Friday, 11 September 2009

My Berkeley Choir at the Solano Stroll, and some observations

They put on a street festival called the Solano Stroll each year along Solano Avenue, a street about a mile long that runs downhill from Berkeley into Albany and is full of interesting shops and restaurants. I blogged about last year's Stroll here, so if you are interested you can refresh your memories by scrolling back through this blog to that posting, or look at the Stroll's web site for more information on the kind of festival it is. The East Bay Jewish Folk Chorus had a gig at this year's Stroll with a band called Adama, singing and playing some well-known Israeli folk dances to draw in lots of the passers-by. I rehearsed with the choir last year and found it great fun to be singing in Hebrew and Yiddish - well, at least I am very familiar with Hebrew, more so than with the Spanish and much more so than the Greek that my Melbourne Community Choir, Canto Coro, sing in, and I am also familiar with a lot of the songs from my childhood and general cultural exposure. But last year because of other commitments (notably Ben's wedding!) I wasn't around to actually perform live with the choir.

I don't read music so I need to practise lots, and finally bought myself a little MP3 player as Barry's iPod is loaded from his Mac and with his being away at a conference in Bilbao, it was impossible to get late versions of my songs onto it. I must seem fairly peculiar to the casual observer as I walk around Berkeley singing along with the alto parts I am listening to on the player. Come to think of it, in the general Berkeley scheme of things, I am probably no more eccentric than is normal here! But as I do walk a fair bit, it is a golden opportunity to get the music into my head, though I need to practise with the words as well. I also tend to practise (very quietly, I thought) on public transport, which I thought would be noisy enough so no-one would notice, but recently while travelling on BART into San Francisco I have got some funny looks from adjacent seats so maybe the earphones are distorting my perception of loud!

I only found out about the gig a couple of weeks before it was due to happen, so the singing was my highest priority since then. I went to 2 full choir rehearsals, and as I drafted this post, was feeling terrific after a great alto rehearsal at my house. Three of the four altos (including me) were able to come after we decided at a rehearsal the night before that we needed more work.

As the other two women, Laurie and Dana, were coming from work, and it had been a very hot day, I decided to prepare a great big salad so we could eat together quickly and recharge our batteries. It really hit the spot, as did the wine Laurie brought. We had a lovely chat over the salad, and then got down to work. Dana had brought her keyboard and we went through all our songs many times, working through the tricky bits. I had seen one of the songs for the first time the night before, and Dana hadn't been at any rehearsal before then, so most of them were new to her. But as she is very well-educated musically and sight-reads, we rely on her a lot. We took a break for a cup of tea and some honey cake and went back to work again. I guess we put in at least a couple of hours' singing altogether, and it was totally enjoyable.

I usually characterise myself as a singer whose enthusiasm exceeds my talent by a considerable margin, but with enough work I can learn the tunes and I just love to sing. It is one of those activities I only took up when I retired, but I so enjoy it. I find however tired or disinclined I feel before a rehearsal or performance, I always feel uplifted, energetic and full of joy afterwards. And that is how I was feeling when I started on this post. We had a dress rehearsal the next afternoon, then our performances were at 2 and 4 on Sunday. This year I remembered to charge my camera battery (last year the battery ran out quite early, so there were many sights I couldn't capture. Very frustrating!) But this year I was so busy rehearsing, singing, and meeting friends that I was too preoccupied to take many photos. The ones I have posted were mostly taken by the wife of one of the band members. If you click on the photos they enlarge so you might even recognise me in some of them , and any other choir or audience members who are reading the blog, check yourselves out too!

There are more photos, in a large format, at this link

but you probably need to copy and paste the link into your browser's address line rather than just click on it to see the photos

In the shot above, you can see me talking with my friend Sonya and her sisters (who were visiting from the East Coast) after the chorus had finished singing, listening to the band and watching the dancers.

It is quite hard to grasp the diversity of this country. Here in the Bay area we have the largest concentration of Nobel prize winners in the world, and an event like the Solano Stroll really embraces and celebrates diversity and difference. Yet in the US right now one also hears a level of debate about health care reform which is utterly ill-informed and totally ignores the fact that despite the existence of extremely advanced (if costly) medical care, life expectancy is lower and infant mortality higher here than in almost all developed (and some developing) countries, and medical costs are spiralling up at many times the overall rate of inflation. It is a kind of blindness, and many people are in the thrall of a counter-factual vision of reality where the US is always seen as the best of all possible worlds. Another example - people refusing to send their kids to school because President Obama is addressing school kids about the importance of getting an education, working hard and staying away from drugs, as if that were some kind of socialist propaganda and the elected president has no right to speak to the next generation about the world they will inherit. It often leaves me speechless, with no common ground for advancing discussion.

Two other illustrations of the kind of thing that throws me:

First, I bought a copy of Street Spirit, the newspaper that homeless people sell on the streets here. It is not formatted as a magazine like The Big Issue in Melbourne, but is tabloid-sized and printed on newsprint. It is published by the American Friends Service Committee. I am going to quote something that left me speechless, from an article about violence directed against homeless people on the streets in the US, by Brian Levin and Michael Stoops, in Vol 15, No 9, September 2009.

"Bumfights"is a popular violent video series that sold hundreds of thousands of tapes and DVDs before going viral on the Internet. The film series sets a new low in American popular culture, featuring fights between homeless men plied by the producers with alcohol, as well as sadistic parodies of the late Australian conservationist "crocodile hunter" Steve Irwin. These skits feature terrified sleeping homeless people who are startled awake and forcibly restrained with duct tape by "hunters" narrating their attacks with feigned Australian accents"

And, to quote the caption of a rather horrible accompanying photo, "Violent and fatal attacks against homeless Americans have risen to shocking levels. Assaults and murders of homeless people now exceed those of all other hate crimes committed against all other minorities".

73% of the attacks were committed by individuals who were aged 25 and younger. When we were at Lake Tahoe I saw an episode of Law and Order: SVU which dealt with this phenomenon. I have often seen episodes featuring a newsworthy or morally challenging issue, e.g. recently euthanasia or opposition to vaccination, but in this case I had not heard of the issue until I saw the episode, and then to see it raised in this publication a week or two later was quite a shock, (even without the truly bizarre Steve Irwin link).

Second, while I was taking a break from practicing for the Solano Stroll concert, it happened to be the first anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers in New York. As usual when I am around the kitchen, I was listening to KQED, the Bay Area Public Radio station. They were broadcasting a BBC mockumentary dramatization of the events around that weekend, with the Bank of America takeover of Merrill Lynch, the behind-the-scenes machinations involving the Federal Reserve, the British government, the various individual players at Lehman and the other institutions – it was absolutely riveting radio but I haven’t been able to locate a link to a podcast to refer you to (I know quite often when the (Australian) ABC has broadcast a science programme based on BBC material, the podcast doesn’t use that material, so maybe they have a more restrictive approach to podcasts than Australian or American public broadcasters do. ) I will try again before I finally publish this post , but perhaps you have better skills than me in finding such things for yourselves if you are interested. I highly recommend it both as an interesting piece of radio drama but also as an example of the excellent coverage of public affairs by NPR, as opposed to the shock jocks of talk radio who deal in slogans and fear-mongering and eschew any kind of rational consideration of the real issues. Again, as so often here in the US, you find the best and worst examples cheek by jowl – media, food, environment, health care, religion, social attitudes. It is definitely a very interesting and endlessly fascinating place to live

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