The Persistence of Memory

Not all of my compulsive rabbit-hole explorations are about terrible and depressing things. In recent weeks, when I am not pondering people’s inhumanity to people, I have been diving into the music of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a musician’s collective that rose out of the 1960s Chicago jazz scene. While I could fill an entire newsletter (or six) with my off-topic ruminations about this, I will confine myself for now to commenting on one album—Desert Fairy Princess by Adele Sebastian.

Sebastian was a flutist and vocalist associated with Horace Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra out of L.A. She was on dialysis for years and died of kidney failure at the age of 27. By all accounts, she was kind, sincere, inspiring and incredibly talented, with the album standing in testament to that last fact. Desert Fairy Princess is delightful and variegated, with a number of different moods and some true virtuoso playing.

There’s not a ton of information online about Sebastian or the making of this album. She doesn’t have a Wikipedia page or a dedicated website. She doesn’t have a massive fandom, or big social media accounts devoted to promoting her work. For those who are interested, there’s a bit more biographical detail to be found here. I am not an expert on jazz, and she is well-remembered by those who are, but I think it’s fair to call this a “find,” and perhaps even an “obscurity.”

Listening to this little gem, I was struck once again by the contradictory forces of the online economy. Over the last decade, we’ve enjoyed both the benefits and detriments of an unprecedented information environment.

I’ve written plenty about the detriments, but it’s good to remember the benefits once in a while, for as long as they last. I would not have the career I have without the incredible and largely unfettered access to a substantial chunk of the world’s information that came to maturity in the early years of the 21st century.

The trend toward more access has been fairly steady over the last 20 years. Archive.org, Google Books, Google Scholar, JSTOR, Academia.edu, Newspapers.com, and even Amazon and eBay, have empowered research in ways I could not have imagined in the 1990s.

There are very few topics today that cannot be concretely documented with these tools, often for free or for a relatively minimal outlay of cash. And it’s not just about work. Sometimes it’s about personal enrichment—finding an obscure or out-of-print book to read, clips from a half-remembered childhood TV show, and so very much amazing music.

By most measures, I think Desert Fairy Princess would be considered obscure. I don’t know how many copies were pressed in its initial run (or its 2019 reissue), but I can’t imagine I would have found it and listened to it through a lengthy manual search of record stores in Boston. I only found it because the Internet indulges my hyperfocus by combining a very low barrier to entry on any given topic with a very deep well of interconnected information. I zagged from one artist to another, following sometimes tenuous connections, until one day I came across this recording, which I was able to instantly play. It’s a miracle, of sorts.

It probably wouldn’t be this newsletter without the inclusion of a sobering note. I fear the golden age of access is coming to an end. You have no doubt noticed the decline in quality of Google search results; this is likely to get a lot worse in the very near future, as AI generated junk comes to dominate platforms that were, for a brief shining moment, portals to access the world’s knowledge, while quality content becomes increasingly paywalled or crushed by corporate greed and insane IP tax shenanigans.

But it was nice while it lasted, and most importantly, it’s not quite over yet. Find your own Desert Fairy Princess before it’s too late, and make a local back-up while you’re at it. There are still worlds of wonder to be discovered online. Just avoid anything with the phrase “As an AI language model” and you’ll be fine…  

Latest from CTEC

My colleagues at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism published two new reports this week, which are well worth your time.

A major new paper from Amarnath Amarasingam and Shweta Desai looks at the women who participate in Hindu nationalist movements. Not Flowers, but Flames “attempts to unpack how and why women become part of the Hindutva movement, and how many of them have tried to step out of the rigid patriarchal boundaries to further their political aspirations. It traces the history of these militant women from the first organization under the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), to the evolution of women as ideologues and influencers in the digital age.”

My CTEC colleague Phoebe Jones rings in with Christian Nationalism in the Case of the Dilley Meme Team, which dives into the racist and religious nationalist content produced by a pro-Trump meme factory, if you’re wondering where all those incredibly bizarre images on your socials come from.

J.M. Berger is a writer and researcher focused on extremism as a Senior Research Fellow for the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism (CTEC) at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS). Views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of CTEC or MIIS. 

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