New Internationalist

Reviews

Issue 273

Reviews

The NI Star rating system. Music

Sister Drum
by Dadawa
(Warners 4509 99592 CD)

Sister Drum Consistent with the pop industry’s interest in detecting and appropriating the exotic, Dadawa falls into the same safe-ish category as Ofra Haza or Enya. It means that Sister Drum is probably heading for a big marketing push with plenty of ‘cross-over potential’. But marketing and hi-tech studio procedures can hide a myriad of issues.

Foremost among these is whether the album should exist at all. Authentic Tibetan musicians have been forced into exile due to the Chinese invasion and continued occupation of their country. The creators of this album – which purports to be inspired by Tibetan culture and spirituality – are both Chinese. Singer Dadawa – real name Zhe Zheqin – is Canton-born, and composer He Xuntian is from Shanghai. To be fair, Xuntian has a long-standing interest in Tibetan music. In Sister Drum he blends awesome Tibetan horns and chanting, with Chinese language songs and Western synthesized washes of sound. The songs’ lyrics are shot through with Tibetan themes and Buddhist mantras. ‘Sky Burial’, for example, addresses in poetic fashion the Tibetan custom of leaving bodies on mountainsides to be eaten by vultures. Despite what seems to be a genuine sympathy with Tibetan music on the parts of Dadawa and Xuntian, you cannot ignore the fact that since 1949 China has set out to destroy Tibetan culture and turn the country into just another part of China. One must assume that this record has somewhere along the way gained official sanction and so is also playing a part in the dilution of authentic Tibetan culture. Musical tourism is not unusual in global pop music. But when the culture appropriated is struggling for its own survival and its enemy is doing the appropriating, there are serious grounds for concern.

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Film

Who’s Counting?
Marilyn Waring on Sex, Lies and Global Economics
directed by Terre Nash

Who's counting? Director Terre Nash achieved notoriety when her film If You Love This Planet was denounced by the US Justice Department as political propaganda. Soon afterwards it won the 1983 Academy Award for ‘Best Documentary Short’. Now Nash, along with the National Film Board of Canada’s Women’s Unit, Studio D, has produced another first-class documentary.

Who’s Counting? is a bracing antidote to the brain-numbing jargon that spills from the business pages and the mouths of politicians. The film showcases the ideas of crusading feminist writer and economist Marilyn Waring. The Aotearoa/New Zealand activist is a feisty and acerbic critic of an international economic system which she says ignores and devalues any work which cannot be quantified. ‘Economics,’ she notes at one point in the film, ‘is a tool of people in power and doesn’t allow for the introduction of values that don’t find their way into mathematical formulas’. No value is recognized other than money. She offers clear examples of current economic lunacies: the Exxon Valdez oil spill for example. By standard economic measurements this is one of the most successful environmental disasters of all time. The insurance costs, the costs of civil and legal proceedings, the cost of the clean-up operation, the compensation payments – all had dollar figures attached and so all boosted GNP and growth. The actual destruction of the environment, meanwhile, was economically invisible.

Modern economics, Waring argues, is an arcane and dangerous ritual practised mostly by men. She recounts with shock discovering that the UN System of National Accounts stipulates that ‘subsistence production and consumption of their own produce by primary producers is of little or no importance’. This really refers to women’s unpaid work. Women in rural Pakistan may work 16-18 hours a day every day of the week and yet their work is not counted as economic.

Waring herself is a formidable figure and the film captures her energy, humour and optimism. In 1975, at the age of 22, she was elected as the youngest ever woman MP in the New Zealand Parliament. In 1983 she resigned from the governing party, forcing an election that resulted in the island nation becoming the world’s first nuclear-free country. Today she is a part-time goat-farmer, teacher and full-time crusader. On this score she and director Nash have much in common. ‘As well as entertainment and intellectual stimulation I want Who’s Counting? to be a tool for social change,’ says Nash.

For more information contact the NFB, PO Box 6100, Station Centre-Ville, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3C 3HS. Tel: (514) 283-9447 Fax (514) 283 5487.

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Books

She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks
M Nourbese Philip
(ISBN 0 7043 4375 4 Available from: www.nourbese.com)

This slim volume conceals an enterprise of epic proportions. Caribbean-born poet M Nourbese Philip has undertaken the difficult post-colonial dialogue with English, the conquering language, ‘a foreign anguish’. The challenge is colossal – to weave between the poles of ‘standard’ language and dialect, exposing the history of inevitable oppression when a new world is grafted upon an unwilling people by means of an alien tongue. Then there are the hierarchies of gender and capital which are ingrained in language. Philip asks, ‘in my mother’s mouth shall I use the father’s tongue?’

Readers familiar with post-modern writers writing about writing may be aware of some of the pitfalls – a tendency towards portentousness and unnecessary complexity which can alienate rather than entrance the reader. Some such problems are evident in this collection too; at times the verse labours a point or ends up sounding grandiose. But eventually the fierce intelligence that Philip brings to her themes wins out, and, surprisingly, the sections of the poem that are riddled with quotations and references to other works are the most fun.

This may be due to the refreshing way in which the sequence is put together, the smaller units playing off ideas against each other, the whole blessed with the enlivening improvisatory feel of jazz.

In her ‘Afterword’, M Nourbese Philip states that: ‘The havoc that the African wreaked upon the English language is, in fact, the metaphorical equivalent of the havoc that coming to the New World represented for the African.’ In her poetry this linguistic and emotional havoc fuses with a judicious dose of discipline to create a thoughtful and resonant collection.

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Reviewers: Urvi Patel, Wayne Ellwood and Louise Gray

T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
Akhnaten
...being the opera that brings together a revolutionary ancient Egyptian pharaoh
and a mould-shattering New York composer.

When, in 1982, New York composer Philip Glass began work on an opera which used as half its text a libretto in ancient Egyptian, those who knew his work were not really surprised. Previous operas in Glass’ trilogy of ‘portrait’ operas had been equally adventurous in the linguistic department. Einstein on the Beach, a 1975 collaboration with theatre-director Robert Wilson, had used a babble of words and numbers that formed an oddly continuous whole. Its successor, Satyagraha had its focal character in Gandhi, even if its text was taken in its original Sanskrit from the Hindu religious epic, the Bhagavad-Gita. And now Akhnaten, an opera based on the 1300 BC pharaoh who, in the field of religion, was every bit as revolutionary as Einstein and Gandhi had been in their respective areas of science and politics. Akhnaten was the first monotheist, abandoning the Egyptian pantheon of deities in favour of one: Atun-re the sungod.

In musical terms, Glass is himself something of a revolutionary. Along with Terry Riley and Steve Reich, he was an exponent of a new form of avant-garde music which in the 1960s had shattered the domination that the strictly formulaic serialists had exercised over musical conservatoires. Not that minimalism – as the music written by these three came to be known – was any less formulist. Glass’ early work presented certain patternings of notes over accentuated rhythms. There was a baroque elegance about these pieces, but it was also imbued with a more modern sensibility. Glass’ speeding arpeggios transformed themselves over a series of repetitions in a compositional technique that he termed ‘additive process’. Akhnaten marked a watershed for Glass in that it welded this harmony to rhythm. The new music appealed to a younger audience who wanted music of content matched with the dynamism that characterized rock.

Akhnaten

The vocal character of the pharaoh, sung on the only recording of the work by Paul Esswood, was unique in itself. The few statues and pictures that remain of the historical Akhnaten depict a king in a way that stylized Egyptian art had never done before – or was ever to do again. The king has a slight build, he is round-shouldered and pot-bellied. Not only was the pharaoh avant garde in religious terms, he also, it seems, tried to introduce some verisimilitude into the representations made of him. Glass captures his unusualness by making the pharaoh a counter-tenor. There is a thrilling timbre about Esswood’s voice. Counter-tenors have unusually high voices, but there is a quality about them that transcends considerations of masculinity and femininity. Esswood’s Akhnaten has a regal power just because the voice is so markedly strange.

In the final scene, the ghosts of Akhnaten and his family wander through the modern ruins of the palace. Tourists amble about, realistically crass with their shorts, sunglasses and cans of Coke. The family sing wordlessly. In this there is a shocking, profound recognition. Language no longer has any mediating power. The horror of this loss, of language as the most vital abstraction that we take for granted, is overwhelming.

Glass is not the only composer to hit upon a musical technique in an attempt to express the inexpressible. Neither is Glass the first composer to take an experimental approach to musical narrative. His achievement with Akhnaten goes beyond the music itself, even though some of the vocal parts here remain amongst the most beautiful and poignant that he has ever written. Akhnaten ends a trilogy of works which all share, as their common base, a fascination with the languages in which ideas are couched.

The unspoken question that Akhnaten offers is this: how do we remember that which is not capable of being expressed? This is a question whose relevance stretches from the personal to the political to the historical. Glass himself offers no easy answers. Soon after the ghostly pharaoh exits from the twentieth-century site of Tel-el Amarna, the opera ends, which is to say, the music lapses into silence. Silence, as Glass was well aware, does not necessary suggest a finality. Nearly 30 years before, John Cage – one of the most inventive experimental composers of modern times – wrote a notorious work entitled, simply, 4’ 33”. Capable of being arranged for any combination of instruments, 4’ 33” was just an interval of silence. No conventional music was played, but the music of chance – coughs from the audience, a shuffled chair, whatever – took on a new significance in the absence of any more organized sound. At the time, outraged audiences found Cage the very antithesis of music. This was to miss the point completely. If Cage’s achievement was to draw attention to the framing of any musical event, then Glass’ was to extend this concept. Akhnaten is the opera that frames the gap, and in doing so, brings us face to face with silence.

Louise Gray
Akhnaten by Philip Glass is available on Sony Masterworks.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995


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