Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The migrant experience in Italy

An interesting series of reports on the BBC News website about immigrants into Italy, an country that was virtually monocultural until only recently, and is now dealing with large-scale migration from Eastern Europe, Africa and elsewhere, both legal and illegal.

Also from earlier this year, a worrying report about African immigrants caught in the crossfire as Nigerian gangs muscle in on the traditional drug monopoly of the Sicilian mafia.

Of course, Mr Wikipedia always has something interesting to contribute to whatever issue you wish to know about - in this case, prominent Italians of African origin.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Lawrence Leung's Choose Your Own Adventure

The Asian presence on Australian TV has always been scant. And no, the Asians on Border Security getting busted for all manner of dodginess, they don't count. So aside from Kylie Kwong, Kamahl, the chick from Hi-5... not that many spring to mind. Asian-Australians have long been waiting for an Asian guy to step up and represent, by starring in his own show.

Well Lawrence Leung is that guy, finally. I guess Asians looking for their own star would have perhaps liked him to be a little less nerdy, but Leung is nerdy in the best way possible. Lawrence Leung's Choose Your Own Adventure (ABC, Wednesday nights at 9:30) looks to be the best local comedy produced this year.

Melbourne boy Leung has been doing the standup comedy thing for a while now, as well as writing for The Chaser and doing weekly bits on RRR's morning show. I have never found him to be uproariously funny as a standup, but the format of his show suits his gentle, endearingly geeky persona.

The premise of Choose Your Own Adventure is Leung revisiting the dreams of his childhood and actually doing the things he never got to do, like being a rockstar. The brilliant first episode sees our hero seeking out the girl he had a crush on in primary school and seeking help from the experts on how to woo her. Said experts include 80s pop star Tiffany and a pair of PUAs (expert Pick-Up Artists). Anyone who has read the Neil Strauss book "The Game" will be familiar with these guys.

A golden moment is Leung's meeting with Ross Jeffries, the uber-creepy godfather of the pickup game. Jeffries, who introduces himself with the additional qualification "My current girlfriend is 19 and Swedish" advises Leung's wide-eyed queries about his childhood crush with comments about blow jobs and f***king. Leung's face during this exchange is priceless.

But the stars of the show are Leung's parents Leo and Doris, who completely steal every scene they are in. They need their own show. Their comments regarding the inherent creepiness of their son's fixation on a girl he knew from 3rd grade are the highlight of the show, and are a reminder that Asian parents are an untapped comic goldmine.

You can watch episodes at www.abc.net.au/tv/lawrence/ if you are in Australia; otherwise, youtube is your best bet.

Melbourne's educational institutions vs. Muslims

Two news items have popped up in the Melbourne news in the last few days which illustrate the challenges of a multi-religious society.

Firstly, Heathdale Christian College in Werribee has refused to allow a training placement to a teaching student, Rachida Dahlal, on the grounds that she is a Muslim. Around the same time, RMIT University's city campus has refused to grant separate prayer rooms to its Muslim students and has requested that Muslim students share prayer space with students of other faiths.

There are not really any simple answers to either of these issues, but both raise important issues about the limits of religious tolerance and the right to exclusivity.

Regarding Heathdale College, they would appear to be fairly small-minded in all this. Ms Dahlal would have taught French and mathematics. How her religious faith has anything at all to do with these subjects is anyone's guess. Do they think she is going to convert the kids in between times tables, or work Islamic hadiths into her French lessons? ("Ok kids, who knows the French for 'There is no God but Allah'?")

I figure the parents of the school students would not be happy with a Muslims teaching in the school - after all, they chose a school which teaches creationism and forbids homosexuality. But they should ask themselves which society the school is meant to be teaching their kids to live in. Because in this society, there are people of different faiths, and young people would do well to have exposure to them.

Since private and religious schools, be they Catholic, Muslim or otherwise, receive funding from all taxpayers, should not all taxpayers have the opportunity to go to that school? Were I a Muslim I might resent my taxes going to fund a school that wouldn't allow Muslims. Perhaps if we just gave all education funding to our needy public education system instead... but that's an issue for another day.

Regarding RMIT's prayer rooms, the issue is that the university did originally have Muslim prayer rooms, but these were closed when the building they were in was being renovated in 2007. But now RMIT is refusing to re-allocate rooms exclusively for Muslim use. Perfectly good prayer facilities exist, but they are not open to Muslims exclusively. Muslim students have been boycotting these rooms, instead choosing to pray in corridors, the street, or whatever rooms they can find. RMIT Islamic Society president Mohammed Elraifi has claimed that some women had been harassed while praying in the open due to this situation.

Now I understand the anger among the Islamic Society that the university has acted in bad faith by not delivering the rooms as promised. But I have a problem with their attitude. Sometimes you just gotta make the best of the situation. The women allegedly harassed while praying were not praying in the open because they had no facilities, but because they were boycotting the room that was available. Of course I'm not justifying any harassment that may have occurred, but you can't blame the university for that.

Compare the two stories and you may notice a contradiction over religious exclusivity that is particularly relevant to Muslims in Australia. Is it consistent to argue that the Christian school should show inclusiveness and not be allowed to discriminate against a Muslim, yet support Muslims' rejection of inclusiveness by refusing to share a prayer room with those of other religions? Multiculturalism is all about a little give and take on both sides. In the modern globalised society, there is little place for absolutism except on the basic human rights issues. But absolutism is a key facet of Islamic belief, as it is for fundamentalist Christian belief. Hopefully, they will soon enough learn to play the game.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Turkish Pazar festival this weekend

If you're in Melbourne this weekend, check out the Turkish Pazar festival at the Queen Victoria Market. It's on Sunday 29th of March, 9:30am - 4pm. Will feature Turkish crafts, performances and all kinds of food.

Knobhead of the Week: Pope Benedict

Africa's HIV/Aids epidemic, according to our friend and moral superior the Pope, is “a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problem."

Wait, hang on, condoms aggravate the problem?


Admittedly, this is nothing new; the Pope is in essence just reiterating the Catholic Church's stand on contraception. Their stance has always been that the only acceptable form of contraception is abstinence.

Abstinence is great as a protective method, and more effective than condoms. But as the only method? Come now. Want to avoid getting a deadly disease? Just don't have sex. Simple as that.

The Church's stand on this is like saying that the way to solve the Middle Eastern crisis is for Jews and Arabs to start loving each other, and everything would be fine. Which of course is true, but it just ain't gonna happen. Sex is simply to powerful a human drive for most people to abstain for prolonged lengths of time, particularly when you are as phenomenal at it as I am, and particularly when the Church doesn't even allow you to have a sly jerk to compensate for all this no-sex business. A humane church would maybe say, "Ok, you can't have sex, but once a month you are allowed to whack it." But no, even that is verboten.

Of course the majority of people, Catholics included, make up their own mind and may choose to use condoms anyway. But in Africa, where the disease is most prevalent, there are many Catholics who lack education but for whom the Pope's words will hold great sway. And this is a continent where there are still many myths about condoms which discourage their use. So by dissuading people from using the only feasible contraception method available, it is quite feasible to say that people will die directly because of what the Pope has said this week.

Why are we listening to the Pope and his people for advice about sex, anyway? I don't go around dishing out advice on aeronautical engineering or knitting, because these are fields that I have no experience in. Likewise, a bunch of guys who have never experienced a sexual relationship have no credibility advising others on it.

Talk up abstinence all you want, I got no problem with that. But as soon as you tell people not to use condoms, you become a knobhead.

Darth Sidious, aka Pope Benedict.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Global funk connections: Jimi Tenor

Finland. Land of pine forests, winter sports and vodka intoxication. Mention Finnish popular music and most folks probably think of nothing at all. Think a bit harder and they might come up with dance producer Darude, or rock band The Rasmus, Eurovison winners Lordi, or maybe even death metal acts like Impaled Nazarene or Children of Bodom.

Hardly the sort of environment that produces great funky music, you might think. Yet one of the best soul/funk revival bands in the world today, The Soul Investigators, hails from Helsinki. I'm sure I'll post about them at some later stage. Somewhat less cool but far more successful was the Bomfunk MCs, of "Freestyler" fame, led by a Jamaican/Finnish rapper.

But Finland's whacky funky auteur is Lassi Lehto, aka Jimi Tenor. Starting out in the 80s making industrial rock, he moved into an oddball fusion of lo-fi electronica and funky 70s jazz. I managed to catch the man in Melbourne a few years back and it was both brilliant and twisted. Switching between keys, sax and vocals, this skinny Andy Warhol-lookalike creates an eclectic sound that is free to incorporate Barry White sleaze, abrasive techno thumping, and jazz of exquisite beauty. Occasionally at the same time.

I'll say straight away that the Jimi Tenor discography is a mixed bag. Much of his stuff is really weird, some of it almost unlistenable. So caution is advised. But some of it is downright brilliant.

One of the brilliant moments is "Outta Space", from his 1997 "Intervision" album. It's a bit like a weird European take on George Clinton's intergalactic funk with the band Parliament, in its fat bassline and horn section. Tenor keeps the techno influences subtle, allowing the song to gradually unfold and expand. It's one of my very favourite songs - in particular I love the way he progressively ups the ante throughout the song, the groove and melody constantly evolving and getting better and better.

On a more laid-back tip, "Midsummernight" comes off his 1998 "Venera" EP.

"The Year of the Apocalypse" comes of 1998's "Organism" album, and displays his more electronic leanings.

More recently, Tenor has been collaborating with Berlin-based Afrobeat outfit Kabu Kabu. The below video for 2007's "Sunrise" starts out really weird but stay with it, its some real nice Afro-Latin-jazz.

Some Jimi Tenor trivia:
he is married to American soul singer Nicole Willis, formerly of The Repercussions, who has collaborated with Leftfield and most recently has released an album with The Soul Investigators.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Funny football picture of the week

Arsenal's Togolese striker Emmanuel Adebayor greets one of his young fans.

Oh no, wait, that's not a young fan. That's his teammate Andrei Arshavin, who is actually 3 years older than Adebayor.

For the record, Adebayor stands about 6'2, while the gnome-like Arshavin is a tiny 5'7. Oh hang on, I'm also 5'7.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

R.I.P. Eddie Bo, 1939-2009

The music world this week lost legendary New Orleans pianist and singer Eddie Bo, who created some brilliant funk and rhythm & blues records throughout the 60s and 70s. He recently toured Melbourne, which I deeply regret missing.
Check out these live recordings of the man born Edwin Joseph Bocage. It's New Orleans gumbo fonk at its very best.

Check your Bucket

Hook and Sling

Viva Victoria Multicultural Festival

I only managed to hang out at Fed Square for a couple of hours (I'm a busy man, yo) but the vibe was nice, the sun was out, and there was all kinds of stuff to look at. Managed to wolf down a Turkish mushroom gozleme (a pastry, strangely almost identical to roti chanai), followed by a Bosnian pumpkin pitta (more pastry - I like pastry), washed down with some Thai iced tea.

The two musical acts I caught on the main stage were fabulous. Kanasuk, the 16-piece group of musicians and dancers performing Mauritian sega numbers, made a major impression on the crowd - the combination of infectious island rhythms and sexy dancing girls is never a bad thing. After that, Nicky Bomba and Bustamento kept up the summery vibe with their Caribbean grooves. On the smaller stage at Birrarung Mar, the Georgian/Bulgarian folk choir Gorani lent a more mellow vibe to proceedings.

Also caught roving Indonesian performance artist Jayadi Pembongan doing some stuff that seemed to draw traditional Javanese dance, martial arts and a bit of breakdancing thrown in the mix.
Out front on the pavement I caught an amazing Rangoli design made solely from grains and pulses (red lentils, green split peas, rice, polenta, carrot rings and kidney beans). While at the top of the hill in fed square was something else you don't see everyday - a Mongolian ger (tent) sitting in the middle of the square.

A celebration of one of Melbourne's greatest assets, its diversity.

Film archive: A Dirty Carnival

A Dirty Carnival (2006)Original title: Biyeolhan geori. Also listed as "Dirty Carnival"

While the Hong Kong film industry doesn’t seem to produce gangster movies as vital as it has in the past, in Korea the gangster flick is seemingly in robust health. 2001’s “Friend” is generally seen as the genre’s defining statement, but “A Dirty Carnival”, the 2006 release from director Yu Ha (“The Spirit of Jeet Kune Do”), ranks right up there with it.

Much of “A Dirty Carnival” follows the conventions typical of gangster movies regardless of the country of origin; an ambitious young tyro advances from lowly status to a major player in the criminal underworld. Of course, that rise through the ranks does not come without having to make some unsavory choices along the way, and usually contains the seeds of the character’s inevitable downfall.

It’s a well-worn plot thread, but the devil is in the detail. One of the masterstrokes of “A Dirty Carnival” is the casting of Jo In-seong in the lead role as the thug with aspirations, Kim Byung-du. The clean-cut In-seong is better known as a heart-throb in romantic movies, and his boyish good looks serve well to illustrate the contradictions of Byung-du. He is a young man devoted to his mother and siblings, and trying earnestly to win the affections of a sweet girl who disapproves of his lifestyle. Yet he is also caught up in the criminal world and sees little way out but upwards through the organisation, which of course brings its own ugly responsibilities. And when these moments of violence rear their head, the wild light and intensity in his eyes show the other side to Byung-du. It’s a masterful performance for an actor previously known only for his looks.

The other major aspect of “A Dirty Carnival” that sets it apart is the subplot surrounding Byung-du’s relationship with his old school friend Min-ho (Nam Gung-Min). Min-ho is an aspiring film-maker who wants to make a gangster movie, and is inspired by Byung-du’s lifestyle, which both fascinates and repulses him. But there is a parallel between these two young men. Just as Byung-du must betray his superior to take his place in the gang, Min-ho’s use of Byung-du’s stories in his film unsurprisingly leads to complications for the gangster. Nam Gung-Min also puts in a superb performance as a decent young man whose ambition leads him to ultimately betray his friend.

The other subplot is Byung-du’s attempt to conduct a relationship with Hyun-ju (Lee Bo-young), a girl from his old school, re-introducted to him by Min-ho. Far from being a gangster’s moll-type character, Hyun-ju is a relative innocent who is scared off by the undercurrent of violence in Byung-du’s life. Yet he pursues her nonetheless, and the pureness of his devotion to her, and his schoolboy-like awkwardness of his courtship, demonstrates the layers of his complex persona.

There are particularly Korean flavours to the movie which set it apart from other countries’ gangster flicks. The uninhibited and campy karaoke sessions where Byung-du and his henchmen let off steam after a job provide a funny and intriguing counterpoint to the violence they perpetrate elsewhere. Also a particularly electrifying battle scene early in the movie against a rival gang demonstrates the code of honour between the gangs; the intense but non-lethal stoush with rubber baseball bats suddenly takes a more sinister turn when Byung-du’s boss pulls a knife.

Alongside movies such as “The Host”, “My Wife is a Gangster” and “Oldboy”, this is more proof that the South Korean industry is producing some phenomenal work that needs to be taken seriously around the world.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Global funk connections: Mondo Grosso / Monday Michiru

Perhaps a sign that we live in a kind of postmodern global age is the video below: a Japanese band fronted by a Japanese-Italian-American singer, playing Brazilian-inspired jazz-funk, on European tour.

Mondo Grosso were a Japanese outfit active in the early 90s, formed by producer and bassist Shinichi Ozawa. The above live track, with the hippified titled of “Tree, Air and Rain on the Earth” actually works better in its studio version, in which the tempo is a bit faster and the rhythm section and chanted chorus are beefed up to make a mightily infectious dancefloor classic. You can find it on volume 4 of the “Rebirth of Cool” series.

Out front of that track is singer and flautist Monday Michiru. The daughter of a Japanese jazz pianist mother and an Italian-American saxophonist, it is hardly a surprise that she would turn to a musical career. A key player in Japan’s emerging acid jazz scene in the early 90s, Michiru has been a prolific solo artist and actress in her homeland as well as guesting on tracks by the likes of Basement Jaxx and DJ Krush.

The below track, “You Make Me” is in more of a disc-house vein and has become a well-known song due to its inclusion in that popular Asian video game, Dance Dance Revolution.

Monday Michiru - "You Make Me"

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Cultural Diversity Week - so much to do!

Gadzooks, its not enough that the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival is on, Cultural Diversity Week is also upon us. What a bad time I chose to be virtually penniless (hurry up and pay me, you bastards, how long does it take to process a damn invoice?).

But I shall soldier on and try and get in as much as I can. In any case, this weekend if you are in Melbourne there is some great stuff to get involved with. Check it:

Saturday 21st of March:

Viva Victoria @ Fed Square, 11am - 6pm
Music including bhangra/Bollywood dancers, Japanese drumming, Mauritian sega dancing, 11-piece Cuban band, Maori haka and much more.
Food from Turkey, Japan, Mauritius, Senegal, Ethiopia, Jamaica, Macedonia, Afghanistan, Sicily, Bosnia, and much more.
Arts and Crafts from bloody everywhere.
Demonstrations of African hair-braiding, Indian henna, and other stuff.
More info at http://www.culturaldiversity.vic.gov.au/

Antipodes Festival, 6pm til late
A celebration of all things Greek. On Lonsdale St in the CBD between Swanston and Russell streets.
More at http://www.antipodesfestival.com.au/

Sunday 22nd of March:

Thai Culture and Food Festival @ Fed Square, 10am - 9pm
Food, music, dance, stick fighting, kick boxing and more.
More at http://www.thaifestvic.com/en/

Global Gourmet Fair, 10.30am - 4pm
At the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, 12 Batman St, West Melbourne.
Support a good cause - the ASRC does great work helping those who slip between the government's bureaucratic cracks.

Antipodes Festival, 6pm til late
A celebration of all things Greek. On Lonsdale St in the CBD between Swanston and Russell streets.
More at http://www.antipodesfestival.com.au/

Entry is free for all of these, although if you plan to stuff your face like I do, it will cost substantially more.

Random comic genius - Borat's Guide to American Hobbies

As much as I heartily enjoyed the Borat movie, his old stuff is still the best. This one, from the second series of the Ali G Show, is pure gold from the get go. A reminder, in case you needed one, that Borat is one of the most brilliant comedic creations of our time.

Ridiculous travel complaints

Some funny light reading in the UK's Telegraph this week about some of the bizarre complaints made by travellers to various destinations.

My personal faves are:

"On my holiday to Goa in India, I was disgusted to find that almost every restaurant served curry. I don't like spicy food at all."


"I think it should be explained in the brochure that the local store does not sell proper biscuits like custard creams or ginger nuts."

Because laughing at stupid people never gets old.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Taiwan's poo-themed restaurants

Article in TIME recently about the chain of Modern Toilet restaurants that began in Taiwan and are soon opening up in China, Malaysia and elsewhere. Diners sit on toilet seats at the dinner table, eat from hot pots that look like toilets, and consume soft-serve icecreams that deliberately look like turds, and shaved-ice desserts with names like "bloody poop" (strawberry flavour) and "green dysentery" (kiwi fruit).

One diner thinks that the Chinese can accept this dining experience since they are more comfortable with their bodily functions than Westerners - and judging by the amount of public spitting, burping and other charming forms of bodily expression that goes on in that part of the world, I'm inclined to agree.

Personally, I was okay with all the poo references, but the idea of something called "bloody poop" is just a step too far for me. Excreta is vile enough, but I can deal with that - add blood to the equation and the image in my mind is insurmountable, I'm afraid. I'll still go there one day, though.

You can visit the restaurant's website here.

Racism and the British police force - the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, 10 years on

There's been a few articles that have piqued my interest recently in the British press, about the level of institutional racism in the British police force. It relates to the inquiry 10 years ago that revealed a high level of racism permeating all levels of the force. This was after the ineffectual investigation into the racially-motivated murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, in which the five suspects were never convicted. Lawrence was waiting at a bus stop when he was set upon and stabbed by a gang of white youths. It was alleged that police corruption hindered the effective prosecution of the suspects, and that the police failed to adequately render assistance which may have saved the 19-year-old Lawrence's life.

A landmark case in British history, it was a damning indictment of the British establishment's regard for ethnic minorities.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw claimed at a conference recently that racism was no longer institutionalised in the force. Others disagree. You can also read more about the case here, while there's an interesting piece on racial identity in today's Britain here.

Global funk connections: Gal Costa

Brazilian singer Gal Costa was prominent in the 60s and 70s, releasing numerous albums of Musica Popular Brasileira and tropicalia. Tropicalia (or tropicalismo) is a musical and artistic movement that arose in the 60s, pioneered by artists like Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. With many parallels to the American counter-culture of the time, one of the movement's foundations was the concept of antropofagia (cannibalism), referring to the Brazilian tradition of "cannibalising" other cultures and producing the melting pot that is Brazilian society. Tropicalia's diverse sound drew from elements of Brazilian traditional and popular musics, together with American rock, R&B and psychedelia.

Keeping with that theme, one of Costa's early tropicalia releases was the sonically amazing "Vou Recomecar". Mashing up psychedelic rock elements and a killer funk rhythm with classical Brazilian breezy vocal elegance, its a song that has so much going on that it almost sounds like it was haphazardly thrown together - yet somehow works perfectly. Belongs on every discerning dancefloor.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The tale of the "Grass-Mud-Horse" (or "F**k Your Mother")

The latest internet phenomenon in China is a little hard to grasp initially if you're not too familiar with Chinese language and culture, but bear with me, it's funny as hell. It's all about subersiveness in the face of censorship, in the form of seemingly harmless children's stories and songs, and features enough naughty words to entertain the big kid in all of us.

I wrote a post barely a week ago about tonal languages such as Chinese, and all the complexities and risks of having words that sound almost identical. But within such a language system lies much potential for cheekiness.

Early in 2009, entries began to appear on the website Baidu Baike (basically a heavily self-censored Chinese version of Wikipedia), describing a mythical fantastic creature, called the Grass Mud Horse, from the Mahler Gobi desert, a fun-loving and courageous animal which lives peacefully except when battling against its enemy, the river crabs.

So far, just an unusual kid's tale, right?

Except when you figure that Cao Ni Ma, or "Grass Mud Horse" also can mean "F**k your mother", depending on the tones used for the word. So just as the quite unremarkable names "Wayne King" and "Mike Hunt" can sound like "wanking" and "my c**t" when said aloud, the Mandarin phrase "Grass Mud Horse" is innocent enough when written, but rude when said aloud.

The place where the Cao Ni Ma resides the Mahler Gobi desert (Ma Le Ge Bi) also sounds just like the words for "your mother's c**t".

The term "river crabs" (he xie) is a homophone of "harmony", which is the enemy of the Grass Mud Horse.

Confused? Here is the context.

The Grass Mud Horse internet meme is all about giving the middle finger to the forces of censorship in China. The reference to "harmony" is a euphemism for "censorship" - the Chinese government strictly polices the internet and censors content in order to create its "harmonious society". So rude words, pornography, and dissenting information are all blocked. Yet, a seemingly innocent story about the mythical Grass Mud Horse and River Crabs would not be subject to censorship - and hence appeared on Baidu Baike.

So, its basically like a school student saying something vulgar in front of the teacher, but getting away with it because it sounds like something innocuous. Sure, it's pretty juvenile, but in a society where the Government treats its citizens like children, what can they expect?

The Cao Ni Ma meme has become such a phenomenon that you can buy grass mud horse dolls in shops. There's even a children's song about the Cao Ni Ma that has appeared on youtube, which has amassed millions of viewers. Check it out below (be warned about its coarse language). The English translation is not really accurate, but you get the idea.

Kinda catchy, no?

And the grass mud horse is not the only mythical creature to appear on Baidu Baike. There is also the "Lucky Journey Cat" (Ji Ba Mao, which is a homophone of "pubic hair"), the "Superior Tail Whale" (Wei Shen Jing, also meaning "menstrual pads"), the "Intelligent Fragrant Chicken" (Da Fei Ji, or "Shooting the Aeroplane" - a euphemism for masturbation), the French-Croatian Squid (Fa Ke Yu - you can figure that one out) and others, each with their own mythology full of double-entendres.

I now have increased respect for the Chinese and their sense of humour - it makes the "pussy" references on "Are You Being Served" pale by comparison.

You can read the NY Times article about it here, and the full Wikipedia description here.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Artistic Interpretations of the "Super Mario Theme"

One of the major popular culture phenomenons of the late 20th century is Supa Mario Burazazu (in Japanese), or as it is better known, Super Mario Bros. Released in 1985, it is the second highest selling video game of all time, and the foundation upon which Nintendo built its empire of global domination. It even spawned a television series and live-action movie.

One of the most noteworthy elements is the theme music - indeed, there was actually a Mario soundtrack album released. Composer Koji Kondo had a very limited range of tinny electronic sounds with which to create the music, yet he managed to create something surprisingly enduring. In case you've been living in a cave and have never heard it, below is the music in its original form, from the very first level of the game.

Ok, so its kinda cute, kinda catchy, but is it really that special?

Apparently so, if the number of cover versions on youtube are any indication. There are heaps of them. This next one is my favourite - the theme tune played only using a remote-control car and a bunch of partly-filled bottles, it shows what happens when a Chinese guy has waaaayyy too much time on his hands. Brilliant.

Then theres this guy, who has substantial musical talent and could probably achieve anything in life, but chose instead to channel his creativity into replicating the Super Mario theme on two guitars.

And then there's the beatboxing flute player... sick of the tune yet?

But the proof of the kooky postmodern world we live in is this: a massive orchestra, the embodiment of Western art and high culture, playing a tune from a video game. It's here that you start to appreciate the depth of what initially seems such a simple composition.

Finally, if you haven't had a Mario OD yet, here are some guys doing a live enactment of the game on stage. Credit where its due, this is some very clever stuff.

By now, you'll either never want to hear this music again, or you'll be humming it to yourself for the next few days.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Random comic genius - A Visitor's Guide to Scotland (by Danny Bhoy)

Scottish-Indian comedian Danny Bhoy is in town round about now, at least according to my friend Shereen who finds him to be quite the hottie. I'm more concerned with his comedy in any case, and while my upcoming trip to Malaysia means that I won't be able to check him out, thought I might post this in tribute to the man - its a celebration of all things Scottish.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Obama is bad for Indonesians' health

In the same week that Obama unveils his plans to revolutionise America's ailing healthcare system, the health of Indonesian people is being threatened by Obama, in a different way.

We Indonesians are big Barack Obama fans. Given that the US president spent 4 years of his early childhood in Jakarta, we could almost consider him the first Indonesian president of the USA. Hey, considering most of Indonesia’s leaders have been corrupt, megalomaniacs or incompetent, you can see why we’d love to claim someone as widely respected as Obama.

So what better way to honour someone of his stature, than by naming junk food after him? Yes, “Obama Snacks” have hit the streets in the West Javanese provincial capital of Bandung, and are garnering attention worldwide, but for the wrong reasons.

The Indonesian Consumer Foundation has called for the withdrawal and ban of the snacks, based on potential risks to consumers. The snack packet, which displays a caricature of Obama making a peace sign with his right hand while spinning the globe on a finger with his left hand, does not however display details about its manufacturer, and carries no registration number, meaning that consumers will not have any idea about the origins of the product.

(Rather like Obama himself, I can almost hear the right-wing pundits saying…)

The packet also contains a small plastic toy which not only increases the risk of toxic contamination but also may be mistaken for food by small children, as the toy is not separately wrapped. So beneath Obama’s benevolent exterior and initial pleasant taste, lurks a potential threat to our young. The right-wingers must be having a field day with this.

The product is also problematic as the packaging also does not display any use-by-date (because Obama is forever, baby! Score one back for the left.)

It is also illegal in Indonesia for a product to bear the image of a state leader, or to have labelling and packaging that is irrelevant to the product itself. So the future of this product does not look good.

You'll be happy to know though that the packaging describes it as an "Anti-Terrorist" snack - perhaps it can be used to fatten up suicide bombers so they can't fit into their exploding belts?

No reports yet on the flavour or nutritional value of Obama Snacks, although I’m sure they are bad for your health. They look kinda like Cheetos in the video. I hope one of my relatives over there will grab me a couple of packets before they get pulled from the market. One of them I plan to sell on eBay – surely someone will be willing to pay top dollar for this novelty item – and the other I just want to taste. I’ll be careful not to eat the plastic toy though.

You can watch a news report on it here, but it helps if you speak Indonesian.

Monday, March 9, 2009

How to make money by being a video game geek

So you thought playing video games was a waste of time? Time that you could be spending at work or doing something constructive?

Well, apparently you are wrong, because if you live in the right country, you could get a job that involves playing games. Not designing, marketing or retailing games – though you can still do those of course – but just playing them. And it will surprise no one that the countries at the heart of this new business trend are China, Korea and Japan.

Of course, its not as simple as just playing games and getting paid a nice wage. Like many industries, there are those that do the low-end schlepp work and those at the very top of their field who rake in the big bucks.

At the top you have the professional gamers, or cyberathletes. Yes, some people treat video games as a spectator sport, and the best players can earn contracts and compete for prizemoney in tournaments. In Korea, professional players of phenomenally popular games like Starcraft actually attain celebrity status. Then there’s the Hong Kong-born American, Dennis Fong, referred to as “the Michael Jordan of video games” who raked in around $100,000 a year in prizemoney before he retired to become a cyber-entrepreneur.

I can totally imagine a not-too distant future where Asian cybergeeks refer to Michael Jordan as “the Dennis Fong of basketball”.

Professional gaming is not all glitz and glamour, obviously. At the other end of the scale we have what are known as “gold farmers”, the subject of an article in The Guardian recently. If like me you are not a gaming enthusiast (ie. you think there might be better things to do with your life), this is a concept that is hard to get your head around, so let me try to break it down for you.

In many video games you earn some kind of reward (a weapon, special ability, etc) by peforming some kind of action, such as killing opponents or obtaining large amounts of money. (So if you remember back to Super Mario - the last video game I played with any real frequency, which shows how behind the curve I am - you could earn an extra life by finding a special mushroom or by collecting 100 coins.) When a player sets out with the main objective being to acquire these rewards, this is called gold farming.

However, some people can’t be bothered with the rather repetitive task of gold farming, and would rather pay someone else to do it for them. Thus has emerged the gold farming industry, where companies employ workers – “playbourers” - to clock long hours playing games solely to earn in-game advantages. These are then sold on to gamers around the world.

What a stupid idea for an industry, I hear you saying. Yet there are around 400,000 people employed in the gold farming industry, primarily in China but also to a lesser extent Indonesia and several other countries. The wages are nothing to get excited about however – but I guess for young guys with no specialist skills, there are worse jobs they could be doing.

Another step towards the inevitable Matrix-isation of our world, perhaps?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The risks of tonal languages!

If you ever go somewhere full of Cantonese speakers, be wary of how you greet them. See, even the friendly English greeting "Hi" could get you into trouble. For "hai" in Cantonese can mean "Hi", but it can also mean "crab". Or "department". Or "c**t". All depending on the tone.

If you don't understand what a tonal language is, please let me explain briefly. Chinese, Thai, Lao and Vietnamese are all tonal languages. It means that words that sound phonetically identical can have completely different meanings, depending on whether they are spoken with a rising tone, a flat tone, a descending tone and so on.

Cantonese has 6 different tones, although some consider it to have 9 - it's complicated. So you have high falling, mid rising, mid level, low falling, low rising and low level tones.

Of course, if you are not very familiar with the language, the tones all sound pretty much the same. So its pretty easy to get them mixed up. My Chinese-Malaysian friend Jean says she's really reluctant to order crab (hai)in a restaurant using her slightly shaky Cantonese, since asking the waiting staff for a serving of Spicy C**t can be kinda uncomfortable.

What inspired me to post about this was a recent attempt by my friend Joo-Hyung to say something in Vietnamese, which was admirable, but funny as well. The situation was a wedding here in Melbourne between a Cantonese bride and Vietnamese groom. Joo-Hyung (who is Korean by the way) was the MC for the reception and thought it would be a nice touch to welcome both families in their native languages. The attempt at Cantonese was apparently quite successful, while the attempt at a Vietnamese greeting had my Vietnamese friends laughing, and here's why:

What Joo-Hyung was attempting to say was "chào mung quan khách", which roughly translates as "Welcome, guests."
However, it sounded a bit more like "chào mung quan cac" (notice the different tone in the final word, which otherwise sounds pretty much the same).
"Chào mung quan cac" translates as "Welcome, c*cks."

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Global funk connections: Fun-da-mental

Fusing hip-hop grooves and politicized rapping with Indian film soundtracks and various forms of African and Middle-Eastern instrumentation, Fun-da-mental styled themselves as a multi-ethnic British version of Public Enemy. Their early recordings were strongly influenced by the environment of rising racial tension in the early 1990s, as blacks and South Asians were subjected to attacks by white nationalists.

Their debut single “Countryman” (below), like much of their stuff, doesn’t really work purely as rap music – the delivery too earnest, lacking the flow and panache to mix it with the best of US (or UK) hip-hop. Yet it is the stunning background music which stands out, all swirling Bollywood strings, percussion and dubby bass. It is a landmark moment for the sound of the British Asian Underground.

But after this impressive statement of intent, just before their first album was set to drop, the group split. Vocalist Lallaman (a Hindu) and percussionist Goldfinger (a Sikh) left and formed the outfit Detrimental. Remaining were the chief sound architects, Aki Nawaz and Dave Watts, who brought in replacement rappers Hot Dog and MC Mushtaq. Thus there was a shift in the group’s outlook and religiosity. Nawaz and Mushtaq were both Muslim of Pakistani heritage, and Watts and Hot Dog both black Muslims. When the debut "Sieze the Time" dropped, the extraordinary soundscapes were still there, but complemented by samples of Malcolm X and lyrics that were all about militant Nation of Islam philosophy.

The second single, “Dog Tribe”, describes a kind of ethnic vigilante squad rising up to fight the skinheads. It still kicks some sonic ass, but you can see the worrying direction the group was heading.

Following that album, Fun-da-mental becaming increasingly abrasive, both musically and politically. I find their followup, "Erotic Terrorism", to be mostly unlistenable. More recently, Nawaz has been advocating increasingly disturbing jihadist politics through the group’s music. Their 2006 album “All Is War (Benefits of G-Had)” has a song describing an Islamist takeover of the USA, and another comparing Osama Bin Laden to Che Guevara.

From a group with multi-racial and multi-faith roots, it’s a shame how it all turned out, really.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Random comic genius: Introducing Jonah Takalua

Summer Heights High is the show that introduced the term "ranga" (from "orang-utan", a term of abuse for redheads) into the wider Australian lexicon. Shot in Melbourne at Brighton Secondary College, it features 32 year-old Chris Lilley as Year 8 Tongan school bully Jonah Takalua.

I often wonder how Pacific Islanders would view Lilley's performance as an Islander youth. Personally, having worked with a lot of these kids, I think it's brilliant and spot on. I've met plenty of kids like Jonah and Leon - I've even met the kid who plays Leon, and he's exactly the same in real life. Still, you could argue that it reaffirms negative stereotypes about Islanders. Judge for yourself.

Oh, and I used to teach Iro, the kid who plays Joseph (tall kid with an afro). See how close I am to greatness?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

"300" and Racism

There’s a lengthy but on-the-money piece by Jehanzeb Dar over at Broken Mystic, about the racist and homophobic imagery in the movie 300. I know the film is a couple of years old now, but the article really resonated with me. At its most basic level, 300 is good for what it is, a violent chop-em-up war movie with some interesting comic-book stylings. But there was a lingering unease for me about the film’s subtext; it doesn’t take a paranoid conspiracy theorist to notice that 300 also plays out like a white supremacist’s wet dream.

The outrageously chiselled and noble warriors of Sparta (who look anything but Greek, by the way), constantly spouting odes to their own uber-masculinity, take on a thoroughly monstrous Persian horde. There are no shades of goodness in the Persians, who also represent various types of “otherness”. They are brown. Some of their fighters are hideously disfigured or look like freakish monsters. Their emperor is represented as effeminate, androgynous and possibly homosexual (and played by a Latino). Riding strange beasts, wielding exotic weapons and mystical arts, their appearance and range of dirty tricks represent the the scary strangeness of the non-white world. A collection of Western stereotypes about the otherworldy barbarism of Asians and Africans, the Persians represent a horde of swarthy savages trying to force their way into the realm of the noble white man. It ain’t hard to see the parallels with present day events. And no surprise that it didn't exactly earn rave reviews in Iran.

The movie is perhaps even more offensive to disabled people (I’m not one, so I’m just guessing here). Deformity and disability are associated with evil and moral cowardice a number of times, in contrast to the physical perfection of the rippling bodies of the Spartan warriors.

Also in the article is an excerpt from an interview with the writer of the 300 comic book, Frank Miller, in which he describes his views of the clash of civilizations in today’s world – and it gives a clue to some of the racist themes that mar the movie.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

“Curry-bashing” on the rise in Melbourne – Indian students targeted

NOTE: This is an old post. It's still relevant, but for more recent posts on anti-Indian violence in Australia, check here.

Melbourne, long known as one of the world’s safest cities, has seen an alarming increase in violent crime of late. While alcohol fuelled-brawling in the CBD has made many recent headlines, another worrying trend is seemingly on the increase – robberies and attacks on South Asian people.

The western suburbs have seen a 27% increase in the number of robberies in the last financial year, and police estimate that one-third of these were against people of Indian appearance (read: Indians, Sri-Lankans, Mauritians, Nepalis, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis.) Considering that South Asians would make up no more than 5% of the population in the area, that is a staggering figure.

The South Asian presence in Melbourne has visibly increased in recent years. Approximately 33,000 international students from India study here, predominantly in the areas of business and information technology. Tamils from Sri Lanka have been one of the main refugee groups settling in the city. Add to that the significant number of those young Indians who have finished their studies and now working here, as well as the large numbers of South Asians who were either born locally or have been settled here for a number of years. They are also a highly visible minority on trains, on university campuses and in certain occupations.

It’s hard to say why this has translated into South Asians being particularly vulnerable to robbery and assault. A racial element is all too obvious in some of the attacks. But if you were thinking of it as white-on-brown, Aussie-versus-foreigner violence, you’d be mistaken, as the picture is more complicated than that. There is no dominant trend apparent in the ethnic background of the attackers – Anglos as well as people of European, Middle Eastern, African and Asian heritage all feature.

Sunshine (the epicentre of these attacks) and its surrounding suburbs are undersupplied with community-enriching programs and facilities, but well-supplied with at-risk young men of various ethnicities who are susceptible to a lifestyle of brawling and petty crime. On the lookout for ways to prove their manhood and feel a sense of power, they pick on the different and the vulnerable.

So are these hate crimes per se, or are Indians just in the wrong place at the wrong time? A bit of both, I'd wager.

Since a large number of South Asians, particularly the recently-arrived, are getting around using public transport rather than driving cars, this puts them in danger more frequently. Likewise, occupations such as taxi drivers and convenience store operators, in which Indians feature disproportionally, are particularly vulnerable to criminal violence. In other words, Indians are seen as soft targets, and their high visibility as “the other” – particularly for turban-wearing Sikhs, who seem to have especially targeted - makes them vulnerable.

Inspector Scott Mahony of the Brimbank Police said as much when he advised Indian students how to reduce their chances of attack. "They need to make sure they walk through a well-lit route, even if it might be longer, and they are not openly displaying signs of wealth with iPods and phones, and not talking loudly in their native language."

Which is all well and good, but given that talking loudly and displaying phones and iPods are common to a great many young people, one might be inclined to see a hint of victim-blaming in this. Check out Indian-Australian journalist Sushi Das' take on this.

Whatever the reason, there is a growing sense of unease in South Asian communities. Fortunately women do not seem to have been particularly targeted in these attacks, but this is small consolation for the male victims. Below are just small selection:

* Dr Mukesh Haikerwal, the widely respected former head of the Australian Medical Association was mugged and savagely beaten by a group of teenagers in Williamstown last September.

* 23-year old student Jalvinder Singh was stabbed while driving a taxi in Clifton Hill in April last year. This incident led to the demonstration by taxi drivers which shut down traffic in the CBD, complaining about lack of protection for cabbies, but also of racial targeting by the many Indians at the protest.

* Two Indian students walking down a street in Sunshine were set upon for no apparent reason by thugs who jumped out of a car wielding baseball bats in August 2007.

* Sukhraj Singh, 27, was in a coma for weeks after he and 3 other Indian men were set upon in an Indian grocery store in Sunshine by a group of up to 15 youths wielding metal poles. The local police apparently took 50 minutes to arrive on the scene. This led to a demonstration of 100 Indians outside Sunshine Police Station in December.

* Mauritian man Binesh Mosaheb was assaulted and robbed last year by four men. The attackers, of a variety of ethnicities, were part of a larger group that had bashed to death Chinese-Australian academic Zhonjun Cao in nearby Footscray earlier that night; the gang members then suggested they go “curry-bashing.”

* Two young Sikhs alighting at Albion station after working late at night in the city were attacked by two men and a woman in January 2008. Ajaydeep Singh was racially abused and needed six stitches on his eye. Ricky Ahluwalia was also bashed and had his wallet stolen.

* 26 year-old accounting student Kanan Kharbanda had only been in Australia five months when he was attacked by a mob of around 10 people at Sunshine railway station a year ago. He fled back to India, and is now blind in his right eye.

* Between May 8 and August 2 last year there were 12 assaults on taxi drivers in 3 suburbs in the inner northwest. 10 of the drivers were Indian, and the assailants were all reported as African youths.

Bear in mind that many Indians suspect the actual number of attacks to be greater than stated by the police, since new migrants can be less likely to report crimes out of fear of retribution or mistrust of police.

I have a lot of time for the western suburbs, but there is something sick that is festering out there. I don’t know what is happening to my city, but it’s becoming a scary place.

To keep abreast of this issue as it is covered on this blog, make sure to SUBSCRIBE (Top right of the screen).

UPDATE (June 5th 2009):

It seems that certain people reading this post are taking information about the ethnicity of some of these attackers and twisting it to fit their own racist and anti-immigrant agendas. Just because I made mention that some of the attacks were committed by Africans, this in no way implies that Africans are responsible for the majority of them.

I've posted more recently on this issue, attempting to set the record straight about the ethnicity of the attackers. The point being made here is that there is no real pattern, other than that the attackers are predominantly young and male. You can find that link here.

The last thing I want is for my blog to be used as the tool of right-wing xenophobic bastards.

Other posts related to this topic:

Are Australians really racist towards Indians?

Another racist attack on Indians in Melbourne; police accused of cover-up

Disgraceful attacks against Indians continue

Attacks on Indians - is it racism or opportunism?

More Indian students attacked, and temple vandalised

Kamahl weighs in on curry-bashing - and the media twists it

Curry-bashing ringleader jailed for murder

3 more Indian students bashed in a fortnight

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Guess Who's Asian? (Part 3)

More Asianness where you may not expect it...

Ever since watching the movie Gandhi as a child, I always thought it weird that they would pick a white man to play the Mahatma (although given the film industry's shameful history of blackface and yellowface, perhaps not so weird). Well it turns out Ben Kingsley, one of the history's decorated actors, is actually part Indian. His mother was British, his father a Kenyan-born Muslim of Gujarati descent. Born as Krishna Bhanji, he changed his name early in his career as he feared a foreign name would be an obstacle - and in 1970s Britain, he probably had a point.

Arj Barker is a well-known stand-up comedian, who also features on one of my favourite tv shows, Flight of the Conchords. Born to an Indian father and American mother, his birth name is Arjun Singh.

Valencia winger David Silva is a key member of the Spanish national football team that blitzed all comers at Euro 2008. He's also part Asian on his mother's side; originally I had thought Filipino, but everyone seems to say she's Korean.

Bay Area rapper and Quannum member Lyrics Born (aka Tom Shimura) was born in Tokyo to a Japanese father and Italian mother. His early stage name, Asia Born, reflects his background.

Mutya Buena is a former member of pop/R&B trio Sugababes and solo artist - you may have heard her nifty Lenny Kravitz-sampling "Real Girl" track. Her background is Filipino (the name Mutya comes from the Tagalog language) as well as Spanish and Irish.

Late singer with 70s rock juggernauts Queen, Freddie Mercury has been described as Britain's first Asian rockstar. His real name was Farrokh Bulsara and his background is as complicated as the man himself. He was born on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar to parents from Gujarat, who had moved there as his father worked for the British Colonial Office. His family were Parsi - ethnic Persians who follow the Zoroastrian religion and who had been in India for many generations. Mercury and his family only arrived in England when he was in his teens, fleeing the revolution in Zanzibar.

Actress and all-round hottie Shannyn Sossamon is best known for her performance in movies such as 40 Days and 40 Nights, and A Knight's Tale. Like many people born in Hawaii, her background is diverse - Dutch, English, Irish, German, French, Filipino, and Hawaiian descent.

Want more on this topic? Try "Guess who's Asian?" part 1, part 2 and part 4.