New Internationalist

Reviews

Issue 299

Reviews

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Encuentro Entre Soneros
by Papi Oviedo (Tumi CD 070)

Hasta Siempre Comandante
by Various (TUMI CD 077)

Hasta Siempre Comandante Just as rum is the base of Caribbean cocktails, so is Cuban son at the root of salsa, the vibrant, multi-hued dance music that fills the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Encuentro Entre Soneros – a meeting of son aficionados or soneros is something of a late comer. Released by Papi Oviedo as his debut album at the grand old age of 63, Encuentro is a wonderful piece of listening. Gilberto Pai Oviedo’s instrument is the tres, the Cuban guitar whose three pairs of double strings gives the instrument its distinctly varied sound. He began his career as a boy in Havana, helping his father a master of the tres. Oviedo Junior branched out in the early 1940s – the heyday of salsa and he went on to play with such luminaries as Enrique Perez, Conjuncto Chocolate and Elio Reve.

This album’s great strength lies in the manner in which it displays so many son styles of the past decades. Its 13 songs – all of which feature guest artists and singers in addition to Oviedo and his core band – take us through classic son, Afro-son (courtesy of Oviedo Senior), guarachero-son, and bolero. At times, Oviedo’s music has a delicious retro feel which always gives way to the lively cross-rhythms beaten out by a fine percussion section and punctuated by the trumpet blasts of José and Julian Martinez. In all, perfect music for an endless party.

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One of the Cuban revolution’s most charismatic figures was, of course, Che Guevara. Not surprisingly, the cigar-toting guerrilla inspired many songs, 13 of which are included on the recently released commemorative album, Hasta Siempre Comandante. They range from the lugubriousness of the magnificent Elena Burke’s deep-throated offering, through the exhortational ‘Che Comandante’ from Cacique Paraguayo, to the downright fawning of Grupo 5U4. Their lines extolling Che’s ‘divine presence’ might be considered slightly suspect. Nevertheless, the album manages to be both an interesting historical document (it contains original recordings of Fidel Castro reading Che’s letters to crowds in 1965) as well as being substantially entertaining.

Entertainment [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Politics [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]     LG

 

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Walking in the Shade:
Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949-1962

by Doris Lessing (HarperCollins, lSBN 0-00-255861-0)

The Commissar Vanishes
by David King (Canongate Books, Edinburgh ISBN 0-86241-724-4. US publisher, Metropolitan Books)

Walking in the Shade Doris Lessing’s first volume of autobiography Under My Skin came in for a lot of critical flak for its honest depiction of the difficult choices she made when she came to England from Africa. Her decision to leave two children behind and her reticence over the emotions involved in the separation were seen as coldly calculating. Her answer to this charge: ‘it seemed to me obvious that I was bound to be unhappy and any intelligent reader would understand that without ritual beatings of the breast’ is a neat summation of what autobiography is for Doris Lessing – a delicate balance between intellectual analysis and emotional reserve. Walking in the Shade begins in 1949 with Doris, aged 30, arriving in a grim, monochrome post-war Britain. Her first novel The Grass is Singing has been accepted by a publisher and she and her small son settle into a London flat. Her early forays into artistic and literary circles are tempered by the demands of a very active child and the need to make a living; all the familiar drudgery of single-parenthood are accurately described here but without a drop of self-pity. Gradually Doris, who had been a Communist Party member in Rhodesia, began attending political meetings and demonstrations and although deeply sceptical of claims of a Soviet utopia joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in the early 1950s. Her vivid autopsy on the vanished convictions and vain struggles of those days is one of the book’s strengths and her answers to the oft-asked question as to how a generation could have supported Stalin and justified the unjustifiable are complex, convincing and unblinkingly honest. Many luminaries of the intellectual Left crop up – Naomi Mitchison, EP Thompson, Clancy Sigal, Bertrand Russell – but simply as people she knew, never as names to be dropped. As a vivid account of the Cold War mentality of the 1950s and 1960s and of her personal odyssey through CND and the Communist Party – which she left in 1956 – this book could hardly be bettered. She captures the tang of the times and she can be very funny. There are some wonderful passages about the nature of a writing life. Having begun by saying that a writer’s typical day is too dull to describe, she then evokes brilliantly the ‘daily routine of procrastination, wool-gathering, the low-level depression that feeds creativity’. Lessing seems genuinely bewildered at the success and influence some of her books have had; her best known work, The Golden Notebook she considers to have been something of a failure!

What comes over most in this uncompromising book is the way Doris Lessing has preserved and protected her intellectual independence. Prickly, proudly rational and scornful of the cheap line or the shoddy argument, she is triumphantly her own woman, celebrating her mistakes and shortcomings as resolutely and as tenaciously as her achievements.

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Entertainmen [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]     PW

The Commissar Vanishes ‘Under Stalin’s regime... photographs lied. In David King’s book, the same photographs, their original images restored, speak volumes of truth,’ writes Professor Stephen Cohen in his preface to The Commisar Vanishes: the falsification of photographs and art in Stalin’s Russia. It took photo-historian David King 30 years to build up the extraordinary, chilling archive on which this book is based. The result is a picture-book that tells the story of the darkest decades of the Soviet Union more sharply than reams of text ever could. Stalin not only rewrote history, he also had it visually transformed, faking images to make himself a key player in the Revolution and falsifying a closeness with Lenin that never existed. More sinister though was the way in which he got his propagandists, using airbrushing and cutting-and-pasting techniques, to remove from visual record those he sentenced to death or the gulags. The names of those whom he had arrested or ‘disappeared’ could no longer be mentioned, nor could pictures be kept without the greatest risk of arrest. Even family albums were not safe, with relatives hacking out images of a lost father or mother, brother or sister. Some of the most haunting images are those from artist and photographer Alexander Rodchenko’s own copy of a book of photographs he produced called Ten Years of Uzbekistan. Three years later, in 1937, Stalin purged the Uzbek leadership with the result that many of the official portraits of party functionaries in the album had to be destroyed. Rodchenko did this so crudely that the resulting images subversively express the brutality and violence of what actually happened to these victims of Stalin’s Great Terror; the defacements became almost works of art in themselves.

This book is quite clearly about a particular and extreme time and place in history. But advances in computer software which invisibly alter photographs, combined with the perennial problem that power tends to corrupt, leave little room for complacency. Photographic images are alarmingly manipulable – and we remain alarmingly easily manipulated by them.

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Entertainment [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]     VB

 

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Funny Games
by Michael Haneke

Funny Games This film sets out to stoke controversy. The first Austrian movie to show at Cannes for 35 years, and the third in director Michael Haneke’s trilogy about the media and violence, it’s a sparse, elegant, psychological thriller in which two killers shatter the well-oiled life of a middle class couple for no explained motive. Yet Funny Games is no standard thriller. It’s a knowing, only partly ironic exercise in provoking its audience to query the part they play in consuming and perpetuating screen violence.

The first intimation of traumas ahead comes in the pre-title sequence as Anne (Susanne Lothar) and Georg (Ulrich Mühe) and their young son Georgie (Stephan Clapczynski) drive alongside a mountain lake to their holiday home, the strains of Mozart piping decorously through the car stereo. As they test each other’s knowledge of opera, a sudden thrash of metal music warns the audience of the family’s impending disaster.

It arrives in the shape of two preppy looking, white-clad young men, apparently guests of their neighbours. One of them, Peter (Frank Giering), appears unexpectedly in the family’s immaculate kitchen, asking Anne to lend her neighbour some eggs. She is at first discomfited by his extreme politeness and then thoroughly unnerved by the menacing intent behind it. But he is soon joined by Paul (Arno Frisch), thinner, cleverer, more malevolent, and just as chillingly polite. Before long, Paul has struck and disabled Georg’s leg with a golf club, entrapped the family, and embarked on the first of his sadistic little games, culminating, he warns them, in death within 12 hours.

Very little actual violence is shown on screen. Brutality is suggested through sounds though the terror is inscribed on faces, forcing the viewer to participate actively in the characters’ suffering. During the first fatality the camera remains in the kitchen while Paul makes a sandwich. There is an aching clarity, a bleached cosiness to the cinematography. The acting, particularly Susan Lothar’s harrowed intensity and young Georgie’s vulnerability, is sometimes too painful to watch.

As with other parts of his trilogy Haneke makes no attempt to provide psychological or sociological motivations for his characters. Part of his plan is to force viewers to confront the suffering involved in real rather than screen violence, by drawing attention to the way cinema and television routinely mitigate its impact. Self-consciously alluding to the film’s fictional status he invokes the audience’s voyeuristic participation by having Paul turn to the camera at intervals and wink. At one point he even picks up the television remote control and rewinds an entire sequence which he deems has temporarily slipped out of his power.

Haneke has stated that he wants to take cinema away from its slavish adherence to the rules of storytelling – the illusion of reality – and make it a more critical activity. Funny Games certainly does that.

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Entertainment [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]      EE

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

 

T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
Letters
...being earth songs from a true pioneer.

Letters

World music has become such a compromised beast. Cross-cultural fun has turned into aural salve. Increasingly it gets marketed in forms digestible to Western audiences, which have less to do with a meeting of musical minds than considerations of lushness, feelgood potential, and track length. Admittedly artists of integrity do shine through with their distinctive voices no matter what the studio treatment, but largely we as consumers get what we expect, sunshine on CD from Africa, salsa fire from South America, floating haunt-stuff from Scandinavia. Occasionally anomalies may bother us – such as when artists from nations with the most hideous political situations churn out the dippy happy vibe, or when translated lyrics sit uneasily with our own values. For me the packaging of culture in tidy portions is the most serious consequence.

So it’s all the more rewarding that the glorious voice of Tuvan singer Sainkho Namchylak cuts through cosy categories and moves all the goal posts in its dramatic experimentation. At the beginning of her career she performed the traditional shamanic music of her southern Siberian homeland, but disguised as pop music because the Soviet authorities discouraged shamanic practice. A stance that could be viewed as subversion, compromise, or possibly a bit of both.

Since then she has taken full control of the direction of her music and broken out of the ethno-exotica trappings that have often claimed ‘foreign’ singers with great voices. Such as Yma Sumac, the Peruvian with a glass-shattering range, whose stunning improvisations never received any copyright credit.

Tuva, a land of stamp-collectors’ dreams, is flavour of the month with exotica fans. And even though classically trained – Namchylak is one of the few women accomplished in Tuvan overtone singing – she follows her own unique musical vision. Her rise in so-called Improv circles has been phenomenal, but here too she is breaking the rules of this supposedly free terrain. As a vocalist she refuses to be a mere pendant to the male-dominated scene’s instrumentalists. She is unafraid of melody and emotion (always suspicious to musical ‘radicals’), and incorporates ancient singing techniques into her compositions.

Letters (1993) is a stirring testament to the territory she has carved out. Collaborating with some of Improv’s brightest – Joelle Leandre (bass), Mats Gustaffson (sax), Sten Sandell (piano) – Namchylak seems intent on voicing the entire gamut of human emotion. The album sleeve contains letters from Sainkho to her beloved father, who died in 1992. She recounts the hubbub of travel between events, a dismal performance before a tiny, unappreciative audience at a prestigious jazz festival, her embarrassment at being introduced to a living legend not having heard his work. ‘Because I couldn’t speak English I was like a fish out of water off-stage. I could only gesticulate with my hands or nod with my head.’ Elsewhere she has spoken of the loneliness of being an improviser with an Asian logic who usually works with musicians from Western traditions. In the corresponding tracks Namchylak tries out an unsure little voice, overtaken by a squabble of styles, eventually resolved in long honeyed phrases.

One of the letters is from her father, concerned whether he has been a good parent, wondering when she will find a partner. This solo track begins with an impossibly low sub-bass drone that turns the entire room into a giant larynx, a veil of skin through which the wind seems to pass. It is a kind of wise grumbling, seismic yet intimate. Later comes throat work of such visceral intensity that one expects shreds of flesh to come flying out of the speakers.

The tracks are journeys, shamanic voicings of people, rocks, trees, winds, a distant tapping in a far-off cave, a desire to be in time and out of time. On Letter 5, the spectral piano of Sten Sandell perfectly complements a fragile yet immaculately realized meditation on remembrance and loss. Letter 6 contains a statement of intent: ‘I am beginning to comprehend my real role in this world. I think that I am a necessary connecting link in the chain of cultural continuity between the past and the future, between the people of the East and the West. Like an antenna, tuned to a certain frequency, I perceive ideas in the form of images and thoughts and I believe in their realization. The basis of these ideas is the community of people, their historic continuity, expressed in music, in my singing.’

The final track is just a few seconds long, the voice sweet, uncertain, lost, a child searching for its parent. It’s a necessary, very human postscript to Namchylak’s journeys to the frontiers of sound. She is a true pioneer, a one-off, using her vast palette and virtuosic technique to convey visions. That she manages so well without words is her singular achievement.

Dinyar Godrej

Letters by Sainkho Namchylak is available on CD through Leo Records (LR 190).

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