Nerds Need Art

Digital art.
At Ars Electronica in Linz, I was struck by the amazing pieces exhibited, and more so by the Ars Electronica center. It is set very near to a bridge on the Danube river.The Exhibitions archive page uses a schematic of the center to give you an idea of what is curated where.

Ars Electronnica Center Schematics (roughly)

The outdoor space atop the main gallery and before the future lab space seems to tie the old architecture of the church to the futuristic style of the Ars Center. Click on the image below for a larger size, the church is to the left of the future lab stairs.

Ars Electronica - ArsCloud

It is one of those buildings that people either love or hate…I loved it. At night, the LED lights that line the outer glass wall change color. Something like a nocturnal visual surprise every time you glance at it.

Ars Electronica - ArsCloud

The festival itself is something to experience. Since its now over, i would highly recommend visiting the Ars Electronica center to see some of the pieces that formed a benchmark of the festival. Besides, I am convinced that Linz would make a perfect location for any techy, futuristic or even a good action movie. Be it Minority Report 2 or next Bond 007, I can totally vouch for the stunning imagery it would evoke if someone like Daniel Craig would rappel down the Ars Center and straight into a boat on the Danube. (Spielberg, Soderberg, Wachowski brothers and whoever produces 007 – you are welcome :-))

Ahem, pardon my digression. Back to nerds needing art.

This has admittedly been a very busy year for me, and I have to admit that I did not expect it to be. With time, I’ve realized that being in the tech space can sometimes sap your sense of wonder. Or maybe its just me. If you are one of those people who feel mired in tech and sometimes feel like the ‘wow’ factor is gone when you see new innovations…and it elicits a bland ‘hmmm’ reaction and god forbid ‘meh’ – Well you need a healthy dose of art. Attending Ars Electronica helped me marvel again at what artists, architects, performance artists and idea mongers have to share. Below I will share afew of the pieces i particularly enjoyed, and provide some links to blogposts by the other wonderful speakers and friends from the Cloud Symposium.

Quartet.cc

Quartet is a Web-interactive robotic music installation. The machine you see in the live video feed is housed at an innovative museum in Linz, Austria, ARS Electronic. Seeing the machine live, inches away is an visceral experience that shows the real power of live music… and that robots can be a part of that experience. Visitors at the museum are able to enter melodies from a laptop in the museum for immediate interactivity

You play a short melody on the site Quartet.cc then you see the music interpreted onto the machine. Try it…

Since I have a thing for mobile phones (Nokia) I greatly enjoyed the robot controlled by bluetooth.
This is a picture of the phone.

Ars Electronica - ArsCloud

This is the little robot it controls. How fun!

Ars Electronica - ArsCloud

The Anoto pen

This is basically the livescribe pen on steroids. You can write and record audio which is digitized and transferable pdf docs or uploaded online. The steroids bit: The Anoto pen can be used to navigate a map, displaying relevant data on a big screen. For example, if you click on a specific point on the map of Linz, and would like to know the demographics of the region, you can tap on the legend provided on a page to give you stats on number of divorced people between the age of 21 and 45. This was preety cool because it combines maps, tactile input of using a pen and a digital display to add more data.

Ars Electronica - ArsCloud

I got to play the loopscape game with the renowned tech journalist Cyrus Farivar. I really could claim victory, but really…it was a draw.

“loopScape” is an innovative video game for two players that blurs the conventional distinction between good and evil, between “my side” and “the opposition.”

The action does not take place on a flat display but rather on a 360 degree band arrayed around the edge of a ceiling-suspended metal doughnut circumnavigated during play. The object is to shoot down the opponent. But be careful! If a fired missile misses its target, it continues on its trajectory and threatens to strike from behind the game figure that launched it.

This loopscape game is a form of interactive device art, and for some reason, it brought to mind the idea of participatory art. Something that Wambui, Sciculturist and I were discussing at RAMOMA gallery in Nairobi. Check out this ‘Watoto Wa Kwetu’ piece by Wambui. More pics are on this flickr set. I think the loopscape game has participatory qualities just like the Watoto wa kwetu paintings, because both pieces are best experienced with others. There are some observations that Wambui made on the Watoto wa kwetu paintings that I would not have noticed. Do note that the paintings are done by a group of children, and not one artist. So, there is that aspect too.

This is just but a sampling of what was in store at Linz. I havent even touched on the animations. I hope you enjoy the perspectives shared by the others on the Cloud Symposium blog, videos posted there and the following links too.

Kristen Taylor – Mosaics, food and the cloud If you are wondering about her cool dress, its vintage. I had to ask :-) I am not much of a beer drinker, so her suggestion to get some Secco (Austrian white sparkling wine) with our dinner was just invaluable.

David Sasaki – An outsider’s guide to Linz Indispensable. His talk about cloud intelligence provided the framework for discussion that day.

I keep digressing from this nerds need art theme, but hopefully i can tie it all together.

In the quest to not lose your sense of wonder, sometimes you need to look inward, be quiet and just think about the bigger picture. To find the creative place. If you’ve ever used the words ‘code is poetry’ ‘Math is elegant’ or ‘no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should’. There is this need to look inward, to find that inner muse and embrace the imagination. I think whenever you need to go to such a place, art can provide that gateway.

The Thinking Chair by Arthur Ganson

Where does inanimate material end and where does life begin? Arthur Ganson lets his “Thinking Chair” straddle the boundary between those two states. Through its movements—which resemble the gait of a human being walking on two legs—the chair exhibits animate traits. Arthur Ganson had the idea that led to this work while taking a walk. Near his studio, there is a small rock outcropping on a trail, which he likes to walk around in slow circles, deep in thought. During this walking meditation, each cycle finds him back in the same physical place but in a slightly different emotional place

\o/ Data Gathering With Mobile Phones

For those in the African technology space, the challenges of gathering data from the field in areas that are not quite ‘on-the-grid’ are apparent. Let me just keep it short by saying ‘Houston, we have a power problem’. Charging laptops when you are off-grid is not easy, but if you have a Nokia E71 that can stay for 3 days without needing a re-charge…well, you get the idea.

Last October I excitedly proclaimed just how much I loved Nokia because they had a data gathering app for E71′s, which they were making available for NGO’s to test out. Please forgive me for not blogging about it. but you can find more info on the mobile active wiki, or watch this 2 minute you-tube clip on tracking the Dengue fever in Brazil.

This brings me to the latest news from FrontlineSMS. FrontlineSMS forms provides a killer functionality of basically using SMS as the data carrying pigeon. This is how it works. The person running the FrontlineSMS hub creates forms with questions for the person in the field to fill in with information. The field agent only needs to have downloaded the forms client from http://forms.frontlinesms.com/, this will work on any Java enabled phone, which is preety much a whole lotta phones. They can then receive a form from the hub via sms, fill it in and send it back again via SMS. Hmm I like my data-pigeon metaphor! This eliminates the need for a GPRS connection. If the person is entering the data at a place with no mobile signal, the information is still saved in ‘offline’ mode until the phone has a mobile signal. I do have to point out that with \o/ forms you do not require an E71 or high end PDA like with the Nokia data gathering tool. I still heart Nokia, and would highly recommend the E71 if you need a smartphone.

formsclient.jpg

Read more about it over at Ken’s blog, Erik’s thoughts on the Ushahidi blog and Jon Thompson’s coverage on Aid Worker Daily.

This functionality adds more fuel to the mobile => Cloud paradigm that I feel will redefine the participation and engagement with communities in rural areas. Once the information gets back to the hub, it can sync with a web app like Ushahidi or any other web enabled implementation that takes input from the Frontline SMS hub. The pretty graphs and visualizations are best presented on the web IMO. Personally, I am looking forward to using FrontlineSMS \o/ forms to plan a kick-ass tree planting party!

PS: For \o/ users in Kenya, do note that FrontlineSMS works with the Safaricom E220 modem. If it works with the new USB stick version E160? kindly leave a comment.

When I met Ken during the Plan International workshop in Kenya, he said something that I cant help but pass along.
“Do not ask for permission, ask for forgiveness” Keep doing whatever it is you love to do, and do not be afraid to try something new. I think Tonee and I co-opted that for our new-years motto. Seriously though, if you have ideas for using \o/ in your work, check out www.frontlinesms.com. Ken and his team have built a very useful data gathering tool that could give your project even more reach. Plus, the folks in the forums are super-nice. Really.

Women Inventors and Innovators: Meet Bola Olabisi

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Global Voices had a wonderful meme that I marginally partipated in. I say marginally, because i did not exactly teach someone how to blog, though i added my 2 cents to a question posed about twitter, and was so glad to know that my input was helpful, and even more elated that the person I sorta ‘taught’ how to micro blog is an inspiration to many African women including me.

Bola Olabisi

Pic of Bola at TED Global Arusha

I was fortunate to meet Bola Olabisi of GWIIN (Global Women Inventors & Innovators network) in Long Beach during TED 2009. She is one extraordinary person. If you were at TEDGlobal 2007 in Arusha, you may remember her talk about women entrepreneurs and innovators. If not, click here for my post and here for Ethan Zuckerman’s blogging awesomeness.
I wrote of her TED talk:

Hers was a very inspiring talk because she exemplifies action. She saw something that wasn’t being done and just got on with making change happen.

To get updated on her organization’s work check out GWIIN. It will have a blog in future. Meanwhile, follow her on twitter. She is http://twitter.com/bola25 Tweeps, please welcome her.

So her statement about twitter was ‘I am still trying to figure out twitter’
This was my brief response, keeping in mind that she has an E71/s60 Nokia phone, and I hope its also helpful to others reading this blog.

1. Only follow people you are interested in. To message someone, type @ afromusing and short message following. This will be seen by all your followers. to direct message (without all your followers seeing d afromusing…

2. You can download an app for your e71 twibble so you can see your twitter stream on your cell phone. (this uses your data connection, so be sure you have a data package or a wifi-capable phone)

3. For a desktop client, use http://www.twhirl.org/ this allows you to share links, which you can shorten or http://www.feedalizr.com/ which can aggregate all your other social networks (plus it is an app made in Capetown SA)

4. I have intentionally omitted the section on updating your twitter using SMS because I think that functionality was disabled for countries other than US.

5. You can tie your twitter acct to your facebook account with the app http://apps.facebook.com/twitter/ such that when you update your twitter it updates your FB status too.

Happy tweeting…and a belated Happy Valentines! Add more tips in comments.

Contribute to a book on Wind Energy…

/> *Image by Warren Rohner
From AfriWea

There is an opportunity for African authors in the RE field to contribute to the World Wind Energy Association yearbook:2009/2010

WWEA is accepting contributions from the African continent, with a goal of creating comprehensive country reports and project examples of wind energy.

The yearbook will include special reports in the following areas:
1. Policies
2. Community Power Approaches and Social Acceptance
3. Industrial Trends
4. Financing
5. Grid Connected Systems and Wind Farms Onshore and Offshore
6. Integrating Renewable Energies
7. Small Scale Wind and Hybrid Systems
8. Wind Assessment and Prediction
9. Education and Training
10. Research and Development of Technology.

Dates, Deadlines and Information
- Final abstract deadline: 11 December 2008
- Final paper deadline: 15 January 2009
- Abstract and paper format: Word-Format (unformatted)
- Final paper maximum size: Five pages A 4

Please send your abstract, further requests and the paper to:
WWEA Head Office, Frank Rehmet, Chief Editor
Tel. +49-228-369 40 80 Fax: +49-228-369 40 84
E-Mail: fr [at] wwindea [dot] org

Nairobi: Recycling center overwhelmed

The Karen Langata District Association (KLDA) runs a bottle bank at the Langata Link complex where residents of Karen and Langata can drop off empty glass bottles for recycling. Lately they have been receiving huge amounts of bottles and the glass company responsible for collecting these is not able to cope. They are looking for groups / organizations interested in collecting the bottles to contact them on tel. 891784 or 020-2304844.

(Hat Tip B – From Kenya Buzz)

Wind Energy Resources & RE News Tidbits

Via Leonardo Energy,
The Wind Turbine buyers guide [PDF]: “The article discusses small wind system components, wind turbine basics, and understanding the ratings. It also shows photos of the small wind turbines and lists several specifications for each.”

Via AfriWea
GVEP International receives a 2 million pound grant for a project in East Africa. GVEP’s role is, according to their site

… providing financial support, capacity building and technical assistance to energy SMEs in developing countries. Using funding from the Russian Government, GVEP intends to set up two Regional Funds in West and East Africa to build local energy supply chains and grow economic development from the bottom up.

The list of other organizations in Africa receiving grants from Europe aid can be found here. [PDF]. Some of the organizations in Kenya on the list include:
Kenya Arid Land Development Focus – Renewable energy in Wajir
Kenya Tana and Athi rivers Development Authority – Community based mini hydropower development in upper tana river basin
Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) – Up scaling the smaller biogas Plants

Via BBC
“The Greek Orthodox Church in Cyprus has announced plans to invest $234m (£115m) in solar energy. Archbishop Chrysostomos II said the church would build a factory that would make photo-voltaic panels to capture the sun’s energy.” – Now that is a faith based initiative i could get behind.

Fun from The Daily show with Jon Stewart: An awesome lampoon of the Cape Wind project in Nantucket. Big wigs don’t want it because it will presumably ruin their long range view from their mansions.

Bottom Up Vs Top Down, a lesson in Solar Implementation from Senegal.

In the post on Electranets, the idea of top down development, something synonymous with the Hippos (including the misguided hippo cheerleaders at Economist ;)) clashes with the idea of bottom -up development. For an example of just how these top-down initiatives can go awry, lets go to Senegal.

Thanks Emeka for the story.
This piece from IRIN news is instructive, especially since its a solar energy project. It describes an ambitious rural electrification project that was funded by the Japanese and Spanish governments in the form of grants and loans to the Senegalese government to set up Photo voltaic systems for a rural area far from the electricity grid.

Hut and Solar panel

The project had good intentions it appears, what with the powerful image of a hut with a solar panel on its roof. As reported on the article, the project is devolving into an unsustainable mess, with only 30% of the people paying the fees for the photovoltaic systems, and ongoing maintenance problems due to lack of money to change the batteries and keep the parts working properly. The article then goes on to describe other problems such as the high cost of fees for the PV systems. The contractors hired by the Senegalese government left in 2005 after their contract ended and the new contractor has 1 technician to service 10,000 home systems. 1. It becomes clear quite quickly that the development model that this project was based on was flawed. Not the technology behind it. I think that the project did not fully involve the community, these guys came in, ‘saved’ the village by installing the PV systems, but they did not think it through. Is the community involved in the maintenance? Nope.

The sad part is that the Senegalese government did not steer the project in a sustainable direction. There can be a partnership between governments that result in great projects (rural electrification using solar is still a superb idea), but the local government on the receiving end of the aid needs to tailor the aid to meet the needs of its people. Take the bottom up approach of training and equipping the community with the skills and this IMO is the most important part. It needs to be a market driven approach. Why would would anyone take ownership of maintaining a system if there wasn’t something in it for them? Rural development could use a few Gordon Gekko’s no? He’d probably shriek at stepping on cow dung and ruining his Johnston and murphy shoes…I am kidding! (filmmakers out there feel free to make a movie about him going to rural Africa to do his ‘greed is good’ speech. I know I would watch that, just invite me to the premiere) That aside, the idea of capitalism needs to be injected into a lot the development models if they are to be sustainable.

So how could this project have been done better? There are great models to follow. The first one that comes to the fore is the Barefoot College in India. Senegal and other countries in Africa can look at other developing countries such as India for models on how to use renewable energy in a viable manner.

The IRIN article points to the unnecessary perception that solar energy is not a viable solution for rural electrification, and that the ‘Donors are watching closely’

Individual and communal solar systems have brought electricity to over 170,000 people in Sine Saloum which lies south of Dakar near the border with The Gambia. The project is the largest of its kind in Senegal and experts say donors are watching it closely to gauge whether solar energy could be a practical means of electrifying other rural areas.

The point that the donors might be missing is, there is a red herring to watch out for. Simon Mwacharo pointed out at TED that solar and wind power systems got a bad rap in the past because the systems were not set up correctly. It appears from the situation in Senegal, that the follow-up plan to maintain the project was severely lacking. Confusing implementation and project model problems with the effectiveness of solar technology in providing power would be a mistake. A detailed article from refocus magazine, showing the obstacles and success conditions in developing countries is helpful in summarizing some of the issues in renewable energy. Projects such as the one in Senegal do require a different type of strategy.

So what practical things can we learn from all this?

From a consumer perspective, if you are out there looking for a solar powered solution for your energy needs, don’t skimp. i came across some good tips in Wired Mag January issue. Specifically

Choose the right system. Want a house that produces all of its own electricity? Opt for monocrystalline or polycrystalline panels. They’re the most efficient â?? and the most expensive. Amorphous photovoltaics are roughly half the price but only about half as efficient. If you can’t bear the appearance of those big black roof slabs, go with building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV). Your normal-looking roof and windows become solar catchers.

From a larger country-type perspective, again,

  • Don’t skimp on setting up a good quality system.
  • Include a bottom-up strategy of involving entrepreneurs and invest in training for the people who will manage the systems.

In the Refocus magazine June Issue, there is a great interview by David Hopwood. In it he interviews Christoph Paradeis and Andrea Ocker of Solar Fabrik, they were discussing the future of solar as a viable market driven technology. In this bit they were talking about SA and its embracing of wind power. Specifically relating to this post (and the dont skimp bit)…

reFOCUS: South Africa appears to be on the verge of embracing windpower at least…

CP: They also started with solar in 2001, just after I joined the organization, but this project failed. They installed solar systems of course but the quality of them was so poor that many failed after two to three years. One of the requirements was that the systems be really cheap, but this caused problems with reliability. Yes, some of those regions are poor, but they should invest in good systems so that they don’t have to change them after several years; this is a false economy.

AO: And besides, people don’t trust the technology any longer if they first experience poor quality.

This post is getting too long so i shall stop here. Thank you for reading this far. How about we go listen to some Ghanaian highlife music over at Museke, or listen to Vusi Mahlasela, Habib Koite and Dobet Gnahore on Afropop?

KT Travel Tips

This is a follow up post on the one tip i posted, others in the diaspora contributed some useful tips for traveling to Kenya and Africa in general. (Thank you!) This post is to meant to highlight their contributions.
Lets start with the obvious: Make sure your passport hasn’t expired. Contact the Kenya Embassy, there are 3 locations, DC, LA and NY. A family member went to the NY office, where the staff was courteous and expedient in providing them with the travel documents they needed! This is unlike the passport blues of last year in DC. Way to go guys!

If you will be going through Britain, Magaidi has a tip for you:

…for those transiting through London, you might want to call the British Consulate, moreso for those changing Airports (eg. Flying into Heathrow and departing from Gatwick) in order to get a temporary VISA. This could save you inconveniences and delays once you get there.

MONEY

Credit cards and cash? Input on this came from several bloggers. Ssembonge said

Amex is only accepted in the US and in establishments worldwide that cater for business travelers. In the US, some places donâ??t accept Amex.
If going to Kenya carry cash, which can be easily exchanged at the numerous bureaus. You get a better deal in downtown than in tourist hotel and banks. If you have a huge amount you can negotiate the exchange rate up front if you convert it all at once. Since many establishments accept Visa/MC, I usually end up returning with my dollars.

EGM added -

The one thing about using cards is the length of time it takes to process transactions. As late as October this year I saw a payment I made at Java way back in January get posted. Most of the transactions were posted within a week of making them, but about 5 or so took almost 5 months on average to post. So this time I will try and use cash everywhere, resorting to the card only as a last option.

Kikuyu Moja representing Deutschland and ‘Old World’ KT’s chimed in regarding credit cards that have worked just fine…

…my Maestro debit card and Master Card work perfectly well with Barclays.

E-Nyce (could you kindly give me a link to your blog?) – pointed out a very handy tip that Kudrinketh shared over on Bankelele’s . The handy tip from Kudrinketh is:

For all diaspora investors who will be sending tons of money home for IPO investment,i have a money saving tip.DO NOT USE MONEYGRAM OR WESTERN UNION.

I have been preaching this for years yet people still burn money through these sharks.here’s how you send money home for free,with the best rate.Bank of America(BOA) and Barclays bank have an agreement whereby one can use either bank’s ATM for free.so what i do is open a BOA acct in U.S,send the debit card home and whenever i want to send money i simply deposit money in my BOA acct and instruct the recipient to withdraw cash from Barclays ATM.No fees,you get market exchange rates,no hassle,you can get money 24/7.I have been doing this since 1998 and i can say I’ve saved a ton of money

Another money saving tip,y’all know how most banks charge foreign transaction(2-3%) fees when you use your credit card when you travel abroad.well,Capital One credit card waives this fee so you can swipe you card anywhere in the world without extra penalty.

And from Whispering Inn:

Carry only two cards â?? one debit card for cash and one credit card for purchases. Leave all your other cards behind.

The best option, though, is to open a separate checking account with your bank, transfer a maximum of $1,500 (or however much youâ??re gonna need for the entire trip) into the account, get one of those debit cards that also function as a credit card attached to it, and carry/use ONLY that one card during your travel. Its safer and easier to keep track of your spending. Leave all your other cards behind.

Iâ??ve also found American Express TCs (Travellers Cheques) to be very convenient.

Write and keep the phone numbers of your bank, VISA/MC, and Amex in a separate pocket from your wallet â?? in case you lose your wallet.

Keep receipts of all transactions and pore over your statement when you return or online everyday if you have a secure computer. Easier to catch unauthorized transactions.

Iâ??ve found Barclays bank foreign currency counter at Queensway branch the most helpful.

He also added that if you travel to kenya more than twice a year, just keep an account there and use cash from it when there. I second his recommendation to use Barclays, the service i received was pretty good.

PHONES & ACCESORIES

From Ntwiga are two awesome tips, he has a splitter for his laptop btw, that’s another tip you can check out over at his blog.

- sign up for Skype/Vonage or some other internet service for $10-19 or so a month with a new number and forward your calls from your regular number to your new internet service number. Get a head set with a mike and you can then use any PC in Kenya to make calls to the US/rest of the world for free or stupidly low rates. I used this service to call my credit card companyâ??s 800 number for free when they decided to freeze my account.

- buy a cheap used 900Mhz GSM phone like a Nokia 6100/6610 on eBay, take it with you and use it there. Good phones are expensive in Kenya. For comparison purposes, a 6610/6100 costs maybe $40 (Kshs 3500) on ebay vs. $110 (Kshs 8500) in Kenya. A â??crackberryâ? 7100 costs $80 on eBay (Kshs 7000) vs. atleast $250 (Kshs 18000) in Kenya. You can use the phone to check email, blog or even hook up a laptop to the net via GPRS.

For how to connect to the internet using GPRS, we hop on over back to Kikuyu Moja’s post on this.

In order to use GPRS with Safaricom, all you have to do (as a prepaid customer!!!) is to send an empty short message (SMS) to 4777. Thatâ??s it!
They will then shortly afterwards send you a confirmation sms and the settings for your GPRS capable (!) phone which you will be asked to save and activate using the following PIN: â??1234â??. Simple as that.

If the settings canâ??t be received for whatever reason, but your phone is able to do GPRS, then try the following settings for Safaricom:

APN: safaricom
username: saf
password: data

Do check his site for more on GPRS in Kenya. What i can add for US KT’s – when looking for the data cable that you will need to use with your Quad band/GSM capable phone, buy it from ebay or amazon.com. Radioshack and Best buy are packaging the cable with software and inflating the price, you could have gotten it for $12 but with the software bundl its now $50.

From E-Nyce:

- do not buy power adapters (plastic thingies that allow US cords to plug into Kenyan sockets) in the US – even assuming you can easily find them, theyâ??re cheaper in Kenya! Although JKE aka kikuyumoja might have better perspective on the quality of these. They work fine for me. YMMVâ?¦

I second this, the one i took last year burnt out in no time (Jensen), found a decently priced one at walmart $20 for Travelwise international converter set. Lets see if it holds up.

MISC

E-Nyce again :)

- wanna buy inexpensive gifts for the folks in the Motherland? Go to Walmart if you have â??em, or better a 99-cents store, to stock up on plenty of low-cost goodies.

- if youâ??re taking a laptop, load up as much music as you can on it. Not only good to have some comfort-food for yourself, others will be interested in hearing different music. Believe-it-or-not, I got so many Kenyan friends hooked on Trip-Hop and Nu-Soul, sounds they had never heard before. Funny, considering that these genres are heavily influenced by African rhythms.

I think that’s all for now, for those in the US, if you have Time Warner Cable and get BET Jams, saturday nights starting at 11:00PM eastern, you can watch great African videos, from the Soweto Gospel choir, Fela Kuti, Lingala and more. The program is called Soul Of Africa – Cool stuff.