issue 246 - August 1993
Black Hands of Beijing
by George Black & Robin Munro
The Tiananmen Massacre is, like the tumbling of the Berlin Wall, one of those events which stands out in the collective memory as a truly significant piece of history that all of us, in some uniquely modern, televis-ual sense, lived through with those who were actually there.
But though television enables us to participate emotionally its picture is, of course, extremely partial – often in both senses of that word. George Black and Robin Munro’s remarkable book refers, for example, to the award-winning BBC reports of John Simpson, which helped spread the myth that there was a massacre of students inside the Square itself. Simpson reported having seen from his hotel troops shoot directly at students around the Monument – yet the Monument is not visible from there and eye-witnesses to the same fusillade say the shots were fired into the air.
There was a massacre – but of workers and ordinary citizens on the roads approaching the Square rather than of the telegenic students. That doesn’t change the brutality of the repression – but the lesson is that, in China especially, you have to dig a bit deeper to get at the truth. And dig deeper Black Hands certainly does. If ever a book brought the politics of China alive this is it. Normally we get dry analysis of Politburo manoeuvring; here we get the miraculously readable inside story of the democracy movement over the 13 years leading up to Tiananmen.
People who were just names in a news report or an Amnesty list here become real people: bus worker Han Dongfang, catapulted from obscurity into the spotlight as ‘China’s Walesa’, and the Joan of Arc figure of Chai Ling, who upped the emotional ante in the Square with her hunger strike. But primarily we follow the two men the regime eventually fixed on (quite wrongly) as agents provocateurs of the student protest, as ‘the black hands behind the black hands’. We follow Chen Ziming and Wang Juntao through their early headstrong involvement in student protest just before Mao’s death into the long hard work of trying to create a civil society in China where there has never been such a thing: setting up research institutes, polling public opinion, producing magazines. Enthusiasts for economic reform, they realize what the Chinese leadership has never realized: that economic reform goes hand in hand with political change. Ironically both Chen and Wang tried to act as restraining influences on the students, seeing disaster ahead and trying to look after the broader prospects for the democratic movement.
Black Hands of Beijing has all the raciness, the page-turning compulsion of a thriller. And that’s what it actually becomes after the clampdown as Chen and Wang try separately to evade the state-security network and escape into Hong Kong – only to be betrayed by a ‘mole’ into grisly months of interrogation and torture. At times you can’t help but wonder where the authors are getting their information – the radicals’ story has clearly been painstakingly constructed from many different accounts but what about the insider view you get of Politburo discussions, of Deng Xiaoping talking to Li Peng? These exchanges may be ‘faction’ but they have the general ring of truth and enhance our understanding of the way this particular totalitarian monster lumbers into action.
Some time soon, when Deng Xiaoping finally relaxes his grip on life and power, the battle for democracy in China is going to be renewed. If you want to know in advance about the background to that struggle, to be spirited inside the Chinese political scene – normally so impenetrable to the outside observer – then this is the book to turn to. It is quite brilliant.
Just Another Girl on the IRT
directed by Leslie Harris
When, a couple of years ago, the press hailed the new generation of black American film-makers, few questioned the fact that there were no women directors in the line-up. There was the odd mention of Julie Dash, who had been making shorts since the 1970s. But her first feature, the elegiac Daughters of the Dust, did not comply with the fashion for the contemporary urban stories that the men were making their name with and duly disappeared into distribution oblivion.
In contrast, distributors have been jumping to take on Leslie Harris’s low-budget Just Another Girl on the IRT (the IRT is New York’s subway system). So at last a young black American woman director is getting a little profile – and a young black American woman’s story is being seen on screen.
Like a female Straight Out of Brooklyn, Harris’s film follows the fortunes of Chantel (played by perky newcomer Ariyan Johnson), who is keen to pursue a career in medicine. But Chantel’s A-grade plans go awry when she becomes pregnant. While the boys in the hood’s troubles start when they mess around with guns and drugs, the girls’ troubles start when they mess around with sex.
Fair enough – Harris’s film grapples with an unquestionable social reality. But unfortunately Just Another Girl, which starts as a jaunty and sweetly observed essay on teenage friendship, mutates all too soon into an awkwardly staged and didactic sermon on planned parenthood. Indeed the film simply falls apart under the burden of its message as it calls for difficult moments (such as the interminable scene showing Chantel in labour) which neither the director nor her actors have the skill and experience to pull off.
Film-makers from sections of society that have been previously silenced often feel they have a moral obligation to give their first movie some serious import rather than concentrating on their craft. That sense of responsibility should be lifted. But at least Just Another Girl may signal the moment when more women get on the track.
by Nahawa Doumbia
A few years back, when the Gypsy Kings were at their flamboyant flamenco peak, music critics caught hold of a rumour that chilled them to the bone. The Kings, it seemed, were anticipating their royalty cheques with feverish impatience; they had their eyes on a bank of electronic keyboards, synthesizers and plug-in drums.
Nahawa Doumbia is affectionately referred to in Mali as ‘the young princess of hi-tech’. But it is a kind of hi-tech that avoids all the pitfalls and retreats that the Gypsy Kings gossip implied.
Nahawa’s uncluttered rhythms and sardonic lyrics have already marked her as a force to be reckoned with. Mangoni – her third album – is a compellingly catchy collection that combines traditional and modern instruments in a deft mix. Traditional balafon rhythms combine with some airy, atmospheric production touches that have faint echoes of Daniel Lanois or even Brian Eno. In assimilating new sounds, Nahawa has lost nothing of her own culture.
In fact this album – the title refers to the wife least favoured in a polygamous marriage – sees Nahawa returning to her roots. Her second album Nyama Toutou was an up-tempo affair where guitars and brass met to large, dancey effect. Mangoni is a return to the narrower instrumental range that marked Didadi, her stirring debut. Rhythm guitars, percussion and keyboards are used with an effective economy. On songs like the captivating Farafina Dambe, they bob around in a slow, sensuous weave.
Her subject matter is unfailingly traditional, her attitude uncompromisingly modern. Issues like surviving old age and rivalry in polygamous marriages dominate. ‘If my husband buys some beef for his favourite wife, I’ll just go out and buy fish for myself,’ sings the spurned wife in Galoya, full of dignity.
Nahawa’s freedom to choose such topics comes from two sources. Her contact with a community of musicians in Paris has given her valuable distance. Her second source is closer to home. As the daughter of a smith rather than of the griot class of hereditary musicians, she remains unencumbered by their traditional duties of praise-singing. Such freedom sounds a new note of authenticity for West African music. We can only hold our breath and wonder at the direction she will take next.
Ever since Thaddeus Cahill – a footnote in musical history if ever there was one – first exhibited his dynamaphone to an incred-ulous public in 1906, the place of electronics in musical life has been the subject of never-ending debate. Cahill’s 200-ton machine, which generated sounds by means of huge dynamos, has been superseded by the sleek, matt-black keyboards that are the stuff of modern music-making. As the capacities of these machines grow ever more complex, it’s nevertheless unusual to find musicians and composers confident enough to plug in only to the most simple and economic usages they offer.
Laurie Anderson would probably be reticent about describing herself as either composer or musician. An American now in her mid-forties, she grew up in the Bible Belt of Illinois. Moving to New York in time to catch the ferment of the Sixties, she studied violin and sculpture and, like many young artists, started to experiment with perform-ance art. Photographs of her exist showing her standing on blocks of ice, playing a violin with a bow in which magnetic tape has replaced the conventional horse-hair. The piece lasted long enough for the ice to melt; you could safely call it avant-garde. This background is important. Although she’s remembered for her albums – her debut LP, Big Science and its single, O Superman, were both big hits back in 1982 – I like to think of her as a person whose strange, slight and thoughtful music has a significance that stretches beyond the world of the concert stage, recording contract and promotional tour.
The nine songs of Big Science were taken from her four-hour, one-woman stage show United States and their common theme had to do with life in a hi-tech society; they appeared at a time when synthesizer pop groups were singing about wanting to be machines and meaning it. These songs are about alienation, power and politics. There is nothing bombastic or cluttered about their sounds; rarely has so much been said in so stringent a way. Although Anderson was not the first artist to bring the techniques of the avant-garde into popular music – Brian Eno had been spectacularly successful in that department ten years previously – she was the first to inject popular music with performance art’s commitment to content, and social content at that. To me, Anderson’s voice – witty, incisive, reasoning and humanitarian in turn – is the voice of conscience.
In Big Science little phrases that we’ve all heard a thousand times before – ‘Howdy stranger. Mind if I smoke?’ – fill her conversational songs. Their very familiarity is disarming. In O Superman, a slowly pulsating track about weapons, a mother’s safe arms become ‘automatic arms... electronic arms... long arms, petrochemical arms, military arms’. In Let X=X, a kind of displaced love song, she observes ‘Satellites are out tonight’. Her speaking voice rises and falls like that of a natural storyteller, both captivating and hypnotic – an intensely human voice observing an increasingly inhuman world. You suddenly realize that the lights to be turned out on the album’s title track could quite possibly signify the end of the world. Press the button! Pff! Bang! It’s that simple.
‘I’m a moralist disguised as an artist,’ Anderson once told me. I met her in London in 1989; the Berlin Wall was coming down and she had just flown in from Munich, where she’d been watching TV news coverage of East Germans on their first visits to the affluent West. ‘I’ve seen these faces before,’ she said. ‘The faces of people who are desperate to... shop.’ It was a typical Anderson one-liner – funny but also fundamentally right. In seeing people confused about their desires – what are they? what should they be? – and, ultimately, about the meaning of their own existence in a world whose keyword was individuality at the expense of commonality, she was revisiting a theme that ran through Big Science.
As the 1980s progressed her voice grew louder. If Big Science had wondered about the safety of the world under the control of trigger-happy leaders (she always seemed both tickled and horrified that an old B-movie cowboy could rise to become US President), she now spoke out against the me-me-me ethos of Reaganomics. Her most recent album – Strange Angels, released in 1989 – peopled the landscape of Big Science. It tackled feminism, sexism and censorship. The inner sleeve contained a letter to Robert Mapplethorpe, the late New York photographer whose homo-erotic pictures were denounced as antithetical to the American Dream.
There are no overt politics or belief systems propagated in Laurie Anderson’s songs. But she holds up a mirror to contemporary society and reflects a landscape made strange. Her central concern is summed up on Strange Angels: ‘We don’t know where we come from/ We don’t know what we are’. That is a brave and liberating admission which flies in the face of the certainties of dogma. And it’s an invitation to question that in itself packs a powerful political punch.
Big Science by Laurie Anderson (Warners 1982).