issue 235 - September 1992
Straight Out of Brooklyn
directed by Matty Rich
directed by Ernest R Dickerson
The so-called New Wave' of black American cinema is a groundswell of emerging talent - but it is often talked about more as a genre because of the similarity of its themes. This means directors like Matty Rich and James Bond Ill are thrown into the same bag as older hands like Bill Duke and Charles Burnett - and that serious work like Boyz N The Hood gets lumped together with glossy pulp like New Jack City.
Given the hard facts of African-American life there are bound to be recurring themes. And one such theme - youth trying to break out of the inner-city impasse - links Juice, the debut by Spike Lee's cinematographer Ernest R Dickerson, and Straight Out of Brooklyn, the much acclaimed debut by 19-year-old writer-producer-director (and co-star) Matty Rich. In each, a group of young black kids dreams of escaping from a dead-end life in New York and finds the temptation of crime tearing them apart and wrecking their hopes. Both are shamelessly polemical but take radically different approaches both in style and in rhetoric.
The more straightforward of the two, Juice milks its selling points effectively - a punchy crime narrative, personable young leads, and a background in Harlem's hip-hop scene. Juice addresses itself to the hip-hop constituency that made New Jack City a sure-fire hit but doesn't glamourize crime in the same way. Instead it offers a sobering, almost nihilistic, view of street crime as a false escape route. Young deejay Q (Omar Epps) is all set for fame spinning the wheels of steel but instead gets led astray by his friend Raheem, a maverick gone gun crazy, who can be seen lurking around doorways in the dark as he loiters ready to blow away his former buddies.
Yes, it's that schematic, and from about halfway only the music (by Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee) and the acting keep this rather predictable structure afloat. Juice is an enjoyable B-movie but little more.
Equally schematic at moments, but far more ambitious, is Rich's Straight out of Brooklyn, which gives the same message an even more chilling treatment. His background is the emotive stuff of family melodrama, the young hero inhabiting a domestic hell in which depressed, humiliated father (an intense George T Odum) knocks mother black and blue. The acting and a cold-blooded distance in the shooting make it at times extraordinary; there's a touch of European-style vérité in the way Rich shoots the family quarrels up close in long, static takes.
Just as effective is the way he creates a sense of the Red Hook housing project as a place where people live and just about get on with each other - even the scenes of street badinage (in which Rich himself excels as motormouth Larry) have a sense of weariness about them, rather than the simmering violence that energizes Juice. Rich ends with a too-neat double death, an implausibly grandiose (and conventional) flourish for a film which otherwise dictates its own terms so convincingly. But unlike Juice, it doesn't offer any answer to a no-win situation, and its sheer intensity as film makes it galvanizing.
Taming the Great South Land
by William Lines (Allen & Unwin)
Of the Earth's great drifting land masses, only two - Antarctica and Australia - remain in any sort of ecological isolation. The former's mammals perished under ice, leaving Australia as the only continent with a pristine assembly.
Says Lines, even 60,000 years of Aboriginal occupation only lightly touched the environment and did not fundamentally alter the natural fruitfulness of Australian plants and animals.
Yet the changes brought by 200 years of European occupation grossly disturbed the integrity of the continent's natural cycles. It introduced a level of biological instability unmatched in the world, and destroyed 70 percent of the country's original woodland and forest. Agricultural and pastoral activities degraded two thirds of its arable land and half of its grazing land. Even in the surrounding oceans, the same trend continued. Seal and whale populations were decimated, fed by raw greed and a particular view of nature that suggested it was ripe for exploitation.
With political and commercial arrogance, complete forests of red cedar, kauri and jarrah were cleared, amongst them some of the finest hardwood forests in the world. The new arrivals were bent on a cultural domination, overlaying Europeanness in some form or other on all the landscapes they encountered. The coloniser's sheep raising subverted the environment, destroying at the same time the material basis of an Aboriginal culture inextricably bound to topography, flora and fauna. Such overgrazing and over-cultivation was sad testimony that few lessons had been learnt from similar enterprises in Europe.
With the colony barely a century old, over 100 million sheep and nearly 80 million cattle grazed over much of the continent. Massive damage was caused, with some dramatic indicators for those wise enough to see. In 1902 one dust storm covered not only vast areas of Australia, but also parts of both islands of Aotearoa. The following year 'mud rain' fell on Victoria, depositing 13.7 tonnes of mud per square kilometre for every 25mm of rain.
Throughout the entire conquest', the view of progress which undergirded its social and political acceptance was based on the logical extension of Enlightenment ideals. With the benefit of hindsight, many of these errors can be seen not only as avoidable, but idiotic. The great danger for the present, as well as the future, is the belief that science in its broadest sense can and will get it right. Just how many of its errors we - and the planet - can survive is another matter.
by Youssou N'Dour
For years, the Western record industry dreamed of finding the 'African Bob Marley'. This mythical figure would embody all African music in its diversity and have sufficient charisma to sell the music to a sceptical mainstream market. Some contenders suffered from having this improbable mantle thrust upon them - notably Nigeria's King Sunny Ade and Zimbabwe's Thomas Mapfumo.
These days, however, there is one star who comes close to realizing that dream, and entirely on his own terms at that - Senegal's Youssou N'Dour. The patronage of Peter Gabriel may have helped - although it hindered him somewhat on the dreary LP The Lion - but N'Dour has always remained his own man, fighting shy of other artists' spurious 'internationalization' and honing his supple, furiously energetic mbalax music with his band Super Etoile.
Eyes Open is noteworthy for being released on 40 Acres and a Mule (through Columbia), the new record label set up by filmmaker Spike Lee. Being associated with such a hugely iconic figure in black US culture can only enhance N'Dour's own status (though the connection makes Lee look pretty hip too). And the album has been packaged as a strategic address to a new constituency. The customary Wolof lyrics are translated into English with N'Dour's explanatory notes and he proves an acute, committed commentator on world affairs from an African perspective. He pleads for unity on the opening manifesto-track New Africa; makes a wittily ironic point on the uses and abuses of telecommunications on Live TV; and refers to Vietnam and the Gulf on the eloquent, piano-based Useless Weapons.
Most importantly, Eyes Open makes no commercial concessions to the international market, or even to the rap-centric black US market. Rather, this is the usual tough mbalax given a superconfident studio sheen by producer/keyboardist Jean-Philippe Rykiel. N'Dour's voice soars - sometimes plaintive and vulnerable, always skilful and elastic.
Eyes Open is perhaps not as concentrated in its intensity as his last album Set but this is still an expansive feast of a record.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
'Defend life with the community' says the slogan on this Nicaraguan health worker's T-shirt - an oblique reference to her Government's preference for a privatized, hospital-based health care rather than primary health care aimed at the poor. Against All Odds, a new video from the Nicaragua Health Fund in the UK, graphically shows the impact this preference is having on ordinary people. It is available from Nicaragua Health Fund, 83 Margaret Street, London Wi N 7HB at £20 (including postage).
In 1988, along with other reckless pundits, I was forecasting the inexorable rise of Algerian rai music - not only on the world-music scene but as an influence far beyond it. So far time has proved me wrong and rai, which then seemed at the very centre of Algerian political protest, seems to be taking a back seat. But when I listen again to Rai Rebels, a compilation from that year, it is easy to see why I was so excited.
Rai is an Algerian dance music derived from Bedouin folk, with elements of French, Spanish and Gnaoui (black North African) musics. Poprai grew up in the 1980s but derived from an older form. The previous generation of singers were known as Cheikh (male) or Cheikhate (female); their younger followers took the name 'Cheb' or 'Chaba', meaning 'youth'. The word 'rai' means literally 'opinion' and rai has always been associated with rebellion, easy living and free speech, at odds with the 'rigorous codes of Islam. A doyenne among the singers, Cheikha Rimitti, took her name from the French for 'pour me another' (Remettez m' en).
In the 1980s Algeria rai songs - often encoded with innuendo so as not to ruffle feathers unnecessarily - were regarded as suspect and at one time Cheb Khaled, rai's hottest male singer and known as a tearaway, was drafted into the army and had his passport confiscated. As Western attention began to focus on his music, the Government appointed an army colonel to promote it.
There was every reason for the Government to be concerned about anything resembling youth protest in a country in which 65 per cent of the population was under 25. In October 1988 rioting - resulting in the killing of an estimated 500 youths - blew up in protest against high food prices and unemployment. When interviewed, rai artists tended to skirt round the question of how their music might act as a focus for youth unrest. But there are revealing reports of a concert by Khaled in September of that year in which he allegedly precipitated a near-riot in Oran with a song which predicted 'the pot will boil over'.
It's easy to see how rai could be construed as incendiary music. Rai Rebels gives only a partial picture, since all the music on it is the work of one producer, the charismatic Fidel Castro lookalike Rachid who works in Tlemcen in western Algeria rather than in Oran, in whose cosmopolitan nightclubs pop-rai originated. Rachid's brand of rai is a dense, urgent mesh of acoustic and electronic sounds - complex programmed rhythms, funk bass, North African percussion and string instruments, together with reedy organ and synthesiser sounds, twanging guitar licks, orchestral stabs and such dramatic samples as shakuhachi flute.
The singing itself, improvised around traditional folk patterns, tends to sound monotonous to unfamiliar ears, with the same phrases cropping up again and again: as in rap, these form a template on which the singer inscribes their own identity. A good example on the record is the dramatic duet between Cheb Khaled and Zahouania (legendary because her parents forbid her photo to appear on cassettes) - their vocal parts were recorded some five years apart but are woven intricately around each other.
Much has changed since the heady days this record reflects. Algerian youth now appears to align itself not with the liberalism proclaimed by rai singers, with their songs about love, cars and whisky, but rather with Islamic fundamentalism. In a country where the Government staged a military coup rather than accept electoral defeat by the fundamentalists (and had its President assassinated as a result), Islam has for the moment become a natural home for the rebellious young.
Rai has also taken a back seat on the world-music scene, though it has found its way into the mainstream in at least one way: Cheb Khaled has released an album on a major label (Barclay/London). Calculated to appeal to the MTV/dance market, the record is a funk-rai hybrid co-produced by Michael Brook, who proved with Youssou N'Dour and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan his ability to broaden the appeal of 'difficult' musics without endangering their integrity. It's a disappointing and unrepresentative effort.
But then Khaled, a flamboyant, mercurial figure with an ever-present grin, once told me how he responded to accusations that he adulterated the true Algerian sound. 'If you want to put your culture across, you have to do it differently. It's like cooking: you put in a little tomato sauce, a little pepper, you give it to someone to try, just to taste - then you give them the real dish.' It may be that the strongest-tasting rai is yet to come; till then, Rai Rebels is plenty heady enough to be getting on with.
Rai Rebels by various artists (Earthworks/ Virgin 1988).