Musikal Menazeri

The local music scene is a significant part of what draws me again and again to the city of San Francisco. When living in Chiang Mai, it’s probably the single thing I miss the most about this city. While it’s easy to find live music in Chiang Mai, very little of it is original, the city being home to a scourge of cover bands.

This past Friday, my first full day back in San Francisco, I went to the Rickshaw Stop for the Michael Musika Spells novella/album release show. Musika is a local singer-songwriter who has been getting some media attention recently. I had seen him perform live before, but (somewhat ironically given my complaint about Chiang Mai) it was a show in which a number of different local bands each performed a cover from the Velvet Underground’s Niko album.

Friday night’s show opened with Toshio Hirano, a yodeling Japanese country singer. His set was ending as we were arriving and saying hello to friends I had not seen in a while, so I didn’t take in very much. I started to pay more attention when a brass section, including trumpeter Ara Anderson, started playing near the club’s entrance. It was a little bit of a let-down when the lively ensemble eventually made its way to the stage, only to disappear behind it.

Musika performed his first folksy song offstage, then climbed up in his black hooded wizard’s coat to join his band, which included Matt Adams of The Blank Tapes lurking behind a bass and a pair of colorful plastic sunglasses. Kacey Johansing, Indianna Hale, and Emily Ritz, all singer-songwriters in their own right, provided the delightful harmonies that went down like a spoonful of honey. About half way through the set, the brass section returned to the stage, giving Musika’s sound more energy and more gravity at once. Bodies swayed rhythmically in the dark.

When Musika’s set ended, my friend Tony, who had been hesitating all evening in his approval, finally declared: “Okay, it was good. But I’m glad it’s over.” We were all by then a little itchy for the main act.

Brass Menažeri is a nine-piece Balkan Romani (gypsy) ensemble I’ve seen perform numerous times and which I once described as the ultimate proof that there’s no free will. Wild and crazy dancing will happen. Struggle is futile. Having spent the entire day shivering on the sofa with both the heat and a blanket on, it was good to get out and sweat on a dance floor, and remind myself why it is I love this city.

The brass ensemble consists of a snare and tupan making up the percussion section, a sousaphone, trombone, and two baritone horns in the bass horn section, and a saxophone, clarinet, and trumpet as the lead horns. The band has been working on a lot of new material, including some compositions by band leader and clarinetist Peter Jacques, who occasionally also sings a Balkan song or two. Over half of Friday’s music I had not heard before.

Some of the time signatures of Romani music completely confound me, I have to say, and I’m unable to wrap mind or body around them. I sometimes think I would like a brief lesson on Balkan time signatures or even just for someone to count out the beats when they become too crazy for me to follow by myself. Because of this, I am always especially impressed by the tightness and virtuosity of Brass Menažeri.

Saxophonist Sheldon Brown, the band’s newest member, is a welcome addition to the mix. Apart from when he’s with Brass Menažeri, I’ve only ever seen Brown play jazz, but his ease and confidence with the material suggests he is an old-hand with this style of music. When jazz trumpeter Darren Johnston joined the band a while ago, replacing clarinetist/saxophonist Mary Harris, he told me how challenging he initially found playing some of the Balkan time signatures, which was very reassuring for a music pleb like me to hear.

The night ended with DJ Zeljko from Serbia spinning some infectious Balkan tunes. By then, the crowd had thinned out, which created more space for even more crazy dancing. My friend Roxy noted that in all her years of seeing Tony dancing like a madman, she had never before witnessed such . . . expressiveness. I’m paraphrasing a little here.

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Welcome Home

It’s not a balcony, but a big, drafty bay window with a view of many rooftops and two green peaks to the west. There is no golden temple, no sense of a continental vastness beyond. Just over those hills, where the sky has finally broken blue, the Pacific stretches out for thousands of miles.

It has been raining almost constantly since I’ve been back. Today, Sunday, we are enjoying some respite. We’ll see how long that lasts.

Last night I battled the wind and rain for two blocks to Dance Mission on 24th Street to see a dance performance by some friends. I had not seen people move their bodies in this way in some time.

The night before, I went to see one of my favorite local bands, a nine-piece Balkan brass ensemble that are so tight, you could gather them up and hug them all at once. Despite the jet-lag, I danced like a crazy fool.

In the time it has taken me to write this, they sky to the west has almost entirely disappeared behind a thick blanket of cumulus clouds. It will probably rain again in a few hours.

Sadness, Anticipation

Sounds like it could be the name of an Astor Piazzolla: Sadness, Anticipation. I could certainly dance a tango to it. A slow, intense tango. An achingly passionate tango with a kind of precision that could only come from deep melancholy.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a tango quite like that.

Sadness

It’s nighttime and I’m standing alone on my balcony, enjoying the last of a particular treat bestowed upon me by a good Thai friend. I lean out and look to the west, toward Doi Suthep with its golden, mountain-top temple glowing high above the lights of the nearby apartment blocks. I know it will be one of my last nights to have this particular view of the world. The rains come, fourth night in a row.

Anticipation

It’s nighttime and I’m walking along 22nd Street in the Mission, taking it all in, adjusting to my new but familiar universe. It’s St. Patrick’s Day, so perhaps that buzz I’m sensing is because there are many more people out and about. Or maybe that buzz is just the Mission on a Thursday night. I’m back, and despite having just stepped off the plane, there’s at least three different music venues I want to hit. First on the list: Kaleidoscope…

On Leaving Chiang Mai

One night this week, as I was zooming along the outside of the city moat on my way to the North Gate Jazz Co-op, I passed what could only be described as a Thai hipster fixie convention. They gathered in their tens outside of Velocity, a bicycle shop on the north side of the moat, with their skinny black jeans, tattoos, stretched earlobes, and über-cool haircuts. And they all had fixies.

Now, some of you might not know what a hipster is or, indeed, what a fixie is. Let me explain.

A hipster is a category of youth subculture, known for a fairly understated but distinctive attire that usually consists of dark, tight-fitting jeans, hoodies or t-shirts, often with obscure cultural allusions or ironic messages, and bicycle hats, beanies, or fedoras. Tattoos and piercings are generally de rigueur.

Many wear ironic-looking glasses, meaning that on somebody else they might look dorky, but on the hipster they are the height of fashion. The glasses speak with confidence about the hipster’s ability to transform the mundane, the tedious, the gauche into the impertinent, the daring, the innovative with just a hint of ironic self-consciousness. Ditto for ironic-looking mustaches.

Don't Hate, Appreciate: Mission Hipsters

Hipsters tend to like independent music and film and are often of an intellectual or artistic bent. According to negative stereotypes, they are apathetic, phlegmatic, and supercilious. In short, they are too cool for school.

I was first exposed to the hipster genus in the San Francisco Mission District, where they are a dime a dozen. Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood is also notorious for its hipsters.

Let me come clean here and declare right off the bat that I ♥ hipsters. And I’m not being ironic. Amongst the general population it seems to be rather fashionable to hate hipsters, but I cannot condone this hatred.

The arguments I hear about why it is appropriate to direct one’s contempt at hipsters is that they all look alike and are unoriginal trend-followers posing as balkers of convention, inverters of fashion, as unique individuals who refuse to conform to society’s mores. To this I say: whatevs.

For a start, just because one likes to dress in a way that is against mainstream culture, it doesn’t follow that one cannot dress like anybody else. Hipsters need a sense of belonging just as much as anybody else, and their dress code serves to identify them as part of that particular subculture. Why should we hate them for that? Hipster haters, as far as I can tell, are just projecting their own insecurities about individuality and conformity onto the hipsters they hate. They should turn the mirror inwards and leave the hipsters alone.

I ♥ Hipsters

If we’re talking about hipsters who hate other hipsters for being hipsters, well that’s a different issue altogether. This is the only group of hipsters it is permissible to hate, as far as I’m concerned, which is why I “like” this Facebook page a Mission hipster friend of mine created: Hipsters who Hate Hipsters who Hate Other Hipsters for Being Hipsters. ‘Nuff said.

Another reason hipsters might dress alike is that the clothing is quite functional, given the hipster lifestyle. Big baggy jeans are not going to work so well on a bicycle, now are they?

And here we have another reason to love hipsters—they often travel by bike. Surely, we should extol the virtues of any group of individuals that encourages us to ditch the gas-guzzlers in favor of human-powered, energy-efficient, environmentally-sustainable transportation. All praise the hipsters!

Which gets us to the fixies. A “fixie” is a fixed-gear (or fixed-wheel) bicycle. It has one speed only. There is no coasting on a fixie because if the wheels are moving, so are the pedals, which allows the rider to stop without a brake, to stay stopped (at a light, say) without putting a foot to the ground, and also to ride in reverse.

A "Fixie" or Fixed-gear Bicycle

Riding around a corner and stopping safely might be tricky for the novice fixie rider and accidents are common in the early days of fixie use. There are, apparently, advantages to the fixed-geared bicycle, though I don’t really know what they are. It has always been a mystery to me why hipsters love their fixies, but it is an empirically undeniable truth that they do.

And now, I have discovered, it is a universal truth. Thai hipsters also love their fixies.

In the past month or so, all of a sudden I’ve been seeing gaggles of Thai hipsters riding around Chiang Mai on their fixies. One Friday night I thought perhaps that Critical Mass, the massive monthly biking event that originated in San Francisco in the nineties, had reached Thailand. And then, just when I thought it couldn’t get more exciting, the hipster fixie convention outside of Velocity.

As I zoomed past on my scooter (I was a mod in my teens, hence the scooter), I thought about stopping to join the party, see what was going on. But I didn’t.

It was not because I thought the hipsters would sneer at me. They might be hipsters, but they are still Thai and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Thai person sneer in my life, so I was not worried about that. No, it was more that I didn’t have the need to stop. Just knowing they exist is enough for me.

I continued along the moat road, then did a U-turn to get inside the old city, where the North Gate Jazz Co-op is. I slowed down as I passed Velocity again from the inside and looked across the moat at the reveling hipsters on their bikes.

“Damn,” I thought, “I’m going to miss this city.”

Performing Words

Journalism is supposed to stay detached, objective. It’s supposed to report the facts, not get involved in or try to influence the situation being reported. That’s, at least, what I’ve always heard.

There are blatant violators of this conventional standard, such as Fox News. The “journalists” that report for them seem to have no qualms about simply making up facts to fit their political agenda. If they didn’t have power to beguile and persuade so many, their outrageous brand of “journalism” would be pretty funny.

While I would never want to be put in a category that is anywhere even in the remotest vicinity of Fox News and their ilk, I must admit, I too sometimes want to write in a style that poses as journalism, but which is lacking in detachment, or so-called “objectivity.”

I want to engage in a kind of writing you might call “participatory journalism” as opposed to, say, “observer journalism.”

Let me put it like this: I want to be in the revolution, not merely televising it (or, more accurately, in my case, digitally sound recording it). I want to get involved in what I’m writing about and not just monitor it from the side-lines. My part can be big or small, it doesn’t matter, but I want to have some part. Because, if it’s worth writing about, it’s worth doing something about.

Writing itself can be a way to participate creatively in a project, it can be a “performative” of sorts [JL Austin turns in his grave]. I sometimes like to use the moniker “concept-monger” when I do this kind of work.

There is also a kind of participation that comes before any such writing, participation that helps bring a project to life, that nurtures it, and helps get it off the ground. This can be anything from project management or marketing (which usually involves writing) to flyer distribution or ushering.

Or, you know, making banners and getting out on the streets.

Bringing these two ideas together—writing as a kind of performance in itself and practical support that come before any writing—we have something approximating what I mean by “participation.” When a participant in a project in this sense writes something journalistic about that project, then this is what I would call “participatory journalism.” I think this is a different way to write than when one is merely an “objective observer.”

You might think I am relying here on an artificial dichotomy between observer and participant. Observation is, after all, a kind of participation, albeit a more passive kind. Just being present as an observer has an effect on the situation being observed, however small that might be. And reporting on a situation contributes to how things will unfold in the future because in doing so, you are changing what people know, which can affect how they behave.

Journalists who write good previews for performances, for example, knowingly become part of a marketing campaign. By the same token, those who write negative reviews are also trying to influence the behavior of others, though in a different direction. So, you might think, this idea of “participatory journalism” is rather empty, once we start to examine it. It is, at best, a pleonasm.

While it’s true that any kind of reporting is indeed a kind of participation, it’s also true that doing nothing is a kind of participation, though not a kind that contributes very much.

Attending a proscenium style performance, for example, and sitting passively in the audience is equally a kind of participation, but that doesn’t make the event a participatory performance. For that to be the case, the audience must creatively contribute to what unfolds in the performance so that the line between “audience” and “performer” becomes blurred.

Using the analogy of participatory performance as a model, then, we can see how participatory journalism goes beyond traditional, “proscenium style” observer journalism, even if the latter always involves some minimal level of participation. Lines are crossed, boundaries blurred, and the so-called “objectivity” that can only be achieved at a distance gets lost in the mix. The writer gets close, gets involved. Or, maybe she was involved from the beginning and only later decides to write about it.

A question that naturally arises for any activity that attempts to push conventional boundaries is, “But is it still X?” For participatory performance, once you understand its history and how it has evolved out of traditional performance, the answer, I think, is clearly “Yes.” It still counts as performance, even if it’s not always clear who the performers are.

As for participatory journalism, the reason I want to call it journalism, as opposed to personal memoir, or something along those lines, is because the writer’s personal experience is not what is written about. While the subjective experience informs the writing, and that surely is the point, it is by no means the focus.

To see this difference, you can read two pieces I wrote about Cambodian circus Phare Ponleu Selpak. Circus With a Social Conscience, an article I wrote in Thailand, focuses on PPS and their incredible social activism through art, whereas a blog post I added later talks more about my personal experience and how I came to be involved with PPS on their visit to Chiang Mai. Another article I wrote, Glimpses of Nijinsky . . . 100 Years Later also counts as participatory journalism.