Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘world’

02 AUGUST, 2011

Rare Early Photographs of Musicians Around the World


Playing the hurdy-gurdy, or why African-American jazz bands were banned in Australia until 1954.

Music is one of humanity’s oldest and strongest forms of social glue, yet our collective memory has retained precious little of music’s communal history outside the Western tradition and before the days of rock concerts. Collected here are some fascinating archival images of music-making from around the world and across time, culled from several excellent Flickr sets compiled by musician Sam Bennett.

Quartet of Musicians in Meiji-era Japan

Okinawa Soba posted several CC licensed stereoimages by T. Enami and others documenting life in late 19th and early 20th century Japan (the Meiji period). The original image, circa 1901 and by an unknown photographer, is presented for parallel viewing and depicts a quartet of Japanese musicians. It is but one of many fascinating stereo compositions. This animated gif version exploits motion parallax to give a stereo illusion without eyestrain, to see what the photographer envisioned.

Dancing Dervishes, Cairo

Half of a stereoview (NPG, Berlin ca. 1910)

Village orchestra of Ruthenian and Jewish musicians

Verecke, Bereg County, 1895

Chinese band postcard

Hari Dasu, India. c. 1900?

Hand captioned 'Indian Juggler,' but subsequently identified as Hari Dasu


NYPL photographs and prints of Egypt and Syria


Photograph by Buchsbaum Gyula - Debrecen

Mexican picnic

Photo by Hugo Brehme, Mexico, D.F.

Street musicians

Photograph shows two men, sitting on bales of hay and playing instruments outside a barn or stable. One man plays guitar and the other plays a bowed instrument similar to a cello; both men simultaneously play kazoos.

Real photo postcard

Verso reads: 'This is myself and my youngest brother Bert. We had our heads clipped and then shaved and look like old men. The side view is my self.'

Fi. Musician? (LOC), ca. 1910-1915

Street musician playing a hurdy-gurdy

St. Marks Place

Photograph by James Jowers, 1968

The Colored Idea Band of Sonny Clay arrives in Sydney, 1928 / Sam Hood

The band entered Sydney Harbour playing their newly composed 'Australian Stomp' on deck, with their dancers performing. After good reviews, the Truth newspaper organised for the band to be raided. They were found with Australian women and deported. African American bands were banned from visiting until 1954. The Library has photographs of the Louis Armstrong tour, the first Afro-American entertainer to visit after the ban was lifted, and of the Harlem Blackbirds in 1955, the first Afro-American group to visit.

For more archival fascination, be sure to see these collections of vintage photographs of ballet dancers from the 1930s-1950s, lantern slides of Egypt in the early 1900s, and hand-colored images of life in early-20th-century Japan.

via MetaFilter

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06 JULY, 2011

Fuzz & Fur: Japan’s Peculiar Subculture of Fur-Suit Mascots


What ancient Japanese castles have to do with costumed gadget-sellers and the legacy of anime.

It’s no secret I have a soft spot for children’s books, especially ones with a grownup spin. So I love Fuzz & Fur: Japan’s Costumed Characters — a quirky compendium of Japanese fur-suit mascots by Tokyo-based designer and illustrator duo Edward and John Harrison. The costumes, known as kigurumi in Japan, have been used to promote anything from bridges and castles to water purification plants to the police to, most notably, prefectures.

Illustrator Jun Miura eventually coined a new word, Yuru-kyara, to classify this new breed of characters — from Yuru, which means “loose” or “weak,” and kyara, the word for “character,” to describe the mascots as somewhat imperfect or non-serious, an eerie intersection of the age-old Japanese love of anime and contemporary marketing tactics.

Fuzz & Fur features photographs of over 100 kigurumi, each profiled with text that explains the mascot’s origins, its likes and dislikes, and its unique personality.


A kigurumi into kigurumi, this green bear loves to collect hats. Each one reflects one of Nagano’s many specialities, his collection includes a chestnut, persimmon, mushroom, lettuce, soba and wine. Arukuma, quite possibly the cutest kigurumi is the mascot for East Japan Railway and wants tourists to explore the beautiful outdoors of Nagano. His name combines the words 'aruku' ('walk') and 'kuma' ('bear').


The mascot for Hikone Castle is probably the most famous yuru-kyara EVER. People travel to the castle not to see the beautiful grounds or explore the castle, but to meet the samurai cat Hikonyan, who visits the castle four times a week. His name combines Hikone and nyan, the Japanese onomatopoeia for a cat’s meow. The cute cat wears a 'kabuto' (samurai helmet) with huge horns similar to the one Ii Naokatsu wore in battle. Ii Naokatsu was a Japanese daimyo during the Edo period who completed the construction of the castle and also said to have escaped being struck by lightning thanks to a beckoning cat.


'Ikubee' is 'lets go' in the dialect of Aomori and the name of The Aomori Destination Campaign’s mascot. The large blue fairy supposedly travelled all over Japan before finally settling down in his favorite prefecture. He’s modelled on the letter ‘A’ which of course stands for Aomori. He’s the colour blue because the first kanji in Aomori means blue and on his head is an apple blossom illustrating the flower symbol of the prefecture.

Sasebo Burger Boy

After WWII the American Navy took over parts of the base in Sasebo, Nagasaki. Soon after, enterprising Sasebo citizens started making and selling burgers to cater to the appetites of the American sailors stationed there. With its long tradition of homemade burgers Sasebo has become famous all over Japan. Takashi Yanase the king of characters famed for creating Anpanman designed the mascot.


Even the ski resorts in Japan get in on the kigurumi action. Kunio a seasoned skier is the mascot for Kunizakai Kougen snow park a resort in Takashima, Shiga. Kunio started working in one of the restaurants but was quickly promoted to become the mascot for the resort. His interests include, snowboarding, ice cream and girls (in that order).

Fuzz & Fur comes from — naturally — my friends at Mark Batty Publisher and does for kigurumi what Drainspotting did for Japan’s peculiar culture of storm drain graffiti.

Images and captions by Edward Harrison

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17 JUNE, 2011

Altered Focus: Exploring Burma’s Political Regime via Skateboarding


What human rights have to do with the human desire to glide on skate ramps.

In 2009, four British blokes — James Holman, Alex ‘Pas’ Pasquini and Ali Drummond — set out to explore an unseen side of Burma, officially known as Myanmar, though an uncommon lens: skateboarding. The result was Altered Focus — a wonderful cross-genre documentary that captures everyday life in Burma through locals’ reactions to skateboarding. The film remixes archival footage of protests with skateboarding scenes across the cities of Yangon and Mandalay, exposing the complexities of the political regime and civic life in Myanmar through the seemingly simple vehicle of skate culture.

It’s not uncommon for people to come away from a trip to Myanmar thinking, ‘Yeah that place wasn’t so bad, people were smiling all the time, everyone seemed happy, I don’t know what all the fuss is about’. Well there rightly is a lot fuss and you won’t find the reason behind all of it from a trip to Bagan or Inle Lake. All one needs to do is take a short mo-ped ride out of one of the small towns around Mandalay and you might well come across people in chains digging up the road and officials with whips. Forced labor happens in Myanmar everyday but generally not in the places the government will let you access easily, if at all. You can still find it though if you stray only a little off the path. However incomplete this film may be, I hope we will at least be able to show people a side of Myanmar they didn’t already know about.” ~ Ali Drummond

The beautiful 19-minute documentary — filmed on DVCAM and Super 8mm, which gives it a warm glow appropriately akin to that of Locals Only — is now available for free online in its entirety, an absolute treat that will make you uneasy, make you smile and make you see this misunderstood culture with new eyes.

If this gave you the urge and urgency to dig deeper, you won’t go wrong with Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s Prisoner of Conscience — the engrossing and fascinating story of the Nobel laureate celebrated as one of the world’s most notable political activists against tyranny and genocidal violence.

HT The Daily What

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09 JUNE, 2011

Power: Platon’s Portraits of World Leaders


A geopolitical time capsule, or how to get Mahmoud Abbas and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad an inch apart.

World leaders are a curious bunch. Among their traits one might list egotism, empathy, genius, oblivion, and a whole host of other adjectives; which is why looking at their faces makes for such a fascinating study. Power: Portraits of World Leaders, out a few weeks ago from Chronicle Books, is a one-of-a-kind compilation of precisely those inscrutable features. Power collects 150 such beautiful images by photographer Platon of the men and women – well, mostly men – that hold the reigns of regimes and republics across the globe.

With an introduction by New Yorker editor David Remnick, the book captures a singular moment in world history. Indeed, one might argue, an historical inflection point, since the image of President Barack Obama included in Power was taken during his election campaign. Platon took all of the photographs of international leaders within a 12-month period from 2008-09 at the United Nations, and his stunning pictures tell a story of the alliances, rivalries, and subjects of our time.

I wanted to do two things: I wanted to show the human experience of what it’s like to meet someone, up-close and personal. We see all these heads of state and government on podiums making big powerful speeches, but we never see them as human beings. The second thing was I wanted to get a sense of community. I wanted to show what the collective spirit is like. There are strained relationships; there are strong alliances; in some cases there are even conflicts.” ~ Platon

Power stands in especially interesting counterpoint to a book featured on Brain Pickings earlier this year, Bureaucratics. Where that work turned its lens on the lives of mid-level functionaries in our political systems, Power is interested in the very top of the order. Platon’s photos are also compelling when compared to two other favorite projects, The World of 100 and 7 Billion, because of how non-representative his almost entirely male, similarly aged group of subjects is when compared to the actual global population.

My portrait project is not political; it’s human. Every single person has brought something special and unique and, I hope, honest to the pictures. You put all the pictures together and I think it will give us a sense of what it was like to live in these times. This is the global personality of the power system. And as we leave the time that’s recorded in the book, we stand back. We start to analyze it historically. What happened? Who was in control? That’s what this book is about.” ~ Platon

Three years in the making, Power provides a singular opportunity to contemplate the people and predilections of our contemporary age. And for commentary on the photos from Platon, check out his portrait gallery on The New Yorker‘s website.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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26 MAY, 2011

Cold War Wonderland: Photographing the East/West Divide


What Soviet babushkas have to do with the fall of the Roman Empire and the Egyptian Revolution.

Jason Eskenazi grew up in Queens during the peak of the Cold War, bombarded by the era’s typical propaganda about “The Evil Empire” on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Convinced that reality must be less black-and-white than what the Reagan administration was making it up to be, Eskenazi took off from his day job as security guard at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and spent a decade documenting life in the former Soviet Union in stunning black-and-white photographs, collected in Wonderland: A Fairy Tale of the Soviet Monolith. The result is an almost surreal, anachronistic, poetic portrait of a culture seemingly frozen in time, exuding an odd yet alluring symmetry between beauty and tragedy.

There were all these things from 50 years ago, and everything looked like the photography that I was brought up on.” ~ Jason Eskenazi

Army Base, Karagandar, Kazakhstan, 1998

Image courtesy of Jason Eskenazi via NPR

Holiday, Shutilova, Russia, 2000

Image courtesy of Jason Eskenazi via NPR

Caspian Sea Baku, Azerbaijan, 1997

Image courtesy of Jason Eskenazi via NPR

Young Sailors Club, Kostrama, Russia, 2000

Image courtesy of Jason Eskenazi via NPR

Farm Milkmaid, Northern Kazakhstan, 1998

Image courtesy of Jason Eskenazi via NPR

Space Museum, Moscow, 1998

Image courtesy of Jason Eskenazi via NPR

Waltz Competition, Moscow, 1996

Image courtesy of Jason Eskenazi via NPR

Hill of Crosses, Lithuania, 2000

Image courtesy of Jason Eskenazi via NPR

Images via NPR

This month, Eskenazi, now a Fulbright Scholar, is setting out to create an ambitious companion narrative to WonderlandThe Black Garden, a fascinating look at the East-West divide that seeped into culture long past the end of the Cold War explored through the lens of mythology, from the Trojan War, to the fall of the Roman Empire, to the Ottoman conquest of Europe, to today’s post-9/11 conflicts in the Middle East and the revolutions in Egypt and Libya. And he’s funding it on Kickstarter.

It’s a truly inspired project, equal parts ambitious and needed, so please join me in supporting it.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

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