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January 03, 2008 - Image 11

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The Michigan Daily, 2008-01-03

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The Michigan Daily - michigandaily.com

Thursday, January 3, 2008 - 3B

The best of
the best ofs

Keeping off
the grid
ManagingArts Editor
There are always, without fail, shouts of
protest when year-in-review lists crop up like
fungus this time of the month. Everyone has
a favorite band or singer and everyone knows
critics, and their lists can be as arbitrary as for-
tune cookies or horoscopes. There are always
shouts of"no fair!" and "these lists blow." Year-
end lists never get it all right. They're not sup-
posed to. They are struggles between the old
and the new; what is hot and what has been
hot; and however widespread knowledge a
critic (or group of critics) has.
I'm not sure if I've successfully masked my
intention - pushing on you my own indignant
"no fair!" Regardless, the show must go on.
On the stand is Extra Golden's second album,
Hera Ma Nono, which dropped in October.
The half-Kenyan, half-DC band's version
of benga - traditional Kenyan music with
electric guitars, pedal boards, funk, pop and
dancerock - is some of the best stuff of the
year, hands down.
We don't usually editorialize on our Arts
pages, but we find it pretty awesome that
Barack Obama, junior senator from Illinois
and a Democratic presidential candidate, is a
key figure in Extra Golden's history.
In 2006, the band was trying to make it to
the United States to tour and eventually return
to the studio. It took the string pulling of none
other than the charismatic Obama (who is also
half-Kenyan) to get the band into the States.
One of the group's original singer-songwrit-
ers/guitarastist, Otieno Jagawasi, succumbed
to liver disease nearly one year after the group's
first record was recorded in2005. (Thatrecord,
Ok-Oyot System, is a warm tableau of afrobeat
rhythm sections, reggae and rock guitar and is
nearly as good an album as Hera Ma Nono, if
significantly rougher in production). The band
members were determined to bring Otieno's
tracks to the public. They recruited Opiyo
Bilongo, a prolific benga musician, and looked
to the States to jump-start their career. Once
here, they secluded themselves in some hin-
terland hovel in Pennsylvania and reappeared
with Hera Ma Nono: an epic campfire of love
for their deceased friend.
They went on a short American tour, and
luckily I caught them at Detroit's Bohemi-
an National Home a year ago, where there
couldn't have been more than 15 people. With
few bodies, the venue was even more cavern-
ous (it's a huge auditorium), the drums full of
natural reverb and nuance. The group's live
music is as tightly woven as it needs to be, deri-
vations from the studio versions unforced and
Maybe unforced is the best word to start

Year-end book lists frustrate me.
They're published reminders ofthe
thousands of new pages I didn't
have time to read because I was
busy analyzing "The Kite Runner"
for a course, or finishing half-read
novels from the year before. (Or, to
be honest, because I was perusing
friends' - and friends of friends'
- b o choices on Facebookrind'
But I read the lists all the same;
from the New York Times Book
Review's 100 Notable Books of the
Year to the Literary Review Bad
Sex in fiction
short-list, the
latter really
not as racy as
it is confusing.
Lists arriving
earlier in the
year provide
some time to
procure books KIMBERLY
to read over CHOU
break in a post-
finals, post-family holiday stupor.
But the ones that come a little
later, at the beginning of the new
year, more or less suggest mate-
rial for plane rides and weekends
before the endless game of catch-
up begins again. For those of you
especially crunched for time - or
spending a lot of it on that devil
social networking site - here's a
short list of some bigger, as well
as more obscure best-ofs, to scan
during the first lecture of this
For bad sex, on paper: The Lit-
erary Review's "Bad Sex" award
The organizers call it the UK's
"most dreaded" literary prize, and
reading the parts that inspired the
great works to be nominated for
"Bad Sex" can be a truly dreadful
but also quite funny exercise. Try
historical figures singing of "the
ultimate triangle, whose angles
delve to hell but point to para-
dise" or - worse - "The Hound
com(ing) to life. Right in her
mouth" (from Christopher Rush's
"Will" about young Shakespeare
and Norman Mailer's "The Castle
in the Forest," respectively). When
awards were announced, Mailer
became the first author to take the
honor posthumously. But the other
unfortunate sex scenes are worth
a look, too. The short-listed pas-
sages, available online on the The
Guardian's website, include robot
sex ("The Stone Gods" by Jean-
nette Winterson), sex between
two extremely overweight people
giving "the smell of asparagus and
related greenery" ("Absurdistan"
by Gary Shteyngart), and some
extended metaphors about birds
singing Mozart ("Girl Meets Boy"
by Ali Smith). Note: Ian McEwan's
"On Chesil Beach," while making
standard top tens and the Booker
Prize shortlist, was longlisted
For simply agreeing with your
favorite pundits: Slate.com "The
Best Books of2007"
Slate polled a number of its
editors and regular contributors
for their personal favorites. As a
result, readers get two memoirs
tied to Islamic fundamentalism
("The Islamist" by British author
Ed Husain, about his personal
experiences with radical Islam,
and "Infidel" by Ayaan Hirsi Ali,
which has sparked all sorts of con-
troversy for the Somalian expat).
There are a number of books also
on the standard top tens - like
Denis Johnson's Vietnam-inspired

"Tree of Smoke," and Ha Jn's
"A Free Life" - a science book or

two and a couple that weren't pub-
lished last year at all (but Slate edi-
tors seem to do what they want).
Slate's architecture critic Witold
Rybczynski recommends famous
urbanist Jane Jacobs's "The Death
and Life of Great American Cities,"
published in 1961 - an especially
interesting read if you ask, asRyb-
czynski does, how the book holds
up, looking at the slow "deaths" of
certain great American cities since
"Death and Life's" publication.
For tastes that are beyond me
(but I know they mean a lot to
other people so here it is): Publish-
ers Weekly, Top Manga of 2007
While looking for Publishers
Weekly's best of the year, I found,
instead, its suggestion of ten titles
that made 2007 a "year to remem-
ber" in manga, or the Japanese
comic form. In tribute to Junot
Diaz's "The Brief Wondrous Life
of Oscar Wao," which has made
the New York Times's 100 Notable
Books list as well as my own list
for 2007, here's the top five of the
comics that hero Oscar would have
5. "Incredible Change-bots" by
Jeffrey Brown - "American mecha
A la Transformers as interpretedby
Jon Stewart," the trade rag says.
4. "Suppli" by Mari Okazaki
- the struggles of 20-something
Japanese career women, in comic
3. "MPD Psycho" by Eiji Otsuka
and Sho-u Tajima - According to
PW, "violent by necessity."
2. "Town ofEveningCalm, Coun-
try of Cherry Blossoms" by Fumiyo
Kouno --" A reminder of where
manga came from, and the condi-
tions it grew out of."
L "Tekkon Kinkreet: Black and
White" by Taiyo Matsumoto - a
coming-of-age story about street
kids and, apparently, the best of
the year.
For the thinking reader: The
Economist magazine's books of
the year 2007, fiction and mem-
oirs. McEwan's "On Chesil Beach"
makes this list (for good reasons
and not for weird fornication,
though the book is about an imper-
fect wedding night). So does the
seventh and final Harry Potter
book, and Michael Chabon's "The
Yiddish Policemen's Union," which
didn't really get stunning reviews,
but the Economist seems to like it.
The premise is great: What would
happen if instead of Israel, the
Jewish homeland "is a 60-year
lease on a dodgy bit of Alaska"?
For further consideration:
The New Yorker music critic
Alex Ross unpacks the last century
through classical music in "The
Rest is Noise: Listening to the
Twentieth Century." And Oliver
Sacks's "Musicophilia" teaches us
about music and its effects on the
brain. Bothhavegarneredthumbs-
up (with Ross's tome winning him
a spot on the New York Times'
top-ten overall this year). But what
about Carl Wilson's investigation
of the Celine Dion phenomenon in
"Let's Talk About Love: A Journey
to the End of Taste"? Wilson tries
to explain her popularity, conjec-
tures that hating Celine is not an
aesthetic choice as much as it is
an ethical one, and reveals a few
things that may make you question
your favorite producers: Timbal-
and and Prince are both fans - fig-
ure that one ?at.
Chou only had time to write
this heacuse she deactivated

from Facebook. E-mail her your
picks atkimberch@umich.edu

Barack Obama totally loves these guys.
with when talking about Extra Golden. Benga
music co-opts Western instruments onto an
existing, non-Western musical frame of refer-
ence. The snare hits fall outside the 4/4 grid
we're so accustomed to - instead of holding
down beats 2 and 4 of a measure, they alternate
between the 3 and the 4. So when do you nod-
your head? Snap your fingers? Trust this music,
westerners. There are so many poly-rhythms
(two or more different rhythms overlapping
each other) that your bobbing head is bound to
hit one correct beat or another. It invokes the
same type of eternal head nodding that reggae
is so good at creating.
begins with cyclical guitar and vocal melodies.
It quickly relaxes into a pocket groove of bass
with the snare on the back beat. And once this
sinks in, the song "outros" for over three min-
utes with a massive, overdriven rhythm gui-
tar riff and driving beat. At a little over eight
minutes, the song is comfortable in its own
existence. There is no head or chorus. It's an
effortless progression. The production on the
entire album is such that dramatic changes
don't rely on simply raising the master vol-
ume control. Far from compressed and largely
similar to its first album, Extra Golden's tonal
dynamics are near perfect on this track and
Extra Golden also uses more straightfor-
ward time signatures - where they'll leave
you agape is how they manipulate them.
They open the album with "Jakolando." A
hardline funk beat backs up the acoustic
guitars, until the guitars and the whole band
chime in for the uplifting chorus. They treat
their jams with origami delicateness, and
soon their groove unfolds into a breakdown
- then transformed once more by a slower

backbeat; guitars with light vibratos; syn-
copated bass and snare; and flutter picking
from the rhythm guitarist. Stacked harmo-
nies burn, then fade overly long.
The band is patient. The drums are usually
a song's aggressive counterpoint: the high hat
always in motion, the bass drum falling out-
side western rhythm, the snare reigning it all
in as the back beat while the guitars continue
to softly mingle in the background.
Lyrically, Extra Golden switches between
English and Kenyan. The liner notes are less
lists of actual lyrics and more sketches of each
track's context. The band's vagueness never
suffers, though. Its aesthetic is wedded to
rhythm and melody is their undiluted forms.
There are drums, bass, vocals, percussion and
an idea, an emotion - less is more. The band's
once conceit to studio flourish arrives on the
album's final song, the title track.
Essentially the entire song is an outro, a
harmonic vamp on a single verse. The guitars
double thevocals atatimes, riffing in campfire
sedation elsewhere. Oyango Wuod Omari is
on drums, keeping the meandering guitars in
place. He's also on lead vocal. Near the song's
final phase (the outro to the outro), a buzz
starts somewhere low in the mix, growing
slowly under Omari's narration until it erupts
as a euphoric synth-trumpet line, breathlessly
on loop as the song eventually, painfully fades
out. It's perhaps as powerful an end as could be
At one pointinthe track,Omaricalls out"ok-
oyot system," the title of the band's first album
with Otieno. Roughly translated, it means, "it's
not easy." It's a small phrase of resignation that
bears the weight of the band's past. But it's sad-
ness countered with elation. Few bands can do


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