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Q: Has being a tree influenced the way you play your sets?
A: I think you know, at first, well, there was that big scene going on at Bristol around 2003-2005 with fungi and all..so yeah, it was quite a good time to be a tree DJ for awhile to be honest but..
Q: I heard you had some trouble booking in the States?
A:Well, I don’t want to come off like a Yankee hater, but they really just did not get it! It was all “Treebeard Trance” and that lot.
Q: But “Selected Ambient Leaves” hit platinum last year..
A: Yeah! I was pleasantly surprised about that. A lot of those were just done for a laugh to be honest, in between my time playing at Skimpy’s (fabled underground cave venue near Orkney), I just wanted to make something that would contrast with the more frenetic feeling going on there.
Q: And how has your setup evolved over the years?
A: Well as you can see, I have the Boomstar there, epic synth there. For awhile I was getting really into the interactive phosphorescent modular stuff those guys are making over at MN, really interesting equipment just not enough stalks.
Q: What do you mean?
A: So many freaking buttons to switch on and get my branches around!
Q: But you’ll be sharing the stage soon with (Detroit legend) Sparky Badger, so I imagine that will help with the setup?
A: Oh yeah, loads, Sparky is great, it really helps having that extra mind and all those other paws for modulation. We’ve had some wicked nights together already.

DJ Tree: May 26, Mighty, 9 PM $25/$35

Americans have never really understood the guitar. For most of my country(wo)men, their conception begins and ends with the electric guitar (invented by an American, of course), whether or not they realize it. This perhaps explains the almost total ignorance of flamenco in the USA, despite geniuses like Paco de Lucia and his fusion accomplices (Al di Meola, John Mclaughlin, Larry Coryell) elevating it to a thoroughly modern artform over the past 30 years.

Some Americans have a passing familiarity with classical guitar, which has the following attributes in common with flamenco: both use acoustic guitars with nylon strings (though of different builds, woods, and characteristics), both have many of their chief exponents and composers originating from Spain or Spanish speaking countries, both are played without a pick or plectrum. Beyond those similarities, many differences exist.

When I told one acquaintance, who goes to many concerts, that I was going to see Vicente Amigo, one of the greatest flamenco (or in any paradigm) guitarists alive, he asked, good naturedly, “Oh, like Segovia?” (Leading exponent of the classical guitar, dead for almost 30 years, who as far as I understand, had nothing but scorn for flamenco).

Flamenco is a true Spanish-fusion art form, realized only in the context of Spanish history (waves of fluid integration of multiple groups followed by periods of heightened fascism and insularity, not dissimilar from Japan), and one which scarcely exists outside of it, to this day. As with jazz, which is now more popular in Europe than in the USA despite being one of the truly genuine American cultural products, there is somewhat of an awareness of flamenco in European countries outside of Spain, but which then drops to trickling droplets when one crosses to this side of the Atlantic. What people think is representative of a good guitarist in the USA would more often than not be a) at best, a mediocre player by Spanish-flamenco standards, trashed by any number of excellent guitarists one can find playing in metro stations and alleys in Madrid, or b) if actually skilled, most likely playing jazz or their own unclassifiable genre they developed largely in a vacuum over many years (Leo Kottke), and subsequently, ignored by the vast majority of Americans. Such musicians (including both Al di Meola and John Mclaughlin, who have publicly voiced such sentiments) probably prefer to tour in Europe, where one can actually find a happily paying audience for technical music that is not a recycled best-of composers from centuries long past, which is about the only thing (old) Americans shill out for in any number, (provided its been highly canonized, of course, and doesn’t include any surprises, innovation, or improvisation).

It is with this scathing critique of my society’s lack of genuine interest and support of the arts that I can at least thank SFJazz for being one of Vicente Amigo’s stops on a rare American tour (despite poor publicity and the same regurgitated quote by Pat Metheny about Vicente Amigo used and re-used lazily in every English publication), and that plenty of people showed up to listen and cheer him up (median age: roughly 20 years above mine). Vicente Amigo is almost 50 years old now! (But still looks fairly young, though that 1/2 wide goatee is a bit weird). For the longest time he was one of Paco de Lucia’s young prodigies, and early videos of him (already displaying total command of the guitar in his first album made in his early 20s) make him appear more like a dashing young Danish prince rather than the grizzled gypsies we are led to believe incubate with flamenco in the womb, or maybe the holes in the hillside of Granada.

Having listened to Vicente’s recordings and videos for a number of years, I had a pretty good idea what to expect. His virtuosity is pretty much unparalleled, and he has always tended towards lovely melodies and sonorous harmonies, if anything, veering slightly towards being too poppy or even sappy on a few recordings. But, whereas Paco’s discovery and way of opening flamenco into the rest of the world, reinventing the artform, was largely through jazz and various related fusion idioms, Vicente is a bit closer to my generation, and subsequently is informed by a less heavy technique, a different diversity of sources (and musicians) to draw from, as well as a general sensibility that just feels a bit more “modern,” right down to his choices for song length (a bit shorter) to the shimmering reverb that I could hear last night as well as in many of his recordings (far “wetter” than anything one can hear on any Paco, Camaron, or most of Tomatito’s recordings). And that’s a net positive, because we all need to find our own paths.

Relistening to several of his albums this weekend, as the rain falls, I was reliving my memories of the intense focus and tightness that artists of his caliber (and their expert accompaniment) bring, but also trying to see if I could better distill the qualities that I have come to value in music more generally, particularly as I have been more focused on creating my own over the past year. As with last night, some points stuck out immediately: a constant dynamic presence, a careful shifting and modulation of volume, pitch, ever shifting chords and melodies which always follows a structure but weaves a pattern of continual tension, sometimes giving the listener a perception that the car will go off the tracks–but it never does. (In this respect, especially on his more recent work, there is a noticeable lessened use of diminished and minor chords and structures, particularly compared to early and middle Paco, and diametrically composed to old, pre-Paco flamenco, e.g. Sabicas, which sounds positively linear to me due to its constant insistence on transmitting despair and tension without respite). It goes without saying that rhythm was always, always there, both within polyrhythms as well as the catch-and-release of aforementioned melodic and harmonic passages all lining up neatly–if seemingly out of sync for a moment, only to resolve later.

After I finished listening to Tierra and Ciudad de las Ideas, I put on some Aphex Twin, just for comparison. A strange playlist, some might think (if a devotee of one was even aware of the other–a low probability), but why not? Both masters of their domain, who have carved out unique paths out of years of dedication, both in fact, virtually the same age, but from very different cultural environments, although separated by only a short flight away from each other. Although created in a totally different manner, across multiple songs by Mr. Richard D. James I found many of the very same qualities of a shifting-but always in control presence, *usually* opposed to cliche (I think AFX is better in his more recent work in this regard), dissonance and sonority opposed and then resolved, rhythm, melody, harmony, all working together but not always in immediately perceptible ways. Both incite great joy and creativity within me, inspire me, and have directly informed my guitar technique as well as my musical perception and, more recently, compositional method and use of electronic tools.

While Paco looked south and east to the blending Arab-roots of flamenco in albums like Almoraima and Siroco from his position on the edge of Andalucia, and Tomatito has made some Afro-cuban explorations combined with a pure Gitano sound, Vicente has taken a different tactic with his most recent album, Tierra, and instead looked north, to the shared Celtic ancestry of both Spain and the British Isles. The music video for Roma shows him making his own kind of pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, where I too have walked the streets in the rain, and gaped at moss-eaten statues and imposing gothic stone, while shopkeepers enthusiastically pawned strange breads and bland, Portuguese-style foods.

For the encore, he closed with it, each band member slowly muting their parts, the lights dimming until he was the last one playing into darkness, and only the flickers of the solitary chord progression remained. They all stood, took modest bows to rupturing applause, and Vicente touched his hand over the hearts of each of his band mates.

 

The first time I heard of The Essence of Tea, I felt dismissive; why would I buy tea from China to be shipped to me in the USA via the UK? If I was going to order pu-er online—which is pretty necessary outside of Asia if you want anything of quality—why not just order directly from Asia, e.g. Yunnan Sourcing?

Since then, Essence moved its base of operations to Malaysia for humid aging potential and Panang curry, and I took the plunge on them and have experienced their consistently potent stock.

The 2005 Chang YuHao Yiwu, which I acquired during their Malaysian-storage sale, but is still the most expensive cake I’ve ever bought, is a perfect example of their ability to acquire whole-body-mind-altering pu-er. I tried a sample of this tea with a previous order and was blown away by its strength and depth, vowing to purchase it if it ever went on sale and became a little more affordable.

For a 10-year old (small-scale production?) humid-aged cake of premium Yiwu material, the compression is surprisingly hard. Also, the leaves are small, a bit coarse, and don’t seem particularly special in any way. But, pu-er is like the aikido of tea–cheating is allowed and encouraged, and appearances are deceiving. The energy and longetivity of this tea is simply incredible. With most pu-er, even those I mentally bookmark as “powerful,” 8-10 g is good for a super stimulating, 1-2 hour psychoactive session. With the Chang YuHao Yiwu, 5 g is enough to send me into deep orbit.

If TwoDogTea had made this cake, he should call it Ahmad’s Green, or maybe The Awakening, or Autumn Rain. To me, Ahmad Jamal is an endless source of inspiration, one of the most pivotal figures in jazz—and still working. Like his music, this tea starts out smooth with barely any hints of astringency, then sneaks up behind you, WHAM, and slams you into the mat like only a 5th+ dan can. Like the motifs that Ahmad weaves into his playing, the effervescent returning themes, doubling back again and again with slight variations, this tea creates a myriad of subtle but intense feelings and moods—fiery stomach-qi, a happy, calm sensation that all is right (in this scary world) in the universe, a true lucid tea-drunkenness (a phrase that I usually think is the epitome of annoying geek-talk but is actually true here), an occasional tingling in the extremities.

A friend of mine stopped in an Indian grocery store this morning after our aikido practice to buy a large quantity of black teabags. I half-jokingly told him I could give him some real tea if he wanted, guessing what the response was going to be.

“I don’t want to mess with all that.. [gong fu tea, etc.], I don’t have time for that.”

This is a valid complaint, but for those of us involved in high complexity art forms, (the person in question is a 3rd dan in two martial arts, a collector of ephemera, and a PhD engineer), good tea seems like (or should be) such an easy sell. Compared to the rigors one puts oneself through in studying an art or discipline intensively, the huge costs involved for many hobbies (martial arts, airplane flying), the enjoyment of quality tea still seems like a bargain to me. We all have to rest. Good tea restores and rejuvenates, allows space for contemplation, and for me, is so excellent and damningly pleasantness, the way it twists and warps a tired or tense self back into a stable and creative position, that it seems to make life worth living as much any experience.

A fama had a wall clock, and each week he wound it VERY VERY CAREFULLY. A cronopio passed and noting this, he began to laugh, and went home and invented an artichoke clock, or rather a wild-artichoke clock, for it can and ought to be called both ways.
This cronopio’s wild-artichoke clock is a wood artichoke of the larger species, fastened by its stem to a hole in the wall. Its innumerable leaves indicate what hour it is, all the hours in fact, in such a way that the cronopio has only to pluck a leaf to know what time it is. So he continues plucking them from left to right, always the leaf corresponds to that particular hour, and every day the cronopio begins pulling off a new layer of leaves. When he reaches the center, time cannot be measured, and in the infinite violet-rose of the artichoke heart the cronopio finds great contentment. Then he eats it with oil, vinegar, and salt and puts another clock in the hole.

Julio Cortázar

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Buenos Aires is a city out of time. A place which seems to look to the past, be stuck within a certain slice of Iberia circa 1990, where steak and wheat is always on the menu, and which a gothic cemetery is among the principal attractions. It’s seen better days, but still seems to ride on its reputation as the “Paris of the south” (not much of an endorsement to me). So how about it?

Argentina is economically dysfunctional. Our Airbnb host, Diego, is an anomaly in Argentina—a quick moving entrepreneur who shrugs his shoulders when describing the byzantine difficulties of importing items into his country. Countless items that would arrive in two days to an American household can simply not be bought in Argentina, so he ships purchases to Brazil or Paraguay and moves them by land across the border, or buys electronics on trips to the US for use in his Airbnb apartments and brings them back himself. Inflation is 40% per year.

“We don’t really buy new clothes for several years,” shyly admitted his girlfriend Nati, a microbiome researcher.

Everyone changes money on the black market. The official exchange rate when we were there was around $8.5 pesos/$1 USD but the “blue dollar” hovered around 12.5. We traded our bills by asking the Chinese grocer next to us if he knew where we could change money, having been told he himself, of course, was a money changer.
“Yes, I can,” he said in Chinese, with merely a short glance.

Other money changers that had previously been open a week or two before were now shuttered.

One day Diego showed us a list of all the different unofficial exchange rates pegged by various institutions and rates. It was like looking at a multi-city bus timetable.

“The pink dollar, the blue dollar, then there’s the white rate..”

Books + Tank > Books or Bombs?

The military dictatorships are gone but tanks of books remain. It’s a literary city.

The Argentinean economic climate is a complex and longstanding matter, like the rhythms of fog in San Francisco,

“convoluted to the point of incomprehension,” said my friend Chris.

Like grey weather, there seemed to be a consistent gloom about many Porteños.

“You could be falling down in the street here and no would help you,” remarked Diego, whom, along with his girlfriend, is from the far Northeast, Misiones province, a short drive to Iguazu Falls.

Despite the large size of the city and its dense apartment buildings, I was often surprised by how dark it was at night. This lent an eeriness and occasional malice to the streets.

“Yes, they are empty, a lot of foreclosures,” Diego said, “Perfect for airbnb.”

My favorite anecdote from Diego concerned his attempt to start an online fishing rod business. Apparently fancy fishing rods are a big thing in Argentina, but like most of the economy, has typically been done in a traditional brick and mortar setting; he thought by doing an online business he could significantly cut costs and sell the rods for cheaper with the help of his brother. It seemed to be successful, but it didn’t last long; soon other fishing businesses were threatening him, asking him to raise his prices. They tried to find out his address, a deliveryman quit after fearing for his safety, and finally Diego and his brother decided it wasn’t worth it.

“Too easy to be killed here if someone wants you gone.”

No matter how sexy some people want to play up tango, beef, and dilapidated colonial buildings, constant inflation and a lack of security in one’s own currency are not great aphrodisiacs.

Not vegetarian-friendly or gluten-free

The Argentinean diet is pretty much steak, pizza, pasta, empanadas, and pastries. Tomatoes and peppers count as vegetables, there’s surprisingly little fruit given the relative proximity to subtropical climates, and plenty of Italian pastries.

A misleading picture

A misleading picture

And there’s gelato. The gelato is actually the best in the world I’ve come across, and deserves its own section, but for a non-meat loving gluten-free person, Buenos Aires sucks. Argentinean cuisine is unhealthy and I can’t imagine most locals possess a high diversity of intestinal microflora.

Spain, circa 1990? Lisbon 1996? Buenos Aires 2015?

Gelato from n-dimensional spacetime

What makes the gelato in Buenos Aires so good? Certainly it was one of the consistent highlights in an often-gloomy cityscape reminiscent of a Spanish or Portuguese city…25 years ago–right down to the mullets, faded coats, and 10 PM dinners. Most people didn’t even seem to bother coming out at night until 1 AM.

Our search for holy gelato led us to intense flavor and a particular creaminess that I have never seen in ice cream or gelato anywhere else. The texture was often vaguely reminiscent of soft serve frozen yogurt but much richer, and produced, I’m sure, by different mechanisms. The Pampas, infinite grazing ground for high quality cows is surely part of this, but is probably only a partial answer. We visited a few of the most acclaimed gelateria:

Volta, in Recoleta, with its sleek interior and hanging topiaries, would not be out of place in San Francisco, were it not for the somewhat old fashioned uniforms worn by the staff (a mark of better gelato places, we decided), and all gelato sold in styofoam containers in sizes up to a heart-shattering 2 kilograms. Each scoop was flavorful, creamy, and introduced me to that particular sticky quality unique to Argentinean gelato.

Jauja, was small and modern in the upmarket Palermo Soho neighborhood, with more casual and friendly staff, and we felt, more unique and even intense flavors than Volta. Also very creamy, but perhaps a bit too sweet. It had a local café feel to it, various middle-aged people in too many sweaters were talking in a heated manner in that 1990 Italian style. Very low tables.

Arkakao, saving the best for last, once again in Recoleta (that neighborhood of old wealth and slumbering hotel doormen we weren’t enamored with but couldn’t seem to escape), was like a fashion parlor cum gourmet café, an event onto itself. The staff certainly seemed to think so. Compared to many other places, this was one of the only that showed their gelato totally exposed in a refrigerated container (as is the norm in the US) rather than the submerged metal pots elsewhere in BA. Before going to Argentina, the Italian owner of a relatively new gelateria in Berkeley tried to convince me his use of these covered metal parts was part of the reason his gelato was supposedly superior to other offerings.

Clearly it is not the deciding factor. This was the best gelato I’ve ever eaten in my life. All flavors were intense, rich, extremely creamy, exactly the right amount of sweetness. If only we hadn’t waited to go until our last night.

No Camellia sinensis to save your life but plenty of yerba mate

A street vendor with her mate and thermos.

A street vendor with her mate and thermos.

Curing the mate is a delicate process. We picked up a nice one on our way out of the airport and then fretted for weeks that we were cultivating a new species of mold rather than a suitable vessel for brewing. I enjoyed this little leaf, a stimulating healthy green particularly valuable in a sea of morose concrete and car fumes (Buenos Aires has one of the lowest tree cover % per person of any major city in the world, less than hyper dense and developed Tokyo).

A homogenous city of mostly European descent

We saw virtually no one of African or Asian descent. Sometimes people, especially kids, stared at Cathy and called out, “chino!”

This ties in with the other strand of BA being a place stuck in the past in some similar but imagined continent—in its faded elegance, mirrors of other places that are sort of like what they purport to be, but not exactly, one can understand the forces that one foment a Borges, a labyrinth of self-similar parts and out of time quality that would appeal to a hermetically sealed writer. A Borgesian city.

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Some high quality street art interspersed with a lot of graffiti and dog poop
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Not intended as art

Not intended as art

Western fringes of BA, where I practiced aikido one night

Western fringes of BA, where I practiced aikido one night

On our last afternoon we wandered through the famous Cementerio de la Recoleta, an imposing place of grandeur and one of the top tourist attractions in Buenos Aires. The contrast with the surrounding blocky apartments and a luxury McDonalds across the street couldn’t have been stranger, and I felt an intense heaviness from being in this Parisian simulacrum patrolled by endless mangy cats.

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And then we went to Arkakao.

The best part of Buenos Aires?

Our wonderful Airbnb hosts, Diego and Nati! Seriously, we spent more time talking to them, sharing tea, enjoying delicious home made flan with dulce de leche, and eating steak than probably anything else we did in the city, especially on days when we didn’t leave the apartment until late afternoon (good luck going to bed before 2 AM).

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Gracias..but next time just take us to Misiones.

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