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Posts Tagged ‘songs’

The Ants of God

January 21, 2015 | by

The budding South Sudanese community in Omaha, Nebraska.

nuer still

A still from The Nuer, a 1971 documentary.

More than a hundred years ago, my relatives emigrated from Czechoslovakia to Nebraska, thus escaping the privilege of becoming fodder for the aristocracy’s canons. Why Nebraska? The railroad advertising pictured illustrations of the thick loam of the prairie, calculated to resemble their homeland’s. The land was theirs for free if they worked extremely hard on it for five years, and many did, and prospered.

This century, the Nuer from South Sudan have immigrated to the same region, but they aren’t so fortunate. Having escaped one of the world’s worst war zones, endured extremely harsh conditions in refugee camps, and traveled eight thousand miles to resettle, the Nuer face poor Nebraska neighborhoods policed by gangs like the Bloods and the Crips.

The Nuer fled fighting in a very remote area in South Sudan, much of it accessible only by boat or on foot. I know. I walked into the region thirty-five years ago, lugging in heavy sound equipment to make a sequel to The Nuer, the highest grossing ethnographic film of the time. The original, from 1971, was extremely beautiful, shot by Hilary Harris, Robert Gardner, and George Breidenbach. It documented the traditional Nuer lifestyle as depicted by E. E. Evans-Pritchard, the British academic who founded the discipline of social anthropology on a study of their culture. The sequel to it was never finished, but I translated and published Cleaned the Crocodile’s Teeth, a selection of their songs, their most complex art form.

Never would I have imagined that people from so far away would move within a hundred miles of my birthplace in Ogallala, Nebraska. So many resettled in the state that it now has the world’s largest population of Nuer outside South Sudan. Had I impressed them with talk of a landscape similar to their own, the way the broadsides had lured my relatives? It couldn’t be—all I’d had to do was mention snow to the Africans and their enthusiasm waned. Originally, resettlement agencies sent the Nuer to rural Minnesota, Virginia, Arizona, California, and upstate New York. They had to establish themselves quickly: all our government gave them was a loan for the plane ticket from Africa, less than three hundred dollars cash, and food stamps. They had to start paying back the loans within six months—a tall order when you’re traumatized by war, not yet fluent in English, and largely unaware of American customs. Through informal cell phone networking, the Nuer converged on Nebraska. Cheap housing attracted them—and openings in the meatpacking industry, that mainstay of immigrant labor. In many Nuer families, both spouses work two shifts. The slaughterhouse was a psychologically difficult workplace, as they had just fled a war that had more civilian casualties than World War II. The slaughterhouse worker I spoke to was bothered by the screams of the half-dead cattle while their hides were ripped off with hooks. You are supposed to wait until the eyes tell you what to do, he said. Read More »

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Telling It Like It Is in Times Square, and Other News

August 29, 2014 | by

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Alfredo Jaar, A Logo for America, 1987/2014. Photo: Ka-Man Tse for Times Square Arts

  • Coming this fall: a host of new books about football. But do they hold up against the venerable backlist of football literature?
  • Today in trepidatious grammatical hairsplitting: whoever versus whomever, and all the complications thereof.
  • On syllabus bloat: “Today’s college syllabus is longer than many of the assignments it allegedly lists … The syllabus now merely exists to ensure a ‘customer experience’ wherein if every box is adequately checked, the end result—a desired grade—is inevitable and demanded, learning be damned.”
  • Every night between 11:57 and midnight, the slogan “This Is Not America” has appeared on a high-definition LED in Times Square—a message from the Chilean conceptual artist Alfredo Jaar, who debuted the work in a decidedly more analog form back in 1987.
  • Science shows that listening to your favorite songs, regardless of their genre, will generate “strikingly similar brain activity patterns” of a sort that can encourage creativity.

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The Cat Came Back

April 9, 2014 | by

The Incredible Journey Quad

Detail from the poster for Disney’s The Incredible Journey, 1963.

Yesterday, a dog raced a Metro-North train from the South Bronx into Manhattan. The train slowed down at several points so the dog, an adorable shepherd/collie mix, would not risk injury. Passengers feared for her safety during the mad dash—and cheered lustily as she was collected by two transit cops, who took her to animal control to treat her injured paw.

We love to see pets going to great lengths for our companionship, or whatever it is they’re doing. It’s hard enough to know what your dog or cat is thinking as it goes from room to room—and no one can divine the thoughts of these heroic specimens who follow their masters across continents, Incredible Journey–style. We usually choose to regard this as proof of pure devotion. But in other cases, we see these antics—especially by cats—as slightly sinister. Consider the case of “The Cat Came Back.”

Written in 1893 as a minstrel song with a very different title, “The Cat Came Back” tells of a malevolent cat who won’t stay away—until he’s killed. It’s not the sort of enlightened fare we usually associate with modern elementary education. And yet, a sanitized version of the song is a staple of nursery schools and day camps, where it’s seen as a useful tool for teaching young children about rhythm and harmony. For whatever reason, kids love the minor-key tune and the story of the grim, Mephistophelean cat.

There’s a G-rated modern version in which the owner tries to pawn the cat off on Santa Claus and an air balloon; and then there’s an earlier iteration, in which said owner clearly wants to see the feline dead. Kids laugh at both, because this cat will not be ruled by man. He defies adult authority—to say nothing of the laws of physics and geography—and this is as reassuring as it is terrifying. He “couldn’t” stay away, we are told—but not because he so loves the beleaguered Mr. Johnson, or Wilson, or whatever the owner’s name happens to be. He is a law unto himself. And the glee in telling his story has little to do with affection, and much to do with things dark and unexplained.

If no owner claims that train-loving dog, animal control is going to put her up for adoption, even though her heart is clearly wild and free and her thoughts inscrutable. But maybe for someone, that will be an adventure. Maybe they’ll like the minor key of its small mysteries. And why take on another life, if not for that?

 

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