issue 260 - October 1994
(Mango/Island 697-124 012-2 CD)
Given the ubiquity of rock music in the modern world, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that rock – and everything it signified – was once truly outrageous. Think of the effect Elvis (‘the pelvis’) had on the prudish 1950s or the Beatles’ declaration that they were ‘bigger than Jesus’. Rai singer Khaled has caused similar waves in his native Algeria. Muslim clerics took exception to lyrics which dwelt on women and wine, and a few injudicious statements about politics got Khaled press-ganged into the army and denied a passport.
Young Algerians had a different attitude. Khaled, who has made cassette albums by the dozen, was lauded as Algeria’s answer to Michael Jackson and he became a pin-up. Last year his single Didi became the first Arabic record to feature in the French top ten. In Algeria, like anywhere else, popular music seems to have its greatest power in moments of transgression.
Rai today occupies an ambivalent position in Algeria. Nominally supported by the Government for its export potential it is nonetheless damned by the fundamentalists. Rai means ‘opinion’ in Arabic and because its origins lie in the bawdy songs sung by women around the port of Oran the opinions it proffers are felt to be generally rather delinquent.
Yet Khaled is not, in ordinary terms, a protest singer. His music – described by producer Don Was as ‘quarter-tone funk’ – combines traditional rhythms and instrumentation with synthesizers, accordions and saxophones. Some of the most seductive parts of N’ssi are provided by a swooping whirlwind of an Egyptian string section. Khaled himself delivers a guttural Arabic lyric that weaves about with a defiant grandeur. The overall impression is of imperative intensity.
When first released in France – where Khaled now lives in exile – at the end of 1993, N’ssi shot to the top of the European ‘world music’ charts. This is an intoxicating album which will appeal to anyone with a youthful ear for rebellion and the feet for a good dance.
Today is not like yesterday: A Chilean journey
by Ted Polumbaum and Nyna Brael Polumbaum
(Light & Shadow, Cambridge, Massachusetts, ISBN 0-9633526-0-1)
What makes this book so compelling is the way striking portrait photographs from the early 1970s in Chile have been used by the Polumbaums to trace the same people 20 years on. This gives the book an integrity of purpose that fixes you with a truthful and sometimes unsettling gaze.
A gentle portrait of the poet Ramón Riquelme, taken by the Polumbaums in 1972, was also used by the secret police to track him down after the military coup in 1973. The title of the book comes from a line of Riquelme’s poetry, written in prison.
Carmen Jarpa has this to say of her former compañeros after her partner ‘Mickey’ went into hiding and was eventually shot: ‘During all the time I was alone, not a single one of them came to see me, not even to leave me a piece of bread. Now that things are changing they justify their not coming around by saying they were afraid. They are hypocrites who turned their backs on me.’
Like ‘Mickey’, Oscar Garretón had his picture posted by the military junta on the front page of El Mercurio – Chile’s establishment newspaper – shortly after the coup, under the banner headline: ‘FIND AND DETAIN’. Oscar now runs the Santiago Metro but is still on parole and has to report to prison once a month. ‘A bit of surrealism,’ is how he sees it.
Oscar Ibañez used to be a prominent union leader and has been relentlessly hounded for 20 years as a result. But he has dispensed with bitterness. ‘The dictatorship is going away,’ he says. ‘Now it’s like we’re still in a box, but the box is gradually getting bigger and there is more space.’
Most of the people the Polumbaums have traced were committed to radical change in 1973 and so have suffered terribly. ‘Chile’ is supposed, however, to have prospered from repression and free trade. Does this mean that material prosperity relies on suffering and repression? Few of us would wish to believe so, but Today is not like yesterday makes you wonder.
A sense of the photograph as evidence runs through this wonderful book. Out of the lucid text and the brilliant, affectionate images an extraordinarily powerful human story escapes. Perplexing, sad, inspiring and shocking as it is, don’t miss this chance to discover what photojournalism can still do.
The story of a Somali girl
by Aman as told to Virginia Lee Barnes and Janice Boddy
(Bloomsbury, London, ISBN 0-7475-1761-4)
Do not be deceived by the dustjacket of this book. It appears to be selling the veiled mystery of Somali girlhood, of static enclosure. This could not be further from the dynamic spirit of this story – and its narrator.
Born in 1953 Aman tells the story of her life up to the age of 17. It is an extraordinary tale, which also sheds light on Somalia and the dramatic changes it has undergone in this century. From goat-tending nomadic toddler, to 13-year-old runaway wife, to city-dwelling quasi-prostitute, Aman takes us through a picaresque life that includes murder, imprisonment, decadent parties, a military coup, exile – the lot.
Coming from a vigorous oral tradition (Somalia has had a standard written language for barely 20 years) she knows how to tell a rattling good story. Her rhythms, inflections and humorous asides (recorded by anthropologists Barnes and Boddy) reveal a true entertainer’s love for language. But what makes her narrative so compelling is her candour. Every now and again she says: ‘I’m telling the whole story’ and she certainly seems to be, whether or not it presents her in a good light. Everything gets described in detail – even the circumcision and infibulation she underwent at the age of nine. The pride and honour that she attaches to such a painful and mutilating custom (still practised on the majority of Somali girls) may baffle us – but Aman’s story somehow manages to make her acceptance of it understandable.
As a Somali girl, Aman was abused by patriarchy and colonization in equal measure – but what comes through her story is her pluckiness, her wit and her vitality. She’s a tough kid, a skinny little rebel who runs fast and has a nomad’s independence of spirit. But she also has a tremendous loyalty towards her mother – who herself has fought tooth and nail both to keep her own independence and to keep custody of Aman as a child. And that is the central and persistent love story of this book.
Anthropologists Boddy and Barnes have done splendidly in recognizing the value of Aman’s narration, in capturing her voice and providing an introduction and conclusion that is sensitive and illuminating. This is anthropology at its best.
Women in Brazil
by Caipora Women's Group
(Latin America Bureau, ISBN 0-906156-79-3)
I am cheaper
I am the washing machine
I am the vacuum cleaner
I am Señora's
I am cheaper...
Adults forget most of the difficulties involved in being a child. This is probably simple self-preservation. George Orwell, in a memorable essay on his schooldays, spoke of ‘a deeper grief which is peculiar to childhood and not easy to convey: a sense of desolate loneliness and helplessness, of being locked up not only in a hostile world but in a world of good and evil where the rules are such that it was not actually possible for me to keep them...’ This was the great abiding lesson of my childhood: that I was in a world where it was not possible for me to ‘be good’. I grew up on a council estate in the North East of England in the 1960s and I was aware that the details of my immediate surroundings – the people and places I knew and their concerns and problems – were absent from the media. It was an invisible and, by implication, a sub-standard world.
The first film I saw which broke through this crust of neglect was Ken Loach’s Kes, a work which told me that my everyday world could be the stuff of drama. There was tragedy, comedy and human interest in our own lives equal to the glitzy images projected through TV and films.
Kes - scripted by Barry Hines from his book - is set in Barnsley, a Yorkshire mining town. It concerns a few weeks in the life of Billy Casper (a wonderfully natural performance by David Bradley), about to leave school and embark on an uncertain and unpromising adult life. Billy lives with his downtrodden mother and boorish half-brother. Bullied at school and universally regarded as dim and feckless, Billy keeps a beautiful untamed kestrel, lavishing on the bird all the love and tenderness that was neither expected nor offered within the bounds of his family. The bird is the only thing in his life to which he is not a marginal and despised failure. It is significant that in medieval times the kestrel was the only hunting bird that the lowest social orders were allowed to possess.
Befriended by a teacher (played by Colin Welland), Billy is encouraged to pass on his enthusiasm to his classmates. Asked for the first time in his life to speak on what he knows intimately, his inarticulacy disappears and he becomes, for a few brief moments, a fluent and informed communicator. In command of his subject, Billy demonstrates that care of the bird is his ‘fix’ on the world, his method of grasping and, to a limited extent, manipulating a society in which it was not possible for him to ‘be good’. His talk also demonstrates the extent to which society, by asking the wrong questions and testing inappropriate skills, has squandered his potential and actively hindered his development.
Retribution for Billy’s moment of control is brutal and swift; Kes is killed by his half-brother, furious that Billy had lost him money by forgetting to place a bet at the bookmakers. The hope and yearning in Billy’s comfortless life is snuffed out in a single mean and vengeful act. Loach, a committed libertarian socialist, developed collaborative working methods with a regular crew and – by necessity – a small budget. His use of improvised dialogue and preference for amateur actors give his films a gritty documentary feel and contribute to his aim of demystifying and democratizing the process of film-making. Over the years his work has suffered from censorship, particularly his l980s features on the UK miners’ strike and trade union leaders. Only relatively recently, with Riff Raff, Raining Stones and Ladybird, Ladybird has he gained the success and recognition he deserves.
Like much of Loach’s work, Kes presents an overwhelmingly bleak picture of working-class life and if I have a reservation it is that his approach could so easily reinforce the stereotype of the dour, humourless northerner. Loach avoids this trap by virtue of his passionate commitment to his characters and his belief in their capacity to struggle against their circumstances. His accurate portrayal of the way drudgery and debt impoverish the spirit as well as the body underlines rather than negates the message that alternatives do exist, often in the most unlikely places. There is no room for sentimentality or happy ending in Billy Casper’s story but the very act of telling opened windows on hidden lives and helped redress a very skewed balance in cinema’s representation of ordinary people.
Ken Loach’s films illustrate the truth of the dictum ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’. He said recently: ‘You shouldn’t exaggerate what you can do, because you really cannot do much at all. Film is plainly so very transient. I am not optimistic at all in the short or medium term... but people’s capacity to fight back is inexhaustible. The tide will turn sooner or later... I’m optimistic about that.’
Kes, directed by Ken Loach (1969), is based on the book A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines, published by Michael Joseph 1968/ Penguin 1969.