Sunday, June 8, 2008

Great black covers of white songs

It is undeniable that the history of modern music is really the history of white folks ripping off the innovations of black folks. From Elvis to the Stones to Eminem to Justin Timberlake, white performers usually became bigger stars than those they emulated, despite the music more often than not being a diluted shadow of the original.
Yet this was not always one-way traffic. Lenny Kravitz, for example, showed us what Led Zeppelin and The Beatles would sound like if they were black. And there is a whole list of songs by white artists that were covered by black artists. Some are good, some less so; some are easily as good as or better than the original versions. Below are the ones to watch out for.

Isley Brothers – Summer Breeze
The first family of soul turn Seals & Crofts’ tune into a wonderfully smooth sexy classic. The Isley’s had a penchant in the early 70s for covering rock songs, not all of which worked that well, but this is where it all comes together.

Otis Redding – Satisfaction
Given that Mick & the boys spent their career trying to sound black, it makes sense that a black man’s rendition of the Stone's classic hit is so smokin’. Otis brings so much energy and sweaty southern funk to this one that it’s hard to listen to the original the same way again. The Stax horn section is the piece-de-resistance.

Wilson Pickett - Hey Jude
The same applies to "Wicked" Pickett's cover of this Beatles standard. I imagine Lennon and McCartney would appreciate the happy irony of this - after getting their early inspiration from R&B performers from the Deep South, by this point in their career an R&B legend was copying them. I like that this version de-emphasises the obvious la-la-la bit and put's Pickett's phenomenal vocalisations to the fore. Plus the opening 6 seconds are so awesome that it's no wonder De La Soul sampled it.

Nina Simone – I Shall Be Released
A brilliant songwriter Bob Dylan may have been, but vocalist extraordinaire he was not. Nina Simone’s heart-rendingly soulful interpretation is one that would have made Bob mighty proud. And like Sam Cooke’s cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind”, there is an added poignancy in this song of struggle and yearning for deliverance being sung by an African-American. The definitive version.

Jimi Hendrix – All Along the Watchtower
Another Dylan cover, and again the definitive version. Sporting possibly the greatest opening 20 seconds of any song ever, one of the extreme highpoints of 60s rock.

Al Green – How Can You Mend A Broken Heart
The Bee Gees wrote a number of songs performed by black artists – think Diana Ross’s “Chain Reaction” or Tavares’ cover of “More Than A Woman” and Portrait’s cover of “How Deep Is Your Love”, which make the best of the Gibb brother's songwriting talents but compensate for their annoyingly chipmunk-like vocals. But Al Green’s cover of “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” is far and away the best of them, slowing it down and wringing every emotion out of the lyrics. With one of the greatest and sexiest male voices of all time, coupled with producer Willie Mitchell’s perennially great arranging, it is no surprise that this is beats the pants off the slightly twee original.

Ike & Tina Turner – Proud Mary
Not necessarily better than the original CCR version, just different - still quintessentially Southern, but with the church all up in it. Forgetting the extremely nasty side to Ike's character, he was a brilliant musician and bandleader, and Tina in her heyday was an electrifying performer.

Isaac Hayes – Walk On By
A slightly different case here, since this classic by writers Burt Bacharach and Hal David is best known as a Dionne Warwick song. But Hayes gets special recognition for his obsession with taking Bacharach & David's nifty pop numbers and reinventing them as orchestral soul-funk epics of love and betrayal. Despite taking inspiration from the white rock world, with his embrace of lengthy songs and extended psychedelic wig-outs, Hayes makes these songs far "blacker" than Warwick's versions. While his cover of "The Look of Love" is also notable, "Walk On By" is where it's at; it features one of the great bass & drum breaks - sampled by Biggie, Wu-Tang, Tupac among many others. By the way, check out the video and wonder as I do how Hayes looks exactly the same in 2008 as he did in 1968. I bet he was born with that beard and those sunglasses.

Living Colour – Memories Can’t Wait
Originally a fairly average Talking Heads track, Living Colour crank up the rock element as well as some funky soul, creating one of the highlights of their debut album Vivid. Big respect to Living Colour for busting down the colour barriers of rock and turning me on to black music - if not for them in the early 90s I might still be listening to hair metal.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Sex scandal rocks Formula 1

You may have read in the news recently about Max Mosley, the 67-year old boss of the FIA, Formula 1 racing's governing body, who found himself under pressure to resign his post. His misdeed? Being caught on video by News of the World engaging in a 5-hour sado-masochistic orgy with 5 prostitutes, who were all dressed in SS uniforms; Mosley allowed himself to be subjected to various degrading treatments, then beat the women with a leather whip while giving them orders in German. All of which cost him a cool £2,500 in cash.

Sounds like another attack of the wowsers. Why, what man among us has never had a marathon S&M session with hookers dressed as Nazi guards once in a while? Sounds like a typical Saturday night for me, except my German ain't so crash hot.

I just want to know how a 67-year old man has the energy, let alone the time, to cavort with ladies of the night for 5 straight hours. Doesn't he have any hobbies? Don't people garden anymore?

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Indonesian Contributions to World Culture

People of various ethnicities love that feeling of superiority and pride in the grand cultural achievements of their forefathers. Like the Greeks who will brag about how the ancient Greeks invented democracy. (Although if democracy is so grand, how did it produce a President like George W Bush? Anyway, I digress.) So yes, we have much to thank various cultures for introducing the rest of us to things we now take for granted. The Chinese invented paper, printing and gunpowder, the Croatians invented the necktie, the Arabs came up with glass and algebra, and the Dutch invented the TV show Big Brother, legalised spliff and a way to make carrots orange.
But what about Indonesia? I’m here to stick up for a nation whose contributions to global culture are criminally underappreciated.

Running amok
There are hardly any words in the English language to originate from an Indonesian language. Bamboo is one. Ketchup is too. Amok is the other. In Java, amok means to suddenly flip out and go on a rampage. This is obviously not an exclusively Indonesian phenomenon, but clearly this occurred enough for the Javanese to give it a name which found its way into English.
Typically, the amok person would be an otherwise normal citizen who would suddenly, inexplicably snap and run around trying to kill people. It could be perceived as the result of black magic placed upon the person; modern science would probably recognise this phenomenon as some form of schizophrenic psychosis. But it also fits with the emotional repression that is a part of Javanese culture. The Javanese place a great deal of emphasis on remaining halus (smooth), meaning that you keep calm and diplomatic at all times, and don’t let show any displeasure or anger. After a lifetime of acting like that, is it any wonder that somebody might snap?

The staple diet of millions of cash-strapped students all over the world. Instant noodles are hardly an original concept, but Indomie is the caviar of the instant noodle world, coming with things like fried shallots, kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), chili sauce and flavoured oil within the packet. There are roadside stalls in Indonesia that specialise solely in selling this stuff, which you may see as the lowest possible rung on the restauranteur’s ladder, but hey, it’s a tasty and cheap way of getting your fix of simple carbohydrates and saturated fats.

Korupsi, Kolusi & Nepotisme
Otherwise known as corruption, collusion and nepotism. Sure, not an original creation by any means, but as a nation Indonesians have perfected this unholy trinity to a fine art form. If you’ve never been involved in bribing an official or police officer, you are probably not a real Indonesian.

Nasi Goreng
Fried rice was invented by the Chinese, but the Indonesian adaptation is so much better that it makes the original Chinese version pretty much redundant. The difference? More onions, more garlic, a generous helping of chili sambal. Commonly eaten for breakfast, since you’ve got to find something to do with last night’s leftover rice.

Anti-colonialism and pro-colonialism in the guise of nationalism
Having defiantly thrown off the shackles of Western imperalism when they kicked the Dutch out in the 40s, Indonesians are justifiably proud of their nation’s legacy of struggle and suspicious of Western interference in the affairs of the archipelago. Strangely, few Indonesians see any irony in their own colonialist subjugation of East Timor or West Papua, as those peoples should be honoured to be part of the greater state of Indonesia. Because clearly, colonialism is only bad when the West do it.

Beef rendang
Malaysians might try to claim this as their own – to them I say “back off lah”. This dish, as I understand it, originates in Padang in Sumatra. Like much food of that region, it was probably based on the Indian idea of a curry, yet with entirely Indonesian ingredients. Cooked for hours in coconut milk and a myriad of herbs and spices, this is one of the great curry-type-dishes of the world.

Fermented soybeans pressed into a firm cake – again the Indonesian specialty of taking something from a bigger nation (China in this case) and making something new out of it. Tempeh is fairly uninspiring if you don’t know how to cook it properly, but potentially brilliant when done right. Sometimes seen as a poor man’s food, tempeh is protein-rich and very good for you, and has become adopted by vegetarians worldwide.

Clove Cigarettes (Kretek)
The value of nutmeg and cloves, used for flavouring and preserving food, was the main stimulus for a 16th century European race to colonize and exploit the various kingdoms that made up the Indonesian archipelago, with the Dutch ultimately beating off the Portuguese and others to claim what was then the Dutch East Indies. Thus without these two spices, Indonesia as we know it would not exist today. Strange then, that Indonesians have almost no culinary use for them. The main purpose for an Indonesian clove is to be shredded up and mixed with tobacco to make the kretek cigarette, so named for the crackling sound it makes when smoked. The cloves give a pleasant numbing sensation and mild sweetness to the cigarettes, which is not really a good thing since they are very high in tar and generally bad for you.

Yes, move over Brazil, Indonesia is now the world leader in rainforest clearing. Its rank as one of the highest carbon emitters is due to the phenomenal amount of trees being cut down. Much of this is done illegally, but when it comes to big business interests operating out in the jungle away from prying eyes, illegality is a fairly loose concept. It is for this reason that the orang-utan, a beautiful creature and one of our close relatives, seems certain to become extinct in the not-so-distant future. I wonder: would we would treat orang-utans with more respect if they didn’t have red hair?

Kecap Manis
Otherwise known as sweet soya sauce, a thick molasses-spiked version of the traditional Chinese variety, invaluable for marinating satay and making peanut sauce, among other things. I've seen a lot of Australian TV chefs using this now, and none of them pronounce it properly (usually they come out with something like "keckap manners"). There is irony in that, since the English word ketchup is derived from the Indonesian/Malay word kecap, and is pronounced pretty much the same.

Indonesian English
Not a well-developed variant of English in the way Manglish (Malaysian English) is, the Indonesian way of speaking English still has much going for it. Common characteristics include:
· inability to pronounce the sounds sh, f and th, which do not naturally occur in Bahasa Indonesia except in foreign words. They are respectively replaced with the sounds s, p and d. Thus, “the film” is pronounced de pilem, and “fishing” becomes pissing. The phrase “I have finished” thus sounds like the slightly unnecessary declaration “I have penis”.
· Apparent gender confusion – this is caused by the misuse of pronouns rather than any sort of indigenous Indonesian sexual identity dysfunction. Since the Indonesian language uses the word “dia” to mean both “he” and “she”, this carries over into speaking English. For example: “Hey Chris, you have girlfriend? What is his name?”
· Enthusiastic rolling of Rs. The unkind might call it “machine gun mouth”. Most common example said to foreigners: “Hallo misterrrr!”

Ketch you leterrr, ya?

Premier League Team of the Season, 2007-08

I did one of these last year, so I guess I should keep up the tradition. If you don't like the world game, feel free to ignore.

Goalkeeper: David James (Portsmouth)
Right Back: Bacary Sagna (Arsenal)
Centre Back: Rio Ferdinand (Manchester United)
Centre Back: Nemanja Vidic (Manchester United)
Left Back: Joleon Lescott (Everton)
Right Midfield: Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United)
Central Midfield: Cesc Fabregas (Arsenal)
Central Midfield: Steven Gerrard (Liverpool)
Left Midfield: Ashley Young (Aston Villa)
Striker: Emmanuel Adebayor (Arsenal)
Striker: Fernando Torres (Liverpool)

Disappointed that Arsenal's beautiful football was not rewarded with anything (apart from plenty of bad reffing decisions and bad luck which cost them the season). But few could deny that Manchester United were the standout team this season and deserved their victory.

Man, that was painful to say.

Arsenal's French defender Bacary Sagna - the league's best right back and best hairstyle.

Danish Embassy Bombing

Just read in the news today that the Danish Embassy in Pakistan was bombed, with Al-Qaeda the likely suspects. It is almost certainly related to the reprinting of the infamous cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist.

The concept of the Prophet being portrayed as a terrorist so outraged Islamic militants that they responded... with a terrorist attack.

That'll teach those pesky Danes the error of their ways.