Women’s World Music
(SDC/Cod Tuxedo 38040 CD)
Compilation albums serve two purposes: to stress a theme or to act as an entrée to a multiplicity of artists. Women’s World Music manages to do both and its dexterity and sheer verve owes everything to its 16 artists. Originated by the Swiss Development Corporation (SDC), the album had the immediate purpose of publicizing the Beijing Women’s Conference. The uptake in Switzerland alone encouraged the SDC to release worldwide. It’s an excellent decision. While some of the artists – Angelique Kidjo, Celia Cruz and Miriam Makeba – are well distributed across the world, others are not and there are wonderful discoveries to be made. Cape Verde’s barefoot diva Cesaria Evora, Algeria’s Reinette l’Oranaise and Indian duo Sameera and Silander are simply unmissable. I defy anyone to listen to Evora’s Frutu Proibidu and not rush out to order her solo albums – La diva aux Pieds Nus or Miss Perfumad are available on France’s Lusafrica/Melodie label.
Women contribute considerably to indigenous music, but their work is often ignored in the music world’s economy. Though the tracks on this album are firmly rooted in each singer’s folk tradition, their subjects and moods are extremely varied indeed. A field-recording made in Tanzania by the Wakada Cultural Group warns against AIDS, Sainko Namchylak from Siberia delivers a haunting, sparse, eerie song from the Tanola nomad tradition; Puerto Rico’s young and streetwise Chrissy sings a fresh, uplifting number with an anti-drugs message; while the lulling choruses of Not Yet Uhuru from South Africa’s Letta Mbulu belie a sombre, more intangible, truth.
What unites all these tracks is a fierce sense of individual cultural identity, expressed in vibrant and emotional colours. It’s not always important to know what a song is literally about because its mood is its own form of communication. Yalla Chant from Natacha Atlas – a London-based Moroccan singer – is a seductive upbeat blend of dance music, whereas Mercedes Sosa from Argentina lives in an emotional territory which is far darker. For all those songs which feature the kind of slick production that Western studios are capable of – like Kidjo’s Yonnoun – there are other recordings which are all the more moving and somehow more vital for their minimal studio technique. Recorded live, Zap Mama’s Mon Grandpère is a case in point; so too is Reinette l’Oranaise’s Kif Amali Ou Hilti – a song that’s both lovely and sad and all the richer for its studied lack of adornment.
As a celebration of women’s music and of community, this album is highly recommended.
The Sun Hath Looked Upon Me
by Calixthe Beyala
Translated from the French by Marjolijn de Jager
(Heinemann, ISBN 0-435-90951-7)
Translated from the Portuguese by Marga Holness
(Heinemann, ISBN 0-435-90962-2)
The slum, a thriving and hive-like place, is witness to the extremes of human life. Over and over people survive or are broken by the same kinds of circumstances. Humming with life the slum may be, but it also has its own curious stasis. In The Sun Hath Looked Upon Me Cameroonian writer Calixthe Beyala plunges us into the stagnant world of the Quartier Général, where her protagonist, Ateba, strives for her own identity against the dictates of the moralistic and hypocritical aunt with whom she lodges.
Things happen to Ateba – men’s sticky and violent advances, their rage at their rejection; constant appraisal and disapproval from others. And yet Ateba, the abandoned daughter of a prostitute, finds her voice and rescues her own thoughts from the demands of her situation, building an identity upon pain.
But for all that happens to Ateba, the plot remains afloat: characters appear and then get abandoned and the significance of events is constantly shifting. Through all this routine change where nothing really changes, the narrative cuts out space for Ateba and for the shaping of her voice.
The main drawback of the novel is its over-evident poetry. Beyala seems at times to get swept away by the power of her own words and it all begins to sound grandiose and loud. This may be because it was translated from the French, a language which suffers ‘poetic’ writing more gladly.
Yaka is a saga of tremendous scope, an Angolan War and Peace of sorts. It charts the destiny of the nation through the fortunes of its central character Alexandre Semedo, a child of Portuguese settlers, born under a tree in 1890. By its closing pages it is 1975 and the end of colonial domination.
In between Semedo founds a clan and through stories of his children and grand-children, the tale of Angola’s long battle for independence is told. Semedo is the perfect protagonist – ineffectual, doubting, knowing what’s right, doing what’s expedient.
The novel manages to get under the skin of the white settlers – a community of ex-convicts, political exiles and others not exactly welcome in the ‘home’ country of Portugal – united by their fear of blacks and their own rapacious greed. Semedo’s family, like any large family, is riven by clashing ambitions and thwarted desires, and Alexandre watches as it is pulled apart.
The book’s racial politics is excellent. Pepetela (Artur Carlos Mauricio Pestana) lets his white characters open their mouths and ironies and contradictions leap out. By focusing almost exclusively on the settlers, he is able to show their inhumanity first hand. The same ploy is less successful, however, with patriarchy – it ends up making the female characters seem less important.
The scope of the book is huge, its story complex and deeply satisfying. It is let down, however, by the amount of political discussion the characters engage in and the detailed working out of raids and attacks. Realistic this may be, gripping it’s not. Despite this, it achieves the formidable goal of bringing Angola’s bloody colonial past to life and illuminates the colonial mind.
My Bodhi Tree
by Zhang Xianliang
(Secker and Warburg ISBN 0-436-203251-1)
In the last months of 1960 Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ pushed China into famine. Zhang Xianliang was incarcerated in a Chinese labour camp at the time. He managed to escape – only to return voluntarily on discovering the extent of the despair and suffering he found ‘outside’ in ‘free’ China. He reckoned, probably rightly, that his chances of survival were better as a convict.
Inside the camp the authorities ruled with a grim and inconsistent paternalism; the convicts were ‘enemies’ but also ‘children who could be taught to mend their ways’. The approach was surreal: Central Government set impossible production targets from tiny areas of land; famished prisoners were forced to work more and eat less. Eager, thought-reforming intellectuals threw their remaining strength into obeying Beijing’s orders to ‘work bitterly hard’ – and died like flies.
Zhang’s description of daily prison camp life – hunting for cigarette ends, stealing potatoes, sleeping in a tiny space just 30 centimetres wide – personalizes an escalating horror otherwise almost incomprehensible in its scale. Thirty million Chinese starved to death in Mao’s famine. My Bodhi Tree explains – amazingly readably – what it was like for one individual to teeter on the brink as those around him fell.
It warns too of the danger of forgetting – and repeating a period where ‘the country went mad’. A remote danger? In the week that My Bodhi Tree was published, Amnesty International reported over 100,000 people still incarcerated in China’s ‘re-education through labour’ camps. It’s a sharp reminder of why Zhang insists that his book is not just a testimony to the past, but a warning to the future.
Reviews by Louise Gray, Urvu Patel, and Roger Bingham.
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird
Audiences stood and cheered. Hands plunged into purses and pockets for one more donation. The issue was Spain and activists worldwide called it ‘the good fight’. It was 1937 and people everywhere who craved news on the Spanish Civil War had waited anxiously to see Joris Ivens’s The Spanish Earth. Most viewers had never heard of the Dutchman Ivens. They knew, however, that this was the film narrated and endorsed by Ernest Hemingway. They were not disappointed.
Mainstream newsreels, such as Hearst’s Movietone News, had done a good job at shooting the war from Franco’s side. Now here was visual proof of the barbarity at work in Franco’s bombers, proof that Mussolini and Hitler were involved, and proof that the Spanish Republicans were prepared to fight back.
Hemingway’s script and his dramatic yet measured voice added its own poetry and partisan anger to the powerful images.
The Spanish Civil War remains one the key events of the twentieth century. Along with Mussolini’s 1936 invasion of Ethiopia, it formed the ominous prelude to Hitler’s full-scale onslaught. It was on the one hand the lost cause that ushered in the fascist Franco’s brutal 40-year regime; on the other a moving chapter of democratic and left-wing solidarity as thousands of volunteers joined International Brigades and gave their lives to help people in another country.
The Spanish Earth tells the story of Fuentiduena, a Republican village on the road between Valencia and Madrid, a key area during the three-year civil war. The film shows bombings and battles yet also lingers to observe actual people working, close-ups of faces, families and relationships. It’s a political, emotionally rich essay linking themes of ‘working the earth and fighting for the earth’, said Ivens. Right from the opening images Ivens’s editing strategy is to develop links between what he called the sensual, psychological and point-of-view elements, ‘pulling the spectator by emotions, from stage to stage of an idea’s development’.
Ivens was also trying a new form of political documentary, rejecting the conventional newsreel and the straight essay of intellectual argument. The result was something akin to the realist novel, partly achieved by slowing the pace and setting up ‘a thin continuity line with a peasant boy, Julian, at the front and at home’.
The idea for The Spanish Earth had been hatched in July 1936 by a group of US intellectuals, including Lillian Hellman, John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker, Archibald MacLeish and Hemingway. They hoped to change US Government policy and get the arms embargo on democratic Spain lifted.
When Ivens and his cinematographer John Ferno reached Madrid they were carrying a rough script devised in New York. This was soon abandoned. Ivens described the new format that developed under fire.
‘People’s Front. Madrid. A village. Farmer’s family there. Collective work on an irrigation project. Fight on the front 25 kilometres away from the village. Bombardment. A young soldier, a peasant boy, fighting with his regiment in Madrid. The fascists fortified in the university. This boy on leave, his family, his village. He trains the village boys. Back to the front. Parallel between the irrigation project being completed, water to The Spanish Earth and the fighting for the independence, the freedom of that earth.’
The stakes were high and Spanish casualties were heavy. Young Julian disappeared, presumed dead even before the photography was completed.
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were among the film’s first viewers. Roosevelt was sympathetic but made no commitment to lift the embargo. The big distributors and theatre chains wouldn’t touch the film and censors caused their usual trouble. But eventually The Spanish Earth found sizeable audiences in the US and around the world, and activists had a magnificent vehicle for education and inspiration.
Since the premiere of The Spanish Earth hundreds of films have told stories of courageous people battling in far-off places in other good fights. Ivens himself went on to film in China, Indonesia, Cuba, Chile, and Vietnam. And in each situation he was able to mix emotion and political ideas, partisanship with art. Other documentary makers were not always as effective, or as fired up, or as subtle. But in the strongest works of international solidarity on film you can hear echoes of Ivens.
The Spanish Earth directed by Joris Ivens
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