Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Martial Arts of Mayhem

It was a day for fights. All blows pummeled through smiles, laughs, smirks and some judo too. Well a lot of judo—others may call it diplomacy.

My day started with some sparring with our security chief. For others, including him, the day started with the bombing today. It killed a dozen or so and injured even more. My day, though, should have started with the meeting I needed to go to, it’s location not far from where the bomb went off.

I did go to the meeting, after some posturing, positioning, and a little bit of tussling. (Though, not much, as I deeply respect and trust our security folks, and consider them personal friends beyond colleagues...moreover, at the end of the day, and after all the sparring, my life is often in their hands. I trust their better (than mine, surely) judgment. However surly they or I may be in conversation; a rare occurrence, truth be told.)

The condition for me being allowed to go was the alternate route mapped by my driver and security chief. We were to take a chase car, i.e. the “making ourselves the obvious target” phenomenon and duly avoid any congestion, i.e. the “avoid being the sitting target” phenomenon. See, everything is a matter of judo here.

On the way to the meeting, there was a crowd outside the Red Cross/Crescent (I believe, but it may be UN) mine victims hospital. There was a lot of jostling to get in the entry gate, and a lot of jostling to get around the entry gate. Eventually we did get around. At the moment I didn’t want to think much about the people trying to get in the hospital. I still don’t.

Then there was the sparring at the meeting. It was a bid opening for a large contract. I, as a neutral observer, had to sit at the same table as the bid evaluation committee. I’m glad I put on the blazer (though no tie) as there was a Minister, and a few Deputy Ministers up there. I still think I should have gone with the black mock turtle neck and black jeans this morning. The only problem there being that I not having those items in my wardrobe since 1989.

So the vendors/bidders sat there in front of the panel as we opened the bids. It was nearly mayhem, and there was some jostling, and a good amount of contention. But it went, not to well, but it went. At the end of the event, the smiles, laughs and smirks became a bit more sincere, or in the least a little less restrained.

Finally, the bid opening was followed with a debrief/meeting with a Minister and a Dep. Minister. Since we were all aiming for the same ends, the posturing and positioning was actually fruitful. But the martial arts were deployed nonetheless. It seems, today, that nothing was not a matter of diplomacy.

As limited and difficult as it may be these days, there are still systems in place here. As frustrating as this day was, especially as it was one milestone on what I’ve been working on since spring, I ended the day more hopeful than when I started.

On the way home much of the morning mayhem had subsided. The city was in it’s usual Ramadan calm. Hopefully the optimism and relief I felt at the end of the day are not simply because there were no more bombs that went off today.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Ramadan Mubarak

I wish everyone a happy and peaceful Ramadan.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Stone Throwing In Kabul...

...well rather Stones Throw in Kabul. I know it’s probably inappropriate these days to make jokes about that subject (given the return of the Ministry of Vice & Virtue, the resurgence of the Taliban, and Ramadan being right around the corner). Further, I realize it is inappropriate to imply or infer that the above title and tail is a joke, given its complete lack of anything approaching humor. And finally, I realize as this is a music post, and given such posts’ lack of audience, this lead was a complete prophylactic to the text below. But I’ll move on.

See, just yesterday I downloaded “Shine Through”, Aloe Blacc’s new solo album on Stones Throw Records (home of Madlib and all his ‘a.k.a.s’). And I’m a giddy little 12 year-old girl again, making bad and awkward “jokes”. Yes, again, and as always.

Where to start? Where to end? Well in a recent email to a friend, I conceded that though the whole album isn’t brilliant, it surely shows that Aloe Blacc is—even if he produces no other music in his life. Truth be told, I still think the album is brilliant, in scope, concept, and nearly in execution. P-fork did a recent review of one of his singles (though the album was apparently dropped in July), a Madlib produced track, which meant I was buying it regardless. (Sidenote: and reminded me to check if any new Madvillain had been released (which it has), I'm reminding you here.) The spectacular track is “One Inna” and hooked me immediately.

Again, Madlib creates a perfect vehicle for the artist he’s working with, blending and adapting a beat drenched w/ telltale Madlib signatures to the artist. The track turns out to be a nearly 4 minute version of Madlib’s catchy-hook/repetitive/chilled beats, which generally work best as shorter beats (i.e. ‘Accordian’, ‘Green Power’, etc.). Yet the beat moves a lot over the 4 minutes and when the melody comes on stronger towards the end, the song takes off, gently and without swelling or becoming overwhelming.

Thealbum is a brilliant showcase and exploration of all of Blacc’s influences, which he does both explicitly and creatively. This concept/premise is made clear on the first track, “Whole World.” He name checks Simone, Jobim, Cooke, Gaye, Davis, Fitzgerald, and Coltrane, through an intoned delivery of a nearly chant like lyric “And the whole world reminds me of...” He produced the beats on all but two of the 16 tracks. And the two tracks, one of which is Madlib’s, don’t really stick out. That says enough, I think.

There are at least two covers, one of which is "Gente Ordinaria", sung in Spanish (he bounces seamlessly between Spanish and English throughout the album), covering John Legend’s “Ordinary People.” I like Blacc’s version better. There is another cover--Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” done incredibly well (multi-part harmony gospel like refrain) and titled “Long Time Coming”. The title track, “Shine Through” is what’s best described as a ‘tribute’ to Marley’s “Chances Are”. The guitar line immediately sounded familiar, but it was made clear when I did the headphone listen and heard a faint voice in the studio singing “chances are.” The track is a rough/live studio cut, which much of the whole album sounds like, except for the constant “digital soul” flourishes found on many tracks (not far from Jamie Lidell, but so much more on the hip-hop beats).

The album is drenched in Blacc's latin background (he's Panamanian-American according to the bios) with the percussion, the horn lines and the piano. There is salsa, bossa nova, and dub/dancehall and calypso infused throughout, and on "Genta Ordinaria" he does a call out to people of several (all??) Latino countries.

His voice isn’t the smoothest, especially at the upper range, but his sincerity and minimalism in delivery make up for it. And his flow on the rapped lyrics more than compensates.

And I’ll try to keep this site from having full on “reviews” like the above, once I get through this awkward giggling pubescence.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Maintaining Caddies and Kittens

It seems like I’m coming back to Kabul with the tourist mentality that I surely didn’t have when I left before my break.

Today, our day off, my coworker (who covered my job while I was gone) and I went to the Kabul Golf Club to play three holes. We followed that by a trip to the Babur Gardens. And finally stopped by Chelsea (the “western”/expat grocery store) to pick up cat food for the kittens he’s adopted.

The course is on the outskirts of the city, up in the hills next to Qargha Lake. As can be seen on their website, they pander to the imperial cowboy expat crowd in Kabul (“Extreme Golf With an Attitude”). The air was nice, the weather was wonderful, and watching my two armed guards hand me their AKs so they could take a few swings and putts was amusing. I skipped the souvenir shirt and hat and opted for a few key chains.

The Babur Gardens were quite nice by Kabul standards. It was great to see the restoration efforts. But not seeing the fountains flowing and seeing the 400 or so year old gravestones of historic Mughals pockmarked by bullets was somewhat disappointing. They don’t really compare to the Shalimar Gardens of Lahore, but not much can.

This and a quick stop at Chelsea to pick up canned cat food ended the tourist/expat day in Kabul. Though I regret leaving my (well my parent’s...) camera at home, I’ll maintain that such makes the day a little less touristy for me. I’ll maintain that despite the fact that all the Afghans that were at Qargha Lake and Babur Gardens were snapping away with their cameras.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Good Morning Sunshine

It’s my third day back in Kabul, and I just watched my first sunrise since I’ve been here, since last November that is. The jetlag has been getting me to bed at 8pm, and up much earlier than my usual.

I’m sure this will all change soon enough, as I already feel like I’m settling in. In fact, I had a sense of settlement as soon as I was being driven back from the airport on all too familiar roads. They seemed a bit more empty than usual, lacking the usual afternoon rush. It may have just been me, as I was getting accommodated to the constant rush hour back in DC, but I asked our security folks if there was less traffic after the recent bombing in Kabul. They seemed to agree somewhat. The lack of traffic will likely stay as Ramadan is approaching, and generally things slow down during that time of year.

As I was getting ready to return I was telling my friends that I was somewhat dreading my return. I’m not so sure now if it was dread, but rather just a lack of excitement that I usually feel whenever traveling and just the gloom of an impending end to a wonderful and relaxing break.

But here now, I’m fine and comfortable. A certain sense of home has quickly settled in. But coming from “home home”, rather than just a vacation or other spot as was the case on the other RnRs has clarified something, I believe. The contrast between how this place figures as my “home” versus how where my dear friends and family are and where I’m from figures as “home home” has certainly become starker.

Either way, as work starts to settle in and my sleep returns to my normal sporadic insomniac patterns, I’m sure I wont be worry about definitions of home so much. Unfortunately, besides because of Ramadan, I wont see sunrises in Kabul so much either. But for now, I’m enjoying a beautiful morning sunrise.