issue 318 - November 1999
New Ancient Strings
by Toumani Diabate with Ballake Sissoko
(Hannibal HNCD 1428 CD)
by Salif Keita
(Capitol/Metro Blue 7243 4 99070 2 7 CD)
In recent years, Mali has done more than its bit in exporting world-class music abroad: names like Salif Keita, Toumani Diabate, Batourou Sekou Kouyaté and Ali Farka Touré immediately spring to mind. And the variety developed out of Mali's indigenous rhythms is second to none - Keita himself has worked out musical exchanges with jazz greats like Joe Zawinul and Carlos Santana; kora maestro Diabate has collaborated with flamenco groups and Taj Mahal.
Perhaps it's due to the extraordinary pliancy of Mali's kora sound. This instrument - half harp, half lute, with a big gourd as resonator - is in capable hands able to deliver up both melody and rhythm simultaneously. But while it's always been exciting to see how the kora can jam with guitars and so forth, there's nothing like the real thing itself. New Ancient Strings is, no doubt about it, the thing itself and Diabate and his kora-playing cousin, Djelimoussa Ballake Sissoko, have produced a wonderful work of traditional themes. Their duets have a timeless quality as the kora tunes flow in a lyrical stream. Inspired by the classic 1970 album, Ancient Strings (recorded, incidentally, by their fathers), New Ancient Strings invokes a sense of continuity. In reworking old traditions the pair weave a cloth for the future in which the lightness of their music, and that of their ancestors, dances. A captivating album.
Diabate's magic kora work also flows through Papa, the latest album from his compatriot Salif Keita. With its big production, big numbers and to Western eyes, biggish guests such as Grace Jones and Vernon Reid, Keita's first album for Capitol is aimed at wider audiences than Diabate's contemplative material. It's perhaps understandable when one considers that Keita is some 15 years older than Diabate and it's been Keita's haunting voice and melodies that have put Mali on the map for non-African audiences. Accordingly, he deserves some latitude in the way he frames his sound.
Papa is, for all its punchy songs such as 'Ananamin' and 'Tomorrow', a mature album. Recorded between his native Bamako and New York, it is framed as a string of advice for his daughter: 'Stay away from the ill-intentioned, honour God and your people, and all will be well' is the gist of it. However, in Keita's hands the words and music fairly bubble up in a mellifluous mix. There are elements of irrepressible fun mixed with sadness; party songs alongside laments of lost loves, the most moving being about his father.
Refugees in an Age of Genocide
by Tony Kushner and Katharine Knox
(Frank Cass, ISBN 0 7146 4783 7)
Dubious Mandate: A Memoir of the UN in Bosnia, Summer 1995
by Phillip Corwin
(Duke University Press, ISBN 0 8223 2126 2)
Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle For Global Justice
by Geoffrey Robertson
(Allen Lane, ISBN 0 713 99197 6)
'Future historians will call the twentieth the century of the refugee. Almost nobody at the end of the century is where they were at the beginning of it. It has been an extraordinary period of movement and upheavals.' With these words of Rabbi Hugo Gryn, Tony Kushner and Katharine Knox open their monumental study of twentieth-century global refugee movements. The scope of this book is as staggering as the events it describes. Beginning with Jews fleeing Russian pogroms at the turn of the century, it encompasses Basque refugees from the Spanish Civil War; victims of Nazism; East European dissidents; Idi Amin's expulsion of the Ugandan Asians; Chilean exiles and Vietnamese boat people. A final section accurately subtitled 'Closing The Doors' considers our own sorry fin de siècle, in which Kurdish, Congolese and Balkan asylum-seekers experience what those weasel words 'firm but fair' actually mean in practice.
In an afterword on Kosovo, written in April as NATO bombing began, the authors make an eloquent plea for the Western world to reverse moves towards exclusion - 'the hardening of the caring arteries' - and to 'restore, revive and act upon the concept of asylum'.
Although Refugees in an Age of Genocide is intended for an academic audience, it deserves a much wider readership. It is written with style and passion and its subject - the responsibility we all owe to the displaced peoples of our planet - could not be more central to our hopes and fears for the new millennium.
In Dubious Mandate, Phillip Corwin throws a harsh spotlight on to one particular theatre of humanitarian operations in which the 'international community' conspicuously failed in its duty of care. In Bosnia in 1995, UN forces were transformed from peacekeepers into active combatants under NATO command. Corwin was the UN's chief political officer in Sarajevo in that year and his gripping account of the events is a challenge to the accepted orthodoxy of a plucky Bosnian Government, beset on all sides by rapacious enemies. In his dealings with the regime of Alija Izetbegovic, Corwin found himself confronted with a power-hungry and corrupt clique, equally able to spin the media and neutralize internal opposition. It is difficult to argue with Corwin's assessment that the leaders of all three sides in the conflict were no more than 'gangsters wearing coats and ties'. Although his account has more than a hint of the disillusioned bureaucrat, it is, nevertheless, an honest attempt to extract the truth from a quagmire of bad faith and bad decision-making.
Living in such 'interesting' times, it would be beneficial to have a sober consideration of the place of human rights in international affairs. This is just what the British barrister Geoffrey Robertson attempts to provide in his ambitious book Crimes Against Humanity. He traces the advance of individual human rights and outlines the gradual encroachment on the powers of nation-states by such bodies as the International Court of Justice, War Crimes Tribunals and the International Criminal Court. That the establishment of these instruments of international justice has proceeded in lockstep with systematic abuse of human rights by governments across the globe is an irony not lost on Robertson. He is keenly aware of the shadow that falls between lofty statements of intent and the grubby business of prosecuting violators of human rights. His chapter on Pinochet's arrest is particularly good in this respect.
However, Crimes Against Humanity is not an unmitigated success; the author tries to cover too much territory and is often reduced to a hasty scamper across the facts when a more measured and thoughtful approach is required.
I also found the tone of the book overly legalistic, with little effort made to enliven the dull grinding of judicial machinery or relate the acres of official prose to the lives of breathing, thinking, suffering human beings, to whom 'justice' is not an arid abstraction but a daily struggle.
Buena Vista Social Club
directed by Wim Wenders
It's something of an understatement to describe either German director Wim Wenders as simply a film director or Ry Cooder as just a musician with a classy line in slide guitar. Jointly and separately, the two (who worked together on the 1980s film Paris, Texas) have become pillars of singular and independently minded projects that create a subtle poetics suitable for all landscapes - be it Cold War Berlin or the Californian desert.
Unsurprisingly, the Cuba that the pair encountered on making Buena Vista Social Club provides a ripe topic. Everything on the island is ramshackle; steamy heat seems to rise from every surface. The attention is often in the details: the dusty Havana Egrem studio, built in the 1940s by RCA and still going strong; little girls playing on wobbly gymnastic equipment, a household shrine, a rusty chain around the city's harbour. And yet, what resurrects the place, time and again, is an indomitable spirit.
Buena Vista Social Club grew out of the album of the same name (reviewed in NI 307). Ry Cooder, a long-time enthusiast for son and mambo, tracked down the forgotten stars of the 1950s and before: a sprightly 90-year-old Compay Segundo, Omara Portuondo, Ibrahim Ferrer and Ruben Gonzáles head the list. He brought them together to form Buena Vista Social Club, named after a long-closed entertainment spot. The album was an international smash hit and, in 1998, Cooder returned, accompanied by Wenders and a small crew, to record with the band now renamed the Super-Abuelos (Super Grandparents). Wenders' film is a delicate, slow affair, suitable for the lazy rhythms and the shimmering Cuban heat. He follows the personal histories of the artists, records their perambulations around the island and, eventually, rapturous welcomes at concerts in Amsterdam and New York's Carnegie Hall.
As with his previous film Wings of Desire, Wenders shows that he has an intuitive understanding of how to make music work well in film. Shot throughout in a lingering hyper-colour that recalls the hand-tinted photographs of another generation, Buena Vista Social Club is far more than the story of a record or, indeed, a nostalgia. Its quiet outrage at the deprivation of the island - especially its treatment at the hands of the US - balances strangely with a realization that Cuba's isolation is, in part, responsible for the survival of its music. An end shot of a boy swinging down the coast road, accompanied by a radio and a disco soundtrack, is an eloquent statement for the future.
But indomitable spirits aside, this is also a fragile film. How could it be otherwise? The musicians of Buena Vista Social Club were all but forgotten by the world outside Cuba: on the brink of death, their art is rediscovered. Wenders recognizes their natural dignity and consummate poise, but there is something unbearably moving about the process. Is Buena Vista Social Club a vindication of their work? Yes, but it is hard to feel that it is not also their obituary.
Seventies nostalgia seems to be everywhere. Disco music, polyester shirts and bell-bottom jeans have all made a comeback. And the movies of the 1970s are now being called 'Hollywood's Second Golden Age'. There is, indeed, a freshness and a genuine anarchic energy to US movies of that time. But there is a self-indulgent and distinctly male (even misogynist) quality to most of them, too.
I remember watching Five Easy Pieces (1970), knowing I was supposed to relate strongly to the plight of the pianist-turned-oilfield-roughneck hero (Jack Nicholson). But I didn't. To me, he was a working-class poseur who liked to mistreat women. And the movie lost me completely during the classic 'chicken salad sandwich' scene in which he violently explodes at a waitress when she won't allow him to substitute off the menu. As a second-wave feminist coming from a long line of cafeteria workers, I knew what a ludicrous symbol of repressive authority a truck-stop waitress was. And I found myself identifying with the exhausted, rule-bound waitress more than the film's rebellious and abusive hero.
Most of the films of the 'golden' Seventies don't speak to me, despite their nonconformist trappings. One very notable exception is a 1979 movie called Norma Rae. Based on the true story of a woman named Crystal Lee Sutton who helped to organize the JP Stevens textile mill in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, Norma Rae is a progressive Hollywood anomaly of the first order. Proudly working-class, as well as unmistakably pro-union, it is also a deeply feminist film that chronicles one woman's process of empowerment and links that process to mentoring instead of to sexual romance.
Sally Field's performance as the film's title character was a revelation. Norma Rae, a single mother of two, works in the same textile mill as the rest of her family and neighbors. The atmosphere in the windowless mill is hot, grey with cotton dust, and filled with a (literally) deafening clatter of antiquated machinery. But in the company town of 'Henleyville' workers feel powerless to improve their conditions.
Sex and alcohol are Norma's only release, until a labor organizer with the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA), a New Yorker named Reuben (Ron Leibman), shows up in town. Reuben is the first man to see Norma Rae as something more than mill 'trash' or an easy lay. He recognizes Norma's intelligence and her courage, and when she finally joins the union drive Reuben admits that she is 'the fish I wanted'.
Driven by the full realization of long-denied injustices and emboldened by a new-found belief in her own competence, Norma works night and day in the struggle. This delights Reuben, but enrages her new husband, Sonny, who expects Norma to work her second shift at home - cooking, cleaning, minding their blended brood of children, and seeing to his sexual needs. In a bitingly funny response to Sonny's indignant self-pity, Norma angrily rushes around her tiny kitchen one midnight, illustrating how ready and willing she is to cook, wash, iron and 'make love' simultaneously. Seldom has the sexist myth of the modern superwoman been so adeptly deflated!
It's certainly not a perfect film. Compressing the time period of the struggle makes a union drive look surprisingly easy. Focusing almost exclusively on Norma Rae and Reuben makes the TWUA's eventual victory look like the accomplishment of two people instead of hundreds. This is especially troubling as black workers were key to the real campaign's success. Although the movie acknowledges the importance of black churches as organizing sites, and Ritt's camera shows many African-Americans at organizing meetings, not a single black character rises above bit-player status.
The other shame of Norma Rae is the initial treatment (lawsuits were later settled) of Crystal Lee Sutton and New York Times reporter Henry P Leifermann who documented her story. When neither would precipitously sign releases the filmmakers simply changed people's names and a few minor details of the story. Twentieth Century Fox added the standard verbiage to the final credits that the 'characters' and 'events' were 'fictitious'.
Read Crystal Lee: Woman of Inheritance (1975) and you'll see what a bald-faced lie that is. Many of the details of the screenplay are taken straight from the biography, including the pivotal scene in which Norma Rae refuses to go quietly when she is fired. Instead she climbs on to a table and scrawls the word 'UNION' on a piece of cardboard. Turning the sign so that everyone on the floor can see it, she stands her ground until, one by one, her co-workers' machines stop in solidarity. Sally Field milks that screen moment for all it's worth, expressing all of Norma Rae's terror and triumph. I've viewed that scene at least a dozen times and I still catch my breath at the power of it.
It's this power that makes Norma Rae an enduring classic. A poor woman learns to respect herself and her abilities. She discovers that she can make a difference in this world. And then she goes out and does just that. Back in 1979, that was the kind of story you didn't see every day. Sad to say, 20 years later it's even more rare.
Norma Rae (1979) was directed by Martin Ritt.
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