New Internationalist

Reviews

Issue 303

Reviews

NI Star rating system. Music

Stayin’ Home with the Blues
by Various (Spectrum/Polygram 537 945 /552 887 /554157 CD)

African Blues
by Various (World Music Network RGNET 1019CD/1019CMC)

African Blues Blues? That’s American Deep South stuff, right? Well, not only. The quest for ‘authenticity’ in music has taken so many spurious turns in recent years that it has perhaps managed to overlook the overarching patterns. It’s these patterns that have made up the blues, that inimitable form of misery set to music that’s as vibrant today as ever. It has a long history – musicologists have traced the origins of blues from India to Arabia to Spain, through to Africa, the Caribbean and America’s southern states.

African Blues, a valuable and exhilarating record, contains 15 songs ranging from Egypt’s Hamza El Din to Cape Verde’s unsurpassable Cesaria Evora. The Stayin’ Home With the Blues series, meanwhile, features vintage recordings with American blues artists such as Freddie King, Big Bill Bronzy, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Memphis Slim.

Although blues has its origins elsewhere, it’s the American records, made mostly in the 1940s and 1950s, that sound spare and dour. It’s impossible to say the same of African musician Ismael Lo’s ‘Talibe’ with its sweetly sad vocals and lilting rhythms, or the mesmerizing progression of Oumou Sangare’s ‘Saa Magni’. But listen more closely and the connections become clearer: there’s something of Otis Redding about Kanté Manfila and Balla Kall’s ‘Kankan Blues’ from Guinea, and there’s a distinct doo-wop groove in the oldest track on the disc, Zambian Alick Nhata’s ‘Maggie’ .

Turn to Lightnin’ Hopkins’ ‘Sad news from Korea’ – a 1950s song which shows how well the old blues format adapts to accommodate new subjects – and we begin to hear the same kinds of empty spaces, quivering with expression, as in songs like ‘A Va Safy Va Lomo’ from Mozambique’s Orchestra Marrabenta Star.

Blues has its sound roots in the music that the American slaves brought from Africa and its emotional roots in the experience of captivity. And African Blues is fascinating because it traces not only roots, but is made by musicians who have already been exposed to American Blues, especially in its soul and R’n’B incarnations.

But how authentic is that typical no-good-woman blues sentiment that the Stayin’ Home album has in abundance? Without knowing the languages it’s difficult to know whether misogyny prevails in African Blues. But it is intriguing to reflect on Cesaria Evora, the barefoot diva who slugs back whisky and smokes with the best of them, and who has by virtue of her Portuguese-language songs been enlisted into the ranks of fado – Portuguese blues – singers. Whatever the roots of blues, its routes through the world continue apace.

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(African Blues)

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(Stayin’ Home with the Blues)

 

Books

School Days
and
Strange Words
by Patrick Chamoiseau
both translated by Linda Coverdale
(Granta Books, London, ISBN 1-86207-163-2 and ISBN 1-86207-086-5)

School Days Reading these two books by Martinican author Patrick Chamoiseau is like entering a forest of tongues – sentences dart out unexpectedly like lizards, words open up like jungle flowers. Language and its shaping of identity is a major theme in both books, but Chamoiseau’s methods are refreshingly direct and thankfully devoid of post-modern clever-me posturing.

School Days is at once a memoir, an essay and a fable, folding the merits of all three genres into writing of such dexterity and lightness that the pages fly by. Telling the story of a little black boy – the young Chamoiseau – and his thirst to enter the world of reading and writing in a breathless sequence of episodes, it reveals the sad and absurd attempts of his teacher to colonize his mind.

The Teacher is a splendid creation, a Creole man with a Frenchified mind and a mouthful of rolling R’s, on a mission to stub out the patois spoken by his charges by means of caning and ridicule. His attempts to draw the children into a world where snow falls and apples grow and boys are called Petit-Pierre, a world which has no relation whatsoever to the realities of their lives, are based upon his notions of ‘civilization’. In the Teacher’s mind the Universal Order is ‘simple and just’ and marked by ‘ineluctable progress’. To be part of it one must speak its language, French. As for Creole – ‘This po’-nigger talk gums up your minds with its worthless pap!’

Contrasting the vibrancy of the boy’s life at home with the dead hours of regimentation at school, and the fumbling attempts of the children to speak French with the verve of their mother tongue (including gorgeous swear words like Smelly-sore-flies or Lowdown-dutty-stinks), the book avoids falling into maudlin chest-beating. Chamoiseau is fair to his characters. A replacement teacher steeped in the ideals of Negritude may belong to the opposition but the children still find he cramps and conforms them in the same way. Likewise if one of the children loses all his fighting spirit to this assault of Frenchness, the protagonist is eventually inspired by the Teacher’s love of language if not by the language itself. For all the familiarity of its themes, School Days is a remarkable, fresh little book.

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Strange Words Strange Words is even more fun. Chamoiseau retells the spiky, scary Creole folk tales of his childhood with palpable delight. He is well served by his translator Linda Coverdale who hardly puts a foot wrong in both books. Gauging the politics of the tales is not easy. There are the usual stock-in-trade of wicked hags, beautiful young people destined for matrimony and noble ‘cripples’, and Chamoiseau certainly makes no attempt to ‘improve’ them for contemporary tastes. That would mean being untrue to the tradition he is seeking to bring to a larger audience. Also it’s not unreasonable to expect a contemporary audience to engage with the issues raised by the presence of these stereotypes. One of the storyteller’s tactics that Chamoiseau employs is a certain opacity – things are told without necessarily being explained, inviting the active interpretation of the reader. Another tactic is humour which can deflate straight readings of events. In one tale a she-devil is described with such zest as to make her a comic-heroic creation – ‘yes indeed, it was she, the chamber-pot crony of more than one old zombi, the Bat King’s bedfellow in the buff, practically chief undercook in hell’s kitchen, yes, her!’

At another level the stories’ politics are quite clear – they are tales of survival from a colonized land, with hunger and starvation looming large. Power is defeated by guile and cunning, though, as Chamoiseau points out in his introduction, the ‘remedies for misfortune are not collective ones’. These are wild, wickedly playful stories, hissing and sparkling in an orbit all their own – and completely irresistible.

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The Black Handbook
by EL Bute and HJP Harmer
(Cassell ISBN 0 304 33543 6)

Ever wondered what the Cha Cha Cha Campaign was? The Black Handbook has the answer to this and plenty more besides. It’s an immensely readable reference covering the people, the history and the politics of Africa and the African Diaspora over three continents and several centuries. Apart from the more obvious stuff – country profiles, political leaders, dates of independence and so forth – there’s a fascinating section on terms, movements and ideas. All in all, an authoritative delight to dip into.

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Film

Men with Guns
directed by John Sayles

Men with Guns From The Anarchist’s Convention to Lone Star, John Sayles has adroitly played the themes of contemporary allegory. His new film, set somewhere in the Americas, south of Texas, continues in that vein.

Men with Guns could take place in Chiapas, Mexico, or perhaps in Guatemala. Maybe it’s even further south – any place where the armies and rightist death squads target Indian communities and those doctors and social workers who work ‘in the field’. But Sayles is careful to show that his story is not specific to one time or place. ‘I didn’t want people to say that could only happen in El Salvador... or Mexico,’ he says.

Doctor Fuentes is a wealthy, distinguished professional, proud of his achievements in the Alliance For Progress. Many years earlier he had inspired young medical students to fan out into the jungle in order to practise within Native communities. Then one day he stumbles across one of his former students, now selling drugs in Los Perdidos, a slum near the city dump, and Fuentes begins his descent from ivory tower ignorance into the bitter and tragic world beyond the capital city.

The story of a well-off liberal, confronted by the nasty realities of civil war is hardly new. And the way in which the film unfolds as Dr Fuentes searches for his students in the jungle carries an air of inevitable fate. Yet Sayles’ use of allegory and stylization turns the familiar plot into a political statement. The doctor’s search centres on one remaining secret Indian village – is it Shangri-la or the sad remnants of a few fleeing refugees?

Unlike most US filmmakers whose work gets wide distribution, Sayles laces his films with a solid left-wing sensibility. But it’s understated and hard to pin down. You can sense a filmmaker steeped in popular Hollywood formulas but who can play its themes and variations to make political points.

The international cast led by the celebrated Argentine Federico Luppi, as Dr Fuentes, and Dan Rivera Gonzalez, as his ten-year-old companion, is superb. The boy swerves between youthful energy and a nearly dead emotional life. His matter-of-fact descriptions of massacre, torture, and the men with guns that he has witnessed, carries us into the bleak emotional centre of the film.

In many scenes Sayles creates a visual claustrophobia, occasionally punctuated by sweeping vistas from the high mountains. One brief sequence takes place in the dark and overgrown ruins of Palenque, Mexico. Viewers will be reminded of the ‘magic realism’ so closely linked to South American fiction. But Sayles seems to be saying, ‘I know it’s a familiar story, of a liberal voyage of discovery, and a repressive army murdering Indians, told in a style that treads close to Latin American clichés. But it’s still true. It happened before; it could happen again.’

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Reviewers: Louise Gray, Dinyar Godrej, Peter Steven
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird

T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
Burma Diary
...a personal focus on a national trauma.

Burma Diary Jeanne Hallacy does not apologize for stepping across the line of straight journalism into the realm of personal storytelling in her documentary Burma Diary. It’s been a five-year labour of love for the director who began filming in 1992 without financial backing.

Following a five-year stint as a journalist in the Philippines covering stories on youth involved in the New People’s Army guerrilla movement, Hallacy turned her attention to Burma and the role of young people in that struggle.

But as it turned out, Burma Diary became not just a story about children in the resistance, but a window on the lives of ‘revolutionary’ families. Such families live outside the norms, in fear and uncertainty.

The North American film-maker’s friendship with Tint Aung, a member of the All Burma Student Democratic Front (ABSDF) who escaped into the jungle following the 1988 student demonstrations, led her to develop the final script for the documentary around him. The story of Tint Aung, his partner ABSDF nurse San San Myint, and their twin daughters was a story people could not fail to relate to. But the film is also about Hallacy’s own odyssey into the Burmese trauma, making several trips into the country to film as well as working in the jungle border areas.

The impact of the Burmese military regime on lives, both inside and outside Burma, is powerfully portrayed through the documentation of Tint Aung’s life and the difficult and complex decisions with which he is faced every day. A recurring theme is personal and collective pain generated by fear and uncertainty: the Burmese have been traumatized by family separation and cling to the dream of the day they can be reunited in their homes in Burma.

Like most Burmese, Tint Aung and San San Myint are generally reserved about displaying painful emotions. To get extremely emotional, Hallacy notes, is seen as an indulgence that cannot be afforded. But on the eve of the couple’s departure from the Thai-Burma border to exile in Australia the reserve fell away. ‘The camera is always such an incredible buffer but in that moment it was gone,’ Hallacy recalls. ‘There was no camera, it was just San San Myint and me weeping for all of the things that were never going to be said.’

Burma Diary could be criticized for giving the impression that the solution for people involved in the Burmese struggle for democracy is to leave and rebuild their lives elsewhere. This is not the intention of the film, nor what its protagonists believe. ‘The film is about the complexity of decisions and the transformation towards seeing that there are a multitude of ways to fight, not only with a gun,’ Hallacy emphasizes. Today Tint Aung is a tireless worker and activist in the ABSDF’s information department in Sydney.

It’s now ten years since the SLORC military regime’s bloody suppression of student demonstrations that shocked the world in 1988. This documentary seeks to remind us that the Burmese people’s struggle is not over. But the film ends with a message framed by Buddhist concepts of compassion and non-violence – a position exemplified by Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the Burmese democratic movement.

Chilean film-maker Miguel Littin, who risked his neck to travel clandestinely through his native land documenting the oppression of Pinochet’s dictatorship, once said: ‘Nobody is the product of individual effort but rather we are the sons and daughters of a time and a history, conscious or unconscious instruments of the people.’

This belief is at the core of Burma Diary, a penetrating piece of political and social history which calls on us to be ‘wide awake’ and to keep our hearts and minds open to all of humanity.

by Catherine Hesse-Swain

Burma Diary by Jeanne Hallacy is available through Jane Balfour Films, London, England.
Tel: +44 171 267 5392. Fax: +44 171 267 4241.
e-mail: janebalfourfilms@compuserve.com

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