2011
Competition: International Friendly
Venue: Red Bull Arena; Harrison, N.J.
Kickoff: 7:15 p.m. ET
Attendance: 20,707
Weather: 65 degrees, clear

Scoring Summary: 1 2 F
USA 0 0 0
Ecuador 0 1 1

ECU – Jaime Ayovi (Walter Ayovi) 79th minute

USA: 1-Tim Howard; 2-Steve Cherundolo (13-Jonathan Spector, 46), 4-Oguchi Onyewu, 5-Carlos Bocanegra (capt.) (14-Tim Ream, 72), 3-Timmy Chandler; 6-Kyle Beckerman; 7-Danny Williams (17-Edson Buddle, 65), 8-Maurice Edu (15-Michael Bradley, 46), 11-Brek Shea (16-DaMarcus Beasley, 46); 10-Clint Dempsey, 9-Jozy Altidore (18-Juan Agudelo, 46)
Subs Not Used: 12-Nick Rimando
Head coach: Jurgen Klinsmann
ECU: 1-Maximo Banguera; 2-Eduardo Morante, 3-Fricson Erazo, 18-Gabriel Achilier, 10-Walter Ayovi; 16-Antonio Valencia (13-Cristian Suarez, 63), 8-Edison Mendez (19-Luis Saritama, 69), 14-Segundo Castillo, 9-Jefferson Montero (17-Jaime Ayovi, 60); 11-Christian Benitez (15-Jairo Campos, 90), 7-Michael Arroyo (4-Juan Carlos Paredes, 86)
Subs not used: 6-Michael Quiñonez, 12-Adrian Bone
Head coach: Reinaldo Rueda

Stats Summary: USA / ECU
Shots: 22 / 9
Shots on Goal: 8 / 4
Saves: 3 / 8
Corner Kicks: 10 / 5
Fouls: 12 / 19
Offside: 2 / 4

Misconduct Summary:
USA – Carlos Bocanegra (caution) 62nd minute
ECU – Luis Saritama (caution) 87
ECU – Jaime Ayovi (caution) 88

Referee: Joel Aguilar (El Salvador)
Assistant Referee 1: William Torres (El Salvador)
Assistant Referee 2: Juan Zumba (El Salvador)
Fourth Official: Terry Vaughn (USA)

The Salt of our Earth

Sevara Nazarkhan Finds the Acoustic Savor of Pared-Down Uzbek Tradition on Tortadur

The grief of eternal exile and the ancient ache of love echoed in the pitch-black studio. From gut strings and china saucers, from frame drums and clacking trains, singer Sevara Nazarkhan urged centuries of urgent whispers, secret sighs, and passionate prayers into a new and intimate life.

Supported by a carefully selected handful of musical elders, Nazarkhan has returned on Tortadur to utter simplicity and the audacious acoustic roots of Uzbek tradition—the once lively world of house parties and poet-kings, of black-browed beloveds and word-drunk Sufi saints.

Though a seasoned pop performer—her voice has wowed everyone from Peter Gabriel to Russian pop diva Alla Pugacheva—Nazarkhan turned away from electronic sounds and complex production to the pure, quiet presence of traditional instruments and haunting lyrics, some hailing from as early as the 15th century. Throughout, her voice feels so immediate that you can almost feel the breath on your cheek, the hand on your arm.

“I wanted to express the salt of our earth, so to speak,” Nazarkhan reflects. “People have forgotten, or simply don’t know, about this wonderful, rich side of our music, music that is very subtle and expresses our past.”


To explore this richness, Nazarkhan softly yet intensely tells tales penned by the original Moghul, Bobur, and by Sufi master Mashrab, among other poets. They praise the beauty that can cause riots, the endless, exquisite pains of passion, but without the frenetic dance beats popular in Uzbekistan or the busyness of electronic production and virtuosic vocal feats. She channeled the spirit of traditional parties, when women would gather for music, tea, and talk.

“It’s a cry of my soul,” explains Nazarkhan, “but in a whisper. I sing very quietly.”

She found new uses for subtle, time-honored techniques, such as the tradition of singing into a tea saucer to add resonance to the voice (“Yovvoi Tanovar”). She rediscovered the heartbreaking words of an early 20th-century anti-Russian freedom fighter sent into exile, whose poem written in a cattle car had mysteriously morphed into an Uzbek party anthem (the train-backed sorrow of “Qargalar”). She gives space to quiet instruments like the gut-stringed doutar and the subtle percussion of the doira (traditional frame drum).

In her quest for a different approach to tradition, Nazarkhan worked very closely with professor and veteran maqam (Central Asian classical music) performer, Temur Makhmudov. Makhmudov not only helped Nazarkhan explore long neglected repertoire, he headed up the all-star ensemble she gathered. Nazarkhan brought together artists in their seventies who had been playing traditional music from childhood as part of musical families. They remembered the old sound, the gentle approach, the quiet expressiveness of their roots.

Assembling this Uzbek answer to the Buena Vista Social Club had its challenges. The feisty nai (traditional flute) player Abdulakhad Abdurashidov at first refused to join them. He was old and tired, he told Nazarkhan on the phone from a remote mountain retreat.

Yet Nazarkhan was taking a different approach to working with these musical elders. Instead of calling the shots or demanding uptempo folk-pop, she turned them loose, urging them to play what they felt. She dimmed the studio lights and let the music unfold. Before she knew it, word got out and there was a knock on the studio door. It was Abdurashidov, asking if anyone needed a nai player.

“He didn’t want to be bossed around or be part of some fusion experiment,” Nazarkhan recalls with a smile. “He’s the best player, and he got to play what he felt. All the musicians had no bounds. It was like they returned to the freedom of their youth and could do whatever they wanted.”

This freedom led to unexpected innovation. As the group worked on “Galdir Talqinchasi” and Nazarkhan sang lines referring to Jacob’s grief for the loss of his son Joseph, the musicians began to hum. It was so striking that Nazarkhan called for vocal mics for each of the players, resulting in something new: a male chorus backing a female singer. On tracks like “Tortadur,” Nazarkhan’s gritty, gentle voice entwines with Makhmudov’s baritone to moving effect.

“What I wanted to show with this album was very clear: the beauty of the melodies, the language, and the instruments,” say Nazarkhan. “I wanted to show that our traditions have meaning, not only as part of the Turkic world, but to everyone.”

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Big Fizzle . . . or not

A Review of The Big Year by Tony Gallucci, Milk River Media

Fair Warning: This is going to become two reviews in one – of a book and of an unseen movie. As a tie-in to the upcoming movie The Big Year, starring Jack Black, Owen Wilson and Steve Martin, Kristin Matzen of Free Press Publicity (Simon & Schuster) sent me a copy of the book on which the film was based for review. Written by Mark Obmascik, The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession tells the intertwining stories of three birders, Sandy Komito, Al Levantin and Greg Miller, chasing what may seem to non-birders a ridiculous goal – finding the most species of birds in a year in North America.

The reissue is likely meant to piggyback on what is hoped to be the success of the movie, which is being heavily marketed, especially to birders, and perhaps also to drum up business by stirring up critical buzz for the film before it hits this coming weekend.

The former must await the release, but on the second count there is both good and bad news. The one line review would go something like this (and then I will expound): it is a delightful tale of oddball personalities in quest of their life dreams, but the birding in it suffers badly from poor research and/or understanding.

Perhaps it’s all that could be expected from an outside writer without prior knowledge of birding, but since Obmascik insinuates in the introduction that he is now birding convert and evangelist, one could have expected much more. Since the original publication was in 2004, one might also expect that a reissue would include some updated knowledge and some corrections. No such luck.

Birders have been awaiting the film since the first wave of PR came out a few months ago, and has reached an anxious crescendo on the birding listservs and forums. Much of the talk has swirled around three basic topics, each relevant to an examination of the book and this review. The topics are: a) did they make any effort at accuracy with the birds? (including using actual footage of the birds they are talking about; are the bird calls and songs correct; are the locations and habitats correct; is the discussion about them correct); b) are birders going to be made to look like fools? (especially considering Black, Martin and Wilson have each made a career out of playing fools); and c) will it bring more people into birding as a pastime (and maybe subliminally ‘I hope it doesn’t bring a ton of people into birding!’; but also a hint of ‘I hope it also makes people more aware of 1) the environment, 2) conservation, 3) endangered species, and 4) giving a little space to the crazy birders in their lives’).

As I progress here, understand that I’m reviewing the book – I haven’t seen the movie yet, only the several trailers (see links below) – and so my critiques are mostly about the text. The problem, if there is one, is that it’s the starting place for the film, and my gut feeling is that one could hardly expect the film to have taken a giant leap in credibility – the normal progression is for a film to play fast and loose with the facts presented in a book. We’ll have to wait and see.

Okay, let’s get into the nitty-gritty here: Birders, hardcore, listing, chasing, Big-Year-type birders are obsessed. Obmascik himself makes that point repeatedly in the book and I’m here to say it is absolute. One of Obmascik’s diversions is musing briefly about honesty – did these guys really see what they said they saw. Well, this is about personal obsession, there is glory attached, but obsessives want things just so, which is why one makes multiple trips to see a missed bird.

So why is this relevant?

A little personal history to illustrate: I too was a chaser (my obsessions have evolved since then), I did several Big Years myself, though not on a continent-wide or global scale, and once had the third best Texas Big Year (very briefly I might add, and I was long ago left in the dust). The point is, I know this chase business.

I am also a writer, and a minor-league filmmaker, and the confluence of those three things gave me a particular interest in The Big Year, both as a book and as a film.

I obsess over details, like all good, hardcore birders I know, most of them chasers at one time or another. I keep lifelists by county, I intently survey properties I work on for every living thing, I make lists other people wouldn’t think of (we all do, it’s part of the game): for 40+ years I’ve kept a detailed summary of everything I’ve found dead on the road. That’s the way we all operate – lists, numbers, games – ask Komito, Levantin and Miller.

So, pleased (excited actually) to be getting to review the book, I eagerly awaited it’s arrival, and when it did, and I ripped open the envelope and held the book in my hands, my heart immediately sank.

It’s a detail thing. There on the cover of the new edition, the ‘tie-in edition’ is a composite picture from the film of Black, Wilson and Martin holding up binoculars looking off the sides in profile. Of course, the book isn’t about Black, Wilson and Martin, but in our current cultural milieu, oversaturated by marketing, this is precisely what one would expect (though pictures of Komito, Levantin and Miller would have been nice out of respect for the fact the that the book is still their story – the film is fictionalized to some or another extent).

Nevertheless, that’s not what got my feathers fluffed. It’s that there is a bird perched on the end of Martin’s binoculars, tilted over as though peering into the binoculars at Martin. It’s a cute conceit, photoshopped in, and the humor was not lost on me. The problem is, the bird is an American Robin, altogether not an unusual bird for them to see, and it is tiny.

That’s the detail – that it is ridiculously small. So small that it is impossible for it to really be a robin perched there on his binoculars, at least to my eye, which I adjudge to be somewhat good at doing these kinds of things. But being the obsessive I am I am going to do some research to see if my eye is lying to me.

I don’t know if Steve Martin has big hands or small hands, but it’s easy to compare the size of the bird to the size of his hand. And being the obsessive I am I measured the hands of several folks in my office agreeable to having their hands measured. A simple comparison of the widths of their hands versus Steve’s and the bird’s length and I come up with figures that are approximately 4½ to 5½ inches for the total length of the bird in the picture.

Now, American Robins (I apologize for bringing science into all this) can vary in size a little – the birds breeding farther north will average a little larger than the ones that nest here in my podunk town, but the references I quick-checked indicate that average American Robin total lengths run from about 9½ to 10 inches. A bird the size of the one on the cover would be more like say, a Nashville Warbler. A birder instantly recognizes the size issues in that comparison – twice the length, in volume/weight much larger.

Okay, it’s just a stinking cover. Someone may have had a cute idea and passed it on to a graphic designer who not only knew nothing about birds, but may not have cared, and what you end up with is inaccuracy.

But where was Obmascik? Obmascik, the guy who has proclaimed in interviews that he got to check the accuracy of the script and sit in on filming as though his presence meant he would be consulted about getting things right**; doesn’t he get a say on the cover to the new edition of his book? Was he not a newly ordained birder who has the eye to immediately see the glaring error? And one would hope that now, seven years after first publication, his skills and knowledge have grown. Perhaps out of his hands . . . grumble, grumble . . . perhaps.

I still was anxious to get to the text, so I turned the cover over, out of sight, and began to read . . . and to find three, exactly three, times in the book where, in trying to give readers a sense of a bird’s size he compares them to a robin! “Robin-sized” it says, not altogether accurately. In online parlance my response is “smh” – shaking my head.

A digression: Accuracy . . . as a writer I don’t always get things right. There will likely be things that I don’t get right in this review. But I strive for perfection. When I do writing seminars I harp on getting things right. I teach, for instance, that I really don’t know anything about cooking, but I also want to, let’s say, write about cooking. So I’ll make sure I get the details right. I do everything I can to learn about the inherent culture of cooking, and then I may even run stuff by someone who is a pro to make sure I didn’t blow it somewhere.

See, I always wanted to write so that those very pros would believe I knew what I was talking about. I wanted them to enjoy my writing more than anyone else. If I’ve done that, then all the readers who aren’t pros gain real information and insight, and learn along with me.

If I fail in that objective however, then I destroy my own credibility. If I can’t get it right about my subject matter, then how could anyone expect that anything else I write is true, honest, accurate, or faithful.

Obmascik makes something of a big deal in an interview coda to the book about having trusted these guys, but still doing things to ensure accuracy like check weather service records to be sure their journals were not fibbed. It’s a shame no one was checking Obmascik’s accuracy as well.

There are points in his telling where in the interest of waxing poetic, and he gets pretty waxy at times, that he clearly wanted to set a scene and use birds to illustrate his picture, but it seems that he may have played pin the tail on the donkey in the bird book to choose his birds. In those cases he failed a few times. This is especially egregious because using the correct birds would have painted a better picture.

Obmascik may very well have not had any control over Big Issue No. 2 – the use of capitalized names of birds. It may have been an editorial decision he could not change. I have fought this battle myself many times, mostly with newspapers who use their stylebook and no one else’s, and you can be sure I beam when I actually see things done right in a newspaper. On the other hand a book is a product of self, and should represent self, and I will be most disappointed if he wrote it that way himself. If not, if this was editorial, then I am directing this at his editors – you helped wreck his credibility with his subject matter with your decision.

The American Ornithologists’ Union, along with other world professional organizations, makes it a rule to use capital initial letters in the names of all bird species (with specific means of determining which words in a hyphenated concoction are capitalized and which are not). It’s not a hard and fast rule yet among other vertebrate groups but should be, and many of us use the same rules when we write about them. As far as we’re concerned it is not open for editorial discretion any more than if an editor chooses whether people’s names should be capitalized or not.

By setting them off as proper names it serves a functional purpose, very well illustrated in this book – a black storm-petrel is not the same as a Black Storm-Petrel, a White-tailed Eagle is not the same as a white-tailed eagle, which well describes our national bird, but is not the white-tailed eagle talked about in the text. And because we obsessive types are accustomed to reading these in caps; it simply grates every time I come across one of these in the book, which is, of course, on nearly every page. Especially cumbersome and ridiculous are those schizophrenic names rendered as bizarre visual constructions like American avocet, Siberian tit and Baikal teal.

Had Obmascik not known this for the first edition, surely by the second he did, and the entire text could have been easily fixed.

More than anything else it is a blinding reminder in nearly every paragraph that I am reading something as though it was written by a dilettante. And please, I am not trying to be harsh here, or critical of Obmascik (who I do not know) as a person (but strongly suspect is a wonderful human being to be around and bird with). It’s just that I expected more when someone proffers his own interest and credentials before the story even begins.

A few more examples of missed details . . .

I recognize that the book itself is a document reflecting the times, and that our knowledge of bird species has changed some since the book came out. What were all Tufted Titmice then, are now Tufted Titmice and Black-crested Titmice. The book has to reflect the former knowledge because that was what was current at the time. But there’s no reason why the introduction to the book needs to be similarly dated – especially in an edition meant to draw attention now to the sport/act/obsession-with-detail of birding. More importantly, I find no excuse for not correcting blatant errors in the main text. If you are going to draw people anew to the book because of buzz over the movie, why not give them an accurate document?

For instance: It’s one thing to indicate someone was pursuing a certain bird that we now know is a different entity (i.e., titmice), it’s another thing to continue to use the older name of a certain duck, which was changed in part to match old-world usage as Long-tailed Duck, but also because it was considered offensive usage by some, and then to top things off to misspell it anyway as “old squaw”.

Ultimately, there is much bad science here, some of it technical, but some, it appears to me, to be based on the need to conjure up a particular image and just winging it without ‘knowing’ it. There is bad botany, bad geography, and most unfortunately, bad ornithology.

On one hand I try to forgive this as I don’t expect the author to have been scientifically trained, nor to have been obsessed with the details of birds and birding beforehand – and after all this is, I think, meant to be a book about people, about personalities. On the other hand, it’s that credibility issue for those of us who know. It’s about us being a target audience of sorts, and if you want to appeal to an audience of people obsessed with something, the details better be right.

I have written previously about how hard it is for birders to enjoy movies anyway (for example here; here; here; and here). We hear everything in the background and when the bird calls and songs are wrong for the setting, we (or myself anyway) get distracted from the story (another of my writing rules is ‘never do something that takes someone away from the story for even a second’). California Quail calling in the background kind of wrecked M.A.S.H. for me. That one at least was somewhat innocent – it was filmed in California made to resemble Korea and they just picked up ambient noise. Worse is a director wanting 'jungle noise' and loading a film up with Boreal Owl and Common Loon calls.

You can see that although we all have high expectations for The Big Year the movie, we’ll be listening.

One hopes he aspired to produce a book about The Obsession seriously enough to take cues about getting things exactly right. He might have aspired to Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway, or Mark Adams’ Chasing Birds Across Texas: A Birding Big Year – tomes about the ‘chase’ that were written by the ones who experienced them, who knew the details. Or even Don Stap’s A Parrot Without a Name: The Search for the Last Unknown Birds on Earth, about a more scientific pursuit, but a pursuit of birds nonetheless. Peerless documents these, and thus favorites. Even the dissed James Vardaman’s book Call Collect, Ask for Birdman got a lot of details right.

You see though, there is too much just not right here. The examples are dizzyingly numerous. My head only settled when the narrative proceeded down a non-avian tangent and focused on the people – which is where Obmascik excels, in catching the quirks of the folks he is detailing – while shushing my inner tendency to question everything.

I had trouble for example with the statement that there are 'seven kinds of tits (Siberian, bridled, bush, juniper, oak, tufted, and wren)'. This declaration is fraught with all kinds of scientific shenaniganery. For instance, the Bushtit and Wrentit aren’t really tits in the familial definition of things, they were called tits because of their resemblance to, and old-school placement with, tits. We know better now, and did at the time of the big year the book is based on.

That aside, Siberian is a chickadee in North American parlance, but because chickadees are called tits in the old world, and since the Siberian is the only one of our ‘chickadees’ that occurs in the old world as well, we acquiesced for a while to the old world name, leaving us with a bit of a naming jumble. It’s likely that most of the newer field guides in use during the big year attempt in 1998 had the bird listed as Siberian Tit, but in actuality, the AOU had changed the name back to Gray-headed Chickadee in a January 1998 supplement to the Checklist, and surely the three birders were aware of that name change. So the introduction was off on that one.

Even so, if the Siberian is a tit anyway, then aren’t the Carolina, Black-capped, Chestnut-backed, Mountain, etc.? Okay so maybe the Obmascik declaration is an mnemonic trick to help him remember a few names. If so, it’s personal and both distracting to experienced birders and disingenuous for the new birders among readers.

Take the other four, which present another interesting nomenclatural jumble – we don’t call them tits here, we call them titmice, and it’s accurate that he includes both Juniper and Oak Titmice, both halves of what was previously known as the Plain Titmouse. That split occurred in mid-1997, in plenty of time for the chasers to be aware of the chance to add another bird to their lists. Though neither is mentioned in the text, we have Obmascik’s introductory, and correct use of the names. But then what of the Tufted Titmouse? Black-crested Titmouse was split from the Tufted Titmouse in 2002, a few years after the big year, but a full two years before the publication of The Big Year. What’s the harm in getting that right? Otherwise you have people wondering what happened to ‘their’ titmouse, which happens to be mine as well.

And again: This statement is just plain hyperbole and nothing more – no such birds exist: “There are one-of-a-kind birds living on the streets of St. Louis, below a dam in Texas, and amid the suburban sprawl of Southern California.” He’s talking about European Tree Sparrows, Muscovy, and lord knows what. None of them species actually restricted to those locations – ha, the sparrow (actually a weaver finch) isn’t even native, and none so rare that only a single individual exists. Yeah, I get what he was trying to say, only that’s not what he said. Semantics is all it is, except that it’s inaccurate, confusing, and reflects on the rest of the manuscript.

These examples came just from the introduction to the book, Obmascik’s own reflections. What about the meat of the story? Is it any more accurate?

Well, declaring that an Amistad Reservoir Rufous-capped Warbler is displaced from Costa Rica is wrong; it doesn’t take into account that the bird nests commonly less than sixty miles away in Mexico, nor does it account for the common thought among Texas birders of experience that it is likely a not a terribly rare breeder (borne out by decades of discovery) along the banks of the Rio Grande in Texas, perhaps even inland a ways, it’s just largely inaccessible.

Here’s one of those little asides he makes that I immediately knew was wrong because I’ve held all three of these birds in my hand. To, in the course of one sentence, declare that an Elf Owl is both one quarter the size of a Great Horned Owl, and smaller than a House Sparrow, is not only impossible for it to be one if it is the other, but it is actually wrong on both counts.

There is a constant conflation of length and size, a la American Robin. An Elf Owl is approximately one-quarter the length of a Great Horned Owl all right, but in volume/weight is more like 1/40th to 1/50th; that’s hardly comparable to a quarter the ‘size’. Meanwhile, it is about the same length as a House Sparrow, but the sparrow is long of tail, the owl short, and the difference made by subtracting the almost weightless length of tail makes the owl 30-50% heavier than the sparrow, and thus not smaller as he would have it. I don’t know anyone who is familiar with those two birds who would offhandedly say an Elf Owl is smaller than a House Sparrow.

Again, it makes me suspicious of other details in the book. Indeed, the one other field in which I have some considerable experience, hunting, is alluded to in the book several times, mostly in service to discussions about collecting on Attu. Most of it is vague, but one detail, waxed poetically I believe, is either totally wrong, or else the person involved in the act described is a total moron (of which there is no other indication): Obmascik describes the collection of a Pechora Pipit by a collector using buckshot. Buckshot is a specific size of pellet used in shotgun shells. It is designed, as its name would imply, for bringing down deer (‘buck’shot – get it?). There are few in a cartridge, and they are large. And blasted from a shotgun, if one were so unbelievably lucky as to actually hit a Pechora Pipit, one would only be collecting what I would call smithereens – some slivers of meat and bone and a few feathers. That collector would not be in business very long. In actuality, using a shotgun to collect pipits would be a better use for #8 or #9 pellets, a group of sizes in part known collectively as ‘birdshot’. I suspect this was just an unresearched use of a term in another field and another ding in credibility.

It even extends to the index. In trying to refind a reference to Baird’s Sparrow, I came across an entry for “snatch sparrow”. You can look it up yourself. Perhaps that was some intern’s idea of a joke (especially in light of page 99, where one is directed, being partly about one birder’s return to his wife after time on the road). Or perhaps the index was just computer generated and no one proofed it.

Back to that earlier credibility point: I now don’t know whether things are ‘correct’ for instance in his descriptions of Amish and Mennonite life, things he did not know before writing The Big Year, and doesn’t appear he’s become obsessed enough about to join the communities; or about his examination of Greg Miller’s job to fix thousands of lines of nuclear code ahead of Y2K; or details of the symphonic music wafting through Aspen. Those are things I'd like to walk away having gained as real knowledge, things to enrich my life, but again, if he didn’t get the bird things right, did he get this other stuff right?

It would take me a lot of space here to list all the bird errors. I hope you get the picture without my having to do so.

I was a closet birder until I hit my senior year in high school. I owe that to Jane Hathaway of The Beverly Hillbillies. She was the only other person on the planet I knew who was interested in birds like I was. She was fictional, a caricature, but I sure didn’t want people thinking of me like they must have thought of her. So I went about my business quietly.

The first time I ever birded with someone else, EVER, was on the Freeport Christmas Count of 1971. My family had just moved to Houston, and I was watching the news when a story came on about the count with clips of other people looking at birds, and they weren’t Jane Hathaway. A number flashed on the screen, I called and talked to Victor Emanuel, and the rest, for me, was history.

I had quite an education that day, but I also knew my birds, and from that moment came a lifetime of good friends and birding partners, indeed my best friends in this life are all attached to that time. We’re older now, and we all took our obsessions different directions, but we seem to still show up at the ‘first’ Texas Gyrfalcon or the ‘first’ North American Crane Hawk, or sometimes band together and go out and find our own ‘first’ North American Roadside Hawk*. We have a certain camaraderie in that history, those histories.

Obmascik’s book deals directly with these two things – the quirkiness of birding (thank goodness folks under a certain age don’t know who Jane Hathaway is), and that birding is just another of those things humans do in groups that bind us together. Ultimately the book comes to grips with the humanity of these three obsessed guys. That’s a good thing.

I wanted to say that I was a bit disappointed that the book, the drive of the narrative, sort of fizzled at the end. But in retrospect I think it was appropriate. The big quest itself kind of fizzled out for all three of the chasers at the end of the year. For Levantin and Miller both there was a realization that some other things were more important, and the book made it seem like they finally resorted to having a little pre-mortem fun with their last few birds (even in postholing in the Colorado snow and buzzing around Nevada in the hands of a crazy chopper pilot) once it was clear they were bested.

Komito though never seemed to slow down, even if he tired, but it must be that his drive to put distance between himself and the other two made it a runaway fourth quarter and that cost him some of the joy. Runaway scores take the fun out of sport, if that’s what birding is. It’s not just about the final tally, though that big win is important; it’s about having a reason to press on, someone breathing down your neck to beat, that makes it ultimately worthwhile, that creates the biggest satsifaction.

I have to hope that the truths of the story are just that. That the personal moments, the chatter, the tricks, the worry, the tender family vignettes, portray something close to actuality. I have my questions, but not necessarily suspicions. If they are honest portrayals then Obmascik has succeeded in telling a story that has much humanity in it. It is also well-written as far as providing a tale worth reading, compelling enough to turn every page despite my cringing at the science.

And he does catch some of the flavor of competitive birding too. The seasickness on pelagics is a topic with which I have much experience. Scopelines, jostling for a view past big shoulders, battling unfamiliar environments, wolfed down 4 a.m. breakfasts, not planning for unforeseen vehicle issues, finding a way to make the few enough dollars last an extra day or two, arriving a minute too late, despair in telling someone they arrived a minute too late; all are drawn in much the way those things affect birders’ every travel scheme.

In short, we are a goofy lot.

I’m hoping the movie makes the same leap, because as fodder for pure humor we are rich. I don’t know any of the three main characters of the book, although I know quite a few of the sideline folks, but I definitely know a lot of bird people and a lot of their stories – many drop-dead funny, some heartwarming, a few tragic. In the end we are people, and if the books misses the biology often, and drives me nuts on the details, at least I can turn it into a fairy tale, and enjoy the telling of the story.

Here’s hoping the best for the movie.

A word about the movie in anticipation? Here’s some of what I glean from the clips and trailers: there’s an awful lot of CGI birds involved, and lots of them are awfully small, prepare to not be fooled by the currently bad state-of-the-art in computer generated flight; there is at least one indoor Blue Jay; it’s a cutthroat business (something I really never experienced, in fact when I was doing my runs, or was aware of others, it was all about everyone pitching in to get everyone onto the birds, so this seems a bit uncharacteristic of us, although the book tells a slightly different story); it might be a bit heavy on the exposition (anathema to a filmmaker); the book does an interesting job of telling the story of the origins of Big Years (I’m not certain it is too accurate, but it’s plausible enough), but in the film clip this is reduced to an unseemly collage of events, be prepared; and ultimately this is about comedy, thus that cohort of actors, and that director, and us as an obsessive group to be laughed at.

So I guess, when my ticket shows up, I am going to try, for once, to expect the biology to be wrong, and try to enjoy it for the fairy tale and the comedy without hyperventilating about the details. Do I hope it draws more birders to the fold? Maybe, but I’m withholding judgment until I know what kind of inspiration The Big Year is going to deliver.

Finally, I want to say that the book is an enjoyable read, and I suspect a lot of folks will love it – a lot of critics have. And despite my critique, I liked it enough that I’ve already ordered Obmascik’s other book Halfway to Heaven: My White-knuckled – and Knuckleheaded – Quest for the Rocky Mountain High. Not to worry, it’s about things I don’t know about, so I won’t be reviewing it. But Mark, if the opportunity ever comes for another reprint of your bird tome, I know a lot of details-oriented, obsessed folks who would like a crack at redlining a manuscript for you.

The Movie is in theatres everywhere (except here in Podunk, TX) beginning Friday, October 14th.

Here’s a few more clips:

* A side note about that Roadside Hawk that readers of the book will appreciate: Jim Vardaman once chewed me out a bit for not calling him about that bird – it would have made his 700th bird in his record-setting big year. I wasn’t on his golden list of reporters, and I had only had mild interest in his quest at the time as I was doing my own Texas run that year. He found out about the bird on New Year’s Day, a few hours too late to chase it.

** As pointed out in the comments below by elizabird, and as I predicted, I made an egregious error in my review of The Big Year, in that author Mark Obmascik apparently did not consult for the movie, but instead it was birder Greg Miller. this of course makes the entire point of that paragraph section moot . . .I have a reason, but it's irrelevant, it's wrong . . . so my apologies to Mark for that (mea culpa), and to Greg for that.

From the movie The Big Year, (l-r) Owen Wilson, Steve Martin, Jack Black.

Earlier versions of the book cover

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