Beat Diaspora: Beats, Buses, Bricks

an omnivorous take on music of the beat-based variety and the urban spaces that nurture it

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Favela Passport

I first heard of the Grupo Cultural AfroReggae, an NGO that uses culture to keep favela youth out of drug trafficking, when I saw the documentary Favela Rising before my first trip to Rio in '06. Why I didn't take the initiative to volunteer with them then is beyond me, but I've been an admirer ever since and have slowly managed to visit most of their outposts around Rio -- always located in the favelas that they serve, always upbeat, always brightly painted and well-maintained. Culture is our weapon indeed.

Their newest nucleus in the notorious Complexo do Alemão opened in the midst of a vicious police operation that was the talk of Rio. The national guard was still stationed at the entrance when I visited later in August.

AfroReggae was still unpacking when I dropped by, and most of my visit ended up being in the company of Flávia, a 1o-year-old girl whose mother cleans the building. Flávia kept pestering me to take pictures of her, and I was happy to oblige.

She told me that she hadn't been to the beach in the 3 years, that teenagers sell drugs outside of her school (but she knows drugs are stupid), that she can only play a few feet in front of her house, that school was canceled during the recent police blockade. And here she was turning cartwheels on the roof with Alemão all around her. I was reading a book at the time whose title couldn't be more appropriate -- Favela: Alegria e Dor na Cidade (Favela: Joy and Pain in the City).

I headed off with the goal of visiting AfroReggae Digital, their Internet radio station (tune in!), located in Parada de Lucas, in the Zona Norte (north side) at the border with the suburbs. Lucas was at war with neighboring Vigário Geral, where the founder of AfroReggae is from, for almost two decades. It was a big step, then, for VG-based AfroReggae to open a nucleus on the other side of the tracks (literally, the SuperVia rail line divides the two communities).

I didn't make it before leaving in August, but I was able to go earlier this week.

More than just a radio station that uses radio as an educational tool, it's a whole community center, serving a neighborhood of 20,000-25,000 . . . as the only NGO. In contrast, I've heard that Rocinha has more than 80 for a population of approximately 200,000. In other words, there are 10x more NGOs per resident in Rocinha than in Lucas. That, unfortunately, is part of the divide between the Zona Sul and Zona Norte, with the Zona Sul consistently getting more investment and attention.

It was here, though, that one of the AfroReggae Digital organizers told me about the new HQ going up in Vigário Geral to be inaugurated in April. It will be open 24/7 and has been described as the favela Guggenheim -- a curious comparison in light of other Guggen-de-Janeiro proposals I've commented on. I can't wait to see it the next time I come back.

Finally, yesterday I hit a third AfroReggae nucleus, back down on my end in the Zona Sul at Cantagalo, the favela between Ipanema and Copacabana. I've been to Cantagalo many, many times now for their baile funk and finally had the chance to return in the daytime. The prime location commands some great views . . .

That's the cidade partida (divided city) for you right there.

The Cantagalo operation teaches, of all things, the circus. Júnior, the founder, got connected with Cirque de Soleil and now it's part of the AfroReggae stew. I caught them rehearsing for a visit by representatives of the Barbican Centre, a London arts behemoth, where AfroReggae has performed before, and will be artists-in-residence or a similar arrangement later this year.

Their director made a very telling comment in my interview with him. He said he sees his AfroReggae t-shirt not a shield -- one that will let you pass between rival favelas as a neutral entity -- but as a passport -- one that enables you to enter them and mediate conflicts, which he saw as AfroReggae's main goal.

I got a shirt for my trouble (and in truth picked one up last year, so that makes two), so I'll be wearing my passport on Sunday when the Bloco AfroReggae does its Carnaval parade in Ipanema.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Dirty Work

For those cooped up in the Beantown cold, the Rio summer heat will be there in sound&spirit tonight at the Harvard Graduate School of Design for the opening of "Dirty Work: Transforming Landscape in the Non-Formal City of the Americas." The exhibit is up through March 16, and tomorrow (January 30), I encourage everyone to see Robert Neuwirth speak on the "21st century medieval city." His book Shadow Cities was a huge influence on my own understanding of Rio, and in fact he put me in touch with Two Brothers -- I certainly would not be sitting in the room I'm writing from if it weren't for him.

I can't be there in person to tonight (7 or 8 pm, I'd guess? No time listed on the site) for obvious reasons, so instead I sent in the following mix&commentary that will be played&displayed during the opening. It's practically another Blogariddims contribution (& one of the 76-minute specials at that) featuring tracks that diligent readers/listeners will recognize from both my own blogariddims funk mix and postings throughout the last year(s), but hopefully now contextualized in a different way. And of course, there's stuff I got just a few days ago, so it's fresh all around.

I'm quite happy about the title's twist on the name of the class that produced the exhibit (see below) -- the catchier Low Income Tomorrowland was unfortunately already taken.

Landscaped Beats for Low-Income Strategies
Mixed by Gregzinho in the favela of Rocinha
Rio de Janeiro, January 2008

The tracks in this mix come from the favelas, suburbia, periferia, villas miserias, or, in more technical parlance, low-income settlements, of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Buenos Aires, three of the seven cities featured in the exhibit “Dirty Work: Transforming Landscape in the Non-Formal City of the Americas,” a product of the Harvard Graduate School of Design class Landscape Strategies for Low-Income Settlements. The other four are certainly also rich in music that has its strongholds in the cities’ barrios, from Colombian cumbia and hip-hop (Bogotá) to reggaetón and other Caribbean sounds (Caracas), to Mexican music both traditional and contemporary (Mexico City and Tijuana). However, I was limited by what I know personally—having been to Rio, Sampa, and BsAs, I’m intimately familiar with samba, funk carioca, cumbia villeira, and Brazilian hip-hop and reggae. Tranquilo? Pronto? Vamos.

1. Dudu Nobre – Batucada 01

Dudu Nobre is a young, popular samba composer out of Rio de Janeiro and the fierce rhythms of batucada, a percussion-heavy samba variation with strong African influence, set a proper tone to start things off.

2. G.R.E.S. Imperatriz Leopoldinense – Liberdade! Liberdade! Abre as Asas Sobre Nós (Liberty! Liberty! Open Your Wings Above Us)

The story of the rise of samba in Rio—and later Brazil writ large—is inextricably tied to the growth of the city’s favelas, where samba—once outlawed for being too African—took refuge in the first decades of the 20th century. Groups of sambistas who performed routines around Carnaval began organizing themselves in escolas (schools) around 1930 and by the post-war era became the premiere attraction at Carnaval time. This 1989 samba enredo (story samba, the elaborate, scripted routines performed in the official parade at the Sambódromo) commemorates the centenary of the proclamation of the Republic of Brazil, which was precipitated by the abolition of slavery a year prior in 1888—itself an important theme in the 1988 sambas, especially given samba’s origins in slave music. Imperatriz Leopoldinense hails from the Ramos neighborhood in Rio’s north side, which includes the Complexo da Maré, a large complex of favelas that greets visitors as they get on the Linha Vermelha expressway at the international airport and head downtown.

3. Cartola – Verde Que Te Quero Rosa (Green That I Want You Pink)

Cartola is quite simply the most famous sambista of the 20th century, and one of the founders of the most famous samba school: G.R.E.S. Estação Primeira da Mangueira. Green and pink are Mangueira’s colors and were chosen by Cartola.

4. Digitaldubs Sound System ft. Ras Bernardo – Morro Não Tem Play (The Hill Doesn’t Have Playgrounds)

Digitaldubs is a contemporary reggae sound system in Rio. In addition to importing the latest 7”s and dubs out of Jamaica, they produce and perform their own Brazilian reggae, with MCs toasting in Portuguese and their DJs mixing in other Brazilian music, including funk carioca (see tracks 6-14). This lament about conditions on the morro (hill, a catch-all term for favelas in Rio, which are often located on hills), especially for children, fits perfectly with the social concerns that reggae has traditionally taken up.

5. Capoeira Mestre Suassuna - Macuele

The dance/martial art of capoeira, like samba, has its roots in Brazilian slave culture but has since become a prominent part of Brazilian culture. While the best capoeiristas don’t necessarily come from favelas, the historical link between enslaved black Brazilians, and favelas is well documented historically. No surprise, then, that the ginga (rhythm) of capoeira is cited as an influence on the development of the tamborzão (big drum) beat, which has been the basis of most funk since about 2000.

6. MCs Leonardo e Júnior – Endereço dos Bailes (Address of the Bailes)

Funk carioca (carioca is the adjective to describe someone or something from Rio) or just plain “funk” to those who live it and love it, is something like the new samba—nurtured in favelas, persecuted by authorities, bane of the middle and upper classes, but slowly gaining respectability. Musically, its most direct antecedent is not American funk (from where the name comes) but rather Miami bass, the syncopated, minimal-beats-maximum-bass hip-hop style of the late ’80s (think 2 Live Crew). Black American dance music (funk, disco, soul, early hip-hop and techno) had been popular in Rio for some time, but when Miami bass arrived, it took the black dance crowds by storm and, coupled with technology that allowed producers to record local vocalists on top of looped Miami bass beats, became an immensely popular Brazilian style. “Endereço dos Bailes” is a 1995 track by this duo of brothers from the favela of Rocinha, Rio’s largest, and shouts out the different bailes funk (funk balls) taking place in favelas across the city, forming a kind of alternate tourist map to the one they describe in the opening lines, featuring the usual gamut of sun, soccer, sand, and samba.

7. MCs Cidinho e Doca – Rap da Felicidade (The Happiness Rap)

Also from 1995, this song became a national hit, its plaintive “Eu só quero é ser feliz, andar traquilamente na favela onde eu nasci (I only want to be happy, to walk peacefully in the favela where I was born)” resonating as Rio was racked by violence in the early ’90s. Cidinho and Doca hail from Cidade de Deus (City of God), whose reputation for violent gang activity was immortalized (and to some extent sensationalized) in the Oscar-winning movie of the same time.

8. MCs Leonardo e Júnior – Rap das Armas (The Arms Rap)

Back to the brothers from Rocinha. “Rap das Armas”, from the same era, is another anti-violence song. The lyrics are basically a run down of the different kinds of guns (Uzi, M-16, AK-47, etc.) that the two saw on a daily basis in Rocinha. It concludes with a call for peace, but was misinterpreted by the media as an apology for the criminal factions. They fell on hard times, ultimately working consecutive 12 hour shifts as a taxi driver (so the car was always on the road), but are now rebounding and recorded a new version of “Rap das Armas” for Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad), a film that promises to be the new City of God and will be released in the U.S. this year.

9. MC Binho – Meu Sonho (My Dream)

Sticking with Rocinha, but more recently, is MC Binho, a current funk MC who handed me a CD with this track over the weekend. The more electronic, almost techno sound in the track is a new trend in funk production. While definitely a positive dream—to become a big star in music or on TV—it doesn’t have quite the same conscience as the previous three tracks. But then again, I can’t blame the guy: He squeezes his MCing in between shifts working as a cobrador, the guy who takes your fare in one of the vans that supplement the bus system.

10. Beto da Caixa – Blindão

Beto da Caixa is another current artist who deals more directly with the reality of favela life. “Blindão” is a slang term for the favela code of conduct—it comes from the word for ‘armor’—and Beto swears by it in this track. “Tenho fé não tenho medo / A gente é sempre no blindão (I have faith, I don’t have fear / We’re always in blindão),” goes the refrain.

11. Menor do Chapa – Vida Louca (Crazy Life)

Beto’s lyrics hint at one of the obvious preoccupations of funk tracks: the criminal factions that are, for all intensive purposes, the chief authority in a vast majority of the city’s favelas. Funk has evolved as the soundtrack of the favela—blasting out of nearly every corner bar and car window—and a particular subgenre called proibidão (extremely prohibited) sings exclusively about, and in favor of, the factions. Menor do Chapa has built a career praising the Comando Vermelho (Red Command, abbreviated CV), the city’s first, and most notorious, narco-trafficking gang.

12. Anonymous – Proibidão do Cantagalo

While Menor do Chapa’s proibidão has almost gone mainstream, much of it is recorded live or on rough studio equipment and stays very local—as in, specifically about the faction of the MC’s favela. In the case of Cantagalo, the favela between Ipanema and Copacabana, the CV is in charge—“minha facção, claro que é o CV (my faction, clearly it’s CV)”. It’s this kind of proibidão, however, that isn’t just an apology for drug trafficking, but also a vital form of communication within the favela. The proibidão MC speaks from the faction to the community, certainly, but also from the community back to the faction, and can articulate local concerns in communities that don’t have another medium in which to do so. While this role, at least in my opinion, absolves the proibidão MC from being a simple apologist for the gangs, they still tend to remain anonymous because of the possible trouble it can lead to from police or rival gangs.

13. MC Alex – Seu Presidente (Mr. President)

The lo-fi production values are a hallmark of funk—all it takes is a cheap sampler and some mics—as the bricolage quality of the music is, in many ways, reflective of the architecture and visual environment that supports it. Here, MC Alex from a favela in the Zona Norte (I never did get the name of it), sings as a “pobre cidadão” (poor citizen) against both the corruption of politics and the corruption of the gang, the latter complaint having made it very difficult for him to find bailes to perform at, as the gangs are usually the financiers in favelas, throwing huge bailes da comunidade (community balls) that are free to all.

14. DJ Sandrinho – Medley Yazoo

That said, lo-fi production values are becoming a thing of the past, especially among the best DJs and producers who oftentimes have top-notch computers and recording equipment. Funk has commercialized, commanding huge radio audiences and massive festivals, but that doesn’t mean it has entirely left the favela. DJ Sandrinho still lives and maintains his studio in the favela of Borel, despite having been the DJ to Mr Catra, hands down the most in-demand funk MC in all of Brazil, and also having toured Europe several times and had tracks on foreign releases. Clearly, his place of residence hasn’t diminished his access—and interest—in the wide swath of music he pulls into this feijoada de funk: new wave (Yazoo’s “Don’t Go”), early disco-house (Indeep’s “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life”), and commercial alt-rock (Nirvana’s “Come As You Are”). It’s amazing what an Internet connection can do.

15. MV Bill – É Nós e A Gente

Rio rapper MV Bill helped found the Central Única de Favelas (Central Favela Factory, abbreviated CUFA), a national NGO that focuses on hip-hop culture as an alternative to the drug trade. He riffs on the arbitrary divisions of the narco-trafficking world in Rio by juxtaposing “é nós” and “é gente,” two slang expressions that mean the same thing—it’s us—but come from rival gangs, the CV and the Amigos de Amigos (Friends of Friends, abbreviated ADA), respectively.

16. Xis e Profeta – Us Mano e As Mina (Profmix)

MV Bill is really an exception to the rule: Funk is the music of Rio, and hip-hop is the sound in São Paulo. The two are considered very different, with paulista hip-hop fans looking down on funkeiros as juvenile and vulgar compared to the serious social concerns that SP hip-hop tackles. Xis’s 2002 track with Profeta doesn’t directly deal with the favelas paulistanas, banished to the periphery of the world’s fourth largest city, but the sound sets the right mood for the hip-hop paulista mindset.

17. Criminal Master – Pobreza (Poverty)

Going back to the roots now—“Pobreza” is from the 1988 hip-hop compilation Consciência Black. Lamentation in verse about the constant urban condition, all set to a funky (this time the American sense) beat.

18. Racionais MCs – Pânico na Zona Sul (Panic on the South Side)

Racionais MCs formed in 1988 and also contributed to Consciência Black with this track, launching a career that turned them into Brazil’s best-known rap group, a very serious voice for the millions of favelados in São Paulo. “Justiceiros são chamados por eles mesmos / Matam humilham e dão tiros a esmo / E a polícia não demonstra sequer vontade (Hired killers as they call themselves / Kill, humiliate, and shoot at random / And the police doesn't show any will to stop them).” Guess who opened for Public Enemy when they came to São Paulo?

19. Sidestepper – Mas Papaya (More Papaya)

Moving south to Buenos Aires, but picking up a sound that comes from further north. Cumbia is a Colombian folk music, but in its various mutations throughout Latin American, it has sprouted as cumbia villeira in the Ciudad Autónoma, popular in the villas miserias with hardcore lyrics about gangs and drugs, in a way akin to funk proibidão. A new breed of DJs and producers in BsAs has recently picked up cumbia and begun blending it into other global urban sounds, including Jamaican dancehall. [Edit: A commenter pointed out that Sidestepper is Anglo-Colombian -- so maybe I hit Bogotá after all -- but I got it off a compilation I bought at ¡Zizek! in BsAs, which evidently isn't a reason to assume every track is porteño.]

20. Colon Colon – El paena loco (The Crazy Crown)

Pure cumbia without other styles mixed in—the telltale shaker (shickishin is the local onomatopoeia) is cumbia’s signature sound.

21. Princesa – Aquí Princesa (Princess Here)

Princesa is a porteña MC who has been tearing up the local scene with a fierce blend of reggaetón and dancehall.

22. G.R.E.S. Acadêmicos da Rocinha – Rocinha é minha vida, Nordeste é minha história (Rocinha is my life, Northeast is my history)

Beginning with a forró flourish, the Acadêmicos da Rocinha chose to honor the heritage of many of the community’s residents in their samba enredo for the 2008 Carnaval parade—it will be performed on Saturday night, February 2, at the Passarela do Samba (known colloquially as the Sambódromo) in the Series A & B competition. The population of favelas in Rio’s largest cities has swelled in recent decades with an influx of nordestinos (northeasterners), fleeing the most impoverished region of Brazil. They in turn have increased the popularity of northeastern music, like forró, in Rio. Mangueira, for example, is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of frevo, a rhythm from Pernambuco, in their performance on Sunday night in the Grupo Especial. Broadcast live on national television with the winning samba school feted in Brazil as much as Super Bowl champions will be in the U.S. that same night, samba endures as a striking example of what the non-formal city in the Americas can accomplish culturally.

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Monday, January 28, 2008


Fresh on the heels of my Israel-Brazil urban musings, I have to come clean: I'm back in Rio one last time before plunging into full thesis writing mode, and have the great fortune of being here for Carnaval 2008. I'm staying in Rocinha again, where it's been impossible to avoid advertisements for this year's samba enredo (story samba, the performance in the official parade at the Sambódromo) by G.R.E.S. Acadêmicos da Rocinha. This year they've chosen to honor the community's nordestino (northeastern) heritage -- internal migration has pushed many northeasterners out of the region, Brazil's poorest, and into the big cities.

G.R.E.S. Acadêmicos da Rocinha - Rocinha é minha vida, Nordeste é minha historia

It begins with a forró flourish and then dives into the elaborate ways that Rocinha and the Northeast are tied together. It's a pretty good samba even though I don't like forró that much and I'll be interested to see how it fares on Saturday night at the Series A & B parade, when Rocinha will strut its stuff on the big stage.

I may not make it to the Sambódromo that night -- angling for Super Bowl (Super Samba?) Sunday, to see the Grupo Especial heavyweights like Mangueira -- but I did go this past Saturday, just a few days after arriving, to the final dress rehearsal at their quadra, where the samba school practices, at the base of Rocinha.

The pounding drums of the bateria

Portas-bandeira (flag-bearers)

Costumed dancers

This year's queen of the bateria

Her scantily-clad highness segues appropriately into the passistas, the best dancers in the school, who when female, also wear very little (freer hips swing faster?)

The headline act for the evening, meanwhile, was popular sambista Dudu Nobre, one of the official commentators on the parade for the Globo network, as I saw advertised on TV the next day.

Earlier in the day at the Saturday Rocinha fair I picked up a CD (pirated, of course) on which he covers famous sambas enredo from across the last century.

Dudu Nobre - 100 Anos de Liberdade: Realidade ou Ilusão?

This was Mangueira's 1988 samba, commemorating -- and questioning -- the 100th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. A good samba at its best can be a very bold and public statement of politics or social values, although criticism has mounted against escolas de samba in general over the last couple decades, especially since the opening of the Sambódromo in the mid-80s (financed by the Rio government's tourism arm). Every year the tickets get more expensive (i.e. tourists and not locals attending the parades), the routines are more rigidly choreographed, there are more and more professional dancers and musicians, and in short, the spontaneous spirit of samba and the physical presence of the communities that these schools supposedly represent seems to be eroding.

I had a chip on my shoulder about samba when I first came to Rio, captivated as I was by this elusive thing called funk. I've been to enough bailes now that as of last summer I wanted to discover more of the samba world, but didn't find much going on in July and August, as it was just before the rehearsals began. Now, in full Carnaval season, samba is everywhere. That's no reason not to still think critically, but it's plenty of reason to enjoy as the big weekend approaches.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008


"Dans le désert, on doit faire paix avec soi. (In the desert, one must make peace with self)"
--Albert Memmi, Le Désert

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Mediterranean Modernism

The other side of the Israeli urban equation from Jerusalem is its seaside counterpart: Tel Aviv, the image of Israeli modernity, cosmopolitanism, secularism, and according to some, political apathy. It is all of these, and more. The city was founded in 1909 on the beach just outside of Yaffo, an ancient port city, by secular Zionists looking for an ordered, gridded urbanism outside of Yaffo's dense chaos. Tel Aviv grew to swallow Yaffo (the city's official name is Tel Aviv-Yaffo), then sprouted skyscrapers, financial centers, Bauhaus and Art Deco architecture, museums, cafés, record stores, and now, nearly a century later, shows evidence of global city formation.

Airplanes -- that great symbol of modernity (Brasilia isn't shaped like one for nothing) -- fly over its Mediterranean shores heading for Ben-Gurion Airport, hub of El Al, the flagship Israeli carrier.

On Friday night while the Shabbat masses gather at the Western Wall, Tel Aviv's clubs are just heating up, while on the right block you'll find Hebrew stencil graffiti.

"Zionism = Real Estate"
Who said Tel Aviveans weren't political?

And the all-important rave flyer. Tel Aviv: hub of the Israeli psy-trance scene, one node on that vast global psy-trance network . . . global city indeed.

I didn't make it to one of the famed mesibot desert parties, and truthfully there was only a little trance at the club I did make it to, a friend's cousin's birthday party or some such affair. But it was bumping out of car windows and in the stalls at the market at the end of Shenkin Street.

Shulman - New Paradigm

Consider this the chill out room track, then. From Shulman's Soundscapes and Modern Tales.

I had too little time in Tel Aviv; it's hard to resist a Mediterranean city. But in the brief chance I did have, I found quite striking the duality between it and Jerusalem. One which I linked to the dichotomy between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. In what, as friends rightly pointed out, was probably the first time Jerusalem has ever been compared to Rio, I likened the axis Tel Aviv/São Paulo - Jerusalem/Rio. The basic distinction is between cosmopolitanism and particularism. The universal ease with which Tel Aviveans or Paulistas see themselves on a map with Milan, New York, London, Barcelona, Miami vs. the local customs, traditions, mores, dress that are hard to slip into. I love Rio, but I will probably always feel like an outsider, not the least because of skin tone. Likewise in Jerusalem, if you are not in liturgical rhythms, you will feel out of place. Both, too, engender more tourism, another distinction that separates you from the city. But people circulate into, out of, and within São Paulo and Tel Aviv on such a rapid basis that it's easy to slide in, hop on the metrô or go to the beach (and yes, Rio and Tel Aviv share a beach, but Rio's has its own rigid code where it's easy to feel like an outsider), and find that you don't stand out.

That kind of cosmopolitanism is seductive (and expensive -- I always spend more money in São Paulo and than I do in Rio; likewise a stroll down Shenkin cost me more before I knew it than any promenade in Jerusalem), but ultimately I try to resist it. There's a challenge in not being able to fit in, and an enjoyment that comes from enduring that regardless -- picking up the language, the music, whatever it takes to at least have an exchange, even if it would be 10x easier to become a carioca than a paulista, a Tel Avivean than a Jerusalemite.

At the same time, the cosmopolitanism of global cities brings with the interstices of culture -- gaps that allow for the constant innovation, creative use of space, and readaptation in cities like London, New York, and Berlin. Or Tel Aviv, as in DJ C's loft party. When I go back to Israel, I think I'll be spending more time by the sea.

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Whose Jerusalem? Microglot & Polytical

Everyday life in Israel is micropolitical in a way that is unfathomable to me and must be extremely wearing for those who live there -- doubly so for residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Unsurprisingly, the Palestinian Territories were not on our itinerary, but flipping through a guide book I had the realization that, in fact, the Territories are not such a terra incognita. There's even a counter-Birthright to take you there. I try to avoid the polemics as best as I can, but crossing the green line will be an imperative for me whenever I can next make my way there.

It's embarrassing to admit that I had let news coverage so completely define my perception of the place. Ramallah to me was inextricably linked with Yassir Arafat's compound and that image had no place for say, these guys (many great links & mpfrees to be had), or the supposedly many hip bars with contemporary Arabic music. Arafat's compound, meanwhile, is a few miles outside of town. I should've known better: I'm originally from the D.C. area and I hate the assumption that everything "inside the Beltway" is the federal government (and not say, hip-hop/go-go fusion like my recent favorite W.A.L.E.).

In truth, I did visit the West Bank, to be precise the Jewish settlement of Gush Etzion. The whole place put me on edge, beginning with the History Channel-esque documentary in their "Gush Etzion Museum" of the history of Jewish settlement there and the battle that took place in 1948. At the end, the screen recedes and behind it lies the underground bunker where the last defenders of the kibbutz there were killed. The very fact that they need a master narrative to justify their presence made me inherently suspicious of the settlement's legitimacy, despite claims that it's not of the same ilk as more radical, most definitely illegal, settlements.

As if to underscore this difference, the largely American-born residents of Gush Etzion prefer to think of themselves as a suburb of Jerusalem, carving out a sense of normalcy precisely by painting it as suburbia, a disturbing slice of the Inland Empire in Israel. West Bank, CA.

12 minute drive to downtown Jerusalem aside, what kind of suburb is it if you have to pass through a checkpoint and along the infamous Wall? (How much is security fence and how much is wall I won't bother getting into here; on the Jerusalem-Gush Etzion byway [bypassing the Palestinian city of Bethlehem], it's a concrete wall, an attractive wall, but a wall all the same.)

Checkpoint at dusk from the bulletproof window of an armored bus.

Upon return to Jerusalem, lights across the city proudly proclaim the 40th anniversary of (re)unification.

Out of sight, out of mind?

Not exactly -- the division between (Jewish) West Jerusalem and (Arab) East Jerusalem along the fault line of the Old City has no pronounced borders or checkpoints, but it's the subtler linguistic distinctions that make me question the proclamation of unity. Polyglot Israel has three official languages: Hebrew, Arabic, and English. Official signage is very good about including all three.

In ultra-Orthodox West Jerusalem neighborhoods, Arabic is nowhere to be found (no photos out of respect for the community -- they did have large signs in every possible tourist's language asking visitors to dress modestly, not come in groups, and not take photos). Even just a few hundred yards into East Jerusalem, meanwhile, Hebrew script becomes noticeably scarcer. Especially on the buses: On the whole, West Jerusalem (Hebrew/Jewish) buses don't go to East Jerusalem, nor do East Jerusalem (Arabic/Muslim) buses go to West Jerusalem. Disappointing as it is, it's also endemic of the systematic discrimination against East Jerusalem neighborhoods in terms of municipal services. Yet 40 years of being one city has yielded substantial integration, whether friendly or not, and if a two-state solution means dividing East and West, it will require microsurgery indeed.

Even the incredible sensory overload of going to the market was, at times, fraught with reminders of ongoing tension.

How many articles have I read about olive trees destroyed, olive groves cut off by barriers, the bitter taste off the branch, sour in the mouth but so easy to swallow?

The police were watching all the entrances, a reminder of the very real terror of the Second Intafadah, when buying ingredients for Shabbat dinner (I took these photos in the Friday afternoon pre-Sabbath rush) was done at one's own peril. I suspect Arab residents, by choice or by dint of racial profiling, keep to their own market, but that doesn't mean they can't slip through under cover.

A stall selling all manner of religious, secular, Hebrew, Arab, Israeli, Egyptian, Lebanese, Moroccan, &more CDs was, to me, a triumph of the hot & polyglot multicultural stew that, at its best, the Middle East can be -- and that I believe Israel, as a democratic state, warts and all, fosters better than other nation-states (not that particular cities can't, at the local level, foster them -- Beirut, Cairo, Ramallah, Marrakesh).

The heavy strings in vintage Arab popular music accompany the lilting voice of a great chanteuse, like Egypt's Faiza Ahmed, extremely well. It was a joy to turn the dial on my trusty FM radio while in Jerusalem and come across the rich textures, the fantastic tonal interplay between voice and instrument.

Faiza Ahmed - Set El Habayeb (Al Oum)

All the more reason to learn Arabic and Hebrew for that matter.

Sunset over Har Herzl (Mount Herzl), home to the Israeli national military cemetery -- tombs of presidents, prime ministers, generals, famous Zionists (including Herzl himself), dead soldiers, innocent bystanders. Below this picture, I had just finished hearing the leader of our trip recount the death by suicide bombing of his fiancée in front of the memorial wall to victims of terror on which her name is inscribed.

There is no one side here.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Zion ina . . . Zion

Much too much delay, but my trip to Israel merits comment all the same. Some might be affiliated with the vast cottage industry of Taglit-Birthright, whose main goal, according to friends who have gone, is to convince you to make aliyah (right of return -- instant Israeli citizenship for all Jews worldwide). I had the fortune of attending a similar (in the sense of free) trip, that thankfully wasn't so ideologically driven. The politics are inescapable and I want to get to them, but first I need to share some of my Mesopatamian soundtrack.

Hip-hop may get the lionzion's share of the credit for having gone global, but it's (older) brother-from-another-mother has definitely gone a global too. It was not too much of a surprise, then, to find Jewish reggae that decidedly isn't black-Jew-face. Instead, they had the imprimatur of Sabbo Ronen of the Soulico Crew (check out their mix of Israeli party beats), who happened to be behind the counter of a record store I hit up in Tel Aviv -- and part of the same crew as DJ C's friend Itai, the one who hooked him up with B-more ina Jerusalem a few summers back, although I unfortunately didn't have the same opportunity given my tight schedule. Small, small beat-friendly world, it is.

Ex-Centric Sound System - Blessed Love (ft. Richi Bless)

"This one have African paws innit, this one have Nubian paws innit, this one comin at you from Israel! This one is straight from anywhere all over the world."

Eccentric, like Israelis gone a foreign? Ex-centric like Jamaica as point of reference, not that omphalos at the center of it all? Jerusalem Syndrome--Messiahs--Haile Selassie--Ethiopia--Operation Solomon?

Ex-Centric Sound System - Wildest Dub (Solomon's Dub)

"I will rise now, and go about the city in the streets, and in the broadways I will seek him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not." (Song of Solomon, 3:2)

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