Saturday, January 26, 2013

I wonder why....

When I moved to South Africa in the early nineteen eighties, I adopted everything about my new country that affected me personally and culturally. Part of that was the musical background. I learned to know and love artists like Mango Groove, Johnny Clegg, Ladysmith Black Mambaza , Miriam Makeba and numerous other uniquely South African musicians. There was, however, one voice, one soul, one artist, whose music was everywhere and who I just accepted as part of the scene. That artist was a man by the name of Rodriguez. His songs were one of the sounds of the South Africa of the 80's and 90's. Every time you went out to a cafe, bar or pizza restaurant, you heard "Sugarman", "I wonder why", and "I'll Slip Away" - beautiful, haunting songs with lyrics to make you search your soul.

The thing was I never thought beyond that. Rodriguez was a hugely popular artist in South Africa, so I assumed he was equally popular elsewhere - at the time.

Life has move on since then and at the beginning of this millenium, I moved to the Netherlands where I learned to appreciate the music produced here. Rodriguez was not exactly forgotten, but was relegated to that fond place in my playlists that was occupied by other South African favourites. But what I never realised was that he was not actually known anywhere outside of South Africa.

I have this evening just watched a very moving film called Searching for Sugarman. It is the story of Rodriguez, a modest labourer from Detroit with the soul of a poet. He recorded an album called  Cold Fact in 1970 that was critically highly acclaimed, but which totally bombed in the U.S. By chance, though, an Amercian girl, visiting her boyfriend in South Africa, took a bootleg copy with her. It was the era of Apartheid and so the record was not produced officially. Much of it was actually banned, because of its controversial lyrics. But, as we say these days, it went viral in the South Africa of the time and from that one copy, more than half a million were subsequently sold - which is a lot for a third world country under a repressive regime.

What is even more remarkable is that Rodriguez himself had no clue that his record had achieved such popularity in that far off land. In fact, no one knew, simply because the regime of the day in South Africa did not encourage outside interference. And anyway, sanctions were in place. In South Africa, he was a mega star, but at home, Rodriguez gave up hopes of a musical career in Detroit and went back to renovating houses. His records continued to be sold in South Africa and his popularity continued, but there it stopped and any knowledge about the singer faded into obscurity.

Nevertheless, in the nineteen nineties, two South Africans, one a journalist and the other a jeweller, decided to set out to see if they could find what had happened to this star of theirs. No one in the country had any idea of who he was and what had happened to him in the intervening years. Reports abounded that he had rather dramatically committed suicide on stage. And this is where the documentary film comes in.

Searching for Sugarman tells of their search for Rodriguez, and how they found him, still working as a labourer in downtown Detroit. The knowledge that he had become something of a folk and national hero in South Africa surprised but did not fase him, and when he ultimately made a concert tour to the country that so idolised him, he took it all in his modest stride. He played to concerts of thousands several times over, but still returned to his honest and basic lifestyle back in Detroit.

This is a beautiful and touchingly sincere film. It has also been a huge success. It has had rave reviews and more stars than you can count. For me, though, it has a wealth of memories, feelings and associations too. Rodriguez was a major part of the cultural scene in our South African life. I took it all for granted at the time, and didn't even remember it until my daughter just started singing his songs as if it was as natural as breathing. Somehow, that makes this story all the more moving.

I hope Sixto Rodriguez now has the opportunity to reap some of the rewards of his South African fame in his old age. The strangeness of this story is what makes it special, but the loyalty of his fan base across the social and political barriers that were South Africa make it unique.

Does anyone else have a story about music that means something or is associated with a certain time in your life?

ps: for an even more enthusiastic blog post about this story see Hilary's blog post from November last year. I didn't know about it when she wrote this, being a recent contact of hers, but it is a brilliant blog and describes her own discovery of the film and more of its story.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Everybody stop! We're on a Go-Snow

Families skating on the pond in our Zeeland village last year
Last Monday night it snowed. The result of this smattering of fluffy white stuff was that since Tuesday the Netherlands has been in complete chaos. Okay, maybe smattering is a slight understatement, but it truly wasn't all that much. A couple of centimetres at the most.

Nonetheless, the trains have been running at half their normal capacity all week, and the buses have only been running half of half of that. There I've been every morning at the bus stop, stamping my feet to keep the blood circulating all the way to my toes and watching that blessed digital board announce the advent of numerous buses I might have taken had they simply turned up. It's actually been quite an adventure in transportation...I've been publicly transported to places even Dr Spock of Startrek fame would have found surprising.  Seriously, though, what's happened is that I've ended up jumping on any bus that looked as if it was going in vaguely the right direction, so I've seen parts of the city I never knew existed. Quite enlightening in some ways.

Still, at least I have managed to get to work, and was only a few minutes late just one day this week. Many of my colleagues have just given up the fight and gone home - although I have to say these are mostly folk who come by car. One of them told me it took her three and a half hours to drive three kilometres. Makes you wonder why she didn't just get out and walk. She might have got somewhere instead of looking wistfully at the queue of lights in front of her.

Anyhow, this is condition normal every year. We get a few grains of snow and the world comes to a grinding halt. I just don't understand it. I mean it's not as if snow is so unusual. We've certainly had a spell of it every year since I've been here.

It always makes me laugh because the locals are very keen to tell me me we don't really have winter in NL. Then they act all surprised when year after year, the temperature plummets in January and the white blanket descends. The thing is, folks, it does happen. Every year! Not for long, I grant you. Probably no more than a couple of weeks, but surprise surprise, it's not a rare occasion. So why does everything go belly up and totally haywire? And why are the train services and buses not prepared the way they are in other cold countries? My Russian and Polish friends here think it's hysterical and are totally bemused by the chaos that ensues after our annual 'episnowed'.

A smattering of snow creates its own hazards on board

But forget the adventures in transport for a moment. The fun part of this for me is negotiating the boat. If you have a look at the few pics I've posted here, you'll notice it's no small endeavour getting on and off in this kind of weather. It's like crossing the great divide where the risk of slithering off into the icy depths of the harbour becomes the daily challenge. Maybe that's why I'm a bit bemused by all the other fuss. When you have this as your daily yardstick, all the rest seems a bit paltry...doesn't it?

No snow here, but when it's cold, the east wind causes very low tides.
At these times the plank doesn't even reach the deck

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Reaching out for the Rhinos

This last week, I have been reading another compelling and heart wrenching book by Lawrence Anthony, the great South African conservationist otherwise known as the Elephant Whisperer. I have read the book that gave him his nickname, and also Babylon's Ark, the amazing account of his courageous mission to save the animals in Baghdad's beleaguered zoo shortly after the US invasion when the city was in total disarray. However, The Last Rhinos is, if anything, even more compelling. Throughout this remarkable account of his campaign to save the last of the Northern White Rhinos in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the underlying and desperate fear that these wonderful and ancient animals will soon be extinct if we cannot stop the poaching and slaughter being carried out. For what? For just their horns. And for what reason? So that an oriental belief that they have some kind of medicinal value for fevers (see this link) can be satisfied. Their horns have a massive black market value (some say more than gold), and conservationists throughout Africa and Asia are literally fighting to the death to protect the remaining rhinos from extinction.

Now, I am not a scientist and I don't know whether their powdered horns have any real medicinal worth or not, but given that there are so many other means of alleviating fevers and similar ailments, it is iniquitous that any animal's life should be placed at risk of a cruel and savage death for this purpose, let alone an animal that is on the brink of extinction. What is fact is that their horns are simple keratin. As Lawrence Anthony says, we might as well send them our finger nail and toenail clippings. The substance is the same.

You have to ask what on earth those who poach them will do when all the rhinos are gone? In pragmatic terms, why kill these animals to the point where there are absolutely none left. Anywhere. Animals that have been on this earth for thousands of years. It beggars belief. Talk about killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

The terrible truth, however, is that despite Lawrence Anthony and truly brave conservation fighters like him who are increasing public awareness worldwide, the poaching figures are growing.

Lawrence Anthony died last year. I was first alerted to his work when a South African friend on FB  'shared'  the touching story of how his elephants mourned his death. Since then, I have been spellbound by his books and awed by his endless fund of courage. He gained the trust of governments and rebel armies alike, being probably the only civilian to have formed a working relationship with the notorious LRA in Uganda and the DRC. The bravery he showed simply in an effort to stop the poaching and save the Rhinos is almost beyond human, but he did not do it alone, thank goodness. His family and close friends were there with him on several of these missions and I can only be thankful that these great souls, and many many others like them, are still alive and still fighting for our animal kingdom.

I haven't finished the book yet and am not really sure I want to know the outcome as I fear it will not be  a happy one. What has happened since he died certainly isn't optimistic. The figures are horrific and according to the Helping Rhinos Facebook page, two rhinos have been found dead with their horns removed in just the last couple of days.

This sort of situation makes me feel quite desperate. This is not about saving animals over people. Rhino horn doesn't feed people, nor does it save people's lives. The dead rhinos are left to rot. It is exploitation at its most mercenary and ugly.

A few weeks ago, I read an academic paper about the importance of preserving our 'ecosystem services'. The conservation of all our ecosystems, animal and plant, is important to our own survival. We have to work with our natural world and not destroy it simply to gratify a short term desire or perceived need. If we do that, we will ultimately destroy ourselves as the world that we rely on to nourish us will no longer be able to serve us.

The Last Rhinos is a compelling, exciting book, but it is also a very serious one. This kind of exploitation has to stop. It is neither the fault of those who live among the rhinos, nor those who are persuaded into believing their horns have medicinal value. It is the fault of the poaching cartels who are cashing in on a get rich quick opportunity. This kind of short-sighted greed has to end. It is as shameful as it is devastating.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

New Development on this page

Just a bit of news. If you cast your eyes to the right hand side of this page, you will see that below the picture of Watery Ways, there is a 'buy now' button. This is linked to Pay Pal, and what it means is that anyone wanting a copy of Watery Ways can buy it directly from me for a limited period, that is, until the copies I have in stock run out!

The postage is set for posting to the UK and the rest of Europe. However, if anyone in the Netherlands wants to buy a copy, just send me a message and we'll make another plan as the postage should be less.

I am assuming I will get an address for shipping from Paypal, but if not, I may need to ask buyers to send me the shipping address via the email address shown on the Paypal page.

I'll see how this goes!

Saturday, January 05, 2013

What a soggy day!

That's going to be my new standard greeting! Long gone are the memories of sunny mornings when I could bounce cheerfully down the road and enthuse about the beauty of the sun, flowers, light, snow, or whatever. Since I can now barely remember when I last saw said bright orb peeking through the severe blanket of grey that seems to be not only condition normal, but condition permanent now, I have had to think of a new attitude to life and with it, new things to say to my neighbours. Let the word fit the act, and so on. I say I have to because if I don't, I will be forced to....erm....emigrate?

Haha, you weren't expecting that were you?

Well, let's be honest here. Maybe it's not that bad, but for the last week at least,  I have woken to damp mist and gloom. I have even heard it rather than seen it. The sound of cars on the wet cobbles outside tells me in advance that nothing has changed as they splash through the puddles. I have taken my Sin (dog, not deed) for walks, but not to our usual haunts. I now actively look for paved paths instead of forest tracks. The latter are so knee deep in mud and craters full of water that only my Sin (dog, not deed) can appreciate them. Which she does. With great abandonment and pleasure.

Sin, as many of you know is old, arthritic and given to saying 'S'not fair' at very frequent intervals. Such is her attitude to the world. But given the sight of a good bog (real, not lavatorial), with acres of mud and strategically placed puddles, she remembers what it is to enjoy life. Hope springs eternal in my doggy's breast and when rewarded, she becomes a puppy once more.  Not only is her greatest joy to dash through the puddles at high speed kicking up fountains of mud that spray anyone unwary enough to be within several metres distance, but she also likes to wallow in the stuff. Since she is mostly black anyway, it is not a good sign when even the small tan coloured areas on her nose, chest and bum are black as well. Not good at all. Not good for my car, for my furniture or for my temper. I feel a real heel denying her of one of the few pleasures she has left in life (apart from lounging on my bed, lounging on my sofa, being fed biscuits whenever tea is made, being taken everywhere I go...). However, there are limits to my supply of doggy shampoo, doggy towels, clean throws for the sofa, and to my good nature. So proper tarred footpaths it has to be. Until the sun comes back, that is.

Memories of one bright(er) day last weekend
For now, though, as I said when I began this ramble, I need to change my own attitude to this situation, weather...sorry, whether I like it or not. I shall therefore wish everyone a wonderfully wet and soggy weekend! Enjoy the rain, and admire that lovely grey sky! After all, it might not last, so make the most of it! (See, I can do it. I can, I can, I can!)