Fela Kuti. His music lives on

In 1987 I was a young college student living in Austin, Texas. One afternoon I picked up the local alternative weekly, the Austin Chronicle, and took it home to read. Inside , there was a long article  about an African musician, composer, instrumentalist, and activist  named Fela Anikulapo Kuti (1938-1997). The writer was  obviously a big fan of African music and was quite knowledgeable about this man known simply as ‘Fela.’ As I recall, comparatively little of the article was about  his music. Most of it concerned Fela’s iconic status in Africa, his ongoing battles with the  military junta in Nigeria,  his imprisonment, and his promotion of Pan-Africanism.

fela-kuti-afrobeat-live-parisThe occasion of the article was Fela’s upcoming show in Austin. The author pleaded with readers to come out and support Fela and not to miss this rare opportunity to see him play in the United States. I knew absolutely nothing about African music but was so intrigued by the article and the author’s  admiration for Fela that I scraped together the money to go to the show.

It would be hard to overstate how unprepared I was for what I was about to witness. For three hours, I stood mostly uncomprehending, and wondered just what I had stumbled into. Somewhere between 15 and 20 musicians and dancers crowded the stage, with a large horn section including multiple saxophones. Fela himself alternated between singing, playing the organ and playing the tenor saxophone.  He sang in pidgin English and occasionally in Yoruba. He played syncopated rhythms on the organ which sounded wild and strange to my ears.

kutiWhen I arrived home after the show, my roommates asked how the show was. I replied, “I’m not sure. I think it was good. It was certainly interesting. I didn’t understand most of it. It had great rhythm but I didn’t know how to dance to it.”

I put Fela into the back of my mind and didn’t come across his music very often for the next 10 years. I almost forgot about him. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I started to collect and listen to his recordings, mostly his seminal work from the 1970s. One of my friends who was a musician and a big fan burned eight or nine of Fela’s best cds for me. Once I started to play them regularly on my stereo and really listen to the music, Fela became something of an obsession. His musical style, which is called ‘Afrobeat’ is a synthesis of Funk, Jazz, Highlife, and West African chants and rhythms. The combination of the ‘endless groove’ , hypnotic beats, soaring trumpet and saxophone solos and socially and politically conscious lyrics produced an intoxicating effect. No matter how bad of a mood I am in, after I play a half hour of Fela, I feel better.

expensive shitI’m still discovering new tracks from his large discography, available online. Most of the ‘greatest hits’ collections include classics such as Zombie, No Agreement, Sorrow,Tears and Blood, Colonial Mentality, Expensive Shit, Shuffering and Shmiling, Gentleman, and Lady. However, there are many other other less well-known and obscure tracks that are worth exploring at leisure.

Over one million people attended Fela’s funeral in Lagos in 1997. His death was mourned by Africans particularly, but also by musical fans and admirers all over the world. His legacy lives on through his recordings and his children, many of whom are fine musicians in their own right, such as his son Femi Kuti. In recent years, a musical based on his life has been a smash hit on and off Broadway. New Afrobeat bands are springing up all the time, paying homage to the master. ‘Albino’, based in San Francisco, is one of my favorites.

saxman2It’s rare to hear Fela on the radio or in clubs outside Africa, but surprises do happen. A couple of years ago, I was walking up a steep cobblestoned street in the coastal city of Guayaquil, Ecuador. I had read about a hipster club that was worth checking out. As I approached the door, I heard the unmistakable strains of Zombie coming through the door. I leapt for joy and bolted through the door and shouted at the bartender, “Turn it up! Yes!”

A few months ago, here in Ho Chi Minh City Viet Nam, I went into a club and the dj, a real afrobeat aficionado, was playing Fela non-stop for hours. What a treat.

open and closeMost of Fela’s songs are lengthy by modern standards, and last anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes or more. Needless to say, that format did not lend itself to airplay on rock and R and B stations. As a consequence, his listening audience in America and Europe never reached the numbers of other musicians who composed music in a more digestible format. Commercial radio never warmed to Fela. If you were lucky, perhaps you were exposed to him on an alternative or independent station in a large city, or maybe on college radio.

Today, I play Fela for my students and I tell them, “Sit down and listen to this man!” After three or four minutes, they beg me to turn it off.

Yellow Fever“That’s horrible. Please turn it off. Can you play some K-Pop, please?” I chuckle and recall my first experience with Fela Kuti. This is music you need to come at gradually, warming up first with some exposure to Highlife music and jazz. Otherwise, it’s like walking outside from a dark room at noon and looking directly at the sun. Too much, too soon.


Books: the path to freedom

As a teacher, I try to instill a love of books and reading to my students. It is an uphill battle. Although the majority of people in developed countries became literate over the recent centuries, reading as a hobby, habit and pastime never became widespread.  And that was in the days when there were few competing distractions. These days, in our high-tech society filled with computers, smart phones, televisions and cinemas, it is difficult, if not impossible, to convince an adolescent  that he should spend his free time curled up in a quiet room with a book. When my students have leisure time, the boys play computer games and the girls chat online.

TNY1594Somehow, we will need to find the time for books in this helter skelter world. If we do not, all is lost. Learning from a screen, despite the arguments of many in academia, will never be able to replace book learning. Reading a book in a quiet room is a unique experience and creates new neural pathways in the brain that leads to learning. Watching a Discovery Channel or National Geographic special, while entertaining and perhaps even educational, is a completely different experience and does activate the brain and cerebral cortex in the same way as reading a book does.

In Latin, the word ‘liber’ means ‘free.’ It also means ‘book.’ Think that’s a coincidence? In Spanish, a bookstore is a ‘libreria.’ In English, we go to the ‘library.’ (to read and become free). The Spanish word for book is ‘libro’, and the word for ‘free’ is ‘libre’. From liber, we get our word ‘liberty’, which is freedom from external or foreign rule.  The word ‘liberal’ also derives from liber. Liberal is defined as ‘in accord with concepts of maximal individual freedom possible…and ‘favorable to progress and reform.’

Here in Viet Nam, reading as a pastime is virtually unknown. That’s why I was so blown away when I came across an article a few days ago about reading.  Nguyen Hanh, aged seven  is a lover of books and is engaged in a project called the Book Box Project, started in Ho Chi Minh City in March. Project members, who are all young students, are placing small book boxes around the city in cafes and other popular public places. The boxes are filled with books and with a note asking people to ‘take a book, leave a book.’ The project is similar to another project called ‘Little Library’ which has spread to many countries.

Replying to a question about the possibility of theft, Phuong Thuy replied that it was fine, as the idea was to get people reading. “My personal feeling is that the lack of trust in people has been hindering us from doing good things. I believe in people and the goodness within them,.”

Another member, Nguyen Linh said, “What I feel is the eagerness of everyone who cares about Book Box. They contribute books, they leave beautiful messages on books. It’s all very encouraging.”

The project started with ten members and now has 100 volunteers. They want to take the project into remote villages. Thuy said, “My mother always told me to aim for things that make other people happy. You should always do something and aim for something. I’m following her advice.”

Perhaps from this seed of 100 young book lovers, something beautiful will bloom: a culture of learning and lifelong curiosity.



Why I won’t touch farm-raised (Atlantic) salmon

The oceans are under duress from overfishing and pollution. Global fish stocks are in steep decline. The price for high quality fresh fish continues to increase at the same time that more and more studies are coming out showing the demonstrable benefits of a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids. People want fish for the delicious taste and the health benefits and are willing to pay for it, even though there may be serious questions regarding the whole industry.

S_I_FIG1The demand for salmon especially has remained high as it has been shown to have some of the highest levels of precious, brain boosting omega-3. Hence, where there is demand, a supplier will work to meet that need. Our stores are filled with frozen and fresh salmon, restaurants and sushi bars all feature salmon on their menus and it appears that supply is meeting demand.

There is just one problem. The vast majority of that salmon, over 90 percent, is farm-raised. Most of the supply is currently coming from Norway and Southern Chile. It is usually labeled as ‘Atlantic Salmon.’ It is rarely labeled as farm-raised. Even if it were labeled as such, it is doubtful that most consumers would know what that means, or care.


When I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1999, I started to eat wild salmon fished out of the the Northern Pacific Ocean off the California, Oregon and Washington coasts and from Alaska. I gradually started to eat it more and more and during the fishing season when you could buy it fresh for seven or eight dollars a pound, I would eat it two or three times a week. I noticed the effects on my health from eating a  regular diet of fresh salmon. I felt more energized and happy, and my hair, skin and nails had a healthy glow.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI became curious about the history of the Native Northwest cultures and their ancient relationship to salmon, reflected in their art, traditions, songs and rituals. I studied how salmon had sustained entire tribes for millennia. I learned about the science and biology of the fish and their amazing ability to swim for thousands of miles into the ocean and return to their original breeding ground. I read about the history of dam building in the American West and the devastating impacts of dams on salmon populations.

fish artThe ancient and recent history of the Pacific Northwest is so intertwined with the story of salmon that numerous books have been written about it. Sometimes people I meet wonder why I am so passionate about salmon and so vehemently against farm-raised salmon. A salmon is a salmon is a salmon, right?

No! Unfortunately, many consumers around the world have no education regarding what they are eating and restaurant owners, fish market sellers and others are trying to protect their bottom line. As far as they are concerned, the consumers’ ignorance is not their problem. Buyer beware.

Book salmonThe massive problems with farm-raised salmon have been written about extensively, though much education remains to be done, judging from how ignorant the average consumer remains and how often these fish appear on menus. Salmon were designed by nature to swim freely in wide open oceans, for thousands of miles. They most definitely were not designed to be crammed into aqua pens with hundreds of thousands of other fish, swimming in a muck of antibiotic laden fish feed, feces, and sewage. Farm-raised salmon have much lower levels of omega-3 and significantly higher levels of PCBs, mercury and DDT- all of them toxic and carcinogenic compounds.

Additionally, the aqua pens consist of nets which trap sea lions and other mammals. The toxic waste from the farms is often discharged directly into coastal waters, severely damaging fragile coastal ecosystems.

king-of-fish-bookThe decline of wild salmon is one of the worst ecological and biological tragedies of our era. The emergence of this farming industry to fill the gap between supply and demand is a horrible development. These fish even have to be dyed pink so that unsuspecting consumers believe that they are eating the real deal.

I’m quite sure that some of my friends and acquaintances have in the past seen me as elitist and pretentious for saying I will only eat wild salmon. So be it. I know what real wild salmon is. It’s not just that so called ‘Atlantic Salmon’ is a poor substitute. It is no substitute at all. Shame on the industry and the sellers who continue to peddle these creatures.




Emma Goldman’s legacy in the 21st Century

I recently came across a copy of Anarchism and Other Essays by Emma Goldman. It, along with Living my Life, her two-volume autobiography, is a book that has been on my reading backlog for far too long. Originally published in 1910, this collection of writings is a wonderful introduction to the philosophy and ideas of a woman who was once one of the  most polarizing and magnetic figures in America.

Emma Goldman (1869-1940) was a famous anarchist, activist, lecturer, writer, and philosopher. During the latter years of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century, she was a well-known public figure, constantly giving fiery speeches to hundreds or thousands of people, speaking out against the greed and excesses of the capitalist system. She encouraged the burgeoning worker class in America to fight for its rights, using the tools and tactics of direct action, namely strikes and protests.

emmaEmma Goldman’s name is connected to many of the major events in American history during this period: the assassination of President McKinley by Leon Czolgosz, the Selective Service  and Espionage Acts during World War I, the woman’s rights movement and the Spanish Civil War.

Reading the essays, I was struck by how modern they sound. Emma  Goldman was way ahead of her time on every important social and political issue. Not surprisingly, she was relentlessly attacked  (and imprisoned) by the government and vilified by the corporate press. Somewhat surprisingly, she was also often attacked or abandoned by those who had been her allies, those activists within the anarchist movement who could not, or would not, go along with her when she became ‘too radical.’

As a true anarchist, Goldman never believed that humanity’s condition could be improved through any system of big government:

“It may be claimed that men of integrity would not become corrupt in the political grinding mill. Perhaps not; but such men would be absolutely helpless to exert the slightest influence on behalf of labor, as has indeed been shown in numerous instances. The State is the economic master of its servants. Good men, if such there be, would either remain true to their political faith and lose their economic support, or they would cling to their economic master and be utterly unable to do the slightest good. The political arena leaves one no alternative, one must either be a dunce or a rogue.”

UnknownIn the chapter titled “Minorities versus Majorities”, she wrote, “Our entire life- production , politics, and education- rests on quantity, on numbers. The worker who once took pride in the thoroughness and quality of his work, has been replaced by brainless, incompetent automatons, who turn out enormous quantities of things, valueless to themselves, and generally injurious to the rest of mankind. Thus quantity, instead of adding to life’s comforts and peace, has merely increased man’s burden.”

Does that sound like our modern world? Indeed it does, and such prescience is found throughout her writings. A staunch individualist, Goldman celebrated the free and independent spirit, in contrast to the stultifying conformity and group-think of the masses. She wrote, “Today, as then, public opinion is the omnipresent tyrant. Today, as then, the majority represents a mass of cowards, willing to accept him who mirrors its own soul and mind poverty.”

In the chapter titled “The Psychology of Political Violence”, she  wrote ,  “I would say that resistance to tyranny is man’s highest ideal. So long as tyranny exists, in whatever form, man’s deepest aspiration must resist it as inevitably as man must breathe.”

goldman-speaking-4.2.141In the following chapter, “Patriotism”, she dissected the ruling classes’ ability to instill the concept of national patriotism into unwitting children’s minds. Goldman lamented the swelling military budget not only of the United States, but also of all the major Western powers. At the time, the United States was spending the huge sum of $400 million on ‘defense.’ She clearly saw a worrying trend there. In 2011, the United States spent $718 billion on military spending, more than all other countries of the world combined. She was writing this in the  years preceding America’s entry in World War I. President Wilson, who was re-elected on a platform of keeping us out of the war, not only got America into WWI, but also  set about to vigorously hunt down and prosecute those who tried to avoid the draft or speak out against it.

The chapters on ‘Woman Suffrage’ and ‘The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation’ are eye-opening. While the vast majority of progressive women thinkers of the day were rallying for the right of women to vote, Goldman stood virtually alone in agitating against it. Her reasoning, which must have sounded perplexing to progressives, was sound nonetheless. Because she stood rooted in such a firm foundation of anarchist thought, Goldman was not about to throw away her core principles for the temporary and illusory victory of  woman suffrage. She understood, rightly, that giving women the right  to vote and to gain political office would do nothing to change the nature of politics and government. Women, she wrote, do not have supernatural powers and their entrance into the political arena would not be able to cleanse and purify that bastion of corruption and expediency. (See Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Madeline Albright, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, et al.) Indeed, she encouraged women to achieve their emancipation in other, more effective and original means.

As for women gaining the right to enter the workplace, she thought this would be merely trading one form of slavery (property of her husband) for another (property of the factory owner). Working for 12 to 16 hours a day for slave wages and the ruination of the body and mind was not something that Emma Goldman saw as ‘progress.’

Emma Goldman is a writer and thinker whose ideas still resonate in today’s world, remarkably so. The fact that the feminist movement of the 1970s and the anarchist movement in the present century resurrected her memory and ideas is proof of that. Likewise, the descendants of those who slandered her during her life are alive and well today, and continue the slander and misrepresentation. Just recently, I read an article where the writer lamented how America started going downhill in the late 19th century when people like “Red Emma” and other agitators started entering the country en masse from Europe.

Perhaps she will always be a polarizing figure. But for those who seek the liberation of the human mind, body, and soul, Emma Goldman’s writings stand out as a clarion call to humanity.

chemtrails over Saigon 2014

Here are some photos of the sky over Ho Chi Minh City, May 2014.






The Vietnamese, like other people all over this modern world, rarely look up, let alone pay attention to what is happening in the sky above them. If they do manage to pry their eyes away from their smart phones, it is only to notice if it is daytime or nighttime, cloudy or sunny. They are not able to differentiate between cloud types and certainly cannot tell what a chemtrail is.

Here are a couple of photos from a slick expatriate magazine. One is the sky over Saigon and the other is the sky over Singapore. Again, we see a chemtrail filled sky but with no awareness or commentary from the photographer, writer, or editors.



DSCF8543Modern man’s ignorance of the most basic features  of the natural world, in this case cloud types and formations, is contributing to the rapid decline and downfall of our species. The fact that people today cannot look up and notice that something insanely unnatural is happening right over their heads is a sobering commentary on where we are.

The first step to knowledge, and then further on to wisdom, is direct observation. From direct and accurate observation, we can gather pertinent facts about the natural world and our circumstances. This is called ‘grammar’ in the classical Greek style of learning known as the Trivium. But before we can even get to observation, we must be in a state of awareness, another condition that they (the powers that be)  are trying to breed out of us. Smartphones and the like are specifically designed to destroy our awareness, and hence the PTB are able to blithely spray poisons down on us with not a peep of protest.

Hunter S. Thompson’s ghost lives on

In front of me sits a first person article, published in a slick magazine geared toward wealthy expats, about a man who goes on a one day caffeine binge and chronicles his experiences.  I’ve just finished reading an article in well-designed online magazine for Asian expats in which the author writes about his journey through Kuala Lumpur. Writing in a ‘gonzo’ style, which, by the way, the magazine encourages, the author breathlessly relates his rather mundane experiences in a staccato writing style.  Last week, I came across a blogger who attempted to regale his reading audience with tales of late night shenanigans in the heart of Phnom Penh’s red light district.

What strikes me reading all of these articles, and many, many more like them, is the fact that Hunter S. Thompson’s legacy continues to live on, perhaps more strongly than ever.

Hunter S. Thompson, (1937-2005) was an American journalist and author who, during the 1960s and 1970s, invented a new style of journalism called ‘gonzo.’ Writing in the period of the New Left journalism, Thompson’s  unique and unprecedented writing style emphasized writing in the first person and beyond that, even actively involving himself  directly in the story which he was reporting on.

Although he wrote a number of books, and hundreds of articles, Thompson achieved most of his fame through two books from the late 60s and early 70s: Hell’s Angels: the Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. 

Hunter S. Thompson
Hunter S. Thompson

Reading today’s young journalists and bloggers, it’s hard to remember that not so long ago, such first person writing was unheard of  in the journalistic establishment. In fact, nobody had ever really done it before Thompson. He changed everything. Especially after the publication and success of Fear and Loathing, the journalistic world in New York City took notice and suddenly every young wannabe-writer was trying to ape Thompson’s style.

Pick up a copy of Rolling Stone magazine from the late 70s and all through the 1980s, as well as Esquire, GQ and others, and you will see dozens of young writers who were influenced enormously by Thompson. There was only one small problem: none of them had his talent. While these young writers attempted to superficially graft Thompson’s style onto their stories, the effect was nowhere near what the true gonzo master achieved in his writings. Instead, readers were subjected to overly long, boring  and meandering interviews and articles in which the author desperately tried to show that he  was as important as the interviewee.

Here we are now in 2014 and the ghost of Thompson lives on. Many young writers especially feel that they are giving their story much more life by writing that they ‘blasted across the water’ when they took a simple hydrofoil trip across a calm, placid river with a bunch of overweight middle aged tourists. Or, they believe that they are writing something original when they tell us that they ‘stumbled bleary eyed across the chaotic road, dodging screaming taxi drivers and prostitutes, barely avoiding death by collision with a bus …..and so on.


Hunter Thompson is one of my literary idols. When I was 19 years old, somebody slipped me a tattered copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and I took it to my room and didn’t come out until I finished it. It’s one of the few books that I’ve ever read which I finished in one sitting.  I laughed so hard that I cried. I remember the book falling out of my hand I was laughing so hard. After completing the book, I picked it up again the next week and re-read it cover to cover. In the intervening years, I’ve gone back to it dozens of  times. Few authors have given me more pleasure  than Thompson. However, I find it unfortunate that his legacy has bequeathed so many writers who feel that getting intoxicated and writing in a gruff first person account is, in and of itself, entertaining. They forget that for all his gonzo madness, Thompson was a first rate writer who had ideas and opinions on the most important topics of his day. He had something to say and his gonzo style was the vehicle he used to get his ideas across. That so many aspiring writers want to copy the style, without the necessary skill and substance behind it, is a poor way to honor the memory of one of America’s great journalists of the 20th century.

The weather channel is having an identity crisis.

Like most people, I like to read up on the weather. I like to know what’s happening in my area and the world in terms of big events like flooding and longer term climatic trends. So therefore, I drop into the weather channel’s website on occasion. However, I need to break this habit and go to other, better weather websites.

Have you seen  weather.com recently? What a metamorphosis this site has undergone. It’s barely recognizable as a weather website anymore. Seemingly suffering from some kind of severe identity crisis, the team at the weather channel has designed a site that is maybe 10% weather, 50% reality show, 25% travel, and 15% discovery channel.

The top section of the site gives a few weather headlines, but scroll down and you come to the other headings, which include ‘Travel’, ‘Science’,  ‘Health’, and ‘Series.’ What any of this has to do with weather is beyond me. Headlines and titles to articles no longer give you any clue to what the article is actually about. They are only used as teasers to pique your curiosity so that you will click on them. They are filled with worlds like ‘stunning, amazing, incredible, and enormous. 


Here are some of the stories listed on the front page of this so-called weather website:

1) “Something no one has ever seen before.”

2) “Daycare owner dies saving toddler.”

3) “The five most beautiful drives in America.”

4) “Life in a tiny house.”

5) “They’re alive.”

6) “In the middle of nowhere.”

7) “Hermit crabs are cannibals.”

It’s almost like flipping through a gossip rag like National Enquirer, just with prettier graphics.

Speaking of websites with identity crises, another fine example of this is the business insider. I came upon this site a few months ago when I found a story about restaurant closings. It took a few visits before I fully realized that this site has nothing to do with business. It’s quite remarkable when you think about it that they managed to secure that domain name and yet manage to talk only about, well, I don’t know. Here’s a few article titles:

“Anthony Bourdain ate an insane ‘foraged’ feast at Noma, the best restaurant in the world. Photos!”

“Here are the awesome new movies Netflix has in May.”

“11 surprising facts about Canada.”

And it goes on and on. If you thought you were coming to a site to get some crafty insider information on businesses, and in-depth analysis on business cycles and trends, sorry mate. No nutrition here, just informational junk food.




More drama as Brazil prepares for the World Cup

The news coming out of Brazil regarding preparations for the world cup and the olympics isn’t good. As I discussed in a previous post. hosting the olympics and other mega sports events typically does not turn out well for the host city and country. In fact, the results are often crippling financial losses and a host of other issues.

The Brazilian police and military have moved into the favelas around Rio de Janeiro in yet another effort to ‘pacify’ them, this time to try to secure the city before the start of the world cup in June. I bet that’s a reassuring picture to send the world and especially the thousands of tourists and spectators who will soon be pouring into the city. Imagine if you have a hotel room booked near Copacabana in June, and you read that  the military is in bloody confrontations in Rio, using armored personnel carriers among other tools. Feeling safe?


The PR nightmare that the Brazilian government is suffering, and which is sure to become much worse in the months ahead, is happening alongside huge logistical problems in the preparations for the cup and the olympics. The situation has become so critical that recently the IOC sent down a special task force to help get things moving. It is appearing less and less likely that the country will have everything built, manned, and functional in time.


Reading these stories which are coming out almost weekly now fills me with dread and a sense of anguish for Brazilians. I have visited that lovely country twice and to watch this unfolding predictable drama and know which way it’s headed is sobering. The Brazilian people will absorb all of the costs and very little, if any, of the benefits of these spectacles. All of the sophisticated police state apparatus being constructed will stay in place after the olympics end. Any talk of the new surveillance systems being ‘temporary’ is pure rubbish.

When the final bill is tallied up in a couple more years, the government ministers will tell the people, with long, sorrowful faces, that “We made a mistake. But we must not dwell on past mistakes. Let us move forward. But in order to do so, we must pay back the loans to the banks and be responsible. So, we regret to inform you that taxes are being raised, pensions are being frozen and bank accounts are being raided.”

Remember, Brazil is no longer a small player on the world stage. She has an enormous economy (7th largest by GDP) and is a founding member of the BRICS organization. A serious crisis in Brazil will have global implications.