New Internationalist

Reviews

Issue 256

new internationalist
issue 256 - June 1994

Reviews

STAR RATING Music

Sekunjalo: Now is the Time
by Various
(Mango CD/MC CIDM 1110/MCT 1110)

Freedom from Debt: Volume 2
by Various
(WDM CD 002)

By the time this issue of NI reaches you, the first democratic election in South Africa will have been held – an event without parallel in the country’s history. Sekunjalo – the first album to be given official endorsement by the ANC – is something of a landmark too.

The album has its sights set firmly on an international market. It is masterfully produced and its predominantly English language lyrics and music – much of which takes a sophisticated, Africanized soul as its base point – reflect this. Among the 12 contributing artists it is jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela whose name is probably best known. Come on Everybody is a slow, bluesy number which contrasts dramatically with the prevalent party mood of the rest of the album. Its lyrics take note of both South Africa’s violent history and the continuing violence in the rest of Africa.

Masekela puts the album into a context that transcends celebration. However, Sekunjalo’s range of performers – many of them stars in their domestic market – reflects the country’s diversity and the desire for peace. Jennifer Ferguson, whose Bread and Roses is a light soul song, is an Afrikaans singer who sang at Chris Hani’s vigil, while Lebo Morake, from Soweto, uses a mix of rap and highlife to send Set Them Free onto the dance floors.

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Protest with a touch of salsa: Colombia's Candela play against debt. Considering the serious subject matter behind Freedom from Debt’s second compilation album, it’s salutary that all 11 songs are united in up-tempo mood. The album which is put together by Britain’s leading campaigners for world development concerns itself with Third World debt. Its sleeve notes describe the cosy relationship that high-street banks have with the perpetuation of debt.

The artists represented on Debt 2 – and they include Candela, Abdul Tee-Jay’s Rokoto, Le Zagazougou and Black Umfolosi – encompass a variety of styles. Zimbabwe’s Umfolosi specialize in a sonorous male voice acapella rooted in traditional song structures; Africando’s salsa is informed by the music’s African heritage while the women of Colombia’s Candela have chosen a Celina Gonzalez salsa song and whipped it up into a form that could incite anyone to wild dancing. Jig-antic’s Jiganema begins and ends with a scuttling Irish tune, but its middle is stuffed with a loose jazz. Doctors of Dub meanwhile use the empty dub spaces of reggae’s most experimental form to explore other sounds which include jazz improvis-ation. A relaxed atmosphere pervades the album, which is nevertheless capable of a few surprises. Zubop’s Cumbia Konstanza has a swing that at first, second and third hearings seems to have absorbed something of the quick arpeggios characteristic of Jewish klezmer music. Zubop are well-established on London’s live circuit so perhaps this influence is not inconceivable. In the end it hardly matters; Zubop, like the other artists on this record, make music that cannot be bounded in simple terms. In this, theirs is an international outlook and so too is this album. Profits and royalties from both albums go to benefit the ANC and WDM respectively.

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Books

Tears of the crocodile
by Neil Middleton, Phil O’Keefe and Sam Moyo
(Pluto Press ISBN 0 7453 0765 5 pb)

Two of the books on review The road from Rio
by Michael McCoy and Patrick McCully
(International Books WISE ISBN 90 6224 991 4 pb)

Rescue Mission: Planet Earth
A Children’s Edition of Agenda 21
(Kingfisher Books ISBN 1-85697-175-9)

Two years on from the Earth Summit in Rio and with every passing day the wisdom of hindsight suggests more insistently that the sceptics were right.

The environment may be well established on the international agenda, but that agenda is more firmly in the hands of the boardroom brokers whose projects are primarily responsible for what-ever environmental mess we’re in. Now the brokers have been joined round the boardroom table by a sizeable chunk of the supposedly independent organizations that claim to represent the environmental movement.

Agenda 21 is what the Summit gave us, and it’s been aptly dubbed by Wolfgang Sachs as ‘perhaps the most perfect example of the arrogance of the development era’, calling as it does for Western science and management to intervene ever more directly in almost all aspects of human activity. You can get a whiff of this from James Gustav Speth, President of the World Resources Institute and one of the members of the Organizing Committee of the post-Summit ‘Earth Council’, which is heavily funded by multinational corporations. He is quoted as saying that the Earth Council ‘aspires to build a planetary constituency’. On the principle that whoever pays the piper calls the tune, that ‘constituency’ is not for the environment but for the multinational corporations.

These three books all take the Earth Summit as their point of reference: Tears of the Crocodile with sharp analysis of the issues, The Road from Rio with a helpful summary of the practical implications for campaigning groups, Rescue Mission with a lively and visually very appealing run round the issues for children. But they don’t chart the course of environmental events since the Summit, or suggest whether it made much difference. As yet there’splittle hard evidencepon which to base such a judgement. The alarming thing is that by the time we do have the evidence it may well be too late.

What you do get, however, is a restatement of some basic principles – and of the need for a genuinely independent environmental movement to pursue them. This is both timely and welcome. You have to read books like these to remind yourself that the substantive environmental issues remain in a critical state and to provide a framework for change.

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Earth Follies Earth Follies
by Joni Seager
(Earthscan ISBN 1-85383 - 166 -2)

From its shocking pink jacket onwards this book vigorously escapes the ‘worthy but dull’ tendency that dogs so much writing on the environment. Earth Follies combines a riveting feminist critique with an international perspective and a sense of humour. It can be read right through but is reader-friendly enough to survive dipping into. You may just want to start by reading the cartoons, ads and captions!

Radical geographer Joni Seager clearly points the finger of blame at who and what is destroying the environment – but also gives the cultural and political reasons they continue getting away with it.

Her argument hinges on the central idea of ‘agency’: who is responsible and why. It’s no big surprise that those most responsible are the powerful institutions which shape modern life – governments, the military, the multinational corporations. But what often fails to get properly analyzed is that these institutions are overwhelmingly controlled by men and dominated by masculine presumptions.

The military-industrial complex – the most cavalier polluter of all – is an obvious target for Seager. But she also addresses trickier issues, like the double-edged sword of ‘green consumerism’. And the green movement itself does not escape criticism – especially for some of its racist and sexist tendencies.

But Seager does not just criticize. Earth Follies makes positive proposals for building green politics from the movement, from its grassroots activism. She concludes that feminist analysis is not the only tool necessary for making sense of the environmental crisis – but it’s one we can’t do without.

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T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
The Bloody Chamber
... being the book that turned the telling of fairy-tales into an act of subversion.

The Bloody Chamber Like everyone else in the West, I grew up with them: the tales of curious virgins, mysterious heroes, vampires, witches and werewolves. We heard them as fairytales in our childhood, saw them again as the vampire films of the l950s, but I thought I had mainly forgotten them until I picked up a remarkable book.

In The Bloody Chamber Angela Carter reworks some of the West’s best known fairy- tales, transforming them with brilliantly baroque imagery and from a perspective that owes almost as much to Freud as it does to feminism.     

In the first and the longest story of the collection – The Bloody Chamber – the virgin protagonist is transported in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, ‘into the unguessable country of marriage’. It’s a familiar tale – that of Bluebeard’s Castle – and one which could be taking place at any time in history or anywhere throughout the world where the woman marries into a strong patriarchy and gives herself up to powerlessness.

As a child the Bluebeard tale left me with the moral that ‘nasty things would happen to girls who were too curious’. In Carter’s reworking things happen rather differently. The new bride unlocks the secret chamber and finds the bodies of Bluebeard’s earlier wives. As she puts it: ‘I only did what he knew I would’. And as the story unfolds she knows that her impending doom is not merely a punishment for disobedience: the castle is stuffed with the trappings of power turning into sadism, and tales of the ancestral family’s murderous woman-hunts are whispered through the neighbourhood. Our protagonist knows that she is in the hands of a psychopath and she is saved because she is crafty enough to play for time and because her mother tucks up her skirts, gallops up and rescues her. It’s a fine feminist departure from the traditional tale in which the vulnerable damsel is saved by some burly male. Carter’s women are allowed a vigour that enables them to save themselves or rescue each other.

They also experience sexual desire. The central character of The Bloody Chamber realizes that the Bluebeard character was drawn to marry her because ‘I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away’. Carter explores the tale’s inherent sadomasochism. In her husband’s secret drawer the bride finds a note from a murdered wife proclaiming: ‘The supreme and unique pleasure of love is the certainty that one is doing evil’. As soon as this patriarch persuades his wives to join in the fun he punishes them with death.

In the world in which we grow up, women are currency: ‘My father lost me to The Beast at cards’ begins The Tiger’s Bride. When she rides out with the beasts, she notes: ‘The six of us – mounts and riders, both – could boast amongst us not one soul... since all the best religions in the world state categorically that not beasts nor women were equipped with the flimsy, insubstantial things’. Small wonder then that she chooses to become a beast herself, sending back to her father the obedient clockwork maid ‘to perform the part of my father’s daughter’.    

In this collection, questions of women’s sexuality come up time and time again. At times Carter’s work seems to come close to pornography. Published in 1979, this book looks more closely at women’s sexual liberation and orgasm than most writers do today.

So what can a woman’s life and her sexuality be? With Carter it is not always clear. Take the case of her Little Red Riding Hood, pubescent and as fearless as the handsome werewolf she longs to kiss. This tantalizing tale ends at its climax, and I still don’t know what the moral of it is. But perhaps the wish to find a ‘moral’ is suspect. Perhaps, in the relatively liberated late twentieth century we should be reading the old tales quite differently. Angela Carter gives us a chance to do so.

Carol Fewster

The Bloody Chamber and other stories is published by King Penguin, 1979.

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