Monthly Archives: January 2012

Music and Art: Tools for Survival

January 26, 2012

Classical pianist Alexis Weissenberg recently died. He was considered one of the great virtuosos of the last century. He was a child prodigy in Bulgaria when he and his mother were taken prisoner by German soldiers in 1941. Weissenberg had a small accordion and could play excellent renditions of Schubert piano works and lieder. By chance there was a music-loving German guard nearby who was taken with the young boy’s virtuosity–it was obvious even on the accordion–and helped get him and his mother on a train and safety in Turkey. Weissenberg had his U.S. debut in 1947 playing Rachmaninov’s fiendishly difficult Piano Concerto #3. He lived for a time in Israel, and later made Paris his home. He died there on January 8th, 2012 at the age of 82.


Chance also spared Vann Nath‘s life, but he had a more extended and horrifying experience. He was born into a poor farming family in Battambang Province in Cambodia in 1946. He learned to be a sign and billboard painter. The brutal Khmer Rouge, during their reign of terror 1975-9, imprisoned him at the end of 1977, where he was shackled and tortured like scores of others in the notorious Tuol Sleng prison. It so happened that one of his jailers found out he could paint and assigned him the job of painting ennobling portraits of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader. Nath soon found out that eight or nine painters didn’t please Duch–nickname of the commandant at Tuol Sleng prison–and had been summarily executed. Nath once said that “every brush stroke you were hoping that they would like it and let you live”. He was liberated by the Vietnamese army in 1979.

Nath continued to paint the horrific things he had seen, and later became a key eyewitness in the trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders. He became a surviving representative of not only Tuol Sleng prison but of the two million Cambodians murdered by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. His 1998 memoir, A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge’s S-21 Prison, offers a unique and unsparing glimpse into the horrors he witnessed.

I once was in a Border’s Bookstore and saw photographs taken of Cambodian prisoners holding signs with their numbers on them. Some were shyly smiling, and I had the feeling that they had never been photographed before. They must have had an inkling on what would become of them. They all were so innocent. Before long I was in the corner sobbing and trying not to let anybody see me. The horror was overwhelming.

Vann Nath died in September, 2011, at the age of 65. Like Weissenberg, his life was spared by his artistic talents, but for him there was no friendly guard to help him escape. He never recovered by the horrors he had been witness to. His portraits of misery and death in Cambodia, however, serve as a timeless reminder of the cruelty and barbarity of the Khmer Rouge.

Tom Schnabel, M.A.
Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
Host of music program on radio for KCRW Sundays noon-2 p.m.
Blogs for KCRW (rhythm planet / KCRW)
Author & Music educator, UCLA, SCIARC, currently doing music salons
www.tomschnabel.com

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1, 2, 3: Delivering information to students around the world

January 20, 2012

Tanzanian Classroom

Billy Wilder used film as a vehicle for raising social awareness in the hilariously acerbic comedy, “One, Two, Three” which took place in Post-War Berlin. Art imitates life full tilt here as the Germans erected the Berlin Wall during filming. Wilder was a bit daring for this time period of extreme social unrest and change on the heels of WWII. Exactly! Making a strong social statement that has the power and potential to reach people and provoke heart-felt reactions is to say the least difficult. It is uncomfortable to see the extreme suffering and inequality in the world 24/7. Where once people could feign innocence by pleading that they had no idea what was going on that is hardly the reality today. In the film, James Cagney’s heel-clicking male secretary Schlemmer, responds to Cagney’s question, “Just between us Schlemmer, what did you do during the war?” Schlemmer responds, “..I had no idea what was going on above ground…”

As an art form, film is an extremely powerful media, and used in a certain way, it has the ability to reach into our hearts and connect us to the very things inside ourselves that can be energized to promote social justice and change. Social media in general and the availability of film on the Internet is an exciting, vital and instantaneous result of the digital media revolution. It offers a chance to address one of the biggest dilemmas facing education; how can we deliver information on an equal and just level to all students around the world, around countries, states, cities a villages? How can we engage students and keep them excited and enthusiastic about learning? The way I see it is not quite as simple as 1, 2, 3, but that might be a good device with which to get started.

1. Bring History into the Present

A beautiful example of this was the newly released Black Power Mixtape a fascinating and revealing documentary of the Black Power Movement in America, from 1967-1975. The footage was created by Swedish journalists and edited together after having been recently found in the basement of a Swedish television station.

The history of that seminal movement may be new to some, but the subject matter is not. Martin Luther King Jr. day just passed, and it is still hard to reconcile the fact that racial and gender discrimination are both sadly alive and well. On a recent show on KPFK’s Democracy Now, Amy Goodman held a discussion on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. day to discuss the mass Incarceration of Black Americans. She quoted Michelle Alexander who revealed a startling fact, “…there are more African Americans percentage-wise imprisoned in the United States, more black people, than were at the height of apartheid South Africa.” How could I not know this fact?

I grew up in California, and was extremely fortunate to receive the best possible education while attending public school. Mind you, it was in Beverly Hills, so that sort of removes it from comparison to any other public educational institutions. My first year in High School, 1970, was the first year of busing for the school. In my high school, of course it was one-way busing. I’ll explain. Busing, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, was the forced busing of students from one part a city to another, as a means to de-segregate schools, and was a direct result of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. All over America the cities themselves were and to a great degree, and still are, racially segregated. School districts lines were intentionally created to segregate schools and were often, (see Jim Crow laws) conscious efforts to send black and in Los Angeles, Mexican children, to inferior schools. But they did not “bus” the wealthier white kids to the schools in the poorer communities of color, all that way across town. We never talked about that as students; we just went on about our integrated lives while taking courses such as “Black Studies” and “Native American Studies.”

I don’t remember which class it was in, but we were shown the 1955 film Nacht und Nebel (“Night and Fog)” by Alain Resnais. It was an absolutely horrifying experience as a documentary short film about the horrors of the Nazi Concentration Camps. I never forgot those two words.

2.Global Partnership in Technology

If the goal is to educate, truly, and disseminate knowledge and history so relevant to our world today, why not use the technology so readily available, to bring education to everyone? Using digital technology, we have a chance to bring education infused with energy and excitement to, just about everyone! Give students of all ages a chance to learn by doing, and by example. Use film and digital video to break down the inequality in education that exists not only in 3rd world villages, but also in some of the wealthiest communities in the leading countries of the world. A very inspiring and successful example of this is The Bridgeit Program in Tanzania. Educational video content is available via mobile technology to 150 rural primary schools in Tanzania. Classrooms have large computer monitors and from mobile phones, teachers can select from a wide variety of lessons, some of them tailored to fit their local area and address local issues. Nokia, Nokia Siemens Networks, the Vodacom Foundation, and the Pearson Foundations are in partnership with the International Youth Foundation and the Tanzanian Ministry of Education, to make this advanced technology possible. There you go. If that can happen in Tanzania, there is no reason whatsoever that cannot happen everywhere. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eif2UKRNIOg

3. Get Corporations Involved

Now that we have the media attention, why not get creative and come up with ways that global corporations might participate, and clean up their image a bit? The International Youth Foundation has partnered again with, believe it or not, Starbucks TM. Starbucks TM has created The Starbucks TM Youth Action Grants Program, which makes funding available with grants of approx. $10,000 each. These grants directly support the efforts of young people around the world, enabling and encouraging them to become innovators and increase their skills in order to improve their lives, communities and expand their ability to make a difference on a global scale. Take Plan B, Kenya, one of the 2011 grant recipients. They are using video art to energize active interest among students on college campuses in Kenya, surrounding the issues in the 2012 elections. http://www.canthingsgetbetter.org/

Perhaps the joy and delight I have found in learning new things has its basis in my early educational years. The excitement of traveling the highways of our minds, finding ourselves stimulated and enriched while on a voyage of discovery–– is a gift that should be given to all children, to people of all ages and all walks of life. Only by becoming fully aware can we hope to be engaged participants in our own lives and in the world. What a wonderful thing to help children find their own path, and have the courage and self-esteem to walk on it. How different the world would look.

“Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.” ~Malcolm Forbes

Jeannie Winston Nogai
Owner / Winston Nogai Design
www.jeanniewinston.com / E: jwndesign@me.com

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My Place of Birth

January 12, 2012

كليسا سنت استپانوس

I had no idea the Pandora’s box I’d be opening as I set off ten years ago to work on a book, loosely based on my Persian paternal grandparents. Half way through my second re-write of the manuscript, I found myself so moved by the 2009 Green Revolution that was blossoming in Iran that I put it aside. I decided rather to write about my personal journey as a foreign student, a freshman at the University of San Diego, at the time of the 1979 revolution that toppled the Shah’s regime and created the Islamic Republic. But that story gave way to another, and another, and three years later I have in my possession a total of 15 chapters of my life growing up in Iran, a student at an all-girl’s boarding school in England, an undergraduate at the University of San Diego, and as a political refugee.

The Pandora’s box contains nuggets of information that kept and keep falling into my lap each time I research a topic, from the Persian New Year, to the history of a town or evolution of the cinema or pop music in Iran. Each time I am presented with a tip that seems at first peripheral to my story, or that’s what I think, yet, as I dig deeper, I am forever transformed by what I discover.

Take the chapter I wrote about my baptism, orchestrated by my Christian Armenian maternal grandparents, without the knowledge or approval of my agnostic parents. But in writing this piece I needed details, so I started at the beginning. I was born at the American Presbyterian Hospital in Mashhad, a city in northeastern Iran, under the medical attention of two American physicians, one a Sgt. in the US army, and driven to our home, five days later, in my father’s canary yellow Cadillac El Dorado. It seems I was destined to end up in the US given my early brush with Americans!

Shah cheragh (holy Shrine)

Mashhad is also home to the shrine of Imam Reza, one of Shi’a Islam’s holy sites, attracting millions of pilgrims each year. The religious denomination of the American Hospital did not matter to my parents. My mother, a non-practicing Christian, my father a devout non-believer who considers himself a Persian through-and-through. They had selected the Hospital because of its state of the art medical facilities and personnel. But, my curiosity was seriously piqued by the existence of the Hospital, not only that it was an American Hospital, but a Presbyterian Hospital, in one of the holiest Shi’a cities in the world. Who were these audacious men and women so brazen to settle in a city entrenched in its own strict religious beliefs?

GPS

It turns out that as far back as the 1870’s American Christian missionaries had come to Iran (at that time: Persia) to help build schools, medical clinics and hospitals and of course, proselytize. One such missionary was a young man by the name of Howard Baskerville, born in Nebraska and educated at Princeton. Baskerville came to Iran in 1907 and began to teach Iranian boys and girls at the Presbyterian Mission School in Tabriz, northwestern Iran. Two years after his arrival, during Iran’s Constitutional Revolution, Baskerville took up the cause of the Iranians who were dissatisfied with the Qajar Dynasty (which pre-dates the Pahlavi Dynasty that was overthrown in 1979), by raising a volunteer army. He did so against the advice of the evangelical Presbyterian missionaries and the American Consul in Tabriz. He saw the Constitutionalists struggle for democracy identical to America’s war for independence from Great Britain.

The Qajar Royalists, with support from the Czarist Russia, had taken Tabriz under siege. Baskerville and his hundred-man army that included mostly young noblemen and some of his pupils attempted to break the ten-month siege. But as Baskerville and two others set off on a sortie to collect food for the city from a nearby village, he was shot in the back by a sniper from the Royalist’s army. The bullet went straight through his heart, killing him instantly. He was only 24.

One hundred years after his death, Baskerville continues to be revered as not only a hero by the Iranian people, who call him the “Iranian Lafayette,” but most importantly a shaheed, or martyr. His sacrifice at 24 turned him into a national legend. At his funeral, thousands turned out for a massive outpouring of mourning. He was buried in the Christian Armenian cemetery in Tabriz. When the Persian parliament reconvened seven months later, the first item on its agenda was a speech of tribute to the slain American. Even Ernest Hemingway credits his participation in the Spanish Civil War to Howard Baskerville and modeled the character of Robert Jordan in his novel For Whom the Bells Toll after him.

In 2003, a bronze bust of Baskerville was erected in Tabriz’s Constitution House. The Persian inscription at the bottom of the bust reads: Howard C. Baskerville. He was a patriot – history maker.

It is, therefore, interesting how an exploration of the place of my birth led me to Howard C. Baskerville. At a time when relations between Iran and the US continue to be strained and hostile, it is worth to remember the words of Baskerville, the young American missionary, who was quoted as saying: “The only difference between me and these people is my place of birth, and this is not a big difference.”

(The above is an excerpt from Jasmin’s memoire “Cinema Iran,” a work-in-progress.)

Jasmin S. Kuehnert
President & CEO ACEI, Inc.
www.acei1.com

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The Music of Language

January 5, 2012
by Jackie Parker

Manuscript

I had been asked to teach a writing workshop for a group of women and their teenage daughters who lived within blocks of each other in Alhambra California, a city of 80,000 eight miles from downtown Los Angeles. Alhambra is the birthplace of the painter Norman Rockwell whose scenes of everyday American life graced the covers of the Saturday Evening Post magazine for forty years. Many of these women were first generation Americans: Mexican, Filipino, Korean, who, by any standards had achieved a great deal. One had begun selling hotdogs at Dodger games. She now owned several properties, another was a nursing supervisor in a large hospital, another a social worker with a Master’s Degree in family counseling. They had worked and studied their way to impressive positions, bought homes, raised families, lived in a manner far exceeding their parents’ dreams for them.

But it seemed that they were having trouble getting along with their teenage daughters, and one of the women, who was enrolled in a workshop of mine, thought that by writing together they would find a way to create meaningful connections and a basis for understanding each other as women. The daughters, who had known each other since they were toddlers, had agreed to give it a try.

As I sat down in the comfortable living room and looked around at the fourteen of them—I was apprehensive and yet excited to see what would happen in the next two hours. The truth was I had no idea what I was going to ask them to write about, and no idea whether this group would end in disaster or triumph. I rarely prepare a topic before meeting a group, feeling out the needs of the people in the room by listening to what they write in the first exercise: a five minute free-writing that elicits results I still don’t understand after fifteen years of doing this work. People open up to aspects of themselves that are moving and deep and true, as if those truths are standing behind a door waiting to be invited into the room. But would teen-age girls risk writing their truths with their mothers right there? Would their mothers risk revealing themselves to their girls?

I had asked everyone to leave their phones and connective devices in another room and one of the girls said she felt really strange. Even stranger when we began simply by sitting in quiet together, breathing in silence for five minutes. A few of the girls laughed nervously. Some of them squirmed. I held the quiet like a cloak, spreading it out over the fidgets and giggles as they settled in. Sometimes just five minutes of silence in a room can shift moods and connect us to the inner life that we hunger for and often fear, but that we must work consciously to give to ourselves these days because so much that is rich waits for us there.

Just before the writing began one of the women asked if she could write in her native language. “Of course,” I said, off handedly. “Write in whatever language feels right for you.” She was the first person to read that day. “I know you won’t understand what I’m saying but I had to write this.” she began.

I had never heard Filipino spoken at such length. And no one but her daughter could follow the story. And yet, as she read, haltingly at first, and then musically, her words rising into a rhythm and meaning we could sense but not quite know, something happened to us all. I looked around the room and there were tears in the eyes of many of the women and girls. Simply hearing the language had moved us. Was it possible that we had gleaned their meaning as well? “Could you read it again?” everyone urged once she had finished. How beautiful was her first language. It was a privilege to listen, we all agreed. A privilege just to hear. Then she translated her story to us. “It’s a letter to my mother,” she said. “I’m apologizing to her. She had wanted me to become a doctor, but I failed. I failed her. All I was able to do was become a nurse. I have never spoken these words to anyone. I don’t even think I have ever really let myself feel them.”

Her daughter got up from her chair and embraced her. The tissues were passed around the room. We heard many deep and wise stories that day, in Spanish and Korean, in English, as well. It was a day of profound connection on many levels, far exceeding my goals for the group. It was a day that changed my teaching. Now wherever I go I remind people that they may write in any language they choose. And roomfuls of people are graced with the music of languages they might never have heard. And if not the language, then the stories that arise from the experiences that are held in the quintessential American experience: our immigrant selves. There are 92 languages spoken in the City of Los Angeles. One day, I want to have heard stories in them all.

Jackie Parker is a writer and teacher who conducts workshops nationwide.
She can be reached at jackie@jackie-parker.com

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