Saturday, September 30, 2017

A Praia Mais Famosa

While watching the marvelous movie Landfill Harmonic (more on this in a later post), I noticed that a pivotal moment in the lives of the young musicians from the margins of Asunción was the opportunity to bring their music to another country. That the country was Brazil -- and no less an iconic locale than Ipanema Beach in Rio -- made it even more exhilarating for these young people.
Photo: Ipanema Inn
Until that moment in the film, I had not really thought about what it means to live in a land-locked country. The Western Hemisphere has only two -- Paraguay and Bolivia -- and I had thought about the disadvantages only in terms of economic and military limitations. But of course it also means that these entire countries are populated by people who can only go to a real beach if they travel internationally. Since most people never leave their home countries, this means that the landlocked might pass their entire lives without the deeply profound experience of standing on the edge of land and sea.

In the film, this is expressed in very simple terms, as the teens, many of them wearing swimsuits purchased just for the occasion, run and skip, chanting "Vamos a la playa! Vamos a la playa!"

Their simple song reminded me of one of the twentieth century's great songs, named for the same beach. A professor of Brazilian history once told our class, "If your grandparents were sophisticated, they probably owned an album of bossa nova music." In my case, it was my great-grandparents who came to mind. Though I do not remember hearing the music in their home, I am certain they had at least one example, and it would be "Garota de Ipanema."

"The Girl from Ipanema" -- as it is known in English -- is the perfect bridge between American jazz and Brazilian bossa nova, as the definitive recording was made by musicians who were well established in both genres -- Stan Getz and João Gilberto. Just seven weeks before I was born, these three were in New York City working on what would become -- for me -- the definitive recording of the song.

As described in Lydia Hutchinson's informative account on Performing Songwriter, they decided to record one verse in English, and also realized that João's wife Astrud was best qualified to perform it. I still prefer that original recording, in both languages, but Hutchinson's article includes this fully English version with only Astrud singing. Recorded in 1964, it has has over 18,000,000 views since uploaded to YouTube in 2009. On average, 10 people are listening to this particular recording all the time.

Hutchinson's reporting dispels a misimpression I had, which was that the young woman -- the "garota" or "girl" -- who inspired the song was languishing somewhere in obscurity, perhaps unaware of what she had started. This is far from the case. Though Helô Pinheiro was unable to collect any royalties from the song itself, she did win legal battles that have allowed her and even her daughter to parlay the fame into success in modeling and other professions.
The song has been covered by more artists than any other song, except for McCartney's "Yesterday." A quick Google search, in fact, might lead one to believe that "The Girl from Ipanema" is mainly a Frank Sinatra song.

And I almost forgot: Ipanema is a place, so we need a map. Immediately to the west of Ipanema is the favela of Rocinha -- one of the most notorious neighborhoods on the planet. When I took a private tour of the city a number of years ago, I could barely convince my driver to go there mid-day. As a geographer, I was equally happy to visit both neighborhoods.

*For the title of this post, I use the Portuguese phrase for "The Most Famous Beach," which in Spanish would be "La Playa Más Famosa."

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Three Coffees, Hold the Goat

Image: Dustin Ranem, New City Times
Most coffee fiends (and mavens) with an internet connection have seen some version of the quote above, perhaps noting the irony of the pejorative reference to the sacred animal associated with coffee's origin myth -- Kaldi's goats.

I have always read this as a quote -- perhaps apocryphal -- in the voice of the great composer himself. I can imagine him requiring quite a bit of coffee in order to focus on his great works. I learned only today that the original quote refers to bowls, not cups, of coffee -- and more importantly that it is in the voice of a fictional character, a young woman named Lieschen.

She is part of a coffee cantata (or small opera) that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote for friends at Café Zimmerman -- one of at least eight Leipzig coffee shops that were important to the composer.

The full libretto of Cantata BMV 221 is available in English, and various recordings are available on YouTube. My favorite is this version, which is staged in a cafe full of exquisite old coffee equipment!

The Bach Coffee Opera listicle describes the context in which Bach developed this work, and delves into the role of gender in the work itself and in broader coffee culture of the time.


The joy of being known as a Coffee Maven is that people share all manner of coffee-related insights, stories, recommendations, samples, and humor with me. Thus I was pleased to have recently received this excerpt:

Monday, September 25, 2017

These Cartographers Are Animals

Source: Margaret Crofoot et al by way of NPR
Click map to enlarge
My title is not exactly correct, but I could not resist. Skilled humans combined art and geotechnology to make the maps based on animal movements in Where the Animals Go, an award-winning collection of 50 maps published by James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti. 

In her review The Science and Art of Mapping Animal Movements, public-radio journalist Barbara King describes some of the varieties of approaches taken to the maps, and the ways in which they yield results that are at once scientifically valuable and aesthetically pleasing.


The combination of art with technology is trending in education circles as "STEM to STEAM," which refers to adding Art to Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM -- itself an educational fad that was made necessary by misguided reforms that reduced focus on these subjects). To which geographers back to Ptolemy say, "We were doing STEM to STEAM before it was cool!"

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Tales of Popo and Itza

May 10, 2023 update: I am leaving the spelling of this blog post intact so that it matches the URL, but it really should be Popoca and Izta. 

Photo: The Tiffany Curtain Rises, CDMX
Last Thursday would have been the 100th birthday of Amalia Hernandez, who established the legendary Ballet Folklórico de México, which my favorite librarian and I had the privilege of watching in 1989.

In my geography of Latin America class that day, I talked about the dance program, and about the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, in which we saw it. We climbed many staircases before emerging into this remarkable theater on one of its topmost balconies. We were stunned by the glass curtain, which we learned years later was made by Tiffany. And I learned just now that it was created in 1912 of a million pieces of crystal.

It depicts two of my favorite volcanoes -- Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl -- which would have been visible from the cite of the palace before the city -- and smog -- obstructed the view. The view, I told my students, was unknown to most in Mexico City, because its legendary smog has only lifted fully once in the lifetimes of its older residents, and not at all since that majority of its population was born. In 1985, I said, this brilliant clear view of the famous volcanoes emerged for just a couple of days, when an earthquake shook the city violently, killing thousands and stopping traffic for days.
Image: Inside Mexico
I learned of these volcanoes during the summer of 1989. We spent a few days each in Oaxaca, Mexico City, and Guanajuato, but most of our summer was in the city of Puebla and the ancient town of Cholula on its outskirts, where we were part of a program at UDLA-Puebla, a private university known for its international programs. From that side of the mountains, Popo was on the left, and a bit closer. Sometimes it loomed over the campus, and we could watch the snows at the top advance and retreat week by week, according to the weather.

We learned how to pronounce the Aztec names, and I even spent one night in the village of Yanquitalpan, high on the flanks of the great volcano. Our campus was at 7,000 feet above sea level, and the summit more than 17,000 feet. That stay in the village was perhaps halfway between the two in elevation. We also learned the legend that is illustrated above, a sort of Aztec version of Romeo and Juliet. UPDATE September 28, 2019: a different telling of Popo and Itza, by O. Delgado on Latin Live.

Only later on Thursday did I realize that I was speaking on the anniversary of the 1985 quake -- nearly at the same moment. I learned of this later in the day, of course, when a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck to the south of the city, centered in Rabosa, Puebla State -- 32 days and 6 hours after the one about which we had heard so much.
Map: US Geological Survey
The best reporting I have heard on last week's earthquake aired yesterday as part of The Takeaway on PRI. Todd Zwillich hosted Mexico City Trembles, an in-depth story that included a conversation with a Mexican diplomat. The story puts the most recent tragedy in the context of the devastating September 8, 2017 quake in Oaxaca and the 1985 earthquake.  Listeners learn in detail some of the ways in which the people of Mexico City have become expert in earthquake preparedness and recovery. Most telling: immediately after the buildings collapsed last Thursday, hundreds of people could be seen running towards each one of them.

In the following days, I began to see articles about an eruption of Popocatépetl that was triggered by the Rabosa earthquake. The stories were plausible but not convincing, so I checked the Smithsonian earthquake database. The Popocatépetl page does mention minor recent activities, but they are not extraordinary for this site, and some of them predate the Rabosa quake by several days. At this point volcanologists (an important profession in Mexico and Central America) consider them unrelated.
Photo: Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program

U.S. government scientists at USGS are the best source I know of information on earthquakes worldwide, because the global seismic network needed to monitor some earthquakes must monitor them all. Volcano monitoring requires locally-installed equipment, so the USGS volcano page is excellent, but limited to volcanoes in U.S. territories. The best global volcano resource I have found is at the Smithsonian, which is located in the United States but is privately funded by the bequest of James Smithson (who never visited the United States).

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Wrestling the First Amendment

In the "Trials of the Free Press" episode of his podcast, journalist Sam Sanders has a meta-meta discussion about the vulnerability of journalism -- and therefore of democracy itself -- to the legal maneuverings of a few disgruntled elites. Fellow NPR journalist David Folkenflik and filmmaker Brian Knappenberger join Sanders to discuss Nobody Speak: The Trials of a Free Press.

Written and directed by Knappenberger, the film starts with Hulk Hogan's legal takedown of the admittedly trashy news site Gawker. It delves deeper, however, into the strategies of those who envision a world with no free press at all -- and who might just have enough money to make it happen.


Image: IMDb

I am famous (at least in my own household) for forgetting the names of films and characters, and for simply substituting my own synonyms. I'm like a walking, pointless thesaurus in that way. So when we were looking for this film on Netflix, I first misdirected Pam to the title "Shut Up." That was not getting us anywhere, but it really is the main message of them film, as unpatriotic billionaires use their money to silence reporters. Rather, to attempt to silence reporters.

It also reminded me of the Chico Buarque song "Calice," a brilliant work or resistance during Brazil's authoritarian period. As I describe in my 2013 Creative Resistance post, the title is a pun, playing on the similarity between the Portuguese words for chalice (as in the cup of the Last Supper) and shut up (which was what journalists and artists in Brazil were being told by those in power). My 2014 Overcoming Condor post describes the journalist whose killing was part of the inspiration for Buarque, and the role of the United States in supporting the Brazilian regime in those days.

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