issue 173 - July 1987
The Joshua Tree
This is a moribund period in popular music - the charts are continually full of re-releases and cover versions of 1960s classics and musicians think of business before they think of art, let alone rebellion. And there is almost as great a division between the worlds of singles and albums as there was in that other moribund time, the early 1970s.
It is interesting to see the Irish band U2 in this context. They are fantastically popular and yet seem to transcend the crass showiness of the singles marketplace, to have weightier things on their minds, as did pro-punk dinosaurs like Yes and Led Zeppelin. And Bono's lyrics are often reminiscent of Jon Anderson's for Yes - straining after the eternal, eyes fixed on some misty horizon, portending everything but actually conveying very little.
In a post-punk world this sounds positively insulting, but the comparison is interesting precisely because U2 are good enough to elude such associations. Their music - particularly by virtue of The Edge's guitar - manages to create a sense of space, to be expansive and epic without tumbling into self-indulgence. The space this time is that of the American prairies they so often now find themselves crossing but the dominant impression, as always, is of Bono's Christian faith, since he seems incapable of conjuring up any other imagery but that of angels and devils, trees of pain and sons of Cain.
Politics? Well, U2 certainly have a conscience, though their song about the 'disappeared' in Latin America has nothing to signal that it is a statement about right-wing dictatorships - just as you had to read an interview with them to discover that their magnificent New Year's Day single was about Poland's martial law. But Amnesty International's address is given as the heart on their sleeve.
by Dembo Konte and Kausu Kuyateh
'My father leamed these songs from his father - his teacher - and my father taught them to me, so I have to teach my son,' says Gambian kora player Dembo Konte, explaining the oral tradition of the music presented on this album.
Mandinka traditional music goes back at least as far as the 13th-century Malian empire in West Africa. Its exponents are the jalis (hereditary musicians) such as Konte and Kuyateh. And while jalis may not be able to read and write they know their history backwards, drawing on a wealth of detailed songs and stories about events, family relationships and the migrations of people. The first song on this record, Tiramakhan, is a Gambian version of an old Malian song in praise of the descendants of a Mandinka hero.
The kora is a string harp made from a calabash with a piece of rosewood for the neck. Cowhide is stretched over the gourd and secured at the back with studs which double as decoration. There are 21 strings - made today from fishing line.
And its sound is delightful. Think of a waterfall and the words you might use to describe it and you also describe kora music: tinkling, cascading, overlapping, harmonious and many-layered. It sounds effortless as it ripples along, the musicians' nimble fingers belying the years of hard graft needed to perfect their playing.
Tanante - which also features a solo piece by Kuyateh on his special 23-string instrument - has been produced to coincide with a UK tour by the two players. They are great ambassadors for their music.
directed by Fons Rademakers
The Second World War is certainly more dramatized and mythologized in movies than any other war in history - though Platoon's success may yet spawn enough cash-ins to make us feel otherwise. But even when they aspire higher than death-or-glory antics, films about 'the War' are usually seen from the perspective of the English-speaking countries who avoided Nazi occupation. The Dutch have deeper scars to come to terms with.
The Assault won this year's Oscar as best foreign language film. It takes one traumatic night near the end of the War and shows how it reverberates from childhood through the whole life of its hero. An informer is shot by the Dutch Resistance, neighbours save themselves by moving the body from the patch of street outside their own house to that outside the hero's house and his family suffers the consequences.
Much of the fascination of the film lies in the gradual uncovering of all the different perspectives on that one key event, the rich and random collection of motives which collided in the night of 'the assault'. This is a fascination more normally found in a book and the movie's main weakness is its novelistic structure - it has an intrusive narrator, for instance, who jumps us over the years
But as a statement about the way living under Fascism can destroy and compromise people The Assault is very convincing - and the link it makes with the peace movement now is also encouraging, especially in a work with Hollywood's seal of approval.
by Ann Phillips
Middle-class, white, cropped hair, unshaved legs and long, dangly earrings? You've got it. Everybody knows what feminists are like. But Ann Phillips asks why we think like this. She takes us through tortuous debates about the importance of class to feminists and other women - for example, is a woman middle-class just because she is married to a middle-class man? Can middle-class women identify with working-class women's problems? Ann Phillips doesn't come up with many original answers. We are told, as we probably already knew, that class appears to be more important than gender for working class women and race is largely ignored in the book. But Divided Loyalties is illuminating social history: it shows that there is reason (and sisterhood) in the madness of those shaven heads and hairy legs.
Report to the World Commission on Environment and Development
Clear and brief summaries of global issues are unusual enough. To have them prompted by the UN is rarer still. Food 2000, however, has actually been produced by an independent body, the World Commission on Environment and Development, a group of international worthies who (at the request of the UN) have been ruminating in Geneva on the paradox of food surpluses in a world of hunger.
The result is a slim volume of the latest information and accepted wisdom on food and hunger. Nothing particularly new or radical here, but ideal for school projects and people who need a quick briefing. The report emphasizes the need for ecological conservation - particularly of the tropical moist forests which are home to 100,000 of the world's higher plant species.
Similar concerns are evident in the second book in the same series, Energy 2000. It worries that the latest drops in oil prices might halt the move towards replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. But the report also makes relatively conciliatory noises about nuclear energy, arguing that the polluters should clean up their own radioactive mess - and not leave it to their children.
Black and Gold
by Anthony Sampson
(Hodder and Stoughton)
Anthony Sampson's previous books have established his credentials as a writer who manages to give the full flavour of an inside story - such as his 'secret' history of the multinational ITT. Most of his work has been on multinational corporations, so it is no surprise that his first book on South Africa examines the relationship between big business and the black resistance.
Its centrepiece is the 1985 meeting in Lusaka between top South African executives such as Gavin Relly of Anglo-American and African National Congress leaders such as Oliver Tambo and Thabo Mbeki. The meeting seems to have resembled a vicarage tea party - 'a picnic,' said Relly, 'one of the nicest days I've ever spent'. Surprisingly, though, the account of the meeting only takes up a page of the book, a hint that Black and Gold is less of an 'inside story' than Sampson's other books, despite the connections he forged in the 1950s as editor of Johannesburg's Drum magazine. Instead it ranges over the whole of modern South African history, offering perspective while losing a little sharpness of focus.
Sampson's own politics are moderate and his wish is certainly to see big business as part of South Africa's future. But while there are better books on black politics this is vivid and anecdotal enough to hold the interest even of those tired of hearing about South Africa.
Notes of a Native Son
...being the book that dissected the experience of black Americans
James Baldwin takes the title of this book of essays from Richard Wright's novel, Native Son. Baldwin is haunted by Bigger Thomas, the anti-hero of that novel, an inchoate black victim of American racism who expresses himself, his anger and his impoverishment through an act of murder. For Baldwin, Bigger is the alter-ego of Uncle Tom: both characters emerge from an ethos which denied blacks their individuality and turned them into objects of fear, loathing and scorn. 'Bigger's tragedy is not that he is cold or black or hungry. but that he has accepted a theology that denies him life, that he admits the possibility of his being subhuman and feels constrained, therefore, to battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria bequeathed him at birth.'
In Notes of a Native Son Baldwin refuses to battle for what he already possesses - his own humanity. His objective is not to exorcise Bigger from his life - this would only confirm Bigger's existence and 'those brutal criteria' - but to expose the racist assumptions behind this fictional character.
Baldwin does this most eloquently in the autobiographical essay which bears the book's title. He was the eldest son of a poor Harlem preacher, a proud, lonely man whose experiences with white people left him bitter and paranoic. For a time Baldwin preached in the storefront churches but he soon turned away from both religion and the father he always fought with. The essay focuses on the period during the Second World War when he goes down to New Jersey to work in the defense plants. For the first time he encounters the more brutal forms of racism practised by Southerners and the same rage which poisoned his father's life begins to grow within him. One night, after yet again being refused service at a restaurant, he throws a pitcher of water at the waitress; she ducks, the pitcher hits a mirror (an image which encapsulates the essay) and in the ensuing confusion Baldwin manages to escape the wrath of the mob and the police: 'I saw nothing very clearly but I did see this: that my life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart'. Not long after he returns from New Jersey his father dies. The funeral is held on a day in 1943 when the anger in Harlem at the racism faced by black soldiers and defense workers erupts into riots. Within the limits of one essay Baldwin shows us how the events of his life form part of a larger pattern: as he drives the hearse bearing his father's coffin through the rubble of 'those unquiet, ruined streets' he realizes how 'powerful and overflowing' his father's bitterness of spirit could be.
The essays about Baldwin's early experiences in Europe - he still lives in a kind of self-exile in the south of France - form the most complex, challenging section of the book. From the distance of Europe, the outlines of the American experience become distinct, but this lucidity is only possible if one does not reduce the Europeans, as whites have done to blacks, to a symbol, a stereotype, even an ideal. Only when one sees the strength and weaknesses of another culture, can one appreciate one's own.
With this new perspective, Baldwin examines the contrasting attitudes of American blacks and Africans from the French colonies and he observes the awkward meetings of whites and blacks on foreign ground. He wonders what Europe, the source of colonialism and an American culture which robbed blacks of their history, can mean to a black man like him. When he is mistakenly arrested for stealing a sheet from a hotel, the horrors of the primitive French jails, the indifference and callousness of the French judicial system remind him of the universality of oppression.
All of these essays were written over 30 years ago, before the first civil rights marches in the American South, before the Black Power movement, before black studies existed in US universities, and yet they have the impact of a revelation. Anyone who has ever been made 'the other', who because of race, gender, religion, class or nationality, has been defined by the fears, the anger and the arrogance of those in power, will immediately recognise in Notes of a Native Son the pattern of their own scars and struggles. Baldwin uses his experiences as the source of an argument which is rational yet passionate, balanced yet polemical.
He is one of the few contemporary writers I've read who can talk about truth without pretension, self-righteousness or scorn, for whom truth is not a static ideal but a spiral of questions and answers, an urgent quest which begins with the contradictions in one man's life.
Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7