Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Midsummer's Festivals

We live in the BC Rainforest. No doubt about it. A friend of mine told me he had lived here thirty years and never saw a summer so bad.

I've been hitting the summer music festivals in the Valley. First there was Smithers. That really is held on “midsummer's eve”. So of course I stayed up all night and sang songs with a select drunken few, including a scotsman from Terrace who insisted on singing this Stan Roger's song over and over again.

The old Kitimat Indian village, at the head of Douglas Inlet, is a beautiful setting for a music festival,. Thank god they didn't have camping and we stayed in a motel as it rained and rained. And you wonder why we don't have an outdoor music festival here in town. Let's face it, camping does not work well in Prince Rupert.

A certain musician I know insists that our town should have a proper covered bandstand like the one in Terrace. I don't know, Third Ave around city hall worked on Earth Hour. It would work even better with amplification. A festival can use a mix of indoor and outdoor venues. That's why the rodeo grounds in Smithers and Kispiox work so well.

Of the three music festivals I went to Kispiox outshone them all. Certainly the weather helped. But it was also the crowd. There was a wonderful mix of all ages: from babies to grandparents and a lot in between. And the feeling at Kispiox was relaxed and laid back. The perfect atmosphere for a music fest.

There were a good number of Rupertites at Kispiox. Three of our bands were playing: Mermaid Cafe, The Grifters, and Nonsuch. We all did well and got a good reception.

I love that song of the Grifters: “I'm not adapting well” It's kind of like what I feel at music festivals. So much music, so many people. Too many choices. I ended up turning in early and missing a fantastic late night drum circle with some real African drummers.

Smithers had the best jam sessions, both formal and impromptu. I especially enjoyed Skeena Skiffle, Ray Leonard's new band that features Cynthia Pyde, James Powell, as well as former Prince Rupert musician Paul "Ammo" Sametz.

One of the high points for me was the Akasha Belly Dancing Workshop at Kispiox. Krystyna Moss is a Belly Dance teacher in Terrace. She gave the workshop to a group of about thirty women. I was the only guy there, but I wasn't dancing. I got to play Middle Eastern drum beats on my “doumbek” That's an Arabic type of drum that's usually featured in Belly Dancing. I had a wonderful time. One of the great things about Belly Dancing is that a woman doesn't have to be shaped like a ballerina to do it well. Why can't Prince Rupert have Belly Dancing classes? Only in Terrace and Smithers, pity.

Now Prince Rupert has two great dance acadamies that are training a lot of good dancers. We host a provincial dance competition, but we're behind the other towns in this Valley in musical events.

My favourite concert at Smithers was the Valley Youth Fiddlers. It was a whole lot of kids from Smithers playing fiddles together, accompanied by an adult rhythm section. For them to play that well, required a lot of dedicated parents and teachers. Smithers has got a really well established support network for all kinds of musicians, and you can hear the result. It is impressive.

Kispiox, has got the atmosphere down though. Partly it's location, out in the country beside the Kispiox River, it just seems made for it. One of the organizers told me it takes six months out of the year to organize the festival. The volunteers at all the festivals made it all possible, setting everything up , cooking for the musicians, cleaning everything up.

By the time we played at Kispiox I was getting better at doing announcements and microphone patter between songs. I made a point of thanking the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition for all the work they've done in publicizing Royal Dutch Shell's proposed coalbed methane drilling in the Sacred Headwaters. They had set up booths in all three of the festivals this summer. Shannon Mcphail first brought this issue to my attention, and her organization has done an amazing job of getting this issue out in public view where it needs to be.

It's our water they're messin with. People all up and down this valley are deeply concerned about the risks to salmon and wildlife. We need to bring our concerns to the BC government and to Shell Oil. We have a lot in common with people from the other towns in the Skeena River Valley.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

On The Beat

A lot of people feel that the drums are the timekeeper for a band. But if that were really true most bands could replace their live drummer with a drum machine and be the better for it.
The drums sets up the groove, which is not just keeping time but producing a sense of forward propulsion that drives the music and makes our bodies want to move.

In keeping time, every division of time gets equal emphasis but when the drums lay down a groove they do so by varying the dynamics and tonal qualities of every note played. Every groove is a rythm – a cycle of increasing tension building to a climax then a release – A mini crescendo and decrescendo.

The fact that drums do much more than keep time was brought home to me this weekend at a rainy outdoor concert in Kitimat when I saw a trio from Alberta. I won't tell you their real name, let's just call them – “The Anemics”. They were bass and lead vocals, lead guitar and rythm guitar. Three musicians but no drummer. Instead, they were using a drum machine.

The problem was, without a live drummer, they sounded anemic. No dynamics – no sense of propulsion. A drummer could have supplied dynamics and energized that band. Believe me, one whack from my snare drum could have woken that lead singer up in a big hurry.

A drummer in a band is like a system within a system. Each of his four limbs plays a different instrument, and it's as if they each have a mind of their own when they play. The left foot keeps time on the hi hat cymbals whereas the right foot plays the bass drum. The left hand plays “ghost notes” and back beats on the snare, while the right hand plays a driving pattern on the ride cymbal. When they all play together the parts interweave into a cyclic pattern of tension and release , tension and release. That pattern gives a feeling of forward movement that propels the rest of the band and the audience.

The bass drum is the foundation of the drum set. It's the largest drum, the lowest pitch and the one that is most felt throughout the body. When I was first taking drum lessons I was taught to use the bass drum as a timekeeper. Military marching bands also use bass drums to keep time. When you keep time with your right foot, by playing each and every beat, it provides a very solid foundation for the two hands. A steady, even bass drum is easy to follow and easy to dance to but it very quickly sounds monotonous.

In “swing” jazz, the bass drum keeps steady time, as the right hand plays a pattern of broken triplets on the ride cymbal, while the left hand plays ghost notes on the snare. In latin music the bass drum forms a regular pattern, called an “ostinato”. African and caribbean music often use the bass drum as the “backbeat” in place of the snare drum as it is used in rock music. Rock music borrowed the ostinato bass drum rythms of latin but used them to set up a regular back beat with the snare.

Modern jazz dispensed with the steady four bass drum and the back beat and freed up the bass drum to improvise and punctuate the phrasing of left handed ghost notes, while the high hat kept time. The phrasing in modern jazz is much longer and more relaxed than in rock music. Some people describe the feel of modern jazz as “spacey” because of the lack of a solid bass drum beat, especially on the “downbeat”, or first beat.

A lot of drummers play “double-bass” by having two bass drum pedals and using both their feet instead of just the right foot. That way you can do bass drum rolls and effects that go well with heavy metal music. I have probably irrational objections to the double-bassdrum. I would never use it myself because I consider the high hat too important to abandon, and I find double bass too much foundation and not enough architecture. I guess that means that I don't like heavy metal music. Although I do like Led Zeppelin, and their late great drummer John Bonham. He got his big bass drum sound with a single bass drum. It was a twenty-six incher, four inches bigger in diameter than what most drummers use.

Because the bass drum is the foundation, if you try and make a major change to the way you play it you can end up messing up your sense of time and the coordination of all the rest of your limbs. Don't mess with the foundation unless you've got a lot of free time and a basement where you can chop wood (ie., drum sticks). If you've successfully rebuilt the foundation, then you can take your drum set out of the woodshed and use it to energize a real band. Rock on drummers.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Tipping Point

For those of us who want to facilitate change toward sustainability the idea is to find the point of leverage where a small effort can create a big change in behaviour. According to the latest research, one underestimated and underemployed lever is our perception of what other people do in our neighbourhood and community. We think we do things because of the kind of person we are, but much behaviour is contagious. If we see others doing something in a certain situation, we are more likely to act in the same way.

“When it comes to interpreting other people's behaviour, human beings invariably make the mistake of overestimating the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimating the importance of situation and context.” So writes Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point. The Premise behind Gladwell's book is that while the world might seem like an “immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push – in just the right place – it can be tipped.”

According to Gladwell, the key to finding tipping points is to see social change as like an epidemic. Social behaviour is contagious, and there is always a minority of people who seem to have an inordinate influence on shaping new social trends, just as there are certain people who contribute more than their share in disease epidemics because they are great social mixers.

For instance, teenage suicide is a good example of a contagious behaviour. When one charismatic teenager in Micronesia committed suicide, a rash of similar suicides erupted in these islands over the months and years that followed. There is evidence that when a prominent suicide is featured in major newspapers, the rate of suicide temporarily increases afterwards.

In The Tipping Point, Gladwell features James Q Wilson's and George Kelling's “Broken Windows Theory of Crime” as a prominent example of epidemic behaviour. If a window is broken and left un-repaired, then people walking by will assume no-one cares and no-one is in charge. This sends a signal that anything goes, which encourages criminal behaviour.

In the 1970's and 80's a crime wave swept the inner cities of America. In New York, the subway system became dysfunctional as graffiti, litter, fare-jumping, public disorder, and muggings increased dramatically. In the the late 1980's and early 1990's the New York Transit Authority hired David Gunn and William Bratton, both disciples of George Kelling, and his broken windows theory of crime. Subway cars were kept clean, graffiti was painted over, and fare jumpers were prosecuted. They believed that graffiti, and fare beating were small expressions of disorder that invited much more serious crimes. Bratton went on to become head of the NYPD, where he applied the same strategies to the city at large. The result was a dramatic decline in serious crime in New York by the late 1990's.

Following from the idea that social change is like an epidemic, Gladwell lists three guidelines for finding tipping points They are: “The Law of the Few”, “Stickiness”, and “The power of context”.

“The Law of the Few”, states that certain kinds of people are critical in spreading information. These are people that can manage to take new innovations and translate them into something that the rest of us can understand. They often cultivate large circles of friends and are up on all the latest information. Gladwell calls them “Connectors”, “Mavens” and “Salesmen”.

While contagion is a function of the messenger's behaviour, “stickiness” is a function of the message. Messages that have stickiness are messages that are memorable and that move us to action. By tinkering with the presentation of messages we can significantly improve their stickiness. Gladwell goes into some detail to show how by progressively honing the message through continually testing on preschool audiences, the makers of the children's TV shows – Sesame Street and Blue's Clues were able to get and keep the audience's attention and promote learning.

The Power of Context is essentially a generalized version of the broken windows theory. “Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places they occur.” “ We are more than just sensitive to changes in context,” says Gladwell, “we are acutely sensitive.” “The power of context says what really matters are little things... It is possible to be a better person on a clean street or in a clean subway than in one littered with trash and graffiti."

Hence the potential power of such programs as Communities In Bloom and Civic Pride. If people in Prince Rupert participate together to clean up and beautify their property - clean up litter, plant flowers, cut down weeds, and do some landscaping, they feel pride in having a cleaner city and pride in having contributed. Neighbours are inspired to clean up their yards Social trust increases and more and more people are willing to pitch in and cooperate in other public projects. A better looking city stimulates tourism and discourages crime. The small effect of a group of people cleaning up their yards can have big effects on their city. That's the idea behind “The Tipping Point”. Major positive change can come about from small changes in people's behaviour because behaviour is contagious.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

There's Hydrocarbons in Them Thar Hills

Last week Shell Oil came to town and gave an open-house about their coalbed methane project in the Sacred Headwaters. I had a fascinating chat with Shell Canada employees, Larry Lalond and Kathy Penney. It was disappointing to note that only a handful of local people came to the open house. Perhaps Shell could have done better to advertise their open house. I would think it would be in their interest to encourage more local participation.

Hopefully, we have gotten past the bad old days when resource extraction was a kind of smash and grab operation with no meaningful consultation with stakeholders. This time I'm assuming that Shell, who appears to be in this for the long haul, is really serious about listening to the public. The issue that grabs attention anywhere downstream of the Sacred Headwaters is the issue of water. In order to get the methane out, Shell is proposing to pump water from underground to the surface. This “produced water” could well be contaminated with heavy metals or salts, we don't know yet, until it is properly tested.

Shell insists that it will truck all the contaminated water, a thousand kilometers away to Fort St John, where it will be re-injected underground. This is dubious, because it is not only a ridiculous waste of energy, but also totally impractical, once more than a handful of holes are drilled. The other problem is that pumping water out of an aqueduct is likely to affect ground water levels which could adversely effect salmon fry. These are all excellent reasons for local people to get involved in the consultation process with Shell. We're talking about them screwing around with our water, people!

Royal Dutch Shell is one hundred years old. It is now the second largest energy corporation in the world, after Exxon-Mobil. Last year, Shell made thirty-two billion dollars. The CEO of Shell, Jeroen van der Veer, acknowledges both Peak Oil and Global Warming. He'd like to see a global agreement on Carbon Cap and Trade soon.

Why I mention this is because it has direct consequences for all of us. Peak Oil means that the global demand for hydrocarbons is or will soon exceed supply. The price of oil may have its ups and downs, but as long as global demand keeps rising faster than supply, which is near peak production, it's likely that it will become more and more expensive over time. This means that there is and will be a massive transfer of wealth from consumers of oil and gas to producers. Ordinarily, this would be business as usual in our global capitalist system, as the higher price would just encourage everyone to avoid these products, but in this case it isn't – for two reasons: First, there are no good substitutes for oil in our modern economy; and Second, burning hydrocarbons on the massive global scale that has been happening is leading to climate change. For these reasons it is essential that governments step in and limit the amount of carbon emissions in the economy by putting a price on carbon.

Everything is connected. The atmosphere is common to all and if too much carbon dioxide gets produced the costs are spread to everyone, in terms of the damage from climate change. On the other hand, Oil companies, and consumers of oil products are not paying for those costs. This is what is called: “market failure”, when one group in the economy avoids paying for all the costs of their activities. That is why government has to step in and devise a fair means of compensating the public for this cost and at the same time, slow down the massive transfer of wealth from consumers to oil producers. Stephan Dion, leader of the Federal Liberal party got it right when he said polluters should pay.

Unfortunately in all this consultation with Shell, where are our governments? The Campbell government has streamlined and fast-tracked coalbed methane tenures and subsidized roadbuilding and initial drilling. Not only that, the Campbell government has taken away the legal rights of municipalities and regions to have a say in resource extraction decisions. Something doesn't jibe here with the provincial government's commitment to fight climate change .

This is where the other problem of “political failure” comes in. From the huge transfer of wealth from the public to oil companies, a portion of big oil's money is going towards lobbying governments. This has led to political corruption on a scale not seen since the nineteenth century. As a result oil extraction, production, and consumption is subsidized instead of being properly regulated. And we have huge military expenditures for wars in the Middle East which just might possibly have to do with securing oil supplies there. You can see the damage this has done to our democratic institutions in the obvious bias of the Bush and Harper governments toward oil companies and their blatant foot dragging over doing anything decisive about global warming.

You may say, “What's global warming got to do with me personally?” Here's the connection: Only if ordinary citizens get involved and take governments to task on these issues will we be able counter big oil's money and influence. Otherwise they'll run the show. And if you want to know what that's like, take a look at Iraq.