The stars of 1998, as far as music is concerned, have been the plethora of magnificent Cuban albums to hit the shops. But one album soared above the rest. The CD that so many listeners failed to wrench from their machines was Buena Vista Social Club’s self-titled album (World Circuit WCD 050). One listening was all it took to be instantly persuaded to sign up for life. Featuring Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González and friends (including visionary US guitarist Ry Cooder), the Social Club partied their collective way through every permutation that the salsa permits. Addictive. (Reviewed in NI 307)
What galls the directors of New World Order Plc is that John Pilger listens to what they say and watches what they do and then has the audacity to compare the two. Hidden Agendas demonstrated (Vintage, ISBN 0099-41512) ordinary people’s determination to resist oppression – from the democracy movement in Burma to the Liverpool dockers, the freedom fighters of East Timor to the shanty towns of South Africa’s Eastern Cape. The latest wonderful, incisive addition to the Pilger canon of committed journalism. (Reviewed in NI 302)
Meanwhile School Days by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated by Linda Coverdale (Granta Books ISBN 1 86207 086 5) was a rare creation. At once a memoir, an essay and a fable, it folded the merits of all three genres into writing of such dexterity and lightness that the pages flew by. Telling the story of a little black boy – the young Chamoiseau – and his thirst to enter the world of reading and writing, it revealed the sad and absurd attempts of his teacher to colonize his mind. For all the familiarity of its themes, a remarkable, fresh little book. (Reviewed in NI 303)
Also quite exceptional was Sven Lindqvist’s ‘Exterminate all the brutes’ (Granta Books ISBN 1-86207-017-2). Taking as its starting point the Joseph Conrad novella The Heart of Darkness, it attempted to relate Kurtz’s horrific words ‘exterminate the brutes’ to history. Lindqvist travelled across the Sahara in his quest for understanding. The result was a beautifully written integration of criticism, cultural history and travel writing, underpinned by a passion for social justice. (Reviewed in NI 301)
The latest work by John Sayles showed why he remains the best political filmmaker working in the US. Men With Guns was an allegory, set somewhere in the Americas – south of Texas. But it was also a grimly realist tale of a wealthy Latin American doctor driven to re-examine his liberal politics. A trek into the mountains to seek out former students deflated his self-image. It also pushed us, as viewers, to consider the value of piecemeal development projects when a repressive dictatorship stays intact.
(Reviewed in NI 303)
A Single Spark, directed by Park Kwang-Su, released in the West during 1998, also provided a model of committed, intelligent filmmaking. The film was partially financed through hundreds of donations from small community and labour groups throughout Korea. It told the story of Jeon Tae-Il, a young labour activist killed in the late 1960s, and his fight to improve conditions for textile workers. The political point-of-view was clear and direct. Yet the human drama within the story was remarkably complex and Kwang-su’s style was equally layered and nuanced. (Reviewed in NI 304)
McLibel: Two Worlds Collide was an excellent first documentary by newcomer Franny Armstong. This David-and-Goliath story of two activists who took on one of the world’s most powerful multinationals was essential viewing, especially as many TV channels were too afraid of highly-litigious McDonald’s to transmit it. Order it from BCM Oops, London WCIN 3XX. Tel/fax: (+44) 171 247 8881.
e-mail:[email protected] (Reviewed in NI 305)
America’s Boy: The Marcoses and the Philippines
by James Hamilton-Paterson (Granta, ISBN 1 86207 024 5)
To say the names ‘Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos’ is to take a mental shortcut to images of a archetypal brutal, corrupt dictatorship. Ferdinand as ‘the world’s greatest thief’ and Imelda with her crooning and her shoes, overthrown by ‘people’s power’ in 1986 and replaced by Cory, the saintly widow of the assassinated Benigno Aquino. Need we say more? James Hamilton-Paterson thinks so and he has made a persuasive case for a re-examination of the Marcos legend in his book America’s Boy.
For two decades Hamilton-Paterson has lived for part of the year in Kansulay, a remote village in the Philippines, and he clearly despises the patronizing attitude of the ‘parachute journalists’ who descended on the country in the last days of the dictator and whose misreading of the situation did so much to reinforce a distorted perception of Marcos and the Philippines.
Not that Hamilton-Paterson is any sort of apologist for the regime, but he feels that the rise and decline of Marcos constitutes a complex and hitherto-untold story, stretching from the web of family and friendship ties that is Filipino society to the controlling hand of US regional hegemony.
Hamilton-Paterson tells Marcos’s story from a Filipino perspective, constantly cutting away from the narrative to consider how events at the centre of power affected the people in whose name Marcos claimed to act. This is a sensible way to examine the career of a self-declared populist and nationalist, which ensures that the reader keeps in mind the social as well as political context. And it shows clearly how Marcos was not some aberration or hiatus in an otherwise pristine democratic system. He was the product of a network of oligarchy, patronage, cronyism and corruption that pre-dated him and which continues to this day; what Hamilton-Paterson calls ‘the perennial shenanigans of Manila’s governmental élite’. In cataloguing the grotesque excesses and violence of the Marcos years – which the author in no way tries to excuse – he is surely right to question whether Marcos deserves his uniquely demonized status, especially given the antics of other of the US’s ‘regional strongmen’.
James Hamilton-Paterson is a superb prose stylist and this book is meticulously researched. And who could argue with his conclusion that ‘the United States had always been recognized as the power behind the throne in the Philippines; the withdrawal of that support changed little except the incumbent. The power remained’?
directed by Vincente Aranda
(distributed by Sogepac International and Mongrel Media)
Vincente Aranda’s Libertarias opens in the euphoria of the Spanish revolution. In July, 1936 the anarchist-controlled towns and cities of Catalonia attempted to overthrow centuries of history. Barcelona, in particular, was the centre for massive and heroic efforts to sweep away old economic, political and religious traditions. Churches burned, factories were reorganized on egalitarian principles, committees of workers and peasants struggled to build a new society without bosses, without landowners, even without money.
Maria, a young, sheltered and very innocent nun flees from her convent straight into the lair of a whorehouse. Then in quick succession the prostitutes are freed by a women’s militia, which rushes into Barcelona to join the Republican army marching toward the Fascist lines.
It’s early days. Anarchist and socialist groups career along the streets in triumph. Even the barbers have a new organization, marching through the city declaring its presence. The women’s militia have seized the opportunity to create a space within the revolution to fight the centuries-old patriarchy. They refuse to play second fiddle, and see no need to be integrated into a regular army.
Libertarias features three of Spain’s leading actors – and Victoria Abril, especially, creates a memorable character as the spiritualist militia fighter. As the story unfolds, her change from whimsical optimist to a grotesque speaker-in-tongues, possessed by a man’s voice-of-doom, echoes the tragic story as a whole. As the war progresses the women are betrayed, taken over by the male-dominated revolution.
Aranda tells a compelling story, with characters so full and engaging that you can almost forget the awful ending to the war. But the film also contains some serious flaws. Its plotting creates large gaps and several undeveloped incidents – as if the film were originally much longer and chunks of story got dropped in the editing. The young nun’s transformation from devout believer to militia fighter quoting Bakunin and Kropotkin seems contrived. Most disappointing is the way that the film uses Moroccan mercenaries to signify barbaric villains: surely the Spanish-grown Fascists committed atrocities enough. Throughout the war both sides used foreign troops as volunteers and paid mercenaries. For the film to set up the Moroccans as the women’s attackers seems racist and a political cheat. It’s as if the filmmakers, in a mood of present-day reconciliation, want to overlook the Spanish cruelties of the war and displace them on to foreigners. A pity that a film clearly made to raise consciousness and present a new interpretation on the war adds an additional sour element to an already tragic story.
Homebeats: Struggles for racial justice
by The Institute for Race Relations (CD-ROM, ISBN 0 85001 052 7)
Billed as the ‘first CD-Rom on racism and the black presence in Britain’ Homebeats has a lively, up-to-date interactive approach suitable for schools, colleges and individuals. It takes you on a global journey through time, place and people to visions of a better world. It manages at the same time to convey a huge amount of information – from slavery and colonialism to the civil rights movement and anti-racism – while keeping the element of fun and entertainment with music from the Asian Dub Foundation. A series of quizzes ‘wins’ access to the ‘DJ Booth’ for yet more music, and the use of graphics and video clips – including Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech – is clever and engaging. Well worth exploring.
Pillaged Lives: Third world debt and global institutions
by the Social Justice Committee of Montreal
(1857 de Maisonneuve O., Suite 320, Montreal, QC H3H 1JP)
Pillaged Lives, meanwhile, outlines the root causes of debt in the Third World. Produced in partnership with a range of Canadian non-governmental organizations, it provides a comprehensive look at debt, structural adjustment, trade, the World Bank and the IMF, and explains the history of the debt and describes its effects on the people of the Third World. It is accompanied by striking photos and offers detailed text of many important documents. As an introduction to Third World debt, it covers all the important areas, while suffering a little from being a bit solemn. But for anyone looking for a thorough introduction to the subject it will prove useful.
Murder, Misery and then Goodnight
by Kristin Hersh (4AD M1 CD)
Never has there been an album where the protagonists have such a collectively lousy deal. Kristin Hersh’s subjects get beaten up, drowned, stabbed and doused with gin. Sometimes their killers are repentant; sometimes they just couldn’t care less. As you’ve probably guessed, Murder, Misery and then Goodnight is a collection of folk songs. Not only a great series of yarns – a welcome follow-up to two self-penned albums – it also affords Hersh an opportunity to revisit the songs of her own Appalachian childhood. As the Brothers Grimm so eloquently remind us, folk tales and folk songs aren’t always so nice. That’s what’s delightful about them: they’re a place to indulge – and to exorcise – our darkest thoughts.
Hersh is, of course, well-placed to do precisely this. She’s a writer with the rare gift for matching the uncanny movement of words and music with a sense of the strange that mediates the dark with humour. ‘What Shall We Do With The Baby-o?’ is a prime example, as is ‘Three Nights Drunk’, a standard cuckold song or even ‘Banks of the Ohio’, here rescued forever from Olivia Newton John’s saccharine twangs. Murder, Misery and then Goodnight inhabits a large, clear area – mostly acoustic guitar, with a few contributions from the family chorus of kids – the space hints at the distance of memory and of the past. This is an affectionate tribute to the way past and present coalesce and the warmth of the project – listen to the achingly beautiful lullaby, ‘Whole Heap of Little Horses’ – is in no doubt.
Available by post only from 4AD Mail Order, PO Box 3813, London SW18 1AA, England.
Details on www.4ad.com
by Talvin Singh (Island CID 8075)
Apart from one whispered mention of a funeral pyre, there’s not much about death in Talvin Singh’s long-awaited debut album. A glimpse at one cover photo – a studio, a glowing computer, a statue of a Hindu god and a few tablas – tells you that OK’s subject matter is not so much East meets West, but a music that speaks to both traditions and drags them into the future. Better known for his work with Björk and Courtney Pine than his days as a virtuoso tabla player, London-born Singh is a breathlessly talented musician with a wide-ranging idea of what music should aim for. And he’s assembled a prodigious cast – Cleveland Watkiss, Bill Laswell and Sakamoto among them – to realize it. Moving from fusion jazz to subtle dance beats and sweeping sitar drones, Singh’s controlling hand doesn’t let up for a second. Whether it’s a Hendrix-inspired sitar and percussion jam or a slinky, shimmering chorus propelled forward by the Madras Philharmonic Orchestra’s strings, OK’s vision is of a unified sound world, where exquisite textures disclose a flexible structure. Like Hersh’s album, OK is a way of revisiting roots and reconnecting them to new worlds outside. Others have tried to, but seldom as boldly as Singh.
Reviewers: Louise Gray, Peter Steven, Nikki van der Gaag, Peter Whittaker
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird