If you think I’m crazy about Tuvan throat-singing, just try this.
Out in San Francisco lived a blues singer named Paul Pena, a man who had worked with greats like B.B. King and Muddy Waters. He had recorded an album in the seventies that failed to get a release, but a song from which had become a hit for the Steve Miller Band. In the way of all things blues, he was blind, unlucky, sickly and prone to depression.
In the eighties, he gave up his music to look after his sick wife. He spent his sleepless nights listening to shortwave radio, picking up stations from all round the world. Late one night he tuned into Radio Moscow and heard something extraordinary, something that haunted him.
He spent nearly eight years trying to find out what he had heard. Finally he discovered just what it was he had chanced upon: khoomeii, throat-singing from the Tuva province of Russia. The technique is one of a number used by Tuvan singers, and involves forming the mouth into two chambers so that two tones are produced simultaneously; a bass hum and a keening harmonic whistle that modulates high above. He located a CD of the music, and set about studying it.
At the same time, he attempted to learn as much of the Tuvan language as possible, so that he could understand what was being sung about. In the absence of a Tuvan-English dictionary, this meant translating through a Tuvan-Russian dictionary, then through a Russian-English one. For this he used an obsolete ‘Opticon’ scanner that turned the characters on the page into sensations he could interpret, meaning that Paul was effectively translating across four languages and two dimensions.
Khoomeii is only ever taught in Tuva by contact with a master. There are no instruction manuals, no courses. The technique is still only partially understood by musicologists. Paul Pena, left alone after the death of his wife, with a single recording for reference, taught himself.
In 1993 some Tuvan singers pitched up in San Francisco for the first time. Paul was ready, waiting backstage after the concert. He met Kongar-ol Ondar, a champion khoomei-singer, and gave him an impromptu performance of some Tuvan folk songs, in Tuvan.
Pena and Ondar became firm friends as a result of this extraordinary encounter, and Ondar invited him to take part in the next triennial throat-singing festival back in Tuva.
In 1995, Pena, nicknamed ‘Chershemjer’ (Earthquake) for his rumbling voice and quake-zone home, travelled out to compete in the week-long competition. He came back with two awards.
Since then, a certain recognition has followed. June 11th 1999 was ‘Paul Pena Day’ in San Francisco, and he has been made the city’s ‘Tuvan Blues Ambassador’. Even that lost 1973 album has finally been released. This being a bluesman, however, there is no happy ending. Pena is suffering from a very serious pancreatic illness, and is now forced to accept donations to pay his medical bills.
This story pushes so many of my buttons (as the marketeers would put it) that I can hardly believe that I hadn’t encountered it until now. As it is, I am now awaiting delivery of the album that Paul and Kongar-ol recorded together. Even better, it forms the soundtrack to a documentary recording Paul’s 1995 journey to Tuva and participation in the competition, ‘Genghis Blues’. You will not be surprised to hear that the documentary won a hatful of awards at film festivals, including the audience award at Sundance.
I am nervous of watching this film. I suspect that it can only break the perfection of the story, particularly its tremulous, precarious existence on the edge of my world. An acclaimed documentary is going to make it too real, too concrete, too particularised. As it stands there is a mythic quality to the story, a universality of human sentiment that exposure to a more faithful record of the events can only leave scratched and weatherworn.
I am nervous of watching this film, but I must watch it.
At the risk of appearing to spend my spare time gawping at newsagent windows, this one has a new and mysterious card of the type written in red felt tip.
4 MEN AND WOMEN
I’m quietly pleased that my subculture slang awareness doesn’t extend far enough to understand this, but there’s definitely something fishy about it.
The ever-nasty and ever-creative Pete Milligan:
In fact, I’d really like to do a story where David Beckham joins X-Statix [Milligan’s comic book]. He’s the perfect example of some whose powers - the ability to boot a ball around - have been dwarfed by his celebrity status.
I’d like to have him run around in a spandex superhero costume, become a homoerotic pin-up, get his nose busted in a fight with the Hulk and, as a result, have millions wiped off his “share price”.
Jack Straw yesterday on Alistair Campbell’s ‘dodgy dossier’ on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq:
It is not remotely in the government’s interests to produce a document with this provenance. To put it the vernacular it was a complete horlicks in the way it came to be produced.
I sincerely wish that key phrase, ‘complete horlicks’ was chosen on the spur of the moment, but somehow I doubt it. It fits too accurately the message Straw needed to be sending at this point: a severe chastisement to a fellow member of government (and, implicitly, to the Prime Minister himself), but tempered somehow — anyhow. Because Horlicks used “Horlicks!” as a substitute swear word in its advertising a couple of years ago, it handily exists as a word which serves the function of something negative (”bollocks!”) but is actually surrounded by positive connotations (sleep, warmth, mother comfort, milky goodness). I like Horlicks, but this political appropriation of adspeak makes me almost as queasy as the adspeak itself.
That said, I think even a furious Jack Straw would have drawn the line at calling Campbell a French Connection UK-er.
Don’t think I haven’t noticed how frequently I am complaining about being busy. There’s a mesh of reasons why this is the case, and some of them are very positive (interesting projects at work; reading and thinking plenty; beautifying the residence). Lest this blog turn into some great aggrieved sigh, let me highlight some of the great stuff going on in my world:
- The cats
- Hosting this
- Pleasurable nostalgia
- Seeing some great films with friends
- Seeing friends at all
- Funky work stuff
- My current mix of reading material. I’m back to reading stuff that challenges and stimulates. Good.
- Gardening, in the sun
- Becoming a godfather
- Scoring, in my regular Sunday afternoon football game, with a header
I cannot begin to tell you how much pleasure that last one, in particular, gave me.
Richard Dawkins, one of the most provocative thinkers we have (in both senses), suggests that atheists call themselves ‘brights’, by analogy with homosexuals adopting the positive term ‘gay’. Sounds to me like an excellent way to get into many arguments. (Via Kevan)
Matt Jones reports that the BBC has effectively released RSS versions of all its index pages. Given that I grab most of my information online via an RSS newsreader, this is just fantastic.
In the meantime, work on a new, consolidated blog syntax/syndication format has started. Naturally, the first big issue is what to call it.
Finally, the other day I half-heard on Today an item about an African country where over a decade the civil war has been sustained by an army of primary school kids who are kidnapped and trained to fight for the rebels. The gist seemed to be that nobody was sure any more quite what the war was about. I wish I had time to look this one up; I was so tired at the time it barely registered, but bubbled up to the surface later in the day. This means I have no idea which country this was, how accurate my memory of the story is, or even if I dreamt it all.
While I’m so busy (and, let me mention, temporarily unable to see outside from my desk at work due to building work) I am aware that one of the purest pleasures I get at the moment comes from seeing one of the cats lay on a bed, precisely positioned to slot into the box of sunlight cast onto the covers, and stretch itself stupid.
Is it the case that we put a small fragment of our souls into pets? How else to explain not just the affection felt, but the vicarious pleasure?
A strangely high proportion of the spam I receive is written in gibberish. I don’t mean in strange languages I don’t understand, I mean trsdyv foigr d ed wer.
While waiting patiently for a meaningful explanation to this mystery, I was amused by this headline on one email I received selling some form of pep pill:
Lack of Enthusiasm npwvow t
Ah, the wonders of mimesis.
Naomi Klein writes about the ways in which NGOs are being bribed and bullied into toeing the US government line…with the help of its own pet NGOs.
On 21 May, Andrew Natsios, the head of USAid told NGOs that as “an arm of the US government” they had to make it clear that the aid they were doling out was a result of US foreign policy.
Clearly, there’s some alternate interpretation of ‘non-governmental’ that currently escapes me.
If you’re going to set out on private expeditions to chart the new virtual world (AKA the semantic web), you might as well do it in the character of a chipper Edwardian adventurer. So huzzah for bally old Ben Hammersley and his Sporting Gentleman’s Guide to the Semantic Web.
This year’s award for funky book title out of all proportion to the book itself goes to the very old skool sounding New Masters of Flash. If there were any justice in the world, this would be a paean to a new generation of bling-bling scratch ‘n rappers, or at least a style guide for aspiring Beau Brummels. I’d even settle for it being the latest by George Macdonald Fraser.
Sadly, there is not justice in the world.
It’s a book about web design.
I’m not going to speculate on the source of the English love of lost and damaged heroes. It may be that romantic Arthurian streak (the Fisher King; Launcelot; Arthur himself), it may be the loss of empire, it may be the consequence of our nostalgic association with nature. It may just be something else we envied in the Scots and Irish, and nicked for ourselves.
If you ask me, it’s something to do with the fact that one of the very first things that the Victorians industrialised was the production of lost heroes. Livingstone, Gordon of Khartoum, Scott of the Antarctic, Shackleton, Oliver Reed (I jest, slightly).
As I say though, I’m not going to speculate on the source of this particular trope.* I’m more interested in the fact that this morning, with the royal right foot heading from Manchester to Royal Madrid, we have another English hero finding his role as an absent hero. The prince is heading over the water.
Paul considered the matter in terms of a modern slave trade. He’s right, but in this particular case I’d prefer to see it as something akin to a royal marriage of old. The most eligible, most valuable royal child, the one who is adored as glamorous, if quietly disparaged as incapable of ever ruling the country, is packaged off to a foreign power in return for a chest of gold, a small island group somewhere warm, or the eventual conjoining of the kingdoms.
Well, let’s not push the comparison too hard; suffice it to say that Beckham has been called to the top table, and there is going to be a very peculiar frisson every time he returns to blighty to head up the national team. The tabloids never quite saw him as a ‘proper’ English footballer, and now they finally have their justification. The backlash starts here (again).
The other story, of course, is that the marriage was made in brand heaven: both Beckham and Real Madrid are fiefdoms of Adidas. As someone presciently wrote way back in 1998, when Beckham was being pilloried for ‘losing us the World Cup’ [sic]:
“People will still make the easy protest of booing Beckham, but they know that they cannot touch him. They donít own him. They don’t have possession of his body. He does not have to sell it, 110 per cent, each week. Beckham’s body has been sold elsewhere. The real owners are Brylcreem, Sky television, Adidas sportswear - the companies who have paid for the rights to his image and who pay for pictures of it to be put on to front covers and supermarket shelves throughout the country. Forgiveness is in their hands; and their hands are in their pockets.”
* That, dear readers, was as fine an example of preterition as you’re likely to see on the Internet on a Wednesday morning. Look and learn.
I started this because I enjoyed reading Andy’s blog so much that I made the facile error of assuming that these things are as enjoyable to write as to read.
They’re not; they offer a completely different set of pleasures to the author, as I suspect my old mate Paul is finding. He’s started with a fine piece of Beckham, gladiators, and the Harlem Globetrotters. I like the look of the thing too. You’ll have to ask him why he’s called it mother, though, as I’m certainly not going to broach the subject.
Meanwhile, Andy is celebrating a year of Prandial, which handily doubles up as a sort of quick archive. Worth checking out.
“Returning home, I chanced to bump into my friends Hermione and Ron. They seemed to find something unaccountably amusing, but refused to share the source of their laughter with me. Merely observing that this was the height of rudeness, I went on my way before saying anything I might later regret on cool reflection.
It was only when I had got home and was in the process of changing my tie that I realised it was now a kipper, soiling my shirt as it flapped about. It was no doubt the result of my miscast Pesca vivum spell. How annoying of my so-called friends not to bring it to my attention!”
That’s right kids, the new Harry Pooter book is nearly with us.
What I personally want is the assurance, ‘Yes, we are just an airline. We have built up a great deal of expertise in slinging the citizenry through the sky at 500 mph, and we take every possible precaution to ensure that you, the citizen, remain airborne till you have been landed at a designated airport and do not plummet out of the sky. Moreover, we pledge that we will not have our uniforms redesigned on an annual basis by queeny coutouriers and put up our ticket prices on the strength of it.’
It’s my continuing pleasure to play host to The Deep North. Recent subjects include the usual substantial coverage of the garden, Chinese medicine, rough cats and, um, King of the Rocket Men. Go there and have a read, then come back here and read the next line:
He’s not making it up, you know.
Or, since on some level we’re all making it up really, if it’s less real than Big Brother, it’s a lot more real than weapons of mass destruction. Which, existentially speaking, is where most of us live (excepting, I suspect, Harry Potter, David Beckham and J-Lo).
Surfacing briefly for air, I realise (i) it is Friday, (ii) it is sunny outside.
This means that I can walk 50 yards to the local Friday market and grab some excellent Phad Thai straight from the wok.
While I am enjoying the sunshine, I browse the second hand bookstall. A couple of things catch my eye:
‘The Reincarnation Workbook’ - I am tempted to ask why the original owner is selling, but decide this would be Cheeky
Bertrand Russell’s ‘In Praise of Idleness‘ - normally my kindest friends would not suggest I need more idleness in my life, but at the moment an hour or two wouldn’t go amiss
Now I look it up, Collins claims that cove probably derives from the Romany kova, meaning “thing, person”. I never would have guessed such a chappish word to be Romany in origin, but I like the generous latitude of meaning it implies.
Of course, the similarity of meaning to covey (a small group of people, by extension from a small number of grouse) is entirely accidental; one of those glancing blows of apparent meaning you get in a jackdaw language such as English.
Every time I see something like that I am reminded that the English ended up with Shakespeare as poet of the nation; verbose, eclectic, eccentric, syntactically obscure, coining more than the Royal Mint, and madly, intemperately punning.
Puns, let us not forget, only work if you have a lot of semantic variance spread over a small lexical space. Cove seems to be Romany, while covey comes from old French. Languages with fewer borrowed words obviously tend to have fewer opportunities for puns.
One upshot of this that pleases me: we should be looking forward to a whole new set of puns emerging based, particularly, on the increasingly visible Indian languages.
Until we do, keep taking the tablas.
It’s easy to forget how much time we straddle.
This post last week sent me on a small trip back in time to my childhood. The reminiscence continued last night over barbecued trout and new potatoes with Paul, who grew up about 15 miles away from where I did. Both of us shared some basic experiences of the rural areas we knew as kids disappearing in the intervening period.
The fields across which I used to walk the dog, tractor ruts to the top of your boots, are now housing estates leading down to a marina where several million pounds worth of yachts now sit flatly, the waves being completely stilled by the cunning design of the outlet to the river.
I remember the first supermarket in the area opening up: a twenty minute drive to a great aircraft hangar of a building. Whenever I return home, walking down the High Street, I can recall the sequence of the shops put out of business by that supermarket.
Baker, butcher, greengrocer, dry goods, chemist, stationers.
The sugary smell of the chemist; all those sweets it used to sell to mothers trying to keep the kids quiet as they trailed round the shops in the same order each day. The fact that buying even bread would involve having a couple of conversations. Being sent down the road with a pound note to buy fags.
Sweet Jesus, I’m turning into Alan Bennett.
My eye alighted this morning on the word ‘cove’ in its secondary meaning of man or fellow. I can’t have heard this usage in nearly twenty years, not since, as a kid, the examining doctor told me I was “a fair-skinned sort of a cove” and I should be careful in the sun.
Doctors, my doctor friends always tell me, live in a different world. I suspect that they can afford to live in the past. I don’t necessarily mean that detrimentally; I mean that their profession affords continuity, a firmer grip on the time that has been traversed.
Almost nothing I do professionally or socially would have been the same twenty years ago. Buying fresh bread, hot out of the oven, now appears as a luxurious exercise only possible in expensive delis or 24 hour shops with pretensions above their station. It’s difficult to believe that it was only 25 years ago that most mornings would involve someone coming back from the bakery, the bread warming their hands.
Look, you haven’t completely escaped accounts of throat-singing yet.
If you’ve been following carefully you’ll know I’m off to see Yat-kha again tomorrow night. This time it’s a ‘proper’ gig in a ‘proper’ venue. I have the day off as well, so I’m going to be bouncing by the time I get there.
It’s like waiting for Santa to come round on his tractor.*
* Growing up on the edge of the marshes, as I did, you don’t see these things as odd, or even particular. The week before Christmas, one of the local farms would rig up a trailer to the back of a tractor and take it round the town with a Santa on the back distributing sweets to the kids. All significant events where I grew up involve people carted around town by tractor, including the carnival queens and carol singers.
Talking of Catholicism, I have quite a book title ringing in my head at the moment - Samuel Harsnett’s A declaration of egregious popish impostures.
The book, published in 1603, tackles alleged cases where roguish Catholic agitators pretend possession by devils in order to frighten the populace back to the Roman church. It seems clear that Shakespeare used Harsnett’s list of pretend devils for the Tom O’Bedlam scene in King Lear.
Me, I’m still trying to think of another book with egregious in the title. The Egregious Julie Burchill, perhaps?
« Previous entries ·