by Asian Dub Foundation
(London/FFrr 556 006-2CD)
(East West 3984200502 CD)
These two very different releases show that ‘hybrid’ music is evidence of a fast-moving and developing culture. Just picking out the influences that colour the rampaging multi-rhythms of Asian Dub Foundation’s first major label release, Rafi’s Revenge, can be fun. There’s traditional Indian music (in fact, some of their guitars are tuned to Indian scales) and Bollywood tunes; Bob Marley, Jamaican reggae and rap, as filtered through a punked-up aesthetic that owes more to the Sex Pistols or the Clash than anything out of Brooklyn.
And then, of course, there’s the political element with songs like ‘Naxalite’, about a 1968 peasant uprising in West Bengal, ‘Assassin’, dedicated to Udam Singh, who killed former Punjab Governor General O’Dwyer in revenge for the Amritsar massacre, and ‘Free Satpal Ram’, a fierce campaigning song centred upon a victim of rough justice. Asian Dub Foundation can sound rough and ready in parts, but the energy of Rafi’s Revenge is as undeniable as it is infectious. ‘Building this community of sound / Celebrating the unity we have found’, to take one lyric, says much of the band’s desire to mix pop and politics into a force for change. Brought together by a community music project in East London, the five-strong ADF – who utilize DJ turntables, guitars and raps to realize their music – were by nature and location, politicized even before the band kicked off. Growing up with the continual cloud of anti-Asian violence that hangs over the East End, they pooled their talents to produce a music that pulls no punches in its messages.
Quite different is the delicate music of Ghostland, a London-based trio whose debut album features guest appearances from Sinéad O’Connor (last sighted as the Virgin Mary in Neil Jordan’s film, The Butcher Boy) and Natasha Atlas, a young Jewish woman from London who has a fantastic line in Arabic-styled singing. Although guitarist Justin Adams, producer and instrumentalist John Reynolds and cellist Caroline Dale come from disparate backgrounds, they have sought a way to draw out similarities and tensions between their methods and influences. The results are nothing short of mesmerizing. Reynolds, who realized from his work with Jah Wobble, O’Connor and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan that Irish and Arabic scales have much in common, has teased out the consistencies with consummate ease. There are, with notable exceptions, few vocals. O’Connor makes the prayer-like simplicity of ‘Guide me God’ quite awesome, while the guitars provide an unobtrusive underpinning. The most telling lines come from Caroline Dale’s cello which plays out its own dramas, taking the listener from Blues-soaked mountain ranges to wider vistas, courtesy of some Avro Pärt-influenced lines. Ghostland may not be the first outfit to work in such ways, but they do it well. And, like Asian Dub Foundation, they present a front line where the hybrid is far from being a diminutive idea.
Death of Dignity: Angola’s Civil War
by Victoria Brittain
(Pluto, ISBN 0 7453 1252 7)
South Africa: Limits to Change
by Hein Marais
(Zed Books/ University of Cape Town Press, ISBN 1 85649 544 2)
Under African Skies: Modern African Stories
edited by Charles Larson
(Payback Press, ISBN 0 86241 766 X)
Victoria Brittain’s short, harrowing book Death of Dignity charts the terrible destruction of Angola. If ever a people have deserved a chance of peace it is the Angolans. After decades of benighted rule by the Portuguese dictatorship, independence in 1975 brought only strife and civil war as the superpowers used Angolan political groups as proxies in their Cold War. In the years following independence, Ronald Reagan and the minority regime in South Africa armed their willing puppet Jonas Savimbi as his Unita organization left a trail of devastation across the country. Only the commitment of Cuban troops in battles against Unita and South African and Zairian invaders prevented Angola joining Namibia as a buffer state for apartheid. With the Soviet Union’s collapse, Angola was no longer a cockpit for ideological confrontation and in September 1992, through UN supervized elections it appeared that the time for peace and rebuilding had come. But when Jose dos Santos’s MPLA beat Unita at the polls, Savimbi, true to form, reneged on his promises and unleashed yet another round of civil war on this long-suffering country. Brittain’s book has its flaws; I would have preferred a longer, less aridly journalistic book that placed the suffering of ordinary people at the centre of the story rather than as a backdrop to all the detail on negotiations and troop movements. It is, however, an excellent primer for anyone wanting to understand how Angola – a country with enormous potential – became, as a result of deliberate US policy, an appalling human catastrophe. It is to the continuing shame of the US and UN that millions of landmines, a devastated social infrastructure and, most of all, the continuing malign presence of Savimbi mean that there is no end in sight for the long nightmare of the Angolan people.
South Africa stands as proof that conflict and despair are not inevitable paths for African countries. Its recent history shows that, with courage, even the bloodiest and most intractable of regimes can be worn down and the transition to democracy can be made. But, as Hein Marais points out in his South Africa: Limits to Change, even with Nelson Mandela, it takes more than an election to transform the structural and economic realities of a society. It is Marais’ contention that the democratic breakthrough in South Africa was much less radical than people believed and that the ANC Government’s concentration on political and financial stability has meant that the needs and aspirations of the majority population have been largely unfulfilled. Marais’ book is not an easy read, crammed as it is with acronyms, academic jargon and some mind-numbing Marxist gibberish, but one cannot dismiss it, as some commentators tried to dismiss John Pilger’s recent documentary which made similar points, as political posturing. This is a serious book which poses a sobering question; can you effect radical change while leaving undisturbed existing privileges and inequalities? The struggle against apartheid has given way to the fight against entrenched privilege and the strictures of globalism. It is a fight whose outcome will determine all our futures.
Under African Skies, Charles Larson’s anthology of twentieth-century African stories is a hugely impressive selection. In his illuminating introduction, Larson outlines how the pressures on African writers have changed over the century; colonial indifference or censorship giving way to the more insidious demands which market forces make on the creative artist. Gathered together here are representative stories from some of the best-known names in African writing – Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Bessie Head, Ken Saro-Wiwa – and alongside them are magical pieces by powerful young writers such as Zimbabwe’s Yvonne Vera and Mzamane Nhlapo from Lesotho. Standout stories include ‘A Meeting in the Dark’ by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and ‘Taken’, Steve Chimombo’s resonant tale of a writer’s struggle against censorship and imprisonment during the Banda regime in Malawi. Really, though, what emerges from this first-rate anthology is the ability, constantly renewed, of African writers to surmount tremendous obstacles in their efforts to find and use voices that are uniquely and unmistakably their own.
A single spark
directed by Park Kwang-Su
(World Distribution: Fortisimo Films, Rotterdam)
After a successful run in the theatres of South Korea, a controversial film based on the country’s labour struggles has taken off around the world, playing in major festivals and small theatres in Europe and North America.
Director Park Kwang-Su and his fine cast have shaped a powerful, stylish film about tragic events of the early 1970s. A Single Spark tells the true story of Jeon Tae-Il, a young labour activist who died in the fight to improve working conditions in Korea’s garment shops.
These were tough times. As the tide shifted against South Korea’s US allies in Vietnam a serious clampdown took hold. The country’s ruling dictatorship, led by General Park Chung Hee since 1961, felt isolated. Student and labour opponents faced a regime desperately preaching national sacrifice in the name of its ‘economic miracle’. In the words of one labour activist in the film, making change in Korea is like ‘hitting a stone with a feather’. But don’t worry, says an official from the Ministry of Labour to the young garment workers, ‘By the 1980s you’ll all be driving cars and living in luxury’.
The film strives to show that Jeon Tae-Il was not alone. Many young people, both students and workers, faced strong-arm tactics of the employers or were living underground on the run from the army. The film’s central character is a journalist writing the biography of Jeon Tae-Il, who also relates his own story during the crucial year of 1975. The plot thus unfolds in a series of double flashbacks, from the present back to the writer’s story in 1975, and then further back to the beginning of Jeon Tae-Il’s story in 1965. Scenes from the earliest period are shot in black and white. As the film progresses the shifts between the two stories become more rapid, their two lives merging.
A Single Spark manages to walk a fine line. On the one hand it tells the story of grim events – life under the ‘soft authoritarianism’ of Park’s regime propped up by especially nasty working conditions. Yet the lives of the young students and garment workers exude the most wonderful, naive liveliness and optimism. Their first meeting to organize the sweatshop takes place at a beach picnic complete with impromptu singing and a moonlit skinny dip.
A series of visual motifs give many scenes a polished, sophisticated feel, the film’s cinematographer creating a distinctive visual style using a constantly moving, arching, and tracking camera to link characters in shifting places and times. This polished quality works well to emphasize the complex retelling of the story through flashback; it’s as if the narrator has reworked the events over and over in his mind and presented them to us in their most essential form.
In the end, however, viewers will most likely retain the harsh, almost gothic images of work in the clothing sweatshops. Cotton dust hangs everywhere, like stalactites in a cave, accentuated by the bare lightbulbs dangling over rickety machines and their teenage operators. One look at those work rooms and it’s clear why Jeon Tae-Il took up the fight.
Reviewers: Louise Gray, Peter Whittaker, Peter Steven
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird
‘I wanted to depict a modern soul in the primary colours of folk-song,’ is how Béla Balázs remembered his libretto for Bluebeard’s Castle (1911). The result is a simmering musical volcano, a deep and thick thundercloud of condensed emotion.
Written when its composer Béla Bartók was just 30 years old, it is his only opera and, in its fluidity, untypical of his usual rugged, angular style. The action is pretty static and it has never been a stage favourite, but hour-long and with an uncomplicated storyline it is ideal to listen to at home and stage in one’s mind.
Indeed such a way of receiving it may, curiously enough, be more sympathetic to its intentions, for the opera is constructed within an interior landscape. It opens with the enigmatic Duke Bluebeard letting his new bride Judith into his bare, dark castle. Promising to forsake her family and previous life for her love of him, Judith descends the stairs and the outer door is firmly shut. The castle is a murky sighing realm with dank walls. It dawns on us that we are actually inside Bluebeard’s mind, a mind which is shut up and rigid and obviously suffering. Judith pro-tests immediately that she will dry the weeping flagstones and open up the castle to the light. But Bartók gives her a frenzied singing line suggesting desperation under the optimism, and the orchestra both echoes her urgency and attempts to drown it out. Such dualisms, sinister suggestions of something lurking beyond what is being revealed, continue until the end.
The castle has seven doors which Bluebeard informs Judith must remain firmly shut. She insists they must be flung open so that light may enter and the place may breathe. She has to negotiate the opening of each door. From the first, a shaft of crimson light pierces the dark hall (accompanied by a shrill violin tremolo) and Judith discovers a torture chamber drenched in blood. The second reveals bloody weapons. The third opens to a dazzling treasury of gold and jewels, but the calm is shattered by a woodwind shriek which reveals these riches to be flecked with blood. The fourth and fifth doors reveal Bluebeard’s splendid dominions, but these too are tainted.
Older commentators often offered the ‘curiosity killed the cat’ interpretation of these events, emphasizing that it is fit for a woman to know her place in a relationship. But everything actually suggests the opposite reading; it is Bluebeard who is the tragic figure, locked by his patriarchal role into an unyielding rigidity, maintaining power and wealth through cruelty. It is Judith who is the enlivening principle, forcing him to look beyond his self-serving facade. Having discovered his might and crimes, she is now about to force him to face his fears and sorrow.
For when the sixth door opens a pale, unearthly, unmoving lake is revealed. Superbly orchestrated rumbles course through the music at this point, as Bluebeard’s entire manner alters. Abandoning his rather limited grandiose style he brokenly admits that this mysterious lake is made of tears. Forced to admit that something is fundamentally wrong with his innermost self, he comes into his own as a character at last. Clutching for certainty in an uneasily shifting soundworld he asks Judith to embrace him and the redemptive power of her love comes sharply into focus.
But there is one last door. And the negotiation that leads up to its opening is the closest this opera comes to a love duet. Once opened, three women clad in regal robes are revealed, Bluebeard’s former wives, ‘Hearts that I have loved and cherished!’ Bluebeard starts to drape Judith in riches and she realizes that she too is doomed to become one of his idealized women, locked behind the seventh door. He can never meet her on her own terms, but will enslave her to his world view, how-ever false and painful. Drooping under the weight of her new vestments she joins the other women. The doors slide shut and Bluebeard is left alone in his delusions and eternal darkness.
Bluebeard’s Castle is a tragedy of power; it resonates across all situations where it is unjustly wrested, whether these be personal, of gender or political. It offers an insight that is finally being widely accepted – that oppressors are as much in need of liberation from themselves as the people they oppress. It is not surprising that this reshaping of a folk tale should have come from the pen of the Leftist Balázs, who would later be persecuted by Hungarian Right-wingers. As for Bartók – a man so private that none of his companions has anything revealing to say about him – this strange little tale obviously struck a chord, inspiring him to write the most emotional music he ever created.
Several recordings are available of Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartók.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7