Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Summer is: enjoying songs in the key of life

Summer is about enjoying leisurely activity. Although the season may be winding down ~ the Labor Day holiday that signals an unofficial end to summer in the U.S. is this weekend ~ there are still plenty of sunny days and balmy evenings until autumn officially arrives. What better way to celebrate than by spinning some enjoyable tunes.

Whether you're looking to create a mood or, simply, be in the mood, here's a multicultural (think U.S., England, Scotland, Denmark, Sweden) playlist of some of my favorite music I've been exploring this summer that's worth a good listen. Hopefully, these songs not only appeal to your inner ear and hungry mind, they'll make you smile, too.

Happy listening!

Ray Charles / Oh, What a Beautiful Morning!

Ben Howard / Promise

Mark Ronson and Sean Lennon / Sail on Sailor

Grizzy Bear / Yet Again

Lianne La Havas / Is Your Love Big Enough?

Raphael Saadiq / Radio

Agnes Obel / Just So

Koop / I See A Different You

Pink Martini / City of Night

Belle & Sebastian / Another Sunny Day

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A music study break: Laura Marling and thoughts about her song "What He Wrote"

Laura Marling / I Speak Because I Can

One of many things I enjoy contributing to my Facebook Timeline is something I call a "music study break". It might either be a song that I've recently heard while listening to the "Morning Becomes Eclectic" program via KCRW.com (Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-noon PT; GMT -7 hours) or, perhaps, a song that's recently come up in the shuffle mode on my iPod. 

Recently, I woke up wondering what to share for my "music study break" that day and the young, English folk singer/songwriter Laura Marling (age 22) immediately came to mind. And, I thought: What a wonderfully powerful alto voice she's been blessed with, and Marling has the gifted ability to pen intelligently defiant songs about feminine independence filled with gravitas. Earlier this summer, Marling shared in what was described as a religious communion of music when she performed a concert in San Francisco's Gothic-style Grace Cathedral.

As it happens, I have an autographed copy of Marling's 2010 Mercury Prize-winning album 'I Speak Because I Can' downloaded on my iPod that I've been exploring. It's an album filled with songs whose themes are centered around responsibility, particularly the responsibility of womanhood. I came across one particular song, "What He Wrote" that's both poignant in its tone, thought provoking in its lyrics, and it brings out the clarity in her voice.

After sharing "What He Wrote" on my Timeline, I decided to peruse the lyrics and see what I could glean from them. One of my first thoughts while listening to this song was: Is Marling sharing a poetic confession with God? After all, she connects authentically with her listeners in an elegant and emotional manner. And, Marling writes with keen wisdom beyond her years.

As it turned out, Marling explained in an interview, "What He Wrote" was inspired by letters from a wife to her husband in the Second World War. And, according to Marling, it reflected a time in her own life when she was still looking for her identity as a young woman.

In writing about the album which "What He Wrote" appears on, 'I Speak Because I Can', one critic suggested that Marling "uses folk as an archetypal form to get at the essential realities of love, sex, heartbreak, and death. Sometimes she does it with heart-stopping quietness, her voice dropping to conversational tones." So, in a sense, my immediate thoughts about a woman sharing a confession with God weren't too off base as the essential realities of Marling's songs aren't unlike some of the very same themes that are expressed in The Bible or, perhaps, The Quran. 

Laura Marling / She uses folk as an archetypal form to get
at the essential realities of love, sex, heartbreak and death.

Here's what the U.K.'s New Music Express described of "What He Wrote": "Inspired by wartime love letters that Laura read in a newspaper, ‘What He Wrote’ seems to detail the forbidden love of writing to a man other than your husband – she appeals to the Greek goddess Hera, goddess of women and marriage, for forgiveness for speaking to this man when she’s 'spoken for.' The whole song, just vocals and guitar, trembles in its waltz rhythm, but the most effecting line has to be the unqualified frankness of, 'I miss his smell.'"

In her review for the London-based newspaper The Telegraph, critic Helen Brown said of Marling: "Her songs are simple yet complex, weird but quotidian like hedgerows – twisted, full of thorns, fruit, life and death." Writing about "What He Wrote," Brown says: "She gazes back into Greek mythology for female companionship, addressing the marriage goddess Hera and conjuring the spirit of Odysseus’ patient wife Penelope." 

Laura Marling speaks because she can ~ and, through her inspiring music, she delivers a lot of poignant and expressive thoughts worth our time and pleasing to our ears.

What He Wrote
By Laura Marling

Forgive me Hera,
I cannot stay.
He cut out my tongue,
There is nothing to save.

Love me?
Oh Lord, he threw me away,
He laughed at my sins, in his arms I must

He wrote, I'm broke.
Please send for me.
But I'm broken, too,
And spoken for.
Do not tempt me.

Her skin is white, and I'm light as the
So holy light shines, on the things you have done.

So I asked him,
How he became this man?
How did he learn,
To hold fruit in his hands?

And where is the lamb, that gave you your
He had to leave, though I begged Him to

Left me alone, when I needed the
Fell to my knees, and I wept for my

If he had of stayed, you might
If he had of stayed, you never would've
Taken my hand.

He wrote,
I'm alone.
Please send for me.
But I'm broken, too,
And spoken for.
Do not tempt me.

And where is the lamb, that gave Him your
He had to flee, though I begged him to

Begged him to stay, in my cold wooden
Begged him to stay, by the light of this

Me fighting him,
Fighting light,
Fighting dawn.
The waves came,
And stole him,
And took him to war.

He wrote,
I'm broke.
Please send for me.
But I'm broken, too,
And I am spoken for.
Do not tempt me.

Forgive me, Hera, I cannot stay.
He cut out my tongue, there is nothing to
Love me or loathe, he threw me away.
He laughed at my sins, in his arms I must

We write.
And that's alright.
But I miss his smell.

And we speak,
When spoken to.
That suits me well.
That suits us well.
That suits me well.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Just because: Why we fall in love with the Summer Olympic Games every four years

Golden smiles  x 4 / The American 4 x 100 meter medley relay team
of Allison Schmitt, Dana Vollmer, Rebecca Soni and Missy Franklin
display their gold medals after setting a world record.

Every four years we fall in love with the Summer Olympic Games. And, this year, there were plenty of reasons to fall in love with the London Summer Games.

NPR sports commentator Frank Deford observed that the Olympics are "like an independent movie with foreign actors you've never heard of." Further, he said, it's quite alright if we "cheer for people you've never heard of in a sport you don't care about just because."

During the London Summer Games' fortnight, which wrapped up Sunday night with a smashing three-hour finale that featured a jukebox of British music idols as well as an Eric Idle sing-a-long of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," I found myself cheering for athletes I had never heard of in sports that rarely receive any mention in my country just because ... just because I cared enough to want to. And it was fun.

Golden moment for Team GB / Heptathlete Jessica Ennis basked in
triumph as she won the heptathlon 800 meter run
 and secured a gold medal for Great Britain.

As a result of watching a lot of Olympics coverage live on the BBC via the Internet (here in the U.S., the glamor sports of swimming, gymnastics, diving and track and field aired on tape delay to garner larger nighttime audiences), I got caught up in cheering for a lot of Great Britain's Olympic hopefuls like "Team GB" track cyclist Sir Chris Hoy, heptathlete Jessica Ennis and gymnast Beth Tweddle.

Also, thanks to having a lot of Facebook friends from Tunisia, I rooted for their country's athletes like Malek Jaziri (tennis), Habiba Ghribi (athletics) and Oussama Mellouli (indoor and outdoor swimming). And, I marveled at the achievements of David Rudisha of Kenya, who set a world record in winning the men's 800 meters, and little Meseret Defar of Ethiopia (5-feet-3, 95 pounds), who won an exciting women's 5,000 meter race, then pulled a cloth picture of the Virgin Mary from her track top, held it aloft, and kissed it before breaking down in tears of joy, crying: "I won, I won."

David Rudisha / He set a
world record in winning
the gold medal in the
men's 800 meter run.
Mind you, I thrilled in cheering for the U.S. on the basketball court, in the swimming pool and on the Olympic Stadium running track throughout the fortnight, too.

Before the start of the Summer Olympics, Lord Sebastian Coe, the two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 1,500 meters from Great Britain who headed the London organizing committee, said the London Summer Games would be "the Games for everyone."

And they were.

The London Summer Games will be remembered as the most diverse and inclusive Summer Olympics ever.

American gymnast Gabby Douglas in flight / Color her a winner
as she won the gold medal in the women's all-around.

Three traditionally-conservative Islamic nations, known for their cultural and political restrictions of women ~ Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar ~ sent their first female athletes to the Olympics. The London Games will also be remembered for a double-amputee runner (Oscar Pistorius of South Africa, who earned the nickname "The Blade Runner"); an African-American gymnast (Gabby Douglas of the U.S., who became the first woman of color to win the gymnastics all-around gold medal); and an openly gay soccer player whose acceptance by her teammates was very refreshing (Megan Rapinoe of the U.S., who became the first prominent American soccer player to come out in the media).

The world's Olympic athletes, representing 204 nations of the world, came from all walks of life just like the fans who cheered for them. And, their stories were quite compelling, too.

Inclusive but alone, too / Sarah Attar became the first female Saudi
athlete to compete in an Olympic track and field event. 

Last Wednesday, an Olympic milestone was achieved when the first woman track and field athlete representing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia competed. Sarah Attar, 19, born and raised in the U.S. of a Saudi father and an American mother and who holds dual citizenship, ran in the last heat of the 800 meter run. A cross-country runner at Pepperdine University in Calfornia, Attar's Olympic experience lasted less than three minutes.

Sarah Attar wore a white hijab
and a green and black track suit
that covered her arms and legs
to comply with Saudi Arabia's
strict interpretation of
Islamic law.
Attired in a white hijab and a black and green track suit that covered her arms and legs to comply with Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of Islamic law, Attar received a standing ovation from many in the crowd at Olympic Stadium as she crossed the finish line alone, well behind the others in her heat. Although she finished last in her heat in 2 minutes 44.95 seconds, about 41 seconds behind the first-place finisher, Attar had much to smile about her experience.

Attar said she wanted to represent Saudi Arabia at the Olympics as a way of inspiring women. "This is such a huge honor and an amazing experience, just to be representing the women," she said, following the conclusion of her race. "I know that this can make a huge difference. Hopefully, this sparks something amazing."

A few other milestones worth sharing from the Olympic fortnight:

  • Malaysian diver Pamg Pandelela Rinong won the first-ever diving medal for Malaysia when she won a bronze medal in the 10 meter platform competition. "I feel a great honor to win the historic medal for my country," said Pamg, who was the flag bearer for Malaysia at the opening ceremonies. "I'm very proud of Malaysia for the breakthrough, and hope my country is also proud of me," she added.
  • The tiny Caribbean nation of Grenada (population 109,000) became the smallest country to win an Olympic gold medal when 19-year-old Kirani James won the men's 400 meter sprint.
  • Before the London Games, the last all-male sport in the Olympics was boxing. No more, as the first gold medals in women's boxing were awarded in three different weight classes. Great Britain's Nicola Adams became the first female to win an Olympic gold medal. Then, Ireland's Katie Taylor won her country's first gold medal of the 2012 Games. Finally, Claressa Shields won the first U.S. women's boxing gold medal. "It's a dream come true," Adams told BBC Sport. "I am so happy and overwhelmed with joy right now. I have wanted this all my life and I have done it."
A bronze moment / Pamg Pandalela Rinong won Malaysia's first-ever
diving medal. "I hope my country is ... proud of me."

The American poet Maya Angelou, who has written about diversity and inclusion throughout her lifetime, observed: "We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color."

A friend of mine from England shared their perspective about the Games with me that are worth sharing with you: "As a nation, Great Britain has found itself not only through its medal success (Team GB won a total of 65 medals, including 29 golds), but by realizing that we are a truly diverse and inclusive nation who welcome and celebrate the success of all."

While the London Summer Games have been about "inspiring a new generation," these Olympic Games will be remembered for its diversity and inclusiveness, too.

Indeed, breaking down barriers one medal at a time, and welcoming and celebrating the success of all.

Various photographs courtesy of The Guardian.co.uk, 2012.
Photograph of David Rudisha courstesy of nbcolympics.com, 2012.
Image of Sarah Attar courtesy of NBC, 2012.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

These Olympics have been stunning, full of emotion, digital, even conversational, too!

For the love of sport / Winning an Olympic gold medal
is what every athlete strives to achieve.

The late, great Czech long-distance runner Emil Zátopek, who won three gold medals in the 1952 Helsinki Summer Olympic Games, once offered some astute advice to would-be Olympians: "If you want to win something, run 100 meters. If you want to experience something, run a marathon."

In the Helsinki Games, Zátopek won the 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters and the marathon. Zátopek's final medal (he also won a gold and a silver medal in the 1948 London Games) came when he decided at the last minute to compete in his very first marathon. He broke the existing Olympic record in winning each of the three events.

Zátopek's strategy for the marathon was simple, wrote Simon Burnton in the London Guardian newspaper: "He raced alongside Jim Peters, the British world-record holder. After a punishing first 15 kilometers in which Peters knew he had overtaxed himself, Zátopek asked the Englishman what he thought of the race thus far. The astonished Peters told the Czech that the pace was 'too slow', in an attempt to slip up Zátopek, at which point Zátopek simply accelerated. Peters never finished; Zátopek ran an Olymic record race."

Zátopek's triple gold medal hat trick from 60 years ago was merely ranked No. 41 among 50 stunning Olympic moments by the Guardian earlier this year.

Usain Bolt / World's Fastest Human ~ again.

During the first 11 days of this year's London Summer Games, there's been many stunning and memorable moments involving the world's most outstanding athletes: Think American swimmer Michael Phelps, who broke a 48-year-old Olympic record for most total medals. We've been witness to supreme excellence and raw emotions: Think Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, who claimed the title of world's fastest human for the second consecutive Summer Olympics, then put on a theatrical performance in celebrating his victory that would be the envy of West End theatre. And, certainly, there's been much for host nation Great Britain to be jolly about, too: Think Andy Murray winning the men's singles gold on the famed Wimbledon grass tennis courts.

In a perfect world, NBC, my country's Olympics television broadcaster, would show all of the marquee events like swimming, gymnastics and track and field ~ called athletics throughout much of the rest of the world ~ live, coast-to-coast in all time zones. Instead, NBC monopolizes these events for dramatic, prime-time viewing, packaged on tape, and shown hours after they took place. Often, many big events, like the men's 100 meter dash, aired here in the U.S. after 11 p.m., much too late for many to stay up to watch.

Michael Phelps / The greatest Olympian of them all.

Instead, I've found a reliable internet connection for the BBC, and last week, I delighted in watching all of the swimming finals live during the middle of the day on my MacBook Pro laptop. In doing so, I gained a different perspective about American Olympians like Phelps and Missy Franklin, who reigned in the pool, and the 16-year-old American gymnast Gabby Douglas, who won the all-around gold medal after she helped the U.S. win the team gold medal.

In addition, I came to learn the personal stories of many wonderful and charismatic British athletes competing for Team GB, like Jessica Ennis (gold medal winner in the heptathlon), Mo Farah (gold medal winner in the men's 10,000 meters) and Sir Chris Hoy, who Tuesday night became the most decorated British Olympian when he won his sixth gold medal in track cycling. Their fetes were brilliantly described by a hardy group of BBC presenters, correspondents and commentators. I found myself rooting for Team GB from across the pond, wanting to see these likable athletes do well and win gold.

American gymnast Gabby Douglas
won the individual all-around title.
Also, I've relied on reading the wonderful and descriptive stories, and thrilled to the dramatic and colorful photography and detailed graphics each day in my home-delivered copy of the New York Times print edition and on their website, too.

Sometimes, it still takes an old-fashioned newspaper to be able to put something as huge as the Summer Olympics into proper perspective.

For many, including myself, these have been a digital and "conversational" Olympics, too. Through Facebook, Twitter, texting and other social media, eager fans across the world have been able to engage in conversation ~ at times as the events are unfolding ~ with like-minded Olympic fans. In the past week, I've discussed LeBron James and the U.S. "dream team" with a basketball fan in Tunisia, and cheered for Phelps and Franklin with swimming fans in Germany and Hungary. Plus, I shared in the raw emotions of last Friday's 19-17 third-set tennis thriller between Roger Federer of Switzerland and Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina on Wimbledon's Centre Court with fans of both players, stretching from Canada to Scotland and from Morocco to Serbia, too.

While there's been many moments to digest and delight in during this London fortnight, there is one that's worth remembering for all the right reasons. It involved the sprinter Kirani James, who won the first medal for the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada. Before Monday night, Grenada, which only gained its independence in 1974, had never had an Olympic medalist in any event. Now, it has a gold medalist in the talented 19-year-old James. It was special to see him receive his gold medal tonight and to hear his country's national anthem played before an electrifying-but-appreciative Olympic Stadium crowd. The BBC's television images captured the moment nicely for the all world to see, and James could be seen throughout the anthem singing the words to "Hail Grenada" with much emotion showing in his young face. It left me wondering if this magic Olympic moment will get left on the NBC editing floor?

Olympic spirit and flame / Colorful javelins are ready for
competition in front of the cauldron at Olympic Stadium.

Indeed, each day has brought us golden moments that will live on in our collective memory and, importantly, the Olympics have helped foster an appreciation for healthy competition among the world's elite athletes.

Which brings us full circle to Emil Zátopek for a dash of Olympics perspective. He observed: "Great is the victory, but the friendship of all is greater."

Photo of Olympic gold medal courtesy of Getty Images, 2012.
Photos of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps courtesy of the Guardian.co.uk, 2012.
Photo of Gabby Douglas courtesy of nytimes.com, 2012
Photo of Olympic cauldron courtesy of Reuters, 2012.