The record that the Taliban wanted to ban? In a way, yes, which is one good reason that Khaled Arman and his extraordinary Ensemble Kaboul are based in Geneva. From there they recreate the vibrant and witty songs and tunes of their homeland. To be accurate, Arman, a virtuoso rubab (lute) player, has had considerable contact with Europe: educated partially in France, he has won classical guitar prizes as well as having worked in electroacoustic composition. This versatility is reflected in Nastaran's sly experimentalism: Arman increases his rubab's range by reinventing its neck with extra frets, while Paul Grant, the only non-Afghan member of the Ensemble, brings santoor to the mix. It's the first time in 40 years that the zither-like instrument has featured in Afghan music.
There's a wonderfully robust quality about Nastaran: the flashing percussion of instrumentals like 'Mahali' or the shimmering drones of 'Sindhi Bharavi'. Much is dance music in the oldest sense, as motifs from a wide range of ethnic groups are blended and extemporized. There's even a last performance from Ustad Malang Nedjirabi, in the form of an inspired, intoxicating zirbaghali drum solo. But the Ensemble really shine in their love songs, and vocalists Hossein Arman and Taher Hakami invoke a quality of yearning that's not altogether of the spiritual type. You can literally hear the life-enhancing defiance.
Au Cabaret Sauvage
Not so much a band as a tribe. That's the way Lo'Jo - a collective that's included circus performers, poets and filmmakers - see themselves. It's an identification that goes with the love of movement and freedom, musical and otherwise, that bounds through their latest album, Au Cabaret Sauvage.
Don't be alarmed by the 'savagery' the title appears to promise. The Lo'Jo troubadours are interested in the word's association with 'natural' - and are helped along to no small extent by the rough and ready sandpaper tones of vocalist Denis Péan. Combining French chanson permeated by rai, Malian rhythms (the band was instrumental in founding Timbuktu's 'Festival in the Desert') and a flourish of Roma, Au Cabaret Sauvage demonstrates a clear internationalist agenda. 'Mémoire d'homme', for example, could come from a dozen locations. The swooping vocal modulations suggest North Africa, while a violin hints at east European klezmer.
But the album is best at its most frenetic: listen to the kora-driven vivacity of 'Les Humains'. With their travellers' perspectives and rich cluster of languages, Lo'jo give the impression that journeying, figurative and literal, is their ideal state of being.
In this unusual film director Atom Egoyan tells the much-neglected story of the Armenian genocide (1915-17) by paying as much attention to the multi-generational effects of this holocaust as to the event itself. Set in present-day Toronto, the film's conceit is to follow the cast and crew involved in making a movie about the genocide. Moving back and forth between historical events and the lives of the contemporary characters (including Charles Aznavour and Christopher Plummer) the film examines how people make meaning from this catastrophic legacy. Ararat has had a mixed reception - variously described as 'stunning', 'indigestible' and 'a noble disappointment'. But for those who love films which engage the puzzles of both historical memory and dramatic narrative, it is a real treat.
This is an awesome achievement. The entire film is a roving unbroken 90-minute take of the choreographed movement of thousands of actors around St Petersburg's Hermitage art museum - once the Winter Palace, residence of the tsars. It's the most complex shot in the history of cinema, made possible by high-definition video cameras recording onto a prototype portable hard disk.
But so what? What does the staggering technique contribute to the film? Although the cast is huge, there are only two significant characters - and the camera is one of them. The camera's view is the gaze of a disembodied soul, invisible and inaudible to everyone, and so unable to speak or interact with anyone - apart from the ever present 'Marquis', a cynical 19th-century French diplomat, his (and our) chaperone through time. The soul throughout is an alienated voyeur, his camera eye reducing the action to spectacle.
Sokurov's film ostensibly celebrates high culture and Russia's cultural tradition. We see its patrons - Peter the Great, Catherine ditto, Tsars Nicholas I and II. We see some of the great paintings, hear the music and orchestras they brought to Russia. It's all sophisticated, detached and sometimes rather eerie.
Yet the film is worth staying with - to the haunting finale. After the last great palace ball in 1913, as guests crowd the exits the camera tracks down a cold, dark, draughty side corridor to a window overlooking the river Neva. For the first time there are no people in shot, and - again a first - the camera halts. Nothing, but for the mist rising off the river, moves. A chilling image of intense loneliness, it points up the social void in every scene, the distress and loneliness of being never involved, never acknowledged. Russian Ark is high art pining for community.
Home and Exile
Now that the world's only superpower has resurrected brazen land-grab imperialism, a searching examination of colonialism from the perspective of the colonized is nothing if not timely. In Home and Exile, the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe examines the way imperial powers construct myths about their right to rule and appropriate the stories of those they dispossess.
In spare, precise prose Achebe mixes elements of autobiography and family history, folk tales and literary theory to produce an overview of the development of an indigenous African literature. He shows how colonialism was not merely a physical occupation of Africa but also an invasion of a cultural worldview; what he calls, 'the colonization of one people's story by another'. In order to attain freedom, Africans need not only to gain political self-determination but also to 'take back their own narrative' and tell their own truths in their own fashion.
Drawing on examples from such writers as Ama Ata Aidoo, Amos Tutuola and Nadine Gordimer as well as his own experiences on the publication of his first novel, Things Fall Apart, Achebe underlines the importance of authentic home-grown storytelling as a fundamental political tool in Africa's struggles to free itself of the colonial yoke. He quotes the proverb: 'Until the lions produce their own historian, the story of the hunt will glorify only the hunter.' This is a subtle and multifaceted book that amply repays the close reading it requires while reminding us of the continuing relevance and power of literature.
Fences and Windows
Three years after the pitched battles of Seattle's WTO conference and the well-timed publication of No Logo - the international bestseller that became the protesters' manifesto - Naomi Klein is back with a new book that could disappoint all those Gap-hating, soundbyting anti-capitalists out there. It shouldn't, though.
Klein is quick to point out in Fences and Windows, this 'greatest hits' package of newspaper columns is 'not a follow-up to No Logo'. That's only partly true. Although largely discontinuing the previous book's name-and-shame attacks on corporate bad guys like Shell and Starbucks, Klein moves on to the question protesters from Genoa to Quebec City have been asking themselves ever since: 'What next?'
For Klein, smashing McDonald's windows was the start of debates about reclaiming the public sphere from transnationals, ineffective governments and the WTO and IMF. And the next step? 'Perhaps... transforming the anti-corporate movement into a pro-democracy movement that defends the rights of local communities to plan and manage their schools, their water and their ecology.'
Indeed, Fences and Windows is potentially a greater manifesto for change than No Logo ever was, especially when it describes communities in Argentina, Mexico and Italy that are realizing self-determination with neighbourhood assemblies, participatory budgets and reduced political terms. While not the page-turner that No Logo was, it's an important attempt to move on from simply bashing Gap and Nike. 'These symbols were never the real targets. [they] were only ever windows. It's time to move through them,' writes Klein.
Husband and Wife
Zeruya Shalev's novel opens in dramatic fashion. Udi Newman, a fit and healthy Israeli tour guide wakes one morning and announces that he can no longer use his legs. The condition quickly spreads to his upper body and arms and his panic-stricken wife Na'ama takes him to hospital. All physical tests prove negative and Udi is admitted to the psychiatric ward, under suspicion of inventing his symptoms. He is, it is suggested, on strike from his roles as husband to Na'ama and father to 10-year-old Noga, deliberately withdrawing from all responsibilities in this 'tense, stifling house'.
From this shattering beginning the novel spirals out into a kaleidoscopic picture of this couple's life together and it becomes clear that all is far from well in the marriage. In clipped sentences that speak of an individual desperately clinging on to the last vestiges of self-control, Na'ama tells of how their love gradually deteriorated into a mutually destructive relationship. The atmosphere of the book is claustrophobic and the prose style is dense, almost choking, as Na'ama trips over her words and increasingly fails to suppress hysteria in her desire to tell her version of the truth.
Zeruya Shalev is one of the most promising of the rising generation of Israeli novelists and in this book she accurately dissects the skirmishes and tactics employed by the protagonists in a disintegrating family. Using illness as a metaphor for a failing relationship is not a new idea but in Husband and Wife it is tackled with originality and zest by a writer of genuine talent.
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