musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Archive for January, 2012

Dan Simmons

I wouldn’t yet rank Dan Simmons among my ten favorite authors, but I’ve been very impressed with the few books that I’ve read by him so far and am eager to read more. But … it depends. If that sounds wishy-washy, let me explain. The problem with Simmons, if you even can call it a problem, is that he’s written over two dozen books, crossing multiple genres, but most falling into the Fantasy and Horror realm, categories which are not remotely of interest to me.

But among the many novels that Simmons has written are some fabulous crime and historical fiction titles that are both well researched and full of intriguing characters. I just finished one of his recent novels, Black Hills, which utilizes a member of the Sioux tribe as the main character. The novel is a sprawling 600-page adventure that spans a wide range of American history, from the massacre at Little Big Horn in 1876 to the carving of Mount Rushmore in the 1930s. Along the way we are treated to visits to the Chicago World’s War in 1893, meetings with the legendary Crazy Horse, a pilgrimage to Libbie Custer’s apartment in New York City in 1933 (with a side trip to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge), and other interesting diversions. The main character is a man named Paha Sapa, which means “Black Hills” in his native Lakota language. The most notable, if not bizarre, aspect of the Paha Sapa character is the fact that after touching the body of the dying General George Armstrong Custer at Little Big Horn when he was only eleven years old, Paha Sapa is haunted — or rather possessed — by the “ghost voice” of Custer for the next six decades. That all may sound weird, but it works, thanks to the masterful writing and storytelling ability of Dan Simmons.

 

Looking at reviews online, I was surprised to see this novel getting mixed reviews, ranging from glowing to disappointed. I thought Black Hills was very compelling and well written, perhaps my favorite of the Dan Simmons novels that I’ve read thus far. Sure it jumps all over the place, and introduced a variety of characters at different points in time, but the novel eventually gels and the patient reader will no doubt find themselves riveted to the tale of Paha Sapa and other characters, notably General Custer and his wife. Reading Black Hills also piqued my interest in subjects such as the treatment of Native Americans by the US government, the life of Libbie Custer, the history of the Mount Rushmore project, and how Americans are STILL fucking up their environment without regard for future generations.

Previous to Black Hills, I also read several other novels by Simmons. While I thoroughly enjoyed each and every one of those books, I just can’t get excited at the prospect of tackling one of Simmons’ Horror or Fantasy novels. But then again, even in his works of historical fiction, you will find ghosts and other creepy, supernatural elements woven into the story. The Terror is the gripping account of an ill-fated Arctic exhibition, with cannibalism and hallucinations popping up periodically. Drood was another mesmerizing read, set in England in the 1860s, and incorporates both Charles Dickens and his fellow novelist Wilkie Collins as main characters in the ghostly plot. The Crook Factory took the reader to Cuba in 1942, where Ernest Hemingway is living at the time. Hemingway assists the FBI in investigating Nazi activity on the island, leading to all sorts of adventure. Darwin’s Blade was about an insurance claims investigator who uncovers a murder, and Hard Freeze was a more traditional crime fiction tale, featuring a hard-boiled private eye and ruthless gangsters.  Other Simmons novels that I have yet to read have apparently used Mark Twain and John Keats as characters. I’m looking forward to reading more books by this fascinating author.

 

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P.M. Dawn

Digging through my dusty CD vaults last week, I unearthed another gem of an album that I hadn’t played in far too many years: Jesus Wept by P.M. Dawn. Released in 1995, this was one of the better, yet most underrated, albums of the 90s, no matter what genre you are talking about.

If you are as suspicious of “Born Again” musicians, as I am, don’t let the album’s title dissuade you from listening. These guys are certainly not stereotypical Jesus freaks. Although the songs on this album are not love letters to the Christian Messiah, there is a definite spiritual, or perhaps mystical, theme to many of the songs. Lyrical content aside, P.M. Dawn created a definite musical hybrid for this album, mixing soul, hip-hop, pop, and rock to create songs full of danceable grooves and hummable harmony, all wrapped in a sweet pop-woven blanket. Although they use samples on occasion, these guys are real singers, and they sing very well.

 

P.M. Dawn is basically a duo, Attrell and Jarrett Cordes, more commonly known to their fans as Prince Be the Nocturnal and J.C. the Eternal. But their music is so good I can forgive them for the goofy nicknames and religious references in the titles. Why Jesus Wept album never made a bigger splash is another one of those inexplicable musical mysteries. Perhaps the title of the album was a turn-off for many potential listeners. They did garner one minor hit from the album with “Downtown Venus,” but the rest of the material was equally strong; gorgeous songs that crossed stylistic bridges with gleeful abandon. The album’s closing medley is worth a listen alone; as P.M. Dawn recreates “1999” by Prince, segues into “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads”, and closes with “Coconut” by Harry Nilsson. How cool is that? And they managed to do it all seamlessly and soulfully, bringing a brilliant album to a brilliant finish.

P.M. Dawn made their first big musical splash in 1991 with “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss”, a song which sampled “True” by Spandau Ballet. That single became a number one hit in the US and a top five smash in the UK. It was included on their debut album, Of the Heart, Of the Soul, and Of the Cross, a very solid collection of songs, but to my ears not nearly as magical as Jesus Wept. The last album that P.M. Dawn released was way back in 1998. Since that time, the health problems of one of the brothers in the group (he had a stroke and later a leg was amputated) has curtailed further recordings, and any live performances are now done with only the one brother. It’s a shame such a talented duo has not released any more new music in the past decade. Many of their fans are waiting to be “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” once again.

Noisy New Year

I hear the sounds of machine gun fire; loud bursts of popping and cracking, followed by shrill screams. I look out my window and realize my mistake; it’s only a group of young idiots setting off firecrackers. Ah yes, the “happy sounds” of a Lunar New Year are here again.

 

Commonly known to Westerners as “Chinese New Year,” this annual event can indeed by fun and festive with its colorful parades and costumes. But the traditional use of firecrackers always sets my teeth on edge. I hate-hate-hate firecrackers. They are dangerous, noisy, and nothing more than toys for mindless morons. Every time I hear the sound of firecrackers I’m reminded of those miserable Fourth of July celebrations back in the USA; drunken rednecks gleefully setting off firecrackers and other cheap fireworks, trying to either blow up the neighborhood cat or seeing who can be the most obnoxious. Usually, however, such mayhem resulted in someone losing a few fingers … or worse.

 

Such stupid behavior, however, is certainly not confined to the United States. Here in Thailand we have our own cherished tribe of idiots who race motorcycles, throw firecrackers, shoot guns, and act with reckless abandon — sometimes without even touching a drop of alcohol. Last night in the Thailand province of Suphan Buri, three people were killed and over 50 others injured after debris from a fireworks display showered a group of wooden homes in an adjacent neighborhood, leading to several fires and an explosion. This was a huge celebration with thousands of people in attendance, including local dignitaries such as former Prime Minister Banharn Silpa-archa, who according to a newspaper report “escaped unhurt and left the area.”

http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/local/276677/three-killed-in-fireworks-blast

 

Sadly, such tragic incidents happen all too often in a country where safety regulations are often either totally ignored or circumvented. And they occur with more disturbing frequency during “festive” holiday periods. It was only two years ago when dozens of New Year’s Eve revelers died in a fire at Bangkok’s Santika nightclub. But that tragedy doesn’t seem to have led to any better enforcement of safety codes in local buildings. It’s still dangerous out there.

 

Etta James & Johnny Otis

Last week saw the passing of two music legends, singer Etta James and songwriter-musician Johnny Otis, both of whom had long and successful recording careers and even worked together at one point.

There’s not much I can add to the tributes pouring in for Etta James. She obviously had a productive singing career, one that was derailed at points by personal issues, but what an incredible voice! Etta James had dozens of hit singles, including “At Last” and “Tell Mama,” but my very favorite of all her songs was her achingly soulful version of “I’d Rather Go Blind.” That song has been covered by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of recording artists, but I’ve never heard anyone sing it better or with more feeling than Etta James. Even though she is best known for her hits in the 50s and 60s, and was nominated for awards several times, she didn’t win her first Grammy Award until 1995, for the album Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday.

Etta’s final studio album, The Dreamer, was released this past year. I haven’t heard it yet but reviews I’ve read indicate that it’s a stirring group of songs, a fitting final chapter in her illustrious recording career. About two weeks ago I saw a CD copy of The Late Show, a live recording by Etta James and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, at the Gram shop in the Emporium in Bangkok. I love Etta James as a vocalist and was happy to see a version of “I’d Rather Go Blind” on this album, but what really sold me on getting the CD was the other musicians involved, namely keyboard wizard Jack McDuff and guitar ace Shuggie Otis. Hot stuff no doubt.

Shuggie Otis is the son of Johnny Otis, the famous band leader and musician who also passed away last week at the age of 90. Hailed as “The Godfather of Rhythm and Blues” in a New York Times obit, Johnny Otis wrote many songs, including “Willie and the Hand Jive” (which was later a hit for Eric Clapton) and “Every Beat of My Heart” (covered by Gladys Knight & the Pips). He also had a string of hit records under his own name on the R&B charts in the early 1950s. In addition to his own music, he mentored many recording artists, including Etta James, Esther Phillips, Jackie Wilson, and Big Mama Thornton (who had a hit with “Hound Dog” before some guy named Elvis got around to recording it).

His obituary revealed a few other facts that surprised me: had had written several books — including two about his music career — and he was white! I guess if I’d seen a photo of him, that would have been obvious, but having only “heard the name” and aware of the type of music he had written and performed, not to mention that his son was Shuggie, I always assumed he had at least some African-American blood too. But one sentence in the NYT obit explained:

“Genetically, I’m pure Greek,” he told The San Jose Mercury News in 1994. “Psychologically, environmentally, culturally, by choice, I’m a member of the black community.”

As for Shuggie Otis, he made his recording debut as a guitar prodigy at the tender young age of 15. Being the son of Johnny, stardom seemed destined for Shuggie, yet he has recorded only a handful of albums over the ensuing decades and never garnered the acclaim he deserved. Among his albums is the critically acclaimed Inspiration Information, which included “Strawberry Letter 23,” a song Shuggie wrote that was later a huge hit for the Brothers Johnson in the late 1970s.

Glen Campbell

Glen Campbell has been in the media spotlight a lot recently. It’s quite the story: an ageing singer in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease releases one of the best albums of his long career and embarks on a “farewell” concert tour of the US at the age of 75. It all sounds like a script that could have sprung from a vintage movie.

Despite his age and health issues, Campbell’s newest album, Ghost on the Canvas, shows the singer in excellent form and is a worthy companion to his previous offering, the magnificent Meet Glen Campbell. Like that album, Ghost on the Canvas features material from songwriters one would not normally associate with Campbell. This time around he tackles tunes written by Paul Westerberg, Robert Pollard (Guided By Voices), and Jakob Dylan. Campbell also co-wrote several powerful new songs with the album’s producer Julian Raymond. Campbell will forever be associated with his early hits, most of them written by the talented Jimmy Webb, but the songs on the latest two albums show a depth and maturity that far surpasses anything the singer has ever recorded.

There is a contemplative, almost meditative element to Ghost on the Canvas. Not surprisingly, Campbell’s voice shows signs of age on the new songs, but the emotional power in his singing is still very much intact and more than compensates for any decline in range. This man still knows how to deliver the goods, and he’s chosen material that suits his style quite well. Realizing that he is nearing the end of his storied career, Campbell is resigned to his condition, but going out on his terms. But the tunes are not mournful dirges or tinged with regret. Instead, these are beautiful and moving odes to life and the human condition. Ghost on the Canvas is a grand and inspired album, ranking as one of the highlights of Glen Campbell’s career.

I’ve been an unabashed Glen Campbell fan for as long as I can remember. Back in the late 60s Glen Campbell was one of the most popular singers on the planet, thanks to both his streak of hit records, roles in films such as True Grit, and a prime-time TV show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. My parents had an 8-track tape of Campbell’s Gentle on My Mind album and we used to play that tape in their Winnebago on trips around the country in the late 60s and early 70s. The title track, of course, was a huge hit, but the rest of the album was chockablock with goodies too, covers of songs like “Bowling Green,” “Catch the Wind,” “Without Her,” and “Mary in the Morning.”

After “Gentle on My Mind,” Campbell’s hit streak continued with gems like “Wichita Cowboy,” “Galveston,” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” After a few dry years he made a comeback in the mid 70s with “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Southern Nights,” but by the time the 80s rolled around and the 90s passed, his recording output diminished to the point that Glen Campbell had pretty much become a forgotten figure in the music industry. And then, after that long period of inactivity he returned in 2008 for a remarkable late-career creative burst with Meet Glen Campbell and now Ghost on the Canvas.

I can’t remember the exact year — somewhere in the hazy late 60s — but one of the great disappointments of my young life was not being allowed to go a concert that Glen Campbell was giving at the Orlando Sports Stadium. My father wouldn’t take me to the show (no doubt fearing that there would be “drug addicted hippies” in the audience) and I was heartbroken. That would have been my very first concert and a pretty impressive one with which to launch my concert-going career. Instead, I had to wait a few more years before I finally got to go to a concert; KC and the Sunshine Band performing at Walt Disney World. Obviously, that’s not nearly as cool of an experience to brag about.

Photos from a Shan State Novice Monk

If you thought that I’d stopped posting photos from my most recent trip to Myanmar, ha, think again! Actually, I am getting down to the scraps and don’t have much more left to post, but I today I have some more fun shots that one of the novice monks took in Shan State’s Tat Ein village. In case you missed his other photos, Pyin Na Thiri (pictured above) is one of the young monks from Tat Ein’s small monastery. I let him borrow my camera on several occasions while I was in town, his chance to get used to being on the other side of the lens for a change. Enjoy this monk’s perspective of his school and monastery.

 

 

 

 

The Name Game: Burma or Myanmar?

At first I thought it was a mistake; another example of the editors at the Bangkok Post asleep on the job again. The article in the World News section of the paper on Monday was titled “EU to reward Myanmar for reform efforts.” In the past the Bangkok Post has always referred to Myanmar as Burma, using the old Colonial name of the country. I read the article and each time the country was mentioned they called it Myanmar instead of Burma. In addition to that name switch, they were also using Yangon instead of the golden oldie Rangoon. Was this just a single article that snuck by the editors, I wondered, or a permanent change? But in that day’s Business and Travel sections I also found the new usage: Myanmar, not Burma; Yangon, not Rangoon. I checked the editorial page, but no explanation for the change whatsoever.

There has long been a debate about the “correct” name of the country. The country became independent in 1962, which would have been a handy time for a name switch, but it wasn’t until 1989 when the military junta officially changed the official English language name from Burma to Myanmar. Because that ruling junta was not a democratically elected government, many countries refused to acknowledge the new name and kept calling it Burma. The media continue to be divided on which name to use. Major newspapers such as the New York Times and networks like CNN and Al Jazeera opt for Myanmar, while many other press agencies and newspapers still use Burma. The Bangkok Post was included in that latter group … until this week. Ironically, just last month the newspaper received a letter from a reader urging them to stop using the Colonial term “Burma” and switch to the official name of Myanmar. Not surprisingly, the paper received numerous angry letters from readers, urging them to keep calling the country Burma. I wonder what they are going to say now. Or will anyone notice the change?

Obviously, the name switch is confusing, if not maddening for many people. But it’s not like Myanmar was some sort of new name invented by the military. Actually, Myanmar is a very old word and was used by the natives of the country long before the British Colonialist occupiers came along and decided that “Burma” was an easier name to pronounce. It’s a shame that pro-democracy and “Free Burma” activists have demonized “Myanmar,” because it really is a legitimate name. Another problem with the name thing is the difference between the “official” name in English and what the country is called in the native language. Most people don’t call Germany “Deutschland” for example, or refer to Spain as “Espana”? So what’s really wrong with calling it Burma instead of Myanmar?

 

In addition to being politically incorrect in the minds of so many people, the word “Myanmar” is also a more confusing one to pronounce and to use. People see “Myanmar” and immediately their mind freezes. How do you pronounce this odd word? The correction pronunciation is MEE-in-mar. And no, there is no such thing as Myanmarese. The people are Myanmar, the language is Myanmar, the food is Myanmar, and so on. That extra syllable also makes it more of chore than uttering the easier “Burma.” It’s all more than a trifle bewildering, so it’s no wonder people cling to more familiar names like Burma and Burmese.

 

In recent years I’ve used Myanmar for the simple reason that during my travels around the country, the vast majority of locals I’ve talked to refer to their country as Myanmar. Rarely have I heard anyone there call it “Burma”, except for a few older citizens or those with a political axe to grind. And that, I believe, is the biggest reason people still use the name Burma: politics casts an ugly shadow over the name issue.

 

I understand the reluctance to call the country Myanmar, but I always thought it odd that a name like Burma, conjured up the tongue-tied Colonialist Brits during the time they ruled the country, would be preferred instead of a native word. Maybe in the minds of many, it’s a matter of choosing between the lesser of two evils. But isn’t it time to just accept the change and get over it? Names change all the time, especially here in Asia. Siam is now Thailand; Ceylon is now Sri Lanka; Formosa became Taiwan; Kampuchea is back to being Cambodia; Bombay is now called Mumbai. Even in Communist countries, people seem to have accepted the fact that Peking was changed to Beijing and Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City, and those were not “Democratic” decisions either.

The official name of the country is now the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, and it is indeed a union, comprised of 14 states and divisions. Within those various states are dozens of different ethnic groups. One estimate I read stated that there are 135 different ethnic groups in the country. So, it’s definitely not correct to call all people living there “Burmese.” But is Myanmar any better? And which name is more representative of such a diverse mix of people? Some people maintain that Burma is a more inclusive name than Myanmar, but that’s yet another argument that I find extremely peculiar. How could Burma, which is derivative of Bamar, the country’s largest ethnic group, be a more inclusive name than Myanmar? Neither name is better if you use that line of logic. Perhaps a third name is the best solution, something like: Suvarnabhumi (“The Golden Land”). Unfortunately, that’s also a real tongue twister, plus the dysfunctional international airport in Bangkok has already laid claim to that name.

 

You can go round and round on the name thing, but ultimately it’s an unnecessary distraction from more important issues the country is still facing. Whether you use Burma or Myanmar, it’s the people that count.

 

For an interesting look at the name debate, here is an article I saw online this past week:

http://www.burmanet.org/news/2012/01/12/irrawaddy-one-mans-myanmar-david-paquette/

 

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