Category Archives: Arts & Culture

Tiempo Libre: From a Rooftop to a Big Stage

Courtesy Tiempo Libre

Mother Jones

It all started with a coat hanger: “If they catch you, you have to pay,” says Jorge Gomez. “We made our own antenna. We listened to everything.” This isn’t a description of a secret espionage effort. It’s the story of how a Cuban teenager and his friends—now members of Gomez’s timba band, Tiempo Libre—fell in love with American music. They rigged up a makeshift radio using a friend’s military-issue guidebook and frequency map, the hanger, and some cable. This allowed them to listen to music banned during Cuba’s “Special Period.”

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Grace Lee Boggs on Detroit, Gardens, and Revolution

Grace Lee Boggs was featured in Detroit artist Invincible's hip-hop video. Photo fromEMERGENCEmedia313/YouTube

Mother Jones

Grace Lee Boggs is a ninety-five-year-old veteran activist who is redefining what revolution means in the Motor City. Boggs’ new book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century is both a memoir and a manifesto—a portrait of a young woman’s journey through several major social movements, and the lessons she hopes to share with a new generation of activists.

In the early 1940’s the young Chinese-American woman finished her doctorate in philosophy and began looking for a professorship. She quickly found herself facing departments that unblinkingly told her, “We don’t hire orientals.” As if dealing with that racism wasn’t enough, she bucked the prejudices of the Civil Rights era and married Black Power and labor activist, Jimmy Boggs, in the early 1950’s. At the height of the McCarthy era, she was “radicalized” by hanging around Marxist leaders such as A. Phillip Randolph and C.L.R. James. Those influences stayed with her when she moved to Detroit, where she joined the race and labor movements during the city’s most riotous years.

Boggs encourages readers to redefine their own ideas about current efforts towards social justice.

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Kaki King Talks Back

Kaki King plays the harp guitar. Photo by Kristen Evans

Mother Jones

Kaki King has been playing music for so long, she can’t even say when she started: “I don’t remember a time that I didn’t know how to play the guitar,” she says. The Atlanta-born 31-year-old was up on stage at an early age, playing music in primary school, drumming her way through adolescence, scoring gigs before she got her drivers license, and producing her first album at 23.

But where music comes naturally, all the publicity can be odd, King says. “I’m constantly in this world of I’d Rather Not: I’d rather not answer the same question over and over so my whole life and emotions can be put in a little paragraph that you can edit. I get why people want to come see me play guitar, but I still don’t understand why people want to interview me.”

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An Orchestra of Elephants

Dave and Jojo the elephant. Courtesy Dave Soldier

Mother Jones

Imagine building a xylophone for a 6,000-pound mammal. Columbia University neuroscientist slash experimental musician David Soldier (aka David Sulzer) teamed up with elephant expert Richard Lair, and did just that. At the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC), in Lampang, Thailand, the two men taught elephants to play oversized xylophones, drums, chimes, and even harmonicas. An American expat, Lair knew about Ruby, an elephant that had famously learned how to paint pictures. He also understood that elephants loved music. After meeting Soldier, he asked him to join the Thai Elephant Orchestra project, an endeavor that, beyond science and art, was intended to draw attention to the elephants’ plight.

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826 Valencia’s Spelling Bee for Cheaters

Judge Jay Reiss helps Mythbusters' co-host Adam Savage pronounce a word. Photo by Emily Loftis

Mother Jones (byline with Maddie Oatman)

The atmosphere at San Francisco’s Herbst Theater on Thursday night felt more like a high school auditorium than its usual elegant performance space. Hundreds had come to observe the Spelling Bee for Cheaters, a fundraiser for literary nonprofit and tutoring center 826 Valencia, and the air bubbled with the sounds of peppy teams cheering on their spellers. A team of librarians near stage right quietly practiced snarky rhyming chants, and teens dressed in bee costumes flitted around the orchestra seats. As the lights dimmed, the “Black Swan” team near the front row turned on their twinkling electric crowns, stood up, and in unison did a ballerina spin in support of their tutu-clad teammate on stage.

As the costumes and spirit suggested, this wasn’t going to be a normal spelling bee. Contestants would be allowed to cheat, using tickets like “Try Again,” “Free Letter,” and “Ask a Teammate” they had purchased as a part of the fundraiser. And rather than rooting for the standard crop of awkward child prodigies, this audience could expect to cheer on the likes of writer Michael Chabon, Lemony Snicket series author Daniel Handler and his artist wife Lisa Brown, Mythbusters co-host Adam Savage, former bank robber and now-author Joe Loya, indie rocker Thao Nguyen, demure folk singer Tracy Chapman, and, the contestant with the most groupies present, beaming high school counselor Ms. Sortino. The trio of judges were improv actors Rebecca Feldman, Liz Feldman, and Jay Reiss, creators of the Tony-winning musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

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Better Than Ikea: Junip

Courtesy Junip

Mother Jones

Junip, an astral-rock band from Gothenberg, Sweden, took a full decade to put together Fields, the debut album it released in September. The delay, suggests modest front man Jose Gonzalez—who initally became popular as a solo performer—was a matter of talent catching up with vision. “You could say we’re not good enough musicians to make what we want to do,” he told me.

Then there was the geographical factor. The band members have been preoccupied with projects that kept them scattered about—organist/moogist Tobias Winterkorn was teaching and building his personal studio, Gonzalez recording solo albums Veneer and In Our Nature; and drummer Elias Araya studying art in Finland and Norway. Practicing and recording were scheduled around periods of separation—and Fields was ultimately created out of samples spanning that decade—as Winterkorn puts it, “taking out the raisins from the cake to eat them.”

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Rising Son: Vieux Farka Toure

Mother Jones

Vieux Farka Touré, the Malian guitarist who played at the opening of this year’s World Cup, has made a stunningly speedy ascent onto the world music scene. His own history is inseparable from his family heritage of Malian Western fusion. His father, Ali Farka Touré made the Rolling Stone 100 Greatest Guitarists list by bringing the world’s attention to the correlation between Western Saharan music and American blues, now often referred to as “Desert Blues.”

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