Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan's tragi-comic novel, Persian Brides, is a strikingly mature and polished debut. Set at the turn of the century in the Jewish quarter of the fictional Persian village of Omerijan, the story spans two days in the lives of Flora Ratoyan and her 11-year-old cousin Nazie. Flora is 15, heavily pregnant and seemingly forgotten by her absent husband. Nazie, betrothed to Flora's brother, Moussa, is anxiously awaiting the onset of menstruation, a legal requirement for the wedding to proceed.
In the daily round of village life, from wash-day to wedding day, we meet the vibrant supporting cast; Flora's philandering husband Shahin Bozidozi; her mother, Miriam Hanoum, in thrall to the demonic village cats; Azizolla the fortune-teller and many, many more.
Dorit Rabinyan has poured a whole world into the pages of this short work. She weaves a magical web of fables, legends and beliefs that illuminate the lives of these women which, at first sight, seem so harsh and constrained.
Prior to this book Rabinyan published a volume of poetry and a play. Persian Brides draws upon the best of both these disciplines; the writing is lyrical and the sights, sounds and smells of the raucous alleys of Omerijan are vividly and theatrically brought to life. This is a wise and richly imagined novel; it is suffused with a deep melancholy but it also explores and triumphantly celebrates the wonder inherent in the familiar and the commonplace.
In 1984 Margaret Somerville joined the Pine Gap Women's Peace Camp in the Australian Outback. Together with other urban white women and Aboriginal women, she demonstrated against the military bases dotted across Australia. The book she has produced to document her experiences is an extraordinary hybrid. Taking a deep breath, I could describe it as part autobiography, part feminist polemic, part journal, part poetic interpretation and part philosophical exploration of the textual possibilities of language. It challenges assumptions about linear narrative and makes absolutely no concession to the casual or uncommitted reader.
There is no reason why this tangential, fragmentary approach should not work; John Berger, among others, has used it to great effect. However, I feel that it would have been much better if Margaret Somerville had been able to abandon her 'academic' persona in writing this book. A thicket of references, footnotes and quotes obscures her central message of healing and direct contact with the land. If readers have to hack a path through a jungle, blinded by a drizzle of pretentious jargon, then many will give up in the early stages. This would be a pity as there is much that is worthwhile in Somerville's attempted synthesis between the aboriginal oral tradition and their rootedness in the sacred land and a personal exploration of the inter-relationships between body and home. She asks, at one point: 'How can we sing our history?' Perhaps with rather less self-absorption and more comprehensibility?
A Life Full Of Holes
A Life Full Of Holes has a most unusual provenance. First published in 1964, it was not written in the conventional sense but spoken into a tape recorder by a young Moroccan who could neither read nor write. The recordings were transcribed and translated from the original Moghrebi Arabic by the American author Paul Bowles and published under the pseudonym Driss Ben Hamed Charhadi. As Bowles says in his introduction, Charhadi was a natural storyteller and the translation needed 'nothing to be added, deleted or altered'.
The work takes us, in 17 self-contained episodes, through the childhood and young manhood of the narrator, Ahmed. When he is eight his mother marries a
Chronicling abuse, theft, bad faith, imprisonment and police torture, this should, by rights, be a depressing experience. Instead, the spare, stripped prose expertly draws the reader into Ahmed's life; there is neither artifice nor self-pity in this mesmeric book. Ahmed's Candide-like faith in his fellow human beings and his eternal optimism - his motto is 'even a life full of holes, a life of nothing but waiting, is better than no life at all' - make this an eloquent and deeply moving testament to the resilience of the human spirit.
Seka, Vol 2
Or, as an alternative title may have it: 'Indie labels in support of women and children in the former Yugoslavia.' Seka - an affectionate Serbo-Croat word meaning 'sister' - is also the name of a project situated on the island of Brac, just off the Croatian coast. The project focuses on supporting women and children who are victims of the war and bolstering peace initiatives by emphasizing the role women can play in them.
A compilation of 22 tracks - with stand-out contributions from Tom Waits, Loudon Wainwright III and Mary Chapin Carpenter - Seka the album is a work of indirect action. Many of the songs were either written specifically for it or carefully selected from the archives. Certainly the most direct piece comes from Wainwright, a writer whose 1999 album Social Studies has only confirmed his stature as a social commentator; think Woody Guthrie, with a bit more tune and a sharper humour. A 'Pretty Good Day' is, as Wainwright sees it, one in which the electricity works and you don't get shot. But, by a simple process of accretion, he builds up a sense of war as an entity where ordinariness is stripped away, and his observations are startling.
Waits, that king of the broken-down heart, shares a similar gift - though there's a more acute and bitter edge to 'Georgia Lee'. Which isn't to suggest that Seka's overriding mood is sombre. There's a lot of good-time country flavours - Rosie Flores' 'I Will Survive' is a more than suitable sentiment for the album, while the irrepressible gusto of Billy Bragg's 'Bad Penny' is hard to resist. If listeners want to use Seka as a sampler of new talents then none is stronger than that of Nadine, an artist whose raw, post-blues track 'One Hand' is stunning and whose voice shows decisive strength and direction.
When Virginia Rodrigues, a former manicurist from the wrong side of the Brazilian city of Salvador, released her début album Sol Negro two years ago, she lit a flame that shows no sign of diminishing. An exuberant feast of carnival samba, hers was a throaty, honeyed voice that gave the Brazilian music an urgency and a sadness - or soudade - that one hears in only the very best. Now with Nós (which means 'us') she recapitulates the triumph.
Nós is a superb album. The 'us' Rodriguez addresses is both specific - the Brazilian Africans and the Candomblé gods or orixás - and general. These songs, traditional and devotional, are also poems of longing and of love available to anyone capable of hearing their message. Under musical director Caetano Veloso and producer Celso Fonseca, Rodrigues' voice is given just the space it needs to gain its full expression. The accompaniments - muted brass, guitar ripples and some floating violins for texture - are gentle, as in 'A Story of Ifá' or 'Raça Negra'. Others, like the traditional song, 'Canta Para Exú', have a solid concentration and drive. The 1950s-style jazz inflections suit her modulations perfectly.
But Nós, the flipside of carnival's ecstatic surface, is also mysterious music: Rodrigues invokes a world in which the gods are an integral part of everyday life and their omnipresence is often signified in subtle ways. Captivating doesn't even begin to describe this album's singular, spellbinding power.
It should come as no surprise that this small documentary film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. American Movie has a huge heart that is impossible to resist. It portrays ordinary people motivated by a genuine creative yearning that does not seek to elevate their status in society so much as root them further into where they are. In doing so the film reminds us that creative expression is not limited to some unique notion of sensitivity confined to an élite.
Mark Borchardt, the main character, is a frustrated film 'director' for whom making movies is everything. Since the age of 14, when he started filming on an old Super-8 movie camera, every waking hour has been filled with the mythology of filmmaking.
He has to weather a storm of interruptions, however. There's lack of discipline, for a start; a stint in the army; the disruptions of alcohol abuse - and of course, the question of money. Things never quite work out the way Borchardt intends them to - but that might have something to do with his friends and family. Two of them, Mike Shank and Uncle Bill, the 82-year-old 'executive producer', give this film its biting, deadpan humour.
Comedy does not emanate from distance here but proximity. Nor are the lives portrayed becalmed by poverty - they are wonderfully energetic. Together the trio doggedly refuse to tread the gravel road of the joyless. Angry and frustrated at times they are, for sure - but they know how to laugh. The world they create is egalitarian, never mind that equality is based on material poverty and the impressive wealth of its dreams.
Close to raw and basic humanity, American Movie is reminsicent of those glorious Italian films of the short-lived neo-realist school of the late 1940s. But it's much, much funnier.
on frontierless music
Recently, I was lucky enough to hear Omara Portuondo play to a packed concert hall in London. Along with about 3,000 other people I had a great time - the Cuban singer does torch songs, expressing longing and usually unrequited love, like no other. But like, probably, most of the audience I understood barely a word she sang. So how do I know they were torch songs? Partly the music's mood - a sultry big band sound that owed as much to Africa as it did to Europe. Then there was an inflection, a yearning that transcended the need for translation.
In a world where music's unofficial motto often seems to be 'keep it real' the wider issue of translation is a vexed one. Containing as it does the seed of curiosity towards new musical territories and new formats, translation should be an exciting concept. One thinks of music without boundaries, of an historical sweep that sounds out Brazilian exhortations to African gods, Cape Verdean-Portugeuse fado in New England, Parisian raï and even Elvis' white-boy blues.
Some say that translation implies the antithesis of 'realness' or authenticity. But the point is simple: music does not stay still. Its life-blood lies in a fertile cross-pollination of ideas. This is shown most elegantly in the Spanish/Moroccan sounds of Radio Tarifa or the raï/DJ crossover of U-Cef's album Halalium. It's demonstrated in the way Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan brought his dignified, devotional qawwali song to new, collaborative fields or most spectacularly in the wide range of Gypsy music. A recent festival, The 1,000 Year Journey, showcased Roma music from Eastern Europe, North Africa, Spain and Asia to exhilarating effect. Singers like Vera Bila and Esma Redzepova and bands with all the ancestral energy of the Taraf de Haïdouks demonstrated the elasticity of music both traditional in form and forward-looking in attitude. Taking place at a time when Gypsies are once more being persecuted across Europe, the festival was an appropriate reminder that music is one of the most humane links available.
Recent years have certainly shown this to be true, helped by advances in recording technology. Groups in poorer countries have been able to distribute their albums and reach new audiences via the relatively cheap format of cassettes. (Whether MP3 technology, which enables tracks to be downloaded direct from the Internet, will have a similar effect remains to be seen. Computer-access is still far from being universal.) And it's obvious that the growing inter-national status of artists such as Senegal's Youssou N'Dour, Algeria's Khaled or Hungary's Marta Sebastyen has benefited from the slow flow of this multinationalism.
Some may object that multicultural, transnational music will create new situations, where local markets - especially those belonging to small languages or precariously poised populations - will be swamped by the advance of anodyne pop, dreamed up by manufactured bands with a canny eye on the money. Yet this shows no sign of happening; the truth is that a whole range of music is capable of existing in parallel and of building various meeting points as they do so. A more serious objection lies in meaning: someone who knows nothing of Sufism can listen to Fateh Ali Khan, although it's true that she or he won't hear it in the same way that a devotee would. 'So what?' is the attitude of another Sufi singer, this time the Iranian exile Sussan Deyhim. Her latest album, Madman of God (Crammed Discs), is a breathtaking excursion through Persian devotional song and one which features such great jazz musicians as Reggie Workman and Richard Horowitz in its mix. 'A soul,' she says, 'transcends cultural barriers and parameters of wherever you're from. Things are more subtle than we give them credit for. You know why?. Subtlety requires interaction.'
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