issue 242 - April 1993
by Apache Indian (Island)
In its short and under-noticed history, ragga music – the fast-chatting cousin of reggae – has never known anything like this. The hail of bullets that opens No Reservations is not unexpected, for ragga is no different from reggae and rap in extolling the romance of the gangster stance. But when the boast ‘Apache Indian! Hotter than vindaloo curry!’ announces (in pure Jamaican dialect) the presence of the contender, you sit up.
But then Apache Indian is causing similar reactions on a daily basis. A young British Asian who has served time on the reggae sound systems of Birmingham, he chats in a fast mix of English, Punjabi and Jamaican patois. Establishing a large, multicultural fan base amongst followers of ragga and the Asian genre of bhangra, Apache is certainly one of the most interesting manifestations of musical cross-cultures to date.
Unlike other British bhangra musicians who have looked to house music, disco or pop as natural musical partners, Apache – a former welder – turned his attention to ragga. The results have the simplicity of a brilliant idea. Hard-edged tabla accompanies the bass lines and songs like Chok There, Don Raja and Move Over India move like a massive rhythmical machine. Maxi Priest makes a guest appearance on Fe Real but No Reservations is really a showcase for Apache’s remarkable loquacity. References to Ravi Shankar, Gandhi, Amritsar and the Taj Mahal flash past. Singing ‘Raggamuffin in the style of Pathan’, his subject matter – arranged marriages and warnings against AIDS, alcoholism and gurus – smack of a pertinent social realism.
It’s tempting to read Apache as the latest in the English Midlands tradition of cross-cultural pop which includes Birmingham ‘s soft-reggae outfit, UB40, and Coventry’s late great ska revival that centred upon Two-Tone Records. However this can’t explain Apache’s extraordinary appeal. A supremely self-confident figure with a sardonic gleam in his eye, he has all the makings of a new teenage sex symbol. His effortless slide between dialects comes across as an eminently sensible response to his particular street culture. Moreover he has penetrated to the heart of the jealously hermetic reggae culture, winning the Reggae Industry’s Best Newcomer trophy last year. And that is no mean feat.
directed by Peter Wintonick and Mark Achbar
That ‘Noam Chomsky is arguably the most important intellectual alive’ should be a good reason to make a movie about him. How this claim was made by the New York Times, coupled with the fact that he is not that well known precisely because major media such as the Times tend to exclude him are among the intriguing anecdotes in the film Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. However, the film is significantly more than a collection of anecdotes. The five years of serious effort that two Canadian film-makers, Peter Wintonick and Mark Achbar, put into producing and directing this 160-minute opus have resulted in much more than just another documentary.
An instant and natural hit among those who have read Necessary Illusions, Deterring Democracy, or his current work Year 501: The Conquest Continues, this film may also serve as an introduction for those who have never heard of Chomsky. Hardly a blockbuster – in fact containing both subtle and explicit criticism of mass entertainment itself – the film has definitely crossed over in North America from the documentary and arthouse circuit. It is having some impact on the mainstream, which is a delicious irony for students of propaganda as they read the hasty reviews of the film concocted by a mainstream press caught between a rock of apologetics and a reactionary hard place. Sadly distributors are not leaping forward to take the film in Australasia and the UK at the moment.
The film gives a good biographical sense of the great US linguist whose revolutionary work in the theory of syntax caused ripples to be felt in psychology and computer science. If only his radical critique of US policy in Vietnam, Central America, the Gulf and closer to home over the last three decades had achieved such pre-eminent influence... The film shows Chomsky at work now, which means not pondering over abstruse linguistic formulations but rather out on the stump or being interviewed on public radio as one of the world’s most energetic and respected activists. As you watch and listen you are above all struck by his sheer common sense; and common sense of this kind has never been more needed.
directed by Alison Maclean
The title says it all: one of those crisp and teasing names that capture a slew of meanings in one syllable. Violent and passionate, the young New Zealander writer/director Maclean’s idiosyncratic film debut wears the word well. Set in what seems to be an eternally gloomy city – Rotorua is Aotearoa’s geothermal hot spot and also a Maori sacred place – Crush is immediately enveloped by a foreboding sense of oppressive instability. This is a place where the mud bubbles and the blood boils – primeval, slippery and raw.
Against this backdrop, a sinister melodrama is played out when the alluring and reckless drifter Lane, played by the compulsively watchable Marcia Gay Harden, arrives from the US to disrupt the lives of those drawn to her. Travelling with her close friend, a literary critic on a visit to an author, Lane sets the ball of damnation rolling when she crashes the car and abandons her companion for dead.
Crush is very visceral – but emotionally so. One could call it a horror film and reclaim the word from the blood and gore merchants. For this is a disquieting and disorientating film that chills to the bone rather than merely making the flesh crawl with unsightly prosthetics. But Maclean also presents it as the mood of contemporary New Zealand, overcast by a bigger presence: read the film as an allegory and Lane embodies the brash spirit of the US with which the younger country is dangerously infatuated, buttoning down its own sense of self in the process. Indeed the national identity only surfaces in the tourist-orientated style of Maori-chanting rugby teams and the abandoned theme-park atmosphere of Rotorua. Crush represents the bad dream out of which the country must wake.
Land Without Evil
by Richard Gott
‘Disaster struck in the late eighteenth century,’ writes Richard Gott, ‘because the Jesuits, like the enthusiasts for Third World development today, could only operate within a framework of thought and action devised in the colonial metropolis.’
This is a strange, and strangely compelling, book. In a trice you are whisked from a scholarly reading of texts on, say, the Jesuits’ pioneering ‘strategic hamlets’ of the Upper Paraguay river in the sixteenth century to, say, the motor-scooter taxis of the Bolivian Beni. It’s a heady, three-dimensional jaunt across the history and dirt tracks of a forgotten watershed between Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia.
Sometimes you feel that Gott is riding an infernal, shapeless machine of his own construction that never quite arrives at an undisclosed destination. If you like to read travel books for tips on the kind of footwear you need for trips you’re never seriously likely to take then this book isn’t really for you – as a story it has its longueurs. As to the contribution it makes to an historical appreciation of the region Gott himself is disarmingly doubtful; the place should have its own historians but lacks the cash for more than one pinprick study every decade or so.
The compensations are, however, hugely rewarding. He ends a crisp account of an expedition in 1913 by a bored ex-President of the US, Theodore Roosevelt, by observing that they ‘plunged into the unknown interior with very little understanding of what they would find... Few had much interest in the people they met.’ You get the feeling that Gott himself is an exemplary traveller to whom you should listen, not least because he is exploring that most undiscovered and perplexing territory of all – the fragile record of human history.
This makes disturbing reading for anyone with a European faith in linear progress. A place of abundant prosperity has, progressively over the centuries since the European invasion, declined to a depopulated and impoverished wasteland, its central physical feature – the great Pantanal wetlands – glimpsed only fleetingly by the TV audience of a defunct Brazilian soap opera. Millions of slaughtered Indians would have no memorial without this curious account. Enthusiasts for ‘development’ beware.
Many readers in capitalist cultures have considerable difficulties with Marxist writing. It is not simply that Marxism has probably been belittled, suppressed or ignored throughout their education, and that its ideas thus appear strange when first encountered. It is also that much of the most celebrated Marxist writing does not seem very helpful in suggesting how to remedy social and economic problems in the here and now. Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution might have offered Russians the right prescriptions for toppling Tsarism (even if they weren’t followed) but it isn’t clear how anyone in present-day Hong Kong could view that book as anything other than an historical curiosity. Marx’s own Capital is a monumental analysis of nineteenth-century industrialism but it would need a major revision if it were to address the perplexing difficulties of life now in the reunified country of his birth.
Today most socialists recognize that there are no universal rules, applicable in all times and in all places, which will ensure the inevitable passing away of capitalism. However, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) came of age in a period when many Marxists adhered to a contrary doctrine which he came to characterize as ‘economism’. Socialist economism was the belief that the economy works independently of all human will and that, in time, capitalism would inevitably crumble under its own weight. A drastically selective reading of Marx allowed many to espouse the notion of the historical inevitability of communism, which would follow capitalism as surely as night follows day. Political intervention, in this scenario, was not only unnecessary, but entirely pointless. In his early writing in the Italian socialist press, Gramsci constantly attacked such complacency, stressing the importance of political action and the errors of handling certain Marxist ideas as if they were a catechism.
In one of his earliest articles, entitled ‘The Revolution Against Capital’ (1917), he brilliantly analyzed the recent events in Russia as disproving Marx’s argument that such a revolution could only occur in an economy that had gone through a capitalist phase. His explanation of this event was heresy to those who subscribed to economism: he put the case that people, through their conscious political decisions, control the economy and not vice versa. Later, in a piece on the situation in Italy (written in 1926, by which time Mussolini had taken power), he drew the further heterodox conclusion that capitalism in many cases might only be overthrown where it was weak and undeveloped. This posed for him the problem which he was to spend the rest of his short life investigating: how were socialists to conceive their role in strong, advanced and apparently impervious capitalist states?
Gramsci’s thought and writing falls into two distinct phases: the vigorous and thoughtful journalism conducted until his imprisonment by Mussolini in November 1926; and then the prison notebooks he maintained until his early death. While his imprisonment was a tragedy and an outrage, the enforced seclusion gave Gramsci a unique vantage-point on modern politics. It ensured that he did not fall into the abyss of Stalinism which engulfed many active communists in this period. Furthermore it concentrated his mind on the project of explaining the resilience of capitalism in countries where its days had seemed numbered. The prison notebooks in which his theories were expounded have only come to be known internationally in the last 25 years but it is generally agreed that they present the most original ideas in Marxism since Marx himself. Their prevailing theme is how capitalism manages to sustain itself, but how its power, even when it seems absolute, can always be undermined.
There isn’t space to explain all of Gramsci’s rich repository of new ideas – on popular culture, education, the role of intellectuals, ‘historical bloc’, ‘civil society’, ‘common sense’, ‘war of manoeuvre’ and ‘war of position’ – although one idea, ‘hegemony’, is too important to pass over. Hegemony, briefly, is the process whereby ruling groups of any kind gain consent from the ruled without having to resort to physical intimidation or enforcement. It allows Gramsci to explain the important role of social institutions such as church, school and media, with a sophistication that makes other Marxist dealings with them look extremely crude.
None of these ideas are difficult to understand but in combination they offer a powerful reading of why capitalism has refused to topple like a set of ninepins before the bowling ball of socialism. But Gramsci offers numerous resources of hope too, for he gives a whole new vocabulary and strategy to anti-capitalist politics, a different spin to the ball. After coming to grips with his thought, those pins look a little easier to knock down.
Gramsci’s writing is best sampled in A Gramsci Reader, edited by David Forgacs and published by Lawrence & Wishart.