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Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

maha SOUNDTRACK: MASHROU’ LEILA-Tiny Desk Concert #543 (June 24, 2016).

mashrouMashrou’ Leila is a band from Beirut.  And because I love this kind of thing, here is their name in Arabic script: مشروع ليلى

They are on their second ever tour in the U.S.  They sing in Arabic but their music is full of rock and indeed dance motifs.

There are five members of the band: singer and lyricist Hamed Sinno, violinist Haig Papazian, keyboardist and guitarist Firas Abou Fakher, Ibrahim Badr on bass and drummer Carl Gerges.  And the band make up is rather diverse:

Sinno is openly gay, and Mashrou’ Leila is well acquainted with the targeting of LGBT people. The band has faced condemnation, bans and threats in its home region, including some from both Christian and Muslim sources, for what it calls “our political and religious beliefs and endorsement of gender equality and sexual freedom.” And yet, when Mashrou’ Leila performs in the U.S., its members are often tasked with representing the Middle East as a whole, being still one of the few Arab rock bands to book a North American tour.

Their set took place on the morning after the dead club murders in Orlando (June 12), and since the band has had direct experience with this, they modified their intended set list.

I want their music to speak for itself, because it’s really good.  But since it’s sun in Arabic, some context helps

“Maghawir” (Commandos), is a song Sinno wrote in response to two nightclub shootings in Beirut. In the Beirut incidents, which took place within a week of each other, two of the young victims were out celebrating their respective birthdays. “Maghawir” is a checklist of sorts about how to spend a birthday clubbing in the band’s home city, but also a running commentary about machismo and the idea that big guns make big men.

It begins with a low menacing bass (keyboard) note and some occasional bass (guitar) notes until the echoed violin plays some singularly eerie notes.  Sinno’s voice is really interesting–operatic, intense and not really sounding like he’s singing in Arabic exactly.  He has rock vocal stylings down very well, and the guttural sound of Arabic aids the song really well.  I’m really magnetized by his singing.  And the lyrics:

“All the boys become men / Soldiers in the capital of the night,” Sinno sings. “Shoop, shoop, shot you down … We were just all together, painting the town / Where’d you disappear?” It was a terrible, and terribly fitting, response to the Florida shootings.

For the second song, “Kalaam” (S/He),Sinnos says it’s about the way “language and gender work in nationalism.  In Arabic, words are feminine or masculine and it’s about being in between while trying to pick someone up at a bar.”

Sinno dives deep into the relationships between language and gender, and how language shapes perception and identity: “They wrote the country’s borders upon my body, upon your body / In flesh-ligatured word / My word upon your word, as my body upon your body / Flesh-conjugated words.”

There’s interesting percussion in this song.  And more of that eerie echoed violin.  But it’s when the chorus kicks in and there’s a great bass line (which comes out of nowhere) that the song really comes to life.  There’s a cool middle section in which the keyboards play a sprinkling piano sound and there some plucked violins.  All along the song is catchy but a little sinister at the same time.

The final song, “Djin,” is based on Joseph Campbell’s archetypes.  Sinno describes the comparison between Christian and Dionysian mythologies but it’s also about just about “getting really messed up at a bar.”

“Djin,” is a perfect distillation of that linguistic playfulness. In pre-Islamic Arabia and later in Islamic theology and texts, a djin (or jinn) is a supernatural creature; but here, Sinno also means gin, as in the alcoholic drink. “Liver baptized in gin,” Sinno sings, “I dance to ward off the djin.”

It has a great funky beat and dance quality.  The way the chorus comes in with the simple backing vocals is great.

There’s some pretty heady stuff in their lyrics, and that works on the level of their band name as well:

The most common translation of “Mashrou’ Leila” is “The Night Project,” which tips to the group’s beginnings back in 2008 in sessions at the American University of Beirut. But Leila is also the name of the protagonist in one of Arabic literature’s most famous tales, the tragic love story of Leila and Majnun, a couple somewhat akin to Romeo and Juliet. Considering Mashrou’ Leila’s hyper-literary bent, it’s hard not to hear that evocation.

I hope they get some airplay in the States. Sadly their album is only available as an import, but it is downloadable at a reasonable price.

[READ: June 10, 2016] Omaha Beach on D-Day

Nobody picks up this book for fun.  I mean, look at that title. You know this isn’t going to be a laugh.  But it is an amazing book and I think  perhaps the title does it a bit of a disservice.

This book is not exactly about the massacre that was Omaha Beach on D-Day.  It is about that certainly, but the book is really about Robert Capa, the photographer who took the most iconic photos of Omaha Beach on D-Day.  This book is far more of a biography of him than an account of the war.  And in typical First Second fashion, they have made a gorgeous book full of photorealistic drawings that really exemplify the work that the book describes.

The book opens in Jan of 1944 with Capa carrying bottles of champagne amid the burned out wreckage of war.  He is bringing the celebratory drink to his fellow reporters who have been hiding out for a few days. Capa says he is leaving for London. (more…)

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ny223SOUNDTRACK: THEE SILVER MT. ZION ORCHESTRA & TRA-LA-LA BAND-Thirteen Blues for Thirteen Moons [CST051] (2008).

13-bluesI’ve enjoyed most of the output by (A/Thee) Silver Mt. Zion (Orchestra (& Tra-La-La Band)) over the years.  So, I naturally picked up this one when it came out.  And I’m torn by the record.

This disc contains 4 lengthy tracks.  But unlike fellow Constellation label mates Godspeed you Black Emperor, they are not orchestral pieces that ebb and flow until they reach a climax.  Rather, they are almost punk-orchestral pieces.  They have different sounds throughout the disc, sounds that are powerful, tender, angry and very raw.

And musically I think the album is pretty great.  The problem I have, which I hadn’t noticed on previous releases, was how much I don’t like singer Efrim’s voice.  He simply doesn’t have a very good or strong voice.  It sounds weak and exposed, and, given the content of what he’s singing about, that is either perfectly appropriate or wildly off base.  It seems to work well on “1,000,000 Died to Make This Sound” and yet for “blindblindblind” I just want him to be quiet and let the gorgeous backing choir take over.

And that’s the thing about SMZ, the backing vocal chantings are sublime: whether they are beautifully supportive or disconcertingly discordant, they are perfectly apt to the songs.

I guess when I think of SMZ I think of them as a collective band, an orchestra who works together to create their sound, and in many instances on Thirteen…  Efrim just stands out too much.  And who knows, maybe that’s the point, maybe that’s the punk aesthetic they wanted to bring to the album, I just think it takes a little something away from the beautiful noise they make.

[READ: March 4, 2009] “The Daughters of the Moon”

This is the first piece I have read by Italo Calvino.  Calvino’s name has been around for ages, but I honestly didn’t know a thing about him.

This story was written in 1968 (and was just translated into English) and as soon as I began reading it, I knew that it was a dated piece.  Not because of things like mentioning Life magazine, but because the naked women that populate the story were all referred to as “girls.”  And there was something about it that made my pop culture references hit upon Woody Allen’s early 1970s movie where he calls all the women that he’s interested in “girls.”  It seems strange that that stood out to me so much, but it just came across as something that a writer wouldn’t write anymore, or even pre 1960s.  At least as far as naked women were concerned.

And, about the naked women…

The story concerns the disintegration, capture and removal of the moon.  It is told by Qfwfq, who fills in the details of this extraordinary event.  Despite the fact that the narrator is named Qfwfq and it concerns the destruction of the moon, the story is set in Manhattan.

The moon is off course, it is wobbly and disconsolate.  And so are the residents of Earth.  One night, when Qfwfq is passing Central Park, he sees a naked woman in the park; she has removed all of her clothes and is lying prostrate to the moon.  She climbs on to his car and they race across the city to a large junkyard, where she and many other naked women support the moon with their power.

But soon a crane comes and tries to add the moon to the junkyard’s pile of old, discarded materials.

The story is a thinly veiled allegory of consumerism and disposable culture.  And I suppose that the allegory is so thinly veiled that I found it a little too obvious.  Maybe, it’s because the story is nearly 40 years old, and the topic is always in discussion now, but it seemed very obvious to me.

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