About Me

I ramble about a number of things - but travel experiences, movies and music feature prominently. See my label cloud for a better idea. All comnments and opinions on this blog are my own, and do not in any way reflect the opinions/position of my employer (past/current/future).

24 February 2015

Hamad International Airport

The newly opened Hamad International Airport in Doha is very impressive. It is not fully operational, and it has not yet become the shopping mall (like Dubai) but it is quite clear what the intention is! It does have some great facilities, including free WiFi, media stations, kids play areas and even a large teddy bear installation. As a functional mass transit hub, it is quite efficiently designed but it is not yet in the league of Singapore.

Migrant Workers

Since Qatar won the right to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022; there has been a lot of focus on migrant workers building the stadiums - and generally migrant workers in the Gulf. Migrant workers are prominent in almost every sphere of Qatari life - on landing at the airport, the first Qatari I met was the immigration officer; and thereafter the policeman at the front of the closed Museum of Islamic Art. In between, flight attendants, airport attendants, shop attendants, hotel staff and even the majority of shop keepers in the souq were migrant workers.

The hotel staff were almost all Filipino. The driver for my transfer back to the airport worked for a hotel in the Philippines before coming to Qatar 3 years ago. He didn't seem to be particularly happy - his salary is not much more, the costs of living in Qatar is high, and he hasn't seen his family (including 5 kids) since he got here (since all his savings are sent back home). He told me that this was the same scenario for all his colleagues - and he (and other colleagues) are even considering going back to Philippines. 

I suspect it is the same story for many of the migrants working in Qatar. Ironically, the face of Qatar is the migrants, and not the Qataris. So it is difficult to work out what the real Qatar is.

Around Doha

I had a long layover in Doha, and Qatar Airways organised a hotel, visa and hotel transfer. Unfortunately, it was not long enough to see a lot of Doha - especially the newer parts of the city; but it was still a nice city break.

The initial impression was sand - every building seemed to be of that colour. And, while the highways and main roads were very organised; the side streets felt like a completely different country! Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any public transport scheme, so I was constrained to walking around instead.

The highlight attraction in Doha, The Museum of Islamic Art, is unfortunately closed on Tuesdays; so I mostly walked around the souks and the seafront promenade (Al Corniche). The Corniche has glorious views of the futuristic skyscrapers of the new part of Doha. The contrast between the old (fishing boats) and the new is particularly striking.

Overall, it's a clean city; and despite the volume of cars, it is not a particularly vibrant city. Something is missing - but I am not sure what it is.

Doha Souqs

A large complex of traditional shopfronts (although often staffed by immigrants instead of locals), the Souq Waqif is a far more pleasant experience than the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. In some places it retains the older mud brick architecture, although it seems more like a facade than actual construction. Given the rapid rise of modern buildings all around, the older style, complete with crowded passages has a lot of charm.

The opening times are a bit strange - opening around 10, closing at lunch; and then opening in the evening around 4pm. 

The Souq Waqif is flanked by two specialised, and more modern complexes - the almost deserted Falcon Souq (specialising in falconry) and the  Gold Souq (specialising in jewelery). The Gold Souq featured a lot more workig craftsmen, although it was near closing time when I was there.

At another end of the Souq Waqif, there is an art centre with a fair amount of contemporary artwork (and artist studios). 

Qatar Airways and The Dreamliner

The Dreamliner seems to be small, especially when the other aircrafts around it are A380s. It is amazingly spacious, so much so that many passengers seem to have trouble reaching the overhead luggage bins. The large windows are amazing, but the lack of window shutters are annoying; especially with the sun streaming in as the plane took off. After a while, the electronic tinting took over and the soft lighting took over - a very strange  environment; with the sun reduced to a foggy orb in the horizon. Eventually I discovered the tinting controller, which works slowly, but has quite a wide range. Compared to the A380, the Dreamliner feels more modern, more futuristic. But how much of that is due to the airline vs Boeing; I am not sure.

Economy class on Qatar Airways is surprisingly spacious - my knees didn't even hit the seats in the front (don't remember the last time I had a flight in economy with so much space). The entertainment system is cool; with a touch screen remote system that changes controls based on the screen context; with running commentary on the flight status. There is on board cell signal, but the on board wifi is extortion - USD 2 per 5Mb!

Every announcement seemed to have the words award winning; and the service and was food certainly of high quality. It was an amazingly cheap ticket; and so far it has been amazing value for money!

23 February 2015

Movie: The Judge

Long before Robert Downey Jr. became Iron Man, I remember him as a smart ass lawyer in the TV series Ally McBeal. In the Judge he reprises the role of a smart ass lawyer, but with a far defter performance as he takes up the defence of his ailing, estranged father - a judge who is accused of murder, played by Robert Duvall. The performances of the two central characters are amazing; although the legal case itself is only a side show. 

Movie: Fury

Set towards the end of WW2, Fury manages to portray both heroism in and the dehumanising nature of warfare. There are some amazing scenes with tank battles; but it is the grinding, brutal nature of war itself that is the centerpiece. And while each side seems to believe it is righteous, it is really only dehumanising and brutal.

Chinese New Year at Nan Hua Temple

A few years ago, O, gushed about the Chinese New Year celebrations at Nan Hua Temple. For one reason or another, I didn't go until this year.

The passages around the temple were set with stalls - from cheap electronics to vegetarian food to a lot of bubble tea. It was packed; and a variety of people were lighting incense in front of the giant Buddhas in the main shrine.

The cultural performances were equally diverse - martial arts, music and dance across Asia (including Bollywood), and African drums - but we didn't stay long.

It actually felt quite sedate - more like a large fete than a cultural celebration. Perhaps it was the hot weather, perhaps it was unrealistic expectations; it just didn't feel that amazing.

09 February 2015

Final Concert

The final concert of the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival had two standing ovations, featured a conductor without music, and was one of the best musical concerts I have ever attended. The music spanned centuries - 229 years between the oldest and the most recent in fact.

The concert started with a slight re-arrangement of the line-up, and featured the chamber work Peter Klatzow - Lightscapes for Marimba and Five Instruments. It's a compact piece, and was performed against the backdrop of projections of various images. For me, the second batch featuring the sun and Egyptian relics achieved the harmony of images to the music - while I thought the rest didn't really work. Peter Klatzow has an earlier version on SoundCloud.

The second performance was short - but it's the concept and the performance itself that brought a standing ovation from the audience. Misconduct, conceptualised by performance artist Anthea Moys, is a combination of dance and orchestra - although not necessarily in the way you would normally imagine it. In the first half, the conductor conducts a piece of music - but there is no music from the orchestra - and there is no music - instead, the dance group - Moving into Dance Mophatong - dances on the cues of the conductor. We are told at the beginning - that only the conductor, the orchestra and Anthea Moys herself knows what the music is - the dancers haven't heard it or practised using it - they performed spontaneously. In the second half, the piece is conducted again - this time, the orchestra does play (Mozart's Overture from the Marriage of Figaro) and the dancers now dance to the music itself. The similarities in the performance - and the differences are startling - their performance itself is amazing. It is strange, exhilarating, special and a wonderful performance all round - thoroughly deserving of the standing ovation.

The second half started off with the debut of the newly commissioned piece by Peter Klatzow - All People Become Spirit People When They Die; comprising of Choir, Piano and Orchestra. Based on a poem by Stephen Watson about the San - particularly their beliefs relating to the afterlife. It's an interesting piece - sometimes sad, and a bit like a requiem - but I am not completely sure what to make of it.

The final piece, also for Choir, Piano and Orchestra was Beethoven's Choral Fantasy. I love Beethoven's music, and this had it all - great piano (performed by Florian Uhlig), great orchestral movements and then the choir that caps it off at the end. As the programme notes, it's a forerunner to the 9th and it packs it all in. It was an amazing performance, and a perfect ending to an amazing concert.

08 February 2015

Buskaid and Melvyn Tan

Buskaid performances are becoming a regular feature of the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival; and this year's concert was one of the highlights in Buskaid performances.

Rameau almost inevitably features in a Buskaid concert, and this year, his Overture to Pigmalion started off the rather short first half of the concert. Of the performance pieces this year, it was my least favourite - but that is not to detract from the performance itself.

At last year's concert, Sarasate's Navarra with 2 violins and orchestra featuring Kabelo Monnathebe and Simiso Radebe, was one of the highlights. It is a piece that shows of the soloist's virtuosity - and it is a testament to the talents of the senior Buskaid members. Debuted last year, Sancho’s Dance Suite by Julian Grant, a suite specifically written for the Buskaid finished off the first half.

In the first few minutes of Mozart's Piano Concerto No 12, there is only a few bars of the piano - as the string orchestra led the performance. Then, Melvyn Tan rolled up his sleeves and got stuck into the piano - and his performance with the Buskaid was mesmerising. He seemed to relish playing with the Buskaid - in the pauses while the orchestra takes over, he was paying more attention to the orchestra than Rosemary Nalden's conducting, seemingly bobbing his head, or shadow conducting to the music. And when the piano came to the fore - he was there, perfectly in time, and giving it his all. It was clearly an emotional performance - and one of the best piano concerto performances I have attended; a performance that thoroughly deserved its standing ovation.

I have head Aram Khachaturian's Waltz from Mascquerade Suite many times - though I wouldn't have been able to name it. The Buskaid members came on wearing masks, and played a perfect rendition - and a lively way to link up to their familiar Kwela and Gospel finale. The Buskaid has just finished recording a CD with 34 Kwela and Gospel numbers - none of them transcribed onto actual scores; and every concert seems to have a few new ones. It is a lively ending to the concert, and it is what makes Buskaid special.

Movie: No

Gael García Bernal stars in the Oscar nominated Chilean movie on the "No" campaign in 1988, which eventually leads to a peaceful transition to civilian, democratic rule from the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Shot very much in the style of a TV documentary from the late 1980's, it follows the story of an advertising executive who lends his talents in driving a successful campaign that focuses on hope and happiness instead of regurgitating policy discussion points (which is favoured position of Pinochet's team).

While the acting is superb, and manages to interweave historic footage seamlessly within the movie; it is unfortunately quite simplistic (as per this NY Times article). My knowledge of Pinochet has mostly been from bits of his war crimes trial - and unfortunately this movie, while providing some view of the horrors perpetrated by his regime - glosses over what it takes to depose a dictator. Even within the movie, some of the mechanics of how the plebiscite comes to be, and the 15 minutes of opposition airtime is glossed over - and overall it ends up detracting from the power of the movie.

It is actually a good movie (as far as movies go) - but in my opinion, such oversimplification of historic events end up colouring the actual historic events, and the movie ends up being the known historic record. And for me, that is a big problem.

02 February 2015

Movie: Birdman

Yes, Birdman has been getting rave reviews and multiple award nominations. And, it does have some great acting performances, with some amazing monologues. For me however, these acting performances and monologues do not connect together to make a great movie. Maybe, it's an actor's movie - a self indulgent movie, about the art of acting - but as a 2 hour movie, I didn't find it captivating, entertaining, informative or thought provoking. As little vignettes, it was fine - as a 2 hour movie, I was just waiting for it to end.

30 January 2015

Mass and Requiem

The program for this year's Johannesburg International Mozart Festival is the most interesting and varied since I have been going to them. One of the problems however, is that there is so much choice - that you can only really afford the time and money to go to a few of them.

This year's opening concert, on Mozart's birthday on Tuesday, featured his last work, the unfinished Requiem, together with South African composer (and the festival's composer in residence), Peter Klatzow's Mass for Choir, Horn, Marimba and Strings.

M doesn't agree, but my reaction to Peter Klatzow's Mass, was that it was quite "New Agey", something out of fantasy movies - and would fit perfectly in the Lord of the Rings (or similar). It is fun, it is light, and very enjoyable. 

Mozart's Requiem is a long piece and very well known. But the performance by the Chanticleer Singers and the Johannesburg Festival Orchestra was equal to the task, and thoroughly deserved the standing ovation. It is off course more traditional, when compared to the preceding Mass, but it also has a sense of gravitas that the Mass didn't. 

As an opening concert, it was a great  start to the festival.

26 January 2015

Origins Centre

I have been wanting to go to the Origins Centre at WITS for a number of years, but for some reason or another, never got round to it. Last year, I discovered that they have free entrance (for South African ID holders) on Sundays ... except they were already closed for December holidays! The entrance includes the audio guide, narated by Gcina Mhlope - a treat on its own!

The entrance itself is a bit hidden - strange given its prominence as a tourist destination - especially as the entrance hall is part of the Archeology department. The cafe and shop were closed, so it was a bit deserted this past Sunday.

The initial presentation on the development of stone tools, and progression of why humans actually originated in Africa was interesting and a great display of concepts, in quite well defined sections. This section ends with a video, on tracing the roots of all humanity to single source within Africa - and the view that the San are the closest in terms of genetic proximity to the original sources.

This understandably leads to a very interesting section on the San - through rock paintings, their spiritual world and a brilliant potrait towards the end on various topics related to the San-Colonial engagements, including their forgotten genocide and near extermination.

The last section, focused on a small history on migration of other groups into South Africa is quite underwhelming taking acount of the previous two sections. What was also missing for me - was a more detailed look at migration of humans to other parts of the world - and the demise of other related species - such as the neanderthals. 

All said, it was a facinating way to spend 2 hours on a Sunday.