Sunday Night Oldies Show: I love NYC edition

Today I spent the afternoon at Rockaway Beach, one of the most “natural” places you can reach on the subway in this crazy city. Once you get over the stifling heat, the interminable ride on the 2-A-S, and the infernal racket therein (excited beach goers escaping hot apartments can be rambunctious), the broken glass and occasional condom in the waves… Wow. New York is amazing, and nowhere do you see the vivacity of this city more distilled than on this strip on the edge of the Atlantic, a kind of collective front stoop for a city with not enough space.

Pregnant ladies in bikinis, back handsprings, tattoos both stylish and ill-advised, I’ve seen it all today.

But to be honest, it wasn’t until late in the afternoon that I remembered just how special Rockaway Beach is. I had just walked back to the subway shuttle that runs, Spirited Away-style, through the middle of Jamaica Bay and some rather grody marshes. The day was turning to evening, and high cumuli that had spat rain and made blue penumbrae above the apartment blocks were clearing. I ran into the last car of the train, where a policewoman was holding the doors. I set myself up in the opposite door with my duffle bag and the djembe I was caring around (long story). The car was hot and still — kids whose days had been too long, and their parents, whose days had been even longer.

Then the policewoman left, the doors closed, and the train lurched forward. A dad in the corner seat leaned forward from his family.

“Yo, turn that radio on!” he shouted. And the car was flooded with music. Specifically:

1. Dile (aka Otra Noche) by Don Omar

Within 30 seconds, people throughout the car stood up and began dancing, from middle-aged men in t-shirts and jean shorts down to their calves, to someone’s grandma across the aisle. Some younger women stayed in their seats and moved their shoulders to the beat. The dad who gave the call for the radio started passing styrofoam cups full of something that made people suck air through their teeth. He walked over to talk to “Mr. DJ” to exchange a handshake; DJ explained that a guy owed him money but he had him load up his iPod with 30 gigs of music instead.

I couldn’t help bobbing my head just a little. Actually, I didn’t even know it until the dad called me out.

“Hey, when you gonna play that drum?” he asked.

“No man, I’d just mess it up!” I smiled sheepishly.

“But I saw you moving — you feel the music in your veins, huh?”

Ha. I did.

Yes, New York, your rhythms are in my veins somehow, and this decidedly non-lowrider-influenced Sunday Night Oldies Show is dedicated to you, and all your fine people. Here’s what else I’m listening to tonight.

2.  No Woman No Cry by The Fugees

Sure, The Fugees are no Bob Marley, but when I listen to their version of this song, sitting in an apartment with a fan on trying to fight the 80+ degree Manhattan heat at 1 a.m., I hear the heartbeat of this vast metropolis and the yearnings of 10 million apartment lights on its ragged edges; the breath of the city:

“I remember when we used to rock/in the project yard in Jersey./And little Georgie would make the firelight/as stolen cars passed through the night.”

3. 911 by Wyclef featuring Mary J. Blige

I love this city. That doesn’t mean it’s good for my health. Even in its gentrified form, it’s crowded, polluted, lonely — the individual is so dwarfed — and instills one with the dangerous and absurd illusion of being at the center of the universe. Watch this video and realize that this collaboration between two singers from Yonkers and Brooklyn-NJ, respectively, is as much about the painful love for a sprawling serpentine city as it is about a cursed romance. Maybe they’re one and the same.

Here’s one more for the road:

4. Dile al amor by [the Bronx’s own] Aventura

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.

It’s here! From Cairo to Wall Street: Voices from the Global Spring

Yesterday, May 1 was the official publication date for the volume I edited with Anya SchiffrinFrom Cairo to Wall Street: Voices from the Global Spring (also available on Kindle). I’m very excited about this collection of first-person accounts from protesters around the world — Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Greece, Spain, the UK, Chile, the United States. What I like about this book is that each protester speaks for her- or himself. Sure, the editors clearly think there’s some common thread to these disparate movements, but we haven’t forced a narrative where it doesn’t exist, and each essay stands alone as a little gem. It has a foreword by Jeffrey Sachs and an introduction by Joseph E. Stiglitz. (Full disclosure: I would very much like you to buy this book.)

It’s hard to say what comes next for the season of protest. Last night, I moderated a panel at Columbia about the humanitarian response to the Arab Spring. Beforehand, I asked people on Twitter and Facebook what I should ask the panelists. One comment, posted from the Middle East, that stood out in my mind:  “Ask them also if they know of anyone in the Arab world who calls it the ‘spring.’ I’d say there were very different interpretations of what’s happening right now, and maybe the term ‘spring’ needs to be changed. So far, I don’t see any blossoms.” I don’t share that person’s apparent pessimism — at least deeply — but it’s true that things are not going very well for a number of countries where there have been uprisings, revolutions, etc. Syria, where as many as 13,000 people have died in the last 16 months, is probably the most worrisome example. But the panelists last night, from the International Rescue Committee, Islamic Relief, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Human Rights Watch also presented a daunting list of serious humanitarian and rights concerns that are plaguing the region, from basics like food and water access, to eroding security and the breakdown of the rule of law. Not to mention the continuing, and worsening in some cases, economic slump.

Nevertheless, it also seems clear to me that the global spring, whatever becomes of it, continues to have the potential to be the beginning of a new era of civic engagement. People everywhere will not soon forget the core lessons of Tunisia and Tahrir: that mass action can affect change, and that people will demand change for the sake of dignity. At Union Square in NYC yesterday, as thousands of people kicked off the spring protest season with the latest iteration of the Occupy spirit, I saw that the energy and purpose of this season are very much alive.

Pamela Geller’s subway ad (not pictured here)

Today, Gothamist highlighted the ad Pamela Geller most recently wants to put on New York subways. It’s not the kind of thing I want to post on my blog, but have a look here to know just what we’re talking about. And, as Gothamist also invites you to do, please compare it to the “pro-Palestinian” ad that a few people were so enraged about appearing, also, on the subway.

Maybe it would actually be a good thing if Geller’s thing went up and appeared next to this. We’d finally a get a crystal clear picture of two points of view on the intractable conflict–and not in the way she hoped for.

The importance of logging off

Just me and the mountains (no cell signal).

I was delighted to see the front page New York Times article today. Not only did it describe one of my favorite stretches of the San Juan River west of Mexican Hat, Utah — a river that gave me one of my first tastes of the wilderness as an eight year-old — but it also made a splashy introduction of some points that I think everyone will take more and more seriously in the next decade or so. Namely, that being constantly online shapes the way we think and process information, and that sometimes, we have to get offline.
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Some believe in Jesus, some believe in Allah…

Update: on the morning of 5/2 I woke to news of a terrifying attempted attack on Times Square. Whatever aesthetic criticisms I have of the place, I love the people who enjoy it and I’m disgusted and a little scared by the attempt. I thought of deleting this post out of respect, but instead I’m choosing to keep it – while adding this important paragraph.

The Egyptians left us the pyramids. The Romans, well… Rome.

Every time I go to Times Square (which is pretty darn infrequently), I think: This is what our civilization will leave for the ages.

To say I don’t feel particularly proud would be an understatement. Other civilizations worshiped gods and stuff. We worship … buying.

Here’s a sight from last night that I thought was especially salient in illustrating the rather pitiful combination of things our country sometimes stands for: a long chain of NYPD cars with flashing lights (show of force) parked beneath a preposterous array of energy-guzzling advertisements. Brute strength and consumption. Brilliant.

Had me thinking that maybe DJ Quik should’ve written our national anthem: “Some believe in Jesus, some believe in Allah, but riders like me believe in making dollars.”


Music Break: “They Love K’naan in the Slums and in the Native Reservations”

I can’t wait until January. That’s when Somali-Canadian artist K’naan’s new album, Troubadour, drops. I haven’t been so excited by an album since Outkast came out with Aquemini in 1998. And this one is better.

I first saw K’naan in early September at Le Poisson Rouge in the village, and I’ve been hooked since. At that show, Mos Def appeared in the crowd at one point, and got on stage to perform this number with K’naan.

When Mos Def endorses something in the music world, you should probably pay attention. That night, K’naan had all of us not only paying attention but also singing along with the anthems he unleashed.

The other day, I finally had the chance to get a sneak preview of Troubador at the house of a friend who had a hook-up.  I was blown away. It’s a soulful, rousing, thought-provoking, witty and moving hour of classic joints. Dare I say it? OK, I will: Grammy 2010. If K’naan gets the kind of publicity he deserves, this will be a game-changing album, in a time when everyone is going back to the one-off single model on iTunes.

To understand the significance of K’naan’s music, you need to know a bit about his life story. Born in 1978, he grew up in Somalia and left on the last commercial flight out of Mogadishu in 1991, before the civil war descended into total chaos. In much of his music, he talks about the deaths of friends, violence and deprivation that characterized his youth. During that time, he listened to American rap music, memorizing lyrics before he knew what they meant. He’s been pursuing that passion ever since arriving in North America.

The pain and beauty of K’naan’s homeland resonate in all his music. In some songs, he samples old Ethiopian melodies, drops hip hop beats on them, weaves anti-violence rhymes through them, and links them with addictive, heart-tugging choruses. In the song “Somalia” — from which the title of this blog post comes — he sings:

What you know about the pirates terrorize the ocean?
To never know a single day without a big commotion
It can’t be healthy just to live with such a steep emotion
And when I try to sleep, I see coffins closin’

(You can download that song for free on K’naan’s MySpace page)

K’naan obviously listens to a lot of music. His flow most closely resembles Eminem’s. But elsewhere, like when he says I take inspiration from the most heinous of situations/Creatin’ medication from my own tribulations on “Take a Minute”, he sounds just like 2Pac. And when he speaks at the end of the same song, he sounds like Mos Def: “Nothin’ is perfect man, that’s what the world is, all I know is, I’m enjoying today. Cuz it ain’t every day that you get to give.” Elsewhere, he sounds like John Lennon: I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

His subject matter is a long, refreshing drink of water in the desert of still-bling-obsessed, violence-celebrating mainstream rap. K’naan talks about family, the virtues of generosity, the immigrant experience, the scars of war and — in one of the best songs, “Fifteen Minutes Away” — the simple pleasure of a wire transfer back home. He can afford to laugh at gangster-posturing American rappers because, he sings, he has lived a ghetto harder than anything they can talk about. The song “Strugglin'” from his excellent first album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, showcases classic K’naan content, and his fusion of folk melodies with Hip Hop:

In the most moving song of all (and there are many on Troubador), a tune called “People Like Me,” K’naan sings a verse that I wish would come to define a new era in Hip Hop. In the first verse, a first-person poem reminiscent of Eminem’s “Stan”, but with more of an advocacy angle, K’naan takes on the voice of a soldier in Iraq. I made my friend let me write down the whole verse, and I’ll leave you with that:

Is it fair to say that I am stressing out?
I’m stationed in Iraq and they won’t let me out
My homie said I was stupid for even joining
My counselor said my decision was “disappointing”
Oh she had good slates (?) at state colleges
And with my good grades it wouldn’t have been a problem
But they don’t understand just the power of significance
More than brilliance and certainly more than dividends
And if you ask me now, Would I repeat it?
Would I fight in a war I don’t believe in?
Well the answer is, it’s not me where the cancer is
They’ve been doin’ this before Jesus of Nazareth
And after all this time it is still deadly hazardous
And Bush isn’t really bein’ all that inaccurate
When he says we winnin’ the war, ‘cuz it’s staggerin’
But that’s ‘cuz we’re killin’ everybody that we see
And most of us soldiers we can barely fall asleep
And time and time again, I’m feelin’ incompetent
‘Cuz my woman back home, we constantly arguin’
And I must be crazy, ‘cuz all I’m obsessin’ with
Is her MySpace and Facebook, and who’s commentin’
Swear to God if she’s cheatin’ I’m doin her ass in!

I could tell with one look
And it came to me, soundin’ somethin’ like a song hook:

Heaven, is there a chance that you could come down
And open doors to hurting people like me…

Election Night in Harlem

I am very sorry I missed it. My friend John put together this clip.

I was in the laundromat two days ago on Malcom X and 117th and overheard a middle aged woman talking to an older man.

“I go to work in the morning and I look at my boss and just smile,” she said with a laugh. “We’re ready for Barack Obama. I’m more ready for Obama than I’m ready for myself.”

New York City Mexican Food Challenge: Any Tips?

There’s a place on 16th Street between Valencia and Guerrero in San Francisco where you can get one, delicious soft-sided taco for $2.95. It comes with fresh salsa, grilled chicken, onions, radishes — and a heaping portion of homemade tortilla chips. Get two of those babies and an horchata, and you are good to go for the night.

Every hood in San Francisco has its own taqueria highlight, especially the Mission, Outer Mission, Excelsior and Bernal Heights. I grew up taking them for granted.

No more. After a year in New York, I have not been to a really good Mexican or Central American restaurant in the city that supposedly has everything.  (I have been to some pretty terrible ones. Think the Amsterdam Chevy’s, if that exists. I found a place like that on Flatbush.)

On Saturday night I made the mistake of getting hopeful. I was on Houston and went to a little joint named El Paso. The owners made an effort to have a nice classy feel, and the waiters wore ties tucked into their shirts above little aprons. Prices were commensurate with the location and ambiance. They were not, unfortunately, commensurate with the food: cheesy and lacking spice. The salsa looked like bean soup. The meal was preceded by a salad (?) of iceberg lettuce with “Italian” dressing.

Then I realized: There is a taqueria in a car wash in San Francisco that serves better Mexican food than the best Mexican restaurant I have been to in New York City. I’m talking about Bayshore and Army/César Chávez right there at the intersection of Bernal, Bayview, Mission and Potrero.

What’s the deal, people? New Yorkers say I’m hating. There’s a taco truck in Queens that does it right, they say. I don’t know, but I think a taco that takes an hour to get to doesn’t count. Does that mean there’s nothing in the island of Manhattan?

I invite my ten regular readers to submit some suggestions, because I’m at a loss. And please don’t recommend the spot on Amsterdam and 108th. It’s close, but I’m looking for the real thing. I’ll privilege suggestions from Californians living in NYC.