issue 317 - October 1999
by Cheb i Sabbah
(Nation Records NRCD1075 CD)
Sacrifice To Love
by Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali
(Real World CDRW79 CD)
History repeats itself: either that, or memories are short. In the ten years since club music has taken off in the West – to the extent that it eclipses its more traditional guitar-based sibling as the dominant chart force – people have been talking about trance-inducing sounds again and going back to the sources of ritual music. Alongside this, there have always been a few musicians with a genuine intention to tease out some real collaborations.
Cheb i Sabbah, an Algerian-born, San Francisco-resident DJ is one such artist and his sympathetic approach to the devotional qawwali and raga forms that make up his foundation material is immediately evident. Combining a mighty cast list from some of the most respected names in the respective Pakistani and Indian fields, Sabbah went about making Shri Durga in an unusual way. Creating his own samples and percussion loops first, he then invited musicians to perform over the top of them. A risky undertaking: the material Sabbah was commissioning was so structurally complex that one false move could have resulted in a cross-cultural collision. With the wonderful Bill Laswell helping out on bass, Shri Durga is nothing short of fascinating. The bass beats slowly in the background: there’s nothing invasive about its presence. It even provides a solid basis from which the musicians can launch their awesome improvisations. An album very much in the spirit of collaboration of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and others, Shri Durga is a reflective and well-considered work.
Sacrifice To Love, the first major label debut from Muazzam and Rizwan Ali Khan, both teenage nephews to the aforementioned qawwali master Nusrat, is an altogether snappier affair. It’s interesting that this should be so, for this is Pakistani Sufi music with nothing added in, certainly no club-friendly beats to please outsiders or to provide an immediate interface with other tonalities.
But it’s apparent from the first few minutes that this music needs nothing other than itself to communicate. That’s just as well – the lyrics translated from Urdu give only the gist of the four songs, not the ad libs thrown in when things get truly exciting. If four songs seems more like the length of an EP than an album, think again. Each one is some 16 minutes long and delivered with a speed and vigour that simply galvanizes the senses. Qawwali music, sung only by men, is part of a mystical tradition that concerns itself with songs in praise of Allah, the Prophet or a saint. The Ali Khans do, however, tackle one ghazal or love song. ‘Pyar Hota Haty’ (Falling In Love) is so replete with quickening intensity, tabla beats and harmonium sighs flying through the air, that only one is needed. While the basis of Sacrifice To Love’s music is traditional the framing belongs very much to the two brothers who, improbably young, have achieved something really remarkable. ‘Allah Hoo Ya Rehman’ in praise of Allah, wends its way upwards urged on by the sweet voices, lower than that of Nusrat, while the rise and fall of the harmonium creates the illusion of a shimmering heat. Qawwali is often thought of as trance music, but it’s also entrancing. Let’s hope that Rizwan and Muazzam won’t for much longer feel the need to print their family tree on the CD sleeve.
Who Paid the Piper?
The CIA and The Cultural Cold War
by Frances Stonor Saunders
(Granta ISBN 1 86207 029 6)
Red Lights and Green Lizards
A Cambodian Adventure
by Liz Anderson
(Wayfarer Publishing ISBN 0 9534012 0 0)
Readers of the NI will need no reminding of how our world has been sullied by the dirty politics and destabilizations of the US Central Intelligence Agency. Lesser known, perhaps, is the vast and complex web of ‘foundations’ and slush funds by which the CIA sought to influence the artistic and literary life of Europe; a ‘Cultural Cold War’ running parallel to the military and political struggle with the Soviet Union.
Frances Stonor Saunders’ fascinating book shows how, over more than two decades following World War Two, the CIA pumped millions of dollars into the cash-strapped European cultural scene in a covert attempt to woo intellectuals away from pro-communist positions and promote the view that US hegemony was benign and disinterested. The scale of the operation was staggering; few artistic endeavours, from art exhibitions to literary journals, were untouched by the insidious hand of the CIA and there were few intellectuals who did not, wittingly or unwittingly, take their share of this Yankee version of ‘Kremlin Gold’. In these years the CIA operated, in effect if not in intention, as the US Ministry of Culture.
Interestingly, the CIA focused not on right-wingers but on the ‘non-communist left’ and people such as Arthur Koestler, Melvin Lasky and Stephen Spender were active participants throughout the whole operation. Central to the book is a detailed examination of the literary magazine Encounter, edited by Lasky and Spender, entirely CIA-funded and functioning, as one critic memorably put it, as ‘the police review of the American-occupied countries’.
There were also moments of low farce and high comedy, as when Arthur Koestler’s 1948 novel Darkness at Noon sold out rapidly as 50,000 copies were bought and distributed by the intelligence services and many more were purchased by the French Communist party to keep them out of circulation!
Does any of this matter? After all, this was the Cold War and the USSR had its own front-organizations and sponsored conferences. Stonor Saunders argues persuasively that the malign and corrupting effect of the operation springs directly from the dissonance between the stated aims of the US and the methods used by the CIA. Claiming to defend democracy and cultural freedom, and decrying any left bias among writers and thinkers, it peddled a stultifying pro-American party line in which what was defended was not ‘democracy’ but power and privilege.
Frances Stonor Saunders deserves credit for shining a light into this dark and shoddy corner of the US-European relationship. In a very real sense we are still bringing in the harvest from this pax americana; from the Cold War to Banana wars, from Vietnam to Kosovo the constant factor has been that the US has loudly proclaimed its altruism and benevolence while aggressively and single-mindedly pursuing its own partisan interests.
Without doubt one of the most tragic casualties of Cold War politics was Cambodia. Liz Anderson’s book Red Lights and Green Lizards, focuses on the post-War period from 1991 to 1993, when the country had just opened its doors to the outside world, resulting in an extraordinary mix of positive and negative consequences. Hers is a detailed, personal and above all humane account, set against a background of the continuing horrors of Pol Pot. A British doctor by profession, she offers a definitely Western perspective but her writing vividly communicates the courage, resilience and spirit of the Cambodian people.
directed by Tony Gatlif
(distributed by Lion’s Gate Films, Toronto)
In 1993, director Tony Gatlif grabbed considerable attention and international renown for his documentary on gypsy music, Latcho Drom. That film, with its impressive trans-European narrative has now become a cult favourite – especially for its soundtrack. Gatlif, himself of Rom (or gypsy) descent, laced the film with a wide range of music, from the traditional sounds of northern India to the cosmopolitan frenzy of professional musicians in modern Spain.
Gadjo Dilo takes up many of the same themes but with a very different approach. While Latcho Drom moved rapidly from east to west, touching down in many countries in rough parallel to the Rom migrations into Europe, the new work takes us in the opposite direction into rural Romania with a story ‘told’ through a young Frenchman.
Gadjo Dilo – which means ‘welcome stranger’ – begins with a solitary traveller. A young man trudges along a country road, the sound of his winter boots loudly crunching in the slush of late winter. After a time the cold sound of the snow takes on a rhythm of its own, perhaps metaphorically the beat of country life that sustains gypsy culture in Eastern Europe.
Gatlif is trying something more familiar and for that more difficult because his film is told through the conventional genre of social realism.
Although joyous music provides the emotion and the themes of racism and migration provide the political meat, Gadjo Dilo is framed as a love story linking the stranger with a young woman who is at first reluctant and suspicious. Stéphane, the young stranger, is a French ethnography student, eagerly setting out to capture the rich beauty of gypsy music on his tape recorder.
Izador, an old gypsy, gladly takes him in but others in the community prove harder for Stéphane to win over. A search for famous Rom musicians takes the pair out into the surrounding towns and eventually to the night-life of Bucharest. As in Latcho Drom the music becomes more complex and cosmopolitan as the story takes us from farm to nightclubs.
But there’s a sinister edge to Gatlif’s story. Not only is Romanian racism toward the Rom both open and harsh, but many of the characters in the extended Rom family are less than perfect themselves. Gang and mafia-like activity run through both the dominant and the marginalized groups.
Izador’s son is a thug, probably recruited during a recent stint in prison. And even the open-minded Izador reveals, in his usual drunken state, an oppressive and debauched streak that serves to rip from his character any romantized feelings that viewers may feel for him.
This is a dark work, a more bitter pill to swallow for the exuberant midnight-movie crowd who rocked the aisles for Latcho Drom. In a way it seems an antidote to the earlier almost carefree vision. But even with its troubled characters, its fictional world throbs with life and bawdy energy.
As viewers might suspect before the final scenes play out, our young ethnographer eventually learns through hard lessons that gypsy life embraces far more than its music. Its culture and the messy human lives of its people may prove impossible for an outsider to capture on cassette.
Reviewers: Peter Whittaker, Louise Gray, Peter Steven, Nikki van der Gaag
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird
In November 1933 the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam wrote a sixteen-line satirical poem in which he denounced Stalin as a ‘murderer and peasant-slayer’, surrounded by ‘a rabble of thin-necked leaders – fawning half-men’. He depicted him as ‘forging his laws, to be flung like horseshoes at the head, the eye or the groin’. To write such a poem about such a tyrant at such a time was an act of either monumental folly or immense bravery. Mandelstam was immediately arrested by the Cheka, Stalin’s secret police, interrogated and sent into exile in the Urals where he was constantly persecuted. The incessant hardships and harassment undermined his health and sanity; he suffered chronic insomnia and had a nervous breakdown. Although he was allowed to return from exile in 1937 and was offered a place in a state rest-home near Moscow, this was a typically brutal piece of duplicity by the authorities – he was re-arrested at once and died in 1938 while being sent to Kolyma forced-labour camp.
We owe what we know of these last four years in the life of the poet to his wife Nadezhda who was with him at both arrests and who accompanied him into exile. Hope Against Hope, her memoir of that time, first published in 1970, is both searingly honest and entirely free of self-pity. It is the clearest account we have of what it was like to descend into and live inside the maelstrom of purges and paranoia created by Stalin and his henchmen.
‘My case will never be closed,’ Osip is said to have once prophesied to his captors and it is largely through Nadezhda’s unstinting efforts that the man the Soviet State did its utmost to obliterate remains such a fresh and important figure in world literature. Indeed, a strong case can be made that, had Nadezhda been less steely in her resolve and support in exile, Mandelstam would have been broken sooner by the regime and would not have lived to write his last great poems of exile. What is certain is that much less of his work would have survived his death; Nadezhda rescued and preserved from destruction many of his unpublished manuscripts. She remarks mordantly in her memoir that it was ‘easier to save a manuscript than a man’.
The poet Joseph Brodsky has written: ‘Of the 81 years of her life, Nadezhda Mandelstam spent 19 as the wife of Russia’s greatest poet of this century, and 42 as his widow. The rest was childhood and youth.’ When Osip and Nadezhda met in 1919, he had already published his first collection of poems, Kamen (The Stone) and was, together with Anna Akhmatova and Nikolai Gumilev, a leading member of the Acmeists writers’ group, whose guiding principles of economy and precision were to underpin all that Mandelstam wrote. His second volume, Tristia, dedicated to Nadezhda and published in 1928, was – apart from some essays, literary criticism and a novella – the last of his work published in his lifetime or indeed until after the death of Stalin in 1953.
Nadezhda’s writes of their life in exile in a cool, almost haughty fashion; what could so easily have been an all-too-familiar litany of the horrors of living under an oppressive system becomes, in her hands, something much greater. Her book is at once a deeply personal and harrowing account of a love affair that withstood a vast and evil tyranny and also stands as a testament to the many millions whose lives were destroyed by Stalin. It is also, almost incidentally, the best description of the actual process of creating poetry that you are ever likely to read.
Mandelstam continued, in prison and in exile, to produce work which, while it maintained his fatalistic, detached stance, managed to shout defiance at his oppressors, as with this, from his 1937 poem I am not yet dead, I am not yet alone:
‘Unhappy is he who, as by his own shadow,
Is frightened by the barking of dogs and mowed down by the wind,
And wretched is he who, half-alive himself,
Begs a shadow for alms.’
The date and circumstances of Mandelstam’s death remain unclear; the totalitarian bureau-cracy had no incentive to be meticulous about such information or, indeed, about informing relatives. Nadezhda was informed in the most roundabout and callous way imaginable. She was called to the local Post office and handed a parcel she had sent to Osip. ‘The addressee is dead,’ the young clerk informed her.
Hope Against Hope is a sustained salute to the human spirit and a ringing affirmation that the central tasks of the artist in the twentieth century have been to bear witness, to record and to maintain, even in the gravest circumstances, without expectation, without reprieve, the best that humanity is capable of. It is entirely fitting that, in Russian, Nadezhda means ‘hope’.
Hope Against Hope by Nadezhda Mandelstam is published by The Harvill Press, London, 1971/1999 (ISBN 1860466354).