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No joke: ukuleles amaze and inspire

Jake Shimabukuro in performance in 2010. Photo:Joe Bielawa, Creative Commons

Jake Shimabukuro in performance in 2010. Photo: Joe Bielawa, Creative Commons

Earlier this month, the call went out for ukulele players to come play “O Canada” at the start of an Ottawa 67s hockey game.

That did happen. You can hear a rehearsal here, or CBC coverage of the actual event.

An all-smiles performance, to be sure.

So what is it about the ukulele? From a joke prop for Tiny Tim, to new standing as a Hendrix-like lead instrument, this is one versatile musical vehicle.

Some years ago, the uke gained worldwide exposure in this evocative rendering of “Over the Rainbow” by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole



When Bruddah Iz, as he was known, died in his native Hawaii in 1997, he was given what amounted to a state funeral.

There are many, many other fine uke players on the world recording scene. The instrument’s best-known ambassador for the past few years is probably another Hawaii boy, Jake Shimabukuro.

Jake Shimabukuro says the ukulele an easy thing to pick up, as he shows in this introductory video:



If you want the deep back-story of how one person takes an instrument to whole new levels, I recommend an award-winning 2012 documentary, “Life on Four Strings“. (Available on DVD and through some Internet providers.) This deleted scene from that documentary goes a long way to explain one of Shimabukuro’s “secrets”, he’s applying drum techniques. See for yourself:



Veteran Hawaii journalist Leslie Wilcox interviewed Shimabukuro on her PBS Hawaii program “Long Story Short” in 2013, which need not be ordered, you can watch that right here.

Really, I cannot say enough about Shimabukuro’s musicianship and how it advances that small, highly portable instrument. He’s funny and humble too, as revealed in this conversation with Joel Hurd in 2009 and Todd Moe in 2010.

The first time I heard of Shimabukuro he was playing with a popular group back in Hawaii called Pure Heart. Although that trio only produced two albums before moving into separate endeavors, they were welcomed as real talent. Pure Heart had an enthusiastically embraced reunion concert in Honolulu this past December.

Shimabukuro has five tour stops in Ontario in March, including a couple in our greater listening area: at the Grand Theatre in Kingston Ontario (3/7), and at the Neat Coffee Shop in Burnstown ON (3/8). (Update: As of this writing the Burnstown date was sold out.)

Don’t miss this opportunity, if you have any interest at all in that kind of musical exploration and expression.

And if you’re looking for some first or additional instrument to pick up and try, consider the “uke”! There’s probably a way to take classes or join an ukulele chorus somewhere near you. For an example of ukulele as a group instrument, here’s more from the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra.



Crown of creation

Most of the time being a human is a pretty sweet gig. We are, after all,  the crown of creation, the big-domed critter that has pretty much taken over the planet. We go where we want, do what we want, and the rest of the animal kingdom pretty much stays away, or else stooges around awaiting our pleasure and largesse. We are the inventors of such useful complexities as the cronut, the X-box and the Doctrine of the Trinity.  I could go on, but why brag?

Cruel overlord. Photo: Arno Meintjes, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Cruel overlord. Photo: Arno Meintjes, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

While we are pretty nifty and plenipotent, we are not quite omnipotent, as had been brought home to me in recent days. We are colonial organisms–a well organized gang of cells with shared genetic material. But even within our own skins, we comprise a minority government–outnumbered by trillions of bacterial cells of different breeds, and little bitty fungi, and even bittier viruses. From their perspective, our bodies are no different than the hut that Neolithic mammoth hunters built out of tusks and skins. They have no appreciation for our finer qualities.

Usually we can ignore these rival gangs. They squabble amongst themselves and rarely get much done. The trouble only comes when one faction gains dominance and goes forth and multiplies to the extent that it can take on the management. Such a rebellion has brewed within me all week and whole provinces of my body are now under insurgent control. Central Command may ordain that “Today I shall construct a poem of charming observations and mild pathos.” But the rebel commander countermands, saying, “No. Today you shall make phlegm.”

It is only a matter of time before I oust the upstart regime. But until then, I manufacture rival species under the lash of a cruel overlord, who like a lion surveying the beauties of the savannah, observes nothing but its next meal.

Seeing Selma with Margaret

SelmaposterWe know it takes the eyes of a newcomer or a child to see the familiar differently, freshly. Maybe it’s the Main Street in your town, a visitor looks up and sees the elaborate stone carving you never noticed. Maybe it’s your young daughter, looking closely at the dandelion gone to seed, saying, “This is my favorite flower.”

The opposite is true, too, of course. Those who know a place or a piece of art or a community better than we do can take us deeper into the meaning of the thing.

For decades, I’ve been the “wheel her in” civil rights activist because of my participation on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march and with civil rights groups in Harlem, where I went to college. I’ve talked to college and high school classes, to community groups, and offered commentaries on the air. I was a teenager when I walked that highway in Alabama; most memories of those days faded and colored by fear.

There are single moments I remember clearly—buying a frosty Coke from a chest cooler in front of a black-owned country store; being tear-gassed in the yard of the black school we were relegated to by a white sheriff; talking with Stokely Carmichael, who had gone to high school in NYC; standing for a few moments near Dr. King and being surprised that he was shorter than me. But no continuous narrative remains. It was brief: I took a bus south, I spent three days on the march, I headed to Mobile to work on a civil rights newspaper. I was back in school a month or two later. Fifty years ago.

I knew from the first moment it was released that I would, of course, go to see the movie “Selma.” I wanted to see how Ava DuVernay, the young African-American woman who directed the film, saw those times. I asked my friend Margaret Bass, a SLU professor who is black and grew up in the Deep South, to go see it with me.

We agreed that it was interesting to see what the young director chose to include and leave out of the movie. Paraphrasing Margaret, “It’s all important, because young people don’t know. Telling any part of it is important.” The revelation of seeing “Selma” with Margaret was her visceral reaction. Paraphrasing again, “People don’t know how bad it was. It was bad. It was very bad.” She shook her head back and forth as she said these words and I knew she was back in the fear and violence and repression of the segregated South.

Regardless of how it tells the story, this movie, made by a woman who was born at least a decade after the event, reminds us of how hard it was to achieve what we now take for granted. Margaret reminded me that we aren’t there yet—drawing a line between Selma and the shooting in Ferguson.

Across the Pettus Bridge, first attempt to leave Selma for Montgomery.

Across the Pettus Bridge, first attempt to leave Selma for Montgomery. From the Selma history project.

The movie underscored the determination and courage of those who led the movement—those in the strategy sessions in church basements, and those who put their bodies in harm’s way. I think this would have been the key takeaway for me had I seen the movie without Margaret.

Instead, with all the talk about Selma because of the movie, what I hear and feel is Margaret saying, “It was bad, it was very very bad. People just don’t know.”

Don’t worry about Academy Awards and media talk around the movie. Just see it. This is our history, history lived and made by real people, from Dr. King to Margaret Bass.  The bullets were real, the stakes made a difference to millions of Americans. The people in this movie–and all those who walked or stood their ground, nameless and unknown–are among our greatest national heroes. They led all of us from what we took for granted towards what is possible.

Alabama State Troopers guard the capitol building as marchers arrive in Montgomery.

Alabama State Troopers guard the capitol building as marchers arrive in Montgomery. Selma history project.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wanna chill out? Igloofest starts tonight in Montréal

Third year of Igloofest in January 2009 in Montreal, Canada. / 3e édition du Igloofest en janvier 2009 à Montréal, Canada.  Image: Francis Bourgouin, Creatove Commons

Third year of Igloofest in January 2009 in Montreal, Canada. / 3e édition du Igloofest en janvier 2009 à Montréal, Canada. Image: Francis Bourgouin, Creatove Commons

OK, I’ll admit it. I never even heard of Igloofest until today. And I won’t go either, because it’s in Montréal, it’s at night when it’s super cold and it features music I can’t get excited over.

But that’s just me. And even though I’m not going, it’s something I’m glad to know about under the category of “cultural quirks”. You know: what crazy people in super cold parts of the world do for fun.

Obviously, others do find it worthwhile, as in this from Erik Leijon, in a special for the Montréal Gazette, who spoke with event program director Michel Quintal:

“We’ll have DJs from California who think we’re nuts for coming out when it’s minus 25 to see them,” says Quintal, adding that the DJ booth is a comparatively balmy 5 to 10 degrees Celsius. “More and more we have artists come to us and say they want to play because they heard about it from a colleague who was here.”

If Igloofest presents an opportunity for electronic music artists to break the monotony of the club touring circuit, then for festival-goers, it’s a defiant act against the depressing winter doldrums. It’s held annually at Jacques Cartier Pier in the Old Port, and last year’s 12-day edition was attended by more than 85,000. Some nights do better than others, but Quintal says the festival, held across four weekends, isn’t at the mercy of weather forecasts.

“It amazes me that on the coldest nights we’ll still get dedicated audiences that show up and are more into it than on regular nights,” he says. “From their perspective, it’s part of dealing with a winter that lasts five months out of the year. Nobody wants to stay inside for five months.”

I embrace winter by cross-country skiing, preferably on a sunny day when it’s not so cold my hands freeze inside my mitts. But whatever gets you through to summer, I guess! And plenty of people (usually far younger than me) do like that sort of scene.

So find your bliss, be it your own community’s winter carnival, or beating the season with thousands of fellow electric music lovers.

Igloofest runs Fri-Sat now through Feb 8th.

Rising stars at NCPR

"Star shells." Photo: U.S. Army, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

“Star shells.” Photo: U.S. Army, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Last week Brian Mann circulated an email among his station colleagues taking note of the great reporting work being done by the newest members of the NCPR reporting family.

That family has grown substantially over the last few years to include Sarah Harris, who first reported for us as a part-timer based in the Champlain Valley, but whose reporting on education this past year has dug deep into such controversial terrain as school merger, the implementation of Common Core standards, education funding, and student homelessness. And Zach Hirsch has moved up from part-time work to become our eyes and ears in a new Plattsburgh bureau, adding depth to our coverage of the eastern end of the listening area, including a series of great–and disturbing–stories on the heroin epidemic in the region. Natasha Haverty has segued from her partnership in the more than year-long Prison Time Media Project, to launch an amazing series on campus sexual assault, the latest installment of which ran this week. And Julia Botero, a shared reporter with WRVO and based in Watertown, has stepped up our coverage in the southwestern part of our area, just this week producing a two-part look at military and veteran suicide and mental health issues, using the story of one former Fort Drum soldier as her stepping-off point.

Looking at our top five stories this week, as determined by readership and listenership, all these new voices are represented. The number one story is by Zach, the latest in our campus sexual assault series (for which Natasha is series lead) looking at the issue through a point of view rarely reported on–that of the accused.

Also in our top five is Julia’s story about a former 10th Mountain soldier who in 2009 nearly became one of the average 22 veterans who take their own lives each day.  And Sarah–who in addition to her strong chops on serious topics, has a great ear for stories on the hootier end of the news spectrum–makes the list with her story on “Mad Mike,” who plans to jump the St. Lawrence this spring riding on a homemade steam-powered rocket.

If any of you have been worried that many of us at NCPR have achieved “a certain age,” put your mind at ease. Great young journalists and future station leaders are already in the house. And the “old warhorses” still got game, too.

Rideau Canal Skateway open

A fun, free activity that makes winter worthwhile. Photo: C. Miller

A fun, free activity that makes winter worthwhile. Photo: C. Miller

Yes, it’s finally open!  No, we couldn’t enjoy it over the holidays, but the famous, beloved skateway experience is back in time for January and Winterlude. That takes place this year Jan 30 – Feb 16. (The first 3 weekends, basically.)

Here’s the official announcement, from the National Capital Commission:

The 45th season of the Rideau Canal Skateway will officially open today at 10:30 am. A 3.6-kilometre section from Somerset Street to the Bank Street Bridge, excluding Patterson Creek, will be available to skaters.

The main website for the Rideau Canal Skateway also has a page for current ice conditions. As for what to expect this weekend:

The NCC Ice Safety Committee deemed that a 3.6-kilometre section of ice between Somerset Street and the Bank Street Bridge, excluding Patterson Creek, has reached the required thickness and is safe for skating. The ice conditions are expected to be fair, as is often the case on the first day of the season.

Other sections of the world’s largest skating rink will be added as soon as ice conditions are safe and weather permits.

Have fun!

Updating the good eats report

Mmm..chili! (Not from any restaurant in particular...just good winter fare.) Image by jefferyw, Creative Commons.

Mmm..chili! (Not from any restaurant in particular…just good winter fare.) Image by jefferyw, Creative Commons.

The Ottawa Citizen just ran an item on “best bites of 2014.” In it, Peter Hum mourned restaurants that folded and offered his take on others worth trying:

But fortunes of the restaurant community aside, there were eateries, both cheap and cheerful or swish and splurgy, that delivered memorable and even delicious dishes. Below are 10 of my highlights, plus just as many honourable mentions, in roughly the order that I’d want to eat them if I were having that proverbial over-the-top last supper.

If you want still more, here’s something from the HuffPost Canada from last March about 20 recommended Ottawa restaurants (with a slide show).

This all made me think back to a Dale Hobson Listening Post from 2012 about “fine dinering”. Complete with a map of where to find various establishments. Not necessarily the exotic or trendy. Just good eats.

Reader Barb had this to say about Plattsburgh Homestead:

Everything’s homemade, I’m pretty sure they do fried chicken and the homemade pies alone are worth the hour drive for me. If you go on Saturday, you may be treated to an impromptu performance by the local barbershop quartet that has breakfast there.

Is it time to update that conversation? Which restaurants survived another year that you’ll gladly eat at again and again? Which ones folded that you will miss?

Restaurant babble aside, here comes a standard disclaimer: at least some of the best food you should be coming out of your own kitchen, the healthiest and most economical way to eat by far.

After a very filling December, I fear it’s time for a wee diet in my life. The deprivation that lies ahead must be why thinking about food is so very alluring!

Skate news for early January

Throngs enjoy a healthful Family Day skate on Ottawa's Rideau Canal Skateway in 2014. Photo: Lucy Martin

Throngs enjoy a healthful Family Day skate on Ottawa’s Rideau Canal Skateway in February of 2014. Photo: Lucy Martin

It’s time, as far as I am concerned, for outdoor winter sport season to commence. Or resume.

We had some rather good skiing in early December. But then it warmed.

I’m writing this on Jan 2nd in Ottawa, where my lawn is sadly visible through a mere dusting of snow. There’s finally enough cold in the forecast to preserve snow and ice, we just need more of the white stuff to fall from the sky.

Skating is available in some locations. I enjoyed a happy family skate at the North Grenville Municipal Centre in Kemptville on Dec 31st. Many arenas offer skate sessions for the public.

Indoor skating is reliable but it doesn’t hold a candle to the natural high of outdoor skating. Ottawa is, of course, famed for one of the best such natural skateways in the world. Alas, the Rideau Canal Skateway is not open yet. Indeed, authorities are warning the public to stay off the ice there, no matter how tempting it looks. It will open as soon as the necessary thickness is attained, and it’s well worth experiencing.

I’ve been collecting skate-themed material for the last month, to share with anyone who cares. Here’s something from a “luxury travel blog” about 6 of the best outdoor skating rinks around the world – and yes, Ottawa made that list.

The UK’s Daily Mail is always good for lavishly illustrating whatever it gases on about, as trumpeted in
these headlines:
From cruising the walls of the Kremlin to zooming past windmills: The world’s most breathtaking ice skating venues revealed

  • Adventure travel website compiled a list of the best ice skating rinks
  • Includes Lac de Joux, the largest expanse of frozen water in Europe
  • Features longest natural rink, 4.8 mile Rideau Canal Skateway in Canada 

Is Ottawa proud of it’s home-town claim to fame? Oh my, yes, you betcha! Some times in a parochial way. Ottawa’s skateway used to be the world’s longest until that upstart, Winnipeg, stole that thunder. No matter. We are still the “largest”, so there. And among the “poshest” according to this from the Ottawa Citizen, which is basically bragging about making the aforementioned Luxury Travel blog list.

Winnipeg got some notice from the New York Times for their very creative use or warming huts that are also architectural sculpture/art. And no wonder. If you thought skating in Ottawa gets cold, Winnipeg wins that contest, hands down. From the article by Elaine Glusac:

Forget customary cabins with roaring fireplaces or heat-belching furnaces. These huts more closely resemble art installations, and many, including my favorite, “Wind Catcher,” a Caribbean blue open-sided box with an orange wind funnel within, aren’t even warm. Six years ago, Peter Hargraves, a principal at Winnipeg-based Sputnik Architecture, was co-founder of an architectural contest to build inventive huts along the river rink.

“The project was selfish initially,” Mr. Hargraves said one afternoon last February as we skated the trail together. Without warming huts, he said, he’d be freezing before he finished tying the skate laces for his three children. Once he determined the city needed warming huts, the architect saw a unique opportunity.

“This is Winnipeg. We’re a winter city,” he said. “I thought, let’s enhance it.”

Enhance and embrace winter. My sentiments exactly. And there certainly was a lot to love (endure?) last year. As reported by the Ottawa Citizen:

The Rideau Canal Skateway attracted an average of 23,000 daily visits last winter — the most since statistics were first captured in 1992-93 — according to the National Capital Commission.

In its 2013-14 annual report, tabled Friday, the NCC says skateway attendance was about 1.2 million last winter, an increase of 2,000 a day over the previous year. There were 58 skating days during the season, the most since 2008-09.

Researching this subject I was happily surprised to see that Montréal is looking at opening up skating on the Lachine canal. It’s still just a proposal, but backer would like to see that happen by 2017. From the CBC:

Parks Canada officials say they are looking at the idea of opening the canal for skating, but don’t have any specific details at the moment.

Skaters also like the idea, such as Jonathan Brun who runs a website called Patiner Montreal that shows people where to find a skating rink in their area.

“Bringing people out of their homes in the winter and into a collective space where there’s a park or a skating rink is good for the community,” said Brun.

“You end up meeting your neighbours, you end up getting more exercise and enjoying the city more.”

There are outdoor rinks in Ottawa, besides the not-yet-open canal. The “Rink of Dreams” fronting City Hall and the Skating Court at Lansdowne Park are both open (and free).

Portland Ontario is once again getting ready for their big “Skate the Lake” event Sat. Jan 24th. That takes place on a large (1k) natural ice oval on Big Rideau Lake. Of course conditions vary, but that’s usually a top-notch surface. Race day features distances from 5k to 50k, for all skill levels. With no training at all, I’ve been at the tail end of the 10K distance in a previous year. (They serve snert too.) I can personally recommend it as a very warm, small-town friendly event. An embodiment of embracing winter and Canadian hospitality, really.

And we may need to embrace winter all the more poignantly. Martha Foley sent me a link to a technical study titled “Declining availability of outdoor skating in Canada” (.pdf) (by Jeremy R. Brammer, Jason Samson and Murray M. Humphries):

 Climate change is,and will continue, altering the supply of ecosystem services 1,2. Cultural ecosystem services provide important societal benefits but are challenging to operationalize 2–5. The impact of warming on these cultural activities, such as ice skating, are likely to be among the most broadly obvious and compelling impacts of climate change 6. Here we report that the availability and benefits of skating on the world’s largest outdoor ice skating facility: declined from 1972 to 2013, was strongly dependent on weather, and is projected to continue declining with an accelerated rate between 2020–2090.

OK, winter isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But for those who love that season and all it brings, there’s even more reason to value that now and work to keep it for the future.

 Skate the Lake's excellent 1 kilometer rink in 2008. Photo: Lucy Martin

Worth the trip: Skate the Lake’sexcellent 1 kilometer rink in 2008. Photo: Lucy Martin

Another precog in the machine

"The Crystal Ball," 1902. Painting (detail): John William Waterhouse

“The Crystal Ball,” 1902. Painting (detail): John William Waterhouse

Even though most people have at best a shaky grip on the past, and may be entirely at sea in the present, this stops no one from confidently forecasting the future. And the New Year is the prime time for people to trot out their notions of what the year ahead might hold.

MarketWatch, for example, predicts 3% growth in the economy and accelerating growth in wages. If that sounds a little tame, Geek.com touts “10 bold predictions for 2015.” Over-the-skin electrodes will hint at neural control for the masses, they prophesy. Yikes.

The futurists of The Daily News went back to the 1989 movie “Back to the Future 2″ to assess how well it did at predicting 2015. Flat screens, drones, video-conferencing–check. Hoverboards, self-lacing shoes and flying cars–sadly not.

My Virgo horoscope for 2015 from GaneshaSpeaks tells me “During the first quarter of the year, you shall be preoccupied with work in order to achieve your goals.” Sadly so.

Psychics.co.uk predicts “major volcanic eruptions in Japan and Hawaii” and “strange fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field,” as well as “many countries may see terrorist attacks from loan gunmen”–bankers presumably, who do not respond well to magnetic fluctuation.

Finally–perhaps very finally–Coast to Coast AM host George Noory predicts that a small asteroid will hit the planet. This would be in keeping with his hosting of an Auld Lang Syne singing contest among his callers, and his annual roundup of “The Year in UFOs and ETs.”

I confidently predict that we will all go through the same exercise again in 2016. Or we will unless Noory is proven right in a big way.

Sure, it’s there. But must one rocket the St. Lawrence?

This is daredevil Evel Knievel photographed in front of his house in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, circa 197?. Image by Bill Wolf, Creative Commons

This is daredevil Evel Knievel photographed in front of his house in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, circa 197?. Image by Bill Wolf, Creative Commons

There’s no shortage of daredevils in the world.

The well-known Evel Knievel actually survived his stunts long enough to die of disease in 2007, though not for lack of trying, as summarized by the New York Times:

Performing stunts hundreds of times, Mr. Knievel repeatedly shattered bones as well as his bikes. When he was forced to retire in 1980, he told reporters that he was “nothing but scar tissue and surgical steel.”

In 1974 Knievel tried (and failed) to jump Idaho’s Snake River Canyon on a rocket-powered motorcycle.

In that same time frame, Stuntman Ken Powers tried to jump the St. Lawrence in a rocket-powered car (a Lincoln Continental) in 1976.

One might think all that belonged to the crazy 70s, but no. According to this recent article from the CBC,

A California stuntman is hoping to become the first person ever to soar across the St. Lawrence River in a steam-powered rocket.

“Mad Mike” Hughes says he’s planning the high-stakes jump in May 2015 in the town of Morrisburg, even if the township of South Dundas might still have a few reservations

CBC reports that Huges is confident of success, assuming the project actually comes together. You can check out his professional website here.

Unfamiliar with the 1976 St. Lawrence River attempt, I poked around and found this short archival footage, if “archival” is the right word for events that took place while I was in high school.



This jump shows Ken Powers behind the wheel.

Canada’s National Film Board has a 102-minute documentary “The Devil at Your Heels” on that project, viewable online. (Apparently, the jump was actually the brainchild of Ken Carter, AKA “the mad Canadian” but Ken Powers was substituted for the actual jump.)

And what to make of it all? I’m not especially interested in motorcycles, cars or daredevilry. So I’m far from the best person to ask. A small part of me admires the drive that goes into taking on something really difficult and working through the technical issues. But my main response is “wouldn’t it be better to apply that same energy toward something less dangerous and more useful?”

That goes for rocket vehicles that end up in pieces that pollute the river and for lives lost riding big surf at places like Maverick’s.

How about you? Do you find the big attempts thrilling? Foolish? Or something in between?