In the mountainous country between China and Kazakhstan live the Kyrgyz, a fiercely independent people thought to be descendants of Mongolia's Khara-Khitais. Despite years of Russian control and pressure from surrounding authoritarian regimes, Kyrgyzstan is a high-altitude island of democracy, considered the "Switzerland of the East," that embraces the many religions of the region, including Islam, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Christianity. The country's musical tradition, however, predates all of these. The bakshis were musical shamans who carried nomadic harvest songs and spiritual soliloquies through the region long before the first organized religion took hold. Now shamans exist only in the remote regions of the Altai Mountains, but the bakshis and the more pedestrian akins (professional composers and poets) still act as bards for the country, sharing epic poems and traditional religious songs to the accompaniment of komuz (three-stringed lute), dombra (two-stringed lute), and temir komuz (jew's-harp). If knowledge like this piques your interest but the musicologist in you demands sound, the San Francisco World Music Festival is just the place for you. Spanning 25 days with lectures and performances held in half a dozen locations, the SFWMF will explore the musical worlds of Mexico, Greece, Africa, Japan, Tuva, Cuba, China, Indonesia, and India. Nazarkul Seidrahmanov and Maira Baibakbaeva perform the music of Kyrgyzstan on Saturday, June 2, at the Cowell Theater at 3 p.m. The World Music Festival runs Wednesday, May 9, through Sunday, June 3. Visit www.sfworldmusicfestival.org or call 553-6272 for more information.
Terry Pratchett has sold more books in the United Kingdom over the last decade than any other living author. Typically, when a writer achieves that sort of mass appeal, he's crap, but not so with Pratchett. In his latest, Thief of Time, we find the Monks of History, a group of holy men who take time from where it is of little use (say, under the sea) and place it where it is most needed (say, at my desk). The monks are threatened by the creation of the perfect clock, which -- when started -- will stop everything. With Pratchett's ability to fluidly and humorously blend science, religion, philosophy, and fantasy, he is often compared to Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams; for me, the lyrical quality of his work also recalls Tolkien. Amidst imp-driven watches with tiny saddles, gentlemen's clubs filled with Grim Reapers, and great sandy mandalas of chaos, there are discussions of the tiniest unit of time and sublime surprise ("Blink your eyes, and the world you see next did not exist when you closed them. Therefore ... the only appropriate state of the mind is surprise. The only appropriate state of the heart is joy"). Pratchett reads on Thursday, May 10, at Booksmith (1644 Haight) at 7 p.m. Admission is free; call 863-8688.
Hitler drank mineral water and chamomile tea and suffered from flatulence. Mussolini had an obsession with bowler hats and the number 13, and had a pedicure and a manicure every Thursday. Stalin was 5 feet 4 inches and liked to place tomatoes on people's chairs for giggles. Franco suffered immensely under his father's infidelities; he also liked to hunt partridge. Mao cleaned his teeth with green tea, suffered from insomnia and constipation, and slept with more than one young woman at a time. In Jay Rosenblatt's short film Human Remains, these matter-of-fact dictatorial details are delivered in first-person narratives over found-footage montages of the men themselves. Often funny and only occasionally chilling (as when Mao says he bathes his VD-riddled organs in the bodies of his women), Human Remains greatly shortens the distance between ourselves and terrible human malevolence. Also included in this short showcase is The Smell of Burning Ants, Rosenblatt's poignant and deeply powerful rumination on male aggression, and King of the Jews, a memoir about his shocking discovery of Jesus' Jewishness.