Arab Photography Archive Puts 22,000 Historic Images Online: Get a Rare Glimpse into Life and Art in the Arab World

The history of photography, as most of us know it, has expanded by several thousand images and several more countries, thanks to the launch last month of the Arab Image Foundation’s online archive of photography “from the Middle East, North Africa, and the Arab diaspora dating from the mid-nineteenth century,” as the Getty's photography blog The Iris reports.

The Beirut-based non-profit AIF has since digitized 22,000 images from its physical collection of 500,000+ photographs, collected since 1997, notes the Foundation, in “research missions and projects in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Iraq, Iran, Mexico, Argentina and Senegal." AIF hopes to eventually upload 55,000 scanned images, but funding issues have made the project a challenge.

Nonetheless, the trove of photos and negatives already made available not only significantly expands our view of photography’s reach and scope, but also our view of the Arab world—recording lost traditions, modernisms, and an array of cultural practices and attitudes that may surprise us, and that have since been suppressed in many of these same societies.

“From same-sex kisses and men in drag,” writes India Stoughton for the BBC, “to nude portraits and children posing with assault rifles, the Arab Image Foundation is replete with startling and sensationalist photographs.”  There are many photographs of flamboyant stage performers and celebrities. And there are many more conventional collections, such as the family portraits of Palestinians living in Jerusalem, Nablus, Ramallah, and Jaffa before 1948.

Amidst the hundreds of stiff portraits and awkward family photos, the archive features candid street shots and “many images of historic events and figures.” It also documents “watershed moments that have been overlooked by history.” Pin-up photography and pictures of male bodybuilders in Egypt; surrealist experiments with double exposures in 1924 by Lebanese photographer Marie al-Khazen, “one of the first female photographers in the Middle East,” writes Stoughton.

Al-Khazen’s “avant-garde compositions and habit of photographing herself and other women enjoying traditionally male pastimes, such as smoking, driving and hunting, made her a fascinating and unconventional figure.” The same adjectives apply to many of the photographers in this archive, whose work often shocks and surprises, but just as often communicates in more subtle ways the texture of everyday life for people in the Middle East and North Africa over the course of the late-19th to mid-20th centuries.

These images capture the daily lives of overlooked people groups, like the Bedouin hunters of Syria, as well as the lives of regular people before conservative regimes swept into power around the region and wiped away traces of modernization and the personal, religious, creative, and sexual freedoms we see represented. Now this photographic history joins several other comprehensive online libraries of historic photography, such as Europeana Photography, the George Eastman Museum, the Soviet Union’s premier photo magazine, and many more.

While not as extensive as some of these other collections, the AIF’s digital project is no less essential for the light it sheds on a past, and a medium, that continues to prove itself resistant to stereotypes. Enter the Arab Image Foundation's digital archive here, and learn more about how these photographs have been digitally preserved at The Iris.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Joy Harjo, Newly-Appointed U.S. Poet Laureate, Read Her Poems, “Remember,” “A Poem to Get Rid of Fear,” “An American Sunrise” and More

In Carolyn Forché’s stunning new memoir, What You Have Heard is True, the poet and activist makes a sad observation about poetry in America. When it is “mentioned in the American press, if it is mentioned, the story begins with ‘Poetry doesn’t matter,’ or ‘No one reads poetry.’ No matter what is said. It doesn’t matter.”

But of course, Forché believed poetry mattered a great deal—that we need it in the struggle “against forgetting,” a phrase she took from Milan Kundera for the title of an anthology of the “poetry of witness.” Poets resist injustice and inhumanity, she says “by virtue of recuperating from the human soul its natural prayer and consciousness.”

Such a poet is Joy Harjo, newly appointed Poet Laureate in the United States, the first Native American woman to hold the post. Harjo asks us to remember—to remember especially that the grand sweep of history cannot sever us from the natural world of which we are an inextricable part, and which is itself the source of “the dance language is.”

Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have 
      their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to 
      them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.

The stargazing, tree-hugging exhortations in “Remember” are radical statements in every sense of the word. Maybe poetry doesn’t matter much to most Americans. We cannot, as William Carlos Williams wrote, “get the news from poems,” and our hunger for fresh news is never sated. But maybe what we find in poetry is far better suited to saving our lives, offering a release, for example, from fear, as Harjo speak/sings in her charismatic performance from HBO’s Def Poetry Jam in 2002.

Harjo remembers the horrors her ancestors endured, and tells the fear that followed through the centuries, “I release you. You were my beloved and hated twin. But now I don’t know you as myself.” A member of the Muskoke/Creek Nation, Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1951 and earned her MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1978. She went on to publish several books of poetry and nonfiction and win multiple prestigious awards while also performing poetry across the country and playing saxophone with her band Poetic Justice.

Her soulful delivery conveys a fundamentally American experience of the struggle against erasure, a struggle against power that is waged, as Kundera wrote, with the weapon of remembering. Echoing Langston Hughes, Harjo weaves the story of her community back into the country's past and its present—a story that includes within it demands for justice that will not be forgotten. Poetry should matter far more to us than it does. But those who hear the country’s newest Laureate may find she is exactly the fearless voice we need to remind us of our unavoidable connections to the past, the earth, and our responsibilities to each other.

Harjo stopped by the Academy of American Poets this month in celebration of her appointment. Just above, see her read “An American Sunrise.” “We are still America,” she says, “We / know the rumors of our demise. We spit them out. They die / soon.”

These reading will be added to the Poetry section of our collection, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch Battered & Bruised Vintage Toys Get Mesmerizingly Restored to Near Mint Condition

They say that toys were once built to last. But though metal and wood didn't break quite so easily in the hands of children in the early 20th century as plastic does in the hands of their great- or great-great-grandchildren today, time still hasn't been especially kind to the playthings of yesteryear. Enter the toy restorer, who can return even the most faded, rusted, beaten-up specimens to a burnished, gleaming condition that would turn the head of even the most smartphone-addled youngster. At least the toy restorer behind the Youtube channel Rescue & Restore seems to possess skills of this kind, and in its channel's videos you can see them put to use.

Over the past two months, Rescue & Restore has taken on such projects as a 1960s Tonka Jeep, a 1930s Wyandotte airplane, a 1920s Dayton train, and other such miniatures as a piano, a cash register, and even a functional oven. Most of them start out looking like lost causes, and some barely resemble toys at all.

Fortunately, Rescue & Restore possesses all the specialized tools needed to not just disassemble and (to the amazement of many a commenter) reassemble everything, but to clean, resurface, and repaint each and every part, and in some cases fabricate new ones from scratch. Apart from the occasional explanatory subtitle, the "host" does all this work without a word.

Despite their simplicity, the videos of Rescue & Restore have drawn millions upon millions of views in a relatively short time. This suggests that the number of people dreaming of a better future for their closets full of long-disused toys might be large indeed, though we should never underestimate the appeal of seeing the old made new again — an experience whose audiovisual satisfaction seems to be heightened by high-resolution shots and clearly captured sounds of all the dremeling, sandblasting, and buffing involved.

Toys originally opened sixty, seventy, eighty Christmases ago have gone through a lot in their long lives, but after Rescue & Restore gets done with them, they could well find their way under the tree again this year.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

In 1886, the US Government Commissioned 7,500 Watercolor Paintings of Every Known Fruit in the World: Download Them in High Resolution

T.S. Eliot asks in the opening stanzas of his Choruses from the Rock, “where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” The passage has been called a pointed question for our time, in which we seem to have lost the ability to learn, to make meaningful connections and contextualize events. They fly by us at superhuman speeds; credible sources are buried between spurious links. Truth and falsehood blur beyond distinction.

But there is another feature of the 21st century too-often unremarked upon, one only made possible by the rapid spread of information technology. Vast digital archives of primary sources open up to ordinary users, archives once only available to historians, promising the possibility, at least, of a far more egalitarian spread of both information and knowledge.

Those archives include the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection, “over 7,500 paintings, drawings, and wax models commissioned by the USDA between 1886 and 1942,” notes Chloe Olewitz at Morsel. The word “pomology,” “the science and practice of growing fruit,” first appeared in 1818, and the degree to which people depended on fruit trees and fruit stores made it a distinctively popular science, as was so much agriculture at the time.

But pomology was growing from a domestic science into an industrial one, adopted by “farmers across the United States,” writes Olewitz, who “worked with the USDA to set up orchards to serve emerging markets” as “the country’s most prolific fruit-producing regions began to take shape.” Central to the government agency’s growing pomological agenda was the recording of all the various types of fruit being cultivated, hybridized, inspected, and sold from both inside the U.S. and all over the world.

Prior to and even long after photography could do the job, that meant employing the talents of around 65 American artists to “document the thousands and thousands of varieties of heirloom and experimental fruit cultivars sprouting up nationwide.” The USDA made the full collection public after Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Parker Higgins submitted a Freedom of Information Act request in 2015.

Higgins saw the project as an example of “the way free speech issues intersect with questions of copyright and public domain,” as he put it. Historical government-issued fruit watercolors might not seem like the obvious place to start, but they’re as good a place as any. He stumbled on the collection while either randomly collecting information or acquiring knowledge, depending on how you look at it, “challenging himself to discover one new cool public domain thing every day for a month.”

It turned out that access to the USDA images was limited, “with high resolution versions hidden behind a largely untouched paywall.” After investing $300,000, they had made $600 in fees in five years, a losing proposition that would better serve the public, the scholarly community, and those working in-between if it became freely available.

You can explore the entirety of this tantalizing collection of fruit watercolors, ranging in quality from the workmanlike to the near sublime, and from unsung artists like James Marion Shull, who sketched the Cuban pineapple above, Ellen Isham Schutt, who brings us the Aegle marmelos, commonly called “bael” in India, further up, and Deborah Griscom Passmore, whose 1899 Malus domesticus, at the top, describes a U.S. pomological archetype.

It’s easy to see how Higgins could become engrossed in this collection. Its utilitarian purpose belies its simple beauty, and with 3,800 images of apples alone, one could get lost taking in the visual nuances—according to some very prolific naturalist artists—of just one fruit alone. Higgins, of course, created a Twitter bot to send out random images from the archive, an interesting distraction and also, for people inclined to seek it out, a lure to the full USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection.

At what point does an exploration of these images tip from information into knowledge? It's hard to say, but it’s unlikely we would pursue either one if that pursuit didn’t also include its share of pleasure. Enter the USDA's Pomological Watercolor Collection here to new and download over 7,500 high-resolution digital images like those above.

via Morsel.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Two Animated Maps Show the Expansion of the U.S. from the Different Perspectives of Settlers & Native Peoples

After John Ford, the history of U.S. expansion went by the name “How the West Was Won.” Decades earlier, in his essay “Annexation,” Jacksonian journalist John O’Sullivan famously coined the phrase “manifest destiny.” Historian Richard Slotkin called it “regeneration through violence” and novelist Cormac McCarthy summed up the jagged, ever-moving line of westward expansion from sea to sea with two words: Blood Meridian.

Indigenous versions of the story do not tend to enter common parlance in quite the same way, a fact upon which Vine Deloria, Jr. remarks in his “Indian Manifesto,” Custer Died for Your Sins. Violence is always central to the story. Usually the savagery of Native people is taken for granted. Savagery of settlers may be more or less emphasized. Yet the long history of land theft over the course of the centuries is also one of broken treaty after treaty.

Few tribes were defeated in war by the United States, but most sold some land and allowed the United States to hold the remainder in trust for them. In turn, the tribes acknowledged the sovereignty of the United States in preference to other possible sovereigns.

Caught between warring European empires, Indigenous nations made the best deals they could with the advancing U.S. and its army of Civil War veterans. “From this humble beginning the federal government stole some two billion acres of land and continues to take what it can without arousing the ire of the ignorant public.”

The brutality of the 19th century became professionalized, carried out by regulars in uniform, hence the detached language of “Indian wars.” These were followed by other kinds of violence: institutionalized paternalism, further encroachment and enclosure, and the forced removal of thousands of children from their parents and into reeducation camps.

The two maps you see here, with sweepingly broad visual gestures in gif form, illustrate the 19th century seizure of land across the North American continent from the perspective of a U.S. national history and that of an Indigenous multi-national history. The map at the top traces the story from the country's beginnings in the 13 colonies to the annexation, purchase, and finally statehood of Hawaii and Alaska in 1959.

The above map is more focused, spanning the years 1810 to 1891. As Nick Routley points out in a post at Visual Capitalist, “five of the largest expansion events in U.S. history” took place during the 1800s, though the first one he cites falls outside the timeline above. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase ended up acquiring what now makes up “nearly 25% of the current territory of the United States, stretching from New Orleans all the way up to Montana and North Dakota.”

Other notable events include the 1819 purchase of Florida from Spain by John Quincy Adams, the aforementioned purchase of Alaska from Russia, and the 1845 annexation of Texas. The Mexican-American War of 1848 gets less mention these days, though it expanded slavery and was quite hotly debated at the time by such principled figures as Henry David Thoreau, who refused to pay his poll tax over it and wrote “Civil Disobedience” while in jail.

In the so-called Mexican Cession, Texas became a state and “the United States took control of a huge parcel of land that includes the present-day states of California, Nevada, and Utah, as well as portions of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming.” Mexico, on the other hand, “saw the size of their territory halved.” After each seizure of territory, mass migrations westward commenced in wave upon wave.

Routely does not survey these migration events, but you can learn about them in accounts like Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s Indigenous People’s History of the United States and Deloria’s manifesto. When we approach the founding and expansion of the U.S. from multiple perspectives, both visual and historical, we understand why critical historians often use the phrase “settler colonialism” rather than “westward expansion” or its synonyms. And why the overused and limited phrase “nation of immigrants” might just as well be “nation of migrants.”

via Visual Capitalist

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Meandering Mississippi River and How It Evolved Over Thousands of Years Visualized in Brilliant Maps from 1944

Given that Turkey's Büyük Menderes River was historically known as the Meander, you might well imagine how un-straightforward a path it takes through the country. But the English adjective descended from its name describes a fair few other twisting, turning rivers as well, and also a form of river mapping that suits them. "I have long admired the Mississippi River meander maps designed by Army Corps of Engineers cartographer Harold Fisk," writes Jason Kottke at Kottke.org by way of an introduction to his short essay on them at the site of printmaker 20x200.

"In their relentless flow to lower ground, rivers like to roam over the landscape, cutting through solid rock and loamy soil alike, gaining advantage here and there where they can," goes Kottke's explanation of how meandering rivers come to be. "The best and easiest course for a river to take downhill is its current course... right up until the moment when it's not." Each color in Fisk's meander maps of the longest river in North America "represents a new course, a marker of each time a bend had become too bendy and the river 'decided' to take a more direct path." Kottke summarizes these maps' appeal succinctly: "They are time machines."

"Standing before a painting by Hilma af Klint, a sculpture by Bernini, or a cave painting in Chauvet, France draws you back in time in a powerful way: you know you're standing precisely where those artists stood hundreds or even thousands of years ago, laying paint to surface or chisel to stone." Here, thanks to a "clever mapmaker with an artistic eye," we can imagine the Mississippi "as it was during the European exploration of the Americas in the 1500s, during the Cahokia civilization in the 1200s (when this city's population matched London's), when the first humans came upon the river more than 12,000 years ago, and even back to before humans, when mammoths, camels, dire wolves, and giant beavers roamed the land and gazed upon the river."

You can buy prints of three different Mississippi meander maps from 20x200, all of them originally part of Fisk's report "Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River completed in 1944. The study was made to learn about the formation of the valley over time, and about the major factors that dictate its flow and flooding in the modern era." Fisk drew upon data collected through approximately 16,000 borings, and "also found the river's heart in this jumble of loops and purls," producing a reflection of the river's distinctive personality in "this explosive, autumn-colored palette." Regarding these maps, we can't help but wonder in what shape some future team of intrepid surveyors will find the Mississippi a few thousand years hence — and what new words, in what languages, that shape might inspire.

via Kottke

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Cartoonist Lynda Barry Teaches You How to Draw

Friend, are you paralyzed by your ironclad conviction that you can't draw?

Professor Chewbacca aka Professor Old Skull aka cartoonist Lynda Barry has had quite enough of that nonsense!

So stop dissembling, grab a pen and a hand-sized piece of paper, and follow her instructions to Anne Strainchamps, host of NPR's To The Best Of Our Knowledge, below.

It’s better to throw yourself into it without knowing precisely what the ten minute exercise holds (other than drawing, of course).

We know, we know, you can’t, except that you can. Like Strainchamps, you’re probably just rusty.

Don’t judge yourself too harshly if things look “terrible.”

In Barry’s view, that’s relative, particularly if you were drawing with your eyes closed.

A neurology nerd, Barry cites Girija Kaimal, Kendra Ray, and Juan Muniz’ study Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants' Responses Following Art Making. It’s the action, not the subjective artistic merit of what winds up on the page that counts in this regard.

For more of Barry’s exercises and delightfully droll presence, check out this playlist on Dr. Michael Green's Graphic Medicine Channel.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine... Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Elvis Costello’s List of 500 Albums That Will Improve Your Life

Photo by Victor Diaz Lamich, via Wikimedia Commons

Ask a few friends to draw up sufficiently long lists of their favorite albums, and chances are that more than one of them will include Elvis Costello. But today we have for you a list of 500 essential albums that includes no Elvis Costello records at all — not least because it was put together by Elvis Costello. "Here are 500 albums that can only improve your life," he writes in his introduction to the list, originally published in Vanity Fair. "Many will be quite familiar, others less so." Costello found it impossible "to choose just one title by Miles Davis, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Dylan, Mingus, etc.," but he also made room for less well-known musical names such as David Ackles, perhaps the greatest unheralded American songwriter of the late 60s."

Costello adds that "you may have to go out of your way" to locate some of the albums he has chosen, but he made this list in 2000, long before the internet brought even the most obscure selections within a few keystrokes' reach with streaming services like Spotify--on which a fan has even made the playlist of Costello's 500 albums below.

And when Costello writes about having mostly excluded "the hit records of today," he means hit records by the likes of "Marilyn, Puffy, Korn, Eddie Money — sorry, Kid Rock — Limp Bizkit, Ricky, Britney, Backstreet Boys, etc." But when he declares "500 albums you need," described only with a highlighted track or two ("When in doubt, play Track 4—it is usually the one you want"), all remain enriching listens today. The list begins as follows:

  • ABBA: Abba Gold (1992), “Knowing Me, Knowing You.”
  • DAVID ACKLES: The Road to Cairo (1968), “Down River” Subway to the Country (1969), “That’s No Reason to Cry.”
  • CANNONBALL ADDERLEY: The Best of Cannonball Adderley (1968), “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.”
  • AMY ALLISON: The Maudlin Years (1996), “The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter.”
  • MOSE ALLISON: The Best of Mose Allison (1970), “Your Mind Is on Vacation.”
  • ALMAMEGRETTA: Lingo (1998), “Gramigna.”
  • LOUIS ARMSTRONG: The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (2000), “Wild Man Blues,” “Tight Like This.”
  • FRED ASTAIRE: The Astaire Story (1952), “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”

How many music collections, let alone lists of essential records, would put all those names together? And a few hundred albums later, the bottom of Costello's alphabetically organized list proves equally diverse and culturally credible:

  • RICHARD WAGNER: Tristan and Isolde (conductor: Wilhelm Furtwangler; 1952); Der Ring des Nibelungen (conductor: George Solti; 1983).
  • PORTER WAGONER AND DOLLY PARTON: The Right Combination: Burning the Midnight Oil (1972), “Her and the Car and the Mobile Home.”
  • TOM WAITS: Swordfishtrombones (1983), “16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six,” “In the Neighborhood” Rain Dogs (1985), “Jockey Full of Bourbon,” “Time” Frank’s Wild Years (1987), “Innocent When You Dream,” “Hang on St. Christopher” Bone Machine (1992), “A Little Rain,” “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” Mule Variations (1999), “Take It with Me,” “Georgia Rae,” “Filipino Box-Spring Hog.”
  • SCOTT WALKER: Tilt (1995), “Farmer in the City.”
  • DIONNE WARWICK: The Windows of the World (1968), “Walk Little Dolly.”
  • MUDDY WATERS: More Real Folk Blues (1967), “Too Young to Know.”
  • DOC WATSON: The Essential Doc Watson (1973), “Tom Dooley.”
  • ANTON WEBERN: Complete Works (conductor: Pierre Boulez; 2000).
  • KURT WEILL: O Moon of Alabama (1994), Lotte Lenya, “Wie lange noch?”
  • KENNY WHEELER with LEE KONITZ, BILL FRISELL and DAVE HOLLAND: Angel Song (1997).
  • THE WHO: My Generation (1965), “The Kids Are Alright” Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy (1971), “Substitute.”
  • HANK WILLIAMS: 40 Greatest Hits (1978), “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “I’ll Never Get out of This World Alive.”
  • LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998), “Drunken Angel.”
  • SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON: The Best of Sonny Boy Williamson (1986), “Your Funeral and My Trial,” “Help Me.”
  • JESSE WINCHESTER: Jesse Winchester (1970), “Quiet About It,” “Black Dog,” “Payday.”
  • WINGS: Band on the Run (1973), “Let Me Roll It.”
  • HUGO WOLF: Lieder (soloist: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; 2000), “Alles Endet, Was Entstehet.”
  • BOBBY WOMACK: The Best of Bobby Womack (1992), “Harry Hippie.”
  • STEVIE WONDER: Talking Book (1972), “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)” Innervisions (1973), “Living for the City” Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974), “You Haven’t Done Nothin’.”
  • BETTY WRIGHT: The Best of Betty Wright (1992), “Clean Up Woman,” “The Baby Sitter,” “The Secretary.”
  • ROBERT WYATT: Mid-Eighties (1993), “Te Recuerdo Amanda.”
  • LESTER YOUNG: Ultimate Lester Young (1998), “The Man I Love.”
  • NEIL YOUNG: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969), “Down by the River” After the Goldrush (1970), “Birds” Time Fades Away (1973), “Don’t Be Denied” On the Beach (1974), “Ambulance Blues” Freedom (1989), “The Ways of Love” Ragged Glory (1990), “Fuckin’ Up.”
  • ZAMBALLARANA: Zamballarana (1997), “Ventu.”

Zamballarana, for the many who won't recognize the name, is a band from the Corsican village of Pigna whose music, according to one description, combines "archaic male polyphony with elements of jazz, oriental and latin music as well as the innovative way of playing traditional Corsican instruments such as the 16-string Cetrea, the drum Colombu and the flute Pivana." That counts as just one of the unexpected listening experiences awaiting those who fire up their favorite music-streaming service and work their way through Costello's list of 500 essential albums. It may also inspire them to determine their own essential albums, an activity Costello endorses as musically salutary: "Making this list made me listen all over again."

 

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

An Introduction to the Life & Music of Fela Kuti: Radical Nigerian Bandleader, Political Hero, and Creator of Afrobeat

I cannot write about Nigerian bandleader, saxophonist, and founder of the Afrobeat sound, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, with any degree of objectivity, whatever that might mean. Because hearing him counts as one of the greatest musical eye-openers of my life: a feeling of pure elation that still has not gone away. It was not an original discovery by any means. Millions of people could say the same, and far more of those people are African fans with a much better sense of Fela’s mission. In the U.S., the playfully-delivered but fervent urgency of his activist lyricism requires footnotes.

Afrobeat fandom in many countries does not have to personally reckon with the history from which Fela and his band emerged—a Nigeria wracked in the 60s by a military coup, civil war, and rule by a succession of military juntas. Fela (for whom the first name never seems too familiar, so enveloping was his presence on stage and record) created the conditions for a new style of African music to emerge, an earth-shattering fusion of jazz, funk, psych rock, high life from Ghana, salsa, and black power, anti-colonial, and anti-corruption politics.

He took up the cause of the common people by singing in a pan-African English that leapt across borders and cultural divides. In 1967, the year he went to Ghana to craft his new sound and direction, his cousin, Nobel-prize winning writer Wole Soyinka, was jailed for attempting to avert Nigeria’s collapse into civil war. Fela returned home swinging three year later, a burgeoning superstar with a new name (dropping the British “Ransome” and taking on the Yoruba "Anikulapo"), a new sound, and a new vision.

Fela built a commune called Kalakuta Republic, a home for his band, wives, children and entourage. The compound was raided by the military government, his nightclub shut down, he was beaten and jailed hundreds of times. He continued to publish columns and speak out in interviews and performances against colonial hegemony and post-colonial abuse. He championed traditional African religious practices and pan-African socialism. He harshly critiqued the West’s role in propping up corrupt African governments and conducting what he called “psychological warfare."

What would Fela have thought of Fela Kuti: the Father of Afrobeat, the documentary about him here in two parts? I don't know, though he might have had something to say about its source: CGTN Africa, a network funded by the Chinese government and operated by China Central Television. Debate amongst yourselves the possible propaganda aims for disseminating the film; none of them interfere with the vibrant portrait that emerges of Nigeria’s most charismatic musical artist, a man beloved by those closest to him and those farthest away.

Find out why he so enthralls, in interviews with his band and family, flamboyant performance footage, and passionate, filmed interviews. Part guru and radical populist hero, a bandleader and musician as tirelessly perfectionistic as Duke Ellington or James Brown—with the crack band to match—Fela was himself a great propagandist, in the way of the greatest self-made star performers and revolutionaries. With force of will, personality, endless rehearsal, and one of the greatest drummers to come out of the 20th century, Tony Allen, Fela made a national struggle universal, drawing on sources from around the global south and the U.S. and, since his death in 1997, inspiring a Broadway musical and wave upon wave of revival and rediscovery of his music and the jazz/rock/Latin/traditional African fusions happening all over the continent of Africa in the 60s and 70s.

No list of superlatives can convey the feeling of listening to Fela’s music, the unrelenting funkiness that pulses from his band’s complex, interlocking polyrhythms, the serpentine lines his saxophone traces around righteous vocal chants and wah guitars. Learn the history of his struggle, by all means, and cast a wary eye at those who may use it for other means. But let no extra-musical concerns stop you from journeying through Fela's catalog, whether as a curious tourist or as someone who understands firsthand the musical war he waged on the zombie relics of empire and a militarized anti-democratic government.

Fela Kuti: the Father of Afrobeat will be added to our collection Free Documentaries, a subset of our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Winston Churchill Gets a Doctor’s Note to Drink “Unlimited” Alcohol in Prohibition America (1932)

churchill alcohol letter

In December 1931, having just embarked on a 40-stop lecture tour of the United States, Winston Churchill was running late to dine with financier Bernard Baruch on New York City’s Upper East Side. He hadn’t bothered to bring Baruch’s address, operating under the incorrect assumption that his friend was so distinguished a personage, any random cab-driving commoner would automatically recognize his building.

Such were the days before cell phones and Google Maps....

Eventually, Churchill bagged the cab, and shot out across 5th Avenue mid-block, thinking he would fare better on foot.

Instead, he was very nearly “squashed like a gooseberry” when he was struck by a car traveling about 35 miles an hour.

Churchill, who wasted no time peddling his memories of the accident and subsequent hospitalization to The Daily Mail, explained his miscalculation thusly:

In England we frequently cross roads along which fast traffic is moving in both directions. I did not think the task I set myself now either difficult or rash. But at this moment habit played me a deadly trick. I no sooner got out of the cab somewhere about the middle of the road and told the driver to wait than I instinctively turned my eyes to the left. About 200 yards away were the yellow headlights of an approaching car. I thought I had just time to cross the road before it arrived; and I started to do so in the prepossession—wholly unwarranted— that my only dangers were from the left.

Yeah, well, that’s why we paint the word “LOOK” in the crosswalk, pal, equipping the Os with left-leaning pupils for good measure.

Another cab ferried the wounded Churchill to Lenox Hill Hospital, where he identified himself as “Winston Churchill, a British Statesman” and was treated for a deep gash to the head, a fractured nose, fractured ribs, and severe shock.

“I do not wish to be hurt any more. Give me chloroform or something,” he directed, while waiting for the anesthetist.

After two weeks in the hospital, where he managed to develop pleurisy in addition to his injuries, Churchill and his family repaired to the Bahamas for some R&R.

It didn’t take long to feel the financial pinch of all those cancelled lecture dates, however. Six weeks after the accident, he resumed an abbreviated but still grueling 14-stop version of the tour, despite his fears that he would prove unfit.

Otto Pickhardt, Lenox Hill’s admitting physician came to the rescue by issuing Churchill the Get Out of Prohibition Free Pass, above. To wit:

…the post-accident convalescence of the Hon. Winston S. Churchill necessitates the use of alcoholic spirits especially at meal times. The quantity is naturally indefinite but the minimum requirements would be 250 cubic centimeters.

Perhaps this is what the eminent British Statesman meant by chloroform "or something"? No doubt he was relieved about those indefinite quantities. Cheers.

Read Churchill’s “My New York Misadventure” in its entirety here. You can also learn more by perusing this section of Martin Gilbert's biography, Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in May, 2016.

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Oh My God! Winston Churchill Received the First Ever Letter Containing “O.M.G.” (1917)

Animated: Winston Churchill’s Top 10 Sayings About Failure, Courage, Setbacks, Haters & Success

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She lives in New York City, some 30 blocks to the north of the scene of Churchill’s accident. Follow her @AyunHalliday





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