New Internationalist

Reviews

Issue 293

Reviews

The NI Star rating system. Music

The Will To Live
by Ben Harper
(Virgin America 7243 & 44178)

Suas E!
by Mary Jane Lamond
(Debutante 540 746)

Although Ben Harper and Mary Jane Lamond hail from opposite ends of North America – Harper’s a Californian regarded by many as the reincarnation of Bob Marley, and Lamond’s a Canadian from Cape Breton – they have a shared heritage. It lies in their music and its root is identifiable as that wide-open country sound which originates from the folk traditions of the old countries. Neither sounds anything like one another, however. Harper’s songs are based in his Black American experience while his music traverses blues, reggae, folk and even a bit of light-weight rock. Lamond sings in Scots Gaelic and her accompaniments – foot-tapping, the creaking of a spinning wheel, fiddles and cellos – are sparse.

Of the two, Harper draws on a greater variety of musical sources. His lyrics, however, are always firmly centred around an urgent call for justice that is both personal and political. In previous albums, Harper has addressed racism and the kind of violence endemic to broken relationships of all sorts. In The Will to Live, he goes further, placing this ‘will’ in direct antithesis to death. Alongside the sense of a righteous anger that permeates Harper’s songs, there’s also a real gentleness – his voice is a sweet-toned instrument – and spirituality.

The prevailing atmosphere of The Will to Live is one of big-beat contemplation. For many listeners, however, the high point will be the delicately wrought ‘Widow of a Living Man’, in which Harper looks at a lost relationship from the woman’s side. In all, a fine album from a young writer who is too neglected for our own good.

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Mary Jane Lamond: luminously stark.
photo by
DEREK SHAPTON

Mary Jane Lamond is powered by an altogether different engine. Suas E! – in case your Scots Gaelic is dusty – means ‘Go For It!’ and this is precisely what Mary Jane, darling of Cape Breton’s sizeable roots scene, does. Accompanied by the odd bagpipe, some inspired fiddling and otherwise subdued guitar arrangements, Lamond’s latest consists of music from the Canadian Scots Diaspora synthesized with the luminous starkness of her vocals. The results are moving and always statuesque, with full Gaelic lyrics provided for those sing-along evenings. These are traditional songs made for activities such as spinning, milling and the lover who waits (and waits and waits...). While she retains the songs’ original language, Lamond also experiments by introducing modern and cross-cultural ingredients. It is all achieved with great subtlety.

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Books

The Rumour of Calcutta:
Tourism, Charity and the Poverty of Representation

by John Hutnyk
(Zed Books ISBN 1 85649 408X)

Songs at the River’s Edge: Stories from a Bangladeshi Village
by Katy Gardner
(Pluto Press ISBN 074531094X)

India! The Golden Jubilee
edited by Ian Jack
(Granta No 57 ISBN 090314104-3)

The Rumour of Calcutta Varanasi is 4,000 years old and Delhi is 2,000. Calcutta, at just over 300 years old is a mere stripling and yet, of all Indian cities, it is the one of which the terms ‘dead’, ‘dying’, ‘decaying’, ‘collapsing’ are most often used. Poverty, disease, famine and riots combine to make Calcutta the paradigm of the ungovernable metropolis. Why is this? John Hutnyk, in his fascinating study of Western interpretations of Calcutta, attempts to excavate the city from under the layers of accreted prejudices. He shows convincingly how, even before the traveller arrives, the reputation of Calcutta has laid down a sediment of ideas that acts as a modifier on subsequent experiences. This notion of ‘framing’ is central to Hutnyk’s radical contention that Western opinion consistently misinterprets Calcutta and its people. Sometimes, as with clinic volunteers, this ethnocentric misreading is done in good faith but in other cases, as with the Hollywood blockbuster, City of Joy, elements of cultural expansionism and poverty tourism come into play. Hutnyk’s critique is wide-ranging and can be scathing. He anatomizes Western aid workers, travel-writers, film-makers and photographers in Calcutta, setting about such luminaries as Günter Grass, Geoffrey Moorhouse, Rudyard Kipling, Patrick Swayze, Claude Lévi Strauss and Mother Teresa.

Altogether, I was left breathless by the author’s academic preference for the footnoted bludgeon over the literary rapier, and somewhat worried that positive aspects of Calcutta – the public works projects, the grassroots organization and trade union militancy – were given short shrift. There is no denying, though, that The Rumour of Calcutta is an impassioned and thought-provoking swing through Western impressions of one of the great cities of the world.

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After such tumult, there could hardly be greater contrast than to turn to Songs at the River’s Edge, Katy Gardner’s account of her 15-mouth stay in the Bangladeshi village of Talukpur. Beautifully and simply written, the accent is on the personal rather than the anthropological. In 12 short chapters, the characters in the Bari (extended household) where Katy Gardner lived emerge in all their humanity, frailty and humour. Gardner’s approach is refreshingly honest; she acknowledges her position as an outsider whose value-judgments are necessarily suspect in the village society. She admits that her attempts at sisterly consciousness-raising failed utterly amid mutual incomprehension. However, the longer she stayed – outlasting a suspicion that she was a British immigration official – the more she realized that it was the women who not only bore the brunt of the work and hardships but who held the community together. Women’s view of themselves transcended traditional Islamic submission: ‘Men are more powerful than us, but not more intelligent,’ older women would say to her with a smile.

The gulf between the lives of the rural poor and the urban élite is graphically illustrated when Gardner travels to Dacca with a villager who is leaving to work in Saudi Arabia. Apart from the epic scale of the expedition, the journey is a heartrending account of a stripping away of competencies; an individual, able and respected in the village, enters an incomprehensible system where he is just another bumpkin turned economic migrant.

The author neither patronizes nor glamourizes the people of Talukpur but repays their trust by conveying their lives and experiences with dignity and respect. Songs at the River’s Edge is a jewel of a book and the memory of it will stay long in the reader’s mind.

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India! The Golden Jubilee Fifty years ago this month, on 15 August 1947, India became an independent nation. India! The Golden Jubilee marks this event with a rich and imaginative mix of reportage, memoirs, fiction and photography. Contributors range from such big names as VS Naipaul, RK Narayan, Anita Desai and Vikram Seth, to Pachi Bewa, an elderly woman from Calcutta, who married at 13 and who does not know how old she was on that memorable day in 1947. ‘Independence meant little to us – we women, what could we know? We hardly ever moved from inside our houses.’

The euphoria of independence was almost immediately clouded by the appalling violence unleashed by the Partition of India and Pakistan. Urvashi Butalia’s piece, Blood, is a particularly poignant, though not necessarily bloody, account of how it split her mother’s family and of her search for a renegade uncle who converted to Islam in order to stay in Pakistan.

Tremendous changes have occurred in the past 50 years in a nation that promises, within the next few decades, to overtake China as the world’s most populous. Extremes abound and are at times almost unbelievable. Did you know, for example, that while India has an average per capita income of barely $300 a year it also boasts the highest office rents in the world?

Variety is a strong point of this collection, reports on contemporary issues such as caste war in Bihar and the troubles in Kashmir sitting alongside sparkling, recent fiction, including an extract from Arundhati Roy’s runaway best-seller The God of Small Things.

If I have one criticism of this otherwise exciting collection it is the over-reliance on rather stodgy reflections from Western pundits. In a continent so well-endowed with excellent writers and commentators of all kinds, surely one or two Western perspectives would have sufficed – not nine out of the 22 main contributions.

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Film

The Square Circle   
directed by Amol Palekar

A fascinating addition to current gender debates. You can almost hear the sound of traditions crashing around Amol Palekar’s The Square Circle. Hailed as a landmark film of the popular Indian cinema, its subject matter – male/female transvestism – is rare by any standards. It’s been a hit in festivals all around the world but has yet to be released in mainstream cinemas in India itself. Given its trenchant criticisms of social and gender restrictions though, that’s hardly surprising.

Writer Timeri Murari, who is also an author and international journalist, has created a Hindi language script at first sight antithetical to the Bollywood style. But the entertaining mix of comedy, melodrama and occasional music, comes across as a more restrained variant on formula cinema. Where it really sparks is in its ideas, striking and intelligent enough to make it unique. It’s set in Southern India, where a young man trained as a female performer in folk theatre is made redundant when a real woman takes over his roles. Since he is a transvestite both on and off stage he suddenly finds himself rootless in the countryside.

Played by Nirmal Pandey, best known for his role as the Bandit Queen’s outlaw leader and lover, the transvestite is an affecting mix of vulnerability and thin bravado. His enforced independence is tested when he encounters a young woman on the run from a kidnap attempt by brothel keepers. After she is brutally raped by a gang of bikers, the transvestite takes her under his wing and they both head back for her home. For added protection, he cuts her hair, steals boys’ clothing for her, teaches her a convincing male persona and, in a final flourish, sticks a little moustache on her. At which point the film becomes an intriguing essay on the nature of real and assumed gender identities and cultural proscriptions.

Neither protagonist has a name, partly because the film is about unhinging stereotypes and power relations. As such, apparent paradoxes abound, with the transvestite yearning to be a woman, but acknowledging his male side too. He appears to be gay or perhaps bisexual, but has also escaped a painful marriage. The girl, for her part, learns to enjoy some of the liberties that come with being a man, settling into a job as a garage mechanic and acting with the transvestite in an impromptu theatre performance. But while she recognizes some of the oppressiveness in a wife’s role, she still mourns the marriage she had once prepared for. Eventually the couple build a fragile relationship, which evolves on her side into passionate, physical desire and on his, into a more complicated love. Both leads play their parts with energy and sincerity. Screen newcomer Sonali Kulkarn is impressive as the girl, and Nirmal Pandey’s difficult role is pulled off with poise. Foreign audiences expecting another Bandit Queen might be taken off guard by the film’s occasional incursions into song and the melodramatic underlining of emotions. But there is enough genuine complexity here, combined with an almost epic, tragi-comic dimension, to make this a fascinating addition to current gender debates.

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Reviewers: Esi Eshun, Peter Whittaker, Vanessa Baird, Louise Gray
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird

T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
Agnes Bernelle
...being a most mischievous, haunting and eclectic link with Berlin cabaret.

Vicky, a jazz-singer, radio announcer and clandestine favourite of the forces in Nazi Germany (Hitler had denounced ‘impure’ jazz), put it about that the Führer had requested all good citizens to send urine samples to the Ministry of Health in Berlin. The German postal service was inundated by this ingenious piece of disinformation. Vicky of the pirate airwaves, the author of this serious mischief, was none other than one Agnes Bernelle, the daughter of a Jewish theatre impresario, forced into British exile by the Nazis.

It wouldn’t be unfair to say that Agnes Bernelle has made a career of serious mischief, with her hauntingly odd songs and their sharp-as-unripe-plums subversion. Her early life was lived in the heyday of the German cabaret movement with its luminaries like Brecht, Ringelnatz and Wedekind firing enticingly wicked salvos at crass bourgeois materialism, to what was often a bourgeois audience.

In 1901 her father, Rudolph Bernauer, had opened a new Berlin literary cabaret Die Böse Buben (The Naughty Boys) which satirized other cabaret offerings and specialized in dramatic parody. It is to this spirit of playfulness that Agnes Bernelle has remained true, keeping alive an eclectic clutch of songs for an English-language audience in seemingly effortless translations. Her style, theatrical yet intimate, mercurially flexible and boundlessly warm has won her loyal fans and critical adulation, yet somehow wider fame has eluded her. Perhaps this latter fact is testimony to the barbs that lie beneath the surface humour of her performance.

Agnes Bernelle

Born in the 1920s, she is still wowing audiences and winning over newcomers who can’t believe their good luck at having ‘discovered’ her. An early album of Brecht-Weill songs is as rare as birds milk, but her 1985 album Father’s Lying Dead on the Ironing Board is an excellent place to discover her unique voice – for some reason salt and rusted iron cross my mind – and the artless whimsicality of her style. ‘I never approach a song as one singing it,’ she has said. ‘I approach it from the text, and if I like the content I try putting it across. I’ve had singing teachers coming up and saying “Let me teach you for free”. I tell them I’ve spent years unlearning the technique.’ Whereas Father’s Lying Dead consists mainly of early German cabaret songs the 1988 follow-up Mother the Wardrobe is Full of Infantrymen brings things bang up to date with lyrics by Tom Waits and the poets Adrian Mitchell, Roger McGough and Christopher Logue among others.

The songs themselves are full of wool-gatherers and ne’er-do-wells, misfits in society who throw into question the very meaning of social organization. The sexes are at war (what else?), from the low intensity conflict of Rose who drives her suitor Sidney bankrupt with her fondness for cakes, to the Girl with the Brown Mole who steals everything from her besotted lover. If a sad song about prostitution tells the truth about the commodification of women by men, then the tale of super-dyke Bertha de Sade wreaks comic-revenge. Clichés perhaps, but with the unmistakable clang of truth.

From anti-nukes songs that tell stories rather than tub-thump to hilarious demonstrations of the evils of economic inequality, social protest is never very far beneath the surface. There’s the happy shopper who loves the glamour of the posh shops (which have ‘cat food that’s too good for cordon bleu chefettes!’) and ‘liberates’ the things on display by nicking them. In one a niece murders her wealthy yet miserly aunt while in another the aunt has the last laugh when her avaricious niece hurries off to cremate her, only to be killed herself when the hearse crashes into a shop window. Auntie meanwhile wakes up – ‘she’d just passed out a while’ – and walks away.

The skewed world of the songs points out how in reality we can get things horribly wrong. In Adrian Mitchell’s ‘Song About Mary’, a new mother decides to name her son Jesus Christ because ‘it’s time he came again’. The mother is promptly certified and the child placed in a ‘Christian home’, but the song goes on to wonder whether if Jesus did come again he’d cause too much of a ruckus, protecting the meek and the poor and disruptive stuff like that. Similarly in Christopher Logue’s ‘Go to the Wall’ a child is told homilies of right living only to witness another, more perverted truth, that power squashes everything.

My absolute favourite is a Ringelnatz poem, ‘Night Elegy’, where deep in the crevices of a neon night a lonely, battered soul confronts the sheer clutter the world is sinking under and realizes that even this revelation won’t last. Does this indicate our ability for renewal or for self-deception? It’s nuances like these that will draw you again and again to Agnes Bernelle’s songs, their exquisite, sinuous arrangements, their brittle humour and their abiding rightness.

Dinyar Godrej

Father’s Lying Dead on the Ironing Board is available through Diabolo Records (DIAB 815). Mother the Wardrobe is Full of Infantrymen (Some Bizzare/Milo Music, AGI 7CD) is sadly out of print. Agnes Bernelle’s memoirs, The Fun Palace, have been published recently by Lilliput.

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