Proxima Estacion… Esperanza
The next station to which the title of Manu Chao’s long-awaited follow-up to 1998’s Clandestino refers, is not of the railway variety, although it might well have been. This Spanish-born, French-raised singer recruited members of his former band, Mano Negra, from among the wilder, punkier buskers of the Paris metro, bringing with them a raucous enthusiasm for love, life and liberty.
But it’s far more likely that the ‘next station’ of the title is to be found on the radio dial. Indeed, Proxima Estacion… Esperanza is structured like a series of radio opportunities. Seventeen songs in a polyglot of languages – Spanish slides into Portuguese to create ‘Portunol’, while English, French and Arabic are all quite audible – in the service of a lilting soft reggae rhythm and punctuated by bursts of brass. Manu Chao’s references are wide – Caribbean soca and African funk are discernible; even big-band jazz on ‘Trapped by Love’. So too a nod to the political edge of Britain’s Two-Tone movement in the late 1970s on ‘Promiscuity’.
This album seems to recognize no geographic borders, merely the cross-fertilizing powers of music and the faith that it can bring people together. But this message is not without an edge. The party-all-night track ‘Me Gustas Tu’ (I like you) gets reprised at the end of the album as ‘Infinita Tristeza’ (Infinite sadness). Same melody, but the boisterous rhythm is pulled down, the tempo a little slower. As the only song which embraces all the languages that feature on Proxima Estacion… Esperanza, is Manu Chao trying to tell us something?
Ever since the balmy 1960s when Bob Dylan went electric there’s been a certain awkwardness as to what constitutes folk music and, equally importantly, how it should sound. Luckily nothing like this bothers Howie B, the Glasgow-born musician whose recent career has seen him behind the mixing desks with Brian Eno, Ry Cooder or U2. Folk, Howie B emphatically says, is music that gets people together; it’s about opening doors. And that’s just what Folk, his fifth album, does.
Typically, there’s nothing to be taken for granted here: even the lovely sleeve photos of English mummer-players standing around in fields seem designed to disorientate. And so the album plays its strongest card first. ‘Making Love on Your Side’, featuring the flamenco talents of guitarist Raimundo Amador and Roma vocals of Marina Heredia, ripples through a dense foliage of beats and carefully edited textures. But it is also a song, and that’s the format in which Howie B re-enters folk. There’s spontaneity and playfulness, but a tight control of its process.
Bringing in an array of guest musicians, including reggae toaster Sweetie Irie, avant-garde trumpeter Jon Hassell and Irish singer Gavin Friday, Folk reverberates with a dynamism that can only bode well for the future. Interestingly, Björk, with whom Howie B has also worked, refers to her latest album, Vespertine, as ‘electronic folk music’. And so, too, is Folk, although it’ll be interesting to see just how much of a storm it whips up with those who beg to differ.
Leila Aboulela’s debut novel The Translator attracted much critical attention and was shortlisted for several distinguished prizes. Aboulela, who grew up in Sudan and moved to Britain when she was in her thirties, writes in English and has already developed an original and distinctive voice. The stories in her new collection Coloured Lights are full of faltering connections and cultural misunderstandings. In the title story, a Sudanese woman in London on a temporary contract struggles to cope with her grief over her dead brother and her separation from her family and country. She says: ‘In Arabic my state would have been described as "yearning for the homeland"… I was alienated from this place where darkness descended unnaturally at 4pm and people went about their business as if nothing had happened.’
The stories set in Scotland work best, such as the touching and tender ‘The Boy From The Kebab Shop’ and ‘The Museum’, which has already won the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing. This is a gentle and moving account of a Sudanese student in Aberdeen, torn between her religious beliefs and her first tentative attempts to engage with her strange surroundings, reaching out to her fellow-student Bryan but constantly testing his reactions and her own.
Other stories, such as the fairytale-like ‘Radia’s Carpet’ and the rather unconvincing excursion into science fiction of ‘Days Rotate’, are less successful but, overall, this is an excellent collection which signals the emergence of a strong new fictional talent.
A True Story Based on Lies
In her debut novel, The Widow Basquiat, Jennifer Clement retold the story of the short life and tragic death of the graffiti artist Jean Michel Basquiat. Clement is an established and talented poet and her writing style elegantly mirrored the nature of Basquiat’s brief arc of fame.
Style is to the fore once again in Clement’s latest novel, A True Story Based on Lies. Set in Mexico, the story is told through the voices of two of the central characters who take it in turns to tell their own version of ‘truth’. We learn that Leonora, a poor teenager, has come to Mexico City in search of work. Taken on in the household of the affluent and patrician O’Conner family, she attracts the predatory sexual attention of the master of the house. She becomes pregnant and, when the child, Aura Olivia, is born, she is brought up as if she were a daughter of Mr O’Conner and his wife. As the dual narratives twist and twine around each other and we gradually recognize the storytellers, a tale emerges that scours the roots of possession, belonging and transcendental sorrow.
A True Story Based on Lies is at once a deeply moving account of a skewed relationship in a household and an elegant exploration of the tenacious power of class and sex inequalities. This is an unusual and graceful book that, in beautiful and precise prose, tells of unimaginable human suffering and manages, in an unexpected climax, to suggest at least the possibility of redemption.
Faces of Racism
Written with a young audience in mind and in a straightforward A-Z format, this Amnesty International primer on racism is a fresh and forceful mix of effective quotes, anecdotes and lively and striking illustrations. From Apartheid to ZOG (Zionist Occupation Government), via Hate Speech and Xenophobia, the book sets out to debunk the pernicious myths that are endlessly swapped in the sewers of racist thought.
Josef Szwarc neatly sidesteps the main pitfall of the schematic design. He chooses far-from-obvious alphabetical chapter headings – Underground Railroad, Faith, On the Origin of Species – and then crams each entry with argument and debate from an eclectic and diverse range of sources. In effect, each chapter becomes a mini-essay that can move from Mussolini to indigenous land rights or Abraham Lincoln’s separatist notions to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo.
While the quotes from the likes of the fascist grouplet Blood and Honour or the neo-Nazi bomber David Copeland are as nauseating as you’d expect, Szwarc has chosen well and judiciously and, far from giving such creatures free publicity, the overall effect is that they are condemned by the manifest nonsense of their own warped logic.
Faces of Racism is the first in an Amnesty International introductory series on key human-rights issues. If the subsequent volumes are as clear and as punchy as this one, then it will certainly be a series that deserves to be on every student’s bookshelf and in every school library.
States of Denial
How do we deal with the unthinkable? How do the perpetrators of horrors justify their actions to themselves and to society? And to what extent is a bystander a perpetrator?
These are basic, painful questions that need to be confronted directly – which is what Stanley Cohen resolutely does in this book. His answers involve psychological and sociological theories which he leads us through with calm expertise. As a child in South Africa, Cohen questioned apartheid, wondering why ‘our family had been allocated black men and women as domestic servants’. Moreover, he wondered why everyone else wasn’t wondering this as well. A continuing interest in the mental processes which allow people to commit, observe and indeed endure cruelty eventually resulted in a comprehensive, passionate, witty, engaging and disturbing investigation into the different forms of denial.
Cohen draws his examples from apartheid-era South Africa, Israel (where he spent 18 years), the Holocaust and Bosnia. He explores the connection between denial of political atrocities and reaction to personal tragedies such as illness, alcoholism and incest.
But Cohen’s aim is not simply to help people understand themselves and their reactions. It is to encourage political action. He investigates the role of the media, and organizations like Oxfam and Amnesty and explodes myths like ‘compassion fatigue’. We need exposure to the horrors of wars, famines and brutal dictatorships, Cohen insists, in order for denial to be overcome and political action to be taken.
A Time for Drunken Horses
In a warehouse children wrap drinking glasses in old newspapers and pack them in boxes. Boys fight, punching hard, for jobs unloading smuggled goods from mules. Men savagely kick mules in the head to get them on their feet. Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi’s engrossing first feature is painfully real.
In a Kurdish village on the Iranian side of the border with Iraq, four children are orphaned when an exploding mine kills their father, a smuggler. Their mother has died in childbirth and so Ayoub, aged around 12 or 13, leaves school to support the family. His disabled elder brother, Madi, needs daily medication and, without surgery, will soon die. This is, of course, wonderful material for a Hollywood melodrama.
But Ghobadi’s documentary-style film is as far as you can get from stage kids, the cult of the beautiful, and consoling messages. From the first shots of children’s careworn faces, grey slushy winter roads and Madi’s old, appealing eyes and tiny physique, you know you’re in the real world. A world of political indifference, still mired in the Iran-Iraq war, where families are unable to work their land because of mines, and petty cruelty. Rojine, the elder sister in her middle teens, accepts marriage into a family who say they will look after Madi, but who then reject him. The scene where Madi shivers uncontrollably, suspended helplessly from a mule saddle like a chattel, is heartbreaking to watch.
But this is not a depressing film. Ayoub struggles so that gentle and solemn Amaneh, the younger sister and the film’s narrator, can stay on at school. These kids’ love and commitment for each other inspires this film. What a different world they could create. If only…