The Undiscovered Paul Robeson:
Paul Robeson was an iconic figure of the 20th century; not only a truly great singer and actor but also a political activist and courageous fighter against injustice. In this new biography, his son, Paul Robeson Jr writes of the father he knew – both the public figure and the private, troubled man.
An Artist’s Journey covers the first four decades of Robeson’s life. Drawing heavily on letters and other archival material, it traces a career that encompassed artistic and commercial success; great singing tours and acting triumphs such as The Emperor Jones and Othello.
Reviewing the first of two volumes presents particular problems. Throughout these early years, Robeson steadfastly resisted political involvement and insisted his only role was that of a performer. This book ends just as he is becoming radicalized and Volume 2 will cover Robeson the social activist and campaigner. He paid a heavy price for his beliefs; harried by the US authorities, barred from performing and his passport withdrawn, he suffered breakdowns and years of obscurity before some measure of rehabilitation and recognition prior to his death in 1976.
Robeson’s greatness is unquestionable but this book, stopping where it does, short-changes his genius. Perhaps we have to wait for the next volume and judge the work as a whole. In the meantime, the partial story that it tells can be set in context with Robeson’s own words, quoted in Philip Foner’s magnificent anthology, Paul Robeson Speaks: ‘The Artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice.’
Legacy of the Prophet:
It goes almost without saying that the prevalent Western notion of political Islam is of an ideology that is repressive, violent and narrow-minded. For Anthony Shadid, a US Associated Press journalist with Arab roots, this view needs redressing. Not that he has a particular political axe to grind – he just wants to move beyond hysteria.
In Legacy of the Prophet Shadid resists the temptation of presenting two types of Islam: faith defined by ‘the need for generosity and justice’ on the one hand and the menacing reality of the Taliban or suicide bombers on the other. Rather, he explores the links between them. Shadid’s in-depth knowledge of the region – he has travelled extensively and lived in Cairo for five years – lends validity to his attempt. Through a mixture of interview, reportage, anecdote and biography, he transports us from a temporary army base in Afghanistan to the Saudi Arabia of Osama bin Laden’s privileged childhood; from the Hamas headquarters in Palestine to the Iran of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Crucially, Shadid emphasizes the differences between the numerous movements which are commonly bracketed under ‘political Islam’. While criticizing the brutality of Islamic regimes such as Sudan’s or the violence of zealots, he shows that for many Muslims the politicization of their faith is mainly about protecting the ‘disinherited’. Hence the inherently optimistic tone of the book as it charts democratic trends in political Islam. No doubt Shadid will alienate some Islamic scholars and upset some Western readers. But this may be seen as a testament to the balanced yet uncompromising nature of his work.
Patricia Grace’s striking new novel takes us to a rural setting a world away from the violence and poverty portrayed in the film Once Were Warriors. The book is set in a coastal Maori community on Aotearoa/New Zealand’s scenic East Cape. In ramshackle Dogside (so-named because of the number of stray dogs, and in contrast to Godside, where all the churches are) the people are preparing for the millennium and the chance to make some easy money from the tourists flocking to see the first ‘millennial’ sunrise. Te Rua, at first glance a young carefree beachcomber, has other things on his mind. His daughter Kiri is living with his aunts – whose care is slapdash, to say the least; the date for the court case that will decide her future is approaching. Te Rua knows that the custody battle will change everything for he harbours a secret that he hoped he could take to his grave. The implications of this secret, if he reveals it, will shock his own family and reverberate throughout the whole community.
Dogside Story neatly counterpoints the Maori sense of the land with the Western notion of millennium, presenting us with a convincing and moving depiction of a way of life in which the rules and customs of the whanau (extended family) are what matter. In a deceptively simple style and with wit and humanity, Patricia Grace unearths the foundations of society and family in all their contradictions and complexities.
There’s a special luminosity about Susheela Raman’s début album that’s hard to locate in any one aspect. Is it the way that the young singer-writer has woven traditional tunes and mantras from southern India? Or the subtle atmospherics with which guitarist and producer Sam Mills imbues Salt Rain? Or, perhaps, the spot-on, highly intuitive band, who bring Arabic, African and Asian tones into the mix? Wherever the charge of Salt Rain may lie, it’s clear that its author is a star in the making.
After a training in Indian classical music and Tamil folk song, Raman discovered that she had a taste for the blues, and it’s these two different traditions that make Salt Rain so wonderful. It kicks off with ‘Ganapti’, a Sanskrit meditation on Ganesh and one’s immediately aware of the beautiful languidity of Raman’s voice. It slips over the lyrics, even as some slithery cello and a hot-weather percussion and acoustic guitar strive to hold it down. On ‘Maya’, the band break into a sensual skank rhythm, a klezmer feel suggested in Manos Achalinopoulos’ clarinet. The album breaks roughly between arrangements of traditional Indian works and the band’s own songs.
There are points of surprise, as on ‘O Rama’ where a Marley-influenced space opens up, thanks in part to Ayub Ogagda’s guest vocals. Percussionists Djanuno Dabo, Aref Durvesh and Hossam Ramzi deserve special mentions, as does cellist Vincent Segal. But the sheer pleasure is listening to Raman’s effortless improvisations: she slides from English into Hindi, Tamil and Sanskrit, firing syllables with the ease of a Sheila Chandra. The album’s title track displays the loose, but finely focused talents in all their splendour. An absolute winner
Now here’s a paradox: an album that revels in its use of studio technology and yet warns, throughout the fascinating journey it makes, of the dangers of technology. To be sure, this is not the first time that such an issue has been addressed – Laurie Anderson, for one, has based her last 20 years’ worth of work on this same theme – but Nitin Sawhney’s deftness is to restate the paradox within a completely different framework.
And it’s hard not to be impressed by what Prophesy achieves. For his fifth album, Sawhney – who has worked with Sinead O’Connor, Cheb Mami and Talvin Singh among other luminaries – races through Spanish guitars and castanets, swathes of string arrangements and brooding studio treatments to arrange an album which is an eloquent defence of the idea that all traditions and nations have something to offer one another, as much as it is a statement that, in the right hands, musical fusion really does work. In his mission, Sawhney is joined by a host of international musicians – listen out for Natacha Atlas, Trilok Gurtu and Yothu Yindi’s Yunupingu brothers – and some unexpected eminences, too. Hearing Nelson Mandela’s ‘We are free to be free’ line midway through Prophesy is an undoubted high point.
Prophesy is less an album of straight songs – although Terry Callier’s mellifluous blues vocal stands out on ‘The Preacher’ – as of textures. Sawhney builds a compelling argument that, in its execution, sets out a whole new standard for others to aspire to.
The Wire Mountain
This is a home video with a difference. Puppetmaker Claire Creswell has sought to make the links between our cosy daily domestic lives and the big bad world. The result is quirky, laconic, satirical and, at times, quite inspired in its odd humour. ‘Mum’, ‘bum’ and ‘cuddles’ are swiftly transposed on to the faceless corporate puppets determined to sell, sell, sell items that ‘cuddle you’ and ‘cuddle our profits’. The soundtrack is funky and funny: ditties like ‘The Aria of the Aware’ (‘I worry, worry, worry about the world’) are priceless. After a somewhat faltering start the video gains momemtum and becomes increasingly, delightfully, surreal.
The Speculation Game
In 1998, following the collapse of a number of Asian economies, the international bank HSBC recorded a one-billion-dollar increase in profits – most of it arising from currency speculation on Asian money markets. The whereabouts of the smoking gun were not exactly hard to detect.
The frightening extent to which governments, populations and their economies are at the mercy of speculators is explicitly set out in this calm and lucid video. Banks and speculators may win or they may lose – but the rest of us, the public, always lose. Speculation works to undermine the real economy – us, people, life itself.
This film pulls no punches but, to his credit, Zuchuat does not draw all his experts from the same pond. So we have the likes of radical economist Susan George one moment, and a Swiss banker spouting orthodoxy the next. But the most damning evidence actually comes from two ex-traders as they anatomize a system made up of manipulation, greed and, above all, the fearsome irrationality of the herd.
This well-constructed case leaves one wondering how much longer we can leave this economic equivalent of a nuclear bomb in the hands of people with zilch social responsibility. When are politicians going to pull their fingers out and start doing the job of democracy they were elected for?
One possible way forward is, of course, the proposed Tobin tax on currency transations. But even if adopted it will need constant adjusting to stay one step ahead of speculators.
John Lee looks at a literary genre with a long shelf-life
Thomas More set the tone when he appropriated the word ‘utopia’, suggesting Greek words meaning ‘no place’ and ‘good place’, as the title for his anonymously published novel in 1516.
At the time, More must have been unaware he had kick-started a richly entertaining literary genre. But in the few hundred years since, utopia has come to be the realm where authors’ imaginations roam free – unlike many of the inhabitants of these ‘ideal societies’.
More’s novel is a travel journal related by an old sea dog. Raphael Hythlodaeus outlines in minute detail his visit to an uncharted, but highly progressive, island in the New World. With a universal healthcare system so well-resourced that ‘everyone would rather be ill in hospital than go home’, More’s perfect society outlaws hunting as ‘barbaric’, uses science to reclaim land for agriculture, and accepts women priests.
But with the benefits of a perfect order, come the downside of control. This utopian world is hierarchical with a working class bound to hard labour. The slaves work just six hours a day but ‘they must be in bed by 8.00pm’. Passports are needed for travelling between towns, with slavery one of the punishments for being caught ‘wandering’ without.
Renaissance More may have established the precedent but the golden age of utopian novels was the second half of the 19th century. In Looking Backward, US writer Edward Bellamy creates a technological paradise of shopping malls, credit cards, and endlessly piped music. Healthcare and employment are guaranteed and efficient central planning has standardized education and industry. A paternalistic government has ordered away poverty, inequality and all social ills. Inspired by his book, dozens of ‘Bellamy societies’ sprang up across North America to lobby for social change.
Meanwhile in England, socialist, activist and designer William Morris presented a very different ideal world. In his 1890 News From Nowhere, he described a romanticized, ecologically balanced society to challenge the complacent belief that science and technology would land humanity at the threshold of a real utopia.
William Guest travels home one night by train ‘in a vapour bath of hurried and discontented humanity’ before falling asleep. When he awakes, he finds himself in the late 20th century. But instead of a benevolent scientific paradise, he encounters a vibrant pastoral landscape and is taken by boat along a River Thames freed of industrial pollutants.
With its environmental concerns and warnings against blindly embracing scientific and industrial innovation, News From Nowhere is not so easily dismissed as a product of its time. But one issue relegates it to the same level as most other utopian novels. The ideal society in nearly all utopian books is less than liberating for women. Usually they are nothing more than the exotic love interest for the book’s male protagonist.
It took a novel from Charlotte Perkins Gilman, published in 1915, to break the mould. Herland, re-discovered after 60 years out of print, features the discovery by three young American men of a South American society, hidden by mountains, and peopled exclusively by women for 2,000 years. The women are able to reproduce parthenogenically (without men) and, due to the absence of males in society, they live unlike any other women on earth.
In Gilman’s utopia, bringing up children without men creates a revolutionary new social structure. Each child’s welfare in Herland is the direct concern of both her mother and the entire society.
While many utopian novels contain a few accurate predictions about what a future ideal world might look like, more often they describe societies that most people would not want to live in. But painting an accurate likeness of heaven on earth is not as important to many utopian novelists as attacking the failings of the real world and encouraging readers to do the same. That they do this in satirical and entertaining ways is the reason many of these works have endured as novels even when some of their political ideas have become obsolete.
Utopia, by Thomas More is published by Templegate Publishers, 2000. Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy is published by Applewood Books, 2000. News From Nowhere and Other Writings by William Morris is published by Penguin Books, 1993. Herland, The Yellow Wall-Paper and Selected Writings by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, is published by Penguin Books, 1999.