Minkey Business

"Over the cage floor the horizons come."

Democracy is coming to the USA

This is my first cuff since the US election, so let’s talk about Canada. Well okay, let’s talk about a Canadian, a famous one we lost on November 7. Leonard Cohen was 82 when he died in his sleep after a fall in the night. His last album ‘You Want It Darker’ had been released just two weeks earlier, and though quite ill, he had been at a highly creative period of his life.

Commiserations travelled quickly through a small group of friends. Growing up on the outskirts of Bangalore, India, we had a high number of people who loved oldies. (Just hum the opening bars of Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’ at a dinner party to blow the roof off.) Leonard Cohen’s work, famously described as “music to slit your wrists by”, was favoured by a sub-group of brooders and readers, whether writing out the lyrics of ‘I’m Your Man’ for a special someone, or marveling at the moonlit desolation of ‘Take This Waltz’.

Leonard Cohen spoke to an inchoate wisdom in us. We dreamed of meeting our own ‘Suzanne’, or, depending on gender, dreamed of being her, and of leading or being led, to her place by the river.

Today, though we have music playing nearly all the time at home, my wife and I have very little common on our playlists. I introduced her to Cohen along time ago, and he’s probably the only musician whose entire discography we agree on. “He’s someone who really brings the power of introspection to music,” she said, as he lived on through our speakers the morning after news of his death. We had both dreamed of seeing him live, and knowing time was short, checked his website regularly for a tour schedule that didn’t appear. We’ll have to make do with his live albums. Luckily they’re wonderfully recorded, and he works with great singers and musicians. (Listen to Sharon Robinson just slay ‘Boogie Street’ on disc two of ‘Live in London’.)

Cohen’s most famous song is, of course, ‘Hallelujah’, one that’s better known in cover versions than the synthetic, almost thrown-away original. As I write this, I’ve played the original, from the album Various Positions, back-to-back with the beautiful Jeff Buckley version. It’s tempting to call the latter the better song, yet, something in Cohen’s time-trailing phrasing projects his images like stained-glass in my mind.

The day after his death, with Trump news dominating our feed, I had Cohen’s song ‘Democracy’ running ironically through my head. The track, from the album The Future has a marching chorus that goes, “Democracy is coming, to the USA”. The way it’s sung, ‘democracy’ sounds ominous, almost retributive. It was the perfect soundtrack as I puzzled over details of the electoral college versus the popular vote. Hillary Clinton got more votes, but didn’t win? It sounded very little like democracy to me.

But the day I write this, November 18, the Los Angeles Times ran a story called ‘L.A. Lays Out Its Trump Battle Plan’ in which the city was “vowing to push back against efforts to deport people in this country illegally”. In it, the mayor was concerned that mass deportations would negatively affect the state’s economy. I read again the heartwarming term “sanctuary city”–cities in which people are not prosecuted for their illegal immigration status.

Reading about people around this country and even around the world sitting up, rallying round, and speaking up, I’m starting to wonder if Trump might work as a trigger for good. That if his office does continue his toxic promises, democracy will come, like a tsunami, to the USA.

First published in Gulf News, November 22, 2016

Free food saves brands

Some people take up far more room in queues than they actually occupy. The woman in front of me at Qdoba, the Subway-styled Mexican food chain, used the bandwidth of three customers. She moved back and forth between stations, adding to her order, taking away from her order, making a new order, changing her mind, changing her mind about changing her mind. And as the server started on my order the woman broke the cardinal unwritten rule of assembly-line restaurants: she moved backwards.

“Can I have a sample of that?” she asked my server, barely noticing the social machine around her grinding to a halt. When she was finally gone, and I was ready to pay, the cashier put an empty soft drink cup by my asada bowl. “Sorry for the delay. Help yourself to any of our drinks from the fountain,” she said cheerily.

Now, the delay wasn’t Qdoba’s fault. The cashier needn’t have acknowledged it at all, and though I didn’t take her up on it, I really appreciated the gesture. Qdoba is an underrated brand, at least here in California where Mexican chains are viewed (mostly rightly) with suspicion. For a cost to company of mere cents, the brand went even higher in my estimation.

Let’s contrast that with my recent experience at a branch of Church’s Chicken, a franchise restaurant much like KFC, though food-wise it’s closer to Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. You might know it as Texas Chicken. I placed my order, and went to quickly use the restroom. As I tried open the door to get back out, the handle turned round and round without engaging the lock. I jiggled it, tugged at it, tried different angles, but it just wouldn’t open. I knocked, and someone from the other side tried again and again to open it, with no luck. They went away—to get help, I hoped. I tried the handle again, very carefully. It worked, and I was free.

Outside, I discovered that the manager, the person who had tried the door, had taken no chances, and called the police to come let me out. “They have the tools, and some people panic,” she said, and I thought that was good thinking. I waited a few more minutes for my food, during which the policeman arrived, and seemed totally unfazed that he was no longer needed. My order was called, and the manager who was also my cashier, rang me up. I paid in full, and left, with no further reference to the incident.

My bill was under $5. I couldn’t help thinking that the least they could have done was not charge me. It wasn’t about saving $5, any more than having my delay acknowledged at Qdoba was about a free $2 drink. It was about acknowledging that restaurant restrooms should not trap patrons. Today, every time I pass any Church’s I feel an involuntary shudder, and you can be sure I’ll irrationally work hard to never eat there again.

Empathy was quite the corporate buzzword a while ago, and here’s empathy nicely at work in the first instance, and a total failure of it in the second. Even in personal life, empathy is at once an easy, and fiendishly nuanced concept, especially when it comes to understanding the people who wrong us. Corporate empathy needs empowered employees, and this requires maturity from the top down. If a manager is questioned suspiciously about every comped meal, for example, she’s less likely to hand out freebies even in situations where cost to brand is hundreds of times higher than $5.

First published in Gulf News, November 8, 2016

The high-end cottage industry

A couple of weeks ago, a representative from an upscale audio company walked into a California high-end dealership to perform some updates on the floor units. He hefted amplifiers onto a table, lifting off the thick aluminium covers, and connecting a laptop to the circuit board to flash the amplifier’s memory, giving it new abilities.

“The amps were given an amazing new feature,” someone from the shop later joked (fondly, it must be said) to some other reps. “When you press a button on the remote, the volume changes!”

The reps smiled and shook their heads. Up to then, to change the volume via remote control, you had to type in the level you wanted. Is ‘34’ too soft? Type in 38 or 40.

“That’s pretty cool actually,’ said one of the reps as he thought about it. “I don’t think I’d want that update.”

Contained in that story is both the magic and the obduracy of high-end audio, a niche market that’s essentially an expensive cottage industry. Call it a manor industry if you will. These are products with years of R&D, extreme engineering and finishes, and no economy of scale. Many of these top brands depend on one person for their existence, and often feature all this person’s brilliance, and many of his quirks. These products aren’t smoothed and democratised as they pass from hand to hand, committee to committee, test group to test group.
Remote controls seem to be the neglected poster children of high-end audio. When so few people are designing and manufacturing a highly engineered product for such demanding customers, niceties are overlooked. Remotes from most audiophile companies are heavy bars or blocks or even discs, sprinkled seemingly randomly with unvarying buttons. They don’t fall to hand easily, and the layout is utterly unintuitive.

These are products that make me appreciate the ones we take for granted. The remote control on your modern television is an ergonomic miracle. See how the shape of it makes that circular button in the centre fall naturally under your thumb. The volume is always where you think it’ll be, and the only time you have to actually look at it is when you’re accessing those deeper, darker features you almost never use. In contrast, after years of use, I still need to peer at my audio system’s remote for the simplest of functions, even changing volume.

This is a world that is used to elaborate set-up and start-up procedures before playing music. I have a vinyl-only friend who goes through three cleaning steps each time he lowers stylus to groove. So asking users to get up to change the volume isn’t such a terrible thing. And audiophiles like to know that the busy designers of these fantastically priced products use all their time getting the sound perfect. If a volume control on a remote is a long belated afterthought, so be it. Spending months choosing the capacitors on the output stage of an amplifier is so much more rewarding for everybody concerned.

It’s fitting then, that the amplifier that needed the update is a work of art. Its chassis is carved from a single block of metal, and finished to perfection. There are burnished copper heatsinks along the sides. Should you change the volume on it directly, you will be rewarded with a tactile experience so beguiling, you’ll find yourself spinning the notched, weighted, polished volume ring just to hear and feel the oily clicks as it rotates.

It makes you wonder if the update should have removed the ability to use a remote control altogether.

First published in Gulf News, October 25, 2016

How can music build muscle?

My friend P ran a popular restaurant for a long time, and then spent many years working as a consultant. People he knew who loved to cook would often come to him for advice on starting their own restaurants. His response was always the same. Never do it. “Running a restaurant has very little do with food and cooking,” he would tell them. “It’s a heartbreaking business”.

Jobs usually look different from the inside. This is why I’ve been circumspect about finding a job in one of my two dream industries. It’s only three weeks into working for a high-end audio dealer, and I’m having even more fun than when I started. (The other dream industry would be cycling.)

My quick inside view of the high-end audio industry is that there’s a lot of heavy lifting. Literally. This is not a job for someone with a bad back. A Wilson Sophia speaker, for example, weighs 72kg. Getting one up even a couple of steps is a workout. An Audioquest power conditioner is about the size of a fat briefcase, but weighs 37kg, and has no handles. It’s fun trying to get that onto a rack. We recently installed a pair of power amplifiers that weigh 61kg each, though they did come with handles.

Most of this is ridiculously expensive gear, so my other expectation was of customer lifestyles. I assumed that people who buy $100,000 audio systems live in the mansion on the hill, with ocean vistas, and crunchy sweeping driveways. And so far, while we have been to one such house, most audiophiles lead pretty normal lives. On my first day at work, we visited a customer whose house gave no clues outside, or in the rest of the home, that the front room had been turned into a $180,000 home cinema. The rear speakers alone would be an unattainable dream as main stereo speakers for many audio nuts.

Another customer lived in a house not too different from one we rent. In the front room were two giant speakers, and the wooden TV unit contained a range of expensive American vacuum tube based electronics, in the same cubbies most of us fill with books and magazines, and assorted DVDs. The next time you run into your neighbour, look at him carefully (it’s usually a ‘him’). He could be an audiophile, walking unchallenged among us.

I recently read a March 12, 2014, Forbes interview of Sandy Gross, who co-founded Polk, Definitive Technology, and GoldenEar. He was asked about a trend in the audio industry he didn’t like. His answer: “The disappearance of high quality specialty retail stores that can demonstrate the gear as well as provide expertise and advice.”

I’m proud to work in a store, almost an institution, that has demonstration systems everywhere, and the ability to provide customers with informed choices. And I like that the owner happily fires up the $500,000 flagship system even for people who have come in to buy a $1,600 Technics amplifier.

We accept luxury with such ease and openness when it comes to televisions, cars, jewellery, gadgets, and travel, and yet are so reluctant to treat ourselves to good sound at home; ready to call the entire industry a scam. High-end audio has a big branding problem. Done right, music at home can captivate you, move you to tears, keep you sitting on the couch till 2am playing “just one more track”.

Too few people know this, and too few people realise just how much they are missing from their music when they assuredly say, “I don’t have the ears to hear the differences.”

First published in Gulf News, October 11, 2016

MacArthur Park’s melting in the dark

I enjoy the surprise of international visitors at our local CVS Pharmacy. The actual medicines are sold only in one corner of this giant shop that has everything from birthday balloons to alcoholic drinks to frozen foods. This particular California location is so large that they recently cut it in two, and were able to house an entire Aldi grocery store in one half.

In my last Cuff I’d written about a road trip, and said that, “Few other American experiences outside of the National Parks live up to or even exceed fable.”

The retail experience is one those. And specifically, the membership-only warehouse clubs such as Costco, a place where even Americans shake their heads as they walk in. At Costco, you don’t (and can’t) buy one or two rolls of kitchen towel. You buy a pack of 12. You don’t get one toothbrush; they come in packs of eight. The huge jar of instant coffee is taped to a second. You have to buy both.

We got our television from Costco, from the front where they are piled on shelves like so much produce. When we chose one, we looked around. Surely we need to tell someone to get it for us? Nope, we simply had to load our new television onto our cart, along with the dog food, Wet Wipes and peanut butter.

Costco changed my perception of what it means to be almost running out of things. A few years ago, to be almost out of cooking oil, would mean there’s an inch at the bottom of the last one liter bottle. Today, running out of oil means there’s only one more sealed 2.84L bottle left in the cupboard above the fridge. It’s easy to become accustomed to jars of mixed nuts the size of your head and beverage bottles so large, you need two hands to heft them off the shelf. Costco is another fun stop for visitors from out of country, and I enjoyed my parent’s astonishment as they entered the store on a recent visit.

But I’d saved the saddest, perhaps biggest, surprise for another day. We were to visit a restaurant near MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. “It’s a rough neighbourhood,” I said. “But even so, when we come up the escalator from the Metro station, if your eyes don’t widen, you get your money back.”

Sure enough, as they crested the escalator, my mother looked at me, eyes like saucers. On the left, a bunch of men and women, just hung out, belongings strewn everywhere. Ahead, street vendors had spread junk for sale—everything from old phone chargers to shavers. Around the corner, food vendors sold mango slices with chilli powder (if you’re from India, a lot of Mexican street food will be familiar to you). A tamale vendor sold out of the back seat of his SUV. As always, there were the hustlers trying to sell you fake ID’s.

After our meal, we walked through the faded glory of the park itself. A crazed homeless woman stood in the middle of a lawn, screaming at the world. Trash was scattered everywhere, and when you peered into the waters of the pretty lake, you could see shoes, clothes, plastic bags filled with junk. The pavement was storage for the local homeless, with shopping carts loaded with possessions, mattresses, tents and sleeping bags piled everywhere. This wasn’t just grit and character. It was devastation. It was shocking that this was the “greatest country on earth”, and my parents were shocked. It was, I’m sorry to say, another American experience that exceeded the fable.

First published in Gulf News, September 27, 2016

The old man and the taco truck

I could devote hundreds of words to Crater Lake in Oregon, and not come as close to its overt magic as the briefest Google Image search. So let me tell you, instead about meeting the Old Man of the Lake.

The first documented sighting of him was in 1896, when a explorer camping on Wizard Island in the lake, noticed a tree stump sticking out of the water. The next morning it had vanished. It was obviously floating around the lake, upright. For over a hundred years the 30-foot stump has wandered the waters of this caldera, covering as much as seven miles a day. We were lucky on this boat tour, the ranger said, to be able to come so close the four-feet or so sticking above the surface.

The Old Man doesn’t bob. He’s too heavy, too stately for that. He just sits in the water, appearing to be anchored to the bottom. The wood above the waterline is white and weather-beaten. And since this is Crater Lake, with the clearest water of any natural water body on Earth, you can see his entire length below the water surface. How he has floated upright for so long remains unknown.

After the boat tour, I stood on the shore of the lake, cupped some of the clear, cold water in my hands, and drank it. The taste was as crisp and blue as the lake itself. I wasn’t being foolish–the park rangers themselves tell you that the lake waters are perfectly good to drink. “It felt like an Ent-draught,” I told my wife, as I passed her on the steep hike back up the side of the caldera (Lord of the Rings references are a nearly daily occurrence between us).

This then, is where travel happens—in the moments in between. The points at which you break through into a new country or place are rarely at the grand vistas, but at the marketplaces where a smiling vegetable vendor tips an extra red capsicum into your bag, or the street corners where a man goes out of his way to give you directions to your destination, or the coffee shop that doesn’t charge for your drink because you mentioned it was your first visit to the chain.

This brings us neatly (in the way that hacking through a jungle with a machete is neat) to taco trucks. If you’re ever walking, baffled, through the streets of Los Angeles, California, stop at a taco truck. It’s likely to be a stepping stone into this city, one of those little travel portals you rarely find on purpose. Here, you will share a line with a bearded hipster, a couple of be-suited office workers, construction workers in high-visibility vests, and a young man with a cheap backpack who speaks only Spanish and looks bewildered, as if he only just walked into town through the San Ysidro border crossing from Mexico.

I mention taco trucks today because, of course, the co-founder of Latinos for Trump who infamously warned on September 1, that Mexico’s “aggressive” culture might result in a taco truck on every corner. Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times columnist, wrote about the issue, in his September 4 column ‘Taco Trucks on Every Corner? Si Por Favor’. He ended, “…I know what would truly make America great again. More taco trucks.”

I agree completely, and it’s not just about democratic, ethnic grilled meats. After all, if tomorrow, the Old Man of the Lake sank, Crater Lake, in its massive entirety would be unchanged. Yet to me, it would have lost a part of its soul.

First published in Gulf News, September 13, 2016

The American roadside attraction

“You kill it, we grill it.”

The closest Roadkill Cafe comes to living up to name and tagline is the bison burger, a road kill that would likely leave you in no shape to eat anything. But this is Seligman, Arizona, along a section of Route 66 that cleaves more accurately to a Disney Cars notion of the defunct highway than the dustier, more dangerous version Steinbeck etched in Grapes of Wrath.

Not everyone gets it. A few years ago, we recommended the Grand Canyon Caverns to houseguests who came back puffy and hissy about how downmarket the experience was, how underwhelming the caverns, especially compared to ones they’d seen on their other travels around the world. They had completely missed the point.

When you park in the shadow of a giant plaster dinosaur and pay $12 to be led through the caverns by an eccentric bearded man who knows and has a name for every calcite formation (“Here are the Fried Eggs!”), through caves that contain a mummified bobcat, a model of a prehistoric giant sloth whose bones were found in the cavern, and tinned biscuits from when it was to be a Cold War fallout shelter, you have signed on the dotted line of a very American contract. All along this thoroughfare are eccentric, overblown roadside attractions whose inauthenticity is their authenticity—you hand over your money fully aware you’re being taken for a bit of a ride, and you’re okay with that. This is how you get your kicks on Route 66.

If you haven’t been to the US, and are not sure which of your grand and terrible images of this country would survive a visit, it would likely be your fevered dream of the road trip. Few other American experiences outside of the National Parks live up to or even exceed fable. Recently, I drove with my parents from home near Los Angeles, to Denver, Colorado. Taking our time over three days, we passed through Flagstaff, Arizona, and the incredible Monument Valley in the Navajo Nation. On the way back it was just me from Vail, Colorado, taking the faster route along the I-70 and I-15 freeways.

The first third or so of the sixteen-and-a-half-hour journey back (counting breaks) was enlivened by the scenery through the Rockies and the San Rafael Swell. As the land settled into less fantastical shapes, colours and textures, I switched the in-car entertainment from music to an audio book, The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman. In his essay ‘How Dare You’ about his novel American Gods, Gaiman seemed to address me directly when he said, “I discovered, as I wrote it, why roadside attractions are the most sacred places in America.”

I was intrigued. I haven’t read American Gods, but I know that turning off a highway, and following a sign promising a “historical museum” or the like, is like turning from your idea of America to America’s idea of America. Without these signposts, the Hollywood sign is a set of large wooden letters on a hill, a burger is a round sandwich, and Route 66 is a scattering of lost roads. Contained in the American roadside attraction is the acknowledgment that somebody built this, and to it we came. Walking through a Seligman store, looking at the Route 66 T-shirts, mugs, licence plates, earrings, pins, caps, I see this dross, this kitsch as sacrament, as relics. I see the American’s longing to be told that somewhere in this vast, confusing, troubled, achingly beautiful country, is America, and that this may be it, no more, no less.

First published in Gulf News, August 30, 2016

Attaining a Grecian Urn

Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know

Thus ends ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ by John Keats. It’s an easy idea to accept, in a general sense. But what does it mean to you? What is your truth, and is it the same as my truth? If it’s all you need to know on earth, how do you apply it to your life?

Creative people use this word a lot when they talk about their craft. That their work is a quest for the truth. Or that only the truth can produce a masterpiece. But when you take one particular writer, about to write her novel’s first sentence, what is truth at that moment?

In my last ‘Off the Cuff’ I said that as we get to our 40s, our coping mechanisms seem to choke up. As a result, many of my friends are on a truth quest. They are questioning everything, acknowledging deeply buried hurt and pain. One has accepted that his relationship with his mother will never be what he needs. Another is moving on from troubling early memories. A third is re-examining what he always assumed was a happy family life, realising, among other things, that no child should have been yelled at the way he has been yelled at, with a savagery he wouldn’t subject even his dog to. But at 40, all of them are facing the mortality of the people who most affected them, and have to reconcile their anger and hurt with, let’s face it, increasingly helpless old people.

I know they will be okay, these people who are staring darkness in the eye. The ones to worry about are those that live in a fictional world of their own creation. Some live in the fiction of perfection, but when things go wrong, as they will, these people are like actors frozen on stage because suddenly the rest of the cast has gone off script. They are blindsided, bewildered and broken by the smallest upsets. Others create a fiction of a better tomorrow—that they’re only unhappy or anxious because of today’s difficulties, and that once they’ve got that new job or new toy or new body, everything will be better (I’m prone to this). Some people do this on a smaller scale, ascribing their unhappiness to a litany of minor issues—the food, the colour of the walls, the idiocy of people, anything to pretend it’s not about them.

As a friend observed recently, the problem with “sorting out one’s issues” is that dealing with other people’s lack of truth becomes harder. She is having trouble relating to one of her oldest friends. Under the black light of truth, she realises that she and her friend play out the same game of pretend they do in their families. “When I’m with her, we live in a world of unicorns, like we’re still 10. It’s fun, for about a day. Then her health issues get in the way, or I realise she’s never listening when I talk, or I get tired of being given advice, but I can’t say anything.” She paused. “Well I can say something, I choose not to.” She paused. “There’s nothing beautiful about the truth, is there?”

It’s true. The truth is usually ugly. But Keats didn’t use the definite article. ‘Truth’, as against ‘the truth’ is more a state of being. Truth is a place you reach after many, many truths, and I suspect that the reason it’s beautiful, is that you never quite get there.

First published in Gulf News, August 16, 2016

Oops, my coping mechanism has jammed

On paper, Jarvis (name changed) should be a great friend. We’re almost the same age, from similar backgrounds, with similar non-traditional interests. Like me, Jarvis enjoys words and language, and we love the same music. I really like Jarvis.

But, spending time with him is work. Hard, annoying work, like breaking stones or filling in expense reports. For some reason, I can’t let this go. I don’t just roll my eyes, and go on with my largely Jarvis-free life. Almost perversely, I reach out to him, and hope he’ll annoy me. And so, I know my problem with Jarvis has more to do with me than him.

It’s not like Jarvis is free from fault. He builds Brand Jarvis all the time. Almost every utterance of his seems calculated to push himself forward and upward. And, far harder for me, he is one of the worst listeners I know (and for some reason I’m friends with a number of appalling listeners). At best, he simply nods and shuts down conversations, but at his most annoying, he scans your conversation for keywords, and uses those to backhand a return story of his own. While you’re still talking.

I know well the damage that most likely fuels this behaviour. Not being heard and not being accepted for who you are has lifelong consequences, and I can’t look away from these faults. Sometimes we are drawn to that which is scarred the way we are scarred, so we can hate it and curse it, and pretend it isn’t like us at all. And thus, I often feel unmoored, and I’m not alone. So many of the newly minted forty-year-olds around me seem just as adrift. I feel that we’re hitting an age when the coping mechanisms start to wear out, and suddenly we’re asked to look into the blackness within. By this age, the body runs out of room to hide away its stresses, which then show up as depression, anxiety, psychosomatic pain and other illnesses. Our youth window for other abuses, such as comfort excess eating or smoking or extreme dieting or crazed exercising closes, and the chronic injuries start to show. Or quite simply, the afflicted person comes up against the same toxic situation so many times, they start to wonder, “Am I part of this pattern?”

One morning I realised that the way I call out Jarvis is the way I want to call out someone else in my life. Jarvis was the easy target. That wasn’t the revelation. What was startling is how this crept up on me, even though I believe I’m in good contact with my true internal motivations. This loss of attention is what results in you voting for Brexit because the Polish neighbour’s baby’s crying disturbs you. It’s what makes you choose a bigoted clown to be your country’s president because he vocalises your darkest mutterings when the Chinese woman in the white Mercedes cuts you off on the street you grew up on.

“Sorry for subjecting you to my psychological residue,” I wrote to Jarvis. Jarvis was gracious and mature in his response—he had never once taken the bait. “I sensed your disapproval,” he wrote, and that word shook me. Disapproval comes from on high, and is linked closely with expectation. And expectation, as I’ve learned, is a form of control. How dare I attempt to control Jarvis? I have the choice to accept him, talk to him about it, or refuse to meet him. I do not get to try and change him. Ah well, one more day, one more step towards a truthful existence.

First published in Gulf News, August 2, 2016

About that bass, no treble

Today in class, I learned how to slap. No, not a self-defence lesson, nor a Dickensian parenting course. I was at my bass guitar class. A few months ago, I stopped dreaming and started doing, and bought a cheap electric bass, found a teacher nearby, and started learning to groove.

Slapping and popping is a playing style favoured in disco, funk, and by solo bass players. The thumb is hammered on the lower two strings, and the higher two strings are plucked upwards, causing them to twang metallically against the frets. When you’re learning, it’s better described as “making a racket”, and I am thrilled that this is not just sanctioned, but a part of my student duties.

I’ve taken music classes before, and they’ve all been classically circumscribed. Here, I was intentionally “misusing” an instrument in grand tradition. Jazz for example, began with the misuse of military marching band instruments, which is why the genre so heavily features saxophones, trumpets, and trombones.

Early jazz musicians often had to make do with heavily worn or even broken instruments, and many of the chosen textural elements of jazz—the brays and the squeaks and overtones—probably trace back to when musicians had no choice but to incorporate them into their sound.

American bassist Marcus Miller, backs this up in an online article on For Bass Players Only by Jon Liebman, July 10, 2014. In it, Miller says, “If you notice, all the great cultural creations around the world, they come from poor people, people who don’t have a lot, from the ghettos.”

The article is specifically about slap bass, a technique that’s supposed to have originated (for Western music) in New Orleans in the early part of the twentieth century. While the tuba is the traditional marching band bass instrument, early bass players would be expected to play the tuba outdoors, and the double bass—the largest of the violin family—indoors. Presumably because the tuba or other brass bass instruments are too loud at close quarters. But the double bass was too soft (if you like jazz, you’ll know how the band comes to a halt for the bass solo), so players developed the slap technique to cut through the room.

Last night, at a theatre in Pasadena, I heard the composition Stronghold by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Julia Wolfe. It’s for eight double basses, but this performance, by experimental music group People Inside Electronics, had one live player and seven on tape. In the notes, Wolfe had written, “…I discovered that the bass had a limitless universe of expressive possibilities rarely explored.” She goes on to describe her piece. “Stronghold starts with webs of rolling harmonics, very high overtones that take advantage of the long length of the strings”.

In popular music, solo bassist Victor Wooten, exploits these harmonics to play entire tunes with them. Stronghold was interesting certainly, but for me, really came into its own at the end when the player pressed the bow heavily into the lowest string and created what Wolfe described as “thick, resonant sounds”, the sounds of discovering why we’re here, what we’re meant to be.

Using slap and pop on an electric bass combines percussion and musical tones in a way that feels like what a six-year-old would do if let loose on the instrument. Channeling that racket creates a propulsive, powerful sound, that’s overwhelming if overused. It also feels like a strong connection with the ingenuity, misuse and non-conformity that led to the creation of much of the music we listen to today.

First published in Gulf News, July 16, 2016