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 heard the undeniable similarities in this music. It is difficult to tell from my short clips whether the drums are synced, but 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.


Hope and many obstacles in Mali

On Tuesday, I had the chance to listen in on historian Gregory Mann and French researcher Roland Marchal discuss the situation in Mali, in a panel on the Columbia campus. Some of the big questions about Mali’s future and the road to stability there remained unanswered, but the discussion, which extended long past its scheduled hour, underlined the fact that the situation in Mali is exceedingly complicated, and far from resolved.

That may not seem like a revelation worth reporting. But for those trying to fit the Malian tumult and French military campaign into the convenient narrative of a preexisting framework — whether as an obvious case of the benevolent deployment of European force to stop a state from failing, or just another instance of neocolonial intervention disguised in humanitarian garments — this statement has to be the starting point of the discussion. The disintegration of Malian internal affairs is begging for fresh ideas, and challenging some of the best-equipped thinkers on Africa. One surprising result is that some voices hardly known for being pro-intervention have taken less rigid positions — or even endorsed the French campaign, albeit with major caveats.

Whatever one’s reaction, one comment Gregory Mann made on the panel seemed especially important to me. “Intervention is not a solution,” he said. “It changes the problem — hopefully in a way that makes it easier to deal with.” He’s written more on that here.

This is another statement that might seem pretty obvious. As self-apparent as it should be though, the thinking of drone-happy US strategists ignores this. Too often, the American approach is to smash a problem with missiles and hope that’s the end of it — or to invest an infinitesimally smaller amount of resources in feeble diplomatic efforts after the fire stops raining.

For Mali’s sake especially, I hope the French are a little smarter. There’s no real reason to think they are. At least for now, though, we can acknowledge one positive outcome: the march of an unpopular and tragically destructive takeover of Mali’s north has been reversed. A Malian friend spells out the hope and obstacles the country now faces (things in brackets are my additions):

I share [the] principle that Africa (or any other region) should be policed by neighbors helping each other out.
That being said…. I think the French were extremely courageous to come help the Malian forces. For one thing, the African Union and the regional organization (ECOWAS) have been doing little to help Mali out… The country was under embargo and was being pushed to negotiate with Al Qaeda affiliated groups. It has received so little help that the army doesn’t even use blank or real bullets during training exercises (you have to see it to believe it: The Malian state is still very unstable with the former coup leaders holding on to power.
Over the past year or so, this only allowed militant groups to recruit/train to subdue the rest of the country. They have millions of dollars in ransom money. When they started their new offensive, the (still!) ill equipped and trained Malian army was losing the war, and if not for the French, the Jihadists probably would have been in the suburbs of Bamako by now. This would have been an even bigger humanitarian disaster and probably turned Mali into another Somalia and Al Shabab. Right now +500,000 Malians are refugees or internally displaced people. [See UNHCR figures here.] Bamako has close to 2,000,000 people.
Another thing is that most of the West African countries are as troubled as Mali was a year ago. To this day, the African forces have not made it to Mali. In my opinion, it took a lot of courage for the French to jump into this mess. Mali is not much of a geo-strategic country and not an oil/uranium producing one either.
The French clearly didn’t want to be involved and waited until the very last moment. People see them as liberators, not a colonizing force. [….] This is a country where +95% of the people are already Muslims but they are still having their cultural heritage destroyed by Islamist movements. [….]
Now that there is a clear air superiority, I think the long term solution should reside with the Malian and African forces. It should be relatively easy to liberate the cities. [….]
There is so much left to do… We still don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Nonetheless, this past week was a good week for Malians (the post D-day equivalent for one of the poorest countries on earth).
EDIT: Some technical snafu resulted in a draft version of this post being published yesterday. I’ve made some changes, based on conversations I’d earlier had with the emailer quoted above, and the realization that I had probably severely overstated the connection between the Libyan intervention and Mali’s crisis. For more on that, take a look at this post on Sahel Blog and especially the comments below it.

Ooh, a hot debate on journalism in Africa!

A hot debate is raging about the quality of journalism about Africa. So we’re told in this summary of the now thoroughly personalized fight. In April, Laura Seay, an assistant prof at Morehouse, wrote a piece for Foreign Policy criticizing journalists covering Africa, and this week Global Post report Tristan McConnell wrote about why she’s wrong. (It’s a bit more juicy than that, so go ahead, take a look.) While mud slinging is never very interesting for me, I’m sort of glad this long festering debate is coming to a head, because it’s an important issue with a lot of misunderstandings. I sympathize with points in both essays, but I think there are problems with both as well. To wit:

On the whole, journalism on Africa is crappier than on other regions

There’s no doubt about it: coverage of the continent of Africa is way behind other regions, involves more of the parachute journalism that Seay criticizes, and employs fewer people covering larger areas. And more reporting on Africa contains hackneyed story lines, predictable clichés, glaring errors and oversimplifications. I am sure there are content analyses out there that show this, but as an intelligent (I hope) reader who has spent some time on the continent and a great deal more studying it, I can tell you it jumps out at me every day I read the paper. This is why criticism of media on Africa is such a popular topic on Twitter and everywhere else: people, especially in African countries, are fed up with the shoddiness of reporting, and tired of the tiresome and predictable representations of Africans. What other continent could be erroneously referred to as a nation in The New York Times, an error that still stands two weeks after this icky article was published?*

But for the most part, this is not the fault of individual journalists

For as much as all the above is true, I appreciate McConnell’s bristling at the broad brush with which Seay paints. First, it must be said that professional journalists, particularly in print, and in Africa as much as anywhere, are by and large an excellent group of people who genuinely care about their subject matter, who are deeply inquisitive, and who are willing to work harder for less money than skilled workers in an array of other professions. The industry tends to attract humanists, and people who believe the truth can set the world free. Not to say you don’t have your egotists and adventure-seeking hacks in the mix, but in my experience these are a minority.

And thank goodness, because if concerns like a career, saving money to raise a family, being close to your loved ones, and having health insurance were the primary motivations for working as a foreign correspondent or as any other kind of journalist, believe me, we’d have nearly none at all. I often wonder whether those who demand such high standards and insist on such a sense of responsibility from reporters have any idea just how little money they make, and how insecure their careers are. Even many established by-lines who seem constantly to be on assignment  live check to check, and make big personal sacrifices to be where they are.

Don’t get me wrong, I think we should demand high standards from our journalists, no matter what they’re paid. I hold the profession on an almost sacred pedestal, and can’t suffer its abuse by its practitioners, even from someone who writes for free or for a pittance. But from a much more rational, behavioral-economics perspective, it is simply unrealistic to expect a stellar level of professionalism and critical thinking from people who are underpaid and unsure about their future prospects.

Journalism has never been an industry for those who want to strike it rich — at most it may attract glory-seekers — but it’s shakier than ever now, with a 30% surge in newspaper cuts last year. Some 1 in 3 newsroom jobs have reportedly been eliminated since 1989 (see previous link). Salaried foreign correspondents have been especially hard hit, because for American rags that are having trouble covering the local mayor’s office, that’s the simplest place to trim some fat and let CNN — or freelancers paid a couple of hundred dollars a story — to pick up the slack.

Africa seems to have been particularly neglected, partly because of the American public’s lack of deep interest in it. (If I had a dime for every awful time someone has cited Blood Diamond or Hotel Rwanda to me in a serious discussion about African politics… Really? Do you watch The Ides of March to decide whom to vote for for Congress ? Wait, don’t answer that!) Sloppy reportage on Africa that would cause an outcry if it was about a domestic subject raises no ire from most Americans, and thus is not changed.  Africa is also extra neglected because even many otherwise intelligent editors, intellectuals, etc. still consider it an economic and political backwater, largely irrelevant except for the humanitarian questions it raises and the stunning inspiration it provides for fashion. Those working against this tide of ignorance have to spend so much time correcting misperceptions that there’s not much of a chance to pioneer different approaches. Meanwhile, the fact that a lot of Africans are rightly pissed off about how different media represent their continent does not have a major effect on what gets covered, since even though they are the subjects of the reporting, they are not its main consumers.

Seay’s criticism of reporting on Africa may be on point, but she doesn’t resolve this final paradox in the least. Journalists may be in love with lofty ideals, but that doesn’t mean the industry is a social service, even if we talk about it like is — for the most part, it’s a business, albeit a frighteningly underperforming one. Writing and reporting on Africa aren’t likely to improve based on business pressures. For-profit outlets have much bigger fiscal fish to fry than a few smart, disgruntled people who know better about Africa; and ad sales are made to companies in rich countries.

Journalists still need to listen to the criticisms 

McConnell paints U.S.-based academics with the same broad brush that he says Seay uses on journalists, accusing her of casting stones from an “ivory tower.” This is really silly — if anything a cheap solution to the strains on correspondents in Africa is to regularly consult academics, whose expertise is free, and cultivated through years of careful study of history and theory, something Seay points out in her Twitter riposte.

The fact is that the street credibility of “being there” that puts a swagger in the gait of many a foreign correspondent — I’m not gonna lie, maybe me too — is really no proof of the legitimacy of their work. If you didn’t ask the right questions, talk to the right people, understand the history, then who cares if you witnessed the blood, sweat, and tears first hand, recorded the sound and the fury? Understand I am not pointing at anyone particular here, but it’s not a point of logic I follow. Absurd arguments throughout recent history have often been based on street cred — think of the colonial officer who has spent years at his post and returns to London to report on the savagery of the natives, or the white southerner of the 1950s who says folks up north “can’t understand the race problem down here because they don’t live it.” Or OK, for an example closer to home, think of Thomas Friedman, who almost always mortars together his glib arguments with some anecdote assuring us he’s physically been to the place under discussion (even if it was to take a taxi from the hotel to the golf course). He spent years in Beirut and Jerusalem and wrote a fine narrative of his experiences there which however totally misdiagnosed the underlying causes of the conflicts he witnessed (in my view, at least).

Unfortunately, the credibility-of-being-there argument seems to be the point in McConnell’s essay that has been most celebrated on the web, if the summary linked to at the beginning of this post is any indication. As journalists, if we think what we do is noble, we need to listen to these criticisms, whether they are from near or far, and see how we can improve our work. Clearly, there is room for it.


I mentioned that journalism is not a social service, but maybe it should be. As the business model crumbles ever further, it would be interesting to have Seay evaluate, say, work funded by the Pulitzer Center or another organization that is devoted to upholding excellent journalism in all its ideals, rather than struggling to get accidental hits from readers who were searching for vacation tips or for a review of The Last King of Scotland. From what I’ve seen, her criticisms do not hold up against much of the excellent work that has been funded in this way, which is telling. What if even more resources could be marshaled for such projects? It’s not impossible or unprecedented — philanthropic or idealistic investors have provided the foundation for entire newspapers and outlets in the past (think The Bay Citizen and the Hellman Family Foundation).

Involving more African journalists in Western outlets is another great and ultimately essential idea, but as McConnell points out this is not as simple as Seay makes it sound. Foreign correspondents are not just reporters but also interpreters (as are, for that matter, financial journalists and other specialists). Assuming the primary audience for American publications remains American, the task of foreign correspondents will continue to make issues distant from the reader accessible and interesting. This will require training — I know that would need training if you assigned me the task of reporting on American affairs in a way that was engaging and accessible for, say, Rwandans. Luckily, there are many good training programs out there for African journalists, though I’ve not heard of many aiming to train foreign correspondents for international publications. Willing and available talent exists, and it needs to be cultivated just as American journalists are.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Would love more thoughts on how media on Africa can be improved — preferably by addressing it as the systemic problem it is.

*NB: Throughout this post I am essentially discussing the work of American correspondents in Africa, since that country’s media scene is the one I am most familiar with. I suspect similar points could be made about media in most other rich countries.

Music break: Your Sunday Night Oldies Show — reminisce and saudade

They Reminisce Over You by Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth

Sunday nights are all about reminiscing. Here’s a jam that makes me think of East Coast summer nights — and also San Francisco, because I used to cue up my tape recorder waiting for this one circa 1992-1993. Here in Harlem the trees are green, the days are pushing 80, people are on the stoops and barber shops late into the night, and the shrill roar of local motorcycle buffs tearing down the avenues is coming through my windows. Take it slow, guys…

Ooh Baby Baby performed by the San Francisco TKOs

Speaking of slow, let’s slow it down and take some calls from the request lines. I give you “Ooh Baby Baby” as performed by the San Francisco TKOs, an old fashioned group I only recently became acquainted with. Love the cover art — who else remembers 107.7 KSOL? I like this grittier version better than The Miracles’, which sounds like LA to me, whereas the TKOs sounds like Telegraph Avenue, distant bridge lights, the Emeryville mudflats, the dry season on San Francisco hills.

Rather Go Blind by Etta James

No comment — just please turn this one up. And if you need more check out Beyonce’s surprisingly good Cadillac Records rendition.

Sodade by Cesaria Evora

Finally, a tune from elsewhere — and about elsewhere, the eternal Elsewhere. Because as I understand it, this song is about having a rift between where you are and where you wish to be: pain for the passage of time, separation from loved ones. Saudade (sodade in Cape Verdean Creole), according to Wikipedia, “describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves.”  This song drips with it.

I was lucky enough to see the late Cape Verdean legend Cesaria Evora perform this one several years ago in Berkeley. In the middle of the show, barefoot, she took a break to have a drink and a smoke. It was part of the performance but convincing nonetheless.

This may be the ultimate song for Sunday evening.

Music break: Your Sunday Night Oldies Show

First in a new series. I can’t promise I’ve got a voice as smooth as Big Daddy Victor Zaragosa — who shepherded many a San Francisco night to conclusion on the radio in my younger days — but I think I can select them just about as well as your standard lovesick Sunday night call-in. Here are some classics to start you off. Whether you have a nice ride to work on or just a window and a beer, turn it up!

On a Sunday Afternoon by A Lighter Shade of Brown

Night Owl by Tony Allen

NB: You gotta read Tony Allen’s bio. 

Samba Pa Ti by Carlos Santana

I’m sort of obsessed with this song by my fellow Bernal Heights original Carlos Santana. When I listen to it I see the view from Bernal Hill, the light through clouds on the Church Street steeples, pepper trees scattering their leaves all over Folsom Street, music festivals and street fairs and jam sessions, I smell herb smoke drifting through a day trying to decide whether it’s going to be foggy or not, burritos, I hear the neighbor’s Chevy Malibu engine revving, bad little kids shouting at each other on Moultrie Street,  and the rain falling through the leaves of avocado trees.

From Five Miles from Frisco

Slow Jam by Vieux Farka Toure

OK, so you probably won’t hear this song on KMEL’s dedication lines tonight, but I think it’s a logical follow-up to Santana — and conveniently named for Anglophone fans of the son of The Greatest Guitarist of All Time, Ali Farka Toure.

Intelligent boycotts

boycott usa

Photo by Karen Eliot, click for more details.

A recent article I stumbled on today in the Financial Times describes the controversy surrounding Paul Simon’s collaboration with South African musicians on his wildly popular 1986 album Graceland. It contains this priceless quote from musical legend Hugh Masekela, who played on Simon’s tour:

“Some of the most vocal journalists [who criticised Simon] were white South Africans who were living the most privileged lives,” he said. “I had a lot of run-ins with them. I told them to shut the f*** up. You know, one of the first people Nelson Mandela invited to South Africa was Paul Simon. I purposely joined [Simon] because I knew he wasn’t a crook and he wasn’t out to rip off anybody.”

I find the quote and the article instructive as they relate to current debates about certain international boycotts that have drawn comparisons to the successful one against S.A., which helped end Apartheid. Cultural boycotts of countries should be selective to be effective. The wrong kinds of isolation can facilitate a reactionary environment. And it’s generally the privileged that can afford to take the most uncompromising positions, which isn’t always useful.

Agree? Or am I just biased because I spent my childhood summers on blacktop desert highways with the windows down bumping “people say she’s crazy she got diamonds on the soles of her shoes” … ?

Much more good stuff on this subject over at Africa Is a Country.

[Edit: fixed ridiculous typo.]

The Kony 2012 campaign dismays me. But the debate around it is inspiring.

Here are some thoughts I have cobbled together from interesting conversations I’ve been having on Facebook today about the now notorious/celebrated Kony 2012 campaign. It has been talked about so much in the last 48 hours that it may be hard to believe I think I have anything to add… but I do! I’m sorry I don’t have time right now to link to all the amazing things that have been going around that provoked some of this thinking, but please check my twitter feed in the sidebar for many examples. has also provided an extensive and useful digest.

Some loosely organized thoughts:

It is not a good movie

Apart from what it’s advocating, Kony 2012 is a slick but inferior film. It treats the viewer like a 3 year-old, almost explicitly, by framing the narrative around the filmmaker explaining things to his 3 year-old. This is suspicious since it is a movie about grave violence. I felt disrespected as a viewer. It’s also emotionally manipulative. It uses the natural sadness and rage one feels in response to seeing the aftermath of atrocity, and channels that energy into unquestioning support for the goals of the org. I don’t like the helplessness with which it portrays “Africans” (rarely is the term made more specific). We see the filmmaker talking to Jacob like a child when he’s not a child (for example when he’s touching the dolphin). It is full of serious factual errors. The movie sells a brand based on the possibility of saving Africa from a perch of superiority, an idea that has been around for 200 years or so and is behind a lot of bad stuff. It has the pacing and slickness of a superbowl commercial, which is why it is of course effective.

But it doesn’t matter if it’s “effective” messaging

Some folks are willing to give the film and Invisible Children some credit, despite admitting the movie was emotionally manipulative, because it is “effective” — not in stopping Kony obviously but in getting viewed. It had millions of views in the first 24 hours. But to what effect? I will not deny that it is a positive development that perhaps a few million more Americans can now locate Uganda on a map (even though the film incorrectly identifies it as being in Central Africa, and even though Kony is no longer there). But the cost of this new awareness is unbearably steep. It’s not just the $8 mil this org spent last year. The cost is that it is promoting a misunderstanding of the conflict that may be harder to untangle than simple ignorance. There is no mention of Uganda’s 25-year president, Yoweri Museveni, self-appointed arch prosecutor of Kony. He and other politicians were the target of large Cairo-inspired protests in Kampala throughout 2011. Although the movie does not mention him by name, I would imagine it is a welcome break for the president, and a barrier to Ugandans who would like to focus on more important changes. Its disregard for the facts in the service of its mission is also distasteful. I want the truth, and this doesn’t show it. The factual issues have been heavily reported, and I won’t repeat them here. Suffice it to say that I think it is so inaccurate that on the whole it gives a completely false representation of what is happening in Uganda now, and the region. More dumb myths are perpetuated about this nebulous Africa, which the film forgives us all for understanding on the level of a three year-old.

Net awareness has decreased, not increased

Another apology for the film claims that at least Africa will now be on the radar screens of many Americans who had stopped thinking about it. That’s not worth very much to me, because they’re getting the wrong facts, which makes people less aware of what’s happening, not more. If the wealth of information on the Internet means that this film prompts people to do their own research and find out more about Uganda, Kony, and Africa, that’s great. But that’s a fortunate side-effect of an ill-conceived film, and says more about the possibilities of modern technology than it does about the merits of the campaign. Analogy: If I made a heart-wrenching documentary about HIV, with painful testimonials from people suffering from AIDS, and then told you that it is transmitted by hugs and caused by poisonous mushrooms, have I helped the situation at all? Some people may claim that ignorance about Africa is so deep that anything that makes people think about it is good. If this is true it’s extremely sad, but I don’t believe it in principle or in practice.

What the campaign is advocating

I think it is pretty clear that the film advocates a muscular US measure, i.e. a military one of some kind, to stop Kony. Of course, in the wake of the criticism, Invisible Children has affirmed how much they love peace and hate war, which is very nice. I have heard the same from just about anyone who has ever advocated a military intervention. In the context of 2012, the implicit solution is to take Kony out with a drone or similar measure. I realize this conclusion is a leap from the actual content of the movie, but I don’t think it can be understood another way. The utter lack of specificity requires us to infer their goals. The campaign admonishes the government to “do something,” calling on several public figures including Condoleezza Rice, to help them. The activists are shown cheering when they hear that 100 US military advisors are being sent to Uganda, last October. I do think that it is relevant when thinking about this to say that the US is trying to establish a stronger presence in East Africa because of Somalia, and also that oil is about to come online in Uganda.  Things to think about. Perhaps 100 military advisors are quite helpful, but I’d like to hear more on that point — I’m not sure why this is viewed as an essential part of stopping Kony or helping Uganda. And we don’t really need more of this.

What’s inspiring

As fast as this campaign blazed around the net, people brought up doubts about it. Some of the first to take hold were on, usually known as a font for memes and atheism debates, but now increasingly sophisticated and wide-ranging discussions. People working on the ground in the region, not to mention Ugandan journalists and thinkers, had a chance to respond instantly to the condescension and inaccuracies, and with the right hashtag their voices were projected around the world, surfing the wave of the original campaign to criticize it with equal effect. As dismaying as it is that such a throwback, stereotype-laden film could be produced and hungrily consumed in 2012, I must say that it seems the debate and the thinking about such campaigns have really matured a lot in the last five years. This is to the credit of the technology and to the many people who have been working hard to deconstruct the most harmful and paternalistic American thinking about Africa.

What the outcomes of this campaign could be 

The best effect this whole thing could have is really getting people to think critically about far away issues, by questioning the simplistic film. On the other hand, its dishonesty could promote so much cynicism that people care even less than they did before. Either way I don’t give the movie much positive credit.

We critics should be quiet unless we have a better suggestion!

This comment, which I’ve seen floating around, drives me crazy. If my car is broken down because it’s missing spark plugs, and you offer to change my transmission, should I accept your expensive, misguided help just because I don’t have any spark plugs? Of course not. Please stop saying this.

What we can do, what I would support

There are future atrocities brewing in the world, and Americans can advocate for our government to take meaningful action (or stop taking harmful action, which is actually more common). Unfortunately it’s not as simple as finding neglected victims and kicking perps’ butts. We have to have significant policy shifts where we stop causing civil wars through aggression or stupidity. When there is a slick awareness-raising campaign for that kind of movement, I’ll be completely behind it. Similarly, flashy campaigns are fine by me when they get money to the many effective, smart organizations that are doing great work. IRC, MSF, many others. (Will need to save more thoughtful recs for another post.) On the other hand, I don’t think outright emotional manipulation has a place… ever, really. It stinks.

OK, I’m done… for now.

[small edits on 3/9 for clarity and enhanced utility]

Somali-language anti-piracy song from last year

Obviously you read Jeffrey Gettleman’s story in the NY Times Magazine last week, “Taken by Pirates.” Perhaps you were curious about the music video he mentioned, put together by the Somali community in the UK to ask for the release of Rachel and Paul Chandler.

Abdiwali and some others at Universal TV then turned to Abdi Shire Jama, who was a freelance interpreter in London and a talented songwriter. Jama thought a music video would help spread the word, so he produced a song called “Release the Couple,” soon broadcast on Universal and YouTube. It begins with a Somali kid with a British accent saying, “I hope this message gets to the people who are responsible for holding Rachel and Paul Chandler.” Then, after a burst of synthetic drums and some squeaky Somali music, five Somali singers break into song.

“Our people fled their homes. . . . The host countries did not look at the color of our skins. . . . We need to show our debt to them, for it is the donkey who does not acknowledge the debt.”

Well, here’s the song. Interesting stuff.

Hat-tip AK.

Music break: How did I sleep on Aurelio Martinez’s new album?

It’s already been a few months, apparently. Aurelio Martinez is an Honduran Garifuna musician who brought his people’s sounds to international ears in a big way, starting with his 2004 album Garifuna Soul. For his 2011 album, Laru Beya, he traveled to Senegal to record some tracks with Youssou N’Dour and other artists, which gives the songs I’ve listened to so far (still getting through the album) a broader feel — this is worldly Garifuna. (Interesting in itself because Martinez has said that part of the reason Garifuna culture has survived so long is because of its insularity in the past.)

The music is, in short, fantastic. One of the most stirring songs I’ve heard so far is “Wamada,” Martinez’s intense, soulful requiem for Andy Palicio, the famous Garifuna musician who passed away in 2008. Have a listen.

Celebrating Wangari Maathai

On Saturday, Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai passed on. I feel the loss — her mission was yet incomplete, and in the most recent appearances she exuded such youth that you would never expect the end was near. Take a look at this nice three-part CNN bio to get a feel for her character, her grit, and her vision.

Professor Maathai’s championing of environmental rights speaks to me in a special way. Growing up enjoying the forests, mountains, and open spaces of California, I have a deep respect and affinity for the wonders of the wild. But the degree to which our society is divorced from the land in its wild state has meant that the enjoyment of nature has nearly become thought of as a luxury activity (falsely, however — I can put you in the mountains for a week for $100), sought out mostly by upper middle class white Americans. By extension, conservation of the environment sometimes seems a preoccupation of the well-to-do. This perspective seems more obvious in poor countries, where the pressures of daily life make sentimental hang-ups about the view seem almost cruel.

Professor Maathai showed another way: there are more choices than preservation versus prosperity. Indeed, true and sustainable prosperity will only be enjoyed when it is accompanied by good stewardship of the earth. A thriving environment is a right, not a luxury — and one worth fighting for just as much as other basic rights. And she spoke these truths as someone who came from a community that uses land — gains sustenance from it directly, is born on it, lives with it, dies with it. She did not come from a community that builds subdivisions and malls on 95% (or most) of its territory, and rails off a tiny fraction to be saved. That made her message all the more profound.

Thank you, Professor Maathai.

*UPDATE: A reader notes that my 95% figure is a bit off: “the USA has 9.83 million km2 land mass and that the combined area of the National Forests, National Parks, and BLM land is 2.2 million km2 — or about 22% of the total land mass of the US.” Fair enough, and I’m glad the figure isn’t smaller. (The 95% was intended to be figurative, I’ve edited it above.) The point is that the American tendency is to be OK with trashing places that we develop, while maintaining the purity of a small fraction of the land that we have specifically protected. I think a better version of conservation would be one that is more integrated in our lives.