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26 April 2009

Mystic Rhythms

Today I had a wonderful experience. For the first time in my life I taught a group of people about drumming and rhythm -- Middle Eastern drumming and rhythm.

I have been playing all different kinds of drums since I was about 12 years old, and I've been an educator for the past 20 years, but I've never educated people about drumming. I've been passionate about music my entire life, and I've been a passionate educator for almost half my life, but I never put the two together until now. The reasons go beyond the scope of this post but, suffice it to say, they are worth many psychotherapy sessions.

So this was a big deal. A revelation. A major step forward on my life's journey.

I've really only "thought" about drumming for the past few years. Before, it was just something I connected to on a purely visceral level. I loved pounding those drum heads with my sticks or hands and smashing the
cymbals. I've always enjoyed all kinds of music, but rock music is just in my blood. It's simple to play (most of it), and I find rock drumming to be a wonderful way to blow off steam. I'm not subtle enough for jazz and I'm too lazy for classical, though I listen to both quite often and have played drums in both jazz combos and orchestras. Now, in my 40s, I've found a happy medium -- roots rock, country, and folk -- where I can work on my musicianship but not too hard. I can also work on my understanding of how music connects to the American culture that I've grown-up in and identify with.

But I digress. While simultaneously working on the roots rock drumming, I've had the good fortune to be able to explore drumming within Jewish sacred music. Several years ago my family joined a wonderful reconstructionist congregation. It is wonderful for many reasons but, for me, the most amazing aspect has been its' openness to spirituality -- especially through music -- facilitated primarily by Hazzan Rachel Hersh-Epstein. Hazzan Rachel encourages hand drumming during Shabbat morning services, and it is appreciated by those who attend, so I've been able to explore this aspect of my rhythmic self in a way that I never have; an aspect as important to my identity as the American one.

A short time after joining th
e congregation, I purchased a dumbek drum, which is the quintessential Middle Eastern drum. For several years I'd been playing West African and Latin hand drums, but never Middle Eastern drums -- which is interesting, because I'm neither West African nor Latino; but I am a Semite. My ancestors are from the Middle East. So, I've been able to work on my dumbek technique for a couple of years now and it's been going pretty well. The connections for me to the mystical and spiritual side of Judaism are quite strong and, because drumming and music are such a part of my self, the opportunity to put this all together is allowing me to learn more and, therefore, reach a profound new understanding of who I am, life, the world, and my place in it.

Philosophically, I've been able to arrive at this conclusion: The entire universe is based on rhythms. Patterns are occurrin
g all the time, every day, every second, throughout the universe. Think about it: the 24 hours of the day, repeated over again, constitute a rhythm. The beating of a heart is a rhythm; breathing is a rhythm (remember the heartbeat in "Breathe" by Pink Floyd on Dark Side of the Moon?). The calendar is a rhythm. So, for me, the rhythms of drumming are about achieving an an understanding of time and how it moves. Physicists and mathematicians understand time through by studying atoms and constructing equations; members of the clergy -- good ones -- understand time through ancient texts and practices; non-drummer composers understand time through notes and time signatures and keys set out on sheets of paper; drummers understand time through the patterns they play on their drums, in various tones, at various tempos.

Importantly, drums and non-melodic percussion instruments, unlike most other instruments, are highly primitive. As such, they require little to no formal instruction in order for one to begin playing immediately. Similarly, drums are communal. Because anyone can drum, anyone can participate in drumming. That is very appealing to anyone interested in the empowering nature of democracy (which, I assume, is pretty much everyone). In other words: "I don't need to watch you play the drums. I can do it myself, thank you very much!"

So, all of this has been a beautiful discovery for me and, today, I was able to take it further. Even though I've been noodling around on the dumbek for a co
uple of years and listening to some Middle-Eastern rhythms, I never really took the time to study those rhythms or understand them. Which is why I volunteered to teach this session in Mid-Eastern drumming. It was an opportunity to learn and make deeper connections -- connection with my drumming, with my self, and with my People. My wonderful 11 year-old son participated in the session, which was really cool.

I'm still moving through an intermediate phase of spiritual self-discovery and I'm beginning to take away some heavy lessons in addition to the main philosphical conclusion. In this regard, for now, what I'd like to say is this: If you are a musician, or an artist of some kind, but have pursued as your life's work another profession or occupation, do not cut yourself off from your art. If you do, you will be unhappy. It will be as if your soul has been surgically removed. Your ability to make art is a large part of who you are and it will draw you nearer to everything and everyone if you integrate it meaningfully into your life.

Okay. Enough philosophizing. For what it's worth, here's what I've learned (so far) about Middle Eastern drumming:

Typical Mid-Eastern Percussion Instruments


A tar (Arabic: طار‎) is a single-headed frame drum. The tar comes from North Africa and the Middle East. Depictions of these frame drums date back thousands of years.
The tar is held mainly with one hand, although the playing hand can also play and supports the drum while playing. It has an open tone, and is often either played for accompaniment to other instruments or in tar ensembles.
Frame drums are common throughout the world. There are tar, bendir, bodhran, deff, duff, and many others. Many Native American cultures use the frame drum in ceremony and celebration. These drums seem simple, but are capable of great nuance and sophistication.
Some Frame Drum Players, Demos, and Tunes
Zohar Fresco (Israeli-Turkish) http://www.myspace.com/zoharfresco
Glen Velez (U.S.) http://www.glenvelez.com/

The riq (Arabic: رق‎) (also spelled riqq or rik) is a type of tambourine used as a traditional instrument in Arabic music. Itis an important instrument in both folk and classical music throughout the Arabic-speaking world. It traditionally has a wooden frame (although in the modern era it may also be made of metal), jingles, and a thin, translucent head made of fish or goat skin (or, more recently, a synthetic material). Although in the West the tambourine is generally considered to be a simple rhythm instrument suited for unskilled performers, riq players are capable of great subtlety and virtuosity.
The riq is used in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine/Israel, Sudan, and Syria; in Libya, where it is rare, it is called mriq. It is between 20 and 25 cm in diameter and is now effectively a man's instrument. Descended from the duff (see Daff), like the tar, the riq acquired its name in the 19th century so that it could be differentiated.
Essentially an instrument of music for the connoisseur, the riq, which is also called daff al-zinjari in Iraq, is played in takht ensembles (Egypt, Syria) or shalghi ensembles (Iraq) where it has a particularly clearcut role, going beyond the simple rhythmic requirements of the daff, tar, or mazhar, and exploding in a burst of imaginative freedom to colour the orchestra with gleaming sounds: this is quite unlike the role of the daff. In Sudan, where it seems to have been introduced recently, the riq is also related to worship, as in upper Egypt.
The frame of the riq can be covered on both the inner and outer sides with inlay such as mother-of-pearl, ivory or decorative wood, like apricot or lemon. It has ten pairs of small cymbals (about 4 cm in diameter), mounted in five pairs of slits. The skin of a fish or goat is glued on and tightened over the frame, which is about 6 cm deep. In Egypt the riq is usually 20 cm wide; in Iraq it is slightly larger.
Traditionally, frame drums have been used to support the voices of singers, who manipulate them themselves; but the player of the riq, like that of the doira of Uzbekistan, plays without singing. While the daff and the mazhar are held relatively still, at chest or face height, with the player seated, the riq, because of the use of different tone-colours, may be violently shaken above the head, then roughly lowered to the knee, and played vertically as well as horizontally. The player alternates between striking the membrane and shaking the jingles, and his need for freedom of movement necessitates that he stand up. Students of the instrument are required to master the technical problems imposed by the timbre of the membrane and the jingles, both separately and in combination; aside from developing a virtuoso technique they also need to learn the many rhythmic cycles and the techniques of modifying them through creative invention.
Some Riq Players, Demos, and Tunes
Layne Redmond (Canada) http://www.layneredmond.com/
Dumbek or Darabukka

The goblet drum of the Middle East and North Africa is known by a number of names including dumbek, darabukka (Arabic: دربكة), derbocka, and dumbelek. It is found made from clay, wood, metal, or fiberglass and comes in a number of sizes. All have a single head usually of goatskin, and are traditionally played under the arm. They have become very popular drums in World Music in the West second only to the djembe. There are a wide variety of techniques used to play this drum, that are dependant on the material the drum is made from and the region it comes from. Musical lore says that the instrument is called a dumbek because of the two main sounds of the instrument: the dum, or the deep tone from the centre of the drum and the bek, the tone produced from striking the rim.
Some Dumbek Players, Demos, and Tunes
Levent Yildirim (Turkey) http://www.myspace.com/leventdehollo

Alex Spurkel (U.S.) (demos of basic rhythms),

Examples of Contemporary Music Containing North African and
Middle Eastern Rhythms

U.S. & UK Pop & Jazz

“Desert Rose” by Sting featuring Cheb Mami (Algeria), on Brand New Day (1999)
“His Master’s Heart” by Ara Dinkjian featuring Zohar Fresco, on An Armenian in America (2008)

Israeli Pop & Jazz
“So Far” by Habanot Nechama on Habanot Nechama (2007) (pop)
"Gypsy Soul" by Bustan Abraham on Pictures Through the Painted Window (1994)

Jewish Sacred Music
“Lechay Olamim” by Hazzan Richard Kaplan (U.S.), on Life of the Worlds (2003)

Listen! Watch! Play! Enjoy!

07 April 2009

On Second Chances....

Do you believe in redemption? If you are the type of person who asks yourself "What would Jesus do?" how serious are you about answering honestly?

Consider this: If you're a middle-aged or older adult, think back to your teenage and young adult years and all the dumb things you did that could have resulted in your being arrested. Did you smoke pot or snort some coke or do some freebasing? Did you buy dope or sell it in any quantity? Did you live or "conspire" with folks who did? Did you ever drive while under the influence? Did you shoplift? Did you engage in "statutory rape" (meaning, when you were a "man" of 18 did you sleep with a "girl" of 17 or 16)?

What would life be like for you today had you been arrested for and convicted of any of these things? What if you're poor, African American, Latino, or Hispanic and you're arrested for one of these criminal acts? Is the process and result qualitatively different than if you're white and middle-class or rich? Yes.

We have a major problem in this country that we are finally beginning to acknowledge: Our extraordinary rate of incarcerating people and putting them under probation or parole supervision. Here are the facts: According to a recent study by the Pew Center on the States, One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections, one in 31 of all Americans are either incarcerated in state prisons or are under probation or parole supervision. As of 2008, 2.3 million individuals were incarcerated in the United States. In the federal criminal justice system, which is separate from the state systems and is the single largest criminal justice system in the country, over 200,000 individuals are incarcerated and about 100,000 are either on federal probation or are serving terms of supervised release in the community.

Notably, approximately 27% of the population of the federal Bureau of Prisons consists of non-U.S. citizens. So, in essence, U.S. taxpayers are forking over about $25,000 per person per year to house something like 54,000 non-U.S. citizens. Do the math: That's $1,350,000,000 per year. The budget of the Bureau of Prisons is $6 billion and they're asking for more in fiscal year 2010. And what are most of those non-U.S. citizens in prison for? Duh: such outrageous immigration crimes as returning to the country after having been deported. Or, crossing the border illegally and carrying illegal drugs as part of the deal for being brought over by a coyote. These mules weren't coming to deal drugs. They were coming to work backbreaking jobs in restaurant kitchens, food processing plants, hotels, farms, and rich folks' homes so they could send money back home to their families. Are there non-U.S. citizens in the BOP who are gangbangers? Certainly, a few. Are some of them in prison for identity theft? Yes, but not because they wanted to steal millons from unsuspecting citizens; rather, because they needed IDs to get jobs. I'm not excusing this behavior; it is wrong, but is it worth up to two years in federal prison at $25,000 per year that we are paying?

During the past 25 years or so, the U.S. decided that the answer to our most pressing social problems was the criminal justice system. Addicted to illegal drugs (especially if you're poor)? You should go to prison. Need to come to the country illegally to work because there's no way you'll ever get a visa? You should go to prison....that is, unless, you are Salvadoran and came here illegally during that country's long civil war that was sponsored by....you guessed it.... the United States. You'll recall that, during the 1980s, the American People were sold a bill of goods by the Reagan and Bush administrations that "the communists" sponsored by the USSR who were taking power in Central America were going to invade the United States if we didn't do something about it. What we did was arm right-wing governments or political opponents who came complete with death squads (but who were favorably disposed toward U.S. corporate interests in their countries). So, if you were Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, or Guatemalan and you arrived in the States illegally, you were entitled to Temporary Protected Status which, eventually, became permanent. Now that Mexico is apparently in a civil war with drug gangs -- at least if you watch CNN that's the impression -- maybe we should give Mexican undocumented immigrants Temporary Protected Status too? That would legalize them and eliminate a reason for arresting and incarcerating many of them.

But my point is that prisons are probably the worst antidote to addiction, immigration, and poverty. As for addicts, about 55% of federal inmates were convicted of drug-related crimes. About 45% came into the system with addiction issues. Some are receiving treatment while in prison; many are not. Most are not receiving effective treatment because they are either not eligible to enter the Bureau's 500 hour residential drug treatment program, or they must get on the long line to be admitted since the program is underfunded and can't serve all who are eligible.

So, here we are: We have locked up drug addicts and immigrants. The vast majority of offenders are male and a disproportionate number are African American and Latino or Hispanic. Many are young adults and are being sentenced to long terms of incarceration. Most are poor. So, basically, they're screwed for the rest of their lives. By locking people up like this, we're making them worse when they come out of prison, which they ALL will. If you've got a criminal record, it is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to obtain a job that pays a living wage, get a public housing voucher, and receive other federal and state benefits. I could go on, but you get the picture. It's ugly.

Our government has perpetrated a fraud with which we've gone along because we've rationalized that "criminals" are different from us: The government told us that locking all these folks up would solve our problems and we happily believed it because, again, we've dehumanized "criminals" or "offenders" or whatever we call them except "people." Crime rates have, overall, gone down in recent years but even as they've gone down, incarceration rates have continued to go up. So, we've created a new problem: How do we reintegrate the more than 600,000 offenders returning to our communities from prison each year?

At long last, beginning -- go figure -- with President Bush's 2004 State of the Union address in which he acknowledged that offenders are entitled to a second chance, criminal justice policies are changing. The awful economy -- really a 21st Century depression -- is helping to move the ball forward because, as noted above, prisons are expensive to build and maintain and states don't have the money to do it anymore. So they're contemplating or already engaging in major changes in policy that will lead to the release of thousands nonviolent offenders.

In 2008, a bipartisan group of U.S. congressmen and senators passed, and President Bush signed, the Second Chance Act, which is the first-ever comprehensive federal offender "reentry" legislation that authorizes the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars to facilitate the successful reintegration of inmates back into the community. But, the funds are merely authorized. The Act has only been partially funded. We'll see whether full funding comes in the next fiscal year. My sense, however, is that the Act will be fully funded and, more than that, that in the coming months and years we will see enormous changes in our correctional systems. In addition to the Second Chance Act, there are many, smaller "under the radar" types of things happening in state and federal criminal justice systems that give me hope.

As for the interesting things happening in our federal courts, check out this article by Nick Phillips from the St. Louis Riverfront Times about some innovative treatment programs. For now I'd like to say that I think we're just beginning to come to terms with what we've done to people. Vulnerable people. Often ill people. People who've known nothing but poverty in their lives. We've put them in prison them for being vulnerable. For being sick. For being poor. For being young and stupid.

So, does this imply that we should not punish people for breaking criminal laws? Of course not. But first -- and this is my plea -- can we take a look at the laws they're breaking? Should we have laws that criminalize addiction? Should we have laws that criminalize entering this country illegally because of economic desperation? Should we have laws that criminalize the possession and sale of marijuana? Second, -- my plea continued -- can we please have an honest discussion of what constitutes "punishment"? I would posit that sending people to prison is taking the easy way out. Easy for us and "easy" for some the folks we're sending to prison. Forcing people to truly take responsibility for their actions... if they've harmed other individuals or clearly harmed the community... and to make them whole.... now that's difficult. Do we do that in our systems of punishment? Mostly not. We do have systems of restitution but they're not particularly effective even if the order is complied with. Some jurisdictions are engaging in "restorative justice." That's more like it, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

More on all this next time. Peace.

01 April 2009

What on Earth is He (President Obama) Doing? (Part 2)

So, today we discuss the POTUS on foreign policy, which is appropriate because, as we speak, he is in London for the G-20 meeting.

Of course, the commentariat have already declared that the POTUS will fail to achieve his so-called primary goal: getting all the other developed countries to do a combined stimulus. How, exactly, that became his "primary goal" I'm not sure, but they seem to think it is. Sometimes, in Washington, when one news agency reports that something is the POTUS's "primary goal" all the other news agencies start to glom on to that story and all of a sudden it becomes the "primary goal." So, if the POTUS doesn't achieve the "primary goal" he has failed. My point is this: To narrow down such a major foreign trip to a "primary goal" and then, to say that if the goal isn't reached, the whole trip is a failure is preposterous.

Let's think about this very clearly: This is the POTUS's first foreign foray. He's an impressive dude and will impress everyone with his knowledge, erudition, and vision. All the other countries wish they had him because their guys (and gals, in the case of Germany's Angela Merkel) are so unbelievably boring (Gordon Brown, Hu JinTao, etc.) or pompous (Sarkozy) that it's almost embarrassing. Contrast this with when W. would go abroad. Americans wanted to hang their heads in shame every time the guy opened his mouth. He was hated by pretty much everyone everywhere overseas and, therefore, we were hated.

So how does the POTUS start this trip? First, with outreach to Iran and a meeting between Richard Holbrooke and his Iranian counterpart to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. Second, with outreach to Russian president Medvedyev to discuss issues such as the proposed NATO missile defense, nuclear assistance to Iran, and new strategic nuclear weapons negotiations to further reduce the number of nuclear weapons owned by the two countries. Third, a joint statement with Gordon Brown that the U.S. and England are sticking together and are seeking unity on issues regarding both stimulus and financial regulation. He may get less of the former than the latter from our allies and China but the latter is pretty damned necessary. So, let's get real. The POTUS is all over this. Failure? I think not.

After London, the POTUS is going to Strasbourg for a big NATO meeting where he'll get some of what he wants on Afghanistan and a lot of what he wants on everything else because, by that time, the other NATO leaders will feel like they can trust him and that he understands their interests. Then he goes to Turkey -- a Muslim country and important U.S. and European ally and member of NATO that is sponsoring talks between Israel and Syria. That will be a great move and the Turks will love him. Why? Because he undersands them.

I imagine he'll visit the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan as well, though that's usually a secret until after the fact. Speaking of Iraq, the POTUS has recognized that 16 months for a pullout was too ambitious so he extended it to 18 months and we're gonna keep several thousand troops there indefinitely. That could change if the situation in Iraq gets better and Iran changes its ways. As for Afghanistan, the strategy is brilliant because it's not just about Afghanistan: It's about that country, Pakistan, and Iran. The POTUS says they're all linked and he's right. Iran wants us out of Afghanistan, but if that's gonna happen they'll have to provide security guarantees which they're in no position to. Pakistan is a major problem. I don't know how that situation will ultimately be worked out. I'm not sure anyone does; but they've got nukes so they need to be watched closely and having tens of thousands of U.S. troops within striking distance of Islamabad is probably not such a bad thing right now.

Relations with China? The POTUS and Hu will get along well because the POTUS won't disrespect Hu by lecturing him about human rights...which in light of our recent history torturing people we're really in no position to do anyway. Besides, China's got us by the shorthairs because they hold several trillion dollars of U.S. treasury bonds. It's been that way for many years and there's not much we can do about it except pursue policies that make the Chinese investment in the U.S. more valuable. Sorry.

The Israel-Palestinian conflict. Fugghetaboutit. Perhaps if the U.S. makes headway with Iran, this will eliminate a major obstacle in the way of peace, but I just don't seen anyone in the new Israeli government willing to seriously negotiate. They're major right-wingers.

There's more to discuss... Suffice it to say, for now, that the POTUS is doing fine on foreign policy and, as the first POTUS in the truly multi-polar world, he has an opportunity to lead in a new way.