Travel

Back to Zambia (kind of)

5021821668_4205b3c4d2_bIn this video, Symbolia founder Erin Polgreen gives us a walk-through of the tablet magazine’s premier issue as it comes together. My profile of Keith Kabwe, singer for 1970s Zambian psych-rock pioneers Amanaz, is slated to be in there, expertly illustrated by my friend and colleague Damien Scogin and supplemented by clips of the band’s music and my interviews with Keith.

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Capitola, CA. 12.30.2011

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Last surf of the year.

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Jimi Hendrix, Musical Esperanto

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My newest piece for Thought Catalog, a meditation on the legacy of Jimi Hendrix, and his use as a catch-all comparison for all sorts of non-Western music.

I’m not sure exactly when I first heard a musician from some far-flung spot on the globe described as the “Jimi Hendrix of [insert place name here].”

It’s only natural to reach for some sort of shorthand to translate the esoteric sounds of distant cultures into a language understandable to anyone with a passing knowledge of western culture. People might not know what a kamelengoni is (for the record, it’s a 12-stringed, harp-like instrument), but when you describe Vieux Kante as the Hendrix of the kamelengoni, everyone gets it: the guy’s a badass.

Read the whole thing here.

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Up from the Underground

5060942255_b637964972_zA couple of weeks ago, the Mail & Guardian ran a story of mine on the 1970s Zamrock scene. Sub-Saharan Africa isn’t much known for its rock’n'roll, but for a brief time in the late 1960s and ’70s every young guy from Lagos to Lusaka wanted to be Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton. Zambia, which makes few headlines in the west, was the cradle of this scene, hence the name. It was a heady time–these guys were full-on rock stars, with platform boots, groupies, and wild parties–but the economy tanked, the AIDS epidemic hit, and the scene was snuffed out.

I profile Jagari Chanda, probably the most famous Zamrock star of his day, who sang for a band named the Witch. He now ekes out a living as a gemstone miner in the bush. He’s looking for another shot in the music business. I hope he gets it.

It is a Saturday night in Kitwe, a rough mining town in Zambia’s Copperbelt, and the bar is growing louder by the minute. The DJ plays American hip-hop, the beer flows and crowds of young miners, grizzled expatriates and working girls shout over the din.

Once upon a time, every head would have turned when Emmanuel “Jagari” Chanda walked through the door. Tonight, nobody realises that the barrel-chested sexagenarian in the leather jacket was once Zambia’s biggest rock star.

(The photo comes from the cover of a self-released compilation Jagari put together. For years, hard-to-find releases like this were the only way to hear the music. Now-Again records, though, has begun reissuing albums by the Witch and other Zamrock greats.)

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The inundation of the Nile

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Third in an occasional series of found photographs. This is a stereoscope from 1900, depicting a pastoral, pre-Pyramids Road Giza district, a place without sleazy discos, papyrus shops, and choking exhaust.

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The Reagans and the Terra Cotta Army

reaganchinaFrom a randomly found postcard; number two in an occasional series. Photograph by Mary Anne Fackelman, 1984.

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Sao Paulo and the Invisible City

ocentroMy friend Carmelo Iaria has just produced a book of documentary photography on Sao Paulo’s O Centro neighborhood, a gritty, once-rundown section of the city that’s on the rise. The photos are stunning, black and white images of the neighborhood’s street life and architecture. I wrote the introductory essay, which I’m reprinting below. Check it out, then buy the book.

There’s nothing static about cities. They are organic things made of concrete and brick and rebar, shaped by the ceaseless movement of human beings, the ebb and flow of migrants from near and far in search of better lives. Neighborhoods rise and fall, are born and die and are reborn again.

Sao Paulo, Brazil, is a case study in this form of civic entropy. With roughly 20 million people, it is the sixth largest city in the world–a “megacity,” as the planners say. Its borders push out in all directions, toward the western hinterland and the coastal mountains guarding the Atlantic. The city had no zoning codes until 1972, and it has grown unchecked for the last couple of decades, adding neighborhood after neighborhood with a viral speed, the rich barricading themselves behind high walls topped by barbed wire and the poor erecting shantytowns powered by stolen electricity.

Inevitably, the corollary of this breakneck growth is a sort of collective forgetting. Overshadowed by the new, the old places are forgotten. They are still on the maps, but the city’s imagination moves on, drawn ever outward by the lure of the fresh and unsullied.

Such was the case with O Centro, Sao Paulo’s historic downtown. Once the hub of the city’s cultural life and its financial center, the neighborhood began its descent in the 1970s, when the banks began moving to outlying districts. The rest of the money followed, leaving behind a husk of Belle Epoque buildings, modernist plazas, and rundown, once-tony apartment blocks. The First World certainties of the meticulous European-style grid soon faded. The streets filled with hawkers. A riot of plant life began reinserting itself into the sidewalks and walls and vacant lots, a reminder that when cities decline the wild fights its way back. An open-air drug market sprouted within sight of the opera house.

When Carmelo Iaria decided to photograph O Centro, his friends warned him about the crime and the urban decay. Mostly, they wondered why he’d want to go there. They, too, had forgotten. When he first visited, in 2003, he was shocked by what he found. To be sure, he saw blight and crime. But he also found a vibrant and astonishingly diverse place, a neighborhood that had soldiered on after the city at large had turned its attention elsewhere. “Nothing around me matched the description I had gotten,” the San Francisco photographer remembers. “What I saw was the remains of a very sophisticated and rich city.”

Compared to cities like Cairo or Rome, Sao Paulo, which came into its own as a colonial boomtown in the 1700s, is relatively young. It has a deep sense of its history, however, and in O Centro all of those layers are on display, past lives laid one on top of the next. Iaria was drawn to the opportunity to map these layers through his photography.

Some of Iaria’s images possess a distinctly Old World feel. The city, like Brazil itself, was built on waves of foreign immigration. Some of these new arrivals came unwillingly, as slaves from West Africa brought to work on the coffee and sugar plantations. Others, though, from Italy and Germany and Portugal, came seeking opportunities that Europe couldn’t provide. Over the years, then, Sao Paulo grew, and grew rich. O Centro’s faded buildings, many built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, stand testament to this heritage: a graceful European city carved out of the New World countryside. A photo of the Theatro Municipal, a century-old monolith modeled after a similarly grand building in Milan, mixes past glories with a more prosaic present. At the edge of the frame, a man pedals a bicycle laden with water jugs, a workaday errand far from the symphony orchestra housed within.

In another, a man appears to be tipping his hat to the viewer. Save the ubiquitous iPod earbuds, he would look at home in a fin de siècle daguerrotype. Behind him is the Luz train station, shipped over, piece by piece, from Scotland and built in 1901. Once the transit point for newly arrived European immigrants from the coast, Luz now hosts weekday workers heading to jobs at the stock exchange, or those manning the gold-trading storefronts that dot the nearby streets.

Iaria chronicles the area’s more recent history as well. There is the Copan building, O Centro’s defining landmark. The creation of Rio architect Oscar Niemeyer, the wave-like apartment block was designed with the idea that all classes would live together behind its walls. It towers 38 stories above Ipiranga Avenue, so dominating that it has its own zip code. Iaria’s photo, shot from below, carries a whiff of the sublime. The structure’s sinuous curves speak to the promise of modernism: that a bright future for all was on the way.

Utopia never came. Other monuments to progress were erected in mid-century and left to rot. In one desolate photo, the buildings actually appear to slump, like drunks trying to hold up the sky. Down on the street, lone figures thread their way along a wall, reminders that it’s easy for individuals to get lost in the metropolis.

Indeed, Sao Paulo’s size is inescapable. There is a Sunday morning photograph of a city worker sweeping the Largo de Memoria. The foreground shows mid-century office buildings, erected on a human scale. In the distance, skyscrapers march toward the horizon, totems of the city’s growth.

Iaria, though, is most interested in people, and in “the resiliency of the human spirit,” as he puts it. He focuses not on the elites who take private helicopters to work, nor on the millions of Paulistanos who fill the favelas. Mostly, he trains his gaze on those who are just getting by. And O Centro is very much a place of people just getting by.

He spends long moments with a man selling pineapple slices on the sidewalk, whose earnings just barely support his family. He meets a parking attendant who looks after mopeds and motorcycles, the keys hanging from his neck on a wire. Iaria also happens upon a shoeshine parlor that once served wealthy businessmen. The seats are torn now. The clientele doesn’t have much extra cash.

One photograph shows a man’s hands, rutted from years of cutting limes, apples, and bananas. There are day laborers hauling heavy loads on wagons, and scarecrow-like old men standing on street corners with advertising boards hung from their necks. “Compro Ouro,” the signs read. “Buy Gold.” Iaria makes a portrait of one of these men. There is stoicism in his expression, and also dignity.

In an image shot through the legs of the man in front of him, Iaria captures a street preacher in mid-sermon. A crowd of onlookers surrounds him, an itinerant flock of working men who hang on his brimstone-tinged words. He preaches in the shadow of a grand Catholic church, gesticulating, scolding, encouraging, and with far more energy than the priests behind the church’s cool stone walls can muster. He talks not just of the afterlife but of the here and now, a subject of keen interest to the strivers gathered around him.

Year after year, Iaria kept coming back to O Centro. He began to notice changes. The neighborhood was beginning to regenerate itself, as neighborhoods sometimes do, with an influx of new people, new energy, and new money.

Gentrification of a sort was coming to O Centro. The drug market was still there, but there were hip nightclubs and new boutiques. As in Williamsburg and Silver Lake, young professionals adopted the neighborhood, drawn by the cheap rent and the chance to be pioneers. One of Iaria’s friends, a magazine editor, bought a place in the Copan, on the 23rd floor. The view is amazing.

Sao Paulo is still growing, still pushing outward. But what was forgotten has been rediscovered.

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The Jimi Hendrix of [insert country name here]!

Looking for a way to quickly and easily describe for Western listeners a virtuoso musician from a far-flung part of the world? Just name-check Jimi Hendrix, as commenters did with Vieux Kante, seen here playing the hell out of a kamelengoni.

In some ways, it’s only natural to use some sort of shorthand to translate, say, the esoteric sounds of the sitar into terms that anyone who grew up listening to rock radio can understand. So we get: the Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele. The Jimi Hendrix of Japan. The Jimi Hendrix of South Africa. And, of course, the Jimi Hendrix of Turkey. I’ve done it myself, in discussing Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Toure’s incendiary new live touring act. At his most recent SF show, I tweeted, “He’s entered his Hendrix phase, with a power trio and everything.” And there was a resemblance to Band of Gypsys-era Hendrix, in both his liquid playing and the swing of the rhythm section. (It should be noted that Mali, a particularly guitar-happy country, has numerous contenders for the title. A few years ago, Vanity Fair reported that Baba Salah was known as not just the “Jimi Hendrix of Mali” but the “Jimi Hendrix of Africa.”

Right after I got out of college, I went traveling for a half-year or so, a dirtbag backpacker following my own version of the hippie trail. I ended up in Essaouria, Morocco, where Hendrix himself had spent some time. Local legend has it that he was so inspired by the ruins of an old fort on the beach that he wrote the song “Castles Made of Sand” (or, depending on the source, “Spanish Castle Magic.”). The songwriting claims aren’t true but, judging by all the drug dealers clogging the narrow streets, at least Jimi didn’t lack for hash. I spent a few days chasing his ghost, from restaurants where he ate to places where he stayed and musicians he supposedly played with. I never found a trace of the guy, of course. Little did I know, he was only an Internet search away. Voila: the Jimi Hendrix of Morocco.

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Urban Africa (on the road)

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My photo exhibit, “Urban Africa,” is showing at the Sierra Gallery at Modesto Junior College through the end of April. So if you’re in the Central Valley (or passing through there), please do check it out.

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Kliptown blues

3976813773_955a6d976a_o(From the 4xAfrica show at Rayko SF, which runs through February 27. Click on the image for a larger version.)

Kliptown, Soweto, South Africa, 2009.

I took this photo while hanging out in a so-called “informal settlement” on the edge of Kliptown. People called the area Chicken Farm, supposedly because it had been part of a white-owned farm decades ago, before apartheid’s enforced racial sorting.

My guide that day was a friend of a friend, a “former thug” (as he was described to me) with a deep scar down the left side of his face. He grew up nearby, and remembered buying bread and sweets at the now-derelict shops. He got into the gangster game in his early teens, he told me, to provide for his family. By his last year in high school, he and his crew were stealing six or seven cars a week, mostly from whites in the northern suburbs, and delivering them to Nigerian middlemen who smuggled them out of the country. Later, his gang graduated to commercial truck hijackings and to home invasions. He insisted that he always urged nonviolence–at least at first. “‘Where’s our money?’” he’d ask the homeowner. “‘When you open the safe, it’s cool. We’ll leave you, and we’ll be gone. But it’s bad when you are not talking.’”

The thug did a few stints in prison, then got out of the game following a premonition that he was going to die violently. Nowadays he rises at 4 a.m. to get to his job as a landscaper in the northern suburbs, which pays less in a month than he used to earn in a week. To make ends meet, he still “consults” with younger car thieves on weekends.

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