We’ve all been in that Uber, looking down at our phones and playing Candy Crush or whatever, when we look up to see that our gig-economy cabby is taking the absolute weirdest route to our destination. They don’t know the area and rely on the algorithm to tell them where to go. And the algorithm doesn’t know shit.
I get it. GPS can be a very useful convenience and might even save your life, in certain situations. But, is it really much more different than carrying a printed map in our glove compartment or pockets?
Knowing the terrain entails so much more than just finding the right intersection. It’s about recognizing the landmarks, engaging with the memories and feeling the feelings a particular place, neighborhood or city elicits.
I’m no Luddite. Much of my work depends on all the technological “wonders” of our time. I use digital cameras, lots of different software and I know how to code. But, I’m also keenly aware of the price we are all paying for making them such a prominent feature of our lives.
I was here before all of this and I remember what it was like to get lost in a city with only my wits to carry me through. You see the world in a far different light when you’re the only one looking. Today, we have a million eyes looking along with us. A million different opinions to color or override your own.
This may sound like an advantage, but it is most definitely a curse. At least, it is a curse for the individual. Only a hive mind can thrive in such an environment. The further we go down this road, the more the individual human recedes and blends into the amorphous nothingness of single mindedness.
Nowhere is this so apparent than in the contrast between the popular music of the late 20th century and that of the early 21st. It is becoming nearly impossible to find musicians these days. People who express a creative urge through instruments and song are being replaced by the algorithm, that know-nothing know-it-all infecting our real lives. I have written about this before, but I want to do more than that.
The Creative Impulse
Many of the creative ideas I have revolve around ways to mitigate the alienating aspects of this tech-infused world. It is an instinct, more than anything. Like all creative endeavors, it is an individual journey of self-discovery that may or may not yield a “piece of art”.
If I was a sculptor, perhaps I would chisel away at a big rock that would end up on a street corner. And it would end up there so other people could see it and appreciate it. Make it part of their inner landscape. The algorithm has no use for my art.
So, the question is why do we make art to begin with? Why make music in the first place? We have gone from using technology to make art to making art for technology. And that, in my opinion, is complete insanity.
I have just launched a Kickstarter campaign for a project many years in the making called Inspired Ground. And as the name implies, it has to do with the literal ground we walk on and the value of the unexpected. It is about an art form the algorithm is intent on destroying: Street musicians, colloquially known as “buskers”.
Buskers are the very definition of what we call the “gig economy”, except that what they do falls short of perceived notions of value in our algorithmically-driven world. While some people are too captivated by their devices to listen to a man rocking it on the sidewalk, even those who do stop can’t give the performer a tip because they’ve pretty much gone cashless.
Inspired Ground is a musical anthology/film documentary project that will take advantage of all the technology available (Internet, crowdfunding, digital cameras) for a chance to create a lasting space outside of it.
The pilot of what I hope will turn out to be an ongoing series is about the busker who inspired it all, Drew Dunbar.
Five years ago, I was in Las Vegas doing some video production for a mobile technology company – ironically enough. After the conference I was covering was over, I had some time to kill before heading to the airport and decided to take some pictures around town. That’s when I spotted Drew jamming on one the pedestrian bridges along the strip and I recorded him doing a great cover of the classic rock song, “Hey Joe”.
I had also recorded an original tune of his, but had not uploaded it to my YouTube channel because I wanted to establish a line of communication with him in case there was any ad revenue he could collect. I was never able to find him until now, when a fellow busker emailed me back in May.
But the story is already on the Kickstarter campaign page. Go there >>
Spoiler Alert – This piece is only for those who have seen Roma. If you haven’t yet experienced Alfonso Cuarón’s latest and most acclaimed motion picture, I recommend you do so in a movie theater, before you consider watching it on television. I will not get into the Netflix distribution debate in this article. There are already more than enough takesabout this issue.
A Strange Place
The film is enigmatic. Cuarón achieves visually captivating moments throughout the two hours and change he prepared for us. From painstaking recreations of 1970’s Mexico City streets, to sweeping sequences and arresting cinematic frames, that we’re sure to continue seeing years from now. But, the choice to go monochrome creates an unnecessary distance between the story and the viewer.
Color is not incidental in a place like DF (Distrito Federal); it is part and parcel of everyday life. The color is still there in the film, but one has to have already seen it to recognize it.
The movie takes place in the neighborhood my mother grew up in. My aunt lives there, in the same two-bedroom apartment, to this day. “La Roma”, as it’s more popularly known, is a place I know as if I had grown up there myself, even if reality couldn’t be further from the truth. The only permanent abode I ever knew. A bastion of stability in the otherwise centrifuge of chaos that was my life.
Only those of us who are from there can see the pinks and the greens and the blues. We can see the multi-colored tiles of the opening shot. Beyond this, we can see the real stories being told through the lens of a semi-autobiographical work by a director who emerged out of that same, colorful, primordial Mexican sap.
Through his personal story we find the story of all Mexicans. What follows is an interpretation of these stories, from my own personal perspective and perched on a precipice at the edge of the universe.
La Colonia – The Allegory of the Still Birth
The correct translation of neighborhood in Spanish is “vecindario”, but in Mexico City, the term “colonia” is an official designation representing a specific area within the huge metropolis. The relationship is similar to that between counties and cities in America. Nevertheless, the word also carries the more familiar, political definition.
The colonial theme is inevitably present throughout Cuarón’s film, whether he intended it or not. Aparicio’s character, Cleo, is an indigenous servant in a criollo (European-descended people) household. Aparicio, herself, is a real-life actor in the ongoing colonial drama that Mexico continues to live. The state of Oaxaca, where she hails from, remains one of the country’s most indigenous regions.
Classism is rampant in Mexico. The rich and upper middle classes segregate themselves both physically and culturally from the rest. The media, especially, is guilty of projecting a completely false image to the viewing public. If you were to judge the Mexican population by the people cast in its television shows, you’d likely assume most of the country is blonde and blue-eyed. The pernicious influence of the “Telenovela” genre and other cultural Trojan horses have contributed to a widespread, and largely subconscious pathology of self-hatred in the mostly dark-complexioned Mexican population.
The oft-repeated, quasi-historical myth of “La Malinche” is the archetype Cleo embodies in the film. She is a bridge between the natives and the foreigners. It is the foreigners who comfort her when her offspring is born dead. And this is the first allegory of Roma:
She tells us, herself, that she did not want the child to be born. Her destiny is to clean Borras’ shit off the garage floor. Borras is the master’s dog’s name, which loosely translates from the Spanish to “Erase”. Her people will not go on.
Children of the New World – The Allegory of the Astronaut
The astronaut theme comes up several times throughout the movie in the context of youthful imagination.
In one example, he shows us two children playing astronaut. One wears a space-man costume with all the bells and whistles, “exploring” a swampy part of his extended family’s beautiful, sprawling property somewhere in the country. The other, wandering about in a dirt-poor area on the outskirts of Mexico City as if in zero gravity, wearing an improvised space helmet fashioned out of a bucket. Just before this, we see a man shoot out of a canon and land in a net – a scene, which followed a frame of the Hollywood classic “Space Cowboys”, in something of a homage to Kubrick’s famous montage in “A Space Odyssey”.
Underneath, these instances speak to a very particular form of classist indoctrination prevalent in Mexico City’s private schools, in particular. Social status signaling is cliche among school-age kids everywhere, but in Mexico this sort of peer pressure takes on a deeper meaning, encompassing the country’s unique relationship to its only neighbor to the north.
Clothing is often at the center of these contests of social acceptance. Wearing a national brand of shoes or jeans instantly relegates you to the bottom of the social ladder. American brand names, conversely, propel you to the top. ‘Hecho en México’ is only for “nacos” – a derogatory term for the dark-skinned lower classes.
I had a front-row seat during my elementary school years as both witness and participant of this grotesque dynamic. Attending one of the city’s top private schools alongside the children of rich foreigners or high-ranking politicians, we were the kids with links to the “otro lado”. We took shopping trips across the border and had family in the United States. We wore our American brand name clothes to school and compared our American school supplies. We had Trapper Keepers and collected Garbage Pail Kids. We listened to Duran Duran and The Thompson Twins. Belting out the words to “El Rey” and other classic, truly Mexican Rancheras was only done after a few Tequilas.
The allegory of the astronaut represents the negation of self through the pursuit of the unattainable. Cuarón reveals a subconscious reality, that afflicts the upper classes in Mexico. A profound racism rooted in self-loathing and false identification with a different culture.
Bastard Machos – The Allegory of the Dead-Beat Fathers
Visiting my great aunt’s house in La Roma was, at once, entertaining and terrifying. Her son, my second cousin, had an inclination for mechanics and a bit of a prankster streak, which expressed itself in fun ways, like a pulley system he’d made to open the front door of the house from upstairs and frighten anyone who came knocking. The real hair-raiser, however, was in a room on the second floor where a life-size sculpture of Jesus Christ stood in full catholic regalia on an altar surrounded by candles. The figure had been sculpted by my great grandfather after “supposedly” having a religious epiphany on the battlefield during the Mexican Revolution.
The skepticism came directly from the women in the family, who seemed to doubt the sincerity of the man’s spiritual awakening and, rather, believed it was a momentary lapse in an otherwise steady pattern of drunkenness and adultery.
Mexican “machismo” is a world-famous stereotype, which is often accompanied by images of large hats and long mustaches. But, there is a much more mundane face to the pervasive reality behind the caricature.
On my mother’s side of the family, men were hard to find. My own grandfather had two families, simultaneously. He would only “visit” my grandmother in her two-bedroom Roma apartment every weeknight after his pediatric practice. She would make him supper and they would watch the “novela” together. Once the soap opera was over, he would wash up in her tiny bathroom and leave to spend the night with his other family. He seemed completely content with this arrangement and never appeared to have a shred of self-consciousness about it. To me, it was completely normal. I never thought to question why he was just coming in the evenings for a short while and leaving. Only later did I find out what a pathetic man my mother’s father was. My grandmother’s humiliation had become a part of her personality, so I never noticed that, either.
The absent father figure would manifest itself down the generational line in different ways. And it certainly isn’t exclusive to my family.
In the film, the chain-smoking father who abandons his family provides the inciting incident from which the rest of the story unfolds. The huge car, that barely fits in the car port, symbolizes the inflated sense of the Mexican male ego, too unwieldy to be part of a balanced family unit. When he leaves them, it is in a Volkswagen Beatle. But, his estranged wife still has to drive around in the massive vehicle, battering it as she comes to terms with her emotions and, finally, beaching the enormous four-wheeled animal.
Cleo’s love interest embodies the unfortunate archetype of the Mexican macho, as well. But, he also represents the larger context of the conversation. He tells us his story. How “martial arts” saved him from a dissolute life; a metaphor about the Mexican military and the thousands of young, disenfranchised men who make up their ranks. This is apparent when Cuarón makes him one of the plain-clothed gunmen chasing the activists through the furniture store – a scene, which makes little sense unless we consider the totality of the character’s symbolism and the actual history of state repression during those years in Mexico.
The allegory of the dead-beat fathers is the story of Mexican maleness. It is the historically ambiguous relationship with power, that stems from a 500-year old identity crisis borne out of the still unresolved trauma of colonialism.
Art, once it is completed, renounces ownership. The artist has no more say about how his or her work is seen, absorbed or interpreted than anyone else. I do not ascribe any of the above to the director’s original intentions or ideas when making his film. It is simply what I saw, as I saw it.
Netflix is about to release the third installment in its wildly successful series “Narcos”, which began with the fantastic portrayal of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar by Wagner Moura, in a well-conceived, albeit, fictional narrative centering around the exploits of the Medellin cartel and the hapless DEA agents in pursuit of its infamous leader.
The new season moves on chronologically and northward, to the mid 80’s in Mexico and the first case of a murdered agent of the DEA. Enrique “Kiki” Camarena was an anti-narcotics officer with the Drug Enforcement Administration working in Mexico under cover as a journalist. In the Winter of 1985, months before a devastating earthquake that would take thousands of lives in Mexico City, a member of the Guadalajara Group, got careless with the plans to kidnap him after his identity had been leaked to the criminal organization by an anonymous source in the American consulate located in the capital of Jalisco.
Rafael Caro Quintero had been just another uneducated thug on the payroll of the drug trafficking group, but had risen quickly in the ranks as a result of his ambition and innovative marijuana cultivation methods. At that time, the organization was headed by Amado Carrillo Fuentes, a.k.a. El Señor de Los Cielos, who would later put together a fleet of aircraft to transport narcotics across the border. Quintero ran part of Carrillo Fuentes’ operation with fellow gang deputy, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo or Don Neto. Together, they decided to teach the annoying DEA agent a lesson and scare him off.
Camarena was abducted and hidden in one of the organization’s main properties in the city of Guadalajara. Business was booming. The covert Iran-Contra operation was in full swing, and American deep state actors had scaled the Mexican drug trafficking business considerably. Tons of Colombian cocaine were being smuggled into the United States via the Sinaloan desert, where U.S. military personnel swapped the weapons cargo they had flown in, destined for Nicaraguan Contras, with cocaine brought up from South America on its way to the streets of South Central Los Angeles and other points in the growing crack and coke market. It was not surprising then, that Caro Quintero felt he could get away with torturing a DEA agent to death.
Nevertheless, when Fonseca Carrillo, heard what Quintero had done, he was terrified. He personally went to see the agent’s mangled corpse while it was still in the safe house and went off on Quintero. What his partner didn’t understand was that the boss was not THE boss. There were higher-ups in the Mexican military and the federal government who would not be happy with this turn of events. Quintero’s rouge actions could jeopardize their positions. Indeed, Don Neto was soon convicted of the agent’s murder and is languishing in a Mexican prison to this day. As for Caro Quintero, he too was arrested and sent to prison, though released just a few years ago. The Guadalajara Group, however, would continue to thrive under new figureheads groomed by the real bosses behind the scenes and rebrand itself as the Sinaloa Cartel.
The first two seasons of Narcos didn’t go very far down the rabbit hole of the deep state’s active involvement in the drug trade. At best, there were only some very subtle insinuations. But, nobody expects that to change as the series progresses. After all, there are “higher-ups” in nearly every industry and people, in general, like their heroes and villains to be clearly defined. Diego Luna is set to play the Lord of the Skies in the upcoming Netflix epic. If the Mexican actor is able to approach Moura’s gravitas from the first two seasons, then the show will be well worth the $9-dollar subscription price tag. But, don’t assume you’re going to get the real story about the drug war.
If you’re looking to be both informed and entertained, I would urge you to consider watching my series “Borderline – The Unhinged Truth About the Drug War”, currently half-way through its full release. Part I and Part II are out now, no subscription necessary.
Borderline – The Unhinged Truth About the Drug War
Is the war on drugs a failed policy or a vital tool of American hegemony?
A massacre in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila was unleashed by the most violent cartel in the country, the Zetas. As many as 300 people were murdered or kidnapped in 2011 by the mercenary drug army, but if it hadn’t been for the DEA, such a terrible tragedy might have never happened. Part one takes you on the ground of the deadliest war of our time, and sets the stage for the real story about the so-called war on drugs.
Part II takes a step back into history and looks at the roots of drug trafficking in America as well as the rise to power of the architect of the modern day “war on drugs”, George H.W. Bush, and the so-far unexamined, engineered crisis imposed on a rising Mexican economy three decades ago, which plunged it into the violence-ridden country it is today.
Part III begins with the collapse of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua and the creation of the world’s biggest illicit drug market in the United States via Iran-Contra by elements of America’s deep state. The policies and strategies employed by the military-industrial complex are then revealed in detail, as the political discourse of “national security” was continually used by both the Department of Defense and large U.S. multinational firms to impose hegemonic designs on Latin America and the world, with pharma giant Pfizer leading the way on the corporate front, and U.S. Southern Command (Southcom) assuming the lead role on the military front.
It’s Ultra Music Festival time, and the kids are back with their short shorts, fishnet stockings and lollipops to let loose for a few days in Downtown Miami. We took some pictures as Ultramiami kicks off, and thousands descend on the Magic City for their annual EDM ritual.
Once in a while, you get lucky in Miami. No, not that kind of lucky; the kind that lets you escape the ubiquitous flashiness and frivolous pursuits that characterize our touristy enclave. Last night, at the North Miami Beach Bandshell, everyone got lucky and witnessed a virtuoso performance by acclaimed Iranian musician, Sahba Motallebi, who was accompanied on stage by Naghmeh Farahmand, an accomplished percussionist trained by her father, Mahmoud Farahmand, considered a master of ancient Persian drum music in Iran.
Motallebi’s story is one of resilience in the face of religious and gender bias in her country, which she left in 2003 to pursue graduate studies. Although her supreme talent was recognized by winning the Best Tar Player award in the Iran Music Festival for four consecutive years, the graduate of the Tehran Conservatory of Music was impeded from continuing her studies as a result of being part of Iran’s largest non-Muslim minority, the Bahá’í. The fact that she was also breaking into the traditionally male-dominated world of Tar playing, made her advancement that much more difficult. At the age of 27, she left Iran for Russia, and later Turkey to further her musical education. Motallebi would eventually emigrate to the United States, where she resides today with her husband and two daughters.
Beyond the strings
Sahba Motallebi travels the world performing her beautiful compositions for the Tar, which means “string” in Persian, and is one of the oldest known musical instruments. The Tar is both the literal and linguistic ancestor of the guitar (gui-tar), which was brought to Spain by gypsies, and is the direct progenitor of Flamenco and other rich musical traditions of the Iberian Peninsula.
In a recent interview with the Miami New Times, Motallebi said that she sees herself as an ambassador for Iranian culture: “Naghmeh Farahmand and I are trying to introduce audiences to Iran through our music.” As well as a role model for Iranian women: “They are going to see me as a person that is going to talk on their behalf, on behalf of women who don’t have civil rights.”
Her passion for music and learning has led Motallebi to impart her knowledge through online instructional materials, which she does whenever she’s not on tour. Fortunately for us, she came to our little slice of dubstep hell, and graced the audience at the outdoor beach venue with a magical and inspiring performance many won’t soon forget. The first piece of the concert is presented in the video, and if you find yourself wishing you could listen to the rest of the show, all I can say is, better luck next time.
Go to the Ghost on the Water Landing Page to learn more about this documentary film project that examines the spiritual roots of environmental justice movements across America and confronting an unsustainable energy paradigm.
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