issue 216 - February 1991
The Rhythm of the Saints
by Paul Simon
Paul Simon may never live down the way he reinvented himself on Graceland. For nearly 20 years he has been paying court to the musics of the world. But this was the first time he had grafted his own songwriting so closely onto other musics - in this instance, South African township jive or mbaqanga - and it was apparent just how much his waning muse was drawing sustenance from borrowed sources. If only Simon had attempted something musically more radical he might have received less flak for his supposed 'colonialism' and aroused fewer of those troubling questions: how much of this music was really his? how were the musicians paid? what sort of plagiarism, if any, was covered up in the credit 'Words and music by Paul Simon'?
The problems are even more apparent on The Rhythm of the Saints, in which Simon, more discreetly this time, pays homage to Brazil. Again he uses an international cast - Brazilian percussion groups Olodum and Uakti, but also Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguni and Americans JJ Cale and Michael Brecker.
Enjoyable as it is, the album suffers from its low-key approach. The melodic adventure of the more hi-tech Graceland, is lacking here. Strangely enough the feeling on many tracks is that Simon has learnt less from the cultures he visits than from those who have been there before him - in particular Talking Heads, whose approach is evident on The Cool Cool River and the title track.
Besides, the tight-assed reticence of Simon's voice holds him back. Where experimenters like David Byrne or New York producer Kip Hanrahan involve themselves in Latin styles by jettisoning their reverence and mucking in, Simon's approach seems hidebound and timid, as if he were trying to hide in the backdrop.
Yet at the same time he seems overimpressed by his own importance as an experimenter: compared with the results when Brazilian artists like Caetano Vaeloso and Tom Ze pay back their debt to US music, this is tame indeed.
Simon claims in the press release: We're sailing cultural seas that haven't been charted'. But this misses the point. These seas have been charted plenty; the challenge is to redraw the maps. Simon's naively reverent approach to cultural exploration fails to take that on board.
No Life Without Roots
by Thierry Verheist
This book could be dynamite. Verhelst offers an accessible, well-argued and compassionate assessment of the West's economistic pseudo-culture and what it is doing to us, and then challenges 'Third World development' as our attempt to Westernize the rest. He lets non-Westerners voice their alternative perspectives through interviews and makes an important distinction between the European roots of much Latin American popular culture (including liberation theology) and the very different cultures of Asia and Africa.
Verhelst is trying to reach progressive' voluntary aid agencies - he works for one himself, based in Belgium. The good side of this is the sense of encounter and debate: real-life triumphs and disasters, real dilemmas, real people and fresh insights fill the book to bursting. The bad side is the equivocation and reverence for official pronouncements that writing in order to reform bureaucracies inevitably involves.
Hoary questions remain, Is it possible for Western-accumulated money to 'side with the poor'? Are not aid workers themselves, with their globe-hopping lifestyles, an 'uprooting' model for those who come into contact with them?
But contradictions are the stuff of life. It is exciting that politics and spirituality are finally beginning to be mentioned in the same books and Thierry Verhelst clearly has an integrated and respectful sense of what people are about. That's a lot more useful than dynamite.
Literacy and Power
by David Archer and Patrick Costello
Life in the US backyard is tough if you are a disenfranchised, landless peasant forced to adhere to the dictates of a ruthless landowner. And if you can't read life is tougher still.
Illiteracy is a vital battleground in Latin America, where the ideas of educationalist Paolo Freire, so influential in the 1960s and 1970s, are still being worked out in practice. Freire's innovative literacy primers, which teach people to read and think politically about their situation at the same time, have changed the lives of thousands of Latin Americans. Literacy is not just about words on a page: it also demystifies radio and television; it makes self-sufficiency accessible.
Archer and Costello provide an illuminating insight into the sweeping changes that this kind of popular literacy campaign can bring about - as well as an account of the less successful programmes which are hijacked by governments. First-hand snippets describing communities at the sharp end of war, dictatorship and poverty add immediacy to the text and its message: that revolution can occur without tears and that people power can work if a community is willing to understand and experiment.
That is a big 'if' when you are faced with the full gamut of official propaganda and army intimidation. But being able to read helps people in Chile and Nicaragua, Bolivia and El Salvador, to reassess their past and build a more democratic future.
directed by Idrissa Ouedraogo
Saga returns to his village after two years away, only to find his father has taken his betrothed Nogma as a reluctant second wife. The young lovers meet in secret; when the village finds out it is outraged by the incest and Saga's brother is assigned to kill him...
As in his last film, Yaaba, Burkina Faso director Ouedraogo allows a universal tale to unfold slowly against stunning desert tableaux and the tiny world of an African village. Just as Yaaba's fate was determined by being an orphan and having no place in the system, Tilai, which means 'the law', is about the thin thread of blood ties by which hangs the social organization of village life.
An inexorable chain of events - Saga flouts his father's authority, Nogma declines to accept her destiny, Yougri refuses to kill his brother - is set in motion from the moment when tilai is first flouted by the Lear-like father's selfish, unnatural decision to take his son's fiancée for himself.
Fine performances, many of them from ordinary villagers, plus stunning photography and the hypnotic pace typical of Ouedraogo's work, make it impossible to dislike this film. But at times it feels a little too much like a reprise of Yaaba and you begin to wonder Ouedraogo is starting to exploit a winning formula for Western consumption of the Third World.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
...being the book that savaged classical complacency
Murder, rape, robbery, torture - hardly the stuff of comedy, but in the fast-moving world of Voltaire's naive hero Candide each disaster brings a new perspective on the basic philosophy of optimism.
And although Voltaire creates a world in which brutality can be extreme, it is also a world where characters go on bouncing back. When the young hero rediscovers his murdered sweetheart, he exclaims 'Can this really be Cunégonde? You are still alive then? To think I should find you in Portugal! So you weren't ravished or disembowelled, as the learned Pangloss assured me?'
'I was indeed,' the lovely Cunégonde replies, 'but people don't always die of those mishaps.'
But the real brutality in Voltaire's world of chirpy characters is the brutality of optimism. The hero and his mentor arrive in Lisbon to a terrible volcanic eruption which kills 30,000 people. The sailor with them rushes off to rape and pillage the dead and dying. 'All this,' the philosopher Pangloss assures his friends, 'is a manifestation of the rightness of things, since if there is a volcano at Lisbon it could not be anywhere else. For it is impossible for things not to be where they are, because everything is for the best.'
The detached language of eighteenth-century reason is everywhere in this book, whose characters talk in terms of what Pangloss calls 'cause and effect, the best of all possible worlds, the origin of evil, the nature of the soul, and pre-established harmony.' The widening gap between the random disasters which occur throughout the book and the coolly logical terms used to wrap them up is the focus of the book's fiercest satire. This is not pure fiction: major disasters in Lima and Lisbon in the mid-eighteenth century were in cruel contrast to the fashionable thinking which saw a God-given place for everything. Voltaire's own Poem on the Disaster of Lisbon, published a couple of years before he wrote Candide, is scathing about those thinkers bold enough to explain to the people of Lisbon that all was for the best.
Though the suddenness with which some of Voltaire's characters rise and fall might seem hard to believe, the philosopher's own life was subject to just such sudden switches of fortune. As a young man he won a glowing literary reputation in Paris - and was promptly thrown into the Bastille for six months, suspected of having written a satire on the Regent. He wrote a national epic in prison and on release won the highest accolades - before being thrown in the Bastille again. He was the sharpest cutting edge of the Enlightenment, a freethinker who disputed the God-given rightness of a social order with venial royalty and hypocritical priests at its head.
Written towards the end of a long life and a brilliant literary career, his satire in Candide ranges over most of society and its pleasures. Some of it is still uncomfortably close to home, as in the account of the mutilated slave from the sugarworks: 'For clothing we are given a pair of canvas drawers twice a year. Those of us who work in factories and happen to catch a finger in the grindstone have a hand chopped off; if we escape they cut off one leg. Both accidents happened to me. That's the price of your eating sugar in Europe.
So in this world of brutality and random change is there any respite? Love and woman's beauty is a goal, decides Candide - though typically when he finally finds the lovely Cunégonde she has lost her beauty and he marries her only because her brother forbids it. Women in the world of this book are traded like any other form of currency.
So where is paradise? Not in wealth, or achievement, or the arts, or love or beauty, say the characters. Nor, it seems, in leisure, which turns to intolerable boredom: 'I should like to know which is the worst,' says the old woman who was once a princess, 'to be ravished a hundred times by negro pirates, to have one buttock cut off, to run the gauntlet of a Bulgar regiment, to be whipped and hanged at an auto-da-fe to be dissected, to row in galleys - in fact, to experience all the miseries through which we have passed - or just to stay here with nothing to do?' 'That's a difficult question,' answers Candide.
At the end of the book the powerful who have lost their power, the wealthy who have been stripped of their riches, and the beautiful who become ugly, do find some peace. And Pangloss pops up again with the old question - whether this proves that everything works out for the best in the best of all possible worlds. By the final page Candide has the sense to dismiss his complex philosophical arguments and walk away to work in his garden.
Candide by Voltaire (1694-1778)