The triumph of Africa in America

In Alan Lomax’s The Land Where the Blues Began, he spends a great deal of time talking about the fife and drum music of the northern Mississippi hill country, a genre I was completely unfamiliar with. He makes a big deal about how “African” the music is, but his prose alone didn’t quite convince me. (How does one describe completely unheard music, anyway?) I took a look on YouTube found several fascinating clips.

I was instantly enchanted with the unique sound — jazzy flutes and polyrhythms. It reminded me of something, too, but not something I knew in American music. I racked my brain and decided I had heard something like this when I was briefly in Chad in 2006. I looked through my old files and found the following.

I got chills as I watched my 10 year-old videos and realized that this was, in essence, the same music. I compared the audio again and again and found that the drums were all but synced, the phrasing of the woodwind was almost identical, and the vocals at the end of the phrase were quite similar as well. These two groups could easily jam together, with few adjustments.

It’s common to hear music in Latin America and the Caribbean, from Haiti to Colombia to Brazil, that has pretty obvious African antecedents. Although we all know that African music had a huge influence on American music, the links are not always quite as easy to hear. (And sure, Fela Kuti and James Brown may have some similarities, but they were listening to each other.) This is different. I don’t think Mississippian fife and drum players and Chadian flute and drum groups have had any recent interaction, yet they play, in these recordings at least, almost as if they know each other.

Slavery in America was singularly extreme in its repression of cultural heritage. Drums were banned almost everywhere. Ancestral languages were lost. The hinterlands were isolated and the control of the slave state probably more total than in other countries. Yet, through all of that and more, these black Mississippians kept their musical heritage alive. In the notes of their music we hear the voices of West or Central African ancestors who brought a specific musical skill with them and transmitted it to their children, and they to theirs.

Maybe they didn’t think of that transmission of music as a heroic act. Maybe they didn’t consider it “African” — a word that in many contexts was almost a slur for so long in America.  Definitely, it would have been hard for those musical stewards to guess that something called the internet would one day make their sounds so widely available. But they kept the flame of this musical tradition going because it was good and they recognized its power.

I can’t help but feel that those fife and drum players are heroes. Their performance is the telling of a history whose record was forbidden. It’s a triumph of human spirit through generations of unthinkable suffering. It is music as resistance. They kept a flame alive that had gallons of water thrown on it. They didn’t just endure: they overcame.

Bonus video: a short documentary, produced by Lomax, shows more context for the Mississippi music.

Roots music break: “Spike Driver Blues”

This is the hammer that killed John Henry
But it won’t kill me,
But it won’t kill me,
But it won’t kill me

Take this hammer and carry it to my captain
Tell him I’m gone,
Won’t you tell him I’m gone
Won’t you tell him I’m gone

So go the “Spike Driver Blues” as sung by blues legend Mississippi John Hurt. It’s a song that captivates me because, like so much great folk music, its simple vignette has a constellation of stories packed between its lines, a wealth of history, and not a little wisdom. It’s a song of quiet rebellion. Have a listen.

Or (for those who can’t be bothered with Spotify)

Most Americans know the story of John Henry, the legendary African American railroad worker who was strong enough to defeat a machine, but died in the process. There are countless folk ballads, poems, and children’s books celebrating his life. Most narratives celebrate his strength, and tell the story as the tragedy of the triumph of machine over the working man, who is nevertheless an enduring hero.

Hurt’s description of events takes us in another direction. Here we seem to be hearing the account of John Henry’s death from the perspective of a partner on his spike-driving team. He sees the great man fall, his hammer “all painted in red” (his blood?), left beside the road. Does John Henry ask the narrator to take the beloved hammer to the captain as he’s dying? Maybe — but it also sounds as if the narrator is asking a third person to take his hammer to the captain, because the narrator, still standing, is leaving.

The somber lyrics and melody don’t dramatically valorize John Henry, as other songs about the steel-drivin’ man do. Instead, they explain the narrator’s decision to walk out on a deadly job.

In other words, the narrator is a quitter. What’s so rebellious about that? The notion that leaving work is valiant runs counter to the American ideals of industriousness and bootstrap pulling. We make movies about pioneers and virtuous gunfighters and heroic sheriffs. We don’t tell so many stories about people who just said No. Besides, people chose to work those jobs. John Henry is a post-slavery character who personified the pride in labor — paid labor — that was finally available to the majority of African Americans after the Civil War. Right?

Well, not quite, actually. In his 1993 book, The Land Where the Blues Was Born, Alan Lomax compellingly describes the social setting and historical context that gave rise to music like Hurt’s. After the Civil War,  the Delta (where Hurt lived most of his life — he was born in 1892) was a frontier of sorts, a sprawling swampland wrestled into fertile farm country by thousands upon thousands of freed slaves and their descendants who had nowhere to run and no other way to live. Making the soggy Mississippi flood plain inhabitable meant the massive moving of earth to build and maintain hundreds of miles of levees, and it took the running of steamboats, the building of networks of railroads that reached from the cotton fields to the towns and cities, and ultimately the highway system.

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The vast majority of this enormous enterprise, which took decades and created billions of dollars of wealth for rich farmers, was the work of black laborers. They were “free” — to a degree. Many chose the arduous, dangerous jobs as the only alternative to sharecropping, which was essentially indentured labor. Some were on the run from white landowners who claimed they were owed work or money. Others found a measure of dignity in the life of a rambler with a bit of money in his pocket. Still others were pressed into work, something Lomax says was particularly common in the lawless levee camps, where everyone carried a pistol and a walk by the river meant a good chance of being kidnapped and forced into bone-crushing work in hellish conditions. Those who perished from exhaustion were sometimes simply thrown in the dirt and made part of the levee.

And then there were the chain gangs, a Southern institution for many decades. The prisoners, who lacked liberty just as much as their enslaved forebearers did, were often in jail for long terms because of trumped up charges or cursed luck in a land where oppression made life a minefield of catch-22s. (Accounts of chain gang life that Lomax collected are harrowing and nightmarish in ways that recall Eli Wiesel’s Night). Some historians’ view is that the real-life John Henry, if there was one, was actually a prisoner, too.

In light of this, when Hurt sings about leaving we must understand that he’s not talking about going home to drink coffee while he scans the newspaper for other job openings. He’s singing about escape. Even more, he’s singing about refusing to accept personal injury for another man’s project, cloaked though it may be in the mythology of heroism, industry, and advancement. Hurt’s narrator is a muted cynic — a quitter, sure,  but a quitter of a game whose rules are impossibly rigged. As Lomax writes, “[Prison] officials and underlings were filled with a zeal for work that might well be called Souther Protestant Colonial; they had a passion for forcing others to labor hard in the hot fields and woods, and were enraged if there was shirking…. [They] humiliated, bullied, beat, often tortured, and sometimes murdered their charges.” The levee bosses were only a little better. Goldbricking was protest. Escape was war.

Knowing what we do of the obstacles Hurt’s narrator will likely face down the line — prison, death, or at the least, constant struggle — there’s nothing easy about the road he’s chosen. Just maybe, though, he’ll find a way — down the river, out west, or up north in some distant city.

Whatever the case, he’ll make sure that hammer won’t kill him too. Not by choice, at least. In the circumstances, the strength of the act of leaving is a victory worth writing a song about.

 

A look back at my trip on the Lunatic Express

The Lunatic Express got its name from its notorious expense and the high death rates of the largely South Asian workforce that built it at the turn of the last century. But the main thing that was insane about the railway when I rode it in 2010 — and I suspect little has changed — is the absurdly long time it took to transport me from the coast of Kenya to Nairobi: some 14 hours for a trip that could be made by road, in good conditions, in about six.

Why rush though? My overnight journey on the clattering train was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my many trips to Kenya. Waking up in a cheap sleeping compartment and watching giraffes watch you from an expanse of parched savannah was otherworldly.  Those 14 hours were some of the most peaceful I’ve had in a long time.

I reported a story on the trip for the Global Post, though they seem to have taken down the (awesome) audio slide show I did for them. Good thing I still have the recording of my interview of a curator of the Nairobi Railway Museum. Have a listen.

 

With news that a significant portion of the new coast-to-capital railway will supposedly be finished by 2017 — and I must stress the supposedly part here, given the disappointing pace of recent Kenyan infrastructure improvements — it seemed like a good opportunity to resurrect a few photos of my trip.

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Fort Jesus cannon, Mombasa.

Laborer, Mombasa train station.

Laborer, Mombasa train station.

Mombasa station.

Mombasa station.

Troubadour, Mombasa train station.

Troubadour, Mombasa train station.

Deseerted station houses in the middle of Kenya, dawn.

Deserted station houses, dawn.

Morning breaks on the savanna.

Morning breaks west of Tsavo National Park.

Dining car detail.

Dining car detail.

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Lonely house.

Lonely house.

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Shambas on the way.

Near Nairobi.

Near Nairobi.

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Nairobi shantytown.

Nairobi shantytown.

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The Times nailed it with their article on Bay Area housing wars

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New homes with a view of the Alemany Projects in Bernal Heights

I’ve been waiting for a deeply reported article like today’s Times piece, “In Cramped and Costly Bay Area, Cries to Build, Baby, Build.”

No, not everyone who supports building lots of market-rate housing in San Francisco, asap, is a Reagonomics-spouting spoiled Libertarian who doesn’t understand the values of community and diversity.

And not everyone who opposes lots of market-rate development is a spoiled knee-jerk lefty who doesn’t understand the basics of economics.

Today, at least, the Times seems to get that, and I wish more people did. When I moved back to my native San Francisco a year ago I was a bit shocked to see, close-up, just how bitter the affordable housing debate had gotten. Wading into the argument online about Proposition I, the ultimately failed ballot measure that would have temporarily halted market-rate building in the Mission,* you had to steel yourself. If you said you thought it was a bad idea because it wouldn’t bring down rents, you were a 1% apologist who wanted to whitewash the Mission. If you calmly stated you supported a pause in development so that the community had a moment to strategically respond to the unprecedented pressure on housing costs — without losing its soul — you were an anti-progress oaf who feared change and trafficked in identity politics.

Yeesh.

The crazy fact is that while these warring sides apparently despise each other, when you talk about the kind of future they want, many on both sides are chasing the same thing. Practically everyone is disgusted that you have to be rich to move to San Francisco now, that the city has changed from being an outpost of diversity to an exception to the growing diversity in the state, and that the things that made the city so notable as a countercultural mecca are being overshadowed by ritzy eateries and billionaires’ pied-a-terres.

Take this essay by Zac Townsend . If you hate the pro-development crowd, see if you can just digest the vision he has before passing judgment on his proposed solutions. He wants an affordable and diverse city. Don’t most of us?

When  I read something like Townsend’s post, I initially find very little to really disagree with. My understanding of economics (and I think at this point in my “career,” such as it is, I can say I’ve got some kind of understanding of economics) is that supply and demand are real forces. They have no moral compass and should not be trusted with shaping society — FOH Ayn Rand — but they are real and you have to contend with them in any policy solution for a malfunctioning market. Low supply and/or high demand will put upward pressure on prices. San Francisco has both. There’s not much you can do about the demand — you can’t easily make people not want to live here. (The guys I saw this week sitting on some steps on Valencia and shouting insults at the people getting off one of the Google buses may disagree.) But you can increase the supply — whether luxury or not — to take some pressure off price. How much supply will reduce the price how much is up for debate, and the subject of plenty of studies.

So basically, I agree with the mechanics of what Townsend argues. You have got to build.

But, but. There are so many buts. And they are legitimate and cannot be written off as bad economics. It’s just not as simple as building more housing, of any kind. Townsend cites New York City as an inspiration. But that city is a great example of how increasing supply sometimes does not push down prices, because it changes the nature of the demand. As CityLab reported last year:

That such a large quantity of global capital is seeking real estate assets in cities like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami Beach, Chicago, Boston,Seattle, Washington D.C., Sydney, London, Singapore, and Dubai means that the “laws” of housing supply and demand are not functioning like the simple model presented in an introductory economics textbook. According to the prevailing theory, adding more housing supply at any price point should ease the upward pressure on rents across the board, and ultimately lower prices. But the overseas demand for such housing assets, for both investors and buyers, has of late been basically insatiable. In Manhattan, Billionaire’s Row is one very shiny example.

So there’s this vast global demand for pricey real estate, which will not be satisfied by 5,000 or 50,000 new luxury units. Or, adding such units might bring prices down, but only within the market for luxury apartments.

Another issue is that if you build luxury condos in a non-luxury area, it changes the kind of people who want to live there. This is the classic dance-movie trope wherein an evil developer wants to tear down a community center in the hood to drop a glass-and-steel yuppie hive on top and wipe the community off the map.

(No, I’m not suggesting that we can breakdance our way out of the housing crisis, as amazing as that sounds.)

Would building more lux condos in San Francisco just free up more housing and push the price down? Or would it change the market so much that you’d actually have a new “product” — newly luxury-ized neighborhoods — with prices even higher than before? In economics-speak, this would mean supply goes up but then the demand curve shifts to the right, making the effect on price ambiguous. Both outcomes are possible, actually. I often think that most of SF is so luxury-ized already that it can hardly get worse — the richest people in the world already want to live here. But maybe I’m wrong. A lot of the new buildings that will go up in the next five years are in the southeast of the city, which really hasn’t been luxury-ized that much (last time I use that word, I promise). Those neighborhoods will probably change as a result. I’ll bet that rents may even go up across the board in Bayview as shiny apartments on the water become a more prominent local feature than the Alice Griffith housing projects. That’s what has happened in some New York neighborhoods, where red-hot gentrification continues faster than ever as new lux condos pop up left and right.

Yet another stumbling block for the fast development argument is that San Franciscans in formerly working class neighborhoods are entirely justified in being suspicious of the Build lobby’s insistence that we must not stand in the way of progress. There is something predatory about the kind of change that is happening — has already happened — in the city. The people who might make some of the wealthy newcomers uncomfortable have been chased out. Some days, it feels like they are actually being assassinated. Some of the neighborhoods being unwillingly changed are communities that suffered through decades of official neglect, that years ago were rocked by the crack epidemic and then decimated by the war on drugs, where nonwhite people rented and bought houses with their hard-earned money because they were not allowed to live elsewhere. To acknowledge so little of that history and simply assert, over and over again, the laws of economics can feel like a slap in the face. I believe there may even be a sense  in some communities that, spiraling rent be damned, you won’t roll over for a group of people who have no respect for your struggles and sacrifices. (Such an extreme position is only tenable if you’re a home-owner or are lucky enough to have a rent-controlled apartment.)

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Finally, the issue of character and quality of life is not as precious and privileged as some of the more vocal YIMBYs would have you think. In fact, the whole NIMBY vs. YIMBY debate can be a total red herring — a lazy shorthand to avoid a drawn-out argument. Is there a time when you’re justified in being a NIMBY? Of course there is. When someone wants to dump toxic waste in your backyard or run a freeway through your local park, you do what you can to avoid that outcome. And San Franciscans have done that pretty successfully for a long time, succeeding in preserving our breathtaking open spaces and shutting down ridiculous mid-century freeway plans. It’s prudent to evaluate measures and projects on a case-by-case basis, rather than resorting to a slogan for making decisions.

It’s tough stuff, and the enmity makes it tougher. Further, the problem exists throughout the Bay Area. From this crucible of distrust has emerged a situation that is benefitting no one except the speculators. Maybe today’s Times article, which so deftly grasps the complexity of the issue and refuses to demonize any side, can be the start of a more fruitful dialogue.

I mean, that’s probably pathetically optimistic. But it’s given me some new energy to try bring the discussion forward.

 

*This is such a controversial issue that I won’t be surprised if a commentator takes issue with my summary description of this old-news ballot measure. Like discussing climate warming or Israel-Palestine, there’s no consensus on even some of the most basis facts.

It really doesn’t matter how much it rains in California this year 

Just a quick reminder that, no matter how much El Niño drenches us this year (or doesn’t—we’re actually behind the curve on rainfall), California is still kind of up dirt creek in the long run.

I think that’s worth remembering as we gaze longingly to the skies, parse the intricacies of meteorological models, and discuss their “what ifs” and “probablys,” and our “hopes” and “fears” about the rain and snow.

Those are words I see a lot in the internet discussions of the California drought. Weather buffs, for all their obsession with the high-tech minutiae of the field, still end up sounding like so many Merlins wondering if the eye-of-newt-to-frankincense ratios are off in the potion they’ve whipped up to beseech the Northwind.

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Neat trick, wizard!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of the advancement of predictive science. It’s just that I see people looking to meteorology not just as technicians or out of curiosity but for answers on whether we’ll be OK. Filtered through the news, the effect is even worse—the jet stream is cast as a fickle savior. It’s scientific language projected onto an essentially religious relationship with the weather that probably goes back to the days of bone divination and smoky fires beneath cave paintings.

Let us all hope harder that we get enough rain to get us through another year of this madness.

Reno NWS

This year is less of a cataclysm than last, oh thank goodness!

But it doesn’t matter how hard we hope, how bad we want it, whether the models are right or not, or whether you’ve been naughty or nice this year. It doesn’t even really matter if it rains a lot this winter.

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California—and the Western United States—faces a water crisis of its own design. We knew this long before we understood climate change, before the current drought put our state’s agriculture in doubt, triggered massive forest fires, and threatened to kill off 20% of our trees.

The real issue in California is a gigantic water management problem that has political origins—and only political solutions (with perhaps a bit of help from technology). Climate change and a historic drought have merely helped reveal the rottenness of our system. The mining of millennia-worth of groundwater; diversion of rivers hundreds of miles from their courses; the use of old, inefficient technologies; verdant golf courses in the desert; a frontier-era finders-keepers scheme for water rights: it all sounds pretty dumb, because it is.

It shouldn’t be a shocker that a system built by ambitious men for their own personal gain—whether Gold Rush prospectors, displaced Southern cotton kings, or resort developers, the motivations have been about the same—is failing to serve the public interest.

All the smartest weather researchers and journalists already know this. But I’m a bit worried the popular attitude of supplication to the weather gods (of which I am also guilty) is distracting us from the true source of our H20 woes.

Would that more of us directed our angst and dreams toward political action rather than pulling our hair out and wishing for rain. Things like further reducing our consumption of water, subsidizing more efficient technologies, banning wasteful practices, making sustainability and equity a headline in every one of our efforts at economic growth, and taking an active part in international movements to mitigate climate change.

Many Californians are already involved in these activities, but not enough. And definitely not as many as worry about the weather.

Palmyra: A time of loss

This week we found out that ISIS has blown up the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, the millennia-old Syrian UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s one of many destructions of ancient Syrian structures that carry special sadness for me. I lived in Syria for two years, and had the good fortune to visit Palmyra’s spectacular ruins on a couple of occasions. I saw bas reliefs of veiled women from pre-Christian times, set beneath corinthian columns and other classical features–features I suddenly recognized from San Francisco Victorians that mimicked the architecture of antiquity. I saw a mélange of influences from the Roman empire and peoples further east. I learned about Queen Zenobia, one of the few rebels who came close to resisting imperial hegemony. The sprawling site was a window into a rich and complex heritage that belied simplistic ideas about Middle Eastern history. For all these reasons, the ruins appear on Syrian banknotes: they are a symbol of the nation, a stand-in for its old soul.

Tom Holland writes eloquently about the news of the temple’s annihilation in this fantastic column in the Guardian:

The temple of Bel was (and how it stabs the heart to be obliged to use the past tense here) a monument fit to be ranked alongside the Parthenon or the Pantheon as one of the supreme architectural treasures to have survived from classical antiquity. Built soon after the absorption of Palmyra into Rome’s sphere of influence, it was dedicated in 32AD, at a time when Tiberius ruled the empire, and Jesus still walked the Earth. …

The very process of constructing the great complex, by giving to the various tribes who inhabited the oasis a common purpose, seems to have played a key role in fostering a shared sense of identity among them. As the focal structure of the city, and a cult centre open to all, Bel’s temple served as a fitting symbol of what the Palmyrenes were gradually becoming: a single people.

Every thriving polity has its Palmyra, I believe. That shared treasure that reminds a group of diverse people that, despite our differences, there are some things we stand beneath together, in awe. As a Californian, I feel that way about Yosemite, about the redwoods, and the giant sequoias. What would it be like to see those things destroyed? (Maybe we don’t have to wonder: biologists are now intensely studying the Big Trees and asking whether this exceptional drought–and similar episodes that are likely to become more frequent this century–could be their undoing.)

The annihilation of one of the most remarkable features of this site gives me the feeling that we are living in a time of great loss. In a way, it should only be a footnote to the death of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, and the displacement of millions more, in the country’s civil war. But it is also a sort of apt headline for a heedless violence so vast it is hard to describe.

From a far distance, most of us are all but powerless to do anything about it. The best we can hope for, I think, is to seek an opportunity for greater understanding out of this incredible turmoil. And try to apply those lessons in our daily lives and our nearby communities.

California is literally sinking

This can’t be good: NASA tells us that the Central Valley is dropping 2 inches a month because of groundwater pumping. It’s a process that has been going on for a century or more, but with the extreme drought the pace has picked up significantly. Per the Sacramento Bee:

A report earlier this week by UC Davis said farmers are pumping an additional 6 million acre-feet of groundwater this year, compared to 2011, the year before the drought started, to compensate for shortages in deliveries of surface water from the State Water Project and the federal government’s Central Valley Project.

Continue reading

Glory days: a different perspective on neighborhood change in Harlem

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A few weeks ago an old-timer whom I’ll call Bill struck up a conversation with me on a bench outside a laundromat on 116th street. According to him, the neighborhood is “gone” and will never be the same.

It’s the type of comment you hear a lot these days in rapidly changing places like Harlem, Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Oakland.

But Bill wasn’t talking about the new lux apartments and throngs of moneyed and increasingly white restaurant-goers on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. For Bill, the glory days ended definitively some 55 years ago.

In an exchange that began with some unsolicited advice on how to correctly hold my baby daughter, Bill revealed that he had spent the formative portion of his 73 years just a block from where we were sitting. The father of nine children, he had lived around the world as an adult and only recently returned to an apartment building on 116th. Continue reading

Nature going nuts in California

Mountain lions are roaming the streets of San Francisco. Great white sharks are massing just a few feet off the shore in Monterey.  California is in the midst of the worst drought in centuries, but it increasingly looks like there will be a historically strong El Niño this year. (Someone called it a “Godzilla”El Niño… we’ll see.) And while temperatures hit 112 in Red Bluff earlier this month — that’s way up north in the Central Valley, toward Shasta and Lassen — it appears to be snowing and/or heavily hailing in the High Sierra since yesterday. (Keep an eye on this fantastic webcam for an impressive daily timelapse — the source of the screen grab in my tweet.)

It’s the End of Days, I tell you. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.