New Internationalist

Reviews

Issue 321

new internationalist
issue 321 - March 2000

Reviews

[image, unknown] Music

Halalium
by U-Cef
(Apartment 22 Records 22CD 002 CD)

Kenza
by Khaled
(Universal/Polydor E5433972 CD)

U-Cef - fierce digital grooves from Morocco and West London.
SYBILLE CASTELAIN

‘Halal grooves for the new millennium from the Moroccan digitalizer,’ boasts Halalium – which comes to us straight from the studio of U-Cef. Ignore the slightly buzzy title – halal beats can mean whatever you want them to, and this is a shining début to be appreciated both on and off the dancefloor. Known to his mother as Moulay Youssef Adel and formerly of Rabat, U-Cef is now to be found ensconced in West London. From its opening ‘Salaam’, bleeding quickly into a mutter of English, French and Arabic dialogue, this album is describing a world that is changing fast.

And yet, for all its fascination with reggae, rap and jazz, Halalium is as resolutely North African as it could be. U-Cef’s understanding that music knows no boundaries is an important one. Morocco’s bloodlines have been fed with the mystic Sufi beats of the Gnawa musicians, the ancient Berber songs, the pull of gypsy Andalucia and Spain, and Halalium reflects this. But it is also an album grounded in social reality. Just as rai, the hybrid East-meets-West dance music of Algeria and Morocco, enraged the authorities in the 1980s, U-Cef isn’t slow to speak out. ‘Aalash Kwawana’, a track that bursts with digital beats and Arabic chanting over a fierce groove, tackles censorship, illiteracy and housing problems head on. The inner sleeve – a beautiful mural of overwritten red and black Arabic text – represents the problem and the solution.

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U-Cef could teach Khaled – too old now to be the Cheb of his firebrand rai days – a thing or two about hard-edged dance beats. But that’s to ignore the latter’s importance to both North African music and its presence in the larger world. Kenza (‘Treasure’) is the Algerian superstar’s fifth album and its lush production, slippy strings and twisting rhythms reflect its international aspirations. Khaled’s cover of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ is at first startling, until one thinks about how its familiarity might actually be its greatest asset.

Kenza is a fascinating album because, in its maturity, Khaled reveals just how far he has travelled. Producers Steve Hillage (of British prog rock turned New Age provenance) and Lati Kronlund (of the Brooklyn Funk Essential) take turns in providing new pointers. But it’s an odd balance. An electrifying tribute to the Gnawa dervishes, ‘Derwiche Tourneur’, is superb; a rather grim and sloppy ballad of synthi-pop less so. One feels that Khaled is using exactly the same traditional instruments and twice the studio capacity of U-Cef and still missing something of the rawness and reality of life that makes Halalium such a vibrant affair.

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Books

Development as Freedom
by Amartya Sen
(Oxford University Press ISBN 0 19 829758 0)

The Growth Illusion
by Richard Douthwaite
(Green Books ISBN 1 870098 76 5)

Amartya Sen - a subtle subversive. ‘When Mahatma Gandhi fasted to make a political point against the Raj,’ writes Amartya Sen, ‘he was not merely starving, he was rejecting the option of eating (for that is what fasting is). To be able to fast, Mohandas Gandhi had to have the option of eating (precisely to be able to reject it); a famine victim could not have made a similar political point.’

Don’t mistake his meaning here and conclude that for Sen ‘the option of eating’ outranks in importance, or precedes in time, all other considerations. Sen is a far more subtle – and in some ways more determinedly subversive – economic thinker than this. After all, it was he who established as a matter of fact that famines do not happen in democracies. Economic development, he argues, is not an end in itself; it interacts with politics, culture and human rights, the ultimate purpose of which is ‘the expansion of human freedom to live the kind of lives that people have reason to value’.

Sen succeeds at once in putting economics back in the box where it belongs, and in dragging it out into a wider, richer world of human need and aspiration. ‘It is often asked,’ he says, ‘whether certain political or social freedoms, such as the liberty of political participation and dissent, or opportunities to receive basic education, are or are not “conducive to development”... This way of posing the question tends to miss the important understanding that these substantive freedoms... are among the constituent components of development.’

If anyone can give ‘development’ a good name then surely it is Amartya Sen. He tells the story – and remembers the name – of Kader Mia, a Muslim day-labourer forced to look for work in a Hindu area, at a time when there was violent conflict between the two communities. Kader Mia was knifed in the street, and the ten-year-old Sen gave him water as he lay bleeding. ‘The penalty of his economic unfreedom turned out to be death,’ writes Sen. ‘The experience was devastating for me... Kader Mia need not have come to a hostile area in search of a little income in those terrible times had his family been able to survive without it.’

Winner of the Nobel Prize for economics in 1998, Amartya Sen has over the years had a profound and persistent impact on other economists, particularly at the UN. The world would doubtless have been poorer still without it.

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The Growth illusion Richard Douthwaite’s scepticism about ‘economic growth’ has developed into one of the most relentless and persuasive of recent assaults on the very idea. An updated version of a book originally published in 1992, at its brilliant best it demolishes a barely rational economic belief system that’s sustained by little more than fear – justifiable as it may be – of its own collapse. There is here, in the gentle feeling of liberation his insights can give, a distant echo of the more sober ‘freedoms’ preferred by Sen. There is also, perhaps, a tinkle of levity in the likening of capitalism to ‘a music enthusiast’s sound system’ on which he simply wants to ‘turn down the growth knob’. Even so, don’t just feel uneasy about the way things are going – read this book and change direction!

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Film

Angela’s Ashes
directed by Alan Parker

Water, as Confucius said, benefits all things and does not compete with any of them. He had obviously never been to Limerick. This new film by Alan Parker reeks of dampness. It is a mirror and a memoir. It reveals the dispiriting truth that if there was anything worse than poverty and masturbation, it was putting the two together.

The book by Frank McCourt is not about Limerick. It is about poverty. The film is not about poverty but about the way the poor are treated. Good writers offer us irresistible invitations. Good film makers lead us towards coherence and a sense that whatever can be described can also be shown. Frank McCourt exults in his own sovereignty and Alan Parker (Midnight Express, Mississippi Burning) has chosen not to undermine it. He has made a good film. All the ingredients are there for what could have been a great one. But he tried to film the book instead of making a film about one vital part and leaving the rest alone.

Angela’s Ashes is set in the Ireland of the 1930s and 1940s. Frank McCourt’s memoir is clearly not ideologically neutral but a product of a very specific history. It is not a flattering portrait of Ireland or the clerics who ruled it. True to form, today’s Catholic authorities – apparently less than pleased with the way their predecessors were portrayed in the book – denied permission to film in local churches.

The beautiful walnut face of Joe Breen, the farmer’s son who responded to a casting ad in the Irish Times, reflects the bigotry, the superstition and the rain. Playing the young McCourt he gives one of those unmannered natural performances which not only fills the screen but totally dominates it.

By contrast Robert Carlyle as his father isn’t given the space to impress here. We don’t feel any sympathy for him. His is not a convincing destitution; rather he carries the veneer of a sly winner about him. But the spectacular pessimism of a population with an ill-defined moral health is also the source of the film’s humour. The humour floats above the stench and the cruelty that never lies down long enough to be buried by the clerics who compulsively kick it to life. And while death permeates this film its greatest asset is life – never far behind the grinding poverty and consumption. That is why the film belongs to the young McCourt and McCourt the narrator. After all, that same life fostered an education that would remain unforgotten and memorably rendered into words.

Angela’s Ashes is a potent reflection on the coarseness of life and the failure of institutions. We may not all share its cultural nuances, but the film renders a specific experience so convincingly that we think of it as our own. See it as a reminder of a wonderful book or as a particularly potent reflection on superstitious fear and the blackmail that goes with it. Allow a faint whiff of paganism to permeate the air and you might die laughing.

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Reviewers: Louise Gray, David Ransom, Steve Kulak

T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
Nick Cave
...being a musician with a passionate and shocking talent.

If rock music is not one of the newest art forms to come along, it is certainly one which has probably the most uneasy of all relationships with a notion of ‘high art’ that is meant to be its opposite. There are many reasons for all this, not helped along by the juvenile hyperbole that passes for criticism in most of the world’s rock press. Whenever a professor has championed a musician as a poet – one thinks of the example of Bob Dylan – the enthusiasm, the arguments over literary merits have been met with a polite titter.

This is possibly a reason why Nick Cave has always worn his rock-star persona with caution. I suspect he and his then band, the Birthday Party, knew when they landed in post-punk London from Melbourne in 1981 that there was more content in their form than others suspected – and the combined disappointment and the rage at that knowledge was difficult to bear. The Birthday Party – named, incidentally, after the Harold Pinter play – blew itself apart, racked with the violence that their performances, lifestyle and London engendered. Cave, the band’s lyricist and chief writer, was a compelling figure, ranging across the stage and declaiming songs of such passion and recrimination as had never been seen. Gigs were beyond anything a rock band had ever been: it was more like an Artaud performance, viewer and musician goaded towards new physical, emotional, spiritual confrontations. Live 1981-82, a recently released concert album, captures the Party’s spirit. The music – much more raw than in Cave’s subsequent solo work with his long-standing band, the Bad Seeds – came out of a twelve-bar blues, spitting against the conformity of Australia and shining like a black sun.

It had to end, and it did, although not with the deaths that the more ghoulish had predicted. Temporarily relocating with various Party members to Berlin, Cave hooked up with Blixa Bargeld, the charismatic anti-guitarist and founder of Einstürzende Neubauten (‘Collaps-ing New Buildings’) who also was to join the new Seeds. It was the opportunity to forge new links. Cave had always shown his facility with language – informed by Milton, the King James Bible, blues – and his songs were poems performed to a music that highlighted their internal workings. His are great songs of love and recrimination, of human weakness and human bleakness. From Berlin came Cave’s extraordinary high-gothic novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel (he regards it as his greatest achievement); films with Wim Wenders and John Hilcoat. Several magnificent albums – written in the teeth of a heroin addiction that brought the press swarming – followed. His cast of prostitutes, murderers, sufferers, those who rage and howl with the despair of it all, were aspects of their creator: a man who was trying to grasp an emotional and spiritual truth, to find calm. The craft in each song is evident: they are hewn from a rock-face of words. Check out The Firstborn Is Dead (1985) for Cave’s astounding conflation of Elvis and Christ in ‘Tupelo’, or Tender Prey (1988) for ‘The Mercy Seat’, a marrow-freezing account of electrocution on death row. Elsewhere, his ballads and love songs – listen to albums such as The Good Son (1990) or Let Love In (1994) – combine imagery and mood in the service of yearning.

But Cave’s manifest passion has often been shocking. Murders occur – in fact, he dedicated an entire album (Murder Ballads, 1996) to them once, and mordantly funny they are, too. Others have levelled charges of misogyny against him, but these are cheap jibes that have no foundation. The violence, ultimately, is of the soul and Cave’s figures are those crazy, love-worn fools staggering over the blasted heath.

Considering that passion – in all its agony, pain and fury – has always been central to Cave’s work, it’s not surprising that his interest has increasingly turned to Christianity. It’s been an intensely personal journey documented in ‘The Word Made Flesh’ – an essay recorded for BBC Radio 3’s religious programmes and reprinted in King Ink II – and an introduction to St Mark’s Gospel. It has involved many aspects, but central to it has been a journey made from the punitive god of the Old Testament to the Christ-figure of the New.

The calm, too, is reflected in his last album, The Boatman’s Call (1997), which is, in part, an intensely moving account of the collapse of his relationship with singer PJ Harvey. The boatman is perhaps Christ, perhaps Charon: Cave blurs the image intentionally but the facility with which he moves between sacred and secular, pain and love, echoes back to the great poetry of Donne:

  ‘No God up in the sky
  No devil beneath the sea
  Could do the job that you did, baby
  Of bringing me to my knees’

(‘Brompton Oratory’ on The Boatman’s Call)

Louise Gray

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds are released by Mute.
A new album is due in late 2000. And The Ass Saw The Angel is published by Penguin Books. Both books of lyrics King Ink and King Ink II are published by Black Spring Press. The Birthday Party albums are released by 4AD Records. The Gospel According to St Mark is published by Canongate.

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