Honk 2012, Saturday, October 6, 2012

It’s an annual festival of activist marching bands organized in Somerville, Massachusetts by the musicians.  Music with something to say.  Music that matters.  It’s always great.

The Band Really Was on the Run: McCartney in Lagos

The release of the Beatles-Fela Kuti mashup by DJ Rich Medina and producer Mark Hines worked both lyrically and musically, as Hines told us on The World today. For me, an avowed Beatles and Fela fan, this is like a musical Reese’s peanut butter cup: two great tastes that taste great together. Perhaps not as much as the originals listened to separately. But still great.

The pairing also works from a historical perspective. Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Band on the Run,” which some critics argue is one of the best post-Beatles solo albums to come from any of the Fab Four, was recorded in Lagos, Nigeria.  I’ve even heard that the title came from the sense of constant motion while Wings was in Lagos.  And if you’re looking for anecdotes that serve as a metaphor for the colonial power meeting the colonized (Macca the British proxy, Fela the Nigerian), this is it. Wikipedia’s entry on “Band on the Run” tells the story quite well.

After the success of Red Rose Speedway and “Live and Let Die” – the featured song for the James Bond movie of the same name – Wings began contemplating its next album. Paul and Linda McCartney began writing new songs at their Scottish retreat soon after concluding their 1973 tour.

Bored with recording in the United Kingdom, they wanted to go to an exotic locale. After asking EMI to send him a listing of all their international recording studios, Paul happened upon Lagos in Nigeria and was instantly taken with the idea of recording in Africa.

Alongside the McCartneys, guitarist and pianist Denny Laine, lead guitarist Henry McCullough and drummer Denny Seiwell also were set to go. However, a few weeks before departing in August, McCullough quit Wings in Scotland; Seiwell followed suit the night before the 8 August 1973 departure for Nigeria. This left just the core of the band – Paul, Linda and Denny Laine – to venture to Lagos, along with former Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick.

Upon arriving in Lagos, the band discovered a country in stark contrast from their visions of paradise. The country was run by a military government, with corruption and disease running rampant. The studio, located on Wharf Road in the suburb of Apapa, was ramshackle and underequipped. The control desk was faulty and there was only one tape machine, a Studer 8-track. The band rented houses near the airport in Ikeja, an hour away from the studio. Paul, Linda and their three children stayed in one while Denny Laine, Geoff Emerick and Wings’ two roadies stayed in another.

The band established a routine of recording during the week and playing tourist on the weekends. Paul temporarily joined a country club where he would spend most mornings. The band would be driven to the studio in the early afternoon where recording would last into the late evening and sometimes early morning. To make up for the departed band members, Paul would play drums and lead guitar parts with Denny playing rhythm guitar and Linda adding keyboards.

More incidents would plague Wings’ Lagos stay. While out walking one night against advice, Paul and Linda were robbed at knifepoint. The assailants made away with all of their valuables and even stole a bag containing a notebook full of handwritten lyrics and songs, and cassettes containing demos for songs to be recorded. On another occasion, Paul was laying down a vocal track when he began gasping for air. According to Geoff Emerick, Sound Engineer for the album: “Within seconds, [Paul] turned as white as a sheet, explaining to us in a croaking voice that he couldn’t catch his breath. We decided to take him outside for some fresh air…[but] once he was exposed to the blazing heat he felt even worse and began keeling over, finally fainting dead away at our feet. Linda began screaming hysterically; she was convinced that he was having a heart attack…The official diagnosis was that he had suffered a bronchial spasm brought on by too much smoking.[3] ” Another incident was the confrontation with local Afrobeat star and political activist Fela Kuti who publicly accused the band of being in Africa to exploit and steal African music after their visit to his club. Kuti even went to the studio to confront McCartney who played their songs for him proving that they contained no local influence whatsoever. Later on drummer and former Cream member Ginger Baker invited the band to record their entire album at his place, ARC Studio in Ikeja. Though not wanting the invitation, Paul agreed to go there for one day. The song “Picasso’s Last Words” was recorded at ARC with Baker contributing a percussive tin of gravel.

Recording of the album was completed by the third week of September and the McCartneys hosted a beach barbecue to celebrate the end of recording. They flew back to England on 23 September 1973 where they were met by fans and journalists. In October, two weeks after the band’s return to London, final overdubs and orchestral tracks were added and the album was finished at George Martin’s AIR Studios (George Martin was not present).

“Helen Wheels” was released as a non-album single at the end of the month, becoming a worldwide Top 10 by the end of the year. As Band On The Run was being prepared for release, Capitol Records, US distributor for Apple Records, slotted “Helen Wheels” into the album although it was never McCartney’s intention to do so. While “Helen Wheels” is not included on UK versions of the Band on the Run CD (except as a bonus cut on the 1993 “The Paul McCartney Collection” edition of the CD) it has always been included on US editions of the CD starting with the initial Columbia Records release in 1984. Early versions of the Capitol release fail to mention “Helen Wheels” on the label or the CD insert, making the song a “hidden track”.

If you want to read more, this article in the Guardian fills in some of the background to Fela’s distaste for foreigners coming to Nigeria.

Peace Corps Days, Morocco, circa Chris Stevens

A picture of the late US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, taken when he served in the Peace Corps in Morocco

Last week, I spent several days trolling around for former Peace Corps volunteers who had served with Chris Stevens in Morocco. The late US ambassador to Libya taught English as a Second Language from 1983-85 when he was a volunteer in Morocco. And I thought it would be intriguing to hear what elements of his Peace Corps experience influenced him as a diplomat. You can hear his very good friend Amie Bishop reflect on that in this story I produced for The World last week.

I also have been receiving follow-up emails from other volunteers who were in Morocco around the same time. None was as close to Chris as Amie. But one email from former volunteer Kerry Ingrao provided some nuance to the Peace Corps Morocco experience. Kerry gave me permission to excerpt from that message he sent me.

When I first heard (Chris) had been killed I immediately recognized the name and thought, ‘Peace Corps?’ But I just could not recall him, although I must have met him. What is so surprising to me is that I lived in Marrakesh and he was somewhere in the High Atlas – which is the Marrakesh region – where there were almost no volunteers serving. We few in that traditional walled city would have been the nearest to him geographically. I would add one interesting comment: I didn’t associate with Foreign Service types at all, who were typically very straight-laced and guarded – hid their selves/ identities from exposure by playing a discretion game. I was openly gay, (although modest, dignified, centered, and qualified to do my job), smoked hashish (mixed with Camel cigarette tobacco), and thought that as an actual American, I had no reason to hide what I was, for that did truly represent a real part of what America also was. Those who were interested in the Foreign Service were (or at least seemed to me then to be) ridiculous, cloak-and-dagger wannabees…like some 50’s Cold War caricatures. One or two of these in Marrakesh typically observed and reported my actions on a regular basis – and I knew this and did confront them from time to time. After my life and work there, watching the progressive Muslim/Western deterioration, I am almost glad I don’t remember Chris. I truly want to hope he understood how to mitigate the growing conflict, that some part of him cared. To accept such a dangerous assignment, he must have had some very strong motivation. Or had he become just another career diplomat climbing to the top of the fray?

Chris Stevens, from Peace Corps years, and one of his fellow Moroccan school teachers

Where the US Embassy in Libya Used to Be

The late US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens was visiting Benghazi when he was killed yesterday. But he was based out of the capital Tripoli. In 2011, the US opened a new embassy in Tripoli. Prior to that, and following the resumption of US diplomatic relations with the country in 2004, the US had a “special interests section” at the Bab el Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli. When I travelled to the country in 2006 to report — on the opening up of Libya, and a total solar eclipse of the sun that was passing through its desert — I happened to stay at the Corinthia.
On one of my last days in Tripoli, I arranged a background interview with then-interim Ambassador Gregory Berry. At that time, it seemed security at the hotel/embassy was impenetrable. You had to pass by security guards at the hotel’s reception area, gain permission to board the elevator, and special permission to go to floor 3 (the only public access point for the embassy offices on floors 3, 4 and 5).
Apparently, a newfound freedom for Libya seems to imply newfound risks.

Art or Sport

The Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series 2012 made its fifth stop on the tour in Boston yesterday. The divers were here last year, and came back because they enjoyed the 27 meter platform affixed to the top of the Institute of Contemporary Art. Cliff diving is definitely a sport (and a pretty commercial one at that: Red Bull seems to own it, and there’s nothing quite like several thousand people guzzling Red Bull and urging on some already-wired cliff divers). And it’s not an easy sport. There are those Olympic-level acrobatics. And a person hitting the water at over 55 mph, no matter how gracefully, well, it sounds like torture. The fact that one diver yesterday had to bow out of competition because that’s what the sport does to a body was plenty evidence for me that cliff diving must feel like the way it sounds.

But why was the ICA motivated to host this sporting event? Cliff diving is certainly beautiful, and can be viewed as a form of performance art. And that ICA roof, cantilevered as it is over Boston Harbor, is just begging to have someone dive off it. Besides, the ICA’s web site says that designers Diller Scofidio + Renfro envisioned the building as a hybrid structure/work of performance art, so it becomes a canvas for what the ICA chooses to make happen there. I came away thinking it all made perfect sense. For those more interested in the sport than the art: the British diver and former world champ Gary Hunt crept out of his point deficit to push Colombian Orlando Duque into second place for the Boston leg of the tour.

The loneliness of the long-distance diver

A few words of advice pre-fall

The crowd awaits the next plunge

Status update near the end of competition

One of the final attempts at twilight off the roof of the ICA, Boston

Watching the final dive from the ICA parking lot at Fan Pier

Wiwa v. Royal Dutch Shell


Noo Saro-Wiwa is the daughter of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed by the Nigerian dictatorship in 1995. In our interview, we spoke mostly about her new book, “Looking for Transwonderland.” But afterwards, I asked her about the Saro-Wiwa family lawsuits that they brought against Royal Dutch Shell in 1996.

The family was able to sue Royal Dutch Shell in US federal court through the Alien Tort Statute. It’s a US law from 1789 which allows for non-US citizens to file suit in US courts when the cases involve international human rights violations. They also sued the company under the Torture Victim Prevention Act. It allows individuals to seek damages in the US for torture or extrajudicial killing, regardless of where the acts took place. The Saro-Wiwa family was aiming to hold Royal Dutch Shell complicit in human rights abuses against the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta. I asked Noo Saro-Wiwa what the basis was for the lawsuit.

The case did drag on for 12 years. But finally in 2009, Shell settled out-of-court with the Saro-Wiwa family for $15.5 million. But the company still denied any culpability in his and his nine fellow activists’ deaths.

Tomboctou, 1985

I went to Timbuktu for the first time in 1985 (or Tomboctou, as it was
spelled by the French colonizers, and those who would come under their
francophone sphere of influence). Mali and much of the Sahel was
suffering the effects of the 1984 drought that brought famine from
Senegal to Ethiopia. Bob Geldof had launched the “Feed
the World” campaign, and in 1985 he held the dual concerts of Live
Aid. At almost precisely the same time, I was wandering around
Tomboctou. There was evidence of famine, though it was mostly on the
outskirts of the city. I recall having coffee at the UNICEF compound
near Tomboctou’s airport with a brawny blond Swede who was managing
the organization’s relief efforts in northern Mali. He spent his days distributing
sacks of corn and cans of oil from US-AID. In Tomboctou’s small central
market, there was some food: shrivelled tomatoes and healthier looking onions, and always hot pepper and Maggi cubes.

Today, this city reportedly is slowly getting its soul sucked out of it by
Islamists. But in 1985, even though it had been transformed into a
catch-basin for famine refugees, Tomboctou felt vibrant and
multi-cultural, with Touaregs and black Africans co-mingling, and
madrassa students feeling like natural subjects in Tomboctou’s long history of Islamic scholarship.

Here’s an edit of some of my 1985 shots from Tomboctou. All are test
prints from Tri-X negatives, shot (as I recall) with a Nikon F and a
28mm lens.