Specialist in All Styles
There aren't any really good explanations as to why Senegal's Orchestra Baobab disappeared for 15 years but there are plenty of reasons to welcome back Dakar's finest. Specialist in All Styles may win some prizes as being one of the slowest come-back recordings in history but it also deserves several more in the superlative stakes. Simply stated, this spirited blend of African salsa has no sell-by date.
Formed in 1970, the Baobabs were before their time. Their Latin-based sets may have derived from Cuba but their novel move was to Africanize the music. A Wolof griot was added, local mbalax styles and themes crept in. But Specialist does more than celebrate an extraordinary past. Still featuring founder members Barthelemy Attisso and singers Rudy Gomis, Balla Sidibe and Ndiouga Dieng, the Baobabs have returned to their project with a fine relish. Attisso's guitar shifts its weight as in a dance and on 'Jiin Ma, Jiin Ma', a slow-moving lament sung by Gomis, it's full of yearning. New singer Assane Mboup makes a great splash with 'Ndongoy Daara', a diatribe against corruption in Qur'anic schools.
Maybe the high point is 'Hommage à Tonton Ferrer' in which Ibrahim Ferrer, passing through from Cuba, joins the gang. Its passionate verve makes your hair bristle with sheer pleasure.
The way that music may change the world, suggests Kad Achouri, is not through assault but by more gentle methods. To this end, Achouri - now resident in London after leaving France - has come up with the mellifluous, jazz-inflected Liberté, which showcases both prodigious ability and a reflective maturity. The word 'liberty' features heavily in Achouri's début album. There's the liberty of the opening track (adapted from a poem by Paul Eluard), which exudes a carefree aroma across soft reggae and catchy chorus lines. Then there's the 'liberty' that's growled out on 'Il Faut Que Ça Change' ('Change is necessary'). 'Liberté, égalité - va t' faire niquer' - an obscene corruption of the French Republic motto to reflect, perhaps, the rage and despair of undocumented migrants (the sans papiers) and others facing the loss of any hope of 'fraternité'.
Liberté reflects its writer's heritage - Berber, Spanish and Algerian - and producer Marc Eagleton has displayed a sensitive touch in its mix. Achouri's quiet French lyrics always dominate: the jazzed-up arrangements and Latin rhythms provide a buoyancy. But Liberté is above all about pleasure. 'Mi Negra', a song which if it were a little punkier might stray on to Manu Chao territory, is a late-night salsa class. And then there's the disarming maturity of 'J'aimerais' (I would like): 'I would like the governments to reflect the population,' it starts, insistence building through the repeated phrase: 'j'aimerais, j'aimerais'. Power and simplicity itself.
Set in Chad, Abouna - which translates as 'Our Father' - is a small-scale study of two children searching for their father. Tahir and his little brother Amine get up one morning to discover their father is missing. When he doesn't turn up that afternoon to referee the local kids' football game they know it's serious. They look around the city for him only to discover a double life - for the past two years he has pretended to go to work.
John Lanchester's novel Mr Philips and the recent French movie Time Out are also about family men who secretly abandon their jobs. Abouna, though, is not about the husband and father but about the effect on the children and their mother. In the local cinema the boys believe they see their father onscreen. They sneak back to steal the film reel and are arrested by the police. Their mother, determined they should learn right from wrong, sends them to a Qur'anic boarding school in the countryside. There the boys are beaten and dream of escape. Desperate for their father - whom they believe they'll find in Tangiers - the brothers escape, intending to walk from Chad to the Mediterranean.
African cinema rarely gets to our screens. Haroun's 1999 first feature, Bye Bye Africa, was mainly shown in a touring Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Abouna, his follow-up, has a somewhat wider distribution. See it if you can. With a soundtrack by Ali Farka Touré, it's a refreshing alternative to multiplex dross.
A sense of place, the authors do well to remind us, is integral to human well-being. 'Familiar objects, structures and environments nurture the self, support the continuity of life and act as props to memory and identity.' The destruction of home, therefore, is an act with wider repercussions than loss of territory. In losing home we also lose a fundamental psychological prop.
Scenes of Palestinian homes being bulldozed are all too familiar. But millions of others around the world are losing their homes each year, in circumstances that are brutal and unreported. Domicide shows just how and why the powerful 'clear' the homes that lie in the way of their corporate, political, economic or bureaucratic interests. Domicide plays a role in both domestic and foreign policy, as scorched-earth policies, strategic bombing campaigns and the enormous land consumption of military installations all illustrate.
Often 'public interest' is cited as justification. Similarly 'ethnic cleansing' campaigns to dispossess and drive out certain groups use 'self-preservation' as justification for the worst domicidal and even genocidal atrocities.
This thoroughly researched and groundbreaking book deserves to draw international attention to the crime of 'domicide'.
The Long Way Back
This fine, complex novel from one of Iraq's most accomplished and subtle writers was first published in Arabic in 1980 and its publication in an English translation could not be more timely. The book is set in the 1960s and tells the story of four generations of one family living in a rambling old house in the Bab al-Shaykh quarter of Baghdad. The opening pages plunge the reader into the initially confusing tangle of - mostly female - inter-relationships in this
close-knit but troubled household. The aged patriarch is ill and his three sons are, to varying degrees, damaged and unable to control events. Hussayn is an unstable drunkard who is seen by his wife and his six-year-old daughter only intermittently. Mihdat is a suicidal loser and the third brother 'Abd al-Karim has been driven mad by witnessing the death of his closest friend in a car accident.
The apolitical and enclosed existence of the household is tragically invaded by the dangers of the outside world when Mihdat is killed in street fighting as militants of the Ba'ath Socialist party of Saddam Hussein launch their coup against Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim.
This book speaks eloquently of an Iraq which Bush and Blair would have us forget in their focus on the tyrant Saddam Hussein; an Iraq inhabited by living, breathing, suffering individuals and families, much like ourselves but with their own unique stories to tell. These are voices that we urgently need to hear and this important and humane book is an excellent place to begin to listen.
Bacardi is one of the most instantly recognizable brands in the world; think of rum and the ubiquitous 'bat' symbol pops up unbidden. Colombian investigative journalist Hernando Calvo Ospina has, however, uncovered the murky dealings that lie behind the fun-loving image the corporation projects. This fabulously successful company grew from humble origins in 19th-century Cuba - via heavy Mafia involvement during the Batista years - into one of the main players in the shadowy network of organizations working to overthrow Fidel Castro and replace his regime with one subservient to US business interests. It is now based in the Bahamas though still run by Cuban-Americans - a globalized company that long anticipated globalization.
The author details Bacardi's links with the Cuban-American far right through the hysterically anti-Castro Cuban-American National Foundation and he patiently follows the threads that connect the myriad Cuban exile front organizations and the US-funded destabilization programme. This web of 'international banditry' meshes seamlessly with the CIA networks set up to fund the Nicaraguan Contras and Savimbi's UNITA.
The crimes and atrocities committed in the name of 'freedom' by Miami-based Cuban exiles are familiar and Calvo Ospina gives a good résumé of them, from the so-called 'war for the roads of the world' which targeted civilians, to the contemptible economic blackmail that is the Helms-Burton Act. This book's focus on the involvement of the Bacardi organization sets it apart from other exposés of US-sponsored terror. Despite a rather elliptical style, exacerbated by a clumsy translation, this fascinating and valuable book throws much-needed light on the base and ignoble motives of those in government and business who claim to be working to free Cuba from tyranny.
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