issue 258 - August 1994
by Busi Mhlongo & Twasa
(Stern's STCD 1053)
No-one could accuse Busi Mhlongo of rushing to the recording studio. Babhemu (Friends) is, remarkably, the Durban-born singer's debut album as a solo artist after some 30 years in the music business. The nine-song album is the latest turn in a life that has embraced theatre work, a stint with afro-funk band Osibisa and years of exile in Holland.
For people who remember her interpretations of Billie Holiday classics or recall Busi as a mbube singer of Xhosa click songs, Babhemu will come as something of a surprise. Twasa, Busi's nine-strong backing group led by her co-writer/guitarist Doc Mthalane, specializes in a light, rolling South African soul style. But it's Busi's voice that everyone remembers. Hailed as a universal soul singer - with luminaries like Miriam Makeba, Letta Mbulu and the Mahotella Queens as her direct antecedents - she has one of those voices whose emotional power transcends language barriers. With the exception of one English-sung number, Busi favours her native Xhosa. This means that non-Xhosa speakers are, to some extent, shielded from some exacting lyrics. Umenthisi (Matches) has some Xhosa lines which translate as 'White people, white people. Do you see the horrors you have done?'
Although simply expressed this is strong stuff and Busi delivers accordingly. She has rangy vocal ability: from growl to a high melodic fluting sound. A single phrase can produce a wave of emotion; and not in the listener alone. On stage Busi's eyes can flood with tears in one moment and flash fire in the next.
Perhaps this is most evident on Babhemu's stirring title track. 'I'm coming home,' she sings, 'The sun rises and the sun sets... I'm coming home.' With its theme of the return of exiles, this song is the most tailored to South Africa's recent history. Propelled forwards, first by voice, then by drums, guitars and chorus, it builds up into an unstoppable surge of sound. It ends on an individual note - Busi's piping voice and a quick rumble from a drum - but only after having eloquently expressed the yearnings of a nation.
Inside the Haveli
by Rama Mehta
(The Women's Press ISBN 0-7043-4394-0)
With her pink bridal sari pulled down well over her face Geeta, an educated woman from cosmopolitan Bombay, stumbles into the enclosed world of the haveli. She is now in Udaipur with her husband's aristocratic and orthodox family whose notions of a woman's 'honour' translate into a stultifying existence. The haveli with its maze of rooms dividing the sexes and generations, houses the extended clan and their retinue of servants. As a wife of the haveli, Geeta's life must shrink to the confines of its age-worn walls.
The novel charts the years of attrition and accommodation that follow with a wealth of incident and fascinating detail. Rama Mehta's keen sociologist's mind tackles the minutiae of a formidable cast of characters' lives with assurance, looking beyond their self-deception to give an informed critique. The women have few secrets - in their gregarious community there is space for sympathy, support and, at times, divisive judgement. Slowly Geeta introduces changes in the functioning of the haveli, but at the same time subsides into its traditions.
However, when Rama Mehta moves beyond the ambivalence of Geeta's experience towards a sense of affirmation, her narrative becomes less than convincing. The charm of the aristocracy, their benevolence to their servants, the essential goodness and dignity of the patriarchs become a bit much and work against the troubled insights that bristle within the book.
Crime control as industry
by Nils Christie
(Routledge ISBN 0-415-9478-x)
'None of the conditions that made Auschwitz possible has truly disappeared, and no effective measures have been undertaken to prevent such possibilities ...'
So writes criminologist Nils Christie in a book which reveals the close connection between current hysteria about crime and the Holocaust. Could it be crime control rather than crime itself that is the real danger for modern society? Incarceration rates have escalated in many countries - including Canada and the UK. Next to killing, imprisonment is the strongest measure of power at the disposal of the State. 'With the offender seen as another breed, a non-person, a thing, there are no limits to possible atrocities...' according to Christie. The 'increase in crime' can no longer be given as the justific-ation for the explosion in the number of prisoners. Privatization has made it profitable to build and run prisons. The 'corrections business' is booming and interlocking with an increase in State control mechanisms.
This book may help us stop and think rather than carry on complacently riding the wave towards a Western Gulag.
We don't want to talk about it
directed by Maria Luisa Bemberg
'This tale is dedicated to all the people who have the courage to be "different" in order to be themselves.' So goes the preface to Maria Luisa Bemberg's ele-gant and passionate film set in a small gossipy town in 1930s Argentina. Based on a short story by Julio Llinas, it concerns the rich widow Leonor (Luisina Brando), her young daughter Charlotte (Alejandra Podesta), and the enigmatic and womanizing Ludovico D'Andrea (Marcello Mastroianni). Charlotte is the apple of her mother's eye - talented and beautiful - but different from the other girls in that she is also a person of restricted growth. It is the thing that is not talked about. Leonor has protectively exorcised all reference to 'dwarfs' from her house, burning books of fairy tales - Tom Thumb, Snow White and Gulliver's Travels, all are gone. When the teenage Charlotte gives a piano recital her mother wants her to be seated at the piano before the curtain goes up. But Charlotte defies her and walks across the stage. Later Leonor is even more disturbed to catch Charlotte dressing up as Carmen: it is obvious that she would actually prefer her to be a little girl for the rest of her life. It is only D'Andrea who really sees Charlotte for what she is when he falls madly in love with her and gives up his bachelor ways to marry her.
The title of Bemberg's film says much - in eradicating all cultural references to short people Leonor creates a taboo around Charlotte which by the end of the film the woman has magically defied. This should not be construed as a realist, issue-led film; it's more of a fable set in a once-upon-a-time and far-away land. There is a semblance of a period in the details, but when one begins to scrutinize, it's hard to discern when the story might be set. Peppered with a wry humour, it also says much about small-town madness. Typical is one moment when a doddering member of the wedding party dies but everyone pretends he is asleep until he is wheeled off and packed in ice so that the nuptial festivities can continue. With an exquisite ending that garlands the film We don't want to talk about it is a rare treat. Leonor might ban fairy tales but Bemberg has found a new one to replace them.
With a regularity that is now almost cyclical, music specialist magazines draw up lists of the 100 best albums ever released. Sometimes the categories vary: the 100 most influential albums ever released, the 100 most indispensable albums and so forth. Patti Smith's debut album release from l975 Horses features on them all. That's gratifying - even if such lists do not exactly figure highly on objectivity stakes - because for me Horses remains the apotheosis of rock 'n' roll.
Patti Smith was not, as a full page review of the album printed in a November 1975 issue of the UK New Musical Express wryly noted, the stuff that rock heroism is generally made of. She was a poet who shared the beatnik's love affair with Rimbaud and Verlaine. Her own lyrics seemed like free associative strings that whiplashed with darkly sexual undertows through a neurotic heartland. The music's current was similarly dark and sexual and John Cale - the Welsh wunderkind whose personal journey had led him through European avant-gardism to membership of the Velvet Underground - was brought in as producer. Not suprisingly he accentuated the Smith band's thrashing rhythm.
To the ears of a teenager in rural Britain, Horses was simultaneously frightening and exhilarating. Its opening song was a Van Morrison number, Gloria. Its first line - 'Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine' - tapped, even in one as anti-religious as me, vague alarm bells about blasphemy. The song's first person described the seduction of a woman. It was confusing; yet there was a primal urgency about the album's speed that even I, whose world was bound by Latin verbs and university entrance procedures, could recognize.
The remaining seven songs were Smith's own compositions. A few additional musicians - Tom Verlaine (who also co-wrote Break It Up) and Allen Lanier from the Blue Oyster Cult - joined the four-piece band at various junctures. The album is driven by the intense force of Richard Sohl's piano and Lenny Naye's rubbery guitar. The words, however, are very much Smith's and it is the words which make Horses extraordinary. The pivotal track is called Land: it deals with the violence at the heart of desire and speaks its content in a way that rock had not heard since the Doors recorded their oedipal opus The End. Smith's quality of rebellion was seductively savage. Eighteen long months later, punk and the Sex Pistols were to institutionalize rebellion for their own purposes. Words and phrases like 'destroy', 'anarchy', 'no future' buzzed about. Smith was to be tagged with the punk label although her rebellion never shared punk's nihilistic leanings. Horses was about something much more fundamental: the energy of being alive.
Then there was the question of image. The first phase of women's liberation had passed a gener-ation before, but in many ways it had left rock music untouched. The 1960s and early 1970s were filled with singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez who, despite their ability with words, exemplified a feminine passivity. Even Janis Joplin - whose full-throated R&B was approvingly dubbed by the media as 'ballsy' - managed a blowsy look of vulnerability. Joplin, who died through an injudicious mixture of booze and pills, was a woman out of control. Smith was very different. She was tall and thin with wiry black hair; her choice of sexual object didn't seem to matter. Robert Mapplethorpe - a photographer whose homo-erotic pictures were later to outrage the moral majority of the US - captured this transgressive aspect perfectly for the Horses sleeve. It is one of his most beautiful portraits. He had shot her from underneath and her gaze, heavy-lidded and clear, makes direct eye-contact with the viewer. It's a portrait of an archangel dressed as a school prefect, or so it seemed to me at the time. Mapplethorpe had dressed Smith in jeans, white shirt and black, dangling tie. The intended androgeny was mitigated by her long, tapering fingers, but the point was made.
'Horses,' wrote Charles Shaar Murray in his NME review, 'is what happens when the fuses blow and the light goes out'. When the lights go out and darkness falls, we dream. There is, as Freud realized a century ago, a sexual secret at the core of every dream. It's what makes them so disturbing. On a conscious level there were thousands, maybe millions, who found in Smith's free-form rock poetry their own incitement to freedom. On a deeper level many recognize within Horses the content of their own fantasies.
Patti Smith was never to repeat this performance. Certainly, she made other records. Bruce Springsteen wrote Because the Night for her and it became her biggest hit. Patti Smith was last heard of a few years ago: she lives in America's mid-west with her husband and children. She still makes music; she still writes poetry. But Horses remains a one-off. If it was a revelation to a generation, then for its creator herself it was perhaps an exorcism.
Horses by Patti Smith is available on Arista/BMG Records
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