Friday, September 24, 2010

Freshlyground vs. Mugabe- Zimbabwe calling

Best known for their Shakira collaboration ("Waka Waka," aka the World Cup song), Afro-pop band Freshlyground is a multi-cultural dream. Though based in South Africa, the band members come from several countries in the area, plus the group is mixed by race and gender. As Stewie on Family Guy would say, they're like a Benetton ad, only they're cooler.

Their latest video has P-O'd its target- President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Once upon a time, specifically after Mugabe took over and ended white rule there in 1980, his policy (which South Africa later adopted after apartheid) was to keeping the white businessmen there to help the economy going, rather than seeking bloodshed and revenge. This worked well for a while too. Up through about the end of the 90's, the country fared much better than most other countries in the region, thanks in large part to tourism. I took part in that around 1988, visiting Victoria Falls (the place where Dr. Livingston was met up with). It's a beautiful area, full of lush vegetation and wonderfully friendly people. I was looking forward to going back there.

Sad to say, that won't happen any time soon. Mugabe took a turn for the worse and become a power-hungry scumbag, deciding that holding onto power at all costs was more important than the welfare of the nation. Around 1999, he set up 'land reform,' where he would sanction groups of blood-thirsty mobs to set upon the white farmers and 'liberate' their lands: admittedly, the white farms had a disproportionate amount of prime farm land space thanks to pre-independence deals but Mugabe's program was a terrible, disastrous way to compensate for this. His thinking was that if he went down this ill-advised path, he'd get the support of most of the people there by not only brewing up racial resentment but also encouraging it and rewarding it. Some estimates are that hundreds of these farmers were driven from their lands, which happened to employ many Zimbabweans. Mugabe's plan was not a boon for the country though as the 'war veterans' (many of whom were actually too young to have been around during the independence struggle) who took over the farms didn't have any farming experience themselves.

The result was that the Zimbabwe farms went to waste and the economy collapsed. Tourism stopped also, especially after the country-wide killings and land seizures were sanctioned by Mugabe and his cronies. As for the problems that he created for his own country, he's made England and America into scapegoats for this. He's has several fraudulent elections since then too although with the last one, he was forced into a toothless power-sharing agreement with the opposing political party. Most likely, his death won't necessarily mean an end to the country's troubles as he's surrounded by like-minded people who want to keep things as they are and are no doubt worried that they might not find a safe haven to avoid eventual prosecution for their crimes.

Needless to say, in a dictatorship like this, any kind of dissent isn't tolerated. The opposing party has been brutalized for years now and independent news is scarce inside the country. In addition, any kind of art that isn't govt sanctioned or is critical of the govt is just asking for trouble.

Since they're operating out of state, Freshlyground can afford to criticize Mugabe. Their video for the lively tune "Chicken For Change" features puppets that look like something out of Spitting Image. The Mugabe figure already looks kind of like a chicken to start with but it's still funny to see him change into one by the end of the video. Of course, the Zimbabwe govt. took exception to this as this AP article explains, also saying that any Zimbabwe group would have been jailed for such an 'offense.' For Freshlyground, that's also meant that they can't play any gigs in Zimbabwe now, for obvious reasons. Luckily, the band is undeterred. As singer Zolani Mahola says in the article, Zimbabwean fans have been supportive of the band and the song's message:
"Somebody has said something for them," she said. "We have to be able to speak. You have to be able to have a voice."
Enjoy the video above and if you wanna support the band too, you can buy the single at their website.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Chicago blues mini-tour

It'd be kinda foolish to show up in Chicago and NOT take in any music, right? I was lucky enough to be there on Labor Day weekend to catch the Jazz Festival featuring Ahmad Jamal (celebrating his 80th b-day) and a grand home-coming from Henry Threadgill with his latest combo, Zooid, not to mention Ramsey Lewis being interviewed about his career by Chicago Tribune's Howard Reich (a glorious jazz nut himself).

But I needed blues fix too. Part of that came from a pilgrimage to Chess Records, now a museum called (appropriately enough) Blues Heaven. Like Sun Studio in Memphis, you can see the control room and equipment along with photos of its classic inhabitants (Muddy, Wolf, Etta, Sonny Boy and so many more), especially one of the 20th century's greatest songwriters, bassist/arranger/producer Willie Dixon, who's honored all over the place there. For the tour, you get to sit in the studio and watch an hour-long history of the label, including interviews with Muddy and an English admirer named Mick. And that's not even mentioning the memorabilia displays, the huge banners outside (see above) or the iron gate with silhouette figures of Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Albert King. And of course a gift shop, where we loaded up on T-shirts and fridge magnets. You really felt honored to be there and to witness where some wonderful musical history took place. Not only that but the place is also a foundation that "assist(s) in documentation and promotion of the Blues, but to also support Blues artists and the business of music."

But seeing blues history ain't the same without seeing some blues itself, dig? Buddy Guy's is probably the most obvious place to go so as novices, we did though we were advised by fans at the club that we needed to go elsewhere to hear 'real blues.' Regardless, the place is decked out with wonderful photos along the back wall and nice memorabilia from Buddy himself. We saw a good acoustic set from Jimmy Johnson (early sets are free) and then came back to see a good electric set from Quintus McCormick (pictured here, shortly before he roamed among the crowd, much like Buddy does).

Curious about what else there was out there, we also headed to Kingston Mines another night and I'm glad we did. Calling itself 'Chicago's oldest and largest real blues club,' in the Lincoln Park section of town, they offer quite a deal- two competing stages where one act plays and when they're done, another act starts in another room, all for a $12 cover. Even better, if you show up on a Sunday night and go to the B.L.U.E.S. club down the street, you also get free admission to Kingston Mines also. A word of warning though- they have good soul food at KM but be prepared to wait a while for it. The night we were there, we caught a good singer/guitarist named Joanna Connor in the first room and R&B roof-raisers Big James & the Chicago Playboys in the other room. The owner was a real no-nonsense big dude who laid down some rules for the packed crowd before the music started and assured us all that it was no newspaper misprint, that the bands were indeed going to play until 5AM (and that last call was just before that when Chi-town goes dry for several hours).

As if that wasn't enough, one more stop was needed for a real blues tour, taking me to a place simply and appropriately called Blue Chicago, again manned by an MC/owner that no sane person would want to mess around with (you can see him on the intro film of the webpage). It was small, cramped and no-frill, which is exactly what you'd hope a blues club would be. It was a decent enough joint though with a cool bouncer and bartender, plus tourists other than myself from other parts of the States, plus Australia and Japan and even some locals. The night started out with a solid four-piece band called the Troublemakers with two singer/guitarists who traded off songs well. It turns out that they were just the warm-up. The main attraction was a blues mama called Grana Louise. She was a great belter and had some nice salty talk to rev up the crowd. She definitely deserves some gigs at out-of-state blues festivals.

Even with all of that, I still missed the other blues clubs like Lee's Unleaded, Checkerboard Lounge and Rosa Lounge (one of the 'real blues clubs,' I'm told) but it was a start. And it was good enough to make me wanna go back and check out the rest too.

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