Archive for April, 2010

Ay la Vida: A Hippie in Communism

Monday, April 26th, 2010

Santiago Feliu

Harald Himsel continues his journey through Cuba to film a documentary on the music and influence of Silvio Rodríguez. (See Harald’s other KA-Blog posts from Cuba.) Rodríguez, one of the founders of Nueva Trova Cubana, is still one of Latin America’s musical stars, with festival fans all over the world, and he is inspiring a new generation of politically engaged artists. Himsel is a German documentary filmmaker, and also the managing director of a consultancy firm that works in developing countries.

Habana is certainly the only place in the world where, when changing taxis, you can step out of a 1952 Chevy and continue your trip in a Russian built Lada. My co-producer Michael and I were on our way to meet Santiago Feliú, one of the younger members of the ‘Nueva Trova’, or better to say the ‘Novisima Trova’.

Fortunately for us, we did not need to change taxis. The ‘52 Chevy we were riding in was in immaculate condition. It is hard to say if the car had been restored to its former glory, or — and this seems more the case — was just kept in perfect shape and condition all those years. These old American street cruisers are part of Habana, and are part of the cultural heritage. This is why, much to the dismay of many collectors, these ‘maquinas’ are not for sale. Their export is prohibited. So, millions of dollars worth of old-timers are ploughing the streets of Habana — as taxis. They pick up people on their route through the city, drop them along the way, only to pick up new passengers a few yards further down the road.

We were rolling along smoothly. The interior of the car was a kind of turquoise, with the original steering wheel. I don’t know if the seats were still the originals, but they were white leather, of course, and you could see the years’ wear. A CD player had replaced the radio. The music was enhanced by the addition of many coloured blinking lights. Although the car would have been perfect for ‘Ol’ Blue Eyes,’ we listened to the latest pop songs from the US charts. Suddenly our ‘taxista’ switched to Compay Segundo, taking us back 55 years — before the revolution.

After a thirty minute drive, we reached our destination: a high-rise building somewhere in a rather unspectacular part of Habana. Nonetheless, as I was made aware right away when I began to take a shot of the building, this was a very exclusive building for only special people. In fact, this was the first and the only time when I was not allowed to film in Habana.

We went up to the 11th floor where Santiago Feliú was expecting us. He was casually dressed in Adidas sports gear, sporting a cigarette in his hand. His apartment was rather small. His living room was furnished with a sofa, a small side table, an armchair, and a piano. It was hard for me to set up the film and sound equipment, because the place was so narrow and tight. It was already getting dark, so the low light made it hard to film — but the space and light changed when Santiago started to play.

Santiago Feliú was born in Habana in 1962. Together with the other ‘cantautores cubanos’ such as Carlos Varela, Gerardo Alfonso, Frank Delgado, and Kelvis Ochoa, Santiago was part of the Novisima Trova movement in Cuban music. His musical influences range from Beethoven, Vivaldi, and Formell (the ‘Cuban Mozart’) to Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens, to authors such as Hermann Hesse, Michael Ende and Franz Kafka. In the early days of his career, Silvio Rodriguez was his mentor and opened the doors for him. His brother Vicente Feliú, also an acclaimed and well-known member of the Nueva Trova, supported Santiago, as well. It was not only the way Santiago played, but the composition of his songs that revolutionized the Trova: the guitar no longer served to only accompany the singer, but was used for a deeper, more sophisticated role. In Santiago’s songs, lyrics and melody are one. They are intrinsically intertwined.

His songs are poetic, with a touch of despair, of disillusion, of pessimism. They are telling us about his craving for Cuba as it once had been and, as he believes, no longer is. He sings about the meaning of life from a very personal point of view. Santiago regularly tours throughout the South American continent. His music gave him the opportunity to travel and to be exposed to other cultures, which are among the defining moments of his life.

In his travels, he always looked a bit eccentric. He was tagged as ‘A Hippie in Communism’. He went on the ‘Shining Path’ in Peru and joined the EZLN, the ‘Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional’ in the Chiapas region of Mexico. This non-violent movement is for Santiago the only dignified guerrilla organization that exists.

Santiago’s songs don’t offer solutions; they do not explain the world. They ask questions — about the revolution, about love and hate, about the very essence of life. During the interview, Santiago played five songs, one of which was my favorite: Ay la Vida.

While he was playing the song, I looked out of the window. The sun had set, peacefully painting the sky in myriads of colours. Outside, time stood still for a moment, nothing moved. It was as if Habana wanted to stop and listen to Santiago Feliú.

- Harald Himsel

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iWork, iPlay

Monday, April 19th, 2010

iPhone Concert

Photo by Bjørn Molstad — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

Apple is about to help make going to live events easier and more fun.

As disclosed in a patent application filed last week, Apple is working on a new electronic ticket system to be distributed through iTunes, “Concert Ticket +”.

We’re all familiar with purchasing theatre or airline tickets online and printing out the ticket at home and then having the bar code swiped or handing the ticket over to the an agent on site. Apple’s new tool will allow users to store the ticket’s bar code on their mobile device and use it, instead of a paper ticket, to gain entry to the event. Apple’s idea: search, purchase, show in one tool.

Of course, the idea isn’t new. However, there were desktop computers and mobile phones before Apple’s entrance to those markets, as well. If there’s one thing that has contributed to Apple’s success is the company’s ability to transform old user habits to new applications.

Apple’s “Concert Ticket +” could integrate our moments of cultural enlightenment. Ok, that’s a bit over the top, but think about it. Using your iPhone or via the web, you could download a tune, discover a live concert of the tune, buy a ticket, and swipe your mobile device for entry. In other words, a seamless transition from an “I like it” moment to a “Where can I see them perform?” moment to an “I want to go” moment to an “I am here!” moment. The same electronic system that provides access to a ticket, also provides access to merchandise, social networks, and updated information. The integration breaks down any barrier between discovering a new work of art and becoming a stakeholder in the art.

Perhaps more important, synthesizing these moments that lead to building an audience also help to integrate our work life into our play life. The same device we use for work, we use for play.

This is the genuine cultural revolution that is taking place before our very eyes, and in our very mobile devices. Discovering art, learning more about an artist, finding a performance, being in the audience, and sharing responses to the artist’s work is all becoming a seamless act of the mobile life.

Any new application of technology that creates ease of access to culture and invites creation of a community around the arts is very good news.

Any device that helps us synthesize our work days and our entertainment nights is also very good news.

And, any thing that helps us discover new artists, buy more tickets, and be an audience is great news for our culture.

- Bill Reichblum

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Be Humble - Be Artistic

Monday, April 12th, 2010

Leadership

Photo by Denis Collette — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

What’s the best way to be an artistic leader? Do we expect the excessive-ego, force-of-personality model?

As many gathered for the memorial service for Wolfgang Wagner, Richard’s grandson who led the Bayreuth Opera Festival from 1951 to 2008, perhaps it is worth considering what will help the next generation of artistic leaders succeed. In a recent column, the New York Times’ David Brooks tackles the consequences of falling for the wrong type of leader in the political realm.

Brooks usually represents the conservative political point of view for the op-ed pages of the New York Times. Before coming to the left-leaning New York Times, Brooks was the senior editor of the right-leaning Weekly Standard. Previously, he worked for the Wall Street Journal, where he covered Russia, Middle East, South Africa and European affairs. Earlier he had been the Journal’s editor of the book review section, and even did a stint as the paper’s movie critic. He knows his politics, and enjoys shining light on contrarian points of view.

Brooks notes that we usually think of our leaders as the lions in the room, who “call for relentless transformational change” in their company’s management and product development. These are the hard charging, go for broke leaders who like to be the face and force of the company’s PR and brand. We all know the type — especially in the arts.

Yet, as Brooks points out, research done by management consultant Jim Collins, shows that the more reliable leaders combine “extreme personal humility with intense professional will.” This kind of leader has more of an awareness of the downside to any decision, a better understanding of risk and a better feel for learning from failure. Brooks writes, “Even walking involves shifting your weight off-balance and then compensating with the next step.”

For Brooks, the key to this leader is not convincing everyone how great they are, but rather the humility which comes from the focus on the company’s work:

“She spends more time seeing than analyzing. Analytic skills differ modestly from person to person, but perceptual skills vary enormously. Anybody can analyze, but the valuable people can pick out the impermanent but crucial elements of a moment or effectively grasp a context. This sort of perception takes modesty; strong personalities distort the information field around them. This sort of understanding also takes patience… She tries not to fall for the seductions that Collins says mark the failing organizations: the belief that one magic move will change everything; the faith in perpetual restructuring; the tendency to replace questions with statements at meetings.”

It’s not about seeing, it’s about perceiving. It’s not about Sturm und Drang, it’s about action with clarity.

Leading a business, let alone taking one from a start-up, is no different than leading an arts organization. You never have enough resources. You never have the option to solve every problem with money. You never have the perfect team. When you don’t have much, the type-A, large ego, hard-charging approach to leadership isn’t enough.

You do have to figure how to attract the best you can. You do have to figure how to reward those who do the best work. And, you have to figure out to sell the product — i.e. the art — you are making, whether that “sale” is to ticket buyers, funders, or your community.

In other words, better to perceive the landscape than to see yourself centered in the landscape.

There’s an old adage that people don’t give money to organizations, they give it to individuals. True enough that there has to be the person willing to take responsibility for the artistic choices and be the front person to the company’s integration into the community. However, as Brooks notes, the success of the arts company will have less to do with an leader’s bravura and more to do with the leader’s humility.

- Bill Reichblum

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Bieber Fever! Low Tech, High Returns

Monday, April 5th, 2010

Justin Bieber

Photo by Rob Stemple — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

Teenage girls hit a high-pitch scream at the sight of a new singer or music group: childish drama or the precursor to a culture-changing career?

Think Elvis Presley. Think the Beatles. Meet Justin Bieber.

Don’t laugh. This is real — and it might just be the future of how music is created, packaged, and sold.

In 2006, a twelve year old boy from Stratford, Ontario posted videos of himself singing cover versions to Usher and Chris Brown on YouTube. Music promoter Scott Braun came across the videos and signed him.

Braun moved Justin and his single mom to Atlanta to begin to mold a career. The team includes a vocal coach and, here’s something new, a “swagger coach”, Ryan Good. (What teenage boy could refuse a few lessons in how to walk-the-walk?)

At the same time, Bieber continued to post his grainy, one webcam videos. No pretense. No glitz. Just a boy singing from his heart.

By the time Bieber released his first album, “My World” (wouldn’t you know) in 2009, he had 40 million online fans. All seven songs hit Billboard’s charts, which was a US record. Last week’s “My World 2.0” (wouldn’t you know) started on Billboard’s album charts at number one.

His popularity is in more than these impressive numbers. As covered in KadmusArts’ daily Culture News feed, Braun was charged with reckless endangerment for not tweeting to inform fans that a Garden City mall event had been cancelled, creating a stampede of adolescent screaming girls. At every Bieber appearance, there are ambulances ready for those who swoon and faint. Really.

Of course, it is easy to be cynical about any new pop sensation, let alone about the music industry’s desperation to find new money machines. However, note that this all began and has continued to be fed by combining low technology with direct access. Yes, Justin does all his own tweets.

As Bieber’s manager Scott Braun said in an interview last year, “We’ll give it to the kids, let them do the work, so that they’ll feel like it’s theirs.”

At the same time, the kid can sing — really sing. The songs stay with you. His voice is similar to a young Paul McCartney. Who knows — maybe he’ll have a career that will last as long as Paul’s.

After all, it wouldn’t be the first time that those screaming teenage girls got it right.

Or, as Justin is singing right now on millions’ downloads, “‘Cause whenever u smile, I smile.”

- Bill Reichblum

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