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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Music videos from our December concerts of Yiddish music from Poland

This is my favorite of the new videos so far, "In Odess" :

Odessa was famous as a rather relaxed and secular location where you could "live in progress" as the protagonist promises. The Moldavanke was a Moldavian settlement which predated the rest of the city. At the time of this song it was sort of run down and rowdy. It had a good flea market.

This happy Yiddish music must have seemed so empty and pointless after the Holocaust. For decades Yiddish music has been associated mostly with sorrow. There was a wonderful world of witty, cosmopolitan, frivolous Yiddish music that practically disappeared. If you want to wander in the aisles of forgotten Yiddish theater songs, visit my Polish Jewish Cabaret blog. Happy holidays.

Will Jatropha be the next diesel airplane fuel?

jatropha plant with cluster of fruitsIn 2005 I wrote about biofuel made from jatropha, but excitement over the tropical plant was premature - that boom was a bust.

A good Christmas present: Jatropha is being re-engineered as diesel airplane fuel. Like many people I'm weirded out about genetic modifications (we have seen the horror movies) but this is pretty cool anyway.

Most jatropha bushes are descendants of plants grown on Cape Verde, an archipelago off Africa’s west coast. Cape Verde became the epicenter of jatropha farming 300 years ago, and a single strain of the plant, then valued as living fence to corral livestock, was exported to tropical regions around the globe.

As Dr. Schmidt combed the scientific literature on jatropha, he stumbled across a reference to an obscure 30-year-old paper by the botanist Bijan Dehgan... [who] traveled the world collecting and cataloging the 175 species of the plant, speculating that the species originated in Central America.

Following up on Dr. Dehgan’s thesis that Guatemala was a jatropha Eden, Dr. Schmidt [of SGB] went to Central America... “It was absolutely spectacular the amount of genetic variation that we collected from the center of origin,” he said.

It used to cost $150,000 to genetically map a jatropha line searching for useful mutations. Now it costs $350 and in 2014 it may cost as little as $50, allowing the identification of useful hybrids in the lab at the molecular level before the plants are actually crossbred. Wild jatropha bushes produce six to eight seed-bearing fruits. SGB has plants Guatemala producing 60 fruits in a cluster.

"This used to be a 10-year discovery process," Mr. Mathur said. "It's more like a 10-month process now."

SGB is also identifying the ability to withstand extreme heat or cold, potentially crucial as climate change accelerates.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

My favorite moment from Bodo playing Mae West and singing "Sex Appeal" in 1937

We'll be doing this song Sex Appeal at our concert Saturday night at the ArtsCenter but nobody will be in drag. Isn't this clip so full of life? You can see him sing the whole song (in Polish - we'll do it in Polish and Yiddish) at Youtube.

Complaints Choirs part three

Continued from Part One and Part Two.

The story of the Singapore Complaint Choir is poignant. The founders decided to attempt creating this event even though they were warned off in advance by the government, which sent them an email with guidelines including "No promotion of non-mainstream lifestyle; no complaining about generally accepted community standards."

In the end, the government would not allow any performances because there were Malaysians in the 60-member group (including the conductor). Here is the song they would have performed.

Singapore Complaint Choir Anthem

We get fined for almost anything
Drivers won't give chance when you want to change lane
The indoors are cold, the outdoors are hot;
And the humid air, it wrecks my hair
Those answering machines always make you hold
Only to hang up on you

When a pregnant lady gets on the train
Everyone pretends to be asleep
I'm stuck with my parents till I'm 35
We don't recycle any plastic bags

What's wrong with Singapore?
Losing always makes me feel so sore
Cause if you're not the best
Then you're just one of the rest

My oh my Singapore
What exactly are we voting for?
What's not expressly permitted
is prohibited

When I'm hungry at the food court, I see
People chope seats with their tissue paper
To the auntie staying upstairs:
Your laundry's dripping on my bed sheets
Please don't squat on the toilet seats
And don't clip your nails on MRT

Stray cats get into noisy affairs
At night my neighbor makes weird animal sounds
People put on fake accents to sound posh
And queue up 3 hours for donuts

Singaporeans too kiasu! (so scared to lose)
Singaporeans too kiasi! (so scared to die)
Singaporeans too kiabor! (scared of their wives)
Maybe we're just too stressed out! (even the kids)

Singapore's national bird is the crane (the one with yellow steel girders)
Real estate agents' leaflets clogging up my mailbox (en bloc, en bloc, en bloc, en bloc)
Why can't we be buried when we die?
No one wants to climb Bukit Timah with me


There are not enough public holidays
My neighbor sings all night
Wedding dinners never start on time
My hair is always cut shorter than I want
Channel 5 commercials are way too long
Why do men turn bald?

We have to pay for tap water at restaurants
All the bus stops have tilted benches
We cannot access

Here are a couple more I liked. There are new ones every year.

Complaints choir of Umeå

Complaints choir of Ljubljana

At Complaints Choirs of the World you can find information about all complaints choirs that have been initiated around the world. You can also submit information about an upcoming choir, find fellow complainers and vote for your favourite complaints choir. They don't appear to be updating their website.

From the Times Online:
Chorus of disapproval: the complaints choir
There are choirs who sing fugues on the theme of "food has no taste any more" and yodel to "I can't stop thinking about sex." They chant about tatty bus stops and harmonise on the insufficient length of their vacuum-cleaner cord. In fact, every tedious aspect of modern life has probably passed the lips of a complaints choir, a new kind of performance art that is noisily taking root across the world....

Friday, December 13, 2013

About creating your own Complaints Choir (part two)

This is a continuation from Part One.
So if you would like to have a Complaints Choir in your town, here is how (adapted from the founders' website):

  1. Invite people to join. Distribute flyers, put up posters, send press releases. Everybody can join, no singing skills required! The more diverse the participants the better. Invite participants to send you complaints before the first meeting.

  2. Find the right composer (and accompanists): The musician has a difficult task. The song has to be composed within a few days and may have to be adapted over the course of the several rehearsals. The musician is also the choir conductor and leads the rehearsals. He or she has to be good in working with amateurs and total non-singers to make them enthusiastic and sing out loud with attitude.

  3. Group the complaints into categories.

  4. The First Choir Meeting: Making the Lyrics

    Start with a warm-up complaining session, more good complaints will pop up. Introduce the categories and read the best complaints from each category to the choir. Ask people to divide up among the categories and edit, combine, and reformulate their material.

    The results of each team are glued to cardboard. Rehearsal ends with every team reading their suggestions to the other teams.

  5. Making the Song: The musicians and a few volunteers from the choir combine the ideas and finalize the lyrics. The musician composes music to go with the lyrics.

  6. Rehearsing: About 3 to 5 rehearsals are sufficient to learn the song since a high level of polish is not necessary. Loudness and good enunciation are the primary goals.

    At the end of each rehearsal food and drinks should be served.

  7. Preparing the Performances: With the choir members, decide on some locations. For some you advertise and invite an audience, but some can be spontaneous in public places. Arrange in advance for a videographer or two. The audio track for the video is generally recorded separately, in a quiet indoor space.

  8. Go out and sing: It will be a long day, so be sure you plan for food breaks.

Here's how we did it:

At the first meeting we organized and edited the complaints which would become our song. This must be a democratic process! I made us a logo for group morale (left).

People had sent me quite a few complaints ahead of time in emails. I printed those out, organized them by categories, and used glue sticks to paste them onto pieces of poster board. I stuck these boards up around the room.

When the meeting opened:
  1. Glenn and I introduced ourselves as the organizers, and then people introduced themselves.
  2. I invited the participants to go around the room and have a look at the various boards.
  3. We all sat down again. I introduced a "complaints warmup" song concocted from some of the earlier emailed complaints.
  4. Participants had an opportunity to compose more complaints - I had brought scratch paper squares for them, and glue sticks.
  5. People took their new complaints and added them to the correct boards.
  6. We invited participants to cluster near the boards which were nearest to their hearts. Those gathered around the Traffic board, for instance, used the next twenty minutes or so to discuss and edit complaints, starring the ones they liked best and crossing out the ones they rejected.
  7. We sat again. Then one representative from each board stood up and read the selected, edited complaints from their category.
  8. We ate, chatted, and said good-bye until next time!
  9. Glenn took the boards home with him and over the next two weeks wrote a song using about half the complaints; we rehearsed that half at the second meeting.
  10. I took the rest of the complaints and added them to the song, using modules of the song Glenn had already written. We practiced the whole thing at our third meeting.

Here are some thoughts from our experience:

I didn't understand why the founders emphasized that there should be "one musician," but we found out. I have worked with Glenn quite a bit in the past, but we were both used to running choruses and we each had our own method. We even disagreed on what "collaboration" means. He found my collaborative style intrusive - I wanted us to do things together, while he wanted to get his piece of the task and do that part entirely alone. Also, he teaches from the piano, because he's a pianist, while I teach by singing parts within the circle of singers (because I'm a singer). It got a little tense.

We had no sponsors of any kind and that was a mistake. Sponsors would have helped with promotion and advertisement, and maybe helped us find places to perform. Since this is all happening on one day, it's very important to advertise your performances effectively. We didn't do very well with that and didn't end up with big audiences.

It turned out to be hard to find legal public spots to perform. Lesson learned: many Complaints Choirs don't ask permission, they just show up somewhere and sing, figuring they'll be gone before the police show up with the paddy wagon. However, it would have been annoying to set up and be forced to disperse in the middle of our song. Also, if you do it that way, you can't advertise your performances.

You have to have a place to go after your performances to record the song (which will later be synched to the video). It should be quiet. And by the way, video synching is not so easy!

Our singers ranged from complete beginners - who didn't read music and had never in a group before - to experienced singers. We provided two kinds of learning aids, therefore: mp3 files for people who learn by ear and printed sheet music (Glenn and I both use Sibelius) for those who read music.

Glenn made midi files of the piano accompaniment for people to practice with - it turned out to be handy to use Audacity (a free program) to make mp3 files out of the midis. We posted everything on a website so people could practice between rehearsals.

Here's our song again in case you missed the first post:

Here's another one I like: The Complaint Choir of Wroclaw


Thursday, December 12, 2013

About creating the Durham-Chapel Hill Complaints Choir (part one)

2010 Durham Chapel Hill Complaints ChoirTrue to my motto "I Can't Keep Up," I didn't hear of Complaints Choirs until 2010 - the movement began five years earlier when in 2005 a couple living in Helsinki (Tellervo Kalleinen and her husband Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen) were complaining about the cold. Tellervo said: in Finnish Valituskuoro means "Complaints Choir" and is used in situations where a lot of people are complaining simultaneously. Eureka! They started a movement! Since then there have been choirs created around the world.

It's an odd project. You gather a bunch of strangers together, collate their complaints about the universe (no matter how petty or overwhelming) set them to music, rehearse the long-form song that is the end product, and perform it in several locations. Then it's all over.

The minute I heard of this I decided to have a complaints choir here in the Durham/Chapel Hill area. It would have been impossible to do it without local pianist, composer and arranger Glenn Mehrbach whom I wheedled into joining me. Our performances took place on May 2, 2010 - then we disbanded. Here's the video. I wrote the short prologue and Glenn wrote the rest. He did a fabulous job, it's very catchy.

The Helsinki Complaints Choir is one of my favorites.

From a one-hour Complaints Choir documentary: "What are you complaining about? This is the question two Finnish artists have asked in all four corners of the world in documentary director Ada Bligaard Søby's docu-musical. Their aim is not to pour salt in the wounds of the world's grumpy complainers, but to let everyone vent their dissatisfaction about everything from parking fines to climate change in a liberating chorus of whining harmonies."

Here's the The Chicago Complaints Choir

Continued: Part Two

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Suvganiyot (Hannukah doughnuts)

This is a repost of our family recipe, which I got from my ex-father-in-law many years ago - he found it in the Jerusalem Post - it's for an Israeli, Sephardi type of Hanukah donut that does not have jelly in it and is not rolled out on a cutting board.

Modestly: this recipe has been honed to perfection. It feeds about four people who are eating nothing else for dinner. Last night I made a triple recipe, but about five people we expected didn't come, so I dumped the left-over donut batter into a greased cake pan and baked it - it became a lovely loaf of orange yeast bread which I cut up and sent home with the guests. No waste! Except for all that oil...

1996 Sufganiyot - BEST EVER

1 tablespoon yeast (fast rise will be safer)
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 cup flour
1 cup water
1/4 cup orange juice concentrate (do not dilute)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons oil
1 egg
around 2 cups flour (or a little less)

Mix first four ingredients and stir fifty times to make a "sponge." Let rise in a bowl covered with a kitchen towel for an hour or more (more is better).

Add the rest of the ingredients and beat vigorously. This makes a very wet dough. Do not fear: you will not be rolling it out. Wet is good. Let it rise for another hour or more.

Heat two quarts of cooking oil (have a little more at the ready just in case) to 350 degrees in an electric frying pan or deep-fat fryer. Tear up some brown paper bags on which you'll drain the donuts.

Make cinnamon sugar (about a cup of confectioners sugar and as much cinnamon as your crew likes). Put it in a medium-sized paper bag. If your bag has holes in it you're going to be sorry.

OK, time to begin. With a big spoon dip out some of your gooey dough and drop it into the hot oil. It will behave like spider man, stretching all over the place. Make weird shapes, it's fun. Don't make the doughnuts too big or they won't cook well in the middle. Don't crowd the frying pan or the temperature will get too low.

The doughnuts will soon bob up to the surface and you'll want to turn them over fairly soon, using a slotted spoon or tongs. You'll turn them several times before they're done - which is when they are a pretty dark brown on both sides. Try one and see.

As some get taken out of the pan, put in more. Don't crowd them.

Drain them on the paper bags. When they're somewhat cooled, pop them into the cinnamon sugar bag and shake. Put on a plate or directly into the mouths of the avidly waiting consumers.

Do NOT make these unless you have a lot of people around to eat them - and to help you clean up. Makes 28 doughnuts, enough for four people who are eating nothing else for dinner or 6 people who are only moderately piggy.


Sunday, December 08, 2013

Fine things found on google plus

Recently I've been dipping into the ocean of google+ and here are some of my souvenirs.

Christmas tree zombieFrom zombie master Byron Rempel, the first Christmas tree I've enjoyed in a long time.

stupid stupid sportscasters and color announcersA reflection on the idiocy of sports news by Filip Hráček.

Ippo the half-donkey half-zebra from Sergio Amaro.

"Entire New 13-Story Building Tips Over in Shanghai"

The frequence of miracles.

pink panther painting a column"How I see arguments on the internet" posted by Craig Deakin.

You can join me on Google plus and there'll be more fun there.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Almond roca: one of our favorite gift candies


3/4 cups white sugar
3/4 cup salted butter
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
dash of salt
1 cup untoasted sliced almonds (optional)
9 ounces mini semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup toasted sliced almonds (I put mine on a low flame in a cast-iron skillet, stirring until they're a bit brownish)


Have a 10x13" lasagna pan at the ready, have the chips and toasted almonds ready to fling onto the hot mixture because when you pour the goo into the pan, the chocolate and nuts have to melt. Also have a bowl of very hot water in your sink to fling your spoon and saucepan into before they cool off.

Put first four ingredients in a saucepan and boil on medium heat, stirring constantly, until candy thermometer registers 250 degrees. It takes quite a while.

Stir in the untoasted almonds. Keep boiling and stirring until the mixture reaches 290 degrees. Towards the end the temperature rises rapidly so watch carefully.

Keep stirring! When the goo is as brown as a grocery bag, it's ready.

Scrape the mixture out into a non-stick 10x13 lasagna pan and shake to level it out.

IMMEDIATELY cover with chocolate chips. IMMEDIATELY cover with the chocolate chips and then the toasted almonds. Press them in a bit so they stick.

Chill. Wait until it's completely cool! Then, and not before, knock the toffee out of the lasagna pan and break it into pieces by sticking the point of a sharp knife straight down into it.

UPDATE: DO NOT try to hurry the cooling process by putting the almond roka in the freezer. I did that three times and ruined it every time before I realized that the consistency gets destroyed - maybe it rehydrates or something. Just be patient and cool it off at room temperature.

My newest animated music video of a Yiddish theater song with English subtitles

I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts this past weekend for Thanksgiving and Hanukah visiting my daughter and son-in-law and their almost-6-month-old. When I wasn't on duty I was working on this video, on a tiny old notebook computer running Windows XP. With the free program and a retired program called JASC Animation Shop, I made most of this video, then when I got home I strung all the bits together and here it is! Randy Kloko sings the regretful playboy, I play the bemused love interest.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Animated gifs for tired new parents

I was visiting my daughter this weekend and got inspired to make these gifs about life with a small baby. They'll be appearing in my upcoming hit Yiddish youtube video with subtitles: "Oy, vey, mamele, s'iz geven a dramale." That is: "Uh-oh, mommy, there's been a bit of a drama." Stay tuned...

bored dad rocks baby

gif of crying baby