England, Half English
A former soldier, Billy Bragg gave up the army to dedicate his working life to a songwriting that's firmly in the tradition of political folk music. To date, this most politically engaged of Britain's songwriters has addressed workers' rights, sexual equality and racism with a deft mix of anger, wit and choppy rhythms.
England, Half English (the title comes from a book on London's first West Indian immigrants by Colin MacInnes) is a no-frills contribution to that vexed, at times politically nasty, issue of 'Englishness'. There's no such thing as racial purity, the album says. As the title song makes clear, curry is now the national dish, Saint George came from the Lebanon and Britannia is a Roman word. And if you miss the point, the song's music veers from a raucous singalong (the band isn't called the Blokes for nothing) to ska and some meltingly lovely Algerian lines.
There's a varied mood throughout England, Half English. 'Baby Faroukh' is a wonderful welcome to a baby born into a new England (there's a passion in Bragg that echoes William Blake's) and 'Take Down the Union Jack' sloughs off some redundant symbols. But the sombre songs are the most arresting. 'Distant Shore', for example, is a delicately delivered piece, sung from the point of view of a refugee. Lu Edmunds' sax adds an elegiac touch to a song that functions both as a lament for a country lost and a love song to a new land that has yet to find the generosity to accept the gift. Stirring stuff.
Better known as the lead in British pop group Blur and the 'virtual' band Gorillaz, you'd expect to find Damon Albarn in London's more fashionable watering holes. So it's something of a surprise that he's fetched up in Africa and, with a little help from illustrious friends, come up with an album as infectious and thoughtful as Mali Music.
There's none of the 'exotica' spirit that can affect such collaborations. Mali Music seems to come from a genuinely felt attempt to make links between musics: it lilts along to Toumani Diabaté's kora, opens up the great dub expanse of experimental reggae and flickers through fado guitar licks and gently thought-out dancebeats. Recorded as part of Oxfam's work in Mali, it is funded entirely by Albarn and all proceeds go to projects in the country.
The CD began life as a 40-hour tape made on location; recordings of village singing and ambient urban noise were carefully woven into the main series of songs and instrumentals. These were then subjected to 18 months' worth of studio work, tapes and overdubs journeying between Mali and Britain. Given that, it's incredible that Mali Music retains an air of spontaneity and space. Diabaté provides a kora riff that travels through 15 tracks. Singer Afel Bocoum turns 'Bamako City' into an atmospheric, stripped-down affair that evokes a wide sensuality. The tracks where Albarn himself is most apparent - 'Spoons' and 'Sunset Coming On' - are perfect, bittersweet summer songs. But the genuine thrill is getting to hear ngoni-player and singer Ko Kan Ko Sta Doumbia. This spirited woman is one to watch.
Constantin Costa-Gavras, perhaps cinema's best-known political filmmaker, has been directing films since the 1960s. Many of them dramatize real-life events, and like Z, State of Siege and Missing, heroic resistance to political violence. After working in Hollywood, his latest film, Amen, is a welcome return to the real world and to politics.
In France it has generated a tumult of controversy, provoked by the publicity poster - a hybrid crucifix-cum-swastika, which neatly alludes to the film's subject - the relationship between the Nazis and the Vatican, and the Church's silence about the extermination camps.
Amen follows the efforts of an SS officer (based on a real person) and a priest to tell the world the truth. Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur) is a devout Christian and the inventor of Zyklon-B gas - to poison insects and vermin, not people. Called up into the SS, he soon learns about the mass extermination programme. When he fails to persuade his Protestant church leaders to tell the German people, he approaches a Jesuit priest (Mathieu Kassowitz) with Vatican connections.
Costa-Gavras deftly handles Amen's central dilemma - how to resist a system that you are part of. The problem is that the audience knows the outcome - the Pope and the Vatican remained silent. As political history, the film lacks dramatic tension. Its repeated motif, the speeding trains of emptied cattle trucks, which at first seems haunting, becomes hollow and even irritating.
Amen does work very well as Gerstein's story, although whether he survives or not is in the circumstances less important. It's a measure of Tukur's fine restrained performance that he convinces us of that.
A Female Cabby in Sidi Bel-Abbes
This is a film about going out to work. Soumicha is the only woman taxi driver in Sidi Bel-Abbes, a medium-sized town in Algeria. Widowed with three children, she has inherited a yellow Renault from her husband. This unusual documentary kicks off by recording the spontaneous reactions of her passengers as they step into her taxi. Soumicha is confident and matter-of-fact about her job. But a sense of danger is never far away. Some of her friends in a nearby village are workers in an electronics plant that Islamic fundamentalists have set fire to. The cabby herself is threatened with violent repression and we can see the risks posed by the filmmaking process itself. Yet the women Soumicha interacts with speak openly of their desire to work outside the home. They have all had to battle with male hostility; but going to work is a public - and political - act in which they can support each other. Immediate and inspiring.
In the Name of Osama bin Laden
Since the attack on the World Trade Center in New York a torrent of books on Osama bin Laden has poured out of the world's publishing houses, covering the whole spectrum from scholarly study to wild conspiracy theory. This book's unique selling point lies in the fact that it was originally published in France in the week of 11 September and presciently discussed the prospect of terrorist attacks using 'unforeseeable methods or techniques. calling on fanatical fighters ready to give up their lives'.
Now translated into English and substantially updated, In The Name of Osama bin Laden attempts to explain exactly how this wealthy Saudi entrepreneur became the focus for a fundamentalist pan-Islamic movement. Jacquard tracks bin Laden's wanderings in the 1990s through Sudan, Pakistan and finally Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, and reveals the web of money laundering and drug smuggling he tapped into and used for his jihad. This is in essence a short and rather conventional biography which breaks no new ground but is a good summary of current knowledge. The book's editor Samia Serageldin provides an excellent introduction and afterword, and much of the interest lies in an extensive appendix of over 100 pages of documents, many freshly translated from Arabic.
Given his track record, we would do well to listen to Jacquard's sobering conclusion that al-Qaeda, bin Laden's creation, no longer needs either his physical existence or his funds; alive or dead, he has become the talisman for a diffuse, self-sufficient terrorist network with every intention of fulfilling its mission to 'lead the world into the apocalypse'.
The Stone of Heaven
Jade is a precious stone found only in an area of northern Burma where millions of years ago an upwelling of magma pierced the earth's crust. The beauty and mystique of this coveted material, much more valuable than diamonds, has led to a history in which splendour and ornamentation jostle with greed, exploitation and death.
In this intriguing book the reader is taken on an extended trip through jade's history from the 18th-century Chinese Emperor Qianlong, who wrote obsessive love poems to the substance, through to the gunboat diplomacy and opportunistic trade wars of the British. This is all diverting enough although, it has to be said, rather drably written. However, the book leaps to life in the final hundred pages when the authors clandestinely enter Burma and penetrate the secrecy and deceit surrounding the present-day mining of jade. Their description of the hellish conditions in the mines of Hpakant is truly harrowing, with a million men, women and children toiling in conditions of abject slavery. The Burmese military junta pays them in supplies of heroin and almost all the workers are hiv-positive, contracted from dirty needles. Despite the mine being declared a disaster area by the UN, jade continues to be traded on the international markets and collected by such figures as Nicole Kidman.
I would have preferred a rather briefer history lesson and much more of the excellent investigative journalism of the final section. Nevertheless, this is a fine and necessary examination of a beautiful substance subject to a squalid, inhuman trade.
Climate change is the environmental fear that provokes the greatest degree of apocalyptic prophesy. It's hard to escape the doom drum when the global political response has been so puny. This guide to cooling the planet's fever pulls off a difficult balancing act, outlining the terrors of the looming climatic crisis whilst offering detailed, credible, practical ideas for action to halt it in its tracks.
Laid out as a succession of double-page spreads, the solutions are meticulously researched with boxes pointing to a multitude of web resources. Unlike previous attempts, the book doesn't rely too heavily on either technofixes or purely political answers. Instead it takes a swipe at every level of responsibility - from the individual through to the global - making it impossible for the reader to conclude 'there's nothing I can do'. Its optimism (with reality check intact) and energy are to be saluted.
Such an encyclopaedic enterprise cannot be without problems. There's a North American bias - other readers will need to 'adapt' for their own situations. The policy options can overlap from time to time; a firmer edit would have helped. In its attempt to keep business on board the book espouses natural capitalism, a cuddly, sustainable version of the beast. But capitalism is by its nature expansionist, so I'm sceptical about a version that promotes profitable under-consumption (see Mary Jane Patterson's critique in NI 329). For a book that is so aware of greenwash some of the examples of corporate good practice would have been better left out.
Despite such reservations, its sheer wealth of detail makes it the fullest popular blueprint we have.
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