Monday, April 23, 2007

Seattle, and academic technique.

Wow, New York is beautiful. Summer is really upon us, and I'm loving the warm weather and green things.
Seattle was beautiful, too, though in a rather different way. The natural beauty around the city is spectacular. We spent a little time after the conference sitting on a patch of lush grass near the Pike place market, eating our lunch, and watching the boats in the sound, and the sense of absolute, simple luxury overtaking me was so memorable. And there were several occasions when, walking around the city I caught sight of a sliver of silvery moon hanging in the sky beside the space needle, or the lights of the residential areas on the hillsides around us, and was delighted by the beauty of it. The flowers in the Pike place market, and the carnivalesque atmosphere around the fish stalls were really appealing, too, and I was really happy to see all of that. But there was something about Seattle that didn't sit well with me, and while I can't articulate it very clearly, I think it had something to do with the rather obscene displays of money that abound, not least at the Experience Music Project. I'm afraid the museum did not impress me. Very high-tech, and I'm sure great fun for the children who were milling around most of the weekend, but there is very little real thought about music and the way it works, sociologically, politically, or just in a very mundane practical sense. The conference, however, more than made up for the museum's inadequacies. There were a whole lot of super panels, and I heard some really high-quality papers that made me think in all the right ways, and I met some super people.
Our panel went really well, though I did realize that I have become a little too blaze about conference presentations. It's one thing to write a paper that people will pick through and dissect, and that you know you need to be rigorous with, but it is a whole other to know what you are talking about well enough to do more than simply read it. I tried to talk through this paper, rather than reading it, and I realized rapidly that I have become too reliant on the notes in front of me. I do think that there are some things that are best read, simply because it can be difficult to be concise and artistic with words in a live moment, but in general really being able to present a paper like this means being so deeply engaged with the vocabulary that you can pull it together coherently on the spot. It's a bit like knowing a musical instrument well enough to improvise on it. Doing it well means really knowing it. So I'm applying to a couple of South African conferences at the end of the summer, and I'm going to spend some time over the break getting that in touch with my data again.
In the mean time, the end of the semester looms. Three papers, two abstracts, two presentations and one more conference (at which, thankfully, I am not giving a paper this time) left, and some smaller scale stuff in between, and then I'm back to the airport for that much anticipated trip home. Can you believe my first year of grad school is nearly over? I can't.

Back in NYC

It's quarter to 2 in the morning, and I just got back from a super weekend in Seattle. The conference was really great, and our presentation went nicely. I'll blog in more detail when I have recovered a bit, but for now, my bed, and the book I need to finish for class tomorrow, are both calling to me. I think bed is winning out, though.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Sad thing

I just heard that a colleague of mine from South Africa died yesterday. She had been ill for a long time (since even before I met her), but that doesn't make it less of a shock. We both have chapters coming out in a book that has been several years and several conferences in the making, and the last of those conferences was the last time I saw her. As sad as I am, when I heard the news, I felt suddenly, unexpectedly, calmer than I have felt in a long time. Such a strange thought to have, under the circumstances.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Another conference, hey?

Ben, his girlfriend Serena and I are off to Seattle tomorrow for the Experience Music Project Conference, where Ben and I are giving a joint paper. I'm very excited, not least because my collegues who have spent time in Seattle have given us lots of suggestions for places to eat, and things to see and do while we are there. More than that, though, I'm excited by the prospect of our talk, which is on online representations of music scholarship, and involves, along other things, this blog. Wish us luck. We're talking on Sunday.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Great Hat Chase

I had a Pickwickian moment tonight. New York has been beseiged by quite a storm for most of today, and while it had tapered off a little by the time I left church, the wind was still doing its thing, roaring up the avenues. I have an enormous shapeless orange rubber poncho that was given to me when I was working at the New York Marathon last November, and as hideous as it is, it is just too serviceable for me to justify spending money on something prettier as long as it lasts. Tonight, in the dark, with the Manhattan streets about as empty as Manhattan streets are ever likely to be, I decided that it was time to brave the humiliation, and wear the poncho. I was glad I had when I saw how wet the part of my trousers that stuck out the bottom was when I got home, but I did feel rather self-conscious. Anyway, for all its practicality, the one thing the poncho is lacking is a decent hood. It has a little tent-like flap that zips into the collar, but try as I may I can't get that to stay on my head when the wind blows, and the amount of rain that ran down my sleeve when I tried to hold it in place convinced me that my usual courdroy rain hat and my umbrella were in order. Of course, if you have ever tried to hold onto a hat and umbrella when the tall buildings turn the avenues into howling wind tunnels, you will have an idea of how successful that endeavor was. I was just about to cross Madison avenue at the top end of Union Square tonight, when one of those screeching gusts whipped down the street, turned my umbrella inside out, and tossed my hat into the air, and onto the street behind me. I can only speculate at what I must have looked like waddling down the street like an overstuffed orange teddybear, fighting my umbrella, and grabbing futilely at the hat that would stay just out of my reach. It was a rather large puddle that finally came to my rescue, swallowing my hat and regurgitating it, limp and too sodden to fly any further, on a sidewalk grating at my feet. I gave up trying to keep my already dripping hair from getting any wetter after that, and was just grateful for the bits of me that stayed dry under the much maligned poncho. In certain circumstances, dignity is something only other people have, and you just have to learn to laugh at yourself.

Friday, April 13, 2007

A brittle democracy

I got cold shivers when I read this article in the Mail and Guardian about the destruction of a Great Trek memorial in Standerton. How can a country which claims to uphold multi-cultural ideals (I have problems with that ideological construct in the first place, which I will discuss some other time, but it is official policy after all), and bases its international status on notions of acceptance and reconciliation, condone an action like this? In the wake of the De La Rey issue, this is the type of action that is positively calculated to create dissent.

I want so badly to believe that South Africa is headed in a positive direction. I am staking my future, my career, and in many ways even my life, on it. My parents live in South Africa, and my intention is to rejoin them there when I complete this degree. I am building up a career on the belief that cultural practice offers the type of insight into the functioning of society that is necessary for peaceful and ethical coexistence. I really do believe that we are in the best possible position in the world to make that happen, because we are so aware of how easily things can go wrong, and so proud of the opportunity we have to make them go right. But when I read something like this, it makes me fearful, and leaves me feeling very much alone. Without the country I believe in, I'm just an alien, a foreigner in New York and the whole world. There is no place for me to call home, and there is no meaning in the work that I do. I'm not prepared to accept that.

The threat posed to Afrikaner culture is a threat to the foundations of democracy on which South Africa is build, and it is on an equal footing with the destruction of Sophia Town or District Six, or any of the acts of cultural violence perpetrated by the Apartheid government. It creates angry people, bitter people, and people who feel justified in committing acts of violence. No one wants to be evil, but people will do some pretty evil things in the name of self preservation, and making people feel like they have to fight to survive is like setting a table for evil right in the middle of the banquet hall.

I hate what apartheid did. I hate that it made people feel that acts of ruthless vengence like this are justified. And I hate that it has made so many people so angry. But repeating the cycle all over again is not the solution. Apartheid was the result of so many cycles of oppression and vengence that it is probably impossible to trace a root cause. It is, however, possible to break the cycle. But that means making an effort, if not to fully understand every culture (an impossible task), then at least to acknowledge its importance in the lives of some people, and not destroy it for the sake of destruction. Please don't destroy everything we have worked for, and don't dishonor the sacrifices made to get us to where we are. South Africa is worth more than that.

The Mayor who apparently ordered the damage to the memorial has been issued with a court order to personally pay for the repairs, according to News 24. Read this article here, as well as this one, this one and this one that all pertain to the issue.
On the issue of whose culture gets to be called African, read these News24 articles criticizing Mbeki's reconciliation strategy, discussing the role of Afrikaans in the anti apartheid struggle, and defending government's strategy with regard to Afrikaans

Thursday, April 12, 2007


It's my little brother's birthday today.
Happy birthday, Gordon. I hope it's a great one! Did I ever tell you that my earliest memory is of the day we brought you home from the hospital?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

more Zapiro

Another great Zapiro cartoon mentioning De La Rey. This one is even better than the last
The link isn't working, and try as I might, I can't seem to get it right. So here, instead, is a screen-cap of the cartoon that appeared in the Mail and Guardian on the 30th of March 2007.

This is an article in News 24 that describes, at least in part, what this cartoon is responding to.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Unbelievable luck

I just may have been offered the most perfect apartment today. I saw it months ago, envied it hugely, and never even vaguely believed that it was possible. And suddenly, it is a distinct possibility. It is two blocks from our department, in the village, with an unbelievable view, sun, space, and rent that I can afford. My roommate is coming with me tomorrow to look at it, but even if she decides against it, I'm going to accept. It is right at the top end of my budget, but not outside of it, and with my roommate it will be even cheaper than where we are currently staying. And infinately nicer. I am so excited, I have been grinning all day, and periodically doing a happy dance when there aren't too many of the people I have to make a good impression on around. There are several mitigating circumstances that may still make it impossible, and so I am holding my breath, but I can't even begin to make myself not excited about it. It is unbelievable. and just so great!

My roommate loves the apartment, and she and our potential landlady seemed to get along well, which is important in this situation. So lets keep holding thumbs. This could be so great.

Comic relief

Today's Zapiro cartoon in the Mail and Guardian is such a classic, I just had to link to it. And please note the De La Rey reference.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Happy Easter

New York is in the grip of winter's last stand, with snow flurries, temperatures around freezing, and an icy wind roaring down the avenues, stealing hats and scarves, and anything not securely fastened to my person. But the city is so beautiful with spring flowers peeping out of the winter-bare soil and the leafless branches of trees covered in pink and white blossoms, that it is hard to think of it as anything other than spring. I drank my now customary cup of hot cider in Union Square this afternoon, and watched a man feeding the few skittish squirrels who were bold enough to get within peanut-tossing distance of him, while a team of gardeners spread fine straw over the daffodil studded lawns. Such a beautiful way to spend an hour in New York city.

This evening was the great easter vigil, and as tends to happen, I had more places to be than I could manage. I started out at one church in the village, where a friend of mine was being confirmed, and then slipped out just after his confirmation and dashed up town to make it to my usual church in time for the big service. It was a particularly special service, as the Presiding Bishop of the United States was officiating for the evening, and so the church filled up quickly. I have been to easter vigils before, and even sang in one at St. Mary's cathedral in Johannesburg when I was in highschool, but I have never been to one quite as big and dramatic as the one tonight. The service began with a completely dark church, but was soon illuminated by a huge number of candles lit one at a time as the procession entered the church. The standard selections of readings and chants followed, with baptisms, confirmations and renewals of baptismal vows in the middle of the service, and then the dramatic climax as all but the main candle were extinguised, and the main church lights were brought up as the opening hymn of the Eucharist was sung. It was all very spectacular, not least because of the enormous number of flowers all over the church.

In South Africa, Easter has, for good reasons, always felt distinctly autumnal to me, with the weather at its mellow best, and the air infused with the scent of pine and veld fires, and various shades of orange, yellow and gold. But I can understand how important the theme of renewal is during a northern hemisphere spring, like this. The effect is different. It was very lovely. Happy Easter, everyone.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Literary success

Jane Taylor, one of my former lecturers from Wits, has won the Olive Shriner award for her first novel, Of Wild Dogs. It is a super book. She did some readings from it at a seminar run by my former advisor, in 2005, and I was so engaged by it that I read it in a single sitting, a rare occurrence for me. Well done, Jane. I am looking forward to the next one.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Learning to be a grad student

I'm sure I've said it before. I've certainly thought it before. Either way, it bears repeating. Student/advisor relationships are hard.
I had a meeting with my advisor today to talk about work, and also about both of our recent travels, and while it went really well in many ways, and she was great and supportive and very helpful, I still found it really difficult to talk sense. I guess I'm still in the early stage of this setup, where I'm still trying to make a good impression, and I really am trying desperately to convince her that I am a student that she could want to work with. And so I feel like everything I say is over-eager and self-promoting, but at the same time lacking the substance that comes with experience and reading. I have so much to read before I can do good work. I have often thought about the process of becoming an academic as a sort of apprenticeship, where we learn from great scholars by watching them work, and working alongside them, and absorbing some stuff by osmosis, and other stuff through direct tutoring. But really, it isn't much like that at all. Our professors give us reading that they have done already, and have to re-read much of it themselves in order to lead discussion, despite the fact that it may not fit particularly well with their own work. They then have to read our efforts, and spend time helping us improve our work, and somewhere in amongst all that, they have to fit in their own work, much of which we as students are unlikely to hear about, because we are too busy with our own concerns. I feel a bit like I have to be more together and smart and productive, just to give my advisor a motivation to work with me in the first place.
I do have a super advisor, though. And that is worth a whole lot.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The arguments are where, exactly?

While issues over name changes in South Africa frequently get framed as a racial thing, this article and this article, both in the Mail and Guardian, suggest that the situation is not always so black and white.

The Supreme Court of Appeal has decided that insufficient consultation occurred before the town Louis Trichard was renamed Makhado, and have ruled that the change is to be reversed. This iAfrica article reflects on the potential impact of this decision on debates about other name changes around the country, and mentions, right at the bottom of the article, that the costs of the court case will be paid by the Name Change Council and Palo Jordan. No one, however, mentions the cost of the initial change, or the costs involved in this new development. According to the article, Pallo Jordan's spokesperson said that name changes "must reflect the needs of the people". Is it even necessary for me to point out that a country dealing with poverty, unemployment and AIDS to the extent that South Africa is, seems to have particularly pressing financial needs that are not addressed when these name changes take place?
As I tend to be on so many things associated with South African politics, I am ambiguous about the issue of name changes. On the one hand, it is not fun to have to explain to people why there is a statue to the man known as the "author of apartheid" overlooking a town in the Karoo. And having to explain place names commemorating people like that would be equally difficult. On the other hand, not all of the names being changed reference apartheid. In fact, more of them reference pre-apartheid history, and in particular, the history of South Africa's disengagement from British imperialism. I think it is important for people to know that not all Afrikaans culture is about apartheid, and commemorating other aspects of Afrikaans history is one way of doing that. On the other hand, I recognize the need to commemorate the anti-apartheid struggle history. So is the way to do that by over-writing other histories? The current practice is making people angry and resentful. I have spent a huge amount of time justifying arts and culture spending in relation to their function in the construction of a governable society, and so I get why it is important to spend money on things like this. But the efforts have got to be more productively directed than they at present are.

So my suggestion: lets number streets and towns (that is the way the post office works, after all), and spend that money on choirs where people can sing together, schools and community centers where they can learn about one another, journals, radio and television programs where they can talk about things together, and the police force, so that they can make use of all of the above without fearing for their lives. Just a suggestion

UPDATE 2: All subsequent name-changes in Johannesburg will reference South African fauna and flora, rather than people. Someone finally got it right! Well done. We are back on track.

Links to relevant articles:
Mail and Guardian: Planned worker's day march to protest the Durban name changes. The highway in Durban is blocked by protesters ahead of the march. The worker's day march turns violent, and a more light-hearted take on the consequences of the name change issue. Name change signs in Potchefstroom are being removed and defaced, an article which is also relevant to my post on De La Rey. Pretoria is to be changed to Tshwane, a process that has been incrementally ongoing for ages! A process of public consultation on the issue of name-changes has been initiated.

News 24: Louis Trichard to Makhado, who will pay for the blunder?, the PAC criticizes the reversal, The name change reversal should not effect other name changes, Name change process started up again, the ANC will protect Afrikaans,

Monday, April 02, 2007

A weekend in Virginia

I'm home, and well-rested after a good night's sleep, and an unintended sleep-in this morning (At least class is only this afternoon).
The weekend was wonderful. I had a bit of a bumpy start on Friday morning, when security at JFK spent so long checking all my paperwork to validate the authenticity of my South African passport and US visa, that I missed the plane, and had to wait on standby for the next one, but I caught that one without a problem, and T very sweetly waited for me in Richmond. It was wonderful to step off the plane in Virginia and take off my jersey.
The weather was beautifully warm, and it was wonderful to wonder around Colonial Williamsburg in short sleeves, with someone who really knows the area. I'm sure T will blog about that a little herself, but she spent several years in the town, and knows the ins and outs. We bought kitchy souvenirs, photographed buttercups and violets in the grass, hurled magnolia pods, and watched lambs hopping about in a way I would never have believed possible, had I not actually seen it myself. We also watched a parade of men and boys (and a few girls) enacting military manouvers, were followed up the oyster-shell lined street by a fife and drum band, and wondered around the kitchen garden of one of the establishments.
Finally, in the early evening, another friend joined us, and we spent a little time touring the college campus before the conference reception. T played some tunes with one of the folklorists who was there, and it was wonderful to hear her play (the first time I have). Finally, a group of us headed out to one of the few restaurants that was open at 22:00 (Williamsburg is not New York!) to grab some dinner (and chocolate raspberry cake for pudding. So good), before making our way back to the hotel.
Saturday started with cinnamon buns and orange juice at the university, before the panels started. We missed the first paper, but everything else I heard was superb. There was a really great range of topics, and I was very impressed with how polished and clear so many student papers were. The keynote speaker gave a really wonderful reference to the work of my advisor that made me very proud, and I spent a lot of time thinking how happy I was to be there. My paper was in the afternoon, and despite some technology fumbles in the morning (we couldn't connect my computer to the sound system, and I had to write a new CD, instead), it went well. I always feel like the inevitability of race issues in my work mean that I risk losing some of my audience before I even start (another white girl speaking about black music. sigh) and I got at least one of the type of question that makes it apparent that it was read that way by at least one person, but in general, I was happy with the outcome. And I enjoyed the intersections between my paper and the one that followed it.
The conference day ended on Saturday with a really long concert that showcased a huge selection of performers from among the conference attendees. I heard gamelan for the first time, and was really impressed by many of the departmental ensembles. Afterwards, T and finished up the evening at our hotel talking about everything and anything until the early hours of the morning. There is nothing like traveling with a friend to get to know them really well.
Sunday morning began with a joint panel between MACSEM (the organization whose conference we were there for), and MAFA, the Mid-Atlantic Folklife Association, who had parallel panels to ours all weekend. It was really interesting to hear both groups converse, though I wish I had had time to attend a full panel from the MAFA group. T gave the last paper of the weekend, which went really well, and ended things on a high note, and then a group of us went to a smart French restaurant for lunch. We had eaten every meal of the weekend in one particular restaurant, and so it was nice to have a change, and to have time to chat to people I am only just getting to know.
T and I then had a few hours to kill before we needed to catch our plane, and so we drove toward the airport via a particularly picturesque route so that I could see some of the countryside. Virginia looks so lovely, and I really hope I will have another opportunity to visit. T suggested a winter break there sometime next year, and the idea is really appealing.
And just to round off my set of new experiences for the weekend, we went shoe shopping at an outlet mall (which, for my South African readers, is an open-air shopping complex with a series of name-brand shops with significantly lower prices than in New York), and stopped at a self-service petrol garage (gas station) on our way to the airport. To my delight, my South African drivers license got me through security far more easily than my passport does, and before I knew it, we were in the air, and on our way back to New York.
It has been such an amazing weekend. I am really glad to have had the break from my routine, and the fact that it was in a beautiful place, with lovely people, made it all the better. Thank you, T, for a super weekend. I wouldn't even have applied were it not for you, and I am really glad I did.