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Posts from — May 2011

Ghana Along the Mississippi Delta

Rushing out the door to catch a flight out of Hartford this past Sunday it hit me — music was needed for the trip through Mississippi. 400 miles of driving lay ahead.

A few days earlier a good friend and photographer I work with through the VII mentor program, Peter DiCampo, had recently emailed the following when chatting about trying to find traditional Ghanaian music, even within Ghana:

“Frankly in Ghana, most of the music on the radio/for sale is so heavily influenced by reggae or western music that it doesn’t interest me much…harder to find real ‘traditional’ music other than my own village recordings.”

Tragically too true.

Across the planet, it’s become increasingly difficult to find music of a country’s cultural fingerprint. Throughout most of Africa, traditional music is being smothered by influences of rap, reggae and electronic instruments. In Asia, Western pop continues to steamroller over more richer, layered forms of cultural music.

Peter’s question reminded me that there is indeed some excellent traditional music out there on CD. Only problem is finding it amongst the clutter of gobbledygook.

While driving from Jackson north to Clarksdale, the Mississippi River was overflowing so much it was literally lapping up to the highway. Nearly three years ago I’d seen some of the same devastation from the mighty river while working on a story in Iowa. Tragic what can happen when weather patterns change, ruining the lives of so many people, along with countless acres of food.

Choosing country roads to avoid all the closed highway signs, I listened to three CD’s that hadn’t been spin in recent years. First was a magnificent set of recordings on the Smithsonian Folkways label titled Rhythms of Life, Songs of Wisdom – Akan Music from Ghana, recorded by Roger Vetter between 1992-93 while on a Fulbright at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana.

These recordings, made outdoors during live performances, contain intense percussions from the central region of Ghana. Like all Smithsonian Folkways CD’s, the liner notes are like research textbooks, chockablock full of excellent details on Ghana, the Akan people, along with extensive insight into the backgrounds of each song. This is a must have CD for traditional West African music.

After that intense session, something more mellow was called for: Xylophone Music from Ghana, by Joseph Kobom. This CD is interesting because it’s difficult to find an entire album devoted to gyil, or traditional Ghanaian balaphon.

Mr Kombom, well known throughout Ghana, plays twelve songs twice, for a total of 24 tracks — one on a high-pitched xylophone, then repeats the song on a lower-pitched xylophone. The results are nearly two completely different songs yet their rthyms remain the same.

The only drawback of this CD is that it seems Mr. Kobom just had his xylophone mic’ed. He sings on some of the songs and speaks a brief intro to each initial track, however you can hardly hear what he’s saying. Even so, his performance is splendid, calming, educational and truly enjoyable.

This is a hard to find CD on an obscure label called White Cliffs Media — think I found my copy in a used CD store in Washington, DC, a few years back — but I have been able to track down two used copies through Amazon. They are a bit expensive but worth it. Also available through Amazon is a compendium book which looks very interesting.

Before arriving late to the hotel in Clarksdale — and trying not to get a speeding ticket — I jammed to Obo Addy’s 1989 release, Okopong. It’s a studio produced album but feels raw, with heavy precessions, great signing and overall extremely enjoyable.

Obo Addy has a slew of CD’s available through the iTunes store. Most are excellent, however Okopong is fantastic, especially when driving long hours through the Mississippi Delta.

Thanks, Peter, for the inspiration.








May 20, 2011   2 Comments

Why Choose a Holga? Part II – The Tortoise

Extremely fast moving — Young Bali Aga men use sharply thorned pandan leaves to fight each other during the Perang Pandan ritual in Tenganan Village. Thrashing one another until severely bleeding, the participants do this to show their respect to Dewa Indra (god of war).

A rangerfinder is a lapdog, always faithful, a stalwart.

A digital SLR is a rabbit, blisteringly fast, hard worker.

A Holga is a land tortoise, staggeringly slow, a meditative beast.

If there was a contemporary symbol added in Chinese astrology — reminding us to slow down in these gigabyte blasting, hard drive stuffing days — it should be a giant land turtle.

When choosing a Holga for the book, Island of the Spirits, it was deliberate act in order to delve into a mindset of not only looking back in time from the perspective of the present, the decision also was to slow things down.

Here’s why: A 64 GB flash card equals roughly 60+ rolls of 35 mm or 180+ fills of 120 mm film into space smaller than a cracker.

In some ways such a massive table to work on is liberating…near limitless photography where batteries will need changing before ever considering the need to change film.

Troublesome in other ways — one can end up producing far too much food to choose from on that table, allowing the weakness of being human to consume more tasteless excess than needed, hindering the mystery and depth found in patients to see (often time sooner) the more flavorful dishes buried amongst the excess. Decelerating also avoids the hours spent in a hotel room working off the gorging from a day’s visual consumption.

Even worse…a lack of moderation can lead to never finding your visual voice.

The protracted pace of the Holga forces you slow down simply by its idiosyncrasies, which can be welcoming*.

Slowing down to a turtles pace while photographing a multitude of ceremonies in Bali had its ying but also a weighted yang;

How to photograph certain spiritual events which at times moved quickly while using a camera that moves film as if dancing tango with your partner in heavy mud?

Cremation ceremonies can last all day, sometimes at a glacial pace. Other times, briskly.

Thousands descend upon sacred water sources during Melasti (cleansing) ceremonies, with many entering rapidly into dramatic states of trance.

Melasti ceremonies start slow but once worshipers enter into a state of trance, it can be like photographing a sprinters.

How to solve the frame past number 12 with a camera that can take 2-4 minutes just to change film?

Solution: Five Holga’s and one assistant, deftly changing rolls of 120 film, turning the tortoise and all it’s pensive but laborious wisdom into a zen-like animal of fluid photographic efficiency.

Five varying models of Holga's were used to create the photographs of the Island of the Spirits.

Throughout the five years it took to photograph Island of the Sprits there were two truly wonderful friends who assisted in making this book actually happen. Bli Wayan Tilik and Bli Yudhistira Dharma, better known in the Indonesian photographic community as JP.

Wayan and/or JP came with me to each and every wedding, cremation, tooth filing, land blessing, spiritual event for the book. Neither of them had ever used a Holga let alone worked with 120 film before.

Appreciating the light leak effects which the Holga naturally creates, I was more interested in deciding the outcome of photographs, not have the camera create the feel of each image with random acts of fogging. To do so, it was imperative to ensure the porous shell of each Holga was completely sealed with electrical tape. There was also deft skill needed to make sure the often loosely spooled rolls of film was somehow tightly sealed before opening the camera back. It required all sorts of beguiling objects taped or glued to the exposed film area inside the camera — FYI, earlier Holga’s didn’t come with the small pieces of foam in present models.

To achieve success also meant finding shade, which is challenging when photographing in a geographic location 8 degrees below the equator.

In the beginning we had hit and miss results but over time JP and Wayan quickly learned techniques and tricks to sustain a fairly consistent level of unfogged film.

Often times looking like an overly decorated Christmas tree, it was this ability to always have 2-3 pre-loaded cameras around my neck (or at least in reach) which helped achieve a fluid flow of photography when events called for nonstop photography.

Photographing a gamelan orchestra using three Holga's while also making a binaural recording of the music with microphones placed in each ear. Photograph courtesy of Lukman S. Bintoro

By no means can one move massive amount of film with a Holga as can be done with a DSLR or even a rangefinder film camera. It defeats it’s purpose. But there were days during truly astonishing event filled ceremonies where we’d get back to the studio and realize there were 20-25 rolls of film in the film bag…and for a Holga, that’s seemed staggering — a whopping 240-300 photographs.

Photographing, slowly, the bathing ritual during a cremation ceremony in Ubud. Photograph courtesy of Lukman S. Bintoro

When photographing with the Holga, I often times made field recordings. The rituals were of course stunning to witness but the audible essence of Balinese spirituality and culture was equally hypnotizing. Here’s a short binaural recording of gamelan performed by a 30-piece orchestra during a cremation in Ubud, Bali:

[wpaudio url=" at a Cremation Ceremony.mp3" text="Gamelan at a Cremation Ceremony" dl="0"]
(iPhone and iPad)

While changing film and totting 1-2 extra camera bodies, JP or Wayan would also carry the Fostex and an Audio Technica microphone, recording ambience from the periphery, while I had binaural microphones in my ears connected to an Edirol, freeing the hands to work the camera while recording truly three dimensional sound.

JP making field recordings with the Fostex and Audio-Technica microphone while I photograph with a Holga during a cremation ceremony in Ubud. Photograph courtesy of Lukman S Bintoro

Wayan Tilik making an audio recording of musicians performing gamelan music after a barong blessing in central Bali.

Once back in studio, the slow pace of the Holga didn’t stop. There was processing of film, cataloging, archiving, toning, audio archiving and a whole host of other tasks ahead, often requiring similar patients and wisdom found when using the Holga in the field. 

Part III of Why Choose a Holga (on post production and how working with a Holga influenced my other photography) in about two weeks time. For now, the plane is landing in Baltimore and a steward is about to go postal if not shutting down.




To view some of Lukman Bintoro’s photography, visit his blog.

Reminder: I’ll be teaching a 9-day workshop in Bali between August 11-19, 2011. If you’re interested in taking your photography further, being guided through in-depth storytelling and seeking more insight into working with a Holga, this is a workshop not to miss. Visit the workshops section for registration and more details. Hope to see you then.


* For an average National Geographic story, it’s not unusual for me to produce (when working over the course of 8-10 weeks) 25,000 or more photographs. That’s an average of round 360 photographs a day or only 10 rolls of 36 exposure film…which truly makes the Holga a tortoise compared to the hare.


May 19, 2011   4 Comments

Organizing Music Like Film

World music collection, one of a few things actually organized in this life.

Some elements in life are in states of disarray.

In the closet, shirts at times are hung between pants. Kitchen spice rack seems to keep most flavor makers tidy, however the cinnamon tends to goes astray. So does the thyme and bottle of Maggi. Tool room is a navigational hazzard. Don’t even ask about the sock drawer. When misplacing reading glasses (which happens all too often), they inevitably are tilted up upon the head.

What has been put under a decent state of organizational control is both the photography and audio archives.

Without these two vital factors in life proper organized, I’d be a mess.

A few years ago I took on the wrestling task of organizing the music CD collection, a vast majority being world music. Having begun collecting in a fevered state around 20 years ago, this section of the library is rather significant.

It became apparent early on that the music needed to be cataloged, no differently then photographic slides and negatives.

First thing required, a place to keep them so none could be damaged. While living in Indonesia, a fantastic carpenter created two wooden cases with glass doors made from old recycled teak wood, each to hold more CD’s then one could ever try carrying.

Next came the decision on how to organize the music.

Artist name?

With my name retention about as water tight as pasta strainer, I had to come up with a better solution.

Both my analogue film and digital archives are organized by country. Seemed to make sense for a continuum, organizing on the shelves first by region of the world, then by country. If there was a large collection by one artist — there are 40-50 CD’s just of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (I’m nutty for Nusrat), 10 or so of the amazing tabla player, Zakir Hussain, etc — they would receive a specific section within their country region, e.g., Pakistan for Nusrat, India for Zakir and so on.

Heavy stock paper with labels, a simple but effective way to catalogue music.

Then the plan hit a snag; Where do early and mid century recordings of traditional music go?

In the last seven or eight years I’ve become mesmerize by the origins of music. Vintage recordings of a culture, tribe, area, country, in an attempt to understand what they sounded like (musically) before being effected by the importation of foreign musical styles and instruments.

What does the original music of the Yi people in Yunnan sound like?

How much of Balinese gamelan has been altered (if at all) by pop music?

Not only are we loosing last speakers of language at an alarming rate (a language is lost ever two weeks), what musical traditions have we also lost but are able to be heard on period recordings?

When the arrival of tape recorder happened around 130 years ago, it was far too large to tote about as we do with digital recorders, like the Roland which fits in my shirt pocket.

By the 20′s and 30′s, recorders, just like computers, began to shrink — from chest of drawer sized units, down to scale which could at least fit comfortably on a table.

There were a number of pioneers in the ethnomusicology world who immediately realized the importance of recording traditional music, both for sharing to others but also as a means to document what was already traditional culture under stress due to colonialism, development and the growing ease of travel. By the 20′s and 30′s, musical influences would soon forever be alter from what took generations of natural and creative evolution, often in a somewhat isolated state due to geography.

Hugh Tracey was one of these ethnomusicologist.

Hugh and his wife, Ursula Campbell Tracey, moved from England to Rhodesia (now, Zimbabwe) in the 1920′s. Immediately he was enthralled by traditional African music. Hugh converted a truck into a mobile recording studio and headed across the central and southern part of the continent between the 1920′s until the 1970′s (his most prolific recording period was in the 1950′s), creating what is considered the most important collection of traditional African music ever recorded.

Hugh Tracey and his mobile recording caravan.

To learn more about the importance of Dr. Hugh Tracey’s audio legacy, you can click on the image above or here for more details.

In the CD library in the studio — having finally deciding a few years ago to have all recordings created before the 1970′s organized in their own sub-sections within each relevant country — there rests one of my favorite Tracey recordings.

The CD, At the Court of the Mwami, Rwanda, is an excellent example of the importance of such early recordings. Like vanishing languages, we’re also loosing certain forms of traditional music.


Unlike Mozart or Bach — whose musical compositions were often transposed to paper — most traditional music from around the world is oral, memorized to perfection and pass down from generation to generation. If there’s no one willing to learn the specific musical style or knows how to sing the words, the music, like a language, will vanish.

In 1962, the Republic of Rwanda was established and five centuries of rule by the Tutsi Banyiginya dynasty came to an end. King Mwami fled the country and the symbol of power, the royal drums, vanished. According to Hugh’s notes, this music, exclusive to this court, was never heard again other then in “a diluted form”. In 1952. Hugh Tracey was given permission to make what is truly some amazing recordings. They are still available through his International Library of African Music label as well as in the iTunes store. This album is a hardcore series of recordings. Not necessarily candlelight dinner music. A journey in time to a musical tradition which is no longer with us.

While writing I listened once more to this entire album. Whoooow. All tracks are excellent however the four Twa Women songs are stunning, and vocal style of track 15, Rukanga Rwamajana by singer Ntamakiriro, is over the top.

Every album in Tracey’s historic collection is brilliant — just buy any one or all. You won’t be disappointed.

By the way, not ever field recording Tracey made is available through iTunes. You can see most of Dr. Hugh Tracey’s complete archive through the International Library of African Music label which is affiliated with Rhodes University in South Africa.







May 11, 2011   11 Comments

Visual Audio

Don’t much like the word multimedia.

Moving images with sound are films, no matter how short or long.

The combing of sounds and still images is not multi.

At the most it’s dual-media.

Multimedia is far more grander.

Becoming disenchanted with the term multimedia, it felt intriguing to sort an answer: How did the word multimedia come about?

Back 1966, a musician/artist by the name of Bobb Goldstein merged the words multi and media to promote his opening of “LightWorks at L’Oursin” in Long Island, NY.

Goldstein had something going which was truly multi-media — highlighting or coating music by surrounding the viewer with synchronized lighting effects, photographs, films, screens which moved and with mirror balls that gave the illusion the room was spinning.

A year later began what might be considered the grander start of what is truly multimedia —  Liquid Light Shows. Appearing in the mid 60′s to early 70′s, these events were nothing less than multimedia.

The pioneer in multimedia communication was Joshua White. Working with musicians, artists, photographers, filmmakers, proper designers, he created The Joshua Light Show.

Take a look at this astounding photograph from 1966:

The Joshua Light Show team at Fillmore East, late 1960′s
Photograph by Amalie R. Rothschild

Now that’s multimedia!

And in a 1967 NYT’s’ review, the lead of the story begins: A new method of communication is developing in our society – the technique of multimedia.

What’s brilliant is White’s influence is still present today, here in this performance from 2008:

Also interesting is Joshua is still creating. Here is a link explaining his latest projects and the revival of analogue multimedia presentations. There’s also a Kickstarter project to help fund a new Joshua Light Show titled, Liquid Loops II.

Arriving to the origins of the word multimedia, the combination of audio with visuals (stills or even film) just doesn’t feel multi enough.

So what should we call the combination of sounds with stills, where the audio recordings play an equal or possible greater importance with the visuals?

I prefer Visual Audio. Far more enthralling. A truer essence where sounds create images in the mind.

Below are two short visual audio pieces, the first a field recording while stuck in some of the most maddening traffic on earth (I love India…even the traffic), and the latter recorded during the height of riots, mayhem and bloodshed in Indonesia in 1999.




Stuck in traffic driving through Kolkata, one of my favorite cities.

[wpaudio url=" Street Traffic.mp3" text="Kolkata Traffic" dl="0"]
(iPhone and iPad)


Many people died over this weekend of riots in Jakarta. The sounds visuals from Egypt
in March 2011 reminded of that weekend 12 years ago in Indonesia.

[wpaudio url=" Reformasi-bombs.mp3" text="Reformasi" dl="0"]
(iPhone and iPad)

May 10, 2011   4 Comments

I Found OBL Years Ago

For nearly ten years, no one could find him. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent, more blood spilled than one could ever imagine, all in search of one person.

Yet Osama Bin Laden was everywhere — on t-shirts, packaging, painted on trucks, you name it. Around the world, Osama’s image had become as recognizable as Mickey Mouse.

In 2006, I became intrigued by the notion of so many people searching yet not finding Osama Bin Laden, producing a photo essay titled “Where is OBL?, focusing in Indonesia where I was living at the time, viewing this phenomena from the perspective of how well-marketed, clearly visible and how common it is for Osama to pop up out of nowhere. Even in areas like Indonesia, where the vast majority of the population is just like you and me: non-confrontational and just living our lives.

Here are a series of images where I’ve seen Osama:

OBL, spotted on the back of a truck driving through central Java.

Bin Laden on a t-shirt worn by a supporter of cleric Abu Bakar Bahire during his court trial on his alleged connection to the radical group Jemaah Islamiyah, which has connections to Al-Qaeda.

Osama as window tinting on the back of a mini van in Yogyakarta.

Osama Bin Laden in a candy store, central Java.

OBL on a t-shirt wandering the streets of Jakarta selling snacks.

Osama Bin Laden spotted on the streets of Ambon, next to Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri and Vice President Hamzah Haz.

Osama riding through the congested traffic of Jakarta on a becak.

He even turned up on a 2002 calendar located in mosque where drug addicts were kept to wean themselves off heroin.

I saw Osama Bin Laden everywhere.

As events unfolded late in the evening of May 1, I began looking in the archive for other places I’d seen Osama…for example, here on a roadside shop of a sign maker in Tanzania:

Osama, hanging out with a rapper and a mother with child at a sign makers shop just outside Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. 2006

And throughout Pakistan, Bin Laden was indeed always there, like here at a October 2001 rally in Peshawar:

Field recording of pro-Osama Bin Laden supporters in Peshawar, Pakistan, on October 15, 2001. Fascinating how one fellow says he not only loves OBL, he also loves fly fishing.

[wpaudio url=" Rally-Pakistan.mp3" text="OBL Rally, Pashawar, Pakistan" dl="0"]
(iPhone and iPad)

Even more wacky, Osama — along with flying missiles, jet fighters and tanks — on a package of mint flavored pan masala or beetle nut I found in a roadside shop at the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan near Quetta back in 2003:

Never knew Osama was "fine" and mint flavored.

Yet it took until this past Sunday to realize he was in a fairly nice home in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Some may think we’ve reached a closure in this decade-long period of our collective humanity. In some ways, we have. In other ways, maybe not completely. Only reflections upon history along with the elapse of time will tell.

Will close with words from Martin Luther King Jr., reminded to me from countless repostings on Facebook over the last 48 hours.

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence and toughness multiples toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.” ~ Martin Luther King






May 4, 2011   3 Comments