Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Wordless Wednesday

Hunting for the mice who thought they had a secure hiding place




Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Is it love? Or mere tolerance?

As I've written before, Lamar and Fozzie have their struggles with getting along with a healthy amount of brotherly love. Every night we have our grumpy struggles with Lamar's territory of the bedroom and Fozzie's desire to join us, and my heart aches for Lamar having to endure those sensations in his older years.







 


Other times, though, I wonder about how Lamar really feels about his kid foster brother. Last week we went to a gorgeous out-of-the-way spot where there was no one around, with spooky rocks, a great place for dogs to swim, and tons of sticks to chase and chew. 


Let me tell you that Lamar was once--and still is, despite his 11 years--an incredible athlete. Star frisbee catcher, champion seagull-chaser, iron-gripped stick-tugger, Olympic swimmer.


And he took off like a star after those sticks, front paws paddling strong. Of course Fozzie, thrilled with his new swimming skills that he picked up just a few weeks ago, took off right after him powered by those burly pit bull pecs of his (is that what you call them in a dog?), and grabbed those sticks right out of poor Lamar's mouth.

And I felt terrible for Lamar.



 


Here's an activity Lamar has always enjoyed so much, and he couldn't even have the satisfaction of bringing a stick all the way to shore because he kept getting interrupted mid-task by his bratty kid foster brother. 









Fozzie wasn't mean about it, just acting like a typical teenage kid who loves competitive sports. So we made sure we threw some for Lamar when Fozzie was occupied with a stick in deep water. And I fretted about finding Fozzie a home so Lamar can enjoy his favorite activities again. 



When they were on shore together though, I wondered if Lamar is really that miserable. Fozzie went after sticks with his usual intensity, even when they were already in Lamar's mouth, but Lamar was hardly a shrinking wallflower. There was some healthy, fun stick tug of war going on, and no scrappy tiffs broke out.

Am I worrying too much about Lamar's mental health? Can complicated interpersonal relationships be a healthy challenge for dogs, as for humans? 

Or do we owe it to our seniors to give them a peaceful retirement?





Monday, August 29, 2011

Hurricane Irene

When we got news of Hurricane Irene causing likely flooding, downed trees, power outages, and gale-force winds all throughout the area this weekend, Florian decided it would be the perfect time to go camping on the coast. 












While Florian's tragic flaw may be a bit of... impulsiveness, mine is that I generally go along with his plans without getting full details ahead of time. 











So it was that we ended up driving the van toward the very center of Hurricane Irene as it passed over the coastal lowlands of the Chesapeake Bay, the same areas that sensible people had evacuated a few hours earlier. 












Fortunately, we were sleeping in the van and so had a relatively safe, albeit wet-dog-smelling, place to ride out the storm. 






 



Florian thought it would be neat to park the van close to the water so we could hear the surf. He found a road that led to Elliot Island, a secluded road covered with hopping frogs escaping the deep rivers on either side, and he drove us slow enough that, he promised, all the froggies escaped unscathed. 







I didn't think that our watertight van was going to do us much good once it was floating though. So after a few hours of listening to the rain and wind and Florian's snores, every so often turning on the front lights to check on the rising water level around us, I woke the sleeping Swiss guy and had him drive us to a safer spot. There we settled, and I spent the remaining hours of the night with both dogs cuddled close in their uncertainty about all the intense noises outside the van. I guess they must have assumed that I, as the human, felt at ease with the whole thing.

Overall I have to say those dogs were incredibly good sports through all the buffeting rain, howling winds, and frog-safe driving. So today when it cleared up we rewarded them with some time at Calvert cliffs near North Beach, where they could chase sticks, drink salt water, and paddle around to their hearts' content.








And we humans could enjoy stress-free wildlife viewing without fear of hurting any froggies. 




Friday, August 26, 2011

Lamar's Happy Trick

When you have a reactive dog, most of the good advice you'll get is about having the right kind of equipment, working sub-threshold, knowing when to get out of dodge...a lot of stuff that can feel serious and heavy.


For example, we know that when our dogs get into their fearful reactive mode--lips drawn up, snarling, lunging, snapping--they're not in a state where they can learn, and all we can do for them is protect them from the thing that's making them feel that way. Take the other dog out of the room, back up and go on a different trail, etc. 


There's another idea that's way more fun--thanks to Michelle Mange at Your Dog's Friend for discussing it. If the dog is sub-threshold--is maybe gearing up to lose it, but hasn't yet, or has just lost it and is starting to settle down--what a great time to ask her to do something she really loves, that has a strong reward history and that is just plain fun. If you teach and practice tricks regularly with your dogs, you will find that there is one or a few that she really really enjoys--that makes the ears sail out, the mouth relax, the whole body just transform--more energy, less tension. 


When you find your trick, whip it out during those tense, yet sub-threshold moments. The other night, Lamar and Fozzie were both looming over me and my handful of treats--which I had so I could reward calm behavior while I tried to write--and Lamar was starting to look cross-eyed and growl at Fozzie. 

"Lamar, Whisper!" I told him. And he did that thing we both love, where the mouth opens and snaps closed but no sound comes out except the hollow sound of the air inside his cheeks being compressed. Followed by full-on smile, wags, and relaxation. 
Lamar "Whispers"


Steps to teaching "Whisper": Best for a dog who has an automatic bark reflex
  1. Next time your dog barks, click and give him a treat. 
  2. Praise joyfully. If he looks at you and barks again, then click and treat. 
  3. Dog may well be looking at you in wonderment by now. Hold treat up by your face, and wait for him to bark. You can jiggle the treat around to tantalize him. 
  4. If he doesn't bark, step away and take a break for a moment. Return and do something that you think will get him to bark.
  5. If he does bark, click and treat. 
  6. Name it: Say the word "Speak". Click and treat if dog speaks. 
  7. To shape "Whisper": If your dog is barking away, there will be certain barks that are quieter than the others. You want to withhold rewards for all but the quietest bark. 
  8. Start withholding rewards for progressively quieter barks until there is no sound at all (except the sound of one jaw flapping :))
  9. You can add a hand signal--finger to lips--and a word--Whisper--to put it on cue. As you add the finger to lips, fade the treat by your face.
This is Lamar's Happy Trick. If I remind him to do it, the stress evaporates and he is a smiling muppet face again. It was also easy for him to learn, as he already had a quiet bark. I wanted to reinforce this one, as it is so much more pleasant than the shrill one...and Lamar's Happy Trick was born!


Thursday, August 25, 2011

The ones that grab your heart

I've loved all my foster animals, but a few have really forced me to call into question whether I could really do this foster thing, or whether my personality is more suited to cross the line from "Foster" into "Hoarder."  


Zula and I had a special connection. How often does a stray dog come and SIT ON YOUR BACKPACK while you're waiting for a bus? How often does the same dog come back to you three times because you ask her to, trusting that you will help her because you said you would? 


OK, I'm anthropomorphizing --but is that amazing, or what? 


Lars moved me deeply as well. Such a scared thing, and it seemed like I was the first person in a long time to show him the love he deserved. So rewarding to stick my nose against that long, slightly curved shepherd nose and receive sweet kisses, after not being able to touch him for the first three days he lived in my yard. 


And now there's Fozzie. Over the year and a half I've had him, my feelings about Fozzie have evolved along with his personality and his growth into an incredibly sensitive, loving, responsive, and intelligent companion. When I first met Fozzie, he was described as "a lot of dog" by the shelter staff who begged me to take him. A lot of dog he was, and at first I didn't know how to handle that much dog. 


He is still a lot of dog, still has boundless energy and takes a bit of finesse to handle, but every bit of investment in this big bundle of muscle and love has paid off. To think that this dog, who has cuddled with us on winter nights and looked at us with big worried eyes when he thinks someone is upset, who takes treats so gently, with a velvety mouth that feels like it's all lips, who rests his head on the arm of the sofa so his mouth mushes up, who kisses and actually hugs his humans, who has a beautiful brindle coat and white markings....was going to be killed at the shelter! To think that this creature, who sits so attentively and looks deeply into my eyes and wraps his arms around me and loves children was deemed unadoptable just because he failed his evaluation, an evaluation that was structured and set up precisely for dogs like him to fail, to relieve shelters the burden of actually committing to help the ones that will take a little more work. 


Admittedly, Fozzie is not for everyone. But like most of the ones with issues, he is just a really special dog. And after a year and a half, how do you let go of an animal who has become part of the family?


These are the deeply emotional reasons that prompt foster failure. The connection, the bond, the love, the wordless warm swirling maelstrom of delight that a foster person feels when his or her nose is buried in a certain furry sternum.

Then there's the rational. How can I justify keeping THIS one, when so many others need my help? All animals are incredible delicious little frito-flavored buddhas; I'll love the next one just as much. The world needs more foster parents, the revolving door needs to stay open for the good of those on death row. This is how all the other wonderful foster parents out there continue to do what they do, and what has kept me from adopting PJ, Parker, Star, or any number of the other just about irresistible dogs who have come through my home. 


The rational has won out so far. But for how long?

For Fozzie, I think my rational instinct--to find him a home, so Lamar can have some rest, and so we can take in others--is correct. The right adopter for Fozzie has still not surfaced--but I am certain that eventually St. Francis of Assissi (or equivalent) will send in an application, telling me he lives on 7 fenced acres that back onto woods in Maryland and is married to a positive dog trainer. And that I am welcome to visit anytime.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Temperament evaluations

Ever since rescuing Fozzie, I have thought more deeply than ever about the evaluation system--commonly Sue Sternberg's Assess-A-Pet system--used to decide whether shelter animals get to live or die. 

Having assisted in performing these evaluations for a rescue group, I can see their utility in providing information about an animal, its personality, the kind of environment it needs to thrive, and areas in which it might need special attention. 

Daisy is available from http://www.petfinder.com/petdetail/18687962
The evaluator gives the dog a bowl of food, then drags the bowl away using a plastic hand.  Does the dog growl or attack the hand? Time to work on some resource guarding exercises! Exercises that should be done with the help of a professional, but that have a very good prognosis for success in changing a dog's emotions and behavior around food and toys. 

The evaluator also tests for the dog's level of excitability, by getting him riled up with excited play and seeing how quickly--or if--the dog can calm down. Great opportunity to see if you need to get some volunteers to work on impulse control with the dog. 

But too many shelters use evaluations as the first, last, and only criterion used in deciding whether an animal is "adoptable." Which is unfair for so many reasons. 
First, these evaluations are being conducted in a shelter environment. What dog in the shelter is not overly excited due to lack of exercise, boredom, and stress? How many dogs have just come in off the street or from neglectful situations where they didn't know where their next meal was coming from, and so are understandably protective of resources once they finally are given something to eat? 

Says Jean Donaldson, author of "Mine! A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs," 

“...we need tests that are scientifically proven to be reliable and valid. We couldn’t get Sue [Sternberg]’s test past the reliability issue, and four of her five unadoptable dogs did fine. We adopted out three and did behavior modification on one.”

Fozzie failed his evaluation with flying colors and was on death row when I rescued him. I didn't get all the details, but I am certain it had to do with his excitability. Invite Fozzie to play, and he wants to PLAY! 

It took a little work, but it was fun work, and now he controls his impulses much more. 


Meet Jackson at http://www.petfinder.com/petdetail/19916409
OK, not everyone wants a dog who requires work...maybe we should do like in Switzerland, where everyone who adopts a dog is required to enroll in a training class. But that might be a deterrent to adopting. Fortunately, progressive shelters know to reach out to their foster networks and hopefully more and more foster people are learning a bit about positive training.

These common behavioral problems are ones that can be worked with, not ones that should result in a death sentence. 
Granted, many shelters are using evaluations the way they should be used--as information-gathering sessions to inform a progressive training and rehabilitation program. Too many, however, use assessments as a way to ensure that their facility is seen as having a high percentage of "successful" adoptions, because all the animals who might need some work are summarily executed.

A more detailed discussion of behavioral evaluations is here. Anyone concerned about the practice can help by learning some basic reward-based training exercises and volunteering at a shelter, so even those who don't come in with perfect manners can have a better chance of getting out alive.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Paws

I can remember, as a child, just holding a back paw in my hand and being absolutely delighted by its fragrance, its shape.

That ridiculous, curved inertness. The way you could hold it out and the dog would just look at it, perplexed. The fact that it reminded me of a microphone and I could speak into it, and the dog still wouldn't object.





Why paws--especially the back ones--held such fascination for me I am not sure, but they still do. Fortunately I have been able to channel my interest into harmless and perhaps even productive pursuits, like holding those paws steady as I massage them and trim the nails, or coaxing them into a "shake" with a touch and a hot dog.









And fortunately, over the years of coming into contact with so many different sizes and shapes of dogs, my interest has broadened to include cool, fresh noses, flappy or satellite dish ears, silky or hairbrush-like fur--indeed, the whole dog package.

But I still think paws are amazing, and they never fail to cheer me up. In fact try this Miracle Cure that works every time for me: when the worries of the world get you down, when things just seem so...darned...big, and heavy, try focusing on something very small and light. Take in every contour of that paw, the pink or black or vaguely golden pads, the roughness, the dry, salty fragrance, the shape.

Drink it in, and really focus on it.

Did the paw make you smile? 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Gender in Companion Animals

A couple of excellent blogs such as Rescued Insanity and 24 Paws of Love have recently featured questions on the topic of dog gender.


My own experience these past couple of years has been largely with male dogs, as I've worked with rescue groups and taken in whatever foster dogs most urgently needed taking in, and these have happened to be mostly boys. Whether there's any good reason for that--like whether adolescent boy dogs happen to get into more trouble than their sisters and so are more frequently surrendered to shelters--or whether its just random, I don't know. 


My longest-running canine companionship was with a female dog. This was Tashi, my little heeler-chow of 15 years. Tashi was anything but feminine. If there was a cow poop, a dead thing, or anything really abhorrent to roll in, she'd be there. One time when I was camped out with a bunch of activists learning to protest timber sales in Southern Colorado, she rolled in cow poop so vehemently I had to take her to a self-service car wash. 


When she would wrestle around in a loving scrap with Lamar, she would be on top as often as on the bottom--maybe out of feminist motives, or maybe just because it was fun that way.


Now Lamar happens to be named after Lamar Latrell from Revenge of the Nerds. I don't attribute this to any knowledge of his sexual orientation, or to anything other than my own warped imagination, notwithstanding all those mornings I've woken to find my sequined jacket rumpled and misplaced and Lamar sleeping like he'd had a rough night. 


I've since revised my suspicion that he was headed out to the local gay bar, as he showed what could not have been feigned interest in the little still-unspayed and in-heat beagle mix foster girl I had. All those times with the sequined jacket, he must have had a perfectly respectable gig as a lounge singer.











Aside from Tashi and Lamar's affectionate old-married-couple romps, the most amorous displays of doggie love I've witnessed have been between two boys, my foster lover-men Lars and Fozzie. Those two together were a nonstop humpfest. It was their love for each other that probably saved Lars' life, as I only found him because Fozzie broke out of my yard one night and when I caught up with him, he was panting and smiling with a skinny, filthy stray white shepherd panting and smiling a few steps away. Lars followed us home and the two were inseparable until I found Lars a home with a whole pack of white dogs and a mom who adores him



I don't really know if dogs have gender identity or if they think of each other, or us, in different terms according to our gender. I suspect that there's not a whole lot of gender sensibility going on in dogs' minds, but I do think that our human perceptions of gender have an impact on our dogs. The Washington Humane Society has a seminar coming up on "The Myth of Gender in Companion Animals and Its Effects on Spaying and Neutering"--what sounds like an interesting exploration of  how some humans' quest to define their masculinity through their dogs prevents them from having them snipped. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Versatile Blogger Award!

What an honor to receive the Versatile Blogger Award!
Thanks to Jen at the fabulous Inu-Baka blog and to Jodi at JodiStone for the recognition. 
It has been so wonderful to discover this friendly, welcoming community of animal bloggers. 


To fulfill my side of the bargain, the rules are that I have to:
  • list seven things about myself 
  • pass the award on to 15 newly discovered blogs 
  • let those bloggers know the joyful news
So here goes--seven juicy facts and a bunch of even juicier blogs:
  1. My mom taught me to love animals, indulging my wish when I was a kid for two budgies, a hamster, tropical fish, and a guinea pig--in addition to the family dog
  2. I started reading books by the Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh when I was in college, and have never stopped. I consider him to have been one of my most positive and powerful influences.
  3. I was "Miss Vegan of New Mexico" in 2001
  4. I play the Zimbabwean mbira and have played in the bands Bliss Gypsys, which toured the Pacific Northwest the summers of 1999 and 2000; Fools in Paradise in Portland in 2003, and now Buddhambira;
  5. I commute by bike about 40 miles a week
  6. I've been vegetarian-mostly-vegan for over 20 years--20 years of Thai coconut-peanut tofu, Zucchini casserole with nutritional yeast "cheese" sauce, and Thanksgivings of barbecued tempeh with some of the people who first brought tempeh to the United States (at the Farm in Tennessee in the early 1970s)
  7. I grew up in New York City, went to college at Stanford in California, lived in a cave and then worked for the Park Service near Moab, Utah, studied massage therapy in Albuquerque, NM and practiced massage in Taos and Santa Fe, NM, lived in Portland, went to graduate school in Conservation Biology at Columbia University while living with my parents in New York, and then moved to Takoma Park, MD to be near my sister while she adopted my niece Ursula! I never thought I'd stay on the East Coast again but I met the inimitable Florian, my Swiss ballet dancer and sweetie and a dog lover with an incredible sense of humor and a kindred spirit, and have found happiness here that I never encountered in all the bohemian happy hippie-lands I lived in before.
While I haven't had time to give this task the effort it deserves, here are the not-quite-15 blogs I have had the pleasure to peruse so far...and I hope you won't find this award burdensome:)
  1. Love and a Six Foot Leash. My neighbor Alex writes beautifully about her fabulous foster and resident dogs. Thanks for helping me navigate the blogiverse, Alex!
  2. Rescued Insanity. Kristine keeps a wonderfully thoughtful blog including training tips, recipes, and more about her life with the wondrous agility star Shiva.
  3. Sustainable Population. This blog is an essential reminder of this most central of sustainability issues.
  4. i-Love-A-Bull. This blog celebrates the pit bull, that most unjustly maligned of breeds, and fights stereotypes with information and activism.
  5. Endangered Spaces blog. A vital call to action on environmental matters that need our attention.
  6. The Poodle and Dog Blog. A thoughtful, aware, and very versatile blog on all things dog. 
  7. Open Hearts Dog Fostering Blog. Kim blogs on the delights and challenges of having many foster dogs come and go through her doors.
  8. Biodiversity in Focus. Stunning photos paying tribute to the wonders of the insect world. 
  9. Oh, Corbin. Corbin the pit bull has overcome that little thing about not having opposable thumbs and blogs about all the fabulous foster dogs taken in by his mom. 
  10. Five Sibes. A blog on five fabulous and furry Siberian Huskies.
  11. Success Just Clicks. A progressive, thoughtful positive dog training blog with lots of the nuanced explorations of positive dog training topics that I love!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

More Fozzie Reactivity practice

My boys made me so proud the other night with their new skills around other dogs! 



We were walking along our usual route, a well-traveled path with dog walkers, bicyclists, joggers, parents and kids. With my growing confidence and new tools for working with Fozzie and Lamar in these situations, I have been using this path more of late, rather than always opting for the road less traveled for the sake of avoiding reactivity nightmares. 

Many would say--and I would agree--that reactive dogs should be walked singly and that combining two reactive dogs on one walk is a recipe for disaster. But with working a nonprofit job, commuting by bike, seeing training and grooming clients, volunteering at the shelter, helping a non-native-English-speaking boyfriend through graduate school, maintaining a dog blog, and trying to play mbira regularly, I just don't feel I have time to go on two separate walks! I think many of my training students have the same struggle, so I endeavor to find methods that are practical and realistic for us busy multiple-reactive-dog owners. 


What we do now is walk Fozzie on his head halter attached by one very lightweight leash, then his Easy Walk harness on his heavy-duty leash. We attach Lamar by a leash that goes around my waist.


Since Lamar's and Fozzie's reactive behaviors are different--and a great explanation of the difference between fear reactivity and arousal reactivity is over at the excellent Success Just Clicks blog--we incorporate a mix of the methods we've learned when we see another dog.


Lamar is a classic fear-reactive dog, and we have worked extensively on counterconditioning so we use the same protocol we have used all along: 
  1. See other dog
  2. Say Lamar's name in a happy voice
  3. When Lamar looks at me, stuff his mouth with fantastic treats while praising him like crazy
We've done this enough that Lamar is able to give me his attention even when another dog is at fairly close range.


Fozzie has no interest in any amount of deliciousness 
Fozzie, on the other hand, loses all interest in treats when he sees another dog even at a distance. So we are trying to get closer to the example set by Dr. Sophia Yin in her video on reactive dog leash training. 


We take a few steps away, backward, keep talking to Fozzie in a happy voice, and try to direct his energy away from the trigger. Lots of movement, lots of action to keep his attention. Use head halter if necessary to direct head away from trigger.


On our most recent walk, we saw an approaching dog from some distance, and Lamar looked immediately at me for his treat. As I stuffed his mouth, I exerted pressure on Fozzie's head halter with my other hand as I backed us all away from the approaching dog. Fozzie is getting used to the fact that he won't get anywhere with lunging and yodeling, so he turned toward me and remained calm! Still not calm enough to eat a treat, but no conniption fit. 


I would like to use the head halter less, and when I have time to do single-dog walks, Fozzie is much calmer and more able to respond to treats and redirection.   For those who have time, I certainly recommend this! And perhaps with refinement, we will find ways to phase out the negative reinforcer even under less than ideal multiple-dog scenarios. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Reactivity help from Dr. Sophia Yin

Lamar's sideways look does not ease Fozzie's anxiety about the head halter!
Now that we're back from our travels, its time to resume working on getting these dogs to behave more like those calm little Oregon dogs on the leash.


Dr. Yin in this video demonstrates more on use of the head halter

She is using it as a negative reinforcer, but only so she can get enough control of Podee so that she can then use positive reinforcement and change Podee's associations with the other dog. 


Key points from this video:
  • Keep your dog's attention with action, movement, and games when you are around another dog. 
  • Take just a few steps at a time, backward, to keep dog's attention. Ask for frequent, happy sits. Especially useful if dog has already learned Sit as  default behavior!
  • Use the head collar only when necessary to get focus
  • Brief on-leash greeting is OK--while using the head collar and treats for control and focus
There is controversy about the use of the head halter within the positive dog training community--and my own personal belief is that there are excellent trainers with good points on both sides of the issue. 


My feeling is that the best use of the head halter is in the sense of a "calming elastic" as used in TTouch: a piece of fabric or elastic placed over the dog's nose, crossed under the nose, then tied behind the neck in a figure 8. Here is a discussion on head halters from the TTouch folks that provides perspective on this non-aversive use of head halters as guidance, rather than control.  

I do believe that:
  • The head halter's purpose is manipulating the head to redirect it from triggers. That is to say, don't use the head halter just to drag a dog along and say "let's go." For this, far better to just say "let's go!" 
  • Using the halter to move the head should be a last resort. When a dog is responsive to luring or verbal cues, use those. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Wags out West

Since I sadly couldn't bring Fozzie and Lamar with us to Oregon and Zimfest, I made sure we took every opportunity to get some dog smooches wherever we could find them. 


Fortunately, the places we were in Oregon were about as dog-friendly as you could imagine. 
















We met dogs on the beach, dogs in coastal towns, dogs looking for free pets at the music festival. 











There was a dog at Zimfest who looked just like Lars only bigger. This dog, though--a Malamute-shepherd cross--couldn't get enough of human contact and had no problem with the loud music and crowd.

Sigh--sometimes I wonder what that would be like, to have a totally issue-less dog!








It was wonderful to see so many cattle dogs, those little muscular energetic torpedo bodies and the abundant vocalizing and the pointy little satellite dish ears that are so satisfying to rub.


The highlight though had to have been when we took a break from the festival and found an official off-leash dog heaven on the Willamette River. At one point we counted no less than nine dogs paddling, soaking, running, stick-obsessing, and floating in the river. The river here had that same fragrance I love that I've found along the Potomac and in Santa Fe, and the trail to it was covered with blackberries.


It is good to be home, and Florian promises that we'll devote the upcoming weekends to discovering some of the amazing swimming holes and doggie heavens we have around here. All the same, it is hard not to miss Oregon and the coast and the wide open Western sky and the abundant opportunities to meet and play and sing with Zimbabwean masters! Maybe someday we'll return. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Zimbabwean Music Festival

Florian and I just returned from an incredible four days in Oregon for the Zimbabwean Music Festival or Zimfest, the largest annual North American celebration of Zimbabwean music and culture. 


Four days of breathtaking ocean vistas, 






gorgeous mossy mysterious campsites, happy swimming wagging Oregon dogs, and music. 



Zimfest is a like a big family reunion for everyone who plays, studies, or just loves the traditional music of Zimbabwe. For many, the most salient and accessible feature of Zimbabwean music is the marimba, a large xylophone-like instrument.



But much of the marimba repertoire is based on the mbira, a three-octave lamellophone played with the thumbs and the right index finger to produce extraordinarily complex, cyclical music that is used in Zimbabwe to communicate with ancestral spirits. 


I have played the mbira since 1996 when I lived in Taos and studied dance with Rujeko Dumbutshena, an accomplished dancer from Zimbabwe. 







In attendance were Tendai Muparutsa, Forward Kwenda, James Mujuru, Mbira DzeMunhinga, and other Zimbabwean masters who performed their versions of traditional songs and reminded us of the potential of this music to transform. 











Since moving to the East Coast, music has been much less a part of my life than when I lived in Portland or Santa Fe. It is starting to pick up, with weekly open mic performances in Takoma Park. 








Now if we could just get one of these incredible Zimbabwean musicians to move here!