Niyaz at Rich Mix, London (23 November 2012)

Niyaz are one of the more esoteric bands that J and I listen to – fairly different from our normal rock/pop/metal staples. The core of the group is a trio of musicians who come from the Middle East originally, and play music that is based on the folk music of that part of the world – modernised, but not westernised. Their singer, Azam Ali, has one of the most gorgeous voices I’ve ever heard. Despite not understanding any of the words I enjoy listening to the music, it’s very beautiful.

We didn’t think we’d get a chance to see them play without travelling, they don’t tour extensively in Europe – Paris & Istanbul are the places we’d heard of them playing before. So when we saw there was a London gig in November we bought tickets immediately ๐Ÿ™‚ Rich Mix is a venue we’d not been to before – in the Bethnal Green area of London, to get there we ended up walking past quite a few places that looked far too “cool” for us ๐Ÿ˜‰ The venue itself was a nice space – it was a combination of a small cinema and a performance space (and a cafe). And the bar was a step up from a normal venue – much more interesting beers (I had a bottle of Asahi) and they clearly trusted the clientรจle because we got real glasses and bottles, not plastic ones. The crowd weren’t quite the same sorts of people we see at the concerts we go to – a lot more women, and a lot more people who weren’t speaking English or weren’t white (or both). It made it rather obvious how non-diverse the average rock crowd is in the UK.

The concert was organised/promoted by a charity that is aiming to build artistic relationships between the Middle East & Europe (called Arts Canteen), so the concert opened with a couple of words from one of their people. There was no support band, so after that Niyaz came on and played for about an hour to an hour & a half. Most of the songs they played were from their most recent album, Sumud. The band are infectiously enthusiastic about the music they are playing and clearly were enjoying themselves, and had soon created a good atmosphere.

They didn’t speak much between songs beyond brief introductions, the exceptions were the band introductions at the end and a moment early on in the concert when Azam Ali explained some of her philosophy – that the world would be a much better place if people could concentrate more on the similarities between themselves & their neighbours and not on the differences. That peace comes first from the heart, not from the politicians. As an Iranian born woman, who spent some of her later childhood in India before emigrating to the US (and then to Canada) she has a fairly personal perspective on both the similarities between cultures and the ways that people divide & demonise the “other”.Niyaz artwork

I found the visuals projected on the screen behind the band to be fascinating, but they’re not on the video I found (from the Paris show a few days before the London one), which is a shame. They were intricate line drawings of abstract patterns that were first built up then stripped back to the initial seed again. Much like the artwork for the album that we have a signed print of but animated. J didn’t notice the visuals much at all though, he was watching the musicians too much!

At the end of the concert we got a bonus encore – they invited a fan up on stage with them to play “Beni Beni” again. The fan had previously recorded herself playing along with the song on a bouzouki and the band had liked her playing so much that they’d invited her to play with them if they ever played in her town. It seemed like they hadn’t actually met or rehearsed anything with her, they just asked her to get up on stage with them at the end and then played the song – it was really good (and I really like the song so nice to hear it a second time ๐Ÿ™‚ ).

And finally here’s a video of “Beni Beni” from the Paris gig:

Empire of the Seas; Wartime Farm

The third episode of “Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World” started in the 1770s when the British had just made peace with the French, and went through to the aftermath of the Battle of Trafalgar (when the British again made peace with the French after a couple more wars). The thread used to tie the whole episode together was the life of Horatio Nelson – who started his career as a midshipman in 1771 at the age of 12, and died as he commanded the British victory at Trafalgar in 1805. (Although we didn’t get told that much about Nelson, just that he was mentioned in each segment of the programme.)

At the beginning of this period the Navy was in decline – no wars means less money for the military, and ships were being mothballed. One of the things the Navy was tasked with during this time was to explore the Pacific – Captain Cook’s voyages were part of this. They were part scientific expedition, but were also about expanding the British Empire by laying claim to whatever lands they found which turned out to include Australia. A French explorer had nearly discovered Australia the year before Cook, but had turned back at the Great Barrier Reef because it was too dangerous – I imagine he was pretty upset later when he realised he could’ve claimed a continent for France. Another way the Navy earnt their pay during this time was to enforce the customs duties charged on goods entering the American colonies, which of course lead to the American War of Independence. Dan Snow implied that actually the loss of the colonies that became the US wasn’t really that much of a loss – by far the more important part of the war (with France) that started with the Americas was when the French attacked the British colonies in the Caribbean – if the British lost those their economy would’ve been crippled. The French didn’t learn from this defeat any more than the last one, and after the revolution they declared war on England again – this conflict would end with the defeat of the French & Spanish at Trafalgar.

One of the themes of this series is how the needs of the Navy have had an impact on the social, economic & political history of Britain – so in this programme we learnt that income tax was originally instituted as a temporary measure to fund the Navy. And part of the driving force behind the industrialisation of the country was the decision to sheathe the Navy ships in copper – this was proposed as a way to protect merchant ships from ship-worm and the dragging effects of seaweed, and a bureaucrat (Middleton) in charge of the Navy realised that this should also make the ships more manoeuvrable. Middleton persuaded the King that this was a good idea, and the needs of mining enough copper and turning it into sheets to be bolted onto the ships helped drive technological advances for mining (both for copper and coal) and to generate more jobs on land. And then the faster ships were decisive in keeping the Caribbean colonies in British hands.

In the sixth episode of Wartime Farm we were up to 1943, which was just before the turning point in the war. Morale was low, as rationing was getting ever tighter and farmers were trying to grow ever more food even though they had already stretched production far beyond pre-war levels. This programme had segments on such diverse things as hay-making from grass in the churchyard (because the rest of the land was growing crops instead of grass, but the dairy herd still need hay for their winter feed), children who were sent out to camps to provide labour for farms during harvest, collecting herbs to sell to pharmaceutical companies and clothing, make-up & entertainment in the 40s. And other things too. I was particularly struck by the idea that mascara was originally for men’s beards, not for ladies’ eyelashes!

Ritual & Revelry (British Museum Exhibition)

The British Museum currently has an exhibition on the art of drinking in Asia called “Ritual and Revelry” which runs through till 6 January. We visited it on 23 November as we were in London for a concert that evening.

The Exhibition

The bulk of the objects in the exhibition were in a single room in the museum – with just a couple in the room immediately before it. They were laid out in three groups according to their use. On one side were pots, jugs and pictures of these things that were used in ritual & religious contexts. On the the other side were the same types of things but they were used in social contexts. And in the centre were four cases, 3 of which were to do with tea drinking and the last was about bhang drinking. Or you could see it as divided between vessels primarily used for water, vessels used primarily for alcohol and those for tea (listing them in the same order). Each section had objects from right across the sweep of Asia, so you could see the similarities between the areas, and the interconnectedness of the different cultures.

LotaFrog Shaped KendiYay Khwet GyiKundikaKapala (Skull Cup)Jue

The ritual side of the exhibition was mostly concerned with water containing vessels, such as the Indian lota which were originally made from gourds. The various different pots could be used in a variety of ways, and it seemed most started out as everyday water containing pots made out of gourds. Later they were made out of metal (such as bronze) and also gained religious symbolism. They could be used for drinking water or for pouring water as an offering, or over oneself as a ritual cleansing procedure. There were also some more startling objects – including a cup made with part of a human skull, which is used in some Buddhist rituals. Sometimes filled with human blood! I think, tho the label wasn’t clear, that that would be as an offering not as a drink.

Tea SetBrazierTea cupsTea BrickJian Ware Tea Bowl and Cup Stand

I didn’t know that when tea was first drunk it was made from dried & powdered tea leaves, which were whisked into hot water rather than steeped in a tea pot. Tibetan butter tea is still made like this (using yak butter as well as water and tea, frankly it sounds vile to me but it’s probably very nutritious). The tea is imported into Tibet in bricks, just as all tea used to be sold. Steeping tea didn’t really take off until the 15th Century, and then a change in apparatus was needed – the more familiar to us teapots and strainers, rather than whisks.

The middle section also included a case with some paintings of people drinking bhang which is a drink I’d never heard of before. It’s made from the flowers & leaves of the female cannabis plant, and is hallucinogenic. It can be drunk, or smoked in a hookah.

Brush Washer in the Shape of Li BaiArrow VaseElegant Gathering at the Orchard PaviliionSake Bottle in the Shape of A Young Man Holding a Bottle of SakePicnic Set

The third section, on the social side of drinking was about alcohol. I was astonished to find out that “toddy” is an actual drink – it’s Indian, and mildly alcoholic and made from palm sap. The jugs used by the toddy tappers to collect the palm sap look very like the lotas displayed over in the ritual section – and are still made out of gourds.

A large part of this side of the exhibition concentrated on the Chinese – particularly the Tang era poets called the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup, who were renowned for producing their greatest work whilst drunk. There were also vases that were used in Chinese tradition drinking games – you aimed arrows at the openings in the pot, and if you failed to hit then you had to have a drink of something alcoholic. Obviously this would be a bit of a vicious circle ๐Ÿ˜‰ The Japanese objects here were all to do with sake – I particularly liked the slightly recursive sake bottle in the shape of a young man holding a sake bottle. Sadly you didn’t pour the sake out of the bottle opening, instead you took the chap’s head off to pour.

I’ve got more photos up on flickr, in this set.

Other Things

Retail: As it’s not a major exhibition there wasn’t a dedicated shop immediately after you left, so I’m not even sure if there was particular stuff relating to it. They do normally have tea sets and sake sets in the shop, so perhaps that was it. I should look and see if there’s a book next time I’m at the museum.

Stuff I should know more about: More of the history of the countries that make up Asia – I’m starting to rectify my lack of knowledge of Chinese history soon (I have a book to read, anyway), but I still have not much of a feel for Indian history let alone the rest of the continent.

Other exhibits: We also went and looked at the new information they have up about the 3500BC (naturally) mummified man in the Pre-dynastic Egypt gallery. They CT scanned him, and have (possibly temporarily?) got a touch screen display set up where you can look at the pictures this generated. It has a 3D image of the body, and you can move it around, look at various levels (ie skeletal, or with muscles etc). And look at cross sections. It’s pretty neat to play with (tho we did have to wait a while before we could look properly), and well labelled. They discovered from the CT scan that he was probably killed by a knife thrust through the back of the left shoulder – so quite probably a murder victim. And once you’ve seen it on the scan all labelled up it’s nice to be able to look at the actual mummy and see it there as well.

Other places: That evening we went to a performance by Niyaz, of which more another time.

In Our Time: Hannibal

The famous Carthaginian general Hannibal was the subject of the In Our Time episode that we listened to on Sunday … unfortunately I can’t hear the name without thinking of Hannibal the Hamster, the hero of a book I had when I was little (and my pet hamster was his namesake). But I did manage to put that aside, and listen to the story of a much more impressive Hannibal. The experts on the programme were Ellen O’Gorman (University of Bristol), Mark Woolmer (University of Durham) and Louis Rawlings (Cardiff University).

They opened by setting the scene – Rome and Carthage each with an empire facing off across the Mediterranean. The Carthaginian empire had grown from Phoenician trading outposts, and was centred on the western Mediterranean with important holdings in Sicily and Spain as well as their North African heartland. Rome, obviously centred on Italy, were the new kids in town and the first war between Rome & Carthage (the First Punic War) started over control of Sicily. Hannibal’s father Hamilcar Barca was the general in charge of the Carthaginian army during the last part of this war – he didn’t win, but it seems he was probably never actually expected to win as the army was underprovisioned for that sort of undertaking. Also after the end of the war (Carthage lost) he wasn’t punished, which supports this – the Carthaginians had no qualms about executing generals that they felt had failed.

After the First Punic War Carthage’s finances were in trouble, which was even more of a problem than you might expect because their army was made up of mercenaries who promptly revolted when they weren’t paid. Hamilcar put down this rebellion, and then took the army off to Spain to secure & improve the Spanish holdings – Spain being a major source of wealth for Carthage due to the silver mines. And this is where Hannibal enters the story – he’s 9 at this point, and gets taken along with his father to Spain to live and campaign with the army. And this is really where & how he learns to be such a good general – he lives with the army so knows the men and what will motivate them etc. And gets to see how to run campaigns first hand.

Once Hamilcar dies (in battle) Hannibal’s brother-in-law takes over the army and gives Hannibal the job of cavalry commander. Once his brother-in-law dies (assassinated) Hannibal gets the job of overall commander – he’s only about 25 at this point, but has 16 years of military experience. Then Second Punic War kicks off – starting over control of a particular Spanish settlement which is under the protection of Rome. And right from the outset Hannibal demonstrates some of the genius for which he’s remembered – one of his key qualities is the speed at which he (and his army) reacts to events. Rome warned Hannibal off attacking the Spanish settlement, but by the time either Rome or Carthage had reacted Hannibal had already seiged and razed the city.

This is the point where Hannibal starts the journey that he’s most remembered for – he marches his 80,000 strong army north through Spain and into Gaul, then east to the Alps and across them to northern Italy. He had to do this because Carthage were no longer the major naval power in the Mediterranean, and if they’d sailed to Rome they would have had even more trouble. They had to fight their way through both Spain and Gaul, and provision the army from the land they march through. Then they crossed the Alps during the winter. This whole journey reduces his army to approximately 26,000 men – through desertions, through leaving garrisons behind en route and through deaths as they cross the Alps. He still has some of the war elephants too! Despite these crippling loses Hannibal goes on to win over 20 battles against Roman armies that outnumber him, due to his superior tactical skills (including paying a lot of attention to and making use of the lay of the land he’s fighting on) and the superior mobility of his troops. At one point he has the chance to march on Rome, but doesn’t take this opportunity – opinion is divided on whether this was the right decision. Perhaps he might’ve won the war if he’d marched on Rome then, perhaps he was right and didn’t have enough troops to properly seige the city for long enough for it to fall.

Eventually the Romans stopped trying to meet his army on his terms – instead they used delaying tactics to avoid battle but keep the army occupied. And then attacked Carthage itself forcing Hannibal to bring his army back home to save the city. This is the battle he lost, losing the war for Carthage – a while afterwards this was used as an excuse to send him into exile and he lived in a series of provinces/kingdoms that were being threatened by Rome offering them his advice on how to campaign against the Romans. Eventually one of these handed him over as part of their peace treaty with Rome, and rather than be captured he took poison.

Hannibal is still remembered (and respected) today because the Romans were impressed with him, and afraid of him. He was apparently used as a bogeyman for Roman children. And his tactical skill was respected even into modern times.