Sunday, November 27, 2005

Independent on Sunday: Fishing For Time

The Broader Picture, by Keith Laidlaw
Photograph by Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos: opens in a new window

The stories behind great photographs almost always involve an element of chance. Steve McCurry knows this well. He made his name in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion in 1978, but says it was "coincidence" that he found himself working as a photographer there. "I hadn't really planned doing that kind of work but I just sort of fell into it, then got intrigued and ended up 25 years later having been there 20 or 30 times."

He has won numerous awards in his career since, and created iconic, unforgettable images, such as the green-eyed Afghani girl he photographed in 1984 for the cover of National Geographic. But he maintains it's all unplanned: "When you leave yourself open to experience a place, magically things happen. Some of the best situations I've photographed are things I've kind of stumbled upon " I don't really think it's much more complicated than that."

Indeed, the image on the right, taken in Sri Lanka in 1995, was a "surreal vision, these little shapes" that McCurry only spotted while driving past, but perhaps it serves as the best metaphor for his technique. "It's a unique way of fishing," he says. "But I was struck by how quickly they can catch fish."

'Steve McCurry' by Anthony Bannon (Phaidon, £14.95) is out now. Face of Asia, an exhibition of McCurry's photographs is at Asia House, 35 New Cavendish Street, London W1 until 31 January, tel: 020 7307 5454

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Independent on Sunday: Mouth Watering

The Broader Picture, by Keith Laidlaw
Photograph by Michael Dwyer / AP Photo: opens in a new window

Farmers the world over have a close affinity with water, regardless of whether they have too much or too little of it. But cranberry producers have a closer relationship than most. During the normal growing season, the marshy wetlands where cranberries are cultivated require about an inch of water per week. The bogs are also flooded twice a year: once in winter, to cover the vines with water and protect them from frost and dry winds; and again when it is time to harvest the berries.

It is the harvest flood - which takes place anytime from September through to November - which is the most spectacular. The bogs are covered in up to a foot of water, to allow the ripe berries to float to the surface for gathering.

But why go to so much trouble? Cranberries hardly seem worth the bother; they're small and taste rather tart, after all. But this versatile fruit can be both good for us (its saintly juice is high in antioxidants and fights bacteria) and rather bad for us (when put to more sinful use in a Sea Breeze or Cosmopolitan).

And this week the cranberry takes on perhaps its most important role, as the US prepares to celebrate Thanksgiving Day on Thursday. The cranberry is a native of New England, where the Pilgrim Fathers began the custom of Thanksgiving by celebrating their first harvest in 1621, and cranberry sauce is now as much a part of the traditional menu as that other American native, the turkey.

Sunday, November 6, 2005

Independent on Sunday: Jungle music

One telephone, dirt roads - and a 200-strong orchestra. Keith Laidlaw discovers how classical music is changing lives in one Amazonian town.

One of the dictionary definitions of the word "baroque" is "extravagant or bizarre". This is the one that seems most fitting when applied to the idea of an orchestra made up of native Chiquitano Indian children playing Vivaldi on the edge of the Amazonian jungle. They are from the small town of Urubicha in north-east Bolivia, about 150 miles from the country's border with Brazil. Despite having only dirt roads, a single public telephone and, until last year, no meaningful electricity supply, the town has its own touring orchestra.

The story starts over 300 years ago, at the end of the 17th century, when a group of Jesuit missionaries travelled to this area intent on spreading the word of God to the natives. They came not only armed with bibles, but also carrying a wide variety of musical instruments including string, woodwind and brass. Their hunch, that the language of music was a more effective way of communicating the teachings of God than prayer and preaching alone, proved correct. Indeed, the Chiquitanos they met proved to be adept musical students, learning to build instruments as well as play them in the European style. Eventually, some even began to compose, writing requiems, fugues, sonatas and - in at least one case - an entire opera in the Baroque style the Jesuits taught.

Unfortunately, this harmonious relationship came to an abrupt end in 1767. The Jesuits had stood up for the local people being forced to work in the region's gold and silver mines. (omega) But, rather than give in to their demands, the area's rulers, representing the interests of the Spanish Crown, decided that they had had enough of the do-gooding missionaries interfering in their affairs and promptly expelled them, killing off the brief flowering of South American baroque.

Almost a century later, in 1856, missionaries returned (this time from the Franciscan order) and founded the town of Urubicha, but it took rather longer for classical music to make a comeback in the Guayaro region. It was the arrival of Father Walter Neuwirth in the 1960s that made the difference. While the first missionaries had been seeking to connect the locals with God, Father Neuwirth was desperate to reconnect the locals with each other and reverse a decline in the community which had seen many former residents leave to start new lives in the city. So, in 1989 he enlisted the help of a young Bolivian violinist and conductor called Ruben Dario Suarez Arana, who had attended the Cordoba State Conservatory in Argentina, to start teaching a few local kids part-time in Urubicha in the church grounds. The lessons grew more popular and eventually, in 1996, the town's school of music was officially opened.

Now, in a town with a population of just a few thousand peasant farmers, the orchestra numbers over 200, and has performed at venues across South America, as well as visiting France and Spain. It hasn't been easy, however. Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, and towns such as Urubicha certainly reflect this. Money is tight here, making it difficult to buy things such as strings for violin bows, never mind the instruments themselves. But the woodwind and brass sections are usually equipped through donations from better-off orchestras abroad, while the stringed instruments, such as violins and cellos, can be made by local craftsmen.

Suarez Arana has since been asked to help neighbouring towns and villages form their own schools of music and, with the aid of teachers who are graduates from his first school, the orchestra in Urubicha has become the catalyst for a musical renaissance in the region. Learning to play an instrument may not solve the problems of poverty the children will still face, but it certainly helps to teach them that, with the right attitude and a bit of effort, miracles can sometimes happen.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.