Monday, December 18, 2006

Song of the Week: Johnny B. Goode - Peter Tosh

Peter Tosh was a member of the Wailers along with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer until he left after Chris Blackwell refused to give him a solo album in 1974. The bad-tempered Tosh, always one for wordplay, dubbed Chris Blackwell Chris Whiteworst. He also referred to the Jamaican government as the crime ministers who shit in the house of represent a thieves (he didn't vote so he wasn't calling himself a thief). Tosh was far more revolutionary in his lyrics than Marley. While Marley is remembered for his song "One Love," Tosh angrily refused to consider peace until there was justice. Tosh was notorious for his short fuse and it had only gotten worse after a tragic car accident in which his girlfriend died and he fractured his skull. He bitterly complained that he could not reach the levels of success that Marley did because Marley was half-white and more marketable. Tosh once threatened violence and wrath against Marley because he found out he was seeing a white woman. When Marley entered the room, Tosh greeted him amiably as if nothing was amiss. When Marley heard of the incident he laughed and said, "Peter? fussin? You don't seh!" Although it is conceivable that Tosh was wary of fighting the dread-locked superstar people called "Tuff Gong" for his toughness and surprising strength, it is also possible that Marley's cool was just the thing for Tosh's fire. Peter Tosh continued to live in Marley's shadow after Marley died in 1981. He did earn a reggae grammy and enjoy great success in South Africa. He was outspoken about his beliefs and often received the blunt end of Jamaican justice. In fact, in 1978 he was beaten senseless and left for dead in a prison cell for singing a song that violated Jamaica's anti-profanity laws. On September 11, 1987 Tosh was shot dead in his home in what the police called a robbery. No goods were taken, however, and only one of the three men responsible was arrested. Tosh was probably cantankerous right down to the end.
Johnny B. Goode is a cover of the famous Chuck Berry classic with a few minor changes. Tosh didn't like to do covers but was persuaded to do so and relunctantly agreed. I'm glad he did.

Deep down in Jamaica close to Mandeville
Back up in the woods on top of a hill
There stood an old hut made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B Goode
He never learned to read and a write so well
But he could play his guitar like ringing a bell yell

I say go (go johnny) Johnny be good tonight, yea
I said go (go johnny) johnny be good

He used to carry his guitar in a gunny sack
Sitting in a tree in the railroad track
Old engineer in the train sitting in the shade
Strummin' with the rhythm that them drivers made
People passing by would stop and say
Oh my oh my how what the boy can play


Mama said son you gotta be a man
You gotta be the leader of a reggae band
People coming in from miles around
To hear you play until the sun goes down
Boy someday your name will be in the lights
Saying Johnny B Goode tonight

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


He considered himself something of a philosopher. He walked as he imagined philosophers walked, slowly, elbow resting on arm and chin resting on fist with his brow furrowed in contemplation. Occasionally he would carry a thick tome under his arm. This book was usually in Greek, a language he had once learned but had since forgotten. He could still sound out the words, but their sound rang empty and meaningless in his ears. When he had the book, he would sit on a large rock that sat on a prominent corner of the village, across from the Église de la Croix Sainte. On this rock he would open his book and begin reading aloud, pausing once and a while to gaze at the heavens as if finally understanding some minute detail of existence. He did not care so much about learning from the books, as he did about the warm sun on his skin and the pretty women walking by.
Usually, however, he would sit at a prominent place on the patio of Hôtel Méditerranéen and ponder existence aloud, over a pint of Heineken. He never brought his Greek books there, as the owner of the hotel was Greek and might begin questioning him about the books' contents. Sometimes he philosophized in French, sometimes in Kirundi, sometimes in his limited Arabic, and sometimes in broken English. His philosophy consisted of simple metaphors and homilies, and the occasional insight gained from a book read long ago.
His face radiated a youthful innocence and naivite that belied his old age. His hair was peppered with grey, and deep laugh wrinkles splayed from the corners of his eyes. These brown eyes danced with life and vigour, even when he furrowed his brow in attempt to brood darkly. His skin was light brown and his face revealed some of his Arabic ancestry. His black mother had been a beautiful city woman of loose morals, notorious for her trysts with various mazungus and rich foreigners. She had actually fallen in love with an Arabic businessman who hadn't reciprocated. Still, the Arab had sponsored his illegitimate child through a decent education in Paris.
Baybars al-Hamid Ntwari was his name, although very few people knew or remembered this. Most of his fellow villagers affectionately called him the old bighead. Many people would come to him for amusement and a few earnest country folk genuinely valued his advice.
"Monsieur, my neighbour plays loud music, what can I do to make it stop?" asked one middle-aged villager.
"Mmmm," he responded, and then nodded his head as he sat deep in thought, "A neighbour is like an empty vase and the things you say to them should be the flowers which make this vase functional."
"What of the loud music?"
"Music is like an emotion which cannot be defined."
"But what should I do to stop this loud music?"
"Eat with him, food is a healing balm."
"And he will stop his music?"
"Ask not if the music will stop, but if you are willing to sacrifice flowers and healing balm for the volume of that which cannot be defined."
"Aaaah, I see."
One day, a dark day like no other, a glowering youth sat down in front of him, his fists on the table and his tense body leaning forward in an intimidating posture. Baybars had heard rumours of troubles around town, but, as usual, he had ignored them. He had heard many rumours during his time, and only a few had come to fruition. Even then, he had survived without trouble: "Why are you here old man?"
"Why is anyone here?"
The youth's glower became fiercer, "Why are you, an Arab, here, in Africa?"
"The earth remains impartial about the labels we give it, though we stain it red with our blood, it remains unmoved."
"The soil of Africa is black like its people."
"If the colour of the soil determined the distribution of peoples various skin tones, then Europe would have a chalky white soil," Baybars spoke softly, in the sing-song voice he used for his philosophizing, "this soil is red and brown and yet I see no red men."
"I want to extinguish all of the foreigners."
The old man, usually jovial, became serious, "May I tell you a story?"
"A story?" the youth asked incredulously, "a story?"
"Yes, a story."
"You try my patience, old bighead," the youth glared malevolently at the old man.
"Long ago in ancient Greece," he began, for whenever he told a parable it was set in an often anachronistic ancient Greece, "there was a farmer who was renowned for his olives."
"I hate olives and mazungus except for Karl Marx," the youth observed coldly.
"When you get past the bitter flesh, the core of Marx is an inedible pit," sang Baybars softly.
"I shall continue," Baybars put up his hand calmly, in a quieting motion. The youth remained strangely silent, although he shook his head and sniffed derisively, "This farmer was known across the land for the quality of his olives and the thick honey-brown olive oil he created. Men travelled from the furthest reaches of the country to buy his wondrous olives and his olive oil. Year after year, his olive crop was without equal and each year he prospered. The man was exceedingly proud of his olives because he had been born a gypsy and suffered much persecution as a young man. He was angry with all of the people who had treated him unjustly. He was particularly angry with the Jews, however, as two men who happened to be Jews had been particularly unkind to him. A Jewish baker had beaten him when he had made amorous advances towards his daughter, and, after he had bought his land, a Jewish moneylender had charged him exhorbitant interest rates that kept him in debt for many years. Yes, the man was proud of where he came from and proud of where he felt he was going. One year, however, his olives inexplicably became bitter, dry and almost inedible while his olive oil became a sickly pale yellow. He was confused, having no idea how his olives had failed to grow as well as usual. He had tended them with as much care as usual and yet they could not even fetch a tenth of their former price. Angry and frustrated, he mulled over his dilemma until he came up with the solution."
"You're trying my patience, what was the solution?"
"The Jews. The Jews had given him the evil eye and caused his olive crop to fail."
"What is the evil eye?" the youth growled.
"An envious eye that casts a curse upon the one who is looked at."
"I have no time for your story," the youth's eyes smouldered with impatient anger.
"Very well," Baybars responded.
"Don't you realize you're on trial, old man?" the youth stuck a long finger in the old man's face.
"What crime have I committed?" Baybars asked quietly.
"You have stolen land, raped our women, murdered our countrymen, and oppressed our people."
"I am happy that I at least have a trial. You are my judge?"
"When did I do these things?" Baybars asked, looking at the young man intently.
"Your people, your father have done these things."
"You knew my father?" Baybars smiled in a patronizing manner.
The youth's eyes flashed with anger as he reached behind himself and thrust a machete dangerously close to Baybars' face. Baybars reflexively turned his head away and put his hands above his head, "Don't talk down to me, old man!" the youth nicked Baybars' face neatly with the machete, a tiny red fleck of blood appeared.
Baybars recomposed himself with astounding speed, "Did you know my father?"
"No, but I know what he did," the youth hunkered menacingly over the table where Baybars sat.
"You know he invested in coffee?"
"From stolen land, thereby condoning the colonial system!"
"Land is like the wind, who can own it?" the red fleck of blood had formed into a tiny rivulet, which Baybars wiped away with his hand.
"If the mazungu, Tutsi cockroaches, and Arab fools could sell the wind, they would. Your father propped up the colonial system through his investment and you profited from it!" the youth spat.
"The rat criticizes the mouse for eating garbage."
"Say what you mean, old bighead!" the youth knocked Baybars' Heineken from the table, and it clattered across the stone patio before the neck snapped as it hit the yellow concrete wall.
"And your father, Hameza, is he not a foreman and does he not take wages from the coffee plantation?"
The youth leaned forward, his slick face inches from Baybars, "My father uses the corrupt system to his benefit whereas your father was part of the problem."
"The vulture does not seek out its brethren before it feasts on a carcass."
"In plain terms, old bighead!"
"And your father," Baybars said calmly, "he distributed his wages equally to the rightful owners of this land?"
"He was the rightful owner!" the youth reared backwards and swatted his machete through the air aggressively.
'Of all the land?"
"Of all of our land."
"So, the Tutsi, the mazungu and my father stole your father's land?"
Your father owns all of Burundi's land?"
"All Hutus own Burundi, we were here first."
"This is a law?"
"This is the truth."
"And how am I guilty?"
"You are guilty of benefiting from the profits of stolen land."
"My father's coffee investments mean my own guilt?" Baybars queried.
"So, I must repay the profits?"
"That," the youth snarled, "would be just the beginning."
"My father lost money in that investment, does this mean that you pay me?"
"Fool!" The youth cuffed Baybars across the top of his head. The movement was quick and violent but only connected weakly with the old man's pate.
Baybars rubbed his head gingerly, more for the benefit of the youth than for himself, "what of the accusation of rape?"
"Your father raped a Hutu woman and you are the bastard product," the youth eyed Baybars contemtuously, "I know your story."
"The songbird does not sing the song of the jackal," sang Baybars softly.
"Enough with your proverbs, old bighead!"
"Tell me something, young man," Baybars said in an even tone, "do rape victims customarily allow their rapists to name their child?"
The youth looked unsure of himself for a moment and then quickly collected himself as if remembering something he had been told, "Any pairing of an outsider with a Hutu is the equivalent of a rape!"
"What of your grandmother?"
"What of her?"
"She is Tutsi."
"You lie!" the youth, furious, swung his machete down into the table, where the metal cleaved into the wood and vibrated for several seconds. There was obviously something to Baybar's claim.
"What of the accusation of murder?" Baybars queried.
"You have supported a government that has endorsed genocide against the Hutu people!"
"Whom did I support?"
"Micombero and all of the Tutsi pigs!" the youth spat.
"In which election did I vote for Micombero?" Baybars asked.
"There was no election! He stole power like all cockroaches do."
"Then how did I support him?"
"You are a part of the system of foreigners that oppresses the Hutu majority!"
"Ah, the fourth charge," Baybars noted, "I oppressed my mother and her people. Why would I oppress my own mother?"
"Some Hutu are part of the problem. Your mother was part of the problem."
"Yes, a few extremists create problems for everyone."
If the youth comprehended Baybar's barb, it wasn't apparent on his face, "I have no more time for words with you. You are beneath me."
"What is your verdict, young judge?" Baybars asked respectfully.
"You are guilty!"
"And what of my sentence?"
"Death!" the youth roared.
"May I have one final request?"
"What is it?" the youth snapped.
"May I finish my story?"
The youth hesitated, the nervous anticipation of the kill was apparent in the way his chest heaved with short breaths, "Fine."
"The farmer believed that his olive crop had failed because of the evil eye the Jews had given him. He felt that if he did not stop the source of this evil eye, his body would shrivel away to nothingness."
"That's stupid."
"That is what he believed. Now that he had located the source of his failure, he pondered how he would repair it. He finally came to a rather crude solution: he incited a mob which burned down the homes of the Jewish families in their village. This satisfied his anger and he retired to his home as bitter, shrivelled, and dry as his olives."
"This is it?" the youth scoffed, "I don't get it."
He looked into the youth's bloodshot eyes, and what he saw was emptiness, "You are the man."
Baybars closed his eyes as he felt the metal bite into his skin repeatedly. He looked up at the sun shining through the branches of a Eucalyptus tree and he smiled despite the pain as he felt the life drain from his body.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Song of the Week: Ndakuvara - Oliver Mtukudzi

Zimbabwean artists Oliver Mtukudzi, also known affectionately as Tuku, has a powerful soulful voice which brims with emotion. Most of his songs focus on the struggle of the average person, although fans sometimes claim that his music has veiled criticisms of the government. Unlike his more politically active compatriot, Thomas Mapfumo, Mtukudzi has chosen to remain publically silent on political issues. This song too, if one took it as a stretched metaphor, could possibly be a criticism of Mugabe . . . or just a song about an ox. Whatever the case is, I absolutely love this song and, for me, it packs a powerful emotional punch. Disappointment with the choices of a loved one is a universal theme, I guess.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Song of the Week: Taylor by Jack Johnson

From Jack Johnson's second album, On and On, it's "Taylor." I had no idea, the first few times I listened to this song that it was about a young prostitute. I think this is because Johnson avoids the modern tendency towards blatant sexualization. The inclusion of Ben Stiller is funny, but probably leads a lot of people away from the actual message of the song.


They say Taylor was a good girl
never one to be late,
complain, express ideas in her brain
Working on the night shift
passing out the tickets
you're gonna have to pay her
if you want to park here.
Well, mommy's little dancer has
quite a little secret:
working on the streets now
never gonna keep it.
It's quite an imposition
And now she's only wishin'
That she would have listened to the words they said, poor Taylor.

Well she just wanders around
unaffected by the winter winds, yeah
and she'll pretend that,
well, she's somewhere else
so far and clear, about 2,000 miles from here.

Peter Patrick pitter patters on the window
but Sunny's silhouette won't let him in
and poor old Pete's got nothin 'cause he's been fallin',
but somehow Sunny knows just where he's been.
He thinks that singin' on a Sunday's gunna save his soul,
now that Saturday's gone
Well sometimes he thinks that he's on his way
but I can see that his brake lights are on

And he just wanders around unaffected by
the winter winds, yeah
and he'll pretend that,
well, he's somewhere else
so far and clear
about 2,000 miles from here.

Such a tough enchilada
filled up with nada
givin' what she got to give to get a dollar bill
she used to be a limber chick
time's a been tickin'
now she's finger lickin to the man
with the money in his pockets
flyin in his rocket
only stoppin by on his way to a better world
if Taylor finds a better world
Taylor's gunna run away

Who deh?