A Cultural Kaleidoscope

reviews, articles and musings on art, music, travel, culture, and life...

Friday, March 7, 2008

Made in the Dark

HOT CHIP – Made in the Dark

3.5 Stars

Sounds Like: LCD Soundsystem, The Rapture

From the opening drone of the keys which slowly gains momentum to the final soft, soulful ballad, Made in the Dark leads listeners on a journey through a sonic labyrinth. The third LP from Hot Chip consists of simple melodies and repetitive synthesizer riffs that seem to have a clear path and an end in sight. But, like a basketball player who executes a crossover dribble, Hot Chip employs sudden breaks and swings the play in an unexpected direction.

The British quintet samples Todd Rundgren’s “Intro” from Something/Anything? in the middle of massive bass lines and heavy layers of percussion on the track “Shake a Fist,” which strangely makes sense in the larger context of the album: to expect the unexpected. The spoken word directs the audience to try to pick out the studio and production sounds that do not belong on the album. In line with the enigmatic mentality of the members of Hot Chip, wrong is right and imperfections somehow make things perfect.

If this already seems like a patchwork of sounds and ideas, add in the fact that Hot Chip blends soul with R & B, dance, pop, techno, electronic, reggae and rock. It’s difficult to place a genre label on this quirky group. And it seems like they aim for ambiguity. “Don’t Dance” is one of the most energy-charged, danceable tracks on the album, yet lead vocalist Alexis Taylor (who recalls Nick Drake) repetitively croons the hook “Don’t dance/ Don’t dance” in his high falsetto.

Synth-heavy electro-pop numbers filled with hand-claps, drum machines, and various percussive instruments including bongos, shakers, and wood blocks dominate the album. Songs like “Bendable, Posable” reference hip-hop, while “Touch Too Much” reveals Afrobeat influences and carries a barrage of drum patterns, blaring synthesizers, and vocal looping. Al Doyle’s disco guitar style is most apparent on “Hold On” and calls to mind James Murphy and LCD Soundsystem. Other tracks find the group harmonizing with organ chords like a church choir. And with an entire song dedicated to wrestling terminology and name-checking a folk icon, (“here we come, drop-kick/ half-nelson, full-nelson/ Willie Nelson, Willie Nelson”), the album is anything but boring.

Taylor and Joe Goddard (who share songwriting duties and sometimes lead vocals) prove that penning ballads and meaningful lyrics are just as much their forte as crafting dance tracks with catchy beats. 2006’s The Warning was an exploration into other sounds beyond Hot Chip’s usual DJing, but Made in the Dark evolves a step farther, as the band is able to segue easily between musical moods and styles to create a cohesive textural collage.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Beat The Drum

I wander past wind chimes, stacks of psychic literature, and wooden statuary from the Far East as soothing New Age music emanates throughout Seven Rays Bookstore. Passing through beaded curtains and woven hemp tapestries, I enter a small room behind the store, and a tall, graceful African man greets me. His dark skin contrasts with his white teeth and multi-colored Kente print dashiki and matching Kufi hat.

The man introduces himself as our teacher, Este Nyadedzor (but prefers to be called David). He welcomes me and several others to his class with a grateful tone and a large full-tooth smile. He speaks slowly in English (with a thick West African accent), choosing his words with great care. He grins and laughs deeply throughout his entire presentation on his native culture of Ghana.

Upon David’s encouragement, those who did not bring their own drums (only me, of course) should borrow one from the pool of extras at the center of the room. I select a medium size djembe – a wooden drum shaped like a large goblet with tribal carvings along the base and an animal hide playing surface attached to the top by strands of rope.

I take a seat in an uncomfortable metal folding chair next to a white guy with dreads and tribal tattoos on his forearms, says he is also an SU student. We bring our chairs into the circle to join the other five people in the group – an elderly couple who frequent the class, a middle-aged man visiting from Vermont, a young female Yoga instructor who is also a Seven Rays employee, and David.

I notice that everyone in the room is barefoot except for me. After a fleeting moment of embarrassment, I remove my shoes too.

The teacher instructs us to place the drums between our inner thighs (near the knees) and tilt them forward toward him. This is the proper ready position. I tilt my djembe a little too far forward, and it topples to the floor. “This is not the ready position,” David says as he chuckles.

By 6:30, my dignity is still somewhat intact, and we began with the basic methods of striking the drum. First, with our fingers relaxed and spread apart, we learned to hit the outer edge of the drum (just above the rim) with the palm to make a high, sharp sound called the slap. Then David taught us how to play the lower bass note by hitting the center of the drum with our palms while holding our fingers firmly together. These notes were somewhat familiar to me from participating in parking-lot drum circles at String Cheese concerts. I also previously tried to play the introductory percussion rhythm of Ben Harper’s famed song, “Burn One Down” at a friend’s house (both attempts failed).

We practice counting and learn several different patterns that involve mixing the two techniques. The two elderly folks with their loose fitting khaki-colored garb and unkempt gray hair perfectly execute each song and are clearly veterans of the Seven Rays drum circle. They seem to be irritated with me and the other SU newcomer (but mostly me – at least the other guy brought his own drum and looks the part of a drum circle participant). David stops several times to help us regain the rhythm and catch up with the rest of the circle.

We repeat after our teacher, saying, “Anke dje, anke be.” This means “Everyone gather together.” The group chants this in English and in the native Asante language.

The patterns become more advanced, perhaps to suit the needs of the impatient old timers of the group. I struggle to keep up. I stop often to watch David’s hands and count with the group until I find the beat again. He explains that it takes weeks of practice to keep up with this fast pace, which makes me feel better about my poor performance.

My hands start to get sore, and I am exhausted from counting beats and singing. I’m also tired of the old lady drum vet glaring at me and telling me not to think about what I’m doing “but just to feel the energy through the drum.”

As much as I love the sounds of percussion instruments (especially the African djembe) and appreciate David’s kindness and patience, 8 o’clock could not come fast enough. I thanked him for the lesson and paid my $10, put my shoes back on, and walked to Alto Cinco for a beer. The laid-back environment I had been expecting at the drum circle was instead waiting for me with the Westcott hippies next door.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Sunrise in Millenium Park

Playing in Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate in Chicago's Millenium Park
- 110 ton elliptical structure inspired by liquid mercury

The Pavilion designed by Frank Gehry
- outdoor concert venue that can hold 12,000 people in the heart of downtown Chicago

"How do you make everyone - not just the people in the seats, but the people sitting 400 feet away on the lawn - feel good about coming to this place to listen to music? And the answer is, you bring them into it. You make the proscenium larger; you build a trellis with a distributed sound system. You make people feel part of the experience."

-Frank Gehry

"Georgia Ice Cream"

I remember standing on top of daddy’s feet with his worn leather moccasins beneath my toes as we danced around the kitchen in our pajamas to the soulful sounds of Al Green on an easy Sunday morning. We twirled around cartons of eggs, bowls of fruit, and piles of toast while preparing our traditional weekly breakfast. A medium-sized stainless steel saucepot filled with white, stone-ground grits was always present on the front burner and in close range of our dance steps, as it required frequent stirring.

Anybody can scramble eggs or cut up pieces of cantaloupe, but it takes a dedicated soul to cook grits – and daddy is one of those people. He makes the best grits I’ve ever tasted. Now, I’m not talking about that thin, watery, white soup they serve you at Denny’s. I’m not talking about Quaker Instant Grits either (a sin in all southern kitchens). I’m talking about grits with real texture and a thick consistency like oatmeal, grits with large pats of butter and salt and pepper to taste.

These finely ground pieces of corn are an important part of Southern culture and tradition. Corn is easy to grow in the south and serves as a hearty and filling meal in any form. To make grits, you boil the ground kernels in water or milk (or both depending on your preference) until enough of the liquid evaporates to leave the substance semi-solid like porridge. It’s important to stir the grits constantly. Careless grit-makers will leave the stove unattended, forgetting to keep the grits moving. This neglect allows too much water to dissolve leaving rock-like deposits in the pot or burning the grits if left long enough. Grits stuck to the side of a pot will ruin your day, as grit residue is one of the toughest things to scrape out of cookware.

There are other types of grit-makers (those who are in a hurry or just plain lazy), who don’t measure the proper amount of water (3.5 cups of water for every cup of grits) or who take the pot off of the burner before the liquid has evaporated. These faux-pas result in the worst types of grits – runny and watery – like soup broth with grains of rice floating in it or oatmeal in cold water that will not dissolve. Your grits should not be drinkable.

They should be sticky and creamy, but a little grainy. They should be thick and hearty like goulash, but also smooth and soft. Grits should assail your nose with whiffs of butter and pepper, as warm steam fills the air. They go with anything and can be dressed up or down. Grits can be a simple breakfast food with sugar or bacon crumbled on top or a casserole baked with cheeses and peppers. They serve as a home base for pieces of shrimp and salmon, and bed of them can be found beneath nearly every meal containing fish or meat in the Low Country.

Grits have been a mainstay in Southerners’ kitchens for centuries. They are a staple of the southern diet and a symbol of southern hospitality. Everyone in the south wants to know how to cook grits the right way or live with someone else who knows how. In a classic Beach Music song, Rick Strickland even decided that his woman has “gotta hit the road because she can’t fix grits.” And Al Green, also a southern boy from Arkansas, dated a woman who knew how to cook pots of thick, sticky grits (one of which she famously threw at him when she thought Al was cheating on her).

But, daddy makes the best grits I’ve ever tasted – made with love, care, soul, and southern charm. The grits I am eating right now are comfort food to me as I spin around my kitchen singing into a wooden spoon, 820 miles away from my home in South Carolina. I lick the spoon and smile to myself knowing that I will not be kicked to the curb over my grit-making abilities. Daddy has taught me well.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Salt City Run

My gray New Balance 992s hit the pavement, bluish-green water laps against the shore, and seagulls squawk in the distance. An odor emanates from the lake. It reeks of garbage, but the clear October blue sky and families picnicking together on the freshly cut grass that surrounds me makes up for this. I follow the asphalt trail as it winds through maple trees and park benches, past a marina and a group of children playing catch. As I pass my final mile marker, I break into a sprint for the final half-mile of my journey. My right foot thuds on top of the white spray painted line indicating that I have traveled 2.5 miles around Onondaga Lake. I stop, place my hands on my hips, and bend over gasping for air. When I catch my breath, I walk over to a small boulder at the edge of the lake. I step up onto it and look in the direction that I have just come from. Across the lake, I see the entire skyline of Syracuse. While looking at this panorama at dusk, I realize that the most beautiful thing about the city is the way that it looks from afar.

Spontaneous Collaboration

Paint splatters on the canvas as people of all ages from the Syracuse community join in Michael Berman’s live interactive painting. As part of the exhibition at the Delavan Gallery entitled “Real Places, Imagined Spaces,” Berman adds an extra creative element and invites the public to paint alongside him and his exhibited work.

This collaborative segment became part of his show to bring people together to create a unique work of art. After 23 years of exhibiting, this tie-dye wearing, former hippie still has what it takes to show that space can warp into other places via the imagination.

In the warehouse next to the main gallery, an 8.5 x 20 foot vinyl canvas stretches across the wall. Participants bring their own materials or use the endless mop buckets and mason jars filled with paints, brushes, pastels, spray paint, and markers. After four weeks, the once blank canvas has evolved into a collage of mixed media with found objects, graffiti, a portrait of Van Gogh, ink drawings, signatures, and expressionist paint splatterings reminiscent of Pollock.

Berman’s own smaller canvas next to this one has morphed as well, into a pulsating geometric field of brightly contrasting colors. His large abstract paintings are composed of oil and acrylic on a variety of materials, including burlap, corrugated cardboard, vinyl, and cork. These mediums add texture to the works, as the bold, vibrant turquoises, magentas, and purples come to life. The shapes play off of each other creating a feeling of movement, similar in composition to Matisse’s paper cut-outs. Through the use of shadowing, unique perspective, and tromp l’oeil, the forms seem to dance and fall through the canvas.

These spontaneous works of art explore the beauty and mystery of space seen and imagined. Creativity is an ever-changing process and neither an artist nor his work is ever truly finished.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Syracuse Got Sole...So Much Sole

As I enter Discount Shoe Repair on East Washington Street, the smells of shoe polish and treated leather assail my nostrils. A middle-aged man with olive skin and graying hair shuffles around the small wood-paneled shop. He sees me, sets down the chocolate brown ankle boot he is polishing, and adjusts the gold chain around his neck (possibly bearing a medallion of St. Crispin, the patron saint of cobblers). Then, moving toward me, he holds out both of his arms in a welcoming gesture and greets me in a thick Italian accent. “Ciao, Bella.”

Raphael (or the anglicized “Ralph,” as he tells me he’s called) is from Calabria, Italy. His entire family emigrated to the United States in early 1970 because his grandparents lived in Syracuse where there was a large Italian community. “They loved it here and wanted the rest of the family to join them where there was a better economy and more freedom,” Ralph says.

While watching the local cobblers at work near his home in southern Italy, Ralph was impressed by their hard work, craftsmanship, and attention to detail. “I knew this was going to be my trade,” he says with a half smile as he fingers the stubble on his chin.

As an apprentice in his uncle’s shoe shop, he learned the craft and then opened his own business in 1975 at its current location in downtown Syracuse. Loafers, boots, sandals, handbags, and belts cover nearly every surface of the tiny shop (except for those walls which are plastered with laminated scenic photographs of Italy and tattered posters of Italian soccer teams and the Syracuse Crunch).

He lets me watch him work while he explains the art of repairing a shoe. His hands are rough and calloused with black polish smeared on them, but they move delicately across the shoe as he effortlessly stitches and tacs on a new sole. He places the shoe on a last, an iron mold used to maintain the form. “Each shoe is a challenge and a different puzzle,” says Ralph.

“Here is another shoe where I added a higher heel and sole for a woman who has 2 legs of a different length,” he explains as he holds up a white platform shoe. “I can fix anything and make anything. No one in this town can do what I do. I am the best at my job.”

The cobbler takes great pride in what he does. Ralph is pleased to know that he has mastered a trade and can carry on an old-world Italian tradition. The shoe repair business is like a science to him. As I watch him, he calls to mind a dentist filling a cavity or crafting a denture for the perfect fit.

“What I do is a lost art. They don’t even make these machines I use anymore. Modern ones are for large shoe companies where they manufacture many shoes – and they cost about $100,000 each now,” Ralph shouts over the rumble of a large antique shoe-buffing machine.

Ralph conveys to me that there is nothing like working for yourself and having your own business. He has worked hard over the past 32 years and is proud of his success. He attributes this to the traditions fostered by the surrounding Italian community in Syracuse and his dedicated clients who appreciate his craft. “I have many regular customers who have come here for years and then their kids grow up and start coming to me too,” Ralph says, smirking.

I reach into the shopping bag I have been holding and hand him my favorite pair of worn black high heels with a crocodile pattern. I need them repaired for the third time.

“Who did this?” Ralph exclaims while laughing. “Where was this terrible work done? Please let Ralph take care of you from now on.”