issue 162 - August 1986
by Youssou N'dour and Super Etolle do Dakar
African pop still seems to be retaining a healthy state - more available and respected in the West than ever before without the North Atlantic music business having absorbed and distorted it. Internal markets in countries like Nigeria and Kenya are large enough to allow artists independence and star status without any help from the West.
Nelson Mandela has already been acclaimed in some quarters as the best African album of the year, though few Western people could be in touch enough to judge (even those who pretend to be).
Youssou N'dour is from Senegal and all but one of the songs are in Wolof, though the translation provided of the title-track shows the words have bite: Africa, it's time to stir yourself / Here I am once again asking for help for the countries of Africa / This is what help should mean: we, the Africans, we ought to come together to fight those who try to possess our countries
But the music is quite enough to be going on with. The Western ear picks out its own peculiar reference points - the hint of the muezzin in N'dour's voice perhaps, or even a guitar run that recalls Steely Dan. But the songs shimmer with a liveliness that makes Western popular music seem very heavy-footed.
Neither Washington nor Moscow
by the Redskins
If you didn't divine it from their name ('red skinheads') then the continuation of the title - '.but international socialism' - would tell those clued into far-Left politics that the Redskins are members of the Socialist Workers Party (UK division). And this is heavy-duty rabble-rousing - every title is dressed with an exclamation mark and acts as a call to the barricades in itself. Kick over the statues! Go get organized! Bring it down! etc. Too much to take? You'd be surprised. The Redskins set the urgency of early punk to sweet soul horns, aiming to 'walk like the Clash and sing like the Supremes'. The latter goal isn't scored - Chris Dean's vocal is a lot closer to Joe Strummer than to Diana Ross - but the arrangements are intelligent, if rather inconsistent in quality.
And for those of us who have always wished for a more coherent political pop that went beyond mere pose, these calls to arms are really quite refreshing.
directed by Peter Clarke
New Year's Eve. Somewhere amid one of Liverpool's more desolate stretches of urban decay is a seedy hall which has been double-booked by two old-age pensioners' groups of Irish origin - Catholics in fancy dress and Protestants from the Orange Lodge. The two groups carry on their own war, the city's most feeble entertainers fail to distract them, a Loyalist terrorist hides in the toilet, the gangster owner beats someone to pulp in the back room, another group arrives on an outing from the local mental hospital, and trying to hold on to his own sanity amid this mayhem is the new manager.
This may well be the funniest film of the year and yet, as with writer Alan Bleasdale's brilliant television work Boys from the Black-stuff, you're never sure whether to laugh or cry. Bleasdale's sense of the absurd is matched at every point by his clear-eyed stare at a particularly bleak reality. Blood is spilled, people are ugly and vicious, someone drops dead in the mud, the police play little boy soldiers, kids are hopelessly unemployed; and yet through it all that bitter wit flails away. Your laughter catches in your throat and you wonder how the hell we allowed our world to end up like this.
This will hardly go down as well internationally as the quirky warmth of Bill Forsyth's films, but its a spectacular achievement by a fiercely original writer.
Working at Leisure
by Barrie Sherman
Ask a stranger what he or she is and the answer is likely to come in the form of a job title. Not many would answer that they were 'a nice person' or 'a good dancer'. Identity is intimately bound up with employment.
In this perceptive book Sherman looks at the shift from 'work', which was something done to meet need - so it included growing vegetables and child-care - to 'paid employment', which is done whether or not it is useful or meets a need. He argues that microelectronic technology has brought us to the brink of a second industrial revolution which will see a return to the home as the workplace.
But far from this leading to isolation, widespread unemployment and misery, Sherman suggests a liberation from the treadmill of unrewarding work, a new sense of worth for people whose skills are not sellable in today's market, and a fulfilling balance between work and leisure.
Clearly it will take time for such new thoughts to be absorbed. For instance, the biographical details on Barrie Sherman describe him through his job title. But we can be sure he's both a good dancer and a nice person.
Heroes Against Hunger
by DC Comics
In which Superman and Batman join forces to fight famine in Ethiopia. Last year Marvel Comics produced a special called Heroes for Hope, donating all the proceeds 'to relieve hunger in Africa'. DC's equivalent gesture is a nice idea, and these American comic-houses have a good track record on dealing with important social issues via the superhero medium in much the same way as does say, Hill Street Blues in the TV cop context.
It starts quite beautifully, with Superman shifting hunks of new topsoil into Ethiopia and being berated by a black woman Peace Corps worker for being macho enough to think he can solve this particular problem with a bit of Krypton muscle. And when she reappears at the end it is to reinforce her point by explaining how 'foreign interests promoted peanut farming in this region' and ended up denuding the soil and leaving the country prey to the vagaries of the international market.
But in between is the vast bulk of the comic book, which is devoted to a battle royal against an alien being which feeds on entropy and desolation ('for that reason I just love Ethiopia!'). Even super-villain Lex Luthor is converted to (temporary) good by the sight of a relief camp. Of course there had to be some kind of battle - that's the language of the medium - but the alien comes to seem like the cause of famine. And even the final message that 'the responsibility rests with all of us - an entire continent and its people are depending on us' is couched in a sentimental, goodness-of-our-hearts way. But it's a start.
The Politics of Baby Foods
by Andy Chetley
Victorious challenges to the creeping power of multinational corporations are few and far between. So the campaign against Nestlé's promotion of baby foods stands out as a shining - and rather lonely - success story.
'The babyfood scandal' was first exposed back in 1973 as a cover story in one of the first issues of the NI and grew from there into a global mobilization that shook a powerful corporation to its roots - and must by now have saved the lives of many thousands of children.
Andy Chetley, intimately involved in the campaign himself, has done a fine job in drawing the strands of the story together. It's an intriguing tale. The twists and turns of corporate wriggling are patiently followed, as are the complexities of the international co-operation needed to pin the Goliath down.
There is a wealth of telling and well-documented detail not just about babyfoods but also about multinational food manipulation in general.
The book has two messages. The first is that multinationals are not invincible. Pressed hard enough, as with the PR disaster of the Swiss court case, they can make terrible blunders Second, that an informal and tenacious international network of like-minded people can shift corporate and government policy. Hard to do, and maybe hard to repeat, but it is possible.
The Wretched of the Earth
.being the book in which the Third World found its voice
NOTHING, it seems, can more easily put our noses out of joint than finding that the people we try to help aren't appreciative, or that they have twisted, screwed-up personalities. We expect the blind man we help across the road to feel warm gratitude, the elderly woman to shower us with praise for helping her do her shopping and the black women's group to be positively friendly because we supported the idea of a black women's centre. But they're not grateful: in fact they may hate the air of complacency with which we act.
Most of us - and I include myself - turn away at this point, angry that we are treated unfairly. Frantz Fanon did not. He stayed with the down-trodden group, in this case the Algerians fighting for liberation from the French in the 1950s, and chronicled their responses to the brutal experience of colonialism with a dispassionate eye, Fanon was one of the first people to understand how the experience of colonization destroys people's humanity. Born in Martinique, he had an insider's view, but he rose above the corrosion of his own soul to write about what was going on.
Here, for example, is how Fanon (who was also a doctor) reports his conversation with a 13-year-old Algerian boy who, with a friend, had murdered their European playmate: 'We weren't a bit cross with him. Every Thursday we used to go and play catapults together, on the hill above the village. He was a good friend of ours. . .One day we decided to kill him, because the Europeans want to kill all the Arabs. We can't kill big people. But we could kill ones like him, because he was the same age as us. We didn't know how to kill him. We wanted to throw him into a ditch, but he'd only have been hurt. So we got the knife at home and killed him.'
A little later on Fanon asks the child: 'Does having killed somebody worry you?'
The reply is: 'No, since they want to kill us, so...'
This, then is the voice of the wretched of the earth: the despised, members of a nation who were systematically tortured and killed in order to maintain French supremacy; so, in their turn, despising to the point of death.
It is hardly surprising that Fanon goes on to advocate violence as, ultimately, the only means to end Algeria's subjugation. He writes 'Violence alone, violence committed by the people, violence organized and educated by its leaders, makes it possible for the masses to understand social truths and gives the key to titan. Without that struggle, without the knowledge of the practice of action, there's nothing but a fancy-dress parade and the blare of trumpets. There's nothing save a minimum of readaption. a few moments at the top, a flag waving, and down there at the bottom an undivided mass, still living in the Middle Ages, endlessly marking time'.
Fanon's heart is with those at the bottom of the heap: those 'endlessly marking time'; the peasants. He dismisses the revolutionary potential of the urbanized working class because he thinks that they have been 'pampered' (and so bought oft) by the 'colonial regime'. By thinking that the peasants are the truly radical group in a colonized society, Frantz Fanon is reversing Marx's judgement of them as 'potatoes in a sack': that is; incapable of unity, reactionary and best forgotten about until after the revolution is over.
But, in other respects, Fanon is conventional. The book is peppered with comments about how 'intellectuals' (especially those educated abroad) should behave. This is because Fanon believes - like most people - that to be successful revolution will need to have strong leadership from above. He adopts a strictly hierarchical, Leninist view that educated leaders, often referred to as a vanguard, must direct the so-called masses. Similarly, Fanon has no plan for freeing women from the burdens of housework and child-care. He slips back into a traditional left-wing mould and forgets to mention that women are doubly oppressed: his concern is for a peasantry that, it seems, consists of men.
Despite the pioneering boldness of Fanon's vision it is deeply flawed: he could not see how, in Audre Lorde's words, 'the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house'. In other words, he didn't provide a viable alternative to the authoritarian, exploitative and cruel regimes he hated so much. But this is not to say this book is worthless: on the contrary, it is one of the most incisive accounts of the colonial legacy ever to scorch a page.
The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon