Thursday, June 30, 2011

Of Bards and Poets

In my misspent Russian youth, I passed more time in forests and tents than I did in civilization. And I think I hugged more guitars than I did people. Surprisingly, I drank more tea than vodka, which was an anomaly among the Russian bards.

The Russian bard movement goes back a long way, but it had certainly become one of the biggest underground political movements under the Soviet regime. The title “bard” could be almost synonymous with a rebel. A person walking down the street with a guitar always got a double look – a mixture of curiosity, respect, and anxiousness. People who played guitars had a tendency to write mutinous verses so contagious, the words spread through the country faster than television broadcasts.

In summer, the bard movement blossomed. Herds of young people fed up with the political status quo headed for the woods, trekking tents, sleeping bags, and sooty pots on their backs. And guitars. Every weekend, there was a bard festival somewhere, always clandestine, far from the big roads, and advertised only by word of mouth. Sometimes it was miles away from an in-the-middle-of-nowhere train station, or sometimes it was on a small island in the middle of a river, accessible only by canoes. There, in middle of the Russian woods, thick with mosquitos and stinging nettle, there were no eavesdropping devices, hidden microphones, or zealous neighbors. The only bugs you were exposed to were those that bit you but didn’t record your political jokes. Sitting on a wet log next to a campfire with a cup of tea sprinkled with grey ash for frosting, we sang songs about the idiocy of our apparatchiks, our wanderlust for the unattainable foreign lands, and the imminent fall of the Soviet colossus.

Until it finally fell.

The first few years in New York, I missed the bard movement so much, I timed my first back-to-Russia trip with my favorite festival. A few years later, I did it again. Then, over the course of the years, I slowly grew out of the movement, partially because I found other music and art forms I liked, and partially because there was not so much to rebel against. Yet my ears still tune up to the jingling melody of an acoustic guitar. There’s just something so philosophical and thought-provoking in its subtle strumming.

Americans pledged their negligence to electric guitars attached to mighty amplifiers. Where the Russians were quietly rebellious, the Americans protested with deafening authority. So I was surprised, impressed, and intrigued when at an open mike performance at eGarage, an indie theater in Long Island City, New York, Frank Giallombardo, a spoken word poet, walked up to the stage with a guitar that reminded me so much of the instrument of choice of my woodland adolescence. Even more amazingly, so did his song, a sarcastic ridicule of modern poetry – that has no poetry at all. It’s true, not everyone who claims themselves a poet is.

Frank was, and so here he is.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

King of Bongo Bong

Photo by Philippe Jimene
“Mama was the queen of the mambo, Papa was king of the Congo….I’m the king of bongo, baby, I’m the king of bongo bong.”

These whimsical opening lyrics to Manu Chao’s “Bongo Bong” song are set to music borrowed from the old Black Uhuru song, “Anthem.” I love it, along with other Chao songs. This song is one of the exceptions, but Chao sings mostly in French and Spanish. And while my understanding of those languages is limited, Chao’s music speaks to me, even when I don’t know what exactly he’s crooning about. It’s the music I crave on lazy, rainy days, occasionally as background music when I’m writing or generally chilling out.

Manu Chao was born in Paris in the early 1960s to Basque and Galician (Spanish) parents. He’s both a singer and songwriter, creating music that is punk, hip hop, ska, reggae, alternative, rock, pop, jazz, you name it. He infuses Latin salsa and flamenco, Algerian rai, French chanson, and Caribbean and African beats into his music. And he sings in a variety of languages – Basque, Galician, Spanish, French, English, Portuguese, Arabic, and Wolof (an African language spoken widely in Senegal). This amalgam of languages and genres gives him a distinctive sound that you won’t hear elsewhere. Sometimes he’s moody and mellow, other times cheerful and dancey, sometimes light hearted, and at other times political and serious. If it sounds like everything but the kitchen sink, give it a listen. (I’ve included links to some of my favorites at the end of this post.) His music offers something for everyone. He hasn’t made much traction in the English-speaking market, but his songs are well known in Europe and South America, many of them reaching the top 10 in France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and much of South America.

Chao started several bands with his brother and friends in the early to mid-80s that were received well and popular in Paris, but these bands didn’t take off in a big way. Then, in 1987, he, his brother, and a cousin formed Mano Negra, which may have been named after an anarchist group in Spain. On tour in South America, they performed out of a retired train. This band did well but eventually disbanded.

In 1995, Chao formed a new group, Radio Bemba Sound System, which gets its name from the communication system Cuban revolutionaries used. With this group, Chao really found his groove. He released albums both completely in Spanish and in French, including different styles of music on each. His Clandestino album includes bands from diverse backgrounds, such as Mexico’s Tijuana No!, Brazil’s Skank, and Argentina’s Todos Las Muertos, in the hopes of recreating the sounds from street music and the bar scene from those cultures. Chao injects political messages into some of his music, riffing on themes of immigration, ghettos, social and political issues, immigration, and injustice.

Punk and reggae historian, Vivien Goldman, writes that Chao is “one of the punkiest artists out there that I can think of.” And yet, his “inclusionary” style, as Goldman calls it, has helped propel Chao into one of the most successful distinctive sounds. Clandestino, for instance, won Best World Music Album in 1999 from France’s Victoires de la Musique awards.

And he branches out. The blind married couple from Mali, known as Amadou & Mariam, are also trailblazers in the Africas, blending Cuban, Syrian, Indian, and Dogon musical styles into their own popular music. Chao produced the couple’s 2004 album, Dimanche à Bamako. He also wrote a song, “Me llaman Calle,” for the 2005 Spanish film, Princesas, and won a Goya nomination for Best Original Song. Time magazine later named it one of the 10 Best Songs of 2007 (when Chao included it on an album he released that year), ranking it number 8.

Watch and listen to a few of his best-known songs:

Bongo Bang and Je Ne T'aime Plus


La Trampa, with Tonino Carotone (of Maldonado from Argentina)


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Carlos Vives - Doing It His Way

Photo by Brent
Music has always played an important part in my life. When I hear certain tunes, I’m transported to a time and place, just like it was yesterday. I have soundtracks for different occasions—Shakira for housework, tango for writing my current novel, and The Wiggles when I need the kids to calm down (hey, at least it’s better than Barney!). For the past 10 years, my summer soundtrack has been Carlos Vives, and it doesn’t look like that’s changing anytime soon. I do find it ironic that Carlos’s music represents summer to me, given that I first heard his songs in a nightclub in La Paz in the middle of a cold and stark Bolivian winter. But I’ve never been one for logic. 

Carlos Vives was born in Santa Marta, Colombia, in 1961. When his family moved to Bogota 12 years later, Carlos played in bars and cafes around the city to help the family make ends meet. In 1982, Carlos debuted in a telenovela (television soapie), and his acting career took off. His popularity as an actor grew, and in 1986, he released his first album, Por Fuera y Por Dentro (Outside and Inside). The music consisted of ballads and, unfortunately, was a major flop.

Undeterred, Carlos released a second album of ballads in 1987 (No Podrás Escapar de Mí - You Can’t Escape Me). This time Carlos’s music reached #30 on the Billboard Hot Latin Tracks, but the success wasn’t reflected in sales. Perhaps thinking three’s the charm, Carlos released a third album of ballads. Some of his songs were featured in telenovelas, but the album didn’t create any fireworks.

Carlos accepted an acting job in Puerto Rico in 1989, and took a break from his music career. Four years later, in 1991, he returned to Colombia and was cast in a series based on the life of composer Rafael Escalona. Escalona composed Vallenato music, traditional folk tunes that hail from the Caribbean region of Colombia.

As a side note, Vallenato was originally considered low-class music. It was a way for farmers to entertain themselves as they traveled from town to town trying to sell their cattle. As a result of their traveling, these farmers became unofficial messengers, informing people of news of their loved ones in far-off locales. The popularity of Vallenato slowly grew, and was helped along by Don Clemente Quintero, a man of high standing in the region. He played the music at his parties at the Valledupar Social Club, and the contagious rhythm was finally accepted by the upper class. 

Vallenato features three main types of instruments--the caja vallenata (a small drum played with bare hands), the guacharaca (a wooden stick with ribs that is played with a fork), and an accordion (an instrument of German origin that has three reeds per note). 

Vallenato impacted Carlos’s career in a big way. The telenovela was a hit, as were the songs Carlos sang for the series. He released two albums from this work, Escalona: Un Canto a la Vida (The Song of a Life) and Escalona: Vol. 2. A whole new world had opened up for Carlos, and he started to fuse Vallenato with rock, pop, and other ethnic rhythms from the Caribbean. In 1993, Carlos released an album of original work, Clásicos de la Provincia (Classics of the Province). While this work caused uproar amongst the traditionalists, Carlos’s music spread quickly and soon all of Latin America was singing along. 

The album won the Billboard Latin Music Award for Best Album, and was followed up by La Tierra del Olvido (The Forgotten Land), ensuring his continued success. Finally, the world was paying attention to Carlos Vives’s music and this was reflected in the ongoing sales of his albums. Since then, he’s continued to collect accolades, including his first Grammy Award for Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album in 2001 for Déjame Entrar (Let Me Enter).
Carlos now spends his time with his family between his homeland, Colombia, and Miami, USA. He continues to produce his unique fusion of traditional Colombian music with rock, pop, and Caribbean beats and, in my opinion, doesn’t tour anywhere near as much as I would like (ie, Australia!).

Often on gray days, I’ll put on a Carlos Vives track and before I know it, I’m dancing around the house in my own little world of sunshine. His music transports me to white, sandy beaches, palm trees, and clear, warm waters. Ah…

And of course, here’s some music to get you inspired to book a beach holiday!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Music Without Borders

Photo by Meelad
If I were to name an artist in any medium who most closely expresses my philosophy of life in his art, that person would be the Iranian singer/songwriter, Mohsen Namjoo. I’d give him the nickname: Artist Without Borders. Namjoo has spent his entire musical career breaking down the stylistic barriers that separate east and west, classical and modern, Iranian from the rest of the world. His is a music that belongs to every one of us, regardless of where we live, what language we speak, or what political or religious beliefs we hold.

It’s a pity the Iranian authorities can’t see the treasure they have in this brilliant artist, who now lives in exile. In 2009, an Iranian judge sentenced him to five years in prison for including verses from the Koran in one of his songs, stating that he’d “disrespected religious sanctities.” Namjoo made a public apology for any offense he might have caused to people of faith, but the sentence still stands.

Mohsen Namjoo grew up in Mashad, a city in northeastern Iran, and began studying music at the age of 12. He combines his training in Persian classical music and traditional folk styles with Western rock and blues, which became popular in Iran's underground music scene in the 1990s. His instrument of choice is the traditional setar, a Persian three-stringed lute, although he also plays the guitar. But he prefers to reassign roles by playing jazz riffs on the setar and Persian modalities on the guitar.

Namjoo’s debut album, Toranj, set the classical Persian poetry of Hafez and Rumi to the rhythms of American blues and jazz. The song, “Dah-e Shast,” on the other hand, pairs folk-rock with lyrics that deal with dark years of the 1980s when Iran was troubled by war, social and political oppression, and the struggle for the supremacy of religious ideology. Told from the point of view of a teenager, the song lists the events of that decade in a rather matter-of-fact way, leaving it up to the listener to read the real message between the lines: that those troubles of the past have never gone away.

In the 1990s, Namjoo’s blend of Persian sensibilities with Western musical styles got him kicked out of Tehran University. In 2010, this same multicultural blend earned him a fellowship at Stanford University. It’s little wonder that his first English-language single, released last year, is called “Strange Times.”

A 2007 article in the New York Times called Namjoo “the Bob Dylan of Iran,” presumably because of his political lyrics and the way he blends folk music with rock, blues, and jazz. But while Namjoo says he is flattered by the comparison, he also rejects it, stating that their musical preoccupations are entirely different. In any case, Namjoo doesn’t want his fans to go looking for political messages in his songs. For him, art always comes first.

By setting Persian poems written 800 years ago to blues music, a tradition that is little more than 100 years old, Namjoo doesn’t just mix and match musical styles and cultural traditions. He transcends time and place altogether to create an entirely new kind of music that is at home in both the east and the west.

See for yourself and check out these two videos then decide what Mohsen Namjoo’s music means to you.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: Persian Koofteh Berenji - Rice Kufta

Our guest this week is Azita Mehran, an Iranian-American blogger and cook who writes about Persian cuisine at Turmeric & Saffron. On her blog, Azita combines stories of her childhood in Iran with food lore, mouth-watering photos, and recipes she learned from her mother. She shares one of her grandmother’s treasured recipes with us today on Novel Adventurers.

Summer is officially here. For many years, this season signaled the beginning of our family's traditional summer trips to Tehran to visit my maternal grandmother, Khanoum Tehrani, a nickname that was given to her by my elder siblings based on her residential location. While these summer vacations offered major relief from the extremely hot summer days in my southern hometown, it was difficult not to have access to a nice pool, play outdoor games with friends, ride my bicycle freely, or hang out outside without my mother constantly calling me back into the house.

The first few weeks were always fun. I got to do things that I normally didn’t get to do in my small hometown: watching television late at night, scrapbooking with my uncle's array of foreign magazines such as Spiegel, Paris Match, and Life, visiting new places, shopping in big stores with my mother, and having ice cream or cafe glace with my older sister in some fancy uptown cafe in the evening.

However, soon the boredom would set in and we could hardly wait to pack our things and go back home. That was usually when I would turn to my grandmother for comfort and entertainment. She had a calm demeanor and a beautiful way of speaking and giving advice that to this day I find useful.

Khanoum Tehrani's house was very different from ours. The entrance to her old, three-story, brick house was through a long and narrow dalan (hallway), with two rooms on the right connected by a large folding glass door. There were a few steps down into the hayat (courtyard) with a howz (small pool) in the center and the ashpazkhaneh (kitchen) and hamam (bath) on the other side of the yard. Even though the house was small, the layout was extremely inconvenient for my grandmother, who had been suffering from debilitating rheumatoid arthritis for many years. She could hardly walk without assistance, and since her movements were limited, everything she ever needed was arranged and placed all around her bedroom/living room/kitchen.

One thing that she could still manage to do was expertly prepare meals in a meticulous manner and with a lot of patience. There were no faucets, running water, or a kitchen sink in the room. Her stove was a portable Aladdin kerosene heater. Her spices were placed on the built-in brick taghcheh (shelf) next to a large radio. I vividly remember the turmeric container with the yellow dusting around the edges and her cherished jar of ginger. There was a large leather chair in the room that she would use while graciously making tea or cooking. She prepared food with such joy and passion as if cooking for her family was her way of artistically expressing love and care at a time when it was one of the few things that she was still able to do.

This recipe is my tribute to my grandmother and all those warm days of summer that she made me feel welcomed and happy.


Makes about 15 koofteh

1 1/2 cups rice
2/3 cup yellow split peas
1 pound lean ground lamb or beef
3 eggs
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 bunch fresh flat leaf parsley, washed and finely chopped (1 cup packed)
1 bunch fresh dill, washed and finely chopped
1 bunch fresh chives or scallions (green parts only), washed and finely chopped
1 bunch fresh tarragon, washed and finely chopped
2-3 tablespoons chickpea flour
1 tablespoon tomato paste *optional
1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric
1/4 teaspoon powdered saffron dissolved in 2-3 tablespoons of hot water
Salt and pepper to taste

For the filling:

Barberries, raisins, fried onion, walnuts


In a large pot bring 4 cups of water to a boil on medium heat, add in the rice and 2 tablespoons of salt and boil for about 7 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Place yellow split peas and 4 cups of water in a medium-sized pot, bring to a boil, reduce heat, and cook for about 30 minutes on medium heat. If there's any liquid left, drain and set aside to cool.

In a large mixing bowl combine the rice, peas, ground meat, chopped vegetables, chickpea flour, 1 teaspoon turmeric powder, liquid saffron, salt and pepper to taste.

In a small bowl whisk the eggs and blend in well together with the rest of the ingredients. Take a handful or 1/4 of a cup of the mixture and shape into a ball. You may make a hole in the middle and stuff some barberries, raisins, walnuts and fried onions inside.

In a large pot, sauté sliced onions in 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil. When transparent, add 1/2 teaspoon of turmeric and minced garlic and sauté for another 2-3 minutes. Add in the tomato paste, stir well.

Pour 4-5 cups of water and bring to a gentle boil and one by one place each koofteh into the pot and cook for 50 minutes on medium to low heat. Taste and adjust the seasoning and add more water if necessary.  Do not cover the pot with the lid. You may place a colander upside down over the top.
Serve in a deep platter with yogurt, pickles, sabzi khordan (fresh herbs), and bread.


Thursday, June 23, 2011

Saveur Savors My Old-Time Favorite

A northern country with a long-lasting winter, Russia has never been known for an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables. When it snows nine months out of the year, baby greens are a rare commodity. Therefore, much of Russian cuisine is based on carbs and fats that can generate energy and warmth, pickled and salted produce that preserve well, and root vegetables that, if properly stored, can last through spring. A salad dish won’t have spinach sprinkled with lemon juice, but rather potatoes, carrots, pickled cucumbers,and hard-boiled eggs swimming in sour cream.

So would you ever think herring and beetroots go well together? Yes, when joined in a multi-layered, chilled cake with a slew of other unlikely ingredients. Russians are creative, and they give their creations interesting names – like Herring in Fur Coat (Selyodka Pod Shuboy)

Herring in Fur Coat is a winter favorite every Russian cook makes with his or her own twist. It is essentially a stratified cake of root veggies with barrel-salted fish buried underneath. It has always been my favorite too, although in the past ten years, I hardly ever made it and almost forgot the recipe. The salty raw fish didn’t take well in my American family and neither did the blood-red beets that make the colorful top. The picturesque, juicy Shuba was almost a thing of the past – until I was stunned to see its picture on the page of Saveur. I could barely believe my eyes, but the photo looked authentic, although it had a multi-colored striped top sprinkled with fresh chopped dill – must’ve been a nouveau, summer twist. Intrigued, I kept flipping the pages wondering how Saveur called my childhood dish until I found the recipe. It was called Selyodka Pod Shuboy. And it listed the right ingredients. Almost.

From grandma’s kitchen to Saveur’s pages! I knew it had to be an American writer with Russian heritage. And I was right.

Anna Gershenson, whose parents immigrated to the United States thirty-five years ago from Riga, Latvia, back then a Soviet republic and now a small country wedged between Russia and the Baltic Sea, had gone back to rediscover her heritage. And to write about Latvia’s people, markets, and food. Over the centuries, Latvia experienced many cultural influences – from German to Polish and from Russian to Swiss. The Herring in Fur Coat has definitely been the Slavic legacy.

So without further ado, here’s the recipe. Not Saveur’s, but my own. Apparently, the Riga folk decided to add Granny Smith apples to it, but I beg to differ. There were no Granny Smith apples in Russia, and certainly not amidst the eight-foot tall snow piles in January.
2 Large carrots, boiled
3 Large potatoes, boiled and peeled
2 Medium-sized beets, boiled
3-4 eggs, hard-boiled
1/2 onion, finely chopped
2-3 filets of salted herring (can be marinated in oil and vinegar)
1 ½ cup sour cream
1 ½ cup mayonnaise
Salt to taste.

Grate the vegetables and the eggs. Combine mayo and sour cream in a mixing bowl, set aside. Chop the herring and place it in the bottom of a bowl, cover with onions. Add a layer of grated potatoes, cover with 1/4 of the mayo-cream dressing. Add a layer of carrots, cover with 1/4 of the dressing. Add a layer of eggs and another 1/4 of the dressing. Make sure the veggies soaked through; otherwise Shuba will taste a little dry. Finally, top it with grated beets and spread the remaining quarter of the dressing on top, which will give it that yummy reddish color. Variations include adding a layer of walnuts and, according to Saveur, a strata of apples to the mix.

To create especially impressive, tall, and memorable Shuba – double the layers and use the dressing to draw snowflakes on the top. I usually did.

Like the Russian winter, Shuba is best experienced chilled.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Salad Days

Among the many amazing legacies my mother in-law has left us are a small collection of notebooks she’d written over the years, notebooks filled with unique, varied, and scrumptious Indian recipes I’d often never tasted or even heard of till she introduced them to me. 

And as with most great cooks, nearly all her recipes came with a lovely, long-ago story, maybe about the person who taught her the dish or the esteemed dinner guest she prepared it for the first she had them over. Sounds mundane, but in her retelling, there was magic. As she compiled the recipes, I asked her to jot down some of these stories so I could tell my own kids when they start expressing their own creativity in the kitchen.

Somehow, one recipe is missing from these notebooks, but it’s the one I can’t forget since I make it so often. It’s a type of raita, or an Indian salad mixed with yogurt, and while my mother in-law certainly didn't invent this dish, she taught me how to make it.

Raita itself is a common dish, basically any combination of chopped raw vegetables (or even fruit) mixed with plain yogurt and  seasoned with salt, but there are literally endless variations of this concept. The most common vegetables used are tomatoes, cucumber, and onions, but I’ve seen versions with almost anything – pineapple, carrots, beets, apples, green chilies, raisins. Seasoned powdered spices, such as chaat masala or chili powder, can be sprinkled in with the salt. Sometimes, a blend of whole spices (cumin seeds, for instance) is fried separately and mixed in. Cilantro and/or mint may be chopped and added in or garnished over the top. Another version of raita that I enjoy includes corn and pomegranate kernels with a garnish of mint and a dash of salt, sugar, and coriander powder.

But the one I’m sharing this week, an eggplant raita, is my favorite. I seriously crave this dish nearly all year round, but most especially now, in the hot summer months, as a quick, cool accompaniment to almost any meal, especially kebabs, or as a dip. In Konkani, we call this dish “bujjee” (at least that’s the phonetic spelling), or "bajji," which is also the word we use for anything mashed, edible or otherwise.

Here's how you make it.

First, you’ll need the following (approximated quantities):

1 large eggplant
1–1.5 cups of yogurt (I also like to add in a couple spoons of sour cream)
1/3 cup finely chopped red onion
1.5 Tbsps grated ginger
a few pinches of finely chopped cilantro (optional and to be added at the very end)

for the seasoning:
1 Tbsp of oil
1 green chili, slit down the middle, seeds removed
3 pods of garlic, peeled and just slightly crushed to release the juices
combination of whole spices: 3/4 tsp black mustard seeds and ½ tsp of cumin seeds
10-12 curry leaves (optional, but if you want to try this, you’ll find it in the refrigerator section of any local Indian grocer)


Cut some slits into the eggplant then place it on a hot grill or in a preheated broiler for about 30-45 minutes. I use a baking dish with sides when I use the broiler because of all the oil that’s released. Keep turning the eggplant, every 15 minutes or so, until the eggplant starts to collapse. When it’s cool enough, scrape the flesh out of the skin, mash it in a bowl with the back of a fork, then combine ginger, onions, yogurt, and about a teaspoon of salt. (I mix in some of the released oils from the baking pan too.) You’re looking for the consistency of a medium-thick dip, so add additional yogurt or sour cream in case it’s too thick.

Separately, in a small sauce pan, heat the oil on medium heat. When the oil is good and hot, add first the mustard seeds – and as soon as it splutters (almost immediately), add the cumin seeds, green chili, garlic pods, and curry leaves. Stir for about 30 seconds  –  or just long enough to soften the pieces of garlic and chili and release the aromas of the whole spices  – then remove from heat.

Pour the contents of the sauce pan into the eggplant mixture and stir. If you’re using the chopped cilantro, mix it in or garnish just before serving. (Note, the curry leaves aren’t meant to be eaten, only to flavor the dish, so you can either remove them before serving or pull them out as you eat.)

If any of this sounds complicated or if you have trouble finding any of the seasonings easily, no worries. You can swap out most of these ingredients, omit what you don’t have, or skip the ginger and/or onions if you don’t care for them. The broiled eggplant, yogurt, and maybe the salt are the only must haves here, with any variation you can think of. 

That said, I dare you to make it my way and not eat the whole bowl before it hits the dinner table.