Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Where words fail, music speaks

The famous Danish author Hans Christian Andersen once said: "Where words fail, music speaks."

Indeed, it's a powerful quote containing just five brief words. And, yet, it's one that speaks volumes in today's popular culture and society ~ and it goes beyond borders, too.

Music is an every-day part of my life and has been for a very long time. I don't think a day passes by when I don't listen to a least a few hours of music ~ and I share the same enthusiasm for indie, alternative and Americana as I do for jazz and classical. Plus, I have Facebook friends in far reaches of the globe who are turning me on to their favorite house and country music ~ even Turkish, too.

After all, I enjoy listening to music while I write, while I work out at the fitness center, while I drive a car or when I take the commuter rail train from Oakland to San Francisco and back across the Bay. And, I'm very much attached to listening to the "Morning Becomes Eclectic" show daily via and it's 24-hour music stream "Eclectic 24".

Of course, thanks to the modern-day iPod and "smart phones", our favorite music can be at our fingertips 24/7/365 as well as being stored on our laptop or PC via iTunes Library or, too.

Music is everywhere we want it to be.

The bottom line is this: Not only is music everywhere we want it to be, but there's lots of exciting and interesting music worth a good listen. Here's five current songs that recently got my attention that are worth your attention, too:

Birdy: "1901"
Rufus Wainwright: "Montauk"
Lianne La Havas: "No Room For Doubt"
The Shins: "September"
School of Seven Bells: "The Night"

Happy listening!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

That bluesy but stirringly soulful voice

Ruthie Foster
Ruthie Foster is an American singer/songwriter of the blues and folk music with impeccable interpretive abilities. She probably isn't a household name with most of you ~ and, I'll admit, I wasn't familiar with Foster's music until hearing a recent feature story about her on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Saturday.

However, I thought, anyone who can turn the trademark Johnny Cash tune "Ring of Fire" into a slow and soulful crawl until it's virtually unrecognizable is worth my attention. And, she transforms The Band's "It Makes No Difference" into a a very moving spiritual, too.

Although Foster is from a small town in central Texas, there's nothing small about her voice or the way she sings. After all, it's that voice ~ that bluesy but stirringly soulful voice ~ that grabbed my attention and left me wanting to know more about her and her music.

Foster grew up in a family of gospel singers and her voice brings to mind both Aretha Franklin and Ella Fitzgerald. Her 2009 album, The Truth According to Ruthie Foster was nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album. Her new album of originals and covers, Let It Burn, intersperses blues, soul, gospel and rock, and on it, she collaborates with the legendary gospel group The Blind Boys of Alabama.

Among the many songs that stand out on Let It Burn is "Lord Remember Me." It's a song Foster wrote while touring. Initially, "Lord Remember Me" turned into a song that she sang before going on stage. "It was a prayer to me," she recalled in an interview about the making of Let It Burn.

On Let It Burn, Foster passionately sings "Lord Remember Me" with with supporting vocals by The Blind Boys of Alabama.

Oh, Lord remember me 
Remember me
Oh, Lord remember me
Please remember me
When these chains are broken
Set my body free
Oh, Lord remember me
Remember me.

Hey, Lord I call Your name
I call Your name
Hey, Lord I call Your name
I call Your name
Hey, Lord can't see right from wrong
Hey, Lord I call Your name.

Got me on to do Your will
Got me on to do Your will
When trouble rules me
Keep me standing still
Got me on to Your will.

Oh, Lord remember me
Oh, Lord remember me
When chains are broken
Set my spirit free
Oh, Lord remember me
When these chains are broken
Set my spirit free
Oh, Lord remember me.

"It's sisters sitting in the church, sitting in the 'Amen Corner'," says Foster, reflecting upon "Lord Remember Me". "They've got their hats; they've got their fans, and all you hear are the voices and the high heels stomping on the floor.

"It's a prayer and, hopefully, a lot more."

To listen to the NPR interview with Ruthie Foster: 

To listen to "Lord Remember Me":

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A History of the World in 100 Objects

The British Museum / One of the world's greatest museums
of human history and culture.

Imagine a book that is both an intellectual and visual feast, and allows you to travel back in time and across the globe to see how the human experience has shaped the world and been shaped by it over the past two million years.

In A History of the World in 100 Objects, based on the audacious and popular BBC Radio 4 series, author Neil MacGregor "takes a dramatically original approach to the history of humanity" by using objects left behind by previous civilizations ~ often accidentally ~ as "prisms through which we can explore past worlds and the lives of the men and women who lived in them."

A History of the World in 100 Objects begins with the story of a chopping tool from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, Africa, a relic that is between 1.8-2 million years old and is one of the earliest surviving objects made by human hands. This hefty, 707-page book, which we recently checked out from our local public library, concludes with a story about an object from the modern, twenty-first century: a solar-powered lamp and charger manufactured in Shenzhen, Guandong, China, that is representative of the world we live in today.

A History of the World /
From the handaxe to the credit card.

According to the book's dust jacket, Neil MacGregor's aim "is not simply to describe these remarkable things, but to show us their significance ~ how a stone pillar tells us about a great Indian emperor preaching tolerance to his people, how Spanish pieces of eight tell us about the beginning of a global currency, or how an early Victorian tea set tells us about the impact of empire."

MacGregor, 65, who has been the director of the British Museum since 2002, writes: "The story is told exclusively through the things that humans have made ~ all sorts of things, carefully designed and then either admired and preserved, or used, broken and thrown away. I've chosen just a hundred objects from different points on our journey ~ from a cooking pot to a golden galleon, from a Stone Age tool to a credit card, and each object comes from the collection of the British Museum."

Through these 100 objects, MacGregor describes history as a kaleidoscope ~ "shifting, interconnected, constantly surprising, and shaping our world today in ways that most of us have never imagined."

At the time of the book's publishing last October, Carol Vogel of the New York Times wrote: "These objects, some humble, some glorious, embody intriguing tales of politics and power, social history and human behavior."

During a 2005 spring vacation trip to London, I took advantage of the opportunity to explore the British Museum. What's truly remarkable about this museum, replete with its Greek Revival facade and first opened to the public in 1759, is that its holdings do not including any paintings. However, what this museum does include is an impressive collection of antiquities. As it turned out, my visit to the British Museum was one of the most enjoyable afternoons I have ever spent at a museum.

The Rosetta Stone / This must-see
attraction was added to
the museum's collection in 1802.
Among many things that stood out for me in the breadth of the museum's collections was seeing the Rosetta Stone up close and personal.

Like the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris, everyone crowded around, wanting to catch a glimpse of the Rosetta Stone and photograph it.

The Rosetta Stone, found at el-Rashid, Egypt in 196 B.C., is the 33rd of 100 objects whose story is told by MacGregor and, among visitors to the museum, it is definitely a must-see attraction.

"Every day when I walk through the Egyptian sculpture gallery at the British Museum there are tour guides speaking every imaginable language addressing groups of visitors, all craning to see this object. It is on every visitor's itinerary, and, with the mummies, it's the most popular object in the British Museum," writes MacGregor.

"Why? It's decidedly dull to look at ~ a grey stone about the size of one of those large suitcases you see people trundling around on wheels at airports," adds MacGregor. "The rough edges show that it's been broken from a larger stone, with the fractures cutting across the text that covers one side. And when you read that text, it's pretty dull too ~ it's mostly bureaucratic jargon about tax concessions. But, as so often in the Museum, appearances are deceptive."

MacGregor continues: "This dreary bit of broken granite has played a starring role in three fascinating and different stories: the story of the Greek kings who ruled in Alexandria after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt; the story of the French and British imperial competition across the Middle East after Napoleon invaded Egypt; and the extraordinary but peaceful scholarly contest that led to the most famous decipherment in history ~ the cracking of hieroglyphics."

What matters now, writes MacGregor, "is not what the stone says but that it says it three times in three different languages: in Classical Greek, the language of the Greek rules and the state administration, and then in two forms of ancient Egyptian: the everyday writing of the people (known as Demotic) and the priestly hieroglyphics which had for centuries baffled Europeans. It was the Rosetta Stone that changed all that; it dramatically opened up the entire world of ancient Egypt to scholarship."

What I find truly amazing after reading the chapter about the Rosetta Stone is that it survived unread through 2,000 years of various occupations, including the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Persians, Muslim Arabs and Ottoman Turks. Eventually, the 1798 Napoleon-led French military invasion of Egypt ("they wanted to cut the British route to India") yielded the Rosetta Stone. "The French seized the stone as a trophy of war, but it never made it back to Paris. With his fleet destroyed by Nelson at the Battle of the Nile, Napoleon himself returned to France, leaving the French army behind. In 1801, the French surrendered to the British and Egyptian generals. The terms of the Treaty of Alexandria included the handing over of antiquities, among them the Rosetta Stone."

Soon, the stone found its way to Great Britain for good after its capture by the British Army where it was presented to the British Museum by King George III. The Rosetta Stone has been displayed in the public domain at the British Museum since 1802.

Today, the Rosetta Stone is freely available for the world's scholars to see. Ironically, it was a French scholar, Jean-Francois Champollion, who finally cracked the stone's hieroglyphics in 1822. For the British Museum's many visitors, who wait patiently like I did on a Sunday afternoon in March 2005 for a fleeting glimpse, seeing the Rosetta Stone is a thrill of a lifetime and a chance opportunity to photograph it for posterity.

Photographs of the British Museum and the Rosetta Stone by Michael Dickens, copyright 2005. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Thoughts on "What the Water Gave to Me"

What the Water Gave Me / A chance encounter with a seagull during
a walk along the Gulf of Mexico at Port Aransas, Texas.

Recently, the passionate song "What the Water Gave Me" by Florence and the Machine came up on shuffle in my iPod's "Morning Becomes Eclectic" playlist. One good listen of the song led to another and, soon after, it got me thinking about water and its importance in religion.

The significance of water in scripture as described in both The Bible and The Quran is tremendous.  Water is mentioned in the Bible 442 times in the New International Version and 363 times in the King James Version. After all, water speaks of physical or natural birth. Water speaks to us of the word of God and Allah. Water speaks to us of ablution. Water speaks to us of a spiritual life.

In The Bible, Genesis II describes the perfect conditions of the garden of Eden, a garden which was watered by a river. Of course, without water, the garden would have died, as plants, animals and humans cannot survive without water. Indeed, this river is a beautiful picture of the life that Christ gives to His children through the Spirit of God.

In The Quran, the Holy Book asserts that water is, by the will of God, the sole basis for the emergence of life: "We have made every living thing out of water." (Sura 21 The Prophets, ayat 30). And, water is often used to describe Paradise.

In the Quranic account of the forming of the Cosmos, there is a great emphasis placed on water, as demonstrated in other ayat (verses) in the preceding sura (chapter) which lists heaven, earth, the sun, night and day as natural factors in the creation of the universe. It also speaks of a single element that infuses life into the universe: the element of water.

In addition to The Bible and The Quran, the Chinese taoist philosopher Lao Tzu, who wrote Tao Te Ching (The Book of the Way), said: "Nothing in the world is more flexible and yielding than water. Yet, when it attacks the firm and the strong, none can withstand it, because they have no way to change it. So, the flexible overcome the adamant, the yielding overcome the forceful. Everyone knows this, but no one can do it."

The element of water has appeared often in popular song. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" by Simon and Garfunkel; "Rain" by The Beatles; "Riders on the Storm" by the Doors; and "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" by Otis Redding, all come to mind. Which brings me back to "What the Water Gave Me."

In 2011, Florence Welch, the lead singer for the the English indie folk-rock group Florence and the Machine, and Eg White penned the song "What the Water Gave Me." It is written in the key of C Minor and contains not only ethereal vocals, harps and strings, but also a gospel-like organ and soaring gospel-rooted harmonies.

In a Wikipedia article about "What the Water Gave Me," titled after a famous Frida Kahlo painting, Welch elaborated on the title and meaning of the song: "It's a song for the water, because in music and art what I'm really interested in are the things that are overwhelming. The ocean seems to me to be nature's great overwhelmer."

Welch continues: "When I was writing this song I was thinking a lot about all those people who've lost their lives in vain attempts to save their loved ones from drowning. It's about water in all forms and all bodies." Additionally, she says, the song talks about "children who are swept out to sea, and their parents go in after them and try to rescue them."

Time it took us
To where the water was
That's what the water gave me
And time goes quicker
Between the two of us
Oh, my love, don't forsake me
Take what the water gave me

Lay me down
Let the only sound
Be the overflow
Pockets full of stones
Lay me down
Let the only sound
Be the overflow

And oh, poor Atlas
The world's a beast of a burden
You've been holding on a long time
And all this longing
And the ships are left to rust
That's what the water gave us

So lay me down
Let the only sound
Be the overflow
Pockets full of stones
Lay me down
Let the only sound
Be the overflow

'Cause they took your loved ones
But returned them in exchange for you.
But would you have it any other way?
Would you have it any other way?
You could have it any other way

'Cause she's a cruel mistress
And the bargain must be made
But oh, my love, don't forget me
When I let the water take me

So, lay me down
Let the only sound
Be the overflow
Pockets full of stones
Lay me down
let the only sound
Be the overflow

Lay me down
Let the only sound
Be the overflow
Pockets full of stones

Lay me down
Let the only sound
Be the overflow.
This reaffirming, epic song, whose themes mix images of death (legendary writer Virginia Woolf's suicide; her walking into the water with her pockets filled with stones) with declarations of undying love, was critically praised by both U.S. and British critics. One called it "overwhelming in its bombast, yet delicate in its sonic detail."

Like many biblical scriptures, "What the Water Gave Me" is lovely, passionate and intense all rolled together. The revelatory joy in Florence Welch's voice by the end of the song shows us what one critic described as "just how emotionally powerful and engaging a pop song can be."


What the water gives us is life.

Note: YouTube video of Florence and the Machine performing "What the Water Gave Me" live on 'Later...with Jools Holland', BBC2, November 2011.