The remarkable career and mission of oceanographer Sylvia Earle is profiled in new documentary
In the Neflix documentary Mission Blue, oceanographer Sylvia Earle says, "If I seem like a radical, it may be because I see things others do not." Throughout her career, Earle has explored oceans teeming with life— from studying seaweed for her dissertation to diving at record-breaking depths to behold bioluminescent creatures. But in her lifetime, she has also witnessed the manmade consequences the oceans have endured including the destruction of coral reefs, overfishing, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.
The film documents Earle's life starting with her fascination with nature as a child and the effect her family's move to Florida has had on her life. With the Gulf in her backyard, she became an explorer and eventually a scientist which led her to expeditions from the Indian Ocean to the Galapagos to the Great Barrier Reef. That she was a woman in a field dominated by men was often noted by the media who at times questioned how she balanced the personal (she had three children) with the professional, and at other times acknowledged the glass ceiling she was breaking through. Technologies also played a role in her career as diving instruments were developed further, taking explorers to never before seen depths for longer periods of time. Earle even played a hand in improving the design of the manipulator arms on one of the suits, to improve underwater dexterity.
Another important part of Earle’s life was her role as Chief Scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), where she became known as the “Sturgeon General.” In the position however, she found her voice censored, with politics and bureaucracy stifling efforts at protecting the oceans and marine life. So she resigned, opting for life as a citizen who could speak freely rather than a government official with talking notes.
The footage and statistics that the documentary reveals is telling, from Earle’s grim trip to a Tokyo fish market to the fact that we went from one dead zone in 1975 to presently over 500. The assault on the ocean has led Earle to advocate for its preservation in the form of "hope spots"—areas that are protected from fishing and dumping. Her goal is to get 20 percent of the ocean protected by 2020 (currently less than 3 percent is protected). Although she recognizes the vast challenge in such a mission, she also knows that with "No oceans, no life; no oceans, no us."
Photo by wanderlasss, licensed under Creative Commons.
Comedian Neil Hamburger is back with an album of jokes and music that showcases his acerbic approach to making people laugh.
This one’s for all the shut-ins, diabetics, and people with uncomfortable foot conditions.
“America’s Funnyman,” comedian Neil Hamburger, has been known to rattle off a near-encyclopedic list of ailments (such as the aforementioned maladies) that might prevent people from coming to see his stand-up shows. With that in mind he’s bringing the laughs to you with First of Dismay (Drag City), a collection of his usual acerbic jokes about celebrities and one-liners that seem poorly constructed or like non-sequitors on the surface, but are brilliant in their simplicity. And, as any student of comedy will tell you, delivery and timing are just as important as the material. Hamburger is the type of comedian that can make a crowd laugh with excessive throat clearing and knock-knock jokes about the Red Hot Chili Peppers; in other words, his delivery is finely polished.
First of Dismay opens with Hamburger berating a heckler who loses his courage to interrupt once he’s called out. From there he turns the vitriol upon himself with the disc’s first song “Your Town U.S.A.” A country-western lament about a busted career and self-loathing, the tune tells us your town—yes yours, dear listener—is the one in which laughter grows on the vine and gives a broken down comedian all he needs to keep going. While the songs may be written off by some as novelty, they are far from pointless indulgences. Delivered by a rock solid band, dubbed “The Too Good For Neil Hamburger Band,” the songs draw laughs but would be right at home on a dance floor full of two steppers. “Nickel Candy” and “Endless Roll” are the highlights, the latter a disco-funk complaint letter about a huge box of subpar trash bags.
But of course, the biting celebrity jokes are Hamburger’s bread and butter. The celebrities here are some easy targets such as Steven Tyler and Carrot Top. Others are a bit more innocuous, such as Bobby McFerrin, who finds himself in the middle of a joke about buying used toilets on Craigslist. And lest one thinks Hamburger is a one-trick pony who tells jokes about easy targets, “He Spoke” is a five minute exercise about an historic Hollywood theater in which countless legendary entertainers performed, all wrapped up with a delightfully vulgar bit about world-famous mime Marcel Marceau.
Neil recently took some time out of his busy schedule to speak with us over the phone about the new record, his hard life on the road, and his utter disdain for Pringles and Steven Tyler:
Photo courtesy Rich Jones, licensed under Creative Commons
“Meditation has been pretty influential. I became really interested in the structure of it—the way you are led into it, the way you sink deeper and deeper into it, and the way you are pulled out of it, back to reality.” –Peter Silberman, The Antlers
The depth of that into which Silberman finds himself sinking, we may never know; but one thing is for certain: If there exists a suitable soundtrack for life’s most tranquil doings—meditation, yoga, getting properly stoned whilst cooking breakfast tacos on a Sunday—it is The Antlers’ new album, Familiars.
Never before have The Antlers utilized more space or shown more patience in composition than on Familiars, not even on its chilled-out precursor, Undersea—an EP that arguably sounds better rotating at 33 RPM’s than the prescribed 45. Familiars is an expansion on the trio’s most recent work, yet more ambitious and cohesive in vision. “It’s important that we had long instrumental passages to have room to improvise, experiment, and let the mood develop,” Silberman explains during an aimless stroll around the Westport neighborhood in Kansas City, Missouri, moments before the band melted a sold-out Riot Room. “But it comes down to taking risks for the right reasons. You have to have solid intent going into the creative process.”
Subtle risk-taking has remained a vital component of The Antlers’ approachably experimental aesthetic since the release of 2009’s Hospice—an album that struck a near-perfect balance of diverse musicality and raw, relatable lyrical content. Hospice’s inevitable, yet unexpected success acted as a springboard, bequeathing unto The Antlers a myriad of new opportunities, the most fruitful being an enlarged road map for touring. Whereas many spirits are broken on the road, the influx of live shows served as a gelling mechanism and catalyst for true collaboration amongst The Antlers, a project that was initially launched as the sole effort of Silberman.
By the time Burst Apart was released in 2011, multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci and drummer Michael Lerner were making sound-shaping contributions to the band’s music, a trajectory that would eventually land them in their current state of interdependency. Silberman described the effect of this dynamic on the writing process during Familiars: “A faith has developed from playing together for so long that we sort of know how to imagine the others while writing. I think that’s why the songs have become more spacious, because we’re leaving room for each other to coexist while writing.” This trust has broadened The Antlers’ creative scope by allowing the strengths of each member to grow individually. Evidence of this mutual development is found throughout Familiars—Silberman no longer defaults to his usual falsetto, Cicci has created a voice of his own with the trumpet, and Lerner’s approach to the drums is as cleanly complicated as any.
On July 2nd, The Antlers stopped in Kansas City to share a live interpretation of their new album with an anxious and at-capacity crowd. Each audience member nodded in unison to an hour of deep-cutting new material, peppered with old favorites. The Antlers played with the brand of energy unique to veteran bands just a few dates into a touring cycle—nothing to prove and everything to give. Allowing the ground to acquiesce beneath their audience and helping them to sink, deeper and deeper, to unfamiliar depth.
Watch The Antlers perform songs off the new album for an in-studio performance at KEXP in Seattle:
Institutions invest in preserving Syria's relics.
One of the affects of conflict that often gets overlooked is the destruction it wreaks on cultural sites and artifacts. In Syria, UNESCO World Heritage sites and religious structures have been looted or in other cases, destroyed unintentionally. To stem the losses, various institutions are stepping up in myriad ways.
The Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk was developed by the International Council of Museums. The list includes categories such as coins, instruments, and vessels and is intended to be used as a guide to educate collectors and customs agents about items that dealers may be trying to smuggle or sell.
Another initiative is through Penn Museum’s Penn Cultural Heritage Center and the Smithsonian who have teamed up with The Heritage Task Force, an organization established just last month which is working in Syria. So far the collaboration between the three institutions has resulted in a three-day training program that educated Syrian participants on how to safeguard museum collections. Of particular concern were Byzantine mosaics housed in the Ma’arra Museum which had come under attack. Attendees were given direction on how to deal with the situation and provided with packing supplies they can use to prevent damage to various objects. Brian Daniels, Director of Research and Programs at Penn Cultural Heritage Center said, “While it is very difficult for international heritage organizations to travel into Syria today, there are a number of Syrians who regularly risk their lives to protect their cultural heritage. This workshop and other efforts going forward are designed to support these individuals and their efforts.” The team is now working to document what artifacts remain in Syria and plan future preservation initiatives.
The value of preservation is manifold. Despite the ongoing civil war in Syria, antiquities represent a shared culture. Such sites and objects, which entwine both place and time, express what it means to be human—to have identity, history, and memories. They are also symbols of creativity and human development. Additionally, Anne Richards, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration who announced the release of the Red List, points out the economic benefits. Museums and heritage sites made up 12 percent of Syria’s GDP before the war broke out. While this benefit may not be a reality in the immediate future, Syria only has to look next door to Iraq, which has worked to recover looted objects now displayed in the renovated Iraq Museum.
Photo by James Gordon, licensed under Creative Commons.
The new doc Anita—Speaking Truth to Power is a powerful reminder of the change that can take place when one person speaks out and how far we have come from 1991 in terms of gender equality.
Knowing only the general gist about Anita Hill, I was interested in hearing her story as I watched the documentary Anita – Speaking Truth to Power. The film’s focus is the 1991 testimony she gave before the all-white, all-male judiciary committee and its aftermath. Hill was subpoenaed to testify following a leaked interview she gave documenting sexual harassment she had experienced working for Clarence Thomas from 1981 to 1983. Although Hill is repeatedly scrutinized by the committee, which included then Senator Joe Biden, she remains poised as she answers uncomfortable questions surrounding Thomas’ behavior and her own motivations for bringing up the incidents. She says, “The issue became my character as opposed to the character of the nominee.” Other people interviewed in the film include Hill’s lawyer Charles Ogletree and former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, who provide commentary on the media storm surrounding the case and what Hill’s actions meant for the nation.
Following the testimony, Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court in a 52-48 vote. Hill ended up receiving death threats and threats of sexual violence. Fortunately she also received thousands of letters of support (which she keeps filed in cabinets) from people thanking her for her courage and relating their own experiences.
The trajectory of Hill’s life as an Oklahoma law professor was forever changed and she eventually took a teaching position at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. She also embraced a public role of advocating for women. Hill comments, “People misunderstand that harassment is about the sex. It’s really about control and power and abusing it.” She sees sexual harassment as just one part of gender inequality which spans many different spaces from the workplace to public sidewalks to inside the home. The film also shows her involvement as an educator and speaker which contribute to her legacy as an advocate for equality.
The documentary is a powerful reminder of the change that can take place when one person speaks out and how far we have come from 1991 in terms of gender equality. However considering recent decisions such as the Hobby Lobby case by the Supreme Court, it also reminds us just how far we have to go.
Photo by The Opportunity Agenda, licensed under Creative Commons.
Colombian musician/peace activist César López and his guitar built from a machine gun.
Can an instrument that is shaped like, and built on, the structure of a machine gun operate as a peace symbol? Colombian musician César López plays his unique instrumental invention, la escopetarra, a guitar that has been grafted onto the base of a decommissioned AK-47, as an activist for peace. López employs music, text, performance, and instrumental symbolism to advocate for non-violence. He also conducts community service—traveling to remote areas of Colombia that have suffered repression and violence. During these trips, López talks with victims and offers free concerts in an effort to understand the history of violence and also to contribute in some way towards healing the wounds. In 2006, he was named “Envoy for Peace” by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Colombia. He is an unusual and curious case. A peace activist who plays an instrument that looks like—and was—a weapon, seems at first glance to be inherently paradoxical. In spite of, and in many ways because of this curious paradox, López’s gesture—of acquiring a surrendered weapon and transforming it into a guitar—represents and actualizes the transformative power of art and music.
Whereas López’s 2010 album Toda Bala es Perdida (Every Bullet is Lost), engages thematically with the concepts of violence and war, his overall project, of the same name, constitutes a call for reparations and a future of non-violence. The album is comprised of 16 songs—rock songs inspired by specific historical tragedies in Colombia. These tragedies exemplify different forms of aggression including violence against women and children, gang violence, prison conflict, and violence against communities at different moments during Colombia’s long-lasting armed conflict.
Many of the songs feature guest vocalists and musicians, a detail that underscores the album’s heterogeneous polyvocality. Although the individual songs tell discrete stories through diverse musical styles, the songs engage with each other both musically and thematically. The lead singer of, “¿Qué vendrá?” (What will come?), Maricarmen Rosillo, accentuates her vocals with the characteristic inflection of a flamenco singer. The song, “Efraín”—a piece that gives voice to a mother who became mute on learning the details of her son’s horrific torture and death—incorporates recordings from Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech. The following song, “Plegaria,” recalls the massacre of 119 Afro-Colombians who were killed while trying to take refuge in a church. Musically and thematically Toda Bala es Perdida constructs a narrative that laments the catastrophic effects of armed conflict and violence in Colombia and elsewhere. As I finalize writing this piece, the United States is again reeling from another in our seemingly endless series of tragic mass shootings. We might learn something from Colombia and César López. López’s work originated from Colombia’s armed conflict, but gun-related violence in the United States and elsewhere proves that gun violence is by no means restricted to a theaterof war.
López performs his music, and gathers material for new songs, while travelling throughout Colombia and giving concerts in communities that have suffered the consequences of armed conflict and violence. Engaging with victims in these communities he attempts to understand their experiences and then subsequently gives voice to them. “The songs that I play,” says López, “are songs that come from rural people and their communities. They tell me their stories and I turn them into songs. When I am playing I feel, in some ways, like I am the voice of those who are not speaking, those who told me their stories ... I feel like I am representing a lot of people who were touched by war, and that I am the vehicle that transmits their history to the audience.” (Author’s note: All of López’s quotes in this article are my translations from Spanish).
López sees himself as a vehicle who transforms the victim’s pain into music. He gives voice—and represents—the voiceless.
The most noteworthy element of López’s project is his instrumental innovation, la escopetarra. In interviews, López recounts that the idea of transforming a gun into a guitar occurred to him after a bomb, attributed to the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia / Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), exploded on Feb 7, 2003 in a Bogotá social club (Club El Nogal: killing 36 and injuring 170). Previously, López had founded a group, el Batallón Artístico de Reacción Inmediata (The Battalion of Immediate Artistic Reaction), a collective of musicians that gathered at sites of violent incidents to play music and show their support for victims and survivors. On this occasion, a soldier ordered López to evacuate the area and struck his guitar with the butt of his machine gun. López looked up at the soldier and became aware of the fact that the soldier held his machine gun in a position similar the way in which he held his guitar. Subsequently, López obtained a Winchester rifle from the city of Bogotá (the mayor’s office promotes campaigns during which citizens turn in their guns), and a luthier helped López transform this rifle into the first escopetarra. The name of the instrument, escopetarra, fuses the Spanish word for shotgun (escopeta) with the last two syllables of the word guitarra (guitar).
The stock materials that López currently uses to make escopetarras come from decommissioned machine guns that guerillas and/or right-wing paramilitary fighters have surrendered to authorities. Each instrument’s history is unique, and in some cases cyclical. The escopetarra that López plays, for example, began as an AK-47 in the German Democratic Republic, and was later dropped from an airplane to leftist guerillas hiding in the Colombian jungle. The gun was subsequently captured and used by right-wing paramilitaries before being turned over to government authorities, and, ultimately, transformed into a guitar for peace.
As new musical instruments, escopetarras occupy the shape, place, and history of their former existence as assault rifles. With the firing mechanisms removed and guitar fingerboards laminated onto the barrel, the escopetarras envelop the shell of the former machine guns. Rarely does the military root of the artistic term “avant-garde” resonate so loudly within a gesture to transform the conditions of reality through art. The violent shape of a machine gun remains visible in the musical instrument’s structural image: The instrument retains the trigger, the magazine, the stock and the overall shape of a machine gun. Some escopetarras, furthermore, are inscribed with notches that the former owners carved to represent each individual they had killed with the gun. These notches are literal, physical, and historical traces of the armed conflict. Engraved lines scratched into hollow grooves in the metal allude to the empty spaces left behind by the dead—people taken out by the armed conflict. When originally inscribed, these notches celebrated these deaths with pride. Now, reinterpreted on the body of an escopetarra, they signify the emptiness left behind by violence.
Organologically, the instrumental form of the escopetarra is a conventional chordophone—physically and sonically, the escopetarra is a steel-stringed electric guitar.
They are, in fact, fine guitars, constructed by one of Colombia’s best-known luthiers, Alberto Paredes. Analyzing an escopetarra visually reveals the instrument’s inherent contradictions. An AK-47 is a cheap, though durable, machine gun that can withstand—and has withstood—prolonged periods of guerilla warfare and exposure to the elements in jungle, desert and alpine environments. The frame of López’s escopetarra combines rusted, scratched gun-metal, patched with duct tape, now cut open—mutilated—with the fine craftsmanship of a highly skilled luthier. The ugly shell of a gun contrasts visually with the shiny plug-in, tone and volume knobs, high-end tuning mechanisms, and especially with the smooth wood of the meticulously placed rosewood bridge, fingerboard and headstock. The finely worked wood—an organic substance—juxtaposed with the beat-up, yet sturdy, frame of the gun, combine and coexist as two inseparable elements. The metal and wood manifest physical and temporal opposites—the machine gun and the guitar, the past and the present—together they constitute the escopetarra.
López further extends the reach of his project by gifting escopetarras to popular musicians and promoters of peace around the world. People to whom he has presented escopetarras include fellow Colombians Juanes and Andrea Echeverría (Aterciopelados); Argentines Fito Páez and Miguel Botafugo; Spanish/French guitarist, Manu Chau; Irish musician/activist, Bob Geldof; Kenyan singer/activist Eric Wainaina; as well as prominent public figures such as the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. In 2011, López presented an escopetarra to the Ghandi Museum in New Delhi at the site where Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. In 2012, López presented an escopetarra to Guatemalan president, Otto Pérez Molina.
Some people question the concept of gun-guitar-as-peace symbol. The Dalai Lama, or his representatives, have twice turned down López’s offer of an escopetarra on the grounds that a weapon is an inappropriate gift. Obviously, any symbol can be read in many different ways. López acknowledges the hermeneutic difficulty of controlling his message:
“It [the escopetarra] can be read in many ways. Some think that it is a call to arms, and others might think that it is simply a design, or a curious innovation to get publicity. It is very delicate. It’s not only an instrument, because with the instrument come a lot of messages. If I use this instrument inappropriately, I’ll destroy it’s message. Or, I’ll destroy my message.”
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives seems to take symbolism more seriously than lethal potential. López was told if he entered the U.S. with an escopetarra (which is completely inoperable as a weapon), he would risk 10 years in prison. Ironically, one can legally purchase an operational machine gun (an NFA or Class 3 weapon) in many U.S. states.
López plays the escopetarra—it is both a musical instrument as well as a powerful, and complex, symbolic instrument. Already embedded in a semiotic/military history, the escopetarra represents not peace, but rather a process of transformation and movement towards peace. This transformation and movement is part of the history of each individual instrument.
The machine guns used as source materials to build escopetarras were surrendered to government authorities (by FARC guerillas or right-wing paramilitaries) in voluntary demobilizations. Though the armed conflict in Colombia continues, these specific machine guns represent a conscious decision by their former owners to desist from warfare. According to López, ex-combatants have reflected that their personal transformations run parallel that of the escopetarra. “The young demobilized ex-combatants who were in the war say ‘I am an escopetarra. I am a person who served for war, who served to shoot, and now I have a life project,’ just like the one reflected in the instrument.” In this regard, the demobilizations can be viewed as performances of peace. Those who surrender themselves and their arms have taken a significant step—they have renounced the concept of armed conflict as a solution.
My use of the word “performance” to describe the demobilizations is consciously polyvalent. On the one hand, a demobilization of guerillas, and/or paramilitaries, constitutes a performative act, a public announcement/commitment of their decision to abandon violence. This performative ceremony performs, it does something, it accomplishes a significant step towards peace. And yet, on the other hand, there have also been cases of faked demobilizations where the Colombian military and/or government, arranged for simulated demobilization ceremonies during which marginal individuals (homeless people) performed the role of former FARC members or paramilitaries, when in reality they never fought with these groups. For these political simulations, members of the military and Colombian government colluded with drug traffickers to provide the “actors” with uniforms and arms that they subsequently turned over to the government. The actors even received a salary—essentially they mounted theatrical performances. These performances intended to justify specific political policies and decisions.
A recent performance with the escopetarra simultaneously reiterates both sides of the instrument’s paradoxical image. In 2012, at an event called Jóvenes por la Paz” (Young People for Peace)—a ceremony attended by 20,000 people in Guatemala City—López presented Guatemalan president, Otto Pérez Molina, with an escopetarra. The public celebration of nonviolence included the on-site destruction of more than 16,000 arms. President Pérez Molina even played the escopetarra on stage, calling for “more music and less violence.”
On the surface this sounds like a wonderful celebration of peace. And yet this president’s personal history is problematic. President Otto Pérez Molina served as Director of Military Intelligence and Inspector General of the Guatemalan army (and served in the notoriously brutal special forces, los Kaibiles) during a civil war that resulted in over 200,000 deaths, the vast majority of whom were indigenous people killed by the military. Pérez Molina specifically commanded troops in the Ixil region during the dictatorship of Efraín Ríos Montt who was convicted for genocide and crimes against humanity in association with the deaths of 1,771 indigenous Ixil Mayans in May 2013. During the trial, one witness specifically implicated Pérez Molina as the coordinator of burnings, lootings and executions. (Pérez Molina denies the accusations).
Can we really take President Pérez Molina at face value when he announces from a stage, with an escopetarra hanging from his shoulders, “we want more music and less violence”? Is this performance of peace legitimate, or is President Pérez Molina playing the escopetarra as a political prop, performing yet another act of governmental theatre? It is also significant to note that Pérez Molina recently replaced Guatemala’s Attorney General, Claudia Paz y Paz, who prosecuted Ríos Montt with a former Supreme Court judge, Thelma Esperanza Aldana Hernández, with ties to Ríos Montt. Is López enabling hypocritical political theatre? Why present an escopetarra to a man who played a central role in Guatemala’s dirty war?
I don’t have a definitive answer to these questions. We certainly cannot change the past and we cannot undo the history of death and destruction. We can and should aspire to justice and political responsibility to be carried out in the courts. Perhaps López is hoping that Pérez Molina, too, will think, “I am an escopetarra. I am a person who served for war, who served to shoot, and now I have a life project, just like the one reflected in the escopetarra.” Might the transformative power of art and music someday convert this theatrical performance into a true performance of peace? It is certainly laudable to take 16,000 arms off of the street and to destroy them. Is it better for leaders to perform a discourse of peace no matter what dark crimes they committed in their past?
The escopetarra, like all symbols, is open to multiple interpretations. Its hybrid composition, a former machine gun transformed into a guitar, paradoxically evokes both the memory of war, and the decision to abandon violence. We cannot know Pérez Molina’s motivations (though his story and history are highly suspect). Regardless of where this particular man falls on the still unrealized transformation from war to peace and justice in Guatemala, his performance on and with an escopetarra—an instrument that simultaneously embodies violence and points towards peace—calls for the Guatemalan people—people who have suffered, and are suffering, from incommensurate violence—to at least imagine the transformation necessary to move away from violence. César López’s escopetarra, then, is a powerful symbolic instrument, an instrument that provides an image with which to imagine a transformation from the quagmire of violence to a future of peace.
Robert Neustadt is Professor of Spanish and Director of Latin American Studies at Northern Arizona University where he conducts research on music and politics in Latin America. He co-produced, and performs a song on Border Songs, a 31-track double album, that features music and spoken word in English and Spanish about the border and immigration. All proceeds go to No More Deaths (No Más Muertes), a group that provides humanitarian aid to migrants and recently deported people.