New Internationalist

Reviews

Issue 302

Reviews

NI star rating system Music

Dumbala Dumba
by Taraf de Haïdouks
(Crammed Discs CRAW 21 CD)

Ocean Songs
by Dirty Three (Bella Union BELLA 3)

Dumbala Dumba Soon after Ceaucescu was deposed as Romanian dictator, two Belgians travelling in the country chanced upon a group of a dozen or so gypsy musicians in their village of Clejani, southwest of Bucharest. They were Taraf de Haïdouks and nothing really prepares one for the first encounter with their gypsy soul music. There is, in their traditional tunes and songs, a wildness and a spirit that makes party tunes boisterous or laments solemn and plangent. There’s little point in making any comparisons with the jaunty violin melodies that are periodically offered up as authentic gypsy material.

Since the Belgian-based label introduced the band to audiences outside Romania, Taraf de Haïdouks have bowled over countless assemblies. Dumbala Dumba is their third album. That it exists at all is extraordinary: Romania has long had an ambivalent relationship with its gypsies and during the Ceaucescu regime folk music was corralled in the service of the state and a culture of ‘fakelore’ grew up. Not surprisingly, these ‘fakelore’ songs no longer exist; for traditional music to survive, it has to be grafted to a living root.

Taraf de Haïdouks’ fast vivacious music spans cultures – Balkan, Slavic and Turkish – with a rhythm of tradition and everyday ritual. Invigorated by the addition of guests, such as a group of Ursar former bear-tamers, the exciting beat, claps and rhythms speak for themselves. The shifts and the cadences reach back to the music’s Middle Eastern origins and often the music can seem quite rough and uneven, but it quickly asserts its ability to regenerate itself with a flourish. And using makeshift instruments such as barrels, spoons and chairs, these dozen or so musicians suggest an urgent need to make music. It’s a powerful and affirming communication.

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Ocean songs
photo by BRAD MILLER

In their wild, soaring, creaking melodies, it might be said that Dirty Three possess a bit of Taraf de Haïdouks’ spirit, even soul. If this seems preposterous, check out the trio’s fourth album, Ocean Songs. Led by violinist Warren Ellis (who also plays with Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds), the band specializes in an instrumental sound that can range from manic heights to slow, understated melodies. Ellis, a trained player who left his native Melbourne to study with the gypsies in Romania and Morocco, brings a full range of improvisa-tory talents to fruition in the band. Guitarist Mick Turner and drummer Jim White provide a launchpad for Ellis’s playing, and on Ocean Songs he coaxes a strange and mournful blues into being. As seductive a record as you will ever find.

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Books

Hidden Agendas
by John Pilger
(Vintage, ISBN 0099-41512)

Benedita da Silva
An Afro-Brazilian Woman’s Story of Politics and Love as told to Medea Benjamin and Maisa Mendonça
(Food First Books(US)/Latin America Bureau (UK) ISBN 0 935028 70 6/1899365214}

Viramma: life of an untouchable
by Viramma, Josiane Racine and Jean Luc Racine
(Verso ISBN 1-85984-148-1)

Hidden Agendas We are constantly informed by our bland, ‘modernizing’ leaders that all is for the best in our cosy, deregulated global market-place. Like a chorus of latter-day Dr Panglosses they tell us that a casualized, low-wage economy and crumbling, privatized infrastructure run for the profit of the few, are all that is on offer.

Well, like the boy in the crowd who saw what the Emperor’s clothes were really made of, John Pilger is here to say it ain’t so. From the democracy movement of Burma to the Liverpool dockers, the freedom fighters of East Timor to the shantytowns of South Africa’s Eastern Cape, Pilger hears and reports the voices that are filtered out by consensual newsmaking. Names such as José Ramos-Horta and Bishop Bello, Aung San Suu Kyi and Mordechai Vanunu are rightly prominent, but they are not the only heroes here. Pilger’s work celebrates and honours the resilience and courage of all those throughout the world whose solidarity and grassroots organization is, in Colin Ward’s memorable phrase, ‘the seed beneath the snow’. Ordinary people’s determination to resist oppression and to ‘speak the truth to power’ is the dynamo that drives his passionate journalism.

There is a sense in which Pilger, as with that other great scourge of establishment mendacity, Noam Chomsky, is constantly re-writing and updating the same book. Hidden Agendas draws on its predecessor Distant Voices which was itself an extension of his 1986 book Heroes. Is this a criticism? Only if you are naive enough to believe that politicians have become paragons of virtue in the last dozen years and take them at their word when they claim an ‘ethical’ foreign policy yet say they cannot, for commercial reasons, stop the export of jets to the murderous Indonesian regime.

What galls the directors of New World Order Plc is that Pilger listens to what they say and also watches what they do and then, cool as you like, has the audacity to compare and contrast the two. His books, articles and films shine a light into the corners that arms dealers, corporate overlords, hypocritical politicians and craven media propagandists would rather we didn’t see. This is a wonderful, incisive book. Read it.

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Benedita da Silva Someone who definitely qualifies as a ‘seed beneath the snow’ is the remarkable Benedita da Silva, or Bené as she is more affectionately known. The first black woman to be elected to Brazil’s Senate – where 90 per cent of senators are white males – she was raised in a Rio favela and continues to live there.

A politician telling their own story runs the risk of sinking into self-promotion. But, thanks to her emotional candour, Benedita by and large avoids this. What comes across is her deep passion for social justice and total commitment to the community she comes from. She’s a tremendous survivor, continuing to live while those she loves drop like flies around her, but she’s vulnerable too and admits it.

As a story of political activism – Benedita is a feminist, campaigner for street-children and founder member of the Brazilian Worker’s Party – her narrative is an inspiration.

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Viramma The capacity to describe hardship with humour is a rare talent. But it’s one that the protagonist of Viramma: life of an untouchable clearly has. This autobiography is the product of ten years’ worth of conversation between Viramma, a 60-something illiterate dalit, and fellow, albeit middle-class, native Tamil-speaker Josiane Racine. What makes it exceptional is that Viramma is such a wonderfully earthy, witty story-teller. Her life is undoubtedly tough, and she does not gloss over the brutalities and hypocrisies of caste, class and gender repression in India. But she approaches life with such a robust, raunchy humour you can’t help but smile. This book’s a delight, buzzing with raw energy and authenticity.

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Film

Shooting Indians
directed by Ali Kazimi
(Mongrel Media, Toronto, Canada)

Shooting Indians ‘Here I’m called an East Indian,’ says Ali Kazimi of his life in Canada. While growing up in India, Kazimi heard the classic myths of the American Red Man, the noble, authentic people who vanished. Once in Canada his desire to find the authentic led him to Native artist Jeff Thomas, a photographer of Iroquois descent, born in Buffalo, New York, now living in Canada.

Thomas’s life is a fascinating journey from the grim neighbourhoods of East Buffalo to his work for the National Archives. As an artist he has worked to represent many facets of modern Native life. One set of his portraits shows the before-and-after transformation of pow-wow dancers as they change from their street clothes into traditional dress; even Thomas often doesn’t recognize them afterwards. Another series shows historic statues of Indians – often at the feet of an explorer – with Thomas’s son posed in front. It is an ironic mode: the mythic brave and the living inheritor of a complex tradition.

Ali Kazimi’s film, Shooting Indians, centres on Thomas’s struggle with the classic work of Edward Curtis, a white photographer who, during the years 1898 to 1928, created a remarkable record of Native peoples in North America. Curtis’s reputation has seen many reversals. Today his work stands as a source and a foil; the images remain deeply disturbing to many Native viewers, in the way that they romanticize, implying that Native peoples, while noble, were doomed. In most of his portraits Curtis insisted that no evidence of white contact be visible. Native leaders posed at his studio or in wilderness landscapes in traditional dress only, no European objects or clothes allowed.

Thomas and Kazimi managed to find the lead actress, now 100 years old, who played a topless Indian princess in a film shot by Curtis on Vancouver Island in 1914 called In the Land of the Head Hunters. To her as well, the Curtis film was a mixed experience – a white man’s vision but accurate enough to serve as a delightful home movie from a very different time.

Unfortunately there was no tradition of Indians photographing themselves, says Thomas, and this provides the starting point for his work. His challenge is to show modern Native people as dignified heirs to a rich tradition and as ordinary, unromanticized folks too. But the film is also biography, the portrait of a contemporary. Thomas struggles with marriage, fatherhood, and work. At one point, in the mid-1980s, the film nearly died because Thomas’s personal life was in turmoil. In fact Thomas and Kazimi lost track of each other for years, brought together again by chance.

This is a quiet, subtle film, where both subject and filmmaker reveal their evolving ideas, both struggling to show respect for those they photograph, but without a mythic gloss. For Thomas it’s a case of studying, not vilifying Curtis. For Kazimi ‘what has vanished is my image of the mythic, imaginary Red Indian.’

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Reviewers: Louise Gray, Peter Whittaker, Vanessa Baird, Peter Steven
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird

T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
Poems 1913-1956
...being both a diary of daily events and a commentary on world affairs.

Bertolt Brecht. This year sees the centenary of the birth of the German playwright and poet, Bertolt Brecht. For some academics and fellow-travellers of the right, such an anniversary, following on from the ‘ending’ of the Cold War, has signalled open season on Brecht. Shrill biographies have appeared in which wild accusations of misogyny and plagiarism are made.

These recent attacks have in common a strong ideological motivation; Brecht the unrepentant Marxist must be cut down to size now that global capitalism is the only game in town. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the toppling of the statues must be followed by the humbling of this socialist icon.

In this atmosphere of nouveau-McCarthyism, it is illuminating to look beyond the pseudo-debate over whether Brecht’s well-known collaborative working methods amounted to theft and instead concentrate on the bed-rock of his craft; the neglected and little-known poetry.

From his earliest days, poetry poured out of Brecht, jotted down on scraps of paper as he wandered the streets of his home town of Augsberg. Many of these early poems, such as the rumbustious Ballad of the Pirates or the deliberately schmaltzy Remembering Maria A were written with musical accompaniment and, indeed, many made their way as songs into his first play, Baal. The success of his second play Drums in the Night led to Brecht’s move to Berlin where he wrote the poetic series The Impact of the Cities. Throughout the early 1930s, as the Nazis tightened their grip on power, poetry for Brecht became an increasingly polemical tool, a means of expressing his political opposition and rallying resistance. Often he was spurred to write by news items, as he explains in Bad Time For Poetry:

Inside me contend
Delight at the Apple tree in blossom
And horror at the house painter’s*
  speeches
But only the second
Drives me to my desk.
  [* Hitler]

When, in 1933, Brecht was forced into exile in Scandinavia and later the United States, poetry remained the constant thread in his life. At a time when his books were burned in Germany and he was seldom able to stage his plays, poetry was at once a diary of everyday events, a commentary on world affairs and a chance to test and expand ideas and theories. The poems of these exile years are astonishingly tautly written, often turning on a single telling image or detail. They are also the most compelling in terms of their humanity and empathy; the poet struggling to encompass in words the horrors of war sweeping across the continents:

The old see the young die
The foolish see the wise die
The earth no longer produces, it devours
The sky hurls down no rain, only iron

It is undeniable that these darkest days of war saw Brecht’s best work as a poet. At the war’s end he returned to a divided Germany, founding the Berliner Ensemble, the theatre company dedicated to performing his plays. In these last years Brecht was circumspect – to say the least – in his comments about the communist rulers of East Germany, torn between party loyalty and deep scepticism. Only after his death in 1957 did pieces critical of Stalin and the East German regime see the light of day, most famously the poem The Solution:

 After the uprising of
    the 17th June
  The Secretary of the
    Writer’s Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the
    government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts.
Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

Reading these works, it becomes clear how the theatrical and musical collaborations – with Weill, Eisler, Elizabeth Hauptmann and others – were built upon the superstructure of the poetic writing. As John Willet and Ralph Manheim say in the introduction to their definitive collection of his poetry, ‘More painfully (and more powerfully) than in any of his stage works, he was writing the tragedy of our time.’

Peter Whittaker

Poems 1913-1956 by Bertolt Brecht, edited by John Willett & Ralph Manheim (Methuen, 1976) ISBN 0 413 487903.

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