Monday, September 5, 2016

Lalun: Music out of this World and the Quest for Peace

World music band Lalun playing live
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending a concert entitled “Lalun – Dreams from Andalusia and the Silk Road” at the Vancouver Playhouse. I was intrigued by this musical ensemble as they advertised themselves as a globe-trotting world music group that was influenced by music from Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

The individual members and their instruments looked equally eclectic; there was Liron Man who is originally from Israel but living in Spain and he was playing hand pans (?) as well as Lan Tung from Taiwan / Canada playing the erhu, a type of Chinese violin, and, last but not least, Canadian Jonathan Bernard on (various types of) percussion.    

I had a certain amount of expectations as I generally enjoy and often listen to world music. Entering the concert room, my family and I were lucky to find front-row seats. After a bi-lingual introduction (English and Chinese) that included a seemingly endless list of sponsors, basically a long string of Vancouver restaurants, banks, businesses and what-have-you, the musicians took over the stage and wasted no words but jumped right into the music.

And I was immediately floored, meant in the best way possible! Their music was astonishing from the very beginning. The hand pans were basically strange-looking but beautiful sounding large bowls with apparent holes in them. The Chinese violin had a wailing sound to it evoking dreams and images of Asian landscapes. In fact, after hearing her play on the erhu I was reminded of the handful of Asian movies (Raise the Red Lantern (1991), In the Mood for Love (2000), to name a few) I had seen and felt inspired and compelled to watch more of them in the near future.

The percussion, which included hand drums and the occasional cymbals thrown in for good measure, added an interesting rhythm to the whole scene. Although I had initially thought that the band’s description was a little bit far-fetched and exaggerated, I must say that even with the first song, they covered more global terrain than I had expected.

This music in all its splendor also felt close to home. Being myself born in Iran, I felt there was a nod to Persian music, which was, in fact, the case. But it was even more than that because the tunes and instruments added different cultural hues to the whole undertaking. One of the odder choices, their final song of the day, ended up being a traditional Persian song, translated into Chinese, that the erhu player was singing and playing to, but again somehow and against the odds it actually worked.

The music was perfect fodder to my imagination and I could picture it as soundtrack to various scenes of movies that were playing in my mind. Yet, in addition to that, I felt a certain sense of peace and calm. I attributed this to two different phenomena.

First, the music did not only have deep-seated roots and foundations, but it was also played and presented with passion and love. It was during this performance where I felt that the musicians were in various ways baring their souls.

This feeling usually occurs when I am in the presence of what I consider genuine art. In movies, literature or music, this means that I am presented with something very special that deeply resonates within me. It strikes chords in me and I feel that the work of art is not meant to merely please and entertain, not meant to rake in profits and fame, but was rather a type of personal expression or even confession, a desire that is deeply felt and true to the heart.  

As I was listening, I was mentally going through my own art, my writing that I have created and longed that somebody somewhere would equally feel the love and passion I have poured into it. To me that is the very essence of art, to make others feel something profound, and I certainly felt that way with this outstanding concert.

The second phenomenon was more related to the content, the music and its colorful influences. Here we had a perfect blend of longstanding cultures and traditions and it invoked that feeling of peacefulness to be one in and with the world. 

The traditions were woven into each other rather flawlessly like a monumental mosaic and it showed us that despite conflicts, pain and suffering we witness around the world, there is also a binding force, a unity expressed through the soul of music that makes these worldly matters and issues insignificant, divisive, and unnecessarily destructive.

I could not help thinking about the constant and continuous conflicts in the Middle East, and I was aware of the fact that there was an Israeli musician and composer who had managed to create a bond between seemingly incompatible cultures of Jewish and Arab nations.

If only both sides could see their commonalities, the love and beauty that was expressed through each of their musical heritage and their tonal traditions and that together, they could indeed create something that surpassed either side on its own, a thing of absolute intercultural beauty. I was reminded of that dream while attending this concert.

In fact, about half way through, Liron Man, the hand pan musician and composer commented on that very same idea of mine! He talked about his song called “Tierra,” Spanish for land or home, and how it reflected a mixture of different cultures, including Arabic as well as traditional Jewish music.

To my shock and surprise, the song ended with the traditional folk song “Hava Nagila”, which is translated as “Let us rejoice”, a fitting and uplifting ending to his song. Now I say “shock and surprise” because before the concert had even begun I had what I deemed a rather silly and perhaps even stereotypical idea that I should ask him to play “Hava Nagila” at some point. And here it was embroidered into this cultural musical hotpot. It was as if they had read my mind or I had read theirs, which either way was rather eerie (but again in a good way).

This concert given by the multicultural band Lalun was indeed a mind-blowing experience. The music itself was out of this world, but to have it transport us like a magical carpet not only across thousands of miles but through thousands of years of history is indeed indescribable. 

These musicians have traveled extensively and play music independently as well, but what I saw and heard and felt in this one-hour-concert is rare and I very much encourage all to experience it for themselves if given a chance.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Civilizing the Land: The Australian Western The Proposition

End scene with two brothers from the movie Proposition
The Proposition (2005) is written by alternative rock musician and occasional novelist Nick Cave and is directed by John Hillcoat, perhaps better known for his later atmospheric yet quite depressing movie The Road (2009)

At first glance, the movie may appear like a typical revenge western flick albeit set in the Outback of Australia instead of the Wild West of the United States. It has the components of a generic western, a sheriff (in this case the British officer Captain Stanley) who is chasing a band of outlaws led by three brothers.

Yet from the get-go, the mood and situations become already more morally complex compared to any other traditional Western fare. The movie opens with the lines of apology that the following images of indigenous ancestors may be offensive to some and then sets the tone with the beautiful and heart-wrenching background hymn of “There is a Happy Land” sung by the innocent voices of a children’s choir.

Yet there is neither in this rugged sun-drenched terrain, no happiness and even less innocence. The theme of land and religion is interwoven into this movie yet do not combine to create the peace and harmony they apparently so desire; they only make matters worse.  

After the opening credits, we are immediately thrown in a shoot-out followed by an arrest of two outlaw brothers, Charlie and Mikey Burns. In its aftermath interrogation, Captain Stanley makes an indecent proposition to Charlie. The law enforcer decides to keep the younger brother Mikey, who seems the most innocent and naïve of the bunch, as leverage in custody and asks Charlie to find his older and much meaner brother Arthur and kill him.

In turn, Stanley gives his word to not hang the younger brother of the gang; he even promises to give them both pardons. Evil is supposed to be stopped by an even more evil and heinous act, the killing of a sibling, but in the eyes of the captain the means end up justifying the end.

One must add that Charlie does not like his older brother Arthur very much and he is a kind of caretaker of Mikey (a nickname purposely underscoring his young age) and the reason they were not hanging with each other was because of growing ideological and moral differences between them; in other words, Charlie and Mikey are in comparison much more decent guys than the mean-spirited Arthur. So Charlie goes out on his mission; he is given nine days and his deadline is fittingly Christmas Day.

The reason the British officer risks letting Charlie get away is that Arthur is the hardest to pin down. He is hiding in caves and seems literally untraceable. At the same time, the bandit seems to be protected and feared by the aboriginals around him and they somehow admire him for his lack of conventionality. This man is different from the “civilized” people who disperse the natives and look down on them and who are in the meantime slyly stealing their lands and livelihood.

Outlaws and the native people have something in common; they are both rejected by the colonizing white class and have to hide themselves. In fact, in the eyes of the aboriginals, Arthur becomes a kind of mythical beast; they do not think of him as human but call him the “Dog Man,” a rabid and smart being that is impossible to stop.

We are then slowly given clues of how cruel Arthur really is. Although Charlie and Mikey seem the “nicer” criminals with at least a scruple or two and something akin a conscience, Arthur and the other band member Samuel Stoat are pure undiluted evil. They are mostly responsible for the slaying of the Hopkins family, which included a pregnant woman who had been brutally raped.

This horrible and vicious crime is the main reason why the town and its captain would do anything to not only catch this band but to hang them. In fact, while Charlie is on his way, there is a strong desire to whip Mikey for his crimes; in fact, they want to flog him a hundred times. This would kill the boy, Captain Stanley counteracts, especially keeping in mind that his promise and proposition would immediately turn to dust.

Yet as gossip continues to spread far and wide that the captain had let one of the brothers get away scot-free, the town is angered both with him and his beautiful wife and they all turn their anger on Mikey who serves as a scapegoat for all the suffering they have gone through.

Even the captain’s wife insists that the boy should be whipped as the raped and murdered woman was a close friend of hers. Captain Stanley has a standoff basically with the whole town including his superior and his wife, as he stands in front of the prison and threatens to kill anybody who crosses the threshold and puts a hand on this incarcerated youth.

But his wife then implores him to give this criminal the whipping he deserves. She entices him by reminding him of the seriousness of the crime as well as tempting him with the statement, what if it was she who had been helplessly raped. Would he still protect this member of the gang?

Reluctantly, as he is also outnumbered and without any moral support whatsoever, Captain Stanley lets them punish Mikey and after 40 lashes (yes, this is a reference to the Lamb Jesus since Mikey similarly takes on the sins of others, namely those of his brothers) the youth is on the border between life and death and dies from his wounds around Christmas, which inversely is the celebration of the birth of Jesus.

In the meantime, Charlie manages to find his evil brother but hesitates. Arthur sits like a meditating monk on a cliff overlooking the sunset and he seems to never sleep. At the same time, he is spouting random lines of poetry about the moons, the stars and the sun and how love holds everything together. There is a crazy glint in his eyes and a wild demeanor all around his behavior; yet at the same time, his intelligence and poise give him a certain air of dignity.

Arthur also keeps harboring on family ties, which, he claims, is the only thing that matters in the world; then he asks about Mikey. Charlie, in order not to raise any suspicion and so that he does not give away his own ethically dubious proposition, tells him that Mikey has remained in the town because he has met a red-headed Irish woman. This at first pleases Arthur especially since they are Irish themselves.

I will not give away much more about this movie, but it does end in violence and interestingly everyone who has a bloody hand in it gets punished one way or another. This is why the movie may seem like a traditional western, but penned by a musician-poet like Nick Cave it is also much more.

Apart from giving us a strange poetic psychopath, he also presents us the thoughts and motivations of the British about this rugged, for them God-forsaken land. They are racist as can also be seen in the way they mistreat these natives, but ironically the outlaws seem a little bit more accepting than the regular town folks.

When one of the aboriginals gets killed, Captain Stanley’s supervisor is worried, not because a life has been lost but because he thinks that the natives will take revenge, a life for a life, as he says. The law enforcement has hired an aboriginal guide who tracks and translates for them; the guide is later killed by Arthur who accuses him of being a traitor, which is partly true as the aboriginal guide was helping out the whites, perceived as the common enemy of the land.

Furthermore, Captain Stanley has an aboriginal servant working for him. He does not mistreat him in any visible or discernible manner, but his haughty outlook and his feeling of superiority are always visible. The British set themselves the mission of “civilizing the land” as Captain Stanley himself puts it succinctly; incidentally, the tagline of the movie is “This land will be civilized.”

In a poignantly symbolic scene, the servant who has finished his shift on Christmas Day and who is leaving the ranch of the Stanleys, takes off his boots and socks and leaves them by the gateway continuing his quest back home in bare feet according to his own customs and traditions. It is a manner of rejecting what the whites see as civilization; the aboriginals may accept it superficially because they have no other choice.

Another scene is when John Hurt, who plays a well-read and well-traveled drunkard / bounty hunter (yes, the characters are quite quirky in this film) talks about Darwin’s evolution theory. He is shocked that humans could have possibly originated from the monkeys because that would mean there is little difference between the blacks and the whites, in his own slurry words.

This is the blow that not only humanity had to endure, but mainly the whites who felt themselves superior or God-chosen. Since we all come from animals and are firmly embedded in this physical world and since our earth is just another planet and not the center of the universe as had been previously assumed, that made us all a little more insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

All in all, the whites are disturbing the peace of this land. They are the ones who are committing crimes and brutally punishing the culprits. They show absolutely no respect for human life, least of all the native aboriginals, the original inhabitants of these lands. It seems that their so-called civilization is only making matters worse and the violent and bloody ending bathed in red sunlight only shows us that little good has come from these supposedly civilized settlers.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The American Founding Fathers – Heroes or Swindlers?

Declaration of Independence United States
For some time now I have been quite fascinated with early American history, including the founding fathers of the Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution and the first presidents of the United States – in short, the global experiment that was to become the United States of America, a nation that has managed to propel itself to a global superpower in its relatively short existence.

I am also surprised at the admirable level of individual liberties in its heyday, which can be contrasted with its apparent lack or restrictions of freedoms throughout its own history. How can the land of plenty and of dreams and opportunity at the same time systematically conquer and oppress its own denizens as well as foreign lands? How can both freedom and lack thereof be a symbol and trademark of the same nation?

In search for such answers I decided to look for America’s founding moments and used, for the main part, Howard Zinn’s national bestseller People’s History of the United States as my reference point. Some may immediately dismiss this work as being rather biased or too focused on its own political motivations, but I shall disregard that since the same can be said about traditional history books and other documents on this era; they also tend to distort and omit information and facts for their own convenience in assistance of their own particular political motives.

So let us start with the American Revolution. Now it had been my impression that this was a case of budding national identity and conscious independence from the occupying British forces. This was presented in my mind as a somewhat romantic revolt of the oppressed against the oppressors similar to and predating the French storming of the Bastille with its glorious (at the time quite revolutionary) slogan of Fraternity, Liberty, and – most importantly – Equality.

But there were other unseen factors at work when it comes to the Boston Tea Party. The American revolution was, in fact, propagated and propelled by relatively wealthy residents (most of them English) who were adverse at being controlled, bossed about and taxed by the British Empire. At around 1770, the top one percent of the population consisting mainly of property owners controlled 44 percent of the wealth in the American colonies. (As we are acutely aware, current statistics have even worse showings.)

England at the time had its own shares of wars on the new continent mostly against the French, and although merchants were able to rack up fortunes in this situation, for most people it meant higher taxes, unemployment as well as poverty. With the Stamp Act in 1765 the British Empire taxed the colonists to pay for the French war, which elicited uprisings here and there and culminated in the Continental Congress, an illegal government, that favored separation.

This committee adopted the Declaration of Independence, written by Tomas Jefferson on July 4, 1776, declaring not only independence of England but also stating that all British law was to be null and void, which would, of course, include the hated Stamp Law or any future taxation imposed upon the wealthy elite of the colony.

Now I tended to see this declaration of independence as a revolt of the masses against the British occupying forces, but this was not necessarily so. First, many Americans were omitted from the get-go, including Indians, black slaves, and women. When the founding fathers proudly proclaim that all men are created equal, that linguistically not only excluded women in their point of view, but also all white men who did not have any property to their name.

As a result, all those who were property-less were not allowed to vote or participate in town meetings. Apart from the aforementioned blacks and slaves (freed or not, plus there was also a small proportion of white slaves among them), Indians (whose very land was occupied by the colonists to begin with) and women (who still used their little influence to shape a war against slavery as they intimately knew what oppression and lack of rights felt like, regardless of their status or wealth), this also included sailors, journeymen, apprentices, and servants.

To Jefferson’s defense, a man that despite it all I have strong admiration for, he was generally against slavery and he initially wanted to include black people in this declaration. Yet this did not sit well with most of the politicians of the time and would have created an evident dilemma for the slave owners in the South.

Furthermore, since Thomas Jefferson himself owned slaves, it would have been hypocritical for him to push for similar rights for that large part of the American populace. So the rights of black people had to be shelved until after the Civil War, pushed somewhat further with the Civil Rights Movement and even today they are broadly speaking still not on equal footing with the white population.

What is also striking in this exclusion of most American residents is the fact that a lot of them had actually fought in the war for independence and ended up in the same, if not worse, condition as before. In fact, patriotism was invoked in the general population to rebel against the British forces in order to obtain freedom and independence, but little did they know that they were merely fighting for the increased rights of the elite few.

Such situations are nothing new today since ideas of patriotism and civic duties have led to mindless acts and wars throughout American history. In addition, many of the poor were given the opportunity to make some money by enlisting in this cause, the same way, the military ensures that they can attract and motivate those who are desperate with hopes and promises of benefits, economic and otherwise.

Although military service was mandatory at the time, the rich could pay off their duty or provide a substitute. This is aside from government officials, ministers, and Yale students and faculty who were automatically excluded from military service.

On a different note, African-Americans, Indians, and mulattoes were immediately excluded, perhaps because the government did not want to teach them military skills that could be used against itself. For instance, Blacks had requested to fight in the Revolutionary War in exchange for their freedom, but George Washington flatly rejected them. The South continued to be reluctant about arming the Blacks in fear of a large-scale and violent slave uprising.

We can see that patriotism played a role in inciting masses to wage war even in America’s early days. But come to think of it, it is rather strange to speak of feelings of patriotism in a place that did not officially exist yet! There was no America or American culture or identity to speak of, so what was the root for this patriotism?

It might have been an indiscriminate ideal, but it cannot be equaled to the liberation of other cultures who had been oppressed by occupying forces yet had a clearly defined and demarcated culture and tradition, for instance, the East Indians against the British forces. Essentially, the British and the American settlers and colonists were not too far apart in culture and tradition.

Finally, as Howard Zinn claims, ruling elites are aware of the fact that war is a way to secure themselves from any kind of internal war. This would be the time to unite against the common enemy outside and often across the border, be it a threat from Nazis, Communists or, more recently, terrorists. As such, some of the domestic problems can be swept under the rug in the heat of the moment thereby ensuring the continuous existence of a status quo favoring the rich and wealthy.

Let us provide another example here. In Maryland, according to the constitution of 1776, if you wanted to run for governor you had to own 5000 pounds of property; for senators, it was 1000 pounds. In other words, a whopping 90 percent of the population had no chance of holding office, and this practice is in many ways continuing today and is somewhat extended through lobbying forces as well as media exposure; it may come as no surprise that there is a billionaire vying for the President’s office as we speak.

There are also two more observations I would like to add on here. First, although the American Revolution is said to have brought about the separation of church and state, this is not exactly so. After 1776 the northern states adopted taxes forcing everyone to support Christian teachings.

In fact, religion was embedded in almost every aspect and institution of the American way of life, not to mention, the language and expressions of the common people as well as politicians. It is strange to see common phrases like “In God we trust” or “God bless America” in what is deemed essentially a secular state and government.

Moreover, Zinn makes a valid point about the government and its parties. The two-party system in the United States gives its citizens a certain amount of choice, yet that choice is limited in many ways. One thing, however, that both parties, regardless of political motivations or ideology will have in common is to protect their own interests.

This may be in terms of influence or wealth, but it is also regarding their own status as a political entity. A government cannot and will not (and I would even argue should not) be against itself; put differently, a government cannot be anti-government or else it would shoot itself in the foot.

However, a wider array of choices would be a good idea as it could reflect and integrate other voices and provide a more balanced government; while independents are gaining ground, they are still far away from having significant influence in the political process, Bernie Sanders and his revolutionary movement excepted.

So what did the United States do once they had secured their free and independent nation? After the British had lost all control and say over the colonies, the Americans decided to expand their territory. They fought against the Indians or tricked them with false promises and revoked contracts and deals, including morally and even legally questionable Indian Removal acts and treaties; they took over parts that had belonged to Mexico and Spain, such as California and Florida, and they also fought the Mexicans in order to appropriate even more land.

To conclude, I am not quite sure whether the founding fathers were heroes or swindlers, but would perhaps settle somewhere in-between (although I do believe that Thomas Jefferson was indeed ahead of his time in many ways, followed by John Adams to some degree). Interestingly – and conspiracy theorists hold onto your hats - both of these founding fathers not only died on the same day but it happened to be also Independence Day, the celebration of the birth of the American nation, on July 4, 1826!

What we ought to keep in mind, however, is the fact that we should balance and measure our perception of historical events in their own given context. Case in point is the often-cited Second Amendment. This was at a time where there was still the danger of losing one’s independence as a budding nation as well as the danger of being attacked by Indians, or rather, it served to give Americans the means to fight against the Indians.

It was also generally a time of survival under harsh environmental conditions where the rule of law had not been fully established or enforced yet. The situation is quite different today and current day weapons have changed as well.

The old rifles could not even come close to the power of harm and destruction that modern weapons inflict and we see this embodied in horrible tragedies of current mass killings. Using modern weapons under the guise and pretext of the Second Amendment would be the same as allowing people to use tanks and grenades for their safety, which is a rather ludicrous idea.

Also, we must rethink the way language was used in the past. The freedom and liberties we have today, we often take for granted, but in its founding moment, this was very new and untested territory indeed. Freedom of speech and religion are things of utmost importance, and the founding fathers may have realized this, but they lacked the historical experience and hindsight we have today.

That makes it all the more important to not only safeguard those liberties but ensure that they are upheld and enforced by our follow citizens as well as politicians now and in the future. The American nation was built on great hopes and promises and has often fallen short on them in its own history, including the witch hunt of the McCarthy Era.

Sure, in its foundation, there was a lot of self-interest involved. The game was rigged in favor of the wealthy elite from the beginning and is embedded in its constitution. Yet at the same time, there is also so much potential in it if it is followed religiously; especially if its laws and clauses are fully enforced and expanded, such as the statement that all men (and women) regardless of religion, race, or sexual identity are created equal and are consequently given access to the same rights and opportunities as any other citizen. This is the American Dream indeed, and hopefully this great nation does not lose sight of these noble goals.