INGULFED

In Shanghai

Archive for music

#200: Muathifakhrs Unite — Arabic Rap From (America’s) West Bank

The rerelease of this legendary and illustrious video is dedicated to Joshua “Issa” Casteel, an endlessly positive Middlebury Arabic scholar with the power to brighten every door, the kind of soldier who returns home not with enmity but with curiosity and compassion — a true Muathifakhr if there ever was one.

In 2010, a group of Middlebury Arabic School students left nothing on the rhyming fields of Oakland, California. Two years later the ornery former director of the program, who shall remain nameless in this sentence, achieved a lifelong goal and had the masterwork taken down from video sharing sites, including انتم توب. Kenneth S. Habib’s image has been removed.

But the message lives on.

On the grounds of Mills Young Ladies Seminary (as it was known in 1852), the Thalith Alif Allstars rhyme about a life with thoughts in one language and speech in another. Words divide, but they also unite, and in this grappling with confusion we can follow new pathways to understanding. Like the diverse coalitions still struggling for freedom across the Middle East, this group — which features an Arab doctor, a UN relief hero, a veteran, scholars of the Middle East, and Jews — is united in its message: we shall not be divided by language if we recognize difference not as obstacle but opportunity. And if we take silliness for what it is.

Issa, this one’s for you.


{Watch on YouTube here.}
{Watch in Germany or on a mobile device over here.}

This is INGULFED‘s 200th post!      A thousand shukran for coming back again and again.

Pieces: Singapore

Crisp, starched plastic Singapore Dollars in hand, we looked for food past Temple Street and Mosque Street, not far from Church Street and right around the corner from Synagogue Street. Chinatown, they told me, feels a lot like parts of China, and street signs in Chinese marked places of cultural/gastronomic heritage. Everywhere else, plaques read in Tamil, Malay, Chinese and English. We snagged some pork buns and a juice made from pressed chestnuts and pounds of sugar and kept walking.

I have never been anywhere that looks like Singapore. As an American traveler, I am guilty of a (common?) perversion: grungy, impoverished, chaotic — these kinds of superficies (outward appearance, not extraordinary fishes) connect most immediately to my internal GPS. Moonscapes and tuk-tuk laden dirt roads, I admit, make the quickest work of readjusting my perspective, and forcing me to realize I am somewhere else. (It was more than 100 days in the Emirates before something clicked and I thought, hey wait, I am not living in America anymore.) But Singapore has all this power for recalibration without so simple a contrast: Red lanterns hanging from cables shout China; building facades with white balconies like the Carolinas line straight streets in pastel colors like Nicaragua; laws and public workers keep the roads cleaner than in Germany. And from all that, I didn’t imagine that I was in those countries, I knew that I was somewhere else, and I was hit, two minutes out of the cab, with the sense of a new place.

In 1819, The East India Company decided it would be nice to set up shop in Singapore. The local Orang Laut (“Sea People”) — still present living the traditional nomadic life in islands off of Indonesia — began to be boxed out. In 1867, the island became the latest of British Colonies in Southeast Asia and assumed the role of a naval base and a formidable financial hub for the entire region. In terms of sheer tonnage handled, Singapore’s harbor is now the busiest in the world.

It can hardly be contested that Singapore’s success in acquiring international investment is among the fastest and most complete — spanning markets of fashion, architecture, banking, and, and, and… — in modern history. Today’s citizens have done well. The capital certainly feels more comfortable in this glossy skin than do those of the UAE’s emirates. Some of the culture spans the Southeast-Middle East divide: unending patronage of malls, tinted gold in the light of haute profile retail; two Vertu stores within 500 feet, both selling sixty-thousand dollar BlackBerrys caked in white diamonds. (“The network isn’t very good,” said the attendant Jean-Charles. “You’ll want to keep your iPhone.”)

Only mints.

In this commercial milieu, where old five-star hotels guard the river like stalwarts of delicious colonialism (no hard feelings here), the 48-hour western traveler does not expect (aside from the pungent, inescapable smell of durian) bursts of enormous multicultural richness. In a country famous for its law and order — at the top of the list: no gum chewing — surprises seem unlikely. But they abound. As opposed to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where financial centers watered with oil revenue have sprung from nothing in the desert, Singapore’s explosion pushed many things out. The growth, however, like in the Emirates, has brought many other things in. As reflected in the tetralingual metro signs, Singapore doesn’t interact with different pieces of the world — it is different pieces of the world.

Durian, durian, and more durian.

In 1827, Naraina Pillai founded the first Hindu Temple in Singapore, built impressively in the Dravidian style . Aside from the constant tourists (take off your shoes outside), the Sri Mariamman Temple (Tamil:ஸ்ரீ மாரியம்மன் கோவில்; Chinese: 马里安曼兴都庙; Malay: Kuil Sri Mariamman) is mainly visited by South Indian Tamils. Just down South Bridge Road from our Chinatown hostel, we could hear music bursting from the door in rhythms and scales I felt have had little to no interaction with western musical consciousness. The gopuram tower rose in a six-tiered pyramid above the entrance, a heavy wooden door studded with golden bells. Each tier was crowded with painted, brighter-than-life statuettes of dieties.

Inside, three musicians listened to each other — improvised, maybe — while candles were lit. Strong flavors of incense. A huge drum hung from one man’s neck, to be hit with a thin stick that curved at the end; another struck tubular bells; the last wove melodies through percussive pa! kattak! on a reeded instrument a little like an oboe. I slumped down against a pillar. Other tourists milled about the temple courtyard. The musicians didn’t seem to know that we were there.

Listen below:

Later that night, after picking dishes from several of the Chinese street stands (everything from oysters to spicy beef to pigs’ feet) before hitting the clubs of Clark Quay, we went to drunkly press our luck at the Marina Bay Sands casino (no free drinks, disastrously un-Atlantic City-like). Wikipedia has this to say about the place:

The resort features a 2,561-room hotel, a 1,300,000-square-foot (121,000 m2) convention-exhibition centre, the 800,000-square-foot (74,000 m2) The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands mall, an iconic ArtScience museum, two large theatres, seven “celebrity chef” restaurants, two floating Crystal Pavilions, an ice skating rink, and the world’s largest atrium casino with 500 tables and 1,600 slot machines. The complex is topped by a 1,115-foot-long SkyPark with a capacity of 3,900 people and a 500 foot infinity swimming pool, set on top of the world’s largest public cantilevered platform, which overhangs the north tower by 220 feet.

The view from the top, 656 feet above the Singapore Strait, is stunning in the dark. Everything looks crisp, the lights from the Marina are bright and clear, and house beats pulse from the speakers of the rooftop bar KU DÉ TA. Drinks were far too expensive, so I went down to the casino floor, and promptly lost 150 crisp dollars at $25 minimum blackjack.



More pictures from Singapore here: Singapore — சிங்கப்பூர் — 新加坡 — سنغافورة

Lentil Paste — معجون العدس

Late on Saturday Nights, Bağlama bars come alive in side streets off İstiklâl Caddesi (“Independence Avenue”) in the pedestrian heart of Istanbul. On a sound recommendation and with a small printed map with an X, we sought and found Havar, the liveliest in a string of bars and cafes in the Beyoğlu neighborhood that advertise with posters of studio shots of upcoming performers and a man calling from the door.

The solo instrument is the bağlama (or saz, as it’s often known — the broader name for its family), oud-like but with a long, thin neck. Drummers and wind instruments support the frontman, who belts out tunes everyone knows. Everyone. Tunes seemed to hit different demographics in the bar — younger guys and their dates or married couples or gray-haired veterans bent at the waist only probably as part of the dance. Some seemed to dip from shared memories as old as Turkish history — if you weren’t singing, you weren’t from there.


Except maybe that wasn’t true. A few tables of men next to us stayed quiet, just listening, hardly ever smiling or talking, but certainly not looking for quiet. A pair of old men danced in deliberate steps, bent and looking at their feet, with one hand clasping the other’s held high in the air. If I’d have guessed, I’d have guessed they were really, really happy. Either way, silent or singing or dancing with fingers entwined — even watching and knowing nothing – it looked easy to get lost gladly in the dark.
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Po(m)p and Circumstance(s)

This week I practiced for the first time with the Abu Dhabi Philharmonic Orchestra, a volunteer group of all expats ranging from 14 years-old (I asked) to about 70 (didn’t go there). Rehearsals take place in the Armed Forces Officers’ Club — a multipurpose army hang out, hotel, gym, theater space, concert hall, and gun museum — in a venue clearly not designed with music in mind.

For the first ten minutes (of a Howard Shore Lord of the Rings medley), the stage lights wouldn’t come on, and we played through squinted eyes and predictable melodies. Finally bright lights shone from somewhere sort of over us, illuminating the ancient music stands only a military establishment could have owned — the tripod base tightened with a screw and looked more like it was made to hold a 500-pound bazooka than 10 grams of sheet music, and the matching stand head had to be fitted from a crate of mismatched parts like the barrel of a rifle to its companion grip.

As some sort of event had just finished in the hall, cleaning men scurried to remove all evidence of celebration — a thick coating of confetti, boxes of cake, dozens of balloons forty feet up on the ceiling. The fact that the music that was being played involved real people that were really there had no bearing on the chatty vacuumers and shouting managers. I tried to think of it all as part of a new surreal musical culture — one that defied the challenges of an uncooperative environment and persevered. Like, say, the English in the subcontinent.
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