Sunday, November 19, 2017

Justice League "Spoiler-Lite" Review


Was a really hectic day at work this past Friday, that I barely realized I was in the clinic past my clock-out time (and that was without any breaks at all). On my way home, about 5.20 pm, I just decided to check on the timings for Justice League, which my brother had assured me would start playing at the theaters as of Wednesday. Lo and behold, there was a 2D showing at 6.30pm at the Junction Cinemax. The way I figured it, even with the nasty Friday traffic on Ngong Road (Both ways!), I could still make the trip in about an hour, and, even with all eventualities, be able to watch the movie. I cut it pretty close, but I made it right on time.

So, pretty much taking its cue from Batman V Superman (BvS), this story plunges us into the DCEU's version of "The Death of Superman" storyline. The introductory sequence is very reminiscent of the title sequence from "Watchmen", serving as a sort of dirge that shows how the world has been shaped by the events of Superman's death; it has pretty much sapped most of humanity's hope, basically starting off some major doom and gloom as if a sort of doomsday clock has gone off; and, suddenly, something begins to feed off of that gloom: enter Steppenwolf and the parademons. Batman and Wonder woman are tasked with ushering in a new age of heroes by bringing together the other (until now) incognito and disparate superheroes to form a team.

I won't lie: I've been guarded about the hype surrounding this movie ever since the DCEU jumped off on Man of Steel and followed that up with Batman V Superman. Invariably, this discussion will involve a Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) comparison, but with good reason. The animated division of DC has been very good at producing wonderful animated movies, some of which have already captured (very well) some of the classic stories that are just now being translated to the DCEU. You need look no further than "Superman: Doomsday", "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns", "Batman: Assault on Arkham" and "Justice League: War" for direct comparisons to Batman V Superman, Suicide Squad, and even Justice League. Some might argue that in this regard, the animated movies have done a better job of telling the stories.

A lot is happening in this movie: there's the back story to the mother boxes, a war pitting many earthly forces against an unwelcome invader (who isn't entirely repulsed), and then we're also getting more fleshed out introductions to 3 of our heroes who only had the smallest of cameos in BvS.

  1. Aquaman, as shown from the trailers, has built up a following of sorts, and has indulged in heroics; he has the trident in his possession, and he interacts with Atlantis to some extent (at least they won't be going the "Justice League: Throne of Atlantis" way). 
  2. The Flash is in his pre-police force phase and is living off the grid. By all accounts, he has the suit, but he's still a nascent superhero whose greatest feats have consisted of pushing people out of the way, and gunning it. Suicide Squad had that segment where he encountered Capt. Boomerang; don't know if that's a DCEU continuity issue, or if the old Capt. isn't considered one of his greater rogue gallery entries - only time will tell.
  3. Cyborg is as fresh as they come. BvS gave us the impression that he'd already been formed prior to the Doomsday fight, but here he seems like a relatively recent creation. (I don't exactly know if it's a continuity error, but this time with his creation, there's a bit more of his human components than we glimpsed in his prior BvS creation). Wouldn't exactly qualify as an exact Justice League: War iteration, but he's pretty close. The artificial intelligence from the mother box continues to reshape him, and at times, neither he nor his teammates are fully convinced of which sides he's truly on. Seemed like they mixed in his character with quirks from Blue Beetle.

First off, let's start with the positives: Ben Affleck's Batman is still a joy to watch. He's a tad less jaded than he was in BvS and a bit more philanthropic. Though, this time around he's dealing with disposable parademons, so we don't know whether he's totally rid himself of the ruthless killer instinct he displayed in his previous incarnation towards humans. And now this is where I insert a SPOILER-LITE portion in this review: they have finally done Superman justice. You'd have to have been living under a rock or skipped all press related to this movie to think that Superman wouldn't be a part of the League. Anyway, for the first time in 3 movies, they've finally latched onto the things that humanize Superman; heck, he even gets away with making a joke or two. Gone is that depressed sullen character from MoS and BvS, and here we finally have a hero worth his title. But don't let that fool you, once he brings the godhood, he is bad-ass. His first interaction with the Justice League establishes that there really is none of them that is a match for him (which pretty much blows the BvS characterization out of the water). Overpowered he may be, but that is what Superman has always been.

Despite all the one-liners and seemingly one-dimensional character of Aquaman, I actually enjoyed his presence on the team. He has a gruff exterior and he pretty much tells it like it is. You feel like he profits the least from having a seat at the table with the League (a role which was usually reserved for Batman in the animated Justice League), but he sticks it out and comes through for the team.

I'm also happy about the course correction that the DCEU seems to be making. Trying to make all their movies with a paintbrush of seriousness that should ideally only be reserved for Batman has truly complicated things. For one thing, it has totally ruined Superman thus far. I mean, the space refugee, last of his kind shtick was really too much. He's humanoid looking enough and mostly benevolent that they should never have had to turn him into a depressed golem. This was probably because of the depressing influence of Jonathan and Martha Kent in the DCEU more than anything else.
I don't know if this was a Joss Whedon decision or if it came from Zack Snyder himself, but it was welcome to have the heroes joke around and smile. After one unfortunate thumping, hearing Batman complain about "something definitely being broken" was hilarious. The extreme end of this humour is brought on by Barry Allen (The Flash); because he's such a newbie, he comes off like a nervous wreck, and they use his discomfort to inject humour into a lot of his situations. Unfortunately, sometimes it lands, and other times it doesn't. Maybe once his rookie-ness wears off, we might get a more balanced representation. Lastly, thank God that Lex Luthor Jr. was only restricted to a post-credits scene; his wrongness for the role has never been in doubt, and for the love of life, I hope they never find an excuse to shoehorn him into any further league movies. Maybe they could find a way to resurrect his dad and kill Jr. off permanently

On the negative side, this movie feels like it would definitely have profited from been slightly longer. Between the past exploration of the war, and the introduction of some of the heroes, things feel a bit rushed. Going the "Age of Ultron" route of letting special characters develop organically within a movie that is already chock full of other pre-established characters and storylines is a recipe for disaster. I want to relate to them, get invested in them, but I feel like if the writers had decided to kill off these under-characterized heroes (a la Quicksilver), I'd shrug it off as nothing meaningful. I would definitely have cut out most of Lois Lane and Martha Kent's scenes in this movie, because, with few exceptions, none of them were pivotal to the story.

The movie also does get a bit CGI heavy in some instances. Don't get me wrong: the speed force is a beautifully rendered alternate reality of wonder, and a highlight of the film. Granted, the big baddie and his minions are CGI creations, and so is Cyborg, some real world environments could've helped out. I heard one critic praise the Themyscira war scene, but the CGI was a bit too jarring for my tastes. Steppenwolf and the parademons were rendered well, but Cyborg is 50/50. There's just something very uncanny valley about the way he looks while walking out of a plane, and when his head is viewed from the side in quick cuts. It's probably something they'll have to firm up before they decide to put him on screen again. As for Superman's upper lip and the CG-deleted 'stache...well, I actually didn't notice it in the movie, so that's that.


There's also one very glaring issue. (Spoiler Lite again!) The movie only seems to highlight the plight of one family in this far flung area where bizness is going down. Then by the time things are climaxing, the situation has changed. I mean, seriously, even Justice League: War did it better. All those parademon numbers needed to be repopulated, and sadly, that means a lot of humans ended up being carried off and converted. They could've actually shown us some of this stuff to up the stakes. Dunno if they felt the ratings would have been switched up if they showed us something that graphic, but it would've made the movie more satisfying.

In this case, I feel certain that a Director's cut would actually improve the movie (watched the BvS one - was still a disaster). Now that they've finally gotten the League out of the gate, they need to slow down and develop their iconic characters. They've got the time and a worthy stable of characters and storylines to keep us entertained for years to come.

I'm 50/50 on this movie, a bit confused about whether it did what it set out to do. I'll give it a B and maybe give it a second watch on another occasion.

God Bless.


Monday, November 6, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok "Spoiler-Free" Review



So, Thor: Ragnarok basically showed up in theaters this Wednesday, and I've basically been waiting for a long time to watch this movie. This is the Marvel Cinematic Universe's (MCU) second last single outing before we get into the massive team-up event of "Infinity War". Up to this point, the MCU now has 3 complete trilogies, which have yielded varying degrees of success. The hallmark has been the Captain America trilogy which went from strength to strength, first with a World War II period piece, then evolved into a beautiful spy thriller for its second outing, and came full circle with the mash-up that was "Civil War". Next up is the Iron Man trilogy; Iron Man is considered the starting point of the MCU, but his movies have had a strange trajectory with each entry being weaker than the last. With the completion of the Thor trilogy, we can take a look at the course these movies have taken.

Thor's characterization has been difficult to pin down. Asgard and all the realms associated with Thor's universe are what bridges the rest of the MCU with each other. How else could disparate properties like "Guardians of the Galaxy" and pretty much everything terrestrial in the MCU be brought together if not through Thor? The first movie was like a Shakespearean play: big hero who's heir to the throne does something unbecoming and ends up being stripped of his powers and summarily banished to earth; after learning some humility and showing some regard for human life, he gains back his powers and his place as the rightful heir. The second movie took a much darker path, digging further into the lore of Asgard and introducing an infinity stone in the form of the Aether; having Jane Foster play the unwitting host to the Aether was a move to introduce her to the Asgardians (one which probably wasn't appreciated too highly by the fans).  


As I've mentioned before, Thor has been hard to place in this MCU. They've gone with the "Ultimate" version of Thor's universe, therefore, rather than being magical god-like creatures, Asgardians are really just a technologically advanced race; but then again, Thor typifies a Tony Robbins' quote that I ran across a while back,
"It is not necessary to understand everything to be able to use everything"
Technologically advanced the Asgardians may be, but you get the feeling that Thor doesn't really understand how it all works (not the sharpest tool in the shed). At some point in this movie, Thor chides Hulk for being the dumbest avenger, but that might be a toss up between the two of them. In the past 2 movies, Thor barely fits in with the Midgardians (human folk), with the exception of the Avengers. He is a god among men, and out of place even when juxtaposed against the posse (Jane, Darcy and Erik) that is meant to humanize him.

So this movie takes a totally different route. It puts a spanner in the works, putting a stop to the increasingly serious tone between the first two movies; instead, this one serves up the laughs aplenty. Also, the human element is almost lacking from this movie; if Thor is a god, let's get to see what he's like among other gods (lesser or otherwise). Especially when it comes to the laughs, you'll pick the tonal shift very early. He's talking to a heavy-hitter, and the humour was a tad overpowering. This was the only part where it took me out of the moment, much in the same way I couldn't take Tony Stark's PTSD arc in Iron Man III serious.

Fortunately, the action kicked into top gear and the movie pulls you back in. Shortly after, we get to see how things are falling apart since Loki's being hiding under the guise of Odin. It's priceless to see Loki's death scene from Thor: The Dark World played to comedic effect with the most surprising of cameos (I seriously doubted my eyes the whole time I was watching the scene play out). It's a quick trip from there in search of Odin, which brings us to earth and a wonderful encounter between Dr. Strange and the Asgardians. It's hard to tell how much time passes in the MCU and where the movies fit into the timeline, but from the dexterity with which the good doctor handles the magical arts, you can tell that he's finally settled into his role as the sorcerer supreme. Handling the Asgardian presence on earth (particularly Loki's) as something of a nuisance, he reunites them with Odin to ensure the safety of earth.

The reunion is short-lived, but enough for Odin to let us know that something bad is coming; his foreboding is not limited to the event itself, but he lets us in on a dark secret that lets us know that he is in a way responsible for what's coming. The trailers and clips have given us a bit of exposition concerning the encounter between Thor, Loki and Hela, and how exactly they end up on Sakaar, and how they end up meeting the rest of The Revengers team members - Hulk and Valkyrie - but maybe not in the way you're expecting. In an era when poorly constructed trailers threaten to expose entire movie plots willy nilly, there's a surprising amount of randomness in which the story comes together. A traditional buddy cop movie (like happened in Iron Man III), this is not. However, dysfunctional or otherwise, this is the team that needs to get back to Asgard to deal with the big baddie.

I think this movie achieved what it's going for. It's a beautiful movie with vibrant colours and expansive worlds. More than that, it also expands the lore in a welcome direction. Multiple story arcs have been assembled to come up with this version of the story. There's a touch of the Ragnarok, Planet Hulk, and Gorr the Godbutcher storylines; probably more things in there too, but they are tastefully amalgamated. Thor, despite all the comedy, finally comes into his own. Despite feeling hapless for losing Mjolnir, he comes to embrace his role as the god of thunder, and all innate abilities and responsibilities therein. And if there's anything he learns quite well, it's that "Asgard is not a place, but its people".

Loki has also morphed into an entirely new character. When we first met him, he was finding himself in his role as the god of mischief; in The Avengers, he was pretty much an astringent villain; but here he still makes mistakes, but he's beginning to embrace himself as somewhat of an anti-hero.

Bruce Banner/Hulk does not feel like an afterthought either, and that's probably because The Planet Hulk storyline so organically implants his presence in this movie. It is a travesty that we haven't gotten a new Hulk movie to expand the character for this new universe (I refuse to count 2008's Incredible Hulk as having brought anything useful to the MCU). The Banner/Hulk relationship is more tenuous this time around, with Banner totally buried within their fractured psyche since he fled on the Quinjet at the end of Age of Ultron. As per the comic, Banner's presence made no sense on Sakaar because the world was too hostile to accommodate his puny physique; however, since they're shifting thing around for this adaptation, some exposition would be great for exploring this fractured psyche.

Cate Blanchett is a wonderful addition to the cast as the villainous Hela. She has a ravenous appetite for violence, but in her own way she reflects an individual who is looking for recognition in the only way she knows how. Her path partially mirrors that of Loki, someone on the outside looking in, hoping for acceptance and validation. Her exposition gives us a peek into a darker less benevolent Asgardian past, and I feel like she would be a welcome villain in future MCU installments. (Might even prove to be a worthy foe for the likes of Dr. Strange).

Tessa Thompson as wonderfully cast as Valkyrie, a seemingly incorrigible drunk with a traumatic past who is initially the bane of Thor's existence on Sakaar; but her bad habits aside, she steals every scene she's in, and her path towards redemption is worth the watch.
Even Jeff Goldblum is a welcome addition. Even his typical "mannerisms" only add more zest to the ridiculous entity that is the Grandmaster. He is wonderfully egotistical, and he infuriates Thor to no end with his frequent mispronunciation of "Asgard" or Thor's title.

The humour also melded well, despite the serious tone that "Ragnarok" is meant to imply. After a really rough bump at the start, I feel like it was the right tonal choice for this movie. This movie must be preparing us for the kind of loss that we're going to experience during the Infinity War because some people meet rather untimely ends in this movie. It just happens with a finality that'll shock you, and you barely even get a chance for it to sink in. I'm hoping that there's a chance for rebirth, like that shown in the comic, such that we will get a chance to meet some of these fallen heroes again. (One can only wish...)

It's been hard to put words to this review without giving spoilers, so perhaps I might just have to delve into spoiler territory with another review to further contextualize what I was unable to say. Suffice it to say, this was a great movie (A+), and a wonderfully good time. I might just be up for watching this again come next weekend; who knows, might even treat a friend to it (time will tell).

God Bless.

  

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Music of Pat Metheny - Minuano 6/8

Eventually, it had to happen. I had to dig up one track that is quintessentially a Pat Metheny Group number. This is typically the 2nd part of his famous "Metheny Medley" (Phase Dance - Minuano (6/8) - September 15th - First Circle...), and even continues to maintain that position in his newest Sessions rendition.

It certainly was a hard track to come by because this is one of those long form songs, which begins one way, and midway transforms into a whole other creation. I was lucky to run across it as a snippet from a fan's playlist on Pat Metheny Radio on the PMG website. (Un)fortunately, the snippet was from the second portion of the song past the 2:45 mark - similar to what he uses in his medley - thus, it is one that you're likely to miss unless you're patient enough.

Coming from the "Still Life (Talking)" album of 1987, this song reflects some of the group's earlier Brazilian influence from around the period; it also includes the incorporation of wordless vocals in its composition. The song starts off with an eerie portion of humming set against a nondescript instrumental background that steadily increases in complexity; there is an ebb-and-flow of the guitar, piano and other percussion elements as something buoying the humming, but not entirely sounding unified at first; this then builds up around the 2:45 mark, where we swing from the crescendo of the humming into a beautiful samba bass line.

From here, the guitar, piano and whistling spell out the Minuano melody, and in the next line the vocals reiterate the same phrasing. This is the preamble to Metheny's tasteful solo (more restrained in the album version, but a tad more explosive in varied live playings of this song). We then delve back into the minuano melody, which is used as a bridge to a delightful percussion breakdown: the Marimba stands front-and-centre with notable backing from castanets and the piano; for its second spin, the drums are brought in and the bass accent a few notes, and lastly, third time around, they are joined by Metheny's guitar which seems to resonate exactly with Steve Rodby's Bass playing. With the whole band back in play, Lyle Mays builds up the next bridge section to sound like a brass heavy affair, and then we find ourselves back in the Minuano melody proper till the song's conclusion.

Clocking in at a decent 9:28, this song is a masterpiece. It actually seems much shorter when you play it out, but it is immensely enjoyable through and through. Many versions of it abound, especially some live versions (We Live Here & Imaginary Day DVDs) where the intro session is cut out and they just get down to business. Also available is the Pat Metheny + Metropole Orchestra version adapted by Pat for a massive ensemble.

Whichever version you view, I hope it proves as much a feast for your senses as it has for mine over the years.

God Bless



Monday, October 23, 2017

Discipline

I have been mulling over this topic for a while, and now it's just something I have to get out there. However, for the sake of making a few things clear in this post, I need to juxtapose 2 memories (for the first time no less) to serve as a useful reference point.

The first memory is pulled from 'orientation week' at Daystar University in late 2001. Now, I've called upon that time period once before, but I think it is begging for a revisit. On one of the allotted days, the University Registrar - Mrs. Arao (my very own mother) - addressed us. Granted, she did address us on more than one occasion that week, I am reminded of the first speech that she prepared for us. I can't really remember the specifics, but I'll never forget the topic: Discipline. Discipline was supposed to make all the difference between how we utilized our time, all the resources our parents (guardians) had invested into our studies, etc to make our stay at Daystar, and our time beyond university fruitful. From what I know of my mother's professional demeanour, she's never been one to take an authoritarian stance; but students rued having to meet up with her in her office if it involved academic missteps. Turned out to be many a trepid time for a few students, but it was merely her enforcing her guiding principle of discipline, which, suffice it to say, if you didn't learn it at school, you'd eventually have to learn from the world.

The second memory comes to you courtesy of an annoyance that I'm sure many a Kenyan faced in the 90s: dealing with KPTC (Kenya Posts & Telecommunications Corporation). This was before the advent of mobile telephony, so the best way to stay connected was by having a landline. This came with a few problems, one of which was problematic connectivity, and even worse than that was that the billing proved to be a huge nightmare. I remember there being times when our phone would be out of service for huge swathes of time, yet come month's end we would receive an astronomical bill. I remember once going to their offices to protest an unjust bill, and all they could tell me was that the system recorded us as having used the specific amount of units, and there was no way to verify those units. My pleas that the phone had not been working for most of the month, and that barely anyone was in the house making calls to rack up such a high bill fell on deaf airs. In the end, they concluded that we just pay the bill or risk having our phone service terminated.

This whole year has been an irritating reminder of how bad politics is for the Kenyan psyche. Not that it's restricted to this year alone; rather, it has come to a head this year. Constant electioneering at the expense of development, and now, after a bungled election which has put us on the world map, there continue to be shenanigans aplenty that threaten to draw us towards a dangerous stalemate in the course of the week. In my experience, I believe that all Kenya's woes boil down to one thing: Discipline, or rather, lack of it.

There seems to be a rather prevalent rallying cry these days (not exactly sure when it became so fashionable), but if you live here, you've probably become accustomed to it by now:
"Accept and Move on!
As it has been used for the current political situation, people will tell you that it is to ensure the safety and integrity of our country; things may not be perfect, but we can eventually work on resolving them later.

On the surface, it might appear that it's a well meaning sentiment, but at its core it's just a call for Kenyans to settle down and accept the current mediocrity. If you pressed people further, they'd probably regale you with a sentiment along the lines of,

"Y'know, Kenya is a very stable place; things could always be worse...it's not like we're in Somalia or something of the sort!" 
First off, Kenya has enjoyed a favourable position for the longest time, but laxity and indiscipline could knock it off its high perch at any point if we're not careful. Next, I don't get why there's so much panic about our current situation. People are acting as if not having a president will doom us to extinction. Short of going to war, or some dastardly terrorist emergency that would require the imposition of Martial law, this country  and its people will live very peacefully. The inauguration of a prior president under the cover of dusk in 2007 is something that is still fresh in many of our minds. I didn't have the option to watch that particular inauguration because I was in China at the time, and I believe it also coincided with the "Media Blackout of 2007/08", but it is a very shameful part of our collective history.

I'm tired, as are many Kenyans, of the constant politicking that never really came to a close after the last election in 2013. I was hoping to have some semblance of peace, maybe even return to reading newspapers and watching News after the August 8th elections, but that was not to be. Our Independent Electoral & Boundaries Commission (IEBC) presided over an election whose results it cannot defend, and which summarily ended up being annulled by the Supreme Court. I just wish the Supreme Court hadn't been hasty in deciding that we needed to have another election a mere 60 days after they tossed out the previous election's results because I am pretty sure that the IEBC has not resolved the issues that characterized the last fumble. I'm also pretty sure that a whole host of people are criminally liable for some things that went down, and now we're merrily sailing in the same boat with those very same individuals who have atoned for nothing.


People might suggest I am being outright political because of partisan issues, but that is far from the truth. I can't lie: the current administration has nothing to offer me (as a medical professional) as it has single-handedly bungled the handling of the medical crises that have befallen the country (which is a treatise for another day); other than that, their record on handling corruption is deplorable. But there's something more: like it or not, every one of us is a political being because we contribute a fair amount of our income to this country in form of our taxes. None of this is by choice (the money having already been taken right out of our cheques and factored into the goods we purchase), but it is a necessity we bear understanding that the money will be put towards doing something useful for our society; something, which, neither of us could achieve on our own. Therefore, to paraphrase the old saying,
"I pay taxes therefore I am political"
Politicians are probably the most selfish class of individual we have, but they are human beings after all. I don't subscribe to the school of thought that suggests we have to have good people/Christians/angels etc. in power so that we can have good governance; rather, I believe in a system of checks and balances that makes it so hard for people to act in their usual selfish ways, such that it actually forces them to be good. Lord knows here in Kenya we've done our fair share to put in these checks and balances: a new constitution, Devolution, and plethora upon plethora of commissions and bodies that are supposed to protect the common mwananchi. Best intentions notwithstanding, we really have very little to show for all these measures, and I'm including the recent decision from the Supreme Court as one of the saving graces.

What irks me the most is the amount of money that has been wasted. The IEBC went through a huge sum of money to guarantee us a credible election via high tech servers, tamper proof ballot papers, biometrics and top notch communication; to find ourselves befuddled by the end results really calls into question whether we wouldn't better off just using the old manual system. It was actually easier to rig the old system, but at least it saved us all an enormous expense. And to add insult to injury, the reconstituted IEBC stands accused of shenanigans the likes of which brought down its previous occupants: purchasing a whole bunch of satelite phones (none of which worked, and probably at rates more exorbitant than the basic market rate) and single tender sourcing.

The IEBC might look like a culprit, but it is not alone; our commissions and statutory bodies remain unable to shield us from Kenyans without any moral authority whatsoever to rule over us. Hate speech runs unabated, with serial offenders strutting across the land guilt-free, even when televised recordings of their utterances exist for all to see. The Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC) sits impotent as the Members of Parliament (MPs) will most likely undo recommendations that the SRC put in place to harmonize runaway salaries and benefits, and tame the wage bill. I don't even have a clue who is supposed to represent the mwananchi when state machinery is blatantly used in campaigns

Like it or not, this indiscipline (fiscal or otherwise) is the cancer that eats away at the soul of the republic day after day. A mere fraction of the money whittled away by corruption could easily have addressed the medical crises, providing enough money to adequately compensate all medical staff cadres...even Teachers and the Police ; more money could be used to cushion the majority of our vulnerable population who are merely one medical emergency away from being rendered bankrupt. The same money could also be plowed into industries (novel, struggling or thriving) to guarantee that the youth of this country could be involved in some form of gainful employment. Our politicians seem overjoyed at being able to drum up massive crowds of people for mid-week rallies, but all I see is a ticking time bomb. The same people who have all that time to sit at rallies and soak up the "doctrine of the day" are for the most part impressionable and have nothing to lose. When all that desperate energy is whipped into a frenzy, we will all reap the whirlwind. With nothing to lose, they will turn on the very business folk, businesses, factories, etc. that are meant to help us put food on the table.

There are no easy fixes for the mess that we've gotten ourselves into, but there is a path back from the precipice: we have no choice but to become disciplined. I wish our leaders could be the ones to lead the way, but it seems like even in times of crises they still do not feel the need to make the hard decisions. Which pretty much just leaves it up to us, the common folk, to take up discipline as our mantra. It has to be something that we strive for and render unto our children, or those over whom we have influence. We need to make it something that can strongly be associated with being Kenyan as we oft romanticize "Bushido" with Japan or "Excellence" with German machinery. We have already tasted mediocrity in our past; it's finally time to embrace our greatness.

God Bless.

 





Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Music of Pat Metheny: Sueño con México (Orchestrion Edition)



Time to delve into another gem from the masterful Pat Metheny. This is from one of his solo albums (New Chautauqua) released in 1979, and as the story goes, the song was something he wrote up quite hurriedly as he became aware that he was one song short for the record. The original recording is an outstanding piece of work, wrapped around this beautiful weaving of music against a baseline arpeggio that is hypnotizing to say the least.

However, I will not be focusing on the original recording. In 2010, Metheny exposed the world to his idiosyncratic labour of love: Orchestrion. Sure, this was yet another of his solo albums, but one with a twist: he had the backing of a whole slew of musical instruments, specifically designed for the endeavour, that he was able to activate at will. He used this to good effect, and came up with 5 original compositions to showcase this project. However, after going on tour, he would dabble in some improv work using the orchestrion instruments, and he even gave some of his old tunes a fresh spin. This is of course what led to his spin-off album, The Orchestrion Project, which dropped in 2012. This album, inspired by his Orchestrion tour, was an expansion of his original orchestrion work featuring aforementioned new improv material and a few of his old hits.

And this is where we pick up things with his new rendition of Sueño con México. This rendition breathes a whole new life to the original (similar to what happened with The Way Up); the palette has been expanded greatly for this song. We end up going from the whimsy of a piece designed last minute in a Stuttgart hotel, to an even more tightly hemmed piece of music; whereas the original composition is a more nuanced quiet piece, this time around it's more full blown and expressive. The arpeggios underlying the song are more vibrant, and the extra percussion from cymbals, piano, bass, etc., used sparingly in bursts, amplifies the emotiveness of the piece.

Within this soundscape, Metheny still stands front and centre with his guitar and this time around he has a true semblance of a solo (which the original recording never really had). The solo has two distinct parts: at first he plays all his flourishes accompanied chiefly by the underlying arpeggio, and adds splashes of the orchestrion to accent his work; the second part is more subdued with just a bit more yearning conveyed by his guitar. Perhaps his finest moment comes in a roughly 1 minute stretch starting from the 6:40 mark; and within that stretch, 7:19 to 7:44 consists of some of the finest notes I've heard committed to music. So much elation, it just sounds like a stairway to Heaven. 

I enjoyed the original Sueño con México, but I adore the reinvented edition of the song, and I can truly call it one of my favourites. I love that he can still reinvent his classics anew, and use them to inspire a new generation. Thank God for such blessings. 

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Things That Medical School Won't Teach You (6) - Don't be afraid to diagnose death



It has been one of those trying weeks at the office. Lately it just feels like I'm stuck in a rut and the job isn't fulfilling. Even worse is the loss of patients; seems likes it's more traumatizing in these past few days. Despite working at a hospital, it's still easy to take it for granted that these vulnerable souls could just up and expire on you at a moment's notice. Makes you think twice about that expression "Sleep is the cousin of Death!"

With all the death we encounter, you'd think that there would be some special training to help us steel our nerves and encourage us despite the amount of loss we witness; training that would keep our minds at peace, so that we could be able to impart some form of closure and finality to the grieving relatives that we interact with on a regular basis. The answer to this is, of course, a big resounding NO!

I honestly can't recall any of my med school classes that evenly remotely mentioned the concept of death (beyond the usual sterile "cessation of all bodily functions" package). In fact, it's only been earlier this year in a Counselling CME (Continuous Medical Education) seminar when this issue was really broached for the first time. However, as in all things medically-related, we just have to make do with on-the-job training, usually carried out on your own. So next time you get a doctor with a questionable bedside manner delivering bad news to you, it might not entirely be his/her fault. Blame the profession.

I'm reminded of one experience that occurred during my internship while I was in the middle of my surgical rotation. On that particular day, I was manning my casualty post when an ambulance pulled up to the adjacent parking area. Convinced that an ambulance pulling up most likely signified either an Obstetric/Gynecology (Obs/Gyne) or Surgical emergency, I silently prayed that this was one for the Obs/Gyne team. (...and of course when I was in my Obs/Gyne rotation, I prayed the opposite prayer).
In a departure from the norm, the ambulance just sat there parked without anything apparently meaningful happening. I took a walk down to the Nurse-in-Charge's office so I could get some idea of what was going down. Turns out that the EMTs/Paramedics had ferried a victim (elderly adult male) of a road traffic accident that occurred in an adjacent county to our facility. This irked us to no end for a couple of reasons:

  1. There is a protocol in place to follow when referring/bringing patients to our facility, which usually involves communicating with the Nurse-in-charge so that proper preparations can be made. Many people tended to ignore this common courtesy.
  2. More often than not, some counties are particularly notorious for off-loading their workload by referring patients that they could satisfactorily deal with within their own county facilities.
  3. With the advent of devolution, multiple county heads had acquired ambulances at a rate incongruent to the money they had invested in medical facilities. What this meant was that (as mentioned above), it was easier to handle an emergency situation by just dumping a patient at another hospital's doorstep.
So what we had was an actual stalemate. The ambulance had ferried an accident victim who was in urgent need of an ICU, but all our ICU beds were occupied (which they would have found out if they had bothered to inquire first); they were, of course, unwilling to transport the patient to another hospital or return him back from whence he came; our Nurse-in-Charge was sticking to her guns, and as per protocol, was not going to take responsibility for the patient.

I figure the ambulance had been parked for 30 minutes while this whole scenario played out. Finally, I made the decision to examine the patient within the ambulance to find out exactly what we were dealing with. So I step into the ambulance and the patient is eerily quiet; all I get from him is seriously laboured breathing. He's neither responsive to my voice or painful stimuli of any sort, and his eyes are closed shut; once pried open, his pupils are slightly dilated and not responding to a light stimulus. On the plus side, he did have a steady pulse. Thus, on the Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS), this patient registers an all-time low of "3".


Now any medic knows that this patient's breathing is going to be the next thing to go; devoid of an ICU with ventilatory support when that happens, death will most definitely ensue.
I relayed my findings to the Nurse-in-Charge, and we shared an ominous silence between us. The patient had no relatives/guardians that could organize for him to be taken to another facility, so he was stuck either way. Seeing as we really had no good choices, we opted to keep him in our casualty area, providing supplemental oxygen and as much supportive management as we could muster under the circumstances.

He lasted a good 2 days in that state (longer than I had actually anticipated), but in the end he passed away.

Despite all my experiences with death, even I fail to see how I would prepare a lesson to adequately prepare fledgling colleagues for what awaits them in the field. Every death encountered is as diverse as every life lived. You will watch some lives snuffed out within the few minutes you encounter them, and yet with others it will be a "slow burn" where you will get to experience the patient's life and those of their relatives for a prolonged period. And in itself, this notion of time is certainly a fluid concept: you could live a lifetime in the few minutes that you spend trying to resuscitate a newborn child, or, as in my experience with Edna, the 5 hours you spend with a practical stranger.

In my experience, I have found that you shouldn't be afraid to diagnose death! I'm not talking about that morbid movie-type experience where a doctor says something along the lines of you having 6 months to live (nothing is ever really that clear-cut); rather, you need to develop an acumen for seeing it coming. After being around death for such a long time, you and your colleagues develop a knack for predicting it (especially the nurses); in my Paediatrics rotation, I discovered that mothers are very good at sensing minute changes in their children's state, so when a mother asks you to check up on her child, kindly do it.

Any well trained health worker knows that recognizing the GCS will steer you right (except maybe in the tricky case of career alcoholics!). Thus, as a matter of fact, impending death is easy to predict in most cases, but occasionally it just sneaks up on you; I've had cases where we've fought out the worst of the patients' battles, and just as it appeared they were on the road to recovery, the war ended. So, in essence, the work of medical staff truly is that arm-wrestling match immortalized in my intro illustration. And in the end, we always lose!(...it is appointed for all men to die once, and after that comes judgment...).

Morbid as that may sound, death is not always the grim experience we all imagine; if handled correctly, it can provide closure to those left behind, a culmination of a life well lived. Pair that with the belief that people have of the afterlife, and you end up understanding that death is not the "be all and end all" of everything; it's just a phase.

I remember that during my first few months in China, I struck up a friendship with a young practising doctor from Mauritius named Javed. In the course of mentoring me, he gave me one quote that's stuck with me till today:
We treat, but God provides the healing!
There's only so much that you can be expected to achieve by the instruments and measures of your time/era, and death is always an inevitability, so be humble in your practice. A 'God Complex' is a liability to any true health worker worth their salt; do not give people false hope, but neither should you aim to dash their hopes underfoot; always do your best for your patients, and rely on all members of your team to get you through all eventualities. None of us is perfect, but as I've mentioned before, working with this segment of society is a privilege (despite its taxing nature); therein lies a blessing and a daily perfecting grace.

God Bless

      

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

A Musical Journey from Dilla to Bacharach

J Dilla by Jed Cablao (Deviant Art)

I happened to be on Soundcloud the other day just randomly checking for music, and I came across one of DJ Jazzy Jeff's sets. I'm more familiar with his work as an actor on "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air", but the originator of the Transformer scratch is an actual practising DJ. The set he was playing was a tribute to J Dilla; I believe "Dilla" or "Dillalude" was my original search parameter. The Dillalude was actually my introduction to musician Robert Glasper - accomplished pianist and J Dilla fanboy - who does an interesting interpretation of Common's "TheLonious" (another track produced by J. Dilla). I'm always searching for new interpretations of the Dillalude, in which Glasper manages to sneak in multiple of Dilla's productions.

Anyway, back to DJ Jazzy Jeff's "Dilla Tribute" set. It was touted as containing both his well known, lesser known and even unreleased tracks. Around the quarter mark, DJ Jazzy Jeff starts playing an obviously older track that had a haunting Oboe intro that segued into this rapid keyboard rhythm accompanied by light rapid fire drums. This gave way to the graceful female singer who sings a difficult quick tempo part; shortly after, the rest of the band joins in the singing of the chorus, adding great shades of harmony to the whole effort. And then, it happens: Jeff starts to fade out the track, and appears to be modulating the track as another male voice starts to drop the intro to a rap song. Then the heavy bassline drops and the rap song continues buoyed by the looped modulated chorus motif from the previous band.

With a bit of an assist from the Shazam app, I was able to swiftly pin down both tracks. "Knowing when to Leave" (from The Burt Bacharach Medley) by the Carpenters and "Yum Yum" by Slum Village. Great work by Dilla on the sampling job, but the final product seemed a bit raw because the bass guitar he added to the mix seems a tad overpowering. Also, the vocals seem a bit washed out (probably a recording issue). The Carpenters on the other hand are a whole other story. Karen's vocals are unmatched, and coincidentally she also plays the drums on the track. Richard is light, swift and enchanting on the keys. However, while Dilla samples their track, the Carpenters are actually covering someone else's music. Yep, Burt Bacharach & Hal David to be exact. When they originally made this track, they had frequent collaborator Dionne Warwick doing the singing.

From reading up on some of the comments about the Carpenters' video on Youtube, I found out that President Obama had a night of music at the White House which honoured Burt Bacharach (& Hal David posthumously) with the 2012 Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Conveniently, the whole performance was on Youtube and was a star-studded affair in which various musicians (Stevie Wonder, Diana Krall, Arturo Sandoval, Sheryl Crow, Mike Meyers? et al) took turns in singing Bacharach/David hits. You have to witness how much virtuosity one person can plug into playing the harmonica when you get to experience Stevie Wonder's extended solo on "Alfie". However, my highlight from the whole event was Sheléa and Arturo Sandoval on "Anyone Who Had a Heart"

I'm surprised I'd never heard of this ballad before because it has done quite the rounds. Originally performed by frequent Bacharach/David alum Dionne Warwick, it has been covered by many an artist, with each artist making the song their own. No proof of this is more evident than in Luther Vandross' rendition of the ballad. To her credit, Sheléa also make this song her own. Her vocals stamp their authority on her beautiful piano playing; starting out as a mere whisper, her singing reaches a crescendo that has her sounding part Whitney Houston, part Tamia. She conveys the full range of emotion from pining to hurt to desperation, and she'll leave you engrossed. A sprinkling of Mr. Sandoval's horn brings the full melancholy into this song. The Bacharach/David team certainly deserved to be feted for just this gem alone.

It certainly proved to be quite the musical marathon in one short evening. It has definitely opened up a wide range of artists and genres for me to explore. Thankfully though, between Youtube and the rest of the net, I think I'll be up to the task.

As you embark on your musical journeys, may God speed you well.