May 10, 2013
The drinks were freer, the music brassier and the times, well, Gatsby-er. At least, that’s the picture F. Scott Fitzgerald creates with his tales of high society run wild in his 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby. Now set for yet another screen adaptation, this time thanks to the energetic hands of Baz Luhrmann, the novel continues to resonate today.
Its appeal is a dark but undeniable one, enough to let you weep alongside Daisy as she marvels inside Gatsby’s closet at his exquisite shirts. The clothes, the alcohol, the music–we get it, it’s a heady and seductive mix. So go ahead and throw your Gatsby-themed party (skipping the murder and suicide–oops, spoiler alert) and let the experts at Folkways supply the playlist.
Thanks to David Horgan and Corey Blake of Smithsonian Folkways for the inspired lineup that includes three tracks referenced in the novel itself, including “Three O’clock in the Morning,” which narrator Nick Carraway calls a “neat, sad little waltz.” The novel also mentions “The Sheik of Araby” and “A Love Nest,” which, in some versions, includes the poignant lyric:
Ever comes the question old,
“Shall we build for pride? Or,
Shall brick and mortar hold
worth and love inside?”
May 9, 2013
Friday, May 10: Garden Fest
How do you relate to the earth? In the garden outside of Smithsonian’s Castle, three African artists each recently completed a land art installation to explore issues of land use, environmental sustainability, hunger and humanity’s role on the planet. The installations are part of Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa, a new exhibition at the African Art Museum. Today, in celebration of the exhibition, Smithsonian’s annual Garden Fest will encourage families to consider their place on Earth, too, with art, composting, plant potting, worm farming and more. Role up your sleeves and get your hands dirty! Free. 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Enid A. Haupt Garden.
Saturday, May 11: Super Science Saturday: Astronomy
Think you’re a space expert? Seen everything the Air and Space Museum has to offer? Then take a trip out to the Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport, where thousands of aviation and space artifacts that take up too much room to be exhibited on the Mall are on display. On the second Saturday of each month (that’s today!), the museum holds demonstrations and hands-on activities that teach visitors about aviation and space exploration. Today’s theme should whet the space enthusiast’s appetite: Astronomy. Free. 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center.
Sunday, May 12: Mendelssohn Piano Trio: Mother’s Day Tribute
Treat mom to some fantastic classical tunes this afternoon, courtesy of the Mendelssohn Piano Trio. The group—violinist Peter Sirotin, pianist Ya-Ting Chang and cellist Fiona Thompson—has played for audiences around the world for more than 15 years, and today will perform music by some of the best female composers. A question-and-answer session will follow the performance. Free tickets available in the G Street lobby beginning 30 minutes before the performance. 3 p.m. to 4:30 pm. American Art Museum.
Also, check out our Visitors Guide App. Get the most out of your trip to Washington, D.C. and the National Mall with this selection of custom-built tours, based on your available time and passions. From the editors of Smithsonian magazine, the app is packed with handy navigational tools, maps, museum floor plans and museum information including ‘Greatest Hits’ for each Smithsonian museum.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide. Additional reporting by Michelle Strange.
Recognizing everything from landscape architecture to fashion, the 2013 Cooper-Hewitt Design Awards recognize the best in design. Some names, like this year’s winner for Corporate and Institutional Achievement, TED, are familiar, while others may be new to most.
Within academic circles, for example, Michael Sorkin is a well-known architecture and planning critic and professional whose texts show up on college syllabuses across the country. His 2011 All Over the Map: Writing on Buildings and Cities takes on his own New York City, including the controversial Ground Zero Memorial and proves why his is a bold and valued voice in the field. For this and other works, Sorkin is being honored with the Design Mind award.
For the other honorees, we’ll let their posters, gardens, restaurants and clothing speak for themselves:
Landscape Architecture, Margie Ruddick
When asked to create a “winter garden” for the Bank of America Tower in New York City, Ruddick created this living sculpture. She says, “we created an immersive green environment that is designed to make you feel like you have stepped into the natural world of the city.”
Communication Design, Paula Scher
Known for her rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic–she’s designed posters for Elvis Costello–Paula Scher is a clear voice in communication design. Her advice to aspiring designers? “Find out what the next thing is that you can push, that you can invent, that you can be ignorant about, that you can be arrogant about, that you can fail with, and that you can be a fool with. Because in the end, that’s how you grow.”
Interior Design, Aidlin Darling Design
Aidlin Darling’s design for this ultra-hip San Francisco bar and hangout got almost as much attention as the food. Generous with the wood, the design also employed billowing glass curtains.
Architectural Design, Studio Gang Architects
Designed for the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, this structure takes its inspiration from a tortoise shell. The archway was part of a larger boardwalk that transformed an urban pond into “an ecological habitat buzzing with life.”
Fashion Design, Behnaz Sarafpour
Sarafpour began her career in New York in 1989 when she attended the Parsons School of Design. Since then, her work has found its way into special lines for Target and several museums, including the Victoria and Albert in London.
Interaction Design, Local Projects
To gather the stories of a mining community for an area museum, Local Projects built a recording studio from ”a trailer clad entirely in copper…in homage to the single metal that the Southwest is famous for supplying.”
Product Design, NewDealDesign
Based in San Francisco, NewDealDesign combines graphic, interaction and industrial design to create products that also serve as solutions.
Lifetime Achievement, James Wines
Wines has long integrated green design principles into his work, such as this Las Vegas Denny’s that also includes a wedding chapel.
May 8, 2013
The National Zoo’s two giant pandas have little interest in each other 11 months of the year. Mei Xiang, 15, and Tian Tian, 16, are solitary creatures, happy to spend most of their days chowing down and napping. But March was mating season. For 30 to 45 days, pandas undergo behavioral and physical changes that prepare them for an annual 24- to 72-hour window in which females ovulate, the only time they can conceive.
Just because they are able to mate, though, doesn’t mean they will. Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are what David Wildt, head of the Center for Species Survival at the National Zoo, calls “behaviorally incompetent.”
“Tian Tian tries really hard, and is very diligent in his duties,” he says, “but he’s just not able to pull Mei Xiang into the proper mating position.”
The pair is not alone. Of pandas in the United States today, only two, Gao Gao and Bai Yun at the San Diego Zoo, have been able to breed naturally. Captive pairs have succeeded elsewhere in the world as well—especially in China, the bears’ native home, where the captive population is much higher—but mating difficulties are still common. Panda’s total population, captive and wild, is about 2,000, so each failed match is a crucial missed opportunity for repopulation.
The species’ future is brighter than these mating difficulties suggest, though. Wildt is part of an international network of American and Chinese specialists—veterinarians, researchers and zookeepers—who have collaborated for years on improving captive panda breeding practices. In recent years, the team has made huge advances in understanding the bears’ biology and behavior, which has inspired new approaches to care that reduce faulty coupling, or even circumvent it.
Their studies are turning the tide. Today, the bears’ captive population is around 350, almost triple what it was 15 years ago.
When Mei Xiang began to ovulate on the last weekend of March, zookeepers closed the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat to visitors, made sure she and Tian Tian were comfortable, then brought the lustful pair into the same room for the first time since last spring. The two had become rambunctious leading up to the encounter, and spent days staring longingly at one another through the fence that divides their yards. They had hardly touched their bamboo.
Despite the flirtatious fireworks, though—and while it was the seventh year in a row the two had been put together to mate—the two pandas again failed to copulate. As she has in the past, Mei Xiang flopped on her belly like a pancake when she met with Tian Tian—the opposite of good mating posture, which would have her rigid on all fours—and Tian Tian went about his usual routine of stomping around and standing on her, clueless what to do.
After multiple attempts, the keepers ushered the tired pair back to their separate yards.
Panda breeders’ challenge is overcoming unknown variables in the mating process, says Copper Aitken-Palmer, head vet at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. “There may be some developmental things that we are doing differently under human care, versus what they’re learning in the wild,” she says. Cubs often stay with their mothers for two or more years in the wild, for instance, so they might learn how to breed by watching or listening. Adults may need to mate with an experienced partner first to learn what to do. It’s hard to know for sure, Aitken-Palmer explains, because wild pandas are incredibly hard to observe in their bamboo-filled habitat in China’s southwestern mountains.
The National Zoo compensates for its lack of other pandas to mimic these conditions by preparing Mei Xiang and Tian Tian year-round for mating, both the act itself and the steps leading up to and following it. Since Mei Xiang arrived, she has been trained to receive injections, get blood drawn, milk and lie peacefully during ultrasounds, all without a fuss. (She even rubs the ultrasound gel over herself for her keepers.) The Zoo is trying to teach her to pancake onto a raised platform instead of the ground to make herself more accessible to Tian Tian, and also gives Tian Tian strengthening exercises so one day he might learn to pull her upright.
In China, zoos and breeding centers with a greater number of pandas use similar techniques to encourage coupling, and have begun to test the theory that pandas learn from observation by having cubs attend breeding sessions. On rare occasions, some Asian breeding centers have gone so far as to show their bears videos of other pandas mating—yep, panda porn. There’s no concrete evidence it works, though.
(Josh Groban has his own panda mating technique, but its success also hasn’t been confirmed.)
More than behavioral changes, the most significant improvements in breeding techniques have come at the chemical level. Researchers have developed increasingly accurate measurements of female pandas’ hormone levels and vaginal cell changes, and now are able to pinpoint the exact ideal time frame for a panda’s egg to be fertilized. This new-found accuracy not only dictates the best window to put two pandas together in the same room, but also dramatically improves the success of the practice that allows pairs who cannot figure out how to mate to have cubs anyways: artificial insemination.
“Because pandas’ reproductive activity is so infrequent, they don’t have many opportunities for sexual experimentation and figuring it out,” Wildt says. A panda in heat in the wild may mate with a number of males all competing for her, but those in America’s zoos are stuck with the one they’ve got, regardless of sexual compatibility. Artificial insemination is key to panda breeding, he explains, because it has allowed scientists to overstep the hurdle of sexual compatibility entirely. The technique, which deposits collected semen into a female while she is anesthetized, was “very rudimentary” in the early 2000s, in his words, but took off about seven years ago when scientists began to develop effective ways to freeze and store semen for multiple years and craft more precise tools, like tiny catheters that sneak through a female panda’s cervix to place sperm directly into her uterus.
So far in America, six panda cubs have been produced by artificial insemination, including two from Mei Xiang. That’s one more than the number of the country’s naturally conceived cubs—and as Wildt points out, those cubs all come from the same super-compatible couple in San Diego. (No exact data is available for China’s natural vs. artificial breeding stats, Wildt says, because its zoos often follow successful natural mating sessions with artificial inseminations the next day to improve the chances of fertilization.)
Artificial insemination is particularly valuable for America’s pandas, along with all others outside of China’s well-populated breeding centers, because it has the potential to increase genetic diversity, which is essential for maintaining the captive population’s health as it expands. Mei Xiang has been artificially inseminated every year she has failed to mate with Tian Tian since 2005. This year, for the first time, she was inseminated with semen from two males, first with a fresh-frozen combination of Tian Tian’s sperm, and 12 hours later with some of Gao Gao’s semen stirred in as well, shipped frozen from San Diego. “Artificial insemination gives us the opportunity to mix things up in the absence of multiple males,” Aitken-Palmer says.
According to Wildt, the National Zoo will continue to focus on artificial insemination for the foreseeable future. But natural breeding is the ultimate goal for the species, once zoos and breeding centers have large enough panda populations to depend on it, he says. The numbers are headed in the right direction; the bears are back to “self-sustaining,” which means no more giant pandas have to be brought into captivity, and scientists will have them under their care for at least the next 100 years. The Chinese are even beginning to reintroduce pandas into the wild (although with some difficulty).
“It’s really a great success story,” says Aitken-Palmer. “There aren’t many endangered animals we’ve been able to do this with.”
Now, everyone is waiting on Mei Xiang to add to the species’ growing numbers. Her first cub, Tai Shan, came in 2005, and the second, born last summer after years of disappointment, died from underdeveloped lungs after just six days. Another successful birth would help to heal the wounds of last year’s tragedy, says Juan Rodriguez, one of the National Zoo’s panda keepers.
It also would give Mei Xiang and Tian Tian’s Chinese owners a good reason to keep the pair together at the zoo instead of considering a different match, which has been an ongoing discussion.
Bandie Smith, the Zoo’s giant panda curator, says not to hold your breath for news on Mei Xiang’s pregnancy anytime soon. The staff might not know if Mei Xiang is pregnant until a cub pops out. Females build nests and cradle objects each year whether they are pregnant or not (the latter is called a “pseudo-pregnancy”), and the fetuses are so small that they often escape detection in ultrasounds. Pandas experience a phenomenon called delayed implantation, too, in which a fertilized egg floats around for a number of weeks—usually between 90 and 160 days—before implanting in the female’s uterus and beginning a short 40- to 50-day gestation period.
All this means that no one has a very exact idea of when a new cub would arrive—somewhere around mid-August, Smith says.
“Breeding pandas is a very protracted process, and it’s never a guarantee. That’s the frustrating part,” says Rodriguez. “The cool part is that you’re among people who are trying to keep a critically endangered species on the planet. If we can ensure their continuous path to recovery, then our great grandchildren could actually experience pandas in their natural habitat. You can’t beat that.”
May 7, 2013
With his quiet dignity and self-assurance, leadership becomes Slack Key guitarist Reverend Dennis Kamakahi. Whether leading a cultural renaissance in his home state or a day of recognition at the Smithsonian, the Grammy-award winning composer, recording artist and Episcopalian minister exudes a presence as solid and beautiful as the music he composes and performs. Kamakahi was a member of the folk music group “The Sons of Hawaii” from 1974 to 1992 and his music was featured in the award-winning 2011 George Clooney film, The Descendants.
Kamakahi’s achievements as an Hawaiian folk musician and cultural historian recently found a welcome spotlight as curators at the National Museum of American History accepted his 6-string guitar, albums, sheet music and personal photographs as part of the museum’s music and history collections, a first for a modern Hawaiian composer.
A representative from the office of Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI) read a message praising Kamakahi as “one of the finest musicians Hawaii has ever known.”
“Through your humility, grace and love for others,” she said, “you have positively influenced so many and have represented Hawaii with dignity.”
“This is an experience, to be alive at a time you can donate something and pique the curiosity of people,” Kamakahi, told an audience of well wishers. He then used the donated guitar to play and sing songs with stories and melodies as exotic and mysterious as his state.
Kamakahi’s role as cultural ambassador is as much family mantle as professional choice. His grandfather and father were guitarists. His father played trombone in the Hawaiian Royal Band and jazz with his mentor James “Trummy” Young, trombonist with the Louis Armstrong All Stars. Hawaiian culture dictated that the eldest grandchild ”be given” to the grandparent of the same gender to mentor as guardian of the cultural heritage.
Music is in Kamakahi’s blood and his story is a fascinating one. His goal to become a classical music conductor was abandoned after a music theory teacher encouraged him to “to go back to your roots, to Hawaiian music.” In 1973, Eddie Kamae, ukelele virtuoso and co-founder of the Sons of Hawaii, invited the 19-year-old Kamakahi to join the group.
Now “we’re the last two left,” he says of the legendary band. “He’s the oldest. I’m the baby. You are what your teachers are.”
That makes Kamakahi a cultural activist, who along with Kamae, ushered in Hawaii’s cultural renaissance of the 1970s, helping to lift stigmas that had repressed Hawaii’s indigenous music and traditions for decades. Slack Key guitar music, predating ukelele music, rose like a Phoenix from cultural ashes.
Slack Key music history is steeped in the lore of the Vaqueros, Spanish and Mexican cowboys who developed cattle ranching as a business and culture in the American Southwest and West. Vaqueros were brought to Hawaii to tame an overpopulation of cattle and taught Hawaiians to become cowboys or Paniolos. They also brought guitars, trading tunes and songs around camp fires. When the Vaqueros left, the guitars remained, adopted by Paniolos who invented their own tuning—slack key—to accommodate Hawaiian music.
“It was mostly tuned to the voice,” Kamakahi explains of the style. “The high falsetto style of singing emerged because of [the Paniolos].” Every tuning has a nickname. Families guarded tunings so closely they became family secrets. While the term Paniolo is used generically, today, to mean cowboy, it was originally reserved only for students of the Vaqueros, says Kamakahi. It’s a ”high title” going back to those days. Descendants of the original Vaqueros still live on the Big Island of Hawaii. And Kamakahi’s songs herald their histories along with those of Hawaii’s culture, religions, landscape, heroes and traditions.
“I write for story telling,” he says of his music. Hula, considered only a dance form by most mainlanders, is actually a form of storytelling that presents Hawaiian music and narrative through motion. Koke’e, a Kamakahi tune that became a Hula standard, was composed on the guitar donated to the Smithsonian.
“Original slack key music used maybe two chords,” he says. Two stories demonstrate the music’s influence and progression over the years.
Kamakahi counts the late legendary blues singer/composer Muddy Waters as a friend who used the Delta G slack key tuning throughout his career. He used to ask me, ‘Why don’t I sound like you when I play?’ I told him it’s because you don’t live in Hawaii.”
The 2011 film The Descendants, starring George Clooney, became the first feature length movie offering a full slack key music score. Kamakahi’s tune Ulili E performed with son David was featured in the film and in promotions. He said the power of the music and Clooney’s insistence on cultural authenticity won over the director after he and others invited them to a jam session at a local club.
“You can sing Hawaiian songs, but if you don’t know what you’re singing about (culturally) it’s not Hawaiian.”
While in DC he turned 60. Alumni and friends of the National Capital Region Chapter of the University of Hawai’i Alumni Association celebrated with a feast of Hula, food, music, and fundraising to support student interns. Kamakahi says he’ll still perform but wants to focus on educating others in and outside of Hawaii about the region’s history, music and culture.
He marvels that Slack Key has loyal fans as far away as Russia, Finland, France and South Africa. Exposure from The Descendants generated mail from around the world. Yet he’s concerned about the music’s future in Hawaii.
“It’s a sad time for Hawaiian music. It’s an exported music now,” he says. “It used to be in Waikiki,” a staple of tourism where musicians like Don Ho developed careers playing music lounges. That changed in the 1980s when hotel general managers recruited from outside Hawaii cut costs by replacing live music with karaoke. “Musicians like me had to go to the mainland,” says Kamakahi.
His hopes for young Hawaiian musicians is that promoting the culture will support its survival and evolution.
“Most people in Hawaii don’t know what the Smithsonian is,” he says. But Kamakahi knows the recognition validates his artistry and his culture. “I hope the Smithsonian recognition will place focus on the music back home. This honor will outlast me because it’s not only for me. It’s for those who came before me and for those who come after me.
“I tell young musicians you need to travel the world so your music will affect others, and theirs yours. Music is a communicator. It breaks down barriers. Music is the universal language that brings us together.”
He explains with an anecdote.
“I was playing at the Vancouver Music Festival and played with a West African band whose rhythms,” rooted in the blues “we hear every day in Hawaii. The bass player was in nirvana that we knew their rhythms.
“Rhythm is everywhere. Your heartbeat is the first rhythm you hear. The heartbeat is the first thing that connects you to life,” he says smiling broadly. “That’s why we’re all musical. We have a heartbeat.”
Hear from the Slack Key legend himself in an episode of the American History Museum’s podcast, History Explorer.