Tuesday, August 11, 2009

How You Gonna Keep Em (Down On the Farm)

Maybe this will give you something of an idea of what daily life is like at ARI. Above, working visitors from Japan and the US and Piccolo, a participant from Kenya, pull in the soybean harvest.
Andy with fresh picked tomatoes.

Market jam session
There was a rainbow the evening this was taken. But we really just wanted dinner.
Sarah mixing rice powder for animal feed.
Swea from Myanmar showing off his greenhouse, built from bamboo.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

And Now For Something Completely Different

Greetings from Japan! Andy and I will be here for the next few weeks at the Asian Rural Institute, an organic farm and training center two hours north of Tokyo - that is, if you take the shinkansen bullet train. Below is our first report to the Episcopal Evangelical Society, which provided some of the funding for our trip.

We have been at ARI for only a few days now, but we already feel we have been accepted as part of the community. On our first morning, Sarah woke up before anyone else, convinced that it was noon when it was in fact 4 a.m. Impressed by the tranquility of the surrounding countryside in those early hours and a glorious sun shower, she took the first day head-on.

After silent prayer and calisthenics, the first task of the day was to go through the greenhouses and harvest ripe tomatoes – what a joy! Our group leader is a former ARI student from Nepal, and another coworker is a pastor from the Philippines. Cutting Chinese leeks with a Japanese volunteer led to a fascinating cultural discussion of the differences between Japanese and American expressions of emotion (or lack thereof). We gathered the last of the green beans, which are starting to thin out, and headed back to the farm shed. All of the produce needed to be sorted and weighed according to size and type. Sorting and cutting the leeks turned out to be a big task bringing several people together.

This time is known as “foodlife” at ARI, a term which emphasizes the importance of experiencing and laboring for the food which sustains our lives – an awareness that is often lost in industrialized lifestyles. “Foodlife” time involves the most memorable tasks of the day for us – the times when we feel most connected to the earth, whether this is cutting grass for a young calf to eat and watching him nuzzle for his mother’s milk – or stomping down a barrel of rice bran and tofu biproduct to make animal feed. These are the tasks that remind us of how important it is to live sustainably and how hard we have to work for it.

After touring the duck farm and livestock pens, we joined the community for lunch. For afternoon work, Phillip, a long-term volunteer from Germany, took us out to a soybean field far away from main campus for the afternoon, where we had to “earth” the young plants, which involves protecting them with soil in the places where the tiller exposed them a little too closely. Though this was done in the rain, it was in the company of a lively bunch of Japanese university students and the time went quickly. It was amazing to discuss sustainable development and the Green Movement as we worked with this group of smart, dedicated people. One begins to understand exactly what ARI means by “learning by doing.”

After evening foodlife and dinner with a newly arrived Methodist missionary, we started to feel the jetlag coming on again. We still have some settling in to do, certainly in terms of schedule adjustments; indeed, we have much to learn. The biggest message of the trip so far has been one of humbling servant leadership, expressed in aching muscles and a blissful exhaustion.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

You must always have a secret plan

This speaks to our time.

On the Road to a Green Future

I've been using the past few blog posts to share a few of my New Haven Magazine articles in a net-exclusive. Here's one published in April's Green Issue.

Mahatma Gandhi once famously advised, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” The Indian leader’s words resonated this winter with two young Yale graduates who, dissatisfied with merely studying and talking about the issue of climate change, decided to put their shoulders to the wheel.
Caroline Howe, a Durham native and Yale School of Engineering graduate, and Alexis Ringwald, a graduate of Yale’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, are the masterminds behind the India Climate Solutions Road Tour, a project that led the pair and a cohort of about 20 students and supporters, many of them members of the Indian Youth Climate Network, on a five-week, 3,500-kilometer journey from the south Indian city of Chennai, north through 15 cities to Delhi, where they arrived February 5.
The fleet left Chennai on January 3 in three solar-roofed, plug-in electric cars, which can travel about 90 miles on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries; and a truck converted to run on biofuel made from sustainably harvested jatropha, a native Indian plant, which carried the equipment for the solar-powered band, Solar Punch, that joined the troupe on the road.
Add a truck running on used vegetable oil and piloted by a friendly Czech named Stanislav, which joined the crew midway, and a car with solar panels on the roof that was rigged with power outlets to charge the team’s laptops, cell phones and cameras while they were on the road — and you have a caravan likely to attract some attention in rural India.
“It felt like we were driving in the midst of a revolution of the future of transportation,” says Howe, speaking via Skype from New Delhi.
Bidisha Banerjee, an Indian national currently studying at Yale’s Forestry School, was on the road tour as well. “We were touring India at a pivotal moment during its history, when thousands of roads are in the process of being built, and thousands of power-lines are just about to be laid,” she writes in an e-mail. “Too often, it's easy to feel powerless about the climate crisis. During our trip, I realized that there is still a vivid possibility for India to achieve a low-carbon development path.”
Because of the rapid growth in India’s economy (eight percent annually), which supports one of the world’s biggest populations, the country is currently poised to become the third leading consumer of energy by 2030, and the third leading emitter of greenhouse gases by 2015. Given that India is already experiencing electricity shortages, the search for alternative energy innovations has developed a true sense of urgency.
Yet not all or even most of India’s population burns a great deal of energy. The country’s highest income group emits an annual average of 4.97 tons of carbon dioxide per capita, close to the world average. India’s low overall per-capita emissions is due to the fact that most of its population makes less than $125 per year and contributes a negligible amount of emissions. The painful reality, though, is that the poor, who rely on climate-sensitive industries such as agriculture, forestry and fishing, will be impacted by climate change first.

So the India Climate Solutions Road Tour set out on a mission to raise awareness of climate issues, and in search of solutions.
“When we charged [the vehicles’ batteries] at petrol [gasoline] stations, people really saw it as the future, because they don’t [necessarily] want to be working in petrol,” says Howe. “It’s noxious fumes they breathe in every day. They know it’s polluting their planet and their children’s future.
“Students along the way were really drawn in, especially by the band. They played Hindi songs and everybody went crazy.”
Ringwald adds that her favorite charging stop, “and our only princely charging stop,” was an impromptu one at the home of the Prince of Rajpipli, who runs a vermiculture business, has an organic farm and a wind turbine installed on his property. He also is building a solar hospital.
After finishing her undergraduate degree in political science in 2005, Ringwald was sent as Yale’s envoy to The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in India for the summer. She ended up writing her master’s thesis for the Forestry School on the potential of biofuel in India, and returned to south Asian soon after as a Fulbright Scholar researching the business aspects of renewable energy and climate issues. She contacted Howe, a Yale engineering student whom the university had sent to TERI to work on green building issues, and the pair floated the idea of developing a project together at the conclusion of their fellowship years.
Recalls Howe, “What we wanted to do was to create a project that would profile the opportunities to both young people and to entrepreneurs and financers about the fact that there are so many opportunities here in India — and at the same time demonstrate that India is in its own way taking action and needs to be supported.”
On the road, Ringwald explains, they began to develop “incredible distributed networks, amazing energy. It became bigger and we realized we could make this something pretty loud.”
Along the way, they made countless stops to recharge and talk with locals about climate solutions. The electric cars are a homegrown innovation — manufactured domestically in India by a company called Reva. Like refrigerators, they draw electricity from three-pronged power points. According to Howe’s calculations, “At ten rupees a kilowatt-hour, the car could get fully charged for about a dollar, which would fuel the car for 200 kilometers [90 miles]. It takes six hours for a full charge.
“People aren’t covering the solutions [to climate change] — they’re covering the problems, because the problems make a better story,” Howe says.
“So we created a journey that would be a great story to tell.”

The trek was a remarkable one. Banerjee recalls highlights: “Meeting with organic farmers practicing drip-irrigation in Andhra Pradesh, visiting green buildings and a smart solar micro-grid in Hyderabad and learning from a college in Rajasthan that trains rural poor from around the world to work on key issues like solar-power generation, water-harvesting, health and sanitation. I was inspired to meet so many architects of possibility — from farmers to engineers working at Reva, the world's best-selling electric car company, which is based in Bangalore.”
At the Energy and Resources Institute’s climate conference in February, the group submitted a report to the Union environment ministry asking for policy changes to battle climate change, and gave New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman a spin around the block in one of the Revas. On February 18, Howe and Ringwald were granted an audience with the president of India, Pratibha Patil, who congratulated them on their work.
So what climate solutions did the tour identify on its travels?
“Almost every city in India has made a law that every building that’s built should have rainwater harvesting systems,” says Howe. “But Chennai is one of the few places that has very effectively implemented it, so every building we saw had a rainwater harvesting system, and that was really exciting.”
The road tour also made a stop at Peace Garden in Vellore, a school devoted to the environmental education of rural children. It also boasts sustainable buildings and a growing permaculture site. Sustainable agriculture practices already in use across the country include drip irrigation, seed saving and crop rotation. Some communities make their own reusable banana-leaf plates and clay cups to reduce waste.
“It’s not just about tech transfer, about us selling American innovations to villages in India, but developing what makes the most sense here and what’s been in use here, and helping that scale up,” says Howe.
At the Hewlett-Packard headquarters in Bangladore, 14 data centers have been consolidated to save on cooling costs. The facility also has 7,500 temperature sensors that are part of a centralized system which allow for spot cooling, which spares approximately 40 percent of the cooling energy.
Ringwald was especially excited about the program at Barefoot College, where village women from around the world are trained to become solar entrepreneurs. “They come and they get trained to understand solar energy equipment, how to put together batteries with lights,” she says. “And they take this knowledge and technology back to their villages. So that brings electricity to their village along with women’s empowerment, which I think is really beautiful and inspiring.”
While young environmentalists can do much to help make low-tech climate solutions available on a larger scale, Howe and Ringwald recognize that the large-scale problems require policy changes at a higher level. “We’re trying to spread the message that some policies do need to change in order to better support these solutions, both nationally and internationally,” explains Howe. “As we look toward the international climate negotiations at Copenhagen, we need to be looking at how developed nations can really be supporting technology and innovators in countries like India.”
Banerjee agrees. “I believe that it is imperative for both India and the U.S. to commit to drastically reducing their carbon emissions this December during the U.N. negotiations in Poland,” she says. “We are at the start of a global social movement much like the civil-rights movement. Unless we can help build a new economy and a new energy system, we will have done a grave injustice to future generations.”
Ringwald says the most important thing for people confronting the climate crisis to do is to be creative, open-minded — and daring. “The crazier idea, the better,” she asserts. “We need unconventional ideas. We thought [the tour] was insane, and everyone told us it was insane, and it was crazy. But we learned a lot, and reached a lot of people.”

Friday, April 3, 2009

In the Groove

When Jesse Hameen II plays a show in his native New Haven, word travels fast: “Cheese” is in town. The past ten years have seen the amiable jazz drummer, whose nickname comes from his brilliant smile, return to live in his hometown, keeping up a busy performing career and releasing a new solo album, all while giving back to the community as a teacher and a mentor.

A September article in the New York Times rightfully places Hameen at the center of a New Haven jazz scene that is reclaiming a measure of its former place of prominence.

“It’s really gratifying being back, because I’m able to make a difference over here,” says Hameen. “It’s the gratification of knowing that we were able to do something to give back to the city, to bring jazz to life here, to put it back in the lives of the people.”

Born in 1941 and raised in the Elm City, Hameen was raised in a musical family. “My family, they’re into gospel,” he explains. “Some of the best gospel musicians in the New Haven area, a lot of them are in my family. My parents never once told me my drums were too loud or to stop practicing. I said, how could they tolerate it like that? You couldn’t ask for more supportive parents.

“I played drums my whole life. My mother said that as soon as I came out of the womb I was playing.”

In 1950, at the tender age of nine, Hameen started his own band with drummers Paul Huggins, currently of the African American Cultural Center at Yale, and Billy Fitch. “Paul taught us the Afro-Cuban thing,” he says. “I was playing the congas and the bongos. By the time I was ten, we started performing professionally.”

Hameen enlisted in the Air Force in 1958, before the U.S. became embroiled in Vietnam. His service took him to London, where he honed his chops after hours among heavyweights like Joe Harriott and Ginger Baker. Hameen returned to the States in 1962, as jazz was making the transition from fiery bebop to bluesy cool.

“New Haven during that time was one of the meccas for jazz,” he recalls. “Hartford was pretty good, but New Haven was the spot for Connecticut.”

The clubs were concentrated in the Dixwell neighborhood, most within walking distance of Hameen’s home, like the Playback on Winchester Avenue, which was owned by New Haven native Willie Ruff, who now conducts the Yale Jazz Ensemble; and the Monterey Café, run by New Havener and vaudeville performer Rufus Greenlee.

The Monterey, Hameen recalls, “was more than just a jazz club; it was a rite of passage. You got all ready to go — you had a certain code of conduct in there. It was the kind of thing people brought their children to. The place was packed seven nights a week.”

With jazz jumping all around him, Hameen worked six months at the post office to earn himself a new set of drums, and then took off on a series of road tours that eventually landed him in New York City. He began freelancing, traveling with Charles Earland to Puerto Rico, and then to Las Vegas and the West Coast. He has played with the era’s top names, including Grover Washington Jr., Irene Reid (for whom he has produced two albums and written numerous compositions), vocalist Leon Thomas, hard bop pianist Tommy Flanagan, Lou Donaldson and soul star Curtis Mayfield, to name a few. He converted to Islam in 1979 and changed his name from Jesse Kilpatrick Jr. to Jesse Hameen II.

But to many native New Haveners, he will always be “Cheese.”

In 1995, Hameen decided to move back to New Haven to care for his ailing parents. “My parents were so supportive of me, that when the time came I had to take care of them,” Hameen says. “I told my mother, ‘I’m terrified to come back to New Haven, because my business is all built up in New York. There’s no way I’m going to be as busy up there.’ She said, ‘Well, don’t worry, God’s going to bless you.’”

What Hameen found surprised him. He became involved with Jazz Haven, a non-profit which supports and advocates for jazz music and musicians and produces the annual summer New Haven Jazz Festival.

Explains Jazz Haven President Doug Morrill: “When Jesse came back, he wanted to offer something to New Haven. He is very much a community person, and jazz is a wonderful community-building vehicle.”

Hameen was also appointed the chair of the lauded jazz studies program at the Neighborhood Music School in New Haven, a role that gives him the chance to teach and mentor young jazz musicians, among them young pianist Christian Sands. He is also on faculty at the Hartford Conservatory.

“What makes Jesse different from other jazz musicians is his willingness to go the full mile in terms of keeping the music alive,” says Morrill.

“I believe that being a musician is not just an individual path, but that people should benefit from it,” Hameen says. “My goal is to be a human excellence advocate.”

His recent album Sign of the Times, his first solo project in over 20 years, was released last August on his independent Inspire Music label, and rings with the sounds of jazz that is New Haven’s own — well traveled and world-wise, but determinedly funky.

“New Haven has a sound — a bluesy, funky sound,” Hameen says. “Just like people all over the country have their different accents, their different personalities — that’s their voice. On my CD I like everything to be groovy. That’s what we are in New Haven, is groovy.”

The album combines six bluesy, recently penned compositions with three other Hameen originals from a 1993 session featuring New York trombonist Benny Powell. All of the tracks are filled with the rich sound of the Hammond B-3 organ, an instrument Hameen has tapped often in his career.

As its title suggests, it is a timely album in many senses, with songs like “Conducive Environment,” which features Hameen’s two-fisted explosion of a drum solo in 6/4 time, and “Tighten Your Belt,” a funky number which allows the group to really lock in.

“All of my songs have meaning,” Hameen said enigmatically in a November concert. “‘Tighten Your Belt.’ We all know what that means,” he said, alluding to the current recession.

Of President-elect Barack Obama, Hameen says, “Whether he was elected or not, the fact that there’s so many people who are willing to accept an African-American President is a sign of the times. That shows that the climate has changed, that people are now realizing that it’s the content of a person’s character and not the color of their skin that’s happening.”

While Hameen was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer and plans to undergo radiation treatment, he says he feels strong: “I feel good, my ideas are flowing, I’m still writing. I practice every day.”

This article was published in the January 2009 issue of New Haven Magazine.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Genius Next Door

Laco Deczi doesn't answer the doorbell.

He's too busy telling lurid stories about the exploits of the Russian mafia in communist Czechoslovakia, answering his cell phone in any one of four languages, and going out to flip the charred fish on his prized backyard grill. He intersperses his tall tales with occasional phrases on his trumpet, sounds filled with a haunting purity and nostalgia that transport the listener to a time and place distant in mind and memory.

In Bratislava, Slovakia, where Deczi was born in 1938, and throughout what is now the Czech Republic, you would be hard pressed to find a person on the street who does not know his name and his music; on his Czech tours, he performs for audiences of up to 1,000, including diplomats and presidents. A film biography of his life, titled Voľná noha, was released in the Czech Republic in 1990.

The trumpeter and prolific composer enjoys a different kind of celebrity in his East Haven neighborhood. He spends his days puttering around in an old white Mitsubishi with the bumper hanging off, catching snappers in the Long Island Sound, and recording in his home studio. He knows where to get the best pizza in town, who will cut you a deal on car repair, and who could be persuaded to give you a deal on waterfront property. With his fly-away hair, bare feet, and tan shoulders, he looks more like a beach bum than a jazz star. Still, Deczi is a consummate performer and storyteller, and slips in and out of recollections as his hard blue eyes focus and then unfocus on the world around him.

I live[d] in communism, and listened [to] American music on short-wave radio,” he says, in a heavy accent. “At this time there was no records, nothing.” Among his heroes were hard bop trumpeters Blue Mitchell, Fats Navarro, and, especially, the virtuosic Clifford Brown, who he calls, simply, “a genius.”

Deczi worked his way up through the cafes and bars in Prague, and started writing his own music when he was about 20 years old. Throughout the 1960s, he was a part of vibraphonist Karel Valebny's SHQ Ensemble, a forward-thinking post-bop group that, no doubt, encouraged Deczi's propensity for the avant-garde. He started his own group, Jazz Cellula at the end of 1967 to perform his original compositions, inspired by Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.

Then, in 1970, Dezci got the education of his life when he began what would become a 15-year stint with the state-sponsored Czech Radio Big Band. “That was probably the best big band this time in Czechoslovakia,” he says. “For those 15 years, I got a [lot of] experience, because all those musicians were better [than me].” He started to gain some recognition as a soloist, and released his first solo album Sentimental Trumpet in 1971.

While creative expression and free speech were strictly controlled under the communist government, according to Deczi, the communists did not consider jazz to be too great a threat: “The communists don't bother [with] jazz, because they don't know what it is. There's no words. You can strike up the rock band, with the words, and make a protest. But doodly-doodly-doodly-doo, that's nothing strange,” though many the world over consider jazz to be a prime example of expressive freedom.

Deczi escaped from communist Czechoslovakia in the early 1980s on papers which were forged for him by an artist friend. He landed in Berlin, where, he said, “The Germans took care of me.” African-American trumpeter Carmell Jones, who gained his fame with Horace Silver's album A Song for My Father, was also living in Berlin at the time, and Deczi took the chance to study with him. Jones died in 1996, a date Deczi repeats each time he looks at the photo of Jones he has tacked to his studio wall.

On an invitation from Sonny Costanzo, who Deczi described as an “excellent trombone player, very special,” the trumpeter came to New York City for a visit in 1984. He was soon gigging regularly with Costanzo's big band in the New Haven area, and in 1985 moved permanently to the United States. Costanzo's death in 1993 meant the loss of a mentor, but Deczi found other collaborators.

Drawing on players from his gigs at small clubs in New York and a few musicians from New Haven's Cafe Nine session, Deczi founded Jazz Cellula New York in the mid-1990s, which has since released about a dozen albums of Deczi's original music on the Arta, Multisonic, and New York Sound labels. The ensemble currently features the talents of Eric Meridiano of France on piano, Nob Kinukawa of Japan on bass, and Deczi's son Vaico on drums. They have recently completed a Czech tour in which they performed for the president of the Czech Republic, Václav Klaus, among other dignitaries, and plans are in the making for a live album to be released soon. Business back in the States, however, remains slow.

It is problem,” Deczi says, “because there used to be much more work, more money here. Now it's very bad – for everybody. I am up and down. Everybody lives the jazz musician life.”

Laco's story is one of both joy and sadness,” says friend, harmonica player, and former Republican State Party Chairman Chris DePino. “America has given him freedom of expression to create musically. In Czech, Laco is a household name, with millions of people who grew up with his music turning out in droves to see his concerts. Here, his experience has been that of an everyday, struggling musician, working to get the attention of a non-interested public.”

He came from a place where you could go to jail for saying the word 'marketing,'” DePino adds.

Now, when Jazz Cellula tours the Czech Republic, Deczi is awarded with a homecoming fit for a jazz prince. “When we toured the Czech Republic, there was never a moment where the house wasn't packed, and the audience wasn't listening,” says DePino. “With those former communist bloc folks, it's like anything goes with them; they cherish their freedom more than you can imagine. They relish people exhibiting creativity in front of them, because that's something they were never able to do.”

Deczi is a man of many talents; he paints, writes film scores, and has published a book on jazz improvisation in Czech. By some estimates, he has written over 300 compositions, some of which were lost when he escaped from Slovakia. One of his dreams is to write for symphony orchestra. “I listen [to] all music,” he says. “I listen [to] African music, Arabian music,” which might be a clue to the source of the fascinating harmonic and chromatic scales he uses in his writing.

At the age of 70, he shows no signs of slowing down. Leapfrogging the stuck-in-the-mud disease that can afflict some jazz practitioners, Deczi seems eternally in touch with the youthful pulse of his audience. He explained, “We've got a [big] young audience. The old one is in the cemetery, rooted, like a flower in the ground.”

Perhaps it is that Deczi's compositions are so utterly danceable, full of interesting polyrhythms and exotic scales, completely infused with the sounds of his Eastern European roots, giving his music a distinctive voice that is a rarity in a music market saturated with sound bytes and often unfriendly to music which requires a longer attention span.

It is true that, had he had the opportunity to develop his music in America from the beginning of his career, he might have achieved more commercial recognition. Then again, a Laco Deczi who had not endured and trumped communism would not be Laco Deczi at all. It is the struggles he endured that molded him into the supreme individualist he is today. In a world full of copies, Deczi is undoubtedly unique. He disdains both free jazz and high society as parallel evils. He throws nothing away, preferring to repair it, a technique one can perhaps see in his compositional process as well.

The man is hopelessly in love with his music; he is constantly penning new tunes, and finds no greater joy than to sit uninterrupted in his studio, perfecting Jazz Cellula's most recent recording. Sitting and listening to their new live album, one gets the sense that Deczi's star is on the rise, and if this is any measure, listeners here will come to realize what an enormous talent they have living just next door.

I originally published this article in the October 2008 issue of New Haven Magazine.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Return to Goree

How many returns will I make to this place, to this space? How many times will my path criss-cross the others and what shape will they design? Here we are again, where it all started and where it will all end: Return to Goree.