issue 261 - November 1994
by Waorani Waaponi
(Tumi CD 043)
by Grupo Belén de Tarma
(Tumi CD 045)
City of stone
For those fascinated by the rare, endangered musics of the world, Waorani Waaponi – the title means Waaponi tribe – makes for absorbing listening. The album consists of chants and songs belonging to the Waaponi, an Ecuadorian Amazon people who today number less than 2,000. Their unaccompanied music is set against a backdrop of jungle sounds: chattering birds, insects and the odd, piercing cries of monkeys. The effect of this is to stress the communal importance of song and to emphasize its importance in Waaponi society. The music itself is functional: war dances, hunting songs, songs to accompany chicha drinking and chants to greet the day. The Waaponi have a reputation for being very independent but their culture is under threat from the encroachment of Western industries. And not only them. The cohuode (outsiders) come in all forms. One of the groups that the Waaponi want to avoid are anthropologists. So where does that leave the ethics of this album? The Tumi technicians were actually invited by the community to make these field recordings, acknowledging, perhaps, the uncertain future that their culture faces.
One response to this dilemma is adaptation, of which the album Chicha is a prime example. Named after the Andean maize-brewed hootch beer, chicha music is made up of local sounds fermented with salsa, cumbia and a lilting huayno rhythm. Grupo Belén de Tarma is one of Peru’s leading bands for urbanized indigenous and mestizo youth. Led by vocalist Hector Acuna Vila, the seven-strong group combine timbales with keyboards and guitars. Due to the absence of an earthy bass, they achieve a sound which has a jaunty infectiousness. At times, Belén’s far-away harmonies are reminiscent of 1950s American pop. It’s an open-ended sound that’s light, breezy and fascinating.
If you were captivated by your first encounter with Andean pan-pipe music, the odds are that it had something to do with the Bolivian group, Rumillajta. From the mid-1980s onwards Rumill-ajta (which means ‘City of Stone’ in Quechua) were responsible for injecting a note of strangeness and beauty into our musical collections. Their haunting, ethereal sound carried off the crowns from numerous festivals, including Edinburgh and the Welsh Eisteddfod.
City of Stone was first released in 1984. This CD re-release is more than welcome. The 10 songs and instrumentals capture the band at its best and the gentle strummings of the charango guitars create an uncluttered freshness.
My Children, My Gold
Meetings with Women of the Fourth World
by Debbie Taylor
(Virago ISBN 1-85381-706-6)
‘Perhaps I had too much,’ says Jomuna, a widow in India. ‘A good husband. Two beautiful children. Something had to be taken away.’ Jomuna’s fatalism mirrors the sentiments of many of the other single mothers that Debbie Taylor visits in this globe-trotting portrait of women in seven countries. All are women of the ‘Fourth World’ – Taylor’s term for the woman-headed households that now make up a quarter of the world’s families. These women may be divorced, widowed or single parents but they are all caught in the snare of poverty which is made worse by the shackling effects of patriarchy. As a Hindu widow Jomuna may not marry again. In China, no man will marry Hua since she already has a daughter from her first marriage. The one-child policy seems to apply only to women: men may jettison the girl-bearing wife and try again for the preferred male offspring.
Debbie Taylor draws a sensitive picture of the women and their surroundings. The ‘new girl’ prostitute in Trindade, Brazil, ‘who couldn’t have been older than sixteen’ is described as ‘winsome and willowy with fierce red lipstick on her uncertain mouth’. Each portrait is prefaced with scene-setting facts and then dives into the reality of huts, shacks and flats where the women live, bringing their lives to us through direct speech, anecdote, pathos and a light touch of humour. The author inserts herself into the narrative just enough to cement the bridge between the women and the reader without being obtrusive.
But there is a personal strand in this book: the author’s own infertility and the concern shown to her by the women she is writing about. This concern leads to visits to various healers. And although Taylor is uncertain whether it was the ‘greenish soup’ in Uganda or the unchewable nut in India, something did the trick and she is now a mother herself.
Darkness in Tallinn
by Illka Jarvilaturi
Darkness in Tallinn is the first feature film to be made in the newly-independent country of Estonia. It opens with footage of farmers working the land – earnest images from the country’s past which suggest that the film might be some rigorous examination of its recent history. The fact that it is shot in austere black and white adds to this sense. But it soon transpires that the filmmakers are wryly toying with expectations. Darkness in Tallinn is the first post-Soviet heist movie, reminiscent of all those 1960s ‘caper’ films. ‘The Estonian Job’ might have been a more fitting – and catchy – title.
The booty in this instance is of national import: during its brief period of independence during the two World Wars, the small Baltic country accrued for itself a treasury of $900 million in gold. This was sensibly stashed away in a Paris bank and was therefore beyond the reach of the German and Soviet invaders. Consequently the return of such treasures became a focal point of Estonia’s celebration of its new-found independence – and also of the film.
In Darkness in Tallinn a bedraggled section of the Russian mafia has other plans. These hoods, who operate from a revolving restaurant where they are served up their walkie-talkies on a silver platter, are hardly a slick-suited pack. They are mostly paunchy, wispy-haired or bald. The cruellest of them has an extremely long cigarette tucked behind his ear and goes by the name of ‘Stub’. The plan of this motley lot is to turn the bullion into thin sticks of gold and shift it out of the country in cigarette packets. Such greed and corruption, after all, damages a state’s health. And drawn into this cancerous mafia cell is a young electrician by the name of Tovio. He wants to goldline his family’s future and thus takes leave of his heavily-pregnant wife Maria to assist the team by rewiring the national grid, so plunging the country into darkness.
Director Illka Jarvilaturi has created a brilliantly detailed and moody film; the chiaroscuro cinematography turns Tallinn into a city as memorable as the Vienna of The Third Man. But as with any truly good thriller, it is less the plot’s mechanics that are of interest than all the ideas that flare up in the gloom. Certainly there is a sense of cynicism about the new country’s prospects as, under the cover of darkness, the jaunty independence celebrations turn sour and a singsong disintegrates into a riot. Tovio and Maria, meanwhile, are the new generation of Estonians who are easily lured by lucre. As the film reveals, Midas could tell them a thing or two.
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird
When Nelson Mandela was inaugurated State President of South Africa on 10 May 1994 it was entirely appropriate that jazz of all varieties echoed around the concrete-and-glass heart of Pretoria, so long the bastion of Afrikaner power. The people had at last come into their own and were celebrating with the music that had sustained them through long years of hardship and struggle.
Entire books could be written on the part played by exiled South African musicians in rousing world opinion and keeping the spotlight on the fight against apartheid. The pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim – known as ‘Dollar Brand’ before his conversion to Islam in 1968 – played a central role in this ferment of musical and political expression, both inside South Africa in the 1950s and in exile thereafter. His tune Mannenberg – written in the 1970s and featuring the majestic saxophone playing of Basil Coetzee – was taken up as an anthem by the young people involved in the 1976 Soweto uprisings.
Abdullah Ibrahim was born Adolf Johannes Brand in 1934 in Cape Town. His father was a Basutu and his mother came from the San group. His grandmother was a church pianist and her influence is still evident in the sonorous roll and chiming chords of his playing. Brand’s musical career began as a member of the vocal group, The Streamline Brothers, moving on to play piano in the Tuxedo Slickers and in Willie Max’s group. Together with Hugh Masekela and Kipie Moeketsi, Brand formed his own group, The Jazz Epistles, in 1959. They were the first South African band to cut an album; all previous township jive releases had been 78s. Brand’s early work with Masekela, Moeketsi and others has recently been released on a series of double albums by Kaz Records and the excitement and raw power of the music still takes the breath away. His debt to these pioneers of African jazz is one he constantly acknowledges both in his interviews and his song titles.
Dollar Brand became an expatriate in 1962, embarking on the circuit of international jazz festivals at Antibes, Palermo and Montreux. He was noticed by Duke Ellington, who provided the impetus behind his first recordings in Europe and a trip to the US. Since then Ibrahim has released a stream of material, backed by a constantly-changing roster of the jazz world’s best musicians. Much of his music plays tribute to his homeland – such as African Piano, African Sketchbook and Water From an Ancient Well.
The sheer volume of Abdullah Ibrahim’s output – and the patchy distribution of much of it – makes an overview of his work almost impossible. But it is possible to concentrate on the 1980s, a period in his career when Abdullah Ibrahim was at the height of his powers and supported by instrumentalists of genius. Fortunately there is a one-album primer which contains the cream of his work: The Mountain, released by Kaz Records in 1989.
Abdullah’s band on this collection are Ekaya – meaning ‘home’ – and they handle to perfection his habit of blending traditional themes and melodies with space for improvisation. As well as Ibrahim’s piano there are the integral elements of the brass-based jazz combo: alto, tenor and baritone sax; trombone, drums and bass. The mainstay of the group is the North American Carlos Ward on alto sax and flute. Ward’s saxophone – Coltrane-influenced and with awesome purity of tone – is the supreme vehicle for Ibrahim’s ideas, moving from written passages of tender lyricism to hard-blowing improvisation and back again without losing the musical thread. No-one listening to the sultry Sotho Blue or the joyous celebratory The Wedding or the lilting cadences of Abdullah Ibrahim’s theme tune Thabo Bosigo (The Mountain at Night) could have any doubt that this is African Jazz, a reclamation of rhythms at the roots of so much modern music.
In common with so many exiles, the art of this composer has been nourished by deep roots in the history and culture of his home country. What he has done with that legacy, the beautiful and inspiring music he has wrought out of the joy and struggle of the peoples of South Africa, is a gift to the whole world. Ibrahim’s voice speaks for all the exiles as we greet the new South Africa.
This is Ekaya
The Mountain by Abdullah Ibrahim and Ekaya is on Kaz Records CD7/LP 7 1989, distributed by BMG and Sterns.
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