Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Perfumes to Honour the Dead

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October 31st marks a special time of the year, from astronomic point of view: Tonight marks the halfway point between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice. This is the entrance to the darkest part of the year. It is the night when the barriers between this world and the world of the dead or the spirit world are very thin, allowing passage from one realm to the other. 

Even if you don't celebrate Samhain, Hallowe'en or Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) - this night is a befitting time to remember our ancestors, far and near. Light a candle to those we don't remember because they died before we were born, or we were too young when they passed. And for those who were near and dear - this can be done joyfully by preparing their favourite food, or wearing their perfume. 
Incense and scents in general, for their invisible presence, have historically been the gateway for the underworld, the spirit realm and divinity. Many cultures still use incense in their rituals related to death, funerals and memorials. 

The Egyptians were especially elaborate about their preparations for the last journey: They would pack their dead's chambers with all their belongings, including vials of perfumes and cosmetics, and most famously - ensured the body stays as true to form as possible through a meticulous process of mummification, which involved many fragrant aromatics, such as myrrh, pine resin, cedar, cinnamon, juniper and later also frankincense (in the Roman era). 

In both China and Japan, incense is burnt daily in domestic altars, to honour the ancestors. In China it is mostly a sandalwood based incense, and in Japan incense sticks of many complex aromatics. In India, incense is burnt on the funeral pyres, to help elevate the spirits of the dead to higher realms, and also to mask the intense smell of burning flesh. Of course, the wealthier the deceased is, the more incense can be burnt. I've even read of using sandalwood as the fuel for pyres of the richest people. 

Tobacco is used by the First Nations to communicate with the spirits - almost as a key to their world.  It is also believed that offering tobacco will tell other plants that we're seeking their help and guidance. The Cree people would bury their dead holding tobacco and sweetgrass incense, and also personal belonging that would be considered as an extension of themselves, such as their pipe. 

The Mexicans use copal incense to show the ancestors' spirits the way back into our world for their annual visit, so that they won't get lost. Marigold flowers adorn the graves and portals through which these spirits are expected to enter. This tradition is rooted in the Aztec customs of giving the Gods offerings of maize (corn), or else - copal moulded to the shape of maize foods, such as grains or ears of corn, and even tamales and tortillas. They also buried the dead with pieces of "jade" - copal resin painted in green, as food for their last journey. 

Some of the practices are kept alive today, and others faded away while others disappeared because they seemed to have very little hold in our current reason-obsessed culture. However, one thing is for certain: when you bring forth a scent or an aroma associated with a beloved person who has passed away, you're making that person alive, even if just in your memories. 

Tonight I will slice a red grapefruit and uncork a bottle of Old Spice in memory of my grandfather. These fond memories and the love our ancestors poured into us are eternal. 

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Thursday, October 25, 2018

Pumpkakes

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I received a beautiful chunk of pumpkin from my sister in law's garden (she lives next door and of course grows everything organic). It was enough to make 3 pumpkin pie filling, and then another excess of an extra half a cup. So I decided to freeze enough for making "only" 2 pumpkin pies. From the remaining pumpkin puree, I created this yummy breakfast pancakes today. Try to say "Pumpkin pancakes" and you'll quickly realize that's a pretty difficult thing to do. So I decided to just call them pumpkakes!
Mix well:
2 cups (about 600gr) cooked pumpkin puree 
1/3 cup yoghurt, buttermilk or sour cream
1 Tbs Grapeseed oil (or other neutral vegetable oil)
2 eggs
3 heaping Tbs of coconut palm sugar (or brown sugar)
1 tsp Cinnamon, ground 
1/2 tsp dried Ginger, ground 
1/2 tsp Allspice 
Pinch of nutmeg
Sift together:
1 cup whole grain spelt or wheat flour 
1 tsp baking powder 
Pinch of salt 
Butter, ghee or oil for frying
Add flour mixture to the pumpkin mixture. Fry one table spoon pancakes on a hot and buttered girdle until the rims of the pancake are a bit dry, and only then flip (this is a pretty soft.
Serve with date molasses, maple syrup or honey and various orange fruits such as mango, persimmon or sliced oranges.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Decoding Obscure Notes: Africa Stone

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Sorry to disappoint you, but Africa Stone will not get you high. It has nothing to do with ganja. Nor is Africa Stone a precious rock or a mineral (although it does have some geological significance). Rather, it is a more romantic and mysterious sounding name for a fossilized metabolic product derived from the droppings (in other words: pellet-shaped poop) of the African-in-origin animal called Rock hyrax. Other names for it are rock badger, rock rabbit, Cape hyrax, or dassie if you are in South Africa it. In Hebrew Shaffahn Sela, and in Arabic وبر صخري ("wabr sakhri"). It roams not only in Africa, but also the Middle East - and can be found wild in Israel and Jordan, where it is also notorious for spreading the nasty skin diseases leishhmeniasis, unfortunately. 

This unusual yet commonly spread mammal has an appearance reminiscent of a large guinea pig, yet is surprisingly related to the elephant and the Sirenians (herbivorous sea mammals, including the manatee and other sea "cows"): all belong to the Paenungulata clade.  The rock hyrax (Procavia capensis) is a mammal from the Afrotherian superorder and is the only genus in the order Hyracoidea (and the only member of the family Procaviidae, which kind of defeats the purpose of belonging to a family at all...). The rest of its relatives, creatures from the Paleogene period have become extinct long ago. Hyraxes are relatively contemporary, having emerged in the relatively recent Neogene period. 

There are several curious things about its anatomy, which point to this direction: first of all, it has two unusual incisors, which are common to the tusks in elephants and dugongs. Secondly, its nails are flat much like the elephant's. 

Rock Hyrax

Rock hyrax is a territorial animal that lives in large colonies in caves and rock crevices throughout Africa and the Middle East. They usually have one male with a large herds of females and youngsters. The male acts as a sentry to the group, and will call out to warn them and get them all to return quickly to their cave. The male is mostly the one that marks their territory with highly odoriferous droppings that get their scent from animal pheromones that both the male and female excrete. 

Hyraceum: the aged and fossilized droppings of the rock hyrax. Because the hyrax lives in the same areas for generations. Their droppings and urine compress and petrify, and become almost like a fossil overtime. Some of these middens can be even 50,000 years old, and can show layers of evidence from bygone times [1]. Similarly to the amber from Pinus succinifera, this fossil retains its scent. And this is why it is so useful for perfume making. In South African folk medicine, hyraceum is called Umchamo wenfen [2] and is used to treat snake and scorpion bites [3], as an antidote for poisons, for abdominal pain, to ease pregnancy, to treat diabetes and prostate problems, as well as epilepsy and convulsions. Some research shows that it has an affinity with GABA-benzodiazepine receptorwhich is how it supposedly helpful in stopping seizures, much like the drugs lorazepam and diazepam. 

Its use in perfumery is fairly new though, and becomes increasingly more popular as it can replace civet and castoreum without the need for hunting or animal torture. 

Constituents: Unknown.  

Physical appearance & characteristics: In its raw form, Africa Stone does resemble a rock more than an organic matter. Depending on its age and how petrified it is, hyraceum can be very hard and difficult to break down, or it can be more sticky and resin-like. The pure absolute is a dark-brown, opaque viscous liquid not unlike molasses. 

Volatility rate: Base note and a fixative

Odour description: Leathery and fecal at the same time. Gamey, animalic, nutty, floral, yeasty/mushroomy (like porcini/cèpes), phenolic, tanned hydes, fur, dark earth, sweat, gassoline. Putrid, like a carcass.   

Perfumery Uses: An animal material that is cruelty free and possesses many characteristics that are similar  to both civet and castoerum. Can be used in minute quantities to amplify floral compositions and provide fixative support to any genre. Use in high doses in Russian Leather type fragrances in place of castoreum. In moderate doses in all categories such as Chypre, Fougère, Oriental, etc. to give a perfume the animalic depth it requires. It does not serve exactly as a substitute to civet and castoreum, as it as it does not have the same transformative power unique to these animal materials, where the smaller amount completely transforms the composition even if its own aroma cannot be clearly detected. Perhaps the Gods of Perfume require the sacrifice of animal life or welfare to grant the perfumer with such an effect.

Perfumes with Hyraceum: Hyraceum is a relatively new raw material in the fragrance context. A quick search down Basenotes directory of Africa Stone leads to a very short list of fragrances, and all of them contemporary by niche houses, including Fig by Aftelier, Foxy and Chinchilla by Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, Carmine and Kazimi by House of Matriarch, Gracing the Dawn by Roxana Illuminated Perfume and a few more. Curiously, there is one perfume by Penhaligon's from 1870, but I suspect this is a 2011 reformulation by Bertrand Duchafur that added this ingredient. Under Hyraceum you'll also find a few others, mostly by brands I don't recognize, and then Phenomene Verte II by Parfums Lalun (the 1st one was wonderful). By yours truly, you could first find Africa Stone in the now defunct Gaucho, which was launched the same year as InCarnation. More lately, Treazon, Narkiss and Inbar also contain this note.  

Aromatherapy uses: None. 

Blending Tips: Pre-dilute to 1-3% for subtle presence and to benefit from its fixative advantage without changing the personality of your composition too much. This is particularly improtant if you’re working with 10% dilutions with most of your building blocks. Use in as high as 15% dilutions in composition that require this note to be noticeable and dominant (i.e.: Leather, Tobacco, Orientals, etc.), or if you’re using pure essences (undiluted) when composing. Hyraceum goes well with costus, labdanum, vanilla, tobacco, tuberose, jasmine, castoreum, cade, narcissus, orris butter, agarwood, etc. 

Safety considerations: None known. Not for flavour use. 

Additional sources:
[1] Quaternary Science Reviews Volume 56, 21 November 2012, Pages 107-125
[2]. 2014; 11(5): 67–72. Published online 2014 Aug 23.
[3] South African Journal of Science S. Afr. j. sci. vol.103 n.11-12 Pretoria Nov./Dec. 2007

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Sunday, October 07, 2018

Decoding Obscure Notes: Civet

Masked Palm Civet - 02

“Civet: Animal secretion from the so-called civet  “cat” – an African animal that resembles a mongoose in appearance. The male and the female have special glands located between their genitalia and anus that produce civet. The civet was first discovered in coffee plantations, from which they would steal coffee berries. Curiously, civet coffee (beans recovered from civet faeces) is now sought after by coffee connoisseurs, and sold for a prime price. Less exciting to learn is the fact that most, if not all, civets are kept in captivity under horrible conditions. The reason is that the more angry and agitated these animals are, the more civet they produce. They are held in small cages and occasionally poked and prodded with sticks to “encourage” the secretion of civet. Therefore, civet has become a controversial raw material, as there are no known ethical or cruelty-free civet farms. Civet secretion is processed with solvent to produced an absolute – a thick paste with an enormously intense odour, dominated by indole and paired with other animal nuances that are warm, strong and musky. At low dilution, they create a very pleasing, almost floral sweetness that is sadly inimitable.”

- Excerpt From: Ayala Moriel. “Foundation of Natural Perfumery: A Practical Hands-on Guide for Creating Your Own Fragrances.” 

While preparing my article about The Painted House and Z'bad, I realized to my astonishment that after all these years of blogging, I have never dedicated an article to civet! Civet is perhaps the most iconic animalic raw material, without which many classics would simply not exist. Too many to count, really, but just from the top of my head - Tabu, Youth Dew, Joy, Miss Dior, Diorissimo, No. 5, Jicky, Bal a Versailles, Korous, Old Spice and so many more. While many perfume nerds know about indole as being the major component in the faecal hit that civet is known for, very few have actually ever smelled it in its raw form. Civet has a paste-like, golden appearance and texture not unlike a generous dollop of human earwax treasure. In its raw form, civet is overbearing and intrusive. Impolite to say the least. But there is more to it than indole.

Zoology and of Civet:
Researching this animal, I realize how little I know about the animal kingdom. And while researching and trying to understand the zoological classification of civets, I also found out not only that hyenas are more related to cats than to dogs, but also some fascinating facts about the spotted hyena's female genitalia, which is a proof that nature is a lot less decisive about male-female distinction. But I digress so let's turn back to civets.

First of all, although they share some physical similarities, mongoose are closer to cats than they are to civets, so my analogy is not all that off the mark. Both the mongoose and the cat belong to the Feliformia suborder. Civet (Civettictis civetta), however, belongs to the suborder Viverroidea and the family Viverridae, which are the primitive predecessors of the feliformia. It consists mostly of the genera: ViverraGenettaHerpestes, and Suricata. The "civets" in this family belong to three sub-genres within the viverranae sub-family: Genetta, Poiana, Viverra (which has many types of "civets" within it), viverricula (which consists only of the Indian civet), and lastly the Civettictis where our subject, the African Civet (which originate in Ethiopia) belongs and is the only member of, and also the main one of interest to perfumery (and to a lesser extent also the Indian civet).

These animals are mostly found in Africa and Southeast Asia. They like various habitats, including mountains, savanna, woodlands and especially thick tropical forests. Unfortunately, with the massive deforestation on our planet, their habitat is diminishing. Most of the animals belonging to this family have renewable scent glands on their skin. They have long tails and long snouts, particular teeth structure which I won't bore you with and other anatomical characteristics. Basically these are small carnivores (smallest being the wee African linsang, and the largest of them being binturong, which can go up to 25kg). The civet in question, however, is actually an omnivore, relying mostly on a plant-based diet consisting of fruit and somewhat on nectar. Which explains why it likes to eat coffee berries and produces the famous "kopi luwak" from the partly digested coffee "beans". But more on this later.

The African Civet's scent glands or "pouches" are located near the anus, and occur in both males and females. However, the males produce larger quantities of the funky civet secretion. It is unclear what is the purpose of these glands, but it is very likely a deterring mechanism, much like the skunk: the animals produce more of this secretion when they are under stress.

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Historical Uses:
The African Civet is native to Ethiopia, and therefore we need to look into this country's history and heritage to discover the first relationships mankind had with this animal. It is believed that civet paste was used in Ethiopian perfumes, cosmetics and perhaps also incense from time immemorial, and that Queen of Sheba brought this as a gift to king Solomon. Yemen being just across the Red Sea from Ethiopia would explain the emergence of the Zbad (زبد) perfume paste in this country - a solid perfume or unguent made mostly with civet, and with added resins, spices and perhaps even with other animal musks. The specimen I have is redolent of camphor, spearmint, myrrh and opoponax.

Even to this day, Ethiopian civet is collected in cups made of zebu horn (a type of an ox), which is also where they were traditionally stored. Each horn would be filled to the brim with the semi-solid civet paste, the production of four years of civet from one animal - between 35-40oz of the material. It was often also adulterated with other zebu products, such as clarified butter, other fats, beeswax, honey and even baby excrements (!). To test the civet for quality, civet traders would actually taste this paste, with the honey being a tell-all sign for adulteration. Yum.

Zeved (זֵבֶד) is mentioned in the the Torah (Old Testament) once, although in a different connotation - a blessing of thankfulness of Leah after giving birth to her son Zevulun. In this context, the word could mean a gift, but it might also have meant perfume, and some modern translation use the same word (which has very similar spelling equivalence to the Arabic Zbad) - it is used simply as "civet".
It is speculated that the third gift the magi brought to Christ upon his birth along with the frankincense and myrrh was not gold (Zahav in Hebrew), but in fact civet. Since the New Testament is originally in Greek I can't comment on the language there, because my knowledge of this language is less than minimal.

Preparation of Civet Extracts:
Crude civet paste is extracted with hydrocarbon (a solvent) to produce a concrete, which is further processed with alcohol to yield an absolute.

A low-tech Civet extract in the form of tincture can be fairly easily prepared from the crude civet excretion by alcohol maceration, using one of the following ratios of civet paste to 95% ethanol:
1:5 (labeled as 20% civet tincture) 
or -
1:10 (labeled as 10% civet tincture)
This mixture can be placed to macerate overtime, or gently heated, then chilled prior to filtration, in order to separate any fatty or waxy material from the alcohol.

What does Civet Smell Like:
Civet has a distinct animal, faecal odour which is full concentration is objectionable and repulsive, smelling like fear and danger. Just like the animal's state of mind when it secrets it. Upon dilution to 10% it is still very strong and repulsive, like pubic hair and the nether region after not being washed for more than a day. At 1% would, civet presents a honeyed, floral aroma, sweetly reminiscent of unwashed beard, sexy and with a still superb diffusive powers.

Chemical Makeup
Civet extracts (tincture or absolute) is especially known for being dominated by indole and skatole (AKA civettol, which is closely related to the former) but the truth is that these only appear in small amounts (about 1%). The more important molecules in civet is the musk cyclohexadecanone (AKA civettone or zibethone)[1], which gives civet its honeyed, musky-floral, lasting power. Civet that has too much faecal or uric qualities is likely adulterated with indole and skatole, and in any case is considered of inferior quality.  

Both civettone and civettol were successfully synthesized, and have largely replaced civet in the fragrance industry, their appeal not limited to their consistency and availability, but also to their lack of faecal facets. In this exactly lays their disadvantage though - because they do not represent the full spectrum of natural civet.

Daring
Civet in Perfume:
There is hardly any class of perfumery that can't use some civet, even if just for its fixative qualities. And indeed, one of its most versatile uses is to prefix alcohol. Civet is particularly valuable in floral compositions, giving them not only lasting power, but also a highly diffusive power, depth of character and enhanced aphrodisiac qualities. It is especially valuable in narcissus basis, but is also very useful (in minute quantities, of course) in lighter florals such as Lily of the Valley (Diorissimo being a prime example). However, civet in large and identifiable quantities is particularly in use in the oriental classification, rounding off to Spicy/Woody Orientals,  adding depth and warmth to Ambery Orientals and amber bases, honey bases, "black" musk compounds (as opposed to the "white musk" which is relying on ambrettolide and other vegetal musks), leather, Fougère, and more. Civet goes particularly well with rose, jasmine, agarwood, ylang ylang, orange blossom, honey absolute, vanilla, patchouli, tonka bean, other musks, and more.

Civet in Flavour:
Perhaps you'd be surprised that civet finds any use in flavour, especially after reading about its adulterants. But it is in use, especially in compounding berry flavours, and finds its use to many flavour categories, including alcoholic beverages, soft drinks, chewing gum, baked goods, frozen dairy, puddings/gelatin products, hard and soft candy (Fenaroli's Handbook of Flavor Ingredients, p. 333). No specifics were provided. 

The coffee aficionados have probably heard of the lucrative Kopi Luwak - coffee beans that were partly digested by civets, and therefore have not only gotten an additional extra special aroma, but also the process of passing through the creature's digestive tract have fermented them and created a supposedly superior taste. These can go for a very high price - I have seen a small tin of roughly quarter of a pound sold for $100 many years ago, and recently for a much reduced price of $45. Some places are reputed to serve a single cup for a $100, so this sounds like a very good deal. However, as curious as I was - I did not feel comfortable supporting this kind of product, not to mention actually ingesting it. So I can't comment from first hand about its hedonic value.

Civet and Ethics:
It's impossible to talk about civet without discussing ethics (or lack thereof) and animal welfare. African Civets are the ones commercially used and are captured from the wild and kept in small cages to keep them in a state of fright. The reason being, that the more pissed off they are, the more secretion they'd produce. As mentioned earlier, African Civets eat mostly a vegetarian diet. However, when fed meat, it was discovered that they produce way more secretion.

Here's an excerpt from Arctander's "Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin" to give you an idea of civet's living conditions, including its diet over four years - the amount of time a civet takes one civet to fill a zebu horn with a marketable amount of secretion:
"During this period, the animal will consume something like the raw meat from 50 (fifty) sheep, and the poor cat, frequently teased in its narrow cage, will have undergone 400 to 800 painful "scrapings" of its glands. The raw meat diet, the narrow cage and the teasing are all means of increasing the production of the civet secretion which is scraped off with regular intervals while the cast is caged." (p. 174). The ethical questionability in it is not just with the animal torture itself (and changing its diet to something it won't normally eat), but also the many sheep that get killed in the process, in very poor countries where they typically are used to feed entire families for years on end as dairy, and only occasionally slaughtered.

Civet boycotting began in the 1970s, but have drastically increased in the last couple of decades, thanks to the internet and more recently the advent of social media,  animal welfare and activism have taken the forefront on civet issues, and large (and small) perfume houses  felt a pressure to be politically correct and deny their use of civet in their perfume. This is only a half truth. While I'm certain most mass-produced perfumes no longer contain civet, not only because of their cost, but also because of the general decline in strong, dark musky animal notes in the general market; I'm just as certain that many perfume houses still use civet, which is necessary in many older formulations which are still commercially viable (classics such as No. 5, for instance, are still using high quality natural raw materials exclusively for the extract formulation, and I won't be at all surprised that natural civet is still in that jus). Just because companies announce they don't use something doesn't mean that they stopped using it. The proof is in the pudding. If this were true, there would be no more civet farms, would they not?

The fact and the matter is, civet is still raised commercially in Africa for scent-gland scraping which is mostly for use in perfume and finds some use in flavour also. Other farms (primarily in Asia) specialize in raising civets close to coffee plantations and feed them exclusively on coffee berries until they have blood-shot eyes from caffeine overdose. Both types of civet farming are alive and well as anyone who visits them could attest to. It's not just the Kopi Luwak aficionados that are responsible for the existence of civet farming - and subsequent cruelty.

Boycotting is a huge tool to raise awareness to an issue. But it is rarely a solution to a problem. On the contrary - it makes a bunch of privileged people (I'm talking about all of us in the perfume industry) feel better about ourselves, and rienforcers our sense of entitlement by flaunting righteousness all while doing absolutely nothing to solve the problem beyond sitting at the comfort of our armchair and pretend like we're solving the world's problems.

Just as the war on drugs has not erased drug use and its many dark implications on society (like crime, prostitution, overdose, contractions of STDs, etc.) or improved the life of those affected by drug abuse - so did the boycotting on civet hasn't improved one bit the conditions in which civets are raised not supports the civet farmers to abandon those practices and replace them with humane ones. While the West is boycotting civet loudly, civet farmers are getting paid less and less for their labour, and instead of selling directly to the fragrance houses before those washed their hands from the whole civet trade - they need to pass it through several hands to the larger grey markets in Asia, and finally it ends up with the same fragrance houses in France and the USA.

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Solution to the Problem? 
The correct way to remedy this as an industry is to claim responsibility and directly purchase from civet farmers, while at the same time improving the civets conditions, and supporting those farmers in transitioning to

Throughout the years of my work, I haven't used civet for commercial purposes, because I did not feel comfortable with this situation. Now that I have better understanding of the issues surrounding civets, and also live closer to where they are grown - I feel that I would like to be more involved in making civet conditions humane, and as a result also having an ethical civet product on the market. This is a huge undertaking - way bigger than one perfumer can do on her own, but if many of us small indie perfumers will show support for this trade and get truly involved, if we continue this discussion and start following an action plan, I think we may be able to use civet ethically in our lifetime. 

I highly encourage you to read all of Dan Riegler's articles on the topic. Dan visits in Ethiopia frequently and has contact with civet farmers and even an action plan for how to make this happen. Let's support him and make civet trading ethical! This will benefit everybody - the civets, the farmers who raise them, the classic perfumes that had civet in their formulation, and also new natural perfumes that could be created using them, guilt free.

[1] Please note Wikipedia entry for civet in perfumery lists three other molecules,  cyclopentadecanonecyclohexadecanonecycloheptadecanone, and 6-cis-cycloheptadecenone, which upon further research are either compounds of the muskrat odour, or simply misspelled.

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Sunday, September 30, 2018

Z'bad

Z'bad

Z'bad, Zebad or Zubad, Zabād, Sinnawr al-Zabād simply means civet in Arabic, and is the origin of this word in Western world (Civet, civette, zibet and zibetum are some of its Western spellings). In the Arab world, civet paste is still used today in its raw form, as an aphrodisiac, and a hair grooming product: to smooth and scent eyebrows, moustache and beard, as well as treatment for hair loss and various other folkloric uses. If you understand Arabic, this video explains how it is used also. But Z'bad is also a perfume type, just as "White Musk" is a type of fragrance nowadays, and not just one literal ingredient. Although civet is the key ingredient that gives it its character, it is not the only one. Z'bad was used to protect against the evil eye, so it is a magical concoction as well as an aphrodisiac.

I first heard about Z'bad from Dan Riegler (Apothecary's Garden), who have found it in an old perfumery and apothecary in the midst of a Souk in Yemen. I was both intrigued and hesitant about purchasing it because it was a bit unclear to me at the time what this was - aged civet paste or an authentic Yemeni perfume, and since I don't use the former in my creations, it seemed superfluous to make such a purchase.

When I stumbled upon this article about The Painted House and heard from Ayelet Bar-Meir that the Yemeni artist used this mysterious perfume and that it was a strong memory she left with her children and grand children, I knew I had to try it for myself. Dan has kindly gifted me with two jars, and I'm so thankful he did. The Z'bad that Dan found in Yemen is indeed not just aged civet but a full perfume, a solid paste of civet mingled with camphor, spices and that has aged and mellowed for decades.

In Dan's own words, "Z'bad is a potent traditional Yemenite Civet based perfume mix, used for hundreds of years among the Yemenite Jews, but abandoned by younger generations, Z'bad, or Zabad, doubled as a prophylactic against the evil eye, which may also be a contributing factor to its decline in popularity(...)". Which fits right in with what I read about Afia's use of it in that article, and what Ayelet has spoken about.

I received the Z'bad while I was still in Canada, and made great efforts (over the course of four weeks!), to not open the jar till I entered The Painted House. I wanted to have a very specific place association and emotional memory with it. And trying it on first at the house of a woman who lived with similar fragrances and put great care to incorporate them into her daily rituals. It was at first surprisingly fresh, and surprisingly familiar: a burst of camphor and spearmint emerges from the jar as I first uncorked it and smeared some of the dense, rich salve onto the back of my hand.  It had strong banknotes of balsams and civet, but nevertheless there was a surprisingly green, minty, camphoreous freshness to it for the first few minutes. It was a tad medicinal, but not as medicinal as Tiger Balm (which is what the uninitiated nose might dismiss it as at first sniff). There are also earthy qualities, almost musty-dusty, which makes me wonder if there isn't some patchouli oil in there as well, or more likely - a kind of infusion of the dried leaves. I have very little knowledge of how these traditional perfumes I made, but from the little I know about Arab aesthetics, just as the oud oil is used as the "base oil" for other ingredients, in this case it is not unlikely that the civet paste was infused with several resins, spices and herbs to create this rich perfume preparation. I'm also smelling cedar, which gives it a rather pervasive dryness in the opening hour of so on the skin. Perhaps even a hint of myrrh or opoponax. There are no flowers to be smelled in this, but it is unnecessary. There is so much indole in the civet that it really blooms on the skin, and develops into this luscious, purring animalic-balsamic presence for hours on end afterwards. It is not overmpoering at all, but simply becomes part of my skin.

Youth Dew & Z'bad

In both its scent and consistency, Z'bad reminds me a lot of vintage Youth Dew solid perfume in a vintage necklace I have that is probably not that different in age. It seems like Z'bad was the inspiration for Youth Dew, as well as its predecessor Tabu. Both rely heavily on civet, and have a distinctively heavy-sweet-cloying-exotic character that is heavily inspired by the Orient. To Westerners that never smelled the original, these two must have been earth-shuddering at the time, and immensely original. And they are in their own rights. But they wouldn't be around without this Arabian unguent.

Likewise, the evocative packaging and thicker liquid in the Western Orientals - Tabu, Youth Dew, Opium, Obsession and Shalimar - is created in such way as to recreate the ritual of applying a thick paste to the eyebrows, nape of the neck and perhaps other unmentionable strategic spots. The richness of materials create a heavy veil of scent that is highly intimate, personal and also precious. It does not need to be applied in great quantity, and ironically - the economy in which is can be used is part of its luxury and appeal.

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Saturday, September 29, 2018

Adornment as Survival

The Painted House

In the edge of the sleepy border town of Shlomi, there is a run-down neighbourhood of subsidized housing whose appearances are as yawn inducing as ever. You pass by a synagogue down an abandoned alley, courtyards with neglected gardens, and walk a few stapes up the mouldy staircases, and then there is a gate to an otherworldly temple. Even before the door is opened for you, you know you're stepping into a different time-space zone. It is decorated with intricate designs, resembling an African weaving patterns.

The moment you step inside, the colours shout at you from all directions. Very striking earthy and almost primary colours, reminiscent of African art and perhaps also with some Mexican association (if it weren't for the very sparse use of azure colours). There is also an overpowering scent of highly-perfumed floor cleaner. There is no place for the eye to rest or think of anything else but what the artist intended to create here. A magnetic energy both suffocates you and transports you into the inner corridors and innermost secret chambers of her life, and death.

The Painted House

The foyer is tiny, and packed with portraits and collages of the artists superimposed over newspaper clippings. Before you realize where you are, you're already in the kitchen, of which the only homey remnants are the aluminum pots still stashed away in the cabinets. But in this context they seem more like witches cauldrons than anything else, and it's hard to imagine any sustenance cooked within these spirited walls. Behind it is a service balcony with broomsticks and buckets and other cleaning affair, also looking like they carry much more magical meaning than their humble appearance. It seems like not even a good idea to step closer - like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, at any moment these object may start walking towards you and drown you with bucket-water all on their own. The broomstick is also painted with zebra-like stripes, and all the pipes running through this balcony are meticulously decorated, to conceal any distracting parts of reality from the eyes of the beholder.

The Painted House + Perfume

The other rooms are just as haunting, an disturbingly intimate - with beds laid with the same blankets and bedsheets of the artist who dwelled her, and with the artist's personal belonging in the painted closet: antique face powder, with an unrealistic peach colour of no real skin... Crusted-blood-red nail polish, hand creams, medications, and a quarter-liter Eau de Cologne that smells nothing fresh or cologne-like, but rather like a deep, rich ambreine perfume, in the vein of Shalimar: some bright bergamot drowned in a syrupy concoction redolent of vanilla, castoreum and patchouli. The legendary perfume that Afia's children remember her by is probably sitting right in front of me.

The Painted House
This is The Paineted House of the late artist Afia Zekharya. You don't need to know her life story to appreciate the power of her art and the magic of this space where she lived and ultimately died. But it sure helps to understand why she did what she did: spent the last 15 years of her life covering everything inside this apartment with art. Also, similarly to other female artist that focus on their internal storytelling, and although her art is immensely biographic, it is more figurative and symbolic, and less elaborate than Frida Kahlo for example, whose art also portrays the deep suffering - although infused with joy - she experienced in life.

There is more unknown about Afia's life story than there is know, party because she spoke only Arabic, and therefore hasn't communicated much with her neihbours. But also because her family keeps its privacy, and does not like to be interviews about here. Whether it is to protect her memory or because they are media shy, we will never know. But we do know she was born in Southern Yemen, got married off at a young age (probably 10), and has immigrated to Israel with her husband, a traditional Yemeni jewellery artist (if you haven't seen Yemeni silver jewellery - it is very ornate, and requires much skill), and their six children (although according to what I've heard she's given birth 15 times - so most of the children did not survive). They were first settled in a big Arabic house in the abandoned village of Al-Bassa, whose inhabitants fled during the War of Independence/AKA The Naqba in 1948. The village was mostly ruined and on top of it was built the moshav Betzet, and parts of the industrialized section of the new Israeli border town of Shlomi. 

The Painted House

It was a big house with garden and yard and Afia had dedicated her life to raising her children, cooking traditional Yemeni food in a taboon (a specialty clay wood stove for baking flatbreads) that was built in the house - a lifestyle I imagine was still somewhat familiar to what she had in Yemen, despite being displaced in a new foreign country. But before each day has began, she would take great care adorning herself: painting her fingernails with nail polish, wearing Yemeni regalia and jewellery and dousing herself with her signature perfume - an Oriental concoction that is forever engrained in her children's and grandchildren's memory. Perhaps this was her only pathway for self-expression, because Afia was forbidden by her husband to pursue her true passion for painting - something that according to a rare interview from 1994, she was very good at and was even recognized for while living in Yemen. According to her story, she was so gifted and her art so loved that she was especially commissioned to paint a king's palace in her youth.

The Painted House

But sometime in  her old age of 80, after all her children left home, and her husband already among the dead - Afia was displaced again. This time because the town of Shlomi needed the land where she lived to expand the industrial compounds. Without knowing the language, she was signing a lease that robbed her of her house, and instead was provided with a claustrophobic rental space in the Amidar neighbourhood of Shlomi. No garden, no chickens, no taboon to bake her bread. Instead of using the sun balcony to keep contact with the world, Afia shut herself in and in secret, with cheap paint, began telling her story that was locked inside her all these years, on every surface of the house. Including all the walls, the frosted-glass window panels of the sun-balcony, the screens that keep away mosquitoes, the cupboards, closets and even the toilet bowl. Then the floors, (all the parts that were not covered by carpets, so now that the carpets were removed, you can see some bare floor). And finally, despite her short height, painted the ceiling. To overcome her height obstacle, she placed a chair atop a table and methodically decorated the entire ceiling in each and every room in the apartment. She was almost done painting the last square meter of the ceiling when she fell and injured herself so badly she had to be hospitalized.  

The Painted House

But that injury did not stop her creativity. She now stocked up on multiple dolls from the souk, created Yemeni regalia to cover their bare plastic skin, and painted their faces with traditional Yemeni -style "makeup" - adorning their eyes with blue and black frames, painting their lips a bright red and adding henna-like decorations for their skull-like yellow-painted faces. Like the pattern on the walls, all the faces replicate each other, and all replicate Afia's face, which she also painted, reigning on her kingdom of painted dolls. As if frozen in time in their childhood, the part in life which Afia was never really able to live to its fullest. They're stuck in that moment in time, the night of there Henna ceremony, their eyebrows and forehead smeared with Z'bad - a seductive solid perfume made of civet paste, camphor and spices. 

The Painted House
The dolls look all alike: their seamless baby-plastic complexion suffocated by cakey makeup and weighed down by heavy metal jewellery and ornate ceremonial Yemeni-wedding embroidery. Their once innocent appearance now seems menacing. Frozen on the eve of their wedding night, like a serial-killer's victims - or perhaps like a murderess themselves.   

This art and the house struck a chord with me on many levels. First of all, because Afia Zkharya is also a Fringe Artist like my daughter Tamya (an autistic artist that paints and draws purely out of her own need to express herself, and less so from a need of an audience or recognition). My daughter's innocent portraits seem violet at times - wide-smiling "happy" girls exposing sharp teeth and claw-like nails, surrounded by dense patterns and many colours.  

Secondly, on a more personal or emotional level, being a woman and having experienced the blurring of my identity (being raised by a stepfather of Moroccan descent who hated anything to do with my European heritage, he insisted on silencing of my voice and criticizing me whenever I was singing German Lieder or Italian opera), and the general oppression of my art and creativity while growing up - especially confusing when on the surface it was nurtured and encouraged, and I was constantly praised for my "talents". Something that I believe a lot of women can relate to. As women, we are often not allowed to show the full spectrum of our emotions, not even through a socially acceptable form of art. And this is especially apparent in more traditional patriarchal societies and those still strongly dominated by that. 

The Painted House

Last but not least, on a more political level, being an Israeli all those oppressive events, such as wars and violence, and especially violence agains minority groups and women from those groups is deeply disturbing and affects me even if I wasn't an Arab-Jew or an Arab-Palestinian thrown out of my home, or having my children stollen (which happened to many Jewish women from Yemen, the Balkans and other Arab-Speaking countries) on the pretence that they were still-born. This is an affair that is only recently being acknowledged by the Israeli government - being denied as being an urban myth even though we as a collective all knew and believed the victims all along, a story that kept being told and there was no other way. This kind of pain is not something that no matter how much you try to - it cannot be erased or denied. The truth comes out because it is part of people's lives who live among us, even if it doesn't affect us directly. And this is also true for the Sixties Scoop in Canada, which is a too-obvious comparison, and has bled through all level of society, whether if we like to acknowledge it or not. Jut like a war, you can't have a whole generation scarred and lives displaced and shuttered this way without having a multi-generational effect on all of society.  

The Painted House

The fact that her art is recognized, and the Painted Palace saved from erasure, just as Afia insisted on expressing herself despite all odds, and being rented to another family is a consolation. Just like the artist has and preserved her language and her name (Israel's melting pots of the 1950s and beyond was very aggressive about morphing everyone into "Israelis" and not allowing preserving their identity and culture from abroad - beginning by forcing people to forget their mother's tongue, and change their names into Hebrew names. For example, Afia, which means Health in Arabic was "Hebrewsized" into "Ofra" (which means a baby deer),  Now the art and culture division of the town of Shlomi is fundraising for preserving the house so that many more generations can experience this magical place and be touched by Afia's story and the suffering she's endured. Like Dia de los Muertos, this creation feels more like a commune with the dead. Next time I go there I want to bring a Yemeni soup as an offering, and give Afia's doll one of my cherished jars of Z'bad I received as a gift from my friend Dan, to refresh her painted face and perfume all her self-portraits. 

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Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Coralle, Revamped

Pineapple 112


Revamping Coralle  was a spontaneous act. One thing led to another - to begin with, I had to test a new kind of alcohol. I tested it with some ylang ylang. It didn't dissolve. I decided to try to fix the matter by adding more alcohol and the only scent I could think about making with ylang ylang was Coralle. And then, instead of just making a straightforward bath of the original formula, I decided it was time to put to use my research on fruit tinctures. Pineapple, if to be more specific. It was a total streak of luck. I had no experience using pineapple extract before. I just had a hunch that it will work beautifully with the banana-like notes of ylang ylang, and with the davana (a strawberry-and-hay like essential oil) cassis absolute that are already in the formula.

But of course, I did not have any pineapple extract. So I had to make my own. I've began some experiments this summer with fruit extracts, using freeze-dried fruit that can be procured for rather hefty price but with a lot of fresh-fruit-flavour. Pineapple was one of them, and the one that preserved the fresh fruit aroma the best. I was so surprised by the result. It was one of those things that sounded too good to be true when I read about it on Charna Ethier's blog. And perhaps it is too good to be true with some fruit - because the freeze-dried pear and apple I found didn't taste at all like the fresh versions of themselves and their crispy, fluffy-crunchy texture was the only thing going for their bland persona.

I also tinkered with the base notes, adding a few things that make it a bit less agreeable and more three-dimensional. nothing that is veering too much off the theme of tropical flowers, creamy notes and dry woods. But still.

The result was pleasantly surprising: A distinctively old-fashioned Fruity-Floral perfume, leaning slightly towards the Chypre-Fruity, Floral-Aldehydic zone. Although there is not a drop of oak moss to be found there, it has a certain dryness at the base that along with the ylang ylang, herbaceous-fruity dabana and the fruit accents, creates a Chyrpesque personalty. Not in the teeny-bopper fruity-floral sense, but rather in the retro 50s and 60s style Chypre-Fruity and Aldehydic florals. More along the lines of Fidji, and definitely not anything similar to Escada's serial fruit-punch perfume releases.

Coralle
Top Notes: Ylang Ylang Extra, Grapefruit, Clementine, Pineapple
Heart Notes: Ylang Ylang Cream, Bourbon Geranium, Davana
Base Notes: Spanish Amber, Bourbon Vanilla, Papyrus, Vetiver 

I realized to my dismay that I don't even have proper bottle labels for my current packaging of eau de parfums: only the tags from days of yore, when I still was bottling all my alcoholic beverages in frosted tear-shaped flacons. Therefore, I am using hand-written labels for now; and once the High Holidays in Israel come to a close I will print new labels - which would be my first time doing so since moving my headquarters to Israel.

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