Cultural Indifferences

The wonderful thing about having a well-run auditorium in town is opportunities it provides. If you follow Paul Simon or were listening to pop music in the mid-1980s you know of his album Graceland, which introduced to the West the South African men’s chorus that was in Fayetteville last weekend. Its name can seem a mouthful: Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

  • Ladysmith — hometown of the Shabalala family, who comprise most of its nine members.
  • Black — the area’s favored farm oxen.
  • Mambazo — Zulu for ax, perhaps more in the metaphorical Christian sword sense. (Thanks, program notes.)
  • Dinkelspiel — a smaller auditorium at Stanford University — or one of the bigger lecture halls, depending on whether it’s night or day.

So help me, I kept thinking Dinkelspiel during Saturday’s performance of the extraordinary men’s ensemble. In the late 1970s jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins played at Dink. In a still-memorable moment of my college years, the microphone clipped to his sax went out. Mr. Rollins hesitated for the briefest moment then resumed the piece. He sounded great before but now, astounding. To be heard in the last row of the 700-seat hall, not to mention over his combo, he changed his breath support and his embouchure (how the lips and teeth hold the mouthpiece). It made me realize how artificial amplification is, even when allegedly live and otherwise acoustic. In a couple of minutes though Mr. Rollins’ mike got repatched, and the wall of sound was re-erected.

The Mambazo band is known for dancing during its songs. They had no accompaniment. It was a cappella all the way, not even a hand drum. So when they kick or squat, they move from the microphones on stands.

The group, with few staff changes, has been together for over 40 years. Their words fading in and out must be deliberate. Maybe the fellows were playing their microphones like instruments; pros do that.

We had balcony seats, and I do have hearing problems. I’d have them hooked into wireless lavalier or headset microphones. Recalling Mr. Rollins, though, you know Mambazo would be more incredible sans amplification. Continue reading

Columnist Sympathizer

Card-Carrying Columnist Card
Card-Carrying Columnist Card

A nice thing just happened. On Jan. 31, I was elected vice president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. I’ve been a card-carrying columnist since 1991, joining during the run of my column Mirthology, in the old Arkansas Democrat. The post is interim, to cover after a resignation, until the annual membership meeting in July in Bloomington, Ind.

VP should be just another officer and not particularly noteworthy. First I was archivist from 2005-07, then elected secretary and last summer re-elected minutes-taker. It’s cool that it’s a national group, but also comfortable in not being too big, around 300 members in a given year.

But veep is not just another officer. According to the motion, I am “to be willing to be on the slate as a nominee for president at that meeting.”

That’s what I’m in for. And barring nominations from the floor — a qualified candidate could get my vote — I’ll be out front for 2010-12.

Here’s the thing. I am a former newspaper columnist. My last print-published column, Loose Leaves, was dropped when I was downsized from that newsroom, in fall 2001. I’ve repeatedly made the fact known to board and lay members alike. For several years, different people have suggested I make myself available to the nominating committee, but I’ve insisted the NSNC president has to be a columnist. It’d be like the Bar Association run by a subpoena server, the Teamsters headed by a CPA, the American Veterinary Medical Association led by a Shih Tzu.

Times are changing. Continue reading

Man and Superboy

Copyright 2010 Ben S. Pollock

Seeing the backstage drama Crazy Heart down at the Malco on its opening weekend here in Northwest Arkansas gave me lots to think about, being a good movie.

It’d be fine to wait for a home viewing, but leisurely, panoramic views of New Mexico increase the worth of a cineplex screen (Houston’s skyline? Big deal).

The featured country & Western music was more Western than country. The plot though overrides that. It’s the old “star performer on the way down may be redeemed by the love of a good woman.” Last year’s middle-aged male star vehicle The Wrestler was another verse of the song. Both beg the question of what the female lead, who’s always much younger and beautiful, ever sees in these guys — in both flicks we should be grateful technology is not pursuing Smell-O-Vision.

There’s a certain reality to this hoary fictional device: artists who hit success early tend to coast later on. Perhaps it’s laziness, or burnout, or that their audience demands more of the same. It may not be alcoholism or other addictions.

Insight: If you’re coasting, you’re by definition coasting downhill.

The protagonists of both these movies recognize and love good women, whatever role groupies play. This brought to mind a recent column of Little Rock colleague Gene Lyons, writing in about Tiger Woods, a golfer at the peak of his games. Gene writes, “At the expense of repeating myself, I first formulated Eugene’s First Law of Sexual Dynamics covering a pro bass fishing tournament in Tennessee:

‘If there’s something one man can do better than another, there’s a woman who’ll sleep with him for it.’”

Part of Gene’s argument is where there’s consent there’s often complicity. But not always. That makes not just for attractive fiction (for artists) but career-costing facts (for other public figures).

There’s more to solid movies than relationships. Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart uses the greatest subtlety to show how his character Bad Blake inflated into his on-stage confident self. As does Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. That made me think of Myrna Loy. Continue reading