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

Archive for April, 2013

Gay in the NBA: Play It, Don’t Pray It

The big news in the world of sports today was the coming out announcement by professional basketball player Jason Collins. He is the first “active” male player (as opposed to someone that retired and later announced that they were gay) in US professional sports to proclaim their homosexuality.

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Collins should be congratulated for taking this bold step. I hope this is only the beginning and it will embolden many other gay athletes to make similar announcements. Actually, real progress will be made when such proclamations aren’t even necessary, and cause nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders. Of course, a lot of the value of having announced that he’s gay will be negated if Collins never plays in an NBA game again. At the age of 34, Collins is a veteran backup, a role player who plays less than 10 minutes per game, nearing the end of his playing career. He’s not a star, he’s not even a starter. With his current contract having expired, he is a free agent (after playing for both Boston and Washington this year) and there are no guarantees that he’ll be signed by a team for next season. But by all accounts he is a valuable “big man”, a Center with defensive prowess, as opposed to one that can score lots of points, and he still has some value as a player, so hopefully we’ll see him on the court later this year.

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Collins’ surprising statement drew positive reaction and support from current NBA players such as Kobe Bryant, Baron Davis, Bradley Beal, Emeka Okafor, Kenneth Faried (current owner of the NBA’s best hairstyle!), Steve Nash, Tony Parker, Chauncey Billups, and even Metta World Peace (the controversial player formerly known as Ron Artest). There were also supportive statements from non-athletes such as Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama.  But you can bet that there are many people in the NBA and professional sports who are uncomfortable with, if not angered by, Jason Collins’ announcement. Most of the homophobes will be reticent to voice opinions at this time, but I did notice a few negative comments about Collins, not surprisingly made by the masters of intolerance, those of the Christian faith. Mark Jackson, an ex-player and current coach of the Golden State Warriors said: “As a Christian man, I have beliefs of what’s right and what’s wrong. That being said, I know Jason Collins, I know his family and I’m certainly praying for them at this time.”

He’ll pray for them? How loony is that? And he makes the typical and ludicrous Christian judgment of equating homosexuality with sin. Hey Mark Jackson; you are a moron! And yet another idiot, this one an ESPN NBA writer named Chris Broussard, said: “Personally, I don’t believe that you can live an openly homosexual lifestyle or an openly premarital sex between heterosexuals, if you’re openly living that type of lifestyle, then the Bible says you know them by their fruits, it says that’s a sin. If you’re openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be, not just homosexuality, adultery, fornication, premarital sex between heterosexuals, whatever it may be, I believe that’s walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ. I would not characterize that person as a Christian because I do not think the Bible would characterize them as a Christian.”

And people like this are given voices in the mass media? Are these people scary or what? Can you say: Cro-mag? Their faith dictates that they must believe this way? Sorry, but that’s just nothing but ignorance in my opinion. Comments like those only reinforce my long-standing belief that most Christians — along with any other religious zealots, whether they are Muslims, Hindus, or Jews — are clueless, dangerous characters that need to carted off and dumped on a remote island somewhere, far away from the rest of intelligent civilization.

Seriously, why is it that so many of us continue to tolerate the religious extremists in our midst, especially their absurd dangerous, fairy tale beliefs?  We can roll our eyes and call these people nutcases, but when they continue to be given a voice in the media and are able influence politicians and lawmakers, and as a result affect our lives, it’s time we woke up and took some action.

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A group of sports writers on one website were discussing Collins’s coming out and the impact it will have on his career. One writer wondered if Collins would have difficulty with his teammates. Some thought that it won’t be a big issue, but others suspect there will indeed be some players who are either uncomfortable with being in the locker room with a gay player or who will remain outwardly hostile to homosexuals. Part of that hate, hostility and violence is ingrained in American culture and its warped “Christian values”. Here in Southeast Asia, where the tolerant tenets of Buddhism (more of a philosophy than a religion, some would say) affect the behavior of the people, being gay is not much of an issue at all. In public schools, for example, if a student is gay or lesbian, they might — at the very worst — be playfully teased by their classmates, but without any nastiness vindictiveness. Mai Pen Rai, they would say here in Thailand. But at a school in the United States you can bet that there would be a definite element of cruelty at play, if not something much worse. Remind me again of the suicide statistics for gay youth in the USA? And you can thank those “gentle” God-fearing Christians for the continuing existence of such hate and cruelty.

Thinking about the Jason Collins story and the nasty cloud of religion that hovers over so many issues, I thought of the possible repercussions from an even bigger news event. What if a major candidate for political office in the USA declared: “I am not a Christian, nor do I have religious beliefs of any kind. I remain an atheist.” Now THAT would truly rock some boats. But just like Jason Collins’ announcement, it’s time for someone to step forward and shout it out!

Hot Weather & Cool Music

It’s April, one of the hottest months of the year here in Thailand, or anywhere in Southeast Asia for that matter. For the past month, I’m witness to an almost daily occurrence; customers walking into my bookshop, either sweating profusely or complaining about the heat. Yes, it’s very hot out there, but it occurs to me that some of these folks wouldn’t sweat as much if they weren’t wearing all black or heavy fabrics that don’t breathe in this tropical climate. It’s Thailand, not Northern England, so dress appropriately!

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To comfort all those heat-stricken souls I run the air conditioner continuously at my shop, but when I’m at home alone I opt not to turn on the AC. Hey, I’m from Florida; hot and humid feels natural to me! But it’s not like I prefer to sit and sweat the whole time. At home, I turn on the ceiling fans and open the windows to let a nice breeze flow through my ninth floor corner apartment. And that’s enough to keep me cool. Of course it also helps that I walk around the room wearing nothing but a loincloth. But whether I’m at home or work, music is always playing; yet another way to keep cool, at least emotionally. Here is this month’s list of CDs playing in heavy rotation at my place:

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Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – Old Yellow Moon

Dawes – Stories Don’t End

James Iha – Look To the Sky

Neil Young – Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968

Eddi Reader – Candyfloss and Medicine

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Various Artists – Eccentric Soul: Nickel and Penny Labels

Grant Green – Latin Bit

R. Dean Taylor – Essential Collection  

Joe Henderson – Page One

Tift Merritt – Traveling Alone

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Trombone Shorty – For True

Velvet Crush – Free Expression

The Scene is Now – Total Jive

Bill Fay – Bill Fay

Mary Chapin Carpenter – Ashes and Roses

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Ray Stinnett – A Fire Somewhere

Kool and The Gang – Live at P.J.’s

Camper Van Beethoven – La Costa Perdida

Graham Gouldman – Love and Work

Bob Mould – Poison Years

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Paul Kossoff – Backstreet Crawler (Deluxe Edition)

Lou Bond – Lou Bond

TV on the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain

Various Artists – Miami Sound: Rare Funk & Soul

Larry Young – Unity

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Leon Thomas – The Creator: 1969-73

Yo La Tengo – Fade

Sugarman Three – Pure Cane Sugar

UB40 – Present Arms

Colin Blunstone – I Don’t Believe I Miracles

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Clarence Carter – The Fame Singles Volume 1 1966-70

The Lumineers – The Lumineers

Charles & Eddie – Duophonic

Menahan Street Band – Make the Road by Walking

Kenny Burrell – Midnight Blue

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Greg Kihn Band – Best of Beserkley ’75-‘84

The Waterboys – A Pagan Place

The Sneetches – 1985-1991

The Explorers Club – Freedom Wind

Cass McCombs – Wit’s End

 

Off to the Volcano: 90th Street on the Road (Pt. 1)

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It’s become a tradition for me to take a group of children from the 90th Street neighborhood in Mandalay on a day trip of some sort when I’m town. We’ve been to a variety of places in the area over the past five years. The time was no different, or actually it was; instead of a single day excursion, we spent three full days on the road exploring historic sites much further away from Mandalay.  In the case of one remote place, it would qualify as “out in the boondocks.”

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Our destination the first day was Mt. Popa, one of the most sacred sites in Myanmar. Mt. Popa is located near Bagan, so our plan was to arrive there in the morning and end up at Bagan in the afternoon, where we would spend the first night. Mt. Popa is an extinct volcano, but it was last seen spewing lava about 250,000 years ago, so nowadays the only thing to fear on the mountain is the hordes of monkeys scampering all over the place, begging for food and trying to snatch the hats or sunglasses from the heads of unsuspecting tourists. The big attraction of Mt. Popa, however, and what makes it sacred for the locals, are all the nat shrines located there. A nat is spirit, and most people in Myanmar have a belief in them to some degree. In addition to the various nat shrines, there are some more traditional shrines to Buddha at Mt. Popa too.

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And all those monkeys! Really, they are more than a bit of a nuisance the way they run around and create havoc; it’s as if they owned the place! Well, maybe they do; they’ve probably been in residence there longer than any humans have. Of one thing there is no doubt; the monkeys have turned into an attraction themselves. Vendors stroll up and down the stairways selling monkey food as well as flowers for the shrines. I used all the pocket change (small banknotes, actually, since there are no coins in Myanmar) that I had to buy monkey food and flowers for the kids to distribute.

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I’ve been to Mt. Popa three times already, so the excursion wasn’t that special for me. But then again, I got a kick out seeing how excited everyone else was about being there. For Maw Hsi and the kids it was definitely a big deal. They can now boast to their friends and family; “I’ve been to Mt. Popa.” And most of them bought souvenir t-shirts as proof!

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Where Tourists Never Wander: the Other Side of Mandalay

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This is the side of Mandalay that tourists never see. It’s not an especially pretty area and doesn’t offer amazing photo opportunities, and there isn’t anything of historical importance to see, but visiting this part of town has given me an immensely eye-opening perspective on the local way of life and the chance to know some truly wonderful people.

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I found 90th Street quite by accident one day a few years ago, cycling around the south side of Mandalay on my rented bike, no destination in mind, just wandering around and exploring new neighborhoods. This stretch of 90th Street is not much more than a bumpy dirt road, bordered by ramshackle houses and tiny shops. Children play in the street, motorcycles whizz by, chickens and pigs wander into the road, and monks stroll by holding umbrellas to shade themselves from the blistering sun. This street doesn’t look or feel like the rest of the bustling Mandalay, exuding more of a laidback rural vibe.

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There’s this little teashop on 90th Street, run by a nice man named U Tin Chit. The teashop is called Nwe Oo Aung Teashop, but I can never ever remember that name, so I just call it U Tin Chit’s Teashop.  The teashop has no windows or doors; open air, baby! It’s open round the clock; just like a 7-Eleven branch, they never close. As you might surmise, it’s not a fancy place. You can sit on plastic stools or wooden benches. Sit on the floor if you want, I don’t think anyone will mind. Have some tea, a bean-filled pastry or a tasty greasy snack. Stay as long as you like. Chat with the local men or the kids that pass in and out of the place, often stopping to stare at what’s on the TV in the corner. Maybe you can’t get anything you want, like at Alice’s Restaurant, but it’s a very relaxed place with friendly locals.

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I’ve been going to this teashop for several years, and each time I visit, the kids or my friend Ko Maw Hsi will take me on short excursions in the surrounding area; to a monastery or temple, a school, a jade workshop, a swimming hole, a little shoe shop, someone’s home. These are fun little tours and I’m discovering more of the area each time I visit, plus getting to know these people and their families a little more as well. I’m very fond of these folks. Even though they are quite poor, the hospitality they offer each time is beyond generous. At this point I think I can say we’re all good friends; Ko Maw Hsi, U Tin Chit, U Nyunt Tun and his sweet daughter Khin Nwe Lwin (who recently graduated from university), Moe Htet Aung, Khang Khant Kyaw, Zin Ko, Baw Ga, Yu Naing Soe, and the rest of the neighborhood crew.

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During this trip, Moe Htet Aung invited me to visit his home for the first time. I’d met his mother before, but I had no idea if there was a father living at home, or even if he had any brothers or sisters. From what I gather, it’s just him and his mom and a younger sister living in this house. It’s a fairly basic wooden house, at least one that blends in with the rest of the neighborhood. Like the others, there doesn’t appear to be any running water inside the home; families must bathe and use facilities outdoors. No real surprise there, but the real shock for me was the walk to the house. After turning down a series of narrow dirt lanes, surprised vendors greeting me with big smiles, we had to navigate a huge field of garbage to reach his house. That’s right, garbage. Trash, rubbish, scraps; an entire field filled with this junk. And I followed the kids as they nonchalantly traipsed through it all.

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Once we were at the house, I was offered hot tea, as is standard practice at most homes in Myanmar. They also brought out a chilled can of Red Bull, a beverage that I absolutely will not touch. I thanked them, but told them I was full and could not drink it. They told me to put it in my bag and drink it back at my hotel. That ended up being a good diplomatic compromise; I put the can in my bag and gave it away to a street kid an hour later.

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Someone noticed that my left arm was sporting red splotches; the result of bites from some sort of insect in my hotel room. The kids looked real concerned at my “injury”, and Moe Htet Aung’s mother announced that she had the perfect remedy; thanaka! You might not have heard of thanaka but you’ve seen it; it’s that yellowish paste that many people in Myanmar wear on their faces. It acts as a sunscreen, but many women also liken it to a beauty cosmetic and you’ll often see locals wearing thanaka in all sorts of pretty, creative patterns on their face. In any case, Moe Htet Aung’s mother told me that the thanaka will also soothe the skin and reduce the itching from the insect bites. She had me sold on the idea; let’s do it. And they did. And it did.

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After the doctoring was done, I realized that it was getting late, at least closer to the time when I needed to head back to my hotel to clean up before a dinner appointment, so I told them I needed to leave. I followed the crew of kids, which had someone grown in number during the time I was at the house, and we walked back across the field of debris, down the quaint little lanes and back to the teashop where my bike was parked. I waved goodbye to Maw Hsi and the other men sitting at the teashop. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said as I hopped on my bike (making sure my longyi stayed tied!). And I was looking forward to it; another day of new experiences with my friends on 90th Street.

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Finding good new authors

Anyone who reads a lot of books, particularly novels that feature a series with the same characters, runs into the problem of running out of new authors to read. You find an author you like and end up reading every book they’ve written, becoming attached to the characters and their lives. But after you’ve finished the entire series, then what? You find another author that writes equally gripping tales and read all of those books, and then try to find other authors in a similar vein. For whatever reasons, some click and some don’t. I’ve read a lot of books in the past few years, but sometimes I can’t make it past the 50-page mark without becoming either bored or annoyed. Those are the books I don’t finish.

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In the past six months or so I’ve devoured the latest novels from favorite authors such as John Sandford, Robert Crais, Dennis Lehane, Jonathan Kellerman, Michael Connelly, and Lee Child. Loved them all. I’ve recently started reading Daniel Silva’s series of novels featuring the Gabriel Allon character, and find those to be top-shelf fare too. Allon is certainly one of the more unusual and multi-dimensional characters in crime/espionage fiction these days. He’s an artist who works as an art restorer in various locations around Europe. But he’s also an Israeli citizen who is employed by that government in various spy-related activities, including the assassinations of “bad guys.” An intellectual hit-man with artistic skills.  Not your normal plot premise, but seriously addictive stuff.

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Among the new authors that I’ve discovered — and liked— this year are Jess Walter and Greg Hurwitz. I’d actually read one Jess Walter novel, Over Tumbled Graves, about a year ago and enjoyed it. It was more of a standard crime fiction story, but two others that I’ve read since then are even better and have more depth than the usual mystery. One novel, The Zero, is set in New York City, shortly after the Twin Towers disaster of 9/11. The main character is a police officer who was hailed as a hero after 9/11 and becomes a minor celebrity around town. But depression soon takes its toll and the man wakes up one day to discover that he had shot himself in the head the night before during a drinking binge. The wound wasn’t fatal, of course, but he can’t remember exactly what happened that night, and in the days and months afterwards he continues to have memory lapses, at times not even sure why he is at a certain location or what he is supposed to be doing, or who he is talking with. Walter’s skillful prose takes the reader inside the mind of this troubled man as he deals with his frustrating issues. Some passages are moving, others totally hilarious, and some quite frightening. Altogether, a very powerful and moving novel.  

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I read a third Walter novel earlier this month, Citizen Vince, that I also thought was superlative. In this novel the main character, Vince, is a career criminal who somehow gets involved in a mafia scheme. He ends up testifying against the mob and enters a witness protection program, given a new identity, and relocated to Spokane, Washington. Vince trains to be a baker and ends up working at a donut shop, a job he actually enjoys very much. But to supplement his income he also starts dealing in forged credit cards again. This novel is set in the fall of 1980, in the days before the US Presidential election between Carter and Reagan. The idea of voting in the election becomes an exciting prospect for Vince; due to his previous convictions he has never been able to vote in previous elections. Adding to the election fervor, a person from his criminal past discovers Vince living in Spokane. Lots of intrigue, a few laughs, and more great writing from Jess Walter. He has written several other books too, so I’m excited that there are more waiting to discover.

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As for Greg Hurwitz, he’s one of those names I’ve seen on the shelf for years but I’d never read anything until I started a novel called The Crime Writer last month. The basic plot is a twist on the typical whodunit: a fellow who writes crime fiction novels is charged with murdering his girlfriend. The evidence at the scene of the crime suggests that this is a no-brainer: this guy definitely did it. But due to a brain tumor he had at the time, the man really can’t remember if he had done it or not. Some things about the crime don’t add up in his mind, so he ends up investigating his own case, turning up some baffling and disturbing facts. In addition to the clever plot, the novel is populated by some very interesting characters (ones that are so engaging that you hope Hurwitz does a sequel), and some seriously funny dialogue. On top of that, Hurwitz is one of those crime fiction authors — like Jess Walter — who also a very good writer; a definite step above the rest of the mystery pack. I just started a new novel by Hurwitz, Trouble Shooter, more of a traditional cops and robbers tale, but still very well written and absorbing. He’s also written more than a handful of books, so I look forward to reading those also.

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Mandalay Football Fun

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I’m still in the process of learning, or trying to become more proficient in the Burmese language, or Myanmar zaga as it’s called over here, so sometimes I don’t fully understand what people are saying during conversations. So, when I was hanging out on 90th Street in Mandalay recently, and the kids mentioned something about football, I thought they were talking about going to watch a football match. But what they meant was PLAYING some football, and that ended up being a little football match between them — Moe Htet Aung, Baw Ga, Pya Thein, Zin Ko, and Ye Thu Lwin —and another group of kids that I didn’t know from the neighborhood.

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They played on the grounds of a nearby monastery, using makeshift goals and roughly designated out-of-bounds markers. It didn’t matter that a pile of leaves was in the middle of the field … they’d just play around it. Occasionally, there would be a bit of shouting or heated discussion about some alleged infraction, but for the most part it was fun, friendly match. Unlike some of the real matches you see on TV. Little Zin Ko was the smallest player on the field and every time he’d kick a ball, he did it with such intensity that he ended up falling down. Each and every time. It was a bit comical … and nobody laughed harder than Zin Ko himself. A good sport!

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Sanda Tika: Novice Monk Photographer

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My guest photographer today is Sanda Tika, a 12-year-old novice monk from the monastery in Shan State’s Tat Ein village. His self portrait photo is posted above. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this kid without a huge grin on his face. He’s just one of those playful, perpetually happy kids who seem unfazed but the occasional chaos surrounding them.

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It seemed like wherever I wandered around the village and the monastery (and at the primary school, although Sanda Tika doesn’t attend classes there; he studies separately at the monastery) this time — and especially on our road trip to Taunggyi and Kakku, Sanda Tika was always there, shadowing me every step of the way. Okay, there were times that I saw him studying with the other novices, but it SEEMED like he was always around. Because of his almost constant presence, I asked him his name (he gave me his “monastery name” — his birth name is different) one day, and promptly appointed him to be my assistant photographer for the rest of my stay. After a quick crash course in the basics, he was more than ready to use the camera. The photos you see today are all ones that he took.  

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At the park in Taunggyi, they have a bizarre new addition: huge plaster replicas of the characters from The Flintstones! Yes, there were Fred and Wilma, along Barney and Betty (alas, Bam Bam was nowhere to be found), ready and waiting to pose for photos. And the students and teachers got really excited about doing just that, running up and hugging the goofy characters. I don’t think any of these kids have ever seen a Flintstones cartoon in their lives, but they just couldn’t resist the silliness of the idea. And neither could Sanda Tika!

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Soul Music Legend: George Jackson

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One of the legends of soul music, George Jackson, passed away on Monday this week. If you never heard of George Jackson, that’s not really surprising. He earned most of his fame as a songwriter during his long career in the music business and released only a handful of songs in the 1960s. But many of his old recordings were unearthed and released for the very first time in recent years and reveal that in addition to being an ace songwriter, he was also an outstanding singer and performer.

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Reading online obituaries, it’s not clear how old George Jackson was; Wikipedia and All Music list him as 78, while the New York Times and several other wire services gave his age as 68. However, most sources give his birthdate as 1936, so if that’s the case he’d certainly have been in his late seventies. But what is undisputed is how talented this man was. While he was signed to Fame Records in the 1960s, Jackson only released two singles, but he spent most of time at that label as a songwriter and producer.

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Whether you realize it or not, if you are over the age of 35 you’ve probably heard some of the songs that George Jackson wrote, most notably “Minnie Skirt Minnie,” “One Bad Apple” (a hit by the Osmonds), “Old Time Rock and Roll” (a huge hit for Bob Seger), and “The Only Way is Up” (a hit for the electro/new wave act Yaz). He also wrote hit songs for Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter, Z.Z. Hill, Candi Staton, and other artists, most of who recorded for the Fame and Atlantic labels. As a singer, he recorded more than 100 solo tracks for Fame, but strangely, those recordings were never released and sat in the archives for nearly 40 years until they were finally put on various CD compilations by the UK reissue label Ace/Kent.

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The first release of vintage George Jackson material came in 2009 with In Memphis: 1972-1977, a CD containing 21 tracks, some of which were recorded for the legendary Hi Records label. But, like his 60s output for Fame, these excellent songs also sat on the shelf for several decades. As a music fan, I’m both shocked and saddened that music of this quality went unheard for so many years. But luckily the music junkies at Kent Records realized what a goldmine they had, and continued to release more George Jackson compilations. The second in their series, released in 2011, was Don’t Count Me Out: The Fame Recordings, Volume 1. This collection contained 24 tunes, all of them delicious soul gems. Last year Kent followed that one up with another compilation, Let the Best Man Win: The Fame Recordings, Volume 2. Like the previous set, this one also contained 24 songs rescued from the vaults, every single one of them an expertly crafted soul gem. Honestly, the quality of these recordings is extremely high and the tunes are thrilling. But what elevates them all to a higher level is Jackson’s scintillating vocals and soulful performance. He sounds a bit like Percy Sledge with some Tyrone Davis thrown in the mix; heartfelt southern soul with an irresistible backwoods country vibe. I’m telling you, this guy should be ranked up there with Otis Redding, James Carr, Wilson Pickett, and other great soul vocalists of the era. He was that outstanding. Obviously, he had the rep as a great songwriter, but hearing him sing these songs it’s painfully obvious that he was also a first-rate singer. All the more shameful that these songs were never released and promoted when they were first recorded.

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In addition to those solo collections, a few more George Jackson songs can be found on recently issued compilations such as Hall of Fame: Rare and Unissued Gems from the Fame Vaults and Lost Soul Gems from Sounds of Memphis, both put together by the fine folks at Kent/Ace. Lost Soul Gems has two wonderful Jackson tunes, one of which is a rough mid-80s demo, just Jackson on piano and singing, an achingly beautiful tune titled “It’s Hard to Say No.” Once again, I find it mind boggling to think that music this special was shelved for so long. Did someone once say that the people running record companies were idiots? Well, here’s the proof.

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For an interesting interview with George Jackson, check out this link:

http://www.soulexpress.net/georgejackson_tribute.htm

Sadly, George Jackson wasn’t the only soul music legend to pass away in recent months. Last month we lost Bobby Smith, one of the main vocalists for the Spinners. He’d been singing with Spinners since their days with Motown in the 1960s, and of course during their hit run with Atlantic in the 70s. In February we lost soul-jazz pioneer Donald Byrd, the unheralded singer-guitarist Lou Bond (check out his self-titled CD that was recently reissued by Light in the Attic, the same label that revived the career of Rodriguez, the singer/star of the “Searching for Sugar Man” documentary), Cecil Womack (brother of Bobby, and member of Womack & Womack with his wife Linda, who was Sam Cooke’s daughter!), two members of the Temptations (Richard Street and Damon Harris), and the oldest sister in the Staple Singlers, Cleotha Staples. Back in January, Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner of the Ohio Players also passed away.

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Taunggyi with the Kids: The Trip Pt. 2

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And then it was time for the park. Historic site are interesting, but the kids always love the park. After visiting Kakku we spent some time in Taunggyi on the way back to Nyaungshwe. I had ambitious plans for the afternoon; we’d stop by the Shan Museum in town, visit a few temples, and then spend an hour or two at the park and mini-zoo at the edge of town. Well, we were running a bit late by the time we arrived in Taunggyi so we didn’t get to do half of those things, but at least we had enough time to visit one revered hilltop pagoda and the park.

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As part of the admission to the park we all got free drinks. I assumed that this meant some sort of watered-down soft drinks, but it turned out to be hot coffee! Sort of a strange drink to offer to children, but then again I reckon it beats giving them Coke or something other sugary crap. We walked around the attractive little park (they’ve done some landscaping work on it since I was last there over a year ago and it’s looking much nicer), stopping first to see the collection of animals: frisky monkeys, cute rabbits, tiny turtles, a few deer, some noisy ducks, and a couple of sleeping bears. I kept asking the kids: “Where are the crocodiles?” … “Where are the snakes?” … but despite their finest investigative efforts they couldn’t turn up any. Maybe that’s just as well!

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After the zoo, we walked deeper into the park and across the swinging wooden bridge (when it swayed from side to side, it was hard to tell if the children’s screams were ones of delight or fright), and took more photos. Throughout the day I was amazed at the variety, and volume, of snacks that the youngsters — including the novice monks — consumed. Many of them had obviously brought packaged snacks and candy with them (the monks had this uncanny ability to produce treats from the folds of their robes!), and whenever they saw an ice cream vendor or other snack merchant, they would stop and purchase something. I have the feeling there were some tummy aches in the village later that night.

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Every time I’ve taken these kids on a trip it’s been exhausting; long days and hard rides in uncomfortable vehicles on rough roads.  But no matter how tired I get, the enthusiasm of these kids — their smiles and laughter, singing songs in the truck — always manages to revitalize me. It was close to sundown by the time we reached Nyaungshwe. The truck stopped at my hotel and I climbed out, turned and waved goodbye to the crew, their smiles radiating back at me. Magic once again.

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Kakku with the Kids: The Trip, part 1

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The first time I visited the primary school at Tat Ein village was about four years ago. My friend Htein Linn, who runs Golden Bowl Travel Services & Bookshop in Nyaungshwe, took me there after I expressed an interest in helping an underprivileged school in the area. The first time we took donations of sandals for the students, the type of flip-flop footwear that most people in Myanmar call “slippers.” After that initial donation I followed it up with sports equipment (footballs, volleyballs, badminton sets), medicine on the trip after that, and then first aid boxes to hold the various medicine and bandages.

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About two years ago one of my visits coincided around the time of the annual balloon festival in nearby Taunggyi. This festival features two varieties of balloons; one type is launched during the day and the other type is accompanied by fireworks at night. I had already made plans to take the monks from Shwe Yan Pyay monastery in Nyaungshwe to the festival, but those monks only had time to attend the night-time festivities. I really wanted to see the daytime balloons too — they are constructed in the shapes of various animals — but didn’t fancy travelling all the way to Taunggyi by himself. I then had one of those spontaneous brainstorms that turned into a brilliant idea: Why not invite the students from the school at Tat Ein village?

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I discussed the idea with Htein Linn and he enthusiastically endorsed it. Most of these kids, he told me, had never travelled very far from their village, certainly not past Nyaungshwe, so a trip like this would be very special for them. After getting permission from the teachers and U Sandimar at the monastery, I ended up taking a group of 50 students and monks to that festival. I don’t think it’s a cliché to say that these kids had the time of their lives. Going to new places, seeing new things, the wonder in their eyes; it was an amazing experience not only for them but for me too. Seeing these kids having so much fun, and being so appreciative afterwards, really warmed my jaded heart.

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Last year we took another trip, this time to the Pindaya Caves. That was a longer, more tiring, and dustier journey, but it was still a fun excursion for everyone. For my visit last month we ventured back to Taunggyi (there is a nice park with a small zoo on the edge of town, along with a very popular temple) and further down the road to the ancient Pa-O stupa ruins in Kakku.

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We had lunch at a monastery near the famous “grove of stupas” (there are about two thousand of these cool old monuments crammed together in the park) and then wandered around the site afterwards. The only problem was coordinating a group of that size. This time around we had over 70 students (not only from the primary school, but kids from the village who attend the high school in Nyaunghswe), teachers, novice monks, senior monks, and a few parents. And when it came time to see the actual site, some people went in one entrance, others went in another entrance, and a few more straggled behind or got lost. Not a single group of kids followed a logical path through the park. Needless to say it was pretty much total chaos. But fun chaos. I wanted to get photos of everyone, or at least pictures of as many of the kids grouped together as possible, but that ended up not happening. I just never saw some of the group while we were there!

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I’ll post some of the Kakku shots today, along with a few of photos that I took at the school before departure. I have plenty more photos that I took at the park and the temple Taunggyi — along with some that one of the novice monks took with my camera (that will be a post by itself) — but I’ll save those for next week. This week is the annual “New Year” water festival throughout the region: in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. The locals are enjoying a long holiday break and celebrating with water silliness. Happy “New Year” to everyone once again!

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