The African Beat Archive
Jan 25th, 2011 by robert

I had the privilege to write a column about African music in The Beat magazine for eight years, from 1995 to 2003, until life’s exigencies prevented me from writing. The Beat was the world-class magazine covering “world music” for 28 years. As time allows, I will place that column’s archive on this site, improving on its original published format to include more pictures and even sound samples. Eventually I hope this becomes a testament to the enormous quantity of fantastic African music published during those fecund years, when “world music” flourished on the world market.

This effort will take some time, and there are no promises when I will finish. Hopefully it will provide interesting reading for some of you! To get to the articles in the archive, either click on the link in the upper right column of this page, or click here for direct access. Enjoy!

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Vinyl Thoughts: Feeding an Obsession
Dec 8th, 2010 by robert

The record arrived in the mail, carefully packed by an Ebay merchant in Portugal. I sighed with relief and delight: A twenty year quest had ended, and a terrible thirst was quenched – for the moment!

I know precisely when my African music obsession began. I was living in a country at war, writing a long report in a language not my own. To avoid the chaos around me, I had headphones on, listening to cassettes on my Walkman. There was one tape I played over and over because it was indescribably beautiful music, with wonderful singing and complex rhythms. I was hooked. The tape held a compilation of songs by Pierre Akendengue, the great musician from Gabon, and it was sent to me from England by my dear friend Akwe. I virtually wore out the tape, but when I returned from Central America, I began collecting every Akendengue album I could find. Over the years there have been many, and I wrote about every new release for my column in The Beat magazine. I even had the opportunity to interview Akendengue by phone, when he was in Paris one time, and published that in The Beat, too (which you can read here).

However one Akendengue album eluded me, Eseringila. Yet here it is finally in front of me, found via the internet and delivered 8,200 kilometers!

I am so pleased! Now, if only I could set up my turntable, I could listen to it! More than that: I could record it and share it with you. . . well look here.

Easy sharing is one of the obvious and great features of the internet, and probably all of us share pictures and crucial words of wisdom with our families and friends, or perhaps the entire world, via Facebook or YouTube or some other sharing site. Yet not all sharing is so benign. As I described in an earlier article, the illegal sharing of music crippled the music publishing industry, making CDs an endangered species and catalyzing the creation of legal, low-sound-quality, digital download stores like iTunes and Amazon.

Searching for Eseringila I discovered a whole world of music being shared on the internet, and I have to confess that I have tapped into that world to feed my obsession. To gorge, actually, like an addict. I’ve found treasure troves of out-of-print African vinyl records that other obsessive collectors have digitized and posted on their blogs, including records that I own.

I thought long and hard before downloading any of the plethora of digitized vinyl I found. I explored the world and discovered that much of the digitized old recordings is encoded at very low quality, so emasculated at 128 bps that I cannot listen to it (again, refer to my earlier article). However there are a few bloggers who post high quality recordings, so fine that you can hear every scratch and pop as well as cymbals. I recommend the Global Groove site as an entry to this world; but there are others I will describe in a future post.

How does this sharing differ from, for example, your kid’s downloading the latest Eminem release through special file-sharing software? Is it okay, legal? Most of these posted recordings are long out-of-print, often from vanished music companies and deceased musicians. Even the entire style of music may be extinct. In other words, these recordings are out of the commercial stream, stranded in piles and boxes with no profit aspirations. Many music bloggers state clearly on their home page that they will remove a recording from their site if anyone holding copyrights objects.

My opinion about downloading music has changed, perhaps warped by my addiction. I adamantly discourage and disapprove of the vast music file sharing (better called stealing or piracy) that is ubiquitous among the younger generation. But I think downloading vintage recordings, where copyright is likely expired, is different, and that it benefits the music industry in two ways.

First, and most importantly, if a person likes the music downloaded, he or she will likely seek other music from the artist that is still commercially available. This has become an expensive obsession for me because I have ordered many CDs I found available, after listening to something I downloaded, even paying for shipping from Europe. The second benefit for the music industry is that when someone writes enthusiastically about an out-of-print recording, and lots of people download it, it is very much like the donkey in Shrek, jumping up and down yelling “Pick me! Pick me!” Such a recording is worth considering for restoration by a wise and confident record label.

There is another, more esoteric benefit from the sharing done by music explorers: It helps preserve the music. With so much of the world’s diversity of music smothered by the hyper-commercial crap music promoted and distributed by transnational corporations that seek every almighty dollar, any effort to recover and share vital, true culture is commendable.

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Bobbing Around Off Nome
Sep 3rd, 2010 by robert

The Alaskan Enterprise bobs on unsettled seas outside the harbor at Nome, waiting for permission to dock. I use the term ‘harbor’ loosely, for how can something be called a harbor when it is completely open to gales from a particular direction? We spent last night waiting for the wind and seas to change because yesterday docking was impossible with the southeastern swell crashing into the dock. They changed favorably, but this morning Nome’s harbormaster is inexplicably mute, not answering our skipper’s request for permission to dock.

We have returned to Nome after a two-day steam through rough waters from Icy Cape, near Barrow. This unplanned detour is caused by a series of equipment failures that have imperiled the oceanographic component of this scientific mission. There have been delays and compromises from day one due to equipment problems. Yet sometimes it’s important to remember to go with the flow: on our aborted attempt to dock yesterday, as the ship eased into port, a female spectacled eider welcomed us!

During several days on the Chukchi Sea, we encountered calm seas, considerable sunshine, and a paucity of marine life that had us wondering whether ‘Chukchi’ is Inupiat for ‘Dead’. The mammal spotters did see one minke whale and various seals, and though several of my 1.5 hour bird transects recorded NO birds, there were a few birdy patches where we passed through rafts of short-tailed shearwaters or clumps of crested auklets. The mammal spotters dubbed these auklets ‘nuggets’ for their chunky bodies and the difficulty they have taking off from the water when stuffed with food. Elegantly beautiful Sabine’s gulls also passed by a few times, dazzling with their acrobatic feeding flight.

One cloudy, calm Chukchi day, I dressed warmly and went to the bow platform in search of privacy, intending to catch up on my journal. Just after settling down with my back to the light, cold wind, an exhalation exploded 50 feet away from me. A walrus sat there apparently looking at me, tusks waiving in the air. I pointed it out to the mammal folks in the bridge, and soon my privacy evaporated as camera-wielding biologists surrounded me. As quickly as they came onto the deck, other walrus arrived until there was an equal number of walrus and observers. It was quite a show.

So now we are edging towards the Nome dock, fingers crossed that we will be allowed to tie up and have a walk on firm ground.

Nope. Didn’t happen. But after another few hours the winds moderated and we were able to slip into port. The sense of relief was palpable. Everyone’s hopes were dashed when we came so close to land earlier, and then turned back into the teeth of the gale. So as mooring lines were making fast, a line formed as we all were ready to leap ashore.

I hiked into town searching for an internet connection with IPA (India Pale Ale) service. Alas the beer was flowing, but the bytes were not. Internet was down, disappointing almost all of my shipmates, who coincidentally arrived at the same Airport Pizza. After a couple of hours reveling in shoreside distraction, I walked the two miles back to the ship. It was an empty, quiet ship. I relaxed while calling my boys and watching the spectacled eider bobbing contentedly on the gentle harbor swell.

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Through The Bering Strait
Aug 27th, 2010 by robert

The Alaskan Enterprise sits broadside to the modest wind, sunshine pouring in through the windows of the bridge. We are off the coast of Kotzebue, making an unscheduled stop to pick up crucial sampling equipment that was shipped overnight from Seattle, to replace a faulty, fundamental component of the research effort. A semi-rigid dinghy was dropped into the whitecaps, and three women scientists dressed in bright orange Mustang suits climbed in and sped off towards town, 15 miles away. As we drift waiting for their return, many of the thirteen people remaining onboard are spread around the boat looking for the best cell connection. Strangely, nine miles out in the Chukchi Sea, there is cell phone coverage, and people have the unexpected ability to call loved ones.

This is not the first equipment-related delay for this cruise. We spent two extra days in Nome while two enormous winches were welded to the deck. My time hotel-bound led me to one of the darkest American experiences: watching television. On the edge of the Bering Sea, I had access to hundreds of the same stations that afflict people throughout the country. In a nearly futile effort to find news or better news (The Daily Show), I had to scroll through dozens of stations offering unbelievably trivial, mindless and mind-numbing garbage. If what people watch is a reflection of who we are as a nation, no wonder we are in trouble.

The Alaskan Enterprise is a 151-foot ship constructed in 1978 for the Bering Sea crab fishery, but for the last few years it has been chartered by various scientific endeavors. Our cruise has two main scientific threads, staffed mostly by NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency) staff scientists. All the equipment delays have been caused by the problems besetting the oceanography team that wants to measure physical and biological parameters of this northern sea. There is a great rush to investigate the ecology of this region because of the enormous push to open it to offshore oil exploration and production.

The largest team on this cruise is a group of marine mammal biologists looking for whales, especially right whales. Several of the team visually survey for whales and other mammals, using enormous, pedestal-mounted binoculars they call Big Eyes, which allow them to identify whales at the horizon, six miles away.

I’m free to use a second set of Eyes for birding, but have yet to try them. The rest of this team deploys acoustic buoys and constantly monitors sounds to pick out whale songs and calls from miles away. So far many more whales have been heard than seen, including blue and fin whales, and orcas.

And then there is me. I’ve been added as a token bird surveyor to gather data on seabird distribution in these northern waters, for an ongoing Fish and Wildlife Service project. When the boat is moving, I do transect surveys using a set protocol. So far the density of birds has been low, and I have gone hours without recording a single bird on a transect. Yet there are occasional patches of birds that provide good fun. Yesterday there were many pomarine jaegers, often seen hassling black-legged kittiwakes to make them drop the minnows they had just caught. Both tufted and horned puffins are seen regularly, and there have been quite a few parakeet auklets and red-necked phalaropes floating in the middle of the sea.

Yesterday we passed through the Bering Strait, passing close to the Diomedes islands. Looking at Russia across the water, I thought of a just outcome for Sarah Palin. Once her glamor fades and that vacuous politics collapses, she should be given a house to live in on Little Diomede, so she could contemplate Russia from her front door for the rest of her empty life.

The skiff is returning to the ship, and we shall see if they succeeded in getting the parts needed to repair the oceanographic device. If so, we head back to sea on a zigzag track towards Barrow. Perhaps there I will see some interesting high-arctic gulls!

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Upcoming Cyber-isolation and Seabirds
Aug 20th, 2010 by robert

I am on the wing, heading north in a couple of days to join a NOAA marine mammal expedition in the Bering and Chukchi Seas, as a volunteer seabird observer. My role is to record seabird abundance while the ship, the Alaskan Enterprise, travels from station to station along an extended cruise that begins in Nome and ends in Dutch Harbor. Word has it that there is no internet available on the ship, and I may not have an internet connection for four weeks, beginning Monday 24 August. For anyone interested, below is a map of the cruise, and here is a little more information about it. I hope to be able to see some interesting gulls, ducks and, with great luck, a short-tailed albatross. As I always say, any day with an albatross is a great day, but a short-tailed day would be extraordinary!

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