This House Has Fallen | Nigeria in Crisis
Nigeria, the oil-rich West African nation that holds the largest population of black people in the world, has long puzzled outsiders and baffled its own citizens. In his nuanced, richly detailed, ambitiously conceived book, This House Has Fallen, journalist Karl Maier manages to show why. Combining deft reporting with an astute analytical mind, Maier movingly conveys a sense of the paradox of Nigeria, a nation conceived in hope but nurtured – mostly by its own leaders – into hopelessness.
From 1986 to 1996, Maier served as Africa correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. If the sharp insights in This House Has Fallen are any measure, Maier must have looked hard and listened well during his stint in Nigeria. Dispensing with the smugness and condescension that often mar books by foreign correspondents, his account of the tragic trajectory of Nigeria’s experience is both compelling and deeply felt.
Maier’s approach, appropriate to the unwieldy tableau of his subject, is to zero in on extraordinary events in Nigeria’s drama. Such moments include the annulled presidential election of 12 June 1993, the groanings of the Ogoni people, the environmental devastation and economic depression of the oil-producing Niger Delta area, the increasing use of violence as a tool for political negotiations, the nascent separatist impulses, the rise of fundamentalist Islamic and Christian sects, and the obsessive kleptomania of Nigeria’s leaders.
In the hands of a less confident writer, the canvas would appear cluttered and unsteady. Worse, it would be a depressing read. But Maier’s judicious sensibility holds the book together as he underlines the robustness and resilience, the sheer ebullience and promise of a people who have been ill-served by self-doubt and cynicism. This House Has Fallen stands as powerful testimony to a human drama that defies logic and comprehension. Maier’s book is an extraordinary achievement.
The Tyranny of Numbers | Why Counting Can’t Make Us Happy
We are drowning in numbers, overwhelmed by statistics, targets and performance league tables. In government, education, health, science and finance, the bean-counters reign supreme. As this timely book says, we are in danger of forgetting just how limited numbers are and what they can and cannot do. In our fascination with counting, we lose sight of things that are not measurable. Spontaneity, imagination and joy are not susceptible to the Gradgrind mentality.
In an entertaining potted history of number-crunching – key players being Jeremy Bentham, Edwin Chadwick and John Maynard Keynes – David Boyle argues that the Victorians started the rot, with their mania for purposeless classification. The philanthropist Charles Booth was typical. After 17 years collecting statistics on the London poor and 17 volumes of information, he admitted that he had merely measured the effects of poverty and had no idea of the causes.
I was less impressed by Boyle’s take on our modern obsession with counting. Although he pinpoints the way slide-rule, stopwatch and ‘time-and-motion’ studies have hobbled creativity, he is excessively in thrall to the vacuous nostrums of management gurus such as Charles Handy. I also question his faith in big businesses’ willingness to incorporate an ‘ethical dimension’ into their balance sheets. That aside, though, this is a valuable counterblast against oppression by data. Information is not knowledge. As Boyle points out: ‘numbers won’t interpret. They won’t inspire and they won’t tell us what causes what.’ As the proverb goes, you don’t make sheep any fatter by weighing them!
Rogue States | The Rule of Force in World Affairs
Renewed bombing of Iraq by the US – with Britain obediently in tow – makes this book chillingly topical.
In this latest addition to his extraordinarily prolific canon, Noam Chomsky develops the concept of the United States as the world’s pre-eminent ‘rogue state’. He scrutinizes the bombing of Kosovo and Iraq, Western complicity in the devastation of East Timor and the criminal blockade of Cuba, showing how the US, with military strikes and economic sanctions, erodes and traduces the rule of international law. In case after case, the US shows contempt for UN resolutions and World Court decisions and, beneath the cloak of human-rights rhetoric, pursues a mendacious and self-serving strategy of military and economic imperialism.
In a scathing examination of US Latin American policy, Chomsky anatomizes the looking-glass world of the ‘Colombia Plan’. This $7.5-billion scheme is ostensibly a ‘war on drugs’ but behind the window-dressing are the familiar foreign-policy objectives of neoliberalism, structural adjustment and brutal repression of the rural poor. That its entirely foreseeable consequence is a massive drug problem among urban minorities in the US is, Chomsky argues, not accidental.
Rogue States is a typically trenchant work and the author’s caustic wit is as sharp as ever. He ends by surveying the alternatives to the prevailing world order and reminding us that the system can be challenged and changed, ‘just as honest and courageous people have been doing throughout the course of history’.
Primitive Rebels or Revolutionary Modernizers?
The 26 million Kurds are one of the largest groups of people without a state. Half live in the violently repressive and deeply corrupt military state of Turkey which has persistently failed to acknowledge their right to self-determination. Since 1993 the Turkish state has committed itself to a military solution, evicting over two million people in forced land clearances and outlawing critical press coverage, human-rights groups and democratically elected opposition. Torture is widespread and systematic in Turkey and the regime is shamefully buttressed by both the US and Britain – from arms sales to funding the Ilisu Dam.
This new book by Australian professor Paul White charts the development of the Kurdish nationalist movement from initial uprisings against the Ottoman Empire in the late 1800s, through the emergence of the widely supported Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the mid-1980s, to the PKK’s recent move away from armed struggle towards securing international recognition for the Kurdish cause. White is not uncritical of the PKK, nor is he repeating the Turkish state’s line. Instead he lays out the historical and economic context of the conflict in all its awkward complexity. The need to negotiate is more urgent than ever – though Turkey continues to refuse to do so. This book comes as a timely resource of fascinating detail and academic rigour in a minefield of frequently biased sources.
Kairo | Sound of the Gambia
If Gambian music often seems swamped by the superstar powerhouse that neighbouring Senegal has become – think of Youssou N’Dour, Baaba Maal or Cheik Lô – then Kairo (the word means peace) is a gem of an album that redresses the balance perfectly. But this light rhythmed, resolutely listener-friendly album does far more than this – for, let’s face it, there’s little to separate Senegalese and Gambian musics, with their lilting kora runs and tripping mbalax rhythms in common. Compiled by GRTS, Gambia’s Radio and Television Service, as a way to circumvent Africa’s thriving bootleg cassette industry, it’s quite possible that Kairo’s 13 groups and performers might actually get some royalties from their efforts.
Whether or not the disc marks the makings of a record-industry infrastructure is one thing: the other is the music. And with peerless artists such as kora player and singer Tata Dindin Jobarteh, percussionist Musa Mboob and Amadou B appearing, Kairo offers a sonic picture of Gambia’s overlapping languages and traditions which, with the presence of rappers De Waan Jee, is already looking to developments. The latter’s ‘Salaam Aleikum’, a tapestry of pattered rhythms and entwined vocals is truly uplifting. However, Kairo’s stand-out tracks – Tata Dindin’s breezy ‘Bitillo’, Mass Lowe’s scurrying ‘Aminatta’ or the mighty drummings of Mboob’s ‘Chossan’ – owe their timelessness to musicians who draw a delicate strength from the admixture of old and new.
Tributo al Cuarteto Patria
A stripling of 53 years of age, guitarist Eliades Ochoa is the youngest member of Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club. But if anyone, pointing to the wealth of solo albums that have followed in the wake of Wim Wenders’ film, suggests that Ochoa is cashing in, refer them to Tributo al Cuarteto Patria pronto.
Recorded to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Cuarteto Patria, the band which Ochoa has infused with his mellow guajiro (country) sound, Tributo occupies an intriguing position between old and new. Its music is often traditional and versions can be found elsewhere. However, Ochoa’s skill lies in his ability to make a translation into new tone and timbres. So ‘Yiri Yiri Bon’, a dance number that could have been preserved in perfect late-1950s aspic, is opened out to new influences. Ochoa’s son, Eglis, adds a fierce upbeat on percussion while acoustic bass from William Calderón and burning trumpet sounds from Anibal Avila Pacheco add an irrepressible vitality.
As a celebratory album, Tributo has a sense of its own event. And with guest appearances from some of Cuba’s best veterans it has every right to do so. But don’t be totally seduced by Ochoa’s dance tunes: arguably, the best tracks are to be found in the quiet yearning of ‘Que Murmuren’ or ‘Por Culpa de las Mujeres’ – a spirited riposte from an 88-year old El Guayabero to allegations of womanizing. Such warmth and passion is impossible to deny.
Uneasy Riders (Nationale 7)
René is paraplegic and lives in a local-authority home. Just 50 years old, he rages at the limitations of institutional life: its appalling wallpaper, the staff who enforce the rules, the passivity of his co-residents. On his wall is a totemic portrait of Karl Marx. Living independently he was involved in politics; now, locked in bitterness, he’s contemptuous, openly insulting, deeply unhappy – and incandescent with sexual frustration. That is until Julie, a new worker at the home, steps into his life.
Julie does what she can for him. She has the self-confidence not to be provoked, the humanity to see beyond his anger. She agrees he has the right – if not the independent means – to a sexual life and René wants sex with a prostitute. When they try official channels – and fail – Julie finds herself searching, with measuring tape in hand, the lay-bys of the Nationale 7 for a prostitute willing to take a disabled client and with a trailer door wide enough for a wheelchair.
Uneasy Riders owes something to both One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and WR: Mysteries of the Orgasm but its style is its own. Shot digitally, its mobile camera suggests the hard-won mobility and independence of the residents – some played by non-professionals living at the home where it was shot. Olivier Gourmet is electrifying as René. Nadia Kaci plays Julie with lightness but real mettle. Uneasy Riders tackles sentimentalities about disability head-on, is bolshie and deadly serious, but it resonates with wonderful energy, humour and a sense of life worth living.
Paul-Emile Comeau celebrates the
uring the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s many people from Oklahoma were forced to pack their bags and move to greener pastures. Sis Cunningham and Gordon Friesen moved a bit later to escape the anti-Communist witchhunts. After going through especially hard times during the McCarthy era, the two ended up in New York City where, still impoverished but inspired by what seemed to be a burgeoning topical song movement, they began publishing lyrics and melodies to new songs in a small, aptly named mimeographed magazine called Broadside.
The couple quickly became mentors to hordes of radical troubadours and, with little distribution outside Greenwich Village, the modest publication became a major force in music while giving a strong impetus to the creation of the underground press. Sis Cunningham dutifully transcribed the songs, many of which were later compiled in book form and released on a dozen or more Broadside albums.
Initially the magazine had to be smuggled out in a baby carriage because businesses weren’t allowed in the housing project where the couple lived. In a strange way this conjures up samizdat, the custom that appeared a few years later in the USSR whereby censored writers would disseminate their work by typing it with multiple sheets of carbon paper and then pass it on to others to do the same – a practice later adopted by Russian rock bands producing cassettes and asking friends to copy them.
The magazine that paranoid right-winger David Noebel referred to as ‘a folk journal of naked Communist propaganda’ has now been paid the ultimate tribute: a 5-CD set in an attractive slip-case that includes a 158-page ringbound book. The package is chock-full of information on the artists and their songs, not to mention testimonials, lyrics, photos and artwork, discographies and facsimiles of original pages. It’s ironic that two individuals who were ignominiously blacklisted most of their lives have now been paid such a dignified tribute by a company that is part of the US Government’s most important cultural institution, the Smithsonian.
In its 1960s heyday, the magazine published Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, Bonnie Dobson’s ‘Take Me for a Walk’ (an ominous song about a nuclear holocaust that became famous as ‘Morning Dew’), Janis Ian’s ‘Society’s Child’ in its embryonic form, as well as songs by Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Buffy Saint-Marie and dozens more. Broadside’s schedule became more and more irregular over the years and finally ceased publication in 1988 after 187 issues.
The spirit of Woody Guthrie – quoted as saying ‘a good song can only do good’ – looms large but Dylan (alias Blind Boy Grunt) has an especially strong presence along with Phil Ochs, who actually contributed the most songs.
The collection is divided thematically by topic, such as nuclear concerns, labor issues, civil rights, Vietnam, social injustice and feminism. Of course, one person’s inspirational verse is another’s doggerel and it’s hard to deny that a few songs are dated or less than memorable. The earnestness of the performances sometimes calls out for a bit of comic relief, which does show up occasionally. And there is only the odd foray away from the folk aesthetic, Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddam’, for example.
Broadside lost its relevance in later years, which may account for the fact that so many of these songs date from the turbulent 1960s. Some worthy songwriters aren’t represented, although the British influence is acknowledged. The Best of Broadside isn’t the definitive collection of topical material (Songs for Political Action, a 10-CD Box Set on Bear Family comes closer), but Broadside does reflect a time when an unflinching and less cynical mindset prevailed, one which led people to believe that music could change the world.
Other publications have sprung up in recent decades that deal with politics and music, most notably Rock & Rap Confidential and the defunct Sounds Celebrating Resistance, but Broadside was unique in its mandate and in its stature.
The Best of Broadside 1962-1988 (5-CD boxed set) is published by Smithsonian Folkways SFW CD 40130.