Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Transcript of Interview with Dr. Adel Zagha, at Birzeit University

Hi All,
Below is an (unedited) transcript of an interview with Dr. Adel Zagha at Birzeit University in Ramallah, part of a piece I am doing on trade and development in the oPt.

1. Does the PA have a coherent vision for economic development in the Palestinian territories? How does it compare with that of Hamas?

The PA has developed plans for economic development of medium term nature. The PA had done so many times. My own reading of these plans is that they were drawn in hassling manner with the purpose of soliciting funding from the donor community. I myself do not believe in development under occupation (being it explicit or under the veil). When the nation has no control over its territorial borders; no contiguity among its regions; with frequent closures for security reasons or whatever reasons by the Israeli military forces; while national unity does not exist; and no participatory approach to development, development itself becomes an exercise to solicit funding and no more. For long term purposes, I believe the PA should work closely with the Palestinian people’s representatives to draw a national vision for development

For Hamas, I have read no document of them that lay the ground for a long term vision for economic development aside from the religious rhetoric. Development builds on three foundations: (a) provision of basic needs (you cannot have more if you do not have enough), (b) freedom of choice (including freedom from foreign military occupation, slavery, freedom of thought and freedom to choose appropriate technology, …etc), and (c) a basic change towards behaviour and attitudes to enable the people to have self dignity, identity or what have you. I do not think that Hamas is scoring in any of these, no matter what the reasons are. Imposing and indoctrination of ideology will limit the freedom of thought and the freedom of choice and it will never enable people to become masters of their own lives.

Over the medium term, the PA is scoring in soliciting funding for some development projects which can bring some improvements of the economic situation and some economic growth. But I suspect its long run sustainability. I believe that external funding should have had concentrated on building the national capacities to enable the internal impulse of economic growth (not to mention development). Moreover, the character of economic improvement that had been achieved under the PA is biased and had worsened income distribution since it had lead to the concentration of power and wealth in the hand of a few. Hamas’s policies on the other hand had lead into the pauperization of the masses and transformed the people of Gaza into receivers of aid while the productive base of the Strip had become thin (while at the same time, a new social class of rich people had emerged who had fortunes of trade smuggling).

2. Could you outline the principal economic constraints of the Paris Protocol in terms of the fiscal autonomy of the PA?

I wrote much about this. The main constraint is that the PA is made to be almost totally dependent of the Israeli transfers of revenues that accrue to the PA through the clearance system. It is also believed that some sort of fiscal leakage even if Israel had had the best intentions due to the fact that many products are re-exported to the Palestinian side as if they were Israeli products while they are in fact imported to Israel. Another form of fiscal leakage happens due to the loss of seigniorage that could have been gained on the circulation of a national currency. The circulation of the Israeli shekel is behind such a loss (estimated at about 5% of GDP).

3. Would you agree that a resolution to the PA-Hamas split is a precondition for economic growth? If we look at Gaza Strip and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) as one political unit, and I think we should, then I would agree that such resolution is a precondition for economic growth. There are natural and historical economic ties between the two areas. They complement each other. For economic development, I believe such a resolution is a necessary condition for economic and social development because without national consolidation and unity development becomes impossible.

4. The PA wants to join the WTO. What are your thoughts on the desirability of this bid?

I think we cannot avoid becoming a member of the WTO. If we have to have some differential treatment in terms of trade policies (tariffs and quotas), then we should come a member to make benefit of such clauses where Palestine should be treated as a developing nation.

The idea that we are a de facto member of the WTO is absurd. Israel is not a developing nation and Palestine is only an annex to it. I am sure that Palestine needs time to become free of the Israeli economic hegemony. During this time we should not leave it the best intentions of Israel. We need to benefit from the WTO clauses on the differential treatment of a Palestine as a developing nation. With the WTO on our side, we can negotiate better terms with Israel than otherwise. Of course the benefits from WTO membership can be utilized if Palestine was sovereign. You know that friends of Palestine, countries like China might not agree to such full membership because it would not welcome such a move because Taiwan would become eligible for such membership something that China would hate.

I have to summarize by saying this: Development under occupation is an illusion on the one hand. Liberation is the anti thesis of military occupation and nothing less. On the other hand, development is more than lip service. It entails basic transformation from being destined to being masters of own future. By itself, transformation entails the building of strong foundations to enable the fulfilment of the human potential of free Palestinians as citizen of a free country and citizen of a world where mutual interests promotes cooperation rather than hegemony.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

George Soros

I like Soros' weathered face. I'm reminded of Saul Bellow's advice that you should only trust someone if they look as though they have been kicked around a little

Miliband Gets Shirty

Go Miliband! Drive over the nimbys in a solar powered tank. Undemocratic, but its an emergency.

Monday, 9 November 2009

CNN Plonker

Encouraging to hear a CNN presenter interview the CEO of Anadarko recently about 'stupid' cap and trade legislation, before discussing the coming events at Copenhagen 'in the Netherlands'

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Tripping up on J street

An excellent article on the coherence of 'J Street', a new liberal US lobby trying to advance a pro-Israel, pro-peace message and emasculate the very harmful (and powerful)American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) - which is preventing the US taking a strong line on the settlements. An unwalkable path, says Max Ajl. Depressingly, he may be right.


Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Total tell UK to get candles ready

Christophe de Margerie, Total’s chief executive, just told the FT that a clear framework needs to be put forward regarding carbon otherwise fossil fuel energy companies won't have the information they need to weigh up investments, leading to a supply crunch. Uncertainty is a greater problem for these companies than a clear tax framework, even if that tax cuts deep.

Then he told the UK to 'get the candles ready' if we don't sort it out.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Poor Saudis

Saudi Arabia wants financial compensation for a climate change deal that kicks the global oil habit. Bless.

Solar powered space ships

There has been much talk recently of satellites to catch sunlight for energy shipment back to earth. I can't imagine the profit margins are very tasty on that kind of enterprise??

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Troubled Borders: Egypt's Lonely Predicament After Gaza (The Legacy of Camp David 1979-2009, Middle East Institute)

If the bulldozing of Gaza demonstrated the determination of Israel and Hamas to persist with familiar strategies, it also revealed the lonely predicament of Egypt. From Israel’s formation in 1948 to the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Egypt was intent on Israel’s destruction. Yet following Egypt’s defeat that year, President Anwar Sadat set in motion a process that culminated in the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in 1979, thereby making Egypt the first Arab state to officially recognize Israel.Two years later Sadat was assassinated, but his successor Husni Mubarak continued a trajectory of normalization with Israel. By 1991, Foreign Minister ‘Amr Musa remarked that peace with Israel was “not a luxury but a need.”

Even as violence against Israel prevailed along all other borders, Egypt acted as negotiator, mediator, and critic of both Israeli and Palestinian militancy. The tenability of that approach, however, has come under strain since the recent conflict in Gaza.

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, recognizing that the return of the region to the Palestinians was the sin qua non of a political resolution. Yet far from appeasing the Palestinians, Israel’s withdrawal strengthened the extreme wing of the resistance. Hamas, which formed out of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in 1988 to pursue the annihilation of Israel, obtained power by election in 2006. Hamas’ ascendancy and kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in June of that year, provoked the return of Israeli forces, which enforced a crippling economic blockade, restricted trade, and carried out military operations against Hamas forces.

Israel’s blockade was an attempt to undermine the leadership of Hamas, and forcibly convince the population of a semi-independent Gaza to adhere to the more moderate political character and ideals of the West Bank’s Fatah (whose political objective
is a return to the pre-1967 borders only, not the destruction of Israel proper).
Hamas responded by speculative missile attacks which, apart from the fragile truce brokered by Egypt in the summer of 2008, provoked Israel to tighten the blockade. Hamas, in turn, stepped up its offensive and launched nearly 300 rockets and mortars into southern Israel between the 19th and 27th of December. Israel’s response took the world by surprise. Sixty-four combat aircraft dropped 108 laser-guided munitions on 40 Hamas targets, commencing a broad operation intended to deal ‘painful and surgical blows’ to the Hamas infrastructure. Israeli planes, soldiers, and tanks attacked Rafah on the Egypt border, South Gaza, the Islamic University in Gaza City, Zaytun, Bayt Hanun, Jabalya, and Bayt Lahiya before entering the myriad streets and alleys to fight tooth and nail against Hamas.

But “Operation Cast Lead” caused the deaths of many hundred Palestinian civilians, the wounding of thousands more, and a collapse of electricity and aid supplies across Gaza. Israel’s rage and the impossible precision required for fighting Hamas soldiers operating within the civilian population proved to be a catastrophic combination. No state or international body intervened. The awkwardness of a presidential transition and the United States’ ultimate allegiance to Israel rendered it ineffective. Iran, meanwhile, plainly subsidises Hamas and its objectives.

The United Nations— the only “impartial” body — was roundly ignored in its calls for a ceasefire. The only positively neutral entity (in the sense of being to some degree committed to both sides instead of neither) is Egypt, but its predicament is extremely awkward in light of its demographic composition and zigzagging history of allegiance. Egypt supports the Palestinians’ rights to Gaza, but opposes Hamas for three main reasons.

The militants regularly breach the Egypt-Gaza border when smuggling weapons through underground tunnels, they operate autonomously in Egyptian territory, and most importantly they embody the worrisome spread of Iranian influence. So fraught is the relationship that on occasion Turkey has had to mediate between Egypt and Hamas as Egypt tries to mediate between Hamas and Israel. Since the Egypt of today prefers to strengthen relations with the US, the EU, and, broadly speaking, the “global North,” it stands to gain from the destruction of Hamas. However, the massive loss of Palestinian civilian life in Gaza made condemning Hamas a risky business.

Egypt’s predominantly Muslim population demanded the government rather denounce Israel as well as open the Rafah border to aid and movement (turning a blind eye to the smuggling of arms that would follow). While senior Egyptian figures did
criticize Israel, with the Foreign Minister Ahmad Abul Ghayt criticizing its disregard for international consensus in pursuing the attack, the government kept the border sealed. Anti-government demonstrations flared up; Egyptian police quelled street protests in the Fatah and Azhar mosques in Cairo.

The government appeared even more isolated when Saudi Arabia, which enjoys a comparatively good relationship with the United States and frequently rebuts Iranian calls to arms against Israel, put regional differences aside in denouncing the Zionist state in stronger terms than Egypt had. Undeterred, Mubarak, along with Ghayt, Nicolas Sarkozy, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and others, are now attempting to implement an ‘international’ policing of the Israel-Egypt border crossings, a military presence that would detect new digging and monitor the Sinai Peninsula for aboveground smuggling. Such a presence would be both pragmatic, preventing Hamas from importing arms into Gaza and provoking further IDF attacks, and symbolic, sending a powerful message that Egypt does not support terrorism. But while such a message may be well received in Brussels or Washington, it will provoke anger at home. Egypt’s Muslim population will resent the government’s attempt to gain political leverage out of a conflict whose greatest victims are innocent Palestinian Muslims.

Furthermore, if Egypt fails to prevent Hamas from smuggling arms into Gaza (a likely scenario, given the assistance Hamas receives from Sinai Bedouins, who receive handsome payment for digging tunnels), Egypt will be in the worst of all possible positions — criticized by Arab nations for supporting Israel and criticized by the “global North” for turning a blind eye to Hamas. If Mubarak accomplishes the nearimpossible goal of securing the border without alienating his own population, Egypt’s achievement will be immense.


Saudi Arabia Reaps Ethiopia’s Harvest (New Internationalist, March 2009)

Saudi Arabia has reaped the first rice harvest from farmland it purchased in Ethiopia. Presented to King Abdullah this March, the harvest marks the first output of a controversial ‘outsourcing’ strategy, whereby Saudi investors purchase land overseas to produce food for Saudi consumers, bypassing local economies and the global food market.

The approach is gaining credence in the Gulf. An arid climate and prohibitively expensive irrigation costs mean the region imports 60 per cent of its food. When food prices soar, such as the tripling of rice, wheat and corn costs experienced last year, Saudi Arabia becomes food insecure. Owning more farmland, even if overseas, gives it greater control over both the production and price of food.

The strategy is portrayed by the Saudi leadership as benign. Saudi Arabia manages the agricultural production and human resources. It is not, therefore, exploiting cheap local labour. Neither is it profiteering in the global food market from higher agricultural yield, since produce is flown back for Saudi consumption. Yet a closer look at the countries being approached by Saudi investors shows a preference for weak or unstable states with low taxation, minimal bureaucracy and insufficient capital to grow food on the land (and thus a willingness to sell land to those that can, for less than it is probably worth).

Nations visited by Saudi officials include Sudan, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, Ukraine and South Africa. In the case of Sudan, Hail Agricultural Development Company (HADCO) will invest as much as $45 million, cultivating wheat over 10,000 hectares, and the Sudanese Government are putting a further 780,000 hectares up ‘for sale’. All the while, Sudan fails to provide food for its own population, and is one of the largest recipients of aid from the UN World Food Programme.

Sudan is not the only poor country courting such investment. Cambodia is currently in talks with Kuwait and Qatar about a similar scheme. Hun Sen, the Cambodian Prime Minister, rejects criticisms that he is selling his peoples wares: ‘I think the Gulf can become our rice market,’ he claims. Yet the Gulf is interested in cheap land, not local produce, so talk of a ‘market’ seems confused. Simple payment for land could be of benefit to Cambodia’s development, of course, but Sen’s track record for receiving foreign investment is not too encouraging. Millions of dollars were paid to the Cambodian Government to secure oil drilling rights but have yet to appear on its balance sheet, according to NGO Global Witness.

For the people of Sudan, Cambodia and other nations in the Gulf’s sights, the new colonialism could begin impacting the most primary of commodities, and what payments are made will go to governments, not to the wider economies, serving only to reward leaders for their failure to till the land themselves.


This Is Africa articles

I have written two recent features for This Is Africa, an excellent new magazine published by the FT.

Links are here, if you want:



The pitfalls of protectionism shown by Brazil and Mexico (China Post, August 2009)

Brazil and Mexico are planning to increase the number of oil and gas jobs allocated to domestic companies. Like most protectionist schemes, the unintended consequences on employment, production and revenue outweigh the intended ones. In Brazil, with a massive new offshore oil discovery, President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva is proposing to award some exploration and production rights to Petrobras, the state-owned but publicly-trading oil group, without options for foreign firms. A new state company Petrosal would also award over half of shallow-water contracts to local companies. In deeper waters beyond the capacity of local companies, foreign bids would be invited but those pledging to incorporate Brazilian staff or technical resources would be favored.

Mexico is on a similar protectionist trend. President Felipe Calderon signed off in December 2008 on plans to increase “local content” in the Mexican energy industry to 25%, partly by creating a support fund for Mexican companies.

Ironically, this protectionism in energy is the opposite of the open trade that Mexico and Brazil have adopted in regional trade agreements and international competition in other fast-developing sectors such as agriculture and aerospace. So why oil?

In fact, governments both rich and poor intervene considerably in oil and gas — including in the labor market — because the revenues can change the fate of the country. Oil allowed Angola to repay IMF debt and helped revitalize the UK economy under Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, blocking bids from foreign companies was a strategy of Norway, which actually postponed drilling to allow the country to build up other domestic oil service activities to run alongside the burgeoning industry.

The logic driving such decisions runs thus: Countries without domestic oil and gas companies find the exploration and production process becomes an enclave economy, with foreign experts shipped in and out and the fiscal proceeds going straight to government by way of royalties instead of to local companies and employees. But there are pitfalls to protectionism.

Firstly, state-owned oil and gas companies have proven less efficient than private corporations. “On average, NOCs (national, state-owned, oil companies) extract resources at a far lower rate than IOCs (independent oil companies),” says Mark C. Thurber, Director of the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford University.

This is because monopolies are not subject to competition and are prone to corruption: Gazprom, Russia's state-owned gas company, has debts totalling US$40 billion and has brought only one new Russian gas field on stream since the early 1990s.

State companies also pursue political strategies not relevant to — and sometimes at odds with — the business of drilling. Iran, for instance, has just pledged to fund a refinery in Uganda. This makes no commercial sense, since Iran is struggling to develop its own small refining capacity (it rationed gasoline in 2006) and landlocked Uganda has no comparative advantage in refining. However, Iran may be increasing such overseas oil deals to complicate potential sanctions against its nuclear program. The problem is that inefficiency doesn't simply mean getting consistently less oil, or getting it slower. It can mean sharper slumps in oil production than with more experienced and efficient firms. In countries where oil revenues generate a significant fraction of the economy, such slumps wreak havoc on government budgets, leading to extravagant overspending or intolerable austerity.

Greater state involvement in exploitation can therefore harm fiscal planning. Venezuela shows the dangers.

“Hugo Chavez has remade PdVSA (Venezuela's state-owned oil company) into a government puppet that spends liberally on social programs, but it consistently undershoots its production targets,” says Dr. Thurber. This means the terms of foreign contracts are frequently changed to balance the government books, deterring foreign investment, which further undermines oil production and thus government spending upon which the population increasingly depends. Similar policies mean Venezuela is now short of once-abundant coffee and sugar too.

Protecting labor markets is, on balance, problematic if not incoherent. Mexico's oil group Pemex is employing foreign firms to help improve its low oil recovery rates at the same time as the Mexican government tries to increase the domestic labor share: it is precisely because its domestic industry has been unproductive that Mexico needs to invite foreign companies in.

In Brazil, the offshore reserves in question are enormous and could deliver up to 1.3 million barrels per day. Maximizing the benefits of such a find would be best served by the competitive pressure of open bidding, yielding steadier tax revenue, from foreign firms as well as Petrobras.

In the current crisis governments everywhere are tempted to intervene in markets but what makes sense during the good times makes sense during the bad times too: the patriotic solution is to let the market do the work.


Oil Nationalism in Latin America (Foreign Policy in Focus, Washington, August 2009)

Latin America is endowed with 132 billion barrels of "proven" oil. Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico, and Ecuador have significant reserves and strong state involvement in the exploration and production of oil through their nationalized companies Petróleos de Venezuela (PdVSA), Petrobras, Pemex, and Petroecuador, respectively. There have been several notable legal developments this year in all four nations, which will have consequences for U.S. energy policy and thus its relations with oil providers overseas.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva and his mines and energy ministry have devised a stricter tax framework and pushed for more aggressive terms with foreign companies around the country's new-found offshore oil. The government has put forward a new state-owned company dubbed Petrosal to manage the licensing. This new company will award some exploration and production rights straight to Petrobras without options for foreign firms. Also, by mandate, it will award over half of the shallow-water contracts to Locally-owned Oil Service Companies (LOSCs). In deeper and more challenging waters beyond the capacity of local companies, foreign companies will be invited to bid. Those pledging to incorporate Brazilian "content" — human or technical resources — will likely stand a better chance of obtaining contracts. Petrobras and foreign firms will also likely pay higher taxes and royalties, and this revenue will go toward public programs.

Mexico is engaged in a similar trend of soft nationalization or even protectionism in which the state intervenes in the market to maximize domestic job provision. President Felipe Calderon signed reforms in December 2008 to increase local content in the Mexican energy industry to 25%, for example via the construction of a national support fund for LOSCs.

Venezuela and Ecuador have taken an altogether more combative stance. In May, Venezuela passed a law allowing PdVSA to expropriate oil and gas assets from foreign companies, who were refusing to work until a backlog of receipts were paid (PdVSA owes around $12 billion to foreign contractors). The law also allowed PdVSA to pay debts with government bonds instead of cash. In Ecuador, meanwhile, 30,000 indigenous peoples have filed a lawsuit against Chevron for environmental damage in Lago Agrio. Chevron actually settled out of court for large oil spill damages in 1998 with a $40 million payment, and a government-signed agreement releasing them from liability. The new case — begun in 2003 and currently under judicial review — demands $27 billion in additional compensation for the oil spills. Despite the apparently binding nature of the earlier judgement, the Ecuadorean government has endorsed the suit.

Business as Usual?
For environmentalists who want to see a reduction in oil production and use, these changes might be of little comfort. Major U.S. oil companies will suffer, but Latin American companies will simply pick up the slack. Despite global warming, it's not so easy to do away with the oil complex. Oil revenues underpin massive public spending programs in Brazil and Venezuela, and neither country is prepared to leave the precious resource in the ground (or under the sea). So, environmentalists and social justice advocates square off, as these countries seek a fairer deal for their resources.
There are also practical problems. The United States imports over half of its oil. Alternative fuels and vehicle power sources are still nascent and need further development to become affordable. Even President Barack Obama — who ran an ad during his presidential campaign hammering ExxonMobil for its profits — acknowledges that oil tax revenues will be necessary for the next decade or so for investment in renewable energy technologies, and his administration just backed a new pipeline to Canada's oil sands, the "dirtiest" crude source.

Changes in Brazil and Mexico make for a tougher climate for U.S. oil companies. But there is no profound shift, and it will likely be business as usual. Chevron just commenced a $3 billion project in Brazil's Frade field, for instance, and Obama's national security adviser General James Jones has discussed a $10 billion dollar loan to Petrobras to help Brazil develop its offshore reserves. The legal changes will mean less profit for the majors and therefore less tax revenue for the U.S. government. But by providing more jobs and self-determination, the policies could benefit the economies of Brazil and Mexico, provided the LOSCs are up to the challenge.

Developments in Venezuela and Ecuador, however, could indicate a more serious shift that may not benefit their economies and could deter U.S. oil companies from future investment. The policy changes in those countries signal not a tightening legal framework but an increasingly slippery one. As the oil price fell, Chavez tore up contracts that he could no longer pay. Such actions will harm future private investment throughout the Venezuelan economy (Chavez recently appropriated private-sector assets in other sectors too, notably agriculture). With oil now being left in the ground, falling revenue has led to a drop in public spending.

Chavez isn't dreaming of a greener future. He simply doesn't have the means to extract the oil that he wants. Increasingly, he is turning elsewhere for help with drilling. Russia, Iran, China, and South Korea are all interested. Yet their national oil companies are under less pressure than the transnational oil companies to adhere to environmental standards. Russia outright opposed the recent G8 proposal to cut 80% of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 and Asian oil companies, especially in Africa, have hardly been development-friendly. U.S. oil corporations are actually subject to more stringent emissions restrictions, and tax on their profits can be invested by mandate in green energy, as proposed in the Waxman-Markey bill currently under Senate review.

In the context of oil, transparency refers to disclosure of license purchases, royalties, and taxes paid, as well as coverage of civilian displacement and environmental impact assessments. Although transnational oil companies have a long way to go before reaching a satisfactory disclosure level, they are ahead of national oil companies, which are controlled by oil-rich states. These national companies, which control 90% of the world's oil reserves and manage 75% of production, have taken note of issues like transparency, but only when the oil price was low and they needed to raise investment. The long-term upward trend of oil prices and civil society pressure on the transnationals will likely preserve this discrepancy on the transparency issue.

Legal Dispute in Ecuador
The situation in Ecuador is more complex. Texaco — which merged with Chevron in 2001 —undertook oil drilling in the Ecuadorian Amazon from 1964 to 1990. In this period, they dumped billions of gallons of toxic water, crude oil, and hazardous waste in the surrounding regions and abandoned 900 waste pits, making the Exxon Valdez disaster look like a nose bleed. Texaco came to an agreement with the Ecuadorean government in 1998, agreeing to clean up its share of the 161 pits, at a cost of $40 million. Ecuador's state-owned oil company Petroecuador was due to clear up the rest (it was also active in those oil fields and still is).

Although the Ecuadorian government signed an agreement in 1998 releasing Texaco from any further liability, the present government under Rafael Correa endorses the current law suit, objecting to the 1998 agreement and arguing that as operator Chevron should clean up the entire mess. Essentially, Correa's government is rejecting the decision of Ecuador's previous government.

Although a government should still be free to contravene the bad decisions of its predecessor, there are three problems with the Ecuador case. First, no new evidence has come to light warranting a new case, giving it the air of caprice. Second, the Ecuador government has continually benefited from the oilfields, recouping $25.3 billion in profits, taxes, and royalties, compared to Texaco's $497 million profits, and Petroecuador still uses the fields today. Third, the Ecuadorean government is throwing its weight behind the plaintiffs and putting pressure on the courts. Ecuador's prosecutor general indicted two Chevron attorneys associated with the lawsuit, for example, and the government is collaborating with the plaintiffs' attorneys on nullifying the previous law.

Chevron is not a victim. Indeed, the corporation has been rather inconstant itself. It spent nine years fighting for the case to be tried in Ecuador, because that was where the damage had been incurred. Now it argues that the trial should take place in the United States, because the judicial process in Ecuador is inadequate. Chevron has also re-filed legal motions already denied, which is delaying the case. And, of course, nobody denies that Texaco caused immense damage in the first place.

Yet however you regard the Chevron case — perceived as government activism by the left or government whim by the right — these developments do suggest a legal discontinuity, with foreign companies finding that agreements with previous regimes no longer apply. Similar troubles have occurred in Nigeria, where the current administration tried to revoke licenses given to the Korea National Oil Corporation (KNOC) by Olusegun Obasanjo. This can deter future investment in capital-intensive industries like oil, which entail long-term financing that could outlast several governments. The Ecuadorean government thus has to weigh up the benefits of legal redress with the effect such intervention has on the business climate, which is already fractious. Spanish oil company Repsol YPF, previously active in Ecuador, has also gestured to the deterrent effect of Ecuador's legal system. "For the private sector to realize high investment, the Ecuadorian government must offer stable contracts, legal guarantees and eliminate the discretion with which some bureaucrats interpret the terms of the contracts signed with the state," says Repsol YPF's Pacific region director, Carlos Arnao. In 2006, Ecuador revoked its contract with Occidental Petroleum, its largest investor, and took over its operations.

A Question of Transparency
Latin America is an energy partner of choice for the United States, and both the government and the U.S. oil majors will now have to work a little harder to stay there. But while Brazil and Mexico are pursuing a protectionist strategy, business relations remain stable. Ecuador and Venezuela, however, are veering away from transnational oil companies and toward state-owned oil companies from Russia, the Middle East, and Asia. The impact of these state-owned oil companies in poor regions — especially Africa — has been marked by ad hoc aid projects that weaken government capacity and flood local regions with migrant workers.

Most crucially, their operations are less open to public scrutiny and Ecuador itself is already one of the least transparent oil-producing nations in the world, on a par with Nigeria and Angola according to Ian Gary, Director of Extractive Industry Policy at Oxfam U.S. Ecuador ranked 151 out of 180 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index 2008. A March 2009 report by Grupo Faro noted a series of special funds that allocate oil revenues directly to over a hundred beneficiaries or that earmark income for debt payments, investment, or savings regardless of changes in oil price. "In general, there is a lack of clarity about earmarked resources, cost estimates, and the amounts of subsidies included as part of [Ecuador's] national oil company balance sheet," according to a Revenue Watch Institute report.

There have been movements towards greater transparency of late, in sectors like insurance and banking, and Ecuador is working with the Revenue Watch Institute on improving its petroleum sector disclosures. Yet actions that deter private investment and push Ecuador toward state-owned oil companies could halt this trend and won't benefit the Ecuadorean people. In weighing in on the Chevron dispute, Rafael Correa's government must be careful that by redressing past wrongs — in which Petroecuador itself colluded — it does not cut off its nose to spite its face.

Hugo's Bank (New Internationalist, January 2009)

As North America slid into economic recession in September, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez met with fellow Latin American leaders ‘Lula’ da Silva, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa to discuss his Banco Del Sur (Bank of the South). Advocated by Chavez and launched in December 2007, Banco Del Sur is intended as a viable alternative monetary fund for Latin American development projects. Unlike the widely discredited International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, Banco Del Sur promises credit without structural or economic reform conditions, or the social disruptions characteristic of many Inter-American Development Bank (IADB)-funded projects. Argentina – which seven years ago defaulted on $9.8 billion of IMF loans – joined Banco Del Sur at Chavez’s request, along with Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay.

One year on and Banco is still ‘in the cot’, not least because members have conflicting visions for it. Venezuela and Argentina anticipate the Bank’s involvement in regional monetary policy and balance of payments finance, while Brazil – which already has its own development bank – sees Banco Del Sur servicing Latin America’s Regional Trade Agreement, known as Mercosur.

Even if members can agree on the bank’s raison d’être, there are fears that its moderate credibility will make it hard to raise money from the international markets. Its seed capital is only $7 billion which, while hefty for a regional development bank, is dwarfed by IADB, which lends at least that amount per year from total reserves of around $100 billion. Banco’s credit rating is also depressed by that of its members. Chile, which has one of the highest credit ratings in the region, is not participating.

Banco’s association with Chavez is also worrisome. Venezuela's fraught relationship with the US and evolving alliance with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could give many potential investors the jitters. Until it can work the international markets, Banco will only lend money invested by its members.

Global recession will have varying impacts on Banco’s prospects. On the one hand, high dependency on raw-material exports makes Latin America vulnerable to falling international demand. Oil revenues, which account for the majority of Venezuela’s export earnings, may decline. Such developments could, in turn, limit member investments. Yet Argentine bank BBVA claims that high capital reserves and generally low indebtedness may help Latin America avoid the worst effects of recession. In November, Brazil’s two largest banks – Itau and Unibanco – merged to become the sixth biggest bank in the Americas, worth $41.3 billion. As the financial world order attempts to rebuild and cash seeks new places to alight, there could well be a stall for Banco Del Sur in the new market.


Tranes of Thought (Slow Review, Australia)

A look at an in-depth series of podcast interviews on the legendary tenor saxophonist John Coltrane.

The Traneumentary: Celebrating the Artistry and Recordings of John Coltrane is a series of audio-streamed interviews carried out and compiled by 'pod-caster extraordinaire’ Joseph Vella, whose previous pod-cast biographies include Brian Wilson, Pat Metheny, and Elvis Costello. Traneumentary interviewees include McCoy Tyner, Billy Taylor, Robert Glasper and Jimmy Cobb, as well as producer Joel Dorn and writer Ashley Kahn, all discussing Coltrane; from blow-by-blow analyses of his work to recollections about his character, his evolution, and his love of butter rum sweets before gigs (amongst other things…).

'The music of John Coltrane just changes you,' Vella explains. 'His spiritual connection and expressiveness gets in your blood'. So, in an attempt to attain a deeper insight into Coltrane, Vella worked with Blue Note, Impulse, Prestige and Atlantic Records to pursue a 'podumentary' project. 'My goal for each podcast is to uncover new sides or new stories that we have not heard before. In a sense, I am really trying to pull out the human side of the artist. The common denominator of all of these experiences is intimacy'.

Podcasts achieve this depth and intimacy because, unlike radio and television, there are no constraints on the direction the interviews take, nor time limits or 'ad' breaks. Indeed, recording the entire series using a lapel microphone and an iMac also meant Vella was mobile and could carry out the interviews anywhere and at any time for low cost. 'The freedom that podcasting offers in terms of creative story-telling and distribution is refreshing,' agrees Vella. 'I believe that is what many people enjoy about podcasts and that is what excites me about the format'.

A rich picture of Coltrane emerges from Traneumentary; that of a man dedicated to musical exploration and evolution, from a heroin-addicted virtuoso given to 'multiphonics', 'overblowing' and a blustering 'sheets of sound' style, to a deeply religious artist who went on to produce some of the purest, most moving and controlled jazz of the age, culminating in the exquisite four-part suite A Love Supreme in 1964.

Of much interest to me personally is the opportunity to hear analysis, description, and recollection from other musicians about Coltrane, for while artists of his calibre always attract the attention of biographers and journalists, it is other musicians who will most fully recognize, and dissect, their talents. Joe Lovano, for instance, expresses with admirable clarity how Coltrane 'played like a pianist, like a drummer' and embraced the 'wide spectrum of possibilities' previously dormant in people's approach to the saxophone. It seems that Coltrane more than anyone has taught musicians such as Lovano the importance of restlessness, of constantly 'moving out of where you are' and seeing your instrument with fresh eyes.

Lovano and Terence Blanchard particularly discuss Coltrane's rhythmic sensibility, and the 'rhythmic propulsion that that band [on A Love Supreme] could manufacture' (Blanchard's words). Dr. Billy Taylor also draws attention to Coltrane's classical influences, which were deep and profound even if he wore them lightly. Taylor also recalls the specific occasion when Coltrane began trying to achieve the 'run' on notes on a saxophone in the way that Taylor could on piano.
Stories about the time and manner in which these then-young musicians came upon the music of Coltrane is also a great merit of this collection. Lovano recollects hearing Coltrane through his father's record collection, and how his father had once played a jam session with Coltrane in his hometown, which provides a refreshing picture of the nourishment musicians stumble upon — and the function it plays in their development. So too with Robert Glasper explaining how he almost 'jumped out of the shower' on hearing the mantric singing on A Love Supreme, so unusual was it to find such vocals on a jazz record.

Terence Blanchard, who recalls hearing Coltrane while growing up in New Orleans, professes to being 'highly mesmerized' at his first listen, while Coltrane's band-mate Steve Kuhn says 'Coltrane didn't really sound like anybody to me and I'd been listened to music a long time before I heard him'. Most amusing is Dave Shroeder's recollection of trying to locate Coltrane records in the local library of his provincial mid-West town and, unable to, filling out an order form requesting music by 'John Coaltrain'. Hearing how Coltrane affected musicians growing up, and the place and time in which they heard him, builds a touching picture of his legacy and is of particular interest when one considers that these teenagers would go on to become significant artists in their own right and band members with Coltrane.

The interviews also do much to locate Coltrane in the context in which he played, with musicians recalling specific dates and venues, who Coltrane related with and when, his position as a saxophonist, for instance in relation to his peers such as Lester Young, and the phases of his evolution, from his days in the Navy band as discussed by Shroeder, to his last recordings before his death.

There are two essential characteristics of Coltrane himself to which all interviewees seem to testify. The first was his diligence and perhaps obsessive work ethos. McCoy Tyner laughed in recalling that he 'had never met a man that is so involved in something, always diligent, always practicing in the dressing rooms, always working on something'. Shroeder also discusses how Coltrane was obsessed with the technical, physical minutiae of his saxophone — he was particularly concerned with mouthpieces; always amending them, rebuilding them, trying to shape them in different ways and often breaking them.

Yet despite his seriousness and focus, the other quality universally noted and admired was his warmth. I had always assumed, very wrongly it seems, that as a drug user, and as a man of considerable innate complexity, Coltrane would have been possessed of similar aggression, selfishness and arrogance as his great peer Miles Davis. But Coltrane seems to have impressed everyone that he came across with his warmth, sincerity and, surprisingly for an artist of such prodigious talent, humility (the latter two qualities flagged up particularly by Sonny Rollins). He was, according to Rollins, 'a saint'.

'I learned a great deal about Trane and his music through this project, and have grown to appreciate his work on a higher level,' concludes Vella. 'More importantly, I admire him as a human being. He was a genuine and loving man dedicated to communicating a message and never stopped working at it'.

Hear these personal testimonies about John Coltrane by sampling and subscribing to Vella's in-depth, superbly produced podcasts on www.traneumentary.blogspot.com


Steinbeck – Travels with Charley (Book review for the Slow Review, Australia)

Thoreau builds a truck and drives across America — a look at Steinbeck's last great work.

I was largely untouched by secondary school English literature.There seemed something dutiful and servile in our kneeling before Austen's novels, the grand Shakespeare plays and, of course, the dreaded war poets. Their genius had been established, but what did they have to say to the average schoolchild at the turn of the millennium?

I recall only Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men communicating most deeply to me — perhaps due to its simple and limpid style, perhaps because it traced the nation that seemed to be the pilot of the world, the moral leader of civilization at that time and today. The genesis, promise and pitfalls of America was more ably described in Steinbeck than in any history books, and as literature it spoke about a world that was also, at least tangentially, my world.

Of Mice and Men, like East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath, was dispatched in a simple, detached narrative style in which the prose is infused by the sort of 'omniscient intelligence' which characterizes the literary lineage of which Steinbeck is a part. In this literary form, the author is everywhere and nowhere, engineering the credible development of character within a thematic framework and, like dominoes, allowing the inexorable developments to take their course and reveal, on the way, something about human character. The author in this literary convention is not merely a dispassionate observer, as might be implied by this narrative distance, but on the contrary he trusts that the presentation of characters in plausible but morally loaded predicaments will sufficiently reveal important fundamentals, which are, in turn, the author's fundamentals. Steinbeck remains a ghostly presence in these works, and operating in this form he exists as a consciousness behind every word, but it is never made flesh.

It is Steinbeck's 1961 travelogue Travels with Charley — a simple, first-person journal documenting a road trip he took with his aged poodle of said name — that reveals a little more of Steinbeck himself, as flesh, his personality delivered not through the medium of character and plot nor through fictional architecture, but simply from his own mouth, his own pen. What is revealed in the subsequent pages are sides to Steinbeck which aren't so detectable in his fictional works. And coming when it did — towards the end of his life — there is a frankness, a determination to make amends and to speak clearly, deeply, to reveal himself a little more.

Underlying his decision to take the trip despite deteriorating health (he had suffered a stroke in 1959) were two strong urges, one essential to his character and the other contingent upon his stage in life. Firstly, and as Steinbeck proclaims in the opening paragraphs, 'the urge to be someplace else was on me… the sound of the jet, an engine warming up, even the clumping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder'. Steinbeck was a born explorer, and his wanderlust never left him even as he entered his sixth decade ('I was assured that maturity would cure this itch … and now that I'm 58 perhaps senility will do the job'). Yet more pressing was a sense that, since becoming 'reasonably well-known', the country upon which he had based his observations was changing - and he was not entirely in tune with the new America: 'I discovered that I did not know my own country. I, an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water'.

Steinbeck commissioned a truck to be built, weighing 3/4 tonne — a 'tough, fast, comfortable vehicle, mounting a camper top — a little house with double bed, a four-burner stove, a heater, refrigerator and lights operating on butane, a chemical toilet, closet space, storage space, window screened against insects'. He named the truck Rocinante, after Don Quixote's horse, and departed from Sag Harbor in New York, through Massachusetts, Michigan and California, circling the entire nation, with his elderly poodle, whom he regularly talks, cajoles, pities and admires.

Revealed in the subsequent pages are touches of humor, loneliness and odd-ball surrealism that afford us a deeper understanding of Steinbeck himself. He seems to take himself less seriously than you might imagine. Attending a hellfire church sermon in Vermont, he muses that 'for some years now God has been a pal to us, practicing togetherness, and that causes the same emptiness a father does playing softball with his son. But this Vermont God cared enough about me to go to a lot of trouble kicking the hell out of me'.

He takes exceptional pleasure in fixing things, repairing parts of his vehicle and building extensions to his house, in his imagination. Storing some dirty clothes in a water-filled bucket in the back of the van, he also invents his own sort of washing machine in which the movement of the vehicle jostles the clothes and brings them out spring clean. His delight is palpable, and charming. He adored hot baths, and coffee. He took a particularly masculine enjoyment in his appetite and strength, in the fact that he either sleeps 'long or not at all'. For all this he comes across as a sort of Thoreau-on-the-move, his tough/lyrical musings on nature reaching an exceptional zenith in a long passage detailing how, because the pitiless desert inspires organisms to develop internally and change themselves, it is thus the last stand of life against unlife — 'for in the rich and most wanted areas of the world, life pyramids against itself and its confusion has finally allied itself with the enemy — nonlife'.

Steinbeck hungers for contact at almost every stage, and without contact he becomes depressed, and often drinks. He talks with park wardens, bartenders, farmers, truckers and waitresses. He's saved by a service station man in Oregon whom he blesses to 'live a thousand years and people the earth with his offspring'. He feels close to the different dialects and analyses them — for instance noting how Texans insert extra syllables in monosyllabic words ('yayus') — like a zoologist might analyse the call of animals. Sharing coffee, gate-crashing in on people's bonfires, debating the nature of 'home' with an old friend in his hometown or quizzing a penniless actor on what fuels him to travel from village to village, Steinbeck 'found no strangers… these are my people and this is my country'. Through Fargo, the Badlands, Maple River and Montana, there is something of a reunion and farewell about this book.

Yet his acceptance knows limits, since this was a country changing for the worst and Steinbeck was in some ways a conservative (with a small 'c'). 'I remembered Seattle as a town sitting on hills beside a matchless harborage... It is no longer so. The tops of hills are shaved off to make level warrens for the rabbits of the present… On the outskirts of this place I once knew well I could not find my way'. He goes on to wonder why progress 'looks so much like destruction', and in conversation with an old acquaintance named Johnny Garcia, Steinbeck drunkenly proclaims - with impressive lucidity — 'What we knew is dead, and maybe the greatest part of what we were is dead. What's out there is new and perhaps good, but it's nothing we know'.

At the heart of this book remains the unresolved contradiction of America and of Steinbeck — of a man both hungry for movement and the satisfaction of appetites but opposed to change and the pursuit of comfort. And these vulnerabilities, contradictions, and ditherings do not come through in the masterful, composed grandeur of his fictive novels, which imply a powerful, wise observer. Travels With Charley is, on the contrary, Steinbeck alone, drunk, faulty, but his seriousness and integrity towards his fellow humans and to his beloved country remain undimmed in what was to be his last major work.


The New Ronnie's? Published in Blues and Soul, July 2007

When Ronnie Scott’s formed in the 50’s it transformed UK jazz, giving musicians a place to play freely instead of entertaining dancing audiences. Co-founder Pete King was also instrumental in lifting the ban on U.S musicians, thus beginning a cross-Atlantic pollination benefiting both nations ever since.

It has continued to secure the world’s top jazz performers since then and, after changing hands in 2005, recently underwent a refurbishment in which the bar was moved away from the stage and the acoustics improved. ‘This show that Ronnie’s is as concerned with jazz, the musicians and their performances now as it always was,’ says artistic director Leo Green, in an interview for Blues and Soul. ‘When people come here they just want to get up and play, which reminds me we’ve stayed true to the original purpose - that this is a place for musicians.’

The venue has nevertheless received criticism, both in its early days, for its love of American acts over British ones, and today, for showcasing commercial names instead of younger, riskier acts. ‘You’ve got the hottest UK jazz scene in three or four decades right now,’ says Jazzwise Editor Jon Newey. ‘I’d like to see Ronnie’s reflecting that by extending its booking policy to feature some of these great young bands as opening artists, just as the club used to.’ According to Leo Green, though, the stage is open to all. ‘The decisions on who plays and how we operate are music-based. If bands want to play here they should come and speak to us and, if it works, I’ll book it. The reality, though, is that most musicians are expecting their phone’s to ring!’

At a time when The Spitz is threatened with closure and countless other venues are replaced by supermarkets, we should be happy that Ronnie’s is still standing at all. And despite punter-driven decisions to book acts like Macy Gray, they continue to provide a veritable wish-list of major jazz names (Ramsey Lewis, Wynton Marsalis, Chick Corea and Tony Bennett in the last year alone). If you want to get close to the cream of jazz, then, Ronnie’s remains unrivalled. The pressure to survive, though, means you are unlikely to hear the rougher, harder future of jazz – ‘new wave’ bands like Led Bib, Acoustic Ladyland and Fraud. Smaller upstarts like The Vortex are probably best positioned to seize upon tomorrow’s sound.

Stravinsky, anyone?

13 Million Pure Tones…Choose One

Review of Noise/Music by Paul Hegarty (Continuum)

By Adam Green

A musicological head-squeezer that incorporates Hegelian aesthetics, John Cage’s 4’33” and the shock tactics of Throbbing Gristle, Noise/Music is a provocative historiography of noise’s contribution/damage to music. Commencing in 1913 from Luigi Russolo’s claim that noise becomes ‘triumphant’ in industrial society, Hegarty follows noise’s bizarre and befuddling path over the next nine decades through Stockhausen, the dawn of electronics, the Grateful Dead, Japanese noise music and Jimmy Edgar, revealing how artists have discovered, understood and sought noise and how noise - whether industrial roars, found sounds or manipulations of musical sounds - challenges our deepest assumptions about music.

With philosophical help from Foucault, Hegarty constructs a conception of noise as ‘a negativity’; that which evades control, mediation or definition and that is part of the ‘Other’ (that much-loved concept that gives sociologists something to live for). Noise enables a truly transgressive creativity, with noise artists challenging human agency and riling against the docile character of pleasing, ‘well-composed’ music. The aims of their pursuit are not just musically anarchic. By opposing musical rules and tradition, noise artists also subvert and question the socio-political status quo.

There is much to provoke and titillate, and it’s always a pleasure to see Kant and Coltrane share a page, though to enjoy reading this as much as Hegarty enjoyed writing it, you’d need to subscribe to the grandiose philosophical and political integrity he tries to erect around noise (via a lot of high-faluting, university Marxism). For instance, Hegarty equates the rejection of musical convention with a rejection of the socio-political status quo without fleshing out the relationship between the two. Musical convention seems to be lazily equated with power structures, leaving the rules of music themselves inadequately investigated (for instance there is little talk about the relationship between musical rules and the underlying logic of music itself).

Also dubious is the punk/feminist belief that skill is ‘a male attribute’ and therefore to be rejected through ineptitude, randomness and freedom. While delighting Gender Studies academics, many of whom would find sexual politics in a block of cheese, it is a disturbing example of the philistine underside to ‘noise music’ theory (and its myopia, as you couldn't get a more masculine musical form than punk). Dismissing skill on such fishy grounds implies a motivation that is more sociological than musical, and also represents a failure to understand that freedom is only meaningful relative to restrictions laid on by technical incompetence. Stravinsky would turn in his grave at the idea that you could have freedom without skill or design, and if he wasn’t such a bean-loving vegetarian Pythagoras would probably throw a few punches too. One is the other. In fact, music is music precisely because it isn’t random ‘free’ chaos.

These controversies are not Hegarty’s invention, of course, and as a study and historiography Noise/Music ably covers all bases, theories and protagonists (many of whom may surprise you). And on this level alone, the book is undoubtedly a success; a well-researched provocation that forces us to confront some of our deepest cherished beliefs about what music is and why we listen to it. But I couldn’t shirk the feeling that something essential is missing in noise music theory as a whole and that, through all the post-modern irony, intellectual fireworks and grandiose narrative, noise music theory’s cerebral over-exertions elbow out the human essentials of music; its communicative capacity and emotional resonance. An interest in these qualities may seem old fashioned, but so is harvesting grain in the autumn. Old wood isn’t always dead.

The Abbey Road Zebra-Crossing Experience and its Impact on Traffic Flow in North-West London

Why Did the Tourist Cross The Road?

By Adam Green

When John, Paul, George and Ringo had themselves photographed traversing the zebra crossing outside Abbey Road Studios, little did they know the decades of idiocy they were unleashing. Now when hoards of tourists visit Abbey Road, and after defacing its outer walls writing ‘give peace a chance’ in the otherwise war-torn surroundings of St John’s Wood, they dutifully shuffle along that hallowed tarmac to imitate the album cover (normally committing the image to photograph lest the winds of time fade their memory).
Walking by the studios last week I stopped to note just how many people pursued this supposedly humorous jest. One teenager, who judging by his shorts must have been French, crossed and re-crossed the road 11 times while his grinning chum took photos, often from the middle of the road. The teenager being photographed (let us call him Jean-Pierre) was clearly peeved because cars kept driving into view and intruding the shot. You couldn’t blame the drivers if they did a lot worse, since at one point, when a car had stopped for Jean-Pierre, he waved it on while his friend changed the roll of film. I pointed out to Jean-Pierre that this was an illegal over-exertion of civilian power, according to British law at least, since only police, army, fireman and traffic wardens are allowed to disturb the flow of traffic in non-emergency situations (fact).
The number of times people crossed the road for reasons other than to get to the other side averaged 4, and it wasn’t only French teenagers. Families, bands, couples and grandparents of all nationalities got in one the action. One mid-thirties executive type didn’t even have the act photographed. He just crossed the road, cars obediently halting each time, just for the experience - during which he stared down at the black and white lines intently, spiritually, as if waiting for something to happen. He left looking rather disappointed, since our ancestors worked pretty hard to ensure that roads don’t throw up too many surprises.
Suggested measures? We could try inserting a randomly detonating explosive device on the crossing to dissuade pedestrians pushing their luck, though there will of course be loss of innocent civilians. A more benign solution might be to paint over the ruddy thing, since there is another one a hundred metres away. Yet the only long-term solution would be at the political level, with more stringent restrictions on what kinds of people are allowed to travel to the area. I don’t propose anything too drastic, but a blanket ban on Europeans and Americans would be a good start.

Blues and Soul Review - Charlie Hunter, Mistico

Some albums make you want to hang yourself, other fill you with light and some, aesthetically speaking, achieve fiddly-squat. The latter are the worst sort and unfortunately, despite a promising cover, Mistico is one of them. Although musically adept - bringing jazz, funk, blues and soul together and proficiently - the album lacks real character. It’s essentially just a recording of an energetic live band riffing, rather than a stand-alone artwork of compositional or thematic vision.
Mistico sure sounds like it was fun to play, and would probably be pretty fun to watch live, but it lacks compositions and thus memorability and too often relies on clichéd blues licks. It’s indelicately produced too, with Hunter’s guitar glossed in a light, fuzzy distortion throughout and the drums lifeless in the mix. While Hunter is an original, sensitive guitarist - previous solo pieces like Fables of Faubus prove that – Mistico is missing something.
And Dear God, enough of this jazz-rock fusion now…

Blues and Soul Review - Booker Ervin, The Freedom Book

Booker Ervin – The Freedom Book

Booker Ervin’s rowdy, raspy and ebullient tenor saxophone gets a little more attention with this digitally whizzed-up re-mastering of The Freedom Book. Originally released in 1963, the album grew out of his immersion in the bop world of Randy Weston and Charles Mingus. He’d here assembled a mean quartet to supplement his playing, too. Drummer Alan Dawson is a law unto himself, drumming spirited, quicksilver polyrhythms and sounding too quick to ever hit a drum square on the skin. Richard Davis’ busy bass catches a melody when it needs to, and pianist Jaki Byard can do melancholy but would still make a metronome look slack when the mood jumps, which is does and quickly.
Booker Ervin’s wild and sweet tone, here mastered and treated from analogue into 24-bit resolution by original producer Rudy Van Gelder, are nowhere more evident than in this humorous, imaginative and adroitly performed gem.

Pop Matters - Cinematic Orchestra Interview

Now Hear This! Feature on The Cinematic Orchestra by Adam Green
June 2007

In an era when technology enables people to write music without ever touching an instrument, it is no surprise that the tunes often lack the associated components; melody, chord sequences and technical proficiency. It is for that reason that Motion, The Cinematic Orchestra’s 1999 release on ninja tune, was notable. It broke new ground by combining sample, digital and loop techniques with technically assured, improvisational jazz.
The architect of TCO, Jason Swinscoe, had managed to integrate technology and jazz with clarity and confidence, against great odds. Miles Davis and Teo Macero made a valiant attempt on Get Up With It, via tape splicing techniques, as had Steve Reich, but the technology wasn’t behind them. In the 1960’s meanwhile everyone did everything they could to sound whacky. However whereas rock and folk records gained definition as much by recording methods as the style of playing, jazz has remained essentially ‘live’ (compare Kind of Blue, recorded in a little over 48 hours, with Sgt. Pepper, taking over a thousand). It is for this reason that the attempt to combine jazz with edits and put improvisation through the stilted, abstract kaleidoscope of a microchip is so full of promise and difficulty. Nonetheless, Swinscoe’s appropriation of new technology combined with an obvious reverence for jazz and funk, a facility for arrangement and a very able band, resulted in a record of energy and polish, a soundtrack to life between city and night.
It was followed three years later by the calmer Everyday; a lush, cleanly conceived record. Straightforward but engaging chords and melodic, arresting bass lines combined with gadgetry and tastefully minimal synthesisers and horns. Choice vocals from Roots Manuva and Fontella Bass also contributed to a progressive, thoughtful and accessible record. At times it teetered on ‘lounge jazz’ in so far as it was soothing and ambient, but there is an undeniable design and subtlety to the record. It was never clear, though, where TCO would turn next, as there was no doubt they were heading for contentment. For all its charms, Everyday could not be described as an urgent record, and lacked the unease that characterised Motion. Would TCO go the way of Zero 7 and Groove Armada and churn out dull chill-out blandola, or would they return with something as fresh and daring as Motion?
A five year gap has ensued since Everyday, during which time Jason Swinscoe dwelt in New York and Paris, also travelling to Mali, Senegal, Tanzania and Kenya. One gets the impression this was partly to take a break but also to draw in new inspiration, a literal change of scenery. ‘Your environment has a massive impact on you’ Swinscoe tells me, during an interview for Pop Matters, ‘what’s around you, the beauty and the sounds that you hear everyday. If you are in the Sahara you are going to write a very different record than if you were in London. I’d say Paris definitely influenced the record, in that sense, the tonality of it and of course it’s more romantic and sensual.’ In many regards this fairly lengthy hiatus was necessary to ensure that when he returned for the ‘difficult’ third album (in apostrophes since what album isn’t difficult?) he would have moved onto unfamiliar ground. Word that he had recruited Patrick Watson, perhaps Canada’s finest contemporary singer-songwriter, fanned the flames of anticipation.
Their recent album Ma Fleur, released this May, is the outcome, and represents a confident step. Within seconds of the opener Build a Home it’s obvious we are on unfamiliar ground. It is a ‘song’ in the old-fashioned sense and, Swinscoe claims, a synopsis of the whole record. The lyrics are unlike any on earlier TCO tracks – more detailed, and imparting a story. Patrick Watson’s vocals are probably the most unusual and touching I’ve heard since Jeff Buckley and the arrangement services the song perfectly; a sad piece about loss, friendship and sanctuary. In fact, Build a Home wipes the floor with Hey Jude.
It is clear from this and what follows that TCO have produced a more emotional, acoustic record. ‘I wanted to achieve something more musical, in the song form. To take out the drums, and the overtly soul-jazz club thing, take out the ninja references, and do something for everybody. Overall I wanted to accentuate the minimalism that was in Everyday but probably overshadowed’. He has certainly done that. Double bass and drums are far less dominant. They do feature, with both Luke Flowers’ intricate, technical rhythms and Phil France’s driving bass-lines providing trademark elements of the Cinematic sound, but on the whole it is the piano, voice and guitar that form the main ingredients of Ma Fleur. This makes it a surprisingly stripped album, and in places one of stark beauty. In addition to the opener, Breathe and Into You are beautiful compositions musically; austere and emotive. All this is augmented by superb vocal performances throughout from Patrick Watson and Fontella Bass, making Ma Fleur at times a touching record, with a charming childishness and honesty, qualities nowhere more evident than on the title track itself, which was, Swinscoe tells me, ‘the breakthrough’.
The reason for this change of direction, Swinscoe tells me, is that Ma Fleur has a new priority; an emphasis on lyricism, storytelling and the ‘song form’. To pursue these dimensions he even worked with a scriptwriter, who developed a narrative love story based on a handful of characters and inspired by what he heard from an early burn of the record. This is a continuation of the commissioned project TCO received soon after Everday, when the band were approached to develop Man With a Movie Camera - a score composed to Djigavertov’s 1929 Russian film of the same title. They performed to the silent film around the world, often playing in the theatre ‘pit’, below the screen. ‘It’s interesting because you are working with an artefact, in that case an already completed artefact. That artefact, whether it’s a film or script in the case of Ma Fleur, stimulates the music, which stimulates images, which stimulates lyrics. Film has less boundaries in that sense, less rules have been laid down’.
The subsequent attempt to develop a script for Ma Fleur occasionally flounders, but it demonstrates the forward-thinking, rule-dodging approach that marks out TCO from so many others. To facilitate a change of focus they have removed the dance-hall beats when everyone else is cramming them in, stripped down the instrumentation when other acts are adding strings, and they have cut out the ninja references just as they have become cool. This third record, then, puts to bed fears that TCO would ride the wave of earlier success. ‘I didn’t want to make another Everyday,’ Swinscoe says. ‘Repetition is not an option’.

BBC Awards for World Music: Report for Pop Matters, June 2007

BBC Awards for World Music Poll Winner’s Concert
27th May
Review: Adam Green

In the early days of human civilization, music was any sort of vaguely orchestrated sound. Yet these days, after stupendous developments in music technology and the advent of the greatest intellectual refinery of all time – namely the internet – we have become info-nerds of great discernment. Classification has evolved into an algorithm of genres and subgenres; indie-tronica, crunk-soul, ghetto-folk. A friend of mine once wrote an article for our student newspaper about a new genre called ‘Fong’. In fact he had invented the name. Soon thereafter, though, he was approached by a reader who said, in an earnest and quietly chastising manner, that Fong was not new at all, and had in fact already run its course.
So how is it that with such differentiation within Anglo-American music, we are still lumped with the singular term ‘World Music’ to refer to anything and everything outside? ‘World Music’ spans continents, cultures and even historical epochs but suffers a package-holiday representation in the West (not least due to the god-awful ‘Buddha Bar’ compilations and their endless progeny).
Even in the early 60’s, when World Music seemed to make authentic in-roads into the West via Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia and Donovan, it actually functioned more as decorative icing – a sitar here and a melodic noodle there. Few LSD-fuelled bands of the 60’s could resist the addition of token Indian or Hindustani elements, and it smacked a little of cultural tourism. This continued well into the 80’s, with even Graceland remaining essentially a Paul Simon record with feathers.
It was not until the release of records like Buena Vista Social Club, and the success of artists like Manu Dibango, Ali Farka Toure and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan that World Music was given its balls back. Ibrahim Ferrer, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Baaba Maal have also all contributed to its mainstream success and credibility. This process has been aided and articulated by able commentators like fRoots and Songlines, along with the on-going activity within Real World, the label set up by Peter Gabriel and the WOMAD organisation in 1989, and of course World Circuit.
It is against this background of reclaimed independence that Radio 3, home of respected show World Routes, presented the Poll Winner’s Concert for the BBC Awards for World Music 2007. The event, held at the Barbican, UK, on 27th May, was a chance to separate the wheat from the chaff. The winners of the awards were first announced in late March at the Pigalle Club in Piccadilly by a panel of judges, all of whom certainly knew their koto’s from their kora’s.
The winners announced at the nominations ceremony (nice blueberry canapés, by the way) were; Africa (won by Mahmoud Ahmeda), Asia Pacific (won by Debashish Bhattacharya), Americas (won by punk-gypsy nutters Gogol Bordello), Europe (won by French oddball Camille), Middle East and North Africa (won by Ghada Shbeir), Newcomer (K’Naan), Culture Crossing (won by Maurice El Medioni & Roberto Rodriguez), Club Global (won by Gotan Project) and Album of the Year (won by the late Ali Farka Toure’s ‘Savane’)
The Poll Winners’ concert saw the performance of some of these victors, and was overall a success, with superb live performances from Debashish Bhattacharya and Ghada Shbeir, who also won the Audience Award. Less convincing were Gotan Project, whose dull, repetitive disco-tango probably did more damage to the genre than it did good. Unfortunately the impressive young K’Naan could not perform, as his wife was giving birth, though we were privy to a video showcasing his impressive style of rap (though some more aged members of the audience occasionally strained to hear words they might be better off not hearing).
Of course awards smack of our Western competitive spirit, but it’s about time some of the lousy bongo-whacking twits be separated from the real artists. Since World Music is entangled with some of the vague fluff of the New Age, there’s nothing like a good, rigorous vote to sift though it, to help give some definition and detail to the genre. These and similar awards give us a map, some signposts and distinctions, and act as a window into that new land. How else can we ever hope to have a Saharan Rumba Crunk-Core section in HMV?

Blues and Soul Review: Mesmer

Mesmer - Tom Arthurs and Richard Fairhurst

Published in Blues and Soul July 8th

Trumpeter of the moment Tom Arthurs and pianist Richard Fairhurst release their first collaborative record on Babel, a mature, brave and stark album featuring just flügelhorn and piano. Mesmer is simple sounding but subtle, with a mischievous, playful design. It is a sort of conversation, a game of chess or a debate in tongues that is comic and melancholy in equal measure. In places the flügelhorn and piano are so entwined you wonder if Arthurs and Fairhurst are possessed of superhuman powers of concentration (‘Up From Sloth’ and ‘Anguilla’ are examples). Elsewhere they play as solo (‘Beautiful Indifference’ and ‘Keepsake’) or occasionally at odds.
This isn’t an easy record and takes time to understand, meaning Parkinson won’t be play-listing it any time soon. Its melodies may be too complex for the casual listener, and in places even overworked. Fans of a more vigorous, rhythmic and red-blooded jazz may also find Mesmer overly pensive, devoid of thrust and instrumental variety. What it does achieve, though, is luxurious exposure for two beautiful instruments, both generously pitched in a vast, open space to accentuate their details. In Tom Arthurs the flügelhorn couldn’t have a better ambassador, controlling the instrument with a tone that is both strong and eccentric. Fairhurst, meanwhile, plays delicately and with understanding, and has a hint of Bill Evans in his ability to play with intensity in a free, loose form. Between them, these two young players have made a confident record, rejecting the ideal of a grand, domineering debut in favour of a job well done

Blues and Soul Review - Horizons Touched: The Story of ECM

Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM (Granta)

Published in Blues and Soul July 22nd

No record label ever swam against the tide quite as audaciously as ECM. Founded by Manfred Eicher in 1969, Edition of Contemporary Music continuously produces unassailably challenging albums, consisting of a more European, intellectual and classical strain of jazz, characterised by its musical space, sensitivity, crisp production values and compositional rigour.
Horizons Touched, published by Granta, is a handsome, quality hardback containing hundreds of articles, interviews and biographies of the people who make the label. It includes personal essays and memories by or about ECM artists (including Charles Lloyd and Keith Jarrett), articles about ECM’s intriguing relationship with film (via Jean-Luc Godard) and the ideas behind its enigmatic cover designs. Passionate, wide-ranging and carefully compiled, Horizons Touched is a fitting tribute to a label whose artistic vision and integrity has never wavered throughout the whims and excesses of musical fashions over the last forty years. It remains to be seen how ECM will weather the storms of the next forty years, what with downloads and the steady deterioration of more challenging musical culture, but this book should at least preserve its achievements thus far.

Blues and Soul Review - Avishai Cohen

‘As Is…Live at the Blue Note’ (Raz Daz/Half Note)
Published in Blues and Soul Magazine

By Adam Green

Double-bassist and band-leader Avishai Cohen has a reputation for blistering live performances, presenting a hotter, more visceral jazz. Past records like Continuo and At Home demonstrated his compositional and arrangement abilities, but could not fully capture the live excitement that is a fundamental part of his band’s appeal. As Is…Live at the Blue Note goes some way to correcting the balance. This handsome CD and DVD set presents a band that can perform a tricky, eclectic sound in a live setting and without the luxury of a second take. The DVD, a rare gift in jazz, offers excellent footage of the gig along with an extensive interview with Avishai.
Highlights of this energetic album are the choppy ‘Etude’ (Fiddler on the Roof-meets-Take 5), the rhythmically befuddling ‘Caravan’, the stunning melodic cogency of ‘Feediop’ and the pensive, Hebraic melodies of ‘Remembering’ and ‘Elli’. When Avishai’s bass comes to the fore the results are scintillating, whether it’s his strong, percussive and slap-style bass or more careful, melodic lines. Sam Barsh’s classical and jazz pianism is also a highlight, and the only let down here is Jimmy Greene’s saxophone, which lacks bite.
Overall, though, Avishai Cohen’s achievement is to banish the idea of jazz as laid back, cool or easy, with a band that are never content to groove or sit back. No sooner have you cottoned on to one idea, they whisk you off to another without a moments rest or repetition. Note: Not a record to play when trying to make love.

Blues and Soul Review - We All Love Ella

We All Love Ella (Verve Records)
By Adam Green

Published in Blues and Soul July 8th 2007

Pitched as an ‘all-star vocal tribute to Ella Fitzgerald’, this album is a smug, self-congratulatory and kitsch attempt to honour the First Lady of Song. The opulent orchestration, plodding arrangements, and contrived vocal performances make for a facile, clichéd, middle-class and middle-of-the-road flop.
The singers are billed as some kind of dream team, but wouldn’t make the substitutes bench of a decent Vocalist’s XI. Despite his best efforts Michael Bublé remains charmless, k.d. lang, couldn’t swing if lesbianism depended on it, and Lizz Wright has the charisma of a shoebox. Positives? Etta James has some grit to her voice, and Ledisi’s performance on Blues in the Night has some vim. The best performance is probably that of Nikki Yanovsky, who sounds full of life, love and invention. Safe to say she sticks out like a sore thumb.
We All Love Ella is a spiritless, commercial affair and the kind of album you imagine David Cameron listening to, and liking.

Blues and Soul Review - Chick Corea and Bela Fleck

Chick Corea and Béla Fleck – The Enchantment (Concord Records)
By Adam Green

Published in Blues and Soul - July 8th 2007

Chick Corea and Béla Fleck, together at last! They are peas in a pod and belong together for eternity. Corea is a fast, cheeky and mouse-like pianist; unpredictable, hyperactive and perennially hungry. Fleck, meanwhile, has spent decades pushing back the frontiers of the banjo with his whirling, madcap wizadry.
The Enchantment sees the pair launch like twirling torpedoes into eleven original compositions, performed with vim, verve and virtuosity. They rattle along at break-neck speed and with brotherly understanding, deliriously noodling their way through jazz, country, folk and some downright weird stuff.
The melodies are lovely, though good luck trying to whistle along. The Enchantment sounds like Flight of the Bumblebee on speed. I estimate it would take nine years to count up every note on this album and it would come to approximately 18.6 million. Their fingers must be sore, but your ears will be delighted.

Dave Brubeck Interview

An Interview with Dave Brubeck, published in All About Jazz, August 2007

By Adam Green

On the 12th July, veteran jazz pianist Dave Brubeck will perform by television broadcast from New York while the BBC Orchestra plays along in London. This unconventional performance celebrates the Lifetime Achievement Award bestowed on Brubeck by the BBC in June. ‘I did something similar with Count Basie and Ellington in the 60’s, with telephone wire,’ he explains to me in a gruff, raspy voice, also via telephone wire, from his home in Connecticut. ‘It was the first time anything like that had been done!’
Innovation is Brubeck’s stock and trade. As a young musician, his oddball approach baffled even jazz’s most forward-thinking artists. ‘Stan Kenton and Bennie Goodman came up to me after a gig and said ‘What’s going on here? Where did you learn to play these voicings?’ His complex, polyrhythmic style found sanctuary in ‘West Coast’ jazz, a scene characterised by a more thoughtful, composition-based sound as opposed to the hot, hard bop of New York. In the Fifties, ‘West Coast’ jazz rose in stature, with Brubeck emerging as its chief proponent and gracing the cover of Time Magazine in 1954 as ‘Man of the Year’.
Although he and his trio found considerable success, it was Time Out, recorded with his Quartet in 1959, which marked him out as one of jazz’s greatest innovators. Consisting wholly of original compositions, many in audacious time signatures like 5/4 and 9/8, Time Out was unlike any other jazz record of the era. ‘I hadn’t told Teo Macero or anybody at Columbia Records what I was up to. I just started recording. Some of the engineers were impressed, some didn’t know what was going on!’
The Quartet had clearly struck oil, but they had to battle with Columbia to get the album released. ‘It had a lot against it,’ Brubeck recalls. ‘At first the label weren’t sure. They had never released an album of originals. You had to mix it with standards. You had to be able to dance to it too, and you couldn’t dance to those tunes.’
One person who did get behind the album was Goddard Lieberson, then president of Columbia Records. ‘When he heard Blue Ronda and Take 5 he said; “Dave this is fantastic! I want everyone to hear it”. He fought to convince the marketing guys, and then the disc-jockeys started playing it, and the label woke up.’ ‘Woke up’ is probably an understatement. They must have jumped out of their shoes. Time Out sold over a million units, the first instrumental jazz record to do so, and the single Take 5 soon became the most famous jazz tune of all time. ‘I still hear it everywhere!’ Brubeck laughs. ‘In movies, in Africa, everywhere…’
Over the next decade The Dave Brubeck Quartet toured the world, from University colleges to dance halls. They won Downbeat’s reader’s poll five times; topped Billboard’s in ’65 and ’66; and won Playboy’s for eleven consecutive years, from ’57 to ‘68. How did it feel being the most famous man in jazz? ‘I really didn’t think about it in those terms. I was just doing what I wanted to do, which was what I’d been doing for years. I wasn’t trying to play what was popular. I was just interested in developing rhythmically and harmonically’.
While acknowledging his achievements as a musician and composer, the BBC award also recognized that Brubeck’s impact has spread beyond his own music. He was vocal in the fight for social equality in the 50’s and 60’s, refusing to play for segregated audiences or to drop black bassist Eugene Wright despite pressure from television companies to do so. And in recent years he has been actively involved in The Brubeck Institute, which trains, supports and prepares young musicians for their professional futures. It’s a delicious irony, considering the young Brubeck was only allowed to stay at music college on the condition that he never teach piano, so bad was his sight-reading.
In person and on paper, Brubeck is an intriguing bundle of contradictions: serious, yet in conversation funny and often surreal; classically trained but a musical maverick; and a quirky loner who won jazz’s biggest audience. He is also a deeply religious man, converting to Catholicism in 1980 in an attempt to heal lasting emotional wounds sustained when liberating the concentration camps in World War II. After 87 eventful years, as a musician and a human being, does the great innovator think the world has moved forward? ‘Things are better than they were,’ he admits, ‘but it isn’t over yet.’