The NI Star rating system. Music

New Moon
by Abdelli
(Virgin /Real World CDRU 54)

Brian Jones presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka
by Master Musicians of Jajouka
(Philips Classics/Point 446 487)

New Moon North African Berber culture has a reputation for being insular, using its remote geographical location as a counterbalance to the dominance and pervasiveness of Arab culture. These two records are, in different ways, strongly Berber. Both present singular ways of transmitting tradition. Singer and mandola player Abderrahmane Abdelli is a Kabyl Berber from Algeria. He uses his own language and much of his native modalities. The twist comes from his range: Spanish influences abound while some passages of wild gypsy violin sound as though they come straight out of Central Europe.

New Moon, Abdelli’s first album release on a major label, is a richly rewarding experience. Its overall pace is slowly sinuous. There is nothing of the fanaticism that marks Algeria’s popular rai, or indeed, the ritual dances of the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Instead, his ten songs seem to weave back and forth, using traditional instrumentation aligned with Western production to produce a sultry, airy effect. The focus is always on the curve of Abdelli’s voice. His themes are often oblique; songs that may be about aspects of human life are often linked to something much larger.

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For those more interested in the unalloyed music of the Berbers, the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka is the real stuff. Long unavailable, this album’s reedy shawn-like raitas, wailing women and scattered pulsating drum-rhythms have an eerie power. Originally released in 1971, the recording began life when the Rolling Stones’ late guitarist Brian Jones was taken by painter Brion Gysin to Jajouka, a village in the Moroccan Rif mountains.

Jones – like other Jajouka aficionados such as William Burroughs and Paul Bowles – had his own agenda with Moroccan music. No strangers to drug-induced experiences, the foreigners were captivated by the idea that music itself could cause trances or transgress boundaries. In Jajouka, they found a culture hermetically sealed off from the outside world because of the Rif’s inhospitable geography and the legendary ‘wildness’ of the Berbers. The music of the album comes from the village’s celebration of the festival of Aid el Kebir, an occasion that links with a pagan past. At this festival the traditional deity Rou Jeloud – like the Greek god, Pan – would be represented by a figure decked out in goatskins. He was a supernatural presence invoked by the spirit of the music. Something of the fear and excitement that this incarnation must have provoked is captured in the wailing pipes of the Master Musicians. These are not the sanitized dances recorded for the masses, but something altogether stronger.

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Land and Freedom
directed by Ken Loach

Battleground of ideologies: the rigour of political cinema. This film is an impassioned essay that reflects on a crucial moment in the twentieth century when people throughout Europe and the US gathered together in Spain to participate in the fight against fascism. The Spanish Civil War was called ‘the last great crusade’ – with the country becoming a battleground for the conflicting ideologies of the era.

Symbolically recovering the past, the film commences in the present in a Liverpool council housing estate where a young woman is trawling through the belongings of David, her grandfather who has just died. She finds letters and photographs which point to a history about which he had always kept quiet. Loach uses the familiar device to slip the audience back in time to find the young David, unemployed and disillusioned with life in Britain during the Depression.

Loach’s hero is typical of those who made the journey to Spain, eager and entranced by the possibilities of fighting for a belief but not quite comprehending what it might entail. In this respect he is the perfect protagonist, with the audience just behind him as he gradually comes to understand what is going on around him.

Land and Freedom Ian Hart’s portrayal of David is beautifully controlled. We see him transform from wide-eyed to wise as he joins up with a small militia group, develops friendships with his comrades, even embarking on an affair with a fellow soldier, Blanca – this is a war in which women fought.

Listening to the discussions, he also begins to comprehend the differences between the radical POUM revolutionaries and the more moderate Communist Party. Loach does not skim over the intricacies and for some the debates might seem hard to take. But those who long for the vigour of political cinema will not be disappointed by Land and Freedom: it’s inspirational stuff.

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The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life: Nature’s Debt to Society
by Andrew Ross
(Verso, ISBN 0 8609-429-1)

Woody Allen once asked: Is there a body-soul split, and if so, which of them is it better to have? Substitute a nature-society split, and up pops the gangster.

With humour and irony Andrew Ross offers a sharp challenge to the new world order being offered by geneticists which, he says, equates to biological determinism or ‘the Chicago gangster theory of life’.

But he also questions the zealous austerity of much environmentalist thought. Put simply, he doesn’t want the Green movement to be seen as one which always says ‘no’.

‘In some neo-Puritan quarters a liberal society is seen as a primary cause of the ecological crisis. Asceticism, self-denial and guilt are the order of the day,’ according to Ross. The structural poverty and hunger that has accompanied post-colonial under-development is not the result of natural scarcity but of bad economics. The hardest hit are the lower-income groups the world over who are being disciplined with ‘the politics of scarcity and budgetary restraint’.

We must get rid of the concept of scarcity if we are to make a world in which hunger and poverty no longer prevail, Ross argues. That will mean changing pricing policies to take account of the regularly disguised social and environmental costs of production.

Finally, Ross warns of the dangers of surrendering too many rights to ‘the voice of nature’. There are, he says, ‘too many ventriloquists around who will speak in its name’. We ought to dialogue with nature – but not treat it as our supreme court.

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Reviewers: Louise Gray, George Fisher, Lizzie Francke.
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird

T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
Canticles of Ecstasy:
Hildegard von Bingen
...being the music that brings heaven to earth.

Contrary to popular belief, history is not made by Great Men. Behind the parade of kings, popes, barons, the dreary lists of dates and battles, stand the ranks of real people, seldom mentioned in history books but doing work of quality and, on occasion, genius. It comes as little surprise that the vast majority of those ‘hidden from history’ are women. Such a one was Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth-century abbess who was, among other things an author, a composer, a scientist and a natural historian.

Born in 1098 to a moneyed family, Hildegard was at the age of eight walled into the Benedictine convent at Disibodenberg where she lived with the abbess, her aunt Jutta. Always a sickly child, Hildegard began to have what we today would probably call fits or epileptic seizures but which were then understood as visions and intense spiritual revelations. She said: ‘From my girlhood I felt in myself in a wonderful way the power of the mysteries of secret and wonderful visions.’ Her reputation as a seer and dispenser of prophecies grew, leading to her popular name ‘The Sibyl of the Rhine’. In 1136 Hildegard succeeded Jutta as abbess and in 1150 founded her own community at Bingen.

As Abbess at Bingen, her fame and creative power increased significantly and, far from the image of cloistered innocence, she proved to be an astute and nimble operator on the twelfth-century political scene.

Canticles of ecstasy.

Hildegard’s curiosity and thirst for knowledge knew no bounds. She was omnivorous in her writing and thinking and delved in such varied fields as medicine, heredity and botany. She wrote poetry, biographies, cryptography, one of the earliest mystery plays and collated several encyclopediae. She was also a highly original thinker, developing a detailed cosmology and a new scientific theory concerning the effect of the elements on the ‘humours’ of the body. Such studies allowed her a place at the centre of twelfth-century intellectual as well as spiritual life. At the time of her death in 1179 – at the age of 81 – she was widely respected and there were many calls for her to be canonized.

Despite all this it is doubtful whether we would recall the name of Hildegard today were it not for the music she composed for her fellow sisters. Her pieces, which she called symphoniae harmoniae celestium revalationum, were in a form of Plainsong or Gregorian chant. There are several available recordings, including a groundbreaking compilation called Feather on the Breath of God which was released in the 1980s and features the sublime soprano of Emma Kirkby. More recently, Barbara Thornton’s vocal ensemble Sequentia has embarked on a project to record all of Hildegard’s musical compositions, culminating in 1998 in a celebration of the 900th anniversary of her birth.

Their latest recording, a selection of Hildegard’s symphoniae is called Canticles of Ecstasy. The beauty and simplicity of this music is breathtaking. One does not need to be a devout Christian or even a believer to appreciate the soaring perfection of the unaccompanied female voice. And much of the text, although scriptural in origin, can be seen as a contemplative hymn of praise to the natural world and the joy of living.

Although it is right that Hildegard is today seen as a feminist icon, we must not turn a blind eye to her shortcomings. She was very much a woman of her time, cannily using the existing – male – power structures of church and state to build herself a position of real influence. She travelled widely and in her sermons she fulminated against what she saw as heresy and was at the forefront of the persecution of the sect of Cathars – who incidentally, practised equality of the sexes and had women priests.

Such reservations should not diminish our awe at the size and scope of Hildegard’s achievements. It is nothing short of miraculous – in a secular sense – that a woman in a brutal and misogynist age, racked by illness and infirmity for much of the time and burdened with the organization and maintenance of her community, could fashion for herself a place of respect and security from which she could collect and originate such a treasure-chest of knowledge and could above all produce such precious and life-affirming music.

After 900 years, Hildegard remains as complex a figure and as fascinating to the modern world as she was to her contemporary, Odo of Paris, when he wrote to her in 1148: ‘It is said that you are raised in heaven, that much is revealed to you, and that you bring forth great writings and discover new manners of song...’

Peter Whittaker

Canticles of Ecstasy: Hildegard von Bingen sung by Sequentia is available on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi CD/Cassette 05472 773204. Feather on the Breath of God is on Hyperion CD A66039.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995

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