Kmise and Aklot ukuleles

I was somewhat skeptical when a representative from Kmise ukuleles contacted me recently, and offered to send me some of his company’s instruments to review. I had never heard of the company and never seen any of their instruments in music stores.

A bit of online searching showed them as a Chinese maker of modestly-priced instruments. Not just ukuleles, however: they offer a wider range of instruments and accessories (many are listed on Amazon), including singing bowls, harmonicas, kalimbas, u-bass, banjoleles, pickups, violin bows, effects pedals and more. (I plan to buy their U-bass to compare it to others I’ve had…)

Most of the Kmise ukulele line sells on Amazon for under $100 CAD, including many with a gig bag, strap, and tuner. That’s at the low end of a price range in instruments that can reach several thousand dollars at the upper reaches.

Their Aklot series (see the bamboo uke, below) is a bit more expensive than their other models, but not much. At that price, how good could they be? I asked myself. Well, I’d find out.

Kmise tenor and guitarleleI had not developed a good impression of most lower-priced ukuleles in the past. Most low-end instruments I’d previously encountered are mass-produced, with low-quality tuners and strings, poor action, poor intonation, mediocre sound. Fit and finish was not very good on those I had examined in the past. But I agreed to look the Kmise instruments over and review them.

A few weeks later, I received a mahogany tenor, a bamboo tenor (Aklot) and a mahogany guitarlele (a short-scale six-string guitar).

I was surprised – pleasantly so – by the build quality and the sound. While not super fancy, they were far better than anything at that price range I’ve seen in the past. I would have expected them to be selling for at least double and more what they list for, especially when they come with the gig bag and other items.

So let’s look at these three in a bit more detail.

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Baby, It’s Politically Correct Outside…

Double facepalmI must have travelled to another universe because when I awoke, the world had gone mad. Radio stations were pulling a popular, rather over-played, 74-year-old, playful holiday song because some folks thought it was about rape. Sexual assault. Or at least non-consensual sex. The media was full of Chicken Littles screaming that the cultural sky was falling if radio stations continued to play it. The song was subject of weighty opinions on editorial pages.

What is going on in this strange, politically correct and apparently unhinged universe?

Let me back up. Two items appeared simultaneously on my Facebook timeline this week: one was a video of a peacock strutting around, trying to win over a pea hen by flashing his tail at her. The other was news that Baby, It’s Cold Outside was causing such a furor that radio stations were banning it. But these Facebook items are actually two aspects of the same thing.

The song is a duet, a playful banter between a man and a woman about, yes, sex. But not sex as in explicit. Inferred, yes, perhaps implied, but never stated. And never forced. The peacock video is also playful banter, albeit wordless and nothing is forced.

There are a hundred or more shows on Netflix you can watch right now that include graphic nudity, sex and even rape that don’t even try to hide behind innuendo. The abysmally-written mommy-porn novel, Fifty Shades of Grey was graphically explicit – and so popular it sold more than 100 million copies worldwide. Sex and seduction are in the Bible – read the Song of Solomon! As far as I know, no one is having these banned or burned.

Is there some strange hypocrisy at work here? CBC writer Jessica Goddard wrote,

…nothing says “happy holidays” like the death of nuance and frantic institutional overreaction…
The accusation that Baby, It’s Cold Outside is about sexual assault is absurd unless you isolate the entire duet down to the lines “Say, what’s in this drink?” and “The answer is no.” That ignores the lyrics that suggest that same character internally wrestling with wanting to stay (“I wish I knew how / To break this spell,” “I ought to say ‘No, no, no sir’ / At least I’m gonna say that I tried”).

Baby, It’s Cold Outside is not pornographic or even bawdy. It’s about seduction and the age-old mating game. You know: the old tail-flashing peacock routine in the video a few tens of thousands shared without anyone being offended. You want bawdy, go listen to some madrigals or early Renaissance love songs.

If people were really kerfuffled about sexually explicit lyrics or misogynistic treatment of women, they’d have banned rap music years ago. No, this is unfathomably different.

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Astrology: millennials in search of woo hoo

Astology debunked“Astrology is not a science; there’s no evidence that one’s zodiac sign actually correlates to personality.” I was disappointed to read that line in a story in The Atlantic, a piece titled, “The New Age of Astrology: In a stressful, data-driven era, many young people find comfort and insight in the zodiac—even if they don’t exactly believe in it.

Disappointed not because it isn’t true – it is: astrology is woo hoo – but rather that writers still feel the need to state the obvious. It’s like a movie reviewer starting with “There’s no evidence that Batman is actually a real person.” Or a political columnist starting with “There’s no evidence Donald Trump can actually distinguish between truth and fiction.” Or a medical writer in an article saying, “There’s no evidence homeopathy actually works.” Some things are just so obvious they should not need to be repeated.

No one should ever have to remind others that astrology ISN’T a science. Or even an “alternate” belief because there’s no collective agreement on pretty much every part of it: hardly any two astrologers agree on interpretations, there are different types of charts and calculations used in different countries, the constellations are not the same as they were 3,000-plus years ago when astrology was first concocted, and constellations themselves are arbitrary associations of distant stars, not actual connections. Plus the whole thing was created before anyone knew about planets beyond Saturn, or the asteroids, or the moons of any planets.*

But sadly, what is evident to anyone with even a modicum of critical thinking is not always so for many people on social media, where simplistic memes – the digital equivalent of bumper stickers – often take the place of informed discussion and learned conversation. In part it comes with the declining IQ from people not reading longer articles, newspapers or books. And as the article’s author, Julie Beck wrote,

…astrology is perfectly suited for the internet age. There’s a low barrier to entry, and nearly endless depths to plumb if you feel like falling down a Google research hole. The availability of more in-depth information online has given this cultural wave of astrology a certain erudition—more jokes about Saturn returns, fewer “Hey baby, what’s your sign?” pickup lines.

Internet erudition is an oxymoron. It has allowed people to put words or terms into their vocabulary of which they have neither knowledge or understanding.

Words show up in memes in entirely the wrong use or context. Political terms like liberal, socialism, fascism and communism are all highly misused (especially, it seems, by Americans). GMO, health, natural, detox and chemical are frequently misused by diet-fad followers and “alternate healthcare” providers. Creationists dismiss evolution as merely a “theory” with no evident grasp of what a theory actually means in scientific terms.

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The Mummy, the remake and the re-imagining

The Mummy, 1931Nineteen thirty-two. The year Aldous Huxley’s novel, Brave New World, was published. The Great Depression was at its worst. Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Republican Pres. Herbert Hoover to become the American president in a landslide win. Gandhi went on a hunger strike. Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Eighty-four-year-old Paul von Hindenburg was re-elected president in April, defeating Adolf Hitler. Charles Lindbergh’s 20-month-old son was kidnapped from his New Jersey home. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the first scifi radio show was first aired. Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Fats Waller, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington all had hit songs.

And in 1932 Boris Karloff starred in the Universal Picture’s film, The Mummy. It was a dark, brooding film shot in black and white, rich in noir-ish shadows and implied threat. It was inspired in part by the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the alleged curse that carried (spoiler alert: it didn’t) – the opening of the tomb was a worldwide pop culture event even a decade later – and also possibly by a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Ring of Thoth (1890).

But oddly enough, it was also a love story, one that stretched out through millennia. The iconic mummy costume – therefore the monster – is seen only for a short time at the start of the film, making it less visually scary than some films in the genre. Karloff, shorn of his wrappings, plays a newly-resurrected human – still pretty creepy in a restrained, almost gentlemanly way. And yet there’s a certain sympathy in the movie for the monster who remains in love. Roger Ebert even called his performance “poignant.”

The 1932 version, seen today, is far from scary, and more artistic than you might expect from a monster movie. The monster-into-man transition turns it into more of a suspense thriller than fright film. Universal came back with more traditional monster roles for the mummy in a series of low-budget remakes in the 1940s (most starring Lon Chaney Jr), but they failed to win over audiences or reviewers.

Universal had had significant successes with its first two monster films, both released in 1931: Frankenstein (also starring Karloff) and Dracula. These two would go on to spawn several sequels, but The Mummy never had a real sequel, although several “re-imagined” Mummy films would be made from 1940 through to the 1970s. Other monsters would join the party in the subsequent years: The Invisible Man, the Creature From the Black Lagoon and many more.
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La Bohème at the Galaxy

La Boheme
Starving bohemian artists living in drafty Paris attics in the mid-19th century, struggling to produce their art, falling in and out of love, sharing and suffering, living and dying, all done while singing. That’s La Bohème in a nutshell.

I am embarrassed, even ashamed to admit I’ve never been to the opera. Not to a live performance that is. For someone who has long enjoyed opera as music, and has a fair collection of opera on CD, that’s inexcusable.*

I’ve seen a few of the “big” operas on video – I had Madame Butterfly on VHS and still have Boris Godunov and Tosca on DVD and I’ve had a few others (including operetta) – but before this weekend, I had only seen Bergman’s 1975 production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at a theatre. And that was back when it was current. That’s going to change.

This weekend we went to the Metropolitan Opera’s live broadcast of La Bohème at the local Galaxy theatre. And all I can say is wow. Three and a half hours that passed by like 10 minutes. The music, the sets, the voices… wow. Why hadn’t I done this sooner?

The sheer power of the presentation on the big screen is hard to describe. There’s a closeness that being at a live performance can’t provide. The cameras capture the actors in an intimate way that someone in the nosebleed seats (the kind I could afford) cannot see. Plus the intermissions provide a behind-the-curtain look at how the sets are constructed and moved into place, at how the backdrops are furled and unfurled, at how many people are involved in the performance who you never see on stage. In the theatrical version you have a sort of third-person-deity seat to see the performance unfold.

I have at least three versions of La Bohème on CD, and its major arias on several opera collection albums. I’ve heard it dozens of times. But it never moved me like this.

Wow. Just wow.

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Fire and Fury reviewed

Trump and BannonDysfunctional. Childish. Self-centred. Narcissistic. Ideologically myopic. Illiterate. Cranky. Capricious. Arrogant. Scheming. Petty. Ill-educated. No, I’m not writing about our local council (although, yes, all those words apply equally to The Block). These are some of the words that came to mind as I read Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.

Dysfunctional popped into my mind most often as Wolff described the lurching, staggering, fumbling and bumbling of Trump’s staff and family advisers after their unexpected – and for some unwanted – victory. (I know: curiously coincidental how that description also echoes our own council’s meandering, aimless and destructive governance, but let’s not talk about The Block right now…). Not that it’s surprising: the amount of political experience among the core group and family that stuck together through Trump’s campaign combined was less than an hour’s worth.

It’s like reading about a train wreck described in excruciatingly minute detail: the trajectory of every rivet and bolt as it shakes loose from the engine and flies off into space is chronicled, measured and examined. Or perhaps it’s better described as reading about the antics of an entire kindergarten class where cranky children fed on high-sugar treats are not given sufficient nap time.

And despite my initial expectations, the book is less about Trump than about his minions and the limpets who cling to him. While it’s not flattering about the Ignorati-in-Chief, it scorches the hangers-on. There’s a point made that American democracy could survive Trump and manage well enough if the White House had a competent, experienced, educated and literate staff of professionals to mitigate his inabilities. But with its cast of amateurs and grasping opportunists it hasn’t a chance.

I had already read much of what Wolff described online and in newspapers and magazines (such noteworthy publications as the Washington Post, New York Times, Maclean’s, Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and others which Trump labels ‘fake news’ because they fail to tug their collective forelocks and genuflect to his self-described “very stable” genius). The madcap antics, the sordid affairs, the flailing and failing of Trump’s staff are already as well documented as the president’s own erratic bumbling governance and noxious tweets. But I’ve not had it all served in a single dish before, nor had I been aware of the backgrounds of many of the players. That’s the strength and delight – and fright – of this book.

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