Monday, October 26, 2009

worst humanitarian crisis in the world

According to, 1 000 people die every day in the Congo. They call this the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. It gets much less press than the Sudan, for instance, where the death rate is lower. Why the imbalance? The violence in the Congo is over control of the mineral, coltan. Coltan is essential for making lap-tops and cell-phones. The main-stream media just aren't going to get excited about a story that calls middle-class life in the G-8 countries into question in this way or other ways. What to do?

Monday, September 28, 2009

lack of kindred spirits?

My stepdaughter is in fourth grade at the public school in our area. My wife and I are increasingly negative about the school and the school system. In line with, for example, John Taylor Gatto (Dumbing us Down, Weapons of Mass Instruction), bell hoooks (Teaching to Transgress, Teaching Community), and Parker Palmer (The Courage to Teach), we see the public education system as fostering a lot more obedience, conformity, indoctrination, alienation, and selfishness than creativity, bravery, critical thought, knowledge, emotional wisdom, and ethics. The principal and the teachers seem to do a lot of work towards just getting students to do what they're told, memorize things, stay put, etc.They read stupid, apolitical books instead of great literature and don't discuss anything serious. They give top math students, like my stepdaughter, a greater quantity of the same busywork as everyone else, rather than actually paying attention to the special needs and gifts every kid has. We wrote twice to her teacher last year about the insulting homework and how it was killing her interest in learning; the letters were completely ignored. All of this is geared towards making children into the workers that managers want so that companies can make more money or so that NPOs and government can keep serving the interests of the privileged. 

This year, her teacher is opposed to recess, but sends the kids out because she has to. If it's someone's birthday, it's celebrated during recess so as not to take time away from lessons. I don't know what her damage is; she's been out of teacher's college only two years. What do they teach? I thought it was pretty well known that the younger you are, the more your cognitive development depends on exercise - including games, sports, musicking, and dancing. How can she see being locked inside a classroom sitting at torture devices (also know as "chairs") while having their minds numbed without breaks a good thing?

But she went to U of M. U of M is an old-boys' club in a lot of ways. It's not too surprising, really, that the teachers' training is, too.

So, my wife and I have started asking parents if they see things like this at all. It's been very disheartening. So far, no one has defended the public education system. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, many parents (and teachers) wish that the schools were teaching more of those skills that make capitalism go. They're like this either out of fear of poverty or because they really don't understand about how typical public schools deaden the spirit. These are the people who think that the single hour of music per week that my stepdaughter gets in school is fine or too much. It would be harder to disagree with them if the music program was any good. A lot of adults have deadened spirits, clearly - not that we didn't already know.

A large number of people say that they agree with much of what my wife and I talk about. However, they have an "oh, well, we're stuck with this, so what's the point?" attitude. I sympathize; I feel powerless often, myself. Still, you can try. And we know from history that grassroots activism can be very effective.

These two groups of people (and the ones who think the system is great) are the ones who get very excited about standardized tests and are dead-serious about the need to do well on them. In Michigan, starting in third grade, every kid does a standardized test called the MEAP (I don't remember what it stands for). The higher a given school's average on this test, the more money it gets from the state. Talk about helping those who need it the least! No one is protesting this; everyone is just playing the game so we'll get the funding. This seems to be the only option to most people. How can people stand up for this as principals and teachers? It's despicable.

My wife and I don't know what to do, either. We can't get into the charter school because we're too low on the waiting-list. We can't afford private school. We can't home-school because we're both full-time students, ourselves. We can't get many other school parents to talk with us. I've met one set of parents at our school who agrees with us. Maybe we can talk more with them.

For now, we're worried about our stepdaughter. My very brilliant and mature wife made it through public school and into college only by the skin of her teeth because so many teachers were out to put some people (including her) down. Straight up class-prejudice. Our stepdaughter is reading way above her grade level, but didn't get a high score on her third grade report under discussions of readings. It's probably beneath her. Who's looking out for her? Who's looking out for the discouragement girls receive to stay in math, starting in junior high? Who's looking out for all the black and latina/o kids who face the subtle operations of racism every single day? Who's standing against the corrupt school funding structure?

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Corporate-Controlled Media

Today’s New York Times article, “Full of Doubts, U.S. Shoppers Cut Spending,” for me, pretty much confirms that the mainstream media are unwittingly in the pocket of big business. In stating in the first sentence that citizens’ decisions to save money since the market crash will kill any chances of market recovery without giving any alternative perspectives on goals in responses to the crash, they make it very difficult for a reader to question the assumption that keeping the rate of increase of the GDP high is an unqualified positive.

Well, guess what! I’ve got another perspective; it’s not. Increasing equity and reducing affluence is going to require a smaller market. Environmental sustainability is going to require a smaller market. Most importantly this is okay.

The American middle classes are among the wealthiest people in the world, materially. They don’t need all that stuff. Americans in general work crazy long hours. If they bought less stuff, they wouldn’t need to work as much.

The top-down model of prosperity is bullshit. It doesn’t work. Check out the widening gap between rich and poor in America during this era of increasing GDP. Check out the spectacular failures of the World Bank’s structural adjustment programs. We need to disenfranchise the world’s billionaires and start respecting everyone’s right to shelter, food, and health.

If the American middle classes were working less, they’d be better able to form strong relationships (check out Take Back Your Time edited by de Graaf, if you don’t believe me). With those relationships in place, they’d be able to count on others for help. They’d be able to share stuff and skills. They’d be happier with the shorter work hours and the less stuff because relationships are more important.

Let’s start making the minimum wage $20 per hour. Let’s shorten the work-week (that will create jobs because less work will be done per individual). Let’s start making only high quality stuff that will last (that will create jobs because individual workers will produce fewer units per hour). Then, the poor would finally have just enough and finally be healthy.

To reiterate, health, sustainability, and happiness do not depend on an ever-rising GDP. Under the current conditions of capitalism, wealth does not trickle down nearly as much as it accumulates in one place. We need to end affluence and end poverty. These are equally important goals. The huge GDP is mostly making affluence and not ending poverty because the wealth is being hoarded. This is made possible by high corporate power over politicians.

AAAAA! I’m angry about the bail-out. I’m angry about poverty and affluence. I’m angry about greed. I’m angry about neoliberal and neoclassical economics. I’m angry about scientific capitalism. If you look at history and what’s actually going on in the world, it becomes obvious that market liberalization is not a good thing. The buy-out will protect a lot more affluence than it will save jobs. Saving jobs can be done in ways that actually reduce the gap between rich and poor. AAAAA!

Friday, September 26, 2008

work and the proposed Wall Street bail-out

Work is something I spend a lot of time thinking about - I hope critically. The bail-out has got me thinking more concretely about policy initiatives. I don't have formal training in policy; professionally, I'm a linguistic anthropologist who studies poetry and music. However, I am in a very good union and I learn a lot from knowing other activists in this and other groups.

I don't want there to be a bail-out for the richest people in the world, protecting their affluence. I don't want to protect affluence, at all. In fact, I'd like to end it. (I only know of one organization that has the guts to go better than campaigns to end poverty with a campaign to end affluence:

I also question the viability and desirability of credit being as available as it has for some time now. This much credit has encouraged over-consumption (which means pollution) and landed a lot of people in unmanageable debt situations.

What I support is helping low-income people get proper food, housing, education, and health care: sounds like social equity! I support valuing the right to health, shelter, food, and expression above the right to private property. I'm for voluntary simplicity among the middle and upper classes, and equity for all. So, let's start buying and producing less stuff, let's produce it with more care so it lasts longer, and let's start sharing work, money, and leisure equally.

Here's a policy suggestion: what if we shorten the work-week to 30-hours, prohibit mandatory over-time, increase minimum paid vacations and parental leave, generously subsidize worker-co-ops and small, organic farms, stop subsidizing petroleum, pro-rate wages to number of dependents and health expenses, heavily tax high incomes and profits, and raise minimum wage to at least $20/hour?

The core of my idea is the work-week, minimum wage, and vacation stuff. All the rest is support for that because those 3 on their on could be seriously abused. It could crush small businesses. It could lead to lay-offs and more mandatory over-time. It would do little to reduce affluence at the very top.

Subsidizing worker co-ops and would help small businesses. The stuff about over-time and leave would reduce lay-offs and create jobs. Petroleum subsidies make it less feasible to buy local. Taxing high profits and incomes will put a dent in affluence.

Well, that's the idea, anyway. Other people with expertise in policy may be able to improve this a lot. I'm looking forward to that. For now, maybe thinking of having every Friday off will inspire effective activism!

Friday, September 05, 2008

not how you thought things worked: short short fiction

It is well known that domestic house cats are nocturnal. Actually, most mammals are nocturnal, even if you factor out bats, which are most species of mammal. As it turns out, however, there is one house cat who is diurnal; his name, as far as people know, is Chick: Chick the cat. He is diurnal - the only diurnal house cat.

To be sure, this is weird, but it's merely epiphenomenal to the truly interesting thing about Chick. While it appears as though he has an amazingly "in tune" schedule of going to sleep when the sun goes down, and waking up when it rises, believe it or not, it's the other way around. The sun goes down when chick goes to sleep and it rises when Chick wakes up. Yeah. I'm serious. No, no joke. Scary, huh?

For real - the sun is being controlled by a cat. This puts lots of things in a very different light. Your place in the grand scheme of things? The solidity of a cycle you thought you could trust? How long has this been going on?

Okay, I don't know how long this has been going on, but my first question was, "how did it work before Chick was born?" Before Chick was born, a different cat - one named Belle - in a little town near Halifax controlled the sun. Apparently randomly, at the instant that the diurnal cat dies, another kitten born at precisely the same moment somewhere becomes the torch bearer. That's it, really. That's all I know. Honestly, I try not to think about it.

Chick is a nice, friendly cat. I understand Belle was not. I feed Chick when his owners are on vacation - if you can call them owners. Given that their "pet" controls the sun, the whole relationship has taken on a different tenor, for me. Maybe he has a secret cat name that means something amazing to other cats. I bet even the regular cat names are pretty fascinating.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Public Libraries

My town's public libraries are so great that I am inspired to write
about them, today. There are 5 branches and the population is 100,000
people; that's pretty good. The catalog usually has the book I?m
looking for, unless it's an academic book. However, there are quite a
few good academic books, as well. There are plenty of DVDs including
some great documentaries and independent films.

The book collection includes lots of subversive fiction and
non-fiction as well as crazy bestsellers and "fun reads." It includes
new publications and older classics. Even the children?s section is
overseen by people who obviously know and love literature and democracy.

The library has a fast and functional delivery and holds service. Late
fines are reasonable and you can renew things over and over, if
there's no hold. There are computer terminals for use by anyone with a
library card. Two of the branches are in beautiful, humane buildings.

And it's all free: helping people get informed and liberated. Hurray
for our local government funding the public libraries so well!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

I started a new blog

It's called Ground Up. I'll probably put the same posts on both blogs, but it looks like the other one will get more comments. I only started it because it comes with the free membership to The Guerilla News Network. You can go to it here - - or via the link on the right.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

changing work

Some things I dislike about many jobs:
- hierarchy
- sitting still most of the day
- windows that don't open
- selling labor to managers/owerners
- throwing ethics out the window as soon as you get to work
- bad labor unions
- exploitative bosses
- extreme specialization
- using computers and phones so much
- competition with co-workers
- classism and sexism
- under-payment
- lack of benefits
- long work-weeks
- long commutes in cars
- away from friends and family

What I'd like to see more of:
- worker co-ops
- healthy buildings
- diversification of duties
- unions and bosses who are trying to increase equity at work, not get as much as possible for themselves
- active listening and consensus-building at work
- benefits for every worker
- living wages for all full time workers
- short commutes on bikes or feet
- full time reducing from 40 to 25 hours
- friends and family as co-workers, or at least "on site"

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

from the ground up

We imagine an issue as something we can separate out, with a beginning and ending: issues like child care, water pollution, gay rights, money's influence in politics, and so on. But actually, there are no issues, distinct and finite. There are only entry points into the network of life.
- Lappe & Perkins. 2004. You Have the Power, p.160.

The network: it's more than the network of life. It's the network of the universe and particle physics. It's the network of sociality. It's the network of sympathy. It's the network of history. It's the network of food, waste, and death.

Since I must enter and I must enter somewhere and some time, choosing something and starting it as soon as possible is the right decision. I don't know what the next step will be. I try not to get hung up on doing it right or the way someone else (such as Frances Moore Lappe) does it.

Derek Jensen says he can't/won't advise people what to do, because every great action is only great/right in chronotopic context; it won't work in another place and time, without appropriate adjustment for place and time (from an issue of Ascent magazine). This seems about right.

Just doing something can be a big deal for me and my sense of life and my place in it. It can be a big deal for others' senses of life and their place in it. It can be a big deal for how whole systems function. No matter what, it's all part of big systems' functioning.

Not doing my something feels stultifying, it's frustrating, it's deadening, it's unethical. Some things I sometimes do:
  • write a letter
  • have a pot-luck
  • ride a bike
  • turn off the air conditioning
  • display a political pin or sticker
  • boycott mainstream media
  • get outside
  • buy local
  • meet my neighbours
  • listen
  • meditate
  • speak from experience
  • eat fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains
  • participate in my labour union
  • call out prejudice

Thursday, July 05, 2007

a creative, non-fiction activist writing

I like this. I first encountered it about a month ago in Best American Non-required Reading, 2005, edited by Dave Eggers.

Manifesto: A press release from PRKA
By George Saunders

Last Thursday, my organization, People Reluctant To Kill for an Abstraction, orchestrated an overwhelming show of force around the globe.

At precisely 9 in the morning, working with focus and stealth, our entire membership succeeded in simultaneously beheading no one. At 10, Phase II began, during which our entire membership did not force a single man to suck another man's penis. Also, none of us blew himself/herself up in a crowded public place. No civilians were literally turned inside out via our powerful explosives. In addition, at 11, in Phase III, zero (0) planes were flown into buildings.

During Phase IV, just after lunch, we were able to avoid bulldozing a single home. Furthermore, we set, on roads in every city, in every nation in the world, a total of zero (0) roadside bombs which, not being there, did not subsequently explode, killing/maiming a total of nobody. No bombs were dropped, during the lazy afternoon hours, on crowded civilian neighborhoods, from which, it was observed, no post-bomb momentary silences were then heard. These silences were, in all cases, followed by no unimaginable, grief-stricken bellows of rage, and/or frantic imprecations to a deity. No sleeping baby was awakened from an afternoon nap by the sudden collapse and/or bursting into flame of his/her domicile during Phase IV.

In the late afternoon (Phase V), our membership focused on using zero (0) trained dogs to bite/terrorize naked prisoners. In addition, no stun guns, rubber batons, rubber bullets, tear gas, or bullets were used, by our membership, on any individual, anywhere in the world. No one was forced to don a hood. No teeth were pulled in darkened rooms. No drills were used on human flesh, nor were whips or flames. No one was reduced to hysterical tears via a series of blows to the head or body, by us. Our membership, while casting no racial or ethnic aspersions, skillfully continued not to rape, gang-rape, or sexually assault a single person. On the contrary, during this late-afternoon phase, many of our membership flirted happily and even consoled, in a nonsexual way, individuals to whom they were attracted, putting aside their sexual feelings out of a sudden welling of empathy.

As night fell, our membership harbored no secret feelings of rage or, if they did, meditated, or discussed these feelings with a friend until such time as the feelings abated, or were understood to be symptomatic of some deeper sadness. It should be noted that, in addition to the above-listed and planned activities completed by our members, a number of unplanned activities were completed by part-time members, or even nonmembers.

In London, a bitter homophobic grandfather whose grocery bag broke open gave a loaf of very nice bread to a balding gay man who stopped to help him. A stooped toothless woman in Tokyo pounded her head with her hands, tired beyond belief of her lifelong feelings of anger and negativity, and silently prayed that her heart would somehow be opened before it was too late. In Syracuse, New York, holding the broken body of his kitten, a man felt a sudden kinship for all small things.

Even declared nonmembers, it would appear, responded to our efforts. In Chitral, Pakistan, for example, a recent al-Qaida recruit remembered the way an elderly American tourist once made an encouraging remark about his English, and how, as she made the remark, she touched his arm, like a mother. In Gaza, an Israeli soldier and a young Palestinian, just before averting their eyes and muttering insults in their respective languages, exchanged a brief look of mutual shame.

Who are we? A word about our membership. Since the world began, we have gone about our work quietly, resisting the urge to generalize, valuing the individual over the group, the actual over the conceptual, the inherent sweetness of the present moment over the theoretically peaceful future to be obtained via murder. Many of us have trouble sleeping and lie awake at night, worrying about something catastrophic befalling someone we love. We rise in the morning with no plans to convert anyone via beating, humiliation, or invasion. To tell the truth, we are tired. We work. We would just like some peace and quiet. When wrong, we think about it awhile, then apologize. We stand under awnings during urban thunderstorms, moved to thoughtfulness by the troubled, umbrella-tinged faces rushing by. In moments of crisis, we pat one another awkwardly on the back, mumbling shy truisms. Rushing to an appointment, remembering a friend who has passed away, our eyes well with tears and we think: Well, my God, he could be a pain, but still I'm lucky to have known him.

This is PRKA. To those who would oppose us, I would simply say: We are many. We are worldwide. We, in fact, outnumber you. Though you are louder, though you create a momentary ripple on the water of life, we will endure, and prevail.

Join us.

Resistance is futile.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

good news

The Bangou Slavery Memorial has raised the money it needed. Yay!

Sunday, January 28, 2007

alternative "development" projects

Not too far from the town of Bangangte, there is a small village called Bangou. A friend of mine is a Peace Corps Volunteer there. She has a new project to help the townspeople fund and construct a Memorial of the Atlantic Slave Trade. She tells me that many residents of Bangou feel terrible remorse for their ancestors who sold Africans into a slave trade which was far worse than they imagined, and for the Africans who were sold, suffered, and died as slaves. They also are afraid that the spirits of these former slaves are angry and vengeful. The memorial will be a way to heal all these wounds. If you're interested in contributing money, or just learning more, click on the phrase "Bangou Slave Memorial" on the left side of this blog. [This link has been removed.]

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Well, plans have a way of changing, and mine are no exception. I left Cameroon early and am now taking it easy in Scarborough. Some of you know I was tentatively planning another tropical expedition unrelated to my research for early this year, but now I don't expect to leave the continent of North America any time soon. When I'll be relocating to Ann Arbor is still unknown, but I expect it will be between May and September 2007.

What will become of this blog? I don't know. Eventually, I will get around to posting more photos of Bangangte here - that's for certain. I might keep it as a regularly updated blog concerning whatever happens to be going on with me: a way to disseminate news. That would require changing some of the blog settings, which is not a big deal. So, we'll see. Thanks for reading so far. (Yes, this photo was taken in Bangangte.)

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

many facets

A lot of anthropologists who work in former colonies encounter a great deal of suspicion and disapproval in the field. The locals, of course, had decades of oppression, dishonesty, and betrayal at the hands of white people with questions, tape recorders, and clip-boards; one can understand being wary today. I, however, have not encountered much of that. Most people are dying to participate in my study, give their opinion etc. Presumably, though, there are people who don't feel good about me doing a study in Bangangté, but who just stay quiet or avoid me. There is one guy who comes into the coffee shop regularly, who is not like this; he lets everyone know exactly what's on his mind. When he's having a bad day, he more or less tries to find just the right way to bother everyone else there. With me, he blames me personally for the systematic exploitation of Africa by Europe and North America for the past several centuries, or he tells me all the reasons I'm a terrible anthropologist. In all honesty, the guy is clearly pretty unhappy; he hates Europe and he hates Africa; he has lots of big ideas about changing the world and making a living, but he's broke and unemployed. Other people think he's borderline insane.

Today, I saw him and asked him if he'd like to do one of my informal interviews. I wondered if he might just refuse or start making fun of me. Instead, he lit up like a Christmas tree - clearly thrilled to have been asked. Maybe I got him on the right day, maybe he's thirsty for someone to take him seriously, maybe both. He especially enjoyed telling me why he likes jazz (which he was exposed to during university); he sees it as importantly connected to the liberation of black people. I believe it was a satisfying exchange for both of us, and he was very appreciative of the cash gift I give to everyone who participates.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

further developments

What happened in the aftermath of three musicians quitting that group? The board members had a talk with me and explained their rationale for the rule: if loyalties are thinly divided, they fear that no one will take responsibility for anything. They also said that, since I'm just a visitor, the rule doesn't apply to me; I can do what I want, as far as they're concerned.

However, the musicians themselves said petty jealousy was the real explanation for this rule, and, furthermore, that it would be inappropriate (as in, socially weird, a faux pas)for me to both stay with the first group and join a new group. They said that it was my decision and that there would be no hard feelings regardless of which direction I take, but that I must choose between them. I objected in vain. I'm not going to leave the first group, but I haven't given up hope of getting to know the new group. Last night, on the spur of the moment, they invited me to perform with them, which I did. And, by coincidence, one of their dancers is a server at a restaurant I frequent.

Both the drumming and the dancing they displayed were fantastic - a significant cut above the average, it seemed to me (the musicians themselves don't mind telling me that they hold their own playing in the same high esteem). Most of them have been gigging musicians since the age of ten. They launched right in at break-neck tempo, eschewing the typical practice of slowly increasing speed as excitement builds among the assembly. Even to play maracas with these folks was both a thrill and an honour.

And what has happened for the original group in performance? They have some new people who, to my ear, are certainly not as good. Second - and surprisingly - one of the guys who supposedly quit returns for performances, but doesn't attend regular meetings! In other words, he's still breaking the rule, everyone seems to know it, but no action has been taken yet.

can't resist

Two or three months ago, I performed with an ensemble at an opening ceremony-of-sorts in Bangangte. Lots of townspeople were in attendance. What I didn't notice was that someone was videotaping the proceedings. Last week, as I walked into town in the morning, several of my friends stopped me to ask if I'd watched TV the night before. It turns out that exerpts from this opening ceremony had been broadcast on national television (a channel called "CANAL 2") to advertise the Medumba Cultural Festival which opened in Bangangte on July 8th. My maraca-playing had been featured and now people all over the country know there's a foreigner in Bangangte who can play "traditional" music. One of my friends in the Peace Corps says I'm becoming a Bangangte rock star.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

some drama

At these groups I go to, there are usually a handful of people who are what I call "vocational musicians" - mastered all the parts in the ensemble, familiar with several types of music, and play with a number of groups - and a large number of people who can play some of the instruments, but not all, and are poor soloists. (Actually, it's not rare for someone to able to play one and only one part.) Well, at one of my groups, there was a decision last week by "the board" that it was inappropriate for members to play music with more than one group. In this group, there are 4 vocational musicians; 3 of them (including the group's music director) decided to quit, taking it as an insult and an absurdity that multiple membership would be frowned upon.

From my perspective, this has pretty-much gutted the musicking potential of this group. I suspect that it will be possible for them to replace the members who quit, but also that it will be very difficult to find people that good who are willing to abandon other groups they may be associated with. I hope to be allowed to attend another group with these 3 who quit (aside from being inspirational players, they're super-sweet guys) and keep attending the first group's meetings. I'm curious to see what the first group will do about upcoming gigs.

It's not directly relevant to these developments, but I thought it might be interesting to say a few words about the gendering of music around here. I know of zero female vocational musicians. A good number of women can play background parts in their groups. I have never seen a woman take a solo on an instrument [since time of writing, I've seen one female drummer soloing]. Singing and dancing, unlike instrument-playing, seem to be equally open to both men and women. Whether men or women sing about different things, or in different styles, or at different times are questions I might be able to answer later after analysis of my data at home.

Saturday, May 13, 2006


My parents have almost finished a two-and-a-half-week visit here. We are having a great time. The two music groups I'm with regularly, and my landlord's family all created little ceremonies on three separate occasions. All three of us Canadians played instruments and danced, and my parents were given gifts - pottery, fancy bags, and clothing. My regular music teacher was amazed - even shocked - at the abilities of my musical family.

At one of the ceremonies, I was officially inducted as a member of the "orchestre" and was given the shirt we're supposed to wear at performances. I was also fined (about one dollar) for having missed a performance during my parents' visit.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

real work

I've started in doing the transcription of another musical event I recorded. The guy I'm working with is very forthcoming with in-depth explanations and background information on the Medumba poetry we're translating into French.

There are 2 singers this time, and it's interesting to hear people contrast and compare them. One is deemed too repetitive. My transcriber said, "it's okay to sing whatever crap comes to mind while performing at a funeral because all you need is a good groove. For a recording, you should sing something important - maybe a story." The other singer did improvise a few stories, so we find his sections less tedious. (Believe me, transcribing spontaneous language is no picnic.)

My transcriber also has some controversial views on other matters. He says that "the message" is the most important thing in a musical performance. My primary music teacher sometimes says the most important thing is "the sound," but sometimes he says it's "rhythm." (We can't assume he means the same thing by "rhythm" that someone with a B.Mus. does. And what's "the sound", anyway?)

In a classic field linguist's conundrum, my transcription of Medumba song is made more exciting by the fact that my transcriber has no front teeth. This means it's hard to distinguish between alveolars and postalveolars - a.k.a "t,d,s,z" and "sh,zh." This issue created a serious problem for students of North American languages early in the 20th century. While it turns out that many of these languages do have a staggering number of consonants, these pioneering linguists were often confused by the challenge of distinguishing between how the language was "supposed to" sound and how it sounded in the mouths of their aged and toothless informants.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


I decided to move, finally. I now have a two-bedroom apartment with indoor plumbing. Unfortunately, the water's no more reliable than the electricity, so I have to keep a couple of barrels of water saved in case nothing comes out of the taps. Both water and electricity in Cameroon were privatized (probably in the '80s). Disaster. A British firm does the water, and an American firm does the electricity.

Anyway, when I was staying with that family, I didn't have a decent place to work - transcribe recordings and stuff - when the need to do that arose. Also, now, I can get some quiet if I feel like it.

On Sunday, I participated in a music competition with one of the groups I'm associated with. I think everyone was satisfied with the proceedings, but I didn't see anything that looked like comparison or judging. I'll ask them tonight about how it all works.

Friday, January 13, 2006

living the dream

Different disciplines have different cliches or stereotypes about the major cultural areas. For example, one could get the impression that anthropologists think that the only thing Sub-Saharan Africans care about is how much an engaged man should pay his bride-to-be's family for the privilege of marrying their daughter. Ethnomusicology's cliche about the same region is that live music is constant. This has not been my experience, but I did encounter the kind of prototypical activity that students of African music dream about.

Two people in my house were working away at preparing food this morning. One of them (atypically, a man) was pounding greens with a huge mortal and pestle. The woman began singing in time with his steady pounding. What was especially compelling about it was how moving I found this slice of life. The singing was quite beautiful to me - much as it would be to hear someone informally singing a child to sleep. When the same woman raises her voice to sing a Michael Bolton or Celine Dion song, however, the result to my ear is a musical disaster. I wonder if this suggests some important differences between celebrity/expert-based musical systems and folk systems, or between engagements with one's "native" system and an "imported" one. On the other hand, it may only suggest that my likes and dislikes are not those of my hosts.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

the Wouri cinema

I will now submit to what is becoming a rite of passage for anthropologists by saying a few informal words about going to the movies in/near the field. Last night in Douala, I saw a double feature of American romantic comedies dubbed into French. The First was Sa Mere ou Moi - that one starring Jane Fonda and Jennifer Lopez - the second - Black/White - starred Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac. These are both films about meeting the parents-in-law for the first time and not getting along.

As I'd been taught to expect, there was much participation from the audience. People yelled out advice to characters, and reacted loud and long to outrageous and unexpected events in the films. My two companions were greatly amused by the fact that the character played by Ashton Kutcher has the same name as me. One of them - among others in attendance - took calls and had conversations on his cell phone during the films. As long as one is not in the mood for formal contemplation of "'high' art", this is a a fun way to watch movies!

The cinema is named after a major river which runs from the Atlantic ocean quite a ways Northwestish through Cameroon and possibly into Nigeria. I wish I'd consulted a map before writing this.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

equity strikes again

It's final now: Liberia's next President will be a woman. Her name's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and she's to be the fist female head of an African state (I think!).

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

more consumption of stuff

No, I hadn't forgotten about my blog; there are just phases of blogworthy action. I was in the city of Bafoussam (pop. ~200,000) recently and went to a supermarket, which a Peace Corps volunteer I know calls a "white-guy store." It had a lot of props and reminders of North American and European shopping. There was imported cheese, for example. Actual cheese is not easily come by around here; all I can usually find is processed. There was also a large selection of Pringle's potato chips. In all, it was a fun, disorienting experience. And I did splurge on the chips and some decent chocolate. I also, in Bafoussam, finally found a bakery selling whole-wheat bread. I had been missing that.

Last week, I started learning a xylophone-like instrument which you find around here. The keys are very large - the biggest ones as long as my arm - but you hit them only on the edge with the mallets. My instructors were very impressed at how quickly I could assimilate the first lessons. I think the similarity to playing the drum-kit helped me. This instrument is featured in a style called ndanji. Just as the reunion I go to regularly focusses on the style mangambu, some reunions focus on ndanji and, in turn, make extra money playing at funerals.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

basic sociolinguistics

As some of you know, I frequent a cafe in Bangangte where I've made friends with other regulars and the staff. Incidentally, it's a chain - the Cameroon version of Second Cup and Starbucks. Anyway, I often go there with my language books and study in the cafe. This has the fortuitous affect of stimulating conversation about language among whoever is present. In other words, it's a great source of public data.

A theme that comes up very often is that of "real Medumba" and its absence. There's considerable negativity among people I know towards the way they speak. I've never heard anyone list themselves among the speakers of "real Medumba". There is much derision of the Medumba spoken daily on the streets of Bangangte. One person went so far as to call it Pidgin English, which, from the perspective of academic linguistics, is way out there!

Several people have told me that "real Medumba" is spoken in one of the nearby smaller towns and villages. But not everyone chooses the same village. Some people just say the villages in general are where you hear "real Medumba." The dialect that was chosen for standardization is one of these village dialects.

For some people, the past is the location of "real Medumba." Many of these derogatory comments about the Medumba you'd hear in Bangangte are accompanied with mini-laments for the loss of things; young people don't really speak "their language"; they're not interested in "traditional" music anymore; Medumba's lexicon is shrinking because people just borrow from French all the time. In other words, there's a language shift project waiting to be done here. In fact, a colleague of mine working in Accra, Ghana who recently visited Cameroon's capitol told me he was struck by how much he heard French. Apparently, in Accra, locals rarely if ever use colonial languages amongst themselves.

A notable absence from these valuation exercises is the crediting of actual people with speaking "real Medumba". It's always places. No one has yet said to me, "such and such individual I can point to speaks 'real Medumba'". Maybe I'm splitting hairs here, but when my friends mention a village, they don't say "people in Bangoulap speak 'real Medumba'". They say "you'll hear 'real Medumba' if you go to Bangoulap." I don't know, but it could be significant. We'll see.

I'm eager to start hearing people's commentary on the Medumba sung during reunion music. Is it "real" or not? Is that opposition inapplicable because reunion music is a different genre, perhaps? Do aspects of context make reunion singing above reproach (i.e., this is "tradition" time, so everything that goes on during reunion is a fortiori positive) despite possible formal similarities with the reviled speech of everyday life?