issue 263 - January 1995
The Rough Guide to World Music
edited by Simon Broughton, Mark Ellingham, David Muddyman and Richard Trillo
(Rough Guides/ Penguin Books ISBN 1-85828-017-6)
(World Music Network RGNET 1001 CD/10001C MC)
It’s great that folk musics from around the world really have in the past 10 years attained the global audiences they deserve. But who knows anything much about, say, Tuvan throat singers, Jewish klezmer musicians or the bordello origins of the Argentine tango? Listeners and critics alike can often be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of releases now available – and the corresponding lack of information.
Sigh no more, for with the publication of the Rough Guide to World Music this looks set to change. The authoritative 700-page book is accompanied by a 15-track CD/casette – and the two are indispensable to anyone with an interest in this area.
The book is extremely user-friendly. The editors have divided the world into 13-block segments, each of which is subdivided into further blocks. The North American entry alone includes Native American music, Appalachian, Tex-Mex, gospel, folk. The myriad varieties of African and Latin music are well represented, but so too are the lesser known sounds from the Balkans, Maghreb or East Asia. There are discoveries, small interviews, guides to performers, instruments and the individual musical cultures and festivals. The book’s sections are written by a team of 80 experts and are suitable for in-depth study as well as browsing. But for real atmosphere, it’s hard to beat one of the eyewitness accounts of a festival on the Asian steppes held in the light of a full moon.
To its credit, the Guide avoids the usual problems of definition that dog compilers of world music. It takes a relatively simple tack that all manifestations of music, be they ancient or modern, are valid. Thus a section on Indian filmi (sound-track music) sits between accounts of Indian classical and the devotional qawwali music of Pakistan.
As a carefully compiled taster, whose listening can be enriched by its referencing to the book, the Rough Guide disc is also well-recommended. Including artists such as Joe Arroyo (Colombia), Africando (Senegal), Ali Hassan Kuban (Egypt), Sainko Namchylak (Siberia) and Scotland’s Talitha MacKenzie – the moods are, unsurprisingly, mixed. Some tracks, like Muzsikas’ Hungarian Jewish dances, the Oyster Band’s Irish offering and Buckwheat’s Zydeco Party – are purely rumbustious affairs. Other tracks – like Guo Yue and Joji Hirota’s Goodbye Again – are poignant and odd. Namchylak, a woman Tuvan singer who trained in Shamanistic music, contributes perhaps the most extraordinary track. Called Tanola Nomads, its crashing gongs and Westernized ambient setting combine with her haunting voice to produce a very special sound.
Links can be made between the tracks. There are two very different kinds of salsa from Colombia and Senegal, for example – and the rhythmical undertow of the latter has echoes in the track from Mali. The album is arranged to illuminate such similarities and differences. Between the Rough Guide book and the album there is, quite literally, a whole world to be explored. Enjoy!
The Bandit Queen
directed by Shekhar Kapur
Already a director of established repute in India, Shekhar Kapur has found international fame with his latest film The Bandit Queen. It is a remarkable piece of work, not least because of the controversy it has engendered, leading it to be banned in India for the present. The story is based on the real-life events surrounding Phoolan Devi as she grew up in the 1970s. Destitute and from a lower caste, she was subjected to the most humiliating physical and mental abuse from a group of high-caste men in her village. Unable to take it any more, she got her revenge when she transgressed all convention and joined a group of bandits, eventually becoming the leader of her own gang until her arrest in 1983. By then she had become a folk heroine and revolutionary symbol with her devotees creating their own images of her.
In an attempt to understand how a myth is made, Kapur and the screenwriter Mala Sen – who wrote a book about Devi based on the diaries she kept while in prison – create a mythology of their own. The extraordinary story deals with issues of sexuality and class – which make it so contentious in India – and is filmed in epic style with much made of the cracked and hard Chambal valley landscape in which the action is set. The haunting soundtrack by the Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan compounds the mood. But central to the film is the brilliant performance from Seema Biswas who plays Devi with a suitably fierce intensity. Certainly the role is not an easy one. The scenes in which Devi is raped and tortured are extremely disturbing, though sensitively constructed to avoid exploitation. ‘Was I born of an act of love or violence?’ Devi cries at one point, feeling no more than a piece of dispensable trash. Biswas persuades us of Devi’s transformation as, rather than remain a victim, she is fuelled by a visceral anger and ends up perpetrating bloody deeds of her own.
If this is not dramatic material enough, the film already has its own bizarre coda. While the film champions Devi, she herself has chosen to distance herself from it – though she has yet to see it. What’s more she has threatened to set herself on fire if The Bandit Queen is ever released in India; hence the present ban. Kapur is attempting to contest the decision and one suspects there is a further saga to come.
film OF THE YEAR
music OF THE YEAR
books OF THE YEAR
French-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung’s striking debut with The Scent of Green Papaya marks the arrival of a great talent in world cinema. The film, set in Saigon in the 1950s and told from the point of view of a young servant girl working for a middle-class family, unravels an intricate part of the social fabric of traditional Vietnamese society. It is a subtle, beautifully observed examination of class and the position of women that also obliquely anticipates the political upheavals to come.
(reviewed in NI 255)
The FBI are not exactly noted for their musical acumen but they got it right with native American singer-songwriter John Trudell. Described in a 17,000-page dossier as ‘extremely eloquent’, Trudell marries rocky blues with a talent for poetry. In Johnny Damas and Me (Rykodisc RCD/RAC 10286), he never tells us who Damas is
– Damas remains as ghostly
as Trudell’s Santee Sioux ancestors, living beneath the ‘coyote moon’ of ‘Nazi Babylon’. Trudell, like the best folk songwriters, notices people – the poor, the dispossessed.
(Reviewed in NI 255)
Susan Griffin’s long-awaited A Chorus of Stones (The Women’s Press ISBN 0-7043-4387-8, UK, and Allen and Unwin, Australia) was published in the UK and Australia in 1994 – though it has been out in North America for a couple of years. This poetic, thought-provoking exploration into the ‘private world of war’ combines incisiveness with passion and compassion. A book that scores highest on originality and authenticity is Aman, the Story of a Somali Girl (Bloomsbury ISBN 0 7475 17614, UK). It’s the racy, colourful, first-person narrative of an illiterate Somali woman as told to anthropologists Virginia Lee Barnes and Janice Boddy. Aman’s picaresque life-story is also that of her troubled country. It’s a riveting read and Aman is an engaging and spirited story-teller.
(Reviewed in NI 262 and 261)
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird
Do authors matter? Does what we know of the personality and life history of the writer colour our reaction to the written word?
B Traven, author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, certainly thought so and throughout his life kept his identity and his past closely guarded secrets. Few writers have courted obscurity so obsessively as this strange, difficult man, who believed ‘the creative person should have no other biography than his [sic] works’.
Yet Traven did assiduously cultivate the myths surrounding his identity, and the fictions he lived contributed as much to his enduring fame as the fictions he wrote. After briefly sketching his bafflingly complex life we will do as he advises and concentrate on the work – in particular his sweeping panorama of Mexico, the six ‘Jungle Novels’.
The writer’s childhood and early life continue to resist the best efforts of Traven-hunters and, although there are many theories, hard fact is absent. The author we know as B Traven emerged in Germany – in the first of his many aliases – as Ret Marut, an actor and radical pamphleteer who published the anarchist paper Der Ziegelbrenner (‘The Brickburner’). Active in the short-lived Bavarian Socialist Republic of 1918-1919, he narrowly escaped execution in the backlash that followed its collapse. He fled by a convoluted route to Mexico, where he lived for the rest of his life and where the bulk of his fiction is set.
Since then Traven’s work has been translated into more than a dozen languages and his novels have sold over 30 million copies. Early books, such as The Death Ship, The Cottonpickers and The White Rose combine strong plots and action with didactic socialist messages and a wry sense of humour. Traven continued his shadow games to the end of his life, adopting various further aliases and even – during the filming of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – having himself taken onto the payroll in the guise of his own agent, Hal Groves.
Good as they were, the earlier novels were primarily adventure yarns, with added social realism. Traven’s true masterpiece – the ‘Jungle Novels’ series – was published between 1931 and 1940 and stands as one of literature’s most sustained and impassioned pleas for justice. The books cover the first decade of the twentieth century – the closing years of the rule of Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz and a time of rampant corruption, exploitation and cruel repression. In simple, no-nonsense prose they set out to explore how the lives of ordinary people were changed by the momentous events of the Mexican Revolution. In the first book, Government, the problems are defined as we meet the local landlord who enriches himself by exploiting and extorting the peons in his fiefdom, sending them to the killing conditions of the mahogany-logging camps in the province of Chiapas. In The Carreta Andres Ugalde – theoretically free but in virtual serfdom – is lost by his ‘master’ in a game of cards. He learns to drive an ox-cart – a carreta – and gains a broadening of his blinkered view of the world, incidentally providing the reader with a pocket history of the country.
Traven returns to the mahogany camps with March to the Monteria and charts the smouldering rebellion of the indentured labourers. Trozas and Rebellion of the Hanged add new faces to the cast of characters as the angry workers find leaders, organize themselves and formulate demands. In The General from the Jungle the revolt catches fire, with the emergence of a Zapata-like figure to spearhead the struggle of the peons.
The ‘Jungle Novels’ are ideologically shrill, simplifying the complexities of the Mexican revolution into a ‘peons good/landlords bad’ dichotomy. But these criticisms are dwarfed by the positive energies of the books, by Traven’s deep insight into the individual characters and his understanding that insurrection is nothing if it does not benefit the poorest. In Rebellion of the Hanged he remarks that, ‘revolutions are made not only to change systems but also the mean souls of men’.
The books contain a wealth of accurate and well-researched detail concerning the folklore and wisdom of the Indian rural poor, but they transcend these specifics. Written during the rise of the Nazis and the Second World War they encapsulate Traven’s anti-fascist credo. And we need look no further than the setting for the ‘Jungle Novels’ - Chiapas province - to see the continuing urgent relevance of Traven’s writing. The uprising which began in Chiapas on 1 January 1994 has demanded the same rights and freedoms; the communiqués of the present-day Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) rebels explicitly link their struggle to that of their Zapatista forebears. Traven, who died in 1967, would have recognized and saluted this continuity of resistance and seen it as a mark of the resilience and spirit of the poorest of the poor. In the deregulated free-trade New World Order Tierra y Libertad! remains the battlecry of the dispossessed.
Allison and Busby are republishing all B Traven’s ‘Jungle Novels’: Government and Trozas were published in March 1994; The Carreta is available from January 1995; March to Monteria later in the year and Rebellion of the Hanged and The General from the Jungle in 1996. They also hope to publish a British edition of a biography, B Traven, the Life Behind the Legends by Karl S Guthke (Lawrence Hill, US, 1991)