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May 27, 2016

Book Review: Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms by Arsalan Iftikhar


Given the horrible rhetoric we've been hearing from various sources during this election year (2016) in the United States, Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms, a new book from human rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar published by Sky Horse Publishing, couldn't be more timely. Television viewers might be familiar with Iftikhar as the "The Muslim Guy" - as he calls his website - CNN and other major networks haul out after every so-called Islamic incident for comment.
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"Scapegoats" is in part a distillation of the message he tries to present during these spots - a small group of insane idiots don't represent the majority of Islam. However, as his voice always seems to become lost in maelstrom of sensationalism and fear mongering television seems to delight in - what sells better than fear and mayhem? - this book offers readers a chance to hear his arguments without distraction.

If you think this book is only going to be about Donald Trump and his ilk, you'll be in for a big surprise. Sure it mentions the usual hate mongers and supposed charitable foundations who fund them, but Iftikhar also points out some of the even more insidious attempts to smear Muslims.

One of the most noxious was Congressman Peter King's decision to hold congressional hearings called "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response". Very rightly Iftikhar likens this to Congressional witch hunts of the past and says it legitimized singling out a segment of the American population and deeming them suspect because of their religious beliefs - beliefs that are protected by the American Constitution.

Iftikhar quotes Richard Clarke, who worked for both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as a counterterrorism czar, as warning this type of inquest would aid America's enemies. "To the extent that they (the hearings) are the object of fear-mongering, it will only serve Al Qaeda's ends", by wrongfully portraying that America is somehow at war with Islam.

However, it's not just conservatives who Iftikhar takes issue with. It's also those so called liberals who hide their fear and hatred behind supposed concern for civil rights and liberties. Those who do their best to make martyrs out the drawers of obscene cartoons and purveyors of hate speech.

He doesn't say the killings at the Charlie Hebedo offices were justified by any means. At the same time he doesn't see them, or the right wing Danish newspaper who published the infamous cartoons of Mohammad, as the great defenders of free speech everyone has made them out to be. How would people have reacted if those publications ran obscene cartoons of Jesus? (The Danish newspaper actually refused to run cartoons of Jesus by saying they wouldn't appeal to their readership)

People can say Muslims shouldn't be so sensitive to people making fun of them or shouldn't be allowed to oppress the free expression of ideas. Yet no one seems to raise much of a fuss when conservative Christians pressure advertisers into dropping support for TV shows they don't like or having books removed from libraries and school districts.

Iftikhar actually does say he thinks Muslims should learn to ignore these obviously deliberate provocations. While he may not like what the cartoons depict, he also doesn't agree with any of those who think they should take to the streets in protest against them. Call it hate speech, explain why these sorts of things are offensive, but aside from that don't give them the attention they desire.
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Iftikhar also deals with how the media differs in its depiction of similar crimes committed by non-Muslims. How is it that someone who opens fire on the clients and staff of an abortion clinic in the name of his God is not a Christian terrorist? Or a white man who walks into an African American church and shoots nine people isn't called a white terrorist? Yet when two people of Muslim background indiscriminately kill people, including Muslims, as happened in San Bernardino California, the media are quick to label it an act of Islamic terrorism even though the couple in question had no connections to any terror groups.

Scapgoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms is a reasoned and passionate defence against the hate filled rhetoric which has been filling American airwaves and print since September 11 2001. In it Iftikhar shows not only how unreasonable the calls for restrictions on Islam are, but how they contravene the American constitution - Freedom of Religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

He also does a fine job of showing how Americans are actually aiding and abetting their enemies through the rhetoric of hate. By making it look like America, from the government down to the media, are attacking Muslims, they give ammunition to those who would whip up support for armed attacks against Americans all over the world.

Unfortunately Iftikhar is only one voice in a very loud wilderness. While he does his best to write in as direct and straightforward manner as possible, his arguments can't be reduced down to a thirty second sound bite. Whether or not the people who need to read this book will be bothered to, or whether it will change anybody's mind about the subject, is questionable. This is a well written and passionate book defending reason and rationality. But the world is no longer a rational or reasonable place.
(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms)

March 10, 2014

Book Review: IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub


I guess it's appropriate blockades have gone up again on the Tyndengia Mohawk reservation in South Eastern Ontario Canada as I begin to write this review. Here in Canada the First Nations people are usually out of sight and out of mind unless they manage to capture the media's attention with some event which inconvenience the population at large. While the fact the majority of them live in conditions equivalent to the destitution most in the developed world equate with the poverty of the developing world should be news enough in itself to keep them in the papers on a daily basis, we only read about them when anger and resentment over conditions reach the boiling point and spill over into angry protest.

Last winter's Idle No More grass roots movement pushed First Nations issues into the spotlight temporarily, but the government has done its usual good job of simply ignoring, it understanding if they say nothing the media will soon move on to something else. Canada, and by extension North America, aren't unique for their mistreatment and ignoring of the indigenous populations whose lands we now occupy. Around the world, from the South Pacific to the High Arctic, indigenous people are marginalized, starved, pushed off what little land we leave them and generally continue to face bleaker and bleaker futures while nobody seems to give a shit. We give them the worst land available and then pollute or steal it when we discover natural resources beneath it ripe for exploiting.

However, a grassroots collective of writers, activists, visual artists and musicians from indigenous communities around the world have started taking advantage of the communications tools offered them by the Internet in an attempt to get the message out. The Fire This Time (TFTT) has been facilitating the bringing together of musicians, poets and lyricists from indigenous communities around the world via their web server. Individuals can upload music tracks, songs, poems and beats for others to download and create new songs with. These dubs are then released on TFTT's record label, Indigenous Resistance (IR). To date 29 recordings featuring music from The Solomon Islands in the South Pacific to Brazil, mixed by artists from India to North America have been issued. This year they have also released something a little different, the book IR 30 Indigenous Visions In Dub, a collection of writings and images which have provided the lyrical content and visuals used in many of these recordings.
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A number of years ago I had reviewed one of the earlier recordings on the IR label, but somehow or other I lost track of their releases over the years. Which is what makes this book all the more interesting and valuable. For the texts they've selected to include not only deal with the major themes and stories from the indigenous world they've been trying to cover over the years, they also bring the words of some of the more insightful minds among indigenous people together in one volume.

Like the recordings the words gathered in this book come from all parts of the globe. They've included lyrics/quotes from musicians from the Solomon Islands (Tohununo and Pesio), stories about an incident which occurred in Brazil where an indigenous man was burnt alive by four wealthy youth (who received only minimum sentences), articles exploring the ties between the indigenous people of North and South America and African Americans, and quotes from two of the most interesting minds among the North American indigenous population, architect Douglas Cardinal and musician/poet/former chair of the American Indian Movement (AIM) John Trudell. While the story of the murder of the Pataxo Galdino in Brazil is sickening in the way it reflects the indifference of the Brazilian population at large to the indigenous peoples whose land the Portuguese stole it makes valuable reading, if only for the contrast it provides to how we normally see these people. Instead of being gaudily dressed props for pop stars' photo opportunities, these are flesh and blood people barely eking out an existence in some of the biggest and roughest slums in the world.

I have to admit while the points about there being common cause between the situation of African Americans and indigenous people through out the Western hemisphere are valid, some of the attempts to tie their spiritual practices together did stretch my credibility. To my mind the writer was making the same assumption far too many do of believing there is a universal "Indigenous" belief system, when not only would you find radically different beliefs among each nation, but from village to village within the same language group. However, there can be no denying the writer's points about the intermarriage between the two groups or the fact many indigenous populations in North and South America share many of the same physical characteristics of African Americans - the indigenous people of Puerto Rico for example.

To my mind the most fascinating readings in this book are the quotes from Douglas Cardinal and John Trudell. Cardinal's words on the nature of power and the way women are treated are stated so matter of factually it makes you wonder how anyone could act any differently. On women he sums things up very succinctly, "One has to state that all the premises that men have of women are basically wrong and you start from there. Even the language is wrong". He uses the same directness of language in his discussion on the nature of power, "I have learnt...that the most powerful force is soft power, caring and commitment together. Soft power is more powerful than adversarial or hard power because it is resilient".
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Trudell's words resonate with a different kind of power. He is someone who knows the power of the mind and the power of words (The FBI once referred to him as one of the most dangerous men in America simply because of the power of his oratory). In a poem quoted in the book he speaks out against the frameworks of European society imposed upon his people as being the instruments of their destruction. Why should he support purported democracy when all it has done is make of his people (along with African Americans and women) second class citizens who are treated like chattel? "We live in a political society/Where they have all power/by their definition of power/but they fear the people who go/out and speak the truth".

Trudell summation of his oppressors attitudes is spot on. Why, if they believe themselves to be so powerful by their own definitions (money and societal position being the two we value the most) are they so scared of those who speak out about injustice and the poverty of the few? Are they afraid people will see how insubstantial their claims to power truly are?

Our governments give occasional lip service to the plight of Native Americans and Canada's First Nation's people, but their policy of doing nothing and hoping the problem goes away has now become official. New acts passed in both the Federal legislations of Canada and the US are designed to ensure the numbers of registered, or status, indigenous people decline to the point where they can take back the reserves and reservations because there will no longer be enough "Indians". Yet anyone who dares speak this truth is called paranoid and deceptive. Who in fact are the more paranoid and deceptive - the ones cynically trying to get rid of "The Indian Problem" or the ones who are the subject to these draconian laws? (For anyone interested in reading about these new acts I recommend Thomas Kings's The Inconvenient Indian)

From the Sahara Desert to the Australian Outback, the rain forests of Brazil to the tundra of Siberia, the Black Hills of Dakota and northern Alberta Canada indigenous people are seeing the land promised them by treaties gradually stolen away from them. What lives they've been able to carve out for themselves in this post-colonial world are gradually being eroded and destroyed. Their culture is appropriated and turned into a commodity, they are depicted as stereotypes not humans and more and more government policy is being directed towards their destruction as distinct societies.

One of the few means at their disposal to remind people they are living breathing cultures is to find the way to speak with a unified voice - one that is loud enough to be heard around the world. Through their record label IR, TFTT is doing its best to provide the opportunity for those voices. IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub gathers together some of the most powerful words and images used during the creation of the label's 29 recordings in a single volume as an intense collage of ideas and visuals. It offers a far different perspective on indigenous life around our planet than that offered by either governments or your New Age book store. Isn't it about time you read the truth?

(Article first published at Empty Mirror as Book Review: IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub)

August 19, 2013

Book Review: Music, Culture & Conflict In Mali by Andy Morgan


Can you imagine what life would be like without music? If somehow it became illegal to listen to CDs, i-Pods and even cell phone ringtones in public. Or, if you were a musician, to live in constant fear of having all your equipment taken away from you and destroyed in front of your eyes and the threat of torture, prison or death hanging over you all the time? Maybe you could still play music in the privacy of your home, but only if you made sure all the windows and doors were shut and there's no way the sound would leak out into the street where somebody passing could hear.

Sounds pretty far fetched doesn't it? There's no way it could happen. Well that's exactly what happened in Northern Mali from around March 2012 until very recently. For Malians what made this even worse was how large a role music plays in their culture. Not only does music provide them with the same pleasure it does everybody else in the rest of the world, it is also a significant part of their cultural identity. From those who rely on traditional bard type figures known as griots, oral historians to their people whose songs can recount everything from the history of a family to a listing of the significant moments in a nation's history, to people like the nomadic Tuareg who rely on music to pass on cultural traditions, music is the backbone of their cultures. If music were eliminated for any length of time it would result in cultural genocide.

So how did this atrocity come about? How did music, and Mali has become famous for producing musicians of international calibre, end up being made a criminal offence and being a performer meant risking your life? The story is both simple - Northern Mali was taken over by Islamic Jihadist who imposed their version of Muslim religious law - and incredibly complicated - there are real problems in Mali which paved the way to make the take over possible. However, a new book written by Andy Morgan, Music, Culture & Conflict In Mali published by Freemuse ( a kind of Amnesty International for musicians) does a wonderful job of not only detailing what happened during that awful period, but explaining why it did, and how it could easily happen again if things don't change.
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Morgan is able to provide information from first hand sources you're not liable to read elsewhere because of his personal connection to the area. He was the manager of the first Tuareg (or Kel Tamashek as they refer to themselves) band, Tinariwen to become well known outside of Mali, for seven years. Through them he not only became known and trusted by the Kel Tamashek, he established relationships within the musical community throughout Mali. So, unlike reports you'll have read in the newspapers which have only told the bare minimum, Morgan is able to not only give us first hand accounts of people's experiences during these events, he supplies us with information about the various factions involved with the uprising, the details of what happened and the historical, political and social context which made it possible to begin with.

Mali, while its population is predominately Muslim, is a secular country, meaning the church has no influence over its governance. The majority of the people follow an Islamic tradition heavily influenced by their own tribal beliefs. They don't adhere to any of the restrictions on men and women associating, the prohibitions against alcohol or any of the more repressive tenets of the conservative fundamentalists. So it doesn't sound like a country ripe for an Islamic government of the kind normally associated with groups like the Taliban. However, over the past fifteen years there has been a gradual increase in the presence of foreign financed and taught pressure groups trying to influence public opinion in favour of this kind of society.

Mali has been victim, like many of the poorer African nations, of corrupt governments and military coups during its short lifetime since independence in the early 1960s. This has led to the type of unstable social and economic atmosphere history has show us is how groups promising stability and order are able to gain power. Of course its only once they gain power anybody finds out their version of order is to take away everybody's freedom. In Mali, they have been working just this kind of campaign - advocating a return to traditional Islamic values as the cure for everybody's ills, without actually saying what that means. Thus they've been softening up the ground for a potential takeover.
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The other important thing needed to know about Mali is the longstanding dispute between the central government and the Kel Tamashek people. Nomads whose territory once stretched from Algeria in the north to Niger in the South, their way of life has been seriously impacted by the encroachment of cities and industry into their lands. A series of rebellions over the years finally resulted in a treaty being signed between the Malian government and the Kel Tamashek in 2006 which guaranteed them certain rights and economic assistance. Unfortunately the Malian government has reneged on the majority of the treaty. As a result early 2012 saw another Kel Tamashek uprising in the North. By March they had succeeded in capturing the three major cities in the region and send the Malian army packing which precipitated the military overthrown of the Malian government.

Unfortunately for the forces fighting for the Kel Tamashek, one of their more powerful factions was led by a convert to radical Islam and had established ties with Jihad groups in Algeria. As soon as the battles were won, he and his allies ousted the Kel Tamashek nationalists and set up their own fiefdom. While the Kel Tamashek's goal was to create a homeland for themselves in Northern Mali, their usurpers saw it as a springboard for taking over the whole country.

Morgan does an excellent job of outlining all the players and the details of what happened in Northern Mali in 2012. However, more importantly he shows us how susceptible developing nations are to this type of take over, with or without the general populations support. As one of the people interviewed said Malians have become so used to being pushed around by the military and corruption they have reached a point where they're just grateful to be alive and have forgotten they deserve more than just survival.

Morgan's connections to people in Mali, both in the music business and otherwise, gives him a perspective on the situation few others can offer to the outsider. Not only do we learn the details of how the music ban has affected culture in the country, but how the uprising has brought disruption into the entire region. While the combined forces of France, Chad and Mali have been able to retake the major cities in the north, the future remains uncertain as the terror groups have simply retreated to their bases outside the country or into the desert.

While there are reports of a new treaty brokered by the French between Mali and the Kel Tamashek it remains to be seen whether the Malian government will be any better in honouring this accord than the ones previously signed. As Morgan so astutely points out, as long as conditions throughout Mali, and by extension the Sahara region as a whole, do not improve, there's no saying we won't see a resurgence of terror activity.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Music, Culture & Conflict in Mali by Andy Morgan)

August 12, 2013

Book Review: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon


The issue of race in North America, specifically the relationship between people of African descent and those of European ancestry (white people) is something most of us don't want to talk about. While there are no laws left on the books discriminating against people of colour, nothing we legislate is going to prevent the way people think or feel. Of course its not just race at issue, it's gender, religion and anything else that marks one group of people as different from another. The problem is further exasperated by the tendency to refer to distinct groups as communities. So in stead of communities being made up of the people living together in a geographic area, a geographic area is made up of various segregated communities

Of course there are those who are always willing cynically make use of the word community in order to further their own ends. How many times have you hear a business man or professional athlete talk about giving back to the community? How opening a chain of fast food restaurants or other business is anything but a grab for a neighbourhoods disposable income is beyond me, but it's amazing how often businesses openings are called gifts to a community as if they're supposed to be grateful for more minimum wage service industry jobs. Also which community are they talking about? Is it everybody within the geographic area, or just the people who are the same colour, sexual persuasion or religion as the person making the announcement?

The notion of community and its subtext of race plays a major role in Michael Chabon's most recent release, Telegraph Avenue, first published by < a href="http://www.harpercollins.ca">Harper Collins Canada in 2012 in hardcover and scheduled for release as a trade paperback in October 2013. There aren't many artists today both talented and brave enough to enter into these types of dangerous waters without seriously floundering or running ashore on some shoal or another. However Chabon not only navigates them safely, he does so with such aplomb its only after you've finished and enjoyed his story you realize the keenness of his observations regarding modern urban life.
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Set in what the author refers to as the freewheeling borderlands of Berkeley and Oakland California circa 2004, with a couple of sojourns into the 1970s, in an ethnically diverse but still predominately African American neighbourhood, Telegraph Avenue details the lives of two families who have intertwined professionally and personally. Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are co-owners of Brokeland Records, a used/collectible record shop barely hanging on by its fingernails financially. Their wives, Gwen and Aviva run Berkeley Birth Partners, mid wives performing home and hospital births according to their clients' wishes and needs.

The two partnerships have worked amicably, with the women's financial success compensating for the men's shortfalls, but events are about to become turbulent enough to shake the foundations of everything they have built. For the boys the threat comes from ex- professional quarterback Gibson Goode, the fourth richest African American in the US, and his plans to open his latest "Dogpile Thang" just down the street from them. Goode's multi-story entertainment complexes not only contain all the latest in entertainment diversions, they also include large used record emporiums selling the same mix of jazz, soul, funk and other classic African American music as Brokeland and at much "competitive" prices.

While the boys fret over what looks to be their impending doom, the women have their own problems. When a home birth develops complications and they're forced to rush their client to the hospital they work with, Gwen gets into an argument with the doctor on call. Patronizing and condescending he pushes all her buttons until she loses it. Unfortunately the consequences of her actions result in him filing an official complaint against the two, which means they could have their hospital privileges revoked and their business ruined. Just to make matters worse the husband of the woman who had to be rushed to the hospital intends to sue them because of what happened.

With Gwen expecting her's and Archy's first child the threat to their finances couldn't come at a worse time. Further straining their marriage is the sudden appearance of the child Archy fathered with another woman before he married Gwen. Compounding Archy's difficulties is the sudden reappearance in his life of his deadbeat father, Luther Stallings, former martial arts champion and star of a couple of Blaxploitation movies in the 1970s. Stallings brings with him not only the smell of failure, but a history with the city politician in Goode's pocket, who also doubles as the local undertaker and is one of the prime movers and shakers in the neighbourhood. Stallings relationship with said undertaker dates back to the days when the Black Panthers and drug dealers vied for control of the streets. Stalling hopes to cash in on this relationship due to his knowledge of certain events and information about the role played in them by the undertaker/city politician.

All these characters and plot lines play out against the backdrop of the faded beauty of the American urban landscape. Chabon's lively mix of people drawn from all ages, backgrounds, gender preferences and ethnicity are the mortar holding this crumbling, but still standing edifice together. When the politicians and business people who look down on them from their lofty perches of commerce and ambition talk about the good an enterprise like Dogpile Thang will bring to the "Community", they are playing a game of divide and conquer. They are trying to sell an image of African American prosperity. However, the reality is a store with little or no economic spin off for other businesses that will create a couple hundred minimum wage service industry jobs while lining the pockets of its owner and his supporters.
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Chabon has captured the way in which these type of people cynically manipulate the race card in order to feed their own ambitions. By making it sound like the opening of the store is some sort of benevolent gesture on their part, giving something back to the "community", all they're really doing is cloaking their greed in a veneer of fake "black pride". Opening a homeless shelter, sponsoring a lunch program for local schools or providing the funding for a recreation centre for neighbourhood people is giving back to the community. Opening a mega store is expanding your retail empire.

On the other hand the crazy mixed up and jumbled mess of people, businesses and streets Chabon describes in Telegraph Avenue is a real community. The premises Archy, Nat and Brokeland records occupy was a barber shop in a previous life. The men who gather in the record store on a semi-regular basis to talk music, life and the whole damn thing are continuing a tradition of community gatherings dating back sixty years or more. The store is a microcosm of the community at large as black, white, Indian, old and young congregate to while away the time in the useless conversations men so dearly love and have specialized in for eons no matter what their backgrounds.

Communities grow from the ground up and can't be created artificially or imposed by those from the outside. These flawed utopias, like the one Chabon describes so beautifully in his book, exist all over urban North America. While the fight between Brokeland records and Dogpile Thang ends in an unexpected way it also shows how change isn't a bad thing for a community, but only if it comes from within and isn't imposed on it. Like any living thing they need nurturing, and if there is any message to be taken away from this book its we've all missed the boat on what's needed for urban redevelopment. Instead of trying to impose order from without, governments and whomever need to help them build from within. Anything that will improve the quality of life for those living in a community from school meals to community health clinics are of far more use than more minimum wage jobs with no future.

Chabon writes in a kind of free flowing stream of conscious. As we move back and forth between his four major characters as they travel through their world and try deal with their situations, their perceptions and observations bring their community to life for us. We join them in the very public ritual of a funeral for one of the community's long standing fixtures, a musician and friend of the boys, and for the very private ritual of the birth of Gwen and Archy's child. We listen in as they do their best to try and hold on when events move so quickly they can't keep up and how they each manage to find a way to meet the needs of the occasion.

Chabon has managed to capture the essence of community. Whether its a family group or people loosely connected through geography and a shared appreciation for the history and traditions of the region, his descriptions of how people manage to coexist, if not in harmony than at least in a state of mutual acceptance, is remarkable. There's nothing neat and tidy about a community, or life, which is what makes them both all the more valuable. Telegraph Avenue is a wonderful celebration of this glorious mess which is a pleasure and an inspiration to read.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon)

July 8, 2013

Book Review: Let's Start a Pussy Riot Curator Emely New, Edited by Jade French in collaboration with Pussy Riot


On February 21 2012 members of the Russian feminist performance art group/collective Pussy Riot put on an agit-prop performance in a priests only section of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Accused of religious hatred, two of the members of the group, Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnnikova are now serving two year sentences for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred in separate penal colonies - forced labour camps by any other name. A third member of the group, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was also arrested and sentenced to two years imprisonment, but her sentence was commuted to probation.

The defendants were held without bail from the time of their arrests in March 2012 until their trial on July 30 2012, an indication of how the course of justice is being perverted in this case. The trio claim their performance was not an act of hatred agains any organized religion, rather a protest against the increasing ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and Russia's President Putin. Considering how immediately after their performance in February the Church called on the government to make blasphemy a criminal offence, and it was only after this a criminal case was opened against the band, they have a point.

In Russia, the charge of "hooliganism" is used as a catch all for prosecuting unapproved behaviour. The final indictment of the three women for what was only a one minute performance ran to 2,800 pages. Its rife with statements condemning their blasphemy and corruption of Russian moral values through the importing of feminism and the idea of gender equality. One group, The Union of Russian Orthodox Women, went so far as to warn the population these ideas would inevitably lead to gay overpopulation and Russia vanishing from the world map. The only stumbling block for conservative commentators in their condemnations is the Russian language lacks the equivalent of the slang word "pussy". Which meant television viewers were treated to the site of priests mouthing the word vagina and "mad vagina" as a substitute for Pussy Riot.
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As the Russian government of Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church attempt to turn back the clock to the dark ages, groups and individuals within and outside of Russia have begun the process of trying to secure both Alekhina and Tolokonnikova's release through actions and fundraising activities. One of these fundraising projects is a new book being published by Rough Trade Books called Let's Start a Pussy Riot. As the title implies this is more than just a project to raise funds for the two women still incarcerated, its also a celebration of what the Pussy Riot collective stand for.

Artists from a variety of media and gender have all contributed samples of their work which either reflect support for the cause of feminism or are expressions of their own liberation as individuals not willing to be defined by anyone else's idea's of who and what they are. At issue of course is the continued assault on women all over the world in a variety of situations and circumstances. Whether women being raped as acts of war, subjugated for reasons of religion or just treated as second class citizens in general through the roles their society's designate for them.

In Russia, the United States and other countries feminism is being denigrated as being against the values of respective societies. Who's values? What are they based on? Why are one group of people allowed to stipulate values specifically designed to control the behaviour of another group of people? What gives anyone the right to designate one gender identity more acceptable than another? When we are dealing with something as benign as gender and personal identification what do values have to do with the issue anyway? It's not as if whether a person is gay, straight, bi, female, male, heterosexual, transgendered or whatever is going to affect anyone else's life. The state should take issue with what people do, how they treat others, not who or what they are.

These basic inalienable rights, the right to be yourself, are what each of the artists in this book are defending in their own way. Call it feminism if you wish, but the reality is the fight isn't about equality for women, the fight is for equality period. The fight isn't about women wanting to act like men or becoming men. It's not about gays and lesbians wanting to take over the world and corrupt our youth. No it's about accepting each of them for who they are and letting them be themselves no matter what role they want to play in society as individuals.
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The work in this book has been donated by artists, male, female and transgendered, who are concerned with the issues raised by Pussy Riot. They are concerned at the way simple human dignity is being denied people because of their gender identification. From an essay and interview with Antony Hegarty, lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons, the opening and closing court statements of the three members of Pussy Riot, to contributions from Peggy Seeger, Yoko Ono, Peaches and an amazing variety of artists from across all media and styles, each in their own way are starting a Pussy Riot. Their work will make you think about the issues the collective raises in terms of gender equality and feminism in particular and why the notion that feminism is something whose time has come and gone is a dangerous lie.

Some might be offended by some of the images in the book and not understand what they have to do with the topic at hand. However, you have to remember feminism is about reclaiming control of one's own identity and the freedom of expression that goes with it. The point of this book is to show support for the women arrested and to defend creativity as a means of both protest and an expression of ideas. On page eight appear the words "Call For Action" and they are followed on page nine by a brief explanatory poem/manifesto explaining what the book is about.

"Let's Start a Pussy Riot is a celebration:/A celebration of freedom of speech,/of visibility, of not taking our own situations for granted/Let's Start a Pussy Riot is a creative response:/culture and creativity to form our activism and inform our minds./Writing, painting, singing our opinions in order to get our message heard/Let's Start a Pussy Riot is a call for action:/To use what we have at our fingertips to fight/To show support for those brave enough to speak out/To challenge injustice through dialogue and conversation/To create a response that can say something larger than ourselves."

Supposedly freedom of expression and speech are one of the keystones of democracy. Art in all its myriad forms is humanity's purest form of expression as it allows us to express ideas and emotions realistically, metaphorically and symbolically in ways that stimulate thought and conversation. Once anyone starts to try and limit the means of expression through control of content they are putting limits onto what we're allowed to think and talk about.

Let's Start a Pussy Riot, in supporting the right of a group of women to express dissent, is more than just a book about the rights of women and gender equality. Its an expression of support for everyone who has the courage to stand up and be heard in the face of those who would keep them silent. While the money earned from sales of the book will go towards helping pay the costs of trying to secure the release of the members of Pussy Riot still in labour camps, in spirit it supports every artist around the world.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Let's Start a Pussy Riot - Curator Emely New, Edited by Jade French in collaboration with Pussy Riot)

July 6, 2013

Interview: Alex Cox - Author of The President and the Provocateur


Alex Cox is best known as the director of the films Sid and Nancy and Repo-Man. However, anyone who has seen either of those movies will know he's both an astute observer and intelligent commentator on both society and politics. It was the combination of those two elements which piqued my interest in his newest book, his third to date, The President and the Provocateur, an in depth examination into the assassination of the 35th President of the United States John Fitzgerald Kennedy. As the title suggests the book also deals with the man, Lee Harvey Oswald, who was arrested for the assassination and then in turn assassinated before he could stand trial.

With 2013 being the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination, November 23 1963, all the questions surrounding the two killings will once again come out into the open. For while the official word has always been Oswald both killed Kennedy and acted alone, there have been countless arguments over the years disputing this theory. Cox's book is not just another conspiracy theorists rantings, it is a carefully put together, thoughtful and articulate history of both men, the times they lived through and the events surrounding the assassination. The picture he pieces together is of a President surrounded on all sides by powerful people who have a lot to gain from his death.

After reading the book, I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to ask Mr. Cox a few questions about what he wrote and how he came to write the project. I sent him the following questions by email and reprinted his answers verbatim without any editing. I hope this interview will convince of the integrity of his work and his motivations for writing the book in the first place. He has no axe to grind, nor does he openly support one theory over the other, save to call into doubt the official line of Oswald did it. His concern is to find the truth, and for us to want to find the truth as well.


You're best known as a film director, why the switch in media? Aside from the obvious technical ones, how did your process differ in approaching this project from when you prepare for a film?
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I'm a writer, too. I've written about 40 screenplays and published two books before this one. So it isn't really a switch in media. Books and films complement each other and are equally worthwhile! The process of writing a book is more solitary than making a film, which is a group
activity. But both involve preproduction, production, editing, and a deadline.

It's been 50 years since Kennedy was assassinated, why do you think the subject is still relevant or people will still be interested in it?

It's certainly relevant or Hollywood wouldn't be putting a lot of money into a Tom Hanks film called Parkland in an attempt to convince us that the Warren Commission was right. Nobody believes that story any more - at least, no one who has researched the assassination - but as November 22 approaches we'll see a lot of media energy and corporate money invested in expensive efforts to convince us that Oswald killed the President all on his own. Errol Morris is already making videos for the New York Times with that goal in mind. Oswald - lone assassin! It's the one think Noam Chomsky and Bill O'Reilly can agree on.

The murder of President Kennedy, in broad daylight, by riflemen who got away with the crime, sent a powerful message to the political and media class. Careers were made - think Dan Rather, think Arlen Spector - by those who supported the official version, no matter how ridiculous it was. The theft of the democratic franchise in 1963 still hasn't been addressed. It needs to be, and those who profited from it need to be exposed.

You not only spent a considerable amount of time on Kennedy and Oswald's biographies, you give quite a detailed history of the postwar era leading up to Kennedy's presidency. Why was it important to provide this background and historical context?

Because who knows this stuff? I grew up in this period but if you were born in 1990 you might need a little background info on HUAC, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and the Cuban revolution

It was quite frightening to read about the attitudes of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff towards nuclear war and how they tried to manipulate both President Eisenhower and Kennedy into believing America could win such a war. Was this mindset limited to them, or was this a widespread popular belief at the time?

In the 1950s and 1960s the US military really did believe that a nuclear war was "winnable" and that a surprise nuclear attack on Russia was the very best policy. They even had a date for it - December 1963 - and pushed both Eisenhower and Kennedy to greenlight the surprise atomic attack. To their great credit, both Presidents refused to do it. Today we know that even a "limited" nuclear war (Israel vs. Pakistan, India vs. China, whatever) would cause massive firestorms and a nuclear winter. We would all die. But this wasn't known in the 60s and we have
to be very grateful that Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson had strong characters and were able to say no to the fruit salad. Would Clinton or the Bushes or Obama have stood up to the Joint Chiefs so forcefully?

It might be hard for people today to understand the virulence of the opposition to integration or how governors of individual states could be so outspoken in their opposition of the federal government and the law. How were they able to get away with it under both Eisenhower and Kennedy?
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In Civil Rights terms, both Eisenhower and Johnson were more forceful than Kennedy. As a Democrat, Kennedy felt he had to appease the racist element within his own party -- egregious characters but high-ranking Democratic senators. Johnson came from Texas and whatever his faults he wasn't a racist: he'd already lost the Blue Dogs' support by joining the Kennedy ticket. He was also more interested in domestic politics than Jack Kennedy was.

Kennedy was considered a fairly conservative Democrat, in fact you mention how Rockefeller, a Republican, was actually more liberal than Kennedy. He supported the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Joe McCarthy was an old family friend and he brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war by blockading Cuba in order to prevent Soviet ships from landing missiles. So how did he manage to alienate the ultra right so badly?

Any support for Civil Rights was going to alienate the ultras. They hated Lyndon Johnson, too. But Johnson was politically very canny: his career was financed by a big military contractor, Brown and Root. He gave them the Vietnam War in return. Kennedy humiliated the heads of US Steel, fired the top ranks of CIA and the Joint Chiefs, took charge of printing US currency, and threatened the oil industry with the loss of serious tax breaks. He also encouraged violent Cuban terrorist groups and then deserted them. And he was a Catholic! So there were many
reasons the ultra right disliked him.

You mention a variety of groups and individuals on the right who were both very outspoken in their opposition to Kennedy and his policies and their desires to remove him from the White House. With all the evidence against these people, why was it so easy to convince the public a communist/marxist was responsible for killing the president?

Was the public ever convinced? I don't think so. The media were speedily convinced, but that was a matter of saying what their bosses told them to say. When Kennedy was killed, the general assumption was that right-wing gunmen had done it, and that the Dallas police were in on it and connived in the murder of the "only" suspect.

If Oswald wasn't the one who assassinated Kennedy, a lot of people went to a lot of trouble to set him up as the fall guy. Why him in particular?

Oswald was an intelligence agent - an FBI COINTELPRO infiltrator of left-wing groups, or an IRS infilitrator of right-wing groups, or both - and a former CIA or Naval Intelligence spy, wouldn't he be the ideal fall-guy? He had been "sheep-dipped" so often and so obviously that any agency connected to him was bound to run for cover, and destroy evidence, as we know his FBI handler, Hosty, did.

In order for the assassination to be carried out and for Oswald to end up taking the blame it meant the plot would have had to include people in almost every level of government. The intelligence agencies, the military, the Dallas Police force, the Secret Service and others would have had to be in on it. In the book you provide plenty of evidence in support of this widespread corruption and treason, but the question remains, how could it have happened? How could so many people charged with the protection of the President, who swore oaths of loyalty to their country, or have positions of trust, be traitors?
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In an operation like this, how many people know what's going on? Very very few. Some people were tasked to impersonate a guy, on a rifle range or at the Cuban embassy in Mexico City. Some people were set to be arrested and held in custody while the riflemen escaped. The riflemen (if they were US citizens) were definitely traitors. The Secret Service men who failed to ride on the President's car, permitted the deadly parade route, and rearranged the order of the motorcade, were clearly culpable and guilty of treason. The Joint Chiefs, when they proposed the Northwoods Operation - false-flag terrorist ops on US soil, involving the murder of US citizens - were guilty of treason, too. No matter how many loyalty oaths they signed!

You've had access to what seems substantial amounts of research and documentation on individuals and organizations connected to either Oswald or the assassination in some way. Some witness statements have always been available and were ignored by the Warren Commission or given less weight than others, but has all the information in your book always been available for those willing to ask the right people and the right questions or is some of it coming out now due to access to information laws?

A lot of information came out as a result of the ARRB, itself inspired by the JFK film and the "Free The Files" movement. Some information came from KGB archives, care of Boris Yeltsin. And some is genuinely new information - the "Hunter Leake" story, for instance. And much info in the book was developed, over many years, by researchers writing for The Third Decade and The Fourth Decade. There is always more to be learned, and leads to be pursued!

If this information has always been out there why hasn't there been more of an outcry over the obvious errors committed by the Warren Commission?

There has been lots of outcry. It is just ignored by the major media.

What did you hope to accomplish by writing this book? How do you hope readers react to the book?

I hope it makes the story a little clearer, though it is by no means clear! And that the terribly bad photographic evidence used to convict Oswald after his death can be recognised for the fakery it is.

As a conclusion you suggest America needs to consider forming the equivalent of the Truth and Reconciliation committees formed in South Africa at the end of Apartheid in order to deal with questions people have about events in recent history, the Kennedy assassination being only one of them. Why do you think such a committee is necessary? What do you think it can accomplish, and finally do you think there's any chance of one ever being formed?

There has been such a committee in the US already - in Greensboro, North Carolina, where a massacre of trade unionists and communists occurred in the late 1970s. If we want it, why can't we have it? Whose permission do we have to ask?


Whose permission indeed? If we want the truth about the death of Kennedy, or about anything else we might have doubts about, it is our right as citizens of whichever country we live in to demand it. Governments hide information behind the screen of national security with out ever having to justify themselves. In times of open warfare this argument might have merit, but for events which happened fifty years ago there is no longer any excuse for protecting anyone or anybody. No one should be above the law no matter who they know, how much money they have, or the position of power they hold. A country is not a democracy until this is true in fact and deed.

As long as people believe their government is capable of lying to them than how can that government be said to be of the people? Some people say we get the government we deserve, however it can also be said we get the government we ask for. Shouldn't we be asking for so much more? Cox's book ends with a simple request, a request for the truth. Is that too much to ask for?

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Interview: Alex Cox Author of The President and the Provocateur)

June 29, 2013

Book Review: The President And The Provocateur by Alex Cox


Its a conspiracy theorist's dream. Forget UFOs, the assassination of John F Kennedy, (JFK) the 35th president of the United States, on November 22 1963 remains to this day the most pored over, talked about and controversial event in modern history. No matter how loudly the official version stating Lee Harvey Oswald fired the only shots and acted on his own is shouted from the rooftops, there have always been other voices shouting other theories almost as loudly.

Depending on who you talk to JFK was killed because of a communist plot hatched by a combination of KGB and Cuban interests or a right wing conspiracy of anti-segregationists, the Secret Service, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and right wing members of the military. Of course there are various offshoots of each and even wilder and more outlandish theories to be heard as well. One goes as far as saying Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, the 36th and 37th presidents respectively, were principal movers behind the plot. Trying to the various scenarios straight, let alone judge their credibility, is next to impossible. It's just too much to sort through on your own. Without some kind of semi-objective overview there's not even much point in even trying to make sense of it all.

Amazingly enough, that's exactly what Alex Cox has done with his new book The President And The Provocateur published by Feral House Press. Best known as the director of the films Repo Man and Sid and Nancy Cox is also something of a conspiracy theorist himself. However, anybody coming to this book hoping he will reveal some brand new theory on who killed JFK will be disappointed. Instead what Cox has done is do his best to unravel tangled mess of information and weave it into something resembling coherency with an eye towards as an objective a view as possible. The only slightly subjective note he strikes in the whole book is his scepticism of the official view, Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating Kennedy, as expressed by the Warren Commission.
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Instead of starting with any pre supposed theory about who killed JFK Cox has written a combination history/biography of the era the events took place in and the two men who have become the central protagonists, Kennedy and Oswald. Starting with their early years Cox switches back and forth between the two men in relating their childhoods, education and service records. Of course the differences in their lives are obvious from the start. The Kennedys were and still are the American equivalent of aristocracy and JFK's life was one of privilege from the moment he was born. Oswald on the other hand was born into a poor family in New Orleans and would have lived out his life in anonymity if not for a couple of decision as a young adult.

As the book moves forward we not only learn about the details of each man's life, we are also treated to a history of events occurring the States which end up being relevant to the matter at hand. It's once we hit the 1950s the action for both men picks up. Kennedy's dad, Joe, starts buying his son's political future by bankrolling his campaigns for Senate in preparation for the big push at the presidency in 1960. Meanwhile it was during the 1950s Oswald, a Marxist, defected to Russia where he renounced his citizenship and took up permanent residency in Minsk. As a Marine he had been stationed at facilities where operations involving the U2 spy planes were planned. However, it does not appear as if he was ever debriefed or even questioned by Soviet intelligence, the KGB. He merely took up the life of a factory worker in Minsk where he met the woman who would become his wife. However, while Kennedy was prospering back in the States, Oswald was discovering life in the Soviet Union wasn't all he had hopped for. Claiming he was bored and missing the material pleasures of the States, he negotiated with the Russians for exit visas for him and his wife and permission from the Americans to return home.

It was also during this time, the Eisenhower presidency of the late 1950s, things were starting to heat up domestically in the US. The slow progress towards the end of segregation had begun in the southern states and in reaction to the baby steps taken by the federal government attempting to ensure voter rights extreme right wing groups began organizing and bolstering their memberships in order to fight back. This was also the time America began stockpiling and testing nuclear weaponry, including early Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching targets in Russia.

By the time Kennedy took office in 1960 the ultra militant right wing had established not only various organizations through out the South, including armed militias, the Ku Klux Klan and other even more shadowy organizations, but had established a network of well placed operatives in the military, intelligence and police communities, including most members of the White House Secrete Service team. Cox's book, drawing upon FBI records and other reputable sources, does a very good job of not only detailing and offering credible proof as to their funding, power and influence, but detailing their memberships as well. Serving army generals, police chiefs, CIA field officers and millionaires who made their fortunes from oil were all on record as supporting one or another of these groups advocating violent opposition to government interference.

However, while this information is vital for establishing there were plenty of people with the motivation to kill Kennedy, Cox explores the even more intriguing way Oswald seems to have been able to be in two places at once many times over the course of his life. While the discrepancies in the accounts of where he and his mother lived when he was a child are easy to understand and explain away, the same can't be said for accounts of his movements in the weeks leading up to November 22nd 1963. According to the CIA Oswald supposedly made a trip to Mexico where he visited the Russian embassy. However, according to what J. Edgar Hoover told LBJ after the assassination, no one matching Oswald's description was seen near the premises. As the FBI routinely photographed everybody entering and leaving the embassy they would know. In fact there is no record of Oswald having ever made a trip to Mexico when he's supposed to have been visiting the embassy.

Cox raises all sorts of other questions about Oswald which not only calls into question his ability to be the assassin but also makes it look like he was set up to take the fall for whoever actually carried out the job. How did Oswald get from the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository down to the lunch room on the fourth floor where he was seen shortly after the assassination took place so quickly after the shooting when there was no elevator to the top two floors? Why, out of all of his employees, did the manager of the Depository mention only Oswald's name to the police as being someone who left the scene when he had sent half his employees home? How is it the police knew in advance Oswald would be involved in the shooting of a police officer in a suburban Dallas neighbourhood shortly after the assassination? Why would Oswald, after shooting the president and then a police officer in two separate incidents, go and see a movie? Why was Oswald never allowed to speak to a lawyer after he was arrested?

Of course those questions are nothing as to the ones Cox raises about the actions of the people who were supposedly there to protect Kennedy on November 22 1963. Dallas had been the last stop on Kennedy's tour through what he and his advisors considered key states he would need to win to be re-elected in 1964, Texas and Florida. In each city prior to Dallas the president's motorcade had an escort of police motorcycles riding on either side, and secret service agents walking either beside the car or standing on the running boards. Why were neither in place for Dallas?
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Motorcades were not supposed to travel along any route requiring the president's car to slow down or break speed significantly, making it an easy target. Why was the motorcade taken on a route which saw it having to navigate both severe left and right turns, making Kennedy an easy target for a shooter? If the president's car comes under fire the driver of the vehicle is supposed to immediately accelerate out of the location. Why did his driver on hearing the first shot ring out bring the car to a complete stop?

These are only samples of the types of questions Cox's raises about the assassination. They are more than enough to raise reasonable doubts about Oswald as a lone nutter theory. Even if you can somehow swallow he was lucky enough to kill Kennedy using a cheap rifle he supposedly bought through the mail, with no previous experience as a sniper or any military records indicating he was any sort of sharp shooter, the idea he was able to carry it off without help is ridiculous.

Now some might be tempted to dismiss Cox's book as the ramblings of yet another conspiracy theorist. However, the only conspiracy he sees is the one which has kept the truth of the assassination from the world until now. He has been incredibly scrupulous in his research and nothing he says or claims is idle speculation. The footnotes for each chapter are in some cases nearly as long again as the chapters themselves as he makes sure to point out the sources for all his facts and quotes. He will on occasion give us his opinion of the source or let us know if he thinks information is suspect. However he is equally sceptical of the wilder claims made about who was in on the conspiracy to kill Kennedy as he is of the Warren Commission and other official reports on his death.

Anyone who has seen one of Cox's films know he is a great story teller, and this book is no exception. He lays out the history of events leading up to and after the assassinations of JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald in a clear and easy to understand manner. He not only does a remarkable job of bringing the charged political atmosphere of the late 1950s and early 1960s to life on the page, but does his best to be as objective as possible. However, what I found most impressive was how he concluded the book. He doesn't end by accusing anyone, or even hinting at where the finger should be pointed. What he does say is the American public deserve the truth. Not just the truth about the Kennedy assassination, but the truth about every contentious issue which has ever captivated the public's imagination.

The President And The Provocateur is not another book postulating some wild and unfounded conspiracy behind the assassinations of President Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald. Instead Cox has taken the killings and put them into their historical context. He has also assembled what seems like every scrap of information ever reported on or recorded by a human being concerning the murders. While he makes no claims to know what exactly happened, who or how Kennedy was killed, the points he makes calls into question what currently stands as the official explanation for his murder. If reasonable doubt is grounds for acquittal in a court of law, shouldn't it also be grounds for a careful re-examination of history? The evidence Cox provides in his book is more than enough to raise reasonable doubts about the findings of the Warren Commission and any subsequent official inquiry into the killing of the 35th president of the United States of America.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: The President and the Provocateur by Alex Cox)

April 27, 2013

Interview: Augusten Burroughs Author of This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't


You can't walk into a book store these days without seeing them. Self-help books. Not only is there usually a section reserved for them, they can take up the majority of some store's floor space. It seems like almost everybody with a pulse has the perfect solution for making your life better. There are self-help books on everything from how to lose weight to how to deal with the pain of heartbreak. You can buy a book that will tell you how to find your perfect match and right beside you'll find another book on how to dump him or her when they turn out not to be so perfect.

Normally I wouldn't be caught dead in that section of a book store let alone reading a self-help book. However, when I found out Augusten Burroughs, the man who wrote Running With Scissors, Dry, You Better Not Cry as well as a number of other books had published something people were calling a self-help book I was intrigued. This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't turned out not to be nothing like any self help book I've ever come across for any number of reasons. The main one being its author appears to not only care about what he's talking about, but you also get the impression even if he's not lived through something he has the empathy and compassion to understand another person's experiences.

So,when I was offered the opportunity to talk with Burroughs, I jumped at the opportunity. However, I ran into a slight hitch, I had a difficult time in coming up with questions. Anything I came up with concerning This Is How he'd pretty much answered in the book. It was that good. Don't despair, I did come up with some question eventually and the result is below. Without further ado - Augusten Burroughs
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You've written very publicly about what some might think are very private matters. How do people react to you when they find out you're the guy behind stuff like Running with Scissors?

They don't react like I expected as they often share something really personal or make reference to something personal. One of the first stores I ever did a reading/signing in was in LA. I looked at the audience and it was full of well dressed cool people, people who I thought would never be my friends in real life. I was really nervous. But afterwards people were coming up to me, and telling me stuff that had happened to them. I'm constantly surprised by what people share. They tell me how much they identify with the books or certain parts of them and that leads them to share highly personal events in their lives. I've had perfect strangers, some of them people you might recognize, come up to me and tell me things. It's actually kind of daunting because I feel a responsibility to them. However, the implicit trust they have in me that allows them to talk to me is a real gift.

Writing has enriched my life in ways I never imaged. When I first thought of being writer I had visions of stacks of books in stores with my name on them, that sort of thing. But I never imagined this would be the reaction. I was just at a book signing in Portland Maine and three young women, maybe in their early twenties came up to me. One of them mentioned she had just lost her younger brother. Then one of the others said they were from New Town in Connecticut, you know where the shootings took place and it turns out all three of them had lost a younger sibling during the shootings. They had come to the signing because they wanted to tell me how much This Is How had helped them deal with their loss. I can't begin to describe how this made me feel

(There was a kind of awe in Burroughs voice as he recounted the details of the three young women, as if he couldn't believe he could have had this kind of impact on someone. I could tell he was still incredibly moved and more than a little awed by the fact they had come to see him just to tell him about the book. This had just happened the night before our interview and I think he might have still been feeling a little overwhelmed by the event as I could still here the wonder in his voice)

What are you hoping/ have hoped to accomplish by telling your stories ?

I just want them to be useful. I think if you're going to write this type of book, a self-help book, you have a moral obligation to the people who read it to make it something that will be of use to them. If you write these books you have to have done the work, or at least gone through something similar, or how can you talk about the experience with any authority? Some might call it a case of the blind leading the blind when it's one person telling you something based on what they've lived through. But if I were blind I'd rather have another blind person leading me around because they know what I'm dealing with and they're experiencing the same things.

You cover a huge variety of topics in "This Is How" where most people seem to focus on one subject. Was there any particular reason for this?

(At this point I interjected to tell him how much my wife had appreciated his chapter on Anorexia as it was one of the few books she had read - even with studying the subject when training as a therapist - which had understood the disease. So we talked a little about that before moving on.)

The chapter on Anorexia was the hardest to write in the book. For one thing I've no personal experience with it. But what I discovered in all my readings about the subject is how little actual work has been done on researching the disease. They still make the girls, and it's mainly girls who still suffer from it, keep food diaries (records of what they eat each day) which just makes them fixate on food even more. There really needs to be more work done on treatment.

There's a deeper commonality running through the book aside from the issues relevant to the individual topics. Honesty with yourself is at the root of pretty much everything I talk about. Take for example if a person feels like they are fat and when they look in the mirror all they see is fat. And they say they want to feel sexy, what a lot of people will conclude is they need to be thin to be sexy. However, they might not necessarily want to be thin - the thing they want is to be sexy - so no matter how hard they try they can't get thin because that's not what they really want. What they have to do is figure out how to be sexy without being thin. It's a process of stripping away everything you think you know to get the actual truth. You have to be ruthlessly honest with yourself, almost brutally so, in order to understand what it is you actually want. It can be expensive to be honest as you won't get certain things you want, because it turns out you only thought you wanted them. Only through honesty can you figure out what and how to get the things you want.

Do you have any expectations, or hopes, for what readers will take away from your books in general and "This Is How" specifically?

I wanted to change people's lives, to give them the tools to allow them to experience really profound changes. In the book I describe the things I've done to change my life. When I first had the idea of writing this book the last thing I wanted was to be associated with self-help books, it's such a cheesy category. Most of them just have people chasing after the ever elusive confidence, and most of the time they end up confusing it with competence, which has nothing to do with it. It's funny, people look at me up on stage giving a reading or a talk and they say how confident I am. There's no confidence involved in what I'm doing - I'm just focused on what I'm doing and not worrying about anyone else. You've just got to stop worrying about what other people may be thinking of you and stay focused on what you're doing in the moment.

When I wrote the book I sat down and thought about the things people have shared with me and the issues they talked about. Weight or finding someone to love and be truly connected to. I then tried to take readers through my thought process. There are too many of these books out there which give people recipes that don't work. I'm trying to not only give them the means to work through things but to show them how to do the work.

I noticed you didn't talk about a couple of issues - repressed memory and flashbacks. Was there any particular reason why you didn't address them in This Is How

They're not something I've experienced so I didn't think I should talk about them.

What do you think of the idea of forgiving an abuser as a means of getting on with your life?
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I don't know that forgiveness is necessary. I don't think one needs to spend so much time on the abuser. It's almost like waiting for an apology from your abuser, you're just giving them too much of your energy. Lets define forgiveness - what does it imply? A form of accepting what's happened. Forgiveness is a very loaded word - it means different things to different people. I'd rather focus on getting on with life. I wouldn't want to waste any of my brain cells on forgiving if it's holding me back. The implication is that you're still actively angry with your abuser and you need to forgive them in order to get over the anger so you can move on. However, if you obsess with forgiveness you're still spending time with the abuser and you won't be getting over the abuse.

For example, take what happened in Boston, with the bombs during the marathon. If I had my legs blown off by a bomb, which would I rather be doing. Finding a way to forgive the guy who set the bomb or figuring out a way I could run the Boston Marathon without legs? I'd be doing the second one. That's not the easy choice - it's easier to stay angry and stuck in the past. It's one thing to react to something, but to stay there is not conducive to healing. You've got to move on.

Then there's also the whole issue of there are just some things that are unpardonable. Forgiveness implies a pardon for doing something unpardonable. I'm not going to waste my energy looking into the eyes of someone like the guy who blew my legs off trying to find a way to forgive him for doing something that horrible when there are way more productive ways I could be spending my life. You've got to focus on moving on.

Why should readers follow your advice or even think you know what you're talking about?

(laughs) Who is this guy anyway? I may not have degrees but I've street smarts. I've overcome a lot - sexual abuse, death of a loved one, bad parents and experienced life. My nature is such I not only survived all this but I have thrived. I've always been psychologically ambitious in that I've never been willing to settle emotionally for anything less then what's needed. I've wanted more then that from life. I've learned how to turn the adversities in my life into enriching experiences. You can actually gain a lot from adversities and they make you the person you are today. You can make almost anything a learning or positive experience. I think I offer a good example of how to make the most out of what life gives you and how to keep moving on.

Which is roughly when his other phone started ringing which meant I had run over my allotted time slot. However, let me say a couple of things before ending this. Reading this over I realize it doesn't really capture Mr Burroughs as well as I had hoped. If you've read This Is How you'll know how much of a good example he is for anybody wishing to cope with whatever it is they want to cope with. Yet what impressed me the most, was how talking to him on the phone made me realize how much of himself he let come through in the book. In the book he comes across as compassionate and honest. In my review I had likened him to a loving and honest friend. Well that's just how he comes across in person.

I go back to when he told me about the three young women who talked about losing their siblings and the sense of wonder in his voice at the fact his work was able to help them. There was a humility about him which you can't capture on the page with the written word. He was genuinely grateful, and a little bit amazed, how he was able to help them. Coupled with the sense of responsibility he feels because of the impact his words have on people, this makes him a pretty remarkable human being.

(Article first published as Interview: Augusten Burroughs Author of This Is How on Blogcritics.)

April 23, 2013

Book Review: The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari & Robert Hillman


Whenever I've wanted to learn something about a culture I'd read the stories the people told each other. Not the stories others tell about them, or what's been written about them in history books, but the ones which have been passed down from generation to generation. They could be anything from myths to family histories, but they all contain elements of what a people believe in and their view of the world's history. The more stories you read the clearer a picture you begin to develop of how a people live and what matters to them.

In this era of globalization and cultural homogenization I think its even more important than ever to understand the things which distinguish various peoples from each other. It's become far too easy to make pejorative statements about an entire race or creed because we've not taken the time to understand the various nuances and distinctions among the wide variety of people who make up the population of a country let alone a religion. In the West we are especially guilty of making these types of generalizations when talking about countries outside North America and Europe. One of the most glaring examples of this is Afghanistan.

If ever a country has been the plaything of Western powers it's been this remote country bordering Pakistan and Iran. From the British and Russians manipulating its rulers back in the 19th century to the Russians and Americans using it to fight the Cold War in the 1980s and today's supposed ongoing war on terror being conducted by occupying NATO troops, peace is something that breaks out between what has been an almost constant state of war in the country for almost two centuries. Yet in spite of our countries direct involvement with the affairs of this nation, we know little or nothing about it.
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In the hopes of learning more about the country and its people I requested a copy of The Honey Thief written by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman published by Penguin Canada. Mazari immigrated from Afghanistan to Australia in 2000 escaping the Taliban. Technically speaking this book isn't about the people of Afghanistan, mainly because there is no one group of people who can be said to be Afghanistan. The country is divided along ethnic lines both geographically and socially and Mazari is Hazara. The Hazara now live, predominately, in the central mountainous region of the country known as the Hazarajat.

While the Hazara are the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, one of the first things we learn from Mazari is they have been one of the most persecuted. From the 19th century well into the 20th century they were the victims of what amounts to systematic genocide by the ruling Barakzai family of Afghanistan. When whole villages weren't being exterminated by government soldiers their land was been taken from them. When the members of the royal family weren't busy plotting against each other, they were buying the loyalty of their soldiers and friends by giving them Hazara land.

While the history of persecution obviously colours and shapes the lives of the Hazara people it's only one thread running through the narrative of the people. The stories in The Honey Thief are filled with details which will never find their way into history books. We learn about their ingenuity and their will to survive in spite of what the world throws at them. In "The Snow Leopard", a British photographer is taken into the mountains by a Hazara guide in search of Snow Leopards to photograph, we are given a guided tour of the environment they live in. We learn how the valleys in mountain ranges are used to grow food and how if a valley doesn't have good soil, they will carry soil from other areas into the valley in order to grow crops.

We also learn a little of their philosophy regarding the world around them. In the book's title story, "The Honey Thief", a young man is apprenticed to a bee keeper to learn the delicate mysteries of collecting honey. His new master tells him how he became a bee keeper after he was caught stealing honey by the young man's grandfather. It was thought, he explains to his new apprentice, since he was able to steal honey from the bees without being stung he would make a good bee keeper because bees hate it when people steal the honey they've worked so hard to collect. The bee keeper goes on to explain to his young charge bees, like all domestic animals, are slaves to men, and we steal from all of them.

This tale isn't meant as a morality lesson, rather a lesson in the realities of existence. Be aware of exactly what it is you're doing in order to survive and you will understand why others act they way do in response. Is it any wonder chickens will attempt to hide their eggs or bees attempt to sting us when we keep them enslaved and steal from them as well? This is quite a bit more sophisticated and honest understanding of the relationship between man and the beasts we use for food and domestic work than we hear expressed by most people.
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While the stories are both profoundly beautiful and moving they also serve to fill in the details of everyday life among the Hazara people outsiders would only learn after years of observation. While they might have a natural mistrust of strangers, especially those from other ethnic groups, once a person has shown his or herself to be harmless they will be accepted. Or, unlike other subsistence people whose lives depend on what they can produce from their fields or by the labour of their own hands, they understand the value of education. If the chance arises they will send their children, both boys and girls, to school.

While every Hazara child learns from their parent basic precepts of respect and obedience for their parents and their God, they also recognize there are exceptions to every rule. In the story "The Music School", a mute teenager learns how to give voice to his thoughts with a musical instrument. He is desperate to tell the young woman he loves how he feels about her, but his teacher has forbidden him to play in public until four years have passed from when he began his lessons.

Fearing she will have found someone else in that time he disobeys his teacher, plays for the young women and wins her heart. When he goes to return his instrument to his teacher's house he fully expects to be punished and probably be forbidden from studying anymore. Instead his teacher gives him six gold coins to help him start his new family and tells him to take the instrument home and bring it back the next day for another lesson. As the young man is leaving, stunned by his good fortune, his teacher says to him "God is patient with the obedient, but he treasures the disobedient".

Trying to write out stories which have only previously been told aloud is one of the hardest tasks facing a writer. However Mazari and Hillman have done a remarkable job with this collection of capturing the immediacy which exists between the storyteller and his or her audience. In fact there are times when reading these stories you can hear them being told to you in your mind's ear. There's something about the writing style they've employed which makes them read like they're being spoken aloud to you. The more you read, the more this world comes alive until you can almost picture yourself amongst a community as they gather to hear their stories.

Mazari finishes the book off with a collection of recipes for various Hazara dishes. The instructions for preparing the dishes are stories in of themselves as the various asides offer us even further insights into the people's attitudes towards life. The Honey Thief goes a long way towards belying the impression we've been given of the people of Afghanistan as either savages or ignorant peasants desperately needing to be saved by the West. Stories like this collection should be required reading for every journalist or politician prior to them making public statements about Afghanistan.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman on Blogcritics.)

April 22, 2013

Book Review: This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't by Augusten Burroughs


I hate self-help books. It's not just because I feel they are basically about taking advantage of other's misfortune or on the whole useless. No the real reason I hate them is what the words self-help implies. It always sounds as if you don't get better after reading the book it's your fault because you don't want to help your self. Calling a book self-help is like saying to your readers you can cure yourself if you really want to. Which carries with it the cavil of, if the book doesn't help you it's not the author's fault it's yours because you didn't really want to be well. Nothing better than making someone who has serious problems feel guilty about them on top of everything else.

I'm a recovered substance abuser, have dealt with post traumatic stress syndrome brought about by being sexually abused as a child and live with a chronic pain condition. I had lots of help from two therapists, a yoga teacher and a acupuncturist with the first two issues and I see a doctor regularly for treatment of the latter. There was, and is, no quick fix and I might never completely heal. The one thing I never did was consult a self-help book. I read a couple of books by people who had been through things similar to what I had survived, but that was it. They made me realize others in the world had had similar experiences and had found ways to recover.

All of which might make it sound strange I would be interested in Augusten Burroughs' latest book, This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't, being released by Picador Books Tuesday April 23 2013. However, in spite of it being promoted as a self-help book, all that I knew and had heard of Burroughs made me suspect it wasn't going to be anything like the "I can cure you if you do exactly what I tell you to do" crap lining the shelves of every book store in the world. I didn't even have to get through the first chapter before I knew my suspicion was right: this is not a self-help book at all.
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What it is is a book for people interested in really helping themselves instead of looking for some sort of band aid which will make them presentable to the world. I knew I my first impression of Burroughs was right when he made the claim so called positive affirmations do more harm than good to people with low self esteem. I've never believed standing in front of a mirror telling yourself a lie in the hopes it will convince you to feel better about yourself would benefit anybody. Burroughs not only agrees with this, he quotes a peer reviewed scientific study which proved affirmations actually made people with low self esteem feel worse about themselves. The only people affirmations actually work for are those who already have a high self-esteem. The rest of us only feel like failures when we can't live up to the lie the face in the mirror is telling us - which doesn't do anything for our self-esteem.

Burroughs rips through the New Age gobbledygook pop psychology bullshit that has been permeating the airwaves since some moron said "I'm OK, Your OK" back in the 1970s and passed it off as a cure for what ails us. He shreds jargon with humour and compassion and dispels the myths we have been conditioned to believe about how we're supposed to feel and what our relationships should be like. Along the way he talks about love, death, illness, dieting, addictions, child parent relations and almost every other hot topic you can think of. However, don't come to this book looking for platitudes or expecting to find ten simple steps to a happy life. What you will find are some very simple, basic, common sense truths which might not make you happy, but will certainly make your life better or, at lease more fulfilling. However, be prepared to face another truth, they're might not be anything wrong with your life at all and dealing with that might even be harder than anything else.

Unlike most people who write one of these books Burroughs doesn't have a plan for you to follow. Instead he addresses each of the topics mentioned above individually and head on. He doesn't mince words or sugar coat anything when he gives his opinions. Instead he dissects everything about the subject and lays bare some very simple but breathtaking truths. If you've been dieting for twenty years trying to lose twenty pounds maybe it's time to question your obsessive behaviour? Or as he puts it "If you spend twenty years trying to get something and still don't have it, is it admirable to keep trying. Or did you pass admirable several miles back and it's getting close to straightjacket time" (Burroughs, Augusten -This Is How Picador, New York NY 2013 p. 31)

If dieting hasn't worked after twenty years isn't it obvious by now its never going to work? His suggestion of stopping dieting and just eat what you want and accept the results may not be what people want to hear. However, the reality is you'll be a lot happier and healthier. As he points out once you allow yourself to eat whatever you want (as long as there are no health issues etc involved) you will first get bored with overindulging and second, your body will take care of itself. The reason, he says, diets don't work is because we only want them to work, we don't need them to work. You must want to lose the weight more than you want the comfort you derive from eating.
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Of course this applies to almost anything. If you want to stop drinking, if you want to stop smoking, if you want to stop whatever, you must want to more than you want what ever pleasure you derive from the thing you're trying to stop. It's in this chapter on dieting he says one of the things which convinced me Burroughs knows what he's talking about. "If willpower is required to achieve this goal, that's how you know you don't want it enough on a deep, organic level. Mechanical failure will eventually occur." (ibid. p.35) I've been able to give up drugs and alcohol because I wanted to more than I wanted what they had given me, but I've not been able to give up cigarettes. Willpower got me through the first few months a few times, even a couple of years once, but each time the need for the comfort they provided has sent me running back to them.

Burroughs throws truths like this up in our faces all through the book. Sometimes it makes it extremely uncomfortable to read because, whether you know it or not, you start looking at yourself in the mirror he holds up. However, what's wonderful about this book, is you never feel like you're being judged. Its filled with humour (I now know the two things you never say to an Italian man about members of his family and they both make my wife laugh until she pees), but most of all you can feel his genuine compassion in every single word. Reading this book is like having a conversation with that friend who has never been afraid to tell you the truth but always does so with love in their hearts.

Burroughs doesn't have any letters before or after his name nor does he make any claims to having some great mystical insights (thankfully) into the mysteries of human behaviour. What he does have is a seemingly innate ability to draw upon personal experiences and observations of other's behaviour and distill from them carefully thought out conclusions. Occasionally he backs up what he's saying by quoting a scientific study, but even without substantiation you can't help trusting what he says. Best of all, while he's a firm believer in individuals taking responsibility for their lives, he never once makes you feel inadequate or in any way to blame for your circumstances.

We live in a world of instant gratification. Financial empires have been built around the reducing of human emotions to a commodity sold and packaged on day time talk shows by modern day snake oil sales people. Public self flagellation is not only encouraged, its rewarded with Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes of fame. So when someone like Burroughs comes along and says what he has to say many will not want to listen. Of if they do, won't like what they hear. However, for those who are willing to listen they won't find a more understanding and compassionate voice anywhere. No one book will instantly make your life better, and neither will This Is How. However, it will point you in the right direction so you can begin whatever journey you feel you need to take. Which makes it worth its weight in gold.

(Article first published as Book Review: This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't by Augusten Burroughs on Blogcritics.

February 22, 2013

Festival au Desert 2013 Cancelled Due To Uprising In Northern Mali


Almost since I began reviewing music seven years ago I've been receiving press releases inviting me to attend the annual Festival au Desert. This year instead of my annual invitation I received a release announcing the festival's cancellation due to the ongoing war in Northern Mali. However, the press release did announce they would be holding events in exile. Since the world can't come to North Africa this year they will attempt to bring North Africa to the world.

The situation in Northern Mali is confused right now, to say the least. In an effort to understand the situation better and find out more about what's happening with the Festival I contacted Chris Nolan who is the Festival's North American associate. For those who might not be familiar with the Festival perhaps a little background information is in order. The first Festival au Desert was held in 2001. However its origins lie in an annual Tuareg festival, known as Takoubelt in Kidal and Temakannit in Timbuktu, held at this time of the year. The Tuareg are a widely scattered nomadic people united by a common language, Tamashek whose traditional territory stretches from the Algerian Sahara in the north to Niger in the south. These were times when people could gather in one place to exchange information and resolve any difference that had arisen between tribes during the previous year. While in the past the meeting place had changed locations from year to year, it was decided to create a permanent location for the modern version of the festival. The current location is in Essakane, two hours north of Timbuktu, making it accessible to both locals and international attendees.

Initially the festival was limited to musicians from the region, dancing, camel races and other traditional activities. It has since been opened up to musicians from all over the world. For three days 30 or so groups representing a variety of musical traditions perform for audiences who come from all over the world. It is now not only a celebration of Tuareg culture, but all the cultures of the region and a cultural exchange between the area and the rest of the world. The current dates of the festival were chosen specifically to commemorate "La Flamee de la Paix" (The Flame of Peace). This was a ceremony which took place in 1996 to mark the end of the last Tuareg uprising and involved the burning of over 3000 firearms which were then transformed into a permanent monument. At the time it was hoped the treaty signed between the Malian government and the Tuareg would mean peace for the region and see real improvement in the living conditions among the Tuareg.

Ironically, and sadly, this year's festival has been cancelled because once again violence has returned to the region. The echo of the last notes from 2012's festival had barely died away when a new rebellion sprang up. The Malian government had failed to live up to its obligations under the treaty and there had been sporadic outbreaks of revolt since 2009. This time though it was a full scale and well organized uprising. However, unlike previous Tuareg revolts it soon became apparent this one was radically different. Previously they had been about preserving their land and culture, this time there was a new and rather nasty undertone.
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For more specific information about what has been going on since last January I turned to a series of articles written by Andy Morgan which have been published in various newspapers and gathered together at his web site Andy Morgan Writes. Morgan had been manager of the Tuareg band Tinariwen and helped them make the transition from a regional band to the international presence they are today. Morgan has lived and worked among the Tuareg enough to be able to offer a perspective few others can. One of the most important things he says we have to keep in mind is there is no one voice speaking for the Tuareg. Geography and the nomadic way of life ensure they are scattered over the entire Western Sahara. In each region tribal groups have their own leadership and govern themselves as autonomous units. Therefore those in Mali speak for the people of Mali and no one else. Complicating the current situation even more is the sharp division among those claiming to speak for the Tuareg of Northern Mali.

First there is the traditional chief of the Ifoghas tribe who are the hereditary leaders of the Tuareg in the North. While the chief himself is a traditional Tuareg, his son and heir, Alghabass Ag Intalla, is a recent convert to a fundamentalist form of Islam. He is head of a group calling itself Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA) whose goal is the establishment of an Islamic Republic in the Tuareg territory of North of Mali - known as Azawad. Until recently he and his group were allied with the even more radical Islamic group Ansar ud Dine, headed by Iyad Ag Ghali, another Tuareg convert to radical Islam. It was his group who were responsible for the implementation of Shira law in the region. They also have direct links to and are funded by Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

Al Qaida's funds for their operations in North Mali came from smuggling operations (drugs, arms, cigarettes and people) and money laundering. All activities which would appear to be in contravention of Shira law, but as we've seen elsewhere, when it comes to raising money politicians tend to turn a blind eye to its origins. Iyad Ag Ghali's ambitions weren't just limited to the creation of an Islamic state in North Mali, he wanted all of Mali brought under Shira law. However, he had no claim to the leadership of the Tuareg. When he demanded to be made leader of what was meant to be a Tuareg uprising, he was refused and broke away from the body who most represent the Tuareg's interests, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

Ag Ghali and Ansar ud Dine were able to take over the rebellion as they were the only group with funding. He was able to offer young unemployed Tuareg men money and equipment. As in other poverty stricken areas of the world there's nothing like financial security to bring people flocking to your cause. Philosophy and political ideals fall by the wayside when in competition with cash in hand. The depth of Ghali's followers beliefs can be measured in how quickly they abandoned him when the French troops arrived. It was one of the reasons armed resistance to the combined French, Chadian and Malian armies collapsed so quickly.

However, since hostilities began last year they were able to cause enough damage in the territories they controlled (they had captured Timbuktu and had begun to move South towards the Malian capital) to ensure a massive exodus of refugees from the area. At the same time the imposition of Shira law saw the banning of all music and to forced all musicians, Tuareg and others, into hiding and exile.

While Ansar ud Dine and their Al Qaida backers have disappeared into the mountains and the desert the question of who is leading or speaking for the Tuareg in North Mali still remains unclear. For while Alghabass Ag Intalla and his MIA can lay claim to being heir apparent to the hereditary chief, his father, who is still chief, is said to be opposed to his vision of an Islamic state. Intalla and the MIA have retreated to the Northern Mali city of Kidal where they have been joined by the ruling council of the MNLA. As of early February they were preparing to open negotiations with the French in an attempt to find a resolution to the conflict.

Unfortunately, just because the Al Qaida backed forces have fled the battlefield, it doesn't mean they aren't around. Much like the Taliban in Afghanistan and elsewhere they have merely faded into the background awaiting another opportunity. As long as the French troops remain on the ground they will continue to be dormant, but who knows what will happen after they leave. The only way of combating them is to ensure the conditions that led to their being able to recruit among the disaffected of the region are resolved. This means there has to be some resolution come to concerning the demands of the Tuareg people of the area.
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In an interview Andy Morgan conducted with Ag Intalla by phone near the beginning of February it was clear the MIA are still pushing for the establishment of an Islamic Republic in North Mali. However, as the majority of Tuareg would not be happy living under even his "kinder gentler" version of Shira law, he says some music will be tolerated as long as its not obscene, it's doubtful his vision will become a reality. He's currently doing his best to distance himself from his earlier position of supporting Ansar ud Dine and backing away from advocating violence. However he also says in the interview if you don't want to live in an Islamic Republic, live somewhere else. That's not going to play very well with either the Malian government, the French or the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced by the conflict and want to come home.

When all this is combined with a military coup which overthrew the democratically elected Malian government in March of 2012 and how the conflict has revived old tribal conflicts between the various people's living in the region, the fate of this year's Festival au Desert was in doubt from early on. According to Nolan organizers had hoped they might be able to move the location of the festival into the neighbouring country of Burkina Faso where a number of musicians had gone into exile. The idea was to caravan performers from Mali and the surrounding area to a place which was still accessible to international visitors but safe from the conflict. With the strictures against music and musicians in place that would have meant some difficulties in logistics, but it would have been possible. However when the French and Chadian armies showed up and hostilities intensified the idea had to be shelved. There was just no way they could have guaranteed anyone's safety under the new circumstances.

Aside from concerns of having to shepherd people through a war zone there was the risk of terrorist attacks. With both Al Qaida and Ansar ud Dine followers taking to the hills and desert there was no way to track their movements. Considering the recent hostage taking crises in Algeria and Al Qaida's penchant for fundraising through kidnappings, the risk involved with gathering musicians and foreign tourists in one spot was just too great. Even turning the festival grounds into an armed camp, which would have put a damper on proceedings, wouldn't be a guarantee against a rocket attack.

So, this year the festival will be held in exile at locations scattered around the world. As of now there are events scheduled to take place in Chicago in September and then in Scandinavia in November. Festival organizers are also in the process of arranging for three other performances in North America during July and August, two in the US and one in Canada. Those plans still need to be finalized but as the season advances keep an ear out for announcements about dates, locations and performers.

Of primary concern to anyone who has been following events in Mali has been the fate of musicians under the Shira law imposed by Ansar ud Dine. When I asked Chris Nolan about this he said the majority of musicians are probably better off than other refugees as they do have some financial resources at their disposal. While it's true they had to leave their homes, and any equipment left behind was confiscated or destroyed, they would not be suffering the same level of deprivation as most displaced people. He also reminded me some of the people living in the refugee camps had been there since the uprisings of the 1990s, too afraid to go home for fear of reprisals from the Malian army.

However, he also added we shouldn't underestimate the impact the imposition of Shira law had on the region. Aside from the role music plays socially - he posed the question imagine what your life would be like if all of a sudden all music was banned - this an area where history and cultural identity is kept alive orally through music. Griots, who Nolan likened to European bards, are the keepers of a tribe's history and stories. Through song and music they teach new generations about their history and culture. In recent years Tuareg bands, like Tinariwen, have been employing the same techniques to help ensure the continuation of their culture's traditions and to instil in their listeners a sense of pride in themselves.

According to Nolan the banning of music was an act of cultural genocide with the aim of suppressing the traditions of the indigenous peoples of the region. Once you begin to understand the implications of such a ban, it really makes you wonder how the leaders of any of the groups working towards an Islamic homeland would think they would have the support of either the Tuareg or any of the people native to the region.
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However, as Nolan said, and Andy Morgan confirms in his writings, it's what happens after the fighting stops which is really important. If the status-quo is maintained and nothing is done to address the rights of Tuareg people in the area and their justified fears of retaliation from the Malian army, unrest in one form or another will continue. It seems obvious to me what needs to happen. International pressure has to be brought to bear on Mali - and the other countries in Tuareg territory - forcing them to honour the treaties they signed with the Tuareg. These agreements have done everything from guaranteeing them land, rights and economic opportunities in exchange for surrendering parts of their territory. In what will sound like a familiar story to Native North Americans these treaties seem to exist only to be ignored or broken.

Some sort of international monitoring by neutral observers must be put in place to ensure all parties live up to the conditions of any new treaties negotiated, or the terms of the old ones are being implemented, If these types of guarantees are in place it might be enough to convince people it's safe to return to the region and generate hope for a better future. If people can be given evidence their lives will improve then just maybe the next criminal who comes around flashing guns and money won't be able to turn their heads with his blandishments. There might still be terror attacks in the future, but they won't have the sympathy or support of local people.

The cancellation of Festival au Desert this year is more than just another music festival not taking place.This festival was a symbol of how co-operation between cultures and the meeting of traditional ways of life and the modern world are possible and a benefit to all involved. It was also a symbol of pride and hope for the Tuareg. It was a chance for them and their African neighbours to celebrate their cultures with the rest of the world. For Western pop stars it was a reminder of the power of music and what it was that drew them to it in the first place. "It's one of the few honest things I have been part of in a long, long time...It reminded me of why I sang in the first place." said Robert Plant in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine in March 2003. However, as Chris Nolan and Andy Morgan remind us, the cancellation is also emblematic of the problems which have plagued the entire region for the last half century.

Since 1960 the Tuareg have seen the gradual erosion of their way of life. While their land remains some of the most inhospitable on the earth, its also rich in natural resources. In Niger Uranium mining has not only displaced people but poisoned precious watering holes and upset the balance of nature in one of the most delicate ecosystems on the planet. Even the supposed economic benefits promised have failed to materialize as any profits from the operation leave the country without any spinoff for the local community. The same story is repeated across the Sahara as the Tuareg have been tossed aside in the hopes they will be fade away until the world forgets about them.

The first Arab armies, nearly a thousand years ago, named them Tuareg, rebels - rebels against Islam - in honour of how fiercely they defended themselves and their territory. Their pride in self and as a people which fed that initial resistance remains and continues to propel their efforts to survive. While musicians of other backgrounds were affected by the implementation of Shira law and it has been more than just Tuareg people displaced by the war, they are still the region's flashpoint. This most recent uprising might have been co-opted by those with ulterior agendas, but its origins have the same root cause of all the uprisings for the last 50 years. The Tuareg won't be cast aside or forgotten, and the sooner Mali and other countries face up to that reality the sooner there will be real peace in the region.

Festival au Desert 2013 has been forced into exile. Like the people and music it celebrates its been forced from its home by the very violence whose end it was meant to be commemorating. Hopefully 2014 will see Mali heading in a new direction, one which guarantees all its peoples their rights and freedoms. Most of all I hope next year to receive an email press release inviting me to cover the Festival au Desert at its home near Timbuktu and music will once again ring out across the desert.

(Article first published as Festival au Désert 2013 Cancelled Due to Uprising in Northern Mali on Blogcritics.)

(Festival photos by Alice Mutasa www.placesandseasons.com)

December 9, 2012

Book Review: The Ponderables by Tom Jackson


Almost since we climbed down out of the trees humanity has been trying to define the universe and our place in it. Gradually we developed methods by which we could codify and analyze the information at our disposal in order to formulate answers. At first these took the form of simplistic superstitions based on a myriad of belief systems and myths. However as the years passed and our knowledge grew we developed methods which allowed us to come up with answers based on facts. This in turn created a body of information common to all humanity independent of individual belief systems. It hasn't always been smooth sailing especially when discoveries have flown in the face of accepted wisdom or contradicted the teachings of powerful religious bodies.

For some reason people are more afraid of rational explanations and scientific facts than they are of mysticism and unfounded beliefs. Even today religious fanatics of many faiths not only refuse to accept proven scientific theories, but are insisting their individual beliefs be given equal status in spite of there being no proof as to their validity. One of the reasons they're able to get away with this is the majority of people know almost nothing about the various rational means used to define the universe. For some reason most of us see these areas of study as completely inaccessible and assume they can only be understood by a few people. A new series of books by British science author Tom Jackson, The Ponderables goes a long way towards refuting that sentiment. In fact, judging by the first three volumes; The Elements: An Illustrated History of the Periodic Table, Mathematics: An Illustrated History of Numbers and The Universe: An Illustrated History of Astronomy, this series will not only help demystify science it will remind people of just what an amazing and magical world we live in.
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Each of the three books shows how our awareness and knowledge of its subject matter has developed over the course of human history. However instead of merely recounting dry facts and figures Jackson manages to bring the individuals responsible for some of the world's great scientific breakthroughs to life by not only recounting their discoveries but telling us the story behind them. Divided up into a hundred great milestones in each area's history we are able to witness the growth of awareness and knowledge from the time of ancient Greece to the present day. Each book also comes with a handy dandy 12 page pull out timeline that can be used for quick reference. On the reverse side you'll find twelve pages of information specific to each subject. Seasonal star charts in The Universe, great mathematical enigmas in Mathematics and a chart of elements in their atomic order in The Elements

Aside from talking about the various individuals and their discoveries, each section not only contain illustrations which help to explain their significance, Jackson also includes explanatory notes ensuring readers won't have any trouble understanding what's being discussed. While this is not some simplistic "science made easy" type of book, Jackson has the ability to make the material accessible and interesting. Not being a person with a significant background in the sciences I was pleased to see he doesn't make any assumptions about his reader's knowledge. Yet at the same time not once do you have the feeling that he's talking down to you. It's like having a well educated and personable tour guide through the history of each subject.

Of course it doesn't hurt that he includes such historical events like Hennig Brand (a 17th century German alchemist) being the first on record to discover a new element. Boiling his urine down he watched as it began to glow in the dark and named the resultant powder phosphorus. But it's not just elemental scientists who know how to have fun, mathematicians are no slouches either. The Russian Ladislaus Bortkiewicz developed one of the main tools used in statistics in 1898 when he computed the odds of a Prussian cavalryman being killed when kicked by a horse. Or did you know astronomers have come up with a term for the opposite of The Big Bang which created the universe. They call it the Big Crunch - but don't worry they figure we've got a few billion years until all of matter collapses in on itself.
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Those unfamiliar with the history of science might also be surprised to discover that Astronomy has proven to be one of the most contentious issues down through the ages - at least in the Western world. Starting with Aristotle in ancient Greece it was believed the earth was at the centre of the solar system and everything, including the sun, revolved around us. This fit in nicely with the Catholic Church's view of the world and anybody who disagreed with them ran into all sorts of trouble with the Inquisition. In spite of being able to offer conclusive proof that the earth, and the other known planets revolved around the sun, Galileo Galilei, facing jail time and potential burning at the stake for heresy, was forced to recant his theories. It wasn't until 1992 the Vatican apologized for its mistreatment of Galileo.

Of course that wasn't the first time he had gone against conventional wisdom. There was also the incident with the two canon balls of different sizes which he dropped off a building and observed they both hit the ground at the same time. Up until then accepted doctrine was the larger object would fall faster than the smaller one, but Galileo's simple proof showed how gravity doesn't care about size and exerts the same amount of pull on all objects.

Watching human knowledge grow over the centuries is both fascinating and revealing. For not only do we grow to understand how its a cumulative process, we also realize that most of the information was there for anybody to discover, it was only a matter of observation. As our technology has become more sophisticated so has the equipment we use for making our observations. We've gone from watching the night sky through simple telescopes to high powered observatories to finally the Hubbell telescope in orbit. The observation of particles has graduated from microscopes to electron-microscopes to super conductors.

However, what I find most impressive about Jackson's books is how they manage to convey the wonder and magic of the universe we live in while showing there are rational explanations for all that we see. Knowledge helps us to understand the world around us and in the process deepens our wonder as we realize how special and rare it is. The Ponderables series introduces us to some of the most important people and events over the course of humanity's history who have been responsible for unveiling the world's mysteries. After reading them you can't help but be excited by the magic still waiting to be revealed.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Ponderables by Tom Jackson on Blogcritics.)

November 13, 2012

Book Review: The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account Of Native People In North Americaby Thomas King


That Thomas King is sure one good writer. He writes those funny stories about Indians. Not funny ha-ha, even though sometimes they are that too, but funny that's kind a weird funny. Like his Indians aren't Indians like you know them right. I mean some of them are doctors, some of them are lawyers, some are university professors, some are professional photographers and there's even some who are private detectives on the side. Hardly any of them ride horses or wipe out pioneers or hunt buffalo and they all talk really good English. Weird huh?

Still they're good stories, even though sometimes they're hard to understand. Sometimes he gets things mixed up like the way he has white people cheating his Indian characters or the way the government will try to pull a fast one on Indians by destroying their land with damns. I think he needs to read his history again so he can get his facts straight. Especially now after I read his latest collection of stories published by Random House Canada, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account Of Native People In North America
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Whew, that's one long title that one, but the book sure is curious. For he goes on and on about the ways in which white folks have mistreated Indians. First of all there's not much that's funny about this book, that's for sure. Second of all there aren't really any stories in it. When you read it you'll see what I mean about how he needs to read his history books again though, cause the version of events he tells isn't what we've been told in movies or books that we read in school. I'm sure he's not meaning to tell things differently. I mean it's easy to be confused by history as its usually about things that happened a long time ago. But, I wonder how he could have come up with such different versions of events. Or there's other stuff he talks about I'd never read about or seen in a movie.

Okay, maybe that kind of reaction is unfair. However, from New Age bookstores, movies, history texts, memorial plaques and baseball stadiums you'll find Native Americans - or First Nations people as we say in Canada - being misrepresented, stereotyped and sometimes outright lied about. How many reading this aren't going to understand what's wrong with making a team's mascot a Native? You don't have to look very far to hear somebody say "We won didn't we - they should be glad of anything we give them and stop complaining".

King's book deals with the very specific history of what government after government on both sides of the 49th parallel, he doesn't even attempt to talk about the situation in Mexico, have referred to as "The Indian Problem". First it was a problem of what to do with them because they were on land that we wanted for settlers. Then it was the problem of what to do with them when the land we gave them was discovered to have valuable natural resources under them. Now it's a problem of what do to with them period. They didn't have the decency to die out when we tried to kill them and then they had the nerve to reject all the advantages we tried to force on them through residential and boarding schools.

There are those who say Indians should stop living in the past and forget what happened and concentrate on making a bright new future for themselves. Of course most of the ones saying things like that are those who would prefer they not learn the lessons of the past thus leaving themselves open to being dispossessed of what little they have now. King takes a look at this argument and shows why its so disingenuous and dangerous. The problem is, no matter how governments on both sides of the border word their policies, they still have the same goal as the ones implemented two hundred years ago. Instead of trying to figure out how peacefully co-exist with the original inhabitants, everything is still based on eliminating the "Indian Problem".

Instead of trying to kill Indians with bullets or forcing them to assimilate by locking their children up in the equivalent of jails being passed off as schools, governments are now trying to eliminate Indians legally. In both Canada and the United States there is an official government designation that qualifies a person as an Indian. In order to live on a reservation or be considered a member of a band one has to have that official designation. If there were no people with that designation there would be no need for reservations on either side of the border. So, why not just gradually eliminate the designations?

If you think that sounds highly unlikely consider this. King quotes Census figures from both America and Canada which show as of 2006 only about 40% of the Native population in North America are considered legally Indian. He then goes on to outline how both governments are now proposing new legislation, which if enacted, would work towards reducing that number even further and eventually to zero. The long term goal being the complete elimination of anybody who is a member of a band that signed a treaty giving them control over land.
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It's the land stupid. It's always been about the land. Which is why it's so important to look at the history. As King points out you don't even have to go too far back in history to find proof of that. As recently as 2006 real estate developers in Ontario Canada started selling and building a housing development on land that was claimed by the Mohawks of Grand River. It was on land given them by treaty, appropriated by the Ontario Government with the promise of it being returned, and then sold by local town council to developers.

That dispute ended with the government awarding a compensation package of $20 million dollars to, drumbeat please, the people who bought houses, the developers and local businesses for the inconvenience caused by Native people blockading the highway protesting their land being stolen. As for the treaty negotiations in regards to the disputed territory - well they might get around to them sooner or later.

So the easiest way to make sure this problem never happens again is to ensure there is no one around to make any legal claim to the land. Oh sure they're couching the policy in the same old paternalistic language they've always used when talking about Indians. It's good for them. The great White Father in Washington/Ottawa still knows whats best for those childlike savages. Think of how much happier they would be in the real world where they have all the opportunities the rest of us have. So what if they have no education, no capital and no desire to live like that. So what if they think they have some sort of sacred connection to the land. So what if that's not what they want, we know better. Anyway, what are they doing with all that land except letting it go to waste? Give them the opportunity to sell it at fair market value and see how quickly they learn to love our way of life.

Of course when Indians have the nerve to try and buy up land at fair market value, why that's another matter all together. King recounts what happened when a band in Arizona began using some its profits from their casino to buy land around the city of Glendale. Local politicians acted like they feared they would be scalped in their sleep or they were in danger of having flaming arrows shot down their throats because a few hundred acres of land were sold to Indians.

As somebody else said earlier, that King is a good story teller. Here he's not telling stories, he's telling history. A history that's not going to be everyone's liking as it runs contrary to most people's idea of Indians. Unfortunately its far more accurate than any version Hollywood has told them, the one being sold in New Age book stores or that which is offered in text books. While at first you might feel like King is softening the blow somewhat by injecting his dry humour into the proceedings, the more your read the more you realize its the type of laughter that's closer to tears than anything else.

For as King points out the war against Indians isn't over, only the battlefield has changed. Spin doctors have taken the place of generals and uranium tailings and tar sands' waste product the gatling gun and cannon. As far as our governments and business leaders, the ones who see no problem with exploiting and raping the land for everything its worth and not caring what condition they leave it in for those who come after them, Indians are every bit as inconvenient now as they ever were. For in spite of everything we've "done for them" they still insist on trying to retain their own belief systems and defending what few rights they have left to them. They just don't know when they're beaten.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious History Of Native People In North America by Thomas King on Blogcritics.)

May 21, 2012

Book Review: The Sly Company Of People Who Care By Rahul Bhattacharya


The world is pitted with pockmarks left behind by colonial powers. Festering black holes of poverty and anger are the hallmarks of countries built upon the backs of slave labour and indentured servitude. While Africa and South East Asia are the areas most often associated with countries still trying to crawl out from the burden of being an European subject, the Western Hemisphere has its own colonial heritage. Unlike in other parts of the world those looking to exploit North and South America weren't able to do it on the backs of the indigenous peoples. Rather unreasonably they preferred to die rather be forced to slave for those who would be their masters.

Which is why almost anywhere there were European settlements in the Western Hemisphere, from Canada to South America, there were also slaves. If, once the slave trade had been abolished, the land owners still needed cheap labour they used the next best thing, indentured servants. In exchange for the promise of a new life poor people in other parts of the world were given passage to the new world in exchange for agreeing to work as virtual slaves for a period of at least five years and sometimes seven. In Guyana, formally British Guiana, on the North East coast of South America, the scars from these practices are still open wounds.

In his recently published book, The Sly Company Of People Who Care from Picador Press, author Rahul Bhattacharya takes us on a long strange journey into the soul of probably the poorest county in our hemisphere. One of the main reasons for Guyana's poverty were the practices employed by her former colonial masters, the Dutch and the British. It was the Dutch who brought thousands of African slaves to the country. They did the back breaking work of making the costal areas not only habitable but useful for agriculture by shifting thousand of tons of earth and mud to construct dikes and canals by hand. In theory the former slaves were given the opportunity to buy some of the land they had previously worked. But the government, urged on by their former masters, did their best to make sure the former slaves would fail.

The slaves' place on the plantations were taken primarily by indentured servants brought in from the poorest parts of India. However, unlike their African counterparts, once the Indians had served their contracts they were given assistance from the government to ensure they could make a go of farming and establishing themselves. This was a deliberate attempt by those in power to create resentment and animosity between the two sets of downtrodden people. For naturally the descendants of the African slaves resented the favours granted the late comers. Political parties were formed along racial lines, and while there were some who attempted to bridge the gap, even today the divide is the biggest cause of unrest and violence in Guyana.
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Bhattacharya's story centres around the experiences of a young Indian national who decided to chuck his career as a sports journalist covering cricket around the world to spend a year exploring Guyana. What he quickly discovers, although there are very few pure blooded descendants of either racial group left, the divisions still run deep. Therefore he naturally spends the majority of time in the company of those who trace their ancestry back to India. Ironically they know little or almost nothing, of the language or culture they left behind and like their African counterparts speak a localized version of the Caribbean patois.

While the book is called a novel, Bhattacharya, was himself a former cricket journalist and spent time in Guyana exploring the country and getting to know its ins and outs as best he could. The impression he creates is of a country of extreme contrasts. From the below sea level coastal area where the majority of the population is crammed into dirty and crumbling cities where poverty and the ugliness that accompanies it is the norm, to the breathtaking natural beauty of the rain forests and exposed and wild grasslands bordering Brazil. While the transition from city life to the rainforest is made in stages; first by bus, then boat and then on foot to small settlements in the bush, on a visit to Brazil he discovers the demarcation line between the forrest and the grass land is much more abrupt. As he describes it one moment your amongst trees and the next all your eye can see for miles in any direction is swaying grasses.

Well the natural physical beauties of Guyana are spectacular, including the Kaieteur Falls the world's largest single drop waterfall, Bhattacharya's book concentrates on the people his character meets and describing their lives. It seems like alcohol and ganga play a substantial role in the lives of the men he meets, which could also explain why it feels like every gathering carries with it the potential for violence. Like any poor community there are those who are always looking for the quick way out - the one scam that will get them ahead of the game. This lends a certain air of desperation to all their actions and contributes to the ever present whiff of danger one senses. Too many people walking the knife edge of seeing hopes dashed time after time but still willing to bet everything they have on some desperate adventure.

The other impression created is of a whole nation adrift. With an economy in tatters, the only people making any money are the ones shipping cocaine from Columbia through Guyana to points further afield and those living off the bribes they pay out. While this is a work of fiction, one has the feeling the characters the author has created are based on people he met during his time in Guyana. Nobody sees any further ahead then how to get through the next little while. There's no talk of the future or planning ways to get ahead. There might be boasting of things done in the past or far fetched dreams of maybe immigrating to America, but that's as far as it goes. Depending upon which community you find yourself in, African or Indian, there's always the recourse of blaming the misfortunes of the country on the other. If it weren't for them why things would be better.
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Like those he falls in with, the lead character in Bhattacharya's story is seemingly content to drift aimlessly for the year his visa lasts. This includes a rather strange affair he has with a local woman which he falls into apparently from boredom. He knows it can't last, he has to catch a plane back to India on a specific date or face serious trouble, but at times he pretends to himself there's more to it than just something casual. She's not as stupid as him concerning the affair, but in other ways she's pathetically ignorant. She's the cause of his one great moral dilemma just before he's to leave the country, not what you think, and he fails the test quite miserably.

In some ways our narrator is not a likeable person. He's the ultimate dilettante as he plays at being poor and living the drifting life style of those around him. However, unlike them he has his passage out pre booked and paid for. He has a life and a career to go back to and the stability of a home waits for him in his native land. While he drinks their rum and talks their patois, and one of the delights of this book is how well Bhattacharya has managed to recreate the various dialects on the page, it's all a pretence for him. He's still a reporter at heart and no matter how much he thinks he's involved with what's going on he remains sufficiently detached to be able to report objectively on people's behaviour. His only saving grace is at least he's honest enough to apply the same critical eye to his own behaviour.

The Sly Company Of People Who Care is an interesting read for the light it shines on one of the world's forgotten communities. Guyana, like so many countries abandoned by those who exploited its people and natural resources after they milked it for all they could, has been drifting aimlessly in an ever increasing downward spiral ever since its independence. With little or no opportunities for careers the few who are educated leave for greener pastures as soon as possible and those who remain behind sink further into poverty and anger. One is left wondering how much longer it can continue to drift before it runs aground. It sounds like only luck has prevented it from succumbing to the horrible ethnic violence we've seen other former colonies descend into. However, unless something happens to enact healthy change soon that's a tinderbox only the right spark away from being ignited.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Sly Company Of People Who Care By Rahul Bhattacharya on Blogcritics.)

May 8, 2012

Movie Review: Oka


In North America the coming of Europeans spelled the end for the traditional lifestyle of those already living here. It didn't matter whether people had been hunter gatherers or agricultural what they had known before was taken away from them. The former saw the territories required to sustain them taken away and their food supply either deliberately exterminated (the American buffalo) or reduced in population as their habitat was eroded by civilization. In the case of the latter it was usually a case of being forcibly removed from arable land to make way for European settlers and moved to areas unsuitable for the crops they were used to growing.

European colonialists employed similar policies the world over as their influence spread. However, there were certain parts of the world where the native climate was so hostile that even the hardiest of settlers wouldn't have dreamed of trying to make a go of "taming" the land. Until late in the twentieth century people indigenous to places like the Saharan desert, the far north and the jungles of Africa and South America were able to carry on living much as they had for centuries. Unfortunately that began changing as "civilization's" greed for natural resources has meant that no area of the world is safe from exploitation any longer no matter how supposedly inhospitable it may once have been considered.

Once considered impenetrable and forbidding the jungles of Africa have only recently begun to feel the pinch of progress and development. The people of Central and West African nations are now seeing their lands torn apart by mining for materials for cell phones and other precious metals. The forests themselves are one of the last great sources of lumber, and improving technology has finally allowed companies access to the great trees that have stood for centuries.
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Naturally those most effected by these encroachments are those least able to defend themselves. In the Central African Republic it's the Bayaka people in the province of Yandombe who are most at risk. Pygmies, treated as second class citizens by the other tribes, they've long lived as hunter gatherers deep within the forests. A new movie, Oka, shows how depriving them of their traditional way of life has begun the process of marginalizing them as has happened to so many the world over. Told through the eyes of an ethnomusicologist, Larry Whitman (played by the wonderful Kris Marshall), and based on the experiences of real life ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno who has lived with them for twenty-five years., the movie depicts the Bayaka's circumstances with both intelligence and humour.

Writer director Lavina Currier has created both a portrait of an individual's personal journey, as we follow Whitman from New Jersey at the beginning of the movie to Central Africa, and what happens to a people when they are forced to relinquish the way of life which has defined them for generations. Too often this type of movie falls into one of a few traps. They will either sentimentalize their subjects and make them out to be something they aren't or become a forum for some sort of new age bullshit about the spirituality of living in harmony with nature which comes across like so much "noble savage garbage. Thankfully Currier avoids any of those temptations and allows her cameras to speak for themselves and lets us reach our own decisions about events as they unfold. Even better is the fact that Whitman is never once shown to be their saviour. He doesn't come ridding into the jungle on his white charger and lead the poor ignorant native peoples to victory over his evil compatriots.

Whitman has made its his life's work to record the sounds of the Bayaka's lives including the music they create and the sounds of the world they live in. However there is still one sound he's been unable to capture on tape, the sound of the molimo, an instrument associated with the elephant hunts the people used to conduct. With elephants now a protected species both the hunt and the instrument are thought to be things of the past as the only time the Bayaka will play the instrument is for hunting purposes.

When the movie opens we find Whitman back home in the States looking for funding to continue his work and being told he's in no physical shape to tackle the intense heat of Africa again. In spite of his doctor's warning, "there's no more trips to Africa for you Larry", he refuses to give up his quest to record the molimo. However upon his return to the Central African Republic he discovers things have changed for the worse. The local Bantu mayor has forbidden the Bayaka to enter the forests and confined them to a small village. The mayor hope is to somehow convince the authorities to waive their protection of the Bayaka traditional lands so he can capitalize on a lumber company's desire to harvest the forests in those areas.

Confined to a village Whitman finds the Bayaka have fallen into the same malaise plaguing indigenous people everywhere forced from their lands. Instead of following their traditional way of life they have become dependant on earning what they can from casual labour and have started to succumb to the lure of the material goods money can buy. There's also the feeling that alcohol is starting to play too much of a role in helping them forget their troubles. Only one man seems to have been able to avoid the trap, tribal shaman Sataka and his wife Ekadi have ignored the mayor's edict to stay out of the forest and continue to live there as they always have. (All the Bayaka tribes people roles are performed by members of the tribe. According to production notes online they were initially perplexed as to what was expected of them. They had become so used to people making documentary film about them the idea of acting out something instead of just doing it was at first confusing. Judging by the results it's obvious they caught on quickly enough, as the performance by all are natural and completely believable.)
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When Whitman heads off into the forest in an attempt to find Sataka, in the hopes of somehow hearing the sound of the elusive molimo, the rest of the tribe, knowing how hopeless he is at surviving on his own, set out after him. It's through these scenes in the forest that Currier makes her strongest arguments against the displacement of peoples from their habitat. Simply watching the Bayaka moving through the undergrowth with ease compared to the struggles Whitman experiences simply walking the same paths, tells you all you need to know about them and their environment. Contrasting how they are in the forest to their lives in the village nobody can doubt which is truly their home.

Currier has taken full advantage of her media, sounds and visuals, to get her message across. By allowing us to see and hear the forest and how the Bayaka interact with it, it's obvious where they belong. At no point does anybody make any speeches, nor are the lives of the people being portrayed sentimentalized. When Whitman argues against a proposed elephant hunt, the Bayaka look at him as if he was crazy. Elephants have been a traditional staple of the people for as long as they've been there. They provide enough meat to feed the entire tribe for long periods of time, why shouldn't they hunt it? "Don't you like meat?" they ask him. The harsh reality of the hunter gatherer lifestyle doesn't allow for any room to sentimentalize one's source of food.

Oka is a wonderful movie on a couple of fronts. For not only does it do a wonderful job of telling the story of how Whitman and his obsession with recording all the sounds and music associated with the Bayaka people, it is as honest as portrayal as you'll ever see of the effects of displacement upon a people. Here are a people who if left alone would simply carry on as they've done for generations. Ideally suited to their home environment, they don't need to be rescued, they need to be left alone. Unfortunately we don't have the greatest record when it comes to leaving things alone. Maybe films like this one will help us understand how somethings are fine just the way they are and in some cases change isn't necessarily for the better.

Oka was first released in theatres in October 2011 and is being shown in selected theatres on specific dates around the world. Check the web site for dates of a screening near you.

(Article first published as Movie Review: Oka on Blogcritics)

May 2, 2012

Book Review: William S Burroughs Vs. The Qur'an By Michael Muhammad Knight


I had a really strange experience while reading William S Burroughs vs. The Qur'an, Michael Muhammad Knight's latest book published by the Counterpoint Press imprint Soft Skull Press. I was almost finished the book and all of a sudden came across my own words staring back at me from the page. It was surreal to find myself being quoted in somebody else's work to begin with, but even weirder to see how the words dovetailed with Knight's theme.

The quote was from my review of his book Journey To The End Of Islam and I had said something along the lines of how if more people were as brave and honest as Knight was in discussing their religion the world would be better off. He freaked out. "The brave and honest porkshit is artistic and spiritual sabotage. When someone puts that psychic poison on you how can you ever write a word?" That might sound like he's being ungrateful, even petulant, but in the context of the book it actually makes perfect sense and I get where he's coming from. For while his books have been all about telling people all about his quest to find himself within his religion, people have started looking to him as if he's the answer to that question for themselves.

In William S Burroughs Vs The Qur'an Knight details how his search for his place in Islam inevitably lead him to an earlier generation of white Western converts to Islam. In particular he tells of his attempt at writing the definitive biography of his Anarcho-Sufi hero and mentor Peter Lamborn Wilson, also known as Hakim Bey. The first part of the book is taken up with his recounting his times spent with Wilson and excerpts from the biography he's destined never to finish. We learn that Wilson's Islam has its sources in both the experiences of Burroughs and other Beats (Paul Bowles, Alan Ginsberg and the rest) in Tangiers during the years of the International Zone and the Moorish Science Temple of America founded by Noble Drew Ali of Chicago.
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While I can understand Knight's attraction to the idea of an Islamic lineage with white American roots, the more he begins to detail Wilson's life and experiences the more I began to wonder whether he was clutching at straws looking to this guy as any sort of spiritual guide. From his experiences with LSD guru Timothy Leary to his wanderings through India he seemed more intent on discovering his capacity for ingesting drugs than any sort of spiritual advancement. It isn't until he ends up in Iran in the 1970s that he even settles to any sort of apparently serious spiritual advancement. Even that is tainted by the fact that the group he joins, The Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy, is described by Knight as "a politically ambitious mystico-fascist cult" whose purpose seems to be give the then Shah of Iran the veneer of spirituality.

However, while his association The Academy raises some doubts in Knight's mind, it's not where or who Wilson studied with that's important. It's how he studied and his experiments with various sects and forms of Islam that Knight identifies with. Then there is the whole issue of lineage. In Islam a spiritual teacher's credibility is increased by those he sites from previous generations as being the sources for his wisdom. Wilson traces his lineage back to Medieval times and the leader of the alleged drug crazed sect notorious in the West known as the Assassins, Hassa-i Sabbah, via William S Burroughs. The sect were famous for their doctrine of Qiyamat which cancelled all religious laws which according to Wilson was a call for all Muslims to realize the "Imam of his own being".

For Knight this more or less says each of us our are own god, the basic tenet of the African American Islamic group The Five Percenters who he identifies with. However there's a twisted secret buried at the heart of Wilson's Islam that makes it impossible for Knight to see him in the same light anymore. Although a good part of the book shows us his attempts to find a way that Wilson's writings endorsing pedophilia are merely some sort of shock tactic or an allegory of some kind (after all the great mystic Rumi wrote a poem about two women who had sex with a donkey), he can't escape the fact that his mentor sees nothing wrong with an adult man having sex with a child. Knight even goes to the extent of writing his own homo/erotic Islamic science fiction story (of which excerpts are included) in an attempt to see if he can see a way of justifying his mentor's disturbing writings.

Over the balance of the book, amid segues into excerpts from the above mentioned story, Knight describes among other things, his horror at discovering he's becoming a mentor figure to young Muslims who have been reading his books. They've taken his descriptions of his struggles with identity and his fiction as instruction. They write to him for advice and thank him for being a role model. In a sort of fit of desperation to find direction he heads off to the backwoods of West Virginia to his late father's "Unabomber" shack and creates his own personal mosque amidst the squalor. Living on tinned tuna he experiments with using the cut-up writing method espoused by Burroughs as the way of finding a text's hidden meanings on the Qur'an. This involves literally cutting up a work's text and then putting it back together randomly.

Reading this book within the context of lineage and mentors I have to wonder if its not a deliberate attempt on Knight's part to scare people away from looking to him as a mentor figure. While he's written about other periods of his life when he felt lost, specifically when he returned from studying in Pakistan and rejected the fundamentalist values that his teachers there had attempted to instil in him, he has never seemed so insecure in his faith before. However there's a certain amount of ambiguity as to when the events described in the book took place. The only real clue as to the time frame it represents is at the end he is talking about whether or not he will write the recently released Why I Am A Five Percenter or vanish from the pages of mainstream publications into the world of academia.
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Perhaps the most telling point in the book is his description of an impromptu gathering with some friends. Gathering together at a basketball court they sit around and talk about their faith, what it means to them and how they try to "live" it. Knight ruminates on how maybe this group should form their own "sect" but concludes it was the very spontaneity of the gathering that allowed them the freedom to express themselves. Any attempt at formalization, even to arrange times for them to get together and talk again, would begin to encroach on that freedom and lead to the creation of a hierarchy and rules, all the hallmarks of an organized religion. It puts his balancing act of being a Muslim and his rejection of the structure religions by their nature impose on their followers into stark relief.

A person can spend all the time in the world searching for mentors and gurus or reading the collected works of every mystic and Imam whoever put pen to paper in an attempt to justify how you practice your beliefs and it won't matter. It all comes down to trusting yourself and be willing to accept your beliefs can exist independent of any structure. Knight doesn't tell anybody they should follow his lead, this is what works for him. While he takes obvious pleasure in studying the words and teachings of both the Sufi saints of the past and current groups like The Five Percenters, it seems like its more for the sake of the knowledge he acquires through the study than in the hopes he will find a place where he fits in.

Michael Muhammad Knight is a liar and a coward. Michael Muhammad Knight is honest and brave. What difference does it make. His writing will either offend or inspire you, and in places it might even do both. But no matter what, he will always make you think for yourself, force you into having an opinion and reach your own conclusions. Knight might reject the idea that he has anything to offer in the way of guidance, but he does offer his readers one something few other do - he never once tells them what to do or leads anyone to believe he has the solution to whatever ails them.

(Article first published as Book Review: William S Burroughs Vs. The Qur'an by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

Music Review: A Tribe Called Red - A Tribe Called Red


I've been going to Pow Wow's on and off since 1995 when I was a volunteer with the local First Nation's Friendship Centre where I live. For me the best thing about a Pow Wow is how no matter where you are on the grounds you can always hear the big drum. From the moment Grand Entry begins (the ceremonial entrance of the dancers into the arena) to the closing ceremonies the drum is almost always playing. Even when its so faint that you can barely hear it, the sound throbs up through the ground and into the soles of your feet. That's when you really understood why its referred to as the heartbeat drum. Perhaps even more distinctive than the drum, and even more alien to those not used to it, is the sound of the singers gathered around the drum. In contrast to the deep pounding of the drum they, men and women, sing in a high falsetto. Guaranteed to cut through any surrounding din the singers can be heard just as clearly as the drum. Those who have never heard experienced the combination will probably have a hard time believing how spine chilling it can be.

What might come as an even bigger surprise to some, especially me, is how well the form lends itself to modernization. Now I've got to be honest, I'm not the biggest fan of most hop hop, rap or dance music. It's fallen so far from what it once was in the hands of community and political activists like Grandmaster Flash and Gil Scott Herron. So I've been leery about the First Nations hip-hop groups who have been springing up across Canada. That's until I heard A Tribe Called Red's new release A Tribe Called Red, which they've made available as a free download. A Tribe Called Red are three Ottawa area First Nations DJs: DJ NDN, DJ Bear Witness and DJ Shub. They have been putting on what they call Electric Pow Wows on a monthly basis dedicated to showcasing Aboriginal DJ talent and contemporary urban Native culture.
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So what is contemporary urban Native culture? Well judging by the twelve tracks on the collective's first CD it owes as much a debt to inner city youth culture, Jamaican dance halls and modern electronics as it does to their various nation's traditions. What distinguishes A Tribe Called Red from other DJ collectives, what makes them uniquely First Nations, is what they incorporate into their creations. While its true some DJs, especially those who specialize in Trance, have begun turning to sources other than popular music for the samples they build their tunes around, the majority of A Tribe Called Red's track's are built around various Drums. (Drum, in this case, refers to both the physical drum and the people who make up the group of drummers and singers associated with the instrument. For example, The Whitefish Bay Singers of Ontario Canada are also called The Whitefish Bay Drum)

The opening track, "Electric Pow Wow Drum", starts off with familiar "heartbeat" of the big drum. After a few bars its joined by both an electronic pulse playing counter point and the sound of the jingles on dancer's costumes keeping time with the big drum as they move around the arena. (Traditionally a jingle bell dancer's regalia was covered with deer toes, but today the jingles are just as likely to be anything from the rolled up lids of tins of chewing tobacco to manufactured tin cones) Then the singing starts. Normally the sound of the massed falsetto voices over top the drum is enough to send shivers up your spine. In this case the voices are fed through a synthesizer or processor of some kind that gives the voices an overlay of heavy fuzz which heightens the effect even more. Cutting back and forth between the electronic pulse and the distorted singers, the song builds in intensity until the first break. (There are two very distinct rhythms played on a drum during a song, the heartbeat sound which propels the dancers around the arena and the break which, depending on the dance, requires the dancers to either dance in place or freeze) After the first break in this case the singing intensifies and an electronic melody based on the rhythms of the song laid over top serves as both a counter point and to add another layer of texture to the material

Any doubts I may have had about A Tribe Called Red were erased after I listened to this first track. Instead of merely being content with sampling the original music and ignoring the traditions behind it, they've managed to merge it with the technology they use as DJs and respect its original intent. Its exactly what the title suggests it is, an "Electric Pow Wow Drum". Not only does the song capture the power of the Drum, but it enhances it. There's no attempting to make the music more accessible by watering it down or giving it a catchy dance tune. Instead it feels like they've grafted the realities of urban living onto their traditions to make them relevant to the world they live in.

Eight of the remaining eleven tracks on the disc combine traditional Pow Wow music and modern DJ technology. In each case the guys have managed to find the same delicate balance that made the first track so effective. There's nothing haphazard or sloppy about any of their choices, including the fact that they have found a wide variety of Pow Wow music to use in their material. Because A Tribe Called Red allows the original material to come through in the mix you not only get to hear the music updated, you also hear how different one Drum can sound from another.
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The last song on the disc, "General Generations", is slightly different as its taken from an old wax cylinder recording of a singer who might have been DJ Shub's great grand father. The sound of the scratchy solo voice taken from early primitive recording equipment singing a song that might be hundreds if not thousands of years old remixed with modern electronics sums up the entire disc for me. Its about keeping cultural traditions alive without allowing them to stagnate and making them relative to changing circumstances.

Also deserving of special mention is the song "Woodcarver". Written in commemoration of the Native American woodcarver John T Williams who was "unjustifiably shot" by a Seattle Police officer in 2010. Using samples of news recordings, and statements made by witnesses, family and members of the Seattle Native American community the song both honours the memory of the man and presents the facts of the case with a minimum of editorializing. Unlike the other pieces on the disc "Woodcarver" isn't something you'd expect to hear on the dance floor. What it is though is a good example a found sound installation and the way modern sound technology can be used as a means of expression.

A Tribe Called Red is not only a collection of great music, its an example of how the modern and the traditional can come together to the benefit of both. Intelligent and inspired the songs on this disc represent both a cross section of traditional Pow Wow music and the variety of sounds and techniques available to the modern DJ. In the past I've been dismissive of DJ created songs because most of what I'd heard up to now has pretty much sounded the same. The three DJs who make up A Tribe Called Red prove that doesn't have to be the case. You can download a free copy of A Tribe Called Red by following this link

Article first published as Music Review: A Tribe Called Red - A Tribe Called Red on Blogcritics)

April 22, 2012

Music Review: Various Artists - Jail House Bound: John Lomax's First Southern Prison Recordings 1933


The history of North America over the past hundred to two hundred years is split into two distinct stories. The history of white people and the history of people of colour, mainly African Americans. Originally white people came to these shores as conquerors and African Americans came as slaves and well into the twentieth century each had their own version of American history, While whites had the American dream which promised them if they worked hard they would be a success and create a good life for themselves and their family. It wasn't until the last quarter of the twentieth century that African Americans even began dreaming of being treated as equals under the law in America, let alone having a comfortable life.

So in the the 1930s when ex-banker turned ethnomusicologist John Lomax talked about preserving the distinct African American culture that had grown up out of segregation he wasn't being racist, he was just making an observation based on current societal conditions. He also knew there was little chance this culture would survive even the least amount of integration. If he wanted any chance of making an undiluted record of its music he'd have to go places where segregation was strictly enforced. As the prison populations were strictly segregated and the inmates were living in conditions similar to those they would have experienced as slaves, he thought prisons represented the best opportunities to record African American music in as pure a form as possible.
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Judging by the collection of recordings being released under the title Jail House Bound - John Lomax's First Southern Prison Recordings 1933 by Global Jukebox and West Virginia University Press, his assumption was correct. Using the primitive portable recording equipment available at the time Lomax went from prison to prison in the South making recordings of the songs the African American prisoners used to sing while doing forced labour. In these songs you'll hear the influences of everything from the tribal drums of their home lands, gospel, blues and the field songs slaves once used to help pass the time while picking their master's crops.

It was during these recording sessions that Lomax discovered Huddie Ledbeter, more commonly known as Leadbelly, the man who wrote folk/blues staples "Good Night Irene", "The Rock Island Line" and "I Got Stripes". While Leadbelly doesn't appear on any of these recordings, nor is any of the material as polished as his work, you hear the roots of his songs in almost every track. Which of course was the point of these recordings after all. While titles like "The Midnight Special", "John Henry" and "Grey Goose" have long since become popular, most of the material is no where near as widely known. There are some titles which might sound like they should be familiar, "Long Gone", "That's Alright Honey" and "Alabama Bound", but they sound little or nothing like the songs which bear the same or similar names today.

For while quite a number of the songs included in this collection had previously been recorded as popular tunes or went on to become popular, what you hear on this record are versions that wouldn't have been heard outside of the African American community. There are work songs where we can still hear the cadences and rhythms that were used to help coordinate the efforts of men working together. "Steel Laying Holler" used to be sung by men unloading heavy steel rails from flat cars and "Track Lining Song" was used to help in the lining or straightening out of railroad track.
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Than there are songs like "Black Betty", which some prisoners claimed referred to a whip used to punish them while others said it was the name given to the prison transfer truck, and "My Yellow Gal", a song about a mixed blood lover, whose lyrical content was specific to the people singing it. What white singer in the 1930s is going to sing about the beauty of their mixed race lover or how would anybody at that time who hasn't been in jail know who Black Betty was? Most listening to the latter wouldn't have idea it wasn't about some women who treated men badly.

Naturally the sound quality isn't going to be what most are used to, but all things considered its of a higher quality than I expected. Some of the tracks are pretty scratchy and in places there is some distortion, but I was honestly surprised at how good a job Lomax was able to do with the equipment at his disposal. It does say in the accompanying booklet he wasn't satisfied with some of his results and would occasionally make return visits to redo a recording if he thought he'd have a chance improving on the original. Obviously those who have put this compilation together have sifted through who knows how many recordings and picked the best ones possible. However, they're still on par with other field recordings I've heard that were made decades later using far more sophisticated equipment.

The thing is though, the roughness of the sound adds an air of authenticity to the recordings. It would be hard to believe they had been collected in prison farms in the 1930s if they were pristine. Anyway, the rawness of the end result seems somehow suited to the material recorded. The people singing weren't necessarily trained vocalists or even musicians. They were inmates in prisons who had more enthusiasm and passion than skill. These were the songs they sang working on the chain gangs, picking crops and in the prison chapels for each other's and their own comfort. Hearing them flaws and all makes both their music and their situation come alive. You really have the sense of being transported back in time and given the chance to observe a unique moment in history.
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In an interview recorded with John Lomax that's included in this collection he talks about his intent behind making these recordings. While it's hard not to be put off by his use of vernacular common to that era for referring to the subjects of his recordings the very fact he went to the time and effort to make them is what you need to remember. Most white people at that time wouldn't have considered anything African Americans, especially those in jail, produced worthy of their notice, let alone worth recording for posterity. In his own way Lomax was also recognizing how America was divided along racial lines and how that resulted in a distinct culture for each race.

These recordings are fascinating listening because not only is the music great to listen to but because they give us a glimpse into another era. The idea that African Americans might have had their own distinct culture in the 1930s would not have been something most of white America would have been willing to recognize. The music on these discs not only shows how strong and vital that culture was, but makes it obvious how much that culture influenced, and continues to influence, American popular culture.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Jail House Bound: John Lomax's First Southern Prison Recordings 1933 on Blogcritics)

April 14, 2012

DVD Review: Shades


Most of us still wonder what will become of us after we die. While various religions try to reassure us that as long as we lead a good life here on earth we will be rewarded by an eternity of paradise, only the truly devout accept those promises at face value. What about those belief systems which insist we are destined to come back in different forms until we have gained the amount of spiritual enlightenment required to ascend to another, higher, plane of existence? Than there's the whole matter of ghosts, where do they come from and what's prevented them from either being assigned to an afterlife or taking the next step along the path to Nirvana?

While its difficult to find any religion taking an official line on the whys and wherefores of ghosts, one of the most common theories used to explain them is they are the spirits of people who had unfinished business here on earth. Until such time as they are either able to make peace with themselves or set their affairs in order they are stuck in sort of a half life. Some theories have them wandering among us invisibly, only able to communicate with those they loved indirectly, while other's have them able to appear as spectral type figures who are able to talk to us in spite of being almost transparent.

Ghost are most commonly depicted in popular culture as malevolent creatures intent on causing the living harm in revenge for some crime perpetrated against them when they were alive. Whether in movies or books they are most often associated with old abandoned buildings, long lost treasure or ancient temples protected by some curse or another. However, once every so often, the cliche is ignored and ghosts aren't merely a means to scare an audience, but are characters every bit as substantial as their living counterparts. Such was the case with the British six part mini series, Shades televised back in 2001 and now being made available on DVD in North America by Acorn Media on February 14 2012.

Maeve (Dervla Kirwan) and Mark (Stephen Tompkinson) never knew each other when they were alive but that doesn't stop them from being thrown together when they both die unexpectedly. She was killed by a hit and run driver and he died while undergoing a routine surgery to repair a hernia. While Mark's circumstances seem more poignant, his wife gave birth to their second child while he was dying, it turns out neither of them left behind an idyllic existence.
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Maeve had been having an affair with a married man and had been more focused on her career than relationships. Yet when she finds out her former lover wasn't just cheating on his wife with her, but sleeping with a friend of hers as well she is not only hurt but furious with both of them. Even though she tries to convince Mark she doesn't care what her former boy friend gets up to she becomes obsessed with checking up on him and finding out who he's "cheating" with. Mark, on the other hand, at first appears to have been a devoted husband and father cruelly deprived of the chance to see his son and daughter grow up. However it turns out he'd not been honest with his wife about their financial situation. An independent electrical contractor, his business had been steadily losing money for the last couple of years. The insurance policy that should have provided for his family after his death had been cancelled because he hadn't been able to make the payments. On top of that he had also left them with a pile of debts, including back taxes.

While both Maeve and Mark would dearly love to have direct interaction with those they've left behind, they soon discover anybody who knew them when they were alive is unable to see or hear them. They are able to communicate with strangers, but those people never remember meeting or talking to them. In fact, the second someone turns their back on them, they immediately forget they'd ever met them. This can lead to both amusing and rather sad consequences for both characters, but also means the only people they can rely on for anything are each other. At various times throughout the series they use each other to talk to those they cared for in an attempt to deal with their unfinished business.

Both Kirwan and Tompkinson do wonderful jobs of portraying the two ghosts. Initially their characters follow the same arc as they deal with the traditional three stages of grief; disbelief, denial and then anger, but from the non-traditional stand point of seeing it from the dead person's perspective. As a result they enjoy a sort of misery enjoys comfort relationship for the first little while. However the writers of the series took great pains to make sure that death didn't change them. The only way they're going to be able to correct the mistakes they made during their life is by learning the lessons about themselves they would have needed to learn had they kept on living. In order to do this they won't be able to simply wallow in self-pity or act like they did when they were alive.

One thing that puzzles them for the first little while is why they haven't run across any other ghost aside from each other? Where has everybody else gone? Then they meet an elderly man who is able to remember them from previous meetings. Curious as to why he has this capability they investigate and discover that he only has a short time left to live. As they get to know him they discover he has been keeping a secret from his wife. Finally, just before he dies he tells her and he dies happy. Maeve and Mark see him just after he dies, and he thanks them for giving him the courage to talk to his wife. However, the second they turn their backs on the old man he disappears, and they never see him again.

Now that they understand the only reason they're hanging around is because they have unfinished business to take care of most series of this sort would have Maeve and Mark happily fade away into some sort of eternal bliss by miraculously finding a way to deal with their own unfinished business. However, the writers of Shades haven't been doing the expected, i.e. read sentimental, route throughout, and they don't start now. Just because someone's dead doesn't make them any more insightful then they were when they were alive. I'm not going to spoil the ending of the series for you by telling you how its resolved. However, I will say that it stays true to the way the story has been told all along and it makes perfect sense considering the characters and the plot.

Whether you believe in ghosts or don't, Shades is a beautifully told story about two people thrown together under very peculiar circumstances learning to make the best of it. Well acted and intelligently written, it tackles the subject of death and survival with humour and sympathy without once stooping to cheap sentimentality. Whether seen through the eyes of the two central characters or through those they've left behind, the series never strikes a wrong note. It may not be exactly what happens after we die, but its definitely one of the more interesting takes on the subject you'll see in a long time.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Shades on Blogcritics.)

November 25, 2011

Music Review: Willie Nile - The Innocent Ones

Once in a while a pop musician comes around who makes little or no impact on the public but earns the respect and admiration of their peers. In most cases these are individuals in possession of an exceptional talent who have ended up outside the public eye of their own volition. Usually it's because they have no desire to play the game required for commercial success. Either they've been badly burned by the industry and want to have nothing to do with it anymore or they've decided their independence is more valuable to them than success.

In the late 1970s Willie Nile was on the verge of international stardom. The industry was dubbing him the next "big thing". After Springstien he was going to be the next Bob Dylan, the voice of a new generation and all the expectations that went with the designation. It wasn't just hype either as fellow musicians quickly recognized he was something special. Pete Townshead specifically requested Nile as the Who's opening act for their 1980 North American tour while more recently Lucinda Williams has said if there was any justice in the world she'd be opening for Nile not the other way around.

Instead of cashing in on his accolades in the 1980s, Nile chose to walk away to preserve his independence. Going almost a decade without a record contract, but never stopping writing and performing, he put out two releases in the early 1990s and then nothing else again until 2000. It was another six years before he released Streets Of New York, which was then followed by three live recordings in quick succession in 2007, Live In Central Park and 2008, Live at the Turning Point and Live From The Streets Of New York (also on DVD). This was followed by 2009's House Of A Thousand Guitars on his own River House Records label.
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It's obvious having his own record label has agreed with Nile as he's now released his third new studio disc in the past five years. The Innocent Ones made its way into stores in North America on November 22 2011 after enjoying a successful release in Europe in 2010. The eleven cuts on the disc are Nile's usual mix of power pop anthems, thoughtful ballads and rock and roll for the sheer fun of it. There aren't many popular artists these days who are capable of doing a credible job of any one of those types of material let alone all three. Yet Nile seems to have no difficulty in switching gears from one mode to the other and performing each with equal ability.

With the exception of "Sideways Beautiful", which he wrote on his own, all the songs on the disc were co-written by Nile and his long time musical cohort Frankie Lee. The two men have a knack for creating songs deceptively simple musically and lyrically. You don't need to be needlessly complicated to write an intelligent song. Far too many people these days seem to feel that their music won't be taken "seriously" unless they clutter it up with convoluted lyrics that a cryptographer would have trouble deciphering or complicated tunes which nobody really has any fun listening to. If you have something to say doesn't it make more sense that people understand what you're talking about and enjoy listening to you say it? Lee and Nile are not only masters at writing intelligent lyrics that speak directly to their listeners, they've not forgotten that rock and roll is supposed to be fun. Who decided that the only way pop music could be taken seriously was by sucking all the life out of it anyway? Thankfully Lee and Nile weren't listening to whoever made that decision.

When was the last time you listened to a CD and found the music so infectious that you caught yourself singing along with the chorus of a song the first time you heard it? How many times has a song's lyrics caught your attention so vividly you were able to pay attention to what they were saying without making any effort? Not only are the tracks "The Innocent Ones", "Song For You" and "Rich And Broken" from this disc capable of doing this, they do so without you feeling like you've been manipulated. Too often songs rely on cleaver "hooks", catchy arrangements or melodies, and cheap sentimentality to capture our attention. That's not the case with any of the songs mentioned above, or the rest of the material on the disc either for that matter.
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Aside from the fact they are well written and intelligent, what makes them so compelling is Nile's abilities as a performer. By no stretch of the imagination would you say he has a beautiful voice, but it has the rough hewn honesty so many strive to emulate but which can't be faked. Whether he's excited, happy, sad or just having a good time, as listeners we can always tell because his voice doesn't lie. The compassion in his voice when he sings, "For every heart that's broken in two/I'm speaking your name, I'm lighting a flame/ I'm singing a song for you" during "Song For You" is so genuine that you can't help believing him. He isn't just singing these words, he lives them, and if he could he'd find a way to comfort the lost people of the world he would.

He's not just compassionate either. In "Rich And Broken", he not only sings about the wasted lives of young starlets like Lindsey Lohan and the other party girls with genuine regret, he accepts the fact that our society, our craving for celebrity, has to accept some responsibility for what's happened to them. "She's oh so rich and broken/There's part of her that's yet to be awoken/She's rich and broken...and she's mine"..."With first name recognition/She's a walking fashion fiction getting high/Bye Bye Bye". Not only does he mourn the lost potential all these people represent and how our cult of celebrity has taken away their identities by reducing them to a meaningless name, the three words "and she's mine" are him accepting his share of the blame for being part of a society that thinks celebrity worship is normal.

Willie Nile is that rarest of musicians, a true independent. He's turned his back on record contracts twice because of the compromises involved working with studios and forged his own path for the last two decades. The result is pure unadulterated rock and roll music and lyrics sung from the heart with more genuine emotion in one song than most people can squeeze out of themselves over the course of a career. Like the bards of old, Nile seems to have found a way to tap into the human condition and create songs that are both topical and timeless. He finds universal themes and imbues them with his own unique blend of compassion and intelligence in the hope that he might make a difference. So when he sings "So if you get knocked down you gotta' take a stand/For all the outcast, dead last who need a helping hand" on the song "One Guitar" he gives you hope that maybe if people do raise their voices together they can make a difference. It's at least worth trying anyway don't you think?.
(Photo Credit: Christina Arrigoni)
(Article first published as Music Review: Willie Nile - The Innocent Ones on Blogcritics)

November 5, 2011

Interview: Author, Michael Muhammad Knight

American author Michael Muhammad Knight's has been referred to as everything from controversial to outrageous. Some have even gone so far as to call him the Hunter S. Thompson of religious writing or something along those lines. Why is it whenever somebody has the bravery to speak from their heart and be as truthful as they possibly can we always refer to them as controversial? Why do we never say, wow this person is really brave,? How about, it sure is refreshing to hear somebody doing their best to be straight with us for a change?

Nope, we always have to look at them as if they were doing something really out there. Of course that says more about us, and that's the big us society, than it does about them. Have we become so unused to people speaking straightforwardly from the heart that those who do are considered something of a freak and maybe even a little bit dangerous? I don't know about anybody else, but I find it a wonderful break from the mindless drivel that passes for entertainment these days to read something where I know the writer has not only put a lot of thought into what he's written but has also been as honest as possible.

Recently he very kindly agreed to answer some questions I had about his most recent book, Why I Am A Five Percenter, his writings in general and religion. His answers are as straightforward and thoughtful as everything else he writes and reading through them I can't see anything outrageous or controversial about them. Integrity and self-awareness are two characteristics noticeably in short supply theses days, which could explain why people have such a hard time recognising them when they see them, but Knight doesn't seem to know any other way of being.

1) As you have written extensively about your early years (Impossible Man) we can skip over most of the biographical stuff I usually start interviews with. However I think its important to talk about your decision to convert to Islam as a teenager. Can you briefly describe the reasons you gave yourself back then for converting?

I converted because I thought that I had found the ultimate truth of the universe.

2) Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight and increased self awareness, do you now discern reasons that you weren't aware of, or didn't want to admit to, at the time?

I don’t think that anyone has ever converted to a religion for purely religious reasons. The average age for religious conversion, across the board, is fifteen. I was fifteen when I found Islam. I was going through the things that some fifteen-year olds go through, and my brain was a fifteen-year old brain. Cognitively and socially, that’s where I was at.

3) This is probably over simplifying but roughly speaking you've described yourself as passing through various stages in your belief: at first you were close to fanatic, second you experienced severe doubts and finally taking it into your heart, but not blindly obedient. Through all these stages, and over the years, what is there about the religion that has enabled you to continue having faith in it. For you, what is it that makes Islam more true than any other religion?

That’s like asking what makes English more true than any other language. The only thing that’s more true about English for me is that I understand it. English is the language in which I think. That’s how I feel about religion. I don’t speak the language of Hinduism, but that doesn’t mean I see it as less legitimate for those who speak it. I have a couple languages that I speak; I speak a few variations of Islam, I speak the Five Percent, and I grew up speaking Catholic so maybe I can remember some of that language too.

4) In Aatish Taseer's book Stranger To History, where he describes his journey through the Islamic world looking for his own sense of identity, he describes a conversation with one Muslim who says something along the lines that Islam is the best religion because its the only one that provides you cut and dried answers to all questions. As long as you follow the word you'll never know doubts again. I find that kind of blind certainty terrifying, be it from the mouth of an American nationalist or an Islamic Cleric - yet isn't that the point of religion - to offer its adherents a way of living and the ideology to walk that path?

Lots of people will say that about their religions, but it’s not what I’m doing with mine. I don’t know what the point of religion might be, but I wouldn’t say that religion has to have the same purpose for every single person who takes part in it. Simply defining the word “religion” is hard enough; there are scholars of religious studies who argue that we shouldn’t even use the word because if you look across cultures and historical contexts, it doesn’t reliably describe anything.

5) As a follow up to that, if not following the strict letter of the law, how can a person say they are part of a specific group, be it Christian, Jew, Muslim or anything for that matter? Why aren't these all or nothing things?

It’s against the law to smoke weed. If I break this law, or disagree with the principles of that law, would it mean that I can no longer claim to be American?

More importantly, religious laws can change, depending on how you read them. Religions aren’t “all or nothing” things because they can’t be. Religions aren’t made of stone; they’re made of water. We like to imagine a religion as this unchanging entity that exists outside of history and remains eternally consistent, always saying the same thing, no matter what is happening around it. Both Muslims and non-Muslims will do this with Islam, saying that Islam came fully formed with the Prophet Muhammad, and has remained intact through fourteen centuries. That’s the crisis that people are imagining when they say, “How can Islam exist in the modern world?” as though Islam has never changed or adapted to anything until after 9/11. This kind of thinking is not rooted in any historical reality.

Or, if people are willing to admit that Islam has changed and taken different shapes, they will argue that these new shapes are somehow less authentic than the original or “real” Islam. They imagine that they have a direct line to the “real” Islam, that it exists somewhere and we can find it if we just look hard enough at scripture or the early history. I don’t take that seriously. You can’t ask me, “What does Islam say about women?” or “What does Islam say about violence?” because these are impossible questions. Muslims say all kinds of things, but Islam says nothing. We can look at Muslims in a particular time and place and examine what they said, but there’s no Islam beyond that.

6) In your most recent book, Why I Am A Five Percenter, you spend a lot of intellectual energy trying to find a bridge between Islam and Five Percenter ideology. What was it about the Five Percenters which attracted you initially and why do their practices continue to exert such a pull on you in spite of the differences between them and even the most progressive elements of Islam?

The Five Percenters gave me a statement on whiteness that spoke to my experience as a white American. I went heavy into the white-devil mythology. I couldn’t buy into it as something rooted in genetics, because “white people” don’t exist as a biological reality. But white people do exist as a political reality, a social reality; so thinking about whiteness as a concept that exists only as a power strategy, a justification for the mistreatment of people, then yes, whiteness is devil. It’s nothing but devil. Spending time with the Yakub myth really gave me something that I could use.

The Five Percenters also provided a critique of religion that spoke truth to me. I was coming from a place of dissatisfaction with organized religion. The basic message that I got from the Five Percent was that it’s all about me; whatever wisdom I pull from the Qur’an, whatever jewels I can retrieve from a particular story, and the meanings that I assign to my tradition, it’s all in me. You can take that idea of Islam as “I Self Lord And Master” and build your own path. Be Muslim, be Christian, whatever, and just know that the religion is in your hands. Make the story what you need it to be, because there’s no one on this earth with any kind of transcendent supernatural power to hang over your head.

7) The Five Percenters, like the Nation Of Islam, were founded by African Americans, specifically for African Americans, in reaction to their treatment at the hands of the white majority in America. While it's one thing to be philosophically aligned with them, doesn't the lack of a shared history make it extremely difficult for someone outside that specific community to be fully appreciative of their goals and objectives?

There’s not a lack of shared history. I got into the Five Percent’s commentary on whiteness because we absolutely have a shared history. It’s our shared history that qualifies a movement of mostly African-Americans to speak about white people. The history of oppression is not only the history of oppressed peoples; it’s also the history of oppressor peoples. Part of my engagement of the Five Percent was coming to grips with that history and thinking seriously about how much that history still writes my reality today.


8) In Why I Am A Five Percenter you stand the whole outsider/insider aspect of race in American society on its head with your description of the level of acceptance you've managed to obtain within them. Your conversion to Islam removed you from the mainstream of American society and now your interest in Five Percenters is making you an outsider in the religion of your choice. Being an outsider seems to be something you fall into, whether consciously or not. What are you searching for that finds you in that position?

It’s just my luck. Being Five Percenter puts me out of the Muslim mainstream; being Muslim puts me out of the Five Percenter mainstream. And I don’t meet anyone’s checklist of required beliefs.

Some people want religion to be that all-or-nothing, clearly defined set of beliefs and behaviors. Get enough of those people in a room together and you have a community. But if it’s all or nothing, then falling out of line isn’t that hard. I don’t see any community, Islamic or otherwise, as answering every one of my needs to perfection. There are things that I love about various Islamic cultures and traditions, but I don’t feel that I have to align with one tradition or group and forsake all others. The Five Percenter lessons taught me to take the best part for myself and leave the worst part behind.

9) You spend a great deal of time in Why I Am A Five Percenter upon the metaphysical aspects of Islam searching for a way to combine the Five Percenter credo of there is no "mystery god" with the Muslim belief in a "Supreme Being". You then relate how when you took this information to Five Percenters they reminded you that their founder told them not to have anything to do with religion. It seems to me like its an either or choice and you can't be both Muslim and a Five Percenter. How do you deal with that issue?

People will tell you that you can’t be both Muslim and Hindu, or Hindu and Roman Catholic, or Muslim and Marxist, but I can show you individuals or even communities that have done all of those things. To me, there’s actually no such thing as “Islam” or “Christianity” or “Hinduism.” I can talk about Muslims a lot easier than I can talk about Islam. Religions are just made-up labels, and the differences between them exist only because enough people believe in the differences, and people build up institutions that reinforce the differences. Religious identity is like racial identity in that way; apart from the power of social constructions, none of it’s real.

That said, not all Five Percenters object to being called Muslims. Most do object, and I understand why. These symbols, stories, and ideas are being used to build an identity, and when you call that identity “Muslim,” then it puts the symbols, stories, and ideas under the domain of Muslims. To think of the Five Percenters as Muslims automatically turns them into an heretical fringe sect that lacks authenticity in relation to the so-called “classical tradition.”

My reality is that I’m coming from a Muslim background, and Muslim-type things are meaningful to me, and I’m married to a Muslim woman with a Muslim family and we share a sense of Muslim community. So my engagement of the Five Percent is going to negotiate with that reality. I don’t personally feel a need to erase that part of myself.

As for reconciling theologies: it’s not really so hard because there are such wide spectrums of thought among both Five Percenters and Muslims. I can find Five Percenters who sound like they believe in a mystery god, and Muslims who sound like atheists, and I have my own thought, in which one tradition actually becomes my portal into the other. The question is whether doing comparative theology just cuts you off from real life and locks you up in your own nerd-world. The lessons warn against wasting trillions of years on those pursuits.

10) I really liked what you had to say about race and the arbitrary nature of who is considered white and who isn't. Would you say it is more of a state of mind than anything else, or is it a combination of things.

It’s not only a state of mind, because that state of mind has produced real effects in the material world. It’s not only a state of mind when there is economic power, political power, and so forth. That’s the trap that white people fall into when they imagine that they’ve ended racism just because they don’t think of themselves as belonging to a race. For me to realize that race isn’t biological doesn’t mean that I stop being white. I wish that it could be so easy.

11) My wife and I come from two very different backgrounds which gave us entirely different outlooks on life based on expectations and privilege. When it comes to your position within the Five Percenters how much has the differences in your background from those of the majority presented difficulties for you?

I realized that to a large extent, whatever I do, I’m doing in my own house. I’m at peace with the Five Percent. I have a lot of friends in the community, I visit the Allah School and it’s all love. Some call me a Five Percenter, and that’s fine, but I don’t try to put myself over as a card-carrying member. I respect that it’s not my territory, and I think that’s what actually makes my friendship to the community possible.

12) Where do you see your search to find a place for yourself in Islam taking you next?

When it comes to my place in Islam, I’m more or less settled. There’s always room for me to grow as a human being, and I approach that process as a Muslim; but I know what I can reasonably expect from a religion, and I don’t ask for more. One alif is all I need, like Bulleh Shah said.

13) What made you decide to first write your works of fiction, (Taqwacore and Osama Van Halen) and then make the switch to the more autobiographical works that have followed.

I’ve bounced around a little. I first wrote a novel (The Taqwacores), then a nonfiction work (Blue-Eyed Devil), and then started my non-fiction memoir, Impossible Man, while also writing my history of the Five Percenters, and then wrote my second work of fiction (Osama Van Halen). The publishing history can make it look as though I deliberately shifted from fiction to non-fiction, but that’s not my writing history. I have a manuscript on my laptop right now, and I don’t even know whether it should be called fiction or non-fiction. If the story ever comes out, I would have a hard time assigning it a category.

14) What have you hoped to accomplish with your writings, and who do you hope reads them?

I started out with wild swings in the dark, writing about Muslim punk rockers and pretty sure that all of my obscure references and unacceptable ideas were just going to alienate everyone. I came from a punk rock ethos, and also a certain kind of Muslim ethos, that made it cool to be ignored and alone on the margins. Now that I have something of a readership, I’ve started to have more questions about what I publish. I mean, I write about Islam from where I stand as an American Muslim, and there’s nothing wrong with that; but my stuff might read differently in Europe, which is a whole other political climate when it comes to Muslims. My books have been translated into European languages, and it sometimes makes me uncomfortable, because I’m travelling into all of these new contexts for which I wasn’t prepared.

15) You have a new book coming out early in 2012, William S Burroughs Vs. The Qur'an. That's a very intriguing title and I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about it in general terms.

In general terms, I’d say that it’s about heroes and hero-worshipers, fathers and sons, ego and spiritual authority. More specifically, it’s about Sufism, Iran, Hassan-i Sabbah, race, gender, America, science fiction, writing as a spiritual quest, an unfinished biography of Hakim Bey, an unfinished novel, wahdat al-wujud, Supreme Mathematics, 1960s hippie religion, Tim Leary, Henri Corbin, and I guess William S. Burroughs is in there, and also the Qur’an. For its sense of balance and what it ends up doing, it might be the strongest book that I’ve ever written. It’s also possibly the weirdest book that I’ve ever written, but weird in the right way. My novel Osama Van Halen with the Muslim zombies and psychobilly jinns and kidnapping Matt Damon was pretty weird. William S. Burroughs vs. the Qur’an could be just as weird, but a better kind of weird.

I'd just like to thank Michael Muhammad Knight for taking the time our of his busy life to answer my questions. As is often the case, we were only able to do this via email, so I sent him my questions and what you've just finished reading were his answers exactly as he wrote them.
(Article first published as Interview: Author Michael Muhammad Knight, of Why I Am A Five Percenter on Blogcritics.)

October 14, 2011

Book Review: Why I Am A Five Percenter by Michael Muhammad Knight

The supposed rule of thumb for avoiding controversy in polite society is not to have conversations about politics or religion. Apparently there aren't many people who can be rational or calm with either topic. Which could go a long way towards explaining why so many people, even those who nominally share his religious beliefs, have problems with Michael Muhammad Knight's books. Of course the fact that he converted to Islam as a teenager is probably off putting to quite a number of Americans, but his work is controversial in the Muslim community as well. It seems not many approve of the fact he openly questions those aspects of the religion he doesn't agree with and his willingness to explore teachings alternative to mainstream Islam.

Although his fiction, The Taqwacores and Osama Van Halen are perhaps more well known to readers at large, it's his non-fiction; Journey To The End Of Islam, Impossible Man, The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip-Hop and the Gods Of New York and Blue Eyed Devil: A Road Odyssey Through Islamic America which have probably caused the most consternation among those of his own faith. Oh, sure the fiction books are filled with enough bad behaviour to make most parents think twice about sending their children to university no matter what their faith. However, because they're fiction they can be ignored and not taken seriously. It's another matter all together when Knight starts into both the autobiographical stuff of Impossible Man and his analysis of various different Islamic philosophies around the world and throughout history.
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Like most converts to anything, Knight went through a period of attempting to be more Islamic than thou followed by a brief period of disillusionment. (Which, judging by what he's written about that period, seems to have stemmed more from his own issues rather than his religion) It was when he truly began to settle into his faith, that he began to delve deeper into its history and philosophies. While this included travels through Africa, the Middle East (including making a pilgrimage to Mecca) and South East Asia it also involved delving into the uniquely American versions of Islam which developed among African Americans. For even though his education in Islam had been in first a mainstream mosque in America and continued in a madrassa in Pakistan, it had been the writings of Malcolm X that had attracted him to the faith in the first place. However, the Nation Of Islam, of which Malcolm had been a member until his split with them shortly before his assassination, he was soon to discover, is considered misguided at best, or a heresy at worst, by the majority of Muslims.

While the Nation of Islam might have been bad enough, it's an even more heretical group who Knight focuses on in his soon to be published Why I Am A Five Percenter, from Tarcher Books a division of Penguin US on October 25 2011 and Penguin Canada on October 13 2011. Knight delivers a concise and intelligent history of the The Five Percenters, also known as The Nation of Gods and Earths, and their philosophies, while dispelling many of the myths surrounding them - they have been accused of everything from wanting to kill all the white people. a front for gang warfare to a terrorist organization. However, as in previous books, his primary concern is to further his very public discourse on Islam and his place in it. To this end he leads readers on a fascinating discussion on the nature of race and religion and a survey course on Sufi mysticism and Islamic studies as he attempts to reconcile his Five Percenter inclinations with his mainstream Islamic beliefs.

The issue of race is a major factor in Knight's personal journey. As a white American convert to Islam he was doted over by his teachers in Pakistan. For while it was fairly common for African Americans to convert, whites were few and far between. However, both the Nation of Islam and the Five Percenters were created by and for African Americans and make no bones about the fact they see white society as the biggest obstacle in the way of their community's advancement. It's especially problematic among the latter who teach self-empowerment and self reliance by denying the existence of any "mystery god" and insisting every black man has the potential to be their own god. The answer to where does a young white dude fit into this is another question - what exactly is white? The definition has changed legally over the years in the US from where it used to exclude Irish, Italian and other non-Anglo Saxon Europeans in the 1800s to now where anybody of roughly European stock is considered "white" by all save for white extremists.

In actual fact there is no such thing as a white race genetically or any other way people would like to think.The only Caucasians in the world are a somewhat swarthy group of people, including many Muslims, who live in Eastern Europe in Georgia and other Baltic states. According to Knight, being white is more a state of mind than anything else. Now that may sound like he's justifying his position, but he freely admits that he's as capable of being as white as the next person. It's a question of privilege. As a white male he is far more liable to be accepted by society as a whole than somebody of colour. Anytime he wants to he can walk away from his beliefs and be welcomed with open arms by the world at large - something none of the other Five Percenters, the majority of whom are poor people from Harlem and inner cities around America, have as an option.
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How many of them can go to Harvard University to study? How many have the luxury to spend hours studying obscure Sufi mystics when they have to put food on the table for their families? Sure there are a lot of poor people who aren't African American, but history, the history that automatically granted a poor white person higher status than an African American no matter how wealthy or educated, isn't easily forgotten by anyone and colour still designates something. As one of the scholars Knight quotes in the book says, the only people who can afford to be colour blind are those whose colour has never been used against them.

You may or may not agree with Knight's assessment of race, ( I do) but you can't help but admire his ability for being honest with himself. He spends page upon page analysing the writings of Islamic scholars and mystics and a seemingly endless number of interpretations of the Qur'an attempting to find a way for the Five Percenter's rejection of a "mystery god" to be accommodated by Islam. However when he presents his ideas to a couple of Five Percenter gods, the elder one reminds him of one of their basic precepts. It's not just belief in a "mystery god" that allows for oppression and injustice, it's also the time wasted looking for proof of its existence. Five Percenter's teach that despite every attempt by society to degrade you and push you down, the universe is yours and you can accomplish anything. You are your own god.

Why I Am A Five Percenter is by turns fascinating, intelligent and funny. While Knight occasionally meanders into what appear to be exercises in religious and spiritual hair splitting in his examination of what he calls nine thousand pages of Sufi mysticism, which he then refers to as so much naval gazing, even that section of the book has its value. Too often Islam is represented as being a single minded monolith, but here we see the diversity of thought and belief which has developed over the hundreds of years of its history. However, that is only a sideline to his main focus; Five Percenters, the history of Islam among African Americans and his appreciation for the former.

Along the way he manages to touch on topics as diverse as race, the nature of religion and the role each of us plays in shaping a religion. He isn't trying to convince you that his way is the right way, only to tell you about it and why it appeals to him. It's possible the questions he has struggled with are ones readers might recognize as ones they've asked themselves, but he doesn't pretend his answers will be applicable to anyone but himself. He tells you why he is a Five Percenter, in as much as he can be, but never advocates it or any creed as the answer to anybody's problems.

Somehow Knight manages to blend scholarship and personal memoir and in the process of teaching us an important part of American history and telling us about his own quest to find a place in the world. All in all, for a book about subjects we're not supposed to talk about in polite society, a remarkable achievement.

(Article first published as Book Review: Why I Am A Five Percenter by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics)

September 28, 2011

Music Review: Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie - Various Performers

July 14 2012 marks the centenary of the birth of one Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, better known to most people simply as Woody. While September 27 2011 might seem a little early to begin celebrating that event, when you stop and consider the impact this one man from Okemah Oklahoma has had on popular culture, specifically popular music, in North America and the rest of the English speaking world, you'll realize even if we spent every day from now until December 31 2012 looking through the body of his work we'd only barely begin to scratch the surface of its significance.

Just to begin with there are the musicians around the world who he influenced. Everyone from folk music icons like Bob Dylan, mega stars of rock and roll like Bono of U2 and punk rockers like the late Joe Srummer of the Clash all have cited Woody as one of their inspirations. Woody had the unique talent of being able to look at huge impersonal events like the depression and find a way of expressing how it affected people on a personal level. Not just the farmers suffering through the dust bowl either. He could write with equal empathy about miners, textile workers, field hands, bus drivers and soldiers. Not only could he give voice to their stories, he did so in words they understood and a voice that sounded like their own. However he didn't just write about the poor and oppressed, he wrote about everything. He wrote what is perhaps the most stirring song ever written celebrating his own country, "This Land Is Your Land", a celebration of the hope for the potential it represented.

When he died 1967, after spending nearly his last thirteen years of life hospitalized by the Huntington's Disease which killed him, he left behind a massive legacy of unpublished writings, including song lyrics, poems, manuscripts for books, plays and note books. Woody's son Arlo once said that it was always dangerous to have his father as a house guest, because he was constantly writing song lyrics. If he couldn't find any scraps of paper to write stuff down on you could wake up in the morning and find your walls covered as his inspiration wasn't something that was going to be denied. It's only been recently that his family has begun the labour of love of bringing those unpublished works to life. In 1998 British folk/punk singer Billy Bragg joined with the American band Wilco to release Mermaid Avenue a collection of previously unreleased Woody songs, which was followed a couple of years later by Mermaid Avenue Volume 2.
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Now to kick off the celebrations of the centenary of Woody's birth 429 Records is releasing Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie featuring twelve songs inspired by the writings of Woody Guthrie by a collection of performers spanning five generations of American popular culture. From Woody's contemporaries, Pete Seeger and the late author Studs Terkel; those who have picked up Woody's torch to become voices of protest today, Ani DiFranco, Michael Franti and Jackson Browne to a real surprise Lou Reed. They and the six others involved have either taken previously unrecorded songs by Woody or, like Jackson Browne, were inspired by entries in Woody's journals.

No matter what the source, each of the songs captures one of the myriad elements of Woody's voice. What's particularly fascinating about this collection is how it continues where the Mermaid Avenue collection left off and gives us a chance to appreciate the breadth of subject material that captured his attention. Pete Seeger, accompanied by Tony Trischka, ruminates on the nature of music and why it matters so much to humanity on "There's A Feeling In The Music", while both Ani DiFranco, "Voice", and Studs Terkel, "I Heard A Man Talking", tackle the subject of lyrics. While Terkel's is a straight recounting of a conversation overheard in a bar, both DiFranco's and Seeger's songs show an introspective side of Woody revealing just how much thought went into what appeared to be so spontaneous. As we hear in both songs Guthrie's work was rooted in an artistic philosophy based on honesty and universality that was as every bit as intense as any political ideals his music might have expressed.
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Of course you can't ignore the social justice aspect of Woody's music, and "Wild Card In The Hole", performed by Madeleine Pevroux and "Old Folks", sung by Nellie McKay are two fine examples of Guthrie's approach. Less typical of the genre, and an indication of what made him so special is "The Debt I Owe" put to music by Lou Reed. Initially it appears to be about a man wandering through a deserted Coney Island amusement park worrying about the hole he's in financially. However we soon realize those aren't the only debts eating at him. No the ones he's really tortured by are those he owes for how he's treated the people in his life, both in the present and the past. Reed is the perfect performer for this piece as he's able to capture the bleakness of the man's soul with the right level of detachment in order to prevent it from descending into a self-pitying wallow. Its as wonderful a commentary on the compromises and bad choices forced on so many people, usually at the expense of others, by the conditions of modern living as you're liable to hear anywhere by anyone.

The final song of the recording shows us a side of Woody Guthrie the public has only recently begun to discover. We don't associate him with love songs, but as is apparent from Jackson Browne's fifteen minute song, "You Know The Night", (a shorter version was prepared for radio and released on August 15 2011 and can be heard on line at this web page) based on a thirty page entry in Woody's journals talking about the night he met his second wife Marjorie Mazia, it's not because he never gave the subject any thought. The song is an unabashed confession of love combined with a wonderful compiling of reasons for that love coming into existence. All that sparks the desire and need one person feels for another, from sexual attraction to intellectual compatibility, are dealt with as Woody/Jackson run down what it was about her which attracted him. Yet its far more than just a shopping list of reasons for falling in love, as the song itemizes not only what the observer sees in the person across from him, but the feelings each evokes in him. The song is filled with the joy and fears of a man finding himself inexplicably falling in love, and expresses the wonder we all feel when we know we've met the person we believe we're supposed to spend the rest of our life with.

Woody Guthrie should be a national icon in the United States for the way in which he was able to express the hopes and dreams of people who normally don't have a voice in his music. The anti communist witch hunt of the post WW II era followed by the onset of the disease which killed him not only denied him the opportunity of writing and performing, but also ensured his music and name were kept from a great many people. It wasn't until the folk music boom of the 1960s that he was "discovered" by a new generation, and even then it was only as the guy who inspired Bob Dylan, not in recognition for his own work. Sure school kids around the country might have been learning the words to his most famous song, but nobody was telling them who he was or anything about the rest of his music.

Woody wrote about subjects nobody wanted to talk about, the plight of migrant workers, dirt farmers, share croppers and how the greed of a few could hurt so many. Those weren't popular topics in the post war boom days and in the 1960s most people were more concerned with avoiding being drafted and getting stoned then fighting for the rights of poor farmers in Tennessee and Oklahoma. Yet if you stop and listen to his songs, any of his songs, you'll realize they have the unique ability to speak truths without preaching, tell people's stories without sentimentalizing them, and speak to something we all have to one degree or another, our hearts.

In Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie we hear twelve American singers, musicians and writers from across the generations offer us their interpretations of material he wrote that has never been heard before. Yet somehow, no matter what format they were presented in or their subject matter, there was something familiar and comforting about each of them. It was like hearing the voice of a loved one you'd thought never to hear again all of a sudden whispering in your ear. From now until the end of 2012 let's hope that everybody has the chance to share in the experience of hearing that voice. Maybe by the end of celebrating Woody Guthrie's centenary, he'll be appreciated for the artist he was and along the way open a few more hearts to the possibilities for justice and joy in the world.

(Article first appeared as Music Review: Various Artists - Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie)

September 25, 2011

Book Review: River Of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

Of all the evils done under the guise of "Free Trade" some of the most insidious were those carried out by the unofficial mercantile arm of the British Empire, The East India Tea Company. Beneath that seemingly innocuous banner more acts of piracy, looting and pillaging were carried out than by anybody sailing under the Skull & Crossbones.Yet perhaps the worst crime that can be laid at their feet was the development and propagation of the opium trade. In spite of stereotypes depicting Chinese as nefarious purveyors of the drug, it was not native to their land, instead it was deliberately introduced to the country by English merchants. Yet it wasn't just the Chinese effected by this practice, but those in the British colonies of India and its neighbours, what is now Afghanistan for example, where the poppies from which opium is made were grown who suffered, and still suffer today, from the repercussions of this trade.

For not only were farmers convinced to turn over acres of valuable agricultural land to the cultivation of poppies, at who knows what long term cost to the lands potential for other crops, countless others were convinced to tie their lives to the process of manufacturing and selling opium. From those who worked the harvest all the way up to merchant families who invested in opium in the hopes of reaping profits by selling it in China, every level of society in British South East Asia became ensnared in the opium trade. For in spite of the fact possession and selling of opium were both illegal in China there were enormous profits to be made by those willing to make the outlay required to bribe officials, pay smugglers and purchase the product.

However, the Chinese governments weren't about to let a small group of foreign merchants reap enormous profits by enslaving their people to drugs without a fight. In the late 1830's the emperor finally decided enough was enough and decided to act against the opium trade in his country and in doing so precipitated what has become known as the "Opium Wars". Crying their rights to "Free Trade" were being curtailed by a foreign government, British merchants whose cargos were forcibly impounded backed up their demands for restitution with the guns of the Royal Navy. It is into this tumultuous period of history that we are tossed in Amitav Ghosh's latest release, River Of Smoke, the second book of his Ibis Trilogy, (Sea Of Poppies was the first book) which will be published by Penguin Canada on Tuesday September 27 2011. While only one of the four story lines we follow through the course of the book deals directly with the opium trade, as all four centre around China, and specifically the section of the city of Canton where foreigners are allowed to dwell and the major trading houses have set up shop, each of the characters we meet are impacted by the events of the day.
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Like a wonderful multicoloured tapestry Ghosh has woven a story made up of a series of vibrant threads made from a multitude of materials. The tale which unfolds before us is another chapter in the history of a vast multicultural and multiethnic family whose progenitors seem to be a mix of the mix-blood illegitimate children of Europeans, former indentured servants and escaped convicts from European colonies in South East Asia and points further East. Now settled in Mauritius, La Fami Colver, (they speak a strange mix of Creole, Hindu and pidgin (which means trader) English from China) have kept a pictorial record of how the lives of its founders were bound together by fate, and in particular a hurricane in September of 1838 that struck three boats: the Ibis carrying convicts and indentured servants from Calcutta to Mauritius, the Anahita carrying a cargo of opium from India to Canton and the Redruth sailing from Cornwall to China in search of rare botanical specimens.

While both the Ibis and the Redruth carry those who would end up being part of the La Fami, it's the Anahita, it's cargo and the merchant whose fortunes are riding upon the opium in its hold who end up at the centre of the story. Bahramji Naurozji Modi had been born to a poor rural family, but through a strange twist of fortune ended up marring into one of Bombay's wealthiest shipbuilding families. It was he who convinced his father in law to begin using the ships they built for trading ventures. As none of the other family members had the slightest inclination to travel, or interest in trade for that matter, it was Bahram who took care of everything. He found the investors to pay for the opium his boat carried, escorted it to China, found the buyers and was the face of the family business in the foreigners enclave in Canton.

It's mainly through Bahram's eyes we watch the beginnings of what will become known as the opium wars. However Ghosh doesn't limit us to the one perspective as the events overtake all foreigners even if they have nothing directly to do with the opium trade. Neel, a young wealthy man convicted of embezzlement had escaped from the Ibis along with Bahram's illegitimate half Chinese son Ah Fat, and when both men turn up in Singapore at the same time the Anahita shows up, Ah Fat arranges for his friend to be hired as his father's personal secretary. For those on board the Redruth they are forced to rely upon the letters of a friend for information on both goings on in Canton and the location of a rare plant they hope to take back to England. For one of the ways the Chinese were attempting to curtail the opium trade by allowing fewer and fewer foreigners to travel in their territory. Only people with special permits were allowed to travel up the river from Hong Kong to Canton, and they weren't being handed out to those looking for rare flowers.
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Ghosh has done a masterful job in not only making each of his characters fascinating studies and interesting people to spend time with, he has also managed to bring the strange exotic world of the foreign enclave in Canton vividly alive. Crammed within a few square blocks a cross are traders from almost every corner of the world. Outside the enclave they might never have had anything to do with each other, but here all of the constraints society would normally place upon them have been suspended. Race and colour are of no matter as money and influence are the great equalizers. Each of the many traders have created second lives for themselves in China, up to and including taking wives and fathering children who they treat with equal devotion as their "real" families. While Bahram might only live there for six months or so every ten years, his is no different from the British traders who live there permanently.

While Ghosh's descriptive abilities allow us to create intricate portraits of people and locations, it's his agility with languages which gives River Of Smoke an extra level of verisimilitude. From the strange mix of words spoken by the family in the opening pages of the book, the scattering of pidgin appearing like exotic fruit in amongst the bland English of the trader's everyday speech, the conversations between the merchants and their Chinese partners, to the bombastic rhetoric of the ardent British free traders, each person we meet is given a voice as unique as their character and a language or dialect to match. While this might present a bit of a challenge to readers initially, you can usually work everything out within the context of a sentence, it makes for a far more interesting read than if he had opted have everyone speaking in one voice.

Lurking at the centre of all this splendour though is the dark heart of the opium trade. The majority of the traders in Canton are there to exercise their right to sell what ever products they want for the most profit they can earn. That the product in question is opium and its sale is illegal in China (and most of their home countries as well) is irrelevant. Like "Free Enterprise" exponents down through the ages they decry Chinese edict against the drug trade as government interference in their "God given right to trade" but have no hesitation about turning to their own government for assistance when their profits are threatened. By incorporating real historical figures from the period and drawing upon their speeches Ghosh manages to make his points about these people and their practices without breaking stride in his storytelling. The only disquieting note being how little these speeches have changed in the past century and a half or so.

River Of Smoke is a wonderful mixture of people, places and story that captures a moment in history like an insect snared in amber. All the details are there for the reader to see and appreciate. While the trade in opium, the policies of the British government which encouraged it, and those who made obscene profits from attempting to addict an entire nation to the drug, were reprehensible, one can't but help echo one character's regret at the passing of the foreign enclave in Canton which served as home to those involved. Instead of the usual ghettoizing of people by race, language or skin colour which usually occurs when various representatives of humanity are forced into close confines, here, for whatever the reason and for however brief period of time it lasted, something different was born. An international community alive with the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of each of its representatives with a universal language allowing them to communicate across cultural and social boundaries. While Ghosh goes to great pains to make sure its not depicted as a perfect world, those few square blocks in Canton were an example we'd do well to emulate more often.

(Author Photo by Ulf Anderson)

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: River Of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh)

July 18, 2011

Tinariwen Denied Visas To Enter Canada

Well it hasn't taken Steven Harper's newly elected majority government in Canada very long to embarrass Canada internationally and send a chill through the Canadian artistic community at the same time. The Malian based, internationally renowned Kel Tamashek band Tinariwen has been denied visas to enter Canada in order to perform twice in the past couple of months. First they were turned down for a visa so they could perform as scheduled at the Winnipeg Folk Festival and then when they re-applied in Los Angeles in order to make it to the Vancouver Folk Festival they were turned down again. It's not as if this is the first time the band has travelled to Canada as they've been performing here on a regular basis since 2004.

So why have they all of a sudden been denied entry to Canada? It can't be because of security problems as they have had no problems with gaining admission to the United States for that part of their North American tour. In fact if you check out their touring schedule listed at their web site you'll see they're booked to play almost every major music festival in Europe and around the world this summer, except of course for Canada. When asked for comment as to why they denied the band their visa's this year, Citizenship and Immigration Canada refused to say anything except each application is assessed on its merits. According to the spokesperson quoted in the Globe and Mail on July 15/11, Johanne Nedeau, they consider the profile of the event, invitations from the Canadian hosts and whether letters of support were received.

Okay, so the first event they were turned down for was the Winnipeg Folk Festival which has been on going since 1974. According to figures released by Tourism Winnipeg in 2009 the folk festival creates 244 jobs, generates $25 million in economic activity and its impact on Manitoba's Gross Domestic Product is around $14 million. For those of you who don't know Canada that well, Manitoba, where Winnipeg is located, is not one of the richest provinces in Canada. It doesn't have the industry of Ontario, oil wells of Alberta or the wheat fields of Saskatchewan. It needs any little boost it can get and the Winnipeg Folk Festival with its annual attendance of over 70,000 per annum is not small potatoes.
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Artistically the festival has been attracting performers from across North America and around the world since it began. This year's festival was promising to be more of the same with acts like k.d Lang, Blue Rodeo, Lucinda Williams, Blackie and The Rodeo Kings and Little Feat from North America mixing with international performers like Omar Souleyman from North Africa, actor Tim Robbins and his Rogues Gallery Band and Toots and the Maytals from Jamaica. Not only do they hold there annual weekend concert series, the festival also runs year round programming to encourage and develop local talent and introduce young people to international music. I would think that qualifies them as a pretty high profile event both artistically and economically.

The Vancouver festival didn't get started until 1977, but it has more than made up for its late start by now. Being in a larger metropolitan centre hasn't hurt, and being on the West Coast of Canada also allows them access to bands in Asia that other festivals don't have. This year's acts include mainstream artists like Roseanne Cash, Josh Ritter and Gillian Welsh as well as international artists like Cassius Khan, Emmanuel Jal and Tinariwen - oops, not them, they weren't allowed into Canada that's right. The Vancouver festival is one of the major international folk gatherings each year. Bands and performers from around the world make sure to include it as part of their touring schedule. You wouldn't believe how many times I've requested information from publicists about whether their band was going to be performing in Canada only to find out they would only be showing up in Vancouver for the folk festival and nowhere else.

So I think we've established that both the Vancouver and Winnipeg Folk Festivals are significant events in the year's calendar, and we know Tinariwen was invited by each of the festivals to perform. As for the letters of support, upon finding out about the band being denied a visa for Winnipeg, two Canadian Members of Parliament wrote letters supporting their application for entry to perform in Vancouver. Yet somehow or other despite all the requirements for granting of a visa being met, Tinariwen still weren't allowed into Canada. One really has to wonder what was motivating the decision to refuse them entry.
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Tinariwen are fast becoming one of the biggest draws on the international music circuit. Support from main stream musicians like Robert Plant and others has given them a much higher profile than most international bands. Preventing the band from playing at these two folk festivals will definitely have an impact on their box offices as each event had scheduled them for a headlining concert - they were to have to been the opening night act in Vancouver. If one looks at the results from the last election, both British Columbia and Manitoba gave a healthy majority of their seats to the Conservative Party - so on the surface there doesn't appear to be any reason for political motivation. However, those most likely to attend and/or organize either one of these festivals are not the types who are liable to vote for the Conservative Party of Canada.

This is the same government who has already cancelled funding for a theatre festival because they did not agree with the content of a play performed in its previous season. Toronto's Summerworks Theatre Festival had its funding cancelled by the Department of Canadian Heritage because they staged a play the government didn't like. Only weeks before the festival is scheduled to begin they have been told its 2011 grant of around $48,000 was being pulled, an amount that represented 20% of the festivals budget. The message is clear, there's no such thing as arms length arts funding in Canada and if the government doesn't like you or your politics you can expect to be screwed over in one way or another.

Vancouver and Winnipeg's folk festival have paid the price for not representing Steven Harper's vision of Canada by having one of their biggest draws refused entry at the border. While cutting funding to artists is still the easiest way to silence them the government is also showing itself willing to find new and inventive ways of punishing those it can't touch through funding cuts. What kind of message is our government sending when it cuts funding to artists who express opinions different from their own and arbitrarily prevents others from crossing our borders? The one I'm hearing is if you don't agree with us we're going to make you suffer. In the long run it will be the people of Canada who suffer the most as we're gradually cut off from freedom of expression. Preventing Tinariwen from gaining admission to Canada is only the tip of the ice berg representing the beginning of what looks to be a big chill artistically in Canada. Harper and his Conservative Party of Canada have five years to do what they want, and it looks as if they're off to a flying start in reshaping the country in their image.

(Article first published as Tinariwen Denied Visas to Enter Canada on Blogcritics)

June 16, 2011

Audio Book Review: Go The Fuck To Sleep by Adam Mansbach Read by Samuel L. Jackson

It's not often that a book for very young children will cause such a sensation that even before it is released it has best seller written all over it. Of course the secret to any book's success is its ability to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, and while there have been a few young adult books that have managed that trick it hardly seems possible that a bed time story for children could have the same luck. However, Adam Mansbach's newest title, Go The Fuck To Sleep published by Akashic Books on June 14 2011 is being snapped up all over the English speaking world.
Cover Go To Fucking Sleep.jpg
As you can tell by its title Go The Fuck To Sleep isn't your typical bedtime story. In fact this isn't a book most parents are going to be reading aloud at night to their children, yet that hasn't stopped them from snatching up copies anyway. Of course sales haven't been hurt by the fact the audio book version is being read by Samuel L. Jackson, an actor who first gained renown for his portrayal of street smart, and usually foul mouthed, characters. Even before the book had been released recordings of Jackson reading the book had gone viral all over the Internet, including recordings like the one below taken from a radio interview.
[Flash 9 is required to listen to audio.]
Anybody who has ever tried to convince a young child of the necessity for them to go to bed and fall asleep is going to be able to identify with the parent in this story's attempts to convince his young child to "go the fuck to sleep". Right from the opening stanza you know this is not your typical bed time nursery rhyme. For even though each of the opening few verses begin with delightful images of the world settling down for the night, each ends with the same plaintive request for the toddler to "go the fuck to sleep". As we progress through the poem the poor parent is presented with everyone of the typical child's stalling efforts; from I need a drink of water to I have to go the bathroom; and with each his "go the fuck to sleep" becomes more and more insistent and desperate. Of course, just when he thinks it's safe for him and his wife to settle down with a movie for the night, for a little time to themselves, their reverie is shattered resulting in one final desperate plea to their darling bundle of joy.

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Now I'm sure there are going to be plenty of you out there shocked at the idea of anybody telling their child to "go the fuck to sleep". It's mean, abusive and sends out all the wrong messages for this day and age. Everybody from the religious right to dishrag liberals are bound to find this offensive and just plain wrong. Well I hate to tell you this, but letting parents know its perfectly understandable they're going to occasionally lose patience with their darling bundles of joy, that once in a while it will all become too much for them, is going to do more to reduce the incidence of child abuse than anything else. Knowing you're not alone in being frustrated by your inability to induce order on a two year old will do wonders for a person's morale and make them feel like less of a failure as a parent.

Picture some poor single mother or working poor couple who come home at the end of the day after working some awful job in order to try and feed, shelter and clothe their child. No matter what anybody says there is bound to be some small kernel of resentment buried deep inside them over what they have to do to make sure this small person survives. How much closer to the surface will that come if at the end of the day when all they want to do is relax and maybe recapture some of what it was that brought them together in the first place, the demands for attention never stop? Anger, and guilt over the anger, will swell inside of them. From there its only a short step to resentment pouring out and manifesting itself in nasty ways.
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Now imagine these same people listening to Samuel L Jackson, street wise, tough enough not to take shit from anybody, reduced to a quivering wreck and pleading with his two year old to "go the fuck to sleep". At first they might laugh as they hear all the familiar ploys being used against him and his response, but gradually, they'll begin to find something else aside from humour in what they're listening to. For while Jackson's reading of the story remains hilarious throughout, it soon becomes obvious he's completely under the thumb of the child at the centre of his tale. No matter who you are, children are going to dominate. They are the kings and queens of their domains and parents are there merely to wait upon their every need. Which of course is how it should be at this age. Barely able to express themselves beyond desires for basic necessities a young child is completely dependent upon the adults in its life to keep it alive.

The wonderful thing about Jackson's reading of Go The Fuck To Sleep is how even though his frustration continues to rise over the course of the poem, not once do you ever have the feeling he's either threatening the child or even becoming angry. Sure he growls on occasion, but you hear the love that underlying every "Go the fuck to sleep" he utters. It's obvious that not only would he never dream of harming a hair on the child's head, he's willing to do everything necessary to make sure she's kept safe and happy. He's not about to spank a two year old for not being able to sleep, nor is he going to turn over her care to some nanny so he doesn't have to do any of the hard work in raising a child.

The example he's setting for any parent listening is a far better lesson in parenting than any that will most likely be offered by the self righteous who will be offended by the language used in this book. Not only is it rooted in a reality easily recognized by anybody who has ever tried to put a young child to bed, it couldn't be more obvious that his heart is overflowing with love for the child being addressed. It's perfectly natural for a parent to experience frustration and anger at times when raising a child, it's what a parent does with those feelings is important. Denying there would ever be a time when somebody would want to tell a child to "go the fuck to sleep" is to deny reality and make people feel needlessly guilty when they experience those feelings. When we do that it's the children who end up suffering the most as they are left in the hands of confused and bewildered parents who feel like failures. I'm sure there will be those who call this book an obscenity and demand it be banned, but the real obscenity is what happens to children when we attempt to deny the effect of our feelings upon them. We can only hope every parent buys a copy of Go The Fuck To Sleep and learns the valuable lesson it has to offer.

May 8, 2011

Movie Review: Wild Horses & Renegades

A few years back I wrote an article about the threat to America's wild horses in general and the small herd of Mustangs on the Blackjack Mountain preserve in Oklahoma in particular. At that time I laid the blame for the mismanagement of one of America's greatest natural resources at the feet of the Bureau Of Land Management (BLM) and their close ties to corporations buying leases on public land to run livestock. The BLM is supposedly responsible for the stewardship of all wild lands not currently national parks owned by the federal government in trust for the people of the United States. The acts which govern the terms of their stewardship spell out they are supposed to treat them in manner sensitive to the existing ecosystems. One of the pieces of legislation which applies to these territories is the Wild Free-Roaming Horse And Burro Act passed in 1971 that was designed to preserve existing populations of wild horses and burros on all government owned lands.

Unfortunately it seems the BLM have an awfully interesting interpretation of the terms of their remit and have done everything in their power to reduce the numbers of horses in the wild and find as many ways as possible to contravene not only the spirit of the law, but the letter as well. In my article of 2008 I mistakenly blamed agribusiness as the biggest co-conspirator in this effort to defraud the American public. However, while it is true they have quite a bit of pull within the BLM, they at least aren't actively destroying the environment which the horses depend on for survival. After all, they too need the pasture land and clean water the horses require. It turns out the real problem is the fact the BLM have been hard at work selling off the last of America's wilderness to oil, gas and mining companies.
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Nothing says wildlife preserve quite like uranium tailings, polluted water, radioactive waste, pools of sulphuric acid, strip mining, oil wells and a night sky light up by the flames from natural gas stand pipes. Yet while everyone's backs are turned that's what is happening all across the American West. From Colorado through Montana, Utah down through to Nevada and New Mexico the land is being doled out to responsible environmentalists like BP (remember the Gulf oil spill?) and their friends in the Oil and Gas business. Disappointment Valley in Colorado has a new crop - survey spikes staking out claims for Uranium mines. (There's still a law on the books that dates back to the gold rush days that allows prospectors to lay claim to any land not privately owned in order to set up a mining operation. Once they've laid a claim all they need do is apply to the BLM for permission to "lease" the land and they can begin mining operations. Of course once their lease is expired the country gets it back, but unfortunately these tenants aren't required to return the property in the same shape they found it and nobody else seems to want to clean up after them.)

It would be nice to say I'm just making this up off the top of my head and there's no proof to substantiate any of what I'm saying, but the truth of the matter is the picture is actually a lot worse than the one I've been painting. All you need do is watch the soon to be released documentary Wild Horses And Renegades (It will have its premiere on May 12 2011 at the International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula Montana at the Wilma Theatre at 7:00pm.) to find out not only the depth of the BML's duplicity when it comes to their management of America's wild lands, but the seriousness of the situation facing the few remaining horses and burros in the wild. I have to warn you though, I've recommended to my wife that she not watch the movie, and if you are at all easily upset by scenes of blatant cruelty to animals either be prepared to close your eyes at short notice or to have your heart broken and your stomach turned periodically. While director James Kleinert has done his best to make this movie an homage to the horses he so obviously loves, he has made the decision not to hide the truth of their situation from the viewer.

The ugly truth includes footage from slaughter houses just across the border in Mexico where supposedly protected animals somehow end up, the repulsive manner in which the animals are "humanely" rounded up for removal and their treatment by BLM employees rounding them up. While not as visually ugly, truths obtained through the freedom of information act regarding the BLM's aims and objectives for the wild horse herds, are equally disturbing as they talk about how they can best circumvent the laws meant to preserve the horses. Not only do these documents reveal an orchestrated campaign of disinformation they outline possible ways of removing animals from the wild and subsequently selling them to slaughter. You see in 2004 an amendment (The Burns Amendment, named for its sponsor Senator Conrad Burns of Montana) to the Wild Horse And Burro act was tagged onto the appropriation bill in the Senate that once again allowed for the slaughter of wild horses where it had been originally prohibited. Any animal the BLM considers excess they can now sell for slaughter no matter if its healthy or not.

Wild Horses & Renegades from Moving Cloud on Vimeo.


What makes the movie so powerful are not just the images, too many shots of abuse and they'd lose their power to shock us. Kleinert has very wisely divided the movie up between testimony from a mixture of experts, celebrities and even interviews with BLM mouthpieces and employees, footage of wild horses on the range, images of how the West is being lost to industry and the way the BLM treats the horses under their stewardship. The experts range from former BLM employees who had the gall to believe their job was to protect the areas under their stewardship and were let go, members of Congress from the affected regions - Democrats - who want to see changes made to the way the BLM operates, people working to preserve both the horse and burro population and the wild lands, to ranchers who have seen the lands they used to run cattle on destroyed by pollution. Each of them peel away another layer of the carefully constructed skin of lies spun by the BLM of how everything they do is for the good of the animals and the land.
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Of the celebrities, Viggo Mortensen, Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson, author Scott Momaday and Raul Trujillo make intelligent and impassioned pleas based on facts and the need to conserve something supposedly precious and unique to America. So many pay lip service to the idea of the wide open spaces and how the West is emblematic of the spirit of America, yet most have no problem standing by and letting it be destroyed. The BLM position, as expressed by employees and those who support their policies, of looking at everything in terms of whether or not it is useful is not one conducive to preserving the wild intact. In fact it's a philosophy which puts them at odds with their directive of stewarding the land and its inhabitants as any horse they deem not "useful" is now slated for slaughter.

The smartest thing director Kleinert has done in this movie is to simply let the BLM condemn themselves through their own actions and words. Listening and watching their high handed behaviour in dealing with public complaints, hearing about the repeated cases of conflict of interest and mismanagement documented by the government's internal auditors, the number of ex-oil company officials who lobby and work in the Department of the Interior, under whose auspices the BLM fall, and then watching footage of their 'safe' and 'humane' roundups tells the viewer all we need to know.

Right from the start Kleinert makes no bones about his own personal bias - this film is pro-wild horse and preserve the wild lands and doesn't care who knows it. It is an impassioned plea to his fellow citizens to do something about preserving a part of their country's heritage and a warning that those who have been entrusted with that responsibility are failing them badly. Movies like this one are important as they expose ugly truths we might never find out otherwise. It's one thing to listen to people talk about something, it's another thing all together to see it with your own eyes. I seriously doubt you'll come away from watching this movie unmoved. Hopefully it can motivate enough people to make their voices heard and help preserve the American wild horse and the land it needs for survival.

(Those wishing to reserve a copy of the DVD of this movie when it is released can do so by filling out a form at the film's web site)

(Article first published as Movie Review: Wild Horses & Renegades on Blogcritics)

April 28, 2011

Anybody But Haprer

I'm not going to be voting for the New Democrat Party (NDP) of Canada on Monday May 2 2011 in Canada's Federal election. That may not sound like much of an earth shattering announcement to most of you, but to me its a mark of just how dire I consider the circumstances facing our country. It's also an indication of how low the NDP and its leadership have fallen in my estimation. To start you need to understand something about me and my family. In every election since I turned 18 I've voted NDP, whether they've had a chance of winning the riding I was in or not. Until now they've at least always represented the moral high ground and I could believe they stood for many of the same things I believed in.

Of course there was also my family's history of affiliation with both the party and its predecessor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). Back in the 1950s before he went to law school my father was national press secretary for the CCF. His mother was a delegate at the 1961 party convention which saw them change their name to the NDP and both my parents were friends with Stephen Lewis, son of former federal NDP party leader David Lewis, former leader of the Ontario provincial party, former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations and now a leading advocate for AIDS sufferers in Africa.

So you could say the NDP are in my blood and you wouldn't be too far off. But this election I'm not voting for them, I'm going to be voting for the local Liberal candidate. The funny thing is it wasn't even that hard a decision to make. First of all is the fact that the current leader of the NDP, Jack Layton, has proven to be the worst sort of political whore, willing to promise anything to anyone in order to gain power. This was rammed home forcibly during the French language leaders debate which most of English Canada ignored. During the debate he shamelessly appealed to Quebecois nationalist voters by promising to reopen constitutional talks. The last thing this country needs is to open that can of worms again, but there he was swearing to put us through that shit again in a blatant attempt to garner votes in a province where his party has only ever won a single seat federally.

Aside from his bullshit though the real issue at stake is whether or not I want to be a contributor to helping Steven Harper and his Conservative Party of Canada win a majority in the House of Commons this election. Since he won his first election he has always had the threat of being voted down in the House by the opposition restraining him from carrying out the worst excesses of his party's platform. Items such as privatizing prisons, enforcing mandatory sentencing laws for drug offences, closing down treatment facilities for drug users like Insite, the safe injection site in Vancouver, trying to ban gay marriages, and encouraging discrimination on the basis of sex, gender, and race through his "Freedom Of Religion" act which would allow people to claim their religion prevents them serving or working with people because of their sexuality etc., have all been put on the back burner until he knows nobody can stop him.

So this election I'm voting for anybody but Harper, which means targeted voting, and anybody who is serious about wanting to ensure he doesn't get the majority he so desperately covets, will swallow the same bullet. Targeted voting means looking at your local riding and figuring out which of the opposition candidates has the best chance of winning and voting for him. If you think the NDP can win vote for them, if you think it's the Liberal candidate who stands the best chance, vote for him or her. The last thing we want happening is to split the vote and let the Conservatives win extra seats. The most dangerous part of Jack Layton's continued popularity is the fact he is stealing votes away from the Liberal party and increasing the chances of the Conservatives winning seats.

Layton has gone on record as saying he doesn't see the point in targeted voting, proving that he cares more about his own political ambitions than he does about the welfare of Canada. Who the fuck cares if the NDP get a higher percentage of the popular vote in this election if it translates into a Conservative majority government? I do, because I'm going to have to live in Canada for the next five years under a government who was the first government in the history of our country to be found in contempt of parliament, who rather than face a possible non-confidence vote suspended parliament, who have routinely withheld information from both the people and parliament on the grounds we're not smart enough to understand it and can't be trusted to make up our own minds, who have flagrantly broken election spending laws secure in the knowledge that there really isn't anything that can be done to punish them, and have done their best to not talk to Canadians at all about anything if they don't have to.

In this current election campaign no Conservative Party candidate has been allowed to answer direct questions from the press and is not allowed to deviate from prepared answers and speeches that have been issued by the Prime Minister's Office. The premise is if they don't say anything, if they don't let people know what they really believe in, we might forget everything they really stand for. Remember this is the same party who promised to hold a new vote about the issue of gay marriage even though they knew full well the federal government has no control over the issue and the Supreme Court of Canada has already ruled that preventing them is a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Liberties. They are so cynical though that they would force through this type of legislation because it appeals to all the right wing bigots who form the back bone of their support and have since they were the Reform Party of Canada.

On May 2nd 2011 the choice is clear, in whatever riding you live in vote for the candidate most likely to defeat the Conservative Party of Canada candidate. This is not an election to vote for the Green party because you think they say some nice things. The NDP might be riding high in the polls right now, but ask yourself how many seats will that really translate into and where are they siphoning votes from? You can bet those votes aren't coming from Conservative voters having some radical change of heart. Maybe in Quebec they're taking some votes from the nationalist Bloc Quebecois party, but who is that going to help win seats? The NDP have only ever won one seat in that province and taking votes from the Bloc is only going to help the Conservatives. Only vote NDP if you think they're going to win the seat, otherwise vote Bloc or vote Liberal.

We must stop Steven Harper from gaining a majority government.

April 5, 2011

Book Review: The White Luck Warrior: The Aspect Emperor Book 2 by R. Scott Bakker

For a group as supposedly radical and freethinking as artists are supposed to be, the history of Western art, especially literature, prior to the twentieth century is marked by its adherence to convention. Perhaps it was economic need, if one wanted audiences to attend your plays or read your books, you had to give them what they had come to expect. There were few troubling grey areas when it came to morality as questions of good and evil were defined by however Christianity was being filtered by the society of the day. Nineteenth century Britain, with its need to justify moral superiority over what it deemed inferior races, produced works that might question certain practices, but not even Dickens ever questioned the system which gave rise to the conditions described in his books or the morality that allowed them to exist.

A whiff of Aristotle's Poetics, with its definitions of what constituted tragedy and the other genres, kept pages and stages home to heroes from the noble class and the baser elements of society to supporting roles or villains., While there was nothing wrong with a funny servant who would want to read an entire book about him?And of course, while there were occasionally female characters taking a central role, headstrong individuals who attempted to control their own destiny would end up rescued by a man or falling into ruin. A woman's usual place was in orbit around her man's gravitational pull and it was a rare thing to see one make her own way in the world.

However change did come, eventually, with the twentieth century and fiction and stages began to more accurately reflect the faces of all society. Instead of heroes we now had anti-heroes, men and women who embodied few if any of the noble qualities that were once considered essential for a lead character in a play or novel. Not only aren't they royalty or even nobility, most of them have lived on the fringes of what society would even consider normal. Yet somehow they have struck chords within readers and developed followings.
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Still, it's only been recently that one of the oldest forms of literary story telling, the epic tale, has received the same treatment. Both the fantasy and science fiction genres have kept the epic tradition alive, even to the point of maintaining the tradition of the heroic quest. From Lord Of The Rings to Star Wars heroes set out across their universes, in spite of long odds to right wrongs and win the battle of good over evil. Now fantasy writers have begun the process of deconstructing the epic and putting it back together again to reflect the world's lack of black and white definitions of anything, let alone good and evil. The White Luck Warrior, released by Penguin Canada, is the second book in R. Scott Bakker's Aspect Emperor trilogy, the sequel to the Prince Of Nothing trilogy, and part of a series that promises to be eight books in length upon completion, and a fine example of the new anti-epic fiction at its best.
Anasurimbor Kellhus, the Aspect Emperor, is leading the armies of mankind, on what he calls the Great Ordeal, into the northern wastes against an ancient foe and the threat of the Apocalypse. Although only a few years ago the few wizards who preached warnings of this very threat from the north were ridiculed and laughed at for believing in unseen enemies, the entire civilization has set aside their petty enmities to seek out their hidden vastness, the near mythical city of Golgotterath. At first they proceed with no enemies lined up against them save for lack of supplies as there is only a finite amount that could be carried. Such is the distance they have to travel before they even fight, it had long been planned the Ordeal would have to forage. What wasn't planned was an enemy who would scour the land ahead of them, poisoning the water and laying waste to game and fodder.

Herding their enemies ahead of them. the sub-human Sranc, the Ordeal is forced to split into three armies in order to feed itself. While their enemy's numbers grow as they run in front of them, the men of the various armies start to feel the effects that a lack of food and water can have on a body. Slaves and servants are put to death in order to conserve supplies, the sick are abandoned, and spare horses are eaten. Compounding their troubles are worrysome rumours from back home in the Empire. There's a chance that even if they win through in this battle out in the wastes they could return home to find themselves no longer ruling in their own lands.

The Empress, Esmenet, is under siege from the priests of minor gods who resent the rise of her husband as prophet, rebellions on the outer edges of the Empire from those who don't accept the divinity of her husband, the madness of her own children and what she thinks is a plot by her brother in law to replace her. As he is the head of the church and half-brother of the Emperor, she knows he not only has the power base to carry out a coup, he has many of the same powers of persuasion her husband possesses and could easily sway the masses to support him once she's gone. Beset and bewildered she can only hold on and hope for some sort of reprieve, but it feels like the empire is crumbling beneath her and she can do nothing to prevent it.

As one of those who had dealt with the ridicule of the world for his belief in the ancient enemy of the north you'd think Drusas Achamian would be one of Anasurimbor Kellhus' biggest supporters. Yet while his "school" of sorcery, The Mandate, has allied themselves along with all the others and joined the Ordeal. Achamian rejected the Emperor as a phoney twenty years ago and went into self-imposed exile. He too is making the long journey north, though in the company of bounty hunters instead of knights, and to look for proof of Kellhus' deception in the ruins of a once famous library. Accompanying him is the Empress Esmenet's daughter, Mimara, from before she married Kellhus, who sought him out in an attempt to force him to teach her his magic.
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They too have barely survived their trip to this point, and in fact if not for the unearthly powers of the bounty hunter's wizard, an immortal survivor from the days of the first apocalypse, who goes by the name of Cleric, their entire party would have perished. As it is their numbers have been reduced greatly and they still have great swathes of wilderness to traverse and countless numbers of Sranc to either avoid or kill before they obtain their destination. Yet somehow, in spite of facing overwhelming odds against them. all three of these groups, The Great Ordeal, The Empress, and Drusas Achamian and his party, find a way to continue. But at what cost, and is the reward worth the cost paid? Or do such equations even matter anymore when you have travelled as far beyond the boundaries of normal human behaviour and reasoning as each of these groups have done in their own way?

Kellhus has preached to his army about the cost they will pay in order to succeed in their goal of preventing a second apocalypse. A cost that has already included having to kill servants, the near extermination of one of the armies of the ordeal and the slaughter of countless Sranc. Drusas Achamian and Mimara have seen their party killed one by one around them as they inch closer to their goal and the Empress must decide what she is willing to do in order to preserve her place on the throne without her husband's presence to support her. Does there come a point where you can no longer justify the means you use to obtain your goals, no matter how right you goal might be?

To save the world from the apocalypse the men of the Great Ordeal are living through their own minor version of one. Death, famine, disease and war ride with them on their journey into the north. The lines between good and evil are blurred beyond recognition but it also seems easier and easier to justify each new act that allows the armies, Drusas and the Empress to survive. Bakker has pushed his characters so far over the edge of what we would consider normal behaviour that we in turn have to stop us ourselves from accepting what they do as only matter of course and not thinking there is anything abhorrent in their behaviour.

This is the secret to what makes this work so great, the way in which we as readers are pulled into each story line to the point where we begin to identify with whatever point of view is being expressed. Each of the characters and their circumstances are documented with such perfect clarity that we can't help but believe in them and their goals no matter what the repercussions of their actions portend. Bakker has done such a great job in creating what feels like a typical epic adventure, we are almost lulled into accepting the character's actions as normal and almost miss noticing the moral vacuum they are acting in. The contrast between their high sounding ideals and their actions is the only reminder of just how far they've fallen.

Our world has seen countless so called moral crusades against what's been called evil used to justify any number of sins. Acts that under normal circumstances would be considered abhorrent are instead accepted as being perfectly reasonable because they are committed in the service of some glorious purpose. In his White Luck Warrior R. Scott Bakker leads us down that slippery slope towards accepting amoral behaviour and forces us to see how easy it would be for any of us to be swept up by events into becoming willing participants in terrible actions. This mirror onto our world is extremely difficult to look into, but is so well written we are held spellbound for its entirety. He has ripped aside the veil, and we will never be able to read about acts of so called nobility done in the name of the greater good in the same way again. This is one of the more brilliant pieces of writing that you're liable to read for a long time, just be prepared to start questioning a lot of things you might have previously accepted at face value.

(Article first published as Book Review: The White Luck Warrior: The Aspect Emperor, Book 2 by R. Scott Bakker on Blogcritics)

March 3, 2011

Movie Review: Agadez - The Music And The Rebellion

Open up Google Maps and check out Agadez in the Western part of Niger and the Sahara desert. If you switch over to the satellite view of the city and pull back far enough it disappears into the surrounding desert. It becomes just another shade of brown in what appears to be a never ending vista of tan. How did this city come to appear here in what is apparently the middle of nowhere? Is it just some recent thing that sprang up in response to human greed for something buried beneath the shifting sands? In actual fact the city was founded sometime before the 14th century and was officially designated a Sultanate in 1449. More importantly it is the capital of Air, one of the traditional Tuareg federations, and was one of key way stations along the caravan routes they followed carrying trade from Algerian ports on the Mediterranean Sea into the interior of Africa and back.

Descendants of the Berber tribes of North Africa they were named Tuareg, Arabic for rebels, for their initial resistance to adopting the Muslim faith, but refer to themselves as the Kel Tamsheq after their language. Even though they eventually adopted the religion and the camel herding nomadic lifestyle they now live of the colonizing Arabs, they have continued to resist any kind of external control over their lives to this day. From French colonial rule to having the way they practice their religion dictated to them by outsiders they have have struggled preserve their way of life and traditional territories. Since the withdrawal of French rule from the Sahara in the early 1960s the lands they used to move through freely have been divided up amongst Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Algeria. Since 1963, and the first uprising of the modern era, they have taken up arms to protect their rights in the 1980s, the 1990s and most recently in 2007.
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Much like elsewhere in the world the Kel Tamsheq discovered treaties have a way of being forgotten when governments change or when it is discovered the useless land they were given is rich in natural resources. It would come as no surprise to Native Americans to hear that when uranium was discovered in Niger all the treaties were thrown out the window. While the 1980s had seen the Kel Tamsheq fighting for their lands, the 1990s saw them fighting for survival as the Niger government began to target them for persecution. Libya and Algeria have both served as homes in exile for them in the past, and did again in the 90s. Among those whose families fled to Algeria at the time was Omara "Bombino" Moctar from Agadez. Twenty some years later, both Moctar and Agadez are the subject of a new documentary film, Agadez, The Music and the Rebellion, directed and produced by Ron Wyman and his Zero Gravity Films production company.

Since the 1980 uprisings more and more among the Kel Tamsheq have turned to music in order to both further their cause around the world and as a means of keeping their own culture alive for new generations who have been cut off from the traditional lifestyle of their parents. With the loss of their habitat to expanding populations and resource exploitation a generation faces the risk of being cut adrift from what it means to be a Kel Tamsheq as they come of age in the cities instead of the desert. According to Wyman's notes he had initially set out to make a film about the people and the city of Agadez. However the movie evolved into including the young musician, Omara "Bombino" Moctar (He was given the nickname Bombino by the older musicians who he first played with as a play on the Italian word for baby bambino) whose music they were introduced too via a cassette tape their guide played endlessly while driving them, and the role music was playing in furthering their cause.
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Sometimes changing horses in mid stream like this can result in either never making it across the river or at least getting soaking wet. However, in this case Wyman has done a magnificent job of integrating the two seemingly divergent directions his film could have taken. Primarily this is because he has the courage the recognize the strength of the bond between the music, the environment and the people to let them speak for themselves through the visuals supplied by his camera instead of relying only on talking heads to make the point. The movie's opening frames not only establish his intent to adhere to the credo of a "picture being worth a thousand words", they also prove out the adage by taking our breath away and letting us know we're entering into an environment far removed from anything most of us have ever experienced.

However, since images can be misunderstood by a viewer's preconceived notions of what is important in life based on their own circumstances, Wyman wisely ensures we are given the proper context to place them in. To us what looks like abject poverty and primitive living conditions - hauling water from wells, cooking over open fires and a noticeable lack of any of the amenities we consider bare essentials, are simply the realities of living in that environment. Through interviews with members of the Kel Tamsheq community of Agadez, well educated people who have experienced life outside of the desert and chosen to return home, we learn enough of the people's history and their philosophy of life to begin to understand what they consider important and why these "hardships" are a small price to pay for being able to live as they choose.

At one point one of those interviews tells the story of how at first the people cursed their parents for bringing them to such a harsh land where survival was so difficult. However they soon came to bless them, for nobody else wanted it and they could live as they wished. As with any other culture whose people are as in tune with their environment as the Kel Tamsheq, it's when they are removed from it problems arise. This is why they have fought so hard, and against increasingly impossible odds, for the right to live as they have always lived. However they are also realists and have come to understand they will never win through force of arms and the times require a different approach.
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The need to integrate their approach to life with living in the modern world is what has made the role of musicians like Bombino so important to the Kel Tamsheq. For not only are they able to carry their case to the world, they are also the means of communicating to the new generation what it means to be one of the Kel Tamsheq and why they should take pride in who they are. In telling the story of Bombino, Wyman shows us how music is the chain connecting the generations both through the way he learned to play and how he is continuing the work begun by his teachers. The music he plays combines the modern and traditional worlds his people move through both in the content of his lyrics and in the music itself.

The life of the Kel Tamsheq is not easy, but it is the life they have chosen to live and desire to keep on living in as much as the modern world will allow them to do so. In Agadez, The Music And The Rebellion Ron Wyman has done an excellent job of not only depicting their life without romanticizing or sentimentalizing it, but showing what they are doing to preserve it in the face of increasingly difficult odds. Follow his camera into one of the harshest environments on earth and meet the people who not only live there, but cherish the freedom it brings them. You will also meet the remarkable young musician, Omara "Bombino" Moctar, whose story of exile and return is typical for his generation, but whose talent is unique. Like his people he has persevered in the face of persecution (two of the musicians he used to play with were killed by the Niger army when they targeted the musicians among the Kel Tamsheq in the 2007 uprising and he was in exile in Burkina Faso until 2010) and now uses what he does best to fight for them.

Named Tuareg, rebels, by the first wave of invaders who tried to dictate to them how to live, the Kel Tamsheq may have laid down their weapons but that doesn't mean they have given up their battle for independence. Ron Wyman's film is currently making the rounds of film festivals in North America and around the world telling their story. Hopefully it will find its way onto DVD soon. There are many people in the world who claim to speak for freedom and liberty, but few whose way of life epitomizes those ideals as much as the Kel Tamsheq. If for no other reason it will be a shame if this movie is not seen by as a wide an audience as possible. The good news is those wishing to hear the music of Bombino won't have to wait long as his CD, Agadez, is being released by the Cumbancha label on April 14h 2011.

Photo credits: Agadez Mosque By Moonlight Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak, Photo of Omara "Bombino" Moctar by Ron Wyman
(Article first published as Movie Review: Agadez - The Music And The Rebellion on Blogcritics.)

February 13, 2011

Music Review: Sanda - Gypsy In A Tree

I can still remember the first time I heard a recording of Lotte Lenya singing. It was the original cast recording of the first English production of the Kurt Weill, Bertol Brecht play The Threepenny Opera. While the rest of the cast sang their material with the glossy voices you expect in American musical theatre, Lenya's voice was as coarse as rough sand paper and a wonderful relief from the parade of characterless voices which had proceeded it. Brecht and Weill's biting piece of social commentary had been turned into a pretty piece of musical theatre with Lenya's performance being the only tie to its roots in the political theatre of Germany in the 1920s and 30s.

Brecht hadn't been interested in creating pieces of escapist entertainment, and strove to rid performances of the sentimental attachment the audiences made to the characters in a play. His theory of "alienation" was to constantly remind the audience they were watching actors on stage performing in a play so their intellect wouldn't be clouded by forming any sort of emotional attachment to the characters. He wanted performers with real and gritty singing voices; people who weren't your typical matinee idols playing the romantic hero to the young ingenue. While there was far more to his alienation technique than his preference in actors, its something to keep in mind when listening to Gypsy In A Tree, the new CD from Sanda Weigl (she is referred to by her first name only) on the Brooklyn NY Barbes Records label.
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For while Sanda was born in Romania her family moved to East Berlin in the early 1960s. As a child she had loved to watch the gypsy street musicians in her home of Bucharest, and quickly learned to sing the songs she heard them performing and had even been a child star on Romanian State television. In Berlin, her aunt, Helene Weigel, who was not only Brecht's widow but had taken over the running of his company The Berliner Ensemble, Sanda under her wing and introduced her to Brecht and Weill's style of musical theatre. From there she graduated to being the member of a rock band and also winning the Dresden International Song Festival when she was 17 with her rendition of a traditional Roma (Gypsy) tune "Recruit". In 1968, when the Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to put down the reform movement, she joined an underground student group to protest the invasion and East Germany's oppressive rule and was subsequently arrested, sentenced to three years of hard labour and then exiled as an enemy of the state to West Berlin.

In West Berlin Sanda returned to the theatre and her first love, the music of the Roma she had heard as a child. She began performing again with a band made up of musicians from the Tom Waits (music and lyrics) and William S Burroughs (book) musical The Black Rider which was originally staged in Germany. Encouraged by Black Rider's director, Robert Wilson, she and her husband emigrated to New York City to allow her to further her singing career. Since her arrival in New York City she has continued to perform and released her first disc in 2002, Gypsy Killer, and now, nine years latter, she has finally released her follow up. Ten of the eleven tracks on Gypsy In A Tree are traditional Roma songs which Sanda has adapted and arranged with the help of pianist Anthony Coleman and her current band, avant-garde jazz musicians Shoko Nagai (accordion, piano and Farfisa organ) Stomu Takeishi (bass) and Satoshi Takeishi (percussion).

While Sanda sings in Romanian (the booklet accompanying the CD provides copies of each song's lyrics in Romanian, English and German) the music builds off the traditional melodies to reflect the many cultures and countries both Sanda and the Roma have been influenced by and travelled through. So while the opening song on the disc, "Intr-o Ai La Poarta Mea" (One Day In Front Of My Fence) sounds like it could have been lifted directly from the stages of Brecht and Weill's 1920s Germany, the very next song, "Un Tigan Avea O Casa" (A Gypsy Had A House) shows definite signs of modern jazz influences.

However, no matter what musical style has been incorporated, Sanda's vocals are so mesmerizing they are the listeners primary focus. She has a range that would be the envy of any musical theatre performer and an expressiveness that conveys meaning even though we might not understand the words she's singing. Reading the English translations of the songs alone doesn't convey the depth of feeling behind the lyrics, and Sanda is able to imbue each of the songs with what is necessary to convey the layers beneath the surface.
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Take the song "Jandarmul" (Gendarme - Romanian Gypsy word for a member of the cavalry) where a horseman refuses to give a young Roma girl a lift as she trudges along barefoot in a muddy road. On the page it sounds like she merely wishes him misfortune when she asks, "Oh Lord, dear Lord, make the rains so heavy/ That all the land is flooded/The horse stumbles in the mud/And the roads are no more". Somehow, Sanda is able to express through the soldier's attitude towards the young girl the disdain the majority of Romanian society has for the Roma, and the fatalism this has bred in response. It's as if the young girl is saying, fine if the world is going to make it so hard to walk and not offer any assistance, it might as well do away with roads altogether. Yet there's also an air of defiance, as she also seems to be saying, no matter what the world does to us we will continue on our journeys.

In some ways the songs on this disc are the blues songs of the Roma. For a great many of them reflect the pain of the Roma along the lines of "Adu Calu' Sa Ma Duc" (Bring My Horse It's Time To Go) which features an exchange of farewells between lovers who are being forced to part because of circumstances. "Bring my horse it's time to go/ I must leave this place/Where luck wants no part of me/If luck were with me/I wouldn't be punished thus/Torn away from you/My heart is always weeping". Much like blues musicians sing about misfortunes and bad times in an attempt to take some of the sting out of a people's bad experiences, Sanda does the same with her material. While those lyrics are potentially maudlin, listening to the sound of her voice as she sings them, you experience something similar to what you feel when listening to a great blues singer sing about her man doing her wrong. It's not just about this one incident, nor is it about feeling sorry for yourself, these songs are a way of making sure you don't brood about the bad things in life by proclaiming them to the sky and not letting them rule you.

In the early part of the 20th century when Romanians would hire Roma musicians to play for family events like weddings and other celebrations, they were forced to keep out of sight of the guests to the extreme of having to sit in trees if they were performing outside. Gypsy In A Tree takes its title from that reprehensible practice, but while the songs on the disc might have lyrics which talk about the hardships the Roma have faced, and continue to face this day, Sanda's performance make them more than just laments. With an obvious empathy for the material and the people who created it, Sanda is able to convey the strength of spirit of a people who have not only survived this treatment for centuries, but have managed to create a strong and vibrant culture along the way.

While it may seem like an odd combination, a Romanian vocalist accompanied by three Japanese musicians, performing traditional Roma material, their approach has been the perfect combination of respect and experimentation to bring the songs to life. Of course the combination of great songs, great musicians and a spectacular vocalist is usually a winner, and that's the case here.

(Article first published as Music Review: Sanda - Gypsy In A Tree on Blogcritics.)

February 8, 2011

DVD Review: The People Speak

Open a newspaper, any newspaper, in order to read about what's going on in the world and you'll usually be treated to reports on what's been said by a select minority. Spokespeople from government, business leaders and, if you're lucky, a politician in opposition to the government's position will all weigh in on the issue at hand. They usually talk in broad generalities about the big picture without ever giving any indication on the impact their actions might have on people further down the food chain. When the government announces a ten per cent cut in the corporate tax rate and the business leader says he can live with that and the leader of the opposition says he would have cut it more although its a good start, nobody bothers to mention what will happen because of the ten per cent lose of revenue.

In theory paying ten per cent less in taxes is supposed to allow business to increase productivity, lower prices and hire more workers all of which will generate sufficient revenue to make up for the short fall created by the tax cut. In practice what happens is the companies simply increase their profit margins and nothing ever is passed onto the consumer or the labour force. But we never hear from the single mom who is trying to buy food and pay rent while working minimum wage about how the increase in food costs, rent, utilities and medical expensed not covered by her health insurance because of government cut backs in social services to pay for the ten per cent cut in the corporate tax rate have affected her. We never hear how the streamlining of departments in order to save money has resulted in the number of workplace health and safety inspectors being reduced and she's working in increasingly unsafe conditions or how she is forced to quit her job because the day care she had her kids in was closed due to "rationalization".
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Not only won't you find her voice in most newspapers, you can pretty much be guaranteed of not finding her voice, or voices like it. in most history books either. It's pretty difficult to get a balanced picture of events when you only read one view point don't you think? How accurate a picture do you think you're getting when you read about the labour unrest in the early part of the 20th century and you only read about what the government and corporations have to say and nothing from the rank and file of union workers? The late American historian Howard Zinn had the idea that people might want to read about history from the point of view of the workers and the single mothers and it turns out he was right. Since his People's History Of The United States was first published it has sold over a million copies, which must be some kind of record for a history book. Taking the concept a step further in 2009 he and co-author Anthony Arnove published Voices Of A People's History Of The United States, a collection of speeches, letters and other documents giving first hand accounts of events throughout the history of the country by those whose voices aren't normally heard. From soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War to the parents of people killed when the World Trade Centre went down, all of them gave readers a perspective on history they might not have read or heard before.

In an effort to bring these words to the public actors Matt Daemon and Josh Brolin put together a touring show of their fellow actors that went university campuses and the occasional public hall, in order to present live readings from the book. The show was filmed at two separate locations and that footage has been edited onto one DVD, The People Speak. Also edited into the movie are performances of various musical pieces by performers who either played live with the actors or who recorded their segments especially for the DVD. Unfortunately the only review copy I was able to obtain was via a download from I-tunes, which didn't contain any of the special features which are included on a second disc when you purchase the package. It also meant there were no notes available to consult to double check the identities of who was reading what. (Oh, and I-Tunes has to be the worst facility for downloading video - it took me over three hours to download something less then two hours in length using a high speed connection)

Howard Zinn serves as the narrator and host for both the DVD and the live performances, and he starts off by telling us a little about himself and the impetus for creating both his first book and this follow up. He makes no bones about the fact the voices we are about to hear are ones of dissent - the people who spoke out against the status quo and who refused to toe the official party line. However, as he says, since America was founded through dissent, it only seems appropriate these voices should continue to be heard. The first account we hear is of how during the Revolution, officers acted pretty much like they would have were they in the British army and lorded it over the enlisted men. The enlisted men were poorly clothed and starving and when they dared protest they were whipped or hung. The first reading of the night, by Viggo Mortensen, was of a letter describing the whipping and hanging of one Sergeant Macaroni for having the nerve to protest about conditions on behalf of his men and then during his whipping continue to do so which resulted in his being immediately hung.
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So much for the myth of soldiers freezing to death willingly out of patriotism. As we continue down through the years balloons continue to be popped. The great emancipator Lincoln writes to the effect that he would willingly allow slavery to continue if it meant the salvation of the Union. There were also riots in the cities of the north protesting the fact that rich people could buy their way out of the draft for $300.00 (somethings never changed as wealthy people were able to obtain deferments from service as long as there was a draft). As to the myth of Johnny Reb which exist even to this day - well most of them were conscripts who would desert at the first chance as they had little interest in dying for the big landowners.

For those who might doubt the veracity of some of the material being read during the performance, it's interesting to note how much of it comes from the trials of various people who were arrested for doing things like voting illegally or trying to abolish slavery. John Brown was hung for trying steal weapons in order to liberate slaves and Susan B Anthony tried to vote before it was legal for women in the United States. Both were tried and found guilty of their crimes and what the actors read are the speeches both gave when asked if the defendant had any words to say before sentencing was carried out. Other readings are from speeches that were given at public events like ex-slave Soujourner Truth's "Ain't I Woman" speech from 1851 given to a group of white abolitionists.

The performers on the DVD are pretty much instantly recognizable: Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover, Josh Brolin, Morgan Freeman, Jasmin Guy, Benjamin Bratt, Marisa Tomei, Mat Daemon, Don Cheadle and David Straitharn to name a few, and their performances range from simple readings to near dramatic re-enactments. Interestingly enough it was an actor I was unfamiliar with before this, Kerry Washington, who made one of the strongest impressions with her performance of the above mentioned Sourjourner Truth's speech. Not only did she do a fine job of assuming the accent of a black woman from the times but she was also able to bring the speech to life. While all the performers did capable jobs of reading their pieces so an audience would understand what was being said, there were times when I wished they had invested them with a little more emotion - created more of a performance.
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On those occasions an actor chose to give a performance you were given a much deeper understanding of what the original document was about and the intent behind the letter or speech. Ironically I can't remember the people he depicted, but David Straitharn's presentations were some of the most emotionally powerful of the night. It wasn't that he ranted or raved, it was the way in which he was able to raise his level of intensity while talking to match his character's emotions. Another performance of note was Viggo Mortensen's reading of a letter from a parent whose child was killed in the bombing of the World Trade Centre. First of all it was the only reading in Spanish during the night, and second of all you didn't need to speak the language to understand the depth of the father's anguish and the passion he felt for his subject. The actress performing the wife read the letter in English - the couple are Hispanic - so we were able to understand they were pleading with people not to use their son's death as an excuse to perpetuate violence.

Interspersed between the speeches were the occasional musical performance. Bob Dylan, accompanied by Ry Cooder and Van Dyke Parks, went back to his roots and played Woody Guthries "Do Re Mi" from the days of the dust bowl quite credibly and Bruce Springsteen did a typically intense solo version of his own "Tom Joad", the performer who took me most by surprise was Pink. I had only heard of her vaguely before and her performance of "Dear Mr. President" is the highlight of the DVD. The passion for her material and her vocal ability were a remarkable combination and one wondered how anybody could have listened to this song and not be moved. Some might wonder what she or her song have to do with history, but according to Howard Zinn, we are all living history all the time and what goes on today is just as important as what happened yesterday.

The People Speak represents an opportunity very few of us are given. Not only does it present aspects of history not everybody is familiar with, it brings it to life and makes it real. For too many people history has been confined to the pages of dusty books and boring classrooms - this represents a chance to see and hear it brought alive. We may not be able to travel back in time, but this DVD brings the past to us.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The People Speak on Blogcritics.)

February 7, 2011

Music Review: Erdem Helvacioglu & Ros Bandt - Black Falcon

Perhaps it's because we envy them their ability to soar effortlessly on air currents invisible to our eyes that humans have long equated the flying birds are capable of with freedom. With gravity's grip relentlessly keeping us rooted to the earth we can only watch in helpless awe as even the humblest pigeon easily passes over walls that confine even the mightiest of men. Poetry and songs from all over the world confirm our fascination with birds in the way they are constantly used to evoke thoughts of freedom and escape from peril. Even now when we have developed our own clumsy means of taking to the air, who hasn't stopped to watch a bird's passage and marvel at its effortless crossing of the sky.

Of course nothing we have accomplished to date can match the natural aerodynamics and control exercised by the hunting and diving birds who stalk their prey from thousands of feet above until suddenly plummeting from the sky like a bolt of lighting to swoop away with a fish from beneath the waters or break the spine of a rabbit. Raptors of all kinds can instil fear in the best of us, which could be why the eagle has been a symbol of power and intimidation for empires and royalty since the time of the Romans. Others, with more respect for the natural world, have interpreted their power as a sign of being touched by the divine, and eagles are considered the messengers of the Creator, with the smaller raptors taking secondary roles.
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While the eagles, condors and hawks of the world are recognized for their power, when it comes to speed falcons are known to outstrip their larger relatives by a good margin. Unfortunately these small birds also seem to have come into conflict the most with humans in competition for habitat. While some falcons have been able to make homes for themselves among the skyscrapers of major cities - some cities have encouraged this nesting in the hopes the falcons will help with pest control by feasting on rat and other vermin - the populations in the wild have dwindled. The peregrine falcon of Northern Canada flirted with extinction until it was declared a protected species. The black falcons of Europe and Australia are not quite as fortunate, and both are considered endangered. Nomadic animals, the very freedom we envy is what's being denied them by the continual erosion of habitat as we devour more and more of the wild.

It's both the steady decline in the falcon's numbers and the conflict between man and the wild which provided the impetus for the collaboration between Turkey's Erdem Hevacioglu and Australia's Ros Bandt and their new release on Double Moon Records, Black Falcon. The seven compositions on the CD combines modern and traditional musical technology as both a lament for the falcon and an expression of the conflict between the wild and humanity's insatiable desire to subdue the untamed. With the disc being recorded in only one day, and five of the seven pieces improvised, the project in of itself isn't what you'd call tame, as the two artists are having to rely on their artistic instincts in order to pull it off.

Even the instruments used in the creation of the pieces reflects something of the tension between the natural world and the technology we use to shape and control what's around us. While Helvacioglu creates layers of textured sound utilizing electric guitar and electronics, Bandt is playing a simple four stringed instrument modelled on an ancient design called a long necked Tarhu. Inspired by instruments as diverse as the double bass, traditional Eastern and middle Eastern spike fiddles and the Indian Vina, Australian luthier Peter Biffin created an acoustic system for the tarhu which transfers its strings vibrations to a featherweight wooden cone suspended from its body. Whether bowed or plucked the design means the instrument is exceptionally sensitive and offers a musician a huge range of tones to work with.

I suppose we could continue to carry the analogy further by stressing how much the tarhu is like nature in when you pluck one string the whole resounds in ways you can't predict. However it would create the misleading impression of the two musical styles being in conflict, which is the furthest thing from the truth. Technology in of itself is not evil, nor are all modern advances. What is dangerous is how we have let them both deaden our senses to the world around us. In the hands of as gifted a musician as Helvacioglu a piece of electronics can create music as sensitive as any acoustic instrument no matter what its pedigree. Needless to say, Bandt proves herself just as capable of producing sounds and tones that are as unsettling as anything you'll hear created on any electric instrument. Maybe the irony here is that both the modern and the traditional employ freedom and wildness to deny our expectations of what they should do.
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The music itself is a series of abstract creations built around various themes. The opening track, "Black Falcon", does more than just try and define the bird, but also brings us into its world. By that I don't mean the two have gone the obvious route and tried to recreate the sounds of flight. What they have done is created something that might give us the idea of what it could feel like to be as unfettered and free as a falcon. While there is beauty, there is also sadness as the bird and the freedom it represents are slowly vanishing, so in the midst of this celebration of its prowess we are made aware of the awful hole that would be left if it were to vanish forever.

While the various pieces on the disc celebrate the wildness of the natural world, never once do you have the impression they are guilty of sentimentalizing it either. There's nothing idyllic or pastoral about this animal's life, it is a predator after all and relies on killing other creatures to survive. As the music progresses over the course of the disc the two delve deeper into the meanings of untamed and why it strikes such fear into the hearts of humans. Wild just isn't being born free, its the unchecked rage of a hurricane, the explosive power of a volcano and the uncaring nature of the towering mountain. The falcon goes about its life and business in much the same way as it would if we weren't around to intrude upon its existence the same as any other elemental force.

It's fascinating to hear how this image is created over the course of the recording. At times I was hard pressed to remember there were seven individual pieces on the disc and found that I was listening to it as a single entity. Perhaps your experience with it will be different. For like any abstract work, perceptions on what is being presented will change from individual to individual. However, no matter what you "get" from the music, you can't fail to be impressed by the talents of the two musicians and the scope of their achievement. At times I was unable to distinguish who was creating which sounds so adept were each with their instruments. Bandt's control of tone and texture is so good at times it was hard to believe she was creating her sounds acoustically, while Helvacioglu electronic washes of sound were so delicate they could be mistaken for something occurring naturally.

Humans are split between our envy of the freedom represented by a bird in flight and our desire to control the wild nature behind the ability. Unfortunately the one can't exist without the other and if we continue on the way we are going we will destroy that which we desire so much. Perhaps that's why we are so bent on the destruction of nature - our selfishness won't let us simply enjoy something that splendid. If we're not to be allowed those gifts we aren't willing to let anyone else have them either. The music of Erdem Helvacioglu & Ros Bandt on Black Falcon might not say such things explicitly, and it may suggest some other idea altogether to you, but you won't be able to listen to it without being affected in some way.

This is a wonderful piece of work created and performed by two very unique talents. With this creation they have given us a perfect example of how acoustic and electronic instruments can work together to create something that combines the best elements of each without either overpowering the other. I wonder if there's a lesson in there somewhere; what do you think?

(Article first published as Music Review: Erdem Helvacioglu & Ros Bandt - Black Falcon on Blogcritics.)

February 6, 2011

Music Review: Susan McKeown -Singing In The Dark

You'd think we'd have matured enough by now we could talk about mental illness openly and honestly. Instead the stigma attached to even the most basic of emotional difficulties is so great most people are still loath to even admit they're seeing a psychiatrist or therapist. All you have to do is watch people squirm and try to change the subject when you bring up the fact that you've been seeing somebody to help you deal with emotional problems to understand what I'm talking about. The only thing worse than dealing with the rest of the world's reactions to your circumstances are the way the majority of the medical profession - especially those who treat them specifically - deal with mental illnesses.

They see their job as doing their damnedest to take your square pegged self and make you fit into the nice little round holes society wants us all slotting into. The problem is that far too much of the time its been trying to fit into those little round holes that have caused you all the problems in the first place. The usual answer offered by the profession is to medicate the crap out of you so you don't notice the shit that caused you to slip off the rails. So if you've been having the perfectly normal reaction to the tensions of living in our world today of having anxiety attacks they'll pump you full of pills to deaden your emotions and turn you back into a mindless sheep content with career, house in the suburbs and the ability to swallow what you hear and see in the media as the gospel truth.

While for some that might be the answer to their troubles, others might find that a cost their not willing to pay for easing their minds. It's probably no coincidence that throughout history artists, specifically poets, have been troubled by what we would call mood disorders. What has been commonly referred to as the "artistic temperament" may actually have been an indication of something deeper: depression, manic/depression, anxiety or some other form of emotional imbalance. During their lifetimes a great many poets lived lives of intense suffering and poverty as they were shunned by "normal" society and it was only in their art they were able to find solace. The insights into human nature and emotions which have been the hallmarks of some of the world's great poetry, ensuring their places in history, are in most cases a result of the writer suffering from some sort of trouble of the mind.
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When singer/songwriter Susan McKeown began researching her family tree she was startled to discover the high incidence of disturbances among the creative members of her ancestry. Fascinated by this correlation she set out to discover more, and soon realized her family wasn't an anomaly. In an effort to try and reduce some of the stigma attached to people dealing with these issues McKeown has created an album adapting the work of poets who wrote about those feelings. The result, Singing In The Dark, is a beautiful and haunting collection of work capturing both the emotional highs and lows experienced by the creative spirit.

McKeown has gathered together the work of poets throughout history whose work either reflects their own struggles with emotional imbalances or has something to do with the subject. Trawling through the ages she has reached back into our earliest works, "Mad Sweeny", whose origins lie in the 5th century and travelled through to modern times and Leonard Cohen's "Anthem". Along the way she pays her respect to writers on both sides of the Atlantic including Lord Byron, "We'll Go No More A Roving" and John Rowland, "In Darkness Let Me Dwell" from England; Nula Ni Dhomhnaill, "The Crack In The Stairs" and James Clarence Mangan, "The Nameless One" from Ireland; Theodore Roethke, "In A Dark Time" and Anne Sexton "A Woman Like That (Her Kind)" from America and Spaniard Violeta Parra, "Gracias A La Vida" (Thanks To Life) amongst them.

As you can tell from their titles these songs, poems, go places most of aren't used to, or interested in, going when listening to music. However, there's a reason these works have survived and are around today for McKeown to have adapted, and that's because no matter how depressing you might think the topic at hand is, there is something uplifting or compelling about each of the works. Part of that is McKeown's abilities as a performer and her incredible command of her voice which allows her to sing one song, "The Crazy Woman" by Gwendolyn Brooks, in an aching tenor and another, Cohen's aforementioned "Anthem" in a rich alto.

The material isn't hurt by the fact she has surrounded herself with what is obviously an amazingly gifted group of musicians and technicians who have helped her bring her vision to reality. I mention the latter because as I was listening to this disc I couldn't help but notice how cleanly the songs have been mixed so each instrument sounds like its been nestled in a cocoon keeping their integrity intact while still being obviously only one small piece of a much larger picture. With the variety of instruments being used it would have been easy for the sound to have turned to mud, instead it is crystal clear.
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Musically she also has some surprises in store for listeners. Upon reading the disc is composed of songs adopted from poems dealing with mental illness, one could almost be forgiven for assuming the material is going to be full of sweeping electronics, melodic strings, and other typical means of creating atmosphere. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to hear the amount of fuzz being used on the electric guitar on the Roethke piece opening the disc and the rocking lead guitar searing through the adaptation of Sexton's piece that follows. While in the opening track the fuzz serves as a contrast to McKeown's voice, on "A Woman Like That", she develops the roughness of voice to match the guitar. I like the irony of her dealing with a topic that's been subject to so much misconception by shattering a great many of the preconceived notions most people would have had about how this type of material would be presented. Just because its poetry doesn't mean its going to be pretty or precious. Of course if you think about it, with such gritty subject matter it makes sense for the music to be equally real.

However, no matter how interesting and well played the music on the recording is, its still the words which lay at its core. Here's where McKeown shows her amazing capacity for understanding the various aspects of emotional conditions. The material reflects not only a variety of experiences but the diversity of emotions felt by those who deal with them their whole lives. Again expectations are probably going to be dashed as in spite of what anyone might think, people suffering from emotional disturbances, even sever ones, are still quite rational and aren't necessarily depressed or manic all of the time. In fact one of the more prevalent emotions you can hear being expressed on this disc is hope. Whether its in the firmness of the convictions expressed by the woman in the "The Crazy Woman", "I'll not sing a May song/A May song should be gay/I'll wait until November/And sing a song of grey", or the knowledge that even when the darkness seems complete light still has a chance as Cohen's "Anthem" makes sure to point out, "Ring the bells that still can sing/Forget your perfect offering/There's a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in/That's how the light gets in".

There's no denying though, there are some pretty torturous paths being followed by the minds of some of the poets she has drawn upon. However when you read about their life stories, or the history surrounding a specific piece, as described in the CD's liner notes, you will see how a great many of these writers were pushed into darkness by their circumstances. Too often we tend to look at someone's behaviour and judge them without searching beyond to see what might have caused it. The number of abused women who are punished for being overtly violent, put into anger control programs, or worse, for lashing out at those who have been torturing them is only one indication of how deeply we are failing those dealing with emotional disorders.

Easing their burdens shouldn't be so difficult, and Susan McKeown's is another voice being raised on their behalf in an attempt to demystify these types of "illnesses". Not only does Singing In The Dark offer moral support, a portion of the proceeds from its sale are being donated the following groups helping people: National Alliance on Metal Illness (NAMI), Fountain House, BringChange2Mind and The Mood Disorders Support Group (MDSG). This is an album of spectacular singing, great musicand intelligent lyrics in support of a good cause - what more could you want?

(Article first published as Music Review: Susan McKeown - Singing In The Dark on Blogcritics.)

January 1, 2011

Book Review: The Year Of The Hare By Arto Paasilinna

How many of you out there have wanted to just say," Oh fuck it" at some point in your life? Slough off all your responsibilities and head for the hills; a partner who makes you so miserable you can't remember why you married them or a once inspiring job has become a cynical task you only keep doing because you need the money. Everywhere you look you see the walls closing in and you're starting to be able to identify with the animals you see pacing from side to side in a zoo's cages. Of course, if you were to take that giant step off the edge you would become a social pariah. The creep who left the loving partner or rejected the well paying job to wander aimlessly picking up piece work like some sort of hobo or bum. Someone who is, in fact, a danger to himself and others because he, or she, are obviously mentally unhinged.

Society can be a harsh judge when you don't play by the rules, but sometimes a body is pushed too far and something happens to trigger snapping the bonds holding them in check. Such is the case in Finnish author Arto Paasilinna's book The Year Of The Hare, published by Penguin Canada. In an almost clinical fashion Paasilinna records one man's odyssey into exile from society and follows him as he gradually travels further and further away from civilization until he crosses over into neighbouring Russia somewhere near the Arctic Circle. However, this is no glib peon to the rights of the individual and the author leaves it to the reader to make his own decisions about his 'hero's' behaviour by assigning us the role of observer.

Vatanen is a journalist made cynical from too many years of reporting scandals and writing about people and issues that don't matter. He can't remember why he married his wife, nor is he quite sure why she married him as she apparently despises him. Returning from assignment with his photographer, their car side swipes a young hare who hadn't been able to get out of the way. Seized by a sudden impulse Vatanen leaves the car to search for the wounded animal in the woods where it hobbled after they hit it. When he doesn't return, and after repeatedly calling him, the photographer takes off and leaves Vatanen. When later guilt over abandoning him, he might have fallen and injured himself, forces the photographer to return to search for his associate, he can't find any sign of either him or the hare.
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Vatanen had found the hare and after carefully tending to it for the night and establishing a bond had taken it to the nearest village to arrange medical care. The more he thought about his life - wife and job - the gloomier he would become, while the more he allowed himself to enjoy his surroundings - the peaceful woods, the friendly villagers and the quiet companionship of the hare - the happier he became. Seemingly without thinking about it he makes arrangements to separate himself from civilization. He sells his boat to a friend to obtain some much needed cash and then proceeds to vanish into the wilderness. However, unlike Thoreau, who retreated to Walden Pond to contemplate society and nature, our friend is not so much interested in philosophy as he is in escape.

In fact, Paasilinna paints an almost negative picture of Vatanen at times. Hired on to help fight the biggest forest fire in Finnish history he comes across a man who has been forced to flee from the flames with his still. He then proceed to enjoy the results of his new acquaintance's labours. When the fire threatens to consume the two men they swim out into a lake and wait for it to burn out around them. While I suppose one could make the case for this being an analogy for selfishness - self-gratification while the world literally burns around you - in the context of the story its merely just another adventure among the many he experiences in his wandering. Anyway, his willingness to go to almost any lengths to protect the hare belie charges that he's only interested in himself. It's more when an opportunity presents itself he's seizing it with both hands no matter how strange it might seem to observers.

He's at his most content though when it's just him and the hare. He takes jobs which allow him to retreat further and further from society. Yet no matter how remote a location he manages to find, intrusions are inevitable. Hired to renovate a shelter for the herdsmen who look after reindeer in the north he and the hare find some moments of respite until a government official decides it is an ideal location to bring foreign dignitaries to observe the Finnish army perform winter manoeuvres. When the intruders insist upon trying to hunt a bear hibernating in the vicinity it sets off a series of absurd events which results in the cabin being burnt to the ground and the entire party being evacuated, nearly naked, by helicopter. When Vatanen is finally able to return to finish the job he started, he and the hare are forced to contend with the irate bear and are lucky to escape unscathed. Unable to lash out at those responsible, he and the hare decide to hunt down the bear who leads them on a merry chase across the Finnish Russian border where he is held on suspicion of spying.
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It's here that Paasilinna is at his most satirical. For the Finns send a extradition request to the Russians detailing the list of crimes Vatanen is wanted for in his native country which is almost as farcical as it is lengthy. Reading between the lines of the list of meaningless crimes what he's really being accused of is shirking his responsibilities as a member of a well ordered society and generally not behaving in a acceptable manner. It's one thing if life's circumstances force you to live on the margins, it's another all together if you decide to do so voluntarily. Anybody who rejects the holy trinity of family, work and societal obligations is obviously a threat and needs to be separated from the general public - you wouldn't want anybody getting ideas now would you.

What makes The Year Of The Hare so compelling is how Paasilinna makes no effort to glorify any of Vatanen's actions or offer any justifications for what he does. Yet even his seemingly irrational decisions couldn't be construed by anyone but the most anal as dangerous or even mean spirited. At times he's forced into situations by the idiocy of those around him, but because he's considered "abnormal", even those who threaten him with violence are considered to be acting within the bounds of normalcy. While our society claims to cherish the rights of the individual, this book makes it obvious how narrow our definition of that word really is. If you stray too far outside the boundaries of acceptable behaviour you will be either shunned as a pariah, treated as a criminal or be considered mentally unstable, if not all three at once.

With his almost casual writing style Paasilinna is able to make his point without ever preaching or being obvious about what he is doing. As the book progresses he gradually builds his case and we slowly become aware of the weight of societal disapproval lurking in the background like some malevolent presence waiting to pounce. By not setting Vatanen up as some heroic figure in search of inner meaning or on a quest for the truth, Paasilinna has created a character readers can identify with at least some of the time. Sure he's flawed, but who isn't? All he wants is to be left alone to live a peaceful co-existence with his new friend, is that such a bad thing? Read the book and see what you think, you might just find yourself wishing for a hare to enter your life in the near future.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Year Of The Hare by Arto Paasilinna on Blogcritics.)

October 19, 2010

Movie Review: Reel Injun

I don't normally write articles that receive a lot of comments, but twice I struck enough of a nerve with people that they responded in the hundreds. One was on everyone's favourite topic, gun control, and the other was on the use of Native Americans, First Nations in Canada, as mascots in sports teams. I was astounded at how many people couldn't get their heads around the fact that a race of people would be offended by being equated with the San Diego Chicken or other figures of ridicule that dress up in costume and generally run around making fools of themselves at public events.

The most common argument I heard was these mascots were honouring the brave fighting spirit of Native Americans and how it should be taken as a compliment not an insult. What these people seemed to forget is that when you reduce a people to one characteristic they lose their humanity as we ignore every other aspect of their culture. If you want to honour Native Americans maybe you should teach students in schools how one of the models for the American Constitution was the Iroquois Confederacy and their system of governance, instead of creating cartoon figures who have little or no bearing on the realities of Native American life across North America.
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You can't really blame the sports teams and fans though for the mascots. These representations are merely an extension of the way in which Native Americans, and indigenous people everywhere, have been portrayed in popular media since the 19th century. From Buffalo Bill's depiction of the slaughter of men, women and children at Wounded Knee Creek as a glorious triumph for the 7th Calvary to contemporary New Age books selling "Native wisdom" the culture of over five hundred different nations has been exploited and distorted with depressing regularity and with little concern for reality. Now Canadian film maker Neil Diamond, a Cree Indian from Northern Quebec near the Arctic Circle, has made a documentary tracing the history of Hollywood's representations of Native Americans. While its already made the round of Film Festivals last year, Reel Injun will have its American television debut on the Public Broadcasting Service's (PBS) show Independent Lens November 02/10.

A mixture of film clips from the earliest silent movies and interviews with film critics, actors, directors and Native American activists, Reel Injun not only shows how Native Americans have been depicted on the big screen over the years, it also explores the effect these negative stereotypes had on Natives. It seems like the camera has always loved them, as the first films ever made, Thomas Edison's back in the late 19th century, were of Laguna Pueblo dances. They were also the first peep shows to be shown in Times Square in New York City; put a penny in the slot and watch the savages dance; and there is something almost pornographic in the lurid black and white images of the dancers caught by this early camera.

Still, the early days of silent film, when technology was simple and cheap, actually saw movies being made by Native Americans about Native Americans depicting the realities of their lives at the time. It wasn't until the "talkies", and more specifically Westerns, came along that the problems began. Diamond himself talks about how as a young kid the only movies he saw on his reserve were the ones shown in a church basement on Saturday afternoons and how he and his friends would never identify with the Indians on the screen when a Western was shown. First of all none of them wore feather head dresses or rode horses, and secondly who'd want to be the bad guy?

Ah, but that's the past you say, and things have changed since then. Look at Dances With Wolves with its sympathetic portrayal of the Lakota for example. While its true, according to some of the film critics interviewed in Reel Injun that it was a watershed in the way it depicted Native Americans as multi-dimensional humans, it was still an outsider's view of what Native life was like, and a distorted one at that according to some. Russell Means, a Lakota and former leader in the American Indian Movement, was offended by the depiction of his nation requiring some "white guy with a mullet" to teach them how to fight. The people who defeated Custer at Big Horn didn't need "Lawrence of the Plains" to teach them anything.
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In fact, while most interviewed agreed, including Clint Eastwood, John Trudell, and Native film critic Jesse Wente, individual performances by people like Chief Dan George, Graham Greene and Gary Farmer, were invaluable in changing people's perceptions of the one dimensional stoical Indian, it wasn't until Native Americans began making films about Native Americans that real change occurred. Smoke Signals, based on a story by Sherman Alexie and directed by Chris Eyre, was set on the Spokane reservation in the state of Washington. Nobody was wearing feathers, riding a horse or talking in pidgin English, The characters lived in the modern world and dealt with the day to day shit that concerns most Native Americans today.

However, even Eyre says that his movie was made with the wider world in mind, and it wasn't until the release of The Fast Runner by Inuk director Zacharias Kunuk was there was a film by, about and for Native people in North America. Winner of the Camera d'or for Best Feature Film at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001, Fast Runner was set a thousand years ago among the people of the far north. Shot entirely in the language of the people, it was a gritty and real representation of what life was like in the days before contact with Europeans. There was nothing glamourous or holy about the life depicted - it was just who they were and what they had to do in order to survive.

That's a long way from the days of Chuck Conner playing Geronimo or Native actors being told they didn't look "Indian" enough to play themselves. However stereotypes die hard and its going to take a lot more movies along the lines of The Fast Runner before the image of noble savage is erased from people's minds. Perhaps the days are gone when young Native boys are going to be beat up after Saturday afternoon matinees like Russell Means and his brother were for being Injuns, or be made to feel ashamed of their heritage because they only see themselves as villains on the screen. However movies like Eastwood's Flags Of Our Fathers and Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man and their honest depiction of Natives are still in the minority and reach far fewer impressionable minds than Disney's Pocahontas with its depiction of a real woman as a Barbie Doll Indian Princess.

Reel Injun might be light hearted in tone at times, but it tackles a serious subject with directness and courage. Many people who watch this movie aren't going to be happy as it cuts the legs out from under American icons like John Wayne and Western movies in general. However there were lots of people who thought segregation was a good thing too and we know how that turned out. Not all Native Americans are noble, great horsemen and very few of the ones I know talk to animals anymore than I do. For those who don't understand what all the fuss is about when people complain about mascots or how Natives are depicted in films, if you keep an open mind when watching this film, you'll come away at the end of the hour with a far better understanding of why it hurts so much.

(Article first published as TV Review: Reel Injun on PBS on Blogcritics.)

October 8, 2010

Book Review: The Tree by John Fowles

Humankind doesn't have a very good record when it comes to the way we deal with things we either fear or don't understand. More hate based wars have been fought because of them than probably anything else. In fact, throughout our long and rather bloodthirsty history the majority of our worst crimes against ourselves and the world around us have been brought on by our inability to overcome just how much we fear what we don't understand. What we don't destroy we seek to control or beat into submission in order to make sure it is unable to challenge us.

While not generating quire as strong feelings of antipathy, those things which seemingly have no intrinsic value, or use, manage to risk our ire to nearly the same extent. So woe betide anything or body which manages to not only have no apparent use, but that also confuses and scares us. In his treatise The Tree, first published thirty years ago and now re-printed by Ecco Books, an imprint of Harper Collins, the late British author John Fowles (1926 - 2005) postulates that for the majority of us the natural world, and, by dint of what the two have in common, the spirit of creativity, fall into that category.

According to Fowles one need look no further than our relationship with forests in general, and trees in particular to find proof of this sentiment. Even before the Christian church began its campaign against earth based religions by spreading the belief that evil dwelt in the dark places of the forests, we were turning against the untamed world around us when we made the switch from hunter gathers to a more agrarian trade based society. Early civilizations were just as inclined to see nature as a force to overcome and be controlled as later day ones. Supplications were made to gods and goddesses in order to ensure bountiful crops and men enacted rituals binding them to the land so their divinity over it was ensured.
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It was the industrial revolution of the 19th century which combined our fear of the dark and unknown with the utilitarian attitudes we hold today that completed our separation from the natural world. Up to then the majority of people still looked to the land for their living as we were primarily an agrarian society. With the coming of industry and its need for raw materials, any thought of nature existing merely for the sake of existing went out the window. If something wasn't of use, if it couldn't feed the maw of industry in some manner, it had no purpose at all and was deemed extraneous to our needs.

Interestingly enough, Fowles points out, until the 19th century nature hadn't made much of an appearance in the arts. Although he confines himself to writing and the visual arts, he makes a very strong case for his argument that until then the majority of the arts had depicted nature either as a backdrop against which human activity took place or which expressed our need to exert control over it through pictures containing formal gardens and tales describing the evils existing in a forest's dark places. It was only with the Romantics and the Impressionists of the 18th and 19th century, as the world became more urbanized, that painters began to break with that tradition and attempt to represent the natural world honestly. Looking at the work of Impressionists today it's hard for us to find anything controversial about them, but to their contemporaries they were strange and confusing works that very few saw anything of value in, much like their attitudes towards the subject matter depicted.

Science, which most of us today see as being diametrically opposed to religion, according to Fowles, is as much, if not more, responsible for our attitudes towards nature through its obsession with cataloguing, categorizing and explaining the world. We are unable to allow anything to merely exist in its own right, we must ensure it be given a proper name and purpose in the order of things as we see it. If we can't name it or define it, we don't understand it and fear it. Fowles postulates that as long as we continue to attempt to find a "use" for nature through these means we will never break down the barriers we've erected that keep us from appreciating it for what it is and will eventually bring about its ruination.
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Fowles lays out his argument as a mix of personal anecdote, observation, history lesson and analysis. In nintey-one pages he manages to cover: the history of science, civilization, religion and how each relates to the way we perceive nature; recollections of his childhood both in pre-world war two suburban London and as a evacuee from the bombing of the city during the war in Devon and how the contrast between the two worlds shaped his view of nature; the difficulties inherent in trying to bring nature to life with the written word and the interconnection between artistic creation and nature. This is not a book to be picked up casually and read while trying to do anything else as the thoughts expressed need to be given careful consideration and can't be simply skimmed over if one is to gain anything from reading it. In fact a reader is best served by putting the book down periodically and walking away from it for a while to give themselves time to consider each section before moving on.

That being said, the rewards gleaned from reading The Tree are worth the effort. Never before have I read such a passionate, yet intellectually sound argument made in defence of the natural world. Instead of launching the usual sentimental appeal for our attention though descriptions of beauty and cuteness, he has crafted something that forces us to confront the myths we have created about nature through so called reason and religion. He shows us how each have purposely, and inadvertently, caused our alienation from the natural world while through his own experiences attempts to communicate what we have missed because of it.While he freely admits that the printed word is woefully inadequate for describing the effect of nature on us, through his efforts he manages to impart enough of the wonder he feels at visiting certain places in England for us to begin to understand what we risk losing with the destruction of truly wild places.

Nature is awkward, ugly, uncomfortable and doesn't do what we want it to do. For most of our civilized existence humankind has attempted, through various means, to control it. However one only has to look at events of the past decade in both North America and the South Pacific - the tsunami that wrecked havoc in Indonesia and the devastating results of Hurricane Katrina upon New Orleans - to see how fruitless those attempts have been. Even worse, according to Fowles, is how we are depriving ourselves of an essential part of the experience of being alive on this planet through our desire there be a place for everything and everything to be in its place.

There are authors who can write hundreds of pages and say nothing at all. In the ninety-one pages of The Tree the late John Fowles says more about our relationship with nature than any other author I've ever read. Republished in honour of its thirtieth anniversary, this book will open your eyes to the world around you and hopefully have you looking at the next tree or forest you pass in an entirely new light. Or, even better, to not pass it, but sit down and spend some time with it.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Tree by John Fowles on Blogcritics.)

September 7, 2010

Book Review: Pirates Of The Levant by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Fate is as capricious a whore as any whose plied her trade in the bordellos and inns of the seaports and fortress towns frequented by the soldiers and sailors fighting for God, King and country during the reign of his good Catholic Majesty Philip IV of Spain in the mid 1600s. How else could you explain how a loyal soldier of the crown and his young protégé, (having served with distinction in the fields of Flanders against the heretic Dutch, carried out a daring raid to secure much needed gold for the royal treasury and finally saved the most royal hide itself from suffering the indignity of being impaled upon two feet of finely tempered steel) find, in the interests of their own health and safety, seek exile at sea? Well, if one insists on competing with his most sainted majesty for the affections of a certain actress, one must realize that no matter what heroic deeds or services one may have performed for the crown in the past, it might be perhaps in one's best interest to make oneself scarce for a period of time.

Which is how we find "Captain" Diego Alatriste and his now seventeen year old page, Inigo Balboa, once again serving their country as stolid infantry men. This time thought it's with the planks of heaving galleys beneath their feet instead of solid earth and the blazing sun of North Africa on their backs instead of the fog and rain of the Dutch lowlands. Pirates Of The Levant, the latest chapter of Arturo Perez-Reverte's story of life in the declining years of the Spanish Empire, published by Penguin Canada, takes the reader to yet another of Spain's outposts in her holy war of greed and expansion in the name of God and lining the pockets of an equally corrupt nobility and clergy. From their home port of Naples in Italy to the narrow gap of sea separating Spain from Muslim Northern Africa the crew of the war galley Mulata have harry French, Dutch, Turkish and English ships for booty and protect Spain's interests from her enemies.
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This is no world for the faint of heart or those with weak stomachs, as life aboard the galleys would be unpleasant even if one were merely peacefully rowing between one port and another. Exposed to the elements and at the mercy of the winds and the sea, sailors, soldiers and galley slaves endure hardships that would test the fortitude of the bravest. While the latter have no choice in the matter, either having been sentenced as punishment by the Spanish courts or prisoners captured in battle and set to row instead of dangling by their necks from the yardarm, to power the craft when the winds fail, one has to wonder what would make any sane man volunteer for duty as one of the former. From the diet of lice ridden biscuits, and even less savoury meat accompanied by wine watered with brackish water, and with death being the least of evils that could befell one in combat, ("Don't let them take you alive" is the advice given to every soldier before his first encounter with a Turkish vessel) there seems little to recommend it as a viable career option.

However this is Spain and if an "honest" swordsman or soldier desires to be paid for his services to his country he must take creative measures. For, as Inigo explains, the money supposedly meant for their wages somehow never quite finds its way into their pockets no matter where they serve. Most soldiers return from battle with no money in their pockets and no prospects for finding a way to earn what's needed for even the barest of necessities save to become a sword for hire in the alleys and back streets or to re-enlist and hope to survive long enough to enjoy the spoils of a few victories. Alongside Alatriste Inigo has managed to stay alive for a season on the sea so far. After wintering in their home port of Naples they and their fellows are once again broke and hunting the waves in search of booty when we catch up with them.

As in the previous books in this series Perez-Reverte not only brings the field of battle his characters find themselves upon to life with such vivid detail that you almost feel the salt water spray in your face, he ensures the reader is aware of how this particular battlefield came into being. Unlike Flanders, and the other battlefields of Europe where Spain fights to preserve empire or the Ottoman Empire of Turkey looks to expand its borders, here in the no man's waters off the coast of Europe, and in port towns scattered through Northern Africa, a different sort of battle is being fought. On the seas Dutch, Turk, French and Spanish boats prey upon each other and their cargos with no thought for gains in territory but merely as a means of swelling their respective coffers. Each vessel's captain is issued with a charter from its respective crown to seek out and find such prizes as they may. Unlike pirates, who keep all they win for their own pockets, they must pay tithes to their various benefactors before lining their own pockets.
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The animosity between Turk and Spaniard is particularly fierce as it has only been within the last hundred years that Spain was able to finally push them back beyond the borders of Portugal and into Africa. In the years since then Alatriste has witnessed some of the horrible indignities his fellow men are capable of committing against each other. When he was part of the campaign that saw the expelling from Spain of Muslims who had converted to Christianity he saw innocent men, women and children not only cut down by soldiers, but were stoned and set upon by civilians as they attempted to flee with what little possessions they could carry. For him there is nothing glorious or noble in what he does - he will do it with as much honour as he can bring to it - but it is simply a matter of kill or be killed as far as he's concerned. If he had any other means of making a living he'd do so. but that option is not available to him.

Unfortunately Inigo still holds onto notions of glory and is full of both righteous indignation and himself. Even after he, albeit inadvertently, starts a full scale riot between Spanish and Venetian sailors while on the island of Malta, he retains an over inflated opinion of himself and his abilities that almost results in his death. So naive is he that he's not even aware that Alatriste has had to take matters into his own hands in order to prevent Inigo from being found in an alley with his throat slit. In fact Alatriste shows remarkable restraint in not being the one to slit his throat himself for some of the things Inigo says to him in his pride and stupidity. He even debates leaving the boy to his fate, but in the end his own sense of dignity pushes him to intervene and take the steps necessary to keep him alive.

Any who have been following the adventures of Captain Alatiste and Inigo for any length of time are aware of Arturo Perez-Reverte's skills as a writer. In Pirates Of The Levant he has brought all of his considerable talent to bear in creating a work riveting in its historical and realistic details while still managing to be an action packed adventure. Alartiste remains a fascinating character. The anti-hero of the swashbuckling world, on one hand a cold callous killer who has no qualms about killing someone for a perceived slight to his honour, but who is yet reluctant to kill those others wouldn't think twice of dispatching. Fiercely independent, he doesn't like anybody telling him by inference or otherwise, who or what he should kill. If that means killing a couple of Spaniards he catches trying to rape a young Muslim woman when most of his contemporaries would have turned a blind eye, so be it.

Inigo thinks he may understand the Captain, and even for a time believes he no longer needs anybody, especially the Captain, telling him how to live his life. However, he's fortunate enough to learn that until he's lived a great many more years, killed, and seen killed, a great many more men, and stood on a quite a few more battle fields, he's as much chance of learning to fly as he does of understanding Diego Alatriste. It's not every man who will one moment be prepared to challenge his king for the right to sleep with a woman, and the next risk his neck to save the same king. That's Captain Alatriste, and this is the latest recounting of his checkered history. We can only hope Perez-Reverte continues recounting it to us for years to come, or at least as long as the glory of Spain persists.

(Article first published as Book Review: Pirates of the Levant by Arturo Perez-Reverte on Blogcritics.)

June 30, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Countdown To Final

For some reason I only ever seem to watch the World Cup every eight years. I doubt I could have told you before this year's started who had won in 2006 (Italy), while I watched almost the whole of the 2002 tournament. Of course that year I was pretty much a captive audience as I was in a hospital bed for the majority of the tournament. I went into hospital for surgery during the Stanley Cup playoffs, and was in until almost the final game of the World Cup. Four to five weeks of being in a hospital bed has you searching pretty desperately for distraction, and so that year the World Cup was a welcome diversion.

The years when I lived in Toronto, Ontario - up until 1990 - you couldn't help noticing when the World Cup was being played. As one of the most ethnically diverse city's in the world there's a fair chance that every country participating in the tournament will be represented by a segment of its population. It was especially difficult to ignore when Italy, Portugal, Brazil or Greece, are involved as they each have both large communities and specific neighbourhoods where their populations are concentrated most heavily. (In years when Portugal have been eliminated they naturally switch to supporting Portuguese speaking Brazil - the chance of a Portugal versus Brazil final this year will make for some interesting times down in Little Portugal if it becomes a reality). This year I have a feeling that World Cup fever in Toronto has been somewhat restrained up to now with the downtown core being turned into a police state for the G20/G8 get together. There's something about running battles between protesters and police, burning cars, barricades, and the constant din of helicopters patrolling the skies that tends to cut down on the festive mood.

The attraction for me this year has been the locale; for the first time ever the tournament is being held in Africa - specifically South Africa. That was enough to have me start tuning in for the group stages via the live stream offered by the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC). Usually these early rounds are fairly boring as the teams are all trying to find their feet so to speak, and while there have been some startling results in opening games in the past, by the time the group stage ends the old order usually reasserts itself with the same old names leading the way into the round of sixteen. While there was still some truly remarkably boring football played, (The BBC commentators the CBC uses were constantly bemoaning a lack of goals in the early games) by the time the dust had settled, while some familiar names remained, it was obvious the old order was changing.

France, who only qualified for the tournament through a disputed goal, and reigning champion Italy failed to advance; England only managed to score two goals in three games and barely qualified; and Spain, favoured to win it all this year, lost their opening game to Switzerland and only scrapped through by the skin of their teeth. While Europe was treading water trying to stay afloat, South America's representatives had no such problems. Of the six teams five advanced, with only Honduras falling short. While Brazil is always expected to compete, in their usual Eurocentric fashion the rest of the contingent were given short shrift by the so called experts.
Argentina were discounted because not only did they barely qualify everybody questioned the sanity of their manager, the mercurial Diego Maradona. As for the rest, well what type of threat could countries like Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay pose to the traditional powers? Well, of the five advancing only Chile failed to win their group. Maradona's Argentineans are proving to be the most enjoyable team to watch in the tournament due to his decision have them play an attacking style which saw them win all of their group games and then demolish Mexico with ease in the round of sixteen. (Of course it doesn't hurt that their attack is centred around Lionel Messi easily the most exciting player in the world right now.) Uruguay has also moved on to the quarter finals, overcoming a tough South Korean team in the pouring rain to win two to one in their round of sixteen match.

Unfortunately for Brazil and Chile one of them won't be continuing on after today (Monday June 28th/10) as they face off against each other. While Brazil hasn't looked like anything special yet, they haven't really been forced to exert themselves either as they easily handled an Ivory Coast team depleted by injuries, an over matched North Korean side, and played Portugal to a zero - zero draw in a meaningless game. One has the feeling they'll be able to elevate their game to whatever level is required of them in order to continue advancing for quite a while yet. Chile, while game, simply don't have the talent to compete with their northern neighbour and barring a miracle will find themselves going home after today. As for the game between Paraguay and Japan to be played on Tuesday (June 29th/10) that one is hard to call. In the two games I've seen involving the Japanese they not only have been able to attack well, unlike other teams they've also been able to deliver on free kicks during this tournament, scoring twice from a set piece during their three to one victory over Denmark to wrap up the group stage. Paraguay had two draws and a win to head up what turned out to be one of the weaker groups, and although I never saw them play, I have a feeling they might not be up the challenge posed by Japan and will be the third South American team heading home.

While I know American supporters were disappointed by their team's loss to Ghana after they had won their group with the thrilling last minute victory over Algeria, I think their expectations might have been falsely elevated by their success in the first three games. They only need look at how easily Germany dominated England in their match yesterday (Sunday June 27th/10) to know how weak their group opposition had been and their match against Ghana was a return to reality. Faced with a world class goal keeper in Richard Kingson and strikers able to take advantage of the few opportunities offered them, their own inability to finish around the goal finally caught up to them. Although when it comes to creating false expectations nobody quite matches up to the English. Why anyone could have considered them a threat to challenge for the World Cup this year was beyond me. They can yell about referee error until they are blue in the face, but they were still outplayed and outclassed at every turn against Germany. Anyway, every team playing has to live with the fact that the refereeing in international football matches is archaic and flawed, and its how a team responds to those setbacks which shows its mettle.

While some European sides have been a source of embarrassment and disappointment for their fans there are still five remaining. Germany has a long history of success at the World Cup, and although critics were prepared to write off this year's side because of injuries and inexperience, they have proven to be one of the more exciting sides to watch. Aside from their let down against Serbia where they obviously went in over confident after their easy four - nothing result against Australia, they have played with confidence and ability. Holland, Portugal, and Spain, have all at one time or another deservedly earned the title of the best teams to have never won anything. Spain finally broke through to win the European Cup in 2008, but aside from that, despite exceptionally talented sides for years, none have ever won any title of significance. With Spain and Portugal facing off tomorrow (Tuesday June 29th/10) one of them will keep the that tradition alive - and quite frankly its a toss up depending on which side is able to field players instead of prima donnas. However, I'll go with Spain based on their gritty win over Chile.

Holland has managed to sneak under everybody's radar this tournament, or at least not attract the publicity that other less deserving sides have managed, and have quietly gone about winning every one of their group matches in a solid if unspectacular manner. In a couple hours they'll be going up against one of the surprises of the tournament, Slovakia, who advanced after their three - two upset of Italy. While Slovakia might be a sentimental favourite for some, they stand no chance against the Netherlands. Unfortunately for the winner of this game, their next opponent will be the winner of the Brazil - Chile match-up and even Holland will be hard pressed to rise to that occasion. Ironically the European team with the best chance of advancing past the quarter finals will be the winner of Spain versus Portugal as they will take on either Paraguay or Japan, as Germany already has a date with Maradona's Argentineans.

In fact there's a very real possibility that the semi-final match-ups will see three South American sides and one European side vying for a berth in the finals, with either Spain or Portugal (my bet being Spain) trying to get by Argentina and Uruguay duelling Brazil for the other spot. No matter how much I'd love to see an African side move all the way through to the finals the first time the games are held on their home continent, even if Ghana were to overcome Uruguay by some miracle, Brazil would just be too much for them. With Argentina improving with every game, and Lionel Messi continuing to dominate the mid-field creating opportunities for his team mates to score nearly every time he brings the ball near an opponent's goal, neither the surprising Germans nor a desperate Spanish side will do much to slow down their march to the final. So come July 11th/10 expect to see the blue and white of Argentina take the field against the gold and blue of Brazil in the final- and hopefully one of the best football games played this decade. As long as Maradona doesn't decide to send himself on as a substitute, when the dust finally settles we should be seeing the boys from Patagonia raising the cup at the end of the day.

(Article first published as World Cup 2010: Rooting For An All-South American Final on Blogcritics.)

June 25, 2010

Thoughts On South Africa And The World Cup

As the group stage of The Word Cup winds down the teams who are qualified to continue on to the elimination stage have been all but decided. While it would have been glorious if the home side of South Africa could have advanced, or even more than one team from the host continent (at this writing barring a miracle only Ghana will advance), the fact they were in a position to host the games at all is something to be celebrated. All credit for making the decision to award them the hosting duties has to be given to the governing body of international football - Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) - when they could have easily made a safe decision and kept them in Europe or given a South American country a turn. In the weeks and months leading up the match newspapers have been filled with stories expressing concerns about violence in South Africa, lack of proper facilities, transportation, and a raft of other problems besetting the host nation.

It was almost impossible to find anyone willing to write something positive about the fact the games were being held here. Even South African's football fans came in for criticism because of their use of the "horrible" vuvuzela, a plastic replica of a traditional tribal horn, that makes an ear splitting din. Commentators have sniffed that they won't be able to hear themselves speak, (as if anything most sports commentators have to say is of any real value) or even worse they drown out the traditional sound of fans singing at matches. As that's only really a tradition in England and some of the European countries, that's not really much of a loss, especially when you consider some of the drivel sung by team supporters in the United Kingdom. Quite frankly fans blowing trumpets that make an ear splitting noise are a minor inconvenience when compared to the nightmares that British team supporters used to cause when they made their annual raiding trips to the continent. It's amazing how all the British tabloid press who have been raising dire warnings about South Africa have forgotten how fans from the United Kingdom were banned from travelling abroad after their rioting resulted in thirty-nine people dying in Belgium in 1985.

Yet here we are, nearly half way through the games, and even with half the private security people having gone on strike and a few technical problems, you'll hardly hear a word of complaint being voiced by anyone now they are under way. The only comments I've heard from commentators during the games I've watched is how wonderful the people of South Africa have been and how the whole nation seems to have thrown itself into trying to make them successful. I watched the first and last games the host nation played - their one all draw with Mexico and their two to one victory over France - and heard about how they would become the first host nation to fail to advance out of qualifying in ages. Yet, while I was disappointed for the players and their fans (while revelling in seeing the French players receive the humiliation they so richly deserved) I couldn't help thinking how wonderful to see the team playing in the World Cup and South Africa hosting it, no matter what the result.

Twenty years ago, in June of 1990, only four months after being released from prison, Nelson Mandela made one of his first international visits,to Canada. He came for two reasons, one was to thank the people of the country and our government for supporting the struggle against apartheid by boycotting everything to do with the white minority rule regime, and secondly to urge our government to not relax the economic sanctions prohibiting Canadians from doing business with South Africa. Even though he had been freed from jail, the white majority government continued to rule and the apartheid laws were still in force so victory was still far from assured at that time. It wasn't until Mandela was elected president in 1994 that you could really believe in the idea of a new South Africa.

If you're wondering why Mandela would visit a relatively internationally insignificant country like Canada on what was his first trip abroad, it was because our government at the time was one of the strongest advocates for sanctions in the so called developed world. I wasn't a supporter of Brian Mulroney, and in fact disagreed with almost everything he and his Progressive Conservative Party of Canada stood for. However I will always admire the way in which he played a leading role in fighting for South African freedom. As it also involved publicly disagreeing with two of his biggest allies internationally, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom and President Ronald Regan of the United States, neither of whom would support sanctions against South Africa, his actions were even more impressive.

While our government played a large role in the latter stages of the fight against apartheid, Mandela also appreciated the fact that Canadians as individuals had been active for much longer. While it was important for him to address our politicians, and I believe he became the first non-leader of a country to address our houses of parliament officially, he also made sure to address people directly. Whether high school students as the link above describes or a public rally in Toronto Ontario, he thanked them for their help. My mother was one of those who went to see him speak when he was in Toronto, and she came away feeling like she had been part of history. You see, ever since I was aware enough to understand I knew she would never shop at certain stores because they wouldn't list where the fruit and vegetables they sold were grown. So at least from the late 1960's until the 1990's she never purchased anything grown or manufactured in South Africa, or had dealings with any company doing business with that country. Who could blame her for not feeling as if she might have had a little to do with helping ensure Mandela was able to stand there that day.

It has not been an easy sixteen years for South Africa and Nelson Mandela since his election in 1994. For close to a hundred years the majority of the nation's population had been living under the totalitarian rule of a small hand full of invaders because of the colour of their skin. They had been forced to live in poverty and any attempt at protest was met with ruthless violence. School children were shot down in the street in 1976 in Soweto protesting a law forcing them to be taught in Afrikaner, the language of the rulers, and now they had to find a way to live peacefully with the people responsible for those crimes.

While majority rule has brought about changes in the way in which people are treated, there is no way to eradicate all the damage that was wrought during the previous decades. Who knows how many generations it will take until the societal imbalances between the races is changed? Poverty and lack of education among the majority population can not be overcome instantly. Any dreams of instant prosperity that people might have harboured with democracy were quickly shattered as the reality of the task facing them became clear. Yet in spite of all the obstacles facing them this World Cup has shown the world that South Africa still believes in itself and continues to move forward. We can only hope that the people and her leaders can draw upon the success of the event to see for themselves just how far they have come in such a short time.

As time ran out on South Africa's final match of this World Cup, and the players and the fans celebrated their bittersweet victory over France, I was moved in a way that I didn't think possible by a sporting event as I thought back over the history leading up to this moment. It would have taken a minor miracle for them to be able to advance to the next stage of play, and it wasn't to be. Yet no matter what, the World Cup has to be considered a victory for South Africa and its people and one can't help but want to wish them well and hope for their continued success.

(Article first published as Thoughts On South Africa And The World Cup on Blogcritics.)

June 11, 2010

Book Review: Impossible Man by Michael Muhammad Knight

I've been gradually working my way through a number of books written by the American author Michael Muhammad Knight's. He's most widely known to readers at large for inspiring Islamic punk rock groups through his book The Taqwacores. However, aside from his works of fiction depicting the activities of fictional punk rockers, he has written extensively about his personal experiences with Islam and how its practiced both in America and in what we would refer to as Islamic countries; Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Pakistan. While his journeys have taken him around the world, his internal pilgrimage to find a way to reconcile his adopted faith with his Western ideas of equality and individualism have been the real basis for his non-fiction writings.

In Journey To The End Of Islam he explained how he thought that writing The Taqwacores would signify the end of his relationship with Islam. Instead it showed him it wasn't because he was a convert to the faith that he had doubts about certain aspects and practices. Hearing from young Muslims across North America who appreciated his work inspired him try and reconnect with the religion. While part of him still doubted his integrity as a Muslim because he wasn't willing to abide by the rules as dictated by the Qur'an, he also realized he couldn't go back to those days again. However, for those reading the book, the question of how he came to be an unquestioning follower of a religion that most people in America either fear or hate remained unclear. For while he had dropped hints of a troubled past and an abusive and mentally disturbed father, he'd not gone into details of the events leading up to his conversion.
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Impossible Man, published by Soft Skull Press, turns back the clock as Knight takes us back in time to recount the details of his life from early childhood, his conversion to Islam, his subsequent loss of faith, to his wandering aimlessly in search of direction. The picture that emerges is of a person with little or no self-respect desperately looking for acceptance and needing to believe in something bigger than himself. This is not an easy book to read for Knight doesn't shrink from recording even the most embarrassing and personal details of his story. However, it's saved from the self pitying, or ever worse, the look at me aren't I amazing for overcoming this stuff, tone of other autobiographies of this nature, by his refusing to depict himself as a victim.

As he has shown in his other writings Knight is almost brutal in his honesty when it comes to recording the details of his story. This allows him to tell the story without embellishment or editorializing. He doesn't censor his younger self's arrogance, idiocy, and self-delusion. He even refuses to use the benefit of hindsight and try to explain away his behaviour at the time. Instead everything is told as if it is happening in the present so we travel along with him instead of hearing about it being recounted as a memory. This is the story of a kid whose mother had to live through two years of a husband who threatened to murder her or her child during the night, and then locked them up during the day in order to protect them from Satan. Somehow she escaped to flee with him to her parents home and the protection of her brother who was a police officer.

Young Michael escaped into fantasy worlds. first the world of George Lucas' Star Wars in which he was able to find parallels to his own life with a father who had surrendered to the dark side. From there he graduated to the world of Hulk Hogan and professional wrestling, with its overblown cartoon figures and epic battles of good versus evil. It was a friend in high school who, worried over his lack of self respect, told him he should read the autobiography of Malcolm X, and it was literally the book which changed his life. While Malcolm's words struck a chord within him, it was Spike Lee's bio-pic, Malcolm which fired his imagination and spurred his desire for conversion.
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Thinking back over story, the picture he drew of himself was of a person ripe for being taken by unscrupulous people and turned into an empty vessel. It says a lot for the people he went to initially for help with his conversion to Islam that he didn't become one of those sad figures you read about who disappeared into cults out who end up becoming mindless terrorists. They treated his desire to convert with seriousness and respect but never abused their positions of authority or did anything more than try to instil in him the values of his new faith. When he expressed a desire to go and fight in Chechnya during the times of the Russian invasion, with visions of glory dancing in his head, he was calmly dissuaded from throwing his life away uselessly.

It was his intelligence his new teachers valued so highly that resulted in his disillusionment with Islam. He made the mistake of asking why. Why should Allah care so much if his mother didn't convert to Islam that He would send her to hell? He knew his mother had suffered and struggled, had been supportive of him in everything he did including buying him the books he needed to study Islam, driving him to nearest mosque and never questioning his desire to convert. Once the first why is asked and doesn't receive a satisfactory answer, others follow fast and furious. While he never lost his faith entirely he drifted back into the self-destructive behaviour that had marked his early years, including "Backyard Wrestling" which included stunts like being beaten with barbed wire clubs and wrestling on beds of thumbtacks.

There's something pathetic, in the real meaning of the word, reading the boastful thoughts of a young man who takes pride in the amount of punishment he's able to absorb and inflict upon himself. The fact that Knight is almost clinical in his description of these and other activities, never once trying to make himself an object of pity, makes it all the more powerful. His ability to act as a detached observer of events distinguishes this from similar types of work and makes it as compelling as any work of fiction. For those who have ever questioned the why's behind Michael Muhammad Knight's story, what answers he has to offer can be found in this book. For there is no simple answer as to why we do what we do and by not attempting to analyse his younger self's motivations, or second guess any of his decisions, Knight acknowledges that fact. Some might think that's a cop out, but the answers are there in the narrative for anyone who is willing to read them. He is brave enough to let the facts stand on their own and let the reader draw their own conclusions, so the least you can do is make that effort.

(Article first published as Book Review: Impossible Man by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

June 10, 2010

Book review: Osama Van Halen by Michael Muhammad Knight

When your first novel turns out to be a controversial and somewhat well received effort that centres around your own confusions about a choice you made in the past, what's an author to do for an encore? Although he hadn't been a character in The Taqwacores, the story had expressed Michael Muhammad Knight's confusion over, and dissatisfaction with Islam, the religion he had adopted as a teenager. While on one level the characters represented the confusion typical of many second generation immigrants who are being pulled between the traditions of their parent's culture and the freedoms enjoyed by their contemporaries, they also reflected the many sides of an argument Knight was having with himself.

Was he or wasn't he a Muslim? Were his motivations for converting legitimate and how could he call himself Muslim now considering the lifestyle he had been and was currently leading? Could you be a Muslim even if you didn't follow all the rules and blindly obey everything that was written in the Qur'an? All of these questions had come up in one form or another, plus many more, over the course of that first novel. Therefore, since he was intellectually such an integral part of the first book, it only makes sense that he write himself into Osama Van Halen. Although written in 2005 controversy over its predecessor prevented it from being published until 2009 when Soft Skull Press released it along with a new edition of The Taqwacores so they could be read in sequence as intended by the author.
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Knight isn't the only "real" person who makes an appearance in the book as he's dotted it with fictional representations of friends of his from the Taqwacores movement that developed from the first book. The lines between fact and fiction start to blur in places as Knight the author and Knight the character in the book turn out to be two different people and both make their presence felt during the story. At times you do wonder which one it is you're reading about, but usually there's not that much confusion as he's quite clear in his own mind who's real and who's fictional. Although things do get a bit weird when he meets up with a couple of friends in "real life" and tells them about their fates as characters in the book.

Thankfully he's not made himself the only main character as his fictional self plays the role of side kick to the main character, Amazing Ayyub. When he steps out from behind the character of "the author Michael Knight" to become Michael Knight he acts as sort of a spelt out sub-text explaining the whys and what the fucks of the story. For, while Knight is out looking for some inner truth about himself through conversations with young Muslim women he's had contact with in the past, Ayyub is busy with his own tasks. Amazing might have been a minor character in The Taqwacores, representing the extreme end of the Islamic punk movement with his rampant alcohol consumption and blatant crazed and anti-social behaviour, he now finds himself cast in a starring role which requires him to rise up and become a defender of the faith - Taqwacore.

For as punk rock before it was co-opted by an industry bent on making money out of rebellion, Islamic punk has been discovered and is about to have its rebellious soul ripped out of it in the name of marketing. The Amazing Ayyub has seen the enemy and its name is Shah 79 and it must be eradicated before the heresy can take root. Much to his horror he discovers that they have set up shop in his home town of Buffalo while he is on the other side of the continent. He had been in Los Angeles with Rabeya, the burqa-wearing radical punk woman from the first book, kidnapping Matt Damon in an attempt to force Hollywood to depict Muslims in a more positive light. At a pit stop in a gas station he not only discovers the new heresy threatening his core belief system, he loses Rabeya and Damon when he discovers the van they were in has left without him.
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What follows are a series of adventures designed to both test him and hone him for his final confrontation. Part biblical, part science fiction and all punk his quest begins behind the wheel of a van transporting a thrash metal punk band across America. Fuelled by speed and his own manic energy he drives his motley collection of passengers into the desert where they are set upon by zombies who have taken over a mosque. Saved by Basim, the lead singer of the Kominas (The real life lead singer of an actual Taqwacore band), from the undead, Ayyub is then outfitted with a really big gun and a prayer of invisibility that will allow him to carry out his mission.

Blending fact and fiction is a difficult stunt to pull off, especially when you include yourself as one of the characters in the book. However in Osama Van Halen Knight carries it off with skill and dexterity. It would have been easy for this to turn into an exercise in self-indulgence, however the author's sense of the absurd and ability for self-satire never allow it to descend to that level. Instead what you have is a quite brilliant piece of writing which not only deconstructs the relationship between an author and his characters and their role as his mouthpiece, but also ensures the reader understands the depth of the author's sincerity. We not only see the confusion he feels as represented by his fictional self and his fellow characters in the book, we see him struggling with the questions that lie at its root.

While sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction, the blending of the two will sometimes reveal truths neither on their own are capable of dealing with. Osama Van Halen is an example of how it is possible to construct a book that straddles both worlds without sacrificing the integrity of either. Thought provoking and thoughtful, it raises more questions than it answers about the nature of religion and our relationship to it, but they are questions that need to be asked if we have any hope of ever finding our way out of the mess we've made of the world. Bravo to Michael Knight for being brave enough to ask them, and being equally brave for not claiming to have the answers. It's just too bad people are too busy condemning him to follow his lead.

(Article first published as Book Review: Osama Van Halen by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

June 5, 2010

Book Review: Journey To The End Of Islam by Michael Muhammad Knight

Have you ever noticed how the person who converts to a new religion, or philosophy of any kind, tends to be a whole lot more fanatical about their new faith than those who were born into it? Perhaps they feel a need to prove themselves in order to win acceptance as quickly as possible. Some people adopt a faith in the hope of finding answers to questions they have about life, others because they are desperate to find a place they fit in, while others are looking for something to make order out of any chaos they have lived through. In the latter case it's no wonder a convert becomes doctrinarian, it's such a relief to have order in their lives they'll follow the rules without questioning or doubting their necessity.

When author Michael Muhammad Knight was a teenager he converted to Islam in order to break as much as possible with his white supremacist father. However, when you consider the brief descriptions of his childhood that he offers readers in his book Journey To The End Of Islam, published by Soft Skull Press, you have to wonder how much Islam represented a place of order which would relieve him of having to make his own decisions about good and evil and wrong and right. Like Orthodox Jews and Fundamentalist Christians who take the word of the bible as law, Fundamentalist Muslims take the Qur'an as their rule book to live by. There aren't any grey areas for any of these people; if God says something it's the law and there can be no disputing it.

While that may work for some people Knight found he couldn't live like that and thinking to leave Islam behind wrote his now infamous book The Taqwacores about a group of Islamic punk rockers. Ironically the book became a beacon for young American Muslims who were questioning many of the same things he was. Whether they were gay, straight, female or male didn't matter, they weren't happy with the status quo of Islam, or even what passed for mainstream progressive Islam, but weren't prepared to surrender their faith either. So instead of leaving Islam behind, Knight found himself at the heart of a movement looking to define a new identity for the religion. In Journey he finds himself at a crossroads, trying to decide and define what Islam is to him.
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So, in 2008, while the rest of America is trying to figure out whether or not it should elect its first black president, and being Muslim is something Obama is having to deny as if its something evil and un-American, Knight sets off on a trip that will see him visit shrines, temples, and other holy sites in Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia and finally to Saudi Arabia and the holiest of holy places, Mecca, to make hajj, in an attempt to discover what it means to be Muslim. We not only learn about the history of the religion and the schisms that have divided the faith almost since its beginnings along the way, Knight also provides us with an overview of the uniquely American versions of Islam that were fostered by Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, The Nubian Islamic Hebrews, and the Five Percenters. However, the major focus of the book is on his internal debate; the fight between his intellect and his heart over matters of faith and politics and how to separate the two.

In Pakistan, Syria, Egypt and Ethiopia Knight takes us on visits to various shrines, tombs, and other sites of holy and historical significance to Islam. With each site we not only learn about the various figures in the history of the faith, we find out what role they have played in the split behind the formation of its two major sects, Sunni and Shi'a. In Pakistan there's the added confusion of the mystical branch of Islam thrown into the mix as he visits the tombs of a variety of Sufi saints. While strict Islamic practice forbids the worship of graves or humans, even worship of the Prophet Muhammad is prohibited, that doesn't stop people from praying to their local saints or performing other acts of worship that would be frowned on in other places.

Harar in Ethiopia is considered the fourth holiest Muslim city, and its here that Knight discovers some of the strangest forms his religion can take with its mixture of ancestor worship and animalism. Shrines were built around or joined to fig trees and hyenas were treated with special honour because the prophet would not kill them. Every night hyenas would come through small doors in the wall surrounding Harar to be fed by an individual designated specifically for that job and given the title "Hyena Man". For the author they came to represent a human's lower self, our ugly spirit which only thinks of fulfilling physical needs like food and sex.
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So many divergent views of Islam of course don't make it any easier to find your way to the heart of your religion or to being any clearer about your own place in it. By taking the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca along with millions of other Muslims Knight hoped that he would be able to find what he was looking for. Unfortunately, most of what he found was evidence of how Saudi Arabia, where the city of Mecca is located, has tried to put its stamp on the religion to ensure its control over it. He finds Muslims from all over the world attempting to memorize the Qur'an in Arabic even though they don't understand a word of it. While initially he feels superior to them because he's not allowing himself to be led blindly, that gradually changes to guilt because he can't shake the feeling that maybe that's what faith is really all about.

Who is he to feel superior when they can accept the word of God so easily, but he has to question everything? Are they right and he's wrong? Yet, blind obedience means accepting verses in the Qur'an that allow a man to beat his wife and other things that he can't accept. Can you be a Muslim and not accept those passages in The Book? Or are you something else when you do that? According to Knight there are those in the progressive Muslim movement who try and "reinterpret" those offensive lines, but they still refuse to denounce them as wrong. What can a person of conscience do about Islamic law that makes a woman a man's possession upon marriage?

Knight has proven himself to be almost brutal in his self-honesty in the past and Journey To The End Of Islam is no exception. Not only does he recount his journey through the Islamic world physically and supply the reader with a highly readable and intelligent recounting of the faith's history, he takes us on a journey into his soul with an equal amount of integrity and interest. These types of books are desperately hard to write without them coming across as self serving and of no interest to anyone save the author's navel, yet Knight has managed to turn his highly individual story into something universal.Anybody who has ever questioned their faith, or sought to find out more about themselves, can find something to identify with. I'm sure that conservative religious types of all faiths will be offended by a great deal of what he has the honesty to talk about and admit to. However, those of you who have faith and are experiencing difficulty reconciling your religion, no matter what your religion is, with your own feelings and beliefs on how the world should be, will find that Knight has a lot to say to you.

Knight has an uncanny ability to write about what others would consider insanely complicated issues with a clarity and straightforwardness that make you wonder what all the fuss is about. He doesn't pretend to have the answers to any questions readers might have, he's not even sure if he's been able to answer his own questions. However, to my mind, there has never been a more honest book written about the nature of religion and an individual's relationship to their belief system. If more people were as brave and honest as Michael Muhammad Knight when it came to their religion the world would be in far better shape.

(Article first published as Book Review: Journey To The End Of Islam by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

Book Review: The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight

While it's true that all immigrant children in North America have to deal with a certain amount of conflict between the culture of their parents and the new society they've landed in, some have a harder time of it than others. Obviously those arriving from English speaking European countries have the easiest time making the transition to the new world. Not only do they have an easier time passing because of skin colour, they usually share a common cultural heritage, or at least one not to far removed, from that of their new contemporaries. While they might have some minor adjustments to make, they're nothing to what faces the kids who not only speak different languages, but have a completely different cultural background.

While ethnic heritage can play a major role in determining how easy it is for a child to fit in with his or her new surroundings, those from different religious backgrounds deal with issues that most of us can't even begin to understand. This is especially true for those whose religion teaches a moral and cultural code that is in conflict with what is considered acceptable behaviour in our society. Not only do they find themselves being pulled in two directions at once, being attracted to some aspects of the new but wanting to remain loyal to their traditions, there is also the guilt they feel for any transgressions they see themselves as having committed when they do surrender some of their old moral code.

One of the ways some groups deal with this is by creating insular communities within the overall community at large so as to preserve the integrity of their culture. One of the earliest examples of this were the Jewish immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who established their own districts in cities in Canada and the US which included places of worship and schools for their children. Gradually over the years the community itself demanded a relaxing of the rules governing their lifestyle and out of that was born the three tiers of Judaism we have today; Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. This compromise has allowed people to continue to be faithful to their religion while accepting the ways of the world around them to whatever extent they are comfortable with.
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Michael Muhammad Knight's first novel, The Taqwacores published by Soft Skull Press, has been labelled everything from a manifesto for the Muslim punk movement to a Catcher In The Rye for young Muslims. While those make for catchy tag lines on a book cover, they actually have little or nothing to do with the actual contents of the book. While it's true most of the characters in the book are both punks and Muslims, so you could make a case for the manifesto comment, the comparison to Salinger's work is a bit more of as stretch. Sure both are about young people, but aside from that they have little or nothing in common.

Knight's book is set in a house in Buffalo New York occupied by a collection of young Muslims. The protagonist, Yusef Ali, is an engineering student at the university and from a middle class family in Syracuse. His family encouraged him to live outside the university in a Muslim house as "there were things in the dorm that were bad for him". However if they knew what went on in his house they might not have been so sanguine about his living arrangements. For while its true the occupants are all Muslim, they also spend most of their time smoking drugs and drinking, two things high on the list of no no's as far as most Muslims are concerned.

On the other hand the house's occupants do their best to observe the prayer times, and the four male inhabitants pray together on a regular basis. However they open their Friday night prayers to the whole community which means allowing men and women to pray together and having a woman take the role of Imam to lead them in prayer and give the sermon, neither of which would are considered acceptable by conservative Muslims. Even more disconcerting perhaps would have been the fact that immediately after the Friday prayers, the house would fill up with a mixed bag of local punks and play host to wild parties.

While we witness all of this behaviour through Yusef's eyes, he doesn't participate. He describes himself as the token nerd who is allowed to hang out with the cool kids, and he keeps up a continual internal dialogue about those around him questioning their behaviour. He is torn between what he's been taught is right, what the laws of his religion and tradition tell him defines a Muslim, and the reality he sees in front of him. Sure his friend Jehangir drinks like a fish, smokes dope, has sex and has a bright orange Mohawk haircut, but he also calls himself a Muslim and is as devoted in his prayers as anyone. Yet even this apparently free spirited Jehangir is plagued doubts, and after a while you begin to think a great deal of his excess is a result of not being completely certain he's doing the right thing in breaking the rules.
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While the book spares no detail in its description of people's behaviour, and no doubt it won't be just Muslims it will offend, it's beneath the surface that the real story resides. Knight's talent lies in his ability to create this incredibly diverse group of characters who not only spring off the page because they are so vividly described, but also represent a variety of viewpoints when it comes to what constitutes being Muslim. What's even more realistic is how he shows that doubts can cut both ways; for while the liberal punks might doubt themselves on occasion, the hardline character has cracks through which his doubts about strict adherence to the scripture comes through.

Western Judaism began its shift into the modern world through politics in the early part of the 20th century with the beginnings of the social justice movement. At the extreme end of the spectrum were the communists who rejected religion entirely. While they might not have represented the mainstream anymore than Knight's punks represent the mainstream of Islam, the ripple effect of their activities resulted in the gradual liberalization of their religion. The more extreme characters in The Taqwacores will not be acceptable to most Muslims, but like the communist Jews a century ago they don't expect or want to be. Their dream of a Utopian Islam where all are welcomed by all may never be a reality, but its the fact they dream at all that might end up making a difference.

What Knight has depicted in his book is the natural questioning of traditional values that occurs when an insular people are exposed to different views of the world. The questions his characters ask themselves are ones that have been asked many times before, and like those before them they discover there's no such thing as only one correct answer. While a lot has been made out of the book because its characters are predominately Muslim, its as much a book about the clash between tradition and new that occurs in all immigrant communities as it is about being Islamic. Knight has done a fantastic job of bringing that struggle to life as his characters navigate through the challenges that face any young adult, while doing their best to remain as true to themselves as possible.

If there is any hope for a world where religions and cultures can peacefully co-exist with respect and tolerance, we are going to need far more books like this one. It doesn't shy away from asking difficult questions or depicting things some might find unpleasant, but it does so without negativity or cynicism. This is not a blank generation without hope for the future. They might not be quite sure what the future will be or how to make it happen, but they'll do their best to make it better than what we have at present.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

May 25, 2010

DVD Review: Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam

When he was seventeen years old Michael Muhammad Knight followed in the footsteps of Muhammad Ali and converted to Islam. However unlike Ali, and the majority of other Americans who become followers of the Nation Of Islam, Knight isn't an African American. Brought up in an Irish/Catholic household, his conversion to Islam was in reaction to his white supremacist father. Like many other converts to a new religion he became something of a zealot to begin and travelled to Pakistan to study at a very conservative mosque.

However there came a point where the dogma became too much for him. Islam was still important to him, but not the narrow minded view of the world the conservatives dictated should go with it. So he ran from one extreme to another and sat down and wrote the novel The Taqwacores, which supposed the existence of a house full of Islamic punk rock musicians sharing a house together in Buffalo. Initially self published the book began to strike a chord with disaffected Muslim youth across North America and Knight was constantly writing people to tell them the characters in the book didn't exist.

In a strange twist on the old life imitating art thing though, it came to pass that Michael and a collection of Islamic punk musicians - mainly the young people who contacted him in the first place - came up with the idea of bringing the book to life. In the book the musicians set out on the road to tour around North America with their ultimate destination being the annual Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) convention in Chicago. So, piling into a school bus painted green and decked out with graphics and slogans, bands like the The Kominas from Boston, The Secret Trial Five from Vancouver, Al-Tharwa from Chicago and individual musicians like Omar Wagner from Washington DC, set out to shock and awe America.
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Joining them on the bus, and for the the tour and beyond, was a documentary film crew headed by Canadian director Omar Majeed. The resulting film of this strange pilgrimage, Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam (not to be confused with the soon to be released film adaptation of Knights book The Taqwacores) is now available on DVD through Lorber Films. The film is roughly divided in two with part one introducing us to the various bands on the tour, following their misadventures as they attempt to play gigs, get stopped by cops, spend the night in a mosque in the middle of a corn field in Ohio, and finally make it to the ISNA conference. Part two picks up at some point after the tour in 2007 as two members of The Kominas have moved back to Pakistan and are attempting to bring punk with them and Knight comes to visit with camera crew in tow.

As we meet the young people involved in the Taqwacore tour (Taqwa - the Muslim term for God consciousness - core for hard core punk) we realize that like Knight they are all trying to find a place for themselves in the world. As young Muslims in North America they don't want to give up their faith, but at the same time they want the freedom to be who they are as individuals as well. Gay, straight, male and female their songs range from the overtly political like The Secret Five's "Guantanamo Bay" or tongue in cheek satire like The Kominas' "I'm An Islamist" - their version of the infamous Sex Pistol tune.

While watching them wander across America in their green school bus I couldn't help but be reminded of another school bus forty some years earlier and the book that recorded that journey. American author Ken Keasy and his band of Merry Pranksters drove an old converted school bus around the country in the early 1960's preaching the gospel according to LSD and were memorialized in Tom Wolf's Electric Kool-aid Acid Test. However the great thing about film is that we have a much more direct link to the action and it's not so blatantly filtered through an author's voice. With Wolf's book you have the feeling it was written with the idea of giving middle class liberals a few cheap thrills, while Taqwacore is far more intent on telling the story and perhaps broadening viewer's minds as to who Muslims are.
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While the attempt to bring punk to an Islamic audience in America met with mixed success; when they performed at the ISNA conference they were closed down by the organizers for having female singers and dancing but the audience of young girls wearing headscarves were more than happy to sing along with lyrics like "Stop the hate"; what kind of reception would it get in an Islamic country? When Knight arrives in Lahore Pakistan he finds that his two old buddies from the Taqwacore days have sunk into a bit of a hash soaked stupor. They've pulled together a band but are finding it next to impossible to play gigs. What they hadn't counted on was the fact that popular music is mainly for the small percentage of affluent people, while the poor people whose message punk is aimed at are much more interested in traditional music or Bollywood. It's also almost impossible to bring the two audiences together in a single venue because of the class differences still very prevalent in that country.

While they eventually do manage to give a successful free concert in downtown Lahore, the majority of our time in Pakistan is spent with Michael Knight as he travels around visiting various shrines and mosques. He even braves going back to the mosque where he studied years ago and sits and talks with the cameras about himself for a while. What's really quite amazing about him is his incredible ability to be completely honest with himself. At one point he talks about his behaviour when he first converted and how he used to lecture his mother about her way of dressing and the fact that she would have a glass of wine before sleep. At first he thought her reactions to this, soft smiles and not arguing with him, were the sign of a mother's loving patience, but then he realized it was also the behaviour of a person who had been seriously abused for a long time.

His father used to threaten her endlessly and she had to sit through hours of torment while he would accuse her of everything from having the Devil for a lover to giving birth to the Devil's son. Her only defence was to never fight and passively let him rant on and on. When Knight finally put two and two together he understood that his lecturing his mother on her behaviour in the manner he was doing was abuse. When someone is able to admit this to himself any doubts you might have had about their sincerity are lost. His conversion to Islam may have initially been an act of rebellion, and his subsequent conversion to punk an expression of frustration that Islam wasn't able to supply all the answers he wanted, but the journey he and all the other young people we meet in this film are on, are sincere attempts to find a path that honours both their faith and themselves.

While the idea of punk rock Muslims might sound ridiculous to some people and to others it might even be blasphemous, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam is inspiring and hopeful. Not only do those involved dispel any stereotypes you might have about Muslims, they also show how it is possible to be a religious person without letting your religion dictate who and what you are as an individual. The underlying message of tolerance and respect, mixed with a healthy dose of the benevolent chaos of punk, is one the world could stand hearing over and over again.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Taqwacore -The Birth Of Punk Islam on Blogcritics.)

May 20, 2010

DVD Review: Griefwalker

Death doesn't seem the most inspiring of topics for a film does it? If I were to hazard a guess I'd say that the majority of us do our best to go through our days without thinking about death or dying. After all who wants to think about such a gloomy subject? What purpose would it serve anyway? Wouldn't thinking about your impending doom, because we are all going to die eventually, just serve to depress us? So it might surprise you to hear somebody say that by denying our eventual deaths we reduce our ability to live our lives to their fullest.

Stephen Jenkinson has a Master's Degree in Social Work, is a graduate of the Harvard School of Divinity, worked in the centre for children's grief and palliative care in a major children's hospital in Canada and as an associate professor in a Canadian medical school. He counsels individuals and their families helping them come to terms with their impending death and all its implications. He also lectures and leads workshops for people who work in palliative care and offers workshops to the general public on how to get the most out of your life - through a better understanding of death. Griefwalker, produced by The National Film Board Of Canada and distributed by Alive Mind Media, is a documentary about Jenkinson that was filmed over a twelve year period by director Tim Wilson who also happens to be Jenkinson's friend.

There are two parts to the film; one deals with Jenkinson and his work and includes footage of him working with clients, leading seminars and interviews with people who have worked with him, while the other is a mixture of the director's personal recollections of his relationship with Jenkinson and an examination of the man's philosophies and how his approach to life has shaped them. At times the director steps out from the behind the camera and becomes part of the film as he cross examines his friend or recalls personal memories. For at one point the director had come close to dying after what was supposed to have been routine surgery and Jenkinson had said something to him that pissed him off at the time. In the movie the two men discuss that time and it works into their discussion on death and people's relationship to it.
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The interviews with clients are some of the hardest things you'll ever watch in a movie because of their simple realism. These are real people talking about their circumstances and that makes it all the more poignant. There are two incidences where we are witness to Stephen at work counselling people, and a third is a young couple recounting their experiences with him when their infant daughter died. What we quickly find out about Jenkinson is that he's genuinely serious about helping people come to terms with the reality of impending death, and does so by forcing them to confront their fears. He doesn't come across as necessarily sympathetic - at least in the sense we might think of based on the sentimental ideas of sympathy we've been raised on. However there can be no doubting his compassion for the people he is dealing with as he coaxes them into admitting what they are really feeling or facing up to their situation.

The case of the young couple is a good example of this. Their baby was being kept alive by blood transfusions. Every two or three days she would need another transfusion but there was no promise of her ever recovering. The mother recalls how Jenkinson gradually helped her realize how she was in denial about her baby's chances of survival by making her say out loud the false hopes she was clinging to in her head. Eventually she and her husband took their baby home where she could die in peace and without pain. They were able to enjoy their child's last days to the fullest because of this instead of the gradual wasting away that would have occurred in the hospital.

I've a natural mistrust of people who assume the trappings of a culture other than there own as most of the time they have only a superficial knowledge of what they've adopted and make no attempt to actually live their lives according to what they supposedly believe in. So the sight of Jenkinson with his hair tied back in a braid was at first slightly off putting. However as the movie progresses you come to realize this is not someone who had merely taken on the appearance of his Algonquin neighbours, he has an understanding of their culture and belief system, and attempts to live his life accordingly. He has also looked to indigenous cultures around the world for the basis of his program for teaching people how to cope with death based on their connection to the world around them.
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The movie does a great job of only presenting Jenkinson's ideas on death and dying, but introducing us to the man and showing us not only how he formulated his concepts, but how the life he has chosen to live embodies them. He is what he preaches and does his best to live according to what he espouses. Whether you agree with his ideas or not, and the movie is a pretty convincing argument in favour of what he has to say about our fear of death and how that impacts our quality of life, you can't help but admire him for his dedication to helping people and his compassion for everybody he comes in contact with.

Probably everyone has seen a silly Western movie at some time or another where an Indian character on the verge of going into battle will say "It's a good day to die". However, the real meaning of that expression is live each day as if it were your last and enjoy it to its fullest. Greifwalker is the story of a man who does his best to make any day a good day for people to die in by helping them confront and defeat their fears surrounding death. While the DVD doesn't come with any special features, the person you meet in the film is probably one of the more special people you'll come across in a long time.

If you're interested in learning more about his counselling services and workshops be sure to go to his Orphan Wisdom web site where you'll find complete descriptions of what he has to offer and a listing of his scheduled appearances - so far - around North America for 2010.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Griefwalker on Blogcritics.)

May 16, 2010

DVD Review: Sound Of The Soul

The lack of tolerance for other people's belief's has been the bane of mankind's existence for who knows how long. Theoretically we're a rational species and after the millions of years we've been hanging around on the planet you'd think we'd have matured sufficiently to accept not everybody looks at the world the same way. Unfortunately the reverse seems to the be the case as the longer we hang out the more intolerant we seem to become. From east to west you'll find the world has become more and more divided into "us" and "them", with them being responsible for all of "our" problems, no matter who they are.

Yet wouldn't the world be a lot easier to live in if we weren't afraid of the person beside us on the plane because they're a different colour or call their god by a different name they we do? What makes it so hard for people to be tolerant of somebody else's beliefs or even worse, makes it so easy to hate and fear them for it? Are we all so desperate to find somebody we can blame for what's wrong in the world that we have to find a scapegoat? Why is it so easy for our leaders to convince us that those others over there are evil and we are good? Have you ever stopped to think what would happen if there were a place where people of all faiths could come together and appreciate what they have in common instead of fearing their differences? Where we could all celebrate the fact that we all believe in something and see that for the miracle it is?

You might think that's an impossibility in this day and age, but every year since the first Gulf War people of all faiths from all of over the world have been coming together to do just that for a week in June at the Fez Festival Of World Sacred Music in Morocco. Of course Morocco is a bit of an oddity in itself, for as hard as this may be for many to believe, its an Islamic country where Christians, Jews and Muslims have lived together in peace for centuries. The festival brings together faith based musical groups of all beliefs from countries all over the world to perform for international interfaith audiences.
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A few years ago director Stephen Olsson travelled to Fez to record the event and find out more about the remarkable circumstances that have allowed it to happen. The resulting movie, Sound Of The Soul is now not only available on DVD through Alive Mind Media, its also being broadcast on the Internet by Global Spirit, one of the many programs available through Link TV. (The initial broadcast is on Sunday May 16th/10 at 6:00 pm EST but check the schedule as it will be re-broadcast throughout the month) The Global Spirit broadcast will include a question and answer session with the director and a panel discussion about the film with Marla Kolman Antebi, Sarah Talcott and Kabir Helminski, a Jewish scholar, an organizer of Inter-faith youth camps, and a Muslim/Sufi scholar and musician respectively.

The movie not only takes viewers to the Fez Festival to enjoy the variety of music on display; vocal groups from Ireland, England, and Russia, a French Jewish vocalist singing with a Moroccan Muslim orchestra, a gospel band from New York City, a fado singer from Portugal, and performances by groups from Afghanistan, Morocco, various African countries, and South America; but provides a look into the remarkable history of its host country. Founded by a Sufi saint Morocco has a history of tolerance that should make it the envy of the world. When the Ottoman Empire was overthrown in Spain, Jews, Muslims, and those Christians not comfortable living under the Inquisition, fled across the Mediterranean to North Africa and settled in Algeria and Morocco. It was the latter that has proven to be the haven for all, as even through the turmoil of the last century she has not been swayed from her founding creed of respect for all.

The film maker interviewed leaders of all three faiths who talked about the history of their people in the country and their current situation. While the founding of Israel saw the Jewish community's numbers drastically reduced as people immigrated, it didn't create the huge divisions that occurred in other countries where there had formally been tolerance between Muslims and Jews. Not once in any of the interviews did you have the feeling that any of those being interviewed were dissembling in any way. It never felt like they were glossing over any uncomfortable truths or making the situation sound any better than it is.
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As we followed the cameras through the streets of Fez what strikes one is the way the modern world and the past have come together so comfortably. Narrow streets filled with people of all ages and sexes dressed in everything from t-shirts and shorts to headscarfs and robes rub shoulders naturally and seemingly without discomfort. We visit courtyards that are hundreds of years old and stare in awe at what first appears to be decorative patterns carved into the walls, only to discover it is scripture spelling out the tenets of Sufism etched by hand hundreds of years ago.

Of course its the music that brings people to Fez each year, and the music is incredible. If you buy the DVD you'll not only find bonus features of complete concerts, there's also a CD featuring some of the performers from the film. While there is plenty of commentary provided by members of each faith on the importance of music for building bridges between peoples, watching people's reactions to the different performers tells the story of music's power far more than talking head can hope. One only has to watch the young Moroccans dancing up a storm to the New York City based gospel group,The McCullough Sons of Thunder, to make that connection.

The camera also go behind the scenes at the Festival to cover a symposium being held at the same time featuring spiritual and business people from around the world, including members of the World Bank and the head of the World Trade Organization Michael Moore. This was the one part of the film where you could feel the tensions of the world intruding on what had been an oasis of peace until that point. It was hard to watch somebody like Moore, whose organization is one of the root causes of suffering in the developing world through policies that continue to siphon the wealth of many into the hands of few, spout words about tolerance and understanding without feeling a wee bit cynical. When the camera drew back to show his audience you could see the scepticism on the faces of many of those listening - especially those spiritual leaders from the developing countries. While the point of the symposium was the need for balance between the spiritual and the secular needs of the world, it was obvious the spiritual leaders present weren't convinced of Moore's sincerity.

Sound Of The Soul is a wonderful movie in that it gives us an example of what the world could be; of how it is possible for men and women of all faiths to appreciate and respect each other and their beliefs. However at the same time it makes perfectly clear just how unique The Fez Festival Of World Sacred Music is, and how far the world has to travel before we can live up to the example of Morocco and its remarkable people. In a world where hope for peaceful coexistence is in increasingly short supply, this movie is a godsend - no matter what your god looks like.


(Article first published as DVD Review: Sound of the Soul on Blogcritics.)

May 12, 2010

Book Review: Doing Dangerously Well By Carole Enahoro

We take it for granted, after all its all around us, it literally falls from the sky, but in some parts of the world water is even more precious a natural resource than the petroleum we in the West cherish so highly. However its still a naturally occurring resource, one readily available through springs and water holes to those in the desert and to us in more temperate climates rivers, rain barrels and the tap in our kitchen sink. Of course we in the city pay for the water we use - usually in the form of a metered rate to our municipality - but the cost is usually so insignificant we barely notice. After all nobody is trying to profit from selling us our water or treating our sewage, just covering the costs.

However as recent events have shown us, nothing is safe from privatization and corporate greed, and water is no exception. Under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank debt laden countries are being coerced into selling their water rights to American and European private corporations. The results have invariably been disastrous for the general populations as water prices have risen by as much as %50. In Bolivia, where the rights were sold to Bechetel, an American company, in the late 1990's, the result was what's become known as the water wars. People rioted all over the country in response until the company was forced to cancel the contract.

Of course companies don't need the World Bank or the IMF to do all their dirty work for them. In an age where natural disasters and wars are considered golden opportunities for doing business, all a good corporate executive need do is wait for the next tsunami, hurricane, or earthquake to destroy some poor country's infrastructure, and with the right political connections they could end up owning the rights to almost anything they want. Offer to help secure the necessary loans from the World Bank to finance rebuilding that damn and then generously offer to purchase the rights to the water the dam controls in order to help pay back the loan, and everybody's happy - except for the people who are all of sudden paying for something they never had to before.
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It's against this background of international greed Nigerian/Canadian author Carole Enahoro has set her first novel, Doing Dangerously Well, being released by Random House Canada May 11/10. However its not just Big Business and the forces of globalization that come under attack in her book, as Enahoro takes shots at every side in the argument. Government officials in Nigeria, do-gooding liberals in North America, and of course corporate social climbers are all grist for her mill.

When a major damn bursts in Nigeria killing thousands of people in the initial deluge, and then thousands more because of disease, Nigerians and Americans alike see it as a golden opportunity for advancing their careers. Ogbe Kolo is the current Minister of Natural Resources and sees this as a golden opportunity to work his way up the ladder to President and Mary Glass of TransAqua International is the one to help him get there by helping rebuild the broken damn. In return she'll only want the water and power rights from the damn, but Kolo can keep the naming rights to the new river and gets to be President. It's a win win situation for everyone save those who happen to live and depend on the Niger river and its waters for anything at all.

Naturally there is some opposition to these plans on both sides of the world. In Nigeria they are headed up by Femi Jegede, whose home village was destroyed in the deluge and after recovering from his grief has determined to prevent the plans of Ogbe Kolo from bearing fruit. Across the Atlantic Ocean Barbara Glass is equally determined to prevent her sister Mary from succeeding in her efforts. She joins a radical-Water group, Drop Of Life, in that known hotbed of socialism, Ottawa Canada, to co-ordinate resistance with her Nigerian "brothers and sisters". That she barely knows where Nigeria is doesn't prevent her from hopping a plane to travel there in order to "mobilize" resistance.
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From corner corporate offices to the corridors of power in Nigeria and from the jungles surrounding the Niger river to the backwoods of Ottawa, Enahoro leads us around the world as we follow her assorted mix of characters. Save for Femi and his companions, they are a collection of the least likeable sorts ever assembled. All of them, from President Kolo to the Glass sisters and their supporting casts, serve nobody and nothing but their own ambitions. Enahoro mercilessly skewers everything from new age pretensions to capitalist greed as she follows each of her character's globe hopping search for personal fulfillment.

The problem is that in her eagerness to attack so many targets, we lose sight of the reality. While the press material claims Doing Dangerously Well is the first satire to deal with the issue of Disaster Capitalism, and by extension the way in which governments are coerced into selling off their resources by the World Bank and the IMF, there's far too much chaff thrown up by her multi-pronged attack for the reader to focus on any one subject. While I agree with her assessments of all her targets, it might have been better to tackle each of them separately. There is the basis for three good books in this one, but instead they've been crammed under one cover and the whole suffers accordingly.

While Carole Enahoro manages to convey some of the results of the destructive policies being implemented by the IMF and the World Bank in the developing world, the book's vagueness and burlesque humour make them seem far less dangerous than they actually are. Mistaking satire for humour is a common misconception, and in this case the result is to make those who the author has targeted seem to be less of a threat than they really are. Along with the World Trade Organization, the IMF and the World Bank pose the largest threat to sustainable development, climate change, and, in the long run, peaceful coexistence among the world's nations of anyone.
By continuing to place more and more of the world's assets in the hands of fewer and fewer people they increase the divides separating the haves and the have-nots and the accompanying resentment that is the root of instability and terrorism.

Trivializing the actions of those involved by reducing them to the level of a farce gives a false impression of the real dangers we face by allowing this system to continue unchecked. The potential was there for an intelligent and bitingly funny book, but the author opted for the easy laugh instead. It's a pity because Enahoro is obviously intelligent and well informed with a good eye for the ridiculous on both sides of any issue. With a tighter focus she'll serve up some fine political satire in the future.

Article first published as Book Review: Doing Dangerously Well by Carole Enahoro on Blogcritics.

April 30, 2010

Interview: Mike Bonanno Of The Yes Men

My introduction to the Yes Men, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno came about from watching their recently released DVD The Yes Men Fix The World. To say I was awe struck by the audacity and daring of the form their protests against multinationals, globalization, and the "Free Market System" in general and corporations like Dow Chemical and Haliburton in specific is to put it mildly. In fact they have given me cause to believe that if you looked up the word "Chutzpah" in the dictionary you'd see their happy faces grinning back up at you.

After reviewing their DVD I e-mailed them in the hopes of being able to interview either one or both of them in an attempt to find out a little bit more about who they are and what they do. Half expecting a no for an answer due to the hectic nature of their schedules - working day jobs while trying to fix the world doesn't leave you much spare time, so I was very grateful when Mike Bonanno said he'd be willing to answer my e-mailed questions. He's a lot better at getting to the point than I am so although some of his answers are shorter than my questions it's only because he doesn't waste any words.

Hopefully this interview will give you the incentive to check out at least my review of their DVD and maybe support their efforts by picking up a copy of it for your own pleasure. Those who want to get more directly involved can always check out their web site for a list of actions ongoing around the world which you can involve yourself in. Now without further ado, Mike Bonanno

1) Any special reason for the name "Yes Men"?

We started out wanting to be a funhouse mirror for big business. We thought we would say "yes" at corporate conferences until the ideas all seemed amplified and comic. Over time,  the name seemed to be more reflective of our culture of capitalism overall: we agree with the people in power just for a little short-term gain, no matter what the effect on the planet.  

2) So how did you settle upon this as a career choice - As a child did you say to your parents I want to be a professional shit disturber when I grow up or did you just gradually evolve into the role?
It happened to us by accident! We really did stumble into it... although we both had serious mischief streaks as kids. 

3) What brought the two of you together?

The Internet!

4) Some people might find it difficult to understand why you do what you do - so what is it that motivates you and why do you do whatever it is you do?

Well... the world appears to be going to hell in a handbasket. And we like the world. Perhaps we are nuts, but we think its worth fixing. Is that not motivation enough? 

5) What would you call what you do?

We are troublemakers for a cause. We hope to be the straw that breaks the camel's back. 
6) The chances of shaming someone - or something - like Dow Chemical or even a government agency like HUD are slim - so what do you hope to accomplish with your actions?

Our actions are all about getting the perspective of the powerless and disenfranchised into the news cycle – something that rarely happens in a profit-motivated media without some seriously drastic storytelling action. In the case of Dow and Hud, for example, the goal was not to make them feel bad (which they would not in any case), it was to make them look as bad as they are, for a general public that might have forgotten about their legacy in Bhopal or might not know they kicked the poorest people out of their homes after Katrina.  And in that regard we think our methods work pretty well... 

7) What do you hope that someone watching the film The Yes Men Fix The World will take away from it?

We hope that people who watch our film will be motivated to get out of their chair and go do something... put some pressure on government to change. We did actually have lots of people leave their seats and take to the streets after our theatrical screenings. We led the audience on several protests. Unfortunately, we could not do that every time, we were too exhausted...
 
8) When I hear politicians saying things endorsing the free market I realize how much closer Canada is to being a social-democratic state than the US - our politicians would never even dream of saying something like let the market forces fix a natural disaster - they would be run out of town on a rail.(Alberta being an exception to that rule being owned by the oil companies) Why is it do you thing Americans as a whole accept Free Market capitalism so cheerfully?

I think that since 1980 in the USA the free market has been revered by people at the highest levels of office, and even by our school curriculum. The people who are ripping us all off with this weird idea were pretty successful at getting people in the USA to think that human freedom = the free market. Of course that is not true at all... one only need to remember that it was a certain kind of "free market" that enabled mass slavery in the first place. But it has also been portrayed as a kind of weapon of democracy... all the presidents since Reagan were avid supporters of forcing free markets upon people along with so-called democracy. It is still a weird cold-war hangover. There is a huge education problem in the USA. We are taught to be stupid, angry, antisocial, merciless, and proud. 

9) Why is it that you think so many people at the conferences you attend as guest speakers take what you say at face value? For example the gilded skeleton, the Survivor Ball, and that bit about buying votes.

I think that there are psychological reasons why people go along with really bad ideas- but there is also the simple fact that they are there to get our business card. They think we are the most important people in the room, so they are not going to upset a business relationship over a little horror story. Hey, you only need look at world war two to see that there were plenty of american companies (like Ford) who just kept doing business with the Germans - even after the invasion of Poland - simply because they were in business together. Its pretty sick! 

10) I find it amazing that Dow Chemical was able to issue a statement denying they were going to compensate the people of Bhopal or do anything about cleaning up the site and that nobody questioned it - that nobody asked well - why the hell aren't you?

But people do ask this all the time... the victims. The problem is that the victims don't have a huge amount of wealth behind them, so they have trouble getting a word in. Other than that, many people don't really seem to notice... especially when there are huge greenwashing campaigns going on, like Dow's sponsorship of a ludicrous "run for water." 

11) Did you consider the fact that releasing the DVD The Yes Men Fix The World might actually be detrimental to any further actions of the sort depicted in the movie? That people organizing conferences might start to do a little more due diligence about who they're inviting to speak or to issue statements on television news programs? Can you see the BBC ever again extending an invitation like the one given you simply because of a web site without maybe phoning Dow and checking out its veracity?

We probably wont get invites from the BBC anymore... but there are always more ways of doing things! And more importantly, now we are actually focusing on getting more people involved. See this for more info. 

12) On your web site you offer the means for people to formulate actions and give suggestions on how to carry out the types of things you've demonstrated in your DVD. Have there been any signs that people are following your example and carrying out projects of the same scale as yours? Any choice examples?

Lots of people are doing cool projects that relate... there have been several fake newspapers where people consulted with us. A really amazing example of someone who says he was inspired by us is Tim DeChristopher, aka "Bidder 70". See his site for details, what he did is super important!  

13) How do you fund these activities - travel to Europe isn't cheap and neither would it be inexpensive to make 500 candles or some of the other prototypes you have handed out at various events? Do you follow the investment model you describe in the special features of the DVD or is there some other means you have to raise capital?

We actually lose money from making the movies. We pay for this stuff mostly from our day jobs... at least the getting to events and what not. And increasingly through speaking engagements. 

14) I assume you've read Naomi Klien's Shock Doctrine in which she details examples of disaster capitalism. How is this destruction of public resources kept from or sold to the public so easily? For example the closing of public school boards and the demolition of public housing in New Orleans.

The way its done is first to starve the public sector, and then to make people hate it because once its starved and broken it ceases to work well. That is definitely the case for the school systems in the US, public housing, public works of all sorts. So when people suggest getting rid of it and replacing it with some "private sector" solution most of the public goes along with it. Its really sorry that the strategy is not called out right in the beginning.  

15) There was a report in Canada's national newspaper, The Globe And Mail, today (March 23rd) that First Nations bands in British Columbia are threatening to blockade coastal waters in order to prevent tankers from carrying oil that was transported via a pipeline cutting through their territory. Time after time we hear people raise their voices in protest against things like this, but corporations and governments continue to try and push these projects through regardless until a protest occurs. Instead of taking things project by project, protest by protest, what can be doine to ensure these types of project are no longer even considered?

The only way to do it is to take back the government and start to enact sane regulations. Its either that or revolution. 

16) With the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forcing debt ridden countries to privatize their natural resources while cutting social spending and regulations - like environmental controls and worker health and safety legislation - that curtail business, what's the likelihood of another disaster along the lines of Bhopal?

There are countless Bhopals in the works. Unfortunately, the mother of all Bhopals is the climate change situation. Here we know we are facing disaster- with much MORE certainty than they did in Bhopal. And yet the political will is not there to change. It is criminal, and very, very sick.
 
17) On a more cheerful note - what's next for the Yes Men?

The first vacation in ten years! This summer we are taking some time off. But only to come back and put renewed energy into the Yes Lab! 

Thanks again to Mike Bonanno of the Yes Men for taking the time out of his busy life to answer my questions. If you want to see some of their most recent work - doctoring of various attendees' video statements at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos - you can check them out here. Here world and industry leaders give the speeches that they should have given in response to the plight of the world's poor and starving population instead of the usual platitudes and non-answers. Pay particular attention to Patricia Woertz, head of one of the worlds largest multinational agribusinesses, ADM, to see if you can see what could have upset them so much they demanded its removal from You Tube. The world would be a lot better place if politicians and industry leaders talked more like the Yes Men and a lot less like themselves.

(Article first published as Mike Bonanno of The Yes Men on Gonzo Political Activism and Troublemaking for a Cause at Blogcritics.org)

April 28, 2010

DVD Review: The End Of Poverty?

In the early 1960's a young man was sent by the CIA to try and assassinate the president of Iraq who was trying to divert some of the profits from the oil his country produced to stay in his country. The assassination was a failure and the young man, Saddam Hussain, barely escaped with his life. Not willing to trust such an important action to amateurs again, the CIA arranged for the president to be overthrown and executed on public television in Iraq and installed Hussain's family as rulers. Earlier, in the 1950's, when the democratically elected president of Iran tried to do the same thing, the British government on behalf of British Petroleum (BP) approached their former comrade from WWll, President Eisenhower, to see if he could take care of the problem for them. The CIA arranged for the deposing of the Iranian president and installed the Shah of Iran in his place.

Since the end of WWll a new economic colonialism has arisen to replace the old empires of Europe that has ensured, despite countries winning their political independence they are still subject states whose domestic and economic fates are dictated by decisions reached in the corridors of power in Europe, Japan, and the United States. While the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) have been assuring us in the developed world that the only hope for the future lies in the globalization of trade, they've not bothered to explain whose future is at stake. If in the last thirty years the number of people in the world going to bed at night hungry, dying of malnutrition and related disease, and living on less than a dollar a day has at least doubled, while a smaller and smaller percentage of the world's population controls a greater amount of it's wealth, what does that say about globalization and and who it is helping?

While the connection between economic policy and CIA assassinations might not seem obvious to some, according to information presented in the documentary The End Of Poverty?, being released on DVD April 27th/10 by Cinema Libre Studios, they are both serving as means to the same end - keeping the control of natural resources the world over in the hands of a small minority. Not only has this resulted in increased financial hardship for the citizens of the affected countries, it has also seen the almost complete degradation of their social structure as vital services like health and education have either been reduced to a fraction of what they once were or simply become beyond their ability to afford. For not only have the countries lost any of the profits associated with the harvesting of natural resources, they have no access to them either as they are all shipped back to the home country of whichever company "acquired" the rights to them. Resulting in the country in which they were produced having to buy back they wish to use.
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The resulting loss of capital and needless expenditure means they have less money to spend on social programs and those costs have to be borne by somebody. That somebody turns out to be the people, who for the most part can't afford to pay the fees for sending their children to school or receiving even the most basic medical attention. When you barely earn enough to feed and house your family, paying for a doctor or schooling becomes luxury items you can't afford. Of course that means a new generation is being raised the world over with a skill set suited only for the most menial types of employment who have no hope of improving their or their children's lot in the world.

As The End Of Poverty? points out though, there's a fine tradition of these practices dating back to the 1500's when Spanish conquistadors first came to America. They were a little less subtle in their methods as they simply slaughtered anyone who stood in their way, and then began the process of carrying away as much of South and Central America's valuable natural resources as they could stuff in the holds of their ships. At the same time they began using the rest of the land to create plantations to grow crops suited for export, coffee and cacao primarily, depriving the local populations of even the means to grow sufficient food to sustain themselves. The same type of practices were carried out all over the world in one way or another by the Dutch, British, Germans, French, and Belgians in Africa, Asia, and North America.

The British and the Dutch took it one step further and stopped local crafts people and artisans from manufacturing goods made from these resources. They then stole the techniques used by textile workers in India (British) and pottery makers in Indonesia (Dutch) and created their own industries in the same products and sold them back to those who were no longer allowed to make them anymore. By the time the colonial powers were ready to surrender control over their colonies in the 1950's and '60's, they left behind countries with no industry, land that had been worked to death growing single crops, untrained and poorly educated populations, and massive debts from having to import everything.

It's at this point the new form of colonialism takes over, involving a mixture of bribes, threats, coups, assassinations and in some cases armed interventions. While numerous people were interviewed during the course of The End Of Poverty? from government officials, economists, to individuals from various countries describing the conditions they lived under and the way the current economic system sustains poverty, the two who were the most chilling were Chalmers Johnson, former CIA consultant and author of Nemesis: The Last Days Of The American Republic and John Perkins formerly employed by American business interests as an Economic Hit Man and author of Confessions Of An Economic Hit Man. While Chalmers confirmed things like the CIA's involvement in the assassinations of heads of state and coups to get rid of governments unfriendly to American business interests, Perkins was, if anything, even more scary in his description of his former job.

As an economic hit man he would meet with the leaders of developing countires in order to convince them to take out crippling loans in order to finance major infrastructure projects to be built by American firms. As a result of their debts these countries would then be forced to sell off the rights to their natural resources in an effort to pay back what they owed, usually to the company who was hired to build the project that caused the debt in the first place. He said that his arguments to convince leaders basically came down to you can accept this bribe and sign the contract or else we will replace you with someone more willing to assist us. According to him the assassination of world leaders from the Congo to Ecuador over the last fifty years can be laid at the door of these practices.

With the majority of the land in the hands of either large corporations or individuals and being used to either grow crops that offer no benefit to local populations or are strictly for export purposes people can't even grow their own food to offset their lack of income. As we find out when the cameras travel to Kenya and interview local farmers in the Rift Valley area, even holding on to your land doesn't help. Dominion Foods of the United States was allowed to dam the river to service their agribusiness in the valley and proceeded to flood the grazing lands and fields of all the local farmers. Land which had sustained them for generations has now been turned into swampland which means not only can't it be used for crops any longer, but the mosquito population has increased bringing with them malaria and other associated diseases.

I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who will be willing to dismiss everything said in this movie as anti-American propaganda, the whining of liberal bleeding hearts, or socialist rhetoric. However, anybody who doesn't have some sort of vested interest, be it philosophical or financial, might start to realize after listening to so many people from so many different countries all over the world describing their circumstances, this has nothing to do with politics or national sentiment. People are starving to death on a daily basis in numbers that are almost beyond comprehension and it could easily be prevented. They might even start to agree with the conclusion John Perkins has reached; that as long as people's lives anywhere in the world are unstable because of poverty, nobody's life is secure. It took the events of September 11 2001 for him to come to the conclusion that something has to change for all our sakes - what will it take to convince you?

The End Of Poverty? is not easy to watch because of the information it imparts. However there's nothing wrong with how its delivered as everything is told in as direct manner possible in language anybody can understand. The special features include even more information as they contain in depth interviews with some of those who appeared in the film and some additional experts as well. As Nelson Mandela said, "Like slavery and aparthaid poverty is not natural. It is man made and can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings". We just have to be willing to take action, and this DVD offers some of the most compelling arguments you'll ever hear for taking action. Poverty and starvation exist because of the greed of a few and the ignorance of many - after watching this movie no one will be able to plead ignorance ever again.

April 18, 2010

Book Review: The Seven Veils Of Seth by Ibrahim al-Koni

There's a tendency among Western people to romanticize that which seems exotic to them. Whether the yogic practices of India, philosophies of the Far East, or the spirituality of Native Americans, it doesn't seem to matter. They imbue them with all sorts of mystical qualities, that may or may not have anything to do with the original practices, and believe they have found the secret to living a better life. Of course they also conveniently ignore the fact that so much of what they think of as answers are practices that have evolved through centuries of living under specific conditions and which might not have any practical application in another environment.

It's only been in the last decade or so the nomadic people of the North Sahara Desert in Africa have come to the attention of people in the West. The Tuareg pre-date the introduction of Islam and speak a Berber language, Tamasheq, related to ancient Egyptian, with an equally ancient alphabet and script known as Tifinagh. Pastoral nomads, primarily herds people who relied on their flocks for survival, they currently are spread out over a territory that includes Libya, Niger, Algeria, Mali and Nigeria. Since the early 1960's they have been involved in sporadic uprisings against the various governments in the region in an attempt to preserve the land so integral to grazing their nomadic lifestyle. However, only since former rebels have formed musical groups like Tinariwen, has the world at large taken any notice of their situation or the people themselves.

While the bands might sing about their culture and traditions, they do so in Tamasheq, which means the majority of their audience really aren't hearing what they are singing about or gaining any insights into the world they come from. Anyway, for the most part, the bands are making music for their own people, not for foreign consumption, which means the lyrics are only going to be truly understood by those already steeped in that culture. Therefore, while it's true they are getting out the message to the rest of the world about their struggle to survive, we actually know very little about them - their stories, their cultures or their traditions.
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So when I was contacted by Garnet Publishing asking if I would be interested in reviewing The Seven Veils Of Seth by the Libyan Tuareg author Ibrahim al-Koni, I said yes, in the hopes it would fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge of the people the work was about. I knew absolutely nothing about the author, but according to the blurb on the back of the book al-Koni is an award winning writer in the Arab world, and has published over fifty novels, short stories, poems and aphorisms, all of which have been inspired by the desert. Therefore, even though he's lived pretty far removed from any desert in Switzerland since 1993, it sounded like he not only could write well, but also wrote specifically about his people.

Well it turned both assumptions were true, as not only is he a wonderful writer (here's as good as time as any for a tip of the hat to William M. Hutchins who somehow translated it from Arabic into English without making it sound "English" or "American") who writes about his people, but he does so with such imagination and infectious joy for his subject, that you can't help being caught up in the story even if you're not quite sure what's going on all the time. The Seth of the title is in fact the ancient Egyptian god who killed his brother Osiris, the god of agriculture, in order to seize his throne and has come down to us through history as a villain. However, Seth also turns out to be the god of the desert and a benevolent champion for desert dwelling types like the Tuareg.

The story takes place in an oases where a permanent settlement of Tuareg has taken root and established a thriving community that includes a busy market place, a fool, a diviner (or prophet), a headman, and a heroic warrior. As an oases they are used to visitors, but not one quite as disconcerting as Isan. First, unlike most he eschews the company of camels and rides in on the back of a female donkey, a jenny. He then refuses any and all offers of hospitality, including a welcoming dinner, and strangest of all he chooses to dwell in a crypt in the graveyard. None of the town's notable are sure what to make of him - save for the Fool who after meeting Isan advices the town's elders to kill him before they have chance to regret not doing so.
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The seven veils of the title refer to the various names or ways in which Seth is referred to, and as the novel progresses, Isan is at various times referred to by each one, though most often as either "the jenny master" or "the strategist". Even more beguiling is his obvious disdain for anyone living in one place. No matter what arguments a person might make against the nomadic life he's always able to turn them around and show what they consider negative aspects of the life are actually necessities for the development of self-awareness. It's while he's having one of these arguments we learn another of his names, Wantahet, a character in Tuareg mythology who promised the people deliverance, but delivered them to the abyss.

So who is Isan, and what is he promising? He claims that hell, the abyss, is a type of deliverance as at times we have to burn the body to root out disease, and it's obvious he considers the settled life wrong. Yet, he's also a master at turning words on their head to the point where he makes his contravention of traditional laws and customs appear like he's complying with them. In Isan al-Koni has created a character who is the epitome of the trickster, and like his brethren and sisters around the world his contrary nature wrecks havoc where ever he travels. Yet, what is the lesson he is teaching - or is there even a lesson at all? Is his purpose to make those he meets question what they have accepted as normal? Is being a nomad really the answer to all questions and the proper way to live - or does he only espouse it because he's the god of the desert and this is all part of a "strategy" in his battle to keep the throne of heaven and his war against Osiris' son Horus?

Although Isan is the main character and we spend a great deal of our time with him, like everybody else who meets him we still can't be sure about his motivations. While in some ways the various characters Isan interacts with are representatives of their title (Fool, Merchant, Warrior, Prophet etc.) and the roles they play in their society, al-Koni ensures they aren't just types. In almost each case we learn more about them, and in fact, in some ways, end up knowing them better than Isan, through the back stories and histories the author has created for them. Therefore we not only see them as personifications of types representing a way of looking at the world or a certain place in society, we also see the real human behind that mask. In their discussions and arguments with Isan he challenges what they stand for and in doing so shows just how arbitrary the laws, the ones that dictate their behaviour and they use to help differentiate between right and wrong, they espouse as sacrosanct really are by using the ones they quote as proof he is wrong, as support for what he advocates.

How would you react if one of your people's traditional gods all of a sudden showed up in your town and began turning you lives upside down by questioning everything you have been using to govern your behaviour? With Isan al-Koni has created a veritable stick to shove into the bee hive of the oases and the results are thoughtful, funny and occasionally tragic. Not only is the story a pleasure to read, it also gives the reader something of an introduction to the life of the Tuareg. It's hard to tell exactly where reality and fantasy separate sometimes, but than again sometimes its in the fantastic we find the most truth. If you've enjoyed the music that comes from this region it might be time for you to look behind those purple robes they wear on stage and get to know the people a little better, and this book provides you with that opportunity.

April 9, 2010

DVD Review: Black, White, + Grey

Over the course of history the visual arts in the Western World have gone through any number of transformations. However, it was in the twentieth century when non-representational, or abstract, works began being created the cry "But is it art?" was heard most often. From Picasso's cubist reconstruction of form, the Sur-realists absurdist creations, to Jackson Pollock's spatter strewn canvases, preconceived notions of what made something a work of art went out the window. No longer would art merely glorify the wealthy and the sacred or be content with creating pretty pictures, so the definitions of what constituted art was, and is, continually being re-evaluated.

The history of art in the twentieth century looks to have been a series of explosions occurring one after another which refused to allow for any sort of complacency on the part of the observer. Just as you were getting used to the power and density of the work of somebody like Pollock, along comes the stripped down work of the Minimalists. In the post- war world of American art it seemed like every time you turned around there was something new either waiting to be discovered or to outrage. This was the world that curator, collector, and sometime patron of the arts, Sam Wagstaff found himself in when, after a spell in advertising in the 1950's, he returned to university and graduated with a degree in art history.

If you've not heard of Sam Wagstaff don't feel too bad, it's doubtful very many people have. However a documentary movie now on DVD, Black White + Grey, from Art House Films, shows the key role he played in helping shape definitions of art. While he did curate some provocative shows, and champion the work of some new and influential artists early on in his career, it was how he almost single-handedly legitimized photography as one of the fine arts which makes him most important. Intertwined with his fascination with photography was his relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Wagstaff not only became the largest single promoter of Mapplethorpe's work and ensured the success of his career, he was also his lover.
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As the film points out you couldn't have found two people more different from each other than Mapplethorpe and Wagstaff; the latter was from as aristocratic a family as you can get in America while the former was from a working class neighbourhood in Queens. Wagstaff was from the generation where gay men served as escorts for women who wanted a safe date and were useful when an extra was needed to make up for an odd number of guests at a dinner party. Mapplethorpe was part of the new generation who frequented the bath houses, wore leather, and didn't hide their sexuality. Some of those interviewed for the movie make it clear they felt Mapplethrope was only using Wagstaff for his money and influence in the art world. However, others, like Patti Smith, offer a different perspective.

Smith and Mapplethorpe had set up house together at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City in 1969 and she recalls Mapplethorpe coming home from a party one night all excited about a man he had met, Wagstaff, describing him as everything he ever wanted in a partner. Smith's description of the three of them together belies any of the more catty comments made by others, Though there is no doubt in anybody's mind that Mapplethorpe would never have had the meteoric success he enjoyed without Wagstaff's support, no matter what anybody might have thought of his subject matter, they were all in agreement there was no doubting Mapplethrope's talent. Wagstaff may have given him a leg up, but if he hadn't had the spark of creative genius somewhere inside of him he'd have never been able to establish himself as one of the pre-eminent photographers of his time.

While Wagstaff had never been short of money, it was only in 1973 with the death of his mother that he inherited sufficient to be considered truly wealthy. It was at this time he began his obsessive collecting of photographs, a collection he was later to sell to the Getty Museum for millions of dollars. Smith describes the three of them going out hunting for photographs and how Wagstaff would literally fill brown paper shopping bags with them. As his collecting grew more refined he started attending auctions in both New York and London, buying anything from job lots to single rarities. There doesn't seem to be any discernible pattern to his purchases as he would buy everything from portraits and landscapes, to photographs of those suffering from medical abnormalities.
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In the special feature included with film, a speech Wagstaff gave at a symposium on art at the Corcoran Museum, he talks about how being from the world of sculpture and paintings he had never considered photography to be in the same league artistically. However when you think about the technology involved with early photography - people having to hold poses for a period of time to allow the image to be etched onto a plate - and you look at some of the subject matter of the items he collected, you realize they were as carefully composed as any painting.

There's one shot in particular that brings that point home, an image of a group of young men gathered around a dock at various stages of going into and coming out of the water. If it had been taken recently we would have just considered it a candid snapshot that anybody could have taken. However, because of the time period it meant that each individual had to be carefully positioned and posed by the photographer to achieve the effect he was after. Art is about intent as much as anything else, and what Wagstaff was able to show with images like this one was the intent to create is just as viable in photography as in any other form of the visual arts.

Some may not remember, or even care, but one of the horrors of the 1980's was reading the obituaries and watching the death toll from AIDS rise. With his connections and money Wagstaff was able to keep the particulars of his illness secret until he died in 1987. Mapplethorpe, always the more open of the two, made no secret of what it was that eventually killed him in 1989. In fact the Mapplethorpe Foundation, founded after the artist's death, splits its funding between photographers and AIDS research. However as the movie makes clear their true legacy is the important role each man had in establishing photography in North America as more than just the poor cousin of painting and sculpture. While the movie does touch upon the more sensationalistic aspects of their relationship, and what it meant to Wagstaff personally in regards to the way he dealt with his sexuality, the major focus remains on their contributions to the world of art.

One of those interviewed in the movie commented on how at one time curators were hired more for their artistic abilities than their academic credentials. With the proliferation of new modes of expression in the sixties and seventies - from happenings, installations, to video and performance art - it took somebody with the eye of an artist to be able to "see" what was being attempted and to access its validity. Sam Wagstaff was one of that breed of curators. As he had so many times earlier in his career he saw something in both Robert Mapplethorpe, and the medium he worked in, that convinced him of there importance. Black, White, + Grey does a remarkable job of not only telling the story of their relationship, but in making sure that Wagstaff is given his due place in the history of modern art. His more notorious protégé's name might be more well known, but Wagstaff built the foundation upon which Mapplethorpe and other photographers have since been able to erect careers.

April 6, 2010

Book Review: Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel

There's probably nothing harder to do than write about a subject which has not only been written to death, but which is also is some manner considered highly sacrosanct. Even more perplexing is when the subject is about the unspeakable horrors that humans have proven themselves capable of inflicting upon each other and the world. In today's world we are so inundated with images and information that the mere recounting of events has little or no effect on us. Hearing the same story over and over again instead of increasing our disgust, deadens our emotional reaction and we are no longer able to take in the real implications of what's being described.

Yann Martel brings that issue home with his new release, Beatrice & Virgil, published by Random House Canada on April/06/10 (April 13th/10 in the US). A successful author, Henry, latest story idea is rejected by his publishers and he moves with his wife to start a new life where he has little or nothing to do with writing. The book Henry's publishers had rejected was his attempt to find a way to tell the story of the Holocaust in a new way. He worked for five years creating in reality two books; an essay and a work of fiction. In order to accommodate both under the same roof his idea was to make a flip book; a work with two covers which the reader could start from either end and when finished with the first part, flip the book over and then start reading the second part in the other direction.

It was running head first into the brutal realities of publishing - he was taken to task by editors, publishers, and book sellers over lunch as to all the reasons it wouldn't work - that precipitated his exodus from both the city he lived in and writing. However, when he receives in the mail an obscure short story by the 19th century French writer Gustave Flaubert and an excerpt from a play that his correspondent has written along with a simple note saying he had read and enjoyed Henry's novel and needed his help, Henry was intrigued enough to contact the man.
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The Flaubert story was a particularly gruesome piece featuring what appears to be a highly amoral individual, who as a child takes great delight in the slaughter of animals. For some reason Henry's correspondent has highlighted the most gruesome of these scenes throughout the story as if to draw particular attention to them. The story continues with the young man perpetrating all sorts of violence through out his life, including the killing of his parents. Although he is eventually redeemed for the murder of his parents, nothing in the story gives answer to his senseless slaughter of animals. What Henry can't figure out is what the excerpt from the play - featuring two characters named Beatrice and Virgil with the latter attempting to describe a pear to the former, has to do with the themes expressed in the short story.

When he discovers the playwright, also named Henry, is also a taxidermist, and the characters of Beatrice and Virgil were inspired by two of his subjects, a donkey and a howler monkey respectively, the connection is apparently obvious. While the play itself starts off sounding like a re-make of Beckett's Waiting For Godot as the two characters are seem intent on finding ways of filling time, but it suddenly veers into a horrible account of the persecutions suffered by the two creatures at the hands of humans. It turns out the help he requires is he wants Henry to actually write for him; a description of Virgil in Beatrice's words.

Amazingly, instead of feeling resentful at being used by this total stranger, Henry finds that's he's excited and inspired. Perhaps its because of the obvious connections that can be drawn between the script and Henry's idea about finding new ways for writing about the Holocaust, but whatever it is he finds himself not only completely immersed in the play, but fascinated with both the taxidermist and his products to the point where he takes home various pieces. The man himself must be close to eighty Henry figures, yet is filled with a kind of remorseless energy. While some of his habits might be deemed eccentric, he is reluctant to let Henry take any of the script home with him to work with, Henry doesn't understand why everybody else, including his dog, his wife, and a waiter in a cafe where they meet, react so negatively to his new acquaintance.
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What Martel has done with Beatrice and Virgil is give readers a multilayered and highly textured read that at first seems somewhat obtuse and disjointed. For audiences used to being spoon fed information in comfortable digestible servings it might appear there are large gaps in the narrative. However what he has done is both gradually build a picture of the obsessive nature of the artist in his character of Henry and find a new way of telling the story of the Holocaust. While the play within the novel is the obvious parallel, with its depiction of innocents being persecuted for no reason save their differences, as we follow the trajectory of Henry's obsession with both the play and the taxidermist it feels like we are watching the ease in which we can become complicit in horrific events. For although all the clues are right in front of him Henry fails to see the obvious with almost fatal consequences.

As Martel has Henry make clear at the beginning writing about subjects as abhorrent and sensitive as the Holocaust is a precarious proposition. Henry makes the argument that war has seen the death of millions of people, but that hasn't prevented the subject from being represented by many genres; war comedies, war romances, war thrillers and so on, and because of this we've gained a truer perspective of its nature. However, very few books of fiction dealing with the Holocaust have ever done anything but present it strictly as straight historical fiction that deal directly with actual events. With Beatrice & Virgil Martel has managed to prove that point to a certain degree - I don't think the world will ever be ready for a comedy about mass murder or even a romantic Holocaust story - you can write about it effectively without once ever setting foot in the camps or having the action take place in the 1940s.

In fact, in some ways he's made the situation even more horrific by bringing it back to the personal level instead of allowing us to hide from realities behind the safety of historical facts. If we know in advance we are going to be reading a story of the Holocaust, we inure ourselves against what we suppose will be the horrors to come and so pass through relatively unscathed. Here Martel almost ambushes us with it, as although his main character raises the subject in the opening of the book, its apparently dropped with the rejection of his book and his decision to take a sabbatical from writing. Even the introduction of the Flaubert story, with its scenes of carnage, and our early glimpses of the play are made to seem more about the plight of endangered species through the introduction of Henry the taxidermist.

According to Henry, the novelist, only two percent of every Holocaust victim has ever written about their experiences. As that's the case in order for these horrendous types of events to be remembered, and the experience properly understood by others, it's necessary for those who've not been through it to find a way to bring it to life so the world can understand the horror in an attempt to prevent them from occurring again. As we don't seem to be able to learn from history - ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, Rawanda, and all the other ethnic based violence that has occurred since the end of WW ll makes that apparent- it becomes imperative some other way of getting the message across is found. Martel's book might not be the whole answer, but its a positive step in the right direction.

April 1, 2010

Book Review: Dahanu Road by Anosh Irani

How is it that people can so easily go from being oppressed to being an oppressor? Immigrants fleeing from a society where they were second class citizens come to a new country in order to make a fresh start, but somehow forget what it was that caused them to have to flee in the first place. Instead of being merely grateful for the opportunity to live as they like without having to look over their shoulders, they become driven to make a success of themselves no matter what. Perhaps because they lived with insecurity for so long, they are blinded to anything but guarantying security for themselves and their loved ones in this new place, and lose track of everything else.

Obviously that's not the case with all immigrants, and its not even a statement one can make about any particular community in general. Within any group of people there will be those, no matter what their backgrounds or personal histories, who will have no compulsions about doing whatever they have to in order to get ahead, and those who follow a more moderate path. Yet in a society whose system is based on the premise of winners and losers, one group will invariably be higher up the ladder that somebody else. Therefore, no matter how good their intentions, they will be the exploiters, in either a small way or a large way, of those beneath them. While we may like to think of ourselves as living in a classless society the reality is wealth equals status and the more you have the more exalted you are.

In his new release, Dahanu Road published by Random House Canada on March 30th/10, Anosh Irani recounts the story of a family of Iranian Zoroastrians who emigrated to India before WW ll in order to escape their status as second class citizens. By the time we join the story the family are well established land owners and the founder of the family's fortune's grandson, Zarios, is now an adult. Zarios has grown accustomed to privilege and leading a life of idleness. While his grandfather may have had to walk from Iran to India, and suffered deprivations and abuse as a child, neither Zarios or his father Aspi have had to struggle for anything.
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Working for the family, and all the other local landowners, are the Warlis, a local tribal people whose land this was before the immigrants from Iran arrived. Zarios is not a cruel person by any stretch of the imagination, but he's never given any thought to how the Warlis went from owning the land he stands to inherit, to working for next to slave wages as field workers on it. As his father is as ignorant of the land's history as he is, it's to his grandfather that he must turn to for answers to the questions that start to arise soon after the story begins. For, one morning, as he's walking the land, he comes across the body of one of their workers who has hung himself. When it turns out the last person to have seen Ganpat alive was Zarios' grandfather, he becomes curious as to what happened at that meeting. His grandfather said, with great scorn, that Ganpat had asked him for money, which he naturally refused to give him.

Nothing more might have come of this incident, after all it was just another drunk tribal worker who hung himself, save for the fact that Zarios meets Ganpat's daughter, Kusum, and is immediately attracted to her. When he finds out that Ganpat wanted money to free his daughter from an abusive marriage, Zarios takes it into his head that he will rescue her and then take her away from her life of squaller. Naturally he has no idea of what he's doing. All his life whenever he has seen something he's liked or wanted he's taken it, and this case is no different. It's not that his intentions aren't good in this case, or that he means Kusum any harm, but if he can't even tell his parents that she's not a servant when they come home unexpectedly and find her sleeping on the living room floor, well how is he going to be able to have any sort of permanent relationship with her?
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As the book progresses we learn what Zarios doesn't know about his family's history in the region. Ganpat's death is the catalyst which not only propels the action in the present, but brings the past alive for both his grandfather and Kusum's family as well. For it turns out that the fortunes of the two families have been intertwined long before the youngest generation met. Over the course of the book Irani does a remarkable job of having the past and the present march through its pages side by side with the former providing the backdrop against which the latter takes place. Whether we are given access to the grandfather's memories as he thinks back over his life, or we listen in on Kusum being told her family history by her aunt, what is revealed is both sad and disgusting.

What's most impressive about Dahanu Road is how the reader finds it very easy to slip into the world of the landlords and accept their behaviour as, if not normal, than perhaps harmless. The men gather at a local tea house every day, each with their own peculiar personality quirks to make them endearing to the reader, and it's not until a while has passed we realize none of them have to do anything to make money. For while they sit around all day long their fields are being worked by people like Kusum and her family, who live in huts with dirt floors. Then we also start to learn how these same men treat the Warlis - how they hold one of their fellows in high esteem because he devised a method of cleaning the crop that will guarantee the women having to expose themselves for their pleasure - and their cute little jokes and pranks don't seem so harmless anymore.

On the surface this is a deceptively simple book, but you will discover there are secrets hidden beneath some words and questions hidden among the paragraphs. Why do immigrants escaping oppression end up oppressing others? Is it only because of the fear they feel from the insecurity they've faced in the past, or is there more to it than that? Irani doesn't offer any simple answers to any of the questions he raises in the book - there are no simple answers in the real world, just attempts at understanding in the hopes we learn from the mistakes of the past. While it appears that Zarios represents that hope, the reality is that nothing much has changed by the time we get to the end of the book from the way things were when we first met him and we're left wondering what the future holds.

March 9, 2010

Book Review: Motorcycles & Sweetgrass By Drew Hayden Taylor

All across North America, and in fact around the world, the tradition of the trickster has a long and storied history among the older cultures of the world. Whether the Raven of the West Coast, Coyote of the plains, the bumbling Nanabush or Nanabozo of the woodlands, or whatever shape or form he has been given by his people, his purpose is the same. By epitomizing our worst traits, and putting them into action, he teaches us object lessons on how to live. By his own estimation he's the most intelligent. the bravest, the toughest, and generally all around best at everything, yet he invariably ends up falling flat on his face. Somehow or other he's always just tricky enough to outsmart himself and no one else.

The other thing all tricksters, no matter what their nationality, have in common is their complete lack of humility. No matter what happens, no matter how embarrassing the situation they end up finding themselves in, they never seem to able to learn the lesson that they were the ones responsible for their own downfall. While many of their predicaments are quite funny, there are occasions when our laughter at what happens to them is slightly tinged with sadness or even unease. For, while the stories are told to ensure we never get to full of ourselves, there are only so many times you can watch someone slip on a banana peel and find it funny until you start to either feel sorry for them or begin to wonder what it might be like to slip on it yourself.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any room in the modern world for tricksters anymore. Which is a pity, because we're currently a world that thinks way to highly of itself and has a far overblown sense of our own importance. We've all become so wrapped up in going about our business that we've forgotten how to live. Well, Canadian author Drew Hayden Talyor, a member of the Ojibway nation - or as they refer to themselves, Anishnawbe (The People) - has decided its about time to see what would happen if the ancient trickster of his nation were to show up on a modern day Reservation. What would he look like, what would people's reaction to him be, and what kind of mayhem would be the result? The answers to those questions and others can all be found in his first full length novel, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass, being published by Random House Canada on March 9/10.
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The action takes place on the fictional Anishnawbe Reserve of Otter Lake, located somewhere in central Ontario, Canada. Maggie Secord has the usual problems single moms do with raising a teenage boy, but they're compounded by her decision to take over he late husband's role of elected Chief of the band. She's sure there was a good reason for her doing so at the time, but now she's damned if she can remember what that was. It's been especially difficult in the last couple of years as the government has finally decided to return to the band land that had been "borrowed" from them. Aside from all the paper work, and meetings with all levels of government - county, provincial, and federal - this involves, it sometimes seems, every person living on the reserve having their own opinions as to how the land should be put to use and each of them spelling their plans out in detail for her.

As if things couldn't get any more difficult, there's the whole matter of the mysterious white stranger who showed up at her mother's house just before she died. He pulled up on a bright red 1953 Indian motorcycle, and marched into the house and into her bedroom like he was expected. Well it turns out he was, for looking in his grandma's window, Maggie's son Virgil sees the young, blond white guy, kissing his grandma in a very friendly manner. Now grandma Lillian Benojee was one of those who were taken off to the residential schools in an attempt to take the Indian out of native children. Somehow or other though she managed to hold onto her language and beliefs, while also accepting some of the white man's. It always amazed her children how she could go to church on Sunday, yet also know all the old tales about Nanabush the trickster and recite them and her prayers with an equal amount of sincerity. In fact she could talk about both Jesus and Nanabush as if she knew them personally.

While we never find out about the former, Lillian does turn out to have been buddies with Nanabush and it was she who invited him to show up at Otter Lake reserve to say good bye to her before she left and to ask him a favour. Virgil, who was already suspicious of John after seeing him kissing his grandma, becomes even more so when he turns his attention to his mother. There's something decidedly odd about this white man whose eyes are always changing colour, can speak the Anishnawbe language better than most elders, and knows how to braid sweetgrass so perfectly. Aside from everything else, why do the local racoons seem to be following him everywhere he goes?
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In Motorcycles & Sweetgrass Drew Hayden Taylor has brought the character of Nanabush the trickster out of the old tales of his people and has him up to his usual tricks. He's not just some fun loving guy who plays practical jokes on people, he's also vindictive, selfish, and a liar. While he does make life more interesting for Maggie while he's on the reserve and helps her to have fun for the first time since her husband died, he also creates no end of problems for her with his solution for dealing with the land being returned to the tribe. Along the way Taylor manages to poke fun at his own people and politicians, while raising the issues of non-natives attitudes to land clams and Residential schools in a way which is humorous but at the same time doesn't diminish the reality of the situation.

People who aren't used to twenty-first century Natives, are going to be surprised to hear how much life on a reserve sounds like life in any small town. Everybody knows everybody, and its hard to have business that others aren't going to be sticking there noses in all the time. Of course they did use to be quite a bit different from those who are now living in neighbouring towns, and life on a reserve isn't quite the same as anywhere else. Yet, while Taylor manages to bring that reality to life its not the one we read in the newspapers all the time of despair and hopelessness. These are real people trying to balance the realities of living in the twenty-first century and holding onto their culture.

While Taylor doesn't shy away from the ugly truths that populate the history of the relationship between Native Canadians and their government, he uses humour to bring these issues into focus. Like the Nanabush stories of the past with their lessons on how to live a good life, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass slyly sneaks its message in when we're not looking. Its a gentle and timely reminder that while we may think we know what we're doing, there's a damn good chance that we're missing out on what's really important in our lives. We can get hung up in politics and issues all we want, but at the end of the day we all still have to look at ourselves in the mirror.

February 12, 2010

Book Review: Ruby And The Stone Age Diet by Martin Millar

It's difficult enough as it is for those of us who are reasonably well adjusted to handle the day to day grind of existence, let alone any of the nastier surprises that members of your own species might decide to chuck at you. It makes you wonder how anybody not firing on all their cylinders is able to cope. Oh sure there are those who have chosen to opt out of the game in one way or another, usually through either drugs or alcohol, or a combination of both. However I'm talking about the ones who wander through life minus some of the mental and emotional armour most of us employ to protect ourselves.

In his most recent book, Ruby And The Stone Age Diet published by Soft Skull Press and distributed by Publishers Group Canada, Scottish born author Martin Millar takes us into the lives of those who live on the fringes of society. The unnamed narrator of the book shares living space with his friend Ruby, who no matter what the weather wears the same lilac cotton dress and a pair of sunglasses day in and day out and goes barefoot. While Ruby sits at home, or occasionally goes over to visit her inappropriate and abusive boy friend, our protagonist works a succession of temporary, mindless, unskilled labour positions in order to augment their unemployment insurance.

However, there are weeks when he's unable to obtain employment, and both of them forget to file their claims for the "dole" so they are often without any money. Even when he is able to earn money, Ruby insists that it be spent on things far more important than food and shelter - like an amazing new style of can opener and a crate of tinned beans. While they do spend what our narrator describes as "probably the most fun he has had in a year" opening the cans of beans, spreading them all over the apartment and frisbeeing the lids down the hall, at the end they still haven't eaten and they've spent all their money. Aside from not eating very much, they aren't able to pay rent very often, let alone utility bills, which means they are forced to move repeatedly from one illegal squat to another.
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Aside from his financial straits our narrator is also suffering from a broken heart as he and his girlfriend Cis break up near the beginning of the book. He spends a great deal of time envisioning scenarios in which he accidently on purpose runs into her. Of course he also has an incredibly active imagination which leads him to believe he occasionally travels in space ships with aliens, and to create gods and goddesses for the everyday demands of his life. For instance there is Helena, the goddess of electric guitar players and Ascanazl, an ancient and powerful Inca spirit who looks after lonely people. Unfortunately his fantasy life also prevents him from being able to hold down a full time job, or even keep his temporary ones for any length of time. For he is always being distracted away from the world or being forced to miss work because of the danger of being eaten by snow wolves.

While he refers to Ruby as his best friend, someone wonderfully supportive, Ruby is not what anybody would call healthy. She obviously suffers from some sort of eating disorder as she keeps coming up with new reasons for throwing all the food in their house out. At one point she insists they only follow the "Stone Age Diet" of the book's title, which means they can "only eat the sort of healthy things our ancestor would have eaten". As she hardly ever leaves the house, it's up to her to think up ways for them to make more money. One of her ideas is to write pornographic fiction. So she sends the narrator our on a series of "dates" by answering ads in sex trade magazines from people looking for S&M partners and has him recount the details of his encounters so she can write them out. Unfortunately it all comes to nought as she loses the stories on the bus.

Our narrator only wants to please, and is so grateful to Ruby for being his friend that he goes along with whatever she suggests. After all she's much smarter than he is and has his best interests at heart. Wasn't she the one who told him that the cactus Cis bought for him just before dumping him was actually an Aphrodite Cactus? Which upon flowering will seal the love of the one who gave it with the one who received it? So he instead of moving on from the broken relationship, he waits for the cactus to bloom, and dreams of Cis coming back to him. He's always there when Ruby needs him. He's somebody for her to control and to feel superior to. At one point he comments about how and Ruby are both expert self-pityists, and how they regard it as a good positive emotion, not exactly the healthiest basis for a friendship.
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Ruby And The Stone Age Diet meanders around inside the head of the narrator as he bounces from thought to thought without any direction. He is an innocent in a world that is far too confusing and he hides from it as much as he can. Unfortunately innocents also become victims as there are always those willing to take advantage of them. Occasionally you want to reach into the pages of the book and shake him by the shoulders and tell him to wake up, but most of the time he only makes you a little sad. When Ruby disappears at the end of the book he finds a full-time job working as a librarian. Without Ruby to support him he has to stop squatting and starts renting an apartment. He says the last without any irony, as if stability and security are signs of failure, as if it's a surrender.

While there are genuinely funny moments through out the book, the werewolf tale that Ruby is writing and that she reads from is hysterical, it's permeated by an aura of sadness that you can't escape. For all its main character's attempts at escapism, there's something undeniably real in Millar's descriptions of contemporary life. His characters gradually come alive over the course of the book, until by the end we know them all too well. We see in them elements of those we've known and various bits and pieces of ourselves. The mirror Millar holds up for us to look into may be a bit like those in a fun house distorting reality, but in the end we can't help realize the image we see in it is true whether we like it or not.

February 6, 2010

Interview: Aatish Taseer - Author Of Stranger To History

Twenty years might seem like a long time to go without knowing your father, but for Aatish Taseer that gap was easier to bridge than the gulf that formed between them when his father accused him of having no understanding of what it meant to be either Muslim or Pakistani. After being raised in India by his Sikh mother and her family, Taseer accepted that his father had a point. In his book Stranger To History Taseer recounts the journey he undertook in an attempt to gain that understanding by travelling through the Muslim world and the people he met along the way.

The book is fascinating for both its description of the world he travelled through, and the voyage Taseer took mentally and emotionally as a result of his quest. While he himself came to some personal resolutions because of what he experienced, he doesn't pretend they're anything more than that. What I most appreciated about the book, was not once did he try and push the reader in any direction. This was a recounting of what he saw and heard reported with an integrity and genuine objectivity that was as refreshing as it is rare.

That's not to say I didn't have any questions after having read the book, because I did, and thanks to the good people at Random House Canada I was able to pass them along to Aatish Taseer via e-mail. I'm sure some of my questions arose from my own lack of knowledge or even from misunderstanding of what he said in the first place. Thankfully he very patiently has taken the time to respond to each of the questions with the same care he showed in the writing of his book. So if you appreciate this interview, you'll definitely find the book a fascinating experience, one that I highly recommend.

Before you began your journey what if any expectations or hopes did you carry into it with regards to both your Muslim heritage and how it might help to bridge the gap between you and your father?

I was never in search of any personal religious fulfilment or identity of any kind. I wanted only to understand the distances that had arisen between my father and me. The reason I wanted to do this was because I felt instinctually that there was something deeper behind those distances, something that would help illuminate a situation wider than my own personal context. And if there was anything that aroused my curiosity at that early stage, it was only the question of what made my father—a disbeliever by his own admission—in some very important way still a Muslim.

Why did you consider it so important to make the journey - you had been estranged from your father for nearly two decades what type of connection were you hoping to forge between you?

Yes, but I had overcome that initial estrangement with my father. The silence between us was new. And I found it difficult to turn my back on the goodwill and hopefulness that that reconciliation between my father and me had produced. It was not just our personal relationship, but Pakistan too. Which formed such an important cultural and historical component of my family history, both maternal and paternal, as well as the history of the land I grew up in. It would have been very hard to pretend that the new estrangement with my father was not wrapped up in a deeper feeling of loss. But I was not travelling in search of reconciliation; I would have found it strange to travel with those kinds of personal objectives in mind. I was travelling to understand.
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You mention the term "cultural" or "secular" Muslim in reference to your father, can you define what you mean by that?

It is a term that my father gave me and it is term that grew in meaning as I travelled. I took it in the beginning to mean benign things such as an adherence to customs and festivals, a feeling for food and dress. But as I travelled I found that it contained other things besides. And these were usually political and historical attitudes, attitudes that were themselves like articles of faith, now related to Jews and American, now to Hindus and India. They almost always included a certain prejudiced view of the pre-Islamic past of a Muslim country. They often translated into a historical narrative, at the centre of which was the 7th century Arab conquest and the triumph of Islam, and on either end of which, were enemies of the faith. Now these things are not in the Book; they are not, as such, a part of the religion; neither are the prejudices that go along with them; but to many they are more important than the religion itself. They were what could make my father, despite his faithlessness, a Muslim.

What inspired you to tell a very personal story - your relationship with your father - and why is it integral to the book? Could you have undertaken a similar examination of the Muslim faith without raising the subject of your father?

No. The personal, though it had wider ramifications, as the personal often does, was what lay behind my interest. I am not a professional writer of books on Islam; my next book, The Templegoers, has nothing to do with either Islam or Muslims. I wrote about the subject because I felt I had to. And it would have been very strange for me to ignore, especially in a book like this, a first book, the reasons that I was drawn to the subject. Which, by the way, are not simply my relationship with my father; that was one aspect; but much bigger than this, in fact towering over the narrative, is the Partition. And it is in relation to this event—in my opinion, the forerunner of what began to happen throughout the Muslim world during the latter part of the last century—that my parents’ relationship became important, as did my maternal grandfather’s grief at being separated from his country.

Although you visited more than just the countries mentioned in the book during your journey you chose only to talk about four, aside from Pakistan. What was it about Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran that decided you to talk about them instead of some of the others?

They all represented, in different ways, the trouble Islam had had in adapting to modern political life. In Turkey, secularism had been turned into a soft tyranny, where the state was writing sermons and choosing clerics. In Syria, it was for years not part of the program, but was slowly creeping back. In Iran, the fury of the revolution had come and gone, and we could have a window into what might come next. Finally there was Pakistan, which, in my opinion, had paid the heaviest price for the faith. It had broken with itself and its history to form a nation on the thinnest of thin grounds. And the nation had been, from start to finish, a disaster. It had left millions of people sixty years later dispossessed and full of hateful lies. All of that remained to be dealt with; the ugly idea of a religiously cleansed society had yet to be fully discredited in the minds of people, though on practical terms, it had completely perished. And to have to do all of this in a climate of war and insecurity, with interference from foreign powers! It was a very bleak picture; hard to see how the land—not the country—would return to itself. (I won’t speak of Saudi, because it formed a small part of the narrative in the book.)

At one point in the book you mention the Wahhabis and their influence upon modern Islam especially in Arabic countries like Saudi Arabia. Who are they, what is their influence and how is it expressed?

They have had forerunners, and interestingly, always at times when Islam felt itself in danger. Some consider Ibn Taymiyyah, a 13th century scholar, living in the times when the Mongols sacked Baghdad, to be the first Wahhabi. But truly, the movement began in the 18th century with an alliance between a Najd scholar and a chieftain. The movement, mainly decrying the excesses that had come into the faith and preaching a purer, more Arab Islam, had some political and religious success before it was crushed, and crushed completely, by the Ottomans. Its resurgence in the 20th century can be linked to the rise of Saudi Arabia and its tremendous oil wealth, which it has used to spread Wahhabism to places, which practised milder, more tolerant forms of the religion. But I think it would be too easy to say that, and it doesn’t explain the first Wahhabi success. My own feeling is that Wahhabism represents a tendency within Islam—and perhaps also in other forms of organised thought—to close its doors, and retreat within itself, when it is faced with a political or intellectual threat too great to confront.

Do the Wahabis have anything to do with the split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and are you able to explain the difference between the two groups?

No, nothing whatsoever. That was a split that happened some 1000 years before. And there was, I suspect, a kind of anti-Arab feeling, originating in recently conquered Persia, behind it. But yes, the Wahhabis have exacerbated the tensions between the two groups because they are deeply intolerant not only of Shiism, but of any local form of Islam.

In the book you talk about how history is being distorted by certain religious leaders in order to justify the notion that Muslims are persecuted. What purpose is served by creating this attitude among the faithful?
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It is comforting to them. It makes them feel that they are not responsible for their wretchedness, that it is all the work of a grand conspiracy which seeks to keep them down. They then, can carry on feeling envious and resentful about the big, modern world, without ever having to do the hard work of engaging it. But it is a very pernicious cycle. Because the less you engage it, the faster you fall behind, the harder it becomes to pick yourself up. And in the end when you’re nothing it becomes very easy for some greasy-faced fanatic to feed you comforting lies.

You've ended up presenting a rather negative view of the current state of Islam, from your depiction of Iran and Syria, the sentiments expressed by young religious Muslims in Turkey and Britain, to your description of your father's "moderate Muslim" as being "too little moderation and in the wrong areas". Was there anything you came across in your travels that countered that impression - that perhaps gave you something you could identify with or the hope there was more to Islam than anger and resentment?

This is the kind of question that makes assumptions I do not share. I don’t consider it ‘positive’ to travel in a country and shut your eyes to its realities. Neither do I think it is at all helpful for schoolboy English travellers to go to these places and come back with reports of their teeming bazaars and lavish hospitality. Fortunately, I come from the sub-continent, which has its fair share of crowded bazaars and generous people, so I feel no need, when I am travelling in the Islamic world to overlook the gloom of Syria or the tyranny of Iran, in the interest of feeling upbeat when I come home. I think it is cynical and patronising to go to these places and tell tales of how the people are capable of a good joke and a cheerful chat as if people and societies should not amount to more. And for people who are coming from societies that have achieved more, this kind of attitude expresses the worst kind of foreigner’s disregard.

Do you have any concerns about what non-Muslims will think after reading this book? What do you hope they will take away from it?

No. The book is published in eleven countries, some of which I have never even visited. It would be impossible for me to conceive what ‘non-Muslims,’ as a whole, might think.

Stranger To History was released a year ago, and I was wondering what the reaction to it has been from Muslims in general and your family in particular?

Again, this is not the kind of judgement I’m in a position to make. What I will say is that despite the fact that the book is only distributed and not published in Pakistan, I have received the maximum number of letters from that country. I was particularly moved by one Pakistani student who wrote: ‘a lot of us agree with you but wouldn’t write this sort of thing for reasons that need not be explained to you.”

However, I know that Muslim reviewers, whether they be in Australia, India, England or Pakistan, have all given the book a rough time. Which is an interesting thing in itself.

At one point you refer to both yourself and your father as the "Stranger To History" of the book's title. Could you explain what you mean by that?

The title, I feel, works on different levels. In the case of my father, I was thinking of Pakistan and how it turned it’s back on its shared history with the sub-continent in the interest of realising the aims of the faith. That was one historical break. But I was also thinking of a more general rejection of pre-Islamic India among the sub-continent’s Muslims, a rejection, which has translated into deeper illusions about their place of origin, many believing they came from Islamically purer countries, such as Afghanistan and Persia. There was also, of course, the personal estrangement, when it came to my father’s relationship with me. That was my estrangement, too, along with an estrangement from the land that is Pakistan, and to which both my parents are linked.

You mention near the end of the book, the one benefit you derived from your journey was it reconnected you to Pakistan. What makes that connection so important to you in light of the divide between your father and yourself?

It is the connection to the land and people of Pakistan that is important. That land, and its culture, is still, for all the distances that have been created, a part of the shared culture of the sub-continent. The things shared are language, dress, ideas of caste, poetry and song. And it is of these things that nations are made, not religion; that has shown itself to be too thin a glue. When one considers that enduring shared culture, despite everything that has been done to break it, one is forced to reject the intellectual argument for the Partition as false. There is no two-nation theory; there are no separate Indian nations; there is just the giant plural society of India, held together by an idea no less subtle, and yet no less powerful, than that of Greece or Europe. It is this society that must on some level regain its wholeness, not along angst-ridden national or religious lines, but as part of a peace worthy of a continent.
 
You set out to find common ground with your father by seeking to gain an understanding of how someone who doesn't practice the religion can still call themselves a Muslim. After what you observed in your travels, do you still refer to yourself as a Muslim in spite of the fact that you appear to have nothing in common with people like your father?

No. During the journey itself, I realised that neither on a religious level nor on a ‘cultural’ one could I ever be part of the ‘civilisation of faith’, which is, in the end, a vision of purity. I have too much hybridity in my life, welcome hybridity, to accept a world-view such as that.

I'd just like to conclude by thanking Aatish Taseer for the honesty and directness with which he answered the questions I posed, and his patience with any questions I may have asked out of ignorance and lack of awareness. Part of the problem in this world today is our inability to communicate with each other because of our refusal to be sensitive to how our perceptions of the world have been shaped by environment and conditioning. People like Aatish Taseer, who are willing to take the time to answer those questions while pointing out why they are inappropriate, are our best hope to bridge what right now seems like an insurmountable gap that exists regardless of religion or creed. How we respond will dictate the future of our world

February 3, 2010

Book Review: Stranger To History by Aatish Taseer

Most of us have little or no difficulty in understanding our heritage and what it means to us in terms of our belief systems as we usually have the example of either our parents or the community around us to go by. However, what if one of your parents comes from a culture that's not part of the majority and that person has never been part of your life? It may take a while, but sooner or later you're going to start to notice your different from everyone around you, and eventually you might start to become a mite curious as to what you've inherited from your absent parent.

Aatish Taseer was born in Delhi India as a result of an affair between his Sikh mother and his Pakistani Muslim father. While his mother never kept from him the truth about his heritage he grew up surrounded by cousins his own age wearing the turbans emblematic of their faith, making his uncovered head feel very conspicuous and out of place. It's not until he's twenty-one that he finally makes the journey across the border to visit his father for the first time. While he is welcomed by his father's wife and children with open arms, the man himself is far more reticent. Salmaan Taseer is an important political figure in Muslim Pakistan, and the knowledge he has an Indian son who may or may not be Muslim could create difficulties.

However, as Taseer describes it in his new book from McClelland and Stewart, which is partially owned by Random House Canada, Stranger To History, even if his father is reluctant to recognize him in public, at least by the end of his first visit he begins to feel they have developed the basis for a relationship. Like many other Pakistani's Salmaan is a secular Muslim, so the fact that his son is a Muslim in name only shouldn't make any difference to him. (In Islam the father's religion dictates that of the children)
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However when Taseer, now a journalist in England, writes an article about second generation Pakistani immigrants becoming fundamentalists and extremists because of estrangement and failure of identity, his father takes him to task in a letter for not understanding what it is to be a Muslim and for spreading anti-Muslim propaganda. Taseer is confused, how can the man who once said "The Koran has nothing in it for me" be offended as a Muslim by what I had written? It's obvious his father is right when he says that Taseer has no understanding of the Muslim or Pakistani ethos as he can't understand his father's apparently contradictory attitude. What does his father mean when he calls himself a "cultural Muslim"?

Attempting to find an answer to this question, Taseer sets off on a personal pilgrimage through the Islamic world. Starting in the fiercely secular Turkey, where many Islamic religious practices are forbidden by law, he makes his way slowly to Pakistan via Syria, Saudi Arabia - where he travels to Mecca, and finally the nominally Islamic state of Iran. Through conversations with various people, and his observations of life in each country, it becomes clear that there is no set answer. In Turkey he meets young men who dream about a world where everyone is ruled by Islam because it is the only faith which can tell you how to live properly. In Syria he see how that dream is being actualized by a regime with its own political agenda and not above cynically manipulating people.

By offering people a version of the world free of all contradictions and questions, a world in which there is only one "truth", they can control them with the help of a compliant clergy. In Abu Nour, a centre for international students in Damascus, people come from all over the world to learn Arabic and take classes in Islamic studies. However sermons in the mosque include distorted views of history designed to depict Muslims as being persecuted throughout the ages and work up antagonism against an enemy simply referred to as the West. The result is the creation of a world that exists in isolation designed to equate being Islamic as a supporter of the Syrian government and any who oppose Syria are enemies of Islam.

When the book shifts to Iran the depiction Taseer offers is no different than any other description you've read of people living under any totalitarian regime. Here he finds that Islam is being used to harass people over trivialities, like the length of their shirt sleeves, in order for an insecure government to exert control over them. In fact in what is supposedly an Islamic republic where you'd expect to be able to find answers as to what is a Muslim, there is even less chance of discovering that here than anywhere else. For, as one person he meets puts it, a professor at a university, "People were very connected to religion even though the government was not religious. But now the government is religious most people want to get away from religion... It is very hard for me to say I am a Muslim."
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Taseer is by profession a journalist, and while that comes through in his ability to ask the right questions of people, his writing style is far more personal than you'd expect from a reporter. He makes no pretence about this being an objective study of Islam, rather its a personal voyage undertaken in the hopes of bridging the gap between himself and the father he was estranged from for over twenty years, and that comes across in his writing. His yearning to understand both his father and the religion he professes to practice, and the frustration and confusion they generate in him, predominate throughout the book as he intersperses accounts of his travels with recollections of his attempts to find common ground with his father.

In many ways this is one of the bravest books you'll ever read, as Taseer doesn't hesitate from voicing opinions that are going to be unpopular with people at all ends of the political spectrum. His compassion for the people he meets allows him to see beyond their words to the need that gives them birth, giving the reader a deeper understanding of where their opinions were born. The title of the book. Stranger To History refers obviously to Taseer's ignorance of his father and his Muslim and Pakistani inheritance. However, it can also relate to what he has witnessed in his journeys in Syria and Iran where history is being rewritten to generate hatred against the West in order to solidify the current regimes power bases. While he doesn't offer any solutions or comfort that there is some easy way to change or prevent what is happening, hope can be taken from his time spent, in all of all places, Iran in the people's determination to deny the regime in any small way they can.

Although his attempt to reconcile his own history with his father is somewhat of a failure, Taseer consoles himself with the fact that he has been able to connect with his personal history of being a product of both parts of the Indian sub continent. By having both countries he has had the chance of "embracing the three tier history of India whole, perhaps an intellectual troika of Sanskrit, Urdu, and English. These mismatches were the lot of people with garbled histories, but I preferred them to violent purities. The world is richer for its hybrids." While he may not have come any closer to discovering his father, or his father's religion, he has discovered himself.

Unlike those who think what the world needs is surety and purity, Taseer reminds us that sometimes there are questions which don't have answers and history isn't always divided up into winners and losers. If for no other reason, that makes this an important book to read, as it not only shows you the dangers of a world where black and white dominates, but it makes you realize just how wonderful a little confusion and uncertainty can be. Well you may not come away from reading this book any more enlightened about Islam then you were before you started, you'll have a better understanding of the variety of people who fall under the umbrella of that word. After reading this book you might not be so quick to make generalizations based on a person's religion and have a better understanding of what lays behind many of today's headlines.

January 1, 2010

Book Review: Voices Of A People's History Of The Untied States By Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove

History, it's said, is written by the winners, and our text books and encyclopedias bear this out with their accounts of wars won and political triumphs. Take a second look at most histories and you'll notice not only are they written by the winners, the story they tell is one seen through the eyes of a select group of people. You'll read about captains of industry, generals, presidents, kings, prime ministers, and the occasional war hero or two, and be regaled with tales of their acumen, or on occasion, spectacular failures. However what you'll very rarely find is the story of the private in the field who carried out the general's orders, a factory worker or coal miner describing what it was like to work twelve hour shifts with little pay for one of the captains of industry, or those who suffered from the politicians' decisions.

If one pays careful attention you can see history being written around you on a daily basis. It's in the headlines on CNN or the official statements from government offices around the world which are reprinted as fact. Today's announcement of a successful surgical strike in Afghanistan will be in tomorrow's history text book as part of the overall campaign against oppression and terror that was carried out in the early part of the 21st century. You'll probably look in vain for any mention of facts or opinions that disagree with that opinion. It's doubtful that history books will talk about the thousands of Iraqi civilians who died during the "liberation" of their country, how the country descended into lawlessness and violence during the occupation, or how conditions for the average person in both Iraq and Afghanistan actually worsened under the new regimes installed by the "liberators".

However, that doesn't meant there aren't any accounts or records of that information. It's just that somehow or other they're not made readily available for us, the public at large, to read. In fact throughout the history of this continent, more specifically the United States, there exist examples of speeches and first person accounts of events that give lie to the officially held position espoused by history books. Voices Of A People's History Of The United States by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, published by Seven Stories Press and distributed by Publishers Group Canada, gathers together writings, speeches, poems, and song lyrics dating back to the times of Columbus telling the history or the United States, but its a history you might not recognize.
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As the majority of the voices in this book are those of ones that were raised in protest against the actions of the government of the time, there will be those who will accuse it of presenting history from a liberal or left wing bias. However, what they will fail to mention is that the histories we have been presented with up until now are just as biased in the other direction. Think of this rather as an attempt to balance the scales. We've heard about Rockefeller and Carnagie and how they built their empires and as captains of industry helped to make the country great, well now you'll hear from those who worked in their factories and mines and fought for living wages, safe working conditions, child labour laws, and a forty hour work week. In fact many of the things we take for granted now; the right of women to vote, equal rights, and the abolition of slavery, were once considered dangerous subversions and the people who spoke out against them threats to public safety.

However, how many text books have quoted ex-slave's Sojourner Truth's 1851 speech "Ain't I a Woman?" where she espouses not only the rights of African Americans but women as well. Rights which none of us think twice about now. However only twenty-two years after Truth's speech Susan B Anthony was arrested for trying to vote in a presidential election and was told by her judge that she had been found guilty according to the established forms of law. These two women, along with many of the voices recorded in this book, were considered to be dangers to society, criminals, radicals, and threats against the established norm. Yet they, along with the men and women who were shot down by Rockefeller's private militias when they went on strike, or arrested by Alabama police for protesting segregation are responsible for the freedoms most of us enjoy today. But whose names are the prominent in the history books? Not the ones who fought for our rights, the ones who fought tooth and nail against them.

Voices Of A People's History Of The United States is just what it says it is, voices of the people - from those you've heard of, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, and Bruce Springstein, and individuals you haven't, like Private John G. Burnett of the American army who served on the infamous "Trail Of Tears". Born and raised in Tennessee, he grew up roaming the woods and mountains of the Smokey Mountain County which was the traditional home of the Cherokee. In 1838 he took part in what he called "the most brutal order in the history of American warfare" - the rounding up of every single Cherokee in the region, and their forced march through the mountains without proper clothes, shelter or food. "Murder is murder" he says, "and somebody must answer. Somebody must explain the streams of blood that flowed in the Indian country in the summer of 1838 ... the 4000 silent graves that mark the trail of the Cherokee to their exile. I wish I could forget it, but the picture of 645 wagons lumbering over the frozen ground with their Cargo of suffering humanity still lingers in my memory..."
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There are speeches by famous people, but not the speeches we've heard recorded. For instance there's a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. explaining why it is essential that he come out in public as being against the Viet-Nam war. Than there are the speeches that were never allowed to be given. Some poor soul made the mistake of inviting Wamsutta James of the Wampanoag nation to speak at the 350th anniversary celebrations of the landing at Plymouth Rock. The organizing committee took one look at his proposed speech and refused to let him speak as his version of events didn't quite jibe with the celebratory mood they were trying to create. Maybe it was his descriptions of putting people in chains or the pilgrims stealing the Indian's winter food supplies, but it certainly didn't sound much like the descriptions of the first Thanksgivings that most of us have been weaned on.

Reading through a history of America taken from the point of view of those who have dissented, those who have stood up bravely in the face of people who would deprive them of their rights, and those who have dared disagree with the status quo and seeing how it was these people, just as much as the politicians, the generals, and the captains of industry who shaped its future, might make you want to rethink what you hear being passed off as history in the making on today's news. What are the voices who disagree with them saying now - is it possible that they are as right in their statements as Susan B. Anthony was in her address to the court which tried her for illegally voting because she was a woman? Perhaps they are and perhaps they aren't, but how are we to know if we're not allowed to hear them?

History is all of our stories come together, whether we are participants or observers. In Voices Of A People's History Of The United States Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove have gathered together some of the voices like ours from history and told the story of the United States from the time of Columbus to those who oppose the empire building mentality that exists in today's America. Each segment is introduced and given its historical context so you know what and why the person is speaking and what about. If you still think it was a benevolent government that ensured black people were given the vote and schools were integrated than you really need to read this book to learn your own history and perhaps see how you too can have a role in it.

November 21, 2009

Book Review: War Dances By Sherman Alexie

What is a short story? Technically it's a story that's not more than a certain amount of words or pages in length, usually a great deal shorter than even the shortest of novels. Yet there's more to it than just the number of words it contains. The good short story writers are able to give readers of their few pages insight into the world around them that many writers of full length novels never manage to do. Of course our expectations when it comes to short stories are different than those we have for a full length novel. Instead of a long drawn out and slow developing plot over the course of which we gradually get to know a group of characters, we are usually plunked down into the middle of somebody's life and watch as they grapple with one particular incident.

For all we know once we leave, after the story is done, they continue on to do other things, but that's not what caught the author's attention about them anyway. Short stories aren't much for extraneous details about a person's life, but at the same time we still somehow manage to get to know the person in the story well enough by its end we are able to come to a conclusion about them and their life. How short story writers are able to do that is a bit of a mystery, one that I've never really taken the time to solve, and actually one that I'm not that interested in solving. Would you ask a stage magician to reveal the secret behind some great illusion that has left you spell bound? Well the same goes for a short story writer as far as I'm concerned - I don't want to know how they did it, I just want to enjoy the results of their labour.

While Sherman Alexie has published three of full length novels, as well as writing a couple of screen plays, the majority of his work has either been short stories or poetry. His latest collection from the Grove/Atlantic press, War Dances is pretty much evenly split between poems and short stories, and there's not a wasted word or thought among them. When you only dole out so many words you can't afford for even one to sound faintly off, let alone discordant. In this collection Alexie is completely in tune with his subject matter, with each word and thought working together to give us twenty-three snap shots of life.

As well as being a writer, Alexie also happens to be a member of the Spokane nation, a Native American, so naturally quite a number of his stories and poetry deal with that reality. That doesn't mean your going to find stories filled with eagle feathers and sweat lodges, but you will find references to things like dying a natural Indian death of alcohol and diabetes. In the title story of the collection, "War Dances", after being diagnosed with a benign brain tumor a man recalls his father dying of the above mentioned natural causes, and in the midst of his own worries about his health he goes over in his mind the things his father went through - endured - before his life finally ended.

Alexie is far too subtle a writer to simply write out a standard list of indignities suffered at the hands of a racist society. Instead with satire and humor he is able to make the same points, but without hitting us over the head too hard. At one point in "War Dances" he interrupts the story with what his character calls an exit interview for my father, a list of questions about his life. My favorite was, "F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that the sign of a superior mind "is the ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time". Do you believe this is true? And is it also true that you once said, "The only time white people tell the truth is when they keep their mouths shut"?

However Alexie doesn't just write about American Indians, he also writes about the general emptiness of some people's lives. "The Ballad Of Paul Nonetheless" is the story of a rather vacuous businessman who specializes in vintage clothing. While there's nothing wrong with his profession, there's something wrong with his soul. "He was a twenty-first-century American who'd been taught to mourn his small and large losses by singing Top 40 hits", we're told as Paul sings the refrain from a stupid Hall and Oates song after glimpsing a beautiful woman in an airport. It's not actually the woman herself that attracts him as much as her red Puma running shoes. He had fallen in love with them when he first saw them advertised, and on a beautiful woman's feet they were even more spectacular.

Paul, who claims to love his wife and three daughters, still has managed to sleep with eight other women aside from his wife during the course of their marriage, which could explain why they are separated. Paul doesn't have any core values, he believes pop music and popular culture to be the great unifying force among Americans. How can we be so different he thinks, if we all know the lyrics to the same one thousand songs? How can anything be a unifying force for a man who is a serial adulator but is also convinced he loves his wife?

Alexie has captured the essence of man living in a fantasy world with Paul, and the scary thing is that we can see the potential for this character everywhere. Popular culture defines us in ways we don't even know - it's what we talk about with colleagues at work, its one of the few things that we have left in common with most people that we come in contact with. What does that say about us when a thirty minute situation comedy is the glue that binds a society together? When the only things we really have in common with the people we share a country with aren't ideals but twenty minutes of mindless comedy and ten minutes of commercials?

Not all of the stories or poems are as satirical as the two I've described, in fact some are really quite splendid in how they capture moments of beauty with the commonplace. His poem "Ode To Small-town Sweethearts" captures the joy/pain/foolishness of adolescent love/lust with the right touch of reality mixed with sentimentality so that everybody reading it - no matter what their background - can immediately relate to and understand the experience being described. "Mortals have always fought the gods/And braved epic storms for love and/or lust/So don't be afraid to speak honestly/About how you obeyed beauty's call./And though your triumph was small/ You can still sing of your teenage odyssey."

In some ways short stories are the insects caught in amber of literature in that they preserve moments in time and space for us to examine from all angles. In his most recent collection, War Dances, Sherman Alexie proves once again that he's a master of shining a light through amber and letting us see the insects from all sides. Sometimes the stories he tells are filled with bitter truths that will hurt going down or that some people aren't going to want to read. Yet at the same time there is a gentleness to his stories, on occasion, which show a willingness to believe that there are things that all of us share, and some experiences are universal no matter how far apart we may appear to be. That's the ultimate magic trick behind a short story and Sherman Alexie is a conjurer without equal.

November 2, 2009

Book Review: The Canterbury Tales By Geoffrey Chaucer - A Retelling By Peter Ackroyd

I've always believed that if you want to truly understand a people and their culture you need to read the stories they've written, or told, about themselves. Its from these works that we can get an accurate depiction of what a people believe in, what guides their behaviour, and the philosophical and moral precepts they base their code of conduct on. While reading religious texts or morality tales may well outline the hierarchy among the Gods and the requirements placed upon a people for living a holy life, it's only in the stories that we see them in their day to day living. Of course, the stories are also a much more reliable indicator of the tenor of the times they were written in; for while a dictate in a religious text may not change over the centuries, the way people react to its strictures will vary from age to age.

Interestingly enough a number of peoples have turned to their own stories in an attempt to remind themselves of who they are in order to either stave off cultural extinction, like Native Americans and First Nations people in America and Canada respectively, or to reclaim their history and culture from former colonial masters. In India, for example, the British managed to rewrite history so successfully, the nineteenth century bid for independence by Indians is still referred to in most history books as the Indian Mutiny. So instead of it being depicted as the attempt of an oppressed people to throw off the invader it seems an illegal act against a legitimate governing body.

While you can understand the logic behind those efforts to re-visit older stories, what reason would an Englishman have for a similar project? There doesn't seem much danger of that culture becoming extinct nor has there been any recent attempt by a foreign power to re-write their history. Yet British author Peter Ackroyd has written a modern language version of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, being published by Penguin Canada on November 3rd/09.
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The original Canterbury Tales is credited with being the first major work of literature written in English. There's no denying it's historical significance either, as at the time French was the common language of the educated, the nobles, and Kings and Queens, the majority of whom were descendants of the Norman invaders of 1066. However, after the publication of Chaucer's book, that all began to change, and by the time the next king crowned English had become the official language of the court and learning. Of course the English it was originally written in is as foreign to most of us as if it were another language - anybody who remembers trying to struggle through reading "The Tale of the Wyf of Bathe" (Wife of Bath) in high school can attest to that - so aside from scholars, most people have probably never read Canterbury Tales in its entirety.

For those who might have forgotten, or never known, the basic story of The Canterbury Tales is a group of pilgrims setting out from London to Canterbury in order to visit the tomb of St.Thomas Becket, agree to each tell the others a story while they travel in order to pass the time more pleasantly. Aside from Chaucer himself who acts as narrator of the overall events, the party consists of a cross section of the time's society with about a fifty/fifty split between those in the employ of the Church and lay folk. Instead of referring to individuals by name, each of the party is identified by their position be it priest, nun, squire, knight, merchant, pardoner, summoner, friar, or Wife of Bath.

Some of the titles, like pardoner (sold pardons for sins on behalf of the church), and summoner (summoned folk to ecclesiastical courts), were positions in the church that have long since been abolished due to the abuses of those who filled their offices. Others like franklin, the name given to a landowner not of noble birth, and manciple, who we would refer to either as a quartermaster or supply clerk, have long since fallen out of common usage. However, no matter what their title or status, none of them are safe from the caustic commentary of Chaucer's pen. Whether it's the "Knight's Tale" full of extreme examples of chivalry, elaborate and overblown acts of piety, and idyllic depiction of romantic love or the Friar's and Summoner's bawdy and caustic tales about the other's vocation, he manages to satirize both the teller of the tale and tsome aspect of his times.
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According to Ackroyd's introduction when Chaucer went to Italy the major lesson he gleaned from the works he studied there was the importance of producing works in the vernacular of the people you're writing for. For a culture to thrive, it can't just be the province of the ruling classes, everybody needs at least be given the chance to enjoy it. By rendering The Canterbury Tales in language that most of the English speaking world can understand, Ackroyd is following in Chaucer's footsteps and making the work not only accessible to a new generation, but to a far wider audience then ever before.

Unlike earlier interpretations, which have adhered to the poetic structure of the original work and tried to be as faithful as possible to the text, Ackroyd's version is not only in prose but he has replaced words that are no longer in common usage with ones that convey similar meanings while retaining true to the spirit of the text. He's done a remarkable job, because while he has recreated the style of the original text, in that the cadences and manner it is presented are similar to middle English texts I've read, the language is sufficiently of the 20th century that no one should have any trouble understanding it.

Earlier I asked whether there was anything that could be learned from a retelling of The Canterbury Tales, comparing it to efforts made by other cultures to reclaim their history or relearn their traditions. While there may not be the same urgency or need as with those other efforts, its value as a first hand account of life from our history can't be overstated. Chaucer's frankness when it comes to sexual matters, and his refusal to revere a person because of their office, whether secular or religious, shows that no matter what the age the role of the artist has always been to question and hold a mirror up for society to see itself warts and all. In this day and age when people look to the past to justify prudery in the name or religion, and far too many in power seem to expect shelter from prosecution based on the privileges granted them by their office, its nice to be able to point out precedent for the opposite.

Aside from any deep sociological and philosophical reasons for this work being re-written, there's also the fact that its a lot of fun to read. Where else will you find the answer to how to divide a fart into twelve equal parts? Part Monty-Python, part Carry On gang, and part biting satire, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is one of the funniest works of English literature. With his retelling Peter Ackroyd has given everybody a wonderful opportunity to enjoy it to its fullest, and as close to the spirit that Chaucer wrote it in as even the most devout literary purist could want. Sometimes a story is its own best reason for its revival, and that's definitely the case here.

October 25, 2009

Book Review: The Lacuna By Barbara Kingsolver

Everybody has probably heard the expression, "history is written by the winners" in reference to the tendency of history to be told from only one side and to represent a particular point of view. While reading history text books which misrepresent events that happened a hundred years ago is upsetting if you know the truth of what happened, can you imagine what it would be like to live through hearing your own history re-written? Even more disturbing would be to find the re-writes based on innuendo, hearsay, and outright lies.

In the late 1940's, and through the 1950's, many citizens of the United States of America discovered their lives had been ruined by others inventing malicious gossip or making false accussations, about them and their histories. If you were named by a friendly witness to the House Committee on Un American Activities as being either a member of, or a former member of, the Communist party, you could easily find yourself facing social ostracism if not jail time. You weren't tried in a court of law, given a chance to defend yourself in front of an impartial judge, or presumed innocent. In fact if you showed up in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities it was generally presumed you were guilty and it was only a matter of figuring out how guilty you were.

Barbara Kingsolver, has never been an author to shy away from controversial subject matter in either her fiction or non-fiction. Her latest novel, The Lacuna published by Harper Collins Canada, is no exception, as she not only takes us behind the scenes of history, she shows us how quickly and easily the truth of events can disappear and lies become reality. Cleverly mixing fictional characters with historical figures and events Kingsolver takes us on a journey that encompasses both Mexico and the United States from the 1930's through the 1950's.
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Lacuna is literally the Spanish word meaning hole, or the space between two objects. However it can also be used to refer to a cave or any other sort of gap; like the gap between truth and what the public perceives to be the truth. In The Lacuna Kingsolver traces the history of Harrison Shepherd, the child of a Mexican mother and American father, from his early days living with his mother in Mexico as she's supported by a series of boyfriends, and then back and forth between the United States and Mexico as the winds of history blow him hither and yonder. For once he is set up on his own - after a brief sojourn in an American military as a teenager which ended under a cloud of suspicion - he enters into service as the cook to the mercurial Mexican painter Frida Khalo and her sometime husband, painter Diego Rivera.

The Riveras aren't just artists, they are political artists, and very Communist. We learn about Shepherd's history via the journals he started keeping when he was young living with his mother. At first the Riveras wonder about their young cook, has he been sent to spy on them? What are all these notes he's making to himself? However when Frida finds out he's merely keeping a diary of events for his own amusement and because he loves to write she encourages him to keep at it. That is until they are to play host to a very special and important guest - the exiled Lev Trotsky. One of the original leaders of the Russian revolution along with Stalin and Lenin, Trotsky had been anointed by Lenin to be his successor. However, Stalin, through lies and quick action, was able to not only supplant Trotsky but also to cast him in the role of traitor to Russia.

Through Shepherd's journals we learn how Trosky comes to live in Mexico with the Riveras and how Shepherd eventually ends up working for Trotsky as cook and translator; a position that will come back to haunt him in later years, and one that puts his life in real danger. For Stalin has ordered that Trotsky be killed, and Communists around the world are eager to carry out his request. Ironically the newspapers in Mexico and the United States refuse to believe that Trotsky is under threat. When his house is machine gunned he is accused of setting it up himself in order to garner sympathy, even when it's proved that the leader in the Communist party of Mexico had been behind the attack. When Trotsky is finally assassinated, it's Frida who arranges the means for Shepherd to leave the country by having him shepherd some of her artwork from Mexico to New York for an exhibit. As he holds dual citizenship she tells him to stay in America until it is safe. Unfortunately America doesn't turn out to be the safe haven they hoped it to be.
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For although he initially enjoys some moderate success as a writer, the America depicted is one scared of its own shadow. First is the round-up of "enemy aliens" - Japanese Americans - during WWII, and then it's the turn of anyone ever suspected of being a Communist, or other sort of un-American activity. Through Shepherd's journals Kingsolver shows how innuendo, hearsay, and lies are used to bring about his downfall, as he details how public opinion is turned against him by the way the hole between the truth and lies is filled in. It's alarming how quickly we see Shepherd go from being a novelist admired by critics and fans alike, to being public enemy number one in the press. People who one moment were fawning over him, can't push him away quick enough.

It's always a dangerous thing for a novelist to bring real people into a story because you can't create them from scratch. They have their own histories and personalities already, and trying to fit them into a work of fiction can rapidly become quite convoluted. However, Kingsolver has handled the inclusion of real people into Shepherd's story beautifully by casting him in the role of historian. Instead of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Lev Trotsky trying to fit into his fictional life, he finds a place in their history which is not only plausible, but also allows us to see them as real people not just as figures in history. Not only does this bring them to life, but it brings history to life, and fills in the holes - the lacuna - that most history books don't answer. We see how Trotsky was allowed to be made a villain because the West needed Stalin, and in turn how Stalin became the villain when he was no longer needed. The only way that can be accomplished is to ignore history, and according to Kingsolver in this book the United States is a past master at doing just that.

The Lacuna is the story of one man caught up in the tides of history, and the story of how history is created. While beautifully written, with characters who jump off the page they are so alive, it is filled with unpleasant truths about our society. Kingsolver is an intelligent and compassionate writer which allows her to create a story that works both as social commentary and an excellent work of fiction without the former interfering with the latter. You may not like what she has to say, but you can never deny that she says it well and with authority. After reading The Lacuna you may never look at a history book or a newspaper story in quite the same way again, and that's a good thing.

The Lacuna can be purchased either directly from Harper Collins Canada or from Amazon.ca or other on line retailers.

October 3, 2009

Grief, Willy DeVille, Me, And Michael Jackson Too

The past year has seen the death of quite a number of public figures, with Michael Jackson's being the most prominent, but there have been others as well. However Jackson's was the death that prompted the worst excess of public grief. It seemed perfectly acceptable for people who had never met him to collapse into paroxysms of grief in public. Television cameras all over the world recorded scenes of people with tears pouring down their faces laying flowers at the impromptu shrines they had created for this person who they had never met. Nobody questioned their behaviour or wondered as to why they would have such a violent reaction to the death of someone who in recent years was better known for his suspicious activities than any artistic creations.

Earlier this year my wife's uncle passed away leaving behind his wife and two adopted children. They had been married for more then thirty years and in that time had grown inseparable - one never thought of one without mentioning the other. So it was perfectly understandable that she was devastated when he died. Yet, even at his funeral there were whispers of - why doesn't she control herself, who does she think she's trying to impress - in response to her grief. However, the real whispering didn't start until a couple months after his death and she was still liable to burst into tears at any time.

My wife and I were at a family dinner some months after her uncle died and the subject of her aunt came up. We hadn't been in contact with her since the funeral so we asked how she was doing. I was shocked by the vehemence of the disgust that was expressed over the fact that she was still crying over the loss of her husband. "She gets one glass of wine into her and she's off" was said with great scorn.

I couldn't believe it, the woman had lost the person who had been the biggest part of her world for close to thirty years and people were being impatient with her because she was still grieving. I couldn't help thinking how I'd feel if my wife was the one who had died and how I'd be reacting. How could they expect her to be able turn off the grief she was feeling from her loss as if it were something she had any control over? I would have been more concerned if she hadn't still been crying over her loss. Yet here were this group of so-called adults, supposedly her family and support, sitting around nodding wisely and saying it was time for her to get on with her life.

According to who I want to know? As I was trying to figure out what was so wrong with her crying about losing the man she'd loved only a few months ago I caught hold of a key phrase floating around amongst the conversation, "It's just so embarrassing". For a second I couldn't figure out what was so embarrassing, and then I realized they meant the fact that the poor woman was still crying about the the loss of the love of her life. Her grief was too real for them and they didn't know what to do about it. Why it didn't occur to them to comfort her I wondered instead of criticizing her for being upset?

When the conversation turned to Michael Jackson a short while latter and comments were made about how moving it was to see all the people crying for him, I was even more confused. In one breath they were criticizing a women for crying because her heart was breaking, and with the other they are exclaiming at how wonderful it was to see people crying over a total stranger. Why was the one so acceptable and the other wasn't? What made the one moving while the other was embarrassing? Why was it more acceptable for there to be a public outpouring of grief for a famous person than public grief from a private person?

I think people are scared of grief when it comes too close them and they don't know what to do about it. It's one thing to watch it on television, but another thing all together to sit and have it on display in your living room. There's no such thing as controlling your grief either - you either feel something or you don't - and if you do why should you be made to feel ashamed for feeling?

When Nina DeVille wrote to tell me that her husband Willy had been diagnosed as having stage four pancreatic cancer last May she said "we try to pretend everything is normal, but nothing will ever be normal again". A part of you has been ripped away for ever and you're expected to carry on as if everything was normal, or to get over it and get on with your life. How can anything ever be normal again? Is it even possible?

While I still don't pretend to understand the mass hysteria that surrounded Michael Jackson's death, Willy DeVille's death this past August has given me a little more appreciation for people's need to share their grief over the loss of a public figure with others. In June I started a petition to have Willy considered for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As the person who started the petition I had to make an e-mail address available and as a result I've been hearing from individuals from all over the world about how Willy's music affected them.

I have to admit I wondered why people would write a total stranger in order to tell them about their grief, but after a while I simply accepted the honour they were according me. Maybe they had read some of the things I had written about Willy and realized I too was moved by him personally as well as professionally. Maybe because I had interviewed him on occasion and was in contact with his wife Nina periodically they felt I was the closest they could get to telling Willy how they felt about him. I don't know, but I do know that I heard from people who had been close to Willy when they were young, people who had never known him, or people like me whose lives had intersected his briefly outside the music and were changed forever by the contact.

I then remembered back to 1980 when John Lennon had been killed, and how I had gone down to Nathan Philip's Square in Toronto Ontario to join thousands of others standing around in the cold to remember and celebrate John's life. Whatever it was that I was looking for there that night I didn't find. Whoever had organized it made sure to play the right music and there were speeches from people like Ronnie Hawkins who had known Lennon, but it didn't do anything for me. I realize now it was because we were all there as individuals and nothing was done to bring us together or make us feel we weren't alone in our grief. The person standing next to me could have been feeling the same things as me, but the event was so impersonal I never found out.

So when I received an e-mail from somebody wanting to know if I could help organize a memorial for DeVille in New York City, I was only too glad to have an excuse to pass - I live in Canada and can't travel to the States for a variety of reasons - because I couldn't envision it being of benefit to anyone. However I've recently had cause to change my mind as I've found out more about who the people are behind the event and why they are doing it. Three people, from different parts of North America, tied together by their appreciation of Willy DeVille's music have decided to meet in New York City on October 10th/09 in Tompkin's Square Park on the Avenue B side at three in the afternoon to remember Willy and have invited anyone who is interested in doing the same to join them. If you can't make it to the park, or if the weather sucks, they plan on meeting up at Bar On A, 170 Avenue A, where their will be white roses for everybody and Willy's music played through-out the night.

It doesn't sound like there will be any speeches, just a group of like minded people getting together to tell stories and talk about what Willy meant to them. Missing somebody is a very personal matter and we don't often have the opportunity to talk about why we loved somebody or why we miss them even with those who supposedly care about us. I think of my wife's aunt and how much she would appreciate the opportunity to sit around with a group of people one night listening to them talk about her late husband and what he meant to them. I think how it would be nice for her to have the chance to do the same with people who won't be judging her for feeling pain at her loss, and I can see how this memorial for Willy DeVille could be of benefit where others haven't been.

Grief is nothing to be afraid of but nor should it be the spectator sport that it seems to have become in our mass media world. When you lose somebody you care about nobody has the right to tell you how to feel or when you should "get over it", nor should you be made to feel guilty for your grief. Anybody who tells you otherwise doesn't have your best interest at heart no matter what they say. Only you know the size of the hole that was left in your heart, everybody else can only guess at it.

For those interested in attending the Willy DeVille Memorial in New York City on October 10th you may RSVP to WDcelebration@gmail.com, but feel free to show up whether you do or not

September 16, 2009

Book Review: Gods Of War By Ashok Banker

One of the wonderful things about science fiction is the way the good authors are able to encourage you to look at the universe and the way it works with new eyes while fulfilling all their obligations as a story teller as well. There are some authors who can spin great webs of knowledge that will have you scratching your head in wonder for days, but their books read like physics texts not stories, or their characters are so one dimensional that you don't really care what happens to them. You can pluck your characters from any period of time you want or send them across the universe, but if they don't capture a reader's imagination what's the point? There are two words in the genre's name, science and fiction, but far too often authors forget the latter leaving you wanting to forget the whole damn thing.

Thankfully that's not the case with Ashok Banker's new release, Gods Of War, simultaneously published by Penguin India for Indian readers and by Banker's own AKB imprint for international audiences on September 15th/09. Best known for his modern adaptation of the Indian epic The Ramayana, a science fiction novel might seem like an abrupt change of pace, but the deeper you travel into Gods Of War the more you'll realize Banker hasn't written a typical "hard" science fiction novel. In fact I don't think you could call this "typical" of any genre in particular, and its all the better for it.

For while Gods Of War begins with what most would call a fairly typical science fiction set-up, a mysterious space craft appears in Earth's atmosphere causing widespread consternation among the populace and its leaders, Banker soon lets us know we're going to be going where few have gone before. First he takes us on a quick hop around the world, Mumbai, Tokyo, Birmingham in England, and New Jersey in the United States, where we meet each of the five main characters whom we're going to be following throughout the book, and then he has us witness the next stage of the story through each character's eyes.
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While all that sounds conventional enough I suppose, the fact that our five leads end up being the only people on earth conscious when everybody else enters into what looks like a type of suspended animation as they have fallen into such a deep sleep it's impossible to wake them is the first sign that some sort of higher power is at work. However that soon becomes the least of our character's worries as they each receive a visitor and then an invitation. If it was disconcerting enough to be visited by someone they assume to be from the space craft hovering in orbit, you can imagine their surprise when it turns out their visitor is, Ganesha, the elephant headed Hindu deity. While it might make sense for the son of Shiva to appear to Santosh, the ten year old boy from the slums of Mumbai, what on earth does he want with Ruth the red necked lesbian who works in a ship yard in Jersey; Salim, a Muslim business man from England; and the twin magna artists Yoshi and Akechi from Japan whose differences are more significant than their similarities.

It seems no matter what they believe, or who they are Ganesha wants the same thing from each of them. To come with him to the ends of the universe in a desperate attempt to save the world, if not all of creation itself, by stopping a war that's being fought for control of what they are told might as well be the City of Heaven. When they reach their destination they discover they aren't the only beings who have been invited along, as there are creatures of all shapes, sizes, smells, and sounds from all over the universe involved as well. Yet what is it they were watching when they witness the war taking place in and around the City of Cities - the home of the Gods? Who would have the nerve to attack the gods?
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In Gods Of War Ashok Banker shows us the great battle line that exists in our world today between faith and science. The war may not actually be taking place in as graphic a manner as he depicts in this book, but what else would you call the actions of people who use the name of God as their justification for rape and murder but an attack on the Gods themselves? Yet in spite of the heavy theme of the book, Banker never forgets he is a story teller, and its within that framework that he delivers his message.

We get to know each of the characters in the book as intimately as possible and we see the story unfold through their eyes. It's because he takes that care his message is so powerful. As readers we are absorbed from the moment we first meet Santosh in Mumbai until the last page because whether we like the characters personally or not, they have become so real for us that it's like we are their sixth companion. While we may not fully grasp the significance of what's happening, or fully appreciate what each character is experiencing, there are enough universal elements to allow us to relate to each of them on some level. Emotions are emotions no matter who you are, and Banker's ability to describe people's emotional reactions to circumstances act as a bridge carrying us into the heart of the action.

Yet in spite of its large scale, he somehow manages to keep the story remarkably personal so that we take in each detail of what his characters are feeling and experiencing. Banker has an unerring knack of being able to bring any scene he describes to life in vivid detail, and although there are times in this book we may wish he wasn't quite so good at this job, the fact that location after location graphically comes to life in our mind's eye pulls us deeper and deeper into the story. In some ways its like watching an epic film unfold as scene after scene comes alive on the page.

Gods Of War proves once again that not only can Ashok Banker describe the great sweeping events of history, but he can do so in such a way that we are all able to relate to them on a personal level. He takes a complicated theme, and instead of dumbing it down or trivializing it, he integrates it into his story in such a way that it comes to life. This is a wonderful story, by a remarkable and gifted storyteller.

August 31, 2009

Book Review: Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

Everybody's waxing nostalgic for Woodstock this year, being how it's the fortieth anniversary and all. At least the record companies sure are, as you can't turn around without seeing yet another commemorative ash tray or roach clip bearing the three days of peace and music logo appearing on the shelves. Yeah there's still lots of money to be made off of all that peace, love and music shit, even forty years later. They might not of cashed in as much as they'd have like to back in the day, but the music industry is making up for lost time now.

Naturally their downplaying the whole drug thing - except for the occasional mention of how tragic it was that so many of those who performed had their lives and careers cut short supposedly because of drugs. Nobody wants to say that drugs were fun, because that's not the message we want to send in this post Just Say No War On Drugs era. Even though we've moved on to bigger and better things like the War On Terror, nobody's forgotten Nancy's message have they. However the reality was that - horror of horrors - people did a shit load of drugs back in the day and no amount of corporate white wash will disguise that fact.

The other bit that they don't seem to want to talk about is how forty years ago, 1969, was when the whole peace and love trip started to wither on the vine.Not only did it mark the ascension to the throne of Richard Nixon in Washington, but the Prince of Darkness himself, Ronald Ray-guns, had been governor of California since 1967. Happy Ronnie, who was only glad to help finger Commies in the fifties for Joe McCarthy and his Un Americans, did his best to fight free love, free speech, and all those other ungodly behaviours those long haired layabouts were engaging in. By the time 1969 washed up on the beach in California, Heads were already looking over their shoulders to see where the long arm of the law was every time they lit up a joint. Of course, with paranoia being such a bosom buddy of most drugs to begin with it didn't take much to fuel the massive rip tides of mistrust that starting pulling folks under in the late sixties.
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While the hucksters and snake oil sales people might not be talking, there are those who are. Timed perfectly to serve as an antidote to the sales pitches, Thomas Pynchon's newest book, Inherent Vice, published by Penguin Canada, offers us ring side seats to the curtain coming down on the dream in California.

Ostensibly a detective story, we follow Pynchon's Private Investigator, Doc Sportello, as he takes on an investigation at the behest of his ex girlfriend, Shasta. She's been seeing a married man, real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann, and is worried that his wife and her boyfriend are trying to figure out a way to have him declared mentally incompetent so they can grab his loot. Her suspicions are based on the fact they've offered to cut her in if she'll help them out with their scam, but it turns out Shasta really has a thing for Mickey and wants to keep him around. Aside from her natural reluctance to approach the police on principle alone, it seems like there's some sort of Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) involvement anyway that's going to prevent anyone from running to the cops for backup on this one.

So we trundle around in Doc's wake as he tries to make head and tail out of this case. Wafting a trail of pot smoke behind him that rivals LA's smog during rush hour, Doc encounters militant black nationalists, neo-nazi bikers with a thing for Ethel Mermon and show tunes, bent cops, Federal agents, surfer musicians gone bad, junkies, and worst of all dentists. Somewhere at the bottom of this pile of people there lurks a mysterious group known as the Golden Fang pulling all the strings. They supply the heroin that's sold on the street and are behind a psychiatric institute where people go to get clean. Of course there's a price to be paid for either the junk or coming clean, and while the former is usually your health and cash, the latter can be even more sinister as Doc discovers.

That creeping paranoia Doc feels isn't just because he smokes too much dope, it's because there's something creeping around behind the scenes exerting control over the peace loving, dope smoking, and fun loving community of beach folk. While the King and the Prince Of Darkness clamping down harder and harder to "Make America Safe" means more people getting busted for doing drugs, the drugs are being controlled more and more by the people who put them on the throne. The Golden Fang people see nothing wrong with making a quick buck from people before they end up jail for ten to twenty for using their product.
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On the surface Inherent Vice is an enjoyable ride filled with memorable characters. Doc might be perpetually stoned and rely on extrasensory perceptions brought on by certain psychedelic substances for insights, but he's also as persistent as they come when following a trail Pretty much unflappable he's able to weather whatever surprises pop up and goes with the flow no matter what. However even he's a little disconcerted to discover the nasty truth lurking underneath the haze of pot smoke, that the end of innocence is at hand. It's a bitter pill to swallow, and there's no amount of drugs that will allow hum to hide from that reality anymore. The days of trust are over, and he's going to have to get used to looking over his shoulder on a more regular basis.

There's a note of sadness that runs through Inherent Vice that will hopefully have people questioning the neat and tidy image of the sixties that's being packaged these days. Pynchon makes no apologies for where his sympathies lie, with those on the other side of today's right wing moral code. Yet at the same time he doesn't let sentiment or nostalgia prevent him from showing the darker side of that lifestyle. Still, you can't help but feel a pang for what was lost and what might have been when you come to the end of this book. Very few people seem to want to tell the truth about the 1960's but Thomas Pynchon isn't one of them. You couldn't ask for a better guide to its demise.

Inherent Vice can be purchased either directly from Penguin Canada or an online retailer like Amazon.ca

July 29, 2009

Book Review: Twelve The King By Michael Blake

Sometime in 2008 I wrote an article about the threat posed to wild horses by the very people who are supposed to be preserving them - the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Some of the details include a program where horses are supposedly protected by being live captured and then put up for adoption. I still haven't figured out how capturing, domesticating, and then selling the horses constitutes preserving the wild populations, but I'm sure that somebody, somewhere has come up with a justification. Of course it's a little bit better than just rounding them up for slaughter and turning them into dog food, and just as effective a means of ensuring they don't interfere with ranching, forestry, and strip mines.

Of course as animals who were born into the wild, the older the horse that's captured the less chance it has of ever being domesticated. This is especially true for the older stallions who served as the herd's protectors in the wild. Even though all stallions are gelded upon capture (castrated) some never lose that edge which allowed them to ascend to a position of leadership with a herd. That's not a horse you're about to buy when your kids want a pony.

Fortunately there are some people out there who have sufficient appreciation for the artistry of Creation to see the beauty and splendour inherent in those magnificent creatures. While they may not be able to do anything about the circumstances that cause their plight, people like Michael Blake, best known as the author of Dances With Wolves, are the only hope these horses have of ending up as your dog's breakfast, or wasting their lives away in a corral. In 1991, he paid a visit to what he described as one of the BLM's concentration camps for wild horses, and first saw the horse he called Twelve. In his new book, Twelve The King published by Perceval Press, Blake tells us the story of his nearly two decade long relationship with this wild stallion.
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While all the horses in the BLM facility outside of Reno Nevada that day in 1991 had been taken from the wild herds in the mountains it was immediately obvious that the black gelding with the numbers 1210 on his flank was different from the rest. While other horses in the camp could be ridden after only twenty minutes in a paddock with the director of the facility, nobody that day Blake visited could even lay a hand on the black. Although he was protected from the slaughter house, the numbers on his flank gave him immunity, he had been declared unadoptable because of his age at capture, twenty years old, and was looking at spending the rest of his life confined to a small pen.

For twenty years Twelve had roamed the desserts and ranges of Nevada, and for most of that time had been the protector and leader of his herd. The director of the facility in Nevada told Blake that when Twelve was released in the paddock with the other sixty or so geldings that had been in his herd, the others would never approach him. When the gates were opened for them to be returned to their stalls, he would always lead them out, after first checking it was all clear. On one occasion he recounted how all sixty horses ran in a circle around Twelve, as if paying homage to their king.

While the book appears to be simply a recounting of Blake's life with Twelve, the details that come out from this description help you understand the uniqueness of this horse, and wild horses in general. For while Twelve would allow himself to be touched, he never stopped being a wild horse. He would have nothing to do with the domesticated riding horses that Blake owned, so in order to give him companionship Blake adopted a female from the same Reno facility. The descriptions of their play time - biting, rearing, and kicks just missing the other's head - give one a sense of their power and control. For never did he see either horse actually make contact or hurt the other no matter how violent their play might have looked to human eyes.
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While Blake admits that at the beginning of their relationship he harboured hopes of a bond forming between himself and Twelve, that he would somehow be able to overcome the animal's years of living wild and "tame" him, it never happened. Yet that's what makes this book special the chance it offers to be close to a horse who, although willing to accept human companionship, never surrendered anything of himself. Blake recounts walking Twelve past a ring where young riders were being put through their paces on their new mounts. Commands to walk, trot, and canter would issue out of a loud speaker and the riders would change their horse's gait accordingly. When the horses began to canter he felt Twelve stiffen, and then turn to take up a position facing the opposite direction in which the horses in the pen were travelling. He was looking to see what was chasing them and putting himself between the herd and any potential threat. As soon as the horses were walking again he relaxed his vigil and allowed himself to be guided away. (He was never led - only ever guided)

Twelve The King is a deceptively simple book, only thirty some pages of photographs and text. Its power resides in the feelings of awe and wonder that Blake so obviously feels for Twelve and the fact that he is able to convey those feelings to us with minimal words and no hyperbole. There are no long rapturous peons of praise to the glories of nature and wild creatures, just straight forward sentences describing this one horse. Yet reading about Twelve is to be given a glimpse at what is lost each time a rancher encroaches on preserve land and the BLM removes more horses from the wild, and the herds move one step closer to eradication.

"In city traffic/I remember his eyes/So dark and wet/So full of God" ends a poem Blake wrote after his first sight of Twelve at the Reno BLM facility. It's a pity there aren't more people who share Blake's vision, who can see the hand of their Creator in the untamed and the beauty it represents. He doesn't waste space decrying the practices of the BLM, a couple of paragraphs summarizing the hypocrisy of their so-called preservation efforts - ones that appear destined to guarantee the eradication of wild horses in America - is sufficient to tell us all that we need to know. Yet Twelve The King is one of the strongest arguments you'll ever read for ensuring the preservation of the wild herds. A world in which Twelve and those like him have ceased to exist is not one I care to imagine, but is one that could soon become a reality. That would be a shame.

Twelve The King can be purchased directly from Perceval Press

July 21, 2009

DVD Review: Where The Road Bends: Tales From A Gypsy Caravan

In 2005 a group of Central and Eastern European countries initiated the The Decade Of Roma Inclusion, a ten year program aimed at improving conditions for the regions ten to twelve million Romani, more commonly known as Gypsies. Its aim was to tackle the educational and social disadvantages faced by Roma communities, and initial signatories included Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Macedonia, Serbia-Montenegro, and Slovakia. These eight countries combined account for over half of Europe's Roma population, which led to hopes that after centuries of persecution perhaps the Roma might finally know some acceptance.

Four years later an Amnesty International report on conditions among the Roma of Europe found the following: they were being denied proper education in the Czech Republic and Slovakia; discrimination in Italy; anit-Roma sentiment on the rise in Hungary; forced evictions in Serbia; refusal of adequate housing in Romania; and Roma being forcibly returned to Kosovo, from which they fled to escape persecution, by countries all over Europe. Five of the countries who supposedly were going to work to improve conditions for Roma showing up in an Amnesty International report on discrimination against the Roma is not what you would call heartening or is it bound to inspire confidence in this, or any, program's chances of success.

Of course with countries' economies reeling from the great "slowdown" everybody's looking for a scapegoat and the Roma and Jews have always run neck and neck for the title of favourite for that distinction in Europe. In fact, if anything, the situation is worse than it sounds. Amnesty's report of anti-Roma sentiment in Hungary is a genteel way of describing arson, murder, and rallies by the extreme right against what they call "Roma Crime" In a country which doesn't keep crime statistics based on ethnicity it's amazing how all of a sudden a minority population is responsible for an increase in crime.
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While the political will in Europe just doesn't seem to be strong enough to bring about any real change in the lives of the Roma, other organizations have taken it upon themselves to try different approaches. One such effort was a tour of North America by Roma musicians from Spain, Romania, Macedonia, and India organized by the World Music Institute and documented on film and DVD in the movie Where The Road Bends: Tales Of A Gypsy Caravan. Directed by Jasmine Dellal the film not only joins the tour across North America, but spends time with each of the performers in their home countries introducing us to their lives. The hope was through the combination of the tour and the movie that people will get to know the Roma beyond the stereotypes perpetrated by racists and start to see them as humans as well as giving those involved an opportunity to tell their stories to a wider audience.

The two bands from Romania, Taraf De Haidouks and Fanfare Ciocarlia might be stars on the road and be garnering international attention, but at home they still live in villages minimal amenities. Both bands are the main sources of income for their villages and it seems that in both cases a new generation of band members is being prepared to replace the current ones as they age. Seeing the people ploughing their fields behind teams of horses, and heating their homes with brush wood, it's hard to remember that this was being filmed in 2006. It looks like nothing has changed in hundreds of years, save for the naked electric light bulbs strung in public places.

Obviously the two Romanian bands had much in common, but one of the amazing things about the movie was watching how these groups from around the world without any language in common were able to connect with each other through their music. While all of the bands were fascinated with the group from India, Maharaja, as they represented the origins of the Roma, it was the Spanish flamenco duo of Antonio El Pipa and his aunt Juana la del Pipa who connected with them the most. By the end of the tour they had even managed to work out a performance piece called Tango Maharaja, where the two bands joined forces to dance and sing together. It was really quite extraordinary watcing how they found common ground without being able to talk to each other except through smiles, hand signals, and their music.
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Esma Redzepova from Macedonia is recognized globally as the Queen Of The Gypsies, an honour bestowed on her by then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. Aside from being a dynamic performer for over forty years, Esma, has also been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her political work on behalf of the Roma. Unable to have children of her own she and her late husband adopted forty-seven children and trained them to earn their livings playing music. As Roma go she is well off, but although she might appear to be a diva when on stage, off is another matter as can be seen from her interaction with the other performers on the tour. Even if there were some trace elements of diva that did shine through, after watching her perform you could forgive her anything.

Of course it's the music that is the most compelling part of the movie. From the all out assault of Fanfare Ciocarlia, the raw, fiery passion of Antonio and Juana singing and dancing flamenco, the eerie and beautiful music of Maharaja and their amazing dancers, the wild strings of Taraf De Haidouks, to the magnificence of Esma Redzepova, its an experience that has to be witnessed to be believed. Life, love, joy, sadness, sorrow, but never self-pity, pour from their songs and their dances like lava from a volcano. You can't help but wonder what these people do that allows them to experience life so fully that they can perform and share this with us to such an extent. After being spat on for hundreds of years, and still being spat on and treated like dirt to this day, they somehow find inside themselves the strength to not only continue living, but to play music that is far more life affirming than anything you'll hear from almost any other source.

It strikes me as one of the world's supreme ironies that these musicians were paraded around like this in an attempt to garner wider acceptance of the Roma among the world at large, when they should be giving the rest of us lessons on how to live. We should be grateful that the Roma are still willing to even make an effort to reach out to us instead of picking up weapons to fight back and protect themselves from our world. If you know nothing about the Roma, this movie will not only introduce you to their music but give you a peek into their lives and an overview of their history as a people since they left India over a thousand years ago to travel west. Perhaps you'll come to understand that you have nothing to fear from them except the chance of your heart being broken.

June 28, 2009

DVD Review: Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement

It was in the 1950's that the United States of America began to pay the price for the years of treating African Americans like second class citizens. Refusing to be segregated and denied a voice in the selection of their government any longer, African Americans began campaigns of protest and education in an attempt to be treated equally. It wasn't only the Southern States where segregation and other forms of discrimination were practised, but it was states like Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi where they were most enshrined either by law or custom, or both.

Therefore it was these states that became literally the main battlegrounds of the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950's and early 1960's. People from all over North America congregated in the South to show their support for the movement by taking an active role in their protests. Sit in's were staged by black people in white only dining facilities, bus seats in the front, white only sections, of municipal vehicles were occupied, voter registration drives that ensured black people previously shut out from the polls were able to vote, and people marched in the thousands demanding equal rights. The battle they faced wasn't an easy one as they were routinely attacked and beaten by both the police and mobs, and there were deaths among both the white and black protesters.

Now as the churches were key in galvanizing the people in the South, it should come as no surprise that when the protesters turned to song in order to comfort themselves and keep up their spirits, their first thought was the spirituals that were sung in church. It was easy to identify with songs taken from the stories of Moses leading his people to freedom, and it was those songs that were first sung and even adapted to suit the needs of the movement. However, as the recently released DVD of the documentary Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement shows, spirituals weren't the first or only music that were part of the movement. It also shows how the music of the African American community grew to reflect the changing moods of the people as the needs have changed.
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Narrated by Louis Gosset Jr. Let Freedom Sing traces the history of music protesting the situation of African Americans from Billie Holiday's performance of "Strange Fruit" with it's graphic descriptions of black people hanging from trees as the result of lynching, to Public Enemy's songs about life in today's urban core. However, as befits its title the majority of the movie's focus is on the relationship between the music and the quest for equality. Interviews with musicians and former freedom riders are interspersed with footage of protests of the era helping to both recreate the era for the viewer, and providing first hand accounts of what the music meant to those involved with the events depicted.

As was mentioned earlier, spirituals were the backbone of the movement to begin with, but gradually songs from both outside the church and the black community became just as important to the people on the ground and in getting the movement's message out to the world at large. Young white musicians like Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez were key in ensuring that young educated white audiences in the northern states at least were aware of the issues, if not inspiring them to take an active role in protesting. Perhaps the most famous song associated with the civil rights movement of the early 1960's was "We Shall Overcome" and there's a nice little bit with Pete Seeger, where he makes sure to stress that all he did was introduce the song to people, and they were responsible for its genesis into the powerful protest song it became.

While some of the conversations with the musicians were interesting enough, some of them have bore a striking familiarity to ones that I'd seen in other documentaries before. The interviews that were most fascinating were those with individuals who had been active in the movement. Not only were they each articulate about their experiences, they were also able to tell us just what music had meant to them and how it had helped them through difficult times while protesting. Music not only has the power to inspire crowds, as it did in one man's memories of spending the whole night in jail singing, it also could give individuals the strength to stand up to the abuse heaped upon them by the counter demonstrators.
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While there's no denying the veracity of the history that's being presented in Let Freedom Ring, and on the whole the music is a decent cross representation of the era as it related to the civil rights movement, there was a little too much emphasis on the music that had crossover appeal for white audiences in the 1970's. While there was acknowledgement of the rise of black power, that whole aspect of the history was skirted over aside from a brief speech given by Stokely Carmichael and some pictures of various Black Panther members like Angela Davies. Perhaps most annoying was there was almost no mention of Malcom X, any references to Huey Newton and his false arrest on manslaughter charges or any of the various efforts made by the FBI to discredit not only the Panthers but even mainstream leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.

The other problem I had with the movie is although it refers to itself as being about music and the civil rights movement, in actual fact it's about music and the history of African Americans struggle for equality. If you're going to use a title as inclusive as civil rights, you have to include all those groups who are striving for acceptance; Hispanics, Gays & Lesbians, Native Americans, women, illegal immigrants, and the disabled. While it's true that in the 1950's and 1960's the focus of civil rights activists was on the African American community, the latter part of the twentieth century saw other groups struggling for acceptance as well. While it was good that the movie included events that happened beyond the borders of North America by talking about South Africa and Nelson Mandela, if they're calling themselves a movie about the civil rights movement they need to be more inclusive.

While the movie Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement does a good job showing the connection between the fight for equal rights for African Americans and the popular music of the community, it's an incomplete and slightly misleading history as it leaves out references to key figures and events. Even if we accept it's title at face value, that the civil rights movement was only concerned with African Americans, it's still an inadequate job of telling that history.

June 25, 2009

Forgiveness & Abuse

I've written rather extensively about things of a rather personal nature in the past in order to offer people an example of some of the processes available to those who have suffered from some sort of trauma. I'm no expert or psychologist, all I've been able to offer is a sample of the things I've experienced and the protocols that have been employed by my doctors to help me deal with how the past continued to impact on my present in order to give me a better future. Some of them had to do with finding more appropriate means of expressing my emotions, others dealing with behaviour that might have been appropriate for survival but that could now be discarded, and others helped me in assimilating the events of the past so they wouldn't live on in my mind and my emotions.

While it's been a long slow process to deal with the crap that had accumulated; there were times I had assumed I was done only to find more buried away which required excising; after being in therapy on and for fifteen years I can finally see that I'm getting to the point where I'm capable of coping on my own. The emotional scarring and wounding may never heal completely, but I have reached a point where I'm no longer controlled by events that occurred when I was a child. Ironically the length of time it's taken to get to this point is roughly equivalent to the length of time the abuse lasted in the first place.

Now in spite of what you might have seen and heard on various day time talk shows specializing in the dissecting of people's emotions for the enjoyment of their audiences, or that believe themselves capable of dispensing the wisdom to heal everybody of what ails them, there are no cut and dried happy endings to this type of thing. While time isn't going to be able to heal all wounds, it's only through time's passage that you're going to get relief from their pain. There's no magic formulae that will speed up the process of recovery, nor is there any one method that will solve all of your problems. Anyone who says that they have discovered a system that will "cure" you is deluded at best, or at worst a liar.

Sure there are all sorts of panaceas that can make you feel better about yourself for a moment or two, but there no better than any of the other things that people take to suppress their emotions so they don't feel any pain. There's no difference between what these hucksters are offering and the drugs and booze I used for years to mask my own pain. Reciting some silly mantra, calling upon a guardian angel, or reciting an affirmation about you being worthy of love won't stop flashbacks of the abuse from occurring or help you deal with any underlying behavioural problems caused by the abuse.

However there's something even more misguided and dangerous that occurs on some of these shows. How many times have you seen staged reunions and reconciliations between long estranged family members? Great weepy scenes where people fall into each other's arms forgiving each other for past misdeeds and vowing eternal love for each other. The implication being that if only you can forgive the person who caused you pain, if they would only apologize, everything would be better.

One of the hardest things for the child of abusive parents to deal with is the reality that the happy family society tells us is the norm, was so comprehensively denied them. Most of us spent years trying to figure out what was wrong with us that made our abuser break that promise, only later understanding that it was them, not us, who were the problem. After years of trying to figure out ways of making someone else happy so they would love us, or at least leave us alone; years of being told we were only getting what we deserved; or years of having the love between a parent and child perverted into something awful, the idea of family being a shelter and a haven from the world takes quite a beating.

It's probably difficult for you to imagine what seeing one of those scenes described above feels like to somebody who spent years forgiving their abuser in the hopes tomorrow would be better. Maybe, you would tell yourself, after they apologized for what seemed like the hundredth time, they really mean it this time. Maybe the tears they shed after forcing you to have sex with them are real and they really feel remorse for their actions? Even if as a child you weren't capable of comprehending what it was you were doing exactly, by trying to love them because they were your parent, you were practising a form of forgiveness.

Therefore, the idea that forgiving somebody years later for what they did to us as a child will make things better when they didn't respond to our gestures of forgiveness at the time can't help but seem unrealistic if not stupid. Sure it makes for great television and appeals to everybody's sentimental nature, but it fails to take into account that in order to forgive someone there needs to be some sort of reciprocity of feeling. How can you forgive someone who never showed any remorse for their actions or never took any steps to change their behaviour?

There have been things I've done in my life that I've had to apologize for and I know how hollow some of them were until I was able to change my behaviour sufficiently that my actions suited my words. While there is a school of thought that says unless we learn how to forgive those who have hurt us we will never fully recover from the damage inflicted upon us, it sounds far too much like the same behaviour we practised as children in the hopes of making things better. It still feels like we're not standing up for ourselves and giving the abuser power over us. People can say all they like that forgiveness doesn't mean you condone what somebody did, but quite frankly I'd rather just have the strength to tell them to fuck off out of my life and leave me alone.

As a child I didn't have the power to do that and was forced to do whatever necessary to survive. I no longer have to surrender anything of myself to my abuser and I no longer have to try and make them happy. Asking me, or anyone to forgive their abuser, no matter what shape that forgiveness comes in, would be like asking us to return to being a victim. That's not about to happen anytime soon.

June 23, 2009

Music Review: Jon Balke, Amina Alaoui, Jon Hassell, and Kheir Eddine M'Kachiche - Siwan

The common perception most of us have of European history from the fall of the Roman Empire until the fifteenth century is one personified by the title the period is designated as; The Dark Ages. Its depicted in our histories as being marked by the spread of the Black Plague, ignorance, and superstition. It wasn't until the miracle of the Renaissance, which literally means re-birth, that Europeans began to drag themselves out of the mud and filth and started to create beautiful art and rediscover the teachings of the ancients. Reading most standard histories of the time you could get the impression this awakening was somehow spontaneous; one morning people just woke up and looked at the world differently.

The reality is that the knowledge was never really lost and not all of Europe had descended to the same depths of ignorance, only Christian Europe. Al Andalus was the area of Spain ruled by Muslims until 1492, and during those dark ages all the so-called lost knowledge and arts were alive and kicking. Everything from the concept of zero in mathematics, philosophical concepts of the self which would have seen you burnt at the stake in Christian Europe, to the arts and music, thrived in the city states of Cordoba and others through out the region. Muslims, Christians, and Sephardic Jews lived in relative harmony and there was a free exchange of ideas and learning between scholars of all three faiths. It was from here that the knowledge which fuelled the so called Renaissance trickled into Italy, France, and other countries.

How much of this beauty and knowledge was lost when the Spanish Inquisition purged the region of heretics and non-believers by forcing Muslims and Jews to either convert, flee, or burn, will never be known. However much of the great poetry and ideas on music were preserved and passed on. The music was probably the easiest to spread as wandering minstrels and troubadours would have carried tunes and lyrics across borders and passed their ideas on. It's this music, and the poetry that sometimes supplied the lyrics for it, that forms the basis for a collection of music being released on ECM Records under the guidance of Norwegian pianist Jon Balke on June 30th in North America.
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Siwan, the title of the disc, is the word for balance in Aljamiado, the Latin-Arabic hybrid language spoken in medieval Andalusia, is a collection of eleven tracks, nine of which feature the work of poets from that region married to music inspired by the era. The earliest song, "Thulathiyat" was written by the Suffi mystic Husayn Mansour Al Hallaj who lived between 857 -922 AD while Lope de Vega's "A la dina dana" demonstrates how the influences of the era lived on after the re-conquest as he lived from 1562 - 1635 and is considered one of the major voices of the golden age of Spanish literature for his plays and prose. The booklet accompanying the CD not only gives a history of each song and the poet who wrote it, but their lyrics in the language they are sung in, either Spanish or Arabic, and an English translation.

Jon Balke has an extensive background in both jazz and world music with credits including compositions for theatre, dance, and chamber orchestras. The three other main musicians, vocalist Amina Alaoui, trumpeter Jon Hassell, and violinist Kheir Eddine M'Kachiche each have experience and talent relevant to the work at hand. Alaoui and M'Kachiche are Moroccan and Algerian respectively and both have extensive backgrounds in the history and playing of the music of Al Andalus. Jon Hassell's musical experiences have seen him studying from Europe to India and he has created what he calls "fourth world" music - music without borders that combines classical,pop, secular, and sacred elements from all over the world. With these four serving as the nexus, and the rest of the musicians drawn from traditions and cultures ranging from traditional Persian to early European music like baroque and renaissance, everybody involved has had their musical experiences influenced by what was born on the Iberian peninsula.

As for the music itself, I'm struggling to find the words to describe it. If you're familiar with any of music from North Africa, Spain, Persia (modern Iran), or renaissance Europe, than you're bound to recognize elements in each song no matter what language they are sung in. In fact there are times while listening to various songs that you'll swear you've heard it before as patterns that you've heard in another context will tug at your memory. However, all of the compositions have been created for this recording. What Balke and his fellow musicians have done is compose music which reflects the depth and breadth of the influence Muslim Spain has on us to this day. It shows, no matter what anybody would have us believe, that Islam is one of the cornerstones of Western culture, as the philosophy and thought that went into the creation of the music from that region continues to strike chords of recognition with us today.
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One of the great wonders of Siwan aside from the beauty of the music, is the singing of Amina Alaoui. While all the musicians are wonderful, it's around her voice that the nine tracks with lyrics live or die. The more I hear female vocalists from traditions other than North American pop or European opera, the more I realize why I've always felt there has been something lacking in our music. There's nothing forced or controlled about Alaoui's voice like what were used to. While I've always been able to admire the technical prowess of an opera voice, its lack of human warmth has always left me cold. Alaoui's voice is every bit as technically proficient as any I've heard sing opera, but she has the humanity they lack. Rich like velvet her voice also retains the rawness of human emotion that allows us to identify with her song even though we may not speak or understand the language she's singing in.

Carl Jung talked about the idea of race memory wherein we remember things that date back thousands of years through a type of collective unconscious. While some of that has been formed by specific associations like religion and language, some of it we share in common with all humans. In some ways the music on Siwan is like that as you recognize it without actually knowing any of the songs on the disc. However, what's important is the music on this disc is beautifully sung and wonderfully played. It doesn't matter what you know or don't know about history, or even if you give a damn about who influenced who. Listening to this disc is an experience that transcends any of those concerns, proving once again that regardless of what anyone thinks or does, great art exists in a world of its own.

June 10, 2009

Book Review: Shalom India Housing Society by Esther David

I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised to learn that there were Jewish communities in India. After all its close enough to the Middle East that it would have been easy for people to end up there accidentally or on purpose during one of the many times of forced exile. According to legend over 2,000 years ago a shipwreck landed a group of Jews fleeing Greek persecution off the coast of India. Although they lost many of their books during the ship wreck they preserved an oral tradition of major prayers like the declaration of faith, Shema Yisroel, and the prayer to Eliyahu Hannibi or the prophet Elijah.

As strict adherents to the laws dictated by God to Moses, Jews are prohibited from worshipping idols or graven images of anything or anyone. However in her introduction to her most recent novel, Shalom India Housing Society published by The Feminist Press, Esther David informs us that the Bene Israel Jews (Children of Israel) of India had taken the prophet Elijah to their hearts. Perhaps, she speculates, that on finding themselves living in a country surrounded by images of a multitude of gods, elders created the cult of Elijah in order to help preserve Judaism.

Elijah not only will herald the coming of the Messiah, but each year he visits every Jewish household during the Passover feast to drink from the glass of wine left as his offering. At one point during the Seder, as the ritual Passover meal is known, the door to the house will be opened to let Elijah know that it's all right for him to enter and have his drink. In Bene Israel houses, unlike those of other Jews, there's usually a picture of the prophet on a wall of the house. It's common practice for these families to offer prayers to Elijah, asking him to intervene in their lives to help them with everything from their love lives to making sure their children do well in school. Sometimes he answers and other times he doesn't, and sometimes his answers don't come in quite the way hoped for.
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In the twenty-first century the descendants of those shipwrecked have seen their numbers depleted by immigrations to Israel, but they continue to attend synagogue, fall in love, and live their lives watched over by the spirit of Elijah. Following the religious riots of 2002 the Bene Israel in Ahmedabad created a distinct community for themselves by constructing the Shalom India Housing Society apartment complex. While not specifically targeted by either Muslim or Hindu, the Jews felt at risk from mob violence when it was observed how a group of radical Hindu's stripped a Muslim boy and then killed him when they found he was circumcised. It was hoped that by living in an area designated as Jewish they would be safe from being mistaken for Muslims.

David guides us through the Jewish community in Ahmedabad by introducing us to the various inhabitants of the Shalom India Housing Society. It's only fitting, because of the importance that the Bene Israel people place on him, that we first see their households through the eyes of the prophet Elijah. It's the first night of Passover and Elijah is making the rounds of all the Jewish households in the world in order to drink the glass of wine left for him. As his spirit enters each of the various apartments in the building he comments on the quality of the offering left for him (he's not above jogging the occasional elbow here and there if it looks like somebody is being less than generous). While his pleasure at such offerings of Chivas Regal, neat gin, and a good red wine are quite genuine, he's also disturbed by the disquiet he senses in more than a few apartments.

The first few chapters focus on the preparations being made for the costume competition being held at the synagogue for the younger people. As is the case in so many families conflicts differences between the more traditional older generation and the modern younger generation are causing no end of problems. Leon wants to dress as his favourite Bollywood starlet, complete with skirt, a blouse of his mother's, and a padded bra. However his father takes one look at him, adjusting his breasts and shaking a hip, and he's reaching for his cane to beat his child. Leon's mother had hoped that her son's fascination with women's clothes and make-up as a boy was just a child's playing, but when he continued to experiment with her clothes and cosmetics as a teenager, even the most doting of mothers can't help but realize it's more than just a phase.
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Rivka and Yehuda aren't the only ones to be troubled by their child, as parents through-out the complex look on aghast as their children push against convention. While it's one thing for Yael to disobey her mom and aunt by wearing a backless shirt that also shows off her waist and a dancing girl's skirt, it's another thing altogether when Juliet wanted to marry Rahul. As there weren't enough Jews for all the apartments in the Shalom India Housing Society, it had been decided that Block B would be made available to sympathetic non-Jews like Rahul's family the Abhirams. The Abraham and Abhiram families were close, and their children had played together since they were toddlers, but it was still a shock to everyone when Juliet was caught in bed with Rahul.

Of course it's not only young people who have troubles in the Shalom India Housing Society. Mother-in-laws quarrel with their son's wives, husbands worry about what their wives are getting up to when their away, and a lonely widow debates about whether she could possibly date a non-Jew. While there's something genuinely exotic reading about Jews wearing Saris and talking about Bollywoood movies, the people in this book aren't made out to be anything extraordinary. This is their life and they have been leading it for two thousand some years. David has done such a wonderful job in bringing these people to life that while we may not be able to identity with the idea of an arranged marriage, or the need to marry within one's own community, we can still relate to the feelings of the characters we meet.

Shalom India Housing Society brings a community alive through the lives of its people. David has opened the doors of the apartments in this Bene Israel complex, and like the prophet Elijah we are able to slip in unseen and sit at their tables and observe their lives. While we may not get the opportunity to imbibe quite as much as the prophet does, (and boy is he hung over the day after the first Seder) we are treated to a healthy feast for the senses as we become everybody's confidant and party to all of their secrets. By the end of the book you'll know all about this group of Indian Jews and their unique circumstances which sees them having both maintained their traditions and embraced the culture of the country they've settled in. A delight to read, and an education as well, Esther David's new book is like being dropped down into the midst of an extended family's reunion. You might not know everybody when you first get there, but it's only a matter of time before you feel right at home.

Book Review: US Future States Atlas By Dan Mills

I've always had something of a problem political art. Far too often people expect you to lose your objectivity and only look at the message, not at how the message is delivered. It's like all of a sudden we're supposed to forget about the quality of the art because the message is so important. Maybe I'm just an elitist snob, but it pisses me off when people expect you to say how wonderful something they did was because it was about this or that, not because it was a beautifully written story or exquisitely drawn illustration.

I'm in agreement with saying art should hold a mirror up to society and there's nothing wrong with deliberately setting out to create a piece of art that makes a political statement. However, it's equally important for whomever is doing the creation that he or she are able to set aside the issue that originally inspired them and be able to focus on how best to communicate it for an audience. No matter what you do, though, creating political art is such a difficult balancing act, as you try to meet the needs of both the art and the issue you're dealing with, that not many can pull off.

However, if you're interested in seeing an example of one artist who does an exemplary job of accomplishing it check out the recent release from Perceval Press, US Future States Atlas by visual artist Dan Mills. Subtitled "An Atlas Of Global Imperialism" the book gathers together a series of satirical maps Mills created delineating countries the United States could invade in the future and annex as additional states in the union.
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For each country, or "state", Mills has taken an actual image of it from an atlas and then begun its transformation into being part of United States Global (USG).(Note: USA + USG = United States Empire (USE)) First, if these new states are more than one country, made up of bits and pieces of a few adjacent countries, or as in the case of "New Venice" (formally Venezuela) divided up into separate states, their new boundaries have to be defined on the atlas. The new regions are painted in either one or a few exceptionally garish colours that make them stand out from those in their immediate vacinity.While in some instances it makes them appear to be a mockery of the way in which relief maps designating altitude and geographical formations are drawn, the distinctiveness of the colours also puts me in mind of the way in which maps used to designate countries that were once part of the British Empire with bright pink. Even in post colonial days you could look at a world map and spot Commonwealth countries, former colonies who still wanted to be part of the same club, dotted all over the world.

In fact if you turn to the back of the book you'll see that Mills has created two new maps of the world, one of which depicts the countries of USE picked out in a sickly purple, washed out blue, and shades of green. The other is crammed full of initials as it designates all the territories through abbreviations. Looking at the new map of the world where the fourty-seven new states appear like random blotches against a pale background it's hard to find any rhyme or reason for why these particular spots were chosen to become parts of the new empire.

Not to worry, for on each of the individual maps of the new states Mills has outlined the reasons why this particular country was chosen to become part of USE, and the benefits to be derived by USA, or US50, from their inclusion. These include everything from the geo-political, a country is situated such that an American presence can easily exert influence on a region of the world, to the natural resources made available through their inclusion. Of course one country can't just annex another without so much as a by your leave, I mean wasn't the first Gulf War fought because Iraq annexed Kuwait?
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That's all right Mills has covered those bases as well. For on each map he's itemized the reasons for US50 to take over the country. Take the new state of Panama Canal as an example. First of all the country of Panama wouldn't have existed without US aid in the first place as they were part of Columbia until 1903 and only seceded with American aid. Immediately upon declaring sovereignty they gave the US control over a swathe of land through the middle of the country until 1999 in order to build the canal and run it. Therefore a good chunk of the country was ruled by America for the majority of its existence anyway. Aside from that it will fulfil the need for military bases in the region to assist in future plans for the region and provide a beach head in Central America.

With his US Future States Atlas Mills has created a wickedly biting satire of America foreign policy dating back to the days of the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny. In the later parts of the twentieth century and early twenty-first we've seen the US invade countries all over the world with impunity for what has turned out to be the most spurious of rationale. Somalia, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq have all been treated to visits by American armies since the 1980s, while other countries have had to deal with forces armed and funded by various US governments. His creations are not only visually arresting with their garish colours, but they also provide insightful and intelligent commentary on American foreign policy and how truly ridiculous some of the rationale given for those previous actions has been.

Perceval Press has done its usual masterful job of presenting artwork in a book form. The works are laid out in such a way that we are able to see both their scope and the detail of each piece. Blow ups of the actual states themselves allow us to appreciate the lurid details of the colours Mills has chosen to illuminate them with, while the scale reproductions of each map are clear enough that we can make out details like the accompanying text. US Future States Atlas accomplishes the delicate act of balancing of art and politics with grace and style. While that's in large part due to Dan Mills' sensibilities, Perceval Press has to be given some credit as well as they have created an effective and accessible means for people to view the artist's work.

US Future States Atlas can be purchased directly from Perceval Press.

June 8, 2009

Book Review: Between The Assassinations by Aravind Adiga

There's a literary tradition of creating a series of stories that are tied together by their location. By creating a series of vignettes featuring the lives of a variety of individuals who live in a community the author attempts to leave readers with an overall impression of what life is like in the locale. Probably the most famous of these types of collections were Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg Ohio and James Joyce's Dubliners. Although from different worlds, and stylistically miles apart, both men brought their chosen cities to life in ways that left indelible impressions upon the reader.

In Between The Assassinations, published by Simon And Schuster Canada, Aravind Adiga tries his hand at the same thing with the city of Kittur on the south west coast of India. The assassinations of the title refer to the 1984 death of Indira Gandhi and the killing of her son Rajiv seven years later in 1991. While neither event has any direct bearing on the course of action in this book, they were of course important events in the history of India. Sandwiched between the two, the "life as normal" scenes depicted by Adiga, are a history of a sort that you don't normally read in text books.

Adiga has laid the book out as if it were a tourist guide to the region. He starts off by telling you that in order to properly "do" Kittur you need seven days, and the book is divided up into those seven days. While some areas of the city might take a full day to explore, others only take part of a day, so you'll find some chapters will take a whole day and others only a morning or an afternoon. Needless to say the guidebook descriptions for each chapter are rather tongue in cheek as the landmarks include a pornographic movie theatre, a cathedral that's never been completed, a historic monument that's fallen into disrepair, and violent slum. Kittur seems best known for being half way between a couple of other places and having a very high population of lower caste Hoyka people. In fact of the total population of Kittur only 89 people self identify as being without religion or caste.
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Therefore it shouldn't be of much surprise that caste, class, and religion play a role in the majority of the stories. Everything that occurs in the city does under their shadow and they're a constant presence lurking in the backs of people's minds. For in Kittur your place is very closely defined and even thinking about crossing the line could result in disaster. It's all right for a servant to make himself indispensable, but to try and be treated as an equal and see what happens.

Like any good tour guide Between The Assassinations divides your seven day sojourn in Kittur up by location. However your guides change by day and location, and the perspective they offer on the sites they are responsible for showing off isn't one that you'd normally find offered by the standard tour companies. How many companies would use an unskilled labourer like George D'Souza to show you around the famous unfinished cathedral? Nor would many be likely to hire the student who exploded a bomb in his science class to show you around the well known Jesuit school St. Alfonso's Boys' High School and Junior College. No they'd be more likely to hire the assistant headmaster Mr. D'Mello instead, a firm disciplinarian who after more than thirty years of teaching can anticipate what mischief young men can get up to before they even know themselves. Although they may not have had him lead a group of adolescent boys on a tour of the infamous "Angels' Talkies" pornographic cinema.

I'm also certain most tour companies wouldn't have on their agendas the sights our guides show us in and around the locales they represent. How many tourists are going to want visit the back allies where the poor sleep? I don't think they'd appreciate it either if their guides ran a sideline selling fake cures for venereal diseases or included visits to clinics euphemistically named "Happy Life" as part of the tour of the historic fort The Sultan's Battery. However it's these guides and their lives that give our tour of Kittur the authenticity that most lack.
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While the majority of the characters we meet in Between The Assassinations are those who feel the weight of caste and class the heaviest on their shoulders Adiga doesn't become just give us one group's perspective as so many others seem to have developed a habit of doing. For it's a factory owner who gives us a tour of The Bunder, the area of town where criminal activity is concentrated. It's not that he's involved in anything illegal, but among the drug runners and smugglers he finds a sympathetic audience to unburden himself to about the number of bribes he has to pay in order to stay open.

However, no matter whose eyes we see the city through the picture is not a pretty one. Corruption is rampant and poverty is a child's normal inheritance. Even the poorest having to pay off someone for the privilege of sleeping in a back alley. Adiga's characters aren't always the nicest of people, but they're what their world made them and the connection between who they are and the conditions that shaped them is drawn accurately without being sensationalized. Although it's is beginning to feel like every book released in North America set in India is mainly concerned with recounting social ills that tarnish the economic miracle image that is trumpeted in the press, Adiga's study of life in Kittur only does so indirectly. For instead of themes like religious violence or corruption being the focus, they are simply part and parcel of the lives his characters live.

Like Joyce and Anderson before him Adiga has concentrated his energies on the people of Kittur. By giving us glimpses into their lives; opening their hearts and minds to us so that we the city through their eyes, we are given a multi-dimensional view of life there. In the same way turning the tube of a kaleidoscope changes the image that one sees through its viewfinder, each chapter offers a different perspective. As a result, this is a remarkably well developed picture of life in a specific city and a number of the people who live in it. Although we may mark history with designated dates like the assassinations of major figures in society, individual's stories are continually being played out, and taken together they form the story of the place where they live.

Between The Assassinations is being released in North America on June 9th/2009 by Simon and Schuster and can either be purchased directly from them or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

Music Review: Take Me To The Water: Immersion Baptism In Vintage Music And Photography 1890 - 1950 Various Performers

It's not a sight you're liable to see that often anymore, at least not in big cities in the northern United States and Canada. A congregation of people gathered by a river, stream, or other body of water deep enough to submerge a person in. Ritual, mass public baptisms in a natural setting, like the banks of a river, are as foreign to most of us these days as the rites carried out by distant cultures in far off lands. Aside from practical matters like finding a body of water clean enough near a major population centre that you'd want to be immersed in it, the whole deal seems like a relic from the past.

Now I'm not saying that full immersion baptism isn't still practised today, there are too many Christian denominations and sects that see it as an integral part of their practice. However, I can't see the practice being as wide spread now as it was in the earlier parts of the twentieth century and before simply because people in general don't have the time for such elaborate rituals when it comes to their religion. Now I'm no expert on the matter, but I'd say as the practice was always limited to the Protestant denominations, specifically the various Baptist churches, that the actual number of people who participated in these rituals was always a minority. As times, and people's attitudes towards religion, have changed, I'd think that minority has gradually been reduced.

All of which make Take Me To The Water, a CD of baptismal music and sermons from the first half of the twentieth century released by the Dust To Digital label, as important as it is intriguing. As their name implies Dust to Digital specializes in rescuing pieces of Americana from the dust of history and restoring them as much as possible. In this case they have gathered together old recordings of sermons and music associated with full immersion baptismal celebrations on a CD and reproduced a collection of seventy-five photographs of+ baptisms from the same time period.
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While listening to the music and the various sermons on their own gives you some indication of what these ceremonies meant to those who participated in them, listening to them while looking at pictures of people gathered for, and participating in, baptisms gives you an even deeper appreciation of just how significant these events used to be. While the posed images with everyone standing solemnly facing the camera are an indication of how important these occasions were to people, it's the images of the actual baptisms that communicate the joy experienced by those taking part.

Let your eye wander away from the focal point of those shots, the minister and the person being baptized, and look at the faces of those observing. Their eyes are glued to the action in mid-stream as if it were the centre of the universe. In some of the photos you can even spot those caught up in the throes of ecstasy as they have thrown themselves into the passion of witnessing a loved ones affirmation of faith. Perhaps this is one of the reasons these ceremonies are uncomfortable for us, as we aren't used to open displays of passion when it comes to our religious practices. Compare that scene to the average Christening held in a church in front of the font where the priest or minister sprinkles a few drops of water on an infants forehead. Aside from the involvement of water, the two ceremonies have almost nothing in common.

While the pictures tell one part of the story the twenty-five songs and sermons on the CD give us an even better idea of the passions generated by participating in an outdoor baptism ceremony. It begins right from the opening track with Rev, J. M, Gates, recorded in 1926, leading his congregation in singing "Baptize Me" and introducing it with a sermon about how anyone who is born again needs to be baptized. Aside from the fact that the good reverend is a powerful speaker, it's the sound of those listening to him shouting out their agreement that drives home the intensity of the feelings that are generated during one of those events.
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While a great many of the tunes and groups performing them are liable to be unknown to anybody but an avid collector of Americana, there are still some recognizable names among the performers and song titles gathered together on this collection. What collection of early twentieth century gospel music would be complete without a contribution from the Carter Family? This is no exception as they perform "On My Way To Canaan's Land". While they don't match some of the African American choirs in terms of passion, there can be no doubt at the depth of their sincerity when they sing about being "Baptized in Jesus' name"

Both the musical recordings and the pictures in the book show the effects of age as the former are full of hisses and pops, while the latter are stained or even ripped in places. Not only does their condition do nothing to reduce their impact upon us, it gives them an air of authenticity that makes them all the more powerful. Original source material of this nature allows us to experience events without anyone's opinion or viewpoint obstructing our view. It's the difference between reading a history of an event written long after it took place, and reading an eyewitness account of the same incident. What you lose by having a slightly narrower focus is more than compensated for by the vividness of detail generated by its immediacy.

The Dust to Digital label has done a magnificent job of putting together packages that bring very specific periods of the past to life. Take Me To The Water lives up to the high standards they have established with their previous releases. It offers the opportunity to experience, as much as possible without actually being there, the old time public baptisms that were once an integral part of the fabric of life for a great many North Americans. This package gives us all an opportunity to appreciate just what a wonderful thing faith can be, and the joy and pleasure it can bring. That's a lesson we could all stand to learn, as we have somehow managed to twist faith into being weapon these days instead of the celebration it once was. Who says we can't learn anything from the past?

June 7, 2009

DVD Review: The Adventure Of English With Melvyn Bragg

I've always been fascinated with words and their origins, wondering where they came from and how they came to mean what they do today. I had studied enough Latin in high school, and know enough French, to know where quite a few words of English came from. However, even a quick glance at other words will tell you that there's no way they could have roots going back to either French or Latin. So it didn't come as much of a surprise to learn that English not only has its origins in about a half dozen older languages, but every time its contacted another language, its sucked up new words like a vacuum.

Now I had always joked about English being a mongrel language but I wasn't prepared for just how many different cultures had contributed to building the words I work with on almost a daily basis. Watching The Adventure Of English, the four DVD disc set of the British television show just released by Athena, a division of Acorn Media, was therefore an eye opening experience. Hosted by British author Melvyn Bragg, the series traces the history of the English language from its roots in the mists of time to the language of mass communication and commerce its become today. It may not sound like the most thrilling of topics, but in the hands of Bragg the journey is nearly as exciting as any adventure story.

The early history of the English language revolves around a series of invasions of the British Isles that took place over a five hundred year period. English as we know it today has its earliest European roots in the North Sea. It was Germanic tribes from the Friesian Islands invading in 500 AD that brought the beginnings of English to Britain. They conquered the native Celts and established kingdoms in the east, west, south, and north of England with only a small enclave of Celts surviving in what is now known as Wales. However those kingdoms weren't to last long as the Danes under their king soon followed and drove the Saxons out of the north and east and established their own holdings there.
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Bragg shows us how each of these two initial waves of invaders left there mark upon present day English through offering examples of their tongues presence in today's speech. In the north and east of England for instance names that ends in son, Robinson, Harrison, and Williamson, can be traced back to the Norse tradition of naming people "son of". He also shows how place names have retained traces of the former dominant language. However it was only after peace and trade between the two sets of invaders were established that "Anglo-Saxon" began to thrive (the Anglo comes from the name of one of the Kingdoms, East Angles which is now known as East Anglia).

With the introduction of Latin and the Roman script, they were even making headway on establishing "English" (what we know as Old English and barely recognizable as being the same language we speak today) in the written form, when the Normans invaded in 1066. That was nearly the death knell of English as French became the official language of the land. It did die out as a written language because of the Norman invasion, but while English absorbed some words we now take for granted (justice, court, and castle) it lived on as the spoken language of the majority of the population. Ironically enough it wasn't until the new "French" empire invaded and conquered Normandy, cutting off all links between the rulers of England and their former homeland, that English mades its comeback.
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Of course it doesn't take too long for English to go on the offensive once they've got their own house in order. After taking care of the whole matter of the Catholic church and establishing the Church of England under Henry VIII thus ensuring masses are held in English not in Latin, their eyes turned further afield. The Puritans took English with them to North America where they established where they incorporated mispronounced Native American words into their vocabulary in taking the first steps in establishing "American English". Then came the first forays into India and the Caribbean.

While initially British merchants in India were forced to learn the language of the rulers as they were dealing with a civilization both older and more sophisticated than their own, eventually the roles were reversed. Taking on the "White Man's Burden" of elevating the poor misguided coloured people of the world, the East Indian Trading company passed laws prohibiting the teaching of any language but English to those Indians receiving an education. While this was an incredibly patronizing attitude, it did result in the development of "Indian English", which in turn helped support Indian nationalism by supplying those struggling for "Home Rule" the vocabulary with which to articulate their demands.

Bragg doesn't mince any words in his descriptions of how English was spread through out the world. While his conversational approach to delivering the material may sound like he's making light of the way events took place in India and other locales, he doesn't shy away from telling the truth when it comes to showing English being spread by the sword. From Australia to America settlers and traders were backed up with gun ships and muskets to ensure that business was carried on in the Queen's English. When the sun began to set on the British Empire after the World Wars of the twentieth century, the American Empire took up the task of imposing the language on the rest of the world through a mixture of economic and martial might. When you think about it, not much has changed since the Germanic tribes left the Friesian Islands.

In The Adventure Of English Melvyn Bragg does an excellent job of not only unravelling the roots of the language we all take for granted, but he does it such a manner that he makes it enjoyable to watch. Often programs like these are either so dry as to be indigestible, facile to the point of being useless as sources of information, or delivered in such a manner that the dirtier aspects of history are whitewashed out. Remarkably none of that happens here. Not only are details of the history of the English language revealed that most likely you would have never discovered on your own, Bragg's approach is that of a story teller not a lecturer. In fact he's so good a story teller you hardly notice your learning anything, and you eagerly await the next adventure. If you have any curiosity about how and where the words you speak came from, The Adventure Of English not only supplies the answers, it does so in a way that brings both the language and its history to life. One thing is for sure, after watching this program you'll never look at a word, any word, in quite the same way again.

May 16, 2009

DVD Review: Deflating The Elephant

In the wake of the first Gulf War Noam Chomsky, an American professor of linguistics, broke down the steps taken by George Bush senior's administration to took to ensure public support for their invasion of Iraq. Manufacturing Consent, first a book and then a documentary movie of the same name, showed how through manipulating the media, out right lies, and other means, the administration ensured that first the media and then the American public were deceived into giving their consent for the war. As a linguist he was naturally interested in how the administration used the English language to assist them in their efforts, and how phrases like collateral damage, among others, were used as part of their strategy.

While it shares the same concerns about the use of English as Manufacturing Consent, Deflating The Elephant, coming to DVD on May 19th and being distributed by Cinema Libre, is looking at a far bigger picture than just one set of circumstances. Like the earlier movie the central figure, George Lakoff, is a linguistics professor interested in how language has been used to shape public opinion. His topic is how the language used by American conservatives over the last thirty years to describe liberals, or moderates, has gradually changed the public's perception of liberalism being a force for positive change to being something that has a negative impact on their lives.

Introduced by actor Sean Penn, the movie has Lakoff being interviewed, and then talking about, how conservative think tanks have focused on framed messaging to demean liberals and liberalism. According to Lakoff language is influenced by framing, the process of associating a word with a concept, and in turn our way of thinking, our ideology, and our behaviour, is shaped by the way in which concepts are used and repeated. Similar to Pavolov's famous dogs phrases such as "war on terror", "tax relief", and "tax and spend liberals" have been used sufficiently that they now result in a conditioned response that adheres to conservative ideology. Lakoff contends that this is how America has been changed from what was basically a progressive country to one with decided conservative leanings.
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In case you have any doubts as to which side of the argument Lakoff falls on, liberal or conservative, he makes it obvious when he starts to outline how progressives screwed up by ignoring what the conservatives were doing and not challenging their disinformation campaign. The real give away though is the fact that the second part of the movie is dedicated to explaining how liberals can go about countering the negative perceptions that have been created about them and their policies. This involves a detailed analysis of how framing is created and the means to change the perception that liberals are elitists who given half a chance would waste tax payers money while allowing the country to be over run by terrorists.

I've no doubts of the veracity of Professor Lakoff's arguments or his theories on language. Nor do I have any trouble believing there was a concentrated effort on the part of conservative think tanks in the United States to demonize liberalism. I also agree with both his assessment that liberals failed miserably by not taking the threat these think tanks represented seriously, and his recommendation that liberals need to start getting their hands dirty by actively responding in order to counter the impression of liberalism that's been created. In fact I would think the mood generated by the current administrations represents a golden opportunity for rehabilitating liberalism in the United States.

Unfortunately Deflating The Elephant has to be one of the most breathtakingly boring examples of film I've seen in a long time. While what Professor Lakoff has to say is in of itself interesting and informative, the manner in which the material was presented was stupefying. There's nothing at all interesting about watching someone sitting behind a desk talking directly into the camera no matter what he or she is talking about. The medium is not called motion pictures for nothing you know.
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In fact a film like this one does more to reenforce liberals as a bunch of elitist intellectuals than any conservative propaganda. Watching Lakoff lecture from behind his desk on a subject that ninety per-cent of the population neither knows nor cares anything about would only confirm in most people's minds that liberals aren't concerned about what really matters. What does any of this have to do with making sure a person can feed their family? How does this relate to the struggle to pay medical bills? There's no effort made by the filmmakers to put the information into a context that details the impact the distortion of liberalism has had on people's life.

One of the claims that's made about the film is that its an invaluable learning tool for anyone who wants to learn how to read between the lines and recognize the real meaning behind framed messaging. The only trouble is that hardly anyone is going to want to sit through it to learn what's being offered. When I read about the movie, I thought the topic would be fascinating, and was hoping for something along the lines of what had been done with Manufacturing Consent. Instead, even the introductions to the various sections by Sean Penn are stilted (you can almost see his eyes reading off the teleprompter) and the movie as a whole was an exercise in tedium to sit through.

"Preaching to the converted" is an expression meaning that the material being presented isn't going to appeal to anyone who doesn't already believe in what's being said and no attempt is being made to change other people's minds. While there is nothing wrong with a little positive reinforcement now and then, Deflating The Elephant doesn't even work on that level as the material is presented in a manner that would put friend or foe to sleep.

May 11, 2009

DVD Review: Palace Of The Wind

Living our lives of ease and luxury in the cities of the world it's easy to forget that there are places on the planet where life is hard and unforgiving. Where a simple error in judgement can easily lead to dangerous accidents or even loss of life. We see photographs of the high Arctic or the Sahara Desert and we wonder at their harsh beauty. Seemingly lifeless, they both offer vista's of what seems like unchanging landscape for miles in every direction. Yet appearances are deceptive as each of them are home to not only a variety of plants and animals, but people as well.

Traditionally the people of both lands were nomadic, but gradually the lands they once utilized to hunt or graze their flocks have been taken away from them. Whether it's permanent cities and their auras of waste that spread for miles in every direction, men trying to harvest the gifts that lay just below the earth's crust, or borders between countries, the wanderers of this world are no longer as free to travel as they once were. However while some have elected to settle among the cities of this new world, others have found ways to adapt to the changes and maintain the life of their ancestors.

Documentary film maker Hisham Mayet spent the better part of two years travelling through the Sahara desert filming and recording the people and the musicians he met there. One of the results of that trip is a new documentary DVD, Palace Of The Winds, being released on May 12th/09 by Sublime Frequencies. However, don't expect your normal documentary movie with voice overs and talking heads leading you by the hand to tell you a story because that's not Mayet's way. His camera and sound equipment give you eyes and ears to see and hear the world he is travelling through but he leaves you to form your own impressions based on the information you're able to absorb.
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Throughout the length of the roughly fifty-five minute film Mayet cuts between footage he shot while travelling between Guelmim in Southern Morocco and Nouakchott in Mauritian and footage of five groups of musicians he met along the way. With the music playing in the background as we travel through cities, nomad camps, and desert landscapes, we gradually begin to understand the context within which it was created. From the Atlantic coast in Morocco where the tidal flats appear to butt up against the beginnings of the Sahara, the sands and hills shaped by the wind that are the desert, a collection of felt and hide tents seemingly in the middle of nowhere that makes up an encampment, the back streets of a city lined with sun-baked clay buildings crumbling onto the sidewalk, to wide avenues cutting through a modern city; all are part of the world these people move through. 

At times watching this movie you occasionally lose track of the fact that you're in the twenty-first century, while at other moments you are confronted with a visual that emphasises the dichotomy of the nomads' world and the world they are travelling through. One of the most powerful images in the film was the camera pulling back from a large felt and hide tent only to see that it has been set up in the middle of a town square and that is surrounded on all sides by buildings and shops. Inside the tent a group of women, swathed from head to toe in cloth, some with their faces partially shielded, are either conducting some sort of divination ritual using sticks, or playing some sort of elaborate game. We have no way of knowing which as neither their demeanour or behaviour give us any indication as to the nature of what they are doing.

On another occasion the camera brings us inside and we are surrounded by woman, who are again covered head to toe with cloth, but this is obviously some sort of celebration as they are decked in all the colours of the rainbow. Bright yellows, greens, oranges, reds, purples and blues flash and glitter until you begin to feel like you've wandered into the nesting grounds of exotic tropical birds who've decided to compete to see who can grow the flashiest feathers. Initially the camera stays tightly focused on small groups of women and you just assume the music playing is simply the soundtrack like on other occasions. However when the camera finally pulls back to reveal the scene we see the band is playing live and that the only men in the room are two of the musicians and the waiters serving the women. Some of the women get up to dance and they are completely covered, faces and all, in their bright colours so that it looks like a rainbow has been called into life by the pulsating rhythm of the music. 
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While it might sound frustrating that Mayet never offers any clues as to what you're observing - what exactly were all those women doing together in their bright clothes being waited on by men? However, if you look at Palace Of The Wind in the same way you would a collage, a series of images placed together seemingly at random in order to create an overall impression, and don't worry about the meaning of each chapter in the movie, you will see that he has done an amazing job of depicting life among the nomads of this region. 

Of course, tying everything together is the music that plays continuously throughout the movie. Nearly half of the footage in the movie is of the musicians performing. Now we're not talking about them playing concerts, except for that one occasion described above, as for the most part they've been filmed in what looks to be rooms in their houses. Like other bands from the region the music is dominated by electric guitar and characterized by the hypnotic, trance like quality of its sound. Although, as we move from region to region a new band takes over, the music doesn't undergo any real noticeable changes. No matter if we are in a major metropolitan centre surrounded by cars and buildings or in the middle of the desert at a Nomad camp, the music is the thread that ties us to the people and that connects all the various scenes. They are the music and the music is them, and its what distinguishes them from the world around them.

Palace Of The Wind is not your usual type of documentary movie as it contains none of the narration or interviews that you're used to seeing. What it does do is give you an unprecedented look into the lives of the nomadic people of the Saharan desert, and the interrelationship between the people's lives and their music. Its an amazing voyage of discovery and exploration from which you're sure to retain vivid memories that will stick with you forever. You may never travel so far without leaving your house again.

May 7, 2009

Book Review: Censoring An Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour

The imagination has always been the enemy of repressive regimes or any group hoping to dictate the way people think. For, how can you control a person's thoughts if they are constantly wondering, "What If"? The time honoured method employed for controlling people's imagination is to control those who do their best to inspire them to pose the question which opens the door to a million possibilities. Writers, film makers, playwrights, musicians, and anyone else involved in artistic creation, have always been the target of those wishing to ensure a population's thoughts don't stray in directions they shouldn't.

From the pressure groups who try to have films and books banned because they disagree with their message, to governments who prevent works from seeing the light of day because they encourage people to think in ways that they don't approve of, censorship has been the favoured means of controlling artists. Whether it's by the simple expedient of locking troublesome individuals up, dictating what is permissible to be published, or editing work to make it acceptable for public consumption, they do their best to stifle anything that would encourage thinking they deem unacceptable. Yet such is the creative impulse, that artists of all stripes will continue to try and produce works no matter what the circumstances, and attempt to encourage those flights of fancy considered so dangerous.

In its first English translation Censoring An Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour, that was just released by Random House Canada, depicts an author's attempt to write the novel he wants while doing his best to assure its approval by Iran's censors. In a society where it is forbidden for men and women not married or related to be seen in public together, writing a love story that will win permission to be published is fraught with difficulties. Simply figuring out the logistics of how a couple can meet in a way that's acceptable to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance under these circumstances is probably more of a creative challenge then most writers face writing an entire novel.
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Mandanipour's Censoring An Iranian Love Story is written from the point of view of an author as he tries to tell the story of how Sara and Dara meet and fall in love. Told in the form of a conversation with the reader, our protagonist guides us through the ins and outs of writing one thing and meaning another, the importance of "..." at the end of an incomplete sentence in contemporary Iranian literature, and how to best make use of stream of conscience to express forbidden thoughts. While the author is telling us the story of his two characters, he reproduces excerpts from the manuscript he's writing recounting the same events in a manner he hopes will meet the approval of Mr. Petrovich, the censor who decides if a book can be published or not.

Obviously he can't include such details as Dara's history of being a political prisoner for selling illegal videos, as Mr. Petrovich would never allow such a morally degenerate character to be the a romantic hero. Nor can he describe their clandestine meetings in Internet Cafes, their fear of arrest for being seen in public, or any of the thoughts they might have of each other. For Mr. Petrovich couldn't allow anything to be published that would encourage people to commit similar offences or encourage immoral thoughts. However, instead of dampening people's imaginations, it seems as if censorship has had the opposite result. For according to our author the modern Iranian reader has become very adept at filling in the blanks left by those three dots at the end of a sentence and interpreting the hidden meanings behind seemingly innocent phrases.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Censoring An Iranian Love Story is the way in which the relationship between the author and the censor Mr. Petrovich is described. For instead of hearing the voice of a muse of inspiration in his ear while he is writing, our narrator carries on an internal conversation with his censor. The manuscript he periodically shows us is full of sentences with lines through them where he's gone back over his text and censored it himself in anticipation of what Petrovich won't allow. While most writers only have to struggle with finding the words they require to tell their story, our author spends a great deal of his creative energy on devising the means to tell his story in such a way that it will be published or marshalling his arguments to convince the censor that a sentence will not lead anybody to have sinful thoughts.
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While Mandanipour's book does nothing to dispel the image we have of Iran as an autocratic theocracy, it brings to life the faces normally hidden behind the veils and beards imposed on its population. The Persian culture is one of the oldest civilizations in the world and has a tradition of poetry dating back more than a thousand years that was redolent with sensuality and passion. However, we also learn that the Sufis, who were the greatest of the Persian poets, almost never used explicit language. Instead they wrote in such a way that their words could be interpreted as praise for the divine as well as more earthy matters. So, ironically, a modern Iranian writer who is forced to write one thing and mean another, is actually carrying on the legacy of these long dead poets.

Censoring An Iranian Love Story is a beautifully written book in which moments of satire rub up against examples of humanity found in the most unlikely of places. (The blind film censor "watching" Al Pacino playing a blind character in Scent Of A Woman, understanding and appreciating it better than his sighted advisors and demanding they leave him alone to watch it.) While it could have easily been a bitter and angry book that railed against the tyranny of censorship and the Iranian regime in general that merely reenforced our perceptions of a monochrome society, he's elected to take a different approach. By focusing on the dilemma of the author trying to write his story, and the efforts his characters go through to establish their relationship, Mandanipour has infused a difficult subject with warmth, love, and humanity. This is not the Iran we read about in the media, and that makes his message even more powerful.

Censoring An Iranian Love Story can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

May 1, 2009

Graphic Novel Review Tank Girl One & Two Re-mastered Editions Alan C. Martin & Jamie Hewlett

Nowadays when people speak of graphic novels they mean that the item in question is usually a comic book with the equivalent number of pages as a prose novel. Therefore the graphic they are referring to is the media in question not the content of the work. However, there are instances when the word graphic does double duty in describing both the content and the form of a graphic novel. One of the earliest, and still one of the best, of those comics, was Alan C. Martin and Jamie Hewlett's Tank Girl.

Giving new definition to the three "Rs", Raunchy, rebellious, and more than a little revolting, Tank Girl, her main squeeze Booga the kangaroo, Jet Girl, Sub Girl, and friends (and enemies) first saw the light of day in the late 1980's. She flaunted her stuff in black and white and colour for a while before disappearing in a cloud of dust into the Australian Outback where she first appeared. Along the way she managed to confront and confound authority and hypocrisy while propagating her own version of anarchy from behind the wheel of the super charged and heavily armed tank she took her name from. While the original individual comics were packaged together into five graphic novel sized issues a number of years ago, Hewlett and Martin and Titan Books have now begun the process of reissuing them chock full of all sorts of added bonuses.

Tank Girl One: Re-mastered Edition and Tank Girl Two: Re-mastered Edition have now been released for a new generation of malcontents and disgruntled types to enjoy the havoc she wrecks upon the forces of conformity and normalcy. However these new books aren't for new readers only for not only do they contain the stories that appeared in the original books, they also include new illustrated introductions from the Alan Martin and reproductions of rare Tank Girl artwork.
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Tank Girl One: Re-mastered Edition includes the first thirteen issues of the comic originally published from 1988 through 1990. Watch as she deals with a gang of desperado kangaroo bikers, fails in her top secret mission to deliver a colostomy bags to the president of Australia, and then in subsequent issues has to deal with the consequences of her failure. However neither a bounty hunter come to collect the reward placed on her head for allowing President Hogan to mess himself in public, nor her former boss in the Australian Armed Forces, Sergeant Small Unit, and his team of special operatives can defeat our heroine.

Of course we shouldn't be surprised by that, for how could they stand up to anyone able to out wit the devil by trading him God's bathrobe for three wishes and using one of her wishes to trick him into performing a charity marathon instead of invading heaven? Nope, nobody is going to get the drop on Tank Girl, not even the Australian Mafia and their efforts to control the beer market by flooding it with cheap swill and confiscating all the descent brew. No wonder, for as we find out she's the incarnation of the aboriginal earth spirit Tanicha who was first invoked to protect the tribes from white red-necks encroaching even further into their lands.

Tank Girl Two: Re-mastered Edition covers our force of nature's publication history from 1990 through 1992, and this time she's in living colour - at least some of the time. The second collection also sees Tank Girl start to head into deeper water as she rails against conformity by storming a state run "reconditioning" centre and frees the inmates in order to attempt an assault on Tasmania. However the powers that be have other things in mind, and the creators of the comic interrupt the story line to announce their retirement from comics. After taking a few well aimed kicks at the industry - likening it to a British private school run by a demented headmaster - we're returned to the regularly scheduled strip and more adventures of Tank Girl and her band of merry crazies.
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What separates Tank Girl from your more run of the mill graphic comics is not just the gratuitous sex and violence, it's the manner in which Hewlett and Martin present it. Normally comic super heroines always look like they were drawn to fulfill adolescent male fantasies, have zero in the way of sexual identity, and end up doing as good a job of objectifying women as pornography. Tank Girl not only features a heroine with a healthy libido, by featuring a character who is gleefully aware of her own body, and who cheerfully threatens her creators with dismemberment whenever they try and show her naked, they prevent her from becoming anyone's object of desire.

The whole "adult" graphic novel business is lampooned mercilessly in Tank Girl as everything is kept as cartoonish as possible. From the outrageous plot lines to the excessive violence that like a scene from a Monty Python movie verges on the absurd, Hewlett and Martin skewer every last pretension in the business and roast them on a barbecue. Yet, even while they were doing that, they still managed to create stories that were both fun and intelligent in of themselves. Normally reading something like a comic book more then twenty years after it was first released, it feels dated as the world has changed so much since it appeared and its subject matter is no longer relevant. Hewlett and Martin did such an amazing job with Tank Girl that it seems as fresh and irreverent as it did when its first issue hit the shelves in 1988.

While the new introductions to the books and the extra artwork are cool, the best thing about these re-mastered editions of Tank Girl One and Tank Girl Two remains the comic itself. Devout fans of the series will want to buy these new editions for the extra bonuses while newcomers will have the luxury of not only enjoying Tank Girl's mayhem for the first time, but also owning the most complete versions of these anthologies published to date.

March 27, 2009

Music DVD Review: Tinariwen Tinariwen Live In London

Life has always been hard for the nomadic people who live in the deserts of the world. However the advance of civilization and all that accompanies it has seen what used to be a tough but possible existence become virtually impossible. This has been especially true for the Tuareg people of the Northern Sahara. What was once their territory has now been split up among five countries and severely curtailed by the encroachment of cities and mining facilities. From Algeria and Libya in the north, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso in the south, the Tuareg have gradually been forced to give up their traditional nomadic ways and try to adopt to a sedentary existence.

They have not surrendered without a fight though, and their history in post colonial Africa since 1963 has been marked by sporadic uprisings in an attempt to secure rights and maintain a hold on their territories. During the uprisings of the 1980's a group of young Tuareg receiving military training in Libya started performing music together first as a means of entertaining themselves and the other Tuareg in Libya, but then as a way of spreading the message of the rebellion among their scattered peoples. The songs spoke of what they had lost and what they hoped to regain, and were designed to inspire people to resist and fight for their rights.

This was the beginnings of Tinariwen, who have arguably become synonymous with the Tuareg in Europe and North America. Since then the band's founder, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, and his first band mates have been joined by younger Tuareg musicians eager to learn the style of music he pioneered. Combining traditional tribal rhythms with the sound of the modern electric guitar might at first sound like an odd mix, but you only have to hear Tinariwen once to become a convert to their sound. Even better than listening is seeing, and the recently released Tinariwen: Live In London DVD produced by Independiente and World Village Music combines sixty-eight minutes of concert footage with interviews and documentaries to bring both the band and the people they represent to life.
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The concert footage is from the group's performance at The Shepherds Bush Empire in London England in December of 2007. Watching them perform, even via a camera, one can't help but be drawn into the oasis of sound they created on the stage that night. To our eyes the composition of the group might seem odd; a djembe (hand drum), a bass player, up to three people on guitar, and two background vocalists isn't the line-up we've come to expect at a pop music concert. Than again you need to throw away any and all expectations you might have about music when watching and listening to Tinariwen, for they can't be defined by any of our genres.

As the lyrics of all the songs are sung in their native Tamasheq, it's the music the band makes that we focus on. As it turns out, the sound of their voices play a key role in the overall atmosphere of the music whether you can understand them or not. With each song following the pattern of the lone drum setting the pace and establishing each song's rhythm and the bass and rhythm guitars reinforcing what he's started and adding a melody for the vocalists to follow and the lead guitar to counter point, there is a certain amount of similarity to all the songs. However this does not mean they all sound the same, just that they share common elements, much like would happen in any style of music.

Tinariwne's music is deceptive, for initially it merely sounds like they are endlessly repeating the same musical refrain over and over again. Gradually, however, what might have become boring in the hands of others, becomes almost entrancing. For as the music works upon you it also takes hold of you, and becomes more compelling the more you listen to it. There's something about it that draws you deeper and deeper into the sound, until finally you are not only able to feel it affecting you physically, in that it makes you want to tap your feet and move to the rhythm, but emotionally as well.

If you're at all familiar with the Sufi Muslim tradition of the whirling dervishes where the dancers obtain a trance like state through music and movement, than the state that the music Tinariwen manages to induce in its listeners won't be unfamiliar to you as you undergo a similar transformation. Now obviously you won't be ascending to quite the level as dervishes, but the music will "carry" you in a way that pop music just isn't capable of doing. Of course watching them perform only contributes to this sensation, for during the songs individual members of the band allow themselves to be caught up in the music and through their dancing we are drawn even deeper into the music
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Aside from the concert footage the DVD also contains an extensive interview with the band's leader and founder, Ibrahim, in which he discusses his life, the contemporary history of the Tuareg, the rebellion he took part in, and what he hopes to accomplish with the band now that armed uprisings are a thing of the past for him.(Although they're not a thing of the past for all Tuareg as oil exploration in Mali has provoked new uprisings because of how it threatens even further depletion of the Tuareg's traditional lands) Its a fascinating, and rather graphic, description of the poverty and hardship faced by his people, and his efforts to keep their culture alive through his music.

Tinariwen Live In London is a wonderful opportunity to see this incredible band in concert. Combining elements of traditional Tuareg music with modern electric guitar, Tinariwen are arguing the case for their people's survival by showing the world their culture is still vital and alive. Where once their lyrics might have inspired their fellows to take up arms, now they recount their history and remind Tuareg listeners of their cultural heritage. While we might not be able to understand the details of the message, the power of their performance is testimony to their strength of spirit and the importance of this band. They are currently touring the United States, check the World Village Music web site for dates and locations, and if this DVD is anything to go by, that's a concert you don't want to miss if at all possible.

March 5, 2009

Book Review: A Life Full Of Holes By Driss Ben Hamed Chahadi - Recorded And Translated By Paul Bowles

Have you ever considered what makes a story that is told different from a story that is written down? The most obvious one is your relationship to the person who is recounting the tale. In the case of a story that's been put down on paper there is a sense of distance between the author and what they are recounting, while the story teller is more directly involved with his narration. Whether or not what they are telling you actually happened is irrelevant, their physical presence and the sound of their voice connects them to their story in a way that creates an intimacy that is hard to recreate with the written word.

It's been my experience that when a story that was originally told is converted into a written work it loses that sense of intimacy. However, that was before I read A Life Full Of Holes, published by Harper Collins Canada, a story told by Moroccan author Driss Ben Hamed Charhadi (the pen name of Larbi Layachi) that was recorded and translated by the great American writer Paul Bowles. Somehow or other, even though you are reading this story, it manages to capture the experience of having it told to you.

According to the introduction this story was told to Bowles by Charhadi over the course of a couple of months. Charhadi would simply plunk himself down in front of the tape recorder and tell a section of the story without stopping or even pausing to think about what he was going to say next. Instead of adapting the story into something polished, Bowles elected to simply translate it from Charhadi's dialect as literally as possible without any editing.
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A Life Full Of Holes is the of the story of Ahmed ben Said Haddari in Morocco. Told in the first person, the story follows him from early childhood through adolescence until adulthood. The picture that is painted is one of abject poverty and misery as he tells us of the various ways in which he tries to make a living, and the misadventures that befall him. From his step-father who refuses to feed him unless he goes to work when he's a child, the beatings he experiences at the hands of bullies, the racism he faces from the Europeans (referred to as Nazarenes in reference to the fact that their prophet Jesus was originally from Nazareth) who occupy and rule Morocco, to the times he spends in jail, his life is one long struggle to survive. Every time it looks like he might finally be getting his head above water something happens to pull him back under again.

What makes this story so powerful is the straight forward manner that Ahmed reports on what happens to him. Whether it's the prison guards stealing the food and cigarettes his mother has brought him in jail or him being arrested for being in possession of kif and his sentence being decided by a representative of the tobacco industry (they want people to smoke tobacco instead of kif and pressure judges into passing stiff sentences against kif users in order to discourage its use and force people to switch to their product), his various misfortunes are presented in a matter of fact manner that makes them seem like everyday occurrences that could and do befall everybody.

There is something about reading about injustices presented without emotion that makes them even more disturbing. It makes them seem like just another part of life that people have to deal with, and that nothing anybody does is going to make it any better. It doesn't seem to matter whether it's the Europeans or fellow Arabs in charge, as anybody whom Ahmed comes across who has some sort of power is corrupt in one way or another.
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There is a pervasive element of fatalism that flows throughout A Life Full Of Holes that is personified by the way Ahmed and other characters accept their lot in life. "Allah wills it" - God wills it - eventually becomes his one solace against misfortune as it allows him to take whatever comes his way with a certain level of equanimity. There's no point in getting upset about being sentenced to jail for three years for something you didn't do, because there's nothing you can do about it anyway. If its God's will that you're going to spend that time in jail, you might as well just try to make the best of a bad situation instead of giving yourself aggravation by fighting the inevitable.

What really gives this book its power though is the fact that in spite of it being written out, you still have the sense that the story is being told to you. While Charhadi electing to tell it from the point of view of his lead character in the first person helps create that impression, the fact that it is told completely in the present tense gives it an immediacy that's normally lacking in a written narrative. Each stage of Ahmed's life is recounted while he is living it, so we are experiencing it at the same time he does with none of the usual division between characters and readers.

A Life Full Of Holes is not only a powerful and slightly horrifying portrayal of life for the poorest of the poor in colonial Morocco in the 1960's, it's also a brilliant example of how it's possible to recreate the magic and immediacy of oral story-telling in writing. Most times when people write out a story that's been told to them they tend to adapt it to meet the needs of the novel form. That's not been the case here, and the result is something truly unique and special.

A Life Full Of Holes can be purchased either directly from Harper Collins Canada or through an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

February 5, 2009

Book Review: Little Bee By Chris Cleave

I wonder if any of us can imagine the straits somebody would have to be in to stow away in the cargo hold of a ship in the desperate hopes that whatever awaits at the end of that journey is better than what they have all ready experienced? What would it take for you to flee with nothing but the clothes on your back? I would think that anybody who went to those lengths must seriously believe their lives to be in danger or have cause to fear for their personal safety.

Yet the usual reaction in the so called developed world to people that desperate is to lock them up in detention centres while some government bureaucrat tries to decide whether or not they deserve to be granted refugee status and given asylum in whatever country they've ended up in. If the person can offer no proof that deportation will put their lives in jeopardy, as if they had time to get affidavits from the gunmen who came into their village and shot everybody or a copy of the arrest warrant that resulted in their being tortured, the only hope they have is if the country they've landed in has identified their country of origin as one where its civilian population is at risk.

Unfortunately if you're from a country like Nigeria in Africa which is now in the top ten of the world petroleum producers, most of the industrialized world has a vested interest in the activities that have put your life at risk. This is the case that the title character of Chris Cleave's most recent release, Little Bee, available from Random House Canada February10th/09, finds herself in. When deposits of crude oil are discovered under her village in Southern Nigeria, the oil company sends in soldiers to kill everybody and burn the village down. Since the government is aware of this activity - whole villages can't just disappear without somebody noticing after all, any survivors who escape become subject to immediate arrest and disappear usually never to be seen again. (Check out the author's web site for more information on Nigeria)
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Little Bee is the story of two women, Little Bee a Nigerian seeking asylum in Great Britain, and Sarah O'Rourke (nee Summers) a successful British journalist seeking refuge from the life she has created for herself personally and professionally. It's been two years since Little Bee landed in England as a stowaway onboard a ship from Nigeria and she has spent nearly every day since in the Black Hill Immigration Removal Centre while her fate is decided. As the book opens it appears that a decision has been reached as she is being released. She and three other women have each been given chits good for a taxi and are free to go - that they might not have anywhere to go, or that they have no papers documenting their status as refugees, appears to have escaped everybody's notice.

It turns out that the release is not as official as Little Bee hoped. One of the three other women traded sex for illegal release, and it looks better for three or four to be released instead of just one. So Bee and two others find themselves standing in line waiting to use a phone thinking they have been granted asylum, when in actual fact they have just been turned into illegal immigrants.

At least Little Bee does have someone to call aside from a cab. One of her few treasured possessions is the driver's licence of one Andrew O'Rourke, journalist and husband of Sarah, both of whom she had had a chance meeting with on a beach in Nigeria slightly over two years ago. That Little Bee was with her sister at the time and fleeing the men hired by the oil company to destroy their village and kill its inhabitants at the time meant their initial meeting was not your typical interaction between tourist and local.

Sarah and Andrew were on the vacation in the hopes of saving their marriage as Sarah had been having, and would continue to have, an affair. They had separated briefly upon Andrew's discovery of Sarah's infidelity, but had decided to try to rebuild if for no other reason than their child Charlie. However by the time Little Bee phones them from the Black Hill Immigration Removal Centre, their marriage is as precarious as it ever was. For not only had their attempt at a second honeymoon failed to save their marriage, the events surrounding their meeting with Little Bee while in Nigeria had changed them both irrevocably.
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In Little Bee Cleave has managed the very difficult task of writing about an issue that he obviously feels very passionate about without ever becoming polemic at the expense of his story. He had done a masterful job of creating two very believable lead characters in Sarah and Little Bee, and an equally brilliant job of alternating the narrative between them. By sometimes having the two women describe the same situation he is able to show us the ways in which they differ and are the same without having to spell anything out.

What I particularly appreciated is how Cleave built the story so that he weaves the past and the present together as he gradually develops the history that existed before Little Bee came to England. When Little Bee shows up unexpectedly on Sarah's doorstep near the beginning of the book it not only triggers Sarah to remember the events that led up to the trip to Nigeria, but what happened when she and Little Bee first met. While at first her decision to try and help Little Bee might seem like the knee jerk reaction of a guilty, affluent, white liberal, as she reflects on her life we realize there is more to her than that. At some point in her life she had become lost and Little Bee is the catalyst that helps her find her way back to being the person who wanted to make a difference.

While some of Little Bee's narration is what you'd expect, stranger in a strange land sort of thing, it never feels cliched or inappropriate for her character. After all she is a sixteen year old girl from a small village in Africa who had never been in a city before let alone out of her own country. Yet at the same time Cleave doesn't let her become a sweet little refugee girl who we all should feel sorry for. She wants vengeance on the people who are responsible for killing her sister, and, in a way, she gets to see it carried out even though its not in a manner any of us would have expected.

It's the unexpected things that Cleave brings to his characterization of both Sarah and Little Bee that make this book so real, for neither of them fit into anyone's easy stereotype of white liberal guilt or the plucky refugee whose an example for us all. Intelligent, well written, and with believable characters, Little Bee offers readers the chance to try and understand what would drive a person to climb into that cargo hold and search for a place to start their life over again. While the characters and the institutions mentioned in the book are all fictional, the description of conditions in both British detention centres and in Southern Nigeria are accurate and based on factual evidence. You might never think of asylum seekers in the same way again after reading this book.

Little Bee can be purchased directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca as of February10th/09.

January 24, 2009

Book Review: Otra Isla Para Miguel (Another Island For MiguelBy Henry Eric Hernandez

Henry Eric Hernandez is a historian even though you'll not find his name listed as the author of any text book or learned article about the subject. For he doesn't "write" the kind of history that deals with dates, battles, or famous historic figures. In his book published a couple of years ago, La Revancha (Revenge), Hernandez documented a series of what he called interventions where he and a group of people carried out renovations on buildings in Cuba where events of historical significance had taken place. Through these restoration projects he brought history to life as he recalled what it was that had originally made a building famous; what is now a rundown toilet in a school was once the military barracks that both Batista and Fidel Castro had used as their the staging grounds prior to marching on Havana during their respective revolutions.

While the work he carried out in La Revancha focused primarily on events that took place in the earlier part of the twentieth century, either before Castro had taken power or in the early days of revolutionary government, his most recent book, Otra Isla Para Miguel (Another Island For Miguel), published by Perceval Press brings us into the modern era. This time though he has turned to the people of Cuba in order to paint a picture of the effects its involvement in the Angolan, Ethiopian, and Somalian civil wars of the late 1970's and early 1980's. The focus is split between stories that reflect the economic impact of the wars and personal accounts from women left widowed.

In his introduction to the book Kevin Power provides us with the basic facts surrounding the civil war in Angola, and the circumstances which led to Cuba's involvement first there and subsequently in both Somalia and Ethiopia. This being the height of the Cold War, Russia and America were up to their usual tricks of vying for influence in the region. Russia, instead of deploying their own troops "asked" Cuba to send advisors to the side they supported in Angola, while the US, South Africa, and China backed the other side. In excerpts from speeches given by Fidel Castro that are included in the first couple of stories, we see that in the late 1970's Cuba was considering normalization of relations with the United States as part of a plan to expand their industry and economy. Instead, they involved themselves in the civil wars in Africa and deepened the split.
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There are two parts to Otra Isla Para Miguel, the stories included in the book and a DVD of Cubans telling their stories. Like the book, some of the people in the DVD talk about loved ones lost in the wars in Africa, while others detail the economic hardships they face and what they have to do in order to survive. In an interesting twist both the book and the DVD combine visual elements with "words" to tell the story of the impact these wars have had on Cuba and her people.

Throughout the text Hernandez has scattered photo's celebrating people's contributions to the cause of Cuba. Tawdry certificates commemorating years of service and charitable contributions, pictures of men and women posing under banners celebrating agricultural triumphs, and images of men in uniforms either at training facilities in Cuba or in action in Africa are juxtaposed with a widow's reflections on losing her husband or an account of a woman working as a prostitute because she has no other way to raise her family.

In the DVD interviews with individuals talking about their lives cut away to footage of life in Cuba. We see row after row of buildings crumbling in disrepair, dirty streets with garbage heaped in mounds against the sides of buildings, and aimless groups of people wandering, sitting in desolate groups on street corners, wearing the blank expression of the hopeless poor the world over. While the individuals we see being interviewed are animated, the primary emotions that appear to be driving them are anger, fear, and grief, as they recount what they have been though and what they continue to experience.

Without using any of the usual characteristics of a history text book, dates, statistics, and the names of famous people, Ora Isla Para Miguel gives the reader/viewer a history of Cuba. While the picture that gradually develops isn't positive by any means, at the same time you never once get the feeling that anybody involved in the project has a particular political agenda in presenting this information. This is a people's history of their day to day lives, not a rant against the horrors of Communism or the "evils" of the Castro regime.

In the 1970's Cuba's government made the decision to become involved with a series of wars overseas with results that have proved catastrophic for the country. Not only did they leave countless of people bereft of fathers and husbands for reasons they still don't understand, they took the country down a path that has resulted in their near economic ruin. Not only does Ora Isla Para Miguel bring that reality to life in a way no text could, Henry Eric Henandez reminds us of the human face that resides behind the events that are called "History". In the process he has rendered one of the most accurate histories of a country and its people I have ever experienced.

January 14, 2009

Book Review: Milk, Sulphate, And Alby Starvation By Martin Millar

The phrase, are you paranoid if they're really out to get you?, might have been invented for Alby Starvation. Alby, the title character in Martin Millar's 1987 debut novel Milk, Sulphate, and Alby Starvation being re-issued by Soft Skull Press, and distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada, on February 9th/09, worries constantly about his health, the hit man that the Milk Marketing Board has set on him, the Chinese gang leader trying to find him, and which of his friends and acquaintances are after his comic collection.

While those friends of Alby's who he's still talking to, well not really friends but some folk who buy drugs from him, tend to think that it's all in his head, the reality is that the Milk Marketing Board really have set a hit man on him and a mysterious Chinese gentleman is trying to get in touch with him. So he stays huddled in his apartment with only his hamster and his comics to keep him company watching as his reflection in the mirror looks gradually sicker and sicker. His doctor won't believe that there's anything wrong with Alby - but than again he's only waiting for Alby to die so he can scoop up his complete set of Silver Surfer comics.

It was Alby's health, and that bastard doctor, that was the cause of all his trouble to begin with. Certain he was dying, he wasn't able to keep food in and was gradually wasting away, he went to his doctor only to be told that it was nerves. It was only his buddy Stacey's suggestion that he might have food allergies that saved his life as far as Alby is concerned, unfortunately it also signed his death warrant with the Milk Marketing Board. You see Alby turned out to be allergic to milk and once he stopped drinking milk he got instantly better.
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That would have been fine and dandy, but he had to go and tell somebody else suffering from similar ailments and she got better instantly too. Which might have been okay as well except she had a friend who was also very sick and asked Alby to talk to him, and he turned out to be a reporter for the local community newspaper and wrote a little article about being allergic to milk. That's when things began to snowball, and Alby eventually found himself the head of an anti-milk campaign that galvanized all of Britain because it turned out there were millions of people across the country allergic to milk suffering horribly.

When the sale figures for milk go south, the Milk Marketing Board turns the matter over to their dirty tricks department - modelled after the CIA - to sort it out. With no time to lose they decide the best course of action is to nip things in the bud and take out the person at the top of the anti-milk campaign - Alby. By sheer luck the first person sent out on the job is "Born Again" on the way to kill Alby, and in a fit of remorse for past killings tips him off that he's a target for assassination. You'd think that nothing could make a paranoid happier than finding out somebody is really out to get him, instead it makes Alby all the more miserable.

Now Alby isn't the only odd soul living London's Brixton district during the waning days of punk in the mid-eighties. They're are the speed freaks he supplies; the archaeology professor posing as a city employee so he can dig up the street in his search for a lost crown said to be buried in Brixton; the mysterious Chinese gentleman who used to be in charge of Heroin quality control in the Golden Triangle; the psychic nurse who doesn't know she's psychic; and of course the second hit man hired by the Milk Marketing Board, who turns out to be a woman named June.

With the story bouncing around like a pinball game on acid, (or is it like you being on acid watching a pin ball game) what with the plot bouncing off one character or story line after another and back again, and with no clue as to whether somethings happening in the past or the present, it's initially hard to quite follow what's going on in Alby's life. In some ways its akin to reading a cubist painting by Picasso where instead of merely seeing a single view of the subject the artist shows you all sides simultaneously in what looks like a an insane jigsaw puzzle of body parts.
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The past and the present appear in adjacent paragraphs offering no clue as to which is which; we see the world through the eyes of characters who are on the periphery of the story; and intermingled with all of that we have Alby's disjointed narrative of events. Yet out of this seemingly random scattered collection of information a picture gradually forms of Alby's life, the lives of those around him, and the general air of desperation to find meaning to existence that grips so many of us.

Milk, Sulphate, And Alby Starvation is the flip side of the popular image of punk as a revitalizing movement for social change as we meet the ones who came for the party that never realized it wasn't just about loud music, getting drunk, and doing speed so they could dance all night. Like the dregs of the hippies on heroin after the days of flower power and peace and love had passed, the characters of Alby and his friends are pathetic lost souls with no direction who wanted something for nothing and ended up going nowhere fast. Whiles there's a dark humour to Ably's neuroses, in the end it's just sort of sad and pathetic.

What saves the book from being ultimately depressing though is Millar's sense of the absurd, for the story line is right out of Monty Python's school of taking an illogical situation to its most logical conclusion. That Alby is not crazy and the Milk Marketing Board has really hired an assassin to kill him because he has adversely affected milk sales across Britain, is merely the tip of the very peculiar iceberg contained within the pages of the book. While it might not be to everyone's cup of tea, if you're willing to put up with the slightly bitter taste and the twist and turns of the style,Milk, Sulphate, And Alby Starvation will never bore you and will continually surprise you. That alone makes it worth reading.

January 11, 2009

Interview: Author Indu Sundaresan

When I began editing the on line magazine "Epic India Magazine" a little over two years ago I had read very few books by Indian authors. Since it was meant to be an arts and culture magazine I figured that was a situation that needed to change. Thankfully India is now probably the largest English speaking market for books in the world, and it's becoming increasingly easier to find works written by Indian writers.

With each different author you get a new perspective and a fresh voice telling you another bit of the story that is India. One of the things that comes clear from those writing about contemporary India is that she is a country going through a period of painful transition. While shining office towers and IT companies might be common place in downtown Mumbai, so are three generations of one family living in a shack without running water a mile away in the same city.

In her collection of short stories The Convent Of Little Flowers Indu Sundaresan gave us glimpses of lives that have felt the brush of change, and also showed how powerful the forces resisting change can be. Known for her historical fiction, these stories were her first foray's into her native country's current circumstance and I was intrigued as to what brought about her change of venue - so to speak.
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With that in mind I contacted Ms. Sundaresan and she very generously gave of her time to answer my questions about this collection of stories, her writing, and her life in general. If you haven't all ready read any of her work, I hope this encourages you to at least pick up her collection of short stories if not one of her novels


You were born in India and came to the United States to finish your studies, can you fill in some of the biographical details from before you came to the US, and maybe explain how it is you ended up staying there, or if it was always your intent to emigrate?

My father was a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, so I’m the proverbial “army” brat and spent most of my childhood moving around India, from one base to another. When I finished my undergraduate degree in economics, I decided to apply for graduate school, went to the University of Delaware, and ended up with two graduate degrees. I don’t know that it was my intention to stay on here in the US in the beginning. But I started writing fiction very soon after, and have found a community of writers through classes and conferences that I would not have had access to in India—being here in the US is a blessing for my career as a writer.


Did you find that you had a period of adjustment that you had to go through when you first arrived in the States, and was there anything you found particularly difficult to acclimatise your self to?

In the beginning, it was all very new, very interesting, thought provoking at times. And I am a writer (though I didn’t know it then), so I watched and listened, took notes in my head, never really let anything shock me too much.

Perhaps the funniest thing to happen was the day I landed in NYC. As I was wheeling my luggage out of customs and immigration, tired from the long flight and somewhat disoriented, a man leaning on his cart whistled and said, “Com’ere, baby, give us a hug and a kiss.” I remember that I laughed and shook my head and ran out of the terminal, but that was my introduction to America!

How did you first become interested in telling stories - in writing?

Not until I had finished graduate school and had a story in my head. I decided to write a novel, so we bought a computer and I wrote one. And then I wrote another novel, and then I wrote my first published novel, The Twentieth Wife. I don’t recall being intimidated by the process then, though I know now just how difficult it is, which was in some senses advantageous to me—I tell this story of my beginnings of a writer as a very simple tale, and it was thus. I didn’t think I couldn’t do it, so...I wrote my novels.

There's a long tradition of story telling in India, one generation passing along the stories they learned to the next generation. How do you see yourself as a writer fitting into that tradition - if at all?

My father and my paternal grandfather were storytellers, and they loved having an audience. I remember that my father would make up bedtime stories for me, two sagas about a horse named Silver and an elephant named Jumbo. He also told my sisters and me stories of the kings and queens of India when we went to visit all the forts and palaces around the country, but at bedtime, his favourite trick was to tell us only part of the story and then switch off the light, leaving us to think (until the next day or until he was free again in the evenings) of how the stories ended, or how the plot resolved itself. My father taught me how to tell stories in my head long before I came to put them down on paper.

In the afterward to In The Convent Of Little Flowers you make mention of how either a news story or a casual remark was the inspiration for some of the stories. It sounded like this wasn't a way you had worked before, where have you previously found your inspiration for your work?

The stories of In The Convent Of Little Flowers are contemporary, so their sources are those you mention.

My first two novels, The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses, are based on the life of Nur Jahan, a seventeenth century empress of Mughal India. Her story I stumbled upon while I was in graduate school (though I ought to have known this better from my school days; I was an indifferent student of history). One evening, homesick for family and friends in India, I went to the university library, typed in “India” in the subject keyword at the computer, and went to the section that housed books on India. I returned to my apartment with an armload of books, one of which was a book on Mughal harems and Nur Jahan. It wasn’t until I had finished my first two unpublished novels, that I began to think of what I had read about her, checked out that book again, researched her life more thoroughly and wrote The Twentieth Wife and its sequel.
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When Deepa Mehta was filming Water - a movie about the harsh ways in which widows are still treated by some elements of Indian society - she was attacked (literally) by extremists. Do you worry about any, or has there been any, backlash in regards to some of the stories in this collection

Some of the topics I describe in this collection are, by their very nature, somewhat taboo in Indian society. But they exist. And I would like to think that there is a growing awareness and openness in India today that will allow some thought, some dialogue about the stories because we all will have to confront this either within our own families or in our communities at some point in our lives.

Having said this, I did not put Convent together for the controversy; I rarely analyse my fiction thus before I write, or indeed after I have finished a story. Consequently, most of the stories in Convent were written from a strong emotion, whether anger, upset, outrage or pain and sorrow at what I had heard/read. This (the emotion) has always been the most basic premise of all of my work.

Once I have the idea for a story, in whatever form, I’m methodical in studying the best voice for it, whose point of view should be predominant, what tense to use, how the story should be told—in other words, the craft is what interests me. Then I write, continuously and steadily, until the story is done. And then I revise, send it out to friends, read their comments, revise again.

When the book is done, I hope (as I think all writers hope) that the emotion still carries through the stories, that it affects my readers as much as it did me, that it causes them to think—this is all I ask from my work.

Do you find that living outside of India has changed your perspective of the country and if so how has this shown up in your writing?

The distance from India has given me the ability to write about India. It’s a personal thing, other displaced Indian writers tell fluid stories about the immigrant experience in the US (or elsewhere), something I still find difficult to do for I live the life and find myself unable to find an adequate perspective for this.

I love my homeland, love the history and living away as I do, use my writing to find my connection to India.

In recent years there seems to have been an explosion of English language writers from India/Pakistan. Is this something new, or is it just that the rest of the world is finally noticing?

It’s new, in that even if writers have been writing stories, it’s only in the past twenty years or so that we are being published internationally on such a large scale. And people are reading, listening to what we have to say about India.

Some of the stories in In The Convent Of Little Flowers deal with the social situation and status of women, and others with the social hierarchy known as caste. Why do you think it necessary to write about these subjects?

Again, I’ve never analysed the stories from this point of view. The social status of women, the prevalence of the caste system, these are inherent in Indian society, changing slowly with the times. Most of the stories in Convent deal with the ordinary people facing somewhat extraordinary conditions in their lives and learning how to deal with them—I would say this could happen anywhere in the world. I set my stories in India, and having done so, to provide a complete and full picture, these are issues I must address in the story-line. My intention though, first and foremost, is to be a storyteller.
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While there were some genuinely shocking stories in Convent, the ones I found most moving were the ones showing people overcoming the conditioning that has kept them trapped - "The Most Unwanted" for instance. What do you hope that your readers take away with them from those stories as compared to the other ones?

We’ve all heard these stories before, and I’ll address “The Most Unwanted” specifically where a grandfather struggles to come to terms with a grandson his unmarried daughter brings into his home, and all the impact it has had so far on his life. I thought deeply about Nathan, the grandfather, about where his prejudices came from and how he shatters them by the end of the story because the child puts his head on his lap to sleep.

If I were to continue “The Most Unwanted” beyond that point, the end of the story, then Nathan would never again in his life doubt his decision to accept his grandson. He would defend both the child and his daughter ferociously and in doing so, will force the people around him to accept his decision.

We’ve heard these stories, and assume that they always happen to other people, so the question then for me was how someone would react when it happened to them and I think it depends so much on the specific situations and histories of the protagonists.

If there’s anything I’ve hoped for in this collection (apart from wanting to keep its emotion as close to the source after all the revisions and edits), it is that people will think about my characters, their circumstances, what they are battling and how they win or lose.

Your previous books have been historical epics, set anywhere form Mogul times to the last days of colonial rule, and this collection was set in modern India, have you given any thought to where you want to travel to next?

I just completed my fourth novel, Shadow Princess, which takes me back to the Mughal India of my first two and picks up the story-line after the end of The Feast of Roses. I’ve always wanted to write this novel, and so this story was definitely next in line for me—though I’m not done yet, still working on revising and editing this novel which has a tentative publication date for end of 2009.

I have a vague idea for my next book right now, though it’s still too early to take my head out of Shadow and research this more thoroughly—I expect to be doing this over the coming year.

I just wanted to thank Indu Sundaresan again for taking part in this interview and encourage you once again to at least pick up her collection of short stories, if not one of her novels. In The Convent Of Little Flowers was my introduction to her work, and it has certainly whetted my appetite for more of her work.

January 7, 2009

DVD Review: Brideshead Revisited

It's difficult enough as it is to try and adapt a well known novel as a movie without disappointing audiences, but when somebody else has already made what many consider the definitive adaptation of the same work, the job becomes nearly impossible. Such was the case for director Julian Jarrold and the rest involved with bringing the version of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited to the big screen in 2008 that's now being released on DVD January 13th/09. Back in 1981 Granada Television of England had produced an eleven part television serial that not only faithfully reproduced the entire novel, but featured truly iconic performances from Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews in the lead roles of Charles Ryder and Lord Sebastian Flyte respectively.

Of course comparisons between the two are decidedly unfair as this latest version is trying to tell the same story in around a tenth of the time. The entire movie is probably only a little longer than two episodes of the television series and it can't afford to spend the same amount of time paying attention to details. Very wisely Jarrold and his script writers decided to not even attempt to compete with Granada's production, and have streamlined their focus to an investigation of the interrelationship between the characters.

While the story begins and ends during the Second World War, the majority of the action takes place between the wars. Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) is from a stolid middle class family and is just beginning his first term at Oxford University. Although he is ostensibly studying history, his true ambition is to be a painter. His introduction to Lord Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw) is not what one would call auspicious, as one evening the young aristocrat leans through Charles' window and vomits. The next morning an apology in the shape of three large bouquets of flowers and an invitation to lunch are delivered to Charles, marking the beginning of their relationship.
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Sebastian and Charles come from two decidedly different worlds, and not just in terms of social position. For as well as being landed gentry Sebastian's family are Catholic. While that may not be a big deal now, in England at this time it was a very significant difference, especially among the nobility. Since the days of Henry Vlll and the establishment of The Church Of England, Catholic nobility were viewed with suspicion and mistrust because it was believed their loyalties were divided because they obeyed the Pope over their own monarch. They had been subject to persecution since that time and had subsequently become a very insular community dividing the world into us and them.

While Charles doesn't understand the significance of the difference in faith, he does understand the significance of the wealth represented by Sebastian's home, Brideshead. From the first moment that Charles sees Brideshead he falls in love with its grandeur, and the wealth that it represents. Sebastian is loath for Charles to meet his family, or even visit the estate, but during the summer break from classes he invites him to come and stay. It's during this visit that Charles first meets Sebastian's sister Julia (Hayley Atwell) and their mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), and the events are set in motion that will shape the three young people's lives.

Sebastian is gay, and very much in love with Charles. While Charles is undoubtedly infatuated with Sebastian, he's equally infatuated with the lifestyle that Sebastian's wealth allows them to lead. Although he's initially content with Sebastian, the introduction of Julia quickly changes the dynamics of their relationship as he becomes increasingly more attracted to her. When Lady Marchmain asks Charles to accompany Sebastian and Julia on a trip to Venice to visit their father Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon) and his mistress in order to keep Sebastian out of trouble he agrees readily enough, but ends up abandoning him in order to pursue Julia.
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While Charles seems on the surface to be perusing a relationship with both Julia and Sebastian, the truth of the matter is he's really in love with Brideshead and the wealth and power it represents. However, with both Julia and Sebastian, what he failed to understand was the role religion played in their lives and how much it dictated how they behaved. For them Charles was a means of rebelling against the confines of their faith, and in the end they both choose their religion over him. Dazzled by the grandeur and wealth they both represented he failed to see who either of them really were.

While this version of Brideshead Revisited was unable to go into the same depth of detail as the television series, it did a remarkable job of depicting the book's major themes of betrayal and faith through its examination of the relationship between the three young protagonists. It's important to remember that Evelyn Waugh was a devout Catholic while watching the movie, for although there are times it appears that it is being critical of the church, it is also very clear in showing the comfort that faith can bring to troubled people.

The acting is superlative throughout the movie, but Ben Whishaw as Sebastian and Emma Thompson as his mother are truly remarkable. Thompson manages to make the formidable and easy to hate Lady Mrchmain very human by giving us glimpses of the scared and vulnerable woman hidden behind the mask of propriety. She gives us occasion to ask ourselves what it must have been like for a woman of her position to have spent the majority of her married life with her husband living abroad with a mistress. It's a remarkable job that I don't think another actor could have carried off with the same grace and style.

Whishaw as Sebastian is a brilliant combination of vulnerability and charisma. While he is obviously effeminate he never once crosses the line into camp or making his character an object of ridicule. While to all outward appearances he is the epitome of dissolute nobility, Whishaw is able to make him substantial enough that we can understand why Charles is attracted to him. There is an inner core of steel underneath the fey exterior that gives him the strength of character needed to survive the betrayals and hurts his character experiences at the hands of those he loves the most. It's a breathtaking performance by an incredibly skilled and talented actor.

The version of the DVD that I viewed was widescreen which helped to emphasis the grandeur of the Brideshead estate so that, like Charles, our first view takes our breath away and leaves us slightly awe struck. As is the case with all new releases the sound is 5.1 surround, but it was a bit overwhelming at times with the orchestration drowning out some of the dialogue even when played through a surround sound system. As far as special features go there is the usual optional audio commentary that can be listened to while watching the movie, a collection of deleted scenes, and a making of featurette.

When I first heard that a film version of Brideshead Revisited was being released I admit I had my doubts as to its ability to compete with the mini-series that had been released in the early 1980's. However through a combination of superlative performances and intelligent film making, the people behind this new release have created their own masterpiece. A remarkable achievement and a wonderful film.

January 5, 2009

Music Review: Novalima Coba Coba

Prior to the coming of the Spanish in the 16th century Peru was home to the sophisticated civilization of the Inca empire. Although the Inca had managed to subjugate their various neighbours and raise exquisite cities, they quickly fell to the Spaniards due to gunpowder, disease, and deceit. Once the conquistadors had sated their lust for gold it was time to start settling the territory, and since they had pretty much exterminated the local crop of potential slaves they had to rely on importing Africans like everyone else.

As has been the case throughout the Western hemisphere where Africans were used as slaves, the African population in Peru brought with them their own traditions, including music. However, unlike North America where it became one of the key foundations for popular popular music, in Peru their music, like their population, has remained segregated from the mainstream. African Americans in South America are routinely second class citizens, and anything associated with them is considered inferior, including their music. So, aside from sporadic recognition from outside performers like David Byrne's The Soul Of Black Peru released in 1995, little Afro-Peruvian music has been heard outside of its own community.

In 2001 four young Peruvians, Ramon Perez-Prieto, Grimaldo Del Solar, Rafael Morales, and Carlos Li Carrillo, from outside the Afro-Peruvian community formed the group Novalima as a way to experiment with their appreciation for both Peruvian and modern music, and in 2002 released their first disc, Novalima. They had invited various musicians from the Afro Peruvian community to participate and created a disc that mixed both traditional rhythms and contemporary sounds. When the disc went platinum in Peru, they realized they were onto something and in 2006, they released Afro internationally, and firmly establishing Afro-Peruvian music on the world scene as it spent ten weeks at number one on the US Collage Music Journal's Latin Alternative and New World charts.
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The band has now expanded to include permanent Afro-Peruvian musicians; Juan Medrano Cotito, Mangue Vasquez, Milagros Guerrero, and Marcos Mosquera, as well as renowned Peruvian drummer and percussionist Constantino Alvarez. It's this group, plus a variety of guest performers from the Afro-Peruvian music community, who can be heard on the band's forthcoming release (January 13th/09 US & Canada and the 16th for the rest of the world) Coba Coba on the Cumbancha label.

On first listen the disc was almost overwhelming with its seemingly inexhaustible supply of rhythmic variations. My first impression was of one continuos song whose sole purpose was to enable me to forget it was minus twenty out and I was trudging through ice and snow. It was only once I had recovered from the initial exhilaration that the music inspired, and was able to listen to the disc with something approaching a critical ear, that I began to discern the distinctive elements of each song. For although all the tracks share a common foundation, what's been built up around it gives them each unique characteristics.

The opening track on the disc, "Concheperla" (Mother of Pearl or Pearl Shell) is a traditional Peruvian dance called a marinera that dates back to the 1800's. These "mariner" dances were composed as patriotic tributes to Peru's navy and were originally performed by brass bands. Originally transcribed and arranged by the great grandmother of band member Rafael Morales, its a perfect example of how the band reaches back into their country's history for inspiration without getting stuck in the past. While the trumpet you hear is a nod to the military bands of yesterday, the rhythm and beats are the sound of today and a recognition of the band's African roots.

"Concheperla" is a fitting overture to the rest of the disc in the way it successfully combines traditional, or older, melodies with modern musical technology and a variety of musical influences. While in this instance the foundation is a song from the dominant culture's history, some draw upon Afro-Peruvian songs for their inspiration and others the folk music of various regions around the country. However, regardless of a song's provenance, they are all subject to a creative process that gives them added depth and dimension by adding new layers of rhythm and different musical textures.
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"Ruperta/Puede Ser", the fourth track on the disc is a great example of this as it takes an older song, "Ruperta", combines it with "Puede Ser" by the Cuban hip-hop duo Obesion, and mixes it all together in Jamaican dub style inspired by the likes of Mikey Dread (known for his dub work with The Clash). The result is something really spectacular, as the dubbing techniques serve to tie the two songs together rhythmically, without being overbearing or dominating the melodies. I have to say that normally I find dub music tedious and and annoying, but that's not the case here. Instead of making the song sound like someone with speech a impediment who was forced fed Quaaludes like dub normally does, here the dubbing is used to accentuate the beat like an additional percussion instrument and gives the song an extra spark of life.

In fact one of the most impressive parts of the disc is the manner in which they have combined the old and the new. Far too often when you hear of these types of projects you end up with little idea of what the original music sounded like as it ends up buried under the bells and whistles of the modern technology. Novalima never lose site of the original music and keep it front and centre all the time. They understand that you can't replace, or simulate, the power and passion of these songs with studio tricks or programmed beats. What they have done is use the technology to give the original music a platform on which it can be shown off to its best advantage.

It's not often you get to hear a funky bass line accompanied by traditional percussion instruments like the jaw bone of an ass or cajon (a hollow box with a resonator hole like a guitar's) like you do on "Tumbala", or hear the words to a poem describing the history of Afro-Peruvian music turned into a song like you do in "Africa Lando", but Coba Coba is replete with moments like that. Not only does this disc shine a spotlight on music that has been neglected for far too long, but it does it in such a manner as to make it appealing to a wide variety of people without diluting any of its passion or diminishing its integrity.

Novalima sets the standard for all other bands wishing to bring modern technology into play when adapting traditional music. This is brilliant stuff that will not only keep you dancing, but will hopefully open some eyes to the ongoing discrepancies in Peruvian society.

January 2, 2009

Book Review: The Enchantress Of Florence By Salman Rushdie

In our chauvinism the West puts Florence, and its renaissance as a place of arts and learning, at the centre of the world when it comes to cultural achievements in the 15th and 16th centuries. Our bias has prevented us from seeing that while supposedly civilized Europe struggled through dark ages of ignorance and plague in the years prior to that enlightenment, empires of sophistication and culture thrived under the rule of Sultans and Caliphs. The Ottoman Empire had stretched into Spain and by the 1500's their cousins had entered Northern India and established the Mogul Empire.

While we might believe that relations between the West and the Muslim world are tense these days, they are positively cordial when compared with the fervour of Christian hatred for the infidel during the renaissance. However, that did not prevent there being interaction between the two worlds and even the Vatican sent representatives to the court of Akabar the Great, the heart of the Mogul empire in North India. Still, there would be no reason to suspect any connection existing between Florence and Akabar's capital of Sikri.

Yet in his elaborate work of historical fantasy, The Enchantress Of Florence, published by Random House Canada, and being released in trade paperback January 6th/09, Salman Rushdie weaves together strands of fiction and history to tell a tale of how these two cities might have been linked. It is the story of three childhood friends from Florence whose love and loyalty stands the test of time and of two great cities equally capable of grandeur and self destruction. Yet, it's also the tale of a remarkable woman's quest to make her own way in a man's world and how the reverberations of her efforts shattered kingdoms, defeated generals, and brought about the ruin of one of the two great cities.
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The court of Akabar the Great is thrown into confusion when a mysterious blond stranger shows up at court. At first he attempts to pass himself off as the ambassador from the English queen Elizabeth, but when that ruse is seen through he finally reveals the truth of the matter. He is none other then Akabar the Great's uncle. At first this news is greeted with the derision that any lie deserves, but being the just ruler he is, Akabar gives the blonde stranger a chance to tell him how it could be possible for a non-believer from Florence to be his relative.

So begins the story of the princess whom history forgot, Lady Black Eyes, Qara Koz. When her elder sister was wed to the Wormwood Khan as the cost of preserving her father's life, Qara Koz was dragged off into exile as her companion at the tender age of eleven. Eight years later when the Shah of Persia, their father's cousin, overthrew the great Khan he offered to send both women back to their home, but surprisingly the young princess refused and elected to stay with their saviour as his wife. It was then that Akabar's grandfather, father to the sisters, caused her to be written out of the annals of the family's history - and Qara Koz was a name never spoken in public again.

In Florence there were three young friends, of whom one was destined to wander long and far before returning home again to die in the streets where he was born. Niccolo Machiavelli (the author of The Prince), Ago Vespucci (cousin of Amerigo whose name now graces our continent), and Antonino Argalia, were inseparable until the age of eleven when Antonino's mother died of plague and his father fell into the depths of depression. The young Argalia took it upon himself to leave Florence to seek his fortune among the mercenary companies fighting the "cursed Turk", although he said to his friends he wouldn't care if he made his fortune fighting for the Ottomans or against them.

Which is how years latter he found himself leading the armies of the Ottoman Empire when they defeated the Shah of Persia, and found himself face to face with the beauty of Lady Black Eyes. She had accompanied her husband the Shah to the battle field, but when he refused to follow her advice and attack the Turks before they were encamped (it wouldn't have been honourable) she turned her back so as not to see the carnage. As a result she did not see her husband flee the battle field and abandon her to his vanquisher, Argalia of the Turks.
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There's a lot to wonder at when reading The Enchantress Of Florence, not the least is the way in which Rushdie makes the seemingly implausible perfectly reasonable, with the remarkable tale of how a Florentine could be the uncle of Akabar, emperor of the Mogul Empire in India. Yet that pales in the face of what I consider his even greater accomplishment - bringing to life the two worlds in which the story takes place. Not only does he render both Florence and Sikri with such accurate brush strokes that we can see them in front of us as if he had painted their pictures, it's the manner in which he describes them that makes them fully alive.

Rushdie has developed a different language for each city, so that each is not only distinguished by their physical characteristics, but by the way they sound to our ear as well. Sikri flows like elegant silk draped over the arm of a beautiful woman, but with an undercurrent of danger that reminds you how quickly a scarf can be twisted to form the garrotte that cuts off a person's life. There is an assurance to her voice that only comes from years of experience and the surety of knowing everyone will listen to you no matter how quiet you whisper.

Florence is brash and bold, with a voice to match as she trumpets forth both her successes and her failures. Yet, in spite of the traces of insecurity that one hears in her proclamations of greatness, you can't help but notice the subtle notes that twist underneath the blare. It is the home of the infamous Medici after all, who smile to your face while plunging a dagger in your back, and whose most famous son became Pope. However, in the end the cities are still only the backdrop for the woman who was the Enchantress of Florence, and the bewitcher of every man, and not a few women, who came in contact with her.

In Lady Black Eyes, the princess whom history forgot, Qara Koz, Rushdie has created one of the most enigmatic and romantic female characters since Sheherazade. For its around that one strand that Rushdie has woven his entire story and creates the elaborate web which eventually snares all his characters and us his readers. For not only is she able to enchant all of Florence by her presence, just by telling her story, the blond stranger claiming kinship with Akabar, brings Sikri to its knees.

The Enchantress Of Florence is a beautiful story that in delineating the differences between renaissance Italy and the Mogul Empire actually brings East and West closer together than anything I've read before. With guest appearances by everyone from Vlad the Impaler to the Medici Pope, Rushdie has created a historical fantasy that's both a pleasure to read and an education in its recreation of two of history's most fascinating cities.

You can purchase a copy of The Enchantress Of Florence in trade paperback format as of January 6th directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

December 30, 2008

Village Rescues Starving Horses From Mountainside

The newspapers have been awfully depressing recently, filled with forecasts of economic disaster, reports of epidemics (cholera in Zimbabwe and ebola in the Congo), and casualty statistics from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Gaza. With millions of people going hungry world wide on top of that, it's sometimes hard not to listen for the echo of hoof-beats heralding the arrival of the Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse. Once in a while however, you catch the a glimpse of light in the dark that helps keep despair at bay.

The village of McBride, on the border between the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia (BC), hasn't had much to celebrate this last little while. Up in the mountainous interior of BC they depend on the forestry industry for survival, and they've suffered with the downturns its experienced in recent years. Mill closings and job losses have left them in rough shape, and I'm sure a lot of the town folk are struggling to make ends meet and were wondering what kind of Christmas they'd be having this year. Whatever they had been thinking, I don't think any of them quite imagined the way Christmas would turn out this year, but I doubt any of them will be forgetting it too soon either.

A week before Christmas Logan Jeck went up Mount Renshaw in northeastern B.C. to retrieve a couple of snowmobiles some tourists had abandoned and what he discovered was enough to break your heart. Two horses, believed to have been there since September, were clinging to life, and the mountainside, in a tiny snowed in space. Jeck's family owns horses, and the next day his father sent his sister Toni back up the mountain with a bale of hay, a .44 magnum and instructions to put them down if they were in too much distress or feed them if they looked like they had a chance at survival. She fed them.
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Then the people of McBride got down to the business of trying to figure out how to get two half dead horses down off the mountain. The first order of business was to ensure that they were strong enough to make the journey. When the animals were first discovered they had lost a third to half their body weight, one of them was covered in sores and missing patches of hair, and urine had encrusted what remained of their tails. The BC Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) sent a vet in to check the animals out a few days after they were found. On a scale where zero is death and six is ideal, their health was rated a two.

When word began to spread through the Robson Valley where McBride is located, volunteers and donations started to pour in. Blankets and hay were hauled up to feed the two horses and keep them warm, and snow was melted over open fires to provide water. Money to cover the costs of fuel and anything else required was coming in from as far away as Vancouver on the West Coast and Edmonton in central Alberta. However it was still going to be up to the people of McBride to bring the two lost souls safely home.

They considered various options; hoist them out with a helicopter, pull them out on sleds, or even seeing if they could put them on horse snowshoes so they could walk out. Horses, like deer, can't walk on powder snow, their hoofs just break through the crust. With the snow on the mountain piled in drifts higher than most people, there was no way they could walk out in the current conditions even with help. Not only would they quickly flounder, the chances of them breaking a leg while trying to plough through the snow in their weakened condition would be incredibly high. What it came down was being digging a corridor through the snow, with shovels, up the mountain down which the horses could be led safely.
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For a week the people of McBride BC shovelled and dug a kilometre long passageway up the side of Mount Renshaw. Braving temperatures as low as -40C they cut an avenue through drifts that towered over their heads. On Tuesday December 23rd the two horses and their rescuers walked seven hours down to safety. Sundance and Belle have been placed in foster care by the SPCA, and are expected to make a full recovery. When you think of the conditions that people worked under, there were more than a few cases of frost bite reported among those doing the shovelling, and everything else that the townspeople have to worry about, it's hard not to agree with special constable Jamie Wiltse's, of the B.C. SPCA, assessment of them as heroes.

"They've been struggling lately," he said, "but they weren't thinking of themselves when they were digging out those horses. It just makes me choke up. It's a beautiful story, it was totally selfless." Yet to hear the people of McBride talk you wouldn't think they had done anything out of the ordinary. "They didn't deserve to be left up there with no chance of getting out" said horse trainer Birgit Stutz, one of those who took care of the pair on the mountain side while the escape route was being dug. "I wanted them out and that's all I thought about, and that's all that kept me going."
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Ownership of the horses has been traced to a lawyer in Edmonton who says that the horses were carrying supplies for some hikers on the mountain in September when he got separated from them. He claims to have returned three times to try and retrieve the animals, getting stuck in the snow twice before he even located them, and then was unable to get them out of the snow. Constable Wiltse is investigating whether or not charges can be laid against the lawyer under provincial animal-cruelty laws. He says the owner had a duty to at least alert the authorities as to the animals' plight. Instead he left them on the side of a mountain and winter setting in with little or no chance of survival.

Thankfully the people of McBride British Columbia weren't going to let that happen if they could help it, and they turned what could have been a tragedy into a story of hope and compassion. A Mrs. Stulz said when commenting on the fact that she hadn't been able to buy presents or a tree this year because she'd been up the mountain,"This is the best Christmas ever, you realize these are the most important things in life - to help something that needs help".

When you read about a story like this, and you hear someone saying that, especially someone who has just done what Mrs. Stulz and her neighbours have done, you feel a little better about the world. They might not have been able to stop people from killing each other in the Middle East, or catching disease in Africa, but they did remind us what it means to care more about somebody else than yourself. If that's not a message of hope I don't know what is.

December 26, 2008

Book Review: Human Landscapes From My Country (An Epic Novel In Verse) By Nazim Hikmet

Epic poems were things they used to write in the olden days to record the deeds of heroes and recount the histories of earth shattering events. They most definitely were never about the likes of you and me, nor did they bother themselves with the minutiae of everyday life. Even if they ever did talk about lessor mortals, they were written in language that made them inaccessible to all but the most highly educated.

Now that we are into the twenty-first century, the idea that any art form's subject would be limited to somebody or something because of status sounds ridiculous to our ears. Yet the idea that an epic poem could be about something other than a hero, or written in vernacular instead of elegant language, is as alien to our ears as it would have been a thousand years ago. Yet in the 1940's, not only did Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet commence work on an epic poem about the people of his country, he wrote in a style that could easily be understood by anyone with basic literacy skills.

A complete translation into English of hisHuman Landscapes From My Country, published by Persea Books and distributed in Canada by Penguin Canada, is now available for the first time. Hikmet began writing it in 1941 while a political prisoner in his native Turkey, and only finished it in 1950 when he was released as part of a general amnesty. Parts of it were published in translation in 1960 and '65 in France and Italy, and in the former Soviet Union in 1962, but it wasn't until after his death in 1963 that it was published in his homeland.
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To understand this work you need to know something about Nazim Hikmet, and about Turkey. Hikmet was born in 1903 (there seems to be some dispute over his birth date as I've read everything from 1900 - 03) in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. By the end of WWl Turkey had gone from an empire whose borders stretched from the Balkans to Egypt, to being the size it is today. Hikmet was born into a family of progressive intellectual professionals, and was exposed to poetry at an early age through his artist mother and poet grandfather. He had his first poems published in 1917, but after the war he left Allied occupied Turkey to attend university in Moscow where he was exposed to artists and writers from all over the world.

He returned to Turkey when it declared independence in 1924, but quickly ran afoul of the new republic and was arrested for working on a leftist magazine. He managed to escape and flee to Russia, only to return again in 1928 during a period of general amnesty. Although he was able to publish nine books of poetry and worked as a proof-reader, journalist, scriptwriter, and translator over the next ten years, he also spent time in jail on various political charges. In 1938 he was arrested and sentenced to twenty-five years in jail for "writing poems that encouraged thoughts of mutiny in navel officers".

As an intellectual leftist Hikmet had very little contact with people outside his class and education background until he was sentenced to jail in 1938 and found himself immersed in their world. Meeting these people, and being forced to see the world from their point of view, was what inspired him to begin working on Human Landscapes From My Country. Not only did he want to describe who these people were and what their lives were like, he wanted to do so in such a manner that they would be able to read it. So "Landscapes" is a lot like a sketchbook as its filled with descriptions of people and places that Hikmet encountered during his roughly thirteen years in prison.

"In the third class waiting room/two red headed Bulgarian immigrants/with blue buttons on their shirts/and homespun yellow pants worn at the knees/squat/on the concrete/against the wall/instead of sitting on the wooden benches." With only a minimum of words Hikmet has drawn a picture that not only gives us a physical description of the men, but tells us something of their station in life. They are obviously poor, as they are wearing threadbare pants and shirts whose original buttons have been replaced, but there's more to this picture than just a description of poverty. You can be sure that Hikmet has mentioned them not using the benches for a reason, but why? Whatever the reason, Hikmet has not only given us enough information to visualize the scene, but has also so in such a way that his readers will see the men as segregated from the rest of the train's passengers. Any Turkish person reading this will be aware that the Ottoman Empire warred with Bulgaria at one time and understand the implications of that separation
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The train they are waiting to board is carrying a variety of people across Turkey; three prisoners being transferred and their guards, a student, a small time crook, a widow, a pregnant woman travelling alone, a mother and a daughter, and a variety of other people. These are the occupants of third class carriage number 510, and as Turkey alternatively speeds and creeps by their windows, we drop in and out of various conversations and individual's memories. A former soldier recounts the horrors of Gallipoli (WWl battle between Turkish and Australian/British troops that was a slaughter for both sides) and the awful conditions for the wounded: "My wounds got maggots./I open my cape:/little white worms/with black heads./I bend over to look,/but the critters are smart:/when the see me,/they scurry back in the wounds."

There's nothing romantic about those blunt words, and you try and imagine what it would be like to carry that memory with you for so long. Gallipoli was in 1915 and the train ride is taking place in 1941. Twenty-six years later and still his strongest memories are of war and maggots in his wounds. Yet he's so matter of fact about it, that not once do you feel like he's seeking sympathy or complaining. It's just how things were.

Human Landscapes From My Country carries the subtitle "An Epic Novel In Verse", yet unlike most novels it doesn't just follow the fortunes of one or two characters, it draws a picture of a people and a country. Using the same straight-forward, and sometimes graphic language, that I've cited here throughout, Hikmet has created a panoramic view of Turkey and her people. Through the eyes of the various people who he sketches we are given a view of what life was like in Turkey from the end of the Ottoman Empire to the start of WWll. At turns poignant, funny, and thoughtful, it is always eminently readable and wonderfully accessible.

You can purchase a copy of Human Landscapes From My Country either directly from Persea Books or through an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

December 25, 2008

Medecines Sans Frontieres' Top Ten List For 2008

Every year at this time the media begins to reflect back on the events of the past twelve months in order to tell us everything of importance that occurred. While there are news items of significance that will be hashed out on editorial pages or in comments sections, things really begin to heat up when the best of and worst of lists start to make their appearances in entertainment sections. Ten was the magic number for these lists long before a certain late night talk show host began his parody of them, so top and worst ten lists of everything from movies to cell phones from the previous year are produced by anyone with access to a computer and the Internet.

While some of the news stories that appear in lists aren't always cheerful, the majority of them are events that we are familiar with and that won't cause us to lose any sleep at night. Unfortunately there is one list, that is now entering its eleventh anniversary, of which neither of those two statements are applicable. Every year since 1998 Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) have been issuing a top ten list of the past year's worst humanitarian crises. For the most part these situations have boiled over into crises status because they have gone largely unreported in the press and aid agencies are not being supported in their efforts to take care of those affected.

For those of you unfamiliar with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders as they are known in the English speaking world, they are an international medical humanitarian organization created by doctors and journalists in France in 1971. MSF provides aid to people whose survival is threatened by violence, neglect, or catastrophe, due to armed conflict, epidemics, malnutrition, exclusion from health care, or natural disasters. They provide independent and impartial assistance to those who are most in need and reserve the right to speak out to bring attention to neglected crises, to challenge inadequacies or abuse of the aid system, and to advocate for improved medical treatments and protocols. In 1999 their efforts were recognized when they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the work have done to make the world a slightly more caring place.

Needless to say as a completely independent body with no alliances to any religion, military, or government, they tend to piss people off all over the world as they don't care who they criticize. They adhere strictly to a system based on the humanitarian principles of medical ethics and impartiality, so they don't set any stock by anybody's political or social agendas. It's probably because of this that MSF has usually been one step ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to getting the word out about humanitarian disasters. In 1985 they warned about the Ethiopian government's forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of its population that preceded the famine in '85; in 1994 they called for military intervention in Rwanda in response to the ongoing genocide; in 1995 they condemned the Serbian massacre of civilians at Srebrenica; denounced the Russians for their bombardment of the Chechen capital Grozny in 1999; and more recently called for international attention to the crisis in Darfur in 2004 and 2005 at the UN Security Council.

Since 1998 they have been using their "top ten" lists of humanitarian crises to let the world know of the situations that are the most dire and where people are most affected. This year's list is no exception to the previous ones in that there has been little or no mention of any of these situations in the mass media, nor has there been any concentrated effort made to alleviate the crises. One thing each of these circumstances has in common is that they are all on going, all of them are preventable, and in most cases they are occurring because aid workers are being prevented from assisting those in need.

This past year's (2008) top ten ongoing humanitarian crises according to Medecines Sans Frontieres are: the worsening humanitarian crises in Somalia; a critical need of assistance required in Ethiopia's Somali Region; critical health needs remaining unmet in Myanmar; civilians being killed and displaced due to intensive fighting in Northwest Pakistan; the health crises sweeping Zimbabwe as violence and economic collapse spreads; no end in sight to the violence and suffering in the Sudan; civilians trapped by war raging in Eastern Congo; civilians in Iraq in urgent need of assistance; there are still millions of malnourished children throughout the world despite advances in lifesaving nutritional therapies; and the rise of tuberculosis as a cause of death among people living with HIV/AIDS.

Unlike other lists this one doesn't celebrate anything except our failure as a species to look after our fellows and our ability to look the other way. If you have any doubts as to the importance of this list, you only need to look back to the crises that MSF has warned the world about in the past to be reminded about the consequences of inaction. This is one top ten list that can't just be dismissed as a typical exercise in end of the year rumination. Please take the time to follow the links in the list above, and maybe even forward them to a local aid agency or political representative. Although I enjoy top ten lists as much as anyone, this is one, as I'm sure you'd agree, that I would happily see made obsolete.

December 24, 2008

Canadian Politics: While Parliament Away, Prime Minister Plays

The Canadian Parliament has been closed since the first week of December as Prime Minister Steven Harper convinced Governor-General Michaelle Jean to suspend it until the end of January so he wouldn't lose power. The opposition parties were preparing to vote against him and his Conservative Party of Canada, and offer themselves as an alternative in the form of a coalition of two parties, The Liberals and The New Democratic Party (NDP), supported by a third, The Bloc Quebecois.

Now little Stevie isn't one to sit idly by and let fate rule his destiny, nor is he going miss out on any chance that he has to put his stamp on the face of Canadian government for years to come. So he has spent the last week before Christmas doing as much as he can get away with without Parliament being in session. He has named a new judge to the Supreme Court Of Canada, appointed nineteen friends and fellow travellers to the Senate, and authorized a bail out package to Chrysler and General Motors of four billion dollars.

I'm going to skip over the first part, the appointment of a judge to the Supreme Court for a second, because I could hear all my American friends wondering about naming people to the Senate. In Canada we don't have an elected Senate, the closest thing to be found to the Senate in another government would be the British House Of Lords. In Canada though, instead of being born into a seat, you need to be a friend of the sitting government in order to get one of these plum positions. For plum they are, paying out an annual salary of $130,400 until retirement at age seventy-five, followed by a pension indexed to inflation.

Now it's no big thing for a Prime Minister to pack the Senate, it's an old Canadian political tradition. It's how you reward the party faithful and your friends for the work they've done on your behalf over the years. The thing is that Prime Minister Harper, and long before he was even a member of Parliament, has been a fierce proponents of an elected Senate. You see a Prime Minister can't just appoint people willy-nilly to the Senate, they have to be evenly divided among the provinces to guarantee equal representation. So Mr. Harper has advocated that provincial legislatures nominate people for Senate appointments and that the sitting federal government should abide by their selections.

To give the devil his due, the first appointment Steven Harper made to the Senate was a man who had been put forward by the Alberta legislation, but not this time. Of course he's saying he takes no joy in having to stack the Senate, but it's the provinces fault for not getting it together to nominate anybody. Of course, that's why he's had to find nineteen people to sit in the Senate who all happen to have opposed the proposed coalition government. Now the Senate does not have the power to defeat any motion passed by the House of Commons, and could not overturn a vote of non-confidence taken in the house, but they can make things difficult for a government.

Normally they serve as a rubber stamp for bills passed by the House of Commons, but if the opposition holds the majority of seats in the Senate as the Liberals currently do (even after the addition of nineteen Conservatives it will be 58 Liberals to 39 Conservatives) they can delay passage their passage by holding hearings or voting against them and sending them back to House for further discussion. Aside from Mr. Harper's previous stance making him look a bit of a hypocrite in this case, the opposition is also questioned his political legitimacy to appoint people to the Senate as he's only still Prime Minister because he suspended parliament.

Harper's appointment of Mr. Justice Thomas Cromwell to the Supreme Court of Canada has raised more than a few eyebrows for many of the same reasons that his stacking the Senate has caused consternation. You see Harper has been advocating that all people appointed to the Supreme Court must undergo full parliamentary scrutiny before they are approved, but again he decided that circumstances dictated that he act with immediately. Calling the process, "stupid, wrong, and foolish" political science professor Peter Russell, and expert on the judiciary, criticized the Prime Minister for ignoring the all party process used to compile a list of finalists, and then bypassing the parliamentary review process.

Of course Harper has made no secret of his dislike for the Supreme Court's application of The Charter of Rights and Freedoms to do things like strike down aspects of his anti-terror legislation, enshrining the right for same sex couples to marry, and other decisions he considers interference with his government's ability to impose legislation that might infringe upon civil rights. The fact that, according to Prof. Russell, Justice Cromwell can be expected to use the Charter sparingly to strike down legislation, and who will generally place the interests policing ahead of the rights of the accused, might just have had some bearing on the Prime Minister's decision to appoint him while Parliament is suspended. For even if he should go down to defeat when the house is reconvened, the appointment will stand, and the face of the Supreme Court of Canada will be changed forever.

Now everyone had expected an announcement of some sort regarding the bail out of the auto industry, especially in wake of the American government's announced $17.4 billion . No matter how bitter a pill it is to swallow that we have to bail out these bastions of Free Enterprise and opponents of government regulation due to their own incompetence, no one denies that we have any choice in the matter. If the auto industry were to go under the ripple effects on the Canadian economy would leave it in such tatters that it would take years to recover. The communities that rely directly upon one or other of the big three's car plants for direct employment and the money their employees put into local economies are only the tip of the iceberg.

Dotted mainly throughout Ontario are auto parts plants that supply the industry both in Canada and the United States. A great many of these companies are located in smaller communities where they constitute a town's major employer. During strikes when part orders are curtailed these communities suffer because of lay-offs, but they can tighten their belts and ride out those short term losses. However if the big three were to vanish, these plants would close their doors for good and the economic devastation would cause the modern day equivalent of ghost towns to spring up across the province.

The problem is that by doing the deal unilaterally, without Parliament's input, the Prime Minister has been able to fudge the details of the plan according to opposition parties whose main concern is the lack of any guarantee that Canadian jobs will be preserved. While supposedly there are some production guarantees included in the agreement, according to Liberal Member of Parliament John McCallum, there is nothing in it that secures the jobs of Canadians.

What nobody seems to mention, which I find very surprising, is why the government didn't demand some semblance of accountability from the corporations. If we are going to be handing GM a loan of up to $3 billion and Chrysler $1 billion, you'd think the least we could ask of them is that make some sort of commitment to ensure that they will change the business practices that got them into this predicament in the first place. (If you're wondering about the fact that Ford is conspicuous by their absence its because they've not requested any outright loans, merely access to a line of credit that they can draw on as needed) When any business applies to a lending institution for a loan they are obliged to offer proof of a viable business plan that shows how they see plan on paying back the loan. While Harper has said that the loans aren't a blank cheque and that companies and employees will have to make concessions, he didn't say what that might entail.

Since their biggest failing has been their inability to compete against the Asian car industry and their unwillingness to embrace new technologies that would make their cars more fuel efficient and less dirty, wouldn't it have been a good thing to make those conditions of the deal? How about insisting that they work on making an affordable hybrid car that would cost less for purchasers to operate and be less harmful to the environment? How about retooling their line so they stop mass producing trucks and SUVs, or other expensive big ticket items, and focus on producing inexpensive, fuel efficient, passenger cars for families?

Since Steven Harper became Prime Minister in 2006 he has shown a singular lack of desire to involve anyone but his closest advisors in making any decisions. For the two years of his first term he was effectively able to use Parliament as a rubber stamp for his policies as the opposition parties were in disarray and either unable or unwilling to stand against him. However, only twenty-seven days into his second term he found out that was no longer the case when he tried to push through his economic statement and he only escaped being ousted by suspending Parliament.

Yet apparently he hasn't learned his lesson, as he's spent the two weeks since doing anything he can to unilaterally run the country. While there is nothing technically illegal in any of the decisions he has made, it won't do anything to dispel the opposition's mistrust or their belief that he will stop at nothing to get his own way no matter what. If his behaviour over the period between cancelling Parliament and its recall at the end of January was designed to reassure the opposition and Canada that he has changed his ways, its done the opposite. In fact his behaviour has only reinforced the previous opinion of him being intractable and unwilling to work with the opposition to create legislation for the good of the country. If he keeps this up, his suspension of parliament will have only succeeded in delaying the inevitable, and he and the Conservative Party will be back on the outside looking in again.

December 23, 2008

Book Review: A Snowball In Hell By Christopher Brookmyre

It used to be in order to be famous you had to have done something important or have an ability that distinguished you from other people. Artists, scientists, thinkers, explorers, inventors, and military leaders were all likely candidates for fame as they were all in careers that provided opportunities for renown. Any celebrity or fame that came their way was earned because of their talents or skill. Now, things have changed, and celebrity has become a goal on to itself with people willing to do almost anything to get their moment in spotlight.

These are the people so many of us love to hate, especially those who appreciate the work that goes into actually creating something of intrinsic value. It's enough to make you pretty hot under the collar seeing talentless wasters with column space in newspapers and having their faces splashed all over the popular magazine. Wouldn't the world be a better place without these air-heads, or the people who created the opportunities for their creation in the first place?

Well, in Christopher Brookmyre's most recent book, A Snowball In Hell, available through Penguin Canada, former terrorist for hire Simon Darcourt has decided enough is enough and its time to give the public what they really want, reality television with celebrity guests competing against each other for the public's approval just like they do on Big Brother and Survivor. However, getting voted off Simon's show doesn't just mean you won't come back next week, you won't be coming back at all, except for in a box.
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You can't help but be struck by how intelligent his arguments, and compelling his justifications, are for the things he's doing. Sure he's a bit extreme but you do have some sympathy for what he's doing, don't you? However, after abducting a prominent producer, one Nick Foster, boy band producer from the 1980's and 90's, and a reality show creator in the present day, and broadcasting his execution live to those attending an industry tribute to the same Nick Foster, the police don't quite agree with this assessment. They even agree less when it's become apparent that he has created a new reality show for the public to watch by kidnapping the winners of Nick's last venture.

Of course he's not going to kill them off one by one - he's going to have the audience vote on how much oxygen each girl gets in a day based on her performance until one runs out of air time - so to speak. Oh, and to make sure everybody broadcasts his little extravaganza he lets it be known that he will kill all three of the girls immediately if the broadcast is shut down or any attempt is made to trace the server it's being beamed from. So the cops call in the one person who handed Darcourt his ass before, Detective Inspector Angelique de Xavia, who thwarted Simon's plan to blow up a hydroelectric installation in Scotland back in 2001. The biggest problem they face this time though is figuring out what the former mercenary wants.

As if things aren't complicated enough, it turns out the police aren't the only ones not amused by Simon's telecasts, as Angelique finds out when she receives a text message from an interested party wanting Darcourt delivered to them instead of being hauled off to prison. As incentive they send a photo along with the message - her parents handcuffed to chairs.

If she ever wants to see her parents alive again she's going to not only have to track down Darcourt, but make him disappear in plain view of her superiors and the public. It's a good thing she knows a magician, Zal Innez, who five years ago not only made off with a whole lot of money from a Glasgow bank, screwed over two mob families, but had stolen her heart. Although the feelings are mutual, he's as equally besotted with her, they both believe they are doing the other a favour by not being in each other's lives - what kind of future can a thief and a cop have together? Yet without Innez Angelique knows she's not a hope in hell of saving her parents, let along snaring Darcourt.

Christopher Brookmyre's skill resides in not only writing plots which have more switch-backs than a road twisting up the side of a mountain, but in making those same plots believable. With parts of the book being written in Darcourt's voice, we see him assembling all the pieces for what we think is the penultimate game and are chilled by the delight he takes in revelling in other people's weaknesses. He is, unfortunately, as brilliant as he thinks he is, and we can only sit back helplessly as he lets us in on his secrets or as he invites us to laugh along with him at his perverse form of social critique.
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What's even more amazing is that Brookmyre is able to use this highly amoral character to brilliantly satirize our obsession with celebrity and fame. Day after day the press publish tallies on which of the three original contestants are attracting the most attention in the press, and thus earning the right to breath. Night after night the public gather around their computers and televisions to watch the performances as the three girls compete for the approval they so desperately need to stay alive. It's reality television taken to its most nightmarishly logical conclusion with the only real winner being the one behind the scenes pulling all of our strings.

A Snowball In Hell is a brilliant and devastating book that proves once again that Christopher Brookmyre is one of the best social critics going as well as being one of the most original crime fiction writers you'll ever read. There are no cows sacred enough not to be slaughtered by his pen, over inflated egos safe from the prick of his words, or moralistic hypocrites who can escape his wrath. Yet at the same time he ensures that we never forget, in contrast to Simon Darcourt's opinion, that even the "contestants" in the reality show from hell are living and breathing people who are just looking for something to fill the void in their lives.

It's a sad and confused world that we live in if people feel they have to prove their worth by becoming famous. Who are we to begrudge them their moment of glory, no matter how contrived or silly it might appear in our eyes? While aiming a slap at the industry that creates these opportunities, Brookmyre hits those who sit in judgement on the participants with a shot between the eyes: How are you any different from Simon Darcourt except for perhaps how you express your opinion of these people?

A Snowball In Hell can be purchased directly from Penguin Canada or an online retailer like Amazon.ca.

December 22, 2008

Book Review: In The Convent Of Little Flowers By Indu Sundaresan

We in the West have always had a fascination with all things Eastern to the extent that we have created various stereotypes and cliches to ensure that countries like India are what we want them to be. At one time she was the Mecca for all things spiritual; everybody from pop stars to bored middle class housewives looked to India for enlightenment and sought out the services of any guru willing to take them on as a student. They revelled in the exotic and the mysterious until they discovered that spiritual advancement wasn't something that happened overnight and was a continual work in progress, at which point they dropped it like a hot potato.

Forty years later our fascination is now centred around the economic miracle that is modern India - The Economic Tiger of The East! Instead of ashrams and gurus the West now comes to India in search of cheap labour for their manufactured products and call centre employees to explain how to use them and trouble shoot their problems. Where it used to be that the sons and daughters of the affluent West would seek India's shores for enlightenment, we now welcome the children of their rich to enlighten them with free market capitalism, business and science degrees, and the great myth of the global economy.

Yet one thing hasn't changed, our unwillingness to look behind the facade of the image that we have created. We continue to ignore the poverty; the way politicians exploit the mistrust between Muslims and Hindu out of one side of their mouths and condemn the violence that occurs afterwards out of the other; the caste system that continues to be rigidly enforced by society no matter what it says on the law books; and the continual degradation of women who are still to often considered no more than chattel to be bought on sold on the marriage market. Indian apologists on both sides of the world will tell you that it's all different now, by which they mean it's better hidden, but talk to those who care to see and they will tell you that nothing has changed.
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Indu Sundaresan is one of the new generation of Indian novelists who are not only seeing, but are willing to write about those things that are going on behind closed doors, in the back streets, and far beyond the glare of bright city lights. In her newest collection of short fiction, In The Convent Of Little Flowers, published by Simon & Schuster Canada, she covers everything from elder abuse, the consequences of the caste system, and the hardships that are still common place for women in India. In case we think that some of the more extreme things she describes are invention, she has included a postscript with the collection where she explains that each story was inspired by actual events occurring in India that she had either read about or been told about.

However, lest you think she is an expatriate Indian, or Non Resident Indian (NRI) as they are sometimes sneeringly called, with an axe to grind as she now lives in Seattle Washington in the United States, the prevailing emotion that comes across in these stories is that of sadness, not anger. What makes the stories in this book much more powerful than others that I've read dealing with similar subject matter is that there is no finger pointing, no laying of blame. In fact the prevailing sentiment in all the stories is that even those characters who are the perpetrators of appalling actions are as much victims as those they abuse.

There are two stories in particular which bring this to mind for me, "Three And A Half Seconds" and "The Faithful Wife". In each of these stories there is the obvious victim, the ones who suffer because of the actions of others. Yet because of the way Sundaresan writes, without trying to manipulate our emotions and without pointing out the obvious, but letting the story speak for itself, we can't help but see beyond the events described into the moral vacuum that has developed in a country that is caught in transition between its past and its potential future.

We're not really sure what "The Faithful Wife" is about for the first little bit of the story. By all appearances it seems to be about a prodigal child returning home to face the family's patriarch to seek redemption for some past misdeed. However it gradually comes out that things aren't as we first perceived, and as events unfold we begin to understand the horror that is about to take place in this peaceful village. Like the young man we want to blame his grandfather for what is going to happen, for he, we think, has the power to stop it. After all, he's the one who asks why his grandson has come in a way that suggests he has no business being there, and it was his grandmother who sent him the message about what was to happen.
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Although the practice of burning a wife with her husband, known as Sati, had been outlawed since 1829, the twelve year old girl who had been married to the sixty-three year old shopkeeper who died of natural causes has "chosen" to be burned along with her late husband on his pyre. After all, what kind of life awaits a person widowed at twelve years old, "a blight to her family" says the grandfather, "she will be considered an ill omen." We want to hate him for those words, want to hate him for not doing anything to stop it, but he is one person against a village, so he has done the next best thing. He has let his wife summon his grandson, a reporter, home so he can write about it, so that people will know it has happened, and so maybe nobody else will ever have to be forced into doing what this girl did.

Poverty and caste are the villains of "Three And A Half Seconds", even though they don't own the arms or hands that beat elderly parents. Elderly parents whose crimes of being from a poor farming village and the wrong caste are the reasons for their son gives for him repeatedly failing his exams at work, as nobody wants him to be promoted because of his family. The same parents who left the village they had been born in after drought had destroyed their family fields and the government had washed its hands of them, who had lived on the streets of Mumbai while working so he could have school and a future. Elderly parents who in the end only have their love for each other and who wonder where they failed their son that he hates them so much,

Not all of the stories are about people being defeated by India, some are about the ways they are finding the means to overcome the past and move themselves, and their families beyond the anachronistic lives that traditions have forced onto them. Things don't have to be this way Sundaresan is saying in her stories, but only if we are willing to see what's in front of our eyes, and speak out against it. Of course there are plenty of people who are content with the status quo because it ensures their positions of power, and there are also those who will be critical of anybody daring to speak out against what they will claim are important elements of their culture.

They will denounce Sundaresan as a trouble maker who has lived away from home for too long, or will accuse her of being sensationalistic for only talking about the negative aspects of life in India and not talking up the great economic miracle. Yet there is nothing sensationalistic or lurid about these stories. In fact there's a kind of beauty to them that can only exist when a writer loves her subject matter a great deal. These stories are filled with nothing but respect and admiration for the author's birth country and love for the people who live there, yet they are not blind to how outdated attitudes and archaic moral codes are the biggest threat facing India.

Many countries the world over hide dirty secrets behind the veils of tradition and custom and India is no different. Yet more and more writers are proving their love for their country by pulling back those veils in the hopes that future generations won't suffer the indignities that people today are still being forced to endure. Indu Sundaresan's collection of short stories, In The Convent Of Little Flowers is one of the best examples of this that I've read in a long while. Elegant and eloquent, her stories speak from the heart and are full of compassion for all those caught up in the confusion of a country trying to find its way out of a dark past and into a better tomorrow.

In The Convent Of Little Flowers can be purchased either directly from Simon & Schuster Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

December 16, 2008

Canadian Politics: Canadians Don't How Their Government Works

I had wondered how Steven Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, expected to get away with calling normal parliamentary procedures like a vote of non-confidence and a coalition government treason and coup d'etat? How could any member of parliament be so cynical as to expect not to get caught in such an outright lie? In fact he himself became Prime Minister after "overthrowing" a government in 2005 through the same non-confidence procedure and winning the subsequent election. True he didn't have the opportunity to form a coalition government, but that's mainly because nobody would want to join forces with him, and the government he defeated had been sitting for two years, not twenty seven days.

Well now I know the answer. According to a survey conducted between December 9th and 12th, after the whole circus died down in Ottawa, a majority of Canadians don't know that we don't directly elect our Prime Minister, who the head of state is, or how to best describe our system of government. On the plus side, ninety percent knew that a Governor-General could refuse to let a sitting government call an election upon losing a vote of confidence in the House Of Parliament.

The survey was commissioned by a group known as The Dominion Institure who claim their goal is to build active and informed citizens through greater knowledge and appreciation of the Canadian story. Well judging by the results of their survey they have a hell of a long way to go if they want to even come close to achieving this goal. If fifty-one percent of Canadians believe that the Prime Minister of Canada is elected by direct vote like the American President, is it any wonder that the Conservative Party was able to convince people that the proposed coalition government of a couple a weeks ago was "undemocratic"?

Aside from not understanding how the parliamentary system of government works, which has been in place since 1867 when the country was formed, only a bare majority knew that we are a constitutional monarchy. Now I know to people who live outside of Canada that the concept of a constitutional monarchy sounds more than a little obscure, and why shouldn't it? They haven't grown up with the system or studied it in school. Finding out that Canadians are equally ignorant about such basic precepts when it comes to the government they live under is not only embarrassing, but more than a little scary.

Maybe it doesn't seem like such a big deal to some of you that most Canadians think either the Prime Minister or the Governor General are head of state, or that they can't name the style of government we live under. However ask yourself this, how much difficulty would an American have in telling you that the President is head of state or that they live in a republic? Why should it be so difficult for Canadians to do the same thing?

However that is trivial when compared with the fact that the fifty-one percent of the people polled in this survey believed that the Prime Minister was elected directly. That shows a not only a complete lack of knowledge as to how our system of government works at its most basic, but just how few people actually vote in federal elections. If you've ever stepped into a polling booth on election day in Canada to cast a vote you'd have noticed that nowhere on the ballot you fill out is there a place to vote for Prime Minister. Even if the margin of error, 3.1%, for this survey is factored in, it means that forty-eight per cent of Canadians of eligible voting age have never stepped inside a voting booth, or don't understand what it is they are doing when they cast a ballot.

(I'm beginning to feel silly explaining this in every article I write about Canadian politics, but obviously it's needed. Canada works under a system of parliamentary democracy where the country is divided up into electoral districts called ridings based on population density. Each riding represents one seat in the House of Commons, and political parties select candidates to run as their representative in each riding. The political party that elects the most candidates forms the government with the leader of that party becoming Prime Minister.

If no party wins an outright majority of seats in the House of Commons the one with the most seats tries to rule with either the support of another party or on its own. A minority government can lose votes in the house without having to resign except for one on financial matters or if the other parties pass a motion of Non-Confidence. When that happens the Prime Minister asks the Governor-General, the Queen's (the head of state) representative in Canada, to dissolve parliament so a new election can be called. The Governor-General has the option of asking the opposition if they feel like they can form a government, or the opposition can ask the Governor-General for the chance to form a government if they can offer proof of their ability to govern. That would usually require a coalition of parties with sufficient votes in the House to defeat a motion of Non-Confidence, and a guarantee that the coalition would last for a particular length of time.)

In order for a democracy to work a country's population has to at least understand how their system of government works. If they don't they can be manipulated by unscrupulous leaders who would take advantage of their ignorance to prevent the checks and balances built into the system from working. When a government under a parliamentary system does not receive a majority of the seats in the House of Parliament, it is understood that they do not have sufficient support to be a representative voice of the country. It is the opposition's responsibility to ensure that the governing party is responsible to the whole country, not just those who voted for them, and ensure that legislation represents the majority as much as possible.

Since Steven Harper and The Conservative Party of Canada were first elected to a minority governing position in 2006 they have acted like they have a majority government. Until this past November they were given a free ride by an opposition in disarray for various reasons. Now, when the opposition acts like they are supposed to, calling the government on legislation they did not think represented the best interests of the entire country, Steven Harper accused them of attempting to overthrow the government and usurping the democratic process. He was able to get away with that because too many Canadians don't understand how their own system of government works.

Marc Chalifoux, president of The Dominion Institute, summed up the situation succinctly when commenting on the survey: "Canadians certainly were interested by what was going on in Ottawa (the capital city of Canada) but lacked, in many cases, the basic knowledge to form informed opinions." When the people a system of government is supposed to represent don't understand how it works they surrender what voice they might have had in its process. If the people of a country have no voice in their government can it really be called a democracy?

Until Canadians can get it together to understand even the most basic principles of their own system of government they will remain at the mercy of who ever wields power in Ottawa. Until that time we are a democracy in name only.

December 13, 2008

Music Review: Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou The Vodoun Effect: Funk & Sato From Benin's Obscure Labels

I'm sure we've all seen or heard various documentaries about the history of popular music in North America that have traced the roots of jazz and blues music back to the tribal sounds of Africa. Or how the blues developed out of the songs, "hollers", that the slaves used to sing while working in the fields that were a mixture of old tribal rhythms and the Christian hymns that the slave owners forced down their chattel's throats in an attempt to pacify them. However, most of us are probably unfamiliar with how the music that developed in both North and South America returned to Africa to influence the popular music scene in various West African nations.

In the 1980's, thanks to Peter Gabriel's World Of Music and Dance (WOMAD) festival, African popular music started to come the attention of European and North American audiences. Performers like King Sunny Ade from Nigeria exposed us to the previously unheard of genres high life and juju; guitar driven, high energy, and exuberant music that kept people on the dance floor for hours on end. However Nigeria was only the tip of a widespread pop music scene in Africa. Thinking that King Sunny Ade represented African pop music would have been as stupid as thinking a blues musician from Chicago represented all of North American pop music.

Benin lies on the West coast of Africa and butts up against Nigeria in the south, Niger in the east, and equally tiny Togo to the north. What distinguishes Benin from its neighbours is the fact that it happens to be home to Vodoun - or as we know it over here Voodoo. So it should be no surprise that the popular music of Benin draws heavily upon the rhythms of Vodoun rituals, but what is surprising is the other influences that have come into play. The Vodoun Effect: Funk & Sato From Benin's Obscure Labels 1972 -1975 a recent release on the Analog Africa from Germany, that has collected together fourteen tracks by one of Benin's most popular bands, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou. Recorded in the 1970's on a variety of small independent labels, they show not only the Vodoun influence but how music from both South and North America found its way back across the Atlantic Ocean.
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According to the publicity material that came with the disc in the late 19th century a group of freed slaves from Brazil returned to Benin and over the years their dances and songs were incorporated into Beninese ritual, and from there worked their way into the popular culture. In the 1960's and 1970's American soul and funk music started making its presence felt in Africa, and along with the sounds of pop music from neighbouring Nigeria were assimilated into the popular music scene in Benin.

When you listen to Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou you have a choice, you can either try and analyse the individual songs in an attempt to discern the particular influences that are present in each song, or you can just sit back and enjoy the ride. Of course there are times when you just can't help noticing obvious influences, especially when the songs are as radically different from track to track as they are on this disc. One moment you'll be listening to a song that you swear if it continued a second longer would have sent you off into a trance the rhythm is so hypnotic, while the next, you can't help feel like you're listening to 1970's era Santana the Latin groove becomes so strong.

Now a lot of these songs were recorded early in the band's career and you get the feeling in some instances that they are trying out a new sound. However, on some of the tracks, and these are the ones that are my favourites, they have started to synthesize the various influences into their own sound. While you can still hear the occasional distinctive trait; the staccato horn sound of funk, an underlying rhythm that sends a peculiar shiver up your spine, or an electric organ riff that sounds like it might have strolled over from "Black Magic Women" to sit in for the take, the band shows they weren't going to be content just being imitators of other people's sounds.

It's interesting to hear the difference between various tracks on the CD as they show the band's sound developing and becoming more sophisticated. On the first track, "Mi Homlan Dadale" they sound like any number of African pop bands, not even incorporating any of their own traditional rhythms into the music. By the sixth track, "Se Tche We Djo Mon", and the seventh track, "Dis Moi La Verite", your hearing an amazing progression in their playing. The latter of the two is especially impressive for you can hear the beginnings of a successful marriage between the hypnotic rhythms of Vodoun, the distinctive sound of a latin melody, and the brassiness of American funk. It still sounds a little like three different styles of music are being played at once, but you can tell what the band is trying to accomplish, and it in no way diminishes the fact that the song is a hell of a lot of fun to listen too.

The only drawback to The Vodoun Effect is the sound quality on some of the tracks is not very good. This has nothing to do with the contemporary engineering, but with the fact that when the band originally recorded it was often with everybody piled into the studio gathered around two microphones. It's actually remarkable at how well balanced the sound is considering the size of the band and the number of instruments involved in making the recordings. The only real problem that crops up is distortion of the vocals and the horns, as they both occasionally sound like the levels were far too high when they were recorded.

This is a fascinating recording of some extraordinary music, by a group of highly skilled and dedicated musicians. We still know so little about African popular music over here in North America, that any recordings that shed light upon something that hasn't received wide spread exposure yet is interesting as well as important. It's also nice to know that Analog Germany is making plans to release more music by Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou from later in their career that should show the band's talent in a far better light. If they're this good raw, we're going to be in for a real treat when the next batch of recordings are released, the only pity is that it's taken so long for their music to find its way back over the ocean again.

December 11, 2008

Canadian Politics: A New Leader For The Federal Liberal Party

It's been an exciting couple of weeks in Canadian politics, and it doesn't look like the action is going to slow down any time soon. When Conservative party leader, Prime Minister Steven Harper received permission from Governor-General Michaelle Jean to postpone parliament until January 26th/09 in order to avoid facing a vote of non-confidence in the House Of Parliament, it appeared he might have dodged a bullet. His popularity had risen in the polls and the Liberal Party, leaders of a proposed coalition government poised to replace him after the non-confidence vote, were starting to turn on themselves over who should lead their party when the house reconvened.

Before the events of the last two weeks or so went down the Liberal party were just beginning the process of electing a new leader to replace Stephane Dion who had led them to their worst election result in twenty years. Of the three men who had announced their intention to seek the position, two, Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff were considered the front runners, with Igantieff having a slight edge due to his popularity among the Liberal Members of Parliament (MP). Still, in a leadership convention anything can happen and Rae was planning an extensive cross country tour in the hopes of convincing those selected as delegates to the convention that he was the man for the job.

However with the very real possibility of the government still going down to defeat when the House reconvenes, Dion was being a considered a liability by even members of his own party in the event of the coalition being called upon to form a government or, even worse, an election were to be called. One of the reasons that Stephen Harper felt fairly secure in postponing parliament was for that reason. He figured by the time the house re-convened the Liberals would be too busy with picking a new leader to risk defeating him in an election with a lame duck leader.
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Well the Liberals have called his bluff, and two very intelligent and proud men have put aside their own political ambitions in order to make the Liberals as unified and strong as possible no matter what happens at the end of January 2009. Stephane Dion offered to step down immediately, and Bob Rae has stepped aside to allow Michael Ignatieff to become leader of the party. The party had been discussing ways of holding a speeded up leadership convention, either by having a new leader elected by the Liberal caucus or expanding the vote to include riding association heads (a riding is the equivalent of an electoral district and each riding represents a seat in the House Of Commons) and all candidates from the last election to ensure that all ridings had a say in the matter.

While they will still be going through with both votes, it will now simply be a formality as there is only the one candidate, Michael Ignatieff. This does raise the question as to what happens now? When the Liberal party was rounding up caucus members to sign the coalition agreement the last to sign was Ignatieff, in fact he signed it three hours after the deadline for signing had passed. It has also been said that if the coalition had taken office earlier this month, he would not have accepted a cabinet post in the new government. Now whether or not that's because he was preparing to be the new leader as of May 2009 and wanted to distance himself from anything to do with Stephane Dion, or he didn't believe in the idea of a coalition, isn't known. What is known is one of his staffers has been quoted as saying "coalition if necessary, but not necessarily a coalition" It appears that he is more than willing to use the threat of the coalition to keep Steven Harper in check, but not about to jump the gun and vote Harper's government down just for the sake of voting against him.

The one hitch in that plan is that he did sign the coalition agreement and backing out at this late date unilaterally would quickly sour his relationships with the other opposition parties unless he can convince them it's in all of their best interests. Both Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) the other member of the coalition, and Gilles Ducette, leader of the Bloc Quebecois, who have promised to support the coalition in parliament for eighteen months by not voting against them on bills that would cause them to lose power, have publicly said that they believe the coalition still stands and are still planning for that eventuality.

(As opposed to the lie that Steven Harper and his Conservative Party have been spouting, the Bloc Quebecois would not be part of the coalition government and would not be given any cabinet posts in that government. Anyway, he was willing to do a deal with them two years ago when he was in opposition to try and form a government so he should be careful about who he accuses of what. In fact he pissed off Quebecer's so much with his anti-Quebec comments over the last couple of weeks that he is considered responsible for the improved showing of the Parti Quebecois (provincial separatist party) in the Quebec provincial election this past Monday, December 8th/08)

I have a feeling that unless the Conservative Party do something incredibly stupid, like still try to pass the same financial plan that caused this mess in the first place, or not offer a solid package of financial incentives to help stimulate the economy in whatever plan they do propose, they will probably ride this storm out. Michael Ignatieff is an unknown quality for Canadians, and he's wise enough to know that he would be risking his political career by becoming Prime Minister as the head of the coalition unless he can offer an iron clad case to Canadians that the Conservatives and Stephen Harper are unfit to rule. Instead I think he will take this opportunity to establish himself and bash the crap out of Harper and his party until the summer recess, and then next fall pull the plug on Steven Harper and run head to head with him for the Prime Minister's office.

Of course considering the volatile political climate we find ourselves in right now, everything could change again overnight. There have been rumbles of discontent from the rank and file of the Conservative Party. Harper has had two elections now with which to attempt to win a majority and even with a weakened Liberal party encumbered with a leader nobody really liked, he was still unable to deliver a majority government this time. The Liberals may not be the only party who change their leadership between now and next year.

December 9, 2008

Music Review: Various Performeres Rich Man's War: New Blues & Roots Songs Of Peace And Protest

Music has always had the power to inflame people's passions. From ultra nationalist songs that whip up hatred against others to religious music that inspires devotions, music has the potential to have the strongest and most immediate emotional impact of all the arts. Therefore, it's little wonder that down through the years music and songs have been written to express both dissatisfaction and appreciation for the way the world is going.

While I'm sure you can find examples of protest songs from almost every era of civilization, just check out the Irish songs about the British occupation, it really wasn't until the twentieth century that English language protest songs began to take the shape that we are familiar with. Most of the early ones dealt with the plight of the working class in North America and called for the establishment of unions. As the twentieth century progressed, and fell into the depression of the 1930's, songs the plight of the poor farmers and the social/political system that could allow the crises to happen began to be heard.

However it wasn't until after WWll and the popularization of folk music that protest songs began to obtain widespread popularity in English speaking North America. With first the civil rights movement in the United States, and then the war in Vietnam, causing people to question the moral authority of government and society's inequities protest, songs and the people who sang them gained widespread popularity. Country Joe McDonald's "Feel Like I'm Fixing To Die Rag", and Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A Changing" were along the lines of typical folk songs, while Jefferson Airplane's "Volunteers Of America" showed that the protest song didn't have to be limited to just folk singers.
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Yet, after only a relatively short time the protest song's popularity died again. It seemed that when the impetus created by the unique combination of events and circumstances that had fostered the movement for social change died, so did interest in listening to songs about what was wrong with society or other people's troubles. While punk bands like the Clash, or musicians like Billy Bragg made no bones about their politics and did their best to motivate their listeners, the majority weren't interested. Like punk, rap and hip-hop had the potential to speak for the disenfranchised, but it was co-opted until now it glorifies the very things it originally protested against. (Check out the the lyrics of any Grandmaster Flash song from the early eighties and compare it to what's being sung as rap now and you'll see what I mean)

Now that doesn't mean that protest music is dead, it just means you have to look a little bit harder to find it. As a public service the good people at Ruf Records in Germany are releasing a new compilation CD of protest music recorded in the last few years. Rich Man's War: New Blues & Roots Songs Of Peace And Protest, to be released in the United States and Canada in the new year, is a collection of topical blues songs that were written in response to the first American presidency of the 21st century. While Ruf Records is distributing the disc, only two of the performers appearing on the disc are from their label, as producer Kenneth Bays has searched out recordings by as diverse a group of blues players as he could find. You'll notice that some of the songs seem to stretch the definition of blues somewhat, which explains the slightly unwieldy title, but does nothing to diminish the quality of the music.

I guess it only shows how unpopular protest songs have become when of the twelve songs on the disc not only have I only heard two of them before, "Follow The Money" by Bob Brozman and "Jesus And Mohammed" by Candye Kane, but I only recognized the names of two of the other musicians who had contributed to the recording; Guitar Shorty and Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater. Which is a great pity, because not only are the songs on this disc all intelligent, and sometimes quite funny, but even better, they are all good pieces of music. Protest music has received a bit of bad rap over the years for being painfully earnest and painful to listen to as its been wilfully misrepresented by those who'd rather we'd not be reminded that the world isn't quite the way the government depicts it.

Needless to say as the songs collected here are all in direct response to the Bush administration and its policies their primary focus is on topics that have dominated the newspapers since his election. What was nice to see was how each of the performers found a way to address the issue they chose to talk about without resorting to making villains out of people like the soldiers being sent overseas, but attacked the policies and motivations of those who made the decision to send them. Even better, there are a couple of songs that don't even resort to blaming anybody in particular, but instead seem to be shaking their heads with regret at the whole damn situation.

Two of the best songs on the disc are the previously mentioned "Jesus And Mohammed" by Candye Kane and "A Time For Peace" by Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater. In the former, Candye Kane imagines a conversation taking place between the two prophets and them shaking their heads in disbelief at how their followers could have screwed up their respective messages so badly. "This isn't what we wanted, both were heard to say, how could our words of love lead us to this day/ Oh my children don't you understand, misery and hatred won't get you to the promised land". Sung along the lines of a country/blues gospel number, and especially with Candye Kane's big and expressive voice, the song is a particularly effective condemnation of the hatred generated by all those who would have their followers on either side believe they are fighting a holly war.

Like Candye Kane, Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater has turned to the gospel roots of blues music for his song, complete with an echoing organ solo and church choir. "How many politicians have to lie? How many good soldiers have to die?". What makes this song so effective is the stark simplicity of its message, "It's time for love/It's time for peace/It's time for war...to cease", and the genuine passion that he and the choir are able to bring to what they are saying. "A Time For Peace" is a genuine prayer for peace that transcends individual religions or politics and reminds us if we don't keep love in our hearts we're no better than those we criticize for making war.

Rich Man's War is a collection of intelligent, musically interesting songs written in response to events of the last eight years. You probably won't have heard many of the songs on this disc performed before, and you may not have even heard of some of the performers themselves. However, after eight years of listening to one version of events and maybe starting to feel a little uncomfortable with what you've been told, don't you think it's about time to give some other opinions a chance? This CD represents that chance - maybe you should give it a listen.

December 6, 2008

Canadian Politics: Prime Minister Suspends Parliament To Save Government

In an attempt to prevent his government from going down to defeat in the House of Commons and be replaced by a coalition made up of opposition Members of Parliament, Prime Minister Steven Harper has received permission from Governor-General Michaelle Jean to suspend the current session until January 26th/09. Taking advantage of a little known parliamentary technicality called "prorogation", which gives the Prime Minister the right to shut down Parliament in case of an emergency, Harper will avoid having to face a vote on his fiscal policy scheduled for December 8th/08.

The opposition parties had already made it clear that they planned on defeating the governing Conservative Party in that vote, and approaching the Governor General with the coalition deal they had worked out over the past few days in the hopes of being given the opportunity to form a government. The coalition would have temporarily been led by current Liberal part leader Stepheane Dion (he would be replaced in May by whoever won the Liberal leadership convention) and would have included members of the New Democratic Party (NDP). The Bloc Quebecois, the Quebec nationalist party, wouldn't have been an official part of the coalition but had agreed to support the new government on all issues of confidence to allow them to rule without having to call an election. (In a parliamentary system a minority government can lose votes in the House of Commons as long as they aren't on fiscal issues or specific motions expressing lack of confidence in the sitting government.)

Mr. Harper is the first Prime Minister in current history to have chosen this option rather than face going down to defeat in the House of Commons. As recently as 2005 then Prime Minister, Liberal leader Paul Martin, knew very well that he would be defeated on an economic package he was presenting to the House of Commons, but like every other minority government prior to him, including Conservative leaders Joe Clark in 1979 and John Deifenbaker in 1963, he acceded to the wishes of Parliament. Former Governor-General Ed Schreyer cited those previous instances when warning that granting a wish for prorogation at this point would be an evasion of the process to Parliament and set a dangerous precedent for the future.

What is the great emergency, he asked, that necessitates the closure of the House Of Commons? According to Mr. Schreyer with the new Parliament having just opened only a genuine emergency should be grounds for prorogation. Allowing Steven Harper to suspend the sitting so his government can survive can't be constituted as an emergency, and for the Governor-General to allow the Prime Minister to do so for such an obviously political reason would damage the political neutrality of her office.

However, as a constitutional monarchy, the Queen, or in this case her representative, is only a figurehead, and can never be seen to gainsay a request from parliament. Steven Harper asking Michaelle Jean permission to suspend Parliament is only a formality and she really has no choice in the matter. It would be an even more dangerous precedent for a Governor-General to refuse the request of a Prime Minister, then for her to allow Mr. Harper to suspend the House of Commons. In a constitutional monarchy the crown can never be seen as dictating to parliament, or the whole system is compromised.

For those of you wondering why Steven Harper waited until almost the last minute before calling everything off, was that he and his Conservative Party needed the week to paint as negative a picture of the opposition as possible for the Canadian public. So he has spent the week saying the last thing Canada needs is a separatist government during a financial crises. In fact he and his party have resorted to telling outright lies by saying things like the Bloc Quebecois would have Cabinet posts in the coalition government as they attempt to do anything to shore up their own image. He has seems to have conveniently forgotten how willing he was when in opposition to try and woo the same separatist party in his attempts to overthrow the Liberal government.

You see, even now, Harper is only grudgingly admitting that perhaps as a minority government he and his Conservatives are going to have to work with the other members of the House of Commons. For the two years prior to the election last October 14th he and his party had been able to control parliament with a minority government because the Liberal Party, the main opposition party, didn't have a leader and weren't about to call an election. However, there is only so far you can push people, and so much you can get away with. The fiscal package he introduced that was supposed to prepare Canada for the upcoming financial crises was such a slap in the face for the opposition they refused to take it.

It was Conservative party arrogance that brought about the situation and unless that changes, chances are that when the House of Commons reconvenes in January we're not going to see much of a change in the attitudes of the opposition parties. All three parties still say they are prepared to bring down the government as they no longer have trust or confidence in their ability to rule. Liberal leadership candidate Bob Rae says that he is prepared to campaign across the country in support of the coalition in preparation for the recall of parliament and has all ready called the Harper government illegitimate and accused the Prime Minister of being a coward by asking for prorogation.

If the coalition can hold together over the next seven weeks and the opposition defeats the government as they say they will at the first chance they get when the House of Commons reconvenes Michaelle Jean will then have to make a decision as to whether she should allow Steven Harper to dissolve Parliament and call an election or allow the coalition to attempt to govern. While technically the House will still only be in its first sitting, sufficient time will have passed since the last election that Harper will try to make the case that he has the right to call an election.

However, in 1979 when Joe Clark's Conservative Party government lost a vote of confidence in the house after six months in power, then Governor-General Ed Schreyer, asked opposition Liberal leader Pierre Trudeau if he thought he could form a government before he agreed to dissolve the house and call an election. So if the coalition can stick out the next seven weeks and weather the storm of propaganda that the Conservative Party will rain down of them during that time, we will find ourselves back in the exact same situation we are in now. Steven Harper has been able to delay a vote in Parliament on his fitness to govern, but it looks like he will still have to face the music when the House reconvenes.

December 1, 2008

Canadian Politics: A New Government Without An Election?

There is something very odd going in on Canada this week, Canadian politics are exciting. Normally politics in Canada is about as predictable as watching paint dry, you know what the result is going to be well in advance no matter how much anyone says otherwise. So what's been going on over the past week, and what will come to a head in another week's time on Monday December 8th, is really quite incredible as its something that has almost never happened before in Canadian history.

For the first time since WW1 and Prime Minister Robert Borden's war time Union government made up members of both his Conservative Party and Wilfred Laurier's Liberal Party, Canada is looking at the very real possibility of a coalition government running the country. Led by the Liberals, as they have the second largest number of representatives in the House of Commons, it would also include the left leaning New Democratic Party (NDP). Although the Bloc Quebecois, the Quebec nationalist party, would not be part of the coalition, they have all ready made it clear that they would be willing to vote with them on important issues.

What's that you say, what about the guys who won the election on October 14th (2008)? While it's true the Conservative Party of Canada won the largest amount of seats in the last election, as everyone predicted they didn't elect enough Members of Parliament to have an outright majority in the House of Commons. Under these circumstances the government can lose votes in the House of Commons without any serious ramifications except in the case of a vote on fiscal matters or what is known as a vote of Non-Confidence.

Under normal circumstances when a government loses in either of these situations they would be forced to dissolve parliament and call an election because they are no longer able to govern. However, there is also the option that the opposition parties can go to the Governor-General of Canada, The Queen's representative, and ask her permission to form the government without a new election being called. Canada is a constitutional monarchy with the Queen of England being our titular head of state. Both her role and the role of the Governor-General are strictly ceremonial and they are not allowed to refuse a legitimate request by the opposition to form a coalition government.

How these circumstances came about is last week Prime Minister Steven Harper's government introduced a fiscal package to the House of Commons that was what they called the first stage of their solution to help steer Canada through the upcoming financial crises. Instead of offering ways of stimulating the economy they have proposed a series of spending cuts and taking away civil servants right to strike. The opposition parties were so upset by this that they made it clear they would not support the bill, which means that the government would go down to defeat on a fiscal matter, necessitating an election. Knowing full well the opposition wouldn't force an election so soon after the last one, the government refused to back down, probably not believing that the three opposition parties could set aside their differences and form a coalition.

One of the major stumbling blocks towards forming the coalition is the question of who would be the Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal party, as they are just beginning the process of replacing the man who led them into the last election Stephane Dion. While he is still the leader of the party, the leader of the NDP, Jack Layton, had made it clear that he would not agree to any deal that made Dion Prime Minister. As the vote on the fiscal package is imminent the Liberals don't have time to hold a leadership convention, so they will have to pick someone from among the caucus to be leader. The question is whether or not the candidates running for the leadership would be willing to allow one of their number to become interim leader, and Prime Minister.

Initially the Conservative Party was going to hold the vote on this coming Monday, December 1st/08, but when they saw the way the wind was blowing they put it off until December 8th. They hope to use the coming week to convince the people of Canada that the rightfully elected government is being hijacked and to sway opinion against the coalition. Unfortunately the extra week will also give the Liberals and the NDP the opportunity to figure out a way to make it work. If the Liberals are able to appoint a new leader in that time, probably Michael Ignatieff not only will it satisfy the NDP, but it will also take some of the sting out of the Conservative party's spin against the coalition.

In his speech announcing the delay on the vote Steven Harper challenged the legitimacy of Stephane Dion to become Prime Minister as he has all ready agreed to resign as leader of the Liberal party. If Stephane Dion does remain as leader when the coalition approach the Governor General about forming the government it could mean that Steven Harper and the Conservative Party might not recognize the legitimacy of the new government and be the beginnings of a constitutional crises. Unfortunately for Mr. Harper, constitutional experts say that Governor General Michaelle Jean will have little choice but to give the coalition the chance to form a government as long as they meet certain provisos, even if Stephane Dion remains leader.

According to Louis Massicotte, an expert in government affairs, there is overwhelming cause for not calling a new election under the current circumstances. According to precedent from both British and Canadian parliamentary history whenever a government is defeated during its first sitting there is no election. As long as the three opposition parties, the Liberals, NDP, and the Bloc Quebecois, produce a written agreement guaranteeing support for the coalition and how long it would last, it would be Ms. Jean's duty to accept it so soon after an election.

As of now the NDP and the Liberals are still negotiating and the Conservative party are putting their spin campaign in motion, and the next week promises to be one of the more interesting ones ever in Canadian politics. How it will play out in the end is still anybody's guess, but come Tuesday December 9th/08 there might just be a new government in place without an election being called. I guess we couldn't let the Americans be the only ones to make electoral history this year.

November 28, 2008

The Vatican "Forgives" John Lennon

An article published in the official Vatican newspaper, "Osservatore Romano", officially "forgave" John Lennon for comments he made in 1966 about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus Christ with young people around the world. The editorial said that the remark was the boast of a young working class Englishman faced with the flush of unexpected success, implying it was made more in ignorance than with any blasphemous intent.

Well I'm sure that's a great load off the minds of all of Lennon's surviving family members knowing that he's been forgiven by the Vatican. They must have been frantic with worry. So what if it was more than a little condescending - it still wipes his slate clean with the Pope which means ... well actually it means dick all. Talk about a load of sanctimonious bullshit, as if anyone cares anymore what Lennon said forty-two years ago. It smacks of a cheap attempt by the folk in the Vatican to show that they are wise and benevolent without actually having to do anything.

Sure at the time it raised quite a stink when Lennon made his statement about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus among young people and got completely blown out of proportion. He never meant they were more important, which was how the idiots interpreted his comment, but more popular, and there's a good chance he was right. In 1966 if you asked the average teenager would you rather sit and read a parable by Jesus or listen to a cut from Help I bet the majority would have picked the latter. Heck, ask the average young person today if they would rather watch an episode of The Simpsons or Southpark or sit down with the New Testament and see what kind of reaction you get.
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Of course I always find it hugely ironic whenever the good folk in The Vatican try to stumble up to the moral high ground and make these sorts of groundless statements. After all this is the same church who funded a poster campaign in Tanzania claiming that condom use leads to death. Considering that one in ten adults in that country's capital city, Dar, are infected with the HIV/AIDS you'd figure it was the other way around, but maybe their logic is different.

Of course we shouldn't be so surprised when they come up with stuff like this as the Catholic Church's track record when it comes to moral issues has been, how shall we put it, spotty at best. It, along with the conservative Christian Protestant churches and hardline Muslim leaders have led the war against teaching people how to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS throughout Africa and South-East Asia.

First of all it's sinful to have sex before marriage so you can't tell people how to safely have sex with someone who they aren't married to. Besides that, safe sex means using condoms, and using condoms prevents a woman from becoming pregnant which defeats the only purpose of sex - procreation. If you happen to have fun while attempting to have a baby that's forgivable (heck if they can forgive John Lennon they can forgive you that), but heaven help you if you decide you want to have sex just because you love the other person but don't want to have a baby.

Of course the institution has always made stellar contributions to the spread of disease, overpopulation, and famine. The people in Calcutta who really deserve beatification are the ones handing out condoms and teaching women that they don't have to baby machines, not the person encouraging them to make souls for God. Jesus taught that we should walk in another person's shoes and try to understand what they were experiencing in order that we might be more compassionate to their needs. I can't see how encouraging people who have to beg for a living to have babies is being compassionate.

How can an institution like the Catholic Church that has ordered people to be burnt alive for their beliefs, encouraged the faithful to kill those who didn't worship the same God, and been responsible for cultural and actual genocide among indigenous people the world over, without ever asking for forgiveness itself, presume to sit in judgement on others? Oh sure the Church admitted that "mistakes were made in the past", but it doesn't seem to have learned from them or be particularly troubled by them.

If the Vatican was genuine in its regret for past actions that saw millions of people persecuted would they send letters filled with veiled threats to countries passing legislation legalizing same sex marriages? Would they allow clergy to openly advocate the criminalization of homosexuality as the Bishop of Alberta, a province in Canada, did in the run up to Canada legalizing same sex marriage? Would they cover up child abuse by priests to protect the Church's "good name" as they did most recently in New England? That behaviour might not sound as heinous as The Inquisition to you, but ask the parents of any of the abused children how they feel and I'm betting they're not too happy with the church as an institution.

While Catholicism has the potential to be a beautiful religion, and there are people around the world who are Catholic who do their best to fulfill that potential, the institution itself has yet to live up that promise. Instead of issuing statements of forgiveness for matters nobody gives a damn about, maybe they should start figuring out ways of earning the forgiveness of all those they've caused damage to over the years.

When Jesus Christ said "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone", he was telling us don't be so quick to judge others because we've all got our dirty little secrets. The Catholic Church is no different from the rest of us and has no right to pass judgement on anyone or anything.

November 6, 2008

Interview: John Trudell: Activist, Poet, Musician - An Umined Mind


Industrial tech no logic civilization is the mining process
The intelligence of each arriving human generation
Is programmed to perceive the reality that meets the needs
Of the industrial society each human generation arrive in
The human beings are individually and collectively mined... John Trudell; "Somewhere Inside My Head"; Lines From A Mined Mind Fulcrum Press 2008.

Huh? That was my reaction when I first read those lines from the introduction to the collected writings of John Trudell, Lines From A Mined Mind. What is this crazy on about with his "Mined Mind" shit. But you know the longer I stared at it, and the further I read on into his introduction and then his poetry, it actually began to make sense - at least around the edges.

You see I may not ever really fully understand what it means to be a Mined Mind, because my mind has been so successfully mined already. I like to think of myself as being an outsider, separate from the mainstream of society, if only because of my career choices in the past - the arts - and the fact that my political and religious affiliations tend to be along the lines of "none of the above". However, simply the fact that I'm willing to make those choices at all, keeps me playing the game and being sucked into the maelstrom of our society. My mind has been mined because I believe that by doing what I do it makes me different, maybe even superior, to a great many people out there. Yet just the fact that I think that way, comparing myself to everybody else, means that I'm still just as much a part of it as everybody else because its the yardstick I measure myself against.
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Okay so I'm not doing anything to help you either understand what the hell it was he was talking about or giving you any insights to just who this guy is - which is after all the point of this exercise. It's supposed to be an interview with John Trudell - writer, lyricist, and former political activist - yet I'm babbling on about belonging or not belonging to society. Well you see people like John - they don't have a choice - when you're own government declares war on you for simply asking to be treated the way everybody else is treated, you get the hint real fast that your presence is not appreciated.

Now that's bound to change the way you look at things, and get you thinking outside the lines that make up the carefully constructed boxes that were supposed to think inside of. Talking to John made me realize just how big the gulf is between somebody whose really free, and what I think of as being free. I don't know if that's going to come across in what you're about to read - it pales in comparison to what I remember our conversation sounding like - but I hope by the end you come away with a clearer picture of John and a better understanding of where he's at, and the mining process that's being carried out on your mind on a daily basis.

Can we start off with some of the typical biographical details - where were you born and all that.

I was born in 1946 near Omaha Nebraska and split my childhood half and half between living in town with my parents and living on the Santee Sioux Reservation just outside of Omaha with my grandparents. I dropped out of high-school because it wasn't working for me, and at seventeen I joined the navy. I did my four year hitch, even though it wasn't really right for me, and got out in 1967. I did a couple of years of collage after that, but that didn't work out because of some political shit, and I was denied something that I should have got credit for.

This might be a stupid question, I don't know, but how would your experiences as a child have been different than your so-called typical kid growing up in the suburbs?

Well, like I said I travelled back and forth between the two worlds, living half my time on the reservation and half my time off it, and what I saw as the major difference between the two worlds was that while everyone on the reservation was poor, there was a real community, one that had common roots and a culture that tied it together. Off the reservation, in the non-native world it was more about competition - more emphasis on material stuff and class distinctions.

You know back in those days the emphasis was on finishing high school and getting a good job, no talk of university or collage for us, right, but I never felt like I was fitting out there - that's why I tired the military, and I don't regret that either, but it was all part of looking for a place where I fit. It was only on the reservation where I felt that sense of belonging - that's where my cultural/social peer group was.

I was just curious, up in Canada we had the Residential School system and as late as the 1970's kids were still being taken away from their families - wasn't there the equivalent in the States

Yeah, the boarding schools, but they weren't happening everywhere, and my dad kept me out of them - he also protected me from religion, so I was able to avoid a lot of the stuff I know some other people had to put up with.

What galvanized you to become politically active?

Well like I said I didn't feel like I fit anywhere in the non-native world. You know - no matter what you did, a job, school, whatever, you would have to be subservient to authority if you want to get ahead, and I just wasn't into playing that game. So when I went to Alcatraz (The All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz Island by Native Americans from 1969 -1971) it was like getting back to my community - the place where I fit best.

You were part of the All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz from 69-71 and them Chairman of AIM from 73 - 79. Those were some volatile years for the politically active Indian - Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Shootout, Anna Mae Asquash. Reading about it - it appears to have been a time of great hope and excitement mixed with fear and confusion. Have you had the opportunity to reflect on those years and are you able to give your assessment of it in general?

Our grievances were just, but the American government declared war on us and fought us for all they were worth. There were great highs and great lows, but we were motivated by good intentions. I know some tribes are better off now because of what we did, but I think the most important thing that came out of it was that our energy and our spirit was rekindled. There was a revitalization of who we were as a people.

Our confusions were those of any human searching for identity, of any human being searching for a way of being. Now when I look back on it I see it as part of my life experience where I might not have realized the lesson I was learning at the time, but at some point I got it.

From reading biographies about you there's the appearance that you became a poet and song writer over night because that's when you first started doing it professionally. Prior to the early eighties when you started recording, had you ever given any thought to music or poetry being part of you life

Nope - never. It wasn't anything I had planned on doing. I started writing in 1979, although I'd always been influenced by music, it wasn't with the intent of doing music. It's just that back in 1978 I knew things were going to change - activism had served its purpose and I could see it had run its course. Then the fire, when Tina, her mom, and the kids died (In 1979 just after John Trudell led a protest against FBI headquarters a mysterious fire burnt down his home killing his wife, her mother, and their children) that was the final severing point for me - the world would never be the same after that. I was falling through realities and writing became something for me to hang onto.

How did you get started with music - you released your first album Tribal Voice in 1983 on your own label - how did that come about, and what kind of music was it?

I had met Jackson Browne around this time, and was just hanging out with him. Now that I was spending time in recording studios and hanging out with musicians I began wondering what these lines I'd been writing would sound like set to music - you see I don't think of myself as a poet or a song writer - I write lines. I decided that I wanted to use the old music - the drum and the singers and set the lines to what I knew best then. Jackson produced and we made Tribal Voice.

It was after that that I met the Kiowa guitar player Jesse Ed Davis - actually I don't think of him as a Kiowa guitar player, just one hell of a great guitar player. Anyway Jesse introduced me to electric music. He wrote music for my lines and we put out our first album in 1986 AKA Graffiti Man. I was still doing the spoken word thing then and Jesse took me out on the road with a band and got me playing in clubs so I could learn what the heck it was like to be a musician, 'cause I didn't know anything about doing that sort of thing. We did that for three years until Eddie died.

I interviewed Martha Redbone a while back, and she said that as a native pop musician one of the hardest things she faced was overcoming people's expectations of what she as a Native woman should be doing musically. What's been your experience with this like?

I just blow it off - no insult to anybody or anything but I can't be anything other than what I am. If people have expectations they just have to deal with them... I'm me and that's who I represent - I can't claim to represent all natives or anything like that, the only ones I might represent are the ones who agree with what I'm saying.

I know, there's this whole Fascism of Romanticism thing going on - people have created an image they want natives to fit into - some sort of fantasy ideal that makes us easy for them to say - that's what they are, but you know that's not reality. I happen to be native and male, but I am who I am and that's how I participate in reality - as a human being - rather than as a race or a sex.

When I reviewed Lines From A Mined Mind I tried to explain what you meant by a "Mined Mind" but I'm not sure how clear I was on it - can you take me through it?

Well you read the introduction right (Me: Yeah but you know I'm still not sure whether I got what you were after) Okay they've got us believing that believing is thinking, but the reality is we're not really thinking cause believing is accepting without thinking about it. Because we're not thinking we end up focusing on our fears, doubts and insecurities. The "being" part of human is being mined and that allows us to be programmed by the beliefs they tell us is thinking.

If we ever want to use the power of creative thinking we must become focused on the conscious power of thought. It's also got to be an awareness that's beyond just the self - it's a recognition of the power of intelligence in of itself without anything tied to it. It's all about energy, because thought is energy, and when you take energy away from humans we're flat - we're mined out.


You write about a variety of topics in your poetry - what does it take for a topic to inspire you?

I don't really think in terms of being inspired you know, sometimes the lines just appear, sometimes I have to go hunting for them. I'm not really that sure what sets the line in motion, sometimes I'm inspired by desperation when I start (laughs)

Your work stands on its own as poetry, yet you perform a good deal of the verse collected in Mined Mind as songs. What are you looking for the music to do with your lyrics?

As an art form music has its own value, but like I said I'm not a poet or a song writer - I write lines - I guess you could call me a liner (laughs). What's great is that they work with music. The way we work as a band is that I write the lines first and then the guys in the band take them and we find the right texture to go with them. That way the music becomes an extension of the lines.

I've always really liked spoken word 'cause we can all talk and we are all used to being talked too. (laughs) There's something really direct about it though - I'm not really sure how it works, most of what I do is based on hunches, I'm just glad when it does work.

What do you hope that listeners, or readers take away from your work?

I don't believe in hope - hope is a sedative - it's something you do instead of doing something - you sit around and "hope" things will get better. You know when Pandora was given her box of evils by the Gods and told not to open it, and she did anyway letting loose all the evils on the world, the last of the things that was in that box was hope!

Okay let me re phrase that - what do you want people to take away from your work?

Hah, whatever they can get out of it - I want it to make sense to them you know - Hell I'm crazy so it's always a relief when people get a little something from it you know? (laughs)

We wrapped it up after that, mainly because my head was spinning with the various stuff that we had talked about. Talking to person who genuinely doesn't give a fuck, who is really free, can be a very confusing thing for the rest of us who are still hung up on the various things that are built into the system that hold us back and keep us in check. I'm sure there's lots of you out there who are going to dismiss what he says as bullshit, and I guess that's your right to do so. However I hope that some of you will be able to get an inkling of what's going on in a genuinely un-mined mind. Don't worry about being confused - in fact take it as a good sign - when things stop making sense it's the first sign that you're starting to think clearly.

November 1, 2008

Movie Review: (DviX Version) Kingdom Of Heaven

A couple of months ago I signed a free lance contract with the German based web magazine Qantara.de - Dialogue with the Islamic World. Qantara is the Arabic word for bridge and the site is an effort on the part of the Federal Centre For Political Education, Deutsche Welle, The Goethe Institute, and The Institute For Foreign Cultural Relations to bridge the gulf between the Islamic world and the West by promoting dialogue between the two cultures.

It seems only fitting that the first article of mine they published was an updated version of an interview I had conducted with Algerian author Yasmina Khadra. It was his criticism of the West during that interview for being ignorant of Muslim culture that spurred me to seek out the material that brought me to the magazine's attention. When you consider that the majority's, and I include myself in that number, view of Islam has been shaped by either the romantic image of Sheherazade telling a story a night for 1001 nights to preserve her life or suicide bombers, he had a pretty good point.

It's not only recently that the Muslim world has been subject to stereotyped representation, although the "War On Terror" hasn't helped matters. The silent movies of the 1920's perpetuated the romantic lover image, and before that, swarthy devils showed up in literature and paintings making off with beautiful maidens. Unfortunately it will take more than the efforts of one on line magazine to offset the accumulation of over a thousand years of misrepresentation and propaganda disseminated about Islam to encourage people to be a little more broad minded in their outlook. So it was a pleasant surprise to see how Ridley Scott's 2005 movie Kingdom Of Heaven presented such a balanced view of both the Muslim and Christian worlds during the fight for control of Jerusalem in 12th century AD.
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I hadn't read very much about the movie when it was first released, but when I came across it at My Movie Download.com, a site where you can download DivX versions of movies cheaply, there were so many actors in the cast whose talents I appreciate that I figured it was worth the price just to watch them work. Liam Neeson, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Jeremy Irons, Edward Norton, and Eva Green were sufficient incentive to overcome any doubts that I may have had about Orlando Bloom's ability as a dramatic leading man.

Bloom's character, Balian, is a poor blacksmith and when we meet him he's just finished burying his wife who had committed suicide after the death of their new born child. A party of knights headed towards the Holy Land stop nominally to have their horses shod, but their leader, Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) has an ulterior motive. Many years ago he seduced a young woman who subsequently gave birth to - you guessed it Balian. After announcing that he's his father Godfrey offers to take Balian to the Middle East to give him the chance for a new life. Initially Balian turns him down, but after he kills the village priest in a fit of rage - the priest tells him his wife has gone to hell because she committed suicide - he takes him up on the offer. Unfortunately the church doesn't think too highly of those who kill their anointed ones, and send out a party of soldiers to bring Balian back. In the fight that ensues when Godfrey refuses to hand Balian over, Godfrey is fatally wounded and only lives long enough to make Balian his heir and knight him.

When Balian finally makes it to Jerusalem (after a shipwreck that leaves him alone in the desert and a duel with an Arab warrior in the desert) he takes his father's place in the court of King Baldwin of Jerusalem (Edward Norton). For three years Baldwin has managed to maintain an uneasy peace with Saladin (Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud) leader of the Muslim army. Under Baldwin's rule all faiths are welcome and free to practice their own religion in Christian held territory. Unfortunately this policy has led to a rift among the Christian forces as the fanatical knights of the Templar order desire to wipe all non-believers from the face of the earth.

With Baldwin dying of leprosy, and his sister next in line to the throne, whoever she's married to becomes very important. Unfortunately for those who wish for peace Sibylla's (Eva Green) mother had married her off to Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) a fanatical Templar. When Balian refuses Baldwin's deathbed request that he marry Sibylla, Guy will be killed, war looks to be unavoidable. Templars under the leadership of Reynald de Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson) had been staging raids on Muslim caravans even when Baldwin was alive, so it's not difficult for Guy to convince him to lead the raid against the camp site where Saladin's sister is living that provokes the war he desires.

When Guy foolishly leads his army out into to the desert to meet Saladin, they are slaughtered because of dehydration from being too far from a source of water. Balian, who refused to take his soldiers into the field, as he knew what the result would be, is left to defend Jerusalem with only his household's soldiers and those citizens willing to fight in order to survive. They know they can't beat Saladin, but they hope to hold out long enough to force him to offer terms for surrender. A knight's first duty is to protect those who can't protect themselves, and Balian hopes to buy their protection by making the cost in human lives of taking Jerusalem higher than Saladin is willing to pay.

If I compare the movie to what I remember of actual history, Scott's depiction of events is accurate. After the first Crusade there was a period of peace between the peoples of all faiths in the Middle East, and Jerusalem was indeed open to all. It was an uneasy peace, and factions in both the Muslim and Christian courts fulminated against it. As Scott's main focus is on activities taking place within the Christian army that becomes a key element in the story of the movie, as it was in history, and the depiction of the Templar's fanaticism is accurate.

While we spend far less time among Saladin's people, it's refreshing to see Muslims portrayed with the same amount of diversity of character as the Christians. Some of them are similar to the Templars in their desire to kill the infidels, while others, like Saladin, are more moderate. They won't stand idly by and see their people wantonly cut down by the Christian armies, but if it's possible to avoid war they will. However, one does get the feeling that Saladin would have eventually taken the offensive even without the provocation offered by the murder of his sister. The Christian armies are invaders occupying his people's territory and they need to be driven away.

As is to be expected from the quality of the actors involved, in most cases the acting in this movie is exemplary. Although he has a relatively small role, one performance that stood out for me in particular was Brendan Gleeson's depiction of Reynald de Chatillon. While Maton Csokas' villain was a little one dimensional, Gleeson's characterization had surprising depth. However, the most pleasing surprise was Orlando Bloom's performance. Finally given an adult role he rises to the occasion, doing a masterful job of showing the growth and change that his character goes through over the course of the movie.

As this movie was downloaded from the Internet, there were no special features included with it. Unlike some DivX movies I've downloaded in the past both the sound and picture quality of this film were fine. Even with all the proper codices installed I've had troubles with things like the soundtrack overwhelming the dialogue or the dialogue being slightly out of sync with a character's lip movements.

Kingdom Of Heaven is not only a wonderfully acted and staged movie of epic proportions, it does a superb job of presenting all its characters in equal detail. Muslim and Christian alike are treated as individuals, not as types, so that we can respect and admire those on both sides of the conflict for their characteristics not because of what they are. In these days when we are surrounded by continuous reminders of "us" and "them", it's refreshing to see a movie notable for an absence of that attitude.

October 30, 2008

Book Review: Eastern Standard TribeBy Cory Doctorow

Over the millennia of our existence humanity has evolved in hundreds, if not thousands of different ways. Some of those evolutions have come about through the natural course of events, while others because of circumstances and conditions. On a social level one of the more interesting changes has been our ways and means of identifying our personal communities. It used to be that our family unit was our first and primary social group. Who we were born to could pretty much determine the course our lives would take. Even when things like family name and its position in society began to lessen in importance blood ties were considered to be ties that would never break.

It has only been in the last half century that any real radical redefining of community has taken place with family surrendering its position of prominence in our social structure. For although it's true that for some family is of primary importance, its no longer necessarily the community that defines us. Instead of us being defined by our communities, we now search out the communities which best fit our definition of ourselves. People may still try to impose physical or genealogical boundaries on a community, but most of require more than that from those we surround ourselves with.

In a family of businessmen and women just how well will the person who has to write, paint, or create music fit in? Who will they have to talk to that will truly understand what motivates them, that can at least understand their experience? Up until ten years ago most people in that situation would have had to leave home and go to some physical destination to find others of the same mindset, but with the rise of the Internet as a means of communication that's all changed. On line communities of like minded people can be formed between people who aren't even on the same continent and may in fact never even meet.
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In his novel Eastern Standard Tribe, available as a free download like all his books, as well as for sale, Cory Doctorow has created a combination of physical and virtual communities based on people's feelings of affinity for behaviour in a particular time zone. These "tribes" exist on line through sophisticated versions of what we would call chat rooms, and no matter where you are in the world you can hook up with your tribe simply by logging on. Of course the time differentials do come into play, for if your job happens to have taken you to Europe and you want to keep in touch with your tribe on the East coast of North America you start to run into problems with sleep deprivation.

Art works as a user-experience consultant, which translates as coming up with ideas and figuring out how to implement them for public consumption or private sales and make loads of money for a corporation. He's also a plant for the Eastern Standard Tribe (EST) working undercover in Greenwich Mean Tribe (GMT) territory in his version of industrial sabotage. Currently he's trying to undermine Deutche/Virgin, a huge entertainment conglomerate, by creating ideas that on the surface look and sound feasible, but somehow upon implementation, they don't work out. Or better yet, they never get past the research and develop stage but still end up costing Deutche/Virgin a bundle.

Art is hooked up with a firm in New Jersey, and he and his buddy Fede, who got him the job in the first place, have been working as a team for a few years now. Fede deals with the organizational nuts and bolts and Art is the idea man. So when Art comes up with an idea that will not only do an end run around Deutche/Virgin, put money in Fede's and Art's pockets, and make their EST employer lots of cash too, its only natural that they'll work on it together. Fede's only reluctance is that he wants to sell the highest bidder and to hell with tribal loyalty, but he lets Art convince him that they owe the folk in New Jersey.

Everything is going great for Art, not only has he come up with a sure fire way to make money and help EST, he's also met a wonderful girl, Linda. Even though she's from Pacific Standard Time (PST) and a little bit crazy, they're hitting it off great. So why does he end up in a sanatorium involuntarily committed by his girlfriend and his best buddy Fede? It turns out that Art attacked Fede and accused him and Linda of stealing his idea and selling it off to another tribe. So he's now locked away and being kept doped up for suffering from severe paranoia. Yet, are you still paranoid if they are really out to get you?

At the beginning of the book we meet Art sitting on the roof of the sanatorium as he's managed to escape the confines of his "room" momentarily. While he's debating with himself on whether it's better to be smart or happy, he recounts the events that led him to this point. All his life he's paid the price for being too inquisitive and demanding answers where others would just merely acquiesce and accept things as they are. It's that type of mind that allows you to see patterns developing which others can't detect, that lets you see, where others wouldn't, that your best friend and girl friend have sold you out.

Cory Doctorow has an amazing affinity and enthusiasm for the potentials in technology and is able to create worlds where many of those possibilities are fulfilled without ever stretching our credibility. All the technology he uses in his books, if not possible yet, seems like it could be possible in the near future. Everything he talks about in his books is, if not yet possible, the next logical step in its evolution. Unlike other writers however, he never forgets that technology without humanity is hollow, a shell without substance. Art loves the fact that he can be with his tribe wherever he is on the planet, but he loves the technology that makes this possible for what it can do, not because its technology.

Art is a creative and intelligent individual who uses technology to help him realize fantastic ideas. Not because it will make him loads of money, but because of the pleasure he gets from their creation, figuring out how to implement them, and the best way others can make use of them. However, that's not the way the world works, including the world occupied by his friends, and he keeps running afoul of it. He's happiest when he's either in full creative mode, or happily chatting away with other members of his tribe about life, the universe, and everything. Sure he's obsessive, but show me one creative person who isn't; show me one artist who doesn't get lost in their work to the extent that they can start a project and completely lose track of time.

In Eastern Standard Tribe Doctorow has not only created a world that is the next logical evolutionary step in on line communities from our current social networks, but a great example of the difficulties faced by anyone who thinks outside the box. Art's creativity and intelligence are his chief assets, but they are also his downfall. While he loves his tribe and the feelings of belonging that it brings him, the reality is that like all other artists he is his own community, because there really isn't anybody who is like minded. That doesn't make him any better or any worse than anybody else, just different, and being different makes you a social misfit no matter how hard you try.

Cory Doctorow has a wonderful knack for bringing people and ideas to life on the page, and Eastern Standard Tribe is no exception. Like anything else I've read by this remarkable writer its entertaining and intelligent, which makes Cory more than little bit different himself.

October 28, 2008

Book Review: Farewell, Shanghai By Angel Wagenstein

How far would you travel to preserve yourself and your family? Would you be willing to set off on a sea voyage of undetermined length and time where your final destination is in a land completely alien to you and the only promise you have is that you might survive? Refugees sometimes have no choice where they go, and sometimes they have to be grateful for any port in their storm that will take them in. For the Jews of Europe in the late 1930's this was especially true, as no matter where they turned they found borders closed to them.

Mysteriously countries like Canada and The United States, with their huge tracks of undeveloped land, had no room for the few people who actually had the where with all to get out of Germany. As late as 1938 the Nazi government of Germany was still willing to let Jews leave, and exit visa's could be obtained if you had enough money. However an exit visa is no good if you have nowhere to exit too. There was one safe haven for Jews, however once there the only thing they were promised was they might not be rounded up, for although Shanghai was nominally a free city, it was under Japanese control.

Anyway, the idea of sailing away from home and country to a land at the other end of the continent where there was no way of knowing whether or not you'd even be able to eke out a living or find somewhere to lay your head at the end of the day seemed insane. After all, surely the German people would come to their senses and these hooligans would be out of power in only a few months? We've lived in Germany for generations, we're Germans not Jews. That's what the members of the Dresden Philharmonic thought up until the night in 1938 when each of its members were arrested as they came off stage after their performance of Joseph Haydn's Symphony #45: The Farewell. You see talented as they were, and even though some them didn't even know they were stained with the stigma of a Jewish grandmother - they were all Jews, and were now enemies of the state.
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In Farewell, Shanghai, author and film director Angel Wagenstein's latest novel, published by Handsel Books and distributed in Canada by Random House Canada, we follow the circuitous route taken by German Jews to Shanghai and then live out the exile that the crime of their faith sentenced them to. Wagenstein divides his attentions between focusing on the experiences of two sets of characters from different backgrounds; Theodore Weissberg, world renowned concert violinist from the Dresden Philharmonic, and his opera singer wife Elisabeth, and Hilde. a young film extra and her companions, who have all ended up in Shanghai; and writing a documentary novel of the times that fills in the background details that the close up accounts can't accommodate.

Weissberg was one of the musicians who was whisked away mysteriously with the applause of his audience still ringing in his ears. Thankfully his wife, a non-Jew, was able to secure his release from Dachau, and more importantly two exit visas good for four months. After convincing her husband that yes indeed it is necessary for them to flee the country, and the only place open to them is Shanghai, they secure passage on one of the last trips made by one of the two boats running from Italy to their safe haven.

Their story is typical of the majority of German Jews who ended up in Shanghai, well educated intellectuals and artisans who are all of a sudden forced to live in extreme poverty and be grateful for even the most menial of jobs in order to earn their living. They are somewhat luckier than others because they manage to obtain their own living space, a two room hut with a storage shed that they convert into a shower. To them it is the height of luxury as it means they no longer have to live in the communal dormitory which houses the majority of the refugees. Unfortunately it also means that they somehow have to come up with the rent money each month, and there's not much call for either a concert violinist or an opera singer in Shanghai.

Hilda Braun, who was born Rachel Braunfield, has the remarkable good fortune to look like every Nazi's dream of the ideal of Aryan womanhood. Blond, blue eyed, and beautiful she parlays that appeal into a photo shoot in Paris as the first stage in her escape, knowing full well that anyone investigating closely will see through her facade. By luck, and some skilful lying, Hilda is able to wangle not only a cabin on luxury liner headed to Singapore, but a job as secretary to the city's German high commissioner as well. Here, not only is she able to hide in plain view as well as lead a comfortable life, she is able on occasion to discreetly keep the immigrant community informed of events in the outside world that will impact them.
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Wagenstein's style of narration is almost that of a jocular tour guide showing us the sites on a tour through history. Casually pointing out points of interest like Krystallnacht, "The Night Of Broken Glass", where joyful, singing Brownshirts paraded through cities across Germany burning and ransacking synagogues, Jewish businesses, and hauling Jewish people out into the street to hang signs around their necks if they were lucky or hanging them by the neck if they were unlucky. It's the casual nature of his narration that makes Farewell, Shanghai so heartbreaking, for it makes everything that occurs seem like the everyday and the ordinary; perfectly acceptable.

Reading about unspeakable acts of brutality or descriptions of torture you can distance yourself from the events depicted on the page. Due to their unbelievable nature, you can convince yourself that they're fiction. However when human indignity is described in the same terms as one would use to discuss the weather or a vacation, it is impossible to separate yourself from it. You find yourself on the verge of accepting the events depicted as commonplace, until you stop yourself short realizing what's being described and are horrified at how easily you came to taking things for granted.

As we watch and listen as these people try to make lives out of nothing, to carry on in the faint hope that somehow, someday, this too will pass to become only a memory, the reality of what we are bearing witness to comes into tighter and tighter focus. Wagenstein's abilities as a film maker have given him an unerring eye for editing and pulling the reader's attention to what's important. Whether our point of view is that of one of the characters, or our guide through history, what we "see" on each page of the book is as vivid as if it were on a movie screen in front of us. Each character is so well described that, no matter how minor a role they play, we see them as if they were standing in front of us, and have a fairly good idea of who and what they are.

When all the world was closed to them, and it looked like there was nowhere for the Jews of Europe to flee, Singapore offered a semblance of succour. Hands that once might have played the violin that enraptured thousands may have had to carry garbage or wash cars, but at least they were on the end of arms that weren't tattooed or destined for the fires of the camps in Europe. Twenty thousand German Jews, and a few thousand from the rest of Europe, were able to call Singapore home during a time when millions of others were becoming part of The Final Solution.

Angel Wagenstein has the remarkable ability to put a human face on history, and Farewell, Shanghai is no exception. As the history he depicts is one of the most inhumane periods of the twentieth century, this talent is perhaps a mixed blessing. For, although it makes for fantastic reading, it also makes heartbreak inevitable as we struggle along with his characters to come to terms with their new reality. This may not be the most pleasant of reads you'll ever have, but it will be one of the best.

Farewell, Shanghai can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon Canada as of November 04/08.

October 24, 2008

E-Book Review: Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom By Cory Doctorow

Science fiction used to be filled with predictions of a future filled with flying cars and lives spent living among the stars. As many of these predictions have failed to come true with the passing of the years writers seem to have become more interested in suggesting ways in which technology will impact on our day to existence or postulating alternate realities. While some writers still turn their eyes towards the stars, a great many have kept their eyes firmly affixed upon our planet and the human condition and society.

In the two books that I've recently read by Cory Doctorow, Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town and Little Brother he has done a wonderful job of depicting our current world and the way in which technology impacts upon it. In both instances the technology depicted in the stories is nothing different than what's available to you and me currently - although he does demonstrate some rather creative ways of putting that technology to work in both instances. However, that wasn't the case in an earlier novel, Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom, as he gives a glimpse into one possible future. (As with all Cory's novels Down And Out is available as a free download)

Death and money have become things of the past in The Bitchun Society, as have the workplace and work. Instead of individuals accumulating personal wealth in order to obtain status and privileges they amass Whuffie, a complicated scheme that reflects the amount of esteem you are held in by society at large based on what you are doing with your life. Technically you could sit on your ass and watch television all day and drink yourself into a stupor, but because you won't be earning any Whuffie with that type of behaviour you'd soon find yourself hitting the skids as your apartment is reassigned to someone held in a little more esteem.
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But don't worry, all is not lost, if things are really bad you can always revert to a back-up and wipe out everything that has happened between when you last saved your experiences and the present. Your old memories are simply downloaded into a clone and you pick up your life at that point in time and star over again. Of course if things are just too much, and you can't find anything that interests you anymore, there's always the option of deadheading for an extended period of time.

Most people use deadheading as a means of avoiding the tedium of travel - spending the four hours of plane travel in suspended animation instead of staring out the window in boredom - but it can also be used to put yourself to sleep for as long as you want. Having run out of things to do you might decide to deadhead until in the hopes things have changed when you come to. Of course if you ever get to the point where you feel as if you've seen enough you can always decide it's you last day on earth and take the lethal injection that puts you to rest.

Jules has had a moderately successful two or three lives so far; composed a couple of symphonies, written three symphonies, but when he meets up with Dan he's pissing away his accumulated Whuffie. Dan on the other hand has amassed stupendous amounts of Whuffie serving as a missionary to those pockets of humanity who have resisted joining the Bitchun Society. However he's beginning to think that it will be time for him to check out soon - he's seen more and done more than probably most people on earth have and from now on he figures it can only be boring and redundant. When they go their separate ways Dan is off to see if there's anything left to do on earth, and Jules to start over again in his favourite place on earth - Disney World.

It's in Disney World where Doctorow really brings the Bitchun Society into tight focus and we begin to see the flaws in this version of utopia. Disney World has been carved up into little fiefdoms with each area being controlled by the group of people, or ad hoc, who have been able to establish the most Whuffie for making the area exciting and p