Will Ebola Claim the Obama Presidency?

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For months, as the Ebola virus spread precipitously throughout Africa, American citizens have engaged in the usual rampant speculation that accompanies modern pandemics. Questions were asked about how the disease is spread, how it can be contained and, most importantly, whether nor not the United States was in any danger of it spreading to these shores.

At every step, the official response from medical professionals was dismissive, to the point of smugness. No, they said: Ebola will not come to America. And then they said the odds were simply way too low for anyone to consider. We were told all this assiduously, by men and women whose primacy as experts rendered them incapable of being credibly second-guessed. Whether it was the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, or our own Department of Health and Human Services, the pushback against public concern was delivered with the same self-satisfied certainty once used to anoint Wall Street CEOs as “masters of the universe”—and we know how well that worked out.

But now, with the first diagnosis of Ebola on these shores, with everyone that person contacted now in quarantine, and with an NBC crew on its way back in quarantine after their own cameraman tested positive for Ebola, one thing that should be obvious is that the experts were wrong—dead wrong, about almost everything—and that their failure means innocent people are going to die.

A man with Ebola lied his way onto a plane that carried him—and the virus—from Liberia to Dallas, where he then contacted multiple people before showing symptoms himself. Multiple airline officials failed to stop him from getting into the US, even after being warned of what to look for and how to proceed. At that point, doctors in Dallas failed to diagnose him, and the CDC only got involved because people close to the patient made the call, not hospital staff. Even now, with the man’s condition a national story, his family sits in quarantine, along with their neighbors in their apartment building. The man’s contagious vomit was pressure-washed by cleaning crews without proper safety equipment, and his soiled linens remained sitting at home in a plastic bag as this is being written. As with the airlines, established safety protocols were not followed, to devastating effect.

Right now is probably not the time to be thinking in terms of accountability. These failed experts are still the best at what they do, and the priority must remain on containing the disease and doing everything possible to help those already affected. However, when this current outbreak is over, a lot of people are going to lose their jobs, and one of them might be the President of the United States himself. Right-wing conservatives whispering about impeaching Obama have been handed an early Christmas present: Every Ebola diagnosis within US borders makes it easier to advance the case for impeaching a president whose own personal failings made a bad situation much, much worse.

Obama’s sorry handling of the Ebola debacle has been somewhat consistent with his handling of pretty much everything this year, and it doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to wonder if maybe there’s something seriously wrong with him. After all, this is the same president who referred to ISIS as “the JV squad” while they were building critical mass in Iraq and gaining a foothold in Syria, and then admitted on-camera that “We don’t have a strategy yet” to deal with them. This is the same president whose underlings allegedly threatened the family of James Foley for being open to paying ransom for him—and then, after he was murdered on video, Obama offered half-hearted condolences with no tie on, minutes before running off to play golf. This is the same president whose Secret Service has been compromised more times than his own principles, with no real consequences.

This is the same president who recently saluted a Marine guarding his helicopter while holding coffee in his right hand, and whose advocates complained about the resulting controversy, which only occurred because the White House released the video themselves. It’s not about the salute; it’s about how one of the most successful politicians of the post-war era has suddenly forgotten how politics works. It’s hard to say what would be worse: that he didn’t know how that would look, and how people would react, or that he didn’t care. Further, not one member of his staff intervened to block the release of the video, and none of them seemed to care at all about its practical effect on the election. He was elected because he wasn’t George W. Bush, and now, five years later, that’s all he’s got.

At the very least, it comes at the worst possible time for congressional Democrats, who already face serious losses in a tight, contentious mid-term election season that culminates just a month from now. Part of any president’s job is to be the leader of their party, and in that regard Obama may go down as one of the absolute worst presidents of the past century, in terms of the brutally negative effect his presence has had on the fortunes of his party, which controlled both houses of congress at the time he took office in 2009. Since then, Obama’s greatest political legacy has been to empower the most reactionary elements of his opposition, which has cakewalked into dozens, if not hundreds of elected offices on local, state and national levels from coast to coast, driven largely by reflexive hatred and fear of a president who, amidst all this, has never offered any real resistance.

If Republicans are able to maintain their control of the US House, and somehow manage to take control of the Senate, there will be nothing to stop them from at least trying to impeach Obama. Nothing, that is, except their own fear, which is legitimate. It’s quite possible that voters will be thrown off by the ugliness of it all, and might retaliate by voting out the principal aggressors and rallying behind the Democratic nominee (presumably Hillary Clinton) in 2016. Of course, the last president impeached was Bill Clinton, whose successor was a Bush. That could easily happen again—assuming that there’s anyone left to actually vote in 2016. As always, time will tell.

 

sheltonhull@gmail.com

October 2, 2014

 

The Semiotics of Dress: Angela Corey for Governor? Maybe…

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Angela Corey, as painted by George Zimmerman

Angela Corey, as painted by George Zimmerman

October 1 was arguably the most important day in Angela Corey’s political career, and future historians of the state may see it as a watershed moment, for reasons we cannot really grasp at present. Angela Corey took the podium following the announcement of Michael Dunn’s guilty verdict in the first-degree murder of Jordan Davis, a conviction she failed to obtain earlier this year.

First Coast News cut their coverage of the presser just as the Q&A session had begun, while WJXT sustained their feed. She looked almost like a different person, in that moment, which makes sense. Any professional of any type can appreciate the feeling that comes after the successful resolution of a long-term, intensive high-stakes project, and can easily recognize that look on another’s face when they are in that moment. All the more so for Angela Corey, who hasn’t had a lot of those moments as our State Attorney. She took power amidst the proverbial firestorm of controversy, much of which was not her fault, and has steadily stoked those flames into a conflagration that many assumed would’ve consumed her fully by now. Without reaching for the obvious Phoenix reference, let’s just say that it appears the exact opposite has been the case. And the question now becomes: What next?

In her green blazer, her turquoise-and black scarf, gold earrings and a phat gold chain with a cross at the end, the city’s lead prosecutor could’ve passed for Iggy Azalea’s mom—and that is a good thing, in terms of politics. No velvet ropes at any bougie nightspot from South Beach to the South Bronx would impede her progress in an outfit like that, no more than the glass-ceilings have so far.

If clothes make the man, then even more so for women, and the message of Angela Corey’s clothes was simple: Even after botching the Zimmerman case and failing once to nail Michael Dunn for the murder of Jordan Davis, and with many observers predicting another public humiliation for her office, Corey dressed like someone who was absolutely certain of victory. And certainty is something we see very little in Florida politics.

If Michael Dunn is Corey’s first major trophy, one expects to see more. Whether she has found vindication in the public eye, or simply earned temporary respite from criticism that will never really go away, depends on what she wants to do. Any plans she has for her own future remain publicly unstated; if anyone knows, they’re not letting on. But Corey’s performance today raised an interesting possibility, one that many Floridians would surely find horrifying: Angela Corey could be governor someday.

Florida has never had a female governor, and Florida Republicans have never nominated a woman to hold that position. Democrats, of course, failed to get Alex Sink over in 2010, which has in all likelihood cooled the party on any effort to make history again, for the near future. Indeed, poor Nan Rich got steamrolled by the famously former Republican Charlie Crist, who refused to even debate her. Andrew Cuomo did the same against Zephyr Teachout in New York, and in both cases their state parties essentially went along with that. Whether anyone cares to admit it or not, at no point did Nan Rich ever have any chance whatsoever to be the Democratic nominee, that was plainly obvious six months before the election even happened.

Nan Rich was humiliated, and even if that wasn’t directly attributable to gender bias, it damn sure looks that way. One rarely heard Republicans ask if Florida was ready for a female governor, in part because they knew the momentum for gender equality in state politics belongs to them—a delicious irony that will pay off huge over the next decade or two. Whomever Florida’s first female governor is, she will almost certainly be a Republican—and it might very well be Angela Corey.

Getting the Dunn verdict gives her immediate credibility in the African-American community, which recognizes that Dunn was already set to die in prison on the other charges, but that Corey personally put her own career at risk to “do the right thing” for Jordan Davis’ parents and give them a rare symbolic victory in this bloody year for black youth. It doesn’t negate the damage done by the Marissa Alexander case, but the ball is really in Governor Scott’s court on that. If Corey didn’t get a few photos with Davis’ family and the crowds of black women cheering the verdict outside the courthouse, that would represent a huge missed opportunity.

The Alexander case illustrates that, ironically, Corey’s biggest political weakness right now remains her support among women, in particular the longstanding perception that she soft on issues related to violence against women and children. Given that this particular problem is only going to escalate in the years ahead, she would do well to get out in front on the issue and establish a record of action that can hyped when the time is right. (Her views on DCF, in particular, would be useful.)

Corey’s traditional law-and-order bonafides should be sufficient to keep her competitive in any GOP primary, especially if she continues to rack up high-profile convictions, so there will be plenty of room for her to appeal to elements of a progressive base whose own interests will be more or less ignored for the rest of this decade. The abysmal turnout for this year’s primary merely formalizes the widespread apathy and disgust that the majority of Florida voters already have with the leadership (such as it is) of both parties—a power vacuum ripe for filling. But, again, by whom?

Putting gender issues aside, the reality is that Northeast Florida has not held the top position in state government since Haydon Burns retired in January 1967. Several of Jacksonville’s subsequent mayors were at least discussed, Democrats and Republicans alike, but none were ever nominated. The election of Alvin Brown raised some hope of breaking that drought in this decade, and making even more history in the process, but he’s so far failed to build what could have been a very formidable statewide organization. Between Occupy and the HRO, he had the opportunity to establish himself as the logical successor to whomever wins in 2014, but instead he’s been occupied by defending his spot against opposition he should have simply neutralized from the get-go.

If Brown wins reelection and governs as the forward-leaning centrist his core supporters expect him to be, the governorship is entirely within his grasp. The I-4 corridor has had its run, and South Florida’s traditional dominance in the post-Consolidation era is weaker now that it’s ever been; it would be flat-out stupid for the north not to exploit that vulnerability while it exists. But if he stumbles, or just has no interest, it is imperative that Northeast Florida have someone ready to roll when the time is right. Regardless of who it is, Florida’s next decade should begin with Duval firmly in control. Time, as it does, will clarify these things, but right now Corey’s looking golden. And if the idea of Angela Corey being governor of Florida frightens you, good. You should be afraid—especially if you’re her opponent!

Governor Scott: Pardon Marissa Alexander

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When a judge recently denied Marissa Alexander’s request for a Stand Your Ground hearing, for the second time, the die was cast for her retrial. Odds are decent that she may be sent back to jail, even under terms of a plea deal. While the sentence may not be as severe, those who believe she had no business being locked up to begin with, and whose efforts forced the state’s hand once already, are unlikely to take any satisfaction in that. And so the cycle of acrimony will rotate further.

As it stands, the only person capable of breaking this cycle also happens to be the person who would benefit most from doing so. Ms. Alexander’s mistakes have presented Governor Scott with an opportunity to demonstrate real leadership, and also to show off a compassionate side that not enough people get to see in politics. With one stroke of his pen—well, several strokes—Governor Scott can end this controversy for good by pardoning Marissa Alexander.

Scott’s critics would likely denounce it as an election-year stunt, and he should let them do so, because a pardon could well prove decisive in the governor’s race. It is surprising that Charlie Crist has not made this into more of an issue, and Scott should take the initiative to take that option away from him entirely. With Alexander on his side, Scott could potentially take an unprecedented share of the African-American vote from his Democratic challenger. At the same time, it offers some hope of maybe mitigating what are likely to be substantial losses among female voters. If Scott loses in November, it will be largely due to Crist’s support among women, and there is nothing he can do about that—but if he pardoned the state’s most well-known victim of domestic violence, that would be a good start.

Some would argue that such action interferes with the rule of law, but others would argue that it actually reinforces the rule of law. Bear in mind, Ms. Alexander already spent time behind bars on a conviction that was overturned; the governor is entirely within his rights to say the lady has been through enough, and there is nothing to be gained from spending more money prosecuting her. There can be no serious question of the governor’s commitment to law-and-order, and even those who would object to a pardon on those grounds are NOT going to vote for Charlie Crist.

There is a practical side to all this, as well: pardoning Ms. Alexander would eliminate a major distraction, and it would clear out a cloud that would otherwise hang over his second term. If she is imprisoned again, her supporters may believe that the whole game was rigged against her from the start—and that is a case that already carries weight in national media. Ending this case would remove a big source of negative publicity for all of Florida, while generating large amounts of positive hype for himself, and even die-hard opponents would be happy that it’s over.

Rick Scott is arguably the most controversial governor in America, but in this election year he has shown himself repeatedly to be capable of acting counterintuitively in the public interest, and willing to wager political capital to do the right thing. To pardon Marissa Alexander would be the most dramatic example of that yet. Not only would it be the kind of bold, decisive action that voters respond favorably to, it has the added benefit of humanity. He and he alone can decide whether Ms. Alexander will get to watch her children grow up; morally, and politically, does he really have any choice?

Becca Stevens: On Her Way

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Riverside Fine Arts Series presents: Becca Stevens

Monday, April 27, 7:30 pm

Underbelly, 113 E. Bay St.

$20

For nearly a decade, the Riverside Fine Arts Series has presented some of the most interesting musicians Northeast Florida has hosted in that time. Most of those concerts have occurred in Riverside, at the historic Church of the Good Shepherd, one of the best places in Florida to catch a show. (The Turtle Island String Quartet’s performance some years back remains a personal favorite.)

That process has proceeded full-speed into 2014. Enter Becca Stevens, hailing from Winston-Salem, NC, by way of New York City. Classically-trained in guitar at North Carolina School of the Arts (c/o 2002), she earned a BFA in vocal jazz and composition at the New School for Jazz (c/o 2007) before going pro. Even out of school, Stevens copped credits quickly, in combos led by pianists Taylor Eigsti and fellow New School alumnus Brad Mehldau (who, incidentally, was born in Jacksonville).

By her count, she’s recorded about 25 songs so far. “I have been writing songs since I can remember,” Stevens writes via email from the road, where she’s currently on tour, “and I’ve recorded a lot of original music with artists and bands other than my own, as well as original material that was never officially released.”

Her solo debut, “Tea Bye Sea”, was released independently in 2008. “Weightless” (Sunnyside) followed three years later, bringing her into mainstream focus for the first time. Speaking to NPR that year, Kurt Elling cited her among his five favorite jazz vocalists. A new album is slated for later this year: “I just finished mixing the upcoming album. I’m in the process of trying to find a label for it. If that doesn’t pan out, I’ll release it on my own.”

“When we perform live, the music tends to be heavier, bigger, and higher energy than how it was recorded on ‘Weightless’,” she says. “My approach is always changing in little ways as I am as an artist. Also, we are playing mostly new material now, from our upcoming release. This new material tends more towards a heavier rock/pop sound, and is a little more danceable and less moody than the songs from ‘Weightless’.

Stevens is probably best-known to casual fans as the vocalist for Travis Sullivan’s Bjorkestra, an 18-piece supergroup of New York musicians—who’ve worked for artists ranging from Clark Terry and Ray Charles to Jessica Simpson and Arcade Fire—assembled to perform his original big-band arrangements of Bjork songs. Their 2008 album “Enjoy” was, and remains, an instant classic.

It’s hard to accurately describe music that crosses over so many boundaries; even the artist has some difficulty categorizing the dozens of songs she’s written so far. “I’d say it floats somewhere between pop, Appalachian folk, jazz, rock, and world music,” she writes. “The arrangements are intricate and vocal/harmony driven. The compositions are intimate but accessible, through-composed, and from the heart!”

Stevens currently leads her own band, which she founded in 2005; the group includes Liam Robinson (accordion, piano, vocals), Chris Tordini (acoustic bass, vocals) and Jordan Perlson (drums & percussion). Tordini and Robinson have been in her band since day one, whereas Perlson’s “only” been there five years. It’s a band comprised of friends, who have come up in the business and evolved into their mature style together, which lends a real tightness to the live sets, even as the music itself can be downright laconic.

Stevens is contributing strongly to a rebooting of how jazz is perceived by audiences for whom the music is more often considered a fixed entity, in stasis and currently inaccessible, geographically and aesthetically. It’s no coincidence that Underbelly will also be at the epicenter of the “Jazz After Dark” activities at the jazz festival in May; Stevens’ own band and the Bjorkestra are both prime examples of the kind of acts that should be booked at the festival itself in the future. As for Stevens’ own future, all systems are go. “I’d like to stay on the track that i’m currently on!” she writes. “I’d like to also continue collaborating with likeminded artists outside the music I play with my bandmates. I see myself making music until I can’t make music anymore.”

Having started very early, Stevens (a 15-year veteran) is presently a leading light among the new generation of genre-smashing jazz/pop hybrid female vocalists, several of whom—including Sophie Milman and Esperanza Spalding—have also worked Jacksonville in partnership with RFAS. Although they have worked Miami before, this will be the Becca Stevens Band’s first appearance here in Jacksonville. It will also mark Underbelly’s first time hosting the RFAS. Both those firsts are well worth repeating, as often as possible.

http://www.riversidefinearts.org/concert-series/becca-stevens-band/

http://www.youtube.com/user/beccastevensband

https://www.facebook.com/beccastevensmusic

 

sheltonhull@gmail.com

April 25, 2014

Notes on the Girls Rock Jacksonville Volunteer Showcase (CoRK, 12/15) and “The Punk Singer” (Sun-Ray Cinema, 12/23)

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Girls Rock Jax benefit show—CoRK, December 15

“The Punk Singer”—Sun Ray Cinema, December 23

(One of my favorite concert flyers this year…)

The expansion of the Girls Rock Camp’s global brand into Jacksonville two years ago has been, without question, one of the most important local cultural development of the past decade—the proverbial “gift that keeps on giving”, if you’re a music fan. As Girls Rock Jacksonville prepares to enter its third year, with its third camp coming in summer 2014, the process of preparation has begun, and that includes two events scheduled for mid-December at CoRK (12/15) and Sun-Ray Cinema (12/23).

The first is a Girls Rock Jax fundraising event slated for Friday, Dec. 15 at CoRK, which has been on a heckuva run this year. (A number of their resident artists will be just returning from a triumphant group effort at Art Basel Miami Beach, dubbed the ‘#baselinvasion”; a number of Northeast Florida’s top talents were represented there, at the country’s biggest art festival.) The GRJ funder will feature five bands comprised of GRJ volunteers and volunteers, as well as a silent auction with gimmicks and swag provided by local creative talents like Christina Abercrombie, Alicia Canessa, Cherri Czajkowski, Crystal Floyd, Sarah Humphreys and Karen Kurycki, as well as affiliated local businesses, including: Bold Bean Coffee Roasters, Burro Bags, The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, Dead Tank Records / Distribution, Deep Search Records, Dig Foods, Hawthorn Salon, Intuition Ale Works, M.A.D. Nails, Original Fuzz, Orion | Allen Photography, Sun-Ray Cinema, Sweet Theory Baking Co. and That Poor Girl.

Swag for the auction, provided by Dead Tank…

The first Girls Rock camps started in the Pacific Northwest, and have from the start been largely inspired by the Riot Grrrl movement that began in that region a quarter-century ago. Riot Grrrl, to an even larger extent than the alternative rock scene of the era, in general, marked the first time that girls were positioned front-and-center in multiple bands, in a truly egalitarian way, speaking directly to matters of relevance in their demographic—and they were good, too.

Of course, a central figure in that movement has been Kathleen Hanna—writer, activist, wife of King Ad-Rock and lead singer of Bikini Kill, Le Tigre and the Julie Ruin—one of the most influential women of the 21st century. You can see that all over American culture, to this day, and in ways that are not just latent or nostalgia-based, but active, kinetic and compelling in the present. The network of Girls Rock camps around the world is just the most obvious example.

Hanna with Jabberjaw, circa 1993 or ’94…

A new documentary called “The Punk Singer” tells Hanna’s story in greater detail than ever before, largely in her own words, Jacksonville will be one of the select cities hosting a screening of it at Sun-Ray Cinema, in historic Five Points, on Sunday afternoon, December 23. I’ll proudly note that I was first to call attention to its availability when I saw a posting about it on Facebook, but Tim Massett is the man for connecting with the filmmakers and putting in the legwork to make it happen.

(Kathleen Hanna with the author, Burrito Gallery, November 2011)

Although Hanna herself will not be on hand for the film screening, she’ll be there in spirit. Her affinity for the River City is already a matter of record. I was honored to sit with her, Adee Roberson, Andrew Coulon, Duncan Fristoe and the delightful Mark Creegan for a panel discussion on zines (“The Personal Is Political”) at the Jacksonville Public Library in November 2011. That was followed by a presentation by Hanna herself, and a Q&A session with an audience largely comprised of the city up-and-coming young ladies; after that, everyone adjourned to Burrito Gallery for lunch. Many of those girls ended up being involved in the launch of Girls Rock Jacksonville the following July.

(Flyer for the NYC screenings…)

“The Punk Singer” was released theatrically by IFC Films on November 29, with some 19 screenings in ten states; the screening at Sun-Ray will be the very first one in the state of Florida. (The film will also be showing at the Hippodrome in Gainesville on January 24, 2014.)      As a bonus, the screening will be preceded by a performance of songs associated with the film’s subject, as rendered by a group of girls drawn together specifically for the occasion from the ranks of GRJ volunteers. Drummer Summer Wood is probably best-known for her work with Rice, and now with Four Families. Singer/guitarist/keyboardist Alex E. Michael has led some of the city’s most dynamic bands of the past few years, including Wild Life Society and Ritual Union, in addition to her own solo work. She and singer Bethany Buckner were once half of the legendary Fruit Machine, which during its too-short run was, quite simply, one of the best all-girls bands ever, anywhere.

According to the official “Girls Rock Camp Alliance” website, GRJ is just one of 44 Girls Rock camps in eight different countries, with more forthcoming. The volunteers who’ve organized and run the past two GRJ camps include some of the most talented artists and musicians working the region today, women whose own individual achievements are already a matter of public record. Together, they have created something even greater than the sum of its already-valuable parts. They have nurtured, empowered and mentored these young ladies like they were their own sisters, daughters and friends—which they often are, in many cases.

            Girls Rock, as a concept, was born at Portland State University in 2001, and quickly spread to cities around the world. The girlsrockcamp.org website offers a glimpse at Portland’s organization ten years on, fully-formed and self-actualized, with ample merchandise to ensure a steady influx of capital. What began, like ours, as a weekly summer camp has expanded into a full-time Girls Rock Institute, with a camp for women, its own Rock Camp Studio, and hundreds of pupils per year; they have received nearly a quarter-million dollars in sponsorship, including a $40,000 donation from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Instructors’ educational experiences have been codified into a book, and an excellent documentary feature was filmed at the 2005 camp. The Portlandians even formed 16 Records to market and distribute music related to the project from talent like Dolly Ranchers, Jack Queen, The Haggard and Pom Pom Meltdown. (Note especially the splendid singer Marisa Anderson, who doubles on keyboards and lap-steel guitar.) No doubt, interest in this material will only increase as these ladies further establish themselves in the industry; the earliest campers are now in their mid-20s, so that process is already well-underway.

For the uninitiated, the GRJ camp is a one-week camp for girls aged 9-16, usually running from late July into early August. Attendees are provided hands-on instruction in a wide range of artistic disciplines—singing, instruments, DJing, arts and crafts, flyer- and zine-making—related to the skills needed for success as a professional musician. Having the lessons administered to girls by girls, by actual working musicians and longtime vets of the scene. The inaugural camp, in 2012, drew 29 campers and 40 volunteers. Camp sessions are run at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, and each year’s camp ends with the girls forming their own bands to play a showcase concert at the historic Florida Theatre on Saturday afternoon. (Hopefully, future concerts will be recorded and marketed for fans, parents, etc.)

A cursory glance at the concert listings in Northeast Florida on any given week is a testament to the skills being brought to bear for the GRJ project—and that’s just the volunteers. At this rate, it will be just a few couple more years before GRJ attendees are themselves sharing space with their teachers—on the stage, on the page, online and in the firmament of what is already known as one of the most dynamic, emerging music scenes in the world today. And you can help!

 

sheltonhull@gmail.com

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Tony Allen: an Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat, by Tony Allen and Michael E. Veal. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 192 pp, illustrated.

“There would be no Afrobeat without Tony Allen,” said the late great Fela Kuti (1938-1997), leader of the Africa 70—originally Koola Lobitos, later the Nigeria 80. Together he and Allen rose together from their early years in Nigeria’s ‘Highlife” scene to the peaks of global prominence, together they built one of the hardest-hitting and smoothest-swinging big-bands of all time—a band as tight as Ellington’s or Benny Goodman’s, yet as expansive in sound as the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis group–and that’s only speaking as far as the jazz aspects of it. There are infinite other angles, as the reader likely knows already.

As weird as Sun Ra and as socially-relevant as James Brown, Fela’s music has only grown in popularity since his death, and the most indispensable component of his singular sound was his drummer, Tony Allen, whose memoir was published last month. His co-author, Michael E. Veal, previously wrote a well-received biography of Fela, so he entered the project already prepared and predisposed to tell Allen’s story with the fidelity it merits.

Tony Oladipo Allen was born in Nigeria’s capital city of Lagos on August 12, 1940—well, that’s what Wikipedia says; Allen declares his birthday as July 20 on page 21. The book’s first 40-plus pages covers that early phase in his career before he linked up with Fela. Both men were highly influenced by jazz, and some of my favorite stuff in the book comes from this early session, where Allen describes the evolution of his own inimitable drum style in the context of drummers who came before—giants like Gene Krupa, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones and Max Roach. This section also covers serves as a nice overview of what the Nigerian music scene was like before Fela’s crew became the dominant band of that era, in the process bringing Nigerian culture into the mainstream for the first time. The pages are peppered with long-forgotten names, and in that sense the authors have really done a service, not just for musicologists but for their country.

His career as a professional musician began around 1960. One of his earliest serious gig was drumming for Sivor Lawson and the Cool Cats when they opened for Louis Armstrong in 1960; he notes the great impression left his Pops’ drummer, Danny Barcelona (1929-2007), who became one of his first of his many friends working in western music. Allen himself would later become a major player in the fusion of African and Euro-American musical concepts, starting with the infamous Fela recordings with Ginger Baker, the former drummer for Cream. Baker lived in Nigeria for the first half of the 1970s, and his collaboration with Allen and Africa 70 became one of the great “percussion discussions” ever put to wax; their 16-minute drum battle (from 1978) is appended to the CD reissue of Fela’s album Live! (Capitol/EMI, 1971).

Personally, my first experience with Tony Allen’s solo material came via the World Music section of the Jacksonville Public Library, downtown. There was a compilation CD of music from Nigeria, and one of the tracks remains my favorite of his: “Get Together”, whose locomotive beat, fat bass lines and vocal harmonies—understated, but resonant—offered an ideal introduction to the man’s work. I still put it on mixes and such, a decade later.

Casual fans may recall the song “Heat”, by Common, an instant-classic from his Like Water For Chocolate album (MCA, 2000); was built around a beat J. Dilla sampled from Allen’s “Asiko”, track one on 1999’s Black Voices.

As it turns out, Allen’s experience extends well before and after his tenure (1968-79) with Africa 70, and this book really helps flesh out that history. The concert in Berlin that yielded the drum battle with Baker in 1978 was also Allen’s last as a member of Africa 70. By that point, the band had undergone significant trauma, much of it focused on the leader himself, who had made powerful enemies with his brazen critiques of Nigeria’s military dictatorship. Only by coincidence was Allen not at Fela’s home (known as the “Kalakuta Republic”) when it was raided by a thousand soldiers of the Nigerian military in 1977; it one of the most brutal examples of state-sponsored suppression of art in the post-war era. Fela was nearly beaten to death, his life only spared by an officer’s intervention, but the compound was burned to the ground along with his studio, his instruments and master-tapes. Worst of all, Fela’s mother was defenestrated through of a second-story window, causing fatal injuries, and one of the soldiers shit on her face afterwards. Neither Fela nor his music were ever the same again, and neither would Tony Allen.

Allen’s final break with Fela comes on page 127, and the remaining 58 pages covers the years after, as the author became an ambassador of Afrobeat and a touring act in great demand around the world. His solo work displays the same inimitable rhythms he pioneered with Fela, but the music itself is quite different; Allen long ago began to fuse his native sounds with the emergent aesthetic of hip-hop resulting in some of the most compelling music of the past 30 years.

There’s really very little, if anything, to complain about here, but for exactitude’s sake, a few quick points. First, this book would’ve benefitted from a few sparse footnotes, offering biographical details of some of the artists Allen mentions in the text. Many of the names will be familiar to casual fans, but a lot of them will be unknown and obscure even to obsessive fans of Afrobeat; in some cases, there is literally no information available about them at all. The book walks us back through the rise and evolution of the music, but footnotes would’ve helped flesh out the narrative and situate Allen’s work more comfortably in its broader context. To that end, while the book has a decent selected discography also could’ve used a sessionography—although that, too, is a minor complaint, since that information is available online, for anyone who might be interested.

All in all, Allen and Veal have combined to tell one of the most remarkable stories of the last 40 years of music history. They have also managed to flesh out the history of a man who has never quite been recognized for the vastness of his influence. Ultimately, Tony Allen deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as legends like Clyde Stubblefield, Al Jackson Jr. and Bernard Purdie—a true innovator, and master of a sound that would simply not exist without his efforts. That is a fact, and hopefully it will become even more apparent as time goes by.

Book review: “The Squared Circle”

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The Squared Circle: Life, Death and Professional Wrestling, by David Shoemaker, aka “The Masked Man”. New York: Gotham Books/Penguin. 386pp, ill.

David Shoemaker’s The Squared Circle is only the latest entry into a literary market already well-saturated with books about professional wrestling. Most of these books have been hagiographical scribblings by ghostwriters, passing themselves off as memoir; these books are useful, given their access to the subject at hand, but they often fail to pass muster in terms of actual readability. Others have been written by outsiders, by fans and nominal wrestling “journalists”, some of whom are legit, while others are hacks who lucked into a small-press book deal.

Shoemaker’s book, however, is something of an anomaly within the genre—a full-length, hardcover book about wrestling published by a major imprint (or, at least, a subsidiary thereof) and handled with the sort of care that makes clear that, however bizarre and ridiculous pro-wrestling can be, the author retains real passion for a business that, frankly, makes no sense to the average person. In entertainment terms, pro-wrestling may be the ultimate niche market.

“This is a book about dead wrestlers,” he writes in the introduction, as if he’s offering the reader a spoiler alert for a pre-taped wrestling show that you personally attended. That is, there is no way to tell the story of professional wrestling over the past 30 years with any kind of historical accuracy without directly addressing the unprecedented wave of premature death that has befallen the business in that time, starting with that of David Von Erich in February 1984 and culminating with what the wrestling media now euphemizes as the “Benoit Family Tragedy” in June 2007.

Writing as “The Masked Man”, Shoemaker has done some of the most interesting writing about pro-wrestling in recent years, working mostly for Grantland and Deadspin. This book is not an anthology of that material; it’s rather takes a fresh look at a subject that has already been covered extensively from almost every conceivable angle. The fact that he manages to consistently generate new original insights speaks to his skill as a writer and, more important, his almost-intuitive grasp of what makes the business click. Shoemaker is at his best when explaining why certain characters resonated with fans as well as they did, breaking down their inner motivations and our own subconscious affinity with their message. Basically, he writes like someone who actually respects pro-wrestling; imagine that!

To say that The Squared Circle is a page-turner would be a gross understatement. Making the point more finely, it’s one of the more interesting wrestling books ever written by a non-wrestler. It has a good bit of new material that even seasoned fans will be unfamiliar with, but much of the stories spin around plots well-ingrained in the memories of casual fans from the ‘80s and ‘90s boom periods. Even so, Shoemaker renders all his information in a peppy, easy-to-digest style that, in itself, offers an object lesson in how the wrestling business has managed to achieve a new level of mainstream appeal that, while not as lucrative as in previous eras, is far more pervasive in the long-term, as well as the tragic price that so many stars paid for their success.

November 27, 2013

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