issue 315 - August 1999
Sosabi: Cape Verdean Music from New England
(Rounder 5069 CD)
by Cesaria Evora
(RCA Victor 74321 65401 2 CD)
That Cape Verde, the former Portuguese archipelago perched on Africa’s Atlantic edges, has always lived a precarious existence caught between geography, history and economics is somehow reflected in its distinctive and haunting music. Cape Verde was once a port used by slave ships en route to the Americas, and its songs are tinged with Latin inflections, soft jazz rumbas and a vocal style dominated by the bitter-sweet and sensuous longings of the blues-like morna tradition. They possess a fierce sense of individuality that makes them shine brightly. There’s very rarely any high drama sounded out in explicit drum rolls or vocal flourishes, but the passion can never be doubted.
Cesaria Evora – sixty-something and still magnificently miserable – is Cape Verde’s biggest star, but her constellation shouldn’t be allowed to outshine her compatriots. Sosabi – Verdean creole for ‘that’s great’ – celebrates an extraordinary connection with America, and in particular New England, that continues to the present day. The first Africans to relocate to America of their free will, Verdeans have figured on the eastern seaboard since 1643. As in any relocation, how permanent their exile was intended to be is not easy to say; perhaps it’s best to let the music speak for itself. The musicians collected here – Toi Grace, Celina Pereira, Alberto Kinzinhu Rodrigues and others – present the affirmation of a Verdean diaspora as a vibrant entity, where the sadness of dislocation or loss is subsumed under free-floating dance tracks whose smooth rhythms are evidence of a first-hand acquaintance with a Cuban feeling for movement. Sosabi has – make no mistake – first-rate performances and sly, lilting songs that speak much for the fusion of European and African music within a unique identity that’s still very much alive.
What can one say about Cesaria Evora, the undoubted ‘queen of the morna’, that hasn’t been said already? A magic happens when Evora, Cape Verde’s barefoot diva, opens her mouth. For over 40 years, this cigarette-smoking, whisky-drinking granny has made into an art form the slow modulations of morna and their poetic heart. Like the best of divas, she personifies depth and resilience with – it has to be said – a sharp humour that sometimes beggars belief.
The images conjured up in: ‘The first time/That I went to Ribeira Grande/I had a wild time/In a goods storeroom,’ is just hilarious. Café Atlantico is a fiction of an imaginary café at the end of the world, a place for ruined lovers, late-night revellers and, perhaps, those at the end of their tethers. Evora’s voice has the best smoky ambience to set the scenes and a majestic band to go with it. In fact, there’s very little that’s really lugubrious about this album: a fabulous ten-piece Cuban band lays down a fiery pace that makes Café Atlantico an album to cherish until the end of time.
Women in the New Asia
by Yayori Matsui
(Spinifex/ Zed Books, ISBN 1 85649 6260)
Facing the Mirror
edited by Ashwini Sukthankar
The Drag King Book
by Del LaGrace Volcano and Judith Jack Halberstam
(Serpent’s Tail ISBN 185242 601)
With an unsettling blend of pain and optimism, journalist Yayori Matsui charts the course of Asian women’s movements over the past two decades. As co-founder of Asia-Japan Women’s Resource Centre and editor of Women’s 21st Century, she is well equipped for the task.
Asia is home to the largest number of the world’s impoverished women. Despite the region’s recent economic boom, there has been a widespread feminization of poverty in most of its countries. This has been matched by the continuing, if not increasing, infringement of human rights for women, including domestic violence and female infanticide.
In Women in the New Asia Matsui balances these tragedies with heartening stories of women’s credit co-ops, democratic movements and resistance to the ‘dictatorship of development’. It was women, she says, who took the lead in Japan’s national anti-pollution struggle and peace movements in the early 1970s. It was largely Korean women who protested against their country’s dictatorship and against its patriarchy, despite threat of torture and imprisonment.
It was Thai women who took to the streets over the confiscation of land and Cambodian women who took the helm to rebuild their nation. And it is the regions’ women who are protesting against the rise of religious fundamentalism which she sees as a major instigator of anti-women violence. Matsui’s insights are strong balm; her alternative ways of seeing, the gentlest of rejoinders. They deserve to be widely read.
Facing the Mirror is about women in the new India. To be specific, it’s about those women who have been the most effectively silenced of all, marginalized by omission even in equality-conscious, gender-and-development books: lesbians. This collection is something of a milestone, dealing with the experience of Indian lesbians across caste, religion and to some extent class and region, too. And it knocks on the head the arguments of those who would rather believe that homosexuality in India – and other Majority World countries – is some kind of ‘Western import’, like champagne for élites. Bringing together fact, fiction, analysis, confessionals and oral testimony, Facing the Mirror is a labour of love – and courage – by editor Ashwini Sukthankar and its scores of contributors. In literary terms it’s patchy, but there’s a raw energy and a wry humour that may wring a smile from even the straightest quarters. That’s not to disregard the cruelty and daily grind of repression, discrimination and persecution that also permeate these pages, regardless of social class. A Bombayite working in advertising, for example, relates how she has to change jobs each time her sexuality is discovered because of the mistrust and hostility this inevitably produces in hitherto friendly workmates. But there are tales of chuckle-inducing subversion too. For example, the testimony of a poor Muslim village girl, sold into marriage to a rich, repellent, much older man. Life looks unutterably bleak until she finds love, passion and protection in the arms of his eldest wife who also, somehow, manages to keep hubby firmly booted out of the conjugal nest!
Here’s one in the eye for those of a nervous disposition. Accessible, adroit and most certainly mischievous, photographer Del LaGrace Volcano and academic Judith Jack Halberstam’s picture book is nothing if not serious. Drag kings, logic would tell us, are the female equivalent of drag queens: women who go beyond the ambivalent, unisex dress codes of jeans and t-shirts and slap on moustaches, three-piece suits and if they’re really transgressive a shot of the drug of choice, testosterone. And, if that’s all you want to see, The Drag King Book contains plenty of photos of them.
But, as its authors make clear, for all the studied fun that comes with crossing gender genres and playing with boundaries, drag and its close companion, transgression, are serious affairs, raising overtly social and political questions about gender and identity. The Drag King Book is not a study, to use Halberstam’s phrase, of the ‘mechanics of change’ and neither is it a prurient book. LaGrace Volcano’s photographs, which include studies of performance artist Diane Torr, film-maker Hans Schierl and club kids from Europe and the US amongst many self-portraits, are simultaneously sympathetic and challenging. Engaging directly with the hottest gender study (for more, see Halberstam’s new book Female Masculinity, published by Duke University Press), it’s a book about the multiplicity of gender and its performance in the modern world. Freakish? No. Stimulating? Most certainly.
The Last Dance
directed by Tsai Ming-Liang
(distributed by Celluloid Dreams, Paris and Oasis Pictures, Canada).
In the traditional Astaire and Rogers or Garland and Rooney musical, characters sing and dance to communicate emotions that they can’t express in the ordinary world. The everyday of the musical depicts characters caught in drab, socially confined roles. But during the song-and-dance sequences anything is possible. Inhibitions begone! Euphoria takes over. Last Dance takes this premise to extremes.
Veteran director Ming-Liang paints life in a dystopia of rain, crumbling apartments, and a disease-ridden city. The characters are so incapable of communication they’re nearly mute. The film resonates more with Kafka than Gene Kelly, more Asimov than Astaire. Garbage pickup will be cancelled. Water will be cut off. It’s seven days before the end of the millennium. A virus carried by water pollution spreads through the city, turning its victims toward roach-like behaviour, crawling into corners and holes, afraid of the light. The Government has declared that residents must leave the virus areas, but provides no alternative housing. Police fumigators appear without warning, setting off their huge smoke and chemical hoses.
Last Dance follows in the tradition of future fiction, where science is impotent and the State faceless and ineffective. It’s a grim view of the world. Ming-Liang is not shy of clarifying. ‘I have no optimistic thoughts about the future,’ he says. ‘If you live in Taiwan, you naturally feel pessimistic. We have paid a heavy price for the take-off of Taiwan’s economy over the past ten years.’ These may be the words of an alienated and world-weary intellectual not shared by progressive groups fighting for change on the island. But the film does carry a small spark of hope, a little consolation for his viewers.
A young man lives in a small, very sparse flat. A woman his age lives directly below. They know nothing of each other until a plumber accidentally knocks a hole in the man’s floor. Later, while the couple are away at work the hole takes on a life of its own, and starts to grow. Now he can see light below and hear the woman moving around. She can peer up into his flat as well, and she begins to dream about him.
Her fantasies are extraordinary, all in pink with plenty of sunlight streaming through. Not only that, she sings and dances with a robust crew of male dancers and sexy chorus girls. As the singers and dancers cavort in the stairwells and elevators, with brooms and fire extinguishers as props, the music that washes over them is pure 1950s Asian pop. Is she just normally boy-crazy or has she gone delirious with the virus?
Some viewers may have trouble with all this. The constant rain, peeling wallpaper, mould, and damp are quite tangible. Others might find the sogginess, the vomit and the characters’ inability to eat without slurping unpleasant. The froth of the musical interludes may not provide enough consolation. And yet, the symbol of the hole is an effective device. The director’s obvious skill and obsessive single-mindedness create a fiction that’s creepy and memorable.
Robert Graves’ The White Goddess is subtitled ‘a historical grammar of poetic myth’. If you assume from this that it is not an easy book to read, you assume correctly. Graves himself in his foreword warns that the book is ‘difficult... as well as queer’ and should be ‘avoided by anyone with a distracted, tired or rigidly scientific mind’. Nevertheless, it repays study. There are both earlier and later writers who have had similar themes – for earlier, see Frazer, Harrison, Engels and Briffault; for later, see ‘the goddess’ shelf of any book shop. But it is with Graves that these ideas are most complete, consistent, logical and authoritative.
Graves was a prolific writer. His prose included essays, a compendium of myth, short stories and novels, and translations of the classics from languages from Attic Greek to Arabic. But his prose, although carefully researched and written, was little more than a livelihood to him. He named himself a poet before anything else, and cared only that his best poems should survive him. Although prose, The White Goddess is oddly poetic; it works in a different dimension from any other book you’ll ever read, with the familiar-yet-elusive urgency of the best poems. Graves calls it ‘looking slantwise’ at something: poets do it habitually; readers – if they are lucky – occasionally and despite themselves.
According to Graves, Goddess-worshipping civilizations once covered Europe, at least, and their echoes can be heard in the myths and customs of successive patriarchal states right down to the present day. These echoes are either deliberate misinterpretations of older forms, such as the masculinization of Sophia, the Goddess of Wisdom, as the Holy Ghost by Christianity. Or they are poetic riddles, left as time capsules by honest poets for their successors. Graves claims that by using what he calls ‘the analeptic method’ – the recovery of lost events by means of the suspension of time – the poet or the mythographer can solve the poetic riddles and bring the older world back to life. Clearly this is ‘looking slantwise’ again.
But Graves is not an occultist in any shape or form, nor even a mystic. He is concerned with logic and facts, both of which he handles scrupulously. True, the analeptic method is a form of evocation or trance; but in Graves’ hands even that is rigorous. For example, a whole chapter is given to his analeptic self’s recreation of a conversation that supposedly took place in AD 43, during which many historical riddles are solved. But Graves’ only interest is a single practical problem – two lines missing from a poem, supplied at the very end of a conversation. Spookily, it is a particularly fine poem – TS Eliot later called it ‘real poetry, the real thing’.
Returning to the historical argument: the overthrow of the goddess by male gods reflects the change in status of women with the introduction of marriage. Previously, for obvious reasons, a child’s maternity had been certain while its paternity had always been ‘debatable and irrelevant’. But with marriage – together with laws punishing women for adultery – a man could be more sure a child was his; property and title now passed from father to son, and men began their long obsessions with reproductive rights. Women’s role in reproduction and indeed women themselves were marginalized – a theme developed by many feminists since.
Graves writes primarily for poets. If you’re not a poet – and Graves would argue that most among those who say they are, aren’t – then certain things, mysteries, are forever hidden from you. This is less élitist than it sounds. True, only highly trained, dedicated and gifted individuals can become poets. But even then, it is not the poet that produces a particular poem; the poet is just taking dictation, and the poem itself comes from another place: the muse, the goddess in her role as inspiration. The purpose of poets’ training, dedication and talent is simply to make them a better – smoother, less resistant – channel. Poets, therefore, must never take credit for their work; that belongs elsewhere.
There is another problem with all this for today’s reader. Graves affected a mildly irritating old-world gallantry which is completely out of place in modern times. Even so, he despised misogyny and approved women’s economic equality provided it could be made to work.
In The White Goddess, poetry and history overlap. But is it all true? Were there matriarchies? Did Graves really believe in the great goddess, or is she some kind of metaphor? You must not ask. Things are ‘either-or’ in our heads, but not in the world. To think otherwise is to take Apollo’s side, the side of progress, conquest and, ultimately, rape. For Graves, barely containing his disgust, writes: ‘All saints revile her, and all sober men/Ruled by God Apollo’s golden mean.’
The White Goddess by Robert Graves, is published by Faber and Faber.